Arrival

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Arrival

Arrival is one of those movies that depends almost completely on a twist surprise that comes in the last half hour or so. That makes writing about it without ruining the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen it particularly difficult. There are plenty of really great movies that are structured this way – Fight Club and The Sixth Sense are two that spring instantly to mind. There are also movies that are weakened by depending too heavily on that one surprise to hold up the entire film – The Village and The Forgotten are good examples. It’s too dismissive to write that Arrival is somewhere in between. If it is, it’s on the high side of that middle area, more intriguing than not. That engagement mostly comes from the beautiful and strange atmosphere director Denis Villeneuve creates for Arrival. His visuals are complemented exquisitely by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s dark, moody score.

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History is watching: 13th

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History is watching: 13th

“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n---er, n---er, n---er.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n---er’ – that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing’, ‘states’ rights’, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N---er, n---er.” – Lee Atwater

Lee Atwater was a Republican operative who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He stated the above quote in a 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis. The idea is that as openly racist attitudes and speech becomes less acceptable with civil rights advances, politicians and institutions wishing to uphold the white hegemony must find new, more acceptably racist ways to achieve that goal. The examination of that tactic is central to director Ava DuVernay’s powerful new documentary 13th, so named for the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. That’s the one officially ending slavery in America. Well, almost.

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Moonlight

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Moonlight

There is an idea in progressive politics and critical theory known as intersectionality. Simply put, intersectional theory supposes that we are all made up of multiple overlapping social identities. In order to understand the complexities of human behavior, and the varying levels of discrimination in our society, each social identity must be understood as being inextricably linked with the others. That’s why an LGBT woman of color can face more oppressive obstacles than an LGBT man who is white. If that feels overly clinical and cold, art holds the key to humanizing such ideas. Moonlight, the story of one man told over 20 years, explores these notions in emotionally exquisite and sublimely human ways.

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Certain Women

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Certain Women

Certain Women is a breath of fresh air. It’s the perfect antidote to the sensory overload that can become agitated after seeing too many loud blockbusters. While those blockbusters can be a hell of a lot of fun, it’s best to heed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous advice: “Moderation in all things.” The Transcendentalist thinker seems to be a kindred spirit to the movie’s director, Kelly Reichardt, because of his belief that the divine could be understood by having a close relationship to nature. The stillness of Certain Women works like meditation. The stunningly gorgeous backdrop of the movie’s setting, Montana, often occupies the edges of Reichardt’s frame. There’s a connection to the land that her characters feel, even if it’s only subconscious. Told in three interconnected vignettes, the stories of four women, and how they move through a world that can be, if not outright hostile then aggressively dismissive of their very existence, represent the best in modern independent filmmaking.

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American Honey

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American Honey

As improbable as it sounds, American Honey melds the sensibilities of disparate movies like Easy Rider and Lawrence of Arabia to craft a modern portrait of driftless youth. Director Andrea Arnold’s film is epic, funny, heartbreaking, and challenging. It captures the cynicism and hopelessness that characterizes the way many U.S. citizens view the American Dream. Through all the unfairness and terrible situations life throws at Star, Arnold’s main character, American Honey gives us a glimpse into the life of a survivor. Star refuses to be broken, and this quality allows for a hopeful ending to the movie that is both uplifting and defies easy explanation. In short, American Honey is a stunning achievement. It’s a movie that stirred my emotions and gave me a view into a world so different from my own that it might as well have been from an alien planet.

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The Girl on the Train

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The Girl on the Train

Any discussion about The Girl on the Train should begin and end with the movie’s star, Emily Blunt. The actress delivers the most searing depiction of alcoholism on the big screen since Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas. From her ruddy face, to her slightly slurred speech and wobbly motion, Blunt inhabits wholly the character of Rachel Watson. She’s an incredibly damaged woman, keeping her drinking barely under enough control to believably be a functioning member of society. If she were in a better movie, Blunt would be a shoo-in for her own Oscar nomination next year.

Unfortunately, the rest of The Girl on the Train lets Blunt down.

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Hell or High Water

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Hell or High Water

There’s a falseness to Hell or High Water that distracts from the quite potent visceral punch the movie delivers in its last act. The disingenuous vibe the movie gives off comes mostly from writer Taylor Sheridan’s heavily clichéd dialog and obnoxious character dynamics. The way Sheridan handles those attributes left me with the impression that Hell or High Water is his version of a Coen brothers movie, essentially a stripped down No Country for Old Men. But where No Country is full of delicate, nuanced character studies punctuated with nerve-shredding tension and bursts of violence, Hell or High Water eschews the rich character turns for a tired machismo that left me feeling bored.

