The latest movie from Scott Cooper (Black Mass) is a pitch-black, viciously violent Western starring Christian Bale as a cavalry officer nearing the end of his string and Wes Studi as the Indian chief who Bale has to partner with for survival.
Hostiles is a western that wants to encompass the entire moral history of the Indian Wars into one fell, vengeance-rattled saga. Of course, it doesn’t succeed—that is the fate of westerns that overextend themselves. It doesn’t completely fail, either. There are images here that will bang around in your head with a chilly echo for days afterward, not to mention a nagging sense that one has just witnessed a great and unsolvable crime…
Set in the chaos of the 1967 Detroit riots, Mark Boal’s screenplay dramatizes and expands on a little-remembered episode of police brutality that crystalizes the violence of a country wrenching itself apart. In that crucible, Krauss (Will Poulter), a casually sadistic police officer who earlier in the riot shotgunned a man for running with looted groceries, ringleads a bloody interrogation whose methods fulfill all the worst fears of black Detroit residents…
It’s safe to say that after his last feature, 2008’s romantic talkfestMedicine for Melancholy, few people would have expected Barry Jenkins to be starting off his newest film with a do-rag-wearing drug dealer rolling through a rough-and-tumble Miami. The characters of the more extravagantly emotional and romantic (in all sense of the word) triptych Moonlight are on the surface light years removed from the urbane hipsters of that earlier film. But really, they’re still dealing with the same issues: namely, identity, their place and purpose in the world, and the search for love…
In the newest film from Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds), Sonia Braga plays a retired writer trying to fight off the developers who want to demolish her cozy beachside building and all the memories it contains.
Aquarius, which was part of the just-concluded New York Film Festival, is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:
The heroine of Aquarius sees the whole world as a stage for her to command. It’s a testament to Sonia Braga’s control that she doesn’t turn this character into a domineering bore, even as she’s at the center of an overly spacious and repetitive narrative with too little to occupy herself…
A bleak, Up in the Air-like story about a depressed businessman’s wanderings through an anonymous American heartland, the stop-motion animated film Anomalisa is the newest boundary-blurrer from Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). It’ll be the one that anti-Pixar Grinches in the Academy will be voting for in the animation category against the Inside Out majority.
Anomalisa opens in limited release this week and wider in January. My review is at PopMatters:
In today’s America, you must have money for your disaffection to be interesting. At least this is the case in Charlie Kaufman’s downbeat stop-motion animation film, Anomalisa. Like some slim and semi-acclaimed allegorical novel recently translated into English, it’s a story about a man alone in a strange city having dreamlike encounters while wrestling with his inner demons. Along the way, he meets a variety of people lower down the socioeconomic ladder than him, and treats them terribly…
TheRevenant, the new film from Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Gravity, Birdman), is a revenge epic based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel and starring Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio.
It’s opening on Christmas Day in limited release and will expand wider in January. My review is at PopMatters:
A spiritual view of the natural world clashes with the animalistic drives of a fallen humanity in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s operatic wilderness survival tale,The Revenant. This freewheeling adaptation of Michael Punke’s novel about fur trappers, Indians, and soldiers tangling in primal ways on the Western American frontier in the 1820s stretches the limits of endurance in more ways than one. Inarritu’s film pushes against known boundaries of art, suffering, and revenge tale…
Every holiday season now seems to come with a David O. Russell picture starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. This time out Lawrence plays Joy, a semi-fictionalized variation on the inspirational true story of Joy Mangano, a housewife-turned-inventor who became a multi-millionaire by creating the Miracle Mop and shilling them on QVC.
David O. Russell’s newest ode to the multifaceted pluck of Jennifer Lawrence,Joy announces right off that it is “inspired by true stories of daring women.” Between that message and a bait-and-switch trailer, hyped up with a glowering Robert De Niro and shots of Lawrence blasting away with a shotgun, audiences may settle in thinking they’re about to be swept away by another American Hustle-like story of nervy outsiders working the system. But really, the film is about a mop…
In 1820, the Nantucket whaling ship Essex met a disastrous fate in the Pacific; only a few men survived. Later, the story that the ship had run afoul of a massive whale became the kernel of Moby-Dick and was more recently dissected in Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea.
Ron Howard’s 3D adaptation of Philbrick’s book is opening this week, and hoping very much for some Oscar attention. My review is at Film Journal International:
…It starts in 1850 with a spry young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) trying to claw a story out of Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a drunk old salt who has refused for 30 years to talk about his connection with the Essex whaling-boat disaster. Melville’s money and Nickerson’s exasperated wife finally crack open that whiskey-sodden shell. But only after Nickerson fixes Melville with a probing look. “Have you read Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mr. Melville?” He asks. “Great writer”…
In Mustang, France’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards, five sisters living in a remote Turkish village strain against the prison-like limits put on them by a local male culture terrified of allowing them even the slightest hint of freedom.
Wild, exuberant, and altogether masterful, Mustang is playing now in limited release; make sure to seek it out. My review is at PopMatters:
The view from the family home of five sisters living in a remote Turkish village on the Black Sea is the kind of vista for which wealthy travelers pay dearly. Nearby mountains are covered in lush forests and the ocean slaps musically into sandy beaches below.
