‘Crip Camp’ Review: Uplifting Netflix doc spotlights what can happen when we’re united once again

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

 

Early in the slightly-better-than-serviceable new Netflix documentary “Crip Camp,” there’s a proclamation that Camp Jened – a humble outpost in a mountainous part of New York state that’s been shuttered since the late-‘70s – felt like a utopia. It’s easy to understand why a camp alum would recall the feeling decades later; grainy footage shot of the camp in operation shows joyful young residents with physical disabilities liberated, engaged and understood as people who can be trusted to look after themselves, and think for themselves too. There’s a social hierarchy even in the disabled community, we come to learn; the “normal-looking” polios resident at the top, while those with cystic fibrosis are closer to the bottom. One of them beams with a smile, and asks anyone watching to give him a call; he just likes to talk to people. All these eccentric introductions to each happy-go-lucky camper is enough to make you forgive the template time capsule soundtrack of Grateful Dead, Neil Young and the like—an early miracle in its own right.

Then again, these campers are shaped by the rebellious attitudes of the time. There’s frank conversation of teen infatuation and being annoyed at parents, but also wide acknowledgement – between members of a particular community who had never met before Camp Jened – that life would be a little better if the world they’d eventually return to treated them as equally as they were treated here. It’s a grain of longing that some of them end up fertilizing into action, and later: Change. Continue reading →

‘Swallow’ Review: Haley Bennett is unforgettable in psychological thriller about a woman desperate for control

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

 

All it takes is some of the most anxiety-inducing click-clack-click of fingers typing on an iPhone that you’ll ever hear to empathize with the emotionally claustrophobic position of Haley Bennett’s Hunter in “Swallow.” She sports the hairdo and quiet presence of a housewife from the 1950s, but domestic surrender to her careless husband and in-laws isn’t the primary intention for director Carlo Mirabella-Davis—it’s the foundation for one of the more viscerally unsettling psychological thrillers that’s come about in recent years, an examination of how we cope with a loss of control and the hypnotic power objects can hold over us.

Despite his insistence otherwise, Hunter is more accessory than life partner to her husband, Richie (Austin Stonewell), who barely tends to acknowledge her existence except when he needs someone to blame for his wrinkled tie. There’s a pungent early air of foreboding in “Swallow,” as well as of imprisonment within the concrete-and-glass walls of a lake-side home. The location may be serene, but what goes on inside is Hunter’s quiet desperation for any semblance of control over her station.

The relationship feels downright abusive, and Bennett’s chillingly excellent performance as a woman shackled by judgement goes a long way toward making the viewer understand what she may be getting out of a habit that’s easy to imagine as horrific in any other context, and perhaps this one as well: Consuming small objects decidedly not made for consumption. After gulping down a marble, a tack or a battery, there’s a release that plays out on Bennett’s face. The shackles, it seems, are briefly loosened. Continue reading →

‘Wendy’ Review: Rustic Peter Pan reinvention is melancholy in search of meaning

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

 

“Wendy,” from writer-director Benh Zeitlin, opts for superlative over substance in telling an underwhelming tale about lost boys and girls frolicking about a paradise island suspended in youthful stasis, where childhood is eternal and grown-up agendas are made villainous. The tropes should sound familiar—it’s not just Zeitlin’s point, but the only semblance of a saving grace.

As much as “Wendy” has all the pieces to be a stripped-down echo of the “Peter Pan” tale, this is more re-interpretation than origin story. The film – bursting with atmosphere and little else – shows Zeitlin applying the same rough-around-the-edges style of filmmaking he introduced in his Best Picture-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild” so as to make his first two features feel like the first installments of a contemplative trilogy. Continue reading →

‘Onward’ Review: Pixar’s family fantasy is satisfying, standard fare from the animation giant

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

 

There are few words, if any, that I imagine have been used to describe a Pixar movie more often than “magical.” The ingenious premise of “Toy Story,” the odyssey of Wall-E wordlessly cleaning an abandoned world, the sheer joy of “Un Poco Loco” being sung in a vibrant rendition of the Land of the Dead—all worthy of being called “magical” 25 years into a period that’s seen the bar for animation raised higher than the 50 years prior.

It’s about time, then, that Pixar has made a movie where magic is an explicit force in the story, though “Onward” – the first of two films coming from the animation funhouse studio in 2020 – is less another landmark of innovation and more a plug-‘n-play production with familiar aesthetic delights. The movie is fun (enjoyable even!), but despite “Onward” being leagues better than backwards Pixar misfires like “Cars 2” or “The Good Dinosaur,” “fun” and “enjoyable” is no “magical.” Such is the Pixar Standard.

Shepherding requisite genre tropes of self-belief and familial forgiveness within the influence of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “Lord of the Rings” and maybe a sprinkling of John Hughes, too, “Onward’s” premise is the movie’s most original aspect and also its least-explored: While there are centaurs, unicorns and elves in this world, they don’t engage in spell-casting practices, but instead drive blocky police cars, run pawn shops and pull on sweatshirts to get ready for the first day of school. Per the world-building narration that’s offered early on, the unpredictability of magic at one point became inferior to the reliability of technology, and a community otherwise nestled in the crook of a mythical valley has taken on the look of a suburban town. The setting is beautifully-rendered, but at the risk of saying the movie has a “DreamWorks feel” as if that studio was artistically inferior, “Onward” lacks the jaw-dropping visual splendor of recent fare like “Coco” or “Toy Story 4.” Continue reading →

‘Greed’ Review: Steve Coogan is the cartoonish face of the ultrarich in familiar satire

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

 

Michael Winterbottom does his best Adam McKay impression with “Greed,” an abrasive pseudo-documentary about the global domino effects of corporate-caliber hubris that the English writer-director mostly encourages us to witness lightheartedly until turning the tables on his own satirical tale with implications so real and immediate that you wonder why he didn’t focus his storytelling lens on them in the first place.

Instead, “Greed” is largely motivated on Richard McCreadie’s rise to power as a pompous, fiscally-dubious retail mogul, using the guise of interview-gathering to revisit portions of a life that has always sought the cheapest way to get the most lucrative payout. The movie echoes “Vice” and “The Big Short” with its time-hopping structure and journalist-detective character of Nick (David Mitchell), who works to piece together an explanation of how expertly McCreadie has gamed the system so as to afford a destination birthday in Greece that features the construction of a gladiatorial arena and a live lion (yes, the metaphor only gets more astute as the movie goes on). The fourth wall remains structurally intact in “Greed,” and its educative tangents are cohesive and coherent enough, but the fact these scenes are so scant makes me wonder if a straight documentary – and a straighter filmmaking agenda – might have been more effective. Continue reading →