‘On the Record’ Review: A reexamination and renewal of #MeToo, through the words of Black women

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

In the current age of instantaneous headlines that become outdated by the time you refresh your Twitter timeline, there’s something to be said for how the #MeToo movement has prolonged its relevance beyond the 24-hours news cycle, let alone kept its feet firmly in the national consciousness over two years after the first stories broke. But even as it has achieved some measure of justice – most notably the imprisonment of Harvey Weinstein – we may fool ourselves into thinking that any individual #MeToo story that is shared has the same contextual parameters as the one before it, and the one that will come after it, and the one that will come after that one.

It’s the binary belief that #MeToo is as simple as he said, she said that “On the Record,” a resounding and vital new documentary from longtime filmmaking partners Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, seeks to dispel—namely by focusing on Black women in the entertainment industry who have been through enough, read enough and know enough about each others’ experiences under the predatory gaze of male superiors to know that their words don’t mean nearly the same thing as they would coming from a white woman. And that’s if they decide to speak at all. Continue reading →

‘The Vast of Night’ Review: Andrew Patterson’s wondrous debut is a salute to yestercentury sci-fi, and the pull of the unknown

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

 

In “The Vast of Night,” Andrew Patterson’s filmmaking debut that fashions itself a mystery inspired by the paranoid wonder of 1950s-era sci-fi, the driving question isn’t so much “What the hell is going on?” so much as “How the hell do we find out what the hell is going on?”

Oh, and by “fashions itself,” I actually mean Patterson dives head-first into the genre playbook – with the eagerness of someone who stayed up into the wee hours of the morning watching “Twilight Zone” episodes and reading comic books with UFOs on the cover under the covers – for his pseudo-procedural about the seductive pull of the unknown, and in this case that vast unknown is two-fold: It is the strange happenings being investigated by our tireless protagonists, and it is also the new venture of moviemaking being undertaken by Patterson himself. In his debut, the director’s style stretches to the cosmos, but legitimate narrative tension remains mostly a specter.

Patterson and the movie’s writers – James Montague and Craig Sanger – lay their cards on the table early, playfully contextualizing “The Vast of Night” as an adventure unfolding on a retro TV program and making the joke that the movie could play between episodes of “The X-Files” before the audience is given the chance to say so. Over the next hour and a half, we’ll realize it simply makes sense that the overhead street lights look like flying saucers, that the setting shares the same state as Roswell, that there are eventual gasps of “something in the sky.” This town may be in for strange new encounters, but we have decades of pop culture to tune us into the staticky frequency of Patterson’s otherworldly interests —and he relies on that knowledge. Continue reading →

‘The Lovebirds’ Review: Kumail Nanjiana and Issa Rae power derivative rom-com from the director of ‘The Big Sick’

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

Perhaps more essential as background ambience at your next Zoom happy hour than a piece of filmmaking, director Michael Showalter’s new Netflix rom-com “The Lovebirds” gets underway with an amusing bait-and-switch: After basking for a few minutes in the smack of blossoming love between Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (a very buff Kumail Nanjiani), we’re rudely met with a “4 years later” card and a relationship that has soured over time as awkward flirting morphs into an acidic exchange of insults. Putting disagreement about how they would fare on “The Amazing Race” aside (the social references here are aplenty), he thinks she’s shallow and she thinks his career is stilted. Romance…isn’t it grand?

These initial 10 or so minutes may be the movie’s most fulfilling. A step-down from his last feature directorial effort, “The Big Sick” (and totally devoid of that film’s dramatic pulse), “The Lovebirds” sees Showalter indulging a less restrained, more chaotic side. A trio of TV veterans collaborated on the screenplay, and the final product resembles a story that would have been constructed by the “idea ball”-plucking manatees seen on “South Park” once upon a decade. That is to say, you’re better off reveling in the non-sequitur energy vibrating from scene to scene rather than expecting “The Lovebirds” to build up to a memorable or ambitious whole. Continue reading →

‘The Painter and the Thief’ Review: In Neon’s remarkable new doc, a heist leads to an unexpected connection

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

Far from the traditional headline-driven, floating-head-filled, watch-your-step kind of documentary that was his last film, 2016’s “Magnus,” the new effort from Benjamin Ree is simultaneously messier and more remarkable—an act of improvisation that finds the Norwegian director rarely thinking three steps ahead about what to extrapolate from the tantalizing odyssey he’s entrenched himself. Luckily for him, and us, the central bond teased in the title of “The Painter and the Thief” – as well as the intonations of redemption, art and redemption through art that come of it – is a reservoir just deep enough to quench Ree’s real-time search for purpose, like an artist unsure on how to complete his drawing before stumbling into the keystone stroke of his pencil.

If “The Painter and the Thief” (acquired by Neon at this year’s Sundance Festival, and launching on digital platforms this weekend) abides by genre expectations in just one regard, it’s how the premise could never have been accepted with a straight face as a work of fiction. A pair of massive paintings have been stolen, two of the Czech artist’s most valuable, we learn.

And upon the arrest of one of the thieves involved (sans painting), the artist, Barbora Kysilkova, makes a request at once inexplicable and ready-made for a documentary: For the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, to swing by her place so she can draw him. Upon viewing the final work, Nordland – sporting a body full of tattoos and a quietly mysterious affect – loses his speech and breaks down, as if he’d never looked at himself in the mirror before. Nordland and Kysilkova embrace; a relationship with strange beginnings and stranger developments delivers affecting resolution. Continue reading →

‘Fourteen’ Review: A quietly powerful portrait of a slowly splintering friendship

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

Jo and Mara aren’t the typical twenty-something New Yorkers that the movies obsess over. Their livelihoods don’t depend on going out every evening; we don’t see them ensnared in an endless night of unpredictable shenanigans. They drink, but they’re never drunk. They go through a carousel of boyfriends, but we aren’t privy to initial meet-cutes. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Jo and Mara are quite content making up for everyone else’s lack of an early nighttime snooze. And when Mara gets an unexpected call from Jo late at night, it isn’t because she got her hands on tickets to a secret show.

One of the more orthodox movies of its hyper-realist ilk to come about in recent years, Dan Sallitt’s “Fourteen,” just the 64-year-old director’s third feature since the start of the millennium, is so frank and unsentimental that you’d ask a mutual friend to keep an eye on it if it was a living person. It feels like one of those movies that – if made under slightly different circumstance, or with a different director, or with a stronger loyalty to convention – would’ve had my emotions grasping to drop anchor in some place where the proverbial rock of its central relationship doesn’t crumble away from sheer mundanity or inert inevitability. Continue reading →

‘Jasper Jones’ Review: Well-crafted Australian drama channels Stephen King’s more grounded mysteries

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

A pivotal point in the Australian drama “Jasper Jones” arrives when Toni Collette’s eyes become beach balls and words of frustration fly as her character, Ruth Bucktin, rips into her husband for going easy on their son after he’s been caught having snuck out of the house at a troubling, potentially dangerous time. If you’ve seen “Hereditary” – which otherwise has no parallels with “Jasper Jones” –  you might be reminded of Collette’s now-beloved monologue of fury in that particular movie, and her outburst serves a similar purpose here: Revealing surprising considerations of theme in what has largely been a genre movie up to this point, and in the form of cross-generational guilt that doesn’t spare fathers, sons or mothers.

Propelled by the delicate storytelling maneuvers of Australian director Rachel Perkins and a tactile awareness of the genre confines it’s operating inside of, “Jasper Jones” is a coming-of-age story Trojan Horse’d in a murder mystery and towed by explorations of ‘60s-era paranoia exacerbated by underlying racial tensions. That is to say, there’s enough material in these 100ish minutes to fill a hearty season of TV—ironically enough, the televisionscape is where Perkins has spent most of her career. And it’s attractive to think some of the tangential characters of “Jasper Jones” would benefit from the extra attention. Continue reading →

‘A Good Woman is Hard to Find’ Review: Sarah Bolger gives a blistering performance in brutal drama about murderers and mothers

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

Sarah is a world-weary, worn and exhausted single mother for whom relief – any relief – couldn’t come any faster at the start of Abner Pastoll’s new clenched-first drama “A Good Woman is Hard to Find”—and that’s not taking into account our introduction as she showers off the blood mysteriously caked on her body. Nor have we yet learned about her husband’s death, the particulars of which remain murky even to her. Sarah has been shaped by circumstance, and she’ll be shaped by circumstance once more; and by the end of Pastoll’s unrelentingly brutal thriller about murderers and motherhood, its actress Sarah Bolger’s remarkable performance that helps the catharsis peek through the carnage.

“Just let sleeping dogs lie,” a police officer tells Sarah when she asks if there’s any new information on her husband’s death. It’s less a response fueled by malice and more a crude suggestion of a world that doesn’t have comfort to offer, whether by economic means or interpersonal ones. Sarah, with eyes that don’t look like they’ve rested in decades, can only respond by shuffling out with her young son and daughter. While Pastoll’s film – written by Ronan Blaney – only scratches the surface of underlying economic anxiety that has fueled a community drug war, the deathly passivity playing out on Bolger’s face in any given scene translates familiar moods of overwhelmed surrender. Continue reading →

‘Spaceship Earth’ Review: Social isolation, for the good of the planet. Sound familiar?

