Monthly Archives: October 2016

‘Certain Women’: stunning cinematic poetry

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If you’ve ever seen a Kelly Reichardt movie, you know you’re in for a lot of what critic Josh Larsen calls a “glum beauty.” She makes slow-paced northwestern tone poems with elegantly underplayed character moments. As much as I respect her as a director, her unassuming style has sometimes hit me with mixed results.

But Certain Women is far and away the best film I’ve seen this year.

It’s based on three short stories about strong women in the Montana mountains by Maile Meloy. Reichardt entwines them subtly, almost imperceptibly, and each of them have themes which fall in line with the other two.

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The first one, anchored by killer performances from Laura Dern and Jared Harris, follows a lawyer and her client who can’t accept that he has no case. He accepted his employer’s initial settlement, and his disability from the work place accident seems to have altered his personality. This means Dern’s lawyer character must become something of a babysitter, as his wife wants nothing to do with him.

This chapter ends with the most low-key hostage situation ever put to film, and I mean that as a compliment. Reichardt never strains for drama. Instead, she allows her actors and her unique talent for storytelling get her to those aforementioned character moments.

Michelle Williams as Gina kicks off the second act with possibly the best character moment in the film. She and her husband (James Le Gros) are trying to build a house together, and she wants it to be authentic. To achieve this, they need historic sandstone from Albert (Rene Auberjonois), a kindly but forgetful old man nearby.

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Their negotiation of the sandstone sale is easily my favorite scene of the year. Reichardt makes the bland, grey Montana wilderness really mean something vital and important as Albert shuffles around his Alzheimer’s.

The final piece is definitely the most conventionally compelling. I’m not sure how Reichardt found Lily Gladstone, but I’m thrilled that she did, because this unknown actress is nothing short of a revelation.

Gladstone plays Jamie, a ranch hand who falls for a lawyer and night-school teacher (Kristen Stewart). Gladstone has a beautiful way of effortlessly portraying subdued anticipation. The story ends heartbreakingly, but it’s so well-acted and well-directed that it’s impossible to look away.

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Reichardt simply knows exactly what she’s doing when it comes to compelling human drama that force-feeds you nothing. Certain Women is her at the very, very top of her game.

Certain Women = A+

‘Certain Women’ is rated R for some language.

-George Napper

‘American Honey’: love in a hopeless place

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American Honey is one of those movies that only comes around once in a great while. Like some of the best of the early 21st century, its confidence and sheer staying power outranks its minor flaws.

For example, the non-climax of No Country for Old Men rankled some people, but it wasn’t enough to keep it from winning the Best Picture Oscar and consistently ranking among the very best of the Coen Brothers and of the century so far. In the case of Andrea Arnold’s ‘American Honey,’ the film’s taxing length is offset by its expert verisimilitude, impeccable storytelling, and an all-time haunting ending.

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Sasha Lane makes a striking acting debut as Star, an impoverished young woman who begins the film having found herself on the wrong side of an abusive relationship. After a remarkable scene in which she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) for the first time in a supermarket, Star decides to drop off the kids she’d been looking after with their real mother and follow the charming Jake and his ragtag group of young misfit magazine salespeople.

Jake trains new recruits, but what makes Star’s training different is her inability to lie when selling door-to-door. Her abrasive personality inevitably clashes with the affluent, right-wing neighborhoods the group often travels through.

One of the film’s best moments is when, as Jake tries to couch a sale in a story about a ‘student organization,’ Star is told by a housewife that “the devil has a hold” on her because of her rudeness. She’s been observing the tweens dancing in the backyard, and responds curtly with, “I think the devil has a hold of your daughter.”

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American Honey lives in that dichotomy between two sides of the American dream. It zealously explores how the cultures one grows up in affect one’s perception of what that dream means.

Star is not even as high on the economic ladder as her poor compatriots in the traveling van, but she finds a strange sense of family with them. Jake’s relative affluence and all-smiles personality draw her in, and very soon, the two are having an affair.

Crystal (Riley Keough), ostensibly Jake’s girlfriend and the de facto leader of the whole group, provides the disillusionment the movie needs. Her laser-focused gaze seems to reign over every action Star takes, whether it’s to impress Jake with an unconventional sale or to make him envious of her individuality.

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The dynamic between the three lead characters becomes a part of that subtle American-dream allegory. Star is special and she knows it, but she has no idea how to use this to her advantage because the rules of the elite are nothing like her own.

Andrea Arnold draws us in to this hypnotic and fascinating narrative by filming it all like a well-produced home movie. The camerawork by director of photography Robbie Ryan is stunningly voyeuristic without being distracting. And somehow, the film’s 35mm Academy ratio (which Arnold used before in Fish Tank) makes it feel more inviting and enveloping.

As I walked out of this movie, my friend and I debated about several things: the authenticity of Jake’s feelings for Star, Arnold’s eye for socioeconomic tensions, the meaning of the film in general. But one thing that is undebatable is the quality of thought and passion on display at all levels in American Honey.

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American Honey is something wondrous to behold. It’s a film whose potency threatens to nestle its way into your very soul. I felt like I was a completely different person – a better person – for having seen this film.

American Honey = A+

American Honey is rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, and drug/alcohol abuse – all involving teens.

-George Napper

Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’: problematic but vitally important

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I wanted to review this alongside Ava DuVernay’s ’13th’ ( because that film elegantly illustrates the connection between this film’s namesake – D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915) – and the legal impediments to the rights of the African-American community that followed.

Griffith’s infamous propaganda film glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and casts them as heroes battling legions of black criminals (played by white men in blackface). In his screenwriting and directing debut, Nate Parker retells the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, creating a narrative which examines and reverses the 1915 title’s meaning.

