‘Gretel & Hansel’ Review: There’s evil in the wood, but maybe something more, too

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

 

In virtually every respect, Osgood Perkins’s darkly atmospheric “Gretel & Hansel” could not be more different from the last major effort to borrow the Grimm Brothers’ mythic siblings for the big screen, Tommy Wirkola’s bombastic fantasy actioneer “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” That movie – starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as crossbow-toting heroes evoking the rock-em, sock-em spirit of “Van Helsing” more than a children-oriented tale of foreboding – was released just seven years ago, but “Gretel & Hansel” shows how seven years is more than enough for Hollywood’s creative minds to steer in entirely new directions, and for the industry to transition into new epochs.

The switcheroo of the title is the first sign of a new interpretation of the 200-year-old Grimm story, and it bears out in a visually-stunning, ideologically-enticing fairy tale that echoes a feminine spirit without betraying its source material’s grim (pun fully intended) sensibilities. Bringing the focus back onto Hansel and Gretel as young children – though they’re not as naïve as we might expect – Perkins’s movie trades the leather-clad “Underworld” Effect for the quieter, creepier influences of latter-decade horror. It owes much to Robert Eggers, Luca Guadagnino and occasionally Yorgos Lanthimos as well, what with its entrenching visual style of dark shadows stabbed by neon and keen self-awareness about the magnitude of folklore. Continue reading →

‘Ford v Ferrari’ Review: Racecar drama isn’t quite as gripping in its story as it is thrilling on the track

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

 

The elegant bluntness of its title aside, the conflict fueling “Ford v Ferrari” – a sleekly-produced but vaguely-formulaic and overlong racetrack drama in the running for Best Picture at the Academy Awards – isn’t so much the one between two legendary auto companies duking it out at 200+ mph, but rather an intracontinental feud. The cozy offices of Detroit vs. the liberating, wide-open roads of the West. Image vs. performance. White collar vs. blue collar. The movie shows how ambition of the portfolio and ambition of passion are two different things, though the route it takes to reach that conclusion is distractedly conventional.

A film that pays due attention to the aesthetic details of its pretty cars both in the showroom and on the track – as well as when they’re getting ripped to shreds in competitive mishaps – “Ford v Ferrari” fetishizes competition and white male provocation through the (mostly-accurate) lens of history. For his first directorial effort since the R-rated superhero western “Logan,” James Mangold goes exponentially safer in telling the story about how the Ford Motor Company reasserted its international dominance via the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race, a feat of endurance that may be on par with watching the more tedious segments of this 150-minute auto epic unfold—that the movie has a strange aversion to using on-screen graphics to inform the audience of the story’s timeline (it could have taken place in a span of a few weeks or a few years, as far as I’m concerned) does it no service in terms of comprehension. Continue reading →

‘Bad Boys for Life’ Review: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence return to snarky form as an action franchise molds itself to modern times

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

 

Bullets zip, buildings go boom and wise-cracking crackles in “Bad Boys For Life,” courtesy – once again – of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s snarky Miami detectives who have a penchant for the destructive when they’re not looking to loft a vulgar dig at the other. Maybe you didn’t need to be reminded of what the “Bad Boys” series made its name on when it bowed in 1995, but then again, maybe you did—especially considering it’s been a whopping 17 years to get from “Bad Boys II” to this latest entry. After all, “Rush Hour,” another buddy cop action-comedy franchise at least partially inspired by “Bad Boys’s” authority-defying antics, pumped out three movies in almost half that time.

So, yeah, it’s been a while – as in, the industry’s reliance on old-school action fare has completely changed – since we’ve seen Smith’s Mike and Lawrence’s Marcus battle South Florida crime, typically while laying waste to heavily-populated areas and creating anxiety for Joe Pantoliano’s twitchy Captain Howard, who also returns for a third trip around the action spectacle sun. And while director Michael Bay, who helmed the first two installments, isn’t applying his bombastic touch this time, co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilaal Fallah (styled as Adil and Bilall) do their best impression of him with another series entry that’s high on powder-keg testosterone and higher on its body count. Continue reading →

‘Underwater’ Review: So-so aquatic disaster flick is a true January doldrums release

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

 

 

The lights start their ominous flickering early in “Underwater,” and – as suggested by the movie’s 90-minute runtime – the bursting walls of a claustrophobic ocean-drilling facility follows shortly after, sending Kristen Stewart scurrying for her life through flooded corridors in horrifically dark ocean depths just as we’ve settled into our seats.

