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Manchester by the Sea

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 21, 2016 at 11:35 PM Comments comments (0)


Kenneth Lonergan




IDEA:  An emotionally withdrawn man's routine is disrupted when he is assigned to care for the son of his recently deceased brother.

BLURB:  A husband and father who has buried his emotions following an unspeakable tragedy. A brother whose past trauma reemerges in the face of a new one. An uncle who is tasked with being his teenage nephew’s guardian following the death of the boy’s father. The protagonist of Manchester by the Sea, played in surly, hauntingly wearied form by Casey Affleck, fulfills all of these roles. Lonergan has him at the center of a nuanced family drama in which an assortment of relationships are simultaneously drawn and reconfigured, built and fractured and built up again, in the wintry murk of the eponymous New England town. This is a man whose myriad infractions, gradually and poignantly revealed throughout the film’s flashback structure, should make us despise him. There is little arguing that he has been immature, irresponsible, and ill-equipped at the worst possible moments. And yet in Lonergan’s generous portrait, humans are not subjected to the judgment of an assumed moral authority. They simply carry on, burdened by their mistakes when they make them and, unsurprisingly, fraught by the struggle to mend the grief they’ve sown. If anything is to be criticized about Manchester by the Sea, it is unfortunately bound up with its male-oriented subject matter: Lonergan has very little time for his female characters, and the women who do appear are, rather bafflingly, either obstacles for men or inexplicable flirts, in all cases underdeveloped. Such an unfair separation along gender lines feels incongruous in a movie that accords its characters ample room to express themselves, that regards them with compassion and never attempts to fit them into snug prescribed narratives. It’s an unfortunate oversight that makes the otherwise moving, sensitive, impressively restrained Manchester by the Sea a too narrowly masculine affair.


Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 9, 2016 at 2:15 PM Comments comments (0)


Denis Villeneuve


IDEA:  A linguistics professor is enlisted by the military to decipher the language of aliens who have landed around the globe.

BLURB:  Arrival confounds audience expectations in minor but satisfying ways. First: despite its extraterrestrial subject matter, the film offers an exceedingly human-scaled story about one woman’s journey in confronting the ripples of grief and connection. Physically it is just as pared-down, rarely leaving the gravity-defying corridor of the alien spacecraft or the adjacent military compound. These locations, shot through with a murky gray haze, become the unassuming sites of this woman’s internal drama. Second and most importantly: its structure gently plays with the spectator’s perception of narrative chronology. In thrilling accord with Louise’s evolving mastery of an alien language, our own increasing grasp of the film’s unique syntax is commensurate with how we understand its construction of time. This blossoming semiotic comprehension is not particularly complex, but by mirroring it to Louise’s mental transformation through an alternative language, Villeneuve renders visible his own cinematic language, and thus by extension the ways in which it structures and reconfigures our reading of his film. Also confounding, although more to its detriment, is how Arrival falls short of truly investing in a nonlinear temporal perspective. Outside of its best, most dramatically rich moments – the first entry into the alien passageway, especially – it is never as perceptually disorienting as it perhaps should be, adhering to a deterministic logic that often seems to contradict its imagining of an “other” time. Still, even with its frustrating aporias, Arrival is thought-provoking and lean and unusual in ways that sometimes redefine those very kinds of attributes.

Certain Women

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 21, 2016 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (0)


Kelly Reichardt



IDEA:  Three women in Montana - a lawyer with a volatile client, a family woman looking to build new property, and an independent ranch hand - experience adversities small and large.

