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Updated: 2017-01-21T18:15:09-06:00


Sundance 2017: “It’s Not Yet Dark,” “Oklahoma City,” “The Workers Cup”


While the inauguration was dominating the conversation and star-studded premieres were taking place all over Park City, a trio of really interesting documentaries premiered this weekend, including one of the most inspirational of the festival and a piece that reminds us that terrorism can be home-grown. When Simon Fitzmaurice premiered his short film “The Sound of People” at Sundance in 2008, he couldn’t have possibly imagined that he’d be the subject of a documentary feature at the festival almost a decade later. And yet shortly after that premiere, he was diagnosed with MND (Motor Neuron Disease). He was only 34 and his wife Ruth was pregnant with their third child. He was given three to four years to live and told he would lose all control of his muscles before he died. He is not only still alive, but he recently directed a feature film (“My Name is Emily,” getting a release stateside next month) using only his eyes to communicate via a computer. Simon’s story is told in the incredibly powerful “It’s Not Yet Dark” through the writer/director’s own words, captured from a memoir of the same name and delivered by Colin Farrell. The fact that Fitzmaurice is a writer at heart lends the film a poignancy and truth that wouldn’t otherwise be there if director Frankie Fenton had to rely on someone else’s words or merely those of the wonderful people he interviews, including Simon’s fantastic wife and family. Fenton also knows how to visually capture Simon’s saga, which isn’t always easy with human inspirational stories like this, but he has a strong, poetic eye. Ultimately, what makes “It’s Not Yet Dark” so remarkably powerful is the open-book honesty of its subject and those he loves. Ruth is such an honest, well-spoken, interesting woman. Many people will walk out of the film praising Simon, but this is Ruth’s story too. And it’s something relatable for all of us. When Simon says “I dance for the last time,” remembering the moments before he lost control of his muscles, that’s something that connects with the heart. Imagine hugging your kid for the last time. Imagine telling your wife you love her for the last time. And then imagine being trapped in a body that feels everything and retains all the same mental capacity but being unable to express any of it. However, “It’s Not Yet Dark” is far from a tragedy. Fenton and Fitzmaurice embrace the inspirational aspect of it all completely and unapologetically. It’s the kind of thing that could have turned into clichéd life lessons, but they resonate here. When Simon says “For me it’s not about how long you live, it’s how you live,” it’s difficult not to nod in agreement. Serving a completely different purpose that illustrates the range of documentaries at Sundance is Barak Goodman’s “Oklahoma City,” a well-researched and well-made chronicle of one of the darkest days in U.S. history. Premiering at Sundance, “Oklahoma City” opens with audio of the Water Resources Board Meeting that morning, during which you can hear the deafening explosion. It then transitions to interviews with parents of children who were in the day care center that resided on the first floor of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, before Timothy McVeigh blew it up. First, a personal angle should be revealed. I was doing a college internship at a TV news station in 1995 when this tragedy occurred. I remember all-nighters filled with active newsrooms trying to get the latest details as the manhunt was underway and the death toll rose. I was actually in charge of the latter, getting the latest names and numbers, finding out details about not who did the killing but who was killed. It was a fascinating but somewhat traumatic journey in that when the memorial happened a few days later I could actually recognize many of the people in the audience and who they were mourning. It is an event I still think about regularly, almost every time a major tragedy like it—Newtown, the Colorado theater shootings—takes place. And so I kn[...]

