‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ Review: A sweet friendship is formed while on the run

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

 

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” was made for August. The movie, a soulful gem about the connection between a man with Down Syndrome and someone who believes his future has been discarded by his past, has a dog-days-of-summer feel to it—it’s unvarnished by needless complexity and through-lined with a potent tenderness as deeply felt as the humid environments Zak and Tyler walk, swim and float through on their journey.

At a time when young filmmakers are churning out ambitious genre fare, directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz (also the film’s writers) have opted for the simple and endearing in their feature debut, the kind of American tale with a remarkable warmth that shines in its attraction to the seemingly unremarkable.

One of the more prominent roles by an actor with Down Syndrome in recent years, Zack Gottsagen plays Zak in “Peanut Butter Falcon” with enough energy to keep the lights on at a power plant. But at movie’s start, Zak can only focus that energy on one thing—breaking out of the assisted living facility he’s forced to stay in. Continue reading →

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Review: In ‘Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood,’ Tarantino contemplates and embraces his version of an era

There’s a shot early in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” that will strike those fluent in the cinematic language of its writer-director, Quentin Tarantino, as something very anti-Quentin Tarantino.

The camera is closed in tight – real tight, as if ready to surprise – on a swatch of paint, and begins to move, gingerly, over what we eventually come to recognize as the illustrated face of Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio’s fictionalized drunken actor in 1969 Los Angeles. The face eventually comes to take up the entire frame, feeling larger than life, but we’re still not quite sure where we are—there’s no background chatter, no camera flashes. Just morning ambience.

It’s an uncharacteristically quiet moment to open a Tarantino film, like the auteur paying a more patient kind of homage to the cinema he’s built a career of borrowing from and remixing. As if he, and we, are observing it from a church pew.

Not too long after, the impression is shattered. Tarantino reveals the grand nature of that opening to be a fakeout—instead of a massive billboard overseeing Sunset Boulevard, the artwork is propped up on cinder blocks on the end of a driveway, like an artifact time has forgotten. It’s a plot-building surprise right up the alley of a director whose name itself evokes polarization and debate. “Once Upon a Time…” – an evocative, romantic, violent, metatextual, questionable reimagining of a time and place that is all of those things – will also be polarizing, and absolutely lead to debate. Continue reading →

Review: In “The Farewell,” a drawn-out funeral is disguised as a shotgun wedding

The emotionally resonant and sharply-written “The Farewell” is so laser-focused on deconstructing the dichotomies woven into its narrative – individuals and society, emotions and gulfs, love and pain – yet the most acute yin/yang in this semi-autobiographical wonder of a movie from Lulu Wang is of the purely filmmaking kind: The movie is tantalizingly patient, unfolding with ease and confidence despite its foundational plot – the end of a life – calling for anything but patience, ease or confidence.

Yet the movie’s penchant for pensiveness, balanced by a kind of humorous caliber of caustic wit that’s universal in its domesticity, feels utterly appropriate for Wang’s movie, which feels like no less than a landmark in cross-cultural storytelling—and a too-rare example of a story that transcends the limits of its medium by acknowledging it shouldn’t try to meet them. Continue reading →

Review: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” examines a city and a friendship through the lens of identity

There are many moments in Joe Talbot’s new film, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” in which serene sequences you expect to be able to sink into – the focused painting of a windowsill, the playing of a piano, the beginning of a life-affirming speech – are shattered all-too-early, interrupted by reality. And reality, in this movie, is a thing to reckon with at every street corner; its most enticing versions are manufactured, or else the ugliest of situations are dressed in bright optimism destined to burn out before we’d had a chance to prepare for it.

The film is one of the more hopeful stories of hopelessness I’ve ever seen. It’s stuffed with a Wes Andersian air of whimsy and engrossing shots of a city mired in gentrification, but also brimming with an urban melancholy spray-painted on the walls of commercial manifest destiny—though you wouldn’t know it by the pair of best friends at the movie’s center, its beating heart. Continue reading →

Review: Seth Green’s directorial debut ‘Changeland’ is nothing more than an empty travel ad

[An edited version of this review was originally published on The Playlist, and can be viewed here.]

