Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ildikó Enyedi's On Body and Soul is a film as obfuscating as it is enrapturing, purposely holding its audience at arm's length while thrusting us into a world of at times profound lyricism and haunting quietude. The film centers around two co-workers at a slaughterhouse; Endre (Morcsányi Géza), an irritable, no-nonsense financial manager with few friends, and Mária (Alexandra Borbély) a socially awkward temp whose overly developed memory leads her to be painfully exact in her work.

Both are lonely souls, not really relating to anyone around them. Mária finds herself an object of ridicule at work, displaying an almost autistic inability to understand social cues and distaste for human contact, while the prickly Endre prefers to stay in his office, isolated from the rest of the business. At night, both go home alone and dream of a snowy forest where they appear as a deer foraging for food in the quiet wood. They soon discover that they are sharing the same dream, and what began as a seemingly random occurrence soon becomes a much deeper human connection. Each night, they meet each other as deer in those woods, sharing a connection they could never share during the day.

Things become complicated, however, when they try to carry their relationship over into their waking hours, as their own inherent awkwardness threatens to get in their way. And yet, each night, they are called back into their forest haven, where words and social conventions don't matter, giving them the chance to create something beyond their own abilities.

It's a beautiful idea, watching two people's social awkwardness fall away when the need for language and social convention falls away. As two deer in a snowy wood, Endre and Mária forge a connection beyond their own ability to articulate. Yet, by its very nature, the film is distancing because its characters are distancing. Its dream sequences feel nearly transcendent, taking the film beyond language and existing on a wholly different plane. The awkwardness of their waking relationship, however, remains very purposely frustrating. On the other hand, Géza and Borbély handle their characters well. It's refreshing to see such broken and imperfect characters take center stage in a love story like this. Both live on society's margins, neither is classically "beautiful," and yet in their dreams none of that matters.

What's so special about On Body and Soul is that these two introverted characters are never going to be very articulate. By its very nature there can never be any great verbal introspection or profound statements of love. And yet, the silence says more than any monologue ever could. It is occasionally alienating, even off-putting, but what these two souls find beyond their own bodies is something deeply beautiful indeed. Enyedi has crafted an unusual love story that's not quite like anything else I've ever seen, an unspoken cry of loneliness that displays a deep understanding for those who don't quite fit in, who can't quite express their emotions, and finds a haunting and lyrical way to transcend those hangups and find a connection beyond human understanding.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ON BODY AND SOUL | Directed by Ildikó Enyedi | Stars  Alexandra Borbély, Morcsányi Géza, Réka Tenki, Ervin Nagy | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Tradition and modernity clash in John Trengove's The Wound, a film set in South Africa's Xhosa community during an annual rite of passage in which the young men of the village are circumcised during an eight day ritual. The film centers around Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a caretaker tasked with helping, and who happens to be in love with one of the other caretakers.

What follows is an intricate and intimate exploration of masculinity as seen through a coming of age ritual meant to signal the beginning of manhood. The very idea of manhood is called into question, as both caretakers and initiates call into question the masculinity of those they suspect of homosexuality, while displaying a weak and toxic version of what it means to be a man.  Comes out and states its own theme in the end, which undercuts its power somewhat, musing aloud about a phallocentric culture ultimately placing too much emphasis on the penis and shallow notions of ritualistic masculinity, but what leads up to it is stirring and often quite powerful.

The titular wound is more than just a scar on the penis, but something much deeper in the soul. It's a fascinating world through which to examine the deep fragility of masculinity, and it does so with great emotional economy thanks to a strong central performance Touré, who imbues his character with a lifetime of regret.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE WOUND | Directed by John Trengove | Stars Nakhane Touré, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay Ncoyini, Thobani Mseleni, Gamelihle Bovana | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The five nominees for Best Animated Short Film this year could not be more different. There's a tale of sports heroism, a twisted fairy tale, a photorealistic design showcase set around a mob hit, a poetic ode to a deceased father, and of course, a Pixar tear-jerker. Five films, five disparate points of view, and five accomplished visions; some abstract, some experimenting with light and form, and some just great stories. Here are the five nominees for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film:

