Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

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Velvet Buzzsaw

Set in the world of high-end modern art, writer-director Dan Gilroy reunites with his Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo (plus Toni Collette and John Malkovitch) for this wonderfully wicked mashup of satire and horror.

The plot follows the discovery of an unknown artist’s work after his death, and the assorted bon vivant (a celebrity critic, a gallery owner, an art agent, etc.) who both admire the craft as well as see the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing. Only one problem: the paintings appear to be imbued with some hostile and supernatural force that sets about eliminating the cast in increasingly gleeful displays of carnage.

You’re mileage will certainly vary with this one, and Gilroy’s attempts to zip two genres together (as if the Final Destination franchise had been grafted onto The Devil Wears Prada) don’t always result in a seamless delivery. But the experience is so unique, kinetic and unassuming, anchored by a hypnotically devoted Gyllenhaal, that it makes for a rare, if beguiling, treat.

Grade: B+

*Watch it NOW on Netflix

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Jillian Bell, a very funny if not yet widely known comedian, stars and shines in this semi-biographical film by debut director (and screenwriter) Paul Downs Colaizzo.

As the titular Brittany, Bell plays a woman who, after some hard truths about her health from a doctor, resolves to turn her life around by training for and running in the New York City Marathon. Brittany finds confidence and new purpose with each lost pound, but the film is far from an advertisement for Gold’s Gym memberships — it follows a woman’s search for identity and self-appreciation, trading laugh-out-loud comedy with cringing tragedy as it builds up to a powerhouse finale.

Grade: A-

Watching “The Brink,” Alison Klayman’s documentary on populist provocateur and propagandist Steve Bannon, one can’t help but wonder what the subject expected to get by granting a filmmaker such intimate access to his life.

Much like the 2016 fly-on-the-wall documentary “Weiner,” which similarly premiered at Sundance, “The Brink” finds a controversial and scandal-prone American political figure behind closed doors in the places where the public typically isn’t invited to go.

In this case it’s Bannon’s intimate meetings with far-right European leaders as he attempts to stitch together a coalition of the misfit toys to take on “the establishment” over immigration and exclusionary nationalism. At every turn Bannon insists his work is not racist, anti-Semitic or vitriolic, then he gives a smile and a wink as he’s pressed to explain his fearmongering tactics and dog whistles.

The movie is book-ended by two major setbacks for Bannon’s philosophy — the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama and the election of a Democratic House majority in 2018 — but the lingering message from The Brink is that Bannon is always one to regroup, reinvent, and resurface.

Grade: B

The Report

In the years since the September 11 attack and the War on Terror, America’s pop culture response has incrementally shifted from the escapism of 24 to the repressed jingoism of Zero Dark Thirty to the pessimistic criticism of Looming Tower.

Into that maze steps The Report, the Adam Driver-led film by Scott Burns that zealously hopes to set the record straight on the moral shortcomings of U.S. intelligence and government leaders.

It’s vehicle in that effort is the “Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Report of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program” and its lead researcher, Daniel Jones, whose dogged pursuit of the facts despite byzantine bureaucratic intransigence exposed the truth of the C.I.A.’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read: torture) and the agency’s lies and misrepresentations to two presidents and the American public at large.

You might wonder how the creation of a 6,000-page government report can make for compelling drama, and The Report is initially clumsy and disjointed as it attempts to set the narrative background and cast of characters (played by a stellar supporting cast including Jon Hamm, Cory Stoll, Michael C. Hall and Annette Benning — as Sen. Diane Feinstein). The end result is an enlightening and thought-provoking film that is perhaps 30 minutes too long due to its slow start, but one that finishes strong and on an aspirational note for American democracy.

Grade: B

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*Note: This review was originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

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It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe in which Anthony Weiner successfully repented of his sins (or never committed them in the first place) and won an unlikely victory in the race for mayor of New York City. In that universe, one can only speculate on what could have been in the embattled politician’s future.

The contrast between that once-bright vision and Weiner’s corresponding fall from grace, is made all the more Shakespearean in this searing, at-times-uncomfortably intimate documentary, which tracks the meteoric rise, fall, resurgence and crushing implosion of an American political career.

“Weiner,” the film, is shot with astounding access to Weiner, the man’s, inner circle. That access was no doubt expected to chronicle a much different, and much more positive, outcome, and it makes the inevitable trainwreck all the more daunting as it approaches.

But the film also succeeds at humanizing a man who became a national punchline. Weiner is shown here as passionate, energetic, sympathetic and deeply, deeply flawed. The film juggles the laugh-out-loud humor of a campaign in crisis with the profound sadness of watching a family and marriage nearly torn apart by scandal.

That no other politician would allow this level of exposure, combined with the singular drama of Weiner’s personal story, creates a documentary experience with few equals.

Grade: A

*Weiner opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 3.

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“The party is over”

That’s the expectation of on character near the end of “The Big Short,” a movie that tracks three independent teams of Wall Street outsiders who foresaw the housing market crash of 2007 that decimated the U.S. (and world) economy and bet big on a bursting bubble.

He’s referring, of course, to the big bankers, whose behavior leading up to the crash can be described in the nicest terms as negligent (but are more accurately described in less nice terms). The banks will be broken up, he says, and those responsible for cashing checks on the backs of millions of woefully ill-advised mortgages will be sent to jail.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Instead, as hindsight and the film make abundantly clear, the big banks marched forward with the aid of a taxpayer-funded bailout, earning gargantuan bonuses for their chief executives while millions of American families lost their homes and livelihoods. The party, for the wrong people it would appear, was over.

It’s hard not to get angry while watching “The Big Short,” which deftly balances a frenzied excitement — akin to a subdued “Wolf of Wall Street” — while still possessing bucket loads of moral outrage. The outsiders who saw the disaster coming are mocked and ridiculed while shouting out to anyone who will listen the danger at the country’s doorstep.

And director Adam McKay, best known for low-brow comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, turns out to be an inspired choice. Any talk of adjustable interest rates and asset-backed securities is bound to glaze the eyes of casual film-goers, so McKay amps up the showmanship by having the film narrated by a smarmy, fourth-wall breaking Ryan Gosling, who occasionally delegates his explanatory duties to guest star cameos, like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath giving an Econ 101 lesson on subprime mortgages.

It’s heady stuff, but rather than get lost in the weeds, McKay and “The Big Short” (rounded out by an incredible cast including Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale) keep things light and breezy, explaining just enough of the big picture to string together the insidious bread crumbs that led to financial catastrophe.

Grade: A-

*The Big Short opens nationwide on Wednesday, Dec. 23.

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Most movies about European immigrants chasing the American Dream are not bright, sunny affairs (think Gangs of New York or, more on the nose, The Immigrant).

But in ‘Brooklyn,’ written by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and directed by John Crowley, the idea of romance and opportunity awaiting across the Atlantic seems endearingly possible.

After a seasickness-filled voyage across the sea, Eilis (a sensible Irish woman played by Saoirse Ronan) meets and eventually falls in love with an Italina, baseball-loving, plumber. She’s beyond lucky, with a job and boarding house lined up before she arrives, and the trick Crowley executes is acknowledging the charmed life of his protagonist without melting into a pool of sugar.

It’s a testament to the period details included in the script, like a holiday meal at the local Irish parish that pays tributes to the cheap immigrant labor that built New York City, or the hint of anxiety as a family of fellow travelers is pulled aside to face quarantine.

And Eilis’ fortune evolves into the central drama in Act III, when she’s temporarily called back across the pond and faced with a choice between her new life in America or an unexpectedly-improved situation in Ireland.

The tension of that choice arrives a little late in the movie’s running time, setting up a resolution that feels earned but could have benefited from a little more time in the oven.

Ronan already has a number of fine performances under her belt (if you haven’t seen Atonement, do so post haste)  and while ‘Brooklyn’ is hardly a breakout vehicle, it’s the latest fine choice in a growing resume of quality work for the young actress.

Grade: B+

*Brooklyn opens in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 25

 

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Did you miss week 1, or need a refresher on what we’re doing? Then click here.

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Quantico (ABC)

Quantico kicks off with a bang, literally. We fade in on our heroine Alex Parrish lying in the rubble of the now-decimated Grand Central Terminal. But before you can get too comfortable, we zip back to 9 months earlier to when Alex and a diverse cadre of new recruits arrived at the FBI’s Quantico training academy.

There’s the Mormon and the Muslim, the beefcake and the blond, the gay guy (or is he?) and the hipster. All of them are harboring a secret and their first assignment to pair up and expose each other. This matters because one of them is a traitor who, in 9 months time, will evidently blow up GCT and pin it on Parrish.

It’s implied that the story will track along both timelines as the series continues, which raises some fairly obvious questions about what a future beyond season 1 would look like (it’s the Prison Break dilemma). There’s also a healthy layer of melodrama caked on top of the pilot, with every line seemingly read through pouty lipss and arched eyebrows.

However, it’s a relatively out-of-the box premise for broadcast television, allusions to 24 and Homeland notwithstanding. I’m willing to award it a few points for trying something different.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Blood and Oil (ABC)

ABC’s latest primetime soap opera is confused and chaotic. Ostensibly about the oil industry (or blood, I suppose), the pilot follows newlyweds Billy and Cody who set off to a North Dakota boomtown with the dream of owning a laundromat. That dream is derailed, however, after Billy runs their truck off the road and destroys their merchandise, landing them in a shanty town of sorts while Billy wheels and deals and ends up a millionaire by the end of the first episode.

Which is all well and good, I suppose, except for the clunky dialogue, nonsensical character decisions and plot points that are, quite simply, baffling. The show feels more like a made-for-tv movie, except those productions have the decency of ending after two hours. No such luck here.

Grade: C

Class: Kill and Bury

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Grandfathered/The Grinder (Fox)

Normally I wouldn’t review two shows at once, but Grandfathered and The Grinder make it hard not to. Besides the similar alphabetization of their titles, both series are half-hour comedies, airing back-to-back on Fox, starring Men Of A Certain Age as lovable yet juvenile man-children.

They’re also the most promising shows I saw this week.

In Grandfathered, we have John Stamos as Jimmy, a successful restaurant-owning playboy bachelor who learns abruptly that he has an adult son and an infant granddaughter. His world is shaken, obviously, but after some scolding from his staff he leans in to the challenge, embracing his new family as best he can.

Across the street we have The Grinder, about an imbecilic actor (Rob Lowe) who *played* a lawyer on a popular television show and who is inspired to become a real lawyer after visiting his attorney brother (Fred Savage) in Boise, Idaho.

Both shows provide some genuine laughs during their pilots, which is no easy feat. And they show promise in contradictory ways. Grandfathered has the more polished premiere, but is also more likely to run out of creative steam moving forward. On the other hand, The Grinder’s pilot is sloppy (a shot meant to establish the scene as Boise, Idaho is actually Park City, Utah) but it has the potential to be quirky fun once the rough edges are smoothed out.

They also get bonus points for their supporting casts, namely Paget Brewster in GFd and The Waitress in TG (and before you make the jokes, “Grinder” is a common term for lawyers).

Grade: B (Grinder)/B+ (Grandfathered)

Class: Subscribe

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Code Black (CBS)

In hospital vernacular, a “Code Black” designates a critical medical emergency and in the context of Code Black on CBS, it means a point at which the show’s ER staff are effectively overrun with patients.

The drama, starring Marcia Gay Harden, is like a mix of Scrubs and ER, in that it focuses on a cohort of medical residents and their supervisors but is not, even remotely, funny. Also there’s Luis Guzman, who is awesome.

It’s a good cast, and effective narrative drama, but at the end of the day it’s just another hospital show where patients come and patients go and the doctors fight and/or sleep with each other. The main set is also burdensome in its claustrophobia, packing several trauma patients and their attending hospital staff in a space the size of a New York studio apartment.

If you like this type of thing, I suppose it’s better than most.

Grade: B

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Dr. Ken (ABC)

Ken Jeong is a great supporting player, but he is not a leading man. After 6 seasons (and hopefully a movie) of Community, he’s landed at the center of his own show on ABC, where his strategy is apparently to waive his hands and overreact for 22 minutes.

Jeong plays Ken, a California doctor with a wife and two children. In the pilot, his daughter receives her driving license, sending Ken into a fit of over-protective anxiety that briefly lands him in lockup. But don’t worry, the omnipresent laugh tracks clues us in that everything will turn out ok.

It’s weird to me that these cheaply-made multicamera sitcoms still exist. I suppose we have The Big Bang Theory to blame. Were it not for TBBT’s untold millions of inexplicably loyal viewers, the whole format would have been sent to a farm upstate where it has room to run and play and never be sad ever again.

Grade: D

Class: Kill and Bury

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There’s a scene at the start of The Walk‘s second act (and featured in the film’s trailer) when Joseph Gordon-Leavit, as high wire performer Philippe Petit, arrives in the United States and passes through customs.

He explains, in great detail, the myriad equipment in his luggage, prompting the officer to ask what all of it is for.

“I’m going to hang a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walk on it,’ JGL says in a winning, if not completely authentic, French accent.

“Ha!” the officer chuckles. “Good luck.”

It’s a great bit, capturing the joyful impossibility of Petit’s story. Because how could it be true? How could a French visitor to the United States sneak up to the top of the world’s tallest building, attach a tension wire and walk across the void? He couldn’t; except he did.

Petit’s walk was already told to perfection by Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning 2008 film that is essential viewing for anyone with even a mild interest in documentary cinema. Arriving seven years later, Robert Zemeckis’ dramatization feels at first glance to be an unnecessary addition, but it compensates by using modern movie technology to go where a documentary can’t: onto the wire in the sky with Petit some 1,300 feet above the cold concrete below.

Zemeckis’ film is not for the vertiginous, as the director is prone to gleeful leaps and dives over, around and down the twin tower’s facades. But where the filmmakers attempts at CG wizardry have stumbled in the past (exhibit A: the haunting dead eyes of Polar Express), the bulk of his tricks in The Wire work like magic, particularly in the optional IMAX format where the film begs to be displayed.

But ones and zeroes will take a movie only so far, and its the synergy with the film’s writing and cast that makes The Walk sizzle. The accents are often questionable, and the movie relies heavily on narration from Gordon-Levitt, but the joie de vivre running through Petit’s veins as he first plans and then executes his “coup” is intoxicating enough to sweep the quibbles aside.

Like the documentary before it, The Walk is a one man show, relying heavily on Gordon-Levitt and leaving little room for the supporting cast to operate in. Fans of Man on Wire will notice a few inconsistencies with Petit’s firsthand account, and Zemeckis errs by not paying the customary photo tribute to the real-life team as the credits roll.

But he also makes the wise decision to end his film with a coda that serves as a love note to New York City and the twin towers, acknowledging the tragedy of 9/11 from a loving and cathartic standpoint and elevating the poetry behind Petit’s feat.

The director sustains the tension of the film’s climax, crafting a heist film that mixes playful and peril. There’s never any doubt that Petit will succeed, because there wouldn’t be a movie if he hadn’t, but despite that knowledge Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt fill the artists’ steps with dread, fear, confidence and finally, triumph.

Grade: A-

*The Walk opens nationwide on Wednesday, September 30.

Zeme

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Don Verdean

In the latest film by Jared and Jerusha Hess, the minds behind Napoleon Dynamite, Sam Rockwell stars as Don Verdean, a charlatan archeologist who makes his living pawning off falsely discovered religious relics to all-too-gullible persons of faith.

Shot in Salt Lake City and St. George, the film makes for an enjoyable landmark showcase for locals (a trip to Habits got a particularly robust response from the crowd at Sundance’s Grand Theater) but unfortunately it squanders the considerable talent of its stars. Jemaine Clement appears to be the only one having any fun while Will Forte, Amy Ryan, Danny McBribe and especially Rockwell phone in their two-dimensional performances.

The plot, which sees Verdean getting in to deep on a plot to unearth the Holy Grail, has the potential for madcap hilarity. But aside from a few touches of genuine comedy the plot sputters to a defeated halt before closing out on a particularly anticlimactic ending.

Grade: C+

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The Wolfpack

In a tiny apartment in Manhattan’s lower east side, six brothers and one sister live locked away from society. They venture outside only on the rarest of occasions, and their sole connection to the outside world comes in the form of the films that they watch and recreate with impressive detail by way of homemade costumes and props.

It’s a bizarre story made all the more unsettling by the fact that ‘The Wolfpack’ is a documentary, and not a piece of narrative fiction. After one brother essentially snaps and wanders out into the street in a Michael Myers mask, the ensuing ripples turn into cracks in the family’s cloistered lifestyle. Bit by bit, the brothers venture out into the world to pursue their own lives.

Director Crystal Moselle tells their story with a respectful, but prodding, curiosity. There’s a hint of danger in the brothers’ stories, an inclination that behind the smiling faces lie a number of unnamed demons. But Moselle does not overtly demonize, even while the Wolfpack describe their father’s locked-in rules as a form of prison and speak about how the world they see on their tv screen is the only world they know.

Even by documentary standards, it’s a very unique film. It takes an abstract look at a non-traditional family and is able to paint a fascinating portrait of individuality.

Grade: B+

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