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black-coal-thin-ice

Liao Fan stars in Black Coal, Thin Ice, winner of the Golden Bear at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

Today marks my final review from the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. We end on a good note with Black Coal, Thin Ice, a Chinese thriller from director Diao Yinan. It’s an odd, dark, and altogether very compelling entry into the film noir canon. You can read my complete review over at Next Projection. You’ll find the opening paragraphs of my piece below. For all five of my 2014 Tribeca reviews, click here. As always, thanks for reading.

As a 15-year-old, I’d never heard the word “pastiche.” Still, I understood that urge: to create your own version of the things you loved. If you grew up on action movies, maybe you tried to make one as a teenager. My own attempts never went well. I lacked the technical skills to translate my ideas into something that looked and felt like the real thing. But even if I did have some virtuoso knack for crafting action spectacles in my parents’ backyard, I still had nothing to say. I just wanted to imitate the films that enchanted me. There was no goal, no purpose, but artful recreation.

You could say the same about most pastiche efforts. You couldn’t, though, about Black Coal, Thin Ice, the new Chinese thriller from director Diao Yinan. The film transcends mere mimicry. It captures the mood and narrative turns of a classic film noir, and it adds to them an emotional depth and light surrealism you don’t associate with the genre. It plays with our knowledge of the noir pantheon; it subverts some expectations and satisfies others. It’s a fine tribute to films like The Maltese Falcon and an elegant noir in its own right.

Having won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in January, Black Coal, Thin Ice made its North American debut this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film opens on a severed hand half buried under a mound of coal. For the next 100-odd minutes, Diao’s movie will explore that one image from every angle: Whose limb is it, how did it get there, who’s next? Officer Zhang Zilli (Liao Fan) heads the search to answer those questions. The pursuit goes wrong fast. After the botched arrest of a coal truck driver — the first of many moments of abrupt, expertly staged violence in Black Coal, Thin Ice — Zhang leaves the force and the film glides five years into the future.

palo-alto

Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer star in Palo Alto, the debut film from writer/director Gia Coppola.

The Tribeca Film Festival reviews continue today with Palo Alto, a film based on a book of short stories (which I have not read) by James Franco. You can read my full review at Next Projection and the first few paragraphs below. Click here to read my complete Tribeca coverage. I hope you’ve enjoyed the festival coverage thus far. My final review from the festival will appear tomorrow.

“I do things all the time for no reason.” Of all the lines mumbled or screamed by the teenagers of Palo Alto, this one feels the most like a statement of purpose. The sentiment fits just about everyone we meet in the film. Characters stagger from one destructive moment to the next with little in the way of logic. Palo Alto, at its best, sits back and lets them experiment, fail, and learn.

The film marks the debut of writer/director Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia, and is adapted from a book of short stories by James Franco, who co-stars. All this is to say: Palo Alto is a sitting duck for the online snark community. The temptation to accuse Coppola of nepotism or Franco of vanity is strong, no doubt. Franco’s recent Instagram flirtation with a teenager, which echoes a key plot point here, adds another layer of extra-textual distraction. Stripped of those, the film is a fairly compelling snapshot of high school aimlessness. It arrives as a promising first feature for its writer/director and potential breakout for its lead, Emma Roberts.

Roberts stars as April, a prototypically self-conscious high school student in Palo Alto, California. She splits screen time with several of her classmates. Chief among them is Teddy (Jack Kilmer), a destructive artist type who can’t decide if he’d rather volunteer at a children’s library or get drunk and chainsaw a tree from its roots. Teddy spends most of his time with Fred (Nat Wolff), a textbook Bad Influence and flagrant misogynist. Fred unleashes his most vile urges on Emily (Zoe Levin), a party girl looking for love. Any viewer can sense that April feels out of place in this community. She goes to the parties, but a life of red Solo cups and drunk driving doesn’t have much inherent appeal for her. It’s this blend of relative maturity and obvious insecurity that leaves her primed for the advances of her soccer coach (Franco), an affable, exploitative older man.

the-canal

Rupert Evans stars in Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal, a doggedly conventional horror film out of Ireland.

My latest dispatch from the Tribeca Film Festival is a review of The Canal, an Irish horror film that made its world premiere earlier this week. You can read my full review over at Next Projection. You’ll find the first few paragraphs below. Click here to browse all my reviews from the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

A young family moves into a nice, quiet home. What can go wrong, besides everything? Such is the premise of untold horror movies, and now The Canal. An Irish import that made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this week, the film offers a parade of tired horror tropes, from jump scares to witless gore. It also gives horror fiends an entirely competent — if pretty uninspired — latest fix.

