Few performances this year were equally as fun as they were sorrowful, and Jeff Bridges’ essential turn in the western “Hell Or High Water” managed to roll both delicate sentiments into each and every line of his dialogue. Bridges — who has made scene-stealing something of a habit of late — is nothing short of masterful in David Mackenzie’s dusty Texas thriller. The film does an excellent job of grounding all its unbridled emotions in each of the four central characters, but Bridges’ Marcus, a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement, winds up, time and again, pulling the rug out from everybody else with his searching eyes; his natural ease; and the deep, unsettling fear buried in his silences. What seals the deal, though, is Marcus’ relationship with his younger partner, Alberto (an excellent Gil Birmingham), who serves as the butt of Marcus’ dull wit, but who he so clearly depends upon, who seems almost to be his last remaining tie to the world. Needless to say, when that tie is severed, and Bridges falls to his knees in disbelief, our hearts were broken, and his vengeance, his sudden willingness to turn against the laws that defined him, made chillingly good sense.
To be fair, “The Dark Horse” is not exactly underrated by those who have seen it. James Napier Robertson’s film, which was released in 2014 in its native New Zealand, has racked up a considerable critical consensus, and for good reason. Still, the film was criminally underseen and thus criminally forgotten. Following the real-life Māori speed chess player, Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), who suffered from severe bipolar disorder and went on to found a celebrated chess club for underprivileged kids called The Eastern Knights, “The Dark Horse” is an understated, emotional powerhouse of a film. Compassionately realized, and grounded by a towering, tender performance by Curtis, it’s a film that simmers with a manic energy that never boils over (despite all the melodramatic potential). And for a film about chess, it never overuses the metaphors, nor does it ever give way to its crowd-pleasing premise; for all Genesis manages to achieve, never does the film downplay the reality of poverty or the emotional severity of depression. Instead, “The Dark Horse” casts a light on the capacity for genius in everyone and the good buried in even the darkest places. Check it out, mate…
An exercise in catharsis, the long-awaited follow-up to writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s operatic “Margaret” is a study of the unrelenting nature of grief and the way it haunts, heals, rallies, and returns; the way, ultimately, it colors the minutiae of life. ‘Manchester’ is cathartic in much the same way that writing and directing the film was, according to Matt Damon, meant to be for Lonergan: an act of defiance against the paralysis of grief. Centered around a brittle, awards-worthy turn from Casey Affleck, ‘Manchester’ revels in the ugly details of life — the uncinematic moments — and tells a story of a shattered man learning (barely) to live again after an unbearable tragedy. It’s far from an original tale, but in Lonergan’s perceptive hands, and with the outstanding performances he coaxes from his supporting cast (especially Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges), ‘Manchester’ transcends its more familiar trappings to become a searingly imperfect film: because perfection has no place in a representation of grief and the tornado mess it wreaks. By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, ‘Manchester’ is utterly human, a delicate film that succeeds in its lack of a pointed, easy epiphany; in its deep love for its characters; and in its pitch-perfect portrayal of the tender, graceless yet charming disorder of life.
It would be nice to say that the controversy around the forthcoming remake of the 1984 classic Ghostbusters is unprecedented. But we only need to take a look at the unfortunate reality of Gamergate to recognize the cold and uninviting truth of the matter: in certain circles of culture, women are still a long way from being seen as equals.
The nuanced art of the review is not one often discussed in the mainstream. Reviews for books and albums and movies are — at their best — read, taken into consideration, and, ideally, embraced or discounted (more often they are simply forgotten). It’s a process that frequently subjects them and their authors to questions of merit and value, but rarely dissects the myriad complexities that make up what it means to review a work of art; critiques are rarely critiqued. (For instance: how often does, say, an Entertainment Weekly or a Rolling Stone analyze the merits of the presumptively intrinsic value awarded a “critical consensus”?)
By its nature, the art of review is inherently muddled. Because, not only is it an art, but it is the art of reacting to art, which — I will needlessly point out — is itself a reaction, of sorts, to life. Meaning, before a word is even written, a review is vastly removed from the inciting incident, that moment of original artistic creation. But, nevertheless, it has and will remain our means of (superfluously?) determining the worth of a given text. So, not only is it confusing but subjective and divisive.
Which is all to say that there is no right or wrong way to write a review. There are schools of thought, standards, systems, recognized rules, ethics, and a plethora of things we unconsciously associate with the reviews we encounter. But I’ve come to notice a lack in reviews. Not in quality or quantity, but in the ability to recognize and confront the –isms that continue to abound in Hollywood films.
For the sake of this argument, I will focus on two films released this year — Everybody Wants Some!! and The Jungle Book — that have concluded their theatrical runs and mostly faded from public discourse.
