Movie Reviews

  • Hulu’s How I Met Your Father is Another Hollow Nostalgia Grab
    by Ciara Wardlow on January 19, 2022 at 3:08 PM

    Aughts nostalgia is in full swing as of late. There’s a Matrix film in theaters next door to a Spider-Man movie featuring Tobey Maguire. “Gossip Girl” is back, “Sex and the City” is back, “iCarly” has somehow returned. The kids on TikTok even brought back the Mountain Goats for a hot minute. Crimped hair has yet to show itself again but at this point it just feels like a matter of time. While the “Lizzie McGuire” reboot never made it past the pilot stage, Hilary Duff headlines the latest ‘00s nostalgia grab anyway as Sophie, the protagonist of the new Hulu series “How I Met Your Father,” the gender-flipped “sequel” to “How I Met Your Mother.” Now, “sequel” is in quotes here because the press notes indicate this is the preferred nomenclature and I endeavor to respect their wishes, even when, as in this particular instance, I do not understand them. There is only the most tenuous of ties to the original series, which I will not specify as aforementioned press notes also requested critics not give away this “spoiler.” Still, unless there is a deeper link to the original series yet to be revealed, “How I Met Your Father” is a sequel to “How I Met Your Mother” the way 2022 is a sequel to 2005—it comes later chronologically and that’s just about it. Directed by the remarkably prolific Pamela Fryman, who helmed a whopping 196 episodes of “How I Met Your Mother,” the new iteration looks the part on a superficial level. However, to speak to the actual contents of the show, or at least the first four episodes made available for review, the most fitting term is perhaps not sequel or even reboot so much as regurgitation. As it turns out, gender-flipping a story like this does not actually change the game all that much, considering dating in modern-day New York City sucks really hard regardless of your gender or sexual orientation. The cast equivalencies are at a nearly one-to-one ratio, and the pilot in particular follows the formula of the original more than a little too closely for its own good. Showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger pull out the most problematic elements of Carter Bays and Craig Thomas’ original pilot without finding anything substantial to replace them. Instead of racist jokes about half-Asian women, there are no jokes. It is here, in the yawning chasm between identifying the problem and actually finding a solution, that “How I Met Your Father” primarily resides. There is, in a sense, nothing fundamentally wrong with the show, but there’s also nothing right about it either. It’s just a great big nothing. This larger point is perhaps most succinctly illustrated by the 2050-set frame narrative, which, keeping on trend, does nothing. Actually, one small correction—the show has Kim Cattrall playing the older Sophie, which counts for a whole lot. Where “How I Met Your Mother” had older Ted off-screen, addressing his two children in frame, “How I Met Your Father” only shows us Cattrall, wandering around a rather generic apartment with a glass of Chardonnay in hand, FaceTiming a son we cannot see. Even Cattrall’s charisma can’t trump the inertia and flatness of the setup, which seems to exist for one reason: as some of Sophie’s potential love interests are men of color, the show clearly wants to keep the mystery of the father’s identity going as long as possible. It’s commendable that this new iteration aims to be less aggressively white than the original, but there’s no need for that to feel like it comes at the expense of the storytelling—these two things are certainly not mutually exclusive and should not feel as such.  The 2022 of “How I Met Your Father” feels like an alternate universe, not just because of the lack of Covid as much as all the other things about it that are totally untethered from reality. It’s a 2022 where a video of a public mortification still goes viral on Youtube, not TikTok; where hopeless romantic Sophie, a 29-year-old long-time resident of New York City, is constantly looking for Her Person—on Tinder. I believe every single episode screened for critics repeats a joke about Sophie having gone on “87 first Tinder dates” in the span of a year, as if the absurdity there was the 87 and not the fact that in the year 2022 a tech-aware Millennial is looking for a Serious Boyfriend on Tinder. It’s like going to a cabbage patch and being surprised when you can’t find a pumpkin. Perhaps one of the most significant differences between the “sequel” and the original series is that instead of centering a longstanding group of friends, “How I Met Your Father” features two friend groups who promptly merge after best friends and roommates Sophie and Valentina (Francia Raisa) cross paths with fellow best friend-roommate pair Jesse (Christopher Lowell) and Sid (Suraj Sharma). While modern dating is Hell on earth, making new friendships as adults is hardly the easiest thing either. However, “How I Met Your Father” quickly crushes one of its few avenues for a divergence into something of significance. In the pilot, the foursome are strangers, but in the blink of an eye they’re the chummiest of old pals, organizing each other’s birthday parties and their go-to SOS call in times of trouble. The show just tosses all of the material it could have worked with—the merging of two friend groups into one, the opportunity to explore a dynamic that actually set itself apart from its predecessor—straight into the scrap heap. What it does explore is an entire episode built around the premise of a club in Manhattan featuring a seemingly infinite number of themed rooms. In Manhattan, where space is so famously easy to come by. The funniest character in “How I Met Your Father” is Valentina’s recently disowned aristocratic boy-toy Charlie (Tom Ainsley), a solid new entry in the himbo canon. When Valentina advises him to tone down his posh-ness to try to blend in with average American guys, he attempts to start a conversation with the opener, “What’s your favorite entry-level sedan?” It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, but at least it does not feel quite as derivative as the rest of the show. While “How I Met Your Mother” also had plenty of multi-cam sitcom cheese to it, there was authenticity, a connection to reality buried deep beneath the laugh track when the show was at its best. “How I Met Your Father” misses all of that spark and feels like watching the copy of a copy of a copy. It’s enough to fulfill a nostalgic craving in the most superficial sort of way, but far too flimsy to do anything else. “How I Met Your Father” premiered on Hulu on January 18th. The first four episodes were screened for review. 

  • Sundance 2022: 20 Films We Can’t Wait to See
    by Brian Tallerico on January 19, 2022 at 2:52 PM

