Won't You Be My Neighbor?

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Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired for 30 years on PBS. Because of this extraordinary long run, we see many different versions of the show in the new documentary examining the life of its creator and star, Fred Rogers. The sets change, the video quality changes, we see versions in both color and black and white. Mr. Rogers also changes. We see him as a young man, an old man, and somewhere in between.

While watching the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I had an exuberant emotional response when I saw my version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood appear on the screen for the first time. I’m guessing most other audience members will have the same response, but at a different point in the show’s evolution, depending on when you watched it. For me, it was the early to mid-1980s. Mr. Rogers had a healthy dose of gray mixed with his dark hair; he was middle-aged on the cusp of becoming an old man. The quality of the show was the soft, warm analog fuzziness that comes with shooting things on video tape instead of film.

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Hereditary

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Hereditary

In his first feature film, Hereditary, director Ari Aster sets the disorienting tone of the entire movie in the very first shot. It’s a glacial pan around a room full of what appear to be dollhouses. We soon find out the protagonist, Annie Graham, is a miniaturist artist, and these tiny re-creations are her work. As Aster’s camera performs a delicate dolly, getting ever closer to one of the miniatures, we see sudden motion. A man walks through a dollhouse door. This space – at first a dollhouse representation of a bedroom – now fills the frame, and it inexplicably transforms into a new, full-sized setting. The man who walks through the door is Steve, Annie’s husband, and he’s waking their son, Peter, so that the family won’t be late for a funeral. Annie’s mother, Ellen, has died after suffering from a long period of dementia.

Aster’s perplexing and clever visual introduction tries to prepare us for the story that is about to unfold. Nothing in Hereditary is what it seems. One of the most exciting things about the movie is how many surprises it contains. Every time I thought I had a handle on where it was going, Aster peels back another layer. He keeps the unexpected revelations coming at a feverish pace right up until the final, terrifying last scene. What at the beginning promises to be a film about loss, grief, and family dysfunction – although Hereditary is about all that, too – by the last act becomes a fever dream of a horror film, and easily the scariest movie of the year.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

When I wrote about Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars anthology films, one of my main takeaways about the picture was how much it broke from the previous movies in the Star Wars universe. It was thematically dense in a way we had never seen in a Star Wars movie, and it only tangentially relied on callbacks to the earlier films to connect us to the series. Much of the credit for that innovative feel was probably due to The Walt Disney Company (which now owns and produces all things Star Wars) introducing fresh blood into the franchise. Neither director Gareth Edwards nor writers Chris Weitz or Tony Gilroy had ever been involved with any Star Wars project prior to Rogue One. The new anthology entry, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is like the anti-Rogue One, but I don’t mean that in the strictly pejorative sense that you’re probably expecting.

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Deadpool 2

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Deadpool 2

I hate that I’m starting to repeat myself when it comes to comic book movies. The critique is a fair one, though, so you’ll have to forgive me as I copy and paste my biggest complaint about Avengers: Infinity War and apply it to Deadpool 2. Writing about Infinity War, I parroted the increasingly familiar refrain from many critics that any sense of dramatic stakes in these movies is undercut when, in the interest of protecting the franchise cash cow, the filmmakers hit the reset button to ensure a next installment. That’s what (predictably) happens at the end of Deadpool 2, and in a mid-credits sequence, no less. This franchise relies on its use of snark and sardonic meta style to laugh at these conventions – and itself – so hard that we can’t help but forgive it. The problem is that after just one sequel, the nihilistic and self-referential humor has started to wear a little thin.

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RBG

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RBG

Kids these days, am I right? If they aren’t playing video games for countless hours or taking endless selfies, they’re making an 85-year-old Supreme Court justice the center of a wildly popular meme. That last one might not quite fit the stereotype, but it’s nevertheless true. Back in 2013, an NYU law student named Shana Knizhnik created a Tumblr page that celebrated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the Notorious R.B.G. It’s a play on the name of classic hip-hop artist The Notorious B.I.G., and the meme transformed Ginsburg into a gangsta-style bad-ass on a tireless quest for justice and social equality.

Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West used the meme as an entry point for RBG, their documentary that covers the life of the towering – at least in terms of her professional achievements, if not her physical stature – Ginsburg.

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Avengers: Infinity War

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Avengers: Infinity War

Ten years ago, Marvel Studios launched its “cinematic universe,” using crossovers and tie-ins to connect every property under its umbrella. The strategy has shaken the entire entertainment industry. Any extended universe of characters – from rival DC’s effort at playing catch-up, to Universal Studios’ so far disastrous “Dark Universe” – is a naked attempt at copying Marvel’s lucrative success. To celebrate their decade of dominance, Marvel changed the “i” and “o” in the word “studios” to the number 10 in the Marvel logo at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, the 19th feature film release in the MCU.

It’s become harder and harder to think about each of these movies on its own merits, because Marvel’s apparent plan is to work its audiences into a constant frenzy of anticipation for what’s coming next.

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Love, Simon

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Love, Simon

Simon Spier has “one huge-ass secret.” The high school student with a loving family and great friends is gay, but he’s terrified to let anyone know it. He fears that his family and friends won’t be able to accept this aspect of his identity. Getting through high school is hard enough, and Simon sees every day just how close-minded people can be. He sees some of his fellow students taunt Ethan, an openly gay classmate. Love, Simon deals with the struggles of its titular character with empathy and humor. The movie is essentially a coming out romantic comedy. It’s a heartwarming antidote to cynicism and pessimism, two qualities in which the world is currently inundated.

What feels so fresh about Love, Simon is that it operates like so many other high school first love movies, only from a perspective that mainstream Hollywood has until now never embraced. Other critics have compared it to the teen-angst filled work of John Hughes. Besides his huge secret, Simon is your ordinary, everyday teenager. He tells us early in the film in voice-over that he hangs out with his friends, watches bad 90s movies, and drinks way too much iced coffee. He also does things like help his clueless dad fix a terrible homemade anniversary video.

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You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here

Early in You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Joe, takes a violent blow to the back of the head. Movie convention has programmed us to expect one single hit like this to knock a character out cold. You Were Never Really Here is no conventional movie. Joe stumbles for a second, then he turns and gives it right back to his assailant. Joe punches the man in the face and he goes down but is also not out. It’s a quick and brutal exchange that sets the tone for the next 90 minutes. Director Lynne Ramsay’s new film is a rescue/action movie like Taken, by way of the avant-garde experimentalism of Maya Deren. It’s by turns vicious, stomach-churning, elliptical, ethereal, and staggeringly beautiful. It’s a movie that will haunt me for a long time.

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A Quiet Place

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A Quiet Place

I don’t have kids, and I plan on never having them. As actor Sam Rockwell once said in an interview, “I definitely don't want to become a parent. It's not my bag.” Same here. So, I’ll never understand that special bond that a parent has with a child. I’ll never have that feeling that I would do anything, including sacrificing my own life, for the well-being of my children. John Krasinski, the director, co-writer, and star of the new horror film A Quiet Place does have kids. He wanted to explore the qualities of the parent/child bond when he did a rewrite on Bryan Woods and Scott Beck’s original screenplay after he signed on to direct the film.

I can’t say from personal experience if Krasinski got it right. You’ll have to ask a parent. As someone who is in a committed romantic partnership, though, and has bonds with friends and family, I can say he nailed this story of protecting your loved ones. A Quiet Place is absorbing, gripping, and terrifying.

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Isle of Dogs

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Isle of Dogs

Nuance is a good thing. That might seem like a bizarre sentiment to post here on the internet, where considered discourse goes to die. Wait, that’s not really fair. You can find plenty of nuance on the internet. It’s just usually drowned out by clickbait headlines and the outrage machine, which only has one setting: full volume. And, of course, let us not forget about the comments section.

