Thursday, October 20, 2016

Certain Women (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Kelly Reichardt


I've worried that I don't possess the kind of patience a viewer may need to sit through a Kelly Reichardt film. It's not that her films are bad or even boring. They always contain a level of humanity uncommon in most films. She seems to really care about the people she creates. Take for instance the women of Certain Women, a film based on stories from the author Maile Meloy. Laura (Laura Dern) is a jaded lawyer with a very disgruntled client (Jared Harris). Gina (Michelle Williams) is a headstrong wife and mother, who's quest to build the perfect authentic home puts her at odds with her supportive husband (James Le Gros) and her angsty teenage daughter (Sara Rodier). Lastly, Jamie (Lily Gladstone) is an isolated ranch hand herding horses who finds some enchantment in her life when she meets a young law student (Kristen Stewart) who commutes weekly from out of town to teach middle aged teachers the legal dynamics of the classroom. These three women make up the definitive thirds of Reichardt's film, their stories all taking place around the barren, snowy towns and countries of Montana. Reichardt loves the kind of mood that comes with silence, and there are few places more silent than Montana. This is her third collaboration with Williams, and I think the best. Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff felt too much like an experiment, it was too dependent on the abstract. In a way, that's all there was. Certain Women takes more advantage of its cast, realizes the strength of building characters through performance. This is pretty easily my favorite of the Reichardt films I've seen (I'll admit that I actually fell asleep during Meek's Cutoff), and its collection of performances - specifically from its three leading actresses - are such a wondrous combination of beautiful, funny and heartbreaking. They're real portrayals of real women seeking virtue, validation and love.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Aquarius (***)

Written and Directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho


A film like Aquarius - a patient, thoughtful film that takes on a wide variety of themes including gentrification, mortality and gender - is something to be cherished. Is it perhaps too long? Definitely. Kleber Mendonca Filho's second feature meanders on long passages all in the attempt at mood. He wants you to truly feel the effects of age, of time passing, of life escaping. Veteran Brazilian actress Sonia Braga plays Clara, Aquarius' protagonist. Clara is a woman who has consumed a lot: education, culture, life experience. She had the benefit of being well-to-do in a part of Brazil where poverty is rampant, but she used her privilege to live a cosmopolitan life of passion, and the trials she's experienced has done work only toward strengthening her resolve. She's too old, too experienced to be contradicted or patronized. She won't allow it. The wide scope of life that has formed this woman is the center of Mendonca Filho's film. Her late-life crusade against a rising culture that wishes to squelch the tradition that has been such a large part of her life - and her survival - is a journey rich with symbolism and expression. She's not the only person who is correct, but she is the most correct, and that conviction drives her into a tense showdown against those who thought she'd be easy to push aside.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Girl on the Train (*)

Directed by Tate Taylor


Paula Hawkins' novel The Girl on the Train is the kind of not-very-good pulp fiction that is capable of making a very good movie. The book was packaged as a sort of further reading suggestion for fans of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but it's not nearly as sarcastic or cruel. Any irony for the absurdity that is Hawkins' book would have to be inferred; I rolled my eyes quite a bit working through it. Director Tate Taylor treats Girl on the Train like its the work of John le Carré, and he directs the film adaptation as if he's homaging Hitchcock. The Girl on the Train didn't need the David Fincher treatment, it needed the Douglas Sirk treatment. It needed a filmmaker that noticed that a sincere portrayal of this narrative could be nothing less than totally bonkers. It certainly didn't need the Tate Taylor treatment. The Hollywood director can't seem to decide if he's making a bone-chilling thriller or a psychosexual melodrama. It manages to achieve both a removed chilliness and a ridiculous over-the-top-ness, and neither effect is executed properly. Taylor can handle the moral certitude of a film like The Help, but he's coming to pieces here trying to arrange the complicated mess of sex, ethics and gender trouble being thrown around in this film. Girl on the Train is striving desperately for that tricky balance of sensuality and terror, but it doesn't have the guts to be as crazy as, say, Fatal Attraction, and it doesn't even have the decency to be legitimately shocking.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (**1/2)

The Birth of a Nation
Written, Produced and Directed by Nate Parker


Nat Turner is a historical figure that too little has been made of. Actor Nate Parker has decided to give him the biopic treatment. In The Birth of a Nation, Parker is taking a man who's claim to fame is leading a bloody slave revolt and attempting to make his story palatable to the masses. He ties the violence of Turner's movement in with Turner's wide-ranging spirituality. Turner sees white slave masters using the Bible and the word of God as a weapon against dehumanized slaves, and he's able to snatch that weapon and turn it on them, if only for a short while. The revolt he led was only 48 hours long, but Parker's film is much more ambitious in the scope of story. It values context and build-up, and longs to show you that Turner was more than just a bloodthirsty man seeking vengeance, but also a strong, God-fearing, obedient man worn down by the inhumanities of slavery. Parker's film is unafraid to show these atrocities in their most explicit form. He's seeking visceral reactions, and getting them. For his first feature, Parker definitely has guts, and he's smart enough as a storyteller to link the horrid details of the past with troubling details from the present. But for all its striking imagery, The Birth of a Nation still buckles under the weight of being a complete film, like a cause without a strict message.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Denial (**)

Directed by Mick Jackson


Director Mick Jackson has produced a lot of work for television, and that makes a lot of sense when you watch a film like Denial. I don't mean to denigrate television - lord knows we are not in need of further shots fired in the never-ending TV v. cinema debate - but Jackson's direction of a complex story like Denial feels too tidy, too averse to nuance and internalization. The film is based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory College professor who specializes in fighting against Holocaust deniers. Following a public confrontation with incendiary historian and known Holocaust denier David Irving, Lipstadt was then sued by Irving and faced with the frighteningly scary prospect of losing a public trial to a man who uses the facts of history as pawns in his own ludicrous retellings. The film's screenplay is written by the famed English playwright David Hare, and he is obviously capable of crafting strong sequences, supplied with ample opportunities for the right actors to succeed. Denial has the right actors, I believe, and the film has good performances from end to end. I'm just not sure this is the right director.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Other People (***)

Written and Directed by Chris Kelly


Other People is the kind of Sundance-y tragicomedy that has the capacity to really produce a heavy duty eye-roll from me, but Chris Kelly (a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live and Broad City) does deliver some pretty tremendous stuff here in his first feature film. His script is autobiographical, with actor Jesse Plemons playing David, a comedy writer from NYC who moves back to Sacramento to live with his parents while his mother Joanne (a dynamite Molly Shannon) deals with cancer. David's father, Norman (Bradley Whitford), is a well-meaning but straight-laced conservative who has never truly accepted David's homosexuality, and while David spends a year trying to help his sick mother, he must also cope with the erosion of a five year relationship with his boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods) and the tumultuous downward slope of his professional career. Kelly writes for television mostly, and there are times when Other People seems to try too hard to fit its complicated emotions into simple sitcom comedic tropes. The film works best when it entrenches itself deeply into its emotional core, embracing its crippling tale of mortality. The performances from Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon are outstanding, the two actors perfectly illustrating a mother-son relationship that has only been strengthened by past turmoil. David as a character is struggling with his own issues, and is subsequently bogged down by a guilt that comes with thinking of yourself when others are in pain. Joanne is dealing with her own approaching death, and that piercing balance of worrying about yourself versus worrying about those who care about you. Other People is obviously enriched by personal experience, but it helps to have as strong a performance as you get here from the two lead actors. A Sundance weepy Other People sure is, but it doesn't mean there isn't a terrific film in there, even if its only in spurts.

