Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” Offers an Intriguing Parable on Love and Dating

Lobster

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)

The Lobster is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s fifth theatrical feature. Prior to this, perhaps his best known work was his third film, Dogtooth, in 2009, which won the “Un Certain Regard” prize – an award given to bold, visionary work – at the Cannes Film Festival that year. This new film won the Jury Prize at that same festival last year, which is effectively third place, after the top two awards, the Palme d’Or and the Grand Prize. The Lobster is Lanthimos’s first English-language work, and follows his move to London to pursue greater creative opportunities and funding. If you pay attention to the opening credits, you will see that, in spite of this relocation, this latest effort still required many different funders. And so goes the world of European cinema, although American indie cinema is not always that different.

The movie is filmed in Ireland, on the Southwest coast, mostly in the Parknasilla Hotel and Resort and environs. Among others, it stars Colin Farrell (In Bruges) – who gained 40 pounds for the part – Rachel Weisz (Youth), John C. Reilly (Guardians of the Galaxy), Ben Whishaw (In the Heart of the Sea), Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color), Ariane Labed (Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey, and the director’s wife, as the hotel maid), and Angeliki Papoulia, who played the eldest daughter in Dogtooth. As in that film, the tone is bone-dry deadpan, mixing dark humor with deadly serious topics, and sometimes shocking the audience with sudden cuts to images of striking violence.

Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou, with whom he also wrote Dogtooth and his follow-up, Alps – and Filippou also co-wrote Chevalier, another Greek film which played at this year’s Maryland Film Festival – take on many issues of great relevance to contemporary life, but do so in a style and manner that distances us from immediately direct comparisons, much as does the best science fiction. The movie can be seen as either taking place in a futuristic dystopia or in a parallel-universe gone very wrong. Farrell plays David – one of only three named characters in the movie – a recent divorcé who is required, like all single people in this time and place, to go to a special hotel where he has 45 days to find a new life partner, after which, match unmade, he will be turned into an animal of his choosing (by which means he will ostensibly have another chance to find love). The human world is not for single people, not here.

The film offers metaphor upon metaphor on the nature of human relationships and the pressure that society places on people to find a partner. It’s also about the way in which we seem to look for people who share common interests through online dating sites. As in Dogtooth, Lanthimos creates a world in which people live by arcane rules and suffer awful punishments should they break those rules. Always, there is the human tendency toward bureaucracy and regimentation. Flee one group, and the next one in which you find yourself may have an even more bizarre set of proscribed behaviors in place. Such is the human condition.

The film may not be to everyone’s liking, especially since the somewhat light tone of the trailer, if you’ve seen it, only gives away half the story. That’s a good thing if you hate knowing the full plot ahead of time, but bad if you feel betrayed when the film switches gears halfway through. And it does. It’s all so carefully photographed, however – by the same cinematographer, Thimios Bakatakis, who shot Dogtooth – that you will always have intriguing images to look at, no matter your thoughts on the story. And though I am still, myself, making up my mind about how, exactly, I feel about this strange little tale, the fact is that I can’t stop thinking about it, and enjoyed it even more the second time I saw it. There appears to be brilliant method to Lanthimos’ quirky madness, and in a world filled with Marvel film after Marvel film, I say, “Hear! Hear!”

Post-2016 Maryland Film Festival Coverage, Part 2, for Hammer to Nail

MFF2016 Blog Post 2

I still have some movie reviews and filmmaker interviews from the recent 2016 Maryland Film Festival popping up on Hammer to Nail. Here’s what’s been published since my last MFF post:

Still pending are my interviews with director Michael Faulkner (SHU-DE!) and co-directors Livia Ungur and Sherng-Lee Huang (Hotel Dallas). Stay tuned for the final installment!

Destructo Mundo, Magneto! “X-Men: Apocalypse” Does That End-of-the-World Marvel Thing.

