Movie Reviews
Saturday , November 18 2017

2015 Films

(based on non-festival, theatrical U.S. release date)

45 Years.  You know, an otherwise leisurely stroll home from the cinema with your spouse should not have to include a conversation reaffirming your reasons for not wanting to have children. Thanks for that, Andrew Haigh.  (Grade: B)

7 Chinese Brothers.  All things considered, the story behind the eponymous song by R.E.M. is more memorable than director Bob Byington’s feature-length meditation on the zen of disappointment.  That said, 7 Chinese Brothers may just be essential viewing for aficionados of Jason Schwartzman and canine thespians.  (Grade: C+)

Alléluia.  (Grade: C+)

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records.  As one might expect from a trailer that includes the accolades of celebrity fans Elton John, Dave Grohl, and Bruce Springsteen, Colin Hanks offers a loving tribute for those who loved Tower Records and wondered just what the hell happened back in 2006.  (Truth be told, I would be included in that group, as time didn’t seem to pass at the same pace whenever I walked through those doors.)  But what about everybody else in the audience?  At another level (albeit perhaps a bit too shallow), Hanks also tells the story of the rise and fall of the post-WWII entrepreneur set, the life cycle of the American Dream struggling to straddle the 20th and 21st centuries.  In doing so, surprisingly little time is spent on what was probably the biggest direct culprit in the specific fall of Tower – Napster.  Rather, Hanks wisely keeps the camera pointed inward, as the principles of this “family” business take their own share of responsibility for the fall (i.e., over-leveraged ambition).  Consequently, All Things Must Pass has a somewhat broader appeal, in terms of characters and narrative, than one might expect from the trailer.  (Grade: B-)

Amy.  (Grade: B+)

Animals.  A meandering, undisciplined, and forgettable love story/character study without the requisite depth or breadth … But wait a sec, isn’t that the guy who played the insane Joker minion that Harvey Dent almost blew away in The Dark Knight (2008)?   (Grade: C-)

Anomalisa.  Who’s voice is it that I hear?  Is it in my head or in my ear?  (Grade: A-)

Ant-Man.  This is the most fun I’ve had at a Marvel film since Iron Man 3 (2013).  I am happy to report that the story and screenwriting credits for Edgar Wright are still in tact.  Somewhat, anyway.  (Grade: B-)

The Assassin.  I don’t have much to say for myself.  When all is said and done, I struggle with the title character and her arc, which appears to be set by the second sequence of the prologue (the abandoned assassination).  After that, Yinniang wanders around like an immortal ghost, virtually voiceless, a presence spurning others into action/inaction.  On that note, while much has been made of the practical fight scenes with short blades to close the spaces, I believe I saw a little bouncy flying here and there (a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)), and her participation in those scenes is almost entirely reactive.  Ultimately, the difficulty in connecting with her character, and how the perspectives shift, made for a rather ephemeral experience.(Grade: B)

Avengers: Age of Ultron.  The strict formula at play here is to give the gluttonous fanboys exactly what they want – from the ridiculously cartoonish “single take” that opens this purportedly live action film to the groan-inducing complete-the-catchphrase ending.  But by my math:  the menace of the supervillain’s voiceover in teaser > the menace of the supervillain in the actual movie (I mean, are those metal lips?);  the personality of Thor’s hammer > the personality of Thor; Bryan Singer’s Quicksilver > Joss Whedon’s Quicksilver; and a 50% increase in the number of Avengers = 50% less fun.  (Grade: C-)

Before I Disappear.  When I reviewed director Shawn Christiansen’s Oscar-winning short film, Curfew, in 2013, I said that “this is the one nominee that would work best expanded as a feature film.”  But with this feature length adaptation arriving in 2015, I hate to admit that I was wrong.  As tantalizing as a stylized fusion of After Hours (1985) and You Can Count on Me (2000) may seem on paper, much of the magic of the original short film is lost with inflation.  And if one is going to premise a dramedy on the main character’s attempts at suicide being interrupted by a babysitting gig, one needs as much magic as one can get.  (Grade: C)

Best of Enemies.  Decades before the punditry spewing political dogma became institutionalized with FoxNews and MSNBC, a flailing network (ABC) decided to add a wildcard to its coverage of the tumultuous 1968 Republican and Democratic Conventions: mix conservative founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley, with the liberal writer/provocateur, Gore Vidal, as co-commentators and let the sparks fly.  And boy, did they ever.  In Best of Enemies, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville paint a somewhat enlightening portrait of two men whose mutual ideological hatred was profound, contextualizing their clash for a modern audience.  As Gordon/Neville demonstrate (with the aid of the subjects’ family, friends, colleagues, and talking heads), both Buckley and Vidal had a good deal in common – both had privileged upbringings, both turned out to be narcissistic elitists, and both attempted and failed to become politicians.  But what could have been the most relevant aspect of the film is never sufficiently punctuated – the very nature of the ideologue.  The debates were anything but informative, devolving into a series of personal attacks that hit a crescendo with Vidal famously provoking Buckley with the slur “crypto-Nazi” – a term which, by definition, presumes to know what can never be known, what really lies in the mind of another.  Instead of taking the unique opportunity to use that formative exchange to expose ideology for what it is (i.e., self-righteous team sport dressed up like intellectualism), Gordon/Neville instead utilize their interviewees, ironically enough, to predictably pontificate on who “won.” And in characterizing the debate as a rather obvious harbinger of the media of the future, Gordon/Neville never bother to point out that while Buckley and Vidal each preached that the other’s ideology could bring about an abrupt end to American democracy, neither proved to be right.  (Grade: B-)

The Big Short. … Pretty much, this says it all for me.  (Grade: A)

Blind.  Cue the cinephile’s nightmare.  (Grade: A-)

Bone Tomahawk.  I confess, I had fun with this bloody tale of the abduction of a murderous thief (David Arquette) and a spunky doctor (Lili Simmons) and the pursuit of the marauding savages by her hobbled husband (Patrick Wilson), the adventurous bachelor (Matthew Fox), the no-nonsense sheriff (Kurt Russell), and his “backup” deputy (Richard Jenkins).  One early reviewer characterized this feature debut by writer/director C. Craig Zahler as a mashup of The Searchers (1956) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which is understandable, if not a bit reductive.  Suffice to say, Zahler deconstructs the horror and western narratives like two separate jigsaw puzzles, throws all the pieces into a hat, shakes it all up, and then grabs as many pieces as he can hold (along with a piece of Jurassic Park III (2001)) and crams them into one jagged two hour and twelve minute picture.  We get a standard horror film prologue (a la monster-provoking desecration, featuring Sid Haig, no less) and a standard horror film resolution (a la blood and guts, although there is one particularly haunting shot, depicting the women of the cannibal tribe, that is provocative in more ways than one); and in between, we get elements from both the old school and new school westerns – the gritty epic trek fueled by loyalty/justice/revenge, the formal dialogue peppered with enigmatic one-liners and dry humor, etc.  Not all the pieces fit, so there’s a little roughness around the edges (particularly with that dialogue).  And the film feels a bit too conscious of its own genre play. But with modest b-movie aspirations, it all kinda works, thanks in large part to an overqualified cast that is clearly game (particularly Jenkins as the town idiot/comic relief and Simmons as the film’s female presence/intelligence check).  (Grade: B)

Bridge of Spies.  Spielberg and Hanks, doing what they do best.  (Grade: B)

Brooklyn.  Not nearly the risk factor for early onset diabetes as the trailer suggests, Brooklyn (or The Last Temptation of Eilis) should be required viewing for anyone who loved The Immigrant (2014), and The Immigrant should be required viewing for anyone who loves Brooklyn.  (Grade: B-)

Buzzard.  Poor writing, poor acting, poor photography, and poor editing all make for poor “satire.”  Yet Buzzard seems custom made for those champions of microbudget indies who have more of an appreciation for things like “energy” than basic levels of craft.  (Grade: D)

Carol.  The form is all romance; the substance is something else – well, almost.  One particular piece of dialogue between our May-November, star-crossed lovers (Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara) that stuck out to me – suggesting that desire may be little more than a mutual impulse to take – ultimately made me wonder whether the film should have ended a few minutes before it actually did.  (Grade: B+)

Chi-Raq.  “No peace, no pussy!”  Now that is a clarion call for female empowerment, as brought to you by a couple of hetero men circa 411 BCE and 2015 AD (the latter of whom apparently didn’t get the status: rape culture! memo).  And just for the white liberals over 40 in the audience, we have John Cusack literally preaching about gun violence to a black congregation.  To be sure, I’ve never been accused of being a feminist or a progressive; but even to me, it seems that the label “satire” shouldn’t shield Spike Lee’s rather heavy-handed and self-righteous polemic on contemporary social injustice from these particular criticisms.  Incongruity in political correctness aside, Lee’s intended message is certainly one that warrants some venom, and as a fan of Do the Right Thing (1989) (which is formally invoked here), I really dug the earnest energy for the first 30 minutes or so. But the efficacy of this bold adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata suffers most from a lack of discipline and commitment to its own narrative conceits (e.g., verse as dialogue).  And had the script been much tighter, Chi-Raq might have felt more like a punch in the gut than a polite slap to the cheek.  (Grade: C+)

Cinderella.  This latest live-action rendering of Cinderella certainly has its heart in the right place and its moments.  (Almost all of those moments can be attributed to Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother and Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother … and no, I don’t have those reversed.)  I try to judge each film for what it is, but at this point in cultural history, this material just feels too tired to be played this straight.  And to be honest, if I had an 8 year-old daughter and could only take her to one Disney fantasy film in 2015, it would definitely be Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  (Grade: C)

Clouds of Sils Maria.  I want to see the movie where Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) are competing for the same role in the next Charlie Kaufman project. How can we make this happen?  (Grade: B-)

Cobain: Montage of Heck.  Although drawing from an impressive amount of varied biographical media, what keeps Brett Morgen’s aggressively stylized documentary from being great is the sheer level of indulgence.  (It’s 30-45 minutes too long, judging roughly from the number of times I said to myself “yeah, alright I got it.”)  To Morgen’s credit, however, Montage of Heck is no exercise in hagiography: setting all the mythology aside, Kurt Cobain was ultimately an inconsolable depressive who was terminally full of shit (e.g., witness the number of occasions, in public and private, he feels the need to dis Guns ‘N Roses, or his diary entries following the birth of his child), and the mere fact that he was acutely aware of his own contradictions mattered little in the end.  We didn’t lose Cobain; he was always lost in his own head.  [PRODUCTION NOTE: The actual interpretation of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Tori Amos would have worked so much better than that piano-with-children’s-choir approximation.]  (Grade: B-)

Cop Car.  The setup is all there in the trailer: Two 10 year-old runaway boys (James Freedom-Jackson, Hays Wellford) stumble upon an empty cop car parked in a deserted ravine and decide to go for a joyride; said cop (Kevin Bacon) returns, in secretus interruptus, and commences pursuit.  Co-writer/director Jon Watts brings an 80s-era Spielbergian perspective into a very 90s-era Coen brothers’ world.  But rather than simply exploiting the innocent-children-in-peril scenario for easy emotional payoffs, Watts serves the predominant genre at play (thriller, more than coming-of-age) by allowing his two young protagonists the freedom to be as dumb as they need to be – as they should be – to ramp up the tension in an already volatile mix.   (Grade: B)

Creed.  If the original Rocky (1976) is a great boxing movie – and I would contend that it is – it’s greatness lies in the fact that its title character was imbued with a certain sense of innocence, and his victory was so much about beating the World Champion Apollo Creed as in claiming his own dignity.  In this sequel, writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station (2013)) retitles, and recontextualizes, that original narrative through Creed’s son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), who is out to claim his own legitimacy.  In doing so, Coogler peppers his own contemporary perspective on the material with a lot familiar beats – perhaps too many – some of which work better (the return of an aging Sylvester Stallone) than others (the enigmatic concluding jumping-up-and-down-after-training sequence). The resulting film is relatively satisfying, as revisits of established franchises go, if not a bit tired.  (Grade: B-)

Creep.  In this mumblehorror two-hander, director/writer/actor Patrick Brice plays a videographer hired by a terminally man who wishes to document his last days for his unborn son (writer/actor Mark Duplass).  As you could guess from the title and/or movie poster, bad stuff happens.  Burdened by rather strained improvisation within the rather tired found footage format, Creep is simply not creepy enough or funny enough to be effective in terms of horror, spoof, or any combination thereof.  (Grade: C-)

Crimson Peak.  Pure plastic pastiche.   As a fan of The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), I eagerly anticipated Guillermo del Toro’s purported return to form.  As such, the self-referential yet earnest Crimson Peak is the single most disappointing film of the year.  To sum it up quite simply, bludgeoning design and CGI elements are not substitutes for an original and authentic sense of imagination, and carefully-chosen genre labeling (e.g., “adult fairy tale”, “bloody gothic romance”) is no excuse for vapid writing and unconvincing performances of uncompelling characters (with Mia Wasikowska’s lead receptacle for the melodramatic ectoplasm being the biggest offender here).  (Grade: D+)

