REVIEW: “Les Cowboys”

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In “Les Cowboys” (or simply “The Cowboys” if you prefer) director Thomas Bidegain attempts to bring a modern French flavor to the John Ford western “The Searchers”. It’s certainly not the easiest undertaking considering the lofty status of the 1956 John Wayne classic, but Bidegain isn’t simply rehashing old material. He has his own story to tell. He just happens to nestle it within this well made homage.

Oddly enough the film begins at an American cowboy festival in France. Yep, a French hoedown complete with Stetsons, Wrangler jeans, line dancing, and the Tennessee Waltz. The entire cowboy fair is a celebration of the American country/western culture and you can’t help but giggle at the entire thing. At the same time it kinda fits with the story that will follow.

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This is where we meet Alain (Francois Damiens), his wife Nicole (Agathe Dronne), his teenaged daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), and son Georges (Finnegan Oldfield). They seem like a normal, tight-knit family, well liked by everyone else in attendance. But as the family prepares to leave after a full day of festivities they notice Kelly is missing.

It’s hard to gauge how much more I should say about the story. It takes several dramatic turns and becomes a much different film as it moves forward. Alain’s obsession to find his daughter is both understandable and sympathetic. But it consumes Alain to the point where he loses everything. Bidegain doesn’t give a black-or-white depiction of Alain’s state of mind. Constant dead-ends drive his obsession to darker more complex places.

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A significant hunk of the story focuses on Alain’s son Georges. He joins the hunt for his sister, but pulls back after witnessing what it does to his father. Much like his father, his life is dramatically changed due to the disappearance of Kelly. It allows for an interesting conversation on grief, family communication, religion, and more. Bidegain has the writing chops having penned the scripts for “The Prophet” and “Rust and Bone”. Here we get some of the same intriguing character exploration.

I’ve tried dancing around the details of “Les Cowboys” simply because specific details  drastically alter the course of the story. Knowing them in advance would cost the film its edge. As it takes these turns the film ventures into several unexpected areas both narratively and geographically. It can be a bit clunky especially with its use of time lapses and setting changes. But if you’re able to navigate those storytelling hurdles “Les Cowboys” gives you plenty of emotional meat to chew on.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “The Lobster”

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Occasionally you stumble across a movie that is nearly impossible to describe. In many of these cases it’s tough enough wrapping your own mind around what your seeing much less putting it into words. That is certainly the case with “The Lobster”, the latest film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos.

Much like his Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth” before it, “The Lobster” is a wacky surrealist concoction originating in the idiosyncratic mind of Lanthimos. I guess you could call the film a romantic dystopian sci-fi black comedy, but even that doesn’t cover all the bases. “The Lobster” once again finds Lanthimos toying with cultural standards and wickedly satirizing society’s view on love and relationships. For my money it’s funnier, stealthily more romantic, and a bit more digestible than “Dogtooth”. Yet it still requires a willingness to embrace the bizarre nature of its story.

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That last sentence is a biggie. “The Lobster” demands that we just go with it. It’s imperative. Spend too much time thinking on the absurdity and you’ve already gotten off on the wrong foot. Lanthimos starts off by setting the rules. In this ‘not too distant future’ being single is against the law. Those not married are taken to a hotel where they are given 45 days to find a new mate. If they do they are given the opportunity to earn their release back into the city. If they don’t they are transformed into the animal of their choosing and released into the wild.

See what I mean, bizarre beyond description yet within the boundaries set by the filmmaker it works. The main character is David (Colin Farrell). After his wife leaves him for another man, David is taken to the hotel where he begins his 45 days. Once registered David is placed within the hotel’s strict program featuring all sorts of weird companionship training and preparation. He makes friends with fellow residents John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw, but finding a future wife before his time runs out proves to be a challenge.

It’s best to be vague and let you sort through the nuttiness on your own, but I will say “The Lobster” has a sense of humor all its own. It’s rarely laugh-out-loud hysterical (although it can be). Instead the bulk of the humor is found in a variety of unexpected places. It’s all conveyed through an incessant deadpan style from straight-faced characters who live in a constant state of melancholy. There is also a smattering of brief bursts of violence to make things feel even more off-kilter.

There is a fairly dramatic shift at the midway mark and the second half sets off in a much different direction. The tone remains the same and the humor is still wacky and offbeat. But Lanthimos pulls back the reins and changes his focus as Rachel Weisz and Léa Seydoux are introduced into the story. Both actresses are really good, especially Weisz who gives us a reminder of why she’s an Oscar-winner. But the slower pace of the second half becomes an issue and it starts to wander as it makes its way to the finish line.

