Saturday, March 14, 2020

Find Me a Find, Catch Me a Catch

Movies: Emma.

There's just something about the works of Jane Austen. Though written more than 200 years ago, her novels have a timeless freshness and humor. They also elevate women, their lives, and their pursuits. Though we may view ballroom dancing, matchmaking, and table manners as uptight fripperies from out 21st century perspective, they could literally make or break your entire life in the early 19th century--especially if you were a woman. A poor match in a husband could leave you destitute, abused, and unhappy. And divorce was not an option.

Which is why the classic comedy, Emma, may be funny but it also feels extremely serious at times. The story has been adapted for television and film a dozen times with Autumn de Wilde's latest reimagining coming in at #12. Most folks are familiar with perhaps one of the best adaptations--Amy Heckerling's Clueless. De Wilde's version hews closer to the original novel and, since its director is a renowned artist, is visually sumptuous.



Anya Taylor-Joy plays the titular young woman, described as "handsome, clever, and rich". Emma Woodhouse has the world on a silver platter: she is 21 years old, beautiful, popular, and wealthy. She fancies herself a matchmaker after pairing up a kindly widower, Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves) with her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan). However, she finds herself very out of her depth when she tries to pair young, possibly poor Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) with a clergyman/cad, Mr. Elton (John O'Connor). If you've seen Clueless, this is the failed Elton/Tai match Cher tries to make. Throughout her meddling, Emma is scolded by Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), her brother-in-law who is always hanging around.

The chemistry between Emma and Knightley is lighter and, dare I say, sexier, than that other famous Austen couple, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Knightley is much less emo than the old Darce and Emma is just more fun than Lizzie (#sorrynotsorry). Knightley's criticism of Emma stems from the fact that he knows she is intelligent and that people look up to her--so when she uses her powers to forward her own agenda, she is doing both herself and everyone else a disservice. Knightley's love for Emma comes from a place of respect, knowing that she is much more than a rich girl in a pretty dress. Taylor-Joy and Flynn make a fun and compelling couple.

But really, everyone in the film does an excellent job. The cast is stacked floor to ceiling with British character actors, from Bill Nighy as Emma's dad to Miranda Hart as the dorky Miss Bates. Also, nobody here looks "Hollywood beautiful". Everyone looks...well, pretty average, which I know is a convention of British TV and film--regular folks can aspire to be actors there, not just models. But still, it's refreshing.

As mentioned above, the cinematography is gorgeous. Both the small things, like ladies' dresses, but also the views of the rolling English hills. Emma proves to be as pretty and as delightful as one of the petit fours Emma and Harriet eat during their many teas together. And the friendship between Emma and Harriet is really touching, especially when Emma realizes she has hurt her friend multiple times and now sees the error of her ways.

If you're a fan of Austen, you won't be disappointed with this adaptation. If you're not a fan, go see it anyway because it might make a fan of you.

Grade: A-

Monday, March 9, 2020

Eat Your Heart Out

Movies: Swallow

Carlo Mirabella-Davis' directorial debut, Swallow, is a good companion piece to the last movie I reviewed--The Invisible Man. They are both about women controlled by men who take their lives back.

In Swallow, the gorgeous and underrated actress Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a housewife who looks and acts like she stepped right out the 1950s and into the 21st century. Hunter is married to Richie (Austin Stowell) a rich daddy's boy with privilege coming out of his entitled ass. It's clear from their interactions that while Hunter adores Richie and just wants to please him, Richie mainly sees Hunter as another beautiful thing to be locked away in his modernist house while he goes out and masters the universe.

Soon after Hunter finds out she's pregnant, she is overcome with an irresistible urge to eat objects. It starts with a marble. Then it's a tack. Then a battery. Hunter is unable to hide her strange compulsion when an ultrasound reveals her secret. Richie and Richie's controlling parents flip their shit and put Hunter on lockdown--she is watched over day and night by a nurse and treated like a naughty child. The one saving grace of Hunter's pica diagnosis is that she begins to see a therapist, which leads her to confront her issues and her past.

