In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new fraught-family drama, “The Truth,” a matriarch makes the decision to blast off into space so that she may never grow old, paving the road for an inevitable reckoning on emotional isolation when her daughter eventually comes to visit, having grown much older than she has remained.
Don’t worry, you’re reading the right review. While Kore-eda tends to keep his characters rooted firmly (physically, if not spiritually) to solid ground, “The Truth” – the filmmaker’s follow-up to the Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters,” and his first non-Japanese project – keys up a movie-within-a-movie concept to build a narrative nesting doll of mother-daughter relationships, effectively setting up the selective storytelling nature of filmmaking as a refraction point for the hashing out of real-world familial arguments stemming from murky personal histories.
The movie is as emotionally ambitious as it sounds. And against the backdrop of a style of filmmaking that can feel layman until it’s suddenly as lustrous as briefly gazing up into the cosmic infinite, “The Truth’s” central metaphor mostly pulls it off, especially as an observation of people whose stories are tied to the fake lives and tales of the movies. But there’s also an overabundance of characters, perspectives and tangents in the folds of Kore-eda’s latest, resulting in a tangle of unrefined arcs and an overall story that struggles to compromise between the overlap of interpersonal journeys and obvious destinations.
Life’s cruelties are casual and reconciliation is rare in Bora Kim’s tender whisper of a drama, “House of “Hummingbird,” a kaleidoscopic collection of experiences so steeped in detail and specific insight that it borders on the autobiographical. It’s a wondrous movie that understands the power of drawing out the silence in an interaction and of punctuating it with a brief explosion of cathartic rage.
And Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) has plenty to be enraged about, even as she spends most of the time bottling it up inside—a silent maelstrom of adolescent confusion and passiveness. Taking place in Seoul in the mid-90s, “House of Hummingbird” enlists a temperate, observational caliber of filmmaking – almost as if Kim is reaching out to her protagonist as we follow Eun-hee through the motions of urban life in school and at home, in private thoughts and strained reflection. She doesn’t walk through her days so much as she withstands them; in ways subtle and not so subtle, she’s constantly made into a target by others around her, often to deflect their own shortcomings in an environment that places paramount importance on getting to college.
The thing that’s most impressive about “7500” – a new high-altitude thriller from German filmmaker Patrick Vollrath that’s as succinct as it is complacent – isn’t exactly something I’m jumping at the bit to praise. It’s not as much the specifics of the (lackluster) narrative or (dubious) subject matter that have left me wary, but the implications reflecting back on a director fashioning himself less as an artist and more of a technician. For his feature debut after spending the last decade in the realm of shorts (including 2015’s Oscar-nominated “Alles wird gut”), Vollrath has made a 90-minute action-drama about a hijacked plane that exists solely as an exercise in emotional and aesthetic restraint, de-pressurizing the high stakes you’d expect from its elevator pitch for the sake of seeking – and failing to find – some enlightenment about cross-cultural connection.
Vollrath’s unusual intentions are rooted – first via a hint, then by broad strokes – in the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, returning in his first leading role since 2016’s “Snowden” as the co-pilot of a Paris-bound flight targeted by Islamic terrorists (more later on that unfortunate element). The slick-voiced homeliness that has serviced the 39-year-old JGL well in some movies (“Brick,” “(500) Days of Summer”) and not so well in others (“Inception,” “Snowden”) is weaponized in “7500”; as Tobias Ellis, he’s as stoic as a monk as he greets the jet’s captain (spoiler: he won’t last long) and goes through the pre-flight checklist, offering little more than a chuckle when the final two passengers arrive moments before takeoff. In the context of the uniform he’s wearing, the strict attention to the job makes sense.
