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The Square

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


Ruben Östlund


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 concomitant 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? It’s something 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


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)


Sean Baker


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)


Antonio Méndez Esparza


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.


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

MOTHER!   ***

Darren Aronofsky


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)


Sébastien Laudenbach



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.


Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on July 26, 2017 at 8:40 PM Comments comments (0)

DUNKIRK   **1/2

Christopher Nolan


IDEA:  By land, sea, and sky, the British army at Dunkirk tries to stave off German forces and get safely back home.

BLURB:  With Dunkirk, the gifted but chronically ponderous Christopher Nolan has attempted to make his fleetest, most pared-down film, and has half-succeeded. Running a relatively brisk 107 minutes, the film has no time to get bogged down in extraneous expository dialogue or convoluted narrative mechanics, the troubling features that have to varying degrees marred the director’s previous work. Instead, it plays out with a directness and efficiency satisfyingly in line with the underlying credo of the stranded soldiers: just stay alive. This conceit frees up Nolan to invest in a more streamlined, sinewy kind of filmmaking than he is accustomed to, the result being a big-budget war movie tempered by a kind of formal modesty and narrative economy rare in comparable projects. The problem, alas, is that he is unable to fully rein in his most tiresome proclivities, his ambitions frequently overburdening the simplicity of his story. The braided structure, for instance, in which three “timelines” interweave to highlight different aspects of the Dunkirk evacuation, feels arbitrary and ineffective, a temporal muddling of the event that doesn’t so much convey disorientation as it hobbles each strand’s dramatic momentum. Despite his inimitable technical prowess, Nolan’s inability (or unwillingness) to modulate tone and rhythm yields a monotony that further blunts the film’s visceral impact, a numbed state compounded by Hans Zimmer’s distracting, pile-driving score, which works overtime to generate suspense but has the adverse effect of seeming annoyingly redundant. Dunkirk works best when Hoyte van Hoytema’s sumptuous 65mm lensing does the heavy-lifting. The vivid teals and azures of sea and sky, set against the viscous browns and blacks of soldiers huddled in the sand or shuttling through the air, have more potency than any of the film’s rather humdrum action sequences.

Arabian Nights

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on July 23, 2017 at 8:45 PM Comments comments (0)


Pier Paolo Pasolini


IDEA:  The ingenuous Nuredin travels the desert in search of his missing slave girl, Zumurrud, while various others along the way expound on their own romantic travails.

BLURB:  Even more than the first two films in his Trilogy of Life, The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights feels like Pasolini’s id splashed across the screen, the director’s most unwieldy, quixotic, indulgent, and uninhibited vision of insatiable erotic desire. His loose rendition of a handful of stories from One Thousand and One Nights is less a loyal historical account than an unapologetic idealization of a pre-modern past figured as a phantasmagoria of bountiful carnal pleasures. There is little denying that Pasolini, in exalting a relatively uncorrupted (by capitalism at least) era and people, tips emphatically over into Orientalism and sensual extravagance. His mise-en-scène contains majestic Middle Eastern vistas and supple, young nude bodies in equally abundant measure; unashamed nakedness bespeaks an innocent and liberating comfort with sex he mobilizes in protest of contemporary Western prudishness. The perspective is obviously highly dubious, but also gratifying – Pasolini makes no claims to either realism or good taste in his fantasy of fleshly abandon. Yet to posit Arabian Nights or the other films of the trilogy as purely idyllic retreats into the past would be a mistake. The films are as vivified by the idea of humans stripped of civilizing cultural constraints as they are haunted by the absurdities, cruelties, and hypocrisies of religious dogma and reigning structures of power. Still, in Arabian Nights as in the other films, mankind’s follies are always bound up with its irrepressible primal urges. Pasolini’s fervidly messy tales allow those urges to run (mostly satisfyingly) amok.

A Ghost Story

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on July 19, 2017 at 6:50 PM Comments comments (0)

A GHOST STORY   ***1/2

David Lowery


IDEA:  After being killed in a car accident, a man returns to his home as a ghost to check in on his bereft wife.

BLURB:  Ethereal, evocative, and pregnant with a voluptuous sense of mystery, A Ghost Story is a rumination on human consciousness that feels as fragile and wondrous as the fabric of existence it captures just a sliver of. From its first frames, Lowery lets us know that his universe is one where the eternal is enfolded in the everyday, juxtaposing shots of the cosmos with scenes of intimate domestic contentment. As in life, places are never just places, and attachments are never merely physical connections; they are imbued with and informed by history, memory, and existential knowledge, inscribed with the psychical imprints of human subjects. Lowery’s ghost is an allegory of this and more. It is a spectral emanation of an individual’s habits and anxieties, preoccupations and residencies, a manifestation of his attempt to cling to a world of which he is a mere transient fragment. A Ghost Story is, on this level, an achingly poignant meditation on impermanence that uses the figure of the ghost as a prism through which to view the imponderable flux of existence. But it is perhaps even more remarkable as a demonstration of cinema’s senses-expanding faculties. By anchoring his ghost, our point-of-view, in one location as time contracts and speeds by in front of him, Lowery offers a compelling metaphor for film spectatorship, making thematic the medium’s ability to reorganize space-time and present us with a world we are absent from. While the director’s narrative logic begins to unravel by the end – the line between allegory and serious metaphysical inquiry becomes too muddily negotiated, and his exceptional laconicity turns convoluted – his formal rigor never wavers. A Ghost Story is a slippery, diaphanous object, sometimes to its detriment, but it is also an exemplary showcase of meticulously controlled film form that invites us to bear witness to our own ghosts, including the ones conjured by the cinema.

The Beguiled

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on June 28, 2017 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (0)


Sofia Coppola


IDEA:  The fragile ecosystem of an Antebellum south girls' seminary is disrupted when one of the girls brings a wounded Union soldier inside.

BLURB:  In Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, pastel dresses and southern hospitality are the seductive signifiers of a primly manicured vileness. Their surface sumptuousness can hardly conceal the angst, antipathy, and sexual hysteria simmering beneath. Filtered through Philippe Le Sourd’s gauzy, soft-focus cinematography, however, the cloistered world of the girls’ seminary appears as a placid idyll verging on the embalmed. The war brewing outside is for the women a distant, if not suppressed, reality; their ossified isolation betrays their insidious complicity in its violence. In a shrewd exploiting of our allegiances, Coppola portrays them as a tight-knit collective of women protected by communal rituals and female solidarity. They seem innocent enough, until their carefully maintained walls are destabilized by the unruly excesses of the outside world, and human nature itself. Their subsequent unraveling is orchestrated by Coppola with a masterfully winching tension. The becalmed air and patina of etiquette never abate, making their increasing psychological precarity and malice all the more chilling. One could easily object to how the film glorifies their evil, reveling in the gorgeous, frilly aesthetics of their depravity, and it would not be an unwarranted qualm. However, this allows Coppola to sneakily modulate our identification in a compounding of the film’s unsettling effects. The war may remain on the periphery, as it does for the women, but its horrors, finally, refuse to stay at a distance.


About the Author

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

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