Movie Reviews

Friday Flicks: I Am Somebody

Still from Madeline Anderson's 1970 documentary I AM SOMEBODY.

Still from Madeline Anderson's 1970 documentary I AM SOMEBODY.

Friday, February 9, 2018 - 

In March 1969, 400 nurse’s aides, housekeepers, and cooks at the South Carolina Medical College Hospital went on strike. Almost all of them were black. Almost all of them were female.

For the next 100 days, these women marched through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, singing civil rights songs, holding nighttime protests, and decrying the low wages, heavy workload, and vicious racial discrimination that had driven them from their workplace.

Before they went on strike, many of these women made as little as $1.30 an hour. The nurses called them “monkey grunts.”

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Pizza: A New Haven Love Story

A Veggie Bomb pie from Modern Apizza.

A Veggie Bomb pie from Modern Apizza.

Friday, February 9, 2018 - 

Local filmmaker Gorman Bechard feels strongly about a lot of things. The Replacements are the greatest rock band of all time. Animal abuse should be prosecuted as a felony.

And there are only three pizza places in the whole world that matter: Pepe’s, Sally’s and Modern.

Having already made documentaries on ‘80s rock and animal rights, this eclectic local filmmaker is now turning his camera’s eye to New Haven’s nationally celebrated culinary delicacy, and to the three pizzerias that, he argues, do it the best.

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Friday Flicks: The Post

The Post (2017)

The Post (2017)

Friday, January 19, 2019 - 

Does America need a big, dumb love letter to the First Amendment at a time when its big, dumb president is hell bent on destroying the free press?

I’d be into that.

But does Steven Spielberg’s The Post offer anything more than self-congratulatory, overly simplistic, and perhaps even incipiently anti-democratic pablum?

Well… yes and no.

The Post tells the story of the 1971 debate within the editorial and business ranks of The Washington Post about whether or not to publish stories based on the Pentagon Papers, a trove of top secret documents that outlined decades of bipartisan executive branch decisions to keep the U.S. engaged militarily and politically in Vietnam.

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Friday Flicks: Top 10 Movies of 2017

Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird (2017)

Friday, January 12, 2018 - 

Well, it’s been a year.

I can’t remember the last time that Hollywood was the driver of one of the most important and far-reaching news stories in American culture.

But with the takedown of Harvey Weinstein (and so many other predatory producers, directors, and actors) and the rise of the #MeToo moment, women in the movie industry have not only helped lay bare the rampant sexual abuse and toxicity baked into the power dynamics of America’s preeminent entertainment industry.

They’ve also helped galvanize public concern around systemic sexism in all aspects of American society in a way that celebrities, perhaps, are best suited to do. They are people with incredibly high public profiles, adept at telling stories, who are finding ways to use their media magnetism to make a dent in an unequal society. For that, I can’t help but feel grateful.

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Friday Flicks: A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story (2017)

Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 - 

There is something brazen about telling a ghost story in 2017, the age of computer-generated everything, with a man dressed in a bedsheet with two droopy, cutout eyeholes.

Then again, there is also something a little unusual about a low-budget drama focused on two characters and a single location that also tries to tell the entire history of time and space, and then tries to figure out just how any single person can live meaningfully amidst such enormity and obsolescence.

Sure, The Tree of Life connected a Texan childhood with the age of dinosaurs. And Groundhog Day wrapped an existential crisis in romantic comedy. But did either of those movies have a bedsheet ghost? Not that I can recall.

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Friday Flicks: Lady Bird

LADY BIRD (2017)

LADY BIRD (2017)

Friday, December 8, 2017 - 

The high school coming-of-age comedy, when pitched somewhere between slapstick and sincere, may just be the perfect cinematic genre.

For therein lies the somewhat shameful but persistently heart-fluttering promise that any cinephile feels when the lights go down and the movie screen brightens: an exuberant, greedy, uncynical yearning for self-discovery. Limitless possibilities that run roughshod across the boundaries of a naïve, limited understanding of the world.

RushmoreDazed & ConfusedGhost World.

Youth is the subject of these movies, and, lucky enough for even the most jaded of film fans, youth is not just about being young.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird opens with a quotation from Joan Didion, that great neurotic chronicler of the sad, weird banality of California:

“Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

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In Rock Doc, A Song Is Born

Local filmmaker Gorman Bechard.

Local filmmaker Gorman Bechard.