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Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

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Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is filled with oddball characters possessing strange and wonderful powers. Among them is Claire, the little girl with an extra mouth full of razor sharp teeth hidden under the golden locks of her hair. Hugh is a boy with a hive of bees living in his stomach. Emma is lighter than air; if she takes off her lead shoes, she risks floating away.

It would seem like Tim Burton, the decidedly peculiar director known for bringing similarly oddball characters like Edward Scissorhands and Betelgeuse to life, would be the perfect fit for this story. That’s not the case, though. The characters in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children never take on the rich inner life that Burton was able to explore in a character like Edward Scissorhands, or even the normal ones like Lydia Deetz and the Maitlands. Instead, the most peculiar thing about Claire, Hugh, Emma, and the rest are their individual powers. Burton is never able to get below the surface of their strange gifts in order to create fully formed people.

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Snowden

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Snowden

Oliver Stone liberally blends fact and fiction to create his portrait of the NSA whistleblower at the center of his film Snowden. The director, who co-wrote the script with Kieran Fitzgerald, admits as much, confessing that the way Edward Snowden secreted highly classified information out of an NSA facility was stylized for the movie. “[W]hen he lifted these materials and helped get them out to the public, it is not done in the realistic way that it was done. It was—we gave it a little juice, because it’s a drama, and because, frankly, it’s probably much more banal than you think, the way he did it.”

Stone is a filmmaker who is famous for using creative license to bring a bold streak of drama to real-life events. With Snowden, his amalgamation of truth and Hollywood spectacle is a magnificent success. Stone humanizes Edward Snowden, making him a guy with whom we can all relate, while portraying his actions and the events surrounding them as the tense, establishment-shaking moments they are.

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Sully

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Sully

Clint Eastwood is a director who is masterful at orchestrating deeply powerful movie moments. From the dramatic standoffs in Unforgiven to the highly charged combat scenes in the controversial American Sniper, Eastwood is exceptional at delivering thrilling cinema. His tension-building skills are on full display in Sully, the dramatic retelling of the real life 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson.” It’s a story that’s tailor-made for a movie: US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his airbus A-320 on the Hudson River when a flock of geese flew into the plane, disabling both engines. He and First Officer Jeffery Skiles performed this ‘miracle’ without losing a single passenger or crew member.

Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki revisit the crash multiple times, interweaving it with scenes of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation in the weeks following the unbelievable landing. It’s these scenes of the investigation that threaten to bring the movie down. But Sully stays aloft, delivering a tense, powerful, and ultimately uplifting study of quiet heroism.

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Don't Breathe

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Don't Breathe

I live in a one-hundred-year-old house, and there is nothing more frustrating than the hardwood loudly creaking under even the softest steps when you’re trying not to wake someone. When staying completely silent becomes a matter of life and death, like it is in the horror movie Don’t Breathe, every footfall becomes agonizing. Director Fede Alvarez and his writing partner Rodo Sayagues earn both agony and ecstasy with their twisted story. It is nothing short of splendid.

Horror movies have never held my imagination in particular, but I can appreciate finely crafted tales of terror. There is no finer movie-going experience than being reduced to repeating Dr. Ian Malcolm’s survivalist mantra – must go faster, must go faster! – during a horror movie as you watch the characters frantically attempt to escape their fate. The intense panic and dread Alvarez’s movie conjures throughout more than makes up for its generic shortcomings. Don’t Breathe leans too heavily on archetypes in the first act, some basic plot points don’t hold up to close scrutiny, and the climax briefly delves into the realm of torture porn that is out of step with the rest of the picture. Those are small problems, though, considering the psychological punch the movie delivers.

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Sausage Party

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Sausage Party

Sausage Party is about as shallow and lazy as comedy scripts come. The cleverest thing about the movie is the restricted red band trailer. It’s quite a shock to see that trailer for the first time. In the first twenty seconds, you’re led to believe the movie is another Pixar-like children’s animated movie. This time it’s food that is being anthropomorphized, and the adventure will begin when the heroes are chosen by humans at the grocery store for a life beyond the walls of the supermarket.