Taking a contemplative and nuanced approach to what I write about movies is one of my most important goals. It’s right behind setting down my honest emotional and intellectual reaction to each movie, as well as putting the movies in the context of film history. Wes Anderson’s new film, Isle of Dogs, has made me think hard about being nuanced, especially when it comes to cultural appropriation. It’s what I’ll spend most of this review covering, because it was at the forefront of my mind while I was watching the movie.

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Pacific Rim Uprising

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Pacific Rim Uprising

Pacific Rim Uprising is the follow-up to Guillermo del Toro’s bonkers 2013 special effects extravaganza about giant robots battling giant interdimensional sea monsters. A good way to predict what you’ll think of this sequel is to take your feelings about the original movie and downshift them by about 30 percent. If you loved Pacific Rim, like I did, Uprising will seem like a slightly stale but enjoyable enough retread of the first movie. If the original didn’t do much for you, this one will probably be unbearable.

The most tedious thing about the movie is that it telegraphs to the audience a deep desire to become a franchise. More than that, its creators and studio want to fashion another – and here I have to suppress my gag reflex – Expanded Cinematic Universe. Uprising’s director, Steven S. DeKnight, has said as much in interviews. In fact, one of the movie’s four credited screenwriters, T.S. Nowlin, is involved in the so-called MonsterVerse. That’s the upcoming ECU involving crossovers between the baddies in monster movies like the 2014 reboot Godzilla and last summer’s Kong: Skull Island. So, why not get the giant monsters in Pacific Rim to battle King Kong in a spin-off movie?

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The Leisure Seeker

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The Leisure Seeker

The opening minutes of The Leisure Seeker promise a more substantive experience than the comedy/drama ultimately delivers. As the camera winds its way around a peaceful New England town, the idyll is broken when a campaign pickup truck enters the scene. Garish, oversized flags mounted in the bed – one on each side­­ – billow in the wind. They are advertising their candidate: TRUMP FOR AMERICA! Director Paolo Virzì then puts a title card up on the screen, setting his story on a specific day in September of 2016, just a few months before the election. Will The Leisure Seeker be some sort of political statement about how presidential politics affect everyday Americans, I wondered? Will the Trump/Clinton campaign merely exist at the edges of the story, never quite taking center stage, but adding poignant commentary to the main action? That second one is closer to the mark, sans the poignancy. Our characters only interact once with the election (I’ll get to that later), and the movie wastes every other reference to it.

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A Wrinkle in Time

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A Wrinkle in Time

The highest praise you can bestow on a kids’ movie is that adults can enjoy it, too. Is that just us grown-ups being selfish? Not really, because if a movie is aimed at children, but is sophisticated enough for adults, that usually means it’s not talking down to its target audience. It gives kids credit for their own level of sophistication. See just about every Pixar movie for the best examples of this sort of filmmaking.

A Wrinkle in Time truly is a kids’ movie. It’s not meant for me, so it feels mean-spirited to beat up on it too much. There are perhaps millions of kids out there who might have a cultural earthquake happen inside them when they see this picture. But, the movie does a disservice to the kids it wants to entertain. Aside from the gigantic budget and the production value that goes along with it, A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t offer its audiences (either the kids or the adults) much sophistication at all.

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Annihilation

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Annihilation

With his new film Annihilation, director Alex Garland is attempting bold, exhilarating science fiction that is on par with a master of the genre, the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. The science fiction films that Tarkovsky made used fantastic settings and circumstances to explore the human condition. His film Solaris is a meditation on grief and acceptance that takes place on a fictional planet with mysterious powers. Stalker involves characters who wish to travel to “The Zone,” a place that contains a room that can fulfill a person’s innermost desires. Annihilation also uses a cosmic, head-trip scenario to examine human fears, mostly our collective fear of being wiped out of existence. Garland is masterful at creating a mood of existential dread and using a sci-fi backdrop to employ glorious, overwhelming imagery, but his movie never really gets below the surface of its premise.

