3 Reviews @filmfesttoday: “Coco,” “The Divine Order” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Just before Thanksgiving, Film Festival Today published two reviews of mine, and then it published another one this past Friday. The three reviews are: CocoThe Divine Order and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Here are links to all 3 pieces:


6 Reviews @hammertonail: “Baltimore Rising,” “David Bowie: The Last Five Years,” “Lady Bird,” “Naila and the Uprising,” “This Is Congo” and Criterion’s “Woman of the Year” Blu-ray

In the past 2 weeks, Hammer to Nail has published the following reviews of mine: Baltimore Rising (seen at DOC NYC), David Bowie: The Last Five Years (also seen at DOC NYC), Lady Bird,  Naila and the Uprising (also seen at DOC NYC), This Is Congo (also seen at DOC NYC) and Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Woman of the Year. Here are links to all 6 pieces:


1 Film Festival Report + 4 Reviews @filmfesttoday: DOC NYC + “Justice League,” “Last Flag Flying,” “Murder on the Orient Express” & “The Square”

In the past 2 weeks, Film Festival Today published the following five articles of mine: a recap of the recent DOC NYC film festival and reviews of Justice LeagueLast Flag Flying, Murder on the Orient Express and The Square. Here are links to all 5 pieces:


3 Reviews + 1 Film Festival Report: “The Departure” and “The Florida Project” @hammertonail + “Thor: Ragnarok” and Middleburg Film Festival @filmfesttoday

In the past 10 days, the following pieces of mine have posted: at Hammer to Nail, reviews of The Departure and The Florida Project; at Film Festival Today, a review of Thor: Ragnarok and a report on the 2017 Middleburg Film Festival. Here are links to all 7 pieces:


“Wonderstruck” Underwhelms

Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes, 2017)*

How I wish I did not dislike this movie so much. Its intentions are good, and it features a strong performance from young newcomer Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress cast in a deaf role (something we don’t see very often), but such things do not a good film make, on their own, alas. Based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 half-text/half-graphic novel of the same title, Wonderstruck follows two parallel stories, the one in 1927, the other in 1977, each with a child at its center. In the book, the earlier story is the one told in pictures, while the more modern tale is related in text, a device which allows Selznick to interrupt the one with the other in dramatic fashion.

Unfortunately, director Todd Haynes (Carol), usually a reliable filmmaker, especially in the arena of production design, does nothing more interesting in the older scenes than film them in black & white, with sets that evoke no period mood at all, though Simmonds is quite fine on her own. The rest of the cast is uneven, and even the great Julianne Moore (Still Alice) barely rises above the trite emotions of the script … until the last act, when the movie suddenly comes alive – inspired by New York’s famed city diorama, in Queens – rising to magical heights of creative design. Where, one asks, was this inspiration, before? It almost makes up for the insipid mess of the earlier scenes, but not quite. I have admired Haynes’ work until now, and hope to again in the future, but I cannot endorse this one.

*[this review was previously published as part of coverage of the recent Middleburg Film Festival that I wrote for Film Festival Today.]

Is “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” Worth the Sacrifice? You Be the Judge, Jury and …

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

For the record, I loved The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous effort. Building on the tradition he had established in films like Alps and Dogtooth, he there brought his obsession with societies built on arcane systems of governance to glorious fruition in a mesmerizing tale anchored by a deliriously deadpan performance from Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths). Both Lanthimos and Farrell are back together again in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a movie that starts in a similar vein as its predecessor, the actor delivering lines in the same monotone as before, the camera tracking him in off-beat steadicam shots laden with cinematic meaning. Or not. As before, Lanthimos keeps us guessing, toying with our expectations of set-up and payoff. One thing is sure, however: the experience of watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer is deeply unpleasant. The question is: do we gain from it? Over a week after seeing the film, I’m still working on the answer.

This time around, Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a cardiologist married to a fellow doctor, Anna Murphy, played by the incomparable Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled). They have two kids, a boy and girl, and appear happily married, though quickly we are made to question their life together with the arrival of a mysterious teen boy, Martin, played by a very odd Barry Keoghan (’71). At first we think he is Steven’s son – perhaps from an affair – but when the riddle is solved the truth is even more disturbing. Steven has a score to settle, and the why and the how of his revenge is what eventually drives the plot. This being a Lanthimos film, there are rules to follow; ignore them and you die, though the reasons for everything are vague. Ultimately, the story boils down to this: what would you be prepared to do to save your family? What, or whom, would you sacrifice?

That’s a meaningful question. Put into practice, however, Steven’s response is difficult to stomach. I like that Lanthimos consistently pushes our buttons in a valiant attempt to provoke an emotional reaction, but I cannot say I enjoyed the experience of that reaction. The onscreen anguish of the characters may serve a narrative purpose, but it is something I can do without. Though brilliantly shot and cast, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, much like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, released earlier this year, traffics in a kind of torture porn that risks losing itself in the act of self-flagellation. There is no denying its raw power, however. I may have been horrified, but I was not unmoved. Let’s leave it there, and you can judge whether the experience is worth it for you.

6 Reviews + 1 Interview: “Cocaine Prison,” “Dina,” Criterion’s “Exterminating Angel” & Interview with Mathew Klickstein @hammertonail + “1922,” “Goodbye Christopher Robin” & “Thank You for Your Service” @filmfesttoday

In the past two weeks, the following pieces of mine have posted: at Hammer to Nail, reviews of Cocaine Prison, Dina and Criterion’s Blu-ray of Exterminating Angel, plus an interview with filmmaker Mathew Klickstein about his new documentary On Your Marc; at Film Festival Today, reviews of Netflix’s 1922, as well as of Goodbye Christopher Robin and Thank You for Your Service. Here are links to all 7 pieces:


“The Snowman” Collapses Under the Weight of Its Structure

The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)

Let’s not mince words: The Snowman is a grotesque, gruesome gargoyle of a thriller with very little to recommend it beyond some picturesque shots of Norwegian landscapes and architecture, as well as the sight of actor Michael Fassbender (a landscape unto himself), deep in thought. Always a compelling screen presence, Fassbender (Macbeth) does his best with very little, forced to third-act paroxysms of outrage that are powerful because he makes them so, but almost lost in the sheer inanity of the script. It didn’t have to be this way. Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson has previously demonstrated a strong command of brilliant atmospherics married to plot in Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so there was reason to hope that The Snowman might work. I have not read the source novel, by Jo Nesbø, and so cannot say whether the ridiculous, convoluted premise is the fault of the author or that of the multiple screenwriters (or of the fact that there are multiple screenwriters). Suffice it to say that The Snowman is a textbook case of a story that is all over the place except where it needs to be.

The problems begin in the very first scene, shot and cut in a manner that right away leaves us reeling to understand the basic actions of the characters; the visual grammar is a mess (and that is on Alfredson, for sure). We find ourselves in a Norwegian cabin by a frozen lake in winter, where a little boy builds a snowman as nasty shenanigans go on inside. Given the portentous lingering on the coffee beans used for the snowman’s mouth, plus the desperate urging of the boy’s mother to “build a snowman” (plus the fact it’s the film’s title), we understand that, yes, the snowman will matter, later. And when the opening ends in tragedy, we have but to wait for all to be explained. Fear not, there is much exposition to come.

Cut to Fassbender, an alcoholic cop asleep on a bench, vodka bottle in hand. He’s Harry Hole, whom we gather from context is a hotshot detective whose cases are legendary. True, he has an addiction problem, but what self-respecting hero doesn’t have a flaw? Soon he’ll have to put the booze behind him, as: a) women are going missing; b) his ex-girlfriend’s son wants to hang out with him; c) there’s a new piece of police video technology to master; d) a 9-year-old case to explore; e) a new female partner (with mysterious motivations) to get to know; f) insomnia to battle; g) a sub-plot about Norway’s campaign to host the “Winter World Cup” (a winter-games sporting event; h) and so much more, most of it a distraction from what should be the central mystery. It’s as if each writer were given a different task, the whole compiled from the various drafts without any attempt to make sense of the resultant amalgamation.

It’s too bad, as beyond Fassbender there are some fine actors doing good work, among them Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), as that new partner, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (3 Hearts), as that ex-girlfriend. Val Kilmer (Standing Up), as a detective at the center of that past case, is not one of the standouts. Obviously post-dubbed (for whatever reason), he delivers a Razzie-worthy performance that is the icing on the rotting cake of his particular narrative through line. Beyond all of the above missteps, however, perhaps the worst thing about the film is the excess of its violence, particularly (though not exclusively) towards women, who are dismembered with glee by the serial killer at large. Best to let this one go, then, allowing it to melt into the gritty sludge of its deserved destiny.

4 Reviews + 1 Podcast: “Bending the Arc” & “Human Flow” @hammertonail + “The Foreigner” & “Marshall” @filmfesttoday + “Blade Runner” & “Blade Runner 2049” @roughlyspeaking

Since my last omnibus post, I have written, or participated in, the following movie reviews: at Hammer to Nail, reviews of Bending the Arc and Human Flow; at Film Festival Today, reviews of The Foreigner and Marshall; and on The Baltimore Sun‘s “Roughly Speaking” podcast – with Dan Rodricks and Linda DeLibero – an episode on the original 1982 Blade Runner and its just-released sequel, Blade Runner 2049. Here are links to all 5 pieces:


Overlong and Overwritten, “Blade Runner 2049” Still Delivers a Strong Sequel

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

Director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, originally released in 1982, was not an initial box-office success, though since then it has earned a well-deserved following for its blend of science fiction, action and metaphysics, as well as for its awe-inspiring production design and in-camera visual effects. Long before the days of computer-generated imagery, Scott and his brilliant team of artists created a near-future dystopian world in which advanced technology co-exists with urban decay, inspiring the wave of 1980s cyberpunk fiction. With haunting music by film composer Vangelis completing the mix, Blade Runner transported us into a gorgeous nightmare where androids and humans battled for supremacy. Along the way, the film asked the big questions about the nature and meaning of life, proving that pop culture can be both terrific entertainment and great art. Through the many versions (various director’s cuts) that Scott has released since then, the aesthetics and narrative of the film have stood the test of time.

Now, 35 years later, we have a sequel, from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), entitled Blade Runner 2049. Set 30 years after the end of Blade Runner, the movie features an almost entirely new cast of characters, with one very notable exception. If you recall, the first installment – a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – told the story of Los Angeles police officer Deckard (played by Harrison Ford, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), assigned to hunt androids gone rogue and dangerous. Such agents are called “blade runners,” for reasons left to our own imagination (though the term comes from writers Alan E. Nourse and William S. Burroughs). The only way to tell androids – called “replicants” (a departure from Dick) in this cinematic universe – apart from humans is to run a Turing-like test designed to measure empathy. At the end of Blade Runner, Ford’s Deckard, mission complete, is left wondering whether he, himself, after all he has done, is also a replicant.

We start the new story in the company of agent “K” (Ryan Gosling, La La Land), a blade runner who knows exactly what he is: a replicant – working for the L.A.P.D. – hunting other replicants. At the end of every mission, he is subjected to a series of new tests that “reset his baseline,” checking for emotional anomalies. This is how the power structure retains control of its artificial servants. His boss, played by Robin Wright (Netflix’s House of Cards), treats K fairly enough, though is always aware that he is non-human. Though K looks no different to the viewer, he is subjected to all manner of prejudice and spite from his fellow cops and citizens, derisively called “skinjob” or “skinner.” This may explain his preference, when home, for the company of another artificial construct, this one even more virtual than he: a female hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas, Hands of Stone), who is the perfect lover for a being with intimacy issues. Interestingly, for a race – we humans – that judges replicants on their ostensible inability to empathize with other creatures, we demonstrate an alarming lack of empathy for these clearly sentient entities.

Blade Runner 2049 opens with K arriving at the home of a fugitive replicant of an earlier generation – not so obedient – that he has been ordered to bring in or retire. Played by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), this older replicant (and they do appear to age, with time) does not come quietly. After doing what must be done, K then wanders the surrounding grounds, where he finds a box of buried bones, a discovery that upends the carefully delineated lines between humans and machines. For these bones, of a woman who died in childbirth, may not be human, a fact which calls into question everything that holds this hierarchical future together. As K searches for clues, his journey takes him ever closer to the secret of his own origin, and to the answer to the question of whether replicants have souls. Traveling from Los Angeles to  an orange-glowing, post-nuclear Las Vegas, what he discovers – or who – finally links this movie directly to the first one. For there lives Deckard, retired on his own terms, waiting for the day when a blade runner will come for him.

Villeneuve and his writers (one of whom is Hampton Fancher, who wrote the original film) come close to high art before descending into action-film clichés. For a while, they make all the right moves, elegantly exploring new territory in the realm of replicant and human coexistence. Perhaps if the film were shorter (with credits, it’s 163 minutes), they might have excised some unnecessary plot threads (mostly involving the inventor who took over the Tyrell Corporation, which made replicants in the first movie) or characters (said inventor, plus many more), or given our heroes (K and then Deckard) a truly worthy antagonist (as was Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Blade Runner). The premise – of replicants being more than they seem, worthy of equal value as humans – is compelling, particularly since we can see parallels to the way the hierarchical systems of our own world treat their servant classes. And the cinematography, by Roger Deakins (Skyfall), together with the art direction, led by production designer Dennis Gassner (also Skyfall), is gorgeous (if not quite as palpably visceral as that of its pre-digital predecessor).

The actors are, for the most part, thoughtful and engaging, Gosling, Ford, Wright and de Armas among them. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), as Niander Wallace, the new inventor, overacts and under-delivers, though much of that is the script’s fault. Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks (Tirza), a particularly lethal replicant working for Wallace, is solid, though her character becomes part of the problem in the final third when we transition to action mode. The hulking Dave Bautista, in that opening scene, delivers one of the movie’s most memorable performances, continuing to prove that there is more to him than just brawn. It is safe to say, then, that there is much to recommend here, despite the excessive length and story flaws. An often-moving examination of the simultaneous discord and harmony between love and intellect, Blade Runner 2049 may lack the aesthetic perfection of Blade Runner, but is still an elegant work of cinematic beauty, rough diamond though it may be.