REVIEW: “Columbus”

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A mere 40 miles south of Indianapolis is the quirky city of Columbus, Indiana. In many ways Columbus is like any other modestly populated city – it has its schools, churches, and key industries as its financial backbone. But this city of 45,000 people sports one unique distinction. It is the home for an amazing variety of modernist art and architecture.

This provides the setting for the aptly titled film “Columbus” – the impressive debut feature from Kogonada. Known only by his first name, the Korean-born Kogonada previously worked as a video essayist spotlighting legendary auteurs from cinema’s rich history. A quick gander at his website reveals not just an understanding of his subjects (Bresson, Godard, Kubrick just to name a few) but also a genuine passion for their visions and techniques.

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Kogonada brings that knowledge and affection to “Columbus” which he directed, wrote and edited. His appreciation for the city’s architectural heritage is just as evident and it’s captured in nearly every frame. Whether Kogonada is shooting Columbus City Hall, North Christian Church, Irwin Union Bank, or the Robert Stewart Bridge, he and cinematographer Elisha Christian use each modernist structure to subtly establish personality and emotion.

But this isn’t simply a Travel Channel city tour. Kogonada’s use of architecture is full of purpose, but the heart of the film is found in the two main characters – two polar opposites bruised by their own personal circumstances. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a Columbus native and recent high school graduate who works at the local library. She’s bright and ambitious but her dreams are tossed aside because of her obligations to her troubled mother (Michelle Forbes). Jin (John Cho) works as a literature translator in Korea but is called to Columbus after his estranged father falls into a coma.

Clearly influenced by Linklater’s “Before” trilogy and with the minimalist strokes of a Jarmusch film, the story has these two strangers meet and a relationship is slowly formed. Similar to Jesse and Celine in “Before Sunrise”, Casey and Jin are cracked open through a series of conversations that occur as the two stroll across Columbus. Between their musings on Saarinen, Pei, and Weese are the more personal and revealing exchanges that gradually endear them more to each other and to us.

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While the framework may not sound highly original, the film avoids all of the traditional story beats you might expect. It’s sometimes tempting to allow our expectations to get ahead of a story, but Kogonada doesn’t leave much room for that. There is always a hint of uncertainty with these two characters and their unique relationship. This leaves the audience guessing.

One thing that differentiates “Columbus” from the “Before” films are the scenes when Casey and Jin are apart. More than mere filler, these moments give form to the conversations the two have together. We get a better understanding of Casey through her modest and worrisome home life with her mom or her discussions with her neurotic friend and co-worker Gabriel (nicely played by Rory Culkin). For Jin its the quiet alone time wrestling with how he should be feeling or reflections with his father’s longtime assistant (Parker Posey). These scenes are elegantly composed and never feel false or contrived.

But the most potent ingredients are the two lead performances. Cho is a natural at subtlety – somber, reserved and authentic at every turn. But it’s Richardson who steps out as a true revelation. She’s an incredibly expressive actress and we never see her overplay a scene or oversell an emotion. She conveys an effortless charm and sincerity that instantly captures our sympathies. It’s an eye-opening performance.

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There is a soulful longing in both Casey and Jin – two hurting people from very different places forced to put their lives on the back burner. In one scene Kogonada has them wrestle with the question – is there a healing power to architecture? What seems like an absurdity may not be so far-fetched. It’s architecture that first connects these two wounded souls and it lingers in the background during each of their conversations.

Perhaps Kogonada’s camera answers that question for us. There is a therapeutic quality to his perspectives. His camera rarely moves and he communicates plenty through every carefully composed shot. And while “Columbus” highlights the allure of architecture, it just as much showcases the fine art of cinema in what is one of the most striking debuts in decades. Kogonada is a filmmaker to watch.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

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REVIEW: “The Circle”

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Nestled somewhere deep inside of “The Circle” lies an interesting concept for a movie. Maybe it was bad creative choices. Maybe the Dave Eggers novel didn’t translate well from book to screen. I’m guessing it’s a combination of both that shortchange this film adaptation. There are certainly some filmmaking decisions that don’t pan out and you would like to think the tech-heavy story is better explored in Eggers’s novel (which I haven’t read).

