Monday, February 5, 2024

Well, it's been absurdly long since I posted anything. Partly due to a lack of inspiration to write here...and partly due to personal struggles.

I'm still not sure I'm going to keep this blog up, but for now I thought I'd let you know I'm finally working on a new film of my own--a drama called THE MYSTERY OF EMMA THORN.

With film on the brain, I've been catching up on the 2023 film I wanted to see, but missed in their debut months. I'm still watching, but here's a list of what I've seen so far and my short takes on them.

Read whatever interests you. And remember: these are just my opinions; you're welcome to hold entirely different ones. It's art. It's always somewhat subjective. That's part of the magic of it: our experience of it is a blend of the film and our own history, personality, mood, taste and more. 

So, understanding that, here are my thoughts...

In alphabetical order:


In a world of “fake news”, writer/director Cord Jefferson’s feature debut “American Fiction” is a near perfect comedy/drama about smalltime Black novelist (a brilliant Jeffrey Wright) who, using a pen name, hits the big time writing the very sort of racial pandering novel he hates and the snowballing charade that results. At once a witty satire of the media’s marketing of Black voices and a picture of one artist’s crisis with personal integrity, the film proves alternately poignant and hilarious. The acting is perfection across the board (standouts include those playing the writer’s struggling family, especially Sterling K. Brown as his messy, newly-out brother) and the savvy score buoys the proceedings deliciously. The first act is a hair too long, but that’s a small quibble in a film that so effectively skewers the publishing world, Hollywood, the perpetuation of stereotypes, and the public’s love of trashy confessionals—even if they’re a complete fiction.

Wes Anderson’s latest mix of comedic whimsy and topical depth will delight his fans and, hopefully, gain him a few more. A story within a story of a playwright struggling to make sense of his own creation: a play in which a parade of quirky characters grapple with plans gone awry: car trouble, death—even an alien encounter—all proving that life is a series of derailments and uncertainties. It’s colorful, laugh-out-loud funny, and every detail and performance is honed to Anderson perfection. And, for once, the fact that it’s so meticulously staged (as most of Anderson’s films are) perfectly suits the proceedings, most of which are—in fact—a filmed representation of a theater piece. There’s a lovely, recurring bit where two characters engage through their separate domicile windows: each, in a way, in their own proscenium. Even the “real life” of the playwright is staged or on stage more often than not. One could argue there’s a wink to Shakespeare perhaps, wherein all the world’s a stage. It certainly is in Asteroid City.

“Barbie” wins marks for its extensively researched, dream-logic satire of the effects (good and bad) the Barbie brand has had on girls (and women) throughout its impressive past. The play world of Barbie is exquisitely realized in production design, costumes, props and usage. The shower without water and the rock-hard ocean waves are just two of the pitch-perfect touches. Margot Robbie as “Stereotypical Barbie” and Ryan Gosling as (an equally stereotypical) Ken both go full out to breath goofy, lovable life into their roles. As Barbie’s personality (and body) morph with real-world concerns, she must journey to find out the cause. So, into the real world she goes--with Ken tagging along. There they both learn hard lessons before returning to decide how to live from now on with what they’ve learned. What makes “Barbie” work is its well-crafted blend of children’s fairy tale and adult social commentary—both provoking many laugh-out-loud moments. Running well past the two-hour mark, it does wear a little long in the plastic tooth; still, with its eye-popping visuals, its bounty of comedy and its unending originality, it’s no wonder “Barbie” stands on pointed feet as a bona fide hit.

A hilarious, frenzied and even heartfelt sci-fi/action/adventure about a weary Chinese American woman whose life gets sucked into alternate universes. Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan as her husband are flawless as the guides (of a sort) who we follow into the spiraling kaleidoscope that shifts not only worlds, but our heroine’s perspectives on (and value for) her original existence. It’s endlessly inventive in ideas and form, both coming at you with mind-blowing and eye-popping force. The lengthy runtime and the fact that the plot(s) don’t clearly all perfectly fit into a single package are forgivable sins, but they do make the film wear a bit by the third act (and umpteenth universe). Nonetheless, the funhouse ride is well worth taking.

A welcome finale to the summer action glory film franchise, Harrison Ford goes on one last artifact search with (thankfully) a non-romantic female cohort, the marvelous Phoebe Waller-Bridge as his trouble-making goddaughter. The plot is a little clumsy at times (the time-travel element is a wonky as most time-travel tales are) and the run time is a bit long (including t
he protracted, nostalgic opening), but the film is packed with everything a fan could want: exciting chases, Nazi fighting, killer eels (the sea’s version of Indy’s hated snakes) and we get nice cameos and callbacks to films gone by along the way. All in all, it’s a fine farewell to a beloved actor in a beloved role.

Scorsese knows his strengths. “Killers of the Flower Moon”, like all his period pieces, brings a bygone era (in this case, 1920’s Osage County, Oklahoma) to vivid life in rich detail. The visuals are glorious and the aim for authenticity is palpable. The acting, led by a bravura Leonardo DiCaprio performance, is top notch. The murders of the area’s Indigenous people of the time is a worthy tale, though its themes of collusion, exploitation and violence feel tired—especially for Scorsese. But the biggest flaw lies in the indulgent runtime which flounders unevenly: the killers and their plans are revealed so early, it fosters little suspense, making the proceedings lag; alternatively, the FBI’s emergence arrives so late that it and the ensuing trial feel rushed, which is saying something for a 3 ½ hour film. The denouement is especially indulgent; though its point about the commercialization of tragedy is fair, the satirical whimsiness feels inappropriate and pretentious.   

“Leave the World Alone” wins out solely due its actors adeptly giving us complex characters that hold us—even when the world around them seems to be falling apart. Yes, it’s about a half hour too long and (whether by intent or fault) it doesn’t explain or develop all the elements it throws at the viewer, but it’s a rare and welcome case of character over plot in this particular genre. Julia Roberts shines as the self-admitted misanthrope whose ice slowly melts just as Ethan Hawke, her sensitive husband, proves heartless as fear rules his actions when confronted by an unknown woman in need of help. It’s this kind of character dynamic ambivalence that makes “Leave the World Alone” as engaging as it is—much more so than the crashing boats and planes that imperil everyone. The lack of things tied up neatly will be off-putting for many, no doubt; I usually abhor it in film, myself. But in a story where all the answers won’t be discovered by the characters when we leave them, it seems apropos.

Todd Haynes’ latest will likely be a love-or-hate it affair, but Julianne Moore and Charles Melton are stellar and very human as the emotionally odd couple with a tabloid past upon whom descends a sociopathic actress, eager to play Moore’s character in a biopic. Natalie Portman is in rare form as the subtextually moustache-twirling actress who woos and wangles her way into the couple, their family, friends, and past coworkers. Haynes’ understands the melodramatic made-for-TV subject matter and pokes fun at it, often with the help of composer Marcelo Zarvos. Even so, he balances that with the gut-wrenching honesty of the invaded couple’s emotional landscape. But balance has its downside: while the ongoing ambivalence intrigues, it also allows the film to lack a strong point of view which makes the overall effect less than fully satisfying. But Haynes does seem to make movies to be discussed; in that, he has certainly succeeded.

Cillian Murphy makes a fine anchor as the titular character, leading a host of other great performances, including an excellent Matt Damon. But the film belongs to Robert Downey Jr. who steals the show; even outshining Christopher Nolan’s writing and directing which are smart as ever, but occasionally lack focus and depth, but add to the bloated three-hour runtime. Cases in point are the mostly unnecessary (if well-played) roles of Oppenheimer’s tragic lover, who is little more than sultry and sad, and his wife, who does little more than whine and vent. They are lengthy distractions from the tale of Oppenheimer’s building the team that builds the bomb and the man who orchestrates his fall from grace. There are also some metaphoric images that are eerily similar to those Nicholas Roeg used about the bomb’s destruction in “Insignificance” nearly 50 year earlier. But Jennifer Lame’s sometimes mad editing skills and Ludwig Göransson’s thrilling score fill much of the proceedings with effective tension and Nolan, as usual, offers many spectacular sights along the way. 

“Poor Things” is a surreal reimagining of the Frankenstein ethos, though its bloated runtime stalls at times with its ambling, episodic plot and various excesses. The cast, led by a fearless Emma Stone as the creation Bella Baxter, is superlative and the production design of the quasi-steampunk world is exquisite; so is Jerskin Fendrix’s effectively bizarre score and Holly Waddington’s eye-popping costume parade. Yorgos Lanthimos’s attention-seeking, hyper-stylized direction feels appropriate for once, but its overused fisheye and peephole lens effects grow tiresome. And the script, despite many fine, funny moments, drags on—spending a little too much time on each leg of the journey and pushing the litmus test of prurience along the way. (Despite part of the tale being a woman’s realization of her physical self, many sex scenes feel gratuitous and go on ad nauseum.) Even when the tale has come full circle, we’re thrust into yet another virtually tangential (and predictable) plot string. A tighter script would have kept the story moving as quickly as Bella’s growing mind; instead, it lumbers at times, more like Bella’s slow-witted replacement. Still, the good outweighs the bad, overall.

Based on the true story of Baynard Rustin, who helped Martin Luther King Jr. and others organize the 1963 March on Washington, “Rustin” is a wholly engaging piece of entertainment. Colman Domingo gives a tour de force performance as the complicated, but determined, titular character who fights racism, homophobia and more in order to make a difference improving racial equality, human rights and democracy. But the whole cast shines—including a stellar Chris Rock as one of Rustin’s key antagonists. Excellent as well are the production values and the ambitious script that provides context and comedy to frame the central, dramatic proceedings. And bonus points for keeping it under two hours.

“Saltburn” manages some savage, on-point black humor in fits and starts, but ultimately proves a predictable rehash of material that’s been done before (and better), without relying on sophomoric shock factor. The boy of humbler means visiting the world of the ultra-rich is as old as it gets; that he’s a manipulative psychopath isn’t even new. The film does boast some terrific acting—all the more impressive, since so many characters are nearly flatliners. Successful as well are the production value and cinematography, creating a bounty of breathtaking imagery: several shots not only look gorgeous, but provide manifestations of visual metaphors; notable examples include a shot of Oliver in a virtual black void, surrounded by an excess of platters of food, and another where he is caught in creepy colored lights with literal horns on his head. Alas, these metaphors are mere decoration in a plot that treads very little new water but for contrived scenes serving only to shock; the result renders “Saltburn” a bit of a well-dressed cheap trick. Even the aspect ratio proves more gimmick than depth.

Alexander Payne’s bittersweet comedic nod to the classic American cinema of the 1970s is about as perfect as a film can get. Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph are solid gold as, respectively, an unlikeable teacher and student and the head cook who are forced to spend the winter break at their deserted New England academy. True to form, little by little, misadventures, revealed secrets and hard truths of their various lives make them all realize how human one another is…and how they are more in common than they ever knew as aching, imperfect people. It’s a bravura celebration of how we must never judge others, for we can never know their story…until they share it with us. It gets a little long in the second half, but it’s a small flaw in such an otherwise well-crafted, heartfelt film.


So, there you go. Till next time, keep patronizing the arts in whatever way you choose. It's vital to a richer and more rewarding life. Even more so in a time where divisive views are becoming more and more dangerous all around. 

Stay safe. Seek out goodness. Keep loving.