20th_Century_Women20th Century Women (2016)

Starring- Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann

Director- Mike Mills

R- sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxcvng_CpMQ

Three women from different generations who live under the same roof in 1970s SoCal conspire to raise the oldest’s complicated teenage son when she starts to feel as though she no longer understands him.

20th Century Women very much represents a director coming into his own as an artist, so I feel like I should be more excited about it than I am. It’s a very good movie, but I’m struggling to muster anything more than mild enthusiasm for it. I basically enjoyed it, but I find my admiration for it is somewhat abstract.

For writer/director Mike Mills, I think it’s a giant leap forward. I didn’t like Beginners. I thought it resembled the popular stereotype of the indie film — arbitrarily strange and quirky to the point that even its more grounded elements became meaningless — and its non-chronological structure robbed it of dramatic heft. It felt effortful, like it was self-conscious about its novelty.

20th Century Women is right where it needs to be. It feels like Mills discovering how to use his voice while filtering it through a framework that allows other people (or at least me) to understand it. It keeps a lot of what made Beginners distinct — his use of politics and culture to define settings and circumstances, his unique use of voiceover narration (here alternating between the perspectives of the various characters, and occasionally removing them from time so they can muse about the past and the future), and especially his eye for little personal details and the way they express character and make things feel real — but no longer seems as though it’s trying very hard to be different. In so doing, it actually becomes different — something effortlessly original, something that feels like a distinct vision but never comes across as though it’s trying to impress you.

The story is told in chronological order this time, which doesn’t inherently make it superior to Beginners. For me, the problem was that Beginners’ non-linear structure felt like guesswork, darts thrown at the wall; it was never clear to me why it chose to show us what it did when it did. I didn’t see the connection, and getting all these pieces of the story at random made it tough to track emotionally. If nothing else, 20th Century Women benefits from the emotional continuity brought about by one scene leading directly into the next.

Matched with characters who express themselves far more organically, and with much less labored strangeness, and the end result is something more compelling. I understood these characters, who they were as people, what they wanted, how they felt, all that. They were relatable to me in a way Beginners’ cast never was.

Despite the chronology, 20th Century Women isn’t really all that narrative. It isn’t quite a freeform, hangout sort of movie, but it’s close. There’s no inciting incident that drives a conflict the movie resolves before its run-time elapses. It’s ordinary life presented in bits and pieces — ordinary life that eventually enters more intense phases, but nothing we don’t all go through at some point, and it’s never forced. I’m not exactly sure what it’s about — everything and nothing, I suppose. I almost don’t mind, because every subject it wanders into is well observed and expressed in ways that never occurred to me before. It’s about existence — anxieties about growing up, getting older; fears about the past, present, and future; the moment-to-moment joys; questions of identity and the roles to which society has assigned you; the strange, ever-changing relationship between parents and children; the nagging worry that you’re wasting your life; the constant wondering if anyone is truly happy or if some are just faking it better than others. I’m not sure what, if anything, the movie has to say about this, only that it identifies the human condition with the resonance it needs. And who better to present it? A powerhouse like Annette Bening, the always-vibrant Greta Gerwig, and an exciting young talent like Elle Fanning? You couldn’t ask for more from this cast.

I’m thinking hard, then, about why I struggled to connect with this as deeply as I wanted to. An interview with Mills may have put this in perspective for me. Like Beginners before it, 20th Century Women is semi-autobiographical, inspired by Mills’ childhood being raised by his mother and older sisters. The characters are based on them, as well as old friends. I think that isolated my problem — 20th Century Women exists outside of its characters but doesn’t view them from any particular person’s perspective. Obviously, the teenage son, Jamie, is Mills’ stand-in, but unlike Ewan McGregor in Beginners, he isn’t the movie’s protagonist. As such, the movie feels like an observer but not a participant. We’re seeing the protagonists from a perspective that is not their own, or any particular characters. As such, despite the movie’s efforts to really get inside its characters’ heads, it always kept me at arm’s length. Many of the scenes in this movie have no obvious purpose other than to spend time with these people and get to know them, and this keeps some of them from providing the insight they need to. Hangout movies still have structure; they’re just a little deceptive about it. 20th Century Women sometimes feels inert, like it’s said all it needs to say and is just killing time — at least until it manages to bring another subject to the forefront.

Even so, 20th Century Women is enjoyable. Few movies achieve its level of warmth without becoming cloying. The cast is stellar, and Mills’ direction is appropriately sensitive and beautiful. It may not complete many of its thoughts, but its process is nevertheless insightful. It’s a modest but moving little indie.

x3qzpxp4The Most Hated Woman in America (2017)

Starring- Melissa Leo, Peter Fonda, Sally Kirkland, Rory Cochrane, Josh Lucas, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Vincent Kartheiser, Anna Camp, Michael Chernus, Alex Frost, Brandon Mychal Smith, Ryan Cutrona

Director- Tommy O’Haver

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsAIPE2f0QQ

The life and tragic death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair (Melissa Leo), the founder of American Atheists, plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that removed mandatory prayer from public schools, and known, for a time, as the most hated woman in America.

