best of 2017: film

Hollywood had a rough start and even rougher end to 2017. It's strange to think that ten months ago, a flubbed Best Picture announcement at the Oscars constituted a days-long scandal. The results of last year's election inspired some pointed speeches during and after awards season. Now we're finally having a long-overdue conversation about sexual harassment in the film industry and beyond. The politicization of Hollywood is nothing new; some of us just have shorter memories than others. It can make going to the movies feel like more of a statement than an escape, but this list is meant to be entirely the latter. While several of my picks inspire contemplation (and hopefully all of them entertain!) watching and discussing them should only bring us closer together. After all, that's what the movies are all about, right?

Now for some bookkeeping! Because ranking these films against one another is a bit of an "apples vs. oranges" debate, I've listed my top picks for 2017 in an unbiased, alphabetical order. There are 15 films in all: eleven made the final cut, with four runners-up that I couldn't let pass without comment.

Best Films of 2017


Autopsy of Jane Doe (dir. André Øvredal): Quietly released at the start of the year, while everyone emerged from holiday shellshock, Jane Doe proved itself one of the best horror films in not-so-recent memory. The two protagonists—father and son coroners—distinguish themselves as some of the smartest leads ever in a horror film, attacking an illogical problem with reason and avoiding every groan-worthy genre mishap. Excellent sound design helps build discomfort and dread right up to the final frame.

Lady Macbeth (dir. William Oldroyd): A portrait of female empowerment that largely progresses via the unsaid. Florence Pugh's powerfully understated performance as Katherine anchors the film. You could call Lady Macbeth the dark mirror of Wonder Woman: chill and bleak where the latter always favors warmth, it shows in no uncertain terms the sheer ruthlessness a young woman indulges in the pursuit of her independence. Impatient viewers may find themselves fidgeting, but this is a film gorgeous in its isolation and horrifying in its implications.

Logan (dir. James Mangold): In my opinion, this year moviegoers enjoyed the highest level of creative freedom in superhero films since their latest resurgence. The first of three on my list, Logan dealt with the heaviest subject matter by far. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart both gave admirable send-off performances for characters they've embodied for nearly two decades, and the story by which they did so was appropriately grown-up...just like the fans who were only kids when X-Men first hit theaters in 2000. We also got to meet newcomer Dafne Keen, whose on-screen camaraderie with Jackman wrung a few rare tears from my eyes by the end.

Lost City of Z (dir. James Gray): David Grann is one of the best non-fiction authors writing today, and this film adaptation does great justice to his first book about an English cartographer and explorer who becomes obsessed with the story of a lost South American civilization. Grann's research sprawls across continents, decades, and generations; Gray's film condenses all that down to an indulgent but well-paced two hours that doesn't get distracted by a myriad of details. Robert Pattinson has received a lot of praise for his work here (although I would argue he fared even better this year in Good Time), but Charlie Hunnam's immersion into the figure of Percy Fawcett is what gives the movie its considerable emotional weight.

Score (dir. Matt Schrader): Any cinephile will delight in this documentary about the history of music in the movies. Hans Zimmer serves as a guide throughout most of the film, which starts at the use of organists in theaters to accompany silent films and runs all the way up to present day. It never unravels into the overly technical; instead we're treated to masters of their craft gushing over the sometimes ephemeral, sometimes painstakingly technical process of crafting mood and identity through sound.

The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro): While this hasn't replaced Pan's Labyrinth as my favorite del Toro movie, it unquestionably deserves the praise being heaped upon it. Water tells an adult fairy tale that captivates on first viewing while demanding several more to suss out the layers inherent to any GDT production. A love letter to classic Hollywood and misunderstood monsters, featuring evil that wears a suit and drives a Cadillac, it addresses the now-grown-up fears whose childhood form we saw in Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Color not only catches the eye, but challenges the mind. Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins give award-worthy performances (please, Academy, don't overlook Jones under those prosthetics!), bolstered by stellar support from Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins. If there's one movie on this list you must see on the big screen, make it this one.

Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi): The second superhero entry on my list. Where Logan proved that dramatic gravitas geared towards an adult audience has its place in the MCU, Waititi's outing with the "strongest Avenger" delivered an infectious, non-stop glee. Easily the funniest and cleverest Marvel movie as of yet, Ragnarok also benefited from a strong ensemble that clearly enjoyed making the film as much as audiences did watching it. Mark Mothersbaugh's soundtrack, delightfully 80's-esque, was the perfect psychedelic topper.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh): While the trailers may lead you to believe that Three Billboards is a straightforward revenge story, the filmmaker behind In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths has a far more complex journey in mind. As a grieving mother without answers, Frances McDormand gives a career-best performance that should land her as an Oscar front-runner. The humor comes fast and black, even more so than McDonagh's previous efforts, but don't feel bad for laughing. When the world turns upside down, you might find humor in the strangest and darkest places.

Super Dark Times (dir. Kevin Phillips): Last year Stranger Things capitalized in a big way on 1980's nostalgia, and this summer IT proved audiences are still hungry for more. But what about the 90's kids (including yours truly)? Faithful to its name, Super Dark Times avoids saccharine kitschiness and capitalizes on the dark possibilities of the final years without ubiquitous cell phones or WiFi. It evokes the darkest pitfalls of adolescence explored by authors like Ray Bradbury, but the horror here is purely human. Keep an eye out for the young leads, who carry the story.

Wind River (dir. Taylor Sheridan): There was never any question that Wind River would boast an engaging story— Sheridan has already put his formidable writing talent on display in Sicario and Hell or High Water. This was his first outing in a director's chair, and it payed off marvelously. Wind River boasts the subtle character politics and shocking outbursts of violence characteristic of his screenplays, and turns the wild, chillingly empty panoramas of Wyoming into a supporting character themselves. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen operate at a career best, as does each supporting player. Beautiful and heartbreaking, this is one that sticks with you.

Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins): The third and final superhero entry on this year's list, falling somewhere between the R-rated grit of Logan and the technicolor whimsy of Thor: Ragnarok. Much has been made (rightfully) about the empowering message behind Wonder Woman the character, as well as the girl-power duo in director Patty Jenkins and actress Gal Gadot who brought her to the big screen this summer; however, Wonder Woman is capable of standing on its cinematic merits alone. Gadot's Diana Prince has the perfect balance of empathy and strength, and the "No Man's Land" sequence is one of the coolest action scenes with one of the coolest soundtracks put on film. Warner Brothers may think that the competition is DCEU versus MCU, but in all honesty Wonder Woman could take on the Avengers pretty capably by herself.


Honorable Mentions

A Cure for Wellness (dir. Gore Verbinski): Critically maligned and a box office disappointment, Wellness struggled against a long runtime that prioritized atmosphere over the quick pace preferred by many movie-goers. But what an atmosphere it was! Dane DeHaan and Jason Isaacs both give performances with a welcome whiff of Hammer Horror melodrama. Gothic horror fans should delight in Verbinski's R-rated fantasy/mystery hybrid, even if the supposed twist can be seen coming from a mile away.


Dealt (dir. Luke Korem): Anyone who watches this excellent documentary about a blind magician (he prefers "card mechanic") will look back on past excuses for laziness with a little shame. Richard Turner is an extraordinary man: beyond his talent with slight of hand, he holds a black belt in karate and, for many years, functioned without many of the aids available to the visually impaired. Essentially denying his failing sight, we get to watch Turner come to terms with his reality as he pursues professional honors. (If you want to catch more of his tricks, Turner made an appearance on Fool Us earlier this year.)

