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Toronto Film Review Paul Schrader’s First Reformed

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Toronto Film Review: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed

TIFF

Toronto Film Review: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed

Everything Paul Schrader has done throughout his career has led him to First Reformed, potentially the finest entry in what my friend and former Slant contributor Jeremiah Kipp refers to as the writer-director’s “men in rooms” films. These include 1980’s American Gigolo, 1992’s Light Sleeper, and 2007’s The Walker, all woozy character studies of not-quite-alpha males drifting through impeccably maintained, utterly empty lives that are summarily upended. The spaces these men inhabit seem an extension of their preplanned existences. Look at the way, for example, Richard Gere’s high-end sex worker, Julian Kaye, in American Gigolo organizes his California apartment as if it were a sun-dappled monk’s cell, with Armani suits as his chaplain’s wardrobe and a luxury-linened bed as his altar.

BAMcinemaFest 2016 Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence

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BAMcinemaFest 2016: Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence
BAMcinemaFest 2016: Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence

A tentativeness courses through Ti West’s films. Watching them, one often feels as if the filmmaker’s approaching a boundary—separating genre trope from searing idiosyncrasy—that he doesn’t always manage to cross. West crossed this line in Trigger Man and, fitfully, in The Sacrament, which climaxed with an unsettlingly intimate staging of a Jonestown-like mass poisoning that calls into question the invasiveness of the film’s very formality. In these moments, West’s reverence for genre filmmaking merged with his gift for behavioral portraiture, fashioning a horror film that felt contemporary in its concern with media as offering only an illusion of “all access” to its subjects.

Tribeca Film Festival 2016 The Phenom

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Tribeca Film Festival 2016: The Phenom

RLJ Entertainment

Tribeca Film Festival 2016: The Phenom

Noah Buschel’s The Phenom may be about a struggling young pitcher’s attempt to overcome his mental block after a bad baseball game has him sent down to the minors, but the film is by no means a standard sports movie. Outside of an opening scene of baseball action that turns out to be archival footage two people are watching on a TV set, there’s none of the big-game action and sentimental triumph-over-adversity arcs that are usually de rigueur for these types of films. Instead, The Phenom is mostly made up of a series of conversations: therapy sessions and confrontations, the film diving into the past in order to understand the present, the way pitching wunderkind Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) explores his own personal history under the guidance of his psychologist, Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti).

Tribeca Review: Good Kill

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Tribeca Review: <em>Good Kill</em>
Tribeca Review: <em>Good Kill</em>

In Good Kill, filmmaker Andrew Niccol seizes on an unnerving and ever-relevant subject. It’s one thing to read of U.S. drone strikes daily in the papers and quite another to watch even simulated images of American pilots cramped in bunkers bombing Afghanistan, via consoles that resemble video games in aesthetic as well as mode of functioning. Real people are killed as casually as pixels in an Xbox game, and that distancing, yet another manifestation of the social media-enabled detachment that characterizes the amorality of modern life, arrives with an obvious, staggering price tag attached. With great ease comes little responsibility or accountability. If bombing 30 people from 10,000 feet above is a risk-free endeavor for the bombers, then it matters less to them, living half a world’s away, whether or not those people pose an authentic threat to their domain.

Logically, Niccol has fashioned from this subject matter a chamber drama that reflects the tight confines of the drone pilot’s trailer. Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a major in the U.S. Air Force who’s flown six tours in the War on Terror and is now uneasily resigning himself to a job at a console in Las Vegas. Despite the safety of his new occupation, and his newfound proximity to his wife, Molly (January Jones), and children, Thomas is beginning to exhibit signs of PTSD, most explicitly in his drinking, aloofness, and inability to sleep. The guilt spurred from the physical ease of the assignment is wearing Thomas down, as he misses the risk of actual flight, which blurs the political uncertainties of his part in the war through the sheer visceral fight-or-flight sensations of battle. In physical warfare, Thomas is extending his opponents the etiquette of endangering his own life; now, he can’t live with what he deems to be the cowardice of long-distance warfare.

