Mamma Roma (1962)

Pasolini takes us to the outskirts of life and challenges our assumptions in the moving and intelligent Mamma Roma. Almost a mix of Nights of Cabiria with Mildred Pierce, this thoughtful tale of a woman who will do anything for her son leaves nothing at face value, and pulses with the confusion and pain of everyday life.

Anna Magnani gives a captivating performance as Mamma Roma, a former prostitute who saves up to move with her son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) to Rome, where she wants to begin a new chapter in life. She renounces her past and takes on operating a vegetable cart in the piazza market, and she encourages Ettore to go to school to mingle with the right sort of neighborhood kids.

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Ettore’s path takes a different turn, however. He becomes smitten with Bruna (Silvana Corsini), a young woman already with child. His friends tease that she goes out with “everyone,” but Ettore doesn’t mind, and forges a tender connection with her. Mamma Roma doesn’t approve of the match either, and urges him to forget about her and take on a respectable job as a waiter in Trastevere.

Through all its ups and downs, Mamma Roma is consistently engaging for its rich, authentic portrayal of real, complex characters. Mamma Roma herself is a loud, boisterous prostitute one moment, and an affectionate forward-thinking mother the next. The girl Bruna is frequently attacked for her reputation despite her mostly angelic demeanor; then when Ettore is beaten down and his weakness revealed, she laughs in his face and joins the other boys. Characters ebb and flow and take on different roles throughout the story, rejecting stagnant personalities for more genuine, complicated impulses when facing trying circumstances.

Its deep respect for everyday life is heightened through the fluid religious undertones. Mamma Roma is often portrayed as a Mary figure, dedicating her life to her son and suffering the terrible loss that befalls him. Ettore is the Christ, driven by some innate destiny and is even held strung with his arms open in a prison. Bruna could be the Magdalene, to whom Ettore is drawn despite what society may think of her.

Pasolini’s films are anything but ordinary, and the humanism and authenticity flowing through Mamma Roma elevate what could have been some weepy melodrama into intelligent and thought-provoking art.

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Descendants 2 (2017)

The VKs (Villain Kids) are back, wearing more leather than ever in this sequel to the explosive Disney Channel Original Movie Descendants. When we left them, the pack led by Mal (Dove Cameron) was accepted into the preppy Auradon fold with the children of fairy tale heroes and heroines, with the cliffhanger tease that “The story’s not over yet.”

Not over yet indeed, as the film opens with an epic opening number “Ways to Be Wicked,” in which the villain kids have spread their malice and thievery throughout the land, infecting the good with their evil. This (disappointingly) turns out to be a daydream of Mal’s, but sets the tone that something bad may still lie within these kids, and certainly within Mal. Overwhelmed by the pressure to conform and be good, she flees Auradon for her homeland the Isle of the Lost, where the exiled villains and their offspring live.

Mal’s boyfriend Ben and the remaining VKs head to the Isle of the Lost to bring her back, where the real meat and fun of the film kicks off. The first Descendants was a treat to watch evil kids in the world of good, so when it ended with the impression that all was well, I was worried the sequel would lack the original’s bite. I was so wrong; watching the VKs re-enter and re-embrace their homeland brings us one of the more delightful sequences of the whole saga: the groovy “Chillin’ Like a Villain,” where the VKs teach Ben how to act like one of them. Sofia Carson as Evie is particularly charismatic, with noticeably more poise and confidence in this go-around.

Meanwhile, Ursula’s daughter Uma (China Anne McClain, an enjoyable addition to the cast) is gaining power, accompanied by a pirate crew with the likes of Gaston and Captain Hook’s sons. There’s a hysterical rap battle face-off between Uma and Mal, building the rivalry up to a climactic cotillion-gone-wrong as Uma becomes a gargantuan octopus and threatens to sink a ship of teenagers.

I would be disappointed if Descendants 2 were anything but bonkers, and it miraculously meets the expectations set by the original. In fact, the sequel feels more sophisticated through its richer set design, more ambitious choreography, and even better music than its predecessor. It’s not going to join the Criterion Collection anytime soon, but Descendants 2 is a fun, musical treat that the whole family can enjoy.

The Big Sick (2017)

Silver Linings Playbook and Brooklyn are two contemporary films that completely engross you in their stories: boasting complex characters, layered thematic tones, with heartfelt and authentic snapshots of family. The Big Sick, a critical darling from this year’s Sundance film festival, would certainly fit in their company.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a stand-up comedian from Pakistan, who often finds himself at odds with his family. He lies about studying for the LSAT, hides his real personal life, and suffers through dinner after dinner with Pakistani women his parents set him up with.

Secretly, he’s been seeing Emily (Zoe Kazan), an American grad student. Through her he is able to share his true self, inviting her to his (lousy) one-man show, and shows her B-horror flicks to test their compatibility.

While the setup isn’t totally novel for a romantic comedy, what works so great about The Big Sick is the authentic chemistry of their relationship. It feels like we’re watching these two people fall in love before our eyes, and it makes the rest of the film all the more heartbreaking.

Shortly after they go through a rough breakup, Emily falls seriously ill, and is put into a medically-induced coma to stabilize her condition. Her parents come into town, not pleased to see Kumail in her hospital room, and he finds himself torn between his obligations to career, his ex-girlfriend, and now his ex-girlfriend’s parents.

The heart of the movie lies in this unexpected but touching relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents. He is unsure what his rightful place is as they endure this terrible ordeal, and they strike a balance of shared responsibility with helping each other cope through this tragedy. They come so far during Emily’s coma, that it’s easy to forget that for Emily, the last thing she remembers with Kumail is their breakup.

The Big Sick tackles very serious subject matter with the weight that it should. Emily doesn’t fall back for Kumail overnight, and the conflicts Kumail face with his family don’t go away that easily, if they even do at all. Its authenticity lies in this underlying tension, that things don’t wrap up quite so easily. This portrait of ordinary people enduring a horrible crisis is all the stronger for how believably, and warm-heartedly, it depicts the test and strength of love.

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend the world premiere screening of Annabelle: Creation, the prequel to the spinoff of the The Conjuring universe, which also references the upcoming The Nun. Make sense?

The premiere was held at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel (where I also got to see a 40th anniversary screening of Carrie), a gorgeous old movie palace with an elaborate lobby (complete with bar), vintage restrooms, and seats from an era when Americans were a little less wide. I love any opportunity to see a film outside of the everyday multiplex, and this venue was a treat unto itself!

The movie itself was pretty good, and certainly a step above the first and, frankly, forgettable Annabelle. Many years ago, a dollmaker Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther lost their daughter Annabelle in a horrible accident. Flash-forward a few years, and Sister Charlotte accompanies a group of orphan girls to move into the Mullins’ farmhouse. It doesn’t take long for doors to slam on their own or for the titular Annabelle (a doll so cartoonishly scary, she would never ever pass for children’s toy) to pop up in unexpected places. Things escalate quickly, as one of the girls becomes possessed, and it is discovered the Mullins are hiding a terrible secret.

Story seems to be the least concerning element in most modern horror films, as Annabelle: Creation delivers non-stop jump moments ranging from genuinely chilling to laughably preposterous. What makes this one stand out is director David F. Sandberg, who clearly brings his Lights Out sensibilities with more creative and interesting scare elements. The lighting is used very powerfully to heighten and sensationalize the mood, and even works in antitraditional ways. In one scene, a girl is violently pulled through the front yard in broad daylight. The guest next to me yelled, “Aw shit! It’s in daylight now?”

The audience, I fully concede, was one of the best parts of this screening. I guarantee I would not have had as much fun with this movie watching it at home, alone. Everyone screamed and laughed at just the right moments, and shouted at the screen after girl after girl cluelessly wandered into the haunted bedroom.

As silly as the script was, I was very impressed by the girls’ acting, particularly the two leads Janice (Talitha Bateman, balancing good Janice and possessed-by-demons Janice) and Linda (Lulu Wilson, who was terrorized just months ago in Ouija: Origin of Evil). These two young talents were put through numerous physically demanding scenes, spewing intense emotions, and all the while portraying dimensional, believable (given the circumstances) characters.

Q&A with director and cast

Annabelle: Creation is not the challenging moral tale of It Comes by Night, and does not pack the unsettling scares of The Witch. But as more “traditional” horror for a mainstream audience goes, it’s a quality effort heightened by strong acting.

The Circle (2017)

While very, very far from perfect, The Circle is a provocative, timely thriller addressing connection and community in the age of social media.

Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Mae Holland, a young woman who joins the customer support team at The Circle, a Silicon Valley tech giant encompassing social media, software, digital products, and more. The company is led by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), a black turtleneck-sporting charismatic figure who inspires his company, and the world, to empower themselves through his technology.

At its best, The Circle tackles these issues in a thoughtful and complicated way. The Circle develops mini cameras, in a proud call for transparency worldwide: exposing crimes of war, world hunger, as well as everyday sharing and providing insight into one’s personal life. The potential, and threat, of such technology is a fascinating topic on its own, and the film gives these a good shake.

The casting of Emma Watson is even more surprising, and impressive, in this regard. In real life, she is outspokenly political, as a proud feminist and UN Goodwill Ambassador, so it’s especially fun to see her take on such a twisted stance of over-sharing and the shedding of privacy and liberty.

