Friday, December 20, 2019

Short Cuts | Knives Out, The Lighthouse, and More


BURNING CANE (Phillip Michael Youmans, 2019)

Phillip Michael Youmans may only be 19 years old, but he displays a preternaturally assured command of the cinematic language in his debut film, Burning Cane. Centering around a black family in rural Louisiana struggling with alcoholism and child abuse, Burning Cane is an evocative and at times downright chilling look at the way grief and trauma can infect an entire community - in this case, a backwater Baptist church that is its backbone.

Youmans' occasionally unintuitive camera angles place the camera in unexpected places that seem to defy the conventions of the “well made film,” as if the camera is an unseen character, drunk and unsteady, even a bit hazy, catching glimpses of the drama unfolding around it. Perhaps it's his youth, but the way Youmans' refusal to adhere to filmmaking convention displays a confidence that is often breathtaking. It's on oppressive film, to be sure, filled with darkness both literal (much of the film is often backlit, rendering the characters as silhouettes) and figurative, and at 77 minutes it feels like a brief sketch of a much deeper film, but Youmans crams a lot of emotional weight into those 77 minutes, giving us a glimpse into the mind of a fiercely talented new artist.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Directed by Phillip Michael Youmans | Stars Wendell Pierce, Karen Kaia Livers, Dominique McClellan | Not Rated Now streaming on Netflix.


END OF THE CENTURY (Lucio Castro, 2019)

Two men meet for a hookup while on vacation in Barcelona only to slowly discover that they had already met years before in another life in Lucio Castro's lovely, understated romance, End of the Century. As their story unfolds and their memories of each other come into focus, Castro deftly begins to meld past and present into one narrative, unfolding like waves of memory slowly drifting back as faint recollections of a long forgotten dream.

By using the same actors to play both their older and younger iterations, with no attempt to alter their appearance in any major way, the line between past and present becomes inexorably blurred until everything at last congeals in the final act. It's a deftly executed hat trick, and although the idea of strangers randomly hooking up and forging a connection is nothing particularly new in queer cinema (Weekend, God's Own Country, Sauvage, and Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo are just a few recent examples), but Castro puts a lovely new domestic spin on in that recalls the mysterious romantic reverie of Abbas Kiarostamis Certified Copy.  At only 84 minutes long, it may be brief and feel somewhat slight, but its final emotional impact is a lasting one.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Directed by Lucio Castro | Stars Juan Barberini Ramón Pujol Mía Maestro | Not Rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.




HAIL SATAN? (Penny Lane, 2019)

The fight over Ten Commandments statues on courthouse grounds was ground zero in a culture war that gave us Roy Moore long before Confederate memorials became the latest flashpoint. Penny Lane's sly documentary follows a group of Satanists from the Satanic Temple as they set out to prove a point about the separation of church and state by advocating for the installation of Baphomet statues to go alongside the Ten Commandments. Because if it's OK for one religion to be enshrined on public grounds, it's OK for all of them...right?

Hail Satan? hilariously dives into the Satanists' attempts to shake-up discourse and awaken people from the complacency, making enemies and riling up the electorate at every turn, most of whom seem blissfully unaware that none of these people actually believe in a literal Satan, but are atheists who look to the idea of Satan as a questioner of authority and an embracer of knowledge as a role model for their daily lives. While the film mostly portrays this particular Satanist group as a merry band of trolls who really don't care if the statue ever gets put up or not, it does raise some interesting questions in an engaging and lighthearted way, as they use the image of Christianity's main villain to illustrate the importance of the separation of church and state, a fact that gets lost on most of the protesters who oppose it. It's a funny, kooky film that nevertheless offers a consistently engaging look at the sad irony of Christians ceding the moral high ground to Satanists.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

HAIL SATAN? | Directed by Penny Lane | Rated R for graphic nudity and some language | Now available on DVD.




KNIVES OUT (Rian Johnson, 2019)

A whodunit set in a ridiculously lavish country manor, Rian Johnson's Knives Out takes the tried-and-true Agatha Christie structure and turns it on its head by revealing the identity of the killer in the film's first act. Or at least...it appears to. That's just one of the many pleasures of this mischievous and wildly entertaining film, as it keeps the audience guessing by playing with genre tropes, subverting them, and then amplifying them to skewer the machinations of a wealthy family desperate to hang on to their money and power at all costs after the death of their patriarch.

It's a bit disarming for a murder mystery to basically open with the killer reveal, and yet the way the film becomes about how the killer avoids being caught is what makes the film so thoroughly enjoyable, adding layers of mystery on a plot we only thought we had figured out. Johnson populates his film with a cast of inedible characters inhabited by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Colette, and Christopher Plummer, but the movie's heart and soul is Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera, a first generation immigrant who serves as our guide into this sordid world of amoral privilege and unearned wealth. Her character stands in stark contrast to the greedy excesses around her, run by a privileged white family that has no qualms destroying a family of immigrants to preserve their status.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KNIVES OUT | Directed by Rian Johnson | Stars Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, M. Emmet Walsh | Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.



THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (Joe Talbot, 2019)

There's an unshakable sense of sadness at the heart of Joe Talbot's freshman feature film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It centers around a young man named Jimmie who obsessively returns to the home his grandfather built upon moving to San Francisco after WWII, much to the chagrin of the current owners, who don't appreciate Jimmie's constant repairs and improvements. Jimmie's father lost the house due to financial mismanagement, but that hasn't stopped Jimmie from trying to take care of it when the new owners let it fall into disrepair. When the house finally comes up for sale, Jimmie is determined to reclaim his birthright and buy his childhood home, but the multimillion dollar price tag may prove prohibitive in the newly trendy neighborhood.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco touches on ideas of gentrification as Jimmie's former neighborhood suddenly becomes a hot commodity among affluent young white people, but Talbot digs deeper than that, exploring themes of home and identity, and how those two things are often inexorably linked. But in tying his identity to a location, Jimmie discovers some hard truths about where he's really from, and is forced to grapple with what that means for his future. Both Jimmie Fails (who co-wrote the screenplay based on his own life) and co-star Jonathan Majors are remarkable, but it's Fails' sensitive screenplay that is the star here. It's a work of quiet, unassuming beauty. A probing, deeply personal exploration of his own family history and his love for the place he calls home - San Francisco. It's at once a love letter and a warning. "You don't get to hate it unless you love it," he admonishes a young carpetbagger complaining about her newfound surroundings. And indeed, Fails' criticisms are nothing if not full of love for the city of his birth.

Talbot takes the mundane and makes it ecstatic, soaring on the wings of Emile Mosseri's haunting score, a mix of mournful oboes and wistful pianos that feels at once familiar and alien, like returning to a home you no longer recognize. It's a beautiful achievement, and one of the very best films of 2019.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO | Directed by Joe Talbot | Stars Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps | Rated R for language, brief nudity, and drug use | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.



THE LIGHTHOUSE (Robert Eggers, 2019)

I put Robert Eggers' feature debut, The Witch, at the very top of my 2016 Best of the Year list, and I stand by its singular, sinister brilliance, but I was much more mixed on his sophomore effort, The Lighthouse. Eggers employs some of the same surrealistic horror in his haunting tale of two 19th century lighthouse keepers slowly going mad during a month-long stint on an isolated island, but here they seem slightly more affected and less in tune with the larger picture of what he's trying to create.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are great, and the evocative and chilling sound design anchored by the unnerving blare of a fog horn is some of the year's best, but ultimately the film left me cold. I'm not convinced that its surrealist affectations go beyond surface level posturing, despite its engaging screenplay and singular vernacular based on actual tales from lighthouse keepers. Eggers is clearly a talented filmmaker and a skilled visual stylist, but The Lighthouse's style-over-substance aesthetic seems to treat surrealism as just a simple horror technique rather than a psychological tool - and the result is eerie but feels somehow more shallow than The Witch.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE LIGHTHOUSE | Directed by Robert Eggers | Stars Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe | Rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language | Now playing in select cities.



MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND (Midge Costin, 2019)

Midge Costin's Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is like film nerd catnip, a veritable who's who of cinematic sound artists discussing their craft and process and trading war stories of their time in the industry. While it may not break any new ground or uncover any groundbreaking information, Making Waves puts sound designers, editors, and mixers in the spotlight and examines the evolution of sound from the silent era until now.

It saves much of its focus for the Walter Murch/Ben Burtt era in the late 1970s and their work with Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas, but I appreciated that it doesn't just focus on big tentpoles with lots of action like Star Wars and Jurassic Park - it also takes a look at the importance of sound in smaller films like Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It. This isn't just about sound as a special effect, it's about using sound to enhance narrative, create atmosphere, even employing silence as an artistic choice. It provides an engaging overview of what sound designers do and how their contributions help shape the movies as we know them - and may just help general audiences finally understand the difference of the Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing at the Oscars ahead of the rumored combining of the categories.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND | Directed by Midge Costin | Not Rated | Now playing in select theaters.

MONOS (Alejandro Landes, 2019)

Alejandro Landes' modern update on "Lord of the Flies" takes us deep into the South American wilderness along with eight young soldiers who are tasked with guarding a hostage and a milk cow. What they're fighting for remains a mystery, as do the circumstances surrounding the armed conflict of which they're a part, but the unknown nature of the violence is what makes it so terrifying. Who is this woman they've captured? What is her importance in the conflict at large? MONOS never addresses any of those questions, instead plunging us into the heart of darkness in the midst of mindless violence.

The point is, of course, that none of it has any point. Landes channels the  fever-dream nightmare aesthetic of Werner Herzog, exploring the senselessness of war through never-ending, nameless conflict and the toll it takes on the children at its center. There's an austere beauty at work here, the primordial allure of the nature that surrounds them belying the ugliness of the conflict hidden within the trees, and Mica Levi's sparsely haunting score is some of her finest work. The film occasionally feels as if we've somehow become lost in a directionless narrative - but that's part of what makes the film so powerful. When violence is all people know, soon no one has any idea what they're actually fighting about.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


MONOS Directed by Alejandro Landes | Stars Moisés Arias Julianne Nicholson Sofia Buenaventura Karen Quintero Julian Giraldo | Rated R for violence, language, some sexual content, and drug use | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.



THE REPORT (Scott Z. Burns, 2019)

Scott Z. Burns' The Report is a perfectly respectable but perfectly perfunctory look at the Senate investigation into the CIA's use of torture during the War on Terror. Its heart is certainly in the right place, as the CIA would have been content to keep a lid on all this, and in many cases still stand by these techniques despite proof that no new information was learned and no terror attacks were actually prevented by their "enhanced interrogation techniques." Unfortunately this thing is ultimately as dry as a run-of-the-mill Senate hearing, and nowhere is this more painfully felt than in its often painfully expository dialogue, which attempts to cram as much information as possible, with frequently awkward results.

Even the usually great Annette Bening seems unable to make her scenes interesting - her performance as Senator Dianne Feinstein is spot-on but so understated (much like the real Feinstein) that it renders her scenes borderline inert, and characters frequently explain complex issues to each other in the simplest of terms that they would already understand. It's a TV drama that provides a great service in telling this story for a wide audience, but it's as by-the-numbers as you can get, especially for a film about a former CIA agent losing his faith and standing up to the organization he once idolized.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE REPORT | Directed by Scott Z. Burns | Stars Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll | Rated R for some scenes of inhumane treatment and torture, and language | Now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.

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