Tag Archives: ****

Blade Runner 2049 ****|****

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049

Hot off of last year’s heartfelt sci-fi hit Arrival, director Denis Villeneuve returns to the same genre once more but this time, he has his sights on something even more ambitious: a direct sequel to one of the genre’s most influential and visually quoted works that comes 35 years after the original. Given how much could have gone wrong, it’s remarkable just how much Blade Runner 2049 gets it right, from its flawless production design to its nuanced storytelling that muses on the same existential themes that ran through the 1982 future-noir classic. This is an awe-inspiring follow-up that further expands Blade Runner‘s already vast scope to a futurescape with dazzling depth and a grandeur without rival.

The story follows sullen LAPD detective K (Ryan Gosling) as he carries out his duty as a Blade Runner by tracking down a class of older generation Replicants (advanced robots made to look identical to humans) and “retiring” them as their very existence is illegal. After a visit with one such Replicant, he discovers a chest buried deep in the ground (with the help of a handy drone that detaches from the roof of his car) that leads him on an investigation that could have cataclysmic ramifications on the relationship between man and machine. His search for answers pits him against tech mogul Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Replicant enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) while eventually leading him to legendary detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who’s been in hiding since the events of the first film.

Even more so than its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is a thorough and intentionally paced detective story that uses its futuristic setting to further deepen the mysteries at the heart of its story while adding a layer of insight into how humankind may look 30 years from now. Among the film’s most prevalent themes is that which speculates humankind’s relationship to artificial intelligence and what we deem as “real” or “unreal”, whether it be a Replicant or an interactive advertisement or a sophisticated computer simulation meant to mimic human behavior. The role of Joi played brilliantly by Ana de Armas is the most consistent evocation of this concept, as she is characterized as the most empathic and understanding presence in K’s life despite the fact that her translucent appearance is a reminder that she is ultimately a collection of light dictated by 0s and 1s.

The nimble and seamless effects work is always first-rate, whether it is utilized in small ways like the depiction of raindrops falling softly on the hands of a hologram to the larger scale uses that bring the urban monoliths and pyramids of the first film back to life again. The production design is just as meticulous and makes every space feel like something we’ve never seen before and yet completely believable at the same time; I was struck in particular by the layout of Wallace’s office, whose minimalist wood-based configuration both looks stunning and reminds us that this world’s scarcity of trees means that a room like his could only be afforded by someone of great means. All of this is framed with the excellence of all-time great cinematographer Roger Deakins, previously nominated for an Oscar in his field on 13 different occasions and if there’s any justice, he won’t go home empty-handed next February.

Ryan Gosling continues his streak of seeking out challenging roles that still play to his strengths as a performer and here, he works off the baseline stoicism that we’ve seen from his roles in Nicolas Winding Refn’s films but adds notes of longing and warmth to his role. Similarly great is Ford, who, despite his more limited screentime in this movie, may actually give a better performance here as Deckard than he did in his first occasion playing the grizzled gumshoe all those years ago. Blade Runner 2049 is proof that sequels can be so much more than a retread of their source material and with the right minds at work, they can even supersede the legacy of the original.

Logan Lucky ****|****

Adam Driver, Daniel Craig and Channing Tatum in Logan Lucky

This hoot of a heist movie marks Steven Soderbergh’s return to the caper comedy genre that he perfected with Ocean’s Eleven and it finds the director in excellent form after a brief hiatus from filmmaking that began in 2013. The stellar cast is led by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as Jimmy and Clyde Logan, two brothers with a seemingly cursed family name who look to turn their luck around by pulling off a big-time robbery at a Memorial weekend NASCAR event in North Carolina. To pull off the high-risk job, they recruit their spunky sister Mellie (Riley Keough) along with wily convict Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his dim-witted brothers, one of whom is a purported computer whiz who knows “all the Twitters”.

That line is just one of many that scored big laughs in the theater and while the screenplay by Rebecca Blunt (rumored to be a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself) is packed with well-crafted jokes, the humor that worked most for me centered around the comedic timing of the performers. Whether it’s the way Craig draws out the word “incarcerated” to describe Joe Bang’s situation to Driver’s nonchalant attitude while constructing a Molotov cocktail, it’s the small choices that the actors made that led to some of my favorite comedic payoffs. This is a film packed with one over-the-top performance after another but somehow I believed that all of these characters were plausible in this universe, which is a testament not only to the acting but to the direction as well.

As a veteran of the genre, Soderbergh revels in the mechanics of the mission as he depicts the random acts of preparation that the characters go through, whether it’s gathering seemingly innocuous props like bags of gummy bears or completing odds tasks like painting cockroaches with nail polish. Though he shows us many of these details before the big heist, he also strategically omits some of the most consequential bits of information the first time around so that we can piece things together on our own in the third act. At one point, Jimmy says of Joe Bang’s brothers “they’re gonna know what we want them to know” and Soderbergh applies that same degree of coyness to his storytelling.

While the Ocean’s series sets its breezily-paced action amid the glitz and glam of Las Vegas, Logan Lucky has a more loose and leisurely feel that fits right in with its southern setting. Soderbergh’s introduction of numerous supporting characters intentionally delays the big action climax that we’re waiting for but as we see how each of the players ties into the heist one by one, the reason for the seemingly convoluted setup becomes much more evident. I don’t doubt that there are plot holes that I may uncover upon repeat viewings of the film but the overall package is so clever and quick-witted that I didn’t have a chance to linger on those potential problems.

Being a tale of blue-collar brothers turned bandits, there are parallels to be made between this and last year’s excellent crime thriller Hell or High Water, although that film’s approach to the region’s economic anxiety was obviously more despairing by comparison. Things are pretty much always played for laughs here but Soderbergh is very wise not to condescend to his characters; even if they do end up as the butt of the joke, there’s still an embedded respect present. As a piece of crackerjack entertainment with loads of funny moments and audacious performances, you won’t find anything much more satisfying this summer (or maybe even this year) than Logan Lucky.

The Big Sick ****|****

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick
Most married couples tend to have charming anecdotes about how they first met or what their first date was like but comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon have a bit more to bring to the table when it comes to discussing their early relationship. The unorthodox story of their courtship is the real-life basis for the new romantic comedy The Big Sick, an ambitious and often hilarious film that is also genuinely heart-warming and humane in a way that few companions of the genre can claim to be. Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote the brilliantly layered screenplay together and the two putting their heads together not only gave the script a balanced sense of perspective but also allowed them to pack in so many rich details that make this true story feel even more authentic.

Nanjiani plays himself as a struggling stand-up looking to break out of the Chicago comedy scene with his friends CJ (Bo Burnham) and Mary (Aidy Bryant) while also making some money on the side with a semi-regular gig as an Uber driver. One night, Kumail is accidentally heckled by a graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan) and when they meet after the show, it’s clear that the two have an immediate connection and after a few dates centered around viewings of vintage horror movies, they officially become a couple. Things are going well until a misunderstanding and ensuing argument seem to derail their partnership but after an unexpected incident following their breakup draws Kumail back into her life, he forms a bond with Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) that gives him the clarity to renew the relationship.

Kumail’s family and their cultural ties factor prominently into his life and subsequently into the story, as their desire for him to settle down with a nice Pakistani girl and pursue a more serious career than stand-up comedy is antithetical to how he’d like things to play out for himself. Even with his differing perspective, Nanjiani writes the roles of his family members in incredibly mature fashion and treats their more conservative viewpoint with respect instead of just throwing them under the bus for easy laughs. There is a harrowing conversation late in the film between Kumail and his parents, in which their Western and Eastern philosophies collide and threaten to do irreparable damage to their relationship, that is likely the most heartbreaking and brutally honest scene I’ve seen so far this year.

Director Michael Showalter is probably best known for co-writing sketch comedy touchstones like The State and Stella along with cult classic Wet Hot American Summer but he shows considerable talent behind the camera as he effortlessly manages some drastic tonal shifts. There are so many shortcuts that he could have taken when translating this true story to the big screen and I really came to appreciate just how much thematic ground this movie covered from the persistence of young love to the uncertainty of trying to carve one’s path in the world. At two hours long, it seems like The Big Sick would have a tendency to drag or include more material than is necessary but the pacing is always right where it needs to be and no matter how heavy the story gets, Showalter proves that he can still get a laugh when you least expect it.

Much of the humor is there on the page but the credit for the film’s frequent source of laughs goes to Nanjiani’s lead performance, which showcases the comedian’s self-effacing style beautifully while also including tender moments of dramatic poignancy. Holly Hunter does excellent work here as she always does but the biggest surprise to me was Ray Romano, who I had a passing familiarity with based on his Everybody Loves Raymond success but with this role, proves that he’s graduated well past his sitcom roots to offer something more resonant. I’d love if all three were nominated for acting awards come Oscar season but even if they aren’t, I’d be surprised if The Big Sick doesn’t garner some attention in the major categories as a comedy this uniformly excellent doesn’t come around all that often.

Get Out ****|****

Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out

Up to this point, Jordan Peele has been most notable for the sketch comedy series Key & Peele and last year’s so-so comedy Keanu but he’s clearly stepped up his game in a big way for his directorial debut. Get Out is my favorite kind of horror movie: one that mines the small anxieties and absurdities of everyday living to create an increasingly feverish nightmare scenario that paradoxically feels more plausible as it gets stranger. What’s more, it has a tongue-in-cheek perspective on modern race relations that most major studios would try to shy away from or push to the side but this film uses to create something that’s both timely and trailblazing.

British actor Daniel Kaluuya, who starred in my favorite episode of Black Mirror, plays Chris, a talented black photographer who has been dating his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for a few months and finds that the time has come for a weekend trip to meet her family. Aside from the typical nerves that arise from meeting a significant other’s parents for the first time, Chris worries that Rose hasn’t told her white family that she’s dating a black man, even though she can’t imagine her liberal parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) having any issues with their relationship. All seems to be going well during the initial meet-up but as time progresses, an unplaceable tension gives way to creepy behavior and a sense that something sinister may be afoot.

Not only is the acting in Get Out uniformly fantastic but the casting of each character (with one glaring exception) is spot-on in both major and minor roles. Kaluuya’s unassuming mannerisms are a perfect fit for a character that endures increasingly bizarre circumstances and Williams brings layers of depth to a role that seems similar to the one she plays in the HBO series Girls but proves to have much more going on under the surface. There’s even some hilarious comic relief in the form of comedian Lil Rel Howery, who’s often an audience surrogate and the voice of reason against the abnormal twists that develop as the plot progresses.

Peele is markedly assured as a first-time director; he knows just how far to take each scene and is so skilled at playing with the expectations and empathies of his audience. He also addresses racism in admirably nuanced fashion, not settling for easy targets and low-hanging fruit but instead exposing the condescension and tactlessness that can occur in communication between black people and even the most well-intentioned of white people. The film’s best scene documents a barrage of these types of interactions,  in which privileged partygoers are eager to engage with Chris about his superior physique and the greatness of Tiger Woods (even though Chris mentions that he’s not a golf fan).

Aside from the racial commentary, the film works on its own terms as a ruthlessly efficient thriller that expertly ratchets up the tension and diffuses it in ways that are sometimes funny, sometimes scary but always surprising. The influence of directors ranging from Spike Jonze to Michael Haneke is evident from details that pop up in the costume design and the visual effects, which indicates that Peele clearly did his homework when crafting his project. I’ll no doubt pick up on more of these embedded elements during the inevitable repeat viewings that I have for Get Out, one of the finest achievements of the horror genre in the 21st century.

La La Land ****|****

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

Musicals have long been a cherished mainstay of American cinema and like any other genre of film, the trends that define it change as time progresses. However, even fans of the genre would admit that the glut of recent stage-to-screen adaptations have lost something in translation and left more to be desired. Writer/director Damien Chazelle must have been privy to this when he began developing his original musical La La Land in 2010 but despite his perseverance with the project, I doubt he had any idea that the result would be as stunning and downright delightful as it ended up being.

La La Land wisely reunites Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone for their third time on screen together and as their chemistry was the highlight of those previous works (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), it is the glue which holds this movie together. The two play a pair of relentless dreamers: Gosling an accomplished pianist named Sebastian who aspires to opening his own jazz club and Stone a struggling actress named Mia striving to break through the monotony of failed auditions to find her starring role. Through a series of chance encounters across modern-day Los Angeles, Sebastian and Mia begin to develop an affection for one another but their ambitions threaten to get in the way of their relationship.

From a breathtaking opening number that already feels iconic to an ending that lives at the intersection of bittersweet and heartbreak, this is a film filled with so many consecutive creative choices that stack up in such a fulfilling way. Like any great musical, each new song and development of the score enriches the one prior to it and creates a breathless momentum that doesn’t seem sustainable but somehow makes the spell last the entire runtime. The experience of watching it was akin to watching a talented pitcher throw a perfect game: the possibility for error is so high that the ability to avoid it makes the experience that much more exciting.

If I had to pick one aspect of La La Land that made it such an overwhelming hit for me, I would credit Chazelle’s knack for balancing the fantastical elements of classic musical fare with the more grounded insights into how young people navigate their way through modern relationships. There are countless influences on the style of this movie, the most obvious being the grandiose MGM musicals of the 1950s and the vivacious work of Jacques Demy in the 1960s, but Chazelle puts these touchstones through his own filter of longing and wistfulness to create something that feels a bit wiser and perhaps more timeless as well. Following a studio session, one of Sebastian’s band mates asks of him “how are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” and the push-pull creative impulses of nostalgia vs. innovation pervade every inch of this film.

Chazelle is working with quite a bit conceptually here but I don’t want to undersell just how effortlessly charming Gosling and Stone are in their lead roles and how utterly enchanting the original music is from composer Justin Hurwitz. Other technical aspects from the gorgeous lighting choices to the dazzling, dreamy camerawork from Linus Sandgren add pitch-perfect notes of sophistication to the wonderful affair. We haven’t seen a musical quite as grand as La La Land on the screen in quite some time and even those who aren’t partial to the genre owe it to themselves to discover what’s so special and unforgettable about it.

Moonlight ****|****

Alex Hibbert in Moonlight
Alex Hibbert in Moonlight

Coming-of-age dramas are rarely as quietly perceptive and genuinely compassionate as the masterful new film Moonlight, which has garnered an overwhelming amount of acclaim since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival in September but it nonetheless justifies itself as one of the year’s defining achievements. Barry Jenkins previously directed the little-seen Medicine for Melancholy in 2008 and he reintroduces himself here as one of the most inspiring voices in American independent cinema working today. His handling of taboo subjects like race and sexuality among the seasons of a young man’s life represents a level of empathy and grace that should take hold of anyone who gives this film a chance.

Based on the Tarell Alvin McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the story depicts three defining chapters in the life of our main character Chiron as he grows up in modern-day Miami. We are introduced to him as a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) when he is discovered in an abandoned motel after school one day by a man named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who nicknames him “Little” due to both his diminutive stature and crippling bouts of shyness. Along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan does his best to take Little under his wing to make up for the emotional abuse he suffers under his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris).

Time passes and we witness Chiron as a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders) during a period of harassment by his school peers that causes him to confide in a classmate named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who shows Chiron the kindness that he’s been sorely neglected elsewhere in his life. When an unexpected act of violence sends Chiron to juvenile hall, he emerges years later as a hardened drug dealer played by Trevante Rhodes who now goes by the name “Black” (a nickname given to Chiron by Kevin in their teen years) and resides near Atlanta. Seeking to reconcile both with his mother and Kevin (now played by André Holland) after time lost to prison, he revisits his home town as a man who appears changed on the outside but still carries with him the formative memories of his past life.

The screenplay, also by Jenkins, is remarkable not only for its pitch-perfect dialogue but even more so for the palpable subtext that permeates all of the words left unsaid between the characters. All of the actors, particularly Rhodes and Holland, are so carefully understated in their roles that there’s a kind of quiet electricity behind every interaction that kept me locked into the intimacy and urgency of every single scene. There’s also an incredible amount of physical and emotional consistency among the three performances  for each iteration of Chiron, which would be a challenge for an actor to convey with any character but when it’s one as conflicted and guarded as the protagonist here, it makes the feat that much more admirable.

On the technical side of things, the elegiac score by Nicholas Britell and James Laxton’s luminous cinematography add yet another layer of beauty and artistic accomplishment to a movie that’s already brimming with both. My only criticism lies with bits of sound editing and mixing that render some of the dialogue either inaudible or inarticulate, an issue I also had with the similarly heart-wrenching indie Krisha earlier this year. Other than that minor issue, Moonlight remains a staggering and unmissable meditation on what it means to find yourself amidst a potentially unwelcoming world and to fight valiantly for your own share of love and happiness.

Midnight Special ****|****

Jaeden Lieberher and Michael Shannon in Midnight Special
Jaeden Lieberher and Michael Shannon in Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols’ masterful Midnight Run achieves a perfect equilibrium of head and heart by combining uncommonly confident and intelligent storytelling with emotionally transcendent performances that linger long after the film is over. It’s a classic science-fiction parable that effortlessly incorporates universal themes of parental comittment and our endless curiosity towards the spectacular in a way that feels both wholly original and spiritually satisfying. Similar to the brilliant beams of light that spontaneously shoot out from the eyes of one of the main characters, this movie locked my gaze from its transfixing opening scene and held it there unwavering throughout its run time.

Nichols favorite Michael Shannon stars as Roy Tomlin, whose 8-year old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) exhibits supernatural abilities that inspire a religious cult dedicated to understanding the source and limits of his power. In doing so, they also draw the acute interest of the FBI and NSA, as the Alton-inspired “sermons” spoken by their leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) contain high-level government classified information. After recovering Alton from the cult’s compound with the help of his loyal friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy reunites with his estranged ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) as the four plot to stay one step ahead of the authorities and discover Alton’s true calling.

These events often play out with a level of ambiguity and narrative restraint that may frustrate those expecting a more streamlined and commercial movie that falls more in line with the traditional Hollywood mold. Nichols could have easily included loads of expository dialogue or even intrusive voiceover narration for the sake of clarity but I have such respect for the understated approach that he takes instead. He’s so careful in what he chooses for his characters to reveal –and more importantly, not reveal– in their dialogue to provide enough substance to move the story forward but also enough subtext to allow for deeper inference.

It’s a brilliant script, full of poignant character moments and thrilling sequences of spectacle and grandeur, but it doesn’t work without the conviction of this all-star lineup of a cast. Shannon has proven himself as a fine actor in role after role (he’s starred in all four of Jeff Nichols’ features so far) but his work here as a father struggling to come to terms with his son’s miraculous condition may just be his best yet. Edgerton and Dunst are also excellent at feeding off the hopes and the anxieties of Shannon’s character, adding their own notes of emotional complexity to underscore their motivations.

Collaborating again with cinematographer Adam Stone, Nichols again demonstrates his gift for the kind of brilliant visual storytelling that draws apt comparisons to masters like Cameron and Spielberg. His use of shadow and light is not only remarkable in terms of its composition but he also uses the two to serve as a visual motif for a world engulfed in darkness that slowly gives way to more luminosity as the narrative moves forward. He’s a rare talent in an industry that’s desperate for one now more than ever and there’s no doubt that he’s created something truly special this time around.

Hell or High Water ****|****

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water
Ben Foster and Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

On the tail end of a massively disappointing summer comes this excellent modern Western that richly explores the themes of poverty and family legacy in a way that balances art and entertainment in an immensely satisfying way. Hell or High Water also features some of the best screenwriting that I’ve seen this year, with dialogue that’s clever and loaded with plenty of dry humor but also doesn’t come across as manufactured or unnatural. Throw in a few deeply memorable performances and confident, poetic storytelling from Scottish director David Mackenzie and you have one of the film year’s biggest, most unexpected surprises.

The story takes place in a desolate region of west Texas hit hard by the economic crash, where highway billboards make empty promises of “fast cash now” and freedom from debt but the feeling of hopelessness is settled deeply in the eyes of its residents. Looking to escape their circumstances are the Howard brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), who begin committing small-time bank robberies in order to help avoid foreclosure on the ranch home of their recently deceased mother. Along with this, Toby also plans to use the funds to repay child support to his ex-wife and hopefully reconnect with his estranged sons.

After knocking off two banks in a morning, the Howard boys soon draw heat from the nearly-retired Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his stoic and patient partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). The two playfully exchange barbs about Hamilton’s curmudgeonly tendencies or Alberto’s ethnicity at a rate that’s almost hard to keep up with but it demonstrates the kind of oddly caring relationship that the lawmen have with one another. Their investigation eventually lead them to the Howards’ final robbery, in which the two brothers get in over their heads and their amateurish execution threatens to get the better of them.

Taylor Sheridan has penned an outstanding script that’s loaded both with poignant dramatic moments and witty bits of levity for comedic effect that can even pop up unexpectedly in seemingly serious interactions. Even Tanner isn’t above a “that’s what she said” crack when Toby comments on the size of a branch bank as the duo drive up to it. But when it’s time to get down to business, Sheridan knows just how to dial these characters in and remind us that these are down and out criminals who aren’t above violence and intimidation to achieve their goals.

Foster and Bridges do terrific work in roles that rely somewhat on mannerisms and reactions from performances that the actors have given in the past but it’s Pine that shines brightest here. He modulates the kind of charisma that he brings to a role like Kirk in the Star Trek films and focuses that energy inwards to play a calm and collected foil to the Foster’s loose cannon. Their unbreakable brotherly bond is just one aspect of Hell or High Water that makes it undeniably great entertainment and worthy of any Oscar consideration (especially Best Original Screenplay) it may receive next February.

Weiner ****|****

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in Weiner
Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in Weiner

By now, the outrageous sexting scandal that turned former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner from promising mayoral contender to political pariah has been covered so ad nauseam from the mainstream media, it’s hard to believe that there’s much more left to discover. His name has served as a punching bag for comedians and pundits everywhere but it seemed only inevitable that the details of the story would get buried under torrents of pun-laden headlines. The fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary Weiner by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg provides unprecedented access into just how tumultuous the ordeal was not only for Weiner’s personal and political life but for those closest to him as well.

After a lascivious Twitter photo forced Weiner to resign from Congress in 2011, his camp’s reaction was to lay low with the hopes of making a strong showing in the upcoming 2013 election for New York Mayor. The film charts his improbable rise to the top of the polls, bolstered by New York citizens eager to give the disgraced statesman a second chance despite underlying issues of trust and credibility. Just when it seems that a true comeback story is underway, the second wave of unsavory personal texts and photos emerge and send his campaign into a death spiral from which it would never recover.

Much like the coverage of the scandal that came to define its subject, this film has the sort of compulsively watchable, train-wreck quality to it that will no doubt have audiences wincing, gawking and nervously chuckling all at once. But because the scope is so focused on Weiner and his hopelessly outmatched campaign staff, it rarely comes across as sensationalized as the media scrutiny that is itself reflected in the story as well. All of the small moments of triumph and tragedy still feel personalized enough to retain the human scale of this unmitigated political disaster.

Much of this is encapsulated by the tense and often terse interactions between Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin, herself a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton with plenty at stake in her political career. The layers of pain and humiliation that she attempts to conceal not only from the news cameras but also from those filming her for the documentary is nothing short of heartbreaking. It’s fair to speculate why Abedin, having been put through such public indignation, would not only stay with Weiner but also take such an active role in trying to get him elected.

Late in the film, one of the documentarians literally asks its subject “why are you letting me film this?” It’s clear that Weiner doesn’t have a compelling answer. Is it because he’s a rampant narcissist, desperate for any means of attention, no matter how humiliating? Is it yet another political play, with the hopes that a “warts and all” approach will persuade future voters? Weiner doesn’t have overt answers to any of those questions, which may frustrate viewers who expect a condemnation or exoneration of its subject but should delight anyone seeking a compelling character study of a potentially unknowable public figure.

The Lobster ****|****

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster

Provocative Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English language feature debut with The Lobster, a profoundly bizarre and strikingly original satire that’s equal parts pitch-black dark comedy and touching romantic drama. It’s a work steeped firmly in the absurdist and surrealist traditions that grows into something more gentle and empathetic (even whimsical at times) as the story progresses. If Luis Buñuel and Wes Anderson had the chance to collaborate with one another on a film, I’d like to think there’s a good chance it would have turned out something like this.

In a dystopian future where singledom is effectively outlawed, individuals who have not found a lifelong partner are required to stay at a “hotel” where they have 45 days to find a match or else they are transformed into an animal of their choosing. After his wife of 12 years leaves him, David (Colin Farrell, at his schlubbiest) reluctantly checks in with his brother, who unsuccessfully navigated the constraints of the system and was subsequently turned into a dog. During their stay, David meets two other guests (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw) who seem just as hopelessly outmatched in their conquest for partnership.

When a trial romantic relationship takes an unexpected turn for the worst, David flees to a wooded area where a group of “loners” reside and meets a woman (Rachel Weisz) who seems to be the perfect fit for him. Despite the rebellious nature of these outcasts, it turns out that their code of anti-romanticism is strictly enforced by the group’s leader (Léa Seydoux) and any public signs of affections are expressly forbidden and ruthlessly punished. Thrust in between two systems of conflicting ideologies, David must reconcile his burgeoning new romance among an increasingly hostile environment.

The film’s brilliant premise, a devilishly clever take-down of western culture’s idolization of monogamy, is beautifully rendered throughout but has the most impact in the often hilarious first half of the story. It takes the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) societal pressures of getting married and takes them to comically outlandish measures, creating an oppressive system where single people are ostracized and literally hunted for sport just because they haven’t settled down yet. The indoctrination scenes in the hotel, where the staff puts on skits that further solidify the notion that being alone presents a danger to society and to one’s health, have a rich deadpan humor to them that most comedies are too lazy to even attempt.

These satirical elements have just the right amount of bite and fearless energy but the tender romance that blooms between Farrell and Weisz’s characters in the film’s second half has just as much power to it. While they can’t express themselves openly among the “loners” for fear of persecution, they have brief moments of respite when they travel into the city and are allowed to explore the longing that they have for one another, even if that just means holding hands while walking down the street. It’s these times that The Lobster finds just the right amount of heart to balance the cynical nature of its conceit and proves itself to be one of the most weirdly inspiring love stories since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.