Category Archives: Reviews

The 2nd Annual ERPs

Last year I rolled out my first-ever ERPs – Ethan’s Repertory Picks. They’re meant to be a supplement to the ongoing EMOs, recognizing that my year of movie-watching is defined just as much by repertory screenings, Netflix binging and Criterion classics as by new releases.

This is not a  comprehensive rundown of every pre-2016 film I saw over the past year, but it is just an opportunity to give some notices and recommendations to movies that, for whatever reason, good or bad, stuck out to me. Then we’ll wrap things up with a Top 10 of classic picks – the most essential viewing experiences, good enough to deserve some legitimate thoughts thrown their way. Please enjoy!

For When You’re On a 90-Minute Sugar High And Literally Can Not Hold Your Attention For More Than Five Seconds At a Time: “The Transformers: The Movie” (1986), Nelson Shin

For When You Want to Feel Even More Shit and Terrified About the State of State Surveillance and Politics Than You Already Are: “Citizenfour” (2014), Laura Poitras

For Comfortingly Fictional Russian Spies: “The Deadly Affair” (1966), Sidney Lumet

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For Uncomfortably Not Fictional Nazis: “Hitler’s Madman” (1943), Douglas Sirk

For a Terrifically Gerunding Double Feature: “Knowing Men” (1930), Elinor Glyn; “Designing Woman” (1957), Vincente Minnelli

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For When You Want to Delve Into the Dark Side of the Expanded “Fast & Furious” Universe: “Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002), Justin Lin

For Adorably Mean Lucille Ball: “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940), Dorothy Arzner

For When You’re Stuck in a Snowstorm in Donner Pass: “Trouble Every Day” (2001), Claire Denis; or “Ravenous” (1999), Antonia Bird

For Some Casually Sexist Superhero Bullshit That At Least Has Michael Peña In It: “Ant-Man” (2015), Peyton Reed

For Quality Family Time But You Really Need It To Be With Someone Else’s Family: “Monsoon Wedding” (2001), Mira Nair

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For Golden-Age Hollywood Doofiness With Just an Inexplicable Dash of Surreal Horror: “By Candlelight” (1933), James Whale

For a Detailed Instruction Guide to Heisting Jewel Shops and Then Getting Ridiculously Shot For It: “Thief”(1981), Michael Mann

For Making A New York Introvert Feel Better About At Least Occasionally Going Outside In Order to Watch Movies: “The Wolfpack” (2015), Crystal Moselle

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For An Eccentric Post-Apocalyptic Rock-Music Sci-Fi Thriller Featuring Strangely Attractive Dog-People-Hybrids That Literally Could Have Only Been Greenlit During Like a Ten-Minute Span in the ’80s: “Rock & Rule” (1983), Clive A. Smith

For When You Want to Watch “Titanic” But Don’t Want to Hear the Sound That Guy Makes When He Hits the Propeller: “A Night to Remember” (1958), Roy Ward Baker

For the Ur-Buddy Cop Comedy That Still Holds Up When Danny Glover Is On Screen and Less So When It’s the Other Guy: “Lethal Weapon” (1987), Richard Donner

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For Bleak Hollywood-Style Film Noir With Better Accents: “Odd Man Out” (1947), Carol Reed

For Normal Adult White People Working Out Normal Adult White People Problems: “Enough Said” (2013), Nicole Holofcener

For A Nasty R-Rated Marvel Movie That’s Not Nearly As Full Of Itself as “Deadpool”: “Punisher: War Zone” (2008), Lexi Alexander

For Dubbed Burt Lancaster Looking Fly As Heck: “The Leopard” (1963), Luchino Visconti

Top 10 Repertory Picks of 2016

10. “Fantastic Planet” (1973), René Laloux

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The allegory of Laloux’s cutout stop-motion masterpiece is thin, but broad (and, still far smarter than many of the derivative *coughAvatarcough* takes it inspired): in this tale of an alien planet where humans (Oms) are dominated and treated like animals by an advanced race of giant, blue-skinned Draags, you can easily spot the metaphors of racism, Cold War tension, etc. But the real reason to check out “Fantastic Planet” is the extraordinary psychedelic imagery, a batshit vision of surreal artistry. Wild, fantastic, savage – all the possible translations of the French title “sauvage” are appropriate here.

9. “The Ascent” (1977), Larisa Shepitko

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The bleakest film on this list by a country mile, terrible in its beauty. Yet Shepitko’s fable of Belarussian partisan fighters during WWII finds something mystical, quasi-Messianic, in the resilience of the human spirit in the face of death (…only some spirits, though). Even without the overt, uncanny spiritual imagery of a snowy, freezing purgatory, one has to consider anything with Anatoly Solonitsyn’s piercing stare something of a religious experience.

8. “An Autumn Afternoon” (1962), Yasujiro Ozu

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Ozu’s final film, and one of the most achingly lonely I’ve seen. Parents and children, husbands and wives – everyone’s well-intentioned, but no one communicates just right (particularly, you know…men). As Ebert wrote of “An Autumn Afternoon”: “We are here, we hope to be happy, we want to do well, we are locked within our aloneness, life goes on.” Only Ozu had a way of making such a profoundly fucking depressing statement seem tolerable – even oddly, gently, pleasant.

7. “Weekend” (2011), Andrew Haigh

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Eloquent, alluring, perceptive – “Weekend” deserves mention alongside some of the best cinematic stranger romances (although real talk everyone – why is this such a staple?) Supremely empathetic in the specificity and care given to reclusive, semi-closeted Russell and gregarious, vexed Glen, and all the nuances of their brief, ecstatic relationship, Haigh’s feature debut is utterly tender yet unsentimental. It’s one of those improvised, casual indies that oozes technique; an attractive contradiction.

6. “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974), Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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Watching this film last April nearly made me weep – I have to say I can barely fathom what it might do to me if I revisited it now (and how much higher it might climb on this list). Radically political in the simplest, most romantic of ideas – that a young Moroccan man and an older German woman can fall in love and the world just might not fall apart – Fassbinder’s reworking of “All That Heaven Allows” expands and, it must be said, triumphs upon Sirk’s source material in just about every way: in the ferocity of its social conscience, the delicacy of its character interactions, the exquisiteness of its aesthetics (OK, the last one’s a contest, but we’re talking about beautiful apples and gorgeous oranges here). Gently painful but ultimately, so, so endearing (and a tad surprising) in its fundamental optimism.

5. “Tampopo” (1985), Juzo Itami

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What an utter joy of a movie. I had a smile plastered on my face from the first scene, where a gangster brings his meal of oysters and champagne into a movie theater while simultaneously chastising the audience (us) for being too noisy, and that grin stayed through the whole of Itami’s “ramen Western.” That (arbitrary, if catchy) genre description, doesn’t do justice to the play of styles, characters and plot points melded together, practically in sketch-comedy format, to create this assemblage of food-related picaresques. Nominally the center is trucker/cowboy/renegade chef Gōro’s quest to improve enthusiastic Tampopo’s ramen shop, but the true star here is Itami’s gleeful, energetic love of cinema, comedy and cuisine (do not watch unless you can immediately eat a true bowl of ramen immediately after).

4. “Portait of Jason” (1967), Shirley Clarke

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There are people who transfix a camera, and few of them are movie stars. You probably know one – that gregarious friend of a friend who electrifies the party whenever they walk in, or can’t take a bad selfie. Escort Jason Holliday is one of those people, and for an hour or so it is simply enough to watch him talk (and talk and talk), charismatically owning Shirley Clarke’s camera with funny and poignant tales from his life. Then somewhere, the tone shifts. Clarke and her partner Carl Lee’s questions from off-screen get more aggressive, accusatory. And what you thought you were watching is suddenly very different from what you are watching. The ethical conundrum behind the filming of “Portrait of Jason” is a struggle, but one worth walking through for yourself. The reality is more complicated, and heartbreaking, than I can write here.

3. “Yi Yi” (2000), Edward Yang

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At almost three hours and covering a year in the life of the Jian family, you could consider “Yi Yi” a chore, but you’d be delightfully, horribly wrong. Gently, carefully observed and stylish in an easy, graceful manner, Edward Yang’s film was one of the most comfortable, oddly familiar sits I had this year. This is the sort of film, along the lines of Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil” or Tarkovksy’s “Andrei Rublev” (or, well….Tarkovsky’s anything?) that I wish I could just revisit once a year, because in familiarity just come more delight, insight and revelation in the details. Movies that indulge in such sensual pleasure rarely come this humanistic and understated.

2. “Hyenas” (1992), Djibril Diop Mambéty

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Bona fide satire wrapped in an ethically fraught morality tale that leaves more questions than it answers – and that’s exactly as it should be. In the Senegalese village of Colobane, a popular local businessman sees his life thrown into disarray when the town’s most prominent ex-pat suddenly returns home with her considerable wealth – and a major grudge – in tow. To say much more would be to ruin the complex turns of character that writer/director Mambéty have in store (well, at least for those who are not die-hard Broadway fans and might recognize that plot description from the Chita Rivera musical “The Visit” – both Mambéty’s film and the musical are adapted from the same stage play), and dampen the considerable, scathing fun. A sharp and fraught examination of modernity and neocolonialism.