Come on, Netflix. This was practically gift-wrapped for you. Look at this cast — a collection of distinctive and talented character actors, including multiple Academy award nominees and one winner. Look at this story — a complex real-life figure with a breadth of unique experiences and obvious historical significance. Look at all the possible subtext — limitless potential for the exploration of hot-button political and religious questions. How is what came out the other side of this production so boring and lifeless?

The Most Hated Woman in America is never bad in the obvious sort of way that earns a movie a reputation. It’s not that the performances are bad, that the dialogue is unintentionally comical, that the writing is ever stupid in an immediately noticeable way, that the visuals are obviously off-kilter. It’s the movie’s adamant refusal to ever at any point become interesting. It’s that it never even comes close to finding an angle for the story it’s telling. It’s the way it never tries to get into the heads of any of its characters. It’s the complete lack of a point to any of this.

It has the usual biopic problem — it presents a sequence of scenes depicting every important thing the character ever said or did with no unifying story guiding it. It’s essentially a dramatization of Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Wikipedia biography. There’s no central conflict or theme; rather, it’s a series of conflicts and themes that arise, develop, and are addressed in the space of five minutes so the movie can get along to the next important bullet point.

The story, such as it were, is told in flashback structure — more for the audience’s benefit, though, as the flashbacks aren’t presented as if we’re seeing them from any particular character’s perspective. It’s more a story told partially out of chronological order. So you have two simultaneous storylines — chronologically, Murray O’Hair’s life story, intercut with scenes from her and her family’s abduction by a disgruntled former employee. There’s no meaningful relationship between the two, no sense that they’re informing or clarifying one another, no noticeable rhyme or reason behind when it chooses to cut to one or another. The life story part of the movie, as stated, blasts through all of Murray O’Hair’s most noteworthy accomplishments and experiences, never settling on any of them long enough for them to become truly compelling. Meanwhile, the part of the movie detailing her captivity — and the last days of her life — mostly finds her and her family doing nothing, just having tense interactions with their kidnappers that don’t mean much of anything. The movie is two-thirds done by the time the flashbacks even introduce the former American Atheists employee behind the abduction, and what time it has left says very little of interest about his relationship with his former boss. The film says nothing about their respective personalities and how they contributed to the situation in which they find themselves.

That’s the most confounding thing about the movie — its refusal to actually study any of its characters, to compile the historical record in such a way that it might speculate about who they were. It never creates three-dimensional human beings around its actors, some of whom are left straining for anything at all to do — Juno Temple is absolutely wasted as Murray O’Hair’s granddaughter, spending pretty much the entire movie just sitting quietly next to Melissa Leo. As her son, Michael Chernus never feels like anything more than a bumbling joke — his childish codependence with his mother feels like something the movie ought to explore, for the purpose of better drawing his and Murray O’Hair’s personalities; instead, he’s basically Buster from Arrested Development. Is Josh Lucas’s disgruntled employee anything more than greedy and untrustworthy? Does he feel betrayed by Madalyn somehow? Was he ever committed to her? Committed to her cause? I have no idea. One night, out of nowhere, we see him mocking her son, she gets angry, he gets violent, that’s the full degradation of their relationship and the entirety of the film’s attempt to psychologize their conflict. Other characters come and go similarly, seeming as though they ought to have a purpose but never realizing it — Peter Fonda shows up for maybe two minutes as a televangelist whose public feud with Murray O’Hair is pure theatre designed to line his pockets. Commentary on religion? Maybe. The character completely vanishes immediately after this fact is established.

Madalyn is in on that theatre, by the way, and plays her appearances up for the same reasons. That’s an interesting wrinkle in the film’s depiction of her and something it needs to explore so we can understand a fundamental part of her character. And that’s where it comes really wrong — the movie is called The Most Hated Woman in America, it’s specifically about her, about what she did, who she was. And it offers no insight. It creates a character with basic traits but never offers a window into her thoughts and motivations. She does a little bit of performance on talk shows and in debates with this preacher; why does she do that? Is that a sign of insincerity? Does she think it helps her cause? How does she justify it? Why does it make sense to her? It’s the same story as her offshore bank accounts. Those imply a lot about her — why does she have them? What does it mean? The movie offers a shrugged explanation for this in one line of dialogue and never expands upon its implications. It’s treated as a throwaway detail and not a key component of understanding its protagonist?

