2018 In Review: January

2018 In Review: January

Posted in 2018 Updates by - February 01, 2018
2018 In Review: January

Review: Our New President

There will surely be more than one editorial about how Our New President is The Movie We Need Right Now or how it Explains Everything You Need to Know About Russia or the like. But the timely subject belies its applicability outside Russia or this precise political moment. No matter what pundits claim, there is nothing new about fake news. (Did Russian trolls also trick America into invading Iraq?) This doc may actually benefit more from a viewing outside any contemporary hype vortex.

Review: American Animals

The rich genre of crime film in which dumbasses get themselves in way over their heads has a proud new entry with American Animals. Though premiering as part of Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition, I’d strenuously argue that it is in fact a documentary that happens to be 90% reenactment. Hell, the movie itself even states in the opening chyron that it is a true story, not based on one. The real figures involved not only provide commentary but also shape the film itself, as conflicting testimonies will change a scene’s location or what a certain person is wearing. The conflict between differing points of view and retrospective perspective express the movie’s themes of shaping one’s reality by acting as though you’re in a different story than the one you think you’re living.

Review: Generation Wealth

I went to the Generation Wealth exhibit when it was at the Annenberg Space for Photography in LA last year, and found it a far more intriguing and expansive survey than what the film presents of Greenfield’s work. The movie version’s emphasis on the emotional journeys of the subjects clashes with Greenfield’s more reserved, detached photographical gaze. This also means that it leads more toward wealthy characters, whereas the exhibition had much more space devoted to the tangible impacts of cultural wealth obsession, such as rows of foreclosed houses in the aftermath of the 2008 crash (seen only briefly here). The movie also suffers for having so much of Greenfield in it. She tries to tie events in her own life to those of her subjects, but that parallel never feels convincing, and these scenes balloon the film to an unwieldy near two hours. Greenfield’s earlier documentaries, such as Thin and The Queen of Versailles, serve as better explorations of the topics this somewhat shapeless movie presents.

Review: 306 Hollywood

306 Hollywood is billed as a “magic realist documentary,” and is presented in the kind of dollhouse aesthetic, tinkly piano, semi-twee manner that may suggest. I would understand both people who are entranced and those who are irritated by it, and I volleyed between both reactions during the film. Ultimately, it seems the movie may have worked better with all the good ideas condensed into a short.

Review: Lu Over the Wall

Yuasa specializes in movement-heavy animation, often full of comical body exaggerations more familiar in Western styles than in anime. The animators absolutely cut loose during the movie’s dance sequences, in which all faithfulness to realism is abandoned and characters become living embodiments of the rhythms and tunes. It’s awe-inspiring to watch, a cousin both of Old Hollywood musicals and modern dance TV shows, impressing with the creative choreography and skill on display (though here it’s with drawings instead of physical prowess).

Review: Three Identical Strangers

The doc unfolds via the traditional talking heads and archive footage format, occasionally injecting reenacted segments to cover events without any direct documentation. That these sections are so infrequent and concentrated mostly in the first half of the film make them feel more incongruous than like organic parts of the narrative. The movie’s most baffling strategy is to do a sort of Usual Suspects flashback montage every time a big twist comes, which sometimes means lines of dialogue we heard only minutes before are repeated for us. (In the moment, I was more intrigued by the twists themselves, but in retrospect this technique makes them almost more silly than shocking.)

Review: Piercing

Piercing plays out Reed and Jackie’s tryst as a sadomasochistic Punch and Judy routine, with the flare-ups of violence equally funny and horrifying. Pesce’s most impressive move is presenting this in a way that still respects the pain of the characters and doesn’t make light of abuse or assault. It’s likely to satisfy gore hounds without stoking anyone’s misogyny, and even does so in inventive ways. (This film contains what I believe to be the first cinematic example of grievous bodily harm inflicted with a can opener.) That the exterior shots are done with miniatures adds to the unreal effect of peeking into a back-alley peep show.

Review: Leave No Trace

Early scenes of Leave No Trace feel like The Road. Not the movie adaptation, but Cormac McCarthy’s book, which evokes familial intimacy to an almost harrowing degree. ‘Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.’ In setting, this is that story’s pre-apocalyptic mirror, with a father and daughter living in the woods instead of a father and son wandering a wasteland. Here there is good earth instead of ash and striking greenery instead of gunmetal, and the lead characters have willingly separated themselves from civilization instead of being violently torn from it. But the central parent-child bond is of the same species, and the movie’s quiet study of it delivers similar heartbreak.

Review: Bisbee ’17

The concept immediately recalls that of The Act of Killing, though Greene’s style differs greatly from that of Joshua Oppenheimer’s. Thematically, there’s the most obvious difference that the subjects of Act of Killing were performing living memory – their own actions, in fact. Here, the descendants of the perpetrators of a great crime are the ones remaking it. The sin is generational instead of personal, and the confrontation with it spurs different self-reflection. Or, more often, a lack of it. Many residents of Bisbee we meet are frighteningly untroubled by the deportation, repeating bullshit justifications about it being the best option for “peace” or “stopping socialism” or “supporting the war” with the same assuredness as their predecessors. America’s autobiography does not admit mistakes, and we are a people adept at ignoring cognitive dissonance and reconciling seemingly impossible contradictions.

