Movie Reviews

  • Earth, Wind & Fire to Become First R&B Group to Receive Kennedy Center Honors on December 8th
    by The Editors on December 6, 2019 at 6:44 PM

    Earth, Wind & Fire, the beloved Grammy-winning band best known for songs such as "September" and "Shining Star," will become the first R&B group to receive the Kennedy Center Honors during the annual ceremony held on Sunday, December 8th, which will subsequently be broadcast the following Sunday, December 15th, at 7pm CST on CBS.  Band members Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson will be honored along with White's late brother, EW&F founder Maurice White, who will be given a posthumous tribute. Other figures slated to be honored that evening include singer Linda Ronstadt, actress Sally Field, conductor/composer Michael Tilson Thomas and "Sesame Street" co-founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Dr. Lloyd Morrisett.  Verdine Adams at Crane High School on left; Verdine White performing with Earth, Wind & Fire in the Netherlands in 2010. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.EW&F made its recorded debut on the soundtrack of Melvin Van Peeble's groundbreaking 1971 film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," which stands as the first independent African-American film. Their music has subsequently been used memorably in a variety of movies such as "Caddyshack," "Barbershop," "Trolls" and "Doctor Strange." This past June, Verdine White joined Chaz Ebert and several of his other former classmates from Richard T. Crane's High School Class of 1969 to celebrate their 50th year Golden Class Reunion in Chicago. They marched with the graduating class of 2019 at Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall and congratulated them on the fact that their class achieved a 100% college acceptance rate, and over $13 million dollars in scholarships.  Crane alumni Verdine White, Chaz Ebert and Joshlyn Banks pose with one of the school's new graduates.Mrs. Ebert added, "We hear so many negative things about the Westside of Chicago, but I don't want us to lose sight of all the good things that happen there, including the teachers and parents who care, and the students who graduate and come back to help. I am so proud of Verdine for the work he does to inspire the next generation. And I commend the Kennedy Center for honoring him and Earth, Wind & Fire."    Prior to the festivities, Chaz visited her friend and former classmate Verdine at his home in Los Angeles to reminisce about their shared past, the highlights of which you can find below...including Verdine's statement about how what he learned in high school prepared him for his life's career, and how the arts programs as well as the sciences and chess club were inspirations. See video below.

  • Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Expands World of Legendary Franchise
    by Brian Tallerico on December 6, 2019 at 4:32 PM