Who was Madalyn Murray O’Hair? Kind of a lovably crotchety old lady. No clue what she wanted, what was closest to her heart, what she considered the purpose and effect of her life’s work. But she sure could toss a sarcastic barb at a religious fundamentalist.

The cast, particularly Leo, does its level best to save this movie and just about pulls it off. This group basically personifies charm, to the point that the darker parts of the story almost feel out of place. The tragic, violent end of the Murray O’Hairs’ kidnapping is appropriately stark in contrast, but it also feels like if The Lion King ended with Simba suddenly disemboweling Timon and Pumbaa. And then the movie just grinds to a halt, seemingly unsure how it should feel as the credits start to roll — partially because it isn’t really about anything. I guess you could say that makes its politics balanced, albeit only because the movie seems like it hates most of its characters and condescends to the ones it doesn’t.

I’m in the dead center of the Venn diagram of this movie’s target audience. I have a trainwreck-like fascination with religion, politics, and the intersection thereof; I love civil rights movies; I love movies with plenty of courtroom scenes. For crying out loud, I liked Freeheld. If I’m not into it, something is pretty seriously awry. I’m frustrated with The Most Hated Woman in America not because it’s terrible but because it should be great. It’s the missed opportunity of the year.

Nocturnal_Animals_PosterNocturnal Animals (2016)

Starring- Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

Director- Tom Ford

R- violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-H1Ii1LjyFU

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a wealthy art gallerist, is struggling with private unhappiness when she receives a message from her estranged ex-husband in the form of a novel he wrote, one in which she soon recognizes parallels to their lives together.

Nocturnal Animals is complicated. It’s a film caught amidst a myriad of possibilities, some of which may be true, some of which may not be, all of which may be true or false to varying degrees. It’s a trashy airport novel within a soap opera masquerading as an art film — or perhaps an art film masquerading as a soap opera, given the way it so gleefully revels in its melodramatics and so knowingly manipulates them. It must be in on the joke to a degree to so carefully maintain its pulpy tone, but the jury is out on whether it’s completely in on the joke. It might be genius; it may also be a gargantuan disaster. And I’m thinking: Is there any reason why it cannot be both at the same time.

In case it isn’t clear at this point, Nocturnal Animals is the kind of unique, ambitious, weird movie I’m constitutionally incapable of disliking, regardless of its flaws — and, in this case, regardless of its sometimes questionable thematics. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s Tom Ford’s second movie, and it’s been seven years since his debut feature, A Single Man. I had to consult my Letterboxd account to remember anything about my feelings toward it, which tells you just about everything you need to know. In that sense, Nocturnal Animals is an improvement — I doubt I’ll forget about it anytime soon. It’s much more original, much less beholden to any obvious influences, and doesn’t feel as though it’s trying as hard to be “important.” Actually, its deviations from the awards movie mold are what make it most memorable. Nocturnal Animals has more in common with Gone Girl than with A Single Man — actually, “Gone Girl if it was a fictional story being read by characters in a dressed-up melodrama” is a pretty good way of summarizing it.

It’s a relationship drama and a grimy revenge thriller simultaneously. In the “real world,” there’s Susan reading her ex-husband’s book and pondering its meaning; in the “fictional world,” there’s Jake Gyllenhaal and a deliciously over-the-top Michael Shannon wreaking bloody vengeance upon a band of stereotypical hillbillies (led by the equally over-the-top Aaron Taylor-Johnson, making an impression on me for the first time in his career). Those stories never touch each other but inform one another’s themes, and it’s fascinating the way they can exist in the same space so seamlessly. It’s partly because Ford takes the otherwise grounded “real world” segments and processes them through the tone of an “edgier” soap opera; there’s a strange sense of menace hanging over those scenes despite the lack of any noteworthy physical stakes. It works, particularly as an examination of Susan’s deteriorating mental state — her slow realization of the part she played in her own inexplicable unhappiness, and her increasing fear that it’s too late to set her life back on track. And despite the comparative realism of the “real world” segments, the movie’s heart remains black as coal.

I haven’t seen a movie as diseased as Nocturnal Animals since…well, less than a week ago, when I watched Elle, but I doubt anything’s going to touch that one for quite some time. Part of me, weirdly, kind of likes that about it, if only because it reflects some of the darker parts of the artistic impulse. It’s the movie version of that t-shirt that says, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.” Susan’s ex was working through something pretty serious when he wrote his bloody, horrific novel, and he’s clearly not afraid to throw it in her face. Ford said he was attracted to the story because he liked the idea of someone using art to send a specific message to a single person, and I can see why — the relationship between Nocturnal Animals’ twin storyline is fascinating, both in ways it certainly intends and ways it possibly doesn’t.

