Film Review: “Human Capital”

HUMAN CAPITAL
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Marisa Tomei, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff
Directed by: Marc Meyers
Not Rated
Running Time: 95 mins.
Vertical Entertainment

An academic awards dinner serves as a turning point for multiple families when a hit and run accident leaves one of its wait staff dead in Marc Meyers’s Human Capital. The film boasts a solid cast lead by Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard and Marisa Tomei but its rigid structuring choices throw the film off balance as it delves ever deeper into the melodramatic. The resolution to its mystery proves murky and is not quite given enough space to breathe before the film’s conclusion.

Director Meyers and screenwriter Oren Moverman (adapting a novel by Stephen Amidon) split the film up in such a way that the pivotal day of the dinner leading up to the murder is shown through the lens of three characters played by Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei and Maya Hawke. It’s the multi-POV strategy we’ve seen with films such as Crash, but on a smaller scale. The trouble with these rigid thirds is that while they all are sort of negotiating with varying degrees of class inequality and value in humanity over money, they don’t quite convalesce in a meaningful way. Largely they depend on leaden dialogue to hit you over the head with each character arc’s Central Theme before we shift to the next one.

Unfortunately I found the first arc, that of Schreiber’s Drew, to be the most compelling of the three stories. His character figures largest into the characters who felt most genuine–his daughter Shannon (Hawke) and his pregnant wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel, “Get Out”). Schreiber is also easily relatable as a man woefully out of his depth when trying to make a big deal with Sarsgaard’s slimy hedge fund manager Quint. While the film is in no way interested in clarifying the economics at play, Schreiber’s everyman persona makes up for it in his desperate reactions. I felt more interested in the fallout of his bad decisions than I did in getting to crux of the car accident plot.

Beyond Schreiber the film severely underserves the remainder of the cast. I found little to care about in Tomei and Sarsgaard’s relationship. They’re constantly sniping at each other and no doubt trying to hammer home that money can’t buy happiness. Tomei is eventually driven into the arms of a colleague played by Paul Sparks. Usually Sparks is a welcome addition but here it feels like he’s retreading the role he had during his tenure on “House of Cards.” Meanwhile, Aasif Mandvi is a sneering Wall Street bro sidekick to Sarsgaard and feels straight out of an 80’s movie. Eventually the film turns itself over to exciting newcomers Hawke and Alex Wolff (“Hereditary”) but again, their romance and how it all ties into the central mystery drags and feels like it’s trying to throw even more big social themes into the mix in the rush to the finish.

Human Capital is currently available on VOD

Film Review: “Feedback”

FEEDBACK
Starring: Eddie Marsan, Paul Anderson, Ivana Baquero
Directed By: Pedro C. Alonso
Not Rated
Running Time 98 min
Blue Fox Entertainment

A London radio station transforms into a pressure cooker when a late night host is held captive in his own recording studio. What starts as a not-wholly-unexpected hostage situation for the controversial host quickly reveals the thugs have more personal than political reasons for their chosen target. Director Pedro Alonso’s Feedback, which is now out on VOD and releases February 18th on DVD, is a tightly orchestrated thriller that hinges on a strong leading performance from Eddie Marsan despite a questionable point of view. 

Dolan Jarvis (Marsan) has been attacked before. Anchoring a late night radio show called “Grim Reality” where he rages on all things political (Brexit, Russian election tampering, et al), he isn’t as shaken as the average person returning to work after having been attacked by angry listeners. That said, his producer (Anthony Head) is still angling to force a co-host on him in the form of rocker Andrew Wilde (Paul Anderson, “Peaky Blinders”). As he starts his usual broadcast, a group of masked thugs trap Jarvis in his studio and threaten him to stick to their exact script when Wilde arrives. At first Jarvis balks but he gets on board when he realizes his daughter, who also happens to be in the radio offices that night, as well as his young studio technicians are threatened as well.

What should be a limiting contrivance–holding all action captive in a recording space–is actually one of the film’s strengths. Alonso goes a long way to making sure that the viewers feel Jarvis’s claustrophobia as his assailants bear down on him. The pristine studio also makes for a good visual contrast with the acts of violence. Then in the latter stages of the film, he keeps throwing Marsan further into situations where he feels more and more like a rat in a maze. It’s highly stressful and highly effective.

Marsan meanwhile as the victim gains a lot of sympathy when he’s first caught that pays off in dividends for the film. Alonso pulls a bit of a switcheroo by firmly placing the audience on Jarvis’s team so to speak before the ostensible villains of the piece get him and Wilde to expose more of their past digressions on air. If it weren’t for Marsan and Anderson’s respective charisma, I think this film would have run a real risk of losing viewers completely when all is said and done. Your mileage may vary, but despite where the film takes the characters, it still delivers several gasp-inducing thrills and is worthwhile for Marsan’s performance.

Film Review: “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

BIRDS OF PREY
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco
Directed By: Cathy Yan
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 mins.
Warner Brothers

After a major breakup, one Harley Quinn is down in the dumps. But dammit if she’s not going to lift herself out of it and take audiences along for the ride. And what a wild ride it is. Cathy Yan and producer/Harley herself, Margot Robbie deliver a creative, intense and above all, fun burst of action that really couldn’t be better placed on the calendar than right before Valentine’s Day. Grab your favorite colorful candy, your friends, your pet hyenas (just not any shitty exes) and go.

For those unfamiliar with Ms Quinn, director Yan opens with a helpful primer without  having to look at a single frame of Suicide Squad. HQ was a brilliant med student-turned-psychiatrist-turned-lover of the Joker, her former patient. It was a position that allowed her to get away with murder, possibly literally. No one was crossing the Clown Prince of Crime. Unfortunately for her, it was also a subjugated position. Her schemes weren’t appreciated when they succeeded, she was abused and taken for granted. Yan doesn’t go into the particulars of the breakup and blessedly doesn’t bring Jared Leto or any other iteration of “Mr. J” in here—because he’s besides the point—but Harley is a bit of a mess as a result. She’s already dealing with an identity crisis when a crime lord named Roman Sionis (McGregor) places a bounty on the young girl that Harley herself is meant to be delivering to him in 24 hours, on pain of death. 

If the above has you questioning where the “Birds of Prey” from the title come in, you would be right, but I’d also wonder if you watched a single trailer for this movie. This is very much the Harley show. Her teammates come in gradually—Black Canary (Smolett-Bell) first and most prominently, followed by police officer Renee Montoya (Perez) and Huntress (Winstead). They all have their own grievances with Roman. The good news is, Harley cheerfully gets you up to speed on their backstories as they join the party. Meanwhile the actresses truly make the most of their limited screen time. Winstead in particular sells an assassin who is as fierce in battle as she is socially awkward. I mean, if all you do is train for vengeance, yeah, you might not be great with new friends.

The person who gets the most time to balance out Harley’s zaniness with his own brand of ham is Ewan McGregor as Roman, aka The Black Mask. He and main enforcer, Mr. Zsasz (Chris Messina) are operating on their own levels of strange and flamboyant and I was into it. Again, he could have even gone for more over the top as far as I’m concerned, but his finale left me more than satisfied. Above all, if the worst I can say about this movie is I wanted more and not less in a time where bloated two and a half hour runtimes are the norm (sorry, Aquaman!) that’s not a bad thing.

Finally not to mix up my IPs or anything, but as this movie unfurled, I actually thought of Disney Imagineers. As it goes, they’re encouraged to “plus” their rides and attractions–a phrase they use when taking a solid idea and ramping it up with “what if?” possibilities. Every action sequence in Birds of Prey feels like it’s been plussed. It’s not enough that the stunt work be impeccable but what if everyone also dressed fantastic? Or what if a gunfight takes place among rainbow smoke bombs? Turn on some sprinklers while you’re at it! Have a climax in a carnival. The result is a film that feels like a comic book in the best of ways.

Going into the new year, I was majorly psyched for the trifecta of big name female-led superhero movies we have coming our way. Birds of Prey just blew the doors off 2020 and raised the shiny, glittery bar. Bring on Natasha and Diana.

Panic Fest Film Review: “Scare Package”

Starring: Jeremy King, Noah Segan and Toni Trucks
Directed by: Courtney and Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan and Baron Vaugh
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes

For a moment if you could, look at two different subgenres; horror anthologies and horror parodies. There are some strong candidates in each category. For anthologies, you got “Creepshow” and “Trick R Treat.” For parodies, you got “Scary Movie” and “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.” I know I’m leaving a few movies out of the categories, but there’s a reason I want you to think about these two. How difficult do you think it is to combine them? I know what some of you are thinking. “Cabin in the Woods.” But what if a horror anthology parody film even subverted that?

I know my opening salvo promises grand things, but for most horror aficionados, I promise that you’ll love “Scare Package.” Very rarely do I want to immediately rewatch an anthology film or parody after leaving the theater, so this is a rare occasion for me. The main reason is that anthologies stay out their welcome and parodies require an audience to soak up the hit or miss laughs. “Scare Package” is the kind of film that’s prime for an audience, but will certainly make most people sitting at home alone smirk at its mocking nature.

The one thing that makes “Scare Package” work, is Aaron B. Koontz, the man in charge of the wrap-around story, as well as the overall product. One caveat that Koontz revealed at Panic Fest, which this movie was screened at, was that he allowed creative freedom to all other directors and writers, while providing oversight. He wasn’t a guiding hand, but he certain was able to cherry pick the scripts that best fit his overall vision. It’s a delicate balancing act, which pays off in dividends. While some shorts in the anthology fit the ridiculing nature, other shorts don’t sneer as much, but still pay homage to an idea or manage to riff on a pop-culture idea.

I’d really like to dive into the individual shorts, but I’d feel it’s unfair and that I’d fall into the stereotype of reviewing anthology films; breaking each one down, outlining strengths and weaknesses while revealing which ones I favored. For a movie like “V/H/S,” I’d find that as a completely fair form of critique, but for “Scare Package,” it feels unfair. While a film like “V/H/S” is so scattershot, “Scare Package” is a, not to sound cliché, complete package. Everything is so fluid, you sometimes forget you’re watching an anthology.

