File Under 2018 #63: First Reformed


What it's about: Toller [Ethan Hawke] is a reverend for a small, upstate New York "church for tourists that no one attends." One of his few parishioners, Mary [Amanda Seyfried], comes to Toller after a service and asks him to talk with her husband, an environmental activist who is suffering from depression and anxiety based on the way we've treated the world. Complicating matters, Mary is pregnant and Michael doesn't feel it is responsible to bring a baby into this world. After Toller meets with Michael, his own doubts about life and faith intensify.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • First, it is important to understand that I am writing these thoughts down about an hour after seeing First Reformed, which isn't exactly ideal. First Reformed is the kind of introspective, character driven film that should be deeply considered. Because of that, I haven't parsed out the philosophies and themes, nor have I totally considered what to make of its strange and complicated ending. Or maybe I'm just too intimidated to fully reckon with it yet.

  • At this point, it is easier to think about First Reformed for its formal aspects and on that level alone, the film is one of the best of the year so far. The transcendental style is beautiful and refreshing when so few films are made like this any more. It is slow and contemplative, the images hold long enough to really study what is being shown. The 4:3 ratio makes the images more intimate and picturesque. The settings are sparse, saying something about the characters, but also work with the slow style.

  • No doubt, the film is calling back to the religiously themed films of the European art movements spanning Dreyer, Bresson, Rossellini, Bergman, and others. Serious works on doubt and introspection and morality. The modern elements of First Reformed add something peculiar -- from the mega church that looks and runs more like an office building to the souvenir shop selling branded hats and T-shirts and using Drain-o on a broken toilet. Independently presented, these moments and images aren't especially funny but their juxtaposition into this type of film adds a strange humor.

  • Ethan Hawke is perfectly cast as Toller. He's stoic and serious and not particularly expressive but the intellect and passion come through because of the actor's past works. He's also the right age for this character -- old enough to hold wisdom but young enough to be susceptible to change.

  • The character is also smartly written, giving just enough of his backstory to understand what kind of man he is. This is vital to buy his changes in philosophy by the end of the film, frankly, to buy the extreme choices that he makes. He is a broken man with life experiences that have built his faith. He's also not tied to this world in a way that would make it too difficult to openly question.

  • The first meeting between Toller and Michael is a sharply written and exhilarating argument with a great balance between science and faith. Toller comes across as honest and sympathetic to Michael's point-of-view and great fear and he seems to genuinely understand the issues. After the scene, in the voice over of Toller's journal writing, he second guesses the things he said but this seems a little silly as their conversation is so energetic and insightful. It is genuine discourse, which we don't often see anymore when it comes to these kinds of issues.

  • One of the things I admired most about First Reformed is that there are no clear antagonists though there are a few characters that could have been clearly that. Pastor Jeffers of the nearby mega-church that oversees the functions of Toller's church, played by Cedric the Entertainer [credited as Cedric Antonio Kyles] is the character positioned for this. Jeffers can be a spiritual counterpart to Toller but their debates are always fair and from an honest point-of-view. He always wants the best for Toller and stands up for him when he has to. Another character, who controls everything in the town with his money and power, is too small a role to be much of a villain -- and even he rightfully acknowledges that the world is a complicated place.

  • I wasn't exactly sure where First Reformed was ever leading. There are threads that show possibilities of its characters and narratives but they always seemed too easy or too radical or too inconsistent with the film's building themes. For example, there is Toller's relationship with Mary. It is difficult to know if we are seeing things as they are happening or what influence Toller's rapidly declining psychology may have on how we are seeing the world.

  • There is one particular moment, though [I won't spoil it, but if you've seen the film you'll know what I'm referring to], that really crystallizes exactly how this will all end. Smartly, it even takes a few scenes to come back to this idea, perhaps to continue to cast some doubt.

  • The film's final moments, though I still can't completely put them together, are equally beautiful and devastating. There is a plot contrivance [a particular character being in a particular place that works more thematically than it does narratively] that temporarily pulled me out of the moment. Hawke's performance here, as well as the sheer audacity of what is coming, are extraordinary. The exact final moment is surprisingly joyous and irreverent. Many of those in the theater were not so happy when a long cut to black were followed directly by credits -- those who didn't begin walking out as the film was ending, that is.