BLURB:  The women of Certain Women are steady, determined, and courageous in ways they never have to call attention to. Kelly Reichardt, whose filmmaking is shorn of any shred of didacticism or bombast, gets this, and presents them plainly: never are they dramatically elevated to symbols of a particular gendered condition, but shown as humans negotiating the particulars of their socio-cultural environment. In this case, that’s an American West that Reichardt has remarkably demystified and empowered at once. Written and hegemonically upheld by Man, she doesn’t so much reimagine the landscape from a contemporary female perspective as demonstrate how its ideals are experienced and reworked through various female subjectivities. Law, property, and freedom, those sacrosanct male-scripted institutions, are undertaken by the women of Reichardt’s film, who operate within their patriarchal constraints while asserting their own agencies. Certain Women is not after a polemical call-to-arms but an inductive observation of social roles prescribed by gender and, in the superior final chapter of its triptych, by class, race, and sexuality. Reichardt offers neither a fantasy to redress systemic inequality nor a jeremiad; in the fashion befitting her unsentimental, understated style, she simply shows women living their lives, compelling us to realize that when it comes to the art of the West, that’s a quietly revolutionary thing indeed.


Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 11, 2016 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)


Kirsten Johnson


IDEA:  A film composed of unused footage cinematographer Kirsten Johnson shot for several documentaries. 

BLURB:  Without being precious or overly academic about it, Cameraperson demonstrates the transcendent body- and mind-expanding functions of the cinematographic camera apparatus. It’s right there in the title: for Johnson as it is for the spectator, the camera conflates with the individual, becoming an annex organ that has the capacity to enact and fulfill innate human needs. The humanist core that blossoms through the film’s measured formality attests to this central truth. Johnson gets us to reify how the apparatus gratifies our passion for perceiving; the ways in which it orients us in the world through mediation and identification; how it sparks our consciousnesses and consciences to make us agents of social awareness and change; most poignantly, through her deeply personal meditation on memory, deterioration, and death, its ability to overcome the constraints of time by memorializing that which is most transient. Indeed, Johnson formulates her film as a memoir, and yet we only ever see her once, briefly. In truth, there’s no need to see her at all: her footage becomes a gestalt, its content and precise formal choices enough to evince the character of the person who produced it, its collage emerging as a veritable archive of her memory and emanation of her very being. At all times asserting the presence of the camera and the influence of the person behind it, Cameraperson posits the apparatus not as a mechanical observer, but as a fundamentally human project, activated only in its interaction with the body and mind, and endowed with all the moral responsibility and fragility that inevitably entails.

The Birth of a Nation

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on October 1, 2016 at 10:30 PM Comments comments (0)


Nate Parker




IDEA:  The story of Nat Turner, a preacher who led fellow slaves in an insurgency against their owners in 1831 Virginia.

BLURB:  Bristling with urgency and palpable moral outrage, The Birth of a Nation decocts American racial tensions in service of a cathartic cri de coeur for our uneasy times. More than a retelling of a historical event, the film is energized by the politics of the contemporary moment that inform its righteous anger. Nate Parker potently builds the cultural resonances into the picture, locating biblical and modern parallels in a story he fashions as both myth and future social promise. The portrayal of profoundly recusant slave Nat Turner could rightly be dinged for hagiography if not for the way he becomes filtered through his own homiletic teachings: while the Christ imagery is heavy-handed and often excessive, especially considering Parker has cast himself in the sanctified role, it is drawn from a place deeply connected to the guiding principles of his character and the culture he emboldens. Like the film’s title, it is also an emphatic reclamation of text that has and continues to be used to persecute and subjugate. Parker bluntly foregrounds this safeguard of religion to underscore its centrality and assert its primary purpose as one of enlightenment. He also calls upon other hallmarks of what would become the civil rights movement, giving particularly persuasive space to the rallying power of oration. The Birth of a Nation is not an especially refined film, and it shouldn’t have to be. Parker’s rough-edged, two-fisted approach bespeaks a visceral, untrammeled expression that in many ways disarms legitimate reservations about his film’s design. An emotional and political deflagration, it bursts forth as a splanchnic howl from the depths of an embattled African American psyche.

Pete's Dragon

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on August 30, 2016 at 8:40 PM Comments comments (0)


David Lowery



IDEA:  Stranded after his parents are killed in a car accident, Pete finds protection and companionship in Elliot, a friendly dragon who lives in the woods. Their peaceful existence, however, is threatened by the arrival of a park ranger and a fleet of rapacious loggers.

BLURB:  In its most lyrical moments, Pete’s Dragon aspires to the kind of earthy, poignant poetry of canonical boy-and-his-pet movies. For the rest of the time, which is a dispiriting majority, David Lowery’s loose remake lazily employs all the kids’ film clichés that Disney has made its bread and butter. The simplistic nature of the story is not by itself the issue: for a little while, Lowery seems to have tapped into the appropriate fable-like tone, which operates on straightforwardly primal storytelling and easy-to-read archetypes invested with the resonance of tradition. His prologue, largely nonverbal, promises economical image-making in an understated emotional register. Then it falls apart. The obligatory run-and-play scene between boy and dragon, placed right at the beginning, is a rousing sequence that nevertheless serves as a premature crescendo to a narrative that hasn’t even occurred. It is followed by an increasingly slapdash string of unimaginative dramatic confrontations and pursuits, each one culminating in a similar climax en route to the predetermined – and saccharine – resolution. Daniel Hart’s majestic score, at least, suggests the awe the film consistently fumbles to produce, but even its sweeping strings begin to sound as mawkish as the scenes they accompany. When Pete’s Dragon finally amounts to little more than a rote reiteration of the sanctity of the traditional family unit, that initial artistry supplied by Lowery feels like either the vestiges of a squandered opportunity or a hint at another film that would better serve his talents.

Microbe & Gasoline

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on August 9, 2016 at 1:00 AM Comments comments (0)


Michel Gondry


IDEA:  Two teenage boys, timid doodler Daniel (Microbe) and puckish grease monkey Théo (Gasoline), leave behind bullies and fractured families to travel across France in a makeshift wheeled house.

BLURB:  How to account for Microbe & Gasoline’s wild narrative detours and swerves in tone? Are these just natural occurrences in a boys-on-an-adventure road movie, in which the vehicle of the kids in question is a jerry-rigged house on wheels? The film is as ramshackle as their transportation, but it also resembles something else, something closer to the creative expression of the director’s surrogate young protagonist. Microbe & Gasoline is most like a classroom doodle that has fallen off the page and continues on, haphazardly, throughout a well-worn notebook. This rambling mishmash of bends and curlicues, representing a roller-coaster of teenage sensations, eventually gives way to an adult melancholy that reveals the film is as much a sketch of Gondry’s youth in the past as it is a reflection from the present. Even his young self begins to notice that he’s in a movie being crafted by an adult Gondry. The strange blending of madcap antics and pensive recognition thus begins to not only encapsulate the vagaries of adolescence, but stands as a literal conflation of young and mature perspectives in a wish-fulfillment fantasy that has nevertheless been tempered by the awareness that the past can only be reimagined through the movies. Microbe & Gasoline is about releases and blockages both creative and biological, a unique artist’s self-portrait that realizes its maker’s earliest artistic stirrings even as it acknowledges the limitations of creative revision.

The Strange Little Cat

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on July 30, 2016 at 5:50 PM Comments comments (0)


Ramon Zürcher




IDEA:  An extended family in a middle-class German apartment prepares for dinner as tensions and curiosities emerge from their interactions.

BLURB:  The characters in The Strange Little Cat might be stuck in a time loop. Although the perfunctory efficiency of their domestic routine has bred a certain complacency in their lives, thus eliminating the chance that they would pick up on this, an unusual number of incidents and objects reoccur within a very brief span of time. We notice it far more than they ever could: in a formal strategy that comments as much on their blinkered vantages as on the way cinema organizes vision, Zürcher employs fixed takes, often from oblique angles that crop out significant spaces and actions, that restrict our focus to only what he wishes us to see. So, we notice the pesky moth that has invaded the kitchen even when the family does not. Oranges, frequently invoked in dialogue and in image, keep repeating in front of the camera, signifying connections, and meaning, that may not exist. Glasses of milk, bottles, bloody fingers, and shopping lists take on talismanic value. Behavior is both disjunctive and familiar; conversations, by turns digressive and direct, stress the banal mysteries of private experience. Zürcher does not prescribe some explanation for the mild yet acute strangeness of his otherwise mundane scenario. He is interested in locating cosmic questions in the interstices of ordinary moments, in mapping the eternal over the quotidian, and with removing us just enough from recognizable reality that we can look at ourselves askew, keeping the little enigmas of human life idiosyncratic and ineffable. The Strange Little Cat is as teasingly gnomic as they come, filled with playful elisions and dead-ends that make it an exemplary cinematic koan.

