by Philip Price
Director: James Wan
Starring: Jason Momoa, Patrick Wilson & Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Rated: PG-13 (sci-fi violence and some language)
Runtime: 2 hours & 4 minutes
The irony of Zack Snyder's latest sci-fi epic releasing on Netflix essentially the same day as what will be the final relic of his orchestration at Warner Bros. with regards to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is undoubtedly significant in some somber, unfortunate way yet I can't quite put my finger on why this congregation of Snyder's new and old universes feels sad on both accounts. It's paradoxical, sure, but I guess in the broader sense it simply seems like despite the DCEU not going his way he has recovered by making a two-part, $166 million ‘Star Wars’ rip-off for the biggest streaming service in the world and yet, it doesn't feel like a recovery at all; somehow it feels like a failure on two fronts which is what makes “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” all the more depressing.
Remember when Willem Dafoe was in an ‘Aquaman’ movie? Doesn't that feel like a lifetime ago and a universe away? Unfortunately, thanks to the pandemic and James Gunn both things are by and large true. “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” is the end of an era, the last of a dying breed and though certainly not how Snyder saw things ending, the movie itself is not the worst note the current iteration of the DCEU could have gone out on (that would have been “The Flash”). It's not good, don't get me wrong, but there is a certain charm that director James Wan and, of course, star Jason Momoa bring to what are already absurd proceedings. Likely not the better movie of the two, but because I went into this much-delayed and much-maligned sequel five years after having been conditioned to certain expectations, this was a better overall experience because of the (much) lower anticipation level. All things considered, Wan is still very much a world-class filmmaker who knows how to mount a handsomely constructed action-adventure romp and when hung on the back of a comically over-the-top lead it couldn't be more perfect for feeding every Saturday morning desire of every nine-year-old out there.
Written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (who co-wrote the first film) this thing has a handful of "story by" credits including Momoa himself. I would love to know what bits of the story Momoa contributed or if he simply got this credit for coming up with lines like, "C'mon Cast Away! Grab Wilson, let’s roll!" Either way, our hero drops more pop culture references than a ‘Shrek’ film this time around and, while an undeniably fun presence, begins to beg the question of whether he's a "good actor" or not. I have no doubt much of this is simply due to Momoa's natural energy, but the opening montage of the film is all about establishing Arthur Curry as a new father and family man and the complications and stress that come along with this, being the King of Atlantis, and splitting his time between the land and the sea. The energy of the sequence and the filmmaking is up to the task of matching what Momoa is bringing, but tonally it all feels rather kitschy - and this time, not ironically. The funniest thing about this choice is that it is seemingly done in earnest to make it that much more of a Momoa vehicle and allowing his presence and personality to be the true star of the movie. Typically, with superhero movies, it is the character and the brand that bring in audiences and not the person playing them yet the choice to lean into everything that makes Momoa so appealing as a celebrity would suggest they wanted to turn things around in this last hurrah. Fortunately, it isn't long before some plot chicanery reunites Momoa with Patrick Wilson who plays Arthur's half-brother, Orm, and the two get to bro it up in an adventurous caper together.
To not delay the point, Wilson is the MVP of this movie and despite having to play a kind of "stick in the mud" character, he very much balances the abundance of levity Momoa brings to the otherwise dire circumstances of the plot. Wilson is six years older than Momoa despite playing the younger brother and whether it be his choice of how to present Orm running on land for the first time or having to deliver dialogue like, “Something happened to me when I touched that black trident,” his interpretation hits that kitschy quality in an appreciated, knowing fashion more so than in the excessive garishness and/or overly-sentimental manner that Momoa can't help but to heave. I don't want to seem like I'm piling on what is an appropriate performance from Momoa given the material, but just as the first film indulged its audience in eye candy and overwhelmed them with silliness to make-up for uncertainty in their world-building the same is true of the sequel except they decided to settle on how they defined Atlantis in the first film (especially since it is a much less prominent location in ‘Lost Kingdom’) and instead had Momoa take up the mantle (or trident) of indulging and overwhelming. Fortunately, Wilson bearing half the weight of the movie evens things out tonally with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II's return as Black Manta unfortunately (there's that word again) not being the stabilizing force to Momoa's Aquaman that the first film promised and that I was personally hoping he would be. It's not that Abdul-Mateen doesn't get plenty to do, he's the main antagonist and has just as much facetime if not more than Wilson does as Orm, but the "unfortunate" part comes when the script decides to do to him what Joss Whedon did to Jeremy Renner in “The Avengers.”
For all the charisma and power Abdul-Mateen possesses, he is possessed himself for the majority of this film. The plot deals with Manta AKA David Kane continuing to seek revenge against Arthur for his father's death. Early in the film we are re-introduced to the true hero of both comic book worlds currently represented on the big screen, Randall Park, as marine biologist Stephen Shin who is assisting Kane is locating Atlantean artifacts to repair his suit and give him the strength to go toe to toe with our hero. Stumbling upon the titular lost kingdom and locating the aforementioned black trident, Kane becomes immediately crazed and plagued with visions from its creator, an evil ruler named Kordax (Hey! it's Pilou Asbæk!), who promises Kane the power to destroy Arthur should he resurrect Kordax's lost kingdom of Necrus. Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately (stop it!), to do this Kane has to collect an ancient mineral known as "Orichalcum" that will essentially make a global climate meltdown more than imminent (see what happens when we do nothing about global warming?). That said, the script does ultimately provide some nice symmetry for Abdul-Mateen's character before taking something of an unexpected turn thematically that audiences will seemingly never see the resolution of.