    I’m old enough to remember when “Star Wars” properties were few and far between. Now they’re everywhere. Whether or not this market saturation is good or bad for the brand is material for another feature, but you almost have to admire the three-medium attack this holiday season. There will be children who watch the newest episode of Disney+’s “The Mandalorian” before going to the theater to see “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” on that same day. And Electronic Arts and the Lucas Empire really hope they come home and play “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order” when they’re done. Critically acclaimed as the best Lucas-related game in years, “Fallen Order” tells an original story with a new hero in that rich space between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope,” where we've already seen stories like "Solo: A Star Wars Story" and "Rogue One." (This one is technically five years after Episode III and ten years before Episode IV.) It’s an interesting game with some excellent world building that’s still hampered by a few inconsistent gameplay mechanics, difficulty spikes, and absolutely ridiculous load times, but what really matters to fans is how it puts the power of the force (and a wicked lightsaber) in your hands. It’s a “Star Wars” world this holiday season. We just live in it.  In “Fallen Order,” you play a young Jedi named Cal Kestis (voiced by Cameron Monaghan from “Shameless”), who has to travel to multiple planets as he flees an Empire villain named the Second Sister and tries to bring a small resistance together. As I mentioned in my “Mandalorian” review, there’s a lot of storytelling to unfold as to how we got from the fall of the Empire in “Jedi” to the dominance of the First Order in “Force Awakens,” but the brain trust is also not done connecting the dots from when Anakin became Darth Vader and the movie that started it all. This is part of that story, as you meet new characters like Cal and the small crew of the ship Mantis, fighting the good fight against hundreds of stormtroopers and various creatures on planets familiar (Kashyyk, the Wookie planet from “Star Wars -- Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” and Dathomir from “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”) and new (a salvage planet called Bracca). Your best buddy is a useful droid called BD-1, who will help you progress in the game and make cute robot noises. He's adorable and effective, and almost steals the game.  In the opening of “Fallen Order,” Cal uses Force powers to save the life of a friend, and the Empire notices. They send inquisitors to investigate, and Cal is rescued by a Jedi Knight named Cera Junda and Greez Dritus, pilot of the Mantis. They need Cal’s help to access ancient vaults around the universe to that will help rebuild the Jedi Resistance. This leads to a lot of open-world exploration. The planets are huge, filled with enemies, and often remarkably difficult to navigate. Way too much time is spent looking at a poorly-designed holomap in “Fallen Order,” and trying to figure out just where to go next. If the worlds felt more open to exploration that would be one thing, but there’s a difference between feeling encouraged to make your own way and simply being confused as to what a game wants you to do next. Save points also seem bizarrely located, creating massive difficulty spikes between the distant ones, and the load times are so remarkable that your controller vibrates to make sure you haven’t fallen asleep when the game is finally ready to play again. These complaints aside, the reason that people are calling “Fallen Order” the best SW video game in years is two-fold. One, it’s a low bar. The “Battlefront” games were stunningly disappointing, promising multiplayer Jedi action that they didn’t really deliver. I was a bigger fan of the “Force Unleashed” games than some people, but the second one of those came out almost a decade ago now. (The truth is that the best modern “Star Wars” games are the LEGO ones. Don’t @ me.) So fans have been desperate for a game like “Fallen Order,” one that puts the power of the force and the lightsaber in the player’s hands. And so when you’re wielding a saber—the bulk of the combat in “Fallen Order” is of the parry/strike melee variety in which you have to use your saber to block and counter an attack—and force-blasting enemies off a cliff, there’s something inherently powerful about that action, especially for the generation raised on only being able to replicate such things with action figures in their backyard. Now, you get to be a Jedi too. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to that visceral thrill working more often than it doesn’t in “Fallen Order.” The combat can be inconsistent and frustrating, but the little adrenaline jolt from perfectly parrying a stormtrooper attack and then slicing him with a lightsaber? The eight-year-old in me loved it every single time. About that slicing though—you build a meter to use your force powers through killing enemies. Long time fans of the series may be raising an eyebrow now. Being a Jedi has never really been about murder. Yes, it’s just a game, but becoming more powerful by killing your enemies is way more of an Empire thing than a Jedi thing. The “Star Wars” franchise may have come a long way since that original trilogy, but it feels like a Stormtrooper-slashing, creature-killing young man would be more likely to become more of a future Darth Vader than a future Luke Skywalker. It's just a game, sure, but you would think hardcore fans would want it to be morally consistent with what they love. So is “Fallen Order” good or bad for the “Star Wars” universe? It is a more ambitious game than we’ve seen in this universe for years, and that’s inherently a good thing. It’s nice to have a "Star Wars" game that doesn’t feel like someone literally just branding mediocre product with a label that will help it sell more copies. Whatever my issues with “Fallen Order,” it's not a lazy game by any stretch, and there’s always going to be something visceral about wielding a lightsaber and force powers, at least for my generation. Whether or not market saturation will diminish that for future ones is yet to be seen. 

  • Midnight Family
    by Matt Zoller Seitz on December 6, 2019 at 4:25 PM

    The night comes alive in "Midnight Family," Luke Lorentzen's film about a private ambulance service in Mexico City. This is one of the great contemporary films about the look and feel of a big city after dark, luxuriating in the vastness of almost-empty avenues lit by buzzing streetlamps. It's a real-life answer to fiction movies like "Taxi Driver," "Bringing Out the Dead," "Collateral," "Nightcrawler" and "The Sweet Smell of Success."  And yet, despite the film's careful attention to images and sounds—which is somewhat unusual in nonfiction, a mode that too often relies on verbal summaries, infographics, and talking heads—Lorentzen never allows "Midnight Family" to become an empty stylistic exercise. He stays tightly focused on his main characters, the Ochoa family, as they scramble to survive in a brutal, unregulated economy.  The Ochoas live and work in a city with nine million people but only 45 government-operated ambulances. Their ambulance is nominally run by a father, Fer, who has health problems and seems profoundly depressed (some of the film's most haunting images are silent closeups of his face lost in thought). But the real boss is Fer's 17-year old son Juan, who usually takes the lead in treating patients, dealing with finances and official regulations, and arguing with cops who hassle them in hopes of shaking loose a bribe. Juan also acts as an adjunct father to his little brother Josué, who gets frustrated at their hard existence (there's an argument over how many cans of tuna they can afford to buy) but would rather be on the job with his family than attend school.  It's a rough life. The Ochoas seem to live in the ambulance more so than in their small, cluttered apartment. A lot of the Ochoas' patients can't or won't pay them for their labor. They must compete with other ambulance services to get to a scene first, even street-racing a rival in a sequence that's reminiscent of the moment in "Gangs of New York" where the crews of two private fire trucks brawl in front of a burning house. Every month is a financial crap shoot.  The filmmaker, who shot and edited the movie in addition to directing and producing it, seems to have taken his cues from an earlier era of documentary cinema, represented by directors like the Maysles Brothers ("Salesman," "Gimme Shelter") and D.A. Pennebaker ("Don't Look Back"). The movie captures moments of astonishing intimacy, not just with the Ochoas but with their patients, the police, and the citizens they interact with from moment to moment. The camera looks at people and places and lets us think and feel things, rather than constantly and clumsily trying to manage our reactions.  There's implicit criticism of government ineptitude and corruption and the viciousness of profit-driven life, particularly when it comes to healthcare, but these concerns emerge organically from the situations the director shows us. The tone is empathetic but clear-eyed, presenting the world's indifference to struggle and suffering as a hard fact, as immutable as the winter draft that chills the interior of the ambulance until Juan asks his dad to shut the doors.  There's no music. The movie doesn't need it. It has traffic sounds, barking dogs, roaring auto engines and squealing tires, and the screams of injured people nearly drowning out the reassurances of paramedics trying to stop the bleeding. The sense of place is nearly overwhelming, and the editing finds little ways to re-emphasize it, such as holding on an empty room or ambulance interior for a beat or two after people have exited the frame. All the world's a stage, we're mere extras upon it, and there's no way to know if anyone's watching the play.

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire
    by Tomris Laffly on December 6, 2019 at 2:32 PM

    French writer/director Céline Sciamma has hypnotizing powers—her spellbinding pull was unmissable in both the sensual “Water Lilies” and the gleaming coming-of-age tale “Girlhood.” With “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” she takes that cinematic magnetism to new heights and periods, to a cliffside manor somewhere on the coast of Brittany in the 1770s. Imbued with a buttery-matte palette and resolute, painterly strokes of camera throughout—lensed by Claire Mathon with patient tenacity—Sciamma’s latest tells the tale of a dreamy romance. It’s a delicate drama that flourishes through the liberating power of art, where a hopeful yet consuming love affair sparks between two young women amid patriarchal customs, and stays concealed in their hearts both because of and in spite of it.  This forbidden love (“forbidden” in the world that surrounds them, but so instinctive and inevitable to the pair) might just be the sexiest affair you’ll get to see on cinema screens this year, or since ... I can’t even remember. This is thanks in large part to Sciamma’s well-considered decisions on what to show versus how much to obscure in scenes of unreserved intimacy. In fact, she is so deliberate in her “Portrait” that one cannot ignore the filmmaker’s oblique opposition to the cold and soft-core sex scenes of "Blue is the Warmest Color," another love story of the recent LGBTQ cannon, but one shot from the unfortunate POV of the male gaze (an admittedly overused but fitting term here.) In that, it’s not the secret bedroom trysts that Sciamma’s film renders the most erotic. It’s the suggestive longing, the camera’s respectful caressing of the skin, the studious stares that the two women get locked in that prove to be the most rousing. These gazes—first, exchanged out of obligation, then, cherished more and more—are stirring, simply because the lovers-to-be have no choice but to dwell in their private safety when any kind of sexual release seems out of the question for them. And these wordless adorations are also thrilling, as they are what defines the start of their relationship. At first, it is an unsympathetic deal that is centered on Héloïse (Adèle Haenel of “Nocturama” and “The Unknown Girl”), but set in motion by her mother (played by veteran actor Valeria Golino) despite her daughter’s passive-aggressive protests. Héloïse is an unwitting bride-to-be, about to be wedded to some noble man in an arranged marriage. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is an artist and for-hire painter, brought to Héloïse’s remote home to paint a dignified portrait of her to be sent to her future suitor, as per a pre-marital tradition. The twist is the uncooperative Héloïse’s stubbornness—she is kept in the dark about Marianne’s task, and instead, is fed a story that the painter is only there to keep her company during her daily seaside walks.  Meanwhile, Marianne has to take in as much of Héloïse’s face and figure as possible, before transposing them onto a canvas from memory in secret. But this impossible method only produces a less-than-ideal (and frankly, a bit too conventional and square) image of Héloïse. It is when the truth comes out, when the ladies finally break out of their tight corsets (metaphorically at first, and in reality later), that Héloïse’s reflection on the stretch of cloth assumes her soulful likeness; in order words, the way Marianne starts to see her. There are traces of Jane Campion’s poetic elegy “The Piano” here—another love story that unites an improbable pair through the sweeping splendor of art. You can also call “Portrait” a Vermeer-touched “Carol,” with its smooth textures, layered compositions, and romantic touches of chiaroscuro lighting. These contrasts of shadow and luminosity are most pronounced in the dark corners of the house’s country kitchen, and especially heightened during a nighttime centerpiece featuring an unforgettable piece of a cappella singing around a bonfire—so enthralling that the sequence feels and sounds like sexual climax.  But above all that, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is its own, wondrous, magnificent thing; a complete artistic vision where every directorial step is refined and each thematic probe, seamlessly weaved in. So when Sciamma generously brings in the storyline of Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), a maid in need of abortion, the film doesn’t venture out of its scope. Instead, this thread unites the patriarchy-defying themes of “Portrait,” while slowly building a sense of sisterhood within the confines of a remote home that lives under the shadow of unseen men. With a heartbreaking, “Call Me by Your Name”-esque finale that consumes Haenel’s emotive face (you will never hear the “Summer” section of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” a recurring motif, in the same way again), Sciamma’s gift to 2019 sets a highest standard for any romance that will come after it.

  • Playmobil: The Movie
    by Nell Minow on December 6, 2019 at 2:31 PM

    A movie "inspired" by a line of toys has one essential challenge—to be more than a feature-length commercial. Tops in that category are "The Lego Movie" and "The Lego Batman Movie," with "Trolls" following behind. "Playmobil: The Movie" comes much further down the list, just before "UglyDolls," which couldn't even get its message straight about how beauty is what's inside.  It's not a spoiler to say the message here is that we should all be open to adventure and play. But it drags along, the 110-minute running time seeming even longer than that. And it fails to justify itself as a film, with a lackluster storyline that does not try to keep consistent the rules of the world it creates. After a whole scene establishing the limited mobility of the Playmobil characters, they suddenly switch to being able to have human-like joints and range of motion. It does not even work as a commercial, never showing us why these toys could be especially fun to play with.  More troubling, this is a movie for young children that begins (in live-action) with a teenager and her six-year-old brother opening the door of their home to a pair of police officers, who have come to tell them that their parents have been killed in an accident. Stories about children need to get the parents out of the way somehow so the kids can have an adventure, but this is too intense and shocking for film's tone and likely to upset younger children. It then jumps ahead four years, as the now-22-year-old Marla comes home exhausted, the burden of her responsibilities having taken all of the sense of fun and adventure out of her life. "It's like when Mom and Dad died, you died, too, and we're just pretending to be a family," her now-ten-year-old brother Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) tells her. So, she probably needs more than a magical trip to toyland to cheer her up, but that's all we're going to get. Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy) discovers that Charlie has run away. She uses his cell phone's tracking device to find him at a not-yet-open toy fair with a massive display of Playmobil toys including a castle, pirate and Viking ships, and a Roman Coliseum-style amphitheater set up for gladiator battles. There is also a lighthouse with a magical ray of light that transports them into the world of the toys. Marla is a Playmobil version of herself, but Charlie transforms from a child into a burly Viking with a beard.  Charlie has been captured by the evil Emperor Maximus (Adam Lambert), who says he will give the people what they want—brutal trial by combat. Charlie joins a collection of warriors including an Amazon, a futuristic bounty hunter, and a pirate captain (Kenan Thompson) assembled by Maximus as gladiators.  Marla is determined to rescue him. And so, she has the adventure she dreamed of before her parents died, visiting all kinds of different lands (but is there really a Playmobil kit to build a seedy nightclub that's run by a worm-creature)? She meets an assortment of characters, with the stand-outs being the super-cool and elegant British spy Rex Dasher (voiced by Daniel Radcliffe), and a fairy godmother whose most important magical power is encouragement (voiced by Meghan Trainor). Most of her time is spent with Del (Jim Gaffigan), this movie's version of The Dude, an easygoing guy who wears Hawaiian shirts, sells "enchanted" pink bales of hay, makes a mean burrito, and is in debt to the worm-creature.  The settings, like the songs, and, let's face it, the toys, are bland and generic. "Playmobil: The Movie" might help pass the time on a snow day, but it is nowhere near as entertaining as whatever stories kids will make up for their toys themselves.

