All posts by Joel Copling

Review of THE ASSIGNMENT

Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Caitlin Gerard, Anthony LaPaglia. Directed by Walter Hill. Rated R. 95 minutes. 2017.

Walter Hill’s The Assignment is interesting to observe as a movie whose foundation is built upon a premise of obvious misguidedness but that ultimately doesn’t do anything with said premise. Much will be and has been made about that premise, but we’ll get there in a second. It’s worth some build-up, too, because this is a movie that will strike at a primal nerve within a certain, underserved part of the marginalized community in our country (and those abroad who might see it). It is also a movie that leads into a second half that is only notable for how uninteresting it is, especially in the wake of a first act that is, certainly, quite interesting. It’s a film quite literally of two halves – of a first that is off-putting in ways that are constantly being discovered by the viewer and of a second that settles into a stale routine. It gets better as it becomes more familiar.

Now let’s get to the premise, because that’s the thing that will embroil and has embroiled the film in controversy leading to its release: Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank Kitchen, a male assassin who is “punished” with forced gender reassignment surgery after a hit ended up being personal for our primary antagonist. That would be Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), whose motivation is almost entirely indecipherable, even after she lays it out in a speech. Much of her screen time is spent with Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub), who performs psychoanalysis that seems completely useless. The plot has Frank finding and revenging himself upon the people who made him into a woman, and yes, it seems prudent to misgender intentionally a character who spends the duration wanting to get back to his ideal self.

That’s the trickiest element of Hill’s screenplay (co-written by Denis Hamill): The desire to retain the simple compassion of referring to the correct gender of a transgender male-to-female person (which, for the uninitiated, is by way of “she/her” pronouns) is at constant odds with a plot that expends a lot of energy upon believing that a forced transition like this is a fate merely a step above death on the scale of desirability. It’s even stranger given the casting of Rodriguez, even if this is the only actress who could pull off a role this tricky. Rodriguez does a serviceable job, both in the early segments of the film as a man (Yes, we get a series of close-ups involving Frank’s manhood, both of the physiology and in the throes of passion) and after the reassignment surgery. The problem is the character, who remains in the service of mercenary killings and ceases to be interesting as soon as he gets over the shock of having breasts, a vagina, and a lot of hormonal supplements to take.

That’s when the plot proper kicks in, and it’s hard to imagine that the screenplay could withstand much more expository dialogue than what this film has in store for its viewers. Almost every sentence is an establishing declaration of the plot’s forward movement, and there’s really nothing here that’s of much interest: Frank follows the bread crumbs straight to each of the people on crime boss “Honest John” Baconian’s (Anthony LaPaglia) payroll, then faces down the good doctor in a final ten minutes that seems rushed to conclude all of the various subplots, which also include a romance of sorts for Frank with a nurse named Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard). It’s really not very involving stuff, although the weird case of this stretch of The Assignment being better than what came before is complicated by the fact that, before this stretch, at least something interesting was happening.

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Review of SONG TO SONG

Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett. Directed by Terrence Malick. Rated R. 129 minutes. 2017.

One expects a legendary filmmaker like Terrence Malick to have higher ambitions than the ones on display in Song to Song, the latest in the writer/director’s unofficial quartet of films in which a straightforward narrative is secondary to the experimental visual storytelling that frames said narrative. In each of the previous cases, however, there was a deeper philosophical point to be made than the plot being relayed onscreen: 2011’s The Tree of Life paired the experience of a nuclear family (whose real-life inspiration may or may not have been Malick’s own) with the meaning of life and the evolution of the earth, 2013’s To the Wonder examined faith through the prism of a man’s rocky marriage, and 2016’s Knight of Cups explored a man’s devolving materialistic woes through his own romantic entanglements. With his newest film, Malick threads a pair of romantic triangles amid the music scene of Austin, Texas.

One half of this works quite well during the few sequences that capture the energy of the music festivals that form at the center of the state’s capitol. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki weave in, out, and around the partygoers as techno music and rap tracks blare over the sound system. It’s a place of frenzied fun as bands perform, backstage antics occur, and lives intertwine in only that singular way they can at a music festival. Faye (Rooney Mara), our heroine of sorts, is an aspiring songwriter who would likely enjoy her work being featured in this festival. She was hired in her later teenage years by Cook (Michael Fassbender), a carefree producer, and has formed a romance with BV (Ryan Gosling), another aspiring songwriter, through that connection. They mingle with legends of rock music, and Malick provides us with glimpses of them, such as Patti Smith and Iggy Pop.

The decadence of the sequences set in this world is formally dazzling and often thrilling, but the film’s focus is on the increasingly tumultuous relationship that develops between our three main characters. Each of them remains a cypher, with the possible exception of BV, and when there is a chance to define them further, Malick falls back on montages of characters exploring the textures of their surroundings. There is also much melodrama in the particulars of the characters’ journeys: Faye meets another woman (played by Berenice Marlohe) who challenges her perception of her own sexuality. BV meets an older woman (played by Cate Blanchett) who reminds him vaguely of his mother. Cook falls for a waitress (played by Natalie Portman), whose whirlwind marriage to Cook leads to menage a trois and tragedy.

It’s hard to detect a deeper point in what Malick is trying to say here than what shows up onscreen. Cook believes he is the Devil incarnate, but the idea never comes to anything and the events of the latter half of the film would seem to derail it in any case. Faye enjoys the “pain” of sex, which, one supposes, means that she feels nothing else, except we are never allowed a glimpse of her real nature. BV’s arc remains static in spite of some business involving his father’s illness, the character a largely reactive one. The bare essence of the characters, as usual in Malick’s filmography, is the point, so in theory, none of these should be detriments. In practice here, though, even insight into the characters’ bare essence is minimal. The filmmaker has found success – some of it great – in the past by fracturing and deconstructing traditional narratives into elemental fables. With Song to Song, the deconstruction has gone a few degrees too far.

Review of QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson, Jay Abdo. Directed by Werner Herzog. Rated PG-13. 112 minutes. 2017.

Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert ambles, utterly directionless, through the life of Gertrude Bell, who paved the way for cooperation between officials of Middle-Eastern governments and British colonialists by way of mapping out the regions of Arabia, Mesopotamia, Greater Syria, and Asia Minor. She was also a writer, a spy, and an archaeologist, living a full life for having had only 57 years of it before her death, two days before her 58th birthday, in July 1926. The film fails to provide any of this important context, which has been gleaned from encyclopedic accounts of her life that are more insightful than anything found onscreen.

Yes, this is one of those movies in which the written coda that leads into the credits tells us more about the movie’s subject (and, certainly, about the people she encountered) than the actual movie that proceeds it. What transpires amounts to a transparent doodle, a scribbled account of a few events that regard her life as having been lived between romances with two men and a flirtatious series of exchanges with a third. There is no sense of a life here, and the film is utterly impenetrable in its attempts to find some sort of central focus. Bell remains a cipher, and the figures of historical record whose paths she crosses are mere avatars within her vicinity.

Bell is played by Nicole Kidman in a performance that can be politely described as wooden, although one can detect that the actress is utterly lost in the weeds of Herzog’s screenplay, which provides a mixture of expository dialogue and whispered, ponderous narration. Joe Bini’s editing shifts between timelines with such abandon that it’s less a fluid progression than a random collage of moments without much in the way of context. We begin on her whirlwind romance with and marriage to Henry Cadogan (James Franco, sporting an awkward English accent on account of replacing the role’s original performer at the last minute), Viscount Chelsea and a British Army officer. His mysterious death, which has never been solved, would go on to haunt Bell for the rest of her life.

The film is too happy, though, to rush through the other pieces of Bell’s life to dwell on matters such as the death of the man she considered the love of her life. Soon, she has sworn off all other potential romances to wander the desert terrains of the Middle East, in which she aids in developing the borders between regions that are now known as the countries of Iraq and Jordan (An encounter with T.E. Lawrence, played by Robert Pattinson in a tired impression of Peter O’Toole, seems to be paying lip service to the real-life exchanges, making the scenes seem awkward and shoehorned-in). The development of this relationship was in collaboration with Winston Churchill (Christopher Fulford), but the collaboration is hardly the point, the film argues, when Bell has fostered another romance with Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis), another Army officer.

The romances are apparently key for Herzog, whose film is restless but still sluggish, that features wide, panoramic vistas but is still strangely claustrophobic in its presentation of the imagery, and that purports to be the definitive account of Bell’s life yet does not take any time to observe the woman or to examine what drives her independent spirit. Her accomplishments are secondary to the romantic or political influence of the men surrounding her. That dishonesty is coupled, in Queen of the Desert, with a failure to provide anything of artistic merit or subjective worth. It becomes infuriating to witness.

Review of PERSONAL SHOPPER

Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Rated R. 105 minutes. 2017.

We are accustomed to filmmakers dealing with ghosts in a certain way in the movies. Usually, it’s a spectral being whose existence within the plot is more important than the how or why of what brought it to the point of being a ghost. The human that may or may not have been is rarely a consideration, unless the film has more important matters on its mind than how to cater to a genre or its target audience. In the worst cases, usually speaking, the being is computer-generated in nature, swooping across or toward the camera while a high-pitched shriek or piteous moan plays on the soundtrack. In the best cases, the being is still technically at the mercy of a plot that requires it to be an object of fright. It takes a special kind of treatment to avoid the potential pitfall of a genre effort and approach the presence of a ghost as something that is elemental.

Personal Shopper is unique in that the ghosts central to our heroine’s story are not just tools of the plot. Writer/director Olivier Assayas is keenly aware of the delicate balancing act that he performs here. There are unnerving scenes of communication between the protagonist and someone/something on the other side of that invisible veil of death, but the dead here rarely communicate through theatrical means, such as the slamming of doors or the defusing of candles that are our only source of light. There is an extended sequence in which such things take place, but as the film progresses and shows us the other means of spectral communication, we realize that an old house with a creaky foundation might only be a vessel for that particular spirit.

The living visitor to said house is Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a clairvoyant whose twin brother died years ago in that very place, victim of the genetic malformation of the heart that led to a cardiac event. Maureen has the same malformation, and although the doctor assures her that, health-wise, she’s in the clear for now, it’s obviously a source of fear for her. In her day job, Maureen is the personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), a diva whose modeling career has become so consuming of her time that her boyfriend Ingo (Lars Eidinger) is resentful and Maureen must choose and purchase clothing for the events she attends. Her boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin) is on the other side of the world installing security features for a corporation and the process could take months. For both, the work is unfulfilling, and each simply wants to be with the other.

Maureen, though, has an important goal to see through: Her clairvoyance was a gift shared by her brother, and one of their promises to each other was for each to send the other a sign from the afterlife that he or she was at peace. Maureen feels she has waited in vain for this sign, until she starts receiving text messages from an unknown number. The conversations are innocuous, at first, though strangely philosophical: The person or presence on the other side of the phone interrogates her about her deepest nature, eventually causing her to question it. Assayas deftly frames all of this as a puzzle for the viewer to solve. Stewart’s performance, which utilizes the actress’s deadpan abilities while also traversing much emotional terrain, is an exemplary model of expressive acting in these sequences.

That deadpan quality becomes especially crucial as the narrative chips away at Maureen’s psyche and we are witness to a young woman losing her nerve. The riddle at the center of Personal Shopper is, as per usual with these efforts that are built around a puzzle, perhaps more important than the answer. Assayas certainly doesn’t stretch to lay it out clearly for us. Indeed, by the final set of sequences, the film has become more dependent upon our and the characters’ unconscious conclusions about how all of the film’s pieces (most of which, certainly, haven’t even been hinted at in this review) come together. It’s partly frustrating and partly mesmerizing to watch all of those pieces present themselves to us, particularly when events turn to tragedy and our perceptions of what is important are upended. The ultimate weight rests on its mesmeric qualities.

DIFF 2017: Review of FRANTZ

Paula Beer, Pierre Nuney, Marie Gruber, Ernst Stötzner, Johann von Bülow. Directed by François Ozon. Rated PG-13. 113 minutes. 2017.

There must be a reason for the man’s intrusion upon the family’s shared grief. Their only son was one of the many who died in the war that ravaged an entire world, and the conflict that drove a rift between the French and German governments has, of course, developed between the people of those countries, too. When the fallen soldier’s father realizes that their visitor is French, he, a proud German, expels the man from his presence with eyes popping and voice strained. It isn’t a rational fear of ideological divide in this case; it’s an irrational fear of the “other.” The Frenchman doesn’t belong in the German doctor’s office – or, no doubt, in Germany at large.

The mystery surrounding the reason for the Frenchman’s visit to the grave of the fallen, German soldier is solved by the halfway point of François Ozon’s Frantz, but wisely, the co-writer/director understands that the solution to its puzzle is of secondary importance to what it means for its characters. For some time, this approach works toward a vital, urgent, and moving first half in which the unspoken secrets (replacing the truth with carefully observed lies) between two fragile people place an emotional barrier between them (There is also the clever photographic trick devised by the director and cinematographer Philippe Rombi to switch between black-and-white and color depending upon the mood of the scene). It’s understandable, though, that Anna (Paula Beer), who was to be the wife of Frantz (Anton von Lucke) until his death at the frontlines, would be distrusting of Adrien (Pierre Nuney), who represents for her much of what led to her fiancé’s demise.

It is even more understandable that Adrien would receive some resistance from Frantz’s parents, the doctor and his wife (played by Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber), and so it charges forward until the scene at almost precisely the halfway point in which Adrien confronts Anna with the truth. The arrival of this scene, played perfectly by Beer and Nuney, would in any other movie be the climactic one of confrontation, leading perhaps to a single contrived scene of reconciliation and the end credits. Ozon is a bit smarter than that, understanding that the unspoken secrets must be confronted in a more resolute way. This is where the screenplay by Ozon and Philippe Piazzo (adapting both Maurice Rostand’s stage play and the screenplay for Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby) unfortunately stumbles.

It isn’t the fact that Ozon pushes forward after the central mystery of the film’s plot is confronted. The general fact of this confrontation is tricky and well-handled. What transpires after this, though, steers the film away from its honest view of its characters and toward exactly the kind of contrived melodrama that Ozon so carefully avoids until this point. The best way to put it, without revealing anything about the truth, is that it replaces the mystery that opens the film with another, far less involving, far more trivial one that seems to be a long-winded ploy to reunite Anna and Adrien. It feels dishonest, and Frantz suffers thus from two distended halves that betray each other.

DIFF 2017: Review of A QUIET PASSION

Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May. Directed by Terence Davies. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes. 2017.

Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion approaches the life of poet Emily Dickinson with an astonishing sense of understanding its subject. Dickinson was, famously, guarded about her personal life, so that sense of understanding is a coup for the writer/director. The character speaks in her real-life counterpart’s typically witty and philosophical barbs. Dickinson was one of the more outspoken feminist voices of her time, righteously obsessed with ideas of agency and independence in a time when the patriarchal society frowned upon such activities. For a while, Davies’ film rejects the usual biographical elements that accompany a period piece about an historical figure, and even when the film must confront the events that led both to Dickinson’s late-life reclusion from outward society and ultimate death in 1886, the film never settles.

Even at a younger age, Emily (Emma Bell) was rebellious against a strict, religious upbringing. Deistic of a higher power, whom, she believed, would be less than uninterested in her petty existence if it even existed, she rejected the societal powers that might direct her to be in answer to men. As an older woman (played by Cynthia Nixon), she lives much by the same code as before, in distrust of the idea of marriage, lest it place her in the servitude of a man. She feels her intellect is enough to steer her right and conducts herself in exactly the manner that she feels befits that intellect while in the presence of men.

The biographical elements that do exist here contribute to the little plot that, thankfully, exists. Her father Edward (Keith Carradine) is disapproving of roughly her every move, unless he feels it will bring honor to their family, such as her wish from a young age to write for the Springfield Republican. Her mother Emily Norcross (Joanna Bacon) slowly deteriorates from an unspoken illness and attendant despair that consistently leaves the rest of the family reeling. Her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) joins the family’s law practice, marries the charming Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), and later, carries on an affair with the alluring Mabel Loomis Todd (Noémie Schellerts) that will have lasting impact on Emily. Her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) remains loyal to Emily’s interests, even as the latter has trouble remaining grateful for the support.

We get the sense of an entire person through these events, which are guided by Davies’ perfectly attuned ear for the dialogue of the time, rich with meaning that, it seems, has been lost with the evolution of modern language. This aspect will alienate some viewers, but it’s crucial for our sense of insight into this woman. It also helps that Nixon, whose performance is phenomenal, knows seemingly instinctively how to deliver this dialogue in a matter that seems as natural as it can be. That goes for all the actors, and Davies’ understated camera utilize medium shots and close-ups to superb effect. A Quiet Passion is an observant character study of a woman, an author, and a poet who was, well, quite the character.

DIFF 2017: Review of HEARTSTONE

Baldur Einarsson, Blær Hinriksson, Diljá Valsdóttir, Katla Njálsdóttir, Jónína Þórdís Karlsdóttir. Directed by Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson. No MPAA Rating. 129 minutes. 2017.

Coming-of-age films are easy to mishandle because much of the dramatic forward motion is mirrored in the characters, who are often teenagers prone to melodramatic overreactions that come as unwanted guests in the throes of puberty. Heartstone is a film that gets the coming of age right through a remarkable sense of forthright honesty and raw emotion. The emotion is genuine here, too, chronicling a single summer in the lives of four young teenagers simply trying to grapple with the insecurities, the loneliness, and the explosive troubles of pubescence. It’s hardly a subtle movie, but the crescendos of the narrative build organically from what, early on in director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s screenplay, is intentionally aimless.

That aimlessness is incredibly appealing in this instance, too, because these kids are appealing, even amid their myriad flaws and outbursts of hormonal indignation. Two of them are defined by their suffering loneliness in broken homes. Þór (Baldur Einarsson) is one of three children whose single mother Hulda (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) is something of the town pariah upon the decision to become romantically involved with a foreigner of a different nationality. Þór’s sisters, Rakel (Jónína Þórdís Karlsdóttir) and Hafdís (Rán Ragnarsdóttir) are opposites of each other – the former is an attention-seeker who has little patience for quirk and the latter likes to paint and produce poetry – and of Þór, whose budding sexual feelings and practices are complicated by his sharing a room with Rakel.

His best friend is Kristján (Blær Hinriksson), whose own home life is perhaps even more dour than Þór’s. His father Sigurður (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson) has won himself a spot of infamy in this small, Icelandic town by picking a fight from which he still sports a blackened eye. He’s an often angry, occasionally violent man who is entirely ignorant of his wife’s concerns and of his son’s increasing, desperate depression. Kristján, after all, is gay, but he is in denial about his sexuality, as well as his feelings toward it. When Hafdís paints a portrait of Þór and Kristján dressed up as two women, those feelings come tumbling out for Kristján. And when the pair of boys meets Beta (Diljá Valsdóttir) and Hanna (Katla Njálsdóttir), a pair of would-be romances strikes up that is based around the exploration of their physical attraction and emotional maturity.

This plot, of course, leads to a series of melodramatic developments in these boys’ lives that would feel contrived if not for Guðmundsson’s insistence upon keeping an honest view of his characters and not simplifying them at the expense of their situations. The performances have a significant role in this, with each child actor having a lot asked of them and bearing the weight extraordinarily well under the pressure of heavy subject matter. Some of the third act does bend to contrivance with how it solves one of these subplots, but Heartstone remains an honest account of grappling with the hardest part of growing up. For that, it’s a special film.