The (admittedly hilarious) shock comes when the woman who bought the groceries starts to peel a potato in front of the rest of the food. Like the humans in this sort of Pixar movie, she’s oblivious to the sentient nature of our heroes, and she can’t hear the horrific cries of the potato as he screams, “Jesus! Fuck!” After that initial shock, you realize this is one of the most sexually explicit, most foul-mouthed animated movie ever made, and that there’s not much else to Sausage Party.

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Equity

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Equity

Everybody sucks. As a life philosophy, that can be a little bleak, and it’s often depressing. Subscribing to it, however, means I’m rarely disappointed. I’m only being a little facetious when I say that’s how I view humanity. Despite rarely expecting the best in people, I generally try to be optimistic and give them the benefit of the doubt until they give me reason to suspect that they suck, too. The movie Equity breaks the glass ceiling for women in this regard. Given enough power and ambition, here the focus is high-stakes venture capitalism and Wall Street, women can be just as ruthless and awful as men. That might not be the most groundbreaking message, but it’s refreshing to see a group of women filmmakers explore the notion, even if the results aren’t a complete success.

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Ever dance with Jared Leto in the pale moonlight?: Suicide Squad

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Ever dance with Jared Leto in the pale moonlight?: Suicide Squad

It’s not easy to overlook the many flaws of the new DC comic book adaptation Suicide Squad (and trust me, I won’t), but I have to admit that I did enjoy it more than I expected. The sole reason for that unexpected enjoyment is the cast. The producers of Suicide Squad put together a collection of actors who are not only charismatic individually, but whose chemistry as a team is about the only thing that makes the movie watchable at all. Without Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jai Courtney, and the rest, Suicide Squad would be an unredeemable mess of a movie. Grotesquely nihilistic, with a script that can most charitably be described as cobbled together, a possible subtitle for the film could have been The Plot that Wasn’t There.

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No, Mr. Bourne, I expect you to star in a mediocre sequel!: Jason Bourne

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No, Mr. Bourne, I expect you to star in a mediocre sequel!: Jason Bourne

There isn’t an ounce of flab on Matt Damon’s body. The same can’t be said of the latest installment in the Bourne series. Damon is reprising his role as Jason Bourne, the memory-deficient super spy, after a nine-year hiatus in which Universal Pictures attempted to expand the franchise with Jeremy Renner in 2012’s The Bourne Legacy

The main problem with this series is that each movie essentially tells the same story. After suffering amnesia during an assignment-gone-wrong in the first movie, Jason Bourne becomes a spy that is forever trying to piece together his own past. In each successive picture, Bourne gets a new clue about the secretive program that turned him into an elite assassin. The saving grace of the Bourne movies is the tightly wound structure of each mystery. The plot always takes a back seat to the chase, as the CIA desperately tries to stop Bourne from revealing the disturbing truth he uncovers about the secret program that created him. In Jason Bourne, there’s frankly too much plot, and it detracts from the action.

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Star Trek Beyond

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Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek fans did a lot of phaser clutching back in 2008 when director J.J. Abrams said he wanted to make his iteration of Trek more like Star Wars. “All my smart friends liked Star Trek,” Abrams said at the time. “I preferred a more visceral experience.” For Star Trek Beyond, Abrams handed the keys over to director Justin Lin, and he took a more hands-off approach as producer. Of the three Star Trek movies under the Abrams banner, Beyond is the one most like a visceral Star Wars adventure.

Lin is most famous for the four Fast and Furious films he directed, and his gifts for staging adrenaline pumping action sequences are on full display here. He also directed two episodes of the cult sitcom Community, so Lin knows how to handle ensembles and comedy as well. Amidst all the action is a script by Simon Pegg – who also plays Chief Engineer Scotty – and Doug Jung that honors the ideals and ethos of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. The end result is a movie that focuses more on the wow factor than it needs to, but is still immensely enjoyable because of it.

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Ghostbusters (2016)

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Ghostbusters (2016)

It’s times like these that I wonder if Roger Ebert ever faced the problem I’m having. Does that make it sound like I’m putting myself in the same ballpark as Roger Ebert? I’m not. I am to Roger Ebert what Caddyshack II is to Caddyshack. (As per review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the sequel currently stands at 4%(!) positive compared to the original’s 75% rating. So, yeah, that seems fair.) If anything, the higher rating isn’t high enough to properly gauge the late, great film critic’s skills. Still, did he ever review a remake of a movie he so beloved, and felt so close to, that he wasn’t sure if he could fairly assess the remake on its own merits? That was my worry going into the 2016 version of Ghostbusters.

