SIFF 2018: The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018, Desiree Akhavan)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 90 words.

For whatever reason, The Miseducation of Cameron Post feels like the sort of film that suffers from a clash in sensibilities, though it was directed and co-written by the same voice, Desiree Akhavan. This story of the film’s eponymous character’s stint in a gay conversion camp at the behest of her Evangelical aunt comes off alarmingly often as too pat and resolved for its own good. But a more sensitive sensibility sometimes shines through, and the film occasionally comes to life through an assortment of little, carefully considered interactions.

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SIFF 2018: Le Redoutable [GODARD MON AMOUR] (2017, Michel Hazanavicius)

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Simply put, the Jean-Luc Godard caricature presented in Le Redoutable, played by Louis Garrel in Michel Hazanavicius’s toothless broadside against not only one of cinema’s true artists, but seemingly all of film that even attempts to be intellectually responsible, never made a single film or put a word of criticism to paper. The film (retitled Godard Mon Amour for American audiences) depicts the auteur at a turning point, struggling with his radicalism and his filmmaking in the atmosphere before, during, and after May 1968, purportedly through the viewpoint of his then-wife, actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin). But Hazanavicius can never seem to decide where he lands specifically on Godard and his legacy: the film seems to simultaneously attempt to worship at his feet and excoriate him, supposedly for his mistreatment and neglect of Wiazemsky but in actuality for his politics and turn away from “conventional” cinema.

I am by no means attempting to claim myself as a total expert on Godard (or even his ’60s period), but from seeing Le Redoutable, I can’t help but wonder if Hazanvicius himself has seen more than three Godard films, or if he has even seen La Chinoise, the Wiazemsky-starring film from which he (badly) recreates a scene. How else to explain the “experimental” techniques that feel as if they were picked out of a hat, including some devices that (if I’m not mistaken) aren’t in any of Godard’s ’60s films? Even the techniques that do feature in Godard’s work – to name just one example, the studio rendering of driving from Pierrot le fou, with the camera placed too close to register – seem half-hearted and completely lacking in any of the exuberance, thought, or rigor of the original.

So much of Le Redoutable is immensely wrong-headed at best, offensive and anti-historical at worst, but all of its flaws and follies can be summed up in an actual chapter title featured without a hint of irony or self-awareness in the film: Pierrot Le Mépris.

SIFF 2018: First Reformed (2017, Paul Schrader)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

Rare is the modern film that understands the consequences of what it depicts and how it achieves this to the level of First Reformed. In many ways the perfect distillation of what Paul Schrader has sought throughout his career, its influences range from transcendental cinema to Classical Hollywood, yet its many concerns seem uniquely its own. Ethan Hawke, as an ailing reverend who undergoes an extended long dark night of the soul, is revelatory.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony & Joe Russo)

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It is rare to find a film that so “neatly,” so thoroughly encapsulates not just a single mode of filmmaking, but the entire Hollywood apparatus and a national (almost international) culture to boot. Yet Avengers: Infinity War is just that: in theory and largely in practice, the culmination of a decade-long franchise, spanning nineteen films and counting, interweaving innumerable plot-lines and characters, all united against a single adversary. By design, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in no way limited to this, connected as it is in both narrative and fandom terms to a vast comic-book tradition as well as the cultural expectations that come with such a massive enterprise. If it weren’t for the multitude of MCU films yet to come (or that other franchise juggernaut), it might be safe to call this the most hotly anticipated film of the decade, perhaps of the century.

So how does a “single” film handle such expectations? The short, only mostly accurate answer: as well as the individual viewer might expect. I can say with a great deal of confidence that much of one’s enjoyment of almost any MCU film, especially one as pointedly summative as this, is directly related to their engagement with the wider mythological universe. Nevertheless, Avengers: Infinity War offers much in the way of determining just how one relates to this film, its franchise, and indeed modern Hollywood at large.

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Ready Player One (2018, Steven Spielberg)

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A film’s (and its filmmakers’) sense of commitment to its premise and setting is often a tricky thing to fully deal with. On the one hand, the establishment of a milieu and a truly lived-in world is fairly important for the majority of films (certainly all commercial films) in order to draw the viewer into a more organic and visceral experience of the narratives developed. On the other hand, said milieu could very well feel toxic or put-on to a particular, simply by virtue of the events and figures it depicts.

