A meditation told in a minor key on technology at a crossroads, mild obsessions with antiquity and the art of physical creation, cinematographer Doug Nichol’s debut documentary California Typewriter (B) is a thoughtful glimpse at the history of and current appropriation of a classic and seemingly obsolete invention: the typewriter. This quirky, QWERTY topic opens up a home row of great conversations with the likes of Tom Hanks, songwriter John Mayer and the late actor/playwright Sam Shepard, among an array of enthusiasts and iconoclasts who find a muse in the artifact with crunchy keys to peck, ink ribbons flowing black and red and a carriage return gliding with sheer powertrain force. A central narrative thread is the titular family-run business owned by patriarch Herbert Permillion, located in Berkeley, which is ostensibly a repair shop but also sometimes a blend of triage unit and curiosity cabinet for the bygone devices. Congregated less for requiem than celebration, these real people display a quiet fascination with a tactile tradition and carry the water for real-time output that pre-dated the computer era. John Mayer in particular provides some compelling commentary about lyric writing on a typewriter, free of squiggly digital lines admonishing misspellings and full of rich, pulpy texture that makes you feel amazingly alive as an analog being in a digital world. Among the series of obscure enthusiasts showcased, sculptor Jeremy Mayer (no relation to the singer) is one of the few whose obsession leaves the antique apparatus completely transformed. He breaks down his collection of contraptions into component parts to reconfigure them into anatomically correct human figures, many inspired by the aesthetic of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; his is an intriguing take on the societal transition between the pre- and post-internet world and stands in contrast with many of the other fanboys (I guess if they’re older, they’d be fan-men) who troll museums, flea markets, swap shops and even foreign countries to purchase and preserve the classic machines. Others wax poetic with nostalgia, wit and downright fetishism about the dandy devices. Hanks prefers the Silent Smith Corona, while others rave about the virtues of a Hermes, Olympia or other company lines as if they were regaling in a car show in full glory. There have been more exciting movies featuring a typewriter at the helm (Misery, The Shining and Naked Lunch come to mind) but few make such a compelling case for a charged object at the center of a lowkey comeback. This movie about magnificent men and their typing machines makes this beast of iron giant again.
The haunted house movie, the expectant mom horror film, the pretentious self-aware arthouse offering and the annual fall travesty starring Jennifer Lawrence all sink to incredible new lows in the gobsmackingly bad new Darren Aronofsky film, Mother! (D). Rarely has a ham-fisted metaphor been more startlingly stretched over a motion picture’s running time. Ostensibly this often irritating film is about an author (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Lawrence), both written as extraordinarily passive, as they rebuild a secluded Victorian mansion and their life together after a tragic fire and try to stave off a series of invasions into their space. The preposterous and inexplicable events that occur as the story unfolds are simply stupefying and increasingly shrill. What starts with genuine menace and some real scares devolves quickly, and the payoff should really involve a refund. From the bizarre lack of chemistry between Lawrence and Bardem to unusual cameos involving two additional Oscar nominees, a former member of the SNL ensemble and a Force Awakens cast member, this cavalcade of hot mess surprises at every corner and not in a good way. Finding out some of the illusions are actually allusions provides only a modicum of solace after all the cacophony. The story and subplots are at the mercy of the symbolism, which renders character intention irrelevant. I did like Michelle Pfeiffer, who makes some fun and arch choices with her houseguest-from-hell character. Ultimately Aronofsky’s off-putting opus plumbs more biblical proportions than even his misbegotten Noah. By the end, the experiment was obvious, and it was performed on the audience. See this film only to discuss it.
Being trapped in a funhouse of fears with precocious kids and a flesh-eating dancing clown may be the stuff of horror film aficionado fever dreams. But something is definitely missing in Andy Muschietti’s movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, It (C+), chapter one of a planned duology, a film that oozes with Spielbergian nostalgia but mostly floats in a preposterous purgatory. The director starts with promise and establishes a credible hero played by Jaeden Wesley Lieberher. The youngster leads a tepid tween team of protagonists who are a bit too Stand By Me-esque to feel like true originals. The first glimpse of Bill Skarsgård as the phantom pantaloon with a Cockney cannibal pie hole is menacing indeed. But too many kids, too many CGI shape-shifters and too many similar set-ups render the enterprise less than terrifying. After a while the answer to everything seems to be, “Cue the clown!” It’s ultimately a horror film without enough scares. Sophia Lillis is a standout as a young lady battling family dysfunction, but hers and all subplots are half-baked. These goonies aren’t good enough. By the end, it’s rather unclear why things unspool the way they do or why it might take a second chapter to tell this tale.
Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (B-) is a dreamlike Brooklyn-set character study about an aimless young man who struggles with his sexuality as he tries to be macho for his seaside buddies and girlfriend while leading a furtive double life of Internet hook-ups and drug-crazed dalliances. Breakthrough actor Harris Dickinson is mesmerizing in the central role, and his character’s heartache is palpable as he makes a series of regrettable choices. The film offers frustratingly few tidy endings to the protagonist’s plight while posing an absorbing series of moral hurdles. The film is a sometimes graphic but also intimately picturesque love child of Moonlight, Shame and Crimes of Passion with a plot point or two and hyper-masculine pack mentality that recalls A Clockwork Orange; but like its central character, it sometimes gets stunted on its jarring journey. The film is nonetheless a sleeper discovery and will reward those looking for an arty alternative from recent multiplex fare.
Fall is coming! The first two episodes of a new Marvel TV series, presented in IMAX prior to release on ABC, Inhumans (B-) is a fairly formulaic but mostly well executed comic book adaptation of a royal espionage action drama, as realized by director Roel Reiné. As a baddie leading a coup on a secret city on earth’s moon, Iwan Rheon is a forceful presence and eclipses all other actors. Less successful is Anson Mount as his brother the king, ostensibly the protagonist. He manages a vacant performance of questionable facial expressions while mute. As his wife Medusa (so named for her supernatural serpentine locks), Serinda Swan is commanding. Most of the titular band of mutants are separated during this mega-episode, so it’s not completely clear how their camaraderie will click in the long term. But the creativity of the source material carries the day in a brisk and bright tale of intrigue. The cliffhanger sets a pretty good stage for events ahead.
Although its historic events are lavishly recreated and the cinematography and production values top-notch, Kathryn Bigelow’s panorama about the racially charged 12th Street Riot of 1967, Detroit (C), struggles to finds its dramatic POV or emotional center of gravity. The events depicted clearly resonate with modern times, what with the painstaking portrayals of police brutality and the themes of injustice and inequality in an urban powderkeg, but Bigelow’s fastidious chronicle fails to get in the heads of a cavalcade of underdeveloped characters. With some of the most authentic acting in the film, Algee Smith fares best as a Motown musician caught up in a crescendo of incidents after mid-riot sniper fire turns a group of people holed up at a hotel into brutalized suspects. John Boyega and Anthony Mackie are reduced to small parts as Will Poulter gets most of the scenery chewing as a wicked bad cop. He’s intense but feels miscast. It’s not completely clear why Bigelow lingers so long on certain incidents and not others; and while she creates flashes of pulse pounding tension, the story isn’t superbly served in the aggregate. The director’s formula that worked so brilliantly with soldiers diffusing land mines and raiding terrorist cells works only in fits and starts this time around.
Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Tiffany Haddish lift the curse of this summer’s R-rated comedies while celebrating the power of wonder women with a joyous journey to New Orleans in Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip (B). The quartet of actresses play lifelong friends who reconnect after a few years apart over a turnt-up trip to the Essence Music Festival. Their sisterhood is roused anew through parties and pratfalls across the Crescent City, along with some vulnerable moments that take their bond to a higher level. The film succeeds largely on the charms of its stars, with Hall registering strong as the woman trying to save face while grappling with a failing high-profile relationship and Haddish prompting the biggest laughs as the devil-may-care friend whose high-jinks are a hoot throughout the madcappery. For those seeking raunchy shenanigans, it’s all there, with crazy antics involving the full alphabet of possibilities from absinthe and zol. There are also some enjoyable cameos from a who’s who of the music scene. Although it overstays its welcome a bit, and not all jokes hit their mark, the movie rewards those who take the trek with an empowering message. For those wishing to escape to the movies, these ladies slay in their getaway!
Provoking a desire for audiences to watch a movie again in order to further study how all the narratives connect isn’t exactly a badge of storytelling honor. Writer/director Christopher Nolan continues his march to cinematic glory with two lofty experiments within one compact and technically thrilling WWII film in Dunkirk (B) and sometimes succeeds in spectacular spurts. Nolan employs two unconventional approaches in telling the story of stranded British, Canadian, French and Belgian soldiers retreating to safety across the English Channel in small boats when large watercraft are sitting targets. One of these hat tricks – creating a war movie without showing any of the German army antagonists on screen – might have been enough. But by depicting three intercutting stories on a trio of timelines – newcomer Fionn Whitehead as a soldier in a weeklong journey across land and sea (where an inert Kenneth Branagh as a naval officer plots events from a pier), Mark Rylance as a citizen on a one-day timetable guiding a pleasure boat into enemy territory to save as many servicemen as possible and Tom Hardy as an ace flier engaged in one hour of hitting enemy targets from the skies – Nolan scores a paradoxical panorama that is intriguing but shuts out emotionally satisfying undercurrents. It’s fun to treasure hunt for how the three sub-stories interact, but to what end? The technical triumphs of tick-ticking musical tension (a restrained Hans Zimmer), ultra-real sound design, eye-popping stunts and the general eschewing of typical battle tropes such as backstories or motivations all contribute to the firm’s originality. But in trying so hard not to state the obvious, Nolan forgoes characterization nearly completely. In a story that’s basically about caring, he doesn’t give entry points for audiences to invest specifically in any of the individuals in the collection. So it’s a glorious visual piece of impressionism, an agile brain teaser and a so-so war thriller. Blunted by bland fictional characters standing in loosely for real-life heroes, the film is a new form of cinematic Sudoku in which the major victories aren’t given much ado while Nolan counts his creative flourishes.
Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (B+) marks the superhero’s seventh on-screen adventure (as played by Tom Holland, he most recently had a minor but memorable role in Captain America: Civil War) and his first standalone Marvel movie, with small bits by a quintet of actors popularized in other universe franchise series. Thankfully this third reboot of the series eschews the origin story, spider bites and uncle tragedy and simply lets Peter Parker be a regular high school kid with an extraordinary extracurricular life. Tom Holland is superb as the awkward arachnolescent, and the film’s best sequences show him fumble through the stickiness of growing up. Following other roles in the bird and bat family, Michael Keaton is strong as villain Vulture, a salvager turned arms trafficker who assembles Avengers scraps into fancy new weapons. Watts is inventive with the teen scenes and largely successful on the action front (disaster sequences at Washington Monument, aboard a Staten Island Ferry and at Coney Island are believable). The stakes seemed a bit smaller than the usual Marvel epic, but the characters reveal themselves nicely. Robert Downey, Jr. is fun as mentor/impresario Tony Stark, and Jacob Batalon is a delight as sidekick Ned. Effective storytelling and upbeat, compelling characters continue the Marvel winning streak.
Out On Film, Atlanta’s LGBT film festival, is celebrating its 30th year and has announced its programming of more than 120 feature films, documentaries, short films and web series. Out On Film 30 will take place September 28 – October 8 at Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema, Out Front Theatre Company and the Plaza Theatre. Festival passes, three-pack and five-pack tickets and individual tickets are available now.
The opening night film is the LGBT film festival debut of Michael Patrick McKinley’s inspirational film Happy: A Small Film with a Big Heart. Star Leonard Zimmerman and director McKinley will be present at the screening. The closing night movie is Damon Cardasis’s Saturday Church, which has been described as a mixture of Moonlight and La La Land. A 14-year-old boy, struggling with gender identity and religion, begins to use fantasy to escape his life in the inner city and find his passion in the process. Star Luka Kain will be the closing night guest.
Other highlights of the festival include Trudie Styler’s Freak Show, about a boldy confident, wildly eccentric teenager who faces intolerance and persecution at his ultra conservative high school – and decides to fight back on behalf of all the misunderstood freaks of the world by running for the title of homecoming queen. The film stars Alex Lawther, Laverne Cox, Abigail Breslin and Bette Midler. Vincent Gagliostro’s After Louie stars Alan Cumming in a bravura performance as an AIDS activist and member of ACT UP in the 1980s and 90s who witnessed the deaths of too many friends and lovers but who finds an unexpected intimacy with a much younger man (Zachary Booth). And Tom Gustafon’s Hello Again is a film adaptation of Michael John LaChiusa’s celebrated musical, originally based on Schnitzler’s play ‘La Ronde,” about 10 lost souls who slip in and out of one another’s arms in a daisy-chained musical exploration of love’s bittersweet embrace. The film boasts an amazing cast – Martha Plimpton, Audra McDonald, Cheyenne Jackson, T.R. Knight, Rumer Willis, Sam Underwood, Jenna Ushknwitz, Tyler Blackburn, Al Calderon and Nolan Gerard Funk.
A variety of films in all sorts of genres are slated for the festival. Event passes are on sale through the website, and individual tickets and three-packs are available through Landmark Theatre’s ticketing.