I'll pause for a minute so that anyone who wants to see the movie (which is available to rent on Amazon Prime and Vudu) spoiler-free can do so (I'm going to get into spoilers below). I will say that if the thought of watching a woman put sharp objects into her mouth and swallow them makes you want to hurl, you might want to sit this one out.

Grade: A-

***

Spoilers ahead! I spoil the whole movie! Turn back now!

***

***

***

***

Ok, so Swallow takes an interesting turn about halfway through when Hunter, almost offhandedly, reveals to her therapist that she is the product of rape. Her biological father is a random man who raped her mom. Her mom, a "religious nut" in Hunter's words, kept her because she didn't believe in abortion, even in cases of rape.

Given the fact that Hunter's pica only began after she found out she was pregnant with her twat of a husband's baby, this backstory is, uh, quite relevant to say the least. After Hunter swallows yet another sharp object, Richie and his parents plan to have her committed. But she runs away and hides out in a motel, trying to decide what to do next. Richie calls her and tells her "I will hunt you down, you ungrateful cunt". So, honeymoon's over I guess.

In an intense and deeply moving scene at the end of them movie, Hunter--who has kept a picture of her bio dad, Erwin, in her purse since forever--goes to Erwin's house and confronts him. Erwin is played by the wonderful Denis O'Hare and goddamn if he doesn't act the hell out of this scene. He is celebrating his birthday with his wife and daughter when Hunter comes in and casually mentions she's Jill McCoy's daughter. All she wants from Erwin is to hear that it's not her fault and that she's not like him. And he tells her exactly that. He doesn't deny what he did. He doesn't threaten Hunter. He doesn't lie. She asks why he raped her mom and he replies "It made me feel special". He then tells her that in jail, after being beaten nearly to death, he learned that he wasn't special. That he was shit.

After receiving this closure, Hunter goes to a doctor and gets a pill-induced abortion. By running away from her awful husband, confronting her mother's rapist, and ending her pregnancy, she has finally taken control of her life and choices.

I know my description might make the film sound melodramatic, like a soap opera, or a little too on the nose--and it was, a bit (Richie being soooo awful was a little over the top). But I didn't mind. Some folks may not like the idea of a rapist giving his victim's daughter (his own daughter) the closure she needs, and in doing so, redeem himself a tiny bit. But I was very touched by this scene--a scene of restorative justice if there ever was one. A scene where a woman is told "you are not crazy and you are not bad and you are not at fault" is a powerful thing. And her abortion was handled so casually--not a hospital gown or pair of stirrups in sight, just a woman taking some pills in a mall while eating fries. Damn if that's not a powerful feminist message.

I loved this movie and I recommend it to anyone looking for an unusual drama with a feminist bent.

Grade: A-

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Vision By Gaslight

Movies: The Invisible Man

When I first saw the preview for The Invisible Man, a re-imagining of the Universal Pictures classic based on the novel by H.G. Wells, I thought it looked dumb as hell. A woman being held down in a mental institution while screaming "HE'S RIGHT THERE!!" seemed to be ripe for mockery. But then the reviews started coming in saying that the film, directed by Leigh Whannell and starring the always wonderful Elisabeth Moss, is a smart take on something many, many people have suffered through: intimate partner violence. In fact, The Invisible Man reminds me a lot of the excellent 1944 film Gaslight, which is where the term "gaslighting"--making someone doubt their own experiences and believe they are crazy--came from.

Well, I saw The Invisible Man and was not disappointed. It's one of the smartest, most twisty, most empowering horror/thrillers I've seen in a while. It is exciting, shocking, and satisfying.

