Movie reviews by
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
2 ½ (out of 4)
Sacha Baron Cohen is a slick, cheeky, unrivaled provocateur, but it’s important to note how funny he is even when everything’s scripted out for him. Something as insipid as the action spy spoof The Brothers Grimsby, or more relevantly the Chaplin/Marx brothers-inspired satire of The Dictator can catch you off guard. He just turned in a convincing, uncommon dramatic offering in The Trial of the Chicago 7, essentially his only role that doesn’t lean on some sort of silly, flamboyant theatricality like supporting parts in musicals like Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables, or as the inspector in Hugo. But Baron Cohen's true appetite is for disappearing into personas built on generating pointed cultural commentary and milking taboo-shredding responses from unwitting victims of his idiosyncratic, improvisational comedy.
Yes, there are other impish fictional characters in his arsenal like Ali G and Brüno but nothing comes close to the iconoclastic near-genius of Borat. Years later we have the all too welcome of-the-minute topicality of Subsequent Moviefilm, though Baron Cohen struggles to duplicate the original's unexpected insanity, enduring quotability or sweeping satirization of everyday American society. Nevertheless no one else could – or would even bother attempting to – perfectly meld in-story mockumentary absurdity with real-world pranks, cons, setups and other delightfully clandestine unmaskings of the United States' true face.
Of course Baron Cohen sometimes eggs people on too overtly – either Borat is best when he is able to extract exactly what he wants from someone without even trying. Those crafty moments obscuring the borders between the fictional plot and emotions and the reality show-esque antics are the crux of these films' successes. It’s just this sequel’s revelations concerning the nation's underbelly are nothing more than reiterations of the dumb racists ousted in the former 2006 comedy classic. The only identifiable differences here are Borat’s rotation of disguises within disguises in the wake of his stateside notoriety and the supporting role of his estranged daughter Tutar (played to sly excellence by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova), who serves as Kazakhstan's gift idea for President Trump, then Vice President Pence and finally Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani’s already infamous lampooning is unfortunately over-edited and reeks of entrapment, although I’d watch that fool get humiliated any chance I can.
Whereas the original Borat is the popular flagship of an incredibly niche genre, the Subsequent Moviefilm will never hold the same stature no matter how watchable, funny and daring it is. Apart from the Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Taika Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows, this decade has been dry for docucomedies. Frankly I’d rather take the orchestrated fakery of Christopher Guest’s body of work (seminal farces like This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show), Michael Patrick Jann's Drop Dead Gorgeous, Woody Allen’s Zelig or Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver over deliberate, hit-and-miss button-pushing.
2 ½ (out of 4)
Even if this new adaptation of Rebecca landed with the poise and power of a major Oscar player, the inherent, inescapable irony of trying to escape the shadow of former greatness – just like our naive, nameless protagonist must live up to the impossible reputation of the deceased titular character – would still be just as painfully poignant.
Ben Wheatley is a proven talent with fine filmmaking ingredients at his disposal, but did he really think he was going to outstrip Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine? Armie Hammer and Lily James are wisely cast as Mr. and Mrs. De Winter, but their admirable performances simply cannot compete with 1940's Best Picture winner. It's only Kristen Scott Thomas who is able to polish and improve upon the role of the obsessive Mrs. Danvers – previously played by Judith Anderson – with her icy, elegant touch. The production value and photography are impressively opulent and the adaptation – barring a rosy, paperback epilogue acutely reminding you you're watching more of a Netflix original than the product of a Gothic literary classic – is reasonably faithful. And James and Hammer really are exerting their best efforts, although I’ve seen enough quivering lips and furrowed brows for a single two-hour sitting.
Other than a few dream sequences wherein we're reminded of the fearless British auteur who arranged films as sharp, strange and surreal as A Field in England, Wheatley seems to be appealing to popular interests rather than his own, albeit to far more ravishing and engrossing results than his tepid, tiresome Free Fire. The psychological romantic drama has been shifted a touch too close to Nicholas Sparks, but more often than not Rebecca is a mighty if futile endeavor to outdo an untouchable work of art.
2 (out of 4)
I’ve pretty much always been on Sofia’s side – she manages to maintain a degree of calm, halcyon, near-transcendental ease even in her weaker excerpts. She'll give you ASMR-adjacent goosebumps like it's nothing. If her recurring sense of social appraisal was more obvious or obtuse (The Bling Ring, Marie Antoinette) she made sure the daydream editing and hazy, hand-picked soundtrack choices factored into a fragile atmospheric paradise. Her misfires are still full of feeling, disenchanted or not.
To report that On the Rocks is the most deficient of a recognizably distinct filmography is not saying much. Coppola's seventh film is approximately mediocre but next to the rest of her vaporous, unimposing filmography it's far from a protruding blemish. As the first actual auteur film to be distributed by AppleTV+ I wish there was more cause for celebratory fanfare, especially in a year where streaming is our savior through which we can keep the exchange of new film culture from going under.
Whereas Bill Murray yielded the performance of a lifetime – despite openly displaying a more moderated rendition of his trademark traits – for her detached masterwork Lost in Translation, in On the Rocks his efforts are little more than a sprawl of self-pleasing improvisation. His flawed father figure is barely a character, little more than a poor excuse for reactionary role-playing. Poor Rashida Jones can't muster much personality in lead position, though maybe it's Coppola's fault for writing a protagonist more absent of autonomy, self-discipline or self-awareness than any of her customarily dispassionate leading ladies. It’s relieving to see a Wayans brother (Marlon to be precise) acting with irony-free composure, which hasn't happened outside of Requiem for a Dream. Coppola utilizes a bit part for Jenny Slate to form part of her round of everyday critiques, although never the director's sense of meditation been so misconstrued by meandering melodrama and timid screwball comedy.
Though all of her movies have a ponderous futility – as detractors will surely point out – this one has the most measly purpose of all. I’m all for shattering the histrionic shell surrounding a disappointing reality and keeping the everyday aspects of existence alive in contemporary storytelling. The problem is On the Rocks has about as much introspective insight as a Reader’s Digest and even Coppola's capacity for peerless ambience and reasonably imperfect characters seems to have wilted into late-career Woody Allen territory, stocked with soap opera plotting and needless New York worship.
3 (out of 4)
Aaron Sorkin has been reveling in the real for the better part of a nearly 30 year career. Though his latest concoction and his second directorial feature has more than a little in common with his screenwriting debut A Few Good Men – wherein he was adapting his own stage play – and is built on the same democratic idealism of The American President and his shows The West Wing and The Newsroom, The Trial of the Chicago 7 appears consistent with his 21st century proclivity for ruthless biopics. Since the 90s Sorkin has prided himself on dramas built on relevant current events rather than arranging the climate and news cycles of the time to fashion the bureaucratic, judicial and executive interplay to his liking.
The liberties are there but his strengths persist – The Social Network would probably be half the masterpiece it is if the script adhered to history rather than drama. But along with his solid debut Molly’s Game three years back or the standard savory cult figure dissection of Steve Jobs, The Trial of the Chicago 7 offers about as much as one could expect from the man concerned with the logistics behind everything from baseball stats to well, all governmental operations. That and making every single observation and exchange punch and crackle.
Trial escalates into the finally feel-good courtroom territory you’d expect but all the verbosity in the world couldn’t make up for the story’s urgency in light of its release – the recent explosion of racial unrest could not have been anticipated by Sorkin, making it all the better still. If there were literally ever a time to investigate America's perpetual appetite for peaceful protest and police brutality, it’s in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and many more wrongful African-American deaths, and the surging Black Lives Matter movement. It’s truly insane to think of this movie being released without the precedent of such topically synonymous violence and dissent. The film is achingly, almost scorchingly of the moment.