The one thing “Scare Package” avoids is length. Sometimes these movies linger too long, even if the shorts and movie as a whole are good. A movie like “ABCs of Death” can work, but you find yourself fast forwarding on rewatches. With “Scare Package” you’ll undoubtedly find yourself finding some new nod or wink every time. The movie as a whole, and each individual short, serve as little bows to the ideas and genres that they parody. But like I said at the beginning, it also parodies “Cabin in the Woods,” which is becoming a genre on its own, where characters knowingly acknowledge or reference the tropes of the genre that are currently on display. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but Koontz does it well, without disregarding the merits of the idea altogether.

“Scare Package” not only serves as a blueprint for future horror anthology parodies, but a blueprint for anthologies and parodies. It’ll make horror fans roar with laughter, and for those who aren’t into scary flicks, they’ll find fun in all the pokes and prods at the films they can’t stomach. I enjoy the fact that the horror community enjoys comedy, even when it’s directed at themselves. “Scare Package” is damn near a revelation, especially considering that one of the modern lovers of horror/shock films, Joe Bob Briggs himself, arrives on scene. “Scare Package” pulls out all the stops to make the audience laugh and grin. Koontz talked about the makings of a sequel, with a promise that it’ll parody sequels. I look forward to the promise, and the possibility of a franchise that’ll inevitably parody franchises, remakes, and nostalgia culture.

Panic Fest Film Review: “The Cleansing Hour”

Starring: Kyle Gallner, Ryan Guzman and Alix Angelis
Directed by: Damien LeVeck
Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Shudder

Can found footage survive anymore? 2014’s “Unfriended” and 2018’s “Truth or Dare” played with the idea of realism by showing us that the paranormal can seep into social media and the Internet. Enter 2020’s “The Cleansing Hour,” a movie about an online stream that televises exorcisms to curious onlookers and morbid fans around the globe. Although the exorcisms, aren’t real.

Expanding on his 2016 short, Director Damien LeVeck squeezes out every drop of fun he can have in “The Cleansing Hour.” Reverend Max (Guzman) is far from being the man of God he portrays. Max and his friend Drew (Gallner) stage exorcisms, working with an online encyclopedia of demons so that every episode is fresh with a new other-worldly villain to fight. Afterwards, they generally drink and Max takes home a girl to record performing sexual acts. Their lifestyle is interrupted when things go awry during their latest broadcast though. The actor who was going to show up and be “possessed” never shows, so Drew’s fiancé Lane (Angelis) substitutes. But her acting is too good. Her voice changes, she digs her fingers into the chair she’s strapped into, shattering her nails, and her eyes have turned a stained yellow.

The movie doesn’t necessarily criticize or turn a mirror towards society, but it does take subtle digs at the social media culture permeating throughout the globe. While some people watch in horror, fully believing it’s real, others watch laughing. A livestream chat shows people who type trollish remarks as people on set begin to die, believing that it isn’t real. Or maybe they do and the Internet has made them soulless creatures. Although when the demon inhabiting Lane decides to poke fun at the digital age like one of the Evil Dead, the commentary and humor fall flat.

What helps “The Cleansing Hour,” as opposed to a film like “Truth or Dare,” is the small budget charm. The practical gore and blood effects explode, figuratively and literally. The actors, while not the best, may have a career after this film, especially Angelis who gnaws on the scenery like a demon hungry for human souls. It’s easy to forgive the cast and crew since they had a shoestring budget for a lot of the film’s flaws. Just don’t expect anything new to the exorcism genre other than the setting.

“The Cleansing Hour” is late-night fun that blends a couple of original concepts and tropes of the genre. Some might say the film has a twist, but for veterans of these movies, they’ll be able to spot the set-up. Even though I suspected the eventual outcome, I didn’t mind because of how brisk the pacing is. “The Cleaning Hour” is a surprise for those who come across it on Shudder, but don’t expect the 21st century equivalent of “The Exorcist.” 

Panic Fest Film Review: “Extra Ordinary”

Starring: Meave Higgins, Barry Ward and Will Forte
Directed by: Mike Ahern and Enda Lougman
Rated: R
Running Time: 94 minutes
Wildcard Distribution

Driving instructor Rose has a bit of a secret. Only a few people know about it, and every once and awhile, someone who is told about that secret will seek her services. That secret is her ability to communicate with the dead. But an even bigger secret, is the key to her psychic abilities which is her father, who is no longer with her. She saw the disastrous and absurd result of those abilities and refuses to use them, even if it’s for good. That is until a cute, recently widowed father, Martin (Ward), comes along because he’s been pestered by his recently deceased wife.

There’s more to the spiritual rom-com “Extra Ordinary” than just Rose and her pursuit of happiness. Causing an equal amount of commotion in the background is a one-hit wonder musician, Christian (Forte). He’s looking to rejuvenate his deceased rock career, but not with a catchy new song. He’s on the hunt for a virgin sacrifice that’ll be offered up to Satan during the blood Moon. He enters Rose’s realm when the virgin he has an eye on is Martin’s teenage daughter.