Moss plays Cecilia Kass, a woman in an abusive relationship with a wealthy optics scientist, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, best known for playing Luke Crain in The Haunting of Hill House). The opening sequence shows Cecilia quietly and strategically escaping Adrian's mansion which is tricked out with cameras and alarms. Two weeks later, while living with her good cop friend, James (Aldis Hodge), and his college-bound daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid), Cecilia receives a letter informing her that Adrian has committed suicide and left his fortune to her (contingent that she remain mentally competent and not engage in criminal activity, which becomes very relevant in the latter half of the film).

But Cecilia's relief doesn't last long. Almost immediately after she finds out Adrian is dead, she begins to feel a presence watching her and notice things out of place. Of course, since we know the title of the film is The Invisible Man, we are wise to what's up. But as Cecilia gathers more and more undeniable evidence that Adrian is not dead at all, just invisible, her friends and sister start distancing themselves from her. Her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), receives an email from Cecilia stating that she hates her and wishes she were dead. Of course, Emily doesn't believe Cecilia when she tearfully tells her she didn't write that email. James takes Sydney away after Sydney believes Cecilia slapped her...although we the audience know it couldn't have happened: yes, Sydney was slapped, but Cecilia never raised her hand.

It all goes absolutely bonkers from there. Cecilia realizes she needs to fight back to prove that Adrian is stalking her--but it is maddeningly difficult for her to do so since Adrian is still much physically stronger than her and everyone believes she is insane.

Like any textbook narcissistic sociopath, Adrian is unable to remain fully in control of the situation when Cecilia truly begins fighting back and by the end of the film there are plenty of witnesses to the invisible man. However, there are a number of plot twists and turns to keep the momentum going, even when a psych ward full of doctors and guards experience the wrath of the invisible man himself. The film isn't over until Cecilia realizes she has to beat Adrian at his own game.

In addition to just being a great thriller, The Invisible Man is a film about how abusers isolate their victims and make not only the victim, but the victim's loved ones, doubt the victim's version of the story. Have you ever been in a situation where someone was abused by their partner, or raped, or even just treated poorly by another person and mutual friends can't believe it because "he's always been so nice to me!" Yup, that's a tactic of abusers--they don't victimize everyone because then their jig would be up. They strategically choose their victims and then charm other people so that when their victim tells others about what's going on, mutual friends and family feel comfortable taking the side of the abusive person. I personally know a narcissist and have seen this very dynamic play out with them. Thankfully, this person is no longer in my life. And if you know someone like this, know that you are not alone and there are people who will believe you.

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline is 1-800-799-7233 and the website is https://www.thehotline.org

The Invisible Man is an excellent, entertaining film and it also sheds light on gaslighting and intimate partner violence. Go see it and talk about it with your friends. You never know who might need help and open up to you as a result.

Grade: A


Friday, March 6, 2020

Beautiful Ugliness

Movies: Hard to Be a God, The Mill and the Cross

Recent discussions with a cinephile friend caused me to remember two films I had filed away to watch and then forgot about completely: the 2011 film The Mill and the Cross directed by Lech Majewski and the 2013 film Hard to Be a God directed by the late Aleksei German. Both films are notable for their brilliant cinematography as well as the fact that not much happens in either film other than the mundanities of human life and human cruelty.

It was also hard to find both films. I rented Hard to Be a God on the streaming website Vudu for $2.99 and was able to watch The Mill and the Cross for free on another streaming site I previously hadn't heard of--Tubi. Both films are also produced by Kino Lorber, a company known for producing international cinema and weird, artistic shit.

Speaking of shit, Hard to Be a God is filled with human excrement, top to bottom and wall to wall. The film, which is in Russian with subtitles, filmed in black and white (a mercy to the audience, given what it often depicts) and is three hours long, is a slog. But it's a beautiful slog. A beautiful and often mind-numbingly boring slog.


