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Downsizing

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 28, 2017 at 4:05 PM Comments comments (0)



DOWNSIZING   **1/2

Alexander Payne

2017



IDEA:  In the near future, a technology exists that gives humans the ability to shrink themselves down to five inches, allowing them to live luxuriously while reducing their carbon footprints. Unsurprisingly, the seemingly utopian idea has major pitfalls.


BLURB:  Downsizing exemplifies a kind of original, earnest social message movie currently in short supply in Hollywood, backed by an equally rare conceptual ambition. There is something admirable and refreshing about the unfussy directness of its appeals for altruism, civil responsibility, and environmental consciousness at a time when those things seem to matter more than ever, delivered through a compelling science-fiction scenario that sees hope in human endeavor even as it concedes that our destructive tendencies will, in all likelihood, decimate the planet and possibly the human race. If anything is disappointing about Payne’s film, it’s how ultimately attenuated his speculative (mini)world feels. Logistics and political nuances are more or less abandoned in favor of the film’s broad-strokes metaphor, which considers the wider implications of “downsizing” without really accounting for the operations of the universe in which it takes place. Perhaps inevitably, the myriad rich possibilities of the idea remain largely unexplored, reducing the film to a somewhat gauche tale of a (white, male) individual’s moral education, with an occasional adherence to archetypes that verges on the uncomfortable. Hong Chau at least assuages some of the sourness. Playing the film’s most complex and well-rounded character, the actress makes Ngoc Lan Tran a woman of vital, agential fortitude who resists categorization as either noble victim or enlightened redeemer, and she provides the film with a verisimilitude lacking in its more facile machinations. If it weren’t for her, Downsizing’s clarion call might’ve sounded more like a hollow echo.

The Shape of Water

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 12, 2017 at 1:05 AM Comments comments (0)



THE SHAPE OF WATER   ***

Guillermo del Toro

2017



IDEA:  A mute janitor forms a relationship with a mysterious sea creature being detained at the government research facility where she works.


BLURB:  Like its protagonists, who learn how to live by imitating, internalizing, and becoming cinema, The Shape of Water constitutes an act of mimesis. In ornate fashion, del Toro frames his film as a film, proudly and affectionately emulating the styles and tropes of the classical Hollywood cinema that has fueled his creative passion. The result is a gleaming mash note that pays homage to a variety of genres in an exuberant if unevenly imagined pastiche. In any case, it is unmistakably the work of del Toro’s puckish mind: the writer-director suffuses the generic conventions of his scenarios with a macabre, oddball wit and artist’s attention to visual detail that tend to mitigate the more predictable aspects of his and Vanessa Taylor’s script. What is most delightful, although under-realized, is their mobilization of genre toward (lightly) subversive ends. The monster movie, the romantic melodrama, and the musical become refigured as vehicles for social outcasts, centering and ennobling the kinds of characters who have been historically excluded from the house styles that so enamor del Toro. This would have been more convincing, however, if The Shape of Water itself were more unorthodox. Despite its poignant foregrounding of those marginalized others, it remains stubbornly beholden to the trappings of genre and classical narrative structure, brushing over some of its most outré sensibilities with a factory sheen. Even the wondrously weird interspecies romance, ostensibly the ballast of the film, is overshadowed by busy and routine storytelling mechanics. The Shape of Water is not the sui generis film fantasia it could have been, but it is an endearing, exceedingly well-crafted entertainment that takes after its influences with an infectious conviction.

Coco

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 1, 2017 at 10:05 PM Comments comments (0)



COCO   ***1/2

Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

2017



IDEA:  When Miguel is transported to the Land of the Dead after feeling stifled by his family's age-old ban on music, he sets out to find his musician great-great-grandfather and uncover the truth of his heritage.