Few films in the past few years have displayed this tenuous tendency as strongly as Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel-length paean to video games, ’80s pop culture, and fandoms in general. Set in the year 2045, it depicts two worlds: the “real world” of a decaying Earth, principally the impoverished slums of Columbus, Ohio, and the limitless, virtual reality of the OASIS, filled with innumerable worlds and areas to explore. Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) functions as the viewer’s medium between these realms. As might be implied by his avatar’s name, he is on a quest: following the clues of the virtual world’s deceased creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance), he aims to uncover an easter egg that grants the finder full control of the OASIS. Through this process, he discovers foes – the megacorporation IOI– and friends – most notably Samantha Cook/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), member of an underground group opposed to IOI – alike.

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Fail to Appear (2017, Antoine Bourges)

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One of the highlights of last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (my first) was the Future//Present film series, curated by Adam Cook. While the films varied in subject matter and stylistic expression, they were united by a general sense of experimentation, delving into the complexities and possibilities offered by a particular, independent mode of filmmaking. Now, the Northwest Film Forum has brought together films from the series’s first two years, to be shown over the next half-week. It does not contain my favorite of the handful I’ve seen thus far, Blake William’s ambitious 3D experiment PROTOTYPE (which is likely beyond the projection capabilities of NWFF), but each movie in the Future//Present series promises to be distinctive and enlightening in its own way.

So it is with Antoine Bourges’s Fail to Appear, which showed at last year’s VIFF and will play at NWFF alongside Kazik Radwanski’s excellent short “Scaffold” (which I reviewed here). The short feature’s narrative is simple, verging on the ascetic: Isolde (Deragh Campbell), an entry-level social worker at a care center in Toronto, is assigned to Eric (Nathan Roder) a man with an unspecified condition who has been charged with petty theft. Divided rather neatly into thirds, the film first charts Isolde’s day-to-day work and interactions with both her clients and her colleagues (one of whom, in a delightful touch mirrored by Eric’s own private ambitions, is an aspiring musical artist). After an extended court hearing, Isolde and Eric have a few tentative conversations, before the film shifts in its final third towards a documentation of Eric’s own home life.

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All of this is carried out in a (perhaps necessarily) constricted style, one verging on the Bressonian, as Bourges carefully arranges his frames in a mostly straight-on, somewhat sterile fashion, with the occasional pan or single tracking shot registering with a singular forcefulness. Correspondingly, the performances are subdued; Campbell is especially adept at lingering on the pauses between words, as the imprecise nature of communicating with other people continually manifests itself in “flubbed” words or a momentary lapse in the flow of conversation. Even if Fail to Appear in some ways registers as primarily a success in commitment to an engaging aesthetic style, this is no demerit: much of the strength of the film lies in this interplay, as emotional beats are downplayed in favor of the awkwardness of the moment-to-moment interaction. Its purposeful lack of resolution is only the final gesture towards the ambiguity and unreadability of any particular person, and in that sense Fail to Appear registers with its own odd, unique force.

Isle of Dogs (2018, Wes Anderson)

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Wes Anderson’s films have always hewed closely to the intertwined strands of the fantastical and the storybook. But this essential impulse, evident in his trademark aesthetic, has never been more apparent than in his latest effort, Isle of Dogs. The opening is only the first sign: a prologue told by a monk that closely parallels the events to come. This time, however, the setting is markedly different from his heretofore Western-centric films: Japan, sometime in the future, specifically in the fictional city of Megasaki. After the mayor (Kunichi Nomura, who also co-conceived the story) orders the exile of all dogs to the neighboring isle of Trash Island on the grounds of an infectious “dog flu”, his distant nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to the island in an attempt to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Upon landing, he is joined by a gang of dogs, whose most prominent member is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray fiercely opposed to domestication. What follows is in essence a men-on-a-mission film, interwoven with student-led investigations into the possible governmental suppression of a cure for the virus.

Isle of Dogs thrives upon this fairly straightforward premise, stringing together a fleet series of encounters by imbuing with a sense of weight, either comedic or emotional, through the careful building of a constellation of distinctive characters. Anderson’s films have long had an off-kilter balance between arcs and individual moments, and this movie is largely tilted towards the latter: to name just one of the most piercing examples, the first flashback (of many), which shows Spots and Atari’s first meeting, has enough emotional heft to sustain a full half of a lesser film. Ironically, despite the enormous cast, the heart of the film ultimately feels as if it belongs to two or three figures (Atari, Chief, and Spots), but the ways in which they affect those around them consistently prove to be thrilling and, often, more than a little moving.

