Brigsby Bear (McCary; 2017)

Kyle Mooney is both the star and writer (along with Kevin Costello) of Brigsby Bear, the film which was featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is getting a good deal of buzz due to its creatively charming use of obviously very low budget visuals.  Mooney plays James, a man who for reasons I won’t go into has had a very stunted development, and who is obsessed with a children’s show called “Brigsby Bear”, a show which teaches lessons from the alphabet and counting to advanced factorials, why you shouldn’t masturbate more than once a day, and how to respect the personal space of others.  When James can suddenly no longer watch his beloved “Brigsby Bear” once a week, he takes it upon himself to write and film the show’s finale.

mv5bmta3mtq4odm2odfeqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mdqxmzk2mziy-_v1_sy1000_cr0014991000_al_

The first thing to say about Brigsby Bear is that it is utterly charming.  This movie does not have a metaphorical mean bone in its entire metaphorical body.  Even the subjects which could take on a very dark tone, of which there are quite a few, are handled with a light touch.  The story could take on many dark and twisted turns to add drama and heft, but it wisely never goes down any of those roads giving us instead a wink letting us know the writers are fully aware they could have handed us a very dark film and purposefully decided not to.

The genre of Brigsby Bear defies description as it is a little comedy, a little drama, sort of a coming of age movie in which the person coming of age is already an adult, sort of a family drama, but the element the many different facets of Brigsby Bear have in common is that is always optimistic.  No one is ever mean to anyone else in Brigsby Bear, even though you would think the subject matter is screaming out for someone to play the curmudgeon, and the only real conflict is in the people surrounding James disagreeing with each other how best to help James overcome his unusual past and join the rest of society.   It’s a friendly world full of friendly people, and that on its own may be the most unusual and creative thing about Brigsby Bear.

mv5bmtu4mzcxmzk2ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdezotyzmji-_v1_sx1777_cr001777738_al_

That is also Brigsby Bear‘s greatest weakness.  While it is highly unusual to see a film made up almost entirely of nice people doing nice things, that doesn’t make for gripping drama.  The biggest conflicts to be seen here are the younger sister getting a little snitty that her brother is a weirdo and the psychiatrist insisting that James stop thinking about “Brigsby Bear”, even though we know that’s not going to happen.  While it’s an interesting exercise to see a film that relies almost entirely on charm over tension, an hour and forty minutes is a long time for what is essentially a well written sit-com episode.

The cast of Brigsby Bear is an excellent mix of actors we haven’t seen around much in too long a time.  Other than Kyle Mooney who is in nearly every scene of the film, we also have Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear as a police detective who left behind his dreams of being a theater actor a long time ago, Claire Danes as James’ psychiatrist, Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as James’ parents, and even Andy Samberg poking his head in for what amounts to barely more than a cameo.  All do an excellent job at making us like them and communicating the “Always follow your dreams” message of the movie, but none really have a lot of meat to work with in the script, truth be told.  Again, everyone is great at being charming, but that’s all that is really asked of the cast.

mv5bndq1njkzndkwmv5bml5banbnxkftztgwndcwntg4mji-_v1_sy1000_cr0015021000_al_

Final verdict:  Brigsby Bear with its seemingly endless supply of optimism and charm is a welcome diversion away from the standard Hollywood film, especially of late.  However, its lack of any sort of real conflict makes for an experience which does nothing more than make us smile at just how damn cute it is.  If you’re feeling especially down on people, Brigsby Bear may actually go a long way toward helping you out of that funk, and I expect that is largely the point of the film.  But, know that the only real adventure to be found here, is the adventure of seeing normal daily life from an unusual perspective.  Brigsby Bear does get a recommendation from me primarily because so many of us need some restoration of faith in humanity right now, but don’t expect this movie to be remembered long after it leaves theaters, it has the spark of creativity, but not the spark of greatness, unfortunately.

 

Dunkirk (Nolan; 2017)

In May of 1940 German forces had driven the French, Belgian, and British Armies onto a small beach beside the town of Dunkirk.  The German forces stopped their advance on Dunkirk and instead fortified themselves around and in the town to prevent Allied soldiers from escaping by land as German planes picked the soldiers off on the beach and German U-boats with help from German bombers kept the British Navy at bay.   This film is about the action which evacuated 330,000 Allied troops from that beach, essentially saving the bulk of the British Army and preventing Germany from forcing a conditional surrender of the United Kingdom the consequences of which would almost certainly mean an entirely different Europe and world today.

Christopher Nolan is a very intellectual film maker.  It’s that very intellect that often creates the largest plot holes in his films, but his focus on thought over emotion, realism over spectacle, and precision over artistry is his trademark and the thing which makes his films stand out as singularly his.  Dunkirk is a bit different from standard Nolan fare in that there are no gimmicks on display here, no watching a story backwards, no dream levels, no men in costumes, there is just a beach, men, and weapons of war.  This is most definitely a Nolan film, though, as this is a film which very much intellectualizes the evacuation of Dunkirk practically documentarian in its style.  Quite a few of the major characters aren’t given names, Cillian Murphy plays “Shivering Soldier” for example, and Will Attenborough is simply “Second Lieutenant”, and not a single German character is shown for Dunkirk’s entirety.  This isn’t a John Wayne film which glorifies battle and makes heroes of soldiers, it’s not Apocalypse Now showing us war’s horror and madness, nor is it an Oliver Stone war film making a political statement, Dunkirk is simply a very thoughtful, almost clinical, look at one of the most important events of World War II.

mv5byzgxmzrjnzytzdblnc00yza4lwfmyzgtndzhndgxmguwzgnkxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntyzmzu2mzk-_v1_

That is not to say there is no emotion in Dunkirk, just that emotion is not its focus.  Dunkirk very ably gets across to the viewers the feelings of dread, hopelessness, and inevitability those men on the beach must have been feeling, along with the feelings of determination in those attempting to rescue them, but the goal is to show what the men were going through, not to make us feel one way or another about it.   That is what is going to make or break Dunkirk for most people.  It’s style is one we rarely see in anything outside of a documentary, let alone a war film, and that makes for a truly original experience – something much needed in a genre as worn out as World War II films – however, that very same style is going to leave a great many people feeling like something was missing if they are seeking something inspirational or horrifying.

One thing that will not be debated about Dunkirk, however, is the quality of its cinematography.  The look of this movie is one that is normally saved for year’s end so that it will be fresh in the mind of the Oscar voters.  Despite the barren landscapes of beach and sea (English Channel, anyway) we are treated from beginning to end with visual spectacle in the form of wide sweeping shots, points of view that put us in the mindset of the soldiers as they sit in silent panic and confusion, and aerial views and battles that will have you gasping on several occasions – I got a look when I let out an audible “Wow” at one point.

mv5bntlmn2zjndktyjk1oc00yjlhltgymgitzdkzndkwmgm2mtaxxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjuwnzk3ndc-_v1_

The score by Hans Zimmer is also worthy of mention.  The music starts before the visuals do, and it never stops at all during the film’s running time.  It rarely crescendos and is more of an omnipresent undertone of strings and horns undercutting everything happening on screen, but while it never stands out to the point it is distracting, it adds so much to the film’s tone and I can’t see Dunkirk working as well as it does without it.

The ensemble cast is excellent, though Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance are two of the only actors given very much to say.  The film has many branching story lines and many puzzle pieces to cover and much of this is done in silence, with one major character in particular having only one word to say in the entire film, but for the most part they manage to show us very different yet realistic people going through a hopeless situation.  I do admit, that due to the lack of dialogue and names, I had a hard time keeping some of the young dark haired actors and characters apart, keeping this element of the film from becoming fantastic, but that is a fault more due to casting than on the part of any particular performance.  Tom Hardy, by the way, wears a face mask the entire film not removing it until the very end.  What is it with him and face coverings?

