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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inherent vice

(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: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is one of the writer/director’s very best.)

“I never remember plots in movies,” writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson said in 2014. “I remember how they make me feel, and I remember emotions and I remember visual things that I’ve seen, but my brain can never connect the dots of how things go together.” He was referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, though that quote could easily describe Anderson’s own Inherent Vice. Trying to explain the film in a Wikipedia-style recounting of events is futile. It does not even come close to doing justice to the experience of letting the film’s inscrutable mysteries wash over you. Read More »

Tommy Wiseau disaster artist review

Director Greta Gerwig conducted the set of Lady Bird with the utmost respect for her crew. Cribbing an idea from her 20th Century Women director Mike Mills, she asked everyone to wear name tags during filming so people could get to know each other. She even took it one step further – a PA came up with a conversation-starting question of the day, which everyone then had to answer on their name tag.

Gerwig is not the first person to run a set with this kind of dignity and civility, nor does Lady Bird‘s status as Rotten Tomatoes’ best reviewed film of all time (well, until recently) inherently derive from this production environment. But it does show that there is more than one way to create great art, and it is not necessarily the product of toil and agony from a single tortured artist.

Look at the films from 2017 that centered around artists and their creative process, however, and it’s tough to find anyone who looks or acts remotely like a Gerwig. In a year where the toxicity of a male-dominated film production space became glaringly apparent thanks to the courage of countless brave individuals, the prevalence of this abrasive, abusive archetype in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina’s Coco, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Darren Aronofsky’s mother! speaks volumes about the mindset of an industry. Most stop short of full-scale lionizing this figure, but the collective fascination borders on fetishization.

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Laura Dern on Star Wars

After a grueling day of over 12 hours of press for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Laura Dern nursed a cup of coffee and settled in for an extended chat with a very different crowd: the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The event took place at 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, December 14, meaning everyone in attendance had deliberately foregone taking in the first showing of the new Star Wars movie.

But there was still plenty of chatter surrounding her role as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, the flashy topper on not only a great year, but a great set of years. After a relatively quiet first decade of the 2000s, Dern has reestablished herself as a titan of both the small and silver screen. In 2017 alone, she won an Emmy for her fierce portrayal of Renata Klein in HBO’s Big Little Lies, reunited with her longtime collaborator David Lynch in Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Returnand now features prominently in what will almost assuredly become the year’s top grossing film.

While the Film Society of Lincoln Center dedicated an entire day of programming to some of her early works (Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth), her 90-minute talk focused exclusively on her work over the past few years. The wide-ranging discussion covered how she landed some of her recent roles, her experiences working with an eclectic set of directors and some of her thoughts on the industry at large.

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Cool Posts From Around the Web:

The Florida Project Review

At my screening of The Florida Project during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, director and co-writer Sean Baker directed a questioner to Google the film’s title to learn what it means. “It’s been harder […] to Google it since the film came out,” he admits. “Now we’re the one that comes up on Wikipedia first, which is weird.” That’s saying something because the original Florida Project refers to none other than Disney World itself, the epicenter of the Sunshine State under whose shadow Baker’s film (which our own Chris Evangelista called one of the best of 2017) takes place.

In 1966, shortly before he passed away, Walt Disney created a documentary laying out his vision for “the Florida Project,” a utopian community where free enterprise could cure the ails of the modern city. (Watch for yourself on YouTube, while you can, to marvel at his ultimately unrealized dream.) In his original vision for EPCOT, Disney envisioned a city without slums or ghettoes. Now, half a century later, the site of his idyllic metropolis showcases some of the starkest inequality in America, where children like the ones in The Florida Project grow up in motels along the same roads that others take to the Magic Kingdom.

But in my interview with Sean Baker, we focused less on this ironic contrast and more on the deep reserve of humanity and empathy shown for the people who dwell there.

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lean on pete review

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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let the corpses tan

Anyone who can bear to stare directly into Let the Corpses Tan may walk away with the sensation that their eyelids are burning, almost as if someone seared them with a scalding hot poker. That’s by design. And for those who don’t mind the pain, the embrace of directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani will provide a masochistic thrill.

This isn’t just gross-out, go-for-broke genre cinema. Let the Corpses Tan begins with a jarring gunshot, from which Cattet and Forzani proceed to fire on all cylinders, deploying a full arsenal of cinematic techniques to induce the visceral response they seek. Color, framing, montage – you name it, they’re using it at full throttle. Edited at the zippy speed of a sleek commercial, this is 90 minutes of pure cinematic sensory assault.

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foxtrot review

Comedy and tragedy are usually treated as two wildly different emotions – the Golden Globes even consider them so different as to break up their film awards into two tracks on those lines. But for a writer/director like Samuel Maoz, the dichotomy is not so clear-cut. His new film Foxtrot, the stealth sensation of 2017’s fall festival season, evinces how these two experiences are not opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin. Maoz, in just his second narrative feature, repeatedly demonstrates the way hilarity and calamity are never far removed from one another. Just one break in the other direction can produce a wild twist of fate.

With the absurdist deadpan of Swedish master Roy Andersson, Foxtrot captures a unique look at how young men respond to both the banality and boredom of war, as well as how adults absorb the trauma of death. It’s best to let the strange whims of life in the film guide the viewing journey; go in as blind as possible. As he charts the impact of a calamitous development, Maoz responds to a full range of human reactions. They’re never treated as separate gears to operate. Instead, pain and humor are complementary forces that overlap and bleed into each other.

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unicorn store review

“The most grown-up thing you can do is fail at things you really care about,” imparts Joan Cusack’s Gladys to her daughter, Brie Larson’s Kit, towards the close of Unicorn Store. It’s the perfect nugget of wisdom for a tale of stilted, prolonged adolescence. But the film, Larson’s debut behind the camera, is a world away from the Seth Rogen-style manchild so prevalent in the past decade of comedy.

Kit, like many millennials, struggles to adapt to a corporate environment and bristles at the drabness of office life. She’s an artist by training with an instinct to color outside the lines, a proclivity received unkindly by her stern professor. Kit snags a temporary gig at PR&R PR, where she finds herself unsure of how to reconcile her well-nurtured passion for individual expression with the mandate to be a productive, contributing member of society. At this sterile company, suit-clad men envision selling products on their purpose alone. Kit wants to set her imagination free to convey how those same products make her feel.

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