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Updated: 2018-02-18T11:23:44-06:00

 



Berlin 2018: “Grass,” “Dovlatov,” “Transit”

2018-02-18T11:23:47-06:00

One of the many double-edged joys of attending a film festival is accounting for one’s limitations as a critic. The challenge of understanding a new movie in relation to its director’s previous work—to name only one method of getting to grips with a movie—has always been compounded by accessibility (who is able to see what and when), and the critical approaches to negotiating it are myriad. While some critics strive toward completism, others seek to contextualize a new work from other perspectives, commenting for instance on the ways in which it expresses or confronts contemporary politics, or the prevailing cultural mood. Reading Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1995 collection Placing Movies as my plane landed in Berlin this week, I’m increasingly inclined to be upfront about such things, in the belief that it ultimately helps to highlight that seeing or not seeing every other film by a director only matters if it needs to. Three movies that have premiered at the 68th Berlinale provide a useful case in point. It’s been more than four years since I’ve seen a new Hong Sangsoo film—time in which the Korean has knocked out seven features. Such a bafflingly prolific output might be intimidating in a climate in which auteurism still prevails, but if any filmography constitutes “riffs on a theme” as an apply-all description, it’s Hong’s. The writer/director’s method and sensibilities pivot around ideas of repetition, with each film taking meaning from the others, returning to old territory in more or less new forms—both across his career, from film to film, and within a single work, where the repetitions provide comic ironies as well as a structural backbone. If “Grass”—unveiled this week in the Berlinale’s reliably well-curated Forum section—sounds and seems like a minor work, it’s because we’ve grown accustomed to judging artistic ambition in terms of duration. Hong’s latest clocks in at 63 minutes and breezily covers the fluctuating interrelations of several patrons—writers who hope to be actors, actors who hope to be writers—of Cafe Idhra, a small coffeeshop located at the end of a narrow alleyway in Seoul’s Jongno District. I mean it as no criticism when I say this newest work feels like the outcome of Hong stitching together outtakes from other films: it’s to his credit, in fact, that “Grass” layers its emotional interplays so cohesively. Are things taking place across a single day? A few weeks? It’s difficult to say. When Hong first cuts from a profile two-shot of customers facing one another to a shot of Areum (Kim Minhee), sitting at her Mac as her internal monologue kicks in through voiceover, we might even begin to interpret the film’s eavesdropped conversations as fictions within a fiction: the embodiment of a writer’s drafts and re-drafts. Working again with cinematographer Kim Hyungkoo, Hong shoots in sharp monochrome: there’s more than a touch, I think, of Resnais’ “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961), still the go-to cinematic benchmark for fluid temporalities. A dreamed-up what-if (“I keep using the same material,” says one character, “I can’t move forward”), or a drunken haze: this being a Hong film, it isn’t long before mikkoli and soju are getting necked. Like some very distant cousin to Hong’s film, Alexey German Jr.’s new feature also teems with writers conversing about their craft and plight—on this occasion, across six days in November 1971. Screening in competition, “Dovlatov” evokes the pervasively banal paranoia of Leningrad under Brezhnev with a certain ease. German’s approach is to frame his dramatization of historical literary and artistic figures like characters resigned to their own fugue state. Chief among them, of course, is Armenian-born Sergey Dovlatov (Serbian actor Milan Marić, who is all kinds of alluringly, low-key terrific), an unpublished novelist who eked out a living as a factory journalist prior to emigrating in 1979—where wider recognition awaited [...]



