Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America














Matthew Ornstein's Accidental Courtesy aims straight at the heart of the post-election debate over how to deal with the racist groups emboldened by Donald Trump's victory: Is it best to engage in conversation and try to change hearts and minds, or to simply work to defeat them? The documentary follows African-American musician and self-appointed race ambassador Daryl Davis as he befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. Davis has been engaged in this experiment in radical friendship for nearly 30 years, and he proudly displays roughly two dozen Klan robes that were given to him by former members of the KKK, convinced that his friendship was an important factor in causing their change of heart.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Interview: Mike Mills









Acknowledging the influence of Fellini on his work and name-checking conceptual artists like Hans Haacke in his soft California drawl, Berkeley-born Mike Mills has clearly embraced the “art fag” label that his alter ego, young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), struggles to come to terms with in 20th Century Women. A multimedia artist who’s designed CD covers, clothing, and skateboards as well as directed music videos, commercials, and feature films, Mills filters life through an art-school lens, and if he’s better than most of us at being unapologetically himself, perhaps it’s because he had good role models.

Mills’s last film, 2010’s Oscar-winning Beginners, was based on the unexpected ways in which his relationship with his father, Paul Mills, deepened after Paul came out in his mid-70s, relaxing into himself and opening up to his son in ways he never had before. In 20th Century Women, a loving tribute to his mother and the other young women and girls who helped raise him, Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a gallant soul with a healthy contempt for conventional wisdom and a creative talent for carving her own path through life. As the film’s title implies, it’s essentially a character study of several people, but the stories of the five main characters are layered together in a nonlinear pastiche that shifts in perspective as well as in time.

In a conversation earlier this month at the A24 offices in Manhattan, Mills talked about why it was easiest for him to understand his mother by thinking of her as a trans man, how art school opened up his conception of what a movie can be, and why the ‘70s was a feminine decade in America.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Walking Dead Recap, Season 7, Episode 8, "Hearts Still Beating"












This season's start was as bleak as any in The Walking Dead's history, but the show's midseason finale closed on a major note of hope. Tested by the fire of Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sadistic dictatorship, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and most of his core group wound up stronger than ever, determined to stand up to their tormentor—and to do it together. “Hearts Still Beating” ends on a shadowy figure who's spying on our survivors, the close-up of his (or her?) boots establishing that it's the same person who shadowed Aaron (Ross Marquand) and Rick on their supply run earlier that day.

Hidden Figures











Director Theodore Melfi's Hidden Figures sheds light on a little-known corner of history by outlining the stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s. When the story begins in 1961, NASA doesn't yet have electronic computers, so it has to rely on people to calculate the mathematical data needed to successfully launch space missions. The open and unapologetic sexism of the time is reflected in the gender-stratified jobs: All the so-called “computers” are women, while only men get the more prestigious and better-paid jobs that involve using the numbers crunched by the women to launch rockets into space. And, since this is the Jim Crow South, the African-American computers all work in the same room, behind a door labeled “Colored Computers.”

Friday, December 9, 2016

Top 10 Movies of 2016

Here's my top 10 list for the year...
  1. Fire at Sea
  2. The Handmaiden
  3. O.J. Made in America
  4. Moonlight
  5. Happy Hour
  6. Manchester by the Sea 
  7. 13th
  8. Cemetery of Splendor
  9. 20th Century Women
  10. Fireworks Wednesday
... and my honorable mentions
Aferim!, Cameraperson, Captain Fantastic, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Lobster, Mountains May Depart, No Home Movie, Sworn Virgin, Tower

And here's Slant's list of the year's 25 best, which I contributed to.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Founder











Michael Keaton has used his jittery intensity to play sympathetic villains in the past, in films such as Beetlejuice and Desperate Measures, but he's never been as odious as he is in director John Lee Hancock's The Founder. Keaton's Ray Kroc is an aw-shucks avatar of American capitalism, the kind of guy who will reach out to shake your hand and then rip your arm right out of its socket.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Top 10 TV Shows of 2016

TV (including serial shows on platforms like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon) has been nipping at the heels of theatrical feature films for a while now, but this year it surpassed them. It's always hard to come up with just 10 movies for my top-10 year-end list, but it was way harder this year to come up with the top 10 TV shows. Thank goodness for honorable mentions.

My Top 10:
  1. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
  2. Atlanta
  3. Bojack Horseman
  4. The Americans
  5. Jane the Virgin
  6. Happy Valley 
  7. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
  8. Narcos
  9. Transparent
  10. One Mississippi

My honorable mentions:
Fleabag, Girls, Insecure, Lady Dynamite, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Orange is the New Black, Silicon Valley, Togetherness, High Maintenance, Westworld, Black Mirror, The Middle, black-ish, The Crown

And here's Slant's list, which I contributed to.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Walking Dead recap, Season 7 Episode 7, Sing Me a Song












The Hitchockian opening scene of tonight's episode of The Walking Dead, “Sing Me a Song,” makes clever use of Michonne's (Danai Gurira) inscrutability. Walking down an initially empty country road and whistling “The Farmer in the Dell” to attract her prey, Michonne is the epitome of the existentially alone western hero she personifies more than anyone else in Rick's group as she sets a walker-lined trap whose purpose is disturbingly opaque. The close-up of the sword and walkie-talkie she leaves behind as she drags a body down the road is a particularly unsettling bit of misdirection: Is she planning to commit suicide by walker? And even if she's doing something else, like setting things up to make it look as if walkers got her so she can go underground, how long can she survive without that sword?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Walking Dead recap, Season 7 Episode 6, Swear












The beginning of “Swear” echoes the ending of “Go Getters,” in which Jesus and Carl exchanged a long look in the back of the Savior truck they'd separately boarded, in a faceoff between the old and new world order. This time, Cyndie (Sydney Park) is the pragmatic but pacifist adult trying to play by the old rules, while Rachel (Mimi Kirkland) is the child young enough to have adapted without question to brutal post-apocalyptic survivalism. As in the last episode, the child's point of view seems to be in the ascendancy. Cyndie's status as an adult and the granddaughter of one of her group's leaders would have made her an undisputed authority figure in the pre-walker world, but when Cyndie and Rachel find Tara (Alanna Masterson) on the beach, Cyndie's humane impulse to spare Tara's life just barely prevails over Rachel's grim insistence on shooting the stranger on sight, as instructed.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Walking Dead Recap Season 7 Episode 5, "Go Getters"












One of the things that has kept me loyal to The Walking Dead over the years is its matter-of-fact feminism. Some of the best fighters and most strategic thinkers in Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) gender-neutral meritocracy have always been women, and they were usually toughened up by the kinds of trials that all too often turn women into skilled survivors, like the spousal abuse Carol endured or the loss of an adored child that galvanized Michonne (Danai Gurira), a somewhat passive and subordinate housewife, into becoming a latter-day ninja. Even Paula, the Savior who captured and nearly killed Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Carol in season six, gained our respect—and a soul-sister acknowledgement from Carol—for her focused ferocity after we learned that she had been a mousy, abused secretary in the pre-walker world who seized on the apocalypse as her chance to stop eating so much as one more morsel of paternalistic shit, even from her own men.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rules Don't Apply












Like Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard, Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply pairs an elderly, reclusive Howard Hughes with a much younger person who's far from wealthy. But while Melvin and Howard's umami mix of poignant sweetness and pungent unpredictability accentuate both the complicated, often comic humanity of its main characters and the increasingly desperate unreality of the post-post-war American dream, Rules Don't Apply turns nearly every one of its characters and situations into tropes. Perhaps because Beatty grew up in the mid-century Hollywood the film is set in, his portrayal of Hughes has the overly polished feel of an anecdote that's been told too often.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Asperger’s, the MTA, and the Criminal Justice System: Interview with Off The Rails director Adam Irving














Off the Rails, which opens November 18 at the Metrograph, is the story of Darius McCollum, a winningly friendly New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. McCollum’s obsessive love of the the subway led him to learn all about how its trains and buses operate. At times, he even managed to get behind the controls of one, happily and conscientiously guiding it through its route until he was caught and arrested for impersonating an MTA employee. At first the documentary appears to be a quirky imposter story, but it turns out to be a bit of an imposter itself. You might think of it as a case study, illuminating our educational and criminal justice systems’ tragic inability to provide properly for people with special needs by tracing one of the lives that has been permanently derailed by their hamfisted mismanagement.

I caught up by phone last month with director Adam Irving, an LA-based filmmaker with a master’s in cinema studies from NYU. Irving talked about what makes New York City a worse place than most to get arrested, why he and his editor decided not to include any discussion of the role Darius’ race likely played in the criminalization of his neurological condition, and the gratifying reaction to his first feature.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Walking Dead recap, Season 7 episode 4: Service












“Service” approaches war and other forms of carnage, which appear more and more to be the true subject of The Walking Dead, from a new direction, focusing on the stockpiling of weapons. Its two parallel themes, exploring who controls those weapons and the shifting allegiances within Alexandria, may explain the extra length of this episode, which actually felt less repetitive than many hour-long episodes from the show's past seasons that have pounded home the same point one or two times too many.

Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) saunters through the gates a graceless winner, still marinating in douchebag brio, bullying and terrorizing his opponents, in part by issuing constant threats of violence—though thankfully his only victim this time around is a walker. Ever the sexual predator, he slavers after Maggie, and he spews casually entitled hate speech like his homophobic aside to Rick: “In case you haven't caught on, I just slipped my dick down your throat and you thanked me for it.” All the more reason to root for Rick's diverse group to win their inevitable war with The Saviors—especially if they have the sense to entrust that inclusive, humanist, and surprisingly chill black guy (I mean Ezekiel, of course) with the day-to-day governing.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Interview: Isabelle Huppert on Elle and Things to Come










Isabelle Huppert was hours into a series of back-to-back interviews when we met in New York’s Regency Hotel earlier this month, yet there was no hint of exhaustion in her intelligent, lively gaze, or the precise, often detailed answers she offered up between sips of coffee and bites of food. Like most of the characters she plays, she was magnetic in part because she appeared to be so self-possessed, forming opinions about other people without much caring what they may think of her. At the same time, she was kinder and warmer than her characters usually are, and her sly sense of humor hinted at an ironic perspective that may keep her from taking anything—including the hype that’s been heaped on her over the years—all that seriously.

The hype has been piled high for good reason. One of her generation’s greatest female actors, Huppert is also one of the most awarded in her native France, where she has been nominated more than any other for the César, the country’s national film award. In a career that spans well over 100 films, she’s played a wide range of characters, but nearly all share the quiet, near-feral intensity and steely resolve that have led many of the best directors of her time to cast her in their films—and often, as she pointed out on the day we met, to make her character the center around which the entire plot turns.

The Walking Dead Recap Season 7, Episode 3, "The Cell"












The latest colony explored on The Walking Dead is Negan's dispiriting dictatorship, a world of gunmetal grays and muted greens and blues whose residents exude an air of beaten-dog obedience. Angela Kang's screenplay efficiently establishes both the riches that are available to the Santuary's elite and the price paid by one and all for their relative safety and comfort.

The stage setting starts with the opening scene, in which Dwight (Austin Amelio) moves through the compound to build a sandwich, taking bread from a group of chefs in a big kitchen, adding mustard so unnaturally yellow it can't be homemade, and passing by a bunch of chickens to get tomatoes and lettuce from a garden. The room where Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) receives people is a time capsule from the pre-walker world, with its comfy armchair, bookshelf, and matching kitchen cabinets. Luxuries like booze and cigarettes appear to be plentiful, at least for Negan and his inner circle.