Category Archives: Reviews

Screen Watch, June 18th 2017

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

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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