Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 03, 2018 2:34 pm 
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The title-director line is linked to the longer review where there is one.


FOXTROT (SAMUEL MAOZ 2017). A well-off Tel Aviv couple is devastated to learn their young son, serving his military service in the IDF, has died in action. Maoz is interested in the grief but also very much in Israeli military organization around soldiers' deaths. Suddenly after five hours of tormenting sorrow, they learn it was all a terrible mistake and the boy isn't dead. The dad insists he be brought home so he can see him. Then the scene shifts to the remote, neglected checkpoint where the son is stationed and the focus is on the absurdity of this duty. Too many switcheroos in this picture for me. I felt played with. But Maoz' technique and his invention are impressive, and the sequence of the swivel-hipped young soldier dancing with his rifle is unforgettable. In Hebrew. Watched at Angelika Film Center opening day, 2 Mar. 2018. Metacritic 92%.


OSCAR NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORTS (96 mins.) (See full description in the NYTimes HERE.)

DeKalb Elementary (Reed Van Dyk), 21 mins., is about a would-be school shooter, essentially a two-hander between the unstable young overweight white man and the black female school office employee who talks him down. Based on a 911 call in Atlanta. Rather unexpected and sort of heartening: not all shooters follow through.

The Silent Child (Chris Overton), 20 mins., from the UK, concerns a "profoundly deaf" little girl of well-off parents who have a social worker specialist come and teach the girl sign language. She makes great progress in a short time and warmly bonds with the lady, but, heedles of this, the parents elect to dismiss the specialist and send the child to regular school, because she can lip-read - the wrong choice; she should have both, lip reading skills and a signing helper, to fully function in school. The film gives statistics showing these parents' wrong choice is sadly often the case. A beautiful, engaging, and enlightening film. My favorite at once.

The Eleven O'Clock (Derin Seale and Josh Lawson 2016), 13 mins,. from Australia, depicts a grandiose and delusional patient clashing with a psychiatrist, both believing they are psychiatrists having an appointment with a patient. A frenetic, Ionesco-esque comedy, really more clever than amusing and with a somewhat obvious twist, but neatly executed. The spaces seemed a little large for a psychiatrist's offices, but Australia's a big place.

My Nephew Emmett (Kevin Wilson Jr.), 20 mins. The title reveals the grim content: a rather quiet depiction (compared to how I'd imagined it) of the horrific slaughter and mutilation in Mississippi of a black teenager from Chicago, Emmett Till, for the high crime of whistling at a white woman. Focus is on his uncle Mose (an impressive L.B. Williams, his lean face looking carved in stone), "who has seen too much and knows what is coming," as Jeannette Catsoulis put it in the Times. The trouble is, so have I and so did I. But this is a student film, so cut it some slack.

Watu Wote: All of Us (Katja Benrath) 22 mins. Depicts a noteworthy 2015 attack in Kenya on a bus by Al-Shabaab, "Muslim" extremists who for a decade had massacred Christians and sown hostility between the two groups. This was when the tide turned because the Muslim bus passengers protected and hid the Christians and solidarity between them all against Al-Shabaab began to grow. This film is gorgeous and full of heart, a stunner. Outstanding particularly as a student academy award winner, by Katja Benrath of Hamburg Media School. Great local actors.


OSCAR NOMINATED ANIMATED SHORTS (83 mins.) Again see the New York Times coverage, this time by Glenn Kenny. See also Peter Debruge's review in Variety.

Garden Party

Sometimes it seems that compared with the "Best of Annecy" Oscar nominated animated shorts are more conventional and mainstream and bigger-budget. This year they even start off with a film that seems like publicity, in which the retired NBA star Kobe Bryant celebrates himself as a basketball player. No matter how sincerely intended, nicely drawn, and soothingly scored by none other than John Williams, this comes off as hired self-promotion. And there is a Pixar film - a nice little one, but where's the innovation? Nonetheless three is a high level of competence here, and some technical brilliance.

Dear Basketball (Glen Keane; written by Kobe Bryant) Described above. Written and spoken by Kobe Bryant. This may have been given more prominence than it deserved (due to its author's celebrity). A vanity nomination, and a vanity Oscar win. Of course this does have a positive message.

Negative Space (Ru Kuwahata, Max Porter, France). 7 mins. Credit due: this is stop-motion animation, which has been used by Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and other important filmmakers. It's about the narrator's frequently absent father and how he taught him to pack his bag, with a wry final comment on a coffin's waste of space.

Revolting Rhymes (Jan Lachauer, Jakob Schuh for BBC) , 29-min. version of the fairy tale mashup of Roald Dahl. The Wolf voiced by Dominic West, the voices all done in an amusing Brit way. This is half of two parts, and that may help explain how it seemed ingenious, but nonsensical. Nonetheless it is very interesting and has far more storyline than any of the other short animated films. Conventional Pixar-esque animation.

Garden Party (Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon et Lucas Navarro, France). The best of the group, a lushly beautiful graduation film from top French CG animation school MOPA (ex Supinfocom) using Photoreal CG. It is very realistic in its effects, but nonetheless surreal and beautiful as mere realism is not. The plotline depicts amphibians invading a grand house, devouring abandoned delicacies, then slipping outside where all the lights have switched on around a luxurious pool. The final discovery of the owner's rotting corpse has an Ivan Le Lorraine Albright disgustingness. Visually and imaginatively this is the standout in this group. (See this making of article.) TRAILER.

Lou (Dave Mullins) 7 mins. A Pixar kid, for this is a Pixar film, in a school playground finds a lost and found box that contains many objects which he distributes to other kids for their amusement. A charming, sweet little film.

Shortlisted group:

Weeds (Kevin Hudson 2017) 3 mins. About striving. A flowering weed plant is expiring on an unwatered lawn, and scrambles - fancifully, because plants can't scramble - toward the well-watered grassy lawn next door. It doesn't make it, but as it expires on the edge of the grassy lawn, it goes suddenly to seed, and its pollen flies over the grass, and weed flowers grow up. If you don't make it, your offspring will. Maybe.

Lost Property Office (Daniel Agdag 2017) 10 mins. From Australia and in artistic sepia tones, in stop-motion, this focuses, in an old fashioned style, on the keeper of a lost and found property center who is told that he is irrelevant because no one wants the property he tends, and so he builds a flying machine and flies away. A somewhat wan effort, but distinctive in its way.

Achoo (Lucas Boutrot, Élise Carret, Maoris Creantor, Pierre Hubert, Camille Lacroix, Charlotte Perroux) A third French film, from the ESMA, École Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques, tells the story of the ancient Chinese dragon that invented fireworks. Makes use of images in the style of Chinese art.



Mindy Alper in Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405

For the purposes of theatrical viewing these Oscar nominees are divided into two long (90-min., 99-min.) segments because the documentary "shorts" run to 30-40 mins. Again see the New York Times review, this time by Ben Konigsberg. Watching and digesting these will take up a lot of your day: even in their "short" form, today's documentaries clamor for your attention, and won't let go.

Part A (99 mins.):

Traffic Stop (David Heilbroner, Kate Davis 2017) USA 30 mins. The "driving while black" case of a Breaion King, young black female elementary school teacher in Austin, Texas in 2015 brutally treated while arrested for a routine traffic violation, using dashboard and other footage to describe the footage intercut film of Brearion King's life today. Obviously Black Lives Matter material, but not strong enough. King's behavior in the dashboard footage is far from exemplary; nor are the cops proven wrong (though the resisting arrest charges were dropped). It's not important Breaion King is a nice, exemplary person: racist police practices and brutality are wrong even if she wasn't. A better subject would be Sandra Bland, a similar case (also in Texas) except she is now dead, and the police conduct was worse. Again like Heroin(e) not quite the right focus.

Edith+Eddie (Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright). USA 2017, 29 mins. Edith and Eddie, ages 96 and 95, are America's oldest interracial newlyweds, a Virginia couple who met when splitting a lottery ticket and married in their mid-90s. Their love story is disrupted by a family feud that threatens to tear the couple apart. An intimate personal portrait. A sad story that leaves you feeling frustrated, but not quite sure what the point is.

Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel 2016), USA, 40 mins.. About Mindy Alper, a known LA artist with serious mental disorders that cause constant problems, including 10 years when she could not speak. Konigsberg calls this " a bit of a slog." I'm sorry. Maybe it is a slog, to hear of all Mindy's troubles, with her father, with her psychological problems, with the drugs she takes, with the damage caused by shock treatments she thinks nonetheless saved her from terrible depression. Maybe it's a slog listening to Mindy's strange damaged speech with grammatical malapropisms and peculiar over-articulations of words and inability to say numerical units normally (26 becomes "two six," year becomes "trip around the sun"). But she is remarkably articulate, and when you see her work, shown in a big solo show, monumental papier-mâchés celebrating her psychiatrist and artistic enabler, and see how fine this work is (along with the many drawings and paintings by her used to illustrate her narrative), this becomes the most unusual and impressive of the doc shorts this year. She really is "tortured and brilliant." Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 shows how creative skill can triumph over mental torment and making art can be a salvation. WATCH THIS FILM.

Part B (79 mins.):

Heroin(e) (Elaine Mcmillion, Kerrin Sheldon 2017), USA 39 mins. Three women in Huntington, W.Va, said to be the "overdose capital" of the US, Jan Rader, Patricia Keller, and Necia Freeman,a fire chief, a judge, and a distributor of food to addicted prostitutes, respectively, each in her own way trying to combat the opioid-to-heroin-to-even-stronger-drug addictions now rampant in the country. Sponsored by Netflix, which won last year in this category with The White Helmets. A warm-hearted and well-intentioned doc about a crucial current issue. But the trouble is, these are band-aids not solutions. Big Pharma and drug companies and a clumsy system that sends addicts to jail and admires a "drug court" were the culprits more worth focusing on.

Knife Skills (Thomas Lennon 2017), USA, 40 mins. About Edwins, a fine Cleveland French restaurant staffed almost entirely by ec-cons, male and female, without previous restaurant experience. It's a starting restaurant - which does well - and a special kind of cooking school. Founder Edwin, an impressive, articulate, but haunted guy, himself did jail time. Lennon is a previous Oscar winner 2007 for doc short The Blood of Yingzhou District (2006); three other doc short Oscar noms. Knife Skills has a surprising subject, heart, strong personalities, and it awakens awareness that all of us fight for success against dark places. Anthony Bourdain said, "Restaurants are for those of us who don’t, won’t, or can’t fit in elsewhere. . . Knife Skills is the compelling, funny, heartbreaking and thoroughly human story of one such place.”


GAME NIGHT (John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein 2018). This is the team with Jason Bateman starring that made the 2011 Horrible Bosses, which I reviewed sympathetically despite its low humor and vulgarity. This about three couples and a nerdy cop they've excluded who have intense competitive weekend games. The ante is upped: a realistic crime game with actors. Only the charade is invaded by real kidnappers of Bateman's rich brother. Then it turns into a comedy thriller, with real violent fights and real bullets. Not as many laughs as Horrible Bosses, but I saw it with a lukewarm matinee audience not Saturday night like the previous one. Jason Bateman is still serviceable; Rachel McAdams shines. I liked Billy Magnussen as the dumb but cocky friend and Jesse Plemons as the bereaved, lonely cop. But having one date be an Englishwoman isn't enough to inject smarts and wit. 100 mins. Metacritic 66%. Watched at Regal Union Square 5 Mar. 2018.


LOVE, SIMON (Greg Berlanti 2018). A gay high school student comes out in the world of social media. This bland and okay movie is notable mainly because it's a wide release - but that's a big thing. It also depicts a generation for whom being gay is no longer such a big deal. But it tells next to nothing about what being gay or the gay world are like. For that you should still go to David Moreton's recently reissued 1998 Edge of Seventeen. Watched at Regal Union Square Fri. 24 Mar. 2018.


THE DEATH OF STALIN (Armando Iannucci 2017.) This, from a comic book series, by the director of the witty political comedies The Thick of It and In the Loop, can't be called a comedy, but perhaps a tragicomic farce, shocking so often that it becomes numbing. Maybe it adheres very roughly to fact: the world of Stalin, Beria, et al. is so extreme as to be beyond comedy or farce. Regrettably while its energy and oddity have drawn praise, it's neither real and detailed enough to be engrossing nor witty and inventive enough to be amusing. A deadly serious treatment that delved deep into the infighting that's skipped over at the end here, might make interesting drama. What impresses, apart from some of the odd,lively performances, is the elaborate production, unusual for humorous English filmmaking, This may be due to Gaumont, and to cooperation with the Russians, so some of the locations, sets, etc., are authentic. Watched at IFC Center (and it is an IFC release in the US) 24 Mar. 2018.


THOROUGHBREDS (Cory Finley 2017). Veers toward Strangers on a Train. Two posh girls, friends when younger, reunite, clash, and plan what they think will be a perfect murder together. The mood and manners aren't as sophisticated as the filmmakers think they are, and the ending is rushed, but there's enough of a sophisticated thriller here to keep you watching and intrigued. Not much of a lingering aftertaste, though, except the last, haunting, appearance of the late Anton Yelchin in a strong secondary role as an exploited loser. Watched at Regal Union Square 24 Mar. 2018. Metacritic 76%.


I KILL GIANTS ((Anders Walter 2017). The Danish filmmaker has a background of films on related themes to this, about a high school girl who escapes from the fatal illness of her mother, which she cannot face, by entering a fantasy world of Harry Potter-style battler of demons and giants. Good use is made of storms and restrained CGI critters and the setting by the sea near a coastal town. Based on the action graphic novel by Joe Kelly. It's a YA story about facing your actual demons. Excellent committed lead performance in the lead role of Barbara by Madison Wolfe, who is 16, though she may look older at times. Zoe Saldana in a more pedestrian role than usual as the new school psychologist who sticks by Barbara no matter how dicey things get. Watched at Village East Cinema 25 Mar. 2018. Metascore 75%.


KEEP THE CHANGE (Rachel Israel 2017). In this heartwarming, but icky, Jewish and New York rom-com the autistic couple, David (Brandon Polansky) and Sarah (Samantha Elisofon), who meet at a JCC autism support group, and the other group members, are played by actual autistic people. How embarrassing and inappropriate actual autistic people can be in ordinary settings may never have been so vividly and accurately shown in a feature film. The story is hopeful. The difficulty isn't so much the couple's behavioral issues - they find love and it seems to point toward a fuller life - as David's stuffy and disapproving rich parents, played by acting pros Jessica Walter and Tibor Feldman. Glenn Kenny heralded this as a "landmark motion picture" and made it a "NYT Critics Pick"; and it won multiple awards at Tribeca, but Kenny admits it's not "seamlessly crafted" - and should admit his wish that it should be "widely seen" is unrealistic. Perhaps it should be widely seen by autistic people and their families or concerned professionals. Its realness is frequently a turnoff. Making it however was a shrewd move by RISD film prof Israel. Watched on a screener 25 Mar. 2018, showing at Quad Cinema where it opened 23 Mar. Metascore 72%.


THE GREAT SILENCE/IL GRANDE SILENZIO (Sergio Corbucci 1968). A 50th-anniversary restoration completed last year will be shown at Film Forum Mar. 30-Apr. 5. The music is by Ennio Morricone. A masterpiece of the heyday of the spaghetti western, or so the Italians think; so extreme and nihilistic as to lose the moral point and sense of resolution of a classic Western. A devastatingly violent and bleak tale. It stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as the titular character, known as "Silence" because he is mute, and Klaus Kinski as his evil nemesis, called Tigrero in the dialogue but always Loco in the subtitles, a bounty hunter with fluffy blond hair and a fey voyce. This movie was clearly a major influence on Tarantino's Hateful Eight. It takes place in a snowy, desolate landscape. The dialogue isn't as prolix, or as interesting, as Tarantino's nor is the plot. The English subtitles are willfully inaccurate and sometimes the lack of synch of dubbing and mouth shows, but the grandeur of conception of the scenes is impressive and the fanciful men's winter outfits, the long coats and many furs, are fun. It makes you think, seeing it now, of America's obsession with guns. Watched 26 Mar. 2018 at Magno Screening Room,729 Seventh AVe.


LOVE AFTER LOVE (Russell Harbaugh 2017). Cassavetes, Pialat, and Hou Hsiau-hsien have been cited as influences for this intense improvisational drama with an accomplished package (camera, edit, score), vivid and fine lead performances by Andie MacDowell, Chris O'Dowd and James Adomian. They are a mother and two sons who cope with the death of the father, evidently to lung cancer. She soon finds a suitable single father but Nick (O'Dowd), busy dumping a longtime gf and hitching with a new young one, is almost incestuously competitive and memorably obnoxious; meanwhile Chris (Adomian), a failed but nonetheless (in one routine we see) revealing stand-up comic, takes pathetic and embarrassing refuge in drunkenness. The dad dies with noisy wheezing, and then the naked sex scenes with noisy screwing take over the busy soundtrack that accompanies the vivid film-shot images. And there are two party sequences of high embarrassment. I hated a lot of this. But those who hail Harbaugh as a distinctive new indie voice (this debuted at Tribeca last year) and its organization as clear and elegant, may not be far wrong. In some ways it's too schematic. But it strives successfully at shocking and surprising with scenes and transitions. And blessedly, it's not overlong (91 mins.). Considered MacDowell's best work in years, or ever since sex, lies and videotape; but O'Dowd leaves the stronger impression. Watched at the film's theatrical debut location IFC Center 30 Mar. 2018. Metacritic: 85%.


GEMINI (Aaron Katz 2017). A beautiful dream of L.A., a starlet called Heather (Zoë Kravitz), and a mystery, by the former mumblecore director from Portland whose 2010 Cold Weather was already a low-keyed mystery that I noted was "no ordinary mumblecore ego-fest but something tilting toward excellence." Gemini meanders dreamily. Heather and aide-buddy Jill (Lola Kirke) indulge a super-fan, fend off a paperazzi, dodge a filmmaker whose movie Heather pulls out of. There is a somnolent flow of beautiful colors, beautiful women, beautiful cars, classic L.A. sunlight and pads. A gun appears and goes off. There is a body. A policeman appears, Detective Edward Ahn (John Cho of Harold and Kumar). The mystery isn't very urgent. The solution isn't quite satisfying. But Gemini weaves a quiet spell that makes one hope for more from Aaron Katz. His tilt toward excellence continues, still not there, still heading there. Watched on a screener 30 Mar. 2018, showing from 30 Mar. at two venues in NYC, Angelika and Loews Lincoln Square. Metascore: 74%.


OUTSIDE IN (Lynn Shelton 2017). Chris (Jay Duplass), a 38-year-old released on parole to his little town in Washington State after 20 years in prison is intensely drawn to his former high school English teacher (Edie Falco) who worked hard to get him out and was his main support all these years. But she is married and has a teenage daughter (Kaitlyn Dever), who also becomes interested in him. A significant "issue" suitable for indie films (as D'Angelo says) gets an intensified treatment through the bare-bones post-mumblecore style of Shelton and the Duplass brothers. The brothers produced, and Jay and Lynn collaborated on the screenpay. Whether or not the story sticks in the memory isn't decided yet but the acting clearly wiil. Watched at Quad Cinema 31 Mar. 2018. It opened here in NYC yesterday. Metascore 76%.


ISLE OF DOGS (Wes Anderson 2018). Wes's second stop-motion animated film, about dogs exiled from a fictional Japanese city of Megasaki to an island of trash alleged by corrupt Mayor Kobayashi to be infected with "dog flu." A 12-year old boy, his ward, Atari, comes searching for his lost dog, leading to rescue and righting of wrongs. A most elaborate and wonderful concoction. The use of Japanese language and culture is controversial, but maybe just Wes's unique quirk. He is a genius, after all. Watched at Regal Union Square 1 Apr. 2018. Metascore 81%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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