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Updated: 2018-01-16T16:28:30-06:00


Sundance Film Festival 2018 Jury Announced


The Sundance Institute has announced the 24 jury members that will participate in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, bestowing 28 prizes on the titles in competition. The awards ceremony will be held Saturday, January 27th, and will be livestreamed at and on YouTube. Short Film Awards will be announced at a separate ceremony on Tuesday, January 23rd and will also be livestreamed. The Festival takes place January 18-28 in Park City, Salt Lake City and Sundance, Utah. The awards, which recognize standout artistic and story elements, are voted on by each of seven section juries, including, in the case of the new-this-year NEXT Innovator's Award, a jury of one. As in years past, festival audiences have a role in deciding the 2018 Audience Awards, which will recognize five films in the U.S. Competition, World Competition and NEXT categories; new this year, audiences will vote on a Festival Favorite film across categories, which will be announced the week following the festival. On this year's U.S. Documentary jury are: Chaz Ebert, publisher and CEO of; Barbara Chai, head of arts and culture coverage at Dow Jones Media Group; Simon Chinn, producer of the Oscar-winning documentary, "Man on Wire";; Ezra Edelman, Oscar-winning director of "O.J.: Made in America"; and Matt Holzman, host and producer of The Document.  The U.S. Dramatic jury is comprised of "Mudbound" cinematographer Rachel Morrison, A.S.C.; "Girls Trip" star Jada Pinkett Smith; Oscar-winning star of "The Help," Octavia Spencer; Spencer's "Shape of Water" co-star, Michael Stuhlbarg; and the creator of Netflix's "Easy," Joe Swanberg. The World Cinema Dramatic Jury includes Hanaa Issa, director of strategy and establishment at the Doha Film Institute in Qatar; Ruben Östlund, director of the Palme d'Or winner, "The Square"; and Michael J. Werner, producer of "Mysterious Skin".  On the World Cinema Documentary Jury are Joslyn Barnes, producer of "Strong Island"; Billy Luther, director of "Miss Navajo"; and Paulina Suárez, director of Ambulante, a non-profit organization that supports and promotes documentary cinema culture across Mexico. The Short Film Jury features "Amreeka" director Cherien Dabis; Garbage lead vocalist Shirley Manson; and Building Stories author Chris Ware.  The Emmy-winning host of "RuPaul's Drag Race," RuPaul, is the sole jury member in the NEXT competition, while the Alfred P. Sloane Feature Film Jury includes Dr. Robert Benezra, a member of the Cancer Biology and Genetics Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Dr. Heather Berlin, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; "Argo" star and science enthusiast Kerry Bishé, and Nancy Buirski, director/producer/writer of "The Rape of Recy Taylor."  Photo credit for Chaz Ebert: Joe Arce. [...]

