COLUMBUS (2017)

August 3, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first feature film from Korean writer/director/editor Kogonada provides intimate and revealing slices of life that are somehow simultaneously familiar, thought-provoking, and enlightening. There is so much going in this seemingly quiet little story that we are left thinking that it could easily have been split into 2 or 3 movies.

Haley Lu Richardson stars as Casey, a local girl who works in the library and as a tour guide. She’s clearly smart, and readily admits to sacrificing her future for the responsibility of looking after her mother (Michelle Forbes) – a recovering addict to both meth and “s***heads”. Her exchanges with Gabriel (Rory Culkin) carry the weight of intellects-in-development, as well as strained attraction that is regularly shut down through sneakily awkward and uncomfortable moments. Their back-and-forth on reading, video games and attention spans is one of the best on-screen exchanges we will hear this year.

The film begins with an elderly man having some type of seizure, sending him to the hospital and canceling his scheduled architecture presentation. His son Jin (John Cho) arrives from out of town and the next morning has an initial inelegant crossing of paths with Casey. The lack of connection between the two transforms in a beautifully written and photographed scene the next day. Shot from the other side of the window glass with no audible dialogue, we witness the moment Casey lets down her guard and Jin becomes enamored. It’s a unique and wonderful scene – so quiet, yet it changes everything.

Columbus, Indiana is the other star of the film. Its famous modern architecture is featured prominently throughout as Casey guides Jin to her favorites. Their corresponding conversations, usually while puffing on cigarettes, gradually become more detailed and more revealing. Doorways, bridges, windows, and buildings become part of the conversation, and crucial to the look and feel created by cinematographer Elisha Christian.

Mr. Cho captures the stoic nature of a son inconvenienced by a Korean culture that requires him to be present should his father die. He is miffed by the need to ‘adequately grieve’ for the man who never put his own life on hold for his son. Ms. Richardson is the revelation here. Having seen her in SPLIT, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, and THE BRONZE, it was obvious she had screen presence, but here she shows the depth and range that portends a long and varied acting career. Her slumped shoulders and panged expression are spot on for a 19 year old who is too smart for her situation, yet too young and unworldly to know how to forge ahead.

Kogonada proves himself a sly storyteller as well as a master of visual setting, utilizing language, architecture and above all, conversation. At one point, Jin asks Casey “Are we losing interest in everyday life?” This filmmaker is doing his part to keep us aware and interested.

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CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

July 21, 2016

cafe society Greetings again from the darkness. 80 year old Woody Allen continues to amaze with his proclivity to crank out a movie every year. With such movie abundance comes the inevitable hit and miss conversations. Of course, there are those who have never had a taste for his work and another group who have sworn off his films due to the headlines from his personal life. Still, as a filmmaker, his work is usually good for some analysis and debate.

This time out, Woody’s story is set in the 1930’s and it revolves around a young man from the Bronx who heads to Hollywood in hopes of making something of himself. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is the typical on screen alter-ego for Mr. Allen and displays many of the physical and personality traits we have come to expect. It’s a perfect fit for Eisenberg. Bobby’s naivety takes a beating as he assumes a gofer job under his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a power broker agent to the stars. Things really get juicy when Phil directs his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the local sites to Bobby. As the two youngsters grow closer, Vonnie must choose between the romantic idealism of Bobby, and the luxuries afforded by her older boyfriend (guess who??).

Allen revisits many (if not all) of his familiar themes: religion and the afterlife, misfit relationships, Los Angeles vs New York, jazz, older man/younger woman, and one of his favorites … “what’s the point?” This time he also throws in a nostalgic look at Hollywood by name-dropping some famous stars of the era, but he’s just as quick to flash his lack of respect for the movie industry and seems to compare it to the world of east coast gangsters (such as Bobby’s brother played by Corey Stoll).

This is Mr. Allen’s first digital movie, and it’s his first time to work with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor). The golden hue and low-level lighting provide a nostalgic feel and warmth to the scenes – even when the characters themselves aren’t so cuddly. Excellent set design and costumes add to the beautiful and classy look of the movie. As always, Allen is working with a deep cast – this one includes Sheryl Lee, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively, Jeannine Berlin and Ken Stott.

Life is a comedy … written by a sadistic comedy writer.” It’s the perfect Woody Allen line and we get the feeling he actually believes it. Heard here as a somewhat emotionless narrator, Mr. Allen makes it clear that Bobby’s character (with no apparent skills) is a fish out of water in L.A, but thrives in nightclub management once he returns to the beloved NYC. Bobby’s adventure hardens the young man, while he maintains the mushy core of first love that Woody so adores. Toss in a love triangle and little respect for the women characters, and we end up with a movie that feels like a movie about Woody Allen movies.

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IRRATIONAL MAN (2015)

July 30, 2015

irrational man Greetings again from the darkness. Woody Allen turns 80 years old later this year, and he continues to crank out a new movie every 12 -15 months. While his production level is impressive, many of his films cause us to question if possibly fewer films, each receiving a bit more attention to detail, might prove more effective. Revisiting one of his favorite themes – life is meaningless – this latest provides a funked-up burned-out philosophy professor as our tour guide.

We feel for the three lead actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey. Somehow all three roles are underwritten, causing some awkward moments on screen as these talented folks grasp for inspiration or direction in many scenes. The character of Abe (Mr. Phoenix) is introduced as a brilliant mind and popular teacher who has a reputation of being intimate with his students. When we first see him, he’s but a paunchy, alcoholic shell of a man … nearly oblivious to social graces. Jill (Ms. Stone) is the talented and gregarious student, and daughter of two professors, who should be entirely too smart to fall for anyone as self-loathing and careless as Abe. Drawing the shortest of all short straws is Ms. Posey as the stereotypical middle-aged woman seeking excitement somewhere other than her stable husband.

Evidently quoting Kant is designed to provide depth to character and story, and trick us into thinking existentialism is the only topic worthy of discussion … as long as it occurs while sucking down beer and nursing a flask. We are to believe that Abe’s decision to carry out a horrific crime can be justified since the victim was not a “good person” and it leads to a shift in attitude and renewed interest in life and yes, even sex. The film’s title does little to extinguish the writer/director’s apparent belief that questionable personal actions do not make a bad person. It seems real life and cinema have intersected yet again.

There are many topics touched on here, though unfortunately the story merely scratches the multiple surfaces. The professor’s reputation precedes his arrival, but we are never given any indication what makes him brilliant … what makes him popular with students … or what makes him attractive to so many. The idea of a crime being justified if the victim is not a credit to society has been explored much better in numerous other stories. Murder acting as Abe’s muse may be the most intriguing aspect of the script, but it’s treated mostly as a gimmick and never allowed to fully develop. Lastly, there are a couple of lines that seem to contradict each other. One is related to whether a passionate thinker can change the world, while the other says “wishing doesn’t work”. Again, these competing thoughts could have been explored and provided more thought-inducing moments. Instead, we are left with an excellent jazz score (especially the Ramsey Lewis Trio) on a paved road with few answers to the basic philosophical questions offered up by default.

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NED RIFLE (2015)

April 2, 2015

ned rifle Greetings again from the darkness. The third and final entry to writer/director Hal Hartley’s trilogy provides a fitting end to the saga that began in 1997 with Henry Fool, and continued in 2006 with Fay Grim. Mr. Hartley’s style lends itself well to the indie world and film festival circuit, as he connects with unusually paced and elevated dialogue, an arid-dry sense of humor, and a slew of misfit characters.

The four main characters have been played by the same actors across all three films. Liam Aiken was only 7 years old when he first played Ned, and he becomes the focus of this final chapter. Ned is the son of Fay (Parker Posey) and Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan). When this story picks up, Fay is serving a life sentence in federal prison for terrorist activities, and Henry’s whereabouts are unknown … except by “Uncle” Simon (James Urbaniak), the garbage man-turned-poet laureate.

Ned is turning 18 years old and has spent four years in witness protection as part of a family led by a guilt-ridden Reverend (Martin Donovan). Ned has really taken to religion – especially the fire and brimstone vengeance parts. See, Ned blames Henry for Fay’s life turn and aims to gain revenge.

The first part of the movie has Ned and Susan (Aubrey Plaza) tracking down Henry. Susan is the grad student supposedly working with Fay on her autobiography, and stalking Simon for his poetic metaphysics. But of course, Susan has secrets and some are less than pleasant.

Once Henry is located, Mr. Ryan provides a nice energy boost and shift in tone. He is one glorious film character … unless of course, you are his son or some other poor schmuck left floundering in his wake of life. He and Ned don’t really have much of a bond, but Ryan and Plaza create some fireworks that some may find a bit creepy.

Just keeping up with the rapid-fire dialogue from Henry, Simon and Susan is a cinematic joy, and the off-beat humor prevents the dark material from ever reaching a bleak stage. When Ned visits Fay in prison she asks disgustedly “You’re religious?” – making it clear that she, a convicted felon, is extremely disappointed in her 18 year old son. It’s played for a laugh and gets one. There is another line spouted by Susan that includes a review of “obscene work indifferent to mainstream approval“. We have little doubt that line was written by Mr. Hartley to describe his own work.

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