There’s no mistaking the caliber of B-movie rush that director William Eubank’s aquatic disaster-sci-fi-horror-drama (got all that?) is shooting for, and in certain moments the director of 2014’s “The Signal” even finds them—frantic brushes with shadowed deep-sea monsters are balanced by excessively melodramatic attempts to make characters feel like more than the tropes that they are, all in the name of cinema that seeks to be more viscerally enthralling than thematically engaging.

You’ll know exactly what you’re getting into if you buy a ticket to “Underwater,” to the point where you can make a game out of it. Bring along your Bingo cards filled with the requisite clichés; the movie is sure to hit most of them! Foreboding mechanical creaks and organic groans haunting our protagonists; an iron-voiced captain/commander who won’t survive, but won’t go down without a fight; the fleeting moments of wonder at how exorbitantly huge the movie is willing to all-too-briefly go in its climax, as if suddenly thinking itself unworthy of such immense, Lovecraftian scale. “Underwater” is the kind of movie that wouldn’t have made sense coming out anytime other than mid-January—we’ve seen all the major Oscar contenders by this point, but I suppose it’s nice to have something new to take in while getting through this dead zone and to the actual ceremony. Continue reading →

‘1917’ Review: Sam Mendes’s technically triumphant war film often gets in its own way

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

 

For a film that eventually gets around to showing the grim and gory fallout of war in often-exemplary audiovisual fashion, Sam Mendes’s “1917” opens with a peaceful image: Soft wind caressing a field of flowers against an unbroken blue sky, two young men peacefully dozing away.

A tip for the viewer: Bask in these early moments as much as you can, as quick as you can. It isn’t long before a military commander wakes the two British soldiers, Blake and Schofield. In short order, we learn their mission: To travel some miles away to the frontlines and warn the commander that hundreds are about to waltz into a trap. At stake: 1,600 lives, including Blake’s brother. But the details of this mission, nor the two corporals undertaking it (Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay, grimy and bloody and dread-stricken), never feel as important as how we see it unfold on the screen—via the illusion of a single unbroken shot, with the camera rarely blinking as Blake and Schofield creep, run and trudge through the battlefields and carnage of World War I Europe.

The presumption is that Mendes and his camera’s conductor – Roger Deakins, more magician than man – are on their own mission to make as immersive a film as the genre has ever seen, to make the viewer feel the rattling stress of second-to-second unpredictability to the same chaotic levels as those on the screen, and to burden us with the same preciously scarce moments of reprieve. You might recall “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan’s frenetic, claustrophobic war film that is a technical wonder in its own ways, and a movie which “1917” will unjustly be compared to. Continue reading →

The best movies of 2019

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

 

What to make of 2019 as a year in movies? How about what not to make of it?

It was an unexpected as Baby Yoda’s world domination, and as exhaustively satisfying as watching Rick Dalton let it rip on the set of “Lancer.” It provided an all-timer crop of sophomore features from the likes of Greta Gerwig, Robert Eggers and Ari Aster while also yielding one last group of mesmerizing, decade-ending debuts that includes Olivia Wilde, Joe Talbot and Lulu Wang. The bread and wine of “The Irishman” looked tasty, the ramdon of “Parasite” even more so, and the trophy for Movie Most Likely To Scare You Out of a Summer Trip to Europe is finally in the hands of something other than “Taken.” First-time director Lulu Wang let us in on a family secret, and institutional director Martin Scorsese let us into reflections of a career.

