Category Archives: Reel Views

Reel Views

First Cow

In Kelly Reichardt’s gorgeous and stirring new Western First Cow, we learn nearly everything we need to know about the main character before he utters his first words. Set in 1820s Oregon during the frontier days, the film introduces us to Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) as he carefully scavenges for berries and mushrooms to feed his boisterous band of virile fur trappers. On his search, he happens upon a lizard writhing on its back and gently flips it back on its feet, a small gesture of grace that clearly sets him apart from his comparatively more gruff comrades. In an uncivilized land, even small acts of civility can go a long way.

During another outing in the woods, he encounters an on-the-run Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee) and true to his character, Cookie offers to cook for him. Together, they find both friendship and a business opportunity, realized when King-Lu partakes in one of Cookie’s delicious “oily cakes” (think an old West version of a fried donut) and encourages him to set up a shop for them. It doesn’t take long for them to sell rapidly (like hotcakes, as the expression goes) and catch the tastebuds of the aristocrat Chief Factor (Toby Jones), whose wealth affords him the luxury of having the first cow in the Oregon territory. Little does Factor know, Cookie and King-Lu are actually using milk stolen from his prized cow to make their fast-selling confection.

Teaming up with frequent screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt has crafted yet another naturalistic and patiently-paced picture that solidifies her as a powerhouse of independent cinema. To watch one of her films is to inherit a new mindset of how movies can move within us and inspire us to see the world in a brand new way. As with almost all of her other work, Reichardt also serves as the editor and establishes a measured tempo from the outset. The present-day prologue opens with a tugboat moving slowly from one side of the 4:3 frame to the other, cutting just before the vessel entirely clears the shot. First Cow is filled with small choices like this that may seem insignificant but bear the mark of a meticulous artist with breathtaking control of her craft.

Reichardt’s vision is aided greatly by two fantastic lead performances by Magaro and Lee, whose on-screen chemistry is the heart and soul of the film. Magaro’s work as the soft-spoken Cookie reveals the vulnerability and open-heartedness of a gentle spirit who wants to make the world a better place, even if it’s just in small ways. The scenes in which Cookie makes small talk with the cow as he’s milking her are filled with a tenderness and reverence for animal life that I found to be incredibly moving. Lee brings a combination of entrepreneurial gumption and fugitive’s vigilance to his portrayal of the wise and slyly funny King-Lu.

Despite its relatively sparse narrative spread out over a 2-hour runtime, Reichardt packs the film with rich symbolism and subtext about American enterprise and the capitalistic forces that are constantly at play. A river-set scene around the film’s midpoint, during which Cookie and King-Lu debate on what it takes to get ahead in this still-developing land, lends fascinating insight into the decision-making process behind even the most modest of start-ups. First Cow is a delicate and quietly observed work from a filmmaker who continues to brilliantly blaze her own trail in the wild frontier of modern moviemaking.

Score – 4/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Available on demand is The Rental, a horror film starring Dan Stevens and Alison Brie about two couples who rent a vacation home and begin to suspect the owner of the home is spying on them.
Available on Netflix is The Kissing Booth 2, a teen romantic comedy starring Joey King and Joel Courtney about a high school senior who juggles a long-distance relationship with a new friendship with a classmate.
Available on Amazon Prime is Radioactive, a biopic starring Rosamund Pike and Anya Taylor-Joy about Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie and her discovery of the elements radium and polonium.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Greyhound

Based on the 1955 C. S. Forester novel The Good Shepherd, Greyhound stars Tom Hanks as Commander Ernest Krause, a steely World War II Navy captain leading up an Allied convoy through the treacherous “Black Pit” of the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounded on all sides by Nazi U-boats, Krause and the men aboard the USS Keeling are threatened day and night by enemy ships outside of their line of sight. We see the Battle of the Atlantic through the eyes of the intrepid US soldiers as they fend off the German fleets and courageously make their way to the ports of Liverpool.