    The Sundance Film Festival unfolds virtually for ten days this January, starting on Thursday the 20th. At RogerEbert.com, we will cover, well, almost all of it. The programs have been divided among five of our contributors, including Nick Allen, Robert Daniels, Marya Gates, Isaac Feldberg, and yours truly. To give people a taste of what’s to come as well as a chance to get some remaining virtual tickets, we thought we’d spotlight 20 films that we’re excited to see and write about over the next two weeks. Come back for coverage of all the titles below and so many more. Get tickets here. (Program descriptions courtesy of Sundance.) “2nd Chance” In 1969, bankrupt pizzeria owner Richard Davis invented the modern-day bulletproof vest. To prove that it worked, he shot himself — point-blank — 192 times. Davis then launched Second Chance, which became one of the largest body armor companies in the world. Charming and brash, he directed sensational marketing films, earning him celebrity status among police and gun owners across the country. But the death of a police officer wearing a Second Chance vest catalyzes Davis’s fall, revealing a man full of contradictions cultivated over decades of reckless lies. Equally as questionable as he was captivating, Davis saved thousands of lives while endangering exponentially more. Acclaimed filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s feature-length documentary debut continues his fascination with the perilous pursuit of the American dream as seen through a uniquely individual lens. The film shrewdly juxtaposes Richard Davis’s actions with those of his righteous right-hand man, Aaron Westrick. Unwilling to passively present questionable truths, Bahrani instead lays bare the complexities of one man’s supposed virtue while speaking to the nature of power and impunity in America. “Alice” Alice (Keke Palmer) spends her days enslaved on a rural Georgia plantation restlessly yearning for freedom. After a violent clash with plantation owner Paul (Jonny Lee Miller), Alice flees through the neighboring woods and stumbles onto the unfamiliar sight of a highway, soon discovering that the year is actually 1973. Rescued on the roadside by a disillusioned Black activist named Frank (Common), Alice uncovers the lies that have kept her enslaved and the promise of Black liberation. In her debut feature, writer-director Krystin Ver Linden spins a modern liberation fable that is equal parts earthy Southern Gothic and soulful Blaxploitation. Inspired by true accounts of Black Americans who were kept in peonage for more than 100 years after the end of slavery, Alice is an audacious mix of grim historical fact and exceptional fiction. Moving from a purgatorial plantation overgrown with Spanish moss to the lively landscape of urban Savannah, Ver Linden traces Alice’s breathless journey down the rabbit hole and into the turbulent wonderland of the post–Civil Rights South. “Brian and Charles” An endearing outlier, Brian lives alone in a Welsh valley, inventing oddball contraptions that seldom work. After finding a discarded mannequin head, Brian gets an idea. Three days, a washing machine, and sundry spare parts later, he’s invented Charles, an artificially intelligent robot who learns English from a dictionary and proves a charming, cheeky companion. Before long, however, Charles also develops autonomy. Intrigued by the wider world — or whatever lies beyond the cottage where Brian has hidden him away — Charles craves adventure. Jim Archer’s imaginative, heartwarming comedy about loneliness and friendship works because its characters are emotionally layered and genuine. That we forget Charles isn’t “real” is testament to the physicality and voice of actor Chris Hayward, who co-wrote the screenplay. In building somebody to keep him company, Brian (British comedian and co-writer David Earl) ironically finds the self-worth to talk to Hazel, a timid neighbor he likes. But — with playful echoes of Frankenstein — he also fails to realize the emotional, developmental needs of his creation until it puts them all in danger. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” Fresh out of college — but now what? Higher education failed to provide 22-year-old Andrew with a clear life path going forward, so he’s stuck back at home with his family in New Jersey. But if college did teach him one thing, it’s drinking and partying — skills that make him the perfect candidate for a job party-starting at the bar and bat mitzvahs of his younger brother’s classmates. When Andrew befriends a local mom, Domino, and her daughter, Lola, he finally discovers a future he wants, even if it might not be his own.  Cooper Raiff follows up his 2020 SXSW Grand Jury Prize–winning debut feature, Shithouse, with a tale of young love that brims with emotional honesty. He writes, directs, produces, and stars in this charmer that respects all its characters’ struggles, even in moments when its protagonist can’t see beyond himself. Featuring a fantastic ensemble cast including Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, and newcomers Vanessa Burghardt and Evan Assante, Cha Cha Real Smooth is made for the hopeless romantic living inside us all. “Dual” Recently diagnosed with a rare and incurable disease, Sarah is unsure how to process the news. To help ease her friends’ and family’s impending loss, she is encouraged to participate in a simple futuristic cloning procedure called “Replacement,” after which Sarah’s last days will be spent teaching the clone how to live on as Sarah once she’s gone. But while it takes only an hour for a clone to be made, things become significantly more challenging when that double is no longer wanted. This darkly off-kilter comedy marks a welcome return to the Festival from writer-director Riley Stearns (The Cub, Sundance 2013). He straddles a curious line between deadpan satire and high-concept storytelling to take us on a sci-fi journey into the ways a catastrophic life change can force reconsideration of one’s entire existence. In the lead dual role, an oddly charming Karen Gillan proves the perfect match for Stearns’s strange, strange cinematic world. “Emily the Criminal” Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is saddled with student debt and locked out of the job market due to a minor criminal record. Desperate for income, she takes a shady gig as a “dummy shopper,” buying goods with stolen credit cards supplied by a middleman named Youcef (Theo Rossi). Faced with a series of dead-end job interviews, Emily soon finds herself seduced not only by the quick cash and illicit thrills of black market capitalism, but also by her ardent mentor Youcef. Writer-director John Patton Ford’s taut thriller follows Emily from the margins of the corporate gig economy to the borderlands of the Los Angeles underworld. Emily the Criminal keeps sharp focus on its ambitious and increasingly reckless protagonist. Plaza, last seen at the Sundance Film Festival in Black Bear (2020), gives a nervy, committed performance, transforming Emily from an embittered temp worker into a stone-cold thief. Rossi is disarmingly vulnerable as her partner in crime. “The Janes” In the spring of 1972, police raided an apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Seven women were arrested and charged. The accused were part of a clandestine network. Using code names, blindfolds, and safe houses to protect their identities and their work, they built an underground service for women seeking safe, affordable, illegal abortions. They called themselves Jane. Facing off against the mafia, the church, and the state, the Janes exhibited unparalleled bravery and compassion for those most in need. Co-directors and Sundance Film Festival alumni Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes unearth this incredibly timely story to demonstrate how the fight for safe and legal abortions was, and continues to be, an uncertain and perilous undertaking. Electrifying archival footage of Chicago in the late ’60s and early ’70s, coupled with affectingly honest interviews with the Janes themselves, brings to life the city and its spirit of revolution in that historic moment. “Living” A veteran civil servant and bureaucratic cog in the rebuilding of Britain post-WWII, Williams (Bill Nighy) expertly pushes paperwork around a government office only to reckon with his existence when he’s diagnosed with a fatal illness. A widower, he conceals the condition from his grown son, spends an evening of debauchery with a bohemian writer in Brighton, and uncharacteristically avoids his office. But after a vivacious former co-worker, Margaret, inspires him to find meaning in his remaining days, Williams attempts to salvage a modest building project from bureaucratic purgatory. Director Oliver Hermanus (Beauty) offers a poignant reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Ikiru (To Live). Nobel and Booker Prize–winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s adaptation elegantly transposes the story’s profound humanism to postwar London. Free of false sentimentality and tragic intonations, Living finds its soul in the wistful dignity Nighy brings to Williams. Transcending its period setting, Living is a timely reflection on the compulsions and distractions that obscure what it means to live. “A Love Song” After unhitching her camper at a lakeside in the mountains, Faye finds her rhythm cooking meals, retrieving crawfish from a trap, and scanning her old box radio for a station. She looks expectantly at the approach of a car or the mailman, explaining to neighboring campers that she’s waiting for a childhood sweetheart she hasn’t seen in decades. When he does arrive, Lito and Faye, both widowed, spend an evening reminiscing about their lives, losses, and loneliness. A whimsical romance, Max Walker-Silverman’s captivating debut feature shows an "American West" full of quietude, compassion, and introspection. It’s both naturalistic and vaguely surreal, blurring our sense of time and beauty, loss and vivacity, the grandiose natural world and intimate humanism. Career performances from Dale Dickey and Wes Studi bring an inescapable presence to people we don’t often see portrayed on film. They are gentle outliers possessed of resilience and existential spirit, seeking to process something elusive: a feeling of love for what’s no longer there. Like Faye turning her radio dial, they listen hopefully for the faint trace of a song. “Nanny” Aisha, an undocumented Senegalese immigrant, lands a job as a nanny of a wealthy Manhattan couple. While she easily wins the affection of their young daughter Rose, she becomes a pawn in the couple’s facade of a marriage. The mother is as controlling as the dad is disillusioned and woke. Haunted by the absence of the young son she left behind in Senegal, Aisha hopes her new job will afford her the chance to bring him to the U.S. and share in the life she is piecing together. But as his arrival approaches, a supernatural presence begins to invade both her dreams and her reality. As envisioned by writer-director Nikyatu Jusu and brilliantly embodied by actor Anna Diop, Aisha is a dynamic, fascinating protagonist. She displays tremendous strength in enduring challenging circumstances, but must reckon with her own disappointment and frustration, as ominous intrusions enter her already fraught life. Jusu elegantly weaves in supernatural entities derived from West African folklore, spinning Nanny into a singular genre all its own, with horrors specifically drawn from Aisha’s life and legacy. “Nothing Compares” Since the beginning of her career, Sinéad O’Connor has used her powerful voice to challenge the narratives she was surrounded by while growing up in predominantly Roman Catholic Ireland. Despite her agency, depth, and perspective, O’Connor’s unflinching refusal to conform means that she has often been patronized and unfairly dismissed as an attention-seeking pop star. In this accomplished debut feature, Kathryn Ferguson navigates O’Connor’s rocky path to stardom with great clarity. The director makes a conscious choice to focus on the late 1980s and early 1990s, when O’Connor was establishing herself as an artist while fighting an onslaught of misogyny and prejudice in the male-dominated music industry and beyond. Through the creative use of archival footage, as well as exclusive interviews, Nothing Compares challenges the image of O’Connor perpetuated by the media over the years. It’s an emotional portrayal of a thoughtful artist who has always cared about the bigger picture, and whose antiestablishment bravery and dedication to speaking truth to power would inspire generations to come. “Resurrection” Margaret (Rebecca Hall) leads a successful and orderly life, perfectly balancing the demands of her busy career and single parenthood to her fiercely independent daughter Abbie. But that careful balance is upended when she glimpses a man she instantly recognizes, an unwelcome shadow from her past. A short time later, she encounters him again. Before long, Margaret starts seeing David (Tim Roth) everywhere — and their meetings appear to be far from an unlucky coincidence. Battling her rising fear, Margaret must confront the monster she’s evaded for two decades who has come to conclude their unfinished business. Writer-director Andrew Semans has crafted a surreal and deeply disturbing film, blending drama and horror to deftly unearth a nightmare that feels all too real. Hall masterfully embodies Margaret’s trepidation as her firmly controlled world begins to unravel, while Roth's David diabolically begins to pull the rug out from underneath her. Resurrection promises a gripping excavation of an inescapable past.  “Sharp Stick” Sensitive and naive 26-year-old Sarah Jo lives in a Los Angeles apartment complex with her influencer sister and her disillusioned mother. She is also a wonderful caregiver to Zach, a child with an intellectual disability. Eager to lose her virginity, Sarah Jo embarks on an exhilarating affair with Zach’s dense but affable father, Josh. In the wake of the doomed relationship, Sarah Jo grapples with heartbreak by dedicating herself to unlocking every aspect of the sexual experience that she feels she’s missed out on for so long. In an exciting return to feature filmmaking 11 years after Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham reestablishes herself as a major voice in independent cinema. With her signature unflinching and provocative approach, Dunham explores the vulnerability of her characters, whose dreams and expectations are elusive. Through Sarah Jo, who has been defined by her past trauma for too long, Dunham makes a bold statement about body and sex positivity. With humor and warmth, Sharp Stick redefines family and celebrates differences as it follows a young woman’s path to self-discovery. “Sirens” True to their name, Slave to Sirens — the first and only all-woman thrash metal band in the Middle East — are utterly magnetic. Amid a backdrop of political unrest and the heartbreaking unraveling of Beirut, five bandmates form a beacon of expression, resistance, and independence. Director Rita Baghdadi follows founders and guitarists Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara as their tenderness, and sometimes bitterness, for one another grows in ways both unexpected and deeply moving. Joined by vocalist Maya Khairallah, bassist Alma Doumani, and drummer Tatyana Boughaba, these women negotiate their emotional journeys through young adulthood in tumultuous circumstances with grace, raw passion, and a ferocious commitment to their art. Their grit is tested as they grapple with the complexities of friendship, sexuality, and the destruction around them. Sirens is Rita Baghdadi’s third documentary feature. Acting as director, producer, and cinematographer, her singular vision is gentle yet emotionally powerful. Her film and its incredible subjects are inspirations to all who seek light through darkness. “Something in the Dirt” Levi has snagged a no-lease apartment sight unseen in the Hollywood Hills to crash at while he ties up loose ends for his exodus from Los Angeles. He quickly strikes up a rapport with his new neighbor John, swapping stories like old friends under the glowing, smoke-filled skies of the city. One day, Levi and John witness something impossible in one of their apartments. Terrified at first, they soon realize that this could change their lives and give them a purpose. With dollar signs in their eyes, these two random dudes will attempt to prove the supernatural. DIY wonderkids Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson make their Sundance Film Festival debut, serving as co-directors, co-stars, co-editors, writer (Benson), and cinematographer (Moorhead) of this twisted, sci-fi talkie. Their oddball chemistry shines on screen and in the script, as these two isolated and unfulfilled individuals spur each other toward wormholes and away from reality. Something In The Dirt tells a tale of these paranoid times, where every answer imaginable is just a Google search away. “Speak No Evil” While on holiday in Tuscany, a Danish family becomes fast friends with a fellow traveling family from the Netherlands. Months later, when an invitation arrives encouraging the Danish family to visit the Dutch in their countryside home, they don’t hesitate to plan a quick getaway. Free-spirited and adventurous, the Dutch welcome the Danes for the weekend, channeling an energy that rouses their visitors as drinks flow and they start to let loose. But what begins as an idyllic reunion soon takes a turn as the hosts increasingly test the limits of their houseguests. Now the Danes find themselves caught in a web of their own politeness, trying to understand whether their new friends are merely eccentric... or hiding something more sinister. Christian Tafdrup directs a brilliantly provocative and simmering satirical work of horror, indicting the two sides as he sets up his characters for an unnerving descent into darkness. Both wickedly close to home and exceedingly strange, Speak No Evil suggests that the greatest cruelty lies in the nonsensical facades we contrive for ourselves. “Summering” It’s the waning days of summer for four friends Dina, Lola, Daisy, and Mari, who will soon be going their separate ways when they all start middle school. While planning how to spend their last weekend together, they stumble across a mystery that takes them on a life-changing adventure. The friends make a series of discoveries that are as much about solving the mystery as they are about learning the hard truths of growing up. Director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour, 2015, and The Spectacular Now, 2013) returns to the Sundance Film Festival with a film for every generation. Anchored by engaging performances from its youthful cast and a strong script from Ponsoldt and co-writer Benjamin Percy, Summering is a refreshing rarity when compared to the familiar animated and special effects–driven movies usually directed toward multi-generational audiences today. “We Need to Talk About Cosby” During his nearly 50 years in show business, Bill Cosby became one of the most recognizable Black celebrities in America. With a career that included an astronomical rise on television in the mid-1960s; work in children’s programming and education; legendary stand-up performances and albums; and an epoch-defining hit sitcom, The Cosby Show, Cosby was a model of Black excellence for millions of Americans. But now, thanks to the brave and painful testimonies of dozens of women, we know there was a sinister reality to the man once extolled as “America’s Dad.” Over the course of four gripping episodes that feature the voices of people closely connected to Cosby’s life on screen and off, including several survivors, director W. Kamau Bell digs into who Cosby was and what his work and actions say about America, then and now. We Need To Talk About Cosby is a powerful and timely reckoning destined to be widely discussed for how it urges audiences to reconsider not only what they know about Cosby but also about the culture that produced and celebrated him. “When You Finish Saving the World” From his bedroom home studio, high school student Ziggy performs original folk-rock songs for an adoring online fan base. This concept mystifies his formal and uptight mother, Evelyn, who runs a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse. While Ziggy is busy trying to impress his socially engaged classmate Lila by making his music less bubblegum and more political, Evelyn meets Angie and her teen son, Kyle, when they seek refuge at her facility. She observes a bond between the two that she’s missing with her own son, and decides to take Kyle under her wing against her better instincts. In his carefully observed, aesthetically pleasing directorial debut, Jesse Eisenberg adapts his audio project of the same name to tell the story of a mother and son who fail to understand each other’s values. With gentle humor and pitch-perfect dialogue, When You Finish Saving the World reflects a moment of internet fame and youth activism, but it also recounts the timeless tale of parents and children struggling to connect across the generational chasm that separates them. “You Won't Be Alone” In an isolated mountain village in 19th-century Macedonia, a young girl is taken from her mother and transformed into a witch by an ancient, shape-shifting spirit. Left to wander feral, the young witch beholds the natural world with curiosity and wonder. After inadvertently killing a villager and assuming her body, she continues to inhabit different people, living among the villagers for years, observing and mimicking their behavior until the ancient spirit returns, bringing them full circle. The debut feature of Australian-Macedonian writer-director Goran Stolevski, You Won’t Be Alone is wonderfully unlike any witch film you’ve seen. Its striking artistry and aestheticism blends supernatural horror (there’s no shortage of blood and entrails) with poetic fable, yielding a sensory meditation on life that is unexpectedly emotional and profoundly humanistic. Even the malevolent ancient spirit, born of suffering and loneliness, is a contoured character. And the young witch (played by multiple actors, including Noomi Rapace, Alice Englert, Carloto Cotta, and Sara Klimoska) suggests a transcendent spirit who, across successive lives — woman, man, mother, child — experiences what it means to be human.