Tom Hooper’s “Cats” broke Twitter, and then broke its awards chances by not breaking the box office. Sagas ended (for now) with “Avengers: Endgame,” sagas ended definitively (or so they say) with “The Rise of Skywalker” and sagas received an epilogue with “Toy Story 4.” Adam Driver was in everything. Florence Pugh: hello. Joe Pesci, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Lopez: hello again. We couldn’t decide whether “The Lion King” was animated or live-action (it’s animated). We couldn’t decide whether “Under The Silver Lake” is problematic or in on the joke (it’s the latter). Robert Pattinson lost his mind in space, then in a lighthouse, then on a European battlefield—spanning about five centuries in the process.

Netflix quadrupled down on its bid to be taken seriously as a new kind of movie studio, while A24 and Neon continued churning out indie darlings with budgets the size of Thanos’s pinkie. The knives came out, the gems remained uncut and the popes came in sets of two. What to make of 2019 as a year in cinema? It may very well have been the decade’s best. Continue reading →

‘Little Women’ Review: Immense triumph

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

 

Before any other occupation, we are creators—natural architects of futures limited only by the boundaries of childhood imagination, artists presented with a blank tapestry that evolves from sketches to swatches of paint as goals come into ever-sharper focus. We’re constantly writing our stories with fantasies of the future. Lack of experience isn’t a factor; that comes much later.

As much as we love stories, the author is just as important in Greta Gerwig’s immensely satisfying “Little Women.” In and of itself, that isn’t particularly significant in what is the fourth big-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic domestic story about lessons imparted on four artistically-inclined sisters in Civil War-era America as they transition out of childhood and into futures molded less by dreams and more by realities.

What is significant is Gerwig’s technique; for her second, highly-anticipated film, the “Lady Bird” writer-director triumphantly toys with structure to place renewed focus on homely Meg, vivacious Jo, sweet Beth and determined Amy March as architects of their futures, on the tendency of the child to be their own biographer. In a stroke of screenwriting ingenuity from Gerwig, “Little Women” cross-cuts portions of a familiar odyssey into a fresh remixing of the March sisters’ story, breathing lavish new life into the source material’s themes while modernizing the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open fire period drama with a contemporary energy reminiscent of the filmmaker’s rambunctiously funny first feature.

If a chronological telling of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March’s story is a coming-of-age tale, Gerwig’s re-jiggered, rejuvenating iteration proves to be a tale of coming into one’s own—of ambitions refined and redefined as our beloved little women navigate progressive sentiment with traditional constraints. The emotions that swirl throughout are foundational and instructional; “Little Women” is joyous without being kitsch, halcyon without feeling grim, and wise without feeling preachy. It’s simply a cinematic joy, and one of the year’s best.

Those familiar with the “Little Women” story will notice Gerwig’s unconventionally-constructed narrative from the jump: Instead of opening on four young March sisters on Christmas morning, we briefly are introduced to two of them as adults. Jo (a characteristically fiery Saoirse Ronan) is in New York and selling her stories (though ones without morals; “They don’t sell,” a publisher insists), having started her path of self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, Amy (Florence Pugh, putting a stunning capper on her breakout year) is accompanying Aunt March (Meryl Streep, delightfully caustic) around Europe when she runs into an old friend of the March family from across the Atlantic, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), and extends an invitation to a ball that evening amid subtle glances of affection.

It’s clear there are histories to be fleshed out for these characters, but it’s also clear from early on how Gerwig’s intentions transcend gimmickry and find purpose. Instead of anticipating where the sisters end up, Gerwig’s “Little Women” re-locates eventual payoffs to how they get to be where they are, in mind as well as in life—the foundational virtues, the shifts in character, the socio-economic forces nudging them in certain directions.

How will we be able to differentiate between periods in time? Gerwig makes that easy, too. The moment the movie’s internal clock winds back seven years and we meet the younger versions of the Marches, we’re vaulted into a mode of more playful filmmaking, of a relationship built from steadfast sisterly love and warmth that radiates emphatically through the screen. Shot-to-shot cuts come quicker and more compulsively than the film’s more deliberate opening minutes, and an acute cinematic jubilance contrasts the melancholy tone of scenes from seven years into the future.

That sensation also, vitally, connects the performances of Ronan, Pugh, Eliza Scanlen’s Beth and Emma Watson’s Meg. Gerwig recognizes that “Little Women” can only soar as high as the chemistry between its four leads, and we’re lucky as moviegoers that this is not only ever a concern under her direction, but a well of delight that never runs dry. (I wonder if Gerwig didn’t consider how the audience’s familiarity with Ronan, Watson and Pugh – a trio of well-known, well-regarded actresses – would provide us, and her, with a head start in bringing the characters to life.)

There’s a heaviness to the adoration the March sisters have with each other that’s not often glimpsed in movies, but it’s as tangible as the house they live in, almost as if the stars portraying them were related in real life. Watching them console each other, confront each other, bicker, laugh, play and personify the undefinable – but instantly recognizable – qualities of what makes this quintessential American family a family is one of 2019’s true cinematic treasures. Chalamet, meanwhile, is perfectly sympathetic as Laurie, adopted by the Marches as a surrogate sibling who matches their effervescent spirit step-for-step.

But watching them grow is just as important to the “Little Women” legacy, and Gerwig weaves the push-and-pull of childhood and maturity, plans and reality, empathy and agency into a delectably substantive product. The more the film spritzes on, the more its dual timelines harmonize with each other; events contemplated from the past and events realized in the future mirror each other with remarkable accessibility as flashbacks feel less like flashbacks and more like memories revisited. The later timeline isn’t without its own narrative thrust, propelled by an emotional crux of an event with a build-up that is engaging and also smartly utilized by Gerwig to organically provide conduits back to the past.

Meanwhile, those past anecdotes add texture to the familial dynamics played out against lavishly-shot backgrounds—moments in lives remembered for their picturesque beauty as well as the worldly knowledge gained by the Marches, even as that knowledge grows from foundational teachings of forgiveness into the compromising of love, ambition and financial necessity reserved for the precipice of womanhood. Even as “Little Women” bounds along with seamless flow, you can pluck individual scenes – Jo meeting Laurie for the first time, Meg getting a taste of high-society lifestyle that’s out of her reach, Beth growing in affection to her neighbors – like stanzas of a tender song, eventually returning to a chorus of wisdom often sung by Laura Dern’s matriarchal Marmee (in a quieter key here than her “Big Little Lies” and “Marriage Story” turns, but no less good).

The movie’s triumph is rooted in the four young actresses; particularly Pugh, whose doing something different than her costars by deftly combining a self-awareness of Amy with the blasé confidence needed to bring the youngest March sibling to life as a child, and later with the conviction that makes the older Amy an appropriate portal to some of the story’s most enduring themes.

But “Little Women” blossoms under the direction of Gerwig, who is a reliable conductor of emotion, and also highly skilled at mirroring mood with production design (a tip of the hat to Jess Gonchor in that regard). Pay close attention to subtle differences in how cluttered the March house feels, resembling how lived-in it is at any given point in the story, as well as the evolution of colors that change like the seasons; even as the tune might become a bit colder in its final third, it’s no less earnest. And I can’t in good conscience neglect to mention the merry strings and stirring pianos of Alexandre Desplat’s score, an uplift of the heart in audio form.

Those familiar with “Little Women” will know that it takes its turns for the somber, complicated and inevitable—what makes the March sisters so distinct is part of what makes them so timeless, after all, and the goals they have for themselves doesn’t call for them sharing the same home forever. Some of their futures turn out to more closely resemble the stories they’ve authored for themselves as children than others, but each experiences a moment of reckoning that proves life will never have one more lesson to provide.

This is a very generous film, to Gerwig’s ends, to Louis May Alcott’s, and to our own. It never stops bursting with life, and never for a moment feels malicious—unfair, perhaps, but never malicious. Gerwig’s slightly-amended ending fortifies the March sisters as writers of their individual stories, now with more tools and possibilities they couldn’t have yet imagined while waking up with glee on that Christmas Day several years prior. It’s a supremely of-the-moment message from the film’s director. Plans are phoenixes, Gerwig shows here. They rise, again and again, from the ashes of themselves.

 

“Little Women” is rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen

Directed by Greta Gerwig

2019