hacksaw_ridge_posterHacksaw Ridge (2016)

Starring- Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Corr, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh, Luke Pegler, Richard Pyros, Ben Mingay, Firass Dirani, Damien Thomlinson, Matt Nable, Robert Morgan, Nathaniel Buzolic

Director- Mel Gibson

R- intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BqgHYLvHIE

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) voluntarily joins the U.S. Army during World War II — despite being a pacifist — and is deployed in Okinawa as an unarmed combat medic universally hated by his brothers-in-arms.

Hacksaw Ridge is, on occasion, absolutely gripping, and also deeply flawed, and this is my best attempt at accounting for it: Desmond Doss’s story is extraordinarily powerful, and Mel Gibson is the wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong person to tell it. And we probably should have seen that coming.

It makes sense of you think of Hacksaw Ridge as a war movie — Gibson has plentiful experience in that genre, is one of the prototypical masculine directors (and has an old-school sensibility that harkens back to the stoic Americanism of the Golden Age, married to modern directorial stylings), and has proven more than capable of staging thoroughly impressive battle scenes. And for what it’s worth, Gibson is at least a competent storyteller — not a great one, and his approach is a little simplistic, but he can get the job done. So if you need a big war movie, you could do a whole lot worse.

But a war movie is not just a war movie, not if it’s any good, anyway, and Hacksaw Ridge, at its core, is really a drama wrestling with the complexities of pacifism in wartime. Framed that way, it’s easy to see how Gibson’s sensibility might be, uh…imperfect.

I’ve said in the past — recently, in fact — that I’m not fond of attempts to psychologize someone on the basis of their artwork; at the end of the day, it’s just too complicated. You have to parse the accidental messaging and the intentional messaging and then filter it through the myriad difficulties of telling a good story; and that’s before you account for the fact that movies are made by a whole lot of people, all of whom are coming at it from different angles. However, with Gibson, we have an extensive body of work with pretty consistent themes, as well as some real-world context that sheds further light, and while I’m not going to attempt to probe the depths of his worldview based on that, can we all at least agree that he’s probably not a pacifist? Which doesn’t disqualify him from making this movie, for the record. For starters, how many directors — how many people — are true pacifists to begin with? I’m guessing not many. And moreover, plenty of great art has been made by people trying to understand something that’s foreign to them. However, it’s also fair to say that most people at least have questions about violence in wartime — the real world doesn’t make it easy to separate sides into good guys and bad guys, and even in the rare instances when it does (and it’s not far-fetched at all to argue that World War II was one of those times), some of the good guys will do bad things, and everyone is going to disagree about where to draw the line that you can’t cross. There’s a reason for the old warning about fighting monsters, after all. In short, most people aren’t committed pacifists by Desmond Doss, but most of them can at least be said to have a stance on violence that’s complicated and frequently prickles the conscience.

Maybe the same is true of Gibson, maybe it isn’t. I’m not here to talk about him. His movies, on the other hand, have tended not to view the subject with a lot of nuance. I mean, have you seen Braveheart? That movie is first on the list of acclaimed classics I despise, and that’s primarily because of its insistence that violence is the most awesome thing ever, except when it happens to you. That movie is a combination of revenge and torture porn that disguised itself as a historical epic and somehow rode that wave to awards success. If you remade it as science fiction, we’d call it a B-movie. It combines an inspiring, uplifting, heroes vs. villains tone with incredibly brutal, realistic, and relentless violence, and there’s never a sense that the disconnect is intentional — except for when the heroes are dying, you don’t get the sense that this disturbing violence is actually supposed to be disturbing.

Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s sober about the realities of war and usually doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a good time. Its inspiring moments are, for the most part, rooted in its protagonist saving lives rather than taking them. However, it’s — somewhat unsurprisingly — ill-equipped to actually address its central themes. And that results in a movie that’s much, much less interesting than it could have been. Like I said — most of us have a troubled relationship with the ethics of war; I certainly do. It is, to an extent, an unanswerable question, and therefore one with which a movie can do a lot, regardless of its angle of approach.

But Hacksaw Ridge seems as though it doesn’t quite understand the moral underpinnings of pacifism. It struggles to root Doss’s conscientious objection in actual conscience — it doesn’t stand on moral principle, his appreciation for the value of human life, or other philosophical notions. Its foundation, instead, is exclusively religious — Doss does not commit violence because God told him not to. The movie seems unable to articulate any other reason why someone might choose the path of the pacifist. Doss, as portrayed here, seems like someone who wouldn’t think twice about joining the war effort as a soldier if he was exactly the same person but non-religious. It’s just God’s rules. And like any rules people follow exclusively because of a belief that God said so, they turn out to have a lot of loopholes. Desmond Doss cannot kill people, but he can shove someone into another soldier’s line of fire. Desmond Doss cannot kill people, but he can act as a distraction so others can pinpoint and shoot a sniper. He practices a very technical form of pacifism — a form that’s actually kind of irritating, because it comes across as a person who’s okay with profiting from others’ violence and just doesn’t want it to hang over his own conscience. (Again, talking about the character here, not the real Desmond Doss.)

This sounds like philosophical criticism, but I’m actually speaking almost entirely from a narrative perspective. The decision to root Doss’s objection in religious convictions and little else means that the character fundamentally isn’t wrestling with anything interesting — his worldview isn’t challenged because it isn’t really a worldview, or at the very least, it’s a worldview that he’s simply borrowed from other sources. He and the other characters can’t debate the morality of what he’s doing; they question him, and he just says, “Eh, God said so, whatcha gonna do?” (In fairness, there are scenes toward the end of the movie that suggest a moral passion for the lives of others, but it’s much too late to have any substantive impact on the film as a whole.) And the movie also takes his faith as a given and so doesn’t dive into potentially interesting religious questions either.