  • The Aeronauts
    by Monica Castillo on December 6, 2019 at 2:31 PM

    Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts” begins just as Amelia (Felicity Jones), a balloon pilot, and James (Eddie Redmayne), a scientist desperate to prove his theories about the weather, take off on their 19th century vertical adventure in front of a large crowd to much fanfare. In flashbacks, “The Aeronauts” explains more about their tenuous relationship beyond pilot and scientist: how she lost her husband in a ballooning accident and how James had been laughed at by his colleagues for his outlandish ideas. Eventually, James decides to prove his findings and hires a still-grieving Amelia to lead the journey—a generous offer she’s hesitant to accept. Back in the present ascent of their balloon, Amelia and James face many more dangers and setbacks as they shatter the height record and put their lives at risk for science.  Although it’s stuffed with many cliches, “The Aeronauts” can feel like a rather enjoyable bit of historical fantasy. Redmayne’s character is based on James Glaisher, a real British scientist who did break that height record in his day, but his partner on this expedition, Henry Coxwell, has been replaced with Jones’ character, who herself is an amalgamation of several balloonists including Coxwell, for his heroics during his expedition with Glaisher, and Sophie Blanchard, one of the few women in the field of aeronauts and someone who continued to balloon after her husband’s death in an accident.  Harper, who co-wrote the script with Jack Thorne, introduces Amelia and James as a kind of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” pair of polar opposites. Amelia has an adventurous, outgoing spirit with a sense of understanding of playing to a crowd and entertaining others. James is more of a solemn soul who wants so desperately to be taken seriously as a scientist, he almost doesn’t see Amelia’s anguish as she deliberates going up in a balloon after her husband’s fall or the dangers he might put them in because he wants to push beyond the balloon’s limits. Although Amelia is clearly a strong female character, the writers thankfully don’t saddle her with the weight of needing to represent all women. She’s an aeronaut because she wants to be one, not because it’s the right thing to do. They’re almost cartoonish in their differences, which thankfully, doesn’t last too long as they're the only characters we’re stuck with for the majority of the film. Jones and Redmayne strike up a flirty rapport that makes the movie even more interesting as the stakes (and the balloon) grow higher. Might she find love after loss? Will he find the results he’s looking for? It will all be for naught if their balloon crashes.  The thrill of “The Aeronauts” lies in its death-defying stunts. The actors may be safe, but the movie makes us forget that with the use of cinematographer George Steel’s clever camera angles and tensioned-filled shots and Mark Eckersley’s quick editing. There is a lot of CGI in this film, all in the effort of putting on a good show. Beyond the unglamorous but realistic mess inside the basket of a hot air balloon lies CGI landscapes of 19th century England, which the digital camera seems to soak in as if it were another viewer along for the ride. There are also these grand, majestic shots of our heroes up-in-the-air hundreds and thousands of feet above the earth that work as both artful breaks from the cramped space where the characters are and terrifying reminders that this whole thing can go down at any minute. These shots are composed so convincingly, that there were many sharp gasps in my audience. That response intensified the higher the balloon climbed, the lower the oxygen became and the colder it got for our heroes.  The tense “will they or won’t they make it” scenes work so well that the movie can be forgiven for its clumsier earthbound moments. And with the help of Redmayne and Jones’ charming performances, they keep the movie light and their characters somewhat tolerable even though they’re thinly written. “The Aeronauts” is built around the spectacle of its historically accurate vistas and its depiction of the beautiful but potentially deadly skies (which plays better on an expansive screen). What begins as a cutesy showdown between the sexes solidifies into a genuine struggle to return to the ground in one piece. 

  • In Fabric
    by Simon Abrams on December 6, 2019 at 2:31 PM

    Comics artist Howard Chaykin once (or twice) said that the role of advertising is to flatter you into thinking that you’re smarter than advertising. That concept is put to work in “In Fabric,” a slippery horror-comedy about the equally treacherous relationship between salespeople, consumers, and their possessions. Watching “In Fabric,” the latest giallo-inspired adult fairy tale by British writer/director Peter Strickland (“The Duke of Burgundy,” “Berberian Sound Studios”), is often disorienting given how blunt its anti-consumerist symbolism and queasy sense of humor can be. But if you respond to Strickland’s weird combination of psychedelic elusiveness and kitchen sink melodrama, “In Fabric” might stick in your mind. Strickland frequently tests viewers’ patience, but his off-putting sensibility is powerful enough to make “In Fabric” as mesmerizing as its subject matter: salesmanship as a sinister, inescapable form of hypnosis. Unlike some contemporary British genre fiction with a capital “M” Message (cough, “Black Mirror”), “In Fabric” only starts by clubbing you over the head. We follow Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a recently divorced bank teller, as she struggles to balance working in a cartoonishly predatory work environment (they count the minutes she’s in the bathroom) with her homelife, which has mostly devolved into caring for her insufferably bratty art student son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) and his equally exploitative girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie). Sheila’s also trying to get out and date more, but so far, she’s only met penny ante losers like Adonis (Anthony Adjekum), who shows up late and eats with his mouth open (don’t ask him for his dinner order yet, he’s not ready). Sheila tries to buy herself something nice to offset all this cringeworthy domestic drama. That understandable conviction leads her to a “Needful Things”-esque clothing store that’s run by the mysterious Miss Luckmore (Fatma Mohamed) and the equally creepy Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer). Luckmore and Lundy speak in cryptic, fortuneteller-like dialogue that make them sound like gypsies from a third-rate Universal horror sequel, stuff like “In apprehensions lie the crevices of clarity" and "A purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation. Can a curious soul assist?" That sort of mystifying talk is meant to be quaint, but nobody is buying that dumb routine. Still: the red dress that Luckmore practically forces on Sheila (at a steep discount) is fetching. That said: Sheila’s new dress is apparently cursed, and Luckmore is clearly some kind of witch. If this set-up appears to be overly familiar or obvious—good. Unlike the technology in “Black Mirror,” nothing in Strickland’s scenario is presented as a uniquely modern problem. The flattery and fake old-world charm that’s baked into Miss Luckmore’s sales jive is similar to the ostentatious hospitality provided by Vlassis (Pano Masti), the waiter at the Greek restaurant that Sheila keeps returning to for her Lonely Hearts dates. Even that by-now-antiquated concept, of dating through personal ads, is charming in the same way as Luckmore’s rococo, vintage clothes (all luxe fabric and harsh angles) or her boutique’s retro TV ads, with their warped audio, chintzy music, and “Spirits of the Dead” by way of Crazy Larry’s Wholesale Bargain Bonanza style: they’re all made to look tacky enough to be (mostly) harmless. But eventually, Sheila’s narrative is interrupted by a competing story (SOME SPOILERS, I GUESS): newly engaged washing machine repairman Reg (Leo Bill) learns that he has the power to hypnotize anybody just by explaining, in granular detail, what parts of their machine might be broken, and how he could fix them. This is another kind of sales-craft, and it works by suggesting that you’re too smart to be tricked by a plain-spoken laundry list. Reg and Sheila’s stories compete for our attention, but they’re immediately bonded by their fleeting connection to Luckmore’s shop and that creepy/sexy/non-refundable red dress. The rest of what makes “In Fabric” so potent boils down to a series of wispy, competing associations, the kind that are not so much spelled out as hinted at through common jargon—both Luckmore and Vassilis say that they will serve their customers “instantly”—and darkly funny sadism (think O. Henry by way of Mario Bava). Everybody resists the dehumanizing effects of commodification, but we all get sold anyway, including salespeople like Sheila—one Lonely Hearts date reminds her that she previously called him on behalf of her bank, and was rather “stern” when she tried to collect a bill—and Reg: he’s hypnotized by a TV ad in the same way that others are lulled into a trance by his dry palaver. Strickland’s movie is also relentless; “In Fabric” had worn me down long before Strickland pulled together his layered narrative’s dangling plot threads. So while I remain skeptical about Strickland’s last two features (even if “Duke of Burgundy” also eventually won me over), I have to say: this new one is something else.  

  • Into the Dark: A Nasty Piece of Work
    by Brian Tallerico on December 6, 2019 at 2:30 PM

    As I watched Charles Hood’s “A Nasty Piece of Work,” the Christmas installment of the Hulu & Blumhouse series “Into the Dark,” I kept taking notes of other works that I felt inspired this one. Recent echoes of class warfare in films like “Ready or Not” and “Parasite” are almost certainly coincidental (or, more accurately, a commentary on where we are in 2019 as a culture), but “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Cheap Thrills,” “The Game,” and even “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” could be actual inspirations. If you’re thinking that a movie that throws all of these good-to-great movies in a blender and hits puree sounds pretty fun, you’re not wrong. For the second month in a row, season two of “Into the Dark” has produced a clever, surprising entry—a sharp, funny, vicious little movie that zips by in under 80 minutes and never drags. Gather the family and watch a different kind of holiday comedy this year. Julian Sands plays Steven Essex, the CEO of a major corporation and a total prick. In the vein of characters like Kevin Spacey’s from “Swimming with Sharks,” Essex is the kind of monster who forces his underlings to work late, berates them constantly, and then tells them at the last minute that there will be no Christmas bonuses this year. Ted (Kyle Howard) works for the awful Essex, and has just about had it, as evidenced by the opening scene in which he smashes the bathroom mirror with the boss’ overpriced golf clubs. And then Essex throws him what appears to be a life preserver. There won’t be bonuses, but there may be a new position created. He wants Ted and his wife Tatum (Angela Sarafyan) to come to his mansion that night for a gathering. When Ted arrives, expecting a party, he’s stunned to discover that the only other couple there is his office rival Gavin (Dustin Milligan) and his wife Missy (Natalie Hall). Gavin is everything Ted is not—grotesquely eager to step on those around him to climb the corporate ladder. And Missy is the anti-Tatum, obsessed with her looks and the toys of the good life more than anything of real value. Rounding out this evening of entertainment is Steve’s tempestuous wife Kiwi (Molly Hagan), the Lady Macbeth who seems to enjoy pushing the buttons of her husband’s employees more than her husband. Soon, the two couples will learn that tonight’s event is more than a party or a discussion—there’s one position and two employees. How far would you go for a life-changing job? A lot of the “Into the Dark” films have been single-setting affairs—it keeps the budget low—but this is one of the best yet in terms of use of space. Hood uses the Essex mansion brilliantly, keeping its secrets hidden and utilizing its opulence almost as a weapon. Of course, the Essexes would develop insane games to keep themselves entertained—when you have everything, you have to get creative. There’s also a fascinating subtext about how far people go in the real world to get ahead. Without spoiling anything, there are moments when Ted and Gavin have to face covering up serious crimes. Before asking yourself if that stretches believability, consider how many executives have covered up corporate crimes to protect their paychecks. And yet Hood and his writer Paul Soter never let the commentary on economic inequality or corporate malfeasance dominate the film. It’s just a rich subtext that adds to the overall enjoyment. What’s most refreshing about “A Nasty Piece of Work” is how much it reflects a director who knows how to bring rich genre performances out of his cast. As he did with the screwball performances in “Night Owls,” Hood gets his ensemble to commit to the insanity. If any part of this had been too self-conscious or cynical, it wouldn’t have worked. There’s not a weak link in the cast, and the main six all seem to be exactly on the same page in terms of tone, which cannot be understated in terms of the film's overall effectiveness. If we didn’t buy the situation that Ted, Gavin, Tatum, and Missy find themselves in—or the mentally unhinged dynamic of the Essexes—this whole affair would have collapsed. The second year of “Into the Dark” is only three chapters old, but it’s already produced two very solid entries in last month’s “Pilgrim” and now this month’s gnarly Christmas tale. There will be a time this holiday season when you need a break from the sweetness of things like “Elf” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Why not show your family something new? Or maybe your boss?

  • The Disappearance of My Mother
    by Sheila O'Malley on December 6, 2019 at 2:30 PM

    Benedetta Barzini does not like photographs. To her, they are static, flat, dead. "I don't like frozen things," she says. Even just snapping a photo to capture a happy moment takes on an almost sinister context. She complains, "Nothing is left to memory ... your own memory." If you are so busy trying to capture the moment, you miss the moment. You miss your life. She is ferocious on this point: "I have nothing to do with images." These comments, repeated in endless variations throughout "The Disappearance of My Mother," a documentary by Beniamino Barrese (Barzini's son), are fascinating in and of themselves on a philosophical level (one thinks of Susan Sontag's book about photography), but also intriguing because Barzini was a supermodel, discovered by Diana Vreeland, and the first Italian to appear on the cover of American Vogue. Pale and slim, with gigantic almost mournful eyes, cheek punctuated by a beauty mark, Barzini was photographed by the likes of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Drawn into Andy Warhol's circle through her friendship with Gerard Melanga, she appeared in one of Warhol's screen tests, her long zebra-striped gown highlighting her face as she grinned mischievously up at artist Marcel Duchamp. Looking at her high-fashion magazine spreads, one is aware of her self-awareness: the shapes she makes with her body are often asymmetrical and angular, creating startling images. You can see why fashion designers and photographers loved her. Born in 1943, Barzini is now 76 years old, living in a cluttered house in Milan, teaching courses on the fashion industry, bringing a cool-eyed feminist critique to the entire enterprise. "Men invent women, and this leads to Jessica Rabbit," she sneers. All of these tensions roil through "The Disappearance of My Mother," which is a son's attempt to capture his mother, who seems desirous of vanishing completely. She talks about moving to an isolated island, where she would never have to see anyone or hear from anyone ever again. She wants to "disappear." What this disappearance might look like is up for interpretation, and Barrese seems both curious about her eventual disappearance—he wonders if they can "stage it" together—and also anxious about capturing as much of her as possible. He zooms in on her different parts, her mole, her eyes, her long grey hair. He hovers over her, filming her while she's asleep. And this just after she complains about the "bloody camera" being pointed at her all the time! Even more complicated, she barely cooperates with his project. She constantly tells him to stop filming her, looking right at the camera, swearing at him. He's the paparazzi. At one point, Lauren Hutton comes to visit, and Barrese tries to film their reunion before Hutton turns on him, too: "You need to stop. This is our friendship." In other words: you're intruding, our friendship doesn't need to be captured in order to exist, go away. In our Instagram-ready current world, such thoughts go so against the grain there's almost no place for them anymore. But Hutton is right, and her honesty about it is refreshing. Barrese follows his mother everywhere. She bikes to teach her classes, and there's lots of thought-provoking  footage of her lectures and small conferences with students. These are some of the best sequences in the film and—interestingly enough—you get to know Barzini better in these sequences than in the more personal sequences with her son (maybe because Barzini is not as aware of being filmed when she's in the classroom, and therefore she's not crackling with irritation). She holds up advertisements for the students, ripped out of magazines, pointing out what the images convey about how women are viewed, how women are commodified and then sold. She speaks of symbols, metaphors, contexts. She asks her students probing questions about beauty and age, and she really listens for each answer. Despite her ambivalence about modeling, she is seen participating in a couple of runway shows, stalking down the catwalk with barely concealed disdain. Barzini's background is an interesting one, but Barrese doesn't really get into the details of it. This is not a biography of Barzini. His interest in her is wholly personal. She is his subject, his fascination, his muse. "Disappearance" is impossible for this woman: she is still recognized wherever she goes. She allows her son to film her, and sometimes even cooperates, although overall she tries to get away from the camera, the camera that has been pointed at her—in some form or another—for 50 years. Barzini says at one point: "The real me isn't photographable." Benedetta Barzini may want to disappear, but her son will not let her.

  • The Wolf Hour
    by Tomris Laffly on December 6, 2019 at 2:30 PM

    Playing a self-banished, agoraphobic recluse, Naomi Watts delivers a disquieting, mostly one-woman performance in writer/director Alistair Banks Griffin’s “The Wolf Hour.” It’s a drab vision of mental struggle that owes all of its limited draw to its lead—you can’t imagine spending those 90 or so grimy and claustrophobic minutes with anyone other than Watts. But then again, if it’s a sense of nightmarish, escalating disorientation you are after, you could instead be watching the surreal “Mulholland Drive,” with proven proficiency in tapping into Watts’ appealing dark side. There are times Griffin nears that raw madness (with a little “The Shining” mixed in for good measure), once again, entirely thanks to Watts’ dedication. But on the whole, his indecisive “The Wolf Hour” tick-tocks its way to an underwhelming finale. And when it gets there, the most shocking realization you’ll have is how forgettable an affair it all has been. It’s a shame, because Griffin sets his neo-noir-adjacent psychological thriller in one of the most cinematically juicy eras and locales in American history. We are in the summer of 1977, cramped inside a grubby apartment in a South Bronx walkup that has seen better days. Outside, the .44 caliber killer, Son of Sam, is looming large, the heat is sweltering and somewhere in the city, Travis Bickle is still driving his taxi while the infamous blackout of July ’77 bides its time. But we don’t see any of that however, and settle instead for a diminutive microcosm of the period within the confines of writer June Leigh’s (Watts) apartment, a roomy-ish (by New York standards) living quarter with a view, which used to belong to the author’s grandmother. Mercifully, Kaet McAnneny’s production design does a fine enough job injecting this mostly indoors-set picture with a real sense of time and place. Amid all the piles of books, dusty nooks and crannies and a mucky kitchen, June watches this “Drop Dead”-era world go by behind her dirt-encrusted windows. Police sirens are constantly within her earshot and the Twin Towers are still erect in her eyesight. If only this once-celebrated counterculture figure could just step outside. But she had decided to lock herself in and put a stop to the troubles she’s caused after one of her successful books destroyed her family. If she never leaves, June figures, she can’t do any further harm. But what if someone is trying to hurt her instead? There are certainly enough clues, the chief of them being an unknown someone incessantly buzzing her intercom to never answer back. We never really know how long June has been living like this, though the mountainous trash bags scattered in her apartment (which you can almost smell) and Watts’ sweaty breathlessness offer clues that it’s been a while, to say the least. Every now and then, other people walk in and out of the story to release us from mind-numbing monotony, like a concerned but supportive sister (played amicably by Jennifer Ehle), an opportunistic delivery guy/hustler (the always memorable rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a creepy cop and a self-professed midnight cowboy (Emory Cohen of “Brooklyn”), who helps amplify the tension when boredom starts to take over. The finest (and predictably, the most distressing) segment of “The Wolf Hour” arrives when lights get wiped out across the city. Griffin plays the well-known, violent and chaotic beats of the historical occurrence with impressive believability, aided by Khalid Mohtaseb’s cinematography that accentuates shadows and light flickers with gritty texture. Yet Griffin’s film never really gets anywhere revelatory. Worse, it doesn’t seem to want to. Like the sheltered loner at its center, “The Wolf Hour” feels jailed amongst a string of half-realized ideas, too intimidated to step outside and tackle them head-on.

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