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.
Viewing entries in
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.
We all have that acquaintance, friend, or family member who use their Facebook profile solely to antagonize members of their social circle whom they consider their political enemies. These are almost always people who would never do the same thing in a face to face setting. They like to “start shit,” but from the safety of their phone. These people are a shade different from what are popularly known as internet trolls, because they believe in the opinions they’re expressing, so it’s not 100% about getting under their target’s skin. It’s only 75% about that. Vice, Adam McKay’s inflammatory, obnoxious biopic about Dick Cheney, arguably the most destructive vice president in American history, is the cinematic equivalent of these true-believer assholes.
There’s been plenty of digital ink already spilled about Green Book being a White Savior Film. While I’ll also spill a bit of my own on the topic, there isn’t much I can add. For me – an average white dude who’s seen his fair share of movies – the most glaring fault about the picture, a dramedy dealing with race relations in the Jim Crow era, is the paint-by-numbers feeling of it all. This is a movie that strives to hit every standard beat in the uplifting “inspired by a true story” template. As an exercise in mediocrity that serves up something we’ve all seen dozens of times before, Green Book is an unparalleled success. It’s utterly predicable and is the kind of movie that would have felt fresh had it been made 20 or 30 years ago. Still, for all it’s flaws, Green Book isn’t entirely without its charms. In addition to a superb turn from actor Mahershala Ali, the movie does provide some inspiring moments and a message about race that plenty of people still haven’t absorbed.
Yorgos Lanthimos delivers everything you might expect visually from him in his first period piece. The Greek director’s meticulous attention to detail and exacting standards are brought to bear in The Favourite. It’s a sumptuous, visually arresting examination of power struggles in the early 18th century English royal court. Many of Lanthimos’ thematic preoccupations are present as well: the blackest of comedy that highlights the worst instincts and actions of which humans are capable; how his characters wield power over others; the mingling of the humorous and horrific to shock and disturb his audience.
While the nihilistic aesthetic Lanthimos employed in films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer remains essentially unchanged in The Favourite, the effect becomes numbing here (especially in the final act) where it doesn’t in the earlier films. This is another morality tale like The Lobster and Sacred Deer. In The Favourite, the ultimate moral is: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.
It isn’t easy getting close to Emily. Even her own husband, Sean, sometimes feels like an outsider in his own marriage. The mercurial Emily is a high-powered public relations director for a premier fashion company, and her take-no-bullshit attitude allows her to tell her own boss to get lost on occasion. You have to be willing to treat powerful people like dirt, she says, because sometimes that’s the only way to get through to them. The only thing that can compete with Emily’s job is her devotion to her son, Nicky.
When Emily allows Stephanie – whose son Miles attends the same elementary school as Nicky – into her orbit, Stephanie feels both elated and intimidated. She runs a somewhat successful mommy vlog where she posts about things like making friendship bracelets. Stephanie doesn’t quite know how to handle Emily’s sophistication and no-nonsense demeanor. One day Emily asks Stephanie to pick up Nicky from school and watch him for a few hours while she deals with a minor emergency. Five days later, Emily has vanished. Determined to find her new friend, Stephanie plays detective and uncovers dark secrets from Emily’s past. What she finds will change her life forever.
If you have, or want to have, children, and you think that there is something wrong with any grown person who isn’t interested in doing the same, then Juliet, Naked is the movie for you. Of course, that’s not a ground breaking or particularly challenging stance for a movie to take. There is an overabundance of movies (and books, and magazine articles, etc., etc.) that reinforces the idea that becoming a parent is the pinnacle of maturity.
Movies about the subject – an overwhelming majority of which are romantic comedies – have thoroughly exhausted one particular “becoming a parent” subgenre. It’s what I’ll call “The Man-child Matures” subgenre. Knocked Up, Nine Months, and About a Boy all focus on emotionally stunted men who grow into responsible adults only when they realize that, yes, becoming a parent is what they really wanted all along. Having parenthood thrust upon them makes them finally grow up.
It’s a well-worn cliché that bad times make for good art. We’re at the front end of some undeniably rotten times, with a commander-in-chief who traffics in white supremacist language and policies, and a large segment of the population who feel more comfortable expressing bigotry because of him. Hate and ignorance are ascendant. It’s the coldest of comfort, but the first great piece of art in response to these bad times (at least as far as movies go) is here. It’s called BlacKkKlansman. It’s incendiary, powerful, hilarious, chilling. Master filmmaker Spike Lee called upon every skill he has as an artist to make this movie pulse in defiance of our current political and existential crisis. He also included his trademark sense of humor and his unique visual style and inventiveness. No other director could have made this movie. BlacKkKlansman is, and could only be, a Spike Lee joint.
