Latest Features

11 Films to Watch After Seeing ‘Good Time’

Written by Tony Hinds, August 14, 2017 at 9:11 am 

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In their feature films, directors Josh and Ben Safdie have always walked a fine line between fact and fiction. Not quite documentaries and not quite traditional narratives, their work takes on an air of alarming spontaneity, threatening to jump off the screen at you. Between Daddy Longlegs and Heaven Knows What, the Safdies captured a gorgeously grainy snapshot of their home city of New York, both painfully truthful and deeply impacting.

Their latest, Good Time, returns to New York City, this time bringing a pulp edge to their naturalistic aesthetic. After a botched bank robbery lands his brother Nick (Ben Safdie) in jail, Constantine (Robert Pattinson) is forced out of Queens into the city to bring his brother home, at any cost.

Our review describes Good Time as “in parts a heist movie (iconic masks included) and a chase movie, but not an homage in any sense — more an evolution, like a 21st-century fast-food hybrid that mixes trash television and drug culture with Day-Glo-splattered night-time cinematography and throbbing synthesizers, thanks to a standout score from Oneohtrix Point Never.”

To honor the occasion, we’ve assembled eleven fantastic films to check out before or after seeing Good Time. Check out the list below and feel free to suggest your own recommendations in the comments.

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)

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While Malik is serving six years for assaulting a police officer, he admits to another inmate that he can’t read. The inmate suggests learning while in prison: “The idea is to get out of here a little smarter.” Our brutal, assembly-line prison system irrevocably transforms people, altering their lives in unimaginable ways, with true rehabilitation the least traveled route in many cases. Raised in a Youth Center, Malik’s institutionalized life only takes shape after he’s inducted into a Corsican prison gang, giving him strength and purpose for the first time. Comparable to Martin Scorsese’s essential Goodfellas, A Prophet follows a lowly pawn used and abused by a vast criminal organization, until he learns how to use them for his own gain.

After Hours (Martin Scorsese)

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An unsuccessful first-date morphs into a frenzied, Kafka-esque race for survival as one New Yorker attempts to accomplish the impossible: getting home from SoHo after a long night. Taunting twists of fate push our hero deeper into the city, endowing the film’s title with an otherworldly mood; after hours, the landscape becomes a hellish nocturnal mind-game. Boasting a stunning cast, including Teri Garr, Rosanna Arquette and John Heard, After Hours is anchored by a career-best performance from Griffin Dunne. Director Martin Scorsese (who won Best Director prize at Cannes for the film) renders every sequence simultaneously hysterically funny and jarringly nerve-shredding, creating a delirious exploration of ‘80s urban schadenfreude.

Blast of Silence (Allen Baron)

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A Cleveland hitman, Frankie Bono, finds himself in New York City for Christmas, tasked with killing a mid-level mobster. He hears carolers singing “Silent Night” as the voice in his head poetically urges him on, like a co-dependent Raymond Chandler, to complete this unpleasant job. As the narration informs us, Bono is a loner, but after running into an old friend, he finds unexpected warmth in the cold city, if only for a short time. Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence captures a period snapshot of New York with the same faded glow as John Cassavettes’s Shadows, released only a year before. Shot on a meager budget of $20,000, the incredibly resonance of Baron’s film is a testament to Meyer Kupferman’s thrilling jazz score and Waldo Salt’s riveting narration, voiced by an uncredited Lionel Stander.

Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)

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In the wake of his tenure in the Twilight saga, Robert Pattinson could have followed in the footsteps of so many young actors, chasing blockbusters. Instead, he took to chasing great filmmakers, such as David Cronenberg. Pattinson’s role in the adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis hums with beautifully precise humor, endowed by director Cronenberg’s careful attention to detail. The protagonist’s sleek white limo is gradually reduced from its ivory perfection to a graffiti covered mess. The film’s overall look mirrors that of the limo: the story begins in Packer’s world, a gorgeous place where everything is sleek, new and top of the line, and ends in dank, grungy squalor. While bearing none of Cronenberg’s body-horror visual hallmarks, Cosmopolis is a chillingly calculated film, and amongst the director’s most mature works.

Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa)

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Volatility lies at the center of Drunken Angel. Two volatile personalities clash: equally stubborn and frustrated men who demand the world follow by their rules. A shamed doctor, working in squalor, gives a yakuza boss a troubling diagnosis. The hardened criminal is deeply shaken, drinking his worries away against the doctor’s orders. While the doctor admonishes him for his drunkenness, he himself dilutes rubbing alcohol with water, hiding his own alcoholism as best he can. Akira Kurosawa’s mournful and tender film depicts a world reeling in the aftermath of the war, attempting to carry on without any sign of hope. These lost and broken souls cannot redeem themselves in such a poisonous world, but a drunken angel sees a glimmer of hope for the next generation, as faint as that light may be.

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‘Melvin and Howard’ and the Good Samaritan Nature of Jonathan Demme

Written by Willow Maclay, August 13, 2017 at 10:15 am 

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Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) is a gambler of sorts, but that is intrinsic to the life of a lower-middle class American. He lives in a trailer, has an estranged wife (Mary Steenburgen, in an Oscar-winning performance), and drives a beaten-up truck whose paint job can only be described as “dirt on rust.” He’s the living epitome of a country music song where a man works 9 to 5 every day only to come home and scratch off lottery tickets in the dream of living in a more prosperous genre of music. Melvin is a bit of a singer as well, and prides himself on his Christmas jingle that he’s sure is going to be a hit someday, cutely titled “Santa’s Souped-up Sleigh.” Melvin debuts the song to a haggard crypt-keeper of a man (Jason Robards) he picked up off the road. Melvin infectiously sings the song, insisting that this tattered old man join in on the fun and he eventually wins him over. The magic of Christmas, one could suppose. That man would later be revealed as none other than eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and Melvin’s act of kindness, both in carrying a conversation with the man and bringing him to Las Vegas, bore the seeds of Hughes as he includes a bad luck-stricken Melvin in his last will and testament. But who could ever believe Howard Hughes would’ve made time for someone as average as Melvin?

Melvin Dummar is a Rosetta Stone figure for Jonathan Demme’s conception of America. There are eccentric characters spread throughout his filmography, like the mafia goons in Married to the Mob, but for the most part Demme was interested in real salt of the earth people. He has a fondness for characters who have slipped through the cracks to one degree or another, like the politically conservative failed rocker mom, Ricki (Meryl Streep), or Melanie Griffith as a spontaneous, frenzied, fashion forward woman who can’t stand still, because she’s running from her past. Demme’s best films are about women, but all of his films are about America. Melvin Dummar is a dreamer, someone who believes a better life is attainable because he’s a good person. Demme’s history of being a Good Samaritan and something of a cinematic saint bring to light a kind of self-reflexive criticism where Dummar can be seen as a stand in for Demme. He’s man with music in his bones and a kind-hearted streak that outweighs both his intelligence and his bank account. He’s the kind of guy who would get chewed up and spit out in corporate America, but corporate America is for the birds. The soul of the country, at its best, is in people living their life to the fullest, chasing their dreams or living them.

The inherent tragedy of it all is that a chase is all Melvin Dummar’s story ever is, and he has to fight hard to prove he knew Howard Hughes. It all circles back to the fact that earlier in the film Melvin and his first wife Lynda lucked their way into being a game show, but blew all the money before they could even blink. The futility in the economics of the American middle class is that when gifted the chance to shovel yourself out of the shit, life has a way of dumping it right back on top of you. That this doesn’t seem to break Melvin Dummar speaks greatly of his character and his guile towards setting an example for his family that he can be more than a dreamer, but someone of substance. Melvin eventually loses his wife when he proves he couldn’t become the sort of man she expected. He remains a compulsive spender with a sympathetic demeanor. It’s hard to hate Melvin Dummar even when he lets you down. He has a puppy dog quality that resists classifying him with contempt when he frustrates and fails to really move forward. He’s stunted in a way, but more so because of his inhibitions toward a better life overpowering his day-to-day state.

The greatest strength of Melvin and Howard is that despite the tragedy of Melvin Dummar’s almost-riches, the film sustains a warm, doughy quality that casts these unfortunate prisoners of America’s ruthless capitalism as sympathetic through their imagination. The grass may not actually be greener on the other side, but in Demme’s America, one doesn’t need to feel ashamed for imagining what it might be like after all.

Melvin and Howard is playing at BAMCinematek on August 13 as part of their series Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold.

‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and the Intuitive Feminism of Jonathan Demme

Written by Willow Maclay, August 11, 2017 at 4:59 pm 

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Jodie Foster once remarked, “My favorite female director is Jonathan Demme,” which was her way of saying that Jonathan Demme understood women. Her statement runs parallel to the fact that most of Demme’s best films are about women, including The Silence of the Lambs, Rachel Getting Married, and Beloved, among others. Demme’s movies gave women the space to be complicated, daring, unlikable, and vulnerable in equal measure. His filmmaking understood the gendered dynamics at hand due to his creative process opening itself to everyone involved in the making of the film. Demme isn’t so much a controlling auteur as much as he is a guiding hand for the narratives that are born out of a collaborative process. His films have certain hallmarks such as musical, rhythmic editing and an expansiveness that bends beyond the central narrative and — to paraphrase an idea from Pauline Kael — into characters who may appear for only a moment but are presented with such body language and distinctiveness that their own movie is likely as just as interesting as that of Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) or Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) or any of his main characters. The Silence of the Lambs, by far Demme’s most popular and enduring film, carries all those hallmarks and earns its place as one of the great American films by inundating itself with a thematic density that moves far beyond usual genre fare into something far more iconic and intellectually explosive.

Clarice Starling is a woman in a man’s world. We all are to a degree, but Clarice even more so, due to her FBI training. She’s immediately shown hopping into an elevator crowded by men who dwarf her in size and wear red to her gray. She’s an outcast among a sea of testosterone and has to prove herself doubly so to make it in this line of work. One of the central themes of The Silence of the Lambs is survival in the face of patriarchy’s worst evils. The film uses a structure which moves up the mid-Atlantic seaboard through states like West Virginia until moving inland to finally confront serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Her various tests along the way play out like a madhouse of twisted shock and horror with the investigation leading her further down a rabbit hole into hell. There’s the underground prison of Lecter’s mental institute where Clarice has a glob of semen hurled at her, the old storage locker where fog gives way to mannequins which give way to a dead body, and then there’s Bill’s seamstress playhouse where swastikas can be seen on the walls and windows are exchanged for views of dirt before finally coming upon the girl in the well. The Silence of the Lambs is essentially about one woman trying to save another woman and the lengths she will go to push herself along the way to be the best FBI agent she can possibly be even with society at large pressing down on her at all times due to her gender.

The Silence of the Lambs feminism is tied to its narrative choices, but the density of its feminist content can also be traced to the cinematic form of longtime Demme collaborator Tak Fujimoto and the brilliance of the extreme close-up. The synchronization of Starling with viewers is key to the success of Lambs and this is in part achieved through the first impression of her superior officer Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). In the close-up there are slight differences between how we are to perceive these characters. Crawford is framed from a place of aggressive directness with the camera’s point of view looking up slightly at his point-blank stare. Clarice, by comparison, speaks to Crawford with a tilt of her head, oftentimes looking off to the side as she speaks. It’s a sly comment on domination. Clarice is conflicted with Jack, seeing him as a leading officer who can advance her career, but also as a father figure. There’s some intimidation with how we are to perceive Jack Crawford, due to the preceding first-person establishing scenes involving Clarice running through the woods near FBI headquarters at Quantico and later entering an elevator surrounded by men. We’re already seeing through her eyes and walking in her shoes. This becomes near paralyzing when Hannibal Lecter is introduced later. Foster and Hopkins are brilliant in their back and forth interrogations of each other and, even with what is essentially prolonged shot reverse shot, a rhythm is created and a dynamic quality to the image is deepened through our relationship with Clarice Starling. Where Crawford was framed with the intentions of creating some level of intimidation, Lecter is framed through outright fear, pinning Hopkins face to the frame so that it fills out the image entirely many times. His deadening eyes and serpent’s tongue offer a come hither seductiveness that Clarice cannot avoid. She gets swept up in Hannibal Lecter because he’s this romantic, Luciferian figure whose wrath could unsettle the fragile relationship Starling carries with the man. Starling needs Lecter to find Buffalo Bill due to Lecter psychoanalyzing Bill years ago, but Lecter doesn’t offer easy answers. He plays games, which stroke his proverbial intellectual phallus and blackmails through half-truths until he gets what he wants. Starling is smart enough to play ball, but Lecter’s presence remains overwhelming.

These scenes with Lecter work to a brilliant degree in unleashing a wave of vulnerability in Starling and probe viewers to consider what it must be like to stand face to face with a man capable of such evil. In order to be a woman in this world you eventually have to reconcile your vulnerability. You can fight back, but you are disproportionately targeted by sexual predators, murderers, and others. It could be the creeping feeling you have when someone follows too closely on a street or someone knocks on your door in the witch’s hours of the morning. Every woman is familiar with the feeling of danger. It languishes as this background noise that can escalate if you suddenly find yourself in a situation where you’re overwhelmed or threatened. There’s an aching fragility that rests within women, but ironically we are made stronger by confronting this knowledge and carrying on regardless. Clarice Starling is an ideal figure for this idea as she’s constantly surrounded by women who have been cut up, ripped apart, and have no voice now that they rest on an autopsy booth, and yet still she persists in the hope of keeping other women from joining the ranks of those gone too soon. This, in turn, makes her heroic and the fact that she too skirts death — with an acknowledgement through the way that she’s framed and outnumbered by men in the image — amplifies her vulnerability and our concern for her. Demme and Fujimoto capture that feeling with pinpoint accuracy and stark realism.

If Clarice Starling is to face all the evil of a patriarchal world then the characterization of Buffalo Bill complicates and endangers the film. Bill is coded as a transsexual, but in the text of the film Clarice and Lecter toss this aside with a cute, but rather inaccurate description of transgender people as “docile and non-violent.” Tell that to the cops at Stonewall. Bill has asked for sex reassignment surgery, but has been denied by many doctors for not qualifying under their guidelines, which in turn is a rather nimble way of discussing the stigma within the medical community of transgender bodies and medically necessary treatment. In the rather famous tucking sequence set to the song “Goodbye Horses,” Bill’s body is framed as something monstrous, crossing the line between femininity and masculinity despite being in alignment with true-to-life transgender bodies to a degree. Bill prances and whispers before we see his Rocky Horror lips in close up utter the morbidly hilarious line, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.” It’s altogether shocking, like opening the apartment door in Blue Velvet and entering into territory that we were never supposed to see. If Bill is a trans woman then The Silence of the Lambs feminist intentions are damned to a degree, but there’s something within the characterization of Bill that strikes me as sympathetic rather than truly vile. He is very obviously a monster, but he has looked for help in the only way he knew how to by seeking psychiatric counseling and gendered medical transition before being denied for both. Was he driven towards these actions by society’s misunderstanding of transgender bodies or was he always evil? The film never comes to a definitive conclusion on these questions. Bill is an enigma that I’ve never quite been able to figure out. He’s a curiosity with some level of hidden depth among all the bloodshed (which is only ever implied, not shown). He’s akin to Anthony Perkins in Psycho with his deep-seated secrets and confused reactionary violence rather than the blanket evil of most serial killer examinations in cinema.

Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, said in an interview with Playboy that she “objected to the evisceration of the female body and that The Silence of the Lambs was absolutely outrageous.” This runs parallel to musician and activist Kathleen Hannah condemning the dead girl trope in the song “Fuck Twin Peaks.” The question I want to ask is how do we talk about these horrific gendered crimes without showing the evil of the world? Can we have a conversation about the reality of women’s bodies and their disposability in the real world without confronting the topic head on? I don’t believe we can, and cinema offers this extending hand by way of populist entertainment to bring these topics out in the open. The Silence of the Lambs is not a documentary, but rather a story that stems from an exaggerated version of our own terrible reality. Clarice Starling is a defining character of her generation for her guile, strength and intelligence in the face of inhumane problems, but more so than an archetype or a hero, she’s an incredibly interesting woman — one of many in the filmography of Jonathan Demme. The Silence of the Lambs’s longevity is in the depths of the mystery and horror that lies in its murky underworld, but the heart of the film is in the brilliance of Clarice Starling. A woman for the ages.

The Silence of the Lambs is playing at BAMCinematek on August 12 as part of their series Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold.