BLURB:  Coco is so overflowing with heart, energy, ingenuity, and rich cultural detail manifested in dazzlingly intricate audiovisual detail, its scene-by-scene effects are intoxicating. Never mind that it hardly counts among the crispest or most elegant storytelling in the Pixar canon – the film achieves its formidable power through its deeply realized, tangible evocation of Mexican traditions expressed in a celebratory riot of color, music, and pathos. Coco feels like a homegrown product, not an American studio film appropriating cultural signifiers or exoticizing from an imperialist distance, and this makes all the difference. Its effulgent depiction of Día de los Muertos emphasizes not only the spectacular festivity of the holiday but its central importance as a cornerstone of ancestral memory, as an honor to loved ones who have died, but have not been lost. By embroidering song so pervasively into its genealogical journey, the film testifies to music as one of the preeminent channels for memory, along with the photographic arts that also so preoccupy the story. Coco adds the medium of animation to that mnemonic group. All of its myriad loving representations – quilted into a tapestry that unites folklore and 20th-century art with the narrative logic of telenovelas – blaze across opulently designed frames, their essences transmitted to us just as decorated ofrendas and musical heirlooms summon absent people and places. At a certain point, Coco’s overstuffed plot and compulsory heartstring-tugging begin to feel less like symptoms of a kids’-film formula and more like signs of a culture’s vibrant, uncontainable spirit.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 20, 2017 at 10:45 PM Comments comments (0)



THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI   ***

Martin McDonagh

2017



IDEA:  Exasperated by the local police force's failure to turn up the culprit in her daughter's rape and murder, an aggrieved mother rents out three billboards calling out the injustice and proceeds to take matters into her own hands.


BLURB:  There is an undeniable catharsis in watching a splenetic, vengeful Frances McDormand lob Molotov cocktails, both literally and figuratively, at the face of systemic injustice. Her Mildred is an avatar of social outrage boiling over into implacable bellicosity, and she functions as the unfiltered mouthpiece for a disaffection all too familiar to a contemporary American populace. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a channel for the righteous fury she epitomizes that is designed to both stoke and gratify audiences’ own anger about broken justice systems and critically assess the role of such anger in combating them. McDonagh’s irreverent and incendiary handling of the subject matter, however, makes it best suited for the former. The unapologetic coarseness of his dialogue, liberally peppered with epithets, simultaneously rabble-rouses and provides an outlet for so much pent-up frustration. We are thrilled by Mildred’s crusade because it enacts the reckoning with institutional corruption that doesn’t happen in real life; the noxiousness of the law enforcers she has to contend with exacerbates our desire to see her burn it all down. But McDonagh is also rightly (and none-too-subtly) arguing that fire should not be fought with fire, an important maxim to heed but perhaps a challenging one to embrace in the tinderbox of racial and sexual hostilities he’s conjured. Three Billboards etches a complicated moral terrain – decency seems to have atrophied across the board in Ebbing – but McDonagh’s predilection for glibness often makes the film more scabrous cartoon than incisive social study. Still, he delivers salient points about a volatile American climate, and satisfyingly allows strands of forgiveness and atonement to float up from the muck.

The Square

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 16, 2017 at 6:25 PM Comments comments (0)



THE SQUARE   ***

Ruben Östlund

2017



IDEA:  The chief curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm finds his life unraveling after he is robbed just outside the institution.


BLURB:  Boundaries pervade The Square, a mordant dissection of First World piety in which comically permeable facades uphold the illusion of a functioning social contract. Figured as an insular space of cultural elitism, Östlund uses the world of the contemporary art museum as a metonym for a larger Western condition of myopia and complacency, sharply divided from the economic and geopolitical realities for which it purports to vouch. Borders both material and intangible reinforcing such divisions are subject to Östlund’s merciless dismantling. He punctures the veneer of civility and phony humanitarianism embodied by a progressivist West with exquisite unease, delighting in the spectacular deflation of ego and decorum. In its best scenes, such as a post-coitus tussle over a condom or a performance art piece at a swanky gala that turns violent, The Square demonstrates a resonant, nearly anthropological attunement to contemporary social dynamics. Östlund is fascinated with how episodes of discomfort and frustration surface the most unsavory of human tendencies, how the disruption of habit draws out latent impulses and social tensions that destabilize our ordered assumptions, and make chaos of our behavior. Like so many of its European art house forebears, The Square skewers the pompous airs of a privileged class that prides itself on the suppression of such “disruptive” forces. It is superbly adept at doing this. But there is also the sense that in its (often facile) potshots at postmodernism and liberal conscience, it has fallen into a niche of self-importance aligned with the one it criticizes. Questioning the efficacy of art to effect social change is right – but is Östlund’s film a form of activism, or an indulgent artistic exercise merely flattering the tastes of its own rarefied audience? The wider implications of this are worth interrogating, and if The Square doesn't fully get there, it's at least a crafty and provocative prompt.