File Under 2018 #62: The Party


What it's about: Janet [Kristin Scott Thomas] is the newly elected minister for health in the British parliament. Upon the good news, she organizes a small dinner party with her closest friends: her husband Bill [Timothy Spall], the cynical April [Patricia Clarkson] and her free-spirit boyfriend [Bruno Ganz], women's studies professor Martha [Cherry Jones] and her pregnant girlfriend Jinny [Emily Mortimer], cocaine-addled banker Tom [Cillian Murphy] and his wife Maryanne [who will stop by for dessert]. The night of good food and conversation is suddenly halted when Bill makes the announcement that he's dying. This revelation sets off a chain of wild reactions that threatens their relationships and well-being.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Cinematic confession: I've never seen a Sally Potter film. No excuses, just haven't done it. Orlando is regarded as her most important work, her international breakout, a cornerstone of queer cinema, and the film that put Tilda Swinton the on the map. I should make it a priority, especially as The Party was a bit of a let down, at least as an introduction into her work. [Correction: I've apparently seen Potter's 2012 film 'Ginger & Rosa.' Anyway, the point stands.]

  • The obvious highlights of The Party is the cast and the structure. Every single member of the cast is, if not a screen legend, among the best actors of their generation. And they all do fine work in The Party, even if they could be pushed a little more. Thomas gives the film's best performance in the center of the ensemble; her character certainly has the most emotional stakes over the course of the film. Clarkson is also very good in her groove as cynical and straight-forward. Most of the film's humor comes from Ganz and Murphy in roles that are a little more over-the-top.

  • The staging of the film works well -- whenever a film limits its time and location, I'm generally interested. The Party is brief and tight, only 71 minutes and it doesn't need to be any longer. It doesn't get as claustrophobic as one-location films tend to get, but the ensemble is uncomfortably interlocked by their close environment. It also thankfully keeps the narrative moving without making excuses for characters being unable to leave, probably the worst cliche in this setup.

  • Unfortunately, there isn't much pop. The Party is never as irreverent or funny as I think it is trying to be. It wants to make social comments on the high status of its characters. At times, especially in the first half after Bill reveals he is sick, the characters feel less like individuals than intellectual types to have stagy and stagnant arguments about Western medicine and politics.

  • As the film goes along, though, a second revelation does light a bit of emotional fire, giving the film the spark it very much needed. The actors are able to heighten their performances, the narrative is able to open up, quicken, and get a little wilder. Ultimately, I would have had more fun if it pushed even a little harder, but the fairly boring first half is redeemed well enough.

  • The very final moments of The Party get the closest to what I wanted -- if film quality is about endings, The Party leaves on a good note. It pays off on mysteries I didn't need answers for in a clever way. The changing character dynamics become more interesting than I realized. That's a tough line to walk, though. If all of The Party's cards were on the table from the beginning, I may have enjoyed the film more thoroughly.

File Under 2018 #61: Survivors Guide to Prison


What it's about: The American prison system is broken. Prison populations are growing, their demographics are incredibly skewed toward African Americans. Medical treatment behind bars is lacking. The courts disproportionately impact poor people who commit crimes and even those who didn't commit crimes but are tricked into false confessions or plea deals. The deck is stacked against everyday folks, so what guidelines should they follow once they are inevitably falsely convicted and put away? What do they need to do not only to keep their sanity but their safety in prison? Can they live long enough to use the resources to prove their innocence? Survivors Guide to Prison explores the worst case scenarios and what to expect.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • A few years back I watched and enjoyed filmmaker Matthew Cooke's film How to Make Money Selling Drugs. It was an irreverent and unique look at the drug trade, dispelling myths we've learned from popular culture about what it is like to be a small time dealer or drug kingpin through the how-to guide the title suggests. His newest film, Survivors Guide to Prison takes on a similar gimmick, this time with a sharper focus on the federal prison and court systems.

  • Where How to Make Money Selling Drugs was largely a tongue-in-cheek romp, Survivors Guide to Prison is a much sterner, bleaker look at its subject matter. It doesn't as completely take on the gimmick, either, with a barrage of statistics and jumping through prison issues in between the guide.

  • The guide includes chapters on "Surviving an out of control police officer," "Surviving county jail," "Surviving solitary confinement," "Joining a prison gang," among others.

  • Stylistically, Survivors Guide to Prison is quick, flashy, and produced within an inch of its life. Cynically, you could say it comes off like part of an A&E doc series. But it is undoubtedly seductive and informative. And the subject matter is worth taking deadly seriously so it doesn't feel off base.

  • And at its heart, the film is anchored by two stories of men who were convicted of murders that they didn't commit. Their stories are heart-wrenching. They are also perfectly aligned with all the system flaws and pitfalls that are being discussed by the film. Their resonance is how the film argues that they aren't particularly unique, however, that the mistakes made by the authorities could happen to anyone.

  • The film boasts an incredible cast of talking head contributors and narrators. Along with the number of law enforcement experts, lawyers, activists and former convicts are celebrities spanning from Danny Trejo to Deepak Chopra.

  • Seeing Busta Rhymes emotionally break down while recounting the story of a woman who was arrested for possession of $5 worth of crack cocaine finally being released after over 30 years is incredible. Sensitive Busta Rhymes is something I didn't know I needed in my life.

  • Survivors Guide to Prison offers countless numbers of prison statistics, many of which are hard to believe -- they also aren't sourced on screen, which makes it a little more difficult to take them at face value.

  • A few of the most astonishing ones: There are so many laws on the books that the average American citizen commits 3 felonies per day without realizing it; The combined populations of Los Angeles and New York are arrested every year.

  • One salient point made in the film is the paradox of authority. In an era where so many distrust our politicians and lawmakers, we are so willing to blindly trust authority figures like the police, judges, and prosecutors. Survivors Guide to Prison makes sure to acknowledge that there are authority figures who are heroes while reminding that they are not our allies.

  • There are many other great observations and segments but the film washes through them so quickly to make its next point that there are diminishing returns. On the other hand, the film absolutely works as a pastiche of all the various problems with the system, so it can work as a whole.

  • Survivors Guide to Prison is ultimately like a good 100 level survey course on the issues and there is value there. And while its style might be unusual for a *serious* documentary, it packages its commentary in a successfully entertaining way, even if the content is far from enjoyable.

  • Still, I won't condone or appreciate the lack of proper punctuation in the title.

File Under 2018 #60: Beast


What it’s about: Moll is a young woman with a trouble past who doesn’t quite fit in with her family or small British community. After a long night out dancing, she is cornered by a threat of violence and saved by a handsome and mysterious stranger, Pascal. Though they don’t know much about each other, Moll quickly develops a kinship with Pascal, attracted by their shared social statuses as black sheep in their conservative community. But when Pascal is suspected of horrific crimes against young women, Moll has to choose to protect him or protect herself and destroy her only meaningful relationship. With her own demons, however, Moll’s interest in Pascal may only be growing with the revelations that he could be a monster.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Beast is among the new genre of films including the Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights remakes and Lady Macbeth, classically styled British romances that embrace darker, violent, macabre impulses. A privileged girl is seduced by a lower class man and their love is not only not accepted by their society but has a level of danger. And has been the case with these new adaptations or homages, much of the dark nature of the narrative and themes come from the twisted perspective of its lead female character.

  • The first impression of Moll is a quiet but typical woman from a conservative, middle class upbringing. The film opens with her birthday party that is clearly not her scene. Her reaction to an announcement and her mother’s suggest to bring out some champagne is wild and a little scary. Without fully exploring why she explodes this way or what specifically set her off, but it is a curious glimpse into what is to come in Beast.

  • Beast builds the community and location expertly. Without doing a lot explicitly, there is a strong sense of just how small and interconnected this community is. Everyone knows everyone, the rumors of people’s past is known by everyone. This makes Pascal all the more interesting, as he comes off as a complete outsider even though he claims to have more a familial connection to this place than Moll’s family. Being a social outcast adds to his mysterious danger, or perhaps he is truly an outsider lying about his identity.

  • Moll and Pascal’s meeting is like the opposite of a “meet cute.” It is a scene that could be played off in a romantic way if it were heightened to melodrama but Beast doesn’t take it there.

  • Jessie Buckley is fantastic as a specific kind of crazy protagonist that manages to feel real honest and unique. Even as she has literal eye twitching moments of insanity, her psychosis isn’t overplayed externally [for the most part].

  • A lot of the way the film is seen is how she sees the world. Beast wonderfully changes in tone and character based on what she knows of those around her. Without getting into specifics and though I’m not sure the intense finale of the film works completely [there is a natural ending point and then about 20 minutes left], what happens in the final act is completely tied to Moll’s point-of-view. By the end of the film, I question how Pascal was presented at any point -- is he really the dangerous bad boy we see in the film or is that just how Moll wants to see him?

