Song of Back and Neck review

Do we really need another sad middle-age white guy comedy? Probably not, but if we have to have them, at least let them be more like Paul Lieberstein’s Song of Back and Neck. The artist best known to audiences as Toby from TV’s The Office makes his first step behind the camera for feature filmmaking to largely positive results, handling some slightly morose material with equal parts sincerity and dry humor.

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maine review

If you see Maine features a woman hiking a trail alone and assume you’re in for a retread of Wild, think again. In upstart director Matthew Brown’s sophomore feature, we see people fleeing the burdens of their life in the great outdoors in search of escape and fulfillment – but ultimately finding neither. The answers to life’s problems do not simply appear out of thin air in the woods, as much as the film’s two hikers might try to will them into existence. And yet, there’s catharsis in the film’s complete lack of cathartic moments, just as there’s deep feeling in the emotional reserve and an intense connection with characters who can never get outside of themselves to connect to each other.

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Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro

After two high-profile Q&A disasters at panels with the cast of Scarface and TV’s Westworld, the organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival had to breathe a sigh of relief when Robert DeNiro stepped on stage and had very little to say. The festival’s co-founder had an hour with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle co-star Bradley Cooper but admitted he was outsourcing the questions to friends and family who could text him what they wanted to ask.

The result, to start, were some awkward pregnant pauses – but it ultimately led to Cooper filling in the silence with amusing anecdotes about his experiences with the legendary performer.

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to dust review

Death makes fools of us all because it exposes the limitations of human knowledge. We may have strong beliefs about what happens after our final breath, but none among us truly knows what happens. That uncertainty can gnaw away at those left behind with little more than the memory and the body of the recently departed.

In To Dust, first-time feature director Shawn Snyder locates the tragedy in pining for such answers but also digs a little deeper for a truly revelatory find. Because of – and remarkably, not in spite of – the weighty material he deals with, he finds the comedy in the situation. The lengths to which devastated widower Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) goes to achieve the sense of finality that he cannot locate within his religious community eventually reaches the point of absurdity. We don’t laugh at him; we laugh with him because the Grim Reaper could come knocking at one of our own loved ones’ doors someday soon.

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Disobedience review

It’s easy to remember Rachel McAdams’ most iconic performance, Regina George in Mean Girls, as little more than the ruthlessly hilarious one-liners and cutting GIF-worthy glances on the surface. But there’s so much more bubbling underneath in her performance that makes it iconic. McAdams is a master of presenting a confident, assured front while meaning or feeling something entirely different. The gulf between what she says and what she wants gets played for laughs in Mean Girls, but in her latest film, Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience, it’s played for tension and tragedy.

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back roads review

Alex Pettyfer, probably best known to audiences as “The Kid” in Magic Mike, always aspired to be more than just a thirst trap. In many ways, he might be too handsome for his own good. Pettyfer has been on the cusp of “happening” for a decade since landing the lead role in the Alex Rider series, a YA James Bond that came too close to Harry Potter and too far from Twilight and The Hunger Games. Following years of being sold as little more than a slab of meat to lust after, it’s been an uphill battle for the actor to convince audiences that he has more to offer. With Back Roads, his first go-round in the director’s chair, Pettyfer takes his future into his own hands.

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lean on pete review

(This review originally ran during our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. Lean on Pete is in theaters today.)

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is a social realist drama of the highest order, combining the gentle pastoral touch of David Lynch’s The Straight Story with a probing sympathy for individuals on the edge of society recalling the best of the Dardenne brothers. There’s no armchair sociology here, just rich character observation steeped in a spirit of compassion. Haigh never veers into grandstanding “issues movie” territory or troubled youth drama. It’s just the story of an adolescent boy in need of the tiniest bit of permanence and security.

That boy is 15-year-old Charley Thompson, played by Charlie Plummer, a pure but restless soul hitched to the fortunes of his good-natured single father Ray (Travis Fimmel). When the film starts, the two are just getting settled into a new home in Portland, and Charley clearly has the routine down. He unpacks his trophies, goes for a run around unfamiliar streets to acquaint himself with the area and puts his Cap’n Crunch in the refrigerator to avoid the roaches. Charley is no hopeless, despairing victim – he’s just stuck in a situation beyond his control. From a young age, he has already learned not to get sentimental and accept nothing as permanent.

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(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited isn’t just underrated, it’s the best film he has made yet.)

Wes Anderson is more than a director – he’s a brand. Beyond enjoying name recognition, Anderson has an identifiable aesthetic rivaled perhaps only by Quentin Tarantino among indie filmmakers. A cottage industry of trailer remakes, Etsy shops and Instagram accounts has sprung up around his name. His films’ releases are the closest things to events outside of major studio tentpoles.

So how did the 10th anniversary of The Darjeeling Limited pass by last October with hardly any significant decade retrospective piece? Anderson, ever a reliable click-generator for film sites, should easily have inspired some online chatter encouraging reevaluation for better or for worse. Instead, Anderson’s 2007 film simply cemented its status as his most forgotten film. While not the worst (an honor sometimes reserved for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou since most people cut his debut Bottle Rocket some slack), few rank it among his iconic classics like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums or Moonrise Kingdom.

Consider this a belated invitation to reconsider the movie. I maintain The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson’s best film, a perfect blend of style, story and sentiment. You can’t quote it as easily as Rushmore, but Anderson’s deadpan dialogue retains its snapiness. You can’t dress up as it characters for Halloween as easily as The Royal Tenenbaums, but the personalities are as vibrantly acidic as ever. You don’t have an ensemble of stars to fill the poster like The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Anderson goes deeper than ever on three brothers who are among his most completely realized cinematic creations.

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Jennifer Lawrence Red Sparrow

“Power, that’s what he wants,” observes Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova in Red Sparrow as she stands confidently bare before her Sparrow trainees. She’s just humiliated an aggressive male in the group and her former would-be rapist. Soon after foiling the attempted assault in a shower, Dominika disrobes at the front of the class and goads her assailant to finish his deed consensually. Try as he might, the classmate can’t get it up. With her unabashed preening, Dominika reveals the impotency of those who attempt to corral her sexuality for their own pleasure – not unlike Lawrence herself these days.

Love her or loathe her, Jennifer Lawrence is a millennial icon and trailblazer – among the first of her contemporaries to win an Oscar as well as carry a major Hollywood franchise on her shoulders. She’s a truly unique cultural creation: combining a beguiling screen presence with a guarded private life, but exuding accessibility and authenticity rather than mystery and artifice. Lawrence is not a star because she’s better than us. She’s a star because she’s one of us, a fitting reflection for the ethos of a generation that grew up self-actualizing on screens and now must figure out how to transition into adulthood.

As Red Sparrow opens, it’s instructive to observe yet another chapter of her career as she both navigates and rewrites modern stardom. From her unique position having conquered the commercial and prestige corners of the film industry, Lawrence has the ability to reflect our society’s values while also helping to shape them. This applies to an even greater extent in matters regarding gender, sexuality and self-presentation. In the midst of an unfinished gender revolution, Lawrence confronts an amplified version of the dilemmas presented to many women in America and across the developed world. How much can a patriarchal society bend before it breaks? At what point does female strength become threatening to men? How do we gender traits like assertiveness and confidence? How do women exude sexuality for self-empowerment, not merely to feed a male gaze? Read More »

sundance streaming

While we’re still hashing out the great Three Billboards Twitter war of 2017, audiences in Park City and all across Utah will be boldly forging ahead into the first major releases of 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival. One of few festivals firmly established in the cultural imagination, Robert Redford’s mountain citadel of cinema regularly launches major works of cinema from filmmakers flying under the radar. I’ve attended the last two years, seeing multiple movies that wound up landing on my year-end top 10 lists.

Since I won’t be attending 2018’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival (/Film has writers on the ground and will have that covered), those of us not heading to snowy Utah can still do some at-home viewing to quell the FOMO. Here are 11 films with major pre-festival heat and some movies you can stream to have a jump on the conversations starting this weekend at Sundance.

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