Film Review “Carol”

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy
Running Time: 118mins.
The Weinstein Company
Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

At the outset of Todd Haynes’s latest film Carol, two women meet up in a restaurant in 1950s New York City before they are interrupted by a good natured young man. He ultimately escorts the stylish younger lady off to a party and then we drift back in time. It’s a simple start to a beautifully crafted romantic drama which spends the rest of its runtime loading up this and many other minute interactions with infinite complexity. Working from Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt, director Haynes (of 2002’s lauded Far From Heaven) once again showcases the 1950s as the backdrop for simmering social tensions and stellar work by his lead actresses.

As with everything in Haynes’s gorgeous film, the beginning of Carol and Therese’s relationship is sold in loaded small talk. Carol Aird (Blanchett), looking every bit the glamorous fifties socialite, inquires after Christmas gift suggestions from shopgirl Therese (Mara, saddled with a management-enforced goofy Santa hat). Carol eventually settles on a train set, providing Therese with all her relevant contact info to ship her order. She then sashays away with a compliment to the Santa hat. To the outside shopper, this was just a cordial transaction between two ladies but the dialogue sold through Mara and Blanchett’s eyes screams of a mutual attraction. Not to mention the lingering shots of Carol’s perfectly manicured hands that hint at a world struggling photographer Therese can only aspire to be part of. Conveniently Carol forgets a pair of gloves at Therese’s counter, offering Therese an excuse with which to follow up with this intriguing customer. Under the guise of gratitude, Carol is enabled to take Therese to lunch and from there they’re off and running. Or rather roadtripping.

It’s fitting that a trainset and a roadtrip are at the crux of Therese and Carol’s encounters with


one another because Haynes’s film is so much about these women in transitions. It’s unclear what exactly Carol sees in Therese at first except that Carol knows where her desires lie at this point in her life (a past girlfriend in the form of Sarah Paulson’s Abby remains Carol’s strongest bond besides her young daughter) and she will soon be officially divorced from her husband. Her world’s seemingly coming apart and she’s trying to grasp onto something new. Meanwhile Mara is simply heartbreaking as the younger Therese. Navigating this time period, Therese doesn’t even know how to articulate what she wants from Carol or why. A stunning Mara, who won Best Actress with this film at this year’s Cannes festival, is magnetic as her quiet turmoil eventually spills over into a teary outburst before Therese can reform into something stronger.

The leading ladies are capably supported by their would-be male counterparts who are at a loss as to what to do with these women. Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol’s ex-husband-to-be, launches an attack of sorts on Carol’s ‘morality’ with his legal team in a move that smacks more of desperation than maliciousness. Meanwhile, Therese fends off the over eager advances of Richard (Jake Lacy) and her peers with indifference. To add to it all, Haynes is in his element with period production design along with costume designer Sandy Powell (coming off this year’s triumphant work on Cinderella) and the result is an all around marvelous drama to behold.

Carol was screened as a part of the 2015 New York Film Fest.
I got the chance to speak to Blanchett at Carol’s NY Press Conference, which you can read here.

New York Film Fest Review: “Steve Jobs”

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg
Running Time: 122mins.
Universal Pictures

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

No one removes a limb nor falls in a pit beneath an Indian outhouse in Danny Boyle’s new awards-season biopic Steve Jobs, but I do suspect many people will accuse it of dragging the late Apple CEO through the mud. Working from a fast-paced script by Aaron Sorkin (aren’t they always?), the film pulls no punches when it comes to Jobs’ pseudo-Machiavellian pursuit of his Mac computer. Unlike Sorkin’s previous computer-minded outing, The Social Network, Steve Jobs feels even harsher for the span of time in which we’re tuning in. We stay with Mr. Jobs’s and his collateral damage, the loved ones and colleagues frequently left floundering in his wake, over the course of fourteen years and three epic product launches. It pits Jobs’s minor launch glitches against far greater interpersonal struggles and the suspense lies in what will finally warrant his attention. The small acting ensemble revolving around Michael Fassbender’s fierce portrayal of Jobs–including Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels and Michael Stuhlberg–ensures that it’s a fair fight. In this highly focused fashion, Boyle has delivered not the complete biography of Jobs, but an energetic strong impression of the man behind the curtain. And the iPod.

The three ‘acts’ that occupy the real-time action of Boyle’s film see Jobs as he successfully launches Macintosh, then outside of Apple with the disastrous NeXTCube and as the prodigal son returning with 1998’s iMac. To see the launches go off without a hitch is Jobs’s goal but through Boyle and Sorkin’s film, Steve’s launch is like a juggling act where more balls keep getting thrown into play. The major crisis with the first Macintosh is that Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg) can’t get the demo computer to say ‘hello.’ And Steve is much scarier than Yoda in the “there is no try” department. Hovering on the sidelines of the epic hello struggle is Joanna Hoffman (Winslet), Apple marketing guru and the only person able to wrangle Steve’s attention for any quantifiable amount of time. She doesn’t see why the computer must say hello, oh and also Steve should do something about his daughter and her mother waiting for Steve in the wings. The daughter he’s so publicly denied fathering, and half blames for his losing Time Magazine’s Man of the Year title. Priorities. Meanwhile Steve Wozniak (a deeply touching Rogen) just wants Steve Jobs to say thank you to the Apple 2 guys, an earlier model that the company thrived on. And for good measure, a stoic Jeff Daniels as exec John Scully steps in to remind Steve of his own parental issues (he was adopted) at exactly the wrong times.

These basic components are tossed in and out of focus over the course of the launches, with Boyle slyly throwing in the occasional additional flashbacks in time to further flesh out Steve’s relationships–especially with Wozniak and Scully. As a fiery Fassbender plays young Jobs, it’s easy to see how he sold his team of people on going on these technological ventures under his leadership. Important for us to see considering present-Jobs can so often be despicable. Jobs’s chief struggle in most of his interactions, whether he admits it or not, is with common human decency. Long-suffering Wozniak seeks only acknowledgment while Joanna is frequently going to bat on behalf of Jobs’s daughter Lisa since her mother (Katherine Waterston in a small but effective part) is drifting further away. In this core struggle, Winslet emerges as the film’s heart when its protagonist doesn’t have time for his. In Joanna, Winslet is both fearless and vulnerable. She knows Steve the best, she’s knows she’s too valuable to his enterprise to be cast off and she uses this to stand her ground. If audiences find it hard to root for Steve as he is ruthlessly scripted by Sorkin, they will definitely side with Joanna who only wants Steve to be a better person. It’s clever and Winslet is no doubt as awards-worthy as Fassbender is in this film.

Boyle and Sorkin shy away from actually showing their version of one of Jobs’s epic announcements–we have youtube for that–but at every juncture the Mac masses are omnipresent. We see stamping feet and full theater lobbies of faceless groupies which only serve to amplify Steve’s power in these spaces. While other realms of Jobs’s life were out of his control, at least at these launches every minute detail could be dictated by him. To situate the whole story around these launches is to show Jobs at his most intense. The resulting film is a vibrant, unsympathetic portrait of a man whose work continues to evolve how humans connect with each other whether or not he ever mastered that skill in his own life.

I saw Steve Jobs at this year’s New York Film Fest, the film receives its nationwide release on October 23rd.

New York Film Fest Review: The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan
Running Time: 141 minutes
20th Century Fox

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

If Saving Private Ryan taught us anything, it’s that you can make a damn great film about a Damon in distress. The Martian, Ridley Scott’s joyous tribute to the ingenuity of scientists, is lightyears away from Spielberg’s gritty epic but the results are still spectacular. The Martian is a massively satisfying sci-fi film on every level that’s anchored by a standout performance from Matt Damon.

When an unexpectedly harsh storm rips through their mission on Mars, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the heart wrenching decision to leave one of her crew on the surface of the planet, presumed dead. Mark Watney (Damon) in actual fact wakes to find he’s alive having taken a communication antenna directly to the equipment that monitors his vitals. Not to mention to his own abdomen. It’s really the perfect setup for a space horror and indeed Watney’s bloody DIY surgery is cringeworthy to watch, but that’s not the film we’re watching. It’s funny that the director who gave us the iconic ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’ and with Watney has added an addendum of unless you “science the shit” out of your situation and get your own communications back on line. Here Watney’s approach is that of a highly trained scientist–a botanist to be specific–who responds not with panic but with measured practicality and optimism. Watney turns immediately to video logging his progress, a clever way to clue the audience into what’s up as well as the unspoken truth that his journal, and own sense of humor, are vital to his sanity and by extension, his survival. Damon is charming as ever in his solo scenes, still grumbling at his now-absent crew mates as he rifles through their belongings for anything useful. Like Guardians of the Galaxy last year, Watney’s ship is stocked with disco records courtesy of his captain to keep the mood on Mars generally upbeat. When he has setbacks, Damon does let loose with some powerful emotional breakdowns that are all the more affecting for how strong a character we already know Watney to be.

