Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category


Heaven Adores You is the film Elliott Smith super fans have been anticipating and dreading for 11 years. The first feature-length documentary released about Smith, the film made its New York debut last week at the DOCNYC festival. You’ll find the first few paragraphs of my review below and the entire review at Next Projection. Given my very close relationship to this material, this was one of the more personal reviews I’ve ever written. The film disappointed, but I’m happy it exists.

For a long time, Elliott Smith was just another guy. He traipsed around Portland, his home of many years and the central location of Heaven Adores You, like any other face about town. He did drywall jobs to pay rent and played in a grunge band at small dive bars. He put out records that did OK in his own city. He was a regional darling, if that, within a thriving local scene.

By 1998, Smith was doing interviews on “Total Request Live” and getting mentioned in the same sentence as Celine Dion. How did this happen? To chart his ascent from Portland secret to obsessively beloved singer/songwriter, we can point to two facts. The first: Smith had a superhuman talent for writing melancholic pop songs. The second: Smith lied about the song “Miss Misery” to make it eligible for an Oscar. Smith and director Gus Van Sant claimed he wrote the song for Good Will Hunting – thus qualifying it as a Best Original Song – when it was just another unreleased number he had lying around. That lie lead to an Oscar nomination, a record deal, world tours and a level of fame that left Smith with profound unease.

“I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” he says early in Heaven Adores You. The film, now playing at DOCNYC, strives to both celebrate Smith’s music and prove this essential point. Smith entered the world of celebrity on a lie, and his very presence there was a mistake. Heaven Adores You, despite its rather strange collection of shortcomings, makes do as a primer on Smith and the impact his music has on people. It’s a respectful if far too safe first cinematic draft of the Elliott Smith story.

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My New York Film Festival coverage culminated last week with a review of Inherent Vice, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson. You can read my piece on the film over at Next Projection. You’ll find the first few paragraphs below. Like all of PTA’s more recent films, Inherent Vice made for a beguiling but hypnotic first sit. I can’t wait to revisit it in December. To browse all of my 2014 NYFF pieces, click here.

Sometimes life hits you with a bunch of complicated shit when all you really want to do is spin a Neil Young record and roll another number. Inherent Vice is a film about that feeling. It’s about other things, too: capitalism, counterculture, California. It’s also about how much Paul Thomas Anderson, the film’s director, loves convoluted film noir plots, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, and the prose of Thomas Pynchon. Inherent Vice throws a lot at you in 148 minutes. It’s a chaotic noir odyssey – all comic mayhem and mournful weirdness. But really it remains a simple thing: the story of a man (and a decade, the ’60s) whose good times get interrupted by larger forces.

It’s the latest fascinatingly strange, sublimely cinematic look at a moment of American history as rendered by Paul Thomas Anderson.

The first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice tells its story of a nation in flux through Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a Southern California stoner and half-assed private eye. The film opens as Doc gets a visit from Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), a meaningful ex from his past. Shasta tells of her current affair with Mickey Wolfmann, a real estate goliath so big even Doc knows his name. Wolfmann’s wife has her own illicit lover, and together the two have planned to have Mickey thrown into one of California’s recently privatized “loony bins.”

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Martín Rejtman's Two Shots Fired made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival earlier this week.

Martín Rejtman’s Two Shots Fired made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival earlier this week.

My second review from the New York Film Festival is now up at Next Projection. Click here to read my piece on Two Shots Fired, a baffling (but not unenjoyable) dark comedy from Argentina. To browse all of my NYFF reviews, follow this link.

Two Shots Fired opens on an act of irrational violence: A 16-year-old boy, devoid of any expression or motivation we can register, shoots himself twice after a quick swim. The film ends, 100 minutes later, having fully convinced us that it’s no more logical than that impulsive act. Two Shots Fired operates just beyond our understanding, which befits a film about human behavior that makes no sense. It’s a quietly mystifying comedy about confusion itself. Buried in it, deliberately obscured, is a sad little movie about the rippling effects of self-harm. We’ve seen that material before, but never from an angle so oblique as this.

We begin with Mariano (Rafael Federman), an Argentinean teenager who inexplicably shoots himself and even more inexplicably survives. Despite taking point-blank shots to the chest and head, Mariano shows no signs of trauma or physical harm upon return from the hospital. He does, however, still have a bullet lodged inside his torso, which causes strange sounds to come out of his flute and metal detectors to chirp outside clubs and office buildings. Mariano seems unfazed – both by his own actions and by his total lack of an emotional response to his near death.

One by one, the marginal characters around him become the subjects of Two Shots Fired. The film strays from Mariano to follow his brother Ezequiel (Benjamín Coehlo) and his romance with a fast-food cashier (Laura Paredes). Mariano meets Lucia (Manuela Martelli), an amateur flute player who auditions for his medieval woodwind ensemble and seizes control of the film. Mariano’s mother Susana (Susana Pampkin), frazzled from overwork and her son’s apparent suicide attempt, takes a trip to the beach with a group of friends and strangers, and the camera follows her. It soon gets distracted and leaves her for Liliana (Daniela Pal), an outsider on the beach trip who has no real connection to Mariano or his mother.

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Roxy, star of Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language.

Roxy, star of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language.

Earlier this week, I began my coverage of the New York Film Festival over at Next Projection. I hope to review five films over the course of the festival, which runs September 26-October 12. My first dispatch concerned Goodbye to Language, the 3-D cinematic essay from Jean-Luc Godard. It is, as of time of writing, my favorite film from the festival thus far. You can read the complete review here and the first few paragraphs below.

Goodbye to Language is a crazy quilt of the obsessions of Jean-Luc Godard. War imagery collides with domestic hostility collides with footage of the filmmaker’s dog. The scenes change like channels on some spastic, possessed television. For many, the film may play like unwatchable chaos – all noise and no signal. Getting on its wavelength requires a certain level of masochism. You have to enjoy, to some degree, getting provoked and assaulted by Jean-Luc Godard. I’m here to tell you that it’s possible.

Godard is that rare filmmaker who’s grown more jagged-edged with age. Could the man ever go soft? More than 50 years after he popularized the jump cut to disrupt the film-watching experience, Godard continues to antagonize us with moving images that look nothing like the ones we consume on a daily basis.

The difference between peak-period Godard and the 83-year-old of today, however, comes down to a line from Goodbye to Language: “I hate characters.” Contemporary Godard has no interest in the quirks of individual humans. His cinema has long ago entered the realm of pure abstraction. He’s weaponized the harsh sound design, abrupt transitions, and non-sequiturs of his beloved ‘60s films. Cinema is now a tool to explore his passions, full stop, and he uses it like a master with no care for such niceties as plot, character development, or coherence.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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