Krisha ****|****

Krisha Fairchild in Krisha
Krisha Fairchild in Krisha

We all yearn for catharsis. There’s hardly another feeling in the world that can compete with the sense of tranquility that comes after a wrong is finally made right and the soothing calm that washes over when “I’m sorry” is met with gracious acceptance and understanding. This isn’t just true of our personal lives; this desire for reconciliation is also represented in our entertainment by the prevalence of the “happy ending” in the stories that we tell. No matter how unlikely a positive outcome may be, there remains an undying optimism that everyone will just manage to get along in the end.

The title character of the new film Krisha, the feature debut of Trey Edward Shults, seeks this kind of redemption in her own life. After becoming progressively estranged from her ever-expanding family, she eyes a chance at getting back into their good graces by offering to prepare the turkey for the family Thanksgiving celebration. Upon her arrival, she is greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and wariness by each of the members of the family but as the day goes on, old resentments begin to bubble up from beneath the surface and Krisha’s plan to re-enter the family circle seems to slowly slip away from her grasp.

All of this plays out in ways that even the most seasoned movie-goer may not expect, with levels of subtlety and nuance that are ripe for inference and personal interpretation. Since very little is spelled out up front about these characters and their personal history, we have to read between the lines of their interactions with one another and suss out what’s really going on for ourselves. Even when their connections do become more overt over time, there’s always plenty of new information to take in and layers of emotional honesty to contend with.

The genius of first-time director Trey Edward Shults, who also wrote, edited and also stars in Krisha, is brutally apparent from first frame to last. It’s hard to say exactly how much of this material is autobiographical but it’s enough to say that Shults presents a caliber of naked authenticity here that is nothing short of astonishing. From the unnerving glitchy pace of the musical score to the deftly lyrical movements in the camerawork, he also proves that he has the perfect set of creative impulses that will no doubt earn him more opportunities to shine in the future.

Similarly doing a brilliant first job in what seems to be her acting debut (in fact, almost all of the actors are first-timers as well) is Krisha Fairchild, during which she somehow condenses years of sorrow and loneliness into 90 minutes of carefully controlled chaos. Her chilling portrait of an addict may be as unflinching and heartbreaking as any that I’ve seen since Ellen Burstyn’s Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream. Both characters strive for a similar kind of familial re-connection but whether Krisha receives the same kind of happy end as Sara is best left for audiences to discover for themselves.

The Jungle Book **½|****

Bill Murray and Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book
Bill Murray and Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book

With numerous film adaptations under its belt already, Rudyard Kipling’s story collection The Jungle Book receives its most expensive re-interpretation to date. This “live-action” version (a term I hesitate to use, given how much reliance there is on computer-generated effects) is most closely related to Disney’s 1967 animated version and could be considered more of a remake of that film rather than a strict retelling of the source material from Kipling. While this newest iteration puts forth some truly jaw-dropping visual effects and an outstanding voice cast, there’s still something hollow at the heart of this film’s execution that makes it come across as more of a nostalgia cash-grab rather than a faithful re-telling of the original story.

This film follows the same narrative beats of Disney’s previous animated work, which introduces Mowgli (Neel Sethi) as an orphaned young boy living among talking creatures in a mythical jungle. His surrogate father, a black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), also acts as Mowgli’s protector as he is being mercilessly hunted by the vengeful tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). On his journey to flee the now unsafe jungle, he also receives aid from the sloth bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and a smorgasbord of other animals with more questionable motives at play.

I should re-iterate early on just how blown away I was with director Jon Favreau’s visualization of this jungle landscape. I didn’t have high expectations for seeing a film shot entirely with green screens but there’s an attention to detail in the settings and the realization of each creature that is breathtaking and clearly state-of-the-art. As good as the movie looks, the sound design may actually be even more laudable than the visual achievement put forth. When you take into account the cacophony of ambient noise present in such a vast nature setting, it’s mind-boggling to think how much time went into re-creating all of the levels of auditory realism.

In addition to the stellar work from the audio side of things, the vocal casting is particularly on point as well. Bill Murray brings a warm humor and quiet gentleness to Baloo and Idris Elba is properly menacing as the most despicable version of Shere Khan yet. Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a wolf and mother figure to Mowgli, is absolutely astonishing in the few scenes that she has in the film. Sadly, Neel Sethi’s performance isn’t quite up to the level of his co-stars and is undercut by stiff line readings and an underlying artificiality behind his interactions with the computer-generated creatures.

On the surface, there may not be as much to criticize here but my chief complaint is perhaps more of an esoteric one: this just feels like a very safe play for Disney at this point. I won’t deny the craft and creativity that went into making this film but at the same time, it could have been a much more memorable achievement if Favreau and his production team hadn’t hedged their bets with a more conventional storytelling approach and an almost slavish reverence towards the far from perfect animated movie. We’ve seen with recent successes like Zootopia how rewarding it can be when Disney steps even a bit outside their comfort zone and in terms of narrative ambition, The Jungle Book feels like more of a step back than it should have been.

Only Yesterday ***½|****

Daisy Ridley and Alison Fernandez in Only Yesterday
Daisy Ridley and Alison Fernandez in Only Yesterday

Over the past 30 years, renowned Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has produced several of the Japan’s highest grossing anime films ever but since its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement in late 2014, the studio’s future has been in limbo. Fortunately, fans in the US have a new reason to be excited, as one of Studio Ghibli’s seminal works is finally being made available for American audiences. First released in 1991, Only Yesterday is director Isao Takahata’s follow-up to the devastating war film Grave of the Fireflies that serves as a ebullient and life-affirming counterpoint to the overwhelming tragedy of his previous work.

We begin in 1982, where 27-year-old Taeko (Daisy Ridley) finds herself yearning for a more simplified way of life after having lived in the non-stop hustle and bustle of Tokyo her entire life. She decides to take a trip to visit relatives in the rural countryside but during her overnight train ride, Taeko is overcome with vivid memories from her schoolyard days that cause her to reflect on the purity and innocence of her childhood. The film wistfully tracks between this time period in 1966, where 10-year-old Taeko (Alison Fernandez) is just starting in the fifth grade, and the “present” time in 1982 that finds her helping her relatives harvest their seemingly endless fields of safflowers.

One of the artistic techniques that Takahata uses to differentiate between these two time periods is to depict the past with a sort of hazy glow around the edges of the frame but it’s not done in a way that calls too much attention to itself. Besides being a clever way to visually distinguish the story’s timeline, this also serves as a subtle commentary on how we tend to overly sentimentalize stories from our childhood when the memories become blurred and fuzzier as time goes on. The sharp, crisp animation style of urban Tokyo shows a world with clear limitations but the bright and dreamlike scenes from Taeko’s childhood suggest a largely undiscovered world with infinite possibilities.

The flashbacks play like extended vignettes that aren’t meant to relay specific sets of plot-relevant details but rather convey the feeling of longing that the main character is consumed with during her later years. These stories seem to come about in an almost random order but nonetheless cover a wide range of emotional territory: some are bittersweet, some are heartbreaking and some are quite amusing as well. An awkward first exchange between Taeko and her first childhood crush, during which the two share a hilariously unproductive conversation about whether they prefer cloudy or sunny days, perhaps best captures all three of these sentiments within one scene.

The coming-of-age material is very effective on its own but ultimately, this is a story of a young woman coming to terms with her past and deciding to break free from the burdens and expectations of her friends and family. The movie’s originally title translates roughly from Japanese to “memories trickle down” but it turns out that Only Yesterday is an even more evocative and appropriate title after all. It not only captures this film’s signature brand of charming nostalgia but also serves as a potent reminder that the past can be rendered inconsequential for those willing to overcome it.

Samurai Cop ****|****

Matt Hannon in Samurai Cop
Matt Hannon in Samurai Cop

In the fall of 1991, acclaimed Iranian director Amir Shervan crafted a work of singular focus and clarity that would come to not only have an indelible effect on martial arts filmmaking but also on the world of cinema as a whole. Despite this response, Samurai Cop has also regrettably attained a number of defiant detractors since its release, many of whom mistake the film’s bold aesthetic choices for tawdry errors in production. Perhaps the artistic merits of this misunderstood masterpiece were always meant to lie dormant, only to truly reveal themselves after years of rigorous scrutiny and thoughtful re-consideration.

For those unfamiliar with the now infamous story, we follow our titular hero Joe Marshall (Matt Hannon) as he transfers from San Diego to the turbulent streets of Los Angeles. When the dangerous Katana (which is Japanese for “Japanese sword”) gang emerges from the dregs of the underground drug market, its leader Fuj Fujiyama (Cranston Komuro) and his right-hand man Yamashita (Robert Z’Dar) vow to wage all out war on the LAPD. Along with his police partner Frank (Mark Frazer), Joe must summon his years of diligent martial arts training from Japan to end Fujiyama’s reign of terror.

In today’s world of stuffy blockbusters and play-it-safe tentpole movies, it’s enlivening to revisit a film with such an independent sense of brazen intentionality. The director’s decision to only use the first take of each scene may sometimes lead to inconsistent line readings from the actors or slight variations in lighting but the result is clearly meant to celebrate the fleeting spontaneity of the creative process. Whatever “imperfections” may arise from this bold approach are meant to represent the organic nature of the filmmaking and by allowing these scenes to proceed uninhibited, Shervan creates a environment where the characters can freely explore their circumstances.

The film’s shootout and hand-to-hand combat sequences, which are expertly staged and clearly took months of hard work to choreograph, make up the most viscerally gripping portions of the story. The final showdown between Joe and Yamashita is a lengthy and demanding setpiece that showcases the commitment of two actors who come off as completely believable martial arts experts. The iconic music by Alan DerMarderosian, inspired by popular video game scores of the late 1980s, sets a reliable foundation for both these intense action scenes and also the film’s quieter dramatic moments as well.

I would be foolish to neglect the acting, which is top-notch all around, but is particularly notably from Matt Hannon as Joe Marshall. His unique brand of unrelenting intensity, which culminates with an unforgettably impassioned monologue to the Katana gang, is unrivaled in the realm of modern acting. Many cite Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as the film that reinvigorated  independent cinema in the 1990s but in the years since its release, Amir Shervan’s Samurai Cop has proven itself to be an even more influential and enduring work that will continue to inspire filmmakers for generations to come.