This is hardly Hanks’ first involvement in a WWII project. As the lead in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and executive producer for HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, he’s been behind some of the best depictions of the War on both the big and small screen. It’s strange, then, that he would come to the well once more for a film that’s so under the pedigree of his previous work. Hanks not only stars in the film but also translated Forester’s book into a screenplay that reads more like an instruction manual for how to steer a boat rather than a script for a feature film.

Ultimately, it’s Greyhound‘s strict adherence to accurate wartime jargon and seaman’s parlance that sinks it. Certainly realism and authenticity are qualities worth aspiring to but not at the expense of fleshed-out characters and compelling dialogue. Often times, it feels like Hanks threw naval buzzwords like “bearing”, “rudder” and “starboard” into a bingo cage, spun it around and penned the selections. Attempts at character development, like a miscalculated flashback to Krause’s love interest played by Elisabeth Shue, fall well short of what we need to emotionally invest in the largely nameless members of the crew. While the film’s impressive action sequences are all well-shot and tightly edited, they could just as easily appear in any other seabound war picture.

The direction by Aaron Schneider is so workmanlike, it makes Ron Howard seem quirky by comparison. Take away the opening and closing credit sequences and the film barely crosses the 80 minute mark. Each extended siege is solemnly bookended with fadeouts to title cards with the times and locations of the major portions of the mission. Even though Schneider has the ability to show us at least some of the enemy’s perspective, he locks his focus on the members of the Greyhound as the supposedly tense scenes of conflict boil down to Krause barking out commands and underlings scribbling down coordinates. Composer Blake Neely tries to juice things up with a predictably bombastic score but the film works best in the quieter moments, especially when one of the Nazi U-boat captains known as Grey Wolf taunts the Greyhound crew with antagonistic rhetoric via radio.

It’s not difficult to see what would draw Hanks to this role, as it’s squarely within his well-defined wheelhouse of All-American heroes like Captain Phillips and Captain Sully. While arguably no one does it better than he does, I’d like to see Hanks step a bit outside of his comfort zone more often at this stage in his career. Perhaps someone could take a crack at writing a believable antagonist role for arguably the most likable actor in Hollywood history. Even with a sturdy performance at the helm, Hanks’ star power alone isn’t enough to keep Greyhound afloat.

Score – 2/5

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Palm Springs

As anyone who’s gone through months of quarantine (basically all of us, at this point) will tell you, it has a way of distorting one’s perception of time. With the removal of structured tasks like work and social outings, the “Blursday” phenomenon can make us feel that we’re living the same day over and over again with no end in sight. Given that so many of us can now relate to this purgatorial condition, it perhaps couldn’t be a better time for a time loop comedy like Palm Springs to come along and help us make sense of and maybe even make light of our “quarantine blues”. When Neon and Hulu struck a $17.5 million deal for the film at Sundance earlier this year, there’s no way they could have realized how apropos it would ultimately be upon its release.

Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, a seemingly carefree slacker whose loud Hawaiian shirt shouts “I don’t care” but disaffected disposition points to something a bit darker. “Today, yesterday, tomorrow — it’s all the same,” he murmurs blithely from a pizza-shaped pool float the morning of a Palm Springs wedding. It turns out, his words are more literal than it sounds, as Nyles has actually relived this exact day more times than he can remember. The twist on the Groundhog Day conceit comes in the form of maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who becomes stuck in the perpetual time loop with Nyles after an unforeseen incident binds their fates. With nothing but time on their hands, the two work together to absolve themselves from their temporal dilemma.

Director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara know they’re in familiar territory here but one of the many joys of watching Palm Springs is seeing how fresh a perspective the pair can graft onto this formula. By making a couple go through the broken record routine as opposed to one person alone, the film investigates the prospects of a romantic relationship in a time warp that continually resets. The story serves as a multi-faceted metaphor for monogamy, making literal the sentiment that two people can live forever in their own shared reality apart from the rest of the clueless world. In this way, the film reminded me often of all-time great Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the way it explores how time interacts with romance in unexpectedly complicated ways.

