museo

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by/nicholas leon
Vitagraph Films/128 min.

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“Why ruin a good story with the truth?” states a character in Museo, the newest film from Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios. It tells the story of two men, Juan and Ben, who pull off the largest heist of cultural artifacts in Mexico’s history.

Juan, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is a stoner with seemingly no aim in life, but ironically, has (no pun intended) high ambitions. While working at Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology, he gets the bright idea to steal over one hundred Mesoamerican artifacts from their display cases, and sell them for profit. To do this, he drags along his friend Ben, played by Leonardo Ortizgris. Ben is the passive to Juan’s active, and also serves as the film’s narrator.

Early on in the film, we learn that both men face crisis in their family life. Juan lives at home with his mother, father, and sister, and Ben is caring for ailing father. The legacy of family and shared cultural history, as well as multiple parallels with death, is an ever-present theme in the film. It should also be mentioned that this, in every way, shape, and form, a very Mexican film. From the attitude towards English speakers (you have to be Mexican to understand), the idea of inheritance of indigenous ancestry while at the same time marginalizing indigenous peoples, to the exploration of Mexico that the plot takes.

A dramedy with layers, it is filled with equal parts cinematic restraint and flare, with the film divided along both thematic and cinematic lines. Although I won’t detail specifics, the first half of the film deals with the setup and pulling off of the heist, while the second deals with the socio-cultural and familial aftermath.

 

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The color palette of the first half of the film can best be described as pastel, especially in daytime, with the writing accompanying those scenes being appropriately lighthearted or full of jabs. Ben, for instance, extols that Juan works at the museum as a way to pay for his pot, and the idea to steal over one hundred Mesoamerican artifacts comes on at little more than a whim, not to mention the jokes that Juan’s family make about him for living with his mother and father for so many years.

Ruizpalacios makes limited stylistic use of the camera in this part of the film, preferring to use simple mediums and wides to fit enough characters onscreen so that we can see them talk. But I started to notice a recurring use of close up on Bernal – and I mean it is close up – that caught my eye. These sorts of shots are few and far between, like Ruizpalacios is saving up his more eccentric tastes for later.

And that is very much the case. About an hour into the film, I was wondering where the rest of the plot and characters would end up. And I was not disappointed. I found that, as the film goes on, nearly every aspect of it is heightened (with even the colors getting a more realistic feel to them). Not to say that the comedic first half isn’t as good, but that the themes that Ruizpalacios (and fellow scriptwriter Manuel Alcala) explore go pretty deep into culture, responsibility, and stewardship.

As the film progresses, Ruizpalacios goes all out with the camera in many ways, including a sequence reliant entirely on visual storytelling that is tense and riveting. He specializes in seemingly still shots, as well as meta visuals that are surprising but well done.

On a personal note, I’m glad that Ruizpalacios makes an effort to shine a light on the more diverse aspects of Mexican society. Although the main cast is mainly made up of white or mestizo actors (the majority of Mexico’s population is “mixed-race”) Ruizpalacios made the wise decision to incorporate Mayan characters, who, while supportive, still make for interesting characters and provide context for the wider cultural aspects the film speaks to. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the black population of Mexico, which is essentially (although probably not intentionally) brushed off with a single image and a patronizing remark.This is a Mexican film made for a Mexican audience, with all the positives and negatives that come with colonial baggage, but it still manages to communicate a riveting story with writing both comedic and thought-provoking, acting that is both funny and touching, and directing that takes the film to new heights.

love, gilda

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by/lauren davidson
CNN Films/88 min.

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All images courtesy of Love, Gilda

No matter what side of the party lines you fall on, I think we can all agree that we’re living in divisive times. I think it’s why there’s been a resurgence of comedies in the past two years. When Netflix announced that this summer was the summer of the romantic comedy, the internet exploded. We’ve been starved for it. It’s why Saturday Night Live’s legacy of commenting on politics while providing laughs continues to dominate television. It’s as if they’re saying, yes, we’re in a mess, but we’re in it together.