“The Circle” is directed by James Ponsoldt who also wrote the screenplay along with Eggers. Their story tinkers with modern themes of privacy, interconnectivity, and even Information Age totalitarianism to a degree. It all sounds nice a relevant. Problem is it’s all squished together in a half-baked of soup of clumsy execution, unbelievable story angles, and underdeveloped relationships.

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Emma Watson plays Mae Holland, an aimless twenty-something stuck working a crummy job, driving a crummy car, and with a crummy social life. Things perk up when her best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) gets her an interview at The Circle, a Silicone Valley tech corporation in the mold of Apple, Google, etc. Mae gets hired (to what position I still haven’t figured out) and is soon grafted into the company’s cultish hipster culture.

Tom Hanks plays Eamon Bailey, the company’s Steve Jobs-ish CEO who has his predominately millennial employees under his charismatic spell. He opens the door for Mae to climb the corporate ladder by becoming the face of his push for more control of the world’s information. Mae’s rise makes her a celebrity on campus but distances her from her family and friends.

A key conflict in the film pits Mae’s old personal life again her new life of success and popularity at the Circle. The film struggles to make Mae’s personal life worth caring about. Her parents are played by Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly, the two genuine characters in the entire movie. Paxton’s Vinnie struggles with MS while Headly’s Bonnie is his strong supportive caregiver. They are easy to care for but much of that comes from the real life circumstances. Both Paxton and Headly died this year adding an extra emotional punch to these final performances.

“The Circle” tries to offer up a thought-provoking critique but ultimately it’s more goofy than provocative. First off it’s simply impossible to believe in The Circle as an actual organization and it’s even harder to believe in the many characters who bought into it. And in this world don’t underestimate the power of the frownie face emoji in foreign policy. And then you have Mae stepping out and becoming ‘transparent’. It’s meant to be a big deal step forward when it’s nothing more than a souped up YouTube channel

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Several other things stand out. Ellar Coltrane (“Boyhood”) plays Mae’s shy childhood friend. They do some interesting things with his character before it runs off the rails but it’s hard to enjoy it because Coltrane’s performance is so bad. And then you have John Boyega, a welcomed addition but he the story completely wastes him.

Despite its many sour notes “The Circle” isn’t unbearable. It moves along pretty well and it keeps your attention. But I wonder if that’s due to good filmmaking or to my bubbling curiosity that just couldn’t wait to see where this mess would go next. Regardless of what it teases, “The Circle” doesn’t really go anywhere and that may be its biggest flaw – lots of potential, practically all of it wasted.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Christine” (2016)

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The on-air suicide of news reporter Christine Chubbuck has long been considered one of television’s most shocking moments. Behind that tragic event lies a troubling story of a young woman’s loneliness, self-doubt and severe depression. The movie “Christine” sets out to explore the final few days of Christine Chubbuck’s life right to its violent end on live tv.

Craig Shilowich wrote the script after feeling a deep personal connection to Chubbuck’s story. His own seven-year bout with depression inspired him to explore the issues that could have drawn Chubbuck to such a drastic final act. Shilowich interviewed family and coworkers in an attempt to piece together Christine’s state of mind. Director Antonio Campos allows Shilowich’s story to slowly boil which is perceptive but also harrowing since we know how it will end.

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Christine Chubbock is played by Rebecca Hall who gives us a remarkable performance that burrows deep beneath her character’s fragile surface. Hall’s physical and mental transformation show an intense level of commitment that draws us deeper into the story. Hall’s method is somber and restrained which helps her to visualize the crippling effects of depression.

The film explores several areas of Chubbock’s life, each contributing to her troubled mental state. First is her personal life, specifically her lack of companionship. Campos puts a heavy emphasis on Chubbock’s loneliness. Her past is hinted at through references and the relationship with her mother offers some of Christine’s most vulnerable and perceptive moments.

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We also spend a lot of time in her workplace – a Sarasota, Florida television station. Her main focus as a news reporter was on local community pieces. This puts her at odds with her abrasive and mildly chauvinist boss (Tracy Letts) who pushes for more sensationalism in her stories. She also finds herself lagging behind her competition for a new promotion in a bigger news market. There’s even a sudden health issue she is forced to deal with.

