Capsule Reviews: July 2021—Recent Releases

Gunpowder Milkshake

About halfway through Gunpowder Milkshake, the Stereolab classic “French Disko” appears on the soundtrack. “This world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in,” sings Læticia Sadier. The lyric seems like a commentary on the film’s fictional world. The song comes right after a car chase featuring an eight-year-old girl in Karen Gillan’s lap, with the girl doing the steering and Gillan barking orders (“HARD LEFT!!!”) and operating the pedals. And that’s not even the most absurd thing we’ve seen in the film so far.

Gunpowder Milkshake is entertaining enough. It has a stellar cast: Gillan and Lena Headey as mother-and-daughter contract killers; Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino as a trio of assassins masquerading as librarians; Paul Giamatti and Ralph Ineson as heads of criminal syndicates. There’s a lot of action, much of it impressively inventive. Unfortunately, it suffers from a lack of originality in plot and form: it often feels like a remake of Léon set in the world of John Wick and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. But then again, if you’re watching it at all, you’re probably getting exactly what you expect.

Directed by Navot Papushado. Starring Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Chloe Coleman, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Ralph Ineson. ★★★

Old

Watching Old often feels like riding an ancient, rickety steam engine that threatens to derail at any moment. Thankfully, M. Night Shyamalan keeps it on track.

That’s not to say that Old isn’t fifty pounds of goofy in a two-pound sack; it definitely is. But the cast sells the material, Shyamalan showcases his visual trademarks as much as possible, and the setting provides plenty of eye candy. I’m not sure the third-act reveal (it’s not really a twist) sends the message people should be hearing right now, but I guess you can’t have everything.

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Eliza Scanlen, Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott, Alexa Swinton. ★★★

Black Widow

Natasha Romanoff’s first (and likely only) solo outing features plenty of explosions and people jumping off things; what else do you expect from a Marvel movie? But it’s the character interplay that makes it worth watching, with Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh (Midsommar), David Harbour (Stranger Things), and Rachel Weisz painting a portrait of a profoundly dysfunctional surrogate family. They’re not exactly The Americans, but they liven up a plot that often feels like Bourne-by-numbers.

But like Gunpowder Milkshake, you’re probably watching it for the cast and the action, not the plot. And the screenwriting team—which includes WandaVision showrunner Jac Schaeffer—manages to find room for some insightful gender commentary.

Directed by Cate Shortland. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone, William Hurt, Olga Kurylenko. ★★★

A CLASSIC HORROR STORY

For about half its running time A Classic Horror Story looks like it’s going to be as depressingly generic as its namesake, following as it does horror movie characters doing horror movie things in a horror movie setting.

Then the twist comes, and I’ll give it this: it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a conceit this clever.

Too bad “clever” doesn’t actually end up meaning “good.” The film’s two halves never mesh coherently and give the impression that they belong together. Sure, the visuals are pretty, in an A24 sort of way. The violence is fairly effective, considering it’s happening to people we don’t give a crap about. (The filmmakers seem to think “is pregnant” and “comes from Bristol” constitutes character development.)

It’s not a total waste of time, but there are probably a thousand movies on Netflix you should watch before this one.

Directed by Roberto De Feo and Paolo Strippoli. Starring Matilda Lutz, Francesco Russo, Peppinno Mazzotta, Will Merrick, Yulia Sobol. ★★

THE GREEN KNIGHT

If there’s one word I’d use to describe David Lowery’s treatment of Arthurian legendry, it’s dense. There’s no way I can unpack The Green Knight to the extent it deserves in a capsule review, and I don’t think I have enough insight in me to say something about it that hasn’t been said before. So I’m not even gonna try either.

What I am going to say is this: it’s a common critical cliché to call a work a “meditation” on a concept or a theme, but in the case of David Lowery’s The Green Knight the comparison is more than apt. Its slow pace gives the audience a lot of room to think about what Lowery might be trying to say about stories, heroism, and Lord knows what else.

Alternatively, you could just let the lush visuals surround you and transport you to the age of chivalry, and/or bask in Dev Patel’s performance as Sir Gawain.

I reckon August is a bit early to start praising a film as “best of the year” but The Green Knight sets the bar very high.