This panorama is also a taunt, because the sisters will never be allowed anywhere near it unless a male guardian accompanies them. Even then, they won’t be allowed to play and run and laugh, but instead will be expected to follow like docile sheep in shapeless dresses…
Based on the Oscar-winning 2009 Argentinian film of the same name, Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes follows what happens when a police woman’s daughter is murdered and neither she nor her fellow cops can quite let go of it.
After making Shattered Glass, one of the modern era’s greatest journalism films, one would have hoped that writer-director Billy Ray would have absorbed the cardinal rule: Don’t bury the lead. Yet that is exactly what he keeps doing all throughout Secret in Their Eyes, his strained and surprisingly star-heavy remake of Juan JoséCampanella’s morally complicated potboiler that was also the 2010 Foreign-Language Oscar winner. Initially a procedural about a retired FBI agent who can’t let go of a cold case, Ray’s version sidles into a buried romance and a commentary on post-9/11 security-state excesses without ever quite getting a bead on any of the many elements it’s juggling…
Based on Emma Donoghue’s award-winning 2010 novel, Room is the story of a young woman being held captive in a small room with her five-year-old son, who has never seen anything of the world outside the room.
Room opened this week and is looking like an early favorite Oscar favorite, at least for Brie Larson as the mother. My review is at PopMatters.
Every year at the Oscars, the same four or five feature films are mentioned over and over again. Then they come to the shorts category and everybody looks confused since there was never anywhere to see the things. That’s changed in recent years with the increasing popularity (in arthouses, at least) of the Oscar nominated short film programs.
All three programs (Live-Action, Documentary, and Animation) open in limited release this Friday. My reviews of the first two ran this week in Film Journal International.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes each year for their favorite live-action short films, it can often seem as if they’re aiming for a smorgasbord appeal: something serious, something off-the-wall, a couple of snippet comedies, and at least something in black-and-white. The 2015 program, now a reliably audience-pleasing fixture on the art-house circuit, chucks that template in favor of more thought-out offerings that for once downplay the quirk…
There are some years when the nonfiction shorts nominated for the Academy Awards can be realistically seen as a menu of the world’s problems: short dispatches of despair and terror, war and its consequences, from far-flung countries and ignored communities. This year’s program has some of that quality to it as well; there is, after all, something about the form that seems to necessitate the choice of uncomfortable topics. But more than most years, this time the problems at hand are more personal than geopolitical…
Before Chris Kyle was murdered at the age of 38, he had amassed a legendary kill record as an army sniper; possibly the most lethal one in American military history. His bestselling memoir, American Sniper, was originally planned as a Steven Spielberg project, but the film was ultimately directed by Clint Eastwood, no stranger to squint-eyed dramas of force and will.
American Sniper hit theaters today. My review is at Film Racket:
Bradley Cooper is rarely the sort to grab one’s attention at center stage; he only truly lights up films like American Hustle or The Hangover series when there’s a co-star for him to bounce his nervy patter and blue eyes off of. But Cooper’s performance as Kyle delivers the proper mix of humility and bottled-up frustration called for in a soldier from whom so much is expected. The film starts off with Kyle on a rooftop in Iraq, covering a column of Marines advancing through a city. He sees a woman hand a grenade to a young boy, who runs with the weapon towards the Marines. No other soldiers have eyes on the pair. His spotter reminds him that if he gets it wrong, “they’ll burn you”…
Earlier today, New York Film Critics Online—a group that quite generously includes yours truly in its membership—met to hash out the most notable films, filmmakers, and performers in various categories during 2014.
In short, Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood won for best picture and in two other categories, with Alejandro Inarritu’s meta-fictional satire Birdman tied at three wins. Other films like The Imitation Game and particularly The Grand Budapest Hotel received many votes in particular categories but ultimately couldn’t pull out a win. (Note that last year, NYFCO chose 12 Years a Slave as best film, and it went on to win the Oscar … just saying.)
Here’s the full reckoning of what we as a group liked best from 2014, broken down first by category and then our annual Top 10 list; note that several of them (Unbroken, A Most Violent Year, Selma, and Two Days, One Night)won’t get released until Christmas or later this year:
Best Picture — Boyhood
Best Director — Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Best Actor — Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Best Actress — Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Best Supporting Actor — J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Best Supporting Actress — Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Best Screenplay — Birdman
Best Cinematography — Birdman
Best Breakthrough Performance — Jack O’Connell, Starred Up and Unbroken
Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild—about her brave and highly foolish decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with no training as a way of exorcising her painful past—was many things that a bestseller and Oprah often aren’t: emotionally lacerating, unexpected, vulnerable, and clear-eyed about people’s weaknesses and dark sides. For the inevitable and surprisingly spot-on film adaptation, Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed in what could be an Oscar-worthy performance. That’s Nick Hornby of High Fidelity behind the keyboard.
Wild hits theaters this week. My review is at Film Racket:
Strayed is first spotted on the side of a mountain, pulling a bloody toenail out after days of grueling walking in too-small boots under a groaning pack one could fit the possessions of a small nation-state into. Dropping one boot down the side of the mountain by mistake, she impulsively throws the other boot after it, screaming in rage. Director Jean-Marc Vallee shoots it in all the wrong ways, with slow-motion and elongated vocals, trying to create a drama that the story hasn’t earned yet. It’s a rough start to what is mostly a solidly-crafted and cathartic drama of discovery about a woman who nearly kills herself in order to learn how to live again…