Laura Dern’s Oscar Story

Back when we covered Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed political satire Citizen Ruth as a Movie of the Month, it occurred to me that it’s dispiritingly rare to see the great Laura Dern in a genuine leading role. Between Citizen Ruth, Rambling Rose, and Inland Empire, I could only find three feature films in which Dern was top-billed as the lead actor, despite decades of fine work on the big screen. Unfortunately, that means the full power of her consistently compelling screen presence largely goes unnoticed & unrewarded, relegated only to her value as a supporting player. Last year, Dern was at least utilized as a potent supporting actor in two major Oscar contenders: Marriage Story & Little Women – which were, interestingly enough, directed by both partners in a married couple (Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig, respectfully). Dern’s efforts have been rewarded with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Marriage Story in particular, her first nomination since she was recognized as a potential Best Supporting Actress for Wild in 2015 (a statue she lost to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood). What I find interesting about this year’s Dern nomination is how it’s been framed in some online criticism circles as a career-merit award or somehow just Industry recognition for Dern’s recent work on popular television programs like Big Little Lies & Twin Peaks: The Return. The nomination is being discussed as if Dern’s performance in Marriage Story isn’t especially awards-worthy, that she’s being recognized for her contributions to cinema at large. That’s bullshit.

Laura Dern is genuinely fantastic in Marriage Story, totally reshaping the texture of the entire film with just a few scenes of onscreen dialogue. In the film, she plays a high-priced divorce lawyer who escalates the stakes & tone of the central couple’s painful separation. As the films’ two leads, Adam Driver & Scarlet Johansson are allowed to really pick apart the emotional textures of that separation at length (for which they’ve both been nominated as Best Leads). It’s Dern’s thankless task to establish the much harsher, colder tone of the legal arena where that separation will reach its fever pitch. It’s a world that relies on calm doublespeak & practiced artifice, which clashes spectacularly against the raw, confessional emotions of the star combatants. Other lawyer characters played by Ray Liotta & Alan Alda in the film help sketch out the extreme boundaries of that legal hell world, but it’s Dern’s job to welcome Driver & Johansson’s leads through the hell’s front gates, opening up their intimate detangling to a Kafkaesque legal labyrinth that stretches the entire length of the country. Marriage Story is just as much about the cruelty & confusion inherent to navigating the legal system in the process of divorce as it is an intimate drama about a romantic meltdown. In that way, Dern’s supporting role as the first & most prominent lawyer featured onscreen greatly affects our perception of the battlefield where the central conflict unfolds.

Dern’s self-confident power lawyer enters the film by apologizing for her “schleppy” appearance, despite being dressed to the nines in designer jeans & drastic heels. We’re immediately aware that her words & her body language are expressing an entirely different sentiment than what she’s actually communicating. When she offers Johansson, a potential client, to take home cookies from her office, it’s a sly advertisement for her services, as Johansson will continue to keep her in mind long after she leaves the office as she snacks on those treats. When Dern quotes a Tom Petty song in casual conversation, it’s only so she can advertise that she negotiated his ex-wife’s divorce from the singer for a large sum. Of course, these textual subtleties are largely a result of Baumbach’s sharply written screenplay, but Dern is visibly having fun with the material onscreen, selling the full impact of the role in a way few other performers could. Her performative version of active “listening” while Johansson is recounting the details of her failing marriage is as tense as watching a snake coil in grass, waiting to strike at a potential meal. One of the film’s most outrageous moments is when Dern removes her blazer in court as if she’s overheated, entirely just to distract from the opposing counsel’s arguments by showing some skin. She warns her client that “This system rewards bad behavior,” and over time proves to exhibit most of that bad behavior herself, proudly. Laura Dern makes a spectacle out of this seemingly minor role, drawing subtle contrast between the meaning of her body language and the meaning of her spoken dialogue that only becomes more exponentially significant the longer you dwell on its details.

It might be easy to reduce Laura Dern’s Oscars attention for Marriage Story to a glib assumption that it’s a lifetime achievement award rather than recognition for this performance in particular. Between her limited screen time and her highlight-reel monologue where she rants about how “God is absent father” while the Virgin Mary is unfairly upheld as a maternal ideal, there’s plenty of fuel to feed that kind of cynicism. I just don’t think it’s fair to downplay the impact Dern’s presence has on the film at large. She is a gussied-up power lawyer who shapes audience perception on both the communal vanity of Los Angeles and the cutthroat mind games of courtroom etiquette: two major factors in how the marital drama in the forefront develops. The only truth to the argument that she would have gotten this same nomination for any role (say, her interpretation of a silently angry Marmee in Little Women) based on her career’s work at large is that Laura Dern would have killed any role Hollywood tossed her way. She always delivers. The true shame about her nomination this year is that wasn’t for a Best Leading Performance, since Hollywood so rarely affords her top-bill opportunities that she never really has a chance to earn that accolade. If we’re relegating Laura Dern’s powerful screen presence to Supporting Player status only, she might as well earn her first Oscar for her movie-stealing role in Marriage Story. Hopefully she’ll win, and more prominent lead roles will follow.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

I saw a Star War! And it was fine. Not great, but pretty good.