Around the midpoint of “Babyteeth” – a bold and unruly directorial debut awash in impulsive ferocity fit for an early-summer release, even if not in cinemas – its two protagonists, Eliza Scanlen’s Milla and Toby Wallace’s Moses, sway drunkenly to a song being crooned at a sparsely populated club, lost in the ambiguity of their relationship and also reveling in it. She’s 16 and wearing a wig (one that makes her look 15 years older) to cover a shaved head indicating serious illness; he’s 23 with tattoos on his hand and under his eye. We’re long past the point when basic cinematic language has first raised red flags in our mind about that age difference, but “Babyteeth” subtly points out the temporality of this strange attraction—the camera fixes on a nearby karaoke machine, briefly lifting the moment’s luster and suggesting an artificiality to the authenticity of it all. Sometimes, the movie suggests, that’s the best we can possibly hope for.
Australian director Shannon Murphy’s first feature is the latest entry into the canon of stories about coming of age while coming to terms with the deadly clutch of sickness, although “Babyteeth” is more eager to take that contradiction to task than the heart-wrenching “The Fault in our Stars” or idiosyncratic “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” “Babyteeth” cooks up heart-wrenching and idiosyncratic moments of its own, to be sure. But what makes this an invigorating iteration of the sick-teen-girl-meets-a-guy tale is how willing it is to get on the ground level with its characters and embrace the kaleidoscopic states of being – of enduring – that they represent. Cliches are twisted and feelings are complicated, resulting in a reinvigorating new take on familiar material.
If one of our favorite conversations to have as movie-watchers centers on which character actors reign supreme of the Sam Elliotts and Bill Paxtons of the world, maybe it’s time to start talking about character directors. Which filmmakers most consistently blend a screenplay’s tonal specificity with the right actor so that a protagonist’s energy bends the movie to their thoughts, words and actions?
Here’s one for consideration: Judd Apatow, who’s made a habit of jump-starting the intermediate phases of actor’s careers by calibrating his movies to the unique charismas of Seth Rogan, Steve Carrell, Amy Schumer and other comedy acolytes. His latest muse and partner: The heavily tattooed and square-jawed Pete Davidson, who at 26 might just be graduating from SNL mainstay to major big-screen presence with Apatow’s sensible and enjoyable new dramedy, “The King of Staten Island.” Although the film is more effective as a fictionalized testimonial of Davidson’s own life up to this point (he shares writing credit with Apatow and Dave Sirus) than a story with three complete acts, its leading man’s frenzied aura is put fully on display in what might be the most platonic movie Apatow has made to this point in his career.
“The King of Staten Island” follows Davidson’s Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old denizen of the titular New York borough who’s been stuck on first gear in career, love and life ever since his firefighter dad died when he was young enough for the event to be foundational to everything that would come later. Content with lighting up a joint while everyone else in his life is getting a move on in theirs – his sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), is leaving for college; his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei, marvelous), has started seeing someone new; and his lady friend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), wants to be more than friends with benefits – Scott maneuvers his days with grim resignation, and Davidson’s lanky 6-foot-1 frame makes a perfect vessel for Scott’s coiled-up potential. There are occasional suggestions that lingering grief may push it from being a defense mechanism to an excuse for self-harm, but Scott’s otherwise comfortable talking about the uncomfortable things—so long as it’s on his terms.
He wavers between moody, buoyant and aimless (as does the movie), but newfound motivation will bloom behind his deadpan gaze when Margie divulges the new guy she’s seeing is a firefighter just like his dad was. Scott’s wary at the news. He’s happy for his mom moving on, but he’s now got to compromise keeping up with the new relationship without feeling like he’s forgetting his father in the process.
The deft cross-stitching of pathos and crude humor that makes an Apatow movie an Apatow movie is very much apparent in the construction of “King of Staten Island,” a movie of confrontations and reckonings that spark when Scott’s antipathy starts to resemble antagonism. Although Apatow’s sixth feature is comparatively light on his trademark absurdity, filling those spaces is a bittersweet earnestness that has plenty of room to stretch its feet mostly without feeling like an awkward companion to the jokes that tend to come at a spitfire, improvisational-like pace (one hilarious early scene sees Scott and his stoner friends arguing about the ethical and legal merits of tattooing a 12-year-old kid who’s attracted to the ink). “Staten Island” is absolutely one of the funniest movies that the first half of 2020 has brought us so far, and the jokes tend to be thornier than the movie’s drama, especially when filtered through subtle thematic undercurrents of mortality and budding recklessness.
