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After the Storm

March 31, 2017
After the Storm

“How did my life turn out like this?” asks Shinoda Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest family drama jewel, After the Storm. The consistent quality of his films is nothing short of breathtaking, this one arriving less than a year after Our Little Sister, and not a bit diminished for it.

As usual, Kore-eda’s subject is a family in crisis. And, as usual, the goal is less for the family to resolve the crisis than to learn to live with its new reality. This time we center on Ryota, a once-promising author who never managed to write his second novel, and instead frittered away his savings on gambling. Now he makes ends meet as a private detective, but wastes enough of it that he can never put together the alimony he owes his ex-wife, Shiraishi Kyoko (Maki Yōko), and so he never gets to see his son, Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyô).

Ryota recognizes that his life has not turned out as he would have liked it, but the disappointment feeds back in on itself, driving him to gamble, which keeps him from his son, which renews his disappointment in a vicious cycle. It’s tempting to feel sorry for him; I’m sure Kyoko felt sorry for him at one point. But with no effort on his part to break out of the cycle, at some point he has to be left to his own devices.

The one place of shelter is his mother’s apartment. Shinoda Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki) loves her son unconditionally, the way only a mother can. She knows he has his problems, and that he probably comes around as much to hit her up for money as anything else. Or to find something of his late father’s to pawn, the fading memories of another man of questionable honesty, disappointed in his own life. His sister, Chinatsu (Kobayashi Satomi), sponges off of her too, but to fund her daughter’s figure skating lessons, which at least has a slightly more respectable air than a gambling problem.

But still she loves and forgives Ryota, as she loved and forgave his father. She wishes Kyoko would do the same and get back together with him, despite the fact that she has a new boyfriend already. And when a typhoon makes landfall in Japan, it seems the perfect opportunity to collect the broken family together and see if they will work things out while they’re trapped overnight in the apartment.

Yoshiko counsels her former daughter-in-law that men are not like women, who can find contentment in the present. Ryota, like her late husband, always looks to the future while regretting the past, turning his life into a noir story. Is it any wonder he fell into private detective work? One client after another, confronted with the evidence of their spouse’s infidelities, asks the same question as he does: “how did my life turn out like this?”

To focus on the past leads to disappointment over not becoming the person you wanted to be. Turning to focus on the future just fills your head with pipe dreams of how to yet become that person. But the hardest place to look is the present, at the self, to learn how to want to be the person you are.

In After the Storm, we find the purest distillation yet of Kore-eda’s entire body of work into this one essential goal: to stop looking to get what you want and start learning to want what you have. Once that storm of desire and frustration passes, there will be a calm place at the center.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

For Here or To Go?

March 31, 2017
For Here or To Go?

Even before the havoc and chaos unleashed by the current administration’s blind gropings, immigration policy in the United States was badly in need of reform. Political rhetoric has associated the subject with illegal immigration and the (mostly imaginary) image of cheap, unskilled laborers crossing the (usually Mexican) border, but the legal immigration system is a mess that’s poorly understood even by those people living within it. It’s this Kafka-esque limbo that writer Rishi Bhilawadikar and director Rucha Humnabadkar explore in For Here or To Go?, particularly as it affects the Indian-American community.

Vivek Pandit (Ali Fazal) is a smart young Silicon Valley engineer in the country on an H-1B visa for temporary workers. And that “temporary” label spreads to apply to everything else in his life. It’s hard to put down roots if you don’t know how long you can stay on the ground. Some, like his co-worker Lakshmi (Omi Vaidya), apply for permanent resident status, but Vivek doesn’t try to start that process until less than a year remains on his visa, for reasons the script never really makes clear.

It’s a risky position, as his roommate, Ravi (Gaurav Dwivedi), finds out when he goes back to India to get a visa stamp and his sponsoring employer folds, leaving him stranded. And Ravi’s sublessee, Amit (Amitosh Nagpal), is in an even more tenuous situation: on his L-1 visa he can’t even apply for a different job while he’s in-country. And when Amit lets his acquaintance Gurmeet (Gursimran Singh) crash in his room on weekends, it opens them all up to suspicion by however you say La Migra in Hindi.

