Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, is the worst film I’ve seen by the filmmaker. Yet given my admiration for Leigh’s filmography, this isn’t entirely a dismissal, per se. But rather it’s tough to watch and consider Peterloo without experiencing a tinge of disappointment. Films like Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky were formative as part of my early cinephilia, and I gladly plundered Leigh’s 80s and 90s output as a result. But Peterloo, with its high-octave candor and unceasing, frenzied displays of histrionics, finds Leigh in a singular mode for the totality of its runtime: Big. One of the most exciting qualities about Leigh’s filmmaking is in how it changes shape on you depending on the will of his performers. That kind of freedom, undoubtedly a result of the vastness of its budget and sheer scope, isn’t an option. As a result, in one of those paradoxical quandaries, we find Leigh’s mammoth ambitions limit the creative will of his filmmaking.Read More
It’s my first year covering the Chicago Media Project’s Doc10 Film Festival, and it should be noted that no other film festival in Chicago has amassed such a notable reputation over its brief four-year run. Much of it has to do with Chicago International Film Festival mainstay programmer Anthony Kaufman heading the festival’s curation team, where the selection of ten documentary films becomes an exploration in taste and temperament. Simply refer to last year’s notable slate, which included the likes of Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17, and Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG – an eclectic selection that demonstrates Kaufman’s foresight in picking out culturally significant and socially relevant features well before they enter the mainstream conversation.
I had the opportunity to preview a handful of titles ahead of their Chicagoland premiere. Click below for capsule reviews of some of these titles, films that will likely be brought up again by the end of 2019 for year-end consideration. Doc10 begins April 11 with a (sold out) screening of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez documentary, Knock Down the House, and concludes on April 14 with a screening of John Chester’s The Biggest Little Farm. For additional ticketing information, click here.
It’s April. The news comes with the dichotomous anxiety that anticipates warm summer Chicago months yet can’t shake the bone-petrifying cold and emotionally grueling days that started the year. And it’s a bitter pill to swallow, knowing just how heavy the first 90 days of Q1 has settled into my marrow. So like any mentally well-adjusted person, I needed a diversion and I needed one fast. Case in point: David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! The film, a product of a cultural movement demanding protracted, world-building nonsense, is part of Warner Brother’s Pictures’ intended DC Universe. That’s about all the information I had walking into the film. I knew nothing of the character, nothing of his origins or superpowers or the film’s cast or filmmaker. It was a blank slate. It felt anonymous, unknown, and ready to be discovered. For someone who felt found out, exposed, and without a communion of support for the past few months, I saw this facelessness as something incredibly appealing and approachable. Little did I know just how much I would relate to this film’s ethos. I’m perhaps inflating my appreciation for Shazam! because of a certain, personal vulnerability. You’ll just have to accept this asterisk-filled endorsement with the caveat that Shazam! ended up being exactly what I needed when I needed it.Read More
I’ve read and reread Joan Didion’s essay On Self-Respect more times this month than I have fingers and toes. When you’ve hit rock bottom and you’re not even five days into the month, staring at a reflection of yourself wearing a wash-worn two-piece hospital gown that hangs on you like a sack and donning an unintentionally expressive pompadour, realizing that this will be “Day 1” of an indefinite hospital stay, you’re left reconsidering where things turned south. And so I thought about Didion and how she gets to the heart of things about the origins of self-respect, where she suggests, “character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.” That quote has been running through my mind, along with the tangential idea of recognizing the importance of fighting for something, and the gray, abstract areas associated with negotiating with who gets hurt in that fight. Us, Jordan Peele’s intriguing, messy, and relentlessly sensory new film, is about this idea of leaving the bargaining table behind, refusing to ask permission for rights or apologizing for deficiencies, and executing the moral nerve to seize the life that you want.Read More
In brief: I watch professional wrestling. It’s one of those interests that I keep mostly to myself, having lost the conviction to defend my ritual habit of consuming NXT, WWE, NJPW, and AJPW content. When the subject, (never brought up by me) is discussed at a party, the same exhausting repartee tends to take place, whereby the nonfan acknowledges the viewer with a cynical, somewhat condescending tone, reiterating some variation of “but isn’t it fake?” At which point, my skin crawls with goose bumps and my eyeballs make a full 360 rotation behind my skull as I sulk out of earshot of the conversation, so as not to get involved. Discussing this interest, particularly with those who consider it little more than a facsimile of a sport, can just be so taxing. Linking the interest with my passion for film, even doubly so. But I get it: there’s a culture, there’s a fanbase, there’s a stigma associated with professional wrestling that makes it primarily a blue-collar, fundamentally thoughtless mode of entertainment intended to satisfy a certain kind of, ahem, fringe type.
