Review: ‘Yardie’ is an underwhelming directorial debut from Idris Elba

The director’s chair being filled with established actors is becoming an increasingly popular card for Hollywood to pull these days, albeit with wildly varied results.

Up until this point, the reception to those efforts in a way mirror the novice auteurs behind the camera; Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” – perhaps you’ve heard of it? – garnered near-universal acclaim to the tune of multiple Academy Award nominations. It’s a beloved film, much like its director-actor was before its release.

On the flip side, another actor still working under the radar despite having collaborated with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve and Steve McQueen quietly directed one of the most intoxicating films of 2018. But Paul Dano’s “Wildlife” was, to a similarly strange degree as its director, seemingly never meant to break into the cultural consciousness in a meaningful way, despite the praise heaped onto it by critics.

So it will be interesting to see how Netflix’s audience responds to “Yardie,” the enticing-but-jumbled directorial debut from Idris Elba, when it’s released on the streaming service in mid-March. Though if merit has any say, it may struggle to hold the attention of movie-watchers. There’s a restlessness at the heart of the film, but in the end that attitude does little more than throw crime, familial drama, music and a sprinkling of Jamaican lore into a pot to create something of underwhelming taste.

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Review: Mads Mikkelsen tries to escape the worst of winters in ‘Arctic’

Much like the immediate outlook of its unlucky characters, the details are stark in “Arctic.”

In Joe Penna’s pulls-no-punches survivalist drama, the seemingly skyscraper-sized “SOS” carved out in deep snow; the remains of a grounded, battered plane that looks like it’s flown through hell and back; and the pop of red of a winter coat breaking a seamlessly, blindingly white winter panorama are impossible to miss—the foundation for a story of clenched-teeth resilience that doesn’t lend itself to rose-tinted inspiration so much as explore the prickly grittiness of how we respond when pushed to our absolute limits, and ultimately beyond.

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Review: ‘Cold War’ matches lush cinematography with dose-of-reality romance

You’d be forgiven for thinking that “Cold War”is a happy love story.

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski puts you in an illustrious trance with such sensual storytelling, painting the world of discordant lovers Zula and Wiktar with such visual decadence that he makes us want to live in it. It harkens back to a traditional kind of black-tie moviegoing experience where the film is experienced through an air that is always a bit hazy. Jazz music plays in the lobby. A waiter asks if you’d like some champagne beforehand.

It’s a delicious story for our senses to absorb, the foreign-language “Cold War” is. Which is why it makes the contrast all the more haunting one we comprehend the narrative playing out in this magnificent and magnificently devastating opus.

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Review: In ‘High Flying Bird,’ stadiums are darkened, but the game goes on

Arena lights are off, locker rooms are empty and primetime TV slots are dotted with holes.

We don’t have to be told that explicitly in Steven Soderbergh’s confidently insightful new film “High Flying Bird”. Curiously empty New York City sidewalks and forlorn attitudes tell us what we need to know: Professional basketball games are at a standstill amid a lockout, something seemingly as inevitable as the rising sun or a Russell Westbrook triple-double grinding to a halt. (Translation: Team owners and players’ representatives can’t come to an agreement, putting on-court action on hold.)

But a whole new kind of battle is underway, one the film touts as “the game on top of the game.” And it’s a game that Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney take a magnifying glass to, exposing the centuries-old racial systems that labor relations in pro sports leagues are powered by.

In the hands of a director with trademark kinetic swagger and a screenwriter just two years removed from winning an Oscar for “Moonlight” and channeling his inner Aaron Sorkin, watching the politics of a basketball league (that is essentially the NBA in all but name) play out at a nonstop, infinite dribble is a joy. “High Flying Bird” is like being in a game of pickup where the stud you’re defending tells you exactly how he’s going to score on you, yet you’re still amazed when he pulls it off.

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Review: In ‘Velvet Buzzsaw,’ a painting is worth a thousand gallons of blood

In “Velvet Buzzsaw” – Dan Gilroy’s third film in five years after “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” – art is a destination for curious eyes, eager wallets and ostensibly deep critique.

It’s also, eventually, a channel for horror, bloodshed and shlock. The contrast isn’t accidental, and the transition happens nearly as fast as it took you to get to this paragraph from the one above.

The general absence of subtlety in Gilroy’s film, a contemporary art-market satire drunk with a few drops of cinematic absinthe, makes parts of “Nightcrawler” feel like a PBS documentary. For better or worse, hyperbole is a way of the world in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and even more so as it reaches the realm of violence. “I think sober hasn’t been good for him,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s faux-elitist art critic utters at one point. “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t think so either.

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Review: ‘The Kid Who Would Be King’ is a throwback to recent, and apparently now classic, fantasy cinema

Ask any 20-something who absorbed the rings, spells and talking lions that dominated fantasy cinema – and, in some of those years, outright cinema – in the aughts, and they’ll tell you their cultural upbringing involved stories of companionship, fortitude and self-discovery pervading some of the medium’s most imaginative worlds.

I would know; I’m one of them. The adaptions of Tolkien, Rowling and Lewis achieved new standards for the fantasy genre, particularly in the case of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, an enticing gateway drug that demolished what we previously thought of as large-scale action in film, even as we were maybe a few years away from discovering film film.

Joe Cornish, the writer-director of “The Kid Who Would Be King,” realizes that too. In his modern retelling of the age-old tales of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table, he uses the archetypes and fantastical flourishes found in “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” not just as influence, but as the recipient of a love letter to those films that made statements with critics, at box offices and in the larger history of cinema. Continue reading →

Review: Netflix’s ‘Fyre’ is a party documentary if there ever was one

An edited version of this review originally appeared on thecriticalcritics.com, and can be viewed here.

The documentary genre experienced a bit of a resurgence in 2018. Capitalizing on that, Netflix is swooping in at the start of the year with another original deep-dive of their own, this one concentrated on the events leading up to, making up and resulting from 2017’s Fyre Festival fiasco.

And like the organizers of the now-infamous, titular luxury music festival in the days leading up to their tropical oblivion, Fyre has a lot of things on its mind.

You’re most likely familiar with the story — a 20-something entrepreneur and Ja Rule collaborate to put on the party of the decade to disastrous ends — and director Chris Smith knows it. Fyre begins with the assurance that if you clicked “Watch Now,” it’s not because you’re unfamiliar with the greatest party that never happened, as reads the film’s tagline (and world’s most concise obituary). It’s because we can’t wait to revel in watching a disaster unfold.

And unfold it does, in what is a story of superlatives, the kind of narrative aesthetic that exists as its own advertising campaign: Sky-high sums of money, the world’s most sought-after models, proclamations of “first time ever” and “never again.” It’s a party documentary if there ever was one, where the fun of watching and the twisted ecstasy of sharing in an increasing sense of disbelief is amplified with friends. Continue reading →

Top 10 movies of 2018

2018 was a gnarly f*cking year.

I think no matter what your political affiliation, how much time you spend on Twitter or whether you stan DC or Marvel films, we can all agree that that is fact now that it’s over.

Thankfully, we still had new cinema to turn to. To provide us solace, to help us make sense of it all, to provide context for changing times and to make us wish that we had a bucket hat-wearing, marmalade sandwich-munching expatriate helping us to get along with each other.

But perhaps even Paddington was too good for this world.

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Review: Young black love battles oppression in Barry Jenkins’s ethereal “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Barry Jenkins’s latest piece of cinematic fantasia begins in sensual fashion, but considering the sensibilities at play, that’s to be expected. We sweep and glide and spy on two young, black lovers strolling through a city park, approaching ever closer without knowing it until the camera is right up alongside them.

“You ready for this?” Alonso asks, to which Tish replies she’s never been more ready for anything.

Perhaps it’s because of modern, continuously evolving ruminations of love and relationships that we’re tempted to overthink what exactly “this” is. Is it marriage, a child or another otherwise drastic change to come that will test the couple? Is he going off to war? Is she leaving town, him unable to follow? Are they somehow aware of what’s to come—that Alonso, or “Fonny” as he’s called, will soon be arrested for an alleged rape he denies he committed? Continue reading →

Review: In ‘The Favourite,’ Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz battle for adoration

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest work, politicians squawk and squabble, insult and chastise, demean and decry. It’s a time of war, but personal status and desire are much bigger priorities than frontline strategy, and a royal palace that increasingly feels populated by childish personalities rarely puts country first.

Lanthimos and Co. probably weren’t expecting or intending for “The Favourite” to have so much in common with the American political hellscape of 2018, but this delightfully deranged retelling of power struggles in 18th-century England makes for eerie and enticing comparison. During an age when it’s become increasingly difficult for satirists to make hyperbolic sense of our world, “The Favourite” –  a period piece “Mean Girls” with layers of complexity – smashes us over the head with (mostly) historically accurate allegory. Continue reading →