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reviews

Review: Moana

Nov 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221047:43203:0[/embed] MoanaDirectors: John Musker and Ron ClementsRelease Date: November 23, 2016Rating: PG Moana follows the titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), a teenager who's always dreamed of traveling the seas beyond her island village, but is next in line for village chieftain and must stay home. When darkness begins rotting away her home, brought on when the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) steals the heart of the ancient goddess Te Fiti, Moana must journey across the sea, find Maui and ask him for help, and return the Heart of Te Fiti from where it came. From its core, Moana is much different from Disney's other princess films. Choosing instead to follow Moana on a hero's journey, rather than a quest for love, the film allows for individual character development thanks to its simplicity. While this simplicity may mirror Disney's previous films a bit too much, it is honestly what makes Moana work as well as it does.  Directors Musker and Clements have experience creating lasting Disney legacies with the two of them directing hits like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Great Mouse Detective. Basically, these two are responsible for a good deal of your favorite Disney moments and it's the same with Moana. The film may share too many structural similarities with previous films because of their choices, but it's also sure to make up for that simplicity with a complex emotional through line and culture. It's what previous Disney Princess films had lacked, and it's what Frozen experimented with. With a simplified tale, the film allows the characters to add layers of depth. Instead of growing as a character in relation to another person, i.e when Ariel changes herself for Prince Eric, for example, Moana's tale is all about self-improvement. It's not complicated with extraneous plot like a third act twist villain or jokes from a cartoon sidekick, Moana instead sticks to its heart with its two central characters and builds everything around them.  Being a character first type of fairy tale, Moana trusts in its two stars to make it work. Thankfully, Dwayne Johnson and the awesomely talented newcomer, Auli’i Cravalho more than hold their own. Johnson as Maui is energetic and as charming as he ever is, but, coupled with Maui's slightly mischievous character design, now has a slight edge missing from some of Johnson's work. His song, "You're Welcome" is also fantastic. His single is definitely a standout with a blend of humor and musicality. But I don't think I'll ever be able to fully express how impressed I am by the young Auli’i Cravalho. You would never be able to tell, but as her first major starring role, Cravalho is an absolute delight. Once again marrying character design and performance, Cravalho makes Moana a believable kid. Moana is astonishingly the first Disney Princess to act like an actual young girl. She's awkward sometimes, but has an endearing moxie that characterized classic princesses like Mulan, Ariel, and Tiana. But unlike the other Princesses, Moana is allowed to have non-romantic flaws.  You're probably a bit worried since I keep comparing Moana to previous films, but it's entirely intentional. Musker and Clements intended to recapture the spirit of the 2D films. Every part of its production fully embraces nostalgia, while making sure to change enough to keep the film from repeating the past too much. Thanks to the phenomenal soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina, every scene has just a bit more punch. The opening, for example, is kind of incredible. As the film introduces its setting and unique culture (as the Oceanic island culture is far more three dimensional than cultures seen in films past), its punctuated by an incredible chant-like song mirroring The Lion King's now prolific opening. While I'm not sure if its lead single's, "How Far I'll Go," contemporary style will outlast the Broadway appeal of its predecessor, it's still heart-opening. Jemaine Clement's surprise song performance is pretty great too, as it plays to his creepy wheelhouse. Also, the most beautiful song and performance overall is the ancestor song. I don't want to spoil it, but just trust that it's fantastic. But none of this character work or music would succeed without Moana's unbelievable visuals. Moana has Disney's most exemplary animation to date with its luscious landscape and gorgeous ocean animations. The setting itself is a main character, and somehow feels fantasical yet attainable. It's an island paradise capturing the mythical nature of its fairy tale, but also looks grounded enough to exist in our world. There's no skirting the Pacific Islander culture here, unlike the other Princess' films dilution of ethnicity. The character body design is diverse, with Moana herself looking less plastic and moving more fluidly than humans seen in Tangled or Frozen. Thanks to its full embrace of what makes it different, the story's complex emotion and culture seem simplistic. See? Full circle. It's simplicity by design. Blending its depth so well and sneaking in character development through song, I didn't realize how much I had experienced until I started writing this review. The only real problem I had with Moana overall was how some of its contemporary jokes and song arrangements (There's a Twitter reference and other meta jokes) betray the timeless quality of its setting, but honestly it's not that big of a deal. Moana is definitely one of the better theatrical experiences of 2016, and in a year full of strife, it's what we need right now.  Its nostalgic quality may turn some off of Moana, but the film is still incredibly fresh despite these parallels to the past. It's a Disney Princess film taking the successes of the past, fixes their problems, and injects a breath of life into Disney they haven't had for quite some time. Moana is for the child in you, your children, and even their children. And who knows? Moana may just go down as a "classic" years down the line. 
Moana Review photo
Hawaiian roller coaster ride
Disney Animation has had one critical success after another since they're in the middle of a new creative renaissance. Fully embracing CG animation, Disney has produced hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and most im...

