Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Quiet Place / ***1/2 (2018)

In many respects “A Quiet Place” is pitched as a silent film, without verbal cues or explanations underscoring the plot’s core function. Immediately that prospect will conjure up a befuddling uncertainty in the audience: how are they to establish a setting, who the players may be and what’s occurring to them? What is the context? Are mere physical observations enough? Any number of sensationalist outings would freely risk continuity without a well-modulated visual device, but to see it done here is to discover a filmmaker who has studied, mastered and executed the great doctrines of Hitchcock and Kubrick, whose own stories were usually incidental to the orchestration of a mood. What he accomplishes here, in a horror film set somewhere in the modern world, is astounding: a survival study that says little but observes, impeccably, as a family braves the unknown in a place that has been (apparently) wiped out by bloodthirsty monsters. And when two verbal exchanges do occur on screen, the words have no importance; they are gestures to supply the characters with a reminder of their hard push for endurance, and why they refuse to surrender to a fate that has isolated them in the cold clutch of despair.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Witches of Eastwick / *** (1987)

The solution to enduring the absurdity that is “The Witches of Eastwick” involves distancing yourself from any measure of logic. Here is a movie that invites an explosion of disbelief, assembled from pieces of a reality that looks as if it might have been plausible in the early stages. But to gaze at the screen any longer than a moment’s notice is to find the New England locales, the happy faces and the passive daily routines to be the cloak surrounding a supernatural fantasy – and a ludicrous one at that. In a way, George Miller depends on our trust in his ability to shed a light of purpose; after “Mad Max” made him a cool commodity in the eyes of nerd culture, it became obvious that he could make a long and successful career out of playing against convention. And somehow he manages to sustain that prospect even here, in a film that audaciously asks us to believe characters played by Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer can not only dream up the same ideal love interest, but that each of them would be ok sharing him at a mansion just outside of town with little sense of jealousy or insecurity.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

My Friend Dahmer / ***1/2 (2017)

I was a prepubescent teenage boy when the media first sounded the alarm against Jeffrey Dahmer, the mysterious serial killer from Milwaukee that stalked his community with almost silent precision. Ingrained by news headlines and evening bulletins as the Midwest cannibal, here was a shy, young and handsome man keeping horrendous secrets: over the course of his life he had murdered 17 young men – most of them gay – and then decimated their remains like an overzealous butcher. Many of those victims were never found, while others were discovered in mere pieces: a carved-out torso, several skulls and various other parts decorated the interiors of his apartment, where they served the purpose of feeding or arousing him. The concept of mass murder had hardly been a new commodity to contemplate in the public eye, but rarely had one’s methods so deeply penetrated the membrane of the mainstream, or done so with such austere consequences. Just as local towns in the Midwest heralded the aftermath with newfound caution, so was the gay community confronted by the great demon of negative stereotypes; it was as if Dahmer risked becoming a symbol against the lifestyle, a microcosm for disparaging perceptions running deeply through the moral majority.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Geostorm / 1/2* (2017)

An imaginary yarn about an angry mother nature seeking vengeance against filmmakers who exploit her dangers frequently enters my head. The story would center on the likes of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, two of the most consistent offenders, who see the big budgets of the Hollywood machine as the means to destroy Earth in increasingly violent ways. The elements, sensing this viscous cycle of the blockbuster scene, would take revenge against the industry by unleashing a plethora of deadly disasters on their hills – tidal waves, tornados, flash floods, perhaps even earthquakes. The possibility of irony would be lost on them, no doubt, because directors of these pictures are rarely self-aware. But oh what a pointed irony it would inspire, to see audiences rally against this boring formula and find, underneath the muck and wreckage of an elaborately demolished landscape, a mirror to be held up to their dimwitted deeds. Added relevance would come because of a narrowing capacity of brain cells needed to get through each new venture. At one time it was possible to be amused – however superficially – by a “Dante’s Peak” or “Deep Impact”; now, thanks to the avid energies of visual effects artists paired with the comatose intentions of newer filmmakers, it’s ok to simply show up half-conscious.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Demon House / ** (2018)

“Demon House” is a well-made film study about little of consequence, fashioned from a scorching creative eagerness that seems held back unnecessarily by a fear of visual or thematic excess. Given the familiar groundwork of the premise, that’s hardly a surprise; when it comes to any number of stories about evil forces haunting the living – however true or fictional they claim to be – a great risk persists in exploiting their suffering for the benefit of shocking an audience. But anyone going into Zak Bagans’ endeavor may yearn for the possibility of a happy medium: something between a balance of jolts intercut with perceptive discussions about what may be causing the quiet chaos in these lives. For a good while things gradually move towards that direction, as Bagans, an apparently skilled investigator, involves former eyewitnesses in a descent into the mysteries of a Midwest house filled with supernatural energies. But by the end we are no closer to understanding – or caring about – the source of these evils or the suffering they inflict on others. If a conventional horror film shows people slowly unravelling by the strange events going on in their homes, here is one that settles on raising an eyebrow or two before droppings its subjects in the maw of successive boredom.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fifty Shades Freed / *1/2 (2018)

Perhaps the issue is the constraint of an acceptable running time, or the attitude of a conventional outlook. Some conflicts are not meant to be easily resolved in the span of a two hour film; to do so is to gloss over the intricacies of moral gray areas, even if they may run as shallow as the intentions. Some part of me holds onto this possibility when attempting to deal, in any capacity, with the “Fifty Shades” films, and now I’m confronted with a third venture, in which characters gather to experience life after the fairy tale has ended and find themselves in the embrace of deficient dramatic throes. I guess this idea could possess enough complexity to justify a trilogy of pictures, but is there not a responsibility to anyone involved to make the best use of our commitment? If what exists on screen runs parallel to the written works of E.L. James, then here is a woman who seems incapable of modulating the human rhythm on the tightrope between eroticism and danger. Imagine spending a day in the company of people who raise legitimate doubts about their situations but never come to terms with them, essentially because they have discovered an orgasm that negates their need to contemplate troubling histories.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Killing of a Sacred Deer / **** (2017)

Now comes a rare moment of creative ascension. After the ambitious tests of “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” young Yorgos Lanthimos has distanced himself from the mere notion of promising filmmakers and made “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” a movie so strikingly perceptive that it moves him into the company of greater, more assured voices in the medium. And that is a rare feat to reach in this time of artistic saturation, much less limited thematic accessibility. This is a man who, like P.T. Anderson and the Coens before him, hit the ground in a frenetic sprint from the first moment his hands found a movie camera, and at a mere four films has created an anxious anticipation in audiences that have come to see his stories as the groundwork for a deeply resonant critique of the human condition. Would it surprise any of his admirers, then, to discover yet another one of his pictures has used a splendid screenplay to mask a statement about the nature of our flawed operation? Or that his characters move less like human beings and more as tottering platitudes with rather mechanical perceptions? Lanthimos conducts these elements with the precision of a maddened provocateur and finds a great underlying horror, just as the opposing forces of creation and destruction seem to clash in what can be described as a moral minefield.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Predicting the Winners of the 90th Oscars


Heading fretfully into its 90th year, Oscar is set to descend on a bold and foreign new climate when the curtain rises on Hollywood this Sunday. He has never been one to scoff at the wide array of political trends that dominate his parties, to be sure, but even he must be sensing a strange air looming over the 2018 ceremony. It was, after all, the year that sexual abuse dominated the headlines and diminished the glitz of the city’s bright lights. And now in the final hour of those revelations, the notorious #MeToo movement looks poised to flip the script on the industry right down to its most treasured traditions – including the annual practice of handing out those famous gold statues everyone covets.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Post / ***1/2 (2017)

The established tradition of films about the newsroom is that each function within the same handicap: the channel involved – be it a television network or a newspaper – is in a position of professional vulnerability. Hot stories, perhaps, are given an added weight when they fall into the hands of those who may lose everything by running them. Certainly a lauded publication like the New York Times, for example, could be expected to scoop the revelations found in the notorious Pentagon Papers and survive unscathed, but would anyone have expected the same of one that existed on far more fragile ground? Or better yet, one owned by a person who rubbed elbows with sources that would raise dubious questions about their conflicts of interest? You can trace that line of influence all the way back to “Ace in the Hole” and watch as it runs through the veins of nearly every notable endeavor that has followed: “All the President’s Men,” “Network,” “Broadcast News,” “The Paper,” “The Insider,” “Shattered Glass,” “Frost/Nixon” and, more recently, “Spotlight.” Now Steven Spielberg’s newest film, “The Post,” carries that tradition forward in a more pointed way: less bothered with the historical elements, it surrounds the details with a sense of relentless dramatic tension. It is not a film about the misdeeds of a democracy, but about whether it is worth risking everything for the sake of the story.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Dunkirk / ***1/2 (2017)

At the level of a surface observation “Dunkirk” is a historical document about the evacuation of British troops on the coast of France as the Nazis closed in on them, but at a deeper level it is a testament to the audacious power of pure elemental filmmaking. After a handful of taut, tense minutes of almost wordless attacks and ambushes, we begin to sense the stark motivations of its director; borrowing heavily from the technical mechanics of Hitchcock, Eisenstein and even Griffiths, Chris Nolan freely abandons the constraints of a straightforward retelling and conducts a methodical descent into the sensory resonance of sound and movement. It is the film he has been seemingly moving towards ever since his early days as a force of intrigue – a full-fledged mood piece conducted with the utmost skill and fortitude. Some, perhaps rightfully, have described the undertaking as his most powerful excursion to date – and if films earn their merit based on the emotions they conduct in the audience, few of us will walk away doubting whether he is capable of blurring the boundary between a distant event and an immediate experience.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Lady Bird / **** (2017)

Deep love is the central influence of the most fundamental disagreements between mothers and daughters. A friction is roused when a common goal is challenged by methods each sees as wrong or fruitless. Consider what transpires between the young heroine of “Lady Bird” and her mother Marion. Both results of a biting sarcasm permeating through their middle-class existence, each has a concept of how the other should behave in their role but is rarely affirmed by a sense of encouragement. Both, for instance, believe Lady Bird, now a senior in a Catholic high school, ought to advancer her education. She wants to attend a school in New York (“I want to go somewhere with culture,” she says). But Marion, conscious of her daughter’s trajectory as an underachiever, suggests a local community college. And then the two engage in the first of what must be a life’s worth of arguments that escalate, rather heatedly, into personal diatribes about each other’s vulnerabilities. At a certain point it almost becomes insufferably awkward, until the teenager decides to abruptly leave the conversation by tumbling out of a moving car. And so begins – or continues? – a journey where both must come to see one another not as immovable forces, but as independent thinkers capable of making the most informed choices available to them.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Get Out / **** (2017)

A startling honesty ensnares Jordan Peele for every frame he directs “Get Out,” a thriller where the jolts come not from boogeymen or supernatural forces, but an attitude that coalesces within a closed world of privilege and etiquette. This, he argues, is a threat easily concealed behind the eager banalities of others, who engage their victims with the sort of deference that displaces them from the acknowledgment of an immediate danger. Consider how this affects the main character. He is a street-smart guy on his way to meet the parents of his girlfriend, confident and funny, yet quietly dealing with an anxious quandary: they may not be entirely happy with the notion that he is black. When he arrives, however, he discovers not only a welcoming environment, but an awfully convenient sense of acceptance; the parents seem so auspicious that it hardly seems genuine. And then there’s the matter of their servants – all black, each smiling sharply and with vacant expressions, as if stand-ins for the Stepfords. Is his worry unfounded, fueled by the unfamiliar territory he has descended in? Or are the courteous gestures of others a symbol for something far more devious? Peele discovers a disconcerting reality underneath that is as complex as it is timely; he has made not only a tremendously fascinating film, but the first act of cultural relevance in an era where hate has been brought back into political fashion.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Phantom Thread / **** (2017)

Although “Phantom Thread” is said to be written under entirely original circumstances, the actual source of P.T. Anderson’s film comes from a personal experience, during which he was stricken ill and tended to by his wife who looked upon him with a “tenderness” he had rarely experienced. This, he notes, is the central point driving the circumstances surrounding the characters of his story, who otherwise seem to float through a dreamlike trance of emotional distance and faux courtesies. At the tip of the pattern is a man who would suggest dissonance from that prospect – a gifted dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock, who charges himself with amplifying the presence of bored and insecure women into the upper ranks of social grace. But he takes his task so seriously that, in some cases, the result must thoroughly transcend the model, even if she barely warrants his stellar reputation. A vital scene is worth considering: after designing a dress for an otherwise insufferable middle-aged woman and apprehensively attending her reception, she proceeds to behave in such a sloppy manner that the dress suddenly becomes a device of judgment – she is now unworthy, and the camera spies him furiously removing the bodice while she is passed out drunk in an upstairs bedroom.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Call Me By Your Name / ***1/2 (2017)

To sense the free-spirited candor of the characters in “Call Me by Your Name” is to recognize a measured development of male romance in the eyes of the Hollywood mainstream, where stories about gay characters have conventionally existed under the weight of a pervasive sociological subtext. In those circumstances, the love between the leads is rarely about the lust or the connection; they are guarded from more liberated behaviors as a means to emphasize an era, a not-too-distant time where homosexual impulses were either frowned upon, cause for mental concern or discouraged through violence. Those are, perhaps, the themes of filmmakers with an outsider’s view of the lifestyle (although no less important). But now comes a moment in time where the lessons of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Weekend” and “Moonlight” have relaxed the aesthetic chokehold and paved the route for a sweet and loving film where the characters are less mindful of an outside response and more consumed by the amorous temptations they possess. If that, in this political climate, leads any in the audience down a rabbit hole they still find discomfort in, their experience is best underscored by the pointed words of a noted observer: “nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.”

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Darkest Hour / ** (2017)

My first encounter with the versatile Gary Oldman originates from the age of 12, during a home viewing of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” where I first gazed at the eyes of a man with an unmistakable magnetism. His was the first figure to emerge on the screen, and somehow it had a disarming quality; a handsome and approachable face, full of plausible romantic longings, felt decidedly against the type we expected of a conventional villain. After he disappeared following the prologue, my mind raced with some sense of wonder – who was he? Could we come to see him as a negative force, as the story would ultimately require? And how could any woman, however fearful of his curse, find the strength to overcome his desirable advances, however dangerous? Only much later was it pointed out to me that the old man standing in his place during the film’s first act was the same Oldman, caked in heavy makeup to appear as a 300-year-old count in the shadows of Transylvanian architecture (different actors were cast all the time to play older versions of others, I figured). It was a testament to his ability that he was able to create a great enough illusion to fool even me, and over the years I have consciously followed him with the enthusiasm of a fanatic, curious as to what may come next in his life of relentless skin-shedding.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Florida Project / **** (2017)

A young girl, full of mischief and fire, moves through a low-rent  neighborhood with an impenetrable enthusiasm. Her friends accompany with almost nonexistent parental supervision, and often find themselves caught in situations that test their safety. A motel manager, a gruff sort insistent on rules, nonetheless observes their antics from a safe distance, perhaps because he senses the inability of others to respond to the dangers that inhabit their periphery. A scene involving his intervention with an old man emphasizes that prospect; as the stranger engages with the children as they are grouped around park benches, no parent is around to detect, quite obviously, that he is a predator. Do they in some way depend on his observations, however quietly? Or are they completely ambivalent? Or worse yet, just don’t care? There lies one of the many pointed questions in Sean Baker’s remarkable “The Florida Project,” where the whimsy and enthusiasm of the young stars is cast in a shadow created by adults who are too restrained by their poverty to sense the difference between a good and bad decision (assuming they make one at all).

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri / **** (2017)

There are three crucial exchanges in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” between Mildred, a mother dealing with the murder of her daughter, and Chief Willoughby, the man overseeing the difficult pursuit of her killer. Each mounts not just the tone of their journey, but also the deep and painful element of their individual convictions – two occur after she has audaciously called him out in a rather public way for not making any arrests in the case, and another comes in the form of a letter, following a decision he has made in the wake of his terminal medical diagnosis. What each exchange suggests, beneath the impassioned disagreements and heated put-downs, is a respect sourced from the same desire to do what’s right, even in the face of relative personal limits. That would be more than sufficient in a movie that sees pathos as the only possible emotion in a story thick with tragedies, but director Martin McDonagh uses them in a dramatic curve that is equal parts gruff, shocking, devastating and humorous. By all definitions he has made a film that ought to be handled with unwavering candor. But it is within those three scenes where a more intricate foundation is discovered, in characters who know little about conventional mourning but everything about lashing out with sardonic resolve.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I, Tonya / ***1/2 (2017)

Tonya Harding wants people to know something they have refused to see – it’s never been her fault. No, not when she first took to the ice and treated her competitors with the same brash cruelty that her mother passed down to her on a constant basis. Not when she threw a vulgar tantrum in front of judges because they scored her low in one of her earliest skating competitions – essentially because she didn’t dress “appropriately.” And certainly not when her former friend and colleague Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted while training just a couple of months prior to the ’94 Winter Olympics, in an incident now famously known for the involvement of those closest to her circle. In whatever capacity you choose to accept the details – certain or otherwise – it’s never been a fair game to the poor misunderstood Ms. Harding. This despite her impeccable skill, her drive, her refusal to give up in the face of constant verbal and emotional abuse, and her history-making moves on ice that first captured her in the fickle public eye. No four words are uttered more frequently in “I, Tonya” than the dismissal of personal responsibility. But are they always mistaken, or is there some truth to the denial? Does she know any better? When the same phrase is repeated by nearly every important witness to her perplexing public history, it serves to emphasize the nature at which she was created. Here is a woman who was once loved, then vehemently hated, and now forever exists in that distant cesspit of pop culture pariahs where few hope to understand the reasons why people behave the way they do.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

La La Land / ***1/2 (2016)

The ambitious “La La Land” opens with a marvelous scene on a congested freeway overpass, where nameless extras vacate their cars to share in the moment of a colorful musical interlude. Their choreographed zeal is carried by near-perfect technical aptitude that sees the act lifted into the reveries of aesthetical greatness; the camera persists across four minutes of song and dance in one seemingly unbroken shot, and the routine is mirrored by dancers on top of cars that seem to stretch beyond eyesight. What nerve does any modern film have evoking that sense of skill in a moment already overflowing with the heedless optimism of old Hollywood nostalgia? For Damien Chazelle, the director who helmed the brilliant “Whiplash,” that obsessive pitch for perfection is never far from the hearts of even the most good-natured (or spontaneous) entertainers. What they must go through to make their dance moves seem as if they defy gravity, the discipline they endure to find the right key for any number of songs that emerge from their eager lips, is anyone’s guess. Here is a movie with a fascinating duality of values, driven by the same lighthearted spirit that yielded the musicals of the golden age, with an underlying reverence for a craft where the maddening mechanics might have seemed more troublesome than the effort was worth.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Beauty and the Beast / ** (2017)

Once upon a time, in a faraway board room of a money-hungry movie studio, someone voiced an idea that signaled the beginning of the end of original concepts: “let’s take all of our animated pictures and remake them into live action ones!” Although the undertaking might have inspired intriguing subtexts, the standard remained depressingly derivative, inevitably leading to a cluster of endeavors that rarely expanded the imaginations of their viewers. And thus Disney gave voice to executives whose primary motivation was dollar signs, an impulse that paved the way for routine retellings of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella” and “Pete’s Dragon.” In rare instances, granted, were endeavors that added interesting spins to their premise (“Maleficent”) or even surpassed rather flawed sources (“The Jungle Book”). But when the decision to retool “Beauty and the Beast,” one of the finest of all animated achievements, came down the pike, the core of this capitalist motivation seemed no longer able to masquerade behind plausible convictions. What could today’s artists, really, do to a story that had seemingly been perfected in hand drawings? Was something undiscovered waiting among all those talking pieces of furniture? If anything at all can be said of the live-action rendition beyond a few isolated touches of skill, it’s that the director, Bill Condon, has effectively produced the first movie musical for the “Glee” generation. And that is not something to be proud of.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Shape of Water / *** (2017)

Eventually all moviegoers – even the most open-minded – will arrive at a moment that challenges their ability to tolerate arduous realities. One of mine came during the second act of “The Shape of Water,” when the lead character played by Sally Hawkins shares a detail with Octavia Spencer about the anatomy of the sea creature she has rescued. The preceding scene already leaves little to the imagination; as the camera rests at the entrance of her bathroom, she walks seductively towards the animal, disrobes and closes the shower curtain as they come to a very suggestive embrace. For most there is no possibility of mixed interpretation, and yet I was fully content to overlook what transpired for the sake of riding the film’s momentum. But Guillermo del Toro, the movie’s director, refuses to dismiss the discomfort with glossed over platitudes. That’s never been his style. No, he allows the event to become a topic of lighthearted exchange between she and her friend, who is marveled not only by the idea that this beast even has a penis hidden behind that thick mound of his pubic region, but apparently a very satisfying one. Their exchange leads to a strange chuckle, which the audience nervously joins in on. And there I am sitting in the dark, fidgeting uncomfortably, feeling as if I had been submerged in water that was brought to a very slow boil.