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

In theory, “Spaceship Earth” – a new documentary from Neon that begins streaming on Hulu and other VOD platforms this weekend – is a perfectly appropriate watch for our ongoing period of social distancing and unexpected newfound self-sufficiency. The idea of watching eight people physically confined to the inner spaces (albeit willingly, and not for reasons stemming in a global pandemic) of Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert – while growing their own crops and finding new dimensions to their relationships with limited opportunity to venture very far away from each other – might draw alluring parallels to how we’re living today. We might even look to director, and seasoned documentarian, Matt Wolf’s latest film for insights, perspective or answers time capsule’d from 1991, when this real-life sci-fi venture begins. After all, while that group of eight may have been inside for a mind-boggling two years, at least they know for certain how much time is left on the clock.

It’s also tempting to think that hypothesis of how “Spaceship Earth” will unfold might have been the movie Wolf actually made, had it been pieced together with the ongoing coronavirus crisis in mind (as it continues to be on all of ours) and not well before we ever heard of the disease or anticipated its fallout. In reality, there’s few moments in the scattershot, fascinatingly unfocused “Spaceship Earth” that directly mirrors what we’re going through. The movie covers much more than the events of those two years, and in its unsteady hopscotching from person to person, moment to moment, idea to idea, “Spaceship Earth” often transcends its shabby construction about a brave coalition of eco-pioneers to become a meta inquiry into what it says about us that we may expect certain things to come out of staying locked inside one place for so long—whether out of current experience or basic assumptions about human nature. Continue reading →

‘Gladiator’ at 20: More than ever, Ridley Scott’s Roman epic feels like a genre’s brief return than a full revitalization

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

“‘Spartacus’ was years ago, and that was the last important picture about Rome. So I think there’s an opportunity here—and maybe this will bring it back. Maybe it’s time for one like this.”

A white-bearded, white-toga’d Richard Harris said those words while taking a break on the set of “Gladiator” in 1999, suggesting – as did many of his costars – the significance of a Hollywood production the likes of which moviegoers had largely been deprived of since, well, Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” nearly four decades earlier. Harris, the late Irish actor who portrayed Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in “Gladiator,” was right with his words. And he was wrong.

Enduring works like “The Matrix,” “The Sixth Sense” and “Fight Club” indicated a bold future for moviegoing at the turn of the century, buoyed by dazzling visual innovation, exciting new cinematic voices and a general affinity for making multiplex crowds go, “Wait, movies can do that?” And then there was Ridley Scott’s Roman-set revenge spectacular, which sought to make the masses think, “Wait, movies can do that again?”, this time with the aid of computer effects. In the process, “Gladiator” embraced an existential paradox that has crystallized in the two decades since: It was weaponizing the latest leaps forward in sparkling technical wizardry to take audiences back, and to revitalize a dormant genre that New Hollywood’s grittier, urban stories snatched studios’ attention away from. The mid-60s saw Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet inspire modernized ways of thinking about movies. The allure of “Ben-Hur’s” chariot race was suddenly of another era; in came the intoxication of offers that couldn’t be refused. Even Kubrick went from the Roman Republic to space later in the same decade. Continue reading →

‘All Day and a Night’ Review: A crushing and crushingly familiar story of intergenerational Black struggle

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

 

If the killing that kicks off “All Day and a Night” is a brutally depicted one – and it is – then what immediately comes next and over the course of two hours is a mostly numbed effort to clear the air about stories of enduring Black struggle, to decipher why Jakhor (Ashton Sanders) ended the lives of two parents with an impenetrable calm that lingers on his face as he sits in a courtroom moments later, his own life permanently altered. There’s a suggestion that Jakhor resigned to living behind bars a long time ago, and it’s confirmed before long in his own words: “The judge told me this was the end of my freedom, but I can’t remember ever feeling free.”

The sophomore directorial effort from “Black Panther” co-writer Joe Robert Cole – laborious and boilerplate, but occasionally glinting with the emotion it’s striving for – is little concerned with heroism, though Cole has arguably given itself a Herculean task of trying to do away with narrative tropes in his timeline-hopping odyssey of an Oakland boy raised around gun violence, drugs and a lonely desire to break out of a feeling of redundancy. Because “All Day and a Night” begins at its coda, it transcends being a drama about the impact of personal shortcomings to take on a reflective guise, with heavy-handed voiceover from Sanders leading the way (“When violence is all around you, you get used to it”). But Jakhor’s somber insights, reaching for truths profound and universal, tend to be muted by a screenplay dominated by the very clichés it’s trying to comment on, sapping intrigue and diluting the power of its various commanding performances. Continue reading →