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‘The Assistant’ is an urgent workplace thriller

How did Harvey Weinstein get away with his truly evil behavior for so many years? Watching The Assistant may give us some insight.

Directed by the great Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet), The Assistant takes an unflinching and tense look at the human stories behind the MeToo headlines. Julia Garner is quietly fierce as Jane, a young assistant to a faceless Hollywood mogul. To say she finds herself between a rock and a hard place in her first real job in the film industry would be putting it mildly. 

There are several conversations and events she tracks to put together a narrative involving her boss’s serial infidelity and grooming of women. But the more she tries to bring attention to it, the more she’s silenced. When she takes her concerns to human resources, her HR manager (Matthew Macfadyen) uses her ambitions to be a producer against her. The same goes for her boss. The power dynamics are often spelled out instantly with just one line or image.

It’s not a flashy film by any means, but that’s the point. The reason people like Weinstein get away with this crap is because they are able to marginalize less powerful people and keep them quiet in low-lit, uninspiring office spaces. This is a film where you can tell everyone has some sort of agenda, but there are no typical film tricks necessary to convey that fact. A snowball of a day for Jane is just another Monday for everyone else, especially if they want to retain their position. 

Even being the main character, Garner doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue. It’s all about what’s left unsaid in order to keep this sick ecosystem afloat. There are numerous points at which people higher on the totem pole could speak up for Jane and others, but for reasons already stated, they keep quiet. However, they do let things slip occasionally to let you know they at least understand what’s going on and how they’re complicit in it. In the pivotal HR scene, for instance, the HR manager tells Jane not to worry for herself because she’s not her boss’s type – just as she’s walking out the door, after he’s successfully dissuaded her from filing a complaint. 

It’s in these margins, juxtaposed against the humdrum number-crunching of the office, that The Assistant really tells its story. Because of this fact, it may appear to move too slowly for some, but thanks in large part to Garner’s internally fiery performance and Kitty Green’s perceptive storytelling, I found it to be an astonishing piece of cinema. I would say it’s the best and most important film about the film industry since Kirby Dick’s 2006 MPAA documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated.

-George Napper

1hr 27min; Rated R for some language

‘The Assistant’ is now playing in limited release nationwide

“Miss Americana” is lively, smart, and educational

This Friday, a truly extraordinary documentary was released on Netflix. Having already made a splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Miss Americana opened worldwide to general praise and appreciation. The thing that stuck out to me was how much I related to Taylor Swift’s journey and mindset as displayed in the film, having never been a fan of her music. I guess it also helps that I don’t participate in the general twitterati that pounces every time a star eats food. 

The film, directed by Lana Wilson (After Tiller, The Departure), follows Taylor Swift through the period between when the Kanye kerfuffle exploded and today. Wilson has an incredible amount of access, not only to Swift’s personal life and entourage, but to her songwriting process as well. 

It goes under-appreciated how difficult staying on top in the pop music world is, especially for young women. The fact that it’s been Taylor’s voice, Taylor’s words for over ten years is unique and remarkable. As she acknowledges here, it’s around the age of 35 that the music industry generally throws out the last decade’s favorite female performers. Nearing 30 herself, Swift is determined to enter a new phase of her career and keep being a pioneer. This documentary is a great start. 

Edited by a five-person team, Miss Americana is a masterclass in documentary editing. It flows effortlessly from one topic to the next, from Taylor’s rise at such a young age to her political conviction to her introducing her producer to the wonders of burritos. Everything here is punctuated with personality and humor – the only way to describe it is totally endearing.

I believe a film like this has tremendous import in the Trump era. We currently have a pop-culture President, so to not intellectually address pop culture is hipsterism at best and foolish at worst. The film attacks the paparazzi head-on, who for years hounded Swift about her weight, her relationships, and even her silence on politics before 2018. I love Dave Letterman, but one thing I couldn’t help thinking when seeing a clip of him fist-bumping Swift after she says she doesn’t want to force her political opinion on others was, ‘would he have been so celebratory of that stance if she were a man?’ As Swift keeps coming back to in the interviews here, there is still a profound – and frankly disgusting – double standard for women when it comes to speaking out about politics. It certainly doesn’t help that she was definitively branded ‘Miss Americana’ before she had a grasp on what a whirlwind her sudden fame had become. The comparison to Dixie Chicks is more than apt.

When she finally breaks her political silence for the 2018 midterm elections, her management team is frightened of the impact this might have. The conversation they have about moving forward on Taylor’s activism is as tense and profoundly stark as anything in modern cinema. 

Through every phase of her career, it seems as though Taylor Swift has had something to lose. We have everything to gain by putting aside our biases and realizing how false the bill of goods we’re sold about so many celebrities truly is. People are people, not hashtags.

-George Napper

Sisters, Superheroes, and Sandler: Cinefalcon’s Top 10 Films of 2019

June Young

Yes, there are exactly TWO Lisa Kudrow movies on my list here. Woman’s got Friends money but she still takes the time to bless us in five-minute increments a few times a year. Thank you for all you do, sweet Lisa, and Happy New Year to the rest of you spuds. Here we go:

10. Long Shot

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Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen are no Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, but that’s 1) the entire premise of this movie and 2) why this rom-com actually works. The whole genre was suffering from its own conventions for the last decade or so, but Long Shot proves rom-coms are alive and well and entertaining if filmmakers are willing to take enough risks — and it doesn’t get much riskier than Seth Rogan as your romantic lead or dramatic actress/action movie badass Charlize Theron as a comedienne. 

