Review: Logan

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We all know that the concept of the “gritty reboot” is a little played out. (As soon as the internet starts meme-ing something, it’s never a good sign.) However, if ever there was a cinematic character who warranted some rougher and tougher reconsideration, it’s probably Wolverine. Enter: Logan.

Of course, Logan isn’t actually a reboot, considering Hugh Jackman has now been donning his Wolverine scowl for well over a decade and Logan marks director James Mangold’s second time tackling the character. But while some audience members may be growing fatigued by the Wolverine tale and have lost count of how many different X-Men-related films we’ve now seen him in, it’s also difficult to claim that Logan doesn’t feel like something quite different within the franchise. And when you’re bringing Wolverine-level familiarity to the already well-worn superhero genre, the fact that Logan can actually be described as “fresh” feels like a small miracle in and of itself.

Part of this does have to do with the film’s much-discussed R-rating, which Mangold and co. take full advantage of when it comes to the violence. However, while it’s fun to hear Wolverine drop a few well-placed f-bombs and the brutal fight scenes are stunningly directed, I’d argue that the film doesn’t really need its R. The film is otherwise rather understated and actually features a lot of downtime, so in one sense I can understand why Mangold wanted to throw in a few spirited beheadings to keep restless audience members alert, but the result is that it ends up feeling a bit inconsistent in tone.

Rather, the thing that truly sets Logan apart is its focus on character. Logan and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) get fully-formed arcs, and Mangold and his fellow screenwriters leave room to show the toll that time has taken on their characters. It’s a melancholy, often pessimistic meditation on morality, tackling themes of regret and vulnerability. Most superhero movies don’t even try to wade into anything with a bit of emotional heft, or when they do, it just feels woefully cursory. (Here’s looking at you, Captain America: Civil War.) By contrast, Logan revels both in its meditative tendencies, and the considerable emotional range of its pair of lead actors, who have never been better within the X-Men franchise.

However, even Jackman and Stewart can’t completely smooth over the film’s flaws, which aren’t massive but do prevent the film from truly transcending superhero tropes. To start with, Mangold can’t seem to resist throwing in a hammy, undeveloped villain who this time around comes in the form of Boyd Holbrook’s Pierce. (If you want to see Holbrook do some truly fantastic work in a gritty, small-town America cinematic setting, check out 2015’s underrated indie Little Accidents. But he’s sadly all scenery chewing and “quirk” here, ultimately amounting to a character of no substance.) And while there’s something to be said for a deliberate pace, this movie does feel overly long at 135 minutes; by the time we reach the end it feels fairly inevitable (though still affecting), and I think the film would be all the stronger if we could have gotten there 20 minutes sooner.

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to get sucked in by the surprising pathos of Logan in spite of its flaws, and while it may not be entirely revolutionary, it is a refreshing detour. Hopefully it’s a sign of the direction more franchises will start to take.

Review: O.J.: Made in America

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Prior to watching O.J.: Made in America, I believed I had a general understanding of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I was a very young child when it all played out, so I hadn’t experienced it as it was happening, but I’d since gleaned the necessary information through pop culture and references that came up in conversation. Or so I thought.

As I quickly found out after starting Ezra Edelman’s nearly 8-hour documentary, I knew only the very faintest outline of the major events surrounding the case. And every time I’d heard the trial and verdict mentioned, it was usually cloaked in the assumption that O.J. was guilty. Now, after completing O.J.: Made in America, I do still believe that he committed the murder. However, the path that I took to come to that conclusion is now both far better-informed and a hell of a lot murkier.

So that’s where I was at going in to O.J. Admittedly, I think my ignorance on the subject made the viewing experience more “exciting”. For someone who knows the ins and outs of the case or who followed the trial through its excruciatingly long duration, there obviously aren’t going to be as many surprises. Yet, I found that the most interesting part of O.J. was not following every twist and turn in the narrative (and, indeed, I’m sure everyone watching at the very least knows the ultimate outcome of the story) but in discovering the context that surrounded it all and contributed to the result.

Edelman does a fantastic job of providing background both in regards to O.J.’s life and to the social climate in Los Angeles at the time. The murder isn’t even addressed until a full three hours into the movie, and Edelman spends the time leading up to that essentially setting the scene for how and why things happened like they did He delves into the extreme racial tension plaguing L.A., which was still fresh off the heels of Rodney King and questions of ongoing police brutality. And while much of this might not be new information to the viewer, it is illuminating to see it all laid out at once, and it makes the ultimate trajectory of the trial a lot more comprehensible.

The film’s rich cast of interview subjects also greatly enhance the story, providing perspective from just about every angle imaginable. Yes, there are a few key players missing – most notably, Simpson himself – but Edelman more than makes up for that by speaking at length to the people who knew the ultimately unknowable O.J. the best; childhood friends, teammates, business associates, reporters, prosecutors, defense lawyers, jurors, and family members of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman all weigh in. Their responses to O.J. are as diverse as the public’s, ultimately offering no easy answers but making the story all the more fascinating and complex. And Edelman clearly has a knack for interviews, highlighting the more colourful side of more than a few of his subjects and drawing out a few tidbits in regards to O.J. that are truly damning, if true. (Which, as the film silently suggests throughout, sometimes may not actually be the case.)

Among the film’s many other rich themes, that question of truth and obfuscation permeates the narrative at every turn. In seamlessly pieced-together archival footage, we see many different sides of O.J., some of them downright charming. The whole first segment of the film (if you choose to watch it in its more easily digestible five-part format) presents O.J.’s college days and his early pro football career, and it’s easy to get swept up in that story and almost completely forget what is to come.

To that end, Edelman brings such a sense of empathy to the film that none of the subjects are portrayed as truly unlikeable or unsympathetic, even as some of them seem to uncontrollably offer up questionable views or speak of their involvement in the more unsavoury aspects of O.J.’s past. For example, O.J.’s longtime agent, Mike Gilbert (one of the film’s most fascinating and candid subjects), provides information that paints himself in questionable light as much as it does O.J. At one point, somewhat bafflingly, Gilbert admits that he always thought O.J. was guilty yet remained close with him. He seems to suggest that he would have been fine with the idea of O.J. committing second-degree murder, but his realization that it may have been premeditated was apparently the thing that was a bridge too far. It’s revelations like this – all tied into people’s murky motivations, self-interest, and damage – that complicate the story, even if you’re operating under the assumption that O.J. is indeed guilty.

Edelman knows how to craft a documentary that rises far above standard true crime fare, weaving in endless nuance to subject matter that you’d expect to be too well-worn to offer much interest. 467 minutes may sound long, but rather than feeling drawn-out, O.J.: Made in America feels like the perfect length for Edelman’s expansive scope. As the title suggests, Simpson was indeed the product of that fabled “American dream”, and without ever feeling heavy-handed, Edelman understatedly crafts perhaps a truly perfect argument to why that promised “dream” may ultimately be false.

My 10 Favourite Films of 2016

It’s that time of year again. And maybe for the first time ever, I’ve managed to get my list out before January 1st (albeit just barely). There are some films I really wanted to catch up with before making a top 10 (Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women, Jackie, 20th Century Women), but I’m willing to “settle” for the 10 fantastic films I’ve already seen. So let’s get on with it.

Very honourable mentions go to Little Men, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Invitation, Dheepan, The Bad Kids, and Green Room.

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10. Hell or High Water

Director David Mackenzie took the grit and depiction of uneasy male family ties from his last picture, 2014’s Starred Up, and translated it into something that has had surprising resonance with American audiences with Hell or High Water. A lot of reviewers have honed in on the film’s geographic and economic perspective and dubbed it as something of “a film for Trump’s America” and while I see that argument, I think it sells the film short, or at least distorts some of the points that McKenzie is making. But even setting politics and social messages aside, Hell or High Water feels undeniably timely and reworks tropes of the western genre into something that feels fresh, which is no easy feat. Ben Foster and Chris Pine smolder on screen in just the right ways, and when the film kicks its plot into high gear, it’s both wildly exciting and an example of filmmaking at its finest.

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9. The Edge of Seventeen

John Hughes comparisons have run rampant with this debut feature from writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, and while I usually like to play the contrarian, I have to agree that The Edge of Seventeen is like a more modern and – dare I say it – more intelligent version of an ‘80s Molly Ringwald flick. The Edge of Seventeen perfectly captures the confusing, exhilarating, gross, and frustrating feelings that come along with being a teenage girl. Protagonist Nadine (played by a truly fantastic Hailee Steinfeld) is frequently unlikeable, but also thoroughly relatable. Her behaviour may not be excusable, but it is understandable, and Craig’s film explores how we can better relate to the people around us at any age. It’s heartfelt but never treacly, and funny but certainly never disposable.

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8. Paterson

Paterson is the sort of strange, plotless movie that seems like it would embody all the worst stereotypes of about indie film. But with Jim Jarmusch directing and Adam Driver starring this film that is seemingly about nothing becomes something quite moving and almost haunting, in a way. Driver plays the titular Paterson, a bus driver in a small New Jersey town also called Paterson. (This is what I mean when I say the film should be thoroughly annoying.) Paterson explores this man’s simple life, his poetic aspirations, and his relationships, all amounting to a quiet yet memorable entry from Jarmusch. I hadn’t been sold on Driver’s abilities on the big screen, but he more than proves himself here, giving a complicated and layered portrayal to a character who could have been quite flat in the hands of a less sensitive performer.

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7. 10 Cloverfield Lane

I can’t overstate how thrilled I was to encounter a big franchise film that is essentially a three-person chamber play. The fact that it made over $100 million at the box office is just icing on the cake, and I can only hope that it’ll encourage more blockbusters like this. And financial successes aside, I found 10 Cloverfield Lane completely gripping. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg makes the most of the film’s claustrophobic setting and his fantastic trio of actors, perfectly crafting tension at every turn. Some people had a problem with the film’s third act, and while I don’t necessarily think the film NEEDED to go the direction it did, I understand WHY it did, and I found that part of the story compelling, too. More exciting leading roles for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, please.

6. The Wait

I’m still sad that The Wait has gone largely unnoticed this year, lovely and quietly complicated as it is. Co-leads Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage are completely enchanting to watch together on screen, and the careful direction from director Pietro Messina only adds more glorious tension to this simmering film. So much goes unspoken in The Wait, but it’s all the more powerful because of it.

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5. A Bigger Splash

I think about A Bigger Splash possibly more than any other film I saw this year, and it continues to only goes up in my estimation on reflection. It’s not perfect and it’s definitely wacky as hell, but there’s something about it that really worked for me. Maybe it’s just Ralph Fiennes’ dance moves. Who knows. In any case, I think this is a film that’s sly in its social commentary, surprisingly moving, and a fantastic acting showcase for all four leads involved. Check it out if you haven’t already.

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4. Arrival

I don’t think Arrival is as smart as a lot of people say it is. It utilizes some clunky narrative devices, and I wish some of its plot points were less “movie trope-y” than they are. I don’t even think it perfectly hits all the emotional notes it goes for. But here’s the thing: I don’t think I saw a more beautiful film this year. Dennis Villeneuve’s sci-fi vision feels like the sort of movie I’ve always wanted to see. (Blade Runner 2049, please come faster.) It does feel a little bit stuck in between a blockbuster and Villeneuve’s more arty instincts. But I’m glad that a movie like this is getting shown in multiplexes and being seen by a wide audience. Thanks to Amy Adams’ brilliantly soulful performance, it has Villeneuve’s signature character-propelled core that have also elevated Prisoners and Sicario above the genre fare they could have otherwise fallen into. I love his twist on genre expectations, and Arrival is a particularly beautiful example at that.

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3. Moonlight

This is the film that’s on every one of these damn lists, and here it is on mine. I had the opportunity to see Moonlight just before it screened publicly at Telluride or TIFF, so I was able to go in without expectations. What I found was a beautifully shot, uniquely structured, and wonderfully empathetic film. There is an elegance to Moonlight that is rare. Director Barry Jenkins unfurls the story so well that by the time the final third rolls around and Andre Holland (in my opinion, the standout performance of the film, though Mahershala Ali is also fantastic) shows up to charm the hell out of everyone, you feel like you’ve properly experienced the main character’s life along with him. I’m thrilled that the response to Moonlight has been so enthusiastic, and I’m keen to revisit it.

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2. Blue Jay

So here we are at our final two spots. And first comes the film that was both one of the funniest and probably the single most moving movie I saw all year. Blue Jay was such a beautiful, heartfelt film. I absolutely adored it, and while I feel like I can’t succinctly articulate why, I attempted to do so at more length in my full review of it. It’s on Netflix now. Please seek it out.

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1. Louder Than Bombs

So I still have the same #1 film as I did when I made my mid-year list? How boring, I know. But nothing topped Joachim Trier’s English-language debut for me. It is a simple story, and could be boiled down to “white people problems” for some. But I found Trier’s examination of a family dysfunction so honest. It is both quietly brutal yet strangely hopeful. This is one of the few examples of the genre that manages to strike that balance, never falling into mopey melodrama or twee sentimentality. It feels honest – almost mundanely so – yet completely riveting from start to finish.

10 Modern Horror Movies for People Who Hate Horror Movies

Not everyone likes horror films, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re wimpy or a film snob (y’know, unless you are), and maybe it’s just not your thing. But like any genre, there’s enough diversity that you can probably still find something you like, so long as you’re looking in the right place.

So, I’ve assembled a list of 10 films that I’d recommend to people who don’t typically like horror films. Most of these are films that really value character development, which is something that I need in order to get invested in a horror film. They’re artfully made while still being thrilling and suspenseful, and who knows? Maybe they’ll work for you as an entry point into the genre.

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The Mist (2007)

The horror genre is full of Stephen King adaptations, but if The Shining or It don’t appeal, try The Mist, an adaptation of a 1984 King novella. The film is about a small town that becomes enveloped by a thick, monster-filled mist (the worst kind!) and the group of survivors who get trapped inside a grocery store and must fight off the encroaching threat from outside. Written and directed by Frank Darabont, The Mist is as much about the interpersonal dynamics going on inside the store as it is about monsters destroying everything in their path, and the film is all the stronger for it. Darabont perfectly combines B-movie camp with more thoughtful filmmaking here, and viewers who appreciate a helping of character development alongside their gory kills (which The Mist also offers, though not in completely gratuitous quantity) will likely appreciate this eerie sci-fi gem.

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Funny Games (1997)

Sometimes the scariest thing of all doesn’t come in the form of alien invasions or werewolves, but in learning exactly what other human beings are capable of. And boy, does Michael Haneke dive headfirst into that concept with Funny Games. The film follows a family that get visited at their vacation home by two seemingly polite young men who invite themselves in and proceed to subject the family to a string of sadistic “games” just because they can. And as you can probably guess, Funny Games is pretty disturbing. However, Haneke doesn’t go overboard on the gore, keeping the worst of the violence off-screen. Instead, he offers a deconstruction of the horror film genre that’s actually extremely thoughtful and clever. Haneke also directed a shot-for-shot English remake in 2007 that stars Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt, which (since it’s basically the same movie) is also quite good.

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Let the Right One In (2008)

This creepy, chilly Swedish vampire flick was a surprise crossover hit among critics and arthouse crowds in the United States, and with good reason. (It also inspired the 2010 English-language remake, Let Me In. And an upcoming TV reboot on TNT. But let’s not talk about either of those things.) Director Tomas Alfredson combined coming-of-age tropes with some quietly shocking vampire violence, and the result is something that feels unique and artful within the often repetitive horror genre.

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28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic zombie-outbreak thriller is just pretty much perfect from start to finish. It takes the hearty DNA of Night of the Living Dead and adapts it to the 21st century, creating a gritty sci-fi tale with a surprising emotional core. It’s career-best work for Cillian Murphy and as far as Boyle’s filmography goes, I’d put it right at the top of the list – yes, even above Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. If you’re squeamish, know that while the film doesn’t pull its punches, it also doesn’t go overboard with the gore. Instead it puts the focus on its characters, its social allegory, and its bleakly beautiful art direction.

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Frozen (2010)

Not being a huge horror fan myself (hence the creation of this list), I find that one horror subgenre that I’m uncharacteristically drawn to is “survival horror”. A lot of films can arguably fall under heading, but one that pretty much defines the label is 2010’s Frozen. (Insert your “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” jokes here.) The film follows three friends who, through an unfortunate string of human errors, find themselves trapped on a ski lift and must use their (sometimes really questionable) brainpower to try and survive. That’s it. And it’s actually really interesting. Granted it’s not perfect – the tropes are a little too plentiful and the dialogue could use some work – but at its heart, it’s a tightly constructed little one-location movie. I’m not sure if any of its three leads are actually good actors, but they sell the material, and I’ll applaud the guts of any horror filmmaker that makes their film without supernatural elements or, hell, even an antagonist.

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Near Dark (1987)

Vampires and Tangerine Dream! Yeah! Kathryn Bigelow’s first film has aged just the right amount in the nearly 30 years since its release. Though the film plays it straight, I didn’t find it particular “scary”, but it’s moody as heck and it has a nice sense of atmosphere that feels simultaneously very ‘80s and very ephemeral. It’s a good entry point for non-Twilight vampire films, and also a nice opportunity to glimpse what Bigelow was up to before she started winning Oscars.

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The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods is a film that a lot of horror buffs love, but while it certainly rewards a thorough knowledge of the genre, I think it’s also quite accessible to horror neophytes. Everyone is familiar with at least some of the clichés that the film takes aim at, and its satirical nature helps to offset some of the “horror” that’s being presented on screen. It’s a bit scary and definitely a bit gory, but The Cabin in the Woods is mostly fun. It’s also so madcap that it deserves to be seen if for no other reason than to experience the wonderful, bizarre directions that Joss Whedon’s screenplay takes.

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The Awakening (2012)

A distinct, well-executed atmosphere can make a film. And The Awakening has atmosphere in spades. The film is set in the 1920s and follows a female ghost-hunter (played by Rebecca Hall) who is out to debunk rumours of a little boy who haunts an English boarding school. While The Awakening may not offer much that hasn’t already been explored in the “ghost story” genre, its story is engaging and its visual style is absolutely stunning. Hall, too, is fantastic, turning in the sort of confident, captivating performance that helps to elevate the film’s sometimes silly story. I will throw in a disclaimer that of all the films on the list, this might be the most standard “horror” film. So if you really can’t stand jump scares, maybe stay away (though for the most part here they’re executed well and don’t feel cheap, and the film also has the bonus of being light on gore).

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Dead Ringers (1988)

After his gross-out early days but before his union with Robert Pattinson, Cronenberg had the wise idea to cast Jeremy Irons in a dual role as creepy twins in this twisted psychological thriller. Being a Cronenberg film, it’s hard to really describe Dead Ringers, and it’s actually probably best to go in as blind as possible. This one might be a good option for those who maybe don’t like the classic horror tropes but like films with a creepy atmosphere. Because Dead Ringers fits the bill. Gynecology has never been scarier, and that’s saying a lot.

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The Invitation (2016)

Is this a horror film? Is it just a thriller? Doesn’t matter! The Invitation is tense and creepy, building to an inevitable finale, but making the ride to get there feel narratively rich in the process. This is a film that takes its sweet time, carefully setting up the interpersonal dynamics between a group of people who have been invited to a dinner party that gradually gets more and more unsettling. Logan Marshall-Green can finally stop just being known as “Wait, Is That Tom Hardy?”, turning in an unexpectedly nuanced performance here as the film’s severely troubled protagonist. If you’re easily frightened by traditional horror movies and don’t like jump scares, this could be a really good alternative, because while it is suspenseful, it’s not really ~scary, per se. Instead, it’s an interesting character drama that relies largely on character reveals and misdirection for its thrills, rather than a lot of outright horror elements.

Review: Blue Jay

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Blue Jay is, in some ways, a very simple film. With just two actors on screen for almost the entire runtime, a black-and-white colour palette, and an almost non-existent narrative, it’s a masterclass in barebones cinema. Think of a quiet, low-budget indie film. Now think of a film even more stripped down than that, and you have something approximating Blue Jay.

However, it’s also a film that is a bit difficult to describe. The plot is simple – two former high school sweethearts, Jim and Amanda, unexpectedly meet again 20 years later and spend a day catching up – but the reason it’s actually interesting is much more complicated to define.

A big part of the reason is lead actors Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson, who imbue their performances with such lived-in believability that you never question Jim and Amanda’s past together, or why they’d be intrigued at the prospect of hanging out again. There is an immediate tenderness to the pair’s chemistry that allows the viewer to buy in to their shared past and also nicely lends credence to some later plot reveals about why the pair’s teenage romance fell apart in the first place.

Another thing the film certainly has going for it is the Duplass touch. Blue Jay is the first of four films that Mark Duplass and his brother Jay are producing for Netflix, and Mark also wrote the script. It has the same micro-melancholy feel of other Duplass brother joints, such as 2012’s Jeff Who Lives at Home and 2011’s Cyrus. But while the brothers directed those other two films themselves, Blue Jay is actually the debut narrative directorial effort from cinematographer Alex Lehmann. By the Duplasses handing over the directing duties to someone who, frankly, has a much stronger eye for composition and cinematography than they do, Blue Jay has a visual beauty that their other films have lacked. The black-and-white cinematography is clean and surprisingly unobtrusive, lending the film a bit of extra, albeit gentle, emotional heft.

Blue Jay has an emotional core that feels genuinely melancholy without ever being melodramatic or self-pitying. It’s the little character touches – for example, Jim’s tendency to cry at nearly anything versus Amanda’s unshakable reserve – that make them feel like real people with a full life’s worth of history, rather than characters created solely for the purpose of a self-contained film. The filmmakers tap into something authentic and intimate in a way that is rarely captured on screen.

The film bound to draw comparisons to Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, and there is a “walk and talk” quality to Blue Jay that makes the comparison apt, as does the film’s limited timeframe. However, while Linklater’s trilogy is full of acerbic dialogue between its two notably articulate protagonists, Blue Jay revels in its own regularity. The conversations between Jim and Amanda feel like discussions anyone could have. That’s not to say that they’re banal, but the film’s emphasis on improvisation allows Duplass and Paulson to explore in a way that feels very natural. The result is something that feels a little less polished, but perhaps all the more emotionally raw because of it.

The old “I laughed, I cried” cliché has maybe never been more true for me than it was with Blue Jay. It’s a film rich in universal truths and an almost indescribable sadness, despite the fact that it comes in such a charming package, courtesy of Duplass and Paulson’s on-screen chemistry. It’s a small film, but don’t let it pass you by.