REVIEW: The Wound

16 08 2017

At least for now, it’s taken as an assumption that most queer cinema will take place against the background of a heteronormative society. Few visualize it like John Trengove’s “The Wound,” a drama set in among a South African tribe participating in a male circumcision ritual. The first love scene between two men is shot from a dispassionate distance where thrusting is but the motion of a few pixels, and a scene of fellatio shortly after takes place in such dark silhouettes that individuating features are not discernible. These actions is so forbidden and their pleasures so taboo that what we see is little more than bodies in motion.

When we’re closer to two men’s physical intimacy, Trengove shows us the effects of a hypermasculine culture on the lovers. Two people who feel a deep emotional bond do not always feel comfortable enough in their own bodies to express that, so we see a lot of uncomfortable and awkward groping, grasping and grabbing. It’s like watching a surrender to primal urges, stripped from any kind of notions of romance or sensuality.

“The Wound” is less compelling when these characters try to awkwardly integrate in with their more macho companions in the tribe. Trengove does astutely observe the ways that homoeroticism thrives in homophobic spaces; for example, several young men expose their genitalia to each other from behind towels to compare unit length but throw around anti-gay epithets at will. Yet his film operates better with themes than it does with people. The central love triangle is poorly defined, and the other characters are mere caricatures. B-





REVIEW: Imperium

15 08 2017

“We all create a narrative based on what we think is important,” Toni Collette’s FBI official Angela Zamparo suggests at the start of “Imperium.” She’s begging her colleague, Daniel Radcliffe’s sheepish bookworm agent Nate Foster, to broaden his mindset about what constitutes a clear threat to American security. That involves ditching a predilection for radical Islamic terrorism to focus his attention on a burgeoning threat to the country: white supremacist violence.

Based on some evidence suggesting a chemical bomb on the scale of Oklahoma City, Angela sends Nate deep into the hate-filled clutches of these neo-Nazi groups armed with little more than a buzzcut, knowledge gained from a white nationalist reading list and his own intuition. Oh, and she gives him pointers here and there from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to relate to some of the most frightening skinheads circling the gutter of society. How’s that for espionage? The film provides a consistently engaging, if never full engrossing, thrill ride down the drain.

Nate’s main target is a talk radio host of the Alex Jones variety, Tracy Letts’ #WhiteGenocide conspiracy peddling crackpot Dallas Wolf, to get to the center of the underground chemicals network. He’s a shady character who inspires some truly violent, hateful figures. But the scariest person in “Imperium” is the buttoned-up Gerry Conway, a family man who can weave racist talking points into everyday dialogue with shocking casualness. He might not embrace the full scope of fascism, but Gerry’s embrace of white nationalist ideals in spite of his apparent intelligence ought to give us all chills. White supremacy does not always come decked out in a swastika. Sometimes, it looks like your neighbor in his button-down shirt and gentle smile. B





REVIEW: The Glass Castle

12 08 2017

There’s a strain of thought currently dominating the conversation around class in America, and it finds best expression in J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” To loosely sum it up, the argument is that rural white Americans possess a kind of misunderstood nobility that’s mistaken for a lack of sophistication by outsiders. When given a ladder to success rather than treated with scorn, these working-class whites can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ searingly personal memoir “The Glass Castle,” thankfully, flies in the face of all that hogwash. Without providing any kind of sociological lecture on structural poverty, he and co-writer Andrew Lanham poke at something profound in their portrayal of some unconventional (and, yes, dangerous) parenting tactics. The ideals of freedom, independence and self-reliance, so baked into the American psyche, are inventions of a wealthy class of men for other landed men. When followed by people without resources and social standing, it can lead to dangerous ends.

One of the first times we see Jeannette’s father Rex, played with usual spitfire intensity by Woody Harrelson, he’s going on a screed against the professional class of doctors for trying to wield their knowledge as a tool to extort hard-working people into paying for expensive treatment. They need to treat young Jeannette for a burn. She received that burn because she had to feed herself while her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) painted, and her dress caught fire on the stove. It’s a moment of pure negligence and irresponsibility in the Walls family. Yet Rex successfully convinces himself that the real issue is not their lack of oversight; instead, it’s the judgment from a class that deems themselves superior when his parenting style is simply an expression of his American values. Sometimes that comes with collateral damage, and he’s willing to live with that.

