Tag Archives: Political Drama

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.

Motherless Brooklyn

[3.5 stars]

Are you craving a classic noir with a patina of modern times to it? Then you’re in luck, this is very much a noir, tempered with contemporary sensibilities and commentary. For his sophomore directorial outing and writing debut, Edward Norton (Collateral Beauty) tackled a monster. It may have taken 20 years to drag Johathan Lethem’s book to screen, but it found its time, especially in theme.

To make the result more impressive, Norton also stars in the film as a physically and emotionally complicated, aspiring detective on a mission. The film is also told almost entirely through his perspective, making his directorial accomplishments even more impressive…there is almost no scene he isn’t in.

But Norton also loaded the cast with talent. Top among those is Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color). She is wicked smart, but also the damsel in distress with which his life gets entangled.

Several smaller roles bring the story and world to life as well.  Michael Kenneth Williams (Assassin’s Creed) brings entertainment in character and music. Willem Dafoe (Vox Lux) and  Cherry Jones (The Beaver) create poles around which information and plot flows. And, of course, Bruce Willis (Glass) gets it all moving along with a hardboiled kick.

Only Bobby Cannavale (I, Tonya, Ant-Man) and Alec Baldwin (BlacKkKlansman) felt wrong to me. Cannavale was just too obvious…possibly the fault of script and directing more than the actor, but it diminished his work. And Baldwin was probably the only complete miscast in the film. He does fine, but his very presence (and probably on purpose) evokes his SNL persona of the last few years. When they began production, Norton probably had no sense of how popular that satire would become, but it worked against him here. While appropriate for the tale and the point, it pulled me out of the film multiple times.

Overall, this is both a period detective movie and a modern commentary. It makes the plot somewhat predictble and obvious, but not in a destructive way, just a familiar one. And the more you know of New York City history and politics (I’m talking about you, Robert Moses), the more you can pull from the story which is only a thinly veiled retelling of the past…way closer to reality than you might expect. I’m not entirely sure why it was all veiled given how close it is to the truth, but there you go.

The film does take its pacing queues from the past, but it manages to keep the tension high and the mystery intriguing which makes the 2.5 hours move along as you stumble with Norton through the dark and glorious sets that recreate the NYC of old. If you like old movies and want to see something different from the majority fare currently in theaters, this is a solid choice.

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.

The White Crow

[3 stars]

Dance biopics are often disappointing because the actors playing the subject of the film can’t…well, dance. That is not a gap here. Is Oleg Ivenko as good as Rudolf Nureyev? No, and the movie even highlights that in the credits. However, he is credible and you never watch thinking “a shame the guy can’t dance.”  The guy, and the company, can dance.

With that first challenge successfully won, you can watch the story. And the story is interesting. I do have to admit that the great David Hare’s (Collateral) script wasn’t quite up to his usual quality. The story meanders and isn’t particularly focused. What drives Nureyev both in dance and in life is left quite a bit to the imagination. Perhaps that’s fair. But there were subjects Hare danced around (no pun intended), and others he poured out in exposition. I’m not sure I ever really understood Nureyev or many of the people around him. By the time we get to the pivotal moment near the end, I can’t say, other than the obvious, why he or Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) act quite as they do.

While Ralph Fiennes (The Lego Batman Movie) directed, not to mention acted, competently, he wasn’t able to expose the subtleties of the character as cleanly for me as I’d have liked. Perhaps that was my own problem and density, but it was all a little muddled. More concerning was Fiennes handling of the timeline, which bounces through three periods trying to build out Nureyev’s character motivations. Finnes didn’t negotiate those boundaries as cleanly as he could have. It was easy to lose track of which period you were in and where it was in his life even with some cinematic clues helping.

My concerns aside, it is a story worth seeing. It’s one of the most believable portrayals of a dance giant as well as peek back at a period of history that’s worth remembering as its spectre reasserts today. Finnes likes tackling tough subjects and, as his directing chops grow, I look forward to seeing more of what he can accomplish.

The Current War: Director’s Cut

[2.5 stars]

After a long, torturous road to screen, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) image of this story finally made it to theaters. Unfortunately, what arrived was a soulless outline of a story, however well acted and filmed, due to first time feature writer Michael Mitnick’s (Vinyl) script. But I’ll come back to that.

