Category Archives: Reviews

The 3rd Annual ERPs


A year in movies isn’t just about the new releases. In addition to the EMOs, now I present the 3rd annual Ethan’s Repertory Picks, running down some of the best, worst and most memorable games of cinematic catch-up that I played in 2017. Enjoy!

For Marilyn Monroe Really Going For It With the Crazy: “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), Roy Ward Baker

For Marilyn Monroe Really Bored: “Niagara” (1953), Henry Hathaway

For the Origin of Every Think-Piece and Opinion You’ve Ever Seen or Had About Marilyn Monroe: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), Billy Wilder


For “Deliverance” But More Martial and Also Insane: “Southern Comfort” (1981), Walter Hill

For the Silliest Vin Diesel Hair: “The Last Witch Hunter” (2015), Breck Eisner

For When Your “Stranger Things” ’80s Nostalgia Isn’t Ultra-Violent Enough: “Turbo Kid” (2015), Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell


For When You Want to Yell At Protagonists Who Are Not Nearly Freaked Out Enough About the Circumstances They Find Themselves In: “Children of the Corn” (1984), Fritz Kiersch


For Cary Grant In Some Really Primo Hats: “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), Howard Hawks

For Faye Dunaway Really Going For It in a Movie with Unclear Reasons for Existing: “Mommie Dearest” (1981), Frank Perry

For a Great Le Carre Adaptation Done in By Bizarre Casting: “The Little Drummer Girl” (1984), George Roy Hill

For A So-So Le Carre Adaptation Elevated By Great Casting: “The Russia House” (1990), Fred Schepisi


For Sexy Mermaids That Will Eat the Patriarchy: “The Lure” (2015), Agnieszka Smoczynska

For the Particular Delight of Rock Hudson Trying to Fit Into a Car That’s Too Small For Him, Which Is Really What We Should Be Talking About When We Say That They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To: “Pillow Talk” (1959), Michael Gordon

For a Thriller About Revenge Against the 1% and Nazis That, Somehow, Feels Even Less Timely: “Inside Man” (2006), Spike Lee

For Checking Your Goddamn Narrative Logic At the Door, We’re Making a Soviet Avant-Garde War Movie and Just Go With It: “Story of the Flaming Years” (1961), Yulia Solntseva


For Super Super Fashionable Murder: “Blood and Black Lace” (1964), Mario Bava

For the Good Old Days When Charles Durning Could Be An Action/Thriller Hero: “When a Stranger Calls” (1979), Fred Walton


For When You Really Feel Like Suspending Disbelief, Sure Orson Welles Could Hide Out in Small-Town Connecticut Without Attracting Any Attention: “The Stranger” (1946), Orson Welles

For The Most Xtreme Xaction Xaround: “xXx” (2002), Rob Cohen

For Half of a Pretty Good Movie Just Repeated Twice: “Sully” (2016), Clint Eastwood

Top 10 Repertory Picks of 2017

10. “Train to Busan” (2016), Sang-ho Yeon


A clever, zippy take on the zombie outbreak genre, follows through on its killer conceit with claustrophobic action and character work. The third act really starts to lag, but terrific set-pieces and likable leads make for a real romp that manages to sneak in some feeling.

9. “Woman of the Year” (1942), George Stevens


A contradictory movie – obvious reshoots and edits reveal paradoxical attitudes towards femininity and Hepburn’s fierce investigative journalist Tess Harding in particular. Her independent spirit is both validated by a refreshingly oddball-yet-realistic romance with Tracy’s kind but emotionally stunted sports reporter; yet knocked down by that grafted-on ending that clearly needs to put the character “in her place” for a 1940s American wife. But when it’s embracing the eccentricities and fumbling of Tess and Sam’s relationship, “Woman of the Year” feels surprisingly ahead of its time and quite unlike contemporary screwball romances – and, while that re-shot ending sequence is awkward, poorly written and problematic against the rest of the film, it *does* give Hepburn one of the best purely comic set-pieces of her career.

