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

Advertisements




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 /





An Explanation, and a Return to Normalcy (I Hope!)

1 05 2018

Hey everyone,

If you checked this site recently, you’d probably assume I quit writing or something. Quite the opposite! I’ve actually been busier than ever with my freelance writing, which has included covering the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve already soared well past my writing income for 2017 in just the first four months of the year.

If you’re curious to read what I’ve been writing, check out my full portfolio site for clips – or click on the image below!

I’m trying to get back into the swing of writing reviews and other commentary here with some sense of regularity. My new normal has more or less asserted itself, so it’s time to try and fit Marshall and the Movies back into my routine. (Plus, I’m a little embarrassed at how rusty I was writing a straight-up review for Tribeca.) This site is invaluable for me to push my writing in more adventurous or strange directions that an editor might not approve. So you have that to look forward to!

That’s it for tonight … see you again soon!





REVIEW: The Shape of Water

4 01 2018

Toronto International Film Festival

Guillermo del Toro may very well be cinema’s reigning master of monster mythology. Like few others, he understands the way that fantasy can speak to cultural hopes and fears — escapism is important if a filmmaker can locate where people want to escape to and why. “The Shape of Water” certainly helps make the case for his status at the top of the heap as he probes Kennedy-era America, a time that produced both the glimmering beacon of the Space Race and the combustible cocktail of civil rights.

Del Toro’s latest film comes straight from the “Pan’s Labyrinth mold, another fairytale with the look and feel of a cinematic storybook. Del Toro can always be counted on to provide masterful craftsmanship, even when his genre fusion and revisionism does not entirely cohere. Mercifully, it does here … for the most part.

“The Shape of Water” flows most smoothly and beautifully when focused on the primary blossoming love story between Sally Hawkins’ mute janitor Eliza and Doug Jones’ amphibious creature listed in the credits only as “The Asset.” Most characters in the film do not provide such a generous epithet for him, though, with Michael Shannon’s stern security guard Strickland simply referring to the classified experiment as an “affront.” There’s no object in his description, just a noun speaking to his abhorrence.

Eliza finds no such disgust in the swimming mystery from the moment The Asset’s tank is wheeled into her damp, dimly lit government laboratory in Baltimore. Like many a great romance, a sense of shared alienation from society at large draws the two lovers closer together. As entities struggling to be heard and understood — her due to lack of voice, him due to lack of others listening — they forge a bond both spiritual and sensual. Yes, you read that last word right.

As someone still recovering from the bizarre man-genetic experiment sex scene in Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film “Splice,” I approach most interspecies couplings onscreen with a fair amount of trepidation. To del Toro’s credit, the pairing never feels gross in the slightest because he approaches their love with a disarmingly tender earnestness. He’s pulling from screen musicals as much as science-fiction in their relationship, a pairing which at first seems odd until del Toro finds the common ground in their use of dream-like spaces to find the fulfillment that escapes star-crossed lovers in reality.

It’s a remarkable change of pace to see a film embracing the idea that love can fear and confront other obstacles without seeming hopelessly naïve. Between del Toro, James Gray and many other unabashed classicists practicing at high levels, perhaps the pendulum can swing back away from the pervasive irony in which our culture is currently steeped. (Although del Toro does display an instinct for dry humor that gives his vintage style an edgy kick.)

If “The Shape of Water” were purely focused on Eliza and the creature with deity-like properties, it would be a pure shot of cinematic ecstasy. But del Toro makes the waters a little choppy by raising what should be subplots to the level of co-equal narrative threads. Shannon becomes the de facto villain of the film as a watchman who develops a fixation on slaying the monster for… no entirely cogent reason. Sure, he loses two fingers in an early altercation with the creation, rendering him mentally cuckolded, yet even the most furious rage of Shannon’s performance cannot distract from the poor character development. A whole narrative thread with Michael Stuhlbarg’s Hoffstetler serving as a covert spy also serves little purpose in the grand scheme of the film, only really establishing the era’s geopolitical stakes.