Dark Places.  Like last year’s Gone Girl, this second big screen adaption of a Gillian Flynn novel also demonstrates Flynn’s penchant for building her pulpy narratives as much upon the way society responds to crime as the typical genre constructs of the crime itself.  In Dark Places, Flynn starts with the major facets of the West Memphis Three case, adds in our morbid fascination with serial killers, seasons it up with our contradictory views on assisted suicide, and brings the stew to a boil.  As with Gone Girl, the producers here have assembled an impressive cast (Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks); but in contrast with last year’s breakout hit, they made the fatal mistake of approaching all of this as a straight drama (rather than embracing the melodrama) and aiming for mere competence (rather than inspiration) with the choice of screenwriter/director Giles Paquet-Brenner, whose output on the page and on the screen alternates between pedestrian and clumsy.  Perhaps some of the ingredients are a bit stale (with four documentaries and one feature film on the WM3 at this point), but the auteurist in me would like to think that a David Fincher could have made something more interesting out of this recipe than slightly darker Lifetime fare.  (Grade: C-)

De Palma. “De Palma” is essentially one long interview with director Brian De Palma, chronologically and broadly covering virtually his whole filmography, intercut with photos and scenes.  There’s nothing particularly revelatory here, in substance or in presentation.  But even to someone who is really not a fan, some of De Palma’s stories and observations are pretty entertaining.  (Grade: C+)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl.  (Grade: A)

Digging for Fire.  When it comes to writer/director Joe Swanberg, I kinda liked Drinking Buddies (2013); I kinda didn’t like Happy Christmas (2014); I kinda … Uh, sorry, dozed off there for a sec. … So Swanberg is probably never going to knock my socks off. But I kinda like it when he drops the mumblecore affectations and tempers the reliance on improv.  Digging for Fire tracks the separate misadventures in emotional regression of a married couple stuck in the rut of the early years of parenthood (Rosemarie DeWitt and Jake Johnson).  Swanberg’s latest pendulum swing to more conventional filmmaking is buttressed by a rather impressive supporting cast (Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Sam Rockwell, Jenny Slate, Sam Elliot, and the inevitably chivalrous Orlando Bloom) and hampered by few unnecessary flourishes of magical realism.  Yes, letterboxer Brian Scofield, it does feel like a cinematic repentance for some sort of real life infidelity.  But DeWitt is particularly convincing as a modern woman for whom yoga, pop psychology, and living the Whole Foods dream just aren’t cutting it.  And I must admit that I was drawn in by Swanberg’s little details (e.g., the incorporation of the Uber driver as sounding board, Johnson’s shirt inside out as he exits the final scene, and a Jane Adams cameo!)  (Grade: B-)

Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four  .Well, at least I can now safely say that I have absolutely no interest in seeing Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four.  (Grade: C-)

Dope.  Notwithstanding a few weaknesses in the narrative seams, relative newcomer Shameik Moore brings the right kind of nervous charisma and repressed energy as the lead to sell this contemporary update of Risky Business (1983).  (Grade: B-)

The Duke of Burgundy.  Drawing unapologetically (and perhaps ironically) from both the visual and audio aesthetics of European softcore classics like Emmanuelle (1974), The (ironically titled) Duke of Burgundy starts out as a lesbian riff on Secretary (2002) and quickly devolves into a rather baroque and tepid contemplation on “the banality of Eros” (Mike D’Angelo), complete with lepidopterological red herrings.  Suffice to say, I was expecting something far more provocative, intellectually and sensually.  (Grade: C+)

The End of the Tour.  Highly educated white males converse with each other about random stuff in 1996.  I guess I should have like this a lot more than I did.  (Grade: C+)

Ex MachinaA woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.  (Grade: A)

Experimenter.  I’m fascinated by the subject matter of Experimenter – sociologist Stanley Milgram, and specifically, his (in)famous obedience experiments that presented uncomfortable truths about broader humanity. I found Peter Sarsgaard to be convincing as Milgram.  I was even game for Sarsgaard/Milgram narrating to the viewer through the fourth wall and the obvious use of static and matte backgrounds.  But this film’s chronological, yet meandering and undisciplined, construction – vacillating between straight biopic and art-y contemplation – makes for a surprisingly slight and forgettable experience.  Also surprising: this would not make a good pairing with The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015).  (Grade: C)

Faults.  In the opening scene of writer/director Riley Stearns’ Faults, deposed talk show host/author/cult expert Ansel (Leland Osler) attempts to cop a free meal with a used hotel voucher.  About two-thirds of the way through the film, Ansel awakens in the middle of the night to an episode of his former TV show playing, and in the background, a father is having sex with his daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a cult member who Ansel has been hired to deprogram, while her mother sits by and watches.   Now, the fatal flaw of this film is not the seemingly incongruent mix of the uncomfortably comical and downright creepy; rather, it is the unearned transitions.  Notwithstanding the admirably committed performances of Osler and Winstead, the development of the relationship between Ansel and Claire necessary to realize the film’s ambitions is simply underwritten.  The net result is a bold, but unconvincing, debut feature that unintentionally lives up to its name.  (Grade: C+)

Focus.  Well, 2 for 3 ain’t bad, 2015 Margot Robbie.  (Grade: C-)

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem.  Marriage and religion are but mere institutions. Love is just an idea. And free will?  Perhaps it is inevitable, perhaps only an illusion. … While I appreciated Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s Golden Globe-nominated film more than I loved it, there’s much to appreciate. Vaguely reminiscent of two of my favorite films – Rashomon (1950) and 12 Angry Men (1957) – Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is set almost exclusively in a Rabbinical courtroom, as the title character (also Ronit Elkabetz) simply seeks an end to her relatively undramatic marriage of many years.  While trapped in that drab white setting with a script that seems more suited for the stage, the distinctiveness of the directors’ cinematic conveyance emerges in terms of point of view – sometimes overt (the first shot of the film as Viviane’s husband looks over at us), sometimes more subtle (a glance down at Viviane’s exposed leg after a man testifies).  And although the narrative saunters a few too many times between tragedy and farce, it also just manages to transcend a very specific and narrow indictment of the sexist Israeli judicial system to expose the more general and broader clashes between those aforementioned institutions, ideas, inevitabilities, and illusions.  (Grade: B)