1. “Losing Ground” (1982), Kathleen Collins

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If there were justice in the world, Kathleen Collins’ film would be considered one fo the great New York movies: spunky, intellectual, tense, it captures a time, place and community I can not recall seeing anywhere else in film. Following the domestic trials and slow liberation of a black, female professor of logic at City College, “Losing Ground” sifts through the haze of Manhattan in summer, picking out its scenes and encounters with utmost care. As one of the characters, an aspiring filmmaker, exclaims (in just one of the charmingly, casually authentic turns of Collins’ phrase): “Did you catch that subtle mise-en-scene, mi amigo?!” I did catch it, and you should seek out this absolute gem as well.

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Review: Midnight Special

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It really doesn’t take much for the media to announce that some American director has taken up the mantle of “the Next Spielberg.” We’ve seen the cycle go around a lot recently with the influx of “fresh” white men handed the keys to major Hollywood franchises: J.J. Abrams, Colin Trevorrow, Joss Whedon. Hell, even M. Night Shyamalan infamously held the belt for a while. And then there’s Jeff Nichols, who might be the only candidate actually following the same career path as the patron saint of Amblin: hovering on the edges of Hollywood and garnering a significant critical following through ambitious, low-budget genre work.

But whether it’s recency bias at work or I’ve just gotten bored to tears of Spielberg’s schtick, I find the comparison extremely unflattering to Nichols. In a very short amount of time (“Midnight Special,” his latest feature, is only his fourth film following “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud”), Nichols has displayed a thematic and narrative complexity far beyond much of Spielberg’s work, which tends to allow exquisite craft and rousing entertainment outpace the simplistic moralism of his ideas. There are certainly exceptions to this – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for one, from which “Midnight Special”, not coincidentally, draws more than a little inspiration. But Nichols has a confidence in the archetypical nature of his characters and stories that Spielberg has never had – and it allows the writer/director to go to places both more enigmatic and more fine-grained.

Let’s back up (and stop ragging, for no special reason other than I felt like it, on Spielberg). What is “Midnight Special?” You may very well ask, especially given that title will essentially never come into play in the film (at least, until a haunting cover of the American traditional of the same title plays over the end credits). It is many things – a sci-fi thriller, a cross-country road chase, a “True Detective”-season-1-esque vision of a spiritually corrupted American South, a family story of reunion and redemption. None of these, however, is particularly obvious from the start; except perhaps that bit about the South, shown here with the same kind of familiarity and affection for America’s heartland that Nichols brought to all his previous features (especially “Mud,” with its clear echoes of Mark Twain). From the moment Roy (Michael Shannon), Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) emerge from a seedy state route motel and jump into an unpainted custom muscle car, Nichols’ vision of time and place is uncannily specific and evocative, even as what is actually going on remains paradoxically, almost infuriatingly unexplained.

The story emerges in elliptical bits and pieces: Roy has kidnapped Alton, his 8-year-old son, in an apparent escape from the Branch-Davidian type cult in which they were both raised. The cult (led, because of course it is, by Sam Shepard, doing wonderfully Sam Shepard-y things) is hot on Roy’s trail, but so is the federal government, led by a pack of FBI agents and an antsy NSA agent (Adam Driver) who exudes the self-assurance of someone five minutes away from realizing they’re in over their head. But Alton seems an oddly willing kidnap “victim”, not to mention just plain odd: he constantly wears a pair of bright blue swimming goggles, is unable to step foot in sunlight, and too often for comfort stares fixedly into the night sky, quite obviously seeing something that we are not (it doesn’t help that he’s played by Lieberher, who was exceptional on the past season of “Masters of Sex” and looks like Stephen King designed a child from scratch). And why do the federal intelligence agencies have such a pressing concern for this case?

Answering all the questions raised by this scenario would spoil some of the surprise, but, as Nichols’ purposefully cryptic method implies, is also beyond the point. As in “Take Shelter,” which tantalizingly refused to acknowledge whether the apocalyptic visions witnessed by Michael Shannon were prophecy or insanity, “Midnight Special” takes its genre outlining and paranoid atmosphere as fertile ground for metaphor. The oblique details of Roy and Jaeden’s journey allows us to see through to the familiar building blocks of their relationship: a father just trying to protect his son, a child trying to make sense of the world around him. There are dark forces at work in America: banal religious extremism, intrusive government surveillance, external threats with motivations beyond our understanding. But Nichols finds optimism in the stability of family (Kirsten Dunst does good work in a too-brief turn as Alton’s birth mother), friendship (Joel Edgerton’s fiercely loyal Lucas) and empathy (Adam Driver’s NSA agent, too inquisitive and compassionate to ever be a true threat to Alton).

