Monday, January 20, 2020

Little Women

This review contains Spoilers.

What's that you say? Another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel about four sisters and their lives, loves, and trials living in Massachusetts during the Civil War? Does the world really need another of these, you ask? Perhaps not need. But with writer/director Greta Gerwig infusing her cheerful passion into the tale, filling it to bursting with on-screen talent, and pulling its timeless appeal out into the wide open again, the world is better off for this new version's existence, and that's more than reason enough for me.

Some stories are good enough to bear repeating.

But I'm not here to convince myself its worth existing and worth watching. I've already been convinced. So, what are the appeals of this adaptation that make it stand out? Most obviously, the way it's structured, which creates a different light from which familiar viewers may see the story. It runs two plot threads simultaneously: One starting at the beginning of the story, and the other starting while Jo (Saoirse Ronan) lives as a writer and teacher in New York. The past and future interweaves together and is often match-cut together to draw parallels between moments that we might not noticed in a straightforward narrative.

While it might make the story harder to follow for unfamiliar viewers, this structure was for me, one of the film's greatest strengths because of how it allowed us to view the characters. For instance, we are told almost immediately that Jo turns down the March Family's neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) when he proposes. This takes away romantic tension from their early friendship but builds tension in other, new places, like if they can still be friends at all, or allows us to focus on Laurie's relationship with Amy (Florence Pugh) instead. We see Amy grown and refined side-by-side with her younger, wilder, brattier version, and it make me connect with the character in a way I never have before.

I always thought of Amy as the lesser March sister. Here she's second only to Jo. 

Before, I hated Amy for burning Jo's book, and it takes so long for her to mature that I'm unable to forgive her even once she does. Here we see her sensible, matured self first, and then go back to see how she grew to that place. Suddenly I engaged completely with her. It's not that the character is different, but the film is intentional about how we see her. Same goes for Meg (Emma Watson), who we see declare to Jo on her wedding day that she wants to work and struggle in love with Mr. Brooke (James Norton) -- and we feel the impact of that declaration because we have already seen what she will go through. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) doesn't exit the story at her death, but still has her most endearing moments to come. And Jo...

Obviously Jo is the main character, and the movie wants to serve her with its structure most, but at the same time I have the least to say about her arc specifically. Not that I didn't connect with it or her -- I did, in strong and personal ways -- but more because she and her journey is so much wrapped up in the journey of the film as a whole; I'm having a hard time separating the two. For me, the whole film was about the balance between love for family, pursuit of success, and desire for deeper companionship. Love, love. And through the film Jo slowly learns that she doesn't need to sacrifice the former two in order to have the latter.

The dynamic between Jo and Laurie was done perfectly. You sense the deep care between them, but also recognize the lack of romantic love.

Frustrated and beat down, Jo rants about how she is sick of being told that love is all a woman is good for, and she ends her impassioned speech with a brutally honest admission: despite her great ambition, she is lonely. Enter Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who's probably my favorite thing the restructuring influenced. Because of his early presence he never feels like an afterthought or last resort over being a spinster. We don't get hung up on Jo with Laurie, because Friedrich is there "before" Laurie, constantly waiting with patience and hope. So when the movie ends, it is equally as satisfying on romantic grounds as it is in the more material triumph of its leading lady.

We know as soon as Bhaer is honest in his criticism of Jo's writing that he is the perfect match for her, and are allowed to revel in the development that leads her to the same conclusion. That also frees up the romantic melodrama tendency so that the film can hone in on Jo's writing and devotion to her family with equal fervor, and it all comes together into a perfectly balanced portrait of happiness. The joy of loving and being near your family, the immense satisfaction of realized ambition, and the thrilling sense of completion that comes from loving someone who loves you. Yes, women are fit for more than love: but man or woman, love is a great thing.

The greatest thing of all, you might say.