The Gift.  I have been anticipating Joel Edgerton’s next move from behind the camera (following his co-story credit on The Rover (2014)), and this well-cast directorial debut did not disappoint.  Buttressed by Edgerton’s own refreshingly un-enigmatic performance, The Gift has everything an effective mainstream thriller should – a palpable sense of tension, an ending that will certainly divide audiences, and just the right dashes of contemporary topicality and socio-economic subtext.  (Grade: A-)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.  (Grade: B+)

Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh).  (Grade: B)

Grandma.  A teen granddaughter comes to her prickly grandmother for help in getting an abortion. Some other things happen too.  Although there is nothing revelatory about this little film by writer/director Paul Weitz (About a Boy (2002)), there is an affecting honesty to the (mostly) subdued emotional content, aided in large part by the (mostly) subtle supporting performances by Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Hardin, Judy Greer, and Sam Elliott.  And of course, there is the incomparable Lily Tomlin, who doesn’t disappoint with material that is less calculated and contrived than that of her recent Netflix series, Grace and Frankie.  (Grade: B-)

The Hateful Eight.  (Grade: C+)

Heaven Knows What.  With a DYI aesthetic guaranteed to thrill the champions of microbudgets, an electronic score guaranteed to turn on the hipsters, and nonprofessional casting guaranteed to score the fillmmakers a spot on NPR (real homeless addicts – one of whom overdosed after filming! this film is important!), Heaven Knows What seems to be topping a trend in this year’s indie cinema that’s recontextualizing the term “heroin chic” (see also, e.g., Animals) … So junkies have almost as much love for each other as they have self-pity. So junkies want to get out the cycle of addiction almost as much as they want their next fix. So junkies are people too.  And? … Alternate recommendation: If you can get a hold of it, Christiane F. (1981) (Grade: C-)

Hitchcock/Truffaut.  It’s damn near impossible to not enjoy this film, especially if the eponymous tome has always been your first (and often last) reference for numerous revisits to the ouevre of Alfred Hitchcock.   But I still feel a bit of disappointment with the breadth of these 80 minutes – first, a brief tribute to the book itself and the director who undertook to write it; then a light sampling of the substance of that book; then a cursory exploration of Hitchcock’s work (primarily, Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960)) by contemporary directors.  I rarely take a doc to task for its brevity, but it’s hard not to see this use of the Hitchcock/Truffaut brand as a lost opportunity.  Drawing upon the text and interviews as a springboard to the observations of two different generations of living filmmakers, a 6+ part series could’ve been been a really definitive work.  I mean, jeez, they gave O.J. 7+ hours.

An Honest Liar.  I highly recommend this well-constructed documentary to anyone who is not already familiar with magician/iconoclast, James Randi.  As for the efficacy of the filmmakers’ attempts to bring to bear the contemporary political issues of immigration and same-sex marriage – well, let’s just say I’m skeptical.  (Grade: B-)

Hot Tub Time Machine 2.  It doesn’t quite pass the six-laugh test, but it is bold enough to have more male frontal nudity than Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) … At least, you know, that’s what I heard, because I would never waste two hours of my life on something as vacuous as Fifty Shades of Grey.  (Grade: D)

Inside Out.  As cute as individual moments are, as appropriate as the voice casting is, and as much as I can appreciate Disney flirting with the themes of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), ultimately I could not buy in to Inside Out due to the purity of its rather bold concept being fundamentally adulterated by its own sense of traditional narrative necessity.  That is, the filmmakers: (i) present five characters, each of whom are supposed to represent distinct emotions inside an 11 year-old girl’s head (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust); and then (ii) proceed to give those characters their own range of divergent emotions (e.g., Joy cries? really?)  It seems to me they were simply too ambitious and too literal in devising and servicing a consistently convincing conceit for a feature-length film (i.e., with the need for character arcs and the like to keep the target audience interested).  Much like the wave of adaptations of SNL skits, Pixar often tends to overcook and pad a single good idea into 90+ minutes.  (e.g., Lots of people remember a particular early segment of Wall-E (2008) and Up (2009); but relatively few remember moments from the rather standard fare that followed those segments.) … Also, I could not help but notice in the theater that virtually all of the laughs were coming from the adults – not the many kids in attendance.  And really, why would 8 year-olds understand settings like Abstract Thought and The Subconscious?  Perhaps those films for children and those films for the “inner child” in adults may not overlap as much as the parents would like to think … I’m sorry, I just went sad again, didn’t I.  (Grade B-)

It Follows.  (Grade: A-)

James White.  I have a few thoughts about films tauted as “powerful character stud[ies].” First off, as I came to realize in consuming copious amounts ’90s indies, that term – “character study” – tends to translate as follows: The viewer will spend a lot of time with one particular character, but there won’t be much of an arc.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the truth of the piece may demand otherwise; but at a minimum, the filmmaker needs to build some interest in that character to move the audience. And although I may be in the minority here, solid performances (which apply here) will ultimately get such a film only so far.  In this case, James White (Christopher Abbott) is, in many ways, the stereotypical white middle-class millennial in a well-trodden state of arrested development: unmotivated, entitled, self-pitying, and as a result thereof, angry.  James White cares about his terminally-ill mother (Cynthia Nixon) – the last buoy he has to cling on to until he’s forced to swim for himself; but even that part of his personality is rendered rather rotely (e.g., an unpersuasively-written scene between James and his mother in the bathroom immediately comes to mind).  As one might expect, James White gets anxious, whines, broods, cries, tunes out, lashes out, and in one scene, even manages to flirt (because he has to have some game or he wouldn’t have made it this far).  But there isn’t much else to this film.  And more broadly speaking, I could walk down to Second in downtown Austin just past happy hour, throw a rock toward the general direction of the bar, and hit a James White – that is to say, I’ve seen this character many times before – both in real life and in film. So … Why should I care about James White?  Writer/director James Mond never really answers that question.  (Grade: C+)

Jauja.  David Ehrlich perfectly encapsulated this one: Andrei Tarkovsky directs The Searchers (1956) through a slide projector.  And “haunting” is about the best way to describe this film, as Viggo Mortensen turns in an admirable performance in the service of a filmmaker who chooses to focus more upon the moments between the dialogue and the action.  All that said, I cannot remember the last time that I had to dock a feature film a whole star for its epilogue.  (Grade: C+)

Joy.  Writer/director David O. Russell continues his penchant for turning real-life stories into cinematic fables (American Hustle (2013)) – in this instance, the rocky rise of Joy Mangano from single mother barely making ends meet to HSN mogul.  Russell’s love for this strong female character clearly shines through, undeterred and unaffected by the inevitable criticisms of the fourth-wave feminists in the audience.  Although the film certainly does have its moments (for those who can appreciate Russell’s voice), there is also a lack of consistent rhythm to this as a piece.  The first act is appropriately chaotic – perhaps, more so than any of Russell’s films since I Heart Huckabees (2004); but then the narrative shifts toward the linear, box-ticking biopic 101 formula, lest the Weinsteins lose their Oscar-baited audience.  That said, Jennifer Lawrence has simply never been better doing that thing she does in a Russell film.  (Grade: B-)

Jurassic World.  With expectations adjusted appropriately for the franchise effect, Jurassic World is a “fun” enough big budget summer monster movie experience.  Going into this with fresh viewings of the first three films, at times I wished that: (1) the filmmakers had eased up on the motif shout-outs (indeed, the finale plays like a half-hearted ode to nostalgia itself); and (2) the CGI was as carefully constructed as the casting.  Twenty-two summers have passed, IMAX and 3D have become ubiquitous, and yet, nothing in this film looks or sounds as convincing as the first appearance of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park (1993). But hey, you just can’t go wrong with Chris Pratt these days.  And look – there’s Jake Johnson looking all nerdy-but-manly and Lauren Lapkus being all mousy-but-empowered!  You know, for the cool kids.   (Grade: C+)

The Keeping Room.  A “Feminist Western”?  Sure, I’ll buy that.  In fact, I have to wonder if the explicit attempt in the opening intertitle to contextualize this narrative as a what-war-does-to-men contemplation may be a case of the filmmakers doth protesting too much – I think there may be something much broader, and more fundamentally disturbing, being said about the contrary natures of, and devolution of relationships between, the genders. But I need to chew on that one a bit more … In any event, when it comes to the other reviews of this little-seen Civil War melodrama/rape-revenge genre film, I would give a bit more slack to first feature scribe Julia Hart with respect to the dialogue. And I would also add that Brit Marling (who took over after Olivia Wilde dropped out) is at the top of her game.  (Grade: B)

Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Since this latest R-rated comic book adaptation from writer/director Matthew Vaughn practically cries out for a reductive description, how about class warfare done Tarantino-style?  Or maybe Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) meets 28 Days Later (2002)? Whatever the description, as with Kick-Ass (2010), I admire Vaughn’s sheer audacity.  (There is a rather unnecessary gag slipped in the backdoor that is likely to color the viewer’s opinion of the film with a parting gasp, groan, or chuckle.  In the interests of full disclosure, I chuckled.) But like as I left the multiplex after viewing last year’s Edge of Tomorrow, I just wish one of these mainstream genre-defiers (or defilers?) could strike the right balance between critiquing and indulging in the clichés – assuming, of course, that there is such a balance.  (Grade: B-)

Krampus.  Get in the Christmas spirit or go to Hell! … Great idea, great cast, not so great execution.  (Grade: C+)

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.  (Grade: A-)

Love & Mercy.  Take that, Paul Dano haters!  (Grade: B-)

Mad Max: Fury Road.  (Grade: B)

Maggie.  Do we really need another zombie movie? … I have to admit that there is a certain appeal to seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger – once one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars – going all indie with Abigail Breslin. And perhaps Schwarzenegger could bring the right kind of baggage to this relatively quiet family drama involving a father coping with his daughter’s impending doom. But those spunky little indies can be infected with the same problems as their big budget counterparts, and in this case, the radio voiceover that opens the film anticipates a certain lack of faith in the audience. When all is said and done (and it’s all been said and done better in 28 Days Later (2002)), Maggie has a few interesting character moments and a hell of a lot of score-induced atmosphere, but not much else.  (Grade: C-)

Manglehorn.  I’m mildly interested in David Gordon Green (Joe (2014), Prince Avalanche (2013)), as well as stories about growing old and pining over lost love.  But from the moment Al Pacino shows up as a key smith in a small Texas town – hair slicked back, earring in left ear, gold chain showing just underneath his collar – I just couldn’t get with the program.  (Grade: C-)

Maps to the Stars.  The unholy, and yet apropos, marriage of stardom and psychosis.  Lies as ghosts.  Julianne Moore not in a Lifetime movie of the week … As twisted love letters to Hollywood go, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is no Mullholland Drive (2001), but it has stuck with me for quite a while after leaving the theater.  (Grade: B-)

The Martian.  (Grade: B+)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  I love Wes Anderson’s eye, Werner Herzog impressions, and Better Off Dead (1985), and so does director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.  But these shared infatuations are only part of the reason why Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is one of those increasingly rare instances where a filmmaker can play with my emotions like I’m some kind of helpless rag doll.  Am I just becoming susceptible to quirky Sundance fare in my old age?  Jeez, I really hope it’s not terminal.  (Grade: A)

Mississippi Grind.  In the ’90s American indie tradition, the title of this buddy-road-trip-gambling flick quite openly advertises its pace. There’s nothing earth-shattering at work here, but what makes Mississippi Grind worthwhile is the uncharacteristically schleppy performance of Ben Mendelsohn coupled with the characteristically charismatic performance of Ryan Reynolds.  (Grade: B-)

Mommy.  (Grade: C-)

Mustang.  My personal recommendation to the Fourth Wave blogger I heard on Fresh Air railing against the level of indignity she must endure as a result of her use of upspeak.  (Grade: B-)

Mr. Holmes.  Mr. Holmes makes for an enjoyable Sunday afternoon at the cinema, both as a topical riff on the traditional Sherlock Holmes narrative and an interesting contrast with director Bill Condon and Ian McKellan’s first collaboration (Gods and Monsters (1998)).  (Grade: B-)

Nasty Baby.  Director Sebastian Silva brings a distinctly indie aesthetic (read: shaky handheld shooting, poor sound) to his indictment of the contemporary Brooklyn douchebag class.  And the result is the fifth most interesting 2015 film to feature Kristin Wiig.*  Indeed, this one somehow managed to be a bore even when, you know, That Thing at the End happens.  (* In the interests of full disclosure, I didn’t see the made-for-TV movie, A Deadly Adoption, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes, that was probably more interesting than this.)  (Grade: C-)

The Overnight.  The Overnight (by post-Mumblecore writer/director Patrick Bryce) starts out with a relatively interesting premise – a young couple with a young child (Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott) who have just moved to Los Angeles spend a play date evening with another young couple with a young child (Jason Schwartzman, Judith Godreche) they just met in a park; and weirdness ensues (as one might expect from the casting).  I appreciated this film best when the genders separated and it picked up an After Hours (1985) vibe.  But truth be told, the last 10-15 minutes felt way too forced, both on the “page” and on the screen.  (Grade: C)