One of the biggest advantages of ‘The Lost Kingdom’ though, is that it is very much a contained story that offers enough fun touches and character growth to be a natural extension of where the first film left off. We don't get any drumming cephalopods this time around, but one does join Arthur on his journey to break Orm out of prison. Instead, we get Martin Short voicing a character named Kingfish, a crime lord who looks exactly as his name implies, Nicole Kidman riding on the back of an armored shark and somehow still delivering dialogue with conviction, and Hammerhead Shark security guards who are probably the closest thing ‘90s kids will ever get to a Street Sharks "live-action" movie. While Momoa's performance feels a little too baroque at times, even for this material, there is no denying the level of physicality he brings to the role and the believability his stature lends to the action sequences - especially those that are harder to sell like those that take place in the water as he performs acrobatics on the back of seahorse. The way Wan can emphasize scale and the physical construction of sets like Manta's ancient ship as well as the costume design of the creatures guarding Orm's prison in the desert each lend a more tactile feeling to this mystical world where these events take place. Some of these touches are so good, in fact, they almost make up for how bad the other half of the film looks when it's clear a kind of "murky water" filter was applied to hide some of the shoddier effects.
If nothing else, I’m glad something like “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” exists so that both the generations who will see Momoa as their defining Aquaman and harbor an appreciation for these movies because of the point in their youth in which they saw them (seriously though, like I know these movies are all for profit, but I wish the gatekeepers at major studios would take more seriously how much certain runs of certain heroes will mean to certain groups of people who see them at certain times in their lives) as well as grade schoolers who might discover these films once ‘The Lost Kingdom’ hits Max in a month so that they know what high-level movie making in this genre looks like and that they deserve better than the half-baked, budget-friendly nonsense they’re likely fed ad nauseam on streamers (which I swear is not a slight at “Rebel Moon”). Even if the best parts of ‘The Lost Kingdom’ are the ones that ape “Avatar,” even if there are multiple needle drops of "Spirit in the Sky" despite this being about an underwater king, and even if Arthur's son, Junior, looks way more like Patrick Wilson than he does Jason Momoa, I'm happy everyone here was able to see this through and deliver one last Saturday morning cartoon on steroids that a certain, large demographic will absolutely revel in and love to look back on.
by Philip Price
Director: Blitz Bazawule
Starring: Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson & Danielle Brooks
Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic content, sexual content, violence & language)
Runtime: 2 hours & 20 minutes
I wrestled with whether or not I should finally see Steven Spielberg's 1985 adaptation of “The Color Purple,” the 1982 novel written by Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker in the form of letters between Celie - a poor African-American girl in the early 1900s - and God, as it has remained one of the bigger holes in my attempts at completing Spielberg's filmography. Given Blitz Bazawule's new film was based on the 2005 theatrical production that turned Walker's work into a full-fledged musical though, I decided I'd write about this new film from that perspective, which is to say, one's first encounter with the material in any form. To this extent, Bazawule's film is both what I expected it to be given the context clues around the story while also being rather surprising in who its targets are and where its objectives lie. I will be interested to see how this latest adaptation differs from Spielberg's not only due to the fact it is sprinkled with musical numbers and is generally of a lighter tone than is maybe suitable for the material, but largely (mostly) for the perspective from which it is presented and told. There has of course been much discussion over the last few years as to whether Spielberg, a Jewish white male, was the right person to best depict the lives of African American women in rural Georgia during this period to which the answer is obviously no, but with the introduction of Bazawule's vision into the fold how these iterations compare and contrast will certainly make for an interesting case study.
As for the quality of Bazawule's production, it is bursting with life at every turn. As a straight, white male myself who has lived in the South the majority of his life and been conditioned to expect a certain tone to accompany slave dramas or, in the case of “The Color Purple,” post-Civil War era stories it was both unexpected and kind of astonishing exactly how strong of a pulse coursed through the film's veins from the opening moments in which young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey) sing "Huckleberry Pie" while suspended above the Georgia Coast in a large oak tree dripping with moss. Then there is the arrival of the assertive Sofia (Danielle Brooks) in a true, star-making turn (at least for those who didn't already adore her) along with so many other facets that make Celie's journey of self-discovery continuously rewarding. And that is ultimately what this is, a journey through the life of this woman who was continuously taken advantage of and was never educated enough to know the degree to which others used her; like, uneducated to the point that when someone tells her, "I'll be back before you can spell Mississippi," she probably wasn't exaggerating. Whether it be Celie's father, Alfonso (Deon Cole), who took away her children just as soon as she'd given birth (and if what I've read of the original text is true, is responsible for those children as well, which this adaptation glazes over) who then promises her hand to a farmer simply referred to as Mister (Colman Domingo) who also abuses her physically, sexually and verbally, there is no respite for Celie except for the company of Nettie, which Mister also takes away rather swiftly. Instead, Celie is expected to take care of Mister's house, his dinner and his prior children cutting off her contact with any of her own family and by and large the outside world altogether.
At the half-hour mark the film exchanges Mpasi for Fantasia Barrino in the Celie role as time jumps forward to 1917. Up to this point, the film has largely centered around the unrelenting mistreatment of Celie and the relationship drama of Harpo (a wonderful Corey Hawkins), Mister's son, and Brooks' Sofia and their shaky status. Harpo first builds Sofia a house on the section of land his grandfather granted him on his father's farm, but when Sofia makes it clear she will not be as submissive as Celie has been to Mister, things begin to fall apart. They separate and Harpo contemplates turning their house into a juke joint. It is at this time that Taraji P. Henson's Shug Avery arrives on the scene. A blues singer and Mister's long-time mistress, Henson's arrival signals something of a turning point both thematically, but almost as importantly for the pacing of the film - tonally. Avery shakes things up as she stays true to Mister's expectations of her, but also begins a friendship and develops a genuine affection for Celie whose abuse and unawareness of the world is apparent after only a few exchanges. The character of Shug Avery as a character would be a stick of dynamite to throw into any narrative, but like Sofia she is a woman who fights and who is intent to not allow the expectations of the past to influence how she conducts herself in this new world. To that end, Henson's first big musical number in "Push Da Button" which is then swiftly followed by a duet with Fantasia in "What About Love?" appropriately feel like the crescendos of the first act as they properly propel the narrative forward. Henson's presence and these songs rearrange and re-engage the audience's expectations and attentions before dropping the revelation that propels us into the last half of the film.
