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Jack Reacher: Never Go Back should have gone back to the formula that made the original Jack Reacher work. Audiences, only familiar with the character through the first movie (and not the Lee Childs book series) may find...

Review: Tampopo

Oct 21 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220968:43157:0[/embed] TampopoDirector: Juzo ItamiRating: NRRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (limited)Country: Japan  There's a familiar old west tale in Tampopo, with variations on cowboys and saloons and pretty schoolmarms. Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) are a pair of truck-driving gourmands that mosey into town. They stop by a noddle shop in a sorry state run by a widow named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). She's quaint, mousy, often dressed in gingham, demure to a fault. Also, her ramen just plain sucks. Since they're good cowboys, Goro and Gun help Tampopo improve her shop, sort of like working the farm or rebuilding this here schoolhouse. Tampopo spends the the film perfecting her ramen and in the process attempts to perfect herself. It's not just a western but, philosophically, a martial arts movie. This is a story about the discipline of mastery. Think Jiro Dreams of Sushi, except ramen: self-improvement through a process of trial and error and practice. It's a familiar narrative, but when filtered through an unexpected intermediary, it achieves remarkable existential heft. Even in a decidedly lighthearted comedy like Tampopo, it's moving to witness someone try and try again until they achieve some ennobling dignity, no matter how small. All that effort for a good bowl of soup. But that's just part of the oddball/heartfelt appeal of Tampopo. Soba isn't the only noodle. The movie starts with a gangster in white (Koji Yakusho) and his moll (Fukumi Kuroda) entering a movie theater, ostensibly to watch the main story of Tampopo described above. The gangster waxes philosophical about life, death, and the movies, and then roughs up a guy crinkling a bag of chips in the row behind him. Later in the film, the gangster and his moll reappear periodically, using food as foreplay. By comparison, these scenes make 9 1/2 Weeks seem like the missionary position in Mormon underwear. Swirling around these two recurring narratives are a series of one-off skits on the role of food in people's lives. So many rituals, roles, and social codes are built around food and propriety, and we take a break from our gal at the noodle shop to get a survey of food culture in 1980s Japan. What Tampopo seems to emphasize in most of these one-offs is the sensual pleasure of food, and how our desire for sweets and richness and even just sloppy eating can't be restrained. Yet even when defying restraint, our taste for the sensual can be refined and in the process our appreciation for pleasure deepened. Tampopo isn't a movie for foodies. What a wretched, bourgie word that is. Tampopo is a movie for uplifting gormandizers who want to suck marrow rather than spoon it from the bone. Tampopo was just the second film from Itami, though it seems so assured and confident. Who else but a confident filmmaker decides to include a goofy rice omelet scene with a hobo? At numerous times the actors address some off-camera interlocutor by looking directly at the audience. This recurring quirk is sort of like Ozu, but not like Ozu at all. Tonally I was reminded a little of A Christmas Story, but then in comes a sexy or dark or sensitive moment redolent of some separate influence. Every couple minutes, unexpected surprises, and just more and more delight.
Review: Tampopo photo
Zen and the sexiness of ramen making
Prior to this week, the last time I saw Juzo Itami's 1985 food comedy Tampopo was in the mid-90s. I remembered so little of the movie save for the fact that I enjoyed it. Some isolated scenes are easy to recall, though. There...

Review: Moonlight

Oct 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220901:43153:0[/embed] MoonlightDirector: Barry JenkinsRelease Date: October 21st, 2016Rating: R  Moonlight is told in three parts, each spaced a decade or so apart. In part one, Chiron is a child; people call him "Little." In part 2, he's a teenager; one person calls him "Black." In part 3, he's in his late 20s; everyone calls him "Black" now. Each of the three actors is in the poster, which I think is an excellent poster (there are also individual character posters of each actor in the same position, which is less cool). However, the posters all have the same, dumb tagline: "This is the story of a lifetime." That's a terrible tagline. Unlike, say, the Disney film that you might expect to have the tagline, it's more literal. It is, sort of, the story of someone's lifetime. But that's not a very good measuring stick. I look at that poster and think, "That looks really cool." I read that tagline and think, "That sounds really bland." Though that raises an interesting thought (more on that later). All three parts of Moonlight are good, though they are all good for totally different reasons. Part 1 sets Chiron up, but it's less about Chiron than the man who is his mentor: Juan. Part of me wonders if that's intentional, that it's supposed to be about Juan. Certainly he's a critical part of the narrative (and also of Chiron's development as the film progresses), but this is not his story ultimately. And it seems to me that part of the reason it feels so much like his story is because of just how spectacular Mahershala Ali is in the role. Every moment he's on screen belongs to him. If years down the road, Moonlight winds up forgotten (I don't think it will), Ali's performance will not. The conflict of his character — a drug dealer who sells to the mother of the kid he's now begun to take care of, in large part because the kid's mother is a drug addict — is compelling as heck, and the performance makes it all the more so. Juan isn't in Part 2 (and he's not really in Part 3, but he's also totally in Part 3). He's dead, but no one ever says it. That is actually one of my favorite things about the film. There's no, "Sucks that Juan died in that [whatever happened]." In fact, we don't ever find out what happened. We know from the bits and pieces, the "I haven't seen her since the funeral" and the "This is my house." There's nothing expository here; these words are natural and in character. Writer/director Barry Jenkins trusts the audience's intelligence enough to make basic connections. I have always appreciated that in a filmmaker, and Moonlight is no exception. That said, this is where we should double back to my earlier thought: "That sounds really bland." While no part of Moonlight could be justifiably called "bland," a case could be made that it feels oddly "typical." Chiron's story is, really, not a new one. I've long made a point that, if I can see something coming, it was telegraphed from a mile away, because I more often than not will be blindsided by twists that everyone else sees as painfully obvious. And Moonlight is not really a film about twists (the closest thing the story has to one has already been spoiled in this review (sorry)), but it's a film about a sequence of events. The sequence of events in each story can more or less be predicted within the first ten minutes of each time period. This is especially true of the teenage years, which follow an almost painfully conventional structure. Part 3 diverges most drastically, but the way Chiron would ultimately turn out is not unpredictable.  And yet, it didn't matter. In fact, I'd argue that the film is more effective rather than less as a result of this. Because this is something like a story we've seen time and time again, it highlights just how well crafted it is here. In reviews of foreign films, I've discussed how seeing a different culture's take on the Same Old Story can ultimately create something that feels new and fresh. I wasn't really thinking about it within our borders, but that's a matter of my own blindness. The creative minds behind Moonlight have had unique experiences that the white people who usually make decisions just can't grasp. I don't believe for a moment that a white person could not have made Moonlight feel so... vital, because it would have felt like every other story of its ilk. You may know the beats, but they still feel fresh. And it's a combination of everything, because the writing has to be there; the performances have to be there; the technical aspects have to be there. Truly great movies can't succeed on one level. They must succeed on every level. And Moonlight does. (I want to briefly call out the camerawork, which is spectacular. Hell, just that opening shot is a goddamn masterwork.) And so we return to this idea of representation, and the weight that rests on Moonlight's shoulders. People will look to it as the film that can keep the Oscars this year from being so white. If it doesn't get at least four nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography), well... I can't even fathom that possibility, because this is a film that more than deserves the praise that's been heaped upon it. By all accounts (again, I will not be watching it), the cracks in The Birth of a Nation as a work of art started to show as the narrative of Nate Parker's past emerged. And so were it to achieve ultimate success, some may have seen it more as a response to controversy than a justified win in and of itself. (That would be unfortunate, regardless of the film's quality, but I know more than a few people who would think that way.) There are no such concerns here. Any success that Moonlight has will come without reservation and without question. When the lights came up, I turned to the man beside me and asked what he had thought. "Beautiful," he answered. Nothing else needed to be said.
Moonlight Review photo
Able to bear the weight of its existence
I don't want to (and am not going to) make this review about the fact that Moonlight is a film about African Americans. It's not a topic I can avoid, but I want to get as much of that as I can out of the way in this intro. So...

Review: Fire at Sea

Oct 20 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220906:43140:0[/embed] Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare)Director: Gianfranco RosiRating: TBDRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (limited)Country: Italy Fire at Sea is two different movies. In one movie, dozens of malnourished refugees die from inhaling gasoline fumes from the ship's engine. In the other film, a 12-year-old boy named Samuele struggles to steer a rowboat at the pier. One moment's dire and heartbreaking, the other is played for laughs. There's the coziness of Samuele's town, and then there's the squalor of a refugee ship. We watch Italian boys shoot cacti with slingshots and play war. We also watch a man from a war-torn country hyperventilate after being saved from a ship; he might be dying, he might have died. Everything about the town seems inconsequential, particularly two or three scenes involving a diver who adds little to the film save for some nice underwater photography. While a mix of emotional highs and lows can work, here's it's just so mannered, calculated, and done with an off-putting emotional disinterest. Fire at Sea has so many obvious counterpoints to highlight thematic or symbolic material, it's as if Rosi cared more about the metaphors than the actual human suffering. There's minimal connection between the refugees and the people in town. None of the townspeople in the film work in the Italian coast guard, and only one person actually interacts with the refugees or talks about them meaningfully. For everyone else, the refugees don't seem to exist. Toward the beginning of the film, an elderly woman cooks while listening to a radio. The DJ reads a report about drowned refugees. Those poor people, she says, and carries on. There's a doctor in town who treats refugees fished from the Mediterranean. He recounts this in troubled tones. The things he's seen, the dire conditions, haunt his dreams. The doctor later appears in the film talking to Samuele about the boy's lazy eye. (A metaphor for how many people choose not to see or cannot see the horrors that refugees face--okay, yeah, I get it). Samuele goes off, performing for the camera like a neurotic elderly man. In another movie, this may be charming. In Fire at Sea, the moment made me angry, and probably not in the way that Rosi intended. Yeah, okay, I get it, the contrast is meant to upset the audience's comfortable lives and sensibilities. But isn't all of this also obvious? Fire at Sea is most effective when focusing on the refugees and the rescue teams. That's when the film feels humane rather than an exercise in contrasting aesthetics. A man who's been beaten on the boat literally cries blood. A woman breaks down before the camera, and despite being severely dehydrated, she first pours a cup of water over her head in relief. In a refugee processing center, a room of refugees prays as if in a Pentecostal revival, singing their story of survival. At night, refugees from different countries have a pick-up soccer game, as if some humanity, that dignity they risked their lives for, has been restored to them. But then back to Samuele, who slurps up spaghetti good and loud for laughs. I understand Rosi's intentions intellectually, and this collection of contrasts and disconnects does sound interesting in the abstract. But these are real people, and the last thing I want out of films or books is to be merely interesting. Being merely interesting is easy. The more I think about Fire at Sea, the more I'm offended by the choice to aestheticize human suffering for the sake of mere interestingness. Rosi may be well-intentioned, but Fire at Sea came across as unintentionally callous. That may have been the point. That doesn't mean I have to like it. It's telling that the final scenes of Fire at Sea are all about Samuele rather than the refugees. Those poor people, Rosi's film seems to say, and carries on.
Review: Fire at Sea photo
When refugees are a secondary concern
Sometimes I'll see a movie and that makes me shake my head and say, "Okay, yeah, I get it". These sorts of movies are ones that I can understand at a formal, metaphorical, or thematic level, and yet even though I understand t...

Review: I, Daniel Blake

Oct 20 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220904:43138:0[/embed] I, Daniel BlakeDirector: Ken LoachRating: TBDRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (UK); December 23, 2016 (USA)Country: UK Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower who's been denied disability benefits after suffering a heart attack. He's an everyman figure for the vulnerable elderly, and for anyone who's been on hold with customer service for longer than necessary. Daniel doesn't have any family or friends to help him in this situation, so he needs the social safety net. There's a catch: in order to receive any benefits, he has to look for work, and yet he can't work at the moment because his doctor says it will aggravate his heart condition. His plight may sound familiar, but that's because it's a reality for many older people. The elderly and other vulnerable populations often face these kinds of helpless situations. Rather than receive individual assistance with computers or paperwork, the system wants to push him through and out as quickly as possible--men and women chewed up and spat. While Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty may heighten the dire situation, Johns' performance grounds Daniel. He's an individual man and a common man metaphor, and achingly human. Daniel's path crosses with Katie (Hayley Squires), a struggling single-mother from London trying to resettle in New Castle. Hers is a life of constant denial. Spaghetti for the kids at dinner, and just an apple for herself until morning. She can't find work because there aren't any jobs, and so that cycle of denial continues. In one of the movie's most moving and empathetic moments, we watch Katie overcome by hunger at a food bank. She breaks down. Squires brings a lot of heart to her performance, but in this scene Katie's courage has faltered. There's only a debased shame. Somewhere, mixed in, there's also dread. Together, Daniel and Katie offer a glimmer of hope for the people failed by the system. When vulnerable people slip through the country's social safety net, perhaps their only shot at dignity is to be there for one another. And perhaps because this plight is so familiar--seen on film, TV, in families or down the street--struggling people can feel a little less alone in the world. The situation in I, Daniel Blake is so specific to the UK, and yet the pain and the hardship is relatable throughout the western world. Knowing that someone else has experienced the same thing can help reduce that sense of hopeless desperation that accompanies poverty. It's a meek hope, though, a faint and brief glimmer, which may explain the fervor of the film, like something off a Billy Bragg record. I, Daniel Blake feels like a rallying cry for reform and greater egalitarianism, or at least some restoration of humanity and kindness to systems that have become so good at stripping humanity away. If the characters seem familiar, it's probably because the same tragedies happen so often and have happened for so long to so many. If the story beats sound familiar, it's probably because the cadence of protest chants often have a common pattern. I, Daniel Blake is ostensibly about a man named Daniel and a woman named Katie, but I know these people by other names and with other faces.
Review: I, Daniel Blake photo
Familiar yet powerfully urgent
Bureaucracies make great villains. Faceless and absurd, they operate in such nefarious ways and are perfect machines for dehumanization. Bureaucracies are reliably inefficient, needlessly hierarchical, ruthlessly procedure-ob...

BHFF Review: The Master Cleanse

Oct 18 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220967:43149:0[/embed] The Master CleanseDirector: Bobby MillerRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD  During the 1980s there was a glut of creature movies, spurred mostly by the popularity of Gremlins. After that came movies like Ghoulies and Critters and Hobgoblins. The Master Cleanse is like a cousin to these films, a few times removed. In some ways this link to the creature features of the not-so-distant past is a detriment to the film, but we'll come back to that point later. Writer/director Bobby Miller embeds the creature feature elements within a movie about self-help and fad diets as a solution for existential problems. Paul (Johnny Galecki) is a classic schlub who's heartbroken and aimless and in search of direction. He decides to check out a mystery retreat in the woods to deal with his woes. He's attracted to a fellow retreatee, an actress named Maggie (Anna Friel). The two meet in an chintzy orientation meeting that reeks of bad multi-level marketing scams. In the woods, the participants agree to an all-liquid diet of specially formulated sludge that will help rid them of their problems. Miller and his cast relish the awkward humor of these moments, which also tap into an underlying first-world sadness. Who else but the lost and desperate would even try these sorts of things? How many bad weeks are we from being where these people are? It's such a clever set up to watch unfold, even with such a small cast. A lot of the credit goes to how invested the ensemble is in their characters and the premise. Galecki channels a mix of sympathy and patheticness perfect for his downtrodden everyschlub. As the creatures make their way into the narrative, I was charmed by the movie's use of practical effects. There's something pretty wondrous about the conceit Miller presents. The creatures and the characters are linked in an unexpected way, which adds some life to the puppets and the people we're watching. There's so much to work with and so much to like about The Master Cleanse, but it wraps up way too soon. That may be the narrative expectations I have from those creature features I mentioned before. As The Master Cleanse quickly winds down, it feels like it would have been the beginning of third act in another film--a point where the world expands. I wonder if the budget was an issue, or the desire to keep the film at a very brief 80 minutes, or maybe this was a conscious choice to keep the story very small. I could have spent another 15 to 20 minutes in the world of the film no problem; it almost feels like the emotional payoff would have been bigger with a little more time. There's so much potential, such a fine tone, so many other things I would have liked to see, and characters I would have liked to spend more time with. The Master Cleanse is a movie where vomiting and diarrhea are fetid versions of Chekhov's gun. I mean this as a high compliment--what other movie does this? So many questions about excretions. While The Master Cleanse falls short at the end--a good example of  a logical conclusion that isn't necessarily a satisfying one--there's enough in there to enjoy. It's almost like I went on the retreat and did the cleanse diet myself. I drank it all in and it's all out of my system. Gosh am I hungry.
The Master Cleanse Review photo
The small-scale creature feature
I'm curious how they're going to market The Master Cleanse. I went into the film knowing very little about it, and many of my favorite parts involve its little surprises. I hope those surprises aren't spoiled in the trailer. ...

BHFF Review: Child Eater

Oct 16 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220938:43148:0[/embed] Child EaterDirector: Erlingur Ottar ThoroddsenRating: TBDRelease Date:  TBD The Child Eater monster is a mix of familiar elements. The fingers and ears and baldness of Nosferatu's Count Orlok, the hulking menace of a Jason Vorhees, the coat a bit Candyman, the sunglasses like the ones worn by the Butterball cenobite from Hellraiser. (An eerie moment with feathers descending in the night also recalls a dream sequence in Hellraiser.) He's scary, and the local legend around him evokes the spooky stories spread around small towns that happen to have a notorious figure/incident in their past. Maybe a little too familiar is just plain too familiar. There's a babysitter in peril named Helen (Cai Bliss) whose dad is a sheriff. There's a cute but also creepy little boy she's looking after named Lucas (Colin Critchley). And then there's the monster. After a moody flashback sequence in the opening credits, the events unfold over the course of a single day and night. That becomes an issue considering wounds certain a certain character sustains; an hour or so later, this character runs around without acknowledging the injury. Come to think of it, where was that police backup two or three hours before? Oh, no matter. There's are some solid ideas and images to play with in Child Eater. The gore effects and the moody images are fine--a sequence with Lucas being chased in a makeshift network of tunnels is menacing for what it is--but maybe it's all just fine. There are a lot of familiar horror tropes thrown in that feel perfunctory. Helen's a capable final girl for a horror movie, but she feel more like an archetype than a distinct character. Like memorable movie monsters, unique final girls are hard to come by--not everyone is a Laurie Strode or a Nancy Thompson. What I really wanted from Child Eater was a moment when the film becomes its own beast. Rather than ticking off a checklist of tropes, I was hoping it would go in some wild and unexpected direction. Writer/director Erlingur Ottar Thoroddsen originally did a short film version of Child Eater that can be viewed online, and many of those elements are planted throughout the feature-length version of the story. As far as the original elements, the tunnels I mentioned earlier offered a possibility, and an eerie game of hide and seek was squandered before achieving maximum effect. A creepy side character played by Melinda Chilton also felt like a wasted opportunity for Child Eater to build out its own identity as a film. This isn't to say Child Eater is bad. Again, it's competent. It just needs more of a sense of individuality to stand out. Soup in need of salt; maybe a better stock, homemade and new.
Review: Child Eater photo
Meet new monster, same as old monster
Creating a new face of horror is difficult. For every Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers, there are countless forgettable imitators. These lower-tier boogeymen may look good, and their mythology may have promise, but they never...

NYFF Review: Elle

Oct 16 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220908:43150:0[/embed] ElleDirector: Paul VerhoevenRating: RRelease Date: November 11, 2016 (limited)Country: France  Elle starts with the rape, in media res. Verhoeven shoots the scene with surprising restraint. There's the noise of the assault off camera. Helen's pet cat looks on blankly. The rapist, dressed in black with a ski mask, stands and wipes blood from his hip and groin and then walks away. Helen tidies up around the kitchen and continues about her day in a daze. She's in shock, but it's subtle. A brief bubble bath scene is so artfully done and haunting. Helen's a bit angrier at her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) when he comes to visit than she would be otherwise. Vincent asks about the bruise on the side of her face. She says she fell off her bike. The rape goes unreported. When Helen finally mentions it to anyone, she waits for the most awkward moment possible to bring it up. She says what happened as if she lost a credit card. Is it a coping mechanism or is it just the movie playing provocateur? Elle aims for the uncomfortable laugh, and for a while it succeeds in doling out its cringe humor. At a certain point, it's just cringes. While dealing with horrible things in life, one hundred other genres may be occurring in the world simultaneously. A portion of the film plays like a thriller, with Helen narrowing down the suspects in her life while her attacker stalks and harasses her. As this thriller plays out, there's a family dramedy: Helen's jealous about her ex-husband's new girlfriend, annoyed by her son's screwed up relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, and can't stand her mother's new boyfriend either. Then there's the matter of her father and an infamous trauma in her past, one essential to Helen's character but never explored substantively in the story. Huppert's a saving grace for the film in that she plays everything so straight, even Helen's unexpected actions and reactions. Yet these are just actions in a performance, not necessarily actions stemming from a character. I could rarely get a handle on who Helen was or how she interpreted the world and the events around her. The rape is replayed explicitly in the film, and then played again as a kind of revenge fantasy. Later, Helen seems to invite victimization. There's a harrowing scene in which Helen seems turned on by the idea of the man she's with raping her, recreating the trauma that opened the film. Is she feeling pleasure? Is that pain and masochistic shame? Is it a mix of both, and if so, what then? Huppert wears an inscrutable mask before, during, and after the scene. The moment is never discussed afterward. I don't need on-screen psychoanalysis or to be handheld through a narrative, but I'd like to be given some hint of what Helen feels about what's happened. Elle avoids exploring the emotional impact of rape. Instead the film tries to offer Helen's detachment as some opaque and oblique portrait of her psychology, but even this amounts to a blank gray page. This is all extremely difficult and sensitive territory to explore, especially when Helen's motives are so ambiguous. Sure, there's never a single correct way for someone to respond to trauma, but rather than provide an alternative portrait of recovery or greater insight into this personality in flux, I felt as if Elle was simply pushing buttons and inverting the traditional rape-revenge narrative for the shock value. That's easier and less painful than really getting into someone's interior life after such a traumatic experience. The film's MO seems to be keep the focus on the inscrutable surface, and make it shocking. It doesn't help that Elle's perspective is male dominated; it's directed by Verhoeven from a script by David Birke, and adapted from a novel by Philippe Dijan. Am I watching a woman's experience as she struggles to retake power as all the men in her life rob her of agency? Or am I just watching a male interpretation of all this that indulges in a little bit of rape fantasy? This might all be up for audience interpretation, which makes me surprised that so many critics have written that the film is so empowering to women and makes bold statements. I don't think it says anything at all, or intends to empower anyone; it's just well-orchestrated provocation. No surprise that by the end of Elle, I was left feeling a sour and empty frustration. Helen is the head of a video game company, though this portion of Elle serves as a mild subtextual and metatextual backdrop. They're making a medieval action-adventure--think Warcraft by way of Assassin's Creed with really antiquated graphics. During a meeting, one of her designers--a man who may be the rapist--says that Helen's pretentious literary background has gotten in the way of the game's basic playability. I think Verhoeven's penchant for provocation might have gotten in the way of the fundamental human concerns of Elle.
NYFF Review: Elle photo
Provocative, but is it saying anything?
Elle has been billed as a rape-comedy, but that's a misnomer. It's a comedy in the classical sense given the events of the story, but it's not necessarily funny (there are funny scenes, though). And yes, it's about rape. Elle...

Review: The Accountant

Oct 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220965:43147:0[/embed] The AccountantDirector: Gavin O'ConnorRelease Date: October 14th, 2016Rating: R  The Accountant feels like a television pilot, an origin story with a little bit of Case of the Week madness thrown in. Ben Affleck plays the eponymous accountant, constantly creating new identities based on famous people who were interested in math (at the start of this story: Christian Wolff) and then discarding them whenever his situation becomes compromised. And why would it do that? Because he works for some of the most dangerous people in the world: terrorists, thieves, cartels, you know name it and he does their books. Key to his success is his autism, which causes a number of problems but also unlocks an incredible ability to solve puzzles and make connections. He can do the work of a half-dozen neurotypicals in half the time. And he always finishes what he starts. I can only think of one other action movie with an autistic star, which would be Thai film Chocolate, by Prachya Pinkaew. In that film, an autistic girl watches martial arts movies and becomes a master. I bring it up solely because I think you should see it, because The Accountant isn't really like it at all, though Mr. Wolff is a more-than-capable fighter. He was trained by his father, a military man, and the men that his father hired to make sure he could take care of himself. The flashbacks to his younger self, often at his worst, in the midst of meltdowns or other crises, demonstrate the difficulty of having a child with autism while also showing a fascinating sort of respect for what it can do. I'll admit that my experience with autism is fairly limited, but what I saw felt pretty right. On the whole, the film is trying to make a pretty clear point: Autism is not a disorder or an illness; it's just a different way of being. It's not worse or better, just its own thing. And credit where credit is due: That's awesome. How many times have we seen an autistic protagonist who can genuinely take care of themselves in a major motion picture? Have we ever seen that? I'm honestly curious, so someone please tell me if that's a thing. Certainly it wouldn't be something like The Accountant. No, The Accountant is different. I mentioned in the intro that this is a film with a genuinely strange structure, and what I mean by that is that the story itself comes out in bursts that feel sort of haphazardly placed. After big action sequences we'll end up with long stretches of exposition that totally kill whatever intense pacing the film may have been building up. There is a lengthy subplot involving a pair from the Treasury trying to track him down, and as that story develops, we learn a lot about J.K. Simmons' character. None of that really felt necessary, and it kind of bogs down the movie in its second half, but it also felt a little bit like, "Why not?" The characters in general feel like they're being introduced for something grander, and we'll learn more about them in future episodes. J.K. Simmons is set to retire, so this is probably the last we'll be seeing of him. It was his time in the spotlight. Next week, we'll learn more about someone else. And while we're getting a lot of character exposition about Affleck and Simmons, we're getting pretty much nothing about the actual story itself. So, blah blah blah someone is cooking books. Affleck finds out about it. People need to die. Etc. We learn about the motivations of the bad guy, but his actual place in the film is so minor (and ultimately inconsequential) that the film may as well have no story at all. You might think that one of Wolff's obviously dangerous clients is after him, but that isn't it at all. As far as the film is concerned, he has successfully stayed off the grid. No one knows where to find him, so he only has to worry about the people right in front of him.  Which means that we're probably in for a franchise, assuming The Accountant does well at the box office. It doesn't end on a cliffhanger or anything, and it doesn't need a sequel, but the character and his work is structured in such a way that it would be exceedingly easy to make one. You'd think that Affleck's got his hands full with the whole Batman thing, but I imagine the dramatic work involved in The Accountant is a bit more satisfying. It's possible that the action is too, because the movie actually has some pretty great fight scenes, ones that don't need a whole bunch of purdy CGI to be cool. (Think Batman v. Superman's warehouse fight, which is easily the best part of that movie (except it's okay when Batman kills people in this one).) And so I hope this does become a franchise, and I hope we get to see more of Anna Kendrick in fights, because in the one fight where she has a minor role, she's a total badass about it. I heard a guy complaining after the film that she didn't seem Damsel-in-Distress-y enough. And thank gosh; she's way more interesting that. And I have to give the film credit for that, too. It treats pretty much all of its characters with a certain amount of dignity; they are (well, most of them) more complex than I had expected, and that made some of those slow, exposition-heavy moments a lot more bearable than they could have been. There are many things about The Accountant that I genuinely loved and nothing that I really disliked. Sure, some of its issues, particularly around structure and pacing, are irritating. They keep The Accountant from being truly brilliant. But they don't keep it from greatness. Bring on The Accountant Chapter 2. 
The Accountant Review photo
Ben Affleck's John Wick
I remember seeing the first trailer for The Accountant a few months back and thinking, "That's a hilarious premise that looks like it could be terrible, but I bet it's going to be awesome." It seemed like the kind of bizarre ...

BHFF Review: We Are the Flesh

Oct 13 // Hubert Vigilla
TRAILER IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK (NSFW) [embed]220963:43146:0[/embed] We Are the Flesh (Tenemos le carne)Director: Emiliano Rocha MinterRating: TBDRelease Date: TBDCountry: Mexico  We Are the Flesh reminds me of early Clive Barker splatterpunk stories; one scene in thermal vision even recalls Barker's little-seen short film The Forbidden. There's also a hint of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man, though it's shorn of the technological madness and kinetic stuff--this transgression is luridly organic. Maybe Tetsuo by way of Gaspar Noe, with occasional outbursts of hysterical excess straight out of Andrzej Zulawski (Possession). The film also has some moist, mucus-rich makeup effects that wouldn't be out of place in a Brian Yuzna movie (Society, From Beyond). This paragraph is either a warning or a recommendation--if you want blood, you got it. There's a man with a demonic smile (Noe Hernandez) who lives in an abandoned building. He gets high on homemade gasoline and gets off on solitude. A boy (Diego Gamaliel) and a girl (Maria Evoli), siblings, enter his building. They're desperately in search of food and shelter. The man lets them stay as long as they help him construct a claustrophobic landscape within the building. Think of something like a cave and a uterus complete with a pseudo birth canal; a psychoanalytic hellscape where the id can thrive. All the while, the man tries to coerce the boy and the girl to break social, sexual, and interpersonal taboos. Minter builds up dread through whispers and shouts as he mounts transgressions upon each other. There's incest, rape, murder, cannibalism, on-camera sex, and necrophilia, and even now I can't say what it all adds up to. We Are the Flesh may not add up to anything, to be honest. Even though Hernandez and Evoli give the film their all--Evoli in particular goes for psychotic broke--the movie may just be images and noise with the intent to shock. I think there's a political allegory about Mexico and poverty, that a lack of means reduces us to some base state of nature in which social mores no longer matter. But it's a bit of a guess. It might be a stretch. Sometimes extreme cinema is just extreme cinema, but I can't help but sense something more meaningful behind all of this given how repulsed yet affected I felt. When someone lets out a blood-curdling scream, there has to be a reason, right? Maybe? Or was it just the desire to scream? This struggle for meaning is probably an intentional provocation from Minter. When confronted with something shocking, I usually feel challenged to interpret it. Yet Minter evades overt meaning making. There seems to be 10 minutes missing from the final act of the 80-minute film. Several events take place off camera unexplained, and it leads to total narrative disorientation. We Are the Flesh was a feverish nightmare already, and then that skimpy dream logic breaks down completely. No order, not for this this movie. What Minter provides is a sustained sense of unease, however. That feeling remained with me even after a less than satisfying conclusion. Even if We Are the Flesh only prompts exasperation and disgust, it's such a strange trip into the abyss I want to send others down there into the dark who are willing. Minter, like or hate it, is a Mexican filmmaker to watch. I'm reminded of something Clive Barker said about movies once (paraphrased): I want to feel something, even if it's just disgust; better that than thinking, okay, let's go for a pizza. After We Are the Flesh, pizza was the last thing I wanted.
Review: We Are the Flesh photo
The ecstasy of pure id
Reviewing We Are the Flesh from writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter is tricky. On the one hand, it's a deeply flawed film aimed at a limited audience. It's transgressive in the extreme, sexually explicit bordering on pornog...

BHFF Review: Let Her Out

Oct 12 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220939:43143:0[/embed] Let Her OutDirector: Cody CalahanRating: TBDRelease Date: TBDCountry: Canada Helen (Alanna LeVierge) never knew her mother personally, just what she did for a living. Her mom was a prostitute who worked out of a seedy motel. One night she's raped by a mysterious john. She commits suicide not long after that because she's become suddenly and supernaturally pregnant. Twenty-three years later, Helen gets into an accident that triggers the growth of a brain tumor. (It was in the parking lot of an ostensibly abandoned motel. Why was someone driving there?) Inside of that cluster of cells grows a long-dormant vestigial twin. The twin begins to take over, making Helen act like someone else entirely. The look and feel of Let Her Out are great, and sort of reminiscent of a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. On a couple of occasions I was reminded of Neon Demon. Like Refn's latest, the pinks are seductively warm, and the blues are chilly for contrast. Stephanie Copeland provides a sinister synthesizer score that nods to Cliff Martinez. Even as the film gets wobbly, director of photography Jeff Maher lenses each scene with care. Shaun Hunter and Carly Nicodemo offer up some fine special effects and practical makeup, particularly as the movie draws to a close. There are a few memorable moments that involve Helen's twin trying to get out, and it's gooey and gross and offers up some fine moments of body horror. But the look and feel of the film is just one half of the whole. That other half of Let Her Out--the story, characters, and performances--leave a lot to be desired. Helen abhors everything salacious in life; it reminds her of who her mother was, and that's the last thing she wants to be. At least I think that's the case. I never got to know Helen beyond some basics. What's more, her mother never plays a role outside of the introductory flashback, so any contrast between mother and daughter (and mother and daughters) has to be inferred. Helen's mom is just a nameless rape victim and suicide rather than an actual character--that's a major problem. While I'm on the subject of problematic things, the film's views on sex and sex work seem way too puritanical on top of that. Let Her Out pushes a virgin/whore dichotomy when it seems like the film's take on sexuality could have been far more layered. Playing with the sins of the mother and/or the repression of the daughter would have been interesting, and it would have added some needed psychological horror. Sadly the screenplay written by Adam Seybold lacks depth. The supporting cast isn't rendered all that well either. Helen's roommate Molly (Nina Kiri) and her scumbag boyfriend Ed (Adam Christie) are stock characters--Molly the self-absorbed theater person, Ed the self-absorbed dude-bro. One moment Molly is supportive, the next she chastises Helen for not showing up to a play. You'd think she'd take her roommate's brain tumor into account, but no, that was two or three scenes ago. Empathy has a short shelf life. Just a little more time and care with these characters, their situations, and their motivations could have made Let Her Out much better. It would have also given the actors more to work with, and might have led to performances that weren't so synthetic. For everything good, there's a missed opportunity, for every set-up, there's a missing pay off. In my gut I think the movie could have used another draft and, more importantly, a woman's insight. (The film's story was by Seybold and director Cody Calahan.) The subtext of Let Her Out is how Helen assumes different roles out of necessity or expectation; in the case of Helen and her absent mother, it's about being the exact opposite. Maybe with a woman's pass at the script, the more terrifying and unsettling film would have emerged like a parasitic twin and taken over.
Review: Let Her Out photo
The good half and the bad half
Feeling frustrated by a movie isn't unusual. The best/worst kind of frustration is when the hints of a better film are evident. It's like eating a meal and knowing just from flavor or texture what's missing--not enough salt, ...