Stephen Merchant’s Fighting with My Family attempts to dislodge the stereotype by embracing it, deploying a rote sports narrative as if to propose that professional wrestling is just like any other sport. The result is an innocuous, WWE Studios-approved exercise, intended for generic uplift that sacrifices specifics for something safe and anodyne. Brief interludes suggest something more profound or simply strange (so few films, even about wrestling, really examine how elementally bizarre the sport can be), but these asides are just too infrequent to leave a notable impression.Read More
“Love yields to circumstance”, wrote Thomas Hardy in Far From the Maddening Crowd. Such a quote is tested to its litmus in Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows. I’ve described Farhadi’s films as moral puzzles for years now and this is the first one since I was introduced to his work where I feel like it would be inadequate, if not a little misleading, to describe it as such. Because while the film is rooted in numerous sociological anxieties that I’ve come to associate with Farhadi’s work, Everybody Knows is the one that registers less as a series of intellectual rejoinders and more a collection of guttural emotions. Ironically, this proves to be Farhadi’s most formally rigorous work since at least A Separation, filled with densely layered compositions and handheld work that bares comparison to John Cassavetes. It’s certainly not what I expected from the filmmaker, particularly one that I thought I had pegged as formally competent if not especially exciting; Everybody Knows stands out as Farhadi’s most interesting film to date.Read More
In Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day and sequel, 2U, everything happens quickly but nothing actually happens. Landon’s films indulge the viewer’s wish fulfillment in reconciling past mistakes but blandly suggests that you can only be set free from the past’s circuitous loop of despair when you learn from those errs. Or: Groundhog’s Day. But if Landon’s aping of Harold Ramis’ culturally-accepted quote unquote classic (never been a fan) served as the blueprint for his first film, then 2U embodies the films of another filmmaker entirely: John Hughes (also: never been a fan). Not that Hughes’ influence couldn’t be felt throughout Landon’s first film (the antiquated sexual politics, the blasé and ultimately mindless examination of white privilege, etc.) but it all seemed underplayed within the novelty of its structure. 2U is rather insistent on making the insular experience of one woman repeating her death into a communal, ensemble piece filled with goofy asides and facile attempts at “subversion”. 35 years after Molly Ringwald’s birthday slipped the minds of her parents in Sixteen Candles and we still have to deal with a woman’s narrative getting hijacked by a couple of generic dude-bros. History’s cyclical, and intellectually and emotionally we still live in the 1980s; cinema like Happy Death Day 2U would have you believe that it’s admirable for that quality.Read More
The routine disappointment that comes with every year’s Academy Awards’ nominees slate was especially magnified this year, when the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book would seem to have taken spots from quote unquote better films like First Reformed and If Beale Street Could Talk. I know the conversation surrounding Bohemian Rhapsody in particular has called to question its technical merits. The Twitter video of its incoherent editing stirred up a lively debate on the matter – the film, bewilderingly, won an American Cinema Editing Eddie award over the past weekend. Though one has to remember that the Academy Awards has never and will never be a barometer of taste or quality. The very concept of quality itself fluctuates and the nominees, like with any other year, reflect an impossible number of intangibles; intangibles rooted in $$$ above all.
Yet parse through the nominees list and there’s usually plenty worth vouching for, and 2019 is no different. As with most years, the most eclectic set of nominees tend to be centralized in the shorts categories, with this year’s Animated Shorts nominees making up for the best the category has been in a decade.Read More
Emma Forrest’s debut feature, Untogether, starring the likes of Jemima and Lola Kirke, Billy Crystal, and Ben Mendelsohn, is an aggressively banal film. Not all of it is necessarily bad per se, but Forrest, who owns both directing and writing credit for the film, has a better handle on the latter than the former. The filmmaking here is glossy, unfussy, and fundamentally undemanding. She relies on her coterie of established actors to propel much of the action, with Forrest providing ample space for them to maneuver within their posh L.A. settings. But as a writer, her propensity for grandiose, cliché gestures and frequent, truculent narrative twists make the whole endeavor a painfully disenchanting chore to sit through.Read More
There’s not a filmmaker alive that produces more self-doubt in my critical capacities than Jean-Luc Godard. My fondness for the filmmaker stems from his early work, yet it’s his post-millennium output that weighs most heavily in my consciousness. Particularly with his prior film, Goodbye to Language, the overwhelming sensory qualities of his collages are so imposing, so colossal in their implication that it threatens to obfuscate any attempt at understanding, refusing to be stripped down to a logline or synopsis. Godard’s work over the past twenty years sometimes seems to require a scholarly touch, which can reduce this faux-scholar to his knees as I vainly attempt to piece together fragments that sometimes never seem to build together to resemble a whole picture. And yet in piecing together the barrage of references, the geyser of history that composes Film Socialisme, Goodbye to Language, and now The Image Book, there’s something inherently calming about approaching the unknowable. There’s clearly a grand unifying theory, a string of anxieties and preoccupations that unite Godard’s later period work. But needing to have that explained isn’t necessarily the point; with The Image Book, Godard isn’t asking you to interpret the world, but rather suggests how imperative it is to actually change it.Read More