File Under 2018 #52: In the Intense Now


What it's about: João Moreira Salles serves as director and narrator for the film study slash personal essay that explores how moving images relate to and shape history. He examines footage of political protest movements, home videos, and film shot by his mother while travelling in Mao's China to weave together a cohesive story from around the world.

Unorganized thoughts:

The title In the Intense Now is a bit misleading, as a majority of the footage Salles uses is from the past, specifically between the years of 1968-1969. This was a time of great political turnover across the world. The Vietnam War, of course, sparked an air of protest, but the film doesn't directly address this. Instead, it focuses primarily on two major events, the student rebellion in Paris and political liberation in Czechoslovakia called the Prague Spring.

Intermittently, the film includes home movies of Salles's childhood, contemporary events in his home country Brazil, and beautiful footage from China filmed by the director's mother.

In the Intense Now really isn't about the history of these revolutions, per se, but how it is captured as history through news footage, amateur films and professional documentaries. Salles analyzes specific images in how they've been remembered [the photo at the top of this piece, perhaps the most famous image of the French student protests, for example]. In one section, the director infers how black students were involved with the protests entirely based on their literal place in the footage. This is a great example of how insightful and engaging the film can be when at its best.

João Moreira Salles is a thorough guide to understand history by analyzing the images from historical events. His narration is even-keeled but very precise. Even through translation from Portuguese, his word choices are specific to his approach.

One interesting metaphor for the presentational approach of the film: When the focus of the political struggles shifts from students to the low-class worker, Salles describes through narration that the camera is no longer seeking out the student.

The most prominent figure in the first half of the film is Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was a de facto leader of the student movement and the face toward the media. Like the approach of the movement in whole, this isn't a biography of Cohn-Bendit and really isn't about his broad ideas, but more like an examination of his on-screen persona, how he positioned himself to the public, and how his ideas were messaged.

Inclusion of footage from a counter-protest, pro-DeGaull rally is positioned in an interestingly contrasting way. The participants featured here are mostly small business owners, housewives, the stereotypical French bourgeoisie. The footage used is in immediate and stark contrast to the low-grade, grainy film that has been displayed over the past hour. It is bright, clean and, most importantly, in beautiful color. Salles doesn't explicitly comment on this, and it is perhaps the best or only available footage available, but the use of it is a clear visual of the groups ideological and status differences.

The different areas of footage are blended in extremely well. I wouldn't say the film is edited in an inter-weaved way, it takes its time on long stretches in one place, but it shifts quietly. It feels like a whole piece throughout.

The limit of In the Intense Now is that it is wholly an intellectual exercise and results in a reserved emotional distance. So while it is extremely well made and insightful for a student of cinema or history, this isn't a film I can have a fully invested experience in. It's not a knock, but a compartmentalization.

It also does lose some steam along the way. The second half moves away from Paris to the Prague Spring and maybe it isn't as inherently compelling or maybe I'm just less familiar or interested, but I could feel it drag. Maybe a film essay this specific and dense just should be 130 minutes -- a simplified 60-80 minute version of this would have had the same thematic impact while being more compelling throughout.

Not for nothing, the film is currently streaming on MUBI for another 2 weeks or so. From what I can tell, it is basically the only way to see the film right now. Be forewarned, though: the subtitles are annoyingly white without a thick black border, which over black and white footage doesn't work very well. A significant amount of the narration is completely unreadable.

File Under 2018 #51: Avengers: Infinity War


What it's about: Thanos is a galactic warlord whose mission is to retrieve the six infinity stones at all costs. These stones, each signifying a different aspect of the universe, when brought together wield immense, unstoppable power. After years in the background of the Avengers' war for control of Earth, Thanos finally steps front-and-center and is the superhero super team's biggest challenge yet. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Bruce Banner, and the rest of the crew [minus a few interesting omissions] fight side-by-side, for some for the first time. By the end of this showdown, the fate of the Avengers and humanity at-large will be forever changed.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • After holding out a whole week, I officially became the last person to finally see Avengers: Infinity War. I did my absolute best to stay unspoiled and was moderately successful -- muting key phrases on Twitter kept me away from most of the reaction, though a few of the memes inspired by the film slipped through to my timeline.

  • Now that I'm late to the game, I'm not exactly sure what to say about Infinity War that could seem like an original thought. Honestly, writing a review felt pretty daunting -- as daunting as the insane cast list and runtime of the film -- in part because I ended up fairly disappointed.

  • Look, Avengers: Infinity War is a tough, maybe impossible task to pull off perfectly. The director, the screenwriters, the actors, the set designers, no one is to blame for the film's problems. It is all a product of the MCU's ever-growing design. Everything has been building to this point for a decade. In 2012, when the then-biggest superhero film The Avengers was released, no one had any idea that The Guardians of the Galaxy or Black Panther would have been cinematic phenomenons. Nor did anyone realize Spider-Man would have been wrangled away from Sony. Or even that Robert Downey Jr. would be sticking around this long.

  • And now enter Thanos, who has been a fixture of post-credit sequences and in the shadows of the MCU villain universe, but now he gets his time to make a run at those pesky infinity stones -- that it took him a decade to get even one has been a long-running joke that actually spotlights a challenge for Infinity War. The capture of the six stones is jammed all together 149 minutes. This makes for a reliable structure and is basically the only plot in the film among the action setpieces and character work.

  • Going into the film, one of my biggest questions was how would Thanos fair in the long line of mediocre Marvel villains. Without even realizing that so much of this would be Thanos' story, how difficult would it be to care for a giant, stoic, purple animation? Surprisingly easily, as it turned out. The character isn't perfectly drawn, but he is just tactile enough to feel real in the world and he has emotional depths I wasn't expecting. Josh Brolin should definitely be commended for a very good performance through the motion capture.

  • And seeing all these characters coming together, some now for the first time with the melding of the Earth stories and the space stories, is fun. The heroes and Thanos facing off for the first time is especially fun -- the film quickly establishes the sheer size and strength of the character in comparison really well. There is also a strange reverence between Thanos and many of the Avengers. You can feel the awe in the characters, which does as much to make Thanos threatening as any of the kick-punching.

  • Seeing Thor mixing it up with the Guardians or Doctor Strange exchange witty barbs with Tony Stark is probably when Infinity War is at its best. The character dynamics does lead to some problems, though, as I was constantly having to do the mental gymnastics thinking back to every MCU film to remember who knows who or where relationships have been left.

  • Whenever someone doesn't like a MCU movie, a standard criticism is that we don't like movies that are solely designed to set up other movies. Infinity War is sort of the opposite of that. It is a movie that exists because it was set up by some many other movies.

  • Though these films seem to constantly be coming out these days [Black Panther was only a few months ago], there are big gaps in time for some of the characters, especially those whose storyline's were most wrapped up in Captain America: Civil War. In the two years since that rift happened, Steve Rogers and his closest teammates have been on the lam, for example, with a number of exploits untold. To its credit, Infinity War runs through all the backstory fairly painlessly. There are so many tabs to keep up with, though.

  • Probably the biggest issue is the visual and structural monotony that builds to the end of the film. Nearly each and every scene can be boiled down to one of a few templates: set pieces of either a conversation or a conflict between a few characters in big, otherwise empty spaces. Outside of the battle sequence in Wakanda, there is a strange lack of anyone in the universe other than the principle characters [something that has been a direct criticism of the DC films, btw]. Despite always moving forward, Infinity War often feels stagnant and long.

  • Though there are many big action moments, none of the action beats are particularly memorable; certainly nothing like the standout Battle of New York sequence in The Avengers.

  • A few rabid-fire opinions: In 1 stand-alone film and change, Tom Holland has already proved himself to be the best Peter Parker in films; Thor cements himself as a bad ass and the unlikely best Avenger; the Black Panther crew are all given incredible short shrift, especially since they are the closest characters in our minds; T'Chala especially feels unnecessary here; there is a shot involving Nebula that is incredibly creepy and well designed; the henchmen characters are usually among the worst aspects of these films, but I think they are done suitably here, they at least are distinguishable; are we really supposed to care for Scarlet Witch and Vision the most?

  • Finally, OK, the ending. It is audacious and controversial and rightfully so. The more I think about it, though, the more bullshit it comes off. Marvel wants it both ways -- they want us to feel in the moment that this is something monumental happening but we also all know that the specific moments don't really mean much in a vacuum. Because of this I had a hard time feeling anything at all. It's true, I expect next year's follow up to fully approach this situation in ways that will change all of these characters in important ways. And I'm sure they will go for something a little more clever than the obvious path this could take to create the balance we all expect to happen. I just can't help but see it as ham-fisted and manipulative.

File Under 2018 #50: The Rachel Divide


What it's about: Rachel Dolezal is a controversial figure, to say the least. In 2015 she was prospering as an activist and as the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. A local news investigation uncovered and ran with the story that Dolezal was not an African American as she was portraying herself, but was born to two white parents in Montana. The controversy instantly became a media firestorm. Dolezal resigned her position, lost teaching appointments, but remained in the public eye. In the years following the scandal, Dolezal has continued to identify as black and the debate over the consequences of her identity continues on.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I learned about the Rachel Dolezal situation after the fact, pretty recently, possibly around the time when The Rachel Divide, Laura Brownson's Netflix documentary was announced. Honestly, reading only the particulars made me uncomfortable enough not to really dive into the larger issues that were going on here.

  • In some ways, that probably helped with my experience with The Rachel Divide, because I imagine knowing more about Dolezal and the incredibly hot discourse around her life and lifestyle could make this a pretty surface-level doc in some ways. There are some interesting things within the film, from its intimate approach to the way it profiles Dolezal. In some ways it is satisfyingly thorough. It will definitely frustrate those looking for specific things.

  • The opening title sequence is used to build Dolezal's highlights as a civil rights leader in Spokane, running through snippets of speeches at rallies and protests. As soon as the credits are over, it cuts directly to the famous news clip of Rachel being bluntly asked if she is black and her response of walking off camera. This sets up the focus of The Rachel Divide -- the minimum of her success before diving right into the juicy stuff.

  • The Rachel Divide isn't unfair to her, though. Most of the documentary is spent in candid moments of her family life and seeing her simply live is important to understand her. The doc gives her the chance to show off who she really is, a common desire talking point of whenever she's done interviews over the years.

  • But identity is such a slippery topic for her that I don't know exactly how much insight The Rachel Divide really gives. We see how much she is affected by the public and media reaction. That's not nothing. But if you are coming to the film to see an open-hearted reckoning for her choices, The Rachel Divide has trouble there.

  • This isn't completely at the fault of Brownson: when we see Dolezal talking with African Americans [either through media footage or in one particular scene where she visits a college in Cincinnati to talk about her experiences], she consistently shuts down. Her frustration is evident and I'm willing to believe she is internalizing the anger and pain of others, but she never has a thorough reaction.

  • This begs the question: Can she really have an appropriate and satisfying response? I don't know what Brownson's ultimate goal was in making The Rachel Divide, though I expect she wanted that big moment that never comes.

  • Another central struggle the film portrays is the line between Rachel's desire to be a private person vs. her being opportunistic. People express their anger throughout the film that Dolezal only is able to get this kind of attention because she is, in reality, white. Another has a harsher opinion on how she uses her family to cement her representation, using them to gain attention.

  • By the end of the film, what stands out most is how incredibly sad this whole situation really is. Dolezal has obvious faults but she isn't totally without sympathy and The Rachel Divide knows that. Elements of her family backstory, which I didn't know about going in, are really tough. At least in my experience, I had no issues fully believing many of Rachel's claims about her past and family struggles, despite how the media held up her obvious lies to discredit these other aspects of her life story.

  • If Dolezal doesn't become something of a tragic figure by the end of the film, there is no question that her children do. Her two sons [her biological son Franklin and Izaiah, who was adopted and raised by Dolezal's parents before she later received custody of him] best express the toll this has taken on their lives and society. Them being able to open up publicly about their mother [and it isn't all completely positive] must have been incredibly hard, but I hope it was helpful in some way, too.

File Under 2018 #49: The Insult


What it's about: Yasser Abdallah Salameh is a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon and working as a construction foreman. On a job to bring an apartment complex up to code, Yasser gets into a disagreement with Tony Hanna, a tenant who takes offense to the crew fixing an illegal drain pipe. They exchange words and Tony demands an apology to Yasser's boss. A racially-charged insult erupts into violence and a court trial that blows the small and personal feud into an examination on the meaning of words, racism, and the history of Lebanon.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Before you read anything else I have to say, check out C.J.'s review of The Insult from earlier this year.

  • The Insult was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar earlier this year, which isn't all that surprising. This is definitely the kind of foreign film the Academy likes to celebrate. It explores themes of morality and social justice but isn't too complicated or challenging. The Insult is well meaning and well made and very middle-brow.

  • Don't often see movies that begin with a disclaimer that the filmmakers' views don't represent the views of the national government.

  • As race relations have crescendoed in our current political environment, it is interesting to see a foreign examination of what can seem like an American problem. As an outsider, I was unaware of the complicated racial make-up in Lebanon, a country I would have assumed was fairly homogeneous in terms of race and belief structures. The Insult does a good job [if maybe a little clumsily] of establishing the national conflict between the Lebanese and Palestinian refugees. The problems the film explores are universal.

  • The Insult swings big into the melodramatic and slippery slope arguments, which eventually limited my enjoyment of the film's central conflict. As the film fully becomes a court drama, the increased grandstanding beings to explicitly state its themes. It leads to a literal slideshow history lesson to resolve its lesson on how hate leads to hate.

  • The Insult is at its best when it remains the small, personal conflict between two proud men. While the shift to the courtroom makes for a bigger, more historically resonant drama, the narrative drawbacks are too much. Yasser and Tony's reconciliation is the best scene in the film because it is able to be subtle and personal.

  • Characters seem more like symbols than actual people. Tony's wife is pregnant unfortunately only to show that he isn't just a racist prick and has some positive, loving qualities, too.

  • By the end of The Insult, I'm not exactly sure where the film's politics stand. Tony's bigshot lawyer, a right-wing mouthpiece, is often shown as ridiculous and wrong-headed but he is redeemed by the end of the film by uncovering a stirring piece of history that crystallizes the case.

  • The most important line of his closing argument, "No one has a monopoly on suffering," is difficult to parse. The final moments of the film seem to suggest this is a unifying sentiment -- that we must all realize we all suffer from hardships. It is delivered, though, as a defense that persecuted people may be complaining too much, that no one's hands are clean. It is a well-meaning message that uncomfortably comes off as victim blaming.

File Under 2018 #48: In Between


What it's about: Leila and Salma are two young Palestinian women who live together in the center of Tel Aviv. Their parties, drugs, and random sexual encounters may be nontraditional relative to many Palestinian women, but they are responsible and successful. When Nour, a devout traditional Muslim, takes over the extra room in their apartment, they build a relationship through their differences and similarities as strong women. Nour's fiancee disapproves of her new living situation, causing a rift in their relationship and an even stronger pact between the roommates.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • In the small handful of Palestinian films I've seen, I don't believe any have been centered around around or counter-cultures. Just for this, In Between feels important.

  • The limited number of Palestinian films may result in the prevalent focus on the conflict with Israel, which makes some sense given the global importance and inherent cinematic drama. While In Between has some touches on the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is much more broadly thematic, with more emphasis on issues of religion, marriage, sex, women's rights, and lifestyle choices.

  • The film is really anchored on the performances of Mouna Hawa, Sana Jammelieh, and Shaden Kanboura as Leila, Salma, and Nour. Each character is distinctive and well drawn. How they relate to each other, however, makes them even more compelling. As the plot seems to set them up in conflict over their different lifestyles and religious beliefs, In Between really showcases tolerance and the importance of female friendship. Given the strong cultural contexts, the already unique female friendship film is all the more interesting.

  • Interestingly, though, the film's narrative really picks up in the second half when each character gets more isolated individual plot lines. Nour and Salma's stories are particularly heartbreaking -- Nour's frightening altercation with the fiancee she no longer loves and Salma's family drama when they realize she is a lesbian. Leila gets a bit of short shrift on the dramatic front though she remains the most charismatic and compelling screen presence of the three.

  • The three women come back together in the final act in something of a revenge subplot. Given the dramatic circumstances, it doesn't exactly revel in the revenge, but it is again another compelling act of female friendship. The ingenuity, strength, rebelliousness, and resourcefulness of these women come off extraordinarily in the film's final moments.

  • A film so strong in women's stories could only be made by a woman and Maysaloun Hamoud has a clear and decisive perspective. Her filmmaking style isn't extraordinary, though In Between is well shot and constructed, it is her focus on characters and fearlessness in telling controversial stories that makes the film special. Her achievement as a female filmmaker coming from a still traditional and narrow film culture and bringing these issues tot he forefront is important.

  • In Between was produced and championed by filmmaker Shlomi Elkabetz, who co-directed one of my absolute favorite films in recent years, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem with his tragically deceased sister Ronit.

  • The film's final image of the three women standing silently together, slightly broken but defiant against their oppressors is a fine image to end on.

File Under 2018 #47: Lover for a Day


What it's about: Jeanne is a young woman who gets dumped by her boyfriend. Out of her apartment, she has no one to turn to but her father. When she arrives at his apartment, however, she discovers that he has a young girlfriend living with him. Jeanne and Ariane, at first awkward over their strange coming together, build their relationship over grief and love.

Unorganized thoughts:

I am unfortunately blind to much of director Philippe Garrel's work but if his films have similar charms of Lover for a Day, I have to catch up with his filmography. Lover for a Day is light and breezy, only 75 minutes, but full of interesting character relationships.

Lover for a Day's most immediate trait is its use of black and white cinematography, which I suppose is meant to inspire a clean, timeless look. Given the French, I automatically was put in the mind of Godard -- obviously, this is an unfair comparison, but it didn't detract me from enjoying the film. I think that Lover for a Day is a film the great auteur could have made in the 1960s, though it would have been different, for sure.

Aside from the look of the film, here are some other French New Wave correlations: the focus on youth; sexual liberation; unconventional romantic relationships; a carefree tone; character over-dramatization [the film's wild suicide attempt]; characters staged looking away from the camera; a third-person narrator; probably more.

If the characters were to decide to rob a bank or dance for 10 minutes [there is a dance scene, though not to the extent of Band of Outsiders] in the middle of the action, it probably wouldn't have been too jarring.

There is a bit of experimentation with the camera and editing -- not to your typical New Wave degree. The film plays with shot-reverse-shot structure at times, keeping the camera on one character throughout a conversation, for example. The stylistic touches build to a fun and spontaneous film, even if it is clearly not as radically subversive as anything made by Godard.

The big draw of Lovers for a Day, however, is the relationship between Jeanne and Ariane. The set-up unravels as something like a love triangle where only one of the edges is a romantic relationship.

When they first meet, Jeanne and Ariane have a tone of jealousy -- Jeanne is unsure how to react to her father's secret relationship with one of his students, especially in her moment of need. Quickly, though, they develop a strange kinship.

Ariane nearly takes on a mother persona toward her age peer, partly out of her status in this relationship, partly out of being a more experienced person in general. She offers Jeanne advice about getting your heart broken and letting your sexual side free. Jeanne responds by living vicariously through Ariane's exploits.

I don't know if I've quite seen a relationship on screen like Jeanne and Ariane. There is something strange and thrilling about their female relationship that grows throughout the film. Their dramatic stories complement each other so well, while their dialogue naturally allows Lover for a Day to explore its themes. By the end of the film, their respective relationships to Jeanne's father became almost irrelevant, which is also a nice, subtle commentary on how I connected to the film.

File Under 2018 #46: Come Sunday


What it's about: Bishop Carlton Pearson [Chiwetel Ejiofor] is a prominent preacher with powerful friends and a large congregation. After contemplating the plight of starving and slaughtered black people in Africa, Pearson can't comprehend how God would condemn these people to hell just for not being Christian and so he sermonizes his doubts during Sunday service. These controversial ideas are met with shock and disgust. His words are parsed and picked apart. Even his closest confidants are unsure of his intentions and changes in doctrine philosophy. Pearson believes he has been spoken to by God, but those around him are sure he has been tricked by the devil. His continued and strengthened belief that hell does not exist leads him to further ostracization, threatening his relationships and status.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Pearson's intentions are good. He doesn't want to judge the unfortunate or believe that a loving God would just them, too. Based on how his positions are articulated in Come Sunday, I can understand why they are misinterpreted. The film's dramatic portrayal also speaks to me as a double-standard that can exist in organized religion -- that a person can live a clean life or become persecuted but can be condemned [not just by God, but by regular people] because they are missing a specific thing that may be entirely out of their philosophical grasp.

  • Some of Come Sunday's narrative drama is a bit didactic. Perhaps this is exactly how these events happened [I don't doubt this is true] but tensions are raised because the characters simply aren't listening to each other or they don't make their arguments in a compelling way. There seems to be times when Pearson could more accurately state his position as friends and partners jump to the basest, broadest interpretations. There is a desperate need for more nuance at times, though that would make for a more difficult drama.

  • Come Sunday is full of challenging questions but I just different feel challenged by it.

  • The centerpiece scene, the second large congregation scene where Pearson gets a chance to clarify his statement that hell does not exist, is as difficult to watch as it is thrilling. There are so many thematic going through it on top of Ejiofor's dynamic performance.

  • The racial aspects of this scene are immediately apparent. Earlier in the film we're told that Pearson's congregation is special because it has brought together both white and black parishioners. The first people to raise their voice or stand up against Pearson are all white (including Oral Roberts, who is portrayed by Martin Sheen). There is also the implication that these are the people with the money, power, and influence, which quickens complications.

  • The most compelling character in the film is Pearson's wife Gina [Condola Rashad, known from Billions]. She isn't a true believer like her husband and also pushes against being the typical trophy wife. But you also see her great love for Carlton during his tough test. She didn't ask for this situation but her relationships and status are damaged by it. Rashad gives a strong performance in what certainly could have been an overlooked character.

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor is expectedly good in the lead role. The actor's showmanship is on display immediately as Pearson is a pure entertainer. He sings, he charismatically cracks jokes, he's the kind of leader you understand can bring people who different backgrounds together. Later in the film, though, Ejiofor's ability to quietly display grief and the internal struggle is equally, if not more, important.

  • Moving into the third act, Come Sunday begins to build what seems to be the final dramatic conflict. Pearson is invited to speak to [perhaps debate] his philosophy to a council of African American religious leaders. Those who have held their support see this as an ambush that could completely cripple his place in the field, but Pearson is stubborn and accepts confrontation. I was excited where this was leading, hoping that this would be what I was looking for throughout Come Sunday: a more sure-handed and thorough examination of philosophical ideas. Unfortunately, the scene is fairly minor in its runtime, though it is clearer in theme.

File Under 2018 #45: Lean on Pete


What it's about: Charlie is a teenage boy who has spent much of his life moving from town to town, wherever his father can get work. Now in the area of Portland, Oregon, he stumbles upon a small horse track and gets menial work cleaning stables and helping with the horses owned by Del [Steve Buscemi]. Charlie's favorite is a 5-year-old quarter horse named Lean on Pete. When Del decides to sell Pete after the horse isn't able to perform on the track, Charlie decides to steal the horse and embark on a long journey to find a lost relative. The boy and the horse suffer the elements and loneliness together, with plenty of heartbreak along the way.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Lean on Pete is absolutely devastating. You've been warned. If you see Lean on Pete, don't make any plans after. You're going to need some time.

  • There is never a point in Lean on Pete where the sense is "things are going to turn out OK." Even in the moments of grace or hope, something is askew, usually the remnants of emotional damage that Charlie has been through.

  • Yes, this is my second "horse film" in a row after previously seeing The Rider. Besides the four-legged companions, there isn't much in common here. Whereas The Rider is understated and with a documentary style, Lean on Pete is unabashed in its drama. Both are very, very good.

  • I'm not really a horse person [whatever that means]. I've never had any interaction with horses. My only association with them are the smelly ones that carriage tourists up Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Lean on Pete, surprisingly, doesn't over-sentimentalize the horse specifically -- despite being named after Pete, this is Charlie's story through-and-through.

  • Charlie is a blank slate. When the story begins, not much is really known about him -- he seems like a nice kid who is more responsible than other kids his age because his mother's absence and his father being a bit absentee. When he starts working for Del he didn't have any particular interest in racehorses but he adjusts well to the job. This blankness makes the character more emotionally open and raw, also a bit naive, which makes for a good audience barometer for the dramatic narrative. I felt like I was really going through this journey with Charlie.

  • In that way, I wouldn't say that Charlie Plummer's performance is extraordinary, but there is something to feeling everything that he is feeling. The character internalizes all the pain really well. When there is a dramatic outburst [there are a few], it is gut wrenching.

  • The Oregon setting is a place outside of time. There really isn't much indication when this story takes place -- I presume it is modern day, but it could be from any point of the mid-90s til now. This feeling comes from everything being run down, from the cars or the homes or the businesses.

  • This is not the glamorous world of horse racing usually seen in movies and television. There is an air of desperation. Just like the larger environments the film moves to later on, this world is essentially empty.

  • The second half of Lean on Pete becomes a hike movie and it constantly reminds the scope of Charlie and Pete's journey. As they walk through the western deserts, the vast and empty environment completely swallows them up. They are routinely positioned in extreme long shots as tiny figures in an endless expanse. As the film's plot slows down, this visual is all that is needed to convey the emotional and dramatic story.

  • The obvious cinematic parallel to Lean on Pete is Kelly Reichardt's fantastic Wendy and Lucy. They both have a similar location, dire circumstances, transient characters, and animal companions. Lean on Pete is a bit broader narratively, more of a journey than the slice-of-life specificity of Wendy and Lucy. Both approaches work, though I think Lean on Pete might be more outwardly sad -- I would expect it to illicit more of a physical response than the quieter Wendy and Lucy.

  • Andrew Haigh's three films [Weekend45 Years, and now Lean on Pete] are all remarkably different in place and character. All three are incredibly intimate in examining the emotional lives of their characters, though. Haigh has already proven himself as one of the great filmmakers working in serious, adult drama. Lean on Pete might have the most broad appeal, it is certainly his biggest film, and I hope it gets him noticed on a new level.

File Under 2018 #44: The Rider


What it's about: Brady Blackburn is a professional cowboy who suffered a traumatic brain injury due to a riding accident. After leaving the hospital, Brady slowly gets back into riding and training while dealing with lingering effects. He's told by doctors that if he ever rides again he is risking death. But the cowboy life is the only life he's ever known, so despite clearly knowing the risks, he pushes himself for one more ride at glory.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Based on the trailer I had seen, I expected The Rider to be a tough watch. It's not that I was wrong [the film is incredibly bleak at times] but there are so many beautiful grace notes, so much life in The Rider. It is a surprisingly sweet character study that centers on a fully-developed community. The documentary style of the film really helped bring me into this world and felt comforted by it.

  • The line between narrative and documentary being gently blurred is the biggest stylistic appeal of the film. This isn't a unique approach but there is something about it that really makes The Rider feel like pure cinema. And unlike most films that use a community of non-professional actors to live out their real lives in a thinly veiled narrative, The Rider strikes me much more like a documentary than typical.

  • This is especially the case in the second half of the film, once Brady begins working again with horses, and this is when the film really comes together. There is more obviously written dialogue near the start of the film [a bonfire scene between four friends designed to introduce another character who we come to meet, for example] and the non-professional cast comes off less comfortable in those moments.

  • Brady's relationship with his younger sister Lilly really grew on me, as well. There is a lot of love and tenderness in their relationship that we don't often see in movies, perhaps because their bond and Brady's natural protection of her. It is one of the most beautiful character relationships I expect to see this year.

  • Brady isn't at all the character that I expected going into the film, perhaps this is just my own bias against the cowboy way of life. He's characteristically rough-and-tumble, sure, but much more sensitive than the stereotypical cowboy.

  • At points of The Rider I realized that the simple people featured are complexly written. Brady's father, played by the actor's real father, is the best example -- there isn't much on the surface, but the small glimpses into how the death of his wife and the tragic suffering of his oldest son affects him is really subtle.

  • One place where the narrative works: Brady gets a temporary job at a grocery store where he is immediately out of place. How he adapts, though, is a fun bit of character work.

  • The film's most poignant and emotionally wrenching subplot involves Lane Scott, Brady's horse riding hero and mentor. Lane narratively functions as the risk if Brady continues to push his physical limits, but it doesn't come off as cynically as that. Brady visits Lane, who has suffered extensive brain damage and now lives his life without the ability to walk or speak. The moments they share together are, again, incredibly tender. When they watch YouTube videos of Lane's former success riding bulls and broncos, it is a cathartic and intense experience. Again, though, The Rider avoids it feeling exploitative.

  • It shouldn't go unsaid that The Rider is an extremely beautifully photographed film. In the prairies of the Badlands, the environment does a lot of the work, but cinematographer Joshua James Richards [who also worked on British farmland film God's Own Country] deserves a lot of credit. How he captures horse riding with sweeping long shots fully taking in the movement of the horse is stunning.

  • Whenever Brady rides a horse, this beauty is tinged with a bit of fear, creating for a tense and emotionally complicated experience.

  • Coming from China as an outsider, director Chloé Zhao's status helps with the documentary eye. Nothing in the film feels particularly staged, merely captured. Especially in scenes where Brady is working with horses the camera becomes a neutral eye, studying the directions and movements of the character and horse right along with the viewer.

  • Taking tabs on the year so far, The Rider is my favorite film I've seen in 2018. The way it subverts my expectations of these characters and their lives created a beautiful and emotionally rich experience. It might be the best example of using real people to live their lives inside of a narrative film I've ever seen. At this point, I would be surprised if it didn't end up in my top 10 list come the end of the year.

File Under 2018 #43: Permission


What it's about: Anna and Will [Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens] are a happy couple who have been together since they were kids. They have the perfect relationship but it's the only relationship they've had. When a friend tells them they should try sleeping with other people so they don't regret never having the experience, the idea starts to grow as something viable. Anna immediately picks up up a hot musician and has a good time. This leaves Will in a tough spot, now basically required to complete the deal to not make things weird. Unsurprisingly, though, their relationship has been forever changed and Anna and Will must deal with the insecurities, comparisons, and the rules of their obviously terrible plan.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • It is a high concept as old as romantic relationships. That puts Permission in a tough spot. Can it overcome or avoid the cliches and obvious genre elements, the familiar dramatic steps? Not really. Though Anna and Will's relationship experiment isn't the only thing Permission is concerned with, it is fairly predictable.

  • Lead performers Hall and Stevens are likable and charismatic enough to stay invested. Honestly, I don't know if you could put together a pair of actors together in an indie rom-com that I would like more.

  • Permission takes on the internal conflicts a bit too easily, becoming more explicitly about the moral questions at hand. Part of this comes from a sounding board structure where Anna and Will each have a pair where they can more openly talk about their feelings and conflicts. Anna is paired with her brother, who gets his own side conflict about wanting to adopt a baby with his long term partner, who happens to be Will's college roomate, business partner, and personal sounding board. This structure makes Hale and Reece, characters we are meant to follow on their own relationship journey, more like idea generators than actual characters.

  • What makes this especially wonky is that Reece, the person who initially introduced the experiment idea, becomes quickly against what Will is doing.

  • It is a little silly that as soon as sleeping with other people becomes a possibility, both Anna and Will naturally find a partner. Then again, as two extremely beautiful people, maybe it isn't unrealistic.

  • Anna is paired with a brilliant and hunky musician who can challenge Dan Stevens on looks and coolness. Interestingly, Will begins sleeping with an older woman [played by the stunning Gina Gershon] but her age never becomes a plot point. Some of this might be Gershon's cinematic sexual persona. I found it pretty refreshing that the nearly 20-year age difference between the actors didn't have to be a thing.

  • Equal opportunity full frontal nudity alert!

  • A lot of blatant New York neighborhood name drops like "This is Park Slope" and "I'm never coming to Chelsea again."

  • Ultimately, the purpose of the set-up is to get these very comfortable lovers to break out of their conventions and think about what they really want sexually. Permission could be a frank, honest pro-sex film. What Will has to overcome, however, is something so inane and played comically that any resonance the plot could have is lost.

  • Yet another indie about an artisan furniture maker. Seriously, this has gotten into magazine executive territory.

  • Unfortunately, Permission builds character tension in a pretty cheap way. I know it is tough to judge a film based on what "real people" would do, but I couldn't help but think of how the film makes some pretty easy omissions to have any sense of dramatic stakes. In a realistic situation, ground rules would obviously be set. While some rules are talked about between the characters, it would have been more responsible for one to be making sure the random partners would be made aware of the unusual circumstances. But Anna's story, in particular, needs to have some conflict, so she leads her music hunk on all to set up a dramatic fight by dodging the questions of why she can't fully commit. She can't even admit to it in the moment she walks away from him.

  • Surprisingly, Jason Sudeikis shows up in a running subplot with Anna's brother. He's a recent father who sits at the park so his baby can sleep, spurring on Hale's want to have his own baby. Unfortunately, Sudeikis is pretty wasted. He's important to the subplot, but is restricted in having much of a personality.

File Under 2018 #42: Den of Thieves


What it's about: Ray, Donnie, Enson, Bosco and the crew are an elite group of bank robbers. They come from high level military background where they have learned discipline, communication techniques, combat, all the traits that are perfect for pulling off the impossible heist. They devise the perfect robbery with the opportunity to steal millions of dollars that no one will be accounting for. That doesn't make it any easier or less dangerous, though. On the other side, Nick O'Brien [Gerard Butler] is a elite cop with demons. He's had his eye on Ray [Pablo Schreiber] for a while and has pulled in the newest recruit Donnie [O'Shea Jackson Jr.] to try to get intel on their latest score. When the heist finally goes down, these two opposing teams meet with violence to gain redemption or the biggest score of their lives.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I know I complain about this a lot but Den of Thieves is 140 minutes. That's too long. Typically, I come to a heist film for something quick and sleek and entertaining, just like the robbery I like to get in and out as swiftly and economically as possible. The problem with Den of Thieves, however, is it wants to be something a little more. It reaches for the heights of a AAA drama and it is those scenes that ultimately drag the film down.

  • The opening scene heist of an armored truck is a simple, no frills job. Though there isn't much cinematic about it, the scene is interesting enough for the display of the tactical team -- the communication and movement is hyper specific. The most surprising thing, though, is how casually cops are killed once it starts going bad. The tone is set on all fronts: incredible yet casual violence with an economic style.

  • Den of Thieves spends too much time on a heavy marital drama subplot that doesn't successfully add the intended stakes. Basically, despite being the typical cinematic hero, Nick is a bad apple. There are questions how straight-laced he is as a cop, but he is clearly an alcoholic and an all-around terrible person. So, his wife leaves him, taking their kids, and we're left with Nick getting some good man cries in. If I wanted to care more about Nick then I suppose this helps build that tone, but Butler's performance is fall too broad to take him seriously.

  • The heist genre always plays with audience sympathies. Usually, we have to reconcile cheering for the criminals because they are doing things the right way or are using the money for something good or simply because they are badass. Making the main cop character the most flawed character has some merit in that way, but it just doesn't come together in any satisfying way.

  • On the other hand, the thieves of Den of Thieves don't really garner much sympathy, either. The film positions Donnie [O'Shea Jackson Jr.] mostly as this character, as he's an outsider, sort of the audience's way into the elite team, and he's the one most targeted by the police. At the end of the day, though, there really isn't anyone to outright root for. This isn't exactly a problem, but it is weird from an entertainment perspective.

  • The centerpiece heist of the film takes up most of the runtime's final hour. It is long and elaborate, just as you'd want from an expert heist film. Unfortunately, it runs out of steam pretty quickly. Much of it is pretty dull, without enough tension -- there are the typical spots where characters are held up or need to tread lightly, but these close calls never work. The most effective moment involves a traffic jam scenario on the getaway that foretells a serious gun fight.

  • This, then, ultimately draws the line on where Den of Thieves survives and fails relative to the best of the heist genre. It perhaps isn't smart or stylistic enough to rely on a major heist setpiece in the typical way. When it can be a guns-ablazing hard action film, it's fine. Between the opening sequence and the final gun battle, that should be where the film focused its efforts. It may have been striving for more than that, but I guess that's it downfall. Maybe that is my expectations or biases going in, though, too.

  • If you were a professional criminal, why would you have a large, distinctive, easily identifiable neck tattoo? Sure, you can cover it up, but why even bother?

  • If you read my Kickboxer: Retaliation review you know I'm always happy to see mixed martial arts fighters show up in these mid-budget, mid-acclaim action films. Den of Thieves doesn't boast the same expanse of talent but it does feature three pretty big names in the sport: UFC champions Max Holloway and Michael Bisping [who makes a cameo at the film's coda] and MMA pioneer turned actor Oleg Taktarov.

  • I'll take Pablo Schreiber as a hardened, gruff criminal. The role doesn't need him to show any range, so I wouldn't say it is a great performance, but he is a strong presence. He's been due a break out for a long time so I'm glad to see him here even if Den of Thieves isn't a kickstart to genuine leading man success.

  • The last-minute realization slash flashback sequence to see how it all *really* went down is always a very silly part of these kinds of films. For Den of Thieves, it is a big old shrug.

File Under 2018 #41: Kodachrome


What it's about: Matt Ryder [Jason Sudeikis] is a music agent at a boutique label whose job is in jeopardy when he receives news that his father Ben [Ed Harris] only has a few months to live. Their relationship has been rocky for years, as Ben's photography career has made him largely absentee and his abrasive personality took a toll on Matt's mother's life. To reconnect in his dying days, Ben's personal assistant/nurse Zoe [Elizabeth Olsen] invites Matt to come on a road trip from New York to Kansas, where the last place to develop Kodachrome film exists. Ben's final legacy as an artist is found in uncovered, undeveloped work, and they must get to the photo lab before it will be lost forever. His legacy as a man and father may also be developed in this cross-country journey.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Kodachrome is the perfect kind of movie for Netflix as the streaming juggernaut continues with its insane release schedule. It is small and easily digestible but also broad in its appeal. It has a very good cast of actors with none of them being bankable stars. It is also a film that is thematically and cinematically resonant enough to stand out in the crowded landscape. Sure, it would have been better to see it in a movie theater as that is the general rule [Kodachrome has been shown on theater screens, at least in NYC, which is the criteria for me to be writing this] but I was perfectly happy to have it available to me for no extra cost on a Tuesday early evening.

  • I'm starting to wonder to what level Jason Sudeikis is underrated as a film actor. Certainly, he's been very successful by most standards. The blueprint of Kodachrome's leading man is a perfect fit for him and shows that he absolutely could have a higher profile. Sudeikis is really good at being smarmy and a little angry [throw in a bit of charm when necessary] -- if you saw his great performance in Colossal last year, you know that.

  • The first four scenes of the film are Matt in conflict with four different people [the hot music act who is dropping him, his boss who is about to fire him, Zoe who walks in at the wrong time, and his father]. This could be a very monotonous or abrasive way to start a film that wants you to eventually like these people. The actor's comic timing really helps these scenes to stay quick and sharp.

  • I will say, however, that Kodachrome does run into some problems in the most dramatic moments where it feels a bit too scripted. Characters tend to know exactly the perfect thing to say that would generate the biggest emotional punch. It could be a little messier, as much dramas could be.

  • Music has a big part to play to a slightly annoying degree. This is a movie for those who are big time purists of the music industry. Given the function of Matt's work, there is a whole lot of name dropping of important musical acts -- Matt seemingly discovers Coldplay and Arcade Fire but the suits don't listen to him and pass. It is a little strange, though, that the most important band in Kodachrome is a fictional one, though a band that we're supposed to just buy is as super popular and cool as those other super popular and cool bands. I suppose that if Arcade Fire made a cameo in the middle of this film as the band that Matt had to sway to sign it would have been really awkward, so the film doesn't have much of a choice.

  • The song "Lightning Crashes" plays a pivotal role in the narrative which basically erases all of the clunky ways Kodachrome uses music as a plot point. Truthfully, the way the song was introduced made me very angry until it pays off in a pretty satisfying way.

  • You couldn't have cast better than Ed Harris in the role of a hateful old prick artist in his dying days. If Kodachrome had a bigger profile, he'd be a contender for supporting actor awards at the end of the year.

  • His best attribute is his unwillingness to be liked as a character. Even by the end of the film, Ben isn't someone that becomes suddenly likeable through redemption. He's understandable, which is different, but no less profound.

  • Road movies are usually almost entirely about the journey, not the ending. Kodachrome really clicks when the destination has arrived, however. The final moments are incredibly touching. As someone who has always been susceptible to father-son relationship movies for personal reasons, the film didn't really hit me on that level until the very end, but it was worth the wait.

  • The conceit of journey to develop the last Kodachrome film actually works better than expected because the metaphors are so rich. Not only is the death of film and celluloid an actual thing that is happening, it perfectly mirrors a connection to Ben's health. And it doesn't push these metaphors too hard, they are allowed to develop [pun intended] until they make themselves clear. By the end of the film, you understand why the process of this journey was important without being pedantic or pretentious.

File Under 2018 #40: Humor Me


What it's about: Nate [Jemaine Clement] is a once-successful playwright who is struggling with both his work and family. He can't find an ending on his latest work and his wife has left him for a French billionaire the week before his lease is up. With no other options, he moves in with his father [Elliott Gould] at his retirement community. Nate is recruited to work with the small theater group in the community, "The Cranberry Bog Players," to direct a selection of scenes from Arthur Sullivan's The Mikado. With his life spiraling out of control, his re-established relationship with his father and the low-scale artistic challenge give him a new purpose in life.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • There is a running joke throughout Humor Me that Nate is a unimpressive looking person. This just doesn't jive with Jemaine Clement, who may not everyone's idea of handsome but he is certainly distinguished.

  • That said, Clement with a New Jersey accent is bizarre. Though he actually pulls it off pretty well, it is strange.

  • What is not usually the case for these kinds of indie dramadies, Humor Me is actually more effective in the earnest dramatic moments than the broad character comedy. It is obvious when the film is trying to be too precious -- Nate's producer coincidentally showing up to the big night with the Cranberry Bog ladies, for example, or getting a job folding towels while being ridiculed by his drill sergeant like old man manager. But when the focus is on Nate remembering his departed mother or having Skype conversations with his young son, it somehow works. Seriously, this is probably the best use of Skype moments I've seen in a film.

  • And Clement works really well in the dramatic moments, too. I'm excited for him breaking out into more film and Humor Me is a good step after his leading role in the smart rom-com People Places Things.

  • If you think elderly women hitting on younger men is funny, there is plenty of that in Humor Me. For me, it is pretty flat and obvious.

  • Ingrid Michaelson plays a young woman who lives with her mother on the grounds while battling addiction. I'm not familiar with Michaelson, who is making his feature film debut, but I gather that she is a fairly popular singer. When a few pop songs played on the soundtrack, I had the suspicion that there was a connection there and I was right.

  • The two non-elderly people living in the retirement community somehow having a romantic connection with each other is a little silly.

  • Elliott Gould's running character trait is a series of dirty jokes about a man named Zimmerman [Zimmerman's doctor tells him to stop masturbating ... so he can start his examination, etc.]. The longer, more elaborate jokes are shot with Joey Slotnick playing Zimmerman. These aren't particularly funny, fairly stock, but they surprisingly pay off in a few different moments: a bonding moment recounting Nate's mother's reaction which is more poignant and funny than the punchline of the joke and a glimpse into Nate's stage work that shows his father's incessant joke telling from a much starker point-of-view.

  • Humor Me is director Sam Hoffman's debut feature but he has had a very interesting career in Hollywood. Most of his filmography is as an assistant director, starting as a second assistant director on A League of Their OwnGroundhog Day, and Rudy before taking on assistant director roles for filmmakers like Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, and Richard Linklater. These three particular directors can all be seen in Humor Me but you'd have to squint pretty hard. Hoffman doesn't have much of a personal style yet and his best work might come in more dramatic work.

File Under 2018 #39: You Were Never Really Here


What it’s about: Joe [Joaquin Phoenix] is an assassin who specializes in rescuing girls kidnapped into sex slavery. He receives a job from a Senator whose daughter was recently taken. Shortly after completing the job, Joe gets caught up in a conspiracy that further endangers his and his target’s lives. And his paranoid psychosis certainly doesn’t help. As the threats become greater, Joe is increasingly overtaken by flashes from a traumatic childhood and life of heinous violence. His grasp on sanity becomes just as dangerous as the men out to kill him.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • If you’ve ever seen director Lynne Ramsay’s work, especially her last film We Need to Talk About Kevin, you know that she isn’t wary of diving into incredibly dark territory of the minds that perpetrate violence. You Were Never Really Here is a bit different, though, as the most violent character is the hero -- a flawed hero, certainly, but the hero. We might not root for the violence, but there is something cathartic about seeing a man saunter through a house, taking out men connected to a child sex trafficking ring.

  • I don’t know if the memory flashbacks makes for a great character study, but Joaquin Phoenix is the perfect actor to play this character. Phoenix is one of the most interesting looking actors working, with a face that tells the story all by itself. This isn’t The Master level of examining closeups, but he wears all the character’s trauma and experience without the need of any exposition.

  • One particular image involving a shipping container adds an extraordinary amount of character development in a simple way. It is by far the most insightful and intriguing image of all the flashbacks.

  • The bleak tone is both offset and heightened by early interactions between Joe and his elderly mother. Their relationship offers tenderness and just a touch of sadness.

  • Serious question: Has a ball pein hammer ever been used for anything other than bashing in skulls?

  • Joe’s raid on the sex traffick house is an upsetting and expertly crafted sequence. It is just explicit enough in its sex and violence to fully understand what is going on, but also only shown in touches of the bigger picture. When Joe enters the building, everything is shown by an automated security cam loop, which conveniently cuts away from the action at the moment just before the impact of violence.

  • Throughout You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay deals with violence in a similar way. Aside from a few particular moments, the violence is cleverly shown offscreen -- at least it is cut away from precisely at the right moment. This tactic doesn’t make the film less brutal and in fact gives the most gruesome moments even more impact.

  • This also continually leaves the viewer with only the consequences of violence, which helps focus the bleak tone. It takes a bit away from the potential reaction of cheering on the violence [which is definitely there at times] and realistically portrays how violence is a messy thing, even for a sleek professional.

  • You Were Never Really Here ends on a moment of shocking dark humor, really the only comedic moment in the entire film. Overall, I didn’t love the open-ended nature of the final beat [a “where do we go from here” trope] and I couldn’t quite reconcile the window of hope for Joe, but it is definitely a strong and disarming way to end.

  • The similarities between You Were Never Really Here and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver are too prevalent to be accidental. Since seeing the film, I realized that this wasn’t some personal discovery and has already been written about all over. It is at a strange degree, however, including not only a flawed, possibly psychotic protagonist, but ties to child prostitution and political assassinations, as well. I’m not sure if You Were Never Really Here openly comments or subverts Taxi Driver in any way, but it is definitely more sympathetic toward its characters and there are clearer villains. It does, however, add a nice bit of recognition to an fairly lean thriller.

File Under 2018 #38: The Young Karl Marx


What it's about: Karl Marx is a young idealist speaking for the impoverished across Europe in times of rapid industrial development. His journal writing has opened political opportunities, though the ruling classes and less controversial thinkers are able to hold him off. After he meets Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy factory owner, the two begin to establish a political working class based on the ideology that their labor is exploited by the wealthy. Despite political and legal opposition, they begin to make headway into the establishment, ultimately leading to the creation of their most important life's work: a manifesto of Communist principles that would become one of the cornerstone political texts of the 20th Century.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Director Raoul Peck made one of my favorite films from a few years ago, the documentary profile of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. That work was both intellectually and formally vital, a masterwork for oppressed people. Not only was it radical in its content, but also in its documentary design. This makes the follow up The Young Karl Marx even more disappointing.

  • The film tries to balance the philosophy with Marx's personal life struggles. Focusing more on the pure ideas could have inspired a more radical style. But the aims of the film definitely seem middlebrow -- The Young Karl Marx doesn't distinguish itself from the majority of historical biopics out there.

  • Marx and Engels are obviously figures that would interest Peck, who has spent most of his career making both fiction and non-fiction films about the vocal leaders of the poor and disenfranchised. The characterizations of these characters aren't quite as strong as I expected. Their dialogue doesn't build them as real historical figures as much as it presents their ideology.

  • The most interesting character through much of the film is Marx's wife Jenny, played by Phantom Thread's Vicky Krieps. In the first half of the film, Jenny brings an integral passion for the ideas [and for Marx, the man] and her role as the sounding board for her husband's ideas is built as an equal partnership. In the film's second half, however, she disappears into motherhood, sidelined from the action literally to deliver a baby. This is perhaps an inescapable circumstance of real life, but it was disappointing on a narrative level.

  • Marx's ideology is presented in mostly generic biopic ways, with arguments around wooden tables and stump speeches in front of rowdy crowds. This style makes it all stale -- I never felt challenged, the potentially controversial rhetoric never felt controversial.

  • As the film tours around Europe to describe specific milestones in Marx's life, there is no cinematic way to differentiate between Brussels or Manchester or Paris. Timeline captions suggest segmented setpieces, though everything is smushed together without any real strong sense of time or place.

  • By the end of The Young Karl Marx, I couldn't help but think of this film as anything but the origin story of something more compelling. The film ends with Marx and Engels [along with their wives] crafting The Communist Manifesto, but we are only told of the work's impact through on-screen text. The revolutions that swept across Europe and around the world would certainly bring the opportunity for something more cinematic and intellectually rich.

  • The disappointing on-screen text finale leads to a mini-documentary told in minutes over the credits. Images of the poverty struggle and protest, from the early Communist revolutions, to key figures like Mandela, to the recent housing crisis, all scored to the most famous Bob Dylan protest song, build the story that you would want Peck to tell. The impact of the style, clear voice, and brevity make it by far the most interesting section of The Young Karl Marx. This only goes to show just how dull the previous 2 hours of The Young Karl Marx proper was. It is a reminder that Raoul Peck does have things to say on the subject. I'm not sure why he didn't take his opportunity.

File Under 2018 #37: Ready Player One


What it's about: James Halliday was a tech mogul who created a full virtual world called The Oasis, where the public live their alternative lives in a dystopian world. Upon his death, Halliday sets out a challenge to his fans to discover three hidden keys within The Oasis; the winner of this challenge would inherent Halliday's enormous wealth and also complete control over his legacy. Wade [Tye Sheridan] escapes his depressing life in the slums of Columbus, Ohio to build a new identity inside The Oasis, where he meticulously searches the clues of his hero's life with a group of other radical players. This team races against a corrupt business that seeks control of The Oasis to completely monetize the system and further increase the wealth divide.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • First I should say that I have no connection to Ready Player One's very popular [and polarizing] source material. I don't read books, I watch movies.

  • Ready Player One is a pure example of a strain of Hollywood cinema that can be completely enjoyed as entertainment even while recognizing the many flaws when approached on any critical level. That makes it a difficult film to recommend. I think Ready Player One on many accounts is a pretty bad movie. But I recognize its appeal, too, as cynical as it may be.

  • The most thoroughly entertaining thing about Ready Player One is its Easter egg hunt aspect. I'm not referring to the journey that Wade and his crew go through to win the day, but the viewer's relationship with the bombardment of references the film flings out. Ready Player One taps right into what makes nostalgia and fandom irresistible. You might get the same enjoyment out of the film as you would winning a trivia competition -- the more characters or images you recognize as they flash across the screen the more synapses will spark off in your brain. In that way, Ready Player One has more in common with Coca-Cola than it does with cinema.

  • Inside of The Oasis is incredibly cinematic, though. There are two particular set pieces that work incredibly well in entirely different ways. The first is a race sequence that happens near the start of the film which showcases Spielberg's ability to stage an action scene perfectly. It is a complete rush, incredibly fluid, insanely big. The other sequence is a deeper dive into a particular film world that, while not as completely satisfying as it went along, makes a wonderful rendering of a film setting that I personally am very familiar with. So seeing a new group of character explore the space in a much different way was as much fun as it was strange and unsettling.

  • OK, let's take a break from the positives and focus on what Ready Player One does really poorly. Foremost, for a big sci-fi tech movie, the sci-fi and tech elements of the film are incredibly thin. The film does a poor job of giving us a solid vision of what the dystopian future is really like. Sure, we see the poverty [which is uncomfortably melodramatic, by the way] but there is no sense on how people actually live in this world. Everything outside of The Oasis is contained to a small and uninteresting place. How did the world end up like this? Ready Player One waves away this world building to focus on other things, but the deep-seeded themes of how we experiment with and rely on technology, escapism through art, etc. would have all be so much more coherent and impactful with any attempt.

  • Though it takes place in 2045, the only art that exists is from the 1970-90s -- this is obviously the point with nostalgia, but it is also a pretty lazy narrative device. The film spending any time on the actually idea of how this came to be could have been incredibly interesting.

  • Likewise, the characters and their relationships are extraordinarily thin. I honestly didn't care about any of the characters aside from humming along to the typical hero's journey template. A romantic relationship comes off as unintentionally creepy and uses the tried-and-true "I have this birthmark so I'm hideous and who could ever love me" arc. It is awful and laughable and toxic. Other character connections are built entirely through plot contrivance that, again, makes the world feel incredibly small.

  • Hearing T.J. Miller's voice was physically unsettling. Part of it is how unmistakable his voice is, part of it is obviously because of everything we've learned about him.

  • Overall, though, the look of the avatars inside of The Oasis is pretty impressive. The character designs aren't particularly special [they look like any character from an MMORPG], but the way the actors are subtly within them is interesting. The most striking for me was the avatar used by the big bad corporate head Sorrento, played by professional bad guy Ben Mendelsohn. Again, the Clark Kent inspired look isn't inspired, but small touches of the way Mendelsohn's mouth moves when speaking was completely captured.

  • I also can't not mention Mark Rylance, who gives a very bizarre performance as Halliday. I'm not familiar with all of Rylance's work, really coming to know him most from Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, but I really wasn't expecting this weird turn. It might come off as a little goofy or over-the-top to some. When many of the characters are bland, however, I appreciated him really going for it.

  • The all-hit soundtrack laying under long stretches of exposition was annoying and distracting.

  • Ready Player One couldn't be any different from Spielberg's last film, The Post. This is pretty emblematic of the master filmmaker's career. He's never shied away from working completely in pulp and he has become much more beloved for those choices than his more "serious" work. Ready Player One is a disappointment, though, as Spielberg has never sacrificed so much in terms of narrative and character for his fun thrill rides.

File Under 2018 #36: Dead on Arrival


What it's about: Sam Collins is a pharmaceutical rep who specializes in vaccines. He is invited to a swanky New Year's Eve party at a doctor's Louisiana estate in order to broker a deal. But the next morning, Collins isn't feeling too good and ultimately ends up on the side of a country highway with a quick and debilitating sickness. When he comes to in a hospital, he is given the bad news that sudden illness is due to a rare poison that only gives him about 24 hours to live. But his own murder investigation isn't the only one he's become mixed up in.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Ah, the opening scene cutting to an intertitle that says "12 Hours Earlier." I love films that do that! I just couldn't wait to find out what led our primary character to the sticky situation we find him in.

  • Dead on Arrival is a low production film with all the trappings: stilted acting, on-the-nose dialogue, generically awful music, and a thriller plot that isn't too far off late-nite Cinemax.

  • There is a conversation early on that is almost literally "How about that vaccine stuff? I've heard that it does more harm than good," to which the vaccine rep replied "I guess it depends on who you ask." Which, no.

  • Another great bit of dialogue: "Everybody's got a transvestite story around these parts."

  • The film's sense of location is at times its best aspect while also a very movie version of Louisiana. It is a swampy, good-ol-boysy environment that does add some much needed flavor to an otherwise generic film. Then again, scenes like a meeting with a voodoo doctor are incredibly cliche, complete with a put-on Miss Cleo accent. This particular scene also comes out of absolute nowhere, though it could be expected based on all the Louisiana markers it hits. This character is also strangely the only black character in the film.

  • There is also one character noted as Armenian, but he only seems to exist only for a joke that Kim Kardashian is the most famous Armenian person in history.

  • There is far too much plotting in Dead on Arrival. The poisoning/murder mystery hook should give enough intrigue, but the film spends significant time with a detective duo, gangster cronies plucked straight out of The Sopranos, corrupt cops, a strip club, and an ensemble of random locals. It is surprising that Dead on Arrival wasn't released in 1995.

  • As these side characters [basically every one of them] begin to reveal themselves as connected to the central criminal activity, it is all done in a way that tells you nothing about why or how they are specifically connected. This leads to an empty narrative sorely lacking motivation. I suppose the ultimate motive is the secret that keeps the plot running, but it is hard to stay invested in the series of random events and conversations.

  • And it isn't worked out too well. The final scenes of the film involve one of the rogue's gallery saying "You have no idea what's going on here, do you?" ... and then proceeds to tie up every one of the narrative strings. Writing yourself into this kind of corner makes it difficult to be at all compelling.

File Under 2018 #35: Chappaquiddick


What it’s about: Ted Kennedy [Jason Clarke] is the youngest man to serve as the majority whip in the history of the U.S. Senate. And still, he remains in the long shadow of his three older brothers—Joe, John, and Robert—who have all been tragically killed. On his annual vacation in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, a week of drinking and sailing in Martha’s Vineyard, another tragedy occurs. Driving late at night with a former assistant to his brother Bobby’s presidential campaign, his car careens off of a bridge and into shallow water. Ted is able to escape, but he leaves Mary Jo [Kate Mara] behind. In order to maintain his reputation and status in his family, Ted works to minimize his culpability in her death by using his political resources.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Whenever a Kennedy is portrayed on screen, it is easy to come off as a caricature -- the stylized voice and particular look is hard to not feel like dressing up. Even in good performances, such as Natalie Portman in Jackie, it is hard to completely blend into the character. All in all, Jason Clarke does a pretty good job. The Kennedy accent is subtle and natural. He is a bit too made up to completely look like an actual human being, but Clarke does have a striking resemblance to Kennedy.

  • Chappaquiddick opens with news footage voice-over describing the deaths of Joe, John, and Bobby to set the tone of a deeply cursed family. This establishes just enough sympathy for Ted to begin the film. Though what he did was horribly irresponsible, even criminal, it is aligned with the morose, tragic sadness that clouded over his entire life.

  • To its credit, Chappaquiddick doesn’t pull punches or skirt around responsibility. It isn’t as salacious as one might expect or monger in rumors that were present at the time of the tragedy, such as Ted and Mary Jo having an affair prior to her death. It would have been really easy to push this narrative, but the film keeps the events pretty straight.

  • For the most part, Ted isn’t portrayed as a calculated character. There are moments at the end of the film that contradict that, but he’s shown to be emotional and privately remorseful for what happened.

  • The second half of Chappaquiddick unfortunately and confusingly becomes a PR procedural that borders on a comedy. Almost like a comedy of errors, Kennedy’s team of unnamed men in finely tailored suits bumble through their story, emphasizing the Ted’s own take as the defective Kennedy brother.

  • A bit about a neck brace is played out of an absurd slapstick movie.

  • The biggest misstep of Chappaquiddick is the father-son subplot which I suppose is meant to add character stakes and sympathy to Ted by further establishing that he wasn’t well equipped to succeed by his spiteful patriarch. It is so comically overdone, though, that it detracts from the film’s message. Bruce Dern as Joseph Kennedy Sr. isn’t exactly to blame but the portrayal is too melodramatic to take seriously -- this was immediate from the character’s introduction with heavy breathing and grunting over the phone.

  • By the end of Chappaquiddick, I don’t know exactly how to see Ted Kennedy. Was he an unscrupulous conniver, using his political position to escape public and legal scrutiny while betraying the trust of his closest friends or an unfortunate man born into a family with too high expectations who found himself in an unfortunate situation? Of course it is a bit of both, but the film doesn’t naturally blend these opposing points-of-view from scene to scene. Ted doesn’t have an arc as much as he is on one end of this spectrum at any point. For what should be a serious exploration of a complicated internal struggle, Chappaquiddick’s tonal shifts and unclear character study make it an inconsistent disappointment.

File Under 2018 #34: Blockers


What it’s about: Lisa, Mitchell, and Hunter are friends by association of their three 18-year-old daughters growing up together. Their lives and relationships have changed dramatically since their girls first day of school together. On prom night, these three are forced to work together when they discover their daughters have hatched a plan to all lose their virginity by the end of the night. Meanwhile, Julie, Kayla, and Sam all deal with the pressures of this “big day,” the uncertainty of their friendship going forward, and of course, their crazy parents.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • No matter what criticisms I may lodge at Blockers [there are a few], please understand first and foremost that this is a very, very funny movie. Watching it with a lively crowd on a Friday night was a lot of fun.

  • The entire cast is really great, especially the three parents.

  • Leslie Mann is as reliable and relatable as ever. She just feels like the kind of mom you wish you had. A particular moment near the end of the film where her character cries is one of the funniest sight gags I’ve seen in a long time, but also delivers on its emotional impact.

  • We all need to just recognize that John Cena is really good at this. He was one of the highlights of Trainwreck, albeit in a much smaller role. Playing the dorky dad would work well enough on a visual level, but his line delivery and timing is spot on. It is impossible not to compare him to fellow wrestling superstar-turned movie star The Rock, it might also not quite be fair at this point as Cena really only has two credits worth discussing [I’m not going to hold The Marine against him], but if he continues to work with smart filmmakers who can use his persona for comedy it’ll be a discussion at some point.

  • The third parent, played by Ike Barinholtz, is maybe the relative breakout star. Barinholtz has been a sidekick and wacky friend presence in many recent comedies [and also strange against-type appearances in Suicide Squad and Bright], but Blockers steps up that role with more of a real character underneath. He’s not only a scene stealer [his “you guys want to go get a drink” introduction is amazingly funny] but in some ways, the sanest character among the three. His perspective is unusual for this type of broad comedy.

  • As for the daughters, Blockers has gotten a lot of praise for being an American Pie style sex comedy for females. It is striking just how different this movie is from all the various male-centric teenage comedies we’ve been fed over the years. Blockers explores the differences in some interesting ways, especially by pointing out how the behavior of these characters in a very broad comedy is problematic.

  • But too often this subtext becomes the text. This is unfortunate but necessary given how moviegoers aren’t primed to understand why three parents trying to stop their daughters from having sex is an incredible double-standard. But did that idea need to be explicitly voiced by characters throughout the film? It is a theme that absolutely needed to be explored, at least not so explicitly.

  • The most fun subversion of the genre is that the three boyfriends are all total drips. Usually in these movies, the girlfriends have no discernible characteristics, of course only there to serve the manchildrens' sexual desires. This is clearly how the boys are used in Blockers -- none of the three seem particularly interested in sex, which is strange for the genre, but is perfect for the film's goals.

  • The arty nerdy girl of the group has a Snow White and the Huntsman poster prominently displayed in her room.

  • Living most of my life in and around Chicago, I found it funny that the film is set in Chicago without any markers of actually being set in Chicago. There is a DePaul t-shirt and a few references in the dialogue, but it was missing the flavor of the specific John Hughes settings that clearly inspired the film.

  • Can we all agree that it is a bummer the movie couldn’t just be called Cock Blockers? I mean, obviously, there are reasons for that, but simply calling it Blockers isn’t a satisfying compromise -- especially in an otherwise firmly R-rated comedy. I’m not a marketing enthusiast, so I don’t have the appropriate answer here. I just know the title is generic and disappointing especially for a film that does pretty well not being generic at all.

File Under 2018 #33: A Quiet Place


What it’s about: The Abbott family are living in a world where the only means of survival is absolute silence. An unexplained species now roams the earth, using supernatural hearing ability to stalk and kill prey. Lee and Evelyn [John Krasinski and Emily Blunt] are forced to raise their children in this world, teaching them the lessons of growing up and protecting themselves and each other. Their eldest son Noah struggles with the responsibility of becoming a man. His sister Regan is deaf, which gives her a different perspective on the silent world while creating emotional strife with the rest of her family. As it becomes increasingly hard to hide from their predators, a new addition to their family only makes things more complicated.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Though I'm overall only mildly positive on A Quiet Place, you won't find many negative reviews out there. So I suggest you take a look at Patrick's thoughts on how the film takes from other, better [in his opinion], horror films from recent years. As usual, he's pretty on point.

  • The structure of A Quiet Place makes it incredibly lean. There isn’t much plot at all -- most of the film is the experience of one night where all hell breaks loose and the characters are doing everything they can to survive. It is built around a few particular setpieces, most notably when Evelyn gives birth. Despite some misgivings I have about why that situation exists [more on that in a second], it is an incredibly well designed scene that quickly changes tension over how the characters deal with the situation.

  • What’s the conversation like when Lee and Evelyn decide to have a baby? Why would you want to bring a child into this world? And then go through the impossible preparations to keep it safe? I understand that people have babies under less-than-ideal circumstances, but the extreme nature of this world feels like it is a clever screenwriter adding stakes to the film.

  • With as little dialogue as possible, this keeps most of the film exposition-free, or creates alternative ways to relay exposition. The silliest example is a whiteboard list of the monsters’ attributes like “Blind” and “Attack sound” and “Armor?” There is one other that comes into play near the film’s climax which I won’t spoil but made me roll my eyes.

  • A Quiet Place thankfully builds the world well without dialogue because whenever there is dialogue, it is pretty heavy-handed and sentimental. I think every piece of dialogue either explicitly sets up something for the climax or is basically shouting the themes.

  • On the other hand, the moments when the sound completely falls out [mostly happening when experiencing the world from Regan’s perspective] are fantastic, both chilling and moving.

  • I’ve always thought that the best horror films played with sadness just as much as they do scares. A Quiet Place excels with this as a contemplative, hopeless world of grief. I felt terrible for every one of the characters and have no doubt that I wouldn’t be able to function in their situation.

  • This is greatly achieved through the performances, especially Krasinski and Blunt who I think are both really great. Krasinski, in particular, works well as the father type who is both tough and caring of his children. Without the benefit of dialogue to build their characters, this is all the more impressive.

  • The monster designs are really effective when shown up close in what I’m guessing was full puppetry. A long line of big teeth, the extended claws, and especially their distinguishing aural organ are very creepy. When they are shown in full and from a distance, they are too much an unnatural computer effect.

  • Watching people run around outside with no shoes on makes me uncomfortable.

  • The most unfortunate moment in A Quiet Place is the very last note it leaves on. For some reason, there is a tonal shift in the literal last seconds of the movie that really bugged me. What is meant to be something like a fist pump rally cry to end on a high note just felt completely disingenuous -- especially with the very traumatic things that just took place preceding this. If A Quiet Place didn’t invest so much time in grief, sadness, and the emotional bonds between its characters, I could see the final shot working. It might be a hyperbolic to say it “betrayed” what the film built, but it certainly was a strange shift.

  • I generally love horror movies that make you more aware of your surroundings when you walk out of the theater. A Quiet Place steps that up by constantly making you think about the empty and natural sounds around you while you’re watching the movie. Thankfully in my experience, there wasn’t any whispering or snoring or munching going on and that’s probably the best way to see the film. In order to teach moviegoers to shut up during a movie it took a movie where they imagine being brutally killed if they make any noise!