While the performances in Palm Springs might not quite be up to the caliber of Carrey’s and Winslet’s in Spotless Mind, they’re not as far off as one may anticipate. Samberg starts off in familiar goofball territory but it doesn’t take long before he adds layers of anxiety and grief to really sell the experience of a man caught up in his distressing scenario. Milioti is even better as a sardonic match for Samberg’s wise-cracking Nyles as she slowly unpacks the stages of existential dread in the funniest way possible. Elsewhere, the always fantastic J.K. Simmons turns in another excellent supporting performance as a fellow wedding guest who adds even more wisdom and emotional intelligence to an uncommonly perceptive movie.

“Uncommonly perceptive” is not a descriptor I would have necessarily expected to apply to a product of The Lonely Island, the comedy trio Samberg created with two fellow SNL alums Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. The minds behind frivolous cult comedies like Hot Rod and MacGruber have seemingly matured enough to craft something this simultaneously thoughtful and hilarious. If you’re familiar with the trio’s brand of humor and come into the film with the understanding of how much pranking and mischief two people could get up to in this sci-fi synopsis, then you may have a picture of just how entertaining the film ultimately becomes. Palm Springs is a melancholy and mordantly funny meditation on what it means to grow together with someone in a world that seems doomed to repeat its past failures.

Score – 4.5/5

Also streaming this weekend:
Available on Apple+ is Greyhound, a war movie starring Tom Hanks and Stephen Graham about an inexperienced U.S. Navy captain whose Allied convoy is being pursued by a fleet of Nazi U-boats.
Available on demand is First Cow, an indie drama from writer/director Kelly Reichardt starring John Magaro and Toby Jones about a cook who travels with fur trappers to 19th century Oregon.
Available on Netflix is The Old Guard, a superhero film starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne about a group of centuries-old immortal mercenaries who are suddenly exposed and must fight to keep their identity a secret.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Even though Will Ferrell is a household name by this point, you’d have to go back to 2010’s The Other Guys to find a Ferrell-starring comedy that resonated with both audiences and critics. The 2010s have not been especially kind when it comes to lead roles for the oafish SNL alum, littered with dreck from Get Hard to Holmes & Watson with only minor gems like The House that got buried under terrible box office figures. His latest offering, Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, looks to replicate the joyous goofiness of Aughts underdog comedies like Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory and with the help of a strong supporting cast, it barely gets there.

Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, a native to a small Icelandic town who has dreamed of winning the Eurovision contest ever since he was a boy, dancing frantically along to ABBA performing “Waterloo” in front of his TV. His comrade in musical stardom is Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), Lars’ childhood friend who makes up the other half of their fledgling pop duo Fire Saga. Their dreams seem to come into focus when their audition tape is randomly selected by Iceland’s Eurovision committee and they’re whisked away to Scotland to participate in the international music competition. Along the way, they run into challengers like the fiery Russia representative Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) and the seductive Greek singer Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut).

Using even rudimentary criteria, I wouldn’t necessarily classify Eurovision Song Contest as a particularly “good movie”. It’s at least a half-an-hour too long, there are more than a few punchlines that don’t work at all and the overall story arc is about as predictable as can be. Having said that, I chuckled consistently at its go-for-broke spirit and naïve playfulness and in these increasingly dispiriting times, that certainly must count for something. Ferrell is reprising his man-child schtick to limited effect, albeit with a silly accent thrown in for good measure, but McAdams proves after her outstanding turn in Game Night that she’s able to find just the right notes in a broad comedy like this.

Another standout among the supporting players is Stevens, who has been quite bad in recent films like Beauty and the Beast and The Call of the Wild but rebounds here nicely with haughty role clearly modeled after George Michael. A snippy conversation about gender fluidity that he has with McAdams’ character deep into the 2 plus hour runtime scores the biggest laughs in the entire film. It’s a shame that director David Dobkin couldn’t find more for Pierce Brosnan to do as Lars’ father, other than looking handsome and mortified as he watches his son fail on live TV. Given Brosnan’s role in the Mamma Mia! films, I’m shocked that they couldn’t at least manage a more overt ABBA connection for laughs.