Meanwhile, the other side of the debate is the rising sentiment that maybe highly-skilled Indian workers should return to India to solve problems there. This is advanced most directly by the founder of Vivek’s American company, Vishwanath Prabhu (Rajit Kapur), with the push-back that these workers have had to use American immigration to escape a corrupt system at home in order to succeed in the first place. The birth-pangs of India as a modern economy are not easily solved, and it’s to Humnabadkar and Bhilawadikar’s credit that they even bring up the topic to be discussed, but they seem to stop at mentioning its existence rather than truly wrestling with the issue.

This superficial treatment carries over to the half-dozen other threads running through the movie. And the fact that there are so many of them might play into why they each get such glancing treatment.

Of course there must be a romance angle, so we have a love interest in Shveta (Melanie Kannokada), complete with a Bollywood-style dance in the form of a flashmob interrupting their date. There’s also the woman Vivek’s mother wants to set him up with, and the woman he declined to marry before leaving for America, now about to marry someone else. One is Swetha and one Shweta, and I can’t recall which is which, which seems to be part of the joke, I think. The foibles of Dating While Indian were largely captured better by Meet the Patels, but the intersection of these issues with the particular instability of life on an H-1B visa seems like more fertile ground that For Here or To Go? only scratches the surface of.

Not unrelated to that point, Lakshmi is in the closet. Though he misses his family, he finds it more comfortable to stay in the United States than risk their disapproval. Again, an entire movie could be spun out of this one premise, but it only gets two or three scenes.

And then there are the weird coincidences. Though Vivek meets Shveta at a Desi speed dating event, it turns out that she’s Vishwanath’s daughter, and she’s also in a photography class with Lakshmi. None of which has any actual impact on any plot. There’s not so much as an awkward reveal of the fact that he’s dating the daughter of the man telling him that letting his visa expire might not be such a bad thing, and the fact that there might be a conflict of interests doesn’t even come up.

This is undoubtedly a perspective and experience that is sorely lacking in our cultural dialogue, and I’m glad to see someone trying to bring it forward. But at the same time I’m not sure that For Here or To Go? knows what it wants to say on the matter. Or, indeed, what it can expect from the audience it will reach.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

T2 Trainspotting

March 24, 2017
T2 Trainspotting

“Choose Life”, the ironic sneer of a slogan blared from the poster on the wall of every other guy’s room when I entered college in the fall of 1997. A defiant rebel yell from a generation too young to even realize what it was rejecting. It’s natural enough, I suppose; kids don’t know enough to know they don’t know anything yet. But, twenty years later, we have to wonder whether Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Franco know anything more now than they did then. And, if not, can we offer them the same sympathy as we did for a bunch of dumb junkie kids.

And so we have T2 Trainspotting, and no, the peculiar format of the title is never quite explained. But it’s the least of the stylistic flourishes with which Danny Boyle embellishes this sequel. The gang are all back — the ones who survived the first movie, anyway — but it’s hard to see whether they ever really moved on.

Franco (Robert Carlyle) was literally in prison until he arranges his escape when denied parole. Spud (Ewen Bremner) may as well have been, never quite getting free of heroin despite his best efforts. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has moved on to cocaine, supporting himself with blackmail schemes — abetted by his Bulgarian prostitute girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) — and the husk of his aunt’s pub, a boat as yet unlifted by Leith’s rising tide of gentrification. Renton (Ewan McGregor) was the closest to getting out, but after his wife leaves him and he collapses on an oh-so-symbolic treadmill he returns to Edinburgh to take stock of what has become of his life.

On a run up Arthur’s Seat, Renton tells Spud that he’s an addict; they both are. The reason Spud failed is that he tried to replace addiction with non-addiction, which Renton says is futile. The only real answer, in his mind, is to choose what you’re addicted to, and running is a more sustainable choice than heroin. In its way, the sentiment echoes the oft-quote line of Wallace’s (David Foster, not William) that everybody worships something.

