Mahershala Ali has never been the lead in a motion picture. I'll give you some time to open up his IMDb page and fact-check me on that one.
Yes, I am correct in saying that two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali ("Moonlight" & "Green Book") has never had a leading role in a film. Granted, he's led a television show with the third season of "True Detective" and will be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the vampire hunter, Blade. But up until "Swan Song," Ali has always been relegated to a supporting role.
It's an unfortunate fact that an actor of Ali's caliber has had to wait as long as he has to get the star treatment. And it's a coincidence that Lupita Nyong'o, also an Academy Award winner ("12 Years a Slave"), is opening her new film, "The 355," at the same time as Swan Song. Nyong'o's role in the female-led spy thriller is only her sixth in-person role since her 2013 Oscar win, with only two of those being lead roles (2019's "Us" & "Little Monsters").
It speaks to a larger, more systematic problem that these actors of color are not getting the leading roles they deserve. How many great performances and awards do these actors need to accumulate before they can get roles that match their talent? But that conservation is beyond this review's scope and is best handled by people more qualified. So, let's focus back on the topic at hand, which is "Swan Song."
"Swan Song" makes Ali's first lead role a memorable one, as we get two of him for the price of one. How is this possible you ask? Well, human cloning has become a reality in the near future. For Cameron Turner (Ali), this presents an existential dilemma. He's dying of a terminal illness, which he hasn't told to his wife (Naomie Harris), or his 8-year-old son. This cowardice grants him an incredibly rare opportunity provided by Dr. Scott (Glenn Close).
The good doctor offers Cameron the opportunity to clone himself, sparing his family from the pain of losing a loved one. The clone will have all of Cameron's memories and behaviors, and be completely indistinguishable. Before the real Cameron dies, the clone will take his place and live out his life as if nothing ever happened. Only the real Cameron will know the truth.
But can a clone - even the most perfect one imaginable - seamlessly take the place of a human being? Marking his feature directorial debut after winning the 2016 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, Benjamin Cleary looks to tackle that question. But he doesn't address it as a sort of Turing Test where the stakes revolve around the family finding out the truth. Instead, Cleary goes around that simple gimmick and looks at both the moral and ethical stances on the issue.
The question isn't if the clone can do what it's supposed to do, but if it should. Is Cameron making the right decision by lying to his family to protect them? Is leaving his wife and son with a clone more of a betrayal than leaving them altogether? These are the questions that Cleary doesn't decide for the viewer. Rather, he supplies you with the tools to come to your conclusion.
It's a slow burn with a lot going on, even if not a lot happens on screen. That's because all of the action takes place within your head as Cleary puts you into Cameron's shoes. You're constantly comparing his actions to the ones you think you would make. The best films bury themselves in your head while watching. You wrestle with them in the moment and continue to interact with them long after they're over.
And with the help of production designer Annie Beachamp, Cleary has created a near-future world that is perfectly believable. The production design may be the reason why Apple bought the film, as many of the sets share the same clean and sleek design that the tech giant uses for its storefronts.
The futuristic technology within the film, such as holographic displays and virtual reality that doesn't require a headset, is so seamlessly blended in that you're never aware this technology doesn't exist yet. Other recent films such as "Gemini Man" have treated human cloning as the peak of human invention. But in "Swan Song," it's just a part of life that has naturally sprung from technological progress.
Mahershala Ali has never turned in a bad performance. At worst, he's done fair work in poor films ("Alita: Battle Angel" & "Free State of Jones"). Here, Cleary serves him well. He's incredibly compelling in his dual roles, pulling off the complex feat of differentiating the two Cameron's just enough so that we can tell the difference, but also believe why the other characters can't.
Awkwafina plays a dying patient who's already completed the cloning process. Lulu Wang's "The Farewell" proved that Awkwafina can dig deeper than just lowbrow comedy, and this is a reminder of that fact. She shares some wonderful scenes with Ali, as both of their characters come to terms with the decision that they have made.
The term "swan song" refers to the final performance of a public figure, such as an athlete or performer. As a title, it's a fitting term that encapsulates so much of what the film is about. Luckily, the term doesn't describe any of the talent associated with the film, as this is only the beginning of Benjamin Cleary's promising career, and of this new phase of Mahershala Ali where his talent is front and center.
Leave it to Steven Spielberg to make his first outing into the musical genre one that completely crushes the competition.
Like The Mad Titan Thanos, Spielberg has seemingly made it his mission to collect the stones of nearly every genre known to cinema. Throughout his nearly fifty-year feature film career, he's already conquered monster movies ("Jaws"), science-fiction ("E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial"), adventure ("Indiana Jones"), war ("Saving Private Ryan"), and biopics ("Schindler's List" & "Lincoln").
But before he takes on the Avengers-level threat of Netflix and other streaming services in the fight for the theatrical experience, Spielberg needs to claim the last stone that has eluded him: musicals. And after all these years (including a worldwide pandemic), The King of Entertainment can finally stake his claim with his remake of "West Side Story."
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have made it clear that this "West Side Story" is not a remake of the 1961 film, which won ten Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture. Rather, this is a new adaptation of the 1957 stage musical.
Many might be confused as to why Spielberg felt the need to readapt such a timeless piece of entertainment, especially with the 1961 film being heralded as one of the great screen musicals. The answer to that argument can be broken down into three parts.
First, Spielberg may be humble, but like all great directors, he has a bit of hubris and isn't afraid to remake sacred material, as he's already done with 2005's "War of the Worlds." Second, Spielberg has cited the musical as a foundational piece of his childhood, so much so that it was one of his key inspirations for becoming a director. And third, while the 1961 version may be a monumental feat, it is far from perfect. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original Broadway production's book, spoke to the New York Times in 2008 about his feelings towards the film version, which he thought was very flawed due to "bogus accents, bogus dialect, bogus costumes." Laurents' argument against the costumes may be puzzling, but he's right on target with how the film whitewashed much of the characters.
Spielberg's "West Side Story" looks to right the wrongs of the past, as nearly all of his Puerto Rican characters are played by Puerto Rican or Hispanic performers. And to do this, Spielberg hasn't committed the sin of nearly every modern musical adaptation where big movie stars are cast instead of the performers who brought the characters to life on the stage. Apart from Ansel Elgort (who, while still being the film's wet blanket, is not as bad as one would expect), all of the cast members come from some sort of theater background.
Ariana DeBose, who played a featured part in "Hamilton" both off and on Broadway, takes over the role of Anita with a fiery passion. Playing her overprotective partner Bernardo is David Alvarez, one of the original Billys in "Billy Elliot." Mike Faist, who originated the role of Connor Murphy in "Dear Evan Hansen," harnesses a special jittery vulnerability as Riff.
And then emerging as the star of this troupe is newcomer Rachel Zegler as María. The world may have already gotten a glimpse of Zegler's singing talent through her YouTube channel, but this is a true showcase of what she has to offer. Since production wrapped in September 2019, Spielberg has claimed Zegler as the greatest María he's witnessed. At the time, it sounded like the usual praise a director would heap on his own film. But now that the court of public opinion gets their say, it seems he was telling the truth.
With so many stars-in-the-making, Spielberg is able to harmonize the past and the present, making the remake feel like a Golden Age musical made with modern craftsmanship. Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski keep the same desaturated, high-contrast look that they have maintained for nearly three decades. The camera swoons and cranes in extended takes, capturing the incredibly choreographed dance numbers conceived by famed ballet dancer and director Justin Peck. The "America" (which has been taken down to the streets instead of the rooftop) and "I Feel Pretty" set-pieces contain some of Spielberg's greatest directorial work, with Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics proving once again why they have inspired so many.
But all the technicals and performances mean nothing if the story doesn't match their excellence. Thankfully, screenwriter Tony Kushner has taken the original material and given it a new life. For the most part, this is still the same Romeo and Juliet story of star-crossed lovers caught in a war between rival gangs. But then, every once in a while, something unexpected will happen, taking things in a different direction.
The narrative about the immigrant experience has been made more profound, with the Spanish dialogue - accounting for nearly one-third of the total spoken lines - going unsubtitled in a move that Spielberg and Kushner described as an effort to respect the language. And the character of Doc has been reimagined as Valentina, allowing Rita Moreno (the 1961 Anita) to ground the film with a heartbreaking final number. All of these revisions don't come off as gimmicks needed to justify the film's existence, just different (and better) ways to tell a classic tale.
With The Great Musical War of 2021 coming to a close, Steven Spielberg has emerged as the predictable winner. Perfectly melding the work of Bernstein and Sondheim with the newfound talents of DeBose, Faist, and Zegler, the new "West Side Story" makes the case for why some remakes should be allowed to happen. Because sometimes, they can meet or surpass the original, such as how this one does by bringing classic cinema into the modern world.
