The White Tiger

Based on the 2008 New York Times bestseller of the same name, The White Tiger tells the spirited story of Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), a successful young businessman thriving in modern-day Bangalore. Narrating his own tale in voiceover, we flash back to Balram’s early life fighting to survive in an impoverished Indian village after losing his father to tuberculosis. After a fortuitous run-in with a wealthy landlord, the resourceful Balram becomes a full-time driver for the solicitous Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his free-spirited wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra). The arrangement seems to be going well, until a night of recklessness forces Balram to reassess his relationship with his rich employers and the unequal society that keeps its most affluent citizens immune from consequences.

The film is written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, who made a splash in critics circles during the mid-2000s with acclaimed independent features like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. While those two movies just barely broke the 80 minute mark, The White Tiger comes in at a much heftier 125 minute runtime and more often than not, its length can be felt. Though he has an accessible and exciting story in his hands, Bahrani seems slavishly devoted to each of the novel’s plot points and its dense themes involving social classism and globalization. The stylistic touches, like its evocation of the eye-rolling “you’re probably wondering how I got here” trope at the film’s opening, make the theatrics of Danny Boyle’s films seem like the stuff of genius by comparison.

Fortunately, Bahrani is adapting some sturdy material and Aravind Adiga’s novel gives the film plenty of hearty fodder to feed this robust rags-to-riches story. Its title, a reference to a rare and magnificent beast to which Balram is compared at a young age, is just one of the animal-based metaphors that is used to symbolize the perils of a seemingly impenetrable caste system. Balram explains India’s poor class as existing in a “rooster coop”, waiting at the market to get slaughtered one at a time, yearning for freedom while being unable or unwilling to escape from their daunting enclosure. But the tone of Balram’s narration doesn’t resemble that of a maudlin requiem for upward mobility; he often peppers in dark humor and irony to affably recontextualize his struggles and those of his people.

As the savvy protagonist, Adarsh Gourav lends a stirring mixture of down-and-out pathos and cheeky resilience to his compelling lead performance. Rajkummar Rao is equally winsome in his portrayal of a well-to-do tech mogul who takes Balram under his wing and gets closer to him than even he suspects. In a role that could have been one-dimensional and cloying, Priyanka Chopra conveys layers of conflict for a young woman torn between her roots in the United States and her charmed life in India. Each of the main three actors have an easy chemistry with one another, gratifying in times when affinity brings them together and heartbreaking in the moments when discord draws them apart.

With its story of a desperate driver looking to get in with a rich family, The White Tiger bears thematic resemblance with last year’s outstanding Best Picture winner Parasite but it lacks that film’s propulsive sense of narrative urgency. Since Bahrani gives us glimpses of both the film’s climax and ending within the first 10 minutes, there isn’t very much suspense built into how things play out. Even though this is more of a coming-of-age drama than a tongue-in-cheek thriller like Parasite, stakes still matter and I would have preferred to have been kept in suspense rather than waiting for the inevitable denouement. Netflix recently announced they’ll be releasing at least one new movie every week in 2021 and if The White Tiger is any indication, they’d do well to focus on quality over quantity.

Score – 3/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Available to rent digitally is No Man’s Land, a modern Western starring Frank Grillo and Andie MacDowell about a young man who flees to Mexico after accidentally killing an immigrant along the Mexico-Texas border.
Also available to rent digitally is Our Friend, a dramedy starring Jason Segel and Casey Affleck about a couple who finds unexpected support from their best friend after they receive life-changing news.
Debuting on Hulu is In & Of Itself, a filmed version of illusionist Derek DelGaudio’s Off-Broadway one-man stage show which explores themes of identity and illusion.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

One Night In Miami

Based on the smash stage play by Kemp Powers, the enthralling new biopic One Night in Miami depicts a fictionalized meeting between four burgeoning icons in the mid-1960s. We meet the first of the four, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), in the ring during the opening scene as he whales on a fellow boxer in Wembley Stadium. This victory leads to a title match in Miami against then-champion Sonny Liston, where Ali shocked the world by becoming the youngest fighter at the time to win the heavyweight belt. To celebrate his win, Ali invites his friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) over to his hotel room to share drinks and reflect on their past successes along with their future challenges.

One Night in Miami is the directorial debut by Regina King, the Academy Award-winning actress who most recently headed up the acclaimed HBO series Watchmen. Behind the camera, King establishes herself as a true actor’s director, bringing out the very best in each of the four talented performers despite the majority of the film’s “action” taking place within the confines of a single room. Films based around plays, like the fellow Oscar contender Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, typically face issues translating the limited settings of their source material to the screen but King proves that you don’t need to punch up the material to make it compelling. The way that she vividly catalogs the convictions and concerns between these four dominant male personalities is especially impressive for a first-time effort.

Adapting his play, screenwriter Kemp Powers (who also co-wrote Pixar’s Soul) considers the positions of each of the four legends at this point in history and how a hypothetical conversation between them might go. Their dialogue is vibrant and revealing, finding the quartet playfully ribbing at each other one moment and more sternly questioning one another the next. There are many topics covered during their all-night hangout but many of the exchanges center around each of the famous figures’ responsibility towards their race during the Civil Rights Movement. As to be expected, Malcolm X is the most confrontational towards each of his cohorts, pressing them explicitly on what they are doing in their respective crafts of music and sports to further progress for African-Americans.

With limited settings and dialogue as the primary driving force, the performances are critical for the film to operate and each of the actors brings something special to bring out the most in their real-life icons. Ben-Adir brings both the righteous anger and thoughtful introspection that we tend to associate with Malcolm X but also adds a dimension of childlike exuberance when he brings out his camera to capture the moment. Goree lends tremendous physicality and the obscene confidence that define Ali’s persona but he peels back the layers to reveal a young man who isn’t as sure-footed as he seems. Hodge is portraying who is arguably the least well-known of the four characters but feels right at home with an easy charisma and warmth.

Best of all is Odom Jr., who broke out when Hamilton hit Disney+ last summer and follows through with a deeply soulful and moving performance. As Cooke, he comes across as an easy target for Malcolm X’s repudiation but turns the tables in rope-a-dope fashion on the activist, whose life was cut short a year after the events of the film. We know that Odom Jr. is a talented singer but the way that he conjures the legendary singer’s tender timbre is magical, particularly in the film’s concluding moments. One Night in Miami is a stylish rumination on race and responsibility through the eyes of four larger-than-life figures whose human qualities are brilliantly presented.

Score – 4/5

Also new to stream this weekend:
Making a last-minute debut on HBO Max is Locked Down, a pandemic-set heist film starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor about a quarreling couple of diamond thieves who put aside their differences to pull off a lucrative new job.
Debuting on Netflix is Outside the Wire, a sci-fi action movie starring Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris about a drone pilot who is sent into a deadly militarized zone and must work with an android officer to locate a doomsday device.
Available to rent on demand is MLK/FBI, a documentary that explores the investigation and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. by The Federal Bureau of Investigation through newly declassified documents.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My Top 10 Films of 2020

Well, we made it. Every single columnist summing up the past 12 months will note just how challenging it was for us collectively and individually but I still feel the need to acknowledge and echo the sentiment. Even though theaters were closed, the movies were still open for business and thankfully, there was no shortage of superb entertainment to consume at home. I watched just over 170 films that were released in 2020; here are my 10 favorites:

  1. Boys State (streaming exclusively on Apple TV+)
    Released in the middle of the most contentious election year in modern American history, this entrancing and supremely entertaining political documentary examines how we got here and embraces how we move forward together. No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself on, this look at Texas teens creating their own government from scratch will fascinate and surprise at every turn.
  2. Minari (coming to theaters February 12th)
    After releasing the magnificent The Farewell last year, A24 follows up with another thoughtful and tender portrait of the Asian-American experience. Featuring a jaw-droppingly gorgeous musical score from Emile Mosseri, this autobiographical story from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung recounts his family’s search for the American Dream in 1980s Arkansas. The entire cast is terrific but Steven Yeun’s performance as the idealist father should garner Best Actor support.
  3. American Utopia (streaming exclusively on HBO Max)
    Spike Lee released 2 great films in 2020 and while his Da 5 Bloods is likely to scoop up more awards, his filmed version of David Byrne’s Broadway concert is a joyous experience and proper companion to 1984’s Stop Making Sense. From both creative and technical perspectives, it’s an unbridled triumph of conviction, imagination and world-class wireless audio performance. The rousing rendition of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” is a clear highlight.
  4. Nomadland (streaming on Hulu and coming to theaters February 19th)
    The recent winner of Best Film by Indiana Film Journalists Association –with many more awards likely to follow– Chloé Zhao’s meditation on transience and trauma is captivating in every sense of the word. Frances McDormand is expectedly outstanding as a wayfarer looking to find herself amongst America’s heartland. I hope to see this in a theater when it’s safe again, mostly to fully take in the breathtaking, golden hour vistas by cinematographer Joshua James Richards once more.
  5. Sound of Metal (streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime)
    This debut by director Darius Marder about a heavy metal drummer battling permanent hearing loss starts off rough around the edges but transitions into something more sensitive and soulful than what it appears to be at first. Riz Ahmed turns in his best work yet as the hearing-impaired protagonist and the sound design flawlessly immerses us into the changing inner world of the main character.
  6. Small Axe: Lovers Rock (streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime)
    Amid the towering achievement that is Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s 5-film anthology series, his depiction of two lovers who meet at a West London reggae house party is a high point. The partygoers spontaneously belting out Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” in unison is cinema’s defining music moment in 2020, a year that took away our ability to sing joyously and off-key with other people in public spaces.
  7. The Nest (available to rent digitally)
    Writer/director Sean Durkin emerges from a 9-year hiatus and delivers another excellent slow-burn of a not-quite horror movie. His agonizing depiction of an affluent family on the verge of financial tumult is dreadfully transfixing and brilliantly rendered. Carrie Coon and Jude Law both do career-best work as the feuding husband and wife dancing dangerously around a divorce.
  8. Palm Springs (streaming exclusively on Hulu)
    In a year where the concept of time became fuzzy and days blurred together, this hilarious Groundhog Day variant benefited from the unexpectedly apt context of world events. Andy Siara’s remarkably clever script and Max Barbakow’s assured first-time direction are in perfect harmony with one another. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti sport world-class chemistry and J. K. Simmons is a hoot in his supporting role.
  9. The Assistant (streaming on Hulu and available to rent digitally)
    It’s not exactly an easy watch but Kitty Green’s day-in-the-life tale of a young assistant at a film production company where dark secrets lurk is chillingly compelling and exceedingly well-observed. Ozark‘s Julia Garner is a revelation as the morally conflicted young professional at the story’s center. Aside from the scene that gives Never Rarely Sometimes Always its title, Garner’s visit to the HR director’s office may be 2020’s best stretch of film.
  10. Soul (streaming exclusively on Disney+)
    Pixar delivers yet another life-affirming masterpiece about the passions that drive us and the preciousness of every moment of life that lies before us. Director Pete Docter and the entire crew behind him craft an existential fantasy that bursts at the seams with beauty and humor. The heartfelt jazz compositions by Jon Batiste and heady musical score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor compliment each other exquisitely.