The film’s performances, meanwhile, are its real strength, especially when it comes to Davidson and Tomei, and the latter’s ability to curl a grimace or lob a retort with a New York flavor that makes it impossible to look away. Powley’s Staten Island drawl provides its own magnetic pull, and Bill Burr is a necessary emotional metronome as Margie’s new squeeze; he’s low-key and explosive precisely when he needs to be.
The thing that should be noted about “King of Staten Island” is how personal a story it is for Davidson. In fact, it’s practically his own story. The actor’s real-life father was a firefighter who died in 9/11, so it’s attractive to think of the project as a self-referential piece of therapeutic moviemaking, similar to what last year’s “Honey Boy” represented for Shia LaBeouf. More than being a great actor for Apatow’s sensibilities, it’s easy to see (and easier to understand) why Davidson feels so invested in the performance; when Scott yells “When am I gonna get my break?” there’s a quiet sorrow that may very well connect character and performer.
And yet, “King of Staten Island” never demands our attention more strongly than when Scott tightly shuts his eyes and steps on the gas on a crowded highway before swerving out of the way of disaster at the last second. The scene teases a movie with a stronger bite than Apatow has perhaps ever made; instead, it only loosens its jaws over the next two hours, albeit with plenty of R-rated humor to hold us over.
The movie’s origins may also be why it feels like we’ve arrived at an inevitable place when, in the movie’s overlong final stretch, the film dials down Scott’s coarseness for something much triter and pulls back on the crass for Hallmark-ready sympathy. In one long stretch where Scott rediscovers himself as an adopted child of a fire station, “King of Staten Island” feels like something totally un-Apatow-ian: a redemptive journey where nothing is learned so much as the air around current knowledge is cleared up. There’s nothing distractedly baffling here (Apatow is too smart a filmmaker to trip over himself), but “King of Staten Island” just barely allows us to catch a whiff of the release of frustrations that Scott has kept pent up inside. That’s about as much as we can expect as far as narrative or character development, which in this movie are practically one in the same.
That doesn’t make for an unsatisfying conclusion so much as an indefinite one. Apatow and Davidson trade the microscope for the telescope as “King of Staten Island” zooms out of Scott’s internal anguish to examine an uncharted future in the film’s final moments, which somehow feel like an abrupt ending even after 135 minutes. But there’s nowhere in the movie where its origins are more apparent. If this is a mirror of Davidson’s own experiences, the final shot that sees Scott quite literally looking up and on to a brave new world is as self-reflective as any scene that has come before it.
“The King of Staten Island” is rated R for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images. It’s available to rent on digital platforms now.
Starring: Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr
Don’t let anyone tell you 2020 has been a bad movie year through five months and change.
Yes, cinemas have largely remained closed – their popcorn machines shut off, their theaters darker than usual – as the releases of big-budget productions remain delayed, but the industry’s temporary (or perhaps not?) realignment of distribution models have ensured new viewing options every week, whether via last-minute Netflix acquisition, the new virtual cinemas network or compromising to strange times by releasing movies on VOD platforms.
The result? A renewed focus on the smaller or otherwise more obscure indie movie/international offering/experimental project that would have struggled for attention alongside the “No Time to Dies,” “Black Widows” and “Mulans” of the world. And even as some of the movies that have released had big-screen aspirations once upon a pre-pandemic time, they’re all now just a click away as the COVID-19 has provided us with many more hours to kill at home. When it comes to accessibility, the digital library of 2020 releases has been just as diverse as exploring the breadth of your favorite streaming service.