Instead, the movie centers its arc externally — Doss doesn’t change; his comrades do, coming to see that his pacifism (however technical it may be) is not cowardice but the polar opposite. And dramatically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that decision. It works. Seeing Doss save his fellow soldiers at great personal risk, seeing them go from despising him to viewing him as a hero and good luck charm of sorts, is uplifting and makes for some quality cinema. But it’s an arc that completes itself after the characters’ first combat engagement, when they finally see how far he’ll go to save any one of them, and there’s still an hour of movie left after that. It’s worth mentioning that the battle of Hacksaw Ridge comprises most of this movie, and once the soldiers come around to Doss’s heroism, there is very little to sustain that. Past a certain point, it all turns into noise. So my problem with the film’s inability to grapple with pacifism and violence and the ethics of both is, ultimately, only partially philosophical; it’s mainly because strength on that point would make the movie much more interesting and memorable. It would give Doss something to wrestle with; it would increase the stakes in his ongoing debate with the other soldiers; it would make every decision a challenge, every lost life a reason to reflect upon his moral code. The movie seems like it’s at war with itself — its ending has two triumphant moments, the first derived from Doss saving his comrades’ life and the second sweeping spectacle celebrating the violent overthrow of the Japanese on the ridge — and expanding upon those themes might make that effect seem intentional, a deliberate effort to pull viewers apart over what they’re seeing, to force them to think about the complicated questions it’s asking. Instead, it navigates around the difficult stuff in favor of something that’s mostly effective but simple, and a far cry from what it could be.

It has other problems that mostly aren’t worth elaboration — the usual war movie problem where a dozen soldiers are introduced to us at once and then lost in the fog of war to the point that no one other than Doss (and, depending on the extent of the chaos, sometimes not even him) is even capable of mattering; the way it keeps leaving its perspective character for minutes at a time because it’s more interested in the larger spectacle of the battle; the way it sets up this complicated (and actually interesting) family drama and then abandons it. It has strengths, too — Gibson’s direction remains strong, Andrew Garfield is pretty good (not good enough that he’d make my Oscar shortlist, but good enough that I can’t complain — although being nominated for this and not The Social Network is one of those things I suspect history will look back on with some small amount of confusion), its most basic storytelling interests are solid enough even if they don’t quite make it the extra mile.

Hacksaw Ridge gets far enough that I can confidently call it good. Modern war movies tend to be arty or bad, with not a lot in the middle, so I can see why audiences are so enamored with Hacksaw Ridge — it’s solid and essentially popular in its style. I just don’t think it’s great, and it’s close enough to the line to become a bit frustrating — you can see a much better movie trying to escape from its confines. But it’s an impressive calling card as comeback projects go. Maybe you think he deserves it, maybe you don’t; either way, Mel Gibson is definitely back.

manchester_by_the_seaManchester by the Sea (2016)

Starring- Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, CJ Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Eric McDermott, Matthew Broderick, Oscar Wahlberg, Stephen Henderson

Director- Kenneth Lonergan

R- language throughout and some sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn–zOO8LN8

When his brother dies of a heart condition, a Boston handyman (Casey Affleck) unexpectedly finds himself the legal guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges).

If you need your daily dose of emotional devastation, here you go. Manchester by the Sea is absolutely brilliant, one of the year’s finest, but it’s very much a once-in-a-while sort of movie. We use the arts to express and explore our questions and problems and hopefully arrive at a solution, the light at the end of the tunnel; but sometimes, we need to grapple with the possibility we fear most — maybe there isn’t one. Life is messy and complicated, people even more so, and maybe there are some wounds that will never heal. Maybe things will get bad and they’ll stay that way. Maybe there’s nothing you can do about it other than figure out how to live with it.

Manchester by the Sea is out for empathy and understanding, but not so much reassurance. It knows existence is usually too complex for happy endings, or even meaningful endings; it’s often a long stream of incidents that don’t culminate in anything, that often aren’t teachable moments. It just goes on. Normally, I’d be tempted to criticize something like Manchester by the Sea for the fact that it’s essentially formless and doesn’t satisfy many of the fundamentals of drama, but make no mistake, it knows what it’s doing here. It isn’t a story, because stories resolve; life, for better or worse, doesn’t — there’s always something after the credits. Instead, it circles around its characters like a vulture. It lives in and attempts to understand their suffering and maybe to help others understand that suffering as well.

So, yeah, it isn’t the feel-good movie of the year. It isn’t the feel-bad movie of the year either. It goes up and down the spectrum as needed. There’s never a sense that it’s aiming for happy ending or a memorably tragic one, because it isn’t. It’s just living in this situation, alongside these characters, until it feels as though it’s said all it needs to say. Like I said — life doesn’t resolve and neither, particularly, does this movie. It never comes across as though it’s trying to make you feel a certain way (though, as with any other film, it is); it simply establishes its characters and trusts that your empathy will do the rest of the work. And its character work is detailed enough — and its performances strong enough — that it’s absolutely right to do so.

Kenneth Lonergan, both the director and the sole writer, trusted quite a lot of this movie to his cast. The script is strong on its own, but it could never be sufficient for the complexity of the emotions the movie is capturing; you need actors who can convincingly externalize their characters’ inner lives. And absolutely every single one of them delivers.

