“Beauty and the Beast” @filmfesttoday + “Catfight” and SXSW2017–Part 1 @hammertonail

Now that I am writing consistently for both Hammer to Nail (for the small-budget indie stuff and documentaries) and Film Festival Today (for the bigger films), do not expect me, dear reader, to use this blog for much more than a place to catalog those other posts – to use it as a clearinghouse, of sorts – though I may still write the occasional piece solely for chrisreedfilm.com. Still, by coming here and seeing what I post, you will find quick and easy links to the work I do out in the world as a professional film critic.

I just returned from the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, in Austin, Texas, during which I saw and reviewed many films and conducted many interviews with filmmakers, only some of which have posted, so far, at Hammer to Nail. I am working on a summary piece about my overall impressions of the festival, which I will soon post at Film Festival Today. Below, please find links to selections from the coverage that has run so far, as well as to my review of the most recent Beauty and the Beast, which ran last Friday at Film Festival Today, and Onur Tukel’s Catfight, which I reviewed for Hammer to Nail just before leaving for SXSW. More to follow in the days ahead.

Enjoy!

“Reel Talk” – with Chris Reed and Mike Giuliano – on the Oscars, “Logan” and “Before I Fall”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Mike Giuliano, Associate Professor of Film at Howard Community College

Welcome to the fourth episode of the 2016-2017 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed. My guest this time was Mike Giuliano, Associate Professor of Film at Howard Community College. We first discussed this year’s Academy Awards, and then reviewed two new films – Logan and Before I Fall.

In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the firstsecond and third episodes of this current season, plus all six from last year (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth), as well as the six episodes from my first season with Reel Talk (Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6). Enjoy!

The fantastic Dragon Digital Media team did their usual superlative job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. We’ll be back at the start of May with another episode, so stay tuned. Until then, have fun at the movies!

9 @hammertonail reviews: 2 Criterion Blu-rays + Oscar Shorts + 6 Must-See Recent Features

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Here are 9 recent reviews of mine for Hammer to Nail: 2 Criterion Blu-rays (Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog and Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog); a piece on the 2017 Oscar-nominated short films; and reviews of As You Are, Dark NightMidsummer in NewtownA Patch of Fog13th and This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous. Here are the links:

Enjoy!

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

Get Out

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

Fist Fight

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.