Metrograph’s ‘On Fire Island’ Brings a Queer Utopia to Manhattan

Written by Joshua Encinias, August 10, 2017 at 6:24 pm 

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Thanks be to the generous souls on Letterboxd who run the“Not Andrew Sarris” and “Not Dave Kehr” accounts with their thoughtful capsule reviews. When logging my viewing for Metrograph’s upcoming series, On Fire Island, I found reviews for Andy Warhol and Chuck Wein’s My Hustler, Frank Perry’s Last Summer, and Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances by the aforementioned critics. Stan Lopresto’s Sticks and Stones and Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand (also screening in the series) are noticeably missing professional critiques. Looking further, Last Summer is the only film of the five to receive a fair shake from a robust number of film critics and the write-ups for My Hustler and Parting Glances are more first impressions than researched arguments.

On Fire Island is programmed by Michael Lieberman, head of publicity at Metrograph, and picks up the critical slack with programming-as-criticism. The series is a full-bodied experience of the island’s myths and realities: it’s “the setting of a filthy two-act play, the backdrop of a cruel coming of age story, an environment for sexual discovery, and a place of contemplation for a man dying of AIDS.” In other words, Queer Utopia. But instead of being a place to get away from it all (Kokomo for gays), Fire Island is depicted as a place to get your jollies and engage your personality.

In Last Summer, Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison) are two WASP-y, blonde, beach babes in a homosocial friendship and looking for fun. They find it in Sandy (Barbara Hershey), another WASP spending the summer with her mother on the island. Sandy stakes leadership over the unholy trio when she declares her right to kill a bird the three rehabilitated because she’s the “absolute ruler.” One wonders if she’s talking to the bird or the boys because her declaration of abortive powers keep the boys in check. When Rhoda (Catherine Burns), writer of the hilariously titled high school column “Feelings” tries to enter the pack, Sandy and the boys gruesomely exploit her naïvete. You can’t peg everything on Sandy, though. Peter and Dan use Sandy to get to each other. They fantasize about bedding her at the same time and their lone sexual experience with Sandy is performed together.

Bill Sherwood’s only film, Parting Glances, is a surprising entry in the series because we don’t see Fire Island until the last ten minutes. The setting of the island is used in a way reminiscent of the later film, Metropolitain, which used the Hamptons (clearly, the Straight Utopia) as a place where its leads come to grips with reality. In both films, it takes leaving New York City to figure out their feelings.

Parting Glances features a less shitty pair of WASPs, this time a gay couple living through the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s. Robert (John Bolger) and Michael (Richard Ganoung) spend Robert’s last 24 hours in Manhattan before a two-year assignment in Africa fucking and fighting. Their delectable diction make their sad parting a delight to watch. But the only word that doesn’t pass anyone’s lips is AIDS. Nick (Steve Buscemi) is grungier than the pair, which Robert blames for his contracting the virus – a virtual death sentence during production and after (the plague claimed Bill Sherwood’s life in 1990). Michael previously dated Nick and feels kinship, if not outright brotherhood, with him. Robert takes cues from his boss Cecil (Patrick Tull), who is living “down low.” He thinks leaving Michael and New York behind for a few years will shield him the trauma of AIDS in his community. The film’s second act deals entirely with Robert and Michael’s friends in a colorful and enriching going away party for Robert. The film ends abruptly, on Fire Island, but honors the emotional journey of our three leads.

Lieberman programmed a special series that has more depth than the total sex-romp I expected. It’s in and around and through sexual delights that many of the characters “On Fire Island” learn who they are on and off the island. These movies are no less thoughtful than what a high-profile drama like Call Me By Your Name can deliver, so it makes one wish that film writers would act more as reporter-critics when it comes to communities and lifestyles they don’t understand.

On Fire Island runs August 11 – 13 at the Metrograph.

‘Rachel Getting Married’ and the First-Person Humanism of Jonathan Demme

Written by Willow Maclay, August 10, 2017 at 8:02 am 

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Kym (Anne Hathaway) carries herself with the foresight that she is damned. She takes a drag from her ever-present cigarette as she tries to compose herself before the arrival of her family, who are on their way to pick her up from rehab. Her clothes and body language, however, tell a different story. She wears a ratty emerald green coat at all times — a coat that appears a size too large as it hangs listlessly on her frail body. Kym has a perpetual downward glance that can only be achieved through shame and internalized self-hatred. Kym bears her scars for the world to see and, despite her best efforts, she cannot slip away from the glances of everyone around her who can obviously see that she is damaged in a fundamental way. She hasn’t seen much of her family over the past few years, but she’s clean now, going on nine months. Her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married and with this family reunion comes the opening of scars for Kym and everyone else in attendance. Everyone knows Kym’s past and, like always with tragedy, it hangs in the air, clouding everything in its path and suffocating the fleeting happiness of any given moment at the mention of its name.

Kym carries that grief inside of her. She knows that her mere presence is enough to offset this otherwise joyous occasion and take her family back to the day her brother Ethan died. She doesn’t know if it’s possible to be forgiven or to even move on and she struggles with the knowledge that she is to blame. She was high when she crashed that car. She’s a pariah. When she walks into a room or tries to speak the air turns cold with the possibility that she will unearth the grief they have long since tried to bury. Kym cannot be untangled from Ethan, and she has to live with that sorrow. In Rachel Getting Married, director Jonathan Demme asks viewers to empathize with that feeling. Demme knows that we sin again and again for a lifetime and in some cases we don’t want to forgive, but knowing someone fails over and over again is not easier than being that person who cannot fix themselves despite their best efforts.

Demme occasionally worked in a mode that I like to call first-person humanism, when a director latches onto the perspective of one character and most of the film is fundamentally in reaction to the main character’s actions or state of mind. He also used this to great effect in The Silence of the Lambs through the main character Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). In Rachel Getting Married, this technique is used to help viewers get under the skin of a character who is walking into a proverbial hornet’s nest of potential conflict and prolonged grief. This technique is achieved through the cinematography of Declan Quinn, whose choice to shoot the film like a “home movie” gives it an insular quality related to old VHS tapes and family secrets. We’re walking in Kym’s shoes, with the camera catching every sideways glance or snide statement from a family that loves her, but hasn’t quite forgiven her. It gives the film a paralyzing quality and furthermore only deepens Kym’s feelings of ostracization.

This is never more apparent than during the wedding rehearsal. Immediately, Kym is treated as something separate from her inner familial circle through the table arrangements and the distance with which they keep her from her sister and Sydney (Tunde Adebimpe), her husband-to-be. Everyone gives their toast and the night is going off without a hitch, but Kym is visibly uncomfortable at not being asked to speak and where they’ve placed her to sit. Hathaway plays this brilliantly with little gestures like staring down into the bottle of her glass of Seltzer or a downward glance and a long sigh at the close of another speech by someone who isn’t burdened with her trauma and shame. She gives the performance of her career when she finally does take the microphone to say something. She shakes a little, trying to unsheath herself from the anxiety of being surrounded by her family and she begins to talk about making amends. She describes herself as Shiva the Destroyer and goes into detail about who she apologized to while also trying to make light of the way she had to apologize in the first place. Her self-effacing comedy is brutally on the nose and Kym is the only person laughing. She’s bombing in front of these people, many of whom she is trying to make a first impression. Her sister grows weary of the speech and turns back to look at her husband and their heads touch gently, a beautiful moment among the Gena Rowlands-esque unraveling of her sister’s past. When Kym finally gets to the point of apologizing to her sister and congratulating her on the upcoming wedding, her speech has gone on too long and has made everyone more uncomfortable. It’s heartbreaking, because Kym was genuinely trying to apologize and turn the corner, but she picked the wrong time and place to give the speech. Her family is too nice to say anything to her right then and there, but the mood changed in the room and there are a few edits where their body language tells the story. Her mother (Debra Winger) grasps the bottom of her chin and her smile vanishes, while Kym’s father (Bill Irwin) looks on, concerned and saddened by the fact that his daughter has had to live through these experiences. Other nameless family members are confused and shake their head while smiling through gritted teeth.