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Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler)

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During the aftermath of a car chase in South Korea, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) cautions T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly-crowned warrior king of Wakanda and the eponymous superhero, warning him that “the whole world is watching.” It is a tempting and largely justifiable sentiment to apply to Black Panther, given both the lamentable societal state and the slightly more specific cultural moment. Though it is by no means the first film to have as its center a black superhero (as BAMcinématek’s excellent series demonstrated), it is the first of note since the rise of the juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2009. As a member of this alternately prestigious and dubious enterprise, its very existence brings along a whole host of expectations and baggage in terms of overall quality and, perhaps most crucially, representation.

That Black Panther is almost certainly the finest and most distinctive entry in the MCU is one bonus, but that it genuinely grapples with these issues and its particular place in modern society is another aspect entirely. The two are certainly linked, even down to the basic motivations of narrative, and the film’s ability to sublimate this and notions of culture within the loose template of a Marvel film is, at times, genuinely invigorating.

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Part of what distinguishes Black Panther is its deftness, its ability to locate character struggles within in a world that feels genuinely engaged with the present moment – in a way that does not simply kowtow to “The Way We Live” back-patting – even as it weaves its own fantasies. The main locus is Wakanda, a fictional African nation that conceals its status as the most technologically advanced country in the world, thanks to its virtually unlimited supply of a versatile metal known vibranium. As the film begins, T’Challa inherits the crown from his dead father, only to encounter the heretofore unknown Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). A Wakandan hardened by his upbringing in Oakland, California, an extensive stint in the military, and his desire for vengeance, he seeks to usurp the new ruler and use the technological advancements of the country to trigger black uprisings against white-dominated governments around the world.

Such a description is certainly more grounded than the average MCU entry, but what is most curious about Black Panther is how it upholds and subverts its comic book origins. The decision to (pre-Marvel company credit!) open with a fantastical animated retelling of the origin of Wakanda and the Black Panther, only to move immediately into a crucial scene set in 1992 Oakland – complete with a plastic crate standing in for a basketball hoop – is an early indication, as is the bold fusion of old traditions and ceremonial wear with hypermodern landscapes.

Much of the credit for this uncharacteristic level of cultural engagement must go to director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, who appears from this effort to have a knack for negotiating his own sense of artistry within franchise efforts after both this and 2015’s Creed (although his direction here on the whole feels less balletic than in that film). But the efforts of the cast, which in itself represents a remarkable collection of black talent (from Daniel Kaluuya to Forest Whitaker to Angela Bassett to Danai Gurira to even Isaach de Bankolé), lend an immense vitality to the proceedings. Boseman and especially Letitia Wright (as his technical genius of a sister) are marvelous, but Jordan, who has appeared in all of Coogler’s films to date, is utterly magnetic, infusing his ostensible villain with genuine pain and swagger that makes his already sympathetic aims (if not sympathetic methods) become even more attractive.

Black Panther‘s spirit thrums with this continual back-and-forth, this negotiation of lore (both comic-book and tribal) and reality, personal motivations and pragmatism. I don’t have the knowledge or confidence to fully go into the occasionally questionable politics of the film, but suffice it to say that the radicalism of Killmonger is never simply undercut by the film, which continually questions Wakanda’s and its own position as the most exalted form of modern black representation. What seems to matter most at this particular moment is the film’s very existence, its ability to present customs totally outside of the mainstream with nothing less than total acceptance. (What the culture does with them is another matter entirely.)

Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

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In a film culture dominated – visibly or not – by views inextricably tied to the concept of auteurism, there’s something irresistible about judging films by how they reflect the artistic evolution of their director. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson, this arc is clear, moving from the wide-ranging ensembles of Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the intent historical studies of There Will Be Blood and The Master. In particular, the latter two films and his latest effort, Phantom Thread, represent a neat trilogy (interrupted by Inherent Vice) of stylistic and thematic development. But at the same time, this film represents something daring in Anderson’s career: something astonishingly shapeshifting, tracing the ebbs and flow of a relationship with an exceeding amount of care, all with a lushness and richness of form that belies an essential, wondrous perversity.

Anderson here works in a setting entirely new to him: the haute couture fashion scene of 1950s London, five thousand miles away from his preferred setting of Southern California. It centers upon Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), an intensely private and controlling acclaimed fashion designer with only his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) as a constant companion. Things quickly change when Reynolds happens upon Alma (Vicky Krieps), a shy, quiet waitress who becomes his muse. To reveal much more would give away some of the most genuine surprises of 2017, but suffice it to say that their relationship is forced into changes that eventually put Alma on an equal footing with the two seemingly indomitable siblings.

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Anderson’s attention to detail and mood, especially in period settings, has always been uncannily attuned, and it feels even more heightened here. Much of the film is suffused by returning collaborator Jonny Greenwood’s score, which has a lilting, swooning quality, reminiscent of music far removed from the Hollywood of today, that matches perfectly with the gliding, elusiveness of the cinematography (headed by an uncredited Anderson).

What moves and transports about Phantom Thread is precisely that which cannot be adequately described without foreknowledge of the film’s summed development. Such intensity towards something so ostensibly normal and gentle is rare, especially when combined with a certain sharp wit and humor. Constantly evolving before the viewer’s eyes, it works in both stillness (the gazes of Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Manville) and dynamism (the world that swirls around them) to create something that simply embodies romance.

The Commuter (2018, Jaume Collet-Serra)

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A far cry from the portentous, franchise-driven blockbusters of today, the oeuvre of Jaume Collet-Serra is one of effectiveness and impacts. In the vein of the classic form of the auteur theory – the manifestation of recurring visual and thematic motifs in a blatantly commercial setting – Collet-Serra has established himself as someone capable of churning out incredibly well-made, visceral mid-budget pictures. His career so far has followed two paths, the first of which is horror, represented by the very fun 2005 remake of House of Wax, the utterly masterful Orphan, and the elementally constructed The Shallows. But the aspect more germane to this review is his series of action films with the resurgent Liam Neeson, all of which are tense and subtly playful works that use restrictions – physical, temporal – for maximum effect.

With The Commuter, this standard has been maintained, albeit in a more crowd-pleasing and unabashedly conventional format. Our Neeson hero this time around is Michael, an ex-cop turned insurance salesman that has taken the Hudson Valley line to Grand Central Station every day for the past ten years. On the way back from being fired, he is approached on the train by a mysterious woman who calls herself Joanna (previous Collet-Serra collaborator Vera Farmiga). In an astoundingly dynamic, extended conversation, the self-described people observer slowly tempts Michael into accepting her offer of $100,000 to find a particular, unfamiliar passenger on the train. As motives are slowly revealed and identities are unmasked, Michael uses his particular set of skills in judicious fashion.

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This scenario is closest to what is his perhaps Collet-Serra’s finest film yet, the airplane-set Non-Stop, but the stakes are delineated in sharply different ways. While Neeson was an air marshal in that film, he is clearly set as an everyman, concerned first and foremost with wrestling between his desire for the money – his son is about to go to a college that he can’t afford – and his burgeoning conscience. Collet-Serra takes care to set him against the massive melting pot that is the collected inhabitants of New York City. Especially in the first act of the film, the cars of the train are crammed, and even as more and more passengers exit the almost stage-like confines, there are more than enough riders (and potential targets).

It is worth noting the touches that, at first glance, are not typical of Collet-Serra. Though his films have never been anything approaching dour or self-serious, they have always been relatively sober affairs, especially his previous Neeson collaboration Run All Night. Not so with The Commuter: it boasts at least a few moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, including a delicious flipping of the bird to an arrogant broker, and the eventual derailment of the train is handled with, if not excess, then a flashiness that is atypical.

But in conjunction with this seeming kowtowing to the cultural taste for destruction comes an even greater manifestation of Collet-Serra’s ability to create impact with every single scene. Here, his mode is that of destabilization, of which the opening salvo of an utterly disorienting montage, cutting back and forward in time over a decade of early morning routines, is but the first of gambits. A noticeably shaky use of handheld, impossible CGI tracking shots through the entirety of the train, motivated uses of slow-motion, a bravura one-take fight scene, even an honest-to-God Vertigo zoom: all of these are in Collet-Serra’s toolkit, and he integrates them with his precise style perfectly. If The Commuter is an example of a director’s style triumphing over the standard content that he is given, it matters little: it is genuine and fun, done with a love of craft and film that is nothing short of intoxicating.