Monthly Archives: March 2018

SXSW: The Unicorn

Sometimes a long-term relationship can feel stale. Some couples sink into this feeling of familiarity and comfort and stability, and others try to buck it. You might spice things up with date nights or couples therapy or a second honeymoon. Or, if you’re like Malory and Caleb (“Mal and Cal”), in their 4th consecutive, stagnant year of engagement with no wedding date in sight, you might try a threesome.

Is this the right move for Mal and Cal? Their problems seem to stem less from bland sex than from the fact that neither is keen to commit since neither feels “sure.” TheUnicorn-1Although neither knows what “sure” will feel like. They say you’ll “just know” and they don’t, so is this not love? Or not forever love, anyway? Mal’s parents are celebrating their 25th anniversary and they’re as randy as ever – apparently because they dabble in the ole menage a trois. So of course the night before the vow renewal, Mal and Cal decide to recruit a stranger into their bedroom (a “unicorn” if you will) and they realize that there’s a reason they call it menage (which means work!).

Lauren Lapkus and Nicholas Rutherford have some great chemistry, which is a funny thing to say because of course the comedy here stems from their mutual awkwardness. Nothing goes the way they think it will because of course what they need to do is understand themselves, and each other, not bring a third entity into the mix. But there’s something about a sexy third wheel that brings your true feelings to the forefront real quick. Are they cool about it? Of course they’re not. It’s total awktopus comedy, and you’ll have to look no further than the landscape of Rutherford’s face to see how well (or, let’s be real – how explosively badly) it’s landing. Watching this thing as a silent voyeur, you’re nearly a unicorn yourself, certainly a narwhal at least, so why not give it a go?



SXSW: 6 Balloons

Katie is having a busy day. She’s throwing a surprise party for her boyfriend and she’s got stuff to do: food, cake, balloons, the usual. Plus picking up her brother, Seth. Is this a good day for Seth to have relapsed on heroin? No it is not. Is there any right time to do that? Likely not. But it’s an especially bad day, seeing how Katie’s got a houseful of people waiting on her, and Seth’s 3 year old daughter Ella is along for the ride.

Yeah, I REALLY wish that last part wasn’t true. The thing is, Katie (Abbi Jacobson) has been down this road with her brother before. And she’d displaying the classic 6balloonsheadersymptoms of the caring sister who’s also sort of an enabler. Because instead of leaving him to get his shit together, she’s prepared to miss the party and spend the night driving around the dirtiest, sleaziest parts of L.A. to find her brother (Dave Franco) a detox facility, and barring that – well, something far worse.

This film accurately depicts the enormous toll that addictions take on the whole family – it truly is a family disease. Everybody plays their part. Heroin is no joke and someone withdrawing from it is in very sick, and possibly very dangerous territory. Any movie that has realistic portraying of drug use is of course going to be hard to watch, and for a lot of us, having such a young child along as a witness is just heartbreaking.

Sean left this movie quite mad at Katie, for her choices and her failures, but that’s what makes this movie interesting. Director Marja-Lewis Ryan allows us the space to sympathize with both characters and to come away with our own judgments – and it will be very hard not to judge. Addiction is a powerful disease and the truth is that most people will relapse. And it’s also true that drug addicts are judged far more harshly than, say, someone who has had a second or third heart attack – even though both diseases have genetic components, and involve some willpower over lifestyle. Nobody wants to be hooked on heroin, and no one wants to die coming off it. And Katie loves her brother but doesn’t know which choices will ultimately serve him better. Or when to say no. Or how to set boundaries. And of course drug addicts are infamous for pushing boundaries anyway.

6 Balloons is a mercifully quick ride at 74 minutes but it doesn’t let you off easily; it will pack enough horror into its short run time for 20 normal movies. But it’s not just horror, it’s also love. So much love. But is love what Seth needs right now?

You can decide for yourself: this movie will hit Netflix April 6.


Wild Nights With Emily

Emily Dickinson, that is.

This movie started and I was like: ugh. They’re really flaunting their teeny-tiny budget. This is a period piece but the costumes look rented and the sets are old (but not old enough) houses and the accents are atrocious and the props are vintage perhaps but certainly not antiques. But once I let go of my authenticity bias, I relaxed and could appreciate that no, this film can’t afford to look like an ethereal Austen period piece, but it does have something important to say.

Emily Dickinson was a brilliant American poet who was never published or recognized during her lifetime because her lifestyle was not “becoming.” In order to publish them MV5BOGIyNjg0NWItYjMzMS00N2I0LTllYjUtMzBhMjJkMDgzMWM3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTc5OTQwMzk@._V1_posthumously, a narrative was created about her that has ever since called her a recluse, a virgin, a socially awkward spinster, which are all words attributed to women who just didn’t fit the mold. In reality, Emily had a passionate love affair with her brother’s wife, Susan. Many of her fieriest poems are dedicated to her – and name her. Traces of their relationship were of course literally erased from history in order to sell her poems to a conservative market. Dickinson was a woman ahead of her time in so many ways and this movie’s ambition is to have us reconsider the things we think we know about her.

Director Madeleine Olnek knows that letting Dickinson’s true flag fly may prove controversial, and that people generally don’t enjoy lectures about feminism, so she’s made a film that we can laugh at. And the best signal that this movie will be tongue-in-cheek is her casting of Molly Shannon as Ms. Dickinson. Molly gives Emily an energy and a joie de vivre that has been absent in our conception of her. But it’s clear from her poetry that Dickinson was in fact a woman of real passion – she loved and was loved. She was also constrained by her gender, class, and status, and all of those things have shaped our image of her. It’s only thanks to Susan’s daughter that we know of their great love and lifelong relationship, and to dedicated scholars who have uncovered the clues that were of course there all along. Don’t watch this movie if you can’t think outside the box. But do watch if you think the world needs more feminist, lesbian heroes – they’ve always existed, they just need our acknowledgement.

SXSW: Prospect

prospect-126347Hard science fiction is a tough sell, especially cinematically. Soft sci-fi is far more exciting and eye-pleasing. It lets us hop around the galaxy at faster-than-light speed, meet aliens at every space station, and have luxury accommodations in the starships on which we’re travelling. Conversely, hard sci-fi travel is slow and cramped and space is largely empty. Prospect is a hard sci-fi movie that remains resolute in the face of the obstacles posed by its chosen genre, and by and large overcomes them.

Prospect’s aesthetic is reminicent of Alien and I’m sure that was intentional. Like in Alien, Prospect’s version of space travel is analogue, with lots of switches and dials and flashing lights. It’s also utilitarian with a wild-west feel, as space travelling prospectors hitch their “wagons” to a large transport on its last run to a forest moon, the site of a gold rush that seems to be coming to an end. We follow a father-daughter duo in search of one last score, with only a short window of time to get in and out before the transport leaves, as if they miss that ride they will be left to die on the poisonous moon.

Prospect does a great job at dropping clues about the way this world works, showing us the desperation and pressure felt by this working class family from nowhere, hinting at the boom and bust that has hit this moon and those who work it, and suggesting that the colonization of the universe has made humanity revert to a savage, lawless existence on the frontiers. If set in another era, this story would work perfectly as a western, and that seems fitting when our protagonists are travelling to the edge of the known universe to stake resource claims, hoping to strike it rich.

Despite its indie-movie budget constraints, Prospect manages to convincingly portray space travel and an alien world on the big screen. The special effects are not spectacular but they are effective. Prospect succeeds due to its excellence in world-building, both visually and narratively. While Prospect is definitely a niche film, it is one that science fiction fans will enjoy.

SXSW: Damsel

This movie lit the Internet critics on fire when it premiered at Sundance, so it was an easy add to our crowded list here at SXSW. Brothers David Zellner and Nathan Zellner were the writers-directors behind the TIFF hit Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter a few years back so of course people were aflame to see what they’d come up with next.

In Damsel, they give us a beautiful if vaguely set Western. Sam (Robert Pattinson) has just arrived in a crummy unnamed town – the kind of town that’ll hang you for skull duggery, skull thuggery, and/or skull buggery, but they’ll yodel for you first. Bathing is rare and tooth brushing is evidently unheard of, which are unfortunate habits in a MV5BYjg2N2M2NjUtNWNjOS00MWMyLTgyOTctM2IwOTE3ZjVhMzNlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTU5Mzk0NjE@._V1_people so fond of social gang-bangs. Sam, who very  much looks the part of a gentleman, and who has arrived with “the Farrah Fawcett of miniature horses”, a lovely girl named Butterscotch, traipses through town in search of the forever-inebriated parson, whom he has engaged and will pay generously for his services. He’s here to marry his “true pure love” Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), and they’ve only got to battle the wilderness, stave off predators, rescue her from “scum-loving evil” and survive anything from an interrupted morning wank to a bent-gun fight in order to make his intended his wife.

The Zellner brothers aren’t too concerned about geographic or temporal accuracy, and nor should you be. Instead they’ve cobbled together the very best bits from every dusty corner of the genre and assembled them into a whole that is surprising and new. The score is amazing and cinematographer Adam Stone does some impressive work making Utah bend to his will. The film is more colourful and more lively than other westerns, and if ever there was a film begging us to forget what we know of the genre and start from glorious, scrubby scratch, this is it. But this is not just a film to keep you guessing, it also keeps you giggling, which it does in defiance of the genre. I wouldn’t call it absurd, exactly, but it’s a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed, and I think you’d have to be a pretty dedicated stick in the mud not to get a whole lot of enjoyment out of this one.