Buster's Mal Heart (dir. Sarah Adina Smith): While I had the pleasure of seeing this trippy Book of Jonas-inspired movie on the big screen during DIFF 2017, it probably escaped the notice of most until turning up on Netflix this fall. Admirers of Rami Malek's performance in Mr. Robot will find much to love here...and, dare I say it, more to think about without so many preachy intrusions. This is a perfect film to watch with friends; there are no easy answers found within, which should spark great conversation over dinner afterward.


Katie Says Goodbye (dir. Wayne Roberts): The last film on my list serves a pointed lesson on finding the positive side to every setback. Olivia Cooke plays the titular waitress, also engaging in sex work to supplement her income. Katie's life may look like a dead-end playing out in slow motion to an outside observer, but she has plans. Realistic ones, too. An absent mother and her lousy boyfriend, along with some local ne'er-do-wells all conspire through their own, independent actions to derail her escape from a tiny Southwest town. You will feel uncomfortable and despondent, several times; Katie's journey feels modeled on a Greek tragedy more than anything else. But don't give up on Katie and her story, because this one girl has plenty of optimism to go around.

How does your "Best Of" list compare? Did I snub any favorites, or include something you couldn't stand? Sound off in the comments, and I'll see you in 2018!

book review: the chalk man

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor
Crown Publishing, 280 pp.
Published January 9, 2018

The Chalk Man

Summary (via Goodreads): In 1986, Eddie and his friends are just kids on the verge of adolescence. They spend their days biking around their sleepy English village and looking for any taste of excitement they can get. The chalk men are their secret code: little chalk stick figures they leave for one another as messages only they can understand. But then a mysterious chalk man leads them right to a dismembered body, and nothing is ever the same.

In 2016, Eddie is fully grown and thinks he's put his past behind him, but then he gets a letter in the mail containing a single chalk stick figure. When it turns out that his friends got the same message, they think it could be a prank--until one of them turns up dead. That's when Eddie realizes that saving himself means finally figuring out what really happened all those years ago.

My thoughtsThe Chalk Man adds up to a bag as thoroughly mixed as the sweets sacks Eddie and his friends buy at the town shop. Certain elements—a darker tone, morally ambiguous yet realistic characters—suggest a superior mystery read, while others—inconsistent writing and an overly complicated plot—conspire to make this one of the more frustrating books I've picked up this year. Ultimately the positives outweighed the negatives, particularly when taking into account this is a first outing for Ms. Tudor. She has a knack for the unsettling and macabre that bodes well for future novels, as she settles into a style of writing and storytelling that suits her (and her readers) best.

All of The Chalk Man's characters exist somewhere south of moral goodness. Narrator Eddie stays consistently off-putting, as an adult. Not in a blatantly villainous way—he reminds me of any number of old schoolmates whose lives never matched up to the glory of their youth. It's here that the alternating timelines of 1986 and 2016 work their magic, keeping him from discouraging any reading progress; by getting to know Eddie as a child, the shortcomings and character flaws of middle age feel grounded in experience. Despite the gap of thirty years you can trace connections from the (sometimes traumatic) events of his adolescence all the way through to his semi-alcoholic, off-kilter adulthood. The remainder of his gang elicit various degrees of sympathy, with the sole girl member strongly reminiscent of Beverly Marsh from It. The eerie new teacher in town, susceptible to teasing due to albinism, strikes a great balance between creepiness and awkward loneliness.

An abundance of characters may have proven too much a temptation. In addition to the murder in 1986, several other subplots churn beneath the surface. Some bear direct and pressing relevance to the central crime, while others dangle too loosely and feel like a distraction. Additionally, Ms. Tudor's prose was sometimes quite choppy. I found myself backtracking a few sentences to tease out an unclear thought or action more often than I would like, particularly since none of the passages in question concerned the twistiest aspects of the plot. She also makes ample use of a writing device I find sophomoric. Several chapters end on cliffhangers (which I don't mind at all!) only to tack on an ominous allusion to revelations in later chapters. It's a heavy-handed device better suited to children's books, rather than adult fiction.

The Chalk Man unquestionably sticks its landing, though. I cannot remember the last time a book's final chapter dropped my jaw like this, all while fitting in perfectly with the tone and foreshadowing of the preceding pages. (Gone Girl, maybe? In shock level, not content.) Those last five pages almost eradicate the shortcomings of the previous 275...almost.

For those who enjoy their mystery/thrillers on the decidedly darker side, The Chalk Man fits the bill. A couple of late-developing twists help to elevate it above its peers, although inconsistent writing and a tendency towards over-plotting make Ms. Tudor's debut novel feel longer than it really is. There's enough here to recommend it for genre fans, and I'm looking forward to seeing how her style matures over time.

RATING: ★★★

Check out my other Book of the Month reviews here!

film review: in the fade

In the Fade, Germany’s selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards, has already seen its share of plaudits ahead of an American release. Diane Kruger won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film was also in competition for the Palme d’Or, and it recently scored a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture - Foreign Language. While there are undoubtedly components worthy of praise, the main problem with In the Fade is that we have seen this story many, many times before.

Katja Sekerci’s (Diane Kruger) contented life with husband Nuri (Numan Acar) and son Michi (Uwe Rohde) gets upended when a bomb attack kills them both. Police initially think religious extremism—Nuri’s father has a Kurdish background—or criminal associates from Nuri’s past as a drug dealer are responsible. Katja, knowing her husband was agnostic and had cut all ties to his former profession, suspects neo-Nazis instead. Although she gives a statement identifying a suspicious young woman near her husband’s office before the explosion, the investigation follows several dead ends before culminating in arrests which appear to corroborate her original suspicions. During the subsequent trial, Katja struggles with feelings of grief and guilt, as well as an urgent need to see punishment doled out by an oppressively bureaucratic system.

Denis Moschitto and Diane Kruger in In the Fade

In the Fade follows a standard formula for murder-revenge movies. First, a murder occurs; next, the wheels of justice begin to turn; finally, the surviving loved one seeks vengeance herself. Writer-director Fatih Akin (who co-wrote the script with Hark Bohm) executes the narrative conventions adroitly, yet he falls short of adding anything novel to the genre. A post-script makes note of recent xenophobic violence in Germany but in the film the attack is so abrupt, the antagonists given so little to do that the cascading series of events feel like a faint facsimile of reality. Also, the story is awkwardly divided into three chapters. The first gets announced before the main title card, which may lead some to think they’re watching a movie called “I. Family”. Although they mark new sections of story, the other two differ in no way stylistically or tonally from the first chapter or one another, rendering them a bit superfluous.

Working in the movie’s favor are excellent performances from both Kruger and Denis Moschitto, who plays a family friend and lawyer representing Katja. Kruger shines brightest when freed from the script’s speaking duties. Listening to a coroner describe her son’s injuries in court, grief and rage mix in her expression with alchemical potency; when her sister and newborn nephew come to visit, the pain at watching another woman nurse an infant seems almost fatal. Moschitto injects some welcome fire into court proceedings, where the defense counsel (Johannes Krisch) and accused (Ulrich Brandhoff and Hanna Hilsdorf) all look appropriately slimy.

