The Big Sick

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It’s been a most difficult year, with no signs of abating. Six months into 2018 and the general uneasiness that consumes my bones is as present as ever. I continue to pray, although my conversations with God have turned to full on pleas for deliverance. I am exhausted.

Besides intervention from the divine, the only thing that can lift my spirits is the pictures. But even in this arena it has been a lousy year, the outliers of Phantom Thread and I, Tonya a distant but cherished memory. Enter The Big Sick. As a comedy, it is more gentle laughter than riotous, the oft present vulgarity of American comedies replaced by something tender, more observant.

As a drama it is surprisingly intelligent and insightful, its plot machinations revealing thoughts and behaviors that are keenly human. There is no gross manipulation here, nor tacked on sentimentality. Almost every line delivered carries purpose and weight, as if the writers know that cinema is most effective when the audience is one with the characters. And we can only do that when the world they inhabit operates under the rules of our own, when our regrets and fears mirror theirs, and our loves and aspirations are the ones they share.

As a romance it is infectiously charming, not only for the interaction of its two leads, a superb Kumail Nanjiani and the millennial queen of the rom-com Zoe Kazan, but also by that of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who play Emily’s parents. For an hour and 59 minutes I was immersed in their relationship navigating all the ups, downs, and in betweens that drive the story, any story, of love. I followed Kumail and Emily all the way to that breathtaking, final shot. Dear reader, what a shot it is. I’ve returned to it three times already, and it makes me gasp for air each time.

At this stage in my life the highest praise I can bestow on anything is that it made me absolutely forget about my troubles. As a character says at one point, “I’m just really tired. Do you ever just want to be in a relationship so you can just finally relax?” The Big Sick made my afflictions cease for a while, and my thoughts at peace.

A+

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The Rider

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It is easier for somebody who does not believe in an ever loving God to make sense of the injustices of this world. A believer, on the other hand, must come to reconcile the truth of a benevolent and kind God with the bitter realities of a life marked by pain and disappointment.

How do the children of God carry on in the face of profound sorrows? The Rider, a frequently moving and lyrical picture, posits that the Almighty has crafted each and every creature on this earth for a purpose, so we should pursue it, against all odds.

I look at myself, weary and slowly losing faith of ever achieving my dreams, and wonder. If God made me with a purpose, why aren’t I fulfilling it? Why am I stuck with such a mediocre and unexceptional existence? Prayer is hard to come by now, so preoccupied are my thoughts on what to do next. It was never supposed to be this way.

I had so much hope for the future, so much love and trust in my Savior, so much joy in the today. But more and more that feels like a bygone era, a person who was unaware that this world destroys goodness and God is…where is God?

A-

Ready Player One

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That Steven Spielberg can’t resist inserting gross sentimentality in his pictures is common knowledge. Even The Post, with a subject matter that is very hard to romanticize, ended on a note that was complicit with the audience’s knowledge of events as to make them laugh or wink with recognition.
On the rare instances when the master subdues his desires to move us, to make us cry or laugh, he ends up with some of the finest pictures in any given year (see: Munich, Schindler’s List, Minority Report). And when he doesn’t, well he still is probably one of the greatest living directors, but I am never as invested as he wants me to be.

The story and setting and characters of Ready Player One, with its emphasis on nostalgia and romance, demand an author with Spielberg’s heart and man, does he deliver. I imagine the thrill he must have experienced when working on this project; when he started working in the film industry nothing of what is now on screen was possible. And now he’s crafting planets called Doom, where characters based on everything you can imagine brawl, and he’s recreating the Overlook hotel with a thrilling twist, and he’s being as romantic as ever, and damn it if it does not feel wonderful.

Here is a man that holds so much joy for the experience of life that he’s been sharing it with the rest of the world since the inception of his career. The most romantic of the legendary film directors, Steven Spielberg has infused in Ready Player One his thrill for life, his ever hopeful view for a happier, if not better, existence in a world that is going to hell.

B+

Annihilation

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Alex Garland has crafted the greatest video game adaptation of all time. The world of Annihilation is the most immersive environment I have visited in a long time; it is also the most ominous. Every specimen in it, from the scattered patches of grass, to the neon coastline to the muddy lagoons, oozes hazard. You attach a controller to the screen and are suddenly playing an Earth-bound version of Doom.

