Review Round-Up: February 2

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Happy Groundhog Day, everyone! 

...Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

It’s a pretty sparse week, release-wise. The next two weeks, what with Fifty Shades and Black Panther coming up, promise to produce plenty of critical discourse. But here’s what critics are saying about a batch of this weekend’s few releases:

Good Time (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)

If you’re in Chicago, you can catch this film for another week at The Music Box. The only review you need to read is Sarah’s, here at The Cinessential, which crafts a particularly vivid portrait of the film:

The world of 'Good Time' is so lived in and fully realized and populated, it felt like I could plunge my hands into the movie and pull out its guts with my fists. “World building” so often refers solely to fantasy and sci-fi, but it’s what the Safdie brothers have done here. The New York they explore is technically real, but it’s a version of the city that feels like it’s free-wheeling through space and time. City hospitals, empty amusement parks, and outdated apartments form the backdrop for a mess that unfurls over the course of what can’t be more than 36 hours or so, but what a beautiful mess the Safdies make it.

It’s supposed to be pretty damn good. I plan on catching it this weekend.

A Fantastic Woman (dir. Sebastián Lelio)

Chile’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year is a melodrama about a transgender woman that—get this—stars a transgender actress (Daniela Vega) in the lead. This surprising innovation is singled out for praise over at Slate:

The entertainment industry’s habit of casting cisgender actors in transgender roles—some of them, like Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor, giving performances that are exceptionally fine—has gone hand in glove with its near-monolithic focus on stories of transition. Focusing the camera on Vega, an openly trans actress (apparently Chile’s first), allows 'A Fantastic Woman' to tell a different, richer kind of story and allows us to process the subtleties of her performance without always having to evaluate the success of the underlying transformation.

It isn’t the only reason the film’s getting high marks, though. David Ehrlich of Indiewire praises director Sebastían Lelio, who manages to be strike notes of authenticity even while quoting melodrama auteurs known for their use of stylization and artifice: 

Second only to Pablo Larraín among Chile’s most popular emerging filmmakers, the young Lelio has already established himself as a compassionate chronicler of marginalized women (Paulina García won Best Actress at the 2013 Berlinale for her role as an aging divorcée in Lelio’s 'Gloria'). He deepens that sense of empathy here, unpacking a drama that resists the heightened sensationalism of genre and remains sobering even as it cribs a number of highly stylized elements from the likes of Fassbinder and Almodóvar.

There is a note of reserve in much of the praise, however—the consensus would seem to be that A Fantastic Woman is not quite a masterpiece, but it is a step forward in the representation of transgender individuals. Indiewire gives the film a B+; The AV Club only a B. Good marks, but not great ones.

The main dissenting voice is Anthony Lane at the New Yorker, who goes after the film a bit harder—but contrarian disdain is his bread and butter, after all. To his credit, his critique seems well-grounded: morally, the film is impeccable, he writes, but dramatically, it is obvious, predictable, somewhat wooden. The problems extend to the main character, Marina, who lacks the kind of impenetrability that make characters interesting:

Fans of Lelio will recall the eponymous heroine of 'Gloria,' his memorable film of 2014. She was a divorced woman in her fifties who hung out in singles bars, saw too little of her children, and woke up on a beach, alone, after a heavy night. Something about Gloria evaded our grasp, whereas Marina feels all too solidly present and, despite the defiant poise of Vega’s performance, oddly bereft of moral ambiguity. Her conversations tend to be the opposite of quick-fire, with the characters pausing for a while—or an eternity—before responding, just to make quite sure that we get the point.

It’s not hard to imagine that the film’s drama seems a bit on-the-nose at parts; but then, isn’t that just the melodramatic mode? In Fassbinders’ films, an apparent reference point for Lelio, characters often express their feelings and motivations with Brechtian directness, and oppression is always depicted in heightened eruptions of emotion or violence. Perhaps, though, Lelio doesn’t quite strike the right balance of authentic affect and melodramatic style. Fassbinder, too, sometimes missed that mark.

24 Frames (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

This is the final film by late director Abbas Kiarostami, an experimental film that, rather than assembling moving images into a story, contemplates 24 discrete still images. (24 frames per second is the standard frame-rate for movie-making.) Each still image, over the course of its four minutes onscreen, is gradually brought to life through digital animation. For Godfrey Cheshire at, the effect is “as delightful as it is surprising.” The film invites the imagination of the viewer: the experience of watching the film is “curiously dual”:

It’s very easy to be swept along by the cleverly playful visual patterns and evolving quasi-storylines. Yet at the same time, I suspect that every viewer will simultaneously (re)make the movie in his or her own mind by providing a wealth of personal thoughts and associations. Among the many that I flashed on were: the early films of the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Melies; the discrete worlds of Joseph Cornell’s boxes; experimental works by filmmakers ranging from Maya Deren to Stan Brakhage; a host of early animated films leading and including the masterpieces of Walt Disney; the valedictory purity of Kurosawa’s 'Dreams.'

Cheshire likens the film to an array of modernist art, but a more immediate reference point for me would be the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky loved to point his camera at paintings, especially religious and medieval ones, in films like Andrei Rublev (1966), The Mirror (1975), and The Sacrifice (1986). These films, like Kiarostami’s new film, were also very interested in time and the relationship between how the cinema represents it and how the mind perceives it. Other filmmakers it calls to mind are classic experimental directors like Chris Marker, who composed a narrative sci-fi film out of still images with La Jetée (1962), and Michael Snow, best known for his decidedly un-human-centric, slow-moving experimental films Wavelength (1967).  

Manhola Dargis at the New York Times does not agree with Cheshire’s unambiguously admiring take on the film. True, she has a soft spot for it 24 Frames being the last we’ll have from Kiarostami—but she doesn’t seem to be able to get into it:

'24 Frames' can’t help but be affecting because it is Kiarostami’s final movie. But it’s intellectually uninvolving, and its technical limitations prove frustrating. In a few shots, snow or rain falls, for instance, on the same left-to-right diagonal, creating a distracting pattern that suggests the software wasn’t altered for each photograph. This synthetic quality may be an intentional imitation of life; certainly it’s obvious that Kiarostami was thinking a great deal about cinema.

From the descriptions, the film seems most suited for university film theory courses—but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Your level of intellectual involvement may depend on how interested you are in the question of how time, the moving image, and human affect relate to each other.