Monday, September 12, 2016

White Girl (*1/2)

Written and Directed by Elizabeth Wood


One cannot make the claim that Elizabeth Wood's White Girl puts on any airs. Even its direct title puts an image in the audience's mind of a certain kind of person. Leah, the film's protagonist played with shocking fearlessness by Moran Saylor, is a Oklahoma girl going to school in New York City. After her freshman year, she moves to Ridgewood with her friend Katie (India Menuez), where she purposely ingratiates herself with a young Hispanic man named Blue (Brian Marc) who sells drugs across the street. Leah's courtship of Blue enables both her issues with impulse control and her need for drugs. Leah pushes Blue to make more money as a drug dealer, to move beyond the Brooklyn small time and make the real money in Manhattan. This is a quick and dangerous shift for Blue, and before long, he ends up arrested. The lengths that Leah goes to get Blue a proper lawyer and out of prison takes up a majority of the film. Perhaps its Leah's guilt that brings her to be so committed to Blue's freedom, or maybe it's love. It's hard to tell because writer/director Elizabeth Wood has given us no information in this regard. So many pages are left blank and what we're left with mostly are scenes of graphic sex and copious drug use. Is White Girl meant to be the tale of the numerous women chewed up and spit out by New York City? Is Leah a victim? Are we meant to be sympathetic to her predicament? Wood wants us to figure this out for ourselves, but unfortunately that leaves us with little other than tolerating a teenaged hedonist with seemingly little regard or intelligence for those around her.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Light Between Oceans (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Derek Cianfrance


Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans is probably too long. It's probably too dependent on overwrought emotion, manipulating its audience with tight close-ups of its beautiful cast crying with forlorn pain. But the film reached me. It reached me deep in the depths of my soul - right where it was aiming for. Its relentlessness in its tragedy, its document of time's toll on life, love and the human spirit, is both beautifully constructed and tirelessly maudlin. Cianfrance likes to take his time with these kinds of things. His 2010 masterpiece, Blue Valentine, was a devastating portrayal of how time and circumstance can wear down even a passionate love. His 2013 follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, was an uneven triptych about the lingering, generational effect of an act of violence. His films are about people entrapped by time, and its unstoppable cycle of joy and suffering. The Light Between Oceans is so deliberate about how its tells its story, very specific about how long it will take to make its points. If we live long enough, we are all confronted with tragedy, but if we live long enough still, we can still manage to find grace, or whatever peace may present itself until tragedy arrives again. His latest film is filled with people trying to escape their torment, or escape their guilt, only to find the task much harder than initially imagined.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Don't Breathe (***)

Directed by Fede Alvarez


The emergence of the prestige horror film this decade has allowed very strong filmmakers to work within a genre that's cheap, prolific and comes with a guaranteed audience. Sam Raimi gave Uruguayan director his commercial breakthrough when he pegged him to direct the 2013 reboot of his Evil Dead franchise. Don't Breathe is Alvarez's follow-up, a brutal suspense thriller with a claustrophobic premise that rattles its audience till its final conclusion. After The Witch and Green Room, Don't Breathe is yet another 2016 horror film that has managed to be both a box office hit (#1 in its opening week, with over $26 million) and a critical darling. But Don't Breathe is the only film of the three to have a strict following of the horror film template, and not aspiring to an art house esteem. My agnosticism towards the horror genre aside, Don't Breathe carries itself with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. The film and its characters engage in such a horrid, violent game composed of the most complex, unforeseen angles of morality and ethics. Alvarez's film works because of its chamber drama-like setup, but a good couple of lead performances helps a lot.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Morris From America (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Chad Hartigan


It never really seems like Morris From America has enough story to fill out its 91 minutes. It's a unique take on the coming-of-age tale, but it never really puts itself into any unique territory. Newcomer Markees Christmas plays the titular Morris, a thirteen-year-old African American who moves to Germany with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson), a soccer coach who's gotten a professional assistant position overseas. Morris' mother has passed and Curtis hopes that the new setting will give Morris - a rap-obsessed loner alienated by his peer group - some perspective of the world as he grows up. Few of the other teenagers take to Morris, who still has trouble picking up the language. He takes lessons with a young student-teacher, Inka (Carla Juri), but otherwise has no acquaintances let alone friends. At a local youth center, Morris meets Katrin (Lina Keller), a beautiful blonde who is the only one who seems to pay any attention to him. Katrin is gorgeous, friendly, and actually takes time to listen to Morris about his interests. Very quickly, Morris falls in love and the young man finds himself sucked into the vortex of infatuation, following Katrin into a totally different, occasionally dangerous social circle.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hell or High Water (****)

Directed by David Mackenzie


Taylor Sheridan's screenplay for Hell or High Water is amongst the most masterful depictions of a specific, decaying American culture I've seen in a while. It's right up there with No Country for Old Men and The Last Picture Show in terms of resonance and execution. Like those other two films, Hell or High Water takes place in Texas, that hulking sprawl of a state that has come to represent so much of the rest of the country, both commendable and repellent. Sheridan's story has odes to Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde as well as another Coen Brothers film, Fargo, in that its simultaneous obsession and horror at the sight of senseless American crime and violence is showcased as a pendant of this country's society. The speed to which things can turn tragic and deadly in America is matched only by the incessant cycle in which these crimes continue to happen. Hell or High Water is a brilliant document to the very people who stand against it while also helping to perpetuate it. The people who stand for justice and peace, but by their actions enact blood and brimstone. Directed by David Mackenzie, Sheridan's script becomes an epic fable about family, brotherhood, mortality and morality. Backed by a trio of incredible performances, Mackenzie crafts this story with Steinbeck-ian scope, commenting on everything from the cemented racism at the heart of American culture to the crippling power that banks hold over the poor, reinforcing an ever-widening class system enabled by a wealthy few who have no interest in economic balance. Gun violence, predatory loans - the housing crisis, all things so synonymous with the infrastructure of contemporary United States - all manage to make a cameo in this film, and yet Sheridan's script never gets lost in its own ideas, with a tight story about two criminal brothers and the grey dog trooper bent on catching them before they settle the big score.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings (***)

Directed by Travis Knight


If Pixar has stood out amongst animation studios for its unmatched critical and commercial success, than Laika has also stood out, for its dogged dedication to the labor-intensive art of stop-motion animation. Travis Knight has been the lead animator at Laika since 2005, and has been instrumental in the studios recent boost, producing Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. The studio's latest release, Kubo and the Two Strings is Knight's directorial debut. The film, which borrows heavily from various mythologies interwoven through Japanese culture is able to produce quite a mythical quality. It's also probably their first film to truly attempt the kind of heart-wrenching sentimentality of Pixar. Laika has always stood out to me for its courage to embrace the more grotesque nature of animation. They took the aesthetic of Tim Burton and really expounded on it, didn't allow themselves to get boxed into their own style the way Burton has. The unfortunate fact that Kubo's Japanese characters are almost exclusively voiced by white actors slacks at the film's credibility as a true homage, but Knight fills the film with such wondrously beautiful images. The disconnect between head and heart here is apparent, but Knight knows how to craft a well-made film, and Kubo is amongst the best animated films I've managed to see this year.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Little Men (***1/2)

