Most of the buzz around Fences has been around the individual performances of Viola Davis, seen as the heavy favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar, and Denzel Washington, who play Rose and Troy Maxson, the center of this film set in 1950s Pittsburgh. That’s both the movie’s strength and its weakness: This is an ensemble of great acting performances around a script that’s very talky, the way a play on a stage needs to be but a filmed version does not. (The film is based on the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson, who died in 2005.)

Troy is a 53-year-old trash collector in Pittsburgh who portrays himself as a devoted husband and father, a strong provider, and a bon vivant, only for the complexity of his character and contradictions of his (offscreen) actions to become clear as the movie progresses. Troy played in the Negro Leagues – this movie has a lot of baseball talk in it, and the playwright behind it, August Wilson, obviously knew his baseball – but was denied his chance due to his race or perhaps his age, although he remembers it one way and his wife the other. Troy’s self-built narrative takes one hit after another as we meet his sons, learn the story of his war-wounded and addled brother Gabe (a tremendous turn by Mykelti Williamson), and discover the secret he’s been hiding from Rose that turns the entire story upside down, giving Davis control of the second half of the film to deliver her very Oscar-worthy performance.

Davis dominates her time as the wronged wife, but Washington’s work, especially in the first half of the film where he’s the storytelling, bullshitting center of every scene, seems a little too on the nose. I haven’t seen the play, so I lack that means of comparison, but either the script or Washington’s interpretation of it – especially the way he voices his lines from his jowls – seems to border on caricature, in a way that particularly emphasizes Troy’s race.

Yet Fences is not inherently a movie about race or racism – there isn’t a white person to be found except the nameless driver of Troy and his best friend Bono’s garbage truck – and only a portion of Troy’s misfortune is due to his blackness. His downfall is not the color of his skin, but his willingness to rationalize all of his mistakes, from mere errors in judgment to total lapses in responsibility, because they felt right in his heart. He’s kept his sons at arm’s length for different reasons, but in both cases it has produced damaged relationships. He has a good, eighteen-year marriage to a devoted wife, Rose, who has chosen a life of subjugation to her domineering husband and his expansive personality, but he throws it all away because, in his mind, of his need to escape the stress of being the sole provider for the family. That’s a role on the stage that would require a huge persona to fill up the theater, but Washington seems to bring the bluster along with the bravado in a way that overwhelms the rest of the family throughout the first half of the film.

Fences is much stronger as a document about women, and perhaps their role in the newly upwardly-mobile black communities of the 1950s, where the door had just begun to open on financial opportunities for black men, at least in the north and west of the U.S. Rose reveals, in one of several speeches that could form her Oscar nomination reel, that she suppressed her own goals in life because she found that accommodating Troy left no “room” for her, only to find that Troy has betrayed her in the most treasonous way possible. This is The Remains of the Day for the working class, and a story in which one of the two characters looking back on a life of lost chances gets a second act to try to regain what they gave up.

As for the fence of the title, Troy and his son Cory (played meekly by Jovan Adepo, later upstaged by a six-year-old girl) are supposed to be building one around their property at Rose’s request, and the fence serves as a clumsy metaphor for Rose’s attempts to keep her family close to her and Troy’s goal to keep the Angel of Death out. It never worked for me, both because it was too overt a symbol and because we don’t see enough of Rose’s strength in the first half of the film to reinforce the metaphor.

Fences is a better film than I may have implied here – it’s flawed, but in small ways, factors that keep it from being as strong as Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea. It’s also a pure joy to watch Davis, Williamson – playing a character who is childlike as a result of a serious head injury he suffered in World War II, without veering off into clownlike caricature – and Stephen Henderson (as Bono) just do their thing, delivering precise, full-bodied performances in a movie that is largely a showcase for them. Even Washington, for all his scene-chewing, is a magnetic presence on the screen; I think I have more complaint with his direction, such as some needless close-ups of characters in anxious or pensive moments, than his acting, although he’ll probably get nominations for both. He infuses the character with rakish charm in the opening scene, and then allows the character’s actions and justifications to chip away at our admiration until, by the time of the Big Reveal, there’s little left but a shell that Troy himself can’t put back together, no matter what he tells Rose or himself to defend it.

Manchester by the Sea.

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Manchester by the Sea is a devastating portrayal of the aftermath of grief that can’t just go away with time, the lengths to which people will go to avoid it, and the inevitability of returning to it. Casey Affleck delivers a performance for the ages here, and Michelle Williams is brilliant in a secondary role that doesn’t give her a ton of screen time. And despite the film’s core subject matter, there’s a lot of humor in it, some silly, some dry, but more than enough to keep you from turning away from the film’s unrelenting sorrow.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, whom we meet first in his job in Quincy (correctly pronounced “quinzy”), Massachusetts, a working-class suburb just south of Boston, as a janitor and handyman for several buildings, where he’s put upon by numerous tenants and displays a sort of heroic stoicism in the face of condescension and stupidity. He gets a surprise phone call while shoveling snow and de-icing a sidewalk, a regular pastime for Boston-area residents, to learn his brother, Joe, has been hospitalized; by the time he arrives, his brother has died of a heart attack, which we find out was the result of congestive heart failure that hit Joe at a very young age. Lee finds out that Joe has appointed him guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick, with the assumption that Lee would take over Joe’s house in Manchester-by-the-Sea and raise Patrick to adulthood, but this revelation – Lee had no idea that this was in Joe’s will – reopens a torrent of grief related to another, earlier tragedy for which Lee blames himself and led to his flight to the city.