20 Films We Can’t Wait to See at Sundance 2018


The 2018 Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday night, promising at least a few films that people will be talking about all year long. Last year’s event may have taken place in the shadow of the inauguration of our 45th President—and the marches that went with that—but will likely be just as remembered for the strength of programming that year. 2017’s Sundance included several films that popped up on best of the year lists 11 months later, including “Get Out,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Mudbound,” “The Big Sick,” “A Ghost Story,” “Columbus,” “Beach Rats,” “Wind River,” “Strong Island,” and many more. It was one of the best Sundances of all time, setting a high bar for 2018. Here’s 20 films we’re eyeing as the ones that will determine if it matches that standard. Come back for coverage of all 20 and probably about 80 more by myself, Nick Allen, Tomris Laffly, and Monica Castillo, starting Thursday night. “Beirut” Brad Anderson returns to Sundance over two decades after his debut feature premiered there. In the 22 years since, he has quietly been one of the most interesting genre hoppers in all of film and TV, helming “Session 9,” “The Machinist,” “Transsiberian,” and episodes of acclaimed shows like “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and more. This is his most promising film project in years as he directs a script by the great Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) that tells the story of a U.S. diplomat (Jon Hamm) returning to Beirut for a very special mission. Gilroy’s gift for intelligent dialogue and plotting combined with Anderson’s underrated eye could easily make for the most thrilling film of Sundance 2018. “Bisbee 17” Robert Greene’s form-breaking “Kate Plays Christine” was one of the best films of Sundance 2016 and he returns to the U.S. Documentary Competition with another daring project this year. Greene shot his film in Bisbee, Arizona in 2017 but the title also refers to something that happened there a century earlier, something that still resonates today. It’s known as the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, the year when 1,200 striking miners were pushed out of the city. Greene captures how the townspeople of Bisbee remember the darkest chapter of their history, while almost certainly also drawing parallels to the immigration debates of today. This one feels likely to be one of the most talked about films of the year, not just at Sundance. “Blaze” It wouldn’t be Sundance without an Ethan Hawke movie or two, but he’s behind the scenes on this one, co-writing and directing a film in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category. It’s a quasi-biopic of an unheralded member of the outlaw country movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Blaze Foley, played by newcomer Benjamin Dickey. Hawke recently starred in the underrated “Born to Be Blue,” a film that played with the convergence of musical legend and stark reality, and it sounds like that likely influenced this dramatic examination of similar themes. “A Boy, A Girl, A Dream” The first Sundance in which most of the films went into production after the election of Donald Trump will surely feel different than any other, but this is one of the few works this year that appears to directly comment on the beginning of the Trump era. The film premieres in NEXT, typically one of the most fascinating programs in any festival all year, and stars the underrated pair of Omari Hardwick and Meagan Good, two very different people who meet on the night of the 2016 election in Los Angeles. A potential romance unfolding on a night that startled much of the world sounds incredibly promising, and the fact that it made it into the often-groundbreaking NEXT only adds to our anticipation. “Burden” Writer/director Andrew Heckler’s debut feature lands in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and boasts one of the most intriguing casts and premises of the year. Hopefully building on the next-level work he did in “Mudbound,” Garrett [...]

Women Rock the 23rd Critics Choice Awards


What a joy to attend the Critics Choice Awards on the heels of the female-driven Golden Globes Awards earlier in the week, as women across the globe were inspired by Oprah’s Cecil B. DeMille Award acceptance speech. The mood Thursday evening, January 11, was exciting to say the least. Everywhere you looked, women−whether celebrities or critics—were beaming. Yes, the room was euphoric in celebration, as finally our voices are being heard. The accomplished Critics Choice Awards host for the evening, Olivia Munn, is an actor, author, and activist that kept the evening lively while maintaining a light touch with the pacing. Munn will next be seen in the action thriller “Hummingbird,” and starring in Shane Black’s “The Predator” opposite Keegan Michael Key and Sterling K. Brown. She will also appear in “The Buddy Games,” Josh Duhamel’s directing debut and recently finished shooting the second season of the History Channel’s “Six.” The Red Carpet saw a change as white, pastels, and splashes of color were replaced from the blackout of the Golden Globes. If the color black appeared, it was complemented with self-assured accessories, as in the case of Grae Drake−the tall, dazzling, senior editor of RottenTomatoes. She donned an elegant black long-sleeve, one-shoulder, knee-length dress paired with a sparkly rounded Kate Spade purse with the word “Caviar” complete with a handy tiny spoon. She, among others, set the tone of the evening, confident and fun-loving with a ‘power of the purse attitude,’ if you know what I mean. Brooklynn Prince (seven years old), the darling of “The Florida Project” and winner of the Critics Choice Best Young Actor/Actress Award that night, made her statement with a cute pint-sized Wonder Woman purse. The independent dressmaker, Sheri Hill, made Brooklynn’s red dress exclusively for her. Brooklynn told me she loves the dress, but loves her Wonder Woman purse even more. Brooklynn stole everyone’s heart that night with her tearful yet on-target acceptance speech, just as she did with her riveting portrayal in the film playing a poverty-stricken girl named Moonee. I told Brooklynn’s parents on the Red Carpet that whatever she says during her acceptance speech, the audience will love her. I recalled Jacob Tremblay’s speech at the 2016 awards I attended, telling her he said, “This is the best day of my life. I know where to put this—right on the shelf beside my Millennium Falcon.” They both smiled and chuckled. I have a feeling these involved yet protective parents knew what Brooklynn was going to say, however, I’m sure they, like myself, were surprised just how heartfelt it would be. Visibly shaken when her name was called, tears began streaming down Brooklynn’s face. By the time she reached the stage, she was sobbing; there was never any doubt how much the award meant to her. She began as she was crying, "Wow, it’s such a big honor, all the nominees, you know, you are great. You guys are awesome. We should all go and get ice cream after this!" Of course the room erupted in laughter, cheering her on with awws and applause. Her gratitude continued as she thanked everyone (between sniffles) involved with the film, her family, the awards voters, and God. But nope, she wasn't finished yet. Brooklynn mentioned the people in the world who are struggling to make it, just like her on-screen character and the girl's mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). "I'd like to dedicate this award to all the Halleys and Moonees out there," she said. "Guys, this is a real problem. You need to go out there and help!" Other powerful speeches were given by Gal Gadot, the recipient of the #SeeHer Award bestowed to a woman who embodies the values set forth by the #SeeHer movement—to push boundaries on changing stereotypes and recognizing the importance of accurately portraying women across the entertainment landscape. Gadot’s iconic “Wonder Wo[...]

