Friday, January 13, 2017

Silence (2016)

Film: Silence (2016)
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Issey Ogata, Yosuke Kubozuka, Liam Neeson
Director: Martin Scorsese
Oscar History: It is so late in the game that I wonder if Marty may be too late to the party here, but only Shutter Island stands as a film that didn't earn a Best Picture nomination this century for him.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

Martin Scorsese has had a long enough career that his filmography means many things to many people.  To most of his present-day fans, he is a filmmaker associated with mob movies, crime films with strong male leads like Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.  GoodFellas, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street-films filled with machismo, winking dark comedy, and strong acting and editing.  For older film fans, he was the provocateur behind such groundbreaking works as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, classics in every sense of the word.  But there is a third batch of under-sung cinema from Scorsese-those based so deeply in the world of faith.  This makes sense, particularly for a man who once aspired to become a priest, and Silence is the latest installment in Scorsese's grappling with his religious beliefs.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film, set during the 17th Century, follows two Spanish priests, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Garupe (Driver) as they set out on a mission into Japan, where Christianity will frequently be punished with death, in order to find their mentor Father Ferreira (Neeson).  The film follows them as they begin a very dangerous mission, meeting with Christians in hiding all across Japan, all afraid of being put to death for their beliefs or being forced to commit apostasy in order to survive.

The movie largely focuses on two aspects of this story, one where we see a relatively routine set of circumstances executed over-and-over (the priests making some progress in pushing Christianity, then to be forced to test their faith and likely die in the process), with Garupe and Rodrigues (later just Rodrigues as Garupe drowns trying to save someone being killed as a test of faith against him), serving as witnesses, until Rodrigues finally meets Father Ferreira, who has assimilated to the culture of Japan, and is convinced that he must apostatize as it's the only way to end the heinous violence in Japan, and that Christianity cannot take hold on the island.  This is a compelling story, one that has a number of interesting characters, including a Toshiro Mifune-like figure in Kichijiro (Kubozuka), frequently finding himself at odds with his alcoholism, weak spine, but devout (if perhaps less-than-pious) faith.  I liked the way that it always felt like we were at the edges of danger until we sort of plunge into the "heart of darkness" (it's impossible not to feel the weight of Apocalypse Now! on the movie) aspects of the film.

More compelling still, though, is the way that Scorsese doesn't shy away from very heavy-handed questions of faith and humanity.  While the repetitive story is happening, we see a contrast in our central protagonist of Rodrigues, who is continually struggling with his devout nature.  The movie ends with him sticking to Christianity, as he is holding a cross as he's cremated, but we also see him wonder what sacrifices god is expecting of man.  The question of Christ, for example, is frequently ascertained but Christ is a god, while Rodrigues a mere mortal man-can he be expected to fulfill the same sort of sacrifice without doubt?  It's a fascinating set of questions posed by Scorsese, ones that he can't answer (really, truly, no one can), but ones that he poses in a complex and fascinating way.  This is a film that will have you reexamining and recalling for weeks after viewing.

Silence is not an easy film to love-this isn't a film like Carol or Gravity that needs to be seen many times over because you love it so much, but it's a challenging and remarkable masterpiece.  It's staggering to me that at such a late stage in his career Scorsese is still surprising us with a movie like this, breeding together Coppola and Bergman and a touch of Malick for a provocative film, arguably the most complicated movie I saw in 2016.  I would encourage anyone who likes him or doesn't to check it out-you might not like it (and it's a long sit), but it feels like the sort of movie that becomes essential because it's too good not to be.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

50 Questions You've Never Been Asked

I haven't done a tag post in eons, and I found this one called "50 Questions You've Never Been Asked," and figured-why not?  We'll be back to movies and politics tomorrow.  Sound off with your answers (or opinions on my answers) in the comments below!