Monster Hunt 2

2018-02-18T19:36:54-06:00

"In another country, with another name, maybe things are different, maybe they're the same." - Brian Eno, "Mother Whale Eyeless" As of this writing, the affable Chinese blockbuster fantasy "Monster Hunt 2" has demolished opening day records in its native country: $97 million today alone. (1) This comes two weeks after the film's pre-sales reportedly hit $11 million. (2) It's also roughly two years after the release of the first "Monster Hunt," another family-friendly action-comedy that follows cuddly computer-generated monsters as they frolic about their forest home and chase live-action Chinese and Hong Kong comedians and marquee stars.  "Monster Hunt 2" offers a lot more where that busy, good-natured mess came from. It just happens to be raking in enough money to give "Black Panther" some decent international competition this weekend. The target audience for "Monster Hunt 2" knows very well what the film is, and probably whether or not they're going to enjoy the film. Everyone else probably hasn't even heard the title mentioned in passing.  Which is strange because, in this country, most discussions about popular foreign films begin with a tacit conflation of the film's inherent merits, and its cultural footprint. If it's bad, but big, it has a far greater chance of being treated as an event than if it's good, but small.  Then again, "Monster Hunt 2" isn't being actively promoted to Western audiences, nor to anyone beyond its established Chinese-American audience. Why should they? The Chinese box office is still poised to overtake the waning American market some time very soon. And "Monster Hunt 2" probably won't change your mind about Chinese or Asian pop culture. It's not a cultural ambassador, but rather the kind of crowd-pleaser that a snotty American distributor probably would have deemed to be "too regional" for a mass audience ten or twenty years ago. It’s the kind of movie that might not have even been released in a few theaters nationwide. The kind that sells out a 3:30pm show on opening day at Manhattan's AMC Empire 25, the bedbug-plagued multiplex that has become many Asian film buffs’ last year-round bastion for popular Chinese, Korean, Indian, and sometimes Japanese films. Still: all this fuss for a cutesy kid's film? Pretty much, yeah. "Monster Hunt 2" is charming enough on a scene-to-scene basis that its success is worth noting. Director Raman Hui (co-director of "Shrek the Third") and screenwriter Alan Yuen peddle kid-friendly conservative values: The nuclear family is sacred! Not all authority figures are bad! Money can't replace good relationships! And they do so with a smile, and a lot of goofy, but pleasant jokes. Many scenes revolve around happily-married, monster-hunting couple Huo Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) and Song Tianyin (Jing Boran) as they attempt to re-unite with Wuba, their lovable adopted squid-monster baby. Xiaolan and Tianyin are just one of a handful of interested parties who are looking for Wuba, including cocky gambler Tu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and his chubby monster companion Ben-Ben. Tu inevitably learns from Xiaolan and Tianyin's example, and realizes that the money he needs to dig himself out of his massive personal debt can't make him happy in the same way that a good relationship can. As you may have guessed by now, "Monster Hunt 2" is an entry in the burgeoning sub-genre of fluffy, innocuous kiddie blockbusters. A small but noteworthy amount of charm sets this disposable bauble apart from other films that came before it. For starters: Wuba is genuinely cute. He coos and giggles with enough abandon that you want to half-strangle and half-embrace him every time he's on screen (and that is often). Baihe and Boran also have low-key on-screen chemistry, and they earn belly laughs [...]



Chinese New Year: Man's Best Friend

2018-02-16T15:53:21-06:00

The following correspondence between various writers at RogerEbert.com was inspired by the Chinese New Year that begins today, February 16th. I always love reading the discussions between our wonderful group of contributors, and always find new films to seek out.—Chaz Ebert JANA MONJI As some of you might know, my life is run by dogs and I spend many weekends running with dogs, specifically collies. One of my favorite essays by Roger, was his one about his first dog, Blackie, "Blackie Come Home," which was published on 14 February 2009--my first Valentine's Day with my husband and my first one in decades without a dog.   Growing up, my first family dogs also had untimely deaths. On my own, I first owned rescued dogs, including one who met the artist of Weimaraner fame, William Wegman. The same dog attended the opening of the 1994 "Lassie" at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. He was appropriately named Laddie because my love of collies came not from watching Lassie saving Timmy, but from the books like "Lad: A Dog" by Albert Payson Terhune. (When people call my dog "Lassie," I almost always reply, "Better looking than Lassie.") Terhune's Lad was a show dog, but my Laddie was not. Even so, I once did an article for the Los Angeles Times about real dog show people as they critiqued the movie "Best in Show." Never did I imagine that I'd be one of those crazy competition people, not only competing in conformation, but also in canine agility. There are times as I pack up dog toys for the show, when I feel on the edge of becoming that Weimaraner couple, Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock).  For Valentine's Day, we like to watch "Lady and the Tramp" although the lady dog we have now is the former pound pup and the boys are the current show dogs.  Of course, as Roger's essay on Blackie notes, dealing with a dog's death is a tragedy that "leaves an empty space inside" and "Old Yeller" prepared me for that while "Frankenweenie" is a humorous howl-worthy horror story about childish wishes coming true.  I am naturally looking forward to the animated feature "Isle of Dogs" and even, the comedy "Show Dogs." My current favorite dog movies are: 1. "Best in Show"2. "Frankenweenie" (2012)3. "Lady and the Tramp" (1955)4. "Old Yeller" (1957)5. "Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog" (2004) So what are your favorite dog movies or dog-related moments?  OLIVIA COLLETTE I love the way they're characterized in "Up!" I'm partial to the short, "Feast." [embedded below] I'm also reminded of a Canadian movie called "The Wild Dogs," which co-stars one of my faves, Alberta Watson (RIP). This film wasn't particularly great, but it tried really hard, which pretty much sums up a lot of non-Québécois Canadian cinema. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/e4MYnCfDnYw" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen=""><span id="selection-marker-1" class="redactor-selection-marker"></span> ANATH WHITE Instead of favorite dog films, this is more like a confession. Seeing “Old Yeller” as a child was so upsetting that I’ve never gone near it again. (The same is true of “Bambi.”) And, although a film-loving, Spanish-speaking cousin has tsk-tsk’d me endlessly (“It’s a few moments at the start of the film...”), I began, then quit “Amores Perros,” never to return. I did, however, adore “White God.” In fact, I want to see it again right now.  And who can forget “Umberto D.?” NELL MINOW “Lassie Come Home,” of course, and “As Good as It Gets.”  Every year for Valentine’s Day I post the clip of the spaghetti kiss in “Lady and the Tramp” but I also love Pongo and Perdita in “101[...]



The History of Hollywood's Difficult Women

2018-02-16T09:20:17-06:00

When the revelations of rampant sexual harassment and assault against former Miramax CEO Harvey Weinstein came out last October, industry veterans on social media commented about how much of an open secret it was. In its wake it revealed a string of actresses whose careers, once promising, were derailed after refusing Weinstein’s advances. Since then the movement against sexual harassment in Hollywood—from #MeToo to #TimesUp—has brought forward one word that’s brought down the careers of many females and was utilized by Weinstein against those who rebuffed him: difficult. Difficult is far from a career killer for male actors; Mel Gibson’s aggressive temperament has become a part of his filmic persona. But looking at its connection to actresses throughout film history, and especially its ability to stall or outright stop a female’s career, showcases it as a term of inherent sexism, labeled and controlled by men to demean and undermine female agency.  The history of Hollywood is the history of male power, with men as gatekeepers at all levels of stardom. Actresses rumored to have hit the “casting couch” in their career have been looked down on for their presumed promiscuity, ignoring the issues inherent in these unbalanced power dynamics. The recent allegations against Hollywood manager Vincent Cirrincione remind people that these issues don’t live and die with CEOs. The unequal gender ratio on film sets leave actresses deciding whether speaking out is worth their career.  A casual Google search of the term “difficult actress” leads to a litany of lists with arbitrary “reasons” masquerading as logical explanations. “[X] uses foul language. [X] asked for an exorbitant amount of money.” Sometimes a clear-cut example isn’t even required to give audiences specific unkind thoughts about a star, as evidenced by a 2012 article by author Alexis Rhiannon that chastised actress Anne Hathaway for giving off vibes strong enough to “rub [Rhiannon] the wrong way.”  When it comes to an actress’ stardom, success is never attributed to the individual, but failure is. Since the revelations against Weinstein started it has left people to say, “I always wondered what happened to her.” Before Weinstein’s actions were exposed the common refrain was “I heard they were hard to work with.” Reasons for this title are often vague and inconsistent, and it is only now, in the wake of declarations from actresses like Annabella Sciorra, Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd that the “difficult actress” has a face and is revealed as the facade it has always been.  Actresses put their lives in the hands of (usually) male directors, agents and managers, so the feeling that Hollywood is a boy’s club becomes painfully true, forcing women to play the game or get out. In actress Uma Thurman’s recent denouncement of director Quentin Tarantino—where she alleges he placed her in an intentionally dangerous situation to secure a shot—left her conflicted. She was “afraid” to do the stunt but was swayed by Tarantino’s “furious” anger to put aside her demands that the stunt be done with a professional driver. Tarantino is just one example of the idea that actresses’ can only act under duress. Bernardo Bertulucci acknowledged he filmed a violent rape scene in 1972’s "Last Tango in Paris" without the full consent of actress Maria Schneider, and on the set of the 2004 film "Crash" director Paul Haggis didn’t alert actress Thandi Newton that co-star Matt Dillon would touch her inappropriately during an assault scene.  The idea that men are “bosses” and women are “bossy” isn’t new, and the Weinstein issues kicked off the mentality inherent in men who lord their dominance over women. As seen with ‘90s darlings like Sciorra, Sorvino and Judd, it wasn’t anything felt by the audiences, but what wasn’t felt by them in regards to their superior, Weinstein. We[...]



Irreplaceable You

2018-02-16T09:15:17-06:00

When Abbie, who thinks she is pregnant due to the bloating in her belly, instead gets a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer, her reaction is stunned shock, followed by a quip to her fiance, "At least we won't have to pay for college." He replies, "Unless it's a really smart tumor." There's a pause and he murmurs, "Too soon." "Irreplaceable You," written by actress Bess Wohl and directed by Stephanie Laing, is filled with dialogue like that, self-conscious "quips" meant to be witty gallows' humor, an adorable spin on denial. Grief does not look a certain way (and the expectation it should does a lot of damage to those going through it), but the language here is off-putting, skipping off a too-beautiful and insistently color-corrected surface. The dialogue creates an arch and artificial mood, never sounding like real talk despite the clearly talented actors (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michiel Huisman) playing the roles. The film itself seems to be in denial about its own story. The "adorable" quality starts early when it shows how Abbie and Sam met. They were eight years old on a field trip to an aquarium, and when the tour guide describes how the monogamous deep-sea angler fish bites its chosen mate, young Abbie leans over and bites Sam. They have been together ever since in an uninterrupted continuum of monogamous coupledom. Her cancer diagnosis is the first event to tarnish their eternal intimacy. Adding to the sense of unreality, the couple live in a gigantic sun-drenched loft in New York, which looks interior-decorated by a professional. Abbie doesn't know how to cook a chicken. They eat takeout. Why, then, do they have an industrial sized kitchen, the walls lined with professional-grade cookware? (The tendency to put New York film characters into completely unrealistic apartments is so common as to be mundane, and when a film accepts the space challenges most New Yorkers live with—even New Yorkers with good jobs—it's such a welcome breath of reality.) "Irreplaceable You" gives cancer the most glamorous backdrop possible. Abbie's reaction to her diagnosis is to search for a new mate for Sam, someone who can take care of him when she's gone, who can make sure he doesn't wear mismatched socks. She creates an online profile for him and interviews potential candidates. She never seems sick, despite the seriousness of her diagnosis. She throws up from her treatment once. She's not exhausted or in pain. Nothing changes in her physically. Maybe it’s unreasonable to be annoyed by this, but if you’ve experienced the death of a loved one from cancer, you know how bad it can get, how extreme the challenges can be. In “Irreplaceable You”, cancer is used mostly as a plot point to get the story started. Abbie’s cancer diagnosis is implicit as opposed to explicit, and there is no sense over the course of the film—with one or two exceptions—that the cancer is having any effect on her at all. This is a huge missed opportunity. The cancer support group Abbie attends is filled with characters played by heavy-hitting actors, many of whom far surpass both Abbie and Sam in interest. These scenes generate real sparks. There's Steve Coogan, as the group leader, who insists the crocheting he makes them do is "not a metaphor." Kate McKinnon plays a woman in such denial about her diagnosis she insists, with bright manic eyes, that she's "blessed.” Her positive attitude drives everyone crazy. She vibrates with a tragic intensity missing from the rest of the film. Christopher Walken plays Myron, a man with a terminal diagnosis, who befriends Abbie. They spend time together. Their friendship is a huge aspect of the film. Myron is mainly there to be a sounding board for Abbie's "project" to marry Sam off. He thinks she's insane and tells her she is displaying signs of "anticipatory grief," an insightful comment. There are some good scenes between Abbie and her mother (the wonderful Tamara Tunie), where Abbie push[...]



