Aliens and linguistics? Yeah, count me in.

Arrival was my favorite movie of 2016, I think. It wasn’t necessarily the best or most important movie — I’ll save that statement for an upcoming post on Get Out, probably — but it was the one that I enjoyed watching the most. It contained the most pure movie magic.

Its timeline was reminiscent of Memento, its sentimentality rang of Up and its primary partnership (and color palette) brought to mind that first glorious season of True Detective, yet it was its own unique entity, unlike any other science fiction story I’d ever seen.

When I say that the sci-fi elements of the movie are simple, I don’t mean that they’re rudimentary or boring. Quite the opposite, actually. They were complex, elegant and well within the realm of possibility. They didn’t overwhelm with an overdose of CGI (which has its time and place!); rather, they wowed by leaving a lot to the viewer’s imagination.

Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the Army to help a team communicate with an alien pod — one of 12 across the globe — and she and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) develop an application that allows them to translate the aliens’ language into readable English. The pods are ominous, intriguing and completely mysterious; they hover above the earth with a magnetic yet passive presence. The aliens themselves are heptapods, and we don’t see much more than their snaky silhouettes. And the inkblot-type runes that form their language, and which they squirt onto the clear surface between them and Louise and Ian are like next-level Rorschach tests. I’d tattoo one on myself, they’re that beautiful.

Louise, Ian, Colonel Weber (a very unfortunately slurry Forest Whitaker) and the rest of the Army not only work together to communicate with the aliens, but they’re also in contact with the other 11 countries trying to do the same thing. It’s an obvious metaphor, but a pertinent one nevertheless — we’re all better off together. Collaboration, especially in the face of something greater and more foreign than all of us, is the only way.


Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie deserve better than a contrived rom-com.

They’re two of the most hilarious, likable, talented most gorgeous actors working today. They’ve been in brilliant comedies (Party Down, Glow, Community) and dramas (True Blood, Masters of Sex, Mad Men) alike. They are most peoples’ dream girls — sans “manic pixie,” thank you — regardless of gender or sexual orientation. They’re the best.

Save the Date, however, is the worst. I watched it purely for the cast — those two, plus Martin Starr and Geoffrey Arend amount to what I thought would be a recipe for success, but it was achingly disastrous. I’d like to think that, despite my growing cynicism, I still have it in me to suspend my disbelief and enjoy a rom-com every once in awhile. But it’s impossible when the rom-com doesn’t give you much to work with.

Caplan is Sarah and Brie is Beth. They’re sisters who are dating bandmates, Andrew (Starr) and Kevin (Arend), respectively. Sarah’s more of a mess and Beth is more put together, which explains why Sarah cannot handle Kevin’s proposal of marriage and Beth cannot understand why she can’t handle it, because her wedding panning is going very smoothly. Sarah is an artist who also works at a bookstore and Beth… honestly I don’t remember what Beth does because it’s not important. What’s important is that she’s someone’s fiancee!

Despite being the main characters of the movie, neither of them are nuanced or believable. They inhabit incredibly boring stereotypes we’ve seen before — the put-together younger sister and the free-spirited older sister. One always wears pearls and one always wears plaid. They fight and make up. It’s kind of pathetic that this sort of movie is still being made in 2017, honestly. A straight female character can have some of her shit together some of the time. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing. And she doesn’t need to wear combat boots in the summer.

After breaking things off with Kevin, Sarah starts things up with a bookstore patron who had been crushing on her. Switching from “Kevin” mode to “Jonathan” mode, we see an even more unbearable side of her: a needy, self-obsessed side that I simply could not buy from Caplan. Making matters worse, Sarah’s friends in the movie are even more vapid than she is, which only emphasizes how prone she is to making terrible choices. Caplan is way too cool, and way too self-respecting in real life, to pull off portraying someone that shallow with a world that small. Of course, neediness and self-obsession are perfectly normal human qualities, but knowing little else about Sarah forces those qualities to be magnified in the movie. Caplan is stooping to overdramatic, MPDG levels. In short: she sucks!

By the end of the movie, I was deeply disappointed in its unnecessary baggage. The cast of Save the Date gave it so much potential, and their magnetism was wasted on a script that didn’t take a single risk.

There is no one in the world quite like Sonny Wortzik.

Or, for that matter, quite like John Wojtowicz, on whom Sonny was based.

There’s also no bank robbery quite like the one John attempted, which makes its reenactment in Dog Day Afternoon so damn fascinating. No one could make up this story if they tried — except John himself.

