I was resistant at first to the The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I couldn’t make sense of the movie’s tone. It seemed funny and serious, elegiac and silly; a study in contradictions. It is all those things and more. Once I gave myself over to it, when I fell into sync with its wavelength, it blossomed before me into the most moving, unforgettable experience I’ve had at the movies so far this year. Director Joe Talbot and his childhood friend, creative collaborator, and star Jimmie Fails have made a singular work of art here.
The laughs are the least effective element in the coming-of-age comedy Booksmart. Don’t misunderstand me: Booksmart is a funny movie. There are several gags and one entire sequence in particular that is downright inspired. But with four different screenwriters – Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman each supplied rewrites and revisions to Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins original script during the preproduction process – the movie feels a little overwritten. The comedy style is too frenetic and never settles down enough to deliver really big laughs.
The other facets of the story all work splendidly.
I had to watch the opening sequence of Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell twice to make sure I hadn’t imagined that the first 30-odd minutes are one long, uninterrupted take. I ended up watching the whole movie twice; that’s how easily it sucks you into its world. Turns out, I had imagined that one unbroken take. My mistaken impression about the opening is a testament to Perry’s serpentine camera movements and the brilliantly controlled chaos of the scene. I was even more surprised when I learned Perry didn’t shoot Her Smell digitally. He shot it on 35mm film, which would have made a sustained shot like the one I invented in my head that much more difficult.
My faulty memory aside, the real take away is that Perry – as well as his star and co-producer, Elisabeth Moss – has displayed virtuoso talent with this ambitious picture.
Twenty years ago this week, I was caught up in the spectacle of the biggest pop culture event I had ever seen in my short two decades on earth. The triumphant return (according to all the promotional materials) of George Lucas to the franchise that changed movies forever was cause for feverish celebration. I remember seeing the headline of a review for Episode I in the days after the film’s opening that dared to disparage the first new Star Wars movie released in 16 years. It called the origin story of Anakin Skywalker The Phantom Movie.
I scoffed. I was having none it. As a die-hard Star Wars fan, the fact of The Phantom Menace’s existence was proof of its greatness. There was no way to convince me that the movie wasn’t anything other than what was promised: the greatest, most exciting movie event in a generation. After a stint in film school, twenty years of studying movies, and a hard-fought effort to refine my critical thinking skills – not just about movies, but everything – it’s no surprise that I don’t look at The Phantom Menace in the same way that I did a long time ago in a small town far, far away.
The Satanic Temple is doing the Lord’s work. That statement is meant to be both provocative and ironic, just like the organization that Penny Lane’s documentary, Hail Satan?, examines. The film manages to be both hilarious and enraging. While it gets close to delving under the surface of The Satanic Temple’s leading members – most notably the tension between co-founder Lucien Greaves and TST Detroit chapter head Jex Blackmore – it never quite gets there. Hail Satan? stays at arm’s length from the people it’s documenting. That’s not the case with the ideas that Greaves, Blackmore, and other TST members are championing. The documentary does a fabulous job of explicating The Satanic Temple’s ideals and goals.
This is the next entry in my ongoing 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number four is 1933’s King Kong. This is the first talkie of the series, as well as the first straight genre picture. The stop-motion animation in King Kong forever changed the industry. It was a watershed film for special effects. Just like the first two films in the series, I borrowed a Blu-ray through intralibrary loan. It’s a lovingly produced transfer from 2010 by Warner Bros. which features a two+ hour documentary. Director Peter Jackson, who made his own mega-budget remake of King Kong in 2005, played a role in the making of the documentary.
Those of us who didn’t grow up reading the source material, who can’t recite chapter and verse the labyrinthine backstory for the dozens of characters integrated into the MCU, can sometimes feel like outsiders. As one of those outsiders, my first instinct is to focus on these films’ over-reliance on Earth-in-Peril (and more increasingly, Universe-in-peril) scenarios, the deadening effects of pixelpalooza CGI battles, and the constant hype machine always building towards the next movie.
While the criticisms are valid – especially in the weaker MCU entries like Avengers: Age of Ultron – they cause me too often to overlook the moments of emotional resonance that these movies contain, and the connection that their most loyal fans have to the characters. With Avengers: Endgame, the grand finale and culmination of over 20 Marvel movies spanning more than a decade, it’s impossible to overlook the emotional resonance. Screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely and sibling directing team Anthony & Joe Russo made a film rich with human drama.
The most uncharitable way to describe Terry Gilliam’s work is that it is solipsistic. Almost every film the director has made centers on a hero battling – not always successfully – to maintain his autonomy and individuality in a society obsessed with conformity. Gilliam’s characters rage against the system to protect their romantic, singular view of the world. The most satisfying of his films are those in which Gilliam is able to make us see the world through his protagonists’ eyes. His best films, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, unlock the hero’s mind. His misses – The Fisher King, The Brothers Grimm – frustratingly fail to do so. We can see the vivid imagination of the central character, but only from the outside. We’re never allowed all the way in.
Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote belongs in the latter category.
Here’s the third entry in my 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number three is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. This is what many consider to be his best film, which means a lot considering Chaplin was a masterpiece machine. Just like the first two films in the series, I borrowed a Blu-ray through intralibrary loan. This edition was produced by Criterion Collection in 2013, and it looks and sounds great.
