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Monday, October 24, 2016

On Modernized Vintage Horror, Scary Little Girls, and OUIJA: THE ORIGIN OF EVIL

Do you hear that? That's the sound of every American horror filmmaker running to his or her mediocre script and quickly changing the year of the setting to the 1960s--or 1970s--in order to achieve the now coveted vintage look that lately has been indicative to a successful film. It's true, 1970s horror remains the most provocative decade in the genre ever--with its examination of inherent evil, faith, and the church. So I understand the allure to recreate that now. Plus, with the box office impact of The Conjuring 2 (and the abomination that was the first Ouija film), I'm sure costume designer are raiding closets for bell bottom jeans. Director/co-writer Mike Flanagan's OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL has jumped right on board that bandwagon.

While I do enjoy the homage to great horror films from the past, I just hope Hollywood doesn't run this trend into the ground so hard it loses its flavor. But beyond all that, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is actually a really decent film. Does it reinvent the wheel? Not especially. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't genuinely tense (and, yes, even frightened) at times while watching the film. (slight spoiler: characters who've been asphyxiated should never be allowed to spring back to life to torment the living any longer, but you know, horror films are always trying to take it to the next level).

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL centers on a single mother (Elizabeth Reaser), a seance artist, and her two school-age daughters, Lina and Doris (Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson), in 1965 Los Angeles. After the death of her husband, Alice (Reaser) has been making ends meet with a home business, albeit a scam, with the help of her daughters who are always eager to earn that extra buck by pretending to be the ghost of a grieving widow desperate to reconnect. Alice finally decides to purchase a Ouija board to further enhance her customers' experience. So, right away it's established that they're not the traditional 1960s family (though the girls do go to Catholic School--another nod to the faith element of classic horror). But, like with most horror films in which the protagonists willingly invite horror into their lives (you know the ones: where they spend a night in an abandoned asylum or pick up that bloodied hitchhiker from the side of the road), they get more than what they bargained. A real spirit, not like the ones they've been fabricating, inhabits the body of Doris. Then, all hell truly breaks lose.

As you can probably imagine, 9-year-old Doris turns into an absolute terror--complete with having the ability to a bone-cracking back bend, suspend herself upside down on the wall, and assume a super creepy old man voice. She is the embodiment of every child menace in the horror canon. But the difference with OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is that there is no happy ending here. Things don't conclude with the mother jumping inside a scary hole to reclaim her child or a priest saving the day. None of those rules apply here. It is literally every man, woman, and child for his- or herself. Which is the refreshing part about this film and, perhaps more importantly, it revives the franchise. Thanks to Flanagan's touch, we can finally forget about the dreadful first film altogether.

Rating: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

HAMILTON'S AMERICA (For People Who Still Haven't seen Hamilton the Musical and the Lottery Isn't Enuf)

I jest, but at some point we're really going to have to have a serious conversation about the plight of the Broadway attendee who's tried for months to "win" tickets to see Hamilton but keep getting that soul-crushing rejection email informing us that yet again we are unable to see the show. Is there a total number of times for us to apply and fail until we are just granted admittance for our persistence? Or, is there a support group for us to talk about our dashed feelings and listen to the soundtrack on loop?

The irony is here that I actually wasn't that pressed to see Hamilton up until recently. I couldn't understand the legions of fanatics chanting the soundtrack and quoting it amid random conversation. It was like everyone was under a spell and it had somehow bypassed me. That is, until Hamilton's America. the new PBS documentary that is at once a consolation prize for those who have been aching to see the show and a damn good promotional tool for those (like me) who hadn't yet crossed over to the 5th Hamilton dimension. Guys, this documentary has H Y P N O T I Z E D me. All of a sudden, I am humming/rapping the few verses I have been able to memorize from the film, and--wait for it--applying for the lottery every day. Yes, I have become a Hamilnut.

I had the pleasure of watching the documentary with an intimate audience of 3,000 at the United Palace Theater here in New York with--again, wait for it--none other than the show's Tony Award-winning creator and Alexander Hamilton himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Christopher Jackson (who plays George Washington), and Robin Roberts. Needless to say, most of us commoners were glued to our chairs with Cheshire cat smiles. Not only do we finally get to see some amazing clips from the show (featuring the original principle cast members including Miranda, Jackson, Philippa Soo, Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., and Renee Elise Goldsberry), but director Alex Horwitz takes us on the fascinating journey of the narrative--from its genesis to its award-winning and record-breaking success. From coming up with the idea for Hamilton after reading author Ron Chernow's 826-page tome, Alexander Hamilton, on vacation, to juggling impending fatherhood and composing the lyrics for each Hamilton track (up until just a few weeks before opening night), to discovering and conveying a deeper parallel between the story of Hamilton himself (an immigrant from the West Indies) to the story of so many rappers and musicians whose descendants also hailed from another country and came to America where they struggled and hustled and worked their tails off to achieve the elusive American Dream (hence, where Miranda got the idea to compose the score as mostly rap songs).

But we don't just hear from Miranda in Hamilton's America (to his own admission during the post-screening conversation with Chernow and Horwitz, this story is far greater than him). Cast members also appear on camera to illuminate the stories of their characters' trajectories, ambitions, success, and transgressions--as footage of the original locations where the real-life characters convened and lived and preserved artifacts they used are interwoven throughout the narrative. You can tell that the actors themselves were also deeply impacted by the roles they played. Historians, entertainers, and politicians, including President Barack Obama, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jimmy Fallon, Questlove, Nas, and George W. Bush, also peppered the narrative with how the show has affected their lives, research, and connected the musical narrative with these important influencers. Hamilton's America highlights the importance of the show's narrative--which is a brilliant way to teach anyone the history of some of America's Founding Fathers in a way that 1) doesn't bore them to tears and 2) helps them gain a more thorough appreciation for the influence of history in today's world (and within some of our contemporary heroes). Again, this is damn good publicity for the show (which--reminder--we may likely never see).

If I had to identify one drawback from Hamilton's America, it would be how little was discussed about the rather monumental racial liberties of the casting. That could be, as one of the cast members infers in the film, because the audience is so deeply engaged in the story that the actors are mere vehicles of the story--and their race becomes an afterthought. Or, it could just be further indication of how Broadway is just leaps and bounds in front of all other entertainment mediums as far as racial acceptance goes. Still, it would have been nice for either Miranda or the casting director to acknowledge it as the cherry on the pie of an otherwise terrific documentary.

Reel Talk Online rating: A- (**** out of *****)

Hamilton's America premiered on PBS on Friday. Check your local listings for encore presentations. You can also watch the full film on the PBS Great Performances website.

Watch the trailer:

Monday, October 17, 2016

NYFF Review: Gael Garcia Bernal is the Only Reason to Watch theOtherwise Distant Cat-And-Mouse Drama, NERUDA

For what it's worth, there are several factors related to NERUDA, the new film about the Chilean poet-turned-political fugitive Pablo Neruda recently shown at the New York Film Festival, that could be considered interesting. Its director, Pablo Larraín (No), has made his mark in Hollywood bringing the stories of notable Chilean figures to the big screen, breaking through Hollywood's narrow-minded gaze and educating American audiences about historical names that don't just consist of Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe. (I'll be the first to admit, I've never heard of Neruda before either watching this movie). And Larraín is also getting tons of buzz for his other festival darling--coincidentally his first American feature-- Jackie, about the elusive Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

But what is the most intriguing thing about NERUDA is Gael Garcia Bernal, not just because he is the bee's knees 100% of the time, but because his character, Inspector Óscar Peluchonneau who's on a relentless hunt for Neruda, is actually fictional--and he still steals the show. This is a good and bad thing. Good because the significance of his character shifts the film from what could have been another boring political drama (I'm sorry but it took me two days to finish No because I fell asleep, twice), to a sometimes engrossing and very expansive cat-and-mouse film. And bad because the title character in the film, the catalyst for the narrative and the inspiration for the movie, is reduced to an uninteresting supporting character. It's actually disappointing in that regard, since Luis Gnecco who plays Neruda is clearly very committed to the role, infusing subtle moments of comedy and quirk in Neruda's rather dignified flight from Chile due to his steadfast Communist beliefs, especially given the fact that had is also known for his 2008 comedy stint on La Ofis, the Chilean version of the British series, The Office, playing the same role as Ricky Gervais. He's definitely a great character actor, but despite the sometimes colorful of the character he possesses here, he's just not compelling. That's partly Guillermo Calderón's script, designed to be more of a vehicle for Bernal, and also because we just don't get close enough to Neruda to really become invested in him. He comes off as a rather cocky artist who just so happens to be a political outlaw, but we don't get much else. Someone on the team here obviously didn't think Neruda's story was enough to sell the film--and apparently they were right.

While NERUDA ultimately suffers from the aforementioned issues, Bernal however is excellent. Not only does he embody the arrogance of a member of law enforcement, eager to do whatever it takes to solve a case that would grant him significant notoriety. But he has another more personal motivation aligned with his need for validation, which adds a level of humanity to the film that is sorely lacking otherwise. His portrayal drives the urgency of the narrative, though it doesn't materialize until very late in the film. A welcome note, sure, but it illuminates the film's weakness: a scattering of well-intentioned elements that need to be better organized for a more effortless narrative presentation. 

And speaking of its presentation, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the glorious photography in the film (shout out to Sergio Armstrong), with the exception of the woefully shoddy driving scenes in which the background clearly gives away that they're actually filming on a sound stage. But, so many of the scenes is like right out of an oil painting --luscious and immersive. Too bad the rest of the film isn't always so mesmerizing.

Rating: C+ (**1/2 out of *****)

Friday, October 14, 2016

NYFF Review: Rape Culture, Feminism, and the Imperfect ELLE

As the Internet continues to interrogate #rapeculture, U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's sexual assault allegations, and the vast number of men who "just don't get it," I find it rather uncomfortable to discuss a film whose storyline is centered around a violent rape sequence--that's replayed several times throughout the film. Does it matter that it uses the rape of a woman to illustrate her power over men?

Well, that's just what director Paul Verhoeven's cold as ice French drama, ELLE, attempts to do. And to some degree, it is quite engrossing to watch actress Isabelle Huppert as Michèle, an unlikable boss b*tch type, co-owner of a video game company with mostly male employees, react to her sexual assault--in her own house, mind you--by dismissing it altogether, referring to it only as an aside. I say unlikable because it's pivotal to note this about Michèle's character. It's clear that she equates being a victim to weakness, something she detests. And it doesn't stop there. She's what some may call a man-eater, a total nightmare to her ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling)--tries to slash the windows of his car and make his new girlfriend's life hell--and her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) goes as far as to call her a "c*nt." Her testosterone-driven underlings at the office hate her yet bend over backwards to impress her-which isn't easy to do. She revels in the feeling of being intimidating, feared, and even loathed. And she's been doing everything she can to maintain this representation with no remorse ever since she was a child (when a particularly terrible series of events occurred). It emboldens her. That's why being assaulted in her own home, her castle, is so profound. And that's likely why Verhoeven forces his audience to relive it several times. It's distressing to see a crime that attempts to reduce the power of its fiercely powerful female victim, who also just so happens to be a hot middle aged woman.

But what does it mean when that crime fails to impair the woman's spirit, instead motivating her avenge her rape--not by reciprocating the crime but by finding, then abating and belittling the perpetrator? Does it weaken the crime if the threat of said crime recurring is null and void, but rather expected and desired--but only in an attempt to regain the the authority of the crime?

Verhoeven, with David Birke's script, explores each of these questions in a cantankerous yet slick thriller that provokes you to think about what feminism looks like when it's violated. But while ELLE relies heavily on the strength of its unlikable woman heroine, its relentless focus on Michèle's suffocating chill factor allows for no breathing room in the narrative--and breaks any connection it could have with the audience.

Rating: C (**1/2 out of *****)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

NYFF Review: Kristen Stewart's PERSONAL SHOPPER Leaves Much to be Desired

It took me a long time to finally care about Kristen Stewart the actress. She'd given me so many reasons to write her off, culminating in the disaster that was Snow White and the Huntsmen, that I shocked myself loving her performance in Equals so much last year. Ever since then, I have lowkey been on the KStew train. Even the the unsatisfying Cafe Society hasn't turned me away just yet (though she was actually decent in the otherwise bland film).

So when PERSONAL SHOPPER appeared on the New York Film Festival slate, I got kinda hyped. First of all, it's described as a genre film--a paranormal "thriller," to be exact--which immediately catches my attention. Though, after actually watching the film I now know that was incredibly generous. It's more like an "other" film, and not in a good way. It spends a lot of time building up to something on which it never delivers--a distinct mark of a bad film.

Stewart stars as Maureen, who's spending time in Paris as a personal shopper to Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), a spoiled, annoying superstar. (Maureen might have a secret obsession with haute couture, though she pretends to not care about any of it). But she is also there for another reason: Her brother Lewis, a medium, recently passed away there. She is hoping to find closure by visiting the place in which he died, and connecting with him one last time. So, in the first act of the film, I am still hopeful that this is going to be a thriller of some sort since she's apparently going to call on a dead person and have a final conversation with him (a basic premise, but I am still hanging on at this point). But then, nothing really happens beyond this. Maureen tries several times to beckon Lewis and he doesn't really come through (not really anyway). Despite foreboding music and a Scooby Doo-like apparition, there is nothing that scary, dark, or appealing going on here.

And the second act seems to be where writer/director Olivier Assayas PERSONAL SHOPPER recognizes the issues the film is already having and tries to replace it with a whole other plot that bears no connection to the premise. It's like we're watching a draft of the film that's still being worked on, and not the final cut. It becomes a bad crime fiction novel adaptation that wants to be a slick mystery (but is absolutely not that).

Despite Stewart's commitment (which really is impressive to see unfold in the middle of a sinking ship), the film is--no irony intended--dead on arrival. There are elements of loneliness and restlessness in both Maureen and her confidante Sara (Sigrid Bouaziz), but neither is compelling or developed enough to drive a narrative. PERSONAL SHOPPER is a flat, wasteful "thriller" that goes nowhere fast.

Rating: D+ (** out of *****)

Watch the trailer:

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

NYFF Review: Pedro Almodóvar's JULIETA Tells a Heartbreaking Yet Beautiful Story of a Mother and Daughter

Director Pedro Almodóvar does not get enough credit for bringing us some of the most interesting, full, and compelling women characters on the big screen. They're stars of their own narratives, beautiful, thrilling, and often heartbreaking reflections. But where Almodóvar especially soars is his examination of the mother and daughter relationship. He doesn't just present a mother and daughter; he brings us in their lives, shatters them, and bonds them eternally through a single connected moment they both share. And JULIETA is no exception.

A sweeping yet intimate drama tracing the devastating estrangement of the title character (played first by Adriana Ugarte and in later years by Emma Suárez) from her daughter (Blanca Parés then Priscilla Delgado), JULIETA, which was shown at the New York Film Festival, follows a woman through love, loss and longing over nearly 30 years. When we first meet Julieta, she's a free-spirited schoolteacher in Spain, whose job has run its course. As she drifts to her next stage in life, she meets Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a train, who would become her greatest love in old Hollywood romantic flair. And soon she's pregnant with their daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado, then Blanca Parés). Brimming with happiness with her new family, Julieta's world comes to a crippling halt when Xoan unexpectedly dies, leaving her to raise a daughter she soon realizes she barely knows while she at the same time struggles to reclaim a new lease on life.

Spending years in an emotionally comatose state following the tragedy, Julieta doesn't recognize how much time has passed until her daughter, who often ended up caring for her during that time, becomes an adult and isn't around anymore. By then, their relationship had already mysteriously severed, sending Julieta into a tailspin. When she begins to reconnect with what was once her normal existence years after that, even taking on a boyfriend (Lorenzo, charmingly played by Darío Grandinetti), a chance encounter with someone from her past compels her to write a letter to her now estranged daughter, telling her all the things for which she never found the words in earlier years. Thus sets up the foundation of JULIETA.

Once again, Almodóvar unlocks layers of unspoken narrative between a mother and daughter, like a mesmerizing kaleidoscope. While Antía's story isn't revealed until the third act, we as the audience see what Julieta isn't able to see until she comes into the realization late in her reflection.  
And through Suárez's narration as she relives genuine happiness, followed by overwhelming despair and later regret, we too experience each emotion. Flashback scenes peaking into Julieta's close relationship with her own mother (played by Susi Sánchez), so simply stated and yet still elegant, further illuminate the profundity of Julieta's search to reconnect with her own daughter.

JULIETA is also proof that you can in fact tell a narrative that spans decades in under two hours. Despite its shorter length, the film never feels unfulfilled or abbreviated. Its terrific performances, beautiful narrative, and haunting score (punctuated by traces of Almodóvar's trademark dark humor) are so immersive that decades of life go by without it ever dragging.

Overall rating: A (***** out of *****)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

On Black Masculinity, LUKE CAGE, and MOONLIGHT

Black masculinity on screen is having a moment.

With more than two months left in 2016, we have two of the most inspired black male lead characters we've seen on screen in far too long--and they couldn't be any more different from each other. Perhaps you've heard of a little Netflix series called MARVEL'S LUKE CAGE? The transfixing narrative presents a black male superhero impervious to bullets and all other weapons in the era of #BlackLivesMatter. Mike Colter portrays the titular character, a commanding three-dimensional superhero whose complexities surpass not only those of other superheroes saturating the screen these days, but also non-comic book characters whose humanity can just as easily be an afterthought. Though his undeniable good looks are indeed part of his appeal, the fact that he also represents a compassionate, heroic, Walter Mosely aficionado, an unapologetically black man who isn't dependent on the white impression is reminiscent of the great John Shaft. He is unlike every other superhero you've seen on screen. And not just because he's black.    

And later this month, writer/director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) presents another look MOONLIGHT (which debuted at the New York Film Festival this month), a tender coming-of-age drama that tells the story of Chiron, a young black man growing up in Miami, grappling with self-identity as he's forced to find his own way with a drug addict mother (a woefully miscast Naomi Harris) and no real friends. Chiron's story unfolds through three distinct stages of his life--as a child, a teenager, and later a man in his mid-twenties--and in doing so allows the audience to experience his pain, longing, and loneliness along with him. This visceral connection is a precious one, since black male narratives are rarely allowed to have such emotion. Audiences are conditioned to expect the strong black male trope (which is just as limiting as the "strong black woman" trope) with a flimsy backstory. With this rarity, the black male character is given the allegiance to be vulnerable and introspective, and not reliant on romantic relationships with women as his sole narrative value.

In fact, Chiron's story--portrayed first by Alex R. Hibbert, then Ashton Sanders, and later Trevante Rhodes-- is solely his own, despite his search for definition, for belonging throughout the film. He's a drifter, waiting for life to tell him what to do, for people like Juan (exquisitely played by Mahershala Ali), someone who takes him in as a young child, and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), with whom he has the most intimate connection, to give him some direction. Though Chiron speaks very little, the actors' quiet portrayals depicted primarily through their eyes here is more poignant than dialogue. Through each of their performances, and the rich narrative, Jenkins delivers an authentic, necessary statement of black male self-love.

With the success of these two narratives should come more discussion surrounding what we as audience members should expect and continue to demand from Hollywood: fully realized, diverse stories representing the black male experience across all genres. Let's go.

MOONLIGHT is in theaters October 21, and MARVEL'S LUKE CAGE is now streaming on Netflix.

Overall rating for MOONLIGHT: B+ (**** out of *****)

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