Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
Each week at Rogerebert.com, we try to present reviews of 13 new movies on our homepage ranging from blockbuster studio movies to documentaries, foreign films and independent feature films. When possible, we also present relevant reviews from the archives of Roger Ebert. Each of our reviewers has a style and personality of his or her own. In addition to our regular film critics we have occasional contributors and our Far Flung Correspondents who write articles or reviews from their own unique perspectives.
In order to get to know our regular reviewers better, we are running a series this week called "Who's Who in Reviews." Each day, we will present profiles of two critics along with a listing of all of the reviews they have written in 2015. Today we will start with our two editors: Brian Tallerico and Matt Zoller Seitz. We will continue the rest of the week with Glenn Kenny, Godfrey Cheshire, Christy Lemire, Susan Wloszczyna, Sheila O'Malley, Odie Henderson, Simon Abrams and Peter Sobczynski. We hope you enjoy getting to know our reviewers a bit better.
Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
I grew up in the Detroit suburbs and I remember a happy childhood (other than a bout with depression in high school), surrounded by the kind of supportive, wonderful people that I try to surround my kids with now. I learned the importance of family and friends growing up, always supported by brilliant parents, who taught me the value of intelligence and passion, and a sister with whom I fought when younger but now inspires me daily with her love for life and her allegiance to those who are important to her. My father's large family also lives in the Detroit area to this day and, like a lot of people, most of my memories of growing up are associated with family events on holidays or, of course, spending time with the friends I made in middle and high school. I adore Chicago but I do sometimes think fondly of those days in Detroit. (And will be a Tigers and Lions fan till I die.)
Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?
Both of my parents were movie fans but it was my mother's adoration of musicals that I think had the most formative effect. I remember watching movies like "Singin' in the Rain," "On the Town," and "Kiss Me Kate" repeatedly as a youngster, along with classics like "Some Like It Hot" and the majority of the Hitchcock catalog. My parents instilled in me a love for classic cinema. It also helped significantly that they were theater lovers, especially my father, who took me to Broadway at a young age. It sparked a love for the stage in me, pushing me toward a career in theater. I acted a good amount in high school and college but fell in love with directing, mounting plays in college and even one here in Chicago. Not able to pay rent with it, I took only a slight turn from my Theater/English education and focused on writing about what I loved, including film, but I trace a lot of what I do back to watching and, importantly, discussing films with my parents at a young age. They encouraged conversation. I remember talking about what I read or watched and THAT had the greatest impact. Fiction and film weren't just to ingest, they were ways to spark discussion.
What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?
It's a weird answer given how easily people who do what I do can usually pick one out but I don't think I have one. As mentioned above, I saw so many movies as a kid. We would go rent any VHS tape that had a Disney logo on it, along with all of those musicals and classics. So I don't have "that movie." They all blend together.
What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."
I'm not sure which movie it was (probably "Rear Window") but I'm pretty sure that Alfred Hitchcock was the first filmmaker who created that feeling within me. When I started to connect the dots from film to film and see how he approached cinema differently, it really opened the concept of the auteur to me. It wasn't just Hitch's human personality, it was the fascination that his choices inspired decisions in others—the idea of "influence" from one genius to another—that really opened me up to the idea of criticizing film in the first place. And then that concept introduced me to Roger's writing and the rest is history.
What's the first movie you ever walked out of?
Never happened. I think we talked about it at "The Crow 2: City of Angels" but I'm pretty sure we stuck it out. From a very early age, including even in middle school, I was writing reviews for my school paper, and so I always say watching movies as research to some extent, buying into the clichéd theory that you can learn as much about the form from a bad movie as a good one. I still think that's true most of the time.
What's the funniest film you've ever seen?
What's the saddest film you've ever seen?
This one's tough. I think the saddest film "experience" I can remember came after talking to my grandfather about some of his time in WWII, a subject about which he rarely speaks, and then watching "Schindler's List," which happened to be airing, uncut, on network TV that very night. I was alone, in a dark room, drawing parallels in my emotions from what my beloved family member experienced and the story in front of me. I was a wreck by the end. I get emotional even thinking about it now.
What's the scariest film you've ever seen?
There are only two films that I can say for sure entered my dreams in the form of a nightmare—"Halloween" and "Carnival of Souls." Whenever anyone asks me to list the scariest movies, I always put those two at the top.
What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?
Again, a tough one. I adore "Casablanca" and "Annie Hall" as much as the next guy, maybe more, but when I think of passion and romance, "In the Mood For Love" is high on my personal list. It's a film that's not just about doomed romance in its narrative but it displays a romance for the period and for filmmaking in general. It is romance in every frame.
What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?
"Twin Peaks." The impact of that show on a teenager just realizing the power of the growing medium can't be understated. It changed everything, and arguably opened my mind to film as well as I became more interested in Lynch's work after seeing it.
What book do you think about or revisit the most?
Paul Auster's "The New York Trilogy." It's perfect. Go read it.
What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?
R.E.M. I was introduced to "Murmur" at a very young age, around when it came out in the early '80s, and listened to every new recording, on release, from that point until their retirement. R.E.M. captured something about my youth that no other band got near. They could be both catchy and intellectual at the same time. They crossed pop melodies like the Beatles with poetry in their lyrics. And, as much as I'll admit that they peaked in the '80s, I was a fan until the bitter end, long after others gave up on the band.
Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?
I sat through "Requiem For a Dream" in a bouncy theater at the Landmark Century (Chicagoans will know what I mean but for others, there's an auditorium underneath the Bally's Fitness treadmills above it and the seats bounce with varying intensity depending on the time of day) and the "Sensurround" effect added to the nausea naturally created by the intensity of Aronofsky's film. I think I'll forever leave the film in that moment just on the edge of puking even if I know it's powerful enough that I should see it again.
What movie have you seen more times than any other?
See the comedy answer above. I could watch "Blazing Saddles" every quarter. Ditto "Jaws," which is probably the actual answer. "Jaws" is perfect from first frame to last.
What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?
I'm not sure here but I remember my parents had a rule that they would see an R-rated film first to make sure it was "OK" for me to see it. For some reason, one of the first films that I can remember getting the pass was "Coming to America." Sure, decent comedy, but not exactly life-changing. It wasn't the first but I can remember my father allowing me to see "Platoon" at a relatively young age as well and that had a much greater impact.
What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?
"The Tree of Life". There hasn't been a better film released since Malick's masterpiece came out and I think it's going to be some time before it's topped.
Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?
Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?
Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?
Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?
What film do you love that most people seem to hate?
"Southland Tales," fascinating, amazing, and incoherent in a beautiful way.
What film do you hate that most people love?
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," the worst, most manipulative, vile film ever nominated for Best Picture.
Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.
The London Film Festival, my first film festival, in 1995. "Mighty Aphrodite." The movie and the fest weren't anything particular special but I was only 20, studying in Cambridge, England, and I traveled down to London for the fest. Combining the wonderful place I was at in my life's journey with Woody Allen, a filmmaker I loved at that time, the moment had incredible power. I get to see Woody Allen's new film before anyone I know in London! I'll never forget it.
What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?
The desire of people to instantly judge a film so they can tweet about it or post a status update. Some of the best films ever made need time to sink in. And we don't give ourselves time any more. We're too obsessed with instant response. Is it good? Is it bad? Moving on to the next one. I think things like smartphones, Twitter, and Facebook have hurt the modern theatrical experience by forcing us to define it so quickly.
What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?
When I was a teenager, I saw "Batman" three times in three consecutive days. I was obsessed with Burton's vision and in love with comics at the time. I guess I miss having the time for that kind of passionate, moviegoing weekend. There are so many options nowadays that the sense of one movie dominating a life for a weekend isn't as intense as it once was. Now, kids would be watching other movies on their smart phones while they wait in line for tickets that they pre-ordered. The days of being "in the moment" of the moviegoing experience are kind of gone.
Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?