Photographer: Anders Rosqvist, www.rosqvist.photo

Final verdict:  If you didn’t tell me that Dunkirk was a Christopher Nolan film before I’d seen it, I’m not sure I would have immediately recognized it as one of his, however, after seeing it if you were to tell me Christopher Nolan had directed it you would get the knowing nod and smile which says “Of course.”  Dunkirk is a fantastic movie, one that will almost surely get Oscar buzz, but it is not a movie for everyone.   It is not a war movie so much as a very astute look at people staring death right in the face and knowing that either their fate is out of their hands, or that the fate of thousands are placed directly in their hands.  If you need glory or horror in your war films, you may find yourself disappointed in Dunkirk.  If realism (though, realism without a ton of blood and gore which is oddly lacking in this movie) and introspection are terms that appeal to you, however, Dunkirk will most likely be right up your alley.  No matter which camp you fall into, you are almost sure to love the music and visuals, though.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Ritchie; 2017)

Once upon a time, ancient Londinium was ruled by King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana).  Uther ruled with his wife, Igraine (Poppy Delevigne), by his side, his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) giving him much good advice, and all in preparation for the day his son Arthur (Zac Barker) would eventually take the throne.  It came to pass that the evil sorcerer Modred (Rob Knighton) would attack Uther’s kingdom with 100 foot tall elephants, because that is how sorcerers operate, apparently, and would force Uther to flee with his family, and Vortigern to take his beautiful wife whom we shall just call Mrs. Vortigern downstairs where he would stab her most mercilessly.  Shortly after the stabbing, Uther’s family would run into a boss monster from a video game which would slaughter Igraine and have an epic fight with Uther that ends with Uther throwing his sword into the air, turning into stone, and the sword falling and burying itself in what was moments before Uther’s back.  During the battle Arthur climbed into a boat, which as we know, makes you completely and totally safe from boss monsters.

mv5bmtu3nzkymtkxnl5bml5banbnxkftztgwmty1odqxmji-_v1_sx1777_cr001777744_al_

Arthur’s boat apparently made its way to Rome eventually, as, even though everyone there speaks with an Irish accent, we see a shot of the Colosseum.  Arthur is taken into a brothel where he is raised by the women there into a very strong and pretty bro douchebag.  One day, when the bro douchebag Arthur (now Charlie Hunnam) is telling, via quick editing and snazzy sound effects, of his exploits in which he stole the money from and cut the beard off a viking he met at the docks – but the viking did something wrong so it was all justified – the brothel is raided and the captain of the guard who raids the brothel tells Arthur he can’t protect him this time, even though we have no idea why Arthur would have been protected before, because the viking Arthur attacked knows the king.  Well damn.

Arthur is therefore put on a ship to Camelot where he is to meet his punishment, which is apparently that he has to try to pull a sword from a stone, get branded on his wrist if he fails, then be sent on his way.  Arthur marches up to the sword in the stone, and the second he touches it he has intense pain and harrowing visions, which you think would be enough for him to walk away, get his brand, and call it a day.  But, no, the douchebag who would be king pulls and pulls on the sword and finally extracts it from the rocky sheath which once was his father just as he falls unconscious from the intense pain and visions.

mv5bmtuzntczmtcyof5bml5banbnxkftztgwmzu1odqxmji-_v1_sy1000_cr0014981000_al_

When he wakes, Arthur is in a prison cell and is soon visited by King Vortigern, plot twist!, and told through quick editing and snazzy sound effects that Vortigern was working with Modred to take the kingdom, but he needed to get the sword out of the stone and kill Arthur to make it official. Oops!  Looks like our douchebag is in a whole heap of trouble!  But, just as his execution is to take place, people we’ve never seen before including a girl mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who can control animals rescue our future monarch.  Once the excitement dies down, we learn that this band are Percival (Craig McGinlay), the girl mage who was sent by Merlin, Bill (Aldan Gillen), and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), who, while I have no problem with diversity in casting, is a black man in England with no real explanation much like why everyone in Rome speaks in baroque.  Why did they rescue him?  Because the plot calls for it, silly!  Otherwise Arthur would die and the movie would be nowhere near two hours long!

This kind of crap continues, I won’t spoil anything more, and believe it or not this is barely more than the set up, but this level of intelligence and understanding of the original Arthurian myths continues throughout the entire film’s length bring up such questions as:

Why is Sir George in a movie about King Arthur’s origins and why is he Chinese?

If the lady mage is Morgana why isn’t she Arthur’s sister and if she’s Guinevere why is she a mage, and why don’t we know who the hell she is in the first place?

Why does the king feel the need to stand so near his body double as well as taking along his advisors if he is just setting a trap for the good guys?

mv5bmtu2mji5mtmymf5bml5banbnxkftztgwota1odqxmji-_v1_sx1777_cr001777951_al_

If you could summon a giant rattlesnake to kill everyone in seconds, why the hell didn’t you do it earlier and save everyone a lot of trouble and effort, not to mention lives?

If the sword, which is obviously Excalibur but never called such, gives you superpowers like the Flash, why the heck was the video game boss able to defeat Uther?  And, how the heck did Uther turn into stone, anyway?

Why the hell is Vortigern building the tower to make his powers unbeatable when he doesn’t seem to have any powers which aren’t given to him by outside sources in the first place?

Final verdict:  If Joby Harold (writer) and Guy Ritchie (director/writer) know anything about the legends surrounding King Arthur aside from a handful of characters’ names, they certainly don’t show it in this abomination of a movie.  While I have no problem with taking liberties with source material, and in the case of Arthurian myths actually believe it to be necessary, this handling of it is so poorly done in every conceivable way from the plot, to the dialogue, to the acting, to the special effects, and the camerawork, that it accomplishes nothing but offend those who care at all for the original stories.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a senseless, ugly, unthinking, scattershot attempt at storytelling which will hopefully be seen by no one so that the sequel they seem to want so badly given the number of loose plot strings in the film never gets made.

The Lost City of Z (Gray; 2017)

Charlie Hunnam plays Major Percival Fawcett, a member of the British military whose father tarnished the Fawcett family name through his various addictions.  “Percy” is also an experienced surveyor, so when war is near breaking out between Brazil and Bolivia due to a burgeoning rubber industry combined with a lack of a distinct border between the two countries, Fawcett is called upon to head to the jungles between the two countries and determine where the border definitively lies.  When he discovers the remnants of what can only be an ancient civilization during his mission, he develops a life long obsession with finding the lost city which only the “savages” in the area seem to know even ever existed and prove that the native people of the area aren’t really savages, after all.

james-gray-explores-jungles-obsession-the-path-to-glory-in-the-e28098lost-city-of-ze28099-review

The marketing campaign for The Lost City of Z made the film look as if it’s a pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie) style adventure complete with hostile natives, death defying escapes, and lost treasure hidden around every corner.  What the movie really is, is a biography which covers the span of decades, following Percy from a time shortly after the birth of his first son, through World War I, and finishing with his final trip to the South American jungles.  While archaeology and the Lost City do cast a shadow across the entire film, and Percy Fawcett’s story revolves around them, this is the story of a man, not a mission nor a place.

Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin, Percy’s right hand man), and Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett, Percy’s wife) headline the cast and all give performances that can best be described as proficient, but never exciting.  All the actors give us a fully developed, realistic character whom we can fully believe, but for some reason they never allow us to become fully invested in them, the simulation of a life is there, but the spark is missing.  The one exception to this is Angus Macfayden as James Murray, a man who insists on accompanying Fawcett on one of his trips which Murray funds.  Murray ends up being a truly pathetic sham of a human being who jeopardizes the entire mission with his arrogance and incompetence, but he is also the one character that truly seems human, like a life we can be honestly witnessing.

lostcity

Competent, but with no spark, is a good way to describe the entire film, actually.  The camerawork gives us some beautiful shots, but what it gives us is more like looking at a landscape which you’d buy at an art fair rather than a Van Gogh or a Renoir.  Sure, the cinematographer (Darius Khondji) knew what they were doing well beyond just where to point the camera, but there was no personal touch to it.  Everything was pretty and easy to follow, but again – no spark.

