‘Knives Out’ Review: Rian Johnson’s clever, caustic whodunnit rips into the uber-entitled as it subverts a classic genre

This review was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

You haven’t met a family at the movies this year that’s easier to hate than the chronically self-righteous, self-serving Thrombeys, who shamelessly leech off the wealth of patriarch Harlan – a successful mystery writer – and for whom the suggestion of creating something with their own hands seems more like cruel and unusual punishment than a gentle nudge towards individual autonomy. The movie’s stunning carousel of actors (among them Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis and Chris Evans) fills their shoes with exaggerated greed and understated villainy, but this family’s mask of superiority also indicates something deeply ingrained—a resentment for all things unfamiliar, and for those who enter their cavernous country mansion without permission.

At the start of Rian Johnson’s caustically funny and cleverly-constructed “Knives Out,” the Thrombeys are grieving Harlan’s death. The evidence seems to indicate he committed suicide the week before, just as he had turned 85 at a party attended not just by his family, but also his nurse, Marta (a great Ana de Armas somehow still in the breakout phase of her career). A week later, the police are back for another round of questioning, this time accompanied by man observing from a distance: Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, fiendishly good and spilling words like molasses with a southern drawl). Suffice to say, the case may not be an open-and-shut affair as previously thought, and Johnson, working from his own scrupulous screenplay, continues a career-long mission of leaving his mark on well-worn genres while thematically elevating them to new levels. Continue reading →

‘Dark Waters’ Review: Mark Ruffalo does battle with systemic corruption in grim, slow-burn drama

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

“Dark Waters” spends its two-hour runtime desperately searching for something to be hopeful for. Many scenes early in Todd Haynes’s enraging, dispiriting corporate-greed-run-amok truth-teller of a story have the feel of an ecological horror – the teeth of an American heartland town’s denizens are blackened, a cow inexplicably turns on its owner, a chemical plant lingers like a beast of steel and steam – in which hope extends as far as putting up a fight for as long as you can.

Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) knows all about refusing to put down the sword. As the events of “Dark Waters” depict with slow-burn intensity – and as the details of the Nathanial Rich-penned New York Times article on which the screenplay is based show – a substantial part of the lawyer’s career was devoted to holding the American company of DuPont to account, after discovering it had for years knowingly contaminated water resources. Lives were endangered for the sake of that common American drug: Profit.

It’s one of the movie’s many ironies that Robert, up to the start of his crusade (1998, sparking an in-movie chronology that stretches unbearably close to present-day), started his career defending chemical companies like DuPont, which is presented as less a company and more a harbinger of American essence—and excess. It isn’t a stretch to say that his life – professional and personal – is turned around after a farmer with loose familial connections seeks him out with concerns that something is wrong on his property. Continue reading →

‘Frankie’ Review: Patient observations of love and life swirl together in Ira Sachs’s latest

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

“Loved? I don’t know. He liked me, and he was rich.”

The line, uttered early in Ira Sachs’s small, contemplative new movie “Frankie,” is a verbal shrug from Isabelle Huppert’s titular actress, and it encapsulates the mood the Memphis-born filmmaker is going for. His latest is stuffed with similar fleeting, retroactive observances of  love and life, tinging the movie with an airy melancholy. Everything about “Frankie” is unassuming and humble; none of it is to be taken for granted.

The movie’s backdrop: an idyllic Portuguese town, the kind where history feels preserved in the amber of its picturesque landscapes. But just as important as the setting of Sachs’s script – which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias – is his extended ensemble filling it, a who’s-who varied in age, experience, race, sex. Huppert, Brendan Gleeson and Marisa Tomei are here. So are Greg Kinnear, Jérémie Renier, Sennia Nanua. Ariyon Bakare, Vinette Robinson and Pascal Greggory fill out the guest list. The reason they’re all here, the thing connecting their visit, slowly reveals itself with time, as do the occasional details of where they’re at in their lives; some of them are related; some work in the movie business; some have been thinking about their futures; others are in limbo. There are discussion of beginnings and beginnings of endings, as well as low-key tensions that barely threaten to even nudge Sachs’s light tone. The common thread is Huppert’s Frankie, an actress in the late stages of her career who prefers to live unassumingly, but who also doesn’t turn down the chance to attend a party when recognized by a fan. Continue reading →

‘Frozen II’ Review: Disney Animation’s latest lets the high standards go in subpar sequel

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

“Do you wanna build a snowman? Should we make it out of caaaash?”

It’s strange to think it’s been six years – or four “Star Wars” movies, seven Pixar flicks and about 675 Marvel entries ago – since “Frozen” stormed into theaters and childhood obsessions with the force of an avalanche (sorry), culminating Disney Animation’s recent efforts to update its party of princesses with a legitimately nuanced story of sisterhood while setting new box office standards.

That it took this long to get a sequel from a company continuously mining its IP for assured financial success would lead most to believe the studio was waiting for the right story to justify bringing Elsa, Anna and Co. back to the big screen. Despite Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee returning to direct – and Lee once again penning the screenplay – “Frozen II” will reliably keep the kids entertained for 100 minutes, but the movie’s immensely scaled-up ambitions melt away under a lackluster narrative. Meanwhile, its unwillingness to recognize, let alone match, the 2013 film’s emotional complexity goes a long way towards making this the most disappointing Disney Animation output in well over a decade. Continue reading →

‘Doctor Sleep’ Review: Mike Flanagan’s ‘Shining’ sequel reconciles Kubrick with King to adequate effect

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.

 

Even before considering anything that happens in the actual movie, Mike Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” – the latest Stephen King adaptation from the burgeoning horror filmmaker – is a fascinating specimen. It’s obvious why; TV spots have been well-seasoned by audio and visual cues from 1980’s “The Shining” – a genre cornerstone infamously dismissed by Stephen King, beloved by seemingly everybody else and the story which “Doctor Sleep” continues – as Flanagan’s film wears its calling card on its sleeve, as well as its dubious nature.

Much like Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” the mere existence of “Doctor Sleep” calls into question its intentions and loyalties, even as Disney’s shameless, financially-driven IP-mining goes unquestioned. “Doctor Sleep,” more than any “Avengers” or Joker origin story, begs the question, even if it doesn’t mean to: What responsibility, if any, do movies have to what’s come before? Most of the time, even asking that says more about our belief that stories belong to us – and only us – than the stories themselves. Though, in the case of “Doctor Sleep,” it’s a more nuanced question, thanks to the legacy of “The Shining” that is as robust a mythology as that of the Overlook Hotel itself.

That “Doctor Sleep” would rather all that nonsense not be where the conversation about it starts speaks volumes. With varying degrees of expectation on its shoulders, Flanagan’s movie is an often-riveting, deeply contemplative genre offering almost completely of its own creation, expanding the (admittedly scant) lore of “The Shining” without leaning on it…too much. Die-hards will probably label it a triumph that the movie doesn’t do anything to renege on what makes Kubrick’s movie so good, but “Doctor Sleep” also exhibits enough devotion to its themes of withholding and confronting trauma that the fact it isn’t all that capital-S Scary doesn’t really matter. Continue reading →

‘The King’ review: Chalamet gets grimy as King Henry V in new Netflix drama

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Following the tempo of the brooding masculine personalities at its center, David Michôd’s “The King” is 140 minutes of purposeful mundanity; a movie about the façade of rightful rule, rooted both in Shakespearean works and in history, with a cinematic pulse that rarely quickens to the level we’d expect of sword-and-chainmail epics. Betrayals, battles, duels, triumphs, death—Michôd’s movie takes on all of it, but with an attitude so straight-faced that you could mistake it for a lack of interest.

As sure as I am that I’ll forget about “The King” by next week, I don’t think Michôd is uninterested in the story of King Henry V’s rise so much as his desire to subvert genre norms – the stuff of rousing speeches and emotional crescendos topped with brutal acts of violence – overwhelms anything that is particularly memorable about his new Netflix movie. There’s a reason Mel Gibson’s guttural “FREEEDOMMMMM” scream has endured; for better or worse, Michôd doesn’t intend to have any part in creating that same thrill of high-stakes drama, where the results become the stuff of myth, within the movie and without.

His movie – which he wrote in collaboration with Joel Edgerton, who also has a role in the film – is instead trying to be more poignant in nature, if poignancy could be equated with grimy battlefields and the occasional beheading. Continue reading →