9. Hustlers

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I could explain in vague, abstract terms what I enjoyed about Hustlers, but I think it would be easier for us all to go to YouTube and just type in “Jennifer Lopez Criminal pole dance.” Despite being in a “supporting” role, JLo is without fail elevating the entire movie with a performance that so easily could’ve been all camp and no heart in lesser hands and shorter stilettos.

8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Céline Sciamma’s historical romance is about finding sanctuary in isolation and beauty in the familiar. This is a story told through intense eye contact, which sounds like a joke until you see it, but the camera seems to carry its own sense of longing in the way it captures these characters’ metamorphosis from uneasy acquaintances to passionate lovers, like we are remembering this romance instead of witnessing it. Electric is the only word that comes to mind. 

7. The Farewell

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Like many others, the first time I heard this story was on This American Life and while I found it touching and resonant, there was no way I could anticipate the full body reaction I would have to the film adaptation. Lulu Wang’s second film follows a large extended family as they prepare to say goodbye to their dying matriarch without actually telling her she’s dying. It is painful and hysterical, and hits every tender note perfectly thanks to the strong writing and Awkafina’s poignant performance. 

6. Booksmart

Actor Navdeep, Co Founder C Space Along With Rakesh Rudravanka - CEO - C Space

Olivia Wilde’s new film has frequently been compared to a female version of Superbad, but I think that’s selling it short. Yes, it’s a goofy, dirty, sort-of-sexy comedy about two nerd best friends trying to make the most of their last night in high school, but Booksmart offers a lot more than that by not just going for the empty laughs. Clever writing and spot-on performances make it engaging, but it’s the sense that you’re witnessing a snapshot of a generation —as you might with films like Heathers or Sixteen Candles—that makes Booksmart something truly special and resonant.  

5. Parasite

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I went into this film just a few days ago without having seen a trailer, avoiding all the rave reviews, not even registering the image on the poster until after I came out of the theater, and I felt truly rewarded for keeping my blinders on. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning film is tragic, hilarious, chilling, poetic, and the best surprise I’ve had at the movies in a long time. 

4. Little Women

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While I admired her for Lady Bird, I think Greta Gerwig’s rendition of Little Women is far and away the more impressive achievement. Adapting a story that’s been done so many times before (done well, I might add) and giving it a smart, fresh, insightful redressing is a nearly impossible task, but Gerwig pulls it off eloquently in what I think is the best adaptation to date. With a talented young cast, a sentimental but insightful understanding of the source material, and an inspired reformatting of the entire story, Gerwig continues to prove that she’s a gifted storyteller with a unique cinematic voice. 

3. Avengers: Endgame

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I don’t want to be that person who puts superhero movies on a pedestal but, by gum, I do love superhero movies and this is one of the best—not just of the year but across the entire genre. A culmination of over a decade of filmmaking across nearly two dozen movies,
Endgame is so much more than its brand. It’s entertaining, it’s intelligent, it’s humorous, and above all it’s truly heartfelt. Endgame is historic for its feats at the box office, but what it should be remembered for is being an impressive feat in cinematic storytelling and a satisfying reward to its devoted audiences. 

2. The Nightingale

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I came out of this movie angry and upset and frankly I’ve felt pretty thoroughly tortured ever since watching it, but The Nightingale, in a way, is the movie I’ve always wanted. Even though it’s set in early 19th century Tasmania, in its heart of hearts, Jennifer Kent’s film is a classic Western revenge story with a grieving woman at its center. Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, and Sam Clafin give remarkable performances in this complex and brutal reflection on assault, genocide, redemption, violence, and justice. It is a beautiful and tragic film that asks the right questions and promises no false resolutions. 

1. Marriage Story

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From the moment I left the SLIFF (St. Louis International Film Festival) screening of Noah Baumbach’s newest feature, I felt like I’d witnessed something really true. I watched it several more times after that—with friends, by myself, and with each of my parents, who divorced when I was a young teenager. They considered my insistence on watching this movie to be some kind of penance they owed me, but I think what we all found watching it together was a very timely and hopeful sense of catharsis. Fiercely written, aggressively relevant, and a showcase for two of the finest actors of their generation, in what’s already been a stellar year for them both, Marriage Story is one of the best films 2019 has to offer. 