One of the biggest strengths about this film is its irreverent humor. It’s never too peculiar, it’s never too crass or mean towards it’s cast and it seems to hover like a specter in this gray area where it remains charming, no matter how outlandish it gets. Credit goes to the directors and writers, Mike Ahern and Enda Lougman, but an equal amount goes to Forte and Higgins. Higgins provides this warmth and sincerity to Rose that’ll charm your pants off, or hopefully Martin’s. Forte, a mainstay in the bizarre comedy scene of America, taps into his natural off-the-wall humor and makes every scene with Christian an absolute delight.

As much as I’d love to give this ghostly rom-com a higher grade, it still feels like the plot has been stretched a bit too thin. If it wasn’t for the consistent jokes, this movie could have easily outstayed its welcome, and nearly does. It easily could have benefited from having a five to 10 minute shave off the runtime. However, when things start to feel a little bit too long the final third of the film, “Extra Ordinary” goes straight for the comedic jugular in its final act. So without that ending, as well as the performances, this movie came precariously close to failing to live up to its title.

From the silly things ghosts inhabit to Rose’s attitude towards life, this film is a pleasant surprise. It may be a hard sell, especially since the movie begins like a “Tim and Eric” sketch and Forte’s gonzo slapstick can be a bit much for some. If you find “Extra Ordinary” on a streaming service late at night, I guarantee it’ll find a way to put a smile on your face.

Film Review: “Uncut Gems”

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett and Idina Menzel
Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
A24

Just like “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Punch-Drunk Love” before it, “Uncut Gems” will certainly fire up the debate about whether or not Adam Sandler is a good actor. I believe he’s good, if given a precise role that caters to his natural man-child characters we’ve seen in his comedies, as well as a film that allows him to let his unchecked rage loose. However, “Uncut Gems” does more than reignite that debate, it gives us what is undoubtedly Sandler’s best performance.

Sandler isn’t a traditional man-child in “Uncut Gems.” He plays somewhat successful New York City jewelry store owner, Howard Ratner. He not only sells jewelry worth tens of thousands of dollars, but has NBA superstars like Kevin Garnett coming into his store. He appears to make enough money to sustain a double life. He spends half his life at a suburban mansion with his wife and kids, and the other half at a downtown apartment with his young, attractive girlfriend who also works at his jewelry store. Undercutting his entire life though, is a crippling and dangerous addiction.

It doesn’t take audiences long to recognize that Howard’s metaphorical “chasing the dragon” is sports betting. Throughout his day he pawns items, gets chased down by criminals and thugs he owes money to, and places ridiculous parlay bets so that his payout is astronomical. Howard never backs down from a threat. He puffs his chest, talks a big game, and demands respect. But we’re shown throughout the movie that he’s not a strong man. He can barely raise a fist in a fight, cowers at a strong enough threat, is far from being physically fit, and doesn’t even own a single firearm. Howard’s a proverbial powder keg.

Just like in “Good Time,” the writers and directors of “Uncut Gems,” the Safdie Brothers, have crafted an anxiety-inducing criminal journey. The path they create for their characters is a master class in suspense and dread, but we’re never concerned about the leads. Howard is a scumbag, through and through. He’s not someone to root for, and if anything, we’re hoping that he has an ill-fitting end. It’s everyone around him we’re concerned about. He has a brother, who’s with the mobsters that are demanding money from him, who only shows concern when the criminals stuff Howard in a trunk naked. Howard has a family at home that’s oblivious to the vultures circling above. He has a girlfriend, who while naive, doesn’t deserve the danger that Howard attracts. It all makes for some riveting scenes, where guns are never shown, but the threats and words exchanged foreshadow an exciting third act.

Just like Martin Scorsese, who serves as an executive producer on this film, the Safdie Brothers love chaotic scumbags. It’s not that they’re smart or cunning. They use what little power and money they have to push everyone around them to their limits. For fans of crime thrillers, “Uncut Gems” is a must-see. For Sandler fans, you’ve never seen him like this.

Film Review: “Little Women”

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen
Directed By: Greta Gerwig
Rated: PG
Running Time: 135mins
Sony Pictures

Little Women has been adapted to the screen a dozen times, so approaching it hot off of her acclaimed Lady Bird, it appears writer-director Greta Gerwig decided to adhere to its own Amy March’s strict standards: “to be great or nothing” Which is to say, Gerwig’s telling is pretty great. Emphasis on the pretty. Her ensemble cast, lead by Lady Bird alum Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh (“Midsommar”), brings a fresh take to Louisa May Alcott’s iconic characters amidst an absolutely gorgeously mounted production. This adaptation of Alcott’s tale of a quartet of sisters finding their way in Civil War era New England feels both classic and vividly relevant to today.

Full disclosure time–I haven’t read Alcott’s novel. Like many kids of the 90s my introduction to the March family was with 1994’s release starring Winona Ryder and Christian  Bale. It so fit into 90s cozy family fare that it came to vhs in one of those big puffy plastic boxes like Disney cartoons. This isn’t a slight against it, I love that version. But it did make me wary that I would be plodding through some well worn territory. Happily, Ms Gerwig flips the script by shirking a linear adaptation. Instead we follow our heroine Jo March (Ronan) from the point at which she’s already pitching her life story at a New York publisher, and then we go winding back and forth through her adolescence in New England. This approach gives the tales of the March’s idyllic family history a warm veneer of nostalgia, which actually feels a more honest way to see it.

Additionally, with Jo as our primary entry point into Marches, Gerwig’s update places a greater emphasis on the sisterly bonds than their romantic entanglements. Timothee Chalamet does well as Laurie–taking over from Bale as the mischievous neighbor boy who pursues both Jo and eventually Amy (Pugh)–but for this 2019 version, he rightly takes a back seat in screen time to, for example, Jo’s bond with her ailing sister Beth (Scanlen).            

This treatment especially benefits the oft-maligned Amy March. In 1994 the duties of the youngest March were shared between a very childish Kirsten Dunst and a very cold Samantha Mathis but here Florence Pugh effortlessly takes her from tween to adulthood. Pugh is having an amazing year, from her breakthrough leading role in Fighting with My Family to a wrenching performance in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, she is exhibiting an incredible range that she flexes even more as Amy. In this non-linear telling, Amy has the advantage of being introduced not as a clingy youngest sibling, but as the aspiring artist studying in Paris. Her childhood crimes (which are numerous and feature Pugh for the second time this year participating in arson) are more readily forgiven through an adult lens whereas when they were previously presented in “real time”, she was a little monster. Meanwhile, though Pugh is given aging assistance via wardrobe decisions and some well-deployed bangs, it is her performance, her entire bearing and pitch of her voice that fully sells Amy’s growth. It’s a special performance that I am hoping will be recognized this awards season since, if Hereditary’s snubbing last year is any indication, Academy voters might not have the stomach for Midsommar. But I digress. 

Supporting all these sparkling performances, Gerwig’s production radiates warmth and beauty. She gives us a screenplay that lets the March clan talk all over each other like a living, breathing family, costumes and settings that frequently look like they could be paintings and underscores it all with yet another winning score from Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”). It is a lovely holiday gift of a film.  

Film Review: “The Two Popes”

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujin
Directed By: Fernando Meirelles
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126mins
Netflix

In 2013, the Catholic church faced a prospect it had not dealt with in 600 years when Pope Benedict XVI decided to step down as head of the Catholic Church. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named as his successor, taking the title of Pope Francis. The official reason Benedict gave was declining health but he also did so in the face of mounting progressive movements among the global congregation as well as the rampant allegations of sexual abuse from clergy. In Netflix’s new film, The Two Popes, writer Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour”) stages an imagined meeting of the minds between Benedict and Bergoglio before this changing of the guard. Each of the men having crises of faith and trying to convince the other to keep or take on the title, respectively. Fortunately for director Fernando Meirelles, acting legends Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce stepped in to play these two. Unfortunately for viewers, their discussions do not dominate the entire film as you might hope nor do those talks address the church scandals in a meaningful way. That Meirelles’s film manages to tread through such tonally rocky terrain without more of an issue is down to great performances from Pryce and Hopkins.

Meirelles’s film opens amidst the death of Pope John Paul II and the ensuing 2005 papal conclave. The highly secretive process requires a super majority of the cardinals convening in Rome to elect a new pope. Publicly it was a spectacle in which crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square in eager anticipation of seeing white smoke to signal that choice had been made. The interior specifics of this conclave were under official oaths of secrecy. The film brings this all to vivid life within a recreation of the Vatican and introduces Bergoglio (Pryce) and Ratzinger (Hopkins) as opposing roads for the church to take at this crucial moment in time. Ratzinger is the more conservative of the two and glad-hands the other attendees like a politician while Bergoglio downplays talk from his peers who insist he is also a favorite. Ratzinger, redubbed Benedict, wins the votes. 

Anthony McCarten’s script is based on his own stage play of this story and the best parts of this film felt like a stage production. The film easily moves from the spectacle of the conclave to the intimate summit between Hopkins and Pryce with Bergoglio seeking to tender his resignation from a Benedict who refuses to grant the request. Hopkins plays Benedict here with an air of mischief that lifts all their interactions. Bergoglio is pressing Benedict with his sincere desire to leave while Benedict brushes him off and inconveniences him at every turn. Their dialogue is also peppered with charming little old man moments. Bergoglio being the more “in touch” of the two brings both ABBA and the Beatles into the discussion for example. But once the gravity of Benedict wanting to leave takes priority–he speaks of losing touch with the voice of god–and Bergoglio’s reluctance has to be supported by how he got to where he is, the film drags. As interesting as it is and as capable an actor Juan Minujín is at playing the younger version of Pryce in war torn Argentina, it shifts the focus of the film down in taking it entirely through his past.

It’s also jarring to have the two old men watching the World Cup as though they’re in a set up from Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip while literally dropping out the audio of Benedict confessing regarding the abuse scandal later in the film. Such a jarring decision when we’ve already seen a lot of Bergoglio’s rough past, made me wonder if they knew acknowledging this darkness was a bridge too far in tone, your mileage may vary. Either way, I was grateful to see these two acting legends share the screen as much as they did.  

The Two Popes is now streaming on Netflix

Film Review: “Little Joe”

LITTLE JOE
Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor
Directed By: Jessica Hausner
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Magnolia Pictures 

Due to the prominence of Little Shop of Horrors‘ famous “Audrey II” in pop culture, it makes sense that I approached Little Joe–the titular blossom in Jessica Hausner’s new feature, named after its lead’s young son–somewhat warily. After all, naming that unnatural plant after its owner’s closest loved one didn’t quite work out for Seymour, did it? Both the plant and the feature Little Joe are not quite the bombastic spectacle as that man-eater, but they offer a few creepy elements of their own. Part sci-fi, part social commentary and with hints of horror, Hausner’s film is visually arresting but its many thematic seedlings never fully take root.  

Alice (Emily Beecham) works in an advanced plant breeding lab, where she has just made a breakthrough in engineering: a plant that is meant to boost its keepers happiness just by breathing in its presence. This antidepressant alternative, which Alice dubs “Little Joe” after her son, sounds promising but Alice’s coworkers remain suspicious. Particularly after the Little Joes causes “his” planted neighbors to wilt. Alice’s only supporter appears to be Chris (Ben Whishaw) who’s anxious for Alice to come out for a drink with him. The first red flag comes in the form of fellow scientist, Bella’s (Kerry Fox) dog running rampant in the lab after encountering the new plant. His owner was already in opposition to Alice’s work and even more so after she becomes adamant that his encounter made the dog “not himself.” Despite this, Alice has a seedling of her own currently potted in the home she sometimes shares with her son (she is divorced), the human Joe. 

As you can imagine, suddenly Joe isn’t exactly himself either. The trouble with the film comes in how it never really commits to how malevolent Little Joe is meant to be. In some of those encountered they do gain a sort of vapid air of cheerfulness. In others, their entire personalities take hard turns. Human Joe suddenly does want to move out to live with his father while the lovelorn Chris gets more aggressive in his overtures to Alice. At times it seems to lean into critiquing what exactly is true happiness–if you’re only happy on a drug, does it count and does it matter? At the same time though, Hausner introduces this angle of the plant wanting to multiply via its human hosts and a whole lot of movie pseudo-science. A sort of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. But it’s an extreme it only really goes to in one tense sequence with Fox’s character trapped in Little Joe’s greenhouse. 

If there’s one thing that’s consistent, it’s Hausner’s overall grip on the film’s visual design.  Production designer’s Katharina Woppermann beautiful pastel palette complements Beecham’s overall aloof demeanor well from her sterile labs to her small home. Little Joe’s flower with its vibrant puffs of blood red pollen is also fittingly ominous. Meanwhile Hausner’s camera never quite stays still, even roving slowly through the quietest of conversations to keep viewers just a little on edge throughout. It’s unfortunate however that the visual team’s work is frequently undermined by a jarring score of loud clashing sounds. Again, the score is telling me horror film, but Hausner isn’t giving me enough to support it.

Overall, like a botanical garden, Little Joe is something I admired in a slow meandering sort of way for its beauty and craftsmanship more than any sort of emotional connection. 

Film Review: “Dark Waters”

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Rated: R
Running Time: 126 minutes
Focus Features

“Dark Waters” sounds like the title to a horror movie, and it kind of is. Potentially, probably, most likely, sitting in your gut right now is a chemical that you didn’t know you were being poisoned with. It was marketed as safe and did what it was supposed to do, help make life a little more convenient. The solutions to some of our minor inconveniences means that these secret chemicals will take forever to break down. That means even after we’re dead and decomposed, they will still be there.

“Dark Waters” is about the moral journey of corporate lawyer, Andrew Billott (Ruffalo). He goes from defending the big boys to defending the little guy. It comes after he’s approached by West Virginia farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Not only are Tennant’s cows dying at an alarming rate, but their remains reveal startling organ problems and grotesque mutations. Tennant believes the American conglomerate, DuPont, is to blame. Tennant says their landfill upstream poisoned the water that his cow’s drink from. What Billott doesn’t know, is that he’s about to uncover a decades-long public health crisis, that’s been kept under wraps.

Based on real-life events documents in a New York Times Magazine article, “Dark Waters” is a 21st century David vs. Goliath. It’s not only about corporate wrongdoing, but the bureaucratic red tape that’s allowed it to fester outside the public eye. We learn how DuPont stepped through gaping loopholes in the EPA’s regulatory system, and then attempted to take advantage of the political system, at the local, state and federal level, when Billott busts out the flashlight and begins digging through DuPont’s dirty laundry.

Ruffalo, whose characters should be foaming mad, and sometimes is, plays Billott as a modest, soft and well-spoken attorney. He’s angry behind-the-scenes, but when coming face-to-face with DuPont’s legal team and leaders, he’s methodical and calm. It’s the kind of performance that makes it seem like every other actor is overacting, especially when Tim Robbins sticks his head in. This is Ruffalo’s vehicle, as it should be since his name is all over it, and he takes command of the ship with extraordinary confidence.

Despite the message and Ruffalo’s performance, “Dark Waters” suffers from a choppy pace and the overwhelming feeling that’s it outstaying it’s welcome towards the end. Granted, it’s a two-hour movie that tries to condense a decade and a half or more worth of actual content. But there’s still a lot of odd editing choices. At times, the movie smartly condenses years with on-screen text to show the passage of time or fill the audience in on some key plot points. Other times, it appears to be twiddling it’s thumbs, content with unnecessary back story and a handful of bizarre cameos. Cameos that feel a little grotesque considering the movie’s content. It barrels forward at full-steam in the beginning, but begins to lose a lot of its punch as the movie comes to a close, which is a bit unfortunate.

“Dark Waters” is the kind of film that should make us all feel concerned about the kind of toxins that have been deemed safe by the government, as well as the products that are continually marketed as safe by unchecked corporate America. Even though this movie is far from perfect, Ruffalo should feel proud to have his name all over this. Anyone who sees this movie will think twice about the marketing fed to them daily, the companies that promise to have their best interest, and the politicians who say “Trust us.”

Film Review: “Marriage Story”

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Rated: R
Running Time: 136 minutes
Netflix

It’s an impressive feat to reach out to an audience and make them feel something, especially when those audience members aren’t able to relate to the plight at hand. I say this because I’ve never been married, so I haven’t experienced the painful complications surrounding divorce. Despite that, I felt the pain, sorrow, and heartbreak experienced throughout “Marriage Story.”

When we first meet the New York couple, Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson), they’re narrating all the little things that they like about one another. We come to find out they’re both mentally going over a list of things they love about one another. The lists were at the behest of a mediator because their marriage is falling apart. Both stay silent over the list, choosing to never read them. Charlie, a playwright, and Nicole, an actress, have decided that marriage counseling isn’t right for them, and maybe their union isn’t right for them as well. Things erode further as Nicole accepts an acting job in Los Angeles, taking their son with her. Things crumble even further once Nicole is told by a friend about a divorce lawyer.

The narrations at the beginning feel like a distant memory midway through the movie. The split reaches a point where it becomes about who can do the most emotional damage, no dime spared. Even their more cordial conversations, feel tense because they’re on the verge of lunging at one another a delivering another blow to the other’s heart. Thankfully some of the tension is undercut by sardonic comedy and moments where ancillary characters simply help the two main characters breathe.

There is no right and wrong in “Marriage Story,” because it’s all messy, just like a real-life divorce. Now granted, director/writer Noah Baumbach does a fantastic job of layering each character with relatable and detestable attributes. We see moments of selfishness and selflessness from Charlie and Nicole. Baumbach does slip up in the middle and towards the end as he tends to focus more on Charlie’s distress and misery, rather than giving the audience a peek at what kind of turmoil is going on with Nicole.

“Marriage Story” offers up two of the best performance to date from Driver and Johansson, who are simply magnetic together on-screen. The dialogue is brutal, honest and straightforward, which bats away any potentially dull moments. Their divorce is a slow-moving car crash that you can’t look away from because of how engrossing it is, but because of how well Charlie and Nicole have been written, you can only hope that they both make it out OK in the end.

Film Review: “Queen & Slim”

Film review: “Queen & Slim”
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith
Directed by: Melina Matsoukas
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 132 minutes
Universal Pictures

Ideally, a great work of art will have a deeply emotional and even an intellectual impact on the viewer. It is no different with the genre of cinema. A rare, special example of such a work is the new drama “Queen & Slim.” Erroneously labeled by some as a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, “Queen & Slim” brilliantly explores the fear and outrage felt by many in America over numerous fatal shootings in recent years of black men, often young ones, by white law enforcement officers. While its climax is heavy-handed and the overall portrayal of the police is insultingly generalized, “Queen & Slim” remains a terrific specimen of cinematic art.

The story begins innocently enough in a black-owned restaurant where Ernest “Slim” Hines (Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out,” “Black Panther”) and Angela “Queen” Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith, “Jett”) are having their first date. Ernest seems almost outclassed by Angela, an experienced attorney who only said yes to him because she was lonelier than normal on this night in Ohio. During the drive back to her place, a white police officer pulls them over because Ernest forgot to use a turn signal on a deserted street. The situation escalates when the officer forces Ernest out of the car and pulls his gun despite the latter’s cooperation. A struggle ensues, resulting in Ernest fatally shooting the officer in self-defense, all of which is caught on the officer’s dashcam.

Considering her knowledge of the law, Angela inexplicably and fatefully convinces Ernest that they should flee the scene. Thus, begins an arduous journey to the Deep South while trying to avoid a nationwide manhunt that produces a large bounty for their heads. They eventually make it to Louisiana where Angela’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), a pimp suffering from PTSD because of his war service, reluctantly helps aid their quest to get to Florida. Once there, their plan is reach Cuba. This is also when the duo realizes how much of a media sensation they have become across the country and how they have become a symbol to those tired of racial injustice. This is touched upon in one powerful scene, but in the film’s totality it is a paltry effort to explore an important aspect of the story by first-time, feature-length director Melina Matsoukas, who is best known for her music videos, short films and the HBO series “Insecure.”

Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are magical on the silver screen together. Their chemistry is smooth as silk and their powerful, emotional performances, brimming with fear, anger, love and bravery, are worthy of Oscar consideration. Woodbine delivers the best acting of his long career with a brief, yet complicated portrayal of a man swimming in pain beneath the surface of his tough exterior. He, too, should be considered for a nomination come Academy Award time.

It is a misnomer to compare Ernest and Angela to Bonnie and Clyde, who seem to still be mistakenly labeled as some sort of folk heroes like the James brothers. Here is a refresher from a trained historian – Bonnie Parker (1910-34) and Clyde Barrow (1909-34) are credited with murdering at least four civilians and nine law enforcement officers as well as numerous armed robberies and kidnappings. They were not Robin Hood-type characters and bare no resemblance to Ernest and Angela, who go out of their way to not harm anyone during their attempt to get out of the country before being potentially gunned down.

Overall, “Queen & Slim” is a thought-provoking story that is relevant to our times and is so emotionally powerful that it will stick with you long after you have left the theater.

Film Review: “Knives Out”

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Lionsgate

About two years ago, around this time of year, I was criticizing Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” as being stuffy and unimaginative despite the ensemble cast and production budget. Unlike that dreary and forgettable whodunit, “Knives Out” is a welcome addition to the murder-mystery genre.

The mystery in “Knives Out” is spun around the apparent suicide of the Thrombley family patriarch, Harlan (Christopher Plummer). The suspects are the surrounding Thrombley family, made up of a cast characters played by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and others. Each of the Thrombley’s has their own selfish reasons or reasoning for wanting to kill Harlan. Simply put, they’re leeches. But the police aren’t the ones looking into the possibility of foul play. Private detective, Benoit Blanc (Craig), was tasked with finding the killer after a mysterious letter arrived at his door. So he enlists the help of Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Armas), to track down clues and interview family members.

Just like “Clue” and “Murder by Death” before it, “Knives Out” works first as a comedy, and second as a mystery that twists and turns until the very end. Even when you think you’ve figured it all out, the movie manages to unravel a little bit more. If I was to nitpick, just a wee bit, it’d be that the movie reveals a little bit too much, too early on, and takes its time revealing a few more of the twists. However, the comedy masks a lot of its pacing flaws. The silliness of the characters is inevitably undermined by their ulterior motives by the end of the film. The final frame serves as an unmasking for the film’s allegory, which writer/director Rian Johnson has carefully pieced together over the course of a few hours.

“Knives Out,” a modern throwback, works best when it’s delivering one-liners and verbal gut punches during family squabbles. The material moves so fast, that I’m certain there will be some people giving this a re-watch to see what kind of jokes they missed out on. “Knives Out” is engaging, fun, and clever, and what more could you want from a whodunit?

Film Review: “The Report”

Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Benning and Ted Levine 
Directed by: Scott Z. Burns
Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Amazon Studios

It’s easy to lose sight of things that happen with all the constant distractions that we have nowadays. Especially in 2019, it’s difficult to keep up with all the headlines, much less remember ones that happened in 2014. “The Report” is a reminder about one of those headlines that may have skirted under the rug, but it’s a sobering reminder that we shouldn’t let it go away anytime soon.

Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a real-life Senate investigator tasked with looking into the use of torture by the CIA during the War on Terror. It’s established early on that Jones is a meticulous, by-the-books staffer. He’s ready to shine his light into every crevice in the search for the truth, but he has one hand tied behind his back. The agreement between the Senate and the CIA means that he doesn’t get to take any findings with him from a pale, bleak, windowless underground office space at the CIA, and he regularly finds that files are being deleted as he searches. However, those hurdles aren’t going to stop Jones from uncovering what the CIA did and what the CIA doesn’t want anyone to know.

Despite the dense information that “The Report” has to condense, it does it in a reasonable amount of time. It’s the kind of movie that can feel like its three to four hours long, when in reality it’s barely two. That’s not necessarily a knock because Driver is magnificently engrossing as Jones, delivering these exciting monologues when everyone else is procedurally discussing things. This is the kind of political thriller that you’d expect to be flashy, but it’s not. Much of the scenery is straight-forward, the surroundings are bland and some of the characters have to repress their outrage or disgust because of the D.C. environment they’re in.

While Driver is a tour de force in this, its director/writer Scott Z. Burns who should deserve a lot of credit for making this film as entertaining as it is. He manages to whittle down a nearly 7,000 page report into a movie, while also hopping along a lengthy timeline flawlessly, without confusing or talking down to the audience. Anyone who keeps up-to-date with the news will surely be able to follow along and know what’s coming next, but most of the general public will be stunned, if not upset depending on their political affiliations.

Much of what Jones’ and the audience find out as the film progresses is absolutely horrific. Not only is the U.S. participating in immoral techniques, but they don’t work. There comes a point in the film where the CIA plays defense, saying that the facts are misinterpreted and that Jones’ work is nothing but a witch hunt. It might be saying something about temporary day and what’s going on in the nation right now, but I’d like to believe that “The Report” is doing its due diligence at highlighting the work of public servants. Jones’ was in a thankless position, under threat of prison time and espionage. He was doing, what many seeing this movie would believe to be, his public duty and looking for answers that the public needs to know.