That's the particular reason I loved this adaptation. Beyond that, it's wonderfully assembled all-around. The acting was remarkably good, and the characterization endearing, even beyond the core cast. Florence Pugh was a standout for me, but Saoirse Ronan's work is always exceptional. The costumes, sets, and all the period aspects are delightful, and Greta Gerwig inserts her sharp charm into the writing and tone. There's a playful, casual, and familiar sense to it all that is rich and welcoming. Little Women is a great story, retold here with passion, love, and dedication, to entertaining, moving, and meaningful results. I can think of no better reason for a film to exist.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

1917: Combating the Enemy of Art

Spoilers for 1917 within.

The absence of limitations is the enemy of art." ~ Orson Welles


Don't worry film fans, 1917 doesn't attempt to rewrite filmmaking. Filmmakers aren't going to collectively abandon the film language known as editing now because of what Sam Mendes achieved without it. 1917 abides by the rule of art in a classical, and appropriately old-fashioned way; challenging itself to experiment beyond what's been done before, but always pursuing one goal: to be good art.

The challenge of art comes from limitation. Sometimes set by budget or studio constraints; sometimes like with 1917, set by the artist himself. Mendes set a LOT of limitations: a real-time story, one continuous shot, must always move forward, no exposition, and who knows what else. Then the art comes by working around those limitations -- those self-imposed rules -- to do exactly the same thing that every film should: to tell a story in a way that is entertaining and meaningful to an audience. Many movies can't do that, even with no limitations.


That limitation breeds creativity used to be common knowledge; now it seems more forgotten by the moment.


So, if you MUST keep your camera constantly in the story, but also need the story to appear on camera in a way that conveys decipherable and meaningful character, arcs, and plot progression -- in a way that measures up to your standard -- then you must, through your artistic creativity, devise a way. If you story requires, for example, to show a character interact with item that is significant, and in the next moment show the expression of another character's face, and without that item and that expression the story would be incomplete, then you must work through the limitations barring the way; you must arrive at, and then implement, a solution.

If the solution works, and it conveys the desired aspect, but doesn't convey it as broadly or extensively as could have been done without the limitation that made it a challenge in the first place, does that mean that the work is a failure? No. That is precisely what makes it art.


If I decided to draw a sunflower and set the limitation that it must be on white paper and only use the medium of black ink to make it, no one would criticize me for not making the sunflower yellow. So it is with 1917. No exposition was allowed as part of the limitation, and it took place in only 2 hours of time. To say it's lacking because the characters are slight and we don't know much about their history is to completely ignore the whole premise of the work. My sunflower should be judged on the elements of the sunflower that I CAN include -- the shape and details of it and whether you see a sunflower when you look at it. So why are so many people determined to judge 1917 as if it were a film with cuts and plenty of space and time within the plot for explaining every facet of the characters to the audience?

Unfortunately, it comes from a popular state of mind in the film industry and what they try to make audiences believe makes a good movie. Many don't buy into it and that gives me hope, but I recall a baffling tweet from Rotten Tomatoes that popped up just before the "live action" remake of The Lion King hit theaters. They showed the simplistic cartoon animation of the original side by side with the photo-realistic CGI animation, and captioned it along the lines of: "Look how far animation has come." Anyone with half a brain can see the faulty logic there. Just because it looks more like real life doesn't mean it's in any way an improvement.


The idea behind that erroneous tweet is that the more photo-realistic work is the most impressive. The better. This stems from a broader idea in blockbuster filmmaking; that More is More. The more a film can show you, the better it is. Does Robert Downey Jr.'s character Tony Stark have a backstory that influences his actions in a story, but it happened to him when he was young? Normally, that would be a natural limitation that would require a creative get-around. But with digital de-aging technology, Captain America: Civil War had no such limitation to deal with. In Rise of Skywalker, the same technology allowed a scene between young Luke and Leia to be shown. Was that movie better for it?

Most egregiously you can see this mindset come from films like Avengers: Endgame, where nothing is impossible because technology and money removed all limitations from the film's path. We are told that Endgame is the pinnacle of filmmaking because it's the biggest, least limited, most everything-and-the-kitchen-sink film ever made. And the scattered clamors for it to win Oscars for its unimpeded efforts indicate that the idea is taking hold.