A final compliment must also be paid to David Wingo’s wonderful score, a pulsing, ethereal work that sets the tone for the film perfectly. Listening to it again as I write this, it vividly suggests to me that half hour or so before a summer storm – clouds gathering, brewing, and you know the rain is about to break but just not when. “Midnight Special” holds you in that moment for almost two hours, and whether, when it all finally breaks (not with a thunderclap, but more a rolling wave), you find the ending satisfying will likely be entirely up to you.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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Review: April and the Extraordinary World

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When I was around 10 years old, I fell in love with Hergé’s Tintin books. They contained such an effortless and innocent* sense of adventure, propelled by a core of simple, charming characters and a globe-trotting spirit that certainly appealed to a middle-school Geography Bee champion. There’s just something about a plucky, ingenious young hero foiling cartoonishly dastardly plots with their talking pet sidekick that puts a smile on my face.

Thus, the big, dumb grin I sported for pretty much the entire runtime of “April and the Extraordinary World,” an out-of-nowhere animated charmer that combines the escapist pleasures of “serial” romps like the Indiana Jones movies with the inventive, alternate-universe visual flair of Miyazaki. The Tintin comparison is an inevitable one – the drawing style, adapted (as is the narrative) from the graphic novels and comics of Jacques Tardi, even looks much the same as Hergé’s – but “April and the Extraordinary World” also has its own distinct flavor, a steampunk/early sci-fi/apocalyptic vibe that owes as much to “Metropolis” and Jules Verne and Conan Doyle’s The Lost World” as it does to a certain intrepid Belgian reporter. Should they ever re-attempt to adapt Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” for the screen, please, may it be tackled by a team like this.

To describe the setup of the story is somewhat a chore: imagine Napoleon III died, not as a deposed exile, but in a freak scientific accident while attempting to develop a super-solider serum (yes, something not unlike our dear Captain Rogers’ juju juice). Imagine further, in the wake of that accident, that the world’s leading scientists and inventors all began to mysteriously disappear, snatched up by a mysterious, roaming, all-seeing cloud. Einstein, Edison, Fermi, Marconi, Curie, on and on – without our greatest minds, the world stagnates under primitive 19th-century technology. France, under a revitalized imperial regime, is forced to scrabble for a share of the world’s dwindling resources. In the middle of all of this, a young girl named April is distraught when her parents, chemists secretly working on the same serum project that did in old Napoleon, are taken by that threatening, straight-out-of-a-Roald-Dahl-nightmare cloud.

These things are all related, and there are yet many more puzzle pieces and characters to keep track of as April grows and pursues the truth underneath her topsy-turvy life (indeed, the French title of the film more literally, and more aptly, translates to “April and the Twisted World”). The writers deal nimbly with a massive amount of exposition, fleetly bounding on to the next scene and the next setpiece before the weight of this expansive world can ever come crashing down. Yet the film also never feels rushed – despite leaps of years, even decades, between some sections early on, “April and the Extraordinary World” finds time to linger just the right amount of time on a particularly gorgeous image (the twin Eiffel Towers of Paris that house a transcontinental cable-car station, for instance) or a clever bit of dialogue. Have I mentioned that, somehow, amid all the international intrigue I laid out above, this movie finds time for April to read “Puss in Boots” out loud to her talking cat named Darwin? “I’d have a few things about cats to tell Msr. Perrault,” Darwin sniffs, and I am not sure how else I can convince you to see this film.

But if that isn’t enough, “April and the Extraordinary World” is also a welcome newcomer in the burgeoning recent sub-genre of science-positive entertainment (kicked off, I might argue, by “Interstellar,” and finding its platonic ideal in “The Martian”). April is not just a bland, brave everyman protagonist; she is fiercely, explicitly smart, and put in a position to go on her pulse-pounding, high-stakes adventure for that very reason. The film recognizes both the risk and reward in that, just as it sees the danger humanity so often creates for itself by pushing society forward for short-term gain at long-term expense. But ultimately, progress is the long-term gain – resources will run dry, but as long as the urge remains to advance, to push the boundaries, to dash out into the unknown…we might be OK.

Now playing in limited release – to be expanded wider starting April 8. Watch for it!

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

*I know, I know, I didn’t discover “Tintin in the Congo” until a while later, and the um, less-than-savory villainization of Asians, Native Americans, Jews, etc. didn’t register at that age. The moon ones are still OK, right?

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