The film takes place on a planet that is not Earth, but is very similar with one exception: it is eternally stuck in the Dark Ages. The inhabitants of this planet were never able to tip into the Renaissance because they kept killing all the intellectuals and artists (referred to as "wise guys"). A group of scientists from Earth came to this planet to observe and possibly see if they could encourage human and cultural progress without directly becoming involved in politics or technology. Well, it didn't work and now these Earthling scientists are stuck undercover on a mud-and-shit filled planet where rape, torture, and brutality are as normal as bread and butter.

The main character is Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), one of the scientists. He has gone undercover as a nobleman and he claims he was descended from a god. He is relatively kind compared to his nemesis, the disgusting Don Reba (not a scientist, an actual inhabitant of this planet). Don Reba stays in power by brutally suppressing intellectuals.

The "plot" of Hard to Be a God is incredibly thin--basically, Don Rumata travels around, people kill people, the end. What's more, the dialogue in the film is often random and non-sequitur. There is very little exposition to explain what we're watching, how any character relates to any other, etc. This is an incredibly frustrating film. The one saving grace is that the camera work and mise en scene are fascinating. The camera follows characters around in a style similar to a documentary, only much more intimate--it pushes its way right into the thick of interactions and then swivels around, giving the audience brief glimpses of an incredibly detailed tableau. I've heard the film compared to a Hieronymous Bosch painting and that description is apt. Especially since a lot of what we see is disgusting and violent--disembowelment, people pissing and shitting every where, people sniffing EVERYTHING and claiming it all smells like shit. Just general grossness and crudity.


I'm really selling this film hard, huh? But seriously, I would only recommend Hard to Be a God to big time cinephiles because it's going to be of interest to literally no one else. Hell, I'm a cinephile and I could barely stand it. That's not to say the film is "bad" in the sense of being poorly made. It's been called as masterpiece and I can see why. It took something like six years to film and another seven to edit--and the director died before it was complete, so his son and wife had to complete it for him. It's truly a unique and magnificent work of art, just not a particularly pleasant one.

Grade:
Visuals/camerawork: A
Plot: C-
Overall: B-

The Mill and the Cross is similarly beautiful to look at (much less shit, too), but in a completely different way. The film is basically a live-action rendering of Pieter Bruegel's painting The Procession to Calvary. It depicts scenes of Bruegel (played by the wonderful Rutger Hauer) discussing and painting his masterpiece, as well as scenes from the painting being acted out. It should be noted that both the actual painting and this film are a sort of mashup of the Biblical story of Jesus' procession to his crucifixion on Golgotha and the politics of 16th century Netherlands, namely the Spanish Inquisition. So while we see the crucifixion of Jesus, and Mary (Charlotte Rampling) mourning him, everyone is wearing Dutch clothing. And the men who crucify Jesus are not Romans, but Spanish militiamen. The actual procession to Calvary takes place in the streets of a Dutch city. You get the idea.

In addition to these Biblical scenes, we see scenes from everyday Dutch peasant life in 16th century, including children playing, couples fucking, and people going about their chores and work. It's really quite idyllic.

Like Hard to Be a God, The Mill and the Cross is slow-moving (though, blissfully, only 95 minutes long), occasionally violent (scenes of heretics tortured or buried alive), and fantastically detailed. But it's much more easy on the eyes. It also contains very little dialogue, preferring to show rather than tell.

The Mill and the Cross is another movie I would only recommend to dedicated cinephiles. While definitely an easier watch than Hard to Be a God, it takes a lot of patience. Watching the film is akin to visiting an art museum--a contemplative and visual experience more than an entertaining one.

Grade: 
Visuals/camerawork: A+
Plot: C
Overall: B





Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Slow Burn

Movies: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Celine Sciamma's exquisite tale of two women falling in love takes its time. It is a gentle and intentional film where each glance is meaningful.

Taking place in the late 1700s, Portrait of a Lady on Fire follows Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a painter and an independent woman who is commissioned to paint a portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), a young woman who has been brought back from the convents by her mother to marry a wealthy gentleman from Milan after her sister "refuses the marriage" by killing herself. Heloise has never met this man and is sure that this marriage will be the death of her freedom. Marianne is told that she must paint the portrait without Heloise knowing--as Heloise refused to sit for the last painter and he was unable to finish.