Directed by Ira Sachs


Ira Sachs' last two films are such a beautiful distillation of everyday life, a peep into the domestic sides of New York City living that is both poignant and direct. 2014's Love is Strange was a wonderful drama about getting old, being in love and overcoming the same prejudices over and over again. His latest film, Little Men, is about two teenagers, growing up in residential Brooklyn, who become unlikely friends. The pair of young actors that Sachs was able to find here is the film's key. Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri show a stunning alacrity for displaying youthful enthusiasm, arrogance, even at times real true sadness. The loneliness of adolescence is oppressive at times, as your world view becomes less solipsistic and more aware of the realities of life and what you'll face. It's a godsend if you're able to find another who can help you understand this challenging period. Little Men is about that moment when you find that one friend who can help you cope with growing up, and how the realities of adult life will always manage to get in the way of the struggles of children. In Love is Strange and now Little Men, Sachs takes a deep dive into the uncomfortable minutia of maturity, responsibility and family, and comes out with a film that has a sense of humor about its own form of tragedy. These lived-in stories have a refreshing tone compared to most films about New York, and with Little Men, Sachs continues to show that he is an exceptional storyteller.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jason Bourne (**1/2)

Directed by Paul Greengrass


The Bourne franchise isn't nearly as intelligent as it thinks it is. It's suggestion of commentary on our political climate is shallow at best, but that's okay. The original Bourne trilogy was the perfect action series for George W. Bush America, exploring our frustrations and paranoia about our government's competence. It was tapping into a feeling without saying anything truly interesting about it. At its core, these films are about as escapist as a Transformers film, but even if the films aren't exactly as sophisticated as they pose themselves, they are backed by strong screenplays (the first three had strong contribution from the great Tony Gilroy) and they at least tell the story of a very intelligent, sophisticated protagonist. Jason Bourne, and Matt Damon's portrayal of him, is one of the miracles of studio filmmaking this century. It's hard to think of another movie star who could have played this preposterous character so sincerely and yet make it work. The Bourne Identity was directed by Doug Liman, but since then, all of Damon's Bourne films have been directed by Paul Greengrass (the Jeremy Renner-starring The Bourne Legacy was actually directed by Gilroy, himself; he has not come around for this latest film). Greengrass has a style that suggests cinema-verité, heavy on steadicam and smash cutting. Greengrass likes films with political bent, and he's succeeded with United 93 and Captain Phillips, which both managed to translate documentary-style narrative storytelling into commercial and critical success. And yet, I think his Bourne films are the best thing that he's ever done. Is it possible that his true calling is as a smash em' up action director? Jason Bourne certainly proves that to me, and with Damon returning to star, one of my favorite film franchises gets an entertaining boost.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Don't Think Twice (***)

Written and Directed by Mike Birbiglia


Mike Birbiglia's transformation from cult favorite stand-up comic to filmmaker makes a little bit more sense than Louis CK's. Birbiglia's comedy was always more story-oriented, more of a one-man show than a traditional comedy set. Louis CK's brilliance is in his inertness, and his show, Louie, was always at its best (though certainly not at its funniest) when we really dove into the chaos of his mind. Birbiglia isn't as cerebral a storyteller, but his storytelling interests have a broader appeal. He's not knocking around in his own mind, he's exploring the lives of other people. Unlike CK, he doesn't really have to be brilliant to be entertaining, and his second feature film, Don't Think Twice, is probably one of the better examples of a comedian executing the Woody Allen model. One part autobiography, some parts romance, another part funny. When Woody is at his best, he explores religious and philosophical topics with great alacrity, but when he's simply making a fun film (like Love and Death or Sweet and Lowdown), he comes up with something that looks a lot like Don't Think Twice. The film deals with a comedy improv group called The Commune, a New York City collection of comics all locked into the death stare of their thirties, looking hopelessly for a way toward success while also continuing to put on a seriously funny show. The characters within Don't Think Twice are a very familiar New York City figure, and Birbiglia's film is a melancholy ode to the artists who have the talent but not the luck or the breaks. More than anything, his film is a mature dissection of human relationships, the complications that often come up between friends and loved ones, when the paths of our lives don't always go in the same direction.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Podcast: Is 'Coming to America' Better Than Jurassic Park?

In the latest episode of the podcast, we talk about the Eddie Murphy classic Coming to America, with our goof friend Milly Tamarez. Travel with us to Zamunda, and then to Queens, NY, and then to Scott's apartment which is where we recorded this. Easier still, just listen to this episode where we discuss Coming to America's influence on black culture and comedy, as well as Milly's impromptu trashing of recent Best Picture winner Spotlight. It's a goodie!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Cafe Society (*)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


Woody Allen has finally achieved a complete separation between his films and reality, and his films now only exist in that ulterior universe. To the degree that Woody Allen movies are bad, they're usually bad in relation to his other films. And even his few critical and commercial hits this century, like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, only work in that same relative way. His entire catalogue is a mirror onto itself. The New Yorker's elite prolific filmmaking style (essentially a movie every year since 1969) has left many of his fans weary since his last great films from the 90's. Themes are long past being reused, the stories he's telling have been chewed and digested by him so many times, what's left is a bland paste, too familiar and too lifeless to spell any entertainment. It's possible that Woody has made a worse film than Cafe Society. There are so many of them, and it's easy to forget the more pointless ones. But I can't recall a Woody Allen film that gave me more scene-by-scene aggravation. Not a single scene in this film goes anywhere exciting, and even when it tries to, it gets bogged down in the same conversation pieces all his films get bogged down in. The actors are so locked into Woody-esque performance art, the cadence of the dialogue dictating their movements and emotions. Everything was too staged, too comfortably moving where the screenplay's themes wanted it to go. Woody's films used to have these kinds of performances and the characters still managed to feel like real people. At the very least, they used to feel like people we wanted to be. Today's Woody Allen is still sidelined by the ideas of romance, the tempestuous nature of human relationships, but he has no new avenues with which to explore these ideas.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ghostbusters (***)

Directed by Paul Feig


Grounded in the shockingly politicized release of Paul Feig's remake of Ghostbusters is this cold truth: we didn't need a remake of Ghostbusters. That said, we also didn't need a remake of Point Break, Annie and we CERTAINLY didn't need a third iteration of the character Spider-Man in less than a decade. Studios have spent most of this millennium going all-in on remakes and sequels, putting little trust in original content, so to the degree to which we do want to see a remake of an old, beloved film, why not mix it up? Why not take the all-male cast and make it all-female? Of all the remakes in all the world that we have sat through for over a decade now, why is Paul Feig's Ghostbusters the one that has brought on the most ire from gate-keeping superfans who wish to keep their favorite movie pure? Now is the time that they decide to become righteous about commercial regurgitation? The year-long campaign against this film has puzzled me from the beginning, not only because the gender dynamics behind it are nauseating, but mostly because the concept of a comedy about chasing ghosts being sacred is incredibly silly. Any prestige that the 1984 Ghostbusters film had was undone by Ghostbusters II five years later, not by this remake over twenty years later. So, with that out of the way, we are now allowed to talk about the film itself, which is funny in a very broad, inclusive way and still manages to be clever with its humor. It's self-awareness is used as a crutch at times, but with the talent of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, whether or not the film is funny should not be up for debate. Especially considering that Paul Feig is behind the camera, a director who has excelled in allowing women to be funny entirely on their own terms.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Captain Fantastic (***)

