Blind Spot Review: “Stranger Than Paradise”


Jim Jarmusch’s reputation as a master of minimalist storytelling and an independent cinema trailblazer found its genesis in his 1984 film “Stranger Than Paradise”. This medley of low-key drama and deadpan comedy was startling at the time but would soon uniquely define much of Jarmusch’s work that would follow.

Going back to Jarmusch’s cinematic roots has been a joy. I came to his work late, first seeing and loving “Only Lovers Left Alive” and then last year’s “Paterson” which I loved even more. “Stranger Than Paradise” wasn’t Jarmusch’s first film. That would be his 1980 New York University senior project “Permanent Vacation”. But “Paradise” was his first major project despite its tiny budget. It would win the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival and go on to earn widespread critical acclaim.


One of the funny things about “Stranger Than Paradise” is that it basically tosses out everything Jarmusch learned in graduate film school. From the very start it’s clear there is nothing traditional or conventional about the film. Take the decision to shoot it in beautiful and fitting black and white. Or the thinly plotted story with three rather aimless characters as the focus.

But perhaps the most profound departure from traditional cinema is the movie’s structure. Jarmusch shoots a collection of short scenes, each bookended by a fade-in and then a fade to black. Within every scene you’ll notice very little camera movement and not a single close-up for the entirety of the movie. They are individually staged segments which are then put together to tell the story. It’s an cool and crafty technique that helps give the film a unique personality.

The story is pretty simple and can be broken down in three acts that take place in three locations – New York, Cleveland, and Florida. Willie (John Lurie) immigrated from Hungary several years ago and has worked hard to perfect his vision of a bonafide New Yorker. That vision includes sleeping late in his tiny apartment, eating TV dinners, catching some movies, and earning some dough playing poker.

Willie’s routine is interrupted when he gets a call saying his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) from Hungary is paying him a visit. She needs a place to stay for ten days then she’ll be off to Cleveland. At first she cramps Willie’s big city style and he lets her know about it. Even when his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson) takes a liking to her Willie is quick to shoot him down. But the longer she stays the more Willie likes having her around and when she heads off to Cleveland he misses her.


Eventually Willie and Eddie decide to borrow a car and drive to Cleveland to visit Eva. Later the three of them take a road trip from Cleveland to Florida. Jarmusch plops us in the passenger seat and we ride along observing their laid-back adventure. There isn’t much to it really, yet it seems harmonious with the care-free aspirations of the characters. And the dry dead-pan humor feels perfectly in tune with the film’s style and tone.

Throughout “Stranger Than Paradise” I couldn’t help but feel a hip French New Wave vibe in the vein of early Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol. The movie defines its own unique set of rules and then maneuvers them at its own pace. Jarmusch would go on to make several movies defined by their idiosyncratic flavor. They would often focus more on mood and character than plot. You see the roots for all of it in “Stranger Than Paradise” and even today it remains a fresh kick in the pants the film industry still needs.



REVIEW: “The Shape of Water”

SHAPE poster

No one can deny Guillermo del Toro’s willingness to utilize every trick in the cinematic playbook to create a magnificent visual experience. He has built worlds through several genres including dark fantasy, gothic horror, superhero, and even creature features. Yet despite his keen eye, vivid imagination, and a consistent backing from critics, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is his only film I would call truly great.

His latest movie “The Shape of Water” has generated a ton of awards buzz and is even being compared by some passionate del Toro fans to 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Regardless of some things it does well, “The Shape of Water” is no “Pan’s”. But enough with counterproductive comparisons. The point is “The Shape of Water” has a big following and a ton of momentum heading into Oscar season.


“The Shape of Water” could be called many things – an offbeat fairytale, a political fable, an unconventional love story, an allegory for del Toro’s view of the world today. All of those descriptions fit to some degree or another, and del Toro plays with them with varying levels of success.

Del Toro’s story, with its pulsating Cold War vibe, takes place in 1962 Baltimore. The wondrously expressive Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, mute since birth, who lives in an apartment above an old movie house. She and her next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) spend their time together watching old musicals and sharing their struggles. Both fit into one of del Toro’s more obvious themes – the plight of the marginalized.

Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at a secret government facility along with her close friend Zelda (a very good Octavia Spencer) who also fits within the marginalized theme. The facility has just acquired an “asset” pulled from a South American river – a tall, gilled amphibian-man accompanied by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He is there to oversee the study of the creature and he’s clearly the film’s chief antagonist. Shannon is great and it’s a role he could probably do in his sleep. And as you would expect he is completely committed.


But while undeniably menacing, Shannon (of no fault of his own) is also terribly on the nose. Much of del Toro’s more cynical point of view is encapsulated in Shannon’s character. He’s written to fit the mean old-fashioned Red State stereotype and through him del Toro gets to comment on religion, race and a host of other topics. But there is no subtlety whatsoever. You can practically hear del Toro beating his pulpit through much of Shannon’s dialogue.

Elisa’s curiosity and empathy help her to form a bond with the creature (yet another among the marginalized). She sneaks in the labratory and shares her lunch with the creature and plays it music on a portable record player. How is she able to have so much unguarded access to what is called “the most sensitive asset to ever be housed in the facility” and something we find out the Russians are after? There’s not a good answer to that, but they form a bond nonetheless. And after Elisa overhears talk of dissection, she knows she needs to bust the creature out.

As you watch you can’t help but see allusions to “The Creature From the Black Lagoon”, “King Kong” and even “Beauty and the Beast”. But del Toro pushes his creature fantasy further than any of those pictures. For some the film is genuinely romantic but I never had that sensation. The pacing doesn’t give the relationship time to germinate. And there are other things that get in the way – del Toro’s weird use of sexuality; a brief but bizarre dance number (I’ll leave it at that); and one scene which some have called the most beautiful moment in the film yet I couldn’t get over the sheer absurdity of how it played out. For me all of this underserved the romance the movie is trying to establish.


While it has it’s narrative imperfections you can’t help but love the world del Toro visualizes. Inside the laboratory has a cold, harsh, metallic look. But outside the film takes on a gorgeous glow. Many images stand out for their beauty. It may be a bead of water dancing down a bus window or a brief camera pan across a movie house marquee right after a rain. The creature itself (played by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) is a fantastic creation made from traditional effects over CGI. Then you have Alexandre Desplat’s lovely, waltzy, heart-warming score which may be the best of the year. And of course the performances which are top-to-bottom fabulous.

It’s tough to know where to land on “The Shape of Water”. On one side you have a world so beautifully visualized, an enchanting classic movie vibe, top-notch performances, and a score that swept me away. On the other hand you have some glaring storytelling issues – an underserved romance, heavy-handed messaging that spells out instead of engaging, peculiar injections of nudity and graphic violence (sorry kids), and key scenes undercut by their goofiness. Yes, I know this is a fantasy picture and maybe I should be more imaginative, but when I’m thinking about these things as the movie plays – that’s a bummer. But did I mention how pretty the world is?



REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

JEDI poster

The mammoth success of 2015’s “The Force Awakens” shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Star Wars fans had ten years of anticipation built up since the last movie and when Disney purchased the property from George Lucas they immediately began touting a new installment. Now just two years later (not counting last year’s stand-alone film), an incredible $450 million for the latest episode’s opening weekend indicates the fire hasn’t died down one bit.

“The Last Jedi” is the eighth film in the series proper, the ninth Star Wars film overall. And while it has been intensely popular and profitable, the reactions have been all over the map. Some have heralded it “the best Star Wars film since Empire” while others are petitioning Disney to have it removed from canon. Regardless of where you land, everyone has to agree that “The Last Jedi” continues the franchise trend of epitomizing the ‘space opera’ concept.


J.J. Abrams hands over the reins to Rian Johnson who both writes and directs episode VIII. Johnson has shown himself to be an intriguing filmmaker as evident by his movies “Brick” and the sci-fi mindbender “Looper”. But a Star Wars film is an entirely different animal, heavy with high expectations and an extremely passionate (and vocal) fanbase.

Johnson’s story offers franchise fans plenty to smile at and just as much to chew on. Several scenes call back to the original trilogy and the inspiration is undeniable. “The Force Awakens” not so subtly but effectively followed the blueprint of 1977’s “A New Hope”. You could say Johnson’s film is a melding of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”. The structure of some scenes are so similar you can’t help but recognize it.

But fear not, this is no ‘copy and paste’ rehash. Johnson has numerous fresh strokes and narrative angles that makes “The Last Jedi” feel completely of its own. Some of Johnson’s decisions have stoked the ire of certain fans, but he’s clearly trying to develop his own take on the universe. Because of this a couple of characters handed off by Abrams don’t quite get the attention. Is it because they don’t completely fit within Johnson’s vision? I’m not sure.


“The Force Awakens” ends with Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote island. Johnson drops his anchor and spends a lot of time on the island with Rey trying to convince Luke the Rebel Alliance needs him. She also seeks his help in understanding the Force and the powers she has discovered. But Luke has become a disillusioned hermit conflicted about his own legend and convinced the time of the Jedi has passed. Hamill’s performance may be his best yet and Ridley is such an asset. The two share several good scenes – some funny and some emotional.

Elsewhere in the galaxy the young rebellion led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is forced to evacuate their base after Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the menacing First Order arrive. The pursuit that follows takes a big chunk of the film and includes the return of impetuous hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper turned resistance superstar Finn (John Boyega), and droid-of-all-trades BB-8. Fisher brings out a whole new layer of humanity to Leia that’s hinted at in the previous film but truly realized in this performance (sadly her last following her recent passing). Speaking of new layers, Kylo Ren has several of them and Johnson has made him into the most intriguing character of the new series.

“The Last Jedi” is the longest Star Wars film by a good 15 minutes and unfortunately you can tell. The first half has some big moments but it’s also a bit slow getting its footing. Johnson spends a tad too much time on the island only giving us baby steps of progression with Luke and Rey until finally getting in gear in the second half. The pursuit segment also has a few stumbles particularly involving a side mission with Finn and a new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Aside from some pretty obvious logistical issues, their mission lacks energy. It also features a pretty bad CGI-heavy chase sequence that felt completely out of sync with the rest of the movie.


At the same time there are many more things Johnson gets right especially in the second half where the intensity really amps up. I especially love the stress on characters and the personal bonds many of them share. And there is also the connections between the old and the new. I’ll be intentionally vague but this can be tricky ground for a filmmaker. Johnson nails it and none of these moments feel contrived or meaningless. Some had me wanting to cheer. Others brought tears to my eyes. The film also ends with an exhilarating final sequence that leaves the story in an interesting place, ready to be picked up in episode IX.

I can certainly understand fans having a lot of questions. I do myself. But that’s a big part of the fun when it comes to a Star Wars movie – wondering and speculating. “The Last Jedi” has some early pacing issues and a few things that simply don’t make sense. But it’s still a fantastic Star Wars experience filled with excitement, emotion and nostalgia. It also features a few of those truly great moments that franchise fans will forever link with this film. I know I won’t forget them and my inner fanboy is getting a bit giddy just thinking about them.




saw posterHere’s some useless information you may not know about me – I’ve never seen any of the “Saw” movies. At least not in their entirety. I’ve seen bits and pieces here and there but not enough to tell them apart or to even care. Frankly it’s a brand of horror that doesn’t appeal to me and what I’ve seen has given me no reason to spend my time on them. Yet that’s exactly what I did.

I decided to watch 2004’s “Saw” for several reasons. 1) It’s the Halloween season and what better time to catch up on some horror movies. 2) I discovered that the original “Saw” marked the feature film directorial debut for James Wan, the man behind the two “Conjuring” films which I happen to really like. 3) “Jigsaw”, the eighth film in the franchise (yes I said eighth), came out over the weekend. 4) It just happened to be on television.

Despite my general apathy for this franchise it has been incredibly successful. Starting in 2004 one “Saw” movie came out every year for seven years. Each film was made with a tiny budget yet each cleared $100 million at the box office with the exception of one. But it all sprang from Wan’s film which turned out to be a tad smarter and craftier than I expected.

The “Saw” franchise is synonymous with the term “torture porn” and deservedly so. But that’s a title earned by the sequels. Wan’s film is an exception. It’s unquestionably a horror film, but it’s just as a much a suspenseful mystery told with a surprising Hitchcockian flavor. Now don’t get me wrong, “Saw” doesn’t break new ground nor is it particularly good. But it is a far cry from what the franchise would become.


A huge part of the movie takes place in one space – a filthy rundown bathroom. Inside two men wake up with no prior knowledge of how they ended up there. They are chained to walls opposite of each other and between them lies a body in a pool of blood. We learn the first man is Lawrence (Carl Elwes), a successful oncologist, husband, and father. The younger man is Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), a streetwise photographer.

With seemingly no connections, the two try and piece together who put them in the room and why they are there. This is the basis for the mystery aspect of the story.  The horror side comes from Lawrence and Adam’s efforts to escape. There are some pretty graphic scenes but more of the focus is on the psychological. None of it is particularly scary but it’s just engaging enough to keep your attention. Danny Glover pops up as a police detective whose own case intersects with this one. Monica Porter is good playing Lawrence’s wife Alison.


While a chunk of the film takes place in the bathroom, we spend a lot of time with Glover as well. Unfortunately his hunt for truth is fairly generic. There is also a lot of narrative backtracking through flashbacks that Wan leans heavily on. For the most part it works but it also feels like a necessary device. And while all the story pieces do eventually fit together, there is still a lot that we are expected to simply accept.

“Saw” is an interesting debut from James Wan. It should be commended for attempting to tell a compelling story and for extending itself beyond its tiny budget. But despite its good efforts “Saw” never fully clicks. It’s a far cry from the ridiculous gore-soaked torturefest the franchise has since become, but it still isn’t particularly good horror. At the same time it is a bit better than I expected.



 REVIEW: “Spider-Man: Homecoming”


The film rights history for Spider-Man could best be described as complicated and a bit messy. Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s production woes, bankruptcies, and lawsuits all factored into the rights being shuffled from one studio to another. In 1999 Spider-Man was licensed to Columbia Pictures and parent company Sony and their first film landed in 2002. There was no sign of a Marvel Cinematic Universe in the works but surely the deals for Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic 4 helped make it happen.

But then you get to the bad side of the deal. The MCU took off and has become a gold mine for Marvel Studios/Disney. The problem is those old deals are still in place meaning some of Marvel’s biggest properties couldn’t be a part of their shared world. But it’s amazing how a few missteps can change perpsectives. After their original series ran out of steam and they misfired on an attempted reboot, Sony has now partnered with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man into the MCU while Sony maintains their rights to the character.


That brings us to “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, the webslinger’s first solo foray into the MCU. Well, sort of. It’s a solo Spider-Man movie in that Spidey is the main focus. At the same time “Homecoming” goes to great lengths to show off and stress its connection to the MCU. Watching it juggle these two ambitions is often exhilerating while at other times simply frustrating. In one sequence it feels like a Spider-Man story. Then the next scene has them telling us “Hey, remember this an MCU movie!”

The brightest spot in the entire film is Tom Holland who offers up the best Spider-Man to date. Writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Dale ask him to navigate through a lot of material, but they wisely skip putting us through yet another origin story. Instead we join Holland’s Peter Parker fresh off of his sample size of Avengers fame (as seen in “Captain America: Civil War”). He impatiently awaits another call to action from Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Tony doesn’t feel Peter is ready for the big stage but that doesn’t stop Peter’s incessant youthful badgering.


So in the meantime he spends his nights fighting neighborhood crime and his days making his way through his sophmore year of high school. Getting back to a younger Peter Parker is a welcome change and Holland is a fun fit. His best moments are inside the suit. He’s no highly polished professional superhero. He sometimes flubs up and makes a mess of things which feeds some of the film’s funniest moments. There are genuine emotions of fear and uncertainty as well. But there is also the boyish wisecracking which Holland and the screenwriters handle better than anyone from the past films.

Outside of the suit things get a little murkier but at no fault of Holland. Instead it’s the hit-or-miss mishmash of expanded characters particularly his schoolmates. Take Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), a one-dimensional character with some funny lines but who is never allowed outside of his role as nonstop comic relief. Then there is Liz, a senior and Peter’s love interest. She’s played by 27 year-old Laura Harrier who not only looks older than the other students but barely musters a spark of chemistry with Peter. There are also re-imagining choices that are sure to drive some Spidey fans nuts – Tony Revolori as an utterly unconvincing Flash Thompson and Marisa Tomei plays a more modern, sexier May Parker. Not certain why we needed that.

But those aren’t the only areas “Homecoming” attempts to rewrite. Gone is the simple Spider-Man suit of the past secretly made by a smart, innovative kid from Queens. This is the MCU therefore Tony Stark has a hand in everything. That means a Spidey suit with an advanced holographic interface, drone technology, and the most jarring addition, a built-in AI companion (voiced by Jennifer Connelly). Another example of the film stripping the character from the intimacy of his world for the sake of the franchise.


But it doesn’t stop there. There is yet another story thread featuring the film’s antagonist Adrian Toomes. He’s played by the always entertaining Michael Keaton. Toomes is no psychopath intent on taking over New York. He has a down-to-earth complexity which Keaton handles with ease. He disappears for chunks at a time which is a shame. Keaton is really good and I would have loved to have spent more time with him than with some of the mandatory franchise stuff.

“Homecoming” has been met with some high praise but I’m still unsure where I land on it. It gets a lot right most importantly Tom Holland and a perfect tone for a young budding Spider-Man. Keaton is fantastic, Downey, Jr. is as quick-witted as ever, the humor often lands, and many of the franchise connections work. But those same franchise connections constantly yank the film away from its more intimate story. A handful of creative choices do the same. Pulling a movie away from its roots for the sake of modernization and in service to a franchise isn’t always a good thing. Thankfully the strengths of “Homecoming” outweigh the weaknesses, but just barely. 




REVIEW: “The Salesman”


Asghar Farhadi deserves to be a household name for anyone who claims to love movies. Despite a relatively small filmography, Farhadi has created some of the most magnificently plotted stories consistently grounded in truthful human experience. Add to it a keen technical eye for visual composition that quite frankly is unmatched by most.

Sadly Farhadi still remains an unknown name to too many. His latest picture “The Salesman” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film yet his accomplishment was somewhat drowned out by political posturing and wrangling. I actually heard him casually referred to as “that Iranian director who skipped the Oscars”. That’s a shame.


In reality Farhadi is a modern day cinematic master of his craft. “The Salesman” is yet another superbly made film that may not be considered his best, but must every work be compared to another?

“The Salesman” is laced with Farhadi signatures – thorough yet carefully developed characters, strong human and cultural sensibilities, a deeply buried truth boiling under the surface. It’s a template that fits flawlessly with Farhadi’s writing and directing. Here again we see him methodically peeling back layers that reveals faults and arouses suspicions and not only from the characters. We the audience find ourselves being influenced by our impulses to judge.

The film focuses on a married couple, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini). After an earth-shaking mishap threatens the stability of their apartment building, Rana and Emad are forced to find a new place to stay. The two are helped by a friend and fellow stage performer who shows them a place recently vacated. Problem is the previous tenant has left behind a room full of personal belongings.

As with most films the less you know the better, but suffice it to say the story is jolted by a particular event than splinters the narrative in several different directions. Some are diversions, some are unexpected revelations. Regardless Farhadi never loses his focus of navigating through the dense human elements revealed through the testy circumstances.


Farhadi doesn’t work in caricatures or stereotypes. He creates living, breathing people which make his stories all the more compelling. He allows his characters the space to think, mull, and wrestle internally. Hossein Jafarian’s stellar cinematography is equally vital in relaying the subtle ferocity of emotions that intensify as the story plays out. It also helps to have Alidoosti and Hosseini, two Farhadi regulars in sync with the director’s vision.

There is an fabulous running parallel between the main story and Rana and Emad’s work at a small theater production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. Farhadi’s skillful treatment is anything but pointless and helps to prod our minds to think more about the film’s meaning. The same could be said for the bulk of his films. They don’t follow any conventional norm or standard. Instead they dwell in realities we all can recognize and demand their audiences to engage them on those levels. “The Salesman” is another example of how engrossing that can be.