The Top 10 Movies of 2019

1 01 2020

176 movies later, and it’s pencils down on the year in film.

Like always, I wait until the very last minute to file a top 10 list. I either want to spend time rewatching films to make sure I think they can withstand scrutiny in the future or cramming in a final few. But with the notable exception of a late-surging final entrant and some jostling for position among the top five titles, my favorite films of the year have been remarkably stable.

I’ll have slightly more profound ruminating around my best of the decade list that will drop shortly than I do here. Normally I opine on some grander theme or mood, perhaps a through-line I find or something else that makes this more than just a random scattering of movies with numbers attached. Turns out, even after celebrating 10 years at doing this in 2019, I may only have enough juice in me for a single year-end thematic list.

Anyways, that’s enough with my chitter-chatter … because, after all, you really just came to know the movies and rankings! Though I alluded to how easy this year’s list was to assemble, I do want to give a shout-out to a few other films that meant a lot in 2019:

  • “Clemency,” an extraordinary look at America’s prison system and the moral choices it forces from all who interact with it – as seen through the eyes of a black woman
  • “Knives Out,” the kind of joyous original entertainment for smart moviegoers that I spend all year carping for more of, delivered with a killer topical twinge
  • “The Irishman,” a film with such multitudes about life, art and death that a single watch feels like only skimming the surface
  • “Transit,” a groundbreaking merger of period piece and current political drama that makes bold aesthetic choices seem simple
  • “High Life,” which taught me more about how to watch a movie than anything I’ve seen outside of a film studies classroom

Now, on with the show…

Read the rest of this entry »





Everything I Wrote in 2019

30 12 2019

Marshall Shaffer New York Film FestivalHello friends! A number of you might be getting this because you subscribed to email alerts from Marshall and the Movies way back when. Or maybe you’ve arrived from a social media platform. Either way, it’s very reasonable for you to think, “I know Marshall is writing a lot but don’t know where to find it since it’s not on Marshall and the Movies anymore!”

Well, this post is for YOU!

I’ve collected all my writing from this past year – and even included some writing I did about 2019 films from last year out of film festivals, just to give you a more robust reading list. I’m really proud of the work I did and felt myself grow as a writer, interviewer and thinker. I hope, as always, you can derive some kind of benefit from what I’ve written as well. Be it your next movie night or (if I may be so presumptuous) a new lens on a film or cinema at large, I’m always writing with you in mind. These pieces mean little if not shared with other people!

There will be more from me on this site in the coming days – a best of the decade and best of 2019, at the very least. Thanks for sticking with me in this 10th year of writing, and I know that 2020 and the decade to come hold some very exciting things!

“Smells Like ’10s Spirit” Column

“Smells Like ’10s Spirit” takes a look at the decade in movies through the lens of success stories only made possible by unique trends that emerged. This series explores ten films – one from each year of the 2010s – and a single social, economic or cultural factor that can explain why it made an impact or lingers in the collective memory. Each piece examines a single film that tells the larger story of the tectonic forces reshaping the entertainment landscape as we know it.

How That Iconic Trailer Saved ‘The Social Network’ (2010)

Why ‘Bridesmaids’ Owns the GIF Era of Movie Comedy (2011)

How ‘The Avengers’ Assembled the First Successful Cinematic Universe (2012)

How ‘Blackfish’ Epitomizes the Era of Hashtag Activism (2013)

How ‘The LEGO Movie’ Gave Brands a New Way to Talk (2014)

‘Jurassic World’ and the Era of Nonstop Nostalgia (2015)

(Stay tuned for the rest in 2020!)

Reviews of 2019 Releases*

*Some of these were originally published out of festivals in 2018, but since I’m rounding up everything for this year, I figured I might as well throw them in! (Things that I wrote in 2019 about 2020 films will be in the “Festival Coverage” section below.)

“Everybody Knows”

“To Dust”

“Birds of Passage”

“Climax”

“Gloria Bell”

“The Hummingbird Project”

“High Life”

“Peterloo”

“Dogman”

“Her Smell”

“Teen Spirit”

“Hail Satan?”

“Non-Fiction”

“‘Charlie Says”

“Wild Rose”

“Los Reyes”

“Jawline”

“The Laundromat”

“American Dharma”

“Motherless Brooklyn”

“Queen of Hearts”

“Ford v Ferrari”

“Waves”

“Varda by Agnès”

“Knives Out”

“Feast of the Epiphany”

“Temblores”

“Little Joe”

“Knives and Skin”

“6 Underground”

“Invisible Life”

Interviews

Joanna Kulig, star of “Cold War”

Mike Leigh, writer/director of “Peterloo”

Claire Denis and Robert Pattinson, co-writer/director and star of “High Life”

Marcello Fonte, star of “Dogman” (from TIFF 2018)

Mary Harron, director of “Charlie Says”

Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, co-writer/director and co-writer/star of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

Jack Reynor, actor in “Midsommar”

Lynn Shelton, co-writer/director of “Sword of Trust”

Riley Stearns, writer/director of “The Art of Self-Defense”

Julius Onah and Kelvin Harrison Jr., co-writer/director and star of “Luce”

Lauren Greenfield, director of “The Kingmaker”

Trey Edward Shults, co-editor/writer/director of “Waves”

Marielle Heller, director of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Céline Sciamma, writer/director of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

Eddie Redmayne, star of “The Aeronauts”

Jessica Hausner, co-writer/director of “Little Joe”

Jennifer Reeder, writer/director of “Knives and Skin”

Features

Significant ‘Other’: How Chris Kelly’s ‘Other People’ Informs ‘The Other Two’ on Comedy Central

I Must Think of a New Life: On the Deliberate Duration of Judd Apatow’s Funny People

Taking ‘The Goldfinch’ from Page to Screen with Editor Kelley Dixon

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless May: Elaine May’s Discarded Women in A New Leaf and The Waverly Gallery

The 10 Biggest, Craziest and Most Important Cinematic Career Reinventions of the Decade

Festival Coverage

The Streamer’s Guide to Sundance 2019: What Non-Festgoers Can Watch at Home

The Kids Aren’t Alright: A Preview of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2019

Tribeca Report: The Inaugural Critics’ Week

Tribeca Report: Here Comes Generation Z

Tribeca Film Festival Review: Christoph Waltz’s ‘Georgetown’

BAMCinemaFest Review: Tayarisha Poe’s ‘Selah and The Spades’

BAMCinemaFest Review: Diana Peralta’s ‘De Lo Mio’

What To Expect at Fantasia Festival 2019

Fantasia 2019 Report: At the Mercy of the Programmers

Fantasia 2019 Report: Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

‘Mosul’ Director Matthew Michael Carnahan on Filming His Directorial Debut in a Language He Didn’t Speak and in a Foreign Nation [Interview]

The Streamer’s Guide to the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival: What Non-Festgoers Can Watch at Home

TIFF Report: Keeping the Faith

‘Guns Akimbo’ Review: A Gaming Satire That Indulges in What It Critiques [TIFF]

‘Jojo Rabbit’ and ‘A Hidden Life’ Offer Alternate and Equally Compelling Takes on Fighting Back Against Nazis [TIFF]

“Now Is Our Time”: How Global Female Directors at TIFF 2019 Subverted Everything

The Unsung Gems of TIFF 2019: Three Under-the-Radar Films You Should Know About

The Streamer’s Guide to the 2019 New York Film Festival: What Non-Festgoers Can Watch at Home

‘Liberté’ Review: A Prolonged Graphic Experience That Overstays Its Welcome [NYFF]

‘Young Ahmed’ Review: A Realistic But Uneven Look at the Effects of Extremism [NYFF]

‘The Moneychanger’ Review: A Slight Political Drama with a Few Delights [NYFF]

‘Wasp Network’ Review: Even Recut, It’s Still a Clunker [NYFF]

10 Lessons From Watching the Entire 2019 New York Film Festival Main Slate

‘First Cow’ Review: Kelly Reichardt’s Intriguing Tale of Early American Capitalism [NYFF]

Reporting

Todd Phillips Denies ‘Joker’ Sequel & Meeting Reports; Responds to Scorsese’s Marvel Comments





Everything I Wrote from TIFF 2019

21 09 2019

TIFF 2019 with sign.pngI always told myself that Marshall and the Movies would never become just a repository for links to pieces I’ve written elsewhere, and yet, here we are again…

I saw 35 films from the TIFF 2019 selection between screeners, pre-screenings and on-the-ground festival coverage. (I saw 23 films there in 5 days, for those curious!) I’m grateful as always to have a chance to share my thoughts on some of the most exciting new films debuting and getting an opportunity to help shape the early conversations around them. Thanks to the many editors who gave me the opportunity to contribute!

Since everyone is going to ask, my favorites were “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Knives Out” and “Waves.” Among the highest profile titles, I also really enjoyed “Jojo Rabbit,” “A Hidden Life,” “Just Mercy,” “Bad Education,” “Synchronic” and “Sound of Metal.” Some foreign-directed gems to look out for are “The Other Lamb,” “The County,” “Wet Season” and “The Audition.”

TIFF 2019

Reviews

TIFF 2019 Review: On the Spiritual Strivings of Trey Edward Shults’ ‘Waves’

TIFF 2019 Review: ‘Knives Out’ Shows Rian Johnson Sharp as Ever

TIFF 2019 Review: James Mangold’s ‘Ford v Ferrari’ Provides an Old-School Adult Drama

‘The Laundromat’ Review: Steven Soderbergh Delivers an Uneven but Undeniably Ambitious Slice of Modern History [TIFF]

‘Guns Akimbo’ Review: A Gaming Satire That Indulges in What It Critiques [TIFF]

The Unsung Gems of TIFF 2019: Three Under-the-Radar Films You Should Know About

Interviews

‘Mosul’ Director Matthew Michael Carnahan on Filming His Directorial Debut in a Language He Didn’t Speak and in a Foreign Nation [Interview]

Taking ‘The Goldfinch’ from Page to Screen with Editor Kelley Dixon

Features

The Streamer’s Guide to the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival: What Non-Festgoers Can Watch at Home

TIFF Report: Keeping the Faith

‘Jojo Rabbit’ and ‘A Hidden Life’ Offer Alternate and Equally Compelling Takes on Fighting Back Against Nazis [TIFF]

“Now Is Our Time”: How Global Female Directors at TIFF 2019 Subverted Everything

 

 





A decade of Marshall and the Movies.

28 07 2019

“I have no idea where this inspired idea will take me,” a 16-year-old Marshall wrote on his first day of blogging, “but I know that the first thing that write will somehow come full circle.” This is not the end, to be clear. In fact, hopefully, this is far from the end. But nothing like a big milestone to inspire a lot of introspection, self-congratulation and gratitude, right?

Writing this blog changed my life. Maybe even saved it, if we want to get dramatic. The person who started writing this blog is forever a part of me, but in a ways, the 26-year-old Marshall who’s banging out this post feels like an entirely different person. So, if you’ll excuse the potential pretentiousness, I want to write in a kind of third-person omniscient narrator voice about this person who now seems so foreign to me but is also so dear.

“I have trouble getting things started,” he typed at 11:47:50 P.M. on Monday, July 27, 2009. “I don’t know where or when this will end, but it starts now.” He couldn’t know that he’d log over 1,500 movie reviews and 2,500 posts on the site. He couldn’t know that it would be a crucial selling point (perhaps) in interviews for scholastic and professional opportunities. He couldn’t know that the act of sharing his passion with others rather than keeping it to himself out of shame and fear would radically change how others saw him – and open up new opportunities for authentic, meaningful connection.

He couldn’t know that someday, he’d still be writing about movies, just exceedingly less and less on this site he started. (The “American Hustle” banner art ought to give away the last time the layout was seriously examined.) He couldn’t know that the passion project he worked on after finishing homework, during lunch breaks at work and (every so often) in class would open up an avenue for professionalization and monetization.

He couldn’t know that a childhood hero like Roger Ebert would compliment him. That he’d be interviewing some of the filmmakers behind some of his favorite films. (That he’d even want to talk to the guy who played Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” movies – remember, this was 2009!) That he’d be accredited to attend some of the world’s greatest film festivals. That his word would carry enough weight that a studio would put it in trailer and marketing collateral.

He knew he’d love combining his passions of film and writing, but he couldn’t know just how much that love would ripple out and affect everything else in his life. He just had the idea to start something, a Julie Powell-inspired burst of inspiration that his thoughts mattered and were worth sharing. 26-year-old Marshall thanks 16-year-old Marshall for this every day. It wasn’t always easy, but we made it somewhere neither of us thought was possible.

To everyone who humored me, especially in the early days when this seemed like more of a self-indulgent waste of time than anything else (and who’s to stay it still isn’t, honestly?), I owe you beyond anything you could ever imagine. To feel like my words and ideas had some merit meant so much to that teenager who felt small and alone. This also applies to anyone I’ve ever connected with online through movies as well and maybe hasn’t even met me in real life or has no idea about the person behind the words!

I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know how much longer this will go. That’s not any indication that I’m hesitating, by the way, just an admission that perhaps I’m not quite so different as the 16-year-old who banged out that first post over his MacBook a decade ago. But 26-year-old me has so much more than that – confidence, experience; community, self-reliance; support, trust.

If you’re reading this, you’ve played a part in making that possible. This accomplishment belongs to you, too. I hope you know the impact you have on people, including me, and that you continue to use that impact to make the world around you a brighter place. Be it through supporting others or believing in yourself, your affirmations have power. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing about movies for 10 years, it’s that there is a world of people out there who are full of passion. Many of these people I’ve come to know share this spark for film, but I’ve also come to realize that being your most authentic self can help inspire others to be theirs as well. I promise you that there’s someone out there who shares your very particular brand of zeal for something. Let others know, and you’ll find your people.

That’s all I’ve got for now, as most of you really just come here for me talking about the movies! But on this milestone occasion, I hope you’ll spare me waxing a little sentimental and personal. (And I know this site is getting a little rusty from lack of use. I promise I’ll start making it back here more … some day!)





Top 10 of 2018 (My 10th Top 10)

31 12 2018

My goodness, have I really been doing these for 10 years now? I know I play the gobsmacked card at just about every one of these milestones, but when you take a step back and think about how time moves both quickly and imperceptibly, it has the power to bowl you over.

It’s so interesting to look back at my various top 10 lists and see how my top choices reflect how I’ve changed since writing this blog. There was my anxiety about being a loner in high school (“Up in the Air,” “Black Swan“), the awakening of a political consciousness as I watched cinema respond to the Great Recession in real time (“Win Win,” “The Queen of Versailles“), a freakout about identity after a semester abroad revealed a new side of myself (“American Hustle“) and the desire for deep connection and feeling in a dark world (“Manchester by the Sea,” “Call Me by Your Name“). Oh, and there was also a period where I fully believe I chose inarguable masterpieces (“The Immigrant” in 2014, “Inside Out” in 2015).

Who knows how I’ll feel looking back at this crop of choices down the line? I can’t worry about it now or think like that, though. As I can now see, learning more about these movies has also led to me learning more about myself. One unifying theme I picked out of the 2018 list is that six are roughly 90 minutes or less, and none are over two hours long. I watched 173 new releases in 2018 and spent over 875 hours watching movies during the year (thanks, Letterboxd, for that frightening statistic). Making that time count and not wasting it apparently counts for a lot with me these days!

A final note for longtime readers of Marshall and the Movies – namely, friends and family – I’m sure you’ve noticed that I am posting less and less on the blog these days. My work has primarily shifted to doing freelance writing on other websites so I can make a little bit of money off my words. I don’t regret this pivot, but I do wish that I’d done a better job about communicating that change to people who mostly come here (and to the Facebook page) looking for those takes. So, in 2019, I resolve to be better about sharing my work to my first real audience.

Thank you all, as always, for your time and support. No matter how your 2018 went, I hope your 2019 is filled with joy and splendor, be it cinematic or real.

So, without further ado, my 10 favorite films of 2018…

Read the rest of this entry »





Everything I Wrote from #TIFF18

17 09 2018

TIFFI’ve now pretty much filed everything from my time at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival! I was grateful to have the opportunity to attend again this year, now with a full badge, and write about some excellent films. I might have more to say about some of these titles later on Marshall and the Movies, but for now, here’s a collection of links to my published pieces from the festival. Many thanks to the editors who commissioned all this work and made the trip possible.

Now, after penning 24,000 words in two weeks, it’s time for me to catch up on some sleep…

Slashfilm

The Streamer’s Guide to the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival: What Non-Festgoers Can Watch at Home

‘Monsters and Men’ is an Uneven but Potent Drama About Police Violence [TIFF]

‘Beautiful Boy’ Provides a Moving Showcase for Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell [TIFF]

‘Ben Is Back’ Haunts As It Shows the Ripple Effect of Addiction [TIFF]

‘Climax’ Review: Gaspar Noé’s Latest Dances Deliriously Toward Death [TIFF]

‘mid90s’ Review: Jonah Hill’s Directorial Debut is a Masterful Coming-of-Age Tale [TIFF]

‘Everybody Knows’ Review: Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz Lead a Thrilling, If Impersonal, Kidnapping Drama [TIFF]

‘Gloria Bell’ Review: Julianne Moore Charms in a Fun but Melancholy Romance [TIFF]

‘Assassination Nation’ Review: A Fascinating Tale of Online Justice Falters in Its Second Half [TIFF]

‘What They Had’ Review: Michael Shannon Dominates a Pleasant, If Unremarkable, Debut Feature [TIFF]

‘Boy Erased’ Review: Lucas Hedges Devastates in Conversion Therapy Drama [TIFF]

‘Maya’ Review: Mia Hansen-Løve Falters Slightly With Familiar Drama [TIFF]

‘The Hummingbird Project’ Review: An Engaging Financial Thriller Stops Just Short of Greatness [TIFF]

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Review: Melissa McCarthy Gets More Real Than Ever as a Legendary Fake [TIFF]

‘Teen Spirit’ Review: Max Minghella’s Directorial Debut Lacks Pop [TIFF]

‘Dogman’ Review: A Morality Tale We Deserve [TIFF]

‘Peterloo’ Review: A Different Kind of Historical Epic [TIFF]

‘Non-Fiction’ Review: Olivier Assayas’ Latest Film is a Droll Delight [TIFF]

‘Birds of Passage’ Review: A Thrilling and Refreshing Take on the Drug Trade [TIFF]

Crooked Marquee

TIFF Report: The Addiction Obsession

TIFF Report: Political, Not Polemical

Vague Visages

TIFF 2018: Embracing the Oxymoronic – A Review of Jacques Audiard’s ‘The Sisters Brothers’

TIFF 2018: One Small Step – A Review of Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’

TIFF 2018: Interview With ‘Dogman’ Actor Marcello Fonte

Decider

Thomas Mann on Growing Up in Netflix’s ‘The Land of Steady Habits’

Slant

Interview: Jacques Audiard on the Making of The Sisters Brothers





REVIEW: Avengers: Infinity War

1 08 2018

At some point during the seemingly interminable carousel of trailers prior to “Avengers: Infinity War,” a thought occurred to me: I should probably do a quick Google to see if there’s any information I need to know before the movie starts. I’d done the legwork of seeing the previous installments (“Thor: The Dark World” excepted because everyone tells me I didn’t miss much), but they linger in my system like a flat, lukewarm draft beer in a plastic cup. As Marvel click-chasing as the Internet is these days, there was plenty of service journalism on page one to fill me in.

The more I read, the more I saw information about infinity stones. What they were, who had them, what happened the last time we saw one. I’m not such a passive viewer that I had no concept of these whatsoever, but, to be honest, I had stopped giving them much thought a few years back. Infinity stones were like excess information from a high school history lecture – you have some vague sense that these tidbits might show up on the final but not enough to scare you into paying full attention.

Imagine showing up for the final and having it be only those bits of knowledge you considered superfluous. That’s “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The analogy actually doesn’t fully compute because it puts far too much responsibility on me, the audience member, for keeping up. Over the past five years, after correctly sensing the audience could sense Marvel’s formula, head honcho Kevin Feige implemented a new strategy to avoid brand complacency. He brought in accomplished directors with a real sense of style and personality – no offense to Favreau, Johnston and others who can clearly helm a solid studio action flick. A handful of rising talents got the chance to play with a massive toolbox to make largely personal films on nine-figure budgets. Better yet, they essentially got to treat these infinity stones like MacGuffins, items whose actual substance matters little since they serve to move the plot and provide a goal for the hero.

Think about these films from late phase two and early phase three, as the canonically-minded Marvel fans would say. James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” films aren’t memorable because of their quest for Power Stone; they’ve endured because of the joyous rush of a stilted man-child who gets to live out his Han Solo fantasies to the tunes of his banging ’80s mix-tape. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” has far more interesting things to say about black identity, heritage and responsibility than it does about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taika Waititi was still playing into the future of the studio’s master plan, yet he got to toss out much of what had been done with the God of Thunder in “Thor: Ragnarok” and cast him like the offbeat protagonists of his Kiwi comedies to find humor and heart where there had previously been little.

“Avengers: Infinity War” is a feature length “Well, actually…” from Marvel. The Russo Brothers are here to deliver the bad news that those infinity stones were actually the only thing that mattered the whole time. Silly you for thinking the studio cared about things like artistry and personality!

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Lean on Pete

29 07 2018

As I hit “publish” on this piece, “Lean on Pete,” one of 2018’s best releases, is available to stream on Amazon Prime. You should do so as soon as possible, provided your heart is open to being broken in the most artful and least sensational of ways.

The film stuck with me from the first time I saw it at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. There, in my review for Slashfilm, I wrote:

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is a social realist drama of the highest order, combining the gentle pastoral touch of David Lynch’s The Straight Story with a probing sympathy for individuals on the edge of society recalling the best of the Dardenne brothers. There’s no armchair sociology here, just rich character observation steeped in a spirit of compassion. Haigh never veers into grandstanding “issues movie” territory or troubled youth drama. It’s just the story of an adolescent boy in need of the tiniest bit of permanence and security.

Without the slightest whiff of personification or anthropomorphism, a bond develops between Charley [the teenaged protagonist] and Lean on Pete [the titular horse], unlike the usual cinematic connection between boy and animal. The horse does not exist to teach Charley some lesson about himself or life. He’s an extension of Charley himself, an object onto which he can project some of the greatest aspirations he holds for an uncertain future. When he’s with Lean on Pete, Plummer’s smile is radiant enough to power all the stadium lights at the racetrack, which makes the slow disappearance of that grin even more devastating.”

Read the rest of this entry »





Here we are. Year 9.

28 07 2018

“I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that […] one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

– Sarah Ruhl, “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write”

I could go back and count, but just having a number probably won’t make the point as well as my next phrase will: I’ve barely written on Marshall and the Movies in the last year. Less so than any year in the history of the site, which, as of today, is nine years. If writing this blog followed the same rules as the presidency, I’d be term limited by now. (That is NUTS to me.)

The past year has held arguably the most monumental changes in my life, probably ranking up there with … well, starting this site, for one! I’ve now been residing in New York for eight months and have been ramping up both my moviegoing activity and freelance writing as a result. (You can read a lot about that here.) I’ve left Marshall and the Movies, my original baby, on the back-burner as I reconnect with old friends, make new ones and explore all that this city has to offer. To be clear, I have absolutely NO INTENTION of ceasing activity here or shutting the site down. (One year short of a decade, are you kidding me?)

I’m trying to make it a priority to start writing here again, in part because I can toy around in it like a sandbox before attempting similar feats in pieces sent off to professional editors. I love writing this site and often feel like jotting down my thoughts here after seeing a movie is the only way to complete my experience of processing it. While my initial goal of reviewing every movie I’ve seen that’s been released since summer 2009 when I started this blog seems unattainable now (losing a year will do that to you), I do want to regain some ground.

Even though I’m not always updating this site, know that the passion for cinema still burns deep inside me. You can find information and updates from me on the following sites in lieu of posts here, in case you’re really dying to know what I’m watching and thinking:

Facebook

Twitter

Letterboxd

Portfolio site (literally everything I’m writing elsewhere, always kept up to date)

As always, thank you all for continuing to support, encourage and read. There would be a site without you – just being honest – but it would not be nearly as fun or useful. Your readership makes this something besides a vanity project or a selfish hobby! It probably still is those things, but at least you give me some reassurance that it serves as something more.

Anyways, here’s Greta Gerwig telling me she’s happy I moved to New York, a major peak in my life, because how else was I supposed to end this post?





REVIEW: Ant-Man and the Wasp

9 07 2018

There’s been a recent trend in the last five years or so in superhero filmmaking where directors feel the need to say their movie is cut from a different cloth. It’s not only a blockbuster, it’s just dressed up like one. Whether it was “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as a ’70s-style paranoid thriller or (my personal favorite) James Mangold’s “Logan” as “an Ozu film with mutants,” the implication is that being a superhero movie on its face is shameful – or not enough.

This long-winded intro is just a set up to say that Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” finds success by being something besides a Marvel, only that something is a type of film that actually meshes quite well with a super suit. It’s a Paul Rudd movie! The star, who also shares a co-writing credit on the film, infuses his charming, witty energy into all facets of the project. Before the self-aware smugness of “Deadpool” and the commercially-motivated universe building of “The Avengers,” comic book movies could be like this. (You know, eons ago … like 2008 with the first “Iron Man.”)

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is wonderfully self-contained, driven less by the need to connect to some grand five-picture arc and more by the immediate concerns of the story. Rudd’s Scott Lang wants to be cleared from his house arrest following the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” yet the urgent call of duty with Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym and Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp threatens to undo years of his patience in exile. As with many of these films, the real joy is in their group banter – especially whenever Scott lacks the knowledge or information that his counterparts possess.

Reed ditches some of the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”-style cheekiness about size and scale that dominated the first “Ant-Man,” which might have been a holdover from Edgar Wright’s involvement with the series. The film compensates for the loss of that humor with more Rudd being Rudd, a welcome thing be it a Marvel movie or a David Wain romp. While it might not be enough to completely overcome a lackluster villain, relatively generic fight scenes, and total underuse of Michelle Pfeiffer, it’s still better than watching Marvel’s carousel of white guys named Chris play tough and moody. B





REVIEW: Leave No Trace

5 07 2018

There’s an overarching gentleness in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” one that’s commendable alone for being practically unrecognizable in today’s culture. The titular phrase does not quite encapsulate the writer/director’s approach to the film, but if her style took on human form, it would not audibly rustle any leaves in the sylvan setting. Even compared to Kelly Reichardt, another restrained humanist director working heavily in the Pacific Northwest, Granik’s naturalism pierces our senses by treading ever so lightly on them.

I knew little about this project or its origins before viewing it – always a wonderful luxury – was surprised to learn in the closing credits that Granik, along with her fellow Oscar-nominated co-writer of “Winter’s Bone,” Anne Rosellini, adapted the film from a novel. While “Leave No Trace” peers deeply into the souls of the two central characters, the film contains scarcely any of the psychological underpinnings necessary to keep a story alive on the page.

Ben Foster’s Will, a homeless veteran living with his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) off the grid in Oregon, clearly carries some baggage to inspire such a drastic break with social norms. Yet Granik refuses to turn his internal anguish into fuel for the narrative. Will is not a mystery for us to solve. He simply is.

Granik seems to view her role as not to film these characters, stand off to the side, and ask why they do what they do. “Leave No Trace” is unobtrusive almost to the point of fault, letting the world of the film breathe, unfurling and concealing itself in equal measure. She relishes in the unhurried moments and languorous journeys without resorting to Slow Cinema tactics of deliberate, self-conscious audience alienation.

Foster tempers his usual wild man tendencies to vibrate along Granik’s wavelength here, and the contrast with something like “Hell or High Water” proves striking. But the film belongs to relative newcomer McKenzie, who captures the pains of maturation with an added layer of confusion stemming from years of social isolation. Granik never sensationalizes Tom watching peers take an endless stream of selfies or listening to girls at a foster home deride her previous lifestyle in the woods as being homeless. She doesn’t have to because McKenzie can express that wild rush of contradictory emotions in her wide, wondrous eyes and such searingly authentic gestures as the quivering of a chin. B





REVIEWS: RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

4 07 2018

For someone who struggled to get friends jazzed for documentaries a few years ago, it’s been nice to see two non-fiction features doing blockbuster numbers. Two biographical docs, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG” along with Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” will gross whopping eight-figure sums. Netflix has certainly helped grease the skids by investing heavily in documentary content of many lengths and formats, but there seems to be something bigger at play here beyond just a small-screen effect.

Subjects Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers are, in many senses, miles apart. Ginsburg is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who’s used her power to secure major victories for women’s rights, while Rogers was a social conservative and fairly prototypical Reagan Republican. Yet in their respective adulations this summer, I don’t see a blue state-red state divide – in fact, quite the opposite. Granted that one figure is significantly more political than the other, but both stand for something larger than party in a time where seemingly everything is partisan.

These members of the so-called Silent Generation were both crucial in giving voice to the concerns of groups ignored and dismissed by society. Because RBG fought for herself to have a seat at the table in a chauvinistic legal world, both in academia and in practice, she was able to use her power as a litigator and later Supreme Court Justice to fight vigorously for all women to receive an equal opportunity. Mr. Rogers, meanwhile, eschewed the priesthood to evangelize through the medium of television, then a pure entertainment delivery service which no one thought could work as a tool for education. By listening to children and telling them their thoughts and feelings mattered, Rogers inspired a generation of children (including me, who will tear up a little bit every time I hear the jingle).

Ginsburg and Rogers are both inspiring humanists who told women and children, respectively, that they were granted certain rights and dignities just by being themselves. Both believed so fervently in their causes and were so unwavering in their convictions that they inspired loyalty and friendship from unlikely corners. RBG was a traveling buddy with her ideological opposite on the court, Antonin Scalia, while Mr. Rogers maintained fond relationships with members of the cast and crew whose lifestyles were anathema to his own beliefs.

It’s interesting to consider, however, that while both were ascendant for most of their careers, their respective apexes never seemed to overlap. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a perfect program for America in the twentieth century, when a surge in post-war optimism and affluence allowed the country to consider the needs and desires of children. While the show never shied away from tragedy, be it the RFK assassination or the Challenger explosion, the strength of America to stick together and overcome the sadness never felt in doubt.

The violent imagery of the attack on 9/11 shattered that patina of invincibility, and it wore on Mr. Rogers. The most heartbreaking moment of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” comes towards the close when Neville shows behind-the-scenes footage of Rogers shooting PSAs for PBS in the wake of the tragedy. He offers touching, inspiring words, yet the reassurance present in four decades of his show feels totally absent. Had “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” continued into the new millennium, it seems unlikely that the jolly, comforting host would have felt honest.

Ginsburg, on the other hand, hit her stride in the past decade or so as her scathing dissents from the bench went viral. Her refusal to mince words in an era rife with prevarication and equivocation struck a chord with a younger generation. If society already places little value on the opinions of women, it places even less on the opinions of older women. RBG’s refusal to go quietly when she still has so much to say has made her an icon for the social media era. Funny enough, as Cohen and West point out, her outsized persona is at odds with her relatively quiet personality. (In other words, that Kate McKinnon impersonation – which the documentary shows RBG watching for the first time – is not accurate.)

While both “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” follow standard biographical documentary formats, they manage to overcome staleness by focusing as much on the ideas and virtues animating their subject. We see not just them but who they inspired – and how they did it. These films are both worthy and inspiring testaments to two great Americans.

RBG – B+ / 3stars
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A-





REVIEW: Custody

3 07 2018

“Custody” is a film I’ve spilled much virtual ink on, first on Vague Visages in a capsule review for its appearance in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema:

Xavier Legrand is not wasting a second of his time behind the camera. His first directorial outing, the short film “Just Before Losing Everything,” earned him an Oscar nomination. His second (and first feature), “Custody,” won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival last fall. In an hour and a half, he packs a concentrated gut punch of tension and trauma as he chronicles the fallout of a divorce that has turned from bitter to septic. Though the first 15 minutes details a court proceeding between the dissolved couple, the rest of “Custody” puts the emphasis on how the separation affects their two children. Particularly when it comes to young Julien, Legrand exposes how kids can become just another pawn in the power games that exes play.

I also had the chance to sit down with Legrand himself in an interview for Slant. Our chat revealed a lot of intentionality behind what I recognized as a thoughtful take on domestic violence. “Custody” is more than just a violent man and a helpless woman, the image many works of pop culture conjure up when depicting the subject. The exchange below shows some of that:

The film does such a great job of showing how this divorce and relationship takes a toll on their children, particularly Julien, whose perspective is really explored in the middle of the film. Was that always going to be a focus—and if not, how did you decide to dig into that point of view?

The film is about domestic violence, but I think the real subject is how do children experience and move through this kind of situation. I don’t think it would work to make a film on domestic violence where we only try to understand the violence between partners. Doing that would allow us to forget that kids are also victims. In France, the expression we use is violence conjugal, which means “violence against partners.” In the United States, you use domestic violence, which I think is a more accurate term. It’s an error to differentiate between the partner and the parent. You have to include both.

Legrand also described the film as beginning like a courtroom drama in the mold of “Kramer vs. Kramer” only to end up as a terrifying thriller like “The Shining.” It’s an audacious and bold tonal swing, one that he completely earns and pulls off with no genre whiplash. See it, experience it, and consider it for yourself. B+





REVIEW: First Reformed

2 07 2018

I don’t have much to say about Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” that I didn’t say in my rave review for Slashfilm out of TIFF last year. It’s currently sitting atop my best of the year list at the midway point of 2018, and it will take a mighty potent film to dethrone it by December. This is a film with an urgent, powerful message that resonates deeply with a world going mad that is also perfectly wedded to an austere visual style and overall aesthetic. It will be a long time before I shake this movie.

For more of my poetic language about the film, I’ll refer you to the aforementioned article. Here’s a sampling of what I wrote:

We’ve quietly entered a renaissance of master American filmmakers tackling religious subjects with the gravity, dignity and seriousness they deserve. Add Paul Schrader’s latest movie “First Reformed” to a growing list of modern masterpieces on faith through hardship that includes Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” and James Gray’s “The Immigrant.”

Schrader’s work stands out in this group, however, as the only one to take place in the present day. “First Reformed” is an essential parable for the Trump era about the role of the church in the most pressing moral and political issues facing our world. Through the tortured consciousness of Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain turned custodian of a historical Calvinist church, Schrader explores a country’s moral malaise and the seeming inability of mainline Christianity to mobilize against it.

[…]

“First Reformed” charts Toller’s turbulent internal journey, which heads to dark and disturbing corners of his mind, with an emotional reserve as chilly as the film’s wintry weather. None of this is surprising given Schrader’s well-documented affinity for directors such as Bresson and Dreyer, but the steadiness of this aesthetic rigor helps balance a film daring to ask some thorny questions about how actively religion should participate in the public square – as well as how much they should bring those issues into their churches. And Hawke, both deeply expressive and internal as Toller, adds a human spin on the issues to really drive them home.

Their combined efforts form a powerful challenge to Christians, without derision or condescension, to live up to their stated values and honor their sacred text. At the very least, apathy in the face of flagrant immoral and unjust deeds in the world should be taken off the table for any who take the time to thoughtfully engage with “First Reformed.”

A





REVIEW: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

1 07 2018

In 2016, a short film called “Sunspring” used AI technology to produce a script based on predictive text. The result is something borderline nonsensical, containing words and phrases but little in the way of logic or cohesion. Give the algorithm time, and it will probably catch up with what made it into the screenplay for “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” (And I can imagine the computer is probably cheaper than Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow’s salary.)

All the outlines and contours of a studio action movie are present, yet the finer details requiring an artistic touch are not. Dialogue has no punch or flavor, usually just serving to advance plot and fill air before a big action moment. Trevorrow’s direction of the first film in this new series no doubt paid great reverence to maestro Steven Spielberg. J.A. Bayona, taking over the helm for the sequel, does not so much imitate the franchise’s originator as he forcefully repeats all his hallmarks ad nauseam. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is Spielbergian in the way that a luxury car commercial is a James Bond movie; it’s a distillation of filmmaking panache into a handful of easily recognizable clichés.

Acting feels like sleepwalking, particularly from leads Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt. The surrogate parenting undertaken by the two characters in 2015’s “Jurassic World” means that their relationship was mostly mediated through those youngsters, neither of which appear in this sequel. When Claire and Owen (whose names I had to look up on IMDb in order to write this review) finally reunite, there’s not a drop of urgency or a whiff of stakes to the encounter. Try as they might, none of the countless new random supporting characters with scant development can ever ignite the spark between them on screen. Their Han-Leia style sexual tension sputters every time it starts.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” at least has decent spectacle to justify the film’s existence, the credit for which must go to the visual effects artists who continue to set new standards for realism with each new installment. Bayona makes good use of a different setting away from the island, a palatial estate where villainous Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) intends to auction off dinosaurs to the highest black market bidder. He gets one good bit of explanatory dialogue about how his plan actually serves the greater cause of species conservation, although it’s too bad it couldn’t have approximated more of the truly riveting ethical quandaries explored in last year’s poaching documentary “Trophy.”

The real problem, though, is that no one inside the mansion makes the film anything interesting to watch. It’s a $200 million advertisement for the theme park, bait for customers paying $15 for a ticket to eventually pay hundreds for an immersive brand experience. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” like many blockbusters of its ilk, are getting lazier and more brazen in touting how the movie is little more than a flashy centerpiece for a larger branding campaign. The result is that we are now living a truly confounding time where a film like this can open to a whopping $150 million … and somehow not even leave the smallest footprint on popular culture. C /