1. What’s your favorite candle scent? Anything after a cocktail
2. What female celebrity do you wish was your sister? Brie Larson
3. What male celebrity do you wish was your brother? Lin-Manuel Miranda
4. How old do you think you’ll be when you get married? I don't think I will get married.
5. Do you know a hoarder? I'm pretty sure I'm the only person in my immediate family who isn't a hoarder.
6. Can you do a split? I can't even touch my toes.
7. How old were you when you learned how to ride a bike? I think five...
8. How many oceans have you swam in? Two!  Pacific and Atlantic
9. How many countries have you been to? 5-USA, Canada, Bahamas, UK, and France
10. Is anyone in your family in the army? Not unless we count grandparents, in which case both of my grandfathers were in World War II.
11. What would you name your daughter if you had one? Ella
12. What would you name your son if you had one? Samuel
13. What’s the worst grade you got on a test? I am pretty sure I failed a Biology test in college.
14. What was your favorite TV show when you were a child? I Love Lucy
15. What did you dress up as on Halloween when you were eight? My parents let us repeat costumes a lot, so probably a pirate.
16. Have you read any of the Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Twilight series? I've read them all.
17. Would you rather have an American accent or a British accent? Scottish
18. Did your mother go to college? She did!
19. Are your grandparents still married? They would be if they were still alive.
20. Have you ever taken karate lessons? No-I don't think my hand-eye coordination is there.
21. Do you know who Kermit the frog is? I know that there aren't enough songs about rainbows.
22. What’s the first amusement park you’ve been to? ValleyFair
23. What language, besides your native language, would you like to be fluent in? French
24. Do you spell the color as grey or gray? Grey
25. Is your father bald? Yep-I don't remember him with hair.
26. Do you know triplets? I know two sets of triplets.
27. Do you prefer Titanic or The Notebook? Titanic, obviously.
28. Have you ever had Indian food? Yes, I like naan bread, but I will admit my palette isn't particularly adventurous .
29. What’s the name of your favorite restaurant? Mozza Mia
30. Have you ever been to Olive Garden? Give me a second while I down this breadstick.
31. Do you belong to any warehouse stores (Costco, BJ’s, etc.)? Nope, but most of my family goes to Sam's.
32. What would your parents have named you if you were the opposite gender? Holly
33. If you have a nickname, what is it? Opie
34. Who’s your favorite person in the world? My brother, and not just because I know he'll read this.
35. Would you rather live in a rural area or in the suburbs? Suburbs
36. Can you whistle? And how.
37. Do you sleep with a nightlight? No, but I live in the city so the street lamps sort of serve that purpose.
38. Do you eat breakfast every morning? No, but I wish I did.
39. Do you take any pills or medication daily? Not yet.
40. What medical conditions do you have? This is getting a little personal.
41. How many times have you been to the hospital? I'm assuming this means me personally and not to visit other people, in which case just once.
42. Have you ever seen Finding Nemo? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.
43. Where do you buy your jeans? Target
44. What’s the last compliment you got? I was told I did a good job on a speech about three hours ago.
45. Do you usually remember your dreams in the morning? I do!  I'm surprisingly good at this.
46. What flavor tea do you enjoy? Peach Green Tea
47. How many pairs of shoes do you currently own? Three, unless sandals count, in which case four.
48. What religion will you raise your children to practice? Catholic, probably, but I'm not going to make a big deal of it.
49. How old were you when you found out that Santa wasn’t real? Eight
50. Why do you have a tumblr? ...and the quiz is over.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Popular Vote Winner Should Be President

America elected both of these people-why weren't they president?
One of the things that is frequently pointed out by Democrats and the media that I don't think people quite grasp properly, because it feels more like a "that's the way it is" rather than something that should change is the fact that the popular vote winner doesn't, in fact, win the election, but instead it is a group of arbitrarily selected people in a room weeks after the election who do so, usually (but not always) acquiescing to the choices of how their state voted.  We have done this since the dawn of the Republic, and the goals of it have been somewhat lost to history (if the goal was to stop a madman from taking the White House, I don't know that that we can claim that anymore after this past election).