No. I can't say that I have. I have friends who hate movies that I love and vice versa but I can't imagine that ever damaging the friendship. It's not a real friendship if that's even a possibility. You can be wrong about "Southland Tales" and I'll still love you. Many of you are. Now, "In the Mood For Love" might be a different story…
What movies have you dreamed about?
Other than the horror question above, I can't think of any. Maybe my dreams are too boring. Or too exciting.
What concession stand item can you not live without?
Not a big concession guy. I spend too much time at the theater. I'd be broke if I couldn't live without any of it.
“Addicted to Fresno” is such a mean-spirited, dull and silly movie that it buries its talented cast under the weight of a horrendous script that they can’t possibly redeem.
“Amnesiac” falls into that chasm in between gory, ridiculous fun and realism. We have no reason to care about the Man and Woman, and less so as the mysteries of the story reveal themselves. The story doesn’t provide it, and neither does the filmmaking.
Any Day *
It is the kind of film that opens with “I Shall Be Released” and actually gets less subtle from there. Worst of all, what at first feels like a mediocre character drama becomes something more insidious when writer/director Rustam Branaman uses unspeakable tragedy as an unearned device in a morality play.
Area 51 *1/2
The relatively tense final half-hour is clearly the reason that very smart producer Jason Blum thought this would be a solid follow-up to “Paranormal Activity.” It’s that first hour that is the reason it took six years to (barely) get released.
“Bessie” is best appreciated as a character/performance piece. Like you would if you went to an actual Blues concert, just enjoy the star in the spotlight, sharing some of herself and some of the visions of her songwriters in every note.
Black Souls ***
“Black Souls” isn’t quite the great film the international cinema buzz machine has touted it to be in some circles, but it is a very good one, the kind that ends with such gravity that you feel its weight for a while after.
When "Blind" begins to fold in on itself, becoming almost Charlie Kaufman-esque in its multi-layered examination of artifice and reality, that it reaches another level of filmmaking. This is an excellent, daring piece of work.
Bloodsucking Bastards **1/2
Call this one “Bram Stoker’s The Office,” or “George A. Romero’s Office Space.” “Bloodsucking Bastards” doesn’t quite hit all of the marks it needed to in order to wholeheartedly recommend, but it is often surprisingly clever and funnier than most horror-comedies of the last two decades.
[Joel] Potrykus and [Joshua] Burge don’t stoop to asking us to necessarily “like” Marty, as so many filmmakers have with their angry young men, but by making him seem so real it’s impossible not to want to grab him, shake him, and figure him out.
The Casual Vacancy **1/2
We can’t avoid death or government, even in small-town England. They are inevitabilities and the best parts of “The Casual Vacancy” reveal how they intertwine into everyday life in ways we may not fully understand until we gain the clear vision of hindsight.
The Cobbler 1/2*
If one subscribes to the theory that you can learn as much from a bad movie as from a good one, this one’s a master class in what not to do. What starts off as purely harmless mediocrity piles on the narrative and filmmaking mistakes to such a degree that it’s like watching a train wreck…that bursts into flames…and then another train crashes into it.
A challenging work that can be both exhilarating and grueling in its deliberate pace. [Jem] Cohen is an undeniably gifted filmmaker, even if the sum total of this piece isn’t quite as interesting as its parts.
Cut Bank *1/2
There’s an honest sadness in [John] Malkovich’s performance that one doesn’t often see in thrillers, and it’s a moving, relatable human emotion on which to hold while watching “Cut Bank”. The problem is that it’s the only one.
Dark Places *1/2
Failing to find a visual language for the piece that reaches beyond a Lifetime TV Movie and adapting the material in such a way that makes her protagonist largely inactive in her own story, [Gilles] Paquet-Brenner only makes the already-underrated “Gone Girl” look even more accomplished.
As is often the case with films that crib from the horror-comedy masters like Peter Jackson, the balance is tougher to pull off than it first appears, and “Deathgasm” gets a bit numbing and repetitive before it’s over, but there’s enough fun, clever material here for metalheads and horror fans to like until Sean Byrne’s superior “The Devil Candy” lands sometime next year.
Deep Web **
One gets the sense that [Alex] Winter was trying to hit a moving target. This is a story that’s still being told and an important chapter of American history that’s still being written. Ultimately, despite some reasonably strong filmmaking, “Deep Web” feels too much like a footnote.
“Entourage” ended in such a way that I don’t think even diehard fans of the HBO show were overly concerned about Vinny and the boys. There were no loose ends to tie up. And, in that sense, “Entourage” feels like another victory lap for characters who had already won the race of life.
The protagonist is nowhere near as interesting as the title character, and so whenever Del Toro is off-camera, which is more than half the film, we feel his absence to the degree that one wonders if the film wouldn’t work better without the true figure behind it. We have different expectations for casting as perfect as “Benicio Del Toro as Pablo Escobar” than we do from “Josh Hutcherson as Some Dumb Canadian.”
Every Secret Thing *1/2
The reason “Every Secret Thing” lacks intensity is because [Nicole] Holofcener and [Amy] Berg forgot to craft real characters. Every single person in this film is a cog in the thriller machine, and most of their dialogue merely pushes the mystery forward.
The fact that [Julius Onah] injects his remarkably promising debut “The Girl is in Trouble” with an undercurrent of commentary about class and race isn’t the only thing that makes it promising. It’s tightly directed and well-performed, particularly by Columbus Short and a career-redefining turn from Wilmer Valderrama.
Alex Gibney's controversial “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” is in some senses a perfect fit for filmmaker and subject. Where has this controversial religion come from? How did it attain such popularity? And why is it such a part of the fabric of Hollywood? [...] That Gibney doesn’t quite get all the answers to these questions isn’t as material as it might be for other films. He’s tackling them as no one else could.
A Hard Day ***
Like a Neeson vehicle, at its best, “A Hard Day” has a breakneck pace that allows one to easily dismiss the more ridiculous, downright nonsensical aspects of its plot. Only occasionally will the eyes roll. For the most part, it works.
“Hitman: Agent 47” is aggressively awful, the kind of film that rubs its lackadaisical screenwriting, dull filmmaking and boring characters in your face, almost daring you to ask the theater operator for your money back. It is a film that feels made out of contractual obligation instead of artistic venture, or even a remote desire to entertain.
The Hunting Ground ***1/2
Director Kirby Dick & Producer Amy Ziering follow up their award-winning “The Invisible War” with another incendiary, shocking, infuriating masterpiece, “The Hunting Ground.” Again, they tackle an institution that has engendered a climate in which sexual assault has nearly become normalized, an expectation on certain college campuses.
Leah Meyerhoff is a major new talent. Her “I Believe in Unicorns” is an accomplished coming-of-age tale that both calls back to the dozens of stories like it that we’ve seen and charts its own course.
In the Game ***
What’s most fascinating about “In the Game,” and it’s remarkable how much [Maria] Finitzo allows this element to unfold naturally and without underlining, is that the young ladies that the film captures all have a striking resilience about them.
If you’re one of those people who watched the original every time it was on cable (and found something to tweet about it), [the film] contains enough callbacks to the original to satisfy. Anyone else should probably look elsewhere for their comedy. “Joe Dirt 2” is wildly inconsistent, often feeling like it was slapped together quickly before someone changed their mind and put a stop payment on the financing check.
Just as Nirvana took elements of music we had heard before and made them sound new, filmmaker Brett Morgen deconstructs the music documentary and makes it feel new again. In fact, this is one of the best music documentaries ever made.
Lost River **
The problems with [Ryan] Gosling's film exist in that tried-and-true line between being mysterious & symbolic and just being self-indulgent. The best elements of “Lost River” approach near fairy tale tones.
Mad Max: Fury Road ****
The first chase in “Fury Road,” as Joe’s men catch up to Furiosa and her precious cargo, is one of the most remarkable action sequences in film history. And that’s really just a warm-up. It’s no exaggeration to say that, if you think something in “Fury Road” is the most breathtaking action stunt you’ve seen in years, you really need only wait a few minutes to see something better.
[David Gordon] Green leaves Pacino adrift in “Manglehorn,” and the result is a disappointing, shambling piece of melancholy with a few interesting scenes here and there that never cohere in such a way that allows the legendary actor to disappear into the character.
The Mend ***
As for performance, Josh Lucas gives the best of his career, finding just the right tone for Mat, a guy who couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of him, but he still needs a place to stay. He’s subconsciously selfish, such as when his girl’s ex, who she clearly hates, comes over to pick up her son and he hits him up for career advice. When asked what he does, he brilliantly adds a question mark to “Freelance web design?”
Their story is undeniably interesting. However, and this is the tricky part about reviewing documentaries, the movie about that story is flawed. A bit too much time is spent in admiration and hero worship over the indefatigable will of these men, when it is the footage on that mountainside that matters. It’s a story that speaks for itself, and so the emphasis on talking heads explaining it to us is dispiriting.
Defriest is a fascinating subject in his own right, and, from the very beginning, the film works best in the moments when it lets him talk instead of its flashy, sensationalistic ones.
I walked away from “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” having enjoyed the time spent with Refn, his family, and Ryan Gosling, but without any further insight into the production of “Only God Forgives,” filmmaking in general or this particular talent.
Ned Rifle ***
Hal Hartley’s often fascinating “Ned Rifle” feels like a very conscious nod to the films that made its writer/director famous in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s while also serving as a commentary on moving on from past successes and failures to face the future head on.
During at least half of “Nightlight” one can barely tell what the hell is even happening, which is by design but also makes for an experience that’s as visually unappealing as anything in years.
“Pay the Ghost” is a new low for Nicolas Cage. Just when you thought he couldn’t get any more apathetic about a role, he pops up in this lazy, boring retread of “Insidious” that even his most diehard fans should ignore.
With echoes of “Vertigo,” and a deeply confident visual language, Petzold’s film resonates long after its perfect ending. This is a riveting piece of work that never loses sight of its human story while also serving as a commentary for how an entire country deals with tragedies like war. A film this satisfying on every level—one that can be enjoyed purely for its narrative while also providing material for hours of discussion on its themes—is truly rare.
Playing it Cool *1/2
The film ultimately falls victim to the false assumption that highlighting clichés makes them easier to bear, when, in fact, I find the opposite true. Embrace your manipulation, don’t pretend you’re above it before you use it.
Maybe we’re a more cynical audience and the films that have copied the original “Poltergeist” over the years have lessened the impact of the original blueprint so slavishly followed here. If that’s the case, [Gil] Kenan and his team needed to find another reason to update it. Or any reason at all really.
A film that bold-faces and underlines its quasi-commentary on a generation addicted to technology and cell phones but has less relatable humanity than most of the video games it attempts to decry.
We are never at our more image-obsessed than in the hazy, horny, love-sick days of our teenage years, and while “Prince” feels a little slight when the credits roll less than 80 minutes after it begins, it’s still a strong, creative addition to the crowded coming-of-age genre.
Prophet's Prey ***
While I wish the form of the film wasn’t quite so talking-head—“then this happened”—the story is so compelling and terrifying that it’s hard to place too much cinematic flourish on top of it. It speaks for itself. And what it says is scarier than any horror film this year.
Queen of Earth ***1/2
Echoing dramas of internal conflict turned into threats of physical danger like “Persona” and “Repulsion,” [Alex Ross] Perry explores the concept that it is the human mind and its emotional undercurrents that is the most terrifying thing in the world. Anchored by incredible performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, this is one of the most mesmerizing pictures of the year.
It’s a film that seems to have no further point than to remind us that some powerful jerks were once powerful jerk kids. Point taken, but it’s not cinematically satisfying.
Run All Night ***
Action star Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra have crafted their most satisfying work to date by sticking to a tried-and-true crime movie template, and allowing a talented cast and tight production values to be the only high concept they need.
“Safelight” is a jaw-droppingly bad movie, a film that doesn’t have characters or a plot. It has mouthpieces who speak in platitudes and clichés, pushing forward through a predictable, depressing narrative that sounds like a flunked high school student’s attempt at creative fiction.
