Denis Villeneuve's Grand and Gorgeous Epic is as Insightful about Sincerity and Strategy as it is Engaging on the Broad Levels of a Big-Budget Studio Blockbuster.


Matthew Vaughn has Officially become a Director of Diminishing Returns with this Overstuffed and Laughably Corny Slog of a Spy Caper.


This Trip back to North Shore High Justifies itself by still being Sharp in its Observations of Vacuousness.


Writer/Director Cord Jefferson’s Feature Debut Splits the Difference Between Searing Satire and Emotional Family Drama Coming out a Winner in Both Respects.


Emma Stone is Daring and Mark Ruffalo is Hilarious in this Surreal Fever Dream of Philosophy and Attempting to Understand our Nature through Unorthodox Methods.

MANK Review

I must admit I feel like something of a fraud even attempting a critique of a film so steeped in not only cinematic history, but history in general. Yes, I've seen Citizen Kane more than once and I've listened to season upon season of Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This podcast and specifically the series of MGM stories that centered on Louis B. Mayer’s rise and fall, yet somehow director David Fincher's Mank still feels so drenched in the world it re-creates that it's difficult to imagine being able to gain all the film has to offer after only a single viewing. As it were, Fincher's latest is likely too inside baseball for anyone outside of those that worship at the altar of cinema, but what might prove to be the most fascinating aspect of Mank is whether or not the core struggles of the main character appeal to a viewer who has no idea who someone like Irving Thalberg - or for that matter, Herman J. Mankiewicz - was. Naturally, those who do in fact worship at said altar are largely going to adore Fincher's latest exercise in clinical cinema that this time not only executes itself with profound professionalism and skill a la all of Fincher's work, but does so as it examines the "golden age" of the industry. The difference will be whether the details included and the approach taken will be enough to enthrall those already on board for a "movie about the movies" or if, while appreciating all of those things, the admiration for what Fincher has accomplished outweighs what is genuine love for it. That is to say, those on the outside looking in who come across Mank as they scroll through Netflix will either continue to scroll past it based on the poster alone or become fully engulfed in the confusion of the time and place Fincher drops his audience into should they be brave enough to press play. As an individual who admittedly knows more than the average Netflix subscriber, but a lot less than a lot of other people about the history of Hollywood Mank feels akin to a highly-stylized and extremely well performed re-enactment. Fincher's film clearly gets everything it possibly could right about the history, the costumes, and the character traits yet there is little that resonates emotionally. Never mind the fact Herman Mankiewicz is the only credited co-screenwriter to Orson Welles on what many consider the greatest movie ever made as Fincher's intent wasn't to make a movie about the making of Citizen Kane, but rather to capture the essence of a process and a person and leave the audience with a little more context and insight than they might have had before. As Gary Oldman's "Mank" says early on in the film though, "You can't capture a man's life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave an impression of one," and while Mank may not necessarily provide the catharsis one desires come the time the credits roll it undoubtedly leaves a strong impression.   


While Lyme Regis, a coastal town in West Dorset that lies in Lyme Bay on the English Channel, may very well be a beautiful place to visit and/or live Director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) has made it seem as if it is anything but in his second feature film, Ammonite. It’s not only the location, but it's as if everything in Lee’s film was designed to match the color palette and tone of the fossils our main character, acclaimed self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), found in the cliffs along the Channel in Southwest England: grey and dead. From the furniture and fixtures inside Mary’s shop she now supports herself and her ailing mother with to the weather that constantly seems to be sweeping up on shore. Ammonite is grey, cold, and dreary to a fault. It’s almost as if Lee was so hell bent on having the audience mentally inhabit the mind of Anning that he determined it best to have the pacing, aesthetic, and attitude mirror that of Anning’s daily routine which is to say it's all exceptionally tedious. Tedious that is, until the narrative finds it surprisingly convenient to usher in an actual plot that couldn’t feel less natural or organic to the aforementioned tone set thus far. Strangely convenient in that the type of story this film wants to tell is abundantly clear and thus everything that happens seems to cater to this very particular set of circumstances; the problem being that as such developments unravel it becomes clear the depths of the core relationship won’t generate a strong enough investment to make such conveniences forgivable. It would almost be easier to dismiss the film as pure Oscar bait had it more scenes featuring characters explicitly yelling at one another about their forbidden love, but Lee’s intentions are more honorable than this. Though I've yet to see the filmmaker's debut feature that put him on the map from 2017 it would it would seem Lee was very much interested in making a similarly compelling if not subdued drama for his follow-up. Still, outside a single night of passion, Ammonite remains a somber and sometimes even dull experience that never fully lands the complicated and conflicted heart at the root of the dynamic the film seeks to establish and explore.


Black Bear may as well have been called Bat Shit because that's how crazy it is. Everything worthwhile that could be said about Lawrence Michael Levine's film almost can't be discussed for fear of spoiling any aspect of what lies beyond the title screen, but I'll do my best. For starters, Black Bear is seemingly about the creative process with the question of, "how far is too far?" looming over every facet. Levine is an actor, director, and writer himself as well as being married to fellow multi-hyphenate Sophia Takal which undoubtedly inspired certain details of the film if not having been based outright on actual conversations the couple has had. Add to the mix Aubrey Plaza who not only takes the lead role here, but the role of producer as her relationship with writer/director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, The Little Hours) no doubt assisted in her understanding of if not being completely empathetic to the material and her character of Allison. What is then immediately fascinating about Black Bear is that despite the large possibility of self-indulgence or - as Sarah Gadon's Blair might say, "the large possibility of solipsism" - Black Bear somehow manages to steer clear of its own self-satisfaction by essentially becoming something of a satire not necessarily of the people, but more of the circumstances they've driven themselves to in pursuit of this creative endeavor they've put so much stock in. What's curious is that said creative endeavors and the process such require in order to fully produce them are, by virtue of the fact they're existence is only justified by an individual's existential need create them, essentially exercises in some form of narcissism themselves. Does that then make Black Bear Levine's attempt to try and suss out his own level of self-awareness and assure those in the audience that no matter the level of commitment and passion poured into his projects that at the end of the day he's blatantly aware his work could have as little an impact as it could a large one? It kind of feels that way as everything about Levine's third narrative feature would seemingly mark it as your standard indie hipster typically found at Sundance, but by nature of the exploration taking place Black Bear more intends to dissect what it means to exist as someone that constantly tries to subvert the mainstream while still appealing to it in real-life situations. How do we best embody and represent our beliefs through our actions? Why do we always want what we don't have? How far is too far? Levine asks a lot of questions (many more than he answers) with Black Bear and though the ultimate theme, intention, and even point of the film isn't all that clear it still makes for a fascinating experiment in introspection nonetheless.             

Tavern Talk: Video Review - FREAKY

It's been a while, but given original Initial Reaction co-host Charles Browder was able to return for a random review of one of the few new releases in theaters coupled with the fact I won't be doing a full write-up on Freaky, it seemed as good a time as any to re-vamp the video review posts. To add some perspective, the last post I wrote of this nature was back in March for the Disney/Pixar release of Onward which published on March 11th AKA the week the entire world shut down. This was honestly the day before major studios would announce delays in some of their biggest movies planned for the remainder of the calendar year and given this post focuses as much if not more on the box office results of the movie myself and my co-host had reviewed the week prior it seemed silly to try and talk about anything when nothing was coming out. Things have changed somewhat since the beginning of September when Tenet more or less forced theaters to re-open with a slew of low-key new releases premiering since and a lot of anniversary editions and restorations of older classics mostly being shown instead. That of course brings us to mid-November which saw the release of Universal and Blumhouse’s body-swap horror-comedy Freaky which has topped the box office for two straight weeks now (again, mostly due to lack of competition and no other new, wide releases), but while the film debuted to $3.6 million on nearly 2,500 screens in its first weekend the second week of the films release was plagued (pun intended) by news of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise across the nation resulting in an only $1.2 million haul for a total domestic cume just shy of $5.6 million. Not bad for a movie rumored to be budgeted at right around $6 million during a pandemic, but still pretty bleak in terms of theater-going prospects for the foreseeable future. Overseas, the film added $3.7 million bringing its worldwide total to $9.2 million. As Thanksgiving approaches, Universal’s animated sequel The Croods: A New Age is slated to hit theaters over the holiday weekend and there is still some hope that business will pick up, but with families largely (hopefully) remaining confined to their own households for the festivities this year the question is how many will risk going to the movies to see a seven year-later sequel to an animated movie? Time will tell, but hopefully we'll have more video reviews coming sooner rather than later. As always, be sure to follow the official TAVERN TALK by Initial Reaction YouTube channel as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter where you can find all the latest content! 


August Wilson's 1982 play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom , was one of ten-plays in the writer's "Pittsburgh Cycle" (Rainey being the only one of the ten not set in Pittsburgh) that chronicled the twentieth century African-American experience. Like most if not all of Wilson's writing Ma Rainey was meant to "raise consciousness through theater". Wilson's writing of the Black experience was something I first encountered my senior year of high school via Fences. As a Caucasian who attended a school with a student body that was more or less split right down the middle when it came to racial ratios the African American experience was something that was present without being particularly regarded as drastically different. Maybe it was simply my naïveté, but in my fifteen to eighteen year-old mind it was as simple as the fact that slavery, racism, and Martin Luther King had happened, what they had to deal with was wrong and terrible, but the actions they took had been worth it and upended those injustices for future generations. We as a society had grown past the ignorance of such things and while that statement in and of itself may now ring of more ignorance than ever I genuinely believe if one were to ask any of the Black kids I attended high school with that many would agree they felt the same way. Obviously, this isn't a diatribe against the need to highlight the many injustices that have been inflicted upon African Americans throughout the twentieth century and into present day, but rather a slice of insight into just how powerful, eye-opening, and - most importantly - how necessary literature documenting the Black experience is. This is all to say that director George C. Wolfe's interpretation of Wilson's material focuses largely on the theme of the burden Black people feel to do something with their time in order to ensure prosperity for future generations. The idea many of these individuals aren't allowed to lead a life where such issues don't impact their day to day drives certain characters present in Ma Rainey to purpose while pushing others to the edge. Wilson's exploration of contradiction in this American life through faith versus vindication or expectation versus the truth of the matter transforms the heated racial tension of 1920's Chicago into a pertinent commentary on how a system designed on the promise of possibility grants equal opportunities for repression; all of which is conveyed through the mood of the blues.    


Director Darius Marder's Sound of Metal is both an eye-opening yet strangely calming experience. Co-written by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) the film has his trademark feel of being wholly inhabited by real people in authentic places with a visual aesthetic that reads just as pure as the subjects. Marder, who co-wrote Pines with Cianfrance and had only directed a documentary prior to this, his debut narrative feature, lands on the perfect type of story to apply to this style. The story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a very human, very grounded, and largely - a very cleansing one - but as presented through this veritable style of Marder and Cianfrance Ruben's tale takes on what feel like mythic qualities, turning it into more than just a story, but a parable. While not your traditional parable as told by Jesus in the Gospels, Sound of Metal is a more raw approach to that age old serenity prayer that people repeat to remind themselves of the influence they have over the occurrences in their life on earth. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." In Sound of Metal, Ruben comes face to face with a reality he can neither control nor accept. As a drummer for a two-piece metal band seemingly on the cusp of bigger and better things the sense of sound is one of the most critical aspects of Ruben's life. So, when the feedback becomes more consistent, the ringing doesn't stop even after a night's rest post-gig, and the frequency of other people's voices becomes so inaudible that everyone begins to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher he knows he can't ignore the issue and he knows it won't magically go away no matter how much he needs it to. Ruben runs head first into the question of how does one preserve the hearing they have left when they can’t preserve themselves without it? It would seem the only choice Ruben has is to accept this literally deafening blow and adjust the entirety of his life moving forward, but as is expected - this is not an easy thing to do; it's maddening even. It is in this frantic period of time where the unknown is the key player that Marder both finds the films tension as well as the gateway into exploring this thesis of dealing with change, adapting to that unknown, and understanding that the cruelty of the world isn't picking on you, but challenging you to discover new ways of finding the beauty in it.    

RUN Review

I gave up on American Horror Story some time ago after consistently being intrigued for three or four episodes every year and then consistently realizing I didn't care at all about what was happening. Blame AHS for my complete lack of interest in Netflix's Ratched, but I say this to preface my review of a Sarah Paulson thriller to say I have not kept up with my Sarah Paulson performances as of late. Within those renewed opportunities I would give AHS each season though, I saw enough of the actress to understand how good she was at toeing the line between charming, conniving, and downright evil. Paulson likes to take on...complicated characters it would seem (Ocean's 8 feels more like the exception rather than the rule at this point) and that kind of duality, that type of unhinged serenity is again put to good use in writer/director Aneesh Chaganty's RUN. One may or may not recognize Chaganty's name for writing and directing 2018's Searching, but if not your memory might be jogged with the additional information that Searching is the one that takes place entirely through a computer screen and stars Harold from Harold & Kumar or Sulu from the new Star Trek films. Yep, that's the one. Searching illustrated that Chaganty had a knack for knowing how to meld story and execution in a way that provoked real understanding on the part of the character's plight while also delivering moments of genuine tension. Much of the same could be said for the filmmaker's follow-up (which he again penned with co-writer Sev Ohanian) as RUN almost feels more like an ode to Alfred Hitchcock than his previous film given the more traditional nature of the story and filmmaking approach, but while Chaganty's sophomore effort is somewhat predictable when it comes to the narrative (emphasis on somewhat due to extenuating circumstances he could not control) the film is still a grade-A thriller in regards to engaging the audience in the core mystery as well as making them feel a part of the experience. What is missing from RUN that propelled Searching into the next stratosphere though is what in fact makes this feel more like a traditional ode to Hitchcock in that there is no modern element to either convey a timely commentary or defiantly place Chaganty's own stamp on it. Instead, RUN plays things in a more orthodox fashion while doing so with the same level of craftsmanship Chaganty proved he'd mastered in his debut feature ultimately resulting in a modern mystery of a thriller that feels as if it could have debuted thirty years ago yet somehow manages to deliver if not necessarily a fresh take on the material, but a satisfying one nonetheless.  


It's difficult to know where to begin with Hillbilly Elegy. In one sense, we have to consider the context of the individuals this story is about and in another we must accept this specific facet to be the truth of their lives. How does one reconcile that author J.D. Vance's memoir on which this film is based is both undoubtedly a vivid recollection of his own childhood as well as a romanticized portrait of a place in America where the pride of having been left behind has a lot to do with the refusal to move forward? The conflicted feelings about how and what the film is representing naturally extend to the DNA of the film itself as, in the opening moments, Gabriel Basso's Vance tells us how much he loved visiting rural Kentucky when he was a boy despite being raised in the rust belt of Ohio; it was the memories he made while visiting the Blue Grass State that he was most fond of. The film quickly contradicts these kind words with a scene where a thirteen year-old Vance (Owen Asztalos) encounters a band of local bullies before being rescued by his local relatives in Kentucky. Vance is obviously sentimental about these moments and has therefore made them more appealing in his memory, but how far does the gaze of these rose-tinted glasses reach? Depending on the author's age at the time of the events being described, what circumstances are being missed and what details are being diminished? How much is Vance actually misremembering? There are a lot of questions left unanswered that director Ron Howard doesn't feel the need to address as he largely focuses on the core family dynamic at the heart of Vance's story, but what's riveting about the execution of Hillbilly Elegy is that it feels the need to explain as much as it does chronicle the reasons these people have ended up the way they have. There is this notion that because they really are well-meaning people underneath their poor life choices that they deserve some type of exception when it comes to discussing said shortcomings. Aside from the complicated cultural discussion around the "hillbilly condition" though, and how sorry viewers should be made to feel for these individuals who can't get out of their own way, Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) smartly focus on the prevalent themes around how much community and family genuinely mattered to Vance while growing up in these undeniably unforgiving environments and the complexities of the problems he faced and deals with well into his adult life due to this jagged support system.       


Fatman is the kind of movie that is primed for embrace by movie nerds across the internet based on the concept alone. It almost doesn't even matter how well the writing/directing team of brothers Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms pull this off or don't because all that really matters is that the idea remains the centerpiece. Whether everything surrounding the premise enhances the experience or not the fact they can say sixty-four year-old Mel Gibson was down for playing a disgruntled Santa Claus who has to contend with a hitman sent by a disappointed child is all they really needed to say to sell anyone on it. What does in fact actually sell said pitch though, is that the Brothers Nelms seemingly approached their script as if it were any other post-2010 Gibson actioner. In other words, St. Nick could just as easily have been played by Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn or any other number of aging actors that tried their hand at the "old man action movie" genre post-Taken. While it may have been fun to see someone like Tom Cruise give this lowly low-budget B-movie a kick in the pants by playing into the bait and switch of the tone, Gibson is admittedly a perfect choice for this project. As the man will be working to rebuild his legacy for the remainder of his career these ghosts of Gibson's past somewhat work in the actors favor here as his public persona and very public meltdowns inform this version of a Santa Claus that has lost his influence and become little more than a joke to people. Hell, the role may have even been written with Gibson in mind as the screenplay is one thousand percent banking on the idea the audience will get a good chuckle out of the idea Gibson is playing Santa, a man whose whole deal is that he's completely altruistic in nature. There is no better way to appeal to the masses or earn back some gratitude than by taking the piss out of yourself and Gibson fully commits to doing so here. No, there isn't much more to the movie than this idea of a tongue in cheek take on the most innocent and well-meaning of holidays via a genre of movie that couldn't be more the opposite, but given Gibson's commitment to the bit, the Nelms' ability to manage a tone that's over the top without crossing the threshold from absurdity to stupidity, and the sheer presence that is Walton Goggins, Fatman turns out to be an amusing romp if not an immediate staple of the Christmas season.       


As much about those she encounters as it is Frances McDormand's Fern, Chloé Zhao's Nomadland chronicles a year in the life of a woman whose world is dying and her journey to discover a new one. McDormand's performance is as reassuring as ever, but its these portraits Zhao paints of those the grind has forgotten that give the film a sense of hope without ever romanticizing its notions. In fact, everything about Zhao's latest is as authentic as one would expect if familiar with the filmmaker's previous features in Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider. While most will know Zhao's name soon enough for directing Marvel's The Eternals it is her documentary-like approach to fictional material that will seemingly carry over no matter the brand she applies it to. This stylistic approach is one that requires a certain level of patience and attention, but as with most things that are worth investing time and effort in if one is able to give those things over to the film completely what it delivers is more than a rewarding experience - it's a stunningly cathartic one. Such praise is heaped upon the film with caution, mind you, as Nomadland is also a film about both everything and nothing. It's a movie difficult to describe to people in terms of why it carries the weight it does as it would appear to be little more than a road movie from the outside looking in. This is a movie in which we see Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand play a character who goes from one job to the next, living out of her van, while allowing the third act of her life to be shaped by those she meets along the way. If this were a traditionally structured movie it would undoubtedly include some tangible goal McDormand's Fern was chasing and must reach before a certain deadline or a certain destination that holds the resolve to all her earthly issues she attempts to deal with while on her journey, but Nomadland has no such structure. If Zhao's style and approach are distinctive for nothing else it is actually the complete lack of structure her films exhibit. It is because of this abandonment of design though, that the film is able to capture the loneliness of the world without much dialogue, it is through this that it provides the audience with an exploration they themselves might be craving around who we are and what the point of all this might be while reminding us of how good we can be, need to be, and must be to one another while we're still here.