Honorable Mentions: Britney Runs a Marathon, Clemency, John Wick 3: Parabellum, Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, Little Monsters, Midsommar, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, The Two Popes, Uncut Gems, Us 

George Napper

If there is a theme among my 10 (really 11) finalists this year, it’s family. Knives Out is obviously about a dysfunctional family, films like 1917 and Queen & Slim are about a kind of family that can be forced upon us, and Midsommar is about discovering a new sense of home and community. Every film among my top three is also clearly about family, but to quote dads on road trips, we’ll get there when we get there. Here are my favorite films of 2019:

10. 1917

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In a year filled with more than its fair share of breathtaking spectacle, 1917 stands in a class of its own. Sam Mendes and powerhouse cinematographer Roger Deakins have pushed the envelope on what can be done in “one-take” films: movies made to look as if they were filmed in one long shot. Perhaps it’s because I knew nothing about that aspect of the film going in, but the technical wizardry snuck up on me and then completely bowled me over. This is a man-on-a-mission film in the best possible way. It follows a British WWI soldier (George MacKay) as he attempts to deliver an important message to another front. He pushes through minefields, chaos, burned villages, and even some of his own disinterested or disbelieving countrymen in order to complete the task. It’s a film which will wring you out, but the journey is more than worth it. To say 1917 is gripping would be a gross understatement.

9. Knives Out

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It’s always satisfying when something so intelligent, witty, and well-crafted garners such universal enthusiasm. Rian Johnson’s whodunnit about young caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is a total delight from start to finish. We follow the Thrombeys, under the shadow of deceased patriarch and mystery author Harlan (Christopher Plummer), as they try to secure their individualized stakes in his fortune. They must also attempt to keep their motives concealed, since Harlan’s death first appears to be a suicide. Everyone’s hiding something, but not in the ways you might suspect. The superb writing and complete buy-in from the entire cast — including Chris Evans shedding Captain America for something much more devilish — adds up to a rollicking good time. Knives Out seems likely to endure as a staple entertainment for years to come, but it also says something very specific about 2019. No spoilers!

8. The Souvenir

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Sometimes a film sticks around all year and just blossoms more and more in your mind. The Souvenir was one that did that for me, even as much as I loved it when I first saw it. This is the first of five A24 films on my list this year, and it must be said: A24 had their best year yet in 2019. This is a distribution company and a studio in the age of streaming that is supporting what the largest studios used to support much more frequently — theatrically released mid-budget films which take narrative risks. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is an autobiographical romance about Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film school student in a tempestuous relationship with an older man. Anthony (Tom Burke) has a serious drug problem, and Burke plays this perfectly. He hides it in almost a snakelike way, enigmatically sexy while also being a huge walking question mark. Visually, the film is classically made except for its structural emphasis on time and memory, which illustrates Julie’s connection to her haunted inner muse. It’s a tough, tough sit at times, but one I found deeply moving because of how up close and personal it gets with its subjects.

7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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“Edge-of-your-seat” isn’t a term you’d typically use to describe a romance, but Céline Sciamma’s delicate and tender Portrait is as edge-of-your-seat as it gets. Noémie Merlant plays Marianne, a young painter in 18th century France. Marianne is commissioned to complete a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young and moody upper-class debutante. However, she must do so without Héloïse knowing it, because the painting is to commemorate a likely unhappy marriage. Marianne pretends to be her friend and ward, but as the ruse breaks down, so do her defenses. The two are clearly attracted to each other from the start, but the film effectively twists the knife in before finally releasing that tension. It’s still a forbidden love, but one made all the more fascinating and entertaining by the rapt anticipation. Sciamma’s screenplay won the top writing prize at Cannes, and it’s easy to see why. Writing dialogue that conveys so much longing with so few enigmatic, cryptic words is a difficult business, and I would bet on Sciamma’s stock rising after such a swooning masterwork.

6. Queen & Slim

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I can never track how pretentious I sound when using phrases like “visual poetry,” but that’s exactly the right way to describe Queen & Slim. A Bonnie and Clyde-ish romance about an African-American couple on the run after a police encounter, this film isn’t so much just timely as it is absolutely vital. What’s even more impressive here is that it’s just as artistically accomplished as it is message-based. I adored how this romance slowly developed, and how director Melina Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe married the relationship’s growth to the growth of a movement for justice. What’s more, I loved how these individual characters were developed; they each take turns being the brave or timid one, and each decision feels organic. Kudos to Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya for imbuing these characters with a sense of inner life far beyond their need to survive. The fire in their eyes is matched by the heat and intensity of the film’s visual language. Matsoukas’ debut feature is simply stunning.

5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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Has a narrative film ever addressed contemporary gentrification and 21st-century housing issues before this? If one has, I’d like to see it. The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels almost revolutionary in its approach. It’s an austerely-made picture in many ways, but its inflections are what get its point across. Jimmie Fails plays a version of himself as he tries to reclaim his family’s Victorian home in the heart of San Francisco. It’s a housing market unkind to young people and people of color, but more than that it’s a market untrue to its citizenry and community. The elegiac moments of collective downward spiral as seen through Jimmie’s eyes are heartbreaking. Were it not for the humor and wit provided by Jonathan Majors as Montgomery, Jimmie’s best friend, the film might even be too depressing to be palatable. But the charming yin and yang of their friendship carries the film’s message quite gracefully. After the film’s release, director Joe Talbot received many letters from viewers speaking to the fact that the same issues in San Francisco’s housing market are occurring all across America. Going into an election year where only a handful of candidates have presented housing as a major issue, this film is as vital as it gets. Sidebar: Jonathan Majors deserves an Oscar nomination for this. 