I loved The Force Awakens. From the moment that first trailer dropped, a chill went through my body; I’ve always been more of a Trek boy, but Star Wars has a special place in my heart, too. With that trailer way back in the innocent days of 2015, I felt like I was eight years old again, seeing something that resonated with me in a special way as if it were the first time. And the film itself didn’t disappoint! Then along came The Last Jedi, which was … fine. The discourse surrounding TLJ in the past two years has been exhausting, with a lot of hatred leveled at director Rian Johnson, containing a level of vitriol that should rightfully be reserved for—and aimed at—some of the real monsters currently haunting the venerated halls of our government. For me, I usually tend to forget about the elements of a work that I find boring and instead focus on the things that entertain me, but with TLJ, I don’t remember much about what I liked. In my mind, the whole pointless, infuriating side story about Finn and Rose going to the stupid casino planet seems to take up the entirety of the film’s run time in my recollection. I got into my general issues with the way slavery in the Star Wars universe is presented and my hatred of the stupid chihuahua horse escape sequence from TLJ in my Solo review, so I won’t beg your patience by revisiting it here, but suffice it to say that I’m not terribly invested in the fate of a bunch of CGI creatures when the end of the film shows that there are still enslaved children cleaning those stables. I hate that the body politic of the internet bullied Kelly Marie Tran until she basically quit social media because that’s idiotic on the part of her bullies (not to mention cruel); you have to be a child or an idiot to blame an actor for the poor choices that their character makes, but holy shit, Rose (as written) really was a horrible addition to this franchise. She didn’t have to be, but Christ almighty did that entire subplot drag the movie down.

But this isn’t a review of The Last Jedi; it’s a review of The Rise of Skywalker. When we last left our heroes, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were dead, and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were alive. Leia was alive, but Carrie Fisher has, sadly, passed. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (Jon Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) were reunited with Chewie, R2-D2, and C3PO aboard the Millennium Falcon and lived to fight another day. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was throwing a tantrum about not being able to kill his uncle Luke and live up to the legacy of grandfather Darth Vader, and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) was pretty tired of his shit. Caught up? Well, unlike TLJ, this movie doesn’t pick up right where the last installment left off; instead, we’ve catapulted some period of time into the future. Finn and Poe are off on one of those generic “gathering intelligence” missions, Rey is getting some Jedi training finally (from Leia), and Kylo Ren is micromanaging the shit out of the First Order, flying all over the place and singlehandedly attempting to wipe out any and all threats to his new position as Supreme Leader. And that’s all from the opening crawl!

Do you remember whenever Batman, as played by Adam West, would feed a bunch of information into his Batcomputer and then come to an utterly incoherent conclusion that was inexplicably correct, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been? Half of the plot points in this film feel that way. You’ll spend the first half of this movie wanting to talk back to the screen, asking characters how they “know” that they have to go to this planet or that moon. One plot coupon leads to the next at a breakneck speed, and there’s no time for any revelations or new pieces of information to breathe before we’re off to get the next one. Some of this works, and there’s some real Indiana Jones stuff that happens with a dagger that turns out to be a compass, but even getting to the place where the dagger is found (almost by accident) takes up an inordinate amount of screen time. Information and vistas come at you so quickly that you barely have time to get your bearings before jumping to hyperspace.

Even at that pace, there’s still far too much that happens offscreen, or relies on the audience to grant meaning to information that hasn’t been pre-established. The best comparison I can make is to the later Harry Potter sequels. As someone who was just a tad bit too old for the books when they came out, I’m really only familiar with the first two of those novels from reading them as part of a college course for people who might one day teach young adult literature. The movies were fun, though, and I enjoyed them, up until around The Half-Blood Prince, where they started too become incomprehensible if you didn’t have knowledge that came from the book series alone; from what I understand from conversations with friends who read J.K. Rowling’s books and Dominic Noble’s “Lost in Adaptation” YouTube series, later films adapted plot points from the novels on which they were based, but which followed up on plot elements which had been dropped from the previous film adaptations of the source material. A notable example is that, when I finally saw The Deathly Hallows in grad school, there’s a moment where Ron has some kind of accident while apparating, and Hermione screams that he’s “splinched.” As someone who had only seen the films, I had no reference point for what that could possibly mean. There’s a lot that happens here in Rise of Skywalker that feels much the same, except that there’s not even a source material from which this is taken that might give more insight, and the film wallpapers over these narrative leaps by moving so fast that (hopefully) you won’t notice it.

