Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: Mudbound (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Dee Rees
Starring: Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan

Societies are built on bodies. This fact isn't exclusive to the United States, though it may sometimes feel that way because the legacy of those bodies continues to echo so resoundingly through its contemporary social and political climate. Dee Rees' historical epic Mudbound opens by acknowledging this through two of its characters digging a hole and turning up a set of chains followed by the remains of a slave, and then builds by demonstrating how the condition of slavery is perpetuated in spirit if not in name as it explores the relationship between two families, one black and one white, in the years just prior to and just after World War II. It's a great achievement, a period film that does not just have the look of something important, but actually is important, speaking not only to the past but also to the present. It's a vital, brutal, and engrossing movie.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

* * *

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad

Murder on the Orient Express is a delightfully old fashioned movie. This isn't just because it's based on a novel from 1934, but because it feels like a throwback to the era when studios would throw all their top flight contract players into an elegantly rendered, dialogue-heavy production, and because it is filmed in a very classic style and fashion. I've never seen the other adaptations of the novel, so I have no opinion on how this one stacks up against them, but I can say that I enjoyed this one immensely. It's an easy movie to enjoy - filled with stars, turning on a plot that's luridly engaging without being too complex, and it looks great - and it's a pleasure to watch a high profile movie that doesn't feel like it's aimed at appealing to men aged 14 to 25 first and everyone else well afterwards.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

* * *

Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Tessa Thompson, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo

Thor: Ragnarok isn't the best movie I've seen all year, it's not even the best superhero movie I've seen all year, but I'd be hard pressed to name a movie that I had more fun watching this year. There are a lot of things about Ragnarok that can be described as "awesome," from the delicious camp of Cate Blanchett's performance to the scene stealing of director Taika Waititi's performance as soft spoken rock creature Korg to the film's use of "Immigrant Song" in the climax to the relaxed chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston that leads to some of the film's funniest moments to Tessa Thompson's hard drinking, hard fighting Valkyrie. But the best thing about it, from my perspective, is the simple fact that I don't think a movie like this could have been made even as little as five years ago, and certainly not with a budget of almost $200 million. It is weird and silly, like some marvelous fever dream guided by someone who's love of comic books, science fiction, and the '80s has converged into one sprawling and delightfully bizarre vision. So thank you to Guardians of the Galaxy and its surprise success in 2014 for paving the way for this anything goes superhero adventure.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: The Florida Project (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite

It's kind of funny, but my reaction to Sean Baker's The Florida Project is sort of the opposite to my reaction to his last film, 2015's Tangerine. That film I felt was overall a decent movie with a great ending; this one I felt was a nearly great movie with a bad ending. Both films are about disenfranchised people living on the fringes of society and both stories are told in a way that manages to be non-judgmental, even when the characters are doing objectively terrible/harmful things, with Baker's objective being to explore rather than criticize how people get by when they have next to nothing and exist in that societal space that is essentially invisible. They're both films that are strong in character moments, with The Florida Project being the more free-floating of the two - though its casual, slice of life approach to storytelling shouldn't be mistaken for plotlessness. It's a skillfully made movie, often visually arresting, and centers on a performance that is likely to be talked about a lot as we head into awards season.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman

"It's a metaphor." Flesh for flesh. He's not saying it's right, necessarily, but it's the only way he can see to balance the books and make them both whole. Yorgos Lanthimos' latest film is built around a long standoff between a teenage boy driven by righteous certainty and a middle-aged man who thinks he can put off the inevitable, with three other lives caught in the middle. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is neither as bonkers as 2009's Dogtooth nor as darkly delightful as last year's The Lobster. In truth it's a little bit of a slog, relentless in its brutality and building little narrative momentum as it puts its characters through the paces of psychological torture. I wouldn't say that I hated it, and I certainly wouldn't say that it isn't a skilled piece of work, but by the time it was finished I was definitely ready for it to be over. If you're going to see it I recommend seeing it cold and knowing as little about the plot as possible, so consider this a spoiler warning.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

* * *

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling

At the risk of losing my movie nerd cred, I have to admit that I don't particularly care for the original Blade Runner. I can't remember which version it was that I saw (I know it wasn't the one with the voice-over, but that still leaves six other versions), but I remember find it overall... boring. That makes me both the worst and the best possible audience for the late-coming sequel Blade Runner 2049. The worst because it took a lot to get me to the theater to see it (the nearly 3 hour running time didn't help), the best because I didn't watch it while gnashing my teeth over the ways that it departs from/doesn't live up to the original. I liked it - mostly. There are some elements that I had issue with, but I never felt less than engaged with the movie and I think that it's a solid (and breathtakingly beautiful looking) science fiction drama.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Primer (2004)

Director: Shane Carruth
Starring: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan
Country: United States

Shane Carruth’s time travel drama Primer is one of the least accessible movies I’ve ever watched, but it's also one of the most fascinating. In both content and production it's a DIY affair, with a plot that centers on two guys doing science in a garage, made on a shoestring budget (reportedly just $7,000) with Carruth doing just about everything himself (he's the writer/director/co-star, but he's also credited as producer, editor, production designer, and as part of the sound department and for the musical score). In an era when the market is flooded with content because anyone with an iPhone and a computer can make a movie and can probably sell it, too, thanks to the number of platforms in search of content to fill out their libraries, Primer is an example of a film that makes a case for this democratization of filmmaking by demonstrating that a lack of resources isn't the same as a lack of talent, imagination, or ability. Primer is a great movie. I’m still not sure I can entirely wrap my mind around the mechanics of the its science, but I’m in awe of Carruth’s ambition as well as the artistry necessary to make a story this dry and opaque so incredible engaging.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #10 - 1

#10: Blue Valentine (2010)

You always hurt the one you love. A story divided between love at its first blush and love on its last legs, Blue Valentine is a fascinating study of a relationship in which the very things that draw its lovers together will undermine their bond like a structural rot. On one side of the relationship is Ryan Gosling's Dean, a man given to impulsive and dramatic displays of emotion that play out as grand gestures of love when he's happy and violence and self-harm when he's not; on the other side is Cindy, a woman who is tired of not being listened to and mistakes Dean's attention for understanding. As time marches on, she becomes restless and feels like she's been held back by the life she's made with Dean, while he has turned to alcohol to drown out his feelings of inadequacy and his fear that he's destined to be a failure. A portrait of disappointment and frustration, Blue Valentine is nevertheless also surprisingly funny, drawing humor from even its darkest passages. This emotional balancing act is made possible both by the performances of its stars and by how deeply realized it is as a character study.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #20 - 11

#20: Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

This is a movie that should be hard to like because by all rights its protagonist should come across as annoying as hell. Instead this woman, a relentless force of positivity played marvelously by Sally Hawkins, is enormously endearing and the film itself rises to match her very high spirits. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, who excels in the kind of "slice of life" storytelling that drives this film, Happy-Go-Lucky pits this joyful, optimistic woman against a horribly miserable man (played by Eddie Marsan as someone whose desperation for some kind of affection and frustration that he can't seem to attain it turns him into a ticking time bomb of rage), testing the extent of her empathy and allowing Hawkins to explore the deeper, trickier depths of her character's personality. Happy-Go-Lucky is an extraordinary movie that flows from Leigh's greatest strengths as a filmmaker and showcases the incredible talent of Hawkins.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #30 - 21

#30: Under the Skin (2014)

This isn't just a disturbing movie, it's a movie that unsettles on such a deep and durable level that you might never be able to fully shake it. Literally, it's a story about aliens who have come to the planet to slaughter and harvest humans. Figuratively, it's about the experience of being a woman in a world that is so hostile to femininity that it seems to be on an endless mission to debase and destroy it. The figure at the center of the story is played by Scarlett Johansson, who shifts from predator in the film's first half, during which the body she's occupying registers as nothing more than a uniform, to prey in the second, after she begins to develop an awareness of the body she's occupying as that of a woman and what that signifies to the world around her. Under the Skin is a cold and detached film, it's brutal and not very accessible, but it's also graceful, hypnotic, and genius in its dramatization of how the world is experienced differently by men and women.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #40 - 31

#40: Animal Kingdom (2010)

Ben Michod's crime drama begins with startling scene that is effective precisely for how low-key it is and then slow burns its way from there, proceeding at a very deliberate pace where the momentum of the story matches the level of awareness of the character at the center of it. The opening stretch of the film matches his detachment and isolation, while the later parts shift to match his growing sense of agency and active participation in what's going on around him as he grows aware of exactly why his mother chose to raise him cut off from her family, which is full of criminals of varying levels of ruthlessness. The most ruthless is the seemingly sweet matriarch played by Jacki Weaver in the performance that earned her an Oscar nomination and launched her into Hollywood crossover success. In this carefully etched portrait of dysfunction and brutality where everyone is reduced to the animal principle of eat or be eaten, she holds court as the kingdom's Queen.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #50 - 41

#50: The Immigrant (2014)

James Gray makes beautiful films. The way that his films play with light and shadow, the way that he captures movement, the way that he frames his characters all work to create a visual tapestry that's as rich as the narratives he's unfolding. The Immigrant, in particular, is painterly in the way that it's photographed, like a moving Caravaggio that heightens the emotional intensity of everything that's going on in this story of a woman who comes to America to escape post-WWI Poland and becomes trapped by her lack of resources, making her the perfect target for exploitation. Built around masterful performances by Marion Cotillard as the woman seeking a better life and Joaquin Phoenix as the man who takes advantage of her lack of power, The Immigrant is an ambitious and commanding film about the hardship, desperation, and hope of that most American of stories: the immigrant story.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #60 - 51

#60: The Ghost Writer (2010)

There are two ghosts in The Ghost Writer. The first is never seen onscreen but is a presence that's felt throughout the story and who, in some ways, guides it (I don't believe that any film has ever used a GPS device more usefully or effectively). The second is the ghost writer hired to re-draft the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister, taking over from the previous ghost writer who has died under mysterious circumstances. Arriving in Martha's Vineyard to begin work, the Ghost (Ewan McGregor) finds himself drawn not only into a mystery, but into an international conspiracy. A sharply written work of expert mood setting, in which a feeling of menace underscores virtually everything (particularly those things involving Olivia Williams, chilling in her performance as the Prime Minister's wife), The Ghost Writer is a creepy and enthralling thriller that boasts one of the single most perfect endings seen in film in the last ten years.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #70 - 61

#70: Wall-E (2008)

700 years in the future, Earth is a giant garbage dump, its horizon dotted by skyscrapers of trash, its population reduced to one waste disposal robot working to make the planet inhabitable once again, compacting trash into tiny cubes but also salvaging items of interest, treasured items that alleviate an otherwise lonely existence. One day a drone appears and our hero, Wall-E, is instantly smitten, so much so that he goes beyond the ends of the Earth for her. However this is not merely a movie about an adorable robot in love, but one which casts a critical eye on our treatment of the environment, our embrace of the artificial at the expense of the real (is it just ironic or is the film making a point when it makes Wall-E feel more human than the actual human characters?), and our increasingly disposable culture. Heartfelt and splendidly animated, Wall-E remains one of Pixar's best films.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #80 - 71

#80: Drive (2011)

He's a man of few words who's just there to get a job done. There's nothing new in the movies about that and yet Drive never feels derivative; it feels vital and alive and like it's doing something different, even when it's not. Starring Ryan Gosling as the Driver (no name needed), stuntman by day, getaway driver by night, and Carey Mulligan as the woman who briefly brings a patch of light into the darkness of his existence, Drive is as relentlessly violent as it is dreamily romantic, a seemingly dysfunctional combination that filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn finds a way to bring together in harmony. A film with style to burn - it's not just a dynamic looking film, but one that moves to its own particular beats - it's a work of restrained emotions that might feel artificial were it not for the way that Refn, Gosling, and Mulligan are able to suggest the wellspring of emotion hiding just beneath the surface. It's a work as beautiful as it is brutal.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #90 - 81

#90: Man on Wire (2008)

The story is almost too crazy to be true: In 1974 a man not only managed to sneak into the World Trade Center, but managed to string a wire between the towers and walk across - going back and forth for 45 minutes. Using a combination of news and home video footage, recreations, and talking head interviews, director James Marsh creates a documentary that plays like a heist movie: it's got a scheme that's impossible, means that are improbable, and a ringleader so charismatic that it's no wonder he managed to rope several other people into it. Man on Wire is a movie that's entertaining as hell to watch, but more than that it's a movie that really resonates. Approaching the subject in a deceptively lighthearted way, Marsh captures Philippe Petit's astonishing feat in all its majesty and wonder and when you see the footage of his walk, you feel not unlike the security guard who appears in news footage, awestruck at having witnessed something incredible.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Flick Chick 100: #100 - 91

#100: Trigger (2010)

Running just 83 minutes, Trigger is a very short work, but that doesn't make it sight. It's just a movie that gets the job done quickly. It centers on two women, each one-half of a band that broke up ten years earlier. They're brought back together by a benefit/tribute show that one has secretly put together and which the other isn't even sure she's actually going to attend because the music scene is so tied up in all of her experiences as an addict that she doubts she can set foot back into it without falling back down the rabbit hole. Unfolding as several long, dialogue heavy scenes in which the film maps the landscape of the duo's history, Trigger is basically just a story about two women who know each other so well that they don't even have to work at it to push each other's buttons and who remain tightly bonded even though they've spent a decade apart. A work that has a particular feeling of urgency for being co-star Tracy Wright's final film, Trigger is a brisk but engrossing movie.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Flick Chick Turns Ten

Ten years ago today I planted a flag in my little corner of the internet by publishing my first post on a blog I decided to call The Flick Chick. Since then I've written over 2,000 posts, seen a staggering number of movies, and written more words about movies than I can count. To commemorate the occasion I'm going to be counting down my picks for the 100 best movies released between October 21, 2007 and October 21, 2017.

Since release dates can be kind of nebulous due to the various kinds of wide and limited release schedules distributors use and the fact that movies get released in North America and elsewhere at different times, I'm narrowing consideration for my start date to movies that hit theaters in North America on or after October 21, 2007 (meaning foreign films that played in their countries of origin earlier but didn't play here until after that date are eligible) and my end date to movies that are playing in wide release today (meaning that anything that's only in limited release in North America as of this weekend isn't eligible).

