Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Walking Dead recap: Season 7, Episode 9, "Rock in the Road"












If The Walking Dead were a boxer, it'd be hit-like-a-hammer George Foreman, not float-like-a-butterfly Muhammed Ali, so the sly head-fake that opens “Rock in the Road” comes as a welcome surprise, throwing us effectively off balance. The episode starts where the midseason finale left off: outside at night in Alexandria with Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) just after an as-yet-unidentified stranger, whose face we've yet to see, leaps down from the wall where he or she was spying on him. The ominous memory of that mystery stalker—not to mention the show's penchant for blowing up any post-apocalyptic community that starts to feel safe or stable—primes us for mayhem, as Gabriel finishes pondering a passage in his Bible and heads into the supply room. So when the camera lags behind him as he rounds a corner, the sudden clatter registers as the sounds of a struggle until the camera catches up and Gabriel is seen loading up on canned goods and tools that could double as weapons, which he then puts in the trunk of a car that he drives off into the night.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Girls Season 6












The rest of television has caught up so fast with Girls that it's hard to remember how refreshingly truthful and new the show felt when it premiered, to great success and much backlash, in 2012. Lena Dunham's observant series, the first to be both by and about young women navigating that awkward stage between the end of college and the beginning of adulthood, paved the way for other auteur-driven TV programs—like Donald Glover's Atlanta, Issa Rae's Insecure, and Rachel Bloom's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—that provide a deep-dive view of a small cohort of people and the subculture they inhabit.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Comedian










Somewhere around the year 2000, Robert De Niro's appearance in a film stopped being a sign of promise and became a flashing yellow light. Every now and then he's still part of an intriguingly complicated film like the ones he's made with David O. Russell, who used the actor's truculent skepticism to challenge Jennifer Lawrence's screwball optimism and sheer life force in Joy and Silver Linings Playbook. More often than not, though, De Niro's characters suggest 3D men in 2D universes, like the funnyman at the center of director Taylor Hackford's flabby and formulaic The Comedian.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Interview: Asghar Farhadi












Like many great writer-directors, Asghar Farhadi has spent most of his career ringing variations on a theme: In a classic Farhadi setup, fissures within a family or other intimate group are thrown into relief when a trauma or a primal conflict brings out previously hidden aspects of the main characters. Thanks to their fine-grained realism and the intimacy of their settings, his films convey a lot of information about life in contemporary Iran, particularly among Tehran's educated and artistic elite.

The filmmaker also has a good ear for the way men and women communicate, and a sharp eye for the politics of gender. His latest, The Salesman, is set in the world of theater in which Farhadi started out. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a youngish married couple, are starring in their theater group's production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman when a violent sexual attack shakes Rana's world, propelling the normally sensitive and supportive Emad into a state of macho rigidity.

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 MonĂ¡e), 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, The Good Place

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.