Campion's "Power of the Dog" reinvents the Western genre
Despite being the master of the gangster genre with such films as "Goodfellas," "Casino," and "The Irishman," Martin Scorsese cites "The Age of Innocence" as his most violent film. It's a bizarre statement, considering the 1993 period piece features no sex, swearing, or physicality. Instead, the violence that the film harbors is purely emotional and under the surface, carrying far more damaging effects that past than any external wound.
Similarly, Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" is one of the most violent films of the year - and of the Western genre - all without a gun, knife, or fistfight.
The year is 1925. The Burbank brothers run one of the most successful ranches in Montana. Phil is handsome, calculating, and utterly brutal. He lives purely for the land, paying no mind to the feelings of those around him. George is pudgy and sensitive, and always on the receiving end of Phil's torments. Together they represent Romulus and Remus, ruling over a vast empire that could topple at any moment.
On one of their cattle drives, George becomes smitten by a widow named Rose. The couple swiftly marries and moves back to the mansion-sized ranch house. Disapproving of this union, Phil unleashes his cunning fury on Rose and her emasculated son, Peter. But there's more to Peter than meets the eye, as his outward weakness may not be an honest reflection of what's inside. After some time, Phil begins to warm up to Peter and take him under his wing. Is this latest gesture a softening that leaves Phil exposed, or another one of his mind games that will delve further into menace?
As a director, Campion has often been able to communicate the unsayable. Her films often resemble a poem more than a narrative. Based on her past features of "Sweetie" and "The Piano," it can be said that she isn't concerned with only opening one door, or telling her audience exactly how to feel. That ambiguity brings out the power of interpretation, leaving the viewer with the film in their mind long after the runtime has passed.
"The Power of the Dog" doesn't stray from that trademark as Campion tightly wounds her surprise psychosexual drama. There's a cutting edge to each frame, epically lensed by Ari Wegner as the vast prairies of New Zealand stand in for Montana plains. A shot of a knotted rope, the castration of a bull, or the movement of a cigarette tells as much of the story as any piece of dialogue. Every act becomes a piece of symbolism, carrying an intentional ritualistic weight. And with plucked strings, Radiohead frontman Jonny Greenwood (a notable collaborator of director Paul Thomas Anderson), squeezes the last drops of tension out of every scene.
Still, when the dialogue takes primacy, Campion, adapting the words of Thomas Savage's 1967 novel, makes sure it still stings. Phil uses his words to cut those while they're down, with a sharpness that cannot be matched. It doesn't help that his cowhands, who worship his every move, sneer and snicker along.
In the lead role of Phil, Cumberbatch reaches new heights. The British thespian has built his career by playing the smartest man in the room, with roles such as Sherlock Holmes on television, Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game," and Doctor Strange in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here, that supreme intelligence brings along its coinciding deficiencies of the emotional and empathetic sort. Branding Phil as carrying "toxic masculinity" would be too much of an oversimplification as Campion takes that weakness and spins it into something far less one-dimensional.
While Phil may hate himself on the inside, George is more outward with his self-loathing, which inevitably gets passed on to Rose, as she deals with despair by turning towards the bottle. The real-life couple of Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are great in their supporting roles, as they find solace in each other's arms in the brief moments they have together.
Acting as the yin to Phil's yang (and also as the surprise actor showcase within the film) is Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, whose external simplicity masks his internal strength and awareness. The battle between Phil and Peter is one of wits, with the outcome recontextualizing the film into something more than the sum of its parts.
Jane Campion has made a grand return to feature films with "The Power of the Dog," crafting an enigmatic, modern take on the well-worn genre of the Western. It's the film equivalent of fine wine, as it's near perfect at the moment, and will only get better with age.
How is it that Chloé Zhao's previous film "Nomadland," about a woman wandering the Midwest in a van, is more interesting and full of life than a $200 million blockbuster filled with literal gods?
Both a coincidence and not a coincidence, "Eternals" and "Dune" share the same release window and many of the same elements. Both are technically well-crafted and beautiful films done on an epic scale featuring diversely interesting casts. Both cover vast amounts of space and time in attempts at worldbuilding for future sequels. And both share an emptiness on the page that keeps them from surviving anywhere past their runtimes. It's a shame that prestigious filmmakers like Chloé Zhao and Denis Villeneuve chose to make their least interesting films at the same time.
But before I reveal my hand too early, let's back things up to the beginning of time, literally. "In the beginning...," reads the opening crawl, a Celestial by the name of Arishem created the universe and all living things that inhabit it. Like the story in the Bible, this god was not perfect, as he created a monstrous race known as the "Deviants" that threatened the natural order of life. To right his wrong, Arishem created the "Eternals" to wipe out the Deviants and bring peace. For 7,000 years the Eternals have been Earth's watchful protectors, subtly guiding humanity to what it is today.
But Arishem's imperfection begins to sow seeds of doubt within the Eternals. That doubt leads them to discover the real reason they have been dispatched to this planet, which is to prepare it for the "emergence" that would bring about the end of humanity. Do the Eternals go against their maker by preventing his grand plan, or do they sacrifice billions for the idea of the greater good?
Just on paper, "Eternals" is Marvel's biggest feature to date in terms of scope and possibility. About a dozen new characters are introduced, all with unique powers. There's one with super speed, one that can control minds, and another that flies around and shoots laser beams out of his eyes like Superman (a reference made more times than you would think within the film).
Marvel has always had a gift when it comes to casting their famed superheroes. Robert Downey Jr. Being cast as Iron Man was seen as an unnecessary gamble, and more eyebrows were raised when unknowns Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston were cast as Thor and Loki, respectively. Just two months ago, Simu Liu proved all the doubters wrong with his terrific turn as Shang-Chi.
But while all those risks have paid off, this large bet doesn't bring back the expected return on investment. A few names, like Salma Hayek, Barry Keoghan, and Angelina Jolie are either miscast or not good enough for their roles. And for those that are good, such as Gemma Chan as Sersi and Richard Madden as Ikaris, their characters are too flat to inspire anything memorable about them except their names and what powers they have.
But there are a few wins within this cast that should be championed, such as the first hearing-impaired superhero in Makkari, and the first openly gay couple in Phastos and Ben. There's also the first Marvel sex scene, lasting all of eight seconds. While celebration should be in order, these inclusionary acts are still baby steps for the Mouse House, who have always embodied the urban dictionary term of "passive progressive."
"Eternals" is also the most interesting Marvel movie on a purely technical level. That's not to say it's the best, but that it's different in a refreshing way. Zhao, newly armed with Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture, makes the most radical departure from the plastic formula that has engulfed this franchise for the better part of its life. Along with DP Ben Davis (who also shot the first "Guardians of the Galaxy," as well as "Doctor Strange" and "Captain Marvel") Zhao leans for a desaturated, naturalistic look, similar to that of her previous features. The plains of South Dakota and the jungles of the Amazon are filled with beauty as she always seems to find and harness the magic hour
But those moments of visual originality are brief and sporadic. Once the special effects and action set pieces inevitably barge their back way in, it's back to business as usual.
This bait-and-switch act begs the question: If even the most independent-minded filmmaker like Zhao can't break free from the corporate chains, who can? It's a question that I don't want to think about, as the answer is the one I fear the most: nobody can. That gloominess I feel may not be shared by those that have stayed loyal to this rewarding franchise. For those that came into this clinging on to the last bits of hope that someone could shake things up, this movie may very well be the death knell to that. But at the end of the day, did I truly expect anything different in Marvel's 26th entry?
Zippy editing, deadpan comedy from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and a killer soundtrack. These are the characteristics that have come to define the filmography of Edgar Wright. The world first got a glimpse of those three things in 2006 with Wright's feature debut, "Shaun of the Dead." Other features, such as the cult classics of "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" and "Baby Driver" followed, giving Wright a dedicated following of fans that will always be itching to see what the stylish British director does next.
For his next trick, Wright has done away with two of those three trademarks. He's keeping the soundtrack, but trading away the duo of Pegg and Frost for Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, as well as trading in humor for horror.
The title of "Last Night in Soho" refers to the famous entertainment district located in London's West End. From nightclubs to pubs to other seedier establishments, there's always something to entice your interests.
For Eloise Turner (McKenzie), that's the London College of Fashion. She has big dreams to be a designer like her late mother, but her outsider persona doesn't mesh well with her urban classmates. Eloise finds solace in her antique off-campus apartment, where she's free to play her 60s music and dream about a better time.
