The Red Turtle

Studio Ghibli’s spiritual, silent fable is an early favorite for Best Movie of 2017.

The Red Turtle PosterIn just 80 minutes and with absolutely no dialogue at all, the incredibly beautiful animated fable “The Red Turtle” runs the gamut of the life experience and evokes the presence of God watching over our existence. It’s breathtaking.

The Dutch director and animator Michael Dudok de Wit brought his hand drawn work to Studio Ghibli, the famed Japanese studio that spawned Hayao Miyazaki and his spiritual, life affirming films like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” What de Wit provides in meditative, thoughtful and dreamy filmmaking on par with Ingmar Bergman, Studio Ghibli gives “The Red Turtle” a deep connection to nature, a hint of whimsy and curiosity. Continue reading “The Red Turtle”

Shia LaBeouf is Awesome

With his misunderstood He Will Not Divide Us project, a tribute to Hollywood’s most fascinating weirdo

It didn’t take long. Just a week into a four-year long campaign, Shia LaBeouf lost it…and it was amazing.

LaBeouf set up an art project encouraging people to chant, “He will not divide us” into a web cam in an act of solidarity against Donald Trump. It is quite possible Trump won’t last long in the Presidency, but no one was guessing the kid from “Transformers” and his web cam would outlast him.

As you might guess, Trump supporters and white nationalists have specifically targeted the project as a way of showing they won’t be divided either. They held up photos of Pepe the Frog, they came out to the camera and spoke coded white nationalist phrases like “1488” into the speaker, and they mass ordered pizzas for the gathering protesters that no one could afford. Maybe even more predictable though was that LaBeouf would let these trolls get to him.

On Day 3 LaBeouf was caught on video shouting down a Trump supporter. A crowd of people had gathered in front of LaBeouf’s art project outside the Museum of the Moving Image to voice their support. A bearded Shia was among them, wandering, smiling and bundled in a red felt hat and a jean jacket. He wasn’t leading the ritual but was a gleeful participant. Then in steps a dude blocking the camera and beginning to rattle off white-nationalist talking points. Shia doesn’t break in rhythm, but he quickly escalates, thrusting into the kid’s face and growing louder and louder, clearly rankled. A moment later when they’re off camera, one of the protesters steps forward and narrates, “Shia just shoved the shit out of some Trump supporter.” Days later, LaBeouf shoved another person. This guy asked if he could take a selfie with Shia, and when the two got on camera, the man instead said, “Hitler did nothing wrong.”

Guess who came off looking like the asshole in that situation? Despite the way the media reported it, this wasn’t proof of another failed stunt by Shia; it actually went off like gangbusters. Maybe LaBeouf shouldn’t have gotten aggressive, but he shouldn’t come off like some crazy person either; in fact, he’s kind of awesome. Continue reading “Shia LaBeouf is Awesome”

The Cake Is a Lie: On Donald Trump’s Bizarre First Few Days in Office

There is no shortage of crazy, maddening, Orwellian stories to have come out of the new Trump administration in just the last few weeks, not to mention the whole election. But the most bizarre may have come from a pastry chef.

At Trump’s inauguration, he and Mike Pence cut a giant celebratory cake with a sword. It was a glorious blue, star-studded layer cake that looked so familiar. Too familiar. The chef commissioned to make President Obama’s inaugural cake made the identical one eight years ago, but not this one. And the bakery even innocently posted on Instagram that they were commissioned to recreate the cake as inspired by the Obama one. This story sounds delicious until you realize THE CAKE WAS MADE OF STYROFOAM. It was strictly ceremonial, nothing more than a prop.

Unlike Sean Spicer’s blatantly false inauguration attendance announcement or Trump dodging questions about his tax returns, this isn’t Trump attempting to pull one over on the press and the American people. It’s too obvious and transparent for anyone to have not noticed or for the Trump office to pretend it’s an oversight.

No, this is a sinister coded message from Trump directly to Obama: “I am going to take everything that stands for you, and Mike Pence and I are going to cut into it with a fucking sword.” Continue reading “The Cake Is a Lie: On Donald Trump’s Bizarre First Few Days in Office”

Hidden Figures

Ted Melfi’s crowd-pleaser needs to do more to enact real change in race opportunity

It’s hard to be cynical about a movie as crowd pleasing as Ted Melfi’s “Hidden Figures.” This is an underserved story about the African American women who made a major, untold contribution to the space race, and it’s finding an audience.

But here’s the scene that threw me for a whirl: Katherine Johnson has earned a spot in the main room calculating rocket trajectory, but everyday she runs off to the bathroom back in the “colored” section of the NASA campus. “I have no idea where your bathroom is,” a preoccupied and disinterested secretary says to her with just a pinch of salt. Her boss, played by Kevin Costner, chews her out wondering where she disappears to each day. And in a moment of desperation, she pleads that she’s working extra tirelessly to do her job and overcome these absurd segregation barriers. After hearing that, Costner agrees. He takes a sledgehammer to the “coloreds only” bathroom sign and declares free bathrooms for all. Continue reading “Hidden Figures”

20th Century Women

Mike Mills’s follow up to “Beginners” tries to be too profound for too many generations

20thCenturyWomen PosterMike Mills’s “20th Century Women” is trying to be too profound for too many different people. It aims to encapsulate the life experience of men and women, adolescents and adults, mothers and daughters, yuppies and the ordinary. And it does so in a string of literary axioms and bluntly illustrated anecdotes. It attains higher meaning only in doses, a result of a smattering of smartly written scenes and thoughtful performances. But it’s never universal, namely because it’s trying too hard to be.

The three women in teenage Jamie’s (Lucas Jade Zumann) life are his divorced mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his wants-to-be-much-closer-yet-still-platonic best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and his mother’s 30-something roommate who acts like a cool, older sister Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dorothea senses that because he doesn’t have a strong male presence in his life, what Jamie really needs is a stronger female influence. Continue reading “20th Century Women”


6-year-old Sunny Pawar carries Garth Davis’s observant, anecdotal film on his tiny back.

Lion PosterSaroo Brierly got separated from his family in India when he was just a boy and spent his whole childhood raised in Australia by a foster family. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he used Google to trace down a past he could hardly recall and a home he didn’t know would still be there.

What makes “Lion” special is that it shows that Saroo’s story isn’t entirely unique. It spends its first hour immersed in young Saroo’s perspective. It observantly and anecdotally illustrates the livelihood of poverty-stricken children across India. Saroo’s story feels profound not only because of the journey toward a tearful reunion, but because it devotes so much time at the eye level of this young boy. Continue reading “Lion”

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The push and pull between new directions and tones and nostalgic fan service make for a frustrating “Star Wars” spinoff.

Rogue One PosterThe paradox of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is that it’s somehow tonally and thematically separate from the original “Star Wars” films but pays even more homage to the original trilogy than even “The Force Awakens,” amazing, since that movie is essentially a remake of “A New Hope.”

Its hero is not a wistful young farm boy but a cynical girl named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who has been in exile and shuttled around Galactic Empire prisons and work sites for years. The film’s first scene recalls the cruiser soaring overhead at the beginning of “A New Hope,” but “Rogue One” forgoes even the iconic opening crawl.

There are moments at which the film even diverts from George Lucas’s ideologies of good and evil and of the power of faith and religion. One of the film’s standouts is Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), an acrobatic yet blind protector who is not a Jedi but senses the Force in the world. When he chants relentlessly “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me,” it’s a noble yet bleak mantra as he marches into certain death and the unknown of the open battlefield. Continue reading “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or winning film is a powerful tearjerker and scathing indictment of the State.

I Daniel Blake PosterIf Americans can’t respond to the politics of the Palme D’Or winning “I, Daniel Blake” as strongly as the Brits, they’ll still be able to appreciate its emotional wallop. Director Ken Loach has spent his life in film defending the poor, working class by championing human fortitude and decency. And by taking on the worst form of inane bureaucracy, something that Republican or Democrat, Green, Labor or Conservative have all found frustrating, he’s told a story that’s as funny as it is heart wrenching.

We first hear a frustrated Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) impatiently fielding invasive questions about his health to a faceless bureaucrat with a voice so blandly calm it sounds like a recording. His doctor says he’s not fit for work, but the government says he’s fine. Daniel’s caught in limbo: unable to work but also unable to receive benefits.

We hear stories like this in the US, and in Trump’s America it’s anyone’s guess as to whether someone could find empathy for this person. “I, Daniel Blake” however is very specific to Britain, exposing a convoluted system that should inspire as much debate as sentiment. Continue reading “I, Daniel Blake”

Toni Erdmann

Be patient with this slow-burning, yet hilariously unpredictable German comedy

toni-erdmann-posterYou need to be patient with “Toni Erdmann.”

This nearly three hour-long German film goes nearly an hour as just a modest family comedy with some awkward humor before finding its voice. It’s only with a complete and sudden surprise does the movie’s naturalistic, deadpan filmmaking get thrust into full on anarchy. It’s worth the wait.

Maren Ade’s film milks the absurd from the ordinary, a loving comedy between a father and daughter grown estranged. And yet “Toni Erdmann” overcomes its Hollywood log line by establishing a tone of suspense and uncertainty. The film is rarely manic, but the set pieces defy predictability. Continue reading “Toni Erdmann”

The Best Movies of 2016

Conventional wisdom would have it that 2016 was an awful year. Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Prince and many more stars all passed away. Shootings at night clubs and a fire at an Oakland venue sent shockwaves through communities and brought into question where we as Americans can feel safe. And of course the election results were not only the opposite of what I would’ve hoped for, but they polarized the nation so deeply that facts and freedom seem to hang in the balance.

Since the election results, I’ve been far more guarded about projecting what I believe. What’s the use when either no one wants to hear a word, or it will only echo around in a bubble of shared values?

The same could be said of movies. I’m sure for many culture writers it’s tempting to rank the most “relevant” movies and present them as “best.” It would be films that aren’t so much “good” as they are reflections of the writer’s worldview and what they say about 2016 today (somehow I feel “Sausage Party” wouldn’t do so great on that list). But when I think about the consequences of writing that sort of list in the wake of the election, I ultimately have very little interest. I’d rather present a list of the movies I would most recommend to anyone right now and leave the rest for the would-be pundits.

And yet these movies do reflect America and 2016 better than I would’ve imagined when I penciled each into a working list. You could place these films literally on a map of the US and find unique swaths and identities represented across the board. They’ve all come from a new class of elite directors and artists rather than the auteurist veterans who have been shaping the conversation for decades. And best of all, they’ve carried meaning and value for me both before and after the election. How we interpret them may evolve, but their texts and their emotional power remain unchanged. Continue reading “The Best Movies of 2016”