I’m going to get into minor spoilers here, so skip to the last paragraph if that’s not your bag. I’m not really a fan of the term “retcon” when talking about media franchises because of the overwhelmingly negative connotations that surround that term, both within the fandom and from the outside looking in. Retcons aren’t always bad; my personal favorite comic book character, Jessica Jones, only exists because Brian Michael Bendis wasn’t allowed to use Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) in his proposed noir private eye comic and had to invent a new character out of whole cloth, then retroactively slotted her into previously established Marvel Comics continuity. Even questionable retcons, like Star Trek: Discovery‘s insertion of a human foster sister into Spock’s backstory, have their fans (I don’t hate it). But there are things that happen in Rise of Skywalker that push the limits of what a narrative can expect its audience to go along with. The fact that Palpatine is still alive (or perhaps undead), despite the previous two films in this new trilogy even hinting that this might be the case, is a big one. That’s barely a spoiler, considering that this is literally the first thing that the audience learns in the opening crawl: “THE DEAD SPEAK!” is the text that immediately following the film’s title. The fact that Rey is, in fact, related to a previously established character despite Ren’s assertions to the contrary in the last film isn’t really a big deal in comparison to this horseshit. The fact that a major character that last appeared onscreen over a decade ago is actually not (quite) dead isn’t something that you establish offscreen. That’s just bad storytelling.

But even that doesn’t bother me as much as the moment where Rey is presented with a special gift: Leia’s lightsaber. It’s a moment that’s treated with such reverence that, as a viewer, you understand that you’re supposed to be awed by it, and by gum, I really wanted to be. I wanted to feel thrilled again; I wanted to feel the rush of childlike delight, but instead I felt the all-too-familiar sting of adulthood, the realization that you can’t go home again, a hollow dissatisfaction with the artifice that was constructed to play upon your nostalgia. It was like the first time that you realized that chocolate Easter bunnies are empty inside, and that now a little part of you will be, too, forever. There’s nothing magical about learning that Leia had a lightsaber, or even that she trained as a Jedi with Luke (who really wasn’t super qualified for that, all things considered, which would have been a much more interesting arc for him in these films). It’s just more bad retconning that, if you read the expanded universe novels and comics, may mean something to you, but which is lost on the rest of us.

Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys. On the one hand, I wish the whole thing had ended with TFA so that we could just imagine our own endings, but on the other hand, no one’s stopping you from doing that anyway.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Part of the allure of genre filmmaking is that it provides a built-in satisfactory payoff in narrative that frees up directors to experiment in tone & aesthetic without worrying about storytelling basics. Slapstick comedies, revenge films, zombie horrors, and outer space creature features all have well-worn narrative patterns in their basic storytelling structure, each with a built-in release of tension in their final acts that, if handled well, satisfy through familiarity. The latest Spike Lee joint, BlacKkKlansman, is well aware of audience expectation for that familiar, comforting payoff in its chosen genre(s) and happily delivers it – at first. As its buddy cop & blacksploitation throwback narratives power through their natural conclusions, BlacKkKlansman pretends to be a straight-faced, well-behaved participation in old-fashioned genre tropes meant to leave audiences entertained & satisfied. Then all of that easy, comforting payoff is swept away with an epilogue that effectively punches the audience in the gut, reminding us that we’re not supposed to feel good about the way the past has shaken out, that the modern word remains messy & nauseating in a way that can’t be captured in a fully satisfied genre exercise. Spike Lee knows exactly how storytelling conventions have trained audiences to expect easy, comforting resolutions to even the most sickening thematic territory, and he’s found potent, purposeful ways to weaponize them against us.

John David Washington stars in BlacKkKlansman as Ron Stallworth, a real-life Colorado Springs police officer who was assigned in the 1970s to go undercover in investigations of both the local university’s radicalized Black Student Union and, more unbelievably, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth, a black man, mostly investigates the KKK via phone (for obvious reason) and relies on a (Jewish) partner played by Adam Driver to serve as his white body double for more hands-on portions of the investigation. It’s a story that’s presented somewhat glibly as “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” in the opening title cards, but is overall depicted in terms not at all resembling a historically-minded biopic of Stallworth’s exploits. Lee fractures Stallworth’s story into a multimedia approach that incorporates 1970s blacksploitation homage, Shane Black-style buddy cop thrillers, film school lectures on racist cinema relics like Birth of a Nation & Gone with the Wind and, most curiously, slapstick farce. Each of those specific genres & tactics reach their own respective built-in payoffs in the way you’d expect them to, with the undercover cops effectively solving racism with their victory over the KKK and that grotesque prejudice being contextualized as a vestige of a long-gone past. After that narrative fully concludes, however, a rug-pull epilogue comprised of modern cell phone footage & news coverage fully undoes that satisfaction, effectively staging a political prank that demonstrates in clear terms how small-scale, individual victories like the ones depicted in the film mean nothing in the face of the systems that maintain the status quo.