Written and Directed by Matt Ross


The most foolish aspect of the early-decade McConaissance (which inexplicably ended with the Academy giving him an Oscar for the vapid, polarizing Dallas Buyers Club), was that everything we were drooling over - the earthy carnality, the steely piercing eyes, the unapologetic manliness - was present in Viggo Mortenson all along. Only Mortenson was a better version; more handsome, more manly, and a more unique actor. Mortenson's run through the Aughts was a brilliantly selective and varied display of a wonderful screen actor testing the limits of his capabilities, and rising to the challenge nearly every time. The stoic heroism of his Lord of the Rings performances, contrasted by his work with Cronenberg in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, was a range unseen from most of the big-name actors at the time. We haven't seen too much of Mortenson this decade, which makes his lead role in Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic that much more exciting. Here he plays Ben Cash, a severe survivalist raising six children off-the-grid in the American wilderness. Ben is a brilliant critical thinker, in peak physical condition, who lives a demanding lifestyle with near-impossible moral standards, and he holds his children - who range in age from the teenaged Bodevan (George MacKay) to the pre-school age Nai (Charlie Shotwell) - to those same standards. Every day they have boot camp-level endurance training, and they only eat what they themselves can catch, kill and collect. Their home in the depths of the woods is secluded from civilization, but Ben still makes sure his children are educated, taking the burden of teaching them himself. They're fed a syllabus of Marx, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and Jared Diamond (*shrugs*). They're bred to believe in their anti-capitalist utopia in the woods, in their intellectual superiority and their physical supremacy. Their unorthodox life is an extraordinary experiment, a testament to the effects of active parenting, with all its graces and warts on display.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor (***)

Directed by Susanna White


The literature of John le Carré has long been a favorite of film studios. His stories of espionage and betrayal are always ripe with character and complex plotlines that weave together brilliantly, almost too conveniently, for cinema. 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was perhaps the best of the bunch, though 2014's A Most Wanted Man (starring a Philip Seymour Hoffman just before his tragic death) is no slouch either. Those two films elevated the work of le Carré from Hollywood pulp to rarified drama. Susanna White's Our Kind of Traitor is much closer to the earlier adaptations of the crime novelist, more populist less intellectual. It has the aide of a screenplay by Hossein Amini, a master screenwriter who specializes in these kind of thriller novel adaptations. Traitor's screenplay simply doesn't have the scope and complexity of Tinker Tailor, nor does it carry the topical gravitas of A Most Wanted Man, but what Amini and White construct here is still much more interesting than most Hollywood suspense films. Its story is traditional but detailed, and while its thematic heft is slight, it still carries with it a true understanding of the situations and institutions that it displays. It's story is a bit of a Hitchcockian construct: a random act of fate slates an innocent man into a web of dangerous men, where he must cooperate within a ethically mercurial world in order to survive. The results are a bit more sophisticated than you might initially think.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Neon Demon (*1/2)

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


The first thirty minutes of Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film, The Neon Demon, really is marvelous. It presents a haunting but colorful universe, filled with beautiful but sinister people. Even the manager at the run down hotel is played by Keanu Reeves! This is the Danish filmmaker's first film since his 2013 debacle Only God Forgives, and these two films seem to suggest that he no longer has the stamina to follow through on a complete story. The plot in The Neon Demon is already incredibly slight, so how on Earth does Refn allow it to spiral out of control the way he does? And how long before we all get tired of it? The film begins with a truly glorious opening credits sequences that sets it up to be a kind of diabolical Douglas Sirk reincarnation, but like most things it alludes to, The Neon Demon doesn't seem very interested in committing to any one allusion, any one theme, even at times, any one character. Is this a overly gory psychological drama or a boring thriller? The movie's so confused, it's hard to even tell how it's failing. For Demon, Refn is returning to the winding roads of Los Angeles, for the first time since his masterpiece Drive. In Drive, LA was just dressing, a city-wide set piece where he moved all his pieces, but Demon seems to actually be about LA, its sadistic subcultures and grotesque figures - particularly in the world of female modeling. Demon doesn't give you much in the way of commentary on this seedy underbelly, and how can it? Refn cannot allow his film to become satire on an image-conscious culture when Refn is the most image-conscious filmmaker working right now. To comment on unfair beauty standards would be a self-sacrifice, it'd be adding condemnation to a surface-level society that Refn himself loves so much to perpetuate. So instead, Refn's camera floats through its action, attempting some form of objectivity which he probably achieves but to what end? With all the deplorable behavior in this film, is objectivity really the tone that Refn should be striking?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (***1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Taika Waititi

Movies as delightful and unique as Hunt for the Wilderpeople are rarer than you might think. It may seem so simple: a young man comes of age while surviving in the woods with a crotchety old man. We've seen this story before, but it takes two talented actors and an equally spirited filmmaker to make it really work. New Zealand director Taika Waititi is up to the challenge. His feature films have all came out in this decade and this is already his third. In his native country, he's already directed the nation's highest grossing films, with his uncanny ability to blend off-the-wall humor and true poignancy. His previous film, What We Do In The Shadows (starring Waititi with Jemaine Clement), was a mockumentary about vampires, a quirky comedy that became a surprise modest hit in the US. Wilderpeople is his follow-up (and, I must admit, the first of his that I've actually seen), and it is a continuation of his gift for oddball comedy. The buddy film stares an unlikely pair: veteran actor Sam Neill and pre-teen New Zealander Julian Dennison, as an odd couple roughing it out in the woods after being sent on the run first by child services and then by the New Zealand government at large. If the premise feels absurd, it kind of is, but Waititi uses this to his advantage, infusing the film with the kind of energy it needs to keep up with the zany plot. But the film's biggest surprise perhaps is the uncanny chemisty between Neill and Dennison, a terrific pairing of grizzled experience and blunt naiveté, the two play off each other in such a funny, sweet way, it turns the film from run-of-the-mill to shockingly endearing. It really is the best comedy pairing I've seen so far this year, and likely to be for the rest of 2016.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Weiner-Dog (**)

Written and Directed by Todd Solondz


This is the Todd Solondz we know so well. Where the return of Welcome to the Dollhouse's Dawn Wiener would come packaged haphazardly within an aimless anthology film titled Wiener-Dog. The film is four stories, connected by a nameless dachshund who patters throughout the lives of various depressed people, and what we're left with is another Solondz meditation on white upper-class ennui. After his two-film punch in the 90's of Dollhouse and his 1998 masterwork Happiness, it's seemed like Solondz is struggling to keep the train moving. These diabolical comedies where innocents are taken advantage of and where humanity is displayed as one life-long regret can grow stale, even if Solondz is still able to cobble together solid performances from his ensembles. The various homes that this dachshund resides in includes the aforementioned Dawn Wiener (played now by Greta Gerwig), a veterinary assistant who snatches the dog before its put down; a jaded rich couple (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) who get the dog for their son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who is in cancer remission; a failed screenwriter turned curmudgeonly college film professor (Danny DeVito); and a recalcitrant grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) receiving visits from her wayward granddaughter (Zosia Mamet). Solondz tries to weave these tales into something coherent, and each story has a moment where it seems like something substantial is being translated, but overall Wiener-Dog ends up feeling shabby and without much purpose. There are cheaper ways to tell an audience that life is meaningless and sad. The laughs we get (and we do get legitimate laughs) often come at the expense of the mentally handicapped, racial stereotypes and more than anything else the dog itself. Not a single race or person ever comes off looking particularly good in Solondz's films, but at least the white people get full lines and something close to a character arc. The performances from DeVito, Delpy and Burstyn are all fantastic, but they feel like they're from completely different films, conveying completely different feelings, and the sum ends up feeling hollow. Gerwig gives one of those indie performances she's known to give where she seems to think that getting dressed in wardrobe is all she has to do. A charming "intermission" gets some laughs, but to what end?  The Solondz of Happiness is a thing of the past, and there are newer, better directors who understand how to put forth that somber reality of existence that he used to be so expert at. If life is so cruel, why are we made to keep looking at this adorable dog?