NYFF Review: Toni Erdmann

Oct 12 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220911:43142:0[/embed] Toni ErdmannDirector: Maren AdeRating: RRelease Date: July 16, 2016 (Germany); December 25, 2016 (USA)Country: Germany/Austria I love Groucho Marx as a character, but I would never want someone like that as a father. In some ways, Toni Erdmann is what it would be like if Groucho Marx was Margaret Dumont's dad. Ines (Sandra Huller) is our girl Dumont. She's a high-level consultant working in Romania to negotiate an outsourcing deal. Like so many women in the business world, she needs to work twice as hard as her male counterparts, fighting the entrenched sexism of the workplace while out-politicking others in the office. She's always working and seems to get off on forceful shows of control. While trying to unwind at a day spa, she complains that her masseuse was too gentle. "I want to be roughed up," she smiles. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is her dad Groucho. Rather than a painted mustache, Winfried's got a pair of ugly false teeth and a wig. It's not hard to see why Ines' mother divorced Winfried, or why Ines tries to avoid her dad. He imposes, he mocks, he's a bit of a chaos agent. The man can't take anything seriously. After his dog dies, Winfried spontaneously vacations in Romania to connect with his daughter, eventually adopting the persona of Toni Erdmann. The name sounds so serious and German (redundant?), but in English the name apparently translates into "Toni Meerkat". Ines is too ruthless and needs to lighten up, and her father is a potential catalyst for that change. Questions of value are pretty common in works about corporate life (i.e., human value vs. the bottom line), and these are often the weakest parts of Toni Erdmann because they're familiar in an obvious way. Perhaps Ade sensed this when sculpting the final edit; a character and a plot thread totally vanishes from the movie at a certain point. For a film that strays into unconventional territory, Ines' reconnection with the world of the common folk is expected. Toni isn't just her Groucho but her Drop Dead Fred. Ade even uses the common grammar of these contrasts between wealth and poverty in the globalized world: from Ines' office window, she can look over a Romanian hovel. When Toni Erdmann lets go, it's at its best. Huller plays so many of her scenes like she's at the verge of a breakdown. She's a great straightwoman, but there are moments of absurd release that hint at the person Ines was before she bought into the quest for status. There are different Ines facades for the different roles she has to play or the tasks thrust upon her, but rarely does she get to be herself. Winfried is a little more one-note on the surface since his solution for everything is a joke, but there are moments of vulnerability between father and daughter that suggest that jokes are all he has left. Connecting with someone emotionally can be painful and awkward, and humor is one way of circumventing those difficulties. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you wind up hammering everything. That goes for both father and daughter. A lot of what works in Toni Erdmann depends on what the audience brings to it, which might be the case of any movie about parents and children. The way we measure other families inevitably winds up being our own family experiences, which is what makes Toni Erdmann familiar in a surprising way. What is it about Ines that I see in myself, or Winfied in my own dad, or vice versa? Sometimes I look at these on-screen family relationships and see myself or people I know. Other times I see versions of characters. Families are weird like that, and when Toni Erdmann is at its weirdest, it's also its most heartfelt.
NYFF Review: Toni Erdmann photo
Estranged daughter, strange father
There's no way Toni Erdmann could ever live up to its hype. Reviews from Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival touted the German film as a 162-minute screwball comedy masterpiece, packed with high emotional stake...

NYFF Review: My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

Oct 11 // Hubert Vigilla
My Entire High School Sinking Into the SeaDirector: Dash ShawRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD The set-up is at least sort of promising. An earthquake sends a high school on a hill by the ocean crashing down into the water. Students have to swim from floor to floor for air and survival, with a stratified class hierarchy--freshmen on the bottom and seniors on top. There's something questlike about it all, structured like a videogame with different kinds of levels--one sequence is even presented like a screen from the original Double Dragon, with characters throwing punches and jumpkicks with the same poses as Billy and Jimmy Lee.  But Shaw takes all of these potentially interesting ideas and dials them down to the same level of slacker disinterest. The voice actors deliver their lines in a uniform indifferent monotone, as if they've begrudgingly recorded their dialogue one afternoon and left. The jokes are never distinct from the asides or the exposition. Apart from the heroic Lorraine the Lunch Lady (voiced by Sarandon), everyone sounds interchangeable. None of the voices stand out, which makes the all-star indie cast seem like needless stunt casting for the indie cachet. Lots of the dialogue gets lost in the audio mix, with any hint of personality drowned in the repetitive, overbearing, wall-to-wall score. This is a 72-minute movie that just drones on and on. It doesn't help that the protagonist, Dash (Schwartzman), is the least interesting character in the entire film. He's a self-important high school journalist and stand-in for the real life Dash Shaw. Yes, how twee, this fictional story is supposed to be semi-autobiographical. Dash is the type of tepid lead who gets in the way of the more worthy supporting players. His fellow staff members on the newspaper, Assaf (Watts) and Verti (Rudolph), have a warmth to them as well as a burgeoning crush that would have been great to watch unfold front and center. Even Dunham's overachieving all-goodnik Mary could have been the compelling hub of the story--a class president go-getter in survival mode. But no, it's boring old Dash, the "ugh, that guy" sort of hipster dude. There are brief moments of beauty in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, like the opening animation of Dash in silhouette running to class, or select flashbacks rendered with great care, or parts of the conclusion that have a zen-like quality. Most of it, though, looks like a hodgepodge of watercolor, acrylic, and magic marker, with a wonky, unrefined aesthetic. It simulates the stuff made while screwing around in a high school art class. The choice makes sense, but it's not always interesting to look at in full wobbly motion. It's animation with a sort of haphazard craft--art as marginalia rather than a point of focus, a creative assignment hastily put together the night before. I was particularly put off by the film's defensiveness. At points, Dash and Assaf brag about being great writers whose genius and talent no one will understand. That metatextual boast always irks me. I rarely feel that a creative work should gird itself against criticism so overtly, and in such an insecure manner. Especially in this case, in which there's so little at stake and so little offered. Why be so precious over an animated shrug?
NYFF Review photo
A shrugworthy mumblecore cartoon
There are so many possibilities in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, the directorial debut of indie comics artist Dash Shaw. There's the image of an entire high school building adrift on the ocean and sinking. Think...

NYFF Review: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220930:43141:0[/embed] The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait PhotographyDirector: Errol MorrisRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD "Nice" is such a loaded word. It's often equivocal, a sly insult hidden in a mild compliment rather than a genuine endorsement of character. Stephen Sondheim parsed the word in the musical Into the Woods, noting that nice and good are two different things. (The latter is always preferable to the former.) It's telling that Dorfman uses it as part of her self-description. She's so humble and self-effacing on camera. It's the sort of goodness that can be passed off as niceness and/or mistaken for mere shyness. I got the feeling that this is how she is off camera as well. Morris' adoration for Dorfman comes through in the way he comments on her work and chronicles her career. These warm feelings wouldn't be possible if he subjected his friend to the Interrotron. Dorfman initially seems more like a friend's mom or an aunt than an artist, as if these identities are mutually exclusive. That distinction is ridiculous. Dorfman was something of a fixture in the New York literary scene in the 1960s, taking photos of literary luminaries passing through the city. It's there that she started a lifelong friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg. She would take portraits of him and with him for the next few decades. She's wistful when she looks at Ginsberg's portraits, and while I wondered what she was thinking, I didn't feel like prying. It's not as if I could. The large Polaroids shared in The B-Side are a mix of famous people and everyday folks. In addition to Ginsberg, Dorfman has a few images of Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman. Richman's earnest, wonkily cool/uncool music might be the proper sonic equivalent to Dorfman's portraiture and personality. The intimacy is palpable throughout The B-Side. Morris recreates the experience of hanging out with a good friend and looking at their body of work. If not looking through a portfolio, it's at least the experience of flipping through photo albums and mementos with a live commentary. This sounds merely nice, but there's more to it. Like the little details in a photo that bring it to life, there's an ineffable humane quality to The B-Side, and I think it has as much to do with Dorfman's personality as  her chosen medium. Polaroids are a "nice" format. There's a retro-chic about them, which explains their appeal--cooler than a disposable film camera--but they're impractical by today's standards. What's more, they're intended for common images and not the domain or typical format for high art. Dorfman is essentially offering a Polaroid photobooth experience (photobooths = nice), but she magnifies the internal life in her images. In her own self-portraits, there's an overwhelming domesticity, but her hand-written captions are revealing in the way that diaries and journals are revealing. The portraits themselves are art in plenty of ways: in how they play with expectations, in the way they hint at some story or feeling beneath the surface, in the way their material (Polaroid film) made me rethink the common uses of the material. When the meaning of the film's title is explained, the whole collection Dorfman's shared gains new and endearing meaning. There's something so likable about this nice Jewish girl who's been doing this since the 1970s. There's something charming about these imperfect images in this mostly dead format. There's something so delightful about The B-Side. It's not Morris' best film in terms of scope or depth, but it's also not just nice. I think The B-Side is Morris' most generous movie, and it's generous in a way that only friends can be to one another.
Review: The B-Side photo
There's something about Elsa
The B-Side is an atypical Errol Morris documentary. He doesn't use the Interrotron at all, his tool that allows interviewees to stare directly into the camera. Instead, the camera's just off to the side. The score is delicate...

NYFF Review: Manchester by the Sea

Oct 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220919:43136:0[/embed] Manchester by the SeaDirector: Kenneth LonerganRating: RRelease Date:  November 18, 2016 (limited) Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman who lives in a small room in Boston. He's prickly and withdrawn, a brooding guy who spends a lot of time alone. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away, Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown to help settle affairs with Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Whenever Lee's name is mentioned, people around town perk up. They're surprised, shocked, that Lee Chandler, the Lee Chandler, is back. He's got a reputation for something. There's a reason he's avoided home. Affleck's troubled quiet is remarkable to watch. It's a nuanced performance built around restraint. I found myself wondering throughout the film what moments would cause his stoic facade to collapse. There's such an immense heartbreak and guilt in him, which is clear even before his past is revealed, yet he doesn't want to share his emotional and psychological burden with anyone else. As penitent as he is, an intimate human connection would hurt even more. He'd rather get drunk and get beat up. Lonergan drops several telling flashbacks, and he finds elegant ways to loop the past into the present and then out again. It adds dimension to Lee, and Affleck is superb at playing the same man in different keys. Michelle Williams plays Lee's ex-wife Randi, whose character is similarly constrained by her emotions. She wants to speak about their history together, but doing that may be more painful than staying bottled up. A phone call early in the film captures the tense awkwardness of two people who want to say more, say everything, but can't bring themselves to say much of anything. Williams has always been an excellent and underrated actress, and part of me wanted more of her in the film. It would be a different sort of movie. Manchester by the Sea is more about Lee and to a certain extent his nephew Patrick and the shortcomings of masculine tropes when it comes to raw emotional life. On the one hand the male-dominated story feels like a missed opportunity, but maybe it also emphasizes Lee and Patrick's solitude. With regard to family, this man and this boy are all that's left in each other's lives. The restraint in the lives of the characters may explain why I responded so much to the emotional highs and lows of Manchester by the Sea. It's the catharsis for the audience that the characters can't give themselves. All of the funny and sad material gives an alternately absurd and humane texture to these lives. Even the material that doesn't seem like it fits in a streamlined narrative--such as an unexpected but perfect cameo appearance, or Patrick's teenage horndog shtick--enrich the sad, beautiful whole. Admittedly this seismographic portrait of people's lives doesn't work for everyone. I had a pretty spirited back-and-forth with my friend and fellow film critic Nathanael Hood, and he was lukewarm on the film's jagged contours. Lonergan finds quiet and stillness amid mood swings, and also offers the actors ample room to emote or withhold. Chicken falls from the freezer and a person finally breaks down; someone offers a small tip for service and the other person doesn't know how to interpret that sort of kindness. I laughed, I cried, and I laughed. Yet I ultimately realize that all the funny moments of are punctuated by an unremitting sadness. Lee is comically bad at small talk and social gatherings, but the reasons for it, like so much about Manchester by the Sea, are so personal and painful.
Manchester by the Sea photo
Life is heartbreaking, and funny, too
Watching Manchester by the Sea, I was reminded of two lines from the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch: "I cry, because I will laugh if I don't" and "I laugh, because I will cry if I don't". Kenneth Lonergan's latest film is ...

