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Staff Picks: Movies

Don’t Miss Hader and Wiig Together on Screen Again

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader have great chemistry as estranged twins (Maggie and Milo,) who find their way back into each other’s lives as the result of Milo’s personal crisis. It turns out they are both having crises, and each could use the other’s help to get through it. Maggie finds Milo and invites him to stay at her home for a while, to get himself together. At first, Milo acts resentful, prickly—ok, obnoxious and self-centered. Maggie has her own prickly ways. Each have reasons for their resentment. Gradually they soften, and what unfolds is beautiful to observe.

The overall flavor of The Skeleton Twins is poignant and sometimes heartbreaking, laced with humor. In one hilarious scene, Milo tries to cheer Maggie up, and he launches into a camped-up rendition of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Maggie ultimately responds in kind, and they both light up the screen.

Wiig and Hader worked together for years on Saturday Night Live, and they roll well with each other’s comedic styles. They are convincing as brother and sister, who ‘get’ each other, even after years of no contact.


The Source Family

How does the strongest boy in America transition from a Judo-loving war hero and murderer into a successful health food restaurateur only to become a cult-controlling mystic guru to rich Los Angeles hippies? The answer rests within the gripping tale of the Source Family, a bizarre cult that began in Los Angeles in 1970 and ended five years later in Hawaii. Led by Father Yod, aka Jim Baker, the Eastern religion-inspired group was comprised of mostly young, doped up kids from Los Angeles who were drawn to Baker’s charms and cosmic cool. Not as well-known as Charles Manson or Jim Jones, Baker’s journey from overseeing a popular vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip to leading an almost too good to be true cliché of a group of mentally controlled automatons is a fascinating and faaaaaaar out trip of a documentary that highlights the dangers of group-think.


Into the Woods

In this Stephen Sondheim remake, the plots of many Grimm’s fairy tales are mixed together as everyone goes to the woods to seek their deepest held wishes. Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, Little Red Ridinghood wishes to bring baked goods to her grandma, and the charming princes wish for their unattainable love interests. The first act concludes with everyone singing about how wonderful it is that they have achieved their “happily ever after” and then things get interesting.

From the Prelude:

Into the woods,
Without delay,
But careful not
To lose the way.
Into the woods,
Who knows what may
Be lurking on the journey?
Into the woods
To get the thing
That makes it worth
The journeying.
Into the woods…


Remembering Albert Maysles

Albert Maysles, the trailblazing documentary filmmaker passed away a few months ago but his unique cinematic and narrative vision, innovative editing practices and observational attentiveness are still available to enjoy through the viewing of some of his most important works, including: Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, Salesman, LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (coming soon!), and Primary.


Fortitude

Fortitude is a new drama set in an isolated, northern island somewhere near the arctic. Branded as the safest city in the world, with its governor hoping to develop a high concept hotel built inside of a glacier, the citizens of Fortitude seem normal enough if you ignore the multitude of personal secrets, infidelities, emotional traumas, corruption, frozen mammoths, and you guessed it, the bizarre string of murders that are beginning to shake this once calm town's residents. For fans of dark and suspenseful shows like The Bridge and True Detective.  

 


Life of Riley

French director Alain Renais died last year, ironically on the day the Academy Awards were held. He left cinephiles with a significant body of work which features several films considered classics including Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. His inventive, non-commercial, form breaking sensibilities are still on display with his farewell film, Life of Riley. Based upon a British play, Renais transforms the theatrical stage into a cinematic framework, blending the two together to create a work that looks and feels like both. The film doesn't attempt to negate the artificiality and obviousness of the set or limit the dialogue saturated plot. It is a play inside of a film and vice versa. There's a levity to the film that I wouldn't exactly describe as comedic and yet it tackles serious subjects like adultery, illness, aging and friendship.


Girlhood

While the French film Girlhood won’t likely earn the buzz and accolades that Richard Linklater’s hit Boyhood received last year, it presents a more prescient depiction of adolescence, assimilation and identity of the underprivileged, disenchanted French teens looking to escape the housing projects located in the Parisian suburbs. While the story meanders along, feeling stale and uninspired at points, the cast does an admirable job at realistically embodying the emotional high and low points of a first love, the complex navigation of friendships and a future of unknown possibilities.


Let the Fire Burn

This an electrifying documentary released in 2013 that avoids the stylistic structures and editing of many of today’s nonfiction features. In fact, the film is entirely culled from archival news footage and from videotaped meetings led by city leaders and officials in the wake of the tragic events that took place on May 13th, 1985. Let the Fire Burn is a gripping and tense work of filmmaking that addresses subjects like police brutality, political corruption, institutional racism, freedom of speech, the limits of ‘religious’ freedom, and the right of groups to live outside of established social norms and values. Nuanced and thoughtful, the director never leads viewers down a path toward rigid conclusions or moral judgments but rather presents the social and historical complexities as they played out on local television.


If Horror Could Win a Caldecott...

Every year, dozens of horror films are dumped on the movie-going public—many of them profitable, most of them awful. Thankfully, each year there always seems to be one or two gems that manage to make it to market, and as a fan of the genre, it is my duty to seek them out. Last year, one of these instant cult classics was The Babadook, the terrifying (if curiously titled) Australian film debut from writer-director Jennifer Kent. I discovered this film at my annual pilgrimage to the Traverse City Film Festival and have been singing its praises since.

The Babadook follows Amelia, a beleaguered single mother whose troubled young son, Samuel, is a very taxing ward. Samuel has a hyperactive fear of monsters and a predilection for making homemade weapons, which gets him into a lot of trouble both at home and at school. He constantly seeks nighttime refuge in his mother’s bed, tense and clinging. Amelia finds herself overworked, overstressed, and severely deprived of sleep. She also harbors an unspoken resentment of her son; she secretly blames him for the death of her husband, who died in a car accident while taking her to the hospital the night Samuel was born.

The film gets its title from a children’s storybook that Amelia finds in her house: Mister Babadook tells the tale of a ghastly figure in a black overcoat and top hat who terrorizes children and represents one’s darkest impulses. Once Amelia reads this book to her son, they begin to be tormented by an unsettling presence. But is there really a monster named Babadook after them, or is Amelia just becoming psychologically unraveled? Either way, danger will reach a boiling point.

 
The Babadook plays like a Tim Burton acid-trip gone horribly wrong. It’s arguably the most intense film I’ve ever sat through—even without the dread-inducing bogeyman, the reluctantly dutiful relationship between mother and son is such a source of angst and consternation that you’ll be clenching your fists and gritting your teeth for the majority of the film’s running time. All of which is to say, this film is a must-see for horror fans. It’s one that will get under your skin and stick with you, because much like the eponymous storybook suggests, once you let him in, you can’t get rid of The Babadook.

 


Leviathan

Leviathan (nominated for an Academy Award last year) is a grim portrait of one man's futile attempt at saving his home and property from a powerful and corrupt mayor who has plans to evict the hard drinking, auto mechanic. Saddled with an unhappy wife and an increasingly rebellious teenage son, Kolya invites an old army buddy turned Moscow lawyer to the small, northern town where he lives in hopes that the lawyer can dig up enough dirt on the mayor to get him to change his mind. While the dark story may be read as a symbol of Putin-era political corruption, the juxtaposition of the picturesque beauty of the coastal town and the ugliness of unaccountable authority paints a bleak picture of humanity and that of a Russian democracy in 2015.