4. Midsommar

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Is there any better brand for intelligent horror today than A24? They’ve now basically snagged two of the top young talents in the genre in directors Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) and Ari Aster (Hereditary) as part of their overall branding strategy. Eggers’ debut The Witch is one of the most well-respected films of the decade, and at this rate, Aster may catch up to that legacy soon. Aster’s Midsommar is not only brilliant for being creepy in daylight, but the execution of the subtextual discussion about the ways men treat women is astonishing. The great Florence Pugh stars as Dani, a young girl who tags along with her semi-scummy boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) to what they think is a traditional Swedish summer festival. The couple and their friends soon realize there’s something strange going on, but the culture-shock aspect of the trip keeps them as polite and respectful as possible — until a clear breaking point. Midsommar is not about survival, but it is instead about being reborn and finding new family. The emotional elements at play are as old as time, but Aster remixes them in such a fresh and interesting way that it’s easy to see why this was such a solid success, both critically and financially. If you liked the theatrical version, I’d encourage you to watch the director’s cut on the blu-ray or digital copy. It’s not my preferred cut of the two, but it leans in more on the central relationship and gives a bit more clarity in certain areas.

3. Us

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Now that I’ve invoked two of the top three horror directors today, I must bring up the third: Jordan Peele. What I love about his second film, Us, is that it can be interpreted a variety of different ways and still appear just as bold, just as complex, and just as profound a statement about America. Lupita Nyong’o is nothing short of brilliant as the two sides of Adelaide, the “normal” side of whom descends into madness after discovering a world of doppelgängers that looks just like her and her family. From my vantage point, Us gets at the nagging feeling all of us have in America — and which certainly has been brought to the fore in the last few years — that there is a subset of the populous that may never be treated with the respect they deserve as human beings, simply because they are on the lowest rung of an economic system which has totally thrown them overboard. It feels like the story of a revolt, and the twists and turns keep it more engaging than it might have been as some sort of genre polemic or lecture.

2. Uncut Gems

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Yes, Adam Sandler deserves an Oscar nomination. But what’s even more impressive about Uncut Gems is its thematic range. This is a film about power, mostly searched for by men. As a New York diamond district jeweler with celebrity customers, Howard’s (Sandler) quest for more, always more, is only trumped by the thugs he has running after him. He’s addicted to gambling and/or doubling his money whenever even remotely possible, even if it’s not probable. This has awful consequences on his family life, his financial well-being, and his already fragile psyche. The propulsive way in which the Safdie Brothers told this tale brought me to the edge of my seat and actually made me sweat. Howard is not a likable guy per se, but you do end up rooting for him because — as the film communicates surprisingly eloquently — we all have a bit of that gambler in us. 

1. Waves / Little Women (TIE)

Waves

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Young gun Trey Edward Shults has now proven that he is a force to be reckoned with. His directorial debut, Krisha was an exercise in extreme tension, and it was praised mostly on those merits. Now at age 31 and with two feature films under his belt, Waves feels like the movie he’s always wanted to make. The first half plays out a lot like Krisha, with high school wrestler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) caught in the crosshairs of a dicey situation. We see his annoyances and lack of self-awareness pile up over time, until every bad feeling in his life snowballs into one horrific act of violence. The film then gracefully transitions into its transcendent second half, where Tyler’s father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) sort out their response to both Tyler and their part in his journey. It’s a beautiful, skyward look towards redemption, and as well as it’s executed, it’s elevated even higher by the performance of Taylor Russell, who if not for the stupid politics of financing awards campaigns, would rightfully win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s seen the film singles her performance out as one of Waves’ best qualities, and one of the best performances of the year. It’s hard to imagine anything landing with more of a gut-punch in my soul than Waves.

Little Women

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This film is destined to become a Christmas tradition in my house. Not only is Greta Gerwig’s direction and keen eye for craftsmanship on full display, but this version of the Louisa May Alcott novel serves as a time capsule to showcase some of the very best young actors working today. Every part of this adaptation has killer performances, whether it’s the great Saoirse Ronan as the headstrong Jo, the queen of 2019 Florence Pugh as the rambunctious Amy, Emma Watson delivering a career-best turn as Meg, or the ever-beloved Timothée Chalamet, charming as ever as Laurie. The balance of playfulness and regret makes this movie sing with life’s highs and lows. We’re basically watching two winters — one a magical Christmas and the other a tough pill to swallow — intercut around Jo as kind of a stand-in for Alcott. It’s a bold and fresh take, one which honors the text and at the same time honors the language of cinema. Best Picture buzz is already building, and it’s not hard to see why. I’m with the majority of moviegoers on this one; I just adored it. Sidebar: this is Alexandre Desplat’s best film score yet.

Honorable Mentions: Honey Boy, Little Woods, The Art of Self-DefenseMike Wallace is HereAvengers: Endgame, Lynch: A History, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Marriage Story, Jojo Rabbit, Ash is Purest WhiteA Hidden Life, Parasite, Hustlers, Booksmart, The Lighthouse.

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Thanks for reading, everyone! See you in the new year!