After all, its diseased nature is something it needs to keep fully in perspective, and I’m not completely convinced it does. While all of the in-universe violence is fictional and therefore not something the real-world storyline comments on directly (even talking about this movie confuses me, albeit in the best possible way), it still takes a certain delight in the concept of storytelling as an act of petty revenge (possibly; a lot of this is going to depend on how you read the ending). It’s personal and mean-spirited in a way that makes it feel like bloody pulp fiction even though it’s the farthest thing from it.

Reading interviews, I don’t think Ford intended it that way. But the movie makes the cardinal mistake of relationship dramas — sympathizing with one party just a little too much. Obviously, the movie is centered in Susan’s perspective to an extent that emphasizes her contribution to the breakdown of her marriage; that’s as it should be. And she did some terrible things for which she ought to be held to account. But we’re anchored in her perspective as she works her way through a story told from the other parties’ perspective, and I feel as though that ought to offer more insight into the both of them than it does. I’ve never read the novel this is based on, but I suspect her ex-husband’s excessive commitment to the purity of art came off somewhat more negatively there. Nocturnal Animals comes close to suggesting that Susan is to blame for objecting to her husband living off her money while he continues laboring over the novel he can never actually complete, and that isn’t fair. It’s the sort of thing that played better in the prosperous 90s, when movies were all about artists refusing to “sell out,” than it does right now, when even successful artists are balancing frequently unfulfilling careers with the pursuit of their dreams. It has an obnoxious air of oblivious privilege about it. Combine that with the petulance of writing a creepy novel in which an obvious stand-in for Susan is the victim of some pretty horrendous things, and it’s hard not to think that maybe she had a point. It makes the film feel acidic, possibly even to an extent that it doesn’t intend.

Also, I got the impression that I was supposed to interpret the novel as an incredible work of sheer literary genius even though it’s…not. It’s enjoyable because of the way the movie contextualizes it, but on its own, the novel is a garbage revenge thriller with exaggerated, stereotypical characters and predictable, boilerplate plotting. Again, it’s a fun to watch because the movie sells it as a cheesy B-movie, but it’s in-universe effect on the characters is harder to empathize with.

It’s sort of a joke; I just wonder if it’s a joke the movie intends to remain funny for the duration of its run-time. As it reaches its final moments, it doesn’t quite feel like it — there’s a sincerity in the way it comes after and ultimately tears down its characters.

It’s a puzzle box that may not have a solution. I’m not sure if it’s so complex that I haven’t figured it out yet, or if the answers I have now really are all there is to it. Despite the obvious, inescapable stand-ins for the main characters (to the point that Gyllenhaal plays both Susan’s husband and the novel’s protagonist), the specific metaphor is difficult to track. At a certain point, the novel simply becomes a disconnected thriller; its impact, or at least its intended impact, on Susan is unclear. There are a lot of scenes where Amy Adams is forced to emote into the void with nothing concrete to explain it (I mean, if you’re going to force any actress to try to invent the entire story on-screen, it might as well be Adams, but still). There are a lot of ways to interpret this movie, which is part of what makes it so enticing and equally part of what makes it so frustrating.

Of course, there are worse things than movies that collapse under the weight of their own ambition, and I’m still not sure whether that’s what Nocturnal Animals actually does. In the era of film competence, it’s always a thrill to see something new — and bear in mind that Nocturnal Animals is still, in any case, quite a lot better than competent. Its intent can be difficult to discern, but there’s so much of value merely in the attempt. It’s unwieldy, but fresh, exciting, and strangely entertaining in spite of everything. There won’t be anything like it in theaters anytime soon.

Deidra_&_Laney_Rob_a_TrainDeidra & Laney Rob a Train (2017)

Starring- Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, David Sullivan, Danielle Nicolet, Sasheer Zamata, Missi Pyle, Sharon Lawrence, Arturo Castro, Lance Gray

Director- Sydney Freeland

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi6wDhqg9_w

Teenage sisters Deidra (Ashleigh Murray) and Laney (Rachel Crow) are shocked when their hardworking mother suffers a public breakdown that lands her in jail. Deidra is a legal adult, but the bills pile up, and CPS soon starts threatening foster care for her younger siblings. So she and Laney hatch a plot to make money the only way they know how — robbing the train that passes by their backyard every day.

It means well, but sincerity only gets you so far before execution has to take over. Deidra & Laney Rob a Train is too innocent and warmhearted to hate — so innocent and warmhearted that I sometimes wondered if it was made by actual pre-teens — but too insubstantial to be particularly invested in.

On one hand, it’s nice to see Netflix trying to resurrect the teen movie — they were pervasive in the 80s and 90s, but you don’t see many major releases these days. On the other hand, it sometimes seems like they’re trying to supplant Disney Channel Originals rather than discover the next John Hughes. And I’m fresh enough off The Edge of Seventeen to be pretty spoiled when it comes to this sort of thing.