But what Renton misses is that it’s not just about finding an addiction that doesn’t cost so much, and doesn’t put you on the wrong side of the law, and doesn’t have you rubbing elbows with people who’d as much spit on as look at you, and all the other downsides of drug addiction. Running is better than heroin for plenty of reasons, and might even play a valuable role in someone’s recovery, but it’s not a magic bullet. What’s missing is the really important factor: meaning.

And when he updates the “Choose Life” rant to explain it to Veronika, it’s clear that running isn’t the only disappointment in Renton’s life. From social media to MRAs to the hollowed-out middle-class labor market, he describes a landscape of frustration that rings familiar from any number of high-minded journalists’ pleas to sympathize with the poor, forgotten residents of what we’re now calling “Trump Country”. His sneer of post-teenage self-unaware self-destruction in the ’90s has become a snarl of Tyler Durden-esque rage at being denied the outcome he believed was rightfully his.

Twenty years on we can look back and laugh at the naïveté of refusing career, family, and a starter home with fixed-interest mortgage payments. Game shows are no less mental junk food than reality TV, but there’s nothing truly wrong with either one in moderation. The bill of goods we’ve all been sold is all empty calories, devoid of the meaning that truly sustains life. But Renton, like the voters we’re asked to sympathize with, sees no recourse but regression into old bad habits, leading to a truly epidemic wave of opioid addiction.

And if T2 Trainspotting actually engaged with this hard truth, it might be a truly great movie. But it doesn’t. Renton’s quest is no search for meaning, but another old jape with his old friends. More antics with Sick Boy; more antagonism with Franco; more car-dodging chases that call back to the scenes we remember from before, running over the same old ground.

All the reveries tying back to childhood memories and all the metafictional winks can’t actually offer meaning to an audience that doesn’t know where to fill in their own gaps already. There’s nothing here but a black-humored lark, the same as the last time around, but with even less substance to it this time around. And it’s fine to enjoy it for that; it’s flashy and cool and has a great soundtrack and a pattern of highs and lows cooked up in some lab to maximize audience engagement.

So choose T2 Trainspotting, and be sure to tag it with the marketing accounts the studio has set up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, hoping that someone cares. Choose watching the story repeat itself. Choose to smother your workaday cares for two hours with a charming bit of escapist fantasy. Just make sure it’s not all you choose.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Raw

March 24, 2017
Raw

It feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve had a horror film as brutal, as unflinching, and, well, as raw as Raw. The feature debut of Fémis grad Julia Ducournau shows a confident, capable hand as the director guides us down her lead’s path into madness. But while it’s a must-see for fans of cinematic gore, there’s frustratingly little to be learned from the journey, once the obvious metaphor is out of the way.

Justine (Garance Marillier) arrives at her veterinary college as a lifelong vegetarian, obediently following her mother’s wishes. Her parents are alumni of the same school, even meeting in their first year as students. And her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is also a student, despite her brash, independent streak.

At first, veterinary medicine seems a natural fit for an animal-loving vegetarian like Justine, but it gets complicated from there. As with med students, vets in training must inure themselves to the messy realities of their job. And at this school, isolated in the middle of the countryside, that starts with a week of hazing. This covers the usual ritual humiliations — deference to “elders”, enforced costumes, heavy drinking — but also includes stunts like a class photo taken after drenching the new students in blood.

Justine has always been the star pupil. An introverted and nerdy teacher’s pet, she has little enough patience for these ordeals, but she particularly objects to eating a raw rabbit kidney. Alexia demands that she eat it anyway, dietary restrictions be damned, and all but mashes Justine’s jaws up and down by hand. Justine’s misgivings seem to be validated when she breaks out in a terrible rash, but that’s only the beginning.

She begins to feel a hunger, and a desire for meat. First it’s a beef patty she tries sneaking out of the cafeteria. Then her gay suitemate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), helps her get a shawarma from a truck stop down the highway from the school. Then it’s an early-morning raid of their refrigerator, which finds her on her knees, rapturously devouring a raw chicken breast. Soon enough she finds what it is she truly craves: human flesh.