This is a Casey Affleck solo album, and he delivers a virtuoso performance that never really answers whether Lee is truly a stoic or merely suffering so much internal pain that he’s become numb on the outside. Affleck has a hundred opportunities to slip outside of that hard exterior and lose the character, and never blinks. There’s pain in his eyes, especially in the scene where we see him explaining the earlier tragedy to police, and a tension in his jaw that lasts throughout the film, so that when he turns down even simple gestures of kindness from others, those characters could see him as impolite or morose and never tell which. The script makes excellent use of silences throughout the film, but those are a key component of Lee’s conversations with just about everyone around him, even in response to mundane questions, as if wondering what kind of day he’s having is just too painful to contemplate.

The one character with whom Lee has any reduction in his guard is Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, who has already won several awards for the best performance by a young actor in a film this year. We see through flashbacks that Lee was close to Patrick when the latter was still young, before Lee’s own tragedy and the departure of Patrick’s alcoholic mother from his life, but Lee’s ability to connect with Patrick is hampered by absence and time, and the spectre of that central tragedy in Lee’s past. Hedges is at his best when balancing the facade of the insouciant teenager, balancing two girlfriends who don’t know about each other, against his own grief at losing his father and one particular detail that encapsulates his grief.

Williams isn’t on screen much as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, although her character is central to the backstory and she delivers a monologue near the very end of the film (the one you see in the trailer and commercials) where she speaks through wracking sobs that sound unbelievably real. Her accent, like most of those other than Affleck’s, is over the top, but like Affleck she reflects intense pain through her eyes and through tightly drawn lips in her first reappearance at the funeral service, only to let the grief out in a barrage of tears in that (Oscar nomination clip?) scene. The change in her appearance from the past to the present is also significant and well-executed; in the present day, she’s remarried into at least some more money, with an expensive haircut and clothes and more makeup, but the makeover turns her into someone who’s overcompensating to forget her past, and perhaps unsure of how to reflect a rise in status in her looks.

There are little details around the edges of the film that could have been better, including a few scenes that director Kenneth Lonergan might have cut, such as the thirty-second discussion over the “bleeper” (the garage-door opener) that served no purpose other than to have Affleck and Hedges say that word with their Massachusetts accents. The police-station scene where Affleck goes over the earlier tragedy is marred by the score, which is too loud to begin with and didn’t need to be in that scene at all; the score as a whole detracts from the movie, as it was just too noticeable in a film that needs to be quiet. Also, when Patrick eats at the house of one of his girlfriends, he refers to a dish as “homemade carbonara” when it is clearly a red sauce, and that sort of mistake is just unforgiveable.

Affleck seems like a lock for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and I’m not sure how anyone could deliver a better performance than this. I’ve mentioned the sexual harassment lawsuits against him in a recent links post, which could sink his support among Oscar voters, but on the merits alone he’s more than deserving, with a Golden Globe nomination already and several wins from local film critics’ associations. I imagine it’ll get nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Williams possibly grabbing one for Best Supporting Actress, although from reading expert views I get the sense like Viola Davis has that one sealed up for Fences. I don’t think it will beat Moonlight, but I think it’s actually a better film with a stronger script; both films use silence heavily to express sorrow, grief, or doubt, but Manchester does it more effectively.


Moonlight is already one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and it feels like a lock for a Best Picture nomination, especially in light of recent criticism that the Oscars are too white. It’s an unusually quiet, understated movie, often painfully silent, mimicking the internal suffering of its main character, a gay black man we follow from elementary school to young adulthood as he struggles to find any way or place he can feel comfortable in his own skin.

The story unfurls in three parts, with a different actor playing the lead character in each stage, with probably six to eight years separating each third. Chiron, variously known as Little or Black, first appears on screen as he’s chased by a bunch of classmates shouting about beating “his gay ass” as they run through a project in Miami, eventually cornering him in a boarded-up motel or apartment complex where he’s found by the local dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan ends up serving as a sort of father figure to Chiron, but the relationship unravels as Chiron’s mother, Paula, becomes a crack addict. The film follows Chiron through a miserable experience in high school as a bullied, silent kid whose one experience with sexuality is followed by betrayal and disaster, to his transformation as an adult into a jacked-up enforcer in Atlanta who comes back to Miami to reunite with his estranged friend.

If you want to summarize Moonlight as the gay black movie, you wouldn’t exactly be wrong, but you’d be doing the screenplay by director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney a huge disservice. Chiron is a target because he’s gay, something even his own mother can’t accept, but the theme of ostracism and isolation is broader than just that brought on by homophobia – and if Chiron were comfortable with his sexuality, or had a support system at home, or were just willing to defend himself physically (as Kevin tells him in part one), his story arc would be completely different. Chiron’s problem is not that he’s gay, but that he is who he is, with no one around to tell him that he’s okay, or to help him become a more assertive, confident person before it’s too late. You could just as easily say Moonlight is about a life ruined by the scourge of crack in poor black communities. I don’t think it’s any of those things, not individually, but draws on so many different themes that it manages to create a complex story with a bare minimum of dialogue.

And when I say a bare minimum, I mean it; you could probably write this entire script on the head of a pin using a Sharpie and an old English font. Chiron rarely says more than two or three words at a time, and often just doesn’t answer questions addressed directly to him. No one talks at length except for Kevin, and by the third act, it seems like it’s out of nervousness rather than him having something to say. The silences throughout the film are there to make you uncomfortable, to make you feel the characters’ discomfort, but as someone with the attention span of a goldfish I felt a little like I was watching Steve Trachsel’s directorial debut. The silences are undoubtedly effective, both for that purpose and for making the film’s bursts of activity that much more incisive, but oh my God Chiron just answer the question!

It seems like Moonlight is already generating Oscar buzz, and it’s on par with some of the best movies I’ve seen the last few years as a work of art, but I wonder if any actors in the film will earn nominations given how little time most of them get on screen. Of the three actors to play Chiron, only Trevante Rhodes really has enough to do to merit a Supporting Actor nod, and Ali could get consideration for the same. As much as I’d like to see Janelle Monáe, who plays Juan’s girlfriend Teresa and appears in two of the three parts, get a nomination, the character is too one-note for that, and Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s mother, has much more weight to her role as well as the bonus points from playing a drug addict. (The hair and makeup department did their best to make Monáe look plain, but failed.) I could see Moonlight getting Picture, Director, and Screenplay nods but whiffing on the four Actor categories, depending of course on what the rest of the field looks like; the Screen Actors Guild has a Best Ensemble category, however, and that seems tailor-made for a film like Moonlight that is the sum of many great, small performances.

I’m hoping to catch a few more of the leading contenders in the next few weeks – La La Land, Loving, and Manchester by the Sea among them – as my writing schedule permits.

O.J.: Made in America.

My latest Insider column discusses Mike Hazen and diversity in baseball, and my latest boardgame review for Paste covers the pirate-themed Islebound, which looks great but plays too slowly.

My employer’s eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America is a real tour de force of nonfiction storytelling, combining two separate, strong narratives to give us the rise and fall of one of the most beloved celebrities of the last fifty years within the context of American race relations, particularly between white police and government authorities and African-American civilians. It paints pictures of two O.J.’s: the sports star who crossed over to become an icon to black and white audiences, and the manipulative wife-beater who eventually killed Nicole Brown and innocent bystander Ronald Goldman, only to be acquitted in a ‘trial of the century.’ Aired in five separate parts, the film casts an incredibly wide net and manages to inform the viewers not just on the facts but on the landscape in which those facts took place. (The film is streaming via the WatchESPN app and can be purchased on amazon or iTunes).

The documentary starts more or less with Simpson in community college, although it dips back into his childhood to introduce us to many of the figures who appear in the documentary on camera or in the action itself, as he’s about to head to USC, where the nation first became aware of his superlative talent on the field. The Buffalo Bills drafted Simpson, but their system didn’t make good use of his abilities for the first few years of his career and he appeared to be a disappointment until new head coach Lou Saban built the team’s offense around him in 1972. Simpson took off from there, becoming the first back to rush for 2000 yards (back in the 14-game schedule), breaking Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record, winning the league MVP and several rushing titles, and eventually retiring with the second-most rushing yards in NFL history.

Simpson started to convert his football prowess into commercial success early in his career, and began acting in films shortly after becoming a football star. Although the documentary focuses more on his comic work – he was Nordberg in the three Naked Gun films, probably the role for which he’s most remembered now as an actor – he also appeared in dramatic works, including an episode of Roots, only the greatest miniseries of all time (per Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz). By the time Simpson hung up his cleats, he was a cross-platform star, a bankable celebrity whom the film credits with ushering in the era of the sports star endorsement that we can blame for those awful Peyton Manning Nationwide commercials.

That story takes up the first two hours or so of the film, and it’s exhilirating to watch: there’s plenty of game footage, but we also get to watch the development of a national icon, turning from a charming but very unpolished athlete into a confident, ambitious actor and pitchman. In an era where endorsements were limited to white stars, Simpson broke the mold. That he did so by avoiding any emphasis on his race, such as commenting on political matters or protests, did not seem remarkable at the time; it was the path of least resistance for someone who wanted the fame and income that came from celebrity, not the power or the podium.

This part of the documentary is interspersed with the backdrop of rising racial animus in California, including the Watts riots, the police shooting of Eulia Love, the murder of Latasha Harkins by a Korean grocer (convicted but sentenced only to probation), and the Rodney King beating and acquittal. In a sense, it’s all prologue for the murder trial of Simpson, where the context of a city where many black citizens were convinced that they were being unfairly targeted by the police and treated differently by the courts informed a trial that included a cop, Mark Fuhrman, with a history of racist statements, and the defense accusation of planted evidence. The physical evidence, including DNA, should have made this a slam-dunk for the prosecution, but the defense created plenty of reasonable doubt, including prosecutor Chris Darden’s own inexplicable decision to ask Simpson to try on one of the gloves with his DNA on it, as well as by playing the race card to gain Simpson a fast acquittal.

I remember being disgusted to see people celebrating the verdict at the time, and the images still repulse me today: the fact that a black man could beat the system should not be more important than the fact that an abused wife and a total stranger were brutally murdered. But O.J.: Made in America doesn’t pass judgment itself; the film gives us both contemporary footage from the trial and reaction along with commentary today from so many participants, including two jurors (both black women) and the practically made-for-television civil rights lawyer Carl Douglas. Although a few key people are missing from these confessional interviews – Al Cowlings, Marguerite Simpson, and Darden stand out among the missing – the sheer number of people who did talk, and talked at length, is the production’s greatest strength. Furhman’s here. So are several of the cops who arrested Simpson, including those involved in the absurd white Bronco debacle. Many of O.J.’s longtime friends appear, including a childhood friend, Joe Bell, who comes as close as anyone here to defending the subject.

From there, we get the ugly post-trial life of Simpson up to his 2007 arrest and 2008 conviction on kidnapping and burglary charges that the film strongly implies was all payback for the 1994 acquittal. Simpson believed, according to his friends, that after the original verdict, he’d return to his old life as if nothing had happened, only to find his endorsements evaporating and many of his friends distancing themselves from him. The narrative gets a bit flimsy at this point, but the story is one of a man who relocates to Florida (to avoid the civil judgment against him), starts hanging out with less and less savory characters, and eventually adopts a “gangster” (their word, not mine) image along with his increasingly erratic behavior and poor judgment. Of course, the worst people Simpson was hanging with were collectibles dealers, and you can interpret that as you wish.

What the documentary doesn’t do, unfortunately, is even explore the question of why. Domestic violence itself is worthy of that kind of discussion – are abusers born, or are they made? If the latter, how do we interrupt the cycle that creates them? – but in Simpson’s case, the program itself gives us portraits of two extremely different men. The Simpson of the 1960s and 1970s that we see in episodes 1 and 2, married to his high school sweetheart Marguerite and out of any sort of trouble, is completely different from the controlling, obsessed Simpson who abused and eventually killed Nicole Brown. This dichotomy all but requires explanation: Was Simpson always a potential abuser, but didn’t become one until his second marriage? (Marguerite has steadfastly said that Simpson never abused her, and there is no record of any violence during their relationship.) Did his football career have anything to do with him becoming abusive or aspects of his personality that changed? The directors seem to hint at O.J.’s troubled relationship with his father, who was gay and later became a well-known drag performer, as a cause, but that’s hardly a justification for violence against women and the subject is barely discussed. It appears the directors didn’t ask any of the many longtime friends and business associates of Simpson the question: was this really who Simpson was all along?

The documentary itself is riveting; I don’t remember any single-story work of this length that held my attention as long as this one did. The pacing is brisk, and the first-person commentaries from folks as diverse as Marcia Clark, Hertz CEO Frank Olson, and Simpson’s friend Ron Shipp, a retired LAPD officer who testified against Simpson at the murder trial, are invaluable for framing (no pun intended) the story. The directors delivered even more on their “in America” part, showing how the racial and cultural context first made O.J. into a star and then helped him avoid a conviction for the two murders, even more than they tell us how O.J. was “made” into a domestic abuser and killer. ESPN released the film to theaters in New York and Los Angeles for a week so it would be eligible for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and I find it hard to imagine any two-hour challenger could come close to topping it.

The Lobster.

I watched The Lobster (amazoniTunes) because Tim Grierson and Will Leitch told me to. More specifically, they each named it one of their top six movies of the first half of 2016, and they raved about it on their indispensable podcast, and then my draft-blog colleague Chris Crawford told me he liked it, so I watched it. It is absolutely weird, one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen to actually star people I’ve heard of before, and in some ways it’s totally brilliant, even if the plot has holes and there are definitely moments that don’t quite come together.

The Lobster is a dystopian comic psychological horror-film romance, and sometimes manages to be a few of those things at the same time. Colin Farrell plays Dave, a somewhat hapless man whose wife is leaving him in the movie’s second scene – the first scene is too ridiculous to spoil – and who asks, in a bit of foreshadowing, if her new lover wears contacts. It turns out that Dave lives in a world where single people are sent to the Hotel, where, if they fail to find mates within 45 days, they’re turned into animals of their choosing. Dave chooses a lobster, and is congratulated for not choosing a dog, which most people choose, which is why there are so many dogs in the world. (The exact process by which this transformation takes place is, fortunately, not explained in the film.) Residents may add days to that spell if they help catch Loners, refugees from this mad state who live in the woods because they wish to be single, which apparently is seen as a sort of insanity in this alternate world. Dave eventually joins the Loners, then falls for a woman (Rachel Weisz) in their group, thus violating the Loners’ code and making them outcasts from both ends of this society.

Matches in this world occur on the basis of some shared flaw or issue; one girl (Jessica Barden), never identified by name, suffers from frequent nosebleeds, so another resident of the Hotel (Ben Whishaw) fakes nosebleeds to pair off with her. (Barden is adorable in her brief role and seems destined to appear in an Austen or Brontë adaptation.) Dave, thus, is looking for someone nearsighted like he is, although at one point he fakes being a sociopath to couple up with the woman in the Hotel who feels no emotions whatsoever and is the most efficient Loner catcher in the colony.

The whole endeavor is really nuts, and it’s made even more so by the absurd, robotic dialogue emanating from every character, as if they’re reading from a clinical or technical textbook. It takes social awkwardness to another level; these aren’t people who just can’t capture the rhythm of modern conversation, but can’t figure out what to talk about, ever.

Once Dave escapes the Hotel and joins the Loners, the humor fades, replaced by a claustrophobic sense once it becomes clear that the Loners’ lives are just as strictly regulated as those in the Hotel. (The humor isn’t gone, though; the Loners stage a raid on the Hotel at one point, and the way they torture the couples is brilliantly twisted.) Writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou spend the first half of the script appearing to decry our couples-obsessed civilization, right down to the idea of ‘matching’ by shared flaws or idiosyncracies, only to turn around and offer a take nearly as dark on remaining single. The entire film eschews any simple answers to the question of whether happiness comes through relationships, through self-reliance, or through any single prescription – even parenthood gets a sideswipe in the film’s funniest line.

Then there is The Lobster‘s ending, deliberately ambiguous, befitting the film’s overall theme, but one that I could see sparking debates for years. Does Dave return to the table? Does he complete the act we see him starting in the bathroom? Was Weisz’s unnamed character only pretending? What possible future could these two people have in a society where being single is essentially illegal, but where they lack the marriage certificate that the police ask for like identity papers?

Farrell is a revelation in this role, a sad-sack with an unfashionable hairdo and dated mustache who refuses to give up on life or the possibility of happiness; his is the one fully-realized character in the film, and you could interpret the whole exercise through his eyes alone, with the others all props in his quest for meaning. Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) makes quite a bit of her role as the leader of the Loners, by turns compassionate and diabolical. Whishaw, John C. Reilly, and Broadchurch‘s Olivia Colman all add value in bit parts, but none of their characters have any depth to work with.

By the end, The Lobster reminded me tremendously of the films of Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter who has some of the best ideas in film writing, but who struggles to see them through to a full plot. The first half of The Lobster sings as you explore its dystopian world, and the second half still has some of those moments, but the pacing becomes erratic as the movie progresses, and the plot begins to fray, especially in how the Leader finds out about Dave and his paramour, to try to add some narrative tension. But it’s a clever, insightful vision, thought-provoking on the hard subject of happiness without falling into easy answers, and the movie’s refusal to package everything neatly for us at the end feels like the only appropriate resolution for this kind of story. In the spirit of Grierson & Leitch’s show, I give it a solid B.

Everybody Wants Some!!

My first GenCon wrap-up post for Paste covers the top ten new boardgames at this year’s convention.

I wasn’t sure about seeing Everybody Wants Some!! (amazoniTunes), Richard Linklater’s 2016 movie about a college baseball team set in 1980, because baseball-themed films are generally quite terrible and I was concerned this might be a big bro-movie too. The indispensable Grierson & Leitch podcast convinced me to see it anyway when both critics put it on their top six movies of 2016 to date, and when Will Leitch said it’s only tangentially a baseball movie anyway (which is true). As it turns out, the movie is more of a slice-of-life portrait than any kind of baseball story, and it’s witty and endearing, full of memorable lines and characters, without getting too sentimental or losing its pacing.

There’s little plot to speak of in Everybody Wants Some!!, so Linklater has to keep the dialogue moving to keep the movie from dragging, but the script must have looked liked the one from His Girl Friday given how little silence there is anywhere in the film. (If no one is talking, it’s because there’s music playing, and if there’s music playing, there’s probably someone singing or rapping along with it.) We start with the arrival of Jacob (Blake Jenner), a freshman pitcher who was second-team All-State as a Texas high schooler, at the two off-campus houses where Southeast Texas State University’s baseball team resides, which also serves as a rapid-fire introduction to most of Jacob’s new teammates, led by the garrulous intellectual Finn (Glen Powell) and frat-boyish bro McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin, former ASU baseball player and a dead ringer for Angel Eyes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in this film). Within a few minutes, Jacob is in the car with four of his teammates – Finn, Dale (J. Quinton Johnson, the only African-American player on the team), Roper (Ryan Guzman), and another freshman, slow-witted catcher Plummer (Temple Baker) – heading out on the prowl while doing a Bohemian Rhapsody-esque take on “Rapper’s Delight.” Their brief cruise puts Jacob in contact with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the film’s only substantial female character; his brief courtship of Beverly is the closest thing the movie has to an actual narrative, a meet-cute subplot that takes up maybe 10% of the movie.

From there we follow the boys – and the film makes it clear that these are boys who just look like men – from one party to the next, with only a little bit of action on the field, and a few hilarious scenes at the house (including the stoner/hippie Willoughby trying to exchange thoughts telepathically with Dale, Jacob, and Plummer). There’s no real direction but “forward,” so the film ends up driven by its characters and dialogue, the latter of which sparkles whenever Finn or Dale takes center stage, Finn for his rapid-fire delivery and vocabulary full of $20 words, Dale for his note-perfect delivery and spot-on facial expressions. The only character of the dozen or so we meet who misses the mark is Jay Niles, played by Huston Street’s brother Juston, a bombastic, tightly wound pitcher who claims he throws 95, was drafted by the Blue Jays, and calls himself “Raw Dog” … because he’s the raw dog. It’s all caricature, no nuance in a cast of characters who otherwise have some two-dimensionality.

Linklater captures the time and place of Everybody Wants Some!! perfectly between the music, the clothes, the hair, and the dialogue, and takes advantage of it in ways that he couldn’t if the movie were set closer to today. There’s some mild hazing of the freshmen, at least one part of which would be completely unacceptable today, and the boys’ attitudes towards women are definitely a product of their time. The sexual liberation of the 1970s is still in full swing with no thought of STDs, let alone the virus that changed the landscape in the following decade. The script takes full advantage of the liberties of its milieu, giving us comic moments that would be unsettling (or just offensive) in a contemporary setting.

Five or ten years from now, we’ll look at Everybody Wants Some!! as the starting point of the careers of a number of these actors, especially Powell and Johnson, each of whom grabs hold of the viewer’s attention whenever they get the opportunity. Johnson manages to be hammy the way a college kid plays for laughs without ever seeming to be “acting” so, and he gets extra points for writing the music for the rap song that airs with the closing credits. (He told me on Twitter that the actors each wrote their own verses.) Powell takes dialogue that would sound ridiculous out of just about any character’s mouth and infuses it with charisma that manage to make it just believable enough to fly in a film where no one else talks in a way remotely resembling his hifalutin speech. I wish Deutch had had more to do than to stand around and look cute; she gets two little moments to act, and the one at the costume party near the end of the film showed some comic chops that might have come in handy elsewhere in the movie.

Doing that would have gone against the ethic of Everybody Wants Some!!, though, since at heart this is a smart “bro” movie, one that neither celebrates the idiocy of young men nor mocks them for the same. Instead it celebrates camaraderie with a heavy dose of nostalgia, hitting that moment right before you realize that your life choices might be limited, that the dream you’ve always chased might not come true, and that there are also new possibilities you hadn’t previously imagined. Linklater’s script is never maudlin, even in moments where the characters almost acknowledge that their baseball careers are probably stopping here on campus, and the humor doesn’t stop long enough for the mood to turn bittersweet. It’s a bunch of guys who are living in the moment and having a good time in that brief span of post-adolescence where you have yet to hit adult maturity, and while I didn’t see myself in any of these characters, it still evoked that memory of being part of a big group of people with nothing more in mind than having fun.


Anomalisa is the best depiction of depression that I’ve come across in any medium of fiction, even though it’s, of all things, made with puppets and stop-motion animation. It uses one incredibly effective gimmick to show us the main character’s illness without resorting to lengthy explanations, and then is carried forward by the three voice actors’ performances in a story that is at times heartbreaking yet often deliberately silly. (It’s also available on iTunes.)

Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis (a.k.a., Remus Lupin), is a successful author and public speaker on the topic of customer service, and he’s just landed in Cincinnati to give a talk on the topic. He’s also battling what we learn is a very longstanding case of depression, which is shown to us via his senses: He sees all other people as having the same face, and all their voices as identical as well. Male, female, child, adult, whatever, they all look and sound alike to him. (All of these characters are voiced by character actor Tom Noonan, who just moderates his pitch slightly for age and gender, nothing more.) Many of the people he meets are comically annoying, from the cab driver who gets him to the hotel to the bellman who just won’t leave, followed by a disastrous reunion with the girlfriend he left without explanation ten years earlier.

Later that night, he hears a different voice for the first time in years, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a very insecure woman who drove in from out of town with her friend just to hear Michael’s talk. Michael pursues her, discovering that she’s lonely in her own way, and … things move from there, but I wouldn’t say they “progress,” so much as they stumble, because Michael is still depressed and Lisa – whom he dubs “Anomalisa” when she refers to herself as a sort of anomaly – is not the cure.

I have been there, so to speak, not for the length of time that Michael has apparently been depressed but for long enough stretches to recognize what he’s enduring, and I’ve described it as a sort of fog. Colors seem less bright, everything is darker, edges are less crisp, and memories are always less clear. You don’t even necessarily know what’s wrong until you’re out of it and realize that your perception of the world and everyone in it was warped by your condition. I never suffered from the sort of modified Fregoli delusion that writer Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) gives Michael, but it works perfectly as a metaphor for depression in general. Your brain perceives the world without its details, so everything becomes less interesting or able to hold your attention, and you become overwhelmed with a feeling of sameness. (I assume the name Anomalisa also alludes to anomie, a sociological term that can refer to the loss of direction or purpose an individual might feel due to a sense of alienation or disconnect from society. Michael also stays at the Hotel Fregoli for another bit of Kaufman wordplay.)

Anomalisa also avoids showing depression as a one-dimensional disorder. Michael is depressed, but he can still function. He got on the plane. He’s given these speeches before and even written a best-selling book. He has fans. He’s supposed to be quite good-looking (for a puppet). Depressed is not dead. You can be depressed, or anxious, or even bipolar, and still lead a functional life – just not a fulfilled one. And for whatever reason, Zoloft, a very widely prescribed anti-depressant, doesn’t appear to have helped Michael. His foggy status could be a combination of the depression and the side effect of SSRIs that they tend to take the edges off your emotions, for better or for worse; at one point he mentions being unable to cry, something I’ve experienced on escitalopram (Lexapro) as well.

The film’s concluding sequence is somewhat jarring after the languorous pace of everything up to and including Michael’s encounter with Lisa, although it’s a logical series of events – it’s simply missing a few pieces, notably a last conversation between those two before Michael returns to Los Angeles, his miserable wife, and attention-starved son. Kaufman’s better at beginnings than endings; Being John Malkovich is a brilliant idea that crashes into the wall on the final lap, although I thought Eternal Sunshine ended well by returning to the beginning. Here, his script finishes with one final, beautiful flourish, a glimmer of hope in Lisa’s words and a visual trick you might miss if you’re not looking for it, that salvaged the slightly incongruous editing at the end.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand depression, perhaps because a friend or loved one has it, watch Anomalisa. All three voice actors are superb, especially Leigh, whose intonation reveals her character’s insecurity long before we understand her reasons for it. Kaufman’s script gives the disease an authentic, uncomfortable (quite so, at times) treatment for the serious, multi-dimensional story mental illness deserves. It’s a sad film, but never humorless, and left me wanting to see more.

Ex Machina.

My thoughts on prospects in the 2016 Futures Game are up for Insiders.

Ex Machina is a quiet mindbender of a film featuring a smart script that explores questions of consciousness, free will, and the power of the machine without becoming hyperbolic or paranoid. It made a number of critical best-of-2015 lists but was largely shut out of the major Academy Awards, although one of its stars, Alicia Vikander, won Best Supporting Actress for her part in The Danish Girl and could easily have earned a nomination for this as well. (Is there a rule precluding one actor from earning two nominations in the same category in the same year for different films?) The movie features three outstanding performances and some otherworldly CG graphics that somehow never manage to overwhelm the rest of the film. The movie is free for Amazon Prime members and also available on iTunes.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan “Mad-Eye Moody” Gleeson) is a young coder at a hugely successful search engine company called Blue Book, named for the journals of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and wins a contest to spend a week at the remote house of the company’s founder, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Nathan has been working on developing a robot with an AI good enough to pass the Turing test and has chosen Caleb to partake in the test as its human half. Caleb meets the robot, named Ava, who has a human face and shape but otherwise looks like a robot in a humanoid case. She can understand nuances in speech and read microexpressions, and early on it appears that she’s going to pass Caleb’s version of the test, although in an actual Turing test the human subject would be unaware whether he’s talking to a computer or a person. Eventually Ava, whom Nathan has confined to her little apartment within his compound, expresses her desire to escape, and Caleb agrees to help her.

The unfolding of this simple plot provides the film with strong narrative greed – I had a guess at what would happen and was only about half right – is largely secondary to the issues the script is trying to explore, even though it can’t answer any of them in full and doesn’t seem to try to do so. Is Ava alive? Is not, what is she, since she has consciousness, self-awareness, and what certainly appear to be emotions? Does she have free will if her cognitive processes are the results of code, not biology? Is it ethical to keep her confined as Nathan does – or unethical to let her out? Once Caleb has learned more details about Nathan’s experiment, then does he have any obligations in the matter?

One thing Ex Machina doesn’t do is delve into excessive paranoia about the machines taking us over. There’s a cautionary note inherent in the story, because it’s clear that Nathan’s robots would be indistuinguishable from people on sight, but director and writer Alex Garland, whose script got the film’s only non-technical Oscar nomination, lets the story create that concern in the mind of the viewer rather than laying it on thickly with the AI going bananas on screen.

The performances drive this film more than anything else. Vikander is superb in every way, communicating this perfect childlike innocence that provides a stark, useful contrast to her character’s intelligence. She’s beautiful, as the AI has to be for the plot to work properly, but in specific ways (especially her eyes) that accentuate her character’s otherness rather than making her strictly a fembot.

There are plenty of little flourishes that enhance the film overall without taking away from the main storyline. If you’ve seen it, you know how incredible the dance scene is – and how much the movie benefited from that one real moment of levity. Wittgenstein wrote about the mind-body problem of philosophy and his writings were forerunners to the school of functionalism, which defines states of mind by their purpose rather than the feelings that they comprise, so his work would clearly inform debates over what Ava actually is. “Enola Gay,” the OMD classic about the bombing of Hiroshima – another history-altering use of technology – plays early in the film while Caleb is first getting ready in his suite within Nathan’s house. (“Is mother proud of Little Boy today?” might have the genders flipped, but otherwise appears to apply to Nathan and Ava.) The code Caleb writes when he’s hacking into Nathan’s house security contains a great Easter egg (and that isn’t the only one in that scene). The score as a whole is superb, right down to the use of Savages’ “Husbands” over the closing credits. If I have one quibble, it’s with Caleb’s choice of how to check whether he is in fact a human – a plot twist I was wondering about, which would have made the film almost too much of a Philip K. Dick knockoff – doing so in a way that would likely have killed an actual person.

Then there’s the ending, which might be the only hiccup in the plot as a whole, but to be honest I don’t see how else the film could have ended given what came before. It’s not the comfortable ending you might have wanted, but Garland led the film to this point, and if it’s a little too pat, at least it’s not clean.

I don’t normally do a “next up” for films but I’ve already rented Anomalisa so I know that’ll be the next movie I watch.


I’m not a big movie guy in general, and the Academy’s leanings the last few years in Best Picture nods haven’t done a lot to bring me back to the fold – not that they’re choosing bad movies, but that they’ve favored a lot of movies I wouldn’t even want to watch. (I’m sure 12 Years a Slave was amazing. I just can’t watch that kind of cruelty.) I did watch Birdman, last year’s winner, and thought it was clever but lacked any sort of resolution to the main story, as if the screenwriter had a great idea for a movie script but couldn’t figure out how to finish it.

Spotlight (amazoniTunes), which of course won Best Picture earlier this week, appealed to me more than any recent winner I can think of. The story shows how a small group of reporters at the Boston Globe known as the Spotlight team conducted a months-long investigative effort that uncovered the scope of the abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, including the fact that the Archbishop of the Boston diocese, Cardinal Bernard Law (no relation), knew about it and did nothing beyond moving the pedophile priests around to new parishes. It’s a film that’s going to be talky – big on dialogue, light on action, highly dependent on everything from acting to directing to editing to make it a compelling film. The whole concept of a dramatic film that has no action, no sex, no romance, not even a proper antagonist (in the conventional sense of a ‘villain’), feels very British to me, just because their TV programs and films tend to be more story-driven in my entirely anecdotal experience.

Spotlight is an incredible film in the most old-fashioned sense: It tells a great story and never lets up until the end. The pacing was perfect, the performances were very strong, and no nonsensical subplots interfered with the unfolding of the main story. Only one scene rang a little false, one that felt like it was inserted so that there was a Big Dramatic Conflict to use on awards shows, but otherwise the screenplay was taut and efficient, wasting few words and even less time on irrelevant details.

I thought the performances were almost all excellent, yet none seemed likely to win an award – I was surprised to see the nominations the cast received, because these performances were all so understated. Liev Schreiber plays the new editor of the Globe, perceived as an interloper because he’s not from Boston and because he’s Jewish, with such restraint that it was hard to remember who was behind the glasses and facial hair. Mark Ruffalo, playing reporter Mike Rezendes, was just as unrecognizable with a little change to his hairstyle, a slight accent, and, aside from the one scene where he blows up at Keaton’s character, delivers a similarly spartan portrayal. A mediocre writer could have had him explode at the imperious file clerk who won’t give him access to public records that would prove damning to the Church, and a mediocre actor would have hammed it up, but instead, we get a scene that works because it’s so mundane.

The lesson of Spotlight the movie – as distinct from the scandal, which certainly gets its air time in the film but doesn’t need me to thinkpiece it any further – is that the drama in a good dramatic film doesn’t have to come from the screenplay. This story was inherently compelling: A small team of reporters, given unusual autonomy, discovers and reveals a massive, decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse by one of the world’s most powerful and most implicitly trusted authorities through hard work and ingenuity. I could give you a dozen places where someone could have Hollywoodized the script – a screaming confrontation between reporters and church officials would be the most obvious – but instead we get a simple, linear story, where the narrative greed comes from the piecemeal uncovering of the scandal. Even my short attention span was riveted for two solid hours, and when the story was over, the film is over, and if that last scene wasn’t real, well, I am going to pretend that that’s what actually happened the day the story finally ran.

The defunct Phoenix also did some great work on the story and does get a brief mention in the film, although there’s a debate over how much credit they deserve. The Globe certainly pushed the story much farther.

I’m going to watch a few of last year’s highly-rated films now that many of them are available digitally (legally – I won’t Torrent), so if you’ve got a favorite or two, nominated or otherwise, throw them in the comments. I will watch movies in any language, but I draw the line at Room, which I think I will find far too upsetting because I have a young daughter.

Inside Out.

Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, lived up to all of the hype and praise it’s received so far, a visually stunning film that hits all of the bittersweet notes that have made Pixar’s best films – especially WALL-E and the Toy Story trilogy – masterpieces not just of animation but of cinema. It’s also, in many ways, one of Pixar’s riskiest ideas, thanks to one of its least conventional plots yet, making the ultimate success of the film even more remarkable. (Full, if obvious, disclosure: Disney owns Pixar and ESPN.)

Inside Out is a metaphysical coming-of-age story that manages to encapsulate a buddy comedy, a psychological thriller, and an Arthur Clarke-style sci-fi story all set inside of the head of eleven-year-old Riley Anderson, whose family has just removed her from her idyllic life in Minnesota so her father can work for a startup in San Francisco. Riley’s personality is determined by a pastel-colored world run primarily by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, each voiced and drawn in distinctive fashion (and helpfully color-coded). Riley’s memories each bear one of those five colors, although we learn early on that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) can turn any memory blue (her color) with a touch, a sort of King Midas meets The Old Guitarist-era Picasso. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently tossed from Headquarters, where the five emotions live and work, along with Riley’s core memories, her whole personality starts to crumble into depression and negativity. Joy and Sadness have to try to find their way back from the archives of Long-Term Memory while the other three emotions try without success to steer the ship.

The five emotionsJoy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is in essence a yellow-skinned, blue-haired, fuzzy Leslie Knope, full of enthusiasm and as much of a leader as the quintet of emotions can have; she was there first, Sadness second, and there’s an uneasy (but not antagonistic) relationship between the two. Their pairing in exile isn’t an accidental bit of plotting, as the film needs the two to play off of each other, even when they run into Riley’s largely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and end up in a series of misadventures as they try to get back to headquarters. (My favorite: their trip through abstract thought, where the three are transformed into cubist images, then deconstructed.) Some of the resolutions are a little obvious – Pixar writers have always taken the maxim of Chekhov’s gun very seriously – but the three writers do an excellent job of managing three disparate plot strands: the Joy/Sadness journey, the three knuckleheads still in HQ, and Riley’s real-world interactions with her befuddled (but never distant or cliched) parents.

The Joy/Sadness adventure – and that’s what it is, a buddy comedy with serious consequences for the other storylines – is the primary plot thread of the movie, and the relationship between the two characters, matched in Poehler’s and Smith’s voicing, is more oil/water than acid/base: Sadness doesn’t want to bring anyone down, but she can’t help it, while Joy remains indefatigable in the face of unfathomable odds. Sadness wants to be more like Joy, while Joy looks on Sadness as a well-meaning nuisance, so you can see who’s going to learn what lesson in the end. It’s how we get there that makes most Pixar movies such memorable experiences for the viewer – if you have a kid, you’ll probably get a little weepy, as I did at a few points during Inside Out – and such great art. The ending is happy, happier than, say, Toy Story 3, but it’s yellow with a few spots of blue.

The great achievement of Inside Out‘s plot isn’t the ending, or the adventure in Long-Term Memory, but the fact that the film works so beautifully without an antagonist. There’s no villain, no Big Foozle, no evil queen, hell, there’s no princesses (not that I’m anti-princess but a change of pace is always welcome). Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are not set in opposition to Joy, but are depicted as essential elements of human personality. We don’t get the Dragon of Solitude or the Alienation Wraith; when Riley’s emotions have to fight their way back, they’re fighting something fundamental, not an artificial plot-contrivance bad guy whom they have to kill to get to their goal. Inside Out‘s tension is built around time, not threat, yet the film never drags for the lack of a foil for our twin heroines.

Inside Out is full of Easter eggs, as most Pixar flicks are; I only caught a few of them, including the music in the nightmare, the Chinatown reference, and the homage to Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” I didn’t realize the two jellybean-like things guarding the subconscious were actually voiced by Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, longtime Muppet performers. There are apparently several I missed in the classroom scene, although I’m not sure I would have caught any without a remote control in my hand to pause it.

I’m kind of bummed that my daughter is too old for the Inside Out Box of Mixed Emotions, five books, one per emotion, aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds. It looks like Driven by Emotions is more age-appropriate; I’ll report back if we read that one.

Lava, the short animated feature that preceded Inside Out, is a cute but insubstantial love story, remarkable mostly for the quality of its animation (especially the landscapes on the sides of the two volcanoes) and the film’s song, which reminded me of the late native Hawai’an singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Known as Israel K., his cover of “Over the Rainbow” is the only version of that song I can stand, and Lava‘s main voice-over actor, Kuana Torres Kahele, even sings in a similar fashion to Israel K.’s style.