Directed by David Lowery. Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman. ★★★★

 

Capsule Reviews: December 2017, Part 1

Capsule Reviews: The Dinner; The Shape of Water; A Cure for Wellness; Death Note; It Comes at Night

I’m planning on seeing a lot of movies in December, so instead of dropping 20 capsule reviews on you on New Year’s Day, I’ll break them up into more manageable groups.

The Dinner

The Dinner

United States. Directed by Oren Moverman. Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny.

If esteemed actors screaming at each other for two hours is your idea of a good time, The Dinner should make for a satisfying experience. Gubernatorial candidate Richard Gere and his wife Rebecca Hall (sporting a bob causing her to uncannily resemble political strategist Liz Mair) invites his depressed brother Steve Coogan and sister-in-law Laura Linney out for the sort of meal which is more art than food. Theoretically, they’re there to discuss an important family issue—no spoilers, but let’s just say that awful parents make for awful children—but mainly they spend the first two acts sniping at each other, both at the restaurant and in many, many flashbacks.

Cut through the thick misanthropy, heavy-handed comparisons between family arguments and the American Civil War, and the awkward flashbacks—The Dinner has more “hey, remember the time when…” moments than an entire season of Family Guy—what you’re left with is a scathing portrait of the hypocrisy of white privilege, using the characters’ apparent liberalism to cut deeper. It speaks volumes that the politician turns out the most sympathetic of the lot (although I found Coogan easier to empathize with once I understood the depth of the character’s mental illness, which doesn’t mean he isn’t an ass). While the film undoubtedly focuses on the relationship between the two brothers, I would have liked to have a better understanding of the women of the story, especially Gere’s first wife (played by Chloë Sevigny) who turns up in a couple of flashbacks.

The format requires a main cast fit comfortably into their roles, and these four do. The performances impress, but you’re not likely to walk away from the film with a new respect for any of the actors unless you’ve somehow managed to miss every Richard Gere movie since the early ’00s. The closest anyone gets to “stretching” is Coogan, who does his reliably Steve Coogan thing in an understated New York accent instead of his regular northern English one.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

United States. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones.

“A Cold War fairy tale about a mute woman who falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon” is a pitch only Guillermo del Toro would make, for a movie that only he could make. It’s my favorite film of the year (Baby Driver coming in a close second), and it might even be my favorite Del Toro, period—and considering that would put it above The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, that’s saying a lot.

It’s damn rare for me to find a film I can find nothing I dislike about—I think the only other films I can say that about are Audition and Oldboy—and I don’t like to gush endlessly, so this will be short. I’ll just say that Del Toro, his cast and crew have put together something that hits just about every sweet spot I have. Immersive world-building, gorgeous design, brilliant actors inhabiting fully-realized characters. If this doesn’t get Sally Hawkins her Oscar, there’s no justice in the world (sorry, Saorise; you’ve already got one, Frances). Nobody plays villainous like Michael Shannon, although among the supporting performances, it’s Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins who really steal the show.

What else? An awesome story about outsiders kicking against the pricks, and a dark, dreamy atmosphere. I even love the score, and I’m usually not a fan of Alexandre Desplat.

Seriously, go see this movie.

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness

United States. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth.

Gore Verbinski scared the pants off a generation with The Ring; he parlayed that good will into what we hope was a lucrative career as the world’s second- or third-leading peddler of Johnny Depp vehicles. Now, he returns to the horror genre with A Cure for Wellness. When the founder of a major financial firm refuses to return from a sinister Swiss health spa to sign off on an important merger, do they hire a P.I. or bounty hunter to retrieve him? No, they do not. They blackmail Dane DeHaan, a sickly-looking junior executive, to bring the wayward founder back.

That’s just the first problem with this heavily flawed film, but it’s by no means the most important one. The three primary problems with Cure are first, that it’s too long; second, that it would be immeasurably improved by being cut by at least forty-five minutes; and third, that there’s no real reason for it to go on for two and a half damn hours. Especially since there’s not enough incident to fill the second act, and Verbinski doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring any of the major themes the plot brings up, such as “we’re all a bunch of brainwashed corporate clones.” Eventually the movie plows through at least three false endings before finally grinding to a halt.

