Phantom Thread

phantomthread1.jpg

People are such insanely complicated creatures. This is what brings people back to cinema and what keeps the artform fresh. There will never be an end to the stories you can just tell about people. Two people sharing a life together is the most interesting thing on earth, and you can make movie after movie after movie about just two people, and every single one will be different. Phantom Thread is an achievement on so many different levels, but the one that is sticking in my head is just how well done the characters were. They were truly fleshed out, human individuals, as deep and complex as you and I. The power of good writing and good acting is something that cannot be ignored, and combined with the brilliant score and the masterful directing, Phantom Thread had me smiling in admiration for nearly the entire runtime, simply because it's just a joy to behold a piece of art so beautifully constructed.

At the forefront of course, is Daniel Day-Lewis. Phantom Thread will be his final film, and if the interviews I read with him are any indicator, this is not a frivolous or temporary decision on his part, so his performance here has a certain weight to it that it wouldn't otherwise. He's such a skilled artist, I couldn't help but compare his performance to Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront which I recently saw, just because both of them have such a naturalness to them. Every single gesture, movement, intonation, all lend themselves to the character. Not a single movement is wasted or pointless, he isn't moving from one line of dialogue to another, he is living and breathing the character of Reynolds Woodcock. Woodcock is a fascinating character, who clearly has a very long, storied past that has brought him to where he is today. We get small glimpses into what his life has been, but for the most part, we're focused on who the man is today. He's insanely charming on the surface, and very good at what he does. Much like watching a great film, there is a joy to be had watching someone do something they are incredibly good at, which is why this role is so perfect for Daniel Day-Lewis. We watch Reynolds work superbly at his craft of dress-making, and simultaneously we are watching Daniel Day-Lewis embody this man, thus watching two people at once who are at the pinnacle of their field. I would watch this movie again in an instant if only so I could just study Daniel Day-Lewis the entire time and admire how good he is at what he does.

It would be remiss of me to not mention the performance of our female co-stars, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps. Cyril and Alma are two crucial parts of the film, and the strength of both their characters in the face of a man like Reynolds is what makes it so fascinating. Cyril, Reynolds sister, essentially managers her brothers life as he sees fit, making sure he isn't too distracted, to make sure that he can do his work. She is not subservient though, multiple times she proves herself to be Reynolds equal. No, what she does is out of love, out of simple admiration for her brothers immense skill, and out of a desire to see him happy. Though their relationship is a strange one, they are still siblings who very clearly love each other and love being around each other. And Alma, the center of this film, the enigma which drives things forward, is portrayed  expertly by Vicky. From the beginning Alma is different than Reynolds other girls, finding issue with some of his habits that the others mindlessly went along with. But this isn't a film about gaining power within a relationship, it's a film about what people become in a relationship. Early on we hear that Reynolds needs silence at breakfast so that he can concentrate and start the day off right. Alma doesn't know this and loudly butters her toast and pours her tea, upsetting him. In a later seen, without much fanfare, we see Alma silently buttering her toast, having learned what Reynolds likes. This to some would be a sign of submission, but what we also see later is Reynolds talking at breakfast ordering complicated dishes to be served so that he can enjoy them with his sister and with Alma. The two take on parts of each other without even noticing or understanding why, and as the movie progresses they become further entangled with each other, sometimes resulting in negative consequences, but it's something that inevitably happens in any successful relationship. Alma is a powerful, strong character, but so is Reynolds, and together they are even stronger. It takes a lot of guts and talent for someone to match up so directly with a man like Daniel Day-Lewis, but Vicky is up to the task , doing so almost effortlessly. She is truly a delight to watch. 