While the songs aren’t as memorable as those from other musical comedies like Walk Hard or Music And Lyrics, the Fire Saga tracks “Husavik” and “Double Trouble” are sufficiently catchy. The funniest music moment comes courtesy of Lemtov’s uproarious tune “Lion of Love”, which Stevens performs with appropriately garish aplomb. Elsewhere, the film surprisingly does a decent job at incorporating Icelandic culture. The country’s picturesque scenery is highlighted on numerous occasions and if you think this movie doesn’t offer several Sigur Rós music cues at climactic moments, you have another thing coming. As innocuous distractions go, you could certainly do worse than Eurovision Song Contest.

Score – 3/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Available on Disney+ is Hamilton, a live Broadway recording of the smash hit musical starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. about the life of founder father and first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
Available on demand is The Outpost, a war drama starring Scott Eastwood and Orlando Bloom about a small team of U.S. soldiers as they battle against hundreds of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Available on Netflix is Desperados, a comedy starring Anna Camp and Nasim Pedrad about a young woman who rushes to Mexico with her friends to try and delete a scathing email she sent to her new boyfriend.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Irresistible

When Jon Stewart closed out his 16-year run as the host of The Daily Show in 2015, his departure sparked many questions about what he would do next in his career. Outside of his admirable advocacy and activism on behalf of 9/11 first responders, Stewart has largely spent the past 5 years staying out of the limelight entirely, opting for the quieter life on his secluded New Jersey farm. Alas, the satirist extraordinaire finally emerges as the director and sole credited writer of Irresistible, a toothless and tired political comedy which lacks the deft hand and finger-on-the-pulse urgency that Stewart displayed on each episode of his 22 Emmy award-winning show.

Daily Show alum Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer, a political strategist for the DNC who is shell-shocked by the results of the 2016 presidential election. Desperately looking for a rebound for the Democratic party, he finds a town hall video of retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) making an impassioned plea for the undocumented workers of his small town of Deerlaken, WI. Zimmer sees in Hastings an opportunity to restore the recently-decimated Blue Wall and upon meeting him, he convinces Hastings to run for mayor in a historically Republican-run city. Zimmer’s efforts to prop up a burgeoning Democrat in the Heartland catches the attention of RNC consultant Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) and with the power of Super PACs and wealthy donors behind both candidates, the mayoral race soon becomes headline news.

The overall form of Irresistible is nothing we haven’t seen before: a fish out of water story about a city slicker (a DC insider, in this case) who is forced to mingle with “normal folk” and in doing so, finds out he’s more out of touch than he realized. Where Stewart looks to distinguish his tale is in its lambasting of our broken political system and while he does land a few zingers that cut to the core of the dysfunction, so much of the humor is either too dated or too broad to resonate. Stewart made a name for himself sharply deriding the news media for their bias towards conflict and sensationalism, so it’s a bit of a letdown when his most cutting criticism on the subject this time around involves 12 talking heads bickering at each other simultaneously.

When he does take aim at the folly of the modern electoral process from the tedium of focus groups to the influence of big data, Stewart simply doesn’t offer as much fresh insight as he thinks he does. But the biggest issues with Irresistible don’t reveal themselves until the miserably contrived third act, where the lynchpin argument for campaign finance reform is clumsily unpacked upon the already ridiculously far-fetched plot. Even more insulting are the unfunny tacked-on fake-out credits in the vein of 2018’s Vice and then a mid-credit interview in which Stewart literally grills former FEC chairman Trevor Potter about the plausibility of the events that he just laid out before his audience.

Despite the self-aggrandizement and sermonizing, it would be a lie to say that the film doesn’t score some laughs despite itself. In the arena of more broad humor, Carell and Byrne fare much better with their playfully profane banter as they gleefully cross party lines. Perhaps the funniest lines come at the end of the fake campaign ads, which are paid for by faux special interest groups like Powerful Progressives For Strength and Wisconsinites For Religiously Based Compassionate Empathy. Stewart is a fine satirist, an underrated interviewer and an effective activist but based on Irresistible, he has a way to go as a filmmaker.

