Saturday, February 27, 2021

Earwig from EARWIG AND THE WITCH. Courtesy of GKIDS.

EARWIG AND THE WITCH
(Goro Miyazaki, HBO Max)

Studio Ghibli's first computer animated film, Earwig and the Witch, arrives courtesy of none other than Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary anime filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki. By all reports, the younger Miyazaki's embracing of CGI over traditional hand-drawn animation, a major departure for Ghibli, was something of an intentional repudiation of his father's style, even inspiring the elder Miyazaki to come out of retirement to make a new film. But if Earwig and the Witch is any indication, he has nothing to worry about, because it's easily one of the worst films in Ghibli's storied history.


Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones (whose novel, "Howl's Moving Castle," once inspired one of the elder Miyazaki's films), Earwig and the Witch finds a young girl plucked from an orphanage to become a witch's apprentice, only to discover her own magical history. It's an intriguing enough premise, but the film spends so much time in the witch's lab that the movie spins its wheels for its entire second act. The animation itself is deeply unattractive, as if Miyazaki simply tried to copy the traditional 2-D hand drawn style into 3-D, and the result is blocky and bland and best, wholly off-putting at worst. Without the heart and soul that defined his father's films, the younger Miyazaki is left with an empty product that has all the ingredients of a successful Ghibli film with seemingly no idea how to put them together.


GRADE - ★½ (out of four)


DENZEL WASHINGTON as Joe “Deke” Deacon and JARED LETO as Albert Sparma and in Warner Bros. Pictures’ psychological thriller “THE LITTLE THINGS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

THE LITTLE THINGS (John Lee Hancock, HBO Max)

John Lee Hancock's serial killer drama, The Little Things , was written in the 1990s, and it shows in all the worst ways. It owes a lot to The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps the decade's quintessential serial killer text, but lacks that film's elegance and psychological depth. Denzel Washington stars as a former detective turned beat cop who is haunted by an unsolved murder from his past. But a new string of killings brings back painful memories as he begins to sense a connection, and his obsession threatens to spill over to the new detective (Rami Malek) who sets his sights on a new suspect (Jared Leto), and seeks to take him down at all costs.


Washington is solid in a world-weary performance, while Leto is Leto and Malek is entirely miscast as a hard-boiled detective with rage issues. The whole thing has the sheen of a prestige drama (the cast, the cinematography, the Thomas Newman score), but it can never escape its potboiler roots. AAnd by the time it throws in the twist ending with its thematic undercurrents of police misconduct making them their own worst enemies, (a refreshing but awkwardly executed idea) it's difficult to muster up the energy to care about any of it. Leto has gotten a lot of the flak for this film (probably because his performance has somehow been elevated to an awards contender due to the skewed eligibility calendar this year), but it's Malek who sticks out the most. He's all wrong for the character, his bouts of rage coming off more like childish hissy fits, but he's so over-the-top at the end that the film loses what little credibility it had left.


GRADE - ★½ (out of four)


MALCOLM & MARIE (L-R): ZENDAYA as MARIE, JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON as MALCOLM. NETFLIX © 2021

MALCOLM & MARIE (Sam Levinson, Netflix)

Made during COVID-19 lockdowns, Sam Levinson's Malcolm & Marie has all the makings of a directorial vanity project, following a young filmmaker named Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), as they emotionally brutalize each other after returning home from a film premiere in which Malcolm heavily borrowed from Marie's life. 


Aesthetically, it's beautiful. Shot in grainy black and white, Malcolm & Marie often feels like a much deeper film than it really is. Washington and Zendaya are aces, but the fine performances can't mask the fact this doesn't really have much to say. The actors are trapped in an insular, often self-indulgent conceit that plays like a college theater acting exercise, filled with lots of yelling and high emotions that feel fabricated and, yes, inauthentic. The much-ballyhooed anti-critic rant that caused so many waves on Film Twitter isn't as bad as reported, since as Washington's character is very clearly written as a self-absorbed blowhard, but the musings on what it means to be a black filmmaker and dismissal of the concept of the male gaze seem misplaced coming from a white male writer. Levinson is doing his best Cassavetes impersonation here, but the characters' self-sabotaging conflict goes from 0-60 back to 0-60 again so frequently that there's no arc. There are striking moments here but they're hampered by the erratic rhythms. The emotional whiplash completely undercuts the drama and never really allows us to settle into the characters or their relationships. In short, it feels rushed - often betraying its own quarantine roots as the first draft of a concept in desperate need of some revision and finesse.


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh, Courtesy of A24

Lee Isaac Chung is one of those under-the-radar filmmakers who has yet to be receive the recognition he deserves. His debut film, Munyurangabo (2009), was one of the best films of the 2000s, but received little attention, so it is gratifying to see his latest film, Minari, receive widespread praise from critics and even a great deal of awards buzz to go along with it, so far racking up nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. 


Minari is certainly the most mainstream film Chung has directed, but that's a testament to the universally recognizable story that it tells. Focusing on a family of Korean immigrants who move to Arkansas establish their own farm and make their own way in the world, the film turns Chung's own childhood experiences into a uniquely American tale of hardship and personal triumph that is the very picture of the ideal of the "American dream." Steven Yeun stars as Jacob, the pater familias who is plucking away at someone else's chicken farm, dreaming of running his own some day, so he purchases a piece of land in the middle of nowhere with a ramshackle mobile home, and uproots his family to make the dream a reality. His wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri) is unhappy with the move and misses their own home, and 7-year-old David (Alan Kim) and his little sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) are bored, which gets David into trouble. 


But David also has a series of health problems, leading the family to invite grandmother Soonja (regular Hong Sangsoo collaborator Youn Yuh-jung) to move from Korea to come help raise the family. While Jacob takes on the Sisyphean task of turning his barren land into the farm of his dreams (with the aid of Will Patton's holy roller neighbor) causing rifts in his marriage, David butts heads with Soonja, whose old style of parenting soon reveals a deep and unexpected connection between American David and his more traditional Korean grandmother.


Minari is a film about family connections, and Chung weaves them slowly, almost effortlessly, over the course of the film, creating a seemingly organic narrative whose emotional undercurrents hit unexpectedly. It's languidly paced, and almost defiantly plotless, but that's precisely what makes it so special. Chung has crafted a deeply personal ode to his family and his roots, and in the process delivered a film about the immigrant experience that feels profoundly universal. Buoyed by Emile Mosseri's delicate score (who is quickly becoming one of the most interesting up and coming film composers after his stellar work on 2019's The Last Black Man in San Francisco), Minari sometimes feels like the hazy recollections of a dream, made up of memories of childhood floating back in a kind of nostalgic reverie. Yet Chung doesn't shy away from the challenges and hardships of the American immigrant experience, and that makes the small victories feel all the more profound. While this may not be representative of the experience of all immigrants, Chung finds common ground in the bonds of family and uses it as a window into collective hopes and dreams. It's the kind of film whose emotional power only grows in retrospect, its most indelible moments springing from the seemingly mundane moments of life that you didn't realize were so important until they were in the past. That is the unique and subtle power of Minari, an altogether lovely film whose grace notes linger in the air long after the music has stopped playing.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


MINARI | Directed by Lee Isaac Chung | Stars Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho | Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and a rude gesture | Now playing in select theaters.

ARRELL BRITT-GIBSON as Bobby Rush, DANIEL KALUUYA as Chairman Fred Hampton and ASHTON SANDERS as Jimmy Palmer in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

One of the most high profile casualties of the Civil Rights movement, Black Panther and radical socialist Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was assassinated in 1969 in a raid conducted by the FBI and Chicago PD. His death remains a touchstone for the black liberation movement, and yet another in a litany of examples of police conspiring and using violence against black people. Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah  chronicles Hampton's rise and fall through the eyes of Bill O'Neill (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty criminal turned FBI informant who helped infiltrate the Black Panthers in order to keep himself out of jail for Grand Theft Auto. The film is simultaneously about Hampton's rise as a major force in black America, and the emotional and psychological toll on O'Neill by selling his soul to the police, becoming the Judas to Hampton's black messiah.


King, who previously only had one feature film credit to his name (2013's little-seen Newlyweeds), directs with the kind of verve that occasionally recalls early Spike Lee. Judas and the Black Messiah is raw, energetic; a ferocious howl of rage, filled with the fire of revolution and the pain of betrayal, and progress undercut by weaponized whiteness. It's rare for a major studio film to deal so frankly with radical socialism, especially in such a positive light, that one almost wishes King had delved deeper into what Hampton was fighting for on a more macro scale. It's thrilling to see the Black Panther party portrayed as the leftist organization that it truly was, focusing on mutual aid and creating a better world for black people, rather than the violent, terrorist organization it was made out to be by the American government. 


Naturally, past is present, to paraphrase an old saying, and like many historical dramas, it positions its story as a commentary on current events, specifically the ongoing struggle for black liberation through the Black Lives Matter movement, and the film makes clear that the police are the militarized guardians of the status quo, dividing and conquering rather than serving and protecting. Kaluuya is as incredible as you've likely heard, but Stanfield is quietly heartbreaking as a man who sold his soul and gained nothing. The toll of upholding white supremacy hangs like a heavy weight on his shoulders, and it shows constantly behind his eyes.


Yet the film falls victim to an issue that plagued the similarly themed The Trial of the Chicago 7 in that it takes a radical subject and places it within the confines of a typical Hollywood narrative. While Judas and the Black Messiah is certainly a stronger film than Aaron Sorkin's Oscar hopeful, it's difficult not to wish this was bolder and more uncompromising. It's certainly bruising, and brimming with a righteous fury, but that fury has nowhere to go within the confines of its classical Hollywood formalism. You can feel it wanting to break free, to scream at the heavens and unleash its howl of anger at the injustice on display, but it seems to hold back and pull its punches; confined, like O'Neill, by a mold placed upon it by the establishment. But despite the dichotomy between form and content, it's difficult to shake the story the film tells, and the conviction with which it is told. Rather than simply recounting a historical event in a Hollywood vacuum, it offers a tantalizing (if imperfect) window into what the path forward from our current injustices might actually look like. 


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH | Stars Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith | Rated R for violence and pervasive language | Now playing in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

Monday, February 01, 2021


The harrowing border crossing from Mexico into the United States has been the subject of much debate for years, a controversy escalated by Donald Trump's "build the wall" campaign platform during the 2016 election and beyond. Yet for all the talk radio bloviating and xenophobic panics about "migrant caravans" that have highlighted the issue from the American side, we in the States rarely get to see things from the Mexican point of view. 


Enter Fernanda Valadez's savage Identifying Features, a gut-wrenching examination of the dangers of illegal border crossings that's framed almost as a horror movie. The film traces the journey of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), a woman searching desperately for her teenage son who attempted to make the crossing into the US with a friend to find work, only to vanish along the way. Working with the police becomes a nightmare - so many are lost along the crossing, leaving only small items behind, lost to hunger, bandits, or murderous gangs, that local authorities are left with few clues and even fewer resources to track down the leads. So Magdalena takes it upon herself to find her beloved Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela); her journey will lead her into the heart of darkness, accompanied by a young migrant worker named Miguel (David Illescas), searching  for his mother after being deported from the US. They become something akin to surrogate family for each other on their journey, but the answers they find may ultimately be more terrifying than the pain of not knowing the fates of their loved ones.


