Saturday, December 31, 2022

A Man Called Otto isn't essential, but it is moving more often than not

CW: Discussion of suicide ahead

While it's always good to see Tom Hanks in anything, A Man Called Otto can't help but feel, on the surface, like a strange and even downright unwelcome visitor. A remake of the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, itself an adaptation of the famous novel of the same name by Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Otto belongs to that treacherous subgenre of English-language remakes of foreign-language movies. For every The Departed, a proper way of translating an international film to a quality standalone motion picture, we get a dozen or so of these kinds of remakes that add nothing to the films they're adapting. They merely feel like ways to cash in on familiar brand names, regurgitate stories told better elsewhere, and quietly reinforce the idea that the only movies worth watching are the ones told in English.

A Man Called Otto's worst elements do echo the infamous shortcomings of many English-language remakes of foreign-language movies, namely in being less subtle and daring than the film that inspired it. But shockingly, writer David Magee and director Marc Forster have concocted a touching drama with A Man Called Otto that isn't breaking any new ground in its form but does prove affecting more often than not.

Otto (Tom Hanks) is a cantankerous old man who begins A Man Called Otto ready to kill himself. Just as he's ready to put a noose around his neck, though, he sees that new neighbors Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) are making a mess in trying to park their moving van. A stickler for the rules, Otto leaves his suicide attempt behind and begrudgingly helps the duo properly park their automobile. From here, Otto continues to engage in various suicide attempts, all of them stemming from the anguish and hopelessness he feels over the recent loss of his wife. However, Marisol, Tommy, and other members of his neighborhood, including a homeless cat, keep inserting themselves into Otto's life and giving him reasons to stick around just a little while longer.

Director Marc Forster has shifted gears across many genres over the years (including blockbusters with World War Z and Quantum of Solace) but A Man Called Otto sees him returning to a mold he's often occupied: tearjerker dramas. Even his foray into a live-action adaptation of animated Disney characters, Christopher Robin, adhered to the melancholy and poignant nature of many of Forster's forays into this field, such as Finding Neverland or The Kite Runner. A Man Called Otto nicely fits into this well-trodden mold. Much like with Christopher Robin, Forster isn't blazing new trails with Otto but still makes an effective weepie.

What proves especially moving here is one of the most unique visual facets of A Man Called Otto compared to the original Swedish film. This time, the flashbacks to Otto's past that occur whenever this character attempts suicide are now more directly tied to the present-day world. Occasionally, the camera will cut back to Otto murmuring portions of words he said in the past while the older and younger versions of Otto will sometimes find themselves inhabiting the other one's world. Time is a flat circle for Otto, tragedy has made everything seem like it's happening at the same time. These visual details poignantly suggest how consumed by the past Otto has become while adding a distinct visual flourish to the proceedings.

Those flashback sequences give A Man Called Otto its pathos while much of the entertainment value of feature comes from its performances. Having "America's Dad" Tom Hanks play a cranky old man may seem like obvious stunt casting, but the reliably strong Hanks proves so good in the role that it's impossible to complain about his presence in the role of Otto. Shockingly, outshining even Hanks in terms of the performances here is Mariana Treviño. An incredibly compelling performer with a sharp sense of comic timing, she proves incredibly gifted at holding her own and then some in sequences where her bubbly character has to go toe-to-toe with A Man Called Otto's disillusioned protagonist. Just watching Hanks and Treviño spar is enough to justify A Man Called Otto existing beyond being a way for someone to wring more money out of the A Man Called Ove book.

While A Man Called Otto rises above expectations in some key respects, it also, unfortunately, succumbs to several problems that plague many major American movies meant to function as a tearjerker. For one thing, subtlety isn't the strongest suit of either Magee or Forster and that problem comes to a head in the biggest emotional moments of Otto. Conceptually devastating sequences depicting Otto's most tumultuous moments from the past are undercut by needle drops that use ham-fisted lyrics to beat you over the head with the scene's purpose. Surely Thomas Newman's score could've carried these scenes. Similarly, the third act is weighed down by several clumsy instances of characters, namely Otto, practically turning to the camera when they flatly explain their major character defects before saying how they're improving as a person. That kind of overly obvious dialogue makes it hard to invest in these character arcs.

The home stretch of A Man Called Otto could've used more of the finer subtle details that make the excellently-realized flashback sequences so moving. But even when it lives up to the reputation of major American melodramas being all tell and no show, A Man Called Otto still gets a boost from some great performances and its low-key depictions of people bonding with one another. Sometimes my heart gets won over by simple things like Otto gradually bonding with endearing neighbors like peppy jogger Jimmy (Cameron Britton) or cyclist Malcolm (Mack Bayda). I'm still not sure if we needed an English-language remake of A Man Called Ove, but if we had to get one, then A Man Called Otto is a solid take on the material.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Babylon is excess to the extreme and that's one of its many commendable qualities

 "You don't get to hate it unless you love it." So goes one of the most memorable lines in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It's also a piece of dialogue that feels appropriate for Babylon, writer/director Damien Chazelle's new movie that takes audiences back to 1920s Hollywood. Here, Chazelle explores stunning excess in the form of lavish parties and the dark nature of the American film industry. The way this filmmaker holds up a microscope to the brutal and even downright dehumanizing aspects of this industry could only come from someone who loves this era, its artists, and the art they produced. You can be conscious of something's flaws and still adore it. Babylon is a reminder of that. Its onscreen debauchery and darkest moments remind us all of the horrors of the film industry while its strengths as a piece of art serve as a fiery reminder of the power of movies. It's all such an entertaining and thoughtful whirlwind of a movie that you too will come to share the "love" that drove Chazelle's creative vision.

Babylon begins in 1927, with much of the story being told through the eyes of Manny Torres (Diego Galva). He starts out the movie as just an assistant at big Hollywood parties, helping to transport elephants and get drugs for any of the partygoers. At one of these events, Torres meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a wannabe starlet who harbors dreams as big as her weak spot for cocaine and gambling. From here, Babylon charts Torres, LaRoy, and a handful of other characters, like a silent movie legend named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), navigating the wild world of filmmaking in this era. This is already a turbulent industry full of unpredictability before the introduction of sound cinema comes into play and begins to phase out every aspect of silent movies, including the actors who flourished in this dialogue-free domain.

The turmoil caused for actors in the transition from silent movies to sound has always been a source of fascination for period piece features, as seen in Singin' in the Rain and The Artist. Babylon attempts to differentiate itself from the pack in several key ways, including reveling in all the debauchery it can imagine depicting the ribald excesses of the 1920s. Within the first ten minutes, elephant defecation and human urine are shown up on-screen, while drugs and nudity pepper every inch of the frame. In weaker hands, this could've been a try-hard attempt at being "edgy," but Chazelle finds a foolproof way of making all this ribald material work: make it entertaining.

The opening party scene of Babylon is incredibly riveting filmmaking, full stop. It's hard to think about any other period-era movies set in the 1920s that also wallowed in filth when you're trying to absorb every detail Babylon is throwing at you in this whiz-bang opening. This kick-off to the story see's Chazelle's camera in an incredibly confident mode as it soars through crowds of people, all covered in such richly-realized colorful costumes. Justin Hurwitz's score injects so much vibrant energy into the frame, particularly a track called "Voodoo Mama" on the soundtrack that combines an energetic and sometimes screeching trumpet and equally lively clapping. All these elements combine to make it feel like you're on the ground floor of all this glorious excess. It's tremendously impressive material peppered with great subtle sight gags, like a clearly pregnant woman partying her heart out, and punctuated with effective reminders of stark mortality that no amount of partying can fully escape. What a blast of a way to kick off a movie! 

This tour de force opening establishes the scope, debauchery, and complicated tone of Babylon that follows and it turns out to be a great place to spend three hours. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a movie with a sweeping enough scale to blow your socks off before its title card fills up the screen. All that mesmerizing mayhem is paired up with an increasingly discernible melancholy tone, with the latter bordering on apocalyptic towards the end of Babylon. It also helps that Chazelle's talent for realizing precisely-edited slices of intense cinema (see: Whiplash and First Man) is as alive as ever here (he's working with his go-to editor here, Tom Cross). Even better, this filmmaker gets to demonstrate a great talent for handling comedy. The same keen sense of timing he and Cross brought to sequences of J.K. Simmons berating Miles Teller on the drums is here exquisitely applied to memorable demonstrations of dark comedy. An early sequence depicting that cuts between the various troubles of filming a massive period-era battle sequence is an especially great demonstration of this.

Inevitably, in reaching for the stars, Chazelle's screenplay does stumble in certain respects, especially in the second half of the movie which jumps around a lot more in time. Certain character dynamics, like a friendship between Torres and Palmer, could've been fleshed out more and there are traces of ham-fisted dialogue (like Torres blatantly telling somebody over the phone "everything is about to change!" in obvious ADR after his character watches moviegoers go gaga for The Jazz Singer) peppered throughout the screenplay. I suspect the latter is the inevitable result of making a feature for a major American movie studio that costs more than $10 million (studios don't want pricey investments to be too incoherent for mainstream moviegoers), but those lines could've been more organically-realized within those confines.

But what really sticks out in my mind roughly 24 hours after watching Babylon isn't those flaws but the sights, the sounds, the laughs, and the ominous air coursing through the whole movie. That ominousness extends to Babylon's fascinatingly complicated attitude toward movies as an artform. Chazelle and company clearly have a lot of love for films, what they can do, and even the wackadoodle dedication it takes to make any of these features a reality. But he's also cognizant of the American film industry being a nightmarish place rather than something from a clean-cut magazine. The characters in Babylon never get ahead in this industry unless it comes at the expense of somebody else or even their own souls. Even the film's decadent opening sequences, which characters like Conrad eventually look back on fondly, feature frequent reminders of pitch-black reality.

Much like how the parties in Boogie Nights were laced with instances of disturbing behavior, even the "good times" for the characters of Babylon have a selfishness and darkness to them. Being cognizant of these nuances is one of Babylon's greatest strengths and lends a lasting sense of impact to the feature beyond being a sweeping visual and auditory exercise. Film itself is a beautiful medium full of rich power that can't be replicated in any other medium. It's also a tool that (in America) is built on the legacy of D.W. Griffith and has often been used to suppress voices while it's supposedly inspiring people. Similarly, one can love sound films while mourning all the lost opportunities for artists that specialized in silent film. It's with this attitude that Babylon crafts a compelling ode to films that also mourns an industry that treated its artists like cogs in a machine and not people (good thing entertainment companies don't do that anymore!)

All these rich themes and a willingness to depict the various film artists of the 1920s as people offer a great canvas for the actors of Babylon to work with. Margot Robbie especially excels in these confines, delivering a performance that carries a captivating aura (you can never take your eyes off her) emanating from how naturally she conveys aching pain creeping in through the margins of a confident exterior. She's just as game for moments where Babylon wants to contemplate mortality as she is when the film wants to engage in a lengthy vomit gag. Juggling those disparate pieces with entertaining and insightful success also makes Babylon as an entire movie an incredibly stirring watch. Come for all the raunchy spectacle and incredible score, stay for Chazelle and company demonstrating a burning passion for an era they love enough to critique. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Douglas Laman's 25 Best Movies of 2022


Me after each of the movies on this list ended

2022 was a strange year, though, then again, aren't all years, to some extent, strange? But 2022 was especially peculiar as we all tried to navigate what the new normal of reality was in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no going back to the status quo of pre-2020, but then, what does this new world look like? It was one of many questions that dominated people's minds in such an oddball year. Throughout the uncertainty of 2022 was a tidal wave of new movies. As with any other era of uncertainty in the history of the world, movies, like any medium of artistic expression, can be a great way to escape the confines of reality, come to terms with everyday hardships, or even do both of those things at the same time. Such is the magic of cinema.

Having seen well over 210 movies released into theaters and streamers throughout 2022, this year certainly offered a little bit of something for everyone. Much like last year's features, I was constantly impressed with how many artists still had the energy, creativity, and determination to realize new movies in the face of the countless hardships facing the everyday world.  Movies haven't gotten lost in the wave of headline-grabbing calamities that have shaken humanity in 2022. On the contrary, they've helped us all make sense of the world we inhabit and inspire us to understand our neighbors a little better.

Movies can be anything and 2022's best features proved that's just as true today as it was in 1922. Whether it was cannibal love stories, a multiverse adventure romp with an intimate emotional scope, or a Norwegian lady who was just the worst in the best possible way, the cinema of 2022 went all over the map and was all the better for it. It was hard to whittle down this list to just 25 entries (even extending things to include an honorable mentions section wasn't enough to ensure there weren't some heartbreaking exclusions from this list), but that's just a testament to the burning passion for creativity that informed the filmmaking scene of 2022. 

Friday, December 2, 2022

Women Talking is as emotionally devastating as it is deeply human


Women Talking is a movie about characters who contemplate breaking the norms of the society they call home, so it shouldn't be a surprise that Sarah Polley's latest directorial effort subtly shatters some standards of "good" filmmaking. There's this perception among people, and I've sometimes contributed to it, that narration itself is bad, it's something that goes against the whole "show don't tell" mold that defines "good" filmmaking. To be sure, bad narration can be clumsy, but it's not innately a bad tool. For Women Talking, narration illuminating the points of view of these lead characters feels important and true to the crux of this story. These are people who, as said in an early piece of narration, don't have the language to comprehend their grief. The words in the narration aren't here to spoon-feed every onscreen detail to the audience, but rather reflect people coming to terms with the horrors that have become their everyday reality.

Women Talking, among its countless other accomplishments, quietly subverts these kinds of filmmaking norms, with its decision to focus a movie on survivors of sexual assaults and rape being equally compelling and distinct. Such bold choices are used to produce a story that clutches your eyes and burrows into your soul.

Based on the Miriam Toews book of the same name, Women Talking chronicles a collection of women living in a Mennonite colony who have a choice to make. They've uncovered the truth that the men in their colony have been raping them, an act the elders of their community are eager to dismiss altogether. These women are now grappling with what to do next. Do they just continue their existence, stay and fight, or leave for an unknown future? Much of Polley's script focuses on eight women, including the haunted Salome (Claire Foy), the dubious Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and the hopeful Ona (Rooney Mara), debating their varying perspectives and hopes for their future. They've been silenced for so long. Now, they have a chance to speak.

A friend of mine compared Women Talking in its scope and atmosphere to 12 Angry Men and that's a pretty apt comparison. Much like that 1957 Sidney Lumet film, Women Talking is proof you don't need a multitude of locations or an expansive scope to grip people's attention. Confining much of Women Talking to the top floor of a barn turns out to be a wise decision for the intimate story Polley is telling. We as viewers need to feel how few options these characters have, their world is so limited that they're unaware of the names of places lying far beyond their community. The limited scope of Women Talking's story quietly reinforces how trapped these characters are well, while the tight backdrop also affords more opportunities for the varying personalities in the script to smash into one another.

Such compelling drama unfolds when Women Talking just focuses on these dialogue exchanges, which are often punctuated by appropriately startling and abrupt images of the past (such as teeth falling out of a woman's mouth or another character waking up in the middle of the night and screaming in pain). This editing technique brings us into the minds of these women as they offer up their testimonies and, internally, re-experience their trauma all over again. We get to hear the words they choose to finally express themselves while also getting a glimpse into the horrifying realities they're reeling from. It's such a great piece of editing and directing that lends further insight into the minds of these characters without proving disruptive to the immersive world Polley is creating.

Much of that immersiveness comes from the fully-realized performances within the ensemble cast. Though they're playing women who inhabit a colony where individuality is strictly forbidden, there are still such welcome idiosyncrasies in each of their performances. Claire Foy, for instance, lends such vibrant and compelling (not to mention justifiable) passion in her line deliveries, while Rooney Mara lends believability to the poetic observations of Ona. This is a character who could have easily lapsed into being a parody of herself, but Mara just makes Ona's lines feel true, not trite or straining for profoundness. Meanwhile, Ben Whishaw, as August, a man tasked with penning the minutes of these meetings between women, is outstanding in portraying such a complicated soft-spoken fellow. It's a role that makes great use of Whishaw's gift for quiet yet impactful performances and this actor's talents in that area delivers some of the most striking emotional moments of Women Talking.

The unforgettable qualities of Women Talking even extend to its fascinating handling of religious entities. Specifically, in several moments of emotional distress, these women will turn to singing familiar religious hymns to one another to help their spirits rise again. It's such a delicate yet complex detail, as these women are, on the surface, employing songs not only heralded by their oppressors but that also promote a religion that informed their suppression. The use of these tunes isn't to minimize the horrors these women have experienced at the hands of a religious institution, but rather to show these survivors of abuse reclaiming tools once used to silence the voices. Words and passages previously utilized for the purpose of suppressing dissent are now being repurposed to encourage women to open up about their experiences. 

What an incredible element to incorporate into the narrative and one that speaks to just how detailed the psychology of these varied characters is. Such psychologies are explored without ever pushing the abusive men themselves into the forefront of either the narrative or the frame (we only see such figures in the background and often heavily obscured). We see the psychological and physical aftermath that these oppressive forces are having on the women of Women Talking, but Polley's camera is always lingering on survivors of sexual assault rather than those who perpetrate it. It's an approach that evokes, among many other movies, Kitty Green's The Assistant and speaks to the commendably subversive narrative priorities of Women Talking. The figures in this story are meant to be seen as human beings with wildly varying responses to trauma, not just figures to be exclusively used for endless and repetitive scenes of on-screen sexual misery like in In the Land of Blood and Honey.

These and other critical parts of Polley's understated yet moving filmmaking speak to how well Women Talking handles harrowing material. But what's also impressive are the handful of moments where levity breaks into the story. A well-timed joke involving an elderly character thinking she's gone blind only to then realize her glass have merely fogged up, for instance, may have seem like a weird tonal digression in a lesser movie. But here, these and other superbly-placed moments of humor accentuate the complexity of these characters who are capable of experiencing every emotion under the sun. By seeing them laugh together, we are reminded of the joy they are largely deprived of in the community they inhabit. These unique tonal moments highlight how, in this barn with just other women (plus August), Saloma, Ona, Mariche, and every other lady can finally be their complicated varied selves.

As a filmmaker, Sarah Polley has never shied away from brutal material. Her directorial debut, Away from Her, was about an elderly couple fragmented by Alzheimer's, she basically jumped into the deep end as a filmmaker right away. Meanwhile, her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell was an unflinching look at both her family's history and her own identity. That streak continues on with Women Talking, with Polley's gift for handling heavy concepts flourishing inside this feature's rule-breaking spirit. Traditional rules of movies say that you can't center narratives about sexual assault on people who've experienced it (even the recent She Said followed this rule), yet Women Talking focuses its runtime on several people who've survived rape. The history of cinema, meanwhile, is littered with the erasure of trans characters and performers, yet Women Talking makes room for trans experiences with the character of Melvin (August Winter). On and on the list goes as Women Talking constantly redefines "normal" in cinematic language, often without viewers even realizing the norms have been shattered.

Both Polley being in rare form as a director and the rule-breaking standards of this production have the incredible domino effect of also bringing out the best in all the other artists working on Women Talking, including the various members of the movie's stacked ensemble cast. A work as richly human as it is subversive of cinema norms, Women Talking is nothing short of outstanding.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Steven Spielberg compellingly delves into the past with The Fabelmans


They say "you can't go home again," but leave it to Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kuschner to prove that axiom wrong, at least in the very specific circumstances of The Fabelmans. With this film, Spielberg has torn the veil of allegory and just made an autobiographical drama reflecting his upbringing. Broken families have always been a part of this man's work, but now we get to see the genesis of where that fascination came from. There's a version of The Fabelmans that becomes too insular, the cinematic equivalent to a therapy session we feel uncomfortable watching. Thankfully, much like in their prior collaborations such as West Side Story, Munich, and Lincoln, Spielberg and Kushner have knocked it out of the park with The Fabelmans. Whether you know a little or a lot about this man, The Fabelmans will surely work its magic on you.

The Fabelmans makes its potency and thoughtfulness clear from the very get-go in a scene depicting an adolescent Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) nervously waiting in line to see The Greatest Show on Earth at the movie theater. The camera is initially positioned in a way so that we don't see his parents from the waist up, a perfect way to suggest that we'll be seeing this movie primarily through the eyes of Sammy. As he expresses constant nervousness about seeing a feature on the big screen, his parents, Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman (Michelle Williams) and Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), try to console him in ways that reflect their individual personalities. Burt gets wrapped up in explaining how the film projector works while Mitzi just tells her son that movies are like dreams. It isn't long before Sammy is sitting in that theater and discovering how right his mom was. Movies are dreams...and he doesn't want this dream to end.

From here, The Fabelmans chronicles Sammy (who eventually grows up into a 16-year-old played by Gabriel LaBelle) as his passion for making home movies grows increasingly elaborate. This stand-in for the adolescent Spielberg is apparent in this youngster's love for shooting all kinds of films, but it's also clear in the increasingly tumultuous home life Sammy must navigate. As the scope of Sammy's homemade motion pictures expands, so too does the tension between his parents. Burt becomes so wrapped up in his work that he's constantly moving himself and the whole family (Sammy also has three younger sisters) while Mitzi is prone to depressive episodes. It isn't just the images on the silver screen that will mold Sammy's life. Familiar turmoil will also shape his worldview.

A few days before I saw The Fabelmans, me and a buddy were joking about corny ways this movie could show a young Spielberg stumbling onto the ideas for his future movies ("Wow, that shark sure has big jaws!") in the same vein that many actual music biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody deliver moments where musicians stumble onto the ideas for their most popular tunes. These dumb references were good for a laugh between pals, but they were also helpful in illustrating everything The Fabelmans does right. This isn't a film infatuated with making endless references that only Spielberg devotees will get or that attempts to provide a tidy narrative about how this filmmaker transformed into his recognizable self in the span of a weekend. In other words, there are no scenes like the one in Darkest Hour where Gary Oldman's Winston Churchill gets the name for Operation Dynamo by gazing at a nearby fan.

Instead, Spielberg and Kushner's script delivers a story that functions as a standalone work, with the events onscreen gaining extra (but not essential) resonance for those familiar with the former artist's background. The Fabelmans is much more interested in contemplating matters that are accessible to all audience members, such as contemplating how to juggle your passions and your loved ones as well as that never-ending process of realizing your parents are complicated human beings. The latter element is especially potent in how it's realized within The Fabelmans, with much of Mitzi's storyline focusing on how she's messy and imperfect rather than the postcard-ready image of a dutiful 1950s housewife. She's a human being. The idea that the people who raised you are in fact just ordinary people unsure of where to go or what to do is an overwhelming fact to consider when you first contemplate it. 

The Fabelmans deftly explores that complicated idea with an equally nuanced portrait of a mother/son dynamic that can have you clenching your teeth in anxiety one second and softly weeping over their quiet interactions in the very next scene. These kinds of complicated character dynamics are made all the more compelling by Spielberg's enduringly impressive visual sensibilities. This guy's sense of framing never ceases to amaze me, even in a scene as simple as Burt trying to start a fire and his kids getting distracted by Mitzi's antics in a tree. This filmmaker and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski turn this moment into an extended single-take that, just by the blocking and use of depth in the shot, is incredibly detailed and informative about who these people are and their relationships with one another. The most seemingly basic scenes deliver a fountain of memorable imagery and vivid character details in the hands of this director.

It isn't just Spielberg and Kushner that excel in The Fabelmans. Everyone's in rare form here, particularly Michelle Williams, whose tasked with portraying a pastiche of Spielberg's mom. The bones of this performance sound like a recipe for a distracting caricature, including Mitzi's very distinctive voice (which often sounds like she's on the verge of tears) and the character's tendency for splashy displays of emotions. Williams tackles it all with such finesse, lending Mitzi the same level of believability as her performances in works like Wendy and Lucy or Certain Women. Traits that could've been distracting flourishes in another actor become organic parts of a compelling portrait of tormented motherhood in the hands of Williams.

Paul Dano is playing a much more soft-spoken, less outsized character than Williams, but he still leaves an enormous impression as the father of the Fabelman family while Seth Rogen wisely plays on his genial public persona while adding extra depths to that demeanor in his work as a dear friend of Burt's. Top to bottom, the whole cast is just marvelous, even when they only have one scene to shine, like Judd Hirsch in an unforgettable performance that reminds you why this Ordinary People star is such a treasure. 

It's a very exciting indicator that you're watching a special movie when you realize you can consider its greatness from so many different angles. Visually, narratively, as an acting exercise, as something to make you cry multiple times, as the newest collection of John Williams compositions, or even in its forays into comedy (a scene with Sammy and a High School flame in the latter character's bedroom is so hysterical largely because of the very precise visual details in Spielberg's filmmaking), The Fabelmans works like gangbusters. It's a movie that's simultaneously far more than just a biography of Steven Spielberg's childhood yet it also offers so much insight into how his complicated persona as an artist was molded. I guess when you're Steven Spielberg, you actually can go home again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

She Said is a standard, but frequently impactful journalism drama

CW: Discussions of sexual assault, rape ahead

2022 has already seen the old-school 2000s romantic-comedy come back to the big screen with films like Ticket to Paradise, while Top Gun: Maverick made movie theaters around the globe seem like they'd been teleported back to 1986. Why not also bring back the journalism drama to the big screen while we're at it? The comeback for the genre that birthed everything from All the President's Men to Spotlight manifests with She Said, which chronicles the true story of how The New York Times cracked the story of Harvey Weinstein's extensive history of being accused of sexual assault, verbal abuse, and rape by countless women.

Our leads for this feature are Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan), a pair of reporters who have the kind of conviction you need to chase down difficult stories like the Weinstein saga. The whole affair begins through just Kantor poking around in Weinstein's past, an exercise Twohey is initially dubious over doing given how little impact the allegations against Donald Trump impacted his rise to power. However, they both become enamored with this story as they dig deeper and deeper into Weinstein's past. He's impacted so many lives in such unspeakable ways, to the point that many of the people they contact with either can't or won't speak about it on the record. 

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's screenplay for She Said, adapted both from the New York Times investigation and a book entitled She Said penned by the real Kantor and Twohey, is tackling incredibly heavy material and weaves an appropriately morose tone for such a story. The sheer weight of everything these women have had to live with, not to mention the web of power that has kept Weinstein free from consequences, is certainly felt within the story. The most impactful parts of She Said are cognizant of how overwhelming those forces are, the way they creep into everyday life whether we like it or not.

The instance of this that really stuck in my mind is scene where Kantor's Skype call with her adolescent daughter takes a dark turn when her child asks if a story her mom is investigating involves "rape." It's a word her friends use all the time, to which Kantor tries to delicately explain to the youngster that she shouldn't use it casually. With minimal dialogue and Nicholas Britell's score dropping out, Kazan's performance and the script gracefully depict a mother realizing that her daughter is growing increasingly cognizant of all the horrors in society. She's tried to provide a barrier between her home life and all the unspeakably atrocities beyond her front door. Now, she's received a sudden reminder of how omnipresent the normalization of rape culture is. The term "rape" has even become a go-to term in the world of playground chatter. The intrusion of pushy phone calls or sudden reminders of the past in the everyday lives of people who have accused Weinstein of despicable acts convey a similar power. They too are aware of how the darkest parts of reality can creep up anywhere in your life. 

She Said's script is less effective, unfortunately, in terms of its story structure. There's little uniqueness in how Lenkiewicz executes this story to separate it from other similar journalism and the more perfunctory investigative scenes drag in pacing. Director Maria Schrader and cinematographer Natasha Braier don't help things by realizing the look of She Said in a similarly straightforward fashion. Opportunities to get further into the minds of sexual assault survivors through distinctive pieces of camerawork are eschewed in favor of very basic instances of framing and lighting that rarely fluctuates even when Kantor shifts her investigation over to the United Kingdom. The intimate and dark nature of She Said isn't an excuse for these visual shortcomings given that other movies tackling similarly chilling material, such as The Assistant, managed to excel in their camerawork. You don't need to be an expansive epic to have vibrant or thoughtful visuals.

She Said, ultimately, isn't as challenging or defiant of the status quo as either the journalism or the testimonies that inspired it. Even composer Nicholas Britell is in more reserved mode here. But there's enough emotionally raw material and commendable performances to make it a reasonably engaging watch, particularly whenever the script focuses on harrowing recountings of the experiences of sexual assault survivors. It's in their words that She Said finds its most solid footing and the moments that will last with viewers longest. Beyond that, the feature can be a bit boilerplate, but at least She Said has got actors like Zoe Kazan and Patricia Clarkson around to give it a boost of life. Plus, there's no denying how good it is to see a journalism drama back on the big screen again.

Pinocchio is an incredibly charming lark from Guillermo del Toro


What can you do to make Pinocchio seem new again?

It's a question director Robert Zemeckis couldn't figure out a good answer for in Disney's live-action Pinocchio remake from a few months back. Roberto Benigni's attempt to inhabit the role of Pinocchio in the early 2000s was a misguided folly. Aside from launching an amusing internet meme, modern takes on this wooden boy don't offer much. One might understandably wonder if there's no fuel left in the Pinocchio movie tank, but any old story can feel fresh and new if given the right execution. Just look at how Greta Gerwig injected so much life and vibrancy into Little Women just three years ago. Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to prove that not all 21st-century Pinocchio films are doomed with his stop-motion animated take on this material. Simply titled Pinocchio, this feature is an absolute delight that truly makes one feel like they're discovering the story of this puppet come to life for the very first time.

Many positive reviews of animated features aimed at youngsters emphasize how good it is that these films can also resonate so deeply with adults. With Pinocchio, I was struck by a sense of joy for the kids who end up watching it. How wonderful that they'll get to grow up with a movie that doesn't talk down to them and confronts elements that do play into the lives of adolescents, such as religion, war, or death. Here we have a feature that doesn't just tell kids to be themselves but to always challenge authority. Best of all, it's a telling of Pinocchio that doesn't feel beholden to the past. Pinocchio isn't obsessed with referencing pop culture entities from my childhood, it's here to tell a standalone yarn that can belong to a new generation. What a gift to the youngsters of 2022 and beyond.

Of course, Pinocchio isn't made just for kids in mind. Directors del Toro and Mark Gustafson (not to mention co-screenwriter Patrick McHale) seem to have made this movie primarily for themselves above all else. This is especially reflected in how del Toro has maintained all his primary thematic motifs even when making something that's rated PG, namely a distrustful attitude toward religion, a despisement of social conformity, children navigating an overwhelming world of devious adults, and, of course, an adoration for weird fantasy creatures. Even the use of celebrity voice-overs, a common staple of American animated family movies, reflects more of del Toro's interests than what a focus group might want. 

Many of the folks assembled here are either actors from prior del Toro works or people (like Tilda Swinton) that you can't believe haven't worked with the filmmaker before. It's a superbly-arranged voice cast, with Ewan McGregor being an especially fun choice for Sebastian J. Cricket. His pipes are perfect for providing both some fatherly advice and extremely soothing bursts of narration. It's also quite fun how some of the casting choices seem to have a subversive edge. The casting of Cate Blanchett (who previously appeared in del Toro's Nightmare Alley) as a monkey who almost exclusively communicates in basic primate noises almost feels like a joke making fun of rampant celebrity voice-casting in movies like Sing or the Ice Age sequels. Whether or not that underlying commentary is intentional, putting Blanchett in this kind of role reflects the unique creative impulses at play in this version of Pinocchio.

Of course, what really makes this animated musical sing (no pun intended) is the visuals. Stop-motion animation is always such an impressive medium, all the effort and time that goes into every frame is palpable. The warped and freaky visual sensibilities of del Toro are a great fit for this style of animation, with the instantly tactile nature of stop-motion lending incredibly believable textures and weight to every one of the freaky creatures that populate this story. It's also a nice touch that the animation isn't striving for realism, as seen by how bursts of fire are rendered on-screen, for instance. Pinocchio leans into the innate unreality of stop-motion animation and is all the stronger for it. Simply put, it all looks fantastic and wonderful. If you wanted to just mute the dialogue, you could still have an incredible experience watching Pinocchio just absorbing all the richly-detailed backgrounds and amusing character designs. 

Pinocchio is a tremendous treat and, even better, it doesn't just represent the creative sensibilities of del Toro. Patrick McHale, who co-wrote the film's songs, channels amusing ditties like "Potatoes and Molasses" from his unforgettable miniseries Under the Garden Wall in penning the intentionally simplistic but endlessly charming tunes that populate this story.  Merging that kind of wit with del Toro's empathy for outsiders and an avalanche of glorious stop-motion you need a roadmap to figure out Pinocchio is something special? A shame Netflix won't be putting this out on the big screen in a more prominent capacity (though at least they ensured this long-in-development feature existed) considering just how stunning this movie looks in a theater. Experiencing Pinocchio in such an environment really makes you appreciate its countless charms.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a moving, if crowded, return to Wakanda


The very first line of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, spoken by Shuri (Letitia Wright) off-screen against a black screen, makes it clear that the real-life demise of Chadwick Boseman will not be dismissed with an offhand line of dialogue or a quick easter egg in the background. It's going to be the crux of Ryan Coogler's fourth directorial effort. Not only that, but that initial line establishes the emotional urgency of what's to come. This isn't necessarily a bleak venture into Wakanda, but it isn't afraid to confront the complexities of loss and the different ways people respond to the process of grief. In other words, bring some tissues if you're like me and have any sort of emotional vulnerability.

Shuri is our primary focus of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and her story picks up a year after the loss of her brother T'Challa. She's still walking around in a fog from losing someone so close and personal to her, preferring to toil away in her lab rather than lingering on the memories of T'Challa. Her mom, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), is now in charge of Wakanda and protecting it from all kinds of threats interested in taking on this country now that it's devoid of the Black Panther. One of those challengers is Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the king of the underwater civilization Talokan. Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira) are tasked with a mission that could provide some peace between Wakanda and Talokan while everyone tries to figure out what the future of Wakanda even looks like.

Screenwriters Coogler and Joe Robert Cole have wisely opted to devote long stretches of Wakanda Forever to just intimate conversations, the kind that makes us understand the nuances of these superpowered people and what they want. Wakanda Forever adheres to my favorite kind of superhero storytelling, the kind where the unabashedly silly elements like Namor's winged feet or the sight of people riding orcas like horses into battle are maintained, but there's also an embrace of tangible pathos. A harrowing scene depicting a fraught exchange between Ramonda and Okoye, for instance, is incredibly powerful, particularly due to Bassett's emotionally raw performance. If she was executing this same dialogue in a grounded Broadway play, there'd be no differences from her line deliveries in this movie designed to move Disney Store merchandise. 

Those kinds of performances, and Coogler's willingness to let the low-key scenes just breathe, do wonders for Wakanda Forever's sense of poignancy. It's also a wise idea to give so many of the players in this expansive narrative the thematic connective tissue of coping with grief, particularly Namor and his fascinating backstory or the eventual reveal of where Nakia has been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the events of the first Black Panther. There isn't a single size for coping with loss and the various players of Wakanda Forever nicely reflect that while also ensuring there's thematic consistency in the various narrative detours. In other words, it feels like these characters all belong to the same movie...mostly.

The greatest shortcoming in Wakanda Forever is, unfortunately, in that same screenplay, which is ultimately too overstuffed for its own good. Certain supporting players can get lost in the shuffle, but more egregiously is an extraneous subplot involving Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and a character someone at Marvel is more in love with than general moviegoers. Their whole storyline is tedious from top-to-bottom, especially in terms of visuals (why do I care about Ross's conversations in bland government buildings when I could be in an underwater kingdom or the vibrant land of Wakanda?), and since it's entirely detached from the main action, just comes off like a distraction. Given how well the original Black Panther fared at functioning as largely a standalone story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's a shame that Wakanda Forever's pacing gets undercut by a storyline designed to remind audiences of future Marvel adventures. 

While Wakanda Forever isn't as divorced from other Marvel adventures as its predecessor, other superb elements of the original film are as sharp as ever. Ruth E. Carter's costumes still dazzle while Ludwig Göransson's once again knocks his score out of the park. Certain sections of Wakanda Forever opt to eschew dialogue entirely in favor of letting Göransson's compositions carry the day and his music is more than up to the task. Meanwhile, fan-favorite characters from the original Black Panther, especially M'Baku (Winston Duke), are just as entertaining as ever while new player Namor is bound to be an audience favorite. Tenoch Huerta Mejía's performance here has doubtlessly solidified him as a standout heartthrob in 2022 cinema, his screen presence and commanding aura are just spectacular.

But what works best in Wakanda Forever are the elements working within the shadow of the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman. His presence looms large over Wakanda Forever, particularly in an opening funeral scene that kickstarts the feature on an appropriately melancholy note. Coogler and the cast manage to nail the ensuing emotional beats without coming off as either manipulative or exploitative of a tragedy. It's especially nice that their approach evokes a line spoken by T'Challa in his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, regarding how "death is not the end, it's more of a stepping off point." Chadwick Boseman is absent from Wakanda Forever, but it's fascinating and touching to see the small ways his character's legacy reverberates throughout this motion picture.

I wish the entire film was less crowded (read: less Martin Freeman) to allow that kind of emotional exploration more room to breathe or at least make Wakanda Forever's runtime more manageable. But enough works here to make Wakanda Forever follow in the footsteps of Creed and Black Panther (albeit without matching the overall quality of either film) as a mainstream Ryan Coogler film that tackles pathos as effectively as it approaches thrills.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

The emotionally rich Aftersun is one of 2022's greatest movies (SPOILERS)



Aftersun begins with a seemingly normal status quo. A dad, Calum (Paul Mescal) is taking his daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), to a hotel resort in Turkey for a little summertime vacation before school starts up again. Only a little into the movie do you start to notice a few things askew. Namely, our adult protagonist has a cast…where did he get that injury? The hotel is also quietly shoddy, with lots of intrusive construction and the only activities for kids being some racing arcade game. The script never pokes you in the ribs that something is awry here, but it beckons you to gaze deeper into the frame. From there, you also begin to notice the little details about the humans on-screen.

Like a camcorder adjusting its image after someone presses the zoom-in button, key aspects of Aftersun come into focus with a little bit of time. There's an underlying sadness to seemingly throwaway lines like Calum mentioning "I can't imagine myself at 40" during a scuba trip with Sophie. Meanwhile, initially fun moments like Calum and Sophie throwing bread at a dinnertime entertainer before bolting without paying for their meal initially come off as just frivolous father/daughter bonding...but what does this moment really suggest about Calum? All of these details mean that Aftersun begins with a sense of extensive history between the characters. They’re all deeply entrenched into their behavior patterns, such as Calum still saying “love you” to his ex-wife or Sophie's inclination to read a magazine about women rather than the weighty book her father insists she reads. There’s an enormously lived-in quality to these characters conveyed in such realistically understated means. 

The exploits of these characters become more and more strained as the runtime wears on, with initially joyful if slightly contained interactions giving way to much more troubling evenings. The peak of these problems comes one night when Calum gets intoxicated and opts to go to bed early, leaving Sophie to fend for herself below. Sophie finds tender warmth with other people that night, including a girl who gives her an all-access wristband and a boy she kisses. But not with her father, whom she desperately tries to connect to.

Writer/director Charlotte Wells, in what's shockingly her feature-length directorial debut, often captures these kinds of internal emotions in Aftersun with a dreamlike quality that proves as emotionally insightful as it does visually imaginative. A scene of Calum drunkenly walking around at night at one point depicts this figure against a vast sea of blackness, like he’s stumbled into the void from Under the Skin.  It’s such a striking image, seeing this solitary man alone against an endless and ominous landscape devoid of specific details. Other times, the camera opts for closer, intimate shots, many of which are used to illustrate the point-of-view of our adolescent protagonist. Now 11 years old and eager to look back on her 7-year-old self as “way younger,” she’s often hanging out with teenagers at this resort. These more cramped shots see her lingering on the finer details of these older figures she wants to hang around and reinforce her desire to get closer to this particular social group.

Nowhere does Wells shine more as a visualist than in recurring glimpses of a dance floor that's set against a darkened backdrop and illuminated in brief bursts of light. Initially just a striking visual motif throughout Aftersun, it culminates in a final sequence revealing this to be a place where an adult Sophie is coping with the complicated image she has of her father. This stretch of Aftersun is like the love child of Beau Travail and Mulholland Drive, a nightmarish display of dancing told through quick cuts that reflected the fragmented feelings Sophie has for Calum. It's a mesmerizing feat of filmmaking perfectly accompanied by a hauntingly sparse version of the Queen/David Bowie ditty "Under Pressure." Never before have lyrics like "Why can't we give love one more chance?" taken on such weight.

I was utterly mesmerized by this sequence in Aftersun, but it's not the only part of the movie that impressed me. Far from it. That first reveal of this movie stretching across time in a non-linear fashion, when we cut to an adult Sophie in bed with her wife, that made me gasp out loud. It was just such a bold direction to take this story, it perfectly accentuates the emphasis of memory in the story, and the organically subdued way we're told this is adult Sophie is incredibly impressive. The writing of adolescent Sophie, too, is incredible. Much like with the works from Studio Ghibli, Wells knows how to write kids who sound and act like kids, their imperfections all apparent.

The beautiful suggestion of a larger emotional world between each word work wonders at touching the heart while Wells demonstrates quietly profound tendencies in every aspect of her screenplay. Her level of insight and thought is apparent in even the tiniest details, like the tunes that are always blaring at tourist-friendly events in the Turkey hotel Sophie and Calum are staring at ("Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba is especially perfect, of course, that's what they'd be playing). Her controlled filmmaking is also captured in the performances, which include an outstanding turn from Paul Mescal. Having not seen his show Normal People, I had no real notions of his qualities as an actor beyond the fact that somebody at A24 digs him (Aftersun is one of two Mescal titles the studio is releasing this Fall). 

But good God, he's fantastic here, deftly playing a goofy dad but also realistically hinting at darker, more vulnerable qualities within Calum. It's such a rich performance that I couldn't get out of my brain while Frankie Coiro delivers similarly superb work playing Sophie. She and Pascal are playing such wildly different characters in Aftersun, but they share the quality of handling complexity like a champ.  Watching performances and a movie this good is a gift and I urge you to do yourself a favor and experience it for yourself, especially on a big screen where your full attention can be absorbed by every emotionally captivating detail Charlotte Wells has laced throughout Aftersun.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Armageddon Time is a weaker, but often interesting, directorial effort from James Gray


Growing up isn't easy. It's always an awkward experience full of stumbles, misunderstandings, and anxiety. It's an especially bad process when you realize at some point in your life that it doesn't end when you turn 18. Just because you're old enough to enlist in the U.S. military or about to start college doesn't mean you've finished evolving as a human being. We're all always growing and being exposed to further complexities of reality, which is simultaneously a comforting and terrifying thought. Armageddon Time, a quasi-autobiographical period piece from writer/director James Gray, captures a small portion of growing up in the life of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a sixth-grader growing up in Queens, New York in 1980.

Graff has a cushy life in some respects, living with PTA mom Esther (Anne Hathaway) and reliable mechanic Irving (Jeremy Strong) in a nice home. He's also got a close bond with his kindly grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). But even if he doesn't have to worry about going to bed hungry, Graff's life still has its share of challenges. For one thing, his friendship with Jonny (Jaylin Webb), a young Black kid with a fixation on NASA whose living with his mentally-deteriorating grandmother, has brought Graff a lot of joy. However, their shared rebellious nature means that trouble is never far behind the duo. Eventually, they get into enough trouble to inspire Esther and Irving to send Graff to a fancy prep school. Here, Armageddon Time's lead character becomes even more conscious of all the systemic intolerance around him while constant problems plague Jonny.

Though Gray is gazing back into his past with Armageddon Time, don't expect an easy dive into warm nostalgia from the director of The Immigrant. If nothing else, Armageddon Time is the needle that pokes the balloon that is rampant joyful 1980s nostalgia in American pop culture. 1980 is often depicted as a place where joy is an anomaly, not the norm. Meanwhile, the recurring mentions of Ronald Reagan's impending Presidential election and the presence of two notable famous faces at Paul's prep school hauntingly convey that the problems of this era will only be exacerbated in the future. Just as none of us are ever done growing up, so too does Armageddon Time suggests that America was far from finished with systemic intolerance after 1980.

Gray's morose tone makes this a slightly abnormal autobiographical coming-of-age yarn, with this screenwriter/director accentuating the grimness through depictions of hypocritical behavior in its characters. Paul's grandmother, for instance, will talk at the family dinner table about her experiences with anti-Semitism while also prattling on about how desegregating schools has opened the door to nothing but trouble. Similarly, Irving notes at one point that nobody in Esther's family except for Aaron ever supported him being a mechanic, everybody else among her relatives just wrote Irving off. Simultaneously, Irving also brutally insists that his son give up on his ambitions of being an artist and pursue "a real job." The characters of Armageddon Time can be simultaneously oppressed by societal norms while engaging in dehumanizing acts against other people themselves. This doesn't erase the horrors of antisemitism or the rudeness of dismissing people based on labor-based jobs, it just shows that people can be complicated. Committing to this quality makes the gloomy atmosphere of Armageddon Time feel earned rather than forced.

Other aspects of Armageddon Time's screenplay, though, left me yearning for that kind of depth. Esther, for one, fades into the foreground in the second half of the story after being such a prominent character up to that point. There's an in-universe reason for her being so distant, but putting the pedal to the metal by just sidelining her makes her presence in the entire film feel underdeveloped. Similarly, Jonny's presence in Armageddon Time is erratic. Too often it feels like his role in the story is solely being determined by what Paul needs, rather than making him feel like a kid with his own separate life. A brief glimpse of Paul talking to his grandmother had me wishing we could get more scenes of this character alone, and see what his day-to-day life feels like. The characters in Armageddon Time that feel alive are rich with layers, but unfortunately, it also leaves some players in its story out in the cold.

This is a byproduct of the movie eventually attempting to do just too much, a strange shortcoming since Gray was able to make all the various challenges of Ewa (Marion Cotillard) in his 2014 film The Immigrant feel cohesive and like they belonged to the same movie. It's not a problem to have a protagonist go through multiple types of struggles, it's just that Gray doesn't pull it off quite as well here. Part of the problem is Paul Graff himself, a kid whose often overshadowed by other characters in Armageddon Time like Aaron or Jonny. Whereas Ewa was always the most compelling character on-screen in The Immigrant and could carry your attention through all that movie's twists and turns, Paul is a bit more generically rendered as a character and, as a result, can get lost in the various subplots of Armageddon Time. It's not a good sign about the status of your protagonist when our one in-depth view into Paul's mind, taking place during a museum field trip, results in a segment that feels lifted from a live-action Disney movie from the 1990s more than anything else.

Key pieces of Armageddon Time, namely big swings at pathos in the third act or the score by Christopher Spelman, often feel like the writing of Paul Graff; not bad, just not very distinctive or memorable. Still, though it can't measure up to earlier works by James Gray, Armageddon Time is far from a waste of time. It's still got interesting pieces of insight to offer on American society circa. 1980 while Darius Khondji's cinematography is rife with striking images. There are also plenty of good performances to go around, with Anthony Hopkins standing out most of all as a cuddly and wide grandpa. Leave it to Hopkins to lend the same level of conviction and believability to a guy who buys toy rocketships for his grandson as he did to a cannibal. What range he has!

Growing up isn't easy to do, no matter how old or young you are. There are tons of movies throughout history that have grappled with the difficulties of this process, with several of them turning out to be masterpieces. Armageddon Time falls well short of that distinction, but there are some flashes of brilliance and standout elements here amidst a busy plot and a thinly-defined protagonist. Certainly, you could do worse than watch a movie where Hopkins monologues about the importance of always standing up to racist bullies.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Till is a deeply human biopic with a mesmerizing lead performance


Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler) was insistent to her son, Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall), that he be careful when going down to visit cousins in Money, Mississippi. She wanted to make him aware of the hardships and brutality they hadn't been exposed to on a day-to-day basis living their existence in Chicago. Even with the knowledge that something awful could happen, though, nothing could've prepared her for what happened when Till and his cousins went to a corner store one day on this trip. Till's interactions with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), would lead to a pair of white men coming in the middle of the night, grabbing Emmett Till, and lynching him. Afterward, his body was so mutilated that some coroners had trouble identifying the body. But Mamie Till knew. Just one touch of the corpse and she knew this was her son.

Till is a movie whose plot is set into motion through violence, but it's also about how the desecration of a human life lasts long after a vicious murder. The second of the screenplay, penned by director Chinonye Chukwu as well as Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, is largely focused on an attempt to get a trial going to exact some kind of justice for Till. In the process, we see warped testimonies that not only offer falsehoods about Emmett Tilly's character, but also further demonstrations of how the American justice system fails Black voices. The fact that this is just as true today as it was in 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered means that Till isn't covering unprecedented territory in modern cinema. But the execution of this material still contains some weight, nonetheless.

Much of that power can be chalked up to Chukwu's filmmaking, which is just as vibrant and insightfully human as it was on Clemency. Her affection for intimate shots that linger on human beings processing devastating information, with vivid facial expressions speaking volumes, returns from her 2019 motion picture. That affinity for quieter depictions of grief is what really sells the emotional undercurrent of Till. A scene of Emmet Till's grandmother, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg), sitting on her bed next to Mamie, solely repeating the words "I told him to go down there" quietly is such a devastating and specific portrayal of coping with the aftermath of the unthinkable. Chukwu and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski framing this moment from afar in an unbroken shot is a terrific visual detail that lets the sorrow of this moment sink in.

Similarly, Till's visual palette makes heavy use of bright and vivid colors, a welcome departure from the often drab color choices of other mid-20th-century period pieces. The walls of a building belonging to the NAACP is coated in bright teal while the home of Mamie Till is packed with hues of pink and yellow. Even down in Mississippi, especially in a town exclusively inhabited by Black individuals, brighter colors populate the screen. Not only does this give Till a memorable look, but it also subtly provides a thoughtful depiction of how and where danger can manifest for marginalized people. Emmett Till isn't just in danger in places coated in a grey color-graded hue added in post-production. Even places featuring a shining blue sky or brightly-colored trucks can be home to danger and violence. 

The strong visual sensibilities of Till can't, unfortunately, mitigate some of its weaker elements. Confining this movie to a shorter portion of Mamie and Emmett Till's lives ensures that it doesn't fall into the cradle-to-the-grave problems that plague many biopics, but it still falls prey to some common issues in this genre. More pressingly, Abel Korzeniowski's score often intrudes on the emotions of key scenes. While the camerawork and performances often aim for subtlety, Korzeniowski's compositions make it overtly apparent what we're supposed to be feeling and when. It doesn't help that his work is surprisingly generic-sounding, especially considering his much more distinctive compositions in prior features like A Single Man.

Though not without its shortcomings, Till is another strong drama from director Chinonye Chukwu. Much like her 2019 film Clemency, Till also features a powerhouse lead performance, in this case, a dynamite turn from Danielle Deadwyler. Whether she's reacting to the news of her son's murder through just facial expressions or giving passionate speeches in court, Deadwyler is mesmerizing. Even as Mamie Till becomes more and more involved in activism in the wake of losing Emmett Till, Deadwyler never forgets to convey a tangible sense of humanity in her portrayal of Mamie. It's a stirring performance that, when combined with the smart visual choices of Chukwu, makes Till a much better-than-average American biopic.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

The Inspection excels in its acting and writing


The quietly thoughtful nature of The Inspection is communicated almost right from the start of Elegance Bratton's screenplay (he also directs this quasi-autobiographical yarn). Most films with LGBTQIA+ leads that are heavy on weighty drama depict queer characters existing in total isolation from any larger queer community. Here, though, protagonist Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is shown encountering openly queer pals on the subway station and sharing a pivotal conversation with a self-described "old queen" in a homeless shelter. Queer lives are everywhere from the start of The Inspection and French is well-aware of both that and his own orientation. Emphasizing this lends a sense of realism and a lived-in quality to The Inspection from frame one and kicks the movie off on the right foot.

From here, French decides to enlist in the Marine Corps, much to the befuddlement of his disapproving and intolerant mother, Inez French (Gabrielle Union). This is 2005, the final years of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", so French is aiming to keep his head down, not attract much attention, and maybe even avoid being coded as "gay" by his fellow soldiers who would rather die than be queer. Unfortunately, the truth always comes out and it isn't long before his fellow marines, including the incredibly homophobic instructor Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), know the truth. Thus begins a lengthy trial of turmoil for French as he tries to endure in an environment that doesn't want him to exist in the first place.

The Inspection is a harrowing movie with some appropriately uncomfortable scenes to watch, but one of the best facets of its screenplay is something akin to The Lonely Island's "Spring Break Anthem"; a depiction of how queerness is demonized in general society but pronounced depictions of heterosexuality are A-OK. The hypocritical nature of these norms is amusingly rendered in moments like the same soldiers who're terrified of even touching shoulders with French getting into a frothy passion over images of naked women. Bratton frames these double standards as absurdly amusing, but there's also a layer of darkness here. Gays must be quiet on all matters, while the straights can go as loud as they want in their expressions of sexual desires.

It's a theme that intriguingly runs throughout The Inspection while Bratton's screenplay demonstrates further creativity in eschewing a standard character arc for how French and his marine comrades get along. Normally, one would imagine they'd all start as enemies before gradually becoming friends as the movie progresses. Bratton, though, opts to make things more complicated than that. Some enemies become allies, but there's often a "two steps forward, two steps back" approach in how French grows close to people like Laurence Harvey (Raul Castillo). Going this route injects further realism into the proceedings while making one never certain just where French's journey will take him.

Bratton and cinematographer Lachlan Milne's visual sensibilities in The Inspection aren't quite as idiosyncratic as the film's many narrative flourishes. However, the film is never incoherent in terms of its imagery, and its competent camerawork never subdued the great performance scattered throughout the cast. A sequence depicting the interior yearning mind of French does make great use of bright colors, smoke, and dreamlike visuals to make for a vivid dive into this man's mind and an appropriate contrast to the intentionally subdued aesthetic of the rest of the feature. I wouldn't have minded more scenes like that, departures from reality that allow us to center French's desires over just his turmoil, but what we do get suggests Bratton does have some range as a visualist.

The Inspection is overall a strong movie, but even if its script and editing were trash (which they aren't, for the record), it would still be worth the price of admission just to discover Jeremy Pope's talents as an actor. In his first lead role in a motion picture (he's previously been a veteran of the stage and starred in two Ryan Murphy-produced TV shows), Pope is captivating. French is a character who often has to juggle layers of different personalities just to get through the day at this Marine training camp. Handling all of those layers could've resulted in a jumbled performance, but Pope gracefully communicates so many disparate parts of French's psyche even when he's just standing there waiting for orders from a commanding officer. It's a tremendous performance that wrings maximum pathos out of an understated part.

The supporting performances are also great, with Union playing a great subversion of her normal silver screen persona while casting the always compelling and authoritative Woodbine as a military sergeant was a stroke of genius. The Inspection is a feast for those who appreciate good acting and incredibly sharp writing. While it could've stood to have a little more panache in its visuals, The Inspection, as seen by the quietly subversive writing in its opening scenes, is well worth standing up and saluting.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Triangle of Sadness is a sometimes rocky but always compelling voyage


In talking about why Titanic proved so interesting to moviegoers, writer/director James Cameron has said that he saw the ship as functioning as a microcosm of the world. Viewers could see the lines between classes in modern societies sharper than ever in the context of a ship, while the people who were most impacted first by the ship sinking were also the ones most disadvantaged financially, just as the impoverished are the ones who first experience the devastation of climate change. Filmmaker Ruben Östlund has returned with Triangle of Sadness, another social satire from this director distinguished in his filmography by embracing Cameron's concept of a big ship working as a metaphor for broader society. Within Triangle of Sadness, though, there's a tad more on-screen vomit and excrement compared to the movie where Jack and Rose fell in love.

Split across three sections, Triangle of Sadness is focused on a collection of disgustingly rich people. This includes a young couple Carl (Harris Dickinson), a male model, and his girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean), an influencer, as well as totally separate passengers like Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), a Russian capitalist who built a fertilizer empire. These and other exorbitantly well-off souls are all enjoying a trip on a cruise led by a figure only known as The Captain (Woody Harrelson). Initially, the screenplay is just focused on dark comedy emanating from the entitlement of the guests and their obliviously dismissive treatment of the wait staff on the yacht. Even when they think they're doing a good deed, like forcing the yacht employees to take a dip in the ocean to "relax", the wealthy are just suffocating the voices and wishes of working-class people.

A stormy night kicks off a series of chaotic events that forever change the lives of everyone aboard the ship, though far be it from me to spoil what kind of madness lies in wait. The fun of Triangle of Sadness comes from watching Östlund constantly finding new and unexpectedly bizarre ways to underscore how the various emperors in this film have no clothes. Spoiling the specifics would undercut the entertainment for newcomers, but I can comfortably say that these parts of Triangle of Sadness work because Östlund refuses to engage in half-measures with this screenplay. Just as this screenwriter commits to portraying nearly every character on-screen as thoroughly shallow and despicable, so too does Östlund commit to depicting inescapable mayhem awaiting these figures out on the open seas. 

In the process, Triangle of Sadness paints an accurate portrait of how excessively wicked the upper crust can be while putting them through the wringer in a fashion as heightened as their real-world behavior. Is any of the chaos inflicted on the passengers of this vessel any more ludicrous than the average actions of Elon Musk? Granted, all while this mayhem is occurring, it's hard to escape the nagging feeling that Triangle of Sadness isn't quite as compelling or insightful as a critique of modern capitalism compared to, say, Sorry to Bother You. Focusing a narrative on characters who belong to the bourgeoisie instead of the proletariat while intending your story to critique wealth disparity will always have downsides. Östlund is clearly wanting the viewer to be enraged at the wealthy, but their very presence in the foreground of Triangle of Sadness still contributes to their omnipresence in American pop culture. Something like The Assistant manages to make the horrors of powerful rich people apparent without ever putting them in the frame, by contrast,

Similarly, much like Östlund's last film The Square, Triangle of Sadness can be too excessive for its own good (in this case, a 150-minute runtime could've been trimmed for sure). Does this comedy risk being as opulent as the uber-wealthy characters it intends to critique? On the other hand, perhaps it's necessary for Triangle of Sadness to be so extravagant to provide a mirror to the rampant consumerism and splendor in the real world. I kept flip-flopping between which of these two roads Triangle of Sadness was traveling down and ended up feeling the latter was more true than not. Much like Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, Triangle of Sadness is here to provide a farce whose immense absurdity is needed to capture the mayhem happening far outside the reaches of your local movie theaters. Plus, it's commendable that a movie like this offers so much for the viewer that you can see so many valid interpretations of its ambitions. Many other modern social satires like Don't Look Up wish they had that level of depth.

Triangle of Sadness can't evade all of its shortcomings, but it does prove constantly entertaining and intriguing thanks to the assured direction of Östlund and a cast that's game for whatever this movie throws at them. Dolly de Leon as Abigail is the most impressive member of that stacked roster of performers. Handed the most prominent working-class character in the story, de Leon is also handling the figure in Triangle of Sadness that experiences actual change as the plot progresses. She handles all these finer nuances with ease while also conveying a personality that could still exist in the same universe as the more pampered performances she's surrounded by.

Do you have a strong stomach? Do you like dark absurdist humor? If the answer to either of those questions is "yes," Triangle of Sadness is going to end up being for you. I'm still not sure if it works fully, but it's such an idiosyncratic and compelling creation that kept my mind engaged, especially in a third act that contemplates if the strains of capitalism are so omnipresent that they'll mold our lives even when we're detached from society itself. Also, there are good sight gags based around excessive vomiting. As James Cameron said, a luxury cruise can function nicely as a microcosm of the world. In Triangle of Sadness, it functions as a microcosm of a world on fire from the moment it leaves port.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Empire of Light is a bit dim when it comes to being a cohesive movie

In one of its many scenes that could’ve functioned fine as an ending, Empire of Life contains a scene where movie theater employee Hilary Small (Olivia Coleman) finally watches a film on the big screen in her workplace. As she becomes enraptured by the images on-screen, we cut back to the projectionist's booth, and specifically to close-up shots of various photos of classic movie stars taped to the walls of this area. It’s all shot quite nicely, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score sounds pretty, and Coleman is incredibly gifted at conveying a character experiencing a life-changing event just through facial expressions. 

Yet, it all means nothing. 

This scene has no point within the screenplay penned by writer/director Sam Mendes. It doesn’t pay off anything substantial on a character level. Worse, it’s detached from Empire of Light’s previous primary focuses of racial tensions in 1980s Britain and mental health issues. Without any way for this sequence to mean something, anything, within the context of the film it occupies, it might as well be an ad for AMC Theaters. Much of Empire of Light is, unfortunately, like this sequence. Handsomely made, competently acted, well aware of the emotional beats it wants to hit, but tragically unsure of how to blend it all into a cohesive whole. 

Small works at a small movie theater off the coast of England in 1981. She keeps to herself, doesn't speak up very often, and lives an overall muted existence. The arrival of Stephen (Micheal Ward) as a new employee at the theater initially doesn't seem to matter much, he's just another co-worker she'll make small talk with. But a romance begins to blossom between the two, with the pair finding so much joy in each other's company. Unfortunately, they each have larger problems to deal with, with Stephen often being targeted by a wave of renewed racism in the country while Small has a troubled past that she's always living in the shadow of.

Empire of Light finds its best footing in its earliest scenes, when it appears this will be a hangout movie about movie theater employees. The throwaway interactions between characters have a tangible quality to them. Plus, it’s hard not to like conversations shared between a distinctly 1980s punk rock lady and an infinitely more reserved middle-aged projectionist. The rapport between Small and Stephen is also at its best as they tiptoe around the possibility that they may be falling in love. No heightened drama to interrupt their camaraderie, just two good actors sharing some solid chemistry. 

But the more big ideas Empire of Light tries to squeeze into its screenplay, the more it begins to wobble and fumble under its weight. Confrontations with racism in the 1980s may be well-meaning, but they’re awkwardly executed and tend to show only intolerance manifesting in extremely pronounced means. Cartoonish caricatures are the only depiction of bigotry here. The times when Empire of Light grinds to a halt to confront this abhorrent behavior, it reduces Stephen to being either a punching bag for bigots or someone gently explaining how racism is still a problem to Small. There’s no problem with trying to confront hot-button issues, but you’ve got to deal with something like racism better and more creatively than Empire of Light.

Empire of Light's inability to go subtle also proves to be a key problem on a narrative front. The cinematography from Roger Deakins, with its subdued color palette and melancholy lighting, and the score from Reznor and Ross belong to a restrained and quiet character piece. But these elements clash against the film's tendency to go loud whenever it wants to be emotional, like Small bashing a sand castle or the police repeatedly knocking on Small's door. Empire of Light bashes you over the head with both what you're supposed to feel and what's happening on-screen. This story wants to touch your heart, but it's too aggressive to ever get close to that. Even worse, it jostles awkwardly from one big plot development to another. It never feels like there are organic transitions between its various themes or characters. This especially becomes apparent in its awkward third act, when it seems like the action is winding down for good only for the story to twist itself into knots to keep going on five or six separate occasions. If I'm thinking about whether or not the credits are about to roll instead of getting invested in the images on-screen, something's gone wrong.

The affinity Mendes has for such pronounced displays of human behavior end up leaving Coleman out to dry. This actor does the best she can with some really clumsy dialogue and ham-fisted expressions of big emotions, but even she cannot turn every lemon of Empire of Light into lemonade. Similarly, kudos to Micheal Ward for emerging as a memorable and charming performer (he gives the best performance here) despite being handed such a thinly-sketched character. There are enough pieces of commendable subtle acting between Coleman and Ward, not to mention solidly-realized cinematography and music, to keep Empire of Light from being a total washout. However, it's still a disappointment, almost crushingly so, that Mendes ended up delivering such a disposable drama despite having so many talented artists at his disposal. The magic of movies that entranced Small so much in that superfluous Empire of Light scene is shockingly absent from the film she headlines.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Tár hits a high note with its thoughtful and captivating filmmaking

Toward the end of Tár, titular protagonist Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is watching an ancient video of a conductor talking about what makes the best music so enchanting. As this artist speaks, he notes that you don't need to know about measures or bars or any other complex terminology to understand a great piece of music. When it stirs an emotion you can't describe in your soul, that's what's most important about a composition. It reminded me of an interview with Gullermo del Toro, where this director observed how, whenever he watches a movie for the first time, he doesn't get wrapped up in the analytical details about why it's working. He just lets the images wash over him.

There are countless ways I could break down why Tár, the first film from writer/director Todd Field in 16 years, is as exceptional as it is. But taking a cue from both this maestro and del Toro, the best way to express how I knew Tár was something special isn't through lofty language lifted from the world of film academia. It's simply in recalling how Tár gripped me. My eyeballs were captivated by the screen from start to finish. Its 157-minute runtime flew right by as its ominous atmosphere proved intoxicating. Capture my full interest this much and, just from that alone, you're doing incredibly right. Those veteran artists were right: sometimes it's the simplest surface-level takeaways that really let you know you've experienced something remarkable.

Tár opens with Lydia Tár being interviewed in a packed lecture hall. Her interviewer is listing off all her various accomplishments as a conductor, including the fact that she's an EGOT winner and how she's worked with so many iconic artists over the years. These opening moments establish Lydia Tár as a force to be reckoned with and also the public persona that the rest of the movie is all about subverting. Think of this glowing description of her past as a block of marble that Field's screenplay subsequently begins to chisel to form somebody...a lot more complex. And dangerous. 

Lydia Tár spends her days teaching classes and conducting new compositions in Berlin, Germany, a place she also calls home with her wife, Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), and her adopted daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic). Tár is hard at work setting up and conducting a performance that she's been dying to do for so long. Many of the tasks needed to organize her vision are delegated to her dutiful if quietly resigned assistant, Francesa Letini (Noémie Merlant). There's already a lot to juggle here, but things get even more contentious when something from Tár's past re-emerges. She initially shrugs it off as nothing, but the echoes of her past quickly become harder and harder to ignore. 

Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister realize the world of Tár largely through sustained wide shots, with close-ups of characters being used as minimally as possible. They also regularly deep focus to excellent effect throughout Tár, an ingenious way of suggesting how interconnected everybody is in this movie. Even when Tár is in her head, absorbed with just herself, shots utilizing deep focus make it clear that other people, like her wife, a new protege, or her assistant, are still around, even if they're in another room. On the flip side of the coin, vast images where Tár is the only figure in the shot are incredibly haunting, it's like she's stuck in an endless void even if she's just lingering in an empty apartment. No matter what tone it's trying to strike, the images of Tár magnificently communicate how its lead character is just one piece of the larger puzzle of life.

Also impressive is a recurring visual motif, echoing similar shots in Sean Baker's Red Rocket, where some of the cruelest or disturbing behavior exhibited by Tár is filtered through a more intimate shot of the person she's closest to. Putting the focus on Goodnow or Letini in these moments makes the consequences of her behavior so much more apparent. It's a great maneuver to ensure that the emphasis of the camera is on the impact of Tár's actions rather than just wallowing in debauchery. There's also a clinical nature to how Field and Hoffmeister frame the world of Tár, a quality matched by the production design which tends to lather the world of Tár in very subdued and "serious" colors. It took me almost the entire movie to realize, but the lavish home of Tár, with its grey coloring and sparse walls, reminded me of nothing more than an interior environment from Crimes of the Future. Going this route adds an eerie quality to a place that should feel cozy, with that uneasy aura only becoming more and more inescapable as the story progresses.

Visually, Tár is a marvel, the kind of movie that begs to be viewed on the big screen. More than any big-budget explosion-laden blockbuster this year, Tár is a perfect distillation of why the theatrical experience is so incredible. Being confined to a darkened room, with your vision and mind only focused on the gigantic screen in front of you, the intensity of Tár becomes extra apparent while its titular lead seems particularly imposing when she's towering above you. As a cherry on top, the finer details of the sound design, namely the perfect use of surround sound to accentuate Tár's growing sense of paranoia, are best experienced in a movie theater auditorium rather than on an iPhone.

But wherever you watch it, whether in theaters or its home video release, the anxiety-inducing pleasures of Tár are bound to enchant, including Cate Blanchett in the lead performance. After nearly 25 years of turning in consistently incredible work, one would think Blanchett might be, understandably, struggling to surprise us anymore. Tár, though, delivers an artist who still delivers the totally unexpected. Blanchett is magnificent here, with the quiet nature of the filmmaking allowing her to flex her muscles as a physical performer and to pack in so much authoritative personality into her dialogue. Whether she's portraying her character as being cool under pressure or growing increasingly frazzled as the challenges around her pile up, Blanchett is transfixing. Hoss and Merlant are also delivering remarkable work here with their supporting Tár performances. Anyone who can go toe-to-toe with a great Blanchett performance deserves lots of recognition! 

For the sake of keeping this review spoiler-free (many of the captivating joys of Tár come from watching everything unfold at the moment), I'll refrain from diving into some of my favorite aspects of Tár, including the way it manages to be so insightful in its relevant social commentary without coming across like it's chasing fresh headlines or buzzy news topics. Even without being able to outline all its virtues, though, Tár is a tremendously well-crafted piece of filmmaking brought to life with an incredible amount of conviction from all involved but especially writer/director Todd Field. You could spend hours breaking down all the intricate details that make Tár so superb, but, as that conductor and del Toro remind us, the way it kept me enraptured is enough of a testament to this movie's quality.