Review: Evolution

Nov 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220389:42858:0[/embed] EvolutionDirector: Lucile HadzihalilovicRelease Date: November 25, 2016 (limited/VOD)Rating: NRCountry: France The world of Evolution is mysterious from the get go, which is due largely to the coastal locale where the film is set. We don't know what year it is, or quite where this place is either. It's all so otherworldly, the sort of setting for tales, allegories, and de Chirico paintings. There are white stucco buildings built near the water, and the sand is black leading to the turbulent shore. It's beautiful in how stark it is. In the distance, there's a medical facility that looks like it was abandoned years ago, but boys and their mothers walk back and forth for periodic examinations. There are only grown women and young boys on this island. There are no men, there are no girls, and the mothers have a sinister uniformity about them. At night, the mothers leave their homes carrying hand lanterns and congregate near the water. The boys are just boys but are in the dark about their caretakers. The boys are raised on a diet of mashed kelp and something like worms, one of those foods that while heated in a saucepan still looks cold when it's served. Evolution centers primarily on Nicolas (Max Brebant) and his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), and what Nicolas discovers about this town and where babies come from. We follow him into the night, down long corridors, to water in the dark, and in the process participate in the act of discovery, unwrapping the allegory along with Nicolas, sharing in his repulsion and curiosity. Roughly midway through Evolution, this dive into the unknown slows, maybe too much for what's revealed about the mothers and their boys. Yet even what's revealed is just enough to suggest larger possibilities and delve deeper into the thematic territory of the movie--sex, childbirth, asexuality, violation, flesh, reproduction, biological processes. I sensed in the film's lull that Hadzihalilovic was signalling a move away from an explicit exploration of the plot and the machinery of the world to a series of ruminative brushstrokes, each one a deliberate move to the film's finale, which is more conceptual than visceral. In the immediate aftermath of Evolution, I felt a little let down, expecting more of a resolution to what's introduced early on. Yet the movie has this strange, lingering quality thanks to its pervasive otherworldliness. I mentioned Lovecraft and Cronenbeg earlier, but Hadzihalilovic makes this movie her own, invested with unique hobbyhorses and a fascinating sensibility. It's rare to see a movie that sticks around in your mind after an initial sense of disappointment. The fact I'm still thinking about Evolution, and deeper now than in the hours after the first viewing, have made me reevaluate Hadzihalilovic's languid pace, which unfolds with the same speed as a dream verging on a nightmare but never quite arriving there. Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse does a magnificent job in rendering these images and giving them such a haunting quality that I can't get several of them out of my head. Evolution's grown on me, like a skin graft or like coral, or maybe it's grown in me, like the stuff of recurring bad dreams.
Review: Evolution photo
Lingering, haunting, and yet
There's so much going for Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Evolution, a film expertly lensed from the deliberate first shot: looking up to the sky from underwater. From beneath, the ripples and waves on the ocean surface produce undul...