None of this negates the delicate power of Eliza’s love story. It does, however, hold the film back from achieving the purity and simplicity of the folkloric ends to which it strives. B

NOTE: This review originally ran on Vague Visages.





REVIEW: Breathe

2 01 2018

Toronto International Film Festival

NOTE: Since I reviewed this film for a bigger outlet, I can’t really reprint the review in its entirety. From now on, when I’ve given a film a proper review elsewhere, I’ll use this space to expand upon certain elements that might not have made their way into the full review.

“Breathe” is pretty much everything you’d expect of it – little more, little less. If you love stately, mannered British period dramas, you might enjoy it more than I did. In my opinion, the main highlight is Andrew Garfield, perhaps our greatest working humanist actor. He just breathes (pun fully intended) so much life into a character with such intense restrictions on his performance that it’s remarkable to observe, quality of movie aside. As I said in my review…

Unsurprisingly, Garfield nails the immediate micro-level specificity necessitated by portraying someone with such a debilitating condition. He’s robbed of so many key acting tools: the scope to take in an entire scene, the ability to react in full, the emphasis in his extremities. Yet within this tightly proscribed frame, Garfield still manages the full expressive capabilities for which has garnered great acclaim. In Breathe, he captures that same moving range from elation to depression.

For Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson, the real story of Robin Cavendish is not a tale cut in the mold of a “Great Man” biopic. Robin does not strive to achieve the extraordinary. He merely wishes to reestablish the ordinary, a feat practically unthinkable in the mid-20th century. People in his condition simply did not exist outside of hospitals. Plugged into a respirator that does all the breathing for him, Robin always remains no more than two minutes away from death were the machine to stop operating. Rather than resigning himself to waste away on a stationary cot, he enlists his devoted wife Diana (played by Claire Foy) and many other ingenious friends to invent the tools necessary to enable the life few imagined was possible.

It’s also intriguing to think that while this is technically Andy Serkis’ debut feature, he directed it after his take on “The Jungle Book.” I might have to reassess “Breathe” in light of that film when it comes out. B-

Read my full review on Slashfilm.

 





LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Films of 2018

1 01 2018

2017 is over! 2018 is here!

After a year when my top 10 list only featured one of my stalwart favorite filmmakers, I am very excited to see a number of great directors preparing exciting new works. I had to narrow it down to 10 just for my own sake, but here are some honorable mentions just to show you how stacked 2018 is going to be.

  • Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle In Time”
  • Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs”
  • Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favorite”
  • Laszlo Nemes’ “Sunset”
  • Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows”
  • David Lowery’s “The Old Man and the Gun”
  • Damien Chazelle’s “First Man”
  • Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born”
  • Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers”
  • Robert Zemeckis’ “The Women of Marwen”
  • Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s “Luxembourg”
  • Melanie Laurent’s “Galveston”

But without further ado, here are 10 movies that I will be anticipating the most in the coming year…

#10

“Ocean’s 8”
Directed by Gary Ross
Written by Gary Ross and Olivia Milch
Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway

…and Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling and Helena Bonham Carter. I, for one, welcome this matriarchy to take over the summer screens.

#9

“Under the Silver Lake”
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell
Starring Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough and Topher Grace

Mitchell’s last film “It Follows” has lingered in my mind so much to the point that his follow-up is basically guaranteed a spot here. Working with Garfield and Keough, who are making some fascinating career moves, has me especially intrigued.

#8

“Boy Erased”
Written for the screen and directed by Joel Edgerton
Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Joel Edgerton

Lucas Hedges is on a roll between “Manchester by the Sea,” “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – one heck of a hat trick. The best might be yet to come with his role as a boy forced into conversion therapy for his sexuality.

#7

“High Life”
Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Nick Laird and Zadie Smith
Starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth and Juliette Binoche

The Robert Pattinson arthouse director trophy case continues to grow as he notches a film with French icon Claire Denis. It’s a sci-fi script that Zadie Smith has a hand in? Um, yes please.

