Things to Come

Isabelle Huppert shines in this intellectual character study from Mia Hansen-Love

thingstocomeposterMany movies can barely muster one thought provoking central question to guide their characters. Mia Hansen-Love’s “Things to Come” is full of them: “Can truth be debated?” “Can we put ourselves in the place of the other?” “A government so perfect is not suited to men.”

And yet “Things to Come” crosses over into being too academic once we’re introduced to the “anarchists” who commune in the mountains, talk about philosophy and do seemingly nothing. “Things to Come” may be touching and thoughtful as a character study, but it’s too talkative and introspective to be profoundly memorable.

At the very least though, Isabelle Huppert as philosophy teacher Nathalie grants “Things to Come” warmth and wisdom alike. Her character may hide behind her intellect, but it’s Huppert’s poise to withhold her emotions and make her authority known in front of her students that makes the performance great and Nathalie wonderful.

And she’s forced to soldier on through a lot. At first her book on philosophy will not be renewed for a new edition. Then it’s the death of her mother and a split from her husband that send her in pursuit of companionship and solace from a handsome former student.

While many will admire “Things to Come’s” intelligence, many more will appreciate it’s simpler charms, like a nuisance of a cat named Pandora, a name that simply invites trouble. Perhaps most profound of all is how that stupid animal, as much as it wanders and vanishes, will be the most consistent part of Nathalie’s life as she aims to reinvent herself.

In that way, “Things to Come” will make you ponder your own values and philosophies before reminding you there’s more to life than just those philosophy.

3 stars

The Comedian

Robert De Niro can’t get laughs with a thin premise and outdated view of the comedy scene

The ComedianIn the Post-“Louie” era of TV and film, people have become fascinated with the psychology of The Comedian. And it’s hardly Earth shattering to suggest that these people who make us laugh are not one-dimensional clowns but artists with personal struggles and complexities.

Taylor Hackford’s film “The Comedian” has been an idea percolating with Robert De Niro as long as eight years ago, but eight years later it now has the familiar premise of “Bojack Horseman,” barely the heart of even a mediocre “Louie” copycat and an antiquated view of Internet comedy and stardom. Continue reading “The Comedian”

The Best Albums of 2016

2016 was a rough year for deaths in music, and it begs the question whether rock and roll itself will survive.

Is Rock and Roll dead? In a podcast between Steven Hyden and Chuck Klostermann this year, the rock critics clarified what they mean when writers like themselves make such a bold statement. It’s not that guitar-centric rock music will disappear altogether (although maybe it could), or that great rock albums won’t come out year to year (they seem to be getting fewer and fewer). It’s just that as far as landmark albums go, the ones that sell massive amounts of units, that are widely critically acclaimed and that make a significant impact on the culture at large and the history of music, very few seem to be clear-cut, meat and potatoes rock records.

In a just world, or maybe in another time, an album like Car Seat Headrest’s would be as acclaimed as the early Weezer records. A band like DIIV would be as influential as Nirvana. An artist like Angel Olsen would be culturally important on par with Joan Baez or Carole King. Savages would be massive feminist icons. William Tyler would be as successful as Clapton. Wye Oak would be a band that people would’ve actually heard of. Radiohead would be, well, Radiohead. And David Bowie would still be alive.

All that shouldn’t diminish the greatness of Chance the Rapper or Blood Orange, who are making monumental waves in rap and R&B, spiritual and socially poignant albums that advance their respective genres. But I only wish half of these rock acts were taking over the world in the way Chance and Dev Hynes are. My list reflects those diverse tastes and hopes for the survival of good music. Continue reading “The Best Albums of 2016”

Hacksaw Ridge

Can Mel Gibson’s movie about faith justify its amount of gratuitous violence?

hacksaw_ridge_posterCan a movie about non-violence be violent? That’s the question that tormented me as I watched “Hacksaw Ridge,” a war film of immense power that’s inspiring and emotional but also endlessly brutal. How does director Mel Gibson square the film’s religious values with the film’s gratuitous bloodshed? What amount of gore crosses the line, or is the question moot?

Many war films before “Hacksaw Ridge” have depicted unspeakable horrors on screen, all with the conclusion that war is bad, but the context and the means are what separate the good films from the bad, the noble from the tasteless. In fact, Gibson faced similar questions with his film “The Passion of the Christ.”

But “Hacksaw Ridge” does justify the means. The film is one-dimensional in its value system: life can be disturbing and painful, but those who stay true to faith and belief can do real good in this world. There’s much that can be said about the nature of religion in this film, the absence of other forms of belief than a Christian god, the short sighted approach to the values of the Japanese soldiers, let alone the secular American soldiers as supporting characters. But Gibson so earnestly believes with old-fashioned charm and honest storytelling that such a message is worth sharing, no matter the bloodshed the story requires. Continue reading “Hacksaw Ridge”

Loving

Jeff Nichols’s modest true story values romance above civil rights melodrama

loving_2016_filmJeff Nichols should make all civil rights dramas. He’s not interested in making history, in exposing melodramatic movie racism or in grand speeches and moments of righteousness. “Loving,” a film about the landmark Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia that allowed interracial marriages, separates the broader cultural and historical significance of this couple’s story from their more personal struggles to keep a family together. “Loving” is impressive because it ignores so many clichés, but more so because it’s a modest drama that’s intimate and understanding when looking at this romance.

The film’s first words are said in close-up on Mildred (Ruth Negga): “I’m pregnant.” It cuts to Richard (Joel Edgerton), who breathes a long pause before smiling. Before we know what time period this movie is even set in, or whom these people are, we know that this pregnancy will be a point of contention, whether because of their skin color or because of reasons we can only begin to surmise. The question of if they can make it work will be far more interesting than the inevitable court decision.

And in Mildred and Richard’s country lives, the Supreme Court doesn’t even register as a concept. Upon traveling to Washington D.C. to get married in a court house, Mildred asks her brother what the city is like. For the people in Mildred’s family, their marriage is far less a question of decency but whether it will threaten to take Mildred away from the country. Integration nationwide may be on the minds of Mildred and Richard Loving, but it’s hardly the only challenge in their lives, and the movie feels more naturalistic and less overbearingly political as a result. Continue reading “Loving”

The Accountant

A portrait of high functioning autism, or Batman with a Gun

the-accountant-posterAny points “The Accountant” earns as a portrait of high functioning autism are quickly erased when Gavin O’Connor’s film simply becomes Ben Affleck as Batman with a gun. The film hardly blends genres but mashes them up into a complex, albeit fun and thrilling action caper.

Affleck plays Christian Wolff (not really his name), an accountant in Plainfield, IL who secretly reviews the books of the worst criminals and drug cartels in the world. Born with a gift at math, puzzles and logic yet stifled socially due to his autism, he’s a natural at deciphering where lost money has gotten to and in turn keeping a low profile. Christian lives alone in a drab, undecorated, ranch house. He prepares three symmetrically cooked fried eggs each night for dinner, performs physical therapy on his body while blaring heavy metal and pops a Xanax at exactly 10:01 each night.

O’Connor could’ve stopped at having Christian be a meticulously perfect mathematical prodigy and, later, an assassin, but exploring his childhood dealing with autism gives him a provocative past, a cause and a vice to overcome throughout the film. And yet it becomes squandered when Christian’s father begins giving him super soldier training in martial arts and sharpshooting. His origin story is less of coping with a disability (or as someone who is differently abled, to be more accurate and politically correct) and more of a ruthless father (Andy Umberger) who pushes him to be a weapon. One version feels relatable to parents, and the other sounds like “Batman Begins.” Continue reading “The Accountant”

Moonlight

A touching, beautiful story of a young gay black man struggling to give and receive love

moonlight-posterIf you look carefully, you can see “Moonlight” gleam. It’s a meek, but powerful story of a young gay black man in Miami struggling to give and to feel love. It contains deep wells of personality, empathy and intimacy, but visually and tonally, Barry Jenkins’s film is equally beautiful, a sensuous and ravishing look at romance and identity that envelops you in a hypnotic, soothing lunar glow.

We meet Chiron (pronounced Shy-RONE) at three stages of his life, first as a young boy, then as a teenager in high school, and finally as a 20-something adult (Ashton Sanders). As a kid (Alex Hibbert) he’s racing through a field, the camera dashing to keep up and careening from side to side as it glimpses a few other boys chasing him. It’s not a moment of frivolous fun, but something more violent and saddening. They’re trying to pelt him with rocks, and Chiron takes refuge in a burned out motel room. In it he finds a charred vial, a remnant of a junkie’s former squalor. His savior is a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). He nicknames Chiron “Little” and despite the boy’s timid, apprehension, offers him a meal and a place to stay for the night, only to then bring him home to his drug-addled single mom. Juan emerges as a father figure in Chiron’s life, but the boy is caught up in a circle of dependency between his addicted mom and the dealer who keeps selling to her regardless.

In one of the film’s several achingly heartfelt moments, Juan takes Little into the ocean to learn how to swim. The camera bobs alongside as Juan carefully suspends him in the water to float, and the moment evokes a spiritual baptism. “At some point you got to decide who you want to be,” Juan says. “Don’t let no one decide that for you.” Continue reading “Moonlight”

Mascots

Christopher Guest’s latest is worse than just a rehash of “Best in Show”

mascots_1sht_usChristopher Guest has been making the same movie for decades. They’re each a mockumentary drawing from the same cast of goofy looking funny people and they parody a subsection of American culture with a combination of snobbery and absurd non sequitors. And for the most part they’re all incredible.

So why does “Mascots,” Guest’s latest as an exclusive for Netflix, fail so poorly? That it’s almost a complete rehash of “Best in Show” doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact after so many ill-conceived performances of obscure farm animals dancing, it’s barely a movie.

“Mascots” starts exactly as “Best in Show,” with a misdirection of a dramatic scene to an unexpected punchline. A man awaits his X-Ray results from a doctor and receives some good news, only for the camera to pull back and reveal that he’s currently sitting in the examining room in a big red plush costume. He and his wife (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker) have an uncomfortable marriage working as a pair of mascots for a minor league baseball team and are about to head out on the road for an annual mascots competition. Continue reading “Mascots”

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”