There’s nothing subtle about the prankish, sickening epilogue that concludes BlacKkKlansman, just like there’s nothing subtle about the blacksploitation, cop thriller, or slapstick farce genre beats that precede it. Nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. Racism in the 2010s is as public & as overt as ever, represented here in public-record statements from politicians like David Duke & Donald J Trump. Lee’s subtlety is neither thematic nor in choice of form, a reflection of how glaringly racist discourse has been allowed to thrive in the public sphere; his subtlety is in criticism of naïve do-gooders who feebly attempt to “change things from the inside,” something not allowed by the racist power structures that maintain that system from on high. All the film’s traditional, genre-faithful heroics are contextualized by the epilogue to be minor, unimportant victories in the face of larger, systemic oppression. In BlacKkKlansman’s main narrative, David Duke is portrayed (by Topher Grace) to be a cartoonish buffoon whose blatant villainy is befitting a racist authority figure in a 1970s blacksploitation pic. He gets his comeuppance as such, and the small-scale embarrassment he suffers being fooled by Ron Stallworth feels incredibly good in the moment of its third act payoff. That payoff is easily undone by Stallworth’s higher-ups, however, and a real-life Duke is shown thriving long after the fallout of the petty road-bump framed earlier as the ultimate victory. His hateful rhetoric remains just as blatant & ridiculous, but fully supported by the white men in charge. If there’s any subtlety in that dichotomy, it’s in Lee’s critique of the audience’s desire for a cleanly wrapped-up ending to a problem that has unsubtly, publicly persisted with full, systemic support.

It’s been a while since a movie had me ping-ponging from such extremes of pure pleasure & stomach-churning nausea. What’s brilliant about BlacKkKlansman is that it often achieves both effects using the same genre tools. Even when it’s taking the structure of an absurdist farce, its humor can be genuinely funny or caustically sickening. Racism is delivered kindly & with a wholesome American smile here, without apology; shamelessly evil bigotry is presented in the cadence & appearance of a joke, but lands with appropriate horror instead of humor. Lee only further complicates his genre subversion by mixing that horror with actual, genuine jokes, so that the film overall maintains the structure of a comedy. It’s a deliberately uneasy mixture that makes the victory-subverting epilogue feel like less of an out-of-nowhere sucker punch than a necessary, realistic addendum. The film’s general tactic from start to end is to offer the built-in satisfaction of throwback genre structure, only for the poison of our modern, grotesque reality to ruin the party. The ending only reinforces that tactic by dislodging systemic racism critiques from the distant past with a nauseous, necessary update.

-Brandon Ledet

Logan Lucky (2017)

I imagine a few outsiders are likely to be offended on The South’s behalf for the way the region is depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s latest heist picture. A self-described Oceans 7-11Logan Lucky stages an elaborate robbery of a NASCAR racetrack with the same technical intricacy of Soderbergh’s more lavish crime pictures, except now with the Southern-fried flavor of a Masterminds or Talladega Nights. A Louisiana native himself, Soderbergh feels intimately familiar with the Down South culture of his North Carolina & West Virginia settings, even peppering in references to LSU football as a callback to his Baton Rouge roots (which are more immediately perceptible in titles like Schizopolis & Sex, Lies, and Video Tape). Speaking as a lifelong Louisiana resident who’s familiar with the camo sweatpants & Bob Seger t-shirts country where Logan Lucky is staged, I personally found the film to be far more loving than satirical. Characters may awkwardly reference “knowing all the Twitters” or “looking it up on the Google” in their comically thick Southern accents, but the movie is genuinely invested in their emotional & financial hardships even while having a laugh at colloquialisms. Soderbergh may be making fun of his characters to an extent, but it’s in the way of an older brother ragging on their younger sibling. It’s done out of love & an unavoidable compulsion.

I’ve personally never seen an Oceans movie so I can’t directly compare Soderbergh’s sleek money-makers to Logan Lucky in terms of how they function as elaborate heist plots. I will say that there’s a laid-back, distinctly Southern vibe in the way the film builds up to its NASCAR track heist centerpiece that I doubt was integral to when he was filming beautiful movie stars robbing casinos in tuxedos. That slow Southern drawl delivery leaves a lot of room in the first two acts for character-based humor, however. Channing Tatum & Adam Driver star as two blue collar brothers who mastermind the NASCAR heist with a limited set of technical skills, but an intimate knowledge of how the facility’s money is stored & accounted for. Although Logan Lucky is a notable departure from the Oceans movies’ sleekness, it does feel like a direct continuation of Soderbergh’s previous collaboration with Tatum, Magic Mike. Both films can be wickedly fun in spurts, but also dwell on the dismal economic landscape suffered by modern American Southerners. Instead of struggling as a male stripper trying to make it out of the business, Tatum is a construction worker who’s let go for not disclosing a pre-existing medical condition, but desperately needs money to be able to afford his right to visit with his young daughter. Along with his bartender brother (Driver) & his hairdresser sister (Riley Keough), he intends to shatter a local superstition about his “family curse” by stealing a large sum of cash from an insured corporation that can stand to lose the money. As an audience, we never get the detailed plan of the heist until it’s entirely over, but rather take the time to get to know the Logan family in the weeks before they pull the trigger on their NASCAR-robbing ambitions. It’s easy to equate that kind of lead-up to traditional Southern Hospitality, which I believe to be a genuine impulse here.

Although I was often the only lunatic laughing in the theater, I do believe one of Logan Lucky‘s greatest strengths is its muted, character & setting derived sense of humor. A stranger accusing Tatum’s protagonist of being “one of them Unabomber types” because he doesn’t carry a cellphone or a smash cut from cockroaches to frying bacon had me cackling so much in the film’s first act build that I was in no rush to get to the payoff of its NASCAR heist. Admittedly, some of the humor in that build-up was in hearing ludicrously thick Southern accents attempted by big shot movie stars: Tatum, Driver, Keough, Daniel Craig, Katherine Waterson, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank (the last two of whom were tasked with similar caricatures in Sam Raimi’s The Gift), etc. Those accents are just one facet of Soderbergh’s larger scope portrait of Everywhere, America that rests at Logan Lucky‘s core, however. There are so many distinct touchstones of Americana informing the film’s aesthetic: child beauty pageants, Katie Holmes drinking white wine in the doorway of her McMansion, off-hand references to Dr. Phil and the Fast & Furious franchise, an impassioned inclusion of John Denver music (in a year where every movie from Okja to Free Fire seems bent on honoring the long gone folk musician), and so on. It’s perfectly fitting, then, that the film pauses dead in its tracks for the National Anthem at the top of its centerpiece NASCAR race and makes frequent references to Memorial Day & American veterans. Anyone who’s made uneasy by the idea of a wealthy British actor dressing up in the guise of a poor American Southerner or the image of a pig feet dunking contest at a local fair is missing the larger picture of Soderbergh’s love for these characters and their environment. He’s having fun with them for sure, but not necessarily at their expense. The great joy of the film is watching them get one over on a larger corporation with the limited means of a discounted underdog; the movie is on their side.

-Brandon Ledet

Silence (2016)

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If you can claim that a film successfully marries the philosophical inner-conflicts of Ingmar Bergman with the epic majesty of Akira Kurosawa, is there really anything more to say about its worth as a work of art? Martin Scorsese’s latest is undoubtedly one of the most impressive technical feats to reach cinemas in the last year and likely one of the greatest accomplishments of the American master’s long cinematic career to date. Silence is a passion project. A hand-wringing reflection on what Bergman scholars would call “The Silence of God” set in 17th Century Japan, this three hour historical epic is essentially and spiritually a form of box office poison. It should be considered as something Scorsese got away with (after more than a decade of false starts), not something that failed in its wide theatrical release. Silence was designed to lose money, something it’s been doing quite well in its first week of national distribution. Its ambitions reach beyond financial concerns and easy critical points to search out something within its auteurist creator’s soul, as well as something possibly divine & transcendent outside human reach. The journey getting there is long, brutal, hopelessly cruel, and, in its most honest moments, a destructive force of self-deluded madness.

Two Jesuit priests from Portugal continue a failed mission to spread Catholicism to Japan despite the Japanese government’s systematic destruction of the religion. They use the disappearance and reported defection of their former teacher to justify the excursion, which partly sets up a Search for Colonel Kurtz type storyline straight out of Apocalypse Now. For the most part, though, this suicide mission is a spiritually selfish act for the holy men, who take dictums like “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” way too close to the heart. They practice a religion that asks them to spread the Truth globally no matter what the personal sacrifice. The problem is that the sacrifice is rarely personal and the Japanese Inquisition that meets their efforts crucifies, drowns, and burns the very people they intend to “save” through Catholic conversion. They practice an outlawed faith, praying in secret & hiding in daylight like Holocaust victims. It’s a true war on Christianity, unlike whatever delusional Evangelicals think is happening in modern America. They’re the invading force in this war, though. They travel to a foreign nation to spread a faith that doesn’t belong in an Eastern philosophical context, only to see the native people tortured for the transgression. Japanese officials are exhausted by the routine of the exercise, taking time to host theological debates (which are, of course, corrupted by an imbalance of power), arguing that the converted are merely the poverty-stricken taking solace in the promise of Paradise after death, never truly understanding the Christian faith beyond that hope for posthumous rebirth. Until the priests can repent and revoke their imposition of a Universal Truth that’s proving to be not so universal, they struggle with delusions of their own Christ-like godliness, whether the mass death & torture of their converts is God’s Plan, and whether God is there at all. The answers to these questions are difficult, insular, and widely open to audience interpretation.