The picture Identifying Features paints is almost unrelentingly bleak, but it's nothing if not consistently compelling. Valadez's border is a vast, unknowable wasteland, where the risk of a crossing isn't worth the "reward" to be found on the other side. Valadez offers no solutions or musings on the politics of immigration, and instead focused on the tragedy of those lost in an attempt to find a better life, chasing a promise of prosperity that ultimately turns out to be in vain. Its austerity achieves almost abstract levels, with Valadez finding a kind of grim beauty in the barren landscape that recalls Alejandro Landes' Monos. Magdalena remains something of a blank slate throughout the film, but this allows the audience to place itself in her situation, and she becomes a kind of avatar for the viewer, guiding us into hell without ever bringing us back. The film's "twist" doesn't quite land with the impact that it should because it all happens so quickly, but it nevertheless leaves us shaken in its terrifying suddenness. There's an air of hopelessness to the entire affair, its characters trapped in a never-ending cycle of death and despair. If it sounds like a downer, that's because it is. But there's a fearsome power to Valadez's artistry that is hard to shake. It's a holy terror of a film, a raw, fiery modern "Heart of Darkness" that is an unforgettable exploration of what is being fled, and the cruel joke of what is being run towards.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


IDENTIFYING FEATURES | Directed by Fernanda Valadez | Stars Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela | Not Rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in virtual cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Riz Ahmed in SOUND OF METAL. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Despite being one of the most critically acclaimed films of the 2020, there's something about Darius Marder's Sound of Metal that just doesn't quite sit right. It's certainly a unique spin on "triumph over adversity" tropes, in which its protagonist learns to stop seeing the "adversity" as a burden, but its point of view leaves much to be desired in its quest for acceptance. 


Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who loses the majority of his hearing. Facing a life without music, Ruben desperately seeks any way of regaining his hearing so he can continue with his career. He ends up at a support group for deaf people lead by Joe (Paul Raci), where he becomes a mentor to deaf children and begins to learn how to accept the silence of his newfound life. But the siren song of the drums is too strong, and he embarks upon an experimental treatment in order to get his hearing back, no matter the cost.


Sound of Metal treats Ruben like an addict chasing the next high; except instead of drugs, the addiction is hearing. While there is certainly something refreshing about seeing a film in which a disability isn't seen as a negative, the film's quest to counteract ableism feels somewhat misguided. Ruben's decision to undergo surgery to regain his hearing is seen as a betrayal by his newfound friends in the support group, and the film judges him harshly for it. But of course he wants to hear - music is his life. Yet the film frames his decision as a relapse. It almost feels like a galaxy-brained, very online Twitter hot take, because while there's nothing wrong with accepting his disability, there's also nothing wrong with him wanting to return to his passion. The film's lack of ambiguity in this area is its biggest downfall, because it fails to give an emotional justification for its central thesis. 


The film has received a lot of praise for its sound design, which is admittedly impressive in the way it reflects Ruben's own journey of self- acceptance. Yet the way in which in transitions from full audio, to muffled, to silent, and back again is inconsistently applied, which is symptomatic of the film's overall lack of point of view. It wants to be all things at once without ever fully committing to any of them. Its moments of silence or audio distortion offer tantalizing glimpses into what the film could have been, but it never embraces the silence in the same way it expects of its protagonist. 


Had this simply been a film about a man learning to accept his newfound inability to hear, or the story of a man coming to terms with his drug  addiction, it would perhaps have been more interesting, but by combining the two, and equating them with each other, Sound of Metal severely stumbles, casting unnecessarily harsh judgment on a character who simply wants to play music again. Rather than simply letting go, the film seems to flagellate him for wanting to hear, and its grim tone and stylistic flourishes can't make up for a rather maudlin script. While the performances are certainly strong (especially by Paul Raci as Ruben's mentor), the film's muddled politics undercut its emotional impact by refusing to embrace the ambiguity of its protagonist's plight.


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


SOUND OF METAL | Directed by Darius Marder | Stars Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric | Rated R for language throughout and brief nude images | Now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime. 

Friday, January 08, 2021

James Steward and Margaret Sullavan in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
(1957)

The first Hammer horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein ushered in a new era of horror in 1957, spawning a series of legendary films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee that would run for nearly twenty years. Here Cushing is mad doctor Victor Frankenstein and Lee is his monstrous creation, bringing a different shade of tragedy to the character from Karloff's immortal interpretation of the character from the Universal monster series from nearly two decades prior. 


Hammer's take on the classic monster characters is decidedly more gruesome than Universal's, and Cushing's Frankenstein is a more deranged figure, drunk on his own power to create life. Lee's monster is more deliberately murderous, but also clearly more upset by the fact of his own existence. Director Terence Fisher creates an indelible gothic atmosphere, lighting the film for black and white but shooting in color, creating haunting elongated shadows that contrast beautifully with the vibrant Eastmancolour cinematography. Now on Blu-Ray for the first time (and in 3 different aspect ratios), The Curse of Frankenstein is an essential piece of horror history beautifully preserved and restored by Warner Archive.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four) 


THE HARVEY GIRLS
(1946)

Strangely one of Judy Garland's lesser-known musicals, The Harvey Girls finds Garland traveling west for an arranged marriage to a man she met in the personal ads, where she meets a band of "Harvey girls," waitresses headed to the same frontier town to establish a restaurant and bring a hint of civilization to the Wild West. Once there, however, she discovers that her erstwhile fiancé is not what she expected, and joins the Harvey girls to work in the new restaurant. But a rivalry with a local brothel, led by stern madame Em (Angela Lansbury) and her entrepreneur lover, Ned (John Hodiak) threatens to destroy the entire town as Garland begins to fall in love with Ned, and competition with the brothel begins to threaten a crooked judge's financial interests. 


