Brigsby Bear

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Brigsby Bear

There are sounds that many (though definitely not all) people in my generation aren’t only familiar with, but that bring back a sudden and intoxicating rush of nostalgia. People of a certain age who are also movie/tv show junkies – like myself – get wistful when they hear them. They are the sounds of a VHS tape being pushed into a VCR; the little clicks and electronic hums as the machine seats and prepares the tape for play; that odd wavery quality of the picture and sound when the tracking goes wonky.

The movie Brigsby Bear, and the makers behind it, tap into that nostalgia in an incredibly potent way. This is a movie that feels like it was made for me. Dave McCary, the director, and Kyle Mooney, the star and co-writer, are both five years younger than I am. They were probably just as obsessed as I was with taping things on cable, watching copious amounts of movies on VHS, and using two VCRs to edit together homemade movies.

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Short-Film Review- The Survivor: A Tale from the Nearscape

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Short-Film Review- The Survivor: A Tale from the Nearscape

Effective world building is one of the hardest things to do in movies, especially in science fiction. So many layers have to come together to encourage the audience to suspend their disbelief and enter the fictional world of the filmmaker's imagination. The new short film by director Christopher Carson Emmons, The Survivor: A Tale from the Nearscape, never really builds a world that feels wholly real, but it's not for lack of trying. 

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Dunkirk

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Dunkirk

“More than 900 little ships came from Britain [to Dunkirk], evacuated the British and French forces and ferried them across the Channel to safety. They were able to rescue thousands of troops over the course of several days. This is often reported as an example of wartime British bravery and comradeship. 

What is rarely talked about is the fact that many troops in the French Army were from Africa, and the little ships refused to take the Black soldiers. They left them on the beaches for the Germans to capture, and many ended up in Auschwitz. Senegalese director Sembene Ousmane mentions this in his film Camp Thioroye, which is based on the true story of a massacre of African soldiers by the French Army during the war.” - From the website ancestralenergies.blogspot.com

The inconvenient facts described above lay the groundwork for the most damning criticism of Christopher Nolan’s otherwise thrilling new film Dunkirk. How much more complex and challenging of an experience could Nolan have presented by simply making a noticeable percentage of the troops desperately trying to get aboard the rescue ships ones of color? Soldiers from India, Senegal, and Morocco (to name but a few) fought in the war to end fascism as part of the British and French empires.

Instead, Nolan and his casting team made the film a 99.9% white affair. That’s not cause enough to junk the picture. On the contrary, there is a lot to praise (which I’ll get to soon) about Dunkirk.

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Ingrid Goes West

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Ingrid Goes West

The most insidious thing about social media is that it’s made us all marketing and branding managers. The brand, of course, is us. Every carefully curated tweet and Instagram post has turned us all into little mini-celebrities. Whether you have a hundred, a thousand, or a million followers, it’s easy to fall into a never-ending cycle of posts that keep the likes and retweets coming.

Ingrid Goes West captures that feeling, as well as the dark side of our Instacelebrity world. It’s Taxi Driver for the modern age. In that movie, the mentally unstable Travis Bickle – played with crazed determination by Robert De Niro – decides to assassinate a presidential candidate to get the attention of the woman with whom he’s obsessed. Today, there’s no need to go that far. We’re all celebrities now; our current president’s popularity is measured more by retweets than policy successes, after all.

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A Ghost Story

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A Ghost Story

There are few better experiences on this earth than being changed by a piece of art. It eventually wears off; that’s part of what makes it so special. The fact that it doesn’t last makes you appreciate all the more how rare and wondrous an occurrence it is. That’s just what happened to me with A Ghost Story. This is a transcendent film, amazing and unique. It’s a quiet examination of loss and grief, but on a cosmic scale.

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War for the Planet of the Apes

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War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes chronicles more than the struggle for species supremacy. This is the latest film in Fox’s popular franchise depicting a world where apes evolved from men. It gives us an internal war, one which rages within our hero, the ape Caesar. In War, we see a very personal loss, plus the ravages of constant battle, take its toll on the weary leader who was willing to go to great lengths for peace. The brutality that he and his kind face sparks a descent into rage and a thirst for vengeance in Caesar that is both uncharacteristic, yet completely understandable. This film is the culmination of a meticulously crafted character arc; it’s at once mournful and dark, but rich and satisfying. One near fatal tonal misstep aside, every aspect of filmmaking comes together in War to conclude the tragedy of Caesar in grand style.

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The Big Sick

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The Big Sick

The Big Sick isn’t just the best romantic comedy since Annie Hall, it’s also trying to teach us how to live in the fractured world in which we find ourselves. Okay, maybe not. It’s probably just trying to be a heartfelt, funny, and entertaining depiction of how star and cowriter Kumail Nanjiani met and fell in love with his real-life wife, Emily Gordon. But inspiration is where you find it, as the saying goes, and The Big Sick offers up a wealth of it. This movie is full-to-bursting with ideas on unconditional love, grace, connecting with people not only, but especially, when it’s hard, and how we can all work together to make life a little easier for our fellow humans. Oh yeah, and it’s also incredibly funny.

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Okja

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Okja

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is a master at blending opposing tones (see 2016’s Snowpiercer if you doubt me). That’s exactly what he does in his newest film, Okja. Half broad, outrageous comedy and half heart-rending, stomach-turning drama, Okja is beautifully executed.

Setting the tone of a movie is a big part of the magic of cinema. So many people contribute to the production – from actors to set decorators, cinematographers to sound mixers – working together to create a living, breathing world that draws us in. The director is at the center of it all, acting as the conductor, bringing order to the chaos that could result from hundreds of people focusing solely on their own jobs. And Bong Joon-ho is an amazing conductor.

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Baby Driver

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Baby Driver

To the people in charge: please, please, please let Edgar Wright direct the next installment of the Fast and Furious series. Let him write it, too. With Baby Driver, he’s proven he is up to the task. He might not have any interest, though. Wright thrives on challenging himself with a different genre for each new film he makes. He dismantles them, and rebuilds them in his own quirky, original image. He did it with horror in Shaun of the Dead, and the buddy-cop movie in Hot Fuzz. He did it with the romantic comedy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and science fiction in The World’s End. Now he’s done it with the heist/car chase genre in Baby Driver. It’s exhilarating, funny, and a damn good time at the movies.

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The Hero

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The Hero

If you’ve been waiting for actor Sam Elliott to deliver a perfectly calibrated swan song performance, his work in The Hero is it. Women of a certain age (my mother being one of them), who remember Elliott from his heyday in the late 80s and early 90s in made-for-TV movies like The Quick and the Dead, and theatrical releases like Roadhouse and Tombstone can’t resist him. Hell, it might be all women for all I know. It’s that voice. And that mustache. Now that I think about it, maybe I can’t resist him, either.

Director Brett Haley wrote the part – and basically the whole movie – for Elliott. The actor doesn’t let his director friend down. His portrayal of aging Western star Lee Hayden, an actor whose glory days are behind him, is tranquil, but also beautifully mournful. Elliott is, without a doubt, extraordinary in The Hero.

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It Comes at Night

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It Comes at Night

When the lights came up at my screening of It Comes at Night, director Trey Edward Shults’ second feature film, I was stuck to my seat. I was emotionally pulverized not only by the very last shot, but almost everything that came before it. This is a movie that gives no quarter. Do not look for solace here. The film is bleak and grim, and it will test your resolve. If you’re willing to take the journey, It Comes at Night will also reward you with ruminations on a variety of themes, including trust, paranoia, and the idea of community. Be warned, though, you might not like its conclusions about any of them.

The movie is set after some sort of plague has befallen the earth. We meet a family: Paul, Sarah, their teenage son Travis, and the family dog, Stanley. There is one other member of the family, Sarah’s father, Bud, but when we meet him he is already sick from whatever disease has ravaged the outside world. What Paul is forced to do in the first five minutes of the movie to end Bud’s suffering expertly establishes the tone of what’s to follow in the next 85 minutes.

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Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman

It’s not my intent to damn Wonder Woman with too much faint praise by measuring it favorably against the abysmal Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. After all, saying this movie is leagues better than that one is akin to lauding really good fast food over something you found in the dumpster because, well, at least it isn’t actual garbage. The comparison needs to be made, though, because both exist in DC’s attempt at a Marvel-style cinematic universe, and the character made her debut in that earlier film. Wonder Woman is a well-crafted action spectacle with its greatest strength (both the title character and the actress playing her) right at the center. The elements orbiting that center, though, keep it from being transcendent.

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The Lovers

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The Lovers

There’s a rhythm to the romantic dramedy The Lovers that’s as unique as its quirky characters. If you can hook into that rhythm, the film will take you to some unexpected emotional places. The premise is a slight twist on the familiar story of married couples who rekindle their love after years of neglecting each other. The charm and sparkle of The Lovers is in the way writer/director Azazel Jacobs infuses a sense of magical realism into the tale of his married couple Mary and Michael. When it comes to the actors portraying them, Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, it’s just plain magic.

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Alien: Covenant

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Alien: Covenant

A great thing about the early entries in the Alien franchise is that they are exciting and scary good fun. Alien: Covenant is too obsessed with its own mythology to be much of either. Director Ridley Scott had the perfect opportunity to pull a George Miller. That filmmaker revived his Mad Max series with the fresh and inventive Fury Road. Miller wasn’t concerned with what he did in the past. With Fury Road, he gleefully started from scratch, and as a result produced a rip-roaring action film, one of the best of the decade. Alien: Covenant is the first true Alien movie in 20 years. Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus was a sort of spiritual sequel to the franchise, taking place in the same universe, but centered on its distant origins. Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus. Instead of surprising us with the possibilities of a clean start, Scott and his writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, give us that sinking feeling with Covenant that this is someplace we’ve already been.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The most enjoyable thing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is exemplified in its very first action sequence. An alien race called The Sovereign have hired the guardians – Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Racoon, and Groot – to protect some highly powerful and very valuable batteries from a giant space slug. An epic battle ensues as a backdrop to the opening credits. There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle special effects work and camera trickery in this sequence, to be sure, but the real focus isn’t the fight at all. Groot, the 12-foot tall extraterrestrial tree-creature, sacrificed himself in the first Guardians film, and regenerated as a tiny seedling now known as Baby Groot. Obviously, he’s not much help in this fight. Instead, director James Gunn has him avoiding danger by showing off some hilarious dance moves to Electric Light Orchestra’s classic hit Mr. Blue Sky.

It’s a clever, goofy way of launching directly into the oddball sense of humor that made the original movie from 2014 so entertaining.

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Colossal

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Colossal

If all you know of the movie Colossal is its marketing campaign, then all you know is a complete lie. I rarely ever talk about the marketing or trailers of films I’m writing about because I view all of that as superfluous. What really matters is what happens between the production company logos and the final credits. The team in charge of selling this movie, though, are responsible for a bait-and-switch of such unbelievable scale that it’s impossible not to mention. What I thought I was getting into and what I actually saw were completely different, and that made me wrestle with Colossal in a way I wouldn’t have if I had known nothing going into it.

The elevator pitch premise – and what the trailer would have you believe – is that Colossal is a quirky, comedic twist on the giant monster movie genre (called Kaiju in Japanese cinema). The twist is that our hero Gloria, a down-on-her-luck-just-moved-back-to-her-hometown woman in America, actually controls, with her body movements, a strange creature that materializes in South Korea whenever Gloria steps into a children’s playground at exactly 8:05 a.m.

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Free Fire

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Free Fire

Free Fire is an outrageous little movie. It shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. This hilarious gun-deal-turned-shoot-out is provocative and cathartic, with cartoonish violence aimed mostly for laughs. It’s Tarantino, but straight-slapstick.

It would be reasonable to think a movie that consists almost completely of people shooting each other would become tedious, not to mention a little hard to watch considering the unimaginable spate of mass shootings constantly featured in the news. Director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump – who co-wrote the script together – pull it off, though.  Set in 1978, the movie begins with two factions traveling to a Boston warehouse to complete an illegal weapons deal. An intermediary, Justine, represents the buyers: a group of IRA members, led by Chris, who want firearms for use against their enemies in The Troubles. Justine’s colleague, Ord, is bringing the seller, a South African gun runner named Vernon, who is accompanied by his own group of associates. An uneasy tension hangs in the air as all the interested parties, ten people total, attempt to exchange cash for guns.

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Wilson

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Wilson

If you watch a lot of movies, odds are you end up spending time with characters you don’t like very much. Sometimes that can lead to insight into a perspective you’ve never considered, or to experience a character’s growth as they change over the course of the movie. Other times you can perversely enjoy behavior in which you would never engage, but is cathartic to watch from a safe distance - a comfy chair in a dark room, say. Sometimes it just means you have to grind your teeth for 90 minutes as you suffer through a comedy that’s not funny featuring characters that are gratingly annoying. Such was the case for me with Wilson. I don’t always need characters to learn and grow, especially not in broad comedies. I’m as big a fan as anybody of a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld, which thrived by the ethos “no hugging, no learning.” If that’s the approach, I do need the comedy to be clever, and it would be nice to not want to throttle the “hero” in every scene.

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Aftermath

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Aftermath

Movies, like just about every other art form, are manipulative. For each one, there are hundreds of people working together to make the audience laugh or cry, feel uplifted or depressed. The best movies, and the best filmmakers, can achieve the desired emotional response without the audience ever being aware it’s happening. That is not the case with Aftermath. This is a movie that is relentless in telling the audience just how they should feel, and whose makers – most egregiously, director Elliott Lester, and composer Mark Todd – throw subtlety completely aside. There are elements that work against this trend, one performance in particular, but they aren’t enough to salvage the rest.

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Song to Song

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Song to Song

The phrase “found it in the editing” describes a perilous method of filmmaking. Basically, it’s what happens when a movie has been shot with no clear vision – or there is a voluminous, unwieldy amount of footage – but during the editing process, the filmmakers are able to shape a story that is much better than the raw materials would suggest. A famous example of this is Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. That movie initially had very little to do with the relationship between the two leads, but during cutting, Allen and his editor created one of the best romantic comedies of all time. More often than not, though, this approach leads to a muddled mess.

Terrence Malick’s creative process lends itself to this kind of metamorphosis in the editing room. The notoriously private director shoots and shoots, sometimes for years, and hones his narratives in the cutting room, also sometimes for years. Song to Song clearly follows this pattern. In a rare interview to promote the picture, Malick said the original cut of the film was eight hours long. That’s a far cry from the 129-minute final version. Song to Song is also a far cry from the beautiful transcendence of his best films, like Days of Heaven or The Tree of Life. It’s not a complete mess, but it’s a disappointment to be sure.

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