Sam Mendes rejects the idea of More is More in his film 1917.  Technology has removed so much natural limitation, that instead he had to choose to be limited, thus creating a need for his creative skills. He sets an incredible amount of limitations on himself, to the point where the audience is baffled to understand how he thought it was at all a surmountable task. He is clearly an artist who loves a challenge. Everything he does in this film is to tell his story as effectively as possible in his chosen medium -- or limitations -- of one continuous shot and real time with no exposition sneaking in. He made it hard on himself. The result is that we cannot see anything removed from the two characters of Blake and Schofield. The plot cannot be revealed except within their sight, so the plot must be simple. And we cannot be told complex backstories, so the foundations of their characters must be simple.

But is the simple idea that Blake wants to complete the task given to him because he loves his brother -- his family -- not compelling because it's simple? Is the contrasting but equally simple idea that Schofield is reluctant to go because he loves his family too carry no meaning? And then when he has no choice but to continue on -- to honor his comrade's wishes despite his fear for himself -- what about that is lacking in character depth or motivation? Do we need to know who waits for him at home to see his longing to be with them? Do we only care if he lives or dies because we want the film to have a happy ending, or do we connect with his will to survive on a fundamental, simple, human level?


Simple does not equal bad or lacking unless you buy into the idea that More is More.


In essence, do 1917's limitations make it lesser, or do they merely make it simpler? I argue the latter. That the plot is simple doesn't remove any of the embedded urgency or importance. In fact, the immersive filming style does nothing but enhance the tension and sense of passing time. And the characters are slight -- or at least shown slightly -- but they are potent; far from empty, and undeniably genuine.

Because of the limitation of time and camera, a great deal of creative get-around is applied to express and develop character through details. Remember how, after escaping the bunker where Blake saves his life, Schofield takes a tin out of his breast pocket and shakily opens it to peek inside? In a More is More movie, he could have easily started bawling and telling Blake about his mother, wife, and daughter, and how he misses them and wants to go home to them. But besides it not making sense for either the situation or the character, that would have been lazy storytelling.

The movie not only conveys Schofield's wants and fears to us wordlessly, it does it in a way that is more creatively engaging than is possible by merely saying it outright. The instant we see how much he values the contents of that tin, we want to know what's in it, and then pay attention to learn more. If he had told it all in a quick expository explanation, it would have lost its meaning and the end of the film would have felt shallow. Instead it was poetic. And all because of the film's extreme limitations.


So, I come to these conclusions:

Limitation does breed creativity. Working around limitations in creative ways can bring simplicity, but simplicity in itself isn't a bad thing; if done right, the impact remains. And it's the impact of the information, not the amount of information that is valuable.

More is not more. When it comes to art, less truly is more.

Artists who constrain the medium of their work, challenge themselves, and hold themselves to ostensibly unachievable standards are the only hope for the continued artistry of filmmaking.

And 1917 is a gorgeous work of art. Thanks for reading.

Friday, January 10, 2020

1917

Spoiler-free!

1917 is a WWI picture about two soldiers, Blake and Schofield, who are sent with a message of warning to a neighboring regiment, telling them not to attack lest they fall into a trap and be massacred by the enemy. It's told in real time. And oh yeah, it looks like it's done in one take.

Technical masterpiece, immersive wonder, blah blah blah. Here's the fact of the matter: "one take" films are useless gimmicks -- unless -- they have, like all good films do, a story worth telling, and worth telling in that specific way. This film not only has the right story, led by talented actors playing honest and beautiful characters -- its technical aspect actually supports and strengthens the story instead of being a distraction from it. Now that is impressive.

Directed by Sam Mendes. Co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns.

I spent a lot of time since August worrying that the continuous camera view would prevent me from becoming invested -- or even worse that the filmmakers would skimp on things like character and meaning in favor of showing off their technical achievements. I needn't have worried. Films like Children of Men gave me reason to, where the long shots are made to amaze to the detriment of everything else -- but it's clear that Sam Mendes had the opposite mindset. He utilizes the long takes as a storytelling medium rather than artistic ploy, and finally I see the value of the technique.

To see the step-by-step journey of those two men; the small talk, the jokes, the pauses, the contention and friendship, the frantic action, and the quietly harrowing moments, all pressed together into the same continuous space and presented in a realistic pace of time; it brings a unique sense of connection. Not ten minutes go by before you feel like you know them, and when you aren't spoon-fed aspects of their character such as their desires and fears, but instead must find them within the passing details of their actions, the reward for your noticing is all the greater.

The challenge is making it look effortless.

Roger Deakins did the cinematography work, and what stands out about it is that it doesn't stand out. It's not showy and doesn't call attention to the behind-the-scenes challenges that no doubt existed. Achieving its lovely simplicity while also keeping the picture free of any empty space in need of a cut is deceptively hard. One bothersome thing about long takes is when the camera must move from person to person during a conversation or action, and the delay drags the pace down. Not so here. The plot, actors, and cinematography are crafted into a trinity knot; an interweaving dance that has no perceptible beginning or end, lead or follow, but where each element supports -- and leans on -- the others equally.

The pacing is incredible. The rise and fall of tension, action, and emotion all crafted in front of our eyes instead of spliced together in the editing room. Nothing against editing of course, but it's a testament to the dedication and effort put into this work that it thrills and moves on the same level as any other film, when the rhythm of pace is so vital to creating investment and holding attention. They had no room for error, so they were sure to have none. Because what's the point in creating a technical wonder if the story leaves you cold and the characters are paper-thin? Why bother telling a story with masterful command of technique unless it will move an audience through honest meaning?

If this movie had been no more than an impressive technological feat, I wouldn't care two beans about it.

Which brings me to the heart and soul of the film -- Schofield, Blake, and the two young, relative unknowns who play them -- George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. They are supported by the talents of Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden; and even in such brief roles these established actors bring great depth and detail. Still it was George and Dean always who held my attention, who I wanted to see more of, and whose two every-men characters I wanted to know better. I've been a fan of George MacKay for a while already, seeking out even his obscure bit-parts to see more of his work, but it was no pre-established bias that made me fall in love with his portrayal of Schofield.

MacKay brings depth and nuance that fills up every moment. He's not overly expressive, more internalized, yet his every thought is readable through a genuine performance that can only come out of a fundamental, and deeply empathetic understanding of the character on the page. He brings both the character, and the film to its fully realized life. Chapman is equally immersed. You can tell they are both there feeling and thinking as their characters rather than putting on a show and pretense. They play off each other as foils to reveal the other's character in the true British fashion of not saying what you really mean, and the subtle detail with which they achieve it makes me eager to be there again and search for further understanding between the lines.

"Be there again." As opposed to "see it again."

I guess there is something to be said for the immersive experience of this film after all. I just think it's important to note what it is that you're being immersed into. A perfectly choreographed dance of actors, sets, and camerawork? That is impressive, yes, but add what that dance means -- the poetry of it, the sense of humanity, the struggle of an individual with individual hopes and cares on full display down to the smallest detail -- and that's when an impressive feat becomes art. And it is that art into which we are being immersed.

It's not the immersive quality in itself, or the mastered technical achievements alone that makes this film remarkable; the immersion is only the path we travel. In the same way that we understand the intangible thoughts and motivations within the characters of Schofield and Blake by reading beyond the tangible surface of their words and actions, so 1917 uses what technological, material language it has at its disposal to express truths of the immaterial human soul that extend beyond what mere words can say.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Richard Jewell

This drama tells a story that some know very well and other may not have heard of at all. It's the true story of how Richard (Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard in the Atlanta Olympic games in 1996, spotted and reported a bomb on his shift. How his actions saved hundreds of lives. And how he then came to be unfairly blamed for the attack by the media.

The story would be too unbelievable if it weren't true. 

It's directed by Clint Eastwood, and as such, comes from a perspective that's uniquely his. See, Clint Eastwood is an established and confident director, who's not out to hone his craft, or advance an artistic style, or even to win awards for himself. He wanted to tell this story because he thought it was worth telling the world what kind of a man Richard Jewell really was; and so that's exactly what he did, plain and simple. The narrative isn't experimental or from some fresh new perspective; it tells the story straightforwardly, without fuss. Moment to moment, it lays down the facts of the case, and slowly we watch as a life is built up, torn down, and rebuilt again.