In the Fade plays out more engagingly than the script would otherwise allow thanks to some clever camerawork by cinematographer Rainer Klausmann. Several long, unbroken takes help build tension during moments of predictability.

As we learn every year, awards are often fickle and subjective distinctions. What stands out for one audience member may fade into the background for another. While In the Fade falls short of reinventing or reinvigorating the revenge thriller, it gets enough out of a talented cast to make up for what’s lost in telling an average, familiar tale.

RATING: ★ ½

Watch the trailer:



book review: the english wife

The English Wife by Lauren Willig
St. Martin's Press, 384 pp.
Published January 9, 2018


The English Wife

Summary (via Goodreads): From the New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Willig, comes this scandalous New York Gilded Age novel full of family secrets, affairs, and even murder.

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, they had a whirlwind romance in London, they have three year old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and renamed it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?

My thoughts: Initially, I found the structure of The English Wife off-putting. Two narratives, which begin several years apart and slowly converge, unfold simultaneously: the murder mystery of Bay and (perhaps) his wife Annabelle, taking place in the early months of 1899, investigated by his sister Janie; and, beginning in 1894, the development of Bay and Annabelle's relationship from their first meeting in England. Independently revealing Mr. and Mrs. Van Duyvil's courtship solves one allegedly central mystery—the identity of "George"—in the book's early chapters. Surely, I thought, Ms. Willig would not advertise such a major plot point on the book jacket only to render it moot a dozen pages in?

My concern was quite unnecessary. The question of George's identity serves as mere introduction to an increasingly complex web of lies, half-truths, and self-deceptions that entangles the Van Duyvil family. It all veers towards pulpy excess: broken engagements and infidelity, rumored incest, and the possibility of assumed identity seem a stretch for one family to endure. Well-paced revelations, layered evenly throughout the story, help mitigate the outlandishness. I'm unfamiliar with Ms. Willig's body of work, however reading a few summaries of earlier novels would suggest that she specializes in larger-than-life plots. The English Wife certainly delivers in that vein.

In contrast, her two leading ladies mature with a welcome nuance. Janie and Annabelle develop into mirror images of one another, their journeys separated by years, in the novel's most satisfactory development. To go into greater detail risks spoiling several twists and turns. Suffice to say, both women find a constrained sort of strength as they seek autonomy while still moving in the circles of the Gilded Age American elite. They also embody different sides of feminine strength (without the tired "I'm wearing pants instead of a dress, so I'm a Strong Female Character" trope) that makes them relatable across a wide audience. Only one supporting character—a long-lost cousin—devolves into soap operatics, although thankfully his presence is minimal.

Ms. Willig also captures the time period vividly. Some period phrases or words require context clues or a quick search to translate, but they only help to build an evocative portrait of the Gilded Age. Her descriptive prose will delight any period drama fan, yet it always flows smoothly so as not to impede the story's progression.

The English Wife is a perfect winter equivalent to a beach read— curl up under a blanket with some tea on a chilly day and escape the mundane. Its bounty of twists may strain credulity by the end, but Ms. Willig provides a satisfactory solution to each mystery and lets her readers have a great deal of fun unraveling them all along the way.

RATING: ★★★

Check out my other Book of the Month reviews here!

film review: pitch perfect 3

In their last outing together, the girls of the Barden Bellas get a generally satisfactory ending. Pitch Perfect 3 doubles down on what works best in the series—musical numbers and Rebel Wilson’s antics—while trimming away most of the fat. We catch up with the former Bellas discovering that post-collegiate life doesn’t compare to the thrill of a World Championship win: Beca (Anna Kendrick) works as a music producer for less-than-stellar artists, Chloe (Brittany Snow) hasn’t gotten into vet school yet, and all the other girls feel stuck at the beginning of a very long road through adulthood. But there’s always one last chance to sing together. Through Aubrey’s (Anna Camp) military dad, the Bellas get invited on an overseas USO tour hosted by DJ Khaled.

The Bellas get together for a final hurrah.

If the whole setup sounds a little too convenient, don’t worry. All the logistics are breezed through and the Bellas are having a riff-off with their touring partners in no time. Why do they need another riff-off? Because the USO tour isn’t just a goodwill effort for the troops; it’s also a competition to determine who will open for Khaled. This battle of the bands takes a backburner to the real villain, however, who materializes in the form of Fat Amy’s (Rebel Wilson) criminal father, played by John Lithgow. The added twist of criminal hijinks means this is the most action-filled Pitch Perfect film, although the stunts are mostly played for laughs.

There’s nothing new to be found in Pitch Perfect 3, but there’s enough of what made the original so successful to satisfy established fans. All the musical numbers (and there are plenty, from the Bellas and their tour-mates) are toe-tappingly catchy. Rebel Wilson steals the comedic spotlight, but there are enough one-liners to go around. Doubling down on her adorkability, Kendrick stays as charmingly relatable as she was in college. Commenting duo Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins just won’t go away, unfortunately for the Bellas and the audience alike. Their satirical sexism wore out its welcome a movie ago and the jokes haven’t improved since.

No matter your favorite Bella, everyone gets to tie a bow on their own little arc. Even Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who isn’t actually done with college or acapella, avoids any suggestion of yet another sequel, and recurring background Bellas Jessica (Kelley Jakle) and Ashley (Shelley Ragner) get a couple of moments all to themselves. There’s even a surprise or two to be found in the denouement (one involving Hana Mae Lee’s Lilly earned a roomful of gasps), but ultimately Pitch Perfect 3 gives us no more or less than what we’ve come to expect from the series. While it may not hit all the high notes, it doles out exactly what fans have come to love about their favorite aca-nerds.

RATING: ★★

Watch the trailer:


book review: strangers on a bridge

Strangers on a Bridge by James B. Donovan
Scribner, 464 pp.
Published August 4, 2015 (Originally pub. 1964)


Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers

Summary (via Goodreads): In the early morning of February 10, 1962, James B. Donovan began his walk toward the center of the Glienicke Bridge, the famous “Bridge of Spies” which then linked West Berlin to East. With him, walked Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, master spy and for years the chief of Soviet espionage in the United States. Approaching them from the other side, under equally heavy guard, was Francis Gary Powers, the American U-2 spy plane pilot famously shot down by the Soviets, whose exchange for Abel Donovan had negotiated. These were the strangers on a bridge, men of East and West, representatives of two opposed worlds meeting in a moment of high drama.

Abel was the most gifted, the most mysterious, the most effective spy in his time. His trial, which began in a Brooklyn United States District Court and ended in the Supreme Court of the United States, chillingly revealed the methods and successes of Soviet espionage.

No one was better equipped to tell the whole absorbing history than James B. Donovan, who was appointed to defend one of his country’s enemies and did so with scrupulous skill. In Strangers on a Bridge, the lead prosecutor in the Nuremburg Trials offers a clear-eyed and fast-paced memoir that is part procedural drama, part dark character study and reads like a noirish espionage thriller. From the first interview with Abel to the exchange on the bridge in Berlin—and featuring unseen photographs of Donovan and Abel as well as trial notes and sketches drawn from Abel’s prison cell—here is an important historical narrative that is “as fascinating as it is exciting” (The Houston Chronicle).

My thoughts: One would think that no one more qualified than James B. Donovan could relate the story of Colonel Rudolph Abel's trial and his later exchange for downed U.S. pilot Gary Powers, alongside two other Americans. When called upon by the American Bar Association to serve as counsel to Abel—a suspected Soviet spy captured in the thick of the Cold War—he manages to spin the assignment as a fundamentally American duty. He exhausts every avenue in pursuit of a fair trial and finds an easy camaraderie with a man whom the public found easy to disdain. His personal recollections brim with pride for his country, respect for his client, and an admirable, albeit unsurprising, precision.

Halfway through Strangers on a Bridge, however, one might come to think they've been mistaken in their belief. While Donovan provides detailed insight into the legal processes behind Abel's case, it doesn't always unfold from his pen in an accessible manner. Donovan finds his greatest success when writing in his own voice, narrating events rather than cataloging them. This occurs for only about half of the book, with blocks of text copied directly from courtroom transcripts dominating the middle section concerning Abel's trial. For readers interested in a detailed account of the proceedings, these entries constitute a gold mine. However, for the lay-person hoping for the insightful summaries that made up earlier chapters, such transcripts start to wear out their welcome.

(It is nonetheless fascinating how the record clearly demonstrates, even without further commentary from Donovan, the trial judge's bias and the dubious tactics of the prosecution. It's unfortunate that the verbatim format can read very dryly. I mention it, though, not to scare off others from making their way through it. Donovan's account of the trial is rewarding and insightful; just because it moves along at a slower pace than the passages that precede and follow it doesn't make it any less essential to the overall account!)

Arguably the most delicate part of the entire case, the negotiation of Abel's exchange really could not be told by anyone else. Donovan's terse account of the multiple trips across the Berlin Wall to strike a deal engrosses more completely than even le Carré or Fleming. That his is a true story makes it all the more remarkable. Although devoid of shoot outs or explosions, Strangers on a Bridge brings to light the resilience, cunning, and patriotism of Donovan and Abel alike. Donovan's devotion to the fundamentals of liberty and civil rights, no matter who asks to exercise them, is still an inspiring message more than fifty years after two strangers crossed paths on a German bridge.

RATING: ★

film review: the bill murray experience

After the end of her engagement, actress Sadie Katz copes in a way many of us may recognize: late night Google binges. On one of these rambling expeditions through the Internet she discovers a mythos surrounding Bill Murray. From all around the world, people claim to encounter him in ways that range from the unexpected but believable (crashing a kickball game at a public park, with a team picture afterwards as proof) to the outlandish (Murray stealing a french fry from a man’s dinner plate, calmly telling him, “No one will ever believe you.”). Katz, desperate for a touch of magic in her life, latches on to these phenomena. Never mind that their appeal lies in spontaneity; in poor imitation of an amateur sleuth, Katz means to track down a “Bill Murray Experience” for herself, by any means available.

Sadie Katz hunts down her idol in The Bill Murray Experience

Her initial investigation yields very little, just biographical details like Murray’s height, age, and number of children. Armed with knowledge of Murray’s penchant for golfing, and the tournaments he frequents, Katz and her girlfriends venture to Pebble Beach. They dress up in wacky outfits; Katz even buys nearly 100 balloons to hand over to her idol, all to no avail. Local headlines announce the actor’s absence— he’s busy filming a movie abroad. So much for research. After this letdown, what started as an eccentric distraction from heartbreak spirals into obsession. The friends who traveled to Pebble Beach grow tired of her antics and drift away. Her few professional contacts with a distant connection to Murray fail to offer help.

She finally breaks through with one of Bill’s siblings, Joel Murray, who also works in the entertainment industry. Over drinks he relates some of the long history of his brother’s shenanigans, while falling short of offering Katz a phone number or other way in. She comes close a second time when friends divulge that Murray will be on set at a house just down the street from them. This time she manages to glimpse him from afar before security bustles her and her second clutch of balloons away.

By far the best part of The Bill Murray Experience is a sit-down interview Katz conducts with P.J. Soles, Murray’s co-star in Stripes. Soles weaves several good behind-the-scenes stories, all of which live up to the Bill Murray mythology, and expands on the glimpse of hilarious reality given earlier by Joel. It’s a suggestion of what could have been: a documentary actually about Bill Murray, told by the countless co-stars, friends, and passer-by who’ve felt a touch of his comedic genius.

But this isn’t a documentary about Bill Murray; it’s a documentary about Sadie Katz, who stands as the single greatest obstacle in the way of enjoying The Bill Murray Experience. Never mind that by trying to engineer the impulsive and unpredictable she kills any magic of a run-in with Murray. From start to finish her film comes off as an ego trip, one long indulgence of Katz’s unendearing eccentricities. Many of her observations fail to rise above inanity—Why would you think a golf tournament would resemble Coachella?—and only serve to keep the focus on the movie’s least interesting subject.

Her admiration for Bill Murray practically oozes off the screen. Rather than attempting to use that as leverage for a meeting of personal importance, it’s disappointing that Katz didn’t instead focus that energy into preserving the memories of those who know him best. While the myth born of Bill Murray looms large in The Bill Murray Experience, we remain trapped in the tedious reality of a single fan.

RATING: ½ Star

2018 TBR Pile Challenge

Hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader

The Challenge: Within twelve months, read 12 books that have been sitting on my bookshelf or "to read" list! The list of books to read must be posted by January 15, 2018.

Each book must have been on my shelf or TBR list for at least a year (published before January 1, 2017). Up to two alternate choices are allowed, in the event some of the original dozen can't be finished. Books may be read in any order. Crossovers with other challenges are allowed, as long as you haven't read the book before and it was published prior to 2017.

Whenever I finish a book on my list, I will mark it as read and link the title to a review post on my blog!

My 2018 TBR Pile Challenge List
  1. Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov (1936)
  2. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (1922) REVIEW
  3. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (1979)
  4. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015) REVIEW
  5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
  6. The Alienist by Caleb Carr (1994) REVIEW
  7. The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (2002) REVIEW COMING 4/25/2018
  8. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (1995) DNF
  9. Blindness by José Saramago (1995)
  10. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (2004)
  11. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas by Stefan Helmreich (2009)
  12. One Hand Clapping by Anthony Burgess (1961)
Alternates
  1. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2014)
  2. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2008)
Progress: 4 of 12 complete


film review: tragedy girls

Horror, perhaps more than any other film genre, captures the prevailing fears and attitudes of its time. With the encroachment of technology into our lives, storytellers have to find new ways of scaring an audience accustomed to the instant global connectivity allowed by cell phones and ubiquitous Wi-Fi hotspots. In recent years, they’ve moved beyond the terror of rural areas with no phone service and made social media a primary actor in the show. Tyler McIntyre’s Tragedy Girls eschews the “haunted computer” conceit of his predecessors and keeps the evil based in flesh and blood while parodying the most narcissistic and self-promoting side of social media.

High school seniors Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) hope to leverage their brand “Tragedy Girls”, an online show about serial killers, into wider fame. Rather than react to criminal incidents around them, the girls concoct a plan to capture a murderer-at-large (Kevin Durand) and apprentice under him in order to craft the perfect killing spree and their exclusive online coverage of it in tandem. Foibles of a typical teenager’s life soon interfere; love interests, rivals, prom committee, and uncooperative captives all form road blocks and threaten to drive a wedge between the aspiring murderesses. Before long, Sadie and McKayla have to choose their victims out of necessity, as their involvement in the crime spree risks discovery.

Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp in Tragedy Girls

The script by McIntyre and Chris Lee Hill opens on a promising note: two teens parked on a lovers’ lane and a malevolent presence lurking in the shadows collide in an unexpected way. Unfortunately, the larger story fails to unfold in equally satisfying fashion. Much of the dialogue comes across as if Diablo Codey had written Scream, little more than a mish-mash of non-sequitur humor and heavy-handed meta winks at the audience. For our two leads they cast off any aspiration towards nuance in favor of clunky stereotypes. Tragedy Girls is in no way an insightful parody of the unhealthy obsession with fame fostered in some young adults. Instead it lands as an overly broad, derisive statement against an online culture that the creators likely learned about secondhand.

Hildebrand and Shipp outperform the material, which bodes well for future endeavors (more likely to be helped along by their participation in Marvel’s expanding cinematic universe). Kevin Durand provides the right touch of manic camp to serial killer Lowell, a rare instance of the parody succeeding more than it fails. While his performance is adequate, Jack Quaid looks old enough compared to his costars that he should have aged out of high school by now. Josh Hutcherson fits in better, although his self-absorbed bad boy gets regrettably limited screen time.

It’s a common shortfall in horror for a promising idea to stumble somewhere in its execution. An unfunny and unsurprising script hobbles the performances in Tragedy Girls and defangs any social commentary from the start. While the lead performances may make it easier to sit through for some, the struggle for a scary and intelligent look at our online lives continues in Hollywood.

RATING: ½ star

film review: aida's secrets

The horrors of the Holocaust continue to echo through the decades. Around six million Jews were murdered, family lines were extinguished and, in the case of those fortunate enough to survive, family histories were irrevocably gone. A loss of such magnitude in some ways defies quantification or comprehension, even as survivors and their descendants continue to live with its consequences daily. Aida’s Secrets hones in on the story of one such family, separated and complex, as two brothers piece together the fragments of their shared history.

Izak was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1945 and sent to Israel for adoption two years later. As a boy he learns the truth about his adoptive family, eventually meeting his birth mother Aida, who had immigrated to Canada. During this visit she reveals to several family members, but not Izak, that she had a second son while living in Bergen-Belsen. Izak only learns about his younger brother when in his late sixties; with the help of his nephews Alon and Saul Schwarz (who co-direct) and Yad Vashem, a Holocaust remembrance organization, he tracks down his brother Shep, who was raised and continues to reside in Canada.

The meeting of the two brothers opens a Pandora’s Box of secrets, all of which revolve around their mother, now 90 years old and living in a nursing facility. Shep grew up with his father Griza (who passed away in 2008) and stepmother, another woman Griza met in the DP camp. Unlike with his brother, Aida made no attempt to locate or reconnect with her second child, which understandably causes him pain. She greets him with affection when they finally meet but responds to every inquiry, gentle or blunt, about her decision so many years ago with a failing memory. Aida remembers clearly how it felt to abandon Izak, how happy she was to see him again, yet even the simplest details of Shep’s infancy are lost behind a chorus of “I don’t remember, I don’t remember”. It’s left to the viewer to speculate whether Aida has genuinely forgotten or if, for personal reasons more compelling than her son’s, she wishes to keep her memories secret forever.

Brothers Izak and Shep reunite in Aida's Secrets

Each investigation begets another. Griza’s behavior as a womanizer and black market profiteer in the DP camp is uncovered. The question of shared paternity between Izak and Shep is answered. Near the end of the film, the brothers discover that their family tree may even have more branches than originally believed. The answers they fail to find are as emotionally charged as those they do, although the process of searching helps to build the fraternal bond denied to them as children. It’s a journey heart-wrenching and fascinating in turns, unfolding steadily throughout the film. As one of the Schwarz nephews observes in voiceover, so much time has passed that some of the details so fervently desired by Izak and Shep may always lie out of reach now. Simply finding one another has healed a lingering wound, though, and made one family a little more whole. Beneath the heartbreak and frustration, there’s a comforting warmth at the heart of Aida’s Secrets.

RATING: ★★★

film review: only the brave

There are those who worry that Only the Brave, the latest film by director Joseph Kosinski, hits theaters at an inopportune time. Natural disaster films tend to heavily feature…well, natural disasters, milking destruction and personal loss for as much drama as possible. Given the current news out of California, no one requires another reminder of fire’s destructive power. Only the Brave follows a different path and showcases what the firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots save, more so than what wildfires destroy. It’s a heartfelt and straightforward look at how much the men and their families give back to communities all over the Southwest, with a welcome touch of restraint in the telling of a true story.

Josh Brolin leads other members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots


We meet the group before they’ve certified as an elite hotshot crew and follow them for several fire seasons leading up to the fatal Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. Although all twenty firefighters are represented in the cast—no omissions or combining of several real-life figures into one character—the primary focus stays on superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), and rookie Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller). Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, and Taylor Kitsch are the most prominent members of the supporting cast. The script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer prioritizes interpersonal moments between the crew and their loved ones and sets a good pace using significant fire events as markers of time rather than empty set pieces in an action film.

McDonough joins the team at a pivotal moment, before their certification and while he attempts to reform from his youth as a ne’er-do-well, jolted into responsibility by an unplanned pregnancy. Teller, who tends to be cast in abrasive and cocky roles, displays refreshing depth as the earnest, work-in-progress rookie. Brolin brings understatement and more than a touch of hubris to “the Supe”, a reminder that the Granite Mountain hotshots were both heroes and regular men who could struggle with the demands of their job and the needs of a life that extended beyond it. Jennifer Connelly impresses as Amanda Marsh and in many instances proves the heart of the film. More than once she calls out a double standard of self-reliance and dependence that her husband can indulge, buffing away some of the romantic sheen of a loving protector who spends much of his time helping others.

The seriousness of the lives of these men and women is balanced by the perfect amount of humor. In a feature length film that doesn’t have enough time to feature each firefighter, the banter between crew members helps to quickly build a sense of cohesion and brotherhood among all twenty men. When we do see them in action (and each fire event is stunning in both scope and quality of special effects), that camaraderie shines as adrenaline and a meticulous attention to detail must coexist in a deadly environment.

Films “based on a true story” usually take the skeleton of real life events to construct a more dramatic narrative. The bravery and sacrifice of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots on display in Only the Brave avoids unnecessary Hollywood window dressing and gets to stand on its own instead. It finds the rare and welcome balance between the small moments and the large, shaping up as a worthy tribute to the men and their families who gave up so much.

RATING: ★★★ ½

film review: tom of finland

Oftentimes historical dramas have the bittersweet task of reminding us not only of the progress we’ve made, but of the distance we have yet to travel. Dome Karukoski’s biopic Tom of Finland examines the adult life of Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang), whose stylized erotic drawings had a significant impact on twentieth-century LGBT culture. Much of the film takes place in his native country, where homosexuality is looked down on as both a crime and a curable ailment. It is only after a visit to California, where Touko’s art has been published under the pseudonym “Tom of Finland”, that he finds any public acceptance of his true self.

Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowski, and Touko Laaksonen in Tom of Finland


There are two fascinating experiences that bookend Laaksonen’s life. As a young man he was conscripted into the Finnish army near the end of the Winter War and served through World War II. The dual stresses of a return to civilian life and concealing his sexuality combine to provide much of the drive behind his early drawings. In the last decade of his life, Laaksonen visited California at the behest of a fan who helped arrange for exhibitions of his work and later became his business partner. Los Angeles, with its thriving gay community, turned into a welcome second home after so many years of overt and covert discrimination. Regrettably, the film capitalizes on neither period and generally drifts through Laaksonen’s life without much momentum. It makes what must have been a colorful, revolutionary life feel tepid on-screen.

Despite the poor translation from flesh to celluloid, Strang does an excellent job capturing the largely wordless way Laaksonen could live and express himself. In a country where homosexual acts are outlawed, intent can only be expressed through glances, and Touko does not always interpret them correctly. Strang also excels as Laaksonen ages; the silence of Touko’s youth shifts in tone from repression to discretion once he finds the regular freedom afforded by his westward journeys. Taisto Oksanen is underutilized as a military commander who offers understanding and assistance to Touko at several times throughout his life, and Lauri Tilkanen provides emotional balance as Veli, Laaksonen’s partner of nearly 30 years.

Karukoski and cinematographer Lasse Frank make Tom of Finland a lovely film to watch. It’s disappointing that strong direction and performances don’t quite compensate for an unsuitably sedate script. With six separate contributors given writing credits, this may be a case of too many voices trying to do too much in one story. Nonetheless, if their efforts help share the story of an important artist and influencer in the LGBT community, then Tom of Finland should be counted as a success.

RATING: ★ ½

film review: mark felt

There have been American political scandals as long as there have been officials serving in American political offices. In today’s climate of twenty-four hour news and instant access to information, any misstep by a public servant gets billed as the next calamity. Out of the countless lies and mistakes accrued over the last two hundred-odd years (more than) a few scandals distinguish themselves, with Richard Nixon’s Watergate debacle looming as one of the largest of all. Watergate cemented the journalistic careers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and led to the resignation of a president, its unraveling requiring an effort that spanned more than two years and included the contributions of numerous players.

The identity of one key informant—dubbed “Deep Throat” by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein—remained a mystery until, three years before his death in 2008, Mark Felt admitted to his role in revealing the conspiracy. Serving as deputy director of the FBI at the time of the Watergate break-in, he leaked information about the Bureau’s investigation to the Post, Time, and other publications. Based on Felt’s own writings, the film portrays him as a man loyal to the Bureau as both an organization and an ideal. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge that mirrors Hoover’s penchant for secret-gathering and pursues the truth behind the Watergate break-in with a relentlessness in no way connected to the jockeying for position that came after J. Edgar’s death. According to Mark Felt, at least, Mark Felt was the consummate lawman.

Liam Neeson as Mark Felt meets with a Post reporter in Mark Felt

Mark Felt divides its attention between the political and bureaucratic machinations of the Watergate scandal and the personal life of its subject (played by Liam Neeson), focusing heavily on the former. Mr. Felt serves as the spider to the investigation’s web, not just a key player— the key player. It’s a simplification that detracts from, rather than enriches, the story. The scenes concerned with Watergate unfold like a knock-off John Le Carré spy story and as the leading man Mr. Neeson plays up his reliably gravelly voice and glowering stares to great effect. He manages to make threats sound complimentary, a lingering reminder of Hoover’s vast influence. Yet too often it feels as though writer/director Peter Landesman is just going through the paces; he knows the story and so does his audience, which apparently absolves him of an effort to present the material in a thrilling way. Stylistically, with its antiseptic cyan tones and quietly thrumming score by Daniel Pemberton, Mark Felt leans heavily on a House of Cards vibe to establish tension.

The scattered scenes revolving around Felt’s personal life only exacerbate the anemia. When the story begins his daughter Joan (Maika Monroe) has been absent for a year, living in a commune that may or may not have ties to the militant Weather Underground organization. This causes both he and his wife (Diane Lane) anguish, but with so little time spent on the Felt family dynamics each new development in his search for Joan feels more like a distraction than additional depth. To their credit, Ms. Lane and Ms. Monroe both acquit themselves well considering the dearth of material.

Mark Felt was an important piece in a very large puzzle and his is a compelling story not accessible at the time of Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Yet to hone in so finely on his role while ignoring the greater context in which it existed ultimately diminishes the sprawling tale of Watergate. Mark Felt unwisely divides its attention between the scandal that catapulted him to anonymous fame and the personal life that humanized a devoted Bureau agent. It would have done better to choose one and leave the audience with some future food for thought.

RATING: ★

film review: una

After seeing a picture of him in a trade magazine, Una (Rooney Mara) tracks down her old neighbor Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) at the warehouse where he works as a supervisor. He’s taken on a new name and looks visibly shaken to see her, for good reason. Fifteen years ago, when Una was only thirteen, they had a secret relationship which lasted three months and culminated in the pair attempting to run away to Europe. Ray spent some time in jail, but other than the new identity, it doesn’t seem as though much changed in his life. Una only wants to talk to him, except the history between them needs more than a conversation to find resolution.

Most of Una takes place in the warehouse, interspersed with scenes from her adolescence. It’s a detached, labyrinthine setting that reflects Una’s state of mind. Even as an adult she struggles to reconcile the truth of what happened with how it had made her feel at the time. She tells Ray without equivocation that what he did was abusive but occasionally talks about events as though they were a nasty breakup, rather than the exposure of a predator. Rooney Mara plays Una as the living embodiment of a broken bone that wasn’t set properly— healed, but maybe with a little less strength than meets the eye. Her performance never descends into cliché or exploitation and she commands attention opposite an equally laudable effort by Mendelsohn. His Ray could be any neighbor, friend, or father figure, possessed of a familial amiability lacking even a hint of sleaze. That he ever approaches a sympathetic figure, despite what we know to be true, is a testament to Mendelsohn’s restraint.

Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn in Una

David Harrower’s script (based on his own play) provides subtle, yet unmistakable clues, about Ray’s true nature. Once some smaller lies and half-truths are unveiled, they call into question the answers he finally gives to Una’s biggest questions. The direction by Benedict Andrews also squarely empathizes with Una. She remains the narrator of her story; whenever Ray shares his side he must share the screen with Una, or else the camera cuts him out entirely to focus on her reaction instead. It’s a small but powerful, and welcome, choice. Also powerful is the disturbing ease with which Andrews uses the most innocuous sights to portend the horrific. A pile of folded clothes, a bustling public pool, and an unmade bed next to one that remains untouched elicit more squeamish revulsion than many horror films.

Una impressively allows for the existence of both Una and Ray’s recollections without ever stooping to the dangerous fallacy that they are equally deserving of deference or sympathy. It showcases a conversation and drive for closure that words alone could never provide, wisely opting not to shoehorn in an unrealistically tidy ending. Most importantly Una remembers, down to its title, where the focus in these stories belongs. We should all endeavor to do the same.

RATING: ★★★

film review: the mountain between us

When an impending storm leads to the cancellation of their flights, strangers Alex (Kate Winslet) and Ben (Idris Elba) agree to split a private charter from Idaho to Colorado. Neither can afford to simply accept the airline’s offer of hotel vouchers and wait out the nasty weather: photographer Alex’s wedding is scheduled for the following day, and neurosurgeon Ben has an operation to perform on the East Coast early the next morning. Pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) suffers a heart attack mid-flight which strands both passengers and his charismatic Labrador high in the Uinta Mountains. Alex breaks her leg in the crash and Ben suffers a few fractured ribs that never seem to impede him. (Don’t worry— the dog is unscathed.) For a few days they hunker down in the relative shelter of the plane’s fuselage, but without a flight plan on file or any friends or relatives who know they chartered the plane, rescue seems unlikely. After the feisty Alex sets off in search of civilization with the dog, Ben follows along a few hours later, unconvinced of her plan but feeling guilty about splitting up. With no idea where they crashed, the pair must traverse hundreds of miles of wilderness to survive.

Kate Winslet and Idris Elba in The Mountain Between Us

The Mountain Between Us really combines two movies into one: the first half is a tame survival thriller (neither lead ever looks too ragged, even after weeks hiking across and down mountains) while the second half quickly spirals into romantic melodrama once Alex and Ben consummate a need that comes across as more biological than amorous. Despite its sanitized feel, the former works far better than the latter. Two talented actors in their own right, Winslet and Elba lack the chemistry to sell a romance that is unsurprising in its appearance and abrupt in its development. A lackluster script by J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz, adapted from the novel by Charles Martin, further hinders them. So far as interpersonal conflict goes it relies on a standard head versus heart, reason versus emotion dichotomy to convince us that our two protagonists really are as different as can be. Just in case the contrast of Alex’s effervescent conversation and Ben’s pensive silence wasn’t enough, she comes right out and asks him “What about the heart?” after he mansplains how emotions are rooted in the brain.

Animal lovers might find it in their hearts to declare this movie a hit, however. The pilot’s Labrador, referred to only as “Dog” and credited to canine performers Raleigh and Austin, gets all the best comedic cues and never fails to be anything but downright charming. Given that the plot point features heavily in Mountain’s online marketing campaign, it shouldn’t be considered too much of a spoiler to reassure skittish viewers that he does indeed make it through.

The arresting scenery also works in Mountain’s favor. Filmed in Alberta and British Columbia, the film has no lack of mountain vistas or icy forests. While they aren’t shot as lovingly as they deserve, it still makes for an impressive sight. Hany Abu-Assad’s direction is uneven. The lead-up to the crash is impressively done in what appears to be one shot, with the camera swooping all throughout the tiny cabin, but the treacly love scene and his failure to take full advantage of the desolate setting disappoint. Ultimately, one emerges from a viewing of The Mountain Between Us much like Alex and Ben do from their ordeal: not nearly as affected as one ought to be.

RATING: ★

film review: love and saucers

David Huggins comes from a humble background. Raised on a farm in rural Georgia, he left behind the limited prospects and abusive parents of his home at age nineteen. Now in his seventies, David lives in New Jersey where he works part-time at a deli and paints. He is divorced with one son and collects VHS tapes. Nothing in his outward appearance or manner suggests that David differs from the crowd in any significant way. To believe this, however, would be a mistake. Ever since his childhood David has said that extra-terrestrial beings visit him. All of his paintings are memories from these encounters, including a romantic relationship with a female named Crescent. And that VHS collection? All science fiction and horror titles, many of them centered on alien landings or abductions. Brad Abrahams’ documentary Love and Saucers lays out the entirety of David’s story, leaving its final interpretation to the viewer.

David Huggins works on a painting in Love and Saucers

He claims his first encounter with extra-terrestrials occurred in 1952 when he was 8 years old. A small, hairy creature with glowing eyes appeared to him on the farm, frightening him. Each successive encounter introduces him to new creatures: a praying mantis-like alien, stereotypical “little grey men”, and Crescent. David says that he lost his virginity to her at seventeen; later he discovered they had many children together. These visits continue even after he moves to New Jersey, although by the 1970’s they’ve stopped long enough for David to marry and have a (human) son. With time, he claims, the memories faded but then returned, leading to the break-down of his marriage. His paintings are a way of working through the memories, sorting and recalling them, preserving a period of his life that David cherishes greatly.

Stories of alien abduction most commonly garner rolled eyes and audible scoffs, but David exudes such a warm familiarity whenever he talks, that one must concede at least he believes in the truth of his experiences. Most of those around him do too, including his son and his boss. (His ex-wife declined to be interviewed.) Abrahams’ attempts to maintain his neutrality throughout, but he is even more careful to shield Huggins from ridicule. The only academic featured is neither a doctor nor a psychologist, one of whom might provide alternative interpretations of David’s memories, but Dr. Jeffrey Kripal, a professor of religion. Far from a skeptic, Dr. Kripal claims to have had a transcendental experience of his own, naturally inclining him to credulity.

This lack of skepticism ultimately works because of Huggins. He is neither a snake oil salesman nor a conspiracy theorist. Although he believes in events that many others would deem impossible, his personal belief and those memories suffice. He seems like a delightful man and there are far worse stories to spend an hour’s time listening to. Director Abrahams presents more of an enigma, though. His next project on cryptozoology (think: “Big Foot and Nessie are real!”) has already been announced. Shedding some light on the eccentrics of the world can prove amusing, or even educational. One only hopes that he isn’t a card-carrying member of the club.

RATING: ★ ½

film review: the rape of recy taylor

As a documentary, The Rape of Recy Taylor suffers from some noticeable journalistic flaws. These shortcomings do not diminish the gravity of its subject, nor should they serve as an excuse to overlook the account of a crime commonly committed and rarely punished in the Jim Crow South: the assault of a black woman by a white man. Walking home from church with a friend and her son, twenty-four year old Recy Taylor was abducted and raped by several young white men in Abbeville, Alabama in 1944. Justice did not move slowly for Recy; it failed to move at all. Despite the friend’s son immediately reporting her kidnapping and Recy’s own statement detailing the crime once she was recovered, no arrests were made and no charges were ever filed in the case because the boys claimed what happened was consensual. They also slandered Mrs. Taylor’s reputation, falsely claiming she worked as a prostitute.

An undated photograph of Recy Taylor


This refusal to act sparked national outrage in the black community. Newspapers in Chicago covered the saga; civil rights activists staged a rally at a popular Harlem hotel. A young Rosa Parks, already active in the NAACP but not yet famous for her civil disobedience on a Montgomery bus, traveled to Abbeville to lend her assistance. Under her leadership a Committee for Equal Justice was formed in support of a fair and unbiased investigation. Despite the support from as far away as the Midwest and New England, two (exclusively white and male) grand juries refused to indict any of the accused. It was an all-too-common failure of justice that reinforced the deeply entrenched racist attitudes held throughout the American South.

The Rape of Recy Taylor brings one woman’s story out from the shadows of our recent history and places it in the growing spotlight being shone on sexual predators. For that alone it deserves commendation and should be viewed by as wide an audience as possible. But it is not without flaws that require acknowledgement, too. The footage onscreen is dominated by clips of race films—movies produced for a black audience, with a cast that was predominantly or exclusively black—and drifting shots of an indeterminate countryside. The contemporary clips are used so frequently that they begin to feel like pseudo-reenactments, although they are never captioned as such; the rural scenes are never given context to lend them meaning, or else a great deal of time is spent lingering on roads and pastures which have nothing to do with Recy or her town. Soul and gospel music often plays a little too loudly over any narration, implying that the audience cannot find the material sufficiently moving without external prompting. These choices all contribute to a lackadaisical tone which, considering the significance and timeliness of Recy’s story, is an unfortunate one to adopt.