“Uncut Gems” is a delicious, bristly parable about power

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Similar to how I felt about Yorgos Lanthimos before The Favourite, directors Josh and Benny Safdie have always been up-and-down for me — until now. Uncut Gems is the best of what they do. It’s a propulsive, aggressive, passionately-made, out-there masterpiece about a side of New York not usually explored in cinema. Produced by Martin Scorsese, it takes some of the best impulses of his emulators and injects them into a magical mystery tour of a falling house of cards. It’s really falling in slow-motion, but the film moves so rapidly that there’s almost no sense of those grander stakes until it’s too late.

Adam Sandler gives what is undoubtedly the best performance of his career as Howard, a diamond-district jeweler with a serious gambling addiction. Sandler is someone who clearly knows the difference between a good movie and a bad one, because the ratio throughout his career has been mostly 5 to 1 — five awful comedies for every one genuine comedy or solid drama. The comedies clearly keep the bucks rolling in, but movies like this and The Meyerowitz Stories build up his street cred among cinephiles who are paying attention. 

Howard makes a bet based on a convoluted scheme he concocts after beguiling Kevin Garnett (the real Kevin Garnett) with a rare African opal he believes will bring him good luck on the basketball court. Nobody really seems to find Howard credible, but through sheer force of will and quick thinking, Howard basically manages to bluff his niche market and save his own ass every time. As the forces arrayed against him come into starker relief, he continues to take even more wild risks, pushing the audience to hair-tearing-out levels of tension and frustration. But that’s just who this character is.

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What makes Uncut Gems more than just an engaging character study to me is its subtextual material. There is a ladder of power laid out by the film’s overall arc. We start with the African miners who found the stone, then we see the man who brings the stone to Howard. We see Howard struggling to stay afloat even in a world where his merchandise has the potential to secure serious cash. We see Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), Howard’s right-hand man who gets by simply on his connections to celebrities. And we finally see the thugs sent to rough Howard up as the last piece of a power puzzle — a hyperactive group of men play-acting importance and influence. 

It speaks to what the promise of “more” does to people. Howard is caught up in a search for more money and power, as is Demany, as are those lower on this food chain, and that search is often at the expense of their own well-being and survival. It’s no spoiler to say that we see physical consequences of this search — of this economic system — in the mines within the first few minutes of the film. 

Apart from those deeper threads, Uncut Gems is still a thrilling shot of adrenaline. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t make excuses for its scummy characters, it just wants to be about what it’s about. I love this film because it’s not trying to be all things to all people. If it sounds uniquely weird, stressful, or uninteresting to you, it probably will be. But man oh man, I can’t deny the exhilarating experience I had watching it.

-George Napper

‘Uncut Gems’ is now playing everywhere in the US

2hr, 15min; Rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use

“Bombshell” is as vitally important as it is an acting showcase

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Last fall, I took a trip to Washington DC and had the opportunity to attend several documentaries at the annual Double Exposure investigative film festival. It takes place every October and I would highly recommend it. One of the films I saw there was Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, which chronicled the rise and fall of one of the most powerful political operatives of all time.

As chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes was the man primarily responsible for the abrasive tone and candor of right-wing cable behemoth Fox News. A former campaign official for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Mitch McConnell, among others, Ailes’ career-long harassment of women finally caught up with him later in life. He was sued by star Fox News anchors Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, toppling a house of cards it took nearly 50 years for him to build. 

Enter screenwriter Charles Randolph and director Jay Roach. Their new film Bombshell looks at these events from the perspective of the women abused by Ailes. The film has been criticized for attempting to be a female-perspective film told from a male perspective, and I think that’s a valid discussion to be had. However, I can’t think of any other mainstream narrative film which so frankly captures the tension and dynamics of fear and mistrust that instances of workplace sexual harassment create. In my opinion, that portrayal is vitally important.

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Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, and Margot Robbie as Kayla Pospisil (a composite character) make a perfect acting trifecta. In a film that uses similar editing techniques to Adam McKay’s The Big Short, Bombshell is more broadly successful at weaving its three mini-narratives together into one without giving its audience whiplash. It’s a fascinating domino effect which doesn’t behave like one cinematically. Carlson was basically the whistleblower, which prompted Kelly to file her lawsuit, and the film uses young Kayla to illustrate how these problems at Fox would have been multi-generational had someone not said something.

From my perspective, this is one of Nicole Kidman’s best performances. She probably gets the least screen time of the three, but she captures the constant feeling of being between a rock and a hard place, not only at work, but in the ways her work experience impacts her personal life. 

Golden Globe nominee Charlize Theron disappears into the role. There were times I did double-takes because in addition to the excellent makeup (sidebar: whoever did the makeup on the Bill O’Reilly character did an incredible job), Theron captures Kelly’s swagger and confidence while maintaining a constant sense of the ever-present whirlwind. 

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Fellow Golden Globe nominee Margot Robbie’s performance is the most openly emotional of the three, and rightly so. We actually fully see her predicament rather than flashing back to instances of harassment, basically because of where the film begins, and I loved that they gave her a surprising choice of an actress to play off of — Kate McKinnon in her first dramatic role I’m aware of — and the two are excellent together. They dissect Fox as equals, as friends, from the outside. I think those scenes get at some of the left critique others feel the film is lacking.