But the fact remains-minority rule happens in America.  Not just plurality rule, but minority rule, and I think it's time for us to focus on this as it's a very scary reality about our political system.  On January 20th, next Friday, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States despite the fact that 2.8 million more American voters came out on November 8th and voted for his opponent Hillary Clinton.  That is more than the entire population of the city of Chicago.  Millions of people stood in line, picked Mrs. Clinton to be their president and yet we are ignoring them because of a hundreds-year-old tradition and arbitrarily drawn lines that were more etched across our geography to satisfy slave owners than anything else (not in all cases, but in more than you're probably realizing).

That feels wrong because it should feel wrong.  In American society, we value our democracy and the "majority-rule."  Frequently we hear the phrase "the people have spoken" as a way to end an argument coming out of an election, but here the people spoke and we just didn't listen to them.  More people wanted Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump.  It is an inescapable fact.  And it's one that I find myself more and more uncomfortable with because it increasingly is something that hurts Democrats far, far more than Republicans.

One could argue that campaigns, were they to have to go toward the popular vote rather than the electoral vote, would campaign differently, and you'd be right, though I'd argue that Donald Trump may have done worse, not better, under this model.  Hillary Clinton would have gone to places like Los Angeles, Washington DC, San Francisco, and New York with far more voracity, than she did in 2016, as running up her numbers in dense, liberal urban centers would matter far more than getting the voters of the Philly suburbs out.  One could argue that Trump would have had an easier time in getting suburban voters in this scenario, as they would still matter greatly and cumulatively (if the Democrats learned anything from their shock losses in Wisconsin and Michigan, it is that no one likes being ignored), but Clinton would be able to cover more physical territory faster, both in campaign stops and in how her campaign is run.  Democrats tend to live closer together since they are more urban, and so it would be easier for door-knockers, to, say, hit 500 doors for Democrats than Republicans.  That's true today, but more urban centers would matter in the future than do today, and more value would be placed on the broader electorate, rather than pockets of voters in Ohio or Florida.  That would intrinsically help Democrats, particularly since the game would focus on national turnout, rather than regional turnout.  A voter in North Carolina knows they will be a deciding voter in the election-in the popular vote system, everyone matters the same so being a "swing state" voter will matter less, and make the "your vote could make the difference" argument that campaigners have to sell that much more believable.

This is likely why Republicans have not gone away from the electoral vote-in the past seven elections, they've won the popular vote only once, and one could argue under this system that John Kerry probably could have bested George W. Bush if the focus was strictly on the popular vote by jacking up his numbers in New England, New York, and California.  But it's also worth noting that just because it would affect you negatively doesn't mean it isn't the right thing to do.  The reality is that the US government and democracy in America is a fragile thing, and one of its guiding principles is that majority rules.  If that is thrown asunder regularly, people will become disgusted with the process and angry because their vote doesn't matter...or at least doesn't matter as much as their neighbor's

This is also an issue because, as I stated above, this has in recent years come to effect Democrats far more than Republicans.  While historically all winners of the popular vote who lost the presidency have been Democrats, it's worth noting that it's happened twice now in just sixteen years (with Al Gore in 2000 and Clinton in 2016).  It's also worth noting that in 2012 the Democrats won the majority of the votes for US House seats, but still lost the House thanks to the way that congressional apportionment is drawn in the United States.  The same thing happened to the Democrats in 1996.  In fact, the Republicans have not won the House popular vote and lost Congress in over twenty years, after the shift of the South toward the GOP, again proving that our current method favors specific parts of the country.  And of course there's the fact that states are technically gerrymandered in terms of the Senate.  Kansas, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Nebraska combined still don't have as many people as California does, but California only gets two Democratic senators to those other states' 14 Republican senators.  That might be how it's always been, but it's wrong.  Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein don't get 7x more voting power, but they have more constituents than anyone else.

