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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

GIRL

The content war among streaming services rages, and you have to be a sharpshooter to find a good movie amidst the casualties these days. Enter the Bella Thorne (“Big Love”) vehicle, Girl (wherein the filmmakers were too lazy even to name the main character).

The first feature by Canadian writer/director/supporting actor Chad Faust, it centers on a twenty-something millennial who has some unfinished business with her estranged father. Faust’s main concern seems to have been keeping the action moving along, and in that he succeeds. Elsewhere—in plot, dialogue, suspense, characterization, photography, and editing—the effort and resulting work falter badly.

At this point, one might think the hatchet-wielding “girl” might make for a fine protagonist in an enjoyable B-movie. Unfortunately, that would be wishful thinking. Girl, the movie, takes itself way too seriously. In a scene where Thorne’s movie-mother reminds her brusquely that she worked hard and made the girl “spaghetti and chicken pies,” the dialogue almost gets into  venerated so-bad-it’s-good territory. But, ultimately Faust—perhaps encouraged by his own and Thorne’s serviceable acting—stands pat and tries to hoist the film onto a thought-provoking, psychological thriller pedestal where it has no rightful business.

I’m always curious as to how a script like this gets made. Did Faust make an irresistible pitch to Thorne, who also got an executive producer credit? Both have respectable pedigrees in television acting with some experience in movies. Thorne’s sex appeal—she made her directorial debut with the X-rated film Her & Him (2019)—might also have influenced financiers to put up the total of about $1 million. Whatever the deals were, the producers and filmmakers set themselves too low a bar for a serious movie and too high a bar for B-movie schlock.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.


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Documentary Film Reviews

MLK/FBI

In time for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday comes this marginally important, if mostly pedestrian, documentary from director Sam Pollard (The Talk: Race in America, 2017). It centers on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s malignant and downright creepy obsession with the great American orator and patron saint of the civil rights movement.

MLK/FBI also spends a chunk of time on things (which many already know) that made King human and not a saint. It strangely agrees, in that way, with Hoover’s belief that MLK’s extramarital affairs are something of great interest. Pollard does include interviews with scholars and veterans of the movement who state that King’s philandering does not, in their minds, change or irretrievably taint the man’s legacy.

The film’s greatest weakness lies in its reliance on footage that is by now cliche in this genre. Pollard augments the familiar, yet beautifully restored, archival photography with clips from various then-contemporary “G-Men” movies. These semi-humorous clips neither offer true comic relief nor fit well with the overall tone.

Pollard’s perspective in the proceedings is unclear. He seems to miss important details, like King’s bigger vision in the speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” here presented as strictly an anti-war lecture. At the same time, the director fails to present the voices of the anti-war movement, thus tacitly endorsing the horrific blowback MLK received after his speech at Riverside Church in New York, exactly one year before he was assassinated. The viewer is left wishing the film had addressed how misled Dr. King’s war-hungry detractors were and how terribly misunderstood “Beyond Vietnam” was at the time—perhaps still is.

In that speech and elsewhere, MLK offered a grand vision for America and it’s one that’s worth revisiting for its timeliness right now. Perhaps like nothing else, King’s vision helps put BLM in perspective. Black lives matter as much as White lives, he might say. His edict of nonviolence would contrast starkly with the violent, authoritarian attack on the Capitol. Beyond that, his was a vision that America still cannot afford to ignore.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Promising Young Woman

A disclaimer of sorts: It’s not easy to write honestly about movies that carry a strong #MeToo message and, in this case, one that’s created by a (rightfully) unapologetically direct director who is a woman. This might be especially true when the critic is a man. If he does his job—to tell the good and the bad of an artwork—there will nonetheless be some accusations of bias and sexism. If we can agree that works with good messages can also be bad art, then the following review may be of interest to you.

“Revenge”: That’s the word marketers of the new Carey Mulligan vehicle Promising Young Woman want us to latch onto. After all, revenge is a personal form of war, and all’s fair in that department. “All’s fair,” “anything goes,” “sweet revenge”—these are convenient euphemisms for a film at which everything was thrown to see what would stick. Turns out precious little stuck, but what’s Focus Features supposed to do with it, go straight to VOD and DVD?

Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who experienced secondary trauma in college and has turned to revenge against sexual offenders as a coping mechanism. 