6_tThe first performer chosen for SNL, Gilda Radner, had a long history of uniting audiences through laughter.  “When I look back on my life,” Radner says in a voiceover from Love, Gilda, “My comedy was just to make things alright. I could use comedy to be in control of my situation.” Radner’s comedy career spanned the feminist wave of the ‘70s; she was the first performer to say “bitch” on television. Radner also saw personal struggles that included a damaging relationship with food; she was put on diet pills at the age of ten. Love, Gilda touches lovingly on the hard parts of Radner’s life, treating them with equal measure as the highlight reel. The film is a balanced portrait of the beloved comedienne’s life. Unlike Whitney, there is no angle, no shock value. It’s a sweet look at the history of Radner’s career and life, which is refreshing.

2_tThe inclusion of current and former SNL players and hosts reading from Radner’s diaries is done respectfully. The amount of material included in this movie is tremendous—Radner’s life was very well documented through tapes, diaries and film clips. There are moments that felt a little clunky—I’m not sure why the choice was made to include one still image while a voiceover played, for instance—but overall, this was a charming film that was respectful to its subject.

 

 

blackkklansman

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by/nicholas leon

They say that the truth is stranger than fiction. So if I were to tell you that in the 1970s, a black police detective infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, you probably wouldn’t believe me. BlacKkKlansman, the latest film from director Spike Lee and based on a memoir of the same name by former Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth, tells that story. And it is that strange truth, as well as the superb direction, that make the film such a triumph. Drenched in a stylized palette evoking a glossy but gritty look of the 1970s, Lee deftly combines filmmaking and writing to create one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

imageStarring John David Washington as Ron Stallworth (who uses his voice to initially “infiltrate” the Klan),  Adam Driver as Philip “Flip” Zimmermann (who performs as the in-person version of Ron Stallworth to the Klan), and Topher Grace as David Duke, the movie is funny, touching, tense, and replete with parallels to divisions cropping up today. The characters are quirky, tough, and conflicted. The themes, whether calling to contemporary issues or how institutions that may be opposed to one another often carry on the same traditions, are prescient and announce themselves clearly, but they never interrupt the viewing experience. The writing in certain scenes may (and in my case, did) make the audience laugh because it’s something they recognize in certain currents of political rhetoric. But at other times, Lee combines archival news footage, photos from lynchings, and clips from films like Birth of a Nation to paint a more nuanced (and, most importantly, visual) portrait about how the problems faced by the characters in BlacKkKlansman were not new, even in the 70s, but rather another resurgence in a long line of resurgences of hatred.image-3

But the aspects that I enjoyed most about the film were the general filmmaking, acting, and writing. There is a scene early on in the film, where Lee uses the long take, quick cuts, close ups, and a sort of collage to visually portray the changing heart of the character who is investigating the event in which the scene takes place. Although the rest of the film doesn’t quite reach that level of cinematic daring, Lee effectively utilizes more traditional shots as well as blocking to convey depth, emotion, humor, and change in the characters.

But the thing that will stick out in most viewers’ minds will probably be the performances. John David Washington as Ron Stallworth is stellar, Adam Driver as Flip is great, and Topher Grace as David Duke is at once evil and bumblingly hilarious (the real Ron Stallworth has spoken that the Klan members he was infiltrating were not the brightest bulbs), Of note is the performance of the supporting cast, in particular the severely underutilized Laura Harrier, who plays Patrice, the President of a Black Student Union that Stallworth dates in the film. Her actions present a foil to Stallworth’s actions, and present many competing ideas of how to take down repressive institutions. Jasper Paakonen, a Finnish actor, plays Klan enforcer Felix Kendrickson with dripping malice, and pumps every one of his scenes with tension.

Last, but certainly not least, the writing in this film is what drives a lot of its success. Combining scenes from the memoir with then-contemporary themes of anti-semitism and misogyny, to direct references to today’s socio-political tensions, Lee and his writing team weave a story with numerous layers that at once provide a good film, and also some food for thought.

BlacKkKlansman is courageous, brilliant, smart, and funny. The callbacks to film and how their interactions with the viewers watching it inform their beliefs and opinions, the both subtle and not references to the modern era, never feel too clever. The questions raised about identity and when to act, what is right and what is wrong, all of it, have added up to a perfect mixture.

eighth grade

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by/lauren davidson
Bo Burnham for A24/94 min.
EG_final-online.jpgI think most reviewers have already written about how this movie can transport the viewer right back into their middle-school years, and that’s true. There are plenty of shots of Kayla, our eighth-grade protagonist, with chipped blue nail polish, Avril Lavigne-esque eyeliner, and pre-Proactive acne. There are shots of awkward kids that are straight out of a John Hughes movie. Eighth Grade really digs its heels into the awkwardness of middle school and gets comfortable. And that’s what makes the emotional execution of this film so well done.