Dear Basketball | Glen Keane | USA

Kobe Bryant may be a better basketball player than he is a poet, but there's something very moving about his deeply personal ode to the sport that became his life in Glen Keane's DEAR BASKETBALL. Featuring Bryant himself reading his short poem, set to a triumphant score by none other than the legendary John Williams, Dear Basketball recounts young Kobe's wide-eyed childhood, obsessing over his favorite sport, and dreaming of one day growing up to be a professional basketball player. A dream which, as we all know, he grew up to achieve. Even if you're not a big sports fan (I, for one, am not), it's hard not to feel a lump in one's throat witnessing the childlike glee with which Bryant talks about his love for basketball, a sport that has given him so much. It unfolds like a love poem, an ecstatic celebration of a dream fulfilled.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Garden Party | Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon and Lucas Navarro | France

I'm not sure I've ever seen an animated film as photorealistic as this. While it has no less than six credited directors, Garden Party doesn't really tell a story so much as showcase their incredible animation skills. Set in a house overrun with frogs and toads, the film follows their misadventures - looking for love, pigging out on leftovers - in their newfound home.

The film tells us little about why the house is abandoned, although it drops a few clues along the way (bullet holes in the glass, a phone off the hook, a surprise in the pool) that suggest a mob hit. But what makes it so wonderful is its stunning animation. It builds to an unexpected end, but the buildup is wonderfully disarming. It is a showcase of jaw-dropping animation that shows great promise for everyone involved.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Lou | Dave Mullins | USA

Items in a playground lost and found bin become sentient in Pixar's latest animated short, Lou, attached in theaters to Cars 3. The living items band together to stop a bully from stealing from other children on the playground. As as with most Pixar shorts, the film packs a lot of emotion into a short time frame, and while it isn't necessarily the emotional sucker punch that some of their finest shorts are, it's still a charming, anti-bullying PSA that manages to hit that sweet spot right between sweetness and sentimentality. It's the most emotionally incisive of the nominees, and the likely winner.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Negative Space | Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata | France

Based on a poem by Ron Koertge, Negative Space follows a young man mourning the death of his father, a man who always away on business, remembering him through the meticulous way he used to pack his suitcase.

There's something particularly haunting and lonely about this idea, brought full circle in the film's elegiac coda. It all feels a bit incomplete, never quite matching the abstract thoughts with particularly interesting imagery. But the final moment really hits home. A lovely but somewhat empty rumination.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Revolting Rhymes | Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer | UK

The uncle of the Big Bad Wolves from the stories of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood reveals his tragic story to a woman in a diner, recounting a friendship between Snow White and Little Red, and a lifelong quest for revenge.

Based on a story by Roald Dahl, Revolting Rhymes is the latest animated short from the Oscar nominated filmmakers behind The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. It's a delightfully twisted take on the classic fairy tales, underscoring their inherent violence and the untold ramifications of their plots. Captures Dahl's singularly wicked charm with a wink and a nod to the darkness that permeates our most beloved stories.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

For a list of theaters showing this year's Oscar nominated short films, check out

At first, Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman seems to be more about Francisco Reyes' Orlando than any woman. A distinguished older gentleman with salt and pepper hair, he visits a sauna for a massage, and saunters through a nightclub, catching the eye of the beautiful young lounge singer, Marina (Daniela Vega). Marina, it turns out, is his lover, and when she is finished performing, the two of them head out to celebrate her birthday. That evening, however, Orlando suffers a brain aneurism, falls down the stairs, and dies after being rushed to the hospital. 

Lost in her grief, Marina flees the hospital, raising the suspicion of authorities at the hospital. It isn't long before Orlando's family enters the picture: his brother, his ex-wife, his son, each more suspicious and cold toward Marina as the last. Marina, you see, is a transgender woman, and in the days following Orlando's death, the ugliness of human bigotry rears its ugly head, as Marina navigates the confusing and painful path toward emotional healing.

A Fantastic Woman is a probing and often wrenching portrait of grief and mourning, set against a backdrop of anti-trans bigotry. Daniela Vega, who is actually trans, gives an extraordinary performance as Marina, bringing a humanity and sense of experience to the role that could only come from someone who has actually lived it. While trans representation in cinema is still shockingly low, the track record of casting actual trans people in trans roles is even more rare. Vega is incredible, even more so given that she had never acted in a major film role like this before. Her haunted eyes give the film its humanity, grieving the loss of a loved one while facing incredible hatred just for her very presence.

