Screening Room: ‘The Northman’

The Northman opens next Friday. It has Vikings, Bjork, and a story sort of derived from Hamlet. My review is at PopMatters:

A revenge thriller with an elevated horror heart and an anthropologist’s eye for detail and ritual, The Northman is a witchy and weird piece of work. But despite the layered imagination that went into recreating this ancient world, it is still the most conventional work yet from Eggers, director of old-time Americana oddities The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019). The Northman features operatic scope and magical imagery that will be burned into your retinas for quite some time…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Donbass’

My review of the new Ukraine-set black comedy Donbass, which opens next week, is at The Playlist:

Winner of the 2018 Un Certain Regard award for Best Director at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival but only getting released in the United States now, “Donbass” makes for eerie viewing coming just weeks after the Russo-Ukrainian war entered a new phase following the Russian invasion of late February 2022. Set at some unspecified time after Russian-backed separatists carved off the Donbass region of southeast Ukraine in early 2014, the film provides a glimpse of what life is like in (as the on-screen titles term it) “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine.” From what we see here, day-to-day life appears to be some combination of Cossack ”Mad Max” cosplay, throwback Soviet-era corruption, smashmouth nationalism, and gangster’s paradise…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Outfit’

In Graham Moore’s new Hitchcockian thriller The Outfit, a shy-seeming tailor is wrapped up in a tense game of wits with a passel of paranoid gangsters.

The Outfit opens in limited release this Friday. My review is at Slant:

On the surface, the film’s story couldn’t be more different than that of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, for which Moore won an Oscar for his script, though both films share a love of nattily attired Englishmen puzzling out problems in life-or-death situations. The Englishman in this case is the suit store’s owner, Savile Row-trained tailor Leonard (Mark Rylance). He makes his living not just by crafting bespoke suits but looking the other way when members of the Boyle crime family show up to use the message drop box in the backroom. Leonard drinks his tea, cuts his cloth, and avoids thinking about the elephant in the room…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘America, We Have a Batman Problem’

How many Batman movies is too many? It seems like we are finding out.

My article, ‘America, We Have a Batman Problem’ is at Eyes Wide Open:

Batman’s appeal to artists and audiences is understandable. His immense wealth, traumatized childhood, and schizophrenic relationship with the villains he hunts provides a buffet of dramatic possibilities. Batman’s need (trauma) and ability (wealth) to act is as bottomless as his inability to avoid questioning his actions. Still, isn’t it time to give the man a rest?

Screening Room: ‘After Yang’

In After Yang, the new film from Kogonada (Columbus), a couple living in the near future has to confront a host of unexpected issues ranging from grief to questioning what it means to be human when their android Yang, purchased as a companion for their daughter, malfunctions.

My review of After Yang is at PopMatters:

Kogonada’s latest is a stately tea ceremony of a film that imagines an artfully designed future many would love to inhabit and others would find enervating. After Yang uses a dreamy and empathetic strain of science fiction to explore the idea that its extremely human-seeming android has a greater appreciation for the life it has been given than its owners and creators do of their own. This is not an especially original insight but it is at least thoughtfully and beautifully rendered…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Velvet Underground’

Somewhere in the great cultural ferment of 1960s New York, a band came together that changed the face of rock and roll. Nobody really noticed but other musicians. But to paraphrase the old saying, every one of those musicians who loved the Velvet Underground went off and formed their own band.

My review of Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, playing now on Apple TV+, ran at PopMatters:

To recreate the crashing symphony of experimentation that birthed the Velvet Underground, Haynes turns his documentary into something that looks like it could have been projected on a bedsheet tacked to the wall of a rat-trap art gallery below New York City’s 14th Street. It’s an immersive bricolage of frame-within-frame visuals and overlapping dialogue and audio clips occasionally studded with reminders that you are watching a documentary about a rock ‘n’ roll band when something like “Venus in Furs” comes blasting out of the speakers with a banshee howl…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Dune’

Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic Dune has been pushed back from theatrical release almost as frequently as the last Bond. Chances are, it will have a little more staying power, even if Timothée Chalamet’s take on Paul Atreides is not the most memorable acting you will see this year.

Dune opens this week. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Herbert’s Paul is one of science fiction’s original Chosen One characters. Like later iterations from Luke to Neo who the character inspired, Paul is a quasi-Christ figure who combines unmatched warrior skill with a certain mystifying Zen insight that sets him apart from and ultimately above the humans who surround him…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Bergman Island’

In Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, a filmmaker couple plans a vacation to the island of Faro, writing their next movies in Ingmar Bergman’s old house. His shadow looms large while their imaginations start to overtake their quiet domestic squabbles.

Bergman Island opens this Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

The island’s serene vistas of breeze-ruffled trees and the rippling waters of the Baltic Sea suggest a relaxing hideout from the world. But the ghost of its most famous resident, the four-times-married Ingmar Bergman, looms large. As the housekeeper at Bergman’s estate (which has a private cinema stocked with 35mm prints of his work) half-jokes about showing them 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, the film that “made millions of people divorce” …

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Last Duel’

Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Erik Jager’s nonfiction book The Last Duel is, well, far more than another medieval jousting movie.

The Last Duel opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

…a film that’s not only set during the Hundred Years’ War and turns on an abstruse question of jurisprudence, but also features multiple Rashomon-esque takes on an inciting event and a blond Ben Affleck chewing scenery with Klaus Kinski-like gusto, might sound doomed to failure. But against all odds, it turns out to be a smartly acted and insightfully written look at how the intersection of power, greed, superstition, and vanity can warp and obscure even the most brutally obvious crime…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Duke’

In 1961, a semi-retired cabbie from the north of England got sick of retirees and war veterans having to pay a tax to watch the BBC. Then he was charged with stealing a Goya portrait from the National Gallery. The Duke is the charming if somewhat thin story about what happened next.

My review ran at Slant:

The Duke starts with Kempton on trail at the Old Bailey and then spools back six months to lay out the fumbling crime and lackadaisical cover-up that led him to court. The planning of the theft itself, involving a ladder and an unlatched bathroom window, is almost incidental to the story and played more for comedy than thrills (in a too-good-to-be-true moment, a shot of the Goya painting being nipped reveals that the inestimably more valuable The Scream was hanging right near it). The screenplay, by Young Marx playwrights Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, is more attentive to the particulars of Kempton’s against-the-grain populism…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Be More Than a Writer

There are people who have known all their lives that they wanted to be a writer. That’s a lot of us, to some degree. Then they tend to face that chasm between the want and the real. Is it a book deal? Getting an agent? Self-publishing and hoping a publishing house notices it? Being one of those strange tables at the publishing convention selling just one book that everyone stays away from?

The comparison between filmmaking and writing isn’t exact, of course. The former is far more collaborative and way more expensive. But filmmaker Mark Duplass made a worthwhile point when he said this:

It’s really hard, and particularly hard for screenwriters, because nobody wants to read your script. It just sucks. Until you’ve made something, until you’ve proven yourself, you’re basically a nuisance to everyone that you’re trying to get your script to, so you have to find a way to make yourself valuable. I know the first response is, “Well, I’m not a director, and I’m not an actor. I’m just a writer.” And my basic response is, “Then you’re going to be stuck.” I’m sorry, if that’s the way you think about it, you’re kind of going to go nowhere…

Don’t be afraid to be a nuisance. Get out there. Bring your book everywhere. Show it to anybody who will glance. Do what you have to do.

Unfortunately, being a writer takes more than writing.

Screening Room: ‘First Reformed’

Ethan Hawke in ‘First Reformed’ (A24)

In Paul Schrader’s latest, First Reformed, a minister finds more to believe in an eco-activist’s radicalism than his own pulpit.

My review is at PopMatters:

Ethan Hawke at his most pained plays the Reverend Toller. Minister for a tiny museum of a church in upstate New York that’s about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, he’s at the tail-end of a years-long spiritual crisis. By the time the movie catches up to this nearly cadaverous penitent, Toller has already lost his son to the Iraq War, his wife to divorce not long after that. He writes in a journal each night, bottle of whiskey at his side…

Screening Room: ‘I, Tonya’

In 1994, the world of professional skating was hurled into the burgeoning tabloid TV landscape when an assailant clubbed skater Nancy Kerrigan and suspicion fell on another skater, Tonya Harding. The resulting media firestorm was like a runup to the O.J. trial.

Margot Robbie stars as Harding in the inside-out comedy I, Tonya, which opens next week. My review is at PopMatters:

“This is bullshit. I never did this,” Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) assures viewers in the meta-comedy I, Tonya just after she is seen unloading a blast of buckshot at her fleeing husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Not that most of us would blame her. At that point, we already saw Jeff beat her for saying the wrong thing, or just for being there. Before that there was a long stretch of verbal and emotional abuse from LaVona (Allison Janney), Tonya’s cold-eyed villain of a mother. So this is somebody who had good reason to pick up a shotgun and let fly…

 

Screening Room: Outrages and Miracles at DOC NYC

The eighth DOC NYC film festival continues through this Thursday, with more movies than you would ever have time to see. My coverage of the festival continues over at Film Journal International‘s Screener blog:

Picking your way among the choices at DOC NYC 2017 is a rewarding but sometimes daunting task. There are documentaries about strife in the Middle East, the cats of Istanbul, a science-fiction utopia in Minnesota, a Golden Age of Hollywood hustler, and how an animated store clerk has driven a standup comedian insane for years. Opening the schedule to a random page works too…