07/01/15 5:10am
photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Jimmy’s Hall
Directed by Ken Loach
Opens July 3

The latest from Ken Loach, UK cinema’s working-class hero of long standing, takes a misty-eyed look back at Ireland’s Pearse-Connolly Hall, a rural community center that was for a few brief moments in the 1920s and 30s an unlikely oasis of political activism and progressive ideas. Its founder, homegrown communist leader James Gralton (played by Barry Ward), twice found himself in exile for his activism: first to escape the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in 1922, and again in 1933, after being deported for his political activities, never to return.


06/03/15 11:56am
courtesy of Fox

Directed by Paul Feig
Opens June 5

The rare big-budget high-concept action-comedy that doesn’t lumber or wheeze, Spy may be the best showcase yet for the comic gifts of star Melissa McCarthy. Its affectionate send-up of the Bond franchise serves as a vehicle for sharp observation of the double standards faced by women in the professional world. McCarthy stars as a CIA desk jockey whose diligent but unglamorous support work secretly enables the suave derring-do of Bond-like covert operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law)—until the inevitable mole in the outfit leads her to venture into the field.

The admirably convoluted story concerns the attempt to foil the double agent and keep a nuclear weapon out of the hands of terrorists, but writer-director Paul Feig keeps the plot mechanics in the background in order to focus on interpersonal relationships, an approach that pays rich dividends with this cast of seasoned pros. As McCarthy’s agency superior and her European arms-dealer quarry, respectively, Allison Janney and Rose Byrne undertake a taxonomy of withering expressions and verbal knife-twisting, throwing shade with ruthless efficiency. McCarthy gets moral support in the form of her gawky British officemate and confederate in awkward self-consciousness (Miranda Hart), but also has to contend with the nearly reflex-like advances of her handsy foreign contact (Peter Serafinowicz). Nevertheless, the highlight remains Jason Statham’s performance as an agent in the smash-first, why-ask-questions-later mold, a part tailor-made to his shiny bald head.

As Statham and Law blunder into danger without fear of the consequences, McCarthy second-guesses herself at every step, only gradually convincing herself of her own abilities. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the creator of the justly revered Freaks and Geeks is able to wring laughs from such potentially fraught topics as the glass ceiling, soft sexism, body-shaming and impostor syndrome, but it’s impressive nevertheless. Nor should Feig’s ambition be mistaken for pretension: it’s to his credit that he’s not above pratfalls, fart jokes, or comically exaggerated gore.

Its politics notwithstanding, Feig’s film isn’t quite timely—if anything, it’s overdue. Regardless, it will help to pass the time until his Ghostbusters remake (starring McCarthy) arrives next year.

04/08/15 5:58am
Photo courtesy of IFC Midnight

The Harvest
Directed by John McNaughton
Opens April 10 at IFC Center

Trash (not garbage) distinguished by its zesty self-awareness, The Harvest is a child-endangerment thriller about all the evil done in the name of good parenting. Young Maryann (Natasha Calis), newly orphaned and transplanted to live with her grandparents, ventures through a neighbor’s window to make the acquaintance of Andy (Charlie Tahan), gravely but nonspecifically ill and equally lonesome from long confinement to his bed and wheelchair. Their budding friendship is soon stifled, however, by Katherine (Samantha Morton), Andy’s mother and doctor, who insists on his complete isolation.

Normally an actor of palpable warmth, Morton calls on her inner Mommie Dearest to henpeck nurse husband Richard (Michael Shannon), maintaining a rigid affect that seems to be perpetually holding back an eruption. Shannon, capable of unhinging himself more persuasively than most actors working today, plays against type as a stabilizing force. Their performances are the heart of the movie, together painting a marriage as wholesome as the Macbeths’.

Though his best-known pictures, Wild Things and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, are both minor classics of self-reflexive exploitation, The Harvest is director John McNaughton’s first feature to reach theaters in over a decade. His knack for finding the sinister beneath Hallmark-card sentiment makes his return a welcome one, but his languishing commercial fortunes are not exactly a surprise: a cult director without a cult, McNaughton doesn’t so much wink at his audience as waggle his eyebrows. Depending on the character of the viewer, it’s possible to enjoy his films without appreciating their irony, or to reproach them for the same reason.

Giving shape to unspoken anxieties without allaying them, The Harvest is Dateline by way of Rosemary’s Baby. Too sedate to win over most horror junkies and likely to be dismissed as campy and histrionic by an indie set that prefers to take its subversion spoon-fed, The Harvest is a long shot to give McNaughton’s career the jump-start it deserves, but it should ensure he has more opportunities to lace pablum with moral uncertainty and disconcerting ambiguity.

01/28/15 9:00am
Photos courtesy of

The 2015 oscar-nominated short films
Opening January 30 at IFC Center

Removed as they are from the unforgiving realities of the marketplace for feature-length releases, one might think it at least possible that Academy would use the three short-film categories to reward the sorts of aesthetic values that typically get short shrift in more commercial fare. Such reasoning, this year’s contenders leave little doubt, operates on the rankest naiveté.

12/17/14 4:54pm
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The Interview
Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
Opens December 25

The arrival of The Interview, towing more political baggage than any lowbrow bro-down in recent memory, amounts to an impromptu test of the old saw that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. That this strenuously ridiculous entertainment is apparently the root of both an international incident and a debacle of historic proportions for its maker’s corporate parent—assuming anonymous claims of responsibility for electronic sabotage can be taken at face value—only brings into sharper relief the uneasy contrasts that define the film.


09/24/14 4:00am

Directed by Hong Khaou

Lilting belongs to what might be called the transcending-demographics genre, that high-minded cousin of the buddy picture in which two strenuously dissimilar characters overcome misunderstanding and like obstacles to forge an improbable emotional bond. The odd couple here is Richard (Ben Whishaw)—young/British/gay—and Junn (longtime wuxia vet Pei-pei Cheng)—elderly/Cambodian-Chinese/immigrant. Their common ground is grief—over Kai (Andrew Leung), her son and his long-term boyfriend, recently killed by a careless motorist.

Before they can properly console one another, however, there’s eighty-odd minutes of screentime to burn through. Junn knows Richard only as the roommate and “best friend” who monopolized her son’s attention and exiled her to the nursing home she can’t abide; Richard is torn between the admirable instinct to treat Junn as his own family and the fear that she will not want to hear the truth about her son. With no solution handy, he tries a red herring, hiring a young woman (Naomi Christie) to interpret between Junn, who speaks little English, and the fellow nursing-home resident (Peter Bowles) with whom she canoodles daily.

Director Hong Khaou, making his feature debut following a pair of festival-circuit shorts, is too circumspect to exploit this material for either melodrama or self-reflexive farce, delivering an airless chamber piece instead. Lilting took the prize for cinematography at this year’s Sundance Festival, but its images are studied and postcard-pretty, too neat and tidy to carry much emotional charge. In fact, for such a resolutely intimate work, the film wants badly for the unruliness of the everyday: from the evidence on-screen it’s hard to even say whether Richard has a job or a social circle of his own, and the emotional pitch is NPR-flat. Whishaw and Cheng both acquit themselves honorably, but so thinly imagined is the world around them that despite their best efforts, these characters seem to occupy a sterile vacuum.

Even the movie’s title signals Khaou’s eat-your-vegetables approach, conspicuously avoiding anything that could be called an enticement. Averse to spectacle but dependent on contrivance, he is just one more liberal indie humanist hung up on naturalism and good intentions.

Opens September 26 at the Village East

07/16/08 12:00am

Step Brothers raises the possibility (perhaps far-fetched) that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, his Most Favored Director, have been listening to their critics. When previous Ferrell vehicles took heat for their laziness, it was an unfortunate consequence of the star’s preferred working methods: he favors improvisational freedom over discipline and focus, and overcompensates for the gag-first approach with worn narrative formulas that only weigh down his comedy’s anarchic spirit. It’s an unexpected relief, then, that Step Brothers is the first Ferrell movie for which sloppiness is not merely the cost of doing business but a guiding principle.

Ferrell and John C. Reilly are more or less interchangeable overgrown man-children whose cocooning routines are upset by the marriage of their previously single parents (Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen, both admirably game). As expected, our heroes have to go out into the world and face adulthood, but McKay and Ferrell (who also wrote the script together) blow a raspberry at the conventional Big Challenge arc, short-circuiting the plot every fifteen or twenty minutes and making great sport of the arbitrariness of it all.

Forsaking the crutches of sporting events and lame nostalgia jokes, and abandoning the arbitrary shackles of PG-13 ratings for the fertile ground of unabashed vulgarity, Ferrell has never seemed more like himself: a big, hairy baby trampling everything in his path. He has yet to prove, a la Steve Martin or Bill Murray, that there’s more to him than his shtick, but for now at least he’s shown he can beat the law of diminishing returns.

Opens July 25.

04/23/08 12:00am

Can it be an accident that Tina Fey’s first big-screen starring vehicle essentially inverts the premise of Knocked Up? 30 Rock’s focus on the balancing act that is post-feminist career-womanhood is probably the closest thing in comedy today to a corrective to the Apatow oeuvre’s devotion to male arrested adolescence — so it’s a little disappointing that Baby Mama avoids gender politics, even in jokes.

Instead, most of the laughs come from the odd-couple dynamic between stars Fey, a driven executive with a ‘T-shaped uterus,’ and Amy Poehler, the uninhibited slob she pays to carry her child (and who, come to think of it, would probably have a grand old time at Rogen and company’s never-ending bro-down). The plot is neat and tidy to a fault (no points for guessing whether Fey ends up with cute juice-store proprietor Greg Kinnear), but Fey and Poehler bring the funny consistently enough that the movie never has time to wear out its welcome.

Opens April 25

02/27/08 12:00am

Among Dodgeball, Talladega Nights, Hot Rod, Beerfest, Blades of Glory, its near-homophone Balls of Fury, and now Semi-Pro, it can seem like America is in the midst of a wacky-sports craze, the scope of which is too grand to be addressed except in the broadest and most improvisational of Hollywood comedies. The truth is just that the familiarity of the sports-movie genre’s conventions gives filmmakers an easy narrative crutch on which to support a lot of silliness.

Semi-Pro is a prime example. Will Ferrell plays a player-owner-manager trying to win his small-market basketball team a berth in the NBA with the help of a Wily Veteran (Woody Harrelson), a Brash Young Talent (André 3000) and a Ragtag Band of Underdogs. As expected, the mechanics of the plot are of far less consequence than Ferrell’s pratfalls and the supporting cast’s ad-libbing, but the film’s ratio of successful-jokes-to-failed-ones isn’t really high enough to justify its shagginess. At a certain point, charming and goofy just starts to look lazy and sloppy, and Will Ferrell starts to look like he’s trying out to be the YouTube generation’s Adam Sandler.

Opens February 29

02/27/08 12:00am

It seems fair enough to call the Dirtbombs a garage-rock band: they’re from Detroit and their songs are built on brash distortion and propulsive backbeat. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, right? Except in this case it also has whiskers and a wet snout: unlike most garage cultists, the Dirtbombs have shown more affinity for funk and electro than for Nuggets, and they’ve never adhered to any kind of retro orthodoxy. Even the line-up — singer/guitarist Mick Collins is backed by a double rhythm section, two bassists and two drummers — seems like it was configured for another group altogether, perhaps some kind of funk/jam-band monstrosity.

Their new album won’t make the garage tag fit any more easily. Previous Dirtbombs full-lengths have been single-minded by design (their first album was conceived as a punk rock record, their second as a soul album, the last as big mainstream rock). We Have You Surrounded, though, maybe because it was originally planned as an EP, is notably diverse. As always, the band’s eclecticism is apparent in their choice of covers: the apocalyptic ‘Fire in the Western World,’ by fellow garage stalwarts Dead Moon, is not so surprising, but there’s also the wistful ballad ‘Sherlock Holmes’, by new-wavers Sparks, and ‘Leopardman at C&A’, from a lyric by British comics artist Alan Moore (and originally intended for Bauhaus).

Dirtbombs certainly haven’t left behind the punchy, direct rockers that have been their bread and butter. Songs like ‘I Hear the Sirens’ and ‘Pretty Princess Day’ are lean and muscular, stylish without being flashy. But the band continues to branch out, from the menacing caterwaul of ‘They Have Us Surrounded’ to the disco strut of ‘Indivisible’. These adventures are for the most part successful, in the sense that they don’t embarrass anyone, but they also seem to be a function of the band mellowing out a little. Not that We Have You Surrounded is exactly sedate, but the reckless abandon that has characterized most other Dirtbombs releases is only sporadically in evidence here. Hopefully when the band gets some of its focus back, the ferocity will come with it.