Rodricks, Reed and DeLibero on 2017 Academy Awards Ceremony

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On Monday, February 27, 2017,  Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed this year’s Academy Awards Ceremony, which ended in an embarrassing mishap when La La Land was mistakenly announced as Best Picture (Moonlight was eventually declared the winner, a well-deserved award). Dan talked to Linda and me separately, by phone, and then cut us together as two segments, back to back, starting with me. In addition to discussing the feature-film awards, I gave a shout-out to the Oscar-nominated shorts, which I recommend you see, if you can.

Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!

In Powerful “The Salesman,” Asghar Farhadi Once Again Examines Complexities of a Marriage

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The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, 2016)

Asghar Farhadi, who won a Best-Foreign-Language-Film Oscar in 2012 for A Separation, his delicate examination of a divorcing couple in Tehran, is nominated once more, for The Salesman, an equally remarkable film that again takes a fraying marriage as its focus. Emad and Rana, husband and wife, are both actors living in Iran’s capital, performing in a revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (he plays Willy Loman and she, Linda, Loman’s wife). As the movie begins, their apartment building is in the middle of collapsing from the vibrations of a nearby construction site, and so they flee for new quarters, eventually taking up residence in a just-vacated flat owned by the manager of their theater company. Though at first an ideal living space, it is haunted (metaphorically) by the previous occupant, and her baggage (literal, since she has left behind belongings, as well as metaphorical) disrupts the happy duo’s matrimonial bliss when an intruder breaks into the space white Emad is away. Soon, their relationship is tested by their very different responses to the event, leaving them reeling from the unexpected realization that they are effective strangers the one to the other.

Shahab Hosseini (About Elly) won the award for Best Actor at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and it is well-deserved. As Emad, he gives us a powerful portrait of a man who starts out with the best of intentions and quickly descends into vengeful madness. It’s as if his on-stage portrayal of Willy Loman’s ineffectual stumbling drives him to prove that he, at least, can be a real man. Initially sympathetic, Hosseini is brilliant at bringing us along on his journey to the dark side, from which there can be no recovery. He will never be the same, at least in Rana’s eyes. Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly in About Elly), is equally strong as Rana, a woman who undergoes a harrowing event and emerges shaken, but not, ultimately, cowed. Where Emad gives into his demons, Rana rises above them. They are the yin and the yang of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Starting with that opening structural failure, The Salesman tackles issues big and small about what happens when the scaffolding of our lives buckle. Farhadi (who will not be coming to this year’s Oscar ceremony, sadly) has a gentle way with story and actors that belies the ruthlessness of his narrative. Everything counts in this world, so choose your actions wisely. The tragedy of Willy Loman is that he fails at the goals he sets for himself. In a superb feat of dramatic opposition, the tragedy of Emad is that he succeeds. Thankfully for us, Farhadi succeeds, as well, in all of his own filmmaking goals, and The Salesman is an artistic triumph that should give Toni Erdmann a run for the gold statuette. Either would be a worthy recipient.

In “Get Out,” Jordan Peele Brilliantly Takes on Racism with Comedy and Horror

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Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

Comedian Jordan Peele – formerly of Key and Peele – makes his directorial debut with a film that is both a delightful riff on the horror genre and a biting, satirical attack on racism and its apologists. Chris, our hero, is a twenty-something African-American man living the good life in New York City, who makes an ill-advised trip with his white girlfriend, Rose, to meet her parents upstate. “Do they know I’m black?” he asks her, just before they leave (cue inevitable, and intentional, comparisons to the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). She reassures him that race will play no factor in how they treat him, although she does warn him that her father will probably declare how he would have voted for Obama a third time, if he could have. You know, just to prove his liberal bona fides. Somewhat mollified, Chris agrees to go. We, the audience, however, have seen an opening sequence in which another young African-American, walking in a white suburb, is felled by a masked man dressed like many a cinematic slasher. The hunt is on, it seems, though why or by whom is yet to be determined.

Once arrived, Chris and Rose do their best to make themselves comfortable, but Mom and Dad (and brother) have other plans. There’s a general vibe of unease in this house in the woods, compounded by the fact that the two domestic servants are both African-American and possessed of a peculiar set of mannerisms that are anything but normal. At first just awkward, the situation turns eerily malevolent when additional guests – all white – arrive, as if Peele had crossed a movie like Betrayed, a 1988 thriller about going undercover in a white supremacist hate group, with The Stepford Wives, that twice-adapted tale of one small community’s drastic solution to the problem of uppity women. Is it all just in Chris’s head, or are these strange people out to get him?

Peele demonstrates a firm command of cast and story, directing both towards a vibrant mix of  sharp comedy and genuine thrills. The ensemble includes Daniel Kaluuya (Sicario), as Chris; Allison Williams (Marnie on Girls), as Rose; and Bradley Whitford (Josh on The West Wing) and Catherine Keener (Enough Said) as the parents. The film is smart where it needs to be, but never afraid of the dumb laugh. It’s also one of the oddest movies I have seen in a while, both adopting the conventions of its genre and completely ignoring them, refusing to follow narrative expectations. It’s brisk, invigorating and deliriously funny, while also a devastating dissection of the pervasiveness of racism in our society. Kudos to Peele for making an issue film that is blissfully entertaining.

Unfortunately, it’s also visually rather bland. Granted, the shots are exposed properly and the lighting mostly suits the mood of each scene, but the cinematography – by Toby Oliver (The Darkness) – is otherwise uninspired. Given the brilliance of the writing, it’s too bad that the look of the film remains pedestrian. Perhaps it is by design, to show how the seemingly ordinary circumstances of our lives rest atop a fragile infrastructure of civility that can so easily be fractured. Whatever the limitations of camera, however, there is no doubt that Get Out succeeds on every other level, and marks a very auspicious start to this new chapter in Jordan Peele’s life. It is also, given the explosion of virulent hate speech in the post-Obama era, as timely as ever.

The Beautiful “A Cure for Wellness” Knows Not What Ails It

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A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2017)

From Gore Verbinski (director of the terrific supernatural thriller The Ring but also, alas, The Lone Ranger) comes a creepy tale of unnatural doings in the Swiss Alps. We don’t start there, however, but instead begin our story in a New York office building, where an unknown middle-aged financier collapses from a heart attack while drinking from a water cooler. As he falls to the ground the camera follows him down, settling into an off-kilter composition that seems to lend the moment great portent. This will surely be a major plot point. Well, yes and no. This death does indirectly lead to the reason for which our hero, a young man named Lockhart, will be sent from concrete jungle to rocky mountain, but at the same time there is no particular reason that this minor character deserves such cinematic attention as he dies. Herein lies both the appeal and the flaw of A Cure for Wellness: beautifully shot and edited, with gorgeous production design, it overplays its hand by making everything an augury. When all is fraught with meaning, there is little room for nuance.

Lockhart is played by Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings), who brings a feverish intensity to the part of an initially callous up-and-comer who is sent on a mission (in lieu of our dead friend) to rescue a partner at his financial firm (a kind of über-capitalist hedge fund) who has given up all worldly goods to sit in a sanatorium and soak out his many sins. So off Lockhart goes, but not before visiting dear old mom, who sits in an institution of her own, unable to care for herself without help. We learn that Lockhart is the son of a man – from the same world of high-finance that he now inhabits – who killed himself years earlier as his own penance for misbegotten deeds. This detail will surface again later, mentioned by the villain, and we’ll see Lockhart’s old lady in a strange montage when Lockhart has a near-death experience of his own, but ultimately none of this has any real bearing on the main proceedings. It’s merely window dressing to give Lockhart a sense of three-dimensionality.

Instead, the story comes into focus once we reach the castle on the hill – location of the spa – where Lockhart goes to find his charge. Surrounded by woods and wildlife, with a village of hostile locals below, the clinic is both alluring and forbidding. Lockhart cares nothing for its charms, as he just wants to grab his guy and get out. Such rushed plans are not to be, however, and soon, courtesy of a representative of the local fauna who, in a sequence again laden with omen, causes the accident that lands Lockhart in bed, leg in a cast, back at the clinic. He is now a patient, at the mercy of the clinic’s director, Dr. Volmer, a handsome devil if there ever was one, complete with German accent. As played by Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, a series where the villain’s name also began with V), he oozes unction and officiousness in equal measure. Lockhart senses – as do we, with the mise-en-scène telegraphing evil intentions everywhere – that something is wrong, but what can he do? Drink the Kool-Aid and pretend he doesn’t notice? How about the water, instead, since that what everyone is telling him to do?

Well, perhaps that’s not the best idea, since that liquid seems inhabited by small slithering shapes. At a loss of what to do, Lockhart wanders the grounds, where he meets a teenage girl named Hannah (Mia Goth, The Survivalist), the ward of Volmer, whose wide-eyed innocence belies a reservoir of knowledge about the clinic that seems timeless. Before long, she, Lockhart and Volmer will find themselves locked in a strange battle for survival that mixes bloodlust, incest and a horde of carnivorous eels in what can best be described as an unholy mess that still manages to entertain when it isn’t preposterous. As an exercise in tone and setting, it is masterful; as a story, it fails completely. Nice poster, though.

“Fist Fight” Offers Occasionally Amusing, If Banal, Entertainment

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Fist Fight (Richie Keen, 2017)

What story there is in Fist Fight centers around budget cuts at a smallish public high school, which result in general anomie. The last day of the school year arrives, and all hell breaks loose, among both faculty and students. Pushover Mr. Campbell (Charlie Day, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) hopes that today won’t be the day he gets fired, while anger-management reject Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube, 21 Jump Street) seems like he actually wants to be fired, if only to make a statement about the poor conditions at the school. Meanwhile, Campbell’s pregnant wife is due any moment, and the local school board is rife with corruption. Did I mention the last day of school? It’s senior prank time! Who needs plot when you can just enjoy the mayhem?

Before long, Campbell does something that makes him a target for Strickland, who challenges him … to an after-school fist fight. This is the great dramatic motivator, as Campbell then spends the next hour trying his utmost to avoid that fight. Will he man up and do what needs to be done?  I’ll let you guess. Interestingly, despite the potential racial angle of a black man and white man getting into a fight, the movie mostly steers away from race as a significant plot point. These are just people (even if both Day and Ice Cube play yet another variant on characters they have played before).

The joys, such as they are, in a movie like this lie in allowing the silliness to wash over you. If, however, you ever step back and analyze, in any way, the banal stupidity of much of the structure, then it all falls apart. My advice, then, if you want a good laugh. is to just check your brain at the door. There are enough good supporting players – including, but not limited to, Jillian Bell (Office Christmas Party), Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) – to round out the proceedings with entertaining performances, but you’ll probably forget most, if not all, of what you have seen as soon as the movie ends. Take what pleasure you can from it, then, and move on.

In “John Wick: Chapter 2,” Our Hitman Loses His Way in Excessive Carnage

[This review also posted on Film Festival Today.]

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)

The first John Wick film, released in 2014, offered up many delights, not the least of which was the sight of then 50-year-old Keanu Reeves (The Neon Demon) running, kicking, punching and shooting his way through hordes of bad guys, all with balletic grace. What really lifted the film beyond the usual well-choreographed action thriller, however, was its invention of an alternate universe where professional hitmen (and hitwomen) inhabit a nether region of secret hotels and organizations and live by a very strict honor code that guides their behavior. They may be killers, but they have rules. Break those rules and risk ostracization. As an exercise in creative worldbuilding, it was very aesthetically satisfying, as well as entertaining.

Flash forward a few years, and John  Wick (Reeves) is back, guns (of both metal and muscle) blazing. We pick up more or less where the last film ended, with Wick still in search of the car that was stolen from him by the (now deceased) son of a mobster (also deceased). If you remember, Wick is a former hitman who came out of retirement after the little beagle puppy that his late wife, who had just died of illness, was brutally killed by a gang of tough guys who wanted his beautifully maintained Mustang car (which they subsequently stole, for good measure). Roused from his grieving torpor, Wick dug up the weapons buried in his basement and vowed revenge on those who had taken that last living memory of his wife from him. Along the way, he reconnected with old colleagues, which is how we, the audience, plunged into the fascinating details of the hitman universe. Much blood was shed, but with panache.

After an exciting prologue involving a chase scene and the brother – played by Peter Stormare (Bang Bang Baby) in a very funny cameo – of the lead gangster from last time, Wick prepares to settle down once more. Peace is not to be, however, as a new character shows up, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio, Loose Cannons, all reptilian grace), a member of a prominent Italian mafia family. He has come to cash in a marker, pledged to him when Wick asked to be release from active service , years earlier. The negotiations do not go smoothly, and we are soon off on a new round of adventures that take us to Rome, where the same company that runs the hitman hotel we encountered in Chapter 1 has another outlet.

For a brief while, John Wick: Chapter 2 promises the same level of cleverness as its predecessor, but all too soon it descends into a messy series of violent sequences. After a few too many bloody, brain-splattered close-ups, it becomes difficult to distinguish the one scene from the next. Like last year’s Hardcore Henry, which started well and then quickly settled into video-game mayhem, this movie loses its way in all the carnage. Death becomes its raison d’être. Reeves, always appealing, carries the grim narrative as best he can – joined by other fine performers like Common (Selma), Ian McShane (Deadwood), Lance Roddick (The Wire) and relative newcomer Ruby Rose (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter) – but at some point there is simply not enough story to justify our investment in the butchery. Based on this movie’s unhappy open ending, there are clear plans for a John Wick: Chapter 3, but unless they refocus on meaningful characters and dramatic conflict beyond slaughter, I will not be there to watch it.

“The LEGO Batman Movie” Assembles Cinematic Pleasures of the Commercial Kind

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The LEGO Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017)

I loved The LEGO Movie, and one of the great snubs of the 2015 Oscar nominations was the omission of that film from the list of contenders for best animated feature. Despite being an obvious advertisement for LEGO® toys, it was a delightfully anarchic riff on all things pop-cultural, its nuttiness grounded in an aspirational tale of the hero’s journey towards self-actualization. It also featured a catchy – nay, infectious! – tune at its center, “Everything Is Awesome” (recipient of the movie’s only recognition from the Academy, though it did not win), which wormed its way into our collective consciousness and just wouldn’t let go, viral melody that it was. As an example of Aristotelian storytelling techniques married to the commercial imperative, The LEGO Movie was a near masterpiece.

And now we have The LEGO Batman Movie, a spinoff featuring one of the characters from the previous film, who himself was a spoof of director Christopher Nolan’s dark vision of the caped crusader, gravelly voice and all. Will Arnett (BoJack Horseman) returns as the voice of the lead, his sincere gravitas lending exquisite humor to the comedy. His Batman is such a do-it-yourself loner that other superheroes shun him, as we see when he inadvertently crashes a Justice League party thrown by his rival, Superman. His dramatic trajectory here forces him to learn, the hard way, that no man is an island or, to quote the actual cliché used more than once, “it takes a village.” We are once more in the land of cultural appropriation in the name of wit, and it mostly works the second time around. If the movie grows occasionally tiresome, it’s because whimsy will only get you so far, and what premise there is grows thin by the end. Still, it’s a fun ride, thanks to Arnett, his game collaborators, and the fine animators behind the visual magic of the picture.

Some of those actor colleagues include Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel ), as the voice of Alfred, Batman’s long-suffering butler; Rosario Dawson (Cesar Chavez), as Barbara Gordon, Batman’s foil and love interest, both; Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), as Robin; and Zach Galifianakis (Masterminds) as the Joker, Batman’s mortal enemy (at least as the Joker sees it). They’re a lively bunch, well-supported by director Chris McKay (many episodes of Robot Chicken) and his team. One of the gags of which I could never get enough was the film’s acceptance that this is a LEGO universe: it’s not just that everyone looks like a toy, but that they are able – and willing – to build what they need in times of crisis by assembling various LEGO parts into whole devices. Again, this makes product placement the driving principle of the entire story, yet it is also extremely clever. Never have I so much enjoyed being the target of a marketing campaign.

Depending on your political views – or how much you separate those from your ability to enjoy entertainment – one item may give you cause for pause or joy: the executive producer is Steven Mnuchin, Donald Trump’s pick for Treasury Secretary. His name pops up right away, after the director’s, in the end credits. This is hardly his first Hollywood rodeo – other films he shepherded to the screen, just last year, include Suicide SquadSully, The Legend of Tarzan and Central Intelligence – so we’ve all been supporting his movies since his first, which was … The LEGO Movie. Why stop now? However you feel, The LEGO Batman Movie more or less delivers on its own campaign promise to provide escapist pleasures of a cinematic kind, however frivolous they may be. Enjoy.

3 @hammertonail reviews: “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Landfill Harmonic” and Criterion’s “The Squid and the Whale” Blu-ray

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Here are 3 recent reviews of mine for Hammer to NailI Am Not Your Negro, a new documentary (just nominated for an Academy Award) about James Baldwin; Landfill Harmonic, a documentary about children making music on instruments fashioned out of recycled trash; and the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release of Noah Baumbach’s breakout third feature, The Squid and the Whale, about a family’s dissolution in the wake of the parents’ divorce. Below are the links to the reviews:

Enjoy!

All 10 of My @hammertonail @slamdance @sundancefest Film Reviews

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Here are the 10 reviews from my remote coverage of the recent Slamdance and Sundance film festivals, written for Hammer to Nail. I couldn’t attend, but I was able to watch some great movies, nonetheless. From Slamdance, we have three documentaries – The Modern Jungle (which analyzes the relationship between filmmaker and subject among dirt-poor peasants in Chiapas), Strad Style (about an unlikely violin maker and his quest to recreate a renowned 18th-century instrument) and Supergirl (a tale of the strongest 12-year-old girl in the world) – and three narratives – Dave Made a Maze (a demented fantasy about an out-of-control labyrinth), Future ’38 (a clever sci-fi look forward from 1938 to the year 2018) and Weather House (a hypnotic meditation on the end of the world). From Sundance, we have two documentaries – Plastic China (an exploration of China’s position as the number one importer of recyclable plastic) and Tell Them We Are Rising (a chronicle of our nation’s historically black colleges and universities) – and two narratives – Bad Day for the Cut (an intense revenge thriller from Norther Ireland) and Free and Easy (an engagingly offbeat dramedy about misfit criminals in China). Below are the links to the reviews:

Enjoy!

“Toni Erdmann” Plays the Long Game and Wins

[This review was also posted on Film Festival Today]

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

At 162 minutes, German director Maren Ade’s latest film, Toni Erdmann – her first since the 2009 Everything Else – seems like a lot to handle in a single viewing. A dramedy about an estranged father/daughter pair, the movie takes a while to engage, although the hints are there, early on, that it will become a beautiful expression of cinematic art. Slowly, through the poignancy of its writing and brilliance of its two leads, Toni Erdmann wins you over, worming its way into your mind and heart both, in equal measure. It also features one of the best nude scenes ever – completely justified by the plot, and screamingly funny – for which you must wait until the last 30 minutes. It’s well worth it, as is the entire movie.

We start with a joke. Winfried, a sixtyish bear of a man, amiably greets the hapless postal worker who rings his bell, then runs off and returns with a set of false teeth and a ridiculous disguise, pretending to be that first person’s twin brother, who just happens to be a radical bomber. The mailman can clearly see that it’s the same person, teeth and all – as can we – yet he (mostly) goes along with the gag, since Winfried has such an obvious need to entertain. Living on his own with an elderly dog, Winfried is clearly lonely, though not without some friends, family and colleagues. He’s a lot to take, however, like an overgrown child – an eternal trickster – who has never quite figured out how to operate in the real world. It’s no wonder that he teaches music and theater at an elementary school. There, he fits right in … with the students, that is.

His only daughter, Ines, is the exact opposite of papa. Where he is chaos, she is order; in fact, she’s a rising corporate consultant, stationed in Romania, a country ripe for exploitation by foreign agents. We first meet her at a party thrown in her honor at her mother’s – Winfried’s ex-wife’s – place. She seems like a cliché, always on her cell phone. It’s unclear how she and Winfried could belong to the same gene pool, yet as the movie progresses, we will see connections between father and daughter that are hard to imagine, early on.

And that is the real strength of the film, along with the two powerful central performances, from Peter Simonischek (Oktober November), as Winfried, and Sandra Hüller (Amour fou), as Ines. We think we know what kind of a story we’re watching, yet it constantly shifts gears, full of twists and surprises. The name Toni Erdmann comes from an alter ego that Winfried adopts (once again using those teeth!) when he pays Ines a visit in Romania. She’s not too happy to see her father when he shows up unannounced, and even less happy with the teeth, but he has an inescapable charm, and grows on her through prolonged exposure. Just as this movie grows on the audience (and on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which just nominated it for an Oscar). Yes, it could be a bit shorter, but it’s delightful as is.