Recent Release Reviews

In the lead-up to the holidays and awards season there is always an onslaught of new releases as studios ready both their awards-contenders and their holiday hopeful blockbusters and 2018 has been no different if not worse in some ways. It may be due to the fact I was unable to make it to any film festivals this year or that there have been less than a handful of convenient press screenings in my market, but there has seemed to have been a wave of smaller releases showing up in theaters over the past two weeks not to mention the full-on deluge of wide releases and expansions this week that included the triple-header of blockbusters that is Aquaman, Bumblebee, and Mary Poppins Returns that have put me far off my admittedly optimistic initial schedule. Blockbusters weren't the only thing opening this past week though, as other releases included the Steve Carell-fronted Welcome to Marwen, the Jennifer Lopez comedy Second Act, as well as the expansion of the Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie period piece, Mary Queen of Scots. And that was just for this past weekend as it doesn't include the fact that tomorrow, Christmas Day, will see the release of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly's Holmes & Watson, Adam McKay's Vice, and the expansion of Barry Jenkins' follow-up to his best picture-winner (Moonlight) If Beale Street Could Talk as well as Nicole Kidman's Oscar-bid, Destroyer. And in this day and age it's impossible to ignore the impact streaming services, namely Netflix, have on the industry as awards contenders like Alfonso Cuarón's Roma and Sandra Bullock's Bird Box have both recently debuted on the subscription service and offer the enticing option of catching a certain standard of film from the comfort of your own home. This is all to say that while I try to see and write about as many films as possible it is nearly impossible with everything else going on at this time of year to devote the time needed to both seeing all of these films and writing about each on an individual basis and so, as these things go, I have truncated my reviews and/or thoughts for some of the smaller films that have been or will be released within the last couple of weeks and included them in this single post. Hit the jump for quick takes on the likes of The Favourite, Vox Lux, The Mule, Destroyer, Mary Queen of Scots, Wildlife, Shoplifters, The Front Runner, Welcome to Marwen and If Beale Street Could Talk.

Though not familiar with writer James Baldwin's work in October of 2016 I found myself suddenly taken with the work of a young director who'd only just directed his second feature after a near eight year break in between his first and second films that I'm sure was anything but a break. Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, the eventual Best Picture winner for 2017, was a film that kept knocking at my brain for days after seeing it. It only seems fitting then that Jenkins' follow-up to that much heralded work is a piece that not only requires patience and trust on its journey, but one that is simultaneously so simplistic yet contains mountains of emotions and social commentary aching to be unpacked; ideas, inclinations, and images that will continue to resonate in my mind for days upon days.

If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from Baldwin's 1974 novel of the same name, is a meditation session of a movie, but in this sense it is also wholly an experience as well. There is story if not sporadic plot points that guide the viewer through the series of themes Jenkins is keen on communicating, but these plot points seem more present for the benefit of the conditioned viewer than they are for the sake of the film saying what it wants to say. Jenkins doesn't necessarily need traditional structure to convey what he wants to convey as he proved in Moonlight with his triptych approach, but with Beale Street there are really only three whole scenes in the film while the rest of it is more montages or anecdotes that essentially swirl around these three major moments to create a deeper context for the more full, finite scenes that pinpoint the beginning, middle, and end of the film. It's an interesting way to approach story and it uniquely conveys the sense of feeling and emotion the film wants to relay better than it would were it trying to do the same thing through a more straightforward technique. Of course, with what is more of a loose, jazz-inspired structure the viewer is fed little bits of information at a time from different stages in these characters' lives, but it is through the power of how Jenkins and his editors, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, weave the layers of the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) together that not only do we become convinced of their love for one another, but we are convinced further by their friendship and, as a result, that they are meant to be; soulmates, if you will, separated through injustice, but never truly divided. A-

If this were 1997 Tom Hanks would have played Mark Hogancamp and I don't know that Welcome to Marwen would have been any better for it.

As someone who grew up hearing director Robert Zemeckis' work almost unanimously praised through the likes of the Back to the Future films and Forrest Gump as well as Cast Away being my first theatrical Zemeckis experience it seemed as if the man could do nothing wrong and was forever interesting due to his own interests in always trying to push the envelope in some way. The director continued to do this as I came of age and developed more of a taste for more varied types of cinema, but did so in the sense that it would become the era when Zemeckis became enamored with motion capture animation. Between The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol (all of which I saw and each of which I don't largely remember) it seemed Zemeckis was pigeon-holing himself into a trend he'd never be able to give up and then, in 2012, the filmmaker seemed to re-calibrate his career with the Denzel Washington-starrer, Flight, that made many people sit up and take note of what Zemeckis was up to again. It was Zemeckis' next film though, The Walk, that would really set the stage for Marwen.

