Thursday, October 20, 2016


Rick Alverson is always growing as a filmmaker. Each project is more “polished” than the next. But that’s not to say his earlier films like New Jerusalem or the film of discussion (The Builder) are UN-polished. They’re not. In fact, a lot of the themes & subject matter from his feature film debut are still very much a part of the fabric of his more recent work like The Comedy & Entertainment. His recent work is less about nature & rural surroundings, but The Builder planted the seeds for all the films in the cinematic universe that Rick Alverson is building. Every protagonist in a Rick Alverson film always deals with some form of depression (Entertainment), melancholy feelings (The Builder), heavy jadedness (The Comedy) or is going through an existential crisis (New Jerusalem). In The Builder – the story of an Irish immigrant’s quest to build a historically accurate cape house, our protagonist (“The Builder”) is overcome with all of the aforementioned feelings along with serious fatigue and bouts of hopelessness & self-defeat. To me, The Builder is Alverson’s take on the romantic idea of doing away with the big noisy city but finding out how difficult that really is to follow through with. The main character in the film moves from Queens to upstate New York after purchasing some land but is so overwhelmed by the task of building a home & living in seclusion that he kind of shuts down. Have you ever had a romantic idea like writing a book, making a film, painting a house, fixing a car, etc and then realized; “Shit…this sounded cool to talk about but I’m in way over my head!” I find myself wanting to leave New York City all the time. But when I think about the logistics of moving & starting over it does sound a bit overwhelming. Not the most overwhelming thing in the world but still overwhelming nonetheless. We’ve also all had major bouts of procrastination when a project seems too ambitious to even start.

With its semi-poetic vibe and sprawling shots of nature, it’s easy/lazy to compare The Builder To Tarkovsky (which is something quite a few bloggers & critics have been doing for the last six years) but The Builder is really more in tune with films like Richard Linklater’s It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books or the cinema of Chantal Akerman (Linklater actually credited Akerman’s work as an influence on his often un-credited feature debut). Sure there’s a “plot” to The Builder, It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow & various Chantal Akerman films but the plot is secondary to the film’s ambiance. I guess you could compare The Builder to Tarkovsky in a kind of backhanded/indirect way in that it has quite a few similarities to Carlos Reygadas’ Japon which is heavily influenced by the work of Tarkovsky (both Japon & The Builder are about depressed/tired men who set out to complete a personal project/task in a rural area but take their time doing what they came to do). But The Builder doesn’t deal in surreality or stream of consciousness like Tarkovskyor or Reygadas. I also think any similarities that The Builder may have with other films is completely coincidental. I’ve read enough about Rick Alverson to feel like he’s one of the few filmmakers that isn’t influenced like other filmmakers are. When he says that Entertainment wasn’t influenced by Paris Texas (something he was once asked at a Q&A) I genuinely believe him. Alverson is quietly (and respectfully) open about what he dislikes in film more than what he does like (a trait I wish more filmmakers had). Sure there may be some uncontrollable subconscious influences on his work that no artist can deny, but I like to think Alverson doesn’t surround himself with tons of films to borrow from. He seems to keep an intentional blind eye to what other filmmakers around him are doing so his work can be original. And I think that’s evident. When you take The Comedy & Entertainment and put them up against the films of hispeers (Kelly Reciahrdt, Lance Hammer, Aaron Katz, Jeff Nichols, etc) you see that his work can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Although speaking of influence, I do find it peculiar that The Builder (2010) - a film about a man trying to build a cabin in the woods – has similar promotional material to a later film about another man known for building a cabin in the woods…

It’s also easy/lazy to label The Builder as boring (another characteristic I’ve seen some critics & bloggers incorrectly use to define it). But have you ever been depressed and/or severely fatigued? It isn’t exactly exciting. It’s droning & sluggish and The Builder conveys that. The faces, expressions & energies exuded by all the characters in the film are that of depressive fatigue. If you’re going to make a film that partially deals with sadness, self-doubt and/or depression - the film should feel depressing. And this does. Without meaning to, or possibly even realizing it, The Builder travels down the path that Haneke made with The 7th Continent as well as Two Lane Blacktop (it should be noted that Alverson cited Two Lane Blacktop as an influence on Entertainment so it isn’t too far-fetched that the sprawling & intentionally directionless vibe of Monte Hellman’s anti-road movie rubbed off on The Builder as well)

I doubt the casual movie fan looking for something “fun” or “exciting” to watch will blindly stumble upon The Builder. You have to kind of be familiar with Alverson’s work or the school of films that it kind of belongs to (Ballast, Wendy & Lucy, Old Joy, The Brown Bunny, Last Days, etc). The Builder is the perfect lazy afternoon film (your viewing experience might even be slightly more heightened or enhanced if you’re familiar with or living in certain areas of upstate New York, New England or Virginia (where Alverson is from & currently resides).

Friday, October 14, 2016


It only makes sense that I share more thoughts on Claire Denis' misunderstood masterpiece for the Pink Smoke's auteur horror series considering it's my second home.

Click the image below to read my updated thoughts on Denis' quietly influence "horror" film Trouble Every Day



Voyage Of Time kind of feels like the movie Terrence Malick has been working towards since The Thin Red Line in terms of how he works with actors. I'm a fan of Terrence Malick. To take it a step further - I'm more a fan of the post-Tree Of Life Malick than I am the pre-Thin Red Line Malick. A lot more. But if there's one (recent) criticism I have is that he kind of uses actors like disposable parts rather than actual people. Look...people get cut out of movies all the time. It's nothing new. But that seems to be a regular thing with Terrence Malick more than any other filmmaker in the last 20 years. Adrien Brody's presence in The Thin Red Line was chopped to pieces (in addition to quite a few big name actors not even making it to the film at all). Michael Sheen & Amanda Peet got completely cut out of To The Wonder and there have been a few rumblings of certain actors getting the Adrien Brody/Thin Red Line Treatment in Knight Of Cups. There have also been a few accounts of Malick being a little tough to deal with because he's more concerned with filming random scenes of nature than he is communicating with the actual actors/people looking for some kind of guidance/direction. None of those things are a problem this time around because there are no actors in Voyage Of Time. He can now film all the lingering nature shots he wants and not have to interact with humans. Voyage Of Time isn't really a plot-driven film. It is about the evolution of mankind and the progression of human civilization but the film flows more like a lucid dream rather than something that has a beginning, middle & end. There is a fictionalized Quest For Fire/Walkabout-esque sequence towards the end that does use actors (without actual dialogue), but for the most part Terrence Malick's latest is a "poetic documentary" that looks like a combination of the extended footage from the creation scene in Tree Of Life and the B-role camera footage at the beginning of Knight Of Cups & To The Wonder. With that description (which is pretty accurate if I might say so) you can see that Voyage Of Time fits in perfectly with the rest of the films in Terrence Malick's cinematic universe but it also has a lot in common with other films outside of that wheelhouse...


Quite frankly, Voyage Of Time could have easily been a Werner Herzog movie (with a few alterations). Terrence Malick's latest film features breathy existential voiceover (I know that's a staple of Malick but it's also very much a Herzog-ism as well) and shots of volcanoes, waterfalls and other forms of Mother Nature. Sounds similar to some of Herzog's films doesn't it? I know people are quick to call Malick's movies pretentious, silly, stupid or whatever (sometimes without even seeing them) but when you strip them down they share a lot of strong similarities to other films - like Herzog - that don't face the same harsh criticisms.

And if the Herzog comparison doesn't work for you then I'll say that Voyage Of Time is Malick's version of Baraka, Powaqqutsi or Koyaanasquati (there's no doubt in my mind that these films heavily influenced Malick this time rather than Andrei Tarkovsky).

Koyaanasquati / Voyage Of Time

Like I say with every post-New World Terrence Malick film, this is more in line with Tree Of Life & To The Wonder than Badlands & Days Of Heaven. We're now on movie #4 of Malick's experimentally poetic period. You know exactly what to expect so don't go in to this expecting to not hear dreamy voiceover narration about our existence on earth.
And whether you like Malick or not, there is no denying that Voyage Of Time is a movie-going experience and should be seen on a big screen.

Monday, October 10, 2016


Don't Think Twice is one of the few films that fell through the cracks for me this year. Thankfully PINNLAND EMPIRE contributor & sketch comedy fan Doug Frye caught it and sent me his thoughts on the film!


Mike Birbiglia's feature film, Sleepwalk With Me, was an impressive debut—and his sophomore film, Don't Think Twice, is stronger. Few directors pull that off, and Birbiglia's writing also seems stronger this time. I wasn't completely convinced that Birbiglia, being a stand-up comedian, was committed to directing films, but I am after Don't Think Twice.

"The kid stays in the pictures"

You could contribute this to a bold choice for an actor/writer/director: he's not really the star this time. While he's fully present in the movie, it's first an ensemble cast. Initially tempted to declare Keegan-Michael Key's Jack the main character, I decided that this wasn't the case. It's closer to a three-way split between Key, Gillian Jacobs's Sam, and Birbiglia's Miles. Each shows their own palpable need for attention and belonging, to different degrees, and talents and drive to fulfill those needs.

The cast rounds out with excellent performances from two underutilized and always welcome actors, Chris Gethard (Bill) and Kate Micucci (Allison), and an actor new to me, Tami Sagher (Lindsay). Bonus points if you spot Richard “Larry from Three's Company” Kline!

Kate Micucci being adorable. Chris Gethard for scale.

The improv group, The Commune, gels convincingly into a familial unit. They appear to know one another inside and out. I absolutely never expected the improv performances to be so good. They tag in and out with near-perfect timing, seemingly practiced for years. I find improv the jam band of comedy. If it's great, it can be enjoyable. If it's really good, it's tolerable. Anything else makes me want to leave the room to varying degrees of irritation.

exceptionally un-terrible

They carry the same chemistry off-stage, living improv as they walk and talk, breaking into bits throughout the film, and they're still good. Mostly they share or have shared a believably shitty Brooklyn apartment. Miles sleeps in a loft bed, for example, next to pipes on which you would regularly bump your head. Bill and Allison share the apartment, and Jack and Sam have recently moved into an apartment in a brownstone that's probably supposed to be in Park Slope. If you know Brooklyn, Sam must be hauling in cash as a restaurant hostess, because their $5 ticket split and Jack's bike messenger job aren't paying that rent. If you know New York City restaurants, that's almost semi-conceivable. Sorry, maybe too inside baseball for non-New Yorkers.


Every improver's ultimate ambition is to be cast in a perfectly titled “fuck it, you all know what we're talking about” TV show, Weekend Live. The tension in the film starts here: two members of The Commune are called for auditions, and one is cast. Resentment and insecurity start to fracture the family in which they've entrenched themselves, and the comfort it provided starts rapidly eroding. Why wasn't it me? is the question posed by the rest of the troupe. Writing packets are scrabbled together to get on the show, taking advantage of their new connection, and awkward rejections and pressures on the newly-risen star, stemming from landing Weekend Live, crack the group further.

This act includes a particularly impressively written scene between two of the troupe. Birbiglia pulls off something I generally hate, the “we're not talking about the thing we're talking about” screenwriting 101 scene. This sort of writing usually comes off as forced and jars me out of the film, but an emotional scene acted out in improv (something I never expected to write) uses this trope to perfection.

Birbiglia's film is ultimately about family, though, and how one perseveres in its hard times. When they fight, they fight like family, attacking the most vulnerable spots that others know only if you let them get that close. You hurt each other and heal each other. When needed, you're there for each other, and that's what happens with The Commune. Spoiler: they come out through the other side. Relationships change, goals change, lives change, but the family survives. I highly recommend the film.

Saturday, October 8, 2016


Personal Shopper is tricky because on one hand it's beautiful to look at, it kind of romanticizes Europe in the way Americans love (the cafes, the trains, the architecture, etc) and we're seeing Olivier Assayas explore new territory in that he deals heavily with supernatural elements (parts of Personal Shopper felt like The Shining mixed with The Innkeepers...but with that unique almost uncategorizable Assayas touch). But this film could potentially come off a little empty to some (not to me, but to others). Personal Shopper is a slight return to the Demonlover/Boarding Gate-era Oliver Assayas that I love & missed so much. He teased this side of himself with last year's Clouds Of Sils Maria (my personal favorite film of 2015) but he's even more in touch with his Demonlover-esque self this time around. And while that's great for me, I completely understand if some folks roll their eyes at this one. Some of the characters are a little flat and/or uninteresting (while others, like "Ingo", played by Lars Eidinger are incredibly intriguing) and audiences may be thrown off by the mixture of a ghost story & a personal/intimate drama about loss. So while I enjoyed Personal Shopper overall (some parts are a little silly and Kristen Stewart's performance goes in & out being great to being almost self parodying) it's something I can't really defend if someone dislikes it.

In the film Kristen Stewart plays "Maureen" - a personal assistant to rich & famous people by day, , and a medium by night. She's still coping with the death of her twin brother Lewis and is waiting for some kind of a sign from him in the afterlife to assure her that he's at peace.
Eventually she's haunted/stalked by a nameless/unidentifiable entity that may or may not be Lewis.

I find it interesting that this is the second Assayas film where Kristen Stewart plays a personal assistant to a celebrity. Remember towards the end of Clouds Of Sils Maria where Stewart's "Valentine" suddenly disappears and we never see her again (kind of like how "Betty" disappears in Mulholland Drive just before "Rita" opens the blue box)? I like to imagine Valentine somehow took on a new identity and moved on to Personal Shopper (not only are both characters played by Stewart personal assistants, but they're also ex-pats with similar personalities).

I have to hand it to Olivier Assayas in that he really tried his hand at traditional scares & startling moments. He even had the nerve to throw in scary visual effects to simulate spooky ghosts (is this the first time Olivier Assayas has used visual effects to this extent?). I'm not sure if Personal Shopper is an "anti-ghost story" (...but with actual ghosts still) or if it's just a psychological thriller in the vein of a Roman Polanski film...

Personal Shopper/The Tenant
Personal Shopper/Rosemary's Baby

The only other issue I have with this movie (and others like it) isn't so much with the movie itself but with the inevitable dumb theories that are bound to come from it like with The Shining. While these theories are sometimes entertaining & well thought out, others are just plain dumb. I can see all the theories on Personal Shopper right now (kind of like that Clouds Of Sils Maria theory I just threw out earlier): "Everything was in her head all along" or "You notice how every scene where we see Kristen Stewart there's always a clock in the background set to midnight?!"

I still don't know what to fully make of this yet I did want to get some initial thoughts down while they're still fresh in my head. I will say that you'll more than likely be hearing about this again before the year is over. I'm not sure if this belongs in the honorable mention section or the "frustrating but rewarding" category in my end of the year wrap-up...

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


When Kelly Reichardt introduced her latest film to the audience at the 54th annual New York Film Festival she cited Chantal Akerman as a constant source of inspiration. After having watched Certain Women that makes perfect sense. While Reichardt's latest film is much louder than anything Chantal Akerman could ever make (in terms of ambient sounds & background noise), the dialogue is sometimes sparse and there's a lingering focus on banalities like chores & teeth brushing which is a strong characteristic of Akerman's work. I enjoyed Certain Women very much but if someone were to call it "boring" I don't know if I'd argue that. I just happen to like (well-crafted) "boring" movies sometimes. And if you're a fan of Reichardt's films then you'll more than likely enjoy this.

One of the best things about Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women is that even though it's an anthology film composed of three (separate) stories, they aren't really connected like so many of these kinds of films tend to be (sure there is one character that is constant throughout each story in a Steve Buschemi in Mystery Train kind of way but it's a minor-yet-major-yet-minor thing that's never really resolved and is only casually addressed).
I think we all know that "making everything connect" was a common plot device that many directors utilized between the late 80's (Mystery Train), throughout all of the 90's (Slacker, 71 Fragments..., Pulp Fiction, 2 Days In The Valley, etc), and in to the early 2000's (Code Unknown). Some directors were (and still are) good and/or great at making connections between they're ensemble players & multi-layered storylines (Linklater, Jarmusch, Haneke) but this plot device got a little old after almost two decades. Certain Women is the first anthology film to grab my attention in a long time because Reichardt kind of took the basic format (three stories concerning women at different stages in life) and stripped away all the "coolness" (Mystery Train), pop references (Pulp Fiction) and spurts of explosive violence (71 Fragments, Pulp Fiction, 2 Days In The Valley) and put her own unique touch on things.
The first story concerns a lawyer (Laura Dern) who's called in to defuse a hostage situation that one of her clients is responsible for.
The second story is about the rising marital issues/tension between a wife (Michelle Williams) & husband (James Legros) who are on the eve of building their dream home.
The final story focuses on the shy awkward (one-sided) attraction between a ranch-hand (Lily Gladstone) and a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart).

Besides the one character that loosely ties the three stories together, there are other (subconscious) connections - both Dern & Stewart are lawyers and every major female character is exhausted for one reason or another. But each story still stands on its own.

James Legros
This is Kelly Reichardt's first film utilizing the anthology/multiple storyline format so it's cool to see a 20+ year veteran try something new (what may be old to us may still be new for her). Certain Women also deals with new subject matter for Reichardt like romantic feelings under the umbrella of insecurity and/or uncertainty (Gladstone) and visible cracks in a marriage (Williams & Legros). James Legros & Michelle Williams have good chemistry and do a wonderful job at conveying the growing tension that can sometimes happen between two people in a marriage (although their circumstances are different than your "standard" marriage, their story still shows that no matter how "unconventional" a marriage may be, there's always going to be tension & resentment at some point). In my personal opinion, Kelly Reichardt & Michelle Williams make a great team (this is their third collaboration) and between Drugstore Cowboy & Safe to Living In Oblivion & Night Moves, James Legros should be considered an icon of modern American indie film at this point.

Lily Gladstone

Now...I don't mean to dismiss the majority of Certain Women because it really is just fine and serves its purpose but the final story concerning Lilly Gladstone & Kristen Stewart is the whole movie for me. Gladstone wears every insecure, anxious & scared emotion on her face like a seasoned veteran actor would yet she's a newcomer. Her performances as "Jamie" makes me wish there was a Netflix series about her character just doing chores and working up the courage to tell her crush how she really feels but never gets the opportunity to do so.

I'm still very much a "fixed" person. I like when personal favorite filmmakers of mine stick to what they're good/great at. Certain Women is still very much a standard Reichardt film no matter how much new/new-ish territory is explored (that's meant to be a complement rather than a criticism) - natural surroundings, fall season color palettes, minimalist/sparse guitar-based music score, female leads, etc.

Whether Kelly Reichardt realizes this or not - she is a cinematic voice for women in America. Would it have been nice to see a little more "diversity" in the cast? Absolutely. But I'm not gonna dwell on that too much (and it's not my movie). Certain Women's casting choices felt natural. And what makes Reichardt's exploration of womanhood & "femininity" so natural is that not all of her movies focus on women (both Old Joy & Night Moves are very male-driven). So when she does decide to focus on female characters it feels special.

Although I'd prefer a "Reichardt novice" start with something like Old Joy or Wendy & Lucy, I wouldn't be opposed to this being someone's introduction to her filmography (this is her most recognizable cast to date so it's bound to get a bigger audience in comparison to her previous work).


The Power Man & Ironfist of the podcast universe (myself & wrong reel host James Hancock came together to discuss the Luke Cage series and everything that comes along with it (comics, hip-hop, race, harlem, etc etc etc). I even held my iphone up to the microphone at one point to play a snippet of a gang starr song.


Monday, October 3, 2016


I was honored to be a guest on a recent episode of Criterion Close-Up (a podcast you should all be listening to if you aren't already) to discuss PINNLAND EMPIRE favorite Jim Jarmusch & his 1989 masterpiece Mystery Train.

Click here to go to/listen to the episode. Enjoy...


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