Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Week in Awards

The critics groups weighing in during the past week: Black Film Critics Circle, Detroit Film Critics Society, Indiana Film Journalists Association, Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards, Las Vegas Film Critics Society, Nevada Film Critics Society, Phoenix Critics Circle, Phoenix Film Critics Society, Southeastern Film Critics Association, St. Louis Film Critics Association, Utah Film Critics Association, Vancouver Film Critics Circle, Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and Florida Film Critics Circle.

Their picks:

Best Picture

Moonlight: Black Film Critics Circle, Indiana Film Journalists Association, Phoenix Critics Circle, Southeastern Film Critics Association, Alliance of Women Film Journalists

La La Land: Detroit Film Critics Society, Las Vegas Film Critics Society, Phoenix Film Critics Society, St. Louis Film Critics Association, Utah Film Critics Association

Manchester By the Sea: Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards, Vancouver Film Critics Circle

Hell or High Water: Nevada Film Critics Society

The Lobster: Florida Film Critics Circle

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Netflix Recommends... John Wick (2014)

* * *

Director: Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
Starring: Keanu Reeves

I'm not sure who is more cruel. The villains in John Wick who are so irredeemable that they can't be satisfied with simply beating up the title character, but have to kill his dog, too, or the filmmakers of John Wick for introducing that adorable puppy, making the viewer watch it frolic adorably with Keanu Reeves, and then snuff it out. Admittedly, it's a pretty effective way to get viewers on the side of a protagonist who is going to spend the next hour or so taking lives left and right, but damn that dog was so cute. Netflix's recommendations seem to lead me wrong more often than not, but I probably wouldn't have gotten around to John Wick if not for Netflix and, despite the dog death, I rather enjoyed it. It's a slick bit of business in which a great many people die and a lot of blood is shed in very stylish fashion and it's basically everything that an action movie ought to be, but very few actually are.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

* * *

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson

The pairing of Tim Burton and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - a story about kids with special abilities who are kept hidden away from society - is so obvious it almost feels like parody to actually see it. All that's missing are Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, replaced here by Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson. While the film, adapted from Ransom Riggs' novel of the same name, is pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be - full of whimsical misfits, grand spectacles of costume and production design, and, requisite for all big studio pictures, an ending that invites sequels - it's also the most that I've enjoyed a Burton film since probably Corpse Bride. It may not be a masterpiece, but it's a pretty decent entertainment.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Ten Years Later... Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ken Watanabe

2006 was a major year in the career of Clint Eastwood, who would tell the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima over two films, each told from a different side of the conflict. The first was Flags of Our Fathers, which turned on the famous photo of the American flag being raised on Mount Suribachi. The second was Letters from Iwo Jima, which doesn't have the same kind of "moment in time" to act as its fixed center, and is instead more about the battle in general. The films are opposite sides of one coin, and though one was ultimately much more warmly received than the other, their strengths are about equal. Ten years on, removed from the context in which it was released, Letters from Iwo Jima plays as a very fine film. I don't think that it's quite the masterpiece it was hailed as being in 2006, but it's a good movie.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

21st Century Essentials: The White Ribbon (2009)

Director: Michael Haneke
Starring: Christian Friedel
Country: Germany/Austria/France/Italy

Michael Haneke loves to unsettle. If the audience feels comfortable, then the film isn’t working to maximum effect. His are films that simmer with tension, that ominous feeling of a shoe about to drop, and often deny the sense of catharsis that can come from that drop, raising questions and then withholding the answer, resolving the story without dissipating the tension so that for the characters that feeling of menace will just be part of their lives going forward. Certainly that is the case with The White Ribbon, a film which is not directly about the rise of National Socialism in Germany, but which is about the societal dynamics that laid the foundation for Fascism. It’s a haunting film both for its beautiful craftsmanship and for its steadfast refusal to “solve” itself, and it’s one of the most fascinating films of the last ten years.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Week in Awards

In addition to the handing out of the Critics Choice Awards and announcements of the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, there were a slew of critics awards given out over the last week. The awarding bodies include the New York Film Critics Online, Boston Society of Film Critics, Toronto Film Critics Association, San Francisco Film Critics Circle, African American Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, and San Diego Film Critics Society. Here are their picks (spoiler alert, everyone is going for Mahershala Ali as Supporting Actor):

Best Picture

Moonlight - Toronto Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Online, San Francisco Film Critics Circle, African American Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association

Hell or High Water - San Diego Film Critics Society

La La Land - Boston Society of Film Critics

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review: Miss Sloane (2016)

* * *

Director: John Madden
Starring: Jessica Chastain

Like a number of recent entertainments, how you feel about Miss Sloane may be dependent on your feelings about the current political climate. This isn't even necessarily because of the cause at the heart of the film's narrative (gun control), but because of the film's ending and whether you're able to view it as the triumph the film clearly intends it to be. Personally, I can find little joy in a situation where victory belongs to the person most willing to burn it all to the ground (their own life included), though on the whole I rather enjoyed Miss Sloane. A rarity among films in that it not only centers on an unapologetically unlikeable female protagonist, but doesn't make any effort to soften her before the end, fleshing her out over the course of the story but letting her retain her sharp edges, Miss Sloane is anchored by a wonderful performance from Jessica Chastain that allows it to (mostly) transcend the overplotting designed to make her as Machiavellian as possible.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Screen Actors Guild Award Nominees

Announced earlier today:

Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Captain Fantastic
Hidden Figures
Manchester By the Sea

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review: Triple 9 (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Since 1995, all heist movies have existed in the long shadow of Heat, Michael Mann's defining word on the genre. Every once in a while there will be a film like The Town, which struck a deep enough chord to stand somewhat apart, but that's the exception, rather than the rule. Most of the films that have followed Heat have to be content with paling in comparison and John Hillcoat's Triple 9 is no different. A heist movie centering on dirty cops and the Russian mob, Triple 9 features a lot of really good actors playing some pretty stock characters, making for a film that's fairly entertaining most of the time, but ultimately a forgettable entry in the filmographies of all involved. Rarely has such a great cast been assembled for a such a deeply okay movie.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Golden Globe Nominees

Announced earlier today:

Best Motion Picture Drama
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Manchester By the Sea

Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
20th Century Women
Florence Foster Jenkins
La La Land
Sing Street

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Critics Choice Award Winners

Announced earlier this evening:

Best Picture: La La Land

Best Director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Jackie

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Fences

Best Young Actor/Actress: Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea

Best Acting Ensemble: Moonlight

Best Original Screenplay: (Tie) Damien Chazelle, La La Land & Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Best Adapted Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, Arrival

Best Cinematography: Linus Sandgren, La La Land

Best Production Design: David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land

Best Editing: Tom Cross, La La Land

Best Costume Design: Madeline Fontaine, Jackie

Best Hair & Makeup: Jackie

Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Best Animated Feature: Zootopia

Best Foreign Language Film: Elle

Best Song: “City of Stars," La La Land

Best Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Best Comedy: Deadpool

Best Actress in a Comedy: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Best Actor in a Comedy: Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool

Best Action Movie: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Actor in an Action Movie: Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge

Best Actress in an Action Movie: Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad

Best Sci-Fi/Horror Movie: Arrival

Tales From the Black List: The Judge (2014)

* *

Director: David Dobkin
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall

Back in the days before movies lived and died by their opening weekends, films like The Judge were Hollywood's bread and butter. A mid-budget drama where the stakes are emotional more than anything, as opposed to the now commonplace massive budget behemoths where the stakes are no less than the survival of the world itself, and where a big star gets to flex his muscle as an actor, The Judge is the kind of movie that used to be a no-brainer. Times change, of course, and now projects that used to seem risk free on paper struggle to recoup even their modest budgets (though The Judge might have helped itself by cutting 30 minutes from its running time and making the first casualty its weird and wholly unnecessary incest plot). The market is no longer particularly favorable to movies like this, but I can understand why they tried and why this would have seemed like a good idea when the script hit Hollywood. Old habits die hard, after all.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Week in Awards

Following the rapid fire announcements from the National Board of Review, and the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics, things slowed down last week with only the Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association, Atlanta Film Critics Society, and the Boston Online Film Critics Association making their selections. Here are their picks for the year's best:

Best Film

La La Land - Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association, Atlanta Film Critics Society

Moonlight - Boston Online Film Critics Association

Monday, December 5, 2016

Review: The Handmaiden (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong

Lurid. Nasty. Darkly funny. Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden is a lot of things, but it's certainly never boring. A somewhat faithful, but also somewhat loose, adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is an elaborate contraption of a movie that transports the original narrative from Victorian England to the 1930s in Japanese occupied Korea and stuns with its sumptuous costuming and production design, gorgeous (and playful) cinematography, its merciless violence, frank eroticism, and its ability to deftly navigate the turns and multiple turnabouts of its story. The Handmaiden is a savage beauty of a film and it's probably just as well that South Korea didn't make it their submission for the Best Foreign Language Film race at the Oscars since the Academy tends towards the conservative and films this twisted and explicit only rarely get nominated (and pretty much never win).

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Los Angeles Film Critics Winners

The Los Angeles Film Critics (who are always good for a surprise or two) voted today, here are their picks for the year's best:

Best Picture: Moonlight

Best Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Best Actor: Adam Driver, Paterson

Best Supporting Actress: Lily Gladstone, Certain Women

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Best Screenplay: Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster

Best Animated Feature: Your Name

Best Documentary: I Am Not Your Negro

Best Cinematography: James Laxton, Moonlight

Best Editing: Bret Granato, Maya Mumma, Ben Sozanski, OJ: Made In America

Best Music Score: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, La La Land

Best Production Design: Ryu Seong-hee, The Handmaiden

Saturday, December 3, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Under the Skin (2014)

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Country: United Kingdom/United States/Switzerland

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is the sort of film that unsettles on such a deep and durable level that you might never be able to fully shake it. Cold but graceful, inaccessible but hypnotic, it’s the kind of film in which none of the characters are named and nothing is overtly explained, but it’s so full of striking, brutal images that it leaves one so entranced that the “whys” that the narrative might inspire become unimportant. You simply drift along its jagged, treacherous current until you get to its destination. Many shocking things occur during the course of its 108 minutes, but perhaps the most shocking thing about it is that a film that seems so preoccupied with the experience of being a woman in a world so hostile to femininity could be written and directed by men.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

New York Film Critics Circle Award Winners

The New York Film Critics Circle announced their winners earlier today. Chalk one up for La La Land:

Best Film: La La Land

Best Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert, Elle and Things To Come

Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Best Supporting Actress: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Best Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Best Cinematography: James Laxton, Moonlight

Best Animated Film: Zootopia

Best Documentary: O.J.: Made in America

Best Foreign Film: Toni Erdmann

Best First Film: (Tie) The Edge of Seventeen and Krisha

Critics Choice Nominees

Here are the nominees for the 22nd Critics Choice Awards, chosen by the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Winners will be announced December 11th:

Best Picture
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

National Board of Review Award Winners

So it begins:

Best Film: Manchester By the Sea

Top Films: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Hail Caesar!, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Moonlight, Patriot's Day, Silence, Sully

Best Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea

Best Actress: Amy Adams, Arrival

Best Supporting Actress: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water

Best Original Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea

Best Adapted Screenplay: Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, Silence

Best Animated Feature: Kubo and the Two Strings

Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman

Top 5 Foreign Language Films: Elle, The Handmaiden, Juieta, Land of Mine, Neruda

Best Documentary Feature: O.J.: Made in America

Top 5 Documentary Features: De Palma, The Eagle Huntress, Gleason, Life Animated, Miss Sharon Jones!

Best Ensemble: Hidden Figures

Breakthrough Performance (Male): Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea

Breakthrough Performance (Female): Royalty Hightower, The Fits

Best Directorial Debut: Trey Edward Shults, Krisha

Top 10 Independent Films: 20th Century Women, Captain Fantastic, Creative Control, Eye in the Sky, The Fits, Green Room, Hello My Name is Doris, Krisha, Morris From America, Sing Street

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: Allied (2016)

* * *

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard

Allied is one of the most beautiful looking films of the year. Meticulously assembled and working very hard to evoke a more classical style of movie storytelling, Allied is a different kind of film than those that populate the multiplex these days, though I wouldn't quite agree with critics who call it "old fashioned" or a "throwback" to the films of the 1940s. It draws its inspiration from films of the past - borrowing visually from David Lean (but also from the not-so-old The English Patient), a little bit from Casablanca, and structuring its second half like a noir - but its sensibility is too modern for it to properly be called old fashioned. The sex is too explicit, the violence is too explicit, and its depiction of WWII servicemen and women as surrendering to a "we could die at any moment so anything goes" hedonism is definitely outside of the realm of any old school film. It exists somewhere in between the movies of yesteryear and the movies of today and though it's not flawless in every step it takes, it succeeds in being entertaining.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review: Arrival (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner

"We need to talk to each other." At a time when society seems more divided than ever, when not only do the left hand and the right hand not seem to know what each other is doing, but can't even seem to fathom that they belong to the same body, this may be the most relevant line of film dialogue in 2016. A great human drama couched in a science fiction thriller, Arrival is both a fantastic entertainment and the kind of introspective piece of work that keeps you thinking about it for days afterwards. To my mind this is the best of director Denis Villeneuve's English-language films, the closest thing he's made to a masterpiece since his trio of great French-language films Maelstrom, Polytechnique, and Incendies. Anchored by a wonderful performance by Amy Adams, Arrival is one of the season's must-see films.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: Moonlight (2016)

* * * *

Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes

The protagonist of Moonlight exists in a space of silence. Told at one point that only he can decide who he's going to be, he faces the additional challenge of having to navigate the fraught terrain of identity without the assistance of a language with which to define it. He can only understand it in the negative: what he shouldn't be, what it's unacceptable to be, what it's dangerous to be. So he remains silent most of the time, searching for a space in which he can belong or for a way to belong in the space he's currently in, a desert of outward expression. Directed by Barry Jenkins, and adapted by him from Tarell Alvin McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," the film is a vision of restraint, and somehow the more restrained it is, the more compelling it is - right up until the end, that is, when the floodgates finally open and the film achieves a breathtaking level of catharsis. Moonlight is a film that's going to come up a lot in the coming weeks as the year-end awards and nominations are given out, and it deserves every bit of the adulation it's about to get.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: War Dogs (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill

When Bertolt Brecht wrote "Mother Courage and Her Children," it was his intention that the main character would be seen in a negative light. She's a war profiteer and he wanted the audience to come away thinking her morally reprehensible. Instead, the audience found her sympathetic. Where he saw a "hyena of the battlefield" making her living off of the suffering of others, they saw a survivor who did what she had to do. He rewrote the play and made her worse, but it did nothing to shake the audience's alignment with her. The European audiences of the 1940s, having endured the relentless upheaval of WWII, saw her as something of a victim of circumstance, someone whose actions might not have been admirable, but whose drive to endure was. In the same vein, some might view the story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli less as a story of two people trying to cash in on the chaos of the Iraq War and who, through their participation, bear some moral responsibility for the lives lost and people displaced, and more as a story that glamorizes an element of war by showing how it allowed them to attain all the most desired trappings of Bro culture. War Dogs is a pretty shallow movie that pretty much does exactly what it's trying to criticize, yet it's not without its charms - which is the problem. A story like this shouldn't feel like so much fun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Tales From the Black List: Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

* * *

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber

The story of Bobby Fischer is so strange and fascinating that the surprising thing about Pawn Sacrifice is not that it would end up on the Black List, but that a feature film based on Fischer's story hadn't already been made before the first list was published in 2005. Pawn Sacrifice, written by Steven Knight (screenwriter of Eastern Promises and the upcoming Allied), made the 2009 list and when it made it to the screen last year became the first non-documentary film about Fischer, which is kind of surprising when you think about it. You would think that a true story of an American triumphing over a Russian on the world stage would have made it to the screen sometime between the actual triumph of the Miracle on Ice and the fiction triumph of Rocky vs. Drago, but then again perhaps Fischer himself (who died in 2008) was what kept his story from getting to the screen. At any rate, Pawn Sacrifice benefits from being such an interesting story that it would be difficult to go wrong with it, though it never does manage to quite become everything that it could be even with a great performance at its center.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: Eddie the Eagle (2016)

* * *

Director: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman

There are two ways of looking at the story of Michael "Eddie the Eagle" Edwards. One is as a heartwarming tale of someone whose spirit is so pure that it doesn't matter to him whether he finishes first or last, just so long as he's able to participate and compete. To a certain degree, that's what the Olympics are supposed to be about: the love of sport for the sake of sport. The other is as a slightly more cynical story about someone seeking to bask in the glory of the greatest athletic competition in the world and who discovers a loophole that he can use to his advantage in order to get there, who doesn't care if he finishes first or last because his passion isn't for any sport in particular, but for the idea of being part of the "Olympics." This being a film, and being very much in the grand tradition of uplifting sport movies, Eddie the Eagle opts for the first kind of story, and that's just fine. It's a very good film for the kind of film that it is - it's funny, warm, and feelgood - but it never strays outside the confines of the playbook.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: The Bronze (2016)

* 1/2

Director: Bryan Buckley
Starring: Melissa Rauch, Sebastian Stan

Can a comedy be so nasty that it ceases to be a comedy at all? There are plenty of R-rated comedies that have come out in the last decade and a half and have built themselves around the simple fact of their protagonist being a mean piece of work (some even get straight to the point by putting "Bad" in the title, like Bad Santa or Bad Teacher; this one might have been called "Bad Olympian," except that that would imply that she wasn't a successful athlete), some on the assumption that all you need to make a comedy successful is a character who acts like an asshole in every situation for no discernible reason. The first half hour of The Bronze is relentlessly unpleasant for this very reason. After that, it settles down a little bit and stops trying so hard to prove its "edginess," though it doesn't get significantly better or funnier. It does, however, feature a sex scene that has to be seen to be believed and which is almost entertaining enough to make the rest of the film worth watching.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Atonement (2007)

Director: Joe Wright
Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai
Country: United Kingdom/France

For whatever reason, Joe Wright has never really been given his due as a director, despite his facility in various genres and his skill as a narrative and visual storyteller. He started with Pride & Prejudice, bringing a fresh vision to a classic story and overcoming the not inconsiderable obstacle of there already existing a version largely considered the "definitive" one, later came out with Hanna, a thriller that plays like a videogame (and I mean that in the best possible way) and endures much longer in the imagination than something that at first seems like a mere genre exercise ought to, and then returned to the world of literary classics with a bold and inventive adaptation of Anna Karenina. And, okay, he also made the critically reviled Pan, but when you make a film as masterful as Atonement, you should be allowed some leeway to make a clunker now and then. One of the most lauded films of 2007, netting 7 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, but not Best Director), Atonement seems to have fallen out of favor in a way that other masterworks from that year, such as No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood have not, but it's a film that has stood the test of time. From its painterly tableaus to the almost playful way the production elements engage with the story to its ability to fold its allegory into the narrative in a way that feels unobtrusive, Atonement is a film that fascinates and resonates.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: Bad Moms (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Starring: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate

A movie like Bad Moms is proof through absence of the value of women in the writer's room, at least when it comes to projects that are about women. Because while it's funny enough and wants very badly to be (and thinks that it is) sympathetic to the plight of "the other," Bad Moms ends up giving itself a lot of credit for insights that it doesn't actually possess. The point it wants to make is that society places an impossible burden on mothers by creating unachievable standards for motherhood, but I'm not sure that writers/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore really understand why that's a point that needs to be made. Bad Moms is funny in the way that a lot of raucous comedies are funny, with a lot of the laughs coming from the "... did they just say/do that?" school of shock humor, but it's not so funny that it covers up the fact that Lucas and Moore don't know how to resolve the plot they've set into motion because they don't really understand the issue they're trying to address.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ten Years Later... Casino Royale (2006)

Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen

In so many ways, 2006 feels like it was a lifetime ago. One of those ways is with respect to the Bond franchise, that behemoth of a series that has transitioned and survived through multiple cultural ages with multiple actors playing the lead role. Before 2005, who knew that the most defining characteristic of that role - which had been played at that point by a Scot, an Australian, a Brit, a Welshman, and an Irishman, the actors ranging in age from 30 to 58 so that in transitioning from actor to actor the character's age is in constant flux - was apparently the hair color? The way that people freaked out at the prospect of - gasp - a blond Bond, of all things, is precisely how I know that no matter how good he might be in the role, Idris Elba is never going to get a chance, even though Daniel Craig is now considered one of the best Bonds (if not the best Bond). What's funny is that the shrieking panic of the people behind things like danielcraigisnotbond.com isn't entirely off the mark, in that an argument can be made that the Bond played by Craig isn't "Bond" as moviegoers had known him up until that point. But we'll get to that.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Grizzly Man (2005)

Director: Werner Herzog
Country: United States

“I believe that the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” With a point of view as bleak as that, Werner Herzog may, at first glance, seem like an odd fit for the story of the inherently optimistic Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent 13 summers camped out in Katmai National Park and believed that he had a special connection to the bears and other wildlife that make their home there. But Herzog is no stranger to stories of crazy dreamers, men battling against the world itself and trying to harness the power of nature in order to remake it according to their own design. In this respect, Herzog is uniquely suited to telling this story, which ended in tragedy in 2003 when Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and partially eaten by a bear, a finale captured by Treadwell's ever-present video camera but which exists only in audio form, due to the lens cap being on. Assembled from some of the footage that Treadwell captured, Grizzly Man is a film about nature’s majesty and man’s hubris, a story of one mad filmmaker as told by another mad filmmaker.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)

* * *

Director: Rob Burnett
Starring: Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts

If Tallulah is the best movie I've watched during this marathon, then The Fundamentals of Caring is the most surprising. It was a hasty addition to the list, and I didn't have much in the way of expectations of it. Everything about it (including the generic title) makes it seem like the sort of movie you've already seen a hundred times, where people have to come to terms with things and help themselves by helping someone else, and the sensibility is just a bit on the quirky side. This one even has a road trip giving shape to its narrative, to boot. There's nothing groundbreaking, or even really particularly notable, about The Fundamentals of Caring, but it's an enjoyable watch. To be sure, it's the sort of movie that you can just relax into and not think about too much because it's going to hit all of the expected beats at exactly the moments it's supposed to, but it's a good movie of its type, funny and warm and mostly earning those feel good moments.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: Special Correspondents (2016)

* *

Director: Ricky Gervais
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Eric Bana

When watching a movie there are few things more disappointing than when it has the opportunity, and seemingly the drive, to be a biting satire, only to lose its nerve midway through and end up being something a lot more generic and safe instead. That's the case with Ricky Gervais' Special Correspondents, a comedy that seems willing and able to take a piece off the media and the commodification of tragedy for the purpose of making money, only to fold up and reveal itself as a standard issue buddy action comedy. Parts of the film are quite funny, the performances are better than they have any reason to be, but overall I found myself much more engaged by the paths the film keeps choosing not to take than by the actual story it decides to tell.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: Tallulah (2016)

* * *

Director: Sian Heder
Starring: Ellen Page, Allison Janney

Midway through Tallulah the eponymous character imagines the world without gravity, a sudden shift that finds everyone just floating up into the air, untethered to everything below. Having spent most of her young life drifting around the United States, and having lost whatever connection to others she once had after being abandoned as a child, she's already the definition of untethered - beholden to no one, nothing to hold her back - and yet as she describes the scene, she insists that she would grab onto something and stay connected to the earth down below. Because what is there if there isn't connection? Easily the best of the films I've watched for this marathon, Sian Heder's Tallulah is a thoughtfully told tale that manages to have compassion and understanding for even its most broken characters.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: Mascots (2016)

* *

Director: Christopher Guest
Starring: the Christopher Guest players

When Christopher Guest is at the top of his game, he creates comedies that are among the funniest out there. When he's not quite at the top of his game, he still creates films that are good for at least a few genuinely hearty laughs. Mascots, which like most of Guest's films plays out in mockumentary format, is not great Guest. That may be because it lacks two of Guest's most valuable regulars - Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy - and it may be because it takes as its premise something that doesn't have much air of reality. Community theater productions are a real thing (Waiting For Guffman), dog shows are a real thing (Best in Show), folk music concerts are a real thing (A Mighty Wind), and Oscar campaigning is a real thing (For Your Consideration), but are there actually mascot competitions? The focus here might be too specialized and obscure. There are funny moments in Mascots to be sure, but it doesn't hold together all that well.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

* *

Director: Oz Perkins
Starring: Ruth Wilson

I think that I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House would likely make a good novel. It doesn't just have a literary vibe, it has a very specific Victorian Gothic feeling to it that makes it feel like an atmospheric throwback to a time when horror was more about leaving one feeling unsettled than about vivid and explicit depictions of gore. If I were reading I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, I'd probably be pretty into it. A lot of what it's doing would work pretty well in a novel. As a film? Well, it's actually kind of boring, which is something that you should really never be able to say about a film that only runs for 87 minutes. While Oz Perkins' second feature is definitely big on atmosphere, there's just not a lot of payoff.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tales From the Black List: Dirty Grandpa (2016)


Director: Dan Mazer
Starring: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron

Released every year since 2005, the "Black List" is a list of the most widely liked unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood. It's not a "best" list, per say, but rather a list of the screenplays that have garnered favorable reactions from the most people in the film industry. Among the films to make the list are Best Picture winners Spotlight, Argo, The King's Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire, as well as Best Picture nominees Django Unchained, The Social Network, There Will Be Blood, Juno, and The Queen, among others, and at least one Black List screenplay has been Oscar nominated every year since 2006. So, it's a fairly prestigious list that has included some of the films considered, and awarded as, the best of the best by the industry. It is also, however, a list that has included such ill-received films as Wild Hogs (14% on Rotten Tomatoes), Our Brand Is Crisis (35%), That's My Boy (20%), The Last Witch Hunter (16%), and Sex Tape (17%). So they certainly aren't all winners, which goes a long way to explaining how a film like Dirty Grandpa could have made the list despite being completely awful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: Zoolander 2 (2016)

* 1/2

Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz

As a wise man once said, "Sometimes dead is better." Sometimes, even if a movie is really funny, and even if it has gone on to become one of the defining pieces of pop culture of its era, its quotes instantly recognizable, its protagonist iconic, it's best to just leave it in that cultural moment and be happy with what you've got. Some movies are perfect just as they are, their endings the perfect cap to their stories, and even if those movies grow in popularity as the years go on, finding and expanding their audience, it's best to just let things be rather than try to recreate the magic more than a decade after the fact, when tastes have changed and the finger is no longer quite on the pulse. Anchorman is a great comedy. Anchorman: The Legend Continues? That's only okay. Zoolander is a perfectly funny movie. Zoolander 2? Hot garbage. Bad Santa better hope the third time's the charm.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: The Tribe (2014)

* * * *

Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi
Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko

Movies started as a medium without voices. Not without sound, necessarily, as most films had at least a musical score to assist in setting the mood of the action on screen, and not without words, either, as intertitles were used to help move the stories along, but without the sound of the characters' voices. But even in the days of silent films there were filmmakers who used intertitles sparingly and were content to let the images do the talking for themselves. Once the movies started talking, we started to rely increasingly on dialogue to provide us with the sign posts to help guide us through a narrative, so the idea of a movie that doesn't use words at all may seem daunting, or even like an endurance test. Myroslav Slaboshptyskyi's The Tribe is a film set at a school for the deaf in which the dialogue occurs only through Ukrainian Sign Language, none of which is subtitled. To watch it requires that you fill in a certain amount of blanks in order to keep up with it, but Slaboshptyskyi is so good at conveying the story through images that The Tribe is a deeply rich and engrossing viewing experience even if you can't grasp everything that's happening down to its last nuance.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Beyond the Hills (2012)

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur
Country: Romania

It’s no small feat to tell an even-handed account of a religious community that kills a young woman while in the process of trying to perform an exorcism on her, but that’s exactly what Cristian Mungiu does with Beyond the Hills. A villain would not be hard to find in this kind of story, but Mungiu avoids taking the easy road, taking a complex view that underscores how misguided and dangerous strict adherence to a narrow worldview can be and finding a way to have some degree of compassion for everyone involved. Knowing that what unfolds is based on an actual incident that occurred in 2005, and which was fictionalized in the novels “Deadly Confession” and “Judges’ Book” by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, which together form the basis of the film’s screenplay, Beyond the Hills can be a difficult watch, but it’s a deeply engrossing film that sticks with you.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ten Years Later... Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford

Few filmmakers have been as tireless as Clint Eastwood, having directed 35 feature films in the last 45 years and easily qualifying as having made one of the most successful transitions from actor to director. In that time he's made some great movies, but he's never been as ambitious as he was when he decided to tackle the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima over the course of two films in order to explore the perspective from each side of the conflict. At the time of its production Flags of Our Fathers must have seemed like a sure thing - so sure that the studio was willing to shell out the extra money to make Letters from Iwo Jima even though that film, regardless of quality, was bound to lose money in the domestic market by virtue of not being in English and not being about the American side of the conflict - a film that would hit that sweet spot where prestige meets profit. Yet when all was said and done, Flags of Our Fathers only ended up with 2 Oscar nominations (to Letters from Iwo Jima's 4) and would fail rather badly at the box office, bringing in only $33 million domestically and $65 million worldwide against a budget of $90 million and becoming one of Eastwood's least financially successful films as a director. In hindsight, it's easy to understand why that happened; although it has some of the hallmarks of the patriotism stirring, "rah rah" kind of war movie, it's doing something a lot more complicated than that and a lot more critical.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: The Girl on the Train (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emily Blunt

Back in the day, when the "erotic thriller" was a staple of Hollywood's annual output, there was many a story that turned on "crazy bitches" and the poor men whose errant libidos placed them in those women's sights. In those narratives the woman, who appears at first attractive and sexually available and then reveals herself to be violently unstable, becomes a thorn in the side of a good man who made a mistake and who is redeemed for his misdeeds by being targeted by the woman, while the woman is typically punished with death. In these stories the woman is always crazy, her wrath unprovoked, the man a victim. The Girl on the Train is a story told from the point of view of the "crazy bitch," who maybe isn't so crazy, whose wrath maybe isn't so unprovoked, whose "victims" maybe aren't so innocent after all. If only the movie were a little bit better, this would make for a refreshing change of pace. But, hey, great performance from Emily Blunt nevertheless.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Netflix Recommends... All Good Things (2010)

* * *

Director: Andrew Jerecki
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst

It says a lot about a person if they can watch a film based on events of their own life which depict them as weak-willed, mentally unstable, a spousal abuser, the murderer of two people and the instigator of the murder of a third, and think, "I find this portrayal very flattering." Maybe it's just that being played by Ryan Gosling goes a long way. The story presented by All Good Things, which is a "names have been changed" version of the life of Robert Durst, is odd enough as it is. It's even odder when you factor in that Durst's enjoyment of the film prompted him to reach out to director Andrew Jerecki and agree to be interviewed, which in turn resulted in the television miniseries The Jinx, which in turn resulted in Durst being arrested and charged with one of the murders depicted in this film. Life is always so much stranger than fiction.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: 13th (2016)

* * * *

Director: Ava DuVernay

Words matter, which is part of the reason why the last several months have been so infuriating, as so many people with political power and media platforms have refused to call a spade a spade as a man who has built his campaign around racist policies and has explicitly encouraged racially charged violence at his rallies, and implicitly encouraged it at poling stations, runs for President. In an effort to avoid the accusation of "liberal bias," the media has helped cultivate the idea that the two major candidates are equally legitimate as candidates, even though one is basically just a politician - someone that you might agree with or might not, but who at least seems to understand and accept the limitations of power in a democracy - and the other is an insane megalomaniac who wants to curtail the freedom of the press, imprison his political rivals, outlaw a religion he doesn't like, and literally enclose his country inside a wall. Up until a week ago, when the tipping point was apparently reached, finally allowing all bets to be off, even the media outlets calling out the Republican nominee had largely avoided coming right out and calling this what it is, preferring to use terms like "dog whistle" rather than simply say he's racist. Well, he's racist. He's racist in a way that would have given Strom Thurmond pause, and that dude was fucking racist. In this bizarro world of pulling punches, Ava DuVernay's 13th is a breath of fresh air for saying exactly what it thinks. Bracing, thought provoking, and urgent, 13th isn't just one of the most important films of the year, it's one of the best.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review: The Dressmaker (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse
Starring: Kate Winslet

If you think that they don't make 'em like they used to anymore, then you've never seen Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker, vamping like Rita Hayworth, snarling like Bette Davis (perhaps the only actress who could have made more of her character's first line, "I'm back, you bastards."), and mixing strength and vulnerability like Vivien Leigh. But while it sometimes feels like a cross between Bad Day at Black Rock and Johnny Guitar, it wouldn't really be accurate to call the film, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham, a throwback to a different era. It is very much its own creature, one which defies easy classification, and one which is perhaps either the kind of movie that you embrace completely, or whose charms just completely escape you. It's an oddball, to be sure, but it's glorious in its weirdness.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: Central Intelligence (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson

Central Intelligence looks like it was a lot of fun to make. I'm not sure it's ever quite as much fun to watch, but I'm glad that some millionaires got to have a good time. Though the film is sometimes quite funny, it's also strangely inert given the high volume of action sequences spread throughout, and it inspired nothing more in me than indifference. Though indifference is probably better than massive disappointment, which is what I would have felt had I realized beforehand that its director, Rawson Marshall Thurber, is also the director of Dodgeball, a movie as silly as it is funny and had the benefit of Vince Vaughan at the height of his powers. Central Intelligence has the benefit of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart at the height of their powers, but somehow never makes as much of them as it could. Maybe next time will be better, and there certainly will be a next time given that Central Intelligence made a whole lot of money during the summer when just about nothing seemed to make quite enough money.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Adaptation (2002)

Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper
Country: United States

Few films have ever danced closer to the edge than Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman's dramatization of the impossible task of adapting Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief" for the screen, as told by Spike Jonze. In addition to its daring gambit of taking characters based on real people, who share the same names as those real people (real people who could have declined permission for the portrayal), and having them straight up try to murder two people (and succeeding in one case), it also runs the very real risk of disappearing up its own ass as it as it reflects on, dissects, and makes a jest of the creative process. At once an intimate story about the struggle to create itself, and an expansive story that's about everything, really, Adaptation is one of the most interesting and creatively breathtaking films of the last 16 years, confirming (if any further confirmation was truly needed) that Charlie Kaufman's brain is one of the most fascinating places on Earth.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Review: Amanda Knox (2016)

* * *

Director: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn

"We have here this beautiful, picturesque hilltop town in the middle of Italy. It was a particularly gruesome murder, throat slit, semi-naked, blood everywhere. I mean, what more do you want in a story?" That question, posed by journalist Nick Pisa (who somehow and effortlessly manages to emerge from this documentary as the most odious person in this story, which feels like an accomplishment in a perverse sort of way), finds its answer later in the film, when Pisa notes that the story also had two attractive young women and a hint of sex. "Girl on girl" crime, is how he puts it. That's what sells papers. Though Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn's Amanda Knox is being advertised as Knox's story in her own words, the documentary isn't really about Amanda Knox the person, nor is it ultimately about the murder of Meredith Kercher. It's more about the idea of "Amanda Knox," a hot commodity for a frenzied media dying to tell a story that combined murder, sex, and an American abroad. Whether you believe that Knox has gotten away with murder or that she was unfairly persecuted, Amanda Knox is a fascinating look at how narratives are shaped for the public and how fact can become so knotted up with rumor that they can seem impossible to separate.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: City 40 (2016)

* * *

Director: Samira Goetschel

Here's the premise: there's a city that is closed to outsiders and has, historically, been kept off of maps by the government. For generations people have lived and worked inside of its enclosures, their work (and lives) a carefully guarded state secret. For decades they were provided access to goods and amenities that the people living outside the city could only dream of, the only downside being that they're all basically guaranteed to either end up with cancer themselves or to lose most of their family to same. It sounds like science fiction. It's the reality of the place codenamed "City 40," home of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme since 1945 and only designated as a town, and granted the name "Ozyorsk," in 1994, though it remains closed to this day. It's a place that non-residents can only enter with special permission from Russia's secret police, and in which filming is prohibited. But, where there's a will, there's a way, as Samira Goetschel's documentary City 40 proves.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: Wake in Fright (1971)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Gary Bond

Sun-drenched and brutal, Wake in Fright is a primal scream of a movie that plays like a guided tour of hell. It's amazing that a film that feels so vivid and essential could come as close to being lost for all time as this one did, and a miracle of perseverance that it was ultimately rescued from such a fate, its negatives literally snatched from a bin marked "for destruction" and then painstakingly restored. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright is an unrelenting and deeply unsettling story of a man's degradation and self-destruction in the Australian outback - and not just because it famously contains footage of an actual kangaroo hunt (although that certainly helps in maintaining the overall atmosphere of despair and horror). Wake in Fright isn't for the faint of heart, but it's definitely a timeless classic.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review: The Rewrite (2014)

* *

Director: Marc Lawrence
Starring: Hugh Grant, Marisa Tomei

Early in The Rewrite the protagonist, a once celebrated Hollywood screenwriter who has fallen on hard times, complains that he can't sell any of his story ideas because all anyone wants to make are stories about female empowerment. Lord, please tell me where this crowded marketplace of movies about female empowerment are, because as far as I can tell it's white male protagonists as far as the eye can see. If you can ignore the fact that the film is premised on a problem (if a rise in the number of films about women can be seen as a problem) that simply does not exist, then The Rewrite is a pleasant enough diversion. It's somewhat sleepy overall and not nearly as much fun as previous Marc Lawrence/Hugh Grant collaborations Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics (I have no idea about Did You Hear About the Morgans?), but it's decent enough for what it is.