If pop culture-obsessed children of the 1980s made a top ten list of movies that should be treated most like Lennie’s beloved rabbits in Of Mice and Men, the original Ghostbusters would be a heavy contender for number one. I turned five the summer it was released, and if you weren’t there, it’s impossible to overstate the absolute phenomenon that the movie was. A photo exists of my entire family wearing white shirts with the Ghostbusters logo emblazoned on the front, each of our names ironed onto the pocket. I vividly remember Ghostbusters being the very first VHS rental for my family’s freshly purchased VCR.

There’s a lot of history here is all I’m saying.

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The Ballad of a Lonely Dachshund: Wiener-Dog

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The Ballad of a Lonely Dachshund: Wiener-Dog

Director Todd Solondz has a really sick sense of humor. In 2014, he must have laughed heartily when The Hollywood Reporter described his next film as “several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading comfort and joy.” The article doesn’t make clear whether or not Solondz was the one who supplied that synopsis, but I like to imagine a ghoulish grin spreading across his face when he read it. There’s very little comfort to be had in Wiener-Dog, the quasi-sequel to Solondz’s breakout debut film Welcome to the Dollhouse, and almost no joy at all. There are plenty of laughs, though, in the quiet, sardonic chuckle variety.

Solondz is noted for exploring the blackest of comedy through his suburbanite characters, and Wiener-Dog is no exception. The Hollywood Reporter was right in one aspect – the picture consists of four separate vignettes, all linked by a stoic, little lady dachshund who is known by her various temporary owners as Wiener-Dog, Doody, and Cancer. If there is a theme shaping up for the year 2016 in filmmaking, it seems to be cruelty to animals, particularly dogs. The depiction of the wry and stomach-churning fate of little Wiener-Dog/Doody/Cancer makes the dog abuse in The Lobster seem easy to take by comparison. The penultimate scene of Wiener-Dog is a gob-smacking end to a movie that’s one-quarter brilliant, one-quarter inspired, and one-half just above what you might find at a student film festival.

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Of Farts and Male Bonding: Swiss Army Man

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Of Farts and Male Bonding: Swiss Army Man

Sometimes a movie comes along that defies any kind of deep intellectual interpretation. It simply unspools its crazy internal logic before your eyes and dares you not to get caught up in the madness you’re witnessing. Swiss Army Man is that movie. It takes the concept of magical realism and twists everything you think you know about narrative expectation into a pretzel. For ninety minutes, I could not believe what I was seeing. I was so caught up in what would happen next, the full joy of the experience didn’t hit me until it was all over. Part of that was never being able to predict where the script was going.

The guys who wrote and directed that script, Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert (credited jointly as “Daniels”), establish within the first ten minutes that Swiss Army Man would be crazily, stupefyingly original. When the hero rides a farting corpse like a jet ski to escape a deserted island, I knew the writers were issuing a cinematic challenge. I’ll admit, I was hesitant at first. I can enjoy potty humor as well as anyone, at least in limited doses. But when Hank (Paul Dano) investigates the dead body that washes up on the desolate beach where he's stranded, all that happens at first is the farting. I wondered if that would be the extent of the writer-directors’ imagination. Then came the aforementioned riding of the corpse like a jet ski, with Hank pulling on the dead man’s necktie like a throttle for increased speed. Challenge accepted.

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The Neon Demon

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The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon is an odious and hateful movie. It traffics in a base misogyny that masquerades as high art. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has tried to complicate the issue of that misogyny by populating his movie with an almost exclusively female cast. The fact that the women who are punished and degraded in The Neon Demon suffer their fate mostly at the hands of other women doesn’t make it any less troubling.

To counter this baseness, Refn collaborated with two women on the script, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. In an interview with The Evening Standard, Refn intimates that he wanted to work with a woman on this new script because of his perceived issues with writing female characters. “I always set out wanting to make films about women but it always ends up being about men. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to write them.”

In the same interview, Stenham acknowledges Refn’s reputation for treating the women in his movies poorly. “He’s got a lot of stick for doing films some people think are violently misogynistic. So he approached me with the idea of doing something different.” His choice of collaborators on this project doesn’t give the impression that he’s trying to grow as an artist when it comes to his female characters, though, which I think was the intended effect. Instead, it feels like cover for Refn to indulge in an even more extreme misogyny than what’s been found in his previous work.

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