Tag Archives: Director

Wendy

[3.5 stars]

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is not only a gifted storyteller and filmmaker, he is incredibly astute at finding young talent. And while this second feature didn’t get the same kind of attention his first movie did, his abilities are on raw display.

The story, by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is a clever retelling of Peter Pan evoking, yet again, their Louisiana roots. The story takes the fantasy and and the desire to never grow up and makes it even more magical that the original Barry tale in some ways.

Part of that success is down to new-comers Devin France and Yashua Mack, in the roles of Wendy and Peter. They are near spooky in their ability to be both children and to seem to carry the wisdom of years behind their eyes. Some of that is, no doubt, Zeitlin’s ability to direct them, but much is their own innate talents.

The film is fluid and unexpected in the way it deals with reality. It provides a framework, but not many answers. And, ultimately, it lands on a joyous metaphor that is both positive and bitter-sweet. The largest failing of the story is it’s climax, mirroring “clap if you believe in fairies.” It is a moment that will work for most audiences, but which I found distancing and demanding in a way that was not embracing. It threw me out of the flick entirely in a very bad way. I understand the choice and assumptions, but it was a shame, after so much else before and after that moment worked, that he and his sister couldn’t see the issue they had tripped on with their choice.

That aside, the movie and its ideas are really special. Zeitlin continues to be a filmmaker to watch, with a unique and powerful vision of the world and an ability to nurture talent that might otherwise go missed.

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Infinitium: Subject Unknown

[3 stars]

Infinitum is an impressively delivered indie on the verge of greatness. I don’t even have to handicap it for how it was filmed nor the cameos by Ian McKellen (Animal Crackers, Good Liar) and Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones, Herself). The delivered result is a surprisingly polished, one-woman bravura performance by the relatively unknown Tori Butler-Hart. And that was an unexpected gift as, I will fully admit, I rented this movie because of McKellen and Hill, not realizing they were such a small part of it.

Butler-Hart and her husband, Matthew Butler-Hart, wrote and directed this 90 minute, trippy tale of parallel worlds. Taking advantage of the empty streets of the pandemic and the improved technology of iPhones, they and their family delivered a tense story of woman lost in a world and circumstances she doesn’t understand. McKellen and Hill provide a small amount of framework explaining it to us, but we have to discover it along with her…well, until near the very end when we’re spoon-fed an answer.

I imagine that those that care about the science, if not the specifics, underpinning the plot could debate the ending for quite some time. But this story provides a view not often shown in this sub-genre. And it works, or did for me, because it is delivered with complete conviction. And, more importantly, the two main talents of the Butler-Hart clan have intrigued me enough to seek out their previous and forthcoming projects.

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Dating & New York

[3.5 stars]

Like Broken Hearts Gallery, this first feature by Jonah Feingold delivers on almost all levels. They both aim at Millennial love connections and struggles. And both made me realize how much things have changed about dating… and how much they’ve really stayed the same. Dating & New York is a bit less polished than Broken Hearts, and it’s more unapologetically aimed at a younger audience, but there is plenty there for all ages to sympathize and recognize and laugh with (and at).

From the moment it starts we know we’re about to enter a sort of satirical view of old romance films, but done with both love and affection. It isn’t making fun of those fantasies so much as updating them. And the main couple in this modern romcom comes to wonderful life with Jaboukie Young-White and Francesca Reale (Stranger Things). The energy and easy nature of both are completely engaging. And their friends, Catherine Cohen (The Lovebirds) and Brian Muller, bring some framework and balance to what we know just has to get messy eventually, no matter how civilized and above-board it all starts.

Feingold keeps the pacing unrelenting…exhausting even, at times. The story is entertaining. The ending is honest and romantic. The gender flips he does are nicely turned. And, OK, absent one character, I never had any idea how any of these people supported themselves, but that wasn’t the focus of the story. Having found out he filmed it all in 15 days, this movie is sort of amazing.

This is a romantic comedy for both those that like romantic comedies and those who scoff at them. It’s an honest romantic comedy. Well, mostly honest. Mainly, it’s believable where it needs to be and wry where it threatens to get too syrupy. Above all, it’s fun and funny.

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Language Lessons

[3.5 stars]

Natalie Morales’ (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Mark Duplass’ (The Lazarus Effect) Language Lessons is probably the cleverest pandemic film I’ve seen in the last 18 months… precisely because it isn’t about the pandemic, even though it is obviously constructed as it is because of it. Unlike other completed efforts like Staged, Locked Down, or Songbird, this movie is more timeless. It took its constraints as a way to create something rather than as the reason for the story.

And the story is funny and touching all at once (and not entirely what you think it’s going to be). It manages to make an improbable situation feel completely honest and real. Morales did a great job directing and editing the final piece, and the story and script by Duplass and her is surprisingly compelling. The result is something truly affecting. The film’s already started to gather awards, and I suspect you’ll hear more about it as the season picks up. In a world hemmed in by Zoom calls, this manages to break out of the frame, even while staying within it.