This isn't just a film about discrimination, however. While it does deal in the ignorance and prejudice that transgender people face on a daily basis, it's also an introspective character piece, dotted with moments of ecstatic surrealism that suggest a happier life that could, and should, be. Lelio has a history of making great films about women on the margins of society. His 2014 film, Gloria, celebrated a 60 year old woman reclaiming her agency and finding love long after passing society's "sell by date." In A Fantastic Woman, Vega redefines traditional notions of femininity just by being a woman. There is nothing particularly remarkable about her. She's just a woman. And that's the key - because society doesn't see her as a woman. Therein lies the tragedy at the film's heart. Orlando was the only person who saw her for who she really is. Without him, the world is a cold, heartbreaking place, interrupted only by flashes of what could be; visions of a world that should be, but isn't. These elements of magical realism are used sparingly and effectively, and are made all the more heartbreaking by the human cruelty on display around them. A Fantastic Woman is a wrenching portrait of grief marked by a powerful central performance that heralds the arrival of a thrilling new talent.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A FANTASTIC WOMAN | Directed by Sebastián Lelio | Stars Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguera | Rated R for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

From The Dispatch:
There’s just not enough story here to sustain a feature length film. “The 15:17 to Paris” is a formless, narratively inert nothing of a movie that often feels like watching someone’s home movies of their trip to Europe for an hour and a half. The lives of its subjects up to their encounter on the train were almost painfully normal, and while it serves Eastwood’s point that anyone can step up and be a hero, it doesn’t really make for interesting cinema.
Click here to read my full review.

The chilly gray landscape of Russia in winter provides the appropriate backdrop for Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless, a bleak and often bitter excoriation of human nature in a world where love has died an extended and painful death. If Zvyagintsev's Leviathan (2014) was a cry of despair for the human condition, then Loveless is a howl of defeat. How can one continue to exist in a world of supreme selfishness, wholly unconcerned with the wellbeing of others?

The story is framed through the lens of a couple going through a hostile divorce. In the process of selling their home and starting new lives with new lovers, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) all but neglect their sullen 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). Faced with their hatred for each other and their desire to move on, they consider shipping Alyosha off to boarding school, one more piece of collateral damage in their ugly breakup. But when Alyosha suddenly disappears, they are forced to work together in order to find him, but they soon discover that they may not want to find him at all.

Zhenya has always resented Alyosha, because he was the product of a loveless marriage that she never intended to have. Boris did not allow her to get an abortion because of his Orthodox employer, who would fire anyone who did not adhere to his strict code of morality. So she was saddled with this child for 12 years, growing to hate him just as much as his father. Boris was more ambivalent, seeking only to move on to the next family without any baggage to carry with him. Alyosha is alone, unloved, with only one actual friend outside his social media connections, lost in a world full of people who have no time for anyone other than themselves.

Zvyagintsev turns a withering eye not just on his home country of Russia, but on a world at large that is so self obsessed that they inflict collateral damage on everyone around them. Zhenya and Boris spend their time scrolling through endless social media feeds and having passionless sex with their new partners, living new lives that are almost indistinguishable from their old ones. Zvyagintsev brilliantly juxtaposes their respective new families so that we can no longer tell the difference between the lives they currently lead and the ones they left behind. What was the point of it all? And Alyosha, the innocent bystander, pays the the highest price for the oblivious cruelty of his parents, both of whom have chosen to not only divorce from each other, but from reality itself.

Loveless is a grim, often nihilistic portrait of humanity that offers little hope for our redemption. Zvyagintsev's haunting mise-en-scène is simply incredible, constantly turning even the most intimate spaces into gargantuan caverns that dwarf these terribly small, petty, cruel people. His austere style gives an air hopelessness that is at once oppressive and gut-wrenching, resulting in a film that is difficult to watch but also hugely rewarding, calling to mind Fritz Lang's M in its aggressively dark examination of human frailty. It's a painful and powerful work of art that is a damning indictment of society's lack of compassion and connection, shirking both responsibility and kindness for selfish gain that amounts to naught. Loveless is a chilling and somber reminder that a world without love is an ugly place indeed, and a terrifying admonishment that it may be too late to turn back.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LOVELESS | Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev | Stars Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Marina Vasilyeva, Andris Keiss | Rated R for strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language and a brief disturbing image | In Russian w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, Feb. 16, in New York and Los Angeles.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Watching The Silence of the Lambs now in 2018, it's striking to realize just how ahead of her time Clarice Starling was, and continues to be. Here is a heroine in a horror movie who is not in sexual distress, does not need to be rescued, and takes it upon herself to rescue the "damsel in distress" when the men around her can't or won't.

Starling may be a woman in a "man's world," a fact Jonathan Demme emphasizes by constantly positioning her tiny frame in the center of large groups of hulking men, and yet it is partially due to that deliberate alienation that we begin to realize that she is, in fact, the strongest person in the room. The men around her look at her like she's from another planet, sizing her up, leering at her, gazing on her with a kind of bemused confusion. As such, she has more to prove, to herself and to her superiors, than they ever will. Starling was, and remains to this day, a new kind of feminist hero, facing down the monster with nothing but her own wits to save her.

It's interesting then, that it was Hannibal Lecter who became the film's breakout star, going on to spawn three film sequels and a television series. America, it seems, is more fascinated by the elegantly evil cannibal than the woman fighting for the respect of her male peers. And it's not difficult to see why. Anthony Hopkins' immortal performance is at once charming and terrifying, a dichotomy that seemingly represents bot the best and the worst of humanity. He is our most noble and most base impulses wrapped up in one figure, a gentleman murderer who enjoys life's finer pleasures and prefers to kill only the rude. He listens to Bach while performing unspeakable acts of brutality, a trope that would quickly become a genre cliche. But Hopkins' Lecter isn't just a monster, even if Hollywood tried and failed to turn him into a more refined version of Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. There's a humanity in Hopkins' performance that makes him even more terrifying than the typical horror boogeyman. Perhaps that is why there is a series of Hannibal films rather than a series of Clarice films, in which the good doctor eventually becomes a kind of cuddly hero in his own right (a sin that takes center stage in Ridley Scott's flawed but fascinating 2001 sequel, Hannibal).

But for a brief shining moment in The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is our hero, an incorruptible, vulnerable, and stout-hearted heroine who refuses to be a victim or a mere object of sexual desire. It feels remarkably progressive even today, which shows just how little we've grown in the last 30 years. Its progressive credentials are often criticized for its depiction of serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) as transgender, playing on outdated tropes of transsexuals as violent psychopaths. And yet the film goes to great lengths to explain that Bill is not transgender. He isn't any form of LGBT at all. He's a wounded man who hates himself and is desperate to assume any new identity. He WANTS to be transgender, an identity which for him would represent a kind of respite from his own demons. But he is not transgender, and is rejected from three different medical centers for gender confirmation surgery because they recognize that he is not actually transgender.

This is a fact often missed in discussions on sexual politics of The Silence of the Lambs. It may admittedly be a finer point lost on the average viewer, but Lecter very clearly lays out the source of Bill's psychosis, and it has nothing to do with being LGBT. He doesn't actually want to be a woman. He just wants to be someone, anyone, other than who he actually is. It's a costume, not an identity, and that is an important distinction to make when talking about Buffalo Bill. Still, there is a very real discussion to be had about transgender representation in film, but I think it would be a mistake to lump Buffalo Bill in with other problematic depictions of transgender identity, as that's never what it was trying to depict in the first place. It's no mistake that Demme's next film was Philadelphia, after being taken off guard by critiques of Bill's character in Silence. But I maintain that there is much more to Bill, and Demme's characterization of him, than initially meets the eye.

The Silence of the Lambs remains a film far ahead of its time. Maybe even of our time as well. It feels somehow prescient, timeless, a dark portrait of humanity's very worst coupled with the hopeful idea of what we could be. And it has never looked better than it does in the new 4K restoration showcased on the new Criterion Blu-Ray. You can almost count the pores on their skin in Demme's now legendary close-ups, each shot designed to enhance Clarice's feelings of alienation and our own increasing apprehension. As the camera inches closer and closer to Lecter's hooded, unblinking eyes, we feel as if we want to move back from the screen, as if he is somehow looking beyond the camera and directly into our souls. Demme, with the aid of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (who personally supervised the new restoration), creates an oppressive atmosphere to brilliantly capture the world in which Clarice finds herself, objectified and ridiculed by a parade of lecherous, patronizing, and arrogant men who see has nothing more than an object of desire, a pawn, or a weakling not to be trusted. Thankfully, for herself and for us, Clarice does not let any of it get to her head, the screaming lambs of her childhood at last silenced by proving to herself that she is as worthy of her position as any man. She is the feminist hero we need today, an archetype for a brave new world we are only now, 27 years later, beginning to discover.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS | Directed by Jonathan Demme | Stars Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, Diane Baker, Kasi Lemmons, Frankie Faison | Rated R | On Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection on Feb. 13, 2018.

  • New 4K digital restoration, approved by director of photography Tak Fujimoto, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Alternate 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary from 1994 featuring director Jonathan Demme, actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally, and former FBI agent John Douglas
  • New interview with critic Maitland McDonagh
  • Thirty-eight minutes of deleted scenes
  • Four documentaries featuring hours of interviews with cast and crew
  • Behind-the-scenes featurette
  • Storyboards
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: A book featuring an introduction by Foster, an essay by critic Amy Taubin, pieces from 2000 and 2013 by author Thomas Harris on the origins of the character Hannibal Lecter, and a 1991 interview with Demme

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Peter Rabbit is not as awful as its manic marketing campaign seemed to suggest, but that's not exactly a high bar to clear, because this updated adaptation of Beatrix Potter's classic children's books is still not very good. Like so many adaptations of classic children's literature before it, Peter Rabbit falls into the trap of trying to update the concept for more modern, jaded children who apparently need crass slapstick and seemingly never-ending, painfully dated pop songs in order to enjoy them.

The basic idea is the same. Mischievous Peter Rabbit (James Corden) is always trying to break into Mr. McGregor's garden, and Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) does everything in his power to catch and stew the rabbits. It's an age old struggle, one that comes to an abrupt end when old Mr. McGregor has a heart attack and keels over dead at the beginning of the film. Enter his nephew, Thomas McGregor (Domnhall Gleeson), a fussy, high-strung toy company manager who inherits his uncle's country estate, much to his city-loving dismay. The eternal Rabbit/McGregor struggle continues, however, as the new McGregor tries to rid the property of the pesky animals. Things are complicated when McGregor begins to fall in love with the animals' kind-hearted protector, local artist Bea (Rose Byrne). Horrified, Peter and his friends set out to push the couple apart, leading to all out war between McGregor and the animals, who must keep their rivalry secret from their mutual object of affection.

There are a few genuine moments of levity here, but the whole enterprise is undercut by its loud, garish style, relying on over-the-top slapstick for its humor rather than anything resembling wit. It is further marred by near-constant use of pop songs that seem like a desperate ploy to grab the attention of young audiences in 2018. It completely negates the timelessness of Potter's work with an aesthetic that will likely seem woefully outdated by next year. Gleeson and Byrne are capable leads, and most of the film's best moments are courtesy of their undeniable chemistry. But why is McGregor treated like such a detestable villain simply for wanting a tidy house? He makes for a good villain for a 7 year old, I suppose, for whom a clean room may seem like the ultimate evil, but he does nothing to warrant the beating that the film puts him through for the pleasure of its young audience.

To top it all off, Peter shoots blackberries down McGregor's throat, a food to which he is deathly allergic, and then goes on a rant about how food allergies are ridiculous and "everyone is allergic to something nowadays." It's a shockingly irresponsible treatment of food allergies for a children's film, made even more so for the fact that McGregor's near death use of his epipen is treated as a comic moment. It's moments like that that really define Peter Rabbit. Gone is the simple charm of Potter's lovely drawings, replaced by a rude modern sensibility that feels far removed from its endearing source material. The filmmakers really could have learned something from Paul King's Paddington films, which brought their classic subject into the modern era without ever losing any of its innocence or magic.

Some flashes of Potter's classic drawings, which are turned into some lovely animated moments near the film's end, may make audiences yearn for the simplicity of her gentle voice. Instead, we're saddled with this loud, cynical, and ultimately dull reimagining of a classic children's work that seems content to trample all over its inspiration. I'm with McGregor. Kill da wabbit.

GRADE -★★ (out of four)

PETER RABBIT | Directed by Will Gluck | Stars James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Sam Neill, Sia, Furler Vauxhall, Jermaine Terenia Edward,s Colin Moody, David Wenham | Rated PG for some rude humor and action | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Arrival) was found dead today at the age of 48. Jóhannsson, who receievd Oscar nominations for his scores to The Theory of Everything and Sicario, was one of my very favorite modern composers. He was a tremendous talent gone way too soon. His scores to The Miners' Hymns, Sicario, Prisoners, and Arrival are some of the best of the last decade. And his solo classical work is just incredible. Orphée is one of the greatest classical albums of the 21st century.

