Movie Reviews

  • The 2024 American Black Film Festival Announces Retrospective: Celebrating The Legacy Of Denzel Washington: Moderated by Chaz Ebert
    by The Editors on June 15, 2024 at 12:31 AM

    The 28th annual American Black Film Festival (ABFF) announced the Retrospective: Celebrating the Legacy of Denzel Washington program, which will take place on Saturday, June 15. This will include a Q&A with Washington about his life and career, moderated by Publisher Chaz Ebert.  ABFF states that this distinguished program is the first of its kind, celebrating the careers of extraordinary Black artists. This year’s festival, which takes place live in Miami Beach June 12-16, followed by an online segment June 17-24 on ABFF PLAY, spotlights incredible emerging creatives in the filmmaking space.  “We are thrilled and honored to present Denzel Washington with the very first ABFF career retrospective,” said Jeff Friday, Founder & CEO of NICE CROWD. “Denzel has been a longtime supporter of ABFF having attended the festival in the early years, so it is truly a full circle moment for us to spotlight his career in this way.” The program will be moderated by Chaz Ebert, CEO of Ebert Digital, philanthropist and producer of film and television shows that deal with social justice themes.  (Read our Roger's Favorites article on Denzel Washington here.)

  • Tribeca Film Festival 2024: 8 Highlights from This Year’s Event
    by Brian Tallerico on June 14, 2024 at 4:32 PM

    The Tribeca Film Festival is nearly complete in New York City, an annual event of red carpets, world premieres, and hits from other fests. Tribeca is a tricky festival, one that doesn’t get the worldwide attention of the fall fests but does produce a few memorable films every year, launching them into the world. Here are a few brief thoughts on some of this year’s best, five documentaries and a trio of very different narrative features that display the range of offerings at this year’s Tribeca: “Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger” This film is a gift to movie lovers, a riveting unpacking of essential chapters in film history by one of the best living filmmakers. It consists of nothing more than Martin Scorsese discussing the career and work of the Archers, AKA Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. And I could have watched it for ten hours. Most people know how blindingly smart Scorsese is, but what’s so enjoyable about “Made in England” is the love that comes through his words, not just a love for how much Powell & Pressburger shaped his career, but his honest affection for a man with whom he would become close friends. There are sections of “Made in England” wherein Scorsese draws lines between films like “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes” to choices he’s made in his own work that are just incredible, a reminder that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that inspiration is essential to the form. And to life. “Vulcanizadora” I admired the originality of Joel Potrykus’s “Buzzard,” but his latest is his best to date. It's a fascinating film that starts as one thing before shifting into much darker, emotional territory that works on issues like loss and the anxiety of fatherhood. Joshua Burge is phenomenal as half of a pair – the other played by Potrykus himself – that wanders into the Michigan woods in a manner that makes this film feel like a lark at first, another story of two very different travelers who happen to be on the same road. However, Potrykus has different intentions, turning his film from a bizarre story of friendship into something open to interpretation but feels to me about isolation, guilt, and the confusion of our world. What I admire most about the truly strange “Vulcanizadora” is that I haven’t seen anything like it in the last few years. And I can’t wait to hear people talk about it when it’s eventually released. It’s going to be a fascinating conversation. “Witches” The second-best documentary in a strong program of them this year that I saw out of Tribeca is Elizabeth Sankey’s deeply personal “Witches,” a movie that seems at first to be about the depiction of witchcraft in films like “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Craft,” but reveals itself to be an incredibly ambitious blend of autobiographical filmmaking and cultural commentary. It’s not just that we teach little girls that there are only good witches and bad witches—and that the good one looks much better than the bad—but that issues of female mental illness have been embedded in these representations and so much of pop culture overall. Sankey is vulnerable about her issues with postpartum depression, something that’s been historically seen as a weakness instead of a disease, tracing that back to the persecution of women deemed to be witches throughout history. Way more than just a cinematic video essay, “Witches” feels honest and true in a way that allows us to question the cultural weaponization of mental health. “The Devil’s Bath” “Witches” would make a solid double feature with the latest from “Goodnight Mommy” and “The Lodge” filmmakers, another truly oppressively slow burn of a film. “The Devil’s Bath” opens with a woman throwing a crying baby off a waterfall and doesn’t let up from there. Set in the 18th century in Austria, it centers on a woman named Agnes (Anja Plaschg) who almost seems to be sinking into the mud of this gloomy land in a life that’s increasingly emotionally difficult on her. Loosely based on a real chapter of Austrian history, the film’s title comes from a phrase for depression or melancholia that pushed women of the time to murder, often their children, so they could be forgiven by the church before being executed. It’s essentially assisted suicide because taking your own life would keep these distraught women from heaven. “The Devil’s Bath” is a consistently bleak work, but it’s also incredibly confident in its filmmaking, unafraid to drag viewers into its dark world. It will be out in theaters later this month. Watch for a full review then. “Black Table” John James and Bill Mack’s documentary brings viewers to one of the most beloved academic institutions on Earth, interrogating how race impacts students at Yale College through the personal stories of Black alumni, who all (mostly) fondly remember what became known as the Black Table, a meeting place in the famous Commons Dining Hall. “Black Table” works not only because it has an interesting topic but also because the filmmakers clearly created a warm, open environment for the interview subjects, who came ready to start a conversation. The manner in which a prestigious institution like Yale can still fail to really support some of its most accomplished students is systemic to so many places in this country, and around the world. And any chance to listen to the absolutely brilliant Wesley Morris should be taken. “Adult Best Friends” As someone who has seen enough festival indie “friend comedies” for a lifetime, I have to admit to somewhat dreading this one, but Delaney Buffett avoids the traps of this genre by staying true to her characters. And making a genuinely funny movie helps too. Buffett plays Delaney, half of a BFF duo with Katie (Katie Corwin), whose life seems to be heading in a different direction. When Katie gets engaged to her boyfriend John (Mason Gooding), she’s basically too scared to tell Delaney, worried about what it will do to the rift already growing between them. To break the news, they plan a girls trip that leads to a few clichéd situations but Buffett and Corwin keep it grounded with genuinely likable performances. That likability extends to a fun supporting cast that includes Cazzie David and Zachary Quinto. I have a feeling this will land on Netflix or Hulu in the not-too-distant future and be a surprising word-of-mouth hit. “Antidote” Christo Grozev was a part of the investigation into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, captured so unforgettably in “Navalny.” During that reporting, Grozev uncovered the truth about the existence of Russian kill teams, groups of assassins who had been traveling alongside Navalny, planning their assassination attempt. Pulling back the curtain on this dark underworld has put Grozev’s life in jeopardy, a truth that is painfully captured in James Jones’ “Antidote,” a film that looks at the price of being a whistleblower and a journalist willing to speak truth to the most dangerous people in the world. At one point, Grozev reveals that his stress level is so consistently high that it basically doesn’t lessen even when he’s sleeping. He suggests that the only way for that to change will be for Putin’s regime to fall. Some of the filmmaking choices here don’t work for me, but it’s a story that demands to be heard. “Driver” A little too verité at times for its own good, there’s still just enough natural power in this examination of life on the road for female truck drivers to justify its place on this list. Director Nesa Azimi centers her camera on Desiree Wood, a long-haul truck driver who becomes our window into a world that’s not easy on anyone, especially women. Trying to scrape together enough money to keep her truck while also supporting a movement for female drivers to report the persistent sexual harassment and assault in the industry gives “Driver” a foundation of hard-fought truth. 

