In Jackson Heights (2015)

In Jackson Heights / Frederick Wiseman / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Structure; Montages; Observational acuteness
Side Effects: Less compelling aesthetically than other Wiseman films

[In Jackson Heights plays at Boston’s MFA from Nov. 18 to Nov. 29.]

Early in Frederick Wiseman’s latest in-depth slice of cinéma vérité, a politician and community organizer praises Jackson Heights, Queens, as “the most diverse community on Earth—literally.” With some 160 languages spoken within a 300 acre plot of city blocks, the neighborhood may indeed be a unique melting pot, the kind of American community exalted by our nation’s ideals but rarely realized. And, as Wiseman shows with characteristic focus and investigative savvy, this diverse and authentic community may be the latest victim of the ever-encroaching pall of gentrification.

In Jackson Heights is stylistically akin to Wiseman’s last two great films, At Berkeley and National Gallery. With each project, the director takes a physical location and crafts an elegant observational portrait, documenting events and figures both important and peripheral and weaving together a mammoth, yet somehow unassuming synecdoche of the space. Whether about a university, an art museum or an urban space, Wiseman’s films capture something of the spirit of a location, revealing its inner workings by observing its outward appearance. Read more…

Steve Jobs (2015)

Steve Jobs / Danny Boyle / 2015 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Performances; Momentum
Side Effects: Constricting structure; Lack of heart



Buoyed by strong performances from actors skilled enough to internalize tricky dialogue from writer Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is a fleet and involving film. Still, with so many words tripping so easily from the lips of every character, it doesn’t have much to say about the man or his times. Read more…

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies / Steven Spielberg / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Wit and humor; Cast; Old-school style and sensibility
Side Effects: Struggles building momentum; Familiar visual textures

Bridge of Spies is crackerjack entertainment, a witty and simmering slow-boil of a film and a reminder of the beautiful craft that makes Spielberg so special. It’s also likely his best film in a decade.

Bridge of Spies is ostensibly a Cold War thriller, but its thrills are muted and its visual DNA harkens back to an older, pre-war style of filmmaking. Our hero fights with wit and words, not guns and gadgets. In a similar subversion of expectations, the film feels as if it were made in the early 1940s, even though its set some 15 years later. Audience might question the aesthetic wisdom of Spielberg’s classicism against the moral uncertainty of the Cold War, but it’s the perfect choice for this story, unfolding a wealth of exciting contradictions like a secret code printed on a tiny wrapper. Read more…

The Walk (2015)

The Walk / Robert Zemeckis / 2015 / twostar

Active Ingredients: Heist elements; Optimism; Vertiginous height
Side Effects: 3D; Supporting characters; Imprecise psychology

The Walk is a warm-hearted but empty-headed film, an ode to “dreams,” “inspiration” and “beauty” without making those words and emotions come alive.

The deck may have stacked against The Walk from the beginning, burdened with animating the backstory of Philippe Petit—the French tightrope walker who improbably and illegally walked between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, and whose story is told in the documentary Man on Wire—and ascending to its finale. And indeed, director Robert Zemeckis does rely on a lot of shortcuts (narration, oversimplified motivations, elision) to introduce us to its hero, attempt to tell us something about him, and get him to the scene of the crime in New York City. Read more…

Junun (2015)

Junun / Paul Thomas Anderson / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Music; Focus on the rhythms of travel
Side Effects: Unfocused camerawork

[Junun is available to stream exclusively on mubi until November 9th.]

I’ve begun to notice an unabashed strain of humanism in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent output, an emotional underpinning to the director’s technical virtuosity that has made his work sing in new and exciting ways. Beginning with the warm, empathetic and open-hearted coda of The Master and continuing through the aching and tender nostalgia of Inherent Vice, this breath of benevolence in PTA’s most mature films finds its purest expression in the positively lovely Junun.

A sprightly, off-the-cuff jaunt of a documentary, the 50-minute Junun depicts the recording of a unique musical collaboration between Radiohead guitarist and frequent Anderson composer Jonny Greenwood, Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur and an Indian qawalli collective playing percussive devotional music. Recorded at a beautiful fort in Jodhpur, the music is fiery, passionate and intoxicating; Anderson’s companion-piece is both punchy and laconic, a cinematic travelogue capturing the spirit of communion and dialogue that pervades the music. Read more…

Sicario (2015)

Sicario / Denis Villeneuve / 2015 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Cinematography; Tension; Ensemble cast
Side Effects: Lurching rhythm; Moralistic third act

Sicario is a tense thriller of murky borders, both geographical and moral. As young female tactical operative Kate (Emily Blunt) gets brought into the very masculine world of Mexican drug cartels and the nebulous network of agencies that fight them, the motives and allegiances of all parties quickly become clouded. Read more…

A Trio of Recent Releases

Some quick thoughts on three new releases now in theaters: the crime drama Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp as Boston mobster “Whitey” Bulger; the 3D disaster film Everest; and the provocative post-WWII drama Phoenix.

Black Mass / Scott Cooper / 2015 / onestar

Black Mass is an aggressively mediocre and middlebrow film, unconvincing and utterly inert. Through three features, director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) hasn’t demonstrated much of a personal style, but where Out of the Furnace at least exhibited competent dramatic staging and a tidy understanding of character, Black Mass is completely leaden and tone-deaf. Read more…