Rather than try to piece together the proper words to eulogize him, I'm simply going to share some of my favorite musical works of his.

May he rest in peace.

The Miners' Hymns was my first encounter with Jóhannsson, and "The Cause of Labor is the Hope of the World" remains my very favorite single composition by him.

Jóhannsson received his first Oscar nomination for Sicario. It's a harsh listening experience, but there's something primal about the way it works its way under the skin and sets you on edge. It really takes Denis Villeneuve's film to the next level.

Arrival may have been disqualified from Oscar contention for its prominent use of Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight," but it remains the single finest film score of 2016.

Orphée is one of my favorite classical albums of the last decade. Its haunting soundscapes are like slipping into a warm bath. I could listen to this for hours and never want to leave the world Jóhannsson creates.

There is perhaps no greater eulogy for the man than his own music. And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees...

Once again, thanks to ShortsTV, the Oscar nominated short films have been rescued from their historical obscurity and into a theater near you. The category of Best Live Action Short is somewhat of a mixed bag this year. There are a couple of gems here, but nothing that really stands out as "the one." Although if I had to guess, I'd say that Watu Wote: All of Us is the likely winner. These five short films could not be more different, showcasing stories from all over the world. And yet, what distinguishes them is their sense of empathy, uniting us in a common understanding of the things that bring us together rather than the things that divide us. In that way, this is one of the most uplifting and hopeful categories of the night, each bringing a different perspective to the table, some tragic, others heroic, that ultimately shine a light in the darkness of our times.

DeKalb Elementary | Reed van Dyk, USA

When an active shooter bursts into the office of an elementary school, it falls to the school secretary to diffuse the extremely volatile situation. Based on transcripts of an actual 911 call, DeKalb Elementary is not the film it initially appears to be. Rather than treat the shooter with anger or fear, school secretary Cassandra Rice (Tarra Riggs) treats him with empathy and understanding, reaching out to this wounded boy and becoming the shoulder to lean on he never had.

Riggs' beautiful performance is a thing of great power, masking mortal fear with kind-hearted bravery. Director Reed Van Dyk never exploits the situation, instead making a quietly intense plea for human understanding, the power of which stops the cycle of violence in its tracks.  Van Dyk slowly ratchets up the tension masterfully, but its the central performances by Riggs and Bo Mitchell that really sell it, creating two fully formed characters in only 20 minutes. It's a riveting slow burn with a truly moving emotional payoff.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

The Eleven O'Clock | Derin Seale, Australia

A beleaguered psychiatrist faces his troubled eleven o'clock patient, a man who believes himself to be a psychiatrist, in Derin Seale's The Eleven O'Clock. Frustration ensues, of course, as the two men attempt to analyze each other in a kind of take-off on the classic Abbot and Costello "who's on first" routine. The twist is pretty obvious, but Seale handles it well, making the audience question its own perceptions of what is real and what isn't as the film progresses. Not quite as clever as it thinks it is, but it's a fun and often hilarious farce with a witty sense of wordplay.

GRADE - ★★½ ( out of four)

My Nephew Emmitt | Kevin Wilson, Jr., USA

Kevin Wilson, Jr.'s harrowing My Nephew Emmett recounts the infamous 1955 murder of black teenager Emmett Till at the hands of two white men for the "crime" of whistling at a white woman. At only 20 minutes long, it isn't really able to establish its characters or the cultural situation around them, but still memorably captures the sheer terror of the moment Till was taken from his uncle Mose's home on that fateful night.

Wilson's quiet direction conjures the creeping dread of the moment, as well as the overwhelming pain and helplessness of Till's family. However, this story really needs, and deserves, a feature length treatment, as there's just not enough time in 20 minutes to really do it justice. Wilson gets as close as he can in short-form however, but given some more time this could have been something truly incredible.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

The Silent Child | Chris Overton, UK

Beautifully filmed but painfully manipulative, Chris Overton's The Silent Child tells the story of a deaf girl born to hearing parents who desperately want her to be "normal." They hire a tutor to teach her lipreading, who begins to teach her sign language against their wishes, and eventually they send her to public school with no support for the hearing impaired.

