The Player (1992)

In a movie where so many people are playing themselves, how do you know who the actors are? The Player in many ways folds layers of reality into themselves, from cameos to the actors to the films pitched within the film, showing little regard for the separation. But in perhaps criticizing how fake Hollywood is, even in its reality, the opposing force is to make things more realistic, even in the fiction of the screen. Thus the two seem inextricably trapped.

On one hand the film plays as a pulp entertainment, a noirish crime story, flooded with California sunshine and color, about the lengths people will go to succeed in the industry. On the other hand, it is a biting, comedic satire about artificiality and the way the system discards or reforms everything that comes in front of it. It is pretty roundly successful in all aspects.

Due to the availability options, I ended up blind-buying this, digitally, because there was a $2 difference between renting and buying ($1 difference for HD) so it seemed worth the risk on the chance I’d watch it again, especially with a good history with Altman. I reckon that rewatch will come, and maybe not far off, if only to focus on spotting all the cameos I missed this time.

B+

Dope (2015)

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Dope is a film very much in line with John Singleton’s essential film Boyz N The Hood, focused on a promising individual, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) trying to succeed in spite of the things in his neighborhood that threaten to weigh him down. While Dope is not a film without its heavier moments, it definitely is the farcical repeat of Boyz N The Hood’s tragedy. Malcolm’s main troubles begin when he attends the birthday party of a drug dealer in pursuit of a girl. Things go sour and in the ensuing chaos he ends up with a stash of drugs and a gun, caught between a handful of bad options.

It is a touch troublesome that his trouble starts because of a girl, and at a later point his libido is even more deliberately used against him. Maybe we are to take this as his weakness, or maybe the women can play towards the femme fatale role, but it does present a weakness in the role of women here. The most redeeming depiction is his friend Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), an androgynous lesbian that somewhat softens the potential for misogyny or objectification, because she is right there with him lusting over and perhaps acting irrationally because of women.

Though the film occasionally goes a bit too direct with its message, using voice over at one point to basically explain what its message is, it still feels well elaborated. Malcolm essentially uses aspects of entrenched racism to his advantage. It has a number of interesting ways of playing with Malcolm’s geeky persona. He and his two friends are part of a punk rock band that we first hear singing about the struggle of getting good grades. It seems a weird theme for a punk song, but in a community where academic success is a major source of otherness, it is fitting. We also see how being geeky/tech savvy are advantages even in the traditional “hood” ventures, namely the drug trade. It doesn’t reach the heights of Dear White People, but it is another really solid effort at unique, diverse filmmaking.

B

Inside Out (2015)

While watching Inside Out, my emotional control panel definitely wasn’t vacated. A few choice moments definitely had Sadness pushing the buttons. But it does feel like a slight let-down that Joy was far less present. There are a few good lines, but generally I was not really laughing nor feeling a sense of exhilaration that I tend to when watching a great movie. Instead, with the emotions playing only an intermittent role, I was left to intellectualize.

There’s a concept in psychology wherein you identify the negative thoughts spawning from a given occurrence that spur negative emotions and use replacement strategies to create better emotional situations. Inside Out does great to fit into this scheme, anthropomorphizing emotions into characters saying those thoughts, which is another way of identifying them and perhaps responding in a way to stabilize your moods when they are leading to counterproductive outcomes. And I appreciate the trip that the film makes in challenging conceptions of good and bad moods, instead seeking balanced and appropriate application of various moods.

While I appreciate the craft of the film’s metaphor, I wish it was told a bit better. I think I ultimately would have liked more of the film put into the real world and less focused specifically on the venture of Joy and Sadness within Riley’s head. Their quest felt interminable and the worlds through which they ventured felt insufficiently tied to Riley’s actual mental state. Ultimately the resolution feels a bit arbitrary. I liked the film a lot better when there was a lot more cause and effect between the internal and external actions. And while I do think focusing on Riley is for the best, the degree to which I was relieved when we get brief insights into other people’s emotions in the end credits makes me ponder whether any more of that would have helped. It feels odd to break the Riley-specific perspective to jump into her parents’ minds but then still draw a line mostly there.

So yeah, I’m in the odd place of having primarily connected to a film all about emotions in a mostly intellectual way, and though that comes with a certain admiration, ultimately disappointment is a bit more present than joy, if only because I had high hopes. It’s still a good movie, but it isn’t a great movie.

B

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

SPOILERS THROUGHOUT

The Citadel of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is a symbolic patriarchal construct that stands in for much of the history of power. Leveraging control of precious resources (water, making him chief even to rivals in control of fuel and weapons), he exerts control over the population as a sort of god-king. The women are reduced to reproductive capacity and as producers of milk while the men broadly are reduced to warrior, egged on by religious myth that convinces them this manner of life is anything but a colossal waste. Joe metes out just enough of his resources to control the population (what academics of authoritarian regimes would call a rent).Turns out he didn’t underestimated or undervalued the women around him as Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, or a spell from Harry Potter, not sure which), a woman who has risen in the ranks of his attack squads, breaks from him, helping his harem escape. Max (Tom Hardy), sympathetic based on his own history of failing to save his wife and child and many other losses along the way, joins along in their quest after early tensions.

With significant world building managed rather efficiently, that mostly steps aside for a mostly non-stop thrill ride of action as their escape vessel is besieged by wave after wave of enemies. The vehicular choreography is definitely imaginative, to match the design of costumes/make-up and of vehicles. It may not seem practical to have a vehicle in the chase, using up precious fuel, just as a platform for drums and a flame-throwing guitar, but there you have it. Even amid the action the film finds time for meaningful character bits. There is one moment when one of the wives is readying to throw out one particularly avid member of the raiding party, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), has a brief interchange that highlights a certain tragedy of patriarchy. Nux is part of the patriarchy that “destroyed the world” but he is also a victim of it. His character arc ultimately is one of the most interesting as he goes from eager to martyr himself for the empty cause of patriarchy to wanting to live but willing to sacrifice himself for the nobler future that these women and their rebellion represent.