It’s no coincidence that Justine also arrives at school a virgin. A common justification for policing young women’s sexuality is that otherwise their lust will become an uncontrollable force. Women who enjoyed sex were, and still colloquially are, stigmatized as “nymphomaniacs” whose desire constitutes mental illness. In Justine, Ducournau shows this old male fear of the powerful, uncontrolled female libido.

But she’s not only out of male control, but out of her own control as well. This isn’t Jennifer’s Body or Teeth, where the avatar of female lust serves as a vessel of righteous, if maybe excessive, vengeance. In highlighting the fear of feminine appetite, Raw seems to justify that same fear.

To some extent, this is the result of another choice on Ducournau’s part. Like any power, Justine’s bloodlust needs to be controlled and used responsibly. And as it becomes clear that Alexia knows more about what Justine is experiencing than she lets on, it becomes just as clear that she abdicates her duty to act as her sister’s mentor. And so the film comments on how women are complicit in women’s strife, valuing the security of their place in the patriarchy — the upperclass hazing leaders are almost universally men — above solidarity with each other.

But to do this it has to abandon all but the most superficial communication between the two young women. In general, Marillier and Rumpf give an excellent picture of the often fraught relationship between two sisters, especially one where the mother seems to have a clear favorite. And yet, even during their moments of detente, Justine never asks about the subject which has come to dominate her life, and about which Alexia clearly has some insight.

That omission carries over into other conveniences in the plot, like the quasi-adversarial relationship between Alexia and Adrien, or Adrien’s sudden willingness to help meet Justine’s sexual needs. As the taboo between the sisters advances a desired theme, each for these developments is necessary to get the plot to end up where Ducournau wants it, but they feel haphazardly motivated on their own terms.

Still, despite the undercooked allegory, Raw offers plenty of visceral thrills for genre fans. From the get-go, a veterinary school is a creepy setting, and even the normal students have sense of humor that would land somewhere between dark and depraved among the rest of society. And seeing animals — alive and dead — in this context can be deeply unsettling. Ducournau uses this to great effect in ratcheting up the near-hallucinatory dysphoria over the course of the film, and her use of gore effects is fantastic for this early in her career.

This is clearly a director who knows exactly how and when to shock and provoke her audience, and horror aficionados should absolutely check this one out. I have no doubt that she will hone her writing to provide more incisive commentary in her future efforts; even if Raw bites off more than she can chew, Julia Ducournau is one to watch.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Personal Shopper

March 17, 2017
Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas seems to have found his latest muse in Kristen Stewart. After directing her to a César for Best Supporting Actress in Clouds of Sils Maria — the first for an American actress — he has cast her as the lead in his next film, the contemplatively arty ghost story, Personal Shopper.

Stewart again plays a personal assistant, this time a shopper for the glamorous and almost entirely absent Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). Maureen is the one who schleps all over Paris, and even takes jaunts to London, picking out designer clothes and accessories from dresses to jewelry to handbags. In many cases, her employer will just wear the item once at some public event before returning it to the boutique. Or she’ll decide not to return it after all, leaving Maureen on the hook to deal with the fallout. And though Maureen has the keys to come and go from Kyra’s flat, and takes care of any number of other personal errands like updating her laptop’s operating system, she is expressly forbidden from trying on any of Kyra’s clothes herself.

Maureen is also dealing with the recent death of her twin brother, Lewis, who succumbed to a certain malformation of the heart that she shares. Lewis was an artist who considered himself a medium. Maureen has felt something, but isn’t as sure that it’s supernatural. But they made promises that if either one of them died, they’d try to send a message back to the other.

So Lewis’ girlfriend, Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), lets Maureen spend a few nights in their emptied old house before the new owners move in. And she does experience something strange, but what is it? Things only get creepier when she starts receiving texts from an unknown number, sent by someone who seems to know where she is and what she’s doing.