The appearance of a self-styled local historian also baffles. He wrongly claims that some sexual relations between slaves and their owners were consensual but the comment, and others that carry a suggestion of racism, are allowed to pass without comment. Other, more educated commenters on Recy Taylor’s case note that the organizational activity around it provided an early spark to the Civil Rights Movement. This hints at a rich and deep history that the film barely touches upon. Director Nancy Buirski missed an opportunity to seize at the larger narrative unfolding in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, but her efforts at shining a light on the terrible joining of misogyny and racism that continues to this day deserve our gratitude and, most importantly, our attention.

RATING: ★★

film review: dalida

Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti, known professionally as Dalida, enjoyed international fame as a singer and actress before her suicide in 1986. The latest biopic from writer-director Lisa Azuelos follows the dovetailing stories of Dalida’s professional success and personal tragedy, by way of a rather convoluted structure. We are first introduced to Dalida (Sveva Alviti) checking in to a Parisian hotel for a suicide attempt. She fails, and during her recovery her childhood and early career are told in flashback to the physician treating her. Ex-husband Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve) relates his discovery of Dalida at a singing competition. Their affair caused Lucien to abandon his previous wife, yet by the time of their marriage Dalida had become disillusioned with the relationship, upset over her fiancé’s prioritization of her career over children and a family. Her brother Orlando (Riccardo Scamarcio) reveals details about their youth in Egypt. Dalida thought herself ugly because of the glasses she wore and the teasing they garnered from her schoolmates. She also suffered an early trauma when their violinist father was arrested and detained during World War II.

A former lover, Jean Sobieski (Niels Schneider) brings both the audience and the doctor up to present day. His affair with Dalida began shortly after her marriage, then quickly fell apart when she moved on to budding singer Luigi Tenco (Alessandro Borghi). Tenco had recently committed suicide after a poor reception at a competition, and it is this loss that the men believe has brought on Dalida’s current depression. Following this revelation Dalida churns forward linearly, although it does not entirely abandon flashbacks. Starting in media res hampers the entire film, though. For a project with women in the roles of lead actress, as well as writer/director/producer, it’s disappointing that for the first hour Dalida is unconscious, her life story related instead by the men who have observed it.

Recovering from her attempted suicide, Dalida enjoys a rejuvenation of her career with Orlando as her new manager. Her hunger for romantic and domestic satisfaction, however, still figures prominently. An affair with a university student leads to pregnancy and a secret abortion with, she later learns, renders her sterile. A relationship with socialite Richard Chanfray (Nicolas Duvauchelle) has a promising start, but turns tumultuous and abusive over time. There are additional suicides and eating disorders, an almost surreal level of melodrama that presages the singer’s tragic end.

Sveva Alviti as the singer Dalida

Sveva Alviti bears an uncanny resemblance to her subject and brings a carefully controlled melancholy to her portrayal. It’s a warm and nuanced performance, held back by some questionable choices in the script (the male-driven first half, along with a mirror-Dalida who voices the singer’s silent thoughts out loud only once and is never seen again). Alviti does not appear to do any of her own singing: the soundtrack credits Dalida’s recordings, and in some instances the lip syncing is quite apparent. Rouve’s ex-husband adds a touch of smarm at the start, while Scamarcio toes the line between selfless brother and self-interested talent manager.

Dalida is sumptuously shot by cinematographer Antoine Sanier, who captures all the luxurious, colorful details of a celebrity’s life from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. Azuelos’ writing and direction are both uneven, their periods of strength undermined by ineffective choices early on. Strong performances from Alviti and her co-stars go a long way towards buoying an inconsistent script, yet by the film’s end Dalida still feels just slightly out of reach, a diva sequestered behind the stage lights while we can only sit and watch in the front row.

RATING: ★ ½

film review: shadowman

Mention street art nowadays and most will picture the enigmatic Banksy: a little girl with a heart-shaped balloon or a protester about to hurl a bouquet instead of a Molotov cocktail, painted on the side of a building. His art often has a subversive undercurrent yet it intends to inspire conversation, rather than fear. But in New York City in the 1980’s, when the street art movement had just begun with artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of his predecessors was forging a lucrative career with decidedly darker images.

Oren Jacoby’s new documentary Shadowman tells the story of Richard Hambleton, a formally-trained painter turned street artist who first came to the public’s attention in the late 70’s with his “Mass Murder” series that stretched across the United States and Canada. Using his friends as models, Hambleton would paint out chalk outlines of a fictitious victim, splattering the scene with carmine paint. Passerby were often unaware of the artistic nature of what they’d just walked over, looking for non-existent police tape or sidestepping eerily realistic pools of blood. In the 1980’s he gained notoriety for his “Shadowmen”, hulking outlines splashed on the walls of side streets and dark alleys, crude and rough-edged as only the most meticulously envisioned art can be. They gave the impression of urban predators ready to pounce and often gave pedestrians a start. In 1984 he painted several of these Shadowmen on the Berlin Wall and enjoyed international recognition for much of the decade. By all accounts his star was in its ascendancy.

Richard Hambleton alongside one of his famous "Shadowmen"

The success would not last, though. What began as a retrospective on the emergence of an innovative new artist shifts into a woeful portrait of addition and those who enable its continuance. Despite his paintings selling in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hambleton bled cash. Drug abuse cost him a supportive girlfriend and eventually relegated him to semi-homelessness, living on the street or squatting in between charitable offers from his admirers. Their goodwill, however, often looks suspiciously like thinly concealed avarice. Collectors and gallery owners would put Hambleton up in apartments or luxury hotels, all expenses covered; in exchange, he agreed to provide new artwork for them at regular intervals. After a few months, these arrangements would inevitably fall apart.

Although these well-heeled benefactors fancy themselves “patrons” their benevolence does little to foster success. Hambleton no longer scrapes by, true, but he’s still an addict, now with access to large sums of money. Several of these patrons sit down for interviews in Shadowman. Many of them, when addressing the end of their financial involvement with Hambleton, bemoan how what they did was never enough. How he failed to produce the agreed-upon works, regardless of the support provided. He was, in short, beyond their help. But was he? Luxury suites and large checks are waved around like magic wands, yet no one even alludes to attempts at professional intervention. Perhaps Hambleton was a lost cause no matter what; by the time of his re-emergence in 2009, he had been struggling with addiction for nearly 30 years. Or perhaps, with the right support, he stood a fighting chance; with Hambleton’s passing last month, it’s a “what if?” left regrettably to the past.

Hambleton doesn’t lack self-awareness. His contemporaries Haring and Basquiat both passed away young. He seems resigned to his addiction and its consequences: “I was alive when I died,” he flatly tells the camera. His former girlfriend, Mette Madsen, posits that maybe the turmoil and the art are inextricably linked. To banish one would be to banish the other as well.  Witnessing Hambleton’s slow deterioration, it’s left to the audience to decide whether the steep cost of genius is justified.

RATING: ★★ ½
BACK TO TOP