But let’s talk about watching this movie from the perspective of someone on the precipice of their ten-year high-school reunion. Something changed for me as a moviegoer in the past two years. I’ve started watching movies armed with the viewpoint of someone considering what it’s like to be a parent. I’m not one yet, but I am a working adult with more distance from childhood than to parenthood, and that’s really affected how I view not just re-watches of teen favorites (I’m looking at you, She’s All That), but also coming-of-age movies of today.

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All photos courtesy of A24.

I share this with you because I’m still thinking about this movie days later, and truthfully, I think it will stick with me for a long time—and it’s not just because of the accuracy in which Bo Burnham portrays the overwhelming angst of being thirteen. It’s because of Kayla’s relationship to her smartphone. I now can’t stop thinking about the role that technology currently plays in our daily lives. I got my first cell phone at about Kayla’s age in the movie—and the most advanced thing it offered was the game “snake”. Kayla, on the other hand, got her first Snapchat account in fifth grade. There’s a scene in which she nervously approaches the “cool girls”… and they’re just as aloof as they’ve been since cool girls have been in existence, but in this case, they never look up from their phones. They looked like little zombies. Many nights, Kayla goes home after school only to stare at her phone or laptop until she falls asleep. Alongside “smile more” and “slouch less”, her goal list also includes “like more IGs”. Is it just me or is this incredibly depressing? There have been studies upon studies showing links from social media to anxiety and depression, and that plays out to me very strongly with Kayla. Frankly, the scenes in which she is scrolling endlessly escalated my own anxiety. When put in the hands of a thirteen-year old, a smartphone becomes an obvious coping mechanism for social anxiety.

But it’s not just Kayla and her friends. After I watched this movie, I went to a local brewery with a large group of friends, and there was a moment in the evening that I looked around to find every single person engaged with their smartphone.

a/dditional musings:
-There’s a haunting scene in which Kayla’s class goes through a school-shooting drill. It’s devastating that this is a very real issue for today’s students and I’m glad that they made the decision to include this.
-A24’s involvement in this made me excited for the upcoming HBO project Euphoria. I look forward to seeing any similarities.
-Josh Hamilton’s portrayal of Kayla’s single father was a standout performance.
-Every single detail was pitch perfect–from the woke high school mentor to the hypothetical conversations that Kayla practices in her bathroom. In my opinion, Bo Burnham deserves an Oscar for this film. I was very pleasantly surprised, as I’m not a huge fan of his comedic performances and was unsure which notes this film would hit.
-One of my favorite scenes of any movie this year was Kayla’s date with Gabe. As the kids say, “all the feels!”

the king

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photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

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by/Nicholas Leon
Eugene Jarecki/1hr37mins

Eugene Jarecki’s latest documentary – The King – wants to ask questions with potentially devastating answers, but, fortunately, gets bogged down in its own devastatingly beautiful portrait of humanity.

The King, if you didn’t know, refers to Elvis Presley. But this is not just another biopic that you could find while browsing A&E or the History Channel. No, it is a portrait and description of Elvis by everyday Americans, some celebrities, and maybe one Canadian and a few Brits, just for good measure. It highlights his triumphs and vices, his rise, and his fall. The film follows Jarecki and his crew on a cross-country road trip in one of Elvis’s Rolls Royces starting in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born, and ending in Memphis, Tennessee, where he died. Country and blues musicians, actors, rappers, Elvis’s friends, ex-wife, colleagues, and fans muse about what he did, right and wrong. The film never tries to make a point about who Elvis was outside of all of the various subjects’ testimonies, except for one point: that Elvis’s rise and fall is a metaphor for the United States.