  • Pascal is a skewed version of the romantic novel hunk ideal: he’s of nature, connected to the dirt and the sea. He works with his hands and hunts for his food. He’s rugged and musky [the way he smells is returned to multiple times].

  • Some of the crime elements, especially in the second half of the film, come off a little like a BBC drama series. It is still solid and there are flourishes that are consistent with the film as a whole, but it is missing something from the strange romance.

  • Geraldine James is the perfect icy mother. In a way, her point-of-view is reasonable. She wants to protect her daughter and her family’s lifestyle from a outside threat. But with the film’s perspective and her exact brand of coldness, it comes off as monstrous.

  • Johnny Flynn has a presence that works well as the mysterious bad boy -- he’s like 90% of a typical Hollywood leading man, a few features that throw him off just slightly. I’m not sure if he is a great actor, if he can pull off what the film needs as the character changes over the course of the film. If you know Flynn as the sweet and hopeless center of the Netflix rom-com series Lovesick [originally titled Scrotal Recall], you can see more of his potential in Beast.

  • For Michael Pearce’s screenplay and directorial debut, this is an incredibly assured dramatic thriller. The characters are fully realized and the entire tone of the world comes directly from those characters. And it takes risks, it swings big. So even when I can’t totally roll with some places it goes, I can’t fault the vision or direction. Beast will likely be one of the most distinctive films of the year and Buckley deserves a lot of attention.

File Under 2018 #59: Solo: A Star Wars Story


What it's about: Han Solo [Alden Ehrenreich] is an intergalactic smuggler years before he helped a rebellion defeat the Empire. Separated from his bleak home world, he vows to return with a ship and some money to help his love Qi'ra [Emilia Clarke] escape. On his adventures, he begins working with a small group of bandits led by the principled Beckett [Woody Harrelson], who are trying to steal a powerful energy source for a crime lord. On his adventure, Han finds new friends, glory, and the start of his quest to save the galaxy.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • I'm not much of a Star Wars person. I never really watched the films when I was a kid. I don't have any special affinity for the characters or their lore. I'm pretty sure The Empire Strikes Back is the only in the series I've seen more than once.

  • That puts me in a tough place for Solo. It seems to be a film designed for the fans of the franchise who have always wondered about the roots of their favorite character. I assume Solo is filled with references and Easter eggs that have been mentioned in previous films -- I caught some of the more obvious ones, but I'm sure there are many more that I missed.

  • Unfortunately, Solo relies too much on fan service and knowing who these characters become to build an independent film. Solo: A Star Wars Story is fine. Alden Ehrenreich's performance is fine. The action is fine. The plot developments are fine. Everything is fine, fine, fine. But it either can't or doesn't want to be more than that.

  • This feels like the first truly inconsequential Star Wars film. Yeah, the prequels were bad, worse than Solo, even. They didn't need to exist, but they at least came from a particular vision and they at least were trying to feel like big event films. Not only is experiencing the young trials of Han Solo pretty unnecessary, the film is incredibly slapdash. It doesn't have any unified style or direction.

  • I wonder how much the highly publicized production trouble, with the removal of initial directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord and the piecing together from Ron Howard, had an effect on this. The seams of the jokey referential style of the former filmmakers are still there in places, but not consistently through. Howard, on the other hand, has the reputation of being a solid workman, and that probably helped make Solo a still coherent narrative given the turnover.

  • Also, Solo doesn't really feel like a Star Wars film because it has very little epic quality. It is tied to so many different film genres, jumping from Western to heist to social uprising to fated lovers, that is seems to forget this is a big space fantasy.

  • Too many times characters had just the right knowledge to get out of a tricky situation. This is most annoying during the big setpiece at the center of the film, where Han leads the Millennium Falcon through the famed Kessel Run -- every time the crew meet some impossible task, there is always a quick and easy solution made up of ridiculous jargon.

  • Two minor characters truly steal the show. First is the beloved Chewbacca, who actually gets an amazing character introduction [probably the only moment of fan service that worked]. His chemistry with Solo happens almost immediately [maybe even a little too quickly] and lives up to the relationship in better films.

  • The other is the next in a growing line of amazing droid characters, L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the co-pilot to young Lando. She might be a character completely designed to piss off the fan boys who spend their lives complaining about Mary Sues and too much racial diversity. L3-37's robot rights and feminist leanings provide some of the best laughs in the film.

  • There are human-robot sex jokes. It gets a little weird.

  • The opening Lady Proxima sequence was one of the few times where there was genuine design. The large, strange antagonist looks to be made with practical effects, like a throwback to many of the bizarre creatures of the original trilogy.

  • Donald Glover has been getting love for his performance as the predecessor to Billy Dee Williams' iconic Lando Calrissian. I've seen some takes that the prequel would have been better if he had been the main focus instead of Han. I'm not sure I would agree with this -- Lando is the kind of character that works better in limited screen time and in support of the main character quest. Glover's performance was, again, fine. He definitely adds some life to his scenes, though.

  • The third act crescendos in a series of crosses and double-crosses that doesn't really accomplish much. The nature of Solo obviously isn't going to give any satisfying conclusion. The biggest lingering thread involves a group of outcast rebels who I'm guessing is the starting faction that would become the Rebel Alliance. There is potential moving forward, but the film bungles their introduction, tacking it on so late into Solo. It is meant to be a surprising and powerful reveal, but falls completely flat.

  • Notice that I haven't talked much about Han Solo? That's probably a problem.

File Under 2018 #58: Saturday Church


What it's about: Ulysses is a teen struggling with his sexual identity. His family, his church, his peers, his culture all reject who he is, which has made him close himself off from the world around him. After the unexpected death of his father, his ultra conservative Aunt Rose comes to stay and help his overworked mother. Her strict attitude clashes with Ulysses, which drives him away from his house and fully into the subculture where he belongs. He befriends a group of transgender women who participate in a social program called "Saturday Church," which gives them a meal, a safe space off the street, and a loving community.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Saturday Church is a vibrant story of a beautiful community, told with incredibly authentic voices. It is essentially split between a stark coming-of-age queer story and flights of musical fantasy -- these halves make for a little bit of unevenness, but I can't fault the film for diving into everything will great passion.

  • The first musical number in the film comes about 10 minutes in and it caught me off guard. The sequence starts with a shot of magical realism, Ulysses floating through his high school locker room [established as an environment of bullying and fear], before bursting out in full song and dance. It was an unexpected moment because the introduction of the film and the character is so reserved and small.

  • The performers in this sequence are clearly not professional singers or dancers. Their movements are stagy and stiff. It comes off as so incredibly pure, however, not at all in a condescending or judgmental way. If star Luka Kain were on American Idol [that's still around, right?], he likely wouldn't make it very far, but in the context of the character and the way director Damon Cardasis so lovingly shoots the sequence, it is infectious.

  • The fact that Ulysses fantasizes this choreographed dance with his bullies is interesting, too, a celebratory act.

  • The fantasy elements of Saturday Church really pick up when Ulysses finds the title community. Even the moments aside from the musical fantasy as he becomes adopted by this group are incredibly beautiful and vibrant. The conversations they have don't feel performed even though it is easily identifiable that these aren't seasoned actors. There is an authenticity in their personalities. And for Ulysses, this is clearly the first time in his life that he has had role models who understand him; people he can ask about sex and love and relationships without being at risk.

  • The coming-of-age plot in Saturday Church isn't as joyous or as essential. The moments with his family are a little more simplified, feel less specific, and become melodramatic. Aunt Rose becomes the clear villain and too didactic a presence. Certainly, she represents a real point-of-view and an important character in the lives of someone like Ulysses, but her obvious villainy lacks the grace found in the rest of the film.

  • There is one specific scene outside of the Saturday Church group which is difficult for me to fully digest. At his lowest moment, Ulysses is now living out on the street and a random encounter leads to him turning a trick for the first time -- also likely his first sexual experience. The scene takes its time to develop and while it doesn't go anywhere explicit before it cuts away, it is appropriately awkward and sad and a little scary. This isn't a unique scene in a coming-of-age story, but it is well staged.

  • It is this type of scene that changes Ulysses to a stronger person by the end, a character with more damage and experience, but with a place to turn to. I could have honestly used more scenes within the Saturday Church community to make for a bigger character transition by the end. The final moment in the film, where Ulysses is about to perform in full drag, is an irresistible final image and I would have loved to see more of that. Saturday Church isn't the kind of movie that gets sequelized, but the continued journey into Ulysses fully comfortable within his skin would be awesome.

  • It is interesting to see the world depicted in Saturday Church making a strong cultural imprint recently. Of course, Rupal's Drag Race has found a strong audience for nearly a decade. A recent documentary, Strike a Pose, recounted the days when Madonna was at the fore-front of gay culture and "voguing" was something of a phenomenon. And in a few weeks, Ryan Murphy's Pose will take a look back at this world again -- interestingly, a few members of the Saturday Church cast will be regulars on that series. I'm not sure if the voguing lifestyle and culture coming back is part of the general 1980s nostalgia boom, but as Saturday Church proves, it can lead to some wonderful new stories from a community worthy of the spotlight.

File Under 2018 #57: Tully


What it’s about: Marlo [Charlize Theron] is an expectant mother with two kids who already completely run her life. Her daughter is on the heels of the difficult teenage years and her son has been difficult transitioning into kindergarten, showing some antisocial signs that haven’t been properly diagnosed. Her husband Drew is present but always busy with work and worn out by the time he gets home. With all this on her plate, her more successful brother gifts her a “night nanny” to take care of the baby while she can catch up on some sleep. When Tully [Mackenzie Davis] shows up, Marlo’s life is immediately turned right-side-up for a change. Her new companion leads to a better social, family, and sex life but it might only be a temporary fix.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Be warned of spoilers from here on out -- it isn’t the kind of movie you expect to need a spoiler warning for and so that itself is kind of a spoiler, there’s just no way to get around it. I’ll try my best not to talk specifically about the ending of Tully, but there are important thematic and narrative details that dramatically change.

  • Tully was a film I was greatly anticipating and a little afraid of seeing. I’m a modest fan of Jason Reitman but I think I’ve really liked everything I’ve seen from Diablo Cody. And together, they’ve done great work. As a soon-to-be first time father, I knew this would be a reality check. I was planning to see the film with my wife but ended up going to the theater by myself on a Sunday afternoon and I’m a little glad I did. I can’t imagine seeing Tully while pregnant. It would be the stuff of horrors. I at least had a bit of distance from the emotional and physical torment that Tully depicts.

  • No matter how strikingly real the film gets the act of motherhood, it can’t work without Charlize Theron’s performance. She is unsurprisingly perfect. She completely hits every turn of the emotional rollercoaster, all the anger and joy and sadness and humor. I think we can already assume her third Oscar nomination. [Somehow she hasn’t been nominated since 2006. How is that possible?? Perhaps I shouldn’t be so confident when she was completely snubbed for Young Adult.]

  • Tully is like a Disney character stepping into stark reality without realizing it. While watching the film I actually wanted this to be a little more explicit. By the end of the film I realized why that would have probably been a bad thing. Mackenzie Davis gives just enough sense of something magical in what turns out to be a really tough character to portray.

  • And so, I’m a little torn. While part of me wishes Tully went outright into the magical realism that was floating just below the surface, that obviously would have tipped everything that comes together by the end of the film. As it is, I respect the bold nature and really appreciate what it says about motherhood and the characters. The themes about how people are changed by life events and the longing of your past self is realized in interesting ways. At times the messages and implications of the twist are handled with beautiful subtlety, other times with distracting obviousness -- I wonder if it would actually be better knowing exactly what is going on from the start, that some of the conversations between Marlo and Tully would have even more resonance if they were just plain on their face. Within the narrative, it doesn’t exactly stick the turn.

  • The newborn montage is the film’s best scene -- much of it was pulled into the film’s fantastic trailer. It is a beautifully crafted sequence, vibrant and scary and funny and real. It is perfectly edited. This scene alone already makes me wonder if there will be an unexpected Best Editing nomination.

  • Another montage that is less dynamic and thematically resonant is a later sequence where Marlo and Tully drive into New York City for a much needed night on the town. The montage is simple: cuts of driving on busy highways under construction and snippets of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual. It is a perfect visual and aural representation of the passage of time during a commute.

  • Marlo’s diatribe about people calling her son “quirky” (“What does that even mean?”) makes me think of how people talk about Juno. I’m not sure if this is a dig from Diablo Cody, but I like to think it is.