Score – 2/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Available on Netflix is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a comedy starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams about a pair of Icelandic singers who compete on behalf of their country in the titular music competition.
Available on Amazon Prime is My Spy, an action comedy starring Dave Bautista and Chloe Coleman about a CIA agent who finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl of a family that he and his tech support is surveilling undercover.
Available on demand is Run with the Hunted, a crime drama starring Sam Quartin and Ron Perlman about a woman who becomes determined to track down the boy who saved her life as a child and then disappeared.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Da 5 Bloods

More than a visionary director or bold storyteller, I think of Spike Lee as a teacher. Not the boring high school instructor who drones on with the same prepared lectures year after year but the passionate educator who puts a fresh perspective on commonly accepted material. Each film of Lee’s is a re-education in American history and his new Netflix Joint Da 5 Bloods is no exception. This time, Lee takes aim at the Vietnam War and the inequalities leveled against the black community at a time when the civil rights movement suffered a huge setback in the loss of its defining leader, Martin Luther King Jr. But this isn’t just Lee’s commentary on the War; it’s a full-on war movie with thrilling action sequences and high entertainment value all around.

At the outset, in present day, we meet a group of Vietnam veterans who reunite in the country that made them brothers in arms. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) have returned, at least seemingly, to find the grave of their fallen captain Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). However, we learn through flashback that the squad recovered a case of gold bars in the cabin of a downed plane and buried the treasure throughout the hillside with the intention of digging it up someday. Aiding them in their decades-long pact are French exporters Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) and Desroche (Jean Reno), who offer to transport their vast fortune out of the country for a cut of the sum.

As a film historian, Lee can’t help but visually reference other well-known Vietnam War pictures from Apocalypse Now to Platoon, although his most clear influence is John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose most famous quote is cleverly reappropriated. Like that 1948 classic, the story is less about the titular prize and more about the collection of troubled personalities that pursue it. Each of the Bloods certainly have their issues but “troubled” doesn’t quite begin to cover Paul, a cantankerous and paranoid force of nature whose emotional wartime trauma has manifested into PTSD and an estrangement from his son David (Jonathan Majors).

Lindo has played smaller on-screen roles in the past (I’m embarrassed to say his work in Gone In 60 Seconds was previously my main point of reference for him) but he’s never been better than he is here. As the de-facto “leader” of the Bloods, he has a haunted acrimony to his demeanor that is at once repellent yet transfixing. His third-act monologues, delivered direct to camera with the fervor and ferocity of Colonel Kurtz, recall the “mirror” speech given by Edward Norton in Spike Lee’s post-9/11 opus 25th Hour. He delivers a searing and multi-faceted performance that is undoubtedly one of the year’s best.

Lee throws plenty at his audience during the staunch 155 minute runtime and while not every single concept or idea works entirely, there are more than enough successes to score a winning ratio. Among his better stylistic impulses is the inclusion of numerous Marvin Gaye tracks from dance hit “Got To Give It Up” to a stunning acapella rendition of “What’s Going On” that simply gave me goosebumps in its implementation. On a more surface level, the flashback firefights and present-day conflicts are both shot and edited with just the right amount of visual flourish for maximum impact. Urgent and unapologetic, Da 5 Bloods is another impressive statement from one of our most vital filmmakers.

Score – 4/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on demand is You Should Have Left, a psychological horror film starring Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried about a screenwriter who travels with his family to a remote cabin to pen his next script, only to suffer a severe case of writer’s block.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is 7500, an action thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt about a beleaguered airline pilot whose flight from Berlin to Paris is hijacked by a group of terrorists.
Available on Netflix is Wasp Network, a true story starring Penélope Cruz and Ana de Armas about five Cuban political prisoners who had been imprisoned by the United States since the late 1990s on charges of espionage and murder.

Rewritten by permission of Whatzup

The King of Staten Island

If anyone knows arrested development, it’s Judd Apatow. As seen in comedy hits like Knocked Up and Trainwreck, he seems to have a soft spot for protagonists whose immaturity prohibits them from making that pesky transition into adulthood. In fact, it wouldn’t completely surprise me if his next project was actually called Adulting. Apatow also has a knack for taking an up-and-coming comedian’s persona and crafting a star-making vehicle around it, as he did with Seth Rogen in Knocked Up and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. Pair these predilections and you have The King of Staten Island, Apatow’s latest heartfelt dramedy which is centered around the life of SNL bad boy Pete Davidson.