Review: Under the Shadow

Oct 06 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220388:42856:0[/embed] Under the Shadow (زیر سایه)Director: Babak AnvariRating: PG-13Release Date: October 7, 2016 (limited)Country: Iran  It's easy to spot shadows everywhere in Anvari's film given the nature of the beast. Set in 1980s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, there are frequent air raid sirens and the threat of missiles coming down on civilian targets at any moment. Anvari sets up a particularly memorable tableau of an unexploded missile that's come through an apartment ceiling. An elderly man lies prone on the ground as if pinned there beneath the shell; the pointed nose seems to have pierced him through the heart. Our hero Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives in the apartment below, and that particular attack has left her ceiling a mess of cracks. For the characters who live in the building, their meager defense against being blown to pieces involves taping their windows and waiting in the basement for the terror to pass. There's more than the threat of bombs. Under the Shadow opens with Shideh getting kicked out of medical school because of her activism during the Iranian revolution. She's maintained a defiantly western mentality even after the Shah was exiled. Shideh rarely wears a hijab or chador (traditional headscarf and cloak, respectively), and she owns a VCR--a Jane Fonda aerobic workout is a form of dissent. When her husband is called away to the frontlines, Shideh is left alone to look after their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). The rest of the building seems to be fleeing, and there's talk of djinn, an ancient evil of legend, riding on the wind. Anvari gets a lot of thematic mileage out of the chador and masking tape on windows. Ana Lilly Amirpour, writer/director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, said that wearing a chador felt very bat-like to her, which helped inspire her chic vampire film (sort of like the Persian-language cousin of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive). For Shideh in Under the Shadow, the chador is a stifling metaphor: an invisible specter delineated in a sheet, a manifestation of Iran's political oppression, the symbol of a gender role she's disavowed. These things cannot be kept out by putting masking tape on windows. At various times in the film, the tape is peeling away. Anvari was born in Iran and lived there 17 years, but is now based in the UK. While he's sometimes distanced himself from the film's politics to emphasize the personal story between Shideh and Dorsa, it's hard for me to view Under the Shadow apolitically. It's a political movie because Shideh's a politically involved hero. Even if it's not always front and center, her actions speak to her politics. Shideh's struggles to keep the bombs and the djinn out aren't just for her own dignity but for Dorsa's future. Dorsa's little doll goes missing amid the chaos, and by extension we're left to wonder what future Dorsa's daughter might face if they were to remain in Iran. (Under the Shadow was shot in Jordan given numerous government restrictions/requirements when making films in Iran.) I'll admit I didn't find much of Under the Shadow scary, but I rarely find horror movies scary. It's eerie, however, and well-crafted. Most times I appreciate a horror movie for being memorable more than being scary. Rashidi is a solid emotional anchor for the film. Manshadi's not given as much to do acting-wise, but that says more about the nature of Dorsa as a character, who's a little one-note adorable. Rashidi plays Shideh with that exasperated air of a parent pushed to her limit, a woman who cares for her daughter so much yet can't help but feel she's also failing her in some way. It might be the all the other worries of country and career that makes her feel this way, pressing down more and more. The cracks begin to show, and they grow bigger, and it's always getting darker.
Review: Under the Shadow photo
Darkness, darkness everywhere
Some of the most notable indie horror movies of the last few years have been by women or about women. For example, see Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, and Robert Eggers' The Witch. Each ...

Review: American Honey

Oct 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220902:43130:0[/embed] American HoneyDirector: Andrea ArnoldRelease Date: October 7, 2016 Rating: NR  In 2013, at the New York Film Festival press screening of Claire Denis’s Bastards, a film critic (I don’t know who it was) asked a painfully stupid question, something to the effect of, “When I am watching the film, I think of the camera like an eye. And I want to know whose eye am I seeing this film through?” Denis also thought this was a stupid question and told the audience so. In that moment, I appreciated her candor. (I appreciated it less when we had a painfully awkward interview just a couple days later, where I opened with “I liked [insert film of hers here],” and she just said “Why?” (It only got worse from there.)) But I bring this up because, while I don’t believe that a camera has to be anyone’s eye, in American Honey, it is rather explicitly. This is a film about Sasha Lane’s (spectacular turn as) Star; it is her Instagram. She leaves an extremely disturbing home life and joins a bunch of societal rejects who drive around the country and sell magazines. It’s a simple narrative, one where nothing happens except for everything. It's told with all the complexity you would hope, everything required to capture a life. And the film works hard to capture Star’s specifically: the camera almost never leaves her side. We witness the events of the film pretty much the same way she does. When she (and by extension we) first sees Shia LaBeouf’s Jake, it’s from a distance. When we see him again, the two closer, but it’s still from Star’s perspective and not the film’s (whatever that means). We don’t cut to a closeup of his antics at the grocery store (set to Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love,” just one of a number of excellent musical cues that seem well outside the budget range for this film but somehow (very happily) make it in). You might expect his face doesn’t fill the frame as he looks at her in that way that only Shia LaBeouf can, to get that little moment to make you swoon. But we don’t get that. We see him as Star does, from where she does. This serves to make a film that is intensely personal, despite being in large part an ensemble piece. American Honey is about Star, but it’s also about the kind of people who Star would align herself to. And this, in part, serves to further develop Star as a character. Her interactions with the outside world say a whole lot about her, but the moments with the ragtag group of misfits in the van say even more. Even sitting in silence, we understand her. It’s a beautiful thing. I have no doubt that there is a cut of American Honey that is at least 11 hours long. It’s just that kind of movie. So much time is spent with the ragtag group of misfits sitting in a van, singing and talking and drinking and just existing. I said that they serve to expand on Star’s character, but let’s be clear: Each member of the group their own little backstory, and even if we don’t get much of it, each character was clearly defined. We may not know much about them, but we get a feeling for who they are on a fundamental level. You don’t always need words to express it, and the film embraces that. Even in their relatively small amounts of screentime, we got a whole bunch of People. Wikipedia tells me that most of the cast was just found around the place, so it’s entirely plausible that most of them aren’t playing characters at all. They’re just being themselves for the camera. And maybe that’s not the case, but it doesn’t matter. Each feels lived-in, and it feels like each could have been the star of (at the very least) their own short. It also feels like the proverbial cutting room floor of the film is probably so littered with character moments that someone could make short films about each and everyone else. If American Honey has a failing, it’s that it has a 2:43 runtime in an era where people claim to not have the attention span for two-thirds that length. I’d fully believe that none of the characters in American Honey would even give American Honey a chance because of its length. (I know that if I hadn’t heard so many great things about it, I probably would have skipped it myself.) But I had a sort of surprising reaction to the length: I checked my watch about an hour in and then never again – usually it’s quite the opposite. It’s not that the first hour is boring, but I was keenly aware of just how long it was going to be during that time. Around the hour mark, I settled into the rhythm of the film. It’s on a very particular wavelength, and if you can’t get into it, then you’re probably going to suffer for those 163 minutes. But if it grabs you, and it certainly grabbed me, then you’ll feel like you’re vicariously living as part of these peoples’ lives. I would never do what Star did or does, nor am I anything like any of the people in that van, but I am pretty damn sure I’d follow each and every one of them on Instagram.
American Honey Review photo
The social network
American Honey is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, where the image is approximately 1.33 times wider than it is tall. Movies looked like that a long time ago; TV looked like that much more recently. Neither looks like that anymore...

NYFF Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Oct 04 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220905:43129:0[/embed] Abacus: Small Enough to JailDirector: Steve JamesRelease Date: TBDRating: TBD  Thomas Sung seems like a model for the Asian-American immigrant experience. He helped found the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown during the 80s to serve the local community. He knows his customers, he does right by them, and the bank has given his kids opportunities for success. His two eldest daughters, Vera and Jill, help run the bank and will eventually take over. Here's a healthy slice of promising Americana served in Chinatown. But then, Murphy's Law: a handful of Abacus employees commit loan fraud, and then the housing crisis strikes, and then the great recession. Rather than go after Chase, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office throws the book at Abacus. Even though Abacus cooperated fully with authorities for a loan fraud investigation and did everything ethically and by the books in the aftermath, they were considered easy prey. At the beginning of the documentary, Thomas and his wife, Hwei Lin, are watching Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. James returns to that yuletide staple again and again, finding parallels between George Bailey's savings and loan and the Thomas Sung's Abacus. Similarly, the Sungs come across as Capraesque heroes--the set-upon optimists, the embattled idealists, everymen and everywomen always trying. This might be why the film doesn't feel like most other Frontline documentaries. Abacus is in many ways a character-driven film. I feel odd thinking about real people in documentaries as characters, but the Sung family is comprised of memorable personalities. James films them alone and in conversation with one another. The interactions can get nervy and uncomfortable, but they're all well-picked given how well they reveal the family dynamic. James offers another compelling thread in his exploration NYC's Chinese community. Chinatown residents (Abacus' primary clientele) tend to be tight-knit and insular, which goes back to the formation of family-based support groups. The representatives from the DA's office interviewed in the film are baffled by what goes on there. Jurors on the case similarly don't understand how Chinatown operates. I worried that this confusion from non-Chinese people would affect the case. There's such a fascinating contradiction at play. The closeness of the Chinese community gives them a collective strength that they wouldn't have otherwise as a minority group, but the foreign nature of these cultural practices and their minority status make the residents of Chinatown more vulnerable. I mentioned that a sense of Capraesque optimism pervades the film, and yet I couldn't help but read a larger brand of pessimism into the proceedings. The little guy can always get picked on. While it's nice to see the little guy fight, there's a knowledge that this won't be the last time it happens. What about the major banks, who really should have been held accountable somehow for what they've done? But the world isn't so kind to those that are easily trampled. And yet. This reminds me of one the great lines about disillusionment in film: "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown."
NYFF Review: Abacus photo
Mr. Capra Goes to Chinatown
Steve James may be incapable of directing a bad documentary. His films includes Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and Life Itself. With Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, James continues his record as one of America's most relia...

NYFF Review: 13TH

Oct 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220907:43127:0[/embed] 13THDirector: Ava DuVernayRelease Date: October 7, 2016 (Netflix)Rating: TBD DuVernay's central thesis is that while the 13th Amendment ostensibly abolished slavery, the systems of oppression in the 1800s evolved into different forms of oppression that are currently in practice today. It's a compelling argument that begins with the Reconstruction Era following The Civil War, in which imprisoned black men were used as labor to rebuild the south. It continues into segregation and Jim Crow, the war on drugs, the Republican's Southern strategy, and so forth. DuVernay is expert at cycling various ideas, phrases, and images throughout 13TH, which helps make her overraching argument cohesive.  13TH generally follows a linear and chronological crawl through 150 years of American history, intercutting archival footage and talking heads. Our guides through history include activists (e.g., Angela Davis), academics (e.g., Henry Louis Gates Jr.), commentators (e.g., Van Jones), and politicians (e.g., Senator Cory Booker). While the primary draw of 13TH is the outrage at a corrupt criminal justice system, formal touches contribute to the riveting watch. The settings for each of the interviews, for instance, are often industrial spaces that evoke the feel of jails and prisons. DuVernay withholds identifying many interviewees until their third or fourth appearance on screen. I don't know why that seemed so novel, but I was hanging on people's words a little more that I might have been. There are a few contrarians among the interviewees who don't think systemic racism is a problem. Of course they're white dudes. Surprisingly, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich isn't one of these clueless white guys. Gingrich appears in 13TH and says that many white people don't understand what life is like for black people in America. I may not agree with his politics, but credit goes to Gingrich. He's relatively more woke than some people I know. 13TH is predominantly concerned with mass incarceration and how the prison population increased dramatically through the '70s, '80s, and '90s. It's neat and brisk through most of its 100-minute run time, though it becomes loose once we focus on the mid-2000s to today. From prison privatization we then cover issues of police militarization, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and even (perhaps unavoidably) Donald Trump's ugly rhetoric in the Presidential race. (Trump makes an earlier appearance when he calls for the execution of The Central Park Five.) If she wanted, DuVernay could have made a mini-series out of this, or a long-form doc in multiple parts a la Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America. DuVernay's such a skilled cinematic essayist that she's able to rein in 13TH even as it seems to stray. I mentioned her cycle of ideas and images earlier. Just when I felt like the movie was moving off track, she would reintroduce an idea or an image to show why one particular point is a reticulation of a previous one. The death of Emmett Till haunts the deaths that gave rise to Black Lives Matter. Phrases like "law and order" take on a sinister quality. The idea of the black man as a rapacious criminal similarly casts its unending shadow. The most memorable recurring image in 13TH involves a black man in a suit and hat. It must be from the 1950s. He's walking through a suburb. There's a mob of angry white men around him. They shove him. They yell at him. He gets punched in the back of the head. But the black man keeps walking. He's being insulted and assaulted, but he's carrying on unphased. During a press conference, DuVernay referred to this anonymous person as "the dignified man". I don't know where he was walking or if he got there, but I hope he made it okay. I hope everyone does somehow.
NYFF Review: The 13th photo
Slavery didn't end, it adapted
13TH feels like a culmination of Ava DuVernay's career to this point. The documentary brings together the racial and social history of Selma, her years of work as a documentarian, her stint as a journalist, and even her under...