The ensemble cast is giving everything they've got – Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Frank Langella, Jeremy Strong, up-and-comer Yahya Adbul-Mateen II and especially Sacha Baron Cohen cohesively feed off each other in a script that hardly has time to seperate leads from supporting players. And in the realm of historical accuracy, this movie probably has some of the fewest dramatic alterations to an otherwise remarkably unknown excerpt from the Vietnam War era.
Aaron Sorkin’s movie not only arrives at a noble destination concerning what public resistance and ideological demonstrations are really about, but intently informs and entertains as some of his most significant reproductions of modern history have. Of course there are the textbook Oscar drama drapings – primed with liberal friendliness and all – but it's such a relief just to behold a film that comfortably resides in a familiar aura of prestige despite 2020 being the most discordant, disconnected movie year in the medium’s history. After being robbed of summer escapism, I can't believe I'm giving thanks for the various the deals struck between production and distribution companies and certain streaming services. Without a stay-at-home option – although I'll take advantage of a limited release whenever I get the chance, pandemic be damned – the preservation of consistently renewed content would be lost and cinema likely with it.
Netflix has this and Mank, so, as they've established in years past, the platform will have a place in the Awards conversation for years to come. But The Trial of the Chicago 7 is worth more than the medium with which it reaches the masses. This is one great, reciprocating instance of art reflecting reality, even if it's the kind of stimulating history lesson that might slip your mind once class is over.
3 (out of 4)
I doubt Christopher Nolan will ever concoct a better litmus test with which to filter out the casual admirers from his diehard fanboys. Almost as if while scouring negative reviews of Inception and Interstellar, the blockbuster filmmaking magnate decided that regular old convolution was not enough to deter the wannabes from the true Nolanites. This film will make you feel just plain stupid on the first round and it might not be your fault – the second time it will click much cleaner and yet you'll still be longing for the digital or physical release when you can ACTIVATE SOME GODDAMN SUBTITLES and likely unwrap a new layer of not only Nolan's densest movie but one of the major Hollywood blockbuster mindfucks of this or any era.
Really, if the first sequence doesn’t have you immediately flabbergasted you will be by the final battle. It’s so difficult to praise or nitpick what you genuinely aren’t even sure you saw, let alone understood. In the soupy, sometimes staticky sound mixing it's difficult to distinguish where the speculative details and physical substance of the story end and begin. The best part about heady original sci-fi filmmaking costing over 200 million dollars – sadly about as rare as actual time travel – is that if there is some ingenuity at its core unbenownst to dismissive audiences, it will only be recognized after eventually being understood and appreciated. All I'm saying is the initial reception of Tenet is how many cult classics have been welcomed. I despise the predigested aspect of any art (mostly music), and in Nolan's eleventh film he keeps the informative spoonfeeding to an almost nonexistent minimum – although his exposition is cranked as high as ever – and I'm only pretty sure sure all the confusion will slowly dissolve and give way to greater appreciation. But considering the director is the same guy who has his own mind blown by the fact that mirrors reflect side to side but not up and down (ever heard of a spoon good sir?), maybe it's all a bunch of bananas.
At least it's easy to see why Nolan didn’t want this film released on your phone, for even the muddy distortion of every other scene of dialogue can't mangle the purposely gargantuan IMAX/70mm-directed practical arrangement of sci-fi espionage showmanship that is now Nolan's staple. Regardless of the format, Tenet will make you yearn to catch every word of every scene just based on how much knowledge whizzes past you without recognition. But even if the sound entered my ears full and unsullied, this would surely be one of those rare films that requires at least two viewings to grasp both its extraneous and possibly very crucial thematic and logical design and details.
As someone who believes the oft-debated director’s finest hour was the period from The Prestige cresting at The Dark Knight and then Inception – and despite the new barrage of befuddlement – this is Chris’s comeback after almost a decade of overreaching ambition and weak developments on his obsessions with time, reality and humankind's relationship with faith. Tenet is overstuffed, perplexing and downright exasperating at worst, but it also represents all the best things that mainstream cinema can offer: elaborate, how-the-hell-did-they-shoot-that cinematic thrills, intellectual – or at least pseudo-intellectual – philosophy and plotting as well as meticulously inscribed psychological manipulation. It’s hard to think of any major movie since Inception invoking such useful, interesting and necessary post-viewing discussion, and this film, though not as rewarding, is at least few times the manic mind game that last decade's bit of Nolan high-concept, neo-noir narrative-contorting.
Inception took an oddly rational concept of the surreal and molded it into clinical, zeitgeist-breeding brilliance, but Tenet feels like one of many stories that could have related the inversion concept of time travel suitably. Jon David Washington does his darndest and is a fine “protagonist,” although his in-film referral as such is so stupid it keeps Tenet teetering over parody; this is Nolan's riskiest, most insane undertaking exceeding even the nearly three-hour muzzled extravagance of both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. However if this film is in debt to any previous Nolan entry it is without hesitation 2000's Memento, although clearly Tenet has more head-spinning schemes for the old noggin than the gimmicky genius of that short-term memory loss thriller. Robert Pattinson charismatically sells a bizarre friendship in another sensible step on his way to the Bond-like hall of Batmans.
Believe me, like anyone who felt less than smart coming out of Tenet – and especially as part of an audience that almost fetishizes a bit of mental superiority – I wanted to tear up the movie's logic as if all its effort and ambition hinged on love being the key to time and the universe or something stupid like that. Nolan may have retread his concerns about climate change on our near future, but in terms of a story that makes you feel like all of its components were rationally considered, it make Interstellar look like child’s play. The Dark Knight Rises is better for memes at this point, and Dunkirk is probably an equally flawed success.
There are glaring defects and miscalculations – almost imperceptibly bad sound design, a disdain for invigorating pacing and the possibly pointless floodgate of fan theories the story opens up. Personally I can't wait for all the neurotic nerds to play the movie in reverse and infer some irrelevant syncronicities; after all Nolan is at his most masterful and magician-like when he beckons you to extrapolate more than might really be there. impulse Nevertheless Tenet is the Nolan film to end them all, a mighty, maddening new calling card for the rare, prolific English Hollywood auteur.
2 ½ (out of 4)
There’s an aspect of Palm Springs that is terribly alluring. If you can describe exactly what the premise is offhandedly – Lonely Island Groundhog Day! – sometimes the movie in your mind is better even if the thing itself is damn close and painlessly digestible.
In its corner you have a great standout performance from Cristin Milioti, whose notable TV career is largely as THE camera-shy mom of How I Met Your Mother; her only major movie role was the better of Leo’s wives in The Wolf of Wall Street. She has energy and empathy, and acts circles around Andy Samberg, who while often a delight is not adept at drama or emotion that isn't ironic.
And the film could’ve excused itself from criticism with a few things – first, utilize the premise more fully or distinctly. Go dark and deep or don’t. It wants to be Harold Ramis’ G-Day plus a few eternities, but the existential and universal thematic exploration is surface level and settles for simple nihilism before all the rom-com mechanics get switched into overdrive for Act 3 along with the half-assed sci-fi elements. Also if you want to swap some kind of morality fable for harder fantasy, get much weirder, or at least as clever with the living and dying and repeating as Edge of Tomorrow.
But the whole composition moment to moment is charming, at least generally funny and comfortably romantic. Maybe our standards have dipped since quarantine, but this is the kind of relatably cyclical escape that satisfies smoother simply by going down as easy as a fruity summer cocktail.
3 (out of 4)
Next to adolescent button-pushing of The Hunt, the award for the most unapologetically and skillfully centrist movie of 2020 decidedly goes to Jon Stewart. Following a personally important real-life drama in the underseen Rosewater six years back, the man has abandoned plans at HBO (which have resurfaced in a sync-up with AppleTV+ for a new Daily Show-esque current events program) in order to reconnect with the passionate political satire his now-legendary career summarized so perfectly.