Review: Come Sunday

It’s rare that mainstream filmmakers attempt to take seriously matters of faith – a subject personal to a majority of people but which movies have historically handled clumsily. This perhaps exposes the gap in the competencies between the greats and the merely good, OK, or less. It takes a true understanding of an art form to use it to express the ineffable, spiritual aspects of human experience. The ways of doing so do not exist in the conventional toolkit. Come Sunday makes an admirable effort to delve into religious conviction and changes in faith, but comes up feeling too normal and disconnected from those matters.

Review: Of Fathers and Sons

While the film crew occasionally accompanies Osama to disarm bombs or snipe at distant enemies, violence remains mainly in the distance throughout the film. A tremendous, gory turn about halfway through the running time takes place offscreen. It’s also at this point that the boys we’re following, including some of Osama’s sons, begin their military training. Few of them appear to have reached puberty, but they’re going through drills and having live rounds fired inches from their heads. It’s ghastly.

Review: The Oslo Diaries

Along with interviews with the still-living figures in the Oslo talks and requisite historical footage, the movie is built around their written journals from the time. If it had interrogated any frission between what they wrote privately then and what they say to cameras now, then the doc could have found a valuable angle on how people handle their pasts as they relate to history. Unfortunately, if there is any such frission, the movie declines to highlight it. Thus, it repeatedly has people reiterating as talking heads what we’ve already heard them say in their old diaries. The movie does not even wring much pathos out of contrasting the hope the negotiators had back then with their more jaded mindsets 25 years on.

Review: Beirut

If ever you needed a reminder as to how much Hollywood still really, really hates Muslims, look no further than the opening of Beirut, in which Jon Hamm delivers a jaw-droppingly reductive “summation” of the situation in Lebanon circa the 1970s in which millennia of rich history are written off as nothing but a chain of ethnic groups backstabbing one another. If you need further reminders, you can watch… the rest of the film, which could have been written by Jack Shaheen’s most curdled rage nightmares.

Review: Madeline’s Madeline

The movie is shot entirely from Madeline’s perspective, with cinematographer Ashley Connor’s eye rarely entering deep focus and even less often staying still. There is never a moment when the viewer does not feel entirely within this single, subjective experience. Madeline roves, sometimes speaking with friends on entirely “normal” terms and other times acting like a cat around strangers. She’s alternately animated and agitated, and the light around her shimmers and fades in the way your vision frizzes when your heart beats too fast. The film freely transitions between events that are probably real, things that are probably imagined and moments that aren’t easy to identify as either (or which may be real things overlaid with hallucinations, or fantasies with real life attempting to intrude).

On The Price of Everything

Of course, actual beauty, talent, and innovation only factor marginally in this. Rather than deny this, the art dealers interviewed for the film are remarkably candid about how coldly they approach their trade. Seemingly everyone almost gleefully acknowledges that they’re riding a bubble. They are wealthy enough not to care about any pretense of nobility — Edlis jovially explains how he often prefers to “trade” art rather than write checks to dodge taxes. Cappellazzo can even code switch effortlessly between being a buyer and appreciating the art, in one scene evaluating Crosby’s collage work based on its auction potential and in the next earnestly explaining why Giacomo Balla’s “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash” is her favorite painting. Edlis is a fascinating enigma; while he seems very dismissive of most of the works he buys (he carelessly leaves Ugo Rondinone’s “still.life. (five lemons)” lying on the floor by his desk), he can explain what makes a piece interesting or not better than any of the professional critics in the movie.

Interview: Lauren Greenfield on Generation Wealth

“We just started calling different people, my favorite subjects and those with the most interesting stories. I started reaching out and talking about what had happened to them. I ended up going to meet the ones whose stories had unfolded in ways that spoke to Generation Wealth.

There were some who I had read about, like Paris. He was in my early book, and I hadn’t talked to him in years. His dad was a singer for REO Speedwagon [Kevin Cronin], and I read an article about his son’s drug addiction and was like, “Holy shit! This is Paris.” So I reached out to him. With [former adult film actress] Kacey Jordan, it was the same thing. I had a pretty short contact with her when I photographed her for GQ. I read somewhere that she had filed for bankruptcy and tried to commit suicide, and was like, “Whoa, how did this happen?” And then, when I went to film her again, I was so taken with her story that I continued.”

Review: Ophelia

Despite all this, Ophelia is still kind of fun. It’s produced as a full-throated CW network Tumblr-friendly affair, lavishing attention on pretty costumes, leaning heavily on melodramatic acting, and featuring an extremely extra score with lines from Hamlet’s poetry sung breathily. It has absolutely no interest in Shakespearean language; when lines from the play appear, they are modernized. (“Get thee to a nunnery” becomes “Get to a nunnery,” and is meant literally instead of being a veiled reference to a brothel.) Watts is chewing scenery in not one but two roles (the other is a forest witch, and no points for guessing why she plays her too), as is Clive Owen as Claudius (chewing scenery, that is, not playing two roles). George MacKay interprets the famously complex role of Hamlet as an inveterate fuccboi (as the kids say). If the movie had been pitched a lot more toward hormone-addled drama, it could be a delightful Renfaire version of Riverdale. Unfortunately, after an agreeably high-energy opening stretch, the movie settles into a fairly sedate mode it can’t pull out of.

Review: Blindspotting

Blindspotting is a mess that is likely to lessen in your mind as soon as it’s over, even if you may be utterly absorbed in it in the moment (which I often was). A lot of it is provocation which belies a lack of a real message, or story turns that feel unearned even in the heightened context the movie establishes. But there is undeniable craft here, and an impossible-to-ignore signal that everyone involved in the project deserves attention going forward. What does work is strong, sometimes powerful.

Review: Shirkers

The old shots of Tan, her friends working on the production (the extremely well-preserved footage included all the behind-the-scenes bits), and the city are frequently cut with modern-day material. The ‘90s portrait of youthful energy is now directly a photo album of their youth. Tan compares shots of buildings once under construction to the finished structures, or to now-shuttered locations, or to things that have replaced what once was there entirely. People age or de-age in a blink; reminisce becomes a dialogue between what one dreams for themselves and what they actually become. It evokes legitimate wistfulness for the movie that could have been; Shirkers might not have been a masterpiece, but from the footage it looks well-shot, compelling, and imaginative.

Review: Damsel

But this is no rousing adventure — nary a single swash is properly buckled. Samuel can’t hold his liquor, continually fumbles with his guns and can’t make a declarative statement without hemming or hawing. And of course, it’s impossible to evoke John Wayne when you’re going around with an adorable miniature horse at your side. Henry, meanwhile, is no parson at all. In the opening sequence, a flashback to when he was new to the West, he takes the Bible and clothes of a real preacher (Robert Forster) who, tired of the solitary futility of his trade, strips off and walks into the desert. Henry comes from the coast claiming to seek a “fresh start” — the rallying cry of settlers in stories like this for over a century. But the film asserts that such reinventions are impossible. You can change your home, your clothes and your profession, but if you’re still the same messed-up person underneath, nothing will improve for you.

Review: Pass Over

The strong religiosity in African American communities has historically infused their activist rhetoric with Biblical allusion, especially to the Book of Exodus and its story of the Jews escaping slavery. Yet more than a century and a half after the end of black slavery in America, where is their promised land? Moses and Kitch are still faced with aimlessness, police violence, and lack of opportunity. Nwandu’s script turns this endless stall of progress into an existential allegory with a haunting overcast of pessimism

Review: A Woman Captured

It is vital to bring stories like this to wider attention, but it cannot be said for certain whether the movie does so at the cost of furthering Marish’s suffering and thus also exploiting her. There are salient points to be made about any first-world audience’s corporate complicity in slavery as an institution, and perhaps it’s impossible for the doc to bring this up without any hypocrisy, but the possible hypocrisy remains. While powerful, A Woman Captured is not always uncomfortable in the ways it intends.

Review: This Is Home

Stylistically, the movie is completely standard, feeling as though Shiva and her crew followed their subjects for a requisite amount of time and put the highlights in sequence. Where it could do more to work inside its characters’ heads, it pulls back. In particular, it tries to make the case that the families successfully mesh with their new community, but presents almost no examples of them interacting with locals. Baltimore has no specificity as a location. How can This Is Home make the case for its title without a real sense of what home is?

Review: Hale County This Morning, This Evening

The most intriguing idea Ross has is to occasionally cut in artifacts of stereotypical depictions of African American culture, like when he juxtaposes a historic plantation house with an ancient film clip of a blackfaced actor entering such a house. Hale County This Morning, This Evening thus uses its collage of the mundane as an argument for its subjects’ humanity. Apichatpong Weerasethakul served as creative advisor, and Ross’ style evokes his gentle touch for drawing the character out of environments. This is a film which I feel could grow in my mind as time goes on, and even now, I think it deserves our attention.

Review: The Cleaners

The film switches between interviewing a handful of moderators working out of the Philippines and examining wider issues around internet censorship. Like a lot of internet-related drudge work, content moderation is too complex for an algorithm (at this point, at least), considered unskilled labor, and in need of great masses of workers. In the tech age, that’s a combination that’ll get a position outsourced to a “third-world” country in less than a minute. The most affecting parts of the film consider the mental toll that this work takes on the moderators, who are given little training and no therapeutic help to deal with the reams of pictures of murder, pornography (some of it involving children), threats, suicide, and worse they have to sort through. Much of the time the camera lingers over their shoulders, obscuring their screens and listening only to them drone “delete” or “ignore,” but the smattering of examples we see of what they delete is enough to nightmares on its own. Anywhere you look, you can find a labor issue badly in need of addressing.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in New York.