Review: Shin Godzilla

Sep 30 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220931:43124:0[/embed] Shin GodzillaDirectors: Hidaeki Anno and Shinji HiguchiRated: NRRelease Date: October 11th, 2016  Much like the original Godzilla (or Gojira) film released in 1954, Shin Godzilla is a natural disaster film through a political thriller lens. When a giant, radioactive monster suddenly rises out the sea and wanders through Tokyo, the Japanese government discusses how to handle the situation. But the focus is on the one lone dissenter, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), the Deputy Chief who's more interested in saving as many people as possible rather than rise through the political ranks. As he leads a task force, he must now work with the Japanese government members who have their own agendas, an American government with their own ideas as to how to handle the problem (both metaphorically and narratively), and of course, a giant monster slowly getting deadlier as time rolls on.  As you can gauge from the synopsis, Shin Godzilla is light on Godzilla action. It's reflective of that old school Toho mentality where Godzilla is merely a disaster punctuating the human drama. But unlike the similar criticism used against Edwards' Godzilla in 2014, this film makes sure each of those short bursts is treated with the appropriate amount of weight. When Godzilla attacks, or better yet walks, the action is grounded. You see citizens actively reacting to the monster and even witness some of their downfalls. When this Godzilla tears through a building, there's a sense that each of those buildings is populated. Like the film, Godzilla itself moves in a direct way. Using a traditional suit highlighted by CG also helps the titular kaiju feel real. There is an attention to detail that's been missing from the series for quite some time. It's part of the reason the new design is so effective as well. This "Shin" Godzilla radiates with bright reds and oranges, and I've never seen the series' radioactive fire breath be more effective. Watching deep purples giving way to the trademark blue flame crawling up through Godzilla's tail and then out of its mouth is honestly badass.  But the problem with having such a well thought out, weighted Godzilla is the absence felt when not on screen. By leaning so heavily into a political thriller, directors Anno and Higuchi bet everything on human drama. The main problem with this angle, however, is the political stuff isn't all that interesting. There are vague hints of government members who are making decisions in order to protect their own interests, but it neither helps build the world nor is relevant to the overall plot. The attention to detail also works against the team here as a lot of time is spent explaining minor details like evacuation plans or devoted to following down a chain of command as they issue orders. Leading to much of the dialogue feeling like wasted time. To their credit, Anno and Higuchi do their best to make the dialogue heavy scenes easy to digest. Much of the dialogue is framed through quick cuts (leading to these weird moments when characters speak directly to the camera), and little jokes give some of the members much needed personality. But it's not until the titular monster fully evolves does the film choose to evolve as well. Much like the 1954 original, Shin Godzilla is a thinly (then not so thinly) veiled metaphor for nuclear weapons. But before settling on the same commentary on the subject the series has been known for (making for a weak conclusion), directors Anno and Higuchi slip in some experimental commentary never seen in this series. For one, there are several direct references to America's vision of Godzilla. From its name change, as this film adopts "Godzilla" over the traditional "Gojira," to ridiculing American blockbusters' penchant for big, loud solutions to their problems. But oddly enough as the two ridicule Western film making sensibilities, a lot of its themes are adopted here. When the film works best, it lauds itself with a Japanese nationalism mirroring much of American disaster films. The "united we stand" mentality carries the film through its climax and eventually gives way to a cool "rah rah" moment. Which makes it all the more confusing when it reverts back to a somber, "nuclear weapons are bad" tone.  In the end, Shin Godzilla has me torn. While I appreciate a return to the series' deep thematic roots, the film is at its best when it flirts with ideas outside of the norm. It's a clash of old school Toho and modern monster movie filmmaking that ultimately leaves a lot to be desired by film's end. But at the end of the day, Shin Godzilla accomplishes what Toho set out to do. This new Godzilla is fearsome as it is toothsome. It simply beats out the American version with just the fire breath alone.  Regardless of what Toho decides to do with this new Godzilla series moving forward, I'll be there to watch it happen. 
Shin Godzilla Review photo
Godzilla got busy
When Gareth Edwards' take on Godzilla failed to light up screens here in the U.S., Godzilla's parent company, Toho, took the reboot as kind of an insult. Vowing to reclaim their famous monster, Toho unveiled a striking new de...

NYFF Review: Gimme Danger

Sep 30 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220909:43126:0[/embed] Gimme DangerDirector: Jim JarmuschRelease Date: October 28, 2016Rating:  TBD I'll start by accentuating the positive. It's great to watch the Stooges take a victory lap. After years of being a posse of indigent riffraff, The Stooges are now music demigods. On camera, Iggy Pop has such a smooth, comforting cool about him. Whenever he's telling a story, I experienced an anticipatory glee, waiting for that smirk to flourish into laughter and an unbridled smile. Stooges drummer Scott Asheton, by contrast, has a labored voice of a working class life lived hard. His late brother, Ron, pops up in archival interviews. Latter-day Stooges member James Williamson sits near his amp in a bathroom; we also spend some time with Minuteman frontman Mike Watt, who's part of The Stooges' reunion lineup. After the pre-title stinger (standard issue in so many docs these days), Jarmusch starts in Iggy Pop's childhood. Little James Osterberg, who lived in a trailer, tortured his parents with a drumkit and learned punk stagecraft from The Howdy Doody Show. We then zip through the band's formation in the '60s, with a little bit of exploration of the political scene in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Stooges live communally, and share the stage with their big brother band The MC5. Then they record their self-titled album, and then they put out Funhouse, and then it's on to Raw Power. And then this happens, and then this other thing, oh and this. At a certain point it dawned on me: Gimme Danger was mostly comprised of "and-thens". It's more like the events as fleshed out bullet points, not the life of a band as an essay. Jarmusch includes footage of the infamous Cincinnati Pop Fest performance in which Iggy Pop, held aloft by the crowd, smears peanut butter all over his chest and goes hogwild. So oddball and unconventional, which makes the limp plainness of Gimme Danger a bummer. It doesn't feel like a Jarmusch movie at all. Instead, it's more like a competent TV documentary on The Stooges, but one that never really goes deep enough. They mention the radical politics of Ann Arbor and hanging with The MC5, but that's it. They mention a stint in the Chelsea Hotel, but not much more than the fact they stayed there. So much room for expansion, amusing tangents, the sorts of anecdotes that give texture to a life. But mostly it's all back to the bullet points. I come back to the idea of shape that I mentioned earlier. While talking about "Search and Destroy" on Raw Power, Iggy explains the metaphoric shape of the song. Williamson's guitar fills the space in such a dense way, and that informed how Ron played his leads and how Iggy did his vocals. Pieces come together, play off each other, rework and reconstitute themselves, and find a means of working in combination that kicks like a goddamn drum. You hear or sense that shaping everywhere on Raw Power, which is why it's one of the best albums of all time. You're listening to a band when it gets it and gels. Gimme Danger seems to lack this sense of shape, or cohesion, if you prefer. If this interview goes here, how is it complemented there? And if this footage does this, what should that footage do to complement it? Admittedly, editing seems like the most difficult part of documentary film. Still, I wonder what Gimme Danger might have been with just a bit more shaping. It's not bad, don't get me wrong, but it's not something I'll put on repeat.
NYFF Review: Gimme Danger photo
I just wanna be your doc
Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch sound like an unlikely pairing. One's the primal frontman of proto-punk legends The Stooges, the other's a mellow, measured indie auteur. But maybe there's something magnetic about their respective b...

NYFF Review: Paterson

Sep 29 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220910:43125:0[/embed] PatersonDirector: Jim JarmuschRelease Date: December 21, 2016 (France); December 28, 2016 (USA)Rating: TBD 2003's American Splendor may be the best companion to Paterson. That film chronicled the life of comics writer Harvey Pekar. Pekar lived and wrote in Cleveland, and kept a day job at a VA hospital. Paterson in Jarmusch's film works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He uses little catches of time through the day to write poetry in his notebook. This is the writing life of working people--no parties with literati, no salons, no scenester-ism, no pretension, just toil and care with words. Paterson follows a week in the life our bus driver. At the end of the first day, we get the broadstrokes of this character's routine. He wakes up beside his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), he walks to work, he eavesdrops on people's conversations, he returns home, he walks their bulldog, and he has a drink at the local bar. The routine might seem stifling, but Jarmusch enlarges the world that Paterson lives in. Side characters get fleshed out in unexpected ways, and we get new details about who Paterson and Laura are through careful reveals and well-observed scenes. The initial claustrophobia of the structure both folds out and opens inward. Paterson's acts of noticing help convey his sense of the city he lives in, his interior life, and the lives of people around him. Bad poetry ruins everything. To avoid that danger, Jarmusch hired New York School poet Ron Padgett to write original work for Paterson. Paterson's poetry reads like actual poetry (a pastiche of William Carlos Williams) rather than the hokey stuff that movie-poetry often sounds like. Jarmusch depicts the writing of this poetry through voiceover and superimposed text over montages. It isn't necessarily the most ideal representation of the creative process, but it works. Jarmusch imbues the rest of film with its own poetic flourishes, like the constant appearance of twins, doubles, or mirrored lines, as if trying to find a visual equivalent for internal rhyme or rhyming couplets. (Intentional correspondence: William Carlos Williams, writer of the five-book poem Paterson, is the favorite poet of a man named Paterson who lives in Paterson, NJ in a movie called Paterson. Coincidental correspondence: Adam Driver cast as a bus driver. ) One of the more fascinating things I noticed about Paterson was how it explores the relationship between Paterson and Laura. They spend most of their time apart, but thanks to the new information we get about each of them as the film unfolds, I'm able to understand not just how they work as a couple but why. On the surface, Laura seems like a manic pixie dream girl artist who wound up with a polite stoic, but they complement each other and know the importance of space and time in their relationship. Driver is a delicate soul in this film rather than his usual hipster scumbag. His performance reminds me of an artist friend back in the Bay Area who struggles to make time to paint. Farahani adds depth to Laura, who, like her boyfriend, is a type of optimistic American dreamer. Maybe this space and togetherness between Paterson and Laura is an example of the power of interpersonal enjambment. There's been a lot of recent discussion in the online literary community about the role of writing in the lives of writers. Is writing just a hobby? Can writing really be considered a job? As if those are the only options. Paterson seems to offer its own answer. While he keeps so many of his poems to himself in a journal, Paterson writes because he can't live without it. It's where he finds meaning. Perhaps the melancholy of the score is meant as a counterpoint to Paterson the man. So much about the surface of his life suggests misery. That might be true in other stories, but Paterson is a writer, and in addition to his good fortune for having the friends he does, he has writing to fill the empty spaces of each day.
NYFF Review: Paterson photo
The city, the man, the joyous everday
Jim Jarmusch's Paterson is work of subtle optimism. It's a gentle film, kind and generous, funny, too. Watching the movie, I sensed Jarmusch giving me a reassuring push, like a parent at a swing or a child casting off a toy b...

