Tag Archives: First film

For My Father’s Kingdom

[3 stars]

Documentarians create films to expose truths, answer questions, and to understand the world. Lately, a number of these began as attempts to understand their own families, but exposed even broader and more universal stories than they originally imagined. Stories We Tell comes to mind, or Circus of Books.

Such is the case here for Vea Mafile’o. This story, inspired by her desire to understand her, if not estranged, certainly distant father and his actions, becomes a fascinating look at Tongan culture and church. As a window into both, it becomes a compelling story for those of us watching. This isn’t a society that is often depicted, even if there are many universals in the details as it unfolds. The story emerges despite some challenging choices in how it is put together, but it does still emerge. As an initial feature for both Mafile’o and co-director Jeremiah Tauamiti, their willingness to be honest and non-judgemental shows some solid promise for their projects ahead.

This is also an opportunity to see an outfit committed to capturing and promoting the Pacific islander life from the inside. In an age where society is trying to become so much more woke, outfits like Mafile’o’s  Malosi Pictures and her colleagues are indispensable. For that matter, just capturing and preserving the current cultures of the area as we homogenize is just as important.

The Rhythm Section

[3 stars]

As a follow-up to his quirky I Think We’re Alone Now, director Reed Morano brought us this contemplative actioner. That may seem a contradiction in terms…and it sort of is…but he stuck to his intent throughout, and I give him props for that. But it does make for a slow kind of assassin film. Think The Tourist rather than Taken or even Atomic Blonde.

Since Gloria proved it was possible, the number of tough female killers has been multiplying; particularly lately. They aren’t all home runs, but it is great to see so many more female driven actioners these days. Blake Lively (A Simple Favor) tackles the role with intensity and humility. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of Cameron Diaz’s turn in Being John Malkovich, when she allowed herself to be, well, completely unattractive in order to serve the part and movie. But, unlike Diaz, Lively drives this movie.

Jude Law (Vox Lux) and Sterling K. Brown (Waves) provide the higher profile support to Lively. Law is actually surprisingly credible in his role. Brown is as well, but it is less of a stretch role for him.

The real challenge for this movie was it’s script by first-timer Mark Burnell, who adapted his own novel for this outing. The story itself isn’t quite credible, though it is also clear it is intended as an origin story for a potential franchise; not one that will probably ever get made given movie’s results. And, more importantly, Burnell couldn’t let go of the internal dialogue moments from his book. The script lingers over Lively’s past long after it was necessary anymore to establish motive and struggles. Basically, he shouldn’t have adapted his own book…and Morano should have been more brutal during the edit. Had the movie been about 20 minutes shorter, its pacing might have pulled it together better.

It isn’t that I don’t want depth in my action leads, but this movie kept repeating the same moments and footage. Those efforts added nothing that a brief moment on a good actor’s face wouldn’t have been able to convey. And Morano had good actors in the leads.

So the short answer to this movie is that it is good, but slow, entertainment. The path and results of the adventure are somewhat easy to get ahead of, thanks again to the pacing, but the resolution is satisfying. If you’re looking for another female led story with a woman who is, ultimately, in control, you could do worse. I just wish it had been a bit tighter to energize it more.

The Rhythm Section Poster

Corpus Christi (Boze Cialo)

[4 stars]

The story of this movie, by first-timer Mateusz Pacewicz, is intense and uncompromising in many ways. It is reminiscent of Sweet Hereafter in both its pace and issues, but all in a very different frame. Playing on the idea of Corpus Christi, this is as much a personal tale as it is an allegory. But those overtones only come to you post-film thanks to its powerful presentation. Jan Komasa (@Suicide Room) took Pacewicz’s script and created a film that has been celebrated around the world.

And within those efforts by Pacewicz, Bartosz Bielenia owns this film; we spend almost the entire two hours watching Bielenia struggle and rejoice in life. There are a number of good performances around him, but they are all supporting in nature. If I were to call out anyone, it would be his two hosts in the lumber town, Aleksandra Konieczna and Eliza Rycembel, who both have several, quietly complex levels.

The film is inexorable and wonderful and painful all at once. It is aspirational and unflinching. It is a mirror to our best and worst selves. And it’s a reminder of what we can all be, and sometimes what we all are. I don’t mean to wax overly poetic, but while the experience of watching the movie is very down-to-earth, in trying to explain it, a string of superlatives just naturally comes to mind. The ending takes time to absorb and, no doubt, stirs reactions both good and bad. Not everyone who sees the film will agree it works, but, on reflection, I think it does.

Pacewicz continues to impress me with his choice of material and his ability to navigate the darker side of humanity with heart. This is film worth seeing, but it is intense enough that I don’t know if I’d watch it again more than once down the road. But I’m certainly glad I saw it at least this once.

Corpus Christi Poster

Palm Springs

[4 stars]

Such wonderful, sweet, evil fun.

Neither Andy Samberg (Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) nor Cristin Milioti (Modern Love) are strangers to comedy or satire. The two navigate the absurd landscape of life in Palm Springs in hysterically believable ways. And, with the help of a smaller role by J.K. Simmons (21 Bridges), you can easily commit to cheering, jeering, or sympathizing with their various predicaments.

First time feature director Max Barbakow did a wonderful job dancing along the edge of absurdity to deliver a romantic tale of finding yourself and finding another. Certainly, a lot of credit has to go to Andy Siara’s script as well, which expands on the themes of his other efforts in Lodge 49, though in much more satisfying way. And his opening scenes are a beautiful study in introducing a well-known trope in a new way.

Palm Springs had been heading to be a big splash indie release…in the before times. And I’ve no doubt it would have found its audience and done reasonably well. But the pandemic had it go straight to stream where, frankly, it lives comfortably and doesn’t feel diminished. This isn’t a big effects film, it is, for all its far reaching commentary, a small and intimate romance that will have you smiling and laughing through to the end, and into the credits.

Palm Springs Poster

29th & Gay

[2.5 stars]

This is seriously lo-fi; horrible sound, cheap film, found spaces. But it is also surprisingly sweet and amusing. But that’s what vanity projects can be like…well, to be fair, less vanity and more an actor creating work for himself. James Vasquez (Ready? OK!) wrote and starred in this highly personal and, I suspect, highly autobiographical tale of finally growing up and finding your way in the world. He was lucky enough to have Carrie Preston (who also had a part in Vasquez’s follow-up effort Ready? OK!) take the reins and direct this first feature of his.

In fact Vasquez managed to get several folks to return for that second film after lending talents to this one, including Michael Emerson (Evil), Kali Rocha (TiMER), and others. But the focus of this story is on Vasquez and his semi-obsession with Mike Doyle (Gayby), who is probably the most stable and subtle of the characters in the story.

However, this first effort of his is really raw, though inventively told. It feels like a super-sized thesis film…but it works. Just go with flow and enjoy the truths and humor. I can’t tell you why it works, other than the commitment of the actors and the recognizable human flaws, but it does. And it was interesting to see where he started…even if he seems to have stalled out since then.

Ophelia

[3.5 stars]

Retellings of well-established tales have been all the rage for the last decade or two in books and film. And it’s about time, with the current climate, that someone gave Ophelia her due… especially as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern already had the opportunity decades ago (more than once). This movie is actually a double adaptation… first as a book, and then into this screen version by first-timer Semi Chellas; but it retains its deep roots to Shakespeare.

The movie is decidedly female-driven, with Daisy Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) in the title role. She brings a steeley mind and brave innocence to the part as she slips in and around the play as we know it. And Naomi Watts (The Impossible) gives life and layers to Queen Gertrude that I’ve never seen. She is far from the purely manipulating and unfaithful woman that Shakespeare suggested, though she is also aware and culpable. And Clive Owen (Gemini Man) gives them both a solid foil to beat against.

With this new perspective on the story, Hamlet himself, George MacKay (1917), is practically a cipher, though MacKay imbues him with some significant drive and levels with his brief appearances. Brief moments from the original play provide us milestones of where we are in the tale and set context for Ophelia’s perspective. Some jibe with what we think we know and others are informed by the skewed narrative. The relatively unknown Devon Terrell, as Horatio…always the naive explainer of all things Hamlet…adds some nice depth to the story and bridges the action for Ophelia. One nice surprise is Sebastian De Souza (The Great) in a loathsome role which he pulls off smoothly.

Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of surprises as the alternative perspectives unfold. The foreshadowing and clues are not very subtle. But, then again, there aren’t many surprises in Hamlet anymore either, it’s so well known. Ultimately it’s rather satisfying how it all comes together without having to change the original tale. However, watching this female driven story where the women control their own destinies, but not the world around them, is an interesting experience. It keeps the integrity of Hamlet as we know it, but finally provides a full sense of personhood about the women, who have always been so key to Hamlet’s tale.

Ophelia Poster

Precarious

[3 stars]

Much like the recent surprise, The Vast of Night, this festival indie embraces its own strong point of view. In this case, though, the style is more magic realism than 50s scifi/horror homage. From the gorgeous opening credits through to the final visuals, it is a feast for the eyes. Your brain, admittedly, needs to take a bit of a holiday about the plot, but your eyes will be happy it did. The art direction and production quality are amazing as you glide through a twisted world of desperation and, for all intents, addiction in a sort of noir-esque tale of money and power. But it’s all kicked off, if not tied up with, a murder mystery that launches the story.

Like Blue Velvet, or the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, or just about any Jodorowsky, the story quickly slips sideways into a world of its own rules and language. We learn about it as the main characters do…or as they admit they do in any case. It isn’t a rushed journey. Some of the languid pace works for its purpose, though it would have been better for some tightening of shots, edits, and scenes.

But, if nothing else, watch at least the opening credits should you get the chance. If those don’t suck you in, then this flick isn’t for you.

In the end, the story doesn’t quite come together and make sense. This type of fantasy rarely does. However, in this case the logic, fully expanded, implies an undesired outcome, though the movie tries to suggest otherwise. But getting there is really quite a journey of practical effects and visual joy that just kept surprising me.

Check it out for some names you may be seeing again, especially Louise Franco as the art director. I’d also be curious to see what Weston Terray will come up with next to direct; he squeezed a lot out of this story and created a consistent and semi-magical mood out of a tough script (of his own devising). I’d love to see what he could do with a more solid tale and a more vicious editor. Ben Eshbach’s score was also a wonderful compliment to the mood and intent. And if you want a bit more on how it all came together, check out this discussion with Terray at FlimInk.

Precarious Poster

Emma. (2020)

[3 stars]

Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries) wrote a wonderful adaptation of Austen’s famous novel, which Autumn de Wilde directed flawlessly in her first feature outing. If you like Austen, you’re sure to love the result. If you like Austen. I’m fairly certain I’ve expressed my frustration with her work in the past. It isn’t a flat-out dismissal, but my bar is high for success.

I will say that I very much enjoyed the second half of this film. The first half was a rather tedious setup for the remainder. Not that there weren’t funny moment as we learned the characters. Anya Taylor-Joy (Glass) proves again what a range and depth she has as an actor as she dominates her house and neighbors. She is surrounded by many women of talent. Amber Anderson (Strike) and Taylor-Joy even perform their own music for the camera. Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness) is completely sympathetic as the simpering and sad-but-dedicated pawn who is the secondary thread that ties it all together. And Gemma Whelan (The End of the F***ing World) and Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) add some wonderful color to the world. As the quietly (mostly) ineffective head of household, Bill Nighy (Pokémon Detective Pikachu), of course, is hilarious throughout.

And then there were the suitors. Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) and Johnny Flynn (Lovesick/Scrotal Recall) were wonderfully odd and oddly human, and the standouts. Flynn, in particular, bringing Knightley to life in a heart-warming way.

My personal tastes aside, I do want to acknowledge that, for a first feature for both Catton and de Wilde, the result is amazing. I’d certainly look for more of de Wilde’s work. Catton I’d be more reticent about. I tried The Luminaries and was bored out of my skull. Like the first half of this movie, it moved very slowly with little to chew on that wasn’t obvious or kept my interest. I appreciate period dramas that retrain their sensibilities, but I do also demand to be intrigued and entertained in a way my contemporary brain expects to some degree. Otherwise what you have is a museum piece, not a show.

So, again, if you like Austen, you’ve found a perfect piece for your dietary needs. If you’re not a fan, and have some patience, this does pay off during the downslope side of the tale. It is certainly a gorgeous production from a cinematography and costume point of view as well.

Emma. Poster

And Then We Danced

[4 stars]

All you need to know to understand this wonderful, poignant tale of life in Georgia (as in former Soviet Union) is in the credits; a special thanks to the choreographer, who couldn’t be named, but without whom the movie couldn’t have been made. That statement, which comes after the story, crystallizes it all.

Writer/director Levan Akin and newcomers Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili picked up a pile of well-deserved awards for their efforts. The two leads not only deliver sweetly nuanced performances, they can also dance…like, seriously dance.

This is a paced film that slowly unfolds and ultimately builds to its climax in the final few minutes of film. Sustaining that, and building the tension as it moves along is all very subtle, but effective. And without that effort, the final scene would have been cheap theatrics rather than an unequivocal statement. Forgetting the character relationships that need to be established, the audience needs that time and day-in-the-life moments to learn some history and culture to put it all in context.

This was a perfect film for Pride month, absolutely. But it’s also a great view into a world few will have experienced, even while presenting universal emotions and struggles.

And Then We Danced Poster

Ne Zha (Ne Zha zhi mo tong jiang shi)

[3 stars]

This skews rather young, but with some good moments, some (though not all) incredible animation, and a truly not-American story. Which is part of both its interest and charm. It isn’t a simple tale nor one that follows the standard Hollywood tropes.  And, as a first feature by Yu Yang, it’s rather ambitious and delivers in a bit of an uneven way. But it kept me watching.

I also found little entertainment difference between the subtitled and dub versions. In fact, there is an interesting advantage to the dub. Even while watching the  dub version, I kept the English subtitles on as they were often quite different from the spoken dialogue. Not just subtle differences…plot differences. It all added a whole other layer of intrigue for me. The legends and culture upon which the story is based have no touchstone in Western myth. The conflict in translation is fascinating.

And, as it turns out, this is the first part of a longer story…the next piece gets laid out during the credits. I actually hope the other parts are forthcoming. I’m curious to see how they can keep it all going now that they’ve laid out their origin story.

Nezha Poster