Tag Archives: First film

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.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything

[3 stars]

As his first feature directing and co-writing (with Luke Matheny) Rob Meyer put together a sweet coming-of-age tale. It isn’t particularly better than many others of its genre, but it is certainly enjoyable and has some very good moments and humor.

The story centers around Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Apocalypse) and his struggle with his father and soon-to-be step-mother. The parents are played nicely by Daniela Lavender (Learning to Drive) and James LeGros (Nostalgia) but the script doesn’t really help them much. The situation and conversations are a little forced, and the parenting skills suspect, at best.

Smit-McPhee is joined by a motley collection of, well, nerds. Alex Wolff (Hereditary) and Katie Chang get some nice stories of their own. While Michael Chen is little more than a sad cliche.

The best, smaller role is unsurprisingly brought in by Ben Kingsley (The Jungle Book). Kingsley, with barely 5 minutes on screen, puts together the most memorable character of the film.

When this released in 2013, it was more unique and interesting. But a lot has happened in the intervening years. The world is more stressed and the expectations for films about young love have shifted. But, while it may not be best in class, it is certainly 90 minutes well spent. You won’t be sorry you got to know these characters, but it isn’t a movie you’re likely to come back to again.

We the Animals

[3 stars]

A deep and disturbing look at growing up and how much children pick up from their parents. But this story never quite goes where you expect it to, keeping what could have been an overwhelming drudge something darkly magical.

The three leads, Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian work beautifully together as free-range sibs. Only Gabriel had any previous credits, but they all come across as natural and with a sense of craft. The story is primarily from Rosado’s point of view, but without his onscreen brothers, the story wouldn’t have worked.

In a supporting, but brutal role, Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) gives us a mother surviving and loving while stumbling through life. Likewise, as their father, Raúl Castillo (Atypical) delivers an honest, destructive, and somehow still loving role model. Neither parent is going to win awards, but neither is so devoid of love and compassion as to be utterly evil in our eyes. That complexity is part of what sets this story apart.

In his first feature, Jeremiah Zagar drew on his documentarian roots in directing and co-writing this adaptation. He creates an atmosphere that is part Florida Project, part Kings of Summer, and maybe a dash of the atmosphere of Moonlight. It is deliberate and nearly poetic as it follows the three brothers through their days and lives over the period of about a year. It also managed to stack up a number of awards.

Honestly, this isn’t an easy film to watch. It is emotionally challenging and it flows at a low energy, allowing everything to feel very natural (which can border on naturally boring). But it pulls you along inexorably to the final moments. While it isn’t an entirely dark and depressing story, do save it for a night of catharsis or when you’re already feeling well centered. But see it for Zagar’s efforts and the performances, all of which will have an impact.

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.

Tau

[2.5 stars]

Another bit of marginal science fiction that is more horror and misogynistic tripe than it is a good movie. A surprising result given the strong female lead in Maika Monroe (Independence Day: Resurgence). Ed Skrein (Alita: Battle Angel), as her nemesis, is cardboard at best and a mustachio twirling black hat at worst. Even Gary Oldman (The Darkest Hour) as the recently generated AI is without a lot of impact, though he gets a moment or two.

For a first feature as director, Federico D’Alessandro does a reasonable job with what he had, and got a very nice look for the movie. Not a surprise as he has a long history in storyboards and animatics. It is really Noga Landau’s (The Magicians) script that is the big problem. There are moments of thoughtfulness in the action and issues, but mainly it is an excuse to raise mayhem, torture, and revenge. If you’re in that kind of mood, I suppose you could do worse, though you’re better off with something more like Assassination Nation which has all of that and better writing.

What you’ve got here is a rainy night flick that is way better than most of the SyFy offerings, but still not a great movie in and of itself. Enough to distract and, perhaps, maybe consider some ideas (stress on maybe). But this movie isn’t going to win awards or get massively recommended other than for Monroe in skimpy outfits and Skrein in tight clothing. Some nights that may just be enough. Your call.

Madeline’s Madeline

[2 stars]

About the only thing I can say good about this film is that the main leads have talent. The story never really comes together and the message, if any, is somewhat empty with nothing new to say.

Helena Howard, in her first role, really manages to own the screen and show range. And Molly Parker (Lost in Space) is a model of a mess along with Miranda July, both of whom serve as mother figures to Howard.

I will grant that Josephine Decker direction manages to pull you along an impossibly obtuse plot that seems to keep verging on meaning, but just as quickly falls apart. It is most certainly not meant to be taken as reality or at face value, but there are nuggets of “truth” in there that help build a world and the characters. Sadly, in the end, it is allowed to simply fall apart. I am all for non-traditional story-telling, but it has to get to a satisfying point to have made it worthwhile. In this case, it just didn’t get there.

Kusama: Infinity

[3.5 stars]

Like Cutie and the Boxer, this is a documentary about art, but it is much more about the politics of art and the artist’s life. Kusama has had a fascinating and challenging life. All of which has led to her impetus for creation, but not necessarily a penchant for happiness. She is also probably one of the more important artists of the modern movement that you may not have heard of, or at the least, understood her place in art history. (I know I didn’t before seeing this portrait of her life.)

Kusama’s art is challenging and, often as not, may leave you scratching your head. But the results of her efforts and ideas had profound impact on art you do know. I imagine that is a large part of why Heather Lenz was drawn to this story as her first directing feature. It is epic in scope and also a disturbing example sexism and racism, and it is has demonstrable historical importance. Though, it should be noted that that Kusama is still alive and producing and having sell-out shows around the globe.

As a movie, it is oddly constructed, but it also didn’t have an obvious path for the telling. Lenz jumps back and forth in Kusama’s life to provide context and a sense of her influences. It makes for some jarring moments, but told purely chronologically it would have been less interesting. Given Kusama’s art, the more gestalt approach to her story is probably appropriate. And, at less than 90 minutes, it isn’t a large investment for a glimpse inside an fascinating mind and a clearer understanding of many aspects of the modern art movement.

What They Had

[3 stars]

Why do we watch movies? To escape? To be entertained? To learn? To see something that is able to speak for us what we are unable to voice? I imagine all of those things at different times. Sometimes, it is just to see that we’re not alone in our struggles.

What They Had is a quiet and true ensemble piece that strips back the challenge of aging parents while layering in the risks of not living your own life. I can’t say it is entertaining so much as well done and that it manages to resonate.

The cast is solid all around. Hilary Swank (Logan Lucky), Michael Shannon (Little Drummer Girl), Robert Forster (Survivor), Blythe Danner (Hearts Beat Loud), and Taissa Farmiga (The Nun) each get there time and story. Each sells what they’ve got. Danner, in particular, pulls together a full person from the shards of a life, though it takes the entire movie to get there.

For her first film, writer/director Elizabeth Chomko tackled a highly personal subject, capturing the love and pathos it brings to many families. If you’re in the mood or simply need to know that others out there struggle with these issues as well, go for it. If you want laughs or even tears, you’re not likely going to be satisfied. This is more life than drama, not that things don’t happen, nor that there aren’t emotional moments, they just are more real than heightened. That is a compliment, but it returns us to the question: what are you watching for?

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.

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.