The richness of the performances however, was enhanced and complemented by the brilliant, beautiful, enchanting soundtrack. Composed by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, who is now a frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator, the soundtrack is absolutely, stunningly gorgeous. It consists of mostly piano and violin, matching up perfectly with the time period that the film takes place in, and I have to say that it completely swept me off my feet. So many directors today try to make soundtracks that people don't notice, tracks that add to the atmosphere of a film without ever really coming to the forefront and being something that the audience notes upon. This approach works sometimes of course, you don't always need a soundtrack to pop like this one does, but so often it's done out of habit and not because it's the best idea. In The Mood For Love frequently uses it's music to establish tone in a very obvious and noticeable way, making it as much of a character as any of the people in the movie, and here in Phantom Thread it's used in a very different, yet very similar way. The piano drifts between haunting and beautiful, whisking the audience off their feet and putting them into a whirlwind of unexpected emotion, frequently taking the spotlight while the actors emote, engaging in silent exchanges that let the characters breathe and be themselves. Even including Daniel Day-Lewis' performance, it is maybe my favorite part of the movie, and I never listen to movie soundtracks, but this I will frequently listen to in my free time, due to both it's beauty and how it now connects me to the emotions I felt watching this film.

Paul Thomas Anderson of course at this point needs no one to introduce him. He has created some of the best movies of the 21st century, including his previous collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, and here in Phantom Thread I honestly think he's outdone himself. The visual language he employs is almost the opposite of how I spoke of the soundtrack, by which I mean it isn't something that you immediately take note of, because it just works. It seamlessly folds into the background, manipulating the audience in subtle ways that aren't flashy, obvious, or specifically "interesting". To partially paraphrase Roger Deakins, cinematography should never draw attention to itself to just say "look at how good I am at composition!". Every single shot should be expressing something important in how it is presented, how it's put together, what we see and what we don't and PTA is an obvious master of this. Every frame speaks volumes, but does so in a way that your subconscious understands before you do, which of course is why it works so well. There is a softness to the entire film, the lightning is never too harsh, or too bright, or too dark. It illuminates without blinding, always showing what needs to be shown. If I had to use a single word to describe how the film was shot, it would be "patiently". The film is slow, not in a boring way, in a comfortable way, in a way that feels like a carefree day basking in the not-too-bright and not-too-warm sunlight of a long, spring day. It is a comfortable beauty.

Writing about this movie makes me want to see it again. It is such a joyous thing, so well made and clearly a labor of love for many of the people involved in making it. No one involved in this project really needed to prove themselves at all, but regardless they went all out in the creation of this masterpiece. Even thinking about it fills me with this feeling of warmth, the combination of the genius acting by all involved, the soundtrack, and the directing, it simply makes me glad to see it. The complexity of it lingers in my mind, nagging at me, I cannot shake it. And I don't want to, I want it to stay with me and affect me, I want to learn from it and grow from it, and I believe that I will, for Phantom Thread is a film I'll revisit again and again, each time basking in the glow of the experience. 

 

Mistress America

postimageimage-ee7883a2-b392-485c-be9b-d8510c37b5b9.jpg

I've seen Greta Gerwig in exactly one movie (this one), and I've seen her directorial debut Lady Bird, and I've decided that she's amazing. This is aided of course by an amazing script which was partially written by her, partially by the director Noah Baumbach, which is full of dialogue that is simply fun to listen to. Mistress America has a similar protagonist to Lady Bird in a way, a young girl who's just barely an adult, trying to figure out who she is and trying to make her way in the world, but I think it's primary message is one of disillusionment, both with others and with ourselves. It's the kind of film that's simply about people being people, and because of that is incredibly comfortable to just sit and watch.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke (Greta Gerwig) are soon to be step-sisters, living in New York. Tracy is a college student who is persuaded by her mother to contact Brooke, so they can get to know each other a little bit before their parents become wed. She's reluctant to do so, but once she does, she instantly becomes infatuated with Brooke. Not infatuated in a romantic way, but she instantly becomes taken with Brooke as a person. Within one night, Brooke has become her idol. She's this cool, 30-something living in New York who knows everyone, has a boyfriend in Greece, has a nemesis, has a cool apartment, has an overwhelming number ambitions and ideas, and to an 18-year old girl like Tracy, she's everything she wants to be. At first glance she's an absolutely wonderful human being, the kind of person that makes you feel better about yourself because they actually like you. Tracy becomes wrapped up in Brooke's life, always agreeing with her, always on her side in any argument, following her around the city on all her endeavors, just hoping that she can somehow leech a bit of talent off of this woman for her own. This is an experience I think most of us can relate to, at one point or another we become incredibly impressed with a person older than us, so sure that they're what we want to be when we "grow up", and Mistress America does an excellent job at channeling that feeling. Greta plays this character with such natural style and grace, you'd think that this was just someone pointing a camera at her being herself.