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And that brings me to the ending (without getting into spoilers). So many critics love ambiguous endings and “The Lobster” feeds those hearty affections. I too enjoy them as long as they leave me with something to chew on. This film’s abrupt, open-ended finish is more of an eye-roller than a thought-provoker. It doesn’t offer near enough in its ambiguity to contemplate other than the base narrative questions.

Despite its slow third act and frustrating end, “The Lobster” is uncompromising, provocative, and highly original at every turn. You literally never know where it’s going next. In this his first English-language film, Yorgos Lanthimos showcases his darkly funny form of absurdism through his own moody, muted lens. With “The Lobster” he works with a sharp satirical edge destroying our notions of companionship while also declaring our genuine need for it. The movie may lose some steam near the end, but it consistently engages us with this compelling idea.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Lion”

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“Lion” may best be described as a true account of two extraordinary, life-changing journeys experienced by young Saroo Brierley. That description gets to the  meat-and-potatoes of this moving, inspirational drama from first time feature director Garth Davis. And regardless of how hard you try, you’ll have a tough time leaving the theater dry-eyed.

“Lion” is adapted from Brierley’s memoir titled “A Long Way Home” which chronicles his separation from home as a young boy and his intense emotional struggle to reconnect as a young man. Australian poet and novelist Luke Davies wrote the screenplay which provided a series of unique challenges. From handling cultural shifts to avoiding the common trappings of highly emotional material, he and Davis masterfully present this complex tale.

Sunny Pawar stars in LION  Photo: Mark Rogers

The film divides Saroo’s life into two parts. The first features him as a 5 year-old boy living in a poor remote village outside of Khandwa, India. He’s portrayed through an astonishing performance by newcomer Sunny Pawar. Saroo’s mother (Priyanka Bose) collects rocks to provide food for her children while Saroo helps his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) doing menial jobs for change.

While in Khandwa for a week-long job Saroo is separated from his brother at a train station. After waiting for Guddu to come for him, Saroo mistakenly boards a train which takes him 1000 miles away to Calcutta. Once there the film confronts a number of issues through young Saroo’s eyes – the plight of street children, child trafficking, poverty, and even adoption which we see when Saroo is taken in by John and Sue Brierley, an Australian couple played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman.

20 years later Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is leaving home to study hotel management in Melbourne. There he meets and falls for a fellow student named Lucy (Rooney Mara). As they dine with a group of Indian friends Saroo is hit by a rush of memories and emotions. With his friends encouragement he begins to track down his birthplace through flashes of memories and Google Earth. But every dead-end compounds his pain and intensifies his longings to know who he truly is. Perhaps Saroo describes himself best when he simply states “I’m lost”.

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Watching “Lion” is like taking in two dramatically different movies yet there is a powerful human connection that links them. Young Pawar’s segment is both harrowing and heart-breaking. Davis’ camera often has us seeing things from Saroo’s perspective which adds an extra layer of distress and concern. He doesn’t overplay it nor does he feel the need to manipulate his audience by embellishing the peril. When Patel arrives the film becomes much more internal, at times even meditative as older Saroo not only wrestles with his identity crisis but also helplessly watches the effects it has on his relationships.

The final act wrings out every ounce of emotion left, but it feels honest and earned considering the journey we’ve taken. Aside from one slightly underserved relationship and the film drifting a tad in the second half, “Lion” eloquently handles this incredible multi-layered story. Patel’s leading man star has never shown brighter. Pawar is a delightful discovery. A quiet, understated Kidman melts into her character. It’s also a beautifully shot first feature from a director worth keeping an eye on.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Loving”

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“Loving”, the fifth film (and second of 2016) from writer/director Jeff Nichols, continues the Arkansas-born filmmaker’s impressive streak of well-received movies. Through his films Nichols has revealed a unique and refreshing cinematic voice and has emerged as a true rural America storyteller. The Mark Twain influences are undeniable.

“Loving” examines the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that abolished state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. But the film does so not by stressing the court room. Instead it focuses on the love between Richard and Mildred Loving. Nichols trusts the potency of their story enough to keep his approach admirably subdued. It’s sometimes a bit too low-key, but there is no denying the film’s subtle power.

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The performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are superb. Edgerton’s Richard is a simple but devoted man who wants to love and take care of his wife. Negga portrays Mildred with a quiet grace and dignity. She’s both sweet and gentle, but she’s also Richard’s emotional anchor. The Lovings saw their lives turned upside down in the summer of 1958. In the dark of night the Caroline County sheriff (here played by Marton Csokas) and his deputies stormed their home and arrested the newlywed couple for breaking Virginia’s laws on interracial marriage.

