Movie Review: Jackie

Jackie (Pablo Larraín, 2016)

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Every once and a while, a film will deviate from the standards of its genre in such a way that a new film paradigm is born.  In 1994 Pulp Fiction ushered in a new era of independent cinema.  The 400 Blows changed the landscape for French film forever when it introduced the world to new wave in 1959.  Citizen Kane, while sacrilegious to evoke, invoked decades worth of progress to the dramatic character study in 1941. With any luck, Jackie will usher in a new age of the much-maligned biopic transforming it from an artless point by point retelling of the subject’s life to an emotional experience allowing the viewer to experience the life of the actual person.  A chance to transport oneself into some of the most important people and moments in history and understand the personal impacts.

While Jackie is not Citizen Kane, it is in my opinion far and away the best film of an amazing year in cinema, and one of the best films in recent memory.  Pablo Larraín deviates from the traditional biopic formula by shrinking the timeline from an entire life to a mere three days.  This succinct period allows the film to focus on the emotional rollercoaster inherent in dealing with the tragic, unexpected death of a spouse while balancing it with the need to create and preserve a legacy all while under the biggest spotlight know to the world at that time.  The mind of Jackie is a cluster, but the audience is welcome to its every whim.

Larraín expresses Jackie’s overwhelmed state of confusion by letting the timeline flow in a non-traditional manner.  While still following an approximate chronological order, the events are played out as Jackie understands them.  Events on the day of the assassination Jackie always appears in the same outfit, never completely clean of the blood, but all other days the outfit will change from scene to scene.  This isn’t a continuity error on Larraín’s part, but an understanding of the fragmented state of her memory.  As the film is distinctly Jackie’s story, her broken psyche causes unimportant details to slip in exchange for doing her jobs as a widow, a mother of fatherless children, a former first lady, and a woman in charge of preserving the legacy of a great man.

The way that each of these personas are juggled is inspiring.  The film intertwines moments where Jackie is quite obviously unraveling with ones where she is almost robotic in her decision making and control.  Two particularly moving sequences exemplify this juxtaposition.  At one moment, Jackie is aimlessly wandering around the second-floor living quarters of the White House.  She opens all the doors, dresses and undresses multiple times, packs and unpacks all without purpose while listening to musical soundtracks.  It is in this moment that Jackie feels the most relatable as she experiences pain and grief like anyone would.  Contrastly, when confronted with the prospect of burying her husband at the family plot in Brookline, Massachusetts, Jackie’s sense of legacy overtakes any emotions that she may be experiencing.  She insists that Arlington is the only reasonable place for her husband to be buried, and on a gloomy day leads a group of men through the cemetery in search of the perfect resting place.  In this moment, Jackie shows how much power she possesses.  Trudging her way through the mud in heels, the powerful men scamper to keep up with her resigning themselves to her decision.

Nathalie Portman is absolutely perfect as Jackie.  Her dedication into perfecting the speech and mannerisms of the real Jackie Kennedy Onassis results in a nigh uncanny resemblance.  She replicates the infamous White House tour in flashbacks allowing for seamless transitions between stock footage and reenactment.  The gauntlet has been thrown, and any director should seriously consider alternatives to ever casting this role again.

Portman’s impeccable performance extends beyond pure mimicry.  Larraín employs the high risk high reward technique of shooting the film almost exclusively in close-up.  Had Portman not been able to exhibit each of the wide array of emotions with expertise, the decision would have backfired on Larraín leaving him with a mess.  Instead, her every facial expression and word transports the audience into the room with her.  Both crying and cheering for her as the scene dictates.  It’s because of this decision that the compact timeline thrives.  A lifetime’s emotional journey is imparted on the viewer without bogging them down with lengthy details.

This representation of Jackie eclipses the unfortunate pseudo feminist cliché of strong female character.  It understands that reality is more important than strength when portraying a fully formed woman.  Make no mistake, there are extensive moments in the film where Jackie is far and away the strongest persona in the room, but it’s the balance between that and her understandable weakness as a grief filled widow that makes her real.  Far too often, men’s attempts at appearing feminist will result in the creation of a Mary Sue, but Larraín understands that it’s the truth behind the real person, inclusive of weaknesses, that creates one of the greatest feminist figures.

Jackie is as close to perfect as a film can be.  While the exclusively character driven presentation may deter some viewers who prefer a plot heavy story, the film still should be necessary viewing.  Larraín portrays a greater understanding of the person that Jackie Kennedy Onassis was in only three days’ worth of events than any film focusing on her entire life ever could.  The end reminder that Jackie was the true originator of the term Camelot to represent the Kennedy legacy, hopefully mirrors the future in which Jackie is remembered as equally legendary.

Movie Review: Blue Jay

Blue Jay (Alex Lehmann, 2016)

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It’s completely arguable that the faces of independent cinema today are the Duplass brothers.  Between acting, writing, directing, and their production company, their hands are directly involved in a large portion of indies being made today.  They have become so ubiquitous that it can be easy to miss their ventures due to over saturation.  Blue Jay’s theatrical run was completely lost on me, but after hearing good things its quick arrival to streaming platforms allowed me a chance to catch up with the most recent Mark Duplass outing.  While he wasn’t the director, as both the lead and producer, his impact is felt similarly to Alex Lehmann’s.

Blue Jay stars Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson as Jim and Amanda, two former high school sweethearts who by chance are visiting their small California home town at the same time and run into each other.  Somewhat hesitantly, Amanda agrees to get coffee and reconnect with Jim.  Their reunion begins in public and with very surface details.  They discuss current relationships and professions, as any former classmates who were at least minimally close may.  Other than shared acquaintances, no details are shared about who they were to each other, or why they would exert the effort to reconnect.

It is only when they venture to an otherwise empty local convenience store that hints of their previous relationship emerge.  They attempt an old routine on the owner of the store and find that after years away he remembers them and their habits.  It’s in the owner’s memory that Jim and Amanda’s prior romantic relationship is mentioned, though at this point it remains unclear whether they were an actual couple or if it was just the assumption an older man who only knew them as customers made.  Beverages in hand, they head to Jim’s childhood home where they have time completely alone to dive deeper into their current lives as well as their past.

Near the end of the film, a topic was broached that almost sent me down an angry twitter tirade.  The film was directed by a man, Alex Lehmann, and while Duplass and Paulson are very much co-leads, the story does identify Jim as the audience’s vessel.  As such, when the discussion of the end of their relationship emerged near the end of night together, in a classic representation of male privilege, the film initially seemed to take Jim’s side on the decisive matter.  Enraged I prepared to start a fight the second I completed the film, and thankfully the need subsided after Amanda called him out on his tantrum.  This caused the only real shift in prospective, and Blue Jay’s most unique feature.  After seventy minutes of following Jim’s perspective on their past, Amanda’s mind finally becomes the central figure and Jim’s lingering childishness is called out; ending the film on a more intellectual and fulfilling note.

Blue Jay is in no way a unique film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The genre of two people connecting over a short time in close to real time is an indie cliché for a reason.  When done well it can be exquisite, see the Before Trilogy, and at minimum its often a safe, cheap way to make an independent drama.  Blue Jay does not deserve the level of prestige as the upper echelon of these films, but is a fine movie in and of itself.  The screenplay takes enough risks to differentiate itself from the rest of the genre.  Duplass and Paulson exhibit natural chemistry; the baggage between the characters is palpable, but the love they share is also present.  Even the overused decision to shoot in black and white works as imagining the film in color is near impossible.  Unfortunately, these strengths combined still just leave Blue Jay as above average in a bloated category.

Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)

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Tom Ford returns to the world of film for his second venture after 2009’s A Single Man with the new Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal headlined thriller Nocturnal Animals.  Ford is known best as a high-end clothing designer, and his trademark attention to detail once again transfers to the silver screen.

Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner who has the means to get everything she could ever want.  She lives in a grandiose modern compound with a full complement of health and her husband when he’s not in New York on work.  Despite all the money and success, Susan’s life appears hollow.  It’s made obvious that her husband is cheating on her before the film confirms it half way through, and her ceaseless insomnia hints at a greater struggle may lie under Susan’s surface.

Her sleeplessness and unease only amplify when her estranged ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends a copy of his manuscript that’s both dedicated to her and named his pet name for her.  Unable to focus on much else as her insomnia worsens, she dives into the manuscript instinctively inserting her ex-husband into the role of protagonist.  From this point on, the film splits between acting out the unsettling and violent manuscript, Susan’s life as she struggles to maintain a grasp on her reality, and flashbacks as she relives her and her ex’s lives together.

Ford balances these storylines with beautiful precision.  Understanding that it’s not enough to cut between them, but that Susan’s present life needs to dictate the transitions.  Particularly troubling scenes in the novel result in her slamming the book shut and a return to reality.  These instances are frequently proceeded by long breaks from the novelized story as Susan wrestles with her past and the flashbacks take center stage.  Through these, the audience is treated to the major developments and milestones as childhood friends Susan and Edward fall in love and subsequently become disillusioned with each other.  The flashbacks also serve as a necessary breath of air as the novel and Susan’s current life both define Nocturnal Animals as a thriller.

As good as Ford is as a director, the acting in Nocturnal Animals is its greatest selling point.  Gyllenhaal is perfectly unsettling in his dual role as the ex-husband Edward Sheffield who feels he was personally wronged and as the fictional Tony Hastings who would do anything for his family.  Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson both contribute awards caliber supporting performances in the world of Edward’s manuscript.  But, as she often does, Amy Adams steals the show.  She instinctively understands what it can be like to have both everything and nothing at the same time.  The emptiness she brings to her present world despite attending art openings, eating out at restaurants most people could only dream of, attending important board meetings as a primary decision maker, and having her every need catered to by her personal home staff is not something that many actors could do with the intensity and plausibility that she does.  It’s truly a shame that Arrival, while great in its own right, is the more commercially receptive film, as it will steal the awards thunder away from Adams Nocturnal Animals performance which is even more deserving.

While an otherwise excellent film, Nocturnal Animals has one major issue that is difficult to overlook, and is unfortunately also deeply entrenched in spoilers requiring some carefully chosen ambiguities.  A major contribution to Susan’s guilt and something that she herself describes as unforgivable is not.  It would be one thing if this statement was a belief that was only held by Susan as a character, but the movie never relieves her of that guilt.  Instead it continues to demonize her over something that it has no right to furthering an aspect of misogyny and female non-autonomy that is not acceptable.  Susan is depicted as a fully formed female character, but the antifeminism intrinsic in that decision overshadows the respect as a character.

Feminist issue aside, Nocturnal Animals is still a breathtakingly precise thriller.  Adams is on the top of her game as expected, and the rest of the cast is up to the challenge of keeping pace with her.   The interweave of stories and flashbacks create a deep picture of Susan as we understand her misery.  The tension inherent in Nocturnal Animals due to some skillful directing proves that if he should ever want to leave the world of fashion, Tom Ford could find a full-time career as a director.

Movie Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee, 2016)

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Ang Lee continues to be one of the most ambitious filmmakers today, though ambition does not always result in excellence.  Jumping from genre to genre, he managed to produce two of the preeminent films of the 21st century in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, and “Brokeback Mountain”, though other extreme variations have not paid off as well, see  2003’s “Hulk”.  Most recently he’s seemed to be most content by experimenting with new filming techniques.  His last film “Life of Pi” was a marvel of visual effects, and his newest film “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” was shot in an unheard-of 120 frames per second.  Unfortunately, this decision is not something that many theaters were able to implement including any by me, so this review will not take that decision into consideration as I was unable to see it that way.

Following the Bravo squad on their last stop of their countrywide celebratory tour, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” focuses on Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) who was both especially honored and affected by the harrowing battle they are being recognized for.  While their other stops had been in front of relatively small crowds, this one had them in front of the nation while performing at the halftime show for the Dallas Cowboys.  The entire squad takes this opportunity to attempt to process their new-found fame and the fact that they are destined to return to Iraq that evening.

Billy specifically is haunted by the events that transpired in Iraq; a fact which only his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) seems to understand.  She arranges for him to defer his redeployment and check into a hospital for post-traumatic stress disorder if he chooses.  Confronted with decision between protecting himself and serving the nation/ saving face, Billy struggles throughout the entirety of the football game, unable to focus on his responsibilities.

In what has become an unfortunate recurring theme this year, Kristen Stewart is once again the lone shining point in an otherwise poor film.  “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” even tries to fail on that front as Stewarts presence is sorely underrepresented often being relegated to cellphone voicemails.  The acting of the entire Bravo squad is unbearably stilled, and Steve Martin painfully struggles to find any resemblance of the tone of the rest of the film in his supporting role.  Makenzie Leigh’s performance as the cheerleader love interest Faison is poorly written to the extent of being insulting.  The overall writing and acting performances completely fail to deliver on the promising and important topic of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Having Kathryn and Faison be the only two female characters of note in the film is troubling.  Despite Stewart’s best attempts at salvaging Kathryn and making her sympathetic, her attempts fail to follow the story that Lee wants and thus she is portrayed only as the nagging troublemaker.  In contrast, the mindless Faison strokes the male ego by being a fantasy who is willing to fawn over Billy’s dedication to country and ability to overcome, read ignore, his personal feelings.  Instead of challenging the masculine dream of fighting for the beautiful damsel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” reinforces it, while teaching men to continue to ignoring any hesitance as weakness.

Maybe the visual spectacle of seeing the film, especially the halftime show itself, in 120 frames per second would be the saving grace of the film, but if it’s not readily accessible, it can’t be judged on those merits.  As it is, the visuals were solid, and the transitions occasionally flirted with impressive, but they fail to act as a redeeming factor to a poorly written and acted piece of male machismo.

Movie Review: Arrival

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

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“Arrival” follows in the footsteps of last year’s “The Martian” and 2013’s “Gravity” of a genre film that is also a serious awards contender, and Denis Villeneuve hopes to capitalize on that trend.  “Arrival” comes off the heels of his well received, but relatively unsuccessful at grabbing any awards 2015 film “Sicario”.   Moving to a more awards friendly November release date and recruiting perennial Oscar contender Amy Adams may have been the extra bump that he needed to push his chances over the top.

“Arrival” focuses on just that, the arrival to Earth of alien life in the form of giant pod-shaped vessels.  Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, one of the foremost linguists in the United States who is enrolled by the government to help interpret the language of the aliens.  She’s joined by physicist Ian Donnelly, Jeremy Renner, in her attempt to communicate and learn from seven legged aliens dubbed heptapods.  They spend weeks working under Colonel Weber, Forest Whitaker, while other countries do so in parallel with their respective invasions.

Like most successful science fiction, “Arrival” allows its focus to wander beyond just the plot proper.  The film also dives into the pollical chaos caused by the arrival as different countries attempt to communicate with their respective pods.  Each balances the rulers’ unique temperament eventually leading into the inevitable brink of war as communications between nations break down.  Juxtaposed between both the face to face dealings with the heptapods and the political upheaval are Louise’s own demons.  She’s haunted by tragedy involving her daughter, and the stress of her mission greatly exasperates these feelings.  When she can manage to sleep, she dreams in a mix of those memories and the heptapods showing how deeply the job has permeated her psyche.

As always, Adams delivers a stunning performance.  She asserts herself as both a strong dedicated expert in her field while still maintaining a level of humanity as she wears down from over work and struggles with her own personal problems.  The film is clearly her meant to be her vehicle as Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker’s characters serve very little purpose outside that of catalyst for Adams.  This fact does highlight a weakness of the film; in the second half of the film, Ian’s character changes significantly.  He becomes more socially aware and develops a strong connection to Banks, without any insight into how it happened.  It just seems like the writers decided and Dr. Banks needed someone to lean on to continue her arc so they decided it was time for Ian to suddenly be able to provide that.

And this leads to my one real gripe with the film.  Despite Adams being a brilliant mind and effective savior of humanity, I have significant reservations towards the film from a feminist standpoint.  Dr. Louise Banks is a brilliant mind with a rewarding career and significant accolades, and yet she’s portrayed as incomplete until her maternal needs can be fulfilled.  I understand that the maternal instinct is a valid motivation for many people, but portraying one of the few women in the operation as having this apparent weakness feels reductive.  Even more egregious than the overwhelming maternal motivation, is the completely out of nowhere romantic attraction between Louise and Ian.  These two urges combine to dampen the powerful impact Louise Banks could have as a strong woman as she reverts to traditional female rolls.

“Arrival” boasts a strong cinematic foundation with beautiful CG and cinematography creating an immersive world.  An innovative story and impressive lead performance by Amy Adams bolster the film to one of the best of the year.  A weak feminist story is disappointing, but does not detract much from the overall enjoyment of the mil.