There are no easily viable solutions here.  Fixing most of these issues would need to be done through constitutional amendment, and in an era where issues like Freedom of the Press and foreign powers meddling in our federal elections have inexplicably become partisan issues, I suspect that the era of the constitutional amendment is out the window.  But it's still very, very wrong.  The people chose Hillary Clinton to be their president, just like they chose Al Gore to be their president sixteen years prior.  The fact that neither of these two people took the Oath of Office is an ugly scar on our democracy-we ignored the will of the people for at best, the sake of tradition, and at worst, because we valued certain citizens more than we valued others.  That is wholly un-American, and something that shouldn't get lost as we move past the events of the past year.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

OVP: Original Score (2007)

OVP: Best Original Score (2007)

The Nominees Were...

Dario Marianelli, Atonement
Alberto Iglesias, The Kite Runner
James Newton Howard, Michael Clayton
Michael Giacchino, Ratatouille
Marco Beltrami, 3:10 to Yuma

My Thoughts:'s always weird in a modern Academy Awards to look at a list of scores and not see John Williams name.  I mean, isn't that kind of what you're looking for in almost every lineup-it's like using Susan Lucci as an entry point into a Daytime Emmys acting year.  Since he's not here, though, I think it's worth noting that a few of these scores, are well, not that memorable at the outset.  However, scores occasionally work extremely well even if they don't have the instantly iconic stature of Jaws and Star Wars, and quite frankly, it's a strong reminder of what their actual purpose is-not necessarily to be excellent standalone music (though they should do that as well), but to serve as a guide and moving tribute to the film that they are accompanying.

This is surely the case with a film like Michael Clayton, which feels, just looking at it up-top, like a default nominee.  After all, James Newton Howard always makes the cut (though sadly he's never actually won an Oscar, one of those default nominees that I suspect the Academy doesn't realize they've never properly honored).  The score has the slow, deliberate feel of the movie-frequently it falls into a percussive crescendo, picking up with the action, but doesn't do so in the traditional way you'd expect from a thriller, relying on new sounds and being atypical enough that it keeps you on your toes over whether or not the film will head into the direction you expect.  Unlike a lot of big-name composers, here Howard doesn't become a character in the film, but just keeps the movie humming along with an occasional piano interlude-it's surprisingly effective, and default or not, this was a savvy choice by the Academy.

Marco Beltrami with 3:10 to Yuma doesn't hit the same level of effectiveness with his score to the western remake.  While I do admire some of the attempts to modernize the western canon (the heightened strings work, in particular, is lovely), we're all just in Ennio Morricone's shadow at this point, aren't we?  And unlike the acting, Beltrami doesn't really add anything here.  At it's best, he's paying homage to composers before him, and at his worst, it's kind of forgettable.  That doesn't mean it's not good music (it is), but it's largely western work that we've heard before-the strumming of a guitar to invite doom-it's cliched in a western that largely finds ways to escape its own cliches otherwise.

I have long been a fan of the inventive work of Michael Giacchino, and this might be his finest cinematic score to date (Lost remains his magnum opus, in my opinion, in terms of overall music).  While Up has one central brilliant composition that is next to a number of other relatively good pieces, Ratatouille feels like a full concert of wonderful music, excellently situated next to the action of the movie (I don't like when scores outdo their sources).  The score manages to combine a typical Parisian styling to almost every scene, which is tough when you have to score mice on the run, but Giacchino finds the personality of the film and never over or under does the work behind the screen.  It's fabulous stuff in an underrated Pixar entry.