As the two women get to know each other (Marianne is introduced to Heloise as a companion for walks), they slowly fall in love. Or in lust, at least. This film reminded me *a lot* of my beloved Call Me By Your Name for many reasons: the taboo same-sex affair, the gentleness and slowness of the characters' courtships, the dreamy European setting. Even the ends of both films mirror each other (and involve lengthy shots of people crying). Like CMBYN, one of the pleasures of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its sensuality and sumptuousness. The cinematography is striking, the scenes of love-making are tender and erotic instead of porn-y, and the camera lingers on the characters faces and hands--this is a film that is made to be savored instead of devoured.

The other pleasure of the film is its female-centric point of view. Directed by a woman and starring only women (with a couple random guys who are, like, valets or whatever) the conversations women have in this film--be they about arranged marriages, literature, unwanted pregnancies, or art--feel true to how women think and talk (at least from this cisgender woman living in the 21st century's perspective). They talk about abortion and loveless marriages like they are annoying facts of life to be dealt with practically. There is no romance novel purple prose here. The women in this film are just as grounded and logical as they are passionate--like most women I know. And the sex scenes don't feel skeevy and slavering the way they often do when lesbian sex is filmed by and for the male gaze.

I honestly don't have much else to say. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sensual, transcendent, feminist film and you should get your ass to the theatres and watch it (on the big screen) today.

Grade: A-

Monday, March 2, 2020

Cold Little Nasties

Movie: The Lodge

**Spoiler warning for this blogpost**



Content warning for this post and the movie:
Suicide and mental illness


Y'all. I wanted to like The Lodge. I really did. Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, who also directed the very upsetting Goodnight Mommy, the preview for The Lodge came out last fall and looked like exactly my type of arthouse spooky: a creepy house, stark cinematography, a musical score designed to raise goosebumps. Before I even saw the movie, I could tell it borrowed heavily from Hereditary and The Shining--two of my favorite scary movies.

Alas, The Lodge did not live up to my expectations. It's both problematic and boring. It teases a fascinating backstory and doesn't follow through. It's mean-spirited, humorless, and aside from a few jump scenes it's not even that scary. It's just really sad.

First, I'll tell you why it's problematic: The Lodge uses mental illness as its "Big Bad". There are no ghosts in this movie. No axe-wielding serial killers. No ghouls or goblins. But there is a woman who came from a hugely traumatic background and suffers from mental illness and there are kids who steal her meds. That's it. The "bad guy" is simply a woman having a mental breakdown when some punk-ass kids gaslight her. Folks suffering from mental illness already face stigma and misunderstanding--they don't need this dumb horror movie encouraging the erroneous belief that if you struggle with mental illness you're a psycho who is going to kill everyone.

The plot: Worst dad in the world, Richard (Richard Armitage), leaves his wife (Alicia Silverstone) for a much younger woman, Grace (Riley Keough, doing great work in a thankless role). It's not just that Grace is young--she also grew up in a Christian fundamentalist cult where all the members killed themselves except for her (she was specifically spared to pass on the message of the cult). So we have a young woman who grew up incredibly sheltered and then faced unbelievable trauma before ol' Dick came along and blew up his own marriage to get with her.



It only gets worse. Richard's kids, Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), are understandably not very fond of Grace. But after Richard's ex-wife fucking blows her brains out (yep, we the audience get to see it), they REALLY don't like Grace, especially since a mere six months after their mother's suicide, Richard announces he's marrying Grace and they're all spending Christmas together in their family's cabin in the mountains. Richard is a real piece of work.