As a child, Nat (played as an adult by Parker) is taught to read, a rare thing for any slave. But he is told that any books besides the Bible are “filled with things [his] kind wouldn’t understand.” As a result, Nat matures to become a preacher for his fellow slaves.

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The white owners of the plantation Nat lives on actually treat their slaves relatively well compared to the surrounding plantations. He sees this when his young master, Samuel (Armie Hammer), arranges to have him tour the surrounding area and preach to other slaves.

Chicago-based film critic Josh Larsen describes the film as a “dramatic act of Biblical exegesis.” That, I think, is winningly accurate. As Nat becomes angrier, his scriptural selections become more and more about rising up and rebellion.

Initially, he caves to the unspoken pressure to preach an ‘obey your masters’ doctrine. But after witnessing horror upon horror committed against slaves, eventually including his wife (Aja Naomi King), Nat decides it is time to mix his sermons with righteous spite.

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When Nat openly disputes a white man’s interpretation of scripture, Samuel, with whom he had a Moses-and-Aaron type of relationship growing up, finally gives in to the pressures surrounding him and whips his childhood friend. This is a particularly effective scene because it signifies the complete unraveling of their uneasy friendship and reveals how rooted in scripture the film’s inner conflict is.

Now, as well-acted and well-directed as the film appears to me, I would be totally remiss if I did not mention the controversies surrounding its release. One charge levied against it is the fact that it does not depict the entirety of the rebellion, in which Turner and his comrades killed not only white men, but also women and children. Perhaps naively, but for the sake of creating a palatable film, I’ll let that slide.

What I can’t let slide is the invention of rapes which did not actually occur. Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin were charged with rape in 1999, resulting in an acquittal for Parker in 2001 and an eventual overturned conviction for Celestin. The victim committed suicide in 2012.

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The film depicts two brutal rapes, and while the scenes are actually quite conservative in terms of content, there is no excuse for rewriting history in this way, especially when one is outrunning those kinds of charges.

The story of how the film’s awards-season chances will be affected by this has yet to be written, but Parker’s reticence to apologize (see the recent ‘60 Minutes’ interview) definitely injures his Oscar hopes. And make no mistake: if the charge against Parker did not exist, or perhaps if he had cut the rape scenes, this movie would be the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, and that would be a bet I’d make.

I’d bet on it because it subtly and precisely observes the emotional lives of slaves and slaveholders. I’d bet on it because the fine, layered performances of Armie Hammer and Aja Naomi King deserve to be recognized. And I’d bet on it because in a post-‘Oscars So White’ landscape, it’s a film important enough to be remembered and revered for its overall bravery and sensitivity.

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Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. The film will always live in the uncertain shadow of the director’s past, quite like the films of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. And it deserves to live there because of the invented scenes of rape. Again, those are inexcusable, and they make for an incredibly problematic viewing experience.

On the one hand, the majority of the film is masterfully crafted and I truly think it should be seen by all Americans due to its subject matter. On the other hand, it forces the informed viewer to draw a heavy line between art and artist. If you’re comfortable drawing that line, it’s definitely worth watching.

‘The Birth of a Nation’ (2016) = B

‘The Birth of a Nation’ is rated R for disturbing violent content and some brief nudity.

-George Napper

Now streaming on Netflix: Ava DuVernay’s ’13th’

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Ava DuVernay (director of ‘Selma’) begins ‘13th,’ her documentary on the 13th Amendment and the U.S. prison system, with a quote from President Barack Obama. In it, he offers a startling statistic: the U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners.

This statistic lays the groundwork for a shocking exploration of how a number of influences – propaganda, lobbyists, politicians, corporations, slogans, and interest groups – led to today’s ugly system of mass incarceration and brutality on the part of some police officers.

The propaganda is ancestored by D.W. Griffith’s silent film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915). Depicting all African-Americans as criminals and exalting the Ku Klux Klan, the film led to the rebirth of the KKK and opened the floodgates for unspeakable violence.

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DuVernay’s narrative moves expediently from this period in history to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It then morphs into an investigation of the beginnings of the “War on Drugs.”

Richard Nixon’s use of the phrase “Law and Order” appears incredibly relevant at a time when Donald Trump claims to be the “Law and Order” candidate. Possibly the most revealing quote used in the film comes from Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman, who said, “The Nixon Campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. […] We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…”

From here, ‘13th’ passionately depicts how, from the Nixon years on, the “War on Drugs” shifted into a slick, racially-motivated heist, taking millions of people from their families for minor drug infractions and leaving many communities in ruins.

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What’s most admirable about ‘13th,’ other than DuVernay’s clear talent for storytelling, is that she’s interviewed smart people on all sides of the issue. This includes some who supported the “War on Drugs,” including Congressman Charles Rangel (D), former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R), and longtime Republican political advocate Grover Norquist.

This holistic approach makes the film less sensational and more of a document. It allows a space to develop where DuVernay’s talking heads can discuss the subtle ways in which words and images have hijacked the conversations we should be having about race in this country. And as this relates to Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation,’ we learn from ‘13th’ just how far we haven’t come since 1915.

‘13th’ is an educational and incredibly powerful documentary which uses empirical data – things people said and did – to prove its perspective on America’s prison system and how we got to where we are in 2016. Ava DuVernay may not have received the Oscar nomination she deserved for ‘Selma,’ but she could very well be walking away with a golden statue for Best Documentary come next February.

‘13th’ = A+

‘13th’ is unrated, contains extremely mature thematic elements and violent images.

-George Napper