  • Before seeing Tully, I was a little concerned about how it would approach the husband character, played by the perfectly cast boring dad Ron Livingston. Drew is a minor character by screen time and appropriately so. I was worried that he would be something of a scapegoat, perhaps sparked by my own anxieties of becoming a father. Tully makes him a realistic character and directly points out his faults -- he isn’t a monster or necessarily even a bad dad as you see him through Marlo’s loving eyes, but it doesn’t let him off the hook, either. I was surprised by how much of the ending of the film focused on Drew’s realization that he needs to be a better husband and father. For that message, I’m glad I saw Tully.

File Under 2018 #53: Outside In


What it's about: Chris [Jay Duplass] is an ex-con newly released after 20 years in prison. Upon arriving home he finds that his family and friends have all become strangers. The world has dramatically shifted since he was last free as a teenager: the economy, the technology, the social norms. The only person who he has kept a relationship with was his former high school English teacher Carol [Edie Falco], who worked tirelessly to get his sentenced reduced while offering him emotional support from the outside. With Carol's family life on shaky ground, Chris's reintegration into society sparks a chance for a meaningful friendship and possibly something more.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • Early on, Outside In keeps many of the narrative specifics fuzzy. We don't immediately know what crime put Chris in prison or exactly what role Carol took to try and get him out. It doesn't completely let on the extent of their relationship right away -- have they been having an emotional affair while he was in prison or were their conversations invested but not romantic? This might be irritating for some but Outside In lets these relationships and contexts develop more naturally over the plot. The slower pace helps the depressed mood of the film really click, as well.

  • Cons coming back into society isn't a new plot but I like how Outside In approaches the character of Chris. The character has many different physical and emotional markers of still being an adolescent, which makes some sense with the idea that he went to prison at about 17-years-old but I'm sure it is an exaggerated version of reality. His perpetual cowlick, poorly fitted clothes, eating habits [we see him eat pizza, a corn dog, and cereal] are all markers of his character being stuck in that time.

  • The key though, however, is that it never feels condescending. The film makes it clear that Chris has a lot to do to adjust and that there may be some underlying mental issues at hand, too, but it doesn't overload the sympathy. His situation is sad, but not hopeless.

  • A lot of the reason the character works is also in the performance from Jay Duplass. Of the Duplass brothers, I've always seen Mark as the better actor -- he certainly has more of a body of work. Jay's most notable role in Amazon's Transparent has been hit-or-miss for me though some of that is how I've responded to the character and not his acting choices. Outside In, though, is definitely his breakout for me.

  • Duplass plays Chris with a distance, usually either with complete earnestness or complete disaffectedness, and both parts of his personality work together.

  • Truthfully, though, if I were to choose which Duplass brother I would have thought spent 20 years in prison, I'd probably pick Jay over Mark.

  • He's matched by the more reliable performer Edie Falco, whose role is just as nuanced and devastating but a little more grounded and relatable. What Falco does so incredibly well throughout the film is act without dialogue. A lot of her best moments are reaction shots in conversations with Chris. She delivers so much emotion and internalized struggle clearly.

  • Aside from Chris and Carol's central relationship, there are two others that develop over the film well and with some surprises. The more prominent is between Chris and Hildy, Carol's teenage daughter, played by Kaitlyn Dever [Short Term 12, Detroit]. This particular thread could have been where Outside In goes off the rails, with the potential for something very icky and creepy. The film doesn't completely shy away from the complicated implications of their friendship but by fully exploring both characters, their connection and shared emotional isolation is fully understood.

  • Charles Leggett plays a less central character, but his role as Carol's husband is worth noting. He could be an easy villain, someone who pushes Carol away to Chris. But he's also complex and given a fair and balanced characterization. I found myself feeling for him just as much as Carol or Chris or Hildy and Outside In didn't need to go there.

  • After loving Humpday and liking Your Sister's Sister, I fell off of Lynn Shelton's career -- I didn't see Touchy Feely or Laggies, though both have had modest acclaim. She's otherwise worked primarily in television and I've seen her work on shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None but I'm just not confident in how much creative stock I can put on these jobs. I am glad that I caught Outside In, however.

  • The film shows me that Shelton can expand her character driven work into deeper dramatic narratives. Strangely enough, the few beats of comedy in Outside In were the moments that worked the least for me.

  • Its overall tone and how that worked with the unique setting, the quiet character struggles, and the way plot information flowed naturally as time was spent with the characters is what makes Outside In a sweet, charming, and devastating film.

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.