There’s so much to be impressed by in Silence, but what most strikes me is its rough around the edges looseness. For an expensive religious epic that took over a decade to realize onscreen, it’s a work that feels oddly misshapen, which is a blessing considering how dull this literary adaptation might have felt if kept “faithful” & tightly controlled. Like with Altman’s Short Cuts, PT Anderson’s The Master, and Friedkin’s Sorcerer, there’s a surprising immediacy to the ways Scorsese allows Silence to feel oddly unfinished, as if he were still wrestling with the film internally well after it was shipped for screenings. The film is masterful in its high contrast nature photography of coastal & mountainside Japan, but fuzzy around the edges in its epistolary narration, violent zoom-outs, and strange moments of possible hallucination. Even the casting & performances can feel oddly loose. Liam Neeson provides some A Monster Calls style narration in an early scene before going fully into full Ra’s Al Ghul mode for his Colonel Kurtz-type defector. Andrew Garfield & Adam Driver are a little goofy & out of place in their roles as the film’s main Portuguese missionaries, but it’s a feeling that plays well into their characters’ in-over-their-heads naïveté. This becomes especially apparently as they’re outshone by the film’s Japanese cast (which includes Tetsuo: The Iron Man director Shinya Tsukamoto among its ranks), who clash with that goofy naïveté with a heartbreaking emotional gravity. The film’s visual craft and sudden bursts of cruel violence all feel tightly controlled, purposefully positioned in regards to how they affect the overall narrative. Everything within that narrative is much less nailed down, though, as if Scorsese himself is using the confusion to reach for something beyond his own grasp. It’s fascinating to watch.

It’s going to take me a few years and more than a few viewings to fully grapple with Silence. My guess is that Scorsese isn’t fully done grappling with it himself. What’s clear to me is the film’s visual majesty and its unease with the virtue of spreading gospel into cultures where it’s violently, persistently rejected. What’s unclear is whether the ultimate destination of that unease is meant to be personal or universal, redemptive or vilifying, a sign of hope or a portrait of madness. Not all audiences are going to respond well to those unanswered questions. Indeed, most audiences won’t even bother taking the journey to get there. Personally, I found Silence to be complexly magnificent, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of paradoxically loose & masterful filmmaking craft, whether or not I got a response when I prayed to Marty for answers on What It All Means and how that’s reflected in his most sacred text.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

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fourhalfstar

I can’t tell if J.J. Abrams’ current career status would be a nerd’s wildest dream or their worst nightmare. Both? Simultaneously tasked with commanding sci-fi nerdom’s two most beloved properties, Star Wars & Star Trek, I’m sure he’s giddy with the power of adapting two franchises he surely grew up loving. Nerds are a tough bunch to please, though, so there’s an absurd amount of external pressure to not muck up their sacred texts, a pressure even Star Wars creator George Lucas wasn’t protected from (after he admittedly mucked them up spectacularly). One of the most delightful things I have to report about Abrams’ first Star Wars feature (of presumably many to come), The Force Awakens, is simply that it is by no means a misstep or a failure. I’m in a nice sweet spot of expectation where I grew up loving the original Star Wars trilogy, but not to a rabid, detail-obsessed degree that would leave me nitpicking whatever Abrams delivered. Coming from that perspective, I can’t exactly speak on behalf of Star Wars fanatics, but as a movie lover it’s hard to imagine that they’d be anything but pleased by The Force Awakens as a finished product. A great balance of enthusiastic fan service & promising new ideas/story threads, the latest entry in the Star Wars universe is far from the muted, just-good-enough, tragedy-averted compromise of 2015’s The Peanuts Movie (or Abrams’ own Star Trek work, for that matter). It’s an actually-great, entirely successful new birth for the franchise, sometimes feeling like it could be in contention as being nearly just as good as Episodes IV or V. The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.

Of course, because the film is so fresh & so highly anticipated, there’s an intense fear over the possibility of spoilers among some viewers, so I’ll try to tread lightly in this review. Even a simple roll call feels like a small betrayal, but it’s a somewhat necessary one. On the fan service end of Abrams’ well-calculated formula, the film could’ve just as easily been titled Star Wars Episode VII: The Gang’s All Here. Luke Skywalker’s importance to the universe has escalated to mythical proportions as he’s reported to be “the last Jedi.” His sister Leia has graduated from princess to general, establishing herself as the figurehead of The Resistance. Speaking of which, The Resistance is an obvious stand-in/update for The Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy, just as its The First Order big bad is a stand-in/update for the older films’ Galactic Empire. The only figure that seems to not have changed a lick is swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, who remains as steadfast in his personality as a droid would, just as unable to evolve in his demeanour as the same-as-ever C-3PO. The characters are far from the only elements re-purposed from the franchise’s origins, though. A quest to locate Luke & the wisdom of Jedi knowledge is very much reminiscent of Luke’s quest to train with Yoda. There’s also some major theme callbacks like struggling with identity in the context of parentage and, of course, the eternal struggle of Good vs. Evil (in the succinctly-framed balance of The Force) mixed among much smaller tips of the hat to details like space chess & the infamous Cantina scene. I also had a lot of fun with the way it indulged in recreations of the older films’ exact screen wipes & Force-manipulation battles (which are essentially 100% sound cues & intense trembling). The greatest trick The Force Awakens pulls off, though, is when it finds a metaphor for its own existence in the callbacks. For instance, an almost exact replica of The Death Star is represented here, except that it’s 20 times larger, much like Abrams’ budget vs. what Lucas was originally working with. And then, of course, there’s the BB-8 “ball droid”, which is essentially a cuter, more technically impressive, surprisingly versatile version of R2-D2. It’s a modern update to a classic model, much like the film itself.

Speaking of BB-8, that little bugger has got to be the most exciting new addition to the Star Wars canon right? It’s at least the film’s breakout star, a kind of acknowledgement to the merchandising end of the franchise (in that it’s super cute & palatable for children), but also a ruthless, shrewd, determined, even dangerous character in its own right (possibly in a conscious effort to distance its cuteness from the heavily debated, somewhat purposeless existence of Ewoks). For the full year of advertising we all survived in order to get to this point, all I could think about in relation to this film was BB-8. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ four second delivery of “I’m Ball Droid. I gotta roll on out of here,” got me more hyped on watching The Force Awakens more than any particular ad did (and, of course, that clip continuously played through my head once I actually got to watch it). There are a lot of of other great, new characters introduced to the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens, including a new possible future for the Jedi tradition, a rage-filled Sith-in-training prone to on-brand temper tantrums, and a Storm Trooper With a Heart of Gold, but in a lot of ways they feel like echoes of characters we’ve seen in the past films (well, except maybe for that Storm Trooper dude). There’s just something really special about the BB-8, whether or not it’s taking up the baton from a still-beloved R2-D2. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in character design as well as exploitation of body language & subtle vocal manipulation. For new viewers entering the Star Wars universe for the first time with The Force Awakens (and they do exist) a lot of old, well-established familial ties & big concepts like The Force are going to be somewhat off-putting, since the film is not going to be able to hold their hands through the catch-up process, but BB-8 is such a great encapsulation of what makes the franchise work for so many people that it might not be a problem. It’s the perfect little tour guide for a space-set soap opera that’s only going to get more tangled & complex as these films continue to be produced (which will probably be for eternity, considering how much money this one will make at the box office). It’s instantly loveable & accessible.

I’m not going to pretend that The Force Awakens is perfect. I was a little off-put by some of the CGI reliance, particularly when it came to intimate interactions with alien faces. A lot of the CGI is nicely restrained & deftly employed, but it gets tiresome to look at (and is guaranteed to age poorly) whenever it’s used on a green-screened character with more than a line or two of dialogue. I also felt that the action sequences could sometimes go a bit long in a way that softened their impact, but that’s a small quibble, especially considering just how visceral & vicious things get in the climactic lightsaber battle. For the most part, though, it’s a remarkably difficult film to complain about. Even with lines like the racially-tinged throwaway gag “Droid, please”, which should fall flat in a very uncomfortable way, the film somehow makes it work. It’s easy to tell that Abrams & his collaborators were huge fans of the franchise doing their best to deliver a film that most people could love. He finds an immensely satisfying balance here of recreating past successes from the original trilogy, but with entirely new purpose. Much like the universe it inhabits, The Force Awakens feels old, beat up, lived in, the exact kind of world-building last year’s The Guardians of the Galaxy strained to establish in just one film, but this time with an extensive back catalog of content for support. The film’s ragtag group of heroes more or less winging it in their quest to overthrow The First Order may be very reminiscent of a similar motley crew who tried to overthrow The Galactic Empire (for instance, a female lead most certainly not in need of constantly being saved shouts “Stop taking my hand!”, which could have very easily been an old-school Leia moment), but they’re more of a refreshing evolution than a shameless retread. Sure, The Force Awakens can rely on work already put in by past films for lines like “Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force” to actually mean something, but it also finds its own touching moments, like in the question of when is running from a threat a form courage & when is it a submission to fear or in finding the simple goodness of people in exchanges like “Why are you helping me?” “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Most importantly, it feels like all of the ground work of pleasing fans through callbacks & establishing its own competence as a unique property are now out of the way, which is in a lot of ways a burden lifted. When the film ends, you’re genuinely excited to see where the story goes next because the future of the franchise is promised to be less self-reflective, more open-ended, uncharted territory. I’m already getting amped about Episode VIII‘s release in Spring 2017 as I type this, which I guess is a sign that Abrams did something exactly right in The Force Awakens.

Bonus points: There are a lot of great new-to-the-scene actors in this film – Adam Driver, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, etc. What really made me giddy, though, is that both Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac made the cast, which makes for just about the most unexpected Ex Machina reuninon I could possibly imagine. Those two films are so far from one another on the opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum that it’s difficult to justify that they’re billed as being in the same genre at all.

-Brandon Ledet

While We’re Young (2015)

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threehalfstar

As I explained in my review for Mistress America, Noah Baumbach is remarkably talented at making me feel like shit while also enjoying a good, old fashioned nervous laugh. I ended up appreciating Mistress America a great deal more than I did Baumbach’s earlier release from this year, While We’re Young, but the pair did work together nicely as two sides of the same coin. In Mistress America, we’re swept away by & quickly grow disgusted with a pretentious free spirit who lives a frivolous life in the magical version of NYC that only exists on film. In While We’re Young, on the other hand, we’re similarly disgusted by a go-getter of a young documentarian who embodies every disdainful idea about what it means to be a hipster to an infuriating degree in an all too real NYC we wish didn’t exist in real life. Part of the reason While We’re Young‘s self-absorbed sociopath of a subject doesn’t excite the audience in the same way Mistress America‘s does is that he feels more like a carefully selected collection of quirks than a real person, never really evolving beyond much of a caricature, so your feelings towards him are much less complex. He is exceedingly fun to hate, though. Baumbach at least got that part right.

The sycophant in question is Jamie, a role Adam Driver plays like a bizarro world version of Joey Ramone where everything he does & says, right down to the basic motions of his limbs, are vile affectations worthy of vitriol (just look at the way he holds beer cans if you’re looking for something to angry up your blood). Jamie’s latest victims/”friends” are a middle aged couple played by Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts, who are attracted to the excitement of meeting younger versions of themselves in Jamie & his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried) because it allows them to escape a dull life where their contemporaries use peer pressure to convince them to do things like have children instead of younger-oriented fare like experimenting with drugs. In the compare/contrast portion of the movie, Jamie’s victims are portrayed as Gen-X squares who watch digital television & listen to CDs instead of enjoying the finer antiquated formats of vinyl records & VHS tapes. Despite how things may seem on the surface here, however, the true difference between the two couples is that the older set is a normal pair of human beings while the younger ones are a curated set of dishonest affectations.

While We’re Young is most alive when it aims for cringe comedy in the never-ending gauntlet of indignities that accompany a midlife crisis. Once Stiller & Watt’s older couple start dressing younger, wearing stupid hats (including indoors! at the dinner table! yuck!), tripping & puking at an phony shaman’s apartment, and failing miserably to look competent at hip-hop dance classes, the movie not only earns most of its genuine laughs, it also effectively depicts modern life in NYC to be a nightmarish hellscape. That’s not to say that Baumbach goes anywhere near the jugular here. If you’re looking for a full-on scathing takedown of the Brooklynite hipster, you’re much better off watching the Tim Heidecker vehicle The Comedy. The saddest moments in While We’re Young mostly amount to minor embarrassments & the distinct feeling of losing touch with old friends while chasing new ones. There may be a bitter remark here or there about The Baby Cult of new parents or rampant cellphone addiction or how the millennial generation are a collection of “entitled little brats”, but for the most part the film is well aware that it’s being an old curmudgeon in these moments. That’s not to say that there isn’t a good deal of venom in the portrayal of Adam Driver’s horrendous hipster abomination Jamie, who is at one point described with the phrase, “It’s like he once saw a sincere person & has been imitating them ever since.” The movie is ostensibly willing to let him off the hook for his transgressions, though. In the end what Jamie is up to doesn’t really matter, because he’s young & frivolous. It’s the emotional journey of the film’s middle aged characters that carry most of the film’s heart, which makes for a serviceable cringe comedy & lightly romantic indie drama depending on the scene in question. It’s nowhere near the forceful impact of the more pointed Mistress America, but While We’re Young is another success for Baumbach nonetheless.

-Brandon Ledet