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Chaos Walking

[3 stars]

Doug Liman (Locked Down) loves challenging subjects for his actioners. And Chaos Walking definitely provides both an interesting challenge to depict and a fun premise to play with. Unfortunately, the script, while cleverly staged and managed, ultimately doesn’t quite pay off. This doesn’t mean getting to the end isn’t a fun ride, but it feels like too small a story for such a big idea and presentation.

Add to this a few big talents and expectations are even higher. Tom Holland (Onward, The Impossible) and Daisy Ridley (Ophelia) provide suitable foils for one another and a fun tension. Though, it should be noted that Ridley’s maturity, despite their similar age, dominates their relationship. And while Mads Mikkleson (Another Round) is his typical creepy self in this role (something he does quite well) there isn’t much more to him. Not to mention a hollowly tortured David Oyelowo (The Water Man) whose climactic moments are empty of meaning and impact.

And that is the saddest part of the gap in this film. There is a lot of potential and a lot of suggestion but very little meat and character complexity. Based on and adapted by the author of the original YA novel, the story either lost its depth in translation to film or it was never there. Liman found the talent to milk everything out of the script they could, but it didn’t make up for those lacks.

While this sounds like I’m suggesting you skip this movie, I’m not. The way Liman presents the world and the tight editing to keep it all flowing are really intriguing (even if he did sort of reuse some of his old Jumper f/x). I’m certainly disappointed that it isn’t all it could have been, but still was entertained watching it unfold. Just know it won’t answer all your questions or fulfill all your wishes for such a rich idea.

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Night is Short, Walk on Girl (Yoru wa mijikashi aruke yo otome)

[3 stars]

A slightly surreal walk through an evening of learning about love, life, and alcohol. I say “slightly” surreal because unlike other animes that delve into the unreal, this watches it mostly from the outside rather than the inner experience for the characters. It’s sort of like watching your friends get drunk, but with peeks inside their heads and listening to their internal narration.

This is an earlier film by director Masaaki Yuasa (Japan Sinks 2020). Mind you, it isn’t all that old, only 4 years, but it is an earlier example of his efforts and a very different sort of perspective on the world than his most recent. The animation is also a lot simpler, even cruder at times. Simple line drawings and blocky representations rather than the rich worlds he’s been producing of late. And the story is hopelessly, though in a twisted way, romantic.

I can’t say I loved the tale, but it dragged me along and made me laugh, even between the cringes. I’m sure there is something to be gleaned about the segments of society he’s poking fun of even as he embraces them, but I’m equally sure a lot of that went way over my head. Still, I can make educated guesses, even if the nuances were lost on me. It helps that the main character, Naoko, is tirelessly optimistic and attempting to bring good into the world around her.

For a trippy sort of escape without a lot of weight to it, I was glad I went back to pick up this earlier film of Yuasa’s. It indicates a breadth of interests and possibilities for his talents that will keep me seeking him out for a while to come.

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Annette

[3 stars]

Describing Annette in explicit detail is pointless because it would provide events absent context…and Annette is all about context. The movie is, in truth, an opera couched as a meta musical. It’s about love and fame and family and pop culture and the insatiable need by the public to be fed a story. It’s also about children and narcissism and that moment when children become their own beings. It’s broad and yet also microscopic in its focus.  But is it good?

Well, it’s certainly unique. So let me come back to that question.

Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and Sparks have put together a mesmerizing story of intense fame and intense love. It is obvious it’s a tragedy from the start, but the path to that end, and then end of that path, makes you pull for change of course.

Adam Driver (Marriage Story) and Marion Cotillard (Assassin’s Creed) are an odd couple, by design. Each performs wonderfully, but I can’t say I ever really understood why the two of them were together. Perhaps that was by explicit choice or perhaps a lack of chemistry. Honestly, I can’t say which. It works for the story, but it is a bit less satisfying for the viewer.

Other than the chorus there aren’t many other individual characters to lay out this tale. But two others certainly make an impression. Simon Helberg (Florence Foster Jenkins) puts in a fine showing from their periphery, and the very young Devyn McDowell frankly blows the doors off with her scenes.

But again, is it good?

I honestly am struggling with that question. It is fascinating. It is inventive. It is almost so true to life as to not feel like it was an opera. It left me with ideas and images. And it was beautifully filmed and presented, right up there with a Peter Greenaway flick. I don’t want to talk about specifics because, honestly, you should be allowed to experience them as they appear… if you decide to put in the 2.5 hour commitment the film requires. Suffice to say, if this isn’t your cup of whiskey, you’ll turn it off in the first few minutes. If it is, you’ll find it a long sip to the bottom, but probably as intriguing as I found it. So let’s allow the decision of “good” to be in the eye of the beholder.

Annette Poster

Beckett

[3 stars]

There is something wonderful about Hitchcockian suspense/mystery films. By design and structure they entertain and they amuse. Kevin A. Rice’s script (his first) is definitely in that vein. It’ imperfect in plot and lacking the trademark humor, but it really captures the old master’s approach to the everyman caught in the web of deceit and without any context to what’s going on.

After a brief interlude to set up the adventure and the emotional foundation, we follow John David Washington (Tenet) down a rabbit hole of international intrigue where he’s about as clueless as we are…at least near the top. Frankly, the audience gets way ahead of him rather quickly, but it isn’t entirely unfair that he’s left baffled for as long as he is. Also, it’s becoming clear that Washington really likes to get the crap beat out of him in movies; and he’s good at it.

Washington’s character slowly makes he way across Greece to save his skin, not to mention others. Though the movie isn’t shy about leaving a wake of innocent bodies in his wake either. The bad folks here are cold and, mostly, efficient but without much depth. During these adventures, he crosses paths with a few that last more than a short scene and who we get to know a little such as Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) and Boyd Holbrook (Predator). But we never really connect with anyone in the story, including Washington, who can’t even manage a “thank you” to anyone into whose lives he introduces chaos until late in the film.

Director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, who is better known for his 2nd unit directing than his first, gets to really stretch his wings and talent. Keeping this movie rolling like an avalanche was no small feat. A slightly better script would have helped elevate the film, but the framing and story (which he has credit for) are solid.

If you need a bit of adventure with a mystery thrown in, and you don’t mind some cold violence, this will work for you. It is definitely a mixed bag emotionally and without a clean and simple ending, but I have to admit, I prefer them that way generally. And the gritty reality of it all is often very compelling.

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CODA

[4 stars]

Though I have to admit that it is a little manipulative, from the outset  of CODA you know you’re in for something a bit different. Like Sound of Metal, CODA explores deafness, in this case through the only hearing member of a deaf family. The situations and conversations are both hysterical and touching because  the story isn’t about deafness, it’s about connection and family. Certainly hearing plays into it all, but it is a foil rather than the point.

Emilia Jones (Locke & Key, Utopia) is captivating as the center of this story of transition and growing up; it doesn’t hurt that she also has some reasonable singing chops. And her family unit gives her plenty to work with. Marlee Matlin (The Magicians) and Troy Kotsur as her parents are particularly fun characters, with plenty of real meat to their stories as well. Daniel Durant’s struggle as her older brother will also ring both familiar and frustrating to many people. And then there is the hysterical friend in Amy Forsyth (Beautiful Boy) who gives Jones a confident and external connection from the cocoon of her family.

Eugenio Derbez (Dora and the Lost City of Gold) is one of the odder choices writer and director Sian Heder made. He is a riot and mostly believable. There is a whole life and character that we glimpse of him only through a keyhole. Which is, as it is for all high schooler’s and their teachers, very much Jones’s experience of him. While the performance adds energy and entertainment to the film, it is definitely not quite in sync with it’s surroundings. I’m sure that was on purpose, I just never quite found it wholly credible. And yet, it was necessary.

Similarly, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (Sing Street) was a a requirement for this kind of tale. But while he hit the emotional and visual marks, his voice wasn’t quite strong enough to make me believe in him the way Derbez did. I suspect he was held back to allow Jones to shine a bit more, but it weakened my belief in the situation overall.

But the combination of heart and humor in this story is a winner. It feels honest, even when it isn’t. It feels familiar, even if the specifics are a bit alien. And Heder’s use of audio is also wonderful; particularly one moment of epiphany and another of unexpected sound. It is a film not to be missed, not because it’s brilliant (though it is certainly very good) but because it is a story of hope and love and possibilities at a time when all of that feels so very far away.

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The Suicide Squad

[4 stars]

Now, let us first admit making a better Suicide Squad than last time was a fairly low bar. But James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) went beyond doing it better, he found the balance. Margot Robbie’s (Birds of Prey) Harley Quinn certainly plays a central role again, but she doesn’t bulldoze the entire story this time. Everyone on the crew can not only hold their own, but each also has their own story for us to follow.

So let’s talk story for a moment. There is a sub-genre of genre fiction called “gonzo.” Basically it means anything goes. If there is a gonzo-style director out there that can really pull it off in a popular delivery it’s Gunn. He has no shame and he has few limits on his imagination. And Suicide Squad as a base for a story was made for him.

And that’s the heart of it all. Gunn found the story. With Idris Elba (Legacy: Black Ops) at the core and the primary support of Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man), and digitally hysterical Sylvester Stallone (Animal Crackers) the crew blasts its way through challenge after situation. And the returning and nicely altered characters for Joel Kinnaman (Altered Carbon) and Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) add some unexpected aspects to it all. There also are plenty of other fun performances, including a bevy of cameo gifts Gunn gave to his old Guardian’s crew, not to mention an odd opportunity for Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who).

The only weak spot in the cast for me was John Cena (Bumblebee). Yes he was intended to be a big douche bag (per the script), but his byplay with Elba never really works. They don’t connect or repel one another in any visceral way, only in a lightly and predictably comic exchange. If there is a place Gunn fell short, it was that casting and that relationship.

But the ride, overall, as predictable as it is at times, is unrelenting and full of great moments as well as an overall arc. And, yes, there are also two tags during the credits that clearly help set up a sequel. If Gunn were to tackle that, I’d definitely be back, but I’m sort of hoping that they just leave this silly and wonderful little gem as a standalone. Whether you see this on large or small screen (and I saw it on small quite happily) you should see this if you’re a fan of comic anti-heroes. It’s a fast 2.25 hours and it will leave you smiling.

The Suicide Squad Poster