Review: The Monster

Nov 21 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221043:43200:0[/embed] The MonsterDirector: Bryan BertinoRelease Date: November 11, 2016Rating: R  Though there are a couple of others who make brief appearances, The Monster is effectively a film with only two characters: Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Kazan is 33 but looks ten years younger, and I'm pretty sure her character is closer to the latter than the former. Kathy is a terrible mother, pretty much what everyone assumes a young twenty-something with an already eight-or-nine-year-old child (or whatever age she is; Ballentine is 15, but I think she's also playing someone younger) is like. You don't root for her, and you definitely feel Lizzy's exasperation more than her mother's, but both of them feel extremely real, and their reactions to an increasingly horrific series of events serve as the focal point for everything that happens. And what happens? Well, late at night, as Kathy drives Lizzy to be with her father, they hit a wolf that runs out into the street in the pouring rain. The car breaks down. They call for help, but they have to wait. The wolf disappears from the road. There's a monster. Most of the film takes place on that road, in that car. Everything that matters takes place between Kathy and Lizzy. Everyone else is just filler. Fortunately, both actors give genuinely spectacular performances, and I became immediately invested in their struggles, and I was invested through all of the horrors. I mean, it made me cry. Actually and truly. Movies in general don't make me cry, and horror movies in particular don't (at least, not from anything other than fear). And yet, much to my surprise, The Monster got to me. Kathy and Lizzy got to me. Everything from the two of them felt so real, so earnest and heartfelt, even in the midst of ridiculous events, they were grounded. They made everything work. If you've seen It Follows (you should), or even just its trailer, you may remember the shot of the naked old man standing on the roof looking down at the main characters. It's a cool shot, but it's a problematic one. It doesn't make any sense in the narrative itself. The creature wouldn't do that for any reason other than because the director said, "This is gonna look awesome." And he's right, but it pulls you out of what is generally a pretty cohesive movie with reasonably well-conceived rules. Everything in The Monster is like that image on the roof. You can never know what the monster is going to do, but you always know when it's going to do it: Right when the film needs it to. It comes at the apex of tension, right when you expect it. Maybe you just see it in the background of a shot. Maybe it pulls a character underneath a truck. Maybe it throws a severed arm onto the windshield of a car. It does whatever with no rhyme or reason, but it does it exactly when anyone who has ever seen a horror movie would expect it to. The monster itself looks pretty good, and I am a fan of big practical effects, but it also is just... there. I went back and forth with the person I saw the film with on whether the monster represents anything (or whether The Monster is trying to make a grander point), and both of those conversations ended with a resounding, "Uhh... no?" Certainly the monster just seems like a monster, something there to drive the plot. It doesn't connect to the struggle that the characters are going through in any meaningful way, and the lack of clear rules makes it hard to pinpoint any real purpose at all. And that lack of clear rules gets really problematic in the final act. Really, it just serves to get in the way of the drama. So, the monster is by far the weakest part of the film whose name it occupies, but it's a testament to just how good the dramatic relationship between Kathy and Lizzy is that it doesn't really matter. While the monster waits in the darkness, biding its time for no clear reason, we get to spend time with Kathy and Lizzy. That's an emotional rollercoaster, one that is often difficult to watch but impossible to look away from. There's a decent argument to be made that the relationship deserves a better movie than the one it's in, but that's a needlessly negative way to look at it. We should be glad that we got to see it at all. I know I am.
The Monster Review photo
More tears, less fears
As often as I can, I like to go into films relatively blind. In the case of The Monster, my Facebook feed had been full of friends talking about how stellar the leading performances were and how great it was that they had gon...

