Swiss Army Man

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Funny clever sweet inventive & worthwhile. Take the sad sack sensitive man boy who usually needs a manic pixie dream girl to find himself?  And substitute an amalgam of the Farelly Brothers and Michel Gondry in the world of the Swiss Family Robinson.

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The Revenant

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More than a little Wilderness-Porn-in-Cinemascope threatens to overwhelm Iñárritu’s severe and epic tale of a long journey.  Ultimately these breathtaking scenarios fail though, fail to distract us from the narrative questions that creep, crawl and stumble through these mountains, forests, rivers and vistas.  The lack of dental plans, coiffure regimen and anesthesia convincingly forces the audience to abandon any romantic notion of this period in the West; these characters seem as foreign and distasteful as the most barbarian invaders that any of us have encountered.

On the other hand, the incremental force of will that drives Hugh Glass forward overwhelms the viewer’s horror at the conditions and events that make his journey so difficult.  Ultimately the film doesn’t feel triumphant or inspiring or any of the emotions that we hope for at the weekend movies after a week of slogging through our own banal wilderness.  What it does provide though is a record of the resilience of human spirit to persist: a vision humble enough to renounce what should be renounced, to grieve what must be grieved and to keep moving toward the ever-shifting promise (even as it shifts, morphs, wanes and almost evaporates).  The past should haunt us, motivate us, inform us, but we can never move toward it — only away from it.

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I Killed My Mother

I killed my mother

If a young Pedro Almodovar had been strongly influenced by Wes Anderson, this is the film I imagine he would make.  I Killed My Mother chronicles the painfully strained relationship between Hubert, a gay seventeen year old boy, not quite closeted, not quite out, and his exhausted mother. The scale of the story focuses on teenage-sized stakes and imagines a world whose scope is as narrowly and indulgently focused as the adolescent imagination, all traits that would not necessarily recommend the film to a mature adult viewer.  However, the relational focus of the film, the psychological questions and the creatively excessive ways of composing the look of the film don’t seem targeted for a teen audience either.  Xavier Dolan, the 17 year old auteur of the film (writing, directing and starring) manages to transcend both of these limitations, because his portrayals of this story/world are broader and more humane than Hubert’s.  While Hubert is clearly our protagonist, our understanding of his mother is complex and more than sympathetic — in some ways even cathartic.   The revelations of this film are mostly found in the performances of the lead actors, but the entire experience of watching is satisfying, including the range of tones that are deftly woven together: laughable antics, rewarding friendship, difficult conflict, hopeful changes and moody disappointments.

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Beasts of No Nation

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One of the beautiful outcomes of this film is that while we are rigorously situated alongside Agu’s experience of a confusing, shifting war — we are also given the gift of a film without any pure evil.  The Commandant is the charismatic messiah who gives Agu a purpose and a context of meaning when both of things are stripped from him (when he is separated from his family and experiences violent loss), but he is also an ambitious, bloodthirsty brainwasher who uses boys and their vulnerability to make his own fortune.  Finally though the Commandant, like everyone else in this film, is shown to be powerfully formed by forces much larger than they can even imagine, resist or make sense of.

The film is harrowing to watch but if we cannot bear witness to the kinds of truths that it articulates, our own courage seems even smaller in the face of what these children and humans have experienced.  While difficult to watch, the subjectivity of the narration acts as a life raft to us throughout.  The memories are idiosyncratic, strung together impressionistically in a way that is full of feeling and beauty, even in the moments of shock and horror.

 

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Citizenfour

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Citizenfour reminds us what a documentary might actually achieve — a patient visual record of the world: full of feeling, emotion, pregnant with fear and hope, quiet and invitational.  The funny thing is that we are not used to this sort of documentary in general – our voracious appetite for familiar storylines, resonant and fulfilling endings – has rendered us less open to the world.   This film invites us to return to a more humane way of observing; it offers vision that transcends these particular appetites and imagines a story both nuanced and unresolved.

The film measures personal risks (of Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney) against the dangers of confronting a banal pervasive evil — totalitarian surveillance.  The characters in the film attempt to chart these policies, practices, collaborations and commitments and gradually a profile emerges:  impersonal and self-protecting, diffused and under-articulated, omnipresent and invisible, aggressive and dispassionate.

In the end, I feel as if I have just watched an Origin Story for a new super-villain.  But origin stories usually come after we have been assured about our endings and the mythologies that will follow.  This prequel feels vastly unsettling and the ugliness that follows (we can tell) will be both subtle and overwhelming.

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Slow West

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Slow West luxuriates in the excesses of the Western Genre by conflating the classic tale of the Odyssey with the violent tensions that strung the Easy Rider(s) across the classic American genre of the Road Movie.  Jay needs Silas in order to complete his journey, but a voiceover narration at the outset gives us enough knowledge to know that it isn’t Jay’s journey that will define this film, ultimately: it’s Silas who needs to change.  The film indulges in excessively stylized lighting, staging and editing, but the vista of the Old West has been significantly revised to look more spare, barren and remarkably endlessly wilderness.  The familiar trope of the saloon and storefronts makes only a brief appearance, and within the exaggerated storytelling of an outrageous liar.   Indeed, the stories everyone tells (from the point of view that hardscrabble Silas gives us) are ludicrous, outrageous and unbelievable.  The remarkable balance that the film achieves include murdering of the Myth of Glorious Violent Conquering while allowing Silas, our narrator to shift just slightly toward a kind of idealistic hope even in the face of so much death.

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Ex Machina

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When Caleb wins a trip to meet the charismatic founder of the world’s largest search engine, he’s delighted that said celebrity — Nathan — has an ulterior motive:  to introduce Caleb to the AI he’s been developing, ostensibly to see if Ava (the artificially intelligent being) can pass the Turing Test).  Eden and The Fall figure dramatically into this taut suspenseful drama, but the metaphor of “the future” which sci fi always uses to talk about our poignant present problems is a thin mask for this critique of hypermasculine aggression and misogyny not only in the tech industry, but in the deep structures of civilization.  While the third act left me ambivalent, it also haunted me for days afterward; Ex Machina super-flunks the Bechdel test, but it also critiques the male gaze in both formal and revolting ways that include winking (and damning) references to internet sex habits, third wave feminism and the cranes that lowered Zeus onto the dramatic stage at the end of dramas with unresolvable conundrums to assure the audience that all is not lost.

++++

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