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-





A third of my life later…

28 07 2017

Well, folks, it’s time for that yearly check-in on the state of Marshall and the Movies. I truly cannot believe it, but this strange journey began 8 years ago today. Over 1,500 reviews later, here I still am.

Most of the growth I’ve been focused on hasn’t occurred on the site, admittedly. When I wrote a year ago, my writing had really only appeared on one other site besides my own. (Technically two if you count my brief stint being syndicated on The Christian Science Monitor, which essentially just mined content from here.) Since then, I’ve contributed to four new sites based on pitching and my own merits – and I’ve started making real money for my words, not just because I can sell some weird ads to sketchy vendors. It’s enabling me to grow in some really fun, exciting ways – albeit ones that might not always be visible here on the site. (Hopefully the writing continues to show maturation, though!)

On that fateful first late night shift of blogging, I wrote, “What I do hope to do is to inspire a deeper appreciation of movies, foster a desire to discuss movies, and connect with people through the glorious medium of film.” Putting in 10,000 hours (to borrow a term from Malcolm Gladwell) here has enabled me to do that now on a much bigger scale and platform. My goal is to eventually shape the cultural conversation in whatever small way I can. I’m grateful to others who will lend me the megaphone to do just that.

But, at the same time, I’m grateful to have Marshall and the Movies as a sandbox. Here, with no editor and no one to answer to but myself, I can see what I want and write what I want. I can set my own deadlines and let a piece take as long as it needs to develop. I can push myself to take my writing in more exciting, unconventional directions. I can fail here with fewer consequences.

So what I’m trying to say is thanks for sticking with me here. I’m grateful to have this small little space where I can make sense of the media and culture I’m digesting, especially as the world around me seems to make less sense with each passing day.

P.S. – If you want to see all I’ve been writing off the site recently, check out my portfolio site.





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+





REVIEW: Person to Person

24 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Connection seems like an awfully vague term to declare a main thematic thread for a film festival – it’s a bit like “love,” deployed as a convenient catch-all in cursory analysis. But far more than 2016’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival, where I saw several films about protagonists trying to connect with themselves, many in 2017 showed a greater concern for how we connect to each other and the world around us.

This was most apparent in Dustin Guy Defa’s New York-set feature “Person to Person.” I made a conscious effort to avoid the kinds of films that might pertain primarily to the so-called “coastal elites,” which can present themselves as microcosms for America while only showing a narrow slice of existence. That’s not to say that these movies are meritless or rendered useless in this brave new world. But after the primal electoral howl of November, some perspective on the limited application of what Judd Apatow deemed “west-of-the-405 problem” films (and their East Coast counterparts) does not hurt. That said, I still had to see some. Forgoing them entirely would be akin to a cinematic Atkins diet, taking out an entire component of the pyramid structure for quick change.

“Person to Person” starts off feeling like a Jim Jarmusch-Noah Baumbach hybrid, a series of vignettes that send signals that they will converge in a manner we’ve come to expect from “hyperlink cinema.” Some of them do. The center of gravity is a murder case that involves the victim’s wealthy Brooklynite wife (Michaela Watkins), two clueless investigative reporters at a no-name tabloid (Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson), and a watchmaker (Philip Baker Hall) with the clue that could hold the key to the entire case. On the periphery, Defa also follows a vinyl collector (Bene Coopersmith) dealing with a dishonest client, a wandering boyfriend (George Sample III) who gets shaken down by the angry brother of his partner, and a verbose young woman (Tavi Gevinson) probing the boundaries of her toleration and sexuality.

Defa has built up high regard, making short films for several years, even earning a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2015. (Take four minutes to watch “Review” instead of that Jimmy Fallon clip your friends have shared on Facebook.) That background does rear its head in “Person to Person,” which can play more as a compendium than an omnibus. Still, the old pan that something is “less than the sum of its parts” does not quite apply here. There is loose connective tissue for all the stories: violence, unseen but affecting all of the characters in significant ways. Not the cheeriest take on human relations, but it’s hard to deny given that many of 2016’s most fervent moments of collective emotion came in the wake of celebrity deaths. B

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.





REVIEW: Dunkirk

23 07 2017

In a typical war movie, the 400,000 men stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk would command the lion’s share of attention. Their rescuers who arrived by sea in small personal and commercial boats requisitioned for the war effort might get an extended arc in the final act. Their protectors in the air might get a few shots during a climactic battle scene as they fended off the German Luftwaffe.

Director Christopher Nolan, however, is anything but typical. (You probably already knew that.) In his take on “Dunkirk,” each of these three threads takes on an equal narrative standing. Though they span a week, a day and an hour, respectively, their experiences unfold in a simultaneous, but not parallel, manner. The lengths of their contribution might be different, yet their weights are equalized – and their fates are intertwined.

This isn’t immediately obvious from the start of the film. Title cards spell out the duration of each section, but it takes their individual narratives overlapping or colliding for that time to really resonate. Remarkably, the gambit never feels like a gimmick. Nolan pays tribute to each prong of the Dunkirk evacuation by sustaining their story for as long as their lives were on high alert … and then gently ratcheting things down a notch once the end is in sight.

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REVIEW: Landline

18 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline” prominently features a 1995 speech where Hillary Clinton claims, “However different we may appear, there is far more that unites us than divides us.” Unlike many time capsule items in the film — CD listening stations at music stores, Blockbuster Video, payphones, floppy disks — 5this line doesn’t feel like it’s just been lifted out of a BuzzFeed listicle about “25 Things You’d Only Know If You Were Alive in 1995.” It’s a dictum simple to say yet difficult to practice, as shown by the family in the film.

Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm craft an indelible portrait of the women in the Jacobs family, each at different life stages yet all struggling to feel the love with important companions. Matriarch Pat (Edie Falco) puts so much effort into maintaining family structure and function that her relationships have frayed with everyone, especially her charming but wishy-washy husband Alan (John Turturro). Adult daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) waffles on a marital commitment to fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), even going to the extent of acting out an alter ego named “Bedelia” that indulges her pent-up desires. Teenage daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) takes to surrounding herself with drugs and dancing to dull her disinterest with the traditional roadmap laid out ahead of her.

If “Obvious Child” showcased that Robespierre could helm a character study, then “Landline” exhibits her talent with an ensemble piece. There are many complicated relationships to juggle in the film, each of which she handles with specificity and tenacity. (On a personal note, I found the tension between Dana and Ali spot on; as someone with a much younger sibling, Dana’s negotiation between being a quasi-parent and friend resonated tremendously.)

Robespierre is not afraid to have the tough, awkward conversations – and then dwell in the messy resolution, or lack thereof. For all the times I worried in the first 30 minutes that the film would be little more than a nostalgia-dripping scrapbook, she met them with incisive observations about how difficult it can be to connect with the people closest to us. B+

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.





REVIEW: Presenting Princess Shaw

17 07 2017

If it were possible to present an Upworthy article in documentary form, Ido Haar’s “Presenting Princess Shaw” would be it. This fable of the social media heralds the virtues of technology that enables an Israeli music producer to connect with a New Orleans-based YouTuber. In reality, the story is just creepy when you really stop to think about it.

And you’ll have plenty of time to think about it, believe me. “Presenting Princess Shaw” should be one of those 3-4 minute videos you see in your Facebook news feed that a news site posts to play into the site’s algorithm. Instead, it’s an 83 minute slog extending a simple collaboration between two geographically distant people into a feature-length bore.

Samantha Montgomery, the real woman behind the golden-voiced Princess Shaw persona, is the main subject of the film. Haar gives us way too many moments of her plaintively pondering the changes to her life coming through her discovery by Kutiman, an international producer. She’ll just amble the streets, and one of her songs will play in the backgrounds. Then Haar will cut to Kutiman’s musical direction from afar, and the film just feels a little too “Catfish“-y for its own good. I can honestly say I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something meant to feel empowering come across as downright predatory. C+





REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes

16 07 2017

Though its title may lead you to believe otherwise, Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” shows precious little war. There are extended action sequences, but nothing rises to the level of a full battle. This is not a war movie, at least not in the traditional sense in which audiences are conditioned to perceive one. It’s not about the fights; rather, it’s about what we seek to preserve by fighting them in the first place.

Caesar (once again masterfully brought to life by Andy Serkis) and his band of apes that believe in their right to receive dignified treatment find themselves in an asymmetrical fight with the humans. The original intelligent inhabiters of earth, backed into a corner after the Simian Flu decimates their kind, do not exactly take kindly to sharing their planet with another sentient species. The apes are fighting a war of ideals – for peace, unity and solidarity. The humans are fighting a war of extermination, one where the only measure of victory is the complete degradation and eradication of their opponent.

As a viewer in 2017, I could not help but see parallels between the ape-human conflict and the current war against ISIS. The men who pervert Islam’s tenets can claim a win on their battleground when their actions force the western world to abandon their principles. If we choose to fight as they fight, responding to barbarity with inhumanity, we cede to their strategy and expose our own hollowness.

But as “War for the Planet of the Apes” drew on (and it does so perhaps more than it should), it became clear to me that Reeves had far more on his mind with the film than just the conflict du jour. This entire iteration of the franchise smartly avoids tying itself entirely to the events surrounding its making. Indeed, recent rewatches of 2011’s “Rise” and 2014’s “Dawn” already indicate the series’ malleability to the whims of the present; both films feel as if they refer to something entirely separate from what they did upon release. The “War” of Reeves’ film is not a war but all wars. It’s a rap sheet against human atrocity justified by armed conflict from, one could argue, biblical times to our contemporary ones.

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REVIEW: Baby Driver

12 07 2017

I saw Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” twice in the span of a month and fixated primarily on how it functioned as a new take on the movie musical. (If you want my full thoughts on that aspect, check out my piece on Little White Lies – I do far more heavy lifting with the film there.) It is that, but like any great movie, it’s so much more.

It’s a kickass action flick where, for once, the terms “balletic” and “choreographed” are not critical hyperbole but apt, justified descriptions. Wright’s tightly edited escapes, whether by car or by foot, fall in lockstep with their musical inspirations as they play diegetically through the headphones of Ansel Elgort’s titular driver. Is this what it felt like to watch the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence in “Apocalypse Now” back in the 1970s? “Baby Driver” is a giddy rush of cinephilia as Wright treats us to impeccable execution of a bold gambit.

It’s a film about how we relate to culture and to each other. Baby, an archetypal stoic stalwart, suffers from ailments both emotional (still traumatized from being orphaned in a tragic car crash) and physical (tinnitus leaves his ears constantly ringing). As such, he’s never one to communicate in a straightforward fashion. He signs with his deaf foster father. He pulls dialogue from the snippets of movies he sees on TV. He times his vehicular getaways to the music on his iPod (and one with a clickwheel, to boot). He’s more likely to block people out with his headphones and cheap sunglasses than let anyone in – until, of course, he catches a few bars from diner waitress Debra (Lily James).

I could sit here and bang out another few paragraphs trying to convince you of how much “Baby Driver” has to offer. But that might make you feel obliged to sit here and read my words, which will only serve to rob you of the experience of discovering the film’s ecstasy for yourself. There’s probably something you’ll find that did not even occur to me, and the film will motivate you to do so. Wright provides the perfect blend of originality, dazzling technical craft and emotionally invested storytelling to inspire a deeper dive into his movie’s pleasures. A-





REVIEW: The Big Sick

11 07 2017

I’m all about a good cross-cultural romantic comedy (I can probably recite every line of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” by heart), so “The Big Sick” was right up my alley to begin. Kumail Nanjiani’s true story ups the ante, though, by adding significantly greater dramatic stakes. An early dinner scene with his Pakistani family contains discussion of a relative who dared to marry outside the Muslim faith and have a mixed baby – “it’s like he’s dead,” someone says. “No one will visit.”

Despite half-heartedly entertaining his mother’s parade of eligible wives, Kumail (playing himself) falls for Zoe Kazan’s Emily after she gently heckles him during a stand-up set. She’s a stark contrast to the bland, eager-to-please Pakistani women, to say the least. Willing to push back on his requests and call out his good-natured mansplaining, Emily overwhelms him, as he does for her.

Like any relationship, Kumail and Emily’s faces setbacks … not the least of which being a mysterious illness that forces doctors to put her into a medically-induced coma. (With a chilling montage of Kumail walking through the hospital, director Michael Showalter immediately and effectively shifts the tone in a more somber direction.) This development puts him into contact with her parents, Ray Romano’s calmly neurotic Terry and Holly Hunter’s frazzled mama bear Beth, who do not exactly hold him in the highest regard. Over time, though, Kumail comes to learn from them and appreciate the geographic, cultural and gender hurdles they had to surmount to make their relationship work.

“The Big Sick” is not reinventing the wheel of the dramedy, but it’s still worth commending for a number of reasons. Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, his real wife (spoiler alert!), tell a story that’s specific and personal but never too precious. It’s distinctively theirs with a little something to offer all of us. And while a good chunk of the film deals with Kumail’s comedy career, Showalter’s camera is judicious. He knows the value of a quick reaction shot. The way he captures the full lay of the land in any given scene demonstrates how the non-verbal alchemy of an actor can enhance a great story beyond the words on a page. B+ /





REVIEW: City of Ghosts

10 07 2017

Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts” can, and likely will, be reduced to platitudinous headlines about its timeliness and topic. “The movie we need right now,” “the document out of Syria that will make you feel and care,” or some variation that harps on its relevance to get well-meaning but geopolitically disengaged consumers to watch. And that’s fine, so long as we don’t lose sight of what this documentary represents as a piece of filmmaking.

Heineman’s film documents follows the members of Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS) in exile, as their hometown is now the titular town of apparitions. ISIS moved into Raqqa and began quickly silencing dissidents, many of whom ended up in Europe. In relative safety (Heineman filmed them at safe houses), RBSS began by raising awareness of ISIS’s brutality among the citizens still under their oppressive thumb. But with the terrorist group cracking down on satellites and other forms of online communication, they must also work to amplify civilian voices to the international community.

“City of Ghosts” is a film made by a journalist about other journalists, and the admiration shows. “In my opinion,” states an RBSS member, “a camera is more powerful than a weapon.” Heineman appears to emphatically agree. He’s on the frontline of a war fought less with ammunition and more with aesthetics, as ISIS uses Hollywood-style filmmaking to win over impressionable young men to their cause.

Crucially, Heineman never loses sight of the human cost of this battle on RBSS. This is no superhero movie where the heroes are invincible or impenetrable. Their fight exacts a toll on them, and “City of Ghosts” makes sure we remember that these extraordinary efforts are being undertaken by ordinary men. They have families, friends and attachments just like any other person on the planet. Though they manage to keep a straight, courageous face for most of the film, the little cracks in their resolve are as powerful a humanistic image as any footage they receive from inside Syria. B+ /





REVIEW: A Ghost Story

9 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

I knew little about “A Ghost Story” prior to the moment when A24’s bumper was projected onto the screen, apart from a cryptic tease on director David Lowery’s Instagram and his opening statement at the theater’s podium claiming that he couldn’t wait to talk with us about it afterwards. I intend to convey as little as possible in order not to spoil “A Ghost Story” for others, although words could scarcely convey what must simply be experienced cerebrally and emotionally.

This pensive, plaintive drama floats freely through time with the ghost of a man credited as C (Casey Affleck), but otherwise never named in the film. After a car crash takes his life, C emerges from the autopsy table and returns to his old dwelling underneath a white sheet with dark eyeholes. He stays and watches what remains of the time his partner M (Rooney Mara) spends there and then some – imagine spending an entire film in Kubrick’s Renaissance Room from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” On a moment-to-moment basis, “A Ghost Story” captivates simply (though not entirely) for lack of knowledge over where it might go next.

The ghost mills about, and we are never entirely sure what motivates his actions. The sheet serves as a blank slate onto which we can project our own ideas and assign our desired motivations. It is abundantly clear that he does share a special bond with both M and the plot of land they bought together, one with a history that transcends the impermanence of life that Lowery so carefully depicts. He does with image and montage what a film like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” to pick an easy example, does with narrative.

Lowery introduces a narrative conceit to remove us from our traditional comprehension of time and leaves us to ponder what forces still operate in these conditions. His film achieves the rare balance of technical precision and emotional honesty. “A Ghost Story” gives audiences plenty to unpack in every camera angle, edit and sonic accompaniment, but Lowery also slips in a certain weightiness that instills a desire – if not compulsion – to want to undertake such an effort. B+

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.





REVIEW: Life (2017)

8 07 2017

I fell in and out of sleep during Daniel Espinosa’s “Life,” a fact I feel comfortable sharing because it did not seem to have any bearing on my comprehension of the film. As it turns out, I could zone out for 10-15 minutes at a time and jump right back in feeling like I had not missed out on anything.

This is probably attributable to two factors: 1) I’ve seen “Alien,” the seminal space horror film from which “Life” cribs heavily, and 2) a line of expository dialogue recaps any major development, including big action sequences. As loud and technically complex as these set pieces are, I found myself drifting off during them with stunning ease.

“Life” (not to be confused with the James Dean quasi-biopic from 2015) takes a familiar premise – discovering life in space – and fails to take it anywhere new. “Calvin,” as their amoeba-like alien foe is named by a young schoolgirl back on earth, proves a dangerous foe for the astronauts on board the International Space Station. There’s no particular joy in watching him outsmart the crew because he adapts to surmount their weaknesses at light-speed. Not even a sardonic Ryan Reynolds or a laconic Jake Gyllenhaal can bring some – wait for it – LIFE to the screen. C