Monday, Nov. 27, 2017 - 

How does a song come to life on screen? In New Haven filmmaker Gorman Bechard’s latest rock documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless?, the magic lies in the editing.

Bechard’s movie follows Lydia Loveless, a 24-year-old country rocker from rural Ohio, as she and her band tour across the Midwest in 2014 and 2015.

Bechard, who has made a name for himself in recent years as a consummate chronicler of the passion, restlessness and unpredictability of those devoted to rock ‘n’ roll, finds in Loveless a case study for the expressive potential and logistical difficulties of trying to make a living as a full-time musician.

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Friday Flicks: Knightriders

KNIGHTRIDERS (1981)

KNIGHTRIDERS (1981)

Friday, October 27, 2017 - 

George A. Romero, the legendary horror director who died this summer at age 77, made a movie in the early 1980s about a troupe of medieval reenactors who dress up as knights, perform tricks on motorcycles, and joust with wooden lances and rubber axes.

For a filmmaker best known for reintroducing the zombie as a staple of the American cultural imagination through such movies as Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), the Renaissance Fair-acrobatics of Knightriders(1981) may on its surface seem like quite the thematic departure.

And yet, no movie in his filmography better captures the stubborn idealism, artistic ambition, fierce independence, and persistent social criticism that defined Romero’s five decades as a filmmaker.

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Friday Flicks: Candyman

CANDYMAN (1992)

CANDYMAN (1992)

Friday, October 13, 2017 - Candyman is an electrifying, terrifying film. It is the rare mainstream horror movie that prominently features Black actors, settings, and stories. And it shamelessly trades in some of the most egregious racial stereotypes that American culture has to offer.

Such is the uncomfortable paradox of Candyman: its style, storytelling, and iconic villain stand up favorably with those of any other slasher film, and its serious engagement with Black characters distinguishes it from the otherwise overwhelming Whiteness of the genre.

And yet, watching its continuous distortion and demonization of Black sexual desire, one cannot help but think that this required entry of early 1990s horror cinema is in fact one giant step backwards in the representation of Black people on screen.

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Friday Flicks: PRIDE Version

Tangerine ( 2015) by Sean Baker

Tangerine (2015) by Sean Baker

Friday, September 15, 2017 - LGBTQ cinema has often been a cinema of outsiders. Which makes sense, considering that mainstream movie culture has long been dominated by a conservative, narrow, and overwhelmingly normative heterosexual understanding of gender and sexual identity.

But in the nearly 50 years since the Stonewall rebellion and the Gay liberation movement of the early 1970s, movies by and about LGBTQ people have flourished as a substantial and diverse subgenre of American cinema. From the experimental, abstract lesbian cinema of Barbara Hammer (Dyketactics) to the lyrical character studies of Ira Sachs (Love is Strange), LGBTQ cinema in this country has and continues to explore life, love, gender, sexuality, and identity, all too often formed in the face of broader societal prejudices.

In celebration of the start of New Haven PRIDE Weekend, here are three recommendations for movies that explore LGBTQ life in this country, focusing on stories and characters that refuse the limitations that American cultural norms around gender and sexual identity may try to foist upon them.

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Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

What happens when you bring together a group of men with no morals, no empathy, no sense of justice, fairness, dignity, or common good [i.e. sociopaths] and tell them that one has a shot at being the next leader of a world superpower?

And what if those men had the maturity and attention span of toddlers, barely competent enough to tie their own shoelaces?

A tragedy played as a farce, uproariously funny, if you can look past the bodies piling up outside the door.

The Death of Stalin, the latest political satire from writer-director Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep), tells the story of a handful of Soviet party leaders scrambling to succeed Josef Stalin as the leader of the USSR in the weeks following the dictator’s death in Moscow in 1953.

Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and the rest of the goons who make up the leadership committee of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party are all thrown into a state of great inner turmoil and excitement when the unthinkable happens: their omnipotent leaders kicks the bucket.

Each sees an opportunity to become the next party leader, and a long history of kowtowing to every whim of the recently deceased dictator let's each know that being party leader comes with pretty absolute fealty and authority, however underserved and arbitrarily wielded.

Let the fumbling, maneuvering, and conniving begin!

Courtesy of TIFF

Courtesy of TIFF

The great accomplishment of Iannucci’s screenplay and of his tremendous ensemble of comedic actors is that The Death of Stalin establishes from the start how these men are completely inept and uninterested in every aspect of life and leadership, except for one thing: winning. Their political intelligence extends not much further than “obey the leader, no matter what he says,” but not because they believe in what he's saying. Rather, it's because they recognize that the man on top has won the right to say and do whatever he likes, and attention must be paid, to respect that victory… and to lay the groundwork for your own assured rise to power.

Law, history, judgment, and ideals be damned: what's important is loyalty, to your own interests first and to your boss’s demands. Hopefully those two coincide, or else you may be in trouble.

The problem, of course, with such absolute self-interest mixed with confusion and deceit is that everyone is loyal, but no one can be trusted.

A master of politically insightful and vulgar slapstick, Iannucci packs the movie with gag after gag that reveals just how little these people think of one another, and how much they think of themselves.

Kneeling over Stalin's prostrate body, each leader weeps and weeps, until they realize that the great dead leader is lying in a puddle of his own piss, in which case it's time to find a better spot to mourn.

They frantically court Stalin's spoiled adult children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), but struggle to sound convincing as they praise an alcoholic nincompoop (who may have been responsible for the death of the entire national hockey team) and reassure a stubborn worrywart with an exacting eye for interior design.

But The Death of Stalin is not just a movie about fumbling morons who can't keep their stories straight. It's about fumbling morons who can't keep their stories straight who are also willing to kill untold thousands of people, family and friends included, if that slaughter may help their chances to win the game.

Peale plays Beria as the most openly sadistic of the bunch, carefully compiling execution lists of "dissidents" (i.e. random people deemed threatening to the regime because of their sanity or professional competence), while also delighting in his own participation in mass rape, torture, and abuse. But they are all implicated, even Khrushchev, the most quirkily avuncular of the bunch who is willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of civilians to make his rival look bad. And, of course, he is the one to win in the end, however ephemeral that victory may be.

Watching a coterie of self-obsessed sycophants lavishly praise the authoritarian leader of the moment while simultaneously plotting their own rise to power, one can't help but think of the Donald Trump administration.

But the politicians and generals at the center of The Death of Stalin are not the colorful, offensive, non-sensical Scaramuccis of the world.

They are the back room manipulators: too public facing and approval seeking to be a secretive cabal, too dishonest and authoritarian to be coherent or publicly accountable. They are the comic fools whose ineptitude, ego, and destructiveness are all of a piece. Fortunately for the political elite in STALIN, they don't have to worry about getting voted out of office. They just have to worry, constantly, about being toppled by their own colleagues, friends, and confidants

Movie Review: The Florida Project

Saturday, September 8, 2017 - 

Telling a story from the perspective of a child can be a tricky thing to do. One must drop the artifice, social acclimation, worldliness, world-weariness, and slightly larger vocabulary that come with adulthood, and reach for something a little bit different. Not simpler, per se, but more guileless and open.

The Florida Project, the latest movie from writer-director Sean Baker, captures perfectly that childlike eagerness to revel in the present, to find here and now’s endless capacity for laughter and joy without any sort of pretense.

For Moonee (Brooklyn Pierce), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), summer days blend seamlessly together as they share ice cream, taunt adults, and explore the furthermost reaches of their neighborhood.

But Baker, whose previous movie Tangerine focused on a competitive friendship between two transgender prostitutes working the seedier side of the Hollywood strip, is not interested in an idyllic childhood summer experienced by the bored and the comfortable.

Rather, The Florida Project is another story about vibrant, incandescent outsiders living on the razor’s edge of poverty.

Courtesy of TIFF

Courtesy of TIFF

Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey live with their single moms and single grandmas in pay-by-the-week motels on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. For these three kids, who can't be older than five or six, getting ice cream means walking blocks through empty strip mall parking lots and then shaking down nearby customers for loose change; taunting adults means joyfully spitting on the cars of strangers and then flipping them off when they demand that the kids stop; and exploring the neighborhood means swinging irons bars and lighting fires in an abandoned condo complex crumbling under the weight of its mold, debris, and decay.

After a particularly dangerous bit of summer fun leads Scooty’s mom to pull her son from Moonee’s company, both to keep him safe and to reduce the likelihood of a visit from the Department of Children and Families, Moonee spends more and more of her summer with her unemployed mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite).

An ornately tattooed, twentysomething beauty who spends most of her time chainsmoking in her pajamas over the third-story rail of the hotel, Halley shares Moonee’s exuberance, spontaneity, and indifference to the future, and is clearly the source of her gleeful profanity and unwavering hostility to authority.