I am only compelled to write at length regarding films that made me feel something; a brief glance at my post history will reveal that I write a mere sentence or two for each movie. This blog is not meant as a movie review site, but as a space in which I can expand on the feelings brought upon by the power of cinema. As such, films are not analyzed from a technical perspective, nor viewed through a political or social lens; they are lived in by emotions and my faith.

For two hours Annihilation trapped me in a world in which the unknown was more dangerous than even the massive deadly beasts roaming through the land. Unanswered questions and a sense of uncertainty are greater foes than the ones we stare in the face.
It is this intense sense of dread and mystery which has attached me so deeply to Annihilation. In an era in which Hollywood has to hold the audiences hand and lead them to the nicely tied in a bow ending in which good triumphs over evil, Alex Garland has provided a conclusion in which the answers only serve as springboards for more questions, for further prodding of every little thing that has preceded it. Such examination stimulates the intellect, invigorating the notion that cinema is truly the only thing that has the capacity to transport you to far away places, to challenge you, to question what it means to be human and what to do with the time we have left.

Are we going to continue sabotaging ourselves, as a character in the film notes is humanity’s favorite past time? In that case the arrival of foreign entities to destroy us must be welcome, for they cannot mess things up more than they already are. Or are we going to plow through adversity until we get the answers? And while the film posits that the end of the road may provide not the type of closure one was expecting, it does incites change. And as long as change is possible, life can carry on.

A

Call Me By Your Name

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For a film that feels entirely European, it is a bit strange how American the sex scenes between the two leads play out. They are sanitized, consisting of nothing more than the obligatory kiss before the camera turns its gaze to another section of the chamber the lovers find themselves in.

Not that I am clamoring for all out sex scenes, but I think this omission illustrates how the director approaches his characters: he provides them almost no intimacy. I don’t mean it as a knock on the film, which is quite captivating. You can practically feel yourself in a remote northern Italian town, taking in the sun and going on nightly swims.

However, at no point did I ever feel any of the sadness the characters experience. It was there on the screen, and I could understand it, but never did I experience it. The main point of reference I have in regards to Call Me By Your Name is the splendid French film Blue is the Warmest Color. That remains one of the most profoundly devastating and affecting films I’ve seen, and it is one of my favorites. Because I not only saw the loss of love, but felt it.

As it stands, Call Me By Your Name is a handsomely mounted piece with much to say about the maturity that only develops when the sting of loss (innocence, love, time) is deeply felt, but not one that I will carry with me the way I do other stories of its kind.

A-

The Greatest Showman

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The astonishing success of The Greatest Showman can be attributed to a notoriously human characteristic: dreams. As a biopic, it is a failure, merely a bare bones approach to a subject which deserved a more dramatic treatment. It does not work as a musical either, the flashy dance and tap moments feeling manufactured and obvious.

However, it’s like the creators were aware of this and did not care; they were engineering a product that did not concern itself with such artistic merits. Indeed, most of the film seems to take place in another world, the settings appearing dreamy and fantastical.

This movie was birthed with one goal in mind, and one goal only: to remind you what it was like when the world seemed pure. I think that is why so many people have connected with it, and continue to make it such an unlikely winner. This movie puts you in the frame of mind you had back when you were a child, when dreams were avenues that could actually lead to success, when integrity, heroism and love appeared noble and achievable, before the dawn of adulthood came to put everything in darkness.

C+

Phantom Thread

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Decades from now, when somebody inevitably makes a documentary on genius filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, they will settle on The Master as a title inspiration. Having already bestowed upon the world one of the greatest motion pictures in history (see: There Will Be Blood), the director has achieved what few ever do. With this privilege, the question arises: what’s next?

The answer is a film that follows the tumultuous romance of a fashion designer in post WW2 London. I don’t know where he got the inspiration for something that, on paper, sounds like it should be a total bore. And then the title card appears on screen, and for the next two hours you sit entranced by the talent of the man. Paul Thomas Anderson has complete control over every aspect that makes cinema masterful, and you cannot help but be envious. He wrote the intoxicating dialogue, on wild display during fiery exchanges and in haunting monologues delivered by the inimitable Daniel Day-Lewis! He shot every frame, the camera sneaking behind his characters, on the characters faces, on the laces, socks, bows and pins that adorn the picture! He chose the score, continually present during the entire movie, the design, out of a film the likes Hollywood does not make anymore, the settings, almost entirely confined to the House of Woodcock, as much a living protagonist as anybody.