Oscar 2015 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

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Oscar 2015 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor
Oscar 2015 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

It may be a moot point since he actually got nominated in the lead category, but many wondered why Foxcatcher’s Steve Carell didn’t attempt a campaign in supporting actor, which is where BAFTA slotted him. In other words, his thinly drawn portrayal of John du Pont as an unstable, homicidal cuckoo would be competing in a category more welcoming of that particular kind of role. Best supporting actor has recently gone all-in for sociopathic, antagonistic wild cards (Anton Chigurh, the Joker, Jared Leto’s sense of self-satisfaction), making it the most predictable Oscar category of them all. (The surprised reaction greeting Christoph Waltz’s repeat win two years ago was less a reflection of the quality of his performance and more a reaction to the nobility of his proto-civil rights gunslinger character.) It, in part, explains why Patricia Arquette is widely considered to be the frontrunner for her award, but her hirsute Boyhood counterpart Ethan Hawke is at best running a fairly distant second or third for turning in equally nuanced work as an only part-time functional father figure—and why Oscar voters gave Robert Duvall’s far more flamboyantly flawed, piss-n’-vinegar patriarch a free pass to just be happy for the nomination once again. You have to assume Carell’s handlers took note of how frequently J.K. Simmons’s profane performance as Satan in Whiplash (which, despite all the seasoned professionalism the actor brings to the set, still emerges as the barely human equivalent of the all-staccato soundtrack to Birdman) earned comparison to another prototypal best supporting actor: An Officer and a Gentleman’s Lou Gossett Jr. And then promptly ran for the hills.

Berlinale 2014 Boyhood

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Berlinale 2014: Boyhood
Berlinale 2014: Boyhood

Boyhood proves Richard Linklater the nonpareil of carving out small moments of resounding truth in behaviors that are, for lack of any better phrase, made up. As in an early scene where a brother and sister’s quarrelling in the back seats of a car moves beautifully from bickering animus to snickering affection. Or when a mom makes the little “toot, toot” gesture with her thumb and forefinger to ask her teenage son if he’d been smoking weed. Or the father who consoles his kid with the harsh truth that his girlfriend “traded up.”

The film captures the young life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from first grade through his move-in day at the University of Texas at Austin. Shot over the course of 12 years with a cast of mostly unprofessional or semi-professional actors, as well as Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, this remarkably powerful film seems like a stunt only on paper. The span of Linklater’s story, if it can even be called that, allows him the latitude to leisurely explore Mason’s relationships to his mother (Arquette), sometimes-deadbeat dad (Hawke), sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), and a rotating cast of friends, girlfriends, and step-siblings.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

Tomorrow, the Writers Guild of America will announce its 2014 award winners, and whichever scribe(s) waltz off with the Original Screenplay prize may do the same on Oscar night, as all five nominees in the category were replicated by the Academy’s writers branch. The result of the WGA’s Adapted Screenplay race, however, won’t prove as keen a barometer of what might go down at the Dolby on March 2. Only three of the guild’s Adapted Screenplay contenders—Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, and The Wolf of Wall Street—made it onto Oscar’s shortlist, and even if one of them triumphs, breezing past Tracy Letts’s opus about familial dysfunction, August: Osage County, and Peter Berg’s bizarrely recognized soldiers-as-mincemeat shit show Lone Survivor, there’s still the seemingly impassable hurdle of John Ridley’s script for 12 Years a Slave, which, though ineligible for WGA honors (you can get those exclusion deets here), looks like Oscar’s indisputable frontrunner. Steve McQueen’s chilly directorial shortcomings may underscore what’s weak in Ridley’s take on Solomon Northup’s memoir (namely an undernourished depiction of the precious family from which our hero is stripped), but it feels nuts to bet against the one script in this field tied to a plausible Best Picture winner.