In short, Avery's presence creates a tension not just between the trio of her, Celie and Mister, but through her actions and how they reverberate throughout the community. This speaks to another aspect of the film that both Bazawule and the cast cultivate; the community amongst one another and in the atmosphere they create. We become entrenched in this world and in the lives of the ensemble that populates it. The statements Walker was utilizing each character to make are somewhat evident in terms of the treatment of not only black people at this point, but more specifically black women both as they stood in relation to the white community and to certain men, but the story as a whole is so compelling and the characterizations are such that the messaging is more intrinsic than overbearing. Celie's story is a redemptive one but is so despite how she was treated not because of it which is the point - if this interpretation is true to the spirit of the novel - of what Walker was trying to say about our existence and survival in general. Furthermore, the title comes from a moment between Avery and Celie as they discuss the presence and intentions of God in their lives and in the world. Avery argues that God would be upset if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it which lends itself to this idea of the regularly unappreciated receiving their proper value. That is the story of Celie. While so much of these themes as well as the musical numbers fall on Celie's shoulders it is important that she be portrayed by someone who can convey the power necessary to convince us of her own convictions, but also be believable in her timid demeanor and simple perceptions. That all to say, Bazawule's film and the depth it possesses owe much to Fantasia for what is more often than not, a very restrained and measured performance that brings us her unimaginable pain as well as her sincere joy through more than just the songs but on every inch of her face.
It was no surprise to learn then, that both Fantasia and Brooks were reprising their roles in this film after having played them on Broadway (not at the same time, though) as both seem to grasp the severity of their character's impact on the overall arc with the understanding that they - along with Henson's charismatic (and sympathetic) portrayal of Avery - are what form the pillars of the story and give life to the declarations - or more, the rebuttals - Walker was originally stating. As the narrative spans multiple decades and engulfs us in the journey of these characters the big question mark around this iteration seemed to be with the musical aspect. Though the theatrical production seemingly was well-received and won plenty of awards (at least that's what some quick googling tells me) there were questions from my (having never seen this story before) perspective that questioned the tonality of the song and dance numbers and how they might weave in and out of a story I could only venture to guess dealt in fairly heavy ideas. While a few of the songs certainly stood out ("Miss Celie's Pants" brought a smile to my face) the weakest part of this stage musical turned film was some of the staging as it feels a little safe, especially in the musical numbers, which is somewhat surprising given Bazawule previously directed Beyonce's 2020 visual album Black is King. There are certain aspects of the film that seem to settle into a default mode in terms of conveying the story rather than creatively coming up with ways to integrate the film's themes into the visual cues which, again, is surprising given the opportunities the songs allow for in terms of creative storytelling as well as how much of a visual storytelling mechanism music videos are. That said, nearly every other element of the film really worked in bringing me into this world and along on this journey. I have no idea what the legacy of the film will be and I won't pretend I even have a guess, but if we are meant to judge films based on how they make us feel, “The Color Purple” absolutely earns every elated emotion and joyful tear it is sure to elicit with, if nothing else, the final climactic moments that capture the true heart and significance of this story in a single frame.
by Philip Price
Director: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan & Matt Bomer
Rated: R (language & drug use)
Runtime: 2 hours & 9 minutes
There is a scene late in “Maestro” where Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein is instructing a student on the instincts of conducting and in that moment, I realized this single portion was more the film I expected from Cooper given the precedent he’d set with “A Star is Born” than the one we ultimately got. “A Star is Born” was a movie that truly appreciated the process around crafting a song and/or piece of music and stood apart for its consideration of such. As much as a biopic about the late, great Bernstein felt like a natural next step in Cooper’s directing career “Maestro” simply never digs into its subject’s process and headspace in the way his previous film did; in a way that never allows the viewer to feel they understand this man at his core – what exactly was it that made him so great? Is the film visually stunning and sonically overwhelming to the point it can't help but be impressive? Absolutely. And yet, even as I sat marveling at how Cooper had grown as a storyteller, an actor and even an "artist" - as pompous as that may sound - I was still left with an empty, hollow feeling in that I could feel the intent and understand the meaning of as much, but never sensed the significance. Like a conductor on his podium who is supposed to be allowing the audience to experience the music, Cooper instead uses his filmmaking as a way of exerting his hard work and dedication over those who may not be as committed. Cooper is proud of himself (as he should be), but instead of allowing the text to do the talking as he did in his debut feature, we see this hubris show through the craft this time around. Not enlightening his audience to a notable figure's creative process through an exploration of the creative process, but instead shoving said intent down their throats.
Maybe that's too far, maybe I'm overreading, and maybe “Maestro” simply wasn't the movie I expected it to be, but I'm hesitant to believe as much even if I can't blame it for being such. This is a sometimes angry, but even more – a very conflicted film that never has the nerve to say what it would like to say. Every time the film builds to a moment in which we are set to see Bernstein do what he does best, what he was known for, what he made a living from – whether that be in conduction or composing – Cooper cuts away to people talking or doing drugs or something else of the same, seemingly meaningless ilk; edits that have no purpose or point in the larger scheme of the storytelling, but more function only as a way to build to the hour and a half mark at which point Bernstein's leading of the London Symphony Orchestra in the conclusion of Mahler's 2nd at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England in 1973 comes out of nowhere to feel like the climax of the film before a long denouement of death featuring Carey Mulligan's Felicia Montealegre. What is it the film is angry about? What is it the film would like to say, but hardly scratches the surface of? They are not the same answer, but both dwell on the relationship between Bernstein and Montealegre who were married for 27 years from 1951 up until Felicia died in 1978. For those who don't know the specifics of Bernstein's life and preferences this development may come as something of a shock given the film opens with Cooper's titular maestro in bed with fellow musician David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). Thus, much of Cooper's feature dwells on the couple traversing Bernstein's desires and reconciling them with the genuine love he and Felicia share and have built a life upon.
To this extent, “Maestro” is as much a film about Montealegre as it is about Bernstein. It may be more so Mulligan's movie even if it is Cooper’s production. Still, it is this facet within the character of Felicia that is almost a one-for-one with the film's central flaw: both find it difficult to be honest with themselves and even when they are, both eventually recess into how they'd like things to be rather than accepting them for what they are. Yes, it was a different time and as the film begins in the ‘40s with the bulk of it taking place in the ‘50s and ‘60s there is an understanding of Bernstein not feeling safe in fully embracing who he so clearly was, but like Bernstein the film can't seem to accept itself for what it is and what it needs to be despite being poured into by people who clearly believe in and love it for all the potential it possesses. It would make sense then why the single take scene that occurs at the halfway point of the film and takes place on Thanksgiving Day where Felicia and Leonard finally hash out their feelings and issues with one another after a night apart is the best scene in the movie…it’s the most honest one. It's a given the performances are electric, but it is also the only time in the film where everything coalesces in a natural, honest manner; it's a moment the remainder of the film, behind or in front of it, is constantly chasing yet never comes close to again; both the true thesis and culmination of the film – it’s kind of breathtaking.
Despite the outward similarities and Cooper's clear determination to make this feel as different as possible from his first film, “Maestro” is still a film centered around music starring Cooper in a central role yet pushes the female character to the center of the narrative. Mulligan happily takes up the responsibility bestowed upon her as she not only lends the film a much-needed balance to counter Bernstein’s egotistical and often smug presence (despite his children’s endorsement of Cooper and his film, this doesn't exactly paint the guy as a present or affectionate father), but also delivers what is both a measured and equally over-the-top performance that is by far the most complex aspect of the story the film is conveying. Cooper separates this film from his first by largely working within single take, single position camera set-ups with little to no movement to capture a screenplay (that Cooper co-wrote with Josh Singer) which essentially works as a string of conversations we're eavesdropping in on. It's an effective choice as it pulls us into both the world and dynamics of these people, but for all the set, make-up, and costume design that went into recreating periods and establishing an aesthetic it feels undone by the pacing and editing. It's a film begging to be a half-hour longer but has been condensed down as much as it possibly could resulting in that string of conversations feeling more disjointed than artfully done with a plan or a purpose.
I had to make peace with these conclusions as I didn't want this to be the case given my love and adoration for both Cooper and “A Star is Born,” but working through these feelings around what I wanted this to be, what I wanted this to achieve in terms of the impact it had on me and how I felt as I took the film in and realized in real time what this was and, more importantly, what it wasn't made me realize the film's greatest sin was that of letting its work show. “A Star is Born” felt both inherently and effortlessly cool, but with “Maestro” it's as if you can see how hard Cooper is striving to be what he hopes it will achieve. To quote the eternal wisdom of Channing Tatum's character from “21 Jump Street,” "Look at him, he's trying."
"Maestro" is streaming on Netflix.
by Philip Price
Society of the Snow
Let's just be happy J.A. Bayona wasn't so influenced by his time in the franchise world that he added Ethan Hawke's Nando Parrado showing up through a portal in the third act of this film.
For real though, I imagine everyone will be talking about how visceral the plane crash sequence in “Society of the Snow” is. As someone who sees as much as I can and rarely winces or looks away this sequence in particular caused me to do both. Writer/director Bayona is a master of set pieces and scale, so this shouldn't be surprising, but what is unexpected about his telling of the Uruguayan rugby team who crash-landed in the snow-swept Andes in 1972 is how it frames itself and further, how that framing device is used to emphasize the interior of these people who were placed in an impossible, unbelievable circumstance where each had to either find the will to live or come to peace with giving in.
The physical and external challenges are abundantly clear throughout, and their relentless nature keeps us both tense and enraptured, but by conveying the internal struggles through one of the men who survived the initial crash Bayona taps into something more than your standard survival movie. "Who were we in the mountains?" is a question posed that best encapsulates this intellectual undercurrent regarding how both those who didn't survive the 72 days they were stranded and those who made it and were able to reintegrate with society processed and understood the measures they were willing to take to remain alive for as long as they could. Sure, the stages of this story and the length of the film in general add an episodic nature to the proceedings but how the scope of the story is melded with the depth of those involved is genuinely an accomplishment.
“Society of the Snow” is streaming on Netflix.
A Hitchcockian thriller that works largely because of the sense of humor Eileen has about itself and that it keeps in line tonally throughout. Don't get me wrong, the guy who made Lady Macbeth has still made a terribly bleak and ultimately very cynical follow-up, but through Anne Hathaway’s turn as the most stereotypical of stereotypical blonde bombshells (she's vamping it up and she knows it, she likes it and she wants you to like it to) in Rebecca and the alluring yet tainted presence she imbues on both the film and our titular young lady (Thomasin McKenzie) one can't help but to be sucked into her arc even if we know there's no way this is heading in a promising direction. When that direction takes a hard left in the third act though, it's already too late; Rebecca has you in her grasp and there's nowhere for you to go. I didn't necessarily love it, but I completely dug what it was going for and I always dig a Shea Whigham performance.
“Eileen” is playing in select theaters.
The Persian Version
“The Persian Version” is tonally and structurally all over the map, but its heart is in the right place. Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz is passionate about and deeply invested in the story she's telling even if she's attempting to tell three or four different stories simultaneously. Additionally, I don't know if it was the screener version I viewed or if it has been updated since, but this had some extraordinarily rough ADR and sound editing. Keshavarz nails the ending though. Absolute full-on tears.
“The Persian Version” can be rented for $5.99 on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, YouTube and more.
by Philip Price
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
I knew I was in trouble when, in the opening sequence of the film, our titular Margaret (a wonderful Abby Ryder Fortson) is leaving camp at the end of the summer before her sixth-grade year, and all I could think as the images and colors director Kelly Fremon Craig composed played out across the screen was how sad it was that this would be the only summer Margaret would have as an 11-year-old. The impending fading of innocence traversing into experience. How finite youth truly is and how apt the old cliches are and that it's too bad we don't give them enough merit or at least enough thought to try and understand them when we're in that phase of life. Mind you, this is all without knowing all the changes - in body, mind and soul - that would be taking place in Margaret's life over the next year as she moved from the city to the suburbs, is forced to meet new people and make new friends, as well as experiencing all the wonderful shifts puberty entails. Needless to say, the next hour and 40 minutes were both extremely reassuring and yes, extremely affecting, in all the warmest and most charming of ways.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” is streaming on Starz or can be rented on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV.
I swear to all things there is a scene early on where Michelle Williams is just doing a straight-up Napoleon Dynamite impression. That moment aside, I'm beginning to think director Kelly Reichardt joints just aren't my jam. I vaguely remember finding “Certain Women” compelling in certain aspects, but between “First Cow” and “Showing Up” you may as well put me on the dunce train because ... I don't get it. I'd like to, don't get me wrong, but Williams' Lizzy is such a wet blanket while the community around her has this whole postmodern, weird for the sake of being weird vibe going for them to the point none of it feels honest or earnest. I guess as much should be expected given creative types tend to always position life as more a series of performance opportunities than of experiences, but the feigned nature of this mentality transcends whatever it is Reichardt is trying to say or examine here.
“Showing Up” is streaming on Paramount+ or can be rented on Amazon Prime Video.
by Julian Spivey
In December of 2022 I saw something called the “12 Movies Challenge” on Facebook. The premise was that you would have 12 months to watch 12 movies recommended by 12 friends. I don’t often participate in such social media challenges but being a movie buff I felt this might be an interesting way to get out of my comfort zone a bit when it comes to watching movies.
My Facebook buds gave me some films that I’ve been meaning to watch and I pretty much front-loaded those on the list – though not explicitly stated in the challenge rules I am opting to watch one film a month.
A Best Picture winner like “Out of Africa” is an obvious choice for me to get to at some point – that point is now going to be March of this year. But there are certain movies I’m not really looking forward to all that much – I’m looking at you “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” my August selection. Then there’s the acclaimed stuff that isn’t really up my alley like the anime feature “Spirited Away,” which I’ve scheduled for November. That will truly be me getting out of my comfort zone.
Here are the 12 movies recommended to me and the months I’ve assigned myself to watch them:
January: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983)
February: “Till” (2022)
March: “Out of Africa” (1985)
April: “Legally Blonde” (2001)
May: “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
June: “The Birdcage” (1996)
July: “Morning Glory” (2010)
August: “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966)
September: “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
October: “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
November: “Spirited Away” (2001)
December: “The Last Laugh” (1924)
Well, the moment has come, I have finished my 2023 12 Movies Challenge by successfully watching one new movie recommended by my friends and acquaintances each month this year!
My final movie was director F.W. Murnau’s 1924 German silent film “The Last Laugh” or in its original translation “Der letzte Mann,” which was recommended by my college film appreciation professor Carl Olds from my days long ago at the University of Central Arkansas. So, it’s not the first time that Carl has assigned me a classic film to watch.
Despite considering myself to be a classic film buff I’ve never really gone back and delved into the silent era of film. Let’s just say I’m thankful they developed the talkies before film got too far into its lifetime.
It’s truly hard for me to review and compare “The Last Laugh” to anything else because it’s far from my typical movie watching or expertise. The things I like the most about films are screenwriting – “The Last Laugh” is atypical from many in that it doesn’t even use intertitles – and acting, with a huge interest in naturalistic acting the kind of which you didn’t really get from the silent era because everything had to be overly-acting and grandiose to get emotions and feeling across and the lead actor in “The Last Laugh” Emil Jannings does a lot of that with his eyes in the film.
“The Last Laugh” is a story about class and ego. Jannings plays a hotel doorman at a fancy hotel and he’s proud of his job and the respect that his doorman uniform commands from those in his community. Due to his age, he’s demoted down to the hotel’s washroom attendant – the lowest of jobs at the establishment – and embarrassed by this he keeps up the charade that he’s still a doorman when he’s away from the job. Eventually, his wife and community find out and they basically laugh him out of the community. The film was intended to end with a very depressing breakdown by the doorman but Murnau and the screenwriter Carl Mayer tacked on an unrealistic (and they know it via the film’s only intertitle) happy ending.
OK, so the story is terribly slow and very dour. Unless you’re either a film buff/student who wants to see innovative craft – and I’ll get to that in a second – or you’re just really interested in the psychology of people and what their status in life says about them I probably wouldn’t pull up “The Last Laugh” at home.
About that craft. There were times during the film when I was amazed by what Murnau was doing on the screen with camera movements and effects – like blurriness when the main character is drinking in merriment. There were things that I didn’t think were done at that time when it came to camera movements – but as I don’t pay much attention to silent films I wasn’t completely sure. But I always research a film – whether it’s a classic silent film or the latest thing I’ve streamed on Netflix – and sure enough Murnau was doing things with the camera that had never been done before, like essentially making a makeshift dolly. I could tell historically this had to be an important film. My primary interest though in film isn’t to necessarily be entertained but to be moved in some way by the film’s story, which “The Last Laugh” didn’t really do for me.
There is something somewhat related to the film that moves me – or really just angers me. Jannings would wind up being the first Best Actor winner in the history of the Oscars later in the decade and then when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to prominence in Germany in the 30s he would star in many Nazi propaganda films. I knew this about Jannings before watching this film and it may have played some factor in me not caring much about his character or his plight. I know, I know. You have to separate real-life fact from fiction. But when I see a Nazi I want to punch said Nazi.
Anyway, in that tacked-on happy final scene, the hotel doorman has lucked into riches and he shares them with the one man who showed him kindness in his worst moments, the hotel’s security guard. The hotel security guard in the film was played by Georg John. Georg John was a German stage and film actor, like Jannings, but John was also Jewish.
There’s not a whole lot about the end of John’s life online – but there is one thing I found. Being Jewish, John was deported in 1941 from Germany to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, the second-largest ghetto in all of German-occupied Europe after the Warsaw Ghetto. John died in that ghetto later that year. Meanwhile, Jannings was named the prestigious “Artist of the State” by Germany’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. I hope Jannings is burning in Hell.
