Deepwater Horizon

Peter Berg’s exploitative disaster film is confused and cliche.

deepwaterhorizonposterPeter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” might just be the most confused, peculiar, conservative Americana cash grab in recent memory. It’s staged like a gritty, exploitative war film in the vein of Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” and yet it’s the story about the worst oil spill in history? There’s almost no mention of the environmental damage of the spill, and the people involved are all scientific technicians, and yet they behave like salt of the Earth, blue-collar Marines? And the movie’s biggest enemy is actually big business? Not to mention it stars Mark Wahlberg?

Labeling “Deepwater Horizon” as a movie that’s pandering to a certain sector of the American public may be reductive, because the movie’s real problem is that it isn’t about anything more than a tragedy. Like a Transformers movie, it’s obsessed with metallic carnage and special effects even before everything goes to hell, and it’s loaded with mechanical jargon as if the way in which an oil rig works is interesting enough to anyone on its own. “Deepwater Horizon” wants to praise human sacrifice, but it stops short at exploring the mental struggle heroes face or examining their values. Continue reading “Deepwater Horizon”

Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s modest drama feels as slow and contemplative as her previous films

certainwomenposterKelly Reichardt makes minimal, contemplative character studies about women in modest conditions. They exist in the world and respond to their environment. In “Wendy and Lucy” Reichardt told the story of a homeless woman and her bond with her missing dog. In “Meek’s Cutoff,” she took the romance out of the Oregon Trail. And in her latest “Certain Women,” she examines three stories of women who don’t get the respect for the hard work they do.

But if there’s one commonality between all three films, it’s that they are horribly boring. They’re studious, academic movies made to be interpreted in the gaps between the words left unsaid, and there are a lot of them. And like the nature in this small Montana town, its actual story and depth are bone dry and desolate.

Laura, Gina and Beth all live in a small town called Livingston and share very loosely connected narratives. Laura (Laura Dern) has a law office and a particularly troublesome client named Fuller (Jared Harris). His life was ruined due to a construction accident but who accepted a settlement and waived his right to sue. For eight months Laura has been trying to explain why she can’t help him, and in a visit with one male lawyer, all her work is undone. He’s a potential danger to himself and others, and she has to balance her own frustration with her empathy for him. Continue reading “Certain Women”

American Honey

Andrea Arnold’s youth odyssey and road trip across Middle America is one of the finest of the year.

american_honey_posterAndrea Arnold’s “American Honey” takes viewers on a remarkable odyssey of youth and Americana. It’s alternatively visionary, beautiful, ugly, celebratory and harrowing in its tour across country with a group of teenagers. Arnold (“Fish Tank“) sees them as strays looking for a home and finding it wherever they are, and watching their journey in this nearly three hour epic is absolutely rapturous.

Arnold’s Queen of Middle America is Star (the wonderful newcomer Sasha Lane), who opens the film fishing a discarded and rotting chicken out of a dumpster for a pair of kids’ dinner. Yum. “Are we invisible,” she screams at passing drivers refusing to accept them as hitchhikers. She’s not wrong, and it’s truly revelatory to see that there are kids who live and survive like this, operating in a whole other world apart from, not just people who live on the coasts and in big cities, but those who live within these small communities and see gems like Star as outcasts.

In the Target across from where Star tries to hitchhike, she spots a van blaring rap music and a teen mooning his ass out the window. Inside is Jake (Shia LaBeouf); they recognize each other, but it’s never explained from where. Jake has a rat tail braid down to his shoulders and wears suspenders and a dress shirt like an old-school mobster. He leaps onto a counter as a Rihanna song starts playing over the intercom. “We found love in a hopeless place,” a familiar anthem, but truly fitting here.

Star, a mixed-race girl with tattoos, a ratty tank top and dirty, unkempt dreadlocks, cares for two kids, but they’re not her own. With an invite from Jake and a job offer, she runs away from her responsibilities to join a traveling operation of selling magazines door to door. Her boss Krystal (Riley Keough) has little patience for anyone just looking for a joy ride. Star and about 10 other teens ride around in a cramped van, staying at motels along the road and selling magazines in a new town each week. They party hard, but they make their money, and if Star can’t keep up, she’ll be booted from the group. In one scene Krystal answers her motel door naked with an open man’s dress shirt, sizing up the newcomer with a DGAF look that shows she’s boss. Meanwhile the formerly fun loving and rowdy Jake has been reduced to Krystal’s pet, slathering moisturizer on her legs like a slave. Continue reading “American Honey”

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

“The Beatles were the show and the music had nothing to do with it” – John Lennon

thebeatles_eightdaysaweek_a4Are there actually millennials who are unaware of The Beatles, Beatlemania and their influence on popular culture in the 20th Century? Almost no other band in rock history has endured and maintained their popularity and legacy across generations quite like The Beatles. And yet despite being some of the most documented individuals of all time, there’s somehow still a need for yet another Beatles documentary complete with more “never before seen footage,” as if any could possibly exist.