  • Queendom
    by Monica Castillo on June 14, 2024 at 2:56 PM

    Jenna Marvin is a fearless 21-year-old queer artist in Russia. Using found objects, layers of makeup and tape, and a jaw-dropping amount of creativity, she manifests otherworldly outfits and strange creatures that seem to have fallen out of a sci-fi TV show and onto the streets of Moscow. Some of her outfits are fun and fanciful, others are directly political, drawing attention to the causes that matter most to Jenna. Her public drag performances earn the curiosity of the public; others scorn her, and the police are only too happy to keep her away from others. Jenna and her friends sometimes film these harsh encounters to capture the homophobic anger her silent presence in public spaces provokes in strangers. But after attending a protest taped in the colors of the Russian flag, Jenna is expelled from beauty school and returns home to Magadan, where her grandparents live and where she must decide for herself how to survive.  Agniia Galdanova’s sympathetic portrait of the young artist finds Jenna at a delicate moment. One false move, and she could end up in even further trouble with the state. Wait too long to leave, and she could be conscripted into the country’s war on Ukraine. Through Jenna’s experiences, Galdanova’s “Queendom” shows how hostile the country remains to the queer community. Jenna is punished for protesting, for her art, and for simply walking around a grocery store or public spaces in costume. Every outdoor scene comes with a hint of danger, but mostly Jenna attracts puzzled stares. In a world where few people like Jenna feel safe enough to walk outside in an audacious costume, a performer like her is something of a novelty.  Thankfully, “Queendom” is not a dull documentary on a fascinating subject. In addition to following Jenna through the highs and lows of her time as an artist in Russia, it gives her the space to create performances for the camera, visually accentuating her story in her own style. That includes scenes of Jenna surrounded by a gang of faceless bodies in red, white, and blue as they crowd and bury her as the school reads its decision to expel Jenna or in a mosquito-like costume wandering a strange sandy landscape. These scenes can be funny or serious, like when Jenna wraps up her body, head to toe in gold lamé to wander a desolate theme park and halfheartedly ride one of the rundown attractions, or when she emerges out of a cocoon of what looks like saran wrap, gasping for air as it seems she might be in danger of getting stuck in Russia at a time of war. Galdanova and cinematographer Ruslan Fedotov give Jenna marvelous closeups, highlighting the nuances of her performance, the articulate lines of makeup, and intricate costume designs for a dazzling effect. It's almost as if sleek music videos kept popping up during the on-the-ground filming of Jenna in public.  A world away from Moscow, Magadan is a desolate place, a former Soviet-era gulag that lived on past that chapter in the country’s history. Yet Jenna is in danger whether she’s in a major city or a rural town because Russia has only penalized its queer citizens, not protected them. Jenna is strikingly bold in her performance and courage, taking her creations to the streets, the faces of the people who might reject her, and this documentary. She’s not afraid to put her body on the line for the sake of protest, but she’s not so guarded as to leave out her personal life, itself an emotional tug-of-war between loving her grandparents and frustrated by their reactions to her. They don’t always quite understand her art or why she feels the need to put her safety at risk. They ask her to conform out of fear for her, and time and again, Jenna has to explain why that’s impossible. The struggle to be accepted as a queer person is fought on many fronts, be that internal, societal, and sometimes the most painful of all, with one’s family. Although Jenna’s protest art is strikingly her own, her journey of self-discovery and empowerment is a story many share. 

  • It's Too Bad That Audience Pictures Like Ultraman: Rising Will Barely Be Seen in Theaters
    by Matt Zoller Seitz on June 14, 2024 at 12:52 PM