The burden falls mostly upon the shoulders of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges; plenty of other characters wander in and out of the story, but only theirs (Lee and Patrick Chandler, respectively) carry through from scene to scene (even Michelle Williams, in her Oscar-nominated role, only has two or three scenes of any significance). They play off one another brilliantly, and the movie never has to say out loud what makes this relationship tick. Both characters are struggling with grief, and because of that, they willingly become one another’s punching bags. Both of them are stubborn and sarcastic (and the movie, despite its dour tone, manages to find a lot of dry humor in those interactions), both of them believe they have a good reason to be standoffish and temperamental, and each of them is aware that the other believes that. As such, they grin and bear one another’s unpleasantness, knowing that the tables will be turned sooner rather than later. Patrick just lost his father, and his alcoholic mother abandoned him years ago; it’s only natural that he’ll lash out. And Lee never recovered from a personal tragedy years ago — it’s another respect in which the movie manages to get away with breaking the rules; it buries the nature of that tragedy for at least half an hour, but it paints such a vivid portrait of the character’s life that the eventual reveal plays as an inevitability rather than a surprise. The characters need each other because they understand each other. Whatever their flaws, each is a judgment-free zone where the other can act out his pain however he needs to. They’re frequently horrible to one another, but the next time we see them, the relationship has reverted to normal — they forgive and forget the unkind things they’ve said and done because they know where it’s coming from and that neither actually means it. The relationship is incredibly dysfunctional, but it’s strangely good for them — they need it, in a way. Patrick needs someone who understands what he’s going through and won’t insult him with the usual empty platitudes people revert to when interacting with someone who’s grieving. He needs someone who gets that it sucks and won’t try to convince him otherwise. And Lee needs someone who won’t judge his constant self-flagellation — the fact that he can’t overcome his grief because a part of him doesn’t want to; he feels guilty about his past and thinks that to heal and move on would be to deny justice to the dead. He was never punished for his mistakes and so has decided to do it himself.

The movie never tries to solve their problems, whether for better or worse. It offers no hopeful reassurance that these two eventually will recover and find some measure of peace in their lives. It also offers no condemnation, no warning that they’re bound to repeat this cycle forever. All it says is that this is complicated. Maybe they’ll heal, and maybe they won’t; most likely, they’ll end up somewhere in the middle, the same place most of us end up. No one lives without pain. No one ever becomes happy that their loved ones are gone. They just deal with it in their own ways.

Manchester by the Sea is about little more than the way its characters are doing exactly that. Some of it’s natural, some of it’s healthy, some of it may lead to healing, some of it may ultimately destroy them. The movie isn’t here to judge the way its characters grieve. Sometimes, we need films that resolve, that try to tell us something, that look for the choices and practices that might lead us out of our problems. Other times, we just need to know that someone understands — or, if the situation is not our own, to look through a window that might allow us to become the person who understands. Manchester by the Sea isn’t easy, but few of 2016’s films have been as boldly empathetic. It’s the reminder of our shared humanity that we all need right now.

moonlight_2016_filmMoonlight (2016)

Starring- Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Patrick Decile

Director- Barry Jenkins

R- some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NJj12tJzqc

A coming-of-age story that follows its protagonist, Chiron, from childhood (Alex Hibbert) through high school (Ashton Sanders) and then to adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) and details the relationships that shape him, from his addict mother (Naomie Harris) to the compassionate drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who takes an interest in him.

Is it weird to be disappointed that I merely loved Moonlight rather than left it staggering in mind-boggled astonishment? I am a victim of the hype machine. This morning, I sat down convinced by the reviews I’d read that I was queuing up my favorite film of 2016. Instead, I queued up a Top 5, and for some reason, that’s bumming me out right now. I think I’m still trying to persuade myself that I loved Moonlight more than I did. Which was a lot, for the record. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was hoping this movie would do to me. I just wanted it to be the cinematic equivalent of finding Jesus; is that so wrong?

At the very least, I wanted to love it enough to preserve my film snob reputation by declaring it far superior to La La Land — one most always root for the scrappy indie over the crowd-pleasing musical about Hollywood, after all — but actually… Hoo, it’s close. I think Moonlight may be the better film overall, in the sense that its weaknesses aren’t as pronounced, but I also think La La Land’s highs are almost untouchable. The key may be that the movies have opposite trajectories — Moonlight starts very strong and doesn’t lose its mojo until the end, while La La Land starts weak but gets better and better, culminating in one of the year’s best third acts. So Moonlight is more consistent (and its weak portion is never quite as weak as La La Land’s), but La La Land leaves you walking on air while Moonlight sort of stumbles across the finish line. These two movies are going to cause me a great deal of consternation when it comes time for my 2016 Top 20 list.

Moonlight is very clearly subdivided into three acts, marked not only by the sudden passage of time but in chapter headings that appear on-screen — childhood (“Little”), high school (“Chiron”), and adulthood (“Black”). Even then, it isn’t all that narrative — the segments are only connected in the sense of (often loose) character development, with few central conflicts or concerns that carry through from one to another. It’s been described as a black Boyhood that wasn’t in production for twelve years, and that’s pretty apt. It just follows its protagonist through the various stages of his life and examines the way his circumstances and relationships affect him over the years. There’s no villain to fight and no obvious moral, philosophical, or existential revelation to reach. It’s just everyday, average life.

The first two segments are fantastic. I spent the majority of Moonlight’s run-time convinced I was watching the movie I expected — the masterpiece I would fall instantly in love with and declare one of the best films of the decade to date. That’s partly because of the way the movie handles Chiron as a character — which is also, ironically, what I think goes wrong toward the end. Among the film’s few detractors, I’ve seen a common criticism that Chiron just isn’t a very interesting character — he’s a bit of a blank slate who doesn’t appear to have much going on in his life other than what we’re seeing right now. They aren’t wrong, but I think it works to the movie’s benefit at the start.

For starters, that’s because he’s a child for the majority of the film — a blank slate somewhat by nature, absorbing what he sees and hears and experiences, reshaping himself in accordance with the expectations, both real and perceived, of those around him, learning how to socialize and interact with others, finding his place in the world. He begins as something of an empty vessel but develops characteristics organically based on what happens to him, how he’s treated, and what he learns about the world — particularly the defense mechanisms he finds best protect the more complicated parts of his life, chiefly the fact that he’s gay and starting to realize what that means. That input shapes and reshapes him, and it’s a process we see almost in real time. He begins as a child who simply absorbs everything and gradually becomes a recognizable person.