Captain Fantastic

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on July 20, 2016 at 9:25 PM Comments comments (0)


Matt Ross




IDEA:  A man raises his six children in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, instituting a robust curriculum of physical and intellectual pursuit. Following the death of his wife, he and the family travel back to civilization to honor her burial wishes.

BLURB:  The first red flag is the impromptu family jam session. The tone doesn’t feel quite right; the interaction is forced, the gradually flowering sense of bonhomie less an organic result of an authentic dynamic than an engineered moment of whimsy. That dissonant, naggingly phony tenor runs through most of Captain Fantastic, a film that presents a morally and ideologically provocative scenario only so it can smooth over its actual implications in the name of quirky setups and crowd-pleasing resolutions. The approach is especially hypocritical coming from a film that wants to both endorse and critically assess its family’s counter-culture lifestyle. Instead of offering trenchant observation on either side, the film limply addresses the hazards of their ways while ultimately celebrating even their most troubling qualities as cute, easily reconcilable foibles. Ross takes up their nontraditional, anti-establishment philosophy, and yet he ends up falling back on convention as much as they flout it, his script requiring his actors to become purveyors of eccentricities calculated for optimal audience approval. If any of it registers as more than an excuse for another twee indie fairytale, it’s mostly due to Viggo Mortensen, who textures his casually radical patriarch with shades of righteousness, pomposity, and enviable, if inimical, conviction. He is the grit and complexity in a complicated social portrait that more often than not resorts to facile feel-good sentiments.

Swiss Army Man

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on July 7, 2016 at 2:20 PM Comments comments (0)




IDEA:   A man about to hang himself on a deserted island is rescued by a flatulent corpse, whose sundry abilities allow the two to survive.

BLURB:  A sophomoric jape hijacked by dramatists with a sincere interest in exploring human behavior, social conventions, and the warped face of millennial angst, Swiss Army Man is a disarming blend of the vulgar and the humane that insists such qualities are inextricably enmeshed. Kwan and Scheinert present what is a fairly straightforward allegory of the return of the repressed – a timid, despondent man is visited by the moribund embodiment of man’s primal, suppressed urges, and finds his will to live again by reanimating in him what has died – and deliver it with berserk yet unwaveringly earnest commitment via their outlandish buddy-movie conceit. Defying belief, what sounds puerile and thin on paper is robustly moving on screen, as Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe work in perfect sync with the Daniels’ vision, throwing themselves (literally) headlong into this fantasia of lurid corporeal activity while fleshing out an intimate, borderline romantic pas des deux. Central to being alive, the film asserts, is to be a body in space, and to have a mind that can operate that body in all its weird, improbable glory. Kwan and Scheinert offer up bodies, and a tactilely handcrafted world around them, in contradistinction to a culture growing increasingly dematerialized and disconnected, placing ecstatic emphasis on bodily functions and the simple affinities they afford. One wishes their film was even stranger and more transgressive than it is – for all of its colorful inventiveness, it still succumbs to aesthetic and narrative triteness, with too many montages and what amounts to a depressingly familiar ennobling of male solipsism. Still, their main character isn’t let off the hook here, and if he looks kind of psychotic by the denouement, the film mordantly argues that we would too if we all acted our real selves.


About the Author

Jonathan Leithold-Patt is a cinephile, film critic, and artist currently working on his Master's degree at UCLA.

Contact at [email protected]

Devoted to the Movies