As for the movies themselves? A broad spectrum of moviemaking is represented, from early Oscar hopefuls to mindless actioneers, from the thought-provoking documentary to the ambitious directorial debut. If ever there was the time (and if ever we had the time) to absorb new stories and perspectives, 2020 is it. The movie calendar has never been more in flux, but the potential to find a gem has never felt more acute.
So, in spite of everything…don’t let anyone tell you that 2020 has been a bad movie year. Here are the eight best films the first half of it has offered, in alphabetical order.
“Bad Education” (dir. Cory Finley)
Hugh Jackman’s Academy Award-caliber performance as a sultry schemer who just so happens to be orchestrating the turnaround of an upper-class Long Island high school is only part of the appeal in Cory Finley’s devilishly nuanced second movie. At its core, the funny and smart “Bad Education” considers the inevitable temptations of a money-obsessed society, and Finley’s confident direction manages to synthesize what we’d traditionally view as antagonistic forces into avatars of the platonic American capitalist ideal. Wouldn’t you stick your hand in the cookie jar?
There’s a Soderberghian energy that’s deployed as we watch our fraudsters realize how knotted up they are in the can’t-harm-anyone threads they decided to tug on juuuuuust a bit, and a triumphant practicality in the true-to-life act of high school journalism that exposed it for all to see.
An exercise in excavating seeds of doubt and suspicion from the stormy ambiguity of blank stares and delayed vocal responses, “Beanpole” – a Russian drama following two female hospital caregivers after their time on the frontlines of recently-ended World War II – is a thoroughly captivating work. Unfolding with equal jolts of profundity and intimacy, the film strives to disentangle the paradoxes of war-adjacent drama through the No Man’s Land that separates stillness from eruption. It perfectly captures the widespread shellshock that lingers in the immediate aftermath of world-shaking conflict.
It’s also a film that finds evolved potential in the power of the long take (the kind that doesn’t call attention to itself); once you’ve adjusted to how elastic director Kantemir Balagov insists his scenes to be, “Beanpole” becomes a magnetic thing to behold, with thoughts on salvation and reconstruction that demand to be considered.
“Da 5 Bloods” (dir. Spike Lee)
How appropriate is it that one of our most enduring American filmmakers uses American films’ fascination with war to examine the continuous cycle of trauma and pain the country inflicts on its Black people? Whatever one might expect of Spike Lee’s latest – an enraged, enthralling take on the Vietnam War epic – there’s no expecting how deftly it punctures through to the present moment. The war genre functions as both lens and subject in “Da 5 Bloods,” but Lee ensures there’s no overlooking his searing commentary on how a country refuses to reckon with the role Black lives have played, and continue to play, in shaping its history.
“Da 5 Bloods” isn’t just a rich text; it’s a screaming sermon fueled by bullets and intergenerational pain. It’s a celebration, it’s an education and it’s an indictment. To quote one of the titular Bloods, the film is a Malcolm and a Martin.
“Fourteen” (dir. Dan Sallitt)
One of 2020’s most captivating dramas unfolds through blissfully frank vignettes of a years-long friendship increasingly on the rocks. In one minute, we’re watching Mara and Jo (Tallie Medel and Norma Kuhling, respectively, and both excellent) wax poetic about stumbling through life as busy twenty-somethings in New York; the next, we’re swept up in the ferocious tides of time progressively chipping away at a bond while magnifying the consequences of its inevitable end. Writer-director Dan Sallitt doesn’t fetishize the ugliness of his story, nor does “Fourteen” distractedly explain where its devastating power will eventually be rooted in. This isn’t capital-D Drama by any means, and it makes everything we’re seeing feel profound in its mundanity. The filmmaking is on par with the ebb and flow of life itself.
The second feature from Mexican director Fernando Frias thrives, or rather simmers, on the juxtaposition of cultural celebration and geographic displacement while spectacularly subverting the immigrant narrative. A story that rebounds through time, the Netflix offering “I’m No Longer Here” follows the young leader of a tight-knit Monterrey street gang as he navigates the streets of Queens after being forced to leave for the U.S., finding some remnants of comfort in the cumbia style of dance he’s always cherished but which seems alien to the New Yorkers he dances in front of thousands of miles from home.
The mesmerizing camera work of Damian Garcia and seamless editing of Yibran Asuad puts a magnifying glass to the melancholy stitched into every moment of Frias’s film. The American Dream in “I’m No Longer Here” isn’t about finding success in America; it’s about finding a way home, and desperately hoping it has remained unchanged. The movie’s blend of subject matter and form suggests an emerging master of lyrical storytelling.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (dir. Eliza Hittman)
The best of writer-director Eiza Hittman’s movies about adolescent reckoning, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a minor miracle of an abortion drama that doesn’t look to indict, preach, vilify or politicize. Instead, Hittman finds a new kind of urgency in her straight-faced, disarmingly affecting filmmaking, centering on two teenage girls who communicate and lift each other up through sheer empathy. The movie is a subtle acknowledgement of the limits of the U.S. healthcare system and an even more subtle nod to perseverance not as a level of personal capability to aspire to, but as a platform to force ourselves onto as the ground gives way underneath.
As Autumn, first-time actress Sidney Flanigan’s stunning performance translates the desperate practicality and quiet contemplation of thousands of girls’ real-world stories. There is no storytelling deception or narrative fakeouts deployed by Hittman in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”; its ideology is reality.
A fever dream of extreme close-ups, psychological spontaneity and another unpredictably madcap performance from Elisabeth Moss, “Shirley” is no more a biopic than it is a Kaufman-esque thriller. In its exploration of artistic vulnerability and personal enlightenment, Josephine Decker’s latest is a cousin to her last enigma of a movie, “Madeline’s Madeline,” and also no less challenging to untangle. There’s often no telling if what we’re seeing is real or through whose perspective we’re witnessing certain events, but that ambiguity and occasional frustration goes a long way toward inserting ourselves into the head of the titular 20th century horror writer, and toward understanding the toll of the expectations her audience had of her—even those who lived under her own roof.
Kitty Green’s excellent, exacting movie is a quietly disquieting thriller for the #MeToo era, literalizing the monster of workplace systems designed to keep suspicious actions hush-hush while suffocating the agency of female employees. It’s the slowest of slow-burn stories as we follow Julia Garner’s Jane over the course of one day at work; Green pays hair-raising attention to the details that are as monotonous as they are threatening, and employs sound design that cuts to the core like a gust of freezing arctic air—all of it adding up to a hyper-specific narrative that deftly translates how women in the workplace can be caught between a rock and a hard stare from an HR superior. It’s as vital as anything that’s come out this year.
When Elisabeth Moss’s Shirley Jackson tells a living room full of fans that the next thing her character is writing is “a little novella I’m calling ‘None of Your Goddamn Business’” – coating the jab with delicious acidity – you can practically feeling yourself strapping in for another exhilarating performance from another exhilarating 37-year-old actress. As with “The Invisible Man” earlier this year, “Her Smell” last year and numerous other turns in the last decade, Moss delivers—in the way she leers and silently searches without ever betraying what’s going on behind her eyes. But she isn’t the only one cloaking hidden intentions.
In Josephine Decker’s beguiling, sexy and strange new movie, “Shirley” – about the famous 20th mystery author, and also much, much more – devilishness is a siren song. Sidestepping traditional biopic conventions, the movie is more invested in insight than fact; while “Shirley’s” narrative contours will be much clearer to the audience than Decker’s last movie, 2018’s triumphant “Madeline’s Madeline,” intentions are no less difficult to decipher (and the endeavor is no less intoxicating). Moss’s acting ability becomes more than just sheer attraction for a movie that fashions itself a thriller before taking on the trappings of psychosexual drama in a story of muse and artist, although the tale is less “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and more akin to something Edgar Allen Poe would have dreamt up. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
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 →