The movie still takes a fairly limited approach — the three segments are years apart, but each one takes place over the course of a few days at most, so you don’t actually see a whole lot of Chiron’s life, just a handful of key moments. And as a result, his character remains defined by the scope of the plot. But it works as long as the main conflict is external — we understand him well enough to empathize with the decisions he makes to resolve those problems, because most of what we know about him has been defined in direct relationship to them. The “Chiron” segment follows him in high school, when he’s a more complete person with a clearer personality who can’t just be a sponge anymore, but because it fits perfectly with the conflict in that part of the story, the resulting character development is compelling and true. And I love that it isn’t rooted in overly complex — or overly simple — messages and isn’t really moralizing at anyone. What can I say? The awards circuit has trained us to expect something specific from the movie about the gay, black man. But Moonlight isn’t trying to make an argument for Chiron’s humanity; rather, it expects, as it should, its audience to have already arrived there. And it doesn’t hone in on Chiron’s minority status to the extent that it feels like the point of the whole affair — Chiron is the movie’s point, not any one thing about him. Chiron is not a tool the movie is using to send a message about one part of who he is; rather, the parts of who he is are the tools the movie uses to paint a full picture of Chiron.

Call it storytelling via Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The first two segments are effective because they’re rooted in simpler things that don’t need to be defined as thoroughly. There isn’t a lot of nuance in the basic physiological and safety needs; it isn’t hard to empathize with being hungry and needing to eat. The next steps — love and belonging, and esteem — are also fairly universal, but those concepts mean different things to different people, and in order to empathize properly, we need to know something about what it looks like in this specific context. And Chiron is well-defined enough that as the movie proceeds through these steps, it’s clear what he needs, what threatens that, and how he’s responding to that threat. The movie is a moving portrait of the already-confusing years of childhood and adolescence made more complicated in the case of a person society doesn’t completely accept and often fails to understand.

But the movie largely spends its time detailing Chiron almost exclusively in those terms. And that becomes a problem when, in its last half hour, it enters what we might call the self-actualization part of the story — the part when the conflict is internal, Chiron at war with himself as he decides what he wants out of life. It occurred to me as the movie entered that phase that I knew almost nothing about this character other than how he deals with struggle — which was sufficient when the movie was about struggle but isn’t when its focus becomes more intimate. I realized that I didn’t know what Chiron wanted, in just about any respect — what does he want to do with his life, is he lonely, does he want to fall in love, have a family, what does he do for fun, what is he good at, when is he at his happiest, when is he at his most miserable? And for me, the absence of any answers to those questions meant that the last third of this movie followed an indistinct character with vague needs and motivations to which he responds in somewhat noncommittal ways. I didn’t know Chiron well enough to be able to get inside his head — even after the plot starts taking place almost entirely there.

It doesn’t help that, in my opinion, the third act also removes the interesting surroundings that buoyed the other segments. This movie has an excellent supporting cast, most of which isn’t a meaningful factor as it enters its last leg. On paper, its characters all adhere to types — the crack addict mom, the drug dealer who tempts our innocent protagonist toward his dangerous livelihood — but the movie never allows them to play out as Hollywood stereotypes. Naomie Harris is fantastic as Chiron’s mother, a bundle of contradictory traits that become more or less exaggerated depending on how far under the influence she is in any given scene. She’s desperate, clingy, and verbally abusive when she’s in withdrawal and scraping for a fix; she’s flighty and absent when she’s under; and she spends her sober hours trying to work and build a life for her family, and trying to steer Chiron away from becoming anything like her, encouraging him to read in his spare time and do well in school. No matter what her mental state, her love for her child is always trying to fight its way to the surface. Sometimes, it succeeds; sometimes, it doesn’t. And I cannot say enough about Mahershala Ali. There’s a reason he’s a frontrunner for that Best Supporting Actor trophy despite his screen-time in this movie amounting to maybe fifteen minutes. Despite the brevity of his part, he’s almost the star, and there’s definitely an excellent movie to be made about the drug dealer with a moral compass that he both finds and sort of loses after he’s moved on the behalf of a little kid whose mother ignores him and whose peers beat him up for being a bit effeminate. His character, Juan, is wise and caring despite his profession. He runs his home like a traditional family man and keeps his work as separate as possible; he’s a different person in each environment. At home, he’s an ordinary man; on the streets, he’s dangerous, someone you don’t mess with if you know what’s good for you. And he becomes increasingly conflicted as the story plays itself out, seeing everything that unfairly weighs down on Chiron and threatens to break him, and realizing that the drugs he sells enable much of it. But it’s also the only life he knows.

Neither character factors significantly into the movie’s final third (and when they do, not in particularly memorable ways), which leaves Chiron largely bereft of anyone interesting to interact with. Most of it centers on him and a former childhood friend, neither of whom are all that well-defined or easy to empathize with in anything more than the most basic sense. You just don’t know them well enough. And it leaves that last half hour feeling dry and distant where the rest of the movie is powerful and immediate.