Anyway, on that fun and fine note, I want to thank everyone who recommended movies for 2023. I hope to do this again in 2024. And, as someone who likes to make entertainment lists here is my ranking of the 12 films I watched this year from my favorite to least favorite.
by Philip Price
Director: Kristoffer Borgli
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson & Jessica Clement
Rated: R (language, violence & some sexual content)
Runtime: 1 hour & 42 minutes
When going into a movie with a premise as interesting as “Dream Scenario” there is always a mix of anticipation and anxiety. Anticipation in seeing what story the screenwriter chooses to tell through this unique premise while the anxiety centers around whether the film can see the full potential of said premise through to fruition. In terms of this very aesthetically indie third feature from writer/director Kristoffer Borgli the hook is that an average, everyday family man in the form of Nicolas Cage suddenly begins to show up in the dreams of both strangers and acquaintances. With no explanation as to why this is happening Cage's Paul Matthews comes to something of a fork in the road around how to deal with and/or take advantage of his newfound fame that naturally descends into notoriety. Another layer to Borgli's script in particular is that, given the premise, literally any moment in the film could either be a dream or reality leaving the audience guessing as to whether what we're seeing is truly happening to our protagonist or not.
Borgli unfortunately doesn't take as much advantage of this second layer as is available to him, but what is maybe more interesting is where the filmmaker ultimately decides to take the premise for the sake of the story he is telling. Much of the film frames Paul as a man or person searching for other people to impress and who are impressed by him, yet he constantly finds himself surrounded by those who have no interest in appeasing this desire. Whether it be his students, his children (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement), former colleagues (Dylan Baker) and girlfriends (Marnie McPhail) or even his current wife (Julianne Nicholson) in certain, critical moments – they all seem rather unbothered and unimpressed by Paul. Because of this, Paul is always searching for the insult whenever speaking with someone about himself and even when this phenomenon of him showing up in other people's dreams begins his instinct is not to wonder why this happening in the first place, but rather why his presence is only as a bystander. Still, as someone described as a "remarkable nobody" he enjoys the sudden shift in attention and isn't great at hiding it or remaining humble about it even if he remains average within this exceptional occurrence. Even when repercussions of this newfound fame begin to impact his real, personal life Paul has no sense of how to deal with things he otherwise imagines he would tackle head-on; he’s helpless.
As Paul's fame grows so do his ambitions and as these ambitions become more self-serving Paul's presence in people's dreams becomes more sinister. This turn in public perception unavoidably bleeds over into Paul's reality forcing him to essentially excommunicate himself from his societal circle. At this point, the film might seemingly lend itself to many readings (and there are no doubt even more to pick through by the end of the film), but at this juncture, it seemed the most prevalent idea was that fame and a pre-conceived notion of who you are as a person by the public at large only inevitably leads to a certain state of isolation. This opens both an interesting avenue and a can of worms I didn’t initially see the film exploring. Michael Cera, Kate Berlant and Dylan Gelula show up as founders/employees of an upstart branding company who aspire to take advantage of Paul’s celebrity by connecting him with brands like Sprite whereas Paul means to use this unexpected turn in his life as a way to achieve his goal of being a published author in his field of evolutionary biology. This simple idea not of using this “dream scenario” to his own advantage for personal goals – one kind of expects this – but rather that it grants Paul access to the biggest audience anyone could ask for is the unforeseen aspect as an audience seems to be what everyone craves, but no one wants to be these days.
Paul only wanted someone – anyone – to notice him or, if he were really lucky, to consider him interesting. The turn this takes once he becomes an insidious presence in people’s lives and the lack of sympathy he receives from the outside world despite not having actually done anything wrong in reality is genuinely upsetting. That Borgli decides to go this route and elicit these feelings from his own audience could easily be thought of as little more than a parody of social media and influencer culture, but while that’s certainly a strand – and more so, the presentation of ourselves and how we shift who we are depending on the audience – the interpretation I landed on as the final sequence of the film played out was how this was the story of a man who never really had the confidence to be who he wanted or who he imagined or saw himself as in his own mind. While this idea is emphasized early in the film through how most of Paul’s interactions play it is the final scene featuring Cage and Nicholson and the way it alternates between what is clearly an expectation versus reality scenario in Paul’s mind that hammers home how he has failed time and time again to turn these idyllic “dream scenarios” into tangible lived experiences.
What Borgli means by this, if it is what he intended at all, is only something that could disperse into another hundred interpretations, but in terms of utilizing this unique, engaging premise to good effect this conclusion is kind of notable in that it doesn’t feel more major. That said, the execution and how it uses Paul’s experiences to come to this place of better understanding himself – however depressing – doesn’t really disappoint. In terms of execution, the score from Owen Pallett and the costume work by Kaysie Bergens and Natalie Bronfman shouldn’t go unmentioned as both lend themselves to this idea of a “remarkable nobody” meaning they were confronted with creating something to be hung on an uninteresting focal point and manage to succeed by making them fitting but still evident. The idea of expectation and reality is baked into Borgli’s film though and while it doesn’t work in our protagonist’s favor the fact the expectations were that this film could seemingly go in any number of directions and that the reality it decides to make finite is an achingly painful, but unavoidably true portrait of failed dreams is a sweet, aggravating, profound, and disheartening surprise.
by Philip Price
Director: Cord Jefferson
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross & Sterling K. Brown
Rated: R (language, some drug use, sexual references & brief violence)
Runtime: 1 hour & 57 minutes
What is immediately striking about Cord Jefferson's directorial debut, based on Percival Everett’s 2001 award-winning novel Erasure, is how it balances the two different movies that it is and how these two movies work together to re-enforce the overall point of the film rather than competing against one another for more prominence or importance. The truth is, both could exist on their own and still be engaging, but how they lean on and feed in and out of one another elevates the heart and intelligence of both. From one angle, “American Fiction” is a burning satire, a total takedown of every stereotype the entertainment industry and by association, our culture at large, has ascribed to the African American individual and experience. From the opposite angle, Jefferson's film tells the story of a Black family in America that upends every single one of those stereotypes; painting not a perfect picture of a family to prove a point, but rather what is still a flawed yet funny and successful yet sad portrait of a life not typically seen embodied by people with pigment.
Whether you see “American Fiction” as a conventional story told unconventionally or vice versa will depend on what walk of life you're approaching the film from, but the point is that by the time the credits roll the interpretation of the film's melding objectives are all on the same page. Jeffrey Wright's Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison is a writer who faces the challenge all introverted writers do in that he purports to understand and possess insight into the human condition without having spent any actual time in the wild, among people outside his academic circles in some time. Monk is distrusting of the individual student or person he encounters who does not think on the same wavelength as he does while optimistic to the point he believes those same people who make up a culture of book readers will appreciate his high-brow literature enough to allow him to make a living off it. As a white male, this idea of knowing the truth deep down but still masking it in hopes that everything will be OK in the grander scheme of things leads to an interesting facet of the film, at least to viewers who look/think like me. It would seem there is a collective/unspoken desire for things to remain uninterrupted in the ways of the world even if we outwardly express a desire for truth and innovation; in other words, progress is fine as long as it is guided by the same kind of structure we’ve always adhered to. I’m not saying I agree with this, but I am saying I recognize the truth of the statement as suggested in the film. Of course, change is scary for most, but this is how “American Fiction” challenges a viewer of my persuasion as it asks the question, “What has shaped my perspective of black individuals and culture?” Do I take what I have been fed at face value or do I know my truth via the work I have put into growing real relationships?
Monk likes to think he understands people well enough to know how to lie to them convincingly – or at least avoid them in the case of his family, but through his actions under the pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh he comes to realize he doesn't have to try and convince people of anything as they are more than happy to buy whatever bullshit he comes up with and more, treat it as exceptional simply because it reflects badly on them if they don’t and therefore their endorsement of such absolves them from the sins of their ancestors. We don't want to be lied to, not really, but we'll sit in it forever if it's a comfier chair. How Jefferson exposes this ugly truth through the power and prominence a reductive, flat picture of black people's lives in America gains versus the kind of inherent rejection of the idea a black person’s life can be hard for reasons outside of gangs, drugs, single parenting, and/or slave trauma is both an indictment of the systems that set-up the linking of fear and criminals with race as well as asking the audience why it was set-up that way in the first place? To who’s ultimate benefit, is it?
In a scene featuring Monk and his literary agent (John Ortiz) discussing the release strategy of his joke of a book via conference call, Monk tests just how far he can push the publishers (with what is one of the funniest line deliveries of the year, I might add) before they attempt to exert some kind of restraint or power over him. He’s more looking for someone to call him out on the bullshit he believes he’s pedaling, but once the lightbulb of realization goes off that what is so terrifying to these white people he’s speaking with is not the change or progress that they once feared (at least not these kind of white people), but more as being seen as gatekeepers for such things is when Monk realizes the extent of the power he has because he is now perceived as a man owed something rather than simply being deserving of it. Power is the root of all racial conflict and tension since the beginning of slavery after all, so while this probably pisses Monk off further, he doesn’t have any real interest in flexing his muscle for the sake of it. Rather, this scene and the provocation of this idea that an inherent hierarchy still exists despite how far we’ve come only for that hierarchy to now almost exclusively push a specific kind of black story and the ramifications of as much are key to understanding the root of the many ideas at the center of "American Fiction."
In another scene, earlier in the film, where Monk begins writing his derivative, shallow parody of a “black” book we see iterations of his characters appear in front of Monk’s desk (including Keith David!) as they act out what is being typed on Monk’s laptop – revisions and all. It’s a fun piece of filmmaking flair that unfortunately the rest of the film is lacking. This being Jefferson’s debut feature it’s easy to understand why the clarity with which the big ideas are expressed is of the utmost importance justifying why he doesn’t push things too much in terms of execution, but a little more energy to try and match the vigor of the sharpness through which the ideas are written would seem to only elevate them further. Still, beyond the big topics and biting satire there is plenty to enjoy here from both an aesthetic and entertainment perspective. Seeing Wright in this mode couldn’t feel like a better pairing of actor and role. Erika Alexander as Monk’s new love interest gives the film a spark outside all of its heady conversations while Sterling K. Brown absolutely crushes every time he enters the frame. The score by Laura Karpman plays nicely into both the personal narrative as well as the more comedic moments of the script while the tranquil setting of Monk’s family’s beach house, the many conversations on the porch, and the investment in so many of these characters that transcend the genre only work in Jefferson’s favor to prove that people are oftentimes much more than the stereotype they’ve been reduced to. That said, it is rather upsetting they landed on “Philip” as what is apparently the douchiest white guy name they could come up with; I’ll try not to take it personally though.
by Philip Price
Director: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Richard E. Grant & Rosamund Pike
Rated: R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language, some disturbing violent content and drug use)
Runtime: 2 hours & 11 minutes
This is not necessarily what I expected from director Emerald Fennell's ‘Lady Bird’ and my feelings as well as the film itself are at such odds with one another it's difficult to say whether “Saltburn” is subverting or misunderstanding what it wants to discuss, but either way - it's fascinating. Fennell and Linus Sandgren's visual tendencies and surplus of style are enchanting and the multiple motifs it scratches are at least vaguely interesting yet at times this also felt like the equivalent of a feature-length Fall Out Boy video.
I like Fall Out Boy, don't get me wrong, but they have a very specific tone and given the time period of their prominence compared with the setting of this film it almost feels intentional if not strictly appropriate. The flair, the sophistication and the elegance of the whole aesthetic are truly to be commended though, from the sky in the shot of Barry Keoghan's Oliver Quick laying at the foot of a grave (how long did they wait around for that exact right moment?) to how it takes advantage of its grandiose location, each composition is just that with Fennell layering in a strong string of soundtrack selections that only heighten the scale and emotion of the picture.
Perks of this rollercoaster of an experience include Richard E. Grant laughing at “Superbad” (despite the timeline of this not adding up) which is worth the price of admission alone. Furthermore, the combination of Grant and Rosamund Pike doing their absurdist take on a dysfunctional (but wealthy) family who sweep all their conflict and complicated emotions under the rug for fear of the facade not remaining intact and their fairy tale of existence becoming the inverse is arguably the best executed and most interesting aspect of the entire film.
As fun as theorizing about ‘Harry Potter’ threesomes while lounging by the pool and watching “The Ring” all summer sounds, Fennell's attempts at convincing herself that to pick apart the fact “Saltburn” is more style than substance is lazy are eventually drawn moot by her film's alleviation of any semblance of real substance leaving nothing for anything but the eyes to enjoy. Which, in this instance, isn't necessarily a bad bargain all things considered.
Chief among the main ideas the film attempts to investigate is a dissection of the rich and their need to rescue and liberate up to the point those they've helped feel a sense of comfort - cured even - at which point they suddenly become an imposter. A stranger. I told you, it's broad and a movie made as specifically as “Saltburn” in every other facet needs a main idea that is just as so. I say this, of course, and then Fennell hits you with a line like, "You don't pick a child's name thinking about what it will one day look like on a headstone." and pulls you right back in to consider things further.
Great clothes though and bonus points for featuring a Crunchie. Love those. Speaking of candy, how do we never see any of the pretty people working out? The devil is indeed in the details, but unfortunately for Fennell and her characters here, the details aren't as complicated or as scandalous as she'd like them to be.
by Philip Price
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa & Da'Vine Joy Randolph
Rated: R (language, some drug use & brief sexual material)
Runtime: 2 hours & 13 minutes
As someone born in the late ‘80s and raised as a pure product of the ‘90s, I didn’t expect a ‘70s throwback piece to hit me as hard as director Alexander Payne’s latest. What’s interesting is, as a millennial and someone who relates more to the first two decades above and who hasn’t seen enough “New American Cinema” born of the ‘70s to recognize the qualifiers, it’s hard to know whether or not “The Holdovers” is a movie akin to those made in the ‘70s or if it is simply a homage to what we now think of when we say “a ‘70s movie”. Payne, who is now 62, has made films in the vein of ‘70s movies before - movies that center on multi-faceted characters with relatively small and always personal problems - but he’s never seemingly made a movie so overtly mimicking so much of what he draws inspiration from.
I say all of this as something of a qualifier in and of itself for, while I understand “The Holdovers” might be more provoking of the look and feel than invoking of the actual spirit of ‘70s cinema, as someone of my age and viewing history it left me feeling as if it had done both. Furthermore, I understand why those who might have a deeper pool of knowledge and sense of connection to movies of the ‘70s and their unshaven realism might find “The Holdovers” more of a copy of what once was rather than the authentic journey I experienced while watching the film, but the fact of the matter is: I found this far more enjoyable than expected given my aforementioned disposition, but more than that - I found this deeply affecting and honest. While it might be aping certain ‘70s visual cues very intently, it also manages a perfect balance of melancholy and comedy that elicits heavy truths while equally highlighting the gleefully effervescent moments of life (and how they weave our days and time together).
To this extent, “The Holdovers” has a lot going on in it and just as much on its mind, but we never feel pushed to be persuaded by anything. Instead, while the film purports to be heavily focused on entitlement, honor and the upholding of certain standards and traditions that make someone who they are and of a certain class, it is naturally, actually about Paul Giamatti's Paul Hunham coming to an epiphany after so many years of trying to hold himself to these standards and present such a specific version of himself that none of it is worth it if you're still making kids suffer for your enjoyment. Hunham, a history teacher at an all-boys prep school, finds joy in the condescension and criticism he can dole out toward his students who he knows are inferior (at least intellectually) as well as with his co-workers who we can assume he also feels superior to if not also because of his IQ but because he has "foregone sensual pleasures for spiritual endeavors," meaning he is single and socially awkward and has fully dedicated himself to this institution for which he attended and now works. This mentality is also what gets Hunham holed up on campus over the holidays with Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a smart if not troubled student, who also has no place to go.
The film plays the card of these two at first vehemently opposed people teaching each other a few things about life in the process of beginning to like one another, but while this is kind of the structure upon which it hangs its hat what is most interesting is how it compounds its many ideas via this method into a rather breezy execution. Hunham assumed Tully was another in a long line of the entitled pricks he's accustomed to teaching - and to a certain extent is - but it's clear Tully has an intelligence behind his quips and whining which is possibly why Hunham feels slightly threatened by him even if it's not enough for him to let it show. Both are a couple of neurotic messes, but the addition of Da'Vine Joy Randolph's Mary Lamb, a cook at the school who has also elected to stay on campus over the holidays, brings levity to this group of people who were all left behind in one way or another. Though Hunham and Tully each have histories that have led them to this point in life, Mary has the most apparent and valid reasons for behaving the way these men do (wounded) even if she doesn't, really.
Randolph's Mary being a black woman in 1969/1970 is not lost on the audience either as she must harbor her pain and regret rather than air it out freely to feel some type of affirmation. The volumes this speaks does a fair amount of narrative work for Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson, but Randolph plays the part with such humanity and realism that her abbreviated appearance and transparency of her function disappear. Hunham is at least understanding and sympathetic to Mary's plight as well, befriending her, standing up for her, and never making her feel excluded, but were the starting gates of life aligned equally it is clear Mary would have never needed Hunham's sympathies. There is a small, rather short scene featuring Randolph though that absolutely broke me and was also the moment the movie transcended its invoking nature and became a genuinely provoking piece of storytelling.
Much like its themes and ideas, there are multiple things at play in “The Holdovers” that make it endearing and indelible, whether it be Giamatti's run, Giamatti trying to throw a football or Giamatti having to crawl through the passenger side of his car; each of which is (hilariously) entertaining. Joking aside, what stands to make this film lasting and unforgettable is how it captures the nature of this journey, this trip with these characters from one point in their lives to the next. Giamatti utilizes just enough of what he did with Payne previously in “Sideways” while deviating from the character just enough to make Hunham maybe not as unhinged, but more sorrowful (he also just looks like complete shit, which is appreciated as well) whereas Sessa (who I had not seen in anything previously) does well to show Tully's anger over his vulnerabilities in an understandable rather than cloying fashion. I also just loved the set and production design throughout, how all the floors at the prep school would creak, how all the rooms were filled with smoke all the time, and such details as the cars and the interior of the Chateau in Boston gave no false notes. Also, some pitch-perfect casting in Tully's mom and stepdad. Really special stuff all around. I mean, "penis cancer in human form," has to be one of the greatest insults ever put to film.