‘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 →

‘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 →

‘The Invisible Man’ Review: Unseen horrors in the #MeToo era

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

 

If H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel “The Invisible Man” imagines that the scariest thing is that which is unseen, Leigh Whannell’s new big-screen adaptation realizes the scariest force is that which is unseen and perhaps not even in front us—but internalized, agonized over and shaped into an object by which we are made to interrogate our sense of reality.

The legacy of Wells’s story through the decades has been diluted to the elevator pitch of its title, serving as the inspiration for many a film, most recently the simple-minded “Hollow Man” movies of the 2000s and, on a more elemental level, 2003’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.” More often than not, foundation tends to be the whole story when it comes to invisible men on the screen. Whannell’s iteration, however, is savvy enough to know that while the implications of its title can make for inspired set pieces, it can also be stretched into something more resonant than a one-note story. That doctrine has produced a great movie that is smart, satisfying and totally subversive in its recalibration of a 19th-century story into a modernized parable for the #MeToo era. Continue reading →

‘The Assistant’ Review: A biting look at abuse of power and a workplace looking the other way

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

 

In Kitty Green’s blistering new movie, “The Assistant,” the monotony of a modern workplace is downright cataclysmic, from routine daily duties that don’t much call our attention to the heinous acts – not explicitly stated, but widely and silently acknowledged – of unnamed higher-ups that very much do. Urgently of the moment, “The Assistant” is blunt-force storytelling comprised of increasingly-dire detail, and a film that uses the realities of our post-#MeToo world to shade in the margins of its narrative in ways that few others do.

The movie’s timeline encompasses a single harrowing day. As the young office hand at an unnamed film production company, Jane (Julia Garner) is the first one to work; the one who makes the coffee; the one who recites excuses to her boss’s wife when she calls; the one who takes care of ordering lunch; and, oh yes, the one who worked over the weekend as well. Keeping mostly to the checklist of things to do, she’s dutiful, bordering on subservient, and the performance from 26-year-old Garner – reminiscent of Shailene Woodley here – serves as the keystone to Green’s ostensibly muted screenplay. She speaks few words but still manages to communicate an immense amount with silent glances of trepidation; she’s wary of those she works alongside and works for. It’s without question one of the decade’s first great performances, and multiple shots in which cinematographer Michael Latham’s camera looms overhead and stares straight down – as if it were a supervisor surveying every move – underscores the fine line the unassuming Jane has to walk. Continue reading →

‘Downhill’ Review: It’s all in the name

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

 

Of the many scenes that “Downhill” – a farcical family drama from American co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash set against the backdrop of beautiful mountains and a marriage tested – lifts from the superior Swedish-language film that inspired it, one stands out as an obscenely clear indicator of this remake’s jumbled priorities. In it, father and husband Pete (Will Ferrell, now past the half-century mark in age) sips ski resort beer in the shadows of the Alps when a fellow vacationer half his age approaches to say her friend finds him the most attractive man on the patio. Pete is aglow. A few moments later, she returns with an unfortunate retraction: “It was actually him,” she clarifies, pointing to a chiseled stud a few yards away.

With all due respect to Ferrell, who remains an elite comedic genius of his time: Well, duh. The scene is practically recreated, line for line, from Ruben Östlund’s searing “Force Majeure,” the difference being that the 2014 movie starred an objectively good-looking Johannes Kuhnke for whom the bit isn’t just believable, but devastating in its turn—the result of an empathy for its characters that “Downhill” struggles against itself to replicate. Comparably, slotting Ferrell into Kuhnke’s shoes is like tasking Willem Dafoe to play Buddy in a psychological “Elf” remake; the spirit of the original has been warped, its intentions blurred.

And blurred intentions define “Downhill,” a needless redo that wavers between mockery and sincerity for Pete and his wife, Billie (an excellent Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and for which the best possible outcome would be leaving the theater knowing there’s a far superior telling of this story waiting to be watched at home. Continue reading →

‘Parasite’ Review: Bong Joon-ho’s critique of socioeconomic systems is exacting, exciting and endlessly entertaining

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

 

One of the more uniquely integral aspects of Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s films, particularly over the last 15 or so years, is a meaningful sense of place—a realization of geography between characters and their goals that extends to mood and meaning, and which ultimately turns the experience of watching a 2-D movie into something more tangible, thrilling and involving. A major reason the writer-director’s 2006 monster movie “The Host” endures is the symmetry of how physically close the bumbling Park family is to finding the captured Hyun-Seo and the minimal extent to which the forces of authority are willing to aid them; the ecologically-minded themes of 2017’s “Okja” are drawn out through the movie’s dichotomy of location as it goes from serene South Korean jungle to dangerously bustling American metropolis; and you can’t discuss 2013’s “Snowpiercer” to any extent without touching on the deliciously simple symbolism of the class hierarchy toppled horizontal in the form of a speeding train, with cars that become more affluent and cozy the closer you “fight your way to the front,” as the tagline reads.

Joon-ho’s “Parasite” – the 2019 Palm d’Or winner and now a righteous Best Picture nominee nine months later – brilliantly manages to find a primal form of his filmmaking ideologies while evolving them into a magnificent – and bloody – cinematic Russian doll. A story of class struggle that literalizes economic imprisonment, “Parasite” is both evocative of current global truths and also an echo of the sociopolitical commentary that the auteur injects his films with, giving what he’s saying as much consideration as how he’s saying it. Namely, by bouncing between genres as defly as he ever has, and in endlessly-thrilling fashion. Continue reading →

‘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 →

‘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