The story itself is well written, the screenplay is probably the best part of the film, but could have been edited better.  The Lost City of Z is a long movie, 2 hours and 20 minutes, and while I wouldn’t call that overly long if the time is well used, there are large chunks of the movie which could have been trimmed.  The pacing of the entire film is a slow, even one, which doesn’t have to be an issue, but it seems that director James Gray was overly enamored with too much of his material, choosing to linger on conversations which served a very minor purpose or leaving in scenes which added little to nothing to the story.

lost-city-of-z-raft-xlarge

Final verdict:  As a history lesson, The Lost City of Z is actually pretty great, but know going into it that that is what you are getting, a biographical history lesson.   Any adventure and excitement to found in the film is spaced very far apart and doesn’t last very long.  What we have is a very clinical look at an interesting life.  If you take a lot of interest in biographies and history then there is a lot to catch your interest in The Lost City of Z, for anyone else, though, I’m afraid this film may be too slow paced and aloof. There is a lot to learn here, but not a lot to enjoy.

 

Logan (Mangold; 2017)

In addition to whatever their myriad of other powers are, the one additional power that all superheroes seem to have is that they never age.  Superman, Batman, and Captain America are all octogeniarians now, or very close to, and Iron Man, Spider-Man, and that era’s heroes, the X-Men amongst them,  aren’t that far behind.  Yet, not a single one of them has lost a step nor aged more than a decade it seems.  Every once in a while, though, one of the major comics publishing companies will release a story that shows their heroes later in life.  “The Dark Knight Returns”, “Kingdom Come”, and “Old Man Logan” are all classics in this vein, and now Logan, the latest of the Wolverine/X-Men movies brings us a story in which two of the most famous X-Men are looked at in their twilight years.

It’s 2029, and Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) healing power has slowed for some reason, his wounds now leave permanent scars and sometimes never fully heal at all, and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is in his 90s and suffers from seizures and dementia.  They and a third mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are the only mutants left in the entire world.  Wolverine, now going only by his real name, Logan, hides in plain sight by running a limousine service to pay the bills to get the medicine Caliban needs to provide care for Professor Xavier, whose out of control mind could wreak complete havoc if not sedated.screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-6-16-16-am_0

It’s an interesting premise.  Superhero stories, much like cartoons, are capable of exploring hefty themes by camouflaging them behind spandex and fast paced action pieces, but old age is a theme rarely explored in these types of stories, probably because they’ve been seen as tales for a younger skewing audience until relatively recently.  Superheroes facing their own mortality not because of violence at the hands of a villain or a cataclysmic natural disaster but because their elderly bodies are beginning to fail them puts a whole new spin on the comic book story dynamic, but Logan is not content in leaving it there.  The true inciting force in Logan‘s storyline is not old age but youth when Wolverine reluctantly ends up caring for a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who has powers of her own and has to be hidden away from forces who want to use her as a weapon.

The X-Men series of films is noted for its highs and lows.  It’s rare that the series puts out a merely okay movie.  X-Men, X-Men 2, X-Men: First Class, and X-Men: Days of Future Past are widely viewed as some of the best movies the superhero genre has to offer while X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse are thought to be some of the worst.  Logan is not only a part of that first set of films, but is the best X-Men film to date, and will, I believe, ultimately be compared to The Dark Knight when superhero films are discussed in the future due to its maturity, quality, and artistry.logan-trailer-700x300

James Mangold, Logan’s director and one of its writers, has a very hit and miss history.  He is responsible for the excellent Girl, Interrupted and Copland, but he’s also brought us The Wolverine and Knight and Day, both of which, while not painfully terrible, are mediocre and ultimately completely forgettable.  In Logan he managed to tap into that part of his style which represents his best and then went on to perfect it even farther.  The story is exciting and mature.   His camera work and editing make the visual elements of the story an absolute joy and occasionally even a wonder.  While there are flaws in the film, which I will mention, Mangold manages to take all the pieces that make up the film Logan, most of which are already excellent, and melds them together into something even greater than the sum of its parts.

The majority of the acting in the film is truly high caliber.  Stewart and Jackman are always excellent in these roles, even if the films themselves aren’t always the best, but the added dimension of the characters staring straight on into their own mortality gives their performances an entirely new facet and allows them to breathe new life into the people they’ve been embodying for going on 20 years now.  As great as they are, though, and I don’t want to diminish just how fantastic Stewart and Jackman are here, the truly revelatory performance comes from the young Dafne Keen as Laura.  This girl can’t yet be even a teenager and yet she manages to demand your attention and ekes out incredible amounts of emotion from you.  For most of the film she doesn’t speak, and I wondered if that was a decision made because she was a good physical actress but couldn’t handle the demands of a speaking role.  Eventually she does speak, though, and when she finally does you are blown away all over again at just how amazing this prepubescent child’s performance is.  When I really think about it, it can be considered unfair how good she is at so young an agelogan-photo.jpg

Last year, Deadpool gave us an R-rated superhero film that, while far from the first of its kind, started the debate as to whether more comic book films should be R-rated.  Logan shows us once again that the R-rated superhero film can be excellent, and for very different reasons than Deadpool was, but I do hope that Hollywood takes the right lesson away from what is to undoubtedly be Logan‘s huge success.  Logan works as a more adult film not because swearing and blood are cool, but because some stories need to be visceral and raw to be told well.  You can’t tell a story about mortality without, well, mortality.  Heads get lopped off, deep gashes cut, and very realistic heads get very realistically blown off.  In Deadpool it was for humorous shock value, but in Logan it’s to raise the stakes and show us this isn’t your typical comic book movie where no one gets hurt too badly and even death isn’t permanent.  Both are legitimate and effective uses of graphic material, but it’s also very specific to this type of story, and this should in no way be a cue to Marvel or DC (I’m especially looking at you DC) that graphic content and language are what audiences want in all their superhero movies.

While I meant it when I said I believe Logan will be remembered alongside The Dark Knight one day, it’s certainly not because of the quality of their villains.  Whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker is the most legendary element of The Dark Knight, Logan’s villains are the most bland and uninteresting part of the film.  The forum on age and family are spectacular, and couldn’t exist without conflict, but that is all the villains here provide.  Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant give fine performances as the two primary antagonists, but they are given so much less to work with than anyone else in the film that fine is really the best they could hope for.  The villains have motivations and goals, but nothing else exists beyond these factors that we can tell making them one dimensional and ultimately dull.  It’s this unfortunate factor that keeps Logan from achieving full on masterpiece status.

Final recommendation:  If you read anything before this paragraph I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m giving this film my highest recommendation for most everyone.  Don’t take the kids to this one if you mind them viewing violence, as it is intensely graphic, and squeamish adults with no love for superheroes may also want to give this a pass.  But, aside from that this story is so excellent it may convert those who hate the superhero genre, at least for this film anyway, and will also allow squeamish superhero fans to get so engrossed they may get past all the carnage they are witnessing.  Logan is a shining example of what a superhero movie should strive to be, and since Jackman and Stewart have announced they are retiring from the characters after this film, they couldn’t have chosen a better film to be their swan song.

Lion (Davis; 2016)

Lion is the true story of Saroo Brierly (played as a 5 year-old by Sunny Pawar and as an adult by Dev Patel), an Indian boy who after being lost and ending up thousands of miles away from home was eventually adopted by an Australian family.   This very well acted and written movie really is two different films, the first half a sort of thriller about a young boy desperately trying to survive and get home in a culture so overpopulated that people are practically disposable, and the second half about a young man trying to figure out his place in a world in which he feels he is betraying the people who love him when he becomes obsessed with his past and who also feels guilt over his luck in becoming a privileged person through no work on his own part when he knows he would have lived a life of complete and abject poverty were it not for a quirk of fate.

Both Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman (as Sue Brierly, Saroo’s Australian adoptive mother) have been nominated for Academy Awards as supporting actors in their respective roles, and while I don’t see either performance as necessarily worthy of winning, they are both definitely worthy of their nominations.  These two roles are the largest in the film, and have to carry more of the themes and the story than any others, but are considered supporting purely due to the fact that the film takes place over such a large period of time with such a large cast that even these largest roles are around for only roughly half the running time.  Still in that half we get to see both of these actors at or near their best.  Patel particularly gives us a truly realistic and memorable character as he starts out a confident, cheerful man very pleased with his life but ultimately becoming more and more anxious gradually, losing that confidence and eroding his relationships as he becomes consumed with both his guilt over his luck and his desire to discover what happened to his birth family.  Nicole Kidman doesn’t give perhaps her best performance here, her career is so long and celebrated that that would be quite a stretch to claim, but it does rank among her greatest at least.  Her Sue is a character that brings out the empathy in us all with her long suffering cheerfulness and her desire to make the world a better place.  There is one scene between Kidman and Patel in particular when Saroo reveals to Sue that he feels guilty for her having to raise him that I guarantee will get under the skin of even the most unsympathetic of us and will make you ponder the way you think of family and its purpose.

534286-lion-poster

The cinematography in Lion was also nominated for an Academy Award, and this nomination is a little more sketchy.  It is well done, there is no doubt about that, and a handful of scenes here and there show true inspiration, but for the most part the camera work in Lion is nothing more than consistently proficient.  There is nothing at all wrong with that, and it makes for a strong viewing experience when the camera work never interferes with and often enhances the story, but to say it is one of the five best instances of cinematography this year is an overstatement when there are far more stylish and more difficult to film works that did not get nominations.

The writing in Lion is, however, worthy of its nomination.  It not only gives a gripping, multi-layered, well-paced true story, but it also manages to say a lot about family, privilege, overpopulation, and a great many other topics in its 2 hour running time and all of it current, relevant, and very thoughtful.  Young Saroo’s trials as an orphaned child in India show a culture which is so overstuffed with people that it’s all one can do to just survive day to day, and being noticed is not only not a concern, but can often be a detriment as the only reason someone would want to deal with a stranger is to use them to further their own survival by whatever means are necessary.  The sharp contrast with the wealthy Australian family is night and day, and says a lot about not just first world privilege and how we take it for granted, but also about what altruism and love truly are, or at least what they can and should be.

lion-movie

Final recommendation:  Lion is an excellently put together story.  It has a wealth to say about the world we live in and how very different our cultures can be.  It says just as much about love, family, our personal ties, and what it is that ultimately makes us human.  However, as well done as it all is, it isn’t overly creative nor artistic.  It’s a film you appreciate and respect more than be awed by.  You will often get caught up in it, but will also just as often lose that connection when Lion moves on to a scene not so pivotal.  If you are an Oscar junkie, or if great performances are your favorite part of a movie, then this gets a whole hearted recommendation.  I give the same recommendation to those who are moved by stories about love and family.  For the rest, I will say there is nothing here which will be particularly off putting nor intriguing.  It is a wonderful story, and a good movie, but it is not a masterpiece and it is not one of a kind.

Elle (Verhoeven; 2016)

The first thing we see in Elle is the face of a charcoal colored cat staring straight ahead as we hear sexual noises coming from off screen.  The noises stop and we cut to two people lying on the hardwood floor of a kitchen, the man is wearing all black, including a ski mask, he stands zipping up his pants and runs off as the woman remains lying on the floor in an obvious state of shock.  It occurs to us immediately that what had just happened was a rape, but we don’t witness the rape, we start the story immediately afterward.  This is a brilliant opening as we aren’t focused on the act itself, but rather we get to exist in the aftermath alongside our protagonist Michéle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert).

Isabelle Huppert gives a performance here that can only be described as sublime.  Elle deals with a very sensitive topic in a fashion more nuanced than most people think is possible and the handling of that topic hinges entirely on Huppert’s performance.  Not only does she prove to be up to the task, she gives us a character that can somehow horrify and inspire us at the same time, someone who we have all the sympathy in the world for even as we find her repellent to a nearly equal degree.  It’s rare that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors an actor in a non-American film, but there is a lot of buzz surrounding Isabelle Huppert for this year’s ceremony, and well there should be. This is not just a fully formed, well thought out character with a massive amount of depth, but it’s also a performance and a character that has to express mixed and uncomfortable feelings about a nearly untouchable hot topic issue, and she does this as well with grace, maturity, and style without even a hint of apology.1200

Why should there be an apology?  Well, there shouldn’t, but this film deals with its oh=so touchy themes in a manner that nearly everyone could be offended on some level.  It portrays a 50 year-old woman as a still very sexual person, so sexual that her rape is more about her safety at home than about her feeling violated.  She is shown to be a powerful woman, she runs a video game company and the game they are currently working on is one which shows images and scenes which would work feminists angry at the video game industry into an absolute tizzy, and she sleeps with whomever she wants whenever she wants and thinks nothing of it until her dalliance may ruin a friendship or working relationship somewhere down the road.  In short, she is a woman who acts just like rich men are perceived and portrayed in the media and in culture today.  So the rape doesn’t affect her and isn’t treated in the story in a stereotypical way.  Michéle does feel violated, yes, and she does want to find her attacker, but she is never a victim, and not just due to keeping up a tough outer exterior, she honestly never feels like one.  The thought that must have been put into the character of Michéle really shows as we see her as the most rich, powerful, sexual, and confident person in a world populated almost entirely by men, and that not only gives us many different motives to consider, but also allows for a plot that can flow naturally without the writer and director having to search for coincidences and contrivances to move events along.

The early plot of Elle involves the investigation into who performed the rape, bringing to the forefront many of the possible motivations in the mind of a rapist.  We suspect an ex-husband who feels slighted, an employee who is angry at her for the way she is running the company, a spurned admirer, and the list continues.   More important than the mind of the potential rapists, however, is the mind of Michéle herself.  In exploring the aftermath of a vicious crime there isn’t just one possible response despite what Hollywood often makes us think.  Michéle does not go to the police, she does not change her personal nor professional life much at all except to try and reason out who her attacker could be, she is very casual in her mentioning of the crime to her friends and family.  This is not a Lifetime channel style response to a rape, and this is where a great deal of the shock and heart of Elle lives, in the fact that this movie does not rely on stereotype and expectations but on using the flaws, strengths, quirks, perversions, and humanity of its characters to give us a far more real story than we are used to seeing, particularly when a plot involving a touchy subject is on display.

Past this point, I am going to mention specific plot points of Elle that could lead to your figuring out the central mystery of the movie before it is revealed.  I will not spoil the movie, but I will be giving major clues, so read more at your own risk.

elle-1200x520

If it’s the incredibly complex and true characters and their responses that make the plot of Elle what it is, though, the true themes of the film rear their head going into the final third of the film.   Roughly two thirds of the way through the film the identity of the rapist is discovered, and we find that it is a man Michéle has been attracted to all along, and rather than changing her relationship with this man, it just changes her method of seduction, as she now uses the knowledge of the nature of their relationship she has to move the dynamic from coy and playful to something more perverse, dangerous, and reliant on power dynamics.  Michéle is such a powerful woman so in touch with her own sexual nature that all the rape ultimately does is change the way she flirts with her rapist.  It is from here on that we see that the film really isn’t about rape at all, nor really even about sex, but about power.  Michéle is such a powerful person that even something as devastating as a rape can’t take her confidence away from her, it just becomes another tool she uses to get what she wants.

That is the final piece of the puzzle in Elle and what it wants to say.  Once we see that it’s ultimately about power we understand why we have a protagonist who is so unsympathetic in a film that seems like it demands sympathy to work.  Michéle is a seriously flawed person.  She betrays those closest to her, she sabotages others’ lives to get her way or often just because she can, she gives no thought to the feelings and desires of those around her, Michéle is very much a textbook sociopath.  Yet, she is also the victim of the most heinous crime which leaves its victim alive afterward and this naturally makes us sympathetic to her.   If this were any other film which began in any other way Michéle would almost certainly be the villain, but Elle is a film brave enough to go into places so dark in such a well thought out way that we get to experience the life of a sociopath through the eyes of a sociopath, and who ever sees themselves as the villain of their own story?

maxresdefault

Final recommendation:  Elle is one of the bravest, no-nonsense films I have ever seen.  I really do not think this film could have been made in Hollywood for a great many reasons.  It has an older female protagonist very much in touch with her sexuality, power, and desires.  It’s a film that shows there is a more fine line between misogyny and feminism than one would ever expect, and I still can’t say with any authority which side of that line this film falls on.  It’s a film that brazenly displays the relationship between sex and power unapologetically.  This is a dark, dark film that is often very funny, often uncomfortable, and always challenging.  If you are not up for a challenge, if you just feel the need for entertainment, then this is not one to watch, but if you want to see something that will make you rethink sexual politics and power, something truly provacative, Elle is an absolute must see.