You Gotta Keep Your Eyes Open: An Appreciation of “Matinee”


When Joe Dante’s “Matinee” (1993) was released on Super Bowl weekend, with an ad campaign that did a poor job of explaining anything about it to viewers other than reminding them Dante had directed the hugely popular “Gremlins” (1984), it was perhaps inevitable that it would sink without a trace at the box office. For Dante, this was hardly an unheard-of occurrence, considering that all of the films he had done in the wake of “Gremlins” (which remains the one true blockbuster of his career) had suffered similar commercial fates that left him increasingly disenchanted with a studio filmmaking apparatus that seemed increasingly confused as to how to market his unique blends of fantasy, comedy and social satire. In the case of “Matinee,” however, the failure to find an audience must have cut deeper because this was a film that was as cheekily entertaining as his previous efforts, but which also told a story that was more deeply felt and overtly personal than anything that he had attempted before or since. And yet, while “Matinee” disappeared from theaters with undue haste, it did not vanish from view entirely. Although he has yet to regain the commercial standing that “Gremlins” once gave him, his films have earned him a dedicated following of critics and film fanatics around the world, and “Matinee” has proven to be a favorite among them, turning up regularly in special screenings and retrospectives of his work. Tomorrow, Shout Select, the specialty label of home video company Shout! Factory dedicated to films with cult appeal, releases a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of “Matinee” that is filled with new and archival materials that tell the story of the making of the movie and help give a little more context to the real-life inspirations for it. For fans of the film, this is the dream release they have been waiting on for years and which they will want to rush out and get immediately. For those unfamiliar with it, this release will give them a chance to see a wildly underrated film that works both as a delightful coming-of-age story and as a love letter both to the wonders that popular culture in general and the movies in particular can inspire in audiences—or at least used to once upon a time. “Matinee” is set in 1962 and concerns itself with two elements that loomed large over America at the time, though in which order most likely depended on your age at the time. One is the Cuban Missile Crisis, of which I presume needs no further elaboration on my part. The other is a man named William Castle, who probably does require a bit of explanation. Castle was a filmmaker who started out working for Columbia Pictures in the mid-1940s, directing a number of B-movie programmers and even serving as an associate producer on Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948). In 1958, he decided to strike out on his own by producing and directing his own low-budget horror film, a knockoff of the hugely popular French thriller “Diabolique” called “Macabre.” In order to call attention to his movie, Caste hit upon the gimmick of insuring viewers with policies through Lloyds of London that paid off $1,000 in the extremely unlikely case that they died of fright during the film—in addition, “nurses” were stationed in the theater lobbies and hearses were parked outside. “Macabre” was a huge hit and Castle had found his niche. For the next decade or so, he cranked out a series of cheerfully lurid horror movies that were augmented by equally goofy gimmicks that Castle, who saw himself as a sort of B-grade Alfred Hitchcock, would often introduce through appearances in the trailers and sometimes in the films themselves. “House on Haunted Hill” (1959) featured “Emergo,” which was a skeleton dangling from a wire that flew over the heads of the audience during the climax. “13 Ghosts” (1960) offered viewers the fabled “Illusion-O” process that offered viewers a cardbo[...]

Into the Life of a Madman with “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace”


2016’s “American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson” was a television event, one of the most accomplished series of that entire year. With an incredible ensemble, creator Ryan Murphy proved he had yet another act in him after the popularity of his “American Horror Story” started to wane. Of course, people started asking about a follow-up before “People” was even over, and Murphy revealed that he was working on a version of “ACS” that would chronicle the disaster around Hurricane Katrina. On paper, it sounded like one of the most ambitious mini-series in TV history, and it may still be as it will now reportedly be the third season of Murphy’s creation. After having some trouble getting that one into production, Murphy rallied his collaborators and went to Florida, producing this week’s “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” The result is a less sprawling, ambitious piece than we may have gotten in New Orleans (also when compared to season one) but it’s still an impressive drama, one that plays with themes that have fascinated Murphy throughout his career. Featuring less star power than “OJ” but a few stellar performances of its own, “Gianni Versace” will be a tougher sell to casual viewers, but those who go along for this journey into the world of a sociopath will be dramatically rewarded. On July 15, 1997, Andrew Cunanan shot fashion legend Gianni Versace outside of his home in Miami, Florida. He was already on the FBI’s Most Wanted list at the time, having committed four other murders around the country on his way to Florida. After extensive investigations, a clear motive was never completely found, allowing Murphy and his writers to dive deep into Cunanan’s past with a bit of creative license.  We do know that Cunanan was a chameleon and a con artist. He would regularly change his appearance and tell people elaborate stories about his background and professions. Murphy captures him as someone obsessed with image but hollow on the inside, and he contrasts him with a designer who created imagery from his soul. “Assassination” is at its most ambitious when drawing these parallels about the power of reputation and image. Andrew says in episode six, “For me being told no is like being told I don’t exist.” She may be speaking about the success of the family fashion line but Donatella Versace practically echoes Andrew the next episode when she states, “We must be talked about or we are nothing.” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is structured in a very daring way, even if I’m not yet 100% sure that structure adds anything thematically. It essentially travels backwards, episode by episode. So, we open with the murder of Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) and the events that followed thereafter as the cops searched South Florida for Andrew, played by Darren Criss. As the season progresses, we see how Andrew and Gianni got here, like reading the chapters of a book in reverse. For example, episode three gets us to the murder of Lee Miglin, a Chicago power player who Andrew killed just before leaving for Florida. Episode four, the best of the eight sent for review, features Andrew and his unrequited love David Madson (the nearly show-stealing Cody Fern, a very-likely future star) on a nightmarish trip that would end in David’s death, just before Andrew went to Chicago to find Lee. And so on. By the time we get to episode eight, directed by Matt Bomer, we’re in Andrew’s childhood, learning about how his father’s behavior may have influenced his own. And this reverse journey finds time to intercut episodes of Gianni’s life, such as coming out to The Advocate with his partner Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), or clashing with his sister Donatella (Penelope Cruz) about a business decision. Narratively, a lot of “Gianni Versace” rests on the shoulders of Criss, and he doesn’t always carry the weight. Pl[...]

L.A. Film Critics Association Awards Ceremony to be Held January 13th


In the midst of all the swag-type awards shows dotting the landscape over these first few months of 2018, there are those that are voted upon by ordinary film critics. Although there is no section for film critics in the official Oscars vote (and I believe there should be), the critics act as a liaison between the industry and the people. The Chicago Film Critics Association usually chooses more eccentric awards for your viewing pleasure (view this year's results here), and tomorrow night in Los Angeles, we will get to experience the awards given out by LAFCA (Los Angeles Film Critics Association).  The annual awards ceremony will take place this Saturday, January 13th, at the InterContinental Hotel in Century City. Luca Guadagnino's "Call Me by Your Name" will receive three major accolades for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Timothée Chalamet), while Guillermo del Toro's equally unexpected romance, "The Shape of Water," will take home awards for Best Director (tying with Guadagnino), Best Actress (Sally Hawkins) and Best Cinematography (Dan Laustsen). Though "The Florida Project"'s Willem Dafoe and "Lady Bird"'s Laurie Metcalf lost at the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards, they still prove to be fierce contenders this awards season, and will receive Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress honors, respectively, from LAFCA.  Nora Twomey's emotionally wrenching "The Breadwinner" will edge out Pixar's "Coco" to win Best Animated Feature, while Jordan Peele will make one step closer to frontrunner status in the Best Screenplay category, earning LAFCA's award for his phenomenally successfully debut feature, "Get Out." Other notable winners include Agnès Varda's "Faces Places" for Best Documentary, Robin Campillo's "BPM (Beats Per Minute)" and Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Loveless" tying for Best Foreign Language Film and "Lady Bird" director Greta Gerwig, this year's recipient of the New Generation award. The head of LAFCA, Claudia Puig, sums up nicely why the film critics votes matter. "I believe the role of film critics may be more essential than ever in this #metoo #timesup moment. Film critics have long championed lesser-heard voices in the world of cinema and it’s incumbent upon us not just to recognize, but to seek out, voices that speak to inclusion, diversity and equality. We need to actively look for those essential voices that might result in the next 'Lady Bird,' the next 'Get Out,' or the next 'Call Me by Your Name.' We need to encourage the industry to take chances on films that may fall outside the mainstream or target demographics. We need to be film advocates as much as we are film critics. Harvey Weinstein and other powerbrokers in this industry committed terrible crimes against women. He and his ilk also committed crimes against art: they kept us from hearing stories that needed to be told from perspectives we hadn’t seen before. Critics have a responsibility to look beyond the obvious, to celebrate fresh voices and champion films that resonate on a deeper and more honest level, films that connect us to our shared humanity." Here is the full list of winners (and runners-up)... Best Picture: "Call Me By Your Name" (runner-up: "The Florida Project") Best Director: Guillermo del Toro, "The Shape of Water" and Luca Guadagnino, "Call Me by Your Name" (tie) Best Actress: Sally Hawkins, "The Shape of Water" (runner-up: Frances McDormand, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri") Best Actor: Timothée Chalamet, "Call Me By Your Name" (runner-up: James Franco, "The Disaster Artist") Best Supporting Actress: Laurie Metcalf, "Lady Bird" (runner-up: Mary J. Blige, "Mudbound") Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe, "The Florida Project" (runner-up: Sam Rockwell, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri")[...]

Dr. Strangelove in the Age of Trump


If Ronald Reagan’s presidency yearned for the age of Norman Rockwell, Donald Trump’s reaches to the era of “Dr. Strangelove.” Based on a speculative science-fiction novel, Red Alert by Peter George, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is about a paranoid US Air Force General who sets into motion a Nuclear attack against the USSR. Collaborating with Peter George and satirist Terry Southern, Stanley Kubrick adapted the film into a “nightmare comedy,” starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden. Satirizing cold war tension, Kubrick’s darkly prescient satire about America’s military fixation maintains its horrifying relevance as President Trump and Kim Jong-Un engage in a Nuclear power struggle played out on a social media stage. In The Ways of Seeing, the late John Berger argued that the legacy of Western Art is the legacy of those in power. Only the most powerful people could commission an artist and have it reflect on their wealth and influence. A king might be bathed in jewels but it was more likely that an artist would reflect on the King’s strength by portraying him in a military outfit. Forcing viewers to their knees, it was common for these portraits to be painted from a low angle so that you had no choice but to look up to the King. As PR firms and marketers play an increasingly large role in shaping the White House, the language of power has barely changed since the era of Kings and Queens. In many ways, Trump continues a long established tradition of demonstrating military strength but even so, few presidents have been as optically pro-war as President Trump. Take, for example, Trump’s end of year review that summarizes his first year in office. Prefacing Trump’s list of accomplishments, a twenty-five-second montage sets the video’s tone in a quick-fire edit of jet fighters, soldiers, and Trump. Edited to the beating drum of a war call, the sequence builds to a crescendo that insinuates Donald Trump as a strong military leader. “Dr. Strangelove” opens with credits over shots of refueling aircrafts, a darkly funny allusion to military power as a perverted coitus. With this romantic introduction, by the time we cut to Genera Ripper (Hayden) setting into motion an attack on the USSR, the camera’s comically low angle feels more funny than threatening. Kubrick subverts the imagery of power through aesthetic juxtapositions and by presenting his military leaders as sex-obsessed megalomaniacs. Inadvertently, Trump evokes this comedic whiplash too by painting himself as a strong leader only to contradict it with a jingoistic tweet or a fake news rant. Wildly propagandistic and a great example of the military enthusiasm that Kubrick satirizes in “Dr. Strangelove,” the year-end video is Trump’s hawkishness in its mildest form. The video is troubling in how it attempts to normalize the military-industrial complex but is not necessarily a huge departure from established American political audiovisual rhetoric. Trump’s year-end video may be the kind of imagery officially endorsed by the campaign but is hardly the most representative. Trump’s Americana is “best” expressed through memes and art created by his supporters who turn to photoshop and create their own characterizations of Trump’s power by employing over the top comic representations of strength and violence. While not officially associated with his administration, since the early days of his campaign, Trump and his closest allies have shared and endorsed these fan-made memes. Being elected President has done little to squash Trump’s reliance on sharing inflammatory images either and it seems unlikely he will stop anytime soon. It does not take long to find Trump memes using Nuclear imagery. While most employ dramatic blood red mushroom clouds sitting on the horizon, some allude directly to “Dr.[...]

The Commuter


Frustratingly not-quite-there from start to finish, the paranoia-soaked railroad thriller "The Commuter" is the latest installment in the unofficial "Liam Neeson Late Winter Butt Kickers" series. The LNLWBKs started in January 2009, with the surprise smash "Taken," and continued with more "Taken" movies, plus three Neeson adventures by Jaume Collet-Serra, the director of this new one ("Unknown," "Non-Stop" and "Run All Night" were the others). They're a staple of our moviegoing diet by this point, nearly as ingrained in the seasonal calendar as the holidays themselves. Like nearly every entry, this new one is worth seeing for the unfussy determination of Neeson, a couple of impressively choreographed action sequences (in particular a one-take, hand-to-hand fight that attempts to one-up the famous hammer sequence in "Oldboy"), and an intriguing premise that the filmmakers never manage to fully exploit. By "worth seeing," I don't necessarily mean "rush to the nearest theater, forsaking all else," but rather, "if this comes on TV, you'll probably watch the whole thing, as long as you're not in a hurry to be somewhere." Who knows, it might even be ideal train viewing. The plot has all the hallmarks of a daydream that got obsessively worked-over for years during somebody's daily rides to and from work. Neeson's character, Michael MacCauley, is a 60-year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman who works in midtown Manhattan. His boss tells him that he's being fired right when he's about to begin his return trip home to see his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, who deserves better than this) and college-aged son (Dean-Charles Chapman) in Westchester, Long Island. Michael loses his phone in the train station due to a pickpocket he doesn't realize bumped him on purpose, then meets a mysterious stranger (Vera Farmiga) who tells him he has to locate a certan passenger on the commuter train before it arrives at its final stop and plant a tracking device on him/her, at which point that person will be killed. Michael will get $25,000 up front and another $75,000 upon completion of the mission—enough to offset the economic havoc wrought by his firing, including the potential scuttling of a reverse-mortgage on the family home that would've paid for his son's college. This is one of those moral conundrums that really only generates suspense if you believe that a working class hero who radiates decency would condemn another person to death for $100,000. Nevertheless, Neeson goes the extra kilometer trying to sell us on the character's economic desperation as well as his macho pride (Michael couldn't bring himself to tell his wife and kids that he just got fired, so there's pressure to make this right immediately so he'll never have to spill the truth). Director Collet-Serra, who did the mostly terrific shark thriller "The Shallows" and seems to have a knack for stripped-down, goal-directed action flicks, has clearly absorbed Alfred Hitchcock films where the action occurs on the boundary separating the real from the metaphorical or dreamlike. The kaleidoscope of humanity that Michael meets on the train is a touch of "Rear Window," the arrangement between him and Farmiga's character is a faint echo of "Strangers on a Train," and there's a hint of "North by Northwest" in the notion of a (mostly) ordinary New Yorker getting pulled into a conspiracy and struggling to regain control over his life. In the end, though, this is a tweedy suburban version of a confined-space action flick. Michael is on his own the whole time. Any allies he picks up along the way are temporary, and not all can be trusted. The class-warfare, eat-the-rich messaging feels rather slapped-on, though, and the movie never gets close to generating the political framework it would have needed to to be taken seriously as a parable of this or that, as opposed to yet another[...]

Proud Mary


Screen Gems, the studio responsible for “Proud Mary” was nice enough to make their product almost impossible for me to see before my deadline. Genre films such as this often don’t have critics’ screenings, which is fine, but practically every film nowadays has night screenings. Manhattan has hundreds upon hundreds of movie screens, yet not one of them was playing “Proud Mary” on Thursday. I do not believe this had anything to do with quality; “The Snowman,” which is about 50 times worse than this film, not only gave us all the clues but it also gave us early screenings at every single theater that ran it on its opening Friday. By contrast, Screen Gems was going to make me work for this review, sending me on an Odyssey to rival Homer’s epic poem. The hero of this remake—let’s call him Odieseus—eventually found his Ithaca after a two-hour commute to a Jamaica, Queens movie theater. And I’ll be honest: Professionalism had nothing to do with it; I just really wanted to see this damn movie. Since the superb trailer, which played like gangbusters every time I saw it at theaters, I have been feening for Taraji P. Henson’s take on John Cassavetes’ “Gloria.” “Proud Mary” is fronted by an Oscar-nominated actress whose last film, “Hidden Figures” made an ungodly amount of money at the box office. Yet Screen Gems was hiding the movie from critics as if it were a drunk frat boy trying to crash a classy black-tie soiree. “Proud Mary” doesn’t deserve the lack of faith its studio has in it. In fact, it’s almost good, so close to success that its flaws truly become frustrating. Those flaws are all behind the camera, starting with the awful cinematography by Dan Laustsen. I haven’t seen a movie this obsessed with light coming through venetian blinds since 1984. The light is so distracting that it blots out Danny Glover’s entire face during his best scene. Much has been written about Hollywood’s inability to light Black skin, but considering that Laustsen also shot “Mimic” and “The Shape of Water,” I must conclude that his lighting here is a misguided stylistic choice. The editing is also problematic, as action scenes (and even dramatic ones) too often end several beats too soon. The cadences are off-putting and rushed; numerous times the acting or the action was so involving that I wanted to spend more time within the scenes. Screenwriters Steve Antin, John Stuart Newman and Christian Swegal put in more drama than one might expect for a standard actioner, but the capable actors are undermined by the film’s construction. Director Babak Najafi manages to correct the pacing issue during the admittedly excellent action climax, but it’s too little, too late. Whenever “Proud Mary” falters, the extremely talented Henson picks the film up and carries it on her capable shoulders like a wounded comrade. Just watching her from scene to scene is pure joy. Henson is an actress whose performances manifest themselves in her entire body. Here, she plays a tough hitwoman whose unexpected maternal instinct comes with a heaping side order of guilt. These conflicting feelings seem to emanate from her soul. Watch how she temporarily melts in the arms of a former lover before coming to her senses, or how she holds her head when she tells her orphaned young ward Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) what to do in case of her demise. Or how she nonchalantly blows people away with the coolness of Schwarzenegger or Stallone. Her parental arguments with Danny are also delivered with expert comic timing and she’s savvy enough to know when to let Winston steal the scene. One senses this was a passion project of hers because she’s fully committed even when the film lets her down. In addition to Winston, whose lack of precociousness is refreshi[...]

The Polka King


Like “The Wolf of Wall Street” of polka music, Maya Forbes' “The Polka King” tells the true story of a man in the 1990s who actualized an all-American hunger for success through consciously illegal ways. But from the very beginning, Jack Black’s first-generation Polish immigrant Jan Lewan is presented as a well-meaning, ambitious father and husband, working minimum wage jobs while owning a Pennsylvania strip mall trinket shop and leading his namesake polka band (featuring a sandpaper-dry Jason Schwartzman on clarinet), always with a huge smile on his face. With the support of his wife Marla (Jenny Slate), he wants to build an empire, believing in America’s opportunity. But he needs money, a lot of it. Soon enough, he elects to taking investments from various fans in his community, offering them 12% interest and believing with all of his big heart that he will pay them back.  The “system” gets in the way of Jan’s sincere delusions of grandeur when he receives a visit from a federal agent (J.B. Smoove). Since Jan didn’t file a business prospectus before taking the investments, he has to give the money back in three days. While it’s believable that Jan wouldn’t know about this type of paperwork, it’s believable by the logic of greed what he does as soon as he lies to the government and they forget about him: he takes in more and larger investments, in order to pay people back he says, but also expands his ventures. As the timeline of this film reveals, the amateur criminal gets away with this for about five years, without his irritated mother-in-law (a high-voltage and very funny Jacki Weaver) or the government finding out.  While the first two acts have the energetic and light nature of polka music, the movie has a tempo problem, dragging in various points when opting to be merely quirky instead of punchy. As it recounts Jan’s wild business ideas, such as when Jan and his clarinetist bribe someone at the Vatican so that Jan’s European tour group can met the pope, the broad comedy becomes a weaker substitute for the more lively curiosities behind this bizarre story. With Forbes unable to create a fuller idea of what his investments are going towards or provide commentary on how the government let this happen, her script (co-written with Wally Wolodarsky, of various legendary “Simpsons” episode credits) only moves by anticipation that some type of justice shoe will eventually drop.  The sporadic magic of “The Polka King” largely comes from its casting, and the hammy performances that follow. Slate is given what seems like an extended passage about her character entering a Ms. Pennsylvania contest so that the actress can show off her wackiest side, which she does valiantly. The same goes for another overlong passage in which Schwartzman, in a tone most often heard in his Wes Anderson collaborations, talks about his dreams of changing his name to “Mickey Pizazz.” There’s also Vanessa Bayer dancing in a bear costume, and Jacki Weaver acting like she’s a live-action character from "The Simpsons," among other slap-happy joys. But the film's glimmers of brilliance dissipate once it goes back to a narrative that by the third act is half-baked.  Jack Black proves again to be a consistent force of comedy and drama. He helps articulate the fascinating aspects of Lewan’s story: the rock star presence he has in the Pennsylvania polka scene, the determination he has to be successful and take care of people like his friends or family, the way that a good man would succumb to constantly lying, blinded by whatever his good intents are. As he did with Bernie Tiede in Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” Black creates an extraordinary image of a corrupt American wh[...]