Paddington.  For the most part, Paddington is a success on its own terms.  And credit should go to Ben Whishaw’s warm (but not quite cloying) voicing of the title character, the CGI rendering (which shows its seams only in the most ambitious action sequences), and the supporting cast (including Nicole Kidman, clearly having fun channeling Glenn Close).  There are also a couple of homages to the likes of Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam, which fit neatly into Paddington’s London (as opposed to being shoehorned in to show how clever the filmmakers are).  The net result is a suitably charming and poignant immigrant story, free of the ridiculous pandering to political correctness that infected the last big hit in this genre, Big Hero 6.  (Grade: B)

Pawn Sacrifice.  “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” – Catch-22 … “Madness, as you know, is like gravity: all it takes is a little push.” – The Dark Knight (2008) … With a title like Pawn Sacrifice, one would think that director Edward Zwick’s biopic of the paranoid delusional chess champion, Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), and his Cold War proxy matches against the Russians would be fertile ground to play with these ideas.  Not so much.  Rather, Zwick, and what feels like a committee of screenwriters each assigned a single act, speed on through the straight and narrow narrative path that all too often typifies this genre.  The root problem is perspective: Zwick never really gets us inside Fischer’s head, relying too heavily on generic tropes, shots, and effects to portray the state of teetering on madness; and Zwick never really links us to any of the characters around Fischer (e.g., Peter Saarsgard’s Father Bill, Fischer’s trusted second, just drops in from nowhere).  What we’re left with feels like little more than an extended version of a re-enactment one might see in a documentary.  (Grade: C)

Peace Officer.  When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” … I hate to use this term (as it tends to turn off my own desire to see a film), but “Peace Officer” (a title that anticipates the tragic irony therein) is one of the most important documentaries of the year, using individual narratives and a reliable central character to expose the breadth of the problems with the current state of policing in the U.S., which goes well beyond the media’s current fixation on race.  All too often, I find those “important” docs to be little more than exercises in preaching to the converted. (e.g., Was anyone who was actually skeptical of Edward Snowden’s veracity and motives any less skeptical after viewing the overwrought, sycophantic Citizenfour (2014)?)  However, I was genuinely shocked during certain segments of Peace Officer – not just by the accounts of the victims of an increasingly para-militarized police force, but by the inexplicable unaccountability and the chilling, and often delusional, rebuttals offered law enforcement and their own families.  (Grade: B)

People, Places, Things.  A bittersweet little ditty about a single dad in New York City, more fun than it should be after a Flight of the Conchords binge.  (Grade: C+)

A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence.   A definitive cinematic experience: This is my first, and will be my last, Roy Andersson film.  (Grade: D+)

Pitch Perfect 2“This is what happens when girls go to college.”  (Grade: C+)

The Revenant.  The way of nature or the way of grace, my ass.  (Grade: A)

Room.  It’s been quite a while since I have seen a trailer that does such a disservice to the film it’s promoting.  And it’s been quite a while since I’ve felt such an intrusion from the use of voiceovers and score, spoiling the emotional complexity with spoonfed simplification.  Nonetheless, just beneath the Oscar-fication is a fine film with fine performances that I must admit evoked a memory from when I myself was five years old:  Lying on my back in the backyard, staring up at the massive clouds in the blue sky, and counting the seconds that I could last before I was overcome with the feeling that I might fall upward and would be forced to close my eyes.  (Grade: B+)

Shaun the Sheep Movie.  With characteristically wonderful texture and wry wit, and a confident lack of dialogue, Aardman Studios once again solidifies its place as my personal favorite purveyor of animation.  And it is worth noting that of the four children’s’ movies I have seen in the theater so far this year, this is the one that got the most laughs from the kiddos.  (Grade: B)

Sicario.  = Traffic (2000) + Training Day (2001) – a sense of thematic purpose beyond cynical ambivalence … (Grade: B-)

Sisters.  Alright, Kristin Wiig, you are now officially my favorite SNL alumn.  Don’t go breakin’ my heart now.  (Grade: C-)

Sleeping with Other People.  Rob Reiner is dead, long live Leslye Headland!  (Grade: B-)

Slow West.  Do we really need another Western? … Several years ago, I did a summer-long marathon of classic Westerns, and so for my patient spouse, the answer is probably always going to be no.  It’s a shame because every once in a while a filmmaker comes along who, within the bounds of all those seemingly tired tropes, reminds us of what had made the genre such a fertile ground for exploring the extremes of humanity.  At this point in film history, there’s a fine line between evocation and cliché. In this case, writer/director John Maclean imbues the primal wilderness of Slow West with just enough subtext (in words and imagery) to effectively make his own mark without ever really straying too far from that well-worn path.  And beyond Maclean’s wonderful sense of composition, this romantically haunted immigrant’s tale also benefits from a ghostly Kodi Smit-McPhee leading the charge and Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn bringing up the rear.  (Grade: A-)

Son of Saul. … then again, perspective isn’t everything.  (Grade: C+)

Spectre.  So the way this is going to work with the Daniel Craig 007 series is that the odd sequenced films will be decent … As an initial matter, one cannot help but notice that this series has now succumbed to the segmentation trend in commercial cinema (e.g., The Hunger Games), as this whole film feels like it was written to set up the inevitable imagery for the first act in the next installment (i.e., cue familiar man in wheelchair with eye patch, stroking fluffy white cat in lap).  And although I am not a Bond aficionado, it seems to me that if Casino Royale (2006) announced that the franchise would be steering away from a tired [silly plotting + doesn’t take itself very seriously] formula and toward [semi-serious plotting + takes itself mostly seriously], Spectre takes a distinct and dubious turn toward [silly plotting + takes itself mostly seriously].  (Grade: C-)

Spotlight.  (Grade: B-)

Spring.  Having seen the trailer, I was pleasantly surprised by this low-budget genre mixer.  Above-average performances and adept cinematography coalesce to impart a sense of menacing mystery to an otherwise standard American-in-Italy romance.  Unfortunately, an overly-ambitious special effects sequence and some half-baked exposition usher in the third act, after which the film veers a bit too far away from Cat People (1982), and a bit too close to Before Sunrise (1995), before ending up in a valley of schmaltz.  (Grade: B-)

Spy.  While I enjoyed director Paul Feig’s first collaboration with Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids (2011)), I found the second (The Heat (2013)) to be almost unbearable – and not just because of the presence of Sandra Bullock.  In both cases, as with this spygame spoof, there is at least one sequence in the film that I call “Melissa McCarthy Talks Random Trash” – an exercise in just letting the potty mouth go for no other reason than at least some of it will hit.  Some of it does hit; but these signature rants aren’t as shocking as they were 4 years ago, they go on too distractingly long, and they tend take away from McCarthy’s other shades.  I mean, it’s worth noting for all of the cool kids that while McCarthy was flopping round on the SNL stage like a female Chris Farley, she also an Emmy for the relatively sober Mike & Molly.  To his credit (this time working from his own script), Feig takes better advantage of McCarthy’s versatility by pivoting away from the previous she’s-fat-anyway-so-let’s-just-make-her-downright-repulsive formula of rendering McCarthy’s characters.  So while there’s not a whole lot of breadth (e.g., Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)) to any of the comedy in Spy, at least we get to see the genre’s glamorous world – and a bit of our own – through the eyes of the undernoticed.  (Grade: C+)

The Stanford Prison Experiment.  I wasn’t expecting too much from this one. Like many, I suspect, I was originally exposed to the principal aspects of the actual Stanford Prison Experiment in one college course or another. As a 19 year-old skeptic, the whole thing seemed a bit inexplicable to me (although the notion of a closet sadist/submissive lurking in all of us has become a bit less inexplicable over the years).  And to be sure, it appears that a whole subgenre of biopics have been mined from these real life tests (formal and informal) of the extremes of human nature. (This is the third cinematic telling of this particular story.)  That said, the criticisms of this particular film as being too “literal” (David Ehrlich) are rather curious considering the film’s title.  The unimaginative choice of title turns out to be quite appropriate in more than a literal sense – that is, writer Tim Talbot and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez seem unwilling to preload the viewer with any thematic expectations (e.g., Compliance (2012)).  And indeed, there is more going on here beyond the darker sides of institutionalization. What are the limits of “scientific” experimentation in the field of psychology?  How do the biases and agendas of the scientists invariably play a role?  What happens when a woman is introduced into an insular, unchecked organizational structure of males?  The filmmakers understand the complex, subjective nature of the source material and wisely goes for breadth, not depth.  But if this film’s coverage of this well-tread ground is effective, a good deal of the credit should lie go to the ensemble cast. For the better, they make it all feel a bit like a meta-role-playing exercise – an aspect underscored by the pre-end credits interviews with the subjects, which would conventionally be populated with the real players for viewers to compare (e.g., Argo (2012)), but here show the actors in character providing the post mortems.  File this one in the 2015 folder for “best surprise.”  (Grade: B)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  (Grade: B+)

Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg).  (Grade: B+)

Steve Jobs.  In more ways than one, Steve Jobs bucks the trends in contemporary popular feature film.  It is not the film of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, and it is not scenery-chewing Oscar bait for its A-list stars; it is clearly writer Aaron Sorkin’s film.  Razor sharp dialogue is the driver of this piece, with all other elements seated comfortably in the back.  And Sorkin has completely eschewed the tick-the-box approach that generally defines the biopic genre and instead commits to an even more traditional narrative structure – the three act play. Set backstage at three seminal computer launches (with Boyle rendering the 1984 Macintosh in 16mm, the 1988 NeXT in 35mm, and the 1998 iMac in digital), the vibe of Steve Jobs is closer to Birdman (2014) than the last tech-god blockbuster that Sorkin penned, The Social Network (2010).  We already have an inevitably futile attempt at a comprehensive docudrama of Jobs’ life, Jobs (2013); Sorkin is going for character study, which, in the precious little time afforded by this medium, requires less of a reverence for the facts and more of an imagining of the complexity of Jobs’ essential humanity as a “closed system” (like his doomed Macintosh).  The actors follow suit, with Michael Fassbender in particular choosing to channel, rather than imitate, the enigmatic figure (much like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon (1995)).  Ostensibly, Sorkin drew from the authorized biography by Walter Isaacson; but there are only five characters with whom Jobs interacts in each of Sorkin’s three acts, and none of them are his widow or the children they had together, which could be the real reason why Laurene Powell Jobs led a campaign to stifle production of the film.  (Shame on you, Christian Bale and Leonardo Di Caprio.)  All in all, aside from a dip in energy in the third act and a score that can be a bit intrusive at points, this unconventionally theatrical take works remarkably well.  (Grade: B+)

Tangerine.  I really miss my iPhone 5s.  I swear, if I so much as give my iPhone 6 a funny look, the screen cracks. But enough of my first world problems … It seems to me that there is a certain irony behind all the buzz with this one: while this Christmas-in-L.A. movie, with its distinctly alternative perspective famously shot from the said iPhone 5s, will no doubt inspire others to delve into DYI cinema, the savvy hand of co-writer/director Sean Baker will ultimately demonstrate that no matter how ubiquitous and accessible the technology for visual storytelling is, not everyone’s story is interesting and not everyone is cut out to tell such stories.  Not by a long shot.  (Grade: B+)

Tangerines.  Two films released in the U.S. in 2015: Tangerines (87 minutes) with an imdb user rating of 8.5 and a metascore of 73, and Tangerine (88 minutes) with an imdb user rating of 7.3 and a metascore of 86.  Notwithstanding the titles, the runtimes, and the critical reception, I am here to report that these two films are nothing alike.  (Grade: B-)

Ted 2“Fresh cakes!”  Indeed.  (Grade: D+)

Terminator: Genisys.  The good: Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor and the mere presence of J.K. Simmons; and the first act immediately after a rewatch of Terminator (1984) … The bad: Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese and an overly emotive (?!) Arnold Schwarzenegger; the second and third acts; pretty much all of the dialogue; and when we finally get to see two African-American characters running a major tech company in a big budget motion picture, … (Grade: C-)

Timbuktu.  It was a coincidence that I revisited Pather Panchali (1955) on the same weekend that I viewed the Oscar-nominated Timbuktu.  To be sure, the latter has a clear antagonist – the Islamic extremists who occupied the Mali city for a period of time.  But both films represent a clear attempt at shedding a humanistic light on a group of people who might otherwise be overlooked, in not forgotten.  And in both both instances, my reservations are similar (albeit to a different extent).  Timbuktu has what might be the most breathtaking single extended shot of any film released this year.  And with the exception of Toulou Kiki (who plays Satima, the wife/mother of the central family), the cast – many of whom are nonprofessionals – really delivers the goods.  And yet, amidst the unfortunate and odd coupling of such a meandering narrative and such purposeful visuals, Timbuktu left me with the prevailing feeling that this sort of film should not – ennui.  (Grade: C+)