I do not love Phantom Thread, nor is it going on my list of favorite films ever. Yet, I cannot help but be enthralled by the enormity of the craft on display. Delicate and perfect, it is what cinema should aspire to.

A+

Top 10 Films 2017

Cinema is God’s way of making me care. On the days when I feel on top of the world, film is there to remind me that existence is so much more than my emotions. On days when I’m drowning in despair, film lets me know that I should fight on, be brave, for there is yet hope. Above all, cinema works as a mirror in which I discern the version of the man I want to be, the one I should not be, the one I am grateful I left behind. When I think about the movies I think about God, forever grateful that He’s allowed me the privilege to watch, dissect, enjoy and live the greatest art form of all.

Here are, in descending order, my 10 favorite movies of 2017, an absolutely incredible year:

  1. CAFÉ SOCIETY

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Were it not for the jazz score consistently playing in the background of near every scene, Woody Allen’s Café Society would feel like a tremendously sad film. An American fable of a New Yorker traveling to Hollywood only to get his heart broken, Café Society name drops ancient celebrities, features a visual gag or two and characters the audience is meant to laugh along to, or at. Had it been played a little bit more straight, comparisons to An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby would not have been out of place. Indeed, the film features a narrator who recounts even the most awful of episodes—when main characters die, for instance—in the same casual tone of voice he employs throughout the entire proceedings. And yet no amount of lightheartedness can make that final, memorable shot hurt any less.

  1. AMERICAN HONEY

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It must say something about the Hollywood production system that the most damning indictment of contemporary middle America was a film written and directed by a British woman. Andrea Arnold’s film is a poignant tale of lost youth, of its wild enthrallments of the new, of rebellion not only against adults but against the very social mores that raised them, of its frantic attempts at encountering meaning in the mundane, of its doubts masked by the confidence that only irrepressible hormones provide. But if American Honey seems to condemn anyone, it’s not the young, but the old. Shots of dilapidated homes, wretched cities, a thriving drug scene, all seem to indicate that kids must stick together or perish in the hopelessness of their forbears.  

  1. EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS

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If reading certain novels makes it easier to visualize them on the screen, then this Argentinian wonder makes me feel as if I am in my bed, reading about the mystery of the murder of a young wife. The film works like a novel, from its opening voiceover narration, to its various flashforwards and flashbacks, to the dual romance at its center. One romance belongs to the victim’s husband, eyes peppered with longing; the other belongs to the detective assigned to the case and his boss. Above all, it manages to convey regret. Its lingering shots on door knobs, characters eyes and old photographs provide a sense of opportunities not taken, of wistfulness and a desire to love that went unfulfilled until the day bravery overcomes our fears.

  1. MULHOLLAND DR.

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Overwhelmed by the sheer ecstasy of the picture, I drove to Mulholland Drive a few days after watching it. I got my car towed, and a parking ticket. Thank you David Lynch!

6. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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I watched 162 movies in 2017, and none could break my heart quite as spectacularly as the three minute conversation between Lee (Casey Affleck) and Randi (Michelle Williams) near the end of the film. I dare you to watch it and not feel something, anything, swelling inside you, not only for the on-screen couple but for everyone out there who exists solely for the burden of their unforgiven sorrows.

5. MUNICH

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Munich will continue to feel timely not only for its even handed, impartial approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but for how it portrays vengeance. In horrific events such as the one depicted here, vengeance is not only clamored for, but necessary. A couple of flashy executions later, however, and the full picture starts coming into view. What is the true purpose of revenge, if not seeing others suffer the way you have? And if we want to see others suffer, what does that say about us? “There is no peace at the end of this”, somebody says, and no truer words have ever been spoken. Munich is as bleak a film as they come, yet the lessons it imparts have the potential to change the world.

