‘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 →

‘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 →

‘Sergio’ Review: Unfocused political drama gambles coherency for sweeping romance

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

 

The early scenes of “Sergio,” a convoluted political biopic that hits Netflix Friday, suggest a movie that would have rather been a documentary in its telling about a Brazilian-born diplomat killed in a terrorist attack in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. A quick glance at director Greg Barker’s filmography and you’ll spot that – aha! – the experienced documentarian made one in 2009 of the same name and subject matter for HBO, to the tune of an Emmy nomination. It’s natural to wonder: Is Barker’s fascination that acute, or does the familiar material simply make for stable ground on which the director can create his first narrative feature?

Arriving in Baghdad as George W. Bush declares a new era and recycled newsreel catches the viewer up (or throws us back), Sergio Vieira de Mello is a United Nations representative on a mission—and he’d rather it be accomplished on its own terms, and not those of White House envoys. How his assignment to bring things under control will end isn’t a mystery the movie dangles over the viewer. It’s in the first five minutes that we see him gasping for breath under rubble, sparking a “Ladder 49”-style structure as the fragmented film skips through years and cinematic tones, turning recent history into a game of hopscotch as it struggles to compromise intimate observations of its title character with the admirable goal of educating us about a rare caliber of sympathetic political deal-broker. Continue reading →

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Review: A stark, straightforward story of seeking an abortion

A movie centered around an abortion that’s less about abortion and more about young women supporting each other in the oppressive shadow of uncertainty, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” follows a young protagonist, Sidney Flanigan’s Autumn, who encompasses a rare ordinality that makes us certain we’ve known someone like her before. Maybe we recently passed by her in the grocery store, on a sidewalk, at the bus station. Maybe there was an exchange of words. Maybe we hadn’t thought about them since. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is the kind of film that makes you consider ordinary faces in the crowd as not just faces, but unique collections of decision to make, paths to trod down, experiences to live.

There is sheer power and heart-wrenching effect in how straightforward Eliza Hittman’s third, and best, feature is. With her latest, the writer-director has carved out a trilogy of sorts – one that includes 2013’s “It Felt Like Love” and 2017’s “Beach Rats” – about defining moments in the singular abyss of the American teenager experience. There’s the spark of sexual curiosity in her characters’ eyes, but Hittman rarely goes for sunny destinations; she’s more interested in consequence and fallout. Her movies can have an aura of aesthetic romanticism, yet what she puts her characters through is anything but romantic. Continue reading →

‘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 →

‘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 →

Review: In ‘El Camino,’ Jesse Pinkman’s road is paved, finally, with his own intentions

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

 

The most remarkable thing about “EL Camino,” the Breaking Bad one-off (maybe? Maybe not?) sequel that sees Vince Gillian going feature-length in his return to gritty, grimy Albuquerque is how precisely unremarkable it is.

Ever since those khakis soared through a clear, dry New Mexico sky, Gilligan’s landmark TV show excelled at an attention to detail—instead of trying to outdo himself, it was all about letting his story take its natural course…against as exquisitely-realized a neo-Western tapestry as possible. For all intents and purposes, Gilligan was the cook of a product that was as pure as Walter White’s blue sky, and once the story’s finish line began to come into view the question wasn’t so much if White would end up on the road to hell; it was in what gear he’d be heading there.

“El Camino” adopts – in great measure, and to mostly satisfying success – that same matter-of-factness that fueled “Breaking Bad’s” homestretch. Gilligan isn’t trying to outdo himself; there are no shocking revelations that upend or change our view of everything that’s come before. If you watched “Breaking Bad” (and there’s plenty to be enticed by for those who haven’t) and had three guesses, you could very well describe broadly how this two-hour joyride focusing on the tormented Jesse Pinkman ends.

But what happens in those two hours makes for a worthwhile return to Albuquerque…and a world that remains as delectably murky and dangerous as ever. Continue reading →

Review: “Yesterday” is a vapid excuse to listen to pop’s greatest songs

If the works of The Beatles are integral to a movie’s narrative, but the movie doesn’t acknowledges it, do The Beatles make a sound?

That ends up, unintentionally, being the thought-experiment driving the vastly underwhelming “Yesterday,” rather than its elevator pitch for the ages: What if you, a struggling musician, woke up to a world in which The Fab Four never existed? Directed by the typically-reliable Danny Boyle, “Yesterday” is a two-hour long and winding road through two stories with clashing styles and sympathies, yet the most confounding thing about this project – one that would’ve worked better as either a 3,000-word experiment in “The Atlantic” or an 8-episode Netflix experience – is that neither justifies the existence of the other. Continue reading →

Review: Spidey is “Far From Home,” in a movie that is far from memorable

Spider-Man’s movies, more than any other superhero this side of the DC/Marvel divide, are identified by their villains—how memorable they are, and often the tangible connection they have to the movie’s most memorable scenes.

The one with a tentacled Alfred Molina, and the train battle.

The one with a winged Michael Keaton, and the twist that bares its teeth en route to a high school dance.

The one with a cackling Willem Defoe, and that stupendously horrific metal mask.

In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the big bad is the big bowl-headed Mysterio—a fascinatingly zany, stoicly formulaic amalgam played by the consistently zany, never-formulaic Jake Gyllenhaal, who fills his armored suit with the unkillable ambition of a smartass whose plans seemingly depend on being little more than a smartass. Gyllenhaal’s presence is the movie’s cheeky wink in A-list actor form, never less than incredulous and never more than high-concept gag, Continue reading →

Review: Theron stunningly powers ‘Long Shot,’ in which politicians try to act their age

There’s a lot of unsubtle implication in “Long Shot.” So very many will be turned off by it. I rather think it works in its favor.

The comparable presence of things said and unsaid – many times they’re one in the same – powers the movie’s comedy, its sweet core and the unexpected veracity of its progressive commentary, which provides the political rom-com a greater degree of substance than initially expected to the first third of that trifold description.

The movie is funny. Really funny. And the high levels of enthusiasm forming the foundation of its jokes and romance over roughly two hours, the stuff that makes watching “Long Shot” akin to peering into a warped alternate timeline of our own political reality, ensure the movie is simultaneously a time capsule of starkly 2019 window dressing and an evergreen suggestion of accountability on the part of those whose steady gaining of influence correlates with a slow drying-up of conviction at the well of power. Continue reading →