That’s the insult; the injury is that the project otherwise shows such promise. In a visual sense—both cinematography and design—it stands alongside Blade Runner 2049 and Shape of Water as one of the year’s most gorgeous films. Dane DeHaan has finally found a leading role he’s suited for (okay, maybe he’s suited to play the lead in Valerian but I doubt that for some reason), Jason Isaacs has rarely secreted such effective menace, and Mia Goth nails the “otherworldly waif” archetype so solidly I think she might actually be one in real life. And have I mentioned the design? I have? It’s stunning.

Sadly, it’s also stunningly broken, a great example of a film so determined to shoot itself in the foot. This should have been one of the year’s best, but I walked away from it only hoping that Verbinski does better with the Gambit movie (as long as Johnny Depp isn’t in it).

Death Note

Death Note

United States. Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigam, Willem Dafoe.

Adam Wingard (You’re NextThe Guest) is the latest to take up the tale of the titular Death Note. Write a name in the Death Note and that person will die (conditions apply), courtesy the “death god” Ryuk. It falls into the hands of the improbably-named high school student Light Turner, who uses it to kill evildoers across the planet, attributing them to his vigilante alias “Kira.” Not only does this impress his girlfriend Mia, it also grabs the attention of “L,” an eccentric consulting detective who takes it upon himself to investigate these seemingly impossible murders.

From here, you’d expect a battle of wits to develop between Light and L, complicated by Mia’s own desire to possess the Note and Ryuk’s manipulations, and exploring complex themes such as watching the watchmen and playing God. Wingard subverts expectations by using the setup to present a series of elaborately staged and stylishly photographed death sequences. The various fanbases of the story’s previous iterations are like to get riled up by this, but I found them amusing in a shallow, “later Final Destination sequels” sort of way.

Other sources of fun in Death Note come from the performances of Lakeith Stanfield, who plays L as a combination of Sherlock Holmes, the kid from The Middle, and the sort of mumblecore characters who populated Wingard’s early films; and Willem Dafoe, who provides Ryuk’s face and voice. Sadly, the screenplay confuses plot complexity with quality, and several scenes don’t make sense even after the film goes to great lengths to explain how and why they happened. And whoever signed off on star Nat Wolff’s blond highlights should have been fired—they cause him to look too much like Milo Yiannopoulos, a person I prefer not to be reminded of, thank you very much.

It Comes at Night

It Comes at Night

United States. Directed by Trey Edward Shults. Starring Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough.

When the trailer for It Comes at Night dropped in January (I think), it promised a cinematic experience so terrifying I could practically feel my bowels loosening in anticipation. Now, as the year draws to a close, it seems to me to be much more than a horror movie: it’s pure 2017, in concentrated cinematic form.

I’m not saying Trey Edward Schults had any political statements in mind when developing the film. (Mind you, the decision to make the central family multi-racial takes on a certain dimension when considered in Trump’s America.) But the two main themes I took away from it are “the gulfs between us, as people, are larger than ever” and “the real terror, as always, is within ourselves, not outside” and it’s a rare day when I don’t think those things about real life as well. And then of course there’s “grief over the loss of a loved one” which seems to be part of every damn film this year, an aspect shared by popcorn flix (It: Chapter One), prestige projects (Three Billboards), avant-garde exercises (The Crescent), and festival filler (In the Fade).

But that’s just cheddar on the burger. The real meat is the smallness of the characters, symbolized by Shults’ lantern-lit nighttime scenes and shots of people running through vast expanses of forest. Much has been made of It Comes‘ supposed ambiguity, but to me, the lesson is clear: the inevitable comes for us, though we knoweth not the day nor the hour—and yet, as biblical as that sounds, it comes with no real moral reckoning. It’s perhaps the finest recent expression of the smallness of humanity in the face of a cosmos that doesn’t revolve around us. What higher praise could there possibly be?

Chicago International Film Festival: Part 1

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Four Hands / Maus / Sicilian Ghost Story

I’m back from the depths to cover some movies from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. As with last year, I’m attending screenings in weekend-oriented clumps. This first clump consists of two films from the After Dark program, Four Hands and Maus, along with Sicilian Ghost Story from the International Feature Competition program.

Four Hands

Germany. Directed by Oliver Keinle. 87 minutes.

Oliver Keinle’s Four Hands takes a look at grief and mental illness through the lens of a revenge thriller. Frida-Lovisa Hamann puts in a bravura performance as Sophie, a concert pianist whose protective sister Jessica (Friederike Becht) dies in a random accident days after they receive word that their parents’ murderers are to be released from prison. Shortly afterward, Sophie experiences the first in a series of blackouts during which she seems to be preparing to take vengeance. Of course, doesn’t take Captain Obvious to figure out things aren’t quite that simple.

Unfortunately, the plot veers into standard thriller territory in the third act. Even then, Keinle’s inventive photography and intense performances from Hamann and Becht keep the audience focused, while Christoph Letkowski elevates his role—an almost-extraneous love interest for Sophie—to something essential. And I particularly appreciated the final scene, which somewhat subverts the revenge-movie cliché of violence bringing closure.

It’s not a remarkable film by a long chalk, but its entertainment value outstrips the average film of its genre. Worth a look.

Maus

Maus

Spain. Directed by Yayo Herrero. 90 minutes.

It was William Faulkner who said that the past isn’t dead and it isn’t even past, and that theme forms the center of Yayo Herrero’s feature début Maus. Alma Terzic stars as Selma (nicknamed “mouse” by her German boyfriend Alex), a Bosnian Muslim who returns to her former homeland for a funeral, the first time she’s been back since the wars of the early-to-mid-’90s. When a broken axle strands Selma and Alex in a vast forest, a pair of Serbian men come to their aid—but Selma doesn’t trust them, and for good reason.

The Bosnian war looms large in the backstory but the concerns of Maus—ethnic violence, violence against women, and misogyny in general—seem particularly topical to me, living as I do in Trump’s America watching the film in the wake of a series of sexual harassment revelations that rocked Hollywood. Even non-violent scenes—particularly ones in which Selma tries to convince Alex not to accept help from the uncouth strangers, only for Alex to dismiss her concerns out-of-hand—loom larger in my memory than they might have a couple of years ago. And note how Terzic, a blonde with the beauty of a western European supermodel, hardly fits the Western stereotype of a Muslim woman.

Herrero shoots almost every scene in close-up, giving the geography an almost nauseous, disorienting feel, and makes great use of the contrast between light, dark, and shadow. Terzic and August Wittgenstein (as Alex) radiate intensity. The Serbian pair, on the other hand, are so underdeveloped as characters that it’s hard to accept apparent attempts at ambiguity. I don’t know what to make of the ending—and judging from other reviews I’ve read, no one else seems to either. And I’m not even sure monster needs to be in the picture, which is why I haven’t bothered to mention it.

Still, when it works—and it works more often than it doesn’t—Maus delivers a powerful blow to the gut. It’s a film you can’t readily forget.

Sicilian Ghost Story

Sicilian Ghost Story

Italy/France/Switzerland. Directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. 122 minutes.

Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is the 13-year-old son of a Mafia informant, and when he goes missing, and only Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), the rebellious classmate who crushes on him, cares much. Writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza take this premise—inspired by the 1993 disappearance of Giuseppe Di Matteo—and fashion it into a modern grunge-era fairy tale. The filmmakers wear the influence of Guillermo del Toro on their collective sleeve: the theme of violence directed against children brings to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. All that’s missing are the monsters…the CGI kind, at least.

The filmmakers give the proceedings a pleasing Gothic atmosphere, making the most of the rural locations: the bucolic village, the eerie forest, the ancient ruins ominously looking over the vast sea. Luna lives in a large house whose facade implies modern construction, but the cellar seems hewed from ancient rocks and sweats moisture like a cave. Luna’s coming-of-age story takes place against the juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary.

I understand that Grassadonia and Piazza looked for children without acting experience to play Luna, Giuseppe, and their fellow students; such decisions don’t always work, but Jedlikowska, Fernandez, and Corinne Musallari (as Luna’s bestie Loredana) deliver excellent performances. Fernandez nails the tricky art of being cocky without coming off as an ass; Jedlikowska’s teenage stubbornness keeps the audience engaged while driving the story.

I have a lot more I could say about Sicilian Ghost Story that I can’t really fit in a capsule review, so I’ll just cut this off with an enthusiastic “highly recommended” and the sincere hope that audiences embrace it when it gets a proper American release.