What followed was a series of arrests and court appearances until their case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Nichols doesn’t spend much time with the legal wranglings. He sets them up but mostly shows their effects. It’s a wise choice since they are when the film is at its weakest. Contributing to this is the odd casting of Nick Kroll as a young, green ACLU lawyer who takes the Lovings’ case. It’s a strangely stiff performance with Kroll routinely looking as if he’s holding in laughter. John Bass doesn’t fair much better as a constitutional law expert helping with the case.

There are some fantastic supporting turns though. Nichols favorite Michael Shannon has a small but fun role as a LIFE magazine photographer profiling the Lovings and their case. And I adored Sharon Blackwood’s performance as Richard’s straight-shooting midwife mother.

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Perhaps my favorite thing about “Loving” is this – Richard and Mildred aren’t activists. They aren’t vocal, aggressive crusaders for a cause. They don’t seek the attention. They don’t want the press. The Lovings just want to live their lives together. That simple innocent desire highlights the despicable nature of the Virginia law far more effectively than if this had been a more pointed activism film. Through this emotionally detailed couple we learn all we need to know about the true rights and wrongs of the story and it invests us on a much more intimate level.

While it can be a bit slow at times and the approach may not be abrasive enough for some people, “Loving” gracefully and truthfully tackles an issue by putting its focus on the human element. Nichols’ delicate portrayal is slyly potent and speaks volumes about its subject without leaning on layers of dialogue. Instead Nichols asks his audience to watch, observe, and feel a closeness with his two central characters. If you do that the power of the message will be unavoidable.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “La La Land”

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With 2014’s “Whiplash” Damien Chazelle cemented his place among the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers. After its release few could question the 31 year-old’s deep and sincere affection for music. His affection is made even clearer with his latest film, the bold, audacious, and utterly delightful “La La Land”. It kind of makes sense he is jazz drummer himself.

Hype can be a tricky thing. It certainly spawned a ton of enthusiasm for “La La Land” which is interesting since it was destined to resonate with some while disappointing others. I was somewhere in the middle straddling the fence between nostalgic curiosity and skepticism. But regardless of where you stand, no one can deny this was an ambitious and gutsy undertaking especially in today’s movie culture.

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“La La Land” is Chazelle’s tribute to the classic MGM musicals and the profound cinematic voices they once shared. At the same time I was surprised to find an oddly bewildering modern flavor making this much more than a simple nostalgia piece. It’s just as much an ode to those who leave their comforts in pursuit of their artistic dreams. In one of the film’s key songs, Emma Stone’s character Mia describes it like this “Here’s to the ones who dream. Foolish, as they may seem.”

Here’s the funny thing – the scene I’ve heard praised the loudest is the one I’m the most mixed on. It’s the opening sequence, a spontaneous musical number on a clogged Los Angeles freeway ramp. I actually like the spontaneity. It’s as if Chazelle is setting the parameters for the audience and wiping the table of any uncertainty. It’s a bold and confident opening choice which I appreciate. I do love the the song “Another Day of Sun” and we get variations of it throughout the film. I didn’t quite go for the messy mish-mash of dance styles. The true highlight of the scene is how it’s shot – in a long flowing take that weaves in and out of stalled traffic and energetic dancers. It’s something to behold.

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The scene leads to the first meeting between two struggling artists, Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Mia dreams of being an actress but working in a studio lot’s coffee shop is as close as she has come. Sebastian is stuck playing piano in dingy bars but dreams of opening his own traditional jazz club in LA. Their first meeting is…less than cordial, but they keep crossing paths almost as if fate has something in store for them. Some snappy dance numbers and one spark of romance later and Chazelle has all of his pieces in place.

The further “La La Land” goes the more it resembles the classic musicals it draws from. The vibrant colors, dazzling spectacle, catchy tunes, Mandy Moore’s snappy, choreography – it all hearkens back to MGM’s heyday. At the same time I can’t overstate how fresh and original this feels. Chazelle quite literally revitalizes a forgotten genre and injects it with new energy. And if that weren’t enough he also tells a charming love story that’s maintains a plausibility within this dreamy world. It’s also unexpectedly bittersweet and laced with the perfect dosage of melancholy.

And then there is Chazelle’s Fred and Ginger. This is Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s third film together. Performance-wise Stone is the standout. It’s a performance rich with feeling and sincerity. It also doesn’t hurt that song and dance have been a part of her life since childhood. You can tell. But she also adds a surprising amount of weight to the dramatic moments which is key to them working so well. It’s a lovely well-rounded performance.