Like, The Walk, Welcome to Marwen is a feature adaptation of a story previously told in a documentary that didn't necessarily need a feature adaptation to improve upon the story, but that Zemeckis had clear ideas about how to interpret and convey in bigger and more interesting ways. Given the subject matter with The Walk it was the idea to shoot on large format cameras and in immersive 3D (IMAX VR has a virtual reality experience of this movie, where the guest actually tightropes across the twin towers) while with Marwen the hook is to not only take the audience through the trials and tribulations of Hogancamp's story, but to flesh out how he has coped with the tragedies of his life by bringing to life what can only be imagined as what Hogancamp himself is imagining; this done through animated sequences with Barbie and G.I. Joe figures that Hogancamp has utilized to build his own, alternate world and town that is set in Belgium in the middle of WWII. Long story short, Hogancamp was beaten within an inch of his life in 2000 and lost all previous memories as a result thus pushing him to a place where his fictional town he dubbed "Marwencol" became a place for him to escape to and an outlet for him to create from.

Fascinating, right? It's not difficult to see why a filmmaker like Zemeckis would have a unique take on the material and want to again tell Hogancamp's story, but Zemeckis and co-writer, Caroline Thompson (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands) boil this man's story down from what could have been a sweeping narrative about alter-egos and fulfilling ones fantasies through the image one has of themselves in their mind, about creating your own therapy through creating your own world, or about a man who-after losing his memory and being in a coma-had to learn everything over again-both physically and mentally-to a movie about a boy with some issues who meets the new girl across the street that is kind to him, but would never desire to actually be with his weird ass in real life. At least, that's how it all comes off in Zemeckis' film. There are inspired moments, no doubt, as there are hints of how Hogancamp's dolls and alternate reality begin to make their way into what is actually reality and how it becomes increasingly difficult for him to tell the difference, but these never amount to much if anything. The integration of the two worlds is fairly smooth and the intercutting of the storylines unfolding in the real world and in Marwen help to add some momentum to what is otherwise an unfocused mess of emotions, but this is largely a slog. The intrigue of the film should be in the trying to piece together what happened to Hogancamp (more the little details than the broad strokes), who each of the dolls represent in his actual life, and what those people signify in the grand scheme, but Zemeckis fails to ever capture any kind of cohesive tone as characters come in and out with no explanation and are then never seen again to the extent the film as a whole feels like a patchwork of a handful of different ideas rather than a film with a certain perspective on its subject. Zemeckis has a point of view when it comes to how he wanted to relay the story, but no such point of view when it actually comes to telling the story and that's a real issue.

To boot, considering we're watching Barbie and G.I. Joe figures flesh out this world this man is enjoying existing within more than he does the real world and the insane violence depicted as well as strange sexual tension that always lingers it's hard to separate the "interesting" from the "weird". Dammit if Steve Carell isn't endearing as always though; the only other man outside of Hanks that is able to pull off a line like, "reach for the sky" in serious fashion while looking like a plastic doll. D 

Honestly expected more from director Karyn Kusama after The Invitation, but while Destroyer is still a very well put-together genre film it does little to exceed the boundaries of its given genre-even with a fully committed and totally de-glamorized Nicole Kidman performance. The structure tries to do something interesting with the crime thriller tropes as well, but even that twist feels somewhat rote at this point. Still, it’s not not entertaining and I was just invested enough to care about where the story took our main character. C+

By definition, Mary Queen of Scots is a movie. It's competently made, one would even say a rather gorgeous film to behold (the costume design is especially noteworthy), and it has performances from two of last year's Best Actress nominees with a story that more than lends itself well to drama yet despite all these strong components Mary Queen of Scots never becomes anything compelling. It's as if first-time feature director Josie Rourke was able to successfully implement all of the technical skills and story knowledge she's accrued over her career thus far and implement them into a film that meets all the standards of what is supposed to make-up a film, but with none of the intangible stuff one needs in order to craft something truly moving or impactful.