The cast is loaded with recognizable talent. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Child in Time) and Matthew Macfadyen (Ripper Street) work with what they have reasonably well, though with little payoff. They are also both rather sanitized from their infamous and documented personalities. Nicholas Hoult (Tolkien) is a great, but wasted, Tesla (you get a more interesting and complete picture of Tesla from The Prestige). Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) isn’t particularly good, but he isn’t bad…he’s just a bit too young to sell his role. The women (all two of them), Tuppence Middleton (MI-5) and Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald), are actually both intriguing, but are tiny parts of the tale. Only Michael Shannon (What They Had) has a character with any real depth to it, allowing him to take over the center of the story….but who was going to come out to a movie about George Westinghouse?

What this movie needed was Aaron Sorkin on script to bring the past to life or Baz Lurhman to transform it into a modern fantasy as a dark mirror for our times. And that was the real brass ring it could have aimed for, but it missed its mark, in making the story applicable to today. The story of Edison v Tesla v Westinghouse v Morgan is a wonderful parallel for the current battle between Amazon, Google, and Facebook to control the internet and information. But that layer is completely lost, though enough of a whiff of it remains to make you long for it.

Current War should have been a timely story of the fight for the American future and soul at a time when industrialists got to control that fight unchecked. It looks eerily familar to the now times. So, assuming you can connect the dots for yourself, take this as entertainment or as object lesson. But do it at your leisure, this isn’t really worth your time to run out and see it despite Chung-hoon Chung‘s gorgeous cinematography.

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.

Hail Satan?

[4 stars]

Hellz yes, you should see this film.

Documentarian Penny Lane (Our Nixon) provides an entertaining and informative look inside the The Satanic Temple… and it’s most likely not what you think at all. Her film is a timely piece of reporting and a fascinating mental shift to experience. The way she walks you away from your preconceptions to the reality also demonstrates her command of the story.

But this isn’t a dry and boring tale. I laughed a lot…in all the right places. Lane, and the members of the TST, are full of wry humor. Given the situations they are involved in, that alone will up-level your sense of respect.

So, yeah, make time for this.

[And for the heck of it…and completely off topic, though topical: a Quartz Obsession on the history of Hell]

Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

[4 stars]

This series, a prequel to the classic and beloved movie, fully captures the sense and production design of the original. That is both its blessing and its curse. But that said, this story grew on me as it played out, unlike the same-day-launched Amazon fantasy Carnival Row, which diminished over time for me.

Let me get the “curse” comment out of the way. Having just rewatched the original flick, I was looking forward to some significant updating of the approach, particularly the Gelfling designs to make their mouths move more naturally. I can see the bind the producers were in…update a classic and risk the wrath of fans, or cleave closely to the original and risk a more dated feel. Definitely no-win. But there were subtle updates, especially to the Skeksis, whose tongues were truly a thing of creepy beauty.

Also, in order to provide a launching pad for the series, they twisted the known facts a little. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry about it. If you have, you’ll need to be more than a little patient to accept the setup and await it all to make sense. Of course the big question is how long before the movie does this series take place? No one seems to know or want to commit. My best guess was about 100 years or so, though it could be longer. The studio was purposefully vague and won’t pin it down.

The voice talent is an astounding list of folks; far too long to enumerate here. The puppeteering is top notch. The production design clever enough to link to the movie but still make it their own. The world of Thra is expanded and gorgeously designed. There are familiar characters and new ones to enjoy. The story is richly complex, despite its clear aim to pull in a younger audience as well as adults. And this installment of the story finally plumbs some of the dark depths the original movie touched on but wasn’t willing to dive into. In fact, the writers and director Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) helped marry the tale to current times in wonderful ways.

They also left plenty of room for more stories and a whispered about second season, but not in an unsatisfying way…well, at least if you know the movie. However, if you’ve not found the movie yet, wait to see where the series goes and then get to the end of the story.

As both a revival and a continuation of the tale, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a winner for me. There is something about the craft of bringing these inanimate creatures to life that sparks the imagination in ways CGI, or even most stop-action animation just can’t touch. Here’s hoping they get to continue the story and fully complete the sequence.

Legacy: Black Ops

[3 stars]

It isn’t so much the story that makes this powerful as much as Idris Elba’s (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) performance. The story itself is fairly straight-forward and obvious, but his journey through the story is not. And the ending will leave you with more questions than answers (in a good way).

Director, writer (and even editor) Thomas Ikimi crafts this primarily psychological suspense with a sharp eye. He backs Elba’s efforts with careful visual construction. He only distrusts his audience once or twice in the 90ish minutes, and never in a way that is insulting. The ultimate point and message of the story is slowly eeked out before hammering it home. One interesting bit of trivia about this movie is that it introduced Lara Pulver (The City & The City) to screen in a supporting role.

Even 10 years after its release, this movie is still topical and insightful, but this isn’t a laid-back or relaxed story for a fun evening; be prepared for the dark.