The turning point that sparks the third act is particularly meaningful. Furiosa’s mission had been to escape from the patriarchal society. Ultimately Max dispels her illusion that it can be run for, instead insisting that it needs to be fought head on and changed from within. But this is a mission led by Furiosa, Max and Nux are simply allies in the fight. Fight they do, but it isn’t they who seek the glory. Citadel is ultimately reborn in an egalitarian model. We don’t see exactly how it will run and how it will work out, but we have hope that it will succeed offering a fairer distribution of resources and providing its people greater freedom to meaningful achievement and not simply used to others’ ends. This isn’t the deepest parable, but for a film that puts action front and center, it is a valuable grounding. This easily allows it to become the best in the Mad Max series thus far, though I ponder if a making of documentary might be even better because damn, those stunts.

B+

Mommy (2014)

Xavier Dolan, at present, is a master of moments. Whether it is crafting an incredible aesthetic visual sequence or portraying an emotionally rich/true dilemma, all four of his films are dotted with really great moments. His promise with both technical aspects and in evoking strong emotional performances out of his actors (or himself when he steps in front of the camera) suggests so much potential. Mommy represents another film with a lot to offer that doesn’t quite keep control of things to deliver a fully realized finished product.

Here we get a tense dynamic between Die (Anne Dorval) and her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) left in the emotional and economic wake of her husband’s death. At the start Steve has been expelled from some sort of residential educational facility, I think for those with behavioral problems and so suddenly Die is left with responsibility of dealing with his unpredictable temper. Pilon gives a strong performance in capturing both the charisma the character is capable of when he’s up and the terrifying loss of control when he is overcome by stress. He wins your sympathy, even through his bad behavior. Similarly, one understand’s Die’s plight. The opening intertitles posit a hypothetical law allowing mothers to basically disown their behaviorally troubled children, and this note acts as a shadow over all the drama.

There are some interesting stylistic touches here, especially as it relates to aspect ratios. There are just so many positive elements that if it seems like I am a touch negative, it is mostly because I feel like Dolan is capable of delivering something great and so far I’ve only seen good.

B

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Generally, this film capably sells itself as a foreign film, the setting believable as Iran, and the dialogue entirely in Persian (as imdb credits it, though I would have said Farsi). Yet with the content of the film, I could never imagine this product actually being produced in Iran, so it made sense to discover that it is in fact an American film, directed and written by an Iranian-American, and starring one. Being able to be both an Iranian film and not gives it the best of both worlds.

A decidedly slow-burning film, it focuses on a fairly small community who are all a bit on the outskirts of society. A drug-dealing pimp, a prostitute, a drug addict and his son, all exist in a morally challenging place. Enter into the picture a mysterious girl (Sheila Vand), who early on we discover is a vampire. In this role it reminds me a lot of Let The Right One In, less in showing the burden/tragedy of the affliction than in showing the type of cyclical bonds a person of this sort can manage. On the other hand, the actual horror is used more in line with a film like Teeth. The violence has a feminist symbolism in retribution for sexual violation.

The real standout here is the cinematography, in brilliant black and white. In this respect it almost shades toward Sin City and that graphic novel aesthetic, though retaining a sense of photorealism. The visual tone of the film, combined with score/soundtrack, really set a somber but engaging mood, covering over what is in reality a pretty thin story. Not a complete stunner but certainly a work with a lot to offer and showing great promise for its director.

B

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Cinephiles use terms like blind spots or shames to discuss films they, as cinephiles feel they ought to have seen but haven’t. While I have seen most of the big, acclaimed films, there are still (always) plenty of highly acclaimed classics that I’ve so far missed. I’m not sure what recently got me thinking about Thelma and Louise, but given my interests in film, this iconic feminist story was one that I certainly felt a lot of shame in overlooking. Of course, by this point the opportunity to watch it without knowing where it would end had long vanished.

Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are sneaking away from their respective men for a weekend retreat. Thelma is meek/naive, so cowed by her overbearing husband she can’t even get up the courage to tell him she’s going. Louise seems stronger and world-wise. However, when Louise shoots a man who tried to rape Thelma, suddenly they become fugitives. It is a complex moment, from the man’s sense of entitlement because he got her drunk and danced, to Louise’s suspicion that a claim of self-defense wouldn’t be believed, since others who saw Thelma with the man would similarly imply consent. This seems relevant at a time when some suggest having women carry guns would solve the college sexual assault problem. But from certain instances under the “stand your ground” law, it seems Louise may be right and the law will find a way not to protect them.

While on the one hand the story plays out as desperation leading these two women further and further from the law, a kind of downward spiral common to stories about women turning to prostitution, in this case they are actually finding themselves increasingly free from patriarchy’s grasp. While hopefully not a call for women to disobey actual laws, it does act as an empowerment narrative about throwing off social restrictions and for not allowing themselves to be oppressed by men, whether it is sexual assault and harassment or being swindled by them. In this way the ending perfectly captures the spirit of living on their own terms. Weaving all of this into an engaging popcorn flick is a bonus. Though it has some heavy elements, it is a pretty lively movie, including probably my favorite exchange:

Darryl: Thelma, hello!
*Thelma hangs up phone*
Thelma: He knows.

It is a moment whose comedy arises out of the work the film has done building its characters and in the delivery by a mostly solid cast. The main exception to this is the trucker. I like the idea but that actor, and maybe the lines given to him, are just terrible. Basically the worst. But I guess by that point the film has descended into a bit more of a B-movie. It is a minor complaint in a strong film.

B+

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