The movie gods arranged a bit of serendipity this week that had me watching Harmony Korine’s new film The Beach Bum and John Waters’ 1972 gross-out classic Pink Flamingos within hours of each other. Flamingos is one of those films that’s been on my “to see” list for years, and when I discovered a local theater was holding a midnight screening, I made sure to pregame (read: take a nap) for it, so I could check it off the list.
The Beach Bum isn’t anywhere near as (intentionally) disgusting as Flamingos is, but Korine and Waters both have reputations as cinematic enfants terribles. They gleefully push boundaries, if only for their own enjoyment.
I wasn’t a fan of either film, but for completely different reasons.
Us is an example of the most thematically and intellectually satisfying kind of horror movie. There is a razor-sharp critique of our society running right underneath – and often on the surface of – what is otherwise an unsettling, scary film in its own right. Just like his previous effort, Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele has something more on his mind with Us than scenes of blood-curdling horror, although he proves himself capable of delivering those as well.
Provocateur director Gaspar Noé has put a waking nightmare on screen with his newest movie Climax. The film is unsettling, nauseating, confusing, and, in the end, a singular viewing experience that only Noé could unleash upon the world. The director responsible for the equally singular Enter the Void – which I revisited as the second part of a double feature with Climax, a night I won’t soon forget – uses nihilism the way Bob Ross used happy little trees, often and with great satisfaction. There is no lesson to be learned here. Climax isn’t exploring any deeper truths about the human condition. Noé’s only goal seems to be to shock and disorient his audience. In that way, Climax is a complete success.
Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has pulled a Michael Haneke with his latest film, Gloria Bell. In 2007, Haneke, an Austrian filmmaker, made an English-language version of his 1997 movie Funny Games that was a shot for shot remake. Lelio is calling Gloria Bell a “reimagining” of his own 2013 hit Chilean-set movie, called Gloria. I’ve seen both versions, and while they aren’t as exactingly identical as Haneke’s films apparently are (I’ve only seen the 2007 version of Funny Games), it’s pretty damn close. A few lines of dialog have been changed, one minor character is swapped out for another, and obviously the actors have their own unique take on the material, but otherwise the two movies are strikingly similar. Where Haneke used both versions of Funny Games as a sadistic (arguably hypocritical) critique of mindless violence in the media, Lelio’s films are a warm, ultimately soaring character study of one woman.
Here’s the second entry in my 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number two is The General from 1926. Directed by Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, and starring Keaton in arguably his most iconic role, The General is based on an actual train heist that took place during the Civil War. Just like Intolerance, I borrowed a Blu-ray edition from my local library. The disc is a 2009 edition produced by Kino. Just like with Intolerance, the restoration work here is gorgeous.
This is a new series I’m dubbing 100 Essential Films. Last year a friend gave me a really cool gift. It’s a scratch-off poster featuring 100 movies that someone (whoever put the poster together) considers essential viewing. We all know how these kinds of lists work: they’re extremely subjective. But, I have the poster, and it’s a good set of films. I figured, why not write a little about each one as I watch them and (literally) scratch them off the list? There are a lot I’ve never seen, and a fair amount that I have. This will be a great way to catch up with the former, as well as a good way to revisit and get on record with the latter.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is turning 15 this year. On a whim, I picked it up at the library recently along with The Darjeeling Limited. Life Aquatic was a re-watch and Darjeeling was one of Wes Anderson’s films that I was finally getting around to seeing for the first time. Click the link for something new I’m trying; it’s a feature I’m calling Revisited, where I’m going on the record with a movie I’ve seen before but never written about.
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!
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is for everybody out there who feels like a complete fraud. The movie is based on writer and literary forger Lee Israel’s confessional memoir. When her career as an author of celebrity biographies stalled due to lack of critical or commercial success, Israel got desperate. She spent a year in the early 1990s forging letters by dead celebrities like Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker and selling them to autograph brokers for hundreds of dollars each. The film is ostensibly about Israel successfully flimflamming the entire literary document community before the FBI caught onto her. But it’s also an examination of her sense of identity being stripped away when what she’s built it on – her work as a writer – is destroyed because both her colleagues and the public tell her she’s no good at it.
If you couldn’t tell from the opening sentence of this review, I count myself as one of those people who feels like a fraud.
Peter Jackson’s stunning World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old made me understand what it must have been like to see The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The director, most famous for special effects wizardry in films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and his King Kong remake, has employed jaw-dropping digital restoration work to century-old footage to bring the Great War to life. His film is a chill inducing experience.
Toward the end of A Star is Born, one character describes a favorite bit of wisdom about music from Jackson Maine, one of the two central figures of the movie. Jackson – Jack to his friends – loves to say that there are only 12 notes between any octave. “Twelve notes and then the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All that the artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”
It might have been a strategic move to include this observation in the movie considering this is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name. That’s four versions of A Star is Born – six if you include the 2013 Bollywood film Aashiqui 2, which is also based on the ’37 film, and a 1932 movie called What Price Hollywood?, which is essentially the same story. This version of A Star is Born is how Bradley Cooper sees the notes. He offers a fresh, energetic take. I was in from the very start, when we see Jack play one of his songs in front of a crowd of thousands of cheering fans.