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2018 Oscar Best Picture Nominees, Ranked

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2018 Oscar Best Picture Nominees, Ranked

If you're planning on watching the Oscars tomorrow night, but you didn't have a chance to play catch-up with most of the nominees, I'm here to help. It's no fun when you watch an awards show but you know next to nothing about the movies that are up for the big awards. So, I've collected my reviews for all nine Best Picture nominees, and I've also ranked them in order of what I'd like to see win. Number one is what I most want to win, number nine is what I least want to win. I haven't provided any commentary besides the ranking, because if you want to know what I think of each one, you can just click the link and read my original review. I've also included links to my reviews for movies nominated in other categories. Happy reading, and happy viewing tomorrow night!

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A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

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A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

Director Sebastián Lelio pays special attention to his titular character’s breathing during several sequences in his exquisite film A Fantastic Woman. Each time his protagonist, Marina, is under stress, either psychological or physical, Lelio drains everything out of the soundtrack and focuses on her slow, deliberate breaths. In the film, Marina does this to steady herself; it’s a way to regain her composure and sense of safety in traumatic situations. If you’re watching the film, it’s a way for Lelio to remind you that Marina is a human being. We all breathe, after all, and the film reminds us that we are all deserving of a basic level of respect and dignity. As obvious as that sentiment seems, Marina is confronted many times throughout A Fantastic Woman with people who aren’t willing to extend her that respect and dignity.

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Black Panther

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Black Panther

If you suffer from the condition known as Superhero Fatigue Syndrome, as I often do, you might be hesitant to see the latest Marvel movie, Black Panther. There’s no reason to be hesitant. In fact, Black Panther works as an antidote to the feeling that you’ve grown tired of just about anything based on a comic book or that is incorporated into Marvel’s sprawling, at times unwieldy, Cinematic Universe. Black Panther might just be the best Marvel movie yet.

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In Praise of Schlock: The Cloverfield Paradox

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In Praise of Schlock: The Cloverfield Paradox

At about 30 minutes into The Cloverfield Paradox, I had one of those moments that often comes along when I’m watching an entertaining bit of genre filmmaking. I took a moment to appreciate how much I was enjoying the experience by mentally telling myself, “I am really into this.” Then, as is often the case with most storytelling, the plot of the movie had to kick in, and things started to go a little haywire. By the end, it was clear just how much of a disaster this movie was. Its plot is nonsensical to the point of being moronic. At least some of Paradox’s coherence problem was made worse because the producers – most notably J.J. Abrams – decided to tie this stand-alone sci-fi movie into the Cloverfield series during filming. This led to the film’s writer, Oren Uziel, penning new scenes and rewriting others, and the director, Julius Onah, shooting those changes in order to make Paradox – originally titled God Particle – fit into the Cloverfield universe. The result is an utter mess of a movie.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the kind of movie that gets an Oscar Best Picture nomination because the people in charge think it’s gritty, meaningful filmmaking full of important social commentary. In actuality, it’s a movie that uses relevant social topics – namely police brutality and inaction – in a cynical ploy for cheap exploitation and shock value. This is a nihilistic movie that delights in trying to offend. There is a painful tone-deafness in how Three Billboards attempts to mix comedy and pathos. The plot machinations, especially late in the film, become so creaky that several key points are unbelievable, even laughable.

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Darkest Hour

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Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the movie that most fits the bill in 2017 for the title of Important Film; it’s tailor made for awards season, in particular for that most coveted prize, Oscar Best Picture nominee. It satisfies many of the requirements that we often think of when we think about an Important Film. Is the movie about a major historical event or a biopic of an important historical figure? Check. Does the movie feature a powerhouse performance by an actor who undergoes a complete physical transformation for the role? Check. Is the movie a crowd-pleaser, ending on a rousing note that sends the viewer out on an emotional high? Check. Darkest Hour is, to its detriment, a box-checker of a movie.  It’s so focused on these elements that it never does much else to set itself apart.

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