It's deceptively simple, especially in a day when studios feel the need to force-feed emotion to their audience, to the point even, where the audience has come to expect it. This film isn't built on emotion but information, and yet I found it to easily be one of the most emotionally powerful films released in the 2019 year. I've always held that the best way for a film to craft its tone is to reflect its lead, and that's what it does, matching Jewell's steadfast, focused, and simple way. He's the kind of person whose core is hard to get to, who doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, and who has strict ideas of the world around him that dictates his actions.

Oh and did I mention that Sam Rockwell is in this movie?

Like Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) the brash but genuine lawyer that Richard hires when his life turns upside down, this movie sticks by his side longer than most would bother to, and eventually, we get to see who he is. Paul Walter Hauser plays him in such a minutely precise way, that to look at him it's near-impossible to see anything but the character, who feels like, and is, a real person. He's certainly not a typical movie hero type, but through the film's patient eyes we sympathize with him, are angry and frustrated for him, and root for him to win the day and overcome the impossible. It's an immaculate performance that hits every right note to win us over but still make the character real and flawed and honest.

If you know me, you know Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors, and here he does his usual fantastic job. Hauser may be the main character, but it's Rockwell who drives the film. He's the only one who has the energy to pull entertainment out of the situation which is reality was nothing short of a waking eternal nightmare. Kathy Bates is also there giving an award-worthy performance as Richard's mother. She is also fully submerged in the role. Jon Hamm is the FBI agent in charge of the bombing investigation, who leaks the story to the press, namely Olivia Wilde, whose cynical, careless character was a delight to hate, with a surprise or two later on that impressed me greatly.

Despite this scene being as remarkably moving as it was...

The only slight problem is one that was insurmountable: the conclusion just isn't as satisfying as it should have been. That's life. If the real-life story had a great end point where everything wrapped up perfectly I'm sure it would have been made into a film before now. But life's not fair, even when people fight hard and justice wins. Mr. Eastwood wanted us to know that I guess. Maybe so that we would do our part to prevent injustice in the first place. The story of Richard Jewell is already worth telling; that makes it a story worth remembering too.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Upcoming Movie Roundup - January

Happy New Year!

I've done a terrible job catching up on 2019 movies. Last month I saw Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as expected, and it was more enjoyable than expected though still messily made. (Read my review here!)

Then we went to see Richard Jewell and I'm real glad we did. It wasn't trying to be overly artistic, but just to tell the story truthfully, and it comes across beautifully. I haven't reviewed it yet, but I will. I'm saying that I will right here so that I will have to.

I also watched The Aeronauts off Amazon Prime. It wasn't good, but I gave it a chance. Maybe I should review that too, so I can explain the bizarre way in which it is bad. No promises though.

There's still so many I want to see before I make up any king of top movies of 2019 list. Little Women is on the schedule, as is 1917. But now the January movies are coming! And I kinda like January movies. They reset my love for film by being dumb and enjoyable.

What are you looking forward to seeing in 2020 -- January and beyond?



1917
Wide release Jan 10th; R
I'm still counting this as a 2019 release since it had a limited release over Christmas. But I haven't seen it yet, and thought I would point out that the wide release is on its way. Since it my most-anticipated film of 2019, I don't mind having to wait until 2020 to see it. Or at least... I can wait. I have tickets. I'll probably make it. I HAVE to make it!




The Informer
In theaters Jan 10th; NR
Starting the year off right -- this is EXACTLY the kind of movie that should get released in January, and the kind of movie I'm ready to see. That obviously not Oscar-quality deal, that promises you won't have to use your brain much to enjoy it. Maybe it'll be genuinely bad, but to me it looks like a simple action thriller, cliched but not in an annoying or necessarily bad way, starring capable actors. I'll totally watch this.




Just Mercy
In theaters Jan 10th; PG-13
Time to get political (sorry) but this is interesting. This is a true story about a lawyer who works to right and injustice -- very similar to the plot of Richard Jewell. But watching the trailer for this, most of what I see is preaching about the agenda the film wants to push. Maybe it's less the case in the actual movie, but the reason Jewell worked so well was it just told the story plainly, without inserting it's own political ideas into the script. I think its best when political movies don't have political messages. Especially true stories should tell the truth and let the audience take away what they see. But I guess we'll see about this one. It does have a good cast of Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall.




Underwater
In theaters Jan 10th; PG-13
Another ideal January release. Deep ocean movies are essentially lost in space movies but with the extra detail of water instead of the vacuum of space, and this flick knows it. It's Alien under the sea, and I'm ready to go watch it right now. It looks like a lot of fun, and has a nice big cast of names to kill off, with Kristen Stewart in the lead. Movies like this are film essentials. I hope it tires hard to entertain and doesn't take itself too seriously. If it weren't for movies like this I would get tired of loving film altogether.




Inherit the Viper
Limited release and streaming Jan 10th; R
Hard to tell with this one. It looks like it's very self-serious but also not particular in any way. Rednecks and drugs and violence starter pack. Family dramas don't need exceptional plots to be great, but this one seems focused more on plot than character. If I had to venture a guess, it'd be that the movie's too safe and unremarkable to be truly great, but maybe it's well made and acted enough to make it worth watching.




Bad Boys for Life
In theaters Jan 17th; NR
I have seen Bad Boys 2... but not Bad Boys. And that should clue you in to the level of care I have for the franchise. A new sequel might inspire me to see the first one and the second again perhaps -- especially if this is any good. Honestly though, I doubt it will be. It's been too long, and more importantly, no Michael Bay in the director's chair. You might think that's a good thing, but the directors are intentionally mimicking Bay's style, and, love him or hate him or anything in between we can all agree on one thing: No one can do Michael Bay but Michael Bay. (Language warning for the trailer.)




Dolittle
In theaters Jan 17th; PG
This movie has a pretty good cast... of voice actors and one or two people whose face we'll see. It's a lot to ask of the people who are clamoring for Robert Downey Jr. to will an Oscar for his performance in Avengers: Endgame. Because it's up to them and them alone to buy the tickets so it won't bomb. Just kidding, I'm sure nostalgia will drag in some unsuspecting patrons. They're scraping the bottom of the barrel with CGI reboots, and you can tell from this trailer that tried to look epic and get you on emotion instead of the promise of a good film. I won't be surprised if people say it's good, but I would be very surprised if it actually is.




The Wave
Limited release and streaming Jan 17th; R
Justin Long indie scifi drug trip? I dunno, but it looks like the sort of movie that I won't be able to put aside until I've seen it and understand what it's about and what it's trying to do. Looks very low-budget, but that can breed creativity and it certainly has a unique sense to it.




The Turning
In theaters Jan 24th; PG-13
Finn Wolfhard has been the scared person in enough horror movies now and is leveling up to being the scary person. I look forward to bearing witness. With the lights on. Preferably during the day. That's all.




The Gentlemen
In theaters Jan 24th; R
Well this has Guy Ritchie written all over it -- and that's nothing but a good thing in my opinion! My favorite of his work to date is RocknRolla, and this one looks much more like that than Sherlock Holmes (which the trailer wants you to remember) or Arthur: Legend of the Sword (which it doesn't want you to remember). Ritchie returning to his roots maybe? Also quite the cast. Charlie Hunnam leading (who I like now) with Matthew McConaughey (who I still don't like very much) and Michelle Dockery, Henry Golding, Colin Farrell, and Hugh Grant (all of whom I definitely like). This is the sort of movie that I won't trust the critic reviews on, and will certainly have to see for myself.




The Rhythm Section
In theaters Jan 31st; NR
First of all I legit thought this was a sad music drama or something based on the poster. Second, Blake Lively is trying to be taken seriously as an action star now, apparently. Looks like she's channeling Jason Bourne here. The plot isn't like Bourne, I'm just getting that vibe. A stylistic knockoff of an irrelevant franchise doesn't sound promising, but if I don't forget it exists I'll consider watching it if it can tempt me with good reviews.