SXSW: Isle of Dogs

Read the title out loud and kind of quick, and it’s hardly distinguishable from “I love dogs” but the conflict in the film actually comes from not loving them enough. A city in Japan has a dog-hating mayor who selfishly spreads lies and rhetoric about the dog flu, and gets and\or manufactures enough support that he succeeds in banishing all dogs to Trash Island.

As most of you know (because my bursting heart can’t shut up about it), I’m lucky enough to share my life and home with four of the sweetest doggies in the world. I Isle of Dogs 1 via Fox Searchlight Headersometimes wonder if I prefer dogs to people, and I certainly do prefer my dogs to most people. I think dogs are so much better than we deserve. They are 100% heart. So it’s hard for me to imagine a bunch of dog owners so willing to sentence their dogs to a terrible, lonely, miserable life and death. Of the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of dogs sent to live and die on Trash Island, only one is lucky enough to have an owner come looking for him – a 12 year old boy named Atari. When Atari becomes stranded on the island, a scruffy pack of dogs generously decides to help him find his beloved Spots. Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban), Rex (Ed Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), and even the reluctant Chief (Bryan Cranston) band together to reunite boy and dog on a journey that you  might just say belongs in a Wes Anderson movie.

And it is a Wes Anderson movie, horray! So of course it’s got some truly absorbing attention to detail, a sweet soundtrack, and a poignancy verging on nostalgia. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is beautifully rendered in stop-motion animation. Each dog puppet is a thing of beauty, with fur (made of alpaca hair, apparently) so pettable and little noses that you’re sure are moist to the touch. Their expressive eyes bore into you, and as Bob Balaban so eloquently put it during the Q&A following the film, it could have been a silent film and still been just as affecting.

As saturated as they are aesthetically, some may argue that Wes Anderson movies are ultimately style over substance. Isle of Dogs has some pretty obvious themes about mass hysteria and maybe even fake news, but for me the takeaway is simply to love better – dare I say, more like a dog, fully, and with devotion.

The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter

It’s hard to imagine a movie more out of touch with the greater culture right now. In the era of #neveragain, this movie puts an assault rifle in the hands of a gleeful, stupid 12 year old, and expects it to be funny.

Buck Ferguson (Josh Brolin, 40 lbs heavier, with an inexcusable mustache) is an asshat hunter who makes his living making juvenile hunting videos caught on film by his faithful manservant\camera man, Don (Danny McBride). Now, I don’t care for (white) featured_legacy_whitetail_deer_hunter10hunters any day of the week. Unless you’re preserving a (native) way of life, food can be purchased in a civilized manner at the super market, and anything else is just fulfilling a latent desire for murder. So I already despise Buck and his way of life, but now he’s bring along his son Jaden (Montana Jordan), ostensibly to “reconnect” after divorcing his mother, but actually because he hopes it’ll be ratings gold.

If arming a preteen doesn’t nominate Buck for worst father of the year already, he’s also just checked out and uninterested. His son has plenty of other hobbies, but Buck either ignores them or flat-out forbids them (or tosses them in the river, because he’s an intolerant bastard). The only acceptable form of bonding is hunting, and the only acceptable form of hunting is to stalk a beautiful animal and then watch the life leave its frightened eyes as it bleeds out all over your boots.

I would like to believe this kind of insensitive fatherhood and unfathomable personhood is a dying way of life, but whether or not I’m right, it’s definitely no joke. I’m pretty sure I didn’t crack a smile this whole entire movie because as long as a trigger is twitching near fingers that aren’t even finished growing yet, I could not take my eye off the gun(s). It made me angry. As tens of thousands of kids walked out of class to protest their continued slaughter at the hands of fellow students, armed to the teeth, the world just doesn’t have room for this kind of “entertainment”, or for the kind of people who would be entertained by it. Shame on Netflix for picking this one up.

SXSW: Pet Names

Leigh’s life revolves around caregiving. Her mother is sick and her death is slow. Slow, slow, slow, like watching a corpse decompose above ground. Leigh needs a break but her mother is obviously not in any shape to take vacation…so she invites her ex-boyfriend instead.

Leigh (Meredith Johnston) and Cam (Rene Cruz) dated for a long time, and it becomes apparent on this camping trip that their ends are pretty jagged. I mean, let’s just take a MV5BYzE5ZTJjZjEtYjJlOS00YmU0LWJkZWYtYWE1MDJkNDcwMWVhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjYzNzU5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_breather for a minute and think about whether you’d be willing to go camping with your ex. Me? Hahahaha, no. Of course, I don’t want to camp with anyone, ever, because camping is awful. But I wouldn’t go on a luxury vacation with them either. Or for a 12 minute coffee. I’m a mover-oner.

Leigh and Cam? I’m not sure they’re ready to move on, but they’ve got a lot of baggage between them and no amount of fireside whiskey is going to make it disappear. Plus, Leigh is a different person now. She’s experiencing grief and loss and it’s changing her. Maybe Cam doesn’t know her anymore. Did he ever?

Pet Names has lovely cinematography (the kind of camera trickery that might actually make camping seem like a good idea). It also has a thoughtful script, penned by Meredith Johnston herself. It’s no wonder she seems so comfortable in her character’s skin. She and Cruz have the kind of chemistry that’s believable between two people who’ve seen each other naked but aren’t supposed to anymore. Director Carol Brandt gets to the meat of this, eagerly having them confront old wounds that are not past bleeding. The camping trip may look beautiful, but with so much to unpack, it’s clear this getaway will be anything but restorative.


SXSW: Boundaries

Laura is making her therapist proud by making and enforcing some strong, much-needed boundaries with her father. She’s also lying to her therapist about plenty of things, including the actual number of rescue animals currently residing in her home, and in her purse on the floor of the therapist’s office. But Laura’s father Jack is very good at testing boundaries, and right now, he’s a man in need. His retirement residence is kicking him out, and if Laura is unprepared to house him in the home she shares with her teenage son Henry, the least she can do is drive him cross-country to her sister’s home in L.A.. Right?

MV5BMTY5NzMzNTcwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg0MTc3NDM@._V1_Laura (Vera Farmiga) loves her son, and her pets, and against all odds, her father. Her son is a sensitive, gym-hating, naked-picture-drawing type (Lewis MacDougall) who’s just been permanently expelled from school. Her rescued pets are a rag-tag, flea-ridden circus of mange, as pathetic as they are cute. Her dad (Chrisopher Plummer) is a drug dealer and a rapscallion through and through, and terminally charming.

The cast works together as a dysfunctional unit. Director Shana Feste puts together a trio that doesn’t seem like a natural fit but somehow it works – perhaps because they’re all sort of loners in their way, much like the abandoned animals they pick up along the way, and they find a reluctant companionship that turns into some genuine, heartening chemistry onscreen. Toss in a dash of Bobby Cannavale, a splash of Christopher Lloyd (and Christopher Lloyd’s balls, as Farmiga was quick to recall, and not without a blush), and sprinkling of Peter Fonda…my goodness, it’s a bowl of mixed nuts,  more salty than sweet, but it went down mighty well.

I saw this at SXSW when I’d also just seen You Can Choose Your Family, and made me think: good lord, these directors have daddy issues. But I guess all art comes out of some frustration, some need to prove something to someone. But since father issues are nearly universal, I suppose these films feel at once familiar but also just removed enough that we can laugh at them, enjoy a moment of catharsis because someone else has it just a little tougher than you. Collectively the audience will laugh, and will emit a sigh of relief for having survived this awkward family trip.




Thanks for keeping up with our frantic SXSW coverage. We’re posting so frequently you may have missed Sean’s great review of The Director and The Jedi, or my review of the truly astonishing Blindspotting, or Matt’s review of the documentary From All Corners.

SXSW: Fast Color

fast-color-116514Julia Hart, the director and co-writer of Fast Color, almost had me fooled.  She introduced Fast Color to the SXSW crowd as a story about motherhood, and in a way that’s true.  Of course, in a way it is also true that the original Superman comics are about the experiences of Jewish immigrants.  I mention Superman because both Fast Color and Superman use superheroes to tell their stories, although the movies’ respective approaches to the genre are worlds apart.

Fast Color might be best described as a near-future quest for redemption, as Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) tries to stay one step ahead of her pursuers in the harsh wasteland that the midwestern United States has become due to a prolonged drought. Plot-wise, that’s all you’re getting from me, so you’ll have to watch the film to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

I hope one day we won’t need to make the case for inclusion, but since we’re not there yet, Fast Color is more proof that diversity in film generates powerful, original, thought-provoking movies. Fast Color possesses all those qualities and a big reason why is because it is a story about women told by women. It is the kind of movie that we need (and deserve) more of. It is the kind of movie that helps us see things from a different perspective and realize that we are made stronger, not weaker, by our differences.

Fast Color is yet another SXSW surprise, a movie that we lucked into by virtue of scheduling and one that I urge you to keep an eye out for. It does not currently have a release date but hopefully a strong SXSW showing will change that, as this is a movie that deserves to be seen.