Saoirse Ronan is Mary Stuart, who was the Queen of France at 16 and widowed by 18, who then defied pressure to re-marry and instead returned to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. Scotland and England fell under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I as played by Margot Robbie though, intensifying this rivalry of sorts between two women who have unsuspectingly come to power in the absence of their husbands in a world that is designed to allow the masculine to rule. The majority of Mary Queen of Scots revolves around the back and forth between Mary and Elizabeth as they play games involving marriage and child bearing that result in betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each others courts that only tend to further complicate who the one true ruler is meant to be. 

To certain extents the film is perfectly content in being what it's so very clearly intended to be-an enticing period drama-but despite bouncing back and forth between Mary's provocations and Elizabeth's deliberations as to how she should properly respond to said provocations there isn't much of a drive to the overall film. The shorter vignettes within the whole of the film have a hit or miss quality where the reaction each individual has will either entice them to continue on this journey with the characters or push them to look at their phone and determine how much of the running time remains. For all the good intents, grand costumes, and researched performances Mary Queen of Scots so clearly sports it was near impossible to not glance down at the time more times than I should have. C

Vox Lux director Brady Corbet, at the age of 30, has worked with the likes of directors such as Michael Haneke, Lars Von Trier, Ruben Östlund, and Noah Baumbach, so it comes as no surprise that the actor, writer, and filmmaker's second directorial effort is a divisive meditation on pop culture, how news-worthy tragedies spawn faces of such that then carry the weight of the audience's projections, and how the masses expect these public figures to help us heal from such tragedies without having the privacy or benefit of the doubt to handle whatever they're going through in regards to whatever they're expected to help everyone else cope with. In other words, as simple as the presentation is in Vox Lux, this is an intensely dense picture that has so many ideas floating around in its head it can't even keep track of everything it starts a conversation about. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly allows for some disconnect and confusion walking away from the film. It seems the film's intent is not to be about a single thing or single aspect of one thing, but it's also not clear which of these many things it's discussing should be the loudest.

Never have I ever felt more bewildered by a movie after watching it. Part of me was fascinated by what I saw unfold as the life of this young woman played out in two halves and three complete acts while the other half of me wanted to completely reject-in a sense-what this woman became or rather, what the world turned her into. Two minutes in-as the opening credits rolled-I was already positive I was going to love this thing for all it stood for and as it continued to develop through Raffey Cassidy's star-turning performance as both the young Celeste as well as the daughter of Natalie Portman's older Celeste, it only seemed more and more clear how groundbreaking this thing was; Corbet essentially melding the ideas of news and entertainment and begging (literally begging) his audience to remember there is a difference. As the film enters its second half though, taking place seventeen years after the first half, where we see Portman take over the main character and follow her through a day in the life it quickly became evident I kind of hated who this young, unassuming girl had become. She was now a woman, but acted more like a child than ever before. So coddled to the point her behavior was as tragic as it was laughable. Further, the final fifteen to twenty minutes of the film see Portman fully becoming this pop star and it's an odd mix of "what's the big deal?" and "look at the production she's apparently worthy of." Is Celeste especially good? No. Is she insanely famous because she was a product of a moment and has used that moment to her advantage ever since? Kind of. There is something of a twist in regards to these ideas that is a genuinely great idea in and of itself, but needed to have more of a throughline or at least a fair amount more exploration to allow audiences to grasp this somewhat shocking perspective that comes to be the side of the prism Corbet sees his film through.

All of that said, it must say something for a film to be so internally divisive so as to not even be fully assured of where one ultimately lands in overall opinion of the film days after seeing it. I still don't know if I liked Vox Lux or not, but I know I'm still thinking about it and I know "Wrapped Up" continues to give me chills every time I listen to it-which has been damn near constantly since I walked out of the theater.

I need to see this again. Immediately. A

The Mule is a movie that's easy to impose our own thoughts on in regards to its star; what amount of the themes present here resonated with Mr. Eastwood because he has ceased to stop working for the better part of six decades? It's a thought that feels unavoidable, but what is almost more striking about the film is the vulnerability Eastwood as Earl Stone-an elderly man who begins working as a drug mule for the cartel due to his clean driving record and unassuming demeanor-puts on display as he seems desperate to ensure you like the guy. Eastwood has never seemed like the type of guy to care what anyone thinks, but with Stone-there is a need for validation that makes sense given the arc of the character, but this layer also kind of subtly crosses over into the star/director as well. To this point, Stone is a terrible person as far as being able to engage with the big picture and someone who almost always makes the wrong decision when it comes to a choice between who he loves and what he loves, but in his old age his family have come to expect nothing less and lend him little to no credit because of it.

A fascinating story that is executed cleanly, but with some real heart and humor, The Mule, is certainly some of the best work Eastwood has done both in front of and behind the camera in some time, but it his performance at the heart of this movie and the real-life implications that lend all the entertaining stuff going on that little something extra. In other words, a perfect movie for those who are looking for little more than a quality genre film with a strong story as well as for those who like a little more depth with their popcorn. B-

It would seem that, to gauge a review of the latest Yorgos Lanthimos film, would be to know ones opinions on past Lanthimos films. Having only seen his two most recent works a la his Colin Farrell vehicles I was mixed, but very much intrigued by anything the guy decided to lend his voice to. In terms of The Favourite it is also of note that this is the first of Lanthimos’ projects where the filmmaker didn’t also write the screenplay with frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou. And so, while it feels strange to say it about a film as unique and frankly, as weird as, The Favourite this is by far Lanthimos’ most accessible film. Doesn’t hurt its damn funny either.

The Favourite is one of those movies where it feels as if the intention of the piece as a whole came together in exactly the way the creator imagined. Whether it be in the visual aspect, the tone, the music, or the comedy elicited from each of these elements, The Favourite captures the essence of Lanthimos’ personality in such a fun and often riotous way that it would seem impossible the film was meant to be conceived in any other fashion. It’s as delicious as it is vicious and much of this is due to the trio of wonderful performances at the front of the film. Of course, the arc of each character helps and it is how Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (American Honey) document these arcs in wide angle lenses, often times with a fish-eye perspective, to show-off the grandiosity of the architecture and indulgences of the period as contrasted by the select few who were actually allowed to enjoy such indulgences that really provides this throughline reason as to why two of the three main characters are so willing to do whatever it takes to maintain this lifestyle.

Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, a tragic figure, who had to substitute pet rabbits in place of the seventeen (seventeen!) children she lost-is a woman who feels no love yet has everyone falsely pining for her affection given the power her approval provides. Rachel Weisz’s Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, has been a life-long friend of the Queen’s and her counsel for seemingly everything including the present war between England and France. Sarah uses her intimacy with the queen to control matters of state, but Emma Stone’s Abigail-Sarah’s cousin who has fallen from her nobility and seeks to reclaim some semblance of respect-recognizes the players and begins playing a very different game than Sarah has mastered. Abigail is initially the subject of our sympathy though it becomes more and more evident how clever and manipulative she is and how well she knows how to use her wide-eyed look of innocence to deceive those around her or, at the very least, get them to play along with her instead of Sarah (most notably, Nicholas Hoult in what is a flat-out fantastic performance). And while the rivalry that emerges is the obvious component of the story what is more interesting is the reversal of perspective on how the viewer sees Sarah and Abigail and how this devolves into a conclusion that sees everyone who was trying to get ahead ultimately screwing themselves over and becoming trapped in roles that serve as the opposite of what was once ideal.

The Favourite offers prime examples of how cinema can be used to its full extent in nearly every aspect. The look of the film is rich in color and texture while the wide angles and large panning movements with multiple characters in frame lend a scope that matches the lengths these women are willing to go to in order to serve a master who might serve them right. Stone, Weisz, and Colman are each glorious in their own unique ticks and charms and the supporting cast-including all the bunnies and ducks-are only utilized to further illustrate this very specific tone Lanthimos is chasing. The fact it’s difficult to imagine the film in any other way, as the product of any other filmmaker, only serves to show how singular a work it is and therefore how good Lanthimos is at his job. B+

There’s a natural hesitance going into foreign films for anyone, right? Like, you’re semi-scared to even enter into this world of another culture because you know you may not fully understand everything going on or the context of certain decisions and/or traditions, but know to get to a point where you do comprehend you just have to dive in. That’s not just me, right?

Shoplifters, director Hirokazu Koreeda’s simple ode to the idea that you have no choice in the matter of who some of the most influential people in your life might be AKA your family, despite being a Japanese-language film centered around a lower class Japanese family (a world I know absolutely nothing about) connects almost immediately. Pulling the viewer into this fresh dynamic and establishing the six participating individuals with their own voices there is no turning back after only a mere few minutes in their world. There is a natural simplicity to the introductions of the characters and the establishing of their claustrophobic world even as the context of their situation becomes increasingly complicated. Effortlessly captivating would be one way of describing it. B

Joe Brinson, Ed Oxenbould's character in Paul Dano's directorial debut, is fourteen-years-old in 1960 meaning he was born in 1946-almost exactly in between the time my grandparents were born and the time my parents were born. He would be seventy-two today. Still, my grandparents would have been at or around just a handful of years younger than Carrie Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal's characters are here, but they too would have already been raising children in 1960. I say this not only to get the timeline straight in my own mind, but also to lend some perspective to the experience prior as I always tend to frame these now period pieces as an opportunity to see what life might have been like if not necessarily what the people I knew who lived through these years might have been like at that time.

Funnily enough, this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Dano is exploring in Wildlife, a familial drama based on Richard Ford's book of the same name. This idea that our parents were people before they were our parents and in the case of this film in particular, that our grandparents were people before they became the 'archs of this family we've never known a life without. Through Wildlife, Dano explores these past lives that come more into perspective the older we grow which we then subsequently appreciate all the more despite the fact the individuals on the receiving end of that appreciation only continue to fade further and further away from who they once were. It's a romantic idea, sure, but Dano deconstructs this further through the chronicling of one family's fissure where the youngest and most innocent party-Oxenbould's Joe-is at the center.

Joe watches on as his parents' marriage dissolves and his mother begins an affair. The film has no driving narrative per se and there is no clear right or wrong answer for the conflict proposed even if some of the actions the characters take are very obviously mistakes. Rather, Dano and his very confined, largely steady direction beautifully capture the slow unraveling of Mulligan's Jeanette as she sways from being this woman who has seemingly held it together for fourteen-plus years as a mother and wife who reaches a point where she begins making choices that even she herself may know are not in the best interest of her life in the long run or the life of her child, but that she can't help but to give into due to the emotion that has bottled up and that she is finally allowing herself to express. The trio of main actors here are each fantastic in their own regard as is Bill Camp, but it is Jean's actions that kind of cement this thesis of the film that states the bond of family is one of the few things in this life so deep that it will remain a part of you forever-no matter what you or anyone else tries to put it through.

Wildlife tees these ideas up and observes them with an expert degree of execution, but what it offers in terms of these observations is where the film somewhat falls short. This isn't asking for resolution, of course, with family there is the understanding that peaks and valleys will occur until the sun sets on our existence, but more there is a desire as the screen fades to black that Dano and writing partner Zoe Kazan (who is also Dano's significant other in real life) might have rounded out these ideas about the family and the nature of how we maintain bonds despite the entire concept of family contradicting what is tranquility. Fittingly, Wildlife ends on a note of quiet tranquility that leaves us to ponder why we make it so hard on ourselves and maybe that's the point-maybe if we quit chasing resolution and/or "happiness" we will learn to find these things in what our lives provide from the get-go: those ties that bind. B-

The Front Runner is about the birth of tabloid journalism infiltrating credible institutions, but what it’s commenting on is how the media often allows a single moment of someone’s life to encapsulate and define that person’s entire existence given the faceted perspective of how said incident is reported on. This is a fine truth to examine, especially through the lens of a 1987 scandal where the volume is comparably lower than the eleven today’s media cycle has been ratcheted up to, but the point director Jason Reitman (go watch TULLY now!) seeks to point out doesn’t always jive with the story he’s telling. The film makes it pretty clear Hugh Jackman’s (always reliable) Gary Hart was something of a womanizer on the reg and that the affair that outed him wasn’t the only instance of this behavior. Reitman seeks to both make an example of Hart while also garnering empathy for the man, but the idea that the scrutiny or even the manner in which the scrutiny came down upon Hart was unwarranted begins to wain as the bigger picture around the Senator becomes clearer. What the movie gets right is highlighting the ramifications of Hart’s actions on the women around him such as his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), his daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever), as well as the woman involved in the affair, Donna (Sara Paxton)-whose line of dialogue, “I did all the things I was supposed to do so men wouldn’t look at me the way you are right now.”-perfectly encapsulates this theme.

While the film has some quarrels about sorting out its question of where the line is between what is interesting and what is important, it must be noted that the roster of character actors in this thing is insane. J.K. Simmons, Josh Brener, Oliver Cooper, Alfred Molina, Mamoudou Athie, Ari Graynor (who I didn’t even recognize at first), John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Spencer Garrett, Steve Zissis, Bill Burr, Kevin Pollack, Mike Judge, Toby Huss, Courtney Ford, and I’m sure I’m missing others, but among all of these recognizable faces it is Tim Allen’s other TV daughter featured here, Molly Ephraim (the other being Dever), who does much of the heavy lifting thematically and gives the film the edge it needs to be heard in today’s climate even if the voice behind it isn’t as firm as it should be. C+

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