The key to this film though, and why it's such a joy to watch, lies in the dialogue. There really is a wonderful feeling to be had simply from listening to well-written dialogue. It's how Aaron Sorkin is so well known, he is simply an excellent writer, and here the combination of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig writing really lends this movie what it needs to stand out. There's a single scene I'm thinking of in particular, where there are 7 people all talking amongst each other, but it's incredibly fluid. There's no wasted silence, no tripping over each other to speak, everyone has their line that they say and it just sounds and feels marvelous. There's something to be said for movies doing their best to emulate realistic dialogue, but sometimes we just want to sit back and hear people talk in a way that no one actually talks. We sit there and think "God, what a great line, I wish I could talk like that", and it's just comfortable to listen to. That is what is achieved here, every line is stylish, clever, funny, and true all at the same time. Rather than distance us from the movie like some filmmakers would use this to do, it actually works very well with what seems to be the core conflict of the movie, which is that no one is as cool as they think they are, or as cool as they appear. In everyday life, Brooke is quick-witted, ambitious, and funny as hell, but in important or key moments, suddenly her wit has left her. She can't seem to find the words to say the things that need to be said, and because of this, ultimately fails to achieve all her empty ambitions. Once words give way to action, we find that all the stylish talk was simply that, talk. Brooke is as taken with her own persona as Tracy is, and like Tracy, she wants to be the woman that she presents to the world. 

This is the second part of Mistress America that I think a lot of people can also relate to, the eternal struggle of actually being as happy, smart, successful, and cool as you present yourself to be. It can be very easy to impress people with the right words and a well-timed phone call with someone cool, but when people begin to expect you to follow through with these claims, panic can set in. Like Brooke during her key pitch, very suddenly and very worryingly, we have nothing to show. The flashy presentation and the witticisms all give way to a person that's just as afraid as everyone else. Brooke's charm morphs into something else over the course of the film because of this. She's still cool and funny, but it becomes more concerning once we see her trying to live in the real world. There's a line written by Tracy in the film, which sums up this feeling completely: "Her youth had died and she was dragging around the decaying carcass". Brooke hasn't grown up. She's living the life of a 20 year old with the confidence and experience of a 30 year old, she's playing a character and trying to be on everyone's side at the same time, hoping people don't notice. What once made her seem cool now makes her seem desperate and out of touch, trying her hardest to impress people younger than her, because everyone her age has settled down and can't stand the way she acts. It's a balancing act between responsibility and ambition, and in the end Brooke ultimately can't keep it up. She ends the movie by leaving for LA, a place where she hopes to find some new people to impress for a bit while she tries her hardest to actually follow through on her plans this time. It's a very bittersweet bite of reality for both Brooke and Tracy, but even in the end both characters have enough charm to them that what is a sad moment for them isn't necessarily one for us. It's simply a logical end to their character arcs, a time that they'll both hopefully use to grow, and something that we as the viewer can hopefully learn from.

All in all, I loved this movie much more than I expected. As I mentioned, the dialogue and directing were both done so well that it's simply designed to be entertaining. I've both heard and read that Frances Ha is an even better done version of the movie (same director, same writers, and with Greta in the role of main character this time), so I look forward to watching that. For now, I've already got Mistress America in my Amazon cart, because I think it's going to turn into the kind of movie that I can watch over and over, for whatever various reasons I need to at the time. Mistress America is an experience, one that will leave you better off than where you started. 

