All That Jazz

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Cafe Society, written and directed by Woody Allen, is more of an experience than a film.

Bobby, a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who has just moved to Hollywood to work for his uncle (Steve Carell), falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a beautiful young woman who is in love with someone else. Although they do end up together briefly, Vonnie doesn’t stay with Bobby and decides to marry her first love. Bobby, brokenhearted and disillusioned with Hollywood’s glamor, moves back to his hometown, New York City, where he meets the stunningly beautiful Veronica (Blake Lively). There, he runs a nightclub with his gangster brother and mingles with the rich and famous, living out a more sophisticated version of what his life in Hollywood could have been. That’s the plot, but that isn’t really what makes this movie worth seeing. Sure, there’s enough drama to pack some flavor into the film, but the real joy of Cafe Society is how it envelops the viewer in a rich and beautiful daydream of the 1930s.

The soundtrack was one of my favorite parts of the film, near constant jazz that overlaid both the mundane and the romantic. At times, the soundtrack was so well paired with a scene it seemed to encapsulate that moment’s feeling. For example, at one point, Bobby and Vonnie are standing on a bridge in Central Park as the sun comes up, sharing a touching moment after staying out all night—the score perfectly complemented the beauty and the bittersweetness of that moment. Outside of those well-placed moments, the soundtrack also cleverly worked as both a score that the audience hears and diegetic music that is being played in the film. Bobby puts on a record before a dinner in, and we’re taken along for the ride. A nightclub singer melts into the soundtrack. For a film that was not about music or musicians, the mingling of sounds played well and worked to pull the viewer into the world of the film.

Another element that sets the film apart was the costuming. From the delicate, tailored dresses that Vonnie wears, to the cable-knit, mustard yellow vest that Bobby sports on his first day at the office, to the flowing gowns that Veronica catches Bobby’s eye in, the clothes were stunning. The wardrobe of Vonnie, especially, was well done. At the beginning, her clothes are plain and a little rebellious, moving towards more elegant pieces as she grows older. The way that the costuming followed development was crucial, given that this film covered many years in the lives of these characters. They remained pitch perfect throughout, for not only Vonnie but all characters. Another thing I particularly appreciated about the costuming was that the pieces genuinely looked like vintage clothing, and not like a replica sewn specifically for the film. That attention to detail allowed the viewer to be transported back in time and immersed in Bobby’s world.

The last element that took the film over the top from just another love story to a true experience was the coloring. I’ve talked about coloring before, and this film constantly shaded scenes to enhance the emotions of the film. Hollywood is lush and saturated, recalling a vintage postcard of Monaco or the Italian coast. But at some times, the golden tones became overwhelming, almost too rich—like the people in Hollywood that Bobby dislikes. Bobby’s family back in New York are a little duller, grayed out as they live their unremarkable lives. The nightclub’s colors are deep and velvety, drawing attention to the opulence of the scenes and the splendor within. This instance on setting the scene visually and shifting the essence of each place in the film was a smart move that helped bring the viewer through the film’s emotional journey.

I would be remiss in writing about this film if I didn’t note that the film is overwhelmingly white, a frequent problem with Allen’s work. While this whiteness may accurately reflect the exclusive Hollywood C-suite brunches of the 1930s, once the film shifts focus to the era’s jazz and nightclub scene, which offered plenty of diversity, a more varied cast would’ve greatly added to the dynamic settings already in play, especially when Bobby moves back to New York.

Cafe Society isn’t a film that challenges or dazzles in its thematic content. But what it lacks in scripted oomph, it more than makes up for in intricate and textured world-building. It’s a lovely film and is sure to let you sit back, relax and be enveloped by a romanticized version of life in the 1930s, and all the jazz that comes with it.

—Lauren Christiansen

 

 

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Into the Wild

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople seems like a simple, predictable story. Troubled foster kid Ricky (Julian Dennison) finally gets placed with a good family. Things seem to be going well with his new foster mom Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and grumpy “Don’t call me Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill)—at least, until the state decides to take him back. Frustrated with his situation and seeing no other options, Ricky runs away into the stunning New Zealand bush, and Hec goes after him to return him to child services.