    The term "crowd-pleasing" doesn't make sense without a crowd.  I thought about this a couple of days ago while watching a well-attended press screening of "Ultraman: Rising," a meticulously crafted animated film that its distributor Netflix is giving a customary perfunctory theatrical run to before consigning it to its streaming vault, where it'll likely get swallowed up and forgotten. (It opens nationally today.)  It owes a lot to Brad Bird's classic 1999 debut feature "The Iron Giant," as well as to early Pixar movies ("Finding Nemo" especially) and certain Hayao Miyazaki films (more so the film's attitude towards good and evil than anything visual or sonic).  “Ultraman: Rising" is what the old-time studio bosses used to call "an audience picture." The audience for which it was designed has two main components: young children who like watching baby creatures act like misbehaving baby humans; and adults who can appreciate a film that celebrates both the wonderful and terrible aspects of being a parent.  Of course, the big problem here is that Netflix, the film's releasing studio, has made it difficult to watch "Ultraman: Rising" with an audience by releasing it only on a small number of screens, and only for a week—just a little more than the minimum theatrical exposure required for it to be considered for the Academy Awards. (More on this in a moment.) Co-directed by Shannon Tindle and John Aoshima (seasoned animators who worked on "Kubo and the Two Strings"), it's a movie that jumps straight into its premise and forces viewers to catch up and infer their way through any plot confusion. Professor Sato (Gedde Watanabe), the original Ultraman, defends humanity against rampaging kaiju until he disappears while fighting the dragon Gigantron. His wife The story flashes forward 20 years as the professor's son Kenji "Ken" Sato, a professional baseball player, impulsively decides to relocate from an American team in San Francisco to a team in Tokyo. Turns out Ken has inherited the Ultraman duties from his father, who's a non-presence in Ken's life even though he's the reason Ken took on the Kaiju-battling job.  Ken defeats Gigantron but, in the process, comes into possession of one of Gigantron's eggs, and it's here that the film reveals its early Pixar heart. Ken is an arrogant, selfish, narcissistic person (for psychologically explicable reasons that make you not hate him). Like his father before him, he doesn't understand the concept of "balance" in one's life. Baseball and being Ultraman are all he's got room for.  The movie's middle section is in the vein of "Mr. Mom" or "Raising Arizona" or some other slapstick comedy where adults get a crash course in parenting, but with monsters and robots added. Baby kaiju does the same things that all babies do. She poops, she cries, she throws up, she drools, she falls down and breaks things, she gets into all kinds of trouble. She doesn't know her own strength or her own weaknesses. And she turns Ken's life upside-down and inside out. Ken starts messing up at work (i.e., playing baseball) because of sleep deprivation. He can't say why he's so exhausted without blowing his cover as Ultraman.  Storm clouds gather around the edges of this adorable movie as Dr. Onda (Keone Young), the head of the Kaiju Defense Force (KDF)—who gave Gigantron the metal-shelled egg that Ultraman acquired—plans to track the baby back to Kaiji Island and eliminate the monster problem in one fell swoop. One of my favorite things about this movie (and probably the only thing about it that made me think of Miyazaki, aside from the way that characters keep making little physical mistakes that humanize them, like bumping into door frames or embarrassing themselves at dinner) is that there aren't any outright bad guys in it. Dr. Onda comes closest. But it turns out that he's just like everyone else in the movie in that he's got his own tragic backstory and is at the mercy of his conditioning and issues. The big question is whether he'll overcome all that in time to prevent further tragedy from befalling himself and the other characters (and the people of Japan).  You can tell when a movie is conceived as a thing that is supposed to be screened publicly because it leaves a little bit of air in the cutting for reactions: laughs, tears, "awww!" at cute stuff. Which is to say, it has rhythm. It can dance. “Ultraman: Rising" can dance. Just about every reaction it seemed to want to evoke, it got. Kids absolutely loved the lowball physical humor (what's not to love about a giant baby spitting up on a guy in a robot suit?), and you could hear murmurs of recognition amid the adult guffaws at the montages of Ken trying to learn how to be a dad and keep his day job without going bonkers.  I've seen a lot of movies that can dance but don't get a chance to show it on a big screen in front of a crowd. Sometimes, it's because Netflix bought them as one of thousands of streaming menu options and wouldn't put them in even one theater if they weren't required to do so to qualify for Oscars and certain other awards.  The second "Knives Out" movie, "Glass Onion," was my go-to example for a while. I saw it on Thanksgiving weekend at a theater in Dallas. It made $15 million in seven days, despite being screened in a much smaller number of theaters than its predecessor, "Knives Out," a theaters-only release from Lionsgate that made $45 million in its first seven days. Screenings for the sequel were packed all over the US despite the limited window. I think it would've done as well as its predecessor if it had as many screens (3,641 for "Knives Out" versus only 600 for the sequel, and it was exclusive to AMC Theaters).  Richard Linklater's "Hit Man" might have done very well had it gotten more than a minimum rollout; it was a sensation at festivals and has gotten great word-of-mouth on social media from people who saw it in public venues. Netflix paid $20 million for it, but seemingly more as a menu option than a cultural event. I suspect David Fincher's "The Killer," a Netflix original, might have made bank had it gotten a proper release in theaters rather than a few straggler bookings nationally. I was fortunate to get to see it with a crowd. It really played, in that art house/sardonic "should I be laughing at this?" way that made Fincher's last theatrical film, "Gone Girl," so much naughty fun. ("Gone Girl" was Fincher's highest-grossing film, earning $360 million internationally on a $60 million budget.) Every molecule in my moviegoing-industry reporting body tells me that "Ultraman" is the kind of film that would prove to have legs and make an unexpectedly huge amount of money at the box office if it were (a) properly screened and promoted by its distributor and (b)  kept in theaters for more than a few weeks, to get that sweet, sweet word-of-mouth money that's belatedly going to make a hit out of "IF," which supposedly opened "soft" but is still in theaters as of this writing. Similarly, look at what happened with Pixar's "Elemental," which was written off as a bomb opening week but went on to make half a billion dollars. Both films gained value by prolonged theatrical exposure. "Ultraman" won't get that chance because it's not part of Netflix's playbook-- a playbook that they seem bizarrely invested in sticking to, even when it means they're leaving money on the table. Sony, meanwhile, just bought the Alamo Drafthouse chain, which has a tight relationship with Neon Releasing (founded by the same people). In turn, it has relationships with other important distributors of indie and import films, including Bleecker Street. Neon also happens to have purchased the distribution rights to the last five films to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, all but one of which ("Titans") went on to be nominated for Oscars.  Sony is the only major studio putting out feature films that hasn't created a money-pit streaming service. I think the two things are related. I think Sony understands what Netflix and a lot of other major "content producers" refuse to admit: that the only sure way to make money in the movie business is through theaters. Movie theaters have existed in some form for about 125 years, and if they are indeed dying, it's an American thing; we've lost five percent of our screens since 2019 while theater construction overseas rose by the same percentage. Every feature film does better in the long run if it plays in theaters. If it's a hit in theaters, so much the better -- but it doesn't have to be a hit. Just playing in theaters for more than a week gives it a sense of gravitas and permanence, not to mention lots of free advertising from people who still go to the movies and go on social media to talk about them, plus all the publications, platforms, newsletters, and Letterboxd accounts that (out of nostalgia, possibly?) still feel obligated to review every new release that plays in theaters. It will be interesting to see what happens next. Keep an eye on what happens to Sony versus what happens to Netflix, and let me know if I called it right.