Review: The Lovers And The Despot

Sep 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220842:43121:0[/embed] The Lovers and the DespotDirectors: Robert Cannan and Ross AdamRelease Date: September 23rd, 2016Rating: NR  It's 1978. Choi Eun-Hee is one of South Korea's top movie stars, often starring in the films of her husband, director Shin Sang-Ok. North Korean Kim Jong-Il kidnaps her in Hong Kong. Then he kidnaps her husband. After years in a prison camp, eventually the two of them are reunited. Kim Jong-Il tells them to make films. They do. They make lots of them (17, in fact) and even travel to foreign festivals to show them. And then, of course, they escape. It all sounds a bit silly, but, of course, it's all true. Oversimplified? More than likely, but ultimately True nonetheless.  The Lovers and the Despot tells this story almost exclusively through interviews, with Choi, her family, people involved with the case, etc. Shin passed away a decade ago, but some of his audio makes it in as well. The video and audio clips are interspersed with footage from Shin's films (including some of the ones made in North Korea) and reenactment shots. I thought the decision to do reenactments was interesting, but their effectiveness is diminished somewhat by the footage from the films. In a couple of cases, rather than using reenactments, they pull directly from his films. Those moments are some of the most compelling, and everything really comes together. The reenactments are fine, but you're hearing them narrated at the time, so they lacks any real oomph. They're just there to keep you from getting bored. They're successful in that regard, but they don't do much more. This stands in contrast with certain audio clips, which are literally just audio clips playing over a generic background. And they're fine, but they're also... ya know, audio clips playing over a generic background. At that point, you're not really watching anything. And maybe you're getting a little bored? Some people certainly might, though I can unequivocally say I did not. I didn't know anything about this story before going into The Lovers and the Despot, and I was enthralled by the story itself from beginning to end. The audio-only parts could have just as easily been an exceedingly compelling podcast or something, but what's important is that now I know this story, and that I have seen some footage from these North Korean films, and that I really, really want to see them now. Choi Eun-Hee says at one point in the film that, if she were to make a screenplay of her life, she would gloss over the bad things. She would focus only on the good. It seems to me that The Lovers and the Despot did as well. There are hints here and there of the horrors that they faced, but nothing is ever explicit and the filmmakers don't seem particularly interested in going down that path. Even though this is a film about the evil of North Korea, it's not about the evils of North Korea. And while that may sound like some obnoxious semantic thing, it's an important distinction. More often than not, Kim Jong-Il comes off as weird, to be sure, but not particularly scary. As citizens of the world, we know that he is, but there are only a handful of moments where that really comes across here, and the most impactful one is a scene that comes right from his mouth: Actual audio captured by the two of them of Kim Jong-Il. (It is genuinely fascinating to hear his voice, by the way; until that point, I was pretty sure he sounded like Trey Parker.) It's him talking to his kidnappees about that whole five years in prison that Shin went through. It basically amounts to an, "Oops. Sorry." That complete disregard for a person's existence — and of a person who was brought in to make him movies! — is kind of shocking. And, of course it's not all that shocking that the leader of North Flipping Korea would behave that way, but in a film that isn't about evils, it stands out as the exception that proves the rule. We're missing huge swaths of this story, and I'm conflicted about that. A very real part of me is glad for that, because it allows for some level of whimsy. This whole thing is so ridiculous, but it actually happened. And if you forget all of the awful things that came with it, it could totally be the plot of some weirdo comedy (possibly made by Matt Stone and Trey Parker). I liked being able to laugh and not have to constantly think about the awful things that weren't being said... But the other part of me thinks about sort-of-humanizing dictators and demagogues, and The Lovers and the Despot does a little bit of that. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. Probably. But I'm not going to damn it for that. It's sanitized a bit so that it can play to the widest possible audience, and that is a good thing, because everyone should see this movie. Everyone should learn more about this story. This story is truly incredible. Like, seriously, it's one of the craziest things I've ever heard, certainly the most interesting one related to cinema. And if glossing over the evils of dictatorship is what it takes to get it in front of people? Well that's alright by me.
The Lovers and The Despot photo
Truth is stranger than...
It can be kind of exhausting getting a dozen (or more) emails a day about movie X, Y, and Z. Do I want to see this? Do I want to learn more about this? And I'm sure I've turned down a lot of great movies because the sales pit...

Review: Blair Witch

Sep 16 // Matthew Razak
The Blair WitchDirector: Adam WingardRated: RRelease Date: September 16, 2016 [embed]220890:43113:0[/embed] If you haven't seen Wingard and Barrett's previous two films I would recommend going out and doing that now. They are two of the best horror movies of the past decade and take your expectations for the genre and flip them on its head. That is exactly what I was expecting out of Blair Witch. Why would the studio bring these guys in if they didn't want them to shake things up? Unfortunately Blair Witch feels more like standard found footage than a radical shift. Aside from the last 15 minutes or so of the film Blair Witch offers very little new to the genre, surviving only on the few interesting ideas that crop up. Blair Witch picks up 17 years after the original with James (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather, one of the trio that went missing previously. After discovering some new footage online he and his friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Allie (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott) return to the Maryland woods in hopes of finding Heather. They're joined by the couple who uploaded the video to YouTube Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). As if they hadn't seen the footage from the original movie despite it obviously existing in this film's universe they proceed to make all the same mistakes the original trio did and start to get picked off one by one. Oh, and Lisa is making a documentary for school, which is why everything gets recorded and they bring a drone along with them. Wineguard is a superb horror director, but the screenplay never lets him do anything with his skills until the very end. While the original's found footage shtick was revolutionary for the time it feels entirely needless here, especially considering everything is shot on tiny HD cameras mounted to the heads of the actors. Instead of the really-there feeling you got from the scratchy DV camera footage of the original everything feels glossy. It's a problem in general for the found footage genre and one of the reasons its fallen a bit out of use. More importantly, though, the film falls into horror movie genre conventions a bit too often. One of the things that makes the original film still work is that it's more about the three people falling apart than the demonic spirit chasing after them. It's psychological terror with a hint of monster movie, whereas this new version relies far more heavily on jump scares and glimpses of a monster in the woods. They're perfectly well executed and offer up some scary moments, but it's a big disappointment in general. Wineguard's direction saves a lot of it from being truly standard, throwing in homages to Evil Dead and other horror classics, but there's not enough there to make stand out. Until that last 15 minutes that is. Blair Witch's last 15 minutes would have made an incredible short film. You could easily cut off the proceeding 75 minutes and almost all of the action would have made sense considering the pervasiveness of the original film in today's culture. Those last 15 involve a claustrophobia-inducing scene in a tunnel, a horrifying escape through an abandon house, a clever hint at time manipulation and a conclusion that actually pulls the movie out of just being a redo of the original with HD cameras.  It does really feel like a redo, and that's the final nail in the coffin. Much of what made Blair Witch Project work originally was the ongoing belief that it was real. The found footage genre wasn't a thing then and so half the horror was thinking that this really happened. Blair Witch is at a disadvantage there. We've been over saturated with the genre and so to really stand out it needed to do something new, and it just doesn't. It's not a bad film and it does get scary, but it could have been more.  At least we can all still pretend that Book of Shadows doesn't exist.
Blair Witch photo
Lost in the woods
Back in July a pretty standard looking shaky cam movie called The Woods pulled off the impossible by actually surprising the Internet at SDCC. It turned out that the film was a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Blair Wi...

Review: Snowden

Sep 16 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220888:43108:0[/embed] SnowdenDirector: Oliver StoneRelease Date: September 16, 2016Rating: R  Snowden is a film steeped in dramatic irony. It opens with the first meeting of Snowden, Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto). We don't see (then or ever) how he got in touch with them or how he convinced them to go to Hong Kong to meet him. But we know why he's there and why they're there. Everyone knows his name, and I imagine the people who have forgotten what he did will remember pretty quickly once it's all underway. Much of the film takes place in the past, as we watch Snowden go from a young man kicked out of the army after he's injured during boot camp to a CIA employee to a CIA contractor to an NSA contractor to the most famous whistleblower of the modern era. But at each step, we know who and what he will become, and that colors each and every interaction. I imagine it must have been agonizing, during the scripting process, to not get too hammy. The lines exist here and there — perhaps most blatantly: "You won't regret this" after being hired by the CIA — but I imagine that some of those lines were actually said at the time. I would entirely believe that a man would tell his new boss that they wouldn't regret hiring him, for example. Sometime people say things like that. It's only because we know what ultimately happens that that line is seen as anything other than genuine gratitude. To the audience, it's a joke, though no one actually laughed. I don't know how much of Snowden is true and how much is dramatized. I know for a fact that certain things didn't go down the way they were depicted because I remember reading news reports that explained the actual (far less sexy) events three years ago, but those wouldn't have made for compelling drama. Like Snowden, you know something is going to happen, and it's probably bad. He knows it, because he knows what the people he's up against are capable of; you know it, because this isn't the first time you've seen a movie. Movies are all about information. This movie in particular is about information, but I mean in the broader sense of the word, because drama is about the conveying of information. When, where, and how information is presented to the audience can radically change their perception of, well, everything. Information is the most crucial thing in storytelling, and sometimes that information is simple and something it isn't.  What makes Snowden's story so complicated is that the programs he revealed to the world are so complicated. It's hard enough to condense Xkeyscore and Prism and everything else into an easy-to-understand package without needing to also tell a human story about the guy who unveiled it all. Sure, the movie could just not try, but as much as this is Snowden's story, it also is one that tries to explain Why This Matters. Just presenting Snowden is all well and good, but it's crucial that we understand the gravity of the things that Snowden revealed. We need to know why he would throw away his objectively-pretty-good life because something was gnawing at him and he couldn't get away from it. And I think that the film does a decent job of explaining how it all works. Is it oversimplified? Of course... but it's also basically accurate, and that's what matters. People who didn't really pay attention in 2013 or didn't understand what they were being told can learn at least a little bit about what Snowden leaked. That's a big deal. Because information is also power. It's power in the film, but it's also power beyond. In a Q&A session after the film, Oliver Stone was asked what the message of the film was. He rejected the question out of hand and let the others answer it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt said that he thought The Point was to rekindle the conversation, an interest in the things that are talked about. To get people to dig deeper and draw their own conclusions. (The Edward Snowden depicted in the film says something like that, and the real Edward Snowden, beamed in from Moscow during the Q&A, did as well.) They all understand the importance of information. And I think that anyone who sees Snowden will feel it as well. It's an undeniably political film, and Snowden's shift away from hyper-patriotic, semi-authoritarian conservatism is kind of interesting to watch in the context of our current climate. Having seen the general even-handedness of W., I know that Stone isn't out to just make conversatives look bad, but that doesn't mean the reaction to this film won't fall down party lines. Let's be clear: Oliver Stone thinks that what Snowden did is a very important thing, and he stands firmly on his side (though not in all matters, necessarily). As a result of that, I think reactions to it will be heavily partisan. And if not, then what lines does it fall down? Some people will just think it's a bad movie (it's not) because they don't like it. That's fair enough. But others will have a visceral reaction and reject it out of hand. And I want to know why those people do, because I think it matters. To answer the question I posed at the beginning, yes: I think it should start that conversation and bring the issue back to the forefront. But it's important that we start that conversation based on information rather than opinion. It doesn't matter what you think of what Edward Snowden did, whether you think he deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail or as a free man. What matters is that the conversation about privacy, about security, about all these extremely important topics can happen now in a way that they couldn't before. Snowden can be a jumping-off point. As the Q&A was getting set up, an older woman a few seats from me stood up. "You're a hero, Mr. Stone," she shouted. People clapped, but it was honestly a little awkward. I wondered how many people in the theater agreed with her. I don't, not really. I don't think that Snowden is a heroic film made by a heroic man. But it doesn't have to be. It just has to be good. To start that conversation, it needs to function as a cohesive narrative, tell a story that is compelling and do so in a compelling way. Snowden does all that. It does more than that. It makes you think. It makes you want to talk. It'll likely make you question your own beliefs about the power that a government should have, regardless of how you feel about it going in. Or maybe it won't, and that's interesting too. The point is that there's something to say, something substantive to discuss. And who know, maybe it can make a difference. How cool would that be?
Snowden Review photo
The power of information
I never saw Citizenfour, the documentary Laura Poitras made about Edward Snowden. I thought about it a lot and certainly meant to, but it was never really a priority for me. This was, in large part, because I followed along w...