 

Thinking about visiting Thailand for your next big trip? Good news: Seth Green, of “Robot Chicken” and “Austin Powers” fame, has made an exquisite-looking 80-minute visual brochure with his feature film debut, “Changeland.” Just be aware you’ll have to wade through he scattered semblance of a movie that’s in there, too.

Undoubtedly, “Changeland” works better as a travel ad than a drama, which the movie painfully lacks. There’s intrigue in its concept, and in its humble beginnings; think back to the last boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-begins-to-realize-what-a-big-world-it-is-without-the-girl movie you watched. “Changeland” kicks off where the credits to those movies would start to roll, as Brandon – played by Seth Green – flies out for a trip he hopes brings some clarity.

The vacation isn’t of the spur-of-the-moment variety, however; Brandon had been planning to surprise his wife with the trip for their anniversary. But that was before he discovered she may or may not be cheating on him, and a romantic getaway devolves into an expensive sojourn of introspection; Brandon’s best friend, Dan (played by Breckin Meyer) joins along for the fun and, more pivotally, as a guiding force for a suddenly lost soul. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Rocketman’ is an exuberant, earnest chronicle of a rocker

From its opening moments, no one’s going to make the mistake that Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman” – 120 minutes of the life and times of Sir Elton John – isn’t about someone destined to be a star. A sparkling sheen worthy of the flamboyant rocker imbues the movie’s spirit before we even see him, enough to provide a jolt of familiarity even to those who can’t tell “Crocodile Rock” from “Your Song.”

But “Rocketman” isn’t just a flight of celebrity fancy—the opening seconds, however cathartic, is a bait-and-switch with an effectiveness in line with how much you really know about Elton’s life. And when the cinematic energy reaches stratospheric heights after a slightly turbulent bit of setup, the movie bares its ambidexterity at painting the portrait of Elton John not as a star, but as a comet—at once a a majestic force burning through records sales charts and sold-out stadiums and also an an enigma of self-destructive tendencies, hurtling through the vast space of celebrity at speeds none can be expected to smoothly navigate.

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Review: Olivia Wilde is a weary warrior in the contemplative, inconsistent ‘A Vigilante’

I’m not totally sure if “A Vigilante” – the feature debut from writer-director Sarah Daggar-Nickson – is meant to be soaked up as entertainment so much as a reconciliation between movies-as-art and movies-as-therapy. The small-scale story is interested in a single dominating issue, that of domestic violence, though in ways that feel inconsistently intentioned, despite the high amount of promise on display Daggar-Nickson.

Her screenplay is a contemplative, slippery ice puck of a revenge-fantasy story, slip-sliding everywhere in chronology and priority. The movie has some interesting, if questionable, points to make about an issue that many other films are frustratingly content with circling overhead of, namely: Does eye-for-an-eye have a place in the age of #MeToo? Where is the line drawn between moving on and fighting on, and – more urgently, at least in the movie’s purview – are they one-in-the-same? Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Little Woods,’ Tessa Thompson and Lily James fight for opportunity where there’s none to be found

A progressive rage simmers at the despondent heart of “Little Woods.” It isn’t just that writer-director Nia DaCosta spends a busy 95 or so minutes examining how working-class economic anxiety often begets the toppling chain of dominoes for those trapped in it, but more so that she unfolds her debut feature through the lens of a complex, dynamic relationship we surely don’t see enough of on-screen, and even less so in a movie of this kind.

Tessa Thompson and Lily James play two sisters, Ollie and Deb, who at movie’s start could certainly be faring much better than they are. The former, in a way, is; Ollie is getting her life together after being caught smuggling drugs at the border (the U.S.-Canada border, that is). She’s only got a few days left on her parole. And while she’s looking to create change for herself via legal means, the daily grind is still unmitigatedly just that—a daily grind.

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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: 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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