Needlessly saccharine, The Silent Child is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, plastering the screen with its message as if it does't trust the audience to take home the message its so desperately trying to convey. It's basically a 20 minute PSA for sign language interpreters in schools. Which is a noble cause, but no amount of slow motion or sweeping cinematography can mask this film's ham-fisted emotional artifice.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

Watu Wote: All of Us | Katja Benrath, Germany/Kenya

Based on a true story, Watu Wote chronicles the hijacking of a Kenyan bus by radical Islamic terrorists carrying both Muslim and Christian passengers. In an act of great bravery and solidarity, the Muslim passengers protected the Christians, hiding them under hijab and refusing to reveal to the terrorists who the Christians were.

The film focuses on Jua (Adelyne Wairimu), a Christian woman who is initially mistrustful of her Muslim co-passengers due to the murder of her husband and child at the hands of Muslim terrorists. Her life changes, however, as a result of this fateful bus trip. It all seems a bit too on-the-nose at first, but the fact that this is a true story makes it all the more extraordinary. Katja Benrath directs with a powerful sense of empathy, tracing Jua's emotional journey in the span of only 20 minutes, avoiding coming across as . Watu Wote is a gripping and moving experience, a simple plea for finding a common humanity even in the face of great evil. It's easily one of the strongest and most timely of the 2018 nominees for Best Live Action Short Film.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

For a list of theaters showing this year's Oscar nominated short films, check out

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Watching Alex Ross Perry's Golden Exits without any prior knowledge of its origins, one might be forgiven if they initially mistook it for a Woody Allen film from the late 1980s. Perry's unassuming style and fussy, subtly neurotic characters recall the period of Allen's career that gave birth to such films as Another Woman and September; both often regarded by critics as minor Allen films, yet carrying some of the finest work he ever produced.

Allen, of course, was hugely influenced by the films of Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes, as well as the plays of Anton Chekhov, during this period. In Golden Exits, Perry seems to be channeling them all into something that feels at like both an homage steeped in its inspirations, and a thoroughly modern American indie. It is telling that the central character is an archivist. Nick (Adam Horovitz) is a middle aged man who makes a living archiving the personal affects of the recently deceased. He likes order, routine, and thanks to his job, lives almost exclusively in the past.

He hires a young, British intern named Naomi (Emily Browning) to help him complete his latest task, much to the chagrin of his wife, Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny). Nick, we discover, had been unfaithful in their marriage years before, and the two have just begun to recapture a sense of trust and normalcy. Alyssa's more cynical sister, Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker) is especially suspicious of Nick's motives. But Nick isn't the only one with eyes for Naomi. Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), the husband of Gwendolyn's longtime friend, Sam (Lily Rabe), is asked by his mother to help show Naomi around town. Unbeknownst to them all, Naomi's presence has massive ripple effects throughout their tiny little world.

Call it “Seven Characters in Search of an Exit.” These are all people who feel trapped by their circumstances, naturally drifting apart but unable to disentangle themselves from the familiar routines of their daily lives. Perry frames the characters as if they are actually moving further apart in the literal space of the frame, yet are ultimately contained by its rectangular confines. They are all looking for that "golden exit," an excuse to leave, to start again, to move on; but as one character points out, it's easy to move on from friends, yet family is forever.

Perry eschews the handheld aesthetic of his previous films like The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip, opting instead for long, steady medium shots and haunting close ups, recalling the chamber drama character pieces of Allen’s mid-period. He juxtaposes leering close-ups from the lecherous men with distancing long shots of the object of their desire, making the audience recoil from their advances. And yet, Perry never really condemns of exalts his characters' actions. They are bored, unhappy, and often willing to look within to find the source of their own misery. Golden Exits doesn't offer a pat "there's no place like home" solution for their troubles. Instead, it's a modest, introspective, and quietly poetic exploration of familial ennui, where a settled routine doesn't necessarily equate to happiness, and the upsetting of the routine reveals cracks in the facade. It displays a remarkable growth for Perry, who remains one of the most exciting voices in American independent cinema, moving past the occasionally precious millennial neuroticism that is so often the hallmark of American indies, and into a much deeper, formally bracing, more emotionally satisfying territory.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

GOLDEN EXITS | Directed by Alex Ross Perry | Stars Emily Browning, Mary-Louise Parker, Adam Horovitz, Lily Rabe, Jason Schwartzman, Chloë Sevigny, Analeigh Tipton | Rated R for some language and sexual references | Opens Friday, Feb. 9, in NYC. Expands to additional cities on Feb. 16.

From The Dispatch:
There’s so much potential in this story that it’s a shame the final product turned out to be such a ludicrous mishmash of tired genre tropes. Mirren is absolutely brilliant casting as Winchester, but the film wastes her talents. In fact, the true story of the Winchester Mystery House is so good that it needs little embellishment, but in its quest to be take the true story and run with it, “Winchester” reduces it to just another anonymous winter horror movie with no real personality or sense of psychological finesse.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Cloverfield franchise continues to be one of the most unique and groundbreaking film series out there. Not necessarily in terms of form or content, but in their unusual release strategies and abject refusal to answer many basic questions about their plots. While some find this frustrating, or even an example of weak filmmaking, there's something kind of refreshing about their lack of the over-explanation that pervades our current culture of endless prequels and reboots designed to explore the origins of our favorite stories.

They have also revolutionized cinematic release patterns. The original Cloverfield (2008) was promoted by mysterious trailers that didn't even reveal its title. 2016's 10 Cloverfield Lane was announced mere weeks before its theatrical debut. The latest film in the franchise, The Cloverfield Paradox, wasn't announced until the day of its release, heralded in a Super Bowl commercial and released on Netflix after the game. One can easily debate the merits (or lack thereof) of such a release strategy, but it's undeniably a bold move, and producer J.J. Abrams will likely continue to push the boundaries of traditional release windows with subsequent films.

The Cloverfield series up to this point hasn't been particularly connected to each other. The Cloverfield Paradox  seeks to connect the universe together while still leaving multiple question marks hanging in the air. The original Cloverfield was a hand-held, found footage monster movie about a giant creature rising from the sea and laying waste to New York City. 10 Cloverfield Lane was a paranoid thriller about man who may or may not have kidnapped a woman, and who may or may not be hiding in a bunker from mysterious creatures outside that may or may not exist. Like feature length "Twilight Zone" episodes, each has taken an outlandish situation and grounded it in a tense reality, questioning our perceptions of our own reality.

The Cloverfield Paradox moves the action into the future, where the international crew of a space station is working on a particle collider that could solve Earth's energy crisis. With the world on the brink of war, the crew is running out of time for a successful firing. However, an overload accidentally creates a rift in the space-time continuum, leaving them stranded in another dimension. Faced with increasingly dire circumstances, and even more bizarre events, the crew must work together to return to their own universe, but the damage they caused to the Earth may be irreparable.

Director Julius Onah attempts to unify the Cloverfield universe without offering direct answers about the events of the previous films, framing them as results of the rifts created between universes echoing through time. While perhaps not as strong as its predecessors, The Cloverfield Paradox  has been somewhat unfairly pilloried on social media despite being a perfectly fine sci-fi adventure. What I love about these movies is that they don't need to explain every detail about their worlds. We accept them, and their outlandish premises, because their realities are so compellingly realized. The use of parallel universes and alternate realities may seem like a cop-out to some, but it allows the filmmakers to get away with pretty much anything they want without having to explain anything, which fits perfectly into Abrams' infamous "mystery box" mentality. In fact, it's probably the best use of the "mystery box" we've yet seen, and opens up a world of infinite possibilities for future sequels.

The film's strongest point, though, is its cast. Lead by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who remains one of our finest, yet most criminally overlooked, actresses, the cast of The Cloverfield Paradox is universally excellent (although  Chris O'Dowd's comic repairman feels a bit out of place), bringing together the likes of David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi, Daniel Brühl, and John Ortiz together under one roof. Their dedication to the material sells elements that could have otherwise come across as silly. That's ultimately what makes Onah's direction so appealing for me. He takes a wild premise, fills it with some truly absurd imagery, and turns it into a gripping sci-fi adventure that focuses on its most human elements. The logic of the story is often loose, but it only ever answers the questions it absolutely needs to answer, which is as it should be. It tosses us in the deep end of an alien world to either sink or swim, but with the help of a stellar cast and an intriguing premise, not to mention a truly stunning score by Bear McCreery that often sounds like a hybrid of early John Williams and James Newton Howard, Cloverfield Paradox manages to stay afloat on its own merit. I can't wait to see where they take this franchise next.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX | Directed by Julius Onah | Stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O'Dowd, Zhang Ziyi, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki, David Oyelowo, Aksel Hennie, John Ortiz | Not Rated | Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.