Reprinted (with a couple list variations due to current film availability) by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #52 – Soul

I’m joined for the first time by my parents Julie and Keith Leuthold as we break down Soul, the latest animated marvel from Pixar that’s currently streaming on Disney+. Then we go over some belated holiday streaming options, including The Christmas Chronicles 1 and 2 (both available on Netflix) and The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show (streaming on Amazon Prime). I also make a pitch for The Flight Attendant, the comedy-drama thriller series whose entire first season is up on HBO Max. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Wonder Woman 1984

Following this month’s bombshell news that Warner Bros will be simultaneously releasing their 2021 slate of films in theaters and on their affiliated streaming service HBO Max, film journalists repeated the ominous query that’s been on their lips all year: are movie theaters doomed? The question coincides with the studio’s decision to test the waters on Christmas Day with Wonder Woman 1984, a follow-up to their 2017 mega-hit which would have netted them hundreds of millions in worldwide box office revenue had 2020 gone differently. Watching the would-be blockbuster on the same screen that I’ve been binging awards contenders for the past few weeks was a strange one, one that had me pining for the theatrical experience more than any film I’ve seen this year, if more for the context rather than the actual content.

Taking place decades after our initial adventure with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (a still-excellent Gal Gadot), we follow her as she mixes among the shoulder-padded masses of mid-1980s Washington DC while posing as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute. After befriending the bookish Barbara (Kristen Wiig, working from a familiar schtick) at work, the two come across an antique whose Latin inscription leads them to refer to it as a Dreamstone. Its presence draws the intense interest of fledgling businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, beautifully contrasting his composed work in The Mandalorian) as he pursues the era’s consumerist American Dream and wreaks havoc in the process.

After opening with a continuity-breaking flashback that exists solely to remind us we’re watching an expensive action movie, Wonder Woman 1984 continues with a Sam Raimi-aping montage in which our Friendly Neighborhood superheroine secretly saves beleaguered bystanders. It’s a sequence that sets a starkly different tone from its predecessor, a World War I-set origin story whose defining and still goosebump-inducing setpiece showcases the titular hero ascending out of the trenches and striding confidently through No Man’s Land. That its follow-up invokes The Greatest American Hero more than the Great War is a deliberate choice from returning director Patty Jenkins but not one that feels thematically consistent with the character set up by her previous film.

2017’s Wonder Woman hinges on a good-vs.-evil narrative that’s trite but palatable, whereas it doesn’t take much time for WW84‘s plotline to get more convoluted and knotty than a tangled-up Lasso of Truth. Without getting into too many plot details that may constitute spoilers, it’s enough to say that “wish fulfillment” is a story element that gets increasingly difficult to parse through when applied on a grander scale. Put frankly, the script, co-written by Jenkins along with Geoff Johns and David Callaham, is a mess of contradictory character motivations and muddled mythology peppered with lip-service 1980s references that don’t add up to much. I admittedly fell for a couple scenes that highlight developments of Wonder Woman’s powers, which recall the joy of discovery harkening back to Donner’s Superman films but feel lost among the crowded narrative.

This movie is yet another perfect example of DC’s Extended Universe being at odds against itself. The first five installments, which Zach Synder had a hand in one way or another, were often self-serious affairs that largely failed in their attempt to contrast the effortless effervescence of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Since 2018’s Aquaman, Warner Bros has tried to turn the tide and course-correct with more comedy-centric efforts like Shazam! and Birds of Prey but even those two films differ greatly when it comes to demographic and thematic goals. Now we have a Wonder Woman movie that bears little resemblance to its predecessor, which could work within a standalone franchise but does little in service of the larger superhero Universe. Wonder Woman 1984 is another mixed bag from a cinematic comic book collection that’s still in the midst of an identity crisis seven years in.

Score – 2.5/5

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #51 – Manksgiving Feast

I’m joined yet again by my hunker-down honey Aubree as we give Manks to a cornucopia of new streaming content. Seated at our table this year is Mank, (the new Netflix biopic from David Fincher), The Queen’s Gambit (the hit limited series streaming now on Netflix), Run (the thriller now available on Hulu), How To With John Wilson (the comedy docuseries whose full season is now on HBO Max) and Happiest Season (a romantic holiday movie streaming on Hulu). Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Deck the Gyllenhaals: Enemy

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

One of the most heartening transitions in Hollywood over the past ten years has been French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s ascension from indie darling to big-budget auteur. What’s even more promising is that the progression has led to very few, if any, compromises to his artistic integrity along the way. After breaking out with the Oscar-nominated Incendies in 2010, it didn’t take long for him to graduate to thoughtful mid-budget films like Sicario and Arrival and to eventually command Christopher Nolan-scale projects like Blade Runner 2049 and the forthcoming (sigh) Dune.

2013 was an important year for Villeneuve, as it saw the release of two films that would exponentially speed his career along. The better remembered of the pair is Prisoners, a morality-based thriller with a star-studded cast which included Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal that captured the attention of audiences worldwide to the tune of $120+ million. The lesser known of the couple, Enemy, is a decidedly smaller profile picture with a fraction of Prisoners‘ budget, even though it also stars Gyllenhaal in the lead role. Villeneuve has done plenty of great work the past decade and while Blade Runner 2049 is arguably his most accomplished movie, Enemy remains my personal favorite in his oeuvre.

The film is a loose adaptation of José Saramago’s novel O Homem Duplicado, Portuguese for “The Duplicated Man”, although it was retitled The Double when translated into English in 2004. Fittingly, Enemy had a doppelgänger of its own in 2013 by way of Richard Ayoade’s The Double, based on the unrelated Dostoyevsky novella of the same name. Since that title was already in use and presumably because the title The Two Jakes was already taken by some other movie, Villeneuve went with the title Enemy instead. It turns out to be the most apt title of all, as this is a movie chiefly concerned with a man at odds with himself, which is to say in conflict with his own desires and vices.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a reclusive history professor who rents a movie on the advice of a fellow teacher and spots an extra in a bellhop outfit who looks identical to him. Curious, Bell discovers the actor is Anthony Claire and after confirming his likeness based on two other film appearances, Adam becomes obsessed with his apparent twin and eventually makes contact with him. After the men come together and remark on the impossible similarities, they diverge and search for answers on their own. Adam reaches out to his girlfriend, played by Mélanie Laurent, for advice, and to his mother, played by Isabella Rossellini, to see if it’s possible that he could have an identical twin that he doesn’t know about. Meanwhile Anthony’s wife, played by Sarah Gadon, becomes aware of Adam’s existence and is bewildered when she meets him face-to-face.

As one may expect, the central mystery of Enemy does not lead to a straight-forward conclusion and reveals more layers of psychological complexity as the story moves along. Without giving too much away about the details of the plot, it’s enough to say that the film’s primary theme is infidelity and what it takes to finally and fully commit to someone. Much like David Lynch’s erotic thriller Mulholland Drive, this is ultimately a puzzlebox movie where characters from both films literally stand with a key in their hands during pivotal moments in their respective storylines. Similarly, it’s difficult to watch Villeneuve’s film just once and grasp the entirety of its symbolism.

The reactions of those who have seen Enemy tend to fixate on one aspect, which is the film’s deliberately challenging concluding scene. Each person I’ve seen the film with for the first time tends to cycle through the same feelings of shock then amusement then befuddlement, though the implications of its meaning have made it more terrifying for me than anything else. When discussing authoritarian rule in a lecture hall during the opening scene, Bell says of systemic suppression that “this is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history.” I won’t share my interpretation of the ending here but I would urge first-time viewers to consider this early line in the film when sussing out the ending.

Regardless of how one reacts to the last scene, there’s no denying the benefit of getting two Jake Gyllenhaals for the price of one. Like all of the best dual roles, Gyllenhaal establishes credibility early on by crafting two distinct personalities that allow us to tell the difference between what is essentially the same person. He also does plenty with body language to establish distinguishing features of the two men, plaguing the meek Adam with a perpetual slouch while dignifying the coolheaded Anthony with the posture of confidence. One of my favorite shots in the films crawls in on a helmeted Gyllenhaal as Anthony as he sits on his motorcycle with his legs perched out like a spider waiting for prey while the web-like streetcar wires of urban Toronto lie overhead.

As Dune is presumably finished at this point and just waiting to be released at a time when a pandemic isn’t mercilessly ravaging the populace, Villeneuve’s next project has already been announced. Collaborating with Gyllenhaal once again, both as actor-director and co-executive producers, Villeneuve will head up The Son as a limited series for HBO. Based on a bestselling novel by Jo Nesbo, the show would seem to focus on an escaped convict who can’t remember his past and finds himself on the run while dealing with opioid addiction. It would seem that Jake and Denis teaming up is a pattern that repeats itself and I personally hope for a fruitful continuation of their reign.

Soul

For Pixar, past success has frequently stemmed from asking simple questions and providing answers in the most creative and entertaining ways imaginable. What if toys moved and talked when you weren’t in the room? What if the monsters in your closet were not only real but scaring you was their day job? What if a rat was the head chef of a five-star restaurant? Almost immediately, their abundantly ambitious and utterly absorbing new film Soul eschews these modest jumping-off points and tackles biggies like “why are we the way that we are?” and “what is the meaning of life?” Though the scope of this story and the avenues that it explores are deeper than some of the more elementary entries in the Pixar canon, it’s ultimately as fun and life-affirming as any entertainment you’re likely to find this year.

We meet beleaguered jazz pianist Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) as he toils at his day gig, struggling to imprint his passion for music to a hapless bunch of middle school band students. A beacon of light shines as he gets a call from a former student (Questlove) to come sit in on a gig with sax diva Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). While excitedly running home through bustling streets of New York City, he falls down a manhole and we follow the blue-blobbed personification of his soul as it makes its way to The Great Beyond. Unwilling to accept his untimely fate, Joe breaks through to The Great Before, a world of pre-existence where those not-yet born develop their personalities before dropping down to Earth. It’s here that Joe gets paired with 22 (Tina Fey), a stubborn soul who refuses to acquire the necessary traits to move onto the next state of being.

Director Pete Docter, the mind behind other Pixar classics like Up and Inside Out, navigates the messy entanglements of the spiritual world and the existential quandaries that it presents with deftness of a master storyteller. He’s aided greatly by a top-tier screenplay — a joint work between Docter and screenwriters Mike Jones and Kemp Powers– which skillfully sets up the terms of The Great Before and conditions by which souls are to attain their idiosyncrasies. This sets up a running joke that is my favorite of any movie I’ve seen this year, in which the ornery 22 exasperates all manner of historical figures from Muhammad Ali to Carl Jung during their efforts to pass along worthwhile attributes.

Soul finds Pixar expanding their artistic palette even further than before, incorporating Picasso-like abstractionism and a storybook aesthetic seemingly inspired by the short films of Don Hertzfeldt. Docter and company retain Pixar’s trademark photorealistic qualities during the Earthbound parts of the story, specifically impressive when it captures the characters playing their instruments with musical precision. Like the piano-playing protagonist Sebastian in La La Land, Joe sees playing jazz as his life force and is bullheaded in his persistence to pursue it. But ultimately, Soul ends on a much different note than Damien Chazelle’s almost-Best Picture winner, presenting a moral as powerful and vital as anything that Pixar has offered up to this point.

The film’s vibrant and technically proficient jazz compositions come courtesy of Louisiana-based pianist Jon Batiste, who has also served as musical director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for the past five years. Collaborating on their second music score of 2020 after the Netflix dud Mank, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contribute an electronic-based arrangement that serves as the intellectual counterpart to Batiste’s more heartfelt pieces. Pixar’s most accomplished and satisfying work in over a decade, Soul beautifully marries the head and heart in a way that’s genuinely therapeutic in a year as challenging as this one.

Score – 5/5

Also coming to streaming over the next two weeks:
Debuting on Netflix December 18th is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an adaptation of the August Wilson play starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman about the titular blues singer and one of her explosive recording sessions in 1920s Chicago.
Available to stream in its entirety on Amazon Prime starting December 18th is Small Axe, a five film anthology series from 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen which covers the lives of West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s.
Coming to HBO Max on Christmas Day is Wonder Woman 1984, the blockbuster superhero sequel starring Gal Gadot and Kristen Wiig that pits the titular heroine against a media businessman and a friend-turned-nemesis.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Wolfwalkers

Much like the Portland-based stop-motion outfit Laika, the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has been building a strong resume over the past decade, even if their work has underwhelmed when it comes to box office numbers. Though all three of their films to this point have been nominated for Oscars in the Best Animated Feature category, they have yet to take home the trophy but this year may present them with their best opportunity yet. Their latest feature, the stunningly gorgeous and altogether magical Wolfwalkers, follows a similar narrative path to hits like How to Train Your Dragon and Pixar’s Brave but distinguishes itself with dazzling 2D animation. It has the kind of crossover appeal that could finally put Cartoon Saloon on the map for American audiences.

Set in 17th century Ireland, the story concerns the tenacious hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) and his teenage daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) as they seek to disband wolf packs that threaten their walled-in village. While venturing outside the city’s fortress one day, Robyn and her pet hawk Merlyn meet Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who belongs to a clan of “wolfwalkers”: magical half-humans who have the ability to take the form of wolves as they sleep overnight. We learn that Mebh is searching for her mother, who transformed into her animal form but hasn’t been able to reunite with her human body. As the barbarous “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) seems to be Mebh’s mothers’s most likely captor, Robyn and Bill seek to set her free while changing the town’s attitude towards the forbearing creatures that lie outside their borders.

Incorporating aspects of both Celtic folklore and modern Japanese animation, Wolfwalkers celebrates the talented hands that crafted it within every beautifully-composed and detail-laden frame. While more recent animated films have tended to strive for precision and photorealism, Cartoon Saloon’s output recalls watercolor paintings that are intended to evoke emotion over exactness. Co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart set most of their story in an autumnal forest landscape where no two leaves seem to have the same exact color. The film’s jaw-dropping art design is a perfect fit for the magical and mystical qualities of the alluring tale at its center but also leaves room for some witty visual humor, as when a group of sheep plop out of an enclosure in one predefined cube.

Another manner in which Wolfwalkers separates itself from the pack of family-oriented animated films is in its breathtaking use and balance of light and shadow in each exquisite shot. As characters are exposed to more sunlight when it pokes through the tree cover of the woods, their translucent colors begin to softly fade and subtly remind one that this otherworldly landscape has long existed in darkness. The light scatters differently in this mystical forest, casting contours that don’t behave in the way that we expect and give us a new lens with which to gaze upon this captivating and surprising world. The technological improvements in computer-generated animation over the past 25 years have allowed the artform to improve by leaps and bounds but the goal of the artistry behind this film isn’t merely to impress but to inspire.

As in Laika’s most recent films Kubo and the Two Strings and Missing Link, Wolfwalkers is beyond impressive when it comes to its artistic prowess but comes up a bit short when it comes to narrative invention. Kids likely won’t mind and may even feel more at home with a more conventional story but it will be impossible for parents not to be able to recognize tropes from other family-friendly adventures. While Pixar has all the money in the world to throw at top-tier animation and some have accused them of thematic repetition, their ability to craft story beats of unparalleled poignancy is something that independent animation studios still have yet to emulate. Nevertheless, Wolfwalkers is Cartoon Saloon’s strongest effort yet and will hopefully enrapture enough audiences at home with its enchanting and vibrant palette.

Score – 3.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is The Prom, a Broadway-adapted musical comedy starring Meryl Streep and James Corden about a troupe of theater stars who converge onto a small Indiana town in support of a high school girl who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom.
Available on HBO Max is Let Them All Talk, a Steven Soderbergh-directed dramedy starring Meryl Streep and Lucas Hedges about an author who goes on a trip with her friends and nephew to find fun and come to terms with her past.
Debuting on Disney+ is Safety, a sports biopic starring Jay Reeves and Corinne Foxx about a Clemson University freshman football player who secretly raised his younger brother on campus.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Mank

When 26-year-old Orson Welles developed his debut film Citizen Kane in 1941, he famously demanded complete creative control over the project and even though it was extremely uncommon for a first-time director, RKO Pictures wisely heeded his wishes. Almost 80 years later, director David Fincher currently finds himself in a seemingly similar situation of artistic authority with Netflix. Starting out early as an executive producer on their first hit series House of Cards and continuing as a showrunner for the similarly successful Mindhunter, he’s built up enough goodwill with the streaming behemoth to bring a long-gestating biopic to life. It’s difficult to associate the term “passion project” with a director as notoriously analytical and meticulous as Fincher, but whatever soft spot he had for his latest film Mank would have gone better untouched.

It’s 1940 and revered screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is at something of a low point. After sustaining a broken leg from a car accident, he’s bedridden and perpetually at the bottom of a bottle when wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) reaches out for help with a new project. Given a 60 day deadline, “Mank” dictates his script one word at a time to his secretary Rita (Lily Collins) as she types out what would become the Oscar-winning screenplay for Citizen Kane. We flip back and forth through time as we see Mank’s apparent influences on his Shakespearean story, including his relationship with powerful magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s gregarious mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

Scripted by David Fincher’s late father Jack before his passing in 2003, Mank is undoubtedly well-researched both in regards to Kane‘s towering mythology and to the culture of post-Depression show business. Packed with snappy dialogue from the primary players that cultivated Kane and niche references to the economic and political climate of 1930s California, the exhaustive script is likely on the money when it comes to historical accuracy. But just because it’s right doesn’t mean it’s compelling and even though the majority of the characters are fantastically witty, their journeys and motivations are thoroughly uninteresting. Unless you’re up on your intermediate knowledge of early Hollywood, you may have a hard time following when and where you are in the story but you’ll have a harder time caring either way.

Fincher, who somehow made computer hacking exciting in his Kane-inspired The Social Network, can’t do the same for on-screen script writing. Shot digitally in black-and-white by DP Erik Messerschmidt and scored by Bernard Herrmann-inspired composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Mank aptly apes the inimitable style of its predecessor. Sporting a runtime 12 minutes longer than the film that inspired it, the wearisome biopic also recalls Kane‘s then-revolutionary labyrinthine plot structure by way of superimposed screenplay excerpts that shift the chronological gears more fitfully than a crummy Series 60 Cadillac. Fincher seeks to make clear the inextricable link between his film and Kane but instead gets closer to the unruly and listless nature of another Welles film: The Other Side of the Wind, which was coincidentally revived by Netflix in 2018 after decades of developmental disrepair.

Much like the film in which he’s starring, Oldman is straining hard for Oscar adoration but his performance is stiflingly rote for an actor of his range and caliber. In the film’s inevitable string of award nominations, I fear the Academy will overlook the work of Tom Pelphrey, who was excellent as Ben in the most recent season of Netflix’s Ozark and marks Mank’s brother Joseph as the film’s lone engaging character. The movie’s most engrossing scene, a confrontation between the two brothers about the dangers of releasing the potentially controversial script, comes much too late in the story to set things right. Perhaps the first boring movie that Fincher has ever made, Mank is a frenzied footnote-laden film which aspires to be a Peloton workout for cinephiles but ultimately comes across as a trivial exercise in self-importance.

Score – 2/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on Amazon Prime is Sound of Metal, a music-based drama starring Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke about a heavy-metal drummer whose life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
Coming to premium on demand is Ammonite, a period romance starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan about a burgeoning relationship between an acclaimed but overlooked palaeontologist and a young tourist.
Also available to rent digitally is Black Bear, a dramedy starring Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott about a filmmaker at a creative impasse who seeks solace from her tumultuous past at a rural retreat, only to find that the woods summon her inner demons.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My thoughts on the movies