Her dreams quickly become reality, as Eloise magically gets transported back to 60s London, where she is mysteriously linked to the life of up-and-coming singer, Sandy (Taylor-Joy). These nighttime adventures allow Eloise to live the life she's always wanted. But the honeymoon period doesn't last for long, as these dreams gradually devolve into nightmares. The question of what is reality and what is dream begins to get muddled, and the glamorous white lights begin to run red with blood.
Coincidentally, 2021 has been the year of nostalgia for 1960s London as both this film and Disney's "Cruella" prominently feature the setting. But while the dalmatian-laced feature carried tacky set pieces and a soundtrack that felt like someone just pressed shuffle on a "Best of the 1960s" Spotify playlist, Wright's film has much more reverence for the era.
The dream-like sections of the film reinvigorate your love for cinema, as Wright displays some inventive camerawork throughout his extended tracking shots that weave their way throughout some of London's historic establishments. The glittering lights and costumes are candy for eyes, and the hits of "Downtown" and "Got My Mind Set on You" serenade the ears. From a production standpoint, this is Wright's most accomplished work.
Eloise and Wright seemed to be linked to the same fate, as the moment her fortune begins to darken also marks the same point where Wright begins to falter. Once you take away that swinging style, the film topples over as it doesn't have any legs to stand on in terms of substance. For some people, that may not be a bad thing as Wright's style goes a long way. But it often feels like empty calories that don't equal the sum of their parts.
Wright - along with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns ("1917") - makes a statement about sexism and toxic men. But specific ideas are scarce and it all plays as more of a generalized blanket observation on the unfair inequality of gender, something any woman learns at some point (hopefully not first-hand).
There is no central villain to this story, with Sandy's pimp and abuser, Jack (played by the handsomely sinister Matt Smith), being too surface-level to be perceived as an actual person, just an idea. For a while, the villains are the ghoulish spirits of controlling men. But our fear of them diminishes each time they appear, which happens much more than it should, a common problem within this 115-minute film that feels every bit as long as it is. Eventually, there are so many twists and turns that you - as well as Wright - don't know how to feel about these characters, ending the film on a confounding question-mark rather than an exclamation point.
"Last Night in Soho" gloriously indulges in all the technical eccentricities that have come to define Edgar Wright. For fans of his work, it is quite a treat to see how far he has come as a craftsman. But all that glitter is not gold, as there's not much underneath the sheen to make this feel anything different than a mild disappointment.
Like humanity's search for the missing link or the cure for cancer, movie studios have unsuccessfully tried and failed to adapt Frank Herbert's daunting 1965 science fiction novel, "Dune," which laid the framework for several subsequent entries in the genre such as "Star Wars" and "Blade Runner."
Cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky tried in the early 1970s, but financial troubles stopped him from getting past pre-production, a story which has now become immortalized in the critically acclaimed 2013 documentary "Jodorowsky's Dune." Over a decade later, David Lynch, armed with the mega millions of super-producer Dino De Laurentis, was utterly crushed by the weight of the material, which was forcibly squeezed into a two-hour runtime. Years went on as names such as Ridley Scott and Peter Berg attached to the project, but nothing ever came to fruition. Now in 2021, it's time for Denis Villeneuve - director of "Sicario," "Arrival," and "Blade Runner 2049" - to attempt what has been thought to be impossible.
To prevent the mistake of Lynch's adaptation, the 412-page novel has been split into two parts. Despite not bearing that moniker in the official title, the phrase "part one" does flash underneath the main title in the opening sequence. This comes as a warning to those expecting a complete narrative. Like "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" and "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1," "Dune" is here to establish the major events that will come in the sequel, which has yet to be officially confirmed. But rather than faring like those two examples, "Dune" falls more in line with "The Divergent Series: Allegiant," which shuddered the series before the conclusion could be filmed.
Now, that's not to say that "Dune" shares all the same qualities as that cinematic failure. Villeneuve is one of the most financially efficient directors working today, as he gets maximum value out of every dollar within his budget. With $165 million at his disposal, Villeneuve has crafted a universe of mythological proportions. From desert landscapes crawling with sandworms to interstellar cruisers, the scale that Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser work with is something to behold. Seeing this in IMAX brings a reward worth far more than the ticket price.
But for all its grandiosity on a technical level, what's at the heart and soul of "Dune" is shockingly small. Taking place in the year 10191, the story centers on Paul Atreides, prince of the great house who rules over Caladan. Soon, the family is ordered by the unseen Emperor to govern Arrakis, which overflows with the precious mineral known as "spice." The natives of the planet called the Fremen, resent their colonial oppressors, a feeling that Paul slowly begins to understand. After imperial betrayal, Paul's loyalty and place within the universe begin to be tested as he is led down an unfamiliar path.
That plot description may be admittedly light, but a proper one would require much more precious margin space. Villeneuve (his first writing credit since coming to Hollywood) along with veteran Eric Rith and Jon Spaihts seem to have punted all the interesting material for the latter edition. What's left is a shallow plot with dangling thoughts on colonialism, the chosen one, and religious allegories. Ironically, the groundbreaking material within the novel has been mined so many times that the film adaptation of it feels like a carbon copy.
That feeling of emptiness stretches into the cast as well, despite it being filled with a roster of immense international talent. Boiling down to being described as space Jesus, the character of Paul Atreides is one of awkwardness and enlightenment. Timothée Chalamet is fitting in the role, working his gawky frame and soft voice past the limitations of the script.
Through no fault of their own, the rest of the cast aren't able to shine as much as they should, with interesting actors such as Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skargård, Jason Momoa, and Charlotte Rampling being brushed aside for umpteen amounts of landscape shots. At some point, those beautiful vistas begin to feel empty, as the human element has been restricted to a minimum.
"Dune" is an odd case of style over substance, in that the substance is there but was intentionally left out for another time. It's a gamble that may pay off once Part 2 is released, but until then it leaves this first part as a desert-sized disappointment.
At 83-years-old, Ridley Scott is quite the inspiration. With a directorial career that spans nearly 2,500 commercials and countless films - such as "Alien," the Best Picture-winning "Gladiator," and "The Martian" - no one would blame him to hang it all up and retire to the countryside. But Scott has never known the definition of the word "break" and has tasked himself with increasingly tougher work the more he ages, with 2021 seeing the release of two major tentpole films in "The Last Duel" and "House of Gucci." The latter of that pair bows at Thanksgiving, with the former hitting theatres this past weekend.
In an extended prologue surrounding the titular bout between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), "The Last Duel" sets up what to expect, such as the grey dourness of the setting and story, lensed exquisitely by Scott's longtime cinematographer Darius Wolski. Atop both of the knights is the petulant King Charles VI, who is more than giddy for some bloodshed. And standing between the duelists is Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), whose fate is linked to the outcome. Before any of the men meet their maker, we flashback sixteen years prior, to a time when they were dear friends.
Broken up into three chapters, the film follows the unique perspectives of the three central individuals as it tracks the events that led to the duel. This "Rashomon" inspired structure is where Scott, along with Damon and Ben Affleck in their first credited screenplay since "Good Will Hunting," show off their brilliance.
The first chapter is "The truth according to Jean de Carrouges." In Jean's eyes, he's a righteous knight that has been wronged by those that deserve less than him. Despite his proud military record, his squire Jacques is shown favor by Count Pierre (a bleach blonde Affleck), who gifts Jacques with a vast piece of land once promised to Jean. The growing resentment between the two reaches a tipping point when Jean's new wife, Marguerite, accuses Jacques of rape.
But "The truth according to Jacques Le Gris" sees things differently. Jean is headstrong and foolhardy, easily leading Pierre to favor Jacques's worldliness. Jacques feels that Jean is wasting the sophistication of Marguerite and that he is the only person that truly appreciates her. Therefore, his sexual act cannot be classified as rape, since the two of them are meant for each other.
Not that it's much of a spoiler of what the actual truth is, but "The truth according to Marguerite de Carrouges" displays the words "the truth" for an extra couple of seconds before fading away. This chapter is written by the talented Nicole Holofcener, as Damon and Affleck felt they were unqualified to write from a female perspective.
Marguerite's truth sees both Jean and Jacques as squabbling children using the pretexts of duty and honor to mask their cruelty. The rape scene is played again, this time amplifying the excruciating horror of the act, prompting a necessary uncomfortable feeling within the viewer. Her accusation against Jacques is met with hostility from both Jean and the rest of France, as rape is not considered a crime against a woman, but a property matter.
The greatness of the film's structure is that it creates a puzzle where the pieces are constantly shifting in size and placement. Even a simple act, such as a handshake between Jean and Jacques, is seen from three angles, each eliciting a different response.
