Origin-al Sins

Origin-al Sins

Whatever Pan is supposed to provide a backstory for, it's not Peter Pan.
"Sometimes, to understand the end, you have to know the beginning," goes the early narration in Pan — and it's hard to imagine a 2015 movie that fails so spectacularly at fulfilling its own thesis statement. We've become accustomed to movies that attempt some new spin on a familiar pop-culture character, whether it's the seemingly infinite brand extensions in Disney's live-action versions of their animated classics, or relatively sedate tales like Mr. Holmes.

Helping Hand

Rosenwald reintroduces us to a great American hero
Despite its overlong running time and a tendency toward the dreaded PBS Effect (during which the viewer fears that a fall fundraising drive may break into the narrative at any moment), this documentary about a Chicago-based Jewish philanthropist who spent his fortune building schools for impoverished Southern blacks during the Jim Crow era is dependably fascinating. I say "dependably" because director Aviva Kempner has made a career out of uncovering semi-forgotten areas of 20th-century Jewish history and turning them into memorably witty and historical documentaries, chief among them the story of television's very first (and unquestionably Semitic) sitcom, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.

Drug Warriors

Sicario is a tough, brutal film — and one of the year's best
The "War on Drugs" may be a bullshit term invented by our overlords to justify overly aggressive policing on local and national levels. But the "War on Drugs" has never felt more like an actual war than in Sicario.

Matt Damon vs. Outer Space

The Martian is the optimistic sci-fi movie that Christopher Nolan failed to deliver
During last year's media blitz for Interstellar, Christopher Nolan couldn't stop talking about his desire to make sci-fi optimistic again. It's too bad, then, that Interstellar was largely only optimistic in theory — Matthew McConaughey's character spent more time blabbing about mankind's potential than demonstrating it.

Mountain of a Movie

Everest takes us to the top of the world for a tragic and riveting ride
This is the kind of movie that movies were invented for: big, visceral and intense, a heart-stopping adventure that has you catching your breath and gasping in shock as it takes you places most of us will never get to, so as to engage in the sort of life-threatening thrills that, paradoxically, remind us that we are alive. That's an argument that safety-minded homebodies like me scoff at when risk-takers make it, but Everest makes you understand it deep in your gut.

Blood Story

Eli Roth looks to have lost some of his horror touch with The Green Inferno
After making the festival rounds back in 2013, Eli Roth's riff on the horror subgenre of tropical cannibal movies has finally arrived in theaters with less of a scream than a whimper. It's not that the film's quasi-ironic take on privileged, white activist college students' farcical attempt to save a fertile slice of the Amazonian rain forest from loggers already feels hackneyed — that's part of the "fun" in gore-tastic horrors such as this and Ruggero Deodato's infamous Cannibal Holocaust (obviously a huge influence on Roth).

Pundit Pioneers

Best of Enemies reveals the start of all the shouting in modern political TV coverage
Given the screeching nature of what passes as modern political punditry on television, it might be hard to remember — or even imagine — a time when the airwaves were filled with Serious People talking about Serious Issues facing the country during election season. Best of Enemies takes us back to the precise moment when campaign coverage turned from straightforward and stiff to entertaining and, arguably, less relevant as it recounts ABC News' dramatic ratings gamble in 1968 to skip gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions in favor of a new, untested feature — a series of 10 debates between the arch-conservative magazine editor William F. Buckley, Jr. and ultra-liberal author and iconoclast Gore Vidal.

A Mob Boss Without a City

The problems with Johnny Depp, Boston accents and Black Mass
The story of gangster James "Whitey" Bulger is basically the story of Boston in the 20th century. Bulger represented everything good and bad about Boston: he was fiercely loyal to family, ambitious, territorial, bigoted, shrewd, mean, and really good at staying quiet when it served his own interests.

Portrait of a Legend

Listen to Me Marlon delivers the full Brando
Marlon Brando was a bundle of infinite contradictions: sinner and saint, recluse and icon, glutton and stud, charlatan and genius. The remarkable documentary Listen to Me Marlon charts the actor's life through Brando's own words, using public domain materials and never before seen or heard video clips and audiotapes from his personal archives, revealing a complicated human being who defied simple categorization by design.

Twist and Shout

M. Night Shyamalan tries to win you back with The Visit
I think I've figured out the secret of M. Night Shyamalan. His "twist," if you will.

Living in a Song

Noam Baumbach and Greta Gerwig gives us a familiar yet engaging story in Mistress America
In Noah Baumbach's second release in one calendar year, following the bitter-tasting, olds-against-the-millennials comedy While We're Young, he and co-screenwriter/star Greta Gerwig borrow bullet points from Breakfast at Tiffany's: A naïf writer falls under the spell of a self-invented Manhattan party girl who scrapes by on the largesse of others.

A Hike Becomes a Death March

A Walk in the Woods lacks a cinematic smart-ass
We're a long way from the glory days of cinematic smart-asses. Hollywood once enjoyed a long tradition of wise-ass protagonists whose inability to let a dry witticism fly by unmolested often landed them in trouble, from Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Paul Newman in The Sting to... let's see...

Slaying The Shark

Meru is one outdoors doc that knows a great story trumps great stunts
Plenty of outdoor-adventure documentaries get by on stunning photography and flashy stunts that might be thrilling for backcountry skiers or weekend kayakers, but for many of us they come off as little more than 90-minute North Face ads. Meru, though, is one outdoorsy doc that knows how to get its audience emotionally invested in what's happening on screen, in this case the efforts of three mountain climbers to scale a 21,000-foot peak known as the Shark's Fin on India's Mount Meru.

Third-World Problems

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell take a stab at drama in No Escape
If you took No Escape for a light action movie, something like a flick in which Liam Neeson would beat up villainous cartoon foreigners, you're forgiven. It's certainly the way the film has been marketed.

No Winning Side

Cartel Land offers an intense look at vigilantes fighting Mexican drug gangs on both sides of the border
Cartel Land doesn't rely on deep historical research or the filmmaker's interrogation skills to be one of the most intensely watchable and shocking documentaries in recent memory. Instead, its effectiveness comes through the incredible access director Matthew Heineman gained to two vigilante groups — one on each side of the U.S.-Mexico border, both formed by fear of the havoc being wrought by Mexican drug cartels.

Express Yourself

Straight Outta Compton delivers some powerful nostalgia
The fact that I've slotted a track by Compton, California's original gangsta rap supergroup, N.W.A., into my upcoming wedding playlist (alongside other African-American sonic incendiaries such as Gil Scott-Heron and Nina Simone) speaks volumes about N.W.A's sustained cultural relevance and musical integrity. They took the fiery braggadocio of early-'80s East New York hip-hop, dialed it up to 11, busted the knob off, and then set it ablaze while flipping the bird to the LAPD and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) in equal measure.


Recent Comments

  • Re: Matt Damon vs. Outer Space

    • A couple of years ago, Matt went to outer space to get free health care…

    • on October 9, 2015
  • Re: Pundit Pioneers

    • Vidal was a poisonous toad who became increasingly bizarre as he aged. His attacks on…

    • on September 19, 2015
  • Re: A Hike Becomes a Death March

    • Two 125y/o actors trying to be cool, seriously? Neither one of them could walk 40'…

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