Favorite Films of 2017

Untitled-3.png

Year-end lists are a pretty self-indulgent thing, assuming that people are suddenly going to care about your opinions if you put them in the form of a numbered list. But so is being meta and self-depreciating, so instead of going through all that mess, I'll just say that 2017 had a lot of incredible movies, and I basically just wanted a chance to write a little bit about the ones I didn't directly review. Let's get this clickbait list started.

 

10. John Wick: Chapter 2

john-wick-chapter-2-blood-oath-marker.jpeg

The original John Wick wasn't something that people saw coming. Out of nowhere, Keanu Reeves was once again starring in one of the greatest action films of the decade, if not the greatest, in a role specifically hand-crafted just for him. The gunplay, the mythos, the style, it was all absolutely brilliant, and it came back with a vengeance in John Wick: Chapter 2. The set pieces are larger, the fight scenes are more intense, the lore of the world of hitmen that Wick lives in becomes even deeper, and Jon Wick himself is better than ever. Reeves and his co-stars trained even more extensively for this film than the original, and it really shows. Everything is dialed up to 11 in what is just simply an action film that deeply understands what makes action films great. Chapter 3 is already hotly anticipated, and if it pulls off what the first two films have been able to pull off, the John Wick trilogy will end up in the annals of action film history as one of the greatest trilogies ever produced.

 

9. Logan

logan-hugh-jackman-images.jpg

When people talk about the greatest superhero films ever made, The Dark Knight will always top everyone's list, and perhaps rightfully so. But I hope that history is kind to Logan, because I think that it's a contender for the top. The characters of Wolverine and Professor X have a nearly 20 year long cinematic history, and Jackman and Stewart bring everything they have to their final on-screen appearances as these characters, bringing a humanness to the mutants that we truly have never seen before. The success of Deadpool is probably to thank for Fox allowing a final Wolverine film to be rated R, and thank god, because it allowed the character to be treated with a maturity that it never had before. Logan is a deeply tragic movie, and it has it's share of action sure, but at it's core it is about a man who has lived too long, done too much wrong, and finally finds something that can truly being about his redemption. This is the Logan that the world needed to see in 2017, and I am truly thankful that this movie got made.

 

8. Wind River

wind-river-still-4_30559155864_o-1200x520.jpg

Taylor Sheridan has definitively made a name for himself in Hollywood, with 2015's Sicario and 2016's Hell or High Water both getting Oscar nods, a surprising achievement for such a new face. With his directorial debut Wind River, Sheridan finishes off his informally named "Frontier Trilogy" in style. This may be his darkest film yet, spending most of the film establishing a slow burn, building the mystery and suspense until, in an insanely well-constructed climactic scene, the tension skyrockets and the horror sets in as our heroes face the evils that men commit. Renner and Olsen do a great job as the main characters, and as usual the writing is top notch. Sheridan stumbles just a little in his directorial debut, but he's clearly learned a lot watching the directors of his previous two movies, and I can tell you that Sheridan's name on a movie will always be enough to get me into the theater.

 

7. Baby Driver

babydriver-anselelgort-toycar.jpg

Baby Driver is an absolute blast from beginning to end. It even begins with one of the greatest car chases ever put on film, in one of the best scenes period of this year. It's created with love, made by movie lovers, for movie lovers. It's ridiculous, it's fun, it's crazy, it's dramatic, it's got everything. I've seen it 5 times and no doubt will watch it again and again. Watching gunfights synched up with music will never, ever get old. Edgar Wright has created in Baby Driver a film that the directors of tomorrow will no doubt be ripping off, being inspired by, paying homage to, and mentioning in interviews. It's one of the most successful completely original movies of the year (i.e., not based on a book, part of a franchise, or a sequel), and rightfully so. Baby Driver understands why people go to the movies, to be transported to another world where the right song always plays at the right moment, the snappy one-liners are perfectly timed, and you always, always get the girl at the end.

 

6. Mother!

Somehow Darren Aronofsky, most well known for the waking nightmare that is Requiem For a Dream, has in mother! created his most polarizing, controversial, and abstract film yet. Part biblical allegory, part fever dream, the film is a completely unrelenting assault on the senses, growing more and more difficult to reconcile with a logical view of reality as it progresses. A lot of the underlying plot can be understood through a general knowledge of the Bible, but the experience of watching mother! is not one that can easily be quantified or captured. It is above all else an experience, less concerned with straightforward narrative or strict rules of reality, than with manipulating the viewer and taking them on an incredibly harrowing journey. Aronofskyis at his most technically skillful here as well, with the actual film-making being near perfect, with every shot being exactly what it should be, showing the audience nothing more than he wants them to see at any given moment. mother! is a film that I will always defend, despite some of the critics intense dislike of it.

 

5. The Shape of water

shape3.jpg

The very premise of Shape of Water is enough to put off people I'm sure, Del Toro usually isn't one for easy to swallow plots. But at it's core, beneath the fairy tale sci-fi aspect, beneath the Cold War-era setting, this is a story of a woman who the world sees as broken, finally finding love in someone (or something?) that values her for who she is. It's something that speaks to a lot of people, despite the fact that most people watching this won't be able to relate to Elisa's exact experience. Having a main character that is a mute is actually one of my favorite things about this movie, as it's something that to my knowledge I actually haven't seen before, and Sally Hawkins brings an incredible passion to the character. Watching her sign frantically to her neighbor as she attempts to convince him to help her rescue the creature was a moving experience, as was the entire film. A strange fairy tale to be sure, but at it's core, a story of the unwanted desiring the love that the rest of society seems to take for granted.

 

4. Dunkirk

20391254_BB-13658MSGCC.jpg

Dunkirk is a perfect example of what you can create once you have the trust of mainstream audiences. It is no doubt the biggest film of the past several years that has gotten away with being so abstract. The way it plays with time is thrilling, something not immediately obvious from the beginning of the movie, but as it continues forward, and the audience sees events begin to overlap and repeat, it becomes obvious that something odd is going on. It's so insanely creative as an approach to what could have been a straightforward war movie. I suppose it's something that we should expect from Nolan at this point, he always has had an obsession with time, either in terms of editing or as the actual plot. Memento, Inception, and Interstellar all play with time in very unique ways, so Dunkirk doing the same just shows that he clearly knows what he's doing. Combined with the brilliant ticking-clock soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, this is a taught, crowd-pleasing thriller that simultaneously experiements with how we view and understand time. Nolan is a director that will be studied in schools no doubt, and I believe Dunkirk will grow to become one of his best loved films.

 

3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-movie-.png

Three Billboards is a movie I already wrote extensively about, but I really can't give it enough praise. McDonagh's usual stylistic cynicism turns more serious in this film, and it's definitely for the better. There are plenty of laughs to be had, but they're darker, more introspective laughs than even his other films contained. Three Billboards is a movie about America, about the hatred that we all foster within our hearts, and about the brokenness that we're trying to hide with that hatred. Fear, distrust, violence, all of it stems from a deep hurt that we hide inside of ourselves, and Frances McDormand embodies all of it in what I hope to be her second Oscar-winning lead role. The dramatic chops that she and Sam Rockwell bring to their roles are what give the film it's weight and it's urgency, and though it carries a message that will most likely not reach most people, for me at least it's given me something to think about on nights where I lay wondering what's wrong with some of the people I encounter. Perhaps we are all Mildred Hayes, a woman with a fragile heart that must be protected at all costs by the walls of bitterness and animosity that she has erected around it.

