F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 17, 2017)

17 08 2017

Sean Baker might be our most essential contemporary humanist filmmaker. He locates the beating heart of his films not in the extraordinary but in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane. His works start in one place and end in someplace altogether different and unexpected, leaving us all the better for having walked two hours in his characters’ shoes.

His 2012 feature “Starlet” is no different. While my first impression upon encountering the film back in 2013 was that the film was sweet but a little slight, a second watch recently convinced me otherwise. This is more than just a May-December platonic friendship between two women in Los Angeles. It’s a moving journey of how people can clear away the calcified numbness in their hearts.

The central character of this selection in my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column is Dree Hemingway’s 21-year-old Jane, an actress down on luck and short on cash. She gets a welcome snap out of her boredom when she unexpectedly stumbles upon a wad of cash hidden inside a thermos purchased from an elderly woman, Besedka Johnson’s Sadie, at a yard sale. Conflicted, Jane takes some money for herself – but also makes attempts to befriend Sadie to assuage her guilt.

The two initially take to each other like oil and water, but each has a cloistered part of their identity that leaves them with a void in their day-to-day existences. Gradually, and heartwarmingly, they begin to fill that space. We see more of Jane’s alternative world, as she’s the protagonist, and Baker finds a visual schema that represents the two discordant spheres she inhabits. Her home life is filled with hand-held camerawork and fast-paced editing, while her visits with Sadie are comprised of more stable shots and longer takes. I won’t spoil what exactly makes Jane’s personal struggles so turbulent and simply let the film reveal it. Baker drops a detail that would define any other character so casually about halfway through the film; it’s a refreshing change of pace for this type of figure who traditionally never amounts to anything other than the work she does.





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.





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.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 6, 2017)

6 07 2017

I first saw the documentary “How to Survive a Plague” in 2013, a time when its history of the LGBT community’s fight against bigotry for recognition and support in the face of a health epidemic felt like just that: history. The Supreme Court had yet to issue either of its landmark rulings, but the White House had come out in support of marriage equality. Prejudice still clearly existed, to be clear. Yet we seemed past a tipping point.

Fast forward to 2017. The White House didn’t issue a statement even acknowledging the existence of Pride Month. Amidst cries for justice from our most vulnerable citizens, we see a similar strategy from the government: avoidance, deprioritization and even outright lies. Suddenly, the members of ACT UP in the 1980s look like a great model for resistance. They organized and rallied around a clear call for action. They put pressure on organizations to make concrete steps in combatting the AIDS crisis. They carefully selected targets to mobilize public opinion in their favor.

For a viewer watching in the Trump administration, “How to Survive a Plague” meets the criteria of “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie – your occasional acronym refresher) on the basis of its existence as a resistance toolkit. But David France’s documentary is so much more than just its practical applications. It strikes the delicate balance between recounting events via talking heads and letting them unfold authentically, just as it nimbly shifts between group dynamics and individual stories. The film bears its late ’80s-early ’90s lo-fi digital aesthetic on its sleeve, yet it feels searing, pressing and urgent. For someone like me who became aware of the AIDS epidemic around the time it was no longer a public death sentence, this rendering is vital both in remembering the past and preventing it from repeating in the future.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 22, 2017)

22 06 2017

I’d been a little iffy on Edgar Wright as a brand-name director for years … that is, until I saw his latest film, “Baby Driver,” which was so good that it inspired me to go back and revisit his entire filmography. I’d given “Shaun of the Dead” and “The World’s End” second chances before but never returned to “Hot Fuzz,” his 2007 crime caper. Wow, was I missing out.

A second watch revealed “Hot Fuzz” to be an obvious “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” It’s smart, stylish and subversive – all the things that mark Wright’s best cinema. He can successfully play with genre like few other working directors, and this re-teaming of Wright with comedic muses Simon Pegg and Nick Frost exhibits his most seamless blend.

The adventure starts as a fish-out-of-water comedy when the impressively efficient London Metro Police officer Nicholas Angel (Pegg) gets transferred to the sleepy country town Sandford. He’s used to his presence being necessary to enforce the law in the big city. Here, Angel finds that the police have made themselves largely ornamental. There’s a strong amount of social trust in the community, and the existing police officers take a hands-off approach to handling any misbehaviors and misdemeanors they observe. Not Angel, though, who takes thwarting underage pub drinking as seriously as foiling a terrorist plot.

But lurking under the blissful bucolic facade is a cabal that threatens the townspeople by exploiting their trust and naïveté. They’re certainly lucky to have Angel around for this, although he’s hamstrung by the provincial local police chief (Jim Broadbent) and his aloof son Danny Butterman (Frost) … who just so happens to be Angel’s partner. Danny’s chief preparation for the job, aside from his lineage, is watching lots of ’90s action movies. As it turns out, that proves most helpful for combating the menace facing Sandford.

Wright pulls off the tricky task of paying homage to a series of influential films (“Bad Boys,” “Point Break”) while humorously sending them up and one-upping their antics. His comedy goes far beyond the lazy “Scary Movie” spoof; Wright works in how people interact with film and how it tints their view of the world to hilarious ends. Furthermore, he’s not just cribbing an incident or a feel from the genre and calling it a take on them. He’s mimicking their aesthetic with loud, smashing cuts and big pyrotechnics. Just appropriately adjusted for the real world.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 15, 2017)

15 06 2017

We all know the stereotype: the quirky indie movie character who’s got some social anxieties and manages to perturb the calm facades of more well-adjusted peers. It’s a stock character by this point. But back at the turn of the millennium, it was probably quite novel – and maybe even a little radical. (I wasn’t watching indie films then, so I do have to guess.)

So I can only imagine what it would be like to watch “Chuck and Buck” when it premiered in 2000. Even for a first viewing in 2017, it still resides in “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. In a pre-“Brokeback Mountain” era, director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White dove head into an unrequited homoerotic love story of an awkward man (White’s Chuck) and the childhood friend (Chris Weitz’s Buck) who outgrew him.

That might count as a bit of a spoiler because the nature of their relationship comes as a slow reveal. Their nature of their past relationship begins in barely perceptible undertones but gradually begins to come to light. When Chuck is planning for the funeral of his mother, who he cared for well into adulthood, he calls Buck out of the blue to attend. It seems like a reasonable action for someone reeling through tragedy at the time, and Buck (along with his girlfriend) are decent enough to come and comfort him.

But then the film continues. Chuck decides to pack up and head to Hollywood, where Buck lives and works. After awkward hangouts don’t result in the rekindling of their friendship to adolescent levels, Chuck strikes out with a strange act of attention-grabbing desperation. He stages a play at a community theater that’s a very clear allegory of he and Buck’s relationship and the resulting feelings stemming from their estrangement.

Many a moment in the film is utterly cringe-inducing as Chuck runs amok of so many social niceties and norms considered necessary for social interactions. Yet they are also tinged with the sadness, loss and confusion of a gay man stuck in a society and a self that could not accept such a thing. Where other filmmakers might try to dull his edges, Arteta and White do no such ting in “Chuck and Buck.” The film is all the more remarkable for it.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 1, 2017)

1 06 2017

There’s nothing like the NBA Finals to make you appreciate the incredible talent in takes to make it to the top of your game. LeBron James is back in the championship, as he seemingly always is. Back in 2009, King James’ high school years got the documentary treatment in “More Than a Game,” which is little more than hero worship that treats his pre-NBA time as mere prologue to a Hall of Fame career. (Before there was ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, we had to settle for highlight reels disguised as art like that.)

But James is the exception, not the rule. Many great basketball players thrive in high school and display tremendous potential for advancement with their talent. They don’t all make it. Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Lenny Cooke” tells such a story, the darker underbelly of basketball superstardom. For every LeBron James, there are ten Lenny Cookes he must step over on his way to the top.

The Safdie brothers inherit a good deal of footage from producer Adam Shopkorn, whose camera followed Cooke in his high school years in the early 2000s. This was the boom of high school imports into the NBA thanks to players like Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. In 2001, Kwame Brown was the first player to go #1 in the NBA Draft without having played a minute of college basketball. It seemed like the beginning of a new era, but little did Lenny Cooke know it was the apex of a trend that was about to come crashing down.

The Safdies find the tragedy inherent in the old footage, which is what elevates their documentary to “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. With scarcely any talking heads, they locate the intersection of hubristic decisions made presuming a straight shot to stardom and the unfortunate coincidence of timing. Were Cooke but a year older, he could likely have ridden Kwame Brown’s to a draft selection in 2001. Yet he came after Brown struggled for playing time, and high school phenomenons no longer received the same benefit of the doubt they once did. There’s no way Cooke could have known this, though footage shows countless instances of coaches and other authority figures exercise caution in presuming that millions of dollars inevitably await every upstart player.

What really pushes the film over the top is the final act, an abrupt cut into Cooke’s life in the 2010s after a short montage of his unspectacular career in B-leagues across the world. He’s gotten large in his post-basketball years (some of which is due to his new profession as a cook) and carries around the bitterness and regret of someone twice his age. The camera tracks him to an NBA game where he sees former competitors like Joachim Noah and Carmelo Anthony, and his jealousy only gets amplified by the lack of attention they pay him. Especially when Cooke goes on a profanity-laced tirade, it’s hard not to think of “Raging Bull.”