The themes and social commentary of Blindspotting are both timely and important, but the movie’s overall effect is one of slightness. That slightness is mostly a function of the way co-screenwriters and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal chose to mix comedy and drama in their examination of gentrification, race relations, and toxic friendships. The result is uneven and too episodic, with comedic interludes that don’t quite fit alongside harrowing depictions of everything from lethal police misconduct to a young child getting his hands on a loaded gun. These moments, though, and many more like them, are incredibly powerful, and Diggs and Casal’s screenplay handle them with care and a great deal of emotional intelligence.
The bright, shining star at the center of Eighth Grade is Elsie Fisher as Kayla. She is a revelation. We all wear different masks in our daily lives depending on with whom we’re interacting, and Fisher shows Kayla changing these masks with expert skill. We see confident Kayla, shy Kayla, anxiety-attack Kayla, exuberant Kayla. Fisher is in almost every shot of the picture, and she carries that weight like an acting veteran, not a 15-year-old newcomer.
Eighth Grade is a perfect example of Roger Ebert’s theory of movies as empathy machines. It’s a way to experience the world – even if for just 90 minutes – through someone else’s eyes. Kayla Day encourages us to extend the best parts of our nature to everyone around us. That’s the first step in making the world a better place.
Hip-hop artist, music producer, teacher, and political activist and agitator Boots Riley has new talents to add to his resume: screenwriter and director. His electric film debut, Sorry to Bother You, announces a fresh and singular new voice in American cinema. The movie uses biting, politically charged satire to comment on a myriad of social justice concerns. Riley skewers issues like race, class, labor rights, toxic capitalism, and selling out with an outlandish and exhilarating premise that gets stranger with every passing minute. I can sum the movie up with one word: bonkers. The last time I used that word to describe a film I wrote about was over three years ago. The inventive science fiction (for lack of a better term) feel and unique sense of humor Riley employs in Sorry to Bother You makes it the first bonkers movie event since Mad Max: Fury Road.
There is a brilliant premise at the heart of the new indie western Damsel. It’s too bad the rest of the movie never quite lives up to the promise of its central idea. Filmmaking team David and Nathan Zellner have made a deconstructionist western in which the damsel of the title, Penelope, is in anything but distress. At least, she wouldn’t be if it weren’t for all the men in her life who are trying to save her. She doesn’t need or want to be saved from anything, but every man she comes across tries to force it upon her, to her endless frustration.
That sly twist on a familiar trope is how the Zellner brothers upend the thematic myth of the western genre that insists women on the frontier needed men to protect and rescue them. That myth is alive and well in other forms of entertainment, and it has a pernicious hold on every part of our culture. That’s why it’s so refreshing that the Zellner brothers are skewering it in Damsel.
The strangest thing about watching Ocean’s 8 is that I could never quite figure out what it was supposed to be. Maybe that’s because the movie never quite figured that out, either. Like 2016’s gender-swapping Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 8 sort of works like a reboot of the Ocean’s franchise, with an all-female cast in place of the men from Steven Soderbergh’s testosterone drenched series of heist movies. Soderbergh is credited as a producer on this film, by the way.
It’s a reboot in that it trades on the Ocean’s brand, but features all new characters pulling off a new caper. At the same time, certain elements work as a straight remake of the first film. The beginning of the picture opens in the exact same way as Ocean’s Eleven. Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean is seated in front of a never-seen parole board, who are trying to determine if her time in prison has rehabilitated her wayward con artist habits. Like Ocean’s Eleven, 8 consists of the main character building her team and putting her plan into action.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Movies like Lady Bird and The Florida Project introduced us to people either living close to poverty or people who can’t escape it. Both pictures did it without being exploitative. They brought their subjects to life in a thoughtful, humanist way.
The economic underclass is a major preoccupation of I, Tonya, as well. Like The Florida Project, I, Tonya’s subject, who just happens to be a real-life person, is proud and unapologetic. I, Tonya is a punk rock look at poverty, among other things. It’s also, improbably, one of the most hilarious movies of 2017. Its humor is biting and sarcastic. It isn’t afraid to call its audience out as hypocrites for watching the story of Tonya Harding with a sick voyeuristic glee.
If the marketing material for Pitch Perfect 3 – the tag line is “Last Call, Pitches” – is to be believed, this is the swan song for a series that’s generated a sizable cult following. In this latest outing, the saga of the Barden Bellas ends not with a bang, but not exactly with a whimper. I have to damn Pitch Perfect 3 with a heaping helping of faint praise. It’s just okay. The movie is, thankfully, nothing like the complete disaster that Pitch Perfect 2 was, yet it never captures the elements that made the original so charming and so memorable.
This time around, the members of our favorite competitive collegiate a-cappella singing group are finding that post-college life, a.k.a. the real world, isn’t everything they had hoped it would be.