Monday, July 4, 2016

New Podcast: Is 'Independence Day' Better Than 'Jurassic Park'?

Celebrate the holiday with a new Is It Better Than Jurassic Park? episode. We're talking about the 1996 Independence Day! What's the dumbest part? Is President Whitmore a good president? We discuss ALL this and more! But most importantly, we decide if ID4 is better than Jurassic Park. It has to happen eventually, right?

Independence Day: Resurgence (*)

Directed by Roland Emmerich


Roland Emmerich has destroyed the world on so many occasions, and in such a wide scope of ways, that it's hard to remember just how groundbreaking his 1996 film Independence Day really was. Hollywood had been pumping out disaster films for decades, but it was Roland Emmerich who taught us just what a true Hollywood disaster was. No landmark too sacred, no skyscraper too high; Independence Day took actual aim and blew it all to smithereens. Twenty years later, we're getting a sequel we never needed. The very concept of continuing these storylines runs against the spirit of the original film, which made it quite clear that there was no real way that humans could handle the threat of the alien invaders on their own. Independence Day took on that scrappy American enthusiasm of the mid-90's and spun it into an international mantra of us against them, and had the gaul to think that humans would defeat these incredibly advanced beings with their cunning. Its all completely preposterous, and the film probably balances that line between stupidity and sincerity better than any large-scale action movie ever made. Resurgence, the bloated sequel we've been saddled with, has all the stupidity and none of the sincerity, nearly all of the preposterousness and none of the charisma. One thing the script to the first Independence Day knew was that characters had to be strong. Nearly all the major characters from the first film have returned, all twenty years older, all seeming to do karaoke versions of the people they'd once played. And Resurgence supplies us with a crop of new, younger characters, all of which are resolutely terrible, unable to even cobble a glimpse of the charm of Will Smith (who's noticeably absent this time around) or Jeff Goldblum or Bill Pullman, let alone match it. What we're left with is a mess of a film, that takes its audience's intelligence for a sack of beans when characters use phrases like "fusion drive" and "moon milk". And yet, is it still possible that I had fun?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

My Love, Don't Cross That River (***)

Directed by Jin Mo-young


Jin Mo-young's My Love, Don't Cross That River is heartbreaking weepy of a documentary, a film about the final moments of a 76-year marriage. It's testament to the power of love, and the endurance of love, is indescribably beautiful. South Korean couple Jo Byeong-man and Kang Kye-yeol met when Kang was just fourteen years old. Arranged, the marriage continued on through twelve children, with six of them dying as children. Jin Mo-young's film covers the final year they live together as Jo's health disintegrates quickly. As Kang faces leaving the man she loves, the reality hits hard, not only for her but for their children and grandchildren. The film is sparse, is comprised almost exclusively from scenes in their modest village home, with their two dogs, Freebie and Kiddie. And yet, we can feel the history between these two beings, and we can feel the immense tragedy that they've had to overcome and will still have to overcome. For a couple in such an advanced age, their active, playful lifestyles are wonderfully charming. Jo's irascible prankster behavior blends fluidly into Kang's dry sense of humor. You can tell that this is a routine they've lived through for several decades. The two are beloved by their family, treated like gods on Earth, but they take the praise with modest smiles, Jo hardly able to hear anything. But they still dance, they still sing with one another, and never cease an opportunity for a snow ball fight. The film's third act is where My Love, Don't Cross That River crosses over into tearjerker territory. You can feel the pain in its purest sense as Jo's health goes South and quickly, but Jin's camera lingers so absolutely, leaving the audience no escape from Kang's tears. This film obviously has struck a chord with its homeland. At this time, its the most commercially successful documentary in Korean film history. There's a lot here, whether your Korean or otherwise, to identify with. The longer one lives, the more one leaves themselves open to moments of heartbreak and tragedy. My Love, Don't Cross That River is a film about two people who have faced that heartbreak and tragedy with great aplomb, a tremendous, inspirational display the endures even through the director's harping on their sadness.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Podcast: Is 'Good Will Hunting' Better Than Jurassic Park?

So.... Scott tried to fire me from the podcast after our last episode, but that didn't stop me from hopping right back on board as this episode's guest to defend the wonderful merits of 90's comfort food film Good Will Hunting. Bad accents, creepy Stellan Skarsgaard, and Minnie Driver love galore but is Good Will Hunting better than Jurassic Park? More importantly, do I get my job as co-host back?

Finding Dory (***)

Directed by Andrew Stanton


Pixar's masterful run through the Aughts began with Andrew Stanton's Finding Nemo, which managed to capture the pitch-perfect blend of wit and heart of the first two Toy Story films but put it on a much bigger scale. Nemo was a colossal hit, and sparked one of the greatest runs any studio had ever had, capped by 2008's WALL-E, which was also directed by Stanton, and which also may be the studio's true masterpiece. Stanton's venture into live action filmmaking was 2012's John Carter, a film that is so synonymous with monolithic failure that all anyone pretty much knows about it is the title and the fact that they haven't seen it. So now Stanton returns to Nemo, or more accurately, to Finding Dory, a not-quite-sequel-or-spin-off that reunites all of the principle characters and gives Pixar-loving patrons a new heart-wrenching tale that will keep the kids happy. Pixar's stronghold on substantial animated features has dwindled over the last few years; Dreamworks, Sony and their parent company Walt Disney, have for all intents and purposes caught up in terms of quality animation and filmmaking. And yet, they never really seem to capture that Pixar feeling, and by that I mean that we get swayed by the wonderful displays of female empowerment in Frozen or the striking parallels to racism and the drug war in Zootopia, but these films lack the poignancy and the saccharine nature of Pixar. They are on one side the most manipulative of all the major Hollywood film studios, but is it possible that they're also the most existential? What are kids getting out of the threat of gluttonous consumerism in WALL-E or the death meditation at the heart of Up? They're getting the heartbreaking joy, the emotional roller coaster, the awesome, exhausting back and forth between comedy and tragedy that comes with a Pixar film. Last year's Inside Out proved they still had their fastball, and Finding Dory shows that even when retreading old material, they can still keep up with the new kids on the block.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Podcast: Is 'The Shining' Better Than 'Jurassic Park'?

We got a special episode this time. We have Grant DeArmitt and and Robert Puncher from the wonderful Conspiracize Me! podcast. They've joined us to talk about The Shining, and decide if it's better than the great Jurassic Park. Is it? No conspiracy here! Listen and find out.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Podcast: Is 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' Better Than 'Jurassic Park'?

Neeeeeeeeeew episode of the our podcast Is It Better Than Jurassic Park? Olivia Z. returns as guest to tell us all about one of her favorite movies, the first of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. We talk about Elijah Wood's O-face, Viggo Mortenson's fuck-me-eyes, and just how much Gandalf looks like Olivia's dad. But is it better than Jurassic Park? We'll see!