2. Lady Bird

lady-bird-190917-1.jpg

Lady Bird is a movie that I saw advertised, but honestly did not plan on going to see. Movies like this come out semi-often, and though it looked nice, it wasn't in my list of "movies to see immediately". Once the positive reviews began to flood in though, I made up my mind that I should at least see what the fuss was about. What I got was a movie that was simultaneously hyper-specific, and widely relevant at the same time. How could the experiences of a teenage girl in Sacramento be so relate-able to me? It's all in the script, the framing, the wonderful performance by Saoirse Ronan as the titular character. Lady Bird delivers something tender, something so personal and understandable, something that anyone who has been a teenager (and some of us who still feel like we are) can relate to. It's hard to put into so few words the number of moments that I felt a connection to, but this is a movie all about relationships with other people, and how it's never as easy or as fun as movies really try and make it seem. We say things we regret, we get caught in lies, we abandon our friends, we don't say things that we should have. We're all broken people attempting to seem whole. The sooner we all realize that and learn to accept and understand each others flaws, the sooner we can form real connections. This is the central message of Lady Bird to me, and it's something that I think everyone can benefit from understanding.

 

1. Blade Runner 2049

blade-runner-2049-ryan-gosling1.jpg

Blade Runner 2049 has it all. Roger Deakins (hopefully) oscar winning cinematography, Denis Villeneuve's expert visual style, Ryan Gosling's brilliant performance as K, a mind-blowing cyberpunk setting grounded in one of the most influential sci-fi films of all time, and a humanistic message at it's core that reaches out and grabs you, and refuses to let go. I've been anxiously anticipating the blu-ray release of this just so I can watch it again as soon as possible, because god, what an experience this was for me. I had high expectations going into the theater, and even then all of them were exceeded. There are so many ways that a Blade Runner sequel could have been ruined, but the film that we got instead of all of those, is an absolute masterpiece. A message about the hopelessness of our generation, wrapped in a genre thriller that you could almost take any single shot from and frame it on a wall. It is a beautiful movie, with flaws no doubt, but so much of it succeeds where it had no right to, and for that I am forever grateful. Blade Runner 2049 is 100% my favorite movie of the year, and I cannot wait to watch it again very soon.

Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder is one of my favorite movies, and in my mind, genuinely one of the best movies ever made. Bong Joon-Ho, the mind behind Snowpiercer and The Host, has a style and driving philosophy that synchs up perfectly with how I feel about film. Each of his movies has some genre that it tackles, be it a monster movie, a post-apocalyptic survival thriller, or in this case, a police procedural. At their core though, each of his movies is about people. These broad genres are used only as ways to explore the human psyche, to see what truly makes up a person. In Memories of Murder, we find him at his best, directing an absolutely riveting mystery following a series of murders that really took place in South Korea in the late 80s that even on the surface level is an incredible film. But at it's heart, it is a story of people, how they react to tragedy, to helplessness, to frustration, to failure, and most of all, to each other.

As the movie starts, we're led into the murder investigation almost immediately, as Bong chooses to establish his characters not through unnecessary looks into their home lives, but through how they exist around these murders. Detective Park (played by Song Kang-ho, perhaps South Korea's finest working actor) lives and works in this small town, and is used to doing things his way, dealing with relatively small crimes and beating confessions out of whoever he thinks looks guilty. As the murders begin, this is the approach he takes, latching onto any clue he can find and running with it, regardless of whether or not it makes sense. This part of Park is a bit difficult for me to unravel, as the film continues we see that he truly does care about his job, and he cares about solving these crimes, but the methods that he uses are usually counter-productive to these efforts. After the second murder, a Detective Seo from Seoul is called in to help out Park and the small town police department in order to solve these murders as quickly as possible. He is the antithesis of Park, who is driven by instinct and rushes things along, while Seo is analytical, thorough, and driven by logic. They serve as perfect foils for each other, clashing at every given opportunity as each attempts to use his own methodology to solve these crimes. This kind of setup is a familiar one, but as the murders progress, these clear distinctions between the two begin to fade. They both gain a desperation that they didn't have before, as the body count begins to increase the barriers and defenses that each have begin to break down. What begins as a rivalry between logic and instinct becomes a desperate, frantic cooperation between two men who at their core, don't want to see anyone else die. Every single death strips away a bit more of each man's pride, and robs him of his faith in humanity and himself. 

Every time it rains, the killer kills again, which lends this inevitability and sense of impending doom to every scene. At one point Seo has something of a breakdown, knowing that the rain is coming and that they still have nothing but barely connected circumstantial evidence that is leading them to no particular person at all. They know there's a killer, they know when he's going to kill, they know the type of woman he looks for, but they still can't save anyone. On this and multiple levels, Memories of Murder is compared to Zodiac, David Fincher's 2007 thriller about a very similar topic. It is an excellent movie, which Bong Joon-Ho himself has said he loves, but where the two differ I believe is in the scale of time. Zodiac takes place over numerous years, and while there is a desperation to solving this crime, it is not at the same level as Memories of Murder. In Memories, the murders happen literally within weeks of each other, and as long as he is not caught, the killer will act again.  Trying to solve a crime like this is trying enough already, especially in the late 80s with limited technology, but trying to solve a crime where you have almost nothing to go on, and you know for a fact that in a week there will be another body, that is something that no human being can shoulder the responsibility of for long. Detective Seo loses all composure towards the end, and violently attacks the man that he believes to be the killer, mirroring the tactics that detective Park has since thrown away in favor of being careful and thorough. Each man abandons the methods he believed to be valid, because he no longer has faith in himself. Women continue to die no matter how good they think they are, and because of this, they must find something else to do.

So much of this dynamic succeeds because of the way that the movie is shot. In the film, there are many long shots that incorporate every actor in the scene, which lets them work together and really helps the feeling of cooperation between them. Instead of constant single shots to show a conversation, Bong stages the actors so that all sides can be shown in frame at once, opting to move the actors instead of the camera when different people join or leave the scene, and he frequently does so in unique ways (someone being drop-kicked out of frame, for example). As I said, this really helps with the atmosphere that the film creates, making every conflict, every realization, every tragedy an experience shared by the entire cast. Instead of showing how every character feels individually, we see them all as it happens, reacting to things together. It's so wonderful to see a movie made with such incredible skill, with such perfect framing and composition. This is why I love movies, this is why film is such an exciting medium. The exact same moment can be shown to the audience in so many different ways, and the way that it is shown can matter almost more than what we're being shown. This movie would be so much worse without these shots in it. The story, acting, music, everything else could be amazing, but with generic or simply good-but-unremarkable framing, it wouldn't have the lasting impact that it does. Film is a visual medium above all, and Bong Joon-Ho is a visionary director who realizes and understands this with every single frame, every single shot, every single camera movement.

There are so many specific elements of this film that could be touched upon, all done so masterfully and with so much care, but to wrap things up, I think the final scene needs to be mentioned. The real killings that Memories is based on were never solved, and as such they were never solved in the film either. Inconclusive DNA evidence was the strongest lead that the detectives had, and after it failed them, they essentially had nothing to go on, and the killings stopped. The final scene of the movie finds us moving to modern times, 2003 to be exact, where detective Park has become a family man now. 15 years have passed, and he has a wife and two teenage children, and has quit his job as a detective to become a salesman for some kitchen product. Because of his job, he coincidentally finds himself going back to his hometown, and he decides to visit the scene of the first murder. While he is there reminiscing, a young girl walks by, and tells him that a man was also there recently, who said that "he did something here a long time ago". Park asks the girl what the man looked like, and she fails to describe him in any meaningful way. The shot then puts him center frame, and he turns his head to stare desperately into the lens at the audience (pictured above). This final moment has so much power to me, I get emotional just thinking about it. Years have gone by, over a decade has passed since the killings, and Park has moved on to a family, a new career, an entirely new life. But still he is haunted. His failure to find the killer is a part of him, his desperation and pain are still within him, as raw and as real as they have ever been. As I said above, Song Kang-ho is perhaps South Korea's finest actor, and it is in this moment that his incredible performance comes to a head. It is so difficult to convey the weight of this scene with a still image, the deep, personal pain reflected in Park's eyes and movements always stay with me. The entire emotional weight of the entire film, all of the failures and false hopes, the missed chances, the ruined evidence, the deaths, all of it is boiled down to this single, final shot, and held perfectly in the bottomless pain found in detective Park's eyes.