#6

“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Written for the screen and directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Dave Franco, Pedro Pascal and Ed Skrein

Barry Jenkins tackling James Baldwin should get everyone excited. Full stop. I cannot wait to see him bring Baldwin’s searing treatment of race in America to the big screen.

#5

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter
Starring Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig and Judy Greer

I am so curious to see how the unique, quirky narration style of Maria Semple’s novel gets translated into cinematic language. The book is in good hands with Linklater and Blanchett.

#4

“Tully”
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis and Ron Livingston

The “Young Adult” redemption tour is coming. Get ready.

#3

“Backseat”
Written and directed by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell

After “The Big Short” tore pre-recession Wall Street to shreds, I’m eager to see what Adam McKay has in store for Dick Cheney. It will certainly have fangs.

#2

“Widows”
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn
Starring Viola Davis, Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell

A melding of the minds behind “12 Years a Slave” and “Gone Girl” is the combination I didn’t know I needed. And now I just can’t wait for it to arrive.

#1

“The Beach Bum”
Written and directed by Harmony Korine
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and Isla Fisher

SPRING BREAK FOREVER. About time Harmony Korine has a new movie for me to hook into my veins.

 





Top 10 of 2017: Connections, Failed and Imagined

31 12 2017

Per New Year’s Eve tradition, it’s time to unveil my top 10 list for the year. 2017 was … an interesting year, to say the least. I’m writing this paragraph at the tail end of a screener binge trying to catch as many movies as possible before sitting down to bang out this piece. Funny how you can see 148 films and somehow feel like you’ve failed to get a sense of the year. That’s a far cry from the glut I consumed in 2015, a whopping 200 films in the calendar year.

Yet I feel good about that, somehow. This was a banner year for me keeping my New Year’s resolutions, one of which was to rewatch more movies to gain a greater appreciation of what I’ve already seen. Another was to immerse myself more in classic cinema to better understand the influences of my favorite filmmakers. (If, for some reason, you feel compelled to see my media consumption habits in detail, check out my Letterboxd page.) Still, I don’t think many of you are going to shake a finger at me for seeing as much as I did. From 148 films, there’s more than enough to make a top 10 list.

(Also, I moved to New York in November. I had a lot on my plate besides just watching movies.)

An odd thing to note about my favorites this year: the top 5 has stayed unchanged since late May. That’s in part because I went to Sundance (and made the correct film choices), but I think something larger is at play here. Expectations. Filmmakers whose latest works I was eagerly anticipating largely did not deliver on the promise of their prior films. On the list below, the only director who I would have considered myself a devotee of would be Noah Baumbach.

The upside here is that now I have many new projects to eagerly anticipate! Several of these directors were ones that had just never quite clicked for me. Heck, one of them directed a movie which garnered this site’s only F rating.

I always construct this list purely on merit and feeling, never trying to meet any kind of quota or make any particular statement. But 2017’s list naturally came together to paint a picture of the industry I’d like to see. 3 films are directed by women, 3 films are debut features, 2 films are by black directors and 2 films are by queer filmmakers. There are studio films, indies and Netflix releases. Quality work is coming from every area of the business, and we need to seek out and amplify it as well as its creators.

Before I do my rundown, I suppose I should offer a word about the connective fiber between these films and the year at large. I admit to looking at this group and not having anything jump out immediately. A contemplative walk around the block made me realize that these movies are mostly, to some degree, about people trying to connect. It might be with family members, the love of one’s life, someone’s physical surroundings, or with one’s self. It is likely in spite of some greater obstacle, be they systemic ills like racism and sexism or merely personal hurdles like insecurity and timidity.

This is simplistic to the point of mockery, and I scoff at myself for even being the kind of writer who’d hang an entire year on a concept so nebulously defined that it could come to encompass virtually anything. But in a year when it seemed tough to reconcile seemingly disparate realities and communicate deeply-held values, I’m willing to venture out a bit on this flimsy limb. (Also, some of these don’t really have much to do with “connection” at all! So what!)

Read the rest of this entry »