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Nov 17 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220497:42908:0[/embed] Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemDirector: David YayesRelease Date: November 18, 2016Rating: PG-13  In 1920s New York City, muggles are called "nomags," a shortening of "no magic." I mentioned this to a friend, who said that sounded more offensive than "muggle." I disagreed. I think we're desensitized to the word muggle, but it sounds pretty mean to me. (Not mudblood level, obviously (that one's awful).)  In 1920s New York City, the President of America's magic society is a woman, which means that this fanciful version of 1920s America is more progressive than actual 2016 America (though this wasn't 2016 New York City's fault). In fact, there are a lot of females in power in 1920s magic world. To some degree, it feels like the least realistic thing about the entire film. But that's neither here nor there. In 1920s New York City, Newt Scamander (a very socially awkward Eddie Redmayne) causes mayhem. He carries with him a suitcase. In the suitcase is a whole host of fantastic beasts. Unfortunately, some of them escape. He has to find them. Ultimately, that isn't what the movie is about. It's simply a way to get him entangled with the other zany characters, primarily two of them: Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a nomag who doesn't get Men In Black mind-zapped and so is forced along on a wild adventure featuring magic and things, and Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an ex-Auror who brings in Mr. Scamander for causing problems (mostly by not Men In Black mind-zapping Mr. Kowalski). Some others are involved in various forms.  Also, there's Colin Farrell AKA Percival Graves AKA a guy who can do magic with just his hand. Someone told me Voldemort could also do that (I know house elves can), but I don't remember that. I just remember him using his wand. Then again, Graves also uses his wand. And I have some questions. - Why can he magic without a wand, and why does no one seem impressed by that ability?- Why does he use a wand sometimes even though he doesn't need one?- Is it because he's dueling, and he can only deflect magic with a wand? - Someone just shouted "Take away his wand." Why? Would that impact him in any meaningful way? I have come to believe (in large part thanks to Film Crit Hulk) that if you only question something after the fact, then it doesn't ultimately matter. Many great films fall apart under close inspection, but in the moment, you're too caught up to notice or care. And so the movie is successful. On the other hand, if you think about the problems, that mean the film has failed to either keep my interest enough for me to not think about it, hide it well enough behind some sort of pseudo-logic that can keep me going for two hours, or both. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a little bit of both. I was constantly asking questions throughout the film (in my head, I'm not a monster), and precisely none of them were answered. I'm not going to list them all here for you, but many of them boil down to, "Wait, so how does that work?" Nowhere is this more problematic than with the film's actual conflict: An Obscurious (sp?) is wreaking havoc on the city. Who is it? How can they stop it? New Scamander might know the latter but no one knows the former. It's probably related to the creepy anti-witch cult that the film keeps cutting back to, because that's the only reason we would be spending so much time with them. Anyways, once things are revealed and we see the Obscurious at work, the whole thing kind of falls apart. Someone might be able to explain this using overly technical language that will confuse me into thinking maybe it made sense, and others will say that it doesn't matter, this is for children, and I should stop being such a spoilsport... but really, I have so many questions relating to literally everything about it, and none of the answers I come up with are satisfying. The Harry Potter books have issues, but they're satisfying. They scratch an itch and do what you want them to do. Much of the time, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does too. Jacob Kowalski, for example, is a great character, and pretty much every scene with him in it was at least good if not great. I dunno why I liked him so much, but he's probably my favorite character in any Harry Potter story. Maybe it's because he's a Nomag and I liked seeing how a non-magical person really reacts to all of the craziness? I dunno. He's great. The actors in general are quite good. No more weird, wooden performances from children who were chosen before anyone knew if they could actually act. The dialogue, written by J.K. Rowling herself, is also fine. Many of my friends who did read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child complained that the dialogue was clearly not written by Rowling, so I expect they will enjoy this more. The pacing is off, and the movie is about 20 minutes too long, but those 20 minutes of meh are scattered throughout and not in one big, boring chunk. And though some moments may drag, some genuinely excite. There are a couple of thrilling action sequences (even if they're a bit contrived), and there are some genuinely inventive things, like some of the weirder Fantastic Beasts. I liked seeing the expansion of Harry Potter. I'm glad that this isn't another Harry Potter story. I like the idea of a series of spin-offs for the same reason I'm excited about all of the Star Wars Stories that aren't numbered episodes. And for all of my issues with this first installment, there are definitely things to like, and the good outweighs the bad. If you can see past the massive gaps in logic and just say "The wizard did it" and be content with that, you may very well love Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If you thought Harry Potter was dumb, this sure as hell won't change your mind. But if you're a fan (even a lapsed one), you should most certainly check it out.
Fantastic Beasts Review photo
I have some questions
On my right wrist is a scar given to me by the seventh Harry Potter book. I was abroad at the time, at a language school. The book had just launched, and my Turkish roomate (not my French or Croatian ones) got a copy. I asked...


Review: Manchester by the Sea

Nov 17 // 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. Frozen 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. All of the funny moments 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: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Nov 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221033:43193:0[/embed] Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkDirector: Ang LeeRating: RRelease Date: November 11, 2017 You may recall complaints about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey being shown in HFR 3D. Audiences said it looked strange and artificial, which is why neither of the two sequels had HFR screenings. That was just at 48 frames per second. With Billy Lynn, more frames per second doesn't translate into greater verisimilitude. Instead the high frame rate tends to make the movie look amateurish and fake. This is experimental technology, and only two theaters in the United States are equipped with the projectors to properly show the HFR version of Billy Lynn. The full experience is underwhelming on the whole with a few exceptions. What does HFR look like? Picture an HD cooking show shot with a consumer-grade digital video camera. Or maybe a local news broadcast viewed on an LCD viewfinder. Movements tend to look overly smooth. In some shots, the figures in the foreground look like they were inserted via green screen. In an early graveyard scene, it felt as if Lee was laying Colorform decals of his actors onto a flat background. 3D never looked so artificial. Other scenes felt like HD versions of cut scenes from 90s video games. I was reminded how expensive things can often be so tacky. It doesn't help that the cinematography lacks life. The film is built out of mechanical, workmanlike medium shots, flat close-ups, and pristine tracking shots. Lee continually returns to the POV of Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), like a riff on the symmetrical POV dialogue scenes in an Ozu film. There's a problem. Since Billy's eyeline is not trained at the viewer like the people he's speaking to, the Ozu effect is lost from inconsistency. It's one of many curious choices with the overall way the film was shot. The movie doesn't look clinical but synthetic. In terms of camera placement and movement, the movie almost feels as if it was shot by a first-time cinematographer. In fact, the film was lensed by John Toll, whose credits include The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous, and Cloud Atlas. High frame rates may make amateurs of pros. Occasionally the HFR works well. When Bravo Company takes the field before the game starts and throws some footballs around, the vast length of the field is captured thanks to depth of the tableau. But it's also a tech-demo shot ("Let me show you what this baby can really do!"). The battle scene and halftime show--the sole justification for the technology--are pretty spectacular as well, though more the Iraq scenes than the halftime show. At the Dallas Cowboys game, the troops are meant to share the stage with Destiny's Child. Destiny's Child body doubles, to be more precise. Just when the halftime show seemed like something real, the blatant fake-Beyonce took me right out of the scene. So much of Billy Lynn is about small character moments rather than big spectacle, which makes the decision for HFR filmmaking somewhat baffling. Billy flirts with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) after a press conference. It's a medium shot with a dark curtain as the background. The distracting look of the frame rate and the lack of 3D depth in the shot called attention to the artifice of the scene and the superfluous use of this technology to tell this story. It would be a bad shot and a poorly blocked scene in 2D, but in glorious 4K 3D the banality of the shot is much more apparent. I've spent all of this time complaining about the look of the film that I haven't even gotten to the scenes that work. That ought to say something. Lee's got a good lead in Alwyn, who carries the imperfect movie on his back. He has the all-American look coupled with vulnerable eyes. He's a kid always at the verge of breaking, trying to tamp down the unspeakable hurts. Vin Diesel is the late philosopher warrior of Bravo Company, essentially playing Vin Diesel. Kristen Stewart makes a solid impression in her brief supporting role as Billy's anti-war sister Kathryn. A tense Lynn family dinner scene feels more real than the stadium stuff. Garrett Hedlund makes the most of his screen time as the driven head of Bravo Company, a strong center that orients the group. All of the boys in Bravo have an easy camaraderie, though some of it's built on the same old war movie cliches. This may be just a roundabout way of saying the real immersive material in a movie has nothing to do with 3D or frame rates or spectacle and everything to do with the emotional content. I think about an alternate universe in which Billy Lynn was shot in the same way as The Ice Storm or Brokeback Mountain (and with no fake-Beyonce). I wonder how much more moved I would have been. I wonder what kind of movie this would be. As it is, there's a good movie in Billy Lynn that's constantly struggling to break out and breathe. Witness in 120 frames per second and 4K 3D the folly of mismatched form and content. It's ironic yet fitting that Billy Lynn's technology gets in the way of what works in the film. This is a movie about people using troops as a means to an end--they're good for ratings, they're good as a recruitment tool, they put butts in seats, they're fantasy figures, they can angle for a movie deal (a cloying, winky, meta element to the film that's too on the nose). It's also a movie about disregarding our troops as people. Lee had good intentions, but is feels like the tragedy of these heroes is just an excuse to play with some new cinematic toys.
Review: Billy Lynn's photo
High frame rate, low level execution
I can say this about Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee and his cast have their hearts in the right place. Adapted from Ben Fountain's novel of the same name, the film is constantly trying to remind its viewers about th...

DOC NYC Review: 13TH

Nov 10 // 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.
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: Elle

Nov 10 // 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. Michèle'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. Michèle 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. Michèle'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 Michèle 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 Michèle narrowing down the suspects in her life while her attacker stalks and harasses her. As this thriller plays out, there's a family dramedy: Michèle'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 Michèle'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 Michèle'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 Michèle 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, Michèle seems to invite victimization. There's a harrowing scene in which Michèle 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 Michèle feels about what's happened. Elle avoids exploring the emotional impact of rape. Instead the film tries to offer Michèle'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 Michèle'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. Michèle 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 Michèle'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.
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...

DOC NYC Review: Weiner

Nov 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220984:43191:0[/embed] WeinerDirectors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse SteinbergRating: RRelease Date: May 20, 2016 Many have lamented that the 2016 election lacks big ideas. Where's the policy debate? Where's the climate change discussion? Where's the substance? Given, it's difficult to have any discussion of weight when one of the two major candidates knows less about governance than a 6th grader, but let's just entertain the idea that our public discourse has eroded. The public says it wants policy, but maybe it just wants a show. A reality show, no less. That's one of the underlying suggestions of Weiner. I remember learning more about sex from the Monica Lewinsky scandal on TV than from my folks--I even recall a debate on whether or not oral sex was sex per se on the second season of MTV's The Real World. Over the last 12 years, Donald Trump parlayed his reality TV stardom into a political run; and over the last eight years, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin parlayed her political stardom into a reality TV gig. In my previous piece on Weiner (which should be considered part one of this review), I mentioned there were moments in the film that reminded me of the faux-doc sitcom The Office. America's made a mockumentary out of politics, and I don't see that changing, or at least I don't know what the change will be. And there I go, clutching my pearls, telling the kids to get off my lawn, implicitly pining for some sort of high-minded policy debate. And yet here I am, writing about this great political documentary which captures the zeitgeist of our political moment precisely because it's about the spectacle of a disgraced man's downfall rather than the strengths and weaknesses of his political platform. The spectacle is more dazzling; or, to use that wretched overused word, the optics are more captivating. To put it another way, who wants to talk about the middle class and the working class--or, hell, Standing Rock--when we have blow jobs and cum on blue dresses and sexting and dick pics and pussy grabbing instead? Thinking about Weiner again (what a phrase), I feel even worse for Huma Abedin. She's suffered yet another indignity because of her husband. Regardless how you feel about their politics, Huma and Hillary Clinton have a lot in common when it comes to the men in their lives, which probably explains their close bond. Huma carries herself through the film with a semi-translucent veneer of grace that can't mask the extreme mortification and anger at her awful fucking husband. Meanwhile, Weiner smiles and laughs and grandstands, all the while grinning. He looks like the Epic Troll Face guy. It's armchair psychology at its worst, but he must get off on the attention. That would explain the recurring exhibitionism, and his most recent public disgrace. In my first piece on Weiner, I mentioned a kind of admiration for the guy given his persistence. Weiner tried, he failed, he tried again, and failed again. Worstward, ho! But given these latest allegations, the admiration vanishes. Some people are Sisyphus. Abedin, for instance. I compared her to Buster Keaton in the previous piece, and on she goes, walking, running, continuing despite the chaotic world around her; the straightwoman in a slapstick, dick pic world. Other people, like Anthony Weiner, are less like Sisyphus and are really just very compelling persistent assholes. Very compelling persistent assholes make for great television, and great films, too. Apparently, they also make for nightmarish presidential elections.
Review: Weiner photo
The rise and fall and rise and fall...
Weiner is an appropriate film to review on Election Day, and not just because it's one of the best political documentaries of the last 10 years. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner potentially put the 2016 election in jeopardy ...

Review: Pokemon: The First Movie

Nov 03 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221011:43182:0[/embed] Pokemon: The First MovieDirectors: Kunihiko Yuyama and Michael HaigneyRating: GRelease Date: November 6, 1999 (USA); November 1, 2016 (special event re-release) When a group of scientists sucessfully clone an ancient pokemon known as Mew, the resulting super pokemon breaks loose and wreaks havoc. The super clone, Mewtwo (Philip Bartlett), now in search of a purpose, invites the strongest pokemon trainers to a mysterious island to battle him. Ash Ketchum (Veronica Taylor), together with his friends Misty (Rachael Lillis), Brock (Eric Stuart), and Pikachu, meet Mewtwo's challenge and soon figure out there's more to this pokemon than they realized.  First things first, The First Movie is incredibly brisk. Choosing not to overstay its welcome (if you don't include the Pikachu's Island Adventure short), it instead tightly focuses on developing its central antagonist. Mewtwo themself is well defined with a clear existential crisis (as they try to clear the clouds of their mind, not so subtly represented by the storm they whip up with their powers), and it's a greater deal of characterization than anyone else gets in the film. It's such a well put together back story, in fact, it's surprising The First Movie is able to explore as much thematic territory as it does. It ends up questioning the philosophy behind the Pokémon series in full as it briefly challenges the "fighting vs. battling" argument within the Poké world. The film doesn't get as deep as I would've hoped, as the argument gives way to a hokey climax, but this amount of self-awareness is impressive for a children's film.  The laser focus on Mewtwo may help the film's pace within its short run time (as it rarely goes on tangents), but it's hard to care about anyone else involved with the plot since they fail to get the same attention. Since the film assumes the audience has working knowledge of the Pokémon TV series, and it's a fair assumption given the branding, Ash and his friends (along with Team Rocket, introduced into the plot in a Rosencrantz/Gildenstern, outsider looking in fashion) don't really have a reason to be involved. Their usual schtick of wandering into a plot in motion may work for a TV series needing a fresh story every week, but it falls flat here. Along with introducing seemingly important ancillary characters (like the kidnapped Nurse Joy or the random lady who knows storms or something) only to serve no purpose, The First Movie fails to turn Ash into a compelling protagonist.  With no real personality of his own, Ash instead becomes a moral mouthpiece. His base love for his pokemon is exaggerated into a love for everything and grand declarations of peace. It's a far cry from an Ash who, just minutes before, was willing to pit his pokemon against Mewtwo. The First Movie betrays its emotional themes with its own world, really. It's greater desire to stop senseless violence goes against everything Pokémon is known for. So it's okay to use your pokemon to fight when they use their abilities? Since there's never a clear difference between how Mewtwo forces a fight and how trainers could force a fight, the overall moral is clouded. Rather than focus on, say, the friendship between trainers and their pokes (thus enhancing its narrative overall), the film goes with a generic message. It almost feels like a cop out.  But in the end, Pokémon: The First Movie makes up for its shortcomings with pure entertainment value. Once you get passed the cheesy dialogue (complete with puns and jokes that didn't age well in the slightest) and the murky themes (which I give the film credit for attempting), there are plenty of rewards in store. A well written antagonist, slick animation, and a score that includes the ironically lovable "Brother Against Brother" song.  No matter what score I put here, it literally doesn't matter. You love it, you hate it, you already had an opinion 18 years in the making. But it was great to confirm that I liked a good thing back then, instead of figuring out yet another product from my childhood was hot garbage. My critic brain may settle on "Good," but my nostalgic one adds about 30 points. 
Pokemon The First Movie photo
"...and we succeeded"
One weekend, too many years ago, I spent a night over at my aunt's place. She didn't have cable, but she had a VCR. Which meant I could watch any movie I brought with me when I was bored of doing dumb kid stuff. Not thinking ...