Sundance 2017: "The Big Sick"


Judd Apatow has a track record of building projects for talented comedians to move to the next level, highlighting their skill sets in a way that makes entire films hinge on their abilities. Think Steve Carell in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up” or Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck.” He only produced Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” but it continues this pattern, as the director helped build the project around the multi-talented stand-up comedian and star of “Silicon Valley,” Kumail Nanjiani. Not only should this movie make Nanjiani a star, but the entire project is based on his own life, focusing on his relationship with his girlfriend Emily Gordon, who co-wrote the film with him. This deeply personal aspect of the film lends it authenticity often missing from romantic dramedies, and allows Nanjiani and Showalter to imbue the film with so much more character-based truth than we usually see from the genre. It’s the best romantic comedy in years. Kumail plays a version of his younger self—an Uber driver by day and a stand-up comedian by night in Chicago. One night, a beautiful young lady gets his attention from the crowd, and he works up the courage to talk to her at the bar after his set. Her name is Emily (Zoe Kazan) and she’s a grad school student at University of Chicago. There’s an instant connection but both halves of this couple are believably apprehensive. Emily doesn’t want to get hurt again—we later learn she was married at a very young age and is divorced—but Kumail faces a massive cultural wall in that his Pakistani family wouldn’t possibly hear of a white girlfriend. In fact, his mother keeps a chair open at dinner next to Kumail whenever he comes over for this week’s Pakistani girl who just happens to “drop by.” As they’re aggressively trying to arrange a marriage for Kumail, he starts to fall for Emily. Meanwhile, his stand-up career takes off, and Apatow lovingly captures the behind-the-scenes world of stand-up life in a way that recalls Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice.” That’s the first half of “The Big Sick,” but you may be understandably wondering about the title at this point. After a horrendous fight in which they break-up over Kumail’s unwillingness to tell his parents about Emily, she suffers a vicious lung infection that forces doctors to put her into a medically-induced coma. As the infection spreads to her kidneys and heart, Kumail is forced to interact with Emily’s parents for the first time, played with remarkable delicacy and truth by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. This is where “The Big Sick” transcends its rom-com set-up, capturing how relationships are often forged through trauma and how we sometimes only know how we’ll react to stress when it’s placed right in front of us. Nanjiani stress-eats and panics, but he stays. He can’t let Emily go. The echoes in “The Big Sick” go back further than Apatow, often recalling one his clear inspirations, the great James L. Brooks. Like Brooks, Showalter's film deftly blends laugh out loud moments (the premiere crowd laughed so often that dialogue was regularly drowned out) with emotional truth and character-driven drama. Rom-coms so often rely on exaggerated behavior—set pieces, if you will—to get their joke. Even Apatow has been a victim of this. But “The Big Sick” doesn’t resort to set pieces. Every joke feels like it comes from the characters, and then Romano and Hunter show up to add a layer or depth and gravity to the piece. Yes, they get a few laughs of their own, but they’re basically in a drama, playing two people who might lose their daughter. They’re both absolutely fantastic. The best Hunter has been in years and possibly the best Romano has ever been on film. Having said that, the movie belongs to Nanjiani. It is as smart, authentic and sweet as his comedy. To be fair, he sometimes falters ever so slightly in the big emotional scenes, but he absolutely nails the quieter moments, capturing a ma[...]

Sundance 2017: “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” “Landline,” “Ingrid Goes West”


The U.S. Dramatic Competition program at Sundance is often the one from which the most national stories emerge. Previous winners have included “The Birth of a Nation,” “Whiplash” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” This year’s section boasts a lot of highly anticipated titles, including the directorial debut of a recent indie star, the latest from the woman behind the clever “Obvious Child,” and a star vehicle built around Aubrey Plaza. Sadly, all three miss the mark for me, two just barely enough to almost recommend, while one wastes its potent set-up with almost no follow-through whatsoever. It would be polite to say that Opening Night has been a mixed bag of quality over the last few years. For every “Whiplash,” there are a few disasters like “The Bronze.” In the middle is Macon Blair’s “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” an ambitious-as-hell first feature that owes a lot to Blair’s friend and recent director, Jeremy Saulnier (“Blue Ruin,” “Green Room”) in its premise and tone. The problem is that what Saulnier does requires an incredibly deft hand when it comes to tonal consistency and pacing, and that’s where Blair falters ever so slightly. Still, there’s much to like here in terms of ambition and performance. It’s one of those classic Sundance cases of a film being more “promising” than anything else, although I suspect some will take to this gritty thriller as is, and forgive its flaws completely. It’s easy to forgive a film that stars the always-great Melanie Lynskey and equally-always-great Elijah Wood as everyday vigilantes. Lynskey plays Ruth, a woman angry at the increasing displays of unempathetic assholes she sees everywhere. It’s the guy whose truck billows black smoke; the guy who cuts her off at the grocery store to get in line first; the horribly racist woman at the care center in which she works. Basically, people suck, and she’s tired of letting people suck (everyone is “fucking taking”), although this is no “Falling Down”-esque display of a woman pushed to the edge. She finds a literal target greater than all the dicks of society when her house is broken into, her laptop and silverware taken. On a whim, she fires up the locator app she installed to keep track of her computer. It pings. She knows where the crooks are, and she enlists the assistance of a neighbor (Wood) who happens to be into nunchucks and morning stars and tracks down the computer, leading her to a trio of sociopaths, including a nearly-silent and nearly-movie-stealing Jane Levy. If films like “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” are direct punches to the gut, Blair’s film is more a series of blows from different angles and at different speeds. The pace and structure of the film often lurches under the weight of a project that sometimes feels like it’s trying to do too much. Blair peppers his script with religious references and jumps around tonally between black comedy and stark thriller, which is admirable but also incredibly difficult. The film never quite has the stakes or tension I hoped it would, although Blair does excel at staging and shooting the darkest moments, including a fantastic home invasion sequence and the unusual climax, and I appreciate that the film never devolves into a cynical worldview. Despite that, I wanted more sleaze and pulp. Blair has basically made a B-movie that doesn’t quite embrace its B-movie-ness. Again, the effort and the film’s best moments will be enough for some people, and I may warm up to its strengths and not see its flaws on subsequent viewings (it premieres next month on Netflix), but I don’t quite feel at home in this movie yet. Similar issues of tonal imbalance pervade Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline,” a Friday premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category. Robespierre’s follow-up to “Obvious Child” is again at its best when it highlights the skills of star Jenny Slate, but her sitcom set-up here doesn’t connect like it[...]

Sundance 2017: "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power"


The biggest surprise of Sundance so far has nothing to do with a new addition or a healthy food eatery being added near the Yarrow theater. It’s that Al Gore is not actually running for president, despite the intense campaign vibes of his ego-driven effort, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” a follow-up to his Oscar-winning film "An Inconvenient Truth." The documentary follow-up proves to be less about global warming than propping up a hero awkwardly desperate to captivate audiences again like he did eleven years ago. It's like the "Zoolander 2" of global warming documentaries. The filmmaking by directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk ("Audrie & Daisy") is solid, and they work with these very clear standards: follow Gore on his international speaking engagements, both during his meetings and maybe with a humanizing moment of him walking through a back hallway; share the slide shows that he prepares for said speaking moments and make sure we can see it; use an instructive score that could fit in with a political thriller. Adding a bit of cynicism to that title, "An Inconvenient Sequel" just wants to recreate the hits of the first time. But this return seems driven by even more vanity, with Gore unaware of how much he's talking about himself and not global warming. From the very beginning, the cause is framed as being personal. Sobering footage of ruined glaciers and landscapes are accompanied by soundbites where people criticize Gore and his passion. Questions of whether this movie is actually about Gore or his cause nag the entire movie, even though you know the project thinks it’s doing a noble job with the latter. It takes far too long for this movie to situate into its actual causes, and to do so it’s back to the dull Al-Gore-gives-a-slideshow set-up. The movie only insulates itself more from there. As with global warming, there are tidbits of information that do come across, as Gore uses vivid footage of entire communities being destroyed by forces of nature. We see the different areas that are affected by the apocalyptic weather changes, and further recognize the scope of it. And we see how the global warming effort has quite the ally in solar power, as shown with India and the like. The second half focuses on Gore interacting with world leaders as a type of person behind the scenes, not as high-profile as a president. In the scheme of global warming, what does this offer? A reminder, yes, particularly if you haven’t seen “Before the Flood,” which played in 180+ countries via National Geographic. The two share many similarities: scenes with Miami floods, John Kerry, footage of Kiribati and India, and an Oscar-winner in the center who thinks he alone can get people to listen (in the case of “Before the Flood,” that was Leonardo DiCaprio). But those are small nuggets to take from sifting through Gore’s self-centric version of the cause. There are plenty of scenes that have nothing to do with global warming, like him walking us through his childhood home, talking about how he had planned to be president. The flaw of this moment is like others, in that its intent is purely adoration or pity. It has nothing to do with the issues at hand.  If any movie were to create the global warming idea as a type of cult, this is it. Gore’s many speaking scenes are to people in his climate change group, which has the air of watching an evangelist preaching to the choir—a tactic that doesn't work for us as viewers, who need something to connect to. And that’s the huge problem with this messy movie, that it never gives us a chance to connect. Gore is always in the way, or putting his foot deep in his mouth like when he compares global warming to the civil rights movement or abolitionist movement. In some scenes he is miscast as the everyman, and in others he's miscast as a savior. In both roles, Gore has a grave lack of focus or self-awareness. [...]

Sundance 2017: "Person to Person," "Axolotl Overkill," "Family Life"


The first full day of Sundance saw the world premiere of three films that focus on finding your place in the world, whether it's the strange streets of New York, the anything-goes nightlife of Berlin, or someone else's house in Chile. Below are three reviews, including NEXT category title "Person to Person" and two World Cinema Dramatic films, "Axolotl Overkill" and "Family Life."“Person to Person” begins with a New Yorker talking about having a party, and after a strange day of various New York stories, the last scene is said person having a party. This is that kind of movie, an ensemble riff on character ideas based on 20/30-something New Yorkers trying to figure out what they want to do with their relationships, jobs, and their lives overall. It’s played out casually, never lunging for big laughs or revelations—and it charms often because it's cozy with just enough surprises.  Writer/director Dustin Guy Defa makes his stories interesting with their sensitivities. In one thread, a young woman starts a new job where she has to be invasive into a widow’s personal life, as pushed by her oblivious boss (Michael Cera in his reoccurring new role as anti-Michael Cera). In another thread, a vinyl collector (Bene Coopersmith) ventures across town to buy a rare Charlie Parker vinyl, and finds out that he’s a part of a larger scheme. Somewhere else in the city, a young woman (Tavi Gevinson) faces some type of dilemma about what she wants in a relationship, and with what type of person.  It should be noted that this movie’s aesthetic is undoubtedly hipster—both by the jazz definition and the modern definition—a designation that it seems to demand when Coopersmith's Bene is in a legitimately tense, mini-action scene chase through a vinyl store and then onto fixed-gear bikes. That’s not a knock against the movie at all (as the “h”-word might be negative to some), especially with this movie’s excellent soundtrack. But said hipness is crucial to a key part of this spirit, where it’s a little different, but it stands out—and yes, with its own personality. In Sundance speak, "Person to Person" boasts a cast that would fit a Premiere category slot, but the movie is right at home in the NEXT section.  That appeal isn’t limited to age, either. Philip Baker Hall and Isiah Whitlock Jr., in particular, have some strong scenes that could be throwaway moments, but they contribute to filling in the movie’s atmosphere. They would certainly fit in with that finale party, which Defa’s filmmaking invites you to join as well. "Axolotl Overkill" is either too much or too little, depending on how you read it. With a polarizing brazenness more familiar to Sundance's NEXT category, this World Dramatic competitor is like an abstract memoir; it focuses a great amount of detail on one life, the rebellious, self-destructive 16-year-old Mifti, and experiments with telling her story as if the pages were shuffled at random. It doesn't work.  The biggest takeaway for the project might be Jasna Fritzi Bauer, who plays Mifti as if the character was Joan of Arc of fucking shit up. Bauer gives one of those completely wild performances that promises great roles in the future (Stacy Martin's breakout work in "Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" comes to mind). She takes us through the albeit maddening events with an anything-goes mentality and a zeal to live more than just dangerously.  As impulsiveness becomes the movie's main sense of logic, it's an idea that works for Mifti but not for anything writer/director Helene Hegemann is trying to do. Mifti interacts with people who float in and out of her life, like her actress friend Anika (Laura Tonke), or an older woman named Alice (Arly Jover) that she meets in a grocery store who becomes a fixation. Everyone is painted with throwaway interactions, the movie's penchant for random conversations as character detail (further nudging its French new wave[...]

Sundance 2017: "Whose Streets?"



When people ask about the Black Lives Matter movement, whether it’s a year or 50 from now, I will tell them to see director Sabaah Folayan’s documentary “Whose Streets?” This documentary about the events in Ferguson, MO, as told from the perspective of people who were actually there, is important to understanding both the past and the present—it’s a historical document that could do great things right at this moment. 

"Whose Streets?" starts with the simple gesture of letting people tell their story with their own voice and footage, and it makes for a compelling beginning to something that expands to five parts. "Whose Streets?" continues to be so much more and more powerful than I expected. Taking shape as an epic about a community uniting over its pursuit of equality, “Whose Streets?” talks about the racist Ferguson police force, the Ferguson October movement, and so much more. It’s a movie that takes you through a movement, under the name Black Lives Matter and more, in which you see how people expand, and how it continues to prosper.

“Whose Streets?” is in part an act of justice. The events that followed in Ferguson, MO on August 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson were not given proper due by the rest of the world. Those who weren’t there don’t really know the events that happened, especially if relying on news reports that favored sensationalism and baited racism in the process. To start, segments that often led with “a riot in Ferguson” left out the candlelight vigils and the peaceful protests that were the initial response to such tragedy. In the process they took away the humanity of a place and people, when that’s the exact opposite response needed when such lives are in danger. 

This movie tells the story of Ferguson from first-person perspectives—footage shot by people who were in Ferguson during and after Michael Brown was killed, and when the militarized police came to further dehumanize its citizens. The police's military-level approach is all the more visceral when a flash grenade is captured on a shaky iPhone camera, or explosions rip through the audio while showing people running away from police. Or footage of red dots appearing on Ferguson residents, a type of warning fit for a war zone. 

“Whose Streets?” is in part an act of love. It finds some reoccurring characters in various people of Ferguson, who speak openly and passionately about their fight for equality. Activist and mother Brittany Farrell is one particular person who fills this story with so much love, as she talks about how she wants to teach her daughter about the importance of protesting. And there's a life-changing moment for her with her girlfriend that brought me to tears instantly, accompanied by Brittany talking about how she wants to challenge the idea of normal. 

Using such raw footage from the perspective of the silent and the oppressed, this documentary is extremely potent with the many things it wants you to feel. The anger is so visceral, and so goddamn tragic. Just the same, its images of love and pride will fill your soul. It presents so many important images—racism, hatred and so much love—and dares you not to be moved.

Sundance 2017: “The Incredible Jessica James” & “The Little Hours”


Sundance programmers are smart enough to know that many attendees would be bringing their own personal storm cloud related to the new President’s inauguration falling on the first full day of this year’s event. Perhaps that’s why they programmed a special screening of one of the most purely enjoyable romantic comedies in a long time and a world premiere of a wacky, broad, gigantic ensemble laugher that equally allowed moviegoers to leave the real world behind for 90 minutes. Both of these flicks are often remarkably funny, and they do something similar in the way they play up to the strengths of their talented casts. Not every comedy needs to break the mold, and many of our best in the genre worked because they were designed for the people who fronted them. Such is the case with “The Incredible Jessica James,” from Jim Strouse (“People Places Things,” “Grace is Gone”), which the writer/director admitted in his introduction was created for “The Daily Show” veteran Jessica Williams. And it shows. She is fantastic, and one truly hopes this film opens dozens of doors for her. It is a movie wildly and unapologetically in love with its leading lady. It’s not that it presents its title character without flaws but that even her insecurities and anxieties come across as so genuine that the people around her love those parts of her as well. It’s a simple film—about a woman getting over one relationship and into another, while also dealing with the delayed gratification that often comes when one pursues a life in the arts—but that simplicity can be deceiving. This is not an easy balancing act. If it was, there would be more quality romantic comedies like it. Williams plays, of course, Jessica James, a character introduced dancing her way through her apartment, up the stairs, and to her Bushwick roof. She is all energy—fast-talking and faster-thinking. She is defiant in the face of societal norms—a scene in which she gives her younger sister a book about defying the patriarchy for a baby shower is perfectly in tune with the character—but she’s struggling in two areas of her life. She just broke up with her boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Stanfield, great here and in the also-at-Sundance “Crown Heights”) and she gets daily rejection letters in her attempts to become a playwright. She works at a theater for children interested in playwriting and does some odd jobs with a friend (Noel Wells of “Master of None”). Said friend introduces her to a recently-divorced guy named Boone (Chris O’Dowd), and the two help each other get over their recent break-ups. “The Incredible Jessica James” is genuinely funny, but not in an aggressively bit-driven way. Strouse is too delicate of a filmmaker for that, although there are some wonderful broad comedy scenes, including several dream sequences Jessica has about her ex. For the most part though, the humor is character-driven, and this is what’s lacking from most modern rom-coms—relatability. It’s so hard to see ourselves in most romantic comedy characters, but it’s easy to picture checking your ex’s social media feeds obsessively or casually walking by your ex-wife’s house every night just to see what’s up. And Williams conveys the artistic drive of this character beautifully. She doesn't write because she wants to, she has no other choice. And she puts that energy into everything. Jessica and Boone are likable people (O’Dowd hasn’t been this funny since “Bridesmaids”) and it’s just a pleasure to hang out with them for 90 minutes and then move on. It’s not a movie meant to change the world, just to give you a little bit of joy. Try not to smile. The same could be said about Jeff Baena’s wacky “The Little Hours,” a film with echoes of Mel Brooks in its non-contemporary setting, broad physical comedy, unexpected punchlines, and gigantic ensemble (seriousl[...]

Sundance 2017: "Pop Aye" & "Free and Easy"


Sundance’s reputation for cultivating interesting filmmakers is by no means a domestic-only effort, as proven again by this year’s World Dramatic Cinema lineup. In its first two days, the festival has presented the world premiere of two different films from vastly different writer/directors, but whose projects are united by an interest in challenging viewers with primary elements like pacing, character and atmosphere. “Pop Aye” and “Free and Easy,” from Thailand and China, respectively, are two competing titles that offer strength in vision from their respective filmmakers.  Selected as an opening night film for the festival, “Pop Aye” is a charming, ambling mid-life crisis about a city architect in Thailand and the elephant from childhood he is reunited with. It’s a loaded pitch, and given a thoughtful execution from writer/director Kristen Tan. The elephant is a great hook, as beautiful and compelling as the animal is, but the story boasts a striking human element that does not bank on sympathy.  Tan is a writer/director who is thrillingly playing with risks. “Pop Aye” challenges a lot of the conventions a viewer might expect from a movie about a man named Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) and his elephant (Bong) on a journey. For one, though the actor who plays Thana makes him initially sweet, a graying man with glasses and an endearing gentleness towards his massive animal friend, seeming like an underdog being pushed out of the city architecture business due to gaudy new ideas, Thana is not an entirely sympathetic character, especially with the way that he thinks of women, despite his charitable, sincere actions in other ways. His strained relationship with his wife is especially cringe-worthy. In a way that gives the film its own energy, it is not a tidy film with how it treats people or shares its big heart, adding further credence to this story being more like, in animal movie terms, “Au Hasard Balthasar” than “Operation Dumbo Drop.” The movie gains charm from constantly complicating characters one might assume to be simple pit stops.  When telling this story, one risk that doesn’t work and might provide some confusion is the non-linear editing. It challenges the straightforward idea of a journey with reflections of the past, but doesn’t have the clear cut nature to be determined. There are some logic loopholes too (which can’t be spoiled, but you might notice them) that hold back this type of tight depiction of unpredictable, real life that it wants to be.  “Pop Aye” is able to occupy its own tone, in which it isn’t particularly funny or a huge downer, despite its potential to take either path. It paints some thoughtful images, especially as its theme of urbanization comes beautifully with the idea that things change permanently, in spite of our pain from the past that we carry in the present. It’s quite a treat to see this all play out as a story about a man and his elephant, with no heavy-hand in sight.  “Free and Easy” imagines a world where people seem to be inherently bad; it would be a cold, empty, lifeless place. The setting is a Chinese industrial town that was beat up and left for dead—as introduced with somber location shots of a horrible nothing. It’s a striking empty canvas that director Jun Geng presents the audience with, only to then add slight brushes to it with a few characters and their acts of manipulation. Many of the characters have their schemes, but with seemingly no other world for them to strive for, it’s more akin to survival. If this movie takes place in a world that seems post-apocalyptic, it is also that of post-empathy, post-warmth.  It’s by no coincidence that “Free and Easy” is designed with the openness and lawlessness of a western. But it’s not a cowboy who rolls into town in the beginnin[...]



Within the process of watching an M. Night Shyamalan film, there exists a parallel and simultaneous process of searching for its inevitable twist. This has been true of every film the writer-director has made since his surprise smash debut, “The Sixth Sense,” nearly two decades ago. We wonder: How will he dazzle us? What clues should we be searching for? Will it actually work this time?Increasingly, with middling efforts like “The Village” and “Lady in the Water”—and dreary aberrations like “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” which bore none of his signature style—the answer to that last question has been: Not really. Which makes his latest, “Split,” such an exciting return to form. A rare, straight-up horror film from Shyamalan, “Split” is a thrilling reminder of what a technical master he can be. All his virtuoso camerawork is on display: his lifelong, loving homage to Alfred Hitchcock, which includes, as always, inserting himself in a cameo. And the twist—that there is no Big Twist—is one of the most refreshing parts of all.“Split” is more lean and taut in its narrative and pace than we’ve seen from Shyamalan lately. Despite its nearly two-hour running time, it feels like it’s in constant forward motion, even when it flashes backward to provide perspective.It’s as if there’s a spring in his step, even as he wallows in grunge. And a lot of that has to do with the tour-de-force performance from James McAvoy as a kidnapper named Kevin juggling two-dozen distinct personalities.From obsessive-compulsive maintenance man Dennis to playful, 9-year-old Hedwig to prim, British Patricia to flamboyant, New York fashionista Barry, McAvoy brings all these characters to life in undeniably hammy yet entertaining ways. There’s a lot of scenery chewing going on here, but it’s a performance that also showcases McAvoy’s great agility and precision. He has to make changes both big and small, sometimes in the same breath, and it’s a hugely engaging spectacle to behold.His portrayal of this troubled soul is darkly funny but also unexpectedly sad. Kevin is menacing no matter which personality in control, but the underlying childhood trauma that caused him to create these alter egos as a means of defense clearly still haunts him as a grown man. Flashes of vulnerability and fragility reveal themselves in the film’s third act, providing an entirely different kind of disturbing tone.First, though, there is the abduction, which Shyamalan stages in efficient, gripping fashion. Three high school girls get in a car after a birthday party at the mall: pretty, chatty Claire (Haley Lu Richardson of “The Edge of Seventeen”) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and shy, quiet Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who was invited along out of pity. But they quickly realize the man behind the wheel isn’t Claire’s dad—it’s Kevin, who wastes no time in knocking them out and dragging them back to his makeshift, underground lair.Repeated visits from Kevin, with his varying voices and personae, gradually make it clear that their kidnapper harbors multiple personalities. Only Casey, who emerges as the trio’s clever leader, has the audacity to engage with him. As she showed in her breakout role in “The Witch” as well as in “Morgan,” Taylor-Joy can be chilling in absolute stillness with her wide, almond eyes—as much as McAvoy is in his showiness. She makes Casey more than your typical horror heroine to root for, particularly with the help of quietly suspenseful flashbacks that indicate how she acquired her survival instincts. Her co-stars aren’t afforded nearly as much characterization or clothing, for that matter.But we also get a greater understanding of Kevin’s mental state through the daily sessions he (or, rather, a version of him) schedules with his psychologist, Dr. Flet[...]

xXx: Return of Xander Cage


How excited ought one get about a sequel in an action franchise that never got off the ground, featuring the return of the leading man whose refusal to appear in the second installment was part of why the franchise never got off the ground, that finally sees theatrical release almost a decade after the intention to produce it was announced? I suppose it depends. Speaking strictly for myself, Vin Diesel, here coming back to play Xander Cage, the James Bond of skateboarding character he originated in 2002’s “XXX” is the least exciting component of this 3D slam-bang fest. The movie opens with Samuel L. Jackson as the outré spymaster Augustus Gibbons, sitting at a Chinese restaurant trying to convince real-life soccer sensation Neymar to join the XXX team. A disaster ensues, and stern buttoned-up spymaster Marke (Toni Collette, here probably earning more to merely maintain an erect posture than she usually does when she’s actually being an incredible actor) calls a meeting at an appropriately eerily-lit CIA boardroom. Here is introduced the McGuffin, here referred to as a Pandora’s Box, which is immediately snatched up by a crack team of black-clad perhaps villains who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, that kind of stuff. One of their number is played by Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, who made a strong impression in another blockbuster, “Rogue One,” a little while back. Who can retrieve the deadly thingie? Marke has to track down the presumed-dead Xander Cage, who’s now spending his faked-own-death hours providing satellite television to impoverished Latin American children. (Don’t ask.) The plot, with its multiple double-crosses and “this group must somehow form a you-know-what” plot beats, could have been written on the back of a cocktail napkin. More thought, but not that much more, was put into the cast of characters, the “rebels” that embody the triple-X ethos (which is a thing—remember that, absent Vin Diesel, there was a 2005 sequel, starring Ice Cube, subtitled “State of the Union,” in 2005). These include a more than fair number of women, which is commendable in theory. Less commendable in practice is that maybe a quarter of them are obligated to behave as if they’re dying to fall into bed with Diesel. When Cage goes to London to track down the identities of the interlopers of the eerily-lit boardroom, he spends time sauna-side with an intelligence expert, name of Ainsley, who’s played by Hermoine Caulfield, an actress in her mid twenties who looks about fifteen, and whose bikinied torso is practically drooled upon director of photography Russell Carpenter’s camera. Things get a little less distasteful with the introductions of punky sniper Adele (Ruby Rose) on Xander’s team and fast draw Serena (Deepika Padukone) on the opposite (but not for long). These two are almost enough to make up for Nina Dobrev’s Becky, a geek girl who provides Xander with her “safe word” within minutes if not seconds of their meeting. Anyway, Xander doesn’t sleep with Ainsley; rather, she provides him access to about six of her girlfriends (in porn this is called a “reverse gangbang,” and while what’s depicted is hardly explicit, this is what the audience is meant to believe went on), after which Cage makes an observation on the lengths he goes to for his country that wasn’t particularly funny when it first was heard, in, yes, a James Bond movie. Vin Diesel is going to be fifty this year. His body is still toned, but facially he’s starting to look like a cross between Harpo Marx and that poor fellow who played the Amazing Colossal Man. In medium close-ups, his head takes up two thirds of the screen. And his line readings haven’t gained added suavity over the years. Forcing his character to be what they used to call c[...]