Davidson plays Scott, a disaffected twentysomething who spends his days in a drugged-out haze playing video games with his equally aimless friends in his mom Margie’s (Marisa Tomei) basement. Even though his world is moving in slow motion, things are changing around him quicker than he’d like. His sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is moving out to go to college, his secret girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) wants to go public with their relationship and Margie has found a new suitor in Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter with two kids of his own. All of these forces conspire to compel Scott to address the issues that have kept him stuck for so long and to move into a more productive phase of his life.

Given their vast similarities, it’s difficult to tell exactly where Pete ends and Scott begins. They’re both New Yorkers with a dark sense of humor and a fondness for detailed tattoos. Davidson’s father (whose name, fittingly, was Scott) was a first-responder who passed away as a result of the 9/11 attacks, while Staten Island‘s Scott also lost his father in a firefighting accident. Both Pete and Scott also suffer from various physical and mental maladies from Crohn’s disease to borderline personality disorder, the latter of which led Pete to post several disturbing Instagram posts that led high-profile figures like his ex-fiancé Ariana Grande to express concern for his well-being.

The core issue with The King of Staten Island is that Apatow doesn’t expound on Pete’s troubled persona in a particularly meaningful or original manner. Throughout its bloated 135-minute runtime, the film insists that there’s more to Scott and his story than meets the eye but doesn’t stray far from the feel-good movie formula in doing so. The best stretches of the film recall 2009’s Funny People and how Apatow was able to recontextualize the career of veteran comedian Adam Sandler, who Davidson has actually impersonated multiple times on SNL. The trouble is that Davidson isn’t nearly as well known now as Sandler was then and unless you’re already acclimated to Davidson’s brand of slacker humor, it’s more likely that you’ll be put off by his antics as opposed to being drawn in by them.

Still, there is something potentially compelling about Davidson from a dramatic standpoint and he does have moments of raw vulnerability that could led to a more straight-laced acting career. In Sandler’s film debut Billy Madison, Roger Ebert said of Sandler that he’s “not an attractive screen presence” before revising his opinion when he went on to more successful serious roles down the road. Perhaps Davidson will eventually find his own Punch Drunk Love or Uncut Gems but in the meantime, indulgent pap like The King of Staten Island won’t do him many favors.

Score – 2.5/5

Also streaming this weekend:
Available on Netflix is Da 5 Bloods, the new Spike Lee joint starring Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors about four African-American veterans who return to Vietnam to search for buried treasure and the remains of their fallen squad leader.
Available on Disney+ is Artemis Fowl, an adaptation of the popular young adult novel starring Ferdia Shaw and Josh Gad about a pre-teen genius who uses magical forces to search for his missing father.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Shirley

Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, the piercing new biopic Shirley stars Elisabeth Moss in the titular role as iconoclast 1950s author Shirley Jackson. Holed up with her viciously judgmental and ostensibly supportive professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), Jackson is plagued with anxiety and agoraphobia while attempting to complete her next piece of visionary horror fiction. Her tenuous creative process is interrupted when Stanley’s student Fred (Logan Lerman) and his new wife Rose (Odessa Young) enter their lives and their home to stay for the summer. Cohabitation tensions emerge between the middle-aged intellectuals and the young newlyweds as the couples verbally spar amid the backdrop of an oppressively sweltering summer heat.

Following up her audacious coming-of-age drama Madeline’s Madeline, director Josephine Decker tightens up her experimental approach a bit to fit this comparatively more straight-forward narrative. But just because she’s working within a well-worn genre doesn’t mean she isn’t able to find plenty of spots to intersperse her expressive style and unique vision. Along with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Decker creates a claustrophobic and clammy atmosphere where the walls and ceilings audibly hiss with decay both day and night. At times, Grøvlen’s woozy camera seems to amble from one room to the next in order to capture interactions ranging from terse conversations to drunken attempts at flirtation.