Things get even more complicated when Hec and Ricky are branded fugitives by the state, after which the two decide to stick it out even longer in the wilderness, together, despite their somewhat rocky start. They quickly become the focus of a five month long manhunt spearheaded by the maniacal social services worker responsible for Ricky. Hec’s survival skills keep Ricky and his dog, Tupac, alive and well as they move across the beautiful terrain. There is a small recurring cast of characters, including some bush adventurers that have a knack for showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time, to great comedic effect. At one memorable point, Ricky and Hec take refuge with a thoroughly paranoid hermit who gives them colanders to put on their heads so the government won’t get into their brains.

These comedic moments are underscored by the characters. Hec is, somewhat predictably, good natured under all the gruff exterior, but also wiley and willing to break the law left and right to accompany his new foster son into the bush. Ricky is a hilarious kid with none of the typical brooding-troubled-teen vibe that typically shows up in foster tales. Julian Dennison nails a type of candor and humor that makes Ricky feel believable and gives him so much charisma that you’re rooting for him from the start. There is no huge warm-hearted moment in the middle of the film where Ricky and Hec become BFFs, but there is mutual trust, respect, and understanding. Each character has their moments of hovering just on the edge of being a parody of themselves, but they never tip over into farce, which gives us the right mix of buoyancy and genuine emotion. This is a truly smart comedy.

Beyond the comedic characters, the cinematography aids the fresh, comedic feel of this film. Sweeping shots allow you to enjoy the New Zealand countryside, where the colors are crisp and vivid and the dialogue has plenty of room to breathe. The clean visual appeal of the film and the heartwarming but hilarious storyline make for an overall enjoyable experience. The electronic soundtrack did fall completely by the wayside for me, but there is also something to be said about a film that doesn’t need a dramatic swell to kick the audience into feeling joy, heartbreak, or humor.

This film was never quite what I expected it to be, but every surprise turn was punctuated by dynamic action, and usually also by a hilarious slip up by Ricky. At my showing of Hunt for the Wilderpeople, there were more than a couple of moments that had everyone in the theatre, including me, laughing out loud. Actually, I entered Images in a rotten mood and left with a smile on my face—that’s a sure sign of powerful cinema and the best endorsement I could give.

— Lauren Christiansen

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Body Talk

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Swiss Army Man is no ordinary film. It is a deep dissection of happiness, relationships, and how we replicate our society through the way we interact with others. Oh, and with a touch of magical realism and a couple of laugh out loud moments thrown in for good measure.

The film centers around Hank (Paul Dano) as a desperate man at the end of his rope who seems to be stranded in the wilderness. Just as his despair hits an all-time low, he spots a corpse, washed up on a sandy shore. But this is no ordinary corpse, as one would expect from directors Daniels’ work. (The directorial duo have been making acclaimed music videos for years.) It is a corpse with a seemingly endless bag of tricks, including the ability to start a fire, teeth that act as a razor, and a slow but steady reanimation. As corpse Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) slowly comes back to life, he needs to be taught how to do, well, just about everything. The only hitch is that Hank and Manny are still stuck in the woods.

But the woods are full of trash—bottles, boxes, old furniture—that Hank refashions into models of cars, scarecrow people, and a full sized bus replica. He creates wigs and coats and images of towns to try and teach Manny what the world looks like and how it behaves. As Hank attempts to muddle through modern society with Manny, he stumbles describing what ‘weird’ is. Again and again, Hank explains to the ever-inquisitive Manny that he should avoid anything that seems ‘weird’ or ‘different’—that is, the way he feels about himself. It’s not that what we feel or how we want to behave is truly strange, he seems to stress, but rather that we have to bend ourselves over backwards not to end up laughed at and alone—a strategy which has dramatically backfired for the depressed Hank.

As the movie progresses and the two grow closer, questions emerge. How much time has passed? Is Manny real? Will they ever get out of the woods? Do they even want to? One of the things the film does well is keep a central focus and pace without many time-sensitive plot points. There are no deadlines, no bomb wires to cut, or kids to drop off at school. The film never feels in a rush to get anywhere, but it doesn’t suffer from the bad pacing and lethargy that can sink an otherwise good picture.

In terms of the cinematography and effects, the film is visually rich and full of both lovely framings and hilarious special effects. Watching Manny come back to live and discovering his body’s unusual powers lends a sort of grotesque bodily humor that is rooted in effects emblematic of Daniels’ work. The film comes from a dark place, especially considering the obviously depressed Hank, and these effects and the highly staged and beautifully choreographed cinematography—Manny pretending to learn how to ride the bus a surprisingly charming example—offer a levity that integrates seamlessly into the film.

My one point of contention with Swiss Army Man was its ending. As Hank tries to make his actual escape from the forest, it is never clear how much of what has happened is in his head, how much time has passed, what was real, and what was simply manifestation of his illness. Although it is not necessary to wrap up every ending in a neat little bow, I was craving some indication that some of this was real, that Manny existed and that there was truly hope for changing the way that we see the world.

While Swiss Army Man’s ending is more of a labyrinth than anything else, it does add a rich critical consideration to the film. Taken as a body of evidence to pair with any number of endings, Swiss Army Man unfolds itself into countless different films, screenprinted onto one another, dancing on the edge of contemporary questions about what it means to love others and what it means to love yourself. It dares you to delve into these rich contextual questions. If you have any extra time this week, may I suggest seeing it twice?

— Lauren Christiansen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Inner Interpretations

the-fitsUnfolding in a beautiful and slightly fantastical way, The Fits follows Toni, an adolescent African-American girl uncertain about her place in the world, as she explores what it means to feel the pressure of social norms for the first time.

At a Cincinnati community center, Toni (Royalty Hightower) spends the afternoons with her brother, training, as he is, in a boxing gym, until she discovers the all-girl dance team rehearsing down the hall. She auditions, makes the team and, as she practices, begins to unravel the rituals of adolescence. She pierces her ears with her friends in the bathroom and eavesdrops on older girl’s conversations about their boyfriends. She lets her friend paint her nails sparkly gold, only to chip it off later. She is uncertain about her place in the social world and whether or not she wants to accept the traditional markers of femininity and growing up.

One of the things that makes The Fits so special is that the film navigates its topics in such a delicate way. The moments we see feel real, unscripted. The camerawork is subtle and powerful; at times, it makes you feel like a voyeur, stumbling accidentally into a hallway where you overhear a conversation between friends that you don’t want to stop listening to. Sometimes you are looking through the eyes of characters, peeking into the gymnasium from behind glass, looking through the crack in a bathroom stall, or acting as their reflection in a mirror. With the paucity of dialogue, these glimpses into the inner lives of characters are an important way to reveal their emotional richness.

Then, we come to “the fits.” As Toni gets settled into the dance group, members of the group begin to have small, unexplained seizures. It becomes a point of drama for the group—some girls want to experience the fits, some are scared, some wonder why only girls get the fits. Although all of the girls who have had fits are fine, there is still a sense of unease, especially as it is made clear that nobody knows what is actually causing them. It is clear that the fits are a metaphor for something, but if you read reviews of the film, the interpretations range far and wide, an ambiguity that adds to the richness of the narrative rather than detracts from it. I would say that “the fits” is a fictitious marker of female adolescence that captures many of the emotions we all experience as we grow—fear, drama, excitement, uncertainty, and a total lack of understanding about what is about to happen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this film is a breath of fresh air. There simply aren’t that many widely available (commercial) films that focus so intently on navigating black, female adolescence. We are much more likely to encounter a white male coming of age narrative than any other demographic. (And certainly, there are a fair few excellent films on the subject!) This is not to say that The Fits is only good because it feels novel—the stunning craft of the film pushes away any doubt that its genre is the reason it delights. But I can only hope that the type of raw and touching narrative that is present in The Fits is allowed to flourish in our current cinematic climate, especially with digital technology making micro-budget films more and more possible.

There are many other excellent things about The Fits. If I had to name a few: its sparse but haunting soundtrack; the cinematography, crafted to feel both serious and touchingly intimate; the stellar acting performances, especially by Royalty Hightower; the script that weaves so carefully its narrative thread with precious little dialogue. But the real majesty in The Fits is that the film is a metaphor without being tired or cliché. If you’re looking for a touching coming of age tale with a refreshing and realistic take on adolescence, look no further. If you’re looking for something that makes you think but doesn’t exhaust you with excess, The Fits is absolutely your movie. This is a film that everyone would do well to see.

Oh, and I’d keep an eye on debut director Anna Rose Holmer as well. When her next release comes, I will be running to the theatre.

— Lauren Christiansen

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Family Ties

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Maggie’s Plan is what happens when a “romcom” grows up and becomes a true romantic comedy, a more mature, more charming version of the usual genre trappings.

The film centers around Maggie (Greta Gerwig), who breaks up a marriage between a head-in-the-books writer (Ethan Hawke as John) and a fiercely intelligent academic (Julianne Moore as Georgette). Rather than focusing on the drama of that situation, the film only spends about 30 minutes on the beginnings of their affair before fast-forwarding instead to what is happening several years after Maggie and John marry. This is a shrewd move for a number of reasons. It stops the film from tipping over into tears and screaming and steers it towards the question at its heart: What does it mean to be a family?

Maggie and John have one child, a daughter, while John and Georgette have a daughter and a son. As we watch the three adults attempt to co-parent—the difficulty of which is perfectly encapsulated in a few all-too-real scenes set inside a jam-packed minivan—questions are raised about how we create a modern family without strict adherence to the nuclear family structure. The film is deeply invested in questions about where biology fits into parenting and how families assembled with multiple partners solidify themselves. There are real moments of teenage anger and dysfunctional family dinners that ask the viewers to think about their own roles in family dynamics, while the sharp, never lazy screenplay makes its point without adding in any unnecessary door slamming. But for all the insight, Maggie is still taking on a “second shift” that, at times, was difficult to watch. Still, she was able to voice her concerns and consistently advocated for herself, which was a nice way to highlight both the realism and the hopes of this film.

As the movie continues and Maggie and John’s relationship begins to dry up, Maggie hatches a plan to get John back together with Georgette, a plan which Georgette is on board with. This is a nice spin on the trope of a love affair breaking up a marriage. Here, a love affair is actually repairing one. I loved how shrewd and successful Georgette was, and I thought it was a smart touch to have her also be emotional and connected to her family, rather than acting as a clear-cut opposite to the mild, Midwestern Maggie. This is not a surprising development coming from writer-director Rebecca Miller, whose work frequently focuses on nuanced female characters. The depth in Georgette’s character more than made up for Julianne Moore’s questionable attempt at a Danish accent, a facet that becomes more a quirk of character than a distraction by the end of the film.

My one sticking point of the film was that John, who despite having not one but two women in the film be enamored of him, does not seem very charming (especially when compared to Maggie’s original option—a maybe-romance, maybe-not with the aptly named Guy, played by Travis Fimmel, full of a quiet charisma only heightened by his endearing job as a master pickle maker). The intellectual depth of John is clearly a pull for both women, and it would have been nice to see a few more moments where they were able to engage in a meaningful dialogue about his work. This would underscore the foundation of their relationships, much like the one rousing academic debate between John and Georgette does in the first half of the film.

Also worth noting are Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader, who play couple Felicia and Tony, an all-important pillar of support for Maggie. Well-sculpted by both the writing and the actors, they give comic relief to the film without going overboard and feeling like mere plot devices.

Maggie’s Plan is a smart film, focusing on essential questions about family rather than a whirlwind romance. Although the film is understated at times, the viewer gets everything they want at the end in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous or showy. It’s the kind of romantic comedy you could watch a few times and still enjoy—not just for the nostalgia of a feel-good plotline, but for well-crafted characters, beautiful pacing, and surprising depth.

— Lauren Christiansen

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Visual Splendor: An Appriciation of A Bigger Splash

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With a garbled phone call on a micro-beach in Italy, the drama of A Bigger Splash begins. Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a rock star singer rendered silent by a vocal operation, and her partner Paul De Smedt (Matthais Schoenaerts) welcome friend and Marianne’s former lover Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) to their island retreat. And, as if Harry’s surprise visit didn’t come with plenty emotional baggage on its own, he arrives with a surprise daughter in tow (Dakota Johnson as Penelope Lannier). From their arrival on, the languid and deeply intimate feel of the first few minutes of the film cracks open, never to be closed—similar in many ways to Clouds of Sils Maria. The film is true to its designation as drama/mystery, and, not one for spoilers, I will leave the rest of the plot to be revealed only in theatres. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to talk about; A Bigger Splash is undeniably a highly crafted work of cinema, and even without plot spoilers, I won’t get through half of what could be said about the film in one post.

Immediately, viewers are soaked with beautiful, saturated film. More striking than the opening scenery and stars, the coloring is incredible. It’s rich, not immediately the coloring of a tense drama, but the languid golden glow more akin to a high fashion shoot. Indeed, at times, as the camera settled on Swinton’s character, it felt as though the scene were a still from Vogue—a brief moment of aesthetic pleasure to break the mounting tension of the film. In a particularly deft move, the coloring of the scenes shifts quite dramatically in several places—flashbacks to a club and concert feel darker, more gray. A trip to the police station is framed in shadow, shady walls in the waiting room the color of mold, and a wrought hike in the mountains shifts to dustier tones.

The visual language of the film is important not only because it underscores the technical skill of the production, but because the film is built off of what is unsaid. As the foursome’s tension ratchets up, I found myself scrutinizing the visual—a turn of the head, a flick of the eyes, a slight tightening of the mouth all heightened in importance. At some points, the viewer is given large visual clues that break up the more delicate cinematography. In one scene, Marianne, unable to speak but trying to stop the course of conversation, ‘accidentally’ nudges a glass off of the table with her foot. As the chatter swirls, the camera cuts to her foot slowly moving towards the glass, back to the discussion, back to her foot, to her face, then the glass shatters. These types of cuts and an occasional rapid zoom combine to disrupt the viewer’s experience and add to the tension that builds throughout the film.

The coloring is not the only exemplary part of the film. The costuming had each character nailed, from Paul’s tee shirts, worn through at the collar, to the simple yet clearly expensive shirt dress Marianne wears throughout the film. Twenty-two-year-old Penelope’s jean shorts and swimsuit tops feel like they came right out of the bottom of her suitcase, not meticulously crafted by a large costume department. The casting was almost pitch-perfect. Although Johnson, 26, feels a little unbelievable as a 22-year-old, her understated performance more than makes up for the suspension of belief. One point that struck me towards the end of the film was that each actor’s voice, including Swinton’s postsurgery whispers, has a certain quality that draws the listener in. This was especially notable given how little dialogue there was, and how much you desperately wanted any character to open their mouth and offer answers.

Although the movie was excellent, it was not perfect. In particular, the soundtrack was not on par with the rest of the film, and some of the quick cuts felt gratuitous. Overall, however, A Bigger Splash is a film that reels you in and leaves you walking out of the theatre feeling like you just stepped out of a soured Italian dreamscape.

— Lauren Christiansen

 

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Oscar-nominees who visited Images Cinema’s screen

Congratulations to all the films that have played Images that received Oscar nominations this morning, including Foxcatcher, which starts Friday.

BEGIN AGAIN
Best Original Song — “Lost Stars” Music and Lyric by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)
Best Picture
Best Director — Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Best Actor in a Leading Role — Michael Keaton
Best Actor in a Supporting Role — Edward Norton
Best Actress in a Supporting Role — Emma Stone
Best Cinematography — Emmanuel Lubezki
Best Original Screenplay — Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Best Sound Mixing — Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
Best Sound Editing — Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock

BOYHOOD
Best Picture
Best Direct — Richard Linklater
Best Actor in a Supporting Role — Ethan Hawke
Best Actress in a Supporting Role — Patricia Arquette
Film Editing – Sandra Adair
Best Original Screenplay — Richard Linklater

CITIZENFOUR
Best Documentary

FINDING VIVIAM MAIER
Best Documentary

FOXCATCHER
Best Director — Bennett Miller
Best Actor in a Supporting Role — Mark Ruffalo
Best Actor in a Leading Role — Steve Carell
Best Original Screenplay — E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
Best Makeup and Hairstyling — Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Best Picture
Best Director — Wes Anderson
Best Original Screenplay — Wes Anderson
Best Cinematography — Robert Yeoman
Best Original Score — Alexandre Desplat
Best Film Editing — Barney Pilling
Best Makeup and Hairstyling — Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
Best Costume Design — Milena Canonero
Best Production Design — Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock

IDA
Best Foreign Film
Best Cinematography — Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Best Picture
Best Actor in a Leading Role — Eddie Redmayne
Best Actress in a Leading Role — Felicity Jones
Best Adapted Screenplay — Anthony McCarten
Best Original Score — Jóhann Jóhannsson

WILD
Best Actress in a Leading Role — Reese Witherspoon
Best Actress in a Supporting Role — Laura Dern

They also nominated a number of films that should be coming soon, including The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, Mr. Turner, Two Days, One Night and all the Oscar-nominated short films. Stay tuned…

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