Movies like “Face/Off” are enjoyably ridiculous in large part due to the fact that Nicolas Cage, John Travolta and John Woo KNEW they were ridiculous, laughing and winking at the audience throughout. “Self/less” is played on a straight line, never nearly as much fun as it could or should have been. Who knew immortality could be so boring?
By the misguided ending, it’s a flat-out disaster, the kind of film that its cast and crew hope gets buried as quickly as possible as they race to move on to other projects. Given the fact that it was filmed almost three years ago, Cooper and Lawrence have likely forgotten they made it by now. Follow their lead.
It’s a film that lacks the urgency of the really great thrillers, but exists in that rarefied air of refined production values on every level and a flawless ensemble. That it falls short of greatness could be considered a disappointment, but there’s still much to like here.
As I wrote about "Sons of Anarchy" two years ago, "Watching characters, with whom we can identify, persevere through the proverbial fire allows us to believe we can surmount comparatively minor obstacles in our own lives." The exact same thing applies to "Southpaw."
We’re never given one reason to care about Danny. Sure, he seems nice, but literally everyone around him is simply more interesting. “Staten Island Summer” is one of those films in which virtually every time a supporting character leaves, you wish you could go with him or her.
[Lea] van Acken’s smart, subtle decisions keep Maria from becoming little more than a symbol or even the caricature she could have become. Even when “Stations of the Cross” becomes almost overwhelmingly depressing, we can’t turn away from Maria. It is in the humanizing of her plight that “Stations of the Cross” finds its power. It’s a hard movie to leave behind. As it should be.
The final Act O’Twists, which almost anyone will see coming from very far away, lets down the character work that preceded it and the whole piece sinks just a bit too far into the melodramatic muck from which its characters are trying to extricate themselves.
This is a fascinating piece of work that approaches “Citizenfour” in its deconstruction of governmental failure and the systems underneath the war on terror that are not only failing to keep us safe but impacting the entire world political scene.
Tu dors Nicole ***1/2
Stéphane Lafleur’s great “Tu dors Nicole” is a remarkable tonal balancing act in such a way that it’s difficult to figure out how he pulls it off. It is both light as a feather and emotionally resonant. It is defiantly episodic and yet has a cumulative power in its storytelling. It is both airy and emotionally lived-in at the same time.
It’s one of those nearly straight-to-VOD pieces that fluctuates between boring and offensive, never rising above either adjective. Some will dismiss it by saying it’s so ineffective as to never really aggravate critical faculties, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a complete waste of time and talent as well.
The Voices ***
I’ve always liked [Ryan] Reynolds for the most part, but he does his best work yet here in Marjane Satrapi’s odd, pitch-black comedy about a man who talks to his dog and cat. And they talk back.
Welcome to Leith ***
[Christopher K. Walker and Michael Beach Nichols] carefully avoid making “Welcome to Leith” about what [Craig] Cobb believes in, focusing on how those beliefs impact a community more than the hatred and vitriol within them.
Nina Simone could hold an audience in such rapt attention that when she stops a song at one point in “What Happened” and orders someone to sit down, you almost don’t blame her. And “What Happened” features some of the best concert footage and musical performances in recent music doc memory, even if it never quite answers the question in its title.
It is filled with the luscious, beautiful 2D animation that we’ve come to expect from [Studio] Ghibli, and if the storytelling sometimes gets a bit lethargic for its own good, we’re more forgiving just to have one final dance in the moonlight.
The Wolfpack **1/2
It’s clear from Moselle’s verité style, in which she doesn’t often seem to ask follow-up questions but let the boys come to their own emotional conclusions, that she was very concerned about these young men, as anybody would be. But the arms-length approach can be frustrating. There are times when the Angulos seem to be directing “The Wolfpack” more than Moselle, and it’s an incredible story that would have benefited from a surer hand.
While the fine line between homage and plagiarism may be crossed for some, debut director Kiah Roache-Turner commits so completely to the insanity of his melting pot concept that he won me over with sheer force.
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A classic thriller that moves with a sense of purpose.