Tag Archives: Director

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

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Synchronic

[3.5 stars]

Some writer/directors have a signature to their work; a flavor that identifies their efforts but that can be executed in many different ways. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are such a pair. They have returned with another brainbender in Sychronic. Their previous couple of movies, Spring and The Endless, were solid proving grounds for pulling together this much more mature piece of film. They keep learning with each release how far they can push ideas and how much they can leave unexplained. They also managed to snag a talented cast to pull it off.

In the primary role, Anthony Mackie (Outside the Wire) drives the story. Mackie has had wide-ranging taste in his recent roles, but they’re always characters with an inner strength and sense of morality. Synchronic, despite its dark overtones, is no exception to that list. And, in this case, the script and story are actually a match for his efforts. Opposite him is Jamie Dornan (A Private War) who anchors the story, quite literally, for the drifting Mackie. The two long-time friends and co-workers butt heads but they are a solid pairing against the dark and seedy life of being New Orleans EMTs.

The story, like Moorhead and Benson’s previous offerings, slowly reveals itself, though not in a straight line. It teases and plays with you. And, more importantly, it tries to cover all its bases as it goes. We learn with the characters what the issues and possibilities are. And, in the end, we are left with a sense of wonderfully incomplete completeness that is sure to generate conversations while the credits roll. It also has to be called out that the cinematography and edits are in beautiful support of the story.

I wasn’t sure what Synchronic would be when I started it. And that is probably the best way to go into it. Just enjoy the ride. The road is dark, but the destination holds  warm fire, friends, and family at the end, even if in unexpected ways.

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bliss

[4 stars]

There is definitely something brewing in the zeitgeist these days. What arguably began when The Matrix released (though it wasn’t a new idea then, and it isn’t now; it was just a fun and inventive adventure) has expanded and grown in the media. With stories like Devs, Upload, and others coming out with increasing frequency, people seem even more intrigued with the central questions of “what is reality”? The latest is Bliss, which tackles the same base questions and adds in addiction as a subplot. We know all of this within the first 5 minutes of the movie, but it is how it all plays out and plays with us that makes the next 100 minutes fascinating.

The journey is really just a dance between three characters. Salma Hayek (The Hummingbird Project) and Owen Wilson (Wonder) are the main core. We experience the world primarily through them. But Nesta Cooper (Travelers) adds a third axis to the story that is unexpected as it develops. Her performance is also extremely well controlled and modulated in a heartbreaking way. The three together create a pathway through the story that is as gripping as it is dark and wonderous.

I will say that the “truth” such as it is, is definitively presented and laid out by writer and director Mike Cahill (I Origins). But the resolution and choices are what the movie is really ultimately about. So even if you miss the clues, it really doesn’t ultimately matter. Cahill accomplishes what I honestly had wished the Wachowski’s had with their classic…which while fun, never was really willing to tackle the deeper and scarier questions about the world as a simulation. Of course, this also means Bliss doesn’t have super-fast pacing, but it is brimming with tension and suspense. At least it was for me.

Give Bliss a try, but don’t expect big effects, though there are some very subtle ones throughout (keep an eye on the background particularly through the first 15 minutes). The production is also beautifully designed with great care to enhance the ideas. And do expect some challenging science fiction and social questions. In other words, check it out when you want to think a little while you’re being entertained.

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The Way Back

[3 stars]

Everything you need to know about this story is in the title, though that meaning is certainly multi-layered. And while sports may drive this tale of redemption, it isn’t the point. But, to its credit, Brad Ingelsby’s (Out of the Furnace) script slowly gives up its secrets and resolutions in ways that feel satisfying and gripping. And Ben Affleck (The Town) delivers a performance that is quietly painful and raw without ever becoming so weighty as to be unwatchable.

While Affleck is the absolutely center of this story, director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant) marshalled a number of nuanced performances around him to blunt the tight focus. Among them, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar (Blindspotting), and Michaela Watkins (How to be a Latin Lover) stand out for their complex impact, though there are many others as well.

I have to admit, I wasn’t overly enthused about sitting down for this one. Affleck is a hit and miss actor for me. Basketball is not something I spend any time caring about. The world feels depressing enough these days without having to journey through someone else’s darkness. But all of those concerns lifted very quickly as the story unspooled. The performances are all very good and the story isn’t a disaster, though it is certainly upsetting at times. But it also feels very honest and assailable, keeping it from ever being crushed under its own weight. It’s definitely one of Affleck’s better performances and a number of the younger actors have some good screen time as well.

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It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

Promising Young Woman

[4.5 stars]

Some movies just sucker punch you because you’ve no idea what to expect. In terms of quality, this one’s right up there with Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Palm Springs…among the best this season.

Even more impressive is that this is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) first feature; she’s better known for her acting chops. But Promising Young Woman makes an impressive application of all she’s learned over the years in front of the camera.

And then there is the woman at the center of the on-screen story, Carrie Mulligan (Collateral).  She flattens you with her powerful performance and shoulders the film on screen with her charisma, intelligence, and sense of humor. From the moment she appears you can’t take your eyes off of her. And once you understand her, you can’t help but cheer her on and not turn away.

There are some nice supporting roles by Lavern Cox (Orange is the New Black), Clancy Brown, Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), and Alison Brie (Happiest Season). But this story is utterly through Mulligan’s eyes and perspective by necessity, and she carries it off.

The movie does have its weak moments, but they’re few. One aspect is around some of the soundtrack, which goes just a bit overboard at times, not trusting the actors and situation to make the point. The other is around some transitional moments that are less than smooth. But in the face of the rest of the film, I forgive them all.

Promising Young Woman grabs you by the soft bits and drags you through to the end. And it manages to remain triumphant despite the subject and the situations. It is sure to generate controversy and contemplation for the actions and probably even leave a few in the dust as to the title. But that’s all part of the point. Make time for this one, both for the central performance and the story itself. Despite the weird festival season, it’s been making itself heard, and I expect that to continue through the majors over the next few months.

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The Mauritanian

[4 stars]

Director Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) is drawn to the harsher realities of life and making them accessible and understandable. The Mauritanian is the story Mohamedou Slahi previously popularized in his book, Guantánamo Diary. Slahi is one of the victims of the choices made after 9/11 and the establishing of the Guantanamo Bay facility and its ongoing embarrassment.

While the story is confusing and angering and disturbing, what is astounding is how Slahi made it through and stayed positive, even forgiving. Tahar Rahim brings Slahi to the screen with a raw energy and empathy that is magnetic.

What helps set this story apart is its lack of explicit lines. Almost no one is completely good or evil. They are all portrayed as driven and, to the extent they can be at any time, honest with themselves or the situation. Even Slahi’s champions, Jodie Foster (Hotel Artemis) and Shailene Woodley (Snowden), aren’t necessarily there for him at the start; they’re there to defend the law, as they see it. On the opposing side, Benedict Cumberbatch (1917) and Zachary Levi (Shazam!) are there in righteous anger, and with a sense of extreme duty. All these characters evolve in unexpected ways.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it isn’t devoid of positive aspects. It is a reminder of the fact that we still haven’t recovered from our tragedies and that many innocents got swept up in the wake of a country gone mad. It is also a reminder of why the rule of law is so important and not intended to be bent to the will of a single administration or person. Not to mention of a reminder that we still have a mess to clean up and apologies to make even 20 years later.

Trial of the Chicago 7

[4 stars]

Angering, funny, and terrifying. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) chose the last time in the modern age that our democracy balanced on a knife edge to both instruct and provide hope for the times we’re in now. We got through it back then, afterall. The system ultimately worked despite every effort to subvert and abuse it. And while I recognize that as a false equivalency as the system itself has been undermined massively over the last 12 years, it isn’t entirely without merit as an argument. It certainly is a reminder of responsibility and where the power of the government lies.

And yet, I will admit that I’d avoided this story afraid of having to deal with the frustration of the reality it depicts. And, yes, I was tense with anger and frustration for a good part of the movie. But Sorkin punctuates the tension with some well barbed humor and glimmers of humanity to keep it moving along. He also landed some amazing talent to recreate those involved.

As a whole the cast is truly fantastic and wonderful at representing their historical counterparts. But there were a few standouts. Sacha Baron Cohen (Alice Through the Looking Glass) as Abbie Hoffman is chief amongst those. Mark Rylance (Blitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) are close behind along with John Carroll Lynch (Big Sky). And, in a purposefully incidental role, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) quietly and righteously froths with intelligence and fury on the periphery.

On the other side of the aisle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Project Power) and Frank Langella (The Time Being) are impressive to watch, but neither really gets much of an arc to work with. Even Gordon-Levitt, who gets a few important moments, doesn’t really get to exploit or explore them for us in any fully satisfying way. But without either of them, the rest of the story would have sagged and the truth would have been less richly displayed.

With Jan 20 just around the corner, the movie is also a lot more palatable than it was two months ago…though also with a reminder that democracy is something we have to constantly nurture. This movie is heavy with history, but it is also full of entertainment to help put it all in perspective. That is Sorkin’s genius as a writer and, now with this sophomore outing, also as a director. Trial is not an anti-government film. It’s a story of what happens when the government forgets that it works for the people, not the other way around.

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Soul

[4.5 stars]

Just wow. Not only is this a beautifully drawn and designed film, it’s a clever and engaging animated tale that will entertain young and old alike. In fact, the only reason I couldn’t give this a straight-up 5 stars was because of some of the minor bits that were there for laughs alone for the youngsters and small flaws that made no real-world sense. Otherwise, this is an instant classic and will bear up under rewatching for years to come.

The vocal duelling between Jamie Foxx (Project Power) and Tina Fey (Admission) is wonderfully entertaining and amusingly animated (literally and figuratively). Add the dry fun of Richard Ayoade (The Boxtrolls), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times), and Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) and you’ve an incredible pallet of humor to bounce off of. A host of smaller roles are given life by talented names as well. And then there’s the jazz arrangements and playing under the guidance of Jon Batiste.

Peter Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) co-directed and, with an assist by Mike Jones, co-wrote the script. It is a masterful piece of wry wit and honest reflection on life. There’s no point in describing more of it because you should just experience it, whether now or later. It’s a pity this one didn’t see the large screen, but it certainly entertains like it should and doesn’t disappoint.

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The Midnight Sky

[3.5 stars]

Nothing like a slow-burn tale of the end of the world to top off a pandemic year. Which isn’t to say this flick isn’t worth your time, it is. It just may not quite deliver the message or feeling you’re in search of at this moment. Because, while not devoid of hope, the die is cast at the beginning of the film leaving little doubt as to the ultimate ending. It even internally references On the Beach, just in case you missed the point. But it is also about survival and purpose. Like the more recent indies Aniara, These Final Hours or After We Leave, Midnight Sky is as much about trying to find someone and make sense of life before the end as it is about how to spend that time.

George Clooney (Money Monster) directed and stars in this contemplative feature. It even bears some resemblance to his previous starrer Solaris in style, though the pacing is better. There are also echoes of Gravity in the alternating pacing of calm and terror. And Mark L. Smith’s (Overlord) script adaptation is quiet but with enough tension to keep you locked in for the full two hours by bouncing between Clooney’s challenges and those upon the Aether, which is returning from Jupiter to a scorched Earth.

Clooney is helped along by a sharp cast in the counter-point group shipboard. Felicity Jones (On the Basis of Sex) and David Oyelowo (The Cloverfield Paradox) lead the crew, which is nicely stable despite the long time in space and the discoveries upon their return. This is what crews should be mentally, not quasi-hysterical or fractured individuals that tip over into instability at the first signs of challenge. Filling out the crew are some nice supporting performances by Demián Bichir (The Nun), Kyle Chandler (Godzilla: King of Monsters), and  Tiffany Boone (Beautiful Creatures).

But perhaps the biggest surprise in the cast is the young newcomer Caoilinn Springall. Her performance is riveting, with barely a dozen words to support it. The result is as much a credit to her as it is to Clooney’s direction.

This isn’t a perfect movie. There are aspects missing. But it is also wonderfully subtle and manages to connect with its audience in unexpected ways. Most importantly, it doesn’t feel the need to explain everything and insult its audience. The production decisions about the world in the movie are also nicely inventive and subtle. Only 50 years ahead of us, the team found a look that exploits technical trends without commenting on them, like 3D printing.

Know what you’re walking into before you spin it up, but keep this movie on your list until you do. The performances and approach are worth your time, even if the message and result are a bit harsh for a year filled with a constant sense of disaster.

 

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