Subtly the film grows more unnerving with each step forward. Campos methodically puts together the pieces of this story and it’s tough to endure knowing the tragic finale that lies ahead. The presentation is authentic thanks to dashes of retro 70’s detail. The performances are superb especially from Hall who should be mentioned among the best of the year. But the real punch comes from the story itself, a mournful heart-breaking account of Christine Chubbuck’s final days. The filmmakers understand that which makes “Christine” all the more powerful.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Don’t Think Twice”

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Writer-director Mike Birbiglia proves he’s one to watch after his smart, witty, and utterly genuine comedy/drama “Don’t Think Twice”. This infectious indie examines the fine line between collaborative loyalties and personal career ambitions while at the same time celebrating a very distinct form of American performance art.

Birbiglia’s career in humor has had many faces. He’s mostly known for his stand-up comedy but has found success as an author and film actor. Birbiglia also spent time doing improv during his college years which strengthens his voice in this film. He’s a guy who intimately understands the difficulties of the funnyman trade which is made clear by the delicacy and candor he uses in handling his material.

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The story revolves around a Brooklyn-based improv troupe known as The Commune. It consists of six friends who genuinely love what they do but who aren’t without higher ambitions. While they maintain steady audiences, making people laugh isn’t always a lucrative occupation and several members work side jobs just to get by. The big blow comes when the group is hit with the news that their theater space is closing. Yet regardless of their circumstances and just like in improv, the tightly-knit group always have each other’s back.

Miles (played by Birbiglia) founded the group and spends his spare time teaching improv and talking about the time he was “within inches” of making it big. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) has a ton of talent but tends to thrust himself into the spotlight. His girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) doesn’t know where she wants her career to go. Allison (Kate Micucci) has been struggling to finish her graphic novel for years. Bill (Chris Gethard) battles insecurity and feelings that true success has passed him by. Lindsay (Tami Sagher) lives off of her rich parents and is constantly in counseling. It’s a good assortment of characters with solid performances throughout.

Their camaraderie is tested when one member breaks their second commandment – “It’s all about the group”. Reps from Weekend Live (a sketch comedy television show in the vein of Saturday Night Live) attend one of The Commune’s shows and afterwards offer auditions to two members of the group. What looks like opportunity for two gives way to envy, frustration, and insecurity as each person is forced to deal with where they are in life both professionally and personally. And as in reality, the truth isn’t always easy to digest.

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Despite the great chemistry in their performances and their seamless friendships, Birbiglia creates a looming cloud of desperation that hangs over each character. And everything is grounded in reality. Because of this the film works as a genuinely funny comedy but also a bittersweet drama. Everyone feels in tune with their circumstance and each relationship we get is authentic.

By the end of “Don’t Think Twice” I felt I knew each of these people. I knew their personalities, their struggles, and their aspirations. Most importantly I cared. That’s because there is an honest approach to the material by everyone involved. I found myself caught up in its wit and sincerity as well as its ability to remind us that life can be as spontaneous and uncertain as the performance art this film is celebrating.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Captain Fantastic”

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“Captain Fantastic” begins with a gorgeous opening shot that pans a dense forest canopy. It’s followed by an equally beautiful shot on the forest floor gazing up at the tree tops. The soothing quiet is only interrupted by the hypnotic sounds of nature. The sequence highlights the natural beauty but also the remoteness of the setting. It doesn’t take long for us to learn why this is important.

Actor Matt Ross wrote and directed this movie that on the surface resembles a left-wing fairytale. Viggo Mortensen plays a father named Ben who lives in isolation deep in the forest with his six children. They live off the land (as much as possible), have impromptu Woodstock-esque campfire jams, and frequently discuss the merits of Marxism, Trotskyism, humanism, anti-capitalism and a hodgepodge of other left-leaning isms. They even celebrate Noam Chomsky Day, for goodness sake!

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But there is so much more beyond that surface-level first impression. Ross’s story digs deeper into these characters unfolding a plethora of complexities, inner-conflicts, and motivations. After several unforeseen turns we not only see these characters in a new light, but the entire movie itself becomes something completely unexpected. It becomes a movie not interested in politics, but in what makes these characters tick.