The film traffics in some questionable politics regarding the meaning of "civilization," but handles the brothel with surprising sensitivity, mostly due to Lansbury's incredible performance. Garland shines as always, but it's Lansbury who steals the show, bringing emotional shading to a character that could have easily been one dimensional, and the film ends on a note that refuses to judge her for her choices. Add to that a toe-tapping score by Lennie Hayton with songs by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer (who won an Oscar for "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe") and you have a solid period musical characterized by strong performances and beautiful rendered Technicolor cinematography.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four) 


THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER
(1940)

It's difficult to refer to any film, even the very greatest, as a "perfect film," but few fit the bill so beautifully as Ernst Lubitsch's sparkling romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner. Every element seems to be working at peak quality, from the performances to the script to the cinematography, it's one of the all-time great comedies. Remade nearly 60 years later as You've Got MailThe Shop Around the Corner tells the story of two pen pen pals who fall deeply in love, completely unaware that they are actually each other's arch rivals as co-workers at the same department store in Budapest, Hungary.


Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are sublime as the hapless lovers, competing for the attention of store owner Mr. Matuschek (the incomparable Frank Morgan) and longing for each other through their romantic letters at night. It's such an effervescent, easily lovable film, full of memorable characters and witty dialogue. But like its fellow Stewart-led Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful LifeThe Shop Around the Corner goes to some dark places, which make its emotional highs feel all the more earned. It is perhaps the most indelible example of the legendary "Lubitsch touch," a testament to the simple magic that the filmmaker was able to conjure in his films. Its arrival on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive should be a cause for celebration for film fans, and the presentation preserves its lovely black and white tones.


GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four) 


All films now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive!

Thursday, December 31, 2020

It's safe to say that 2020 will be a year few will miss. It was an especially unusual year for film, with theaters shut down for most of the year, many films were either delayed or released directly to streaming, or via special "virtual cinemas." While this year has doubtlessly been hard for many, the future of cinema remains in doubt. But despite the troubles facing exhibitors and distributors alike, 2020 was actually quite a rich year for cinema, with barriers between what constitutes a film being broken down and leveling the playing field with the major studios often sitting on the sidelines. For those stuck at home, there was plenty to love on the small screen, and even though many of us long for the the theatrical experience to return, these are the films that I most want to carry with me from a year I'd prefer to leave behind.



1. FREE TIME (Manfred Kirchheimer, USA)

Manfred Kirchheimer's city symphony, shot in 16mm between 1958 and 1960, recalls Ivens' Regen(1929), Sheeler and Strand's Manhatta (1921), and Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) in equal measure, beautifully capturing the electrifying immediacy of the great silent avant-garde artists that brought their cities to life in a very specific time and place. At once vibrant and melancholy, Free Time is teeming with life, every frame crackles with energy, capturing small moments of spontaneous humanity that feel like a window into a bygone era. This thing is a stone cold masterpiece.



2. TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)

Kurosawa has woven a deeply incisive tale of a woman who would supposedly go to the ends of the earth for a story, but is never allowed to probe the depths of her own dreams. Constantly second-guessed, patronized, and marginalized, surrounded by men who we always suspect of talking about her in Uzbek behind her back, Yoko reclaims her voice and her agency in one of the most cathartic denouements of 2020; beautifully meditating on femininity, patriarchal power structures, and finding your joy in a world that is constantly trying to put you in a box. Part fish-out-of-water comedy, part media satire, part feminist manifesto, To the Ends of the Earth is a quiet wonder of a film, a perceptive and lyrical interrogation of alienation and loneliness that lands like a depth charge.



3. AMMONITE (Francis Lee, UK)

Lee has a nearly unparalleled eye for finding beauty and pain in the spaces between words. There's something achingly liminal about his cinema, where the emotions exist in in the in between spaces, between words and glances, never fully expressed in words but keenly felt just the same. AMMONITE is a deeply beautiful film, economical in its storytelling and yet filled with a boundless sense of emotional depth. It explores so much with so little, where two lovers manage to plug small holes in each other's hearts but can't quite stop the bleeding on their own. It's an altogether astonishing achievement.



4. NOMADLAND (Chloé Zhao, USA)

Based on the book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century" by Jessica Bruder, which examined the phenomenon of elderly Americans who lost everything spending their twilight years wandering across the country looking for work in lieu of retirement, Nomadland is at once loving and heartbreaking, an aching portrait of Trump-era malaise that centers some of the truly forgotten men and women who live in the margins of the most prosperous nation on earth. That Zhao captures it all with such quiet dignity, never descending into miserablism or exploitation, is a testament to the assuredness of her craft. She's quickly established herself as one of the foremost ethnographers of life in the American west, and Nomadland is an astonishing experience that demands our attention at every turn; often playing less like a narrative film and more like an elegy for a lost and wounded nation trying to find its soul.



5. I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (Charlie Kaufman, USA)

Charlie Kaufman's confounding whatsit in a snowglobe is as insular and obfuscating as anything he's ever made, but I'm Thinking of Ending Things is perhaps one of his most personal and prismatic works yet. Ostensibly a film about a woman pondering breaking up with her boyfriend over a weekend visit with his parent, the film slowly begins to reveal itself as something much deeper and more sinister, slowly pulling back the layers of the facade of not only the relationship, but of her very existence. Where does she end and the idealized vision of her in her partner's head end? It's a tantalizing question, one that Kaufman doggedly refuses to answer, but the result is one of his most mind-bending trips inside the human psyche, but also one of his most painfully heartfelt. Do we ever really know who we are in the mind of someone else?



6. LOVERS ROCK (Steve McQueen, UK)

The second installment of Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology for Amazon, Lovers Rock takes place at a reggae party in 1970s London. Deeply rooted in a very specific time and place, featuring a style of music very specific to London's black culture, Lovers Rock feels like beat poetry come to life. While it follows the meeting of two lovers who begin a tentative relationship over the course of one night, the film is consistently kinetic, moving, teeming with energy and life. It's a swirling smorgasbord of sensual energy and - sweat, music, smoke, heat, bodies moving in unison and to their own rhythm, as if McQueen took the opening dance scene of Climax and stretched it out into a feature all its own. No other film this year was so rich or intoxicating.



7. CITY HALL (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

Frederick Wiseman has a way of using his subjects as a microcosm of something bigger, but his latest film, City Hall, is one of his most indelible works in years. Focusing on the inner workings of Boston's city hall, the film is a sprawling, 4.5 hour examination of the turning wheels of American government as it grapples with the seemingly humdrum day-to-day business of running a city. It's one of the year's most strangely intoxicating, satisfying, and even moving experiences, as city official tackle big issues of racial and economic justice while overseeing the minutiae of governance. In a year like 2020, there's something strangely hopeful about City Hall, where the government may not always be efficient, but is nevertheless a comforting paragon of competence. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Our government may be in disarray, but Wiseman, ever the curious optimist, finds something beautiful in its evolution.



8. FIRST COW (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

A buddy movie, a western, an interrogation of capitalism, Kelly Reichardt's haunted tale of the American west is many things at once, but it is always extraordinary. Hushed and observant as her films usually are, First Cow explores manufactured scarcity through the eyes of two men, a migrant worker and an immigrant, whose secret ingredient to their wildly popular treats is milk from a local baron's prized cow (the first in the region). The premise almost seems laughable, but Reichardt uses it as a jumping off point for a disarmingly tragic deconstruction of the American dream, and the exploitation upon which it is built.

 


9. THE FATHER (Florian Zeller, UK)

Anthony Hopkins has delivered so many performances that could be referred to as "career best" that it seems almost redundant to speak in those terms here, but Florian Zeller's The Father (adapted from Zeller's own play) has to rank very near the top. A haunting, fractured narrative that treats Alzheimer's almost as a horror film as much as a tragedy, The Father puts us directly into its protagonist's shoes, unable to discern reality from fantasy. Zeller transposes characters, mixes up situations, casts the same role with multiple actors, and combines disparate pieces of Hopkins life, allowing us to experience his mental decline first hand, to the point that we begin to question whether or not our own memories are failing us. The changes from scene to scene are often subtle but extremely effective in consistently muddying the waters so we never really know what the truth is from moment to moment.  It's a haunting, heartbreaking film, made even more so by the towering performances of its two leads.



10. YOURSELF AND YOURS (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)

Rather than a fractured, elliptical narrative, as is typical with Hong Sangsoo's usual interrogations of time and space between people, Yourself and Yours hinges on a fractured, elliptical character, a woman struggling to overcome addiction and alcoholism, who is trying desperately to become a better person. In essence she really is two different people, and Hong deftly explores her attempts to reconcile her past with the future she wants to create. It's one of Hong's most beautifully nuanced works, a film filled with longing and regret that finds great beauty in the in-between moments, the lingering glances and subtle changes in expression that exist between the deceptively mundane dialogue and jaunty score. 


11. SOUL (Pete Docter, USA)
12. THE GRAND BIZARRE (Jodie Mack, USA)
13. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (Kirsten Johnson, USA)
14. DA 5 BLOODS (Spike Lee, USA)
15. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS (Eliza Hittmann, USA)


HONORABLE MENTIONS:

  • WOLFWALKERS (Tomm More, Ireland)
  • 76 DAYS (Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, China)
  • TIME (Garrett Bradley, USA)
  • MINARI (Lee Isaac Chung, USA)
  • THE INVISIBLE MAN (Leigh Whannell, USA)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

GAL GADOT as Wonder Woman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “WONDER WOMAN 1984,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

If 2020 had anything going for it, it was the first year over a decade without a major release from Marvel or DC, but Warner Brothers opted for a last minute theatrical/streaming hybrid Christmas Day release for Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman 1984, the long awaited follow up to her 2017 hit starring Gal Gadot in the title role. But in true 2020 fashion, it's more akin to a lump of coal in our collective stocking than a shiny new Christmas gift.


Despite its somewhat weak ending (a popular sentiment echoed by Jenkins herself), the original Wonder Woman remains one of the strongest films in the new post-Dark  Knight DC lineup, so it should come as no surprise that like Icarus, the inevitable sequel flies too close to the sun. Wonder Woman 1984 is an odd bird indeed, somehow too ambitious for its own good and yet remarkably low stakes, despite the usual world-ending premise. The film finds Diana Prince (Gadot) alone, decades after the original, WWI-set film, working at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. It is there where she encounters a strange stone, brought in by the FBI for identification after an attempted jewelry heist foiled by Wonder Woman at a local mall (it's the 80s - mall scenes are obligatory). 


The stone, it turns out, is some sort of ancient wishing stone (are we really still doing magic stones?) that grants any wish made while touching it - but for a price. Diana wishes to have her lover, Steve (Chris Pine), back; and he returns in someone else's body. Her nerdy coworker, Barbara (Kristen Wiig) wishes to be like Diana, and suddenly finds herself with superpowers. But a ne'er do well wannabe oil magnate (Pedro Pascal), whose image of wealth and success isn't what it appears, is desperately searching for the stone, and he will do anything to get it and make all his dreams come true, by taking what he wants from everyone else.


It's a rather convoluted premise, and the weak script does it no favors by pool explaining the logistics and mythology behind it, none of which are particularly clear or consistent. This has the unfortunate side-effect of making the entire conflict borderline incomprehensible, with the motivations of the villains frustratingly amorphous. At 151 minutes, the already thin plot is stretched past its breaking point with seemingly endless action set pieces that add little to the story and almost seem half-heartedly constructed, featuring lots of quick cuts but very little stakes or suspense.


It's not a total loss; Hans Zimmer's score fires on all cylinders, expanding beyond the now famous Wonder Woman theme form his Batman v. Superman score in ways the film never really earns. Wiig is also terrific as the mousy scientist turned sultry villain, even if the role is painfully underwritten. That's really the film's biggest weakness, with so much going on, the script simply just does not step yup the plate, falling back on lackluster dialogue that's filled with lame platitudes about truth and love that resolves everything far too easily. They really expect us to believe, after the last four years, that all it takes to stop someone from making selfish and destructive decisions is to...ask them not to? Jenkins is a strong filmmaker, but Wonder Woman 1984 is a mess, a muddled and ponderous blockbuster that is somehow both overstuffed and undercooked that leaves the audience wanting more because it never really got anything in the first place. 


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


WONDER WOMAN  1984 | Directed by Patty Jenkins | Stars Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen | Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence | Opens in theaters and on HBO Max on December 25.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


Pixar has been around long enough that they've had a few valleys between some of their highest peaks, but there are few studios with quite such a sterling track record. And while their formula has been established for quite sometime, its good to know that they can still surprise and delight so that their films feel as much like acts of discovery as they do familiar comfort food.


Their latest effort, Soul  directed by Pete Docter, was originally planned as a theatrical release before being relegated to a Disney+ streaming premiere due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And it's a shame that it will never get the theatrical release it deserves, but it is quite frankly one of Pixar's finest achievements, and its most bracingly original offering since 2008's WALL-E. The film centers around a musician named Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of touring with the biggest names in jazz, but instead finds himself picking up part-time work as a middle school band teacher in between gigs. When the chance of a lifetime finally comes knocking, Joe's life is suddenly cut short, and he finds himself whisked away to the afterlife before he gets his chance to fulfill his dream. Determined to get back into his body, he gets mistaken as a guide by the caretakers of the great beyond, and is assigned a young soul to help them develop the passions that will guide their lives once they're born. 


Joe is assigned 22 (Tina Fey), a consistent drop-out whose lack of a spark has flummoxed everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Albert Einstein. With 22 refusing to be born and Joe desperate to return to life, the two form a pact to find a spark for 22 that will be his ticket back to earth. But a mixup leads them both back to earth - with 22 in Joe's body and Joe's soul in the body of a cat, leaving them to find a way to switch back so that Joe can at last achieve his dream of playing on stage with his idol, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett).



Soul has been criticized in some circles for its lack of a strong story, but its lightness of plot actually works to its advantage. This isn't Pixar's first foray into the afterlife (Coco went there in 2017) or its first brush with mortality (Up confronted it head on in 2009), but it is perhaps the most existential film they animation house has yet produced. As 22 seeks her spark, and Joe clings to something that he thinks is the meaning of his life, the film examines the simple beauty of life itself. That may be a hard pill to swallow in a year like 2020, but SOUL feels like a balm at the end of a year of almost unending tragedy and pain. It finds beauty in life's smallest moments - in the wind rustling through the trees, in sunlight streaming onto a city sidewalk, in leaves soaring through the air; and it does so in almost avant-garde fashion. 


The film's post-modern evocation of the afterlife, set to a nearly transcendent score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and the wistful jazz stylings of Jon Batiste, is unlike anything Pixar has done before - at once clever and subversive, eschewing trappings of specific faiths for something more cosmic and unknowable. But what really sets Soul apart is its dedication to finding beauty, indeed the real spark of life, in life's in-between moments. A more complicated plot would have distracted from its message - and the message here is that one doesn't necessarily have to have a set purpose in order to live a fulfilling life. While most of Pixar's films have had elements meant to appeal to both children and adults, Soul feels like their most grown effort, a bittersweet and contemplative tale of finding one's place in a world that expects you to have everything laid out advance. In that way, it makes an interesting companion piece to Tyler Taormina's Ham on Rye, a film that satirizes society's arbitrary milestones designed to govern the direction of the rest of our lives. And while Soul isn't quite so cynical, it finds a sense of hope, community, and even peace in the unknown, both in this life and the next. Docter has helmed some of Pixar's most emotional and incisive works (Up, Monsters, Inc., Inside Out), and Soul just might be his most penetrating and deeply felt film yet.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


SOUL | Directed by Pete Docter | Stars Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Daveed Diggs, John Ratzenberger, Richard Ayoade, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Angela Bassett | Rated PG for thematic elements and some language | Streaming exclusively on Disney+ on Dec. 25

Monday, December 21, 2020


Tyler Taormina's curious feature debut is a coming of age story unlike anything I've ever seen. 


Centering around a strange ritual at a small town deli where local teenagers gather to partner up and decide their fates - whether they will escape their small town and find happiness or remain behind forever, Ham on Rye slyly satirizes society's arbitrary measures of success and the psychological toll on those who don't meet them, creating a fully realized world of accepted idiosyncrasy. It meanders a bit in the back half once the ritual is over and the humdrum existence of those left behind sets in, but it's just so bracingly original and beautifully shot by Carson Lund that it's hard not to be enthralled by its peculiar rhythms and droll observations on the absurdity of life's milestones. 

Its peculiar starkness is reminiscent of Ricky D'Ambrose's tales of urban alienation, but there's an unusual warmth here, even as the film grapples with some difficult subject matter. Taormina has a keen eye for the bizarre and unusual, and so fully commits to the unusual concept, that it takes on a kind of life of its own, ebbing and flowing through the unique cadences of the world it creates. It begins with such a sense of hope and possibility, only to end with such a sense of melancholy and loss, tweaking American society's concepts of success and self-fulfillment with a real sense of empathy for those who don't quite fit the mold, but feel the pressure from all sides to live up to standards they never signed up for anyway.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


HAM ON RYE | Directed by Tyler Taormina | Stars Haley Bodell, Cole Devine, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Luke Darga | Not Rated | Now playing in select virtual cinemas.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Kate Winslet and Saorise Ronan in AMMOTIE. Courtesy of NEON.

Not content with delivering one of the best queer love stories of the 21st century in God's Own Country (2017), actor/writer/director Francis Lee has returned with another haunting tale of gay lovers in Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saorise Ronan as 19th century women whose love for each other awakens a spark within them they didn't know they had. 


Winslet stars as Mary Anning, a real life paleontologist who was considered by many scholars to be one of the finest fossil collectors who ever lived - spending her days on the beaches of Lyme, England collecting remnants of ancient sea creatures who lived in the area millions of years before, her incredible discoveries often credited to her male contemporaries. Winslet's Mary is insular, quiet, and often stand-offish, far more comfortable amongst the fossils than among the living. Ronan plays Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a wealthy amateur fossil collector who comes to Lyme on doctor's orders to cure her "melancholia." The cure, it turns out, isn't the sea water but Mary; and the two forge a tentative but passionate connection - bridging Charlotte's depression and Mary's anti-social isolation. But the two are ultimately on different paths - rather than be torn apart by societal convention as one may expect in a lesbian romance set in the 1840s, the divide between them is their disparate life goals. Mary's true love is her work, the ancient creatures buried in the mud by the sea, while Mary desperately seeks a lifelong companion in London to rescue her from her lobeless marriage, and even their passion may not be strong enough to bridge the gap.  


While God's Own Country was notable for being a rare gay romance that doesn't end in tragedy and heartbreak, Ammonite is somewhat more ambiguous. Ammonite certainly hasn't enjoyed the same rapturous critical reception as God's Own Country, but I found it to be just as aching a tale of love between two people who can't quiet articulate their own feelings. This is about a fleeting connection, a brief and powerful spark, that you can't make work. The gulf is too wide, two people who want different things heading in opposite directions who are what each other needs for a very limited time. Mary and Charlotte are not not soulmates, at least not in the conventional "meant to be" sense. Maybe they could have been in another time if circumstances were different; and therein lies the film's inherent tragedy. This isn't about two women torn apart by society, they're torn apart by their own inability to communicate.


Saorise Ronan and Kate Winslet in AMMONITE. Courtesy of NEON.

The film has received many comparisons to Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, due to being a period romance about two women falling in love by the sea. But it's almost not fair to compare them, because they're very different films with only surface level similarities, and there's something about the unspoken pain lingering beneath the surface of Ammonite that hits even harder than Sciamma's critical darling.  Much of this is due to Winslet's searing performance. She's a woman who could never really be herself, spending years pursuing a singular passion for which she isn't given credit because of her gender. There's so much bottled up inside and you can see it in her eyes. It's one of the finest performances of her career; insular, thorny, wholly unglamorous and yet poignantly realized at every turn. The score by Dustin O'Halloran and Volker Bertelmann is also one of the year's most heartfelt works. You don't hear the first hesitant notes until the first time Winslet and Ronan are alone and then it's just so heartbreaking, two women unseen by those around them who at last see something in each other that no one else can. Yet what makes the film so powerful is that it acknowledges that even that may not be enough with which to build a life.


Lee has a nearly unparalleled eye for finding beauty and pain in the spaces between words. There's something achingly liminal about his cinema, where the emotions exist in the in-between spaces, between words and glances, never fully expressed in words but keenly felt just the same. Ammonite is a deeply beautiful film, economical in its storytelling and yet filled with a boundless sense of emotional depth. It explores so much with so little, where two lovers manage to plug small holes in each other's hearts but can't quite stop the bleeding on their own. It's an altogether astonishing achievement. 


GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)


AMMONITE | Directed by Francis Lee | Stars Kate Winslet, Saorise Ronan, Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones | Rated R for graphic sexuality, some graphic nudity and brief language | Now playing in select theaters.

George Clooney (“Augustine” - Director - Producer), Caoilinn Springall (“Iris”) in THE MIDNIGHT SKY. Courtesy of Netflix.

Set in the not-too-distant future in the wake of a never-named disaster, George Clooney's The Midnight Sky stars Clooney himself as a scientist tasked with remaining behind at an arctic research station in order to warn a crew of astronauts returning from deep space not to come home. Out of communication range for weeks, the spacecraft is returning to earth from a mission to Jupiter's moon Titan, where they were scouting for locations for a potential new safe haven for refugees from our own dying planet. 


Clooney, the scientist who originally proposed Titan as a potential "new earth," finds himself as the last human remaining on earth's surface after the rest of the survivors have moved underground in a vain attempt to escape the planet's now poisonous atmosphere. Or so he thinks - on one of his many trips around the abandoned base, he discovers a young girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who doesn't speak, but keeps him company on his seemingly doomed mission to save the human race. 


The Midnight Sky has a promising and intriguing premise, but it very much wears its inspirations on its sleeve, almost playing like a "greatest hits" of recent science fiction films, channelling everything from Gravity, to High Life, to Arrival, to Passengers, to Ad Astra, to Interstellar, and even The Cloverfield Paradox. The film features some impressive special effects, and a truly lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, but it never shakes the feeling that we've seen all of this done better before. Clooney is a strong lead, completely eschewing his star persona for a weary, haggard performance as a man who feels as though he's done everything he can to save humanity and  has nothing left to give. But the film splits so much of its time between Clooney and the returning space crew that Clooney's story often gets lost, especially in the film's final act which focuses almost exclusively on the space shuttle. Their story is far less interesting, and Clooney's absence in the final stretch leaves a pronounced void. 


Clooney tends to be a stronger performer than a filmmaker - and while his insular performance here puts aside his natural charisma in favor of something more insular, his particular star magnetism is the glue that holds the film together. So when he cedes the spotlight to his supporting cast, the film just isn't as interesting. One can't help but wonder if the film would have been a much more unique experience if it had focused solely on Clooney and his young companion rather than splitting its time with the drama on board the returning spacecraft, which feels more like standard sci-fi fare rather than the feature-length "Twilight Zone" vibe given off by Clooney's half of the story. Therein lies the film's biggest issue: its overall lack of cohesion. Its split storyline (on top of flashbacks) make for a somewhat disjointed viewing experience. There are some lovely grace notes, but it never quite rises to the next level. It's certainly an ambitious work as it explores the end of humanity by its own carelessness, but by using its influences as a crutch, The Midnight Sky coasts along through familiar territory without ever really distinguishing itself on its own merits.


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


THE MIDNIGHT SKY | Directed by George Clooney | Stars George Clooney, Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Caoilinn Springall | Rated PG-13 for some bloody images and brief strong language | Streaming exclusively on Netflix on December 23.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020


Often pigeonholed as a director of horror films, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has also delivered some of the most finely tuned and emotionally astute dramas of the past 15 years. From Tokyo Sonata (2009) to To the Ends of the Earth (2020), Kurosawa, far from being a master of only one genre, is a deeply empathetic and curious filmmaker with a knack for exploring the liminal spaces between the said and the unsaid.


Kurosawa's penchant for burrowing beneath the surface of his characters makes him an ideal horror filmmaker, but there's something almost transcendent about his dramatic work. The way in which he invites the audience to inhabit the character, creates a unique empathetic bond between the audience and his protagonists. In To the Ends of the Earth  Kurosawa introduces us to Yoko (Japanese pop star Atsuko Maeda), a reporter traveling abroad in Uzbekistan for a series of puff-pieces for tourists. These pieces, for which she regularly gets bumped for more heavy-hitting news, turn out to be so much more than mere filler for the Instagram set, often putting her in harm's way or at the center of local ridicule. 


Alone in a foreign country whose language she does not speak, Yoko is unable to advocate for herself, and is often at the mercy of her translators, who are all men. Because Kurosawa does not translate the Uzbek dialogue, only the Japanese, much of the audience is left just as adrift as Yoko. With only her translators for guides, we are left with potentially unreliable narrators, unable to be sure if we truly understood what was being said. She is constantly expected to be agreeable, not rock the boat. When presented with options she doesn't like, she feels forced to choose one so as not to be seen as difficult. And while these expectations are never spoken aloud, you can see the anxiety in Maeda's performance. Kurosawa consistently otherizes her, putting her in difficult situations that she could theoretically get out of at any time, but outside expectations keep her from standing up for herself. "It's her choice, so it's no problem" says one of the producers when debating on whether or not a certain task was too dangerous. But was it really? Saying no would shut down the production and invite the judgment of the crew. If she feels like she can't say no, does she really have a choice? 


We eventually discover that Yoko didn't always dream of being a travel journalist; she wanted to be a singer. In one of the film's most astonishing sequences, Kurosawa takes us inside her head, creating an entire musical number that somehow feels like it's from another film entirely. But that's the whole point, of course. Yoko wants to escape, to go anywhere other than where she is, just like the goat she conspires to liberate for the cameras, only to discover it's yet another stunt for the cameras. Nothing she does is real, it's a constant and frustrating illusion. Her mental escapes to a world on the stage are more tangible. 


It's something quite disarming and lovely; Kurosawa has woven a deeply incisive tale of a woman who would supposedly go to the ends of the earth for a story, but is never allowed to probe the depths of her own dreams. Constantly second-guessed, patronized, and marginalized, surrounded by men who we always suspect of talking about her in Uzbek behind her back, Yoko reclaims her voice and her agency in one of the most cathartic denouements of 2020; beautifully meditating on femininity, patriarchal power structures, and finding your joy in a world that is constantly trying to put you in a box. Part fish-out-of-water comedy, part media satire, part feminist manifesto, To the Ends of the Earth is a quiet wonder of a film, a perceptive and lyrical interrogation of alienation and loneliness that lands like a depth charge.


GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)


TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa | Stars Atsuko Maeda, Shota Sometani, Tokio Emoto, Ryô Kase | Not Rated | In Japanese and Uzbek w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.