Here are Independent Ethos’ picks for the 10 best albums we heard in 2015. They are presented in no particular order because it is the only thing we would argue about with these records. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the link provided, you will be financially supporting this blog.

Deerhunter – Fading Frontier

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The guys in Deerhunter are not content to stagnate in their sound. Following the creepily noisy Monomania (Vinyl Matters: Deerhunter’s Monomania), the Athens, Georgia, based quartet, produced Fading Frontier, a diverse record featuring smooth, crystalline guitar lines that were missing from the last album. Bradford Cox’s voice sounds clearer without losing any of its sneer. The instrumentation includes a sparkling harpsichord (“Duplex Planet”) and things like castanets and droning synthesizers that add waves of atmospherics. There’s even some funky guitar work for “Snakeskin.” Deerhunter have never sounded more fun and cozy. (Hans Morgenstern)

Son Lux – Bones

Sun Lux - Bones

Son Lux is Ryan Lott, a classically trained musician that has mostly created alternative music that fuses genres. From classical music to digitized pop sounds, Bones is an exploration that pushes boundaries in different directions. In this full-length album, Lott is accompanied by guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, who help create an even bigger sound for Son Lux. But it is not only the sound that packs a punch, Lott wrote the lyrics for the album, which can dwell in dark moods. In “I Am the Others,” he asks “Am I the only one?/Where are the others?” Finally answering, “I am the only one.” The stand out of the album is “Change is Everything,” which has a sound that slowly builds up to a kind of controlled chaos. (Ana Morgenstern)

Chastity Belt – Time to Go Home

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For those who miss the ’90s alternative rock of bands like Bettie Serveert or Th’ Faith Healers, Seattle’s Chastity Belt comfortably fill that void. Mixed for maximum reverb effect by Matthew Simms, the guitarist for legendary British post-punk band Wire, Time to Go Home, gets the slacker sound of ’90s down pat. It wouldn’t be what it is, however, without the swagger of lead singer/guitarist Julia Shapiro. The band’s second album is also just stuffed with great song craft. Take the syncopated layering of “Joke,” that piles on the instrumental tracks and is driven by Annie Truscott’s simple, high-toned bass line. The all-female quartet also display a keen feminist sense of humor we love. (HM)

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens Carrie and Lowell

During my first listen of Sufjan Stevens’ new album Carrie & Lowell, I was immediately transported to an intimate world inhabited by loss, grief, loneliness and unresolved childhood trauma. However, in the midst of what I would call one of the saddest albums this year, there is also lots of love, understanding and even redemption that give the album a positive spin. Carrie & Lowell is autobiographical and narrates Stevens’ early years, his relationship with his bipolar mother, Carrie, and his stepfather, Lowell. The sound is stripped down and folky and melodic with Stevens’ hushed voice — almost a whisper — a contrast to the enormity of the personal narrative woven throughout the album. Here’s another album that deserves repeated listening, as the songs compose a larger picture together. (AM)

Beach House – Depression Cherry

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With Depression Cherry, the Baltimore duo of singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally take both a step forward in their song-craft while glancing behind. Gone are the live drums that made their former albums sound more organic. Instead, the duo brings back the electronic precision of the drum machine, a key element of their early sound. Despite something being lost in the lack of vital drums, Scally is in prime form offering entrancing guitar loops while Legrand shows she’s not afraid to go outside of her comfort zone of dreamy, hushed vocals with a bit of speak singing and layered, noisy voices. Read more in my full length review: Beach House grows into its own with Depression Cherry – a music review. (HM)

Viet Cong – Viet Cong

Viet Cong

Viet Cong returned with a more sharply developed sound that leaves behind the psychedelic fuzz of their introductory 2014 EP Cassette and embraces the Canadian quartet’s icy post-punk DNA. Bassist/vocalist Matt Flegel’s voice is more upfront and delivered with a confidence missing from the early effort. The music is more diverse, recalling precursors like Gang of Four and Wire but also featuring stellar moments of experimenting with drone craft, like the epic “March of Progress,” which opens on propulsive drum pulses against a shifting hum of organ that sounds like Boyd Rice but switches to a quirky, layered bright finale that recalls the noisy, more deadpan parts of Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). (HM)

