Articles by

<Jesse Hassenger>

05/01/15 9:00am

welcome to me_wiig

It’s been fascinating to see how little Kristen Wiig seems to care about becoming Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers. She’s probably the most successful SNL star since Tina Fey and Amy Poehler—maybe since Will Ferrell if you stick to the movies—yet her after Bridesmaids, it was her costar (and frequent SNL host) Melissa McCarthy who really made a grab for broad-comedy dominance. Wiig seems to appear only in big comedy projects as, get this, a lark: she played young Lucille Bluth in the fourth season of Arrested Development, Steve Carell’s love interest in Anchorman 2, and various cartoon characters in both movies and TV. Instead, she’s been spending her post-Bridesmaids capital on indies movies like Girl Most Likely, Hateship Loveship, and The Skeleton Twins, often working with female filmmakers and even sadder characters than the one that broke her out of SNL mode.

In that sense, Welcome to Me, which opens today, feels like the movie that Wiig has been trying to make for the past three or four years: she plays an eccentric, off-balance woman of modest means, thrust into oddball circumstances (in this case when she wins an enormous lottery prize and decides to spend it on assembling her own talk show; double check), in a film directed by a woman (check: Shira Piven, Jeremy’s sister and also Adam McKay’s wife). The difference here is Welcome to Me is more than a slightly strange curiosity that doesn’t quite work: it’s a very strange curiosity that works almost shockingly well.


04/28/15 10:26am


Remember when romantic comedies used to come out in theaters? Like, a lot of theaters? All at once? As recently as 2010, something like Valentine’s Day could make bank by positioning itself as a rom-com Avengers before Avengers even existed, but in the last few years they’ve all but disappeared from the release schedule beyond the occasional dude-centric take that markets itself as a long-overdue corrective to all that girl stuff. Truthfully, much of that girl stuff, at least of recent vintage, has been appalling, but it’s nonetheless strange when big studios shuck off a whole genre. Indies have taken over some of this territory, to the point where last summer’s entirely accessible and mainstream-friendly What If got a specialty-house release, seemingly just because it had English accents and Zoe Kazan (and also: girl stuff!). Similarly (and similarly British), Man Up, which premiered at the just-concluded Tribeca Film Festival, has only its modest scale and just-barely-foreign locale to mark it as anything less than a big-studio-grade romantic comedy. It’s got recognizable faces (Lake Bell, doing the best Fake Brit since Gwyneth Paltrow; and genuine Brit Simon Pegg), a farcical premise (Pegg mistakes Bell for his blind date, and she just goes with it), and hacky music cues (seriously: “Bad to the Bone,” for no discernible reason). It’s also fairly charming, not least in its modest 88-minute running time and taming of its wackier instincts. When Bell first decides to deceive Pegg, she feels her way through the contrivance with a low-key authenticity—she’s real-world funny, not mugging-lunatic funny. As silly as the premise is, the movie makes it reasonably convincing for as long as it needs to—and doesn’t string it out for that long, thankfully.


04/24/15 2:30pm


Arnold Schwarzenegger dispatches but a handful of zombies over the course of Maggie. This is a decent amount for a regular person, to be sure, but Schwarzenegger has only ever been goaded into playing a regular guy for purposes of comedy and, more recently, making a few jokes about his advancing age before he nonetheless kills a fuckton of people. There have been serious, tortured, and/or gloomy Schwarzenegger characters before, but Maggie is, top to bottom, probably the most somber movie he’s ever starred in, and one of his most human performances.


04/24/15 8:05am

water diviner crowe

Has Russell Crowe entered his Clint Eastwood period? It may be pushing it to expect Crowe to transition from consummate movie tough guy to annual keeper of the old-fashioned studio flame, but The Water Diviner, his fiction/feature debut as a director, opening today, has an old-fashioned craft, pace, and tone—it even comes from Eastwood’s longtime home, Warner Brothers (albeit with a smaller release than the usual for a movie from Eastwood—or Warner in general, for that matter). Like a lot of later-period Eastwood, it’s a little lumpy and overlong; like a lot of mid-period Eastwood, it’s often satisfying within its honorable aims.


04/22/15 1:30pm


The ongoing fascination with the mechanics of comedy gets plenty of time at this year’s Tribeca, with Misery Loves Comedy (Kevin Pollak’s exploration of the comedic psyche), Roseanne for President! (Roseanne Barr’s exploration of the comedic psyche that undertakes a quixotic run for the nation’s highest office), a Monty Python concert film, and a Saturday Night Live documentary celebrating the show’s fortieth anniversary.

That documentary, Live from New York, opened the festival last week and shows again on Friday as part of the festival’s day of free screening. At the outset, it seems wholly unnecessary, coming as it does on the heels of not just the show’s official fortieth anniversary blowout in February but decades of specials, books (including a recently updated Tom Shales oral-history book that shares its name with the new doc), and other documentaries, including several NBC-produced retrospectives and a James Franco-directed behind-the-scenes film that played some festivals a few years ago but never managed the real theatrical release that Live from New York is getting in June.

Even I, a Saturday Night Live diehard with a small library of books written by former stars of the show, wondered what director Bao Nguyen could have to say about this over-memorialized institution.


04/21/15 2:30pm


I’ve noticed that a lot of Tribeca movies run 90 minutes or less, which makes it easier to pack a day full of screenings, which in turn creates some unintentional but often fitting double features. For example, I saw Melanie Shaw’s Shut Up and Drive and Diane Bell’s Bleeding Heart back to back, and they both involve unexpected and quick-forming bonds between young women. In Bleeding Heart, the actresses playing the women are semi-famous (Jessica Biel and Zosia Mamet); in Shut Up and Drive, they’re not. They both have moments of real endearment, but neither completely works.


04/21/15 9:00am

when i live my life over again

High-volume film festivals like Tribeca can showcase performers who hover somewhere below the A-list—actors who have enough name recognition to get studio work, but who may have to turn to smaller movies for chances to stretch. Amber Heard may be better-known as an obscure object of desire, both onscreen and in real life as the current paramour of Johnny Depp, but she’s shown appealing toughness in vaguely to extremely disreputable movies like Drive Angry or John Carpenter’s The Ward. In those pictures, she looks like a pin-up with a substantial right hook; in her two Tribeca entries, When I Live My Life Over Again and The Adderrall Diaries, she takes on less bombshelly roles, managing to look like someone you might actually see on the subway (it’s the hair, mostly; she lets it go long and a little unkempt in both).


04/17/15 6:37am


Jonah Hill and James Franco have costarred in one previous movie together: This Is The End, a self-kidding apocalyptic comedy where they played ridiculous versions of themselves. Given their mutual connections to Judd Apatow and company, it seems like they should have shared the screen more often; maybe they haven’t because they both, at times, seem to want to get into each other’s lanes. Post-Freaks and Geeks Franco was largely a serious actor; he jumped back into comedy with Pineapple Express back in 2008. Hill, meanwhile, started out in broad comedies before working with Bennett Miller, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and (next year) the Coen Brothers, scoring two Oscar nominations in the meantime. Now the pair meet again under vastly different circumstances: True Story, opening this weekend, offers a serious lead role for Hill (his two nominations were both in the supporting category) and, well, probably just something Franco did during lunch breaks filming adaptations of William Faulkner and lost John Kennedy Toole manuscripts, or whatever it is he works on during between studio pictures.


04/10/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of A24

Ex Machina
Directed by Alex Garland
Opens April 10

In the brisk, confidently dialogue-light opening minutes of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) wins a workplace contest and gets whisked off to a remote facility, the home of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the tech-genius head of his company (an ultra-powerful search engine, of course), to work on a secret project. Nathan’s high-tech bunker looks like a zoo habitat crossed with a boutique hotel, with just a hint of scary basement; Caleb appears to be an ambassador to the outside world. He’s there, he discovers, to help administer a Turing test to Ava (Alicia Vikander)—to determine whether the robot Nathan has built qualifies as true artificial intelligence.

Visually, Ava seems designed to confound those tests: a beautiful face on a robotic body with mesh-looking covering that resembles a bikini, even if it’s just covering up wires and chips. Mentally, she’s more convincing: she answers and asks questions, she shows curiosity, she generates sympathy. But is this canny programming? And if so, is that different from human instinct? The ambiguity is heightened by Vikander’s performance, which blends seamlessly with excellent special effects that would have been unthinkable at this movie’s budget level even a decade ago. She deepens the sexy-robot archetype.

There aren’t many humans in Ex Machina, even if you count Ava; much of the movie is a series of uneasy conversations between Caleb and Ava, and Caleb and Nathan. As played by Isaac, Nathan counters, or possibly contributes to, his self-mythologizing by going casual: drinking too much, lounging around, and referring to his employee as “dude.” It’s a canny rewrite of the mad scientist script; you can take away the cackling grandiosity of the man playing god, and it turns out he’ll still look kinda creepy—and in Isaac’s hands, pretty droll, too. The movie never gets too apocalyptic or high-minded to remember its characters and break for an unexpected laugh.

Though the setting and set-up are relatively simple, Garland refracts his premise through enough glass (naturally for such a high-tech compound, much of Ex Machina‘s imagery has to do with glass and the half-reflections the camera catches in it) to lend a possibly inevitable outcome the pleasurable illusion of suspense. Garland’s novel The Beach was adapted into a film by Danny Boyle’s team, and he subsequently wrote two of Boyle’s best genre pieces, 28 Days Later and Sunshine. DNA Films, co-founded by Boyle’s longtime producer Andrew MacDonald, made Ex Machina, and Caleb’s arc into a creepier, more intense world recalls a number of Boyle features. But the careful, menacing hum of this movie feels more akin to David Fincher, or the quieter scenes of Christopher Nolan, than Boyle’s hyper-stylish freakouts (not that there’s anything wrong with Boyle’s take on this sort of material; obligatory reminder that Sunshine is a great movie). Caleb, caught between Nathan and Ava, finds himself torn between trusting a human and his creation, and shallow focus give many of the images an appropriately fuzzy edge.

Though the story hinges on the gathering of data via those all-powerful search engines, some of the movie’s own information is processed as clumsy exposition; it takes place over about a week, but Garland doesn’t always account for all that time very well. As Ex Machina wraps up, it lingers a little too long on its falling action, offering several check-in shots reconfirming points that smart audiences will have already divined. But its parting shot is just about perfect, neither alarmist nor sentimental. The movie may play even better at the end of the year, in a double feature with Boyle’s next project: the biopic Steve Jobs.

04/03/15 9:00am

Furious FiveTen notes from watching Furious 7 after rewatching all six previous Fast and Furious movies and generally being fully on board the Fast and Furious train in a way that didn’t seem at all likely or even possible as late as 2009:

1. One hallmark of the current incarnation of the Fast and Furious film: having a character accurately describe the experience of watching the film. In Fast and Furious 6, Tyrese referred to some of the movie’s story as “007-type shit” (well-put; that is where the series has been migrating over the years); here in the seventh, handler Kurt Russell talks about how the files on Dom (Vin Diesel) and his cohorts are “detailed and extremely entertaining.” Yeah, that about covers it: the Fast and Furious movies have become thick with backstory and soap-opera relationships (along with 007-type shit) while somehow avoiding the tedium that often comes with heavy continuity. They are extremely entertaining, even sometimes when cars aren’t flying through the air, and down mountains, between buildings, and across the sea (the last thing does not happen in Furious 7; consider that my pitch for Fast 8, although then again, maybe take a look at Speed 2 and ignore that pitch).