  • Jesse Plemons on Being Funny, Stepping Off the Ledge and Making ‘Kinds of Kindness’
    by Tim Grierson on June 14, 2024 at 12:47 PM

    In “Kinds of Kindness,” you get three Jesse Plemonses (Jesses Plemons?) for the price of one. A darkly comic, deeply weird triptych from Yorgos Lanthimos, the film (which opens June 21) tells three separate stories, each of them starring Plemons, Emma Stone, and Willem Dafoe. In the first, Plemons plays Robert, a tightly wound man whose every action is dictated by his menacing boss, Raymond (Dafoe). The second features Plemons as Daniel, a cop whose wife (Stone) has returned home after being feared lost at sea—although he is convinced she’s not the woman he married. And in the final segment, he and Stone play colleagues hunting down a most unusual (perhaps nonexistent) individual with incredible powers.  None of the shorts is like the others and, likewise, Plemons luxuriates in different personas for each story. He’s rarely gotten to have as much fun in a film as he does here, and for his efforts, he won Best Actor at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, where “Kinds of Kindness” premiered. (It’s worth noting that Plemons’ wife, Kirsten Dunst, took home Best Actress from the festival 13 years ago for “Melancholia.”) It’s just the latest great turn from a performer who’s been on a roll lately between “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “The Power of the Dog,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” and, of course, “Game Night.” Plemons is not one to talk about process or himself all that much—one detects a shyness in him, or maybe just a refreshing modesty about not wanting to puff himself up too much. But during a Zoom interview earlier this week, he was relaxed and soft-spoken, constantly smiling and laughing as he reminisced about his time working on the dazzling, odd “Kinds of Kindness.” He also has some thoughts about being funny on screen and what it was like to be the “new kid” in Lanthimos’ ensemble of familiar faces. Congratulations on winning Best Actor at Cannes for “Kinds of Kindness.” You were at the film’s premiere earlier in the festival but missed the closing awards ceremony. What were you doing at the time? I had just finished a night shoot in New York and wrapped at four in the morning, went straight to the airport for a seven o’clock flight and was going home to see my family, my boys, which I hadn’t seen in a while because I was working, landed and turned my phone on to a bunch of texts, and had to go hang out with my kids and my wife. So it was nice. Did you have any sense that you might win? It’s an open secret that the festival tips off the filmmakers whose movies will go home with a prize. My only inkling came from my wife and my mom, who had done some investigating online and told me that there was a possibility—which I was thinking, “Oh my god, stop.” [Laughs] How did you see your first Yorgos Lanthimos film? My buddy Caleb Landry Jones, whom I’ve known since I was 18 or so, we were in a fictional band on the show “Friday Night Lights.” [We’re] always swapping things that we like—music and films and stuff like that. He said, “You have to see this movie ‘Dogtooth.’” That was my introduction. I was terrified and blown away and thought, “Who is this person that made this film?” I thought it was so brilliant—just one of those movies you say the title of, it does something to you, you know? Many have noted that “Kinds of Kindness” feels like a throwback to Lanthimos’ earlier, nastier films like “Dogtooth.” To me, it felt like both a return to the early days and also a bit of a step in a new direction. My other reaction was this is a script and a movie that could only be written and made by a brilliant director that’s had some success and thought, “Okay, you’re with me, right?” It’s not that he necessarily cares, but I think it felt like, all right, he had earned the right to really do something… Maybe even more so than some of his recent films, [it] really lives in the dream/nightmare-scape and playing with form. It was just really exciting and such a great unique challenge for an actor. He had collaborated with many of these actors before “Kinds of Kindness.” Obviously, you’ve done plenty of great work, but how much of a “new kid at school” anxiety was there for you? I definitely felt it. On the one hand, it’s comforting to be around people with this comfortability with each other—but then, it’s also you feel like you’re playing catch-up with the inside jokes. Throughout the rehearsal process, I felt like I was playing catch-up, but very quickly, you feel brought into the fold and a part of the troupe. Aside from the amazing actors he works with, the crew he’s worked with repeatedly over the years is just so incredibly talented. There is an odd, weird family atmosphere which, once you’ve worked through your new-kid-at-school feelings, it’s a lot of fun. It didn’t take all that long to feel like we could cut to the chase quickly. He gives you a lot of space, and then he’ll also give you specific, easily digestible notes. It’s hard to articulate, but even with [my character] Robert, who is being so controlled by Raymond in every aspect of his life, it was, oddly, such a freeing experience as an actor.  How does he give notes? What are those conversations on set? Yorgos is his own unique breed. What was intimidating in the beginning was that, because the script is so open to interpretation, [there’s] this catch-22: It requires you to make choices and bring your interpretation to it, but it also requires that you don’t get at all locked into that because, with every scene, there are a number of doors you could walk into it from.  There is a human aspect where you want to know, “Okay, we’re somewhere near the same page here, and this is somewhat resembling feeling like something that feels right to you.” But once that trust is there, you don’t need to say as much—you just kind of tell. But yeah, it’s always a process of—what do they say?—fucking around and finding out. [Laughs] You’re known for your dramatic performances, but people love you in “Game Night,” which was a great change-of-pace comedic role.  I would love to find another comedy in the “Game Night” realm or some great character in a comedy. But I guess anything that I’ve done that’s at all comedic, I would say for the most part, unless you’re playing a comedian, it’s not necessarily funny to [the character]. I got to play this comedic sidekick in “Friday Night Lights,” and what was funny about him was just his very resolute convictions and opinions that were insane. But he fully believed them—and same with Gary from “Game Night.” What a very lonely man. [Laughs] Lanthimos’ films are dark but they’re also very funny. With “Kinds of Kindness,” how much were you all thinking about the humor in these surreal scenarios?  Sometimes you rehearse something, and in the moment, a line strikes you as funny in a way that it hadn’t before—or other people laugh at the circumstances. But the type of comedic performances that I like all have to do with character and circumstances.  With [“Kinds of Kindness”], Yorgos kept insisting that this was a dark comedy, and for a while, I was like, [skeptical] “Okay…” [Laughs] And then, as we went on, especially with Robert in his desperation, I could start to see how there’s some humor there—and [with] Daniel’s delusion but absolute certainty. So, yeah, I guess some part of you knows that there’s [comedic] potential for it, but then you try to block that out. You can always tell when someone’s trying to be funny—sometimes it works, and they are. But I don’t know if I’m good at that type of comedy. Certain [funny] things didn’t make it in because the movie’s already pretty long. There was some shot of me as Robert rearranging the furniture in this house—I was supposed to move this cabinet, hang this picture, take a step back, look at it, and change something else. We did one take of it, I moved the cabinet, moved the picture—and then, somehow, broke the picture frame. [Laughs] It just all went so wrong and got so sad and funny—[we] kept [filming] and it just devolved. As soon as the take was over, everyone just cracked up.  [There’s] a very specific type of human folly and ridiculousness in a lot of his work. It serves a real purpose because it’s how you can momentarily disarm the audience and then hit them with something really dark. You have an amazing look as Robert. Tell me about the mustache and the turtleneck. The mustache was Yorgos. I tried on the turtleneck in the first fitting. [Costume designer] Jennifer Johnson and I both fell in love with it, and it took some convincing [of Lanthimos]. But after the camera test, he signed off on it.  How did you convince him? What made you think, “Robert is a turtleneck guy”? I don’t know… [mimics a turtleneck tight around his neck] It’s constricting—that just made sense. He’s like Raymond’s little poodle or something. [Laughs] There were a few wardrobe debates that took some convincing, but [as an actor] you have some idea in your head—and I won. [Laughs]  To your point earlier, what I love about “Kinds of Kindness” is that it feels like a flex on Lanthimos’ part. He’s having a blast spending the goodwill he’s accrued from “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” by doing something far darker, more ambitious—even off-putting and alienating. Was it liberating knowing that as you were making it? There’s just so much out there to watch, so to find something that truly exists in its own weird universe, following its own weird rules, is incredibly exciting and liberating. From an acting-experience level, it’s the same as it always is, in some ways, and then, in some ways, you can throw so much of your previous thoughts about what it is out the window—it felt like stepping off a ledge every day, which sounds terrifying, and some days it was. [Laughs] Then, some days, it was just so exhilarating.  You really get comfortable with balancing those choices that resonate with you—that feel exciting or interesting—but also really getting comfortable with the scary unknown and just taking the leap and seeing where it goes… Everyone’s doing that, so it feels like a group exercise. It’s fun.

  • Inside Out 2
    by Robert Daniels on June 14, 2024 at 12:46 PM

    Wait. Pixar finally has a quality animated film hitting theaters? Granted, it’s a sequel. But after seeing “Turning Red” pushed to Disney+ while a lukewarm film like “Lightyear” took its theatrical place, it’s taken far too many years for the studio to have a distinguished domestically released animated adventure. Even as a reintroduction to a familiar world, Kelsey Mann’s feature directorial debut “Inside Out 2,” a zippy yet gooey animated quest about belonging and individuality during teenage girlhood feels like a final, albeit predictable, return to normalcy.   The peppy sequel begins with the upbeat Joy (Amy Poehler) believing she has perfected an unimpeachable system. With the help of the usual crew—Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale), and Disgust (Liza Lapira)—she deposits the glass balls holding Riley’s worst memories to a distant realm called the ‘back of the mind' and deposits the best moments to an underground lake whose glowing tendrils reach from the glimmering waters toward the sky, forming the girl’s core beliefs. “I am a good person,” Riley often repeats to herself.  You can’t really argue with Joy’s methods. Riley, now 13 years old, is giving, smart, and, by Joy’s own account, exceptional. The girl who once feared loneliness in her new Bay Area surroundings has a tight-knit friend group too: Grace (Grace Lu) and Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green). The trio are so close that they’ve formed a formidable team on their hockey squad. They’ve even caught the eye of Coach Roberts (Yvette Nicole Brown), a high school hockey coach who has invited them to a three-day camp where players like Val Ortiz (Lilimar)—Riley’s hero—attend. For Joy and her cohorts, you can’t ask for much more.  Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein’s broad screenplay throws the biggest, most obvious obstacle possible at the teenager Riley: Puberty. A late-night alarm, in fact, announces its beginning, leading to some additional emotions appearing: the light-emo silence of Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), the French beatnik Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the needy Envy (Ayo Edebiri), and an ambitious Anxiety (Maya Hawke). When Riley learns her best friends will be attending a different high school next year, Anxiety takes it upon herself to wholly recraft Riley in the hopes that new version of her will impress Val. She throws away Riley's present sense of self to the back of her mind and exiles Joy and the other old emotions. It’s up to Joy and company to restore Riley’s former sense, journeying to the back of the mind, before Anxiety totally upends Riley’s ability to function. Mann doesn’t necessarily break the formula the first “Inside Out” established. This is a fairly straightforward yet affecting story about Joy and Anxiety, both realizing that personhood can’t be reverse-engineered. Riley is so focused on gaining Val’s approval, thereby negating her former best friends, that she merely reflects Val rather than herself. She is also so driven by her competitive desires that she only feels satisfaction whenever she either gains approval from Val or proves her competitive dominance. Seeing Anxiety remold Riley into a blank character as Joy and the other emotions trace through the recesses of Riley’s mind makes for a mostly satisfying structure, allowing the film to assuredly bounce through visually dazzling blitzes of color and whimsy for an intoxicating style that at once feels gentle, fun, and safely crowd-pleasing as it deals with the pressure of being a teenage girl trying to conform to the lofty standards set by other teenage girls.       That doesn’t mean new jokes aren’t added along the way: a nightmare fueling "Blue’s Clues"-inspired character, a scene in Imagination Land recalling “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” and Mount Crushmore are sharp zingers. The new emotions, however, aren’t as memorable as the primary characters from the prior film. For such an urgent emotion, Envy pretty much fades into the background. Embarrassment has its moments, particularly when put in conversation with Sadness. Ennui’s act wears a tad thin after its initial fast start—the moodiness of being French is understandably a great well to keep hitting.  None of the new characters carry the same heartbreaking resonance as Bing Bong, who, admittedly, is among the greatest animated characters of the past decade. It’s surprising, then, that Anxiety and Joy barely have any scenes together. Maybe trying to recreate the two-handed dynamic that fueled the first film felt too obvious of a narrative choice. But without much else to replace it, the film does lean heavily on the barrage of jokes it throws at the viewer to carry it through its predictable maneuvering.  This is also another film that uses people of color—in this case, Riley's Asian and Black best friend—to prop up a white girl's personal growth. In this scenario, the white girl is unquestionably mean to her friends. But it's okay because she's going through it and needs their hurt to ultimately learn a valuable lesson that'll result in them forgiving her. It's simply more of the same trite privileging.  Even with these bumps, “Inside Out 2” zips confidently along, fashioning a hypnotic and transportive imaginativeness that is incredible to take in. Powered by an aching core of emotion, the film still manages to be a wondrous distillation of the overwhelming angst, incredible solitude, and difficult changes many teenagers are going through. The film grants an immediate roadmap to navigate this period while allowing adults to laugh from the comfort of having already lived through that debilitating phase of life.  In a late scene, Riley, unburdened by the drive to succeed, experiences pure joy. In her bliss, she nearly levitates, moving and breathing across the ice with the ease of light shining through a windowpane. Through her delight, you can’t help but feel how the message of learning to inhabit an activity for the love of it rather than for social cache or short-lived gratification is still necessary for all of us to hear.  Even if its ring sounds a tad too familiar.      

  • Ultraman: Rising
    by Simon Abrams on June 14, 2024 at 12:44 PM

    Children take center stage but aren’t the real stars of “Ultraman: Rising,” a new animated superhero fantasy about absent parents, lost kids, and other Pixar-entrenched stock types. The movie follows (but predictably differs) from “Shin Ultraman,” the most recent high-profile project featuring the 58-year-old alien hero. “Shin Ultraman” was more of a retro-modern redo of the original “Ultraman” series and its serial format. “Ultraman: Rising” aims squarely for a family-friendly mass audience, one that’s probably less concerned with the character’s previous incarnations. That’s not a major or concerning difference, though it’s sometimes frustratingly apparent given that so much of this new movie’s formulaic daddy issues drama recycles decades of pseudo-adult animated movie clichés. This new Ultraman’s a brooding hero who must grow up to be truly great, which in this case means getting over his domestic hangups—angry with his dad and missing his mom—and also taking care of a giant baby dragon monster. The dragon’s cute and instantly amusing, partly because it doesn’t speak or have a character beyond its wild mood swings and heart-tugging character design. This new version of Ultraman is also not as charming, especially not when he’s a regular person with a family and other mundane concerns. That was never exactly Ultraman’s strong suit, though he still looks good when wrestling with monsters, robots, and other sci-fi menaces. In “Ultraman: Rising,” baseball prodigy Ken Sato (Christopher Sean) serves as Ultraman’s alias. Ken tries and mostly fails to juggle both a major league career and a kaiju-battling calling. Ken’s arrogance defines him for a while, though that and a few other qualities seem only to matter whenever the plot needs an extra push. Our hero avoids his doting father, Professor Sato (Gedde Watanabe), because he blames his dad for not protecting his mom, who goes missing after an early scene. In that establishing flashback, Sato tells Ken that the key to being a hero is finding balance. So Ken takes it upon himself, with some help from his robot minder Mina (Tamlyn Tomita), to care for Emi, a baby kaiju discovered shortly after a battle with the dragon Gigantron. This puts Ken at odds with the stern Dr. Onda (Keone Young), the generically militaristic leader of the Kaiju Defense Force. It takes a village to raise Ken, who rejects all of his father’s calls and doesn’t know how to respond to nosy but well-meaning journalist Ami Wakita (Julia Harriman), a single mom of a young, Ultraman-obsessed daughter. Ami puts Ken on the right path, but Mina does most of the work of caring for both Emi and Ken. Dad inevitably swoops in later, but not until it’s time for him to rescue Ultraman from the burden of being a psychologically complex character. By contrast, Emi is mostly defined by her attachment to Ultraman, whom she assumes is her mother, and her own monstrous bodily fluids, including slimy puke, fiery gas, and gooey “poopies.” These jokes seem to have written themselves, and so do most of the movie’s contrived plot twists and unseasoned dialogue. The makers of “Ultraman: Rising” seemingly tried to be all things to all viewers, a strain that’s especially apparent whenever Ken’s the focus. Some of his dialogue doesn’t match the rest of the movie’s Dreamworks Lite tone, like when he rhetorically wonders aloud, “Is this the part where the villain sends a hidden force that we didn’t know about?” (Well, yeah.) It’s harder still to guess why one Ken-centric scene is scored with the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” (No, really.) At least Emi moves and acts sensibly, though her wobbly physical movements and expressive facial features mainly stand out compared to her human counterparts’ inarticulate facial features and stiff body language. The movie’s voice cast does what they can to jumpstart their lifeless characters, but there’s only so much spin you can put on awkward placeholder lines like, “Someday, when you have kids of your own, you’ll understand.” Thankfully, “Ultraman: Rising” finds its footing whenever its title hero grabs the spotlight for himself. Working on the dorsal-finned visitor from the Land of Light seems to have brought out the best work from the movie’s deep bench of computer animators. Focusing on the ways superhuman giants move around each other, rather than how they gesture at their deeper feelings or motives, also seems to play to the filmmakers’ creative strengths. More than anything else, “Ultraman: Rising” lacks a noteworthy vision of what it means to be a parent, let alone an adult struggling to wear several hats at once. The movie’s fun, if a bit staid, when it’s in all-monsters-attack mode, but “Ultraman: Rising” doesn’t stand out whenever it requires more of your attention. On Netflix now.

  • Ghostlight
    by Matt Zoller Seitz on June 14, 2024 at 12:44 PM

    "Ghostlight," which focuses on a construction worker drawn into a production of "Romeo and Juliet," is a drama about traumatized people healing themselves with art. It's messy in the way that life is messy. It's one of those movies that simultaneously feels too long and not long enough. But there's a purity and earnestness to what it's doing that's increasingly unusual in American independent cinema.  Co-directed by the Chicago-based filmmaking team of Kerry O'Sullivan and Alex Thompson (O'Sullivan wrote the script), the story focuses on a family played by an actual family of working actors. The father, Dan (Keith Kupferer), is a construction worker. He lives in a suburban neighborhood with his wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen), and their teenage daughter, Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer). This is a troubled family. You can see that long before the movie reveals all the pieces of their trouble and lets you examine them.  Some viewers will be irritated by one of the qualities I found most intriguing about "Ghostlight": you don't really know what this family's "deal" is, so to speak, until fairly deep in the film (I won't say what it is; suffice to say it's an unimaginable loss). For quite a long time, you can't figure out why they're all acting the way they are. Dan is sullen and a bit of a space case at work. He has a hair-trigger temper that suddenly erupts through his personal fog and causes severe problems. Daisy also has a temper and is being disciplined for an outburst at her school. She uses profanity in settings where nobody uses profanity and doesn't care that a taboo is being violated. Sharon is a dutiful, attentive wife and mom who seems to be hanging on by a thread. In due time, you get little details about what happened to them, and the more you learn, the more you start to feel the weight of it yourself. Dolly De Leon, a breakout in "Triangle of Sadness," plays Rita, an actress in the aforementioned local troupe who gets to know Dan because his crew is doing loud construction near the theater and ends up being his entry point into a very low-budget community theater production of "Romeo and Juliet." Even though Rita is in her 50s, she's playing Juliet, and when the much younger actor playing Romeo complains that it feels weird, Dan, who stumbled into the group, gets recruited to fill in.  This is, unfortunately, the source of some of the film's weakest moments. Dan is embarrassed both by getting involved in theater (he's a strong-silent macho guy, for the most part) but also because it's a romantic role that involves kissing (there's a wonderful bit where the troupe's director Lanora, played by Hanna Dworkin, apologizes for not being able to afford an intimacy coordinator, then guides the two actors through some basic intimacy exercises for the stage). It's not so much the fact of Dan keeping his secret life a secret as the way that they expose it, which would've been a "big laugh" moment on a sitcom, and that doesn't make a lot of sense when you think about who's doing the discovering and what's in the room when the moment happens. There is a sitcom tendency to a few scenes, many of them involving Daisy, who's played by the younger Kupferer in a way that answers the question, "What if Joan Cusack and Nicolas Cage had a baby?" I.e., there's an innate bigness to her acting even when she's small. But that also turns out to be the wellspring of many of the film's delights. Daisy is a Force-of-Nature type character, barreling through everyone's life like a petite tornado. Not only do you get used to her after a while, but you begin to appreciate that she (and the actress inhabiting her) never come at a scene or moment in quite the way you might expect. She's so intense that even when her character is silently observing another character, waiting for her turn to speak, or just being part of a bigger moment, the eye is naturally drawn to her, because you know she's thinking of five or six things at once. The apple must not have fallen far from the tree(s): both the elder Kupferer and Mallen unpack previously hidden layers in Mom and Dad, and avoid obvious reactions and readings. Mallen has a strong scene near the end where Sharon chastises her husband for playing the hero while she's doing the family's grunt work that will ring uncomfortably true for many viewers. Daddy Kupferer, meanwhile, plays sadness in a way that's refreshingly realistic. You understand why nobody around Dan understands the depths of his sorrow or can recognize the symptoms of a man who's constantly on the edge of either cratering or exploding.  There were a fair number of English and Australian comedy-dramas made twenty to thirty years ago that explored the liberating and transformative power of art in the lives of people who never thought of themselves as creative, including "The Full Monty" and "Brassed Off." Patrick Wang's recent masterpieces "A Bread Factory Part 1" and "A Bread Factory Part 2" explored similar material in a more formally audacious way. "Ghostlight" is an honorable entry in that tradition. The movie has the good sense to let the actors articulate the meanings themselves by inhabiting the characters. It shows us their emotions rather than weighing everybody down with exposition or thematically reductive speeches that distill profundity into a bumper sticker or a meme.  "Ghostlight" doesn't capitalize on all the rich possibilities of its premise. It would not surprise me to learn that there's a three- or four-hour cut in the filmmakers' draft folders. But I don't think it's lesser for failing to do everything it theoretically could have done. It seems to have been made intuitively, and it's definitely onto something in how it expresses itself. It tests your patience early but becomes powerful as it goes along. The last thirty minutes hit hard, partly because you can't precisely map all the different meanings and associations it calls up. You just have to let it be the thing it's turning into, then make the decision to bond with it and let its emotions become yours.   Some of the elements that might initially seem odd become the source of great strength for the movie as drama, like the fact that the troupe has cast two middle-aged people as Romeo and Juliet (which might get older viewers to thinking about how the mind doesn't age in the way that the body does) or the very idea that Romeo and Juliet would be the Shakespeare play that would connect this family to their grief in a way that would help them process it.  Turns out this was the right play for the family and the film that follows them. One of the many mysterious and wonderful things about art is that under the right circumstances, and thanks to the right group of talented people, you can become immersed in a piece that outwardly has zero connection to the details of your own life and suddenly realize, "Oh, my God—that's me up there."

  • Just the Two of Us
    by Sheila O'Malley on June 14, 2024 at 12:43 PM

    Valérie Donzelli's "Just the Two of Us" is reminiscent of the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and '40s, films like "Stella Dallas," "Possessed," "Kitty Foyle," and "Letter from an Unknown Woman". These were melodramas, told from the woman's point of view, dealing with often tragic circumstances: exploitation, having children out of wedlock, man/money problems, and the struggles of being a woman in the world. The actresses who populated these films - Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford - provided catharsis for the audiences who flocked to see them. The plots were often heightened, but the emotions powering them were all too real. Melodramas, then and now, have been dismissed as "soapy" or shallow, but melodrama is often the best vehicle for serious social and even political commentary. "Just the Two of Us" is being marketed as a thriller. This is misleading. The film is an extremely effective melodrama, dealing with something many women experience: being married to a frightening man. "Just the Two of Us" is not clever, self-important, or stylistically overt. This is a story, well told.Blanche (Virginie Efira), living in Normandy where she grew up, meets Grégoire (Melvil Poupaud) at a party. Sparks fly. Grégoire is charming and sweeps her off her feet. In the middle of such a pleasurable whirlwind, it is difficult to perceive that instant intimacy of this kind can be a huge red flag. Blanche's twin sister Rose (also played by Efira) is concerned, but their mother has a more romantic sensibility and lives vicariously. Blanche has never been so happy. Before she has time to think about it, she and Grégoire have married, and he takes a job in a location far away from Normandy. It all seems exciting to Blanche. However, it doesn't take long for Grégoire to display some rather troubling behavior.Grégoire calls her at work constantly. He grills her on what she does when he's not around. He insists they only need one car, forcing Blanche to take the bus to work (so he can more easily control her schedule). He is openly jealous of Blanche's relationship with Rose. It irritates him that they are twins. There is a part of Blanche's heart that will never be his, and it drives him insane. The couple eventually have two children, and Blanche wakes up one day, after years of what she considered just minor irritations, to realize she is trapped. She sees him for what he is now. And she is afraid.Belgian-French actress Virginia Efira has quickly become one of the top dramatic actresses in France. The last couple of years have been especially amazing, with "Madeleine Collins," "Revoir Paris" and Paul Verhoeven's "Benedetta" coming in quick succession. She won the César for "Revoir Paris" and has been nominated six other times. This took place in less than a decade, which is even more extraordinary when considering Efira's start. A beautiful blonde, she was a weather forecaster and hosted TV game shows. Her first acting roles were in light comedies and romcoms, and nothing suggested the depth and sensitivity she would bring to the dramatic material. Paul Verhoeven saw it when he cast her as the rapist's wife in "Elle".She is now in a dominant position. Smart directors know that the story, whatever it is, will take place mainly on her face. Her emotions are palpable, and it's fascinating when she tries to suppress them, whether it's happiness, sexuality, or sadness. She is always thinking; there's always an internal motor running. The slightest shift in mood is reflected on her face. It's a pleasing way to receive a story as an audience member because nothing is being handed to you. The story comes at you through the look in her eyes, the tightening of the jaw, the sudden bursting grin. It makes me think of Steven Spielberg saying his favorite thing in movies is watching a person think."Revoir Paris" told the story of a woman struggling with PTSD after surviving a terrorist attack. Efira's sense of dislocation and dissociation is palpable. She can't put her feelings into words, but Efira doesn't need to. The same is true, even more so, in "Just the Two of Us," where you watch a woman go from melting in her new lover's arms to a diminished woman on high alert for any change in his mood. She practically shrinks in size as she tries to navigate the land mines set by her husband.Donzelli tells the story simply and practically, for the most part, but the way she blurs out the background to sometimes extreme degrees is an apt choice. This puts all the focus on Blanche in the foreground. The rest of the world is indistinct, and the blurring is the stylistic rendering of trauma's pinhole vision.We've seen all this before, even the "stunt" of having the same actress play twin sisters. We've often seen scenes where women cringe as their violent husbands throw things or scream in their faces. But with Efira, the terror comes from somewhere so deep and authentic that it feels different than a Lifetime movie representing the same. If you've been in a situation where the strong man supposed to love you throws you across a room, then you know there's nothing cliched about it, nothing "melodramatic" at all. It's real, and it's terrifying.

  • Treasure
    by Glenn Kenny on June 14, 2024 at 12:43 PM

    The Australian-born novelist and essayist Lily Brett is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and writes frequently on that topic and condition. Her 2001 novel Too Many Men is about a father and daughter who travel to Poland to explore the father’s tragic past. One of the book’s many features is a series of conversations the daughter has with what she imagines as the ghost of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Hoess. That’s right, the Rudolph Hoess, also spelled Hoss, a real-life personage who was the lead character in Jonathan Glazer’s controversial “The Zone of Interest” last year. In adapting Brett’s novel for the screen, director and co-writer (with John Questor) Julia von Heinz omits the Hoss material, possibly wisely, but what she comes up with to add in its stead is relatively mortifying. “Treasure” retains the father-daughter journey narrative — set in 1991, if you were wondering just how old these characters are, anyway. Ruth Rothwax, played by Lena Dunham, is a New-York-based journalist consumed with self-loathing over a failed marriage, her weight issues (she carries with her plastic containers of stems and nuts with which she makes parsimonious meals at her hotel breakfast table), and her tetchy relationship with father Edek, a Polish Jew played by Stephen Fry. Ruth is perpetually tetchy, not least because she thinks Edek is being a bit too blithe about their shared investigation into his harrowing past. Ruth is also very big on expecting everyone around her to understand and speak English, an annoying trait among American tourists in general, and even more annoying somehow when it’s repeated ad infinitum in a movie narrative. Did I say narrative? “Treasure” is packed with emotion and emoting at the expense of story. Things do happen, of course: In Lodz, where Edek was raised before being plucked out with his family and sent to Auschwitz, his old house is occupied by a nasty and poverty-stricken family that’s apparently been there since 1940 and still has the fine China owned by the Rothwax family. Well, Ruth wants to get it back, and Edek wants to let it go. Then there’s the matter of Auschwitz itself. Will Edek go with Ruth when she visits the death camp — which several Poles they interact with call a “museum,” eliciting a furious response from Ruth — or not? This is one of many bones of contention. People who possess a certain empathy can intuit that the reason some people who’ve experienced trauma in their past don’t wish to discuss that trauma, because it’s, you know, triggering. Ruth really isn’t one of those people. She holds her father’s reticence against him while holing up in her hotel room, consuming Nazi history and trying not to eat. In the meantime, Edek is partying with some female seniors. His wife had died the year before; the very idea of her father enjoying some companionship now is enough to turn Ruth into a petulant prig tyrant. This is a confounding movie. Its pace is leaden, its structure lopsided, and while Dunham and Fry are both first-rate performers, their respective personae — both public and on-screen — are difficult for them to fully transcend. Still, they break through in powerful individual scenes, such as when Edek is inappropriately nosy (with a point) about Ruth’s personal life or when Ruth semi-haggles over the china with those house occupants. And the Auschwitz sequence is surprisingly well-handled. Almost enough that you might feel inclined to forgive the sentimental denouement. 

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