The tremendous tonal challenges in telling such a story seem lost on writer/director Emerald Fennell (or maybe she simply chose to ignore them). So we’re introduced to character after character with nearly no intellectual lives or interiority, as if they’ve learned everything they know from watching television. (Which verges on disturbing when you consider that Fennell’s day job is showrunning BBC America’s “Killing Eve.”)

Unlike the genre it so readily claims for itself, Promising Young Woman depicts little of the burden which the obsessed, vengeful person carries. Cassie seems casually afflicted with her “hobby,” but never genuinely seethes or stews obsessively.

So, the satisfaction that, for better or worse, the viewer shares with the protagonist—the whole reward of the revenge genre—is wholly missing here. Worse, the script is so lazily composed and the direction so cavalier that hardly 20 frames go by without a predominant phoniness. (How many times can a viewer tolerate the thought that “Nobody talks like that!”) This makes for a difficult trudge of nearly two hours.

Can a #MeToo revenge movie ever succeed, then? Of course, and someone probably ought to accept that challenge—acknowledging that it won’t be easy, and eschewing the idea that being part of an important, righteous social movement makes one immune from making bad art.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.
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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Quick Look Back: La cienaga (2001)

Writer-director Lucrecia Martel (Zama, 2017, Argentina) didn’t ever attempt to answer the why about anything in her auspicious feature debut, most especially not its characters’ man vs. nature conflicts. Instead, in La cienaga, she seems genuinely uninterested in explanations of any kind. Relationships among family members – when they can be identified as such – are nebulous and lack archetypal social boundaries, including sexual ones.

A true absurdist artwork that’s message is clearer through what Martel subtracted – the “why” and the relationship boundaries. The focus naturally shifts to the strange ways in which the characters interact. In this way, La Cienaga acts as a sort of anthropological survey, but mostly outside the context of the people’s motives. The settings include characters’ homes, public nightclubs, and the natural outdoors; nothing really out of the ordinary. But Martel’s perspective makes these almost clinical.

As in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end (1967), momentum flows from the central characters, bending and twisting through rivers and creeks of action, though not technically plot. The result is a purposely chaotic, yet sensitively observed work which boldly and incisively questions the interpersonal dynamics of the status quo.

the international CRITIQUE rating: ★★★★★

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Carmen & Lola

by A.R. Solar

The multi-nominated, double Goya-Prize-winning feature debut from Arantxa Echevarria caught me by surprise. I hadn’t heard of it and, if I expected anything, it was that it’d be a casual, modern romp-com told from an LGBTQ angle. It is, I’m happy to say, much much more than that.

Carmen is a vivacious almost-18-year-old who is, as her father has arranged, about to be engaged to a boy her age. Like her, he is part of the Romani culture in a poor section near Madrid. (In Carmen & Lola, the Romani call themselves “gypsies.”) Lola is an introspective almost-17-year-old trying to explore her lesbianism via cybercafe computer in a neighboring Romani area. The two meet by chance at Lola’s family’s vegetable stand in the bustling outdoor market. Though their encounter is brief, Echevarria conveys (in an extreme close-up) a tender, tiny, skin-to-skin touch that neither woman will soon forget.

It’s in those convincing, gentle, loving moments between the two girls that you first experience the deep insights of the director and the thrilling talents of Pilar Sanchez Diaz, the cinematographer here. 

In scenes where the men of Carmen’s family and those of her soon-to-be betrothed meet to formalize the engagement, what’s on display is tradition, yes, but also an entrenched, unapologetic patriarchy. When Carmen herself finally enters the room in her future-bride regalia and is “given” to her boyfriend’s father, any moderately enlightened viewer will feel queasy. As the relationship between Lola and Carmen develops ever so gradually, the patriarchal lash isn’t as subtle.

Two days after experiencing the film, I’m still haunted by a scene where Lola’s mother confronts her. Her mom – a previously balanced, if stern, figure – gasps, wails, and pleads with her in a harrowing conveyance of sheer internal terror. And that’s before the father, prone to disturbing violent threats, is brought into the hysteria.

By this point, we have seen the craft of Echevarria’s hand – effective whether the touch is delicate or ferocious. Sanchez Diaz’s camera, as it ought to, enhances the director’s voice through deeply felt angles on the characters and settings.