  • Sidney Poitier and the Slap That Shook the World
    by David Moses on January 18, 2022 at 2:28 PM

    The first Sidney Poitier film I ever saw was the Oscar-winning 1967 thriller “In The Heat of The Night,” about a Black detective from Philadelphia who gets waylaid in a Mississippi town and teams up with a reactionary white police chief (Rod Steiger) to solve a murder. I was 14 years old at the time. It was a movie day in one of my classes at school. I wasn't particularly excited to see the movie, but lo and behold, I loved it.  And the thing that stuck with me, more than anything else, was the slap.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know the moment. Poitier’s Detective Virgil Tibbs and Steiger’s Chief Bill Gillespie visit the home of a white plantation owner named Endicott (Larry Gates), to question him. When Endicott realizes Tibbs is treating him as a suspect, he’s so offended that he slaps him.  Tibbs slaps him right back. Then he glares at him.  Endicott is shocked to his core. “There was a time,” he says, holding a hand to his face, “I could have had you shot.” That scene floored me. I remember feeling the power of it, in and of itself—and even more so, the power of Poitier.   Growing up, I found Poitier to be an aspirational figure—a black Superman, not in physical prowess, but in symbology. He represented hope throughout his career. Poitier had an ability to be so matter of fact about his station in life, about his own regality. It seemed to me that Poitier wore that regality lightly, and that was the key—the thing that that made him so beloved, and that, for a few moments or hours on screen, crumbled the realities for Black people in America.  Poitier’s characters rarely got violent but when they did, the impact was overwhelming: a small event made larger because he so rarely went there. These parceled-out acts of defiance even by today's standards stand tall, because Poitier was so sincere about them. He didn't at all “play” them. When he gets into a tussle with Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer's "The Defiant Ones," it's so natural, so seamless, as if it’s the only way it could’ve been, despite all the ways it wasn't for so many Black men back then.  The Slap happened at the absolute peak of Poitier’s pop culture prominence, at a time when he was being praised by many for his trailblazer status and criticized by others for being too safe.  The Slap was the moment when Poitier’s image and career trajectory changed. And the possibilities for Black artists in the mainstream changed with it. Now to be clear, there were always Black men who would step up, men who would challenge or fight with authority, men who would leap at the opportunity to assert their inherent humanity. But Poitier reached those who were not exceptions, those who needed to see a possibility of transcendence in an art form that more often excluded or caricatured them. He made viewers want to aspire to give themselves the same freedom Poitier exemplified: freedom to seek, to create, to fight.  I never found Poitier to be particularly exciting as an actor. His roles were far too engineered by the imaginations of white folks. The characters’ emotions and expressions felt just south of curation. But his performances were still heroic and liberating, and had an immersive power. The 1961 screen adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” a play that wouldn’t have existed without Poitier’s clout as a star and producer, is a prime example. He plays the striving father of a working class family trying to survive and own a home despite the oppression of white society. If Poitier was playing the angry Black man, he often did it in roles like that one. His characters were not vicious or threatening. He never thrived as a true blue tough guy in the manner of an Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart.  And he couldn’t have. When Poitier was coming up in the 1950s—alongside his friend, musician-actor Harry Belafonte, who had similar energy, and was often slotted into Poitier-type roles—there was no way a Black man could have been accepted on screen in a role like that. It wasn’t really even possible until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a more revolutionary spirit took hold in American society, and Black stars like Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Yaphet Kotto, and Melvin Van Peebles walked the road that Poitier built.  Poitier’s anger never popped without necessity. Poitier’s anger was defensive. It was rooted in dignity, not in the performance of cruelty. A Poitier character may not throw the first punch, but he was going to throw the last.  That particular quality is what made Poitier exactly right to be a trailblazer. It was what allowed him to be The First.  One of Poitier’s key predecessors, Paul Robeson, had already proved that America would not permit The First to be a man who could be seen as vicious, capable of cruelty, willing to knock you on your ass or through a wall because you looked at him wrong. Robeson's run-ins with McCarthyism and Hollywood's racist casting saw to that. Poitier wasn’t going to be inoffensive, but he also wasn’t looking to offend. Onscreen and off, Poitier's politics were the filed-down claws of respectability, of what the negro could aspire to. He radiated a reserved willingness to shape himself into a man that represented the finest ideals of an America that did not exist. He would do that by being the kind of negro that aspired to seen as an equal and would ask that other negroes do the same.  In his movies and in his life, Poitier obliterated barriers both metaphorical and physical. He snapped chains with Tony Curtis that extended offscreen and showed the world new possibilities for telling Black stories, and when he had finally built up enough power in the industry, by earning multiple Oscar nominations and one win (for 1963’s "Lilies of the Field") and claiming the title of number one male box office star in America (for 1967, a year in which he had three hit films; perhaps not coincidentally, the year of The Slap), he rolled it over, and made sincere efforts in the 1970s and ‘80s as a producer, director, and actor to bring Black stories never before seen to the screen. As a director, Poitier made Westerns (“Buck and the Preacher”), love stories (“A Warm December,”), dance movies (“Fast Forward”), and comedies (“Stir Crazy”). His extraordinary beauty as a Black screen presence helped us recognize our own beauty as something identifiably good (although it didn’t become an object of lust or passion until Poitier had creative control of the work).  The function of many of the roles Poitier took in the first two decades of his career was to to help racist whites see the error of their ways, by projecting a mix of genuineness and resolve that could not be denied by any human watching him. Poitier could be believable as an acceptable date for white women on the screen, just as he could in real life: it’s depressing to even have to cite that as a challenge, but Poitier met it on both fronts, and his achievement is not meaningless. Poitier also made it credible that a Black man could turn racists around and secure their respect. Of course, in real life it doesn't work that way. But Poitier sold it. And one need only look at the more daring and troubling Black screen stars who followed Poitier to understand that there was a point to it all.   He put Black pain and anger onto the screen in a way that made it powerful and truthful, but also palatable for white people. That made Poitier an object of suspicion and derision in some quarters, but it is also a great achievement, and a part of his legacy. Trailblazing in a world that hates you is a uniquely difficult job. Look at Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Armstrong, Hattie McDaniel, or Butterfly McQueen. You have to be a porridge that is just right. Poitier was just right. He didn't seem like a tap dancer for white folks, nor a Malcolm X-type firebrand, but you're never going to get to the point where an art form can regularly cast Black actors as fierce and dangerous characters if a Sidney Poitier doesn’t exist first. 

  • #424 January 18, 2022
    by Matt Fagerholm on January 18, 2022 at 6:01 AM

    Matt writes: We have lost so many legends in the early days of 2022, none of which were more towering than Sidney Poitier, who passed away on January 6th at age 94. He made history as the first Black performer to receive a Best Actor Oscar for 1963's "Lilies of the Field," yet that is merely one of the essential titles in his filmography. In 1967 alone, he starred in three bonafide classics—"In the Heat of the Night," "To Sir, With Love" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"—the last of which received four stars from Roger Ebert upon its initial release. Yet my personal favorite film of his was Daniel Petrie's 1961 screen version of Lorraine Hansberry's masterpiece, "A Raisin in the Sun," in which Poitier delivers a climactic monologue that is one for the ages. Be sure to read our cherished contributor and frequent critic Robert Daniels' tribute to Poitier, as well as view his acceptance speech for the honorary Oscar presented to him in 2002. ' Trailers The Worst Person in the World (2022). Directed by Joachim Trier. Written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt. Starring Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Maria Grazia Di Meo. Synopsis: The chronicles of four years in the life of Julie, a young woman who navigates the troubled waters of her love life and struggles to find her career path, leading her to take a realistic look at who she really is. Debuts in the US on February 4th, 2022. KIMI (2022). Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by David Koepp. Starring Zoë Kravitz, Devin Ratray, Rita Wilson. Synopsis: An agoraphobic Seattle tech worker uncovers evidence of a crime. Debuts on HBO Max on February 10th, 2022. Catch the Fair One (2022). Written and directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka. Starring Kali Reis, Kevin Dunn, Lisa Emery. Synopsis: A former champion boxer embarks on the fight of her life when she goes in search of her missing sister. Debuts in the US on February 11th, 2022. We're All Going to the World's Fair (2022). Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun. Starring Anna Cobb, Holly Anne Frink, Michael J Rogers. Synopsis: Alone in her attic bedroom, teenager Casey becomes immersed in an online role-playing horror game, wherein she begins to document the changes that may or may not be happening to her. US release date is TBA. Sex Appeal (2022). Directed by Talia Osteen. Written by Tate Hanyok. Starring Mika Abdalla, Jake Short, Rebecca Henderson. Synopsis: Avery, a teenager with a tendency towards perfectionism, enlists her friend Larson to help her prepare for her first time with her long-distance boyfriend. Now available on Hulu. Sundown (2022). Written and directed by Michel Franco. Starring Tim Roth, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samuel Bottomley. Synopsis: Neil and Alice Bennett are the core of a wealthy family on vacation in Mexico until a distant emergency cuts their trip short. When one relative disrupts the family's tight-knit order, simmering tensions rise to the fore. Debuts in the US on January 28th, 2022. Hatching (2022). Directed by Hanna Bergholm. Written by Ilja Rautsi. Starring Sophia Heikkilä, Jani Volanen, Siiri Solalinna. Synopsis: A young gymnast who tries desperately to please her demanding mother, discovers a strange egg. She hides it and keeps it warm, but when it hatches, what emerges shocks them all. Debuts in the US on April 29th, 2022. X (2022). Written and directed by Ti West. Starring Jenna Ortega, Mia Goth, Kid Cudi. Synopsis: The latest horror movie from filmmaker Ti West ("The Innkeepers"). Debuts in the US on March 18th, 2022. A Banquet (2022). Directed by Ruth Paxton. Written by Justin Bull. Starring Sienna Guillory, Jessica Alexander, Ruby Stokes. Synopsis: Widowed mother Holly is radically tested when her teenage daughter Betsey experiences a profound enlightenment and insists that her body is no longer her own, but in service to a higher power. Debuts in the US on February 18th, 2022. Studio 666 (2022). Directed by BJ McDonnell. Written by Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes. Starring Dave Grohl, Jenna Ortega, Whitney Cummings. Synopsis: Legendary rock band Foo Fighters move into an Encino mansion steeped in grisly rock and roll history to record their much anticipated 10th album. Debuts in the US on February 25th, 2022. The Bob's Burgers Movie (2022). Directed by Loren Bouchard and Bernard Derriman. Written by Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith. Starring Kristen Schaal, Kevin Kline, Zach Galifianakis. Synopsis: The Belchers' trying to save the restaurant from closing as a sinkhole forms in front of it while the kids try to solve a mystery that could save their family's restaurant. Debuts in the US on May 27th, 2022. Against the Ice (2022). Directed by Peter Flinth. Written by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Joe Derrick (based on the novel by Ejnar Mikkelsen). Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Joe Cole, Heida Reed. Synopsis: In 1909, two explorers fight to survive after they're left behind while on a Denmark expedition in ice-covered Greenland. Debuts on Netflix on March 2nd, 2022. Last Looks (2022). Directed by Tim Kirkby. Written by Howard Michael Gould. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Mel Gibson, Lucy Fry. Synopsis: A disgraced ex-cop seeks solace by moving to the woods, but his quiet life comes to an end when a private eye recruits him to investigate a murder. US release date is TBA. Jackass Forever (2022). Directed by Jeff Tremaine. Starring Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze, Machine Gun Kelly. Synopsis: After 11 years, the Jackass crew is back for their final crusade. Debuts in the US on February 4th, 2022. jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy (2022). Directed by Coodie and Chike Ozah. Synopsis: Follows the life of Kanye West, in an intimate portrait as he builds his way from singer to businessman and becomes a global brand. Debuts on Netflix on February 16th, 2022. The Girl Before (2022). Directed by Lisa Brühlmann. Written by J.P. Delaney and Marissa Lestrade. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Jessica Plummer. Synopsis: Jane falls in love with an extraordinary minimalist house, but when she discovers that another damaged woman died in the same property three years earlier, she starts to wonder if her own story is just a rerun of the girl before. Debuts on HBO Max on February 10th, 2022. Shortbus (2006), 4K restoration. Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Starring Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, Sook-Yin Lee. Synopsis: A group of New Yorkers caught up in their romantic-sexual milieu converge at an underground salon infamous for its blend of art, music, politics, and carnality. US release date is TBA. The Godfather (1972), 50th anniversary release. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo. Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton. Synopsis: The film follows Vito Corleone, Don of the Corleone family, as he passes the mantle to his unwilling son, Michael. US release date is TBA. Peter Bogdanovich (1939-2022) Matt writes: One of the most renowned and invaluable film historians, Peter Bogdanovich, not to mention a director of multiple masterpieces ("The Last Picture Show," "What's Up, Doc?" and "Paper Moon," to name a few), died on January 6th at age 82. Read Scout Tafoya's tribute to Bogdanovich, as well as Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on "The Last Picture Show." Michael Wilmington (1946-2022) Matt writes: I was privileged to call Michael Wilmington, the former Chicago Tribune critic who died on January 6th at age 75, a friend during his last years in the Windy City. Don't miss Patrick Z. McGavin's heartfelt tribute, as well as the invaluable episode of "Siskel & Ebert" celebrating the late Stanley Kubrick that featured Wilmington alongside three of his esteemed colleagues in Chicago: Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dann Gire and Ray Pride (Part I is embedded above, and Part II can be viewed here). Free Movies Big News (1929). Directed by Gregory La Cava. Written by Walter DeLeon and Jack Jungmeyer (based on the play by George S. Brooks). Starring Carole Lombard, Robert Armstrong, Louis Payne. Synopsis: A reporter's marriage is jeopardized by his drinking and he finds himself accused of a murder he didn't commit. Watch "Big News" The Southerner (1945). Directed by Jean Renoir. Written by Jean Renoir, Hugo Butler, William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson (based on the novel by George Sessions Perry). Starring Zachary Scott, Beulah Bondi, Norman Lloyd. Synopsis: The life of the poor Tucker family, that worked as cotton pluggers and decided to get their own ground, but nature is against them. Watch "The Southerner" Against All Hope (1982). Directed by Edward T. McDougal. Written by Edward T. McDougal, Cecil Moe, Jean Moe and Jerry Newcombe. Starring Michael Madsen, Maureen McCarthy, Cecil Moe. Synopsis: A man struggling with alcoholism turns to a reverend for help. Watch "Against All Hope"

  • Happy 96th Birthday Newton Minow!
    by Nell Minow on January 17, 2022 at 6:36 PM

    On May 9th, 1961, my dad Newton Minow, the then-35-year-old Chairman of the FCC, made three significant appearances. In Washington, he gave his famous "vast wasteland" speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, telling them that while "when television is good, nothing is better," he expected them to do more to uphold their statutory obligation to serve "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." Then he went back to the FCC office, where he met with Elizabeth Campbell to sign the original license for WETA, the first educational television station in the nation's capital, now the producer of the Ken Burns documentaries and the nightly Newshour. And then he flew to Chicago to attend the father-daughter dinner for my Brownie troop. Today, on his 96th birthday, I think, as I do so often, about how those three events defined his character: inspiring those around him to do better, supporting the visions of those making enriching cultural content and reliable news sources widely available, and always putting his family first. Over the next decades this has been reflected in his efforts as a founder and board chair of PBS, a member of the board of directors of CBS, and as he helped create the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), where he still serves as vice chair. He worked to require the V-chip and closed captioning, helped get the start-up funding for "Sesame Street," and argued for the rescission of the radio license of a station that broadcast virulently racist and anti-Semitic programming. And he and my mom will celebrate their 73rd wedding anniversary this spring. Dad was awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, by Barack Obama, perhaps partly because President Obama met Michelle when he was an intern in my dad’s office and they assigned Michelle to be his supervisor. His charming story of running into them on their first date at a showing of "Do the Right Thing" is here. An honor he cherishes almost as much is inspiring the name of the S.S. Minnow on “Gilligan’s Island,” the sinking ship on the three-hour tour, intended as an insult to my dad due to his criticism of television. He and “Gilligan’s Island” creator Sherwood Schwartz later had a cordial exchange of letters. My dad is always seeking common ground. He reached out to President Trump’s FCC appointee as soon as the nomination was announced. He said, “I know we do not agree on many issues, but let’s find one we can work on together.” They co-authored an op-ed about telemedicine.  He remains vitally involved in the issues of the day. My sister Martha, former dean of Harvard Law School, will be the first to tell you that the highlight of her recent book, Saving the News, is Dad’s introduction, which he titled, “From Guttenberg to Zuckerberg.” In it, he talks about the profound challenges changes in technology pose for the public interest and the foundations of democracy. As always, he sees the opportunities as well. He is comfortable writing about AI algorithms and deep fakes, but always in the context of the unquenchable optimism and unshakable integrity that shines through everything he does. Once, he was speaking to a group of young lawyers and told them that the most important thing was to get the client to trust them. One eager attendee raised his hand with a question. “How do we do that?” “Well,” Dad said, “You can start by being trustworthy.” Happy birthday to the world’s best dad and a true and quintessentially trustworthy American hero.