8. “The Women” (1939), George Cukor


Likewise – it’s rough that even when investing in a rare all-female production, it’s tough to say whether Golden Age Hollywood could quite pass the Bechdel Test. But even if the story can’t stray past typical character confinements – “The Women” is all socialite machinations, gossip, and affairs – it’s impossible to put such an incredible cast together and not get something special. Shearer, Crawford, Russell, Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Marjorie Main, Ruth Hussey – letting these superb actresses bounce off each other, without a rote Melvyn Douglas performance or somesuch to get in the way, remains (sadly) a unique experience.

7. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941), William Dieterle


Dieterle, a Hollywood transplant from Weimar Germany, leans into the gothic horror of Stephen Vincent Benet’s colonial New England fable, with playful special effects and haunting imagery. Walter Huston has a near criminal amount of fun as the demonic Mr. Scratch.

6. “Repo Man” (1984), Alex Cox


Cox’s encyclopedic knowledge of and affinity with the L.A. punk scene of the early ’80s may provide the easy hook, but it’s one thing to be referential and another to actually translate punk’s off-kilter humor and disregard for social norms into a movie so viscerally. A send-up of wacky conspiratorial sci-fi B-movies, a satirical critique of consumer dystopia, a punk rock coming-of-age story – none of it should add up to anything coherent, and maybe it doesn’t, but you can’t help but think about the makers laughing at you for being square enough to try to square it, and go along for the ride.

5. “Mildred Pierce” (1945), Michael Curtiz


Anyone who’s only seen Joan Crawford second-hand: filtered through “Mommie Dearest” or “Feud”, really owes it to themselves to see her at the height of her own power. “Mildred Pierce” ain’t a bad place to start. Narrative casts her as both heel and patsy, but the expressionistic noir wasteland of Curtiz’s California coastline, along with Crawford’s nuanced, powerhouse performance, suggest the deeper tragedy of circumstance going on here in Mildred Pierce’s story.

4. “Paprika” (2006), Satoshi Kon


A trippy, balls-to-the-wall thriller that appropriately abandons all logic in favor of stunning, dreamy imagery. Rather than some of its Hollywood equivalents – think “Inception” – Satoshi Kon’s anime classic leans into the absurdity and spontaneity of subconscious thought, trading precision plotting for a zippy, delightful journey that *feels* sensical, even when the details can, and should, fall by the wayside.

3. “Pather Panchali” (1955), Satyajit Ray


Ray’s loose, eminently empathetic masterpiece practically defines humanist cinema. Effortlessly gorgeous (the Criterion Collection and Academy’s painstaking 2015 restoration is truly something to behold), gently heart-breaking, “Pather Panchali” tells the story of a childhood with minimal bluster and excess. It’s a triumph of understatement and sensitivity.

2. “Poem of an Inland Sea” (1958), Yulia Solntseva


A deep cut – and even among the small crowd of New York cinephiles who happened to catch all three of Yulia Solntseva’s gorgeous Ukraine trilogy at Museum of the Moving Image this past summer, perhaps the oddball choice. The consensus pick for best of the bunch seemed to be the Tarkovsky-esque “Enchanted Desna”, and Solntseva won Best Director at Cannes for “Story of the Flaming Years”. But “Poem of an Inland Sea” really captured my fascination – precisely because it is in many ways the most stilted of the three. The most overtly “propagandistic”, it is also by far the queasiest about those propagandistic elements – building up the Soviet achievement of a new dam with visual grandeur while at the same time mourning the loss of the Ukrainian communities about to be flooded with a thoroughly anti-Party sense of melancholy and romanticism for the past. Though Solntseva’s visual style had clearly not yet fully matured, the characters in “Poem of an Inland Sea” are fleshed out and empathized with in a way the later films abandon for pure sensual stimulation – and it’s still hardly skimpy on stunning shots. A fascinating relic of the cultural/generational/ethnic tensions contained within the USSR.

1. “Dekalog: One” (1989), Krzysztof Kieslowski


No other filmmaker gives me chills in quite the same way as Kieslowski. I’m still only partially through the Dekalog, his cinematic series of loosely Biblical morality tales, but the distressing, bitter opening chapter sets a pall that is not easily shaken. As queasy and probing about the relationship between humanity and technology as the best episodes of “Black Mirror”, Kieslowski manages to ask some of the most unsettling, existential questions with the simplest of images.


