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Starting Anew

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on April 13, 2018 at 5:50 PM Comments comments (0)

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Isle of Dogs

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on April 3, 2018 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (0)


Wes Anderson


IDEA:  In the future, the Japanese city of Megasaki has banished all dogs to Trash Island. Defying the censorious government, a boy travels to the island to find his lost pet.

BLURB:  An aesthetic marvel and an exercise in cultural fetishism, Isle of Dogs vividly demonstrates Wes Anderson’s breathtaking artistry as well as his incorrigible ethnocentrism. That the film’s ornately designed, elaborately choreographed visuality is largely constructed from signifiers of Japanese culture makes the two qualities difficult to separate. Is this art of the Western colonizing gaze, or reverent pastiche that tacitly acknowledges the vexed identity of a hybrid, globalized world? Anderson’s brand of hermetically-sealed whimsy muddies the conclusion. Despite its echoing of Japan’s feudal and military pasts and its depiction of autocracy, Isle of Dogs severs itself from the historical world enough that it mostly registers as pure cinematic invention, a fastidious pop-art medley of multiple visual idioms that are reconfigured into something that exceeds national specificity. But if the film makes a case for itself aesthetically – and it must be said that Anderson’s baroque decoupage of split-screens, text, scrolling dollies, and practically cubist organization of space constitutes his most astonishing formal achievement yet – it is less forgivable in areas relating to representational politics. Most egregious is the linguistic divide that neatly cleaves characters into English-speaking audience surrogates and Japanese-speaking Others. It is within this scheme that a white American becomes the film’s driving agent of change. Superficial or not, Isle of Dogs is best appreciated as a dazzling display of modernist aesthetic precision, a surface value befitting a film where culture-as-ornamentation takes precedence.

Top 10 - 2017

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 18, 2018 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Last year, I introduced my Top 10 by enumerating some of the year's cinematic moments that left an indelible impression on me, those transcendent scenes that elicited in me sensations and perceptual states that exceeded language. I was in the midst of my cinema studies Master's program at UCLA and, about to take the concept on as one of my primary scholarly subjects, had affect on the mind.

As an affect-generating machine, film is uniquely bound up with our material and psychical existences, possessing the ability to shape and intensify ordinary life experience. The best films of 2017 were not only enriching and elating, but were able to cut through the mundanely representational to access the primal and the ineffable. Perhaps it is no coincidence that three of the films that appear on my list deal explicitly with memory - the province of affect.

Some notable films I have not yet seen at the time of this list-making: Lady Macbeth, A Fantastic Woman, Loveless, Darkest Hour.


10. mother! / Darren Aronofsky

A delirious, unhinged descent into ululating madness, mother! was the closest any film got to embodying the yawning, terrifying absurdity that was the state of the world in 2017. Aronofsky gleefully abandons whatever modicum of restraint he's shown himself capable of exercising here: his Grand Guignol vision is a suitably chaotic stew of humanity's most destructive impulses, manifest as the horde of uninvited, blithely presumptuous house guests who turn Jennifer Lawrence's Edenic abode into a desecrated hellscape. The invasion of these debauched revelers and the visceral anxieties Aronofsky evokes in their cavalcade of transgressions, rather than the fairly ham-handed biblical allegory, is what animates mother!'s horror and its mordant humor. This is a surreal comedy of very bad manners that might have made Buñuel giddy; rarely has a filmmaker transformed uncouth social behavior into such riotous theater, both cruel and absurd, exasperating and spectacular. And rarely has Aronofsky's craft been this impressive. Every snaking camera movement, disorienting cut, and warped sound effect (surely this is the most inventive sound design of 2017) works in concert to conjure a state of skittish unease and vexation perfectly aligned with Jennifer Lawrence's prodigiously embattled protagonist. That mother! frequently flies off the rails and gets flooded by its own grandiosity is less a demerit than a mark of its exhilarating audacity.