The film opens on David (Rupert Evans) and Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) as they prepare to purchase a house on a serene suburban street. Five years later, the two have a son and the appearance, at least, of a tranquil life. David works as a film archivist. In the film’s opening scenes, he discovers a police film reel that details the aftermath of a homicide in his very home. The silent, black and white film shows police as they fish a body out of a nearby canal and usher a handcuffed man from David’s home. The year was 1902. Several people died.

The discovery doesn’t faze David, at least not at first. Instead, he becomes consumed with perhaps-justified jealousy over his wife’s encounters with another man. David decides to trail Alice after work, which leads to a violent, surreal encounter near the same canal as the 1902 murder. He awakes in a grotesque public bathroom, his memory of the evening wiped. Alice, meanwhile, has disappeared.

night-moves-blog

Jesse Eisenberg stars alongside Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard in Night Moves, the new film from Kelly Reichardt. The film made its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.

My coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival continues today with a review of Night Moves, the latest portrait of the Pacific Northwest from director Kelly Reichardt. Night Moves was easily my favorite film I saw at this year’s festival. You can read my entire review over at Next Projection. For a taste, see below. Click here to browse all my reviews from the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Mankind plays by a different set of rules at night. For most of us, the daylight hours are defined by work, routine, and the pursuit of a paycheck. The nighttime offers something far more alluring: the chance to pursue our own, more radical ideas. In Night Moves, characters toil on an organic farm and collect towels at a health spa during business hours. They work within a standard economic system: show up, do the work, don’t make waves, get paid. Kelly Reichardt’s new film, a slow-burn thriller, relishes in the danger of a life led outside those margin. The chronicle of a small eco-terrorist attack and its blowback, Night Moves is among Reichardt’s finest showcases yet as a political filmmaker and storyteller.

Her latest dispatch from the Pacific Northwest, following the unmistakably Oregon run of Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff, the film once again explores the people of a very specific time and place. Here, those people include Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a taciturn activist who lives and works on an organic farm. Josh spends his days growing sustainable crops with like-minded coworkers. He decries energy consumption and has no access to the Internet, save for a nearby town’s public library. Josh enlists Dena (Dakota Fanning) to bankroll and help execute a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Early in the film, we see Dena attend a climate change documentary and mock the director to her face. Josh and Dena don’t come off as abrasive or petulant. They do, however, appear disillusioned with traditional means of inspiring change. Farmers’ markets and documentary films don’t get people thinking, they reason. A spectacular explosion might.

Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner spar in Venus in Fur, the new film from Roman Polanski. The movie makes its North American debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.

Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner spar in Venus in Fur, the new film from Roman Polanski. The movie makes its North American debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.

The Tribeca Film Festival is underway in New York. All week, I’ll be publishing reviews from the festival over at Next Projection. We start with Venus in Fur, the new feature from Roman Polanski. Venus in Fur is an adaptation of the New York play from David Ives, which is itself a riff off Venus in Furs, the novella by Leopold von Sacher-Mason. The film premiered last year at Cannes and awaits a full theatrical release in the States. You can read my complete review here. The first few paragraphs you’ll find below. Check back every day this week for reviews on the latest from director Kelly Reichardt, the debut from a third-generation Coppola, the winner of the 2014 Golden Bear at Berlin, and more. Thanks for reading.

The first thing you’ll likely notice about Venus in Fur, the new stage-to-screen adaptation from Roman Polanski, is the extraordinary physical resemblance between the film’s lead actor and its director. Mathieu Amalric makes for an absolute dead ringer of Polanski, who turned 80 last year. The casting may seem at first like a cute joke. Amalric also stars alongside Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife of 25 years. He plays a stage director looking to cast an adaptation of Venus in Furs, the 18th century novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Amalric’s character insists early on that his adaptation is a personal work, not mere stenography of the novella. “There’s a lot of me in the play,” he tells Seigner.

The question that hangs over Venus in Fur is just how much Polanski there is in it. As the casting of a doppelganger alongside his real-life wife suggests, you’ll find traces of Polanski all over this well-mounted adaptation. A sexy, claustrophobic comedy, Venus in Fur is a fine telling of David Ives’ hit play and a compelling glimpse into the mind of one of cinema’s most divisive figures.

The film unfolds in real time inside a Parisian theater off the Champs-Elysees. Polanski introduces us first to Thomas (Amalric), an arrogant stage director in search of the lead for his adaptation of Venus in Furs. The novella, and his play, tells the story of a masochistic man so obsessed with a woman that he becomes her willing slave. Thomas whines on the phone about the uncultured women he auditioned that day, his tone belittling and misogynistic. He cringes at the sight of Vanda (Seigner), a woman who arrives unannounced to audition for the role of Wanda, the play’s female lead. She enters wet from the rain, frazzled and chatty. Vanda has an immediate, almost vulgar sex appeal, which we gather isn’t what Thomas wants for the part. She seems to embody Thomas’ exact views on women: she’s physically alluring but not too bright. Thomas tries to leave, but Vanda refuses to let him go until they read through a scene.

Review: Run & Jump

run-and-jump

Will Forte‘s evolution from screeching SNL cast member to serious actor continues with Run & Jump, a modest, largely likable indie out of Ireland. You’ll find the first few paragraphs of my review below. You can head to Next Projection to read my thoughts in full.

There’s a moment toward the end of Run & Jump when the melodrama reaches full boil. Our frazzled protagonist (Maxine Peake) has locked herself in her bedroom. Three men pound on her door: her husband, a cognitively-impaired stroke survivor; her son, a gay, self-harming teenager; and her lovesick admirer, a doctor who also happens to be studying her husband. Each man needs something from her. Each is his own unique source of stress. Each won’t stop pounding.

On paper it all reads like mush. It sounds contrived and manipulative, as though writer Ailbhe Keogan and director Steph Green have crammed enough weepy material into one film to prod us into tears every 15 minutes. But Keogan and Green have too much love for these characters to let Run & Jump devolve into soap opera histrionics. Theirs is an understated, genial film, despite the deluge of domestic strife hurled at its lead. Though it suffers from characters and moments that seem a little overly familiar, the film remains compelling for the empathy it shows those stuck in an impossible situation.

Run & Jump takes place over a few quietly turbulent weeks in small-town Ireland. It concerns Maxine (Peake), a jovial woman whose husband Conor (Edward MacLiam) has just returned from the hospital after a near-fatal stroke. Though his survival is a rare gift, Conor has lost much of his cognitive ability. He has trouble forming words and his behavior, particularly toward his son Lenny (Brendan Morris), is erratic, often hostile. Maxine knows her husband will never fully recover. With two children and a husband who requires equal supervision, she must learn to become the de facto caretaker of an entire house. For the sake of her children, and herself, she tries to do it with a smile.

2013-movie-triple

The following post first appeared on Next Projection. You can read it here.

You’ll find few through lines in the below list of great films released in 2013. They touch on historical drama and science fiction, coming of age and getting old, American greed and Indonesian genocide. 2013 gave us an eclectic collection of films worth discussing. I saw about 40 of them. These are the 11 that occupied the most space in my brain.

Honorable mention: The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort received $1 million to have his life story adapted into The Wolf of Wall Street. Think about that. Belfort is a criminal, an emblem of capitalism’s worst impulses. And yet he made more money on this movie than many of us will earn in a lifetime. Belfort didn’t just screw people over as a broker; he’s now monetized the story of him screwing people over. It’s this fact, and not the movie’s deluge of nudity and drug use, that makes The Wolf of Wall Street a borderline immoral picture. Martin Scorsese doesn’t seem to see the irony here. He ends Wolf with an image that scolds cash-obsessed Americans for buying what Belfort has to sell, but didn’t Belfort pull the same trick – parlaying his notoriety into cash – by selling the movie rights to his books? The film itself paints Belfort as a Caligula-like monster, albeit one who’ll inspire the envy of bro-dudes for decades. Wolf is the kind of satire you could squint and interpret as either a celebration or a critique of its subject. Like my 2012 honorable mentionDjango Unchained, it’s a boycott-inducing romp that doesn’t say much but sparks a dialogue worth having.

Blue-is-the-warmest-color

#10 Blue Is the Warmest Color

Blue Is the Warmest Color is another three-hour epic one could easily condemn for its production details. The film’s (very young) leads have described the shoot as “horrible” and rife with “manipulation.” By their reports, director Abdellatif Kechiche prodded them way outside their comfort zones and became borderline abusive on set. I’m prone to believe the actors. I’m also prone to see the intimacy and volcanic energy on screen. Together with Kechiche, they’ve crafted a grand document on the highs and lows of young love. We get it all: the initial reverie, the sexual awakening, the blissful years, the atrophy, the colossal first break up, and, most gutting of all, the realization that you may never feel quite that strongly again. Save for the sex stuff, Kechiche renders these moments with remarkable care. We also see Adèle grow as an individual, outside of her relationship, as she tries on identities and political beliefs for size. Kechiche mars the film with a male-centric depiction of lesbian sex and several dumb moments intended to justify his obsession with female bodies. It’s a testament to the power of this coming-of-age drama that most of us are willing to forgive these sins. Continue Reading »

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