It’s an intriguing preamble: Lena (Natalie Portman) a cellular biologist at John Hopkins University is overwhelmed by the necrotic dullness and numbing grief that comes with the presumed death of her Army husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Months pass and she’s now expected to finally Move On, as the world proceeds at its unceasing clip, leaving Lena with only her sepia-hued memories. Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation does what most sophomore directorial efforts tend to do: get bigger, more ambitious, and a little more complicated. And as is often the case with such enterprising aspirations, Annihilation will undoubtedly lack the critical cache that was showered upon Ex Machina. Unfortunate, given how much more thoughtful and simply better a film Annihilation happens to be.Read More
Nick Park’s Early Man is as beguiling as previous Aardman Animation films, finding itself through its cadre of memorable characters and impeccable production design. It’s the most fully realized and detailed world conceived by Aardman, with set pieces ranging from verdant forestry, ornate bronze asylums, and an ashy hell-scape. I was fixated by the density of Early Man’s design, as Park’s clay figurines move with such fluidity in these meticulously crafted milieus. Yet as exquisitely composed as every frame of this film may be, it’s in service to a rather rote narrative that never quite escapes its formulaic trappings. Aardman films like Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep offer clever subversions to their narrative trajectories, with Early Man frequently struggling to complicate its all too-familiar (though well-intentioned) ambitions.Read More
Among the most baffling Academy Award decisions of the past decade didn’t occur when someone read the wrong envelope for Best Picture or for a tightly contested performance category. No, the one decision that startled me most was a few years ago when Don Hertzfeldt’s astonishing World of Tomorrow lost in the Best Animated Short category to Gabriel Osorio Vargas and Pato Escala Pierart’s decidedly un-astonishing Bear Story. In a move that beckons a mercy killing, Hertzfeldt’s equally remarkable sequel was denied a nomination entirely at this year’s ceremony, leaving a slate of five nominees that must escape the burden of expectations.Read More
Reminiscent of Asghar Farhadi’s string of complex moral puzzles, Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult begins with a microcosm of a concern – a dispute between a Palestinian foreman and Lebanese-Christian apartment owner – and examines the conflict through a political, cultural, and social lens. And like Farhadi’s work, Doueiri is committed to exposing certain unsavory clinical truths on human nature that so frequently inform our everyday lives, expanding far beyond its milieu. Plainly speaking: The Insult is timely. But whereas Farhadi’s appeal came from examining these moral quandaries through a culturally-specific Iranian worldview, Doueiri, toothlessly, reduces the conflict at the center of his film as a series of simplistic rejoinders. Confined mostly to a courtroom setting, The Insult pays lip service to confronting the real suffering and anxieties that course through the Middle East, optioning instead for a theatrical rendering of grief and resentment.Read More
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (Essential) makes its way to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre this Thursday. The venue is one of only seven theaters screening the film in 70mm, providing audiences with the ideal setup to see Anderson’s latest masterwork and very best film. Such luxuries are infrequent to the Second City, with such an experience sure to reward the most ardent of cinephiles. Having had the benefit of screening Phantom Thread on both DCP and 70mm formats, the differences are notable, where the meticulousness of Anderson’s craft – from his cautious use of close-ups, fluid camera movements, measured use of natural light, and densely-layered sound design – are given astonishing urgency and texture.Read More
With 2017, I spent more time confused than not. It’s been a sufficiently un-astonishing year that often left my mind in a state of perpetual limbo, forced to reckon with the static of a butterscotch goblin on a daily basis every time I turned on the television. Turn off that antennae and I’m still confronted with the kind of shoddy humanity that makes me wonder if the planet’s growth spurt toward mature, complex, and rational thinking will ever come to pass.
For what it’s worth, it’s made the people that I value all the more important to me. People capable of compassion, thoughtfulness, and empathy. If those traits were a deficiency of mine, they’re something that I actively work toward. I cannot resort to close-minded isolationism and intolerance. And it’s made the films of 2017, those that value warmth and tolerance as not vanity but virtue, all the more important to me. As 2017 comes to a close, it’s the films highlighted here that spoke to me most directly in this year of demolished sentiment - films that itch for solicitude, yearn for humanity, and resemble something unfashionably compassionate .Read More
Screening this Friday at Chicago’s Facet Cinematheque is Benedict Andrews’ festival feted Una (Noteworthy). Originally premiering to warm reviews out of Telluride and Toronto last year, the film’s struggle to find an audience amid the glut of awards contenders of the year has been unfortunate, as it’s a sturdy, well-conceived, and thoughtful acting showcase with an especially timely subject matter. An adaptation of David Harrower’s stageplay Blackbird, Una expands on the play’s singular warehouse setting by utilizing a series of vivid flashbacks, in what’s a notable departure from the source material that yields its own set of intriguing questions.Read More
So, it’s not really about Tonya Harding. I mean, it’s about her, but it’s not like this movie’s titled I, Tonya Harding. No, I, Tonya is, as vapid as it sounds, about America. It’s a compact social issue drama disguised as a sports film that picks at some low hanging fruit about news media culture and cyclical abuse of the maternal and domestic variety. But given a national standard that’s seen its low hanging fruit descend into the icy pits of the ninth circle, it’s almost forgivable, hell, courageous, for a film to literally indict and implicate its audience. I, Tonya leaves no room for subtly. Rather, it espouses its argument and regards its audience as culpable violators to the liberal treatise they uphold. It’s manipulative and frequently frustrating but almost obscenely sincere in its straightforwardness. There’s even a scene where its lead character asks another if they like her. There’s no gamesmanship here; I, Tonya gets straight to it.Read More
Screening exclusively at Chicago’s Facets Cinematheque is Nathan Silver’s new film, Thirst Street (Recommended). Silver blipped on my radar back in 2014 for his film Uncertain Terms. It’s an intriguing curio from a filmmaker still finding his way, though the elements of something great stewed beneath its surface (his use of actress Tallie Medel was especially provocative). I was more impressed with his follow-up, Stinking Heaven, featuring Hannah Gross of Mindhunter fame. Many of the preoccupations and anxious rhythms that were a highlight of Uncertain Terms were more carefully calibrated and authentic in Stinking Heaven, even if it remained a little rough around the edges. But with Thirst Street, I’m seeing a filmmaker truly cultivate his worldview. Not only is Thirst Street a formal zenith in Silver’s filmography, but it also features one of the best performances of the year.Read More
For what seemed like every weekend for the better part of a decade, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has screened at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. I saw it on three separate occasions and each subsequent screening seemed to grow on the prior’s mythology. So when do you throw the spoons? Can we really throw a football? And it wasn’t your usual dude-bro cadre of college-aged deplorables that you’d expect attending these screenings. No, I caught glimpses of the starchiest of academics, college professors, and former teachers during these midnight screenings. Why?
Let me put it this way: we like to feel good about ourselves. The Room makes us feel good because it provides us with a communal outlet to engage, ironically, with a piece of art. There’s pleasure in the kind of ridicule that we expend at The Room, from throwing plastic spoons at the screen to impromptu games of catch football that take place in the aisles of our theater. We feel good about these acts of ridicule because it suggests an acknowledgement of the film’s absurdity, and in that recognition we find ourselves in a moral/intellectual position of superiority. We just like to feel better than The Room. You know, the sort of “we’re laughing at you, not with you” sort of acknowledgement. Thing is that when we engage in these acts of condescension, we frequently forget the origins of what we’re poking fun at in the first place. It’s easy to forget that Tommy Wiseau’s film was intended as a piece of serious, personal filmmaking that we’ve – and subsequently, Wiseau himself –turned into a joke.Read More