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Gosling is another story. Let me be clear, he’s not “bad” here, but it is yet another performance plagued by the same Gosling problem. Pulling emotion from him is like getting the last bit of juice from an orange. You squeeze as hard as you can but you only get drops. Gosling gives merely drops of feeling even during his dance numbers. It seems as if the character is written with Gosling’s limitations in mind which saves him a bit, but just a touch more charisma would have been nice. To be fair Gosling has his moments especially when he flashes his dry sense of humor.

Chazelle has a lot to juggle which makes his achievement with “La La Land” that much more impressive. I hate to incorporate such an overused adjective but ‘magical’ is a perfectly fitting description. As it started I felt oddly out of place, but soon I was swept away by the the dazzling, joyous, smile-inducing production. My skepticism quickly gave way to exhilaration. Now I’m not naive enough to say everyone will share my reaction. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I left the theater in an unusually happy state and “La La Land” has been dancing in the back of my mind ever since.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS4.5 STARS

2016 BlindSpot Series: “The Last Picture Show”

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Peter Bogdanovich was 31 years-old when he first came across the book “The Last Picture Show”. The author was Larry McMurtry and the story was a semi-autobiographical novel about his life in small town Texas. Bogdanovich collaborated with McMurtry to pen a script that stayed true to the novel’s simple coming of age story.

Bogdanovich had spent time in film criticism and was heavily influenced by the writers of the French magazine Notebooks on Cinema. Many of those writers would spearhead the great French New Wave movement. Bogdanovich desired to follow the leads of Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer by stepping outside of criticism and into filmmaking. “The Last Picture Show” was the perfect opportunity. It enabled him to not only step behind the camera, but to make a movie that was undeniably his own. It would be a critical success and would go on to earn eight Academy Award nominations.

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Bogdanovich’s cast is a mix of first-timers, relatively unknowns, and seasoned dependable pros. Set in 1951, Timothy Bottoms (in his second career role) plays Sonny Crawford, a high school senior living in the small dried-up town of Anarene, Texas. Interestingly, Anarene is represented by McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City in northern Texas. Bogdanovich shoots it like a wasteland -dusty and barren minus its handful of residents. You can barely define what they are doing as living. They are existing – going through the motions dictated by their circumstances. You could say Anarene represents the lives of the citizens.

The film doesn’t get bogged down in plot because there really isn’t any. It more or less follows the everyday events of Anarene with Sonny at its centerpiece. Other townsfolk we meet include Sonny’s rambunctious best friend Duane played by a young Jeff Bridges. In her film debut Cybill Shepherd plays Jacy Farrow. She’s the prettiest girl in town and a bit of a tease. She uses her good looks (and bad judgement) to get whatever she wants. Bogdanovich cast Shepherd after seeing her on the cover of Glamour magazine. There’s also Randy Quaid playing the town goofball in his first movie role.

These kids are the focus but the adults play a big role as well and are just as misguided as the town’s youth. The one exception is Sam (played by the always reliable Ben Johnson). Sam is the beating heart of Anarene. He owns the town’s pool hall, diner, and corner movie house. He supplies the people some semblance of activities but even Sam seems beaten down by the dying town and life in general. Aside from Sam, Ellen Burstyn plays Jacy’s promiscuous and disillusioned mother Lois. Cloris Leachman plays the lonely, depressed wife of the town’s high school coach. Clu Gulagar plays a despicable oil field worker and Eileen Brennan plays a weary waitress going through life’s motions.

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Bogdanovich and McMurtry take their characters through a cluster of shameful, unscrupulous acts often with little attention to motive or reason. While the characters are fascinating to a degree, the film sometimes lacks the introspection to keep the town from feeling like anything but a cesspool of immorality. This isn’t always the case. There are moments of conviction and internal struggle and some character’s motivations are crystal clear. But other times Bogdanovich’s intent is hard to discern and I routinely found myself wrestling with what felt meaningful and what felt exploitative.

But a true strength of the film is its visual presentation. As I mentioned, the town is shot as isolated and dated. Even the seemingly everpresent Hank Williams songs wailing in the background convey a dreary sense of hopelessness. The choice to shoot in black-and-white is also effective (a decision made after Bogdanovich discussed his film with Orson Welles). It sets the right tone while also giving the film a real sense of time. There is rarely a wasted shot.

“The Last Picture Show” has remained a beloved film since its 1971 release. Of its eight Oscar nominations it won two (for Johnson and Leachman, both in Supporting categories). To some degree I get the strong affections many have since there is a lot to admire. But it isn’t a movie free of issues and some of them I couldn’t quite shake regardless of how hard I tried.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars