Saturday, February 27, 2021

Streaming Spotlight | Earwig and the Witch, The Little Things, and Malcolm & Marie

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)

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