Given its focus on two intergenerational couples intermingling while under one roof, the bones of this prickly psychodrama closely resemble those of the classic play/film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Adapting the fictional novel Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell, screenwriter Sarah Gubbins peppers her script with dyspeptic dialogue that may turn audiences off but nevertheless feels true to Jackson’s essence. While attending a drab party, Jackson sarcastically quips “what a lovely insouciant tone you have!” to a woman she suspects is having an affair with her husband. Recalling her work on the Alex Ross Perry collaborations Queen of Earth and last year’s Her Smell, Moss proves that no actress can inject verbal barbs with quite as much venom as she can.

However, Moss’ work here is much more than an assemblage of nasty exchanges. As Jackson, Moss gives a fierce and full-bodied performance that recalls Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn in the literary biopic Capote. She’s introduced to us at the center of a semi-circle of eager fans, with a cigarette in one hand and scotch in the other, and it’s made clear that Jackson’s work has a way of casting a dark spell on all who take it in — Rose even says Jackson’s The Lottery made her feel “thrillingly horrible.” Moss sells the writer’s insecurities and idiosyncrasies perfectly, right up to the transcendent final scene that beautifully summarizes the creative process.

Moss will likely get most of the accolades from an acting perspective but I was just as taken with Odessa Young’s work as a stifled wild spirit waiting to be unleashed. As the film progresses, Rose starts to take on Shirley’s cadence and persona and the performances of Moss and Young begin to mirror each other in fascinating ways. Young’s measured transition from straight-laced housewife to liberated freethinker is truly mesmerizing to watch and one of the film’s biggest delights. A biopic about a shut-in during a humid summer may not be ideal escapist entertainment given the current world circumstances but nevertheless, Shirley is a delightfully off-kilter portrait of a similarly anomalous author.

Score – 3.5/5

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Hunt

Few films receive a marketing bump quite as staggering as the one behind The Hunt. Originally scheduled for release last October, with its controversial trailer premiering two months prior, the movie was shelved indefinitely amid the social unrest following a pair of mass shootings. The politically-charged promotional footage, which depicted liberals hunting conservatives for sport, predictably drew the ire of many given the cultural climate. Several news cycles later, Universal dropped a new trailer, touting their release as “the most talked about movie of the year that no one’s actually seen.” Given the current coronavirus scare, it’s ironic that the movie will likely remain unseen by many for reasons entirely removed from its political provocations.

After a text thread between unseen friends depicts them discussing a “hunt” for “deplorables”, we meet a group of 12 strangers who wake up in the middle of the woods a-la The Hunger Games. One brave soul opens up a large crate in the middle of the field, which houses a tiny clothed pig and an impressive array of weaponry. After they each grab their firearm of choice, the group is immediately fired upon by unknown assailants and the hunt appears to be on. A series of spectacularly bloody deaths occur and after some time is spent with some of the other survivors, the story settles upon Crystal (Betty Gilpin), the most fearless of the bunch who is determined to beat the hunters at their own game.

A relentlessly cheeky take on The Most Dangerous Game that gleefully skewers both sides of the political spectrum, The Hunt has enough satirical surprises up its sleeve to make its predictable premise palatable. Sure, personifying the current cultural war as a literal bloodthirsty battle royale between liberals and conservatives is not the most subtle of artistic choices but director Craig Zobel knows this. Instead, he saves a more precise aim when he goes for specific targets ranging from conspiratorial podcasters who are primed to out crisis actors to NPR addicts who blanch at the sight of cultural appropriation. Screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof revel in being an equal opportunity offenders, although it could be argued that the holier-than-thou liberal captors get put on blast even more than their conservative captive counterparts.

Even though the film is loaded with charged language and incendiary laugh lines, its influences and aspirations lie more in the genre of female-centric gory thrillers like Kill Bill or last year’s Ready or Not. It’s the kind of movie that delights in picking off characters with bits of brutality that get more ridiculous as the story progresses. Within that context, Gilpin’s Crystal is formidable “final girl” who doggedly assesses each threat with a droll, matter-of-fact sense of humor about the circumstances. Armed with a measured Mississippi drawl and dead-eyed stare, she turns in a fun and commanding performance with some appropriately over-the-top affectations and crazed mannerisms.

Just like their work on ABC’s Lost, Cuse and Lindelof start with a familiar “desert island” premise before introducing myriad twists and turns that will have audiences questioning characters’ motivations and where their allegiances lie. Unfortunately, problems with storytelling come about when these plot wrinkles generate logic issues within the narrative. Even at a taut 90 minutes, the film sags a bit too much in the middle as we impatiently wait for the admittedly outstanding final showdown. As a brazen sendup of America’s current political divide, The Hunt is surprisingly solid satire.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to video on demand:

With the closing of cinemas worldwide, NBCUniversal made the unprecedented move to release new movies to streaming services the same day as their theatrical releases. Look for The Hunt, The Invisible Man, and Emma to be released for $19.99 rental from services such as iTunes and Amazon Video as early as Friday, March 20.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Emma

Hot on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s awe-inspiring take on Little Women, we now have another iteration of a female-penned classic novel. Jane Austen’s Emma may be best known as the jumping off point for the mid-90s rom-com Clueless but in her directorial debut, Autumn de Wilde gives us a more traditional version of the tart tale. This is a sumptuous vision, filled with the lavish costume design and set decoration that we’d come to expect from a period piece like this, but also comes with flourishes that distinguish it from the genre. The film’s humor ranges from biting to whimsical and often within the same scene, which perfectly suits the flitting nature of the title character.

This time around, the haughty and posh matchmaker Emma Woodhouse is played by Glass star Anya Taylor-Joy. She cares for her father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) within their massive estate, though he largely stays removed from her affairs. To pass the time, she latches onto subjects around her and becomes interspersed with their romantic prospects, most notably the naive young orphan Harriet (Mia Goth). She has eyes for the plainspoken farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) but Emma maintains that she can do much better for herself and attempts to set her up instead with the obsequious Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Through all of this, Emma pursues a friendship with the fetching Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who sees past her conniving ways and into her true essence.

Emma has always been a bit of a tricky character, as she has to straddle that line of arrogance and amiability, and Taylor-Joy captures this dichotomy even better than Paltrow did in the 1996 film adaptation. From the way she blithely pushes open a carriage window with a flippant tap of her index finger to the way she violently fans herself upon being bested by a friend’s pianoforte performance, she has all the mannerisms that capture the self-assured yet insecure nature of her character. As Knightly, Flynn is a grounded and cunning foil to the more flighty Emma and the two performers have a winning chemistry from their initial scene together. After a heartbreaking scene in which Emma makes an impudent remark towards Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), Knightley properly reproaches Emma and we’re reminded that this heroine is far from fault herself.

Set across a full year in the charming village of Highbury, with each season getting its own title card, we feel the passage of time ebb and flow as alliances are forged and broken. This movement is aided greatly by the enchanting and vivacious musical score by Isabel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, which is so spirited that you’d be forgiven for thinking the characters could break out in song at any moment. Adding to the opulent table setting is the diverse and vibrant costume design by Alexandra Byrne, which outfits the women with exquisite dresses that practically tell their own story and the men with pompous collars so high and stiff that it’s a wonder they can muster any breath at all.

As costume dramas go, Emma isn’t quite as subversive and biting as The Favourite or Love and Friendship but it’s certainly no stuffy affair either. There are plenty of laughs to be had at the periphery, especially from Bill Nighy’s Woodhouse character, who doesn’t speak often but effortlessly lands some of the film’s funniest quips. Whether he’s sniping at Mr. Elton’s pronunciation of “innocence” or hiding behind a fort of fire screens in his ornate parlor, his pouty patriarch is a welcome presence at every turn. Emma is yet another example of timeless literature finding its match with a promising young talent on the rise.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Hunt, starring Betty Gilpin and Emma Roberts, is a politically-charged thriller about a group of strangers who discover that they are being hunted for sport by wealthy members of a secret organization.
Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel and Eiza González, follows a slain marine as he is brought back to life with nanotechnology and turned into an impervious super soldier.
Opening at Cinema Center is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, about a a female painter commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman in 18th century France.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup