Tag Archives: Director

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.

Cutie and the Boxer

[4 stars]

Certainly you can approach this purely as a documentary about Ushio Shinohara and/or Noriko  Shinohara, but that is just the surface of this odd window into the lives of the couple.

Zachary Heinzerling’s first film captured, as well as forced, a story to creation simply by being present in lives of these two people. We learn of their art and their impetus, but we also watch them change and say things that have clearly long been gestating…and you get the strong sense that they never would have been said without the cameras being present. That aspect brings an odd and wonderful layer to this documentary. It creates as well as captures art, simply by existing.

While this may all sound rather breezy, the story that unfolds is actually rather complex and, at times, dark. But it is also full of powerful attachment and love. Love we come to understand and, ultimately, see played out during the final role of the credits in a very direct way.

The result of Heinzerling’s efforts was the well deserved receipt of multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination. How you view the final product, as art, story, performance, or simply couple’s therapy is part of the charm and fascination of the piece.

Flower Of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto)

[3 stars]

Admittedly, as a filmmaker, Pedro Almodavar (I’m So Excited) is a matter of personal taste. I happen to enjoy his dark humor and skewed vision of the world. Flower of My Secret is actually a bit more mainstream than a lot of his earlier work, though Almodavar was a great choice for adapting the Dorothy Parker short story (The Lovely Leave).

In many ways it is riffing on a theme of independence that is getting a lot of attention these days (though this is from 1995). It would live comfortably alongside another Spanish language offering, Gloria nicely, though with a very different sensibility. 

Marisa Paredes (Queens) is wonderful as a grand dame lost and without a sense of her own strength, but eventually fighting to find it. Opposite her, in an unlikely role, is Juan Echanove. “Unlikely” because of his story and path, not because of the actor. Their relationship is best described as symbiotically odd. And yet, it works in Almodavar’s capable hands. 

Smaller roles by Almodavar stalwarts Rossy De Palma (Broken Embraces) as Paredes’ sister and the late Chus Lampreave (Broken Embraces) as her mother bring in some needed comedy and homespun grounding. The three work together wonderfully as a dysfunctional family devoted to one another. Another actor no longer with us,  Manuela Vargas, adds some other wonderful layers and moments as Paredes’ maid. 

For a bit of distraction that is less bittersweet than usual, this is worth catching up with if you missed it when it came out. Almodavar never picks easy characters for us to love, but he usually wins us over to their side before the final credits and helps us see ourselves in them while he’s at it. 

Roma

[4.5 stars]

This is one of the most affecting portrayals of real life I’ve seen. It is heartwarming and heartbreaking, occasionally terrifying and always engaging. It’s filmed with an ease and relaxed eye that provides a moving window on the action without ever letting you get too comfortable with that view. In some ways it evokes the Italian classic The Tree of Wooden Clogs, but with a more complete story to share. 

A lot of the success of the film is down to newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who is the center of it all. It is a great entree into film for her. She is engaging and honest on screen, full of depths that are sometimes stirred, but often left to build up with sediment that we watch rain down on her. Our view of her life is uncompromising, but her openness is disturbingly inviting to us as voyeurs. 

Roma is unique in a lot of ways. As primarily a streaming movie from a major director it raised eyebrows (and a lot of awards). As a black & white presentation in a high-def-color world, it forces a sense of nostalgia and provides a gorgeous pallet. As a moment in history, regarding immigration and inequality, it is timely. And, as a piece of film, it is nearly the complete vision of a single man. Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) was director, writer, cinematographer, and editor as well as producer on Roma. It makes this film a wonderfully personal and whole concept. It allowed Cuarón to take his time setting scenes and telling the story exactly as he intended without someone else’s filter being layered on. Of course, as a single vision, it is a tiny bit bloated and could probably have been trimmed ever so slightly. But it only shaves a tiny bit off the perfection of its final form. 

If you can see this on one of the rare big screen showings, make the time. It is beautiful visually. However, it still works on a reasonably sized television as well. But no matter how you see it, make time for this film. It will slowly enfold you in its arms before battering you around a bit; but it is full of hope as well as tragedy. It is, above all, human. 

Vice

[4 stars]

Hilarious. Nauseating. Angering. Unreal. Adam McKay’s (The Big Short) depiction and investigation into the life of Dick Cheney is full of energy and, from the outset, honest about where he stands on the subject.

Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) delivers an astounding performance as Cheney. To say he disappears into the role is an understatement. It is creepy, it is so believable. By his side, Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals) does an equally chilling turn as his wife, Lynne. Even while humanizing them, they are unabashedly power hungry, walking evil. Not that I or McKay have an opinion on the matter.

There are some rather good bit performances as well. Sam Rockwell’s (Woman Walks Ahead) George W. Bush grew on me as he played it out. LisaGay Hamilton (Take Shelter) as Condoleezza Rice was quietly magnetic and Shea Whigham (First Man) was decidedly vile. I do have to say that I didn’t find Steve Carrell’s (Welcome to Marwen) Rumsfeld very solid, which was disappointing. It eventually got there, but there was something off in his presence and I couldn’t ever quite see the real man.

One performance being utterly missed, because it is so invisible in many ways, is Jesse Plemons (Game Night). His role is somewhat thankless, but he is the engine that keeps it all humming along. It is a solid definition of supporting actor and worth mentioning.

There is no question this movie has an agenda, as I’ve mentioned. It is as accurate as possible (and it becomes clear why that is only “as possible”), but the overall tone is clear. And do stick through the first two sections of credits, and look carefully, to get McKay’s final points.

I’m not sure if this is an empowering film or simply a warning. Frankly, I had difficultly making it through as it isn’t what one could call hopeful. However, it is a strong reminder of why we have to stay involved in the process and think for ourselves. Democracy, like marriage, is work. Stop putting in the effort, stop asking questions, and stop holding people accountable and you only have yourself to blame for the results.

But, as a film, it is entertaining. Just go in with a deep breath and stay calm or you’ll find yourself tied in knots by the end.

The Favourite

[3.5 stars]

This makes three for three highly noticed, and very different, films for director Yorgos Lanthimos who hit the cinema consciousness with The Lobster followed by Killing of a Sacred Deer.  The first was surreal look at love, while the second was dark examination of family, life, and suburbia (or perhaps something else…honestly that one baffled me).

Despite the wildly different styles, there are some commonalities in his work. First, he gets great talent to bring his vision to life. In this case Olivia Colman (The Night Manager) and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience) reunite with Lanthimos to bring us two very different women. Colman as Queen Anne is a bundle of emotional issues, but with the power to move continents. Weisz, as her long-time friend, confidant, and adviser is either a Machiavellian blight on England’s rule, or Anne’s and her country’s protector from a ill-prepared monarch. Into this steps Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes), a fallen aristocrat, and cousin to Weisz, trying to survive. Dark hilarity ensues.

And that is the second aspect of commonality for Lanthimos: dark humor. It is a language he revels in and that suffuses his stories. Supporting that humor from the sidelines are Nicholas Hoult (Equals), Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Boy Erased), and James Smith (In the Loop), but this is very much the women’s movie.

One of the other striking commonalities for Lanthimos’s movies are the endings…or lack of them. His three most recent offerings all have contemplative endings that are open to interpretation. While he wrote Lobster and Sacred Deer, Davis and McNamara’s script for the Favourite fits comfortably with these other two at the final credits. I would say that the end of this movie is a bit clearer and has some powerful commentary, but also some aspects that left me pondering the meaning. That open end is likely pure Lanthimos as it is about the presentation rather than the dialogue. Honestly, it is the ending that dropped my rating of the overall film, which is otherwise an incredibly entertaining tale of court politics with enough of a contemporary flare to reach a wide audience and powerhouse acting to sell it.

This isn’t quite the laugh-fest I had hoped for when I sat down, but I did enjoy it a great deal. Colman, in particular, delivers a wonderful performance, only bits of which were spoiled by the trailers. That isn’t to diminish Weisz or Stone’s equally strong performances, but Colman ultimately controls this story.

Lanthimos continues to prove himself capable of delivering gripping, dark stories about people that entertain and make you think. I would still prefer slightly less cryptic endings, but the journey is worth the uncertainty at the end.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

[3.5 stars]

Watching a train wreck occur is not something that usually appeals to me. But this painfully honest depiction of Lee Israel’s adventure in forgery is a fascinating look at what someone is capable of if sufficiently desperate and full of a sense of entitlement. It isn’t a pretty picture, but it is packed with bleak and dark humor served perfectly by Melissa McCarthy (The Happytime Murders) and Richard E. Grant (The Hitman’s Bodyguard). Their performances are at once moving and disturbing, and not just a little bit funny.

McCarthy, all to often goes for broad, slapstick humor. I’m sure it pays the bills, but it is wonderful to see her use her real skills…those that make her comedy work so well…to give us something a bit more memorable and serious. Grant, as well, creates an indelible character that lives on well after the movie in your mind. Both are worth consideration of all the awards nods they’ve wracked up, and I expect they will be seeing more.

While these two dominate the story, supporting performances by Dolly Wells (Boundaries), Jane Curtain, and Anna Deavere Smith (Black-ish) help push along the story solidly. In fact the recreation of NYC of the early 80s, particularly in the circles they traveled, is spot on.

Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) is no stranger to darker material that needs to be handled with emotional care. The script by Holofcener and Whitty helps her out by finding a wonderful through-line that doesn’t feel forced or manipulated, even though it is obviously a fictionalization of the true events. Impressive for two writers without a many credits behind them. It never blinks and never makes an excuse for either main character. They are who they are…the title tells you everything you need to know about their attitudes.

You’ll be hearing about this film all through awards season, so make time for it. It will entertain, even with its dark filter, and it certainly is an unexpected ride.