The Nice Guys (***)

Directed by Shane Black


There are few screenwriter success stories that are passed around more than the tale of Shane Black. The man who wrote Lethal Weapon and gained himself a reputation as one of the most dependable scribes of the 90's, his specialty being the tight action film strapped with a heightened humor - all his films had that Shane Black feeling. Things evolved in the 2000's when he started directing his own material, and 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was not only one of the most hilariously biting noirs in years, but it was also the original stepping stone that led to the rebirth and deification of Robert Downey Jr. soon after, when he strapped on the Iron Man suit three years later. Downey Jr. repaid Black by getting him the director's chair for Iron Man 3, a film that decided to get deconstructive and sabotage a decade's worth of franchise building. I, for one, enjoyed what Black was doing with Iron Man, but it left a lot of comic book fans very grumpy, and in the world where 12 Avengers films are a foregone conclusion, Iron Man 3 has been politely exorcised from the canon. His latest film is The Nice Guys, a buddy detective comedy that is a spiritual sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Both films involve an odd couple (with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang it was Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, now it's Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling), and both films involve a warm embrace between the nuts and bolts of film noir and the broad strokes of action comedy. This is the place where Shane Black resides, a corner that is sparsely populated: the comic-noir. Not only is nobody as good at it as him, nobody else is even trying. His films can be complicated with dense characters, but still manage to be light entertainment; containing loads of violence, you never seem compelled to avert your eyes. Black is a unique Hollywood mainstay, and The Nice Guys is a terrific addition to his resume.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Love & Friendship (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Whit Stillman


"Facts are such horrid things!" cries Lady Susan, the main focus of Whit Stillman's latest film, Love & Friendship, and it's a statement that captures so truly the obtuse, ridiculous nature of this woman. The film is based on a Jane Austen novella which wasn't published until decades after her death. Gone is the striking nobility of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice; the prudent judgment of Sense and Sensibility's Elinor is nowhere to be seen. In Lady Susan, we're privy to disdain, egotism, diabolical calculation; nothing like the usual heroines of Austen's literary works. Stillman was obviously charmed by the naughtier aspects that Lady Susan provides, so much so that he took Austen's work and expanded upon it for the film's screenplay (Stillman even collaborated with Little, Brown to write a novelization of his expansion, which was released earlier in the month, running concurrently with the release of the film). I guess now is as good a time as any to admit that I've never seen any of Stillman's previous films, but regardless, Love & Friendship is a wonderfully affected period piece, a film both cheerily aware of its silliness while still having the patience to do justice to its densely-packed narrative. Like all great Austen works, the story is a sarcastic cultural commentary, denigrating the foundations of a society that values women for little more than what they can provide for men. But Love & Friendship is a rarity, a film that showcases the exploits of a woman who seems to encourage the very society that Austen enjoyed so much to tear down. Not that Lady Susan is built up as the story's hero. Quite the contrary, as the film proceeds, the list of enemies that Lady Susan accrues grows and grows, but it's a testament to Stillman and his main star, Kate Beckinsale, that Lady Susan is a fascinating woman to behold, one of the most unique Austen creations I've ever seen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Lobster (****)

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos


Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is one of the most unique storytellers in cinema. His films are tense, funny alternative realities, with sarcastic views of human torment. His 2009 film Dogtooth is one of the most upsetting films that I've ever seen, and it's a testament to Lanthimos and the cast of that film that it still manages to be a brilliant dissection of unnatural human behavior. His latest movie, The Lobster, is his first English-language film, and it stars an international cast of Hollywood actors. Compared to Dogtooth, it has the levity of a Gary Marshall film, but for the many who may be introduced to Lanthimos with The Lobster, they'll get a strikingly funny film, with a number of disturbing moments. It's a marvelous film about the tyranny of love over the human race, the entrapment of society's disdain for lonely people, and the power of passion to overcome daunting odds. The film premiered a year ago at the Cannes Film Festival, and spent 2015 screening internationally at several festivals stacking rave receptions across the globe. Why A24 chose late Spring to unleash this audacious film is unknown. Not that time of year matters, The Lobster is a ingenious movie no matter what the season is. It takes place in a dystopian reality, where only couples are allowed to live in The City, while single people are sent to live in The Hotel. At The Hotel, if these single people are unable to find a mate in forty-five days, they are then transformed into an animal. People have been whittled down into muted, lustless beings who struggle through monotone conversations and live in a constant tension of inferiority. It's not just a stigma to be single, it's a crime.

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Bigger Splash (**1/2)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino


Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino doesn't mind embracing stereotypes of Italian sensuality, embracing themes of sex and passion with a no-holds-barred approach, and casting actors who are sure to be up to the task of stripping down and making that same embrace. His latest film, A Bigger Splash, has such a splendid sense of mischief, a nose for scoping out sex in the innermost center of its characters. At one moment, a character played by Dakota Johnson decries that she is cursed to "fall in love with every beautiful thing", while a character played by Matthias Schoenaerts responds to her that the affliction must be paralyzing. Here are two young beautiful actors in Johnson and Schoenaerts, and Guadagnino shows no apparent shame in filling his frames only with performers who can fill the quota of beauty. This isn't to say that love does not exist in the Italian filmmaker's universes; it does, but it is always undone by illicit longing. His 2009 film, I Am Love, was a masterful portrayal of a woman (played by Tilda Swinton) undone by a lustful act with a younger man. Human beings are always having sex with people they shouldn't, and Guadagnino is fascinated by this phenomenon. A Bigger Splash takes a magnifying glass to the kind of pain and distrust that is born out of the sexual composure of those without barriers. The characters are filled with demons that they refuse to face, instead pooling their emotions in physical embrace, in nudity, in the seductive landscapes of Southern Italy. They walk through vistas with sun-kissed skin, and Guadagnino's camera focuses so completely not only on their beauty but their unadulterated, pulsating inner turmoil. Films about sex are not usually this bare. A Bigger Splash is not shy or modest. It accepts drugs and rock n' roll and that other pesky thing that always completes the trilogy.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Meddler (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Lorene Scafaria


What a wonderful film The Meddler is. A bittersweet comedy about love, grief and the type of agonizing familial relationships that fill you with guilt and dread. Susan Sarandon stars as Marnie, a Brooklynite widow living in Los Angeles to be close to her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). A year after her husband, and Lori's father, has passed, Marnie still struggles to fill the hours of the day. Despite her aimless activity, Marnie is filled with a generous - at times overbearing - spirit, and pools all her attention on Lori, who's going through her own form of grief, trying to recover from a devastating break-up with Jacob (Jason Ritter), a rising actor who left her for a younger woman. Marnie is persistent in her need to help her troubled, unmarried daughter. Lori works as a screenwriter, and her current job on a television pilot adds another layer of stress that isn't helped by Marnie's constant presence. Even when Marnie isn't around she calls incessantly, leaving long, babbling voicemails with detailed tales of her day. Lori cannot handle it, the lack of boundaries forcing her to be stern, even hurtful to her well-meaning mother. For Marnie, all of life seems fine to those around her. She gets along with everyone, including a Apple Store Genius Bar employee named Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), and one of Lori's close friends Jillian (Cecily Strong). She doesn't find it strange to offer to give rides to Freddy so he can get to night school after work. What does she have to do that she can't help the young man out? She doesn't think twice about offering to pay for Jillian's proper wedding. Her late husband has left her with so much money, why not use it to help others who could use it? As Lori distances herself more and more from her grieving mother, Marnie finds startling ways to fill the void of the family that she's lost.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Podcast: Is 'Last Action Hero' Better Than 'Jurassic Park'?

We got a NEW episode of Is It Better Than Jurassic Park?! Gary Burns returns to chat with Scott and I to discuss another one of his childhood favorites, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero. This is definitely one of the most underrated Schwarzenegger films, but is it better than Jurassic Park? Listen and find out!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Green Room (**)

Written and Directed by Jeremy Saulnier


If you were lucky enough to see Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin in 2014, then you had the pleasure to catch one of the more captivating thrillers of that year; a film that had a refreshing, direct approach to violence and suspense. His follow-up, Green Room, is a much more standard genre piece, a brooding gore-fest with a much more recognizable cast. In one corner, you have the punk band The Ain't Rights, four broke, pretentious rockers touring the South by the skin of their teeth, siphoning gas from other cars when need be. In the other corner, we have a malicious group of white supremacists who happen to be running and populating the Ain't Rights' latest venue. When their bass player, Pat (Anton Yelchin), witnesses something he shouldn't have, the whole band is held in a terrifying hostage situation in the venue's green room, along with a young punk girl named Amber (Imogen Poots) who is the only one in the room familiar with these radicals' capabilities. Things get more intense when the club's owner - and movement leader - Darcy (Patrick Stewart) arrives and puts into place a complicated plan to eliminate each band member without risking culpability. At Green Room's most sensational, the film works as a chamber drama within the green room, with frantic scheming happening on both sides of the wall. Macon Blair, the star of Blue Ruin, makes an appearance in this film as well, as Gabe a Darcy confidante and worker at the venue, who is unsure of the actions of Darcy and his fellow Neo-Nazis. His moral dilemma is the closest thing the film comes to a heart, and Blair brings the same kind of hangdog sincerity, despite the absurdity of his character. Where Blue Ruin mixed aspects of noir with startling character study, Green Room seems only interested in carnage, and the violence in this film is much more creative and diabolical. It's a slasher film aspiring for the prestige of the Great American Indie. I'm not quite sure it gets there. Despite its simple premise, Saulnier's script is surprisingly dense, but it only makes the story more convoluted than necessary. Supporting performances from Alia Shawkat, Kai Lennox and Joe Cole are strong, but there isn't a whole lot a wit here. Just an extended sequence of extreme violence that adds up to little but cheap thrills, but Saulnier's version of cheap is still an interesting thing to watch.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Louder Than Bombs (***1/2)

Directed by Joachim Trier


Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier has already shown that he's an unmatched talent in film right now. His third feature, Louder Than Bombs, is his first one in English. A plot description might suggest a limp novel adaptation, a maudlin tale of tragedy befallen by manipulated emotions - a much too common occurrence when great foreign directors try their hand at American stories. Instead, what we get is the kind of devastatingly effective familial melodrama that too many American filmmakers fail to make these days. It's stark, melancholy attitude is backed up by heartbreaking performances and a script that has a novelist's eye for details. Like his first two magnificent films, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, the story's focus is minute, but its themes are expansive in a way that reflects the sadness of the human condition while maintaining that balance of honesty and romanticism that makes his films so wonderful. Transitioning from Norwegian to English (and from Oslo to New York), doesn't defang Trier; he still dwells in meditations of depression and loneliness, and Louder Than Bombs has a touching fondness for its characters' grief. In all three of his features, Trier explores sadness as an influential, sometimes even exhilarating experience. Creative people are undone by their inner turmoil, and Trier creates these universes where creation and tragedy work together in a cyclical enterprise that produces the beauty that humans depend on. That he's able to make these films while avoiding the cynical bleakness of his fellow Scandinavian filmmakers (like the infamous Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg) sets him apart. There is a value to humanity, but it doesn't mean we're all happy about it.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Demolition (**)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée


After Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée completes his trilogy of lost souls with his latest film, Demolition. Much like Wild, the film is a histrionic meditation on grief through the point-of-view of someone who mourns self-destructively. Vallée is working with Jake Gyllenhaal here, and for a filmmaker who seems to adore visceral visualization of emotion, Gyllenhaal seems like a perfect match. The 35-year-old actor has spent the last few years abandoning the concept of himself as a heartthrob, and revealing himself to be an incredibly immersive character actor. His performance here is strong, playing an exorbitantly wealthy finance man who's never worked hard for anything in his life who suddenly finds himself saddled with an array of unfamiliar feelings after the sudden, tragic death of his wife. Some may remember Gyllenhaal also starring in the 2002 film Moonlight Mile which pretty much had the same premise (in that film, it was a fiance that died). That film was sentimental - and was one of those early 00's indies that felt more like the director's Spotify playlist than a complete film. It took the usual course of action where these kinds of stories are concerned, containing a kind of mushy, heartfelt-ness that was a bit too sweet for the few who actually saw it. Both films concerned an ambivalent love upended by tragedy, but Demolition does not mince words about the behavior of its protagonist. It's hard to think of a more unlikeable character in which the audience is asked to expel so much empathy for.

Podcast: Is 'Chicago' Better Than Jurassic Park?

New podcast episode! We're talking about Chicago with Bill Magee. Our first musical. Is it better than Jurassic Park? Listen and find out. It's gotta happen sometime.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Krisha (****)

Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults


When's the last time an American filmmaker had as strong a debut film as Trey Edward Shults' Krisha? The movie is so confident, so breathtakingly beautiful, so vulnerable with its feelings and situations. Shults made the film with the help of family and friends (and a successful Kickstarter campaign) but this does not have the dollar-bill indie-ness of a Duplass brothers movie. No, Shults is actually audacious enough to make Krisha as cinematic as possible. The film is a chamber drama about family, addiction, regret and redemption; its pain is palpable and scathing. It's a tight but fluid hurricane of a film. The allusions to other filmmakers are there - amongst others, Paul Thomas Anderson and Ingmar Bergman are very present - and yet, Shults still manages to make this film so very much his own. Based on his one film, we can say that a great director has arrived, one who understands both the importance of strong narrative and visual composition. Starring mostly his friends and relatives (nearly all of the characters share the names of the actors who play them), Shults is fascinatingly blurring the lines between fiction and docudrama - the seeds of familial strife being exorcised by cinema. Crafting this steaming of a drama is difficult, and only works if the pain is acutely felt. The strain that family puts on you is real, and Krisha puts that strain on full display.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Podcast: Is 'The Terminal' Better Than Jurassic Park?

In the latest episode of Is It Better Than Jurassic Park? we get a visit from two drunken April fools, David Danby and Omar (ne Borney, neé Scott Volz), who sit down to decide if Steven Spielberg's The Terminal is better than Jurassic Park. The conversation quickly downturns into 9/11 conspiracies, how to pronounce the word "jaguar" and a handful of unkind things are said about Richard Gere. It's our most unlistenable episode yet.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Midnight Special (***)

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols


Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols' fourth feature. To this point, all of his films are deconstructions of the American South; part commentary, part appreciation. He dissects the region's virtues and prejudices, its insanities and its mythologies. They also all star Michael Shannon. They have these things in common, but still have their own pulsating independence from one another. Take Shelter is a shattering tale about a man's mental disintegration, a psychological thriller with biblical allusions and an alarming sense of empathy uncommon in that kind of story. Mud was a film shoved together in the public mind as part of 2013's McConnaissance, but it was actually a stunning Southern Gothic with an achingly sweet center - it managed to recall both Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor. Midnight Special is his most confounding film yet, and its his first venture into science fiction. Once again, Michael Shannon is on board. Shannon is such a strong screen presence - his ability to translate pain and torment with such effortlessness is matched by only few others in Hollywood. His fragmented film persona works perfectly with Nichols' tales of misplacement, of the South's perpetual discomfort with a rapidly modernizing world. Born in Arkansas, Nichols' has a warmth for this place and these people, and it shows in his films. He understands their behaviors and superstitions, and his ability to mold them into these wonderfully unique films is what makes him one of the most fascinating young filmmakers out there. Midnight Special tackles some familiar themes: religion, displacement, a creeping fear of outside threats and basic otherness. Nichols is experimenting with more complicated plot elements here, but at its heart, Midnight Special's story is simple. How far will a father go to protect his child?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Hello, My Name is Doris (***)

