The Lobster

I tend to avoid blockbuster-franchise-superhero-sequel movies for the same reason I avoid chain stores — they have enough money, what’s my $20 to them? I’d rather support a mom-and-pop establishment. Of course, there are a couple exceptions to my rule — the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, Chipotle before the germs — but for the most part, I hashtag-shop-small.

Oh, also, you don’t need a shit-ton of money to make a great movie. Case in point: Batman vs. Superman was a $250 million punchline, whereas The Lobster was a $4.5 million work of art.

If you liked 1984, and/or the concept of a dystopian future, you’ll like this movie. I’m certain it’s a direct correlation. In The Lobster, there are a certain, very specific set of rules that people follow, and they’re incredibly fucked up, but those rules actually break your (the viewer’s) thinking habits. It’s a fun paradox and a mind-bending couple of hours.

The Lobster is a lush movie about an empty world. The purpose of life is to find a partner, full stop. Single people are given 45 days to do so in a sterile, hotel-like environment; if they don’t, they’re surgically turned into the animal of their choice. Singles tend to pair up on the basis of shared superficial traits, like speech impediments, since they have no time to form meaningful connections. Singles can also extend their stays in the hotel by venturing out and killing escapees, who live on the lam and extoll the virtues of loner-dom.

The story revolves around bespectacled David (Colin Farrell, who continues to surprise me with his versatility), whose animal of choice — the lobster — contrasts starkly with the mammals that most people select. He seems to have a higher intelligence and tolerance for stupidity than everyone else, making his existence a pretty pathetic one. His friends (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw, both heartbreaking), however, are worse off because they’re so submerged in their fates that they can’t see life any other way. His love interests (Angeliki Papoulia, Rachel Weisz) are arguably more evolved than he is, and they inspire him to see more than what’s there.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that the ending makes you consider a really difficult question (Consider the Lobster, if you will): Is it better to live life alone, or with a partner? Maybe the answer is obvious in those terms, but considering how partners are chosen, you might surprise yourself with your revised answer. Would you want to be with someone forever who has the same physical weakness or psychological tendency as you do? What kind of life could you build together? Would either of you actually change or grow? By posing these questions in the surreal world, the writers (Yorgos Lanthimos, who also directed, and Efthymis Filippou) make the real one seem … pleasant. Almost.

Love (Season 1)

Judd Apatow shows and movies have always had a way of making me feel uneasy. Even the really great ones, like Freaks and Geeks. There’s something so piercingly real about everything he touches. It’s hard to purely enjoy his comedy because it’s rooted in something too accurate not to relate to.

I didn’t entirely identify with the characters in Love, but I did so enough to feel guilty about it. It’s the story of a really new relationship between Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and Gus (Paul Rust), whose chemistry I didn’t really buy but whose individual performances I enjoyed thoroughly. Mickey is selfish and deeply unlikable (as was Britta on Community, for which she’s probably most known) but Jacobs really commits to it, clearly drawing from real experience with at least one genuine asshole. The character makes poor, immature decisions in almost every aspect of her life — doing drugs and dumb dudes, to name the obvious — so it’s hard to see why Gus even likes her.

But where Mickey at least knows how to have a good time, Gus kind of doesn’t. He’s got cool friends, but he himself is very vanilla, very conflict-averse, very low-risk. Had he been played by a different actor, I probably wouldn’t have liked him, either, but Rust holds a special place in my heart, thanks to this occasional brilliant feature on Comedy Bang! Bang!

Anyway. Somehow, these two find each other and attempt to incorporate each other into their lives. It’s mostly unsuccessful, and because of that, I actually take issue with the title of the show itself. There’s a clear affection there, but it’s not love. It’s curiosity. I admire the show for eliminating the romantic idealism that runs rampant through non-Apatow shows and movies — something Apatow seems hell-bent on destroying — but I actually think there has to be some of that there for a relationship to work, on-screen or not. Mickey and Gus are annoyed with each other most of the time. They only marginally enjoy each other’s company. One or both of them is depressed. Their communication skills are appalling, though the show does address the newfound frustrations and challenges of when and how to text someone you’re interested in.

The undeniable bright spots are Mickey’s roommate, Bertie (Claudia O’Dougherty), and Gus’ silly group of friends. Most of these people are also CBB regulars, which is why I was so happy to see them — and disappointed not to see more of them. I haven’t yet made up my mind if I’ll check in on Season 2 of this show, because it didn’t give me enough to hook into. I wanted to love Love, but… you know.

Steel Magnolias

I was talking to my grandma several months ago, and she said she came across Steel Magnolias whilst flipping through the channels. She’d seen it before, but the feel-good powers were so strong that she stopped flipping and watched it again. That was recommendation enough for me, since she’s a tough critic (and a tough cookie).

The feel-good powers are indeed strong enough to endure across 27 years (though the whitewashedness of the cast really does not hold up, but I’ll get to that later). This is a story about female friendship and community in the South, at once wholly foreign and completely relatable. It’s a study in longevity through insanely human bouts of fickleness and big hair. The gals will annoy the shit out of you, but you’d probably want all of them on your side for any occasion.

Julia Roberts is Shelby, the belle of the group who also happens to have diabetes. She struggles to be seen as more than a delicate flower, but she’s also grateful for the protection she receives from everyone. Roberts acts the hell out of this role, particularly in scenes involving diabetic shock. (One scene in particular has no sound, which is downright haunting.) She has a real mother, M’Lynn (Sally Field), as well three self-appointed mothers in town beautician Truvy (Dolly Parton), former town first lady Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) and town nincompoop Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine). There’s also town newcomer Annelle (Darryl Hannah), who becomes Truvy’s apprentice and hanger-on.

The dudes in this movie — Sam Shepard, Dylan McDermott, Tom Skerritt — are all great, but they’re secondary to the estrogen pumping through each frame. These women know everything about each other, for better or worse. They gossip about each other and about others in the town. They prioritize their appearances over their comfort. And they have opinions about every move and decision that anyone makes. Perhaps “annoying” is an understatement.

But with their lives being so narrow, so focused on the small world that is their Louisiana town, it’s hard to imagine them paying attention to anything or anyone else. Because they know each other so well, and spend so much time together, they know perfectly how to tear each other down and lift each other up. Ouiser is more of an expert at the former, whereas Truvy dominates the latter. MacLaine is acerbic, providing most of the film’s funniest moments. And Parton, despite her best attempts to portray someone shallow, bleeds genuine encouragement. She’ll make you cry.

I mentioned above that this movie is whiter than white. It’s jarring. (There’s actually an all-black version of it, too, which I should watch.) At Shelby and Jackson’s (McDermott) wedding, a glorious affair, there’s one very strategically placed black couple in attendance. I had a hard time believing any of the main characters would have black friends, despite their generally welcome attitudes, which is a giant depressing shame. I can’t bring myself to commend the feeble attempt at inclusion, either. 1989 was still backwards. So that part won’t make you feel good.

Deep, profound, honest friendship will, though. It’ll make you think about your own friends, and how annoyingly lovable you’d all be if you were portrayed in a play (Robert Harling wrote the original) or on the big screen. Watch and weep, friends.

The Ride

I capped off my TFF2016 experience the way I tipped it off (eh, that phrasing sounded cooler in my head, but I’m gonna keep it) — with a documentary. The Ride documents the Lakota Sioux’s pilgrimage-esque trek through the South Dakota Badlands. The goal of the journey is to honor their ancestors, who were killed at Wounded Knee, and to connect with past cultural traditions, like riding on horseback.

The scenery is beautiful, and beautifully shot, but the film itself is pretty disjointed, which is such a shame. I really admire the scope of this project, especially because the Lakota seemed so hesitant to reveal the importance of the journey on camera. Ultimately, though, I think that hesitance hurt the finished product.

The director, Stephanie Gillard, wasn’t able to really pull information out of her subjects. There were some poignant moments, but the movie felt wholly quiet, secretive, mysterious, and not in an intriguing way. Investing this much time in making and watching it, you want to hear real revelations. You want to see real emotions. You want to feel real pain.

I wonder if the language barrier had anything to do with it; the director is French, and it seemed like the (English) subtitles didn’t come close to capturing what was being said. And, of course, with every documentary, most of the footage that exists goes unseen. I’d be curious to know how and why she made her editing decisions, because so many scenes felt jumpy, as if they excluded the most important parts.

I also wonder if she was rushed to finish the film by a certain deadline — its subjects deserve far more time in the spotlight, and she deserves far more time to tell their story.

Elvis & Nixon

I can sum up my feelings for Elvis & Nixon, yet another TFF2016 movie, in one word. Or noise: “Oof.”

With apologies to the actors — Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Colin Hanks, Alex Pettyfer — this flick was awful. Truly. I couldn’t believe that the combination of those four guys wasn’t remotely enough to salvage this movie, but then again, it probably happens more often than we realize. Often enough to sustain the straight-to-DVD business model, anyway.

Spacey plays Nixon here, and I do not understand why he took this job, especially while he’s in the midst of killing it as Frank Underwood. I’m a House of Cards fan with the ability to discern an actor’s different roles, but I found it oddly confusing to watch him in the Oval Office as SoCal Republican. Did he think this would be a useful acting exercise? Does he only play Commanders in Chief now? Has he forgotten how his normal speaking voice sounds? Couldn’t he have just used his hiatus to play someone’s sensitive dad?

The sad thing is, Spacey’s half-assed Nixon is actually pretty good. He has a well-established gift for impressions, and though his turn borders on caricature, it retains that necessary Presidential air. Plus, Shannon’s Elvis is so awful that Spacey seems Oscar-worthy in comparison. (He’s not.)

I’m all for unconventional casting and artistic experimentation, but when it comes to portraying historical figures, it seems like a pretty hard and fast Hollywood rule that the actor bear a close resemblance to the real person. Denzel as Malcolm X is a great example. So is Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth. Michael Shannon as Elvis is deeply not. The only traits they share are dark hair and light skin. The King was a hunky, confident presence, but Shannon is reedy, with a distinct sullen, lined expression. His unique, mysterious face enhances most of his other roles, here, it’s distracting. He’s also got a reedy, lanky body, and his attempts to strut are wholly unconvincing. The majestic capes and flashy jewels weigh on his frame.

I’m sure that Hanks or Pettyfer — who were perfectly great in their roles as Nixon’s associate and Elvis’ best friend, respectively — would have been more convincing Elvi. Hanks has a timeless, 50’s quality about him that would serve Elvis’ early years well; Pettyfer has gyrated on screen before. Six months after seeing this movie, I’m still dumbfounded.

The casting wasn’t the only issue, though. Just the main one. The script reduced an otherwise intriguing topic — how these two unlikely celebrities met in person, once — to mediocre jokes and cliches. It seemed like everyone at my screening was eating up Shannon’s subdued hamminess and Spacey’s overwrought winks, but I was having none of it. I maybe laughed once in a constant stream of guffaws.

It’s unfortunate, too, because I was so looking forward to this movie. It could have been such a clever take on a relatively random day in history, and a sort of comedic follow-up to Frost/Nixon. Instead, it was a frustrating farce.

Youth in Oregon

This third installment in my six-months-late recap of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival is kind of a downer, but a good downer. There is such a thing, as it turns out, and it’s this movie, Youth in Oregon.

“The right to die” might not be your first choice for a scintillating movie subject, but it really worked here, and it’s a subject that should be covered in many forms, at the very least, to get people talking about it more comfortably. Frank Langella is Raymond, a spiky grandpa and former doctor with a terminal illness and a beautiful, complex face. He’s decided to end his life, but he can only do so in Oregon, where euthanasia is legal. His family, upon learning about the idea (through some heavy-handed exposition, just warning you), is of course passionately against the idea, but each member has his and her own significant ways of coping with it.

The casting is very accurate, especially considering how many recognizable faces appear in the film. Both Christina Applegate (Kate) and Josh Lucas (Danny) look like they could be the grown children of Langella and Mary Kay Place (Estelle), who is America’s mom if anyone asks, with their slightly-pursed mouths, their understated comedic timing, and their quiet melancholy.

Selfishness, and its many manifestations, creeps up as a theme. It’s an unavoidable byproduct of a family coping with one person’s big decision, since everyone inevitably reacts based on how Raymond’s death might affect them. As they process the information, though, the selfishness morphs into sacrifice, with priorities being reorganized and guards being let down. (There’s a road trip to Oregon, in case you were wondering.)

The more you see how peaceful the process could have been, and the more you realize how utterly draining it is for a family to experience death the way it “normally” happens, the easier it is to support “the right to die” as a movement. It’s humane, plain and simple. The author of the script (Andrew Eisen) and the director (Joel David Moore from Bones, whoa) clearly feel strongly about it, and they handled it delicately. They also chose gorgeous music to capture the emotions that the characters — and the audience, inevitably — are experiencing. Joel P. West provided the score, and I found Steven McMorran’s song at the end of the film particularly moving.

I hope we see more stories like this one, which confront “uncomfortable” topics with dignity and care. Fiction can be just as powerful as fact when it comes to reversing a taboo.