Category Archives: Movie Review

Side by Side

[4 stars]

It is the rare documentary that manages to keep me utterly intrigued. And Side by Side, while not the most perfect docu, pulls together such a wealth of top voices in the industry to discuss the advent of digital film vs. celluloid emulsion that it held my attention throughout. OK, it did drag a bit on the wrap up, but it was still fascinating.

Christopher Kenneally put this film together over a couple years, releasing it in 2012 and then extended versions of it a couple years later. He chose as his narrator Keanu Reeves (Replicas). One amusing effect of the time span is watching Reeves’s hair and beard change from scene to scene. Where most docus these days avoid having the interviewer present or visible on screen to help focus purely on the subject, Reeves is very much a part of the conversation.

While digital film has improved in the intervening years, the arguments haven’t really changed. However, the trends they interviewees have spun out are all coming to roost in pretty much the way they all agreed it would happen, with one unforseen notable exception: COVID-19. In a world currently locked down by a pandemic, cinemas closed everywhere, and 8K TVs already available on shelves, timing has changed. Not only will this event help accelerate digital filming, but it is changing the intended and predominant delivery venue from large screen to small. Dozens of major releases shifted to stream early or stream-only in the last few weeks and that genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The greatest governor to the advent of digital film has been quality on the big screen… and while that gap has narrowed, the issue is much less noticeable on the small screen.

In many ways, this movie is like a Nova episode on steroids. There is some very basic science and history surrounded by luminaries discussing their views and the implications. But it is the very quality of those views, put forth by those who have set the bar for decades, as well as the floor for the next generation of filmmakers, that makes it so interesting. Even if you’re not a fanatic about cinema, this is an engaging and intriguing conversation to listen in on for 90 or so minutes. Make the time for it.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

[4 stars]

A quiet but intense love story that is (dare I say it?) a slow burn. I was worried that, despite all its awards, director/writer Céline Sciamma’s (Tomboy) two hour story of a portraitist and her subject would drag. It doesn’t.

The silences between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are tense with unspoken thoughts. Their verbal sparring is equally charged, though spare with words. And Merlant’s relationship with her supplies and canvas is just as intriguing. Watching these women discover each other and themselves never let’s you relax.

Around the main story are smaller tales supported by Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino. Both women bring a lot of story with very little explained.

One of Sciamma’s achievements with this film is that it is, essentially, all women. And all strong women, in their way. Men are not only incidental, they are a hindrance to their worlds. It is also visually a stunning piece of cinematography; as painterly as the story it tells. And the final moments of the story are a collection of joyously heartbreaking scenes. It reminded me of the end of Gloria in its ability to deliver a resolution.

Portrait is an unexpectedly moving story and one worth seeing. On big screen it must have been breathtaking, but even on a smaller screen it is a feast for all your movie senses.

The Swimmer

[3 stars]

This blast from the past about a man swimming home via his neighbor’s pools is actually an unexpected commentary on Hollywood and privilege, and it predates #metoo by about 50 years. Frank Perry (backed silently by Sydney Pollack [Amazing Grace]) were surprisingly, and quietly, subversive in their directing choices.

You know there is something off with Burt Lancaster from the opening moments of the movie. It takes a good part of the film before you know generally what that is (and we never know exactly, though you can guess). We watch his interactions with a slew of recognizable faces as well as a few surprises like Joan Rivers and even Diana Muldaur in one of her few big screen roles. But it is Lancaster who is turned into an object from the outset of the story.

He is quite literally stripped bare (or nearly) and exposed to the effects of the world. The approach riffed against this movie’s time (1968) even though it was concurrent with the Women’s Lib movement. And as we follow Lancaster’s episodic journey, our perceptions and assumptions keep shifting, which helps drive the otherwise mundane, if odd, tale forward.

The foundation of this layered and pointed tale was driven by scriptwriter, and wife of the director, Eleanor Perry who adapted Cheever’s story for the screen. She structured the reveals carefully and subtly to help drive the improbable tale; it serves as its own metaphor as well as a sort of absurdist presentation of the action. I suspect that part of the success of the finished piece is due to her close relationship with the director providing some broader perspective to the events.

Whatever the realities, it ends up an unexpected gem that is hewn from a pile of rough material and realities. If you’re looking for something a bit different but still surprisingly relevant, seek this out.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

[3 stars]

In case it wasn’t obvious, this has a really targeted audience…if you weren’t/aren’t a fan of the original Alien or its sequels on a deep level it won’t likely resonate. Unlike Alexandre O. Philippe’s previous 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, there isn’t as much context setting and obvious industry shift caused by the movie’s subject. That said, after a slightly overwrought opening and set up, it’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the creative process that led to the iconic movie. In addition, you can see where many of the choices that appear in the later movies grew from.

This isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is solid and, for the intrigued, interesting. Despite knowing a lot about the production, it certainly ferreted out a lot that I didn’t. I don’t know if it increased my appreciation of the movie any more (still one of the best horror films ever), but it provided a framework and some interesting background on writer Dan O’Bannon, who is the primary subject. If you appreciated the original that made Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) a household name and set a whole new bar for such films, give it the 90 minutes it deserves.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

After We Leave

[3 stars]

Yes, the millionth-and-first end of the world movie. But, much like the recently viewed Last Night, this one is more contemplative although with a bit more action and violence thrown in. And while it’s a little predictable, there are some nice variations and sense of motivation helping lift the story.

For a first feature, Aleem Hossain wrote and directed his story with a sure and clever hand. The world and story aren’t over-explained, some things are just inferred or hinted at. And the resolution is both hopeful and weird but still manages to be romantic and obvious.

Brian Silverman does a nice job carrying the movie as a n’ere-do-well who’s turned the page on his life. And Anita Leeman Torres adds a subtle sub-plot to it all that allows for a lot of satisfying interpolation. The rest of the cast is, frankly, a bit over-wired, particularly Clay Wilcox. The choices can all work, but they felt too much like stock bad-guy decisions rather than organic decisions.

There is enough world-building in this story, even with the inconsistencies, to make it stand out. And there is enough tension and action to keep you connected even with the slower pace thanks to the story and the editing. I appreciated the movie and my time spent with it. Houssain has an interesting eye and an opportunity to build on a solid foundation with this first film. I’d definitely be curious to see what comes next.

After We Leave

Frankie

[3 stars]

A rumination on the nature of love, life, and family against the beautiful backdrop of Sintra, Portugal. In many ways, Frankie is After the Wedding’s less overwrought cousin. There are several common themes and dynamics, though the stories are driven by different stakes and pressures.

Isabelle Huppert (Greta) is the lynchpin at the center of a blended family that spans multiple marriages. Her sense of entitlement as well as her own sense of self keeps bumping up against her recognition of the realities of that complexity, but all in very quiet and introspective ways. There are few histrionics despite the tensions between people and the situation in which they are mired. It is all about the reactions and silences, which director and co-writer Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) orchestrates with great confidence.

Along with Huppert, Brendan Gleeson (Assassin’s Creed), Marisa Tomei (Only You), Jérémie Renier (Double Lover), Vinette Robinson (A Christmas Carol), Sennia Nanua (The Girl With All the Gifts), and Greg Kinnear (Same Kind of Different as Me) fill out the other main roles. Their paths are all separate, but also all reflect and intersect on Huppert’s journey and life.

This isn’t a fast movie, but it is gripping in a very quiet way. And, ultimately, it brings together its point and moments in a wonderful bit of visual metaphor that is simply presented for us to absorb and enjoy. Frankie is about life and legacy and the meaning and complications of love. It is certainly bittersweet, but manages to avoid being maudlin or at all self-righteous. It’s simply a view and point of view of a collection of lives bound by blood and circumstance. And, like Sachs other works, emotionally hypnotic through to the end.

 

Frankie

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Standing Up, Falling Down

[3 stars]

Honestly, the elements of this film worried me to no end as it opened and laid them out for inspection. Boomerang kids trying to find their way, bad comics finding their path, old widower trying to make amends, and romantically desperate people aching for “the one that got away.” It just shouldn’t have worked. But Peter Hoare’s (Kevin Can Wait, Killing Hasselhoff) script is simple, honest, and clever, which Matt Ratner directs with great care. In fact, for a first feature, Ratner really shows some chops containing the potential disaster of elements and emotions, not to mention the cast he managed to land.

Without question, Billy Crystal (Monsters University) holds this story together. Without him, it would have simply fallen apart even though Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) is the main character driving the movie. Around these two, there are a host of solid performances and interactions. Grace Gummer (Learning to Drive) and Schwartz have some wonderful brother/sister interactions (again a credit to Ratner), and Debra Monk (Mozart in the Jungle) is the perfect Long Island mom. There are a lot of other fun, smaller roles worth spotting as well, but why give them all away?

This isn’t a revelatory movie, but it is well done and entertaining. It’s delightfully contained and rides the line between reality and absurdity with skill. Keep an eye out for it or pick it up on stream as it exits the festival circuit and becomes more generally and more affordably available.

Standing Up, Falling Down

Uncut Gems

[1.5 stars]

Sometimes you’re just not the audience for a film, whether due to timing or timbre. This latest Safdie brothers (GoodTime) offering is clearly done with ability and Adam Sandler (Murder Mystery) delivers an amazing performance, but I just couldn’t watch it.

Sandler’s character is on a collision course with disaster from the opening moments, not because of circumstance, but entirely because of his own self-destructive nature. Honestly, at the best of times I find that hard to stomach or invest in, but at this particular moment, I found it impossible.

So, if you like the Safdies’ work, you’ll likely love it. If you can handle a dark rumination on the nature of addiction and wonders of the universe in the microcosm, you’ll probably find it engrossing. If you’re looking for something just a bit more positive or less self-inflicted…look elsewhere.

Uncut Gems

Little Joe

[3 stars]

I’m always a sucker for intelligent science fiction, whether it is near-term like Arrival or far-future philosophical like Blade Runner 2049 (and it says something that both of those are by the same director) or even total gonzo pieces like Aniara or 28 Days Later. The point isn’t the presentation, it is the amount of thought behind the world and characters that snags me.

Little Joe walks some very well-trod ground, but approaches it with care and at an oblique angle. It even picked up several awards, including a Cannes Palme d’Or nomination and a Cannes win for Emily Beacham (Hail, Caesar!, Into the Badlands) as best actress. Honestly, I don’t really quite understand either recognition, though director and co-writer Jessica Hausner certainly maintained control and vision throughout the piece. And her script, written with Géraldine Bajard, is an interesting riff on a subject that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the genre.

Supporting Beacham are Ben Whishaw (Mary Poppins Returns), Kerry Fox (The Dressmaker), Kit Connor (His Dark Materials) and Sebastian Hülk (Dark). Each brings a different level of creepy or concern to the story. None of the performances are particularly brilliant, but the quiet, understated approach to the tale is consistent and, often, subtle.

The film is just a little long for its inevitable payoff for my taste (both in metaphor and reality), but it does manage to pull you along and the production design is striking. Little Joe is a worthwhile time investment if you like genre. It isn’t a perfect little gem, but it is a surprising ride, being dealt with intelligently and as adult fare.

Little Joe