Wilco – Star Wars

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I don’t think I ever liked a Wilco album as much as Star Wars. The Chicago alt-rock group sprung their ninth album on fans as a free download back in July. They must have known they had a good record to give it away for free. It’s their least indulgent record ever at a brisk 34-minute running time. The songs all have their own catchiness with mostly fuzzed out guitar work, but “Satellite” stands among probably the greatest songs of the year. Building on a repetitive chiming guitar line and gradually swelling propulsive drums and rhythm guitars to an ecstatic freakout of noise that threatens to come undone while still hanging on to the song’s essential grove to the very end. Downright entrancing work. (HM)

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit

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Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Courtney Barnett has the ability to find the fun in banality, with lyrics that focus on the mundane. Her songs are easy to relate to and delivered in a speak/sing fashion that sometimes veers into melodic. Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is Barnett’s debut full-length album in which her loose style is coupled with a grungy sound reminiscent of the ’90s indie scene. It is Barnett’s exceptional ability to deliver these effortless capsules of everyday life with remarkable wit and sense of humor that make listening to Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit a rewarding experience. (AM)

Cory McAbee – Small Star Seminar

Mcabee Small Star

The quirkiest yet still one of the most catchy records came from Cory McAbee, the frontman of the Billy Nayer Show, a group known for using high concepts as springboards to their albums. McAbee even directed a few stellar indie movies as part of the albums (The American Astronaut, a sci-fi musical western stands as one of his best works). He is at work on another film with the help of fans, and his solo debut Small Star Seminar is the jumping off point for it. It’s a strange concept album in that it speaks to self-perception and self-worth while filled with fear and insecurity delivered with both incredible sincerity and wry irony. The music recalls the deadpan quality of Laurie Anderson and the intricacy of The Talking Heads. You can stream the entire album on Bandcamp, but it’s not available on vinyl. (HM)

Keegan DeWitt – Queen of Earth (Original Score)

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Keegan DeWitt did not only add a mysterious, unsettling element to Queen of Earth, the latest film by Alex Ross Perry (An interview with Queen of Earth director Alex Ross Perry), but he has also created an album that can stand alone (so it’s a shame it’s not available on any format besides streaming). The haunting instrumental score is equally dark and beautiful. Songs unravel slowly and put you on alert or a different state of mind directed inward. De Witt said he used a wrenchenspiel because “it sounded broken.” Indeed, the album is a mood piece that perfectly transmits the mental unraveling of the woman at the heart of the film. Wind instruments and high-pitched chimes create jarring sounds woven through tense, suspenseful moments interrupted by melodic bells that settle the mood back down. An aural journey that is disquieting but gorgeous. (AM)

Year’s best vinyl reissue:

Red House Painters 4AD catalog

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Consistently fetching hefty prices on the secondary market, the vinyl versions of the first four Red House Painters album, released by 4AD Records in the early to mid-90s, were finally reissued by the UK-based label on vinyl this year. The dynamic, moody music, sometimes boxed into the slo-core sub-genre of alternative rock, begs for the attentive and deliberate plays. There’s no better format than vinyl for such music, especially considering some songs peter up from hushed whispers and distant mumblings, building to epic musical meanderings (I’m thinking “Evil”). Also cool, 4AD finally released for the first video for the band’s first single, from 1992, the brilliant downer about growing old, “24.”

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Finally, this weekend, we will share our best in film.

All images courtesy of the bands. Except Red House Painters reissue. That was edited from an image from turntablelab.com.

(Copyright 2016 by Ana and Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

HitchcockTruffaut_posterIt can be a tricky proposition: making a film about films. Even trickier is the idea of making a film based on a book about films, in this case the 1967 book Hitchcock/Truffaut. But film critic/director Kent Jones turns the task into a buoyant, delightful ramble that will inspire viewers to revisit the film catalog of Alfred Hitchcock. Co-written with Serge Toubiana, the director of the famed Cinémathèque française, the documentary is an examination of cinema so in love with its subject, the viewer will find themselves seduced by it. It sucks you into the delights of some of the most brilliantly formed films, from editing to music to performances to tricks of mise-en-scène like a light hidden in a milk glass to subtly draw the viewer’s eye. It’s an absolutely captivating bit of filmmaking in and of itself.

The source material stems from the famous book by French film critic turned director François Truffaut written after a week-long conversation with Hitchcock, in 1962. Jones has assembled some of contemporary cinema’s most famous filmmakers to talk about the book’s essential quality and the lessons they have learned from it. Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Martin Scorsese are among some of the talking heads whose voices mostly supplement images of Hitchcock’s films, interwoven with samples of Hitchcock and Truffaut’s original conversations. There are also storyboards, photos from the meeting of the two filmmakers in Los Angeles and perpetual string music by Jeremiah Bornfield, which could forgivably be confused for original music by Hitchcock regular Bernard Herrmann. The montage of it all is structured but still breezy.

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The film begins with Anderson and David Fincher recalling early memories of the book as children and how it seemed to seep into their identity as aspiring filmmakers. There’s a bit of history of Hitchcock and Truffaut before their meeting, which is explained as a symbiotic event. Truffaut sought to free Hitchcock of a perception that his films were shallow, and Hitchcock freed Truffaut as an artist. Then the film goes into the minutiae of how Hitch played with the form of cinema. The layers of information can be overwhelming, but you will want to revisit the documentary to get familiar with it and enjoy it deeper, just like the value of the book to all these filmmakers. It’s a terrific lesson in filmmaking that benefits aspiring directors and fans of cinema alike.

Jones dedicates a big chunk of time to Vertigo and Psycho, but the insight is interesting, especially for Vertigo, a film that was seen as a bit of a popular failure when it saw release, though now it’s considered one of the greatest films in the history of cinema. It’s Fincher (whose work often endures similar perception) who points out Hitchcock’s embracing of his perverted interests, which Fincher also admits is key to his own work. Scorsese chimes in to note how Vertigo is more than a story but a life. The examination of the film becomes a look not only at plot but how it reflects the director and his beliefs. Bringing up the scene in the museum where James Stewart’s character spies Kim Novak from the back of her head, director James Gray brings it back to the power of the image in the cinema of Hitchcock and how amazed he is about Hitchcock’s vision. Gray assumes Hitch must have been so confident in the choice of his images that he probably skipped coverage from other angles.

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Though some may argue, where’s the book in this? I posit this kind of passion is informed by Truffaut’s passionate respect for Hitchcock, the filmmaker. A sort of transcendent energy and affection comes from the meticulous examination of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. This excitement of the art by current directors becomes indelible with the book that dared to celebrate the form of an art with a genuine curiosity and affection for its subject. It’s no wonder Truffaut and Hitchcock fell in love with one another as fellow travelers in their craft. It’s a love that has outlived them and is beautifully transmitted by Jones and Toubiana.

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A retrospective of films by Hitchcock/Truffaut starts today, Jan. 7, and continues every Thursday for the month of January at the Miami Beach Cinematheque featuring local film critics (including us at Independent Ethos) and friends of ours. The schedule is as follows:

  • Jan.  7: Marnie with intro by Miami International Film Festival Director Jaie Laplante
  • Jan. 14: The Bride Wore Black with intro film critic Rubén Rosario
  • Jan.  21: The Wrong Man with intro by film critic David N Meyer
  • Jan.  28: Confidentially Yours with intro by film critics Hans Morgenstern and Ana Morgenstern (that’s us!)

For tickets to each of these events, visit the theater’s calendar and look for each of these dates: miamibeachfilmsociety.memberlodge.org/calendar.

Hans Morgenstern

Hitchcock/Truffaut runs 80 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens Friday, Jan. 8, in our Miami area at the following theaters: The Miami Beach Cinematheque and in Broward, at the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale, which will host a Skype Q&A with the film’s director, Kent Jones, on Saturday, Jan. 9, at the 7 p.m. screening of the film. The film expands to The Bill Cosford Cinema on Jan. 22. It opened in other parts of the U.S. already and continues to roll out. For dates in other cities, visit this page. Cohen Media provided all images in this post and a preview screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the-revenant-leonardo-dicaprioIn the cold winter of early America, a group of trappers and hunters are ambushed by a band of Arikara Indians. The few who survive the merciless attack retreat to base camp. On their way back one of them, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is attacked by a grizzly bear in a prolonged scene of crunching bones and torn flesh. The gruesome encounter is only but a taste of the visceral tone The Revenant takes, wherein the brutality of the wilderness is only matched by the callousness of some of his fellow men.

After surviving the brutal bear attack, Glass is carried by his compatriots and his Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The treacherous trip has one of the men, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) convinced that his own survival is threatened by carrying the ailing Glass, who — from Fitzgerald’s perspective — is but dead weight. The struggle between the two is at the core of this film. When Fitzgerald betrays Glass on several levels, ultimately leaving him for dead, Glass, who can hardly speak, much less move, after the attack finds the strength to get to base camp on his own motivated by revenge. The man-to-man violence feels immediate, as Director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses close, tight shots to not only show the internal struggle but also gives the audience a peek into the turmoil within — few places for respite in this bleak landscape and inchoate society.

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Along with the struggle for survival there is an alternative narrative of the group of Native Americans from the Arikara tribe who are also on a quest for retribution. Theirs is a different source of settling the score, looking for the daughter of the tribe’s leader. Although the story does not seem to be woven into the overall film seamlessly, it does provide a point of comparison for the many ways in which justice may be sought in the absence of a higher authority, say a state.

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“The Revenant,” or “the one who returns after death” is played with appropriately visceral aplomb by DiCaprio, who traded his signature charming leading man good looks to play the grunting, disheveled but strong Hugh Glass. But the real standout performance comes from Tom Hardy, who embodies Fitzgerald, the outlier of the frontiersmen. His personal story is also cemented in brutality, his face alone carries the burden of trauma being half-scalped and full of scars. In an up-close monologue, Fitzgerald tells of the grisly path he’s endured himself. Fitzgerald is a character study of how a person may find their dark side and stay in that space as an excuse for his own behavior.

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The stark landscape and the ruthlessness of nature are beautifully captured by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s cinematography, in what is now a collaboration between director and cinematographer that spans decades. The quiet atmosphere and the inhospitable cold portrayed by Iñárritu is not only of a wide scope, but it is also the perfect blank slate to ask human questions about existential survival. Why keep on going when the prospects for survival are bleak, at best? Is there redemption to be gained from revenge? Is justice enough to keep us going? As Glass keeps on marching on, it is hard to overlook both the frailty and fortitude of human nature. Glass’ refusal to die and survival instinct trump myriad of obstacles in his path, yet his losses throughout this journey begin to seem insurmountable. Survival in the face of having nothing else to lose makes this story compelling and powerful.

Though the violence might be quite stark, it is there for a reason. Reminiscent of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1988 film A Short Film About Killing, Iñárritu shows the act of killing as a menacing, difficult act both for the victim and the perpetrator. The long take action sequences showcase how the struggles between people are not only physically dangerous but can also diminish that essence that makes us human for all parties involved. Although billed as a revenge film, Iñárritu’s motivation may be different, as the final confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald will reveal.

Ana Morgenstern

The Revenant runs 156 minutes and is rated R. It opens nationwide on Jan. 8. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screening last year for awards consideration and the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of the studio.

Indie theater UPDATE: The Revenant opens at O Cinema Wynwood Friday, Jan. 22.

(Copyright 2016 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Screen-Shot-AMYI took in a decent amount of music documentaries in 2015. Most were great. Only one was terrible. And the one that caps this list will probably win the Oscar, and I wouldn’t disagree with its win.

Let’s start with the actually bad music documentary I saw this year. Even though it’s beautifully shot and the songs sound amazing (even in hacked up snippets), Arcade Fire’s The Reflektor Tapes is atrociously edited. The phenomenal group from Canada created an album full of songs that build on grooves. But before you can get into any musical moment in this film, there is a cutaway to something else. Making matters worse are the varied formats of framing. The film even jumps around in time with little rhyme or reason. Sometimes the audio doesn’t even match the performance. Director Kahlil Joseph simply betrays the music with a concern for panache over substance. Vincent Moon did it much better with Miroir Noir. Seek that out instead (purchase here).

Honorable mentions include Revenge of the Mekons, which actually came out a couple of years ago but only last year made its theatrical tour. I caught it at O Cinema Wynwood during a one-night only screening with only four other people attending, and — besides my partner — two of them turned out to be people I know from the music scene, so that says something about who The Mekons are in the world of music. Read my review of the film here: Revenge of the Mekons presents a portrait of a band whose success transcends fame and fortune. Also worth noting is the revealing documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which debuted via Netflix. It’s quite good, and director Liz Garbus does ultimate justice to Simone’s music by allowing full performances to play out as the story of her life is told with archival recordings and talking heads, including her daughter, who doesn’t hold back in sharing how difficult her relationship was with her activist/artist mother.

For the most part, this year, we got to know and understand the difficult line of existence that is the world of music and fame contrasted with musicians’ private lives out of the limelight. Simone was later diagnosed as manic-depressive as was Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin and Jaco Pastorious, all subjects in some of the year’s best music documentaries, whose tragic stories involved premature death. In a way, Simone was the strongest and indeed the feistiest of these subjects. It makes for an odd, sad connection between these excellent films, but these are sad exceptions of the music world in general. There are clearly happier stories that don’t make for compelling, sad stories. One of those more positive stories of recent music history debuted at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film FestivalThe Record Man undeniably stands as the most uplifting of all the docs on this list. It had its world premiere at the festival with a rooftop party featuring guests like music legend George McRae, who introduced himself to me singing this song’s chorus.

But really, this was the year of the depressing music doc, reflecting on dead icons, their lives meticulously picked apart in retrospect with the cooperation of surviving family members who helped paint intimate portraits of the people behind the music. For more thoughts on these films, I have linked to my original reviews. If I didn’t get the chance to review them, I share a few thoughts. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the link provided, you will be financially supporting this blog.

5. Janis: Little Blue Girl

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Read my review

4. The Record Man

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Though, like all the subjects in these documentaries, Henry K. Stone has passed, this film is the most uplifting of the lot. I never thought disco music would make me smile as much as it did when it appears in this film. This was the music of my childhood, and it was great to see how a warehouse in Hialeah, Florida, became the source of an indelible movement in music. Director Mark Moormann offers a brilliantly paced stroll through Stone’s story as a music mogul that included the discovery of Harry Wayne Casey (of KC and the Sunshine Band).

3. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck

The film that set the tone for the year of the grim music documentary reflecting on deceased musicians. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is an incredibly researched work, despite some contention by Cobain’s former friend in The Melvins, Buzz Osborne (read his review here). Director Brett Morgen had access to Cobain’s archives of tapes and recreated the man’s past, sometimes even using animation set to Cobain’s monologues. On a human level, it’s a hard film to watch. The home movies of Cobain as a precocious child slowly evolve into the home movies of the drug-addled man, and it’s a pitiful thing to observe.

2. Jaco

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Read my review in “PureHoney Magazine”

1. Amy

amy poster

Read my review

Next up, a look at some of the year’s best albums and songs.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

amy-schumer-trainwreck

I tend to avoid the rubbish Hollywood produces to sell the popcorn and its over-priced 3D premium upgrades, so you won’t find well-known crap like Terminator Genisys and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 on this list. I try to seek out films that at least appear to have potential to be good and/or are well-reviewed. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t get suckered into some disappointments.

Among the Hollywood films I had higher hopes for in 2015 were TrainwreckAmy Schumer’s big screen debut as not only a lead but a screenwriter. I found the movie to be forced and not as funny as it was hyped to be. The editing was particularly terrible, revealing sentimentality for improvised lines over an interest in consistent storytelling. Then it all ended in typical precious Hollywood sincerity. There was also too much made over The Danish Girl, which sealed my judgement with an idiotically romanticized scene of closure with a fucking flying scarf and the words “Let it fly!”

These are all the easy targets, however. My disappointments include well-respected directors, indie darlings and several screenings at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. To be fair with MIFF, a festival of about 200 films, it can only be as good as the films you can actually see during the festival’s week and a half run. I was also on a jury where I was assigned movies to watch. It’s also not really fair to single out some of the weaker movies that somehow made it into the program. Some are obscurities that will never get U.S. distribution yet offer distinct voices for the countries that produced them. So I won’t note some particularly disappointing experiences from Venezuela and Spain.

That said, I do feel obliged to single out a couple of titles. Oscar-winning Danish director Susanne Bier returned to the fest with the obnoxiously preposterous A Second Chance. It’s a ludicrous film featuring the talented actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays a police detective pulling “the old switcheroo” with a baby he finds in a drug addicted couple’s filthy home and the body of his and wife’s dead infant. Then there was the festival’s big award winner, Las oscuras primaveras (Obscure Spring). I had high hopes for this Mexican film, but it turned out to be utterly contrived and overly serious. I was surprised to see the jury fall for it. You can read my review in the Miami New Times here. And I was glad to find The Hollywood Reporter’s film critic prove that I did not stand alone in my complaints: read Jonathan Holland’s review here.

Still, these were not the worst films I saw in 2015. Here in ranked order, are the biggest disappointments for this writer in 2015:

5. Z for Zachariah

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The pedigree was right for this one. Director Craig Zobel, whose previous movie I admired (Compliance reveals horrific dimensions of social behavior – a film review), had three fine actors at his disposal. Unfortunately, the original story by Robert C. O’Brien was changed so much that it not only lost its relevance but lost its sense.

Read my review: Z For Zachariah can’t overcome shortcomings to live up to its concepts — a film review

4. The Hateful Eight

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I’ve loved so many films by Quentin Tarantino. Though I was generally positive about Django Unchained (Film review: ‘Django Unchained’ celebrates myth and history with humor and horror), for the first time I had some serious issues with a Tarantino movie. My main problem was that it could have used some editing. But here is the monstrosity that results in terrible self-indulgence: The Hateful Eight.

Read my review: The Hateful Eight is just a tiresome exercise in drawing out mean caricatures of annoying people — a film review

3. Sicario

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Canadian director Denis Villeneuve always shows so much great potential in his movies. So far all of them have succumbed to fundamental flaws in story-telling. You have to look beyond his film’s often stellar cinematography, but once you do, you will understand that his scripts are plagued with terrible issues. Sicario tries to say something deep but can only help but scratch at a surface that only reveals ignorance and ends with a mere tasteless stretch of Hollywood closure with a climax that caves to its own evils.

Read my review with Ana Morgenstern: Sicario romanticizes revenge in gritty Hollywood take on US/Mexican drug war — a film review

2 and 1. Love and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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These two are so close to call because both made me want to walk out. Both are also stories of young people stumbling with an affection for the opposite sex who fall short for their own egos. Both directors take themselves so damn seriously that all they reveal is their own annoying self-importance. Both filmmakers have growing up to do before they can cast backward glances at growing up and avoiding so much overwrought, self-indulgent cinema.

Read my reviews:

Love is flawed in almost every cinematic way possible — a film review

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl reduces friendship and death to sentiment and tokenism — A film review

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

imagesNote: This is a review of the longer, “Roadshow” version of The Hateful Eight.

Quentin Tarantino has finally done it. He’s made a movie that’s too long for its own good. You know there’s a problem when the dialogue of a Tarantino movie gets tiresome and the violence becomes nothing more than decadent and mean-spirited.  Broken into two sections with a 12-minute intermission, The Hateful Eight, fails to engage in its meandering and overlong first half, which ends up impacting its second half in the worst way possible: it diminishes the film’s consequences and punishes the audience with nothing more than repellent, nihilistic cruelty.

OK, so you should know what you are in for with a title like The Hateful Eight. It refers to the film’s eight shady anti-heroes of the “Wild West,” who find themselves trapped in an outpost during a blizzard. All of them harbor essential secrets whose gradual reveal leads to an eventual bloodbath. Like the issues with Martin Scorsese’s infamous Wolf of Wall Street (Wolf of Wall Street’ is one nasty, vulgar film about nasty, vulgar people– for 3 hours!), characters lacking sympathy in such an over-long movie makes for problematic storytelling. The chief problem lies in the editing department, making Sally Menke once again sorely missed. As it was in Tarantino’s previous movie, Django Unchained (Film review: ‘Django Unchained’ celebrates myth and history with humor and horror), his first without Menke, there are problems in tone and pacing and an excess that feels so redundant it becomes dull and condescending.

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The first part of The Hateful Eight is filled with the twisted threat of violence by a group of characters trying to suss each other out while stuck in a snowstorm at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the isolated mountain roadhouse where much of the drama unfolds. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), two bounty hunters, bring in Ruth’s captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hunker through the storm, finding a group of strangers they don’t trust and no sign of Minnie, who Marquis knows personally. Thus the suspicions begin.

It sounds like a good concept worth its slow burn. However, Tarantino, who also wrote the script, has drawn it out so long, that the dialogue creaks out with what has become a familiar formula of his plays on racism and bigotry that ends up overshadowing the fleshing out of identity. Then there are the tiresome jokes that out wear their novelty, like characters having to constantly nail boards to shut hateful_eight_twc_2.0the haberdashery’s door against the snow. Plot twists aside, there’s little more story than this and little sense that anything crucial is at stake. It’s as if the film were an exercise in bringing eight shifty characters together to see how they would do each other in if they were stuck in close quarters, like a gladiator match with words and guns. It’s almost a cold exercise in story development instead of an actual story. It feels as if Tarantino has taken the extended scene of the basement bar of Inglourious Basterds and stretched it into a feature-length movie with twists that fail to reach the heights of his 2009 film without on of its context.

Before the intermission, almost two hours into the film, the first shot is fired and stakes are finally increased, and by then, you can’t wait for these people to start killing each other in cruel, spectacular ways disguised as humor. Unfortunately, that means you have more than an hour to go, and there’s no more pay off other than the film’s nasty tone, which also features a flashback to some “nice” people drawn out as if they were made of sentimental straw. The second half is all brutality and blood with some good lines here and there, but it all feels so meaningless and malicious, and it is a fundamentally problematic issue with the film.

Because of all the hype about The Hateful Eight being shot on 70mm, it is also worth noting how disappointing the cinemascope widescreen is. It’s nowhere near as grand as expected. The West is castrated by the KurtRussellSamuelLJacksonHatefulEightsnow, and sure, Robert Richardson gets nice wide shots of giant horse-drawn carriages and the expressive faces of some of the actors, but, more often than not, the mise-en-scene is so overwhelming that never honestly engages the audience. Russel, Demian Bichir and James Parks are among those lost in the excess of facial hair symbolic of the obstruction that has blinded Tarantino’s ego to dial it back. The only cinematic quality worth its while is Ennio Morricone’s score, but you’re better of buying the vinyl soundtrack.

In the end, The Hateful Eight’s weakness is its script. Fine, it’s in the title, but not a single one of these characters have redeeming qualities that make up for their bad sides. Pick your scale of bad guy and root for him (or her). Some are racist, throwing around the N-word with aplomb, while others carry a twisted righteousness that permits them to beat a woman at any chance. All are liars to some degree, some more interesting than others. But despite a seeming complexity, there’s something inhuman and mechanical about it all. They boil down to primal caricatures unworthy of audience sympathy. It’s as if Tarantino expects the audience to be interested in hokey representations of people standing in as jokes. What happens when you sacrifice fleshing out a person for the sake of a joke? Well, this film is our prime example, unengaging, mind-numbing and plain tiresome.

Hans Morgenstern

The Hateful Eight is available to watch in two different formats, in two different running times. There’s a 168 minute version in digital at most theaters and 187 minute roadshow version on 70mm. It is rated R. It opens everywhere on Dec. 25. All images are courtesy of The Weinstein Company, who also invited me to a preview screening of the Road Show Version with the overture, intermission and added footage. This review is based on that cut, but it was shown in digital projection.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

carol-posterIn his  latest film, director Todd Haynes brings to life a love story between a wealthy housewife and a 20-something department store clerk in 1950s Manhattan. Although a portrayal of forbidden love between two women in the ’50s may seem like a familiar trope, Haynes’ portrayal in Carol, which is based on a The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, makes it fresh. The script, written by Phyllis Nagy goes beyond clichés and shows a deep connection between two women that transcends social class, age barriers and even adds a layer of complexity by making Carol a mother of a young child.

Rooney Mara plays Therese, a young, unaffected store clerk, who wants to become a photographer. She’s quiet and unsure of herself, with a bare bones life that includes a cold apartment and a boyfriend, Richard (Jack Lacy), with whom she has reticently made plans to travel to Europe. It is in the department store where Therese first comes in contact with Carol, a glamorous middle-aged woman who commands attention played superbly by Cate Blanchett. She is wearing fur and expensive leather gloves and carries herself with an aristocratic air. When she chats with Therese, Carol sets a flirtatious tone, listening to Therese’s recommendations for a Christmas present for her daughter. When Carol leaves her gloves behind (by mistake?), Therese takes it upon herself to return them. There is an instant attraction between both women, so when shy Therese calls Carol to return her gloves; Carol quickly follows up with an opportunity to meet face-to-face and Therese agrees.

The affair takes place when Carol’s marriage is falling apart and her controlling husband, played by Kyle Chandler, is trying to keep her in line by using their young daughter as a bargaining tool. In the midst of the drama, Carol not only falls deeply in love with Therese but also cares for her in a motherly way. Carol is also alluring, not only as a beautiful woman, but also in her mysterious and needy qualities.

Carol 2

Haynes’ details include a misè-en-scene that creates an environment of unbridled passion that seeps from the screen. The dialogue is sparse but profound, as are the detailed shots that suggest oppression, love and the high stakes of this affair. Therese seems undaunted, at first, leaving her boyfriend behind to follow Carol in her world, head on. The chemistry between the two women is electric, although the repercussions could be especially high for Carol, who has settled in the heart of suburban New York as a mother to a young girl she deeply loves. Nonetheless, Carol puts it all on the line and unravels onscreen only to reveal that the only great sacrifice is lying about who you are and who you love.

To be sure, Haynes does not mince the film’s message with Carol. In fact, the dialogue is sparse with lots of subtext, conveying the hidden-in-plain-sight nature of being gay in hetero-sexist 1950s America without ever using the word lesbian. But even more importantly, Haynes does not mince images either. Carol’s powerful imagery oozes into the audience, delivering a mood that unfolds slowly, yet Carol still2it is quite potent. The all-knowing glances exchanged between young Therese and the haughtily beautiful Carol, along with loving gestures, speak volumes of the fine acting coming from Mara and especially Blanchett. The camera lingers enough to let the audience catch up and inhabit this secret world that can only exist indoors in a sexually repressed America. When Therese, the budding photographer, shoots Carol with a camera she received as a gift from Carol, we can see how much she cares. The photographs are telling of the depth of feeling and the caring eye Therese has for the somewhat broken Carol.

Within the confines of the small domain of a patriarchal society with strict class boundaries, enforced dress codes and morality clauses; Carol shows that love is one of the ways through in which challenging these power structures is not only possible but inevitable. After fleeing with Therese in a road trip, Carol returns to the fold as her husband pulls her back in by using their daughter. The sequence shows a desperate mother, willing to do whatever it takes to gain back her daughter. But after the first encounter, it becomes obvious that the marriage and Carol staying within that framework is an unsustainable deal. As Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” In that vein, Carol decides to let her own story be told, making sacrifices along the way to be able to gain herself, in her own terms.

Ana Morgenstern

Carol runs 118 minutes and is Rated R. It opens in our South Florida area, on Dec. 25, at the following theaters, but let’s start with the local indie art house: Coral Gables Art Cinema. Other theaters in Miami include:

AMC Aventura
Regal South Beach
AMC Sunset Place

In Palm Beach County, it shows at the following theaters:
Carmike Parisian 20 at City Place, West Palm Beach
Cinemark Palace, Boca Raton
Regal Shadowood, Boca Raton

It opened several weeks ago in the U.S. in other locations, check here for local listings. The Weinstein Company invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review and provided all images for this post.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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