Many don’t think the film leans in enough on a critique of Fox News, but I would posit that the film is ultimately not about Fox News or the Republican party. By putting such an emphasis on each of its three main characters’ personal lives and how they intertwine with Ailes’ power, I think you get the detail the film is after — again, Bombshell is a primer on workplace sexual harassment, and it’s sad to say, but many people in the U.S. still need that. It’s less important to me that this film criticize Trump, Ailes, or even the on-air Fox talent it follows for whatever political beliefs they harbor. I would submit the idea that Bombshell’s explicit focus on treatment of women in the workplace is more helpful to the larger conversation right now, because there is nobody in America who hasn’t already made their mind up about Trump and/or Trumpists. 

Maybe it’s just the way this film hit me, but I was very surprised by how much I appreciated it. If you’re interested in any of these topics, this film is for you. If you’re interested in Fox News more broadly as a piece of political history, see the documentary I recommended. See both! And then watch Toy Story 4 as a palette-cleanser.

-George Napper

‘Bombshell’ is now playing everywhere in the U.S.

1hr, 48min; Rated R for sexual material and language throughout.

The hype is real – ‘1917’ is incredible

This awards season might be the best ever. Just when I think there can’t possibly be more masterpieces from all sorts of voices young and old, the great Sam Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins unleash the final product of what appears to have been a behemoth undertaking.

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1917 is a towering achievement and marks a step forward in the art of filmmaking. Even though it isn’t actually done in one take (just like even the best in the category were not, such as Birdman and Victoria), the length of the actual individual shots and the subtle ways in which they are stitched together support the man-on-a-mission thesis of the film. We are following two WWI British soldiers as they attempt to deliver an important message to another British front, crossing enemy line after enemy line after enemy line. It’s easy to forget how difficult life-saving communication in war was before the necessary technology was widely available. 

George MacKay is Oscar-worthy and then some as Corporal William Schofield, who is pressed into this tall order by his friend Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who has a brother in the battalion they’re heading to. His life could be implicated, as well as the lives of approximately 1,600 soldiers. 

Because the film never cuts away from the immediate tasks of the mission, the intensity sneaks up on you and then overtakes you. There were several moments when I gasped and/or leapt in my seat — I don’t do that often, not even in the most shocking of horror films. A particularly gripping sequence for me was in an abandoned mine shaft set up as a trap with tripwires galore. 

One criticism one could level is that the film doesn’t show the true cost of war. Fully acknowledging that I have never been in a war zone, I respectfully disagree. There may not be many moments dedicated to the individual deaths of soldiers, but the mental, physical, and emotional stamina required of William shows the toll it takes. Additionally, one of the film’s most haunting images is of William climbing over dead bodies to cross a river, because there is no other way to do so.

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On the technical side, the star of the show is clearly director of photography Roger Deakins, whose brilliance cannot be overstated. At 70 years of age and after an already stellar career, Deakins has added on several masterclasses in the art of visual storytelling in this past decade: True Grit, Skyfall, Prisoners, Unbroken, Sicario, Hail, Caesar!, and Blade Runner 2049 — the last for which he finally won his first Academy Award. A second seems in order. 1917 is a work of genius every step of the way. We are as close as we can possibly get to the story and intensity of this film, and that is sustained throughout two hours, which probably breaks down into just ten or eleven shots. (very uneducated guess)

Mendes, Deakins, and MacKay have made a true masterpiece; something which will live on in the minds of cinephiles forever. I’m not IMAX-obsessed, but I’m going to see this in IMAX as soon as possible. You should, too.

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-George Napper

‘1917’ will be released in select cities on December 25th and everywhere in the US on January 10th

1 hr59min; Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language

‘Honey Boy’: a beautiful act of self-healing

To say Shia LaBeouf has been all over the place in the past decade-and-a-half would be an understatement. But it would be a mistake to just dismiss him as a meme or a “troubled child actor”. 

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His performances in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey solidified for me his being one of my favorite actors to watch. He has remarkable range and a fantastic sense of how to keep characters grounded. That staying grounded is exactly what was required of him for this project, a very personal one entitled Honey Boy. 

Alma Har’el directs from a script by LaBeouf, centered on his relationship with his abusive father. It’s easy to forget that LaBeouf was a Disney kid, and his father was in part responsible for pushing him in that direction. LaBeouf senior was at one point — after he had wasted a lot of his life with drugs and alcohol — paid by his son as his chauffeur, and the film mainly centers on this period of time. 

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Noah Jupe plays young Otis, a stand-in for Shia. Shia plays his own father. The scenes between the two of them are incredibly dynamic, and they showcase Har’el and LaBeouf’s ability to make the hair-trigger turns the father takes convincing and earned, in terms of letting us into his mindset, as much as it’s possible to comprehend. Lucas Hedges (in his best performance yet) plays present-day Otis, who after a drunken car crash is in rehab dealing with the effects of his father’s abuse. His flashbacks tell most of the story. 

The three actors are all outstanding, but Shia LaBeouf here is nothing short of groundbreaking. I have never seen anything quite like it. It’s a brave, layered, often scary performance; one where you often forget how omnipresent the actor is as a cultural character because he has completely sunk into the character he’s playing. Because the performance itself is so astounding, the fact that it is so intensely personal fades away and becomes like a cherry on top of an already brilliant achievement.

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Visually, the film has an aesthetic of eternal twilight. The faded greens and browns glow together in a dreamlike trance, reinforcing the idea that this memory may be heightened by years of regret and anger. 

But for as angry as Honey Boy can get, it’s also quite gentle for a film of its type. Forgiveness comes slowly for Otis, but it does come, and it’s beyond cathartic when it does. What I love about that section of the film is that it’s not about anything his father does or doesn’t do. It’s about Otis learning that he is the most important character in his story. As James (LaBeouf) says at one point, everyone has someone that’s done them wrong. Shia has downplayed how the film could potentially help its viewers deal with such issues, but I think he and Har’el have made something much more universal than he realizes. Honey Boy and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would make a wonderfully therapeutic double feature.

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-George Napper

‘Honey Boy’ is now playing everywhere in the US

1hr34min; Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual material and drug use

‘Knives Out’ is a gem (spoiler-free review!)

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For Knives Out, no preamble is necessary. If you’re even moderately familiar with this holiday movie slate, then chances are you’re aware of the overwhelming hype Rian Johnson’s whodunnit has received. I’m happy to report it’s just as great as everything you’ve heard. 

Daniel Craig is playing way against type as eccentric detective Benoit Blanc, who’s investigating the Thrombey family after their mystery-novel magnate father Harlan (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study under suspicious circumstances. The Thrombeys are very similar to the Roys from the excellent HBO series Succession, that is to say very rich, very entitled, and very competitive. Standouts are Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, Harlan’s daughter and seemingly his favorite of his direct descendants, and Toni Collette as Joni, a wannabe new-age earth mother type. 

The actual lead of the picture, however, is Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera. Marta is Harlan’s longtime household assistant and nurse, and she becomes more and more central to the mystery surrounding his death as the film swerves around multiple red herrings and twists.

What I love so much about Knives Out is that it takes its time, and yet it still feels like it was shot out of a cannon. It’s the type of film that respects its audience enough to pick up on what may seem like obtuse clues, because to hold your hand would be to ruin the fun. There were several moments in the first half where I wondered why the film was spending so much time on certain things, but all of those things ended up being essential to the mystery and themes of the movie. 

The knives truly come out once it’s made abundantly clear how much Harlan held Marta in high esteem. Though they say she’s a part of the family, a line is drawn in the sand around the hallway point of the film between the Thrombeys and Marta. 

Marta and Blanc are forced to work backwards from their separate conclusions, and they eventually discover the truth together. It’s not until Blanc puts all the seemingly disparate pieces together that the movie fully synthesizes into a complete artistic statement. That’s not a criticism, that’s a compliment. I love films that are unpredictable in the sense that the director’s vision isn’t just stated minute one. Again, the film takes its time, but the fun of the ride justifies that.

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Craig and de Armas are both brilliant here, de Armas’ grounded performance providing the perfect foil to Craig’s scenery-chewing shenanigans. But even this key pillar of the movie doesn’t fully materialize until the halfway mark. Rian Johnson proves once again how disciplined a screenwriter should be when blending a complex narrative with perhaps even more complex themes.

The overall message is the big thing I don’t want to spoil, and the marketing has done a tremendous job of not revealing it. That message feels so organic and earned here — no lectures, just a great story with a good heart.

See this movie as soon as possible. What a treat!

-George Napper

‘Knives Out’ will be released everywhere in the US on November 27

2hr, 10min; Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material

‘A Hidden Life’ – a thundering act of grace

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After three hours of important and operatic filmmaking, A Hidden Life concludes with a George Eliot quote from which the film’s title was derived:

“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

This isn’t a spoiler, because this is the entire ethos and thesis of Terrence Malick’s latest intimate epic. It’s about Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler or fight for the Nazis in World War II. 

Franz’s life is hidden — and has been mostly hidden to history since the 1940s — partly because he lived in a remote village of farmers and tradesmen surrounded by vast mountain ranges. It makes for an absolutely stunning visual experience. But the film might feel like one of Malick’s later empty-headed art installations like Song to Song or Knight of Cups were it not for the fact that the subject matter is so much more hefty, and so right for Malick’s trademark style. 

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A devout Catholic, Franz struggles to understand why his friends, family, clergy, and neighbors go along with Hitler’s nationalism and hatred as it starts to seep into his community. Several moments reminded me of interactions I’ve had with Trump supporters, some of whom come off to me as brainwashed and unable to see reason. Malick’s typically jittery camerawork emphasizes the tensions these social interactions often create. The verticality in his and director of photography Jörg Widmer’s style of shooting dialogue scenes gives us a sense of shifting dynamics of power. In one gorgeous shot (there are so many), a group of Nazi officers descends a hill towards Franz, and the camera is in exactly the right spot to make Franz look weak and ineffectual.

But if one were to walk away from this film thinking Franz lived a weak and ineffectual life, that would be to totally misinterpret what is a truly heroic act. Franz and his wife Franziska work diligently on their farm. At least a third of this film is dedicated to depicting the backbreaking labor Franz and Franziska performed every day, both before the rise of Nazi fascism and during its reign in Austria. What struck me about all the farming was that it provided a window into how fascism can take hold in small communities such as these. One essentially has two choices: either to blame helpless outsiders for one’s problems, and thus be able to continue one’s work without threat, or to stand up against the rising tide of hate and face the personal consequences, as Franz does. In this film, neither seems to be an easy choice. This is partly because of how difficult daily life was at the time — the manual labor becomes unimaginable emotional labor once these life-changing stakes are grafted on, and especially after Franz is taken to prison.

The stress of Franz’s choice on his wife and children would be almost too much to bear in one film were it not for how the film explores faith. In some ways, it’s a biblical exegesis, and in other ways, it’s an exegesis and exhumation of one man’s life. He is not perfect and the film is under no illusion that he is. But he does do something unbelievably selfless, even in the face of Nazi officers violently reminding him every day how selfish he is. Their strategy is to ingrain in him a sense of regret for effectively abandoning his family. But Franziska is always on his side. It’s a powerful romance which underlines the religious aspects of the film. If it were just Franz fighting this fight alone, there would be little beauty in the piece. When Franziska is on screen, you immediately understand why the couple worked and fought for each other for so many years. Even without the voice-over narration of letters they sent each other, you can just see the true love they have for each other in every frame.

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Of course, this palpable sense of romance is due in large part to the performances of the two leads. August Diehl, with his stern features and uncanny ability to swing swiftly from exuberance to dread and back again, imbues Franz with a total fullness of spirit. He’s a character that could feel purely polemical, but as played by Diehl, his motivations are steadfast and always convincing. Valerie Pachner gives what I think is one of the very best performances of the year as Franziska. The scenes in which she digs into the dirt, taking her anger out on the earth that is her business partner, are exactly what people mean when they talk about the power of cinema. Untethered and disillusioned, there are no words to express her anguish. The ‘homeland’ the Nazis talk of is worthless to her; her real home is her farm, which for her is still unclaimed territory. There can be no invasion of the soul.

A Hidden Life is undoubtedly one of the most stunning film experiences of this or any year. I’m so happy that Malick still knows how to make powerful, challenging, undeniably beautiful works of art. It’s a welcome return to form. More than that, it’s a call to true faith and love, which does and will always triumph over hate.

-George Napper

‘A Hidden Life’ will be released nationwide in the US on December 13

2hr, 53min; Rated PG-13 for thematic material including violent images

‘Waves’ will rock your soul

When ‘Waves’ opens on a teenager riding a bike, we never imagine that two hours later, that could be an act of redemption. But that’s exactly what it is. More than catharsis, ‘Waves’ offers as close to a spiritual experience as cinema can provide. There is no other way to put it – ‘Waves’ will rock your soul.

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31-year-old writer/director Trey Edward Shults has been mining family drama for different kinds of catharsis for a few years now. ‘Krisha’, his debut feature, follows an autobiographical relative struggling to fit in at a Thanksgiving gathering. When I say ‘struggling’, I really mean it. ‘Krisha’ is like an hour-and-a-half version of the first half of ‘Waves’. It’s tense to the point of maddening dizziness. 

‘Waves’ tells the story of the Williamses, a middle-class African-American family in South Florida. If you’ve seen ‘Krisha’, it’s hard not to have flashbacks when you realize the Williams’ house at least looks eerily similar to the one used in the earlier film. I’m 99% sure it was the same house, but I’ve never heard it confirmed.

Regardless, we first learn about Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the high-school senior and wrestler. In his tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), he slowly descends from being a partier to something much, much more tragic. 

In the second half, we follow Emily (Taylor Russell) as she deals with the aftermath of her older brother’s decisions and finds romance with Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s former teammates. 

Throughout both halves, father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and stepmother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) struggle to see themselves and their children clearly again.

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What’s so resonant and impressive about ‘Waves’ is that it never once points a finger at anyone. When certain characters point the finger at themselves, it may be hard to disagree with their assessment. But by being able to so closely capture the psyche of both teens, Shults systematically shows how tragedy can befall even the best and most well-intentioned of parents. We are snowballing downward with Tyler, watching a train wreck we have no chance of stopping. We are looking toward the heavens with Emily; seeing the grandeur of life and love almost as if for the first time.

Of course, the bravura performances aid in all of Shults’ efforts. Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Taylor Russell all give Oscar-worthy performances here. It’s such an ensemble piece that I worry about its awards chances in that regard, but no acting I’ve seen this year tops the moment late in the film where Emily and her father reconnect on a park bench. Bring. The. Tissues.

Shults’ intimacy of image sings through the piece like a hymn sung with power and conviction. He and director of photography Drew Daniels use subtle distinctions in color, aspect ratio, and camera placement to communicate extremely complicated emotional dynamics — and they make it all look seamless. This is someone who, at 31 years of age, is in full command of cinematic language and form. ‘Waves’ is a perfectly paced layer cake of a film. It has the flavor and presentation of a master chef. I look forward to whatever Mr. Shults will serve us in the future. 

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-George Napper

‘Waves’ opens everywhere in the US on November 15th

2 hr 15 min; Rated R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence – all involving teens