The following day things seem to be entering into a state of normalcy. There’s still infighting between Kym and the family, but that is normal in and of itself. It’s charming in a way to see things settle, but that changes in a scenario involving a dishwasher inspired by a real-life event of screenwriter, Jenny Lumet. In a moment of dick swinging bravado, Sydney and his future father-in-law get into an argument about who can load the dishwasher the fastest and with the most amount of dishes. It is good, nice family fun and Kym can frequently be seen smiling among the competitiveness between the two men. When Bill begins to load the dishwasher he does so with efficiency and swagger, stopping multiple times to bask in the glory of how good he is at this meaningless household chore. He bellows “I need more dishes” and Kym complies grabbing a stack of clean plates out of the cupboard. Bill goes to put these dishes away, until he comes upon a plate of the Son he lost. The room freezes, and Bill tries to hold it together, but fails and has to leave the room. Kym is immediately crestfallen and stares blankly at the plate. Grief comes flooding back. The tragedy of their lost son cannot be excised from their lives. It’s a fact of nature that once darkness comes in, it stays. You can maintain it and minimize the damage, but it can overflow the body, mind, and soul at any moment. It’s like ripping off a scar and watching the blood seep out. Kym sits silently, blankly, a vessel that exists only to be tortured by the reminder that she did something she never meant to do and it cost her everything, and then Sydney touches her shoulder. He pulls her in a little close as if to say, “You’re okay.” He metaphorically picks her up when she’s been knocked down. It’s the nicest thing anyone has done for Kym in this movie. The beauty of Jonathan Demme is that he doesn’t merely languish in the desolation of Kym. He sees her as a flawed, damaged, at times unlikable or even bad person, but in Demme’s world, at the end of the day, she’s still treated as though she’s deserving of love despite her history.

When the day of the wedding arrives, Kym is a mess. She got into a verbal and physical altercation with her mother and attempted to hurt herself by crashing her car entire into a tree. She’s left battered and bruised and shows the damage upon her face as she’s sporting a black eye and a busted lip. She picks herself and tries to gather what little pride she has left and go home. The first thing she does is see her sister, who has been panicking about Kym’s whereabouts all night, and in a shot reverse shot their relationship is laid bare. Rachel hates Kym for all the lies she’s told and the things she’s done, but she still loves her sister at her core. Kym breaks and tears fall. Rachel brings her in for a hug before suggesting that she come inside her bedroom and get ready to be the maid of honor. What follows is a scene of pure intimate, physical beauty where Rachel gives Kym a bath. Close-ups are used to show touch as Rachel moves across her sister’s body culminating in a reveal that Kym has Ethan’s name tattooed on her shoulder. Rachel stops for a moment and then brushes her fingers across his name. All Kym ever wanted was to be forgiven; by herself or from God or anyone, even though she doesn’t feel deserving, and in some small way her sister does forgive her. For Kym things remain unbearably hard, but she has this moment of clarity where the dirt of her past is washed away in the cleansing love of the possibility of a future where she doesn’t have to carry a cross every waking hour of her life. Her sister can help carry the weight. Jonathan Demme’s greatest asset as a filmmaker is honing in on these moments and creating a cinema for everyone. A utopian cinema where we can laugh for love or find inner peace in our hearts. A place where you can wear grey among the lilac and not be damned for being broken.

Rachel Getting Married is playing at BAMCinematek on August 10 as part of their series Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold.

‘Shin Godzilla’ vs. Parliament: Man, Machine, and Monster in Hideaki Anno’s Rapid-Fire Spectacle

Written by Eli F., August 10, 2017 at 7:55 am 

shin-godzilla

Often forgotten in the six decades since the release of the original Godzilla (1954) and its 1956 American recut is the somber, even funerary tone which pervades those scenes not showcasing its titular monster. Released not even a full decade after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which concluded World War II, the film was stunningly blunt with its nuclear metaphor in ways that penetrated the veil of genre pulp: scenes of radiation victims and refugee shelters overcrowded with legions of the dead and dying still have the power to rattle contemporary audiences, never mind those for whom the real thing exists in living memory. Certain scenes likewise exude melancholy beauty that belies the film’s reputation as monster-movie camp: a mournful schoolchildren’s choir undercuts a montage of urban ruins and a major character’s fateful decision; Godzilla’s ultimate defeat is more elegiac than triumphant, as the beast gracefully disintegrates in a geyser of bubbles while the heroes look on in stony-faced silence.

Now, in the wake of 2011’s devastating tsunami disaster and the growing specter of Chinese aggression, Japanese pop auteur Hideaki Anno lends his vision to a new (“Shin“) Godzilla for a new generation. Serving as director, writer and editor, Anno draws from both the legacy of the original film and his own prior work as a pioneering creative force in Japanese anime to create a dense and monstrous disaster film, but one with a tone of guarded (if not unconditional) optimism.

In lieu of the original film’s gradual buildup, Anno’s production gets right down to business, in an introductory whirlwind of cuts showcasing every conceivable vantage point, from expansive helicopter shots to grainy handheld Youtube footage: a destructive offshore anomaly produces a lumbering reptilian behemoth that finds its way into Tokyo’s urban infrastructure, with catastrophic results. The beast, evolving continuously into bigger, stranger, grotesque forms over the course of the film, is rendered with CGI effects likely to be underwhelming to an audience used to Hollywood-sized budgets, yet the inspired art design — a contribution from several of Anno’s anime-veteran colleagues — goes a great way to restoring the fleshy, luminescent creature to a place of menace and majesty. Where the original film cast Godzilla itself as a kind of tragic avenger, the monster here is barely personified except as an inconceivably destructive force of nature. (A brief, bizarre dialogue thick with meta-commentary notes the presence of “God” in the anglicized name of “Godzilla,” as opposed to the more phonetically accurate “Gojira,” alluding to a real-world debate that has raged among Eastern and Western nerds for generations.)

Counterbalancing Godzilla’s ongoing rampage is an equally frenzied progression of scenes set in sterile, detached government offices and boardrooms. Here a growing assemblage of politicians, scientists, diplomats and more from Japan and its global allies exchange frantic, jargon-heavy dialogue as they scramble to save both the city and their careers from the wrath of Godzilla. In lieu of the original film’s choice to supplement the monster plot with a narrative of familial melodrama, Shin Godzilla frames the story in its entirety as a duel between an unfathomable force of nature and the nation of Japan itself, embodied by personnel from its seat of government (and locus of Godzilla’s rampage) in Tokyo.

Concordant with Anno’s inimitable personal style developed over a 35-year career, the film employs a vast density of visual and textual information with a rapid-fire editing style, falling in rhythm somewhere between the banging of a gavel and the sweeping movements of a rock ballad. A painterly eye for shot composition and imaginative camera angles creates dense, expressive images, equally striking in sprawling deep-focus vistas of urban chaos and close interior shots of actors placed in-frame with the ornate precision of chess pieces. Balancing this finely tuned sensibility for still images is a rhythmic intuition for editing and sound: Anno (who edits his own films) cuts between time, space, and even lines of dialogue with down-to-the-millisecond precision, so hyper-conscious of each scene and shot’s immediate relationship with the ones before and after that the entire film could not unreasonably be characterized as a feature-length montage. For the punchy decisiveness and pinpoint rhythm of his editing style, Anno’s nearest analog in Western popular cinema could only be David Fincher — a man whose own background is not in conventional narrative film, but in music videos.

Working in tandem, these authorial techniques convey massive amounts of narratively pertinent information to the audience in very short periods of time; what other films might establish over the course of minutes, Shin Godzilla seeks to convey in seconds. Trying to absorb the sheer volume of words and images the film levels at the viewer on a per-second basis may be an exhausting sensory experience for non-Japanese audiences forced to experience the film through subtitles, not least of all during the frequent shots in which dialogue and onscreen text are displayed (and subtitled) simultaneously. Multiple viewings are likely in order for those who wish to suss out every visual and textual nuance. Thankfully the basic narrative thrust is already well known to the audience, and rarely too far from the surface to follow at least in its broadest sense: the film in its essence is about two conflicting bodies, and we need only spend so long observing their molecules to see the hands in motion.

Visually and thematically, Anno has long been fascinated by machines and military hardware, and now at last he has the opportunity to depict with full clarity his vision of government as a grandiose living machine — an assemblage of human cogs and gears as meticulous in form and function as any of the tanks, helicopters and airplanes that populate the bombastic action sequences, and just as seemingly impotent against the otherworldly might of Godzilla. While a few specific characters (Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, and Satomi Ishihara all receive main billing) provide primary grounding for the ongoing whirlwind of diplomacy and military action, the narrative is constantly expanding to include more and more people in its ever-growing network of interests and activities: right up to the final minutes of the film, title cards in bold font introduce us to politicians, scientists, soldiers, and even machines with a critical part to play in the unfolding sequence of events. Recurring characters are given just enough dialogue and character-establishing moments to evoke multidimensional personalities behind their professional facade, and no more; in just a few short scenes, characters who initially come across as buffoonish, craven or calculating reveal hidden reserves of dignity and compassion in the face of catastrophe, without ever quite being one-note caricatures. While Anno’s ability to write any amount of humanity and complexity into such broadly sketched characters is surprising and laudable, the lack of individual human anchor points in the narrative does produce a chilling effect, isolated from both the original film and Anno’s own previous, immensely character-focused prior work.

Though some of the early scenes suggest the mock-documentarian approach of Matt Reeves’ Godzilla-cum-Blair Witch Project blockbuster Cloverfield, later sequences of destruction boast more mannered choreography — striking fusions of grandiose visual scope, surgical action cuts, and the electrifying yet unnerving dance macabre of mass destruction. In these epic clashes between biological and technological monstrosities on an urban battlefield, spectated by frantic boardrooms of scheming soldiers and scientists, Shin Godzilla is most reminiscent of Anno’s own seminal giant robot saga, Neon Genesis Evangelion. (Shin Godzilla‘s soundtrack, by Anno’s longtime collaborator Shiro Sagisu, even reuses key musical motifs from both Evangelion and the original Godzilla.)

Absent from Evangelion‘s influence, however, is the presence of an emotionally sophisticated and magnetic cast of characters, whose escalatingly surreal struggles on the battlefield come to echo and eventually merge with the equally harrowing battles of their complex inner lives. As painstakingly and admirably crafted as the film may be, it distinguishes itself from the kind of crude, cynical orgies of CGI destruction that oversaturate today’s Hollywood blockbuster fare only by degree of discipline; in the end, it may prove equally unlikely to engage the viewer more invested in pure storytelling than visual spectacle and craft.

Shin Godzilla is now streaming and available on Blu-ray/DVD.

Posterized August 2017: ‘Detroit,’ ‘Good Time,’ ‘Ingrid Goes West,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, August 4, 2017 at 6:57 am 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


August spells the end of summer and start of awards season with a couple “prestige” openings from the likes of Kathryn Bigelow and Destin Daniel Cretton in wide release (from Annapurna Pictures and Lionsgate respectively). It’s nice to see big-ish studios showing independent voices some love in 2017 (although Bigelow is obviously no stranger to Hollywood budgets) alongside bigger sibling Sony’s partnership with Edgar Wright and Baby Driver.

It’s not all highbrow, though. Fans of Annabelle have a prequel to its prequel (Annabelle: Creation hits August 11); animation lovers have a couple off-the-beaten-path selections in The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature (August 11) and Leap! (August 25); and Steven Soderbergh makes his auspicious return to the big-screen with Logan Lucky (August 18) — a film I can’t stop myself from calling low-brow Ocean’s 11.

So whether you want to bask in the sun and not let go of your popcorn fun or prepare yourself for the austere dramas yet to come, the cinematic transition to fall begins early.


Blast from the past

If you’re going to do a Bruce Lee bio-pic where homage is king, why not follow suit with the marketing roll-out? It would have been inexcusable if Blood & Chocolate didn’t do at least one poster in the aesthetic of a classic Lee actioner — especially when the title of this film bears such a striking resemblance to one of them.

So their Birth of the Dragon (limited August 25) channels Bob Peak’s Enter the Dragon with its adorned frame, shadowboxed lettering, and nunchaku pose. The absence of the elder’s illustrative qualities definitely takes a bit of the charm away, but you can’t blame the studio for not wanting to fork over the extra cash to commission something when photography could do the job adequately instead.

I don’t like the film’s other poster all that much, but I do enjoy the glowing golden dragon of the background. It’s a cool flourish ruined by the type of shiny beveled text and emotionless portraiture that graces most HBO fight posters. A little personality goes a long way if you’re willing to give it a shot.

Two actors who exude personality are Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson so you had to know their new film The Hitman’s Bodyguard (August 18) would bring the funny in its print campaign. I’m not certain, however, that you’d have guessed LA would go straight carbon copy of the Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston starrer The Bodyguard. The detail in this appropriation is stunning: typography, pose, line spacing, everything. It’s glorious.

Is it objectively good? No, but it conjures a smile and presents a hilarious juxtaposition with its actors. LA’s other one-sheets aren’t quite as effective on these two criteria or even objectively good for that matter. Using the photography of Perry Curties, they’d decided to go gritty 70s corrupt cop chic. They bring to mind Magnum Force and others of its ilk with the newsprint moiré patterns and monochrome coloring for better or worse. Unfortunately they don’t strip away the 21st century computer art sheen to embrace that look fully.

As for the oppressive red/black versions: I feel like I may go blind if I look at them long enough to comment further.


True or false

In a bit of synergistic design, new documentary Step (limited August 4) sees their poster utilizing a similar technique as that yearbook Spider-Man: Homecoming advert. The notion of letting the strings be seen is growing on me — that do-it-yourself as intentional charm showing just how boring smoothly perfect gloss can become.

This isn’t the product of expert masking techniques to feather hair and integrate multiple images without seams. No, these photos were cut with scissors close to their edges but not quite close enough to hide a glimpse of the background that is now missing. Doing this adds slivers of color everywhere to serve as impromptu borders separating girls from one another while also letting the scrapbook locker art aesthetic shine.

My favorite part, though: the black box holding the title is just as imperfect as the rest.

From documentary to memoir-turned-film, we head over to The Glass Castle (August 11) next. LA takes a scene of hope and beauty in nature between a father and his daughter — one that may seem a bit misleading if you’ve seen the trailer and understand the underlying struggles of this life where “Home goes wherever we go.” But whether the image highlights one part of the film or the film as a whole, you can’t help finding the use of scale and composition appealing. The sky is literally the limit here. The future is boundless.

The German iteration uses this message too while adding a few more characters to the mix in fun and happy demeanors. We get a sense of conflict from the beat-up car and tarped over possessions, but the saturated coloring and smiling faces force us to believe love means more than comfort or money. Family means more than material desire.

This is why the final one-sheet excels in its melancholy through a juxtaposition of that youthful pleasure against the sorrow of present-day struggles. But while the tone is pure and closer to the film itself, the execution is clunky. How the past and present merge with a fade is awkward as Brie Larson’s right eye gets caught in a purgatorial no-man’s land between the two. Is the family a memory? A dream? Characters in a story Larson’s author wrote? It makes sense as an evolution from the teaser, but it confounds contextually and artistically on its own.

Now we move from memoir to a fictionalized depiction of “real life events” with Detroit (August 4). Canyon Design Group goes minimal with their teaser to let the title do the talking as imagery serves as complement. The whole turning a photo 90-degrees in order to retain a landscape feel in a portrait frame is hardly new (heck, I used the same mechanics on my own poster for a local screening of I Am Belfast). Sometimes you need to go this route no matter how clichéd because it’s the only way to ensure the emotion and scale is presented unedited.

There’s no way you could turn this image of police blocking citizens and then crop it down by two-thirds while still keeping its message. You can’t push into this image because its impact lies in how “big” it is with tens to hundreds of people rather than just three or four. If the name is proving broad enough to embody an entire city, the visuals need to do the same.

And that’s why the second sheet is so disappointing. It’s nice to focus on the four actors we see, but there’s too much separation and confusion. They aren’t looking in the same direction, the title is covering parts of their faces, and the emotional impact of chaos is replaced by the quiet severity of characters devoid of context. You only know the two on the left are cops if you’ve seen the trailer. This sheet is all about celebrity.

The Nile Hilton Incident (limited August 11) doesn’t have this problem in America because it’s a foreign film with actors we wouldn’t recognize. Mood and aesthetic take the place of recognition as this Egyptian revolution-set fiction lets intrigue reign supreme.

It’s a nice contrast opposite posters with heavy saturation that theaters generally display — its green hue permeates the entire image so that it seems just off from reality. I like that the title gets lost in places too because it forces us to really concentrate. We do so since its disorienting quality grabs our attention rather than fly under it. We see the actor’s face, follow his white cigarette down, and read the unaligned title with Arabic translation serving as a light to brighten the yellowish green. The film may be set in 2011, but this poster exudes 70s cool.


Artful imagery

The marketing campaign for The Dark Tower (August 4) has been highly criticized on the internet — both about how long it took for anything to drop and the quality of what has — but I really like the initial tease from WORKS ADV. I love how it presents the idea of two worlds, two armies, and good versus evil. It makes us look closely to see what’s there to see.

Is it upside down or right side up? Should our heroes be at the bottom or at the top? You could theoretically flip this poster 180-degrees and still have it make sense. Do you like the bright sky forming the titular tower of life with its protectors ready to fight? Or would you rather highlight the reality of Earth slowly being corrupted by greed at the hands or our destroyer? The choice is yours.

And that’s where the rest go awry. B O N D gives us character sheets that lose the dynamic at the core of Stephen King’s epic saga. We receive vanity shots rather than context. Yes they are dripping with mood and brooding, but where’s the conflict? The same goes for the pair of illustrations created. They intrigue — while also calling to mind the fact that there has been a graphic novel counterpart to the novels — but they do so in a vacuum.

Crown Heights (limited August 18) only has one actor on its poster, but that decision is one that helps explain plot instead of showcasing a star. This is a man in a jail cell, isolated in the dark of solitude with only the light from a high window to remind him of the world outside. Making the title into bars is an unwieldy choice, but it works enough to understand its goal.

What’s really nice, though, is the way in which the sun’s rays appear to be drawn by hand. Lakeith Stanfield is represented via photograph —
albeit with the contrast amped up for a gorgeous chiaroscuro silhouette
— and yet the light looks scratched on with charcoal. There’s an otherworldly quality to this, as though God is looking down metaphorically. What may seem simple on first blush ultimately has a lot happening within.

Comparing it to Beach Rats (limited August 25) may seem odd, but I’d argue these two posters are practically identical in content. Just look at the expression on their male focal points — that lost look of contemplation. You could say this young man is in a prison himself despite having the sky above him instead of total darkness. He’s trapped as the others look beyond, the shallow depth of focus isolating him as “other”.

It’s also just an aesthetically nice design by The Boland Design Company. It takes a film still and crops it to form a composition with heavy emotion while providing an equal bisection between actors and text. The effect being used on the title is somewhat distracting, but otherwise this piece is attractive, subdued, and memorable.

Two of those three adjectives could be used to describe the graphic tease(s) for Bushwick (limited August 25) too. The one that doesn’t: subdued. This thing may be minimalistic, but it is loud in the process. It doesn’t matter what color is used or what positioning of the actors at bottom — these scream their title at us with an eccentric jolt of electricity.

And they work even with the idiosyncratic way of breaking up their name. This totem must be simultaneously read left to right and up to down, each two-letter duo leading to the next. Somehow I’ve never been confused reading it, though. It effectively lets our brains do the job while its faux symmetry and real monochromatic palette ensure we can focus on reading without distractions.

The final sheet isn’t quite as effective, but it’s also not a complete loss. Had it just been the actors walking towards us with a fake scene of destruction behind them, I’d be singing a different tune. But the translucent American flag curtain that separates foreground from background does add something. The graphic quality contrasts the photography and provides purpose to two unknowns holding guns.


More with less

Gravillis Inc.’s Wind River (limited August 4) is the kind of poster that gets easily dismissed. A quick glance shows actor at top, title at bottom, and little else. While this would be true if the design firm simply used a photo wherein Jeremy Renner’s coat and hat were white fabric with shadowy folds, that isn’t the case here. For all we know his clothing is red — there’s no way to be sure because it’s been erased. This poster takes camouflage to another level by literally merging everything into a single empty field.

The effect is eye-catching in its impossibility. There’s no way you wouldn’t see some color difference to pick his body out from what we can assume is a snowy setting, so we have to look closer to make sure our eyes aren’t deceiving us. It’s such a simple alteration to the image and yet its impact is huge.

Compare it to Blood & Chocolate’s entry and you’ll see that a desire for “more” can destroy your message. There may be a scene on this poster, but it’s meaningless besides the way it unnaturally separates the actors for visibility. The sense of suspense is gone because we are no longer discerning a man ready to shoot from the void. We’ve moved from a wealth of potential energy to bland portraiture going nowhere.

The final sheet for Good Time (limited August 11) by B O N D gives a similar burst of energy by transforming its vertical frame into a scene moving horizontally. A poster’s orientation is inherently top to bottom and yet our vision keeps darting side to side here as the actors flee beneath a motion blur and every line of text is set against a stripe keeping our eyes moving off the page. It doesn’t want us to linger. It wants us to run to our seats and watch the action unfold.

You don’t get that sense of immediacy with the teaser. In fact, this image of Robert Pattinson coming out of a plastic 20-ounce bottle provides nothing but an oddly comedic air. I initially thought this film was a stoner comedy because of it — the bottle turning into a bong in my head with a pothead “escaping” the hazy hold of the drug. Obviously that’s not what this film is, but what’s the artwork trying to convey if not? Maybe Pattinson is a genie about to grant us three wishes.

And what better way is there to supply energy than actual electricity? That’s what Canyon Design Group gives us with their teaser for Ingrid Goes West (limited August 11). If you’ve seen the trailer you know that you’re going to be in for a wild ride of unbridled chaos and this poster complements those thoughts by flashing its name in lights.

I love the font used — it’s beachside aesthetic a perfect embodiment of destination. The white of its coloring is blinding against the neon pink/purple duotone image beneath, almost as if it’s rapidly flickering like fluorescent lights do. And don’t dismiss the use of half-toning as a throwaway hipster-chic filter either. The juxtaposition of a print-specific texture to represent a movie that surrounds digital media/social media is just one more laugh earned by a photo of Aubrey Plaza eating her phone.

LA joins Canyon for the main sheet. While attractive in its painterly quality, it loses some of the other’s pizazz by forcing us to decipher its collage rather than experience its vibe. It might be objectively pretty, but there’s little going on to separate it from any other poster on the wall using the same put-everyone-in-frame trope.

Akiko Stehrenberger’s Mondo commission is the polar opposite. Rather than crisp photo-real representation, she’s gone Chuck Close on us by creating a portrait with smaller geometric pieces. The grid is reminiscent of an Instagram page (see the “Follow” button at top) and the not-quite pristine fit of each square (due to coloring, placement, and overlap) serves to infer on Ingrid’s descent into madness. It may not possess the same jolt of excitement as its predecessors, but it’s a stunner nonetheless.

If I had to pick one design to win the month, however, it would be Leroy and Rose’s The Only Living Boy in New York (limited August 11). This is the definition of using the whole page despite not “using” the whole page. It’s The Piano Teacher meets Match Point
the illicit act of a kiss pushed to the edge of secrecy.

It’s great because the image is barely a quarter of the page while the white space majority shoves it over as though a wall or curtain shielding its forbidden sexuality. The typography is right justified as a rule to augment this idea of force, each word “moving” left to right to keep that border in place so no unsuspecting voyeur can see what’s happening without physically turning around the corner. When your design and composition is this good, your scene creates itself.

What is your favorite August release poster? What could have used a rework?

15 Films to See in August

Written by Jordan Raup, August 1, 2017 at 9:03 am 

logan-lucky-1

The end of the summer movie season is upon us, which normally means a dry spell for studio releases, and while that indeed looks to be the case, this is one of the best months of the year if one digs a little deeper. From European getaways to redneck heists to dramas about riots and terrorism, there’s an abundance of appealing choices at the cinema this August. See our picks below and let us know what you’re most looking forward to.

Matinees: It’s Not Yet Dark (8/4), This Time Tomorrow (8/4), Icarus (8/4), Machines (8/9), After Love (8/9), In This Corner of the World (8/11), The Nile Hilton Incident (8/11), The Wound (8/16), Sidemen: Long Road to Glory (8/18), What Happened to Monday (8/18), Crown Heights (8/25), Death Note (8/25), The Villainess (8/25), and The Teacher (8/30)

15. Lemon (Janicza Bravo; Aug. 18)

lemon-1

Synopsis: A man watches his life unravel after he is left by his girlfriend of 10 years.

Trailer

Why You Should See It: There is no comedy — if one can even define it as such — on the same wavelength as Lemon this year. Coming from Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman, following the latter’s character as his life unravels in the strangest of ways, the cast is a stacked one, including Judy Greer, Michael Cera, Fred Melamed, Rhea Perlman, Gillian Jacobs, Jon Daly, Martin Starr, Megan Mullally, Jeff Garlin, and Nia Long. One of the few films I saw at Sundance that I didn’t review because I was left dumbfounded at what I just saw, for better or worse, for those seeking to itch part of their funny bone that has perhaps been left untouched, this will do the trick.

14. Wind River (Taylor Sheridan; Aug. 4)

wind-river

Synopsis: An FBI agent teams up with a veteran game tracker to investigate a murder that occurred on a Native American reservation.

Trailer

Why You Should See It:  With the strongest one-two punch of first produced scripts in Hollywood the past few years, Taylor Sheridan has emerged as a distinctive voice in revitalizing tired (or all but dormant) genres. After scripting Sicario and Hell or High Water, he’s now gone fully behind the camera for his directorial debut Wind River, which blends both crime and western elements. I said in my review, “Let down by muddy characterization and a choppy directorial style, the drama finally coheres in its final act to deliver the uncompromising thrills that have been Sheridan’s trademark.” I’ve now heard Sheridan has gone back in the editing bay a bit since that mixed review, so I’m curious to see what has changed.

13. Step (Amanda Litz; Aug. 4)

step-1

Synopsis: Documents the senior year of a girls’ high-school step dance team against the background of inner-city Baltimore.

Trailer

Why You Should See It: “It’s rare for a documentary to inspire applause during the feature, but there you have the power of Amanda Lipitz’s Step, an inspiring crowd-pleaser that provides a positive look at the lives of every day teens in Baltimore, living in the shadow of Freddie Gray and the subsequent unrest related to his death,” John Fink said in his review of the Sundance-winning documentary. “Step is a universal story of triumph, following a year in the life of a dance team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women as their seniors get accepted into school, experience heartbreak, and ultimately make in-roads in step competitions, crafting an elegant and powerful dance inspired by Black Lives Matter and their neighborhoods.”

12. Gook (Justin Chon; August 18)

gook-1

Synopsis: Eli and Daniel, two Korean American brothers who own a struggling women’s shoe store, have an unlikely friendship with 11-year-old Kamilla. On the first day of the 1992 L.A. riots, the trio must defend the store while contemplating the meaning of family and thinking about personal dreams and the future.

Trailer

Why You Should See It: Winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section where it premiered, Justin Chon’s Gook takes an intriguing perspective when it comes to depicting Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, when the Rodney King verdict was handed out and the riots began.  “Warts and all, Gook serves as a perfect example (and reminder) of why the NEXT Section at Sundance is well worth exploring and reviewing and reacting to, perhaps more than any other slate,” Dan Mecca said in his review. “Chon has a vision and a voice and a good story to tell, full of social relevance and fiery emotion. Something this energetic and cared for is hard to criticize all that much. It’s a film worth seeking out and telling others about.”

11. The Glass Castle (Destin Daniel Cretton; Aug. 11)

the-glass-castle

Synopsis: A young girl comes of age in a dysfunctional family of nonconformist nomads with a mother who’s an eccentric artist and an alcoholic father who would stir the children’s imagination with hope as a distraction to their poverty.

Trailer

Why You Should See It: I’ll put this out up front: I’m worried about The Glass Castle. It hits theaters next week and there has been no festival premiere, advance word, or buzz of any kind, but with that said, I’ll watch anything from director Destin Daniel Cretton following Short Term 12, one of my favorite films of its respective year. He once again teams with Brie Larson, who stars alongside Naomi Watts, Woody Harrelson and Sarah Snook in what will hopefully be a commendable expanding in scope for the director.

Continue >>

‘Stardust’: A Magical, Extravagant, and Wildly Imaginative Fantasy Adventure

Written by Darek Kuźma, July 29, 2017 at 8:35 am 

stardust

Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

Once upon a time in the human kingdom behind the Wall, a structure so profoundly regular it simply had to have some magical properties, there lived a curious and courageous boy who had the potential to combine two worlds – the English and the fantastical – in an epic-sized adventure spanning everything there was to span. Yet he became an adult without doing anything monumental and thus is of lesser importance to this story, but his son – a nice chap with exceptional tenacity in his heart and not many useful skills, Tristan was his name – determined to change his stars. Little did he know, poor mate, that not only will he do that quite literally – you know, change a star by falling in love with her, and other stuff – but also combat evil witches, cunning princes, and his own monstrous gullibility. As well as learn how to travel by candlelight and/or editing techniques, and pick up the ways of a gentleman from a moustache-y pirate fellow called the Bard or something like that, and blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada…

Let’s try once again, shall we?

A long, long time ago in an industry that still did not have a crush on blockbustery cinematic universes and their volatile superhero inhabitants there premiered a film about a wide-eyed English fellow chasing a star which had been knocked off from the celestial firmament and had fallen to Earth in the shape of an attractive blonde gal looking like an incarnation of a tragic Italian lover. Needless to say, there were many rivaling parties for her heart, though some wanted to conquer it through more or less romantic means, while others craved eating it. Go figure.

Oh, yes, there were evil princes, gullible witches and cunning monsters. Of some sort. Still with me?

Full of whimsy, playful verbosity, technical trickery and visual panache, brimming with positive energy and larger-than-life archetypical characters and actors more than skilled to fill their well-worn shoes, this fairytale for adults did not, sadly, shake the foundations of the fantasy genre. Or make any real splash for that matter, though it did some good business at the box-office worldwide, at least enough not to be called a flop or a letdown. Stardust was its given name, though The Greatest Shop Boy Who Has Ever Lived Near The Wall, or TGSBWHELNTW in short, would have been much, much better and more audience-friendly. Anyway, the film was received as pure, escapist fun and quite quickly had to give way for the next best thing. Which is how the film industry works, really, so no hard feelings.

“Well you stupid cow! What did you think of your home for?” – Tristan the Romantic Lead

But Stardust was more British than American, at least its heart and soul were, which may explain why it stubbornly fought oblivion in the eyes of the mass audience. With great success. It withstood the test of time which made all of its original devotees, including the writer of these words, a very happy lot. Oh, and one more thing, after ten years from the moment it premiered in Los Angeles on July 29th, 2007, Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust has become the epitome of exciting cinematic fantasy adventure. A very much needed emotional and witty representative of the genre which is too often a feast for the eyes and not much else, and a truly impressive film on its own.

What is so marvelous about it? Some might remark that a combination of genre staples with some absurd additions and alterations, say, horny princesses, candid stars, scheming (and sometimes headless) witches, a whole range of spectral and full-blooded princes, daredevil shop boys, perverse kings, bloody soothsayers, boneless zombie warriors, bitchy merchants, silky white unicorns, ninety-seven-year-old ninja-like guardians, bad-tempered human goats et al. No verbose dragons or nefarious wizards in this tale, but still, a splendid bunch, don’t you think?

Others might observe that the trick lies in creating the fairytale kingdom called Stronghold by the way of the brothers Grimm and Neil Gaiman (from whose novel Stardust was brought into cinematic life), not necessarily kid-friendly Disney tentpole. To illustrate this point we should look no further than the scene in which the morbidly deceased prince Septimus (brilliant Mark Strong with hair, long black hair, actually) is remodeled through some kind of voodoo witchery into a frisky corpse fighting the film’s protagonist with its sword like its life depended on it. The clever staging and fanciful choreography of the fight are so beautifully grotesque that you can only watch in awe and wonder how, in the name of Mark Strong’s mullet, did they shoot that?

Another example of Stardust’s jet-black humor and dark wit comes with an image. Visualize a pub in a magical land which is called The Slaughtered Prince, if you will. Got it? Now, add several spectral figures sitting right beneath the sign, one with an axe in his head, another with his throat cut open, there is also one that looks as if he had fallen from great heights and there was no superhero to rescue him from meeting the ground. Oh, there is also a perverted one who voyeurs through the wall and peeps at our romantic hero and heroine doing things this type of fantasy adventure always leaves for the viewer’s imagination. Anyway, those are all gruesomely murdered royalty, forever inclined to roam this kingdom and comment sourly on everything they see until their Machiavellian brother, one prince Septimus, you know, the one with beautiful dark hair, kills his way to become a king.

“There are shop boys, and there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being.” –Yvaine the Glowing Star

This may well be another way of specifying Stardust’s underlying charms – fantasy violence and some risqué humor. Or, in other words, two official reasons why Vaughn’s film was rated PG-13 without employing a single drop of red blood or a vulgar word (unless “hell” counts). But who cares if you have Michelle Pfeiffer’s dark witch Lamia slicing throat of a blue blood only to see his blood was really blue? Or the future man of steel Henry Cavill as Humphrey the gentleman who is such an uptight fellow that his most fun adventure to date consisted of travelling to Ipswich to buy a ridiculously expensive engagement ring. Or when you can watch Robert De Niro chewing the scenery as fearsome Captain Shakespeare (nickname taken from a famed writer, not shaking a spear, in case you wondered) who goes berserk in women’s clothing while dancing cancan. Right?

The character of the bloodless pirate with a penchant for art, culture and combing men’s hair is yet another indication of the number of ways screenwriters Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman tweaked and twisted the rules of the genre for their viewers’ pleasure. Case in point, the dying King, played memorably by Peter O’Toole in a role that is only slightly longer than the duration of a cameo, whose greatest dream is for his four still-breathing sons to murder the hell out of each other while fighting for the crown. There is a feeling of nobility and authority when the man speaks, and yet he behaves – and laughs! – like a bloodthirsty villain on the loose. When, early on in the film, the King tricks his second-born into standing in front of an abyss only to make one of his brothers push the poor bastard over the edge, we can only laugh at it. And get the point. The gloves are off, and everything we are about to witness will be an unpredictable ride acknowledging all the potential of the fantasy genre that has been lost on so many screenwriters.

This would be enough for many lesser filmmakers, a script cracking with wildly imaginative stuff and a director who can turn this into a fantasy extravaganza, but not for Vaughn and his dedicated cast and crew who made sure the film is rich in detail, the adventure effervescent with exhilaration, and the world looking like the best possible tourist attraction. Oh yes, this world is a wonder. What is truly remarkable is the way they were able to map the whole fascinating fairytale kingdom – the simple wall almost no one dares to cross, the border town packed with eccentricity, magical whimsy and all sorts of colors, the witches’ extravagant lair in a large crater so sinister it should have been used in a horror movie, the flying pirate ship teeming with equipment for lightning-catching, the enchanted forests, the king’s castle that could rival the Disney’s one in sheer architectural spectacle, etc. – in a manner it feels powerful, real, tangible.

“And, Yvaine, I have some lovely dresses; take your pick.” – Captain Shakespeare the Fearsome Pirate

Still, there are many more heroes to Stardust than its director/screenwriter power duo. The world depicted on the screen gained incredible texture and visual significance through the cinematographer Ben Davis’s lighting, composition and camera movement. When the characters are galloping on their horses or goat-ridden carts through the green hills or pale blue seashores of Stronghold, with the camera sweeping elegantly in long takes around and above them, you feel the sense of an adventure creeping in and slowly taking over your mind and soul. True, CGI feels dated at times, it has been ten years, but it somehow fits the overall look of the magical kingdom in which everything is possible, including croaking Ricky Gervais as a dim-witted merchant whose fate is sealed. On the other hand, Mark Strong’s beautifully lit hair never ceases to amaze.

Another invisible hero of Stardust is composer Ilan Eshkeri whose illustrious, vivacious fantasy themes complement the action and the characters in a way that feels entirely organic and yet delightfully offbeat and playful. Watch the already-mentioned galloping scene (they do gallop a lot in Stardust, actually) with Septimus, the seventh track on the official score, playing in the background and you will never look the same way again at galloping in a fantasy film. And then there are fancy and vibrant costumes from Sammy Sheldon and her department, making the actors feel real in the fantasy surroundings, regardless of whether they are down and dirty pirate misfits, or royalty who like to show off with their ornate lifestyle.

Let us not forget about Gavin Bocquet’s production design department which made everything more wondrous and multicolored. The blood is blue, the flames hellishly green, the king’s chamber is brimming with hues of golden, the witches’ lair layered with mirrors and cages filled with scared animals, etc. With all the textures and surfaces working for the overall impression that this is literally something out of this world. And then there’s the editor Jon Harris who, together with Matthew Vaughn, made Edgar Wright’s brand of visual comedy at least threatened. Just look at the scene when three princes stare at each other in terror because one of them just poisoned the wine they all drank – there is a succession of quick cuts on the widening, suspenseful, terrified, curious, brilliantly confused eyes which makes it impossible not to laugh at the situation and the scheming royalty. Or a scene in which Harris cuts between Captain Shakespeare doing pirouettes in full frivolous lady gear and his crew fighting for their lives with Septimus’s henchmen just few meters above. There are dozens of other brilliant cutting decisions in Stardust that make the adventure even more dynamic and fun to behold.

“A philosopher once asked, ‘Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?’ Pointless, really…” – Narrator the Narrator

Ultimately, it is not one thing but all of these aspects that make Stardust… well, Stardust. A truly exceptional fantasy-comedy-horror-swashbuckling-adventure of a film that deserves to be put alongside Lord of the Rings trilogy, Willow, Conan the Barbarian and other genre’s staples. You see, just because it is pure fun, with not that much psychological depth and pathos, does not mean it is in any way worse. Far from it.

And yet, despite its crowd-pleasing nature and the filmmakers’ doing everything they can to break from the chains of the typical fantasy style, Stardust has actually something important to tell you. Be yourself. Dream. Dare. Love. Experience. Change your stars. Fight villains. And at least once in your lifetime do immerse yourself in dancing cancan. If that is not something to live for, then this world of ours is doomed.

So, to paraphrase a certain rock classic that does not have anything to do with this film, for those about to dream, we salute you!

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

Dealing with the Baggage of ‘The Simpsons Movie’

Written by Ethan Vestby, July 27, 2017 at 1:04 pm 

the-simpsons-movie

Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

I was born in June of 1992, a year particularly important to Simpsons lore. On one hand, my date of birth fell three months before the airing of the show’s fourth season, which is considered by many a fan to be a creative peak. And five months before I came into this world, President George H.W. Bush remarked, during a speech at the Annual Convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, that the American family needs to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” In retrospect, it’s funny to think that Homer’s dysfunctional crew were considered a particular offense to old-fashioned American values, even if I, admittedly, wasn’t alive at the time.

In particular, it seemed Bart’s bad-boy antics — his skateboarding, potty mouth, and proud slacker attitude — are what earned the show notoriety in a conservative era, one swiftly countered by the Michael Jackson-penned bubblegum pop single “Do the Bartman.” The appeal of Bart as rabble-rouser was evidently limited. Many even like to say that the show’s eras can be separated into B.H. (Before Homer) and A.B. (After Bart), the writers seeing the limitations of the ten-year old’s antics and, subsequently, the seemingly endless possibilities of the well-meaning but dopey patriarch. In transitioning from the Bush to the Clinton era, The Simpsons asserted a kind of long-form cultural dominance, even if the controversy faded. It simply became the common belief that the Simpsons clan, in all their ups and downs, were the American middle-class family reflected onscreen.

Though I may be guilty of indulging in the the critical cliche of assuming too much firsthand historical perspective when writing about art, the degree to which The Simpsons is simply in my blood (re-runs were always on at least four times a day on Canadian television) makes me feel that there’s a degree to which I can speak with authority about its impact, or, at the very least, creative trajectory. Thus why I can say with confidence that, arriving in the summer of 2007, The Simpsons Movie seemed, at least generously speaking, a decade too late. The show had entered somewhat of a slump at the end of the ’90s from which it never seemed to really recover. (To be fair, which is more of an assumption on my part as I haven’t really kept up since Season 19.)

Being able to place the film in distinct memory, I can’t help but bring back the Bush name, the film coming in the late era of the Simpsons-hater’s son’s own Presidency. Making some kind of statement about the film’s relevance to that dark time would seem a little disingenuous, but the movie, and more so the show, do come inextricably tied with the Rupert Murdoch empire, reinforced to the audience with a number of uninspired “meta” jokes, e.g. a particularly egregious Fox ticker gag early in the running time.

Seeming to tip things one way by settling with a pro-environmentalism bent (a theme not exactly unfamiliar to the show) to justify the blockbuster-scale plot after years and years stuck in development hell, the film still goes about playing it both ways for political sides. Look no further than its approach to gay panic: Ralph’s reaction to Bart’s cartoon pecker mocking religious right censorship, Homer praying for Flanders to come out as gay in another scene — the kind of language frowned on by liberals. But The Simpsons was long past the point where it could successfully tap into the zeitgeist, rather coasting for years on simply being ingrained in the collective cultural memory.

A reason for the film’s existence may be hard to detect. Is it simply capitalizing on nostalgia or a defiant assertion that the brand is still relevant after all these years? Viewed ten years later, the movie comes off as more like a mid-tier Season 11 episode than a revitalization of its creative powers. With twelve writers from the show’s golden era (even recluses such as Sam Simon and George Meyer) credited to the screenplay, I managed some semblance of optimism when it was announced. How could the deities from the DVD audio commentaries disappoint me?

I think, in trying to detect what’s wrong with the movie, one needs to go beyond jokes. Are the characters simply stale? Was the 21st century just not suited to The Simpsons? Yet maybe I have to admit it ultimately just comes down to crisp digital animation that doesn’t give any semblance of the classic Simpsons feel. Furthermore, Hans Zimmer needs to replace Alf Klausen as composer, and Rainer Wolfcastle needs to be retconned as literally Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m not necessarily let down by The Simpsons Movie a decade later, as, after all, it’s brisk, consistently amusing (if not gut-busting), and sometimes sentimental enough to remind one of the first seasons’ specific tone — but it speaks to the quality that I still feel a need to contextualize it with the early ’90s when even discussing it.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.