But before doing so, I should note my personal bias, and thus, another source of dissonance: Richard Linklater, the director of Everybody Wants Some!!, is quite likely my favorite filmmaker working today. In fact, the Before trilogy is my Star Wars (a saying I generously adopted from a friend). I’ve always found Linklater’s work to be thoughtful and evocative. His minor efforts are slight but enjoyable: typically meandering innocuously along with characters chasing moment-by-moment bliss. But his major works, I’ve found, are transcendent philosophical touchstones that helped shepherd me into the world of the thinking and helped shape me — I imagine — into a critical participant in this voyage we call life.
Which is exactly why I was so let down by Everybody Wants Some!!. I went into the theater with sky-high expectations and was met, almost instantly, by a film that reveled in open objectification. My gut reaction — which I know never to trust — insisted that the film was set in the 1980s and that recreating the male gaze was simply part of recreating the accepted, if unseemly, reality of the era. So I waited, assuming that our just-along-for-the-ride protagonist Jake (Blake Jenner) and his buddies would come to a moment of epiphany about such objectification — though, in retrospect, the notion of the film resting atop such an outdated discernment also would have been a letdown.
That epiphany never came. Instead what followed was a gratuitous number of lingering ass shots; a scene where a strange man pursues a girl by secretly following her home, then taping notes to her door; and a needless sequence of topless women having sex with (shirtless but never naked) men. To boot: Only one female character is allowed to evolve into a real character; the rest are relegated to remain objects of male desire. To be conservative about it, I was disappointed.
What truly surprised me though, was the unabashed love that critics heaped upon the picture (it carries an exceedingly healthy 87% on the Tomatometer). Nowhere was there so much as a mention of the picture’s depressing portrayal of women. My confusion was only compounded after I sat through Disney’s aimless and offensive The Jungle Book, which managed to rake in the praise (it has an enviable 94%) despite its blatant racism. The success of these two films and the lack of conversation about their overt affronts has left me at a loss: Where is the critique?
For simplicity’s sake, we will ignore why the wizards at Disney deemed such an inexcusable property, based on such an inexcusable book, worthy of remaking, and instead focus on why we aren’t talking about it. (Also, it should be noted that not everybody has ignored the flagrance; Anthony Lane’s review at the New Yorker tackled some of the bigotry The Jungle Book held on to, though such critique seems absent from the conversation surrounding Everybody Wants Some!!.)
The question, of course, is not really where is the critique, but why aren’t we talking about these –isms? Certainly, we are critical of the work of Michael Bay (for all sorts of –isms) and other mindless blockbuster titans who have made their names on reckless abandon and insensitivity (I’m looking at you, Zack Snyder). So what then gives Linklater a pass? Before this year I surely would have been the first in the room to defend any sacrilege to his name. And it is not as though one flub should send him to moviemaking purgatory. So, are we collectively afraid of what will happen if we point out the failings of an indie darling prized for his thoughtfulness and sensitivity? I have the sinking feeling that the answer might be yes. Like it or not, Michael Bay is far removed from the critic crowd, but Linklater, on the other hand, is a critic favorite. Which is not to say that he can’t make a bad film and be called out on it. But rather that a bad film is dismissible. Everybody makes bad films. The objectification of women, though, is a more glaring offense, a charge I think we may be afraid to level at one of our own.
So what then happened with The Jungle Book? Director Jon Favreau went back to his roots with Chef but is certainly still a summer tentpole mainstay, and Disney might as well be the Rupert Murdoch of cinema. So we aren’t ignoring Louie — and his not-at-all-updated rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You,” a song predicated on the idea of inequality and the assumption of white supremacy — because of any allegiance with his creators. Therefore, I am left to assume that we are too smitten with the nostalgia kicked up by the remake, as though the landmarks of our childhood are above reproach. Didn’t we learn last year, during the fight to remove the Confederate Flag from South Carolina, that nostalgia is not a feeling that should be left uncritiqued?
Certainly, I don’t mean to call for a retroactive boycott of these films (Besides The Jungle Book already reeled in $900 million — plenty to greenlight the inevitable sequel). In fact, I’ve even recommended Everybody Wants Some!!, because, after the clunky and exposition-laden first act, the film really does take off. And, in true Linklater style, I laughed and I longed and, by the end, felt deep pangs of understanding and kinship towards the young men unwittingly gearing up to wrestle with their place in the world — after all, college and baseball only last so long.
What I want really is a conversation. Obviously, certain films are bound to be worse than others, their –isms more flagrant, but all films — different and diverse as they may be, indie or not, nostalgic or not — deserve to be held to the same standard. And understandably, this standard will only continue to evolve as we clumsily lumber in the direction of progress and equality. Which is not to imply that there isn’t work to be done today: just because a film is enjoyable doesn’t negate its ability to pass the Bechdel test, one of the many painfully low bars we’ve currently set ourselves.