A young woman shocks Adèle when she matter-of-factly talks about other women in a sexual way. Adèle tries to play it cool – we know she’s into girls – but there is a tiny flare of excitement on her face. The conversation could be banal, but it plays out with aching tension, and the young woman’s subsequent rejection of Adèle is heartbreaking precisely because it’s all-too-true. Blue Is the Warmest Color, the Palme d’Or winning drama about Adèle and the woman she meets next, brims with honesty and affection for its subject. This long romance is affecting in spite of Abdellatif Kechiche’s direction, not because of it, and that’s never more apparent than during its much-discussed explicit sex scene.
Ender’s Game is the rare kind of science fiction where character development is more intriguing than interstellar space battle. Based on the award-winning novel by the controversial author Orson Scott Card, writer/director Gavin Hood’s adaptation stays true to the source material, even if it trims some important details. Still, the core story about a young genius’ ascent from outsider to military commander is still intact, and Hood hits all the right emotional beats. It is no small task since the limits of the medium force Hood and his cast to find other ways to show what, precisely, Ender is thinking. During the crucial final minutes, it’s as if external forces constrain Hood’s vision. The ambition is there, but perhaps the resources are not.
It is easy to forget the sudden tonal shift that happens in the middle of Romeo and Juliet. The first half is practically a comedy – Romeo’s lines border on self-parody when he describes his misguided affection for Rosaline, and Shakespeare cannily shapes Juliet’s innocence around her age – and then the characters’ apparent free will gives way to a sense of upending doom. The challenge for actors and directors is then to handle the transition so that it feels organic; everyone knows how Romeo and Juliet, this is true, but a strong production earns the ending instead of relying on the plot to do the heavy lifting. Aaron Posner’s production of Romeo and Juliet is emotionally rich because it’s physically demanding, so gestures and movement have just as much meaning as the words.
When I was growing up, “Brown Sugar” was my favorite song by The Rolling Stones. Part of the reason was exposure - Sticky Fingers was one of the few albums my parents had by the Stones, and I liked the novelty of its zipper album cover – but it had something else I couldn’t quite articulate. Years later I learned that the band traveled to Alabama for the album’s distorted, groovy sound, yet I had no idea that particular area of the South had such a rich musical history. The documentary Muscle Shoals uncovers how one small town is uniquely responsible for so much of America’s best pop music. There are fascinating anecdotes and warmhearted memories from a progressive workplace, yet it spins its wheels when its talking heads navel-gaze a little too much.
Steve McQueen is a coolly relentless filmmaker. With his first two films, Hunger and Shame, the camera would linger on his subject so the audience could fully grasp the physical and psychological ordeal they were going through. McQueen focused on people more than their surroundings – backgrounds were required but not exactly necessary – and so his latest is far more ambitious. 12 Years a Slave is about men, women, and the ugliness around them. His subject is more ambitious, too: he coolly documents all the dehumanizing agony of the American slave trade, all the way from imprisonment to eventual (unlikely) freedom. Many moments are difficult to watch – at the screening I attended, there were walk-outs – but his deliberate style is perfect matched for this historical drama.
John Hodgman was mostly known as a writer, actor, and humorist. His goal was to “provoke raised eyebrows and low chuckles for the smarty-pant set.” Most people know Hodgman because of his irregular segments on The Daily Show, his “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” ads for Apple, and his role as Louis Greene on the HBO series Bored to Death. He’s also an accomplished author, with a trilogy of books that purport to contain “complete world knowledge” (they don’t). Recently Hodgman transitioned from something resembling stand-up comedy to actual stand-up comedy: he no longer reads from a script, improvises on stage, and does snobby crowd work. This transition culminated in the Netflix special RAGNAROK, in which he berates children, performs with a ukelele, and sits with jars of piss on stage (among other things).
Hodgman is taking his stand-up act on tour with fellow comedians Eugene Mirman and Kirsten Schaal. They call it the “MirmanHodgmanSchaal Sandwich To Go Tour,” and tomorrow they’re performing at DC’s Lisner Auditorium. I recent spoke with Hodgman over the phone about robots, esoteric eyewear, and my ability to shape reality.