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016)

As the film begins, we hear a familiar, English-accented voice (James McAvoy, aka the younger version of Charles Xavier/Professor X) intone the history of mutants on our planet. Is it possible, after 8 previous movies featuring various members of the X-Men universe, that we still have more to learn about how we got here? Apparently so, though as the tale progresses we discover that the (here, slightly altered) old adage holds very much true: plus ça change, plus c’est le même film (“the more things change, the more it’s the same movie”). There may be a new villain, introduced in this opening (set in 3600 BCE, although accompanied by medieval chants), but ultimately the outcome is no different than in most of these many iterations of the superhero genre: the fate of the world will be at stake; cities will be reduced to rubble; at the last minute, our protagonists will get their act together and triumph.

I have recently written, on this blog, about my increasing fatigue with the current state of the blockbuster universe, and this new entry into the X-Men canon changes nothing in my attitude. That said, as tiring as it may be to see the same ideas and dramatic arcs (and flying debris) recycled ad nauseum, this particular movie offers up a particularly appealing cast, thereby rising (slightly) above the maelstrom of deafening sameness that rules the day. Unfortunately, it’s the new player in the game – Oscar Isaacs (Ex Machina), as Apocalypse, our baddie, normally such a dynamic presence – who gets most lost in the madness of CGI and makeup, thereby adding nothing to the proceedings. He’s also hampered by a script that leaves him nothing to do but glower menacingly. It’s a good thing, then, that McAvoy and company are as fun to spend time with as ever.

After that first sequence, in which it turns out that the fate of the world has always been in the balance, and cities have always been on the verge of destruction, we flash-forward to 1983, where none of the mutants we met in X-Men: First Class (set in the early 1960s, during the Cuban Missile Crisis) look a day older than they did back then. I’ll have what they’re having, please! After the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Professor X and Magneto have once more gone their separate ways, the one to manage a school for the gifted (read: mutants), and the other to live incognito in his native Poland. Both McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland), as X, and Michael Fassbender (Macbeth), as Magneto, bring their usual energy to the screen, and are as watchable as ever. Soon, they will each have to choose a side in the battle of good and evil about to erupt when Apocalypse is resurrected from his 5600-year-old grave.

Along for the fun, games and mayhem are many familiar faces, including Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Rose Byrne (Spy), Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road) and, my favorite, Evan Peters (Elvis & Nixon) as the wise-ass Quicksilver. Some new faces – young actors playing characters we first encountered in X-Men, director Bryan Singer’s first turn at the helm, back in 2000 (this is his fourth X-Men movie) – include Tye Sheridan (Joe) as Cyclops, Sophie Turner (Barely Lethal) as Jean Grey, and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Slow West) as Nightcrawler. They’re good, and help make up for the waste of Isaacs. All in all, then, though I would never make the claim that this is anything other than pro forma big-budget filmmaking, it has its occasional charms, and is not entirely without wit. The impending end of the world (yet again) may be a snooze-fest, but along the way we can at least share a few moments of (occasional) interest.

Come Back, Shane! The Engaging Mess (and Missed Opportunities) of “The Nice Guys”

Nice Guys

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

Writer/director Shane Black – known for penning the 1980s blockbuster Lethal Weapon and the 1990s flop The Long Kiss Goodnight (a favorite of mine), among other scripts, before jumping into the director’s chair, in 2005, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (another flop, and another favorite) – clearly has a thing for buddy movies. Whether pairing Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, or Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, Black has long exhibited a real knack for witty banter that has served him well (artistically, anyway, if not always financially), time and again. Now, with his third theatrical feature as director (his second was Iron Man 3), Black returns, yet again, to the format he loves, this time matching Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in a pulpy private-eye tale set in 1978 Hollywood. It’s loads of fun, even if a complete mess.

Crowe (Les Misérables) plays Jackson Healy, a detective-cum-enforcer (unlicensed) who meets Holland March – Gosling (The Big Short) – a real (as in, licensed) private detective when he  tracks him down for a client and breaks his arm. That’s this movie’s version of meeting cute … and it actually works. This is Los Angeles at its seediest, back in a period when much of the city, including the Hollywood sign, was in decay, and the larger metropolitan area suffered from a serious smog problem. The film opens on that sign, in fact, setting the tone and look of all that is to come. The (mis)adventures of Healy and March will take them through the lives of porn stars and corrupt government officials, stand-ins for a society on the brink of collapse. They may crack wise while cracking skulls, but the subtext underlining their actions is that of a serious misalignment of national priorities. No wonder that the subtitle of the 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi was “Life out of Balance.”

And crack wise they do, which is where the film is at its strongest. Crowe and Gosling have a wonderful rapport, proving that the ease with which Black generated bromance sparks between Downey and Kilmer was no fluke. Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, the underlying story becomes increasingly ridiculous, making the dramatic stakes almost meaningless. This would be less painful if the set-up and actors were less strong. As it is. I could not shake the plaintive cry of “Come back, Shane” on auto-loop in my head, starting somewhere in the second act. Such a shame. Still, there is much to love, including the performances and production design.

The plot revolves around a central mystery of a missing young woman, whose starring role in a porn film may or may not be related to the auto industry’s plot to derail government mandates to install catalytic converters in all new cars. Cool and crazy idea, right? Emphasis on the crazy, for better and for worse. Healy and March, (gentle) brute and (alcoholic) dandy, pursue bad guys while tackling their own internal demons, March’s tween daughter in tow (which makes for some uncomfortable moments of a young girl placed in sexual and violent situations, however much they are played for comedy). Along for the ride are Keith David (Cloud Atlas), Yaya DaCosta (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Matt Bomer (Magic Mike XXL), and even Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto), son of Val – all very good – and Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential), who is not (sorry, Kim, but you nearly ruin the film). Then again, poor Ms. Basinger is given some extremely expositional dialogue to spout at the end, so the problem may not be all hers. In any case, failures of plotting aside, if the film is ultimately a muddle, at least it’s an entertaining one. I’d watch this any day over another Iron Man.

“The Angry Birds Movie” Entertains While Promoting Brand Awareness

Angry Birds Movie

The Angry Birds Movie (Clay Kaytis/Fergal Reilly, 2016)

I have a confession to make: I have never played Angry Birds. Does this disqualify me from judging the film based on it? I have avoided all kinds of video games since college, ever since I found myself losing entire nights of sleep completing games on my roommate’s first-generation Game Boy. I am, it seems, rather prone to addiction. The solution is simple: do not play. About 5 or 6 years ago, I tried Second Life, thinking that was enough of a departure from gaming to allow for dabbling. Next thing I knew, it was 3 in the morning, and I had gotten no work done. Account deleted. However, while my game phobia means I am not the target audience for The Angry Birds Movie, it does mean I can judge it purely on how well it tells an entertaining story. Perhaps this makes me the ideal critic (just for this movie, as you can ignore all of my other reviews). Whatever the truth (or not) of that, here are my thoughts.

The Angry Birds Movie – the first directorial outing from animator Clay Kaytis (Frozen) and storyboard artist Feral Reilly (Hotel Transylvania), with a script by Jon Vitti (Alvin and the Chipmunks) – is a beautifully animated (in 3D) confection that is a lot more engaging and sweet than I thought it would be. It tackles big themes in perhaps only the most superficial of ways (this is no Inside Out), yet is a harmless enough bit of entertainment that the whole family can enjoy. True, the sole purpose of the story is probably just to sell you on more games, or to further brand awareness, but at least the filmmakers try hard to hide their mercenary impulse and spin a good yarn. It’s decent fun, and wonderful to look at it. I couldn’t stand the music (treacly versions of songs that deserved better), but that fact did not ruin the experience for me.

The plot? There’s an island, with birds who cannot fly. Why? It’s actually a clever way to justify the later use of a slingshot to launch flight, which is a signature aspect of the original game. Some of these otherwise peaceful creatures have anger issues, which makes them pariah’s in their community, but which will help them later when a horde of egg-loving green pigs arrive from a different island. One thing leads to another, the pigs depart with their treasure trove of eggs, and soon the birds must launch a counter-attack (involving the slingshot). It all fits together rather nicely, even if it’s also silly. Jason Sudeikis (Sleeping with Other People), Bill Hader (Trainwreck), Maya Rudolph (Sisters), Peter Dinklage (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Kate McKinnon (Ted 2), Danny McBride (This Is the End) and Keegan-Michael Key (Keanu), among others, lend their vocal talents to the mix, and an amusing time appears to have been had by all. If you can keep yourself from asking for too much, then you can also join the party for a few laughs.

In the Beautiful “A Bigger Splash,” the Bloated Third Act Needs CPR

Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2016)

It’s all so interesting … until it isn’t. Italian director Luca Guadagnino, in his first narrative feature since I Am Love, in 2009, has crafted a sumptuously photographed meditation on celebrity, addiction, love and betrayal that, for about two thirds of its 125-minute length, mesmerizes even as its meanders through a minimalist plot. Once tragedy strikes, however, that escalation of stakes only serves to invalidate much of what had come before, reducing it to banal set-up, rather than intricate character study. Based on French director Jacques Deray’s 1969 La piscine, this new film similarly uses a love quadrangle as the emotional backdrop for a larger discussion on the human condition. Unfortunately, not all sides of that square are equally drawn, and so it becomes increasingly hard to invest energy in the outcome.

And yet it all works for quite some time, thanks to a trio of great performances from Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Matthias Schoenarts (Far from the Madding Crowd). Swinton plays Marianne, a world-famous rock star taking a break as she recovers from a throat operation. Part of that recovery involves naked sunbathing and sexual romps in the pool with her younger lover Paul (Schoenarts), an idyll interrupted when her former lover and producer, Harry (Fiennes), calls from the airplane that is in the process of landing on their vacation island (Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily). As we will learn in flashbacks, Harry is the one who brought Marianne and Paul together, 6 years prior, when he thought she needed a boost after their own breakup. When he disembarks, he has his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson, 50 Shades of Grey) in tow. They’ve only just recently connected, as Penelope – now, apparently, in her early 2os – grew up without knowing the identity of her father. Unfortunately, then, for Marianne and Paul, what had been a peaceful duo is suddenly a crowd, especially since Harry cannot be alone, or quiet. It’s as if a tidal wave just washed away paradise.

Except that Marianne – who is not supposed to speak as she recovers – may enjoy Harry’s manic shenanigans more than she lets on. But what, exactly, is his game? For a while, it’s not entirely clear, but the wonderful rapport between the three leads – and gorgeous location – proves enough of a distraction from the usual demands of story that it’s a delight just to bask in their presence. Fiennes, in particular, holds our attention with his characterization of a funny, sad and incredibly needy megalomaniac, though both Swinton and Schoenarts shine as they provide the necessary oppositional gravitas. Johnson is a bit of a drag, but perhaps her part is underwritten on purpose, to keep us guessing as to her own motivation. On the one hand, we know what (or who) she wants, but beyond that it’s not clear why we should care. And the later, unexpected details revealed about her in the final act do not add appreciably to the interest of her character. Still, despite the mess that is the end, what happens earlier is well worth watching, even if the bloated ending needs saving.

“Reel Talk” – with Chris Reed and Marie Westhaver – on “GreenRoom,” “Keanu” and “Captain America: Civil War”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/Marie Westhaver, Howard Community College’s Director of Film, Humanities & Interdisciplinary Arts

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Marie Westhaver, HCC’s Director of Film, Humanities & Interdisciplinary Arts

Welcome to the fifth episode of the 2015-2016 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed . My guest this time was Marie Westhaver, Howard Community College’s Director of Film, Humanities & Interdisciplinary Arts. We reviewed three films: Green RoomKeanu and Captain America: Civil War. In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the first episodesecond episodethird episode and fourth episode of this season, as well.

As always, the amazing Dragon Digital Media team did a fantastic job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. Our last episode of the season will premiere in July, when we’ll have more of the summer films to discuss. Until then, if you want to watch more of our work, you can check out last year’s episodes in full – Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6 – or watch the various segments from each episode on our YouTube channel. Enjoy! And we’ll see you at the movies!