It's fascinating to watch as the web of lies and truth becomes increasingly difficult to parse, with Scott supplying the necessary inertia to keep the film moving at a great pace.
And the final duel more than lives up to expectations, especially when compared to the high bar Scott has set for himself within his filmography. There have been only a handful of final battles that weren't already decided by the plot before they begin, and this is one of them. There's an exciting amount of tension as the knight's exchange blows in agonizing brutality.
Bolstered by spectacle and substance, "The Last Duel" is one of Ridley Scott's finest films. It's one of the few films in 2021 to exceed my expectations, and one of the few blockbusters of the modern age to be propelled by collaborative artistry, rather than preconceived properties and overblown budgets.
Since his first cinematic appearance in 1962, James Bond has done a lot of things. He's been reincarnated five times, traveled around the globe (including space), and saved the world more times than it deserves. But the one thing that James Bond has never done is venture inward. For one of the first times in the franchise, the emotional beats are what pump the blood within the film's heart. The theme of finality rings loudly, as "No Time to Die" marks the twenty-fifth entry in the long-running series, as well as the fifth and final part of the Daniel Craig era.
In a move that has become routine by now, Bond has left active service. This time it wasn't because of being presumed dead (even though that is true here), but because of his love of Madeleine Swann, a daughter of SPECTRE. Their attempt at a normal life goes about as expected, with bad guys ruining their Italian honeymoon. This, along with a deadly theft of a weaponized virus in the heart of London, brings James back into the fold for one last mission. Not one for nostalgia, MI6 moved on from Bond and promoted a new 007 named Nomi, who embodies the new school of espionage. Along with M, Q, Moneypenny, and Tanner, it's time once again for the forces of good to vanquish evil.
The Craig era marked the MCU-ification (a term that shouldn't be taken as derogatory) of the Bond franchise, as it turned against the standalone nature of the previous entries and started to treat subsequent films as true sequels. The events of "Casino Royale" fed directly into "Quantum of Solace." And when that movie failed, "Skyfall" acted as a soft reboot, later filtering into "Spectre." "No Time to Die" pulls double duties by playing as a direct sequel to "Spectre," but also the final bow on the whole modern Bond era.
Despite the interconnectedness, long-time writers Neil Purvis and Robert Wade don't want to be restricted by franchise ties. There has never been a need to see a previous movie to comprehend the next one, with only tried and true franchise elements such as Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE providing an integral throughline.
The duo always seems to be stuck in the past with their scripts, mining the same bits, such as shaken not stirred martinis, Aston Martin cars, and megalomaniac villains hellbent on world domination. The blame for the forgettable plot - borderline incoherent at times - should rest on their shoulders.
Lacking the personal connection of Christoph Walz's Blofeld and Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva, Rami Malek's Lyutsifer Safin is a second-rate Bond villain. The casting choice itself is a no-brainer, as Malek has a heavy natural supply of VE (Villain Energy). Safin seems to be a character lifted from a Shakespearean play, as he often poetically monologues into the middle-distance. There's unintentional ironic humor to Safin's plan of decimating the world's population through a virus, as it requires much more effort than what COVID-19 has been able to do.
It's co-writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga (first American Bond director) and "Fleabag" scribe Phoebe Waller-Bridge that want to take the franchise in a newer direction. There's an element of fun introduced that has been missing from the Craig films. Doing well to supply that is Ana de Armas, who does too well with too little screen time in a "Knives Out" reunion. There's also the pairing of Bond with Nomi, played terrifically by Lashana Lynch, and who is much more than the alleged SJW-takeover that some want you to believe.
With their record-breaking budgets, the Bond films have always had nice toys to play with. They just needed the right person to harness their potential. Fukunaga breaks the stoic shackles set by "Skyfall" and "Spectre" director Sam Mendes, returning Craig back to the kinetic destruction wonderfully employed in "Casino Royale." There's a particular long-take stairwell scene, similar to the one Fukunaga used in "True Detective," that perfectly illustrates Bond's otherworldly combat skills. And there's the shoutout in Cuba, which plays more like a dance as Bond and Nomi attempt to retrieve a precious item.
It's a testament to Craig that he's been able to keep up with the physical requirements of the role, especially with the battle scars he's accumulated over the years. But he also reaches new heights emotionally, with his Bond being the most vulnerable, both literally and metaphorically. He shares more than an animalistic sexual relationship with his Bond girls. There's something palpable under the surface, keeping you invested beyond just the set pieces.
With a lot of time (163 minutes in fact) to end, "No Time to Die" says goodbye to the actor who ushered in a new era for James Bond. Thankfully, it does it with a sly wink and a nod to what could be in store for this long-weathered franchise.
"Venom: Let There Be Carnage" is an insult. It's an insult to the pieces of paper that were mutilated to make the script. It's an insult to the film stock. It's an insult to the millions of dollars that could have served an infinitely better purpose. It's an insult to activists, as it waves gay pride around with an ultra-corporate attitude. It's an insult to the talents of Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, and Robert Richardson. But most importantly, it was an insult to my time, as it took much more from me than merely ninety minutes.
The first "Venom" was bad for its reasons, as it was tonally inconsistent, with Tom Hardy and director Ruben Fleischer having conflicting ideas on what the movie should be. In the end, Fleischer's darker take overpowered Hardy's goofiness. Throw in weak characters and plot, and you got yourself one of the worst movies of 2018.
"Venom: Let There Be Carnage" has addressed one of those problems, as it swings the tonal pendulum entirely in the other direction, resulting in self-parody.
The sequel picks up where the last film left off, with Eddie and the alien symbiote, Venom, learning to live together within the same body. The two of them seem to be ripped from a Capra screwball comedy, as they're sparring in slapstick fashion.
Marking his return since the post-credit scene in the 2018 original, the deranged serial killer, Cletus Kasady, is about to be put on death row. But before that fateful day arrives, Cletus and Eddie's paths cross, resulting in the birth of Carnage, the T-1000 to Venom's T-800. Cletus and Carnage spark their symbiotic relationship, one that seeks the doom of Eddie, and the rescue of Cletus's longtime flame, Shriek.
Replacing Fleischer, who was busy with "Zombieland: Double Tap" and currently working on "Uncharted," is motion-capture wizard, Andy Serkis. It's a fitting lateral move, considering he's worked with visionary directors such as Peter Jackson (as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) and Matt Reeves (as Caesar in the "Planet of the Apes" trilogy), two people able to seamlessly blend visual creations within reality.
Serkis hasn't fancied himself much as a director, with "Breathe" and "Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle" being so underseen that they may as well not exist. With "Venom: Let There Be Carnage," Serkis has landed on strike three, hopefully landing him in director jail.
There's an erratic and jerky quality to film, one that tries to reflect the inner torment between Eddie and Venom. Locations become interchangeable, and so does logic as character motivations become lost in the struggle. Much of the actors seem lost as well, with Michelle Williams (way too talented to stoop this low for a paycheck) constantly trying to find a reason to exist beyond just being the contractually obligated "love interest that got away."
Things quickly become hard to follow, with Venom acting as Eddie's inner monologue, butting in at every possible moment with one cringe-inducing line after another. Integral information is doused while three characters speak at the same time, making the effort needed to keep things straight not worth it. Once Venom and Eddie split up their bromance, you're relieved as it means a few moments of peace and quiet.
There also seems to be an inevitable ugliness to the "Venom" films, as Matthew Libatique turned in the worst work of his career in 2018, and now the legendary Robert Richardson (a frequent collaborator with Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, and Martin Scorsese) produces his most drab and cheap-looking work. At some point, you have to wonder how many people are involved in this franchise just for the money.
Definitely not here for the cash is Tom Hardy, who has deepened his involvement by receiving the first writing credit of his career. Hardy has always delivered 110% for each of his roles, even if it wasn't in the best interest of the film. With this sequel, Hardy, as well as Harrelson, have dialed things up to a "Looney Tunes" level of zany. There's at least some unintentional comedy in their line readings, with a highlight being "I'm a real boy and you're just an amoeba!"
The badness of "Venom: Let There Be Carnage" made me appreciate other comic-book films even more. Marvel may be getting stale with their formula, but at least it works on a fundamental level. And based on the post-credit scene, we'll have to see which side of the coin wins out, a battle which I am not looking forward to.
Besides the expected superhero films, the genre that seems to be all the rage in 2021 is musicals. This year sees several different variations of the movie musical, featuring original concepts ("Annette"), musical variations of classic tales (Amazon's "Cinderella"), Broadway adaptations (Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights," and Miranda's directorial debut "Tick, Tick... Boom!"), and even remakes of Broadway adaptations (Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story"). Slotting right in with the rest of the Broadway pack is the film adaptation of the modern stage musical sensation: "Dear Evan Hansen."