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Screen Watch: July 21, 2017

Thoughts on movies, TV, and other things seen on flat screens

Ansel Elgort;Jon Hamm;Jamie Foxx;Eiza Gonzalez

Baby Driver

I’ve pretty much always been along for an Edgar Wright ride, even “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” – and, while “Baby Driver” is better than that oft-maligned flop, it shares and drastically augments my growing concern that Wright has no idea how to cast his leads if Simon Pegg isn’t involved. Michael Cera’s lack of range and off-putting nebbishness tanked “Scott Pilgrim”‘s emotional core, and likewise whatever heights “Baby Driver”reaches are very frequently in spite of, not thanks to, Ansel Elgort’s black hole of charisma. He’s not *bad* exactly, as Baby, the getaway driver with a heart of gold, but he’s utterly boring, and when your narrative is nothing but familiar genre tropes strung together, boring is a cardinal sin.

There’s an exception or two of course: when Elgort gets to show off his training in ballet, as in the way he dances to himself in the car of the film’s opening, outstanding heist sequence, you practically weep wondering what “La La Land” could’ve been with actual dancers leading the way. But mostly Elgort is relegated to playing straight man to a more eclectic (and more fun) cast of supporting characters. Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm spice up the patter, finding room to play in the too-long gaps between undeniably exquisite chase scenes.

Wright’s been one of the best action directors in the world the past decade, hiding behind the comic facade “Hot Fuzz”, “Scott Pilgrim” and “The World’s End”; “Baby Driver” drops much of the parodic pretense, and it’s exhilarating. The chase scenes are slick, sweet, crowd-pleasing; it’s just too bad Wright’s formal mastery is paired with an utter disinterest in narrative innovation. “Baby Driver” is totally content, for instance, to let Lily James’ character be exactly a genre cliche, practically stepped straight out of a James Cagney flick. I still whole-heartedly believe Wright’s got a masterpiece in him, but gods it won’t be “Baby Driver 2”.


The Beguiled

As usual, Sofia Coppola’s latest is utterly ravishing, and its opening shots of a misty, murky, overgrown Virginian estate immediately sets your mind for a moody, complex thriller – that simply never arrives. Coppola’s particular, repeated treatise on repressed white femininity has played out before with more engaging and engaged characters and style (“The Virgin Suicides”, “Lost in Translation” and “Marie Antoinette” are all hardly perfect, but they are bold messes).

Here, she ventures into historic drama and a loaded premise (a house full of Southern women who shelter a wounded, handsome Union soldier) – while apparently uninterested in most any of the implications of setting the story in a specific time, and a specific place. As told by Coppola, you could transplant this story to any war, in any time; and while universality can be a legitimate point to make, in this case the vagueness simply leaves more questions than connections: beyond the lazy explanation of “that’s the source material”, why the Civil War? Why Virginia? Why dismiss the house’s slaves with a literal one-liner of hand-waving dialogue? It is difficult to get engaged with a story that feels like it is only half-heartedly justifying itself.



Bong Joon-ho’s ability to pull off a kitchen-sink approach to genre and tone remains unparalleled – it’s difficult to think of any other director who can slip from black comedy to thrilling action to quiet drama and back again so quickly, and so easily.

Like his previous high-profile international effort, “Snowpiercer”, “Okja” features a blatantly off-key performance that threatens to tip his delicately balanced boat over. In “Snowpiercer”, Chris Evans unfortunately never seemed to receive the “satire” memo; here, Jake Gyllenhaal seems to have taken it too close to heart, putting in such an outrageously cartoonish performance that it becomes impossible to focus on what is actually happening in any of his scenes, much less get emotionally invested in them.

But, far more finely calibrated performances from Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and lead Ahn Seo-Hyun make “Okja” a winning, if not overpowering, modern fable. The heist/chase scene that arrives mid-second-act is one of the best setpieces of Bong’s career, and the early scenes of Ahn and her charming super-pig together in the forest channel Miyazaki in the best way.



War for the Planet of the Apes

The “shock” that we can empathize with digital creations is, at this point, entirely stale – we can’t pretend like Pixar hasn’t been at it for 20 years now. Less examined, and less truly appreciated, is the ability to create utterly seamless blends of CGI and physical realities. I have yet to really be *convinced*, for instance, by literally any Marvel movie, in which weightless blurry robots are destroyed by weightless blurry humanoids, with Chris Hemsworth’s face grafted on to the blur most resembling a human head. Suspension of disbelief means that I can still carry on, and even greatly enjoy, most of these movies. But Hollywood has a problem, and it has to do with weight, and the under-explored (at least, when it comes to the cultural conversation around movies) psychological correspondence between physical and emotional presence.

I’m a newcomer to the new “Apes” trilogy, so yes, I’ll join the party and confirm that “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a shining example of movies that do *not* have this problem. Despite largely taking place in a “real” setting (that is, not Thanos’ asteroid, or a Death Star, or some other completely fantastical green-screen environment), Woody Harrelson’s character is more or less the only human character of note, the entire film otherwise being carried by the apes that seem to be equal parts performance-capture and VFX artistry. Film criticism and discourse has long resisted the true appreciation of collaborative efforts – witness, most everyone’s tendency (including my own) to continue referring to movies by their director as “author”, despite us all objectively recognizing that every movie is a herculean mosaic of group effort – and thus, credit for Caesar the chimp seems destined to be handed disproportionately either to Andy Serkis or Weta Digital, when the truth is likely an un-categorizable middle ground.

Regardless. Caesar’s struggle to consider what a leader can or should be, and the tension between those impulses, is a resonant and affecting creation. The third-act prison-escape drama of “War” threatens to drag out the story too long, but it comes roaring back to a thrilling conclusion thanks to Reeves’ sterling craft and canny eye for set-pieces.


Veep, season 6 / Silicon Valley, season 4

Both HBO stalwarts had solid seasons of comedy, but neither really came close to their respective peaks. The best moments came from those mid- to late-run magic moments of actors and writers who so thoroughly know their characters by now that they’re free to just revel in the wriggly, weird details – see: Zach Woods’ Jared in “Silicon Valley”, revealing ever more hilariously disturbing pieces of his childhood and nearly creating a spinoff show with his schizophrenic side personality, tech bro “Jim Chambers”; or Tony Hale, Matt Walsh and Timothy Simons in “Veep” all somehow finding new depths of empathy and disgust in what, five seasons ago, were already one-note characters (Sam Richardson and Clea DuVall, secret MVPs over the past couple seasons of the show, were generally under-served this time around, but still came through with 101 mph fastballs in limited screentime).

I pair these two together because they’ve also both lost pretty much any narrative engagement to the cyclical nature of sitcoms at this point: the perpetual up-and-down fortunes of Pied Piper and Selina Meyer’s presidential hopes are, at this point, in dire need of a Daenerys Targaryen wheel-breaking. Perhaps, with T.J. Miller’s departure from “Silicon Valley”, that show will at last leave behind Ehrlich’s goddamn living room (or, at least, give us more Jian-Yang).


House of Cards, season 5

Boy, speaking of wheel-spinning. Does this show have an endgame? A point to make that it didn’t make in season two? Any reason for existing at all? I mean, the ending of season five puts us back in literally the exact same place that season three ended, with the promise of Underwood vs. Underwood. Last time turned out to be a roughly two-episode-long feint; why should I believe the political thriller that cried wolf? Especially when there’s barely even fun to be had in the supporting cast anymore? (Does Lars Mikkelsen even know he’s still on this show???) The only glimmer of life here is Patricia Clarkson more or less playing Tammy One Goes to Washington.


GLOW, season 1

Where “House of Cards” has grown utterly stale despite self-serious insistence that it’s “relevant”, “GLOW” feels fresh by embracing familiar, comfortable formula done well. We are in true boom times for half-hour comedy, but even so “GLOW” stands out for its snappy and savvy writing and top-to-bottom charming cast of established (Alison Brie, Marc Maron) and should-be (Sunita Mani, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young) stars. It won’t inspire as many thinkpieces as many other peak-TV offerings because it’s message, and implications, are straightforward and not terribly ambitious, but that’s most increasingly welcome in a bloated landscape of cultural conversation.