Well, like father like kids, I guess, because after Richard leaves his children with Grace in the cabin to go back into the city to get some work done before the holidays (classic Bad Movie Dad behavior), these little fucksticks decide to play a trick on Grace. While she's asleep, they basically take all the food in the cabin, all the outdoor gear like coats, all personal items--including Grace's medicine--and hide it and then pretend they don't know what's going on when Grace starts freaking out. Technically, it's not officially revealed that it was the kids who did this until partway through the movie, so at first the audience is just as confused as Grace. Kind of. When Aiden mentions he had a dream that they all died in a gas heater explosion, it starts to become clear that this is all one massive, and absolutely cruel, prank.

Without her meds and with Aiden convincing her that actually they all died and are in purgatory, Grace starts to lose it. I guess Aiden was smart enough to pre-plan an elaborate hoax but not smart enough to--I don't know--make sure to take away the handgun Richard left Grace when he went into town. That's right--at one point, Grace stands in front of the kids in a fugue state, HOLDING A GUN, and neither kid thinks "maybe this person we're convincing is already dead and whose meds we've stolen shouldn't have access to a firearm" and swipes the gun. So, honestly, fuck them for being so cruel and oblivious. Maybe Mia gets a pass because she's younger and impressionable, but that piece of shit Aiden is definitely old enough to know right from wrong.

Anyway, so it looks like Grace is about to kill the kids, then Richard comes back and you think he's going to save the day, but hahahahah, nope! Grace shoots him in the fucking head and then forces the kids to sit at the dining table with her and their dead dad while she prays and prepares to kill the rest of them. The End! What a fun movie.

The more I think about it, fuck this movie. Not only does it make mental illness the Monster, it also has this interesting backstory--Grace being in a cult--that COULD HAVE played a role in the plot but, other that being proof that, yep, Grace was brainwashed as a kid and maybe a little of that brainwashing kicks in when she's off her meds, it serves no purpose to the story. I think there is a much more interesting movie hiding somewhere inside The Lodge. Cults are fascinating and instead of making this poor woman, tormented by a couple of kids, the killer of this movie, it would be so much more interesting if somehow the cult Grace grew up in was still involved.

So, I don't recommend this movie. If you're easily upset with depictions of suicide and with offensive and inaccurate portrayals of people struggling with mental illness, this will be a difficult and unrewarding film for you. If you're a horror lover, The Lodge really has nothing new or interesting to say. Hereditary did it better. The Shining did it WAY better. The Lodge is just riding the coattails of better films from the past.

Grade: C


Friday, February 28, 2020

Quickies

Movies: a bunch

Dear readers: I have been on a streaming binge for months. Not only did I blast through all of Fargo (3 seasons), Shrill season 2, the final season of Bojack Horseman, and a bunch of Broad City, I caught up on a number of films languishing in my Netflix/Hulu/Prime queues. I guess that's winter for you. Nothing to do but lie on the couch and wait for the sweet release of death (or at least the pizza delivery guy). I also saw the Harley Quinn movie!

So, for the sake of time, here are some quick reviews of every movie I've watched since my last blog entry:

***

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

So the best thing about watching this movie is that I know nothing of the DC multiverse or whatever the fuck, so I can come to this movie without all the baggage of "well, this character wouldn't ACTUALLY do this" and such hogwash. All I know is that Birds of Prey was a fun movie with badass babes kicking (male) ass. Margot Robbie's Quinn is like cotton candy with teeth: she's cute, "accidentally" violent, kind of terrible for you but also strangely alluring.

Ewan McGregor plays the big bad, Roman Sionis, a rich narcissist who owns most of Gotham. He has a lot of beef with Harley, and when he finds out she's no longer under the protection of the Joker because they broke up, he's ready to literally tear her face off. There's also a diamond that a teenage pickpocket steals (and swallows) that Sionis is after. It comes down to Sionis and his ragtag army of meatheads vs. Quinn, Cassandra Cain (the pickpocket), good cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), singer Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), and revenge-driven Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Guys against girls. It's a tale as old as time.

Birds of Prey is just plain fun. I saw it with a couple gal pals and we loved watching Harley Quinn sic her hyena, Bruce, on a rapist. It's that kind of movie. Similar to Deadpool in its irreverence. It's not going to win any Oscars, but it's just a fun chicks kicking ass movie that doesn't overly sexualize said chicks.

Grade: B

***

The Poughkeepsie Tapes

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a faux documentary/food footage horror films streaming on Amazon Prime. I don't recommend it to anyone but EXTREME horror aficionados. As a violent horror film, it works. It is TERRIFYING. There are scenes with imagery that will haunt me for life. I'd even go so far as to call it a good, quality movie. But it is sick and extreme. The story is about a serial killer who kidnaps a woman, Cheryl Dempsey. Years later, the killer's video tapes are discovered (as is Cheryl, alive, but a shell of a woman). The videos show the work of a twisted sadist who takes pleasure in scaring people, hurting them, and killing them. Depending on your perspective, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is an extremely well-made faux documentary or an exploitative piece of trash. I feel comfortable to sit with the fact that I "enjoyed" the film as a horror lover (it scared the hell out of me) and also felt grossed out by it as a feminist. Unless you have a stomach, mind, and heart of steel, just sit this one out.

Grade: B+

***

Train to Busan

Ok, now here is a slightly more palatable horror movie. This Korean zombie film takes place mostly on a commuter train during an outbreak of a strange illness which turns people into, well, zombies. Businessman Seok-woo is tasked with taking his young daughter, Su-an, to visit her mom (his and Su-an's mother are divorced). Seok-woo is a classic business dad whose priorities are all fucked up: he puts work above family. Well, that's all going to change with a horde of motherfucking zombies trying to kill him and his baby girl. Hah!

Train to Busan was...ok. Not nearly as scary as some zombie movies I've seen. It also felt a bit melodramatic in parts--scenes with soaring music and lengthy camera takes that zoom in on someone's sad face, that sort of thing. I think that might be a convention of Korean films, though. Still, it was tonally a bit off. Overall, meh!

Grade: B-

***

Marriage Story

The strength of Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story lies in its actors. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole Barber, a previously happy couple who realize they can't make it work and decide to divorce "amicably". Hah. Marriage Story reveals the dirty truth of divorce: that even with the best of intentions, when you factor in living arrangements, money, and children, separation often ends up nastier than couples intend. When Charlie and Nicole decide to separate they want to make it easy and straightforward. But after Nicole moves from New York to LA with their son, Henry, and starts working with a fierce (and fiercely competent) divorce lawyer (Laura Dern, a revelation) things start to go off the rails. An easy, gentle separation is no longer in the cards, especially since Charlie stubbornly insists that the Barbers are a "New York family" despite his wife and kid moving to LA.

There are no heroes or villains in Marriage Story, although your personal opinions on gender roles might factor into how you view the characters and storyline. Is Nicole a conniving shrew for taking her kid, moving to LA, and choosing a ruthless divorce lawyer? Is Charlie a narcissistic ass who never understood his wife's needs and now insists *he* is the one who has been wronged? Maybe it doesn't matter. Both parties are hurting. Both parties have fucked up and have been fucked over.

The lesson of Marriage Story is to 1) know what you want and 2) be honest with your partner early and often about what you want. If you don't know what you want or how to express it to someone else, you have no business joining your life with someone--let alone having children.

Grade: B+

***

Luce

I was genuinely confused about the moral of the film Luce. Directed by Julius Onah, Luce is about a high achieving high school student (the excellent Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who writes a paper for his history class that seems to promote the idea that violence is necessary for social revolution. Luce's teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), contacts his (adoptive) mother Amy (Naomi Watts) and expresses her concerns. But since Luce is a straight-A student and role model, Amy refuses to take Harriet's concerns seriously. The twist here is that Luce was a child soldier in Eritrea before being adopted by Amy and Peter Edgar (Watts and Tim Roth). So the unspoken question is: was this boy unduly influenced by his violent childhood? Does he really believe violence is a solution to social ills?

It seems like a pretty straightforward moral conundrum until you find out about how his teacher, presented as "the good guy", has a history of ratting out black students for infractions such as smoking pot and getting them into enough trouble to possibly affect their chances of getting into college. Is Harriet Wilson the good, innocent teacher she initially appears to be or does she play favorites among her students of color to the point where those she doesn't favor suffer unduly?

I was confused at what Luce wanted me to feel. And maybe that's the point. The audience is set up to mistrust Luce, but by the end, I thought Harriet Wilson was the least trustworthy person in the movie.

I found Luce to be boring and underwhelming. I think it had much more potential to explore racial issues and the idea of being a "model minority" and how people from within a racial group can encourage inherently racist stereotypes. For me, it didn't live up to that potential.

Grade: C

***

Hell or High Water

Directed by Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water is a modern-day Western with an anti-capitalism message. Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are about to lose their ranch to a bank that provided them a reverse mortgage. They decide to rob the very bank they owe in order to pay off the debt before the bank forecloses on them. Unfortunately, what the more even-keeled Toby sees as a swift, harmless crime (they will rob the banks right when they open and are empty except for a few employees, and no one needs to get hurt), ex-convict Tanner sees as an excuse to go totally aggro and menace some terrified bank tellers. Tanner also doesn't want to stop at robbing Texas Midlands branches and rob a few additional banks just for funsies. Soon, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, being verrrrry un-Dude in this role) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a pair of bickering Texas Rangers, are on the Tanner brothers' tail.

Hell or High Water is a fun movie. Well, as fun as a movie with some needless, violent deaths can be. It has a "stick it to the Man" message, although the Howard brothers are hardly Robin Hood types. They're stealing from the hated banks to give to themselves in order to provide for their families (well, at least good brother Toby is), but really no one is a hero here.

I can't say I'll rewatch Hell or High Water. It's a bit forgettable. But it does have an excellent performance by Jeff Bridges doing what he does best: being cooler than anyone else in the movie.

Grade: B

***

Bone Tomahawk 

Speaking of Jeff Bridges, do you know who looks a lot like Jeff Bridges? Kurt Russell. Bone Tomahawk is a Western-horror-comedy that takes place in the 1890s in a small town called Bright Hope. After a drifter (David Arquette), a lady doctor (Lili Simmons), and a deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) are kidnapped by some (ok, bear with me here) "savages", Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) gathers a small party to find them. Among the party is the doctor's husband who is suffering from a broken leg (Patrick Wilson), the bumbling and intellectual backup deputy (Richard Jenkins), and a local man who is a talented shot but very aggressive and arrogant (Matthew Fox).

This motley crew has no idea that they are walking into the den of a group of cannibalistic, cave-dwelling Natives who would love to have all of them for supper. EXTREME violence commences (not a lot of it, but what we see is...well, my stomach churned and I have a high tolerance this sort of thing).

I was very torn on Bone Tomahawk. It's a good movie--it's scary, funny, compelling, and even though it's a 2 hours plus film, it never feels slow for a minute. The banter between the characters is some of the best I've heard in a movie. However, the Big Bad is a group of Native Americans, which is...not cool. Granted, these Natives are not based on any real historical tribes in the United States and are portrayed as nearly supernatural in their violence and ability to capture and take down their victims. But given the gruesome way white people treated Native Americans, well, since we arrived on America's shore, it feels gross and disrespectful to even make up a fake tribe like the one in Bone Tomahawk.

I can't say I didn't enjoy the film--I did very much. But I only recommend watching it if 1) you can handle the image of a man literally being torn in two and 2) you understand and can come to terms with the fact that this film, though fictional, is not respectful of Native Americans and their history. As for the grade, I'd give it an A for the entertaining dialogue, but a C- for the racism, resulting in:

Grade: B-