Riddled with social anxiety, depression, and a cast on his left arm, Evan Hansen is a teenager who can never seem to fit in. He writes letters to himself for motivation, in which one haphazardly falls into the hands of the troubled Connor Murphy, who takes his own life shortly after. The Murphys believe the letter to be Connor's suicide note, with Evan being his best friend. Rather than admit the truth that Connor was his bully, Evan goes along with this opportunity, netting him a newfound sense of popularity and affection from those that never once passed him a glance. He also becomes an unofficial member of the Murphy family, with the parents taking him under their wing and their daughter, Zoe, developing a relationship with him. But like all charades, the lie begins to spin out of control, tangling Evan and those he cares about in a web of deceit.
Tasked with bringing the stage play to cinematic life is director Stephen Chbosky, who recently had success with "Wonder," about a boy with facial disfigurement, and the soon-to-be cult classic/greatest movie ever according to Tumblr, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
Unlike the musicals mentioned in the beginning, "Dear Evan Hansen" doesn't feature large group numbers on sweeping sets. Much of the action occurs in smaller, domestic locations, with the most exotic sets being a school gymnasium and a run-of-the-mill apple orchard. And even when a song features more than one performer, they hardly share the same location, such as "Requiem," where the Murphys are crosscut and folded on top of each other.
The film hangs its heart on the musical numbers, many of which have become anthems to a generation, especially "You Will Be Found," which has become so iconic that it gets a special Sam Smith treatment during the credits, along with the familiar show-stopping rendition that occurs at the midpoint. Schbosky shows middling prowess for the staging of these numbers, opting for the actors to sing live, filming them through extended takes and slower camera movements that accentuate the emotional pull of the material. That stillness also acts as a double-edged sword, as there is a distinct lack of energy that makes the 137-minute runtime feel a lot longer than it is.
Ironically, the main problem that keeps this version of "Dear Evan Hansen" from being a sensation is not the cinematic qualities, but the story itself, which won Best Book of a Musical at the 2017 Tony Awards. The problem with the story is systematic, with Evan's actions being steeped in selfishness. Screenwriter Steven Levenson, adapting his own material, tries too hard to have his cake and eat it too as he attempts to scorn Evan's actions while also finding the silver lining with a ploying message about friendship and grief. The stage may have been able to cover this with its overpowering emotional tunes and acting, but the slowness of the film adaptation allows for that problem to fester until your sympathy for Evan has completely dried up and you just want him to get caught.
Fortunately, the actors aren't too affected by the script's problems. Reprising his famous role, Ben Platt proves once again that he was born to play Evan Hansen, despite his 27-year-old face and gangly body signaling that he should have stayed retired.
Kaitlyn Dever, who broke out in 2019 with "Booksmart," often steals the show as Zoe. Dever finds the right amount of vulnerability as her character deals with the death of a brother she never had much respect for. She and Platt make their relationship seem believable, despite the glaring age difference and underwritten romantic development.
Misguided, but not without its merits, "Dear Evan Hansen" aims for the heart with pinpoint accuracy. There's an emotional and sweet lesson buried under the creepy candy coating that is the central premise. Once that obstacle is overcome (which is a big task), then there are enough powerful songs to connect with those that sometimes feel alone.
Leaping straight your high school history textbook is the thrilling retelling of the reign of Czar Nicholas II and the final generation of the century-spanning Romanoff dynasty.
I use the word "thrilling" in both a literal and ironic sense as your relationship with the film entirely hinges on your relationship with history.
For those like me who read history novels for fun and browse Wikipedia, the film is an epically staged production that offers both entertainment and insight. For those that don't have a large interest in history, you'll be asleep by the second act.
Director Franklin Schaffner (of "Patton" fame) directs this without much flair, often letting the production design and costumes tell the visual story.
The film is very straightforward in how it follows historical events, which limits the actors as they often seem to be reading straight from a textbook.
The film is very "of it's time" and it's no surprise it's been forgotten despite winning two Oscars and garnering a Best Picture nomination.
Heavy-handed political satire anchored by a brilliant Warren Beatty performance
What would you say to people if you knew you were going to die in a couple of days?
While watching "Bulworth" I didn't know if I should feel offended or enlightened. This is very much a Warren Beatty ego vehicle where he thought he was making the most important and timely movie ever.
The film takes a lot of shots at the American political machine, with many of the observations ringing even more true today. It doesn't shoot a perfect percentage and takes a similar stance on race relations as "Green Book" where racism is bad and accepting others is good. It also carries a terrible romance between Beatty and Halle Berry.
But the movie isn't trying to be high art and gets by based on the pure entertainment of watching Beatty rap like Biden for roughly half the movie.
Like the career of director Tom McCarthy - who can somehow make both the reviled "The Cobbler" and the Best Picture-winning "Spotlight" within the span of one year - "Stillwater" is a film that can't be simply categorized.
It's a thriller that isn't that thrilling.
It's a mystery that's not that mysterious.
It's a drama that isn't very dramatic.
All those statements are both the good and the bad things about the movie. Structured differently than one would think, the film goes at a pretty steady pace towards its melancholic destination.
In one of Matt Damon's better performances, for which he dons a goatee that I couldn't stop looking at, he wrestles with the themes of acceptance and altering your life path.
Even with its enjoyable oddities, the film does have some shaggy moments be trimmed from the 140-minute runtime. There are also some scenes containing pretty weak dialogue, possibly a result of the four credited writers crowding the kitchen.
"Stillwater" is good enough that you should see it, but not good enough that you need to rush to see it.
Containing some of the most disgusting and in-your-face grisliness that has ever graced the silver screen, Julia Ducournau's "Titane" holds you like a vice grip from minute one, refusing to let you go no matter how much you squirm. The experience of watching the film can borderline on torture, as violent punishment is enacted in ways that can only be seen to believe. The screening of the film at the Cannes Film Festival resulted in several walkouts within the first fifteen minutes, of which I do not blame certain viewers who are squeamish. Those that can stomach the film will be rewarded with an exhilarating story about acceptance and companionship told by one of the most original emerging filmmakers.
A newcomer to the film scene, the French auteur (a status she has achieved in my books) Julia Ducournau is the complete opposite of the stereotype of the woman director. She made her debut feature in 2016 with "Raw," a story about womanhood and repression that just so happened to contain the element of cannibalism. Like David Lynch and David Cronenberg, Ducournau confidently confounded her audiences with her bold take on a story as old as cinema itself. "Titane" is proof that "Raw" was not a stroke of beginner's luck and that she is the real deal.
Translated from the French word for titanium, "Titane" follows the life of Alexia, who immediately causes a severe car crash within her first few minutes on screen. This leaves the girl with a metal plate implanted within her head (which is gruesomely illustrated) and a twisted attraction to the vehicle involved in the accident. Like the characters within Cronenberg's "Crash," Alexia can't seem to help herself from being allured by vehicular and sexual violence.
After physically recovering from her injuries over the years, Alexia (now played by the self-assured newcomer Agathe Rousselle) now works as an exotic dancer at a car show (very fitting). Through a nearly seven-minute long take, Ducournau traverses the show filled with neon lighting and an electric score. Cinematographer Ruben Impens, reteaming with Ducournau after "Raw," shoots the film in harshly contrasting light, often blinding the viewer with lens flares. From this car show, Alexia quickly succumbs to her violent tendencies, forcing her to go on the run, but not without horrifically mangling her face so it would be harder to identify her. This brings her in contact with the local fire chief (a steroid-infused Vincent Lindon), who later turns out to be just as demented as she is, making them a match made in hell.
Throughout several instances within "Titane," audiences have to give themselves over to Ducournau's vision and accept the logical fallacies, which nitpickers could have a field day with. To be fair, a literal Cadillac becomes sexually involved with a human in the first fifteen minutes, so the laws of reality (and anatomy) were thrown out the window from the get-go.
Like "Raw," Ducournau is able to relay a positive message that sticks with you just as much as the gore. Through their interactions, Alexia and the chief find a common emotional ground that brings them together through both lies and deceit.
However, a problem that occasionally appears is what exactly Ducournau wants you to feel as too many elements come crashing together at odd times. The film wants you to focus on several different storylines at the same time, some of which don't amount to much and could be classified as red herrings. Still, once you cut through the clutter, there's enough treasure to reward your patience.
"Titane" requires a lot from the viewer, such as mental fortitude and an iron gut. It's an uncompromising vision that bites off more than it can chew from time to time but still sticks the landing due to the duo performances from Rousselle and Lindon, and the boldness by Ducournau to go where no one would dare. Just make sure to watch it on an empty stomach.