But Halley is also an adult and a parent, and her stubborn insistence on enjoying the present, no matter the depths of her love for Moonee, have consequences that far outweigh any trouble that her daughter may get in while playing with her friends around the edges of the hotel.

In setting this story of childhood ebullience in a rundown hotel on the outskirts of Orlando, in the heart of a knockoff economy that thrives off of its proximity to Disneyworld, Baker conjures a powerful juxtaposition between the most artificial, commercialized, grotesque fantasies of adults and the more authentic, imaginative, carefree play of children.

To Moonee and her friends, the giant wizards, purple castles, and sickly, oversized marketing displays that define their built surroundings are just part of the backdrop for a world abundant with the promise of cheap pleasures. But for these children, those pleasures are supplemented by a fantasyland they are able to create wherever they are, regardless of the lack of money in their pockets.

Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe follow the children with tracking shots low enough to the ground that the audience feels like it too is in on the play, and that this play is not just about fun, but about taking ownership over their surroundings and their time. When Baker and Zabe step back for a wideshot of the bright-purple hotel in all its communal, doorfront activity, the place bustles like a living dollhouse out of a Wes Anderson movie.

But this is not a dollhouse, and the similarities between Moonee’s and Halley’s experience of the summer disturb as much as they delight.

One of the more effervescent scenes in the movie sees Halley, Mooney, and Jancey hitchhike miles from their hotel at night so that they can find a dark place to sit, sing happy birthday to Jancey, eat birthday cupcakes, and watch the fireworks explode over Disneyworld. “These fireworks are just for you,” Halley tells Jancey, and everyone at that moment believes it.

There’s a wonder and a beauty to such a personal reclaiming of an impersonal, commercial spectacle. But Halley’s inability to break through her own self-delusions grates violently against her inability to provide a stable and safe life for her and her child. By the end of the movie, the fantasies that both Halley and Mooney retreat to are no longer the ones governed by the delights of the imagination, but by fear and desperation to flee an inescapable reality.

Friday Flicks: TIFF 2017, Day 1

MUDBOUND (Courtesy of TIFF)

MUDBOUND (Courtesy of TIFF)

Friday, September 8, 2017 - Day One at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and I find myself entangled in movies that explore the seemingly endless capacity people have for inflicting harm on one another. Deliberately, sadistically, sometimes with understandable motivations, but all too often for no good reason at all.

TIFF is a sprawling 11-day, 340-movie film festival that includes everything from Hollywood prestige pictures to low-budget indies to obscure international arthouse cinema. No one critic can catch every screening on any given day, so please take this post as reflective of one particular critic’s experience at the festival thus far.

That said, the movies that I saw Thursday were rife with violence. Not gratuitous, shoot-em-up, summer-blockbuster-backdrop carnage, but violence central to the development of each story and to the relationships between each characters. Violence used to understand and comment upon American race relations, global terrorism, the resurgence of white supremacism, trauma-induced-revenge fantasies, and even the arbitrary tyranny with which some parents rule over their children.

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Friday Flicks: Patti Cake$

PATTI CAKE$ (2017)

PATTI CAKE$ (2017)

Friday, September 1, 2017 - Patti Cake$ is first and foremost a movie about a daughter and a mother: two women separated by age, alcohol, and resentment, bound together by blood, love, and music. Well, two very different kinds of music.

In writer-director Geremy Jasper’s new low-budget hip hop drama, Danielle Macdonald plays Patti Dombrowski, a 23-year-old New Jersey bartender who mixes drinks at night, looks after her ailing grandmother during the day, and spends the rest of her waking hours writing and spitting rhymes. 

On the street, bullies and hustlers mock her weight by calling her Dumbo. But in her notebooks, at the microphone, and behind the wheel of her aging Cadillac (custom license plate PATTIWGN), Patti goes by another name: Killer P.

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Friday Flicks: Wind River

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER (2017)

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER (2017)

Friday, August 25, 2017 - The Western as a genre has long celebrated hard-scrabble men who can squint into the distance and distill the workings of the world into a single, pithy phrase.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says a frustrated newspaperman towards the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), relenting before the heroic, whitewashed image of a popular politician.

“In this world there’s two kinds of people,” Clint Eastwood’s Blondie explains to his unarmed opponent as they search for buried treasure in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966). “Those with loaded guns and those who dig.”

In Westerns, these carefully placed aphorisms tend to shed as much light on the characters who speak them as on the world they seek to describe. For these cigarillo-chomping vigilantes, the world is understandable, but fatalistic and unforgiving. The best and only way to survive is to follow the rules obediently, however painful and merciless they may be.

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The End of TV, The Beginning of a New Art

Judy Sirota Rosenthalphoto

Judy Sirota Rosenthalphoto

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 - The history of movies is a history of two parallel impulses: to record reality as faithfully as possible with a minimum of artifice, and to conjure illusions that look for something true beneath the real.

These are the traditions of the Lumière brothers and of Georges Méliès: of scientists documenting the movement of workers leaving a factory, and of a magician and acrobats shooting rockets into the face of a winking moon.

The End of TV, a new multimedia performance from the Chicago-based collaborative Manual Cinema, finds harmony between these two competing impulses in a show that embraces both artistry and its mechanics. It’s playing this week at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

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“I Am Shakespeare” Reveals A Man In Two Shots

Henry Green in the new movie I AM SHAKESPEARE (2017)

Henry Green in the new movie I AM SHAKESPEARE (2017)

Friday, June 2, 2017 - Stephen Dest’s new documentary I Am Shakespeare: The Henry Green Story is a reminder that the full history and power of cinema, a 120-year-old art form uniquely equipped to inspire empathy among strangers, can be distilled into two basic camera shots: the frontal close-up and the three-quarter profile. One angle to show us who we’re looking at, the other to show us who we are.

Dest’s movie tells the story of Henry Green, a young man from Newhallville whose life nearly tears him asunder. On the one hand, Green was a talented acting student at Co-Op High School, a confident and introspective young artist with a big smile and a penchant for Shakespeare. On the other hand, he was an angry and depressed young man who grew up with no money in a violent neighborhood that sits adjacent to one of the wealthiest universities in the world.

The vast majority of the movie sits with Green as he narrates his life story to the camera, facing the viewer eye-to-eye as his words conjure movement from the stillness around him. He tells us how his artistic talent and ambitions led him to the role of Tybalt in a summer production of Romeo and Juliet. His poverty, pride, and aggression found him with three bullets to the stomach after a street confrontation a few blocks from his home.

Click here to read the full review.

Is It 2017? Or 1984?

Gorlick.

Gorlick.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017 - On April 4, 1984, in the fictional state of Oceania, a low-level civil servant named Winston Smith begins to write a diary. In the repressive, dystopian world of George Orwell’s novel 1984, where history is constantly erased and rewritten and individual expression is punishable by death, putting pen to paper to explore one’s innermost thoughts is truly a subversive act.

Thirty-three years later to the day, over 220 people filled a local independent arthouse movie theater to watch the 1980s film adaptation of Orwell’s mid-century novel to commemorate the beginning of Smith’s subtle rebellion against a totalitarian government.

As Smith struggled on screen to preserve some semblance of love, empathy, and hope in the face of a brutalizing political regime, the local audience was challenged to ask itself two critical questions: What are the parallels between this fictional 1984 and the real 2017? And how does one ensure that the actual United States government never slips into the suffocating, repressive dystopia of Oceania?

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Best Video Rolls Out Red Carpet

Casting a mock Oscar ballot at Best Video.

Casting a mock Oscar ballot at Best Video.

February 27, 2017 - Standing amidst shelves lined with DVDs and tables stacked with mock awards ballots, Best Video founder Hank Paper thought for a minute on which movie would win, and which movie should win, this year’s Oscar for Best Picture.

La La Land, which is a tribute to everything that Hollywood holds dear, will probably win,” Paper said, referring to Damien Chazelle’s nostalgia-tinged musical about two aspiring artists in contemporary Los Angeles.

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Bike Co-op Adds The Silver Screen

Audience assembles at Bradley Street Bike Co-op (Thomas Breen photo)

Audience assembles at Bradley Street Bike Co-op (Thomas Breen photo)

September 19, 2016 - Halfway through a presentation on the many ways that the Hill neighborhood has changed over the past 100 years, architect-in-training Jonathan Hopkins paused to ask the question that everyone in the audience had been considering for the past hour and a half.

“Why the city chose the site they ended up choosing for the new John C. Daniels School, I’m not quite sure,” he mused. “Because there were obviously people living there. We just watched a documentary about them.

“On the one hand, I can understand why the city wanted to remove vacant buildings from the neighborhood. But the school project simply didn’t accomplish that.”

Read the complete article here...