 

A Ghost Story

hero_Ghost-Story-2017.jpg

I sincerely regret not seeing A Ghost Story while it was in theaters. I mistook it, as I think a lot of people did, for something trying to be a bare bones horror story, which I wasn't interested at all in seeing. Only months later did I stumble across a page for this movie and see the cast, and begin to be interested. Rooney Mara has been showcasing her talent in recent years fairly well, and I've always been a great fan of Casey Affleck's, so if for the cast alone I became interested. Now that I've seen it, I truly am sad that I missed out on the theater experience. Going to a movie theater, for me at least, is a chance to isolate oneself, to shut out every distraction, to concentrate everything on only the movie, so that you may get a fuller experience. A Ghost Story is the kind of movie that benefits greatly from a viewer's full concentration.

Among other things, the first thing that anyone will notice about A Ghost Story is it's numerous bold artistic choices, principle among them being the frame that accompanies the entire movie. It's narrower than normal widescreen, with odd rounded edges, as if every moment is an old-timey picture. I think that this is an intentional comparison, as it gives the film a difficult to describe nostalgic feeling, as if we're watching something painfully familiar, a memory that lingers in the back of our minds. This aspect ratio, along with the soft lighting, gives the movie it's ethereal atmosphere that helps fuel the rest of the film. Numerous long takes are another tool used by the director here. Not the technically impressive sort of show-offy long takes that we sometimes love to gawk at, but very uncomfortable ones. Minutes are spent watching M (Rooney Mara's character, who we only know by her first initial) sitting on the floor eating a pie as she silently cries, with the ghost of her husband watching the entire time, unmoving and out of focus. It lends a vulnerability and honesty to the film, and gives an uncompromising look at the pain infused in every frame. It holds you and doesn't let go, it doesn't give you the relief of looking away from the raw hurt, you're forced to face it and deal with it. It gives you time to process exactly what you're watching and time to understand the realness of it. This also ties into the fluidity of time the film, and how even a single take can seem to take place over a several day, week, or month long period. The titular ghost wanders through the home as life takes place around him. He simply watches, observes his wife deal with her grief, live her life, and eventually move on. Time passes in leaps and bounds, seasons change, people come and go, even the landscape itself changes, but the ghost remains.

The ghost is perhaps the most unique component of this movie, one that has a chance to completely polarize viewers. Casey Affleck spends about 90% of the movie underneath a bedsheet, with only two perpetually black eye holes in it. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the movie to me, how a viewer approaches such a character, one that rarely displays emotion, has no real dialogue to speak of, and barely even has a face to emote with. We tend to project our own feelings onto such a character, or maybe it's in their very subtle actions that one can truly read emotion. Perhaps it is the blankness of the ghost's face which is what we're supposed to be seeing here, the hollowness of grief and how it wordlessly follows us wherever we go. The ghost is driven by obsession, decades after his object of affection has left. His feelings have surely faded, but all he knows of himself anymore is his desire, his obsession, his pointless search for closure. Depression, pain, hopelessness, all expressed in a blank slate of a face, two bottomless black wells where eyes should be. 

A Ghost Story is the kind of movie that's sure to frustrate some. There are many that prefer the films they watch to have real stories, to have solidified characters, plot lines, etc. I think this is completely fair, and although I disagree with this assessment, there are plenty of people that find movies like A Ghost Story to be pretentious and far too meandering to be of any merit. People who dislike this movie are completely entitled to their opinion, because movies like this aren't meant for everyone. Since Last Year at Marienbad, dreamlike, ethereal movies without concrete plot structures have polarized critics and audiences alike, because different people simply want different things from the movies they want. However, I think that as an artistic endeavor, as a movie-going experience, A Ghost Story excels in what it attempts to do. It may not be the first film to express the ideas that it does, but it tackles them with a unique enough way that I feel it has more than justified it's existence and it's merit.