As in Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas takes a slow, elliptical pace in Personal Shopper, calmly observing the surface while letting us fill in Maureen’s inner turmoil. She wrestles with some big questions of personal identity and interpersonal relations. As a twin, she is a sort of copy of someone else. As a personal shopper, she acts on behalf of someone else. She has no strong relationships; she worries her heart doesn’t work right. She is, in a way, herself a ghost, floating immaterially through someone else’s life. And her confusion leaves her vulnerable.

It’s certainly not the kind of movie that will appeal to all tastes, but it plays on Stewarts strengths as a naturalistic actor who can communicate her inward mental states to an audience as few others can. While never quite scary in a traditional horror or thriller sense, it does leave a chill that lingers well after its gone.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

The Sense of an Ending

March 17, 2017
The Sense of an Ending

There’s something that sounds familiar about The Sense of an Ending. The score was composed by Max Richter, whose “On the Nature of Daylight” has become the wistful leitmotif for early 21st century movies that Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was for the late 20th century. It’s practically the main theme of HBO’s The Leftovers, and more recently it bookended last year’s Arrival.

Arrival was based on a short story by acclaimed science fiction author Ted Chiang. By a marvelous coincidence, another of his stories — “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” — offers a far more nuanced and thoughtful exploration of the central point of Julian Barnes’ novel than we see in Nick Payne and Ritesh Batra’s adaptation.

That point being that our lives are often less true than we suppose, and consist in large part of fictions that we make up to explain our feelings, rather than facts that justify them. Our self-image is composed less of the actions we take than of the stories we tell, not to crib too much from Sarah Polley, and those stories are often self-serving.

That’s certainly the case for Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a divorcé who can’t quite understand why exactly his ex-wife (Harriet Walter) left him, or why his daughter (Michelle Dockery) is surprised he’d fill in as her Lamaze partner when her mother is injured and can’t make it. He just putters around his home and his camera shop, with barely enough interest to greet the mail carrier delivering his parcels or the curious browsers who might be converted into sales with a little effort.

Until, that is, he feels he is owed something. He receives a letter from a woman he once knew, evidently as part of her will. She refers to “the enclosed”, with nothing else in the envelope. Her executor states that it was meant to be the diary of an old schoolmate of his, but her daughter, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), has refused to turn it over. This puts him in dogged pursuit of what he demands is rightfully his, even if he had never thought about it until this moment. And while he chases her down, he reminisces to his ex, whether she’s interested or not.

The flashbacks feature a young Tony (Billy Howle) meeting his high-school chum — and, evidently, diarist — Adrian (Joe Alwyn), and Veronica (Freya Mavor), his first serious girlfriend. We see Tony meeting Veronica’s mother, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), but just how his girlfriend’s mother got hold of his other friend’s diary remains maddeningly vague for the longest time.

Of course, this is only really a mystery to us, and to Tony’s ex-wife to the extent she functions as an audience surrogate. Tony knows full well how Adrian’s diary got to Sarah; he just won’t tell us because as long as he keeps stringing his audience along with his story, he has a cheap sense of power over them. It’s the mystery box all over again, repackaged for the senior crowd. But, as cheap a hook as it is, I must admit that it’s the reason this movie works at all. Without the frustration of wanting to know what happened, I’d have been completely bored.

Broadbent puts in a fine performance, though possibly coming off a bit too sympathetic. Rampling is strong, what little we see of her, and similar can be said of the rest of the cast. This is decidedly Broadbent’s film, as much as the poster crowds his face out, Tony crowds everyone else out of his own story until he can’t help but acknowledge his shortcomings. And while there’s some satisfaction in seeing a self-important old guy get put in his place, there’s little more to it than that.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Beauty and the Beast

March 17, 2017
Beauty and the Beast

When Disney did their live-action version of Cinderella, I was disappointed that they didn’t do anything nearly so interesting with the story as they had with Maleficent. But in remaking their animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, they’ve barely even done anything new. With rare exceptions, this feels like a shot-for-shot live-action remake of the animated original, and I can’t see a single thing to recommend this version over that one.

I won’t bother with a recap; the general story is familiar enough, and most of the time it sticks to Linda Woolverton’s script from the animated version. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the movie has somehow grown from the original’s sleek 84 minute runtime to a bloated 129. Where did this extra half a movie come from? There are a handful of new scenes and songs, but much of it seems to come from overstuffing the existing sequences. Is that really enough to justify full writer credits for both Perks of Being a Wallflower‘s Stephen Chbosky and The Huntsman: Winter’s War‘s Evan Spiliotopoulos?

What do the new scenes add to the movie? Mostly, a little more on the back-story of the Beast (Dan Stevens), and Belle’s father (Kevin Kline), and even a bit more of Gaston (Luke Evans). Nothing, really, about Belle herself (Emma Watson), who remains as much of a non-character in her own story as ever, only there to justify the Beast’s redemption. Filling in more details about the men around her only heightens the fact that she’s so thinly drawn.

But with Disney throwing so much money into this thing, you’d at least hope it would look nice. Unfortunately, most of it is washed-out and dingy enough that it could fit in with Zack Snyder’s DC comics movies. I know that director Bill Condon chose to go this way to reflect the cursed world, and so he can lighten things in the few happier moments like the ballroom scene and the finale, but it means that the rest of the time we’re struggling to see through a muddy, underlit haze.

And this only gets worse when you add 3D into the mix. Not only does it further darken the image, it adds even more visual confusion. Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler — Peter Berg’s go-to guy for Patriots Day, Lone Survivor, and Battleship — routinely makes the classic mistake of mixing focus cues and stereography cues to indicate depth, leaving the eye confused and disoriented, especially when the camera moves faster than the post-production stereography can keep up with. The result is an even more jumbled mess; if it must be seen, see it in 2D.

To be fair, the animated version also pulled the same trick of using a darker color palette to make the brighter scenes pop out more. But the animators have much more flexibility to make the images comprehensible, especially when it comes to the staff-turned-housewares. The more “realistic” version of the Lumière (Ewan McGregor), for instance, has a face so tiny I couldn’t even pick it out for half the movie. The feather-duster maid Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) at least is carved into the shape of a dove, but if it’s animated to speak in any real way I couldn’t tell. Mrs. Potts and Chip (Emma Thompson and Nathan Mack) are almost cheating in having their faces painted directly on the porcelain, while Mme. de Garderobe and Cadenza (Audra McDonald and Stanley Tucci) are nearly incomprehensible to the extend they’re meant to be anthropomorphized furniture. Which leaves Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) the clock as the only one of these characters with an easily recognizable face, and even that can be a struggle. It would have been simpler and cheaper to just move the objects around by wires a la Bedknobs and Broomsticks and not bother animating them at all, for all the effect that actually makes it to the screen.

But wait: it may look terrible, but it also doesn’t sound great. None of the singing is flat-out bad, at least, but the sound mix when more than one person sings at a time — let alone the whole chorus — is nearly as muddy as the image. McDonald may be the standout talent, but her operatic soprano is jarring next to the straight-up Broadway style of the rest of Alan Menken’s score. McGregor is adequate, but sadly he’s no Jerry Orbach, and his attempt at a French accent is faintly ridiculous. The real let-down is Thompson, who can sing and can do a fair cockney — though it seems an odd choice for Mrs. Potts — but can’t really make both at once sound very good. And since she’s the one delivering the central “Beauty and the Beast” song, the ballroom scene loses the warm, smooth, mellifluous grandeur that Angela Lansbury gave it.

On the brighter side, Josh Gad is practically born to play Gaston’s sidekick, LeFou, and to play up the gay vibe that has always been recognized as part of the character. And Stevens delivers a soaring solo in the new song “Evermore”, which is the producers’ clear hope for a Best Original Song nomination.

Despite a few bright points, overall this is a mess. It was probably too much to hope that they’d try to address the whole toxic “if I love him enough he’ll stop getting angry and let me out of the house” angle, but they’ve done absolutely nothing new or interesting with the story at all. Smugly satisfied that they got it perfect the first time, Disney would rather set $160 million on fire as an sacrificial offering to their previous efforts.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but barely passes.