Screening Room: ‘Stillwater’

The new movie from Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) takes some inspiration from the Amanda Knox case but goes in different directions, some interesting, others less so.

Stillwater is playing in wide theaters-only release now. My review is at PopMatters:

Oil field roughneck Bill (Matt Damon) relocates from the hardscrabble flatlands of Oklahoma to the graffiti-splattered urban puzzle of Marseilles to help free his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from prison. It’s not an easy quest, given that Bill does not know anybody and barely communicates in English, much less French…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’

In Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, documentarian Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) tracks the alt-chef’s rise to fame and his struggle over what to do once he reached the top of the mountain.

Roadrunner opens next week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

The current theatrical landscape in which celebrity culture mixes with foodie nerdism and extreme travel narratives is impossible to imagine without a boundary-crossing hyphenate enthusiast like Bourdain. What is de rigueur now—chefs with tattoos and potty mouths going to faraway lands or little-known domestic dives to eat off-the-beaten path foods—was more or less invented in 2000. That was the year Bourdain blew up the still-staid manner of writing about cuisine with his bestselling behind-the-scenes part-memoir part-manifesto Kitchen Confidential

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘In the Heights’

Yes, movie theaters are open again. To put it very simply, we could do (and have done) worse than have something like In the Heights to kick off the summer movie season.

My article is at Eyes Wide Open:

This is not the movie that officially re-opened movie theaters. That honor went to John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, Part II. A perfectly palatable and nonessential sequel which failed not only the opportunity to add anything new to the original’s chilling conceit but also the naming test (why not A Quieter Place?), it was a jolting scarefest that served as a surprisingly satisfying communal theater palate-cleanser after the long months of streaming hibernation. Hitting theaters this weekend, In the Heights remains what it was originally meant to be back in 2020: A celebratory early summer blast of song and dance before the long hot months of superheroes and sequels…

Writer’s Desk: Rules? What Rules?

So Seth Rogen has a book out. That may surprise some who just think, “The guy from Knocked Up?” He’s almost more writer / producer these days than charter member of the Judd Apatow comedy mafia.

Rogen and his longtime friend Evan Goldberg have something of a screenwriting machine going, ranging from instant classics like Superbad to series like Preacher to, well, The Green Hornet. So they know how to put words on the page and make something out of it.

Of the advice they gave to The Script Lab, one item in particular jumped out:

Any rule can be broken. They’re just basic guidelines that you can just shatter if the moment is right.

It seems obvious, but really it is not. We all have rules that get stuck in our head, from hanging that gun on the wall in the first act to the number of red herrings to give your detective hero before he/she finds the killer (by the way, that number has been scientifically calculated as 4.5).

But each and every one of them should be hurled out the window with great force the second they get between you and your story.

Screening Room: ‘The Dry’

My review of the perfectly okay new Eric Bana mystery The Dry is at Slant:

It would be difficult to find a worse candidate for solving the murder-suicide that lies at the heart of Robert Connolly’s The Dry than its hero, federal police officer Aaron Falk (Eric Bana). Not only is he prejudiced about the case because he was once close friends with Luke (Martin Dingle Wall), the initial suspect, but almost everyone in the small town where the killings took place despises Aaron for his connection to a 20-year-old scandal. In reality, this would create a near-impossible barrier for any investigator to overcome. But this is the kind of mystery where a standup cop willing to doggedly bang his head against enough walls can always knock the truth loose, even if he might be a murderer himself…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘Final Account’

Shot in 2008 in an attempt to capture the voices of the last living Germans who grew up under the Nazis, Final Account is in part a documentary about what happens you find out that, yes, normal-looking senior citizens who took part in a shattering atrocity are perfectly willing to avoid any culpability. It’s harrowing but worth every minute.

My review of Final Account is at Slant:

Holland begins Final Account by intercutting his interviews with color footage of giddy children at play and studying anti-Semitic books. While it can be squirm-inducing to watch ex-Nazis wax rhapsodically about the fun times they had at eugenics-indoctrination classes, it’s also clear that many believe they were at first just going along with it as a way of getting out of the house. In scenes like this, Final Account is particularly effective at showing how the all-encompassing nature of Nazism in 1930s Germany created a propaganda-covered pipeline that funneled these children from fun outings right into the killing machine…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Stowaway’

In Stowaway, launching tomorrow on Netflix, the crew of a spaceship heading to Mars discovers an unexpected fourth crewmember on board, which is a problem since they only have enough oxygen for three.

My review is at Slant:

This would seem to have potential for white-knuckle tension and even heady discussions about whose life has more value, as there’s not enough oxygen for everyone on the Mars-bound vessel to reach their destination alive. But the film hits its dramatic and philosophical ceiling long before the tiresome conclusion has drained the scenario of any interest…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Cherry’

Adapted from Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, Anthony and Joe Russo’s Cherry stars Tom Holland as a slacker who goes to war and turns to addiction and then bank robbery once back on the home front.

Cherry is playing now on Apple+. My review is at Slant:

“I’m 23 years old,” Cherry says in the narration stringing together the film’s earlier, more hyperactive stretches, “and I still don’t understand what it is that people do.” The center, if he ever had one, is just not holding…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Nomadland’ Best Picture

After much deliberation, the Online Film Critics Society released our list of the best movies of 2020. Nomadland quite deservedly took the most awards with six wins, including best picture. Here are the rest of what we thought were the most worthwhile cinematic endeavors of that very strange year just passed:

BEST PICTURE
· Da 5 Bloods
· First Cow
· I’m Thinking of Ending Things
· Minari
· Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Nomadland — WINNER
· Promising Young Woman
· Soul
· Sound of Metal
· The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
· Onward
· Over the Moon
· Soul — WINNER
· The Wolf House
· Wolfwalkers

BEST DIRECTOR
· Emerald Fennell — Promising Young Woman
· Eliza Hittman — Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Spike Lee — Da 5 Bloods
· Kelly Reichardt — First Cow
· Chloé Zhao – Nomadland WINNER

BEST ACTOR
· Riz Ahmed — Sound of Metal
· Chadwick Boseman — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
· Anthony Hopkins — The Father
· Delroy Lindo — Da 5 Bloods WINNER
· Steven Yeun — Minari

BEST ACTRESS
· Jessie Buckley — I’m Thinking of Ending Things
· Viola Davis — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
· Sidney Flanigan — Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Frances McDormand – Nomadland WINNER
· Carey Mulligan — Promising Young Woman

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
· Sacha Baron Cohen — The Trial of the Chicago 7
· Chadwick Boseman — Da 5 Bloods
· Bill Murray — On the Rocks
· Leslie Odom Jr. — One Night in Miami WINNER
· Paul Raci — Sound of Metal

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
· Maria Bakalova — Borat Subsequent Moviefilm WINNER
· Olivia Colman — The Father
· Talia Ryder — Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Amanda Seyfried — Mank
· Youn Yuh-jung — Minari

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
· Da 5 Bloods
· Minari
· Never Rarely Sometimes Always
· Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell WINNER
· The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
· First Cow
· I’m Thinking of Ending Things
· Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
· Nomadland, Chloe Zhao WINNER
· One Night in Miami

BEST EDITING
· Da 5 Bloods
· Mank
· Nomadland, Chloe Zhao WINNER
· Tenet
· The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
· Da 5 Bloods
· First Cow
· Mank
· Nomadland, Joshua James Richards WINNER
· Tenet

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
· Da 5 Bloods
· Mank
· Minari
· Soul, Trent Reznor Atticus Ross WINNER
· Tenet

BEST DEBUT FEATURE
· Radha Blank — The Forty-Year-Old Version
· Emerald Fennell — Promising Young Woman WINNER
· Regina King — One Night in Miami
· Darius Marder — Sound of Metal
· Andrew Patterson –The Vast of Night

BEST FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
· Another Round
· Bacurau
· Collective
· La Llorona
· Minari (United States) WINNER

BEST DOCUMENTARY
· Boys State
· Collective
· Dick Johnson Is Dead WINNER
· The Painter and the Thief
· Time

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.