Lady Bird

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 13, 2017 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (0)



LADY BIRD   ***1/2

Greta Gerwig

2017



IDEA:  Lady Bird, a restless high school senior, tries to realize her desire to leave Sacramento and her contentious mother for the east coast.


BLURB:  Through the lens of memoir, Greta Gerwig has taken many of the most timeworn ingredients of the high school coming-of-age film and pressed them into something invigorating and self-effacingly unique. What is perhaps most remarkable about Lady Bird, on top of its rare female perspective and exceptional narrative and formal economy, is how Gerwig inflects so many of her fine-tuned beats with a palpable specificity: to place, to politics, to family life, to language. The film thrums with the fond wistfulness of a reminiscence animated by keenly remembered details on a local scale. Each fragment in its nimble structure is a delicately constructed capsule that registers, despite the inevitable comic exaggeration, as lived experience, shaped by the particular sociality of a milieu ingrained in the characters’ day-to-day existences. While Lady Bird chafes against and antagonizes the conditions of her upbringing, Gerwig astutely shows how they are formative to her all the same, elements constitutive of a perceptive creative identity the film itself exemplifies. Her casually acerbic, beguilingly sidewise sensibility always seems to obviate the possibility of triteness; her scenes don’t so much revolve around dramatic incident as behavioral quiddities, and she mingles flippancy and sincerity with such deftness that her sentiments are hardly able to default to the banalities one might expect from the material. Nick Houy’s snappy editing and a beautifully synched ensemble accommodate this offbeat design with ease. They fill out a portrait of self-actualization and ambivalence that is warm, pithy, and as fully-formed as Lady Bird herself might one day be.

The Florida Project

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 27, 2017 at 1:05 AM Comments comments (0)



THE FLORIDA PROJECT   ***

Sean Baker

2017



IDEA:  The escapades of Moonee, a six-year-old living at a budget motel on the outskirts of Orlando.


BLURB:  In The Florida Project's vibrant but dilapidated America, the Magic Castle is a cheap motel where the economically disenfranchised take up temporary residence, their livelihoods dependent on the same capitalist apparatus that keeps them in near perpetual destitution. Consumer culture materializes in a vast, meretricious, and inescapable landscape around them, whether it’s endless fields of commodity signs drenched in the Florida sun or infomercials that seem to play on repeat indoors, promising personal satisfaction always out of reach. Sean Baker’s film, a rollicking child’s-eye odyssey spun around a grim social realist portrait, is catalyzed by such tensions. It brashly illustrates an ecosystem where human relations are conditioned and strained by the imperatives of capitalism, where institutional strictures burden poor adults while latchkey children turn their crumbling environs into playgrounds. Layering perspectives in the effort to attune us to a milieu that can be at once fantastical, tawdry, and depleting, the film produces a dissonance that is compelling but ungainly. What Baker’s weaving of mischievous play and indigence has in empathy and verve it somewhat lacks in finesse; the antics, which tend to feel cloying and affected, don’t often sit well with the more nuanced social textures that later drown them out, Baker’s ebullient style frequently risking elegance for blunt impact. It is in that bluntness, however, that The Florida Project also sparks to such memorable life, allowing its most wrenching moments of desperation to transform into anthemic resilience, if only fleetingly.

Life and Nothing More

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 24, 2017 at 11:10 PM Comments comments (0)



LIFE AND NOTHING MORE   ***1/2

Antonio Méndez Esparza

2017



IDEA:  In northern Florida, a single mother and her son struggle with family life.


BLURB:  Life and Nothing More is not radical filmmaking, yet in its unassuming naturalism, patience, and sensitivity in depicting the lives of the black working poor, it can often seem like it. Antonio Méndez Esparza and his sublime cast of non-actors bring into relief the rarity of seeing a story so unwaveringly and compassionately focused on underserved black lives. The sheer existence of a film that chooses to tell their stories, however, is not why Life and Nothing More is so special. What is special is how absolutely it refuses the sensationalism and exploitative gaze so often associated with this subject matter; how it disarms and subverts harmful stereotypes about race, class, and gender, as well as narrative clichés about crime and broken families; how its simple but ingenious formal design, including unusual blocking strategies, keeps visual attention intimately fixed on Regina, Robert, Andrew, and Ry’nesia above all else. These are people who exist well beyond the frame, in excess of whatever necessarily partial narrative Méndez Esparza has constructed around them, and Santiago Oviedo’s unusual elliptical edits smartly prevent any pat apprehension of their circumstances. Life and Nothing More is a corrective to dominant media representations and discourses that peripheralize the kinds of people it returns value and visibility to, but it is not a moralizing political screed nor an emollient. In its quasi-documentary mode of vernacular realism, it does nothing so much as foreground ordinary lives so as to understand and embrace them, and entreats us all to do the same.

mother!

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 15, 2017 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)



MOTHER!   ***

Darren Aronofsky

2017



IDEA:  A homemaker and her author husband are visited by a series of unexpected guests, transforming their placid, isolated home into a chaotic nightmare.


BLURB:  Excessive and unwieldy by (thrilling) design, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is a gallimaufry of anxieties and grandiose artistic statements filtered through religious allegory. The symbolism, and the filmmaking, is as gratuitous and unabashed as the debauchery that erupts into the film’s fragile Eden. Aronofsky’s condensed, audacious Genesis-to-Revelation narrative is laden with an arsenal of jarring temporal dislocations, nightmarishly amplified sound effects, and woozy camera movements that help to evoke the film's sundry vague but viscerally felt terrors. These range from bodily abjection to domestic invasion and social anxiety, destructive egotism and powerlessness, creative obsession, environmental degradation, misogyny, and entropy. All of these are either inherited by or inflicted upon Jennifer Lawrence’s mother, whose symbolic status as a kind of Mother Earth is eclipsed by her function as a beleaguered audience surrogate vexed by an absurd, irrational world. An inherently reactive part, the role nevertheless results in the actress’s best performance yet, Lawrence inhabiting a dizzying spectrum of physical and psychological torments with go-for-broke commitment. Aronofsky’s own chutzpah may have the tendency to spiral out of control, but he maintains a command of the form that, depending on the degree to which one surrenders to his vision, goes some way toward forgiving his self-aggrandizing depiction of the artist as megalomaniacal-but-divine creator. If nothing else, even though it’s a lot else, mother! is always inventive and excitingly nervy, a Grand Guignol of human nature where hell truly is other people.

The Girl Without Hands

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on August 14, 2017 at 5:10 PM Comments comments (0)



THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS   ***1/2

Sébastien Laudenbach

2017

 


IDEA:  A poor miller sacrifices his daughter to the devil so that he may receive bountiful wealth. The girl, deprived of her hands, journeys to find new life.


BLURB:  Consisting of loose, fluctuating strokes of line and color, the animation style of The Girl Without Hands expresses a world of profound tenuousness. Corporeal forms that should be solid waver and dissolve erratically; landscapes and objects flicker, splinter, and deliquesce with equal unpredictability. The film transpires with the sense that its representations could completely collapse at any moment, that the multiply intense feelings of peril that cause its lines to burst into paroxysms or temporarily disappear might just annihilate its mimetic integrity altogether. Both thrilling and terrifying, this visual impressionism-verging-on-chaotic abstraction conveys a liberating and destabilizing boundlessness no live action recording could replicate. Yet for all its emphasis on violability, The Girl Without Hands also exults in the fecundity of existence, in particular the procreative capacity of the female body. Subjugated by men and marked as lack by her physical impairment, the titular girl nevertheless stands as a resilient vessel of life in all its vibrant contingency. Laudenbach underscores her corporeality even as she loses definition, using his animation to suggest a process of becoming as much as one of fragmentation. The Girl Without Hands finds a singularly apt aesthetic to articulate this delicate liminality, a state of ongoing transition scary and beautiful at once.


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About the Author


Jonathan Leithold-Patt is a cinephile, film critic, and artist.

Contact at [email protected]

Devoted to the Movies