Review: Peter and the Farm

Nov 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220390:43183:0[/embed] Peter and the FarmDirector: Tony StoneRelease Date: November 4, 2016 (limited)Rating: NR There's an old idea that the health of a king would be reflected in the state of his kingdom, and that when a king's reign is in decline, so too the kingdom would fall to ruin. Dunning constantly mentions how this farm he bought in the 1960s isn't what it used to be, and how things are falling apart. He recalls glory days with his family (who are no longer present), and even shares a story about conceiving one of his kids while trying to shoot varmints. Yet the planks are rotting and the paint is peeling, and Dunning's lonely and depressed and an alcoholic. Stone catches the high and lows of this life in solitude as the seasons pass, showing concern for Dunning as a person as well as the subject for a documentary. It's a tough balance, and I sometimes wonder how documentary filmmakers manage it. Dunning's a salty guy, and he sometimes rags on city-boy Stone and his crew from New York as they come up to his farm. Still, there's a sense that Dunning is hungry for the company. The crew generally tries to stay out of Dunning's way to document the life he leads, but there are moments of concern they express on camera, and it expressed my own concerns for Dunning's well-being. This might be the city-boy in me talking, but there's a sense of romance about living a sustainable life on an organic farm. Stone cuts through that, however, getting into the mud and shit and sheer dissatisfaction that are the realities of Dunning's livelihood. In one particularly fetid scene, a cow in the foreground of a shot makes a healthy bowel movement for the unflinching camera. A farm veterinarian checks if the cow's pregnant, which involves shoving his arm into the cow's rectum all the way up to the bicep. Thankfully that's just out of frame as a hail of dung scatters to the barn floor. To the camera after he's done, the vet laughs and says he's going to get some lunch. The land and the man are one in Peter and the Farm, and we have to take the high and the low as part of a whole. There's a rustic beauty to the solitude of the farm, and Dunning's recollections of his marriages and his friendships have a kind of poetry about them as well. He was an artist and a marine and into the counterculture, and now he's on a farm. That's one hell of a story. But there's always a kind of misery underlying it all, and countless regrets. For every joy there's a desire for something lost and irretrievable in the past, an acknowledgment of more work to be done, and a dark sense that the work to be done won't be worth it in the end. Dunning confesses so much on screen, and with such sincerity, it makes me wonder about what's too painful to disclose, and what kinds of equivocation might be at play. With farming there's a larger metaphor for tilling the land, taming it, enriching the soil, making it yield what we want. One of my big takeaways from Peter and the Farm is that the metaphor sounds great but mostly in theory. The actual, physical ground we work on and our own interior lives often resist the impulse to be tamed. That struggle is the stuff of stories like Peter Dunning's--shit and sundowns and the occasional moment to reflect.
Peter and the Farm Review photo
Salt of the earth
The first thing I noticed about Peter Dunning, the subject of the documentary Peter and the Farm, was his injured hand. It's gnarled and he's missing fingers, and at 68 years old he's managed to function with just a thumb and...

Review: Doctor Strange

Nov 02 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221002:43178:0[/embed] Doctor StrangeDirector: Scott DerricksonRating: PG-13Release Date: October 25, 2016 (UK); November 4, 2016 (US) There's a philosophical template to many martial arts stories: an arrogant, inherently talented person becomes an unruly disciple to wise master, trains in a martial art, confronts their weaknesses (typically the ego), and unlocks their better self through discipline and mastery. Many times the student will surpass their master through an act of invention--combining or creating fighting styles, for instance, constructing a new weapon, or some higher-level use of the imagination. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch doing his Benedict Cumberbatch shtick) starts the movie as a hotshot neurosurgeon who's fame-obsessed and failure-averse. A near-fatal car accident causes severe nerve damage to his hands. He's got the shakes now. That's the end his lucrative career. Strange hears rumors of a monastery in Nepal that may be able to heal him. He travels to the east where he gets thrown into a world of sorcery, one at war with a former student named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). Like most Marvel villains, Kaecilius is sort of a non-entity--just a bad guy doing bad guy things. Tilda Swinton plays The Ancient One, the master of the monastery who teaches Strange the ways of sorcery and opens his eyes to the world and its possibility. Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) offers an assist as a trainer, emphasizing strength and force. The only top-billed Asian actor is Benedict Wong who plays the stoic keeper of the arcane library. There's been a lot written in the last few months about the whitewashing of The Ancient One. I also foresee a lot of thinkpieces about cultural appropriation given how much of the movie feels like a kung fu film. I wasn't bothered by any of this, but everyone's mileage varies. There's enough that works in the film for me, and I think Swinton's air of otherworldliness and oddness fits with her character. When Doctor Strange is at its best, it's a fast-paced martial arts adventure that fills the screen with Escheresque imagery. Some moments have the vertiginous feel of Christopher Nolan's Inception or the finale of Interstellar, and others remind me a little of Alex Proyas' Dark City. There's an exhilirating chase through New York City streets in flux, where buildings and roads become a maddened, tilting, shifting clockwork world. When not spinning mandalas and fractals on screen, Doctor Strange recreates the blacklight psychedelia of Steve Ditko's comic book art. Director Scott Derrickson gives Doctor Strange its own visual grammar to differentiate it from the rest of the MCU. The film even finds a cool way of marrying the martial arts, the somatic components of spells, and the way magic manifests itself on screen. Unfortunately, Doctor Strange is a martial arts movie with badly shot fight scenes. The magic battles and traditional action is competent, allowing viewers to follow the actors on screen as the mirror-like gears of reality spin around them. Yet aside from one satisfying and inventive battle of astral projected forms (!), the fights are shot close up and with shaky cam, obscuring the choreography. It's a waste of Scott Adkins, who plays one of Kaecilius' goons. For all the philosophical lessons taken from Shaw Brothers movies, Doctor Strange ignores the practical lessons of quintessential Shaw Brothers directors Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung. Derrickson could have easily pulled his camera back, kept it steady, and allowed the performer's in-camera movements and rhythms to define his shots and the editing. Characters in martial arts movies communicate who they are through their fighting style, and so action filmmakers should allow their characters to describe themselves in combat. And of course there's a not-too-good romance subplot between Strange and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). It's there, it's not particularly engaging, and it's short enough. McAdams isn't given much to do, and there's not much reason to feel anything between Chrinstine and Strange. What is it about perfunctory love in movies? Does six minutes of a sketched romance really matter much? Platonic on-screen relationships are more satisfying than a forced romance, and they tend to be more dynamic. Stop trying to make romance subplots happen--it's not going to happen. Strange, The Ancient One, and Kacelius are so obsessed with time, its limits, and how it can be used. It drives their search for power. And on that note I felt like Doctor Strange could have benefited from an additional 10 minutes. (Maybe they could have shaved off some of that love stuff.) So much of this world is built up and breezed through that there's little time to breathe it in and appreciate what's there. Perhaps they wanted to keep the movie just under two hours, and yet that 10 minutes of breathing room could have opened things up a bit more. There's a major action sequence before the film's finale that occurs off-camera, which was a wasted opportunity for a classic martial arts set piece. Then again, given how they filmed the rest of the fight scenes, maybe it's for the best. There's a surprisingly good breather in the film between The Ancient One and Strange. The Ancient One ruminates as Strange listens, and the world around them achieves a gorgeous stillness. It's an unexpectedly thoughtful moment in the movie, thematically tied to characters and the overarching story and yet its own thing. Punching robots is fine, I guess, but I wouldn't mind more movies like Doctor Strange in the MCU. Good tea.
Review: Doctor Strange photo
Whoa--I know magic fu!
My favorite movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far have been the ones that don't feel like standard-issue superhero movies. The Avengers was basic, and Avengers: Age of Ultron was a bigger, dumber, basic-er redux of t...

Review: Gimme Danger

Oct 27 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220909:43126:0[/embed] Gimme DangerDirector: Jim JarmuschRelease Date: October 28, 2016Rating:  R 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.
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...

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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...

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...

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...

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...


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