The countdown starts Monday, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: Victoria & Abdul (2017)

* * *

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal

To be taken with several grains of salt, I'm sure. Stephen Frears' Victoria & Abdul is an enjoyable movie, even though it feels like the sort of movie you're not supposed to be able to enjoy anymore. I suppose that what saves it is that it seems to know that it's that kind of movie and takes steps, however imperfectly, to try to address head-on the elements that might be used to designate it as "problematic" generally and as an undiscerning colonialist fantasy specifically. As I said, take it all with a grain of salt, but as lightweight period pieces - where the emphasis is as much on the lavish costumes and production design as on the marquee performance - go, Victoria & Abdul is pleasantly entertaining.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

* * *

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman

The last week and a half has been a pretty horrifying one in terms of the barrage of sexual harassment (and assault and rape) stories that have come out of Hollywood. It's been so depressing that on Friday I was very much looking forward to watching Noah Baumbach's new comedy, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), just for a bit of escapism and to have a few good laughs. I did, in fact, have several good laughs while watching it, but then mid-way through the movie one of the female characters tells a story about how when she was a teenager she went swimming and then afterwards was rinsing herself off in an outdoor shower only to turn around and discover one of her father's friends watching her while masturbating and it was like, "Is there no escape from these stories?" This isn't in any way to suggest that we shouldn't be paying attention to these stories and demanding better behavior from those who are privileged to wield power; it's just that it would have been nice to experience 2 solid hours without being confronted with a story about a dude luxuriating in garbage behavior towards a woman just because he feels that his penis entitles him to it. The Meyerwotiz Stories is a good movie, by the way, but God.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: The Mountain Between Us (2017)

* *

Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Starring: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba

I'll answer the two most important questions first: Yes, the dog lives. As a matter of fact, I left the theater convinced that the dog is immortal because nothing takes him down, but try telling that to Kate Winslet's character, who sends Idris Elba's to look for the dog each time it runs off. Second, yes, they do it. How often does a movie put two people that attractive together and not have them get into bed? Now that you know that, you can probably skip it at the theater and catch it when it shows up on your preferred streaming service or when it ends up on TV. It's not a bad movie, but it's definitely the kind of movie that probably plays best when it's raining outside and you have nothing else to keep yourself entertained with.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

* * *

Director: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell

In the words of the film: "Times change. You should know. You just changed them." In the words of Hemingway: "Isn't it pretty to think so?" In 1973 Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played a match dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes" that was aired on television in prime time. It was a ratings success for ABC. I'm not sure how much of an effect it had on anything else, at least directly, but symbolism can be a powerful thing and sometimes what something means matters less than what it feels like it means. Battle of the Sexes, written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), presents an awfully rose-colored view of things, but that presentation is nevertheless awfully entertaining.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: David France

History is written by the victors, which means that it's written by those in power. Even when the history in question is the history of a marginalized group, it tends to be written from the perspective of those members who most closely align with the majority in power, which is why the history of the gay rights movement often seems like the history of gay white men. Just look at the controversy surrounding last year's Stonewall, which failed to gain the support of the wider LGBTQ community due to its displacement of trans women of color in favor of giving ownership of the story of a white, middle class young man. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is about two of those women that Stonewall displaced, one of whom gives the film its title, the other of whom emerges as the documentary's most fascinating figure. Although not quite as focused as director David France's previous film, the brilliant and wrenching How to Survive a Plague, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is an urgent and moving film about a segment of the population that is so often disregarded.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Director: Michael Moore
Country: United States

There are few people in the film industry more widely disliked by the general public than Michael Moore. Even people whose politics align with his own have a tendency to dislike him. He's smug, he's aggressive, and he loves to put himself center-stage in his work, making it particularly difficult to separate the art from the artist for those who like his films but not his personality since to a large extent his films are his personality. As a personality I find Moore hard to take at times (but I tend to have a very Canadian reaction to abrasiveness), but over the past several months I've come to find him weirdly refreshing. He's still smug, aggressive, and PT Barnum-esque in his approach, but at least you know where he stands and he never waters his opinions down in an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible - and that's something that stands the test of time. Before seeing it again two weeks ago, I hadn't seen Bowling for Columbine since it's original release and I found that it remains thought-provoking, entertaining, and so sadly relevant.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: American Made (2017)

* * *

Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise

The story told by American Made is the type for which the phrase "only in America" was invented, a tale of daring and ambition and corruption fueled by the enterprising nature of the "American Dream," a story about flying too close to the sun and then bursting into flames. I don't know how much of it is actually true, but it certainly seems like the kind of story where the truth is even crazier than what ends up on screen because there are limits to how much you can expect the audience to believe. Directed by Doug Liman, American Made a greatly entertaining movie that makes the most of Tom Cruise's movie star charms as well as the audience's fondness for protagonists that do the wrong things while winking conspiratorially and making it look like a damn lot of fun - at least until a cartel gets pissed off, then the fun stops pretty quick.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Review: Band Aid (2017)

* * *

Director: Zoe Lister-Jones
Starring: Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally

The hardest thing about living with someone is living with someone. Everyone is kind of annoying if you spend enough time with them, and certain household issues are built to be fought over. Bathrooms, laundry, dishes - these are wars that will always be won by the person most willing to go nuclear, because the person who cares the most that the bathroom isn't clean or that the laundry or dishes haven't been done is always going to be the one to break and do it themselves. The problems at the heart of the relationship in Band Aid ultimately run deeper than the sink full of dirty dishes but... it's not not about the dishes, either. A romantic comedy about the "ever after" part of the story, Band Aid is a sharp and funny portrait of a marriage.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Review: Stronger (2017)

* * *

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson

Grief is hard enough. Having to grieve publicly, and as a symbol for the grief of countless others, must be an especially hellish experience. David Gordon Green's Stronger is an intimate exploration of trauma under a spotlight, telling the story of Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and became a symbol of "Boston Strong." While it contains some of the beats of the "overcoming the odds" subgenre, Stronger largely avoids devolving into a cookie-cutter drama thanks to its keen focus on exploring its characters and the very strong performances of the actors playing them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: The Mummy (2017)

* *

Director: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe

I'll give The Mummy this much: it takes stones to start your movie by announcing it as the inaugural entry in the "Dark Universe" when previous attempts to launch the series have already been released and failed (and then disavowed as if they were never meant to be anything of the kind in the first place). As for the rest? Meh. Marketed (in North America, at least) as a "darker" take on the Mummy story that would veer towards horror, it's actually aiming to be an Indiana Jones-style adventure yarn with frequent shots of humor, and if that's what you want to watch, well, you may as well just watch the Brendan Fraser version of The Mummy, which does everything that this one is trying to do (except kick off a shared universe) but much better.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Tales from the Black List: Pan (2015)

* *

Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara

When original ideas are in short supply, just turn a well-worn property into an origin story and call it "new." Pan is what I suppose you would call the "winner" of the great Peter Pan adaptation race that started about six years ago. Following in the footsteps of Snow White, who found herself in two different "re-imaginings" released in 2012, by 2011 there were no less than 5 Peter Pan projects in development, two called "Neverland" (one of which actually did get made as a miniseries prequel to Peter Pan, the other of which was a take with Peter Pan as the villain and Captain Hook as the hero), one called "Peter Pan" (a "family adventure"), one called "The.Never.Land" (described as a "Twilight-ish spin" on the relationship between Wendy and Peter), and one called "Pan" which would have seen Peter and Hook as brothers and which would have had Channing Tatum involved in some capacity. I'm not sure whether that "Pan" and this one are the same film a few re-writes apart but, at any rate, this version of the Peter Pan story, written by Jason Fuchs, made it onto 2013's Black List and presumably read much better on paper.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

21st Century Essentials: The Dark Knight (2008)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger
Country: United States, United Kingdom

Some men just want to watch the world burn. There's no logic to it, no central ideas informing it; the chaos of it exists purely for its own sake. If the moral and philosophical questions posed by Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight seemed fitting for the first decade of this century, they have only come to seem more so as time has gone on. Although hardly the first superhero movie to actively try to "mean" something, and certainly not the last, I would be hard-pressed to name one that more completely transcended that line between popcorn entertainment and something deeper, more meaningful, and essential in some way to understanding the times in which we are living. The Dark Knight is a film that speaks to the period of history that it came out of and continues to speak to what we're living through today, a film whose influence continues to echo through its genre, and one which is just a damn entertaining watch. No discussion of the movie century so far would be complete without The Dark Knight.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: The Little Hours (2017)

* * *

Director: Jeff Baena
Starring: Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza

The Little Hours is part Monty Python, part "Nunsploitation" throwback, and just as tonally all over the place as that description implies. Many scenes in The Little Hours are really very funny. A couple of scenes in The Little Hours become really weird and uncomfortable to watch for reasons that I'll get into below. The gentle, actually quite sweet ending is somewhat at odds with the bawdiness that dominates the proceedings up until that point. Nevertheless, because it's such a fun watch overall, the film is never really bogged down these sudden shifts. It helps that The Little Hours feels so fresh in comparison to most of the comedies being put out by Hollywood studios lately, doing its own off-the-wall thing and taking a few chances. It's a silly movie, but it's silly in the best of ways.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: mother! (2017)

* * *

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem

If you follow entertainment news sites, you've heard that mother! earned the rare "F" grade from CinemaScore. An F doesn't just mean that an audience disliked a movie, it means that the audience feels betrayed by the movie, like they've been sold a false bill of goods. On one hand, this turn of events is understandable because the marketing for mother! doesn't really give a clear idea of what it's going to be, but it being a major studio release one could be forgiven for assuming that it's going to be a little more... normal. On the other hand, it's a Darren Aronofsky movie. The closest he's ever come to "mainstream" is Black Swan and that's only mainstream insofar as it was a box office and Oscar success. Most of his movies are flat out designed to alienate. Granted, even knowing that going in, watching mother! can still feel like a bit of an endurance test. I don't think there's any way to actually discuss this movie without spoiling it a little (or a lot), so consider this a spoiler warning.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: Seven Sisters (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Glenn Close

Seven Sisters, which is also called What Happened to Monday? and might as well have been called "Orphan Black, but less good," is a high-concept science fiction film that takes about an hour to get beyond its concept. The second hour is pretty solidly entertaining as a thriller (albeit one that ends rather softly), but the first can be a bit frustrating, full of unnecessary exposition (the whole film contains unnecessary exposition, but the bulk of it is concentrated in the first half) and overly enamored with the idea of having star Noomi Rapace interact with herself to the power of 7 so that some scenes feel less like they're servicing a story and more like they exist as acting and technical exercises. Sure, it's an impressive feat, but less talk and more action would go a long way.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

21st Century Essentials: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender
Country: United Kingdom, United States

Even before its first screening at Telluride’s 2013 festival, 12 Years a Slave had the recognizable markers of a movie that was going to be designated as an “Important Film.” That designation, which burnishes a few films every year sight unseen and in anticipation of Oscar season, can be a blessing to those films that manage to live up to the expectation, but even those films that are successful in that respect tend to lose a bit of that glow as time goes on. What seems like an “Important Film” in the heat of awards season becomes simply a great (or even just very good) film as the cycle resets itself. When it won Best Picture in 2014 it would have been easy to assume that 12 Years a Slave would experience that same kind of fading that accompanies the sudden cessation of the awards season hype, particularly since some Academy voters admitted to not actually having seen it but voting for it out a sense of obligation, but instead 12 Years a Slave has not only maintained but grown in its importance over the years, a result not only of it being a great film borne of the meticulous craft of director Steve McQueen, but also of the fact that its challenges to Hollywood convention are something that the industry and society generally are only just beginning to reckon with.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Stephen King Adaptations

#5: Stand By Me

The first time he saw it, King reportedly declared Stand By Me the best film ever adapted from one of his works. A coming-of-age classic that marked Rob Reiner's first foray as a director from comedy to drama, Stand By Me is one not only one of the best films based on King's work, it's also one of the best films of its type ever made.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Netflix Recommends... Love & Mercy (2014)

* * *

Director: Bill Pohlad
Starring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks

The history of rock and roll is full of weird and tragic stories and one of the weirdest, surely, is the story of Brian Wilson. From the genius at the heart of one of the most successful and enduring bands of the '60s, to a recluse rumored to have spent years in bed self-medicating an undiagnosed mental illness, to someone incorrectly diagnosed and placed under the care and control of doctor/svengali eventually leading to a years long conservatorship battle, Wilson's life has so many twists and turns, ups and downs, that it would be difficult to fit it all in any one movie. Bill Pohland's Love & Mercy, written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, doesn't attempt to tell the whole story, choosing to focus instead on the time before and after the hermitage period, each of which is fascinating in its own way even if the two halves of the film don't always work so well together.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review: Ingrid Goes West (2017)

* * *

Director: Matt Spicer
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen

It is perhaps a uniquely hypocritical feature of our current day and age that people share literally everything about themselves and their lives online, but then get indignant about other people wanting to be up in their business. In Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West, a sometimes pointed but sometimes toothless satire, an "influencer" meets her audience and ends up with #negativevibes, resulting in an extremely dark comedy that centers on possibly the most unapologetically sharped-edged female protagonists since Charlize Theron in Young Adult. You can't say that Ingrid Goes West doesn't go for broke with its central character, though you can certainly argue that it begins to lose the thread somewhat in its third act. It will be interesting to see how a movie like this, so firmly rooted in the technology and trends of the here and now, ages, but seeing it in 2017 is like looking at a snapshot of many of the worst qualities of our era. Fortunately the film is asking us to laugh at them and, more often than not, giving us good reason to do so.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou
Domestic Box Office: $39,175,066

And so we end the summer as it began, with the season's first high profile failure: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. At one point conceived as a means of kicking off its own "shared universe" of stories, it's instead going to go down as one of the biggest money losers of the year. Made for $175 million (and that's just the production budget; the advertising budget isn't confirmed, but I've read estimates of about $100 million), the film brought in just $39 million domestically and that figure, even when combined with the international grosses, falls far short of the amount spent to make it. This movie didn't just bomb, it failed on an absolutely epic scale, leaving a smoking crater full of burned money in its wake. Which is extremely unfortunate because, despite what you may have heard from its abysmal critical reception, it's actually kind of good. I enjoyed it a great deal (so much so that I watched it twice), which is too bad because now not only will none of the potential sequels get made, but the bad word around it probably means that it's not going to get the Best Costume Design nomination it richly deserves.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review: Wind River (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen

Late in the film, a character remarks that the case at the center of the story is practically solving itself. The reason that this is true is because it's a story that's so depressingly familiar about men, women, power, entitlement, and the institutionalized racism that allows the law to cherry pick what kinds of victims are worth seeking justice for. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who's riding a hot streak after writing the screenplays for 2015's Sicario and 2016's Hell or High Water, Wind River is a sharp edged, fast moving thriller, although I don't think it's quite the advocacy piece that its final words might like to suggest. Wind River is less about giving voice to people traditionally treated as disposable by society and the media than it is a story about unforgiving men (in their most traditional form, at that) in an unforgiving land, but it's an absolutely engrossing film of its type and confirms Sheridan as one of the most exciting voices working in Hollywood today.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Phoenix (2015)

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kuzendorf
Country: Germany

At the heart of Phoenix, the sixth collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss, is a disagreement over how to cope with trauma. On one side is a character who is determined to leave everything behind except the memories of the people who have been taken, and start over anew. On the other side is a character who just wants to go back to the life she left behind, to put it back together as much as possible, even if it means living amongst those who were complicit in the traumatic event. In the physical and social ruins of post-war Berlin neither can find much comfort in her respective strategy, as the thing they share in common – the need to remember – is at odds with a nation already in the process of trying to forget. A thematically rich and deeply felt film, Phoenix is a work that comes stunningly close to perfection.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Netflix Recommends... Rules Don't Apply (2016)

* *

Director: Warren Beatty
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty, Lily Collins

Warren Beatty is a curious case when it comes to Hollywood stars. He's been a star for 56 years, since Splendor in the Grass, but his output during that time has been relatively minimal, starring in 23 films during that time. For the sake of comparison, his contemporary Jack Nicholson has been a star for 48 years, since the release of Easy Rider, and since then has made 44 movies, with a 45th on the horizon. This isn't to say that Nicholson's filmmography is necessarily better, I'm just saying that there is a heightened level of selectivity to Beatty's output. "Selectivity" might not even be the best word to describe the career of the notoriously fastidious Beatty, who is known for moving slowly on projects before bringing them to fruition. One of those long simmering projects was Rules Don't Apply, which Beatty reportedly spent 40 years working at bringing to the screen. I'm not entirely sure whether the end result suggests that 40 years left it overcooked or still, somehow, undercooked, but Rules Don't Apply doesn't exactly present itself as a film that ever really needed to be made.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: All About Steve (2009)

Director: Phil Traill
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Bradley Cooper
Domestic Box Office: $33,862,903

2009 was a year of extreme highs and extreme lows for Sandra Bullock's career. The highs came in the form of The Proposal, her first big box office hit since 2002's Two Weeks Notice, and The Blind Side, which would become the 8th highest grossing movie of the year and win her an Oscar. But in between those two triumphs came All About Steve, one of the worst reviewed movies of her career and one of its lowest grossing. But Steve was not just a financial disappointment, nor was it a movie that people simply disliked. People hated this movie so much that you would think it ran over their dog. Critics were vicious. The Golden Raspberry Awards gave it five nominations, including Worst Actress, which Bullock won (and, because she is an incredible sport, collected in person) the day before winning her Oscar. I'm not about to launch into a defense of All About Steve, but I am going to say this: that level of hatred is undeserved and I think the level of critical drubbing it took is more the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of who the main character is and what the film is about than it is a reflection on the actual worth of the film itself.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: A Quiet Passion (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle

A Quiet Passion is one of those curious cases where the critical reception and the audience reception are so disparate that it almost seems like the two groups saw a different film. This is most apparent in its Rotten Tomatoes score, which earned 92% from critics, but only 50% from audiences. I can understand both positions. I can see how the great central performance from Cynthia Nixon and the film's meticulous craftsmanship would appeal to critics, and I can fully understand how the languid pacing, mannered style, and plotlessness of the film would have little appeal for audiences. At times I found the film quite engaging, but at other times I was honestly a little bored by it, so it's a bit of a mixed bag to be sure.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: Lady Macbeth (2017)

* * * *

Director: William Oldroyd
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie

"Aren't you bored, Katherine?" Man, is he ever going to regret asking that question, because yes she is and her quest to not be bored is going to ruin everyone. Loosely adapted from Nikolai Leskov's novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the film transports the action to Victorian era England, but approaches it with a sensibility that is not only thoroughly modern, but intensely relevant. Built around a stunning and sharp-edged performance by Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth is a film that upends expectations and becomes increasingly enthralling as it winds its way towards a conclusion that is perhaps inevitable, but savage nevertheless. The feature debut of director William Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth is a wonderfully confident debut that succeeds thematically where many films have failed.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)

Director: Harald Zwart
Starring: Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower
Domestic Box Office: $31,165,421

While box office itself can rarely be accurately predicted - movies that are supposed to be sure things can fail, movies expected to fail can sometimes find their audience and surprise everyone; the only certain thing seems to be that Star Wars will always make money - one of the most predictable things about movies when it comes to box office is that if something succeeds once, Hollywood will try to replicate that success multiple times, usually with increasingly diminishing returns, until the idea is thoroughly dead. The massive success of the Twilight movies guaranteed that there would be copy-cat properties entering the market place, even as time and again the Twilight audience rejected those properties because, really, all they wanted was more Twilight. Remember Vampire Academy? Beautiful Creatures? What about The Host, which had the advantage of being a Stephenie Meyer adaptation? I'm pretty sure nobody does. Two of those movies came out in 2013, incidentally, which probably should have made the makers of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones take a deep breath and consider that they might have made a huge mistake sinking $60 million into their adaptation.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tales From the Black List: Hancock (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman

But first, a story: I was perusing the Black List looking for a title that I could watch and write about for the feature and learned that Hancock, the 2008 Will Smith film that tries to deconstruct the superhero story, was part of the first ever list in 2005. Since I specifically use this feature to write about movies I've never written about before, I thought this was a non-starter because I was sure that I'd written about Hancock already. A quick search revealed that I was wrong about that, so I happily sat down to re-watch the film and promptly discovered that the reason I've never written about it is because I had not, in fact, ever seen it before. I'm not sure whether that says more about me (in my defense, I see a lot of movies) or about the film, which had such a long and winding trip from page to screen that it became part of Hollywood lore for a while, and which has such an easily digestible premise that apparently it can seem like you've seen the movie without ever having actually watched it. At any rate, here's Hancock, a movie that I've now definitely seen and which never really manages to pull itself together enough to bring its idea successfully to life.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan
Country: United States

Style over substance is a phrase which typically signifies criticism, an accusation that the work in question is shallow and without merit. In the right hands, however, or with the right project, style can be substance itself, elevating something ordinary into something amazing. Boiled down to its basics, Drive is a pretty unremarkable crime story about a guy (the strong silent type, naturally, with bonus points for remaining unnamed) who gets drawn into a situation he didn’t ask for and becomes a one man wrecking crew in his efforts to extricate himself. In the hands of director Nicolas Winding Refn, working from a screenplay by Hossein Amini which adapts the novel of the same name by James Sallis, Drive is an elegant film, a film that calls attention to how it looks and how it moves. It's a film of high style, but beneath its fa├žade of dynamic visuals and music that seems to stand in for the restrained and repressed emotions of its characters, lies a deep, dark heart beating like a drum.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Detroit (2017)

* * *

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: John Boyega, Will Poulter, Algee Smith

Typically by the time I sit down to write about I film, I've sorted out how I feel about it. As first steps go, it's a pretty important one and ultimately a pretty basic one: did I like it or not, did I think it was good or not. After thinking about it for a couple of days, I'm still on the fence about Detroit, a film in which I found much to admire, but which I also found wanting in certain respects and which left me feeling, at certain points, kind of annoyed. A lot has been written about Detroit in terms of what the film includes, what it omits, and whose story the murders at the Algiers Motel is to tell in the first place. Those are all topics worth discussing, and I believe that Detroit is a film worth engaging and discussing in that critical way (I say this because there seems to be a tendency these days for a work to be labeled "problematic" in some way or another and for the internet hivemind to decide that it should just be avoided altogether), but I'm not sure that it's totally successful as a film.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: James C. Strouse
Starring: Jessica Williams

While Netflix is undoubtedly the king of streaming services, I'm starting to think that Amazon has the stronger edge in terms of content (and not just because Amazon's films are ones that you can actually see in a theater before revisiting online). Netflix probably wins in terms of quantity, but I also feel like that's why it's going to lose in the long run. Netflix's model is one that seems increasingly built on indiscriminate quantity, on acquiring "content" rather than films so that there can always be something new for an audience in constant demand for more new things. I've seen a few of Netflix's original movies and aside from their documentary selection, which is quite strong, my overall reaction has been that the gems are few and far between and the rest of the features tend to be okay at best, with the occasional film that feels like it barely qualifies as a film. The Incredible Jessica James is one of those, a wisp of a thing that feels more like a long pilot for a series than a proper movie. It's saved somewhat by the starburst of charisma that is Jessica Williams, but it's a pretty forgettable endeavor.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Summer Not-Busters: Land of the Lost (2009)

Director: Brad Silberling
Starring: Will Ferrell, Anna Friel, Danny McBride
Domestic Box Office: $49,438,370

Land of the Lost is the sort of movie that feels like its genesis is in an inside joke between its makers. It has that insular specificity, that sense that the people involved in making it are so focused on entertaining themselves that they never paused to consider whether it would be entertaining to anyone else. Granted, I'm probably not the ideal audience for this movie because I've never seen the TV show, but given the film's tepid box office take it seems safe to assume that Universal took it for granted that the property was much more beloved than is actually the case. Having sunk $100 million into discovering that, the sting of the film's failure was still such that more than two years later former Universal head Ron Meyer would dismiss it as "just crap." It's an assessment that's hard to argue with.