Samson

2018-02-16T09:33:09-06:00

“Samson,” the latest cinematic incarnation of the famous Biblical story, is a film that frankly wants to come across as a tribute to the big religious epics that Hollywood cranked out during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Personally, I have always had a soft spot for such films, partly for the cheerfully shameless manner in which they blend the key elements of sex, sin and salvation, and partly for the moments of genuine power and grace that would occasionally shine through the luridness. The problem with “Samson” is that while it cannot be faulted for its sincerity, it can be faulted for its sluggish pacing, inconsistent performances and lack of cinematic style that gives the proceedings a tacky feel throughout. Set in Gaza circa 1170 BC, the film opens with the Hebrews enslaved by the Philistines, led by the vile King Balek (Billy Zane … yes, Billy Zane) and his even more monstrous son Rallah (Jackson Rathbone). The Jews do have an ace in their pocket in the form of Samson (Taylor James), who was the product of a miraculous birth that foretold that he would one day lead his people to freedom with the aid of his gift of superhuman strength. However, Samson is not so sure about all of that—he has pledged to follow a pious life (one that forbids drinking alcohol, touching the dead or cutting his hair) in thanks for his God-granted gifts but thinks that there must be a more peaceful way for his people to deal with their oppressors. This attitude does not endear him to his mother and father (Lindsay Wagner and Rutger Hauer) and they are even less thrilled when he announces his attentions to marry the beautiful Philistine Taren (Frances Sholto-Douglas). Unfortunately, Rallah has by now recognized Samson to be the warrior destined to overthrow the Philistines and decides to wreak havoc at the wedding, leading to Samson finally calling on his powers and single-handedly delivering a beatdown of hundreds of Philistine soldiers armed with nothing but the jawbone of a donkey. The story picks up “Many Years Later,” and we learn that the now-extremely-hirsute Samson has accepted his position as the leader of the community, though he would still prefer to make a deal with King Balek than start a war. When his attempt at negotiation fails and leaves him on the run, he is rescued by Philistine Delilah (Caitlin Leahy), who offers to hide him. (“I have a house in the Valley of Zurich.”) What Samson doesn’t realize is that she is doing the bidding of Rallah, who wants her to deploy her seductive wiles in order to ferret out Samson’s key weakness so that Rallah can finally conquer his enemy once and for all. From this point, most of you can probably fill in the blanks as to what happens next. If you don’t know the story, be prepared for any number of surprises. “Samson” was produced by Pure Flix, an outfit that has had great success in recent years making and marketing a string of faith-based hits like “The Case for Christ” and the “God’s Not Dead” trilogy. With “Samson,” they have gone a different route by eschewing their template of modern-day parables made with a strangely adversarial tone (one pretty much suggesting that anyone not precisely in line with their way of thinking was instantly doomed to damnation) for a period tale and a more open and accommodating approach that welcomes outsiders instead of castigating them. That change alone makes “Samson” somewhat easier to sit through than its predecessors, at least for the non-faith-based crowd, but does not make up for the fact that it is pretty shaky in a number of other areas. To put it as delicately as possible, director Bruce MacDonald is no Cecil B. DeMille and his attempts to match the grandeur of Biblical epics of old mostly end up falling flat. There is zero dramatic tension to be had at any point and the presumably low budget is felt throughout in things ranging from the obviously fake[...]



The Party

2018-02-16T10:06:03-06:00

Sally Potter is a filmmaker who deserves to be more decisively seen and heard. I’m not one for avidly going to bat for socially-purposeful art, but I dare say that Potter, whose films have long addressed gender identity, political commitment, feminism, capitalism, and other concerns is absolutely, in the parlance of the times, one of the Filmmakers We Need Now. And so here she is, with a new and very powerful film, one which begins with a rage-filled Kristen Scott-Thomas opening, from the inside, a house’s front door (with an ornate brass lion’s head knocker) and pointing a gun at the camera, which is, we infer, adopting a guest’s-eye view. Some party! The credits proceed with gentle accompaniment of a guitar (played by the great musician Fred Frith, a frequent Potter collaborator) striking the uplifting tones of the William Blake hymn “Jerusalem” which extols a particular ideal for “England’s green and pleasant land.” Scott-Thomas’ character, Janet, is a progressive idealist turned successful politician, and the title party, a small affair, is meant to celebrate her promotion in the British government. Her partner, Bill (Timothy Spall) sits in the living room and spins immaculate vinyl on an immaculate sound system while Janet, still relegated to conventional female host roles cooks—and fends off texts from a romantic admirer who is obviously not Bill. The first arrivals are April (Patricia Clarkson) and her boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), an aroma therapist (he calls himself a “healer”) from whom, she almost immediately announces, she is separating. Bill offers Gottfried some wine, and Gottfried cheerfully says, “Actually I’m not drinking alcohol at the moment.” Upon hearing this, poor Bill looks as if Gottfried had just murdered his best friend. Gottfried takes it as a joke when Bill says, “I’m Bill, or at least I used to be,” but we will discover that he’s not kidding. Clarkson’s April is the real pistol of the group, so to speak. “I expect the worst of everyone in the name of reason,” she pronounces at one point. She expresses snide disapproval of the incoming guests. There’s Martha (Cherry Jones), whose partner, Jenny (Emily Mortimer) soon follows to inform her that they are expecting. And not one kid, but triplets. Arriving soon after is Cillian Murphy’s Tom, one half of a seemingly universally admired power couple, the female half of which is mysteriously missing. Speaking of pistols, Tom is carrying a real one, and regularly snorting up powders in the bathroom, the better to psych himself into using it, one supposes, but the only thing it really does is make him sweat a lot. As sarcastic bon mots are traded, political observations made, and personal revelations dropped, whatever is in the kitchen’s oven begins to burn, escalating tensions. This is a beautifully conceived and executed chamber comedy/drama with tragedy at its core. Potter’s characters are committed to a better world even as they make their own modes of living completely dysfunctional. The convoluted relationship knots that bind these characters are in some respects hangovers from the counterculture, but Potter isn’t doing anything so facile as renouncing the counterculture’s politics. Instead, “The Party” is a fierce, trenchant look at how prevailing social mores coopt political commitment when we’re not even looking. And once Bill tells why he “used to be,” the movie’s debates and squabbles move into territories of existential dread. As serious as things get, “The Party” never stops being funny, sometimes terribly so. “I believe in truth and reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation” says a broken-down Janet near the end, right before biting into her own wrist. Shot in a velvety widescreen black-and-white, performed with utmost commitment by its unimpeachable cast, it’s by my lights [...]



Early Man

2018-02-17T15:41:53-06:00

The hero of "Early Man" is a caveman named Dug. If you smiled while reading that, this is definitely your kind of movie—the kind where you think, "Surely they wouldn't make a joke that basic" right before the movie makes it, then follows up with an implied soft-shoe routine, a "ta-dah!" and outstretched hands.  Director Nick Park, the mind behind Wallace and Gromit, treats this stop-animated film about Stone Age people battling Bronze Age people as a pretext for roughly ninety minutes of alternately cornball and shameless bits. These are interspersed with conversations between a dumb character and a character designed as "the smart one" only because he's not quite as dimwitted as the person he's talking to. There are really only two kinds of characters in "Early Man," innocent fools and smug twits who will eventually get their comeuppance. The story is mostly a pretext for gags, as well as for impressive bits of comedy staging by Park, who takes a solo directing credit on a feature for the first time here. Park and his screenwriters, Merling Crossingham and Will Becker, seem to be channeling the likes of The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Mel Brooks: heroes of comedy so primordial that their official portraits should be cave paintings.  The movie never lives up to its magnificently silly opening sequence, which re-creates the extinction of the dinosaurs. Park's camera slowly dollies back from a raging volcanic eruption to reveal a classic tableau of a triceratops battling a Tyrannosaurus rex, followed by configurations of humans battling each other (one bloke tries to chew another's bare foot as if it were a meatball hero). The subsequent discovery of the meteorite's remains in a crater leads, inevitably, to the invention of football, or as we Yanks call it, soccer: a cave person tries to pick up the smoldering rock, which is shaped like a regulation size 5 ball right down to the hexagonal patterning, but the ball is red-hot, so the cave person drops it, and another one stupidly picks it up and drops it, too, and it rolls to the feet of a third cave person, who yelps at having his feet burned and kicks it it away. And that's how "Early Man" becomes a sports movie.  The story, er, kicks in sometime later on the evolutionary calendar. The descendants of early humans, represented by the goodhearted but dim Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and the equally goodhearted but even dimmer tribal leader Bobnar (Timothy Spall), are threatened by the army of a nearby Bronze Age society, which barges into the tribe's peaceful, forested valley atop armored mammoths and lays claim to the area’s bronze deposits. Dug gets captured and ends up in the Bronze Agers’ town, becomes smitten with a pan-seller named Goona (Maisie Williams)  and winds up an arena where the main spectacle is football. And it's here that Dug gets the bright idea of challenging the champion local team, Real Bronze, to a match. The winner gets possession of the valley and its bronze deposits.  The bad guys' leader, Lord North (Tom Hiddleston), thinks this is a great idea. His team are professionals. Dug is an amateur and a chowderhead to boot, and there's no indication that his people even know what football is, let alone how to play it. The first training session is a disaster. When he tells his fellow tribespeople that they have to attack the ball, they take him literally. They seem baffled and annoyed when he explains that football is a foot-driven game, and that you can only use your hands for playing goalie, throwing the ball in from out-of-bounds, and signaling, and not for, say, punching someone in the face and picking up the ba[...]



Nostalgia

2018-02-16T09:15:17-06:00

The characters and settings change but the tone remains the same throughout “Nostalgia"—and it is relentlessly somber. A strong cast giving their all—including Jon Hamm, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, Catherine Keener and Amber Tamblyn—can’t do much with such heavy-handed, self-serious material. We are expected to dig deep with these people not long after they’ve been introduced to us, but the emotional response the film seeks is rarely earned. Director Mark Pellington—whose eclectic career ranges from thrillers like “The Mothman Prophecies” to the “U2 3D” concert film to the overly wacky Shirley MacLaine comedy “The Last Word”—explores the significance we place on items from the past to transport us to a particular time or connect us with beloved people. He has said he was inspired to ponder notions of memory and grief in the years following the deaths of both his wife and mother in the mid-2000s. Sadly, what he’s come up with feels like a never-ending dirge. Pellington is working from an uncharacteristically sentimental screenplay from Alex Ross Perry, known for his biting, incisive and often merciless portrayals of human nature in the independent films he’s written and directed himself, including “The Color Wheel” and “Queen of Earth.” (His latest, which also happens to be opening this month—“Golden Exits”—also features a central character who’s an archivist sorting through the letters, photographs and documents of his late father-in-law’s life.) Their themes are certainly universal, though. In the process of moving, reorganizing or struggling through the aftermath of our own loved ones’ deaths, who among us hasn’t found a box full of old letters and pictures and gotten sucked down a rabbit hole of laughter and tears? Every once in a while, Pellington hits his target in terms of conveying that sensation with accuracy and insight. But mostly, those moments are lost within the nap-inducing slog that is the film as a whole. Mercifully, a few scenes crackle with life—particularly the ones featuring Hamm and Keener as siblings who still bicker and tease each other as if they were teenagers. Annalise Basso also brings some much-needed vibrancy as Keener’s college-bound daughter and the voice of reason, who points out that all this stuff is just stuff and it’s not worth agonizing over, especially when so much can be found or stored online now. But first, we start with Dern’s character: a cantankerous widower named Ronnie who’s unwilling to part with the many items he’s kept crammed into his cramped Los Angeles home over the years. John Ortiz plays a saintly and sympathetic insurance assessor named Daniel who pays him a visit to see whether anything might be of value. He’s there at the request of Ronnie’s pregnant granddaughter (Tamblyn), who’s growing increasingly frustrated with his stubbornness from the comfort of her suburban sprawl. Then we follow Daniel to the scorched remains of a house owned by Burstyn’s character, a widow named Helen. As Daniel and Helen wander through the ashes and rubble of the place she and her husband called home for 30 years, Helen describes to him the importance of the one item she thought to grab as she was fleeing the flames: a baseball signed by Ted Williams, which has been in her husband’s family for generations. Then we follow Helen to Las Vegas, where she meets up with a sports memorabilia dealer named Will (Hamm) who can give her an estimate as to the ball’s worth. Will is working through his own grief and loss, of course: the end of his marriage, which has left him in an emotional purgatory nine years later. But then we follow Will, who must reach back even further into the past when he returns to his abandoned childhood home. There, he and his sister, Donna [...]



Western

2018-02-16T09:14:17-06:00

Despite what the title might suggest, “Western” is not a traditional oater by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, German director Valeska Grisebach, making her first film since 2006’s “Longing,” uses a number of narrative tropes and bits of iconography that will be familiar to fans of the genre to present viewers with a modern-day meditation on subjects ranging from toxic masculinity to the tensions and occasional triumphs that can arise when two disparate cultures are thrown together. The result is a slow burn of a drama with a restrained tone that may put off some viewers, but which will captivate those who responded to its low-key wavelength. As the film opens, a group of German workers have been sent off to a remote area of the Bulgarian countryside near the border with Greece, in order to begin construction of a hydroelectric power plant. Consciously or not, many of them adopting an immediate sense of superiority towards what they presume to be the backwards area of the world that they are bringing into the modern world with their technological know-how—their sense of superiority coming through in acts ranging from posting a German flag over their worksite as though they were some kind of conqueror to the way in which one of them harasses a trio of local women swimming nearby. If one were to call them out on these micro-aggressions, they would almost certainly claim that they meant nothing by them, but they appear to be largely incapable of realizing how badly they are coming off to the locals. The exception in the crew is Meinhard (Meinhard Nuemann), a recent addition who keeps largely to himself and does not join in with the horseplay of the others, much to the consternation of his co-workers, especially the increasingly hot-headed Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the one doing the harassing of the swimmers. One day, while off on his own, Meinhard comes across a white horse in a field and rides it into the nearby town, ostensibly to buy some cigarettes but presumably also to encounter the locals without having his fellow workers escalate tensions through their boorishness. Things get off to an uncomfortable start when a woman in the store refuses to do business with him because of his German heritage but Meinhard simply rolls with it rather than ramps things up. He eventually befriends a number of the townspeople, chiefly Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), the area’s powerful stone merchant and owner of the horse, and his nephew, Walko. As the plant construction drags on, Meinhard makes more frequent journeys into the town and while he and the townspeople do not share a common language, they take the time to find a way to communicate with each other through simple phrases and gestures and through their sometimes awkward conversations, we begin to get a better sense of who the seemingly mysterious Meinhard is (we discover that he is a former Legionnaire and that he had a brother who is now deceased) and that these locals, rather than his countrymen back at the site, are providing him with the sense of community that has been absent from his life for far too long. Although “Western” may sound slightly formulaic regarding its basic plotting, Grisebach finds an approach to the material that eschews melodrama for a more naturalistic approach—ranging from a visual style that observes most of the action from a certain remove and without flashy camera moves or rapid-fire editing to a screenplay said to have been largely improvised. On the one hand, the film’s extremely relaxed pace and lack of an overt dramatic arc for Meinhard will probably end up frustrating some viewers who may find it to be a little too meandering for its own good. At the same time, Grisebach does an excellent job of showing the loner Meinhard as he begins his initiall[...]