Tomorrowland.  You can file Tomorrowland away with all of the other forgettable Disney live action fare.  This time around, the keepers of the Disney brand seek to exploit the current trend in fantasy fulfillment for the 12 to 17 demographic – teens that literally save the world (e.g., The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.) – to peddle their unmitigated optimism as inoffensively as possible. Mind you, optimism can be done well, but Tomorrowland‘s execution falls short in virtually every aspect (the spot-on casting of Hugh Laurie being a notable exception). … Appropriately enough, the Disney ride/song, It’s a Small World, makes a non-ironic appearance (both explicitly at the beginning, and implicitly at the end).  I don’t know about you, but that particular piece of early multimedia made me feel infantilized at the age of 6.  In fact, I vividly remember my mother picking up the It’s a Small World record in the Disney World gift shop and both my dad and myself giving her the evil eye (“no, that will not be accompanying us back home”). … In keeping with that sentiment, the overriding message of Tomorrowland is that children are the only hope, and it is exceptionalism – you know, the kind that can somehow be divorced from all things ego – that will steer the collective ship of humanity out of the storm.  And how do we know our spunky 16 year-old tomboy hero (Britt Robertson) is up for the task?  She scored a 73 on an intergalactic standardized test.  [shakes head]  (Grade: D+)

Trainwreck.  Who do I blame for the disappointingly typical rom-com ending to an otherwise atypical rom-com and the unnecessary 2+-hour runtime – director Judd Apatow or writer/star Amy Schumer?  No matter, Schumer’s feature debut well exceeded the mandates of the 6-laugh test. Now do I feel good about myself for all those laughs? … Um, hold on, was that last call?  (Grade: B-)

The Tribe.  The takeaway from this film re Ukraine’s myriad socio-economic problems: Lock up all the deaf people. I mean, they are all just awful! …  Recommended audience: The Tribe may be best appreciated by Dardennes fans who always wished they’d do a film that had a lot less (well, no) dialogue and a lot more unsexy sex, rape, abortion, and murder. … Tip for viewers: Just past the midpoint of this 132-minute epic, there is a scene where two girls and two guys get out of a van and get in a line in front of the Italian embassy to fill out some paperwork. Although you may be tempted to do so earlier in the film, take that scene as your cue to visit the lobby for a treat, break to the bathroom, answer some texts, make sure the kids are in bed, catch up with your siblings, and/or write a poem. Because they’re going to be there a while, and ultimately *SPOILER ALERT* they do actually complete the paperwork, turn it in, and yes, return to the van.  (Grade: C)

Victoria.  The less you know about this 138-minute one-take experiment in genre going in, the better, so I will simply offer one tip: you need to go into this ready to hang out for a while with a young woman new to Berlin and the four boys she’s met after a night of clubbing.  If you’re not up for that or you’re not in the right frame of mind, you will be bored by a good portion of this film.  (Grade: B)

The Visit.  Carrie Underwood!  (Grade: C+)

Welcome to Me.  Of all of the indies that Kristin Wiig has starred in recently (Hateship Loveship (2013), The Skeleton Twins (2014)), none of them benefit more from her SNL chops than Welcome to Me.  But as a woman afflicted with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery and decides to grace the world with her own Oprah-esque talk show, not all of her unique brand of straight-faced absurdity is played for laughs.  It’s funny until it’s uncomfortable.  But is it uncomfortable for the right reasons?  At times, the filmmakers are content to let Wiig go, committing to nothing more than pure character study; and at other times, they clearly want to cross over to social satire, highlighting the growing scourge of narcissism in our modern culture.  The net result is a mildly entertaining, mildly affecting mess.  (Grade: C+)

What We Do in the Shadows.  Would it reveal me to be a Philistine if I were to admit that I enjoyed this a good bit more than Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)?  (Grade: B)

When Marnie Was There.  If you must see one animated film this summer about the internal struggles of a young girl coming of age, this is it.  (Grade: B-)

While We’re Young.  Being a fan of The Squid and the Whale (2006) and Greenberg (2010), I was looking forward to writer/director Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young – the premise being a 40s couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) attempts to rejuvenate by befriending a 20s couple (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried) – well, that is, until I saw the trailer.  I am happy to report that the film itself rises a bit above its cheaper gags and tropes, as Baumbach exhibits a penchant for getting to the truth behind stereotypes and a certain degree of empathy for all of his characters – well, that is, when he is doing the writing and not his muse.  (Although While We’re Young will likely be dismissed among cineastes’ top 5 Baumbach lists in the years to come, the Millenials on display here have a few more dimensions than the cloying and annoying Francis Ha (2013).)  In a way, While We’re Young is a deconstruction of the type of Woody Allen-esque movie one would expect from its trailer.  However, I was not completely sold on the message of the epilogue – well, that is, unless I give what may be too much credit to the expressions on the faces in that last shot.  (Grade: B-)

White God (Fehér esten).  This girl-searches-for-lost-dog fable – the 2014 winner of the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes – owes more than its tile to Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982).  To a certain extent, White God also embodies that film’s unique blend of a strong allegorical agenda and a distinctly B-movie aesthetic (e.g., the editing, the special effects).  If you’re looking for a subtle art film (which seems to be the case from the negative reviewers), White God is clearly not for you.  But White Dog has always had an unlikely allure for me – on one level, I know it’s kind of awful, and yet there is something so irresistibly bold about the sincerity of it all.  The same is true of the somewhat more artful White God.  (Grade: B)

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes).  Anthology films are tough to grade.  How coherent does the whole piece need to be? Do you grade each vignette and assign an average?  In the case of Argentinia’s Oscar-nominated Wild Tales, five out of six of the tales work quite well as black comedy, tied together loosely by considerations of injustice, revenge, and class.  So I’m going with a “B”.  But keep in mind, I am a rather cynical SOB.  (Grade: B)

The World of Kanako.  I can appreciate beautifully rendered ultraviolence as much as the next guy, but with the dial never deviating from level 10 (e.g., few shots last more than five seconds), the two hour runtime to this twisted little-girl-lost tale feels like an eternity.  (Grade: C)

Z for Zachariah.  I like social psychology.  Craig Zobel likes social psychology.  Craig Zobel made this film.  I like this film.  (Grade: B+)

Express yourself

Scroll To Top