Screening Room: ‘Wonder Woman 1984’

The sequel Wonder Woman 1984 opens in some theaters and on HBO on Christmas. My review is at Slant:

Calling Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman 1984 a perfectly acceptable comic-book adventure might sound more negative than intended. But in a time when the genre is more typically given to the kind of world-building that seems primarily committed to spinning off corporate cinematic widgets (Avengers: Endgame, extended Snyder cuts, and the upcoming onslaught of new-universe-spawning Marvel flicks), a standalone story more engaged with its characters than series continuity is almost refreshing…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Father’

Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his play The Father is one of the year’s best-acted movies, thanks to Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins.

The Father is opening soon wherever movies play these days. Go find it. My review is at Slant:

A quietly terrifying drama about dementia, The Father starts off inauspiciously as a simple chamber piece in which a daughter spars in semi-comic exasperation with her retired father over his inability to live on his own anymore. Set in a tony London flat, the drama initially appears to take place inside the kind of tastefully cinematic milieu where nothing earth-shattering ever seems to happen. But before long, Zeller upends expectations by revealing the true depths of the father’s problems through dramatic perspective shifts that undermine any sense of cozy remove…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Hide Your Influences

In an interview published in Projections 11, director Jim Jarmusch talked about all the influences he put on screen in his 1999 genre mash-up Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai:

I’m not going to play a game like all those ideas are original and they’re mine: I want to talk about where they came from, because if someone sees Ghost Dog and it leads them to see films by [Jean-Pierre] Melville or Point Blank by John Boorman, or the films of Seijun Suzuki, or to read Don Quixote or something that I mention in the credits, then that’s a good thing…

If something inspired you to write, there is no reason to hide it. Putting that out there could lead somebody else to be inspired as well.

Screening Room: ‘A Rainy Day in New York’

So there’s a new Woody Allen movie out. That’s it.

My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Originally set for release in 2019, the movie is now getting a somewhat grudging release in a handful of American theaters, which seems about right. The story feels like a faded Xerox of an idea somebody once scribbled down on a napkin for an Allen-like comedy, only featuring little of the filmmaker’s wit or romanticism…

Dept. of Self-Promotion: ‘What Would Keanu Do?’

Yep, it’s that time of year. Getting close to Christmas shopping season (well, for stores at least it is, actually shoppers won’t be paying attention for another couple months). What, oh what, to get that Keanu Reeves fan in or tangentially connected to your life?

May I suggest my latest book What Would Keanu Do? Personal Philosophy and Awe-Inspiring Advice from the Patron Saint of Whoa?

It was conjured up by the good people at MediaLab Books, who then very kindly asked me to produce some verbiage about the life lessons that one can take from the cinematic oeuvre of one Keanu Reeves. This entailed looking very very closely at everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Dangerous Liaisons and Toy Story 4 to derive the deeper wisdom of our most curiously Zen movie performer.

Many gems were uncovered. I was given license to re-explore the greatness of A Scanner Darkly, for instance. On the other hand, I also underwent the unspeakable experience of rewatching the second and third Matrix movies.

What Would Keanu Do? goes on sale today. Check it out.

Screening Room: ‘The Rental’

In The Rental, the debut movie from Dave Franco (James Franco’s far less prolific brother), four hipsters, including a particularly oily Dan Stevens (a long way from Downton Abbey) head up to a secluded cabin for a vacation that turns, well, dicey.

The Rental is available for streaming and can be seen at some drive-ins starting this Friday. Check it out.

My review is at PopMatters:

In many horror movies, once the malevolence of the setting has been made clear, there remains a significant amount of celluloid left to run as the characters fight for survival. That is not the case in The Rental, which feels at first more like a gloomily-lit smaller-scale version of [co-writer Joe Swanberg’s] Drinking Buddies, a far gentler comedic take on two couples who lose sight of boundaries during a weekend at the shore. Not so here, where the foursome just starts to realize the threat of their surroundings when the trap starts to swing shut…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Radioactive’

Rosamund Pike plays Marie Curie in Radioactive, a visually inventive though somewhat dramatically challenged biopic from graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi.

Radioactive is available for streaming this week.

My review is at Slant:

The way the film tells it, fame came easy for the Curies. In one initially comic yet foreboding scene, Pierre shows Marie a series of commercial products wanting to cash in on their glowing discovery: radium matches, chocolate, and even chewing gum. However, that acceptance was likely because the sexist scientific establishment could better stomach Marie’s seeming impertinence (“I’m going to prove them wrong, just like Newton did”) when she was paired with a man, and soon turns against her after a tabloid scandal reminds the French that she’s a foreigner…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Truth’

Poster image for The Truth

In the latest family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche play a battling mother and daughter whose versions of the past are dramatically different.

The Truth is streaming now here.

My review is at PopMatters:

For Koreeda’s first non-Japanese movie, The Truth is not the sort of film that will likely introduce him to a broad new audience, even in a world where movie theaters were still open. Funny, thoughtful, and occasionally wicked, it feels closer to his more genial entertainments like Our Little Sister (2015) than his sharper and more barbed pieces like Shoplifters or Like Father, Like Son …

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Old Guard’

Based on Greg Rucka’s comic-book series, The Old Guard is a big-budget attempt to start a new action franchise, this one centered around a band of centuries-old mercenaries who are (mostly) immortal.

The Old Guard launches today on Netflix. My review is at Slant:

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Irresistible’

In Jon Stewart’s new political comedy, two high-powered political consultants turn a tiny mayoral race in Wisconsin into an absurd battle for national attention.

Irresistible opens this week in VOD. My review is at Slant:

The film doesn’t focus its ire on Trump, conservatives, and the like, but rather on the cable news and consultant infrastructure that was accelerating America’s collapsing democratic polity long before anybody in a red baseball cap screamed “Lock her up!” and will continue to do so after Trump leaves the White House. This makes sense from Stewart, who went after Glenn Beck back in 2010 not through white-hot invective, but by holding a rally dedicated to polite, level-headed disagreement. These are desperate times, but if Stewart wants to tack toward a more Frank Capra vein, that’s just fine. We already have one Adam McKay…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The 2020 edition of the always worthwhile Human Rights Watch Film Festival is going virtual this year, like everything else. It’s a shorter than normal list of documentaries, but still contains some sharp and unforgettable work.

The movies range from Coded Bias (pictured above), which studies the ways white male coders can embed prejudice in seemingly impartial algorithms, to Welcome to Chechnya, a harrowing nonfiction thriller about the activists fighting to get LGBTQ people out of Chechnya before they are tortured and killed, to Radio Silence, a taut story about a Mexico City journalist being hounded by a government that cares more about investigating her than actual criminals.

My coverage of the festival is at PopMatters:

In a time when specialty movie events have been ever more narrowly targeted (festivals devoted to food, puppetry, and so on down the rabbit hole of monomania), the HRWFF went large. It served as a global snapshot of how humanity was faring in the fight to uphold basic standards of freedom and decency for its people. The unsurprising answer tends to be a variant on: Not well…

Screening Room: ‘The Vast of Night’

The Vast of Night is playing now in some drive-in theaters, and streams on Amazon this Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

A head-snapper of a debut from Andrew Patterson, “The Vast of Night” is one of those eerie indies that uses the trappings of genre (alien invasion in this case) as a launchpad into its own brand of American weird. Located somewhere to the left of a lost “X-Files” episode set in the UFO-haunted 1950s, it unspools over the course of one night in a flyspeck New Mexico border town. Mysterious events are afoot and nobody seems aware of it at first except for two meddling teenagers…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Blow the Man Down’

My review of the new movie Blow the Man Down — which starts this Friday on Amazon — ran at Slant Magazine:

Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Wild Goose Lake’

The latest movie from Yi’nan Diao (Black Coal, Thin Ice), The Wild Goose Lake is a spectacularly cinematic story that sets a massive manhunt for a gangster in a “lawless” part of China.

It opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Sometimes you just know within a few minutes. At the start of Yi’nan Diao’s rapturously beautiful and darkly entertaining The Wild Goose Lake (Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui) two lean and beautiful people with the look of the hunted in their eyes circle around each other at a train station. Cigarettes are lit in the glimmering darkness. The man, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), has a large scar on his face and carries a bag that must contain cash…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Birds of Prey’

Birds of Prey
(Warner Bros.)

My review of the new DC Comics movie Birds of Prey, which is playing now everywhere, was published at Slant Magazine:

The self-consciously ornate subtitle for Birds of PreyAnd the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—lays out the reason for this film’s existence far better than the first 45 minutes or so of jumbled exposition that follow. In theory, the self-consciously goofy story of a “badass broad” who breaks free from being pole-dancing eye candy for her villain boyfriend to carve out a life for herself would be a welcome addition to a canon of films still in thrall to hyper-buff and hyper-serious dudes. And surrounding her with a squad of equally fierce and sarcastic female ass-kickers has the potential for a vibrant, pop-punk comedic franchise: Think Guardians of the Galaxy by way of Barb Wire. But since the film can never figure out how seriously to take its heroine, or how to gin up a halfway engaging caper what could have been an emancipation ends up feeling more like a trap for the character…

Here’s the trailer: