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NYFF: My Favourites and Least Favourite


We’re one week into the 2018 New York Film Festival, and I’ve already seen two of this year’s best movies — as well as an early contender for one of the worst.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with the Opening Night feature, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. I’m not gonna lie:  I hated the beginning of this movie, as the Greek director of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer overused fish-eye lenses to create a sense of surrealism around the tale of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, an unquestionable Oscar favorite), an overgrown, temper tantrum-throwing baby of a ruler — sound familiar? But as the film unspooled, and ladies in waiting Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone engaged in a cutthroat competition to win the monarch’s favor, the story grew on me. Lanthimos strikes me as a Stanley Kubrick acolyte, (you could certainly do worse for a cinematic  idol), and The Favourite is his Barry Lyndon. All in all, a strong start to the Festival.

Now let’s move on to two films that give me life — and hope for the future of cinema. Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is an exquisitely observed portrait of a modern-day NYC couple struggling to conceive a child. Paul Giamatti is, as almost always, note-perfect as the husband, and Kathryn Hahn (whom I don’t always enjoy) matches him beat for beat, as does Molly Shannon, another performer who sometimes grates on me but is well-cast as a buttinsky best friend here. Jenkins doesn’t make movies often — this is only the third she’s directed in 20 years, after Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages — but when she does, they’re achingly autobiographical gems.

With Wildlife, cowriter-director Paul Dano proves that he’s just as gifted as a filmmaker as he is an actor. Based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, this painstakingly precise drama follows a sensitive 14-year-old (Ed Oxenbuild, a remarkable young Aussie) witnessing the dissolution of his parents’ marriage in 1960 Montana. Carey Mulligan will no doubt be an Oscar contender for her fiery turn, reminiscent of Jessica Lange in 1994’s Blue Sky, as a housewife desperate to reinvent herself sexually after her unemployed husband (Jake Gyllenhaal, excellent as ever) leaves home to fight a forest fire. With Bill Camp, who’s been my favorite character actor ever since he played Dano’s cruel dad in Love & Mercy, rounding out the ensemble as Mulligan’s gimpy lover, this is the best-acted film I’ve seen this year. And Dano — who co-wrote the script with real-life love Zoe Kazan — has a filmmaker’s natural eye. He must’ve paid close attention to Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of There Will Be Blood.

On the documentary front, Errol Morris’ American Dharma is a disappointingly unfocused portrait of Steve Bannon. The often-reliable director of The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War tries to examine the Breitbart/Trump firebrand’s twisted psychology through discussions of his favorite movies — black-and-white war films like 12 O’Clock High and Paths of Glory and Westerns like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But due to a lack of context, the gimmick doesn’t work, aside from an insightful section in which Bannon revealingly compares himself to Orson Welles’ Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.

Welles is all over this year’s festival, with the debut of his finally-finished film The Other Side of the Wind, a fascinatingly muddled mess, and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, an entertaining documentary by documentarian du jour Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) about the chaotic making of Wind. My advice: See the documentary first, as I did, or else Wind will make almost no sense — although the performances by John Huston as a Welles-ian filmmaker fighting to remain relevant in the New Hollywood of the ’70s and Peter Bogdanovich as…. well, basically, Peter Bogdanovich (he replaced Rich Little in the role!) are enjoyable.

Which brings us to the festival’s nadir, at least so far: The Coen Brothers’ disastrously awful The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A sextet of Western shorts written over the last 25 years and stuck in the siblings’ bottom drawer, the stories should’ve stayed there. The tone is all over the map. It opens with a gory, goofy — call it “gorfy” — segment in which Tim Blake Nelson’s title character croons cowboy tunes and shoots various people dead. Then James Franco stars in another lighthearted vignette about an outlaw who escapes a hangman’s noose, until he doesn’t. Suddenly, the movie turns alternately somber and grotesque with prolonged segments wasting Tom Waits as a gold prospector; Liam Neeson as a traveling showman who exploits an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling); and a brutally overlong romance involving a damsel in distress (Zoe Kazan). The anthology is finally wrapped up with a stagecoach ride that goes nowhere, through no fault of the thoroughbred actors: Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jefferson Mays and a scene-stealing Chelcie Ross as a talkative trapper. Because someone dies in each of the six segments, the Coens — or was it Film Festival director Kent Jones? — tried to claim that the theme of mortality ties together these six disconnected chapters, but I’m not buying it. I’m also disturbed by the Coens’ depiction of Native Americans as faceless savages.

The Coens haven’t made a good movie since their last Western, 2010’s True Grit, and Buster Scruggs — which the brothers admitted is wildly mistitled, since Scruggs dies early  — may well be their worst film ever. Its only competition is a film with a title that could’ve more accurately applied to Buster Scruggs: Intolerable Cruelty.

The Best Movie I’ve Seen in 2018 (So Far)


Oftentimes the films that sound like the absolute worst on paper turn out to be the best on screen. If you had told me at this time last year that my favorite movie of 2017 — and the winner of Best Picture at the Oscars — was a Cold War-era romance between a mute cleaning woman and a fish-man — I would’ve said that makes as much sense as the title The Shape of Water.

It may sound puzzling, but my favorite movie I’ve seen in 2018 so far is about a mousy housewife who discovers she has genius-level skills at putting together jigsaw puzzles and sees the pieces of her life falling into an exhilarating new place as a result. I know, I know, it sounds awful, but trust me on this one: Puzzle is a masterpiece.

Adapted by one of the world’s most underrated filmmakers, Oren Moverman, along with Polly Mann, from 2010’s Argentine movie Rompecabezas, Puzzle stars Kelly Macdonald, whom I had the privilege of interviewing along with director Marc Turteltaub and producer Wren Arthur after a recent SAG-AFTRA Foundation screening of the film.The Glaswegian actress has brought a captivating presence to Trainspotting, No Country for Old Men, Gosford Park and Boardwalk Empire, but nothing prepared me for the powerful subtlety of her performance here.


Macdonald says and does relatively little in many of her scenes, yet a deeply moving drama plays out across her face; she would’ve been a great silent-film actress. She’s matched in quality by Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire) as a slyly seductive divorced inventor who becomes her puzzle-competition partner and David Denman (aka Roy, Pam’s first fiancé on The Office) as her lunkheaded-mechanic husband.

The beauty of Puzzle comes not just from its luminous visuals and hypnotic score but from the empathy it shows for each of its characters, including the very different sons of Macdonald’s and Denman’s characters, played by Austin Abrams and Bubba Weiler. One’s a smart-ass college-bound kid who wants to take a gap year and travel in Tibet; the other’s a frustrated wannabe chef forced to work at his father’s garage.

The characters in Puzzle sometimes make morally questionable decisions, but there are no heroes or villains here. Like puzzle pieces, everyone has their own unique shape. Kind of like the shape of water, you might say.  But when you put them all together, they create a picture more breathtakingly beautiful than the sum of its parts.

RBG, Mr. Rogers & Itzhak: Profiles in Kindness


37422431_413141852529372_4787438631390281728_nOne of my favorite films of the year, Alison Chernick‘s wonderful documentary Itzhak lm is available on Amazon and iTunes today. If you loved RBG and the Mister Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, you’ll be right in tune with this loving portrait of the great violinist and humanitarian Itzhak Perlman. It’s the type of profile in kindness that we need right now. I chatted with Chernick about music, movies and mensches.

Why did you want to make a film about Itzhak Perlman?

He’s the ultimate mensch. Everyone knows he’s a great violinist but I didn’t want to make a concert film. I wanted to tell the untold story and unravel the man behind the musician.  The music starts in his heart and flows through his hands. Itzhak is a warm, kind and generous person. I wanted to capture his wealth of humanity in this film.

He seems like an approachable, down-to-earth guy, and he got very comfortable around you. How did you reach the point where he didn’t notice you were there?

Documentaries by nature are very intrusive — that’s the name of the game. So the art of documentary filmmaking is both riding that balance between being in the way and out of the way.  You have to be in the way enough to get what you need, up close, but also out of the way so you’re not interfering. It takes time to build that trust and once that was in place – plus his comfort in front of the camera – the combination and chemistry created a good path for honesty.

Your films are always cinema verite. Why do you favor that style over a more traditional talking-heads approach?

I find that to be the most organic and natural way to present somebody. It gives more credit to the viewer. It allows them to form their own opinions and not be spoon-fed. Often, talking heads can be very interesting, but in this case, I didn’t feel like we needed them. I don’t think there was anyone who could say something about Itzhak that was more interesting than letting Itzhak speak for himself.


A number of bio-docs have been big hits at the box office this summer, and they all seem to focus on kind-hearted people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Fred Rogers and Itzhak Perlman. Why do you think these kinds of films are resonating now?

With what’s going on in the world right now politically, truth is stranger than fiction these days. People are fatigued by the news — and we’re living in morally corrupt times —so positive inspiring stories I believe are somewhat of a relief.

What is it specifically about Itzhak’s life story and personality that makes him an important person to know about and spend time with in this current climate?

His resilience, the story of overcoming adversity — he contracted polio at the age of 4 in Israel and has had leg braces ever since —  this experience created a positive outlook for him later in life, to appreciate what he did have. It humbled him and made him feel lucky for his passion for music and his love for his family. Through watching his experience, we can learn from it. He is a role model to many.


This Summer’s Real Superhero Movies


Have I mentioned how sick I am of superhero movies? Oh, I have? My comic-book fatigue even impinged on my enjoyment of Incredibles 2. I mean, it was fine, but my constant cinematic craving is credibility. Realism is my guiding aesthetic in drama and comedy, and lately it’s led me to a newfound appreciation for documentaries.

A pair of such non-fiction films, RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, has pulled off the superhuman feat of cracking the box-office top 10 in the middle of the summer-movie schlockbuster season. But that’s not all these bio-docs of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and children’s TV pioneer Fred Rogers have in common.

They’re both portraits of soft-spoken rebels. Neither Ginsburg nor Rogers is known for raising their voices. The jurist recalls one of the most important lessons her mother (who died when Ginsburg was 17) taught her was to always act like a lady, which meant not to yell, and she has found over the course of her legal career that a measured tone proved more effective in arguing her cases for gender equality. Rogers, too, became famous for his gentle demeanor, yet in his own way, he was equally revolutionary, and his kindness and respect for others (especially kids) seems more radical than ever in today’s atmosphere of round-the-clock contentiousness.

They’re both defined by their uniforms. No, they don’t wear capes and tights (although some of the Notorious RBG’s fan art depicts her as Wonder Woman or an Avenger), but Ginsburg proudly displays the array of collars she wears on different occasions. Every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began with the host walking in the front door wearing a jacket and dress shoes and changing into a friendlier sweater and sneakers.

They’ve both been vilified by extremists. RBG opens with an audio montage of right-wing radio hosts describing Ginsburg in hateful, often misogynistic terms like witch and zombie. Meanwhile, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? includes a sequence in which the hosts of the misnamed Fox & Friends, among others, attack Rogers as “evil” for having told kids they were special just for being themselves, allegedly creating a generation of entitled snowflakes. Bizarrely, homophobic protestors also picketed Rogers’ funeral, simply because he was tolerant of gays.

They’ve both been parodied by Saturday Night Live. One of the most entertaining scenes in the hugely enjoyable RBG chronicles the famously humorless judge (her kids kept a book called Mommy Laughed memorializing the rare occasions when she cracked up) watching Kate McKinnon’s exuberant impersonation of her on SNL.  For the record, Ginsburg giggles.

Rogers wasn’t always as amused by late-night spoofs, but he recounts an affectionate encounter he had with Eddie Murphy, who did his own inner-city SNL homage, Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.

They’ll both soon be subjects of dramatic biopics. Felicity Jones will play Ginsberg in On the Basis of Sex, due in theaters this November, which means fictionalized and factual depictions of RBG could both be up for Oscars next year. And two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks will play Rogers in You Are My Friend, the story of the host’s bond with journalist Tom Junod, who’s also one of the most engaging interview subjects in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Two more movies without a superhero in sight? That’s what I’d call a beautiful day in my neighborhood.

Gotti: Is It As Bad As They Say?


So I took my son to see Gotti — and before you charge me with child abuse, you should know he’s 22. Yes, John Travolta’s Mob biopic got 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I should also mention my son, Jed Fretts Howard, is a very funny stand-up comedian, so I figured we’d have a blast taking shots at it.

But here’s the thing: It’s not bad. It’s so not-bad, it’s not good. It’s just thoroughly mediocre. I’ve seen Travolta give worse performances — most notably and recently, his inexplicably acclaimed, Kabuki-esque turn as Robert Shapiro in The People vs. O.J. Simpson. His John Gotti is like a lukewarm version of Chili Palmer in Get Shorty. Which is to say, it’s like his performance as Chili Palmer in Be Cool.

The movie’s structure makes no sense. It starts and ends with Travolta speaking directly into the camera, presumably as the ghost of Gotti from beyond the grave. Then he occasionally narrates the action (to use the term very loosely), which jumps around between the terminally ill don sharing tough-love wisdom with his namesake son (Spencer Lofranco, who seems more suited to Jersey Shore than a gritty mafia movie) and the greatest hits of his criminal career.

The director Kevin Connolly — best known as “E” on Entourage (think about that phrase for a second) — has no feel for the material, and he seems to have chosen the soundtrack by hitting shuffle on his iPod. There’s the expected Dean Martin and Perry Como, but why the theme from “Shaft”? “West End Girls”? “Walk Like an Egyptian”?

He also was apparently incapable of casting any actual Italian-Americans aside from Travolta and Leo Rossi (who co-wrote the scattershot script with Lem Dobbs). Pruitt Taylor Vince, Stacy Keach, Chris Mulkey — they’re all fine character actors, but they seem like the kind of people who would say “mozzarella cheese.”

Travolta’s real-life wife Kelly Preston goes the full Lorraine Bracco as moll Victoria Gotti, but her character remains one-dimensional, along with everyone else in the supporting cast. The only scenes where she really makes an impact are after the accidental death of the Gottis’ 12-year-old son, Frank, which play with added resonance knowing she and Travolta lost their son, Jett, when he wasn’t much older.

The rest of the movie just plods along. Connolly confusingly intersperses actual news footage of Gotti with the dramatized scenes, and the documentary sequences prove more compelling. John Gotti was famously known as the Teflon Don, and this is a Teflon movie. Nothing sticks to it — or with you. It’s NotBadFellas.

Five Reasons Why Solo Flies So Low

solo-official-poster-691x1024.jpgSo I finally saw Solo, and… I finally saw Solo. Yeah. I mean, it was okay, but I had a few problems with it.

1) Alden Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford. He’s more like Hayden Christensen. (Remember him? I barely do either. I had to Google him to spell his name correctly.)

2) Donald Glover is better than Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, but he’s not in it enough. He comes in late, then leaves for too long before finally returning. How about a solo Lando movie?

3) The movie is too dark. I don’t mean tonally — I mean literally dark. Maybe it was just the crappy projection at my local theater, but I could barely tell what was going on in certain scenes. Not that I really cared. The whole movie looked brown and gray to me, not like the vivid colors I associate with the original 1977 movie (or even later characters like Darth Maul).

4) There is no consistent tone. Perhaps that’s what happens when you switch directors in mid-flight from the subversively witty Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) to the study, workmanlike Ron Howard (Apollo 13).

5) Just like I’m burned out on superhero movies, I’m tired of films set on faraway planets. Realism is my guiding aesthetic as a movie critic, so I easily lose interest once characters blast off in outer space. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find films playing near me that take place on planet Earth. In fact, I had to cross state lines and go to Connecticut, where I recently attended the Greenwich International Film Festival, to see stories about real people without superpowers who live in the same universe that I do.

Two of these were documentaries — a genre I’m enjoying more and more. I moderated a Q&A with writer Samuel Maslon after a screening of Sammy Davis, Jr. : I’ve Gotta Be Me, an enlightening profile of the groundbreaking Rat Pack member that will air in February on PBS’ American Masters. I also attended a Saturday-morning screening of Half the Picture, an eye-opening exposé about the lack of female directors in Hollywood. Too bad there was only one other dude in the audience, but I came away feeling more strongly than ever that diverse filmmakers would bring better films from fresher perspectives.

I also saw two narrative features that blew me away. Director Yen Tan’s 1985 is a simple, spare story — shot beautifully on black-and-white film — of a young man (Cory Michael Smith) who returns to his small-town Texas home during the onset of the AIDS crisis and tries to come out to his fundamentalist parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis, both superb). And director Debra Granik builds on the promise of her breakout Winter’s Bone with her remarkable follow-up film, Leave No Trace, the heartbreaking tale of a veteran (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) who are forced out of living in the Oregon woods by well-meaning but misguided authorities.

Gorgeously photographed in very different ways, 1985 and Leave No Trace leave searing marks on your heart. Solo, on the other hand, just left me feeling numb.

Why I’m Sick of Superhero Movies


When I was a kid, I loved superheroes. I was born the same year as the Batman TV series, and it was such a formative influence on me that I’ve got a tattoo of Julie Newmar as Catwoman on my arm… but that’s another story.

As an adult, I’ve seen most of the movies based on the Marvel and DC comic books I collected as a kid, and in a few cases, directors with superhuman gifts like Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man 1 and 2… let’s forget 3) and, most recently, Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) have elevated the genre into art.

But Rotten Tomatoes be damned, most superhero movies have been pretty mediocre. Sure, the first Iron Man was fun, but did we really need three (not to mention his many appearances in the Avengers movies, etc.)? The reverse goes for Thor — the third one was charming, but I could’ve done without the first two. And don’t get me started on DC’s myriad big-screen injustices. The wildly overrated Wonder Woman was a masterpiece only by contrast to, say, Suicide Squad, but that’s not much of a feat.

The truth is, I think I’ve finally outgrown superhero movies, and it was Avengers: Infinity War that broke me. I hated every second of this overlong, unsatisfying mishmash. Too many one-dimensional characters and too much butt-numbing exposition, punctuated by bursts of random, mind-numbing “action.” And after 160 minutes, there isn’t even an ending! It’s like a trailer for what will probably be another longer and more boring sequel. (Nothing against trailers — I write about them for The New York Times — but they’re better at 2 1/2 minutes, not 2 1/2+ hours).

So I skipped Deadpool 2. I tolerated the first one, if only because Ryan Reynolds, whose face I’ve always instinctively wanted to punch, wore a mask through most of it (and because I love Leslie Uggams, who stole the movie as Deadpool’s pal Blind Al). But the prospect of paying to support anything involving the deeply unpleasant T.J. Miller was just too much for me.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one fed up with costumed crusaders: Deadpool 2 made a “disappointing” $125 million in its first weekend. That’s still a lot of dough, but maybe it’s a sign we’re approaching peak superhero. Or at least peak Josh Brolin, who plays key roles in both Infinity War and Deadpool 2.

Perhaps, like me, a few people are hungering for stories about real people without superpowers. I’ve seen a pair of such rarities in the past few days, and I’d urge anyone suffering from caped-crimefighters burnout to check them out when they reach theaters early next month.

The first is A Kid Like Jake — a terrible title for a not-terrible movie. Claire Danes and Jim Parsons play subtle variations on their best-known TV characters (Homeland‘s unstable Carrie Mathison and The Big Bang Theory‘s unemotional Sheldon Cooper) as Brooklyn yuppies—is that still a thing?—who nearly come unraveled after their four-year-old son (Leo James Davis) starts engaging in “gender expansive” behavior.

The movie gets more interesting as the couple grapples with whether to exploit their child’s diversity as they navigate the city’s supercompetitive private-education system. The always-welcome Octavia Spencer grounds the movie in reality as a preschool director whose own sexual orientation becomes a complicating factor.

One of the best things about A Kid Like Jake in this summer full of overstuffed shlockbusters is its brevity — it runs barely over 90 minutes, yet it takes all the time it needs to tell its small-scale story. The same holds true for Nancy, a fascinating character study of an emotionally bereft woman (Andrea Riseborough) who poses as the long-lost daughter of a grieving couple (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi).

Written and directed by the profoundly talented Christina Choe (full disclosure: I’ve supported her projects on Kickstarter ever since I saw her charming short The Queen in 2010), Nancy often views its protagonist through blurred surfaces. Riseborough, who’s gone full chameleon for films like Birdman and Battle of the Sexes, hollows herself out physically, yet she communicates the pain at her character’s gaping center.

Smith-Cameron’s role echoes her achingly beautiful work as the mother of an exonerated ex-Death Row inmate on the remarkable Sundance TV series Rectify (if you haven’t seen it, go binge on it—now!), and Buscemi matches her note for heartbreakingly perfect note.

Nancy and A Kid Like Jake are tied together by the seemingly omnipresent Ann Dowd, who plays different versions of the mother from hell in each. Ever since her mid-life breakthrough in 2010’s chilling Compliance, Dowd has become a hallmark of quality in indie gems like Captain Fantastic, Norman and St. Vincent. Best of all, you won’t likely see her in superhero spandex anytime soon.