Tramps

Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten make this scrappy indie romance a smart movie about class and coming of age.

Tramps PosterI learned something from Tramps. It turns out if you drive a “fucking SUV,” it means you’re an asshole.

That line alone says a lot about the class divide crossed in this indie romance. Adam Leon’s brief, punchy and charming film is a great love story between two cynical young people, but it also examines why so often there’s bitterness and distance between poor and rich people. Tramps is a movie that inspires its protagonists to reach for better lives than the crappy ones they’ve got, even as they look down their noses at those on the other side of the tracks.

When we first meet Danny (Callum Turner), he’s stuck running a bootleg, off-track-betting parlor out of his mom’s New York apartment. When all the old men from the building leave, he glares at his mom as though asking, “How did I get stuck in this life?” Then he gets a call from prison from his deadbeat brother begging him to do a probably illegal job. Pick up a suitcase, hop inside a car, and drop the suitcase off with a woman. The details are hilariously scant, but “he doesn’t have a choice.”

Then there’s Ellie (Grace Van Patten). One moment she’s on a train, and when the conductor arrives, in the blink of an eye she’s gone, hiding in the bathroom for a few more stops. She’s so poor and has enough problems with money that she can’t sort out the real problems in her life. One is some guy named Scott (Mike Birbiglia) pressuring her to be the wheelman in the same suitcase scam as Danny. He’s berating her all the while offering her a spot in his “queen-size bed.” Continue reading “Tramps”

It Comes at Night

Trey Edward Shults’s unconventional horror film is a moody, atmospheric, evocative thriller about how mistrust has the power to make everyone sick.

Will the apocalypse come when a plague hits, or aliens attack, or when climate change ravages the planet? Or will humanity become so divided and fearful of one another that we gradually kill ourselves?

The monsters in the unusual indie horror film It Comes at Night all live under one roof. It’s a moody, atmospheric, evocative thriller about how mistrust has the power to make everyone sick.

The only image of the end of the world in Trey Edward Shults’s film is on a wall in Paul’s (Joel Edgerton) cavernous cabin in the woods. A Renaissance painting depicts Biblical fire and brimstone, but the vast forest surrounding their home only contains endless mystery. While outside, the family dog barks and chases after nothing in particular except the craggily branches masking whatever horrors we simply assume are out there. Continue reading “It Comes at Night”

Band Aid

Don’t overlook the charming Sundance indie rom-com “Band Aid,” from writer, director, star and songwriter Zoe Lister-Jones.

Band Aid PosterMovies like “Band Aid” get buried at Sundance. They’re a dime a dozen in Park City. Zoe Lister-Jones’s film is an indie, auteur project that’s quirky, about hipsters and stars Fred Armisen. It’s hard to stand out at Sundance when you have all those pieces.

But “Band-Aid” doesn’t deserve to be overlooked. It has smart ideas about gender, an adept visual style, good songs, and it stars Fred Armisen! Lister-Jones stars, writes, directs, produces and composes original songs for “Band Aid,” and her effort and voice stands out over all the other films just like “Band Aid” that are only the sum of their parts. Continue reading “Band Aid”

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

Errol Morris’s documentary about one of his dear friends, the Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman, is one of his sweeter films.

The B-Side PosterIt feels surprising, but Errol Morris has never made a feature film about an artist before. Elsa Dorfman may not even consider herself an “artist,” so it’s possible he still hasn’t. But in “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” Morris is bonding and relating to Dorfman in a way he usually doesn’t with his subjects. It’s made for one of his sweeter, if more fleeting, films.

Morris’s interviews in his documentaries are always square to the camera, with the speaker looking you dead in the eye. His confrontational position always leaves some ambiguity as to whether Morris admires these people or wants to gawk at them. Not so in “The B-Side,” where Dorfman is often shot askew as she hunches over a work table and looks fondly at boxes and drawers full of her old photographs. Occasionally Morris’s camera gets inches from Dorfman’s face, but he looks fondly on her frumpy black hair, thick glasses and congenial face of a kind Jewish mother.

Dorfman came to mild success in the ‘60s with photos of Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan, among other luminaries of the Beat scene and New York literature circles. But her lifelong passion was “large scale portrait photography.” Dorfman got her hands on a massive Polaroid camera, one of just a few ever made. The camera is a bulky contraption the size of a refrigerator, and it’s capable of taking life-size portraits just like the instant Polaroid’s your mom snapped before your prom. Continue reading “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography”

Baby Driver

Crank up the volume. “Baby Driver” is Edgar Wright’s masterpiece.

Baby Driver PosterYou know that feeling when you get behind the wheel and YOUR song comes on? That song belongs to you and no one else, and it makes you feel like you can do anything, like you can tear up the road, and like you’ve never felt an emotion this strongly before. As you tap on the steering wheel and sing along to the lyrics, someone on the outside looking in might think you look pretty stupid. And you know what? You do, and you kind of know it. What crazy song is that you’re listening to anyways?

Edgar Wright knows that feeling. “Baby Driver” is that feeling. You could be listening to some ‘50s soul song that would be humiliating if anyone knew what you were jamming. Your name could be something silly like “Ansel Elgort,” and you could be wearing a cheap pair of drug store sunglasses as you strut down the road awkwardly avoiding foot and street traffic. But you are in that perfect moment. No one looks cooler. You’ve never felt more confident, inspired or uplifted. This feels awesome.

“Baby Driver” is in love with itself, with its style, its soundtrack and its energy. But Wright gets that to some degree this is just a little lame. If it was trying to be cool he would’ve filled it with Top 40 bangers and jukebox favorites. Instead he picked the deep cuts you dance to when no one is watching. “Baby Driver” is a heist and action movie with the volume turned up to 11, but Wright has selected a soundtrack so in tune with the movie he’s always wanted to make that it feels like a deeply personal statement. Continue reading “Baby Driver”

Split

James McAvoy gives a remarkable multi-personality performance in M. Night Shyamalan’s tightest horror/thriller movie in years.

In “Split,” James McAvoy embodies seven different personalities within one character, he develops new mannerisms and accents for each one of them, and he even flails wildly in a possessed, near perverse dance to a Madonna song. He’s acting a lot.

But in one scene of talking to his therapist, M. Night Shyamalan drills in tight on McAvoy’s calm face and the miniscule, wavering expression in his gaze. You look into his eyes and you see fear and a whole different person trying to get out.

In “Split,” Shyamalan’s horror premise of a man who suffers from experiencing multiple personalities, 23 in all, may be a gimmick, but McAvoy’s performance isn’t. There are a few costume changes, and he makes a big swing between accents, but McAvoy never has to spaz out, and Shyamalan never has to cut for McAvoy to suggest the fascinating, dangerous tug of war going on inside his head.

In fact the mad nature of McAvoy’s character’s disorder subsumes Shyamalan’s typical need to tantalize us with a big twist. Shyamalan has gone nuts with style and psychological parables, but “Split” brings the director back to fundamental genre roots of the horror/thriller. Continue reading “Split”

The Commune

Thomas Vinterberg’s broad, histrionic, blackly comedic social satire doesn’t work on any level

The Commune PosterIn what universe does Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Commune” make sense? The thinly drawn characters in this stagey, maudlin, histrionic dreck seem driven by pages that must’ve vanished from the script. They leap from broad character types to wild hippies in no time flat, act completely out of line and ultimately enable the film’s dirtbag protagonist to carry on an affair. Chalk it up to the lifestyles of those crazy Danes, I guess.

A nuclear family of a middle-aged couple, Erik and Anna, and their teenage daughter Freja, inherits a massive home too large for them to live in and maintain on their own, so they invite some old friends as roommates but agree to a communal arrangement. In preliminary interviews they reveal themselves as a square, a drifter, a burnout, a hippie and a strict mother with a dying toddler son, but before long they’re all laughing drunkenly and jumping into the ocean naked. Good times. Continue reading “The Commune”

Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” doesn’t reinvent the superhero genre, but it demonstrates what a bit of diversity in front of the camera can do for it.

Wonder Woman PosterIt’s amazing the fun you can have with a superhero movie when the heroine isn’t grossly oversexualized, when the director isn’t obsessed with exposition and fan service, or when the humor isn’t all snarky, Joss Whedon-esque dialogue.

Such is the woman’s touch that Patty Jenkins brings to “Wonder Woman.” Just to be clear, there have been other superhero and action movies that have featured women and been directed by women. Not many, obviously. But “Wonder Woman” in particular has been saddled with the burden of saving the world from the patriarchy this week.

That’s asking a lot of this popcorn movie. Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it demonstrates what a bit of diversity in front of and behind the camera can do for it. Continue reading “Wonder Woman”

Colossal

Nacho Vigalondo’s quirky indie has a neat premise but a BIG, monster-sized problem and a weak Anne Hathaway performance.

Colossal PosterThere’s a big problem with “Colossal.” Anne Hathaway plays a woman who discovers she’s in control of a giant, kaiju monster attacking Seoul, Korea. Of course, the monster is merely a metaphor, and it finds a way of ruining both Seoul and the movie.

Nacho Vigalondo’s film gets undermined at every turn specifically because of that monster-sized metaphor that makes its story unique. “Colossal” wants to be about taking control of your life and not allowing abusive relationships to get in the way, but like any monster movie, the monster is there to ruin everything.

Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman who has been depressed and mooching off her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) for a full year without a job. When he kicks her out of their apartment, she returns home and finds little better to do than sleep on an air mattress in an empty room of her parents’ old, rundown house.

She’s moving through her life as if nothing matters and that she has no impact on the rest of the world. But the metaphor couldn’t be louder when Gloria finds out there’s a gigantic monster attacking Seoul, and her every movement causes the monster to mimic her and wreak havoc.

When Gloria returns home and bumps into her grade school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) who never left, she doesn’t realize that her first world problems and moping are opening up old wounds. When she expresses her astonishment that a monster is attacking Korea, her boyfriend responds, “That happened nine hours ago. What have you been doing all day?” She’s so out of it that she doesn’t realize the world has quickly moved on around her. Continue reading “Colossal”

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

James Gunn and Marvel are telling us everything we’re seeing in this sequel to “Guardians of the Galaxy” is remarkably cool, but it’s trying too hard.

The opening set piece to Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a battle for the ages with a giant octopod, slug thing. But distracting our attention is Baby Groot plugging in an amplifier to blare “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra.

Now, if you need a reminder of who Groot is, in the last “Guardians of the Galaxy,” he was a sentient tree being that only ever spoke three words, “I Am Groot.” Now he’s a baby. Clear?

But fear not: age differences aside, he and the Guardians still have the same taste in ‘70s AM radio. And apparently more interesting than another CGI battle is watching this four-inch-high Chia pet shimmy its hips. Director James Gunn seems to know we’ve grown desensitized to whatever mayhem is going on behind Baby Groot, and at this point American audiences would still pay hundreds of millions of dollars even if it meant we were placated for something mindless and cute for just a few moments.

That’s what “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” has come to. It’s ridiculous there are people honestly writing about this with any degree of seriousness, let alone even calling it a movie. It’s explosively colorful, filled with endless inane chatter, heavy on catchy pop songs used as superhero music videos, and littered with enough made up space words to convince someone there’s a plot, characters and stakes here.

Gunn jams “Guardians 2” with gigantic space opera moments and activity, but at every turn he shoe horns in a joke to lighten the mood and remind everyone this is all just mindless entertainment. The details don’t matter, because we’re just moments away from another shot of Baby Groot eating M&Ms as the world explodes around him. Continue reading “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”