Dario Marianelli wins the prize this year for the most inventive tie-in with a movie.  The opening sounds of "Briony," which accompanies a crucial early scene in the film, are on a typewriter, which would end up being the undoing of our two main protagonists in Atonement.  The sense of urgency that pours from this is not only wonderfully against the type of what we're expecting from this movie (it looks, at first, to simply be a costume drama between two beautiful Brits) but is also instantly recognizable and memorable, a rare feat for a movie.  The film continues to play at this theme throughout, but also finds ways to incorporate low strings to maximum effect.  I don't know if I should shame the Academy for not nominating Benjamin Wallfisch or just deduct from Marianelli's chances with the famed Beach at Dunkirk scene featuring music not composed by Marianelli (a rarity for the Oscars that they would let such a thing take place), but that debit aside, this is pretty picture perfect.

The final score is for The Kite Runner, which as a stand-alone piece actually works fine.  The film incorporates elements of Afghan music into the score alongside more traditional movements you'd expect from a film of this nature (fast moving in the action sequences, low strings when it's sad, etc)-you get a quick idea as to why the Academy nominated it.  But the film itself has such turbulence in the way it treats its characters that the score doesn't remotely jive with the movie I was watching.  I felt like when the main character should feel shame, we were getting songs of hope, and the score occasionally became too much of a character itself, trying to fill in the gaps of the script.  This is a personal pet peeve of mine; a score should add to the plot or perhaps provide bridges when needed, but it should never be a substitute for it, something that continually happens in The Kite Runner.  As a result, I was pretty down on this as a nominee-lovely music is one thing, but it needs to fit the movie and aid the movie, which this never seems to do.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Grammys eligibility window for the best film score nomination occasionally leaves different nominees from opposing years, so we have two different years representing nominees from 2007: Ratotuille won at the 50th Grammy Awards against a slate of entirely 2006 entries in terms of Oscar, while only There Will Be Blood (ruled ineligible by the Oscars) would compete the following year, this time against entirely nominees from 2008-the Grammys clearly didn't care for the films of 2007 all that much, as I don't recall a moment like this happening before where only two films from a calendar year got nominated.  The Globes have to stick to the same calendar year as Oscar, however, so there we saw both Atonement (which won) and The Kite Runner succeed in getting cited alongside Grace is Gone (a Clint Eastwood score for a movie that he didn't direct or star in, a first for him), Into the Wild, and Eastern Promises.  BAFTA also went with The Kite Runner and Atonement, but picked There Will Be Blood, American Gangster, and the victorious La Vie en Rose as their nominees.  Honestly, in terms of sixth place, I have no idea-part of me wonders if it was a name that wasn't in Oscar's hat with There Will Be Blood ineligible (like Alexandre Desplat's The Golden Compass or Alan Menken's Enchanted) as none of these also-rans from other precursors really feel like they're in Oscar's wheelhouse.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I don't really care what made Jonny Greenwood's haunting, vibrant score to There Will Be Blood ineligible-excusing it from this race, particularly a race where Oscar had some room to grow, is unforgivable.  It's still shockingly modern, and Greenwood has done some marvelous things in Paul Thomas Anderson movies since.  Alexandre Desplat's marvelous creation in Lust, Caution is a thing of dangerous beauty, and better than most of the scores the Academy has nominated him for in the years since (I love him too, but I feel like Oscar gets it wrong with him more than right in terms of when they have a choice for that year between the 10,000 scores he seems to produce).  I also love what Nick Cave and Warren Ellis did with the western trope in The Assassination of Jesse James, a worthier selection than 3:10 to Yuma.
Oscar’s Choice: I honestly doubt anyone even came close to besting Marianelli-he feels like the only "winner" of this bunch.  Maybe Giacchino in second?
My Choice: My vote is also for Marianelli-Oscar and pretty much everyone involved got that one right from the start-a wonderfully iconic bit of music.  Follow that with Michael Clayton, Ratatouille, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Kite Runner way in the back.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Are you with the consensus of Atonement or would you have preferred say, the cooking rats of Paris or the Australian cowboy?  Anyone else still mad Jonny Greenwood missed here?  And what was your overall favorite score of 2007?  Share your thoughts below!

Past Best Score Contests: 20082009, 2010201120122013, 2014

Monday, January 09, 2017

Why Awards Shows Should Be Political

As someone who watches and talks about awards shows a lot, people in my life generally like to get my thoughts on ceremonies the days after they happen, and what I thought of the major headlines this morning.  Obviously, the big question I've gotten from a lot of people (perhaps a topic for another day) is "I've never heard of any of these shows or movies," and more frequently "what did you think of La La Land?" which is a question I'll be answering here on the blog probably this weekend, but I have seen it.  And then there were questions about Jimmy Fallon, my thoughts on him as a host, and I had to disappoint a number of people by pointing out that I think Jimmy Fallon is kind of awful.  I get where his appeal comes from, and some of his interviews can be very fun (it's great to see Ariana Grande doing musical impressions and I'm not immune to the charms of Melissa McCarthy lying about a stapler encased in jello), but by-and-large I think he's pretty toothless, and his actions during the 2016 election were unforgivable in my opinion (NBC's in general were unforgivable, quite frankly).

And that leads me to the question, or rather complaint, I most get after awards shows, which is "why do they have to be political?"  It's a question that you see bandied around Twitter like a brilliant thought piece that you've just had, even though it happens literally every awards show, every single one.  People like Tomi Lahren (the universe knows we didn't need another Ann Coulter, right?) and Meghan McCain (who, as the daughter of a millionaire senator, has about as much in common with the "common man" as a Great Dane has with a teacup pig) spouted out, particularly about Meryl Streep's eloquent, marvelous speech against bullying, in favor of diversity, and celebrating the arts and journalism, both of which felt appropriate since this is an event put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press association.

So, for future reference to anyone who asks-I love it when awards shows get political.  Love it.  And it's not just because I'm inherently interested in politics, but also because I think it's the perfect time to talk about it because art itself is political.  What is lost in the "can't actors just act and can't singers just sing" argument is that most of the signature pieces of art throughout the centuries have had profoundly political connotations.  Movies and TV shows like Citizen Kane, To Kill a Mockingbird, Rocky, and Star Trek all are considered classics, but that's in part because they had richly political messages that resonated with the audiences at the time.  Politics in art has been alive for centuries.  Look at Picasso's Guernica or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  I mean, Dante even put popes in hell in The Divine Comedy, and that was 700 years ago.

This is not a trend that has disappeared over time, and certainly is present in films and television of 2016.  Jackie shows the devastating lost potential due to gun violence, while Moonlight shows the struggles of inner-city youth, particularly amongst those that are gay-identified.  Hacksaw Ridge and Arrival portray various aspects of pacifism and what can be achieved through it, while series like Atlanta frequently show the ways that modern-day racism permeates our society.  Last year's Best Picture winner, which couldn't be more timely at this point, is about journalism standing up to a corrupt regime that is able to continue its unthinkable sins due to the veneration of their institution (it's Spotlight, for those who think that sounds like the plot of Michael Moore's next documentary).  As a result, it makes sense that speeches can and should be political.  Artists who create work like this, the writers and actors and directors, are able to give us moving portrayals of modern society and its troubles, are well-prepared to submit their political speeches to the world.

And quite frankly, few people in society can better represent groups that aren't oftentimes represented on a national stage and seeing their identity better than entertainers.  The first positive thing I ever heard about gay people growing up was not from a president or a politician-it was from Tom Hanks, proclaiming through tears "that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels" about gay men who died tragically during the first decades of the AIDS crisis.  It was, quite frankly the first time I'd heard of AIDS as being something other than a punishment for sinners.  I suspect that many young women of color have looked at the speeches of women like Halle Berry, Gina Rodriguez, and last night's speeches from Viola Davis and Tracee Ellis Ross with wonder, knowing that there are women that look like them who can achieve dreams-it's deeply meaningful that in one of the defining moments in all of these women's careers they chose to focus on these women of color who they know are looking at them, perhaps realizing what a role model they will serve to be in a way that they may not have had growing up.  Celebrities have a platform that is meaningful and they know it, and quite frankly their willingness to speak out is going to be important in the next few years-with complete Republican control of the bully pulpit and Congress, celebrities will be one of the few groups that can speak out during a Trump administration without worry about it harming their careers or their standing.