Directed by Michael Showalter


What a wonderfully sweet snack of a movie Hello, My Name is Doris turned out to be. Michael Showalter, of Wet Hot American Summer fame, gets behind the camera and directs only his second feature film, but gone is the absurdity of Summer and his cult television shows The State and Stella, and in its place is a wonderfully sincere and poignant tale of a spunky but troubled sexagenarian realizing that she can take control of her life for the first time. Her name is Doris Miller and she's played with pitch-perfect comedic timing by Sally Field. Doris is a long-time accountant at a quickly-modernizing New York City corporation; a union dinosaur quickly becoming surrounded by younger and younger co-workers. Doris' whole life was taking care of her unwell mother, but when her mother passes, she's left with a house cluttered with hoarded belongings and decades-old food. Her brother, Todd (Stephen Root), and his maddening wife (Wendi McLendon-Covey) want her to address her hoarding problem, clean up the home, and get it ready for sale so that way Todd can get his half of the inheritance. Doris cannot seem to keep her mind on her brother's request, though, because she has become fixated on her company's new hire, a California-transport named John Fremont (Max Greenfield) whose boyish handsomeness and all-around niceties makes him the immediate focus of Doris' complete infatuation. Doris' best friend, Roz (Tyne Daly), finds Doris' obsession with the decades-younger John unbecoming, but with the help of Roz's thirteen-year-old granddaughter, Vivian (Isabella Acres), Doris creates a fake Facebook account and friends John, allowing herself to keep tabs on all of John's likes, dislikes, passions and hatreds. She uses the fake account to reinvent herself as sixty-something year-old millennial, and finagling herself into becoming one of John's better friends in the office. But will she be able to win his heart?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Knight of Cups (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick


There's so much to like in Knight of Cups. It's got a great assortment of beautiful actors, caught up in another swirling cinematic ballet from Terrence Malick. Since his fifth film, The Tree of Life (a film meant to be his magnum opus and it rises to that expectation), Malick has gravitated more and more toward the abstract. 2013's To The Wonder was a sweet, melancholy companion piece with a much more reduced viewpoint and a surprisingly tender portrait of the whims of romance - it's also one of the few times that Malick crafted a female character (Olga Kurylenko's Marina) that wasn't simply a male fantasy of love and virility. If we're making Knight of Cups the third part of an unofficial trilogy, it fits in aesthetically, but not so much emotionally. It's an angrier film, much more subjective, a film that sees less grace in life. It's not a satire of Los Angeles, but it's certainly a commentary. It sees life in the film business as not really life at all, but a prolonged dream sequence fueled by excess in drugs, sex, power. This is the third collaboration between Malick and legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. These two artists have such a wonderful visual fusion together. Lubezki has made many films by many filmmakers look incredible, but its his work with Malick that really sticks out. Malick isn't interested in making Lubezki do endurance tests the way Cuarón and Iñárritu are, but instead taps into the Mexican cameraman's ability to craft blissful, fluid shots of human interaction. Knight of Cups is far from either Malick's or Lubezki's best work, but it's another example of their mastery of cinematic lyricism. Too bad the same can't be said of Malick's handle of narrative.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Podcast: Is 'Deadpool' Better Than Jurassic Park?

Hey guys, the latest episode of 'Is It Better Than Jurassic Park?' is up and we're talking about Deadpool with the Deadpool super-fan Conner Kennedy. As usual, there are definitely tangents, but not enough to derail the ultimate question: Is it better than JP?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Zootopia (***1/2)

Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush

Calling Zootopia a film for children is not inaccurate, but it skips a very important piece of information: the substance in this film's screenplay (written by co-director Jared Bush and Phil Johnston) is made for the adult audience. Everything from the thinly-veiled metaphors to the pop culture references will resinate stronger with the parents then they ever will with the kids. And yet, Zootopia totally works in both capacities. I can only think of one other instance in which such a perfect balance was achieved, and that was Pixar's The Incredibles in 2004. I'd claim that both of these films are actually films for adults wrapped in the kind of cutesy packaging that gets the kiddies into the theater. The Incredibles was a brilliant, stirring film about the dynamics of marriage and the truly American problem of handling your own heroism. Zootopia's view is a bit broader, less piercing in its dissection, more willing to play to the illusion of being a film constructed for children. It is so much more, though. The humanistic virtues that it espouses are not original and yet we find ourselves in a place where its themes of tolerance and multiculturalism are much needed for the whole country, if not just the younger ones.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

88th Academy Awards: Predictions: 'The Revenant' is Coming

There might be a repeat of Golden Globes
night on Oscar Sunday
You can hope and you can pray, but in the end, the inevitable comes to fruition. The Revenant has won the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Drama, it has won the BAFTA award for Best Film, and it has won the Director's Guild award. To not consider The Revenant the favorite to win the Oscar is to cling desperately to a reality that isn't quite there. The fact that there is such open speculation proves just how derisive The Revenant has been amongst audiences. You can read and you can hear about how much I simply hate the film, but considering that it's biggest competition is Adam McKay's tongue-in-cheek "issue" movie, The Big Short (which won the Producer's Guild Award), it's hard to see how Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest mixture of anguish and human spirituality doesn't win out. It's true, the Academy has never truly warmed to Iñárritu's more forceful style, but I think it's safe to say that that time has passed, considering that he not only won three Oscars last year for the more effervescent Birdman, but that they went ahead and gave Revenant TWELVE nominations (more than any other film). No director has ever won Best Director Oscars in back-to-back years. Does the feeling to avoid that even come across the voters' minds? Perhaps the opposite is true. Like I've said, it's hard to predict otherwise when all the preamble has made the outcome obvious. That's not to say that I've given up my hoping and praying. I'm truly wishing that I'm wrong here.

Larson is pulling away from her
Best Actress competition
The acting awards become a tad more interesting, though The Revenant has all but won Best Actor for it's ever-devoted lead, Leonardo DiCaprio. The Best Actor category is fraught with error, including two nominations (Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon) that are little more than industry thank-you's, two more (DiCaprio, Redmayne) that are just pandering Oscar bait, and one single performance that can truly be called exceptional (Michael Fassbender), which of course has close to no shot at winning. As for Best Actress, it's also probably all tied up for Brie Larson in Room, but I don't want to ignore just how good these five nominees are. I may be talked into Charlotte Rampling's phenomenal performance in 45 Years having a shot at a win if she didn't personally sabotage her campaign with a truly unfortunate public comment on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Jennifer Lawrence continues to rise above the growing cult of personality and give tremendous performances, and her work in Joy is just about the only thing worth watching in that maddeningly obtuse film. Saoirse Ronan gives the kind of performance in Brooklyn that makes you ponder the roads and alleys of a career; no longer is she simply the dependable child actor from Atonement, but a fully-formed performer capable of the kind of deceptively complex work that comes in Brooklyn. And lastly, there's Cate Blanchett, who's shown since Blue Jasmine that she is ready to grab the title of Best Actor on the Planet, and it's just a matter of the human race being humble enough to give it to her. Her work with Rooney Mara in Carol is stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking and most of all regal. Todd Haynes' film makes love to her character with the camera (no Best Picture/Best Director nominations for Carol are the only snubs that have true reasons for a gripe), and the audience is culpable. It's a staggering piece of work in a tremendous career.