Post-2016 Maryland Film Festival Coverage, Part 1, for Bmoreart and Hammer to Nail

MFF2016 Coverage

Last week, on the Monday before the 2016 Maryland Film FestivalBmoreart published my preview piece on this year’s offerings. Today’s post is an aggregation of part of my post-festival coverage, for both Bmoreart and Hammer to Nail:

Still pending is my review of Hotel Dallas (for Hammer to Nail) and my interviews with the filmmakers of all five films that I reviewed for that site. Stay tuned!

“Captain America: Civil War” Pits Brawn Against Brawn, Yet Again, Only This Time, It’s Personal

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, 2016)

My favorite superhero film in the current age of the ever-expanding Marvelverse – other than the delightfully irreverent variants like Ant-ManDeadpool, and Guardians of the Galaxy – has been Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In that movie, the fantastical comic-book elements that normally numb the brain through ceaseless (and expanding) repetition were, for once, grounded in details relevant to the world in which we live. Suddenly, the titular character was fighting for a cause in which the stakes were high – preventing an NSA-like entity from excessive data-mining – yet comprehensible in human terms, and therefore meaningful. In both Avengers films – the second one even more so than the first – extra-terrestrial (and -dimensional) forces threatened our world with domination and destruction; how many times can global disaster be averted before it feels boring, rather than frightening? In that sense, though the final Dark Knight film was a bit tiresome, as well, Christopher Nolan’s series was, to me, more palatable, as the director kept the stakes earthbound (unlike this year’s Batman v Superman). If every time it’s the end of the world, and we know it, then I don’t feel that fine, in cinematic terms, anyway.

This is the age of the tentpole franchise! What can you do? Stop going to the movies? That’s an option, but if the reason you go to the multiplex is for spectacle, then Captain America: Civil War delivers the goods as well as could be hoped. In fact, to be fair, it’s better than most of the competition (and in IMAX 3D, to boot!). It has a decent cast and a compelling enough story (unless one is just exhausted by all the mayhem). What it is not, however, is a film solely about Captain America, that square-jawed, genetically modified refugee from a time gone by, frozen in ice at the end of his first adventure and then defrosted in our modern era at the start of his second. Though this new film is directed by the same brothers Anthony and Joe Russo) who gave us Winter Soldier, and though Captain America’s particular moral dilemma is the one that (mostly) drives the plot, this is really Avengers 3: Battle of the Brawn. One wonders if perhaps the Russos were not working out their personal demons, as the plot pits (spiritual) brother against brother (and one sister), as the fate of … yes, the world … hangs in the balance.

The movie begins with an Avengers mission that leaves many civilians dead. This time, the governments of the planet decide that the collateral damage is not acceptable, and heads of state gather to formulate a series of accords to check the use of power and might by these super-powered agents of ostensible good. The “civil war” refers to the fact that not all erstwhile partners agree on whether to sign these accords or not. Into this mix comes Bucky Barnes – aka, the “winter soldier” of the previous film – Captain America’s childhood friend whom our hero tried to de-program last time around. Bucky’s in hiding, but when he supposedly carries out a terrorist attack, the Avengers have one more issue that tears them further apart, since some think him guilty, while others support the Cap. Along the way, there are some attempts at weighty dialogue about the nature of good and evil, and shades in between, as well as some philosophizing about how power should be used responsibly. The movie works best in some of its action sequences, however – the simpler ones, like a brilliant car chase in Bucharest – than when it tries too hard to be consequential, since ultimately it sheds any relevance to our actual world when it morphs into a slugfest between former friends.

Chris Evans is back as Captain America/Steve Rogers, joined by Robert Downey, Jr., as Iron Man/Tony Stark, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff, and most of the rest of the gang from previous Avengers films. But not Thor and not the Hulk. We do get a new superhero, Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman (42) – very good – and a new Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland (In the Heart of the Sea), who is not bad, except that he is the third iteration of that character in the last 15 years. Talk about repetition! Paul Rudd shows up once more, as Ant-Man, in my favorite cameo of the movie, and the list goes on. It’s a cornucopia of super-riches, and if that’s your thing, then this is your movie. And even if this is no longer really my thing, the movie was by no means unentertaining. Call that a (very) qualified recommendation, then, and go throw your dollars at the screen to ensure that we never escape from Marvel martyrdom.