Deidra & Laney definitely feels like a made-for-TV movie; it has a low-budget, amateurish quality that prevents it from leaping off the screen the way it needs to. Its resources limit its imagination. It’s much like fellow Netflix original Coin Heist in that respect — a heist movie for teenagers, something novel and potentially very fun, but that never lives up to its promise because it can’t afford to make the heist itself all that interesting. Deidra and Laney jump onto train cars at night, use a pair of bolt cutters to get inside, and run off with some boxes. That’s it.

The plot mainly centers on what happens between the various train robberies, and it isn’t all that strong. It somehow manages not to have a message and scream it from the heavens at the same time. For a teen movie, it’s weirdly preoccupied with genetic determinism. It’s a coming-of-age story about breaking cycles, finding yourself, and understanding your parents as complex figures, and I’m not sure what it means to say about any of this. It’s a 90-minute sermon that never has a point.

It feels like it wants to be an anarchic good time, but it never finds the right tone. It’s a little too silly and broad to work in its most emotional scenes, and a little too grounded for it to pick up the freewheeling energy it needs. Most of the actors struggle to hit the right note in light of that conflicted tone — they can’t lean too hard into the comedy because of the emotional weight they’re supposed to carry, so most of the jokes land awkwardly, like the actors are embarrassed. The biggest stars the movie could afford don’t offer much assistance in this regard. Missi Pyle’s part is pretty small and is exactly the same role she plays in every movie she’s in; and Tim Blake Nelson is woefully miscast as the over-the-top, mustache-twirling, 90s kids movie villain, an authoritarian, loose cannon detective. Nelson has built a stellar career playing lovable losers and slimy losers, and while it’s always nice to see an actor go against the grain a little bit, it’s really hard to sell him as any sort of physical threat. I — and the movie itself, for that matter — was never sure how seriously to take him as an antagonist.

Exception: The leads, who are fun and charming and take the movie a long way. Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow both seem like they might be good finds — particular emphasis on the latter, who shows a gift for subtlety in a few scenes.

Other than that, the movie’s just a little too basic to recommend, which seems to be true of the lion’s share of Netflix originals at this point. I think its target audience might find it basically enjoyable, assuming they ever find out that it exists. It isn’t bad; it just isn’t very good either.

Elle_posterElle (2016)

Starring- Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte de la Comedie Francaise, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphael Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Lucas Prisor

Director- Paul Verhoeven

R- violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-iBBgcp7PY

Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), the CEO of a video game company who is navigating a fractured family and a deeply troubled past, tries to put her life back together after a masked assailant rapes her in her home.

All I can really say is that Paul Verhoeven is back, and he’s made the Paul Verhoevenest movie of all time — half B-movie, half high art, all moral and emotional discomfort; you watch it rooted to the spot and with a vague discomfort in the pit of your stomach. You feel like enjoying it makes you a bad person but that disliking it would make you an even worse one. And when you try to justify your reaction to anyone else afterward, your foremost instinct is to shut up and disappear.

Has anyone filmmaker ever cashed in on as much critical and cultural benefit of the doubt as Paul Verhoeven? I don’t think anyone else could get away with the movies he does. I’ve always had a mixed relationship with his work, recognizing his talents and intelligence while squirming my way through most of what he makes. He’s built his career primarily on satires that are barely distinguishable from the genuine article, and usually only because of the mildest contextual clues, often the sort of thing you could convincingly argue was an accident.

I can’t even begin to guess how Elle managed to avoid stirring up any noteworthy controversy. It’s a movie directed by a man, written by a man, based on a novel by a man, about a woman who is raped, enjoys it a little, and engages in a twisted sexual game with her assailant. That…feels like something we should be talking about. But it’s Paul Verhoeven, whom we’ve decided is cool and thoroughly trust to have meant well.

Thing is, there’s no evidence he doesn’t. His movies exist in a complicated and non-judgmental space, and he lets viewers make their own decisions. He doesn’t spoon-feed you anything. So when you’re uncomfortable with something he’s made, it’s hard to say so, because what did you want anyway? For him to hold your hand through everything? He’s fearless, at any rate. Most filmmakers wouldn’t touch Elle with a ten-foot pole.

I’m sure you’re waiting for this to circle around to some kind of central thesis. I’m sorry to disappoint. I’m still picking pieces of myself off the floor. All I can do about this movie — maybe all I can ever do about it — is think out loud.

It is, as stated, textbook Verhoeven, and it says something about the prominence of a director’s style when that can be said about a filmography that ranges from Academy Award-nominated drama Elle to Starship Troopers. And much like Starship Troopers, which is fun, funny, and invites satirical and literal readings almost equally, Elle is twisted and gross but moving, possibly really sexist but also maybe empowering, uncomfortable but intelligent, making a well-observed study of its complex cast of characters while also putting them through the wringer. It’s halfway empathetic and halfway nasty. It is wholly fucked-up.

What is it even about? I can barely say. The plot appears to be immaculately structured, every element connected, every subplot mirroring the characters’ primary conflicts. The characters’ personalities and experiences parallel one another to further deepen the story — for example, Michele’s troubled past, which is gradually revealed to somehow be even more twisted and disturbing than her present and also to touch upon the same scattered themes of religion, sexism, cultural attitudes toward rape, the complications of human sexuality, fractured families, and plenty more. It all comes together in a way that feels like a cohesive statement, but damned if I know exactly what that statement is. The movie is somehow both random and tightly scripted, enlightened and vulgar; it’s a character study where all of the characters are mysteries. It twists the mind, churns the stomach, and squeezes the heart. It shoves you through two hours of human carnage, leaves you with a million things to think about, and tells you to sort it out yourself. I want to parse its themes, but I’m afraid to approach the difficult things it tackles even indirectly. Every time I think I get my head around the message and find myself ready to either praise or condemn it on the thematic level, something else comes to mind and I just cycle through it again. Part of me intends that statement as criticism. Part of me, weirdly, does not.

Is this a recommendation, a positive review? Yes, no, maybe, let me think about it. Elle is certainly something. It’s…worth engaging, I’ll settle for that. It’s a complicated film by a complicated artist, and there’s nothing else quite like it. If nothing else, it forces you to ask a lot of questions about yourself — what you value, what you want from a film, what the artistic process means to you in the first place, where you stand on the ability of the arts to engage subjects this difficult, where our various cultural lines are and where you think they ought to be. It’s challenging, at least partly in a way it intends to be — for all I know, perhaps entirely in the way it intends to be. All I can say is that no two people are going to have precisely the same reaction to Elle, and maybe that’s what makes it special in its own depraved, black-hearted way.

The_Edge_of_Seventeen_2016_film_posterThe Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Starring- Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick, Woody Harrelson, Hayden Szeto, Alexander Calvert, Eric Keenleyside

Director- Kelly Fremon Craig

R- sexual content, language and some drinking — all involving teens

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vswj96INhmo

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is really only surviving high school because of her best — and only friend — Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). When she catches Krista sleeping with her despised older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), her life devolves into a chaotic cycle of self-destruction.

I have written “This movie is not The Edge of Tomorrow” twenty-five times on a chalkboard, so I’m ready to go.

If I can say one hopeful thing about the future of cinema, it’s this: I feel as though I’ve used the words “strong directorial debut” quite a lot over the last several months. Add Kelly Fremon Craig to the list of talents to watch. The Edge of Seventeen is probably too indie to define its generation in the way the best-known high school comedies did, but it should. Of our recent spate of debuts, it’s one of the most fully-formed and exciting; far more seasoned filmmakers should be so lucky as to have it on their resumes.

It has a perspective and something to say — something new, presented differently, outside of the usual mold. First-time writer/directors usually do, but so few are able to execute it as gracefully. The high school comedy is a genre that gives easily into cliche, but The Edge of Seventeen almost defiantly resists predictability. There were a million scenes where I was convinced I knew what was about to happen, sitting there thinking: “Okay, so now they’re going to do this, because this is what they always do in this sort of thing.” I was never right. Of course the movie has the disaffected sense of humor, the socially awkward protagonist, all the petty teenage drama and hysterics a high school comedy needs, but it’s all in service of the story, which goes where it needs to and nowhere else. It also has the best kind of indie sensibility — the belief that its characters and your empathy for them will be enough to suit its needs and the subsequent refusal to manipulate or keeping piling on unnecessary stakes until nothing matters anymore. The average problems of average teenagers are sufficient — most of us, after all, have been teenagers.

It feels like there are two movies going on inside The Edge of Seventeen, one for adults and one for teenagers, and both of them strike exactly the right note. High school comedies mostly play the exaggerated emotions for laughs, and make no mistake — so does The Edge of Seventeen; I say there are two types of people in the world, people who know they were stupid as teenagers and people who are stupid now, and any good teen movie is going to keep that in mind. But The Edge of Seventeen also takes the drama seriously from the point of view of its characters — serious problems inform the petty ones, which are ultimately the result of young people acting out in ways they don’t fully understand as they try to get life figured out. It locks itself into Nadine’s perspective to the point that you view the story and the supporting characters through much the same clouded lens that she does; even if you don’t come to share her opinions about her situation, you understand them and feel for her. The Edge of Seventeen is ultimately as much about a family grieving the loss of a key member as it is a coming-of-age story, examining the way that pain filters into Nadine’s more mundane interactions. It’s hard for an adult viewer to get as het up about boys and the teenage social order as the movie’s characters, but we can understand where it’s coming from and remember what it was like when we were that age. That’s what The Edge of Seventeen does well for adult viewers— it keeps the daily life of teenagers in perspective but still takes their emotions, and their biggest problems, seriously. There isn’t a note of condescension in it.

In fact, its appeal to its younger audience may be what I love most about it. The Edge of Seventeen is funny, it’s entertaining, it’s energetic, and it’s also incredibly honest about this part of life — but gracefully so. It takes the angle of a family mourning a loved one, but if anything, that specificity makes the broader coming-of-age story within more identifiable — it isn’t happening in a vacuum but rather within the context of a situation we can relate to. Nadine’s relationship with the tragedy in her past is the movie’s way of depicting the moment when the adolescent starts to go away and the adult moves in — when one’s self-centered worldview expands, when one begins to better understand the differences in others’ perspectives and experiences, when one realizes they are not the first to ever feel this way, when one accepts that things will change and we can’t all fill the same roles for the same people for the rest of our lives. Friendships change; your parents, either perfect or the worst, depending on the teenager, are more complicated than you thought; there’s more going on in other people’s heads than you realize; everything you ever believed about the world may be nonsense. It’s never easy, but it’s okay — it’s normal, and you’re better for having endured it. In that way, The Edge of Seventeen manages to be fundamentally optimistic and warm despite holding no punches. It’s an honest reckoning with the difficult things everybody has to go through.

And despite all that heavy, real-world stuff, it’s also very funny and entertaining. The writing is whip-smart, but the performances deserve at least as much credit. Hailee Steinfeld kills it. We had to wait a while, but we can definitively say True Grit was not a fluke — she shows surprising comic chops here, nailing the substantial majority of the movie’s funniest lines while keeping it grounded in enough character that Nadine never feels like a construct, just a sharp-witted teen who communicates entirely in snark; and when things heat up to the point that Nadine drops her guard and lets others see what’s actually happening inside her, Steinfeld just guts you. I have no idea why there was so little Oscar buzz surrounding this performance.

Really, it says a lot about your movie when Woody Harrelson is the worst thing about it — relax, it isn’t Harrelson’s fault. The character he’s given, Nadine’s equally sarcastic and jaded teacher, always felt like a comedic idea more than a person; I never understood how he thinks. Does he actually care about his job or his students? Is his surliness an act he puts on because he knows it connects with students like Nadine (which is, in itself, the kind of trait that only exists in movies)? He gets plenty of laughs, but he doesn’t command the emotional weight he feels as though he should, given that he’s the only adult with whom Nadine has any kind of connection.

But everything else is so good that maybe that segment of the script only suffers by comparison. The Edge of Seventeen absolutely belongs in the annals of teen movie history, right next to The Breakfast Club and Dazed and Confused. It’s smart and funny and surprisingly moving when it wants to be. Parents and teens with a shared interest in movies: The Edge of Seventeen is what you ought to be doing this weekend.

Kong_Skull_Island_posterKong: Skull Island (2017)

Starring- Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson

Director- Jordan Vogt-Roberts

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44LdLqgOpjo

A team of scientists and explorers, escorted by U.S. soldiers on the way back from Vietnam, journey to an undiscovered island with a mysterious history and get more than they bargained for when an ape the size of a building throws out the proverbial welcome mat.

Kong: Skull Island is a lot of fun. I was skeptical of it going in, but it pleasantly surprised me. It isn’t great, and I suspect it’s the type of movie that won’t survive a certain number of repeat viewings. But if we must have empty escapism, this is the type of empty escapism I want — a fantastic ride for a single big-screen viewing that has just enough originality to feel more substantial than it is.

I wouldn’t say Kong is a radical departure from the overall make of the modern blockbuster, being a massive CGI-fest with multiple credited writers, one of whom obviously functioned as the script savior. But it doesn’t feel quite like anything else that’s out these days, and that’s a breath of fresh air the movies need right now.

It’s what would happen if you applied modern technology to the 1908s creature feature. More than any other King Kong movie, Kong: Skull Island fully embraces its B-movie roots — it lacks the poetry of the original and the epic bombast of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake (I’ve never seen the 70s version). It has no pretensions about what it is — a movie about vague archetypes battling a series of grotesque monsters — which gives it the freedom to cut loose and have fun with things. It really is a creature feature in the classical sense. Most King Kong movies are fairly straightforward with their monsters — dinosaurs and giant versions of animals that already exist. Skull Island doesn’t bind itself to anything resembling reality — there are giant, algae-encrusted cow things; two-legged lizards with prehensile tongues; the weirdest giant spider you’ve ever seen on the big screen; and plenty more. And of course, they’re all slobbery and slimy and explode in multi-colored goo when killed, and the movie plants itself firmly on the line between PG-13 and R while coming up with ways to thin the cast a little. It’s all the bizarre, disgusting nonsense you expect from a dumb, energetic B-movie.

The movie’s never shy about its chosen tone. It doesn’t feel as though it’s hedging its bets. You don’t see the telltale signs of nervous studio execs telling the filmmakers to dial it back a little. It theoretically exists in the same universe as 2014’s Godzilla but has none of the solemnity of that film. That’s not to say that it’s jokey or obviously stupid; the humor in the trailers, which tried to sell the movie as something akin to King Kong by way of Marvel Studios, represents very nearly all of the humor in the movie itself. Modern B-movie homages tend to go big with the self-referential humor, missing the point that the movies they’re trying to recreate were never obviously intended as jokes; Kong: Skull Island comes much closer to being the genuine article — it never winks at you (well, mostly, Samuel L. Jackson does manage to sneak in a “hold on to your butts” at one point), instead maintaining an internal seriousness that just happens to leave room for scenes where King Kong punches a giant lizard with a boat motor. It draws you into its childish world and doesn’t try to force you out of it.

The Vietnam War aesthetic adds another layer of uniqueness to the proceedings. Apocalypse Now, of all things, was an obvious influence on Kong’s visual style and elements of its tone; in interviews, the filmmakers have repeatedly made clear that this isn’t an accident and that they wanted Kong to reflect the story of Apocalypse Now, about men traveling into untamed territory to fight an enemy they believe to be evil but turns out to be more complicated than that.

The movie is also clumsily political in the way B-movies tended to be; I never thought I’d see an anti-war King Kong movie, but here we are. It draws deliberate parallels between the plot and the Vietnam War itself and is surprisingly coherent, if extremely obvious, on the simplistic points it’s making (basically, characters trying to escape the island peacefully = good; characters trying to beat the island into submission = bad). But even on that point, it adds a touch of much-appreciated complexity. Everyone knows what to expect from the human villains in a movie like this, particularly when their roles can be summarized as “a general on the warpath” and “the shady government suit.” Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman satisfy the basic function of those roles but aren’t defined by them. None of the characters in Skull Island are outright evil. Goodman’s character comes closest, but the movie maintains enough plausible deniability about his most egregious wrongdoing to leave you wondering whether he actually meant any harm. And he isn’t even the primary antagonist. Jackson ultimately assumes that role, but his motives are, on the surface, noble — he’s portrayed as a father to his men who genuinely and deeply cares about them and is consumed with vengeance when Kong kills most of them in their initial encounter. Usually, you spend the movie eagerly awaiting the inevitably cruel and unusual deaths of characters like this, but Kong never pushes them completely beyond the point of some level of sympathy. It’s another interesting twist on the worn premise.

Mostly, the movie does what it needs to — it gives you characters you like enough to hope they don’t die and then makes them fight monsters. In fairness, it suffers from the usual problem of having little time to get to know its characters (especially since there are so many of them) but not wanting to make its protagonists too quirky or weird, which tends to result in a fun and lively supporting cast and a male and female lead selected solely because they are the most conventionally attractive white people in the movie. Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston, ostensibly the main characters, disappear into the background of this movie. Larson registers a little because her character is a pacifist war photographer, which gives her an interesting relationship with the rest of the cast; Hiddleston, however, is saddled with a complete nothing of a character who does little other than lead the action sequences and occasionally explain what the group of survivors ought to do next. I think they could have just cut him from the movie midway through without explanation and I wouldn’t even notice.

The visuals are a mixed bag. The effects are slightly better in the finished product than they were in the trailers, but the movie’s still very CGI-heavy and looks it. Yes, Jackson’s remake was similarly effects-driven, but it tried to use the CGI in a way that enhanced the character of the film — Andy Serkis’s motion-capture performance as Kong was vital to bringing him to life on the screen, and there was a lot of emotion in the way he moved and expressed himself. This Kong is just an effect with no life in it, as are most of the other creatures. They’re just threats the characters have to fight. Still, Jordan Vogt-Roberts does a lot of interesting things with the movie visually, not the least of which is the Apocalypse Now influence, and he injects some personality of his own into it as well. Kong offers plenty of the memorable images you want from a giant monster movie.

Kong: Skull Island is what it is. You don’t see it for the complex plotting or the moving character arcs. You see it to watch fun characters fighting and occasionally being eaten by weird, terrifying monsters. The needs of the B-movie are simple, and Kong: Skull Island meets them with aplomb. It won’t be remembered as one of the great films of 2017, but it’s fresh and fun, an absolute blast to see in theaters. That you only ride the roller coaster once or twice doesn’t diminish the experience in the moment.