This film truly works better the less you know. I will say Ben and his kids aren’t without some contact with the outside world. Sometimes they hop into their bus/motor home (affectionately named Steve) and hit a small market for supplies. They check their post office box and Ben makes one or two necessary calls before heading back into the wilderness. But one day he gets some troubling news which sets the direction for the remainder of the movie.

What follows is a weird but enthralling concoction that features genre slices from American road trip movies to pitch black comedies. And while there is a small ‘liberal versus conservative’ narrative and their are some interesting social observations, this isn’t a political film. It’s incredibly open and fair in its characterizations. That’s because it is interested in something much deeper and more provocative. The discussions Ross wants us to have are beyond socialism vs. capitalism. He challenges us to look deeper into ourselves.

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For all this film does well Mortensen is the biggest highlight. In a nomination-worthy performance he takes this peculiar, off-beat character and depicts him with such bruising authenticity. He is the centerpiece and one of the film’s most compelling questions is whether or not Ben is a good father. At times the answer seems obvious while other times we can’t help but wonder. Yet we never doubt his love for his children. Mortensen is essential to selling this character. His performance is far from flashy. It’s subtle, completely unselfish, and works well with the really talented young cast.

Matt Ross’s story of this off-the-grid family clashing with the outside world naturally has its funny moments. But it’s also a film filled with genuine feeling. Ultimately “Captain Fantastic” is about the willingness to listen and be open. It speaks against separating ourselves and speaks to the idea of balance, both in our convictions and in our willingness to learn from others. It speaks to balance in our relationships with others and with the world around us. It’s a meaningful message wrapped up in a superb film guaranteed to be unlike anything else you’ll see this year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

 

2016 BlindSpot Series – “The Candidate” (1972)

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What better way to fill my November Blindspot than by watching “The Candidate”. On the heels of one of the ugliest elections in American history, “The Candidate” is a light and frothy escape by comparison. To take that a little further, putting today’s election process next to the film’s depiction of a political campaign is like putting Quintin Tarantino next to Walt Disney.

Robert Redford co-produced and starred in this small-budgeted political dramedy from 1972. This was a significant film for Redford who by that time was already an established movie star. But “The Candidate” was one of several early Redford pictures that showed his appreciation for smaller independent films. This would eventually lead to the creation of the Sunset Institute and of course the Sundance Film Festival.

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“The Candidate” follows the ins-and-outs of a California Senate race. Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is a community activist and son of former governor. He’s approached by Marvin Lucas (superbly played by Peter Boyle), a campaign strategist who needs a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Lucas’s sales pitch is a bit unusual – run against popular Republican incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Tom Porter) with absolutely no chance of winning. The one positive for McKay – say whatever you want about the issues you want. The idealistic McKay agrees.

From there the movie explores the behind-closed-doors politics involved in such a campaign. As McKay message begins to gain traction with the public, the party pours more resources into his campaign and (of course) want more control over him. That ‘clash versus compromise’ dynamic is a big part of the story. Jeremy Larner’s Oscar-winning script scrambles through the many layers of a campaign with keen insight and a satirical edge.

Director Michael Ritchie along with cinematographers Victor Kemper and John Korty shoot portions of the film in a semi-documentarian style which was a unique decision. It’s effective in adding an authenticity to how it pictures the campaign trail. They also do a good job capturing the sense of chaos both in front of the big crowds and the behind the scenes.

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“The Candidate” dives into the inner workings of a political campaign and portrays it as good as any film. The jostling and wrangling is shown in both a positive and negative light. Where the movie suffers is in its portrayal of Bill’s personal life, specifically with his wife Nancy (played by the lovely Karen Carlson). The script shortchanges their relationship and leaves a lot on the table. It hints at different conflicts but never explores them. Nancy has a good number of scenes but neither she or her relationship with Bill gets the attention it needs. It’s basically an afterthought and the plot-holes it leaves are noticeable.

Redford deserves a lot of credit. He has done a ton for independent cinema not only promoting it, but by making it a key part of his own filmography. At the time Redford was big enough to have focused strictly on attention-getting big studio pictures. “The Candidate” was far from that yet Redford made the movie he wanted to make. The result is a fine election film that excels when highlighting the campaign but falls a little short elsewhere.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars