First Cow Review

Her films might not blare “it’s the economy, stupid,” but make no bones about it – Kelly Reichardt’s cinema frequently obsesses over how the mechanics of commercial arrangements affect interpersonal relationships. Though micro in scale, her films are macro in mindset. Her latest look at the subject, First Cow, goes all the way back to the fledgling days of American capitalism. The film finds an effective and ultimately touching contrast between the friendships born of enterprising businessmen and the ruthlessness of competing with entrenched elites.

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New York Film Festival Main Slate 2019

I’ve heard from many a festival-goer that it’s possible to work through the entire New York Film Festival lineup – or at least its premier section, the Main Slate – given how the event spreads out manageably over the course of seventeen days all at Lincoln Center. But with schedule conflicts or lack of interest in certain titles, it’s a feat seldom seen or accomplished. Or, maybe given how gluttonous I feel after having done this myself, people choose not to brag about it if they do manage to pull it off.

While battling fatigue as well as exhaustion, plus countless instances of doubting if this was something I actually wanted to do, I managed to see all 29 films programmed in this year’s NYFF Main Slate. (If you’re the ranking type, I did just that over on Letterboxd.) I learned plenty about myself and some masochistic moviegoing habits after subjecting myself to this marathon of viewing contemporary cinema, but that’s a subject for another piece. It’s impossible to watch this incredible selection of films from across the globe and not have some larger takeaways about trends, patterns and parallels. Here are ten lessons from surveying the Main Slate in its entirety. Read More »

Wasp Network Review

French maestro Olivier Assayas did not cement his status as a cinephile favorite over the last quarter-century through the mechanics of his film’s plots. Rather, he’s become a festival darling because of the singular sensation left lingering from watching his work. What happens in an Assayas film is never as important as how it happens – the technique, the intellection, the panache.

Assayas must have had his reasons for taking on a project like Wasp Network, a tale of espionage and counterterrorism. Whatever they were, however, do not come through clearly. The film offers few pleasures beyond the crossing of wires in its tale of tangled alliances in post-Cold War Cuba. Assayas becomes so subservient to the sheer volume of events and information he must bring to life that the film completely subsumes any sense of personal style or voice. The producers could have put any workman studio director’s name over the closing credits, and I would not have bat an eyelid.

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The Moneychanger Review

If you’re going to open your film with a sequence straight out of the Bible, you had better not come to play. That’s the gambit Uruguayan director Federico Veiroj lays out at the beginning of The Moneychanger as the film’s titular financier, Daniel Hendler’s Humberto Brause, connects himself to the very profession that Jesus singled out for criticism at the temple. Connecting his story to such weighty history sets up a story with big stakes, and yet those are largely absent in the film.

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Varda by Agnès Review

Inspiration, creation, sharing. As the late Agnès Varda put it herself, these are the three key tenets of her filmmaking process. Varda’s final film, an encapsulation of her decades-spanning career through the lens of her masterclass seminars, brilliantly distills her ethos into a documentary. Despite being made with clear knowledge of her own mortality, Varda by Agnès never feels like a somber mausoleum for her talents. It’s a living, breathing document that keeps her spirit and creativity accessible as well as present.

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Most movies involving sentient, self-aware technology begin or end with the apocalypse. But in truth, those movies bear little resemblance to our actual, day-to-day relationship with technology. There are many jokes to be made about Siri’s similarity to HAL 9000 (and Siri knows all of them), but they haven’t stopped us from inviting her into our lives. And if we feel a bit anxious about that, it’s less because we worry she’ll go all SkyNet on us, and more because we aren’t sure what this dependence on our iPhones means for us and our relationships to one another.

It’s that uneasiness that Spike Jonze explores in Her, an unconventional love story about an operating system and the man who loves her. He is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man who makes a living writing other people’s love letters for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, and she is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the digital personal assistant programmed to meet his every need. Their meet-cute comes when he unboxes the software and answers a few questions about his relationship with his mother so the program can spit her out.

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After a dozen-year stretch in Uncanny Valley, Robert Zemeckis has returned to the world of live-action with the substance abuse drama Flight. It’s not the smoothest ride. The film’s alcoholism plotline veers toward the generic, the symbolism is often so blunt as to be laughable, and the supporting players are mostly one-note.

What keeps it on course, however, is the compassionate but honest character study at its core. Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel) have an iron grip on who Captain William “Whip” Whitaker is and what makes him tick, and Denzel Washington‘s grounded performance maintains the audience’s sympathy without sugarcoating Whip’s nasty side.

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The world doesn’t necessarily need another found-footage horror film, but Barry Levinson‘s well-crafted The Bay reminds us why there are so many of them to begin with. The format does precisely what it’s supposed to here, ramping up the dread through the illusion of reality. Combine that with Levinson’s commitment to (relative) plausibility and incisive understanding of human nature, and we’re left with an eco-horror film whose scares linger long after the credits roll.

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