9. Coco / Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

Has there been a computer-animated film so visually sumptuous? Coco, Pixar's 19th feature film and first non-Anglocentric story, coruscates with an aesthetic plenitude derived from Mexican cultural tradition. The screen teems with the luminescence of life-size alebrijes, a bridge of cascading marigold petals, gleaming, palimpsestic buildings that reach into the perpetually night sky, and a vibrant populace of animate skeletons who celebrate the music of (after)life at town squares, concert arenas, and extravagant galas. The spirit of Día de los Muertos suffuses Coco visually and thematically, acting as the organizing principle of a film that honors its tradition and beliefs without reverting to exoticization. Like the holiday, it offers fulgent festivity that underscores the importance of cultural memory and heritage. Miguel's journey to fill the lacuna that exists in his genealogy is as much a mission to connect with his ancestors as it is a primal need to rediscover the mnemonic channels that are paramount to the sustenance of family and history. It is music, ultimately, that proves to be such an indispensible channel. Through an ebullient, eclectic soundtrack, which weaves Mexican folk with modern pop, music is foregrounded as a preeminent index of people, places, ideas, and sensations that can rekindle their memories. In everything and everyone it evokes, Coco finally becomes its own ravishing, virtual ofrenda.

8. Life and Nothing More / Antonio Méndez Esparza

Antonio Méndez Esparza's sensitive, docu-realist portrait of a working-poor black family in northern Florida did not receive a theatrical release in 2017 and, as far as I know, is still awaiting distribution. I include it on my list anyway because 1) I saw it at the Chicago International Film Festival this past year, 2) because its star, Regina Williams, earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her extraordinary performance, and 3) because it's an exceptional work and a vital film for our contemporary American moment. Life and Nothing More is exceptional, in part, because it accomplishes what so few films of its ilk are able to: observing and illuminating disenfranchised, under-represented communities without recourse to the usual dramaturgy or ethnographic distance. Méndez Esparza instead favors a granular focus on the lives of a family - comprised of single mother Regina, teenage son Andrew, little daughter Ry’Nesia, and eventual new father Robert - and the myriad socioeconomic forces that structure them. Yet even as we hear incidental radio coverage of the 2016 election, Life and Nothing More refuses polemics. Its style is patient, nonjudgmental, inductive; we glean through their behavior how economic struggle impinges on the characters' day-to-day experiences and encounters, how their apprehensions and hostilities are ripples of systemic inequities that have simply become habituated. Subverting aesthetic expectations, Méndez Esparza tends to film in long takes and obliquely composed wide shots, cutting on unusual beats and eliding seemingly crucial moments. It is an unorthodox formal scheme that indicates an empathic regard for lives that exist far beyond the screen.

7. Wonderstruck / Todd Haynes

At a pivotal moment in Todd Haynes's spellbinding Wonderstruck, a girl sits in a theater in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey watching the latest Hollywood release. Fifty years later, in Gunflint, Minnesota, we see a boy dialing a number left in an old book given to him by his mother. Then, lightning strikes, literally - both in the movie playing on that 1927 cinema screen and over the 1977 house where the boy makes his call, the electricity traveling down his antenna and through the chord of the phone. Haynes's images flash, splinter, and swirl together; for several seconds, the black-and-white, silent film world of Hoboken and the placid Gunflint are molecularly fused, separate eras and aesthetic idioms temporally and spatially united in an elastic visual language that belongs only to cinema. Over the remainder of Wonderstruck, the two children - both hearing-impaired but galvanized by insatiable creative curiosity - will be drawn closer and closer together, the grammar of film not merely juxtaposing their eventually converging paths but facilitating them. Haynes, one of our essential champions of social others, adapts Brian Selznick's graphic novel into a robust, stirring paean to visual storytelling's ability to speak the language of difference. Despite their disabilities, neither child is stymied in their capacity to communicate. Haynes has created for them a powerful cinematic sign system which, like the American Museum of Natural History that serves as the story's locus, allows them to defy and conquer the distances imposed by time and space.

6. Phantom Thread / Paul Thomas Anderson

With its exacting formal rigor and obsessive, fetishistic craftsmanship, Phantom Thread is designed to mirror the uncompromising discipline of its creator-protagonist. Anderson, an at least semi-analogous master artisan, assumes Reynolds Woodcock’s unwavering precision and meticulousness, his epicurean self-indulgence as well as stubborn self-abnegation, crafting a film whose entwined aesthetics of opulence and austerity reflect the condition of an artist for whom devotion to process precludes a certain amount of sensual freedom. Woodcock is an icon of the (male) creative ego so invested in the ritual prowess of his work that any disruption counts not only as a distraction but as a primal violation of his self-possession. Routines must be slavishly observed; personal distance is imperative in allowing him to survey, objectify, and draw ego boundaries. The film, itself an exemplar of imperious classical style, moves rapturously along through sinuous tracking shots, delectably caustic dialogue, and supple mise-en-scène, every element as elegantly placed as Woodcock’s silver strands of hair. But Phantom Thread is also, improbably, a love story, and love cannot abide such a stringent regime. As the equally obstinate and possessive Alma finds darkly creative ways to seize control of the relationship, the film ripens into a romance of low-key psychosexual perversity, pathologies and fetishes covertly consummating under the protection of decorum. Without ceding his own self-discipline, Anderson slyly quirks his classicism so that reality shifts into the realm of the libido. His customary opacity, however, remains; a vexing but apt mode of engaging with the gnomic vagaries of desire.

