Review Round-Up: Certain Strange Women Doctors, Lobsters, & Camerapersons By The Sea

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I watch a lot of movies, and I don’t write about all of them. This is especially true of the annual year-end rush to cram in as much movie watching goodness as possible before voting deadlines for the Boston Online Film Critics Association (BOFCA) and the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). Consider these capsules my catch-up gift for you all as I stuff my brain with films before 2016 bites it. (‘Tis the season.)


CERTAIN WOMEN, 2016, dir. Kelly Reichardt

I’m loathe to point out how little respect Kelly Reichardt gets in discussions of great American filmmakers, not because it isn’t true but because it is. While her national peers are all busy making movies, Reichardt is making Reichardt movies, movies stamped with her personality as a storyteller, movies that pronounce her name from one frame to the next and yet which all happen to be quiet by nature. Certain Women is exactly that, a hushed movie where silence roars like thunder and in communicating nothing communicates everything; this is a film where three different women in three different stories compartmentalize their frustration, their indignity, their outrage, and their heartache because, well, it’s Reichardt. Stoicism is part of her brand. But her leading ladies (Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Lily Gladstone, supported by Jared Harris, James LeGros, and Kristen Stewart) reveal their discontents and their stresses in their gestures and in their habits, keeping mum only in voice and not in action. That suits Certain Women just fine. Reichardt isn’t a flashy auteur, preferring to linger on images and within moments, but she is one of America’s most gifted. (****1/2.)

DOCTOR STRANGE, 2016, dir. Scott Derickson

We’ve hit peak Marvel, folks. The studio simply has run out of formula for its superhero sagas, and as such they’ve gone green and chosen to recycle their greatest hits. Economical! But a company that’s worth kajillions of dollars should be able to spare a few bucks to make sure originality fits into the budget. Otherwise we’re just going to get Doctor Stranges from here ’til eternity. Doctor Strange isn’t bad by any means – compared to literally every other movie he’s made, it’s a fucking masterpiece – but it is, in essence, Iron Man, with Benedict Cumberbatch, the industry’s most aggravatingly typecast actor, replacing Robert Downey Jr., and Rachel McAdams, the industry’s most misused actress, replacing Gwyneth Paltrow; add a bunch of crazy mystical crap on top and presto, you have discovered the difference between bisque and chowder, or gnocchi or gnudi, or whatever other two things you love that are “different” despite being very much alike. The film’s elements of design and craft at least differentiate it visually from its peers in the Marvel stable(how nice to see a post-Mad Max: Fury Road blockbuster so joyfully embrace color), but you’ve seen this movie before, and you’ve seen it done better. Not that that’s going to stop the MCU machine from grinding on, of course. It’s a vehicle driven by dollar signs instead of star ratings. (**.)

CAMERAPERSON, 2016, dir. Kirsten Johnson

In film, the camera isn’t just a tool but a character in the story, or at least so it’s been said. (By me. Probably better critics, too, but let’s go with “me” for now.) In cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s documentary Cameraperson, the camera isn’t just a character but a goddamn confessional booth, not to mention an extension of the living, breathing human being responsible for guiding it. That human happens to be Johnson, who has composed her movie entirely of footage that she shot on other productions, including but not limited to Darfur NowCitizenfour, and Fahrenheit 9/11; you could call Cameraperson a clip show or a very, very long outtakes reel, but that skirts around the truth of it. This is a deeply personal film spoken in the language of filmmaking, not as art but as a field of discipline, as a craft or a trade, and if you catch on with its lingo you’ll be rewarded with a movie that says a lot about the kind of camera person Johnson is (or at least says a lot that we can interpret to be about Johnson): A humanitarian with an abiding love for her subjects, an immense devotion to her work, and a fearless streak that surpasses the circumference of Earth. 2016 is a year loaded with daring, challenging documentaries, and among these Cameraperson may not be to all tastes. Should it suit your palette, though, it easily stands as one of the year’s most accomplished efforts of its kind. (*****.)

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, 2016, dir Kenneth Lonergan

Like many stereotypes, the stereotype of the taciturn, stony New Englander comes from a real place, and few films have captured either that place or that stereotype half as well as Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Yours truly doesn’t quite fit this mold, per but I know enough people who do, so you can trust me when I say the film’s representation of the region’s people and culture is spot-on; you can also trust me when I say that the film is a marvel, though for those who keep their fingers on the pulse of critical consensus, this isn’t exactly a controversial stance to take. Unless you’re a dumb asshole* like Bobby Finger or a dumb asshole like Mark Judge, two saps who made the grave mistake of contradicting critic unanimity through atrocious writing, you’re probably going to fall under the “liked” category, too. Manchester by the Sea is a difficult film to resist, and an even more difficult film to root from your consciousness. The story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is defined by sorrow, and yet the film itself isn’t wholly sorrowful, just in fits and spurts that are occasionally interrupted by male bullshitting between him and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee and Patrick come together over the death of Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee’s brother and Patrick’s father, and their grieving is processed over the course of Lonergan’s two hour plus saga of tragedy, loss, guilt, and how people – men in particular – deal when the unthinkable happens. (****1/2.)

THE LOBSTER, 2016, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The Lobster, like Doctor Strange, isn’t bad, but unlike Doctor Strange, it is original, and in its originality we find the source of its badness: Self-indulgence. The Lobster, the fifth film by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, is founded on a thoroughly bizarre and brilliant basic conceit, in which people rendered single are whisked away to a hotel where they must pair off with another person within forty-five days or be turned into an animal of their choice. The title refers to the animal Lanthimos’ hero, David (Colin Farrell), wishes to be transmogrified into, on account of its long lifespan and unending fertility. Great idea, right? Right! It’s just that it’s hampered by execution, here defined specifically through pacing so slow that calling it glacial would be complimentary. The Lobster begins at the hotel, removes itself to the woods halfway through (where David falls in with a crowd of people on the opposite end of the romantic spectrum as the hotel and its staff), and by the time it’s done you’ll feel four hours older when in reality you’ve only sunk two hours into engaging with it. Lanthimos is an assuredly bizarre filmmaker, and much of the actual work is interesting enough to merit a watch, but he neither justifies The Lobster‘s the length nor bothers making the duration tolerable. (**1/2.)


*Not that I recommend torturing your eyeballs by reading the writing of lesser authors, but: Finger and Judge aren’t dumb assholes because they don’t like Manchester by the Sea, but rather because the capacity in which they dislike it is the sort of smug hip faux-liberal white guy “criticism” that’s just shiny enough on the surface to read as intellectual but has zippety-do for depth. I won’t link to their individual pieces, so you’ll have to track them down yourself, because I refuse to be culpable in the reduction of your brain cell count.

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