Al Pacino is also the only actor who could have played Sonny, except John himself. (And frequent Pacino collaborator Sidney Lumet is the only director who could have brought it to life so exquisitely.) I feel comfortable saying Sonny wasn’t a stretch for Pacino, though the script itself had to have been the most unexpected, bizarre one he had encountered at that point in his career — even coming off the first two Godfather films and Serpico. Sonny is not anyone in particular, but he became someone by attempting to rob a bank to get money for his estranged wife’s sex reassignment surgery. He and his partner, Sal (John Cazale) aren’t particularly experienced in the art of robbery, so it quickly devolves from efficient operation to sloppy spectacle in a matter of minutes.

Once the police get wind of the funny business, it’s basically a farce. They’re both in over their heads as their demands escalate and their power surges beyond their control. Neither really wish harm on anyone, especially Sonny, who is about as compassionate and heroic as a bank robber can be. When medical issues arise with his hostages, he brings in people to treat them. His list of demands includes food for his hostages, too. He’s level-headed enough to stay in constant communication with the police chief, Moretti (Charles Durning) and consider the pleas of his wife, Leon (the sweetest Chris Sarandon). He’s also incredibly fucked up and brash — after all, the life choices he’s made culminate in the bank robbery he’s committing — and his lack of planning brings many moments of comedy to a relatively intense drama.

Sonny isn’t lovable, but he’s magnetic, and he’s committing a crime for a cause that’s better and greater than himself. He might be my favorite Pacino character so far, and it’s hard for me not to love every Pacino character. But a story like this doesn’t come around too often, and it’s a good thing it fell into the hands of the right artists to bring it to cinematic life. There’s no feeling in the world quite like watching this sort of movie.

I hesitate to equate the 2017 Oscars with a simpler time in the news cycle, but here we are.

So much has happened between February and now — the growing list of White House firings, the Comey testimony, the ACA tug-of-war, Russia, Korea, Charlottesville, now the hurricane and the pardon in the same damn week — that the ceremony in which Moonlight won Best Picture seems like a faint, possibly nonexistent memory. We were only a couple months into 45’s presidency, bracing ourselves for what we couldn’t possibly imagine was coming.

That night, when La La Land was announced to be the winner, only to be rightfully dethroned by some sort of bizarre card-reading or brain-fart mishap, we’ll never really know, a statement was made that everyone needed to hear, and it was that Moonlight was the best piece of cinematic art made in 2016. The announcement mishap took away a good portion of Moonlight‘s time in the spotlight, but it didn’t take away the film’s power. Even as the news cycle has devolved into a depressing regurgitation of 45’s internet effluvia, it took Moonlight quite a bit of time to fade back into the film canon. It stood tall, proud and important leading up to the Oscars, and it continued that way for several months after. It is to movies what The Wire is to television — in the sense that everyone tells you that you should’ve seen it already because it’s that phenomenal. Barry Jenkins gave us a gift.

I certainly don’t want to detract from the graveness of recent headlines, but I can’t help but smile every time I remember that Moonlight won BP. It’s a shiny, tiny glimmer of hope from the art world that hovers above the utter disaster that is the political/social/meteorological/etc world we live in.

The three actors who play Chiron — Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes — synced their mannerisms and posture beautifully to portray him seamlessly throughout his life. It’s also a casting marvel, considering how similarly their mouths and eyes emote even as the character grows up. Chiron is an unlucky boy — he is gay in a very straight world and his mother (an unrecognizable Naomie Harris) is an addict in a very enabling world — but not so unlucky that he doesn’t come across a role model in drug-dealer Juan (national treasure Mahershala Ali). Juan and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae, who is and should be everywhere) fill in the stability blanks for him, and their love eases his mind and allows him to grow up to be himself, instead of his mother’s caretaker.

It’s a present-day story, but it’s beyond timeless. The soundtrack, composed by Nicholas Britell, is just one reason why — it doesn’t lean too heavily on current music, instead filling the busy scenes with graceful movement and leaving the simple ones alone to revel in their stillness. But the real timelessness is in the relationship between Chiron and his best friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland). We’ve all wanted someone we can’t have, and the cultural/sexual/emotional/otherwise tension between these two grows and magnifies at a heartbreaking, disjointed — real — pace. Chiron is as everyman as it gets.

Be on the right side of culture and see this movie, and then keep it there in your mind for when you need it. And hope Jenkins (and others) make more like it.

I dare you to watch a movie without knowing anything about it first.

Chances are, you’ll have a great time, because the only thing better than low expectations is none at all.

A friend wanted to go see The Handmaiden, so I obliged, opting for some reason not to do much research on it. I think I knew it was a Korean film, but that’s it. I trusted my pal’s taste to know she wouldn’t lead me astray, and she sure didn’t. It’s impossible to go wrong with Park Chan-wook.

He’s a true genius, unlike any filmmaker ever. His films take time to adjust to, because they’re often so brutal and complicated and disjointed, but I assure you that I intend all of those adjectives as compliments. The harshest aspects of humanity somehow seem graceful when he’s behind the camera, and The Handmaiden is a brilliant example of that. So is Oldboy, of course.

It’s a love story, or maybe a lust-turned-love story, with some tragedy and intrigue thrown in. Park based his screenplay on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, which I now want to read, and adapted the setting from Victorian Britain to Japanese Korea. (Notable and slick: Both Japanese and Korean are spoken in the movie, and the subtitles are very awesomely color-coded.) At the center is handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee, truly mesmerizing). Sook-hee is placed in Hideko’s household by a con artist, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo, infuriatingly charismatic), to steal from her, but she ends up instigating Hideko’s sexual awakening. Hideko, though, is engaged to Count Fujiwara, ever-present to observe his pawns in action. Hideko can’t bring herself to accept her attraction to Sook-hee — and neither can society, of course — so she goes through with the marriage to Fujiwara. The movie is structured in three parts, also, so after all this, we see (a) just how Hideko came to be as fucked up as she is, with most of the blame for that placed on her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a bastard of an old man and (b) how Sook-hee works her way through a fucked-up system to regain her freedom, both social and sexual.

It’s easy to get caught up in the domineering-male tone, and to fault the movie for that, but hang tight. There are layers to this movie — triple, even quadruple-crosses — that would be clunky in the hands of any other director.Park is deft and sharp, allowing even the smallest visual and structural details to come full circle. What seems perverse or hetero-normative or overly XY-chromosomal will eventually flip in favor of the female and the underrepresented — especially in that era. Plus, Japan and Korea make for such tranquil, peaceful backdrops, which contrast starkly but beautifully with the emotional and sexual agony playing out before them.

It’s a truly gorgeous movie about truly awful societal norms, constructed in the elegant, precise way that only Park can. His mind is a fascinating place to be; step in for a few hours.

It’s fun when movie titles are instructional.

Do the Right Thing. Something’s Gotta Give. Maybe “imperative” is the word I’m looking for.

Not that I’m trying to equate a Spike Lee joint with a Nancy Myers movie, but it’s fun, right? Anyway. I consumed my first SLJ (not Samuel L. Jackson, though coincidentally he’s in it!) not too long ago. It was indeed Do the Right Thing, and it was embarrassingly overdue. And I enjoyed the hell out of it.

I’m curious to watch more of Lee’s movies now, particularly because the style of DTRT was very theatrical — by that, I mean that it felt like watching live theater. Which is a beautiful, incredible feat on his part, because so many streets in Brooklyn look so worn-down and not-ready-for-primetime. But the vibrancy of the colors, the one-of-a-kind angles and the undeniable love that the characters had for their neighborhood made the Anytown locale feel like the most sought-after location in all of New York. (And now it is!) I mean, look at these cool dudes shootin’ the shit in front of their red wall. Don’t you want to join them?

red wall

It took me awhile to realize that Spike himself played the main character, Mookie — he’s such a kid in it, even if he’s 32 and kicking off a brilliant career. Giancarlo Esposito was unrecognizable as Buggin Out, too, underscoring how incredible he was to begin with and how nuanced his career has been since 1989. Everyone’s a baby, aglow in the buzz of a project that would wind up somewhere high up on the list of great American films.

The story begins so nonchalantly, with the day so intolerably hot and the urge not to go about one’s daily routine so overpowering. Race isn’t even an issue, until it is, and then it’s the only issue, and then it hits you — nothing’s changed in society for nearly 30 years. Everything Lee wrote about then is happening now, and the worst part is that the widespread awareness that comes with globalization hasn’t improved the situation at all. We’re just not listening to each other.

Mookie and his girlfriend and family live in Bed-Stuy, a mostly black neighborhood. He works at a pizzeria owned by an Italian family, most of whom are perfectly pleasant. (The token bigot, Pino, is played by John Turturro.) The tension — or maybe the tension of that day, since it never really goes away — arises over the fact that the Italian patriarch, Sal (Danny Aiello), won’t put up pictures of any black celebrities on the wall of his restaurant. He’s a nice man, but he just won’t do it. And as his layers are peeled back — he doesn’t wear his racism on his sleeve, like his son Pino, but rather tucked into his front shirt pocket — we see just how hate crimes arise and how police brutality escalates and how situations go from docile to destructive before anyone’s had a chance to process anything. It’s devastating to watch, and it’ll make you think about your own buried prejudices. It’ll make you angry, it’ll make you sad and it’ll make you want to hold your friends and neighbors the way they do toward the end of the film. (I won’t spoil anything else.)

Listen to the title. Watch it if you haven’t. And love your people.