4. CIDADE DE DEUS

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Beyond its unstoppable kinetic energy, more than the flawless union of humor and carnage, greater than the pirouettes the camera engages in, City of God remains with me for a very distinct reason: it reminds me of the madness of El Salvador, my home country. Until the day national cinema catches up to the greats, I’ll always have this picture as a document of what’s going on in my country.

3. 25th HOUR

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Sometimes I felt as if 2017 was too stacked, too much of a good thing. As this list makes clear, I was fortunate enough to catch many sublime films, which are among the best, if not the very greatest, of all the director’s oeuvre. It was not a problem until now, in which I had to go over all the fantastic films and settle on a mere ten. I settled on 25th Hour because there was no way around it: this is a monumental piece of work, Spike Lee’s crowning masterpiece.

2. SILENCE

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The most hauntingly despairing moment I’ve ever witnessed in a motion picture occurs 140 minutes into Silence. After suffering a series of horrendous torture rounds, father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is led to a courtyard where six people are hanging upside down, their heads stuck in a pit, blood slowly dripping out of their skulls. If Rodrigues does not recant faith in Christ, they will remain there for days, until the blood runs out of their bodies. I know what my response would have been, and have been asking God for answers as to why life forces some to pits of hopelessness and cruelty, while all you hear from the heavens is silence.

1. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

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As a whole, the Planet of the Apes trilogy illustrates why the human race will never know peace. It doesn’t portray humans as naturally bad and apes as naturally wrong; by favoring a more shaded approach, the series is empathetic to all sides of a conflict, recognizing good and evil is not as clear cut as black and white. War for the Planet of the Apes features a flawless motion capture performance by Andy Serkis, conveying more heartbreak, regret and anger with one mere glance than most actors do in entire monologues. The picture belongs to him, and he will go down as one of my favorite film characters ever. It is through Caesar’s eyes that we understand the dangers of not letting go of our grudges; the decision to not forgive unleashed a series of events that culminated in doom not only for his people, but for the humans as well.
Caesar, weary and exhausted from a lifetime of conflict, becomes a hero the moment he admits to his flaws and recognizes his mistakes; yet he is not the only one. The picture is littered with many small moments of beauty, of selflessness and reflection that you start to wonder how the heck something this meditative and thoughtful ever made it out of the Hollywood blockbuster system. When you realize this tale of tragedy, betrayal and redemption is not really about monkeys but about us, about our ancestors and our children, about our apparent inability to let bygones be bygones and focus on the beam in our eye instead of on the speck on our brother and sister, the only appropriate response is admiration.

Top Characters in Film 2017

A film character is defined by several traits. The first and perhaps most prominent one is the performance by the actor hired to perform the role. And while movies rise and fall on the strength of its performances, solid acting alone is not enough to sell me on them. So beyond acting chops, I consider the setting these characters are in, their backgrounds and contexts, and how they must feel in the adventures that play out for my viewing pleasure.

The following 10 characters provided me with memorable lines, great story lines, wild entertainment and above all, reminders that it is not how much money is put into a project that matters, but how much heart.

In alphabetical order:

BEN—CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

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When Ben (Viggo Mortensen) tells his six children that their mother has just committed suicide, he utilizes the same tone of voice and manner that he employs when he is teaching them about Noam Chomsky and lecturing them about Lolita. As most loving parents do, he believes this to be the right way to raise his children, but the film argues that love is not a good enough excuse to do certain things. Ben, we come to discover later, is kind of a kook. This is his journey of realization, occasionally moving, hilarious and insightful.

DOROTHEA, JULIE, ABBY, JAMIE and WILLIAM—20TH CENTURY WOMEN

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The greatest film narrator of 2017, Dorothea Fields (Annette Benning) cares so much about everybody that she invites strangers over to her house for dinner. It’s a house where she already lives with two girls and two guys, and though only two of them are still teens, everybody is in the process of growing up. The film, which appears lyrical at times, presents the interactions between them as almost poetic, tinged with wisdom, sadness and the hope of a freer tomorrow.

BROOKE and TRACY—MISTRESS AMERICA

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For somebody who utterly loved Frances Ha, it took me a while to finally get around to this Greta Gerwig/Noah Baumbach collaboration. But when I did, there was nothing I wished more than being witness to the writing process of this acting/directing duo. The witticisms they make their characters express! The last stretch of the film, when Brooke, Tracy, and some of her friends invade a rich guy’s house with a business proposition, is absolutely genius and one of the funniest moments I’ve had at the movies all year.

K—BLADE RUNNER 2049

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Nobody does dejected misery better than Ryan Gosling. What he accomplishes as an android with dreams of a soul in Blade Runner 2049, however, stirs the heart so that the only appropriate response is silence, astonished at the sacrifice.

LOGAN—LOGAN

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Delivering the performance of a lifetime, Hugh Jackman is a wounded, depressed and alcoholic Wolverine in a film that’s almost uncomfortable to watch. The opening frame makes it clear that Logan does not want to be in this world anymore, and for the next two and a half hours he will slice, dice and cut up fools who want to help him get to his final destination quicker. Therein lies the tragedy of Logan: in its inability to see beyond the scars and blood, deep into the soul that is worthy of redemption.

NADINE—THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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Sometimes we are the asshole. Far too often movies present the hero of the story, making us relate to the hero’s righteous indignation, in one shape or another. With Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), we are forced to relate to a person who’s not all that likable. Nadine is such a fantastic creation not because she is cruel and insensitive for meanness sake, but because she is so human. Her flaws and follies are the ones of all of us, and by seeing her we can confront ourselves with the question: “am I in the wrong here? Should I be the one asking for forgiveness, instead of demanding it?” It is no easy feat of course, but the movie makes clear that though the path to redeem oneself is tough, at least it’s there for everybody to embark on.

REY—STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

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Rey (Daisy Ridley) is what happens when writers are allowed to explore characters motivations and be bold with their behaviors. I did not care much for Rey when she was first introduced, seeing her as a bland Luke Skywalker rip-off. Now, however, she has truly come into her own, and it is exhilarating to watch. “You’ve got spunk”, somebody tells her in the movie. She does, and you wish more characters around her did too.

RICK BLAINE—CASABLANCA

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In a perfect world, men would be like Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Selfless and brave, he recognizes that his demons don’t amount to a hill of beans in this messed up world, and he lets the woman he loves fly away to a better world. In a perfect world, men would not be like Rick Blaine. Bitter and grieving over the loss of the only woman he has ever loved, he shacks up in Casablanca, sticking his neck up for nobody. Bogart perfectly encapsulates the duality of love, its heroic deeds and restless nights.

SOUTHEAST TEXAS CHEROKEES—EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

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I’ve never watched a single baseball game in my life, but this made me want to join a team. More than any other experience in 2017, the shenanigans of the Southeast Texas Cherokees are so damn fun its near impossible not to have a good time.

TERRY MALLOY—ON THE WATERFRONT

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Single handedly transforming acting forever, Marlon Brando is something to behold. Sure, there’s the “I could’ve been a contender” monologue, devastating and memorable, but Brando was such a gifted performer that even in the most mundane shots, like picking up a glove from the floor, he appears as if he is a god among mortals. By the time he enters the warehouse bruised, battered but victorious, Marlon Brando has become a legend.

The Disaster Artist

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When I was bored sometimes I would go to The Room`s Wikipedia page to read about the most surreal movie making experience I was aware of. It was very funny, and its creator, the now legendary Tommy Wiseau, struck me as nothing but a nutcase.

The Disaster Artist still portrays Wiseau as unhinged, dangerously so sometimes, but it also does something else with him. It shows he had dreams. We tend to romanticize those with dreams, thinking of them as noble and inspiring, but what about those with dangerous ones? The power of cinema lies in its ability to get us to care for dreamers, and The Disaster Artist makes us care about Tommy Wiseau’s intentions, even when they were not the best ones.

It was clear to anybody around him that he should have never been allowed in the same building as a movie camera, and one can easily imagine a different scenario. One in which this Dracula looking director is not the kooky, outsider hero, but a disturbed maniac that almost suffocated an entire production crew.
By painting dreams not as the beautiful ideals Hollywood constantly sells audiences, but as the desires harbored by people that could either turn the world a better or world place, The Disaster Artist is much more than just a comedy. One suspects is a similar work of art as that which inspired Tommy Wiseau to move to Hollywood in the first place.

A-