5. Faces Places / Agnès Varda and JR

As spryly curious and jocular as ever, Agnès Varda fashions Faces Places as another characteristically delightful freewheeling collage, seamlessly weaving together memoir, social portraiture, and documentation of creative praxis in a celebration of living through art. Along with street artist JR, whose resemblance to Jean-Luc Godard is but one of the film’s many nodal points in a rhizomatic structure of memories and associations, Varda exploits the capacity of the photographic medium to extend, magnify, and elevate the human experience. For her cinema is a technology of memory that has and continues to profoundly inform her life, acting as an enduring source of inspiration and connection that provides nothing short of spiritual sustenance. Yet like her other documentaries, Faces Places doesn’t slip into solipsism. Varda refuses to let her deep introspection minimize or draw attention away from her subjects, for whom her reverence is evident in every scene. She manages not merely to evince the constitutive role of art in her own life, but demonstrate its binding, communal social function as well. Outsize portraits of workers and townsfolk plastered on buildings communicates an abiding empathy and egalitarian regard for ordinary people; their selfies in front of them are not derided but upheld as exemplary of each individual’s productive potential. Public art may enliven surroundings, but Varda and JR make it mean something more: to posit the inextricability of faces and places, to index human presence, to add value, color, and shape to life. Faces Places documents such creative ethos while embodying it itself, effortlessly.

4. Good Time / Josh and Ben Safdie

Pitched between a deliriously bad trip and a social welfare nightmare, the feverishly fluorescent-hued Good Time combines the hard-charging, monomaniacal energy of a crime thriller with the compassionate critique of urban realism. The Safdie brothers prove remarkably adept at synthesizing the two aspects in both sensibility and aesthetic: beginning and ending their film with the dejection of a man forced into submission by a society that doesn't know how to accommodate him, they produce a simultaneously propulsive and cyclical narrative in which heightened, nerve-jangling genre elements reinforce an atmosphere of inescapable anomie. Strategically employed as more than mere sensory overload, the film's searing black-light visuals and assaultive sound mix work to convey a trapped, panicked state both endemic to this kind of cinematic idiom and emblematic of characters terrorized by circumstance and bad choices. Robert Pattinson’s live-wire performance is entrained to this aesthetic, and not just because of his shock of bleached hair. The actor’s tetchy intensity rises and falls with the film’s mercurial current, riding its electric highs and underscoring the human costs of its most gut-wrenching lows. Through the events that seal his inevitable fate, and finally in the helpless inertia of his brother, the Safdies locate a morass where the follies of individuals and the failures of society appear nearly inseparable. Their quietly anguished coda, capping an adrenaline rush of movie-mad style, is all the more pained and powerful for arresting such impressive speed.

3. A Ghost Story / David Lowery

A Ghost Story is a gargantuan film in a small package. At just around 90 minutes, it spans hundreds if not thousands of years, granting us the ability to witness, via an ethereal figure moored to a single geographical location, the imponderable flux of existence. Lowery endeavors to capture not so much the vastness of the cosmos as the enormity of consciousness: through meticulous film form that ingeniously manipulates spectator perception, he makes visible and thematic the phenomenological processes that structure our relationship to the world. The house that the titular ghost haunts is not inert material but imbued with strata of memory, history, and existential knowledge that, in fact, also haunt the ghost; transcending both subject and object, he is a representation of the psychic attachments that bind us to places, people, and things. As Lowery contracts and expands time in hypnotic rhythms, positioning us as the ghost/spectator in a reorganized space-time, he dehabituates and recalibrates our everyday perception. Senses enhanced, we become simultaneously attuned to the transience of the material world and the eternal persistence of the affective bonds that exceed it. Uniquely, laconically sensuous in form, A Ghost Story finally prompts an awareness less of our smallness than of the sublimity of the existence that we are ineluctably and intentionally in – and of.

2. Lady Bird / Greta Gerwig

"Don't you think they're the same thing? Love and attention?" Rebutting Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson's assertion that she doesn't love her hometown of Sacramento, she only writes about it reverently because she pays attention, the head sister of the Catholic school she attends offers these aphoristic words. One doesn't have to know the background of the film's writer-director Greta Gerwig, or recognize how Saoirse Ronan superbly channels her gawky charm, to understand that this scene, like every beautifully rendered one in the semi-autobiographical Lady Bird, is self-reflexive. Greta Gerwig pays attention. She pays attention to the formative characteristics of place, culture, and socioeconomic milieu, sensitive to how they shape behavior and reveal desires and insecurities; to, specifically, the colloquialisms and pieties of an early 21st-century liberal California suburb; to how teenagers aspire and compare, posture and despair, perform for themselves and each other as identities are nervously negotiated. As she did in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach, Gerwig brings to Lady Bird a perspicacity about the anxieties of fledgling adulthood that is leavened by inimitable warmth and wit. Yet the film refuses to narrow its focus to the kids exclusively, as many in the “coming-of-age” category are prone to do – rather, Gerwig’s deeply empathetic vision encompasses an ecosystem of mothers, fathers, and teachers who are all afforded equal dimensionality and, yes, attention. In its pithy writing and brilliantly economic formal construction, Lady Bird stands as a crystalline demonstration of Gerwig's canny artistic sensibility, fully formed.

1. A Quiet Passion / Terence Davies

In A Quiet Passion, words are everything. They articulate the 19th-century dogmas that dictate repressive social mores, but also the defiant declarations of an artist who challenges and resists them. They flow into poetic self-expression and convulse into angry argument, shimmer in effervescent badinage and sharpen into ripostes that cut like knives in fiery tête-à-têtes. They coalesce into rhetoric and produce and dismantle discourse. They carry wit, insight, catharsis, self-doubt, and despair. They liberate and they suffocate.

For A Quiet Passion's Emily Dickinson, portrayed by Cynthia Nixon in the year's single greatest performance, words are her bulwark against the stringent mandates of a society to which she refuses to submit. Deploying it like an unimpeachable armor, the English language becomes her veritable second skin. Indeed, Davies's verbose script and its performance by his extraordinary cast stress spoken language as a dense, physically impactful material, the actors' hyper-elocution emphasizing not merely the content of their words but the palpable textures of their cadences. While Dickinson is by no means shown to be the only one so immersed in the discursive realm, Davies suggests how her particular mo just indicates a heightened sensitivity to the world that leaves her more vulnerable to its vicissitudes. This especially attuned orientation is embodied by Nixon as a corporeal state that oscillates between headstrong pride and crushing despondency; the actress makes Dickinson a woman who feels words and their meanings so intensely they visibly alter her comportment and attitude, switching from her refuge to her prison on a dime. Davies, the foremost cinematic poet of melancholy, has found in this different but fellow poet his consummate surrogate. Both artists resist the status quo, choosing to stand obstinately by their convictions in rejection of an unjust social order, even if it results in their seclusion. Both understand the inescapability of language and the ideas it supports, but also how to use it to make an indelible, devastatingly beautiful statement.

The wonderful, (closest) runners-up:

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, by Luca Guadagnino, an exemplary portrait of erotic awakening charged by the astonishing, lissome physicality of Timothée Chalamet.

THE BEGUILED, by Sofia Coppola, with its taut, suspenseful build and sly negotation of audience identification. Also, for Phillipe Le Sourd's gauzy, lush cinematography.

THE SQUARE, by Ruben Östlund, a deliciously withering satire about First World hypocrisies, featuring some of the filmmaker's most bitingly uncomfortable and masterfully constructed comic set-pieces yet.

THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, by Sébastien Laudenbach, a gorgeous adaptation of the Grimm brothers fable with animation that flits mesmerizingly in and out of abstraction.

GET OUT, by Jordan Peele, which crafts a shrewd metaphor for white cultural hegemony within a horror-cum-social satire framework, trenchantly unraveling the pretenses of our only nominally post-racial era.


Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on December 28, 2017 at 4:05 PM Comments comments (1)


Alexander Payne


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)


Guillermo del Toro


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.


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

COCO   ***1/2

Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina


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)


Martin McDonagh


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 (2)


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 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 (1)

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.