An older Rex seen later in the film goes on a similar rant about Reaganite economics, though certainly without naming the source. He picks the booming Wall Street financiers as the target of his rage, seemingly because they reap tremendous profits without producing anything tangible to put out in the world. Rex fails to realize, however, that all his tough talk of hard labor rooted in self-determination is rooted in an empty promise. The big dreams for his family, most obviously manifested in the quixotic fantasy “glass castle” he tells Jeannette he will build, will never come to pass so long as they remain mired in poverty.

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REVIEW: Step

11 08 2017

As a part of its acquisition deal out of the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight purchase not only Amanda Lipitz’s documentary “Step” but also the remake rights. It was a smart decision for the studio in many ways – and perhaps ultimately the best one for this inspiring story of #BlackGirlMagic involving several stepping Baltimore teens. That’s not because their journey needs fictionalization to reach a larger audience; rather, “Step” could use the freedom of narrative cinema to unlock the full reservoir of emotion contained within.

In many ways, it appears that Lipitz is putting together the pieces of a narrative already, but she’s hampered by a fidelity to reality. She bends time and chronology (mostly under the radar, given away by small details like college application deadlines or the release of Beyoncé’s “Formation”) to give her documentary a more thematic structure as opposed to a chronological one. Lipitz also ham-handedly creates a foreground/background dynamic, with the character-building training of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women taking place on a larger canvas of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent murder of Freddie Gray.

To watch “Step” is to at once be aware of Lipitz’s grand ambitions and unfortunate limitations. She’s envisioning spectacle but lacks the resources or the know-how to execute it. This becomes most apparent in how she shoots the step dancing competition sequences. They’re clunkily edited and shot from strange angles, yet there’s evolution over time, suggesting that Lipitz has put in the work to improve even during the course of shooting.

It’s also possible that she treats her subjects more as characters than people in the documentary. Moments like Coach Gari McIntyre’s field trip with the team to a memorial for Freddie Gray, well-intentioned though it might be, plays like the kind of inspirational perspective-altering moment in a Disney sports drama. That might not be how it happened, but it’s how the scene plays in the way Lipitz positions it. She renders figures like the school’s college counselor Paula Dofat, an indefatigable advocate who will stop at nothing to get every girl into post-secondary education, into little more than her function. There’s no curiosity about her inner life.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 10, 2017)

10 08 2017

Adaptation” it most certainly is not, but Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” makes for a most entertaining meta-movie. This specific genre derives its pleasures by baking the creation of the movie into the very fabric of the story itself; the fact that everything was narrativized is not merely a fact slapped on at the conclusion. Some artists smuggle these meta-movies into existence under the guise of something like a heist flick (Christopher Nolan’s “Inception“) or a con artist caper (Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom“), though many in their purest form simply revolve around filmmakers struggling to create.

That’s the case for McDonagh’s meta-movie, my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” In many ways, “Seven Psychopaths” feels like a self-interrogation (perhaps after surveying his prior film “In Bruges”). His leading man, Colin Farrell’s Marty, is a screenwriter struggling to pen his latest script conveniently titled – you guessed it – “Seven Psychopaths.” As he drolly puts it, “I’ve got the title, just not the psychopaths.”

Marty wants to write a film about violent people without succumbing the soul-sucking carnage that plagues many films about such subjects. He wants it all to mean something, not just become a violent shoot-’em-up. Ultimately, Marty gets more than he bargained for when a friend draws him into a Los Angeles gang dispute over … a Shih Tzu. The anodyne object of conflict points out the inherent absurdity of the criminal underworld without fully discounting the grotesqueness of their deeds.

I first watched “Seven Psychopaths” on video in 2013 and found myself rather unenthused by it. (The original grade I bestowed upon it was a C.) With McDonagh’s next directorial outing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” about to make landfall on the film festival circuit, something compelled me to give it a second chance – and judging by its inclusion in this column, you can assume I’m glad I did. McDonagh grants us a dryly humorous window into the writing process, which also means clueing us into his knowledge of audience expectations for what’s to come. This feat is a tricky one to pull off without drowning in self-awareness, and he does it with a good amount of dexterity.





REVIEW: The Boss Baby

8 08 2017

Where DreamWorks lagged behind Pixar in pathos, they often made up ground with sheer creativity (see: the “Shrek” franchise). But even recently, the boy fishing on the crescent moon has ceded that ground to the jumping lamp. Their latest effort, “The Boss Baby,” starts the battle to take it back.

This movie pushes the medium of animation to its fullest, not to create a simulation of reality but to twist it in imaginative ways. What’s the point of being able to bend the rules if you’re just going to obey the ones established in a live-action world, after all? “The Boss Baby” gives the fanciful visuals a reason to exist, too, by assuming the point of view of seven-year-old Tim. He’s a storyteller by nature, and we get to watch him weave some pretty intricate yarns about the arrival of his baby brother.

In (t)his story, that baby’s foreign nature manifests itself as a slick-talking, suit-wearing tot voiced by Alec Baldwin. Tim reacts at first with suspicion to this time-sucking new addition to the family. But after their initial confrontations, the two unite on a common goal – promoting human babies over puppies in the battle to win over the souls of young couples – and begin to bond as brothers.

The storytelling conceit is a clever way to convey a story about fraternal connection. “The Boss Baby” does not merely seek to understand Tim’s perspective on events; instead, director Tom McGrath and writer Michael McCullers assume his subjectivity fully. The concept does start to fall apart a bit as the brothers’ adventure begins to escalate – for example, does a young child really have the advanced knowledge of corporate structure trends to know to make a point about being replaced by someone younger? Still, the film delights by adopting the mantra of Mrs. Frizzle: “get messy, mistakes.” Seeing DreamWorks really gun for something special again is worth the watch. B





REVIEW: S Is For Stanley

7 08 2017

S Is For StanleyFantastic Fest

Watch “Room 237” or any video essay about Stanley Kubrick, and you’ll come away with the impression that the preternaturally gifted filmmaker is something of an automaton. His films contain such a precision that they almost seem to evince the work of an infallible creator.

Alex Infascelli’s documentary “S Is For Stanley,” on the other hand, shows a side of the director we tend not to consider as frequently: his human side. In a kind of real-life “The Devil Wears Prada” tale, the film tells the experiences of Emilio D’Alessandro, Kubrick’s personal driver for many decades. The director plucked him from the world of race-car driving in Italy to be his personal errand boy. Over the years, he performed tasks ranging from the tedious (guaranteeing candles for three years for “Barry Lyndon”) to the discomforting (getting high on secondhand smoke from Jack Nicholson on the set of “The Shining”) to the downright fascinating (interlocuting for Kubrick in the presence of great Italian director Federico Fellini).

But Emilio’s particular set of skills come most into play when Kubrick undertook the massive project of “Eyes Wide Shut,” the multi-year production that unfortunately became the director’s last. “S Is For Stanley” at times feels like it could be a glorious DVD extra on the Criterion Collection release for that film (fingers crossed it’s eventually coming), but Infascelli avoids the kind of hagiography or star worship that normally plagues similar profiles. He simply lets Emilio tell his stories, which are bound to be fascinating for any cinephile who simply wants to share his unique view of cinema history. B





REVIEW: The Call

6 08 2017

If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing an Academy Award-winning actress reduced to doing the cinematic equivalent of TV network crime procedurals, you’re in luck. Brad Anderson’s “The Call,” starring Halle Berry, exists. That’s about all you can say for it.