  • Winners Announced for the 13th Annual AAFCA Awards
    by The Editors on January 17, 2022 at 5:28 PM

    The African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) has announced the winners of its 13th annual AAFCA Awards, which will be held on March 2nd at the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles with a limited capacity audience and other health and safety protocols in place. The announcement was made today by AAFCA president and co-founder Gil Robertson. “It’s been a fantastic year for film,” said Robertson. “Just having passed the two-year mark of a global pandemic, great entertainment means more to all of us than ever before. This year’s AAFCA winners not only entertained us, but educated and inspired us and we’re looking forward to celebrating them at the AAFCA Awards.” Below are the list of winners... Best Picture: “The Harder They Fall”Best Director: Jeymes Samuel (“The Harder They Fall”)Best Screenplay: “Don’t Look Up” (Adam McKay)Best Actor: Will Smith (“King Richard”)Best Actress: Jennifer Hudson (“Respect”)Best Supporting Actor: Corey Hawkins (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”)Best Supporting Actress: Aunjanue Ellis (“King Richard”)Breakout Actor: Saniyya Sidney (“King Richard”)Best Ensemble: “The Harder They Fall”Emerging Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green (“King Richard”)Best Music: “The Harder They Fall” (Jeymes Samuel, Kid Cudi, Jay-Z)Best Independent Feature: “Who We Are”Best Documentary: “Summer of Soul” Several special achievement awards will be announced in the coming weeks including the Cinema Vanguard Award, the ICON Award, AAFCA’s Stanley & Karen Kramer Award for Social Justice, the Building Change Award presented by Lowes and the Innovator Award presented by Nissan.  Members of AAFCA, which was established in 2003, actively review film and television, with a particular emphasis on entertainment that includes the Black experience and storytellers from the African Diaspora. As a non-profit organization, AAFCA is committed to numerous educational and philanthropic efforts, particularly those that foster and celebrate diversity and inclusion.  For more information on AAFCA and its programs, visit AAFCA.com. 

  • The Damned: The Films of Elaine May
    by Dan Callahan on January 17, 2022 at 3:24 PM

    Elaine May is known as one of the funniest and wittiest comics of all time, yet two of her directorial projects, “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972) and “Mikey and Nicky” (1976), are about as bleak a picture of human relationships as can be imagined. The tagline for “Mikey and Nicky” was actually, “Mikey and Nicky ... don’t expect to like ‘em.” Which was a way of warning the audience that this movie, just like “The Heartbreak Kid,” was forbiddingly un-commercial and difficult, and tragic in a way that offers no relief. These two May films can be alienating because what they are saying is the exact opposite of what most Hollywood movies relentlessly tell us about people and life.  Her long life is as mysterious in parts as her own peculiar career. But May will soon be receiving historic recognition for her work: she will take home an Honorary Oscar along with Danny Glover, Samuel L. Jackson, and Liv Ullmann at this year's ceremony, originally scheduled for January 15th but delayed due to Omicron to an unannounced date. May had been working on the script for “Mikey and Nicky” since she was auditing classes at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, maybe even before she met her improv partner Mike Nichols and fundamentally changed American comedy in the late 1950s. In the classic May-Nichols sketches, which very sharply satirized types of American behaviors and neuroses, May is often the one somehow in charge, or she has power over Nichols of some kind, and expert as he is it is May who sets the mordant tone of those routines and gets the biggest laughs with her hangdog delivery.  May’s career proceeded through unaccountable fits and starts after her professional break-up with Nichols in 1961, and in her frustratingly small body of work “Mikey and Nicky” stands as her masterpiece. It is a story about two low-level mob guys who have been friends since childhood: Nicky (John Cassavetes), who is a monstrously selfish person with loads of pure negative energy, and Mikey (Peter Falk), who has been cast all his life in the role of his friend’s foil and helper. The dynamic between these two friends changes over the course of one long night in which Nicky, who has a mob hit out on his life, refuses to behave in any reasonable way as Mikey tries to get him out of town. In the opening sequence, Falk’s Mikey cradles his friend tenderly when he sees how terrified Nicky is. Nicky has to be carefully led into this moment of total vulnerability, which seems to urge him into behaving like his worst possible self afterward. Nicky refuses to be decisive or make any plans for a getaway; instead, he continually asserts his power over Mikey. At his lowest moment, Nicky tries to pick up a girl at a bar filled with African Americans and makes a racist remark, at which point he is hustled out by Mikey.  Nicky insists on breaking into a cemetery to visit the grave of his dead mother; he does nothing all night but insist on doing things. Nicky and Mikey have a long discussion about their shared past in this cemetery, a conversation that will eventually haunt the final scene of the film. (The careful structure of May’s script for “Mikey and Nicky” only reveals itself gradually.) Nicky insists that he knows Mikey best because he was there from the beginning, and Mikey disagrees. Mikey says that his wife knows just as much about him because he has told her stories about his youth. Nicky insists that this is not the same thing.  The turning point in “Mikey and Nicky” comes after Nicky has humiliated both Mikey and a pathetic girl he sees for sex named Nellie (Carol Grace). As they argue in the street, a host of resentments emerge in Mikey about how Nicky has treated him all their lives together and especially recently. This fight might have blown over, but Nicky finally goes too far when he casually destroys a watch that had belonged to Mikey’s father, and then Nicky makes his truly fatal mistake when he refuses to understand that the watch was of sentimental value to Mikey. Sentimental value? What’s that? I can get you another watch, Nicky says. He is sorry, but in a flippant way. He isn’t sorry enough. This is the point when the heedless Nicky loses his friend and protector forever.  That loss is particularly excruciating because in the last scene of “Mikey and Nicky,” which takes place in the light of morning, Mikey talks to his wife (Rose Arrick) about his past and about a brother of his who died, and she doesn’t remember hearing about this before. Not only does she not remember this, but May makes it clear that the wife is barely listening to her husband as he talks about it, or she is just pretending to listen. And so when Mikey barricades his door against Nicky and leaves his lifelong friend to face the hit man, we have been made to understand that Mikey is losing a crucial part of his life that he will never get back. May is interested in moral conundrums she has no answers for. Nicky is poisonously cruel and selfish, and so Mikey is right to at last shun him, in a way. So why does it feel so horrible when he does this very human thing, which so many movies would play off as somehow triumphant? The same dismay can be felt in the basic situation for “The Heartbreak Kid,” which was scripted by Neil Simon but wholly transformed because of what May chooses to emphasize about the premise. At the beginning of “The Heartbreak Kid,” Lenny (Charles Grodin) has just married Lila (Jeannie Berlin, May’s own daughter), and they are going on their honeymoon. It is made almost immediately clear, in a sickening sort of way, that Lenny has made a mistake in marrying this woman. Lila is clinging and passive-aggressive and annoying; she is not as bad a person as Cassavetes’ Nicky, but she is someone who is fine with emphasizing her own abject pitifulness and helplessness in order to emotionally blackmail someone into staying with her for life. (Simon had wanted the charmingly neurotic Diane Keaton to play Lila, which of course would have made for a very different film.) Lenny meets the gorgeous blonde Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) on the beach. Not only does Kelly look like Cybill Shepherd circa 1972, but she is smart, funny, and attractive in many ways, even if she seems to do everything with an eye toward getting a rise out of her father (Eddie Albert), and she shows a callous disregard for Lila. The easy and commercial way to do this story would be to make the Lila character somewhat likable and sweet and the Kelly character somewhat vapid or bitchy. May does not choose that easy route. Instead, she makes Lila (who, again, is played by her own daughter) as unappealing in every way as possible and Kelly like a dream girl that we can just about imagine existing in reality.  Lenny wins Kelly, against very steep odds, and breaks things off with Lila, who falls apart when he tells her at a restaurant that they’re through. The film ends with a scene after Lenny’s wedding to Kelly, when he has seemingly won everything he ever wanted. So why does it feel like Lenny has lost everything? Let’s be very clear here. The way that May has directed “The Heartbreak Kid” and especially Berlin’s performance as Lila, Lenny needs to make a break with Lila and divorce her as soon as possible. He only married her because he wanted to sleep with her, so that their marriage is a holdover from a desperately stupid state of affairs between men and women that thankfully no longer exists. We should be glad that he has left her, or gotten rid of her. We really should. And yet. There is that same “and yet” feeling in “Mikey and Nicky.” May is Jewish, and yet the principles at stake in these two stories seem to have a Christian undertow. In the cemetery scene in “Mikey and Nicky,” Mikey dismisses his friend’s talk of an afterlife and says to leave that “mishegoss to the Catholics.” But May is drawn to that so-called “mishegoss” in spite of herself. American culture is a self-interested culture that tells us to cut ties with “toxic” people in our lives for our own good. Cassavetes’ Nicky and Berlin’s Lila are toxic in their very different ways, and May is not saying that you have to put up with people like these two indefinitely, or for all of your life. She understands that many people can’t do that. But whereas so many American stories are about how fighting against toxic people in your life represents some kind of triumph, May sees that this instinct leaves both Lenny in “The Heartbreak Kid” and Mikey in “Mikey and Nicky” bereft, ruined, and morally compromised. Yet there is no better way they could have conducted themselves. Their lives are traps. They are damned if they do, they are damned if they don’t. And May knows that there is no talking or thinking your way out of that, no matter how smart or self-deceiving you are.  May famously stole a few reels of the print of “Mikey and Nicky” so that her cut would prevail. She turned in a three-hour cut of her dark comedy “A New Leaf” (1971) and wanted her name taken off that picture when the studio chopped out 80 minutes and three murders from the running time. As enjoyable as “A New Leaf” is, not least in May’s own inspired performance as klutzy botanist and heiress Henrietta Lowell—especially in the classic scene where Henrietta gets her head caught in the arm hole of her “Grecian” nightgown—it does not represent May’s vision like “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Mikey and Nicky” do. Stories of May on the set describe a person immersed in some sort of creative fog, yet underneath she seems to have been a kind of Erich von Stroheim of the early 1970s, unwilling to stop shooting and unwilling to let anyone else tinker with her films. Some of May’s viewpoint is certainly palpable in her overwhelmingly misanthropic script for “Such Good Friends” (1971), which she wrote under the pseudonym Esther Dale, but after this surge of creativity in the early 1970s she was stymied and worked most as a script doctor, famously saving “Tootsie” (1982). The first half hour of her fourth film “Ishtar” (1987) is a rather brave portrait of male friendship between middle-aged losers, but the narrative thread gets lost eventually when they both travel to the Middle East. May worked seldom after that film’s failure and the publicity about how much it cost and her own supposed indecisiveness. For “In the Spirit” (1990), which was co-written by her daughter Berlin, May played a broke society woman stuck with a New Age wacko (Marlo Thomas) who at one point brightly says, “I’ve never gotten tired of anybody or left anybody in my life ... they’ve always had to leave me!” May worked for credit as a screenwriter for her former comedy partner Nichols twice in the 1990s, and she worked twice as a performer for Woody Allen projects and got boffo laughs in his “Small Time Crooks” (2000). She wrote for the theater and collaborated with her daughter, and the results were sometimes perplexing. But in 2018 May made an unlikely comeback as a performer on stage as an older woman whose mind is unraveling in “The Waverly Gallery,” for which she received a well-deserved Tony award.  May said that she based the characters in “Mikey and Nicky” on actual criminals that her parents knew, or knew of—but it’s hard not to wonder what she herself knows about betrayal and moral compromise. Why did such a brilliant artist work so sparingly and so often seek to erase herself? Like the moral issues posed by “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Mikey and Nicky,” these questions are likely unanswerable.

  • The Tragedy of Macbeth
    by Odie Henderson on January 15, 2022 at 12:24 AM

    My high school senior year English teacher, Mr. Kilinski would be proud that I remembered every single stanza and line from Macbeth he made his students memorize. As Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and others worked through the Bard’s words as adapted by director Joel Coen, I felt myself lip-syncing under my mask. I covered the greatest hits, and lines I didn’t even realize I knew. Keep in mind that I learned these words 35 years ago, yet they were as fresh in my mind as if I’d committed them to memory that morning. The Scottish Play holds a special place in my heart, because it forced me to do a complete 180 on William Shakespeare. After my freshman year run-in with Romeo and Juliet and my sophomore year’s Julius Caesar, I was through with this dude and his fancy writing about topics that put my adolescent self to sleep. Macbeth made me reconsider. Back then, I couldn’t put my finger on why it spoke to me so powerfully that it made me want to read more Shakespeare. But, as an adult, I understood. This play is like a film noir and I was a budding noirista as a teen. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” visually leans into my noirish interpretation. It’s shot in silvery, at times gothic black and white by Bruno Delbonnel, has a moody score by the great Carter Burwell, and takes place on incredible (and obviously fake) sets designed by Stefan Dechant. It also has more fog than San Francisco, the setting for so many great noirs. This makes sense, as Coen and his brother Ethan visited neo-noir’s genre neighborhood more traditionally in their 2001 film, “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” One might consider their debut, “Blood Simple” a neo-noir as well. Like those films, this one also features McDormand as a shady lady, namely Lady Macbeth. She’s married to Washington’s Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis. As the casting indicates, this couple is older than the one the Bard envisioned, which changes one’s perception of their motivations. Youthful ambition has given way to something else; perhaps the couple is way too conscious of all those yesterdays that “lighted fools/The way to dusty death.” At the Q&A after the free IMAX screening of this film, McDormand mentioned that she wanted to portray the Macbeths as a couple who chose not to have children early on, and were fine with the choice. This detail makes the murder of Macduff’s (Corey Hawkins) son all the more heartless and brutal, an act Coen treats with restraint but does not shy away from depicting. Since The Scottish Play was first performed 415 years ago, all spoiler warnings have expired. Besides, you should know the plot already. Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and the Thane of Glamis meet three witches (all played by theater vet Kathryn Hunter) on his way back from battle. They prophesize that Macbeth will eventually be King of Scotland. But first, he’ll become the Thane of Cawdor. When that part of the prediction becomes true, Macbeth thinks these medieval Miss Cleos might be onto something. Though he believes chance will crown him without his stir, Lady Macbeth goads him to intervene. As is typical of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the stage will be littered with dead bodies by the final curtain, each of whom will have screamed out “I am slain!” or “I am dead!” before expiring. Coen leaves that feature out of the movie, as you can see quite graphically how dead the bodies get on the screen. King Duncan’s murder is especially rough. Washington and Brendan Gleeson play it as a macabre dance, framed so tightly that we feel the intimacy of how close one must be to stab another. It’s almost sexual. Both actors give off a regal air in their other scenes, though Washington’s is buoyed by that patented Den-ZELLL swagger. He even does the Denzel vocal tic, that “huh” he’s famous for, in some of his speeches, making me giddy enough to jump out of my skin with joy. Gleeson brings the Old Vic to his brief performance; every line and every moment feels like he’s communing with the ghosts of the famous actors who graced that hallowed London stage. The other actors are well cast and bring their own gifts to their work. Stephen Root almost walks off with the picture as Porter. Alex Hassel gets more to do as Ross than I remembered. And there’s a great scene with an old man played by an actor I will not reveal. (Look real closely when he appears.) As for McDormand, she has her usual steely reserve, but I don’t think she fully shakes that off once we get to that “out, damned spot” scene. I had a similar problem with Washington’s scene at the banquet when he is haunted by a familiar specter. Both seem too confident to be in the thrall of temporary madness. This “Macbeth” is as much about mood as it is about verse. The visuals acknowledge this, pulling us into the action as if we were seeing it on stage. But nowhere is the evocation of mood more prominent than in Kathryn Hunter’s revelatory performance as the Witches. There’s an otherworldliness to her appearance and her voice, as if she came from a dark place Macbeth should fear. You will have a hard time forgetting her work. She’s fantastic here, and Coen’s depiction of her cauldron bubbling is a highlight, as is the narrow staging of Macbeth’s final battle. Hawkins holds his own against the behemoth that is Denzel Washington, and their swordplay is swift and nasty. One note of caution: High school students who use movies instead of reading the play will, as always, continue to fail English class. If chance would have you pass, then chance would pass you without your stir. So read the play, kids! Your own personal Mr. Kilinski will thank you. Now playing in select theaters and available on Apple TV+ on January 14.

  • Shattered
    by Matt Zoller Seitz on January 14, 2022 at 4:51 PM

    Your gut tells you that the hero of "Shattered" is about to get into trouble when he goes to a supermarket after midnight and the only other customer is a gorgeous young woman, dripping wet from rain, who asks his advice on which wine to buy, accepts his offer of a lift home when her rideshare fails to materialize, and ends up having sex with him. This is a psychosexual thriller, a type of film in which naked bodies are a prelude to a body count.  Indeed, like the high-tech security devices supposedly protecting the hero's palatial mountain home, this film from director Luis Prieto ("Kidnap") and writer David Loughery ("Money Train," "Lakeview Terrace") is a machine that promises to fulfill certain functions. Unfortunately, the craftsmanship is lacking. That's not a knock against the look or sound of the movie, which is appropriately glossy, or the sex, which is pretty boisterous for a film made in the neo-Puritan early 21st century, or the violence, which is more  spectacularly gruesome than non-horror films tend to allow. (One character looms before their prey bathed in blood like Carrie after the prom.)  But there's no getting around the fact that several of the lead performances are stiff to the point of amateurishness (at least until the plot gets cooking about halfway through, and everyone gets to suffer, sweat, bleed and scream). And the script manages to be too much and not enough, gesturing clumsily in the direction of what the critic Anne Billson calls the Preposterous Thriller, while at the same time shoehorning in bits of social critique about the haves and have-nots that make "Shattered" come off as the movie "Parasite" could have been, were it possible to repeatedly drop a film on its head. "Shattered" is a twist-driven film. But the twists don't follow real-world logic. Nor do they embrace the dream-world anti-logic of great psychosexual thrillers like "Fatal Attraction," "Body Double," "Basic Instinct" or the late-in-the-game classic "Gone Girl," the kinds of pictures where absurdities and outrages pile up to the point where the audience starts giggling with unhinged delight. Suffice to say if you're still interested in seeing ”Shattered,” you should check out of this review now.  The man, Chris Decker (Cameron Monaghan of the American "Shameless") is a tech entrepreneur who recently sold his company for millions. He has a wife (Sasha Luss) and daughter (Ridley Bateman) from whom he's about to be separated by divorce. He lives in the aforementioned dream house, which looks down on the plebes in town like the home of the tycoon in Akira Kurosawa's far more politically cogent "High and Low." The young woman, who calls her herself Sky (Lilly Krug), lives in a residential motel run by an affable dirtbag named Ronald (John Malkovich, who gives one of the film's only two memorable performances) and has a self-destructive roommate (Ash Santos’ Lisa) whom she supposedly goes home with Chris to escape. What ensues is a story that seesaws between exuberant nonsense and a sort of half-assed sociopolitical awareness, mixing resentment of amoral techno-fascist douchebros, fascination with their show-off houses, and a slightly pervy obsession with model-actress-whatever types who might not, factually speaking, be teetering on the edge of the age of legal consent, but are nevertheless made up and costumed to evoke a barely pubescent anime waif, or Lolita. Krug and Monaghan, I'm sorry to say, are terrible in this, though it's hard to blame them entirely or even partially, given the lumpiness of the script and the director's seeming incapability of steering into the skid and producing a glorious wreck of a movie, the kind audiences cheer lustily even though they know it's dumb.  A lot of the issues come back to the question of whether you're watching the kind of film that cares about believable psychology or one that could not care less. It handles the distress of Sky's roommate more sensitively than one might expect, but it also has the hero getting his leg broken with a tire iron during an attempted car break-in and then gives us zero indication of how that shocking crime might've affected the victim's psyche (for the most part, he acts as if it was an inconvenience).  Soon we realize we'll never figure out who Sky "really is" because there's nothing in her head but greed and evil. Kudos to the movie, kind of, for taking one more giant step into raw sleaze by bringing in character actor Frank Grillo (the film's other memorable performance) to play a preening, wiseass, thug-mastermind type. Grillo's smirky delivery, New York tough guy swagger, and retro-'50s pompadour read as an invocation of Mickey Rourke, the crown prince of screen debauchery in the late '80s and early '90s, and the star of Michael Cimino's remake of the home invasion thriller "The Desperate Hours," which the final third of the film sometimes resembles (along with both versions of "Funny Games").  "Shattered" is, as you might've gathered, a film history-literate work that blatantly pays homage to earlier movies: the house recalls both the bad guy's mountain fortress in "North by Northwest" and the place that Craig Wasson house-sat in "Body Double," and not only does Chris spend most of the film in a wheelchair, a la “Rear Window,” the director does his own version of the dreamy wake-up kiss between Grace Kelly and James Stewart. But the tributes achieve little, save for reminding you of better movies. The picture at the top of this review, John Malkovich standing in front of a woodpile making a goofy face, does not reflect the tone of “Shattered,” but he's more interesting than anything that's actually in the film, so we put it up there as a treat for the reader. Malkovich only has a few scenes, but in every one of them, he indulges in little verbal and physical flourishes (such as giving a cut flower an insinuating lick) that liven up a dreary experience. That it never occurred to anyone involved that the film would've been greatly improved by putting Malkovich's loser-outsider character at the center of the story rather than on its periphery is just one more example of the production's failure to capitalize on the resources at its disposal. Now playing in select theaters and available on demand.

  • Bridget Everett Shines in HBO’s Disarmingly Earnest Dramedy Somebody Somewhere
    by Ciara Wardlow on January 14, 2022 at 2:13 PM

    The new HBO series “Somebody Somewhere” is a comedy in the sense that its episodes are a half-hour long, which as of late seems to be sufficient to be labeled a comedy in the television world. A much more accurate way to describe it would be a half-hour drama that uses humor as a coping mechanism, and to great effect. Bridgett Everett stars as Sam, 40-something and floundering, who is back in her hometown of Manhattan after more than a decade away with little to show for it. Not the Big Apple, to be clear, but the little one, aka “the eighth biggest town in Kansas.” Drawn back home by the death of her sister Holly six months prior, in whose home she now resides—on the couch, as she cannot bring herself to clear out Holly’s room—Sam remains in Manhattan not because she has a convincing reason to stay so much as because she has no reason to go. She works a mind-numbing job scoring essay questions on standardized tests and wiles away her weekends drinking wine at home alone, not so much living as killing time. And then, one day, a single conversation with a co-worker named Joel (Jeff Hiller) breaks Sam out of the mindless, achingly lonely routine into which her life has fallen. This moment of compassion and human connection has ripple effects that more or less constitute the bulk of the series. Created by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, also credited with writing most of the episodes, “Somebody Somewhere” contains a significant autobiographical component for Everett, herself a Manhattan native. That authenticity shines through in a way that cannot be faked, in the specificity of the world and the characters that makes the series absorbing.  “Somebody Somewhere” is a true masterclass in not just crafting authentic, nuanced characters and building a fully engrossing world, but also naturalistic dialogue. The series makes it seem effortless in the way something expertly made so often does, yet closer inspection reveals the extent of the craftsmanship. Buoyed by stellar performances from the whole cast, the show demonstrates a rare understanding for the value of negative space and how to use it—when something is more effectively communicated through silence than with shoehorned dialogue, and how to shape those silences such that the unsaid is still conveyed with a wonderful degree of specificity. Everett is remarkable as a woman who hides behind a mask of apathy and witty barbs. She’s hardly the sort to talk about her feelings by choice, but Everett’s performance manages to consistently convey to the audience things that Sam refuses to say or acknowledge with crystal clarity. It’s a subtle and compelling portrait of depression, a sadness that creates an intriguing counterbalance to the bold and bawdy sense of humor for which Everett is known, which also gets plenty of opportunity to shine. Joel presents an intriguing foil to Sam while also being a fascinating character in his own right, a man whose timid and painfully awkward exterior belies a surprising amount of charm lurking just beneath the surface. His strengths and weaknesses complement Sam’s own to a degree that their friendship, and the way it pushes them both to grow as people, feels fully organic. Of the more peripheral supporting cast, the delightfully theatrical local agriculture professor Dr. Fred Rococo (Murray Hill) is a standout, a member of the merry band of oddballs and misfits Joel brings together over the course of the show. So too is Sam’s father Ed (Mike Hagerty), an affable family man struggling to come to terms with the realization that his aversion to conflict has only enabled his wife’s alcoholism. Across the board, the characters so endearing that their charm does a great deal to obfuscate the show’s flaws, particularly a mid-season plot that teeters on the edge of overly sparse. Plotlines fade in and out or even disappear entirely. The most befuddling involves Sam’s niece Shannon (Kailey Albus), the teenage daughter of her younger sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison), a proudly judgmental master of the backhanded compliment and passive-aggressive remark. The pilot indicates a close relationship between Sam and Shannon, so much that Tricia, with whom Sam has a complicated and often tense relationship, accuses Sam of attempting to mold Shannon into a “new Holly.” However, Shannon effectively disappears in subsequent episodes, revealed as a mere inciting incident to introduce the sisterly dynamic, a bald-faced plot device that’s out of step with the subtle elegance of much of the storytelling elsewhere. Joel’s relationship struggles with boyfriend Michael (Jon Hudson Odom) are also oddly sidelined in a way that limits the emotional impact of their arc—we see Michael several times, but mostly just in passing—and feels like a missed opportunity to easily give a character of color something of an arc. Even with its imperfections, “Somebody Somewhere” is still a gem of a show; it's a disarmingly earnest portrait of loss, loneliness, and disappointment that nonetheless manages to be, above all, a tale of belonging and quiet hope. “Somebody Somewhere” premieres on HBO at 10:30 pm E.T., January 16. All seven episodes were screened for review. 

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