Saturday, February 27, 2021

Earwig from EARWIG AND THE WITCH. Courtesy of GKIDS.

(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 (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.