Throughout the film, non-diegetic soundbites of radio reports concerning the American education system or various economic woes compete with the emotional voice of Elvis Presley reflecting on his life. The same is true for whenever Jarecki asks people to reflect on Elvis Presley, and then say something about the state of America, but then asks for a comparison of the two. The comparison is apt because, as stated numerous times in the film, Elvis is the epitome of the American Dream: to come from nothing, and become something. Numerous times, subjects reflect on the hardships that they’ve faced, whether it’s a degree-holding individual working at an Elvis Presley museum or someone who has given up on looking for a job. It is these small portraits of individuals, comparing and contrasting themselves to Elvis Presley, that make the film what it is: a devastating portrait of humanity, in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles to their dreams.

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photo courtesy of Oscilloscope

Elvis factors into this too, of course, because the film is, after all, about him. The movie, however, doesn’t have a lot of new things to say about Elvis himself, it still follows Elvis from Sean Phillips, to Colonel Tom Parker, to his time in the military, all the way to his comeback special and the infamous ’77 CBS Special: Elvis in Concert. The freshest contribution it gives, rather, is what people have to say about him. It is a well-known fact that Elvis was a cultural appropriator of black musicianship, but as David Simon states in the film: “the entire American experience is cultural appropriation”. Contrast that with Chuck D. of Public Enemy stating he believes “that culture is meant to be shared”. It is competing ideas like this that make the film so compelling, these open-ended questions of what is to be done with Elvis’s legacy, how we live through it, and how we reconcile it.

But open-ended questions don’t work so well with what seems to be Eugene Jarecki’s artistic objective: to paint Elvis as a metaphor for America. The questions regarding this are few and far between, with differing emphasis throughout the film. Put simply, it is not nearly as effective as just hearing people talk about Elvis. It is the pure emotion evoked from these conversations that make the film work, not the questions about American identity whose answers are left dangling by its own metaphorical string.  The comparisons aren’t nonsensical, and they certainly follow a logical path, but the connection with it is not nearly as strong as the more human aspect of the documentary.

The King asks a range of questions with varying quality in its answers. From the start of the film, it is clear that its true object is America, but the numerous subjects explored in the film differ in effectiveness by the end. But it is still a fresh take on Elvis’s impact on contemporary life and culture, and dares to explore the feelings of a man who, even at the height of his fame, still felt lonely in the middle of a crowd.

whitney

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by/lauren davidson

Kevin Macdonald/ 2h2min.

As a millennial, I absorbed the end of Whitney Houston’s career. I remember listening to her greatest hits CD in the car with my dad; we both loved her music. But I was also there for the tabloid coverage of her demise. I wasn’t yet alive when she fell in love with Bobby Brown; I—along with the rest of the country—witnessed the aftermath.

Director Kevin Macdonald is well aware that the average viewer of Whitney has at least heard of Being Bobby Brown, and of the infamous “crack is wack” interview Houston gave in 1993 (the same year Bobbi Kristina was born). Interestingly, Being Bobby Brown wasn’t mentioned in the film; however, the director does include some captivating footage of Bobby and Whitney attempting to record a song together, where Bobby cackles while tanking the recording session. In the film, this signifies the beginning of the demise of the couple’s relationship. Interview subjects note that Houston “tried to step down to lift him up.” We’ve all seen tabloid footage of the couple, a present-day Sid and Nancy, high on cocaine, making fools of themselves. It’s what led to the loss of that once-in-a-lifetime voice. To me, in the early 2000s, it was common knowledge that Brown ruined Houston’s career.

162293.max-620x600But there’s obviously more to it than that. By now, you’ve all heard about the bomb that explodes in the film’s last quarter: Houston and her brother Gary allegedly suffered from child abuse at the hands of female cousin Dee Dee Warwick. Interview subjects muse that the abuse lived at the root of Houston’s problems. One subject also suggested that it led Houston to question her sexual identity. It’s an important question, as Houston was long rumored to have a relationship with her assistant, Robyn Crawford; the movie heavily insinuates this was the case. As other viewers have noted, Houston and Crawford’s relationship was one of the most interesting parts of the movie, especially because of the power struggle it sparked within Houston’s marriage and family.

Which leads us to Houston’s family dynamic. For me, this was the most depressing aspect of a truly bleak movie. When her brothers recall supplying Houston with drugs without taking actual responsibility, I got hot with anger. The fact that virtually no one in Houston’s inner circle staged an intervention with the greatest talent of our generation is appalling, and unfortunately, it’s a pop star tale as old as time. The story of Whitney Houston is one that we’ve all heard before: the family gets on the payroll, the star becomes out of control, and the parent (Houston’s father, in this case) makes off with all the star’s earnings. We’ve seen it with Nick and Aaron Carter, with Britney Spears. What makes a difference in Houston’s case is the enormous and rare talent that was spoiled.

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All images from Getty Images.

a/dditonal musings:

  • I loathed the montage sequences. It’s easy to fall into cheese territory with a montage, and Macdonald is guilty. Showing historical context, especially in regard to race relations, is helpful and important to Houston’s story, but there was a literal rocket ship going off. Come on, Macdonald.
  • I loved the interview style. Especially when seen in a theatre, it appears as if the subjects are looking straight into your eyes. If there’s an Oscar for Best Lighting, this film deserves to win.
  • Watching footage of Bobbi Kristina and seeing the impact that her parents’ addiction had on her short life may have been the most upsetting part of a very upsetting movie. An innocent child that never stood a chance—heartbreaking.
  • This may be insensitive, but the opening view of Cissy Houston was eerily similar to Allison Janney’s portrayal of LaVona Fay Golden in I, Tonya.
  • I loved the footage of the crowds after Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It did an excellent job of showing what Houston meant to America.

beast

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by/Nicholas Leon

107 min.

It’s tempting to call Beast—the newest feature from writer/director Michael Pearce—a romance film with a dark twist. That’s how I described it to a friend after seeing it, but that doesn’t even come close to describing what this film captures.

Taking place on a small island that is probably off the coast of Britain, Beast stars Jessie Buckley as Moll, a lonely twenty-something who has returned home to take care of her father. Buckley plays Moll with a longing in her eyes for something that will make her life fulfilling, and Pearce makes it clear from the beginning that she hasn’t got that much good going for her. Moll’s relationships with her mother, sister and brother are strained, to say the least. Her sister (Shannon Tarbet) announces her engagement at Moll’s own birthday party near the start of the film, to Moll’s chagrin, and Moll’s mother (Geraldine James) employs a method of, shall we say, tough love to all aspects of their relationship, and her brother is just a jerk.

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But this all changes with the arrival of Pascal, played by Johnny Flynn, here equipped with a blank stare that is both eerie and appealing. He provides everything that Moll lacks: companionship and willful, unconditioned attention. The only problem is that his arrival suspiciously coincides with the murders of multiple young women on the island.  So, when Moll and Pascal inevitably get together, her family gets worried. The problem is, their relationship with Moll is too toxic for her to care anymore, and she gives everything to be with Pascal.  What follows is a tense, dialogue- and action-driven tale about toxic relationships, how the characters embrace or defy them, and the resultant impacts of their actions.

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The dialogue here is razor-sharp, the emotion loud and raw, and the mystery surrounding Pascal will keep the viewer guessing whether he is what everyone thinks he is. The tension mounts through each of the acts, with everyone pulling at each other to try get what they want: Moll her happiness, her family their sense of normalcy. And Pascal? I’m not so sure about him, but that brings me to the question of the characters. None of them, except for Moll, are very complex, but I think that’s the point. As the film goes on, the lines start to blur as to who the titular Beast is. Pearce has us thinking that it’s Pascal, at least in the beginning, with the numerous motifs of carnivorous animals in print books or on the television, but the more we learn about Moll, the more complex she gets. The real hook here is how one character changes with the decisions that they make, while stuck between two viewpoints: safety, or happiness?

My only complaint with the film is that it takes just a bit too long to end. Certain character decisions are unclear, and it feels like the plot moves forward because it has to, rather than by the momentum of the characters. It slows the pacing, and not in a good way.

But I do have to mention the work of cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, who lenses the setting with a slightly saturated look, and the visual communication utilized by Michael Pearce, who signifies loneliness and happiness just by the juxtaposition of Jessie Buckley’s facial expression and whatever landscape she may be staring at. This has relevance, trust me.  What is so terrific, but also terrifying, is how Beast takes the sorts of relationships that we see in real life, and twists them. It’s uncanny.