Tag Archives: Director

The Kitchen

[3 stars]

Not to be confused with the 2013 dark social comedy The Kitchen, this is a hard, if fanciful, look at mob protection with some nice twists. Andrea  Berloff’s (Straight Outta Compton) adaptation of the same-named comics takes place in the late 70’s in NYC. At that time Times Square was still Times Square, Studio 54 was at its peak, and Hell’s Kitchen was the dangerous place Daredevil stalked trying to keep it safe. And, more germane to this movie, women were still completely sidelined by society and institutions despite Gloria Steinem and the feminism movement.

Sitting in her first director’s chair, Andrea Berloff tackles that dark and interesting world through three women trying to rise above their circumstances. Berloff’s script is bald and honest. But beyond her sensibilities, it was her cast who sold this emancipation story.

In the case of Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), she continues to plumb her dramatic depths well, but doesn’t add much new to her opus. On the other hand Tiffany Haddish (The Secret Life of Pets 2) gives us a hard-as-nails character who is ambitious and in control, and without a single broad-comedy bone in her body. But it is Elisabeth Moss (The Seagull) who runs away with the movie in this trinity. Her journey is painful and fascinating as she extricates herself from an abusive marriage and finds her inner strength and power with brilliant assistance from Domhnall Gleeson (The Little Stranger). And, it should be noted, that Margo Martindale (Instant Family) has a fun, smaller role to add to the dark view and comedy of the story.

This is not a light movie. Worth your time? Yes. But not a night for relaxing or unwinding. It is intense, violent, even while being oddly compelling. For Moss and Haddish’s performances alone it is worth seeing. And Gleeson’s is an extra little gift amidst it all.

The Dead Don’t Die

[3 stars]

Is there anything quite as indie as a Jim Jarmusch (Paterson) movie? His latest foray into genre isn’t quite as sharp as his last, sadly, but it is still full of dark, flat humor. The Dead Don’t Die is more of a satirical/meta take on the zombie apocalypse rather than an exploration of what the condition might mean to characters. But the humor is unique and fun. And the story, while unashamedly inevitable, has plenty of surprises.

Part of those surprises is the cast. Jarmusch has always had his stable of actors. Tilda Swinton (The Souvenir) for one, Bill Murray (Zombieland) for another. Along with Adam Driver (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), the three really drive the story, but they’ve plenty of help from others, like Tom Waits (Old Man & the Gun), Chloë Sevigny (Golden Exits) and Steve Buscemi (The Death of Stalin). Jarmusch is also great at getting his actors to work against expected type. While broad in its approach, everyone remains very grounded and matter of fact. Not quite naturalistic, but definitely not the high drama of your typical horror film either. It is a quiet, if bloody, apocalypse.

What the story lacks is something more than the sly genre humor and in-your-face societal slams. There isn’t a lot being said that is new nor anything being done in a particularly special way (absent one amusing take on zombie focus). Perhaps that is, in part, due to the speed and challenges of its filming? However, if you like his work as I do, you’ll like this latest. It was definitely an enjoyable time spent for me.

Jojo Rabbit

[4 stars]

Everyone’s goto for humor is Hitler and the Nazi regeim at the end of WWII; funny stuff, right? How Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) got this film made, I couldn’t possible explain, but it is a wickedly funny gut punch of a movie. (Appropriately [and amusingly] I found myself watching this satire on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which added to the schadenfreud of it all).

Everything you need to know about Jojo you get in the first 10 minutes (in one of the funniest, most absurd film openings I’ve seen in ages)… all the rest is journey. And what a journey it is, and not one you’re likely to get much ahead of during the setup. The resolution becomes inevitible, but with just enough room for doubts to keep it interesting. And his use of music to get his points across is, at times, genius. Unfortunately, it is also at times way off base, clashing with the onscreen sound and action.

While Scarlette Johansson (Isle of Dogs) and Sam Rockwell (Best of Enemies) provide some adult framework for the story, it is told through the eyes of children. Primarily that is through Roman Griffin Davis’s Jojo. For his first film, Davis carries the story admirably, with all the gravitas and sincerity a 10 year old can bring. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) serves as the friction point of his decision-making, while another newcome, Archie Yates, provides some peer comic relief. Watching these three young actors is great fun as Waititi keeps them honest in all aspects.

There are some other fun side bits that run through the film driven by smaller adult roles. Alfie Allen (Predator), Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic), and Stephen Merchant (Fighting With My Family) have the best, but there are many. Waititi’s Hitler isn’t really among them for me. I understand why he took the role himself in order to hit just the right tone he had in his head, but it is an uneven performance.

Satire is hard. Waititi pulls it off in style, if imperfectly. The broad Monty Pythonesque humor will work for most people, while the political commentary may turn off others. However, this isn’t just Waititi playing silly buggers, it’s his reaction to the world today. He is far from the first to reflect that back to WWII, but, so far, he’s done it with the most belly laughs to get the point across.

So, yes, go see this and strap in for a wild, unexpected ride. While Preacher may have tried to get there, no one since Mel Brooks’ The Producers has managed anything close to the result here. It isn’t always easy to stomach, but it is one of the more unique films you’ll see this year.

Parasite

[4 stars]

Joon-ho Bong (Okja) doesn’t make easy movies, nor does he have a high opinion of humanity. Even when he allows for happiness in his worlds, it is typically for children and in spite of what the reality is around them. Parasite is no exception. It is dark, funny, human, and, above all, a tragic tale of class and identity.

Parasite is, generally, a tale of two families, one with means and one who will do anything to achieve means. The cast is a mix of recognizable and newer faces, assuming you watch Korean films. Kang-ho Song (Snowpiercer),  Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi (Okja), and So-dam Park form the main focus, struggling to survive. They collide with Yeo-jeong Jo and her family as well as Jeong-eun Lee (Mother) and Myeong-hoon Park in funny ways that eventually turn pitch black.

But, of course, it is never so simple as it sounds in the description of Joon-ho’s films. Why any of these characters are succeeding or struggling is a matter of debate and perspective. And it all takes place in meticulously designed settings and cinematography that capture the story and subtext.

I know this is running at near 100% on Rotten Tomatos, and from a craft point of view I understand that. As an experience I found it a little more uneven. However, I can see why the movie has won so much attention and awards; but it is more a powerful experience than it is an entertaining or instructive movie. And while not as physcially violent and tackling different issues as the Korean classic, Oldeuboi (Oldboy), it is in many ways just as challenging. Joon-ho has delivered  a pitch-black comedy that is as timely as Joker. And, ultimately, both tackle many of the same aspects of people and society, leaving you breathless. The question is whether your psyche is strong enough to take the journey.

Gemini Man

[4 stars]

Movies, generally, shouldn’t be recommended solely for their technology. But there are exceptions. Avatar, was a lousy movie, but amazing 3D. Life of Pi was a gorgeous fantasy that pushed limits, but wasn’t a perfect film. Gravity took liberties with physics to tell its own (strained) story, but also used the value of 3D in exciting ways. In each of these cases, seeing the film in 2D was a disservice to the director and to the audience. They were conceived in 3D and were intended to be seen that way. You wouldn’t view a statue only as a photograph if it was there in front of you, why should we see a flattened version of story?

Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) attacked Gemini Man very much in the same vein. He wanted to push the value of 3D and to create a new experience for his audience with a high frame rate (HFR) presentation. He succeeded, but far too few people will see the movie as intended. And, to be fair, without 3D and HFR the movie will seem like just a rehash of older adventure film without much to offer. See this movie as intended. It is either the swan song of 3D in movies or the genesis of a new approach and experience.

But let’s talk about the story first. One of the challenges with this film is that the original material had been in development for over 20 years. That sensibility continues to inform it. The studio also didn’t know how to promote it without giving away a huge portion of the plot, so we’re all in on the crux of the tale going in. It’s not as bad a reveal as ruining The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game for someone, but it certainly changes your viewing of it.

Will Smith (Bright) is compelling as an aging assassin and as his younger self. He isn’t just world weary, he is awakening. By his side, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Hollars) offers up a solid companion and comptent fighter, while Benedict Wong (Annihilation) helps focus the humor and assist in the action.

Clive Owen (Anon), on the other hand, is a little cookie-cutter in his bad merceny role. There were levels there, but they didn’t quite sell for me. This was as much a choice as a fault and part of the 80s/90s vibe of the overall movie that writers David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Darren Lemke (Goosebumps), and Billy Ray (Overlord) baked into the script. But the story is exciting, entertaining, and enjoyable…just not revelatory for spy thrillers.

Now let’s get to the technology layer that brings this film over the top. First off, the digital Will Smith came across as completely real for me. However, I saw Gemini in a modified HFR 3D (60 fps/2K resolution). Unfortunately, only four theaters in the country can show the fim as intended (120fps/4K resolution)…and I envy those that could see it that way. Why? Because at even at half the rate and resolution of the intended viewing, it was astounding. The clarity was jaw dropping. The action was visceral. The use of 3D was mostly carefully selected to enhance the tale. The movie literally jumps off the screen putting you in it at points. HFR tricks your brain into making it feel real. Typical films keep you at a distance at 30fps. Your brain sees it as unreal. But at 60fps it can’t always tell the difference.

It does cause some cognitive dissonance. At least for me, when there were extreme closeups, putting giant heads into frame, my brain balked at the relative perspective issues. But action sequences were like being on a roller coaster. No motion sickness, but you do feel like you are strapped in with the characters. The point is that the tech doesn’t just make it all pretty (though wait till you see the water scenes) it changes your experience of the film.  An interview with Lee goes over some of the technology and story aspects if you want it from the horses mouth.

Go see Gemini in HFR 3D if you can. It is fun and it is something you haven’t seen before, unless you were fortunate (or unfortuanate, as some have claimed) to see The Hobbit in its HFR release. In 2D, Gemini probably will leave you a bit underwhelmed because half the story and experience won’t be there for you.

Joker

[5 stars]

Holy Makeover, Batman! Whatever you think this movie is, whether from trailer or your knowledge of the DC universe, you’re wrong. This is a complex tale of psychology and humanity, of society and sociology. It is dark as hell, but worth every moment you spend with it watching the world mold the iconic character into the villain we thought we knew. It isn’t a comic book movie, though it is, in all fairness, an origin story.

The Joker himself has had a parade of notables behind the make-up. The character has become the modern equivalent of Hamlet for actors in the current age. Each has made his mark, even rising to Oscar worthiness…and we may be there again with Joaquin Phoenix (An Irrational Man). Phoenix is the movie, even with Frances Conroy (No Pay, Nudity) and Robert De Niro (Last Vegas) hanging about in key roles, and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) supporting him.

But Phoenix would have been nowhere without his director and the script. Admittedly, Todd Phillips is not a director I would typically run to see but, with co-writer Scott Silver (The Fighter), Joker is one of the most gripping and well-crafted films of the year so far. It gets that distinction because it isn’t really about the Joker. Even though it is his origin story, that isn’t all it’s about. In fact, in many ways they have delivered a darker and more ironic V for Vendetta. In other words, the timing couldn’t have been better for this particular story. And I haven’t even touched on the craft of how well they made NYC/Gotham in the 70s live again.

Joker joins The Farewell on my list of the top movies this year. I’m willing to put my money on the table and say it will be nominated pretty much across the board: actor, director, script, production design, costumes, editing, and possibly sound as well. It isn’t 100% perfect, and we could quibble about some of the choices, but it is so close that it doesn’t matter if there are blemishes. Make time for this; just strap in and be prepared for the darkness.

Greta

[3.5 stars]

Up for some intense suspense and a truly well-done, credible stalking movie? Then you’re in luck. Chloë Grace Moretz (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) spars with the wonderful Isabelle Huppert in this story of friendship, loneliness, obsession…and just a little insanity. It is a fun tango of pain and desired connection.

With Maika Monroe (Tau), the three form and interesting triangle of female empowerment and connection. There are also Colm Feore (Umbrella Academy) and Stephen Rea (Utopia) hanging about the edges of their story, but it is the women who drive it all. And though written by two men, the script rarely falls into the trap of making them stereotypes. Each is strong in their own ways.

As both co-writer and director, Neil Jordan (Byzantium) is in his element with intense relationships and tales of suspense. He and co-writer Ray Wright (The Crazies) helps pull you along through small moments and decisions, each adding up to inevitable danger and tragedy. It really is one of those films you cringe through as it unfolds in the only way it can, but that you’re unable to look away from because you have to know how it will resolve. But that very tension is why it may not be a movie for everyone, even though it is done well. So, tackle this one only if you can stand the stress.

Hustlers

[4 stars]

Probably the funniest sad movie you’ll see in a long while. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) tackled the world and people of Hustlers with open eyes. No one comes off great in this film, but everyone comes off as someone real. Which isn’t to say the story isn’t stylized and energized, but it also isn’t entirely sanitized.

Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) are the primary focus of the movie. While Lopez sells the hard as nails aspect more than Wu, Wu captures the desperation and emotional drive for their decisions. Both performances are gripping and win you over. And then, of course, there is the delightful, though somewhat throwaway role, for Mercedes Rheul. Rheul, other than her “motherly” role, exists in this story for continuity and information, but she sells it well. There are plenty of other fun performances populating the film as well, but Julia Stiles (Jason Bourne) is the only other major player to stand out. In fact, Stiles does so with much less screen time than anyone else, not to mention hardly any lines.

Hustlers is an entertaining and fascinating peek inside a few different worlds. We’ve seen these worlds before, though often from very a different perspective. And rarely has the result felt as honest without becoming a diatribe or so dark that the watching was a chore.

Hustlers will let you laugh (a lot) and enjoy the story, it just won’t apologize for not covering up at least some of the darker realities of the lives it is sharing. And, more importantly, it is definitely a film and performances worth your time to see on the big screen, where the intimacy is forced upon you. On a small screen this movie will lose some of its punch by providing you distance and the ability to more easily look away from what you don’t want to see.

 

Blinded By the Light

[4 stars]

While this is a triumphant coming-of-age story, it is not just the light musical the trailers would have you believe. It is also a movie of the times that holds a mirror to mid-80s England to force us to re-evaluate our current situation. In other words, it is a pretty typical BBC movie in many ways, unafraid of the truth on the way to entertaining you.

Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha (It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, Bend it Like Beckham) is known for her quirky and funny, but honest, depictions of life.  She is equally adept at pulling heart-strings, making a point, or making us laugh. This film is no exception to that track record. Chadha finds the universal in the seemingly different and specific, which is why her films speak to such a broad audience.

Like Rocketman, she is also unafraid to use fantasy to capture reality. Sequences are heightened to bring Javed’s inner life into the real world at critical points in the story. Viveik Kalra’s performance hits the screen at these moments with heart and raw energy. Music transforms his life in a way any one of us could recognize, even if the breadth of the impact is far greater. Along with other young, and relatively unknown actors, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Nikita Mehta we’re taken on a journey of self-discovery, independence, and acceptance; and, of course, the meaning and value of family embodied by his parents, Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra.

There are also more recognizable faces, each with roles that shape the story through smaller moments. Hayley Atwell (Christopher Robin), Rob Brydon (The Trip), and David Hayman (Finding Your Feet) provide perspective and hope in an era that was rapidly losing both. Mid-80s England was seeing the rise of the NF and the political conservatism of Thatcher, all amidst a struggling economy that was impacting everyone, but particularly immigrant and low-income workers. Sound familiar?

Intended or not for the timing, Chadha has delivered a wonderful film of life and love that also happens to echo current travails. That it is also based on a true story makes it just that much more a delightful meal to feed exhausted nerves. And you’ll probably never hear Bruce the same way again. It isn’t purely entertainment, but it is also apologetically entertaining and unequivocally worth your time.

Where’d You Go Bernadette?

[3.5 stars]

Richard Linklater’s (Everybody Wants Some) latest film is imperfect in its details, but complete in its emotional journey. That is thanks to Cate Blanchett (The House with the Clock in the Walls) more than anything else. She takes us on Bernadette’s wild, and very personal ride, allowing us to both appreciate and find fault with her.  And, frankly, knitting together a scattered story and script.

Part of that tale is her family. Billy Crudup (Alien: Covenant), and newcomer Emma Nelson throw down with Blanchett to create a family in loving turmoil, fighting to make it through the storm. It is a surprisingly believable one, even though Crudup’s character feels very cliche for a good chunk of the film.

But many of the characters around Bernadette feel that way. Kristen Wiig (Ghostbusters) is similarly hollow, if recognizable and allowed to grow. Laurence Fishburne (John Wick 3: Parabellum) is a convenience. Only Zoe Chao (The OA) got entirely cheated by never being allowed to have impact or grow beyond the cheap comedy she was forced into. But each of these are bumpers for Bernadette to bounce off of and not much more. Important bumpers, each in their way, but not full characters.

The script adaptation appears to be most at fault for these gaps and slightly scattered story. It feels like too much was shoe-horned into the two hours, keeping the story from remaining focused. There were too many side-trips and events and not quite enough was sacrificed from the original book. This isn’t unusual in Linklater’s films, but editing is one of his weaknesses. What he sees as being naturalistic is often just indulgent or boring.

Most of this movie’s weaknesses are quickly forgiven, from factual errors to misrepresentations, but they are there.  What is frustrating is that they needn’t be, they were all clear director/writer choices. Fortunately, Blanchett can pull the entire load in her wake. For her performance, and the emotional release of the tale, this is definitely a movie worth seeing.