American indie-darling Sean Baker has always worked on the ground level when making his films. He often casts non-professional actors and plants his audience in the ironically unglamorous parts of America, such as the dingy Magic Castle motel located next to Walt Disney World. Baker's budgets are small, with "The Florida Project'' carrying a total cost of $2,000,000, which is roughly the amount spent to have Arnold Schwarzenegger speak one hundred words in "T2: Judgement Day." Now in 2021, Baker is back to shine a light on lower-America with "Red Rocket'', which debuted in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
Opening with the catchy rhythms of NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye", former pornstar Mikey Saber has returned to the deadbeat town of Texas City. Mikey had been at the top of the porn scene for several years but eventually found his way out the door with some questionable career moves. With nowhere else to go, he begs and pleads his way into crashing with his former pornstar ex-wife Lexi, who, like him, was a shining star that has fallen back to the ground and lives with her poverty-stricken mother in the middle of nowhere.
Mikey is a guy who always has a plan, but never a way to execute it. He does have a plan to get back to Los Angeles and revitalize his career, but it requires him to reconnect with some characters from his past who hate his guts.
Both literally and metaphorically, "Red Rocket" is a ballsy movie. Baker has always found a fascination with the seedier side of America, which is the side that is often unauthentically portrayed in Hollywood (I'm looking at you "Hillbilly Elegy"). His characters are often complicated and morally ambiguous, such as Halley from "The Florida Project". But Baker doesn't wallow in their pain and use it as a ploy for sympathy (again, looking at you "Hillbilly Elegy"). Instead, he wants us to understand their desperation and see how so many people in this situation can rationalize their actions.
"Red Rocket" doesn't break from that developmental mold when it comes to his supporting characters. In Mikey's journey back to the top, he rekindles with a weed queen that sees her business as a safety net for her family. Lexi and her mother are both addicted to opiates due to her mother's medical condition and the distracting peace that the drugs bring from the painful world.
With these characters on the brink of society, Baker uses their situation to subtly explain the unforeseen popularity of Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election. Characters are often seen slumped at home in their couches with the television set to Fox News and its neverending coverage of the Republican candidate and his "mass appeal". Baker's illustration about the allure of Trump doesn't try to be a grand statement for America itself, which turns out to be a good thing as the message comes together cleaner than the hamfisted ones found in mainstream media.
But while Baker respects his supporting cast, his relationship with Mikey is more complicated. Mikey is the cinematic combination of Dirk Diggler and Howard Ratner. He's a person that you love that you hate and hate that you love. You find yourself intrinsically drawn to him because of his drive and charm. But as the film progresses and Mikey's grand plan comes closer into view, your attitude towards him starts to waver.
Much of that emotional response comes from Simon Rex's brilliant performance, whose most prominent role up until now has been a recurring supporting part in the "Scary Movie" franchise and some pornographic solo scenes in a series of straight-to-video gay porn releases. Almost as if he has lived the life of Mikey throughout stretches of his career, Rex seems to instinctively know how to play this type of sleazy charmer.
While it does contain perfect casting, "Red Rocket" is not a perfect movie as a whole. With a runtime of 124 minutes, the film contains enough material for a tighter 90-minute story. The middle hour is the victim of this bloatedness, with long stretches given for light material. Still, the overly fatty meat on this movie's bones does give Rex and the cast more than enough to chew on, resulting in an emotional rollercoaster that couldn't be replicated by bigger productions.
Slotting in nicely with Baker's filmography and that of distributor A24, "Red Rocket" is one hell of a ride from beginning to end. There may be some potholes along the way, but they're not enough to stop this film from reaching its satisfying destination.
A call center representative, teacher, real estate agent, and online webcam model somehow find their lives coming together in the new Jacques Audiard film, "Paris 13th District" ("Les Olympiades").
Audiard has taken a special interest in the lives of resilient people set within his native country. The films "Dheepan" and "A Prophet '' don't showcase France at its best, instead, they shine a light on the many problems Audiard sees. After taking a detour into the English-language for the unfairly ignored "The Sisters Brothers'', Audiard (along with co-writer Céline Sciamma of "Portrait of a Lady on Fire'' fame) once again sets his sights on modern French society, this time through the gaze of not one, but four main characters.
Our protagonists (or antagonists depending on your viewpoint) all reside within the titular district of Paris, a highly populated sector known for its mixture of modern and traditional architecture. Émilie is a phone operator at a cell phone service call center who is stuck in a rut both professionally and romantically. She's a disappointment to her Taiwanese immigrant parents, who often call to tell her about her sister's experience as a doctor in England. Luckily, her romantic prospects improve by the arrival of Camille, a lonely school teacher who is inquiring about the vacant room in her apartment. Carnal feelings impulsively take over their relationship, something Émilie prefers as she lives by the motto "fuc* first, talk later."
At the same time, Nora is a real estate agent trying to reinvent herself by going back to school, despite being a dozen years older than her fellow students. Further compounding her misfit status is her striking resemblance to famous webcam model Amber Sweet. She soon receives the unwanted attention of lustful boys, forcing her to retreat from academic prospects. With morbid curiosity, Nora decides to meet her doppleganger and see if they share anything besides just looks.
Like Paul Thomas Anderson in "Magnolia" or Robert Altman in "Short Cuts", Audiard acts as a puppet master, crossing and pulling the strings of his characters. Being that there are only four main characters compared to dozens within Anderson and Altman's films, the interactions are more frequent. Audiard is interested in exploring the idea of opposites attracting, which brings out both the best and worst in each other.
These characters carry a lot of baggage with them, which often gets saddled onto their partner in an acrimonious fashion. Audiard and Sciamma take an authentic approach to these moments, with characters getting in heated arguments that sometimes lead to break-ups, and sometimes lead to sex. The film is quite sexually explicit, with each actor bearing it all for the black-and-white screen. Except for the exceptional Noémie Merlant, the cast consists of relative unknowns, a fact that never crossed my mind as they have the chops of veterans.
Speaking of black-and-white, the grainy cinematography by Paul Guillaume strips down the film to its rawest form. Like Sam Levinson's "Malcolm & Marie", the lack of color works to center our focus on the actors and their condensed surroundings.
While the beautiful cinematography could be guessed from still images, what is most surprising is the great electronic score by French musical artist Rone. Mixing pop beats with fluttery strings, the score embodies the clash between modernity and tradition that is present within the characters and the city itself.
Not without its problems, "Paris 13th District" often gets too attached to the trio of Émilie, Camille, and Nora, leaving Amber to a lower supporting status, despite her having the only sequence of the film shot in color. Frustratingly, Jehnny Beth's great work as the most interesting character isn't given the attention that most surely deserves.
As filled with millennial insight as it is filled with nudity, "Paris 13th District" is a lighter affair from the dependable Jacques Audiard. Barring a few small setbacks within the script, the film is an arthouse delight that will connect with younger viewers, possibly more than they want it to.
The career of Australian director Justin Kurzel, still very much in an early phase, has been one filled with drastic ups and downs. Kurzel broke onto the scene in 2011 with his feature debut, "The Snowtown Murders," which played as part of the Cannes Critics Week. That film's success immediately gave him the confidence to helm a much more violent and haunted adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth", with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the lead roles. He also was given the promotion of competing in the main competition of Cannes.
After that film's critical success, Hollywood came knocking as he was offered, and accepted, to direct the big-screen adaptation of the popular video game franchise "Assassin's Creed", which allowed him to reteam with Fassbender and Cotillard. However, Kurzel wasn't able to make the leap into studio filmmaking, as the film was a critical and commercial bomb. He tried to recompose himself a few years later by going back to his roots with the Australian true-crime-thriller "The True History of the Kelly Gang." The relative success of that film didn't prompt Kurzel to return to the big studios, instead, he has doubled down on his newfound career path with "Nitram", which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film tells the life story of Tasmanian native Martin Bryant, who eventually was responsible for the largest massacre by a single person in Australian history after he killed 36 people at Port Arthur in 1996. From the very start, Bryant was beset with mental problems that made him act aggressively towards others and hold little concern for human safety. After he was sentenced to life in prison (where he remains to this day), Bryant was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and deemed to have an IQ of 66, roughly the same as an eleven-year-old.
The title of the film (which is Martin spelled backward) comes from the nickname Bryant was given by childhood bullies, further hindering him from forming any human connections. American Caleb Landry Jones plays the titular character with brilliance, showcasing how far someone can go down the rabbit hole. Jones has made a small name for himself by playing supporting parts as sleazy weirdos in films such as "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and "Get Out". In his first major leading role, he has knocked it out of the park. He produces the fear one gets from a horror movie villain while still bringing enough authenticity to fit the film's grounded tone. His win for Best Actor at Cannes was well deserved, and some Oscar buzz should be in order.
Also within the cast is frequent Kurzel collaborator Effie Davis, who plays Bryant's much older companion Helen, who lives alone in a rundown mansion with fourteen dogs and several dozen cats. Bryant and Helen formed a connection based on their status as social outcasts, which Jones and Davis are able to explore. Their interactions together are awkward and fractured, and never answer the question of exactly what kind of relationship they share.
Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis, both of whom are superb, portray Bryant's parents, who have differing perspectives on how they should keep their son safe. LaPaglia prefers to give Bryant a bit of freedom in hopes that he will figure out the world for himself, while Davis feels that he is incapable of doing such a thing and must be kept on a short leash.
Making a biopic about a country's worst human offender brings with it a lot of trap doors, such as vindicating the perpetrator or glorifying the harm that they caused. Thankfully, Kurzel avoids those errors as he approaches the film with a matter-of-fact style that only wants to illustrate how this event was allowed to happen. Abandoning the flashy style he is known for, Kurzel lets the actors and simple camerawork tell the story. I was reminded of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" while watching the film at its world premiere. There is not one singular grand answer as to why this happened and how it could have been stopped, simply because there isn't a one-size-fits-all response. All we can do is look back on what happened and see what can be done for the future, which Kurzel doesn't seem to have much hope for as his postscript explains how the gun laws enacted as a result of Bryant's actions have not been properly enforced, opening the possibility of this happening again.
Justin Kurzel's "Nitram" was one of the best films out of the Cannes Film Festival as it explores a real-life tragedy with both grace and severity. While my body hated the experience of watching the film because of the stiff muscles I was left with due to the intensity, my mind was left with a better understanding of this dark chapter in human history.
The work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (try saying that five times fast) have never fully been able to register with audiences outside of the festival circuit. He has amassed universal critical acclaim since he graced the Cannes Riviera in 2004 with "Tropical Malady." He creates gaps between his feature films by creating several short films, some of which eventually are spawned into feature-length, such as the 2009 short "A Letter to Uncle Boonmee" becoming the 2010 Palme d'Or winning "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives." Now in 2021, Weerasethakul is stepping outside of his native Thailand for "Memoria," (translated from the Latin word "memory") which prompted another return to Cannes, this time netting him the Jury Prize.
The first English-language film for Weerasethakul, "Memoria'' is set within Colombia, following Tilda Swinton from destination to destination. The film opens with a surprising jumpscare illustrating our main character's problem, which is that she often hears a loud crashing noise that seems to be confined entirely within her head. This noise confounds her, leading to an investigation into what exactly it is and why it is happening, which puts her in contact with a sound engineering student, a morgue doctor, and a strange fisherman offering profound insights on memory and identity.
Those familiar with the work of Weerasethakul will know that the plot is not the driving force behind the ultimate narrative. Instead, the visuals and sound work do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Within "Memoria," dialogue is seldom found for long stretches at a time, leaving the viewer to look at the screen like one would look at a painting, soaking in as much information as possible. This restriction of information will irritate those looking for answers to the questions the film raises, which Weerasethakul doesn't have any intention of addressing. The Cannes World Premiere garnered nearly fifty walkouts from disgruntled viewers, and several nodding heads from the slow pacing that were often reawakened by the mysterious crashing noise, which shook the theatre.
Swinton acts less like a character and more like a wandering observer. Never shot in closeup and always present of the world around her, she moves from place to place, learning new information about her condition, all without much dialogue from her end. The first half of the film is where Swinton does most of her traveling, which keeps the film moving at a steady, yet still slow, pace. Much of the "action" within these journeys would be considered filler in most mainstream projects, such as Swinton waiting patiently for the sound engineer to finish his work before addressing her, or an unbroken take consisting solely of car alarms going off.
The last hour of the film is where some will applaud and others will boo (just as they did at the world premiere). Swinton's final journey takes her to a remote village housing a fisherman who claims to remember everything about his life. The two of them engage in an extended conversation that explores the strange connection they share. To an extent, the conversation acts as a vessel for Weerasethakul to talk to his audience about his ideas about cinema and life. It's a bold move by a director not known for boldness, and is one that teeters reshapes the way you look at the world at its best and teeters on self-aggrandizing at its worst. Weerasethakul ties his thesis up in a perfect bow with an ultimate answer that is fittingly incomprehensible and produces several more questions.
"Memoria" is a work for the cinephiles that need an escape from the noise of the modern world. It's wildly beautiful and imaginative, all while challenging your patience and viewpoints. Go in with an open mind, and you find yourself enlightened.
With each subsequent entry into his distinct filmography, Wes Anderson seems to make it a mission to make the most Wes Anderson film. The intricacies of 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums" seemed quaint around the time "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was released in 2013. Even his side ventures into stop-motion animation contain a great distance in production quality between 2009's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and 2018's "Isle of Dogs." With Anderson's tenth feature film, "The French Dispatch" towers over all of his previous works with its masterful production qualities and international ensemble cast.
Set within 20th century France in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, "The French Dispatch" opens with the untimely news that the editor of the titular magazine, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), son of the magazine's founder and holder of a supreme eye for talent, has died. As per his wishes, his life is to be tied directly to that of the magazine, meaning that the publication dies with him. His team of writers - an eccentric bunch of expatriates all recruited over the years by Howitzer in one way or another - are granted one final issue, which they decide will contain "an obituary, a brief travel guide, and three feature stories."
The obituary is, of course, for Arthur, while the travel guide takes one through the historic village that has acted as the publication's home for nearly half a century. The three retrospective stories selected are considered to be the best in the publication's long history: an account by the paper's art critic (Tilda Swinton) of the deranged painter Moses Rosenthal (Benicio Del Toro) and a brash art dealer (Adrien Brody); an on-the-ground report by political correspondent Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) of the student revolution led by the charismatic Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet); and a retelling by food critic Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) of how he got entangled in a kidnapping involving the son of the chief of police (Matthieu Almaric).
While there is no central story to fully move the film from start to finish, the anthology-style structure still allows Anderson to explore several of the themes found within his previous works, such as human curiosity and the ironic relationship we share with the world and its other characters. The final story of the food critic ranks as the best in terms of what's on the page, giving Jeffrey Wright a wonderfully complex character who unintentionally learns several valuable lessons about his place in the world.
Some will find that the anthology structure limits the emotional connection one can have to the characters, especially since Anderson has built his career on wonderfully layered characters such as Royal Tenenbaum and M. Gustave. On the contrary, while many of his characters tend to overstay their welcome in a 100-minute narrative, the anthologies force Anderson to be as efficient as possible with character development, creating several sequences of mise-en-scène where the direction tells just as much of the story as the script.
After gradually becoming more confident as a director, Anderson has finally allowed himself to fully unleash his unique brand of filmmaking. Visually, this is one of the most accomplished works ever made as Anderson toys with aspect ratios (very similar to the strategy within "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), color and black & white cinematography, ingeniously hilarious freeze frames, and a period-accurate soundtrack that seems to always be perfectly queued. Ironically, the major complaint I have against the film is that there are dozens of expertly crafted shots that come and go in mere seconds even though they could be dissected for hours. Every frame truly is a painting as several hidden treasures can be found in every nook and cranny. This is a film that demands to be rewatched several times over to soak in every last detail.
There are no weak links within the Robert Altman-sized cast, with players such as Adrien Brody (who seems to only deliver a good performance nowadays when directed by Anderson), Frances McDormand, and Jeffrey Wright. The phrase "there are no small parts, only small actors" doesn't apply here as people such as Christoph Waltz and Saoirse Ronan are reduced to minuscule cameos. Still, Henry Winkler and Willem Dafoe are able to do a lot with the little that they are given.
A visual masterpiece bursting at the seams with talent both on and off the screen, "The French Dispatch" is a film by a director working at the absolute height of his powers. More importantly, the film gave me one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences in a long time, with several rounds of applause from the Cannes crowd that seemed to be in love with the film as much as I was.
I worry about how Anderson will be able to top this with his next film. But until then, I'll stay in the present and be thankful that something this magical is allowed to exist in a world that only seems to get bleaker.
"Boyz n the Hood" overflows with talent both on and off the screen, as it's astounding that John Singleton was only 22-years-old when he both wrote and directed this film.
Nothing in "Boyz n the Hood" projects the idea that this is a directorial debut. The camera buzzes around, capturing the harsh aspects of life in the Crenshaw ghetto. Police sirens blare, helicopters buzz overhead, and gunshots go off like clockwork. It makes for an exhausting viewing experience and creates the empathy required to know how exhausting it is to live like this everyday.
With Laurence Fishburne's Furious Styles acting as his mouthpiece, Singleton illustrates his thesis statements, such as environmental racism and breaking the wheel of violence.
There's both style and substance within the film, leaving you both entertained and educated.
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" brings a quality that has often been sorely lacking from war films: humanity. Few films about the world's greatest conflicts have been able to inspect the human spirit as well as David Lean's film.
Lean doesn't relish in the violence that war brings. Quite the contrary, he often cuts away from the gunshots and explosions, focusing on the wildlife and our relationship with it. It's quite a surprising move considering Lean had quite the combative personality and never spared anyone's feelings, especially those closest to him. Maybe it was because he had used all his humanity on his characters, leaving nothing left for the real world.
Apart from what's under the surface, Lean also fills his widescreen with visual wonder. The film moves at a steady pace, rotating between one magnificent set-piece after another. The storyline with William Holden's character may not work as well as Alec Guinness's, but it culminates in a suspenseful finale with one of the most well-acted, written, and directed sequences in all of cinema.
You've seen this film before. You've seen this film so many times before. Let's go through the list:
Film starts at the end of the protagonist's journey and then proceeds to be told entirely in flashback
Protagonist has a troubled childhood and has a dream that is disapproved of by their parents
Protagonist meets somebody who shares their dream and marries them
Protagonist begins to have success, thrusting them into an unfamiliar world of high expectations
Protagonist's initial morals begin to get corrupted by those around them
Protagonist struggles with the pressure and starts to rely on drugs and alcohol
Addiction leads to a downward spiral where the protagonist loses everything
A now humbled protagonist begins to rebuild their life by going back to their roots
Final scene summarizes the whole film with flashbacks to stuff you already saw
Postscript describes the fates of the characters and shows a side-by-comparison of the actor to the real person
This film literally came out a few weeks ago in "Respect", and just a few years ago with "Judy", and then a few years before that with "Ray".
Jessica Chastain gives 110%, lending true emotional resonance to a handful of scenes, particularly a standout moment where she shares a conversation with an AIDS patient.
Like the de-aging in "The Irishman", I found myself solely staring at Chastain's protruding cheekbones and extensive makeup throughout the first act and eventually coming around to her look. If recent history has taught us anything, it's that the Oscars think the most makeup is the best makeup, so slot this into your nomination predictions.
"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is good enough to be begrudgingly watchable in the moment, but nowhere near good enough to live in my memory the second it fades to black.
When talking about the most popular and influential horror films of this century, James Wan's name pops up on more than one occasion. Spawning the "Saw" franchise in 2004, Wan illustrated his knack for scary thrills doused in buckets of blood. He would tone things down to a PG-13 rating for the first two installments in the "Conjuring" and "Insidious" series. He made sure to prove that he wasn't just a one-trick pony as he lent his kineticism to "Furious 7" and "Aquaman" (and the upcoming sequel). But after helming several $200 million productions, Wan has gone back to his horror roots with "Malignant."
Madison is pregnant and living with her abusive husband - the kind that won't hesitate to bash her head against the wall when he doesn't get his way. One night, the couple's house is broken into, leading to the gruesome deaths of the husband and Madison's unborn child. Her trauma doesn't end there as she begins to have vivid nightmares of the killer striking down other prey. It becomes clear that these nightmares are visions, as Madison is paranormally linked to the masked killer, as they share a connection dating back to their childhood in a now-abandoned research hospital. In a race against time, Madison must piece together the past and convince the skeptical police before more lives are taken.
When announcing production on this film, Wan claimed that it would be nothing like his previous horror films, which relied on jump-scares and the occult to convey his version of dread. Instead, "Malignant" would take influence from the Italian horror sub-genre of "Giallo", which reached its heights in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with films such as Dario Argento's "Suspiria" (delightfully remade by Luca Guadagnino in 2018) and Mario Bava's "Blood and Black Lace." These films were defined by their mystery elements, intense color palettes, disregard for logic, and sickening violence.
Wan commits fully to his Giallo promise, delivering grisly murders and an outrageous plot that must be seen to believe. Wan's camera never lingers for more than a moment. Rather, it whips and pans as we are right with Madison witnessing these unseemly events. It keeps the plot moving at a steady pace, with the last act picking up momentum towards a bloody conclusion.
While he made good on his Giallo promise, Wan doesn't fully commit to breaking away from his overproduced previous features. The earlier sequences of "Malignant", particularly the home invasion, are carbon copies of Wan's earlier work as characters shuffle around a dimly lit house as they hear creepy noises, only for it to conclude with a jump scare. This modern trope builds a wall between the film's two halves, with the former stuck in the present and the latter embellishing the past.
The acting and writing in "Malignant" fall way down in the priority list, with Wan's direction overtaking all. There is no development for any of these characters, except for a pointless lab technician who has the hots for the handsome detective. Given not much to do besides delivering exposition and crafting some semblance of humanity, the actors are free of blame for their faults.
But what the script lacks in quality, it makes up for in originality as it tells a ludicrously bonkers story that has been sorely lacking from this genre. There is a cult-classic feeling to this story, one that may find more appreciation down the road.
James Wan's "Malignant" is a melding of modern horror tropes with classic horror lunacy. There's enough blood and guts to make even the most seasoned horror veteran wince, and a shockingly outlandish story to pave over the film's other faults. You may not fully enjoy the film, but you will never forget the experience of watching it.
For nearly ten years after its inception, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was dominated by the adventures of white men. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow had to fight to get her own film this year, while her male co-stars got entire trilogies . "Black Panther" reinvigorated the franchise with its celebration of African culture in 2018, proving that the Marvel brand didn't have to be so beige. "Captain Marvel" became the first MCU film to be fronted by a woman. Now, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" marks the first Asian-led film. Not only does the film feature the first Asian protagonist, it also features a predominantly Asian cast and crew, which, thankfully, give this franchise a much needed change in perspective.
The Ten Rings have been around for nearly a thousand years, gifting their wearer, Wenwu, immortality so that he may rule with unmatched strength. After centuries of building an empire out of blood, Wenwu was turned away from a life of violence by Ying Li, a guardian of the mystical land of Ta Lo. When heartbreak struck shortly after, Wenwu picked up the rings once again, causing him to go down a dark path, and his son, Shang-Chi, to run away to the United States. Now after ten years, the son must come home to confront his father and become who he was truly meant to be.
Similar to what Ryan Coogler was able to do with "Black Panther", co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton brings out the best of this new world as he is able to handle the mountains of establishing exposition. His use of flashbacks may be a bit liberal, especially as the film reaches its climax, but they're used meaningfully to build upon a story focused on character and culture.
Without a leading acting credit to his name, Simu Liu takes the titular role by storm as he navigates this typical hero's journey with charm and composure. Mixing a bit of T'Challa with Tony Stark, Shang-Chi is a hero battling with his past and future. Liu and Cretton strike a great balance as Liu hands himself over to Cretton's material in the somber moments, and Cretton lets Liu's comedic instincts light up the room.
Veteran Tony Leung brings the same melancholic energy to Wenwu as he did in his roles with Wong Kar-wai, particularly his work in "In the Mood for Love." Leung layers this villain and distances him from the average world dominator. He carries a stillness about him that inspires fear and compassion, two things that have made some of the greatest villains.
The overall narrative within a Marvel film is evenly composed of the plot and the action. Thankfully, Cretton blends both those halves together as he imbues the setpieces with the qualities of the wuxia genre, taking after such films as Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (also starring Michelle Yeoh) and Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers." The action often tells as much of the story as the dialogue, particularly in the gracefully dazzling opening sequence. But there's also room for brutality as the first act ends with a tower-scaffolding brawl where Shang-Chi's emotions turn him into a raw killer. Not since "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has the action been so impactful on a technical and emotional level.
When allowed to be its own film, "Shang-Chi" is quite the spectacle. But when it gets forcefully molded into a Marvel film, the results are less than stellar. Even after all his work with the story and action, Cretton can't break free from the third-act visual effects extravaganza that holds this franchise like an iron vice. It's a shame as the smaller familial moments do more for the mind and soul than the forgettable litany of explosions that encompass the final thirty minutes. Being that this is the 25th film in the franchise, I've come to expect that level of disappointment.
Thanks to its multi-talented cast and crew, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is one of the better origin stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The action may (rightfully) be the selling point, but the heart of the film lies within its characters, telling a familiar story on an impressive scale.