Tag Archives: Director

Destroyer

[3 stars]

Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) delivers a devastatingly broken-but-not-down detective, evoking more Charlize Theron than the characters we’ve come to expect from her. She is ugly, both mentally and physically; an anti-hero extraordinaire. Intense and gripping, but with the smallest bit of sympathy to keep us on her side.

Kidman navigates the world, past and present, with the help of a great supporting cast. Toby Kebbell (The Female Brain), Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya, Avengers), and Bradley Whitford (The Darkest Minds) chief among them. And then there was the otherwise unrecognizable Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). If it weren’t for the credits, I wouldn’t even have spotted her, and it wasn’t for lack of screen time.

Better known for her television work, director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) is no stranger to female driven tales. In this case, however, she tries just a little too hard to maintain the atmosphere. The music is heavy-handed and the pacing just a tad strained at moments. But she does manage to create a dark, dark tale… a daylight noir in the harsh LA sun that drives forward relentlessly as flashbacks fill in the history. Oft-time writing collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (R.I.P.D.) gave Kusuma a well constructed script to work with, but it is Kidman’s and Kusuma’s molding and delivery of that tale that makes it work.

Make time for this one when you’re in a mood for a bit of violence and mystery. The performances make it worth it alone, but the story is, itself, a good ride.

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud)

[3.5 stars]

Louis Malle’s (Vanya on 42nd Street) second film, dating from 1958, is an entertaining look at noir. From its opening moments to its close the story spins out of control in unexpected ways, headed toward a conclusion that has many possibilities; none of them likely good. Hey, it’s noir. But it isn’t quite the noir you know and expect. This story owes much to Dassin’s Rififi, particularly its treatment of silence and its quiet building of character.

The story is primarily guided through the inner dialogue of an emotive Jeanne Moreau in her breakout roll. Moreau is a light amid the beautifully filmed, dark night of the story. It also boasts a score and performance by Miles Davis, which deepens the sense of emotion and thickens the Parisian night into something almost palpable.

Though over 60 years old, the movie manages to hold up in many ways, though it’s style feels a little forced and dated. But it is a taut 90 minutes and, though aspects feel like bad writing, much more of it comes together than you’d expect. And it is an early look at one of the huge influencers of cinema.

Capernaum

[3.5 stars]

There is a lot of hyperbole (and awards) thrown around about Nadine Labaki’s (Where Do We Go Now?) latest film. And they are deserved. As with her other work, she is brilliant at exposing humanity in the most impossible circumstances. She doesn’t give into dramatic cliche in order to rivet you to the screen, she employs simple truths and and hard choices along with quiet moments of desperation and joy to do it. She invites you into areas of the world few, if any, of her viewers would have experienced and makes you understand.

This film, more than her others, is relentless in its message and, for lack of a better term, existential horror. There are few moments of respite or joy. But it was the right choice for the story she wanted to tell. To have falsely buoyed the characters would have been to cheat the tale.

The entire story depends upon the slender thread of first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea. He is an unbelievably charismatic and powerful presence, despite his age and stature. In an intersecting story, Yordanos Shiferaw, also new to screen, delivers her own gripping tale.

You may be wondering, as I was, what the title meant. It isn’t a word, it is a place…and it adds an entire level of commentary to the story. But, frankly, better to discover that afterwards as it is a bit self-conscious.

This isn’t a fun film, to be honest. You’ll find yourself angry, sad, and, at times, likely yelling at the screen. The subtitles also sometimes flash so quickly (less than a second) as to be unreadable…but I didn’t find any of the gaps to be unfillable by logic and flow. Still, it was a shame to have such a simple technical blemish on the experience. Ultimately, the movie will not leave you feeling hopeless, but the trip is a little exhausting…much to Labaki’s credit, you’ll thank her for that.

Cold War

[3.5 stars]

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski follows up his 2013 Ida with another black and white masterpiece that looks at the personal tragedy of politics and war. Evoking the likes of Bergman, Bertolucci, and Felini, in the composition if not the story construction, Cold War examines where love fits into war and repressive society. Or it looks at the struggles of love with that as the metaphor…it really depends on how cynical you are.

Unlike Ida, this story is seen primarily through the perspective of Tomasz Kot rather than Joanna Kulig (Hanna), the strong woman at the center of the script. Using Kot as the story lens feels a little odd as Kulig drives most of the action; but it is more his story than in the end. And, despite the historical context, the story could easily have happened anywhere in the world. The film stays very focused on couple as their relationship ebbs, flows, and evolves. However, the struggles of Eastern Bloc politics provides some interesting historical insight and emotional tension without becoming the typical thriller.

One of the films greatest strengths, and conversely its weaknesses, is just how beautifully it is filmed. Much like Ida, every shot is gorgeously composed. So much so it is self-conscious, rather than the very real, open, and equally beautiful work done by its Oscar competitor Roma. That choice keeps you at a distance, making you consider the action rather than be absorbed into it. It works for the intent, but it makes it a little emotionally distant; more a painting to observe than a film to escape into. It is ultimately still very effective and well executed, but this self-conscious aspect may not work for some.

Dumbo

[3 stars]

You can see the dark edges of Tim Burton (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) in the production design and the plot of the first act of Dumbo, but not his trademark sense of wonder and magic. The movie, as a whole, has a lack of focus in tone and a lack of characters. Given the potential of some of the clever updates to the story, the result is surprising.

In their first roles, Nico Parker, as a bright young woman who drives the story in the stead of the mice from the Disney cartoon, and Finley Hobbins as her brother are solid, but flat. Even Colin Farrell (Widows), Eva Green (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children), and Danny DeVito (Smallfoot), all with solid foundations in the story, were left without much development or payoff. DeVito, in particular, has rich potential, but was left to be just a clown. Michael Keaton (American Assassin)never moves beyond being a simple black hat with no depth at all. And Alan Arkin (Going in Style) was just a throw-away.

Adaptations are just hard. Fighting everyone’s memory of an original while trying to create something new is challenging at best. Dumbo was due an update to leave its problematic issues behind and bring it into the modern world. It is a great tale of believing in yourself and family. And there are interesting new choices in this telling of the tale, but they just aren’t fully explored. Ehren Kruger’s (Ghost in the Shell) script is devoid of real challenges and resolutions for the human characters. Everything is either too easy or too assumed. The reality is that a flying elephant isn’t magical on its own, it has to become magical…  romance doesn’t just happen, it has to be earned… families don’t heal on their own, you have to work at it. And even Dumbo’s challenges all seem too easily resolved, not to mention that his understanding of the world is inconsistent and seemingly omniscient at times.

I will say that Burton’s dark take on Disney World is delightfully subversive and ironic, but it doesn’t make up for the missing magic in the movie. What is left is a somewhat entertaining, though surprisingly surfacey story that never reaches the heights it should have, but isn’t entirely without entertainment or merit, it just isn’t a new classic. As always, Burton’s designs are best on a big screen, but this is a somewhat neutered fantasy that will play better to younger audiences than adults and that won’t survive the ravages of time.

If Beale Street Could Talk

[3.5 stars]

On the surface, this is a small and personal tale of love and family. But it is, of course, much more than that. It is also, in its way, a modern day Color Purple, exposing social injustice on an intimate level, making it impossible to ignore or pretend to not understand. In some ways, the social injustice reflections are intrusive and jarring, much like portions of BlacKkKlansman, but in other ways it’s like having a friend explain their point of view and experience in a very real way.

Much like Barry Jenkin’s previous Moonlight, this is as much a poem as it is a story. It is told in small vignettes across two timelines. We see the start of the relationship between Stephan James (Selma) and KiKi Layne reflected against the ultimate resolution of it. It is a beautiful story full of unexpected moments and passion. It is a tale about what makes family and how family makes us. The young pair are magnetic and we can recognize our own passions in them even if we’ve outgrown some of the intensity.

Regina King is as solid as her golden statuette for the role suggests. She and the rest of the cast tend to surprise in their reactions to the world and one another. Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq) and Colman Domingo (Assassination Nation) complete Layne’s immediate family, who are fiercely supportive of one another. There is certainly strife, but it is clear from the outset how they can pull together.

There a number of important characters in smaller roles. Among them are a barely recognizable Ed Skrein (Tau), leveraging his trademark nasty streak and Finn Wittrock (La La Land) at the other end of that spectrum as examples.

After Moonlight, all eyes were on Barry Jenkins to deliver. With over 150 awards nominations, including 3 Oscar nods and a win, you could say he succeeded at least on some level. But whether this is a good movie or not is going to be a matter of personal taste. it is laconic in its narrative. It is intense in its emotions. It is preachy at times in its message. But it is effective and affecting not to mention beautifully filmed and directed.

Along with other recent films like The Hate U Give, Dope, Straight Outta Compton, or even Selma, 13th, and Hidden Figures, Beale Street gives us a view of America that has been long avoided but that is now starting to make its way into the mainstream. What we, as a society, do with that awareness is the next big question.

Studio 54

[3 stars]

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) tackles the late 70s hedonistic phenomena that spent a little over 30 months as the navel of party that shook the world. After Watergate and Viet Nam and before GRID/AIDS there was Studio 54. A place to see and be seen, and a legendary space to be outrageous without consequences. You were no one in the zeitgeist if you didn’t make it past the velvet rope at least once.

If you were too young to even know about Studio 54, other than as one of its resurrected flops or as a concert and play venue, you are missing a bit of history that set the stage for all the clubs that followed it. Nothing has matched its success or its atmosphere since. It arrived at a unique time in society and provided the closest thing to the Jazz Age since the 1920s (or Bread and Circuses since the Romans)… but it did it as a unique and sole purveyor of that experience.

There was a lot to love and hate about Studio 54, and Tyrnauer doesn’t shrink from that, just as he hasn’t from subjects in the past. He allows the story to tell itself, though the story he is trying to tell here isn’t very crisp due to its scope. But it is primarily about the rise and fall of the club as well as the impact on its creators Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. The story is told through archival footage and many reminiscences of employees, patrons, and Schrager himself.

The timing of this story is particularly good now as the wealth gap continues to grow around the world. And there is something oddly resonate about the downfall of Rubell and Schrager with today’s politics. The sense of abuse of power is rife, though no one denies they were guilty of plenty. But it is also the way the public themselves raised them up and then tore them down that feels very present in the hyper-social-media environment of today.

The story of Studio 54 is hypnotic, much like the venue itself. It feels very far away now and yet it is still in the bones of today’s world. The story rides a crest of historical waves that no one saw coming but was a necessary catharsis for the country and world. It raises interesting, if unspoken, questions about notoriety and power. And it has a sound track that will jangle your nostalgia or, if you’re younger, seem quaint.  And it has a cast of characters, like Roy Cohn, who are back in the news again these days on a regular basis (even though he’s been dead for over 30 years), thanks to their connections to current power.

Basically, this an historical feast and tale, which may not be fully balanced or complete, but is an interesting window to gaze through.

Shoplifters

[4 stars]

Hirokazu Koreeda wrote and directed this heart-battering and darkly funny look at family that crosses the sense and sensibility of Roma with Florida Project. He continues to plumb some of his favorite themes around family that have often informed his movies and garnered him many awards and nominations.

Shoplifters is a subtle and complicated story that revolves around a low-income family struggling in a unidentified Japanese city. It is a view of that culture that will seem both familiar and utterly unexpected. Koreeda takes his time with the tale, but is constantly building it through the two hours. It is oddly hypnotic through its presentation and its story, but with a tension underneath that keeps your attention and curiosity.

This isn’t a simple tale, nor a perfectly happy one; it is more honest than aspirational. But it is beautiful and oddly hopeful and will leave you thinking about it and discussing it for days afterwards.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

[3 stars]

A new Coen brothers (Hail, Caesar!) movie is always reason to celebrate, or at least to take notice. They are responsible for some of the weirdest and most wonderful cinema of the last 30 years. And they have garnered nearly 300 award nominations, winning nearly half of them. Their work is idiosyncratic and uneven, but always inventive and intense. Buster Scruggs is no exception.

So what is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? It is a collection of six shorts held together only by the Western theme that binds the framing book that opens the film. If you are a lover of subversive westerns (think The Dressmaker or Pale Rider, though thoughts of Blazing Saddles probably aren’t out of order), this is probably for you. The stories are organized to become increasingly dark and reserved, but, honestly, the first half of the anthology is much more interesting and effective than the latter half. And it never really came together as a whole for me.

It opens with the eponymous segment, which is a hilarious send up led with real talent by Tim Blake Nelson (Colossal). From there, things begin to shift and take a very dark turn by the wonderful third segment, Meal Ticket, in which Harry Melling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) steals the screen from Liam Neeson (Widows). The remaining segments aren’t bad, but become more about what the West really was than how we picture it. And the latter three stories drag a little for my taste. In many ways, thanks to the dose of reality, they are closer to real Westerns despite their moments of satire and commentary. I’m not particularly a Western fan, so it isn’t surprising that they left me a little nonplussed. Certainly, like all Coen brothers films, the are all loaded with recognizable and talented faces.

All that said, I’m not entirely sure how this particular offering garnered three Oscar nominations, even if they were for song, costume, and screenplay. I don’t think it really has a chance at any of them given the competition. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing, it is. And, nicely, you can exit it at the end of any one of the sequences and probably feel satisfied though I’m sure the Coen’s would argue you aren’t going to get their point. But I didn’t really get their point and I did watch the whole thing. Or perhaps I did, but got it early and didn’t need to be hammered. Regardless, there are moments through to the end that are worth seeing, if you’ve the patience, and performances are all very entertaining.

Now to the bigger question, is Netflix really a player in cinema now? Between Roma and this movie, they’ve got more than two fist fulls of Oscar nominations, not to mention all the other noms and wins this season. But what is more important to the art of the industry is that Netflix offered both movies the chance to be what their creators envisioned, without the obligation to create something to be a “hit.” In an odd way, Netflix, and other services, are reinvigorating the idea of artistic vision in a way that the studios have crushed in their search for tentpoles and only tentpoles. The success of Roma in particular is challenging the idea that streaming and theatrical releases can’t co-exist. They Shall Not Grow Old has also had a huge theater run, though initially through TV, then Fathom Events, and now broader release. The rules are definitely changing and maybe it’s time for Hollywood and the theater chains to catch up.

Glass

[4 stars]

Go to Glass, but don’t try to watch the movie you wanted to see… see the movie that is on offer to watch if you want to enjoy yourself.

M. Night Shyamalan has always made the movies he wanted to make, for better or worse. He rarely compromises his vision, but he also often confounds audience expectations. And, sadly, most audiences don’t want to be challenged. Their loss, more often than not. And Glass definitely isn’t the movie you think it is going to be. Honestly, I loved it once I let go and went with it, but I know a lot of people out there were frustrated.

Another aspect weighing on Glass is that it isn’t a stand-alone story. Absent Split and Unbreakable, it means nothing and doesn’t work. Together, they are a great trilogy, but Glass has no individual foundation like the other two films. Ninteen years ago Unbreakable left us hanging with David Dunn’s and Mr. Glass’s story. It was a love it or hate it comic book film that predated the current rush of such things, but foresaw the tone. Split surprised us all a couple years ago by connecting to Dunn’s tale at the end. And now…Glass…the story we’ve been waiting for so long it was almost guaranteed to disappoint. To be fair, Shyamalan and the studios probably strung out the anticipation a bit too long to make this a complete success–we’ve had too long to plan on what we expected.

The challenges of the movie aside, Shyamalan managed to collect almost all the principles from the previous two movies. Bruce Willis (Death Wish), Spencer Treat Clark (Animal Kingdom), Charlayne Woodard (Pose), and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) all came back and felt like they’d lived the 19 intervening years. Likewise for James McAvoy (Sherlock Gnomes), and Anya Taylor-Joy’s (Thoroughbreds) three years since Split. Taylor-Joy, in particular, has a fascinating challenge for her character.

But these were from the past, and Shyamalan was just as invested in his world in the present. Sarah Paulson (Bird Box) with some assistance by Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and Adam David Thompson (The Sinner) create the framework for the new story…or the explanation of the old ones. As with all Shyamalan films, there are things that feel wrong or out of place, but if you trust the filmmaker, it will all eventually make sense.

In prep, I did rewatch Unbreakable for the first time in about 18 years and I was glad I did. It still holds up wonderfully and there are some important and minor aspects I’d forgotten. Unbreakable was also eerily prescient, coming out the year before 9/11 and with nods to other current movements in our culture. But, most of all, it was it’s intent on making an origin story that was ahead of its time. Heroes that are human, villains too, was not the coin of the day back then, but was about to sweep the entertainment world two years later with Spider-Man and eight years later with the launch of the MCU.

As the end of a trilogy, I think Glass will eventually find its place in the pantheon of fandom. Why? Because it is a real trilogy, with three different stories that connect into a great whole. Compare this to other trilogies that are just the same story but with raised stakes to sub in for more story (Hunger Games, Fast & Furious, John Wick). It is going to take some time for folks to adjust to the realities of this final installment and, perhaps, some investment in rewatching the previous movies to see how they all fit together so nicely. There aren’t many directors out there who would have even tried to complete that vision, and fewer still who have properties that deserved it. Shyamalan is still a storyteller I respect a great deal, even with some of his truly awful films like After Earth and The Happening.

So, again, let go of what you think the story is of Unbreakable, Split, and Glass. Give each character and tale their due, and trust a great storyteller to make something complete and satisfying, even if it isn’t quite the meal you expected to sit down to.