About halfway through, the story does plunge into silly territory, with a disappointing performance by Ellar Coltrane (of Boyhood fame) and not nearly enough John Boyega. As things escalate, the situation is left pretty dire, and even the ending is murky and unclear.

My friend and I left the movie with drastically different ideas about what happened, and what Mae was up to all along. But as silly as things get, any film that provokes discussion and thought, about as toxic a topic as privacy in the digital age, must be working correctly on some wavelength. This is by no means one of the year’s best, but is a timely and (sometimes) intelligent commentary on our online community.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory (1976)

An angry mob, gripping torches and machetes, floods the streets to confront the outsiders. Fingers are dismembered before our very eyes. Innocent men are lynched. This is nor a horror movie, but a historical drama recounting the horrifying events that took place almost fifty years ago.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is an absolute juggernaut. It is a 360 snapshot of a particular time and place, muddled by socio-economic, religious, political, and regional tensions of the late 1960s. We observe the events of an awful tragedy like a fly on the wall: a reporter gets a call that a group of university workers has been attacked, and several killed. After glimpses of the aftermath, we are pulled away from the immediate matter at hand, and meet the faces of Mexico, 1968.

A poor farmer who must give away 10% of his crop to corrupt officials. A priest whose influence over his parish extends past religion into politics and beyond. A wealthy bureaucrat, who is grateful for the public goods and thinks the poor should quit complaining. And an omnipresent narrator, arguably the most reliable, who insists we can trust him and provides commentary on all the action.

After this first act, during which director Felipe Cazals provides an admirably rich portrait of the time and place, we dive into the main narrative: a group of young university employees from the city Puebla decide to go mountain climbing at La Malinche. Knowing the tragic fate awaiting them, each decision and delay brings an extra layer of dread for us, the viewers, as we approach what we already know will be a horrifying end.

Canoa is an incredibly troubling film, of a mistaken conflict between a small town and (perceived) radicals from the city, hauntingly ringing true in today’s hostile and occasionally violent political climate. Cazals never turns away, forcing us to witness and grapple with an unstable and untrustworthy society.

This razor-sharp work is punctuated by a fascinating shot at the end: our narrator atop a staircase, facing another camera, walking down stairs, scurrying up and doing the take again, then speaking to us once he’s down. The pseudo-documentary feel breaks its own wall, from cameras capturing life and people in real-time, to rehearsed and scripted action. Is he such a reliable narrator? Can he be trusted as the voice of Canoa, or a more rational citizen, or even Cazals himself? The overlapping and contradicting nature of history is a subtly recurring theme throughout the story, and the double take within a “documentary” adds a sinister layer to an already-disturbing tale.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is certainly not for everyone, but those who can stomach the intense violence will be taken on a culturally insightful, intellectually challenging, and wholly unforgettable journey.

Personal Shopper (2016)

Somewhere in the grey area between perverse intimacy and crippling isolation lies Maureen (Kristen Stewart in a rich, vulnerable performance), the titular Personal Shopper in Olivier Assayas’s latest masterwork. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis died suddenly, and they agreed that, upon death, the deceased would give the surviving twin some sort of sign. Both are mediums, attuned to the spirit world, but Maureen has trouble interpreting what is a message from beyond at all, least of all from her brother’s ghost and not some other presence.

Personal Shopper is genuinely chilling at times, but it feels less like a horror film and more of an exploration of grief and mourning. Upon her brother’s death in Paris, Maureen moved herself there, and by the time we arrive, it’s been three months and she still hasn’t heard anything. She can’t bear to abandon hope though, so she takes on a job she despises, as a personal shopper for the high-profile Kyra, as she bides time waiting for Lewis to appear.

This American in Paris leads an isolated and challenging life, as a foreigner in a new place, running errands by herself, with the occasional Skype from her friend Gary. When mysterious text messages start popping up on her iPhone, she at first is hesitant and cold in her responses, then gives herself in. She gripes about her boss, reveals her insecurities, and is persuaded to try on Kyra’s bizarro harness lingerie, leading to an intimate solo moment in Kyra’s bed. Maureen even agrees to meet whomever, or whatever, is at the other side of these iMessages.

On the one hand we watch and are appalled, maybe confused, by the actions taken by Maureen. She is steadily pushed out of her comfort zone and lets herself be taken advantage of. But for someone in her situation, desperate for any sign or contact with her departed brother, we sympathize with her – who wouldn’t do anything they could for one more moment with a loved one?

I admit I left the theater in tears, remarkably moved by this haunting, lonely tale of loss. Its fascinating narrative and painfully authentic themes will ring true to anyone who has mourned and desperately waited to see the light.

The Lure (2015)

It opens with two men and a woman, drinking and having fun on a dark, murky beach. Two young mermaids, a strawberry blonde and brunette, appear at the surface. They serenade the men, casting a seductive spell, and are invited to come ashore. The woman lets out a piercing scream. The screen fades to a sublime sea-green as the disco beat of “I Feel Love” throbs in the background. My friend leaned over and whispered to me, “You love this movie already.”

And I did. Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure has everything I could possibly want in a film: mermaids, singing, murder, tragic romance. It is a singular vision and wholly unique experience; you have never seen a movie like this.

The duo, two sisters named Golden and Silver, become part of a Polish family and join a nightclub band, transforming from two-legged bipeds into mermaids, onstage, to an enthralled audience. The songs are hypnotically staged, with pulsating electric lights pacing the stage as the mermaids gently sway in an oversized champagne glass, or rocking out and driving an audience into a frenzy.

The Lure is more than the no-holds-barred pleasure party depicted in its trailer, however. Golden and Silver come to face struggle and even heartbreak as they adjust to life on the land. The neon vibrancy of the club is a powerful contrast to the bleakness of their quiet ballads. Golden immediately finds love, but learns that winning the man in her life comes with sacrifice. Silver is left lonely, and fears her longtime bond with her sister is in jeopardy by Golden’s newfound romance.

Here is where the true gravitas of The Lure comes to the surface. Without feeling open-ended and vague, there are several nuggets to contextualize Silver and Golden’s story, and broaden the universe we find ourselves in. While a somewhat minor character, a former merman Triton, who has cut off his tail and lost his horns, is the only such creature we encounter, and as a horned being, is leagues away from the King Triton-esque image we have of these creatures.

The uncertain background of the mermaids is also alluded to when the duo first gets to the club. The owner asks how they learned such good Polish, and they respond that they learned it at the ports in Bulgaria. We have no other hints of where they are from, how old they are, though they mention that they eventually want to swim to America. The idea of these vagrant, potentially ancient, beings coming ashore and wreaking havoc makes The Lure all the more chilling and deliciously sinister.

While not for everyone, packing a fair share of gore, disco, and nudity, The Lure is a delightful treat if you can open your heart to an otherworldly dark fairy tale. I would gladly once again give in to its seductive siren song.

Why the Oscars Matter

It’s pretty easy to dismiss awards shows, like the upcoming Academy Awards, as pointless. Every awards season, you’ll hear the same mumblings about how the winners don’t really matter, it’s just Hollywood patting itself on the back, and other short-sighted dismissals of the ceremony.

To some degree, they are correct; the Academy Awards, and other awards shows, were originally formed by professionals within the industry to promote their artistic works. The concept of naming particular creative minds and talents in entertainment as the “Best” of that year was devised, essentially, as an elaborate marketing tool.

However, I find that awards ceremonies mean more with the passage of time than in that respective year. They’re a time capsule into pop culture of a specific moment in history, and are a great way to start venturing into film from a bygone era.

I am very fortunate to have had parents who shared classic films, like the works of Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, with us growing up. Sure, it kind of set my sisters and me apart culturally from our peer group (how many kids can quote Sunset Boulevard?), but it set a great foundation for our love of movies and for building a genuine interest in older films. From the movies our parents shared with us, my sisters and I went off in our own directions: the older sister going through a Grace Kelly phase, another delving into late 1980s / early 1990s camp, and me going for Oscar winners from yesteryear.

The building blocks my parents set, starting with Academy Award winners, were a perfect gateway into lesser-known and, in some cases, better movies that I would never have stumbled upon otherwise. I rented Roman Polanski’s The Pianist by Roman Polanski, who I had never heard of as a pre-teen, soon after he won the Oscar for Best Director. From there I wanted to see more works by him, which led me to his terrific older films, like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. I ended up liking those even more than The Pianist, so I’m grateful for the Academy Awards for first putting this director on my radar and indirectly bringing me to other films I would love.

Awards shows are more than just time capsules, of course, and can get us to enjoy entertainment we wouldn’t have even considered before seeing it listed on a nominees ballot. In the past few years, I have made a point to see all the Best Picture nominees by Oscars night. (TIP: It makes watching the awards WAY more fun when you know what’s at stake!) This introduced me to what have become two of my favorite contemporary films, Up in the Air and Silver Linings Playbook, neither of which I would have seen had they not been up for Oscars.

Sure, on some level they may be self-congratulatory, but awards shows have introduced me to what are now some of my favorite artistic works. They are a great tool for acculturating yourself and exploring new cultural horizons. Future generations may look to today’s nominees, like La La Land, Moonlight, and Arrival, as entry points to develop their own love of film. Everyone needs to start somewhere, and the Oscars are a terrific gateway.