This is a Spain not often depicted on film. The Romani neighborhoods are crowded with people and even more packed with emotions. Perhaps the filmmakers’ greatest triumph is bringing to the screen such a real rendering of a culture that – at least as written in this movie – doesn’t balk at showing the rawest of emotions, whether it be joy, through Flamenco dance at a party, or pain, through the fear of being excommunicated from the culture itself by the fathers and sons of the patriarchy.

the international CRITIQUE rating: ★★★★★

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

The Jumble in the Jungle

by A.R. Solar

Wow. The latest feature from Spike Lee sees him lackadaisically dumping a bunch of ideas into an overlong-feeling two and a half hours. Not all of the ideas are bad. Some, in fact, are quite good.

Where to start, on what ultimately feels like a cheesy, ersatz tour-de-force… Four American vets return to Vietnam to recover the body of their fallen buddy, while also looking to unearth a treasure that they left behind. Those are the main plots, but there are at least three rather hefty subplots. The estranged son. The estranged lover and the secret daughter. The PTSD ghosts, and so on. It would have taken a great feat of editing to make it all cohesive, and Lee seems uninterested in even trying.

The veteran writer/director is interested in doing homage, on top of everything else. There’s archival war footage thrown in. Excerpts from speeches by Malcolm X and MLK. The tone veers from somber to mildly comedic to violent and back again, without a hint of a caring hand, seemingly random. What’s the trendy term, “a hot mess”?

But there’s one thing in particular that Lee accomplishes here. Through the character Paul (a challenging role that Delroy Lindo mostly manifests with aplomb), the auteur gives rare insight into the mind of a Trump supporter. Paul’s dialogue and soliloquies reveal a person driven, even driven mad, in a quest to be redeemed. At the outset, he tells his buddies (who balk at his MAGA hat) that he’s “done” with serving others and thinking about others’ needs and wants. “Now,” he says, “I’m voting for me!” He’s in his sixties, and he’s lost many battles—too many, in his opinion. It’s time for him to get his.

Spike Lee, in this respect, comes off as gifted, thoughtful. His Paul is the personification of desperation. He jitters, pleads, and is easily frustrated. Yes, PTSD is to blame, and we know his has gone untreated. But what makes him a bona fide Trumper is the inward intensity and outward urgency with which he works towards a singular goal: not to die a loser.

When the unseemly candidate Trump promised “so much winning,” that was a thing of real value to the Pauls of the U.S.A. That is the core Trump voter: the person who has lost so many times in their life that they themselves might identify as a loser. Trump, the false redeemer, offers redemption nonetheless. He says, in effect, “Follow me, and you won’t be a loser anymore. You’ll die a winner.” Of all the false products he’s peddled in his career, this is by far his most popular. Redemption for the American who has rarely won anything.

That is the biggest takeaway from Da 5 Bloods. The rest feels less like the films it references, like Apocalypse Now and (1979) Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and feels more like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017).

We should know by now that when Lee misses the mark he misses big. This film fails on the level of his 2013 martial arts remake Oldboy, which is merely another way of saying it’s a parade of the wildly talented filmmaker’s careless overconfidences.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: My Happy Family

A wholly engrossing feminist drama that verges on perfection.

by A.R. Solar

From the country of Georgia comes a taut modern tale that feels perfectly real. That’s thanks to the exciting talents of writer/director Nana Ekvtimishvili and her co-director Simon Gross, who somehow manage to stay out of the way of: 1. their brilliant star, 2. a dynamic ensemble cast, and 3. their simple but totally engaging story.

Fifty-two-year-old Manana—we see as we’re immediately immersed in the crowded family home—is independent minded and willing to think outside her traditional default role as an obedient daughter and wife. A subtle, symbolic microcosm of her general frustration, a slice of cake before dinner brings a scolding from her intrusive mother. The old woman won’t let a minute go by without reminding her husband, adult children, and adult grandchildren who the head of the household is. Through her, Manana’s conflict is magnified.

My Happy Family is a fine representation of filmcraft wherein the camera becomes “invisible.” That is, there is no distraction from its placement or movements, either to the cast or the audience. In that “forgetting” of the camera we have the first element of a filmic story that feels utterly natural. We are amidst this family, observing every humorous interaction, every nuance, and painstaking detail.

Of course, to achieve such convincing, involving realism, one must also have talented actors who are emotionally invested in the story. Ms. Ekvtimishvili and Mr. Gross have this in abundance. Ia Shugliashvili, as Manana, effortlessly evokes introspective melancholy, integrity, and a love for her family which requires no displays for the benefit of neighbors. Merab Ninidze, as her husband Soso, plays the character with minimalism and a brooding power (when required). The supporting actors are well on board with the directors, and we witness grand arguments and celebrations with the feeling that we are there.

One gets the impression that such a naturalistic work was achieved, ironically, through extensive preparation by the directors. Perhaps only then could they have the confidence to open their lenses wide and let the action flow in.

As we see the courageous Manana set up her very own apartment, leaving behind the guilt-trips and cultural pressures of her family, we feel we might somehow summon similar strength from within ourselves. We might live our lives truer to our authentic selves.

In Georgian with English subtitles.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Wordless Film Review: Arkansas

by Andres Solar

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews News

Quick Look: What Love Looks Like

L.A.-soaked romantic comedy sees prolific director take on challenge of large ensemble cast—with a few quality laughs along the way.
by Andres Solar

The latest rom-com feature from trailblazing indie filmmaker Alex Magaña gives us more (and less) of what we’ve come to expect from the young Angelino. What Love Looks Like, available on Amazon Prime, offers a good-looking, likable ensemble cast (including the pleasant screen presence of Kate Durocher, Josh Gilmer, Margo Graff, Tay McVeigh, Calvin Peters, Tevy Poe, Connor Wilkins, and Kylee Wofford) and some big laughs in the form of clever one-liners from sometimes purposely awkward characters. Missing are the sweet, unexpected twists in the love stories like the one Magaña wrote into the third act of 29 to Life (2018).

In that year, the writer-director released a whopping three feature films (Narco Valley and Slapped! The Movie were the other two). Clearly Magaña doesn’t shy away from hard work, and it shows. The other side of that coin is that he often also shoots and cuts his own movies, and that work ethic might be too much of a good thing.

As his talents continue to expand, he might do well to recruit other hands for writing and editing, especially since his strengths appear to be in cinematography and working with actors. Thinking about What Love Looks Like’s incorporating an imaginative and touching relationship between a young man and his deceased ex-girlfriend, Magaña might even consider co-writing a future screenplay, thus gaining help with the screenwriting task while still including his proclivity for imaginative characters.

What it really comes down to in this latest from his ACM production company—and the rest of his oeuvre—is the wonderful heart the filmmaker reveals to varying degrees. Along with his apparent drive to continually challenge himself and the impressive work ethic, it is that heart which will before long turn out a work that commands international accolades.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★☆☆

 

 

 

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Summer Checklist

Three Dog Nights

With the dog days of summer upon us, the movie theater seems more like a smelly kennel than a traditional refuge from the scorching heat. (Hey, Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, ever heard of air conditioning? Oh, and straighten out that crooked screen while you’re at it.)

But it’s not just exhibitors who have gotten lazy. Below, we look at the recent, worst-ever works by two indie icons who have somehow grown maddeningly complacent. The third dog is a wildly overrated debut from a filmmaking duo who (mistakenly) assumed their self-important autobiographies would make for two hours of compelling cinema.

Thankfully, there was a cool breeze preceding all of this; a refreshing splash from Under the Silver Lake. It’s now available via Amazon Prime, so the a/c controls will be in your own hands.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino gave us fair warning that he was capable of dropping his dirty business on the rug. The first half of The Hateful Eight (2015) and its cleverly placed intermission promised a smart, irreverent, neo-Western classic. But, in the second half, we watched the director mindlessly chew up his own film, like Fido destroying his owner’s favorite slippers.

Like many Tarantino fans upon seeing previews of his latest, I thought “Tarantino turning his camera on Hollywood itself… Sounds good.” Wrong. It feels more like he simply wanted the easiest path to completing the “9th film from Quentin Tarantino” (Is he now more focused on quantity than quality?) I couldn’t find a single moment (in its two hours and 45 minutes) that showed any writer/director inspiration. Who would have guessed that the director of Jackie Brown (1997), Django Unchained (2012), and so many other memorable movies could squander Leonardo DiCaprio in a lead role?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nothing short of an embarrassment. I was embarrassed for the 60-something old dude sitting by himself, guffawing at every measly visual gag. I was embarrassed for the three stoners nervously giggling while looking at each other for approval. These are the folks who are making this Tarantino self-parody his most profitable project to date.

If you’re like them, by all means, go see it. Maybe you’ll feel that, finally, there’s a Tarantino movie that’s not challenging in the least. Finally, you might get why so many people like his movies, because now he’s done you the favor of pre-masticating everything. Here’s an art film with the art removed for mass consumption. And if you think images of Brad Pitt sniffing and tasting dog food, plopping it out of a can into his dog’s bowl, could be hilarious, you’ll have a wonderful experience. Tarantino repeats them four times.

The Film Critique rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Dead Don’t Die: Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to the summer of 2019 was less of a disappointing disaster than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that’s not much of an endorsement. “What were they thinking?” seems to be this season’s motto.

One can hardly blame the Akron-born-and-raised auteur for loving the zombie genre. In its early incarnations (if you will) there’s a lot to love. The AMC television series The Walking Dead, though, beat the genre to death (ironically), and The Dead Don’t Die feels like a moderately humorous epitaph.

Even from the hand of a massive talent like Jarmusch, the filmic “love letter” comes with a substantial risk of skewed perspective in the ode. (See also this year’s Maria By Callas.) Unsurprisingly, the movie is plenty enjoyable in its dialogue, deadpan humor, and acting. The mini-ensemble of Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, along with Tom Waits, almost saves the proceedings. Ultimately, however, Jarmusch caves to the pressure of providing zombie action instead of respecting the pressure to deliver something of greater artistic merit.

The brilliant stroke from Jarmusch is the purposely stunted, self-referencing dialogue that both works as a tribute to B-movie horror and provides genuine comedic notes.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★☆☆

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: The two most intriguing things about this film involve decisions made by people other than the filmmakers. Namely, the funding of the production and the glowing reviews. What one member of the filmmaking duo (writer/co-lead Jimmie Fails) did do in advance of those decisions really explains a lot: He made himself into an Internet star.

But let’s get one thing clear right away: Fails does have some important things to say and unusual ways of both seeing and saying them. Among them are the definition of “home,” what it means to “own” something, and the marginalization of Black history, even in liberal strongholds like California.

The problem is that The Last Black Man in San Francisco (as written by him, as directed by co-lead Joe Talbot, as acted by both of them and a mostly misguided supporting cast) is a second-year student film with a $4.1 million budget. Take away the pretty cinematography, first-rate production design, and professional editing, and what’s left is raging sophomorism. In the age of crowdfunding—through which Fails raised the first $75,000—this is something of a new normal.

It’s hard not to assign most of the blame to the movie’s U.S. distributor, the usually dependable A24, which released Under the Silver Lake (2019, see short review below), The Spectacular Now (2013), and Oscar Best-Picture winner Moonlight (2016), among other fine films. Without A24 or another large distributor, Talbot & Fails’ debut would have made its splash at Sundance—as it did, not a tremendous feat these days—and would have taken its rightful place on DVD and streaming services. The (albeit brief) theatrical run of The Last Black Man in San Francisco can’t be justified, and most critics know it.

Yet, the movie sits happily on Metacritic with an aggregate rating of 84 out of 100. This matters, because the degree to which a critic wants to like a film and feels the need to advocate for the filmmakers should not factor into their rating of the work. Off the record, reviewers and industry insiders will confirm that this is precisely what happened, 50 times over in this case.

I love young filmmakers, too. The voices of Black and LGTBTQIA writers, directors, and actors should be heard—must be heard. If their work is to be highly rated, however, they mustn’t be relieved of the responsibility of making good work.

The Film Critique rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Under the Silver Lake: Thanks to the bizarrely talented David Robert Mitchell (It Follows [2014]), my first summer in Milwaukee was not a total wash cinema-wise. The latest work by the Michigan-born writer/director features Andrew Garfield as an adrift, unambitious 30-something drawn into a crazy L.A. maze by a naked neighbor and a fleeting femme fatale.

Mitchell’s signature is atmospheric, dreamlike mystery with surprise visual and plot twists. The Los Angeles arts and party settings lend themselves well to all aspects of his storytelling, including his breezy-yet-carefully-considered camera angles and movements. From Garfield on through to the extras, on-screen talent here is a treat.

The kinetic, vividly colored neo-noir of Under the Silver Lake satisfies deeply, as you accompany Garfield’s Sam through a freakish labyrinth of serial dog murders, edible psychedelic party invitations, and a wise, homeless monarch played by The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow.

The Film Critique rating: ★★★★☆