In the film, Berry plays 911 operator Jordan Turner, a woman who botched one call so badly that … she still keeps answering 911 calls. She should have trusted her gut because she ends up on the other line with Abigail Breslin’s Casey Welson in the process of her kidnapping. “The Call” does have its share of intense moments, to be fair, but you can see every plot twist and turn coming from a mile away. If it weren’t for the presence of someone like Halle Berry, so hell-bent on making it seem deadly serious, the film might play like a parody of these low rent thrillers. But alas, it’s the kind of soft lob up the middle that you expect.

When brushing up on the specifics of the film to write this review, I learned from the Wikipedia page that writer Richard D’Avidio originally envisioned it as a television series. This format confusion actually says a lot about the form of the finished film. “The Call” plays like a bloated pilot, something that easily has 42 minutes worth of watchable material but gets padded with filler stretching the length to merit a theatrical release. C+





REVIEW: Detroit

5 08 2017

Don’t believe the marketing. “Detroit” is not a film about a series of riots that took place 50 years ago. Those events merely provide the background for a stripped down story in which the long-flaring tensions between the police force and the minority communities they patrol reach a boiling point.

Not unlike director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s last joint, “Zero Dark Thirty,” they begin with a brief prologue of historical context. Then, it was the audio of phone calls coming out of the World Trade Center over a black screen; here, crucial subtitles establish the interrelated forces of geographic mobility driving the Great Migration and the suburbanization of America. When blacks move into an area, whites move out – but maintain their control over those spaces through aggressive policing. Rather than cohabitation, the more powerful group opts for occupation by proxy.

This is important to understand in “Detroit,” which hones in on a single portion of the half-century-old historical event. Amidst the unrest, a black man fires shots from a prop toy gun out a window, sufficiently spooking the police and National Guard on patrol into storming the Algiers Motel. A harmless prank quickly brings out the most terroristic impulses from the boys in blue – and yes, they are boys. The young guns recall a description of the police in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun.”

From there, the film essentially functions like a hostage caper or a home invasion story. With her “Zero Dark Thirty” editor William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, Bigelow ratchets up the tension by the moment as the police use every trick in the book to strip away all humanity from their suspects (several black men and two women in their company) in order to identify the shooter. Will Poulter’s unrepentantly lawless Krauss leads the charge to insult, harass and pit these friends against each other; calling his crusade against the dignity of blacks vigilantism does not even begin to do his despicable behavior justice.

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REVIEW: The Circle

4 08 2017

Dave Eggers’ novel “The Circle” ran 491 pages. The movie adaptation of the book, co-written with director James Ponsoldt, runs a little over 100 minutes (when you exclude the credits). It appears they made the executive decision to tame that imposing length by keeping the events of the plot but dulling the nuances of the Juvenalian satire.

The Circle” maintains so much of the reluctance of the social media era that I found so compelling upon reading two years ago (ironically before I took a job working in social media). Eggers’ eponymous technology company powerhouse combines the compulsive networking capabilities of Facebook, the Big Brother-like tracking of Google and the hardware prowess of Apple into one frightening hydra. Perhaps as a matter of budget (just $18 million), Ponsoldt can never quite translate this behemoth into visual terms. On the page, Eggers can conjure up a compound of fanciful imagination to represent The Circle’s reach. On screen … Ponsoldt shows us a Beck concert for the staffers.

As Emma Watson’s Mae Holland begins her tenure at The Circle as a low-level gopher, she comes to embody a puzzling paradox of the digital age. Even as our awareness grows of the debilitating effect of a life lived online, so does these companies’ ability to keep us trapped. Yet rather than following Eggers’ original line of thought to its logical, terrifying conclusion, the film chickens out at the end. “The Circle” betrays its literary origins, leaving behind a hollow shell of platitudes spouted by characters who act and sound like little more than the function they occupy in the narrative.

This movie could be so much more because the book its based on actually is. If the film were a straight bomb, it might be easier to write off. Yet Ponsoldt’s work arguably does the most damage by being average. It’s not a mistranslation so much as it’s just a half-hearted one. C+





F.I.L.M of the Week (August 3, 2017)

3 08 2017

Kid-ThingMy brother is eight years younger than I am, and they happen to be situated just so that we’re of different generations. I’m a millennial, he’s “Generation Z” (a name I suspect they might outgrow and replace). One of the distinctive features of my generation, scholars claim, is that we are so-called digital natives. We came of age as the Internet did, and this has made us scrappy and able to navigate it nimbly as it evolved.

But our childhoods were, more or less, still analog. We mostly remember a world without the Internet, or at least one where it was not so omnipresent and omnipotent. Before my adolescence, I recall the Internet as a vehicle for obtaining information and simplifying certain tasks, not the time-sucking black hole that it is now. (Note: I opened Twitter as a reflex during the middle of that sentence as I worked out where it would end in my head.)

My brother’s generation will likely grow up not remembering what a world was like where people couldn’t access the power of the Internet from the palm of their hands. They won’t know what it was like to have a screen nearly everywhere to provide diversion and distraction. (Note: I was just compelled to do a Google Images deep dive of ’90s Leonardo DiCaprio photoshoots. I highly recommend this.) They won’t know what it was like to feel truly and genuinely bored. There’s scarcely a moment in today’s world where it isn’t possible to be productive in some way, shape or form. We’ve killed boredom, and we’re losing something as a result.

This is all a long wind-up to say that David Zellner’s “Kid-Thing,” the scrappy little indie that I’ve selected as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” effortlessly portrays a feeling that I rarely feel anymore: boredom. As Zellner documents the humdrum days of young Annie, a ten-year-old girl finding creative ways to pass her days on a Texas farm, he brilliantly captures the fruits of what comes from leaving children with nothing to entertain themselves but their own imagination. It’s a rich, textured invocation too, the kind that recalls the arduous processes required to make even the simplest idea come to pass.

None of this should make you think that “Kid-Thing” itself is boring. The film’s 80 minutes move along at a brisk clip as Annie moves from wild exploit to the next, be it pegging an oncoming car with a wad of (shoplifted) dough or shooting the carcass of a cow with a furious round of paintballs. There’s an interesting through-line involving a hole in the ground where a woman named Esther claims to be trapped, and … well, to me that just felt like another instance of a character letting her imagination run away with her. But I’ll leave that up to you to decide.





REVIEW: Lady Macbeth

29 07 2017

Spoiler alert: don’t expect any portion of the Scottish play in William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth.” The title of this Victorian-era chamber drama assigns the characteristics of the Bard’s villainous character to Florence Pugh’s Katherine. She’s a young woman who exerts more agency than Lady Macbeth, although she exhibits significantly less guilt for her transgressions.

As the new wife of a landed gent, Katherine serves the same purpose for her husband as Internet porn does for today’s men. She’s an object of his sexual desires but never an active participant, left merely as a spectator to his getting off. With no place to go in this suffocating matrimony, Katherine begins to seek strange release valves – chiefly, in the passionate embrace of a farmworker Sebastian who she witnesses beating her maid.

“Lady Macbeth” bears witness to the alternating power and powerlessness of the white woman in polite society. She can willfully exert force over domestics, and she often twists that to satisfy urges both sexual and violent. Yet she’s still hemmed in by cultural expectations and that damned patriarchy, which is quick to quash her initiative.

Most of these observations made themselves clear to me within the first 20 minutes or so of “Lady Macbeth.” It is, to borrow a phrase John Oliver once used to describe Donald Trump, “an open book that doesn’t have many interesting words in it.” Oldroyd fits his film with the cinematic equivalent of a corset. It’s rigid and composed with strictly limited capacity for movement. He establishes the film’s mood and thematic underpinnings quickly, but he never develops them in any meaningful way over the course of 90 minutes. The ending has a nice kick, although it’s hardly enough to overcome the taxing monotony that precedes it. B-





F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 27, 2017)

27 07 2017

Shot by Swedish filmmakers. Chronicling black American advocates and revolutionaries in the immediate post-Civil Rights era. Narrated by present-day observers. Göran Hug Olsson’s documentary “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” contains multitudes.

This selection for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is one that contains a fascinating mix of perspectives that harmonize into an essential, yet often overlooked, chapter of American history. Far too often, popular culture (read: white-dominated culture) tends to get very foggy about race relations in the United States after the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1965, a tendency closely tied into the propagation of the post-racial lie. But those successes did not necessarily accelerate integration, equality or acceptance. Instead, for many in the black community, it led to more intensive questioning of their place in society.

“The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” provides a vital primary document of the Black Power movement with a bit of an outsider’s perspective. The Swedes behind the camera did not necessarily approach the movement with the same fear or judgment as an American might, and it makes a difference in the presentation. From J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO disrupting the activist communities to the Black Panthers’ efforts to create self-sustaining communities to help their own, Olson’s compilation of the tapes cuts across a wide swath of the black experience that deserve recognition and reckoning. We get to know important figures like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis in their own words while also learning their importance to the next generation of thought leaders. While perhaps not nearly as creative as the recent “I Am Not Your Negro,” this film is no less vital and important in connecting the present to the past.





REVIEW: Atomic Blonde

26 07 2017

Pick some earwax and you’ll miss it, but a news anchor in the background of David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde” makes a telling remark as he pivots away from the Berlin Wall’s collapse toward entertainment news. “Sampling,” he asks, “is it art, or is it just plagiarism?” It’s an amusing pop culture callback that functions, likely unwittingly, as a moment of self-interrogation.

“Atomic Blonde” careens back and forth between pastiche, homage and outright theft in its late-’80s espionage romp through a divided Berlin. There’s value in having the agent behind these actions be an unapologetically badass Charlize Theron, a spy who knows few boundaries be they legal, moral or sexual. Also, her first hit to her (primarily) male assailants is typically in the groin region.

But why, oh why, is her opening credits strut set to David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)?” That song is now clearly associated with Shoshanna’s empowerment montage in “Inglourious Basterds?” The film boasts a soundtrack full of Reagan-era rock touchstones, and finding another one that did not so immediately recall the work of a superior filmmaker would not be hard.

Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad also insists on a “True Detective” Season 1 style framing device with Theron’s Lorraine Braughton, beaten and bruised, recounting her story in a dark room to two interrogators. It’s a stark contrast to the film’s otherwise blue and pink neon-soaked action, so fluorescent you can’t help but wonder if Nicolas Winding Refn is lurking in some corner offscreen silently brooding. The one exception to the otherwise humdrum proceedings is an ornate combat and escape sequence meant to look like one take (but look closely and you’ll see plenty of cheat cuts masked by whip pans). It’s not a crime to be unoriginal; heck, plenty of other summer 2017 release would be in movie jail if so. But “Atomic Blonde” manages to be that as well as uninspired. C





REVIEW: Maudie

25 07 2017

From the opening scene of Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie,” we’re painfully aware of how painful it is for Sally Hawkins’ Maud Dowley to make the art that brings her satisfaction. We see the intense exertion it takes for her arthritic hands to paint even the simplest stem of a flower. This isn’t “My Left Foot” or anything, but Maudie’s folksy creations are clearly a labor of love.

This type of art is sadly in keeping with the rest of her life in small-town Nova Scotia. Abandoned by her brother and ignored by her mother, Maude takes a thankless housekeeping job for Ethan Hawke’s Everett Lewis at his secluded cabin. He’s a brusque man of the house who needs someone to clean the house – and that’s it. At times, his grip on her activity borders on the abusive, an aspect of their relationship that Walsh handles (only with kiddie gloves on).

“Maudie” unfolds at a pace similar to its protagonist: belabored but simple and beautiful. Walsh takes her sweet time moving along Maude and Everett’s ever-evolving relationship, and she moves only slightly faster to show how Maude’s paintings became a quaint international sensation. Hawkins is, as usual, an exemplar of quiet grace; not unlike her Oscar-nominated turn in “Blue Jasmine,” her character is the only person blind to her own victimization. Had Walsh or screenwriter Sherry Walsh given her a scenery-chewing moment to release the film’s tension, it might play as tonally inconsistent. But a part of me did wish she got the chance to show more range than the relatively stable performance allows. C+