Meanwhile on Earth, Damon is supported by a bevy of strong actors including Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean (who gets in a pretty great Lord of the Rings shout out), Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig. They’re faced with not only how to keep their astronaut alive, but whether to inform Watney’s crew (still on their ship and out of the loop) and how to ‘spin’ their situation with the whole world watching. I think what’s most refreshing about the Earth-bound scenes is the spirit of rational teamwork among the NASA personnel. There’s disagreements and debates but never, as too often is the case in sci-fi films, a Bad Guy or any gross caricatures of government officials hellbent on an agenda. Some of the best scenes are the NASA leaders just throwing down challenges to their tech teams and watching all their wheels turning into motion. Scott wrings suspense out of the sheer amount of options the space agencies have for a mission where if one astronaut is lost in pursuit of another, the whole thing is a failure. If anything, the enemy is determining who ultimately will take responsibility for the chosen course of action and its outcome.

Already powered by its strong cast and the gripping central dilemma, The Martian also excels in every technical aspect. Harry Gregson-Williams provides a touching, often ‘futuristic-sounding’ score that never overpowers the action while Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is gorgeous. Jessica Chastain simply floating through her ship on her rounds is already a beautiful image and in the RealD 3D I saw it in at NYFF, it soared. The film doesn’t rely on the 3D, but it is immersive in the space scenes and frequently had me in awe. A thrilling cinematic experience made even better for regarding complications in space as inevitable and workable rather than with terror. It felt like exactly what we need in a moment where NASA continues to make discoveries (just this week: water!) despite threats of shutdown.

The Martian opens on October 2nd. 

New York Film Fest Review: The Walk

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 124 minutes
Sony, TriStar

Our Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

When I saw James Marsh’s 2008 documentary Man On Wire, I recall my heart racing. Just listening to Philippe Petit rapid fire recounting his tight rope walk between the Twin Towers, and the amount of sheer luck that his plans hinged on, was exhilarating. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit popped up on the top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty in the opening of Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk to narrate the exact same tale, well exhilarated is not the word I’d use. In a perfect world, audiences could see the breathtaking wire walking sequence that Zemeckis has crafted appended to something as thrilling as that Oscar-winning documentary but of course this is not a perfect world. As Gordon-Levitt’s Petit would say through outrageous French accent, c’est la vie. In moving from Man on Wire to The Walk, we must revisit Petit’s spectacular tight rope act with a hefty side of fromage.

The year is 1974 and French street performer Petit, is enamored with wire walking. During his search for more places to hang his wire, he finds a newspaper heralding the nearly-completed Twin Towers in New York City. They’re perfect and he becomes obsessed with the idea of walking between them. In racing towards this vision, Zemeckis takes us through a candy colored vision of the France from the countryside to the circus and Paris. It all culminates in a newsworthy walk between the two towers of the Notre Dame cathedral–a death defying feat unto itself, presented here as a quick bit of exposition. Along the way he picks up French ‘accomplices’ in girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon in a thankless role), a photographer (Clément Sibony) and eccentric circus mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) who pleads with Petit to use a safety harness (he won’t). For all the fast paced camera work and bustling Parisian unicycle rides, this first act drags under Petit’s over aggressive narration. In light of the Marsh documentary where the vibrant real Petit told his own story, my mind truly boggled at having this level of wall to wall voice over. For audience members who have not seen the doc, your tolerance may be higher than mine. If anything I miss the different voices from Man on Wire, because here doubt by other characters is treated as repressing an excitable artist. His success is taken as a foregone conclusion.

In 1970s New York, the film takes on more of the heist-like mood that was established in Marsh’s documentary and the film finally takes off. Petit enlists his American accomplices and the element of suspense is restored while Petit and co employ ‘spywork’ to figure out the inner workings of the massive construction site. The level of lax security and staff eluded with charm and confidence of the crew is really something to see from a post-9/11 perspective and is one of the essential elements to Petit’s being a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. The biggest hurdle is getting from the sky lobbies to the roof and ensuring the roof is free of guards. Here Zemeckis is great at giving us what can only be described as warm up acrophobia as the team contends with incomplete elevator shafts in the build up to the final walk across the void. That walk is undeniably breath taking and seeing it with a crowd in a theater, the level of tensed muscles was strongly felt. And the walk is not short either. As Petit the artist felt more and more connected to the wire and the towers, the more liberties he takes up there. And the sequence is stunning in spite of Petit remaining on hand to tell us how stunning it is.

With the 3D walk itself being worth price of admission, more so in vertigo-inducing IMAX, and poignant final moments that especially resonated with the New York Film Fest crowd, Zemeckis has crafted a spectacle to be sure even if the rest of the film will likely not stand the same test of time that the 2008 documentary has.

The Walk opens in limited IMAX on September 30th with a wide release on October 9th.


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