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Screen Watch, June 18th 2017

Thoughts on movies, TV, and anything else seen on a flat screen recently:

It Comes At Night

I didn’t see the first feature by Trey Edward Shults, 2015’s “Krisha”, but his sophomore effort is the kind that makes me want to not only go back and catch up, but pay close attention to whatever project he’s got lined up next (Trey, more “Moonlight”, less “La La Land”, please). “It Comes At Night” is a solid entry in the new wave of indie horror. Like “It Follows” or “The Babadook” or “Get Out”, it’s steeped in genre history: Shults’ techniques are familiar (slow, brooding zooms, plenty of shadows, sharp and sudden stings of music or sound), but impeccably deployed in a “Night of the Living Dead”-esque scenario that strips out the metaphorical monsters and skips right to the oppressive, sweat-inducing dread.

It is not a spoiler to say, straight up, that you will never see or really learn much of anything about the threat lurking in the woods outside the secluded home of Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and if you need anything more concrete, this will not be your movie. Whereas Romero’s walking, lurching dead are a (brilliantly) simple metaphor for mortality, Shults’ monster is an even broader sense of anxiety and the many, many forms it can take for people: not just death, but xenophobia (sorry, “economic insecurity”), sex, loneliness, puberty, machismo. Our fears are innumerable and therefore, overwhelming and unnameable. There’s been plenty of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fare at the box office for the better part of a decade now, and I’m not looking to expound on the likely reasons for that – but “It Comes At Night” for me, taps into a fascinating (and disturbing) new feeling of existential dread: less cataclysmic than Hollywood’s vision of extinction, but a smaller and much harder-to-shake sense that the world we are creating will be worse than the one we’re in now. Society might crumble, our loved ones will be lost, and we’ll be forced to watch it all happen.

The ensemble performance, including surprising turns from Christopher Abbott of “Girls” and Riley Keough (“Mad Max: Fury Road”, “American Honey”), is universally terrific, but the tête–à–tête of Edgerton and Harrison, Jr. as weary, loving father and unmoored son stands out.


Big Little Lies (HBO)

I missed the cultural conversation on HBO’s all-star mini-series, but hopefully the Emmys will bring back around a revisit of this impressive, occasionally infuriating, terrifically performed production. That “occasional” fury is, at any given moment, almost certainly the blame of an incredibly clunky script by David E. Kelley that tends to throw nuance in the trash at critical moments. The reasons it only pops up now and again, rather than a constant stream of why-am-I-watching-this self-interrogation, are 1) surprisingly moody, woozy direction by Jean-Marc Vallee (making a leap above “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild” here), and 2) a veteran cast of actresses clearly reveling in the ability to play women with seven hours of development and shading rather than three scenes of “concerned love interest”.

Nicole Kidman does the most with the most room to play, Reese Witherspoon the most with the least, and Zoe Kravitz is the most ill-served by Kelley’s wildly inconsistent script – for a project otherwise so explicitly meant to explore female perspectives, it’s insane to me how completely uninterested in her character the show is beyond “hippie-dippie step-mom that all the middle-aged white men want to fuck”. Laura Dern at least has much much more screen time to turn a cartoonishly terrible character (in all senses) into something relatable, by pure dint of being Laura Dern.

Oh, also Shailene Woodley is pretty good? Honestly, maybe it’s just her smaller body of work overall, but I have almost no opinion on her career, performance, or character here.

This is what makes the series unique though: a desire to delve into and nitpick the roles of these women and performances at a level of complexity and nuance so rarely afforded these actresses (I mean, Kidman’s had a fair share of real shots on goal, but who’s going to begrudge her more).”Big Little Lies”-stans, please get at me, I’d love to talk more.

Oh oh also, the “Greek chorus” of gossiping townsfolk is a great pilot-episode device that gets increasingly misguided as it continues on throughout the series; but I did appreciate and greatly enjoy that, by the final episode, I could potentially see literally any character on the show murdering any of the other characters. No joke, that makes for a riveting mystery.


The Americans, season 5 (FX)

Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, why you gotta do us like this? After four seasons, by sheer force of will, TV critics and Russian majors had finally gotten the viewing public (or at least the Emmys) to pay attention to your riveting slow-burn spy drama. And then as a victory lap you decide to finally reach the breaking point of “how much plot is too little plot”. When you can literally summarize each character’s season (including, and I can not emphasize this enough, their entire emotional arc) in a sentence or two, you’re really pushing what can even be considered narrative.

In retrospect, we should’ve known we were in for a hit, with the two most interesting side characters on the show, Nina and Martha, more or less taken off the chessboard. But the failure to replace them with any equivalent (oh how this season would’ve benefited from something on the level of season 4’s lights-out supporting turn by Dylan Baker), and then to hand sterling season regulars literally nothing but anticlimax (see: Elizabeth learns tai chi, Oleg investigates grocery fraud) – hooooey. When you catch me admitting that I’m currently most invested in the Paige/Pastor Tim subplot, something is very wrong.

I fully expect “The Americans” to bring it back around for their sixth and final season – I mean, SOMETHING *has* to happen in order to wrap this up – but it was incredible to watch a show that had otherwise so meticulously ratcheted tension for four seasons completely flatline emotionally. When the show, along with Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, earn Emmy nominations again through pure inertia, I will be retroactively applying those nods to season 3.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, season 3 (Netflix)

UKS is following the mold of its Tina Fey-forerunner “30 Rock” of getting stronger the less plot there is. With the Reverend finally out of the picture (Jon Hamm did an amazing job with that character, but really, I’m not convinced we ever ever ever need to see him again), UKS could just go small ball with low-stakes sitcom arcs and focus on being, pound-for-pound and joke-for-joke, the funniest show out there right now. Carol Kane and Tituss Burgess both got some of their best material yet (seriously, that hurricane bottle episode, complete with the perfect Maya Rudolph cameo, is *everything*), while Ellie Kemper proved that Kimmy’s winsome enthusiasm and naivete may very well never grow tiresome.

Jane Krakowski’s character remains the biggest flaw of the show – when somehow *still* sincerely pursuing the nausea-inducing notion of Jacqueline-as-woke-whitewashed-Native American, UKS is, yet again, a black hole of misplaced intentions. Luckily, they improve on season 2 by at least doing *less* of that and much more of the straight-faced absurdity (David Cross getting “smooshed”, flirting with a dead grandmother, anything involving Amy Sedaris) that is Krakowski’s wheelhouse.


Master of None, season 2 (Netflix)

The increasing indulgence of “Master of None”‘s second (and possibly last) season plays both in its favor and against it. Even more so than the first season, the show revolves around a structure of isolated vignettes – meaning it can live or die not just episode by episode, but sometimes even scene to scene. An homage to “Bicycle Thieves” can be alternately charming AND gratingly twee. Suddenly doubling the running time of an episode for an hour-long romantic interlude can both afford more depth than usual to Dev’s desires AND reveal how shallow the object of that romantic interest (first Rachel, now Francesca) is written.

“Master of None” remains one of the most perceptive and empathetic depictions of 21st-century young-adulthood and immigration, especially when it comes to dating and family relationships. But Dev is increasingly the least interesting character on his own show (partly, I gotta say, because of Aziz Ansari’s limited range – he’s got a note, and he played it extremely well for about a season and a half!), and it feels like Ansari and Alan Yang know it – that explains (terrific) episode-long tangents dedicated to say, Denise’s family dynamics, or literally *a bunch of random strangers encountered on the street* (“New York, I Love You”, which for me ranks with season one’s “Parents” as the best the show has offered, despite the more direct crack at a sequel in “Religion”).

Ansari has made noises that “Master of None” won’t return unless he and Yang really come up with stor(ies) that they love, and I get the sense from season two that might not be likely. Seeing their sensibility and writing brought to a slightly different project, though, would be most welcome.

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