So much of Moonlight is brilliant, enough that I can say, without qualification, that it’s one of the year’s best. But it makes the final stretch that much more disappointing — it’s so, so, so close to being the next Her, that movie I immediately appoint to my personal all-time list and declare a future classic. Maybe it is, and maybe I’ll change my mind about it in the future — believe me, no one wants that more than I do. I’m desperate to love this whole movie as much as I love most of it. At its best, it’s one of 2016’s most beautiful offerings, visually and otherwise (tangent — La La Land is going to get all the attention because it’s so much showier, but Moonlight is a gorgeous film with visuals perfectly calibrated to its narrative needs; it’s at least La La Land’s equal, and in a number of respects, I’d argue it’s better). At its worst — aw, screw it, it’s still pretty good. It’s always good. It’s usually great. How significant, really, are the moments where it’s the former rather than the latter?

girlfriends_day_posterGirlfriend’s Day (2017)

Starring- Bob Odenkirk, Amber Tamblyn, Stacy Keach, Alex Karpovsky, Kevin O’Grady, Larry Fessenden, Rich Sommer, Natasha Lyonne, Andy Richter, June Diane Raphael, Stephanie Courtney, Echo Kellum, Nate Mooney, Radek Lord

Director- Michael Stephenson

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2L0100_Yp4

A once-great greeting card writer, struggling to recapture his glory days, enters a contest to create the official greeting card of a new holiday, Girlfriend’s Day, only to find himself caught in a web of murder and deceit.

“Oh, so Netflix is releasing a movie called Girlfriend’s Day. Well, that’s going to be a thoroughly generic romantic comedy.”

It was not.

This is probably going to be a really short review. I’m pretty much just going to tell you to watch Girlfriend’s Day. That’s all I’m going to tell you because that’s pretty much all I can tell you. There’s no way to properly prepare you for what Girlfriend’s Day is, other than to say “the exact opposite of literally everything you think it’s going to be.” It’s only 65 minutes long without the credits. At a run-time like that, I spent the duration just getting adjusted to its madness.

I’m halfway serious here. I’m not sure if Girlfriend’s Day is a good movie. I don’t think it’s a bad movie. It’s too insane to be bad. Anything this weird has to secretly be genius. If people don’t like it, it’s only because we don’t get it yet. This would never get released in theaters — a barely hourlong movie that seems uniquely designed to weird out every subset of human culture. In that sense, it’s a reminder of what Netflix is good for — rescuing these glorious little oddities from the scrap heap. I’ve frequently accused movies of having no audience because they can’t figure out what they want to be. Girlfriend’s Day has no audience because it has decided it doesn’t want one. It is one giant, weirdly entertaining middle finger extended directly from your television for just over an hour.

It’s a Coen Brothers movie. That’s the closet comparison I can make, but even that doesn’t capture the full extent of it. The Coen Brothers specialize in dry absurdity, but I don’t think even they have ever been this dry or this absurd, much less at the same time.

I’m just going to spell it out. I’m not sure whether professional greeting card writers exist to begin with; even so, in the world of Girlfriend’s Day, they’re outright celebrities, serious artists renowned for their mastery of words and their ability to touch the human soul. They suffer from writers block and have existential crises over it. And the movie is specifically about a greeting card conspiracy — the main character finds himself navigating a criminal web of murder involving numerous competing parties with shadowy motives and monied interests backing them. Thugs pursue and beat him down for what’s in his brain. People are following and watching him. There are bloody on-screen deaths. People are tortured. Because of greeting cards. That is what the movie called Girlfriend’s Dayis about. Not some pretty early-30s suburbanite who’s given up on love having a series of comical meet-cutes with the man of her dreams. Murder and kidnapping because of greeting cards. That’s what it is about.

The movie is serious about all of this. It pretends to be, anyway. And not just serious in the sense that comedies force you to accept their characters’ worldview on some level. It’s deadly serious. Only the absurdity distinguishes this movie from Goodfellas. It very, very rarely lets you know it’s in on the joke (and even then, the characters are always oblivious — even in the silliest moments, they’re dark and brooding and utterly determined to achieve their goals). There are no big comedy performances here; everyone is playing things like they want to win an Oscar.

It’s a one-joke movie, and it’s one you might not actually laugh at — there are so few pratfalls, basically no quotable lines, everything in the text of the movie is taking this ridiculous plot with dire seriousness — but it’s…funny, just in kind of a bleak, weird way? You’re silent, but your brain is laughing? I don’t know how to describe it.

I’m aware that none of what I’m saying constitutes criticism of any kind, but I have none to offer. It’s so weird that it managed to break out of my sphere of analysis — I don’t have any template to work from here, any framework in which to consider what this movie does. I don’t know if the movie is good. It might be entirely pointless. It simply is.

So watch it. It’s just one of those things you have to do before you die.

billy_lynns_long_halftime_walk_posterBilly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

Starring- Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Beau Knapp, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker, Kristen Stewart, Makenzie Leigh, Ben Platt, Tim Blake Nelson

Director- Ang Lee

R- language throughout, some war violence, sexual content, and brief drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUULFJ_I048

A young soldier who became an American hero because of an iconic photo taken when he protected his sergeant in a firefight reflects upon his service as he and his unit prepare to take part in a big NFL halftime show.

Disclaimer: I did not see this movie in 120 fps because I will absolutely never see a movie in 120 fps because I saw two-minute clips of movies with frame rates even lower than that and left feeling like I just stepped off a roller coaster. I have never met one single person who likes high frame rates — not even one — and I have no idea why Hollywood keeps trying to make this technology happen.

I offer that as a possible explanation for why I sat on the fence and was just narrowly pushed into the positive side whereas just about everyone else sat on the fence and leaned slightly negative. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk seems like a movie no one really hated and no one really loved, forgotten even before the end of its theatrical run. Which is understandable, but also kind of a bummer? The movie is an enormous mess, but it isn’t your typical blandly competent, C+ sort of mess. It’s an ambitious, passionate, and unique mess. I just barely liked it, and yet find myself weirdly fond of it in an abstract sort of sense. It’s unwieldy, but it’s also surprisingly intelligent in such obvious ways that it’s curious why the rest of the movie didn’t catch up.

With or without the high frame rate, I understand why someone wouldn’t like it. It is very, very flawed on just about every level. Its themes and framing are somewhat unique, but plenty of individual scenes hit every Iraq War movie cliche right on the nose — what would an Iraq War movie be without the obligatory heated dinner-table political argument, right? It has a tendency to beat you over the head with its ideas when it starts to worry you won’t get it. The flashback structure is somewhat unique — technically, the plot only lasts about a day in-universe, with Billy recalling his time in Iraq as different events remind him of what happened there — but it feels somewhat arbitrarily arranged, like it’s showing us what it feels like rather than what makes sense (the real-time story and the flashbacks cut into each other strangely as well, like each one is afraid to let the other go on for too long).

What’s more likely to bother audiences, though, is that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a surprisingly weird movie. But it’s weird in that subtle way where you can’t quite tell whether it actually means to be weird. I almost can’t describe it; it’s this perfect confluence of dialogue, performances, and directorial decisions that are just off enough to seem like conscious choices on the filmmakers’ part but that hew just closely enough to naturalism to make it hard to see any method behind the madness. Mostly, the movie is realistic, and it asks you to process what you’re seeing as an ordinary, plausible situation (this isn’t based on a true story), but every now and then, it suffers sudden blasts of Capra-esque sentimentality; the dialogue gets romantic and mushy and the performances start to go over the top. (For example: the cheerleader who has a perfectly normal, flirtatious conversation with Billy that ends abruptly when she launches into a tearful speech about the beauty of courage or some such and then violently makes out with him — it’s corny and distracting.)

The performances are part of the movie’s strangeness. It almost feels like stunt casting — it’s an Oscar-friendly film with an Oscar-friendly director and premise, and it stars…Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart (which I don’t intend as a critique of their respective talents, just recognition of the fact that they usually aren’t in this sort of thing — at least not when it’s this high-profile). Some of them are actually pretty good — I think this may be the first time I’ve liked Hedlund in anything; there’s a quiet fire in him that’s well-suited for the character, a young sergeant who needs to be both father and brother to the men under his command, someone who’s in control at all times but knows when to levy the full force of his anger against someone who deserves it. And I think it’s becoming more widely accepted that Kristen Stewart is actually a talented actress — come on, people, like you’d pass up Twilight if you were a young performer trying to make it in this business. Newcomer Joe Alwyn is pretty impressive as well; he has both the charisma and the acting chops the part needs.

Everyone else… Well, you’re always more conscious of the celebrity than the character. They’re all playing against type — Chris Tucker’s the level-headed one, Martin’s the intimidating CEO, Diesel’s some kind of warrior poet — and their performances, and plenty of others beside, grate a little bit. It just adds to the subtle but ever-present strangeness the movie offers but doesn’t explain or use to any noteworthy effect.

But the movie has it where it counts — it offers an original perspective and isn’t altogether stupid in bringing it together on the screen. It’s set during the Iraq War, and the political elements naturally meander into the story from time to time, but it isn’t specifically about them; really, you could tell a similar story about any modern war, take your pick (it’s actually a very close cousin to Flags of Our Fathers, which is set sixty years earlier). It isn’t about the politics of war; it’s about soldiers and how their home countries treat them. And it really digs into its protagonist’s thoughts and captures his conflicting emotions about everything that’s happened to him, to a point that parts of it were nearly enlightening for me, contextualizing things in ways that hadn’t quite occurred to me before.

It’s essentially demythologizing the American soldier. And I understand how, on paper, that might sound like “liberal agenda” stuff, but it really isn’t. It’s coming at this from a uniquely humane perspective, here not to critique the war either in general or specific senses but to critique the thoughtless way we treat those who fight them for us, to expose the complex and often contradictory demands we make of them. And it doesn’t just do that in the obvious sense of something like the issue of homeless veterans; it also shows that even the things we do from a position of good intentions can be symptomatic of a larger misunderstanding of exactly what we’ve asked these men to do and what it means to them. We think our motives are pure, but on some subconscious level, we’re still making it about is.

This movie is essentially about a group of men having their own experiences stolen from them, repackaged as a story to inspire and uplift the masses, a soaring entertainment that makes people feel like they’re close to something without having to touch the complexity of it. Their lives are used as propaganda tools, or to score various political points. Some of the respect offered them is genuine, but some of it comes from a place of self-aggrandizement. The football players who chat them up about their guns and what it feels like to shoot someone, or the reporters who obliviously ask them to entertain the public with accounts of their greatest personal tragedies, no doubt think they’re approaching this honestly, but they haven’t stopped to think about the implications of it. Even the genuine respect can be difficult to deal with — as Billy says, “It’s weird being honored for the worst day of your life.” For him, it’s a complicated thing he doesn’t know how to feel about; he’s told it’s heroic, but it doesn’t play that way in his memory. To a degree, the honor is a dash of salt in the wound.

Kill our enemies, but don’t be callous about it. When you come home, be strong. Stand proudly on that stage to show the greatness of our military and persuade other people to join it. Negative emotions are weakness. Don’t be a human being — take it all with a handshake and a polite smile. Your story belongs to us now, the public, and we will live vicariously through you. And when you actually need us to come through for you, our wallets are going to close right up. For Billy, and his brothers-in-arms, it’s a constant circus that’s almost impossible to navigate. Everyone has an agenda, even though they don’t always know it. Everyone has an image of who you are and what you should be, built by a lifetime of movies and ceremonies and propaganda, and they’ll discard you if you don’t live up to it.

The movie’s kind of a catastrophe, but it somehow does a great job developing that metaphor over the course of the story, which sees Billy essentially interacting with every walk of American life and processing the way they see him, react to him, and use him. It’s a detailed and sometimes fascinating exploration of the feelings of an individual soldier as he’s paraded around in a country that no longer feels like home. It’s incredibly human. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk might be a bad movie, depending on how much weight you lend to the things it does well and the things it does badly. But there’s value in the story it’s telling, and it’s stuck with me in a way numerous technically superior films in 2016 did not. And that’s worth something.

deepwater_horizon_filmDeepwater Horizon (2016)

Starring- Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Douglas M. Griffin, James DuMont, Joe Chrest, Gina Rodriguez, Brad Leland, John Malkovich, Dave Maldonado, J.D. Evermore, Ethan Suplee, Jason Pine, Jason Kirkpatrick, Robert Walker Branchaud, Dylan O’Brien, Jonathan Angel, Jeremy Sande, Kate Hudson, Henry Frost, Terry Milam, Garrett Kruithof, Michael Howell, Ronald Weaver

Director- Peter Berg

PG-13- prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-UPJyEHmM0

An account of the events surrounding the deadly Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010 from the perspective of the workers on board.

Based on my experience with Peter Berg as a director, as well as the type of movie it is, I had a feeling I wouldn’t love Deepwater Horizon and even suspected the reasons why. Watching it confirmed every one of those suspicious. I could have written this review sight unseen. I thought I was in for well-mounted spectacle that circles around a point without ever finding it; a Sully-like film based on true events that, while significant, aren’t really a story; and a historical adaptation that would make me personally uncomfortable. Deepwater Horizon is all of those things.

I might write a marginally positive review of a fictional film identical to Deepwater Horizon. It isn’t great, but there’s a lot that works — the pulse-pounding action sequences, the fist-pumping Average Joe heroism, the stellar effects, the simple fact that oil rigs are interesting places you can do a lot with cinematically. Even some of the movie’s flaws halfway become positives — its sentimentality, heavy-handed foreshadowing (in the first five minutes, the movie goes into silent slow motion and closes in on a shot of soda shooting out of a paper cup), disaster movie dramatic irony (the crew has a dinner celebrating a safety award the same day as the explosion), and repeated shots of a battered American flag flying in front of an inferno eventually turn into a sort of strength of conviction that’s somehow arresting. Of course, it has deep-rooted problems as well, chief among them the fact that it’s mostly plotless, about one-third endless, incomprehensible oil rig jargon and two-thirds running from fire, and bereft of any sort of character, narrative, or thematic arcs.

But movies aren’t just movies but the context in which they’re created, and nowhere is that as true as in historical films, especially those depicting events that happened in living memory — recent living memory, for that matter. And when the subject happens to be a real-world tragedy, my expectations go way, way up. Possibly unfairly and almost certainly in ways that say a lot more about me than the film in question. But all art is filtered through our personal perspective, and I can only offer a report from my own.

I’m not at all opposed to making movies about the tragic parts of our history. They’re part of our lives as much as anything else, and art is but one of the means by which we reckon with the meaning of the things that happen to us. But I definitely go into such movies under the expectation that they’re going to say something about all of this, that they have a story they think is important to tell, and that they’re going to do their best to divorce it from the tone and style of typical blockbuster entertainments.

The issue I have with Deepwater Horizon is that from my own, entirely subjective point of view, it feels as though it treats the incident more as a great setting for an exciting thriller than a tragedy that needs to be engaged very cautiously. I’m going to add a disclaimer right here: This is not — repeat: NOT — intended, in any way whatsoever, to comment upon Peter Berg, the writers, or anyone else at the helm of Deepwater Horizon. I’m a writer, so believe me when I say that I know how incredibly difficult it is to put a story together and ensure it says what you want it to say without inadvertently stumbling into troubling territory. I also don’t mean it as commentary on anyone who found something of value in this movie. Like I said, my relationship with this sort of thing is extremely subjective — it depends on the movie, what it’s about, how closely it hews to history, how important it is that it hews closely to history, the cultural climate, my personal taste, and a whole lot more. The first sentence of this paragraph is exclusively intended to describe how the movie felt to me — not how it is, not what it was actually trying to be, not what the filmmakers had in mind in any given scene or their overall approach.

For me — I think Deepwater Horizon means well, but it struggles to escape the confines of the action thrillers that influenced it. Primarily, its problem is that there’s no clearly articulated point to the movie other than a general (and largely tangential) disdain for the white collars whose carelessness and profit-drivenness precipitated the disaster (at least as depicted in the film). It steers clear of oil industry politics, which is an understandable decision — it would’ve been unnerving to turn the lost lives into political points; there’s a way to make that movie, but there are a dozen more ways for it to go disastrously wrong. And it banks a lot of emotions on a tribute to the eleven workers who died aboard the real Deepwater Horizon — naturally, we see their names and photos during the credits. But it also doesn’t really delve into their lives, and I think that’s the center of my discomfort with it. It’s primarily focused on Wahlberg’s character and his derring-do in the aftermath of the explosion (which the real man may well have done; it’s beside the point). The men who died feel like extras; in a fictional film, that’s likely how I would have reacted to their (surprisingly brutal) deaths — redshirts thrown under the bus to establish the danger. The strength of my emotional reaction to those scenes came from very little that was established in the movie; it was more from the simple realization that what I just saw had actually happened, that that was a real person who really died that way. But they aren’t important to the film, and it’s easy to leave it not knowing which of them is which or even what their names are. Only one or two of them get any real focus, and even then, not a whole lot; the majority just get a few lines of dialogue amidst the chaos of a workday on an oil rig. They’re casualties that happen in the background, subsumed into the larger tragedy in a way that fails to make their deaths personal.

In short, I felt as though the movie was mainly trying to entertain me, to put me on the edge of my seat, to wow me with spectacle, and that rubbed me the wrong way. Once again, I’m not saying the movie was trying to do any of that, or even that it’s impossible for other viewers to have the complete opposite reaction — to think it all respectful, humane, and worthwhile. All I can tell you is what I felt. My stance is that Deepwater Horizon is too shallow for its subject. Yours might not be. That’s up to you.

snowden_film_posterSnowden (2016)

Starring- Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson

Director- Oliver Stone

R- language and some sexuality/nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlSAiI3xMh4

The true story of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and the events that led to his decision to blow the whistle on the NSA’s mass collection of private citizens’ data.

Sometimes I think I might like movies too much to be a great movie critic. It occurs to me that I’ll give just about anything a pass if it works, even if only by the thinnest of margins — if the story is there, if the characters more or less ring true, if it has some kind of perspective on the events it’s depicting, however basic and underdeveloped. I recognize great, good, bad, and terrible movies, but I think my list of “middling” films is much longer than other reviewers’. Where excessive familiarity might sink a movie for other people, it often simply holds one back from greatness for me.

That’s where I am with Snowden, which I liked but don’t consider underrated to any significant degree. It’s pretty straightforward biopic stuff and won’t surprise anyone. Some of it works; some of it doesn’t; it’s a little aloof and dry in the way “important” films often are. In most respects, though, it’s solid, and that was basically enough for me — in any given scene, just enough was going right to prevent me from getting bored (at least long-term). And it has a few outstanding qualities that give it that extra nudge it needs.

Chief among them: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who really needs to pick movies that are good enough for him if he wants to win that Oscar. He keeps turning in strong performances in mediocre, forgettable movies (show of hands — who remembers The Walk anymore?), and I think it may be on the verge of hurting his career. Edward Snowden might be his best work yet; it violates every rule of biopic performances and yet emerges unscathed. I hate when actors attempt to do imitations of the public figure they’re portraying, especially modern public figures of whom we have a detailed video record; it’s too easy to see the calculation behind the performance and find yourself unable to process it as an actual human being. And from the beginning, it’s clear JGL isn’t planning to adopt a few of Snowden’s surface traits and do his own thing with it; he’s going to be Snowden. And you know what? He kind of pulls it off. It isn’t perfect, but if nothing else, he nails the voice and speech patterns to an almost unnerving degree. He doesn’t particularly look like Snowden other than in his general physicality, but it didn’t take long for me to accept his performance as a character rather than a random assembly of disparate traits falling apart on the screen. In the final scene, JGL delivers a speech at a university via video-conference and is replaced by the real Snowden midway through, and while I’ll always find that sort of device cheesy (basically a movie acknowledging its own unreality like we didn’t already know), at the very least, it isn’t jarring. That’s no small accomplishment.

It helps that the movie seems to understand Snowden as a character — how close it is to the real person, I can’t say, but what’s presented her is internally consistent and believable. He arcs from an uber-patriot who cringes when people criticize the Iraq War to a skeptic who realizes his government actually can’t be trusted without question and ultimately chooses to betray it for what he perceives to be the good of the American people, and that development remains consistent throughout. I rarely wondered why he made the choices he did or when he made them.

The exception is during the stretch of the movie that covers his career in Oahu, where he finally decided to leak the documents to the press. The movie is a bit over two hours long, and most of this section feels like wheel-spinning. He completes most of his arc during the scenes in Geneva, Japan, and Maryland, and he spends most of the third act just meandering around with all that information, struggling to make the decision the audience knows is a foregone conclusion. I think some of that could have been merged — maybe just breeze through a few of those stops, only cover the basics, and move more of the character development to the events in Oahu. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much to be done with the character’s relationship with his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley); it’s a significant part of the film’s emotional core, being presented as the thing Snowden risks losing as he makes his decisions, but it just doesn’t carry much weight. The chemistry isn’t quite there, and the writing doesn’t find a whole lot of nuance in the relationship.

But the script has one thing going for it, and that’s that it might be the first post-9/11 thriller to approach the surveillance state from a perspective of actual criticism rather than simply name-dropping it in order to make an action movie seem smarter than it is. Nowadays, our movie heroes battle mass surveillance, but its badness is always assumed — such films rarely bother to show us the actual consequences of such a thing. I sometimes think that’s because most of us can’t imagine them — we’re a bunch of nobodies with nothing to hide, and we assume the same is true of everyone. Snowden successfully shows how this becomes about something greater than whether the government is spying on terrorists without a warrant. Everyone has something to hide; it’s just that not all of it is criminal. After all, how many of us want our medical records to be publicly available? Snowden does a good job drawing a line from the seemingly justifiable abuses to mass injustice, and shows how it all can come from the best intentions. When you’re worried about a terrorist attack, one person’s privacy pales in comparison to the lives you hope to save, so you flirt with a little constitutional ambiguity. But once you’ve made that decision, it’s easier to make it again in the future — the terroristic threats go from real to suspected to possible to “there’s only a one-percent chance of this ever happening, but a little caution never hurt anybody.” And it extends to other issues — someone is planning something non-violent but harmful, so you use the same tactics. And eventually, you’re doing what we see in this movie — investigating the distant connections of businessmen and bankers and using the problems of their private lives as leverage to compel action on the country’s behalf. And there’s no legal or political line to determine when it all goes too far. If you decide to open that door, you can’t close it easily. And the desire to start down that path is understandable. I think Snowden might be the first movie of its kind to humanize the surveillance state in such a way that we understand how it comes about and see the temptation to participate in it — or to ignore it, as the American people spent the last decade or so doing.

The movie threatens to turn into a heavy-handed explainer from time to time, and it lacks the self-awareness of a movie like The Big Short, which can make that kind of thing entertaining. Still, I think what it accomplishes is important, and that allowed it to muscle through the predictable storytelling and generic biopic format — well, that and a killer JGL performance. It’s possible I’ll remember nothing about this movie a year from now, but it’s worth a watch anyway.