With Steve Carrell as a reliable, pliable comic centerpiece, Irresistible manages to have its cake and eat it too as both a smattering of the contemporary ideas whirling inside Stewart's head and a decently delectable piece of entertainment. There are more jabs at liberal hypocrisy (maybe the most effectively since Get Out) than the obvious dead horses to beat: the social gulf between the conservative voters and their representatives, or just the stock TRUMP STUPID attitude ad infinitum.
Thankfully between Chris Cooper and Mackenzie Davis selling the smalltown sincerity while we enjoy the comic fortitude of Carell, Rose Byrne, Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne, there’s enough gravitas to aid the insight into the microscopic facets of government in action and the general gamesmanship of the whole election system. Irresistible should illuminate anyone looking for a dose of reasonable truth, particularly in an era so bankrupt of comprehensible normalcy or levelheaded bipartisan communication coming from either side.
The final twist has its own thematic worth justifying some of the trickery beforehand, mostly due to Stewart's deft anticipation of your own predispositions. Not every attempt at an impressionable argument lands gracefully and nor does every jab or joke. Nevertheless Stewart’s temperament is too recognizable and reasoned not to get swept up in politics as entertainment in the only place it belongs – the movies, not our “unbiased” news sources that totally don’t selectively embellish certain talking points to ensure the echo chamber keeps on banging and clanging.
As the man who set the stage for so many other left-leaning comedy pundits – Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee and most famous of all CBS's Stephen Colbert – Irresistible could've been an ironic cluster of narrow political awareness. Instead it has the heat of that famous Crossfire interview, more or less Stewart's objective, almost apolitical mantre – the film has a lot on its mind without pulling out a condescending soapbox or prescribing how you should think. Stewart simply makes too much sense and his ridicules still deeply satisfy. This is the mainstream media doing its job.
1 ½ (out of 4)
You got me Disney, I’ve never read Eoin Colfer’s very popular young adult fantasy novels – I was too caught up in Alex Rider, Lemony Snicket and other rewarding tween distractions. But just because I skimmed a Wikipedia article on the first book in the eight-part series doesn’t mean I couldn’t have just as easily figured out at a glance how much you tampered with the spirit of the source material.
Whether it's several awkwardly inserted dialogue dubs, editing so hapless it's obvious 45 minutes were cropped out, or a narrative framework designed to force Josh Gad into yet another Disney debacle, this sterile fluke makes Percy Jackson look like a feat of filmmaking. Speaking of Gad, the man ruins everything – his horrid stamp marks not only both Frozen features and the Beauty and the Beast redo, but he even dismantled a potentially lovely Zoom reunion of the cast of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. His gravelly narration and insulting improvisation renders a skewered, lifeless would-be blockbuster turned direct-to-streaming disgrace all the worse.
Apart from Gad the casting is decent. Colin Farrell (who only joined the film during reshoots) does what he can as Papa Fowl, an excellent Lara McDonnell makes you believe in fairies and Judi Dench, who is apparently hungry for silly supporting roles these days à la Cats, can't help but be a pleasure to watch. And young novice Ferdia Shaw, grandson of the late actor Robert Shaw, is undeniably tolerable as our prodigious titular descendant of legendary criminals.
But trying to make a zoomer of the reclusive, mischievous 12-year-old mastermind from the get-go is just going to piss off everyone that cared about Fowl to begin with. Warping his character to fit some hackneyed Casino Royale-esque origin arc is not only stupid and unjustified screenwriting, but ultimately shortchanges the film's considerable production quality and Kenneth Branaugh’s unembarrassed direction. It actually feels like acting legend turned efficient director sold his soul to Disney during the 20th Century Fox acquisition to secure his Poirot sequel Death on the Nile.
3 (out of 4)
Greyhound is the ultimate dad movie forged by your pops' favorite actor – somewhere about halfway into this naval WWII exercise your own father might just combust from such finely tuned, matter-of-fact, masculine middle-aged media.
Though I would look for any reason to discount AppleTV+ (good God is that the name they went with?) as a vessel for cinematic content, as their first noteworthy theatrical procurement Greyhound works well enough at home even though it must have cost enough to have anticipated maybe nine figures at the box office. It’s the finest at-sea film we’ve seen in some time, and does well in elaborating on more rarely discussed areas of 20th century warfare by simply illustrating a few ships and some watery geography before throwing you into the mix and quickly pulling off a realistic relay race of fine editing and green screen trickery that passes by fairly cogently.
It’s not some kind of Master and Commander, Das Boot or even as good as Nolan's knotty, antimatter war flick Dunkirk – but there are so few genre greats because sea-fare is not the easiest to recreate convincingly or cheaply. What one would expect to be a middling military masturbation session is instead a period thriller that neatly reproduces the risk and treachery of crossing the Atlantic without air cover in the early day of the United States' involvement with WWII. The movie is ruthlessly compact and doesn’t waste a minute of your time – as more a summer flick than strained Oscar bait there’s not much else you could ask for. We’ll see if Apple’s major investments in Sofia Coppola and Martin Scorsese can increase the clout the streaming service with the least respect and the most to prove – unless you really want to count Peacock.
Regardless of any distribution strategy, it's amazing that after all these years Tom Hanks – who also scribed the adaptive screenplay – can still act his ass off so much that you seldom discredit the film’s believability or showmanship. He ably lets you enjoy the roughly ceaseless tension and convenience store history lesson.
The King of Staten Island
2 ½ (out of 4)
There is something to be said for wearing your heart on your sleeve – that is the purpose of tattoos after all and the most consequential asset of the latest star vehicle helmed by the relatively selective comedy auteur Judd Apatow.
But The King of Staten Island is more than just the Pete Davidson showreel like Trainwreck was for Amy Schumer. Remember Trainwreck? Better yet remember Amy Schumer? This feels like the closest thing to an arguably artistic attempt the stringently juvenile director has pieced together – or should I say DRAWN OUT for almost two and a half hours – since 2009's Funny People. Staten Island doesn’t quite touch the appeal, honesty or unflagging hilarity of The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up, nor does Davidson’s breakout role feel like the inception of a new comedy figurehead like Steve Carell and Seth Rogen. But the SNL heavyhitter gets to flex those scrawny muscles enough to satiate his fans and properly introduce himself to a general audience.
The film is pretty good; King is built on memorable, fleshed out characters and consistent enough laughter but it is predictably crude, indulgent and overlong. The biographical elements would feel a tad more personal if not for Davidson’s continued public disclosures concerning his late father – who, if you didn't already know, died in 9/11 – on SNL and his stand-up special, though the incorporation of real life gives Apatow some room to fashion a bit of humanity and prove he’s not a broken record when it comes to the screw-up subjects he always exhibits. Staten Island almost feels like a grander Davidson companion piece to the 20-something coming-of-age kicks of Hulu's Big Time Adolescence.
Bill Burr is hilarious especially with a fellow stand-up to knock around words with, and Marisa Tomei, who finally looks more or less her age (ENOUGH of the hot mom crap Hollywood), is in rare, sincere form. If the film didn’t eschew its considerations of mental illness by its end – something that affects both Davidson and his character Scott – I’d have kinder words to write.
3 (out of 4)
The Trip series is probably the most consistent this past decade (well, except Mission: Impossible lets be real) and like many cinematic successions, the secret in recreating the same pleasures over and over lies in carefully tuning each atmospheric, dramatic and thematic variation. Looking back, other than a few titular tweaks to the locale and the soapy personal relationship foibles for the fake-real-life portrayals of Steve Coogan and Robert Brydon, the conceit of two guys travelling, talking and eating exquisite food has never been lost. However even though the reliable comfiness derives from basic pleasures – the cutaway footage of Europe’s finest chefs at work, the deluge of celebrity impressions, the balance of ego-stroking and self-deprecation – The Trip to Greece does a fine job continuing a strange tradition of plotless week-long retreats rife with fabulous fine dining and the kind of vistas you couldn't frame poorly if you tried.
This one jumps straight into said holiday – the famous Michael Caine impressions are absent and the last film’s cliffhanger ending is discarded with a throwaway resolution. There are some anxiety-ridden black-and-white dream sequences as well but the individual novelties of the fourth Trip end there. Whether you opt for a getaway in London (the original 2010 film, which, like all of them, sheds much more footage fit for British television), Italy, Spain or this new escapade (my only guess is Paris is next), Brydon’s tireless showmanship and pantomiming is a sharp, complementary foil to Coogan’s sobering self-obsession.
The humor has become so undemanding and unforced, and the moments pass blissfully this go round as they often do. Juxtaposed with highlight comedy bits of the decade-old maiden voyage, the first movie seems almost amateurish in light of where their gradually practiced, polished, vérité-drenched repartee has brought them. Brydon and Coogan are worth the trouble every time.
1 (out of 4)
Ruh Roh, Warner Brothers what you done? Did you honestly make us look back at those live-action films with reverence, ironic or otherwise? I knew just from the trailers this would be a waste of time, but there’s just nothing about Scoob! that wouldn’t have felt right at home in a direct-to-digital release and it's terrible to imagine wasting thousands of theater screens on something so cheap, joyless and misconceived. Whether it’s the haphazard milking of Hanna-Barbera properties, voice casting apparently done at random (aside from Jason Isaacs, bless him) or a story that doesn't even pretend to live up to the tradition of a classic cartoon mystery, this is an irredeemable mess and something of an insult to fans of the franchise's numerous delightful iterations.
You're better off with Matthew Lillard, Linda Cardellini, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prince Jr., but even the most shoddily animated classic episode, hilariously aged straight-to-video features (Cyber Chase anyone?) or cockamamie idea tossed into the recent, really fun Mystery Incorporated would be an incomparably better time. Will Forte is a fine talent but the worst Shaggy you could pick when you could have a better big name or any unknown considering WB is riding on a notable property and lazy parents foremost – Zac Efron is an OK Fred, Gina Rodriguez brings some Latina energy to Velma, Amanda Seyfried makes a convincing Daphne. Warner Brothers has never really cracked the transition to 3D animation – without Chris Miller and Phil Lord, The LEGO Movie would not be able to support their short, deficient filmography since 2013.
All I know is they screwed the pooch (I couldn't help it) and the gang should disband till teenage hippies and talking dogs can solve the unending mystery of why we shamelessly force needless nostalgia on newew generations for its own sake. The animation is also ugly as sin and the inclusion of the other tangential characters is cramped, cringy and confusing at best. The insistence on celebrity cameos from Simon Cowell, easter egg overdoses and other insane trivialities means there’s never a moment to consider any real interpersonal relations within Mystery Inc. or arrive anywhere close to Saturday morning spookiness. Kids will be able to tell this is a dumb folly, at least I hope.
Trolls: World Tour
2 ½ (out of 4)
They said it couldn’t be done, and the good luck trolls laughed in AMC and Regal’s face. You’ll be back, they smirked. You can't pass up that DreamWorks money.
There are ethical, business and creative consequences in releasing Trolls World Tour to everyone through VOD, the first major post-COVID would-be theatrical film to do so. Did they troll the cinema world? Or was it all an overreaction?
But enough speculation – what is this epic sequel all about? If I told you it reached back to the origins of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth through the Alkabeth of The Silmarillion, would that be enough to justify the film’s disruption of the industry? Culture war, homogeny of taste and tribalism are at the core of World Tour’s story, which is not some silly road trip film but about the diversity of music, a welcome direction after the first film. 2016's Trolls was a rather enjoyable and emotional journey given the average expectations going in, with bubbly poptimism offsetting neat evil folklore. World Tour takes a silly, limited world (which still never addresses the whole Danish doll thing) and expands it with ornamental details along with a fruitful and fun mythology to unravel. Of course Tolkien comparisons are hyperbole, but what if a wannabe overlord of hard rock (Melkor) tried to usurp all other genres of music and fly all controlled musical under one genre's banner – Anna Kendrick still voices Princess Poppy, out to save the leaders of the Techno, Country, Classical, Funk trolls.
Yodelling, Kpop, Smooth Jazz, and Reggaeton all appear for bit jokes, and most of the central genres are there just for a couple gags too, but the film’s themes are so uncommonly strong that when all the genres are blended together in some quasi-utopia multicultural melting pot by the end, it undermines earlier ideas spelled out by the leaders of Funk, namely that diversity and perhaps their separation is what makes each genre, or cultural creations, special. Especially in America, our idealism leads us to believe that peaceful coexistence could strengthen a unified identity – things get a little muddled in here because its a pretty baseline kids movie. But damn what topics to consider. Melkor was ultimately banished from the Valar for his disruption to the harmony of Ea’s great symphonic creation, and he'd eventually be kicked out of the Kingdom of Arda for good after enough mischief, not won over by compromise and cultural understanding.
Trolls World Tour recognizes why the world is divided, even if it takes all the usual DreamWorks cheats to get to the very unrealistic happy ending. It's also a tolerable jukebox musical built upon the most ridiculous lore you could come up for a film based on novelty children's toys.
2 ½ (out of 4)
This is B-team Pixar joint if I’ve ever seen one. But Onward is not so minor or emotionally predisposed as the studio’s brand-dismantling turns for the mediocre (the Cars movies, to a lesser extent The Good Dinosaur) and it especially doesn’t reek of creative confusion that led to mildly watchable yet painfully nostalgic detours like Monsters University and Finding Dory. That said I’d rather watch Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2 for another time any day than take a spin through this Dungeons and Dragons Daddy Issues concept that could have easily found its way on the desk of the less daring Disney’s Animation Studio.
Translating the absence of magic in the new world – one of a few Tolkien carryovers – to a suburban setting, the film tries to balance the domestic and quest-like concerns as any “fun” Pixar movie should. But this is really just Zootopia with some Narnian paint overtop – still at least the story and sequences have enough ingenuity to outweigh references and generic world-building. MCU brothers Tom Holland and Chris Pratt lend acceptable, fraternal voice work although Holland is channeling the same manic, high-pitched inflections he did in Spies in Disguise.
All in all, I’m keen to take an original Pixar over a sequel, even when recent years include films as underwhelming as Brave and Coco. These alright films do not remotely live up the instant classic status that once made Pixar the undisputed king of a now muddled subset of feature filmmaking. The basic emotions and cheap, obligatory dead parent angle keeps Onward from pushing itself into the realm of Pixar’s recent best. Yet those same tricks to take your tears are what makes this, Coco and especially last year’s Toy Story 4 somewhat impactful.
With yet another original Pixar film (Soul) out in just three months (ya know, should the world not enter self-destruct mode between March and June of 2020), maybe this will be the lesser of efforts that balances out a new favorite – I’m pretty sure Good Dinosaur and Inside Out came out within the same year. It may not possess the gusto of a bold, unflappable Pixar gem but it is, regardless, a work of playful pastiche and careful enough consideration for a collective audience.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Kelly Reichardt thought she’d make it official that she stands at the forefront of essential contemporary female filmmakers. There are your Sofia Coppola’s, Kathryn Bigelow's and Claire Denis’ but Reichardt has never taken a false step or failed to improve upon her reserved neorealism through portraits of companionship of all kinds. Without her go-to girl Michelle Williams, who led Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff and was a major player her last film Certain Women – the closest comparison of First Cow would be the existential road trip of Old Joy, although the pioneer times of this new film just as thoroughly real as Meek's revisionist western touches only more so.
In all frankness this may be her dramatic masterpiece and one of her strongest attempts to communicate life lived without pretensions, airs or anything at odds with the rough, tactile naturalism of North American terrains and candid performances. The film’s opening quote points to themes of friendship while the opening scene (a haunting, nearly dialogue-free modern day prologue) imposes lurking tragedy upon a story of a traveling cook and a wandering Chinese man who form a bond before pilfering milk from the only cow in Oregon, all part of a plan to sell some delicious buttermilk biscuits, make some coin (and some snake fangs?) and hit the road to greener pastures.
It feels like an elegy on capitalism and an unsentimental, tender snapshot of friendship. Few period movies this year or even this decade bother trying to convey the utter humility of reflecting on one’s place in time and the paradoxical, melancholy of the movement from the old world to the new. Even when it functions most closely to entertainment, Reichardt's proffers pressing questions like, how do you make good on a world that has everything to offer but nothing’s free? How do you live honestly as you forage for your next meal?
The performances are incredibly composed (John Magaro and Orion Lee up front and support largely from Toby Jones) and the black humor and dramatic irony is a welcome adjustment to a filmography built on stoic, meditative mundanity. It’s a charming, ultimately tense, thoroughly gorgeous fable with visual, tangible authenticity rivaling the historical works of Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson or even the fresh mise-en-scene mastery of Robert Eggers. Reichardt's latest does nothing more than cement an uncompromising filmmaker's patient, calm and often critical view of humanity's place, past or present.
3 (out of 4)
I’ve read Pride & Prejudice and I’ve seen damn near every major adaptation except the one with zombies. At this point Austen’s legacy is so recognizable it’s just a relief that her prose and pointed commentary still prods and stabs as surely as it did 200 years ago.
Emma, next to P&P, is what one might call a defining work, characterized by a headstrong protagonist lacking self-awareness and populated with one of her vintage webs of romantic politics, social hurdles and feckless families. Between 1995 and 1996 we got Clueless and a Weinstein-funded direct adaptation of the tale starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The timeless, teen-sophisticated cult charm of Clueless exceeds the routine realization, which has nothing on the performances and direction of something like Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility.
The question remains whether incoming director Autumn de Wilde’s imposing talents radiate through the groundwork laid down by Austen. As much as Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride bears more unironic feeling and Whit Stilman’s elegant Love & Friendship is a more ample act of reverberating the author’s poisonous comedy, this Emma has all the parodic, ironic, supple shimmer of something like Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite. Despite its aesthetic peerlessness, Emma has modern, fortunately restrained bite, fair casting and a strong recognition of the text's vivid characters.
De Wilde has been a music photographer and videographer for ages, creating the album covers for alternative favorites like Elliott Smith, The White Stripes, Fiona Apple, Beck, Wilco and a host of others. Her practiced portraiture envisions Emma with appropriate artiface and splendor while author and fresh screenwriter Eleanor Catton communicates Austen's best assets – verbosity, dry, searing humor and the social ironies and trivialities of courtship within the upper-class lifestyle of the Regency era.
Anya-Taylor Joy is one of the few greats of her generation and enchanting to behold, radiating every facet of Ms. Woodhouse's inconspicuous hubris. Bill Nighy as her tempermental, hypochondriac, all but absent father is an amusing choice and musician Johnny Flynn suits George Knightly's childhood friend turned unassuming lover quite well. Stillman came closest to imparting Austen's lucid, trenchant subtleties in 2016 but Emma might have had the upper hand if not for a handful of concessions to those unfamiliar with her shrewd inclinations.
3 (out of 4)
The Dark Universe is dead – long live individual movies! So by now everyone has forgotten about The Mummy (not the Brendan Fraser one, the one with Tom Cruise, remember? he had like a blue shirt), and if you recall that 2017 embarrassment it’s for no good reason. Soon after Universal’s shared spooky-verse was supposed to include Johnny Depp in the titular role of the movie in question, the next step in the supposed franchise. Next to the 1954 Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man was always an appreciable favorite: an oddball madman undone by his own creative ambitions, a genius turned loony, misanthropic prankster. Maybe it's not what H. G. Wells was going for but as a pulpy gothic shock-treatment like many early Universal features were, the manic and now iconic vision of science gone too far was memorable fun.
After many needless follow-ups, reimaginings and remakes in the years since the 1933 inception of the unseen icon, The Invisible Man is revisioned by Leigh Whannell, who after a career built on horror’s painful sequel turnover in the Saw and Insidious franchises found some semblance of artistic purpose in Upgrade, a standout sci-fi action hybrid of late. I wish more of his palpable energy could be located in The Invisible Man, but unfortunately the story – which uses domestic abuse as the ironically conspicuous theme of a minimalist take of the premise – is entertaining before it gets a little self-congratulatory.
Psychological terror and especially feminist cinema has a place in my heart and also in the tradition of horror, and the success of The Invisible Man is lies in timeless, tasteful restraint. The film is slight but by no means exploitative, nor is it excessive in other facets like outrageous gore or pedantic politics. Though if you're a forgiving fan of Paul Verhoven's lesser work, you might be craving the more recognizable sci-fi of something like 2000's problematic but fascinating Hollow Man, it’s hard to deny 2020's fun mental games and procession of inescapable paranoia. The final twists can keep you on your toes and Elizabeth Moss is already too good for the movie star cred she will have fully inherited before the Handmaid’s days are done.
It would be nice to believe Universal is wisely opting for DC’s latest strategy and giving up entirely on duplicating Marvel’s interlocking, monopolizing tactics in favor of director-driven, distinct movies but it's too early to tell. If you want to give me the modest modern auteur versions of Bride of Frankenstein, Creature and a fresh The Wolf Man (with Ryan Gosling no less!) then…. by all means. There’s not really a rule of thumb but something tells me keeping costs low and blockbuster prospects in check will equate to swifter success.
Then again there's nothing more terrifying than cutting short the potential profits of a sleeper horror hit in the wake of an invisible disease spreading across the globe. When (but more like if) things go back to normal, Universal's scary movies will probably have the sheen of Blumhouse surrogates but will, if luck and prudence holds, be much better.
2 (out of 4)
DC’s little renaissance hasn’t gone unnoticed, nor could it have occurred at a better time. Just as the sun was beginning to set on Marvel’s indisputable empire, DC stopped mimicking and started outthinking, using the least likely moneymaker’s – Aquaman, Shazam and supervillain spin-offs – to readily revert their superhero movie empire back to the individual basis. As Wonder Woman 1984 this June should be one of the year’s highest earners, Birds of Prey enters the scene with all the fervor Margot Robbie, as star and executive producer, can commit to. The film is little more than underwhelming, barely taking the time to explore a storyline that would be suitable for a TV pilot. But the talent and budget is there, sadly saddled with a subversion-lite, fairly prudish use of an R rating.
But surprisingly, no one really cares about this movie and there’s really no reason they should. It’s fine next to Marvel's Ford-assembly-model movies, but barely exceeding Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t really be considered much of an accomplishment. Birds of Prey doesn’t have any point and admits it, but isn’t much fun as compensation other than some pretty good stunts and a couple laughs. Though the band of female misfits are all eventually decently developed by the team up, they couldn’t have been scripted or edited together more awkwardly, unless we’re talking about Suicide Squad’s stupidity. I didn’t really care for Deadpool, but that movie does the meta, schizophrenic storytelling thing with more proven relish and popularity, and the sequel made better on the promise of the first. If I could tell certain moments of cute ignorance from the spots of lazy writing with Harley Quinn's movie, there would be more reason to celebrate a finely forthright feminist mini-blockbuster that doesn’t pat itself on the back or smack you with every message, a rarity in a era of increasingly fake-woke pandering.
Maybe I’m just mad that Mary Elizabeth Winstead wasn’t in every single scene I MEAN excuse me oh dear my male gaze is showing. But man, when your best stuff is generic villain crap held up by Ewan McGregor hamfisting every line with casual glee, your little spin-off is in sorry shape. Changing the title doesn’t actually change a thing. With a James Gunn-ified sort-of-sequel Suicide Squad already filming, the disposable quaintness of Birds of Prey feels even more glaring.
Bad Boys For Life
1 (out of 4)
Whatcha gonna do when your movie’s poo? If I could have thought of a worse lead you would have read it.
I have no intense disdain for these films or ill feelings about Will Smith or Martin Lawrence but when this movie became the biggest January release ever (before COVID, before George Floyd’s death) you could nonchalantly write this off as a dutiful, innocuous sequel. But considering all the hindsight it’s so easy to see that this latent Bad Boys is almost objectionably lame and the glory days of the buddy cop genre are long expired.
Let’s spell out the ways in which Bad Boys For Life (sure you don’t want to save that title for the fourth installment which, by the looks of a completely stupid stinger, you were already intending to make?) is equivalent to excrement. First you’ve swapped the homophobia that makes Michael Bay’s earlier films uncomfortable to revisit for sexism: there's Fast & Furious-fitted B-roll of scantily clad women and underwritten characters for poor Vanessa Hudgens and Paola Núñez as Will's stock love interest. And in a feeble attempt to improve upon the druglord antagonists from the previous movies, a mother and son (Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio respectively) have a vendetta against Smith’s Mike Lowery. Revenge motivator clichés aside, the ultimate story moments of Bad Boys 3 laughably embrace the telenovela, soap operatic cheesiness, nearly aiming for sympathetic villains before copping out with guns blazing by the finale.
Smith still looks young and plays smug well. Lawrence was never the draw but from the particularly pained desperation of his typical comic moments I can just picture him a few years back begging Smith for a career-jumpstart: “PLEASE WILLIAM I NEED THIS.” So even if the Boys are Middle Aged Men, the direction by Adil & Bilall in their duo debut shouldn’t feel so dead. I would rarely defend Bay and here it is – at least if he had helmed this film it would have been trash with authentic flare instead of just trash. Some of the in-camera action is watchable but the fast-cutting and piss-filtered cinematography are no sleazy virtues.
Most crucially, the ignorant, borderline-agitprop plotting of pandering police glorification – which, granted, Bay’s films helped crystallize after the macho-minded 80s – have no justifiable context in 2020 and now just function as the obsolete movie tropes For Life carelessly coasts on. The main insult to me was the idea that an officer seeking therapy after having to kill people should be treated like a joke, let alone the movie's casually included parting sentiment.
And I know, Bad Boys never had politics on its mind, but the series' collective failings amount to so much more thanks to this film's headaches. After Bad Boys II came out in 2003, Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) and Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the Jump Street films) refurbished the bluecoat action-comedy genre into their own stomping ground for deceptive satire and meta-meticulous miracles, and there's no going back. We didn't even need The Nice Guys, The Other Guys, Zootopia, the Ride Alongs and a few Rush Hour sequels to reduce sometimes sadistic male fantasies into deserved buffoonery and parody.
I couldn't watch another film like this without suffering through the slick, tacky manufacturing, tasteless, thoughtless attempts to balance stakes and humor and, worst of all, fun, friendly reinforcement of vigilante justice and cop-hero, law-bending propaganda. Enough riding together, let's get to the dying part soon guys, please.
1 ½ (out of 4)
Speaking of redundancy and pointlessness, don’t get me started on Dolittle. Not eight months after we all supposed it might be time for Robert Downey Jr. to score an honorary Best Actor nod for playing the most iconic film superhero of the age, basically the Jesus of Gen Z cinema (millenials like myself have Harry Potter) came back to show he’s a savior of only so much, reputation not included.
This was not some contractual pact with the devil – RDJ is the executive producer of this ill-conceived remake or, I'm sorry, a modern adaptation of the 1922 installment The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle in the Hugh Lofting series. Now maybe Downey Jr.’s tryna please his kids or something but damn, from the spotty accent to the foolish, plastic story to the overblown, deeply unimpressive visual effects that totaled a budget of a whopping 175 million dollars, Dolittle is a comprehensive bad idea and so forgettable you’ll be able to recycle the wasted brainspace almost immediately. The supplemental voice cast has no ability to be interesting – or even noticeable, as somehow Marion Cotillard and Ralph Fiennes passed through my ears unrecognized. And Antonio Banderas musters as much effort in antagonism as he did for Spongebob: Sponge Out of Water.
I have no idea how this lifeless, grotesquely boring misapplication of cinematic resources wound up the lesser of two January evils – incredibly you could somehow do worse than Dolittle, but not by much.
3 (out of 4)
Sam Mendes returns to the Oscar cachet from whence he came with 1917, the closest thing to a Best Picture winner the British bigshot has whipped up since his notable domestic deconstruction debut American Beauty capped the 20th century and incited his career. I won’t act like I’m not impressed by his WWI epic but despite such immediate, imposing showmanship, I’m just not sure the awesome measure with which the film is composed advances any of Mendes’ emotional or commemorative intentions.
Inspired by and partly constructed from war stories recounted by Mendes' grandfather, 1917 thrives on the secure simplicity of its generally unbroken mission movie narrative. It doesn't smack of exploitation but I'm not sure the film's first-person shooter framework would appeal to Alfred Mendes. Any speculation on how near, dear, and personal this is for the director aside, when the film works, it works wonders. Those intermittently sublime instances of visceral dread and paranoia play into Mendes' strengths – dear Lord that central night sequence is a perfect storm of divine lighting and marvelous orchestration (courtesy of the talented composer Thomas Newman) and moreover a tactile communication of deep, winding desolation and despair. Mendes hasn’t come across so confident since Road to Perdition.
Whereas his only other combat film Jarhead melded the psychological warfare of Operation Desert Storm into a curiously effective case of cinematic blueballs, the goal of 1917 is antithetical to the careful prudence of crafting a historical simulacrum. The movie is supposed to stun you with the whole IMAX-Experience single-take simulation gimmick, taking but one tiny intermission inside unconsciousness to otherwise examine the century-old conflict with unblinking lucidity. But considering this is Roger Deakins behind the cinematography, our mind's eye is more caught up in the exquisite artistry of the film camera than the unsavory evils of war – which is a little contradictory, no?
Years ago I would have lost my marbles at the sight of such astonishing camerawork but 1917 is more fulfilling in the peripherals than in the dramatic promises it intends to keep. As someone actively looking for all the invisible edits and paying close attention to how the movie reignites purpose without traditional montage, I can at least say the film's audacious approach is often employed to great effect, especially in the bordering stylistic flourishes. Sometimes the absence of juxtaposed images perfectly placed me in a practical, uncompromising depiction of WWI and other times my mind strained to shut out the spectacle.
Mendes wisely utilizes formidable, relatively unknown talent (George MacKay and Dean Charles-Chapman) to make 24 hours journey feel like a millennia. But as these actors assist in buying into the exaggerated realism, the illusion is always cut off by big, distracting names in British acting – Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are all basically checkpoints along the way. Nearly every time you think you can give yourself over to the film’s power, there’s another ostentatious obstacle. 1917 doesn’t feel compromised as much as it feels slightly unrealized, and all its undeniably impressive trappings can’t mask a certain squeamish obliviousness to the boring, filthy terror of war.
As far as The Great War is concerned, 1917 may be worthy of discussion alongside Howard Hawks' homely debate of God and country in Sergeant York but it has absolutely nothing on Stanley Kubrick's immortal, heartrending Paths of Glory, the candid, indifferent horror of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front or the tragic, scenic clasps at innocence within Peter Weir's Gallipoli. Next to modern achievements in direct, dirty anti-glorification, in whole it’s a far cry from Saving Private Ryan and in more recent comparable fare it’s barely in the same conversation as Dunkirk. Yet like Christopher Nolan’s dutiful feature, the relatively real time aspect of 1917 becomes the film’s compositional linchpin as well as the biggest distraction from the pathos and internal rhythm.
Within the passing observations of the camera and especially amidst the controlled chaos of the more elaborate sequences, Deakins' incredible film photography masters what films of the same ambition – Silent House, Birdman and Hardcore Henry – experimented with and, to some degree, failed. That said, if we're talking about great movies edited to appear seamless, this ain't no Rope. And next to genuine one-shot attempts like Russian Ark and Victoria, 1917 boasts about a fraction of the authentic, palpable urgency. Deakins clearly drew inspiration from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his recognizable tendency for long takes, notably in collaboration with Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick. Deakins' only occasionally achieves the same slippery sublime visual poetry – his take on Lubezki is too clean and refined, never really recreating the cinema vérité conviction or skating on the line between entertainment and artistry smoothly enough for 1917 to function as escapism and awards fare simultaneously.
The irony is that for all its cinematic trickery, the movie has more value as an uncommon addition of the sparse WWI genre than as some magnificent technical endeavor – the fact that Mendes' film is not even in a similar realm of sumptuousness as other seminal Deakins films (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country For Old Men, Blade Runner 2049) is more ironic still. If 1917 felt like living, breathing history and a little less like a video game demo I’d be content to sing its praises fully. Some of the bleakest moments hit hard, but it’s the relentless return to action that makes a cynic of me – most audiences would rather forget about the woes of war and gleefully opt to have it all play out as virtual reality.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Literary classics prove their status by sustaining their stature rather than diminishing as years pass. Some only become immortal when cinema tries to realize their essence to both remind the acquainted and demonstrate to the unaware what was so powerful about the characters, situations and subjects in the first place.
So Little Women isn’t Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice, but Louise May Alcott’s treasured story has had many an adaptation in its day – George Cukor directed Katherine Hepburn in the 1933 version, there's one from the 50s with Elizabeth Taylor and the 1994 reiteration starring Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder surely stands out in today’s consciousness. Just after last year’s reviled modern take marked the 150th anniversary of the novel’s publishing, Greta Gerwig was already out tailoring the defining film version of the story – with talent like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in support, it was not shocking that her telling would play out as the absolute, unbeatable attempt. Before I use up the rest of this space as a further expression of my reverence for Gerwig, let me get rid of my gripes and point out the remote extent to which she’s sullying her bright, sunny new career.
While her romantic partner Noah Baumbach is scraping the highest artistic highs of his storytelling vitality with Marriage Story (his 10th original film in an ever-mounting, remarkably homespun career), Gerwig has already turned down the easier avenue following her tenderly crafted breakthrough debut Lady Bird in 2017. After bearing her soul with an autobiographical inception to a filmography it makes sense that she would gravitate toward recreating a famously personal near-nonfiction masterwork. But when the story movements are already laid out for you, the trimmings on top – the tastefully stylish camerawork, savory mise en scène, gorgeous Alexandre Desplat score, the uniformly superb performances – aren’t quite as meaningful as they might be in something drawn from scratch.
Still, my god, the icing overtop this proven recipe is incredibly rich and even the substance itself is excellent and flavorful in ways you would not anticpate. Gerwig has the instinct to reexamine Little Women through a deviating narrative lens, redefining the parameters and rhythms of Alcott’s reflection of her own deprived Civil War-era upbringing. The adapted text has an insistent equilibrium of whimsy and melodrama courtesy of Alcott’s crocheted realism but Gerwig’s temporal hopscotching in her script demonstrates every internal conflict of the March sisters by juxtaposing a perfect past with a faded future. The color scheme (warm hues offset by blue tones) informs this rift in time between the good old days and an uncertain present, invoking a well-illustrated nostalgia and longing.
The zig-zagging nonlinear direction takes the tale in halves and works through them diligently and thoroughly, refusing to let the unannounced transitions through adolescence fail to inform the distance between the simple, fixed memories of youth and the more immediate trepidations of early adulthood. By utilizing methodical editing as a pick to unlock the more cinematic feelings of Little Women’s endurance, Gerwig’s hand also reconsiders Alcott through her distinct emphasis on awkward, restless naturalism, giving her adaptation an accessibly modern flavor despite the beaming, excited acting and textured production and costume design. It’s not as memorable or drastic as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite or Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but Little Women finds Gerwig exercising a singular, resonant voice through a beloved feminist period template.
Until a new fashioning of Emma arrives in February, Gerwig’s classically composed drama will remain the lit-head's movie of the moment, burning with the appetite of a revisionist eye and the inherent intent of Alcott’s wit and wariness. I was worried Little Women would fail to exceed a sense of irrelevance, functioning as a vehicle for Gerwig to secure her career for safer, businesslike goals rather than artistic ones. Pleasantly, it's just about effortless to forget any hesitations while watching, though that is to say I dearly hope she formulates her own fictions as she goes forward. With a clarifying understanding and appreciation for the source, there’s nothing but the rewards of superlative adaptation to appreciate from Gerwig’s second feature. Is it even worth bringing up that Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamat, Emma Watson, Chris Cooper, Dern and Streep are without flaw? Because of course they are.
3 ½ (out of 4)
The raw vigor of the Safdie Brothers’ electric touch and Adam Sandler’s own inscrutable moxie amounts to a lustrous, New Hollywood-esque cinematic combo. The brothers drafted the screenplay with Sandler in mind early in their career, only securing the comedy legend at their Award circuit rounds a few years ago.
It’s a karmic cautionary tale about tempting fate, or at least trying to master it – like Good Time the movie is one extended tiptoe on the verge of a nervous breakdown, an actual adrenaline rush of hallucinatory colors, restless, grainy camerawork and getting caught up in the momentary hoopla of an ominous comedy-of-errors situation from hell. Uncut Gems just has a stronger sense of the dance of dialogue in the wheeling and dealing, in the congealing of monetary and existential crises, all built for sheer entertainment with a dense, overlapping structure. Like Heaven Knows What, the Safdie duo take their lowlife lead characters at face value sans condescension until their addictions – heroine, gambling, what have you – become our own concerns, thrills and despairs.
Their propensity for coarse naturalism has rarely been so convincing or visceral and Sandler just happens to be the most magnetic talent they’ve thus acquired. Actually Robert Pattinson probably has the Sand-man topped in his growing independent body of work (not to mention donning that crusading cape for Warner Brothers soon enough) but this is probably Sandler's best performance ever. Creeping out of the financial security of his most idiotic affairs to prove his range once per decade, this turn supersedes Judd Apatow's strong Funny People by miles and Uncut Gems exceeds even Punch-Drunk Love as his most well-suited, crowning dramatic turn, a perfectly written and performed movie character. Whether or not you have an opinion on Sandler's sea of silliness outside excused little classics like Happy Gilmore, this has virtually nothing in common with the Big Daddy's, Anger Management's or Jack and Jill's of the past.
Burnished in every frame with slippery splendor and scrappy intensity, Uncut Gems is at least one of the great films of the year and maybe up their in the best of the decade. It’s the faultless consummation of a rapidly arresting career, of a distinct, tangy busyness and distress. If the ending seems like a copout consider the story with Hollywood thinkgroups in mind and you have a cheap, ill-defined fantasy rather than an adventurous existential warning. It’s a thriller that’s lets you have your cake and eat it too, unlike the potent but thematically flawed Mississippi Grind.
Howard may be a loathesome charlatan at heart but the Safdies have no difficulty in relating his own subjectivity to the universal, turning his bad luck and impulsive strokes of genius into the balancing act of life, played out like some coked up Monopoly game. The performances, including involved acting debuts by Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd, boast extreme, effective realism. The score by electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never is retro-future heaven and simultaneously a second brilliant collaboration between the Safdies and Daniel Lapotin, dropping the OPN alias. The seedy, surreal world of New York jewelers, based on the profession of the film-duo's own father as well as their proud Jewish heritage terrifically believable dialogues before the more terrifying confrontations.
From the hallucinatory bookends to the urgent questions of character and ethics, Uncut Gems is the kind of potential future classic that will more than likely stand above some awards season ignorance, especially as A24's highest grossing release so far.
2 ½ (out of 4)
So a long time ago there once was a really good space fantasy movie called Star Wars. It became and remains essentially the most popular original film of all time, at least as far as domestic audiences are concerned. The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was a blockbuster miracle superseding the iconoclastic predecessor with rich emotion, vibrant drama and deepened ingenuity.
Everyone with a sliver of a grasp at pop culture knowledge is aware of this but it’s important to reiterate that 1980 really was the last time Star Wars movies were exceptionally great. Return of the Jedi, regardless of its operatic strengths and classic climax, was a considerable step down for the series as the now-trilogy had already found itself in a relative state of creative rehashing. The prequels famously splintered the religious fanbase and critical voices, setting the stage for the exponential divide we have now in the age of the Mouse's movie monopoly. George Lucas’s heart was in the right place when he sought to impart brand new stories within his established world by way of shiny new digital technology and yet, whether you cite the crutch of green-screen-imprisoned visual effects, hokey plotting, faulty humor (unintentional or otherwise) or any other repeated nitpicks, you have to admit Lucas was unable to conjure anything close to an instant, enduring classic like his watershed original movie, nor emulate the tales of old and tangential influences that inspired him. Revenge of the Sith is the only story apart from the first trilogy really worth a damn – there was potential for masterful moviemaking if not for Lucas’ shortcomings, which are far more unregulated in the grotesque indulgence of The Phantom Menace and the protracted melodramatics of Attack of the Clones.
By the time The Force Awakens came out just four years ago, Disney hedged their bets on drawing in the largest possible audience and assuaging disgruntled diehards in order to funnel as many people back into the collective fan machine as possible. The safe nostalgia trip was nothing more than a remix, a redo and a softball setup for potentially better movies down the line. Reportedly, and astonishingly, nothing was planned beyond Episode 7 – enter Rian Johnson, who put forth his own radical vision in relative disregard to the template provided by The Force Awakens and a lot of Star Wars mythos in general. This was the irreparable fragmentation of the base – some critics declared The Last Jedi to be one of the great Star Wars movies to date while others deemed it an awful, meandering, contradictory mess, myself included. In the words of Bo Burnham, original does not mean good. No amount of decent visual direction, fine developments of the dynamics between Rey and Kylo Ren and admirable (and unfulfilled) attempt at thematic substance can redeem Johnson’s most baffling, bold and borderline stupid choices.
Capping off this new, controversially uneven trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker is forced to serve as a two-fold finale – the end of a fan fiction-tier sequel trilogy and, in the greater scheme of things, the climax of nine terribly popular movies, all while supposedly fulfilling its own individual cinematic goals. J. J. Abrams, who jumped from Star Trek to Star Wars in one bound, was brought back into the fold after Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow dropped out of direction. And as you might predict, this new film tries to placate the abandon of its predecessor by reversing many of Johnson’s more unpopular decisions. Luke’s aged ideology has been completely autocorrected, Rose’s role has been diminished, Snoke’s importance is immediately downplayed, just to name a couple reversions.
So after deliberation on all of Star Wars’ past, the short review is this: if you hated The Last Jedi, logic suggests you’re probably okay with The Rise of Skywalker and vice versa. I can't defend Johnson's film as entertainment whereas J. J. compels me to enjoy his films in spite of myself. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the ingenuity of the original two films cannot be duplicated, manufactured or otherwise reattained and the whole idea of continuity in this "saga" has been one fantastical bit of winging it at every turn. However that does not excuse how discordant Episodes Seven through Nine plays out as consecutively conceived space operas. At least with the prequels there was a definitive destination for the story, although those films are almost just as guilty of unsatisfactory miscalculations.
All this to say – relatively speaking within the realm of Star Wars movies and big blockbusters overall – I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker for what it was, and what it was mostly was a loud, practically incoherent, expensive, intermittently lovely yet roughly nonsensical pile of space fantasy remains. Maybe that's a good defense for The Last Jedi, and even The Force Awakens too, but I don't really care. Something urges me to die on the "Rise of Skywalker is the best of the trilogy" hill. Call me cuckoo.
J. J. the writer and his partner Chris Terrio (the odd duck with both an Academy Award for Adapted Screenwriting in Argo and co-writer credits for Batman v Superman and Justice League) had the unenviable job of wrapping up at least two and at most eight predecessors immediately after Johnson crudely painted the new franchise storyline into a claustrophobic narrative corner. TRoS is, if anything, admittedly overstuffed and cacophonous – but J. J. the director can almost always smooth over internal absurdity, dull dialogue and sometimes downright dumb interludes with the disciplined velocity of his digestible gifts. His first Star War loses points inherently for narrow-mindedly blocking out all creative directions for the story, and The Last Jedi both ignores a decent cliffhanger for a middle chapter and mistakenly gives us a wasted, misplaced feeling of finality.
Of course by returning to the comfort zone, part nine is planted in Return of the Jedi, but this one still feels like a neatly continuous yet separate, standard Star Wars movie – the planet-trotting adventure emulates silly serial escapades of old, the new characters finally feel comfortable and established, the broad humor lands abnormally well and the action (in the second act specifically) is kind of exhilarating when Abrams’ camerawork is most fluid and polished. The cinematography is fairly vivid and the emotions, mainly between Rey and Kylo (whose relationship has been the only consistent character drama the past three films) are effective even if the bumbled, half-baked story isn’t so much.
My enjoyment doesn’t deter the film’s countless flaws, yet I reiterate: Star Wars has never exceeded the level of “eh..” in 40 years, and this film, nor any other (no matter the numerous apologists in Lucas’s or Johnson’s respective camps) breaks the streak. The Rise of Skywalker is flashing colors and paper-thin myth-making – but if you're itching for a sleazy, exciting visit to the movies this one goes down easy and if you’re looking for much more than that from this franchise at this point of corporate exploitation you’ve backed the wrong horse. Frankly, if you can get past the Emperor’s resurrection (“somehow, Palpatine returned,” was a explanation enough for Kathleen Kennedy) and maybe reaffirm the idea that these films are literally about monks with space magic, futuristic military machines and the well-stirred blend of science fiction, fantasy, adventure and westerns, the more gaping flaws in the silly story mechanics feel inconsequential next to detectable entertainment value. At least the insults to our intelligence are employed for the sake of greater cinematic appeal rather than feeble moral revisionism (*ahem Rian). This appropriate simplicity probably explains why audiences are receiving The Rise of Skywalker so reasonably while critics have finally mounted their high horse after shamelessly shilling the mediocre Disney Wars thus far, Solo notwithstanding. I won’t even go so far as to say all these movies are for children (though that is the core audience that will get the most out of them) but I can’t think of another film of late more deserving of the preliminary, and very asinine, advice to just, like, turn your brain off dude.
In-theater enjoyment and retroactive embarrassment is how nearly every Abrams movie plays out, and The Rise of Skywalker is just that and then a little more just to be safe. Still, Abrams knows how to shoot a movie efficiently with his trademark Spielberg-lite senses. You can criticize so much – the wonky third act, the needless new characters, the bullet train plot process – but the film gets you your money’s worth by the sheer ration of content vs time – this Star War has a whole beginning middle and end when it should be considerably focused on resolution, ya know like any good, properly planned trilogy should.
Babu Frick was cool! Adam Driver is magnificent, filling out the only character of the new trilogy we can be glad about. They gave Poe a few more layers which was nice. It’s almost miraculous the way Carrie Fischer’s scenes play so smoothly, until Leia's death when they don’t so much. Richard E. Grant should've been an Imperial General for all three movies and then Domnhall Gleeson's Hux actually wasn't an Imperial General all along so... the wayfinder and the Sith dagger were sort of stupid uh... the climax was kinda um... yeah I change my mind this isn't the hill I want to die on frankly.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
On the Rocks
I'm Thinking of
and many more
"So what've you been up to?"
and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice