Tag Archives: movies

NYFF57: The crime stories of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN and OH MERCY!

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Though it was far from the most acclaimed film of this year’s main slate, it made sense for the 57th New York Film Festival to close with Motherless Brooklyn. The NYFF is the a major festival-season gathering that still feels a little bit local, and as such, has an unofficial but clear obligation to its hometown. That was evident in the opening night selection (Scorsese!), the centerpiece selection (Baumbach!), the quasi-secret screening (Safdies!), and a reoriented version of Motherless Brooklyn that takes place in the 1950s instead of the Jonatham Lethem novel’s then-contemporary 1990s.

Brooklyn had a particular weight on it this year because Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, while set in a familiar Classic Scorsese milieu, is not actually a New York crime picture—it’s more of a tri-state area affair. Uncut Gems (as yet unseen by me) is legit NYC, but it wasn’t an officially announced main-slate attraction. So that leaves Edward Norton’s passion project as the crime movie representing New York City, playing alongside The Irishman (skulking around Philadelphia and New Jersey) and Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! (set in the French city of Roubaix).
Continue reading NYFF57: The crime stories of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN and OH MERCY!

NYFF57: The Past Lives in FIRST COW and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, both of which just played the 57th New York Film Festival, are not exactly set contemporaneously, but they’re not too far apart, at least from our contemporary vantage. Portrait unfolds over a few days toward the end of the 18th century, while First Cow is relatively early in the 19th, around 1820. They’re also set thousands of miles apart, First Cow remote (the Oregon territory) and Portrait, in some ways, remoter (the coast of France, in and around a well-appointed but seemingly isolated house). And superficially, they don’t have much in common beyond that remoteness, and an accompanying ender segregation. First Cow features only a few women, while Portrait of a Lady on Fire has almost no men.

A man, mostly unseen, nonetheless looms over the story of Portrait, told as a flashback from Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter and art teacher, prompted by a student’s question. Years earlier, Marianne is sent to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), so that the resulting picture may be sent to a potential husband, to seal the deal on an official marriage proposal (the painting will convey mostly Héloïse’s physical presence, and she is a terribly attractive woman). It feels like a formality, but it’s one that Héloïse will not sit for; upon her arrival, Marianne learns that she’s accepted a stealth assignment. She will pose as a companion for Héloïse, observe her, and paint her portrait in secret. The movie gets right into Marianne’s point of view, and her painter’s eye for detail; you can see her observing Héloïse’s hands, her earlobes, the back of her neck. Eventually also her face; Adèle Haenel is given a “you were expecting someone else?” face-reveal introduction.
Continue reading NYFF57: The Past Lives in FIRST COW and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

Ad Astra, or: Why Don’t I Like James Gray Movies More?

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

James Gray is having a moment. His 25-year career as a writer-director encompasses seven movies, many well-reviewed and almost all underseen, but despite the ever-shrinking audience for critically acclaimed art movies or even just movies made for adults uninterested in superheroes, despite one of his best-loved movies getting the Harvey Weinstein spiteful-shelving treatment, Gray is getting more movies made now than ever. Ad Astra is his latest, arriving just two and a half years after The Lost City of Z, with $80 million worth of big-studio backing from Fox, movie-star backing from Brad Pitt, and a 3,400-screen release—easily the widest in his filmography, which has just one other movie that played more than 1,000 screens (We Own the Night, which came out 12 years ago). A recent New Yorker profile goes deep, and glowing, on his methods, his work, and the cultish adoration it’s attracted. It’s enough to make a Gray skeptic feel downright heretical.

This is absurd, of course; by most measures, Gray remains an underdog, as even some of his fans have anticipated, mock-gleefully, the bafflement with which general audiences will greet Ad Astra, which is a space adventure movie, yes, but a very James Gray one, in which a taciturn Brad Pitt searches the outer reaches of the cosmos for his presumed-dead astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones). The adventuring is quixotic and melancholy, like it was in Gray’s The Lost City of Z, though not all of its touchstones are as lofty as the oft-cited Apocalypse Now. Gray’s portrayal of the moon, sort of a commercially accessible weigh station with an Applebee’s and bands of moon pirates, owes a debt (consciously or not) to the moon-set episode of Futurama. The casting of Jones and also Donald Sutherland brings to mind Space Cowboys (which, I must stress, rules). Where the movie earns its 2001 and Apocalypse Now comparisons are the visuals, which are often stunning: never overdesigned or fussy, often spare and evocative, the complicated mechanics of space travel simplified and sometimes abstracted. The moon is depicted almost entirely in gray, black, and splashes of gold. Color-bathed corridors are both gorgeous and oppressive. Space has been depicted as beautiful and lonely before, but Ad Astra makes it feel scary, solitary, and otherworldly even in comparison to other space movies. It’s like am unsettling dream someone had after watching Gravity.

In other words: How the hell did I not like this movie more?

This happens almost every time I watch a James Gray picture: The distinct sense that what’s on screen has been well-crafted, that the subject matter appeals to me in theory, that the actors are performing with grace and subtlety, and that it is not really working for me on an emotional or narrative level. (Though Lost City of Z comes closer than most.) In Ad Astra, almost everyone speaks in hushed, even tones; their souls ache, but no one seems especially fussed about the possible destruction of Earth, which is why Pitt’s spaceman is sent to find his dad in the first place. Our glimpse into his psyche isn’t a glimpse at all—blurry faces are a recurring visual motif—but an eavesdropping on his thoughts via some sub-Malickian narration, the kind of explanatory muck that drops line about the sins of the father being revisited upon the son about an hour after you’ve said to yourself, got it, this is a sins-of-the-father type of thing.

There’s been some speculation that the narration was added during the movie’s apparently extended post-production process, maybe against Gray’s objections. If it’s either his original work or his patchwork solution to executive concerns, it’s both baffling and consistent with his weaknesses; writing has never been his strong suit. In a movie like Two Lovers, the stilted dialogue feels, at least, of a piece with his characters’ struggles to communicate, and maybe that’s always supposed to be the case. Certainly a level of clumsy formality in speech has been accepted as a stylistic tic for the likes of M. Night Shyamalan, Woody Allen, countless others. But those filmmakers usually get dinged for their clunkiness; Gray seems immune, even though he often makes what amounts to extraordinarily talky silent movies.

Granted, I tend to think too much emphasis is placed on writing in movies, especially dialogue. There are filmmakers who can create their own distinctive music out of it—Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach, Leslye Headland, Wes Anderson—and outside of that realm, it doesn’t much matter to me if James Cameron gets a little dorky or Joe Swanberg leaves his actors in charge of it. But it’s not just Gray’s ponderous obviousness that gets me. It’s the way that he self-consciously toys with familiar narratives, making adventure movies about loneliness or melodramas with the veneer of history or romances where romance solves nothing. Again, it all sounds pretty great in theory, but it often robs his movies of momentum, especially when it becomes clear where they’re going early on.

We Own the Night, his cops-and-crooks thriller, plays like an outline of a satisfying crime picture. The Immigrant, with Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant in 1920s Manhattan, put its star through a simulacra of suffering not so far removed from an Oscar hopeful. In Ad Astra, we’re meant to feel for the alienation and disappointment of the Pitt character, and his failed marriage to a non-character played by Liv Tyler, seen mostly looking sad and making her exit. Maybe this is concise, visual storytelling—or maybe it’s an astronaut-family cliché played out with a barely-written character.

Given the effectiveness of his more genre-y moments—the superb rain-soaked car-chase in We Own the Night; a shoot-out with moon pirates in Ad Astra—his insistence on paring his stories down to a kind of quietly masculine anguish feels perverse. Despite the real possibility for audience puzzlement, Ad Astra is one of his more accessible movies, because it does deliver some spooky, otherworldly space-travel suspense, chased with that sense of crushing loneliness. I’m not sorry I saw it and may well watch it again at some point. But everything Gray observes in the movie feels like a foregone conclusion, maybe because so much of it, whether we’re watching Pitt grapple with his dad’s remoteness or maybe commit de facto serial murder, proceeds with a kind of dully declarative evenness. I’m told he’s interrogating notions of masculinity, but mostly he seems to be making it kind of boring. I spend a lot of time during Gray’s movies wondering if there’s a reference I’m not getting.

Filmmakers like Tarantino have been charged with an inability to see beyond that frame of (movie) reference—of constructing an alternate reality super-saturated with movie-world ephemera and little resemblance to reality as we know it. But I’ve never felt especially puzzled by Tarantino’s references, or smothered by that referential quality; his movies are easy enough to take at face value, and too engaging for me to wonder if he’s “really” just cribbing moments from other movies that did it first (I tend to doubt it—and even if he is, that’s so much harder than it looks). Maybe that’s because Tarantino plays more to the cheap seats; maybe the cheap seats is where I hang out, wondering what’s the big deal about with the unshowy grace of James Gray.

I have similar feelings about Todd Haynes, another filmmakers who does pastiche-riffing with obviously encyclopedic film knowledge. But I can recognize a few times when I’ve found Haynes’ work genuinely touching; I may not adore the restraint of Carol, but it has a tactility that bursts through its immaculate restraint—that tension between its lush beauty and its rougher 16mm grain.

In my less charitable moments, I think that a lot of critics tend to prize restraint sometimes to the point of treating it as an end unto itself. I wouldn’t suggest that’s what’s going on with the notion that James Gray has delivered any masterpieces, let alone as many as three or four in a row; obviously there’s a resonance about his work that touches people, and more than anything, I’m continually disappointed when it doesn’t reach me. I would suggest, though, that he’s uncommonly talented in convincing at least part of the audience that his symbols and images and references mean more because the movies around them are so unadorned. That’s what I see in between the gorgeous compositions and evocative moods and well-wrought performances: an extended tribute to, not interrogation of, the value of impeccably sourced masculine restraint.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Indie Movies of Summer 2019

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Every summer for five years, Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse have gotten together to discuss the wealth of indie movies released during the blockbuster-laden summer movie season, offering an alternative to the big multiplex stuff, plus a bunch of rental recommendations for the fall. (Here are the past episodes for 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.) We’ve done it again for 2019, blazing through over a dozen indie releases that dabble in horror, comedy, memoir, and more!

Just listen to what the critics have to say!

“It’s such a human, lived-in, honest, real performance… it’s not even that it’s written in a way that doesn’t allow you to do that kind of comedic-person-tamping-it-down performance; it’s just not what happened.” – Nathaniel

“Pretty lackadaisical response, I would say, on behalf of all of us in the theater, and on behalf of maybe half the people in the movie, as well. I kinda forgot this even came out.” – Sara

“I would want one of those dresses if they weren’t white. White’s a little tough if you’ve got kids. Give it to me in navy.” – Marisa

“Weirdly, he makes these movies about these really unpleasant people, and I come out of them feeling like he’s the one I find hard to take, moreso than the characters.” – Jesse

What do these quotes mean in context? Listen and find out!

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Quentin Tarantino (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2)

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Last month, Quentin Tarantino released (by his count) his ninth feature film, which is also (by his count) the second-to-last film he’ll ever direct. With the takes, thinkpieces, praise, and outrage flying thick and fast, your movie core at SportsAlcohol.com felt it was a good time to talk about every single movie Tarantino has directed so far, starting with his newest one. Hence our brand-new two-part episode: first, a rundown of what Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse thought about Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; then, a consideration of how it relates to all of his other films. So strap into your death-proof cars, drop a needle onto some semi-obscure oldie that may actually be from another iconic film, and enjoy our discussion of all things QT. (Even that Four Rooms segment.)

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ANNA plays like exactly the movie Luc Besson intended. That is to say: Yikes.

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Early in the new spy thriller Anna, the title character played by Sasha Luss is selling matroyshka dolls on the streets of Moscow, until a talent scout notices her beauty and whisks her away to Paris to begin a modeling career. Soon enough, she’s introduced to a cadre of similarly lanky, striking housemates, anyone who has seen the film’s trailer, or knows that it’s directed by Luc Besson, might reasonably expect that the modeling agency will turn out to be a cover for some kind of elite agency of gorgeous, deadly assassins.

That isn’t the case—though Anna herself is, indeed, a deadly assassin working for the KGB. Further details about her situation are filled in through the movie’s frequent flashbacks, and Anna isn’t really a movie about a model-turned-spy so much as it is a spy movie with a few modeling scenes to explain why its ass-kicker looks like, well, a supermodel. It’s a very ’90s conceit that Besson indulged all through that decade and beyond. La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Fifth Element, and even Lucy all feature variations on this theme.
Continue reading ANNA plays like exactly the movie Luc Besson intended. That is to say: Yikes.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Dark Phoenix and the X-Men Movies

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

It’s been almost 20 years since the first X-Men movie made the world safe for high-quality big-screen superheroes, and somehow the ensuing film series is only now winding down, with the release (and flop!) of Dark Phoenix, combination sequel, prequel, and remake that marks the final big team X-Men movie greenlit before Disney finalized its acquisition of Fox. While New Mutants and maybe another Deadpool remain on the docket at DisneyFox, it seems likely that the X-Men as a full-fledged franchise is going away for a while, likely to re-emerge as part of MCU Phase 7 or whatever. So this seemed like a good time for Rob, Sabrina, Nathaniel, Marisa, Jesse, and Jon to sit down and talk about all things XCU: Dark Phoenix, the series as a whole, the highlights and the failures, and, of course, Michael Fassbender’s beautiful face. It’s a lengthy but somehow also zippy discussion and we all wind up making fun of Beast at some point for some reason. Poor Beast. But long live the X-Men!

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Tribeca 2019, Part 1: Into the Woods

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

There are certain types of indie movies I’ve seen a lot in seven years or so of Tribeca Film Festival coverage: the gritty coming-of-age movie, the would-be scrappy rom-com (more on that in a future dispatch!), the slow-burn thriller. But it was still a little surprising that at Tribeca 2019, I saw no fewer than three movies in a row that featured following shots of its characters traipsing through woodsy environs. The movies had very little to do with each other. Sometimes it’s just one of those things.
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Watching Mel Gibson Again: DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Mel Gibson was “canceled” in Hollywood before “canceled” was really a thing that could be done to a person instead of a TV show, but in a weird way, his shunning was (for lack of a better phrase) well-timed, beyond even the apparent breaking point of his drunken violence, misogyny, and anti-Semitism. Gibson didn’t really fall from grace until the mid-2000s, saving him the trouble of adapting to a re-aligned movie-star economy. His ‘90s peers in superstardom dealt with it in different ways: Julia Roberts stepped back, Tom Cruise tried to push forward like nothing had changed, and Tom Hanks made a graceful transition to late-middle-aged muse-following (give or take a terrible Dan Brown adaptation or three). Gibson seemed to be pivoting to directing when he made the torturous megahit The Passion of the Christ and the less mega (but also less tedious, honestly probably career-beest) Apocalypto, but after his star fell, he seemed keen on pivoting back into movie-star pulp and/or image maintenance. Audiences mostly stayed away, except for his recent part in the recent Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg sequel Daddy’s Home 2.
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GLORIA BELL: Is it time for Generation X to get its groove back?!

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, a remake of his Chilean film Gloria from six years ago, follows the broad outline of a light dramedy about a middle-aged woman getting, as the Terry McMillan phrase goes, her groove back. Gloria (Julianne Moore) is fiftysomething, gainfully employed, outwardly cheerful and maybe a little bit lonely. Her children are grown, her divorce long since finalized, and she even has a cute-movie-ready hobby: We first see her out at a dance club, populated by other middle-aged folks, eyes searching and hopeful. She likes to dance, though a lot of her moves are tentative.

Early in the movie, Gloria meets Arnold (John Turturro). They dance together, and soon they’re in a bona fide relationship–passionate, but seemingly with potential that extends beyond a sexy post-club fling. Re-energized sex life… romantic restaurants… her groove! Is it back?! But with the basic framework of a middle-age-revitalization story in place, Lelio feels free to dance around it. Stories like this, especially when they’re focused on providing some degree of fantastical wish-fulfillment, are often belabored with exposition about the protagonist’s normal, perhaps humdrum life. In Gloria Bell, we learn a lot of details about Gloria’s life with a quickness and a clarity that recalls Greta Gerwig or Noah Baumbach (he even captures Moore singing along in her car, alone, in a few shots that recall the intimacy of Gerwig’s earliest moments in Baumbach’s Greenberg). She works for some kind of insurance firm, mostly on the phones. Her young-ish son (Michael Cera) is a single parent to an infant. Gloria does not own a cat, but a hairless one keeps slipping into her apartment somehow. All of this plays out in concise and well-observed micro-scenes, with a near pathological avoidance of overstaying their welcome.
Continue reading GLORIA BELL: Is it time for Generation X to get its groove back?!