Review: ClownTown

Sep 15 // Sean Walsh
[embed]220877:43101:0[/embed] ClownTownDirector: Tom NagelRated: Not RatedRelease Date: September 30, 2016  The plot to ClownTown is a tail as old as time: four friends on their way to a country music concert in the area of southern Ohio with especially bad cell phone reception find themselves stranded in Clinton, a ghost town with a tragic history. As if their taste in music and dead vehicle weren't bad enough, a gang of psychopathic clowns are out to make their stay in Clinton a memorable one. Like most slasher films, there's not much to say about the cast of ClownTown beyond the slashers themselves. Our protagonists are bland simulacrums with paper-thin development and the few denizens of Clinton that aren't clowns are there to deliver exposition. The clowns themselves, for the most part, are actually pretty frightening, "Crowbar" and "Baseball Bat" in particular. ClownTown doesn't do anything we haven't seen before. All the tropes are there: no cell service, dead car, desolate town, random thunderstorm that has no bearing on the story, and generally poor decision-making by the protagonists. There are a few genuinely tense scenes, particularly the one on top of the warehouse, but it is generally a paint-by-numbers slasher film. That's not to say its wholly unenjoyable, however. If you like slasher films and can settle for the generic victims and borderline-tedious dialogue, there are some decent kills in this film. Nothing as creative as what Freddy or Jason bring to the table (which is a shame, considering we're dealing with clowns), but for what it is, it's not bad.  While less is typically more with slasher films, ClownTown left me wanting for more explanation. While we don't need to see Jason's base of operations to understand that he's an unstoppable force of nature, maybe we need just a few more details on why and how an entire town has not been able to put a stop to a small handful of clowns and their reign of terror. With that said, based on the ending and my wanting for more backstory, sign me up for a sequel. ClownTowns, maybe?
Review: ClownTown photo
Killer Clowns from Southern Ohio
In the fifty-six years since Psycho was released to an unsuspecting public, theater-goers have borne witness to slashers of every type. From psycho killers dressed like their mothers to psycho killers dressed up like Ron...

Review: Sully

Sep 08 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220856:43091:0[/embed] SullyDirector: Clint EastwoodRated: PG-13Release Date: September 9, 2016  If you missed out on the year 2009 for some reason then you may not have heard the story of Sully Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), the lifetime pilot who successfully performed a water landing in the middle of the Hudson River after both engines of his plane were hit by geese after take off. We've all seen the iconic image of the airplane slowly sinking in the water as passengers stand on the wings and New York ferry boats speed to their rescue. It was miraculous and amazing and seemed to come just at the right time with just the right man. Very few people could have pulled off the landing. In fact water landings almost never work. Sully purports to tell the story behind the landing, but in reality there isn't that much story to tell. Instead Eastwood smartly focuses on just the 208 seconds and the split second decision that Captain Sullenberger had to make, driving the film into a character study instead of an action piece. To do this the film vilifies the NTSB, making them into a giant government organization that wants to protect itself from lawsuits. This casts doubts into the mind of Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and it is within this frame that we relive the crash multiple times from multiple views. All this surrounded by Sullenberg's self doubt and determination to prove he's done the right thing. It is a brilliant construction for the film that avoids turning the movie into an overwrought action film and instead ratchets up the tension. Despite repeating the same 208 seconds multiple times you're drawn in each time, experiencing it in a different way. One time a nightmare of how everything could have gone wrong. The next glimpsing the fear New Yorkers had seeing a plane once again flying low in their city. Yet another pulling us into the passenger experience. Yet never once does it feel like pandering thanks to Eastwood jumping back to focus on the man himself and his inner demons.  That isn't to say the film avoids all issues of the standard "based on a true story" simplifications. A lot of the drama after the crash feels played up. The NTSB is turned into an evil organization intent on proving that Sullenberger shouldn't have landed in the river and tensions with his wife seem ratcheted up just for dramatic effect. In reality the NTSB was probably just doing its job and I'm hard pressed to find anything that justifies the innuendo of a troubled marriage. This is what we call dramatic licence, however, and without it Eastwood's movie would have been 208 seconds of excitement and then following a man on a press tour. The biggest issue here is that the two plot lines can take a bit away from the actual PTSD and stress the Sullenberger was under. They never get the chance to though as Eastwood keeps the film to just around 90 minutes, a true rarity in a time of bloated bio pics. He's also got a cast that could make almost anything work. Hanks exudes the charm and confidence that made Sully so likable to America. Yet his performance is tinged with a sadness that brings humanity to the character. The landing is not one of an action hero, but that of a man doing the best he can in very bad circumstances. Eckhart delivers a strong supporting role, though his character is mostly there as an exposition piece for Sully. What matters in the end is those 208 seconds, however. Somehow Eastwood pulls out more drama, feeling and emotion from just that brief amount of time than most epics do in three hour running periods. Sully is another testament to just how deft a filmmaker Eastwood is because it's easy to tell the "true" story of a hero, but it's hard to tell the true story of a man.
Sully photo
208 Seconds
It's a tricky thing about the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger. The true story of the man who landed an airplane in the Hudson River saving 155 lives, including two infants, is absolutely amazing. But it only lasted 208 ...

Review: Don't Breathe

Aug 31 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220826:43073:0[/embed] Don't BreatheDirector: Fede AlvarezRelease Date: August 26th, 2016Rating: R  Let's talk about genre for a minute: Don't Breathe is being sold as a home invasion film, and it is that; but it's also not really. It's not a home invasion film like The Strangers or Funny Games is. This isn't a film about a family whose home is being invaded by evil forces; it's about the invaders themselves. And, more importantly, it's about the invaders trying to escape. In this case, the invaders are three dumb young 20somethings(?) who rob houses because one of them, Alex, has a dad who works for a security company. They follow strict rules: No cash, a take under $10,000, because law enforcement will go easier on them as a result of it. (These are Alex's rules; he is very worried about things going wrong.) The team learns about an old, blind veteran, Norman Nordstrom, who won a lot of money in a settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident. To get out of Detroit, they decide to go after it, breaking their rules in the hopes of never needing to do it again. So they invade a home. It's locked with more than just the security key (odd) but make it in there anyway. And once they're inside, things go from bad to worse. Attempting to knock Norman out only serves to wake him up, and though he can't see anything that's around him, he's still plenty capable of causing serious damage to the people who have come into his home.  There are a lot of things about this premise that are interesting, but the best thing Don't Breathe has going for it is the inherent tension in a scene where one character is silent as Norman walks by them, oblivious to their presence. In these moments, you grip the arm of your chair (or whomever you're sitting next to), terrified that they'll make some kind of noise and end up maimed or dead or worse (and yeah, there's a "worse," which by now you've probably already heard about but I was (un?)fortunate enough to have not had that spoiled). I will admit that the tension is mildly undercut by the fact that sometimes it seems like he's too oblivious. And I don't mean that I think the guy should be Daredevil, but the moments where he notices things seem a bit arbitrary given some of the things he doesn't notice. It didn't really bother me much at the time, though, which I think is a testament to the effectiveness of the filmmaking. I like long takes. I like long takes a lot. And Don't Breathe makes excellent use of them. A few years back, a cabin-in-the-woods film called Honeymoon used a long take to introduce us to the house where much of the film would take place. Don't Breathe does something similar, going through and showing us pretty much everything we need to keep track of for the next hour or so. But as excellently staged as that is, the best uses come later. There are two that stick in my mind, but the one that exemplifies the unique tension this film can create comes in a long take as Alex tries to avoid Norman. You think he's gone, but then he appears again (something he does a Batman number of times over the course of the film (so maybe he should be Daredevil)), and it doesn't break away. It's a beautifully conceived scene and a brilliantly executed one. For that moment alone, this film is worthy of praise. One thing Don't Breathe is not, though, is particularly scary. There are jumpy moments (thankfully not accompanied by the obnoxiously loud sounds that tend to plague modern horror movies), but it's never really fear-inducing. It keeps you on the edge of your seat rather than trying to burrow into it. And it doesn't let up once it begins; many people have described the film as "relentless," and I think that's an excellent word for it. It just keeps going and going; there are probably five (maybe more) moments where you think it's over and then some new wrench gets thrown into the works. Still, though a couple people were shouting "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!" at the screen by the end of it, it doesn't feel too long. It breaks you down just as it breaks down the characters, demoralizing you as it does them. It's efficient, effective, and ruthless. But, really, what else would you expect? This is the man who made Evil Dead. I like having directors whose work I can trust. I like to have people to follow and projects to hype for sight unseen. With his two films, I think Fede Alvarez has more than proved himself to be worthy of everyone's attention. His work has a unique (and honestly spectacular) style, and I am excited to see where he goes from here. Don't Breathe is great, and those flaws that it has don't spoil the experience. I expect I'll be seeing this one again soon, looking to see what things I missed the first time around and just enjoying a well-crafted and executed film. Bravo, Mr. Alvarez, this is your second Flixist Editor's Choice. I hope I don't have to wait another three years before we can give you another.
Don't Breathe Review photo
A different kind of home invasion
Three years ago, Fede Alvarez proved that he was a talent to watch. Evil Dead is a great film, tense and horrific and, more than anything else, polished (in stark contrast to the original film, which is anything but...

Review: Hell or High Water

Aug 22 // Rick Lash

Hollywood is a strange place. It bombards you with marketing materials 24/7, always promising the next best, biggest and brightest, only to deliver on best and/or brightest with less regularity than a really good Major League...

Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

Aug 19 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220794:43057:0[/embed] Kubo and the Two StringsDirector: Travis KnightRated: PGRelease Date: August 19, 2016 Kubo is a bit of a departure for Laika both visually and thematically. While their animation style still seeps through Kubo is far more inspired by Japanese art and anime than their previous work. It's also their most serious plot to date. Kubo is a young boy who lives with his mother in a cave hiding from his grandfather, who, when Kubo was a baby, stole his eye. His grandfather is now after his other eye for nefarious reasons. One day, when Kubo doesn't make it home before dark, his mother's evil sisters find him and adventure begins to find three pieces of magical armor in order to defeat Kubo's grandfather, the Moon King. Having to set out on his own, Kubo is accompanied by Monkey and Beetle on his grand adventure. It is a very traditional quest adventure, but the story is infused with themes of family, love and loss. If it weren't for the stop motion animation you would easily thing that this was a Pixar movie the story is so well executed and characters so likable. Kubo's tale isn't just one of high adventure, but also deep sorrow. It, like Pixar films, believe in the intelligence of the children it is geared towards and instead of pandering to them executes and story that engages both young and old.  It is, of course, easy to engage when your visuals are probably some of the most stunning of the year. You'll want to pause every scene to see the clear and crisp details while marveling at just how they could possibly do half the things they do with some lumps of clay. Even the simplest movements seem to stand out more thanks to the stop motion. The painstaking creation seeping through every scene.  Director Travis Knight, who is CEO of Laika but has never directed, paces what could be a very dull story beautifully. Despite the standard set up the story unfolds wonderfully, building tension between the characters fantastically. He also has an eye for pushing scary things just enough. Never letting them get so overwhelming that children won't enjoy it, but actually making villains menacing and powerful. Kubo is also being pushed hard in Dolby's new digital theaters where new projectors bring forth some the sharpest images you'll ever see and surround speakers shake the seats. It is possibly one of the best advertisements for these theaters, though whether or not the fantastically crisp picture and blacker than black blacks are worth the extra cost is up to you. I can only tell you that the movie looked better than anything I've seen outside of true IMAX. It isn't what size screen you see Kubo on or how earth shattering the sound is. Those things can make it better, but what make it great is its imagination. It's a stunning world that's hard to forget, and in that world a poignant story is told. The title may only mention two strings, but it will easily pull on all of your heart strings. 
Kubo Review photo
If you know the name Laika then you know they do amazing things with stop motion. They may be the only ones doing it at the scale they do it too. Anyone who has seen Coraline or ParaNorman or any of their other work...

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