To those who state that Ms. Streep's words don't matter, and they won't resonate in the places that Trump won, to them I simply state that you are wrong.  I grew up in a county that Trump won-one of those bright red spots on the map that conservatives are so quick to point out.  I looked to the Oscars and the Golden Globes and the artists that were celebrated there with a sense of escape and wonder-that there is a world that I too, a young gay man living in a place that hated me for it, might be able to find refuge in and eventually get to be the person I wanted to become.  Awards shows give light to conversation-they are one of the few ways that we as a society get to talk about issues that might not have been forced upon us before because movie stars have a way of making any conversation more essential.  So any nominee looking at Meryl Streep with more awe after tonight, start brushing up your speeches and get ready to share visions of inclusiveness, respect, and social justice.  I'm all ears.

Elle (2016)

Film: Elle (2016)
Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Christian Berkel, Anne Consigny, Laurent Lafitte, Jonas Bloquet
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Oscar History: It looks increasingly likely that Huppert, who just won a Globe nomination, could win her first Academy Award nomination, though Best Actress remains a tough affair.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

It's time for me to admit that I've never seen Basic Instinct, one of those movies that, while not as pop culturally significant amongst my age demographic, still feels like a miss on my part in terms of seeing a major movie of its era.  It's an OVP film (Editing and Score nominations), so I'll definitely hit it eventually, but it's worth stating this because I had never actually seen a Paul Verhoeven movie prior to catching Elle this past holiday break.  No Basic Instinct, no Showgirls, not even Starship Troopers.  So I had very little idea of what to expect other than that it would be sexually provocative and with Isabelle Huppert at the center, sharp and unexpected.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film doesn't disappoint in that regard, as it reaches for each taboo it can think of within this context and treats them with the care of a sledgehammer.  The movie's opening sequence settles upon a woman, while the credits role over a black screen so we don't see her, who is moaning in what we presume to be sexually pleasure, but as the film pulls back the black screen we see that Isabelle Huppert is being brutally raped by an intruder.  The film's ensuing scenes show her doing things we don't expect, such as cleaning up and showering (Americans, whose most frequent association with rape as depicted by Hollywood, is through Law & Order: SVU, are more used to the next scene being police officers talking to the woman or her sitting in a doctor's office).  We soon learn, however, that the woman Michele (Huppert) is in fact something of a notorious celebrity, as she was the daughter of a famed serial killer whom many people suspect had something to do with the deaths of a number of people in a mass shooting, though she was only a child at the time.

The film follows two separate lines from here, and Michele is difficult to follow as a protagonist as a result of them.  In one hand, we see Michele continuing on with her day-to-day life, indulging in a flirtation with her younger neighbor Patrick (Lafitte) as well as a love affair with her best friend's husband.  In the other hand, she's researching who the man who attacked her is, assuming it is one of the men in her life, probably a younger coworker who laothes her.  As the film continues, we learn (when she is attacked once again) that it is her neighbor Patrick, married with a devoutly Christian wife, who was the rapist, and the film shocks us further by showing that she may be interested in a romantic relationship with him, with Michele not dealing out her cards until the final act, when she tricks Patrick (at this point accustomed to getting to brutally assault her as if it's a game), into coming to her house where her unknowing son kills him.

The film is not shy about shattering our taboos, and is decidedly controversial.  It's hard to discuss it without making assumptions about Michele's intentions all along-did she truly plan on leading Patrick along, essentially breaking his trust in her and destroying him the way that he tried to destroy her in the opening scene, or was it just a happy coincidence of fate?  The film is not shy on questions, but few of them remain answered-the closing scenes show Michele to be far more calculating than we initially anticipated, perhaps inheriting something from her father even if she did it for a worthier cause than he did, and realizing her son has that same trait as well.  The movie has a number of side stories, to the point where I think some of them were a bit too much (her son's relationship with his girlfriend, the ridiculousness with which he treats his "son" as his even though clearly the baby is black, stands out as something that should have been trimmed), but Huppert is excellent and fascinating in the center of the movie.  She makes the character live up to those questions-never giving us easy answers (we assume that she didn't have anything to do with the deaths her father caused, but she lies so coolly and casually that by the end you're not entirely certain whether to trust her in this regard), and there's something masterful in the ways she doesn't make Michele likable, but is still a person who was a victim of a crime-she forces you to compromise those two thoughts in a way that I don't know that I've ever seen in a movie before, and that's fascinating, even if the film itself sometimes is too messy or too shock-value for its own good.

Those are my thoughts-it's a tough and jaw-dropping movie, so I'm curious if you have opinions as well.  If so, please share below.  If you're still waiting to see it, perhaps give a guess-do you think Isabelle Huppert finally lands that Oscar nomination this year?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Other People (2016)

Film: Other People (2016)
Stars: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, John Early, Zach Woods
Director: Chris Kelly
Oscar History: At one point there were rumblings that Molly Shannon might sneak in here, but those have largely settled down at this point.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Okay, I'm forcing myself to write some reviews as I'm almost obnoxiously overdue in terms of reviews to get out into the world at this point, and because "why not?" is a question that we should ask at least twice a day, I'm going to start out with Other People, because which of my readers hasn't been clamoring for a review of this early September movie as opposed to Best Picture frontrunners Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, Lion, and Hidden Figures, all of which also sit in my "to do" list (don't judge-I'll get there in a few).

(Spoilers Ahead) The film centers on one of those plots that you feel you've seen in hundreds of independent films to the point where you wonder if there's anything new that can be said about such a situation.  We have Joanne (Shannon), an elementary teacher who is dying of cancer, and has a close relationship with her son David (Plemons), who is gay and also going through a bit of an identity crisis as he's an aspiring screenwriter who recently ended his long-time relationship but doesn't want to tell his mother.  As someone who is also Plemons' age, perpetually single, with an elementary teacher mother that is nearly Shannon's age, I will admit that there were moments here where I was slightly uncomfortable with the film as it felt a little bit too real for me in some regards, but that's neither here nor there.

The film itself trods over pretty frequent territory with the dying parent territory.  Honestly, between this, A Monster Calls, Captain Fantastic, Manchester by the Sea, and Kubo and the Two Strings, this is not a kind year for parents at the cinema (if I missed some, remind me in the comments).  Shannon is fine, though I didn't get all of the hoopla, as Joanne.  I get that there's an incredible amount of specificity and physicality in her work, but occasionally you feel like this is the same movie you've seen over-and-over again in independent film, and we're just giving another actor a chance to shine.  As a result, I wonder if it was more the role than anything else that has attracted some accolades along the way.

Plemons is also pretty standard, except for one terrific scene in the center of the film.  The movie does a good job of showing different sides of the gay experience, and different personalities within it, with a great sequence involving a young gay man performing a drag show for his birthday.  The best part of the movie, though, was showing the relationship between David and his ex Paul (Woods), who have sex despite the fact that they've been broken up for a while.  There's a wonderful intimacy in this scene that you don't usually get in films, especially between gay men, since cinema is usually precipitated on the "coming out" period of their life rather than the long-time partner period.  If the film had maybe had that as the centerpiece with Joanne's illness being what's drawing David away, I think it would have felt like a stronger piece of work.  Instead, we're left with a very sad story that unfortunately feels too redundant for the art-house.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  I know I'm in the minority here, so if you choose to disagree, please share below!  If you haven't seen it yet, where do you hope this newfound dramatic fame takes Shannon's career?