Ron Howard’s “Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” captures the mayhem of Beatlemania and the energy of John, Paul, George and Ringo on and off stage, but it fails to delve into even basic observations about what makes their music special. It has impeccably remastered live footage, much of it derived from bootleg home video, but it’s a superficially glossy appreciation of the band that will amuse longtime fans and perhaps register with young newcomers and skeptics. Continue reading “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years”


Netflix documentary combines the spirit and science of baseball

fastballposterAt a distance, the game of baseball doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The rules and dimensions of the diamond seem peculiar and arbitrary, and describing it to a person with no knowledge of how the game is played is surprisingly difficult. And yet as America’s Pastime we know it to be a game of symmetry. It’s equal parts driven by science and mathematics as it is sheer magic.

In the documentary “Fastball,” director Jonathan Hock (known for several ESPN “30 for 30” docs) melds those two worlds, those two schools of thought, into a movie focused on one particular pitch and the way in which it has changed the game.

Geeks from MIT talk alongside baseball greats, both Hall of Famers and present day All-Stars. The film dives into the detailed mechanics that show how the human eye registers a tiny object moving at 100 mph, but also allows for some baseball history and nostalgia to seep in courtesy of narration by Kevin Costner. “Fastball” is nerdy no matter how much spin you put on it.  Continue reading “Fastball”

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

David Lynch’s film, the voted #1 movie of the 2000s, is beguiling but packs an emotional wallop

mulholland-drive-posterThe moment in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” that resonates most deeply with me, and there are a few, takes place inside the club known as “Silencio.” “Silencio! No hay banda,” the announcer “says” to the crowd, explaining that there is no band, no live performance. It’s all taped. It’s all a recording. It’s all an illusion.

Lynch gives us a few shots, one from the balcony where Betty and Irene are sitting, another in close-up of the emcee, and a third from his side profile revealing a blue-haired woman sitting zombie-like in the luxury box above. The lights begin to flicker in a blue haze as the emcee vanishes, and Betty starts to shake uncontrollably in her seat as thunder begins to rumble in the theater. A new host steps out to introduce Rebekah Del Rio, a singer playing herself who performs “Llorando,” a Latin cover of a Roy Orbison song, “Crying.” She’s dressed in red and black with a glint of red and yellow makeup beneath her eye. She’s first seen from afar, then in close up as she builds in dynamics. She’s barely fighting back tears and absolutely wailing, and Lynch cuts back to Betty and Irene unable to hold back their own. And then, she collapses, topples to her side as her siren song continues on tape.

It’s all taped. It’s all a recording. It’s all an illusion. This moment marks an important turning point in the film, in which the reality that Betty and Irene think they belong to begins to unravel. There’s no “unlocking” the tiny blue box they hold, or for that matter any of the movie’s secrets. All of “Mulholland Dr.’s” mysteries, noir trappings and bizarre twists have been part of some surreal movie magic, completely artificial and cinematic. It’s ALL a recording. Continue reading “Mulholland Dr. (2001)”

Rapid Response: The Purple Rose of Cairo

Allen’s feather-light fantasy still has a lot of depth and laughs

purpleroseposterIn Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” a movie character in a classic, Old Hollywood, Depression-era costume drama steps out of the screen and falls in love with a woman in the audience. He later pulls her onto screen and into the fold of the movie and shows her a night on the town. A montage of lights and marquees with the two actors walking and smiling in black and white plays, and it’s a perfect, yet unremarkable moment typical of just about any film made from that era.

Step back though and you’ll remember this movie wasn’t made by some generic Hollywood director like Mervyn Le Roy or Leo McCarey, but was made by Woody Allen in 1985. Allen’s attention to detail in even just this simple montage is impeccable. And yet it’s all so light and frothy. Movies like “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” all have a special place in my heart, but some of my favorites of Allen’s are movies like “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Sleeper” and this film’s closest surrogate, “Midnight in Paris.” They’re effortlessly fun and seemingly insignificant romances and flights of fantasy, but they have surprising depth and insight about the world.

“I want what happened last week to happen this week. Otherwise, what’s life about?” That line could go almost unnoticed in the film. It takes place in a hilariously chaotic moment where the characters on screen are all taunting, showboating and arguing with the theater patrons watching them. One of the attendees says that line and it says so much about why we come to the movies, about how their predictability doesn’t just offer an escape but keeps us grounded. Continue reading “Rapid Response: The Purple Rose of Cairo”

The Bank Dick (1940)

“The Bank Dick” shows W.C. Fields’s distinct voice as a classic comic actor

wc_fieldsbankdickposterFool me once, W.C. Fields, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It goes to show that in my Rapid Response to “It’s a Gift” just how little I knew about Fields or his movies. Roger Ebert’s Great Movies piece of “The Bank Dick” informs that you don’t have to be familiar with Fields’s movies to be considered a movie buff, and yet if you have never come across him, you’re hardly a movie lover at all.

Ebert describes him as a man who seemed to be drunk at all times, whose louse behavior was par for the course, and whose movies were not especially good, but whose best moments were spread across numerous features and shorts. His best known feature, “The Bank Dick,” made eight years after “It’s a Gift,” shows just how little Fields’s formula had evolved in that time. And to watch the two films in close succession, you begin to develop an affinity for their patterns and their sillier shared qualities.

That doesn’t mean I exactly enjoyed “The Bank Dick.” It’s perhaps even more formless of a story than “It’s a Gift,” and yet taken together it’s much easier to respect the work Fields is doing and the effort that’s gone into making these films, as dumb as they are. Continue reading “The Bank Dick (1940)”

In Defense of Jimmy Fallon (sort of)

Fallon’s Trump interview was bad, but let Fallon be Fallon

Jimmy Fallon was doomed no matter what he did with Donald Trump. In today’s political climate, if you’re not staunchly choosing a side then you’re part of the problem. And in having such a volatile person like Trump on his show this late in the campaign, he already stood to lose the respect of the leftist, cultural elite, but in holding Trump’s feet to the fire he would’ve definitely lost the viewership and respect of the right. Imagine if he tussled Hillary Clinton’s hair or dressed up in a pantsuit with her. He would’ve lost both groups, not just one or the other.

In the numerous think pieces that have been trotted around, the same 15 (scathing) tweets from the same journalists were used as proof that the Internet has turned against Fallon. Vulture said Fallon completed his transformation into Jay Leno, inoffensive and popular, yet to the point that it’s become a liability. Fallon’s the late night show celebs go to because they know he’ll be a pussycat, in the same way it was with Leno.

But Leno and Fallon are still highly different. Leno held firm to a Vegas-style variety show, and with his lame “have you heard about this” stand up and his vaguely snobby snickering at dumb criminals in newspaper headlines and in man-on-the-street trivia, he got old fast because he clung to a segment of the ‘80s and the past that was long past its due date.

There was a point however when Fallon was the new kid on the block, the fan favorite and the Internet’s favorite. Back when he was on Late Night, he didn’t play as many games with his guests but instead performed goofy, often inspired sketches that firstly proved that he was an incredibly talented impressionist and performer, but also ensnared the youth demographic. Remember Tebowie, the blend of Tim Tebow and David Bowie? Or his many stabs at Neil Young or Bob Dylan singing beloved theme songs and Top 40 music? He combined nostalgia for ‘90s TV shows like Saved by the Bell reunions and an affinity for hipper music, like in his history of rap performances with Justin Timberlake, as a way of creating content that, even if you weren’t watching his show live, demanded to be shared online, thus changing the game. Like Letterman and Conan before him, both of whom earned cult status on college campuses with edgy humor, Fallon had become the hot young star all the kids loved, and he did so with inoffensive charm. Continue reading “In Defense of Jimmy Fallon (sort of)”

The Light Between Oceans

Derek Cianfrance’s more modest adaptation doesn’t have the explosive proportions of his previous films.

the_light_between_oceans_posterDerek Cianfrance’s films have big emotions, sprawling, slow burn narratives and are steeped in conflict, romance, melodrama and more. He takes intimate stories, like a deteriorating marriage in “Blue Valentine,” or a relationship between two fathers on opposite sides of the law in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” and blows them up with Biblical importance and gravity. In the process, he wrings some incredible performances and powerful drama out of movies that might otherwise feel overwrought.

With his latest film “The Light Between Oceans,” he’s bestowed a small-scale character drama and romance with major emotion and conflict all on the surface level, but it hasn’t been expanded to Cianfrance size. It’s a modest tearjerker with spiritual qualities and a compelling story, but it doesn’t have the explosive moments that would make it truly resonate.

“The Light Between Oceans” is based on a novel by M.L. Stedman, unread by me. It’s set in 1918 shortly after World War I. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) was decorated in the war and now seeks a life of solitude as a lighthouse keeper on an island miles away from civilization. In time he meets and marries Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) and brings her to live on the island. They’re deeply in love, but twice Isabel suffers a miscarriage. And then suddenly, a boat appears washed up on the island. The man inside is dead, but a baby girl lives. Continue reading “The Light Between Oceans”