Movie Reviews

  • Why Deleting and Destroying Finished Movies Like Coyote vs Acme Should Be a Crime
    by Matt Zoller Seitz on February 9, 2024 at 9:48 PM

    There’s an old joke about a guy who murders his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.  A variant of this thinking is becoming an accepted strategy at major entertainment corporations like Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), which adopted a scorched earth brand of accounting after its 2022 merger that sought to reduce debt by using drastic measures. One of WBD’s most notorious post-merger decisions was deleting an entire finished feature, “Batgirl,” that had an estimated budget of $90 million, to claim a tax write-off, deeming it bad-to-the-point of un-releasability (how they could prove this when no one outside the production had seen it remains a mystery worthy of Benoit Blanc).  The company seems determined to do it again with another one of their productions, the live-action/animation hybrid “Coyote vs. Acme,” a comedy based on a New Yorker humor piece about Wile E. Coyote suing the Acme corporation that reportedly cost $70 million, co-starring John Cena and Will Arnett, directed by Dave Green. The film was already done and had performed exceptionally with test audiences (in the high 90s, according to a Rolling Stone article) when it was earmarked for deletion last November so that the company could claim a tax write-off, as they had done with “Batgirl”.  To my knowledge, the company has never given anyone a justification beyond debt reduction and a bit of vague gesticulation toward a corporate vision that the film supposedly didn’t sync with. Public outcry caused the company to backpedal in November 2023 and say that they would sell the movie elsewhere, but Drew Taylor of The Wrap has reported that the company never entertained any negotiations about their asking price, demanding not a penny less than $70 to $80 million for the privilege of owning a project that they would only gain $30 million by scrubbing from their own ledgers. The offer to sell the film was, to put it mildly, not undertaken in good faith. It appears that the company would rather take less money by writing off the movie than sell it for even a few dollars more than that, because they might risk having a rival turn it into a success, which would further embarrass them for never even having tried to market it themselves, even though it was built around “intellectual property” (i.e., adorable cartoon characters) that are as inextricably linked with Warner Bros. as Marianne is with the nation of France. It’s not just the completed film that gets deleted in cases like this, but everything associated with the film, which means that nobody who did any sort of work on a project that consumed years of their lives will ever be able to point to it as evidence of what sort of work they’re capable of doing, and get more work. At least when a real estate company demolishes a completed building before anyone’s had a chance to move into it, there are photos of what it looked like. “With this write-off, everything gets deleted, not just what you see on screen, but everything that it took to make the film,” the film’s editor Carsten Kaparnek told Rolling Stone at the time. “A released movie is just the tip of a giant iceberg of love and labor. The talent and commitment of the people who bring a project to life should not go unnoticed … All of it is now lost but will never be forgotten by those lucky enough to have been there.” (As Jacob Oller pointed out in an article for Paste, in the old celluloid days, studios or filmmakers who tried to do this had to burn a negative.) Some of the company’s tactics post-merger were garden-variety ruthless, like eliminating 87 series from its streaming platform Max, so that they won’t have to pay union-mandated residuals to the talent that created already-existing programs or pony up funds to produce more seasons of existing ones (such as “Our Flag Means Death,” one of the company’s most popular and critically acclaimed comedies—canceled after just two seasons). Other decisions appear coldly pragmatic at first glance but reveal themselves as counterproductive after a closer look, like offloading formerly exclusive HBO productions like “Band of Brothers” to Netflix or cutting the number of available Looney Tunes and offering them to rivals (those characters are literal mascots for the company; imagine Disney+ doing the same with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons, and the horrified reaction of devotees of that brand). Taken to extremes, the mentality is the equivalent of trying to get your weight down by slicing off fingers, toes and ears. The number on the bathroom scale is reduced, but the corporate body politic is traumatized from shock and blood loss, and nobody considered the long-term health ramifications. It has been pointed out to me that companies own things and therefore can do whatever they want with them. Being an American, I’m aware of that position.  But I’m also aware that—in theory, at least—governments exist (in part) to regulate corporations, in order to stop them from doing things that are deleterious or destructive to the public good and to individuals who work for them. They have the means and motive to step in, whether declaring certain kinds of waste dumping to be illegal, trying to prevent private companies from bribing or otherwise influencing public officials, or mandating that TV networks cannot blast the volume of ads to make them audible to viewers who leave the room during commercial breaks. (Yes, that last thing is real; it’s legislation known as the CALM Act.)  They should do something similar for all types of media. The template could be the moral rights of artists in some European markets, which you can read about at length here.  A selective adaptation of that idea for the United States is the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which smart lawyers might want to look into. Among other things, it grants artists “the right to prevent distortion, mutilation, or modification that would prejudice the author's honor or reputation.” Whatever the technical legality of writing off completed films and destroying them for pennies on the dollar, it’s morally reprehensible: Oller memorably calls it “an accounting assassination.” Defending it on grounds that it’s not illegal is bootlicking.  The practice also has a whiff of the plot of Mel Brooks’s “The Producers”. The original idea of Brooks’ hustler protagonists Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom was to mount a play so awful that it would close immediately, and they can live off the unspent money they raised from bilking old ladies. When the show unexpectedly becomes a hit, they blow up the theater.  The biggest difference between the plot of “The Producers” and what happened to “Batgirl” and “Coyote vs Acme” is that in “The Producers,” the public got to see the play.

  • Willie and Me
    by Matt Zoller Seitz on February 9, 2024 at 4:14 PM

    "Willie and Me," written, directed by, and starring German actress and first-time feature filmmaker Eva Hassmann, is about a German housewife named Greta Weingarten who bolts from her unsatisfying marriage to a rich jerk who doesn't appreciate her, and goes to America to see the final performance of Willie Nelson, a performer she's been obsessed with since she was a girl growing up with an alcoholic and (it seems) mentally ill mother. Nelson, who was 90 at the time of the movie's release, plays himself in concert footage and has brief cameos as himself and a second (and rather unfortunate; you'll know what I mean when you see him) character. Nelson reportedly got involved in "Willie and Me" because somebody sent him the script through a mutual connection.  Everything about the backstory of Hassmann's feature is inspiring, especially to independent filmmakers who commit one hundred percent to their vision, whatever it may be. Unfortunately, the result is one of those films that just doesn't work. Even for a picaresque plot comprised of incidents and moments, it's a flat and disjointed effort that lurches forward and stops and lurches forward again throughout its brief running time—a labor of love that doesn't deliver. The over-reaching production values are characterized by unconvincing green-screen work, which might possibly have been converted from a liability to an asset if the movie had leaned into the chintziness and gone for something more "storybook." The actors (including the late Peter Bogdanovich as an alcoholic manager at the hotel where Greta stays, and Blaine Gray as Duke, a good-hearted Elvis impersonator) are stuck playing cartoony, cardboard-cutout, indie-movie Americana "types," defined by one or two traits. The humor seems to want to be bubblegum sweet and bitingly satirical at the same time, impulses that cancel each other out.  It might have worked in spite of itself if Hassmann's performance were powerful enough to gather it all up and unify it through sheer originality and energy. But while she's an attractive, likable, sympathetic lead, there's no discernible comic point-of-view to her performance, and her physical resemblance to Madeline Kahn circa-1970s doesn't do her any favors. You may find yourself imagining what a brilliant, constantly surprising performer like Kahn, or a modern equivalent like Kristen Wiig, or an unknown who was more of a dynamo, might have done instead.  Or perhaps not. The character of Greta is narratively a zero, drifting from one disaster to the next, whether she's accidentally setting her husband's house on fire during her nighttime escape or hiding the nest-egg of Euros she took from him under a motel mattress only to wake up to find that it was stolen following a drunken escapade with a strange man. Naive blank-slate protagonists like Gulliver, Candide, Forrest Gump and Barbie were at least supported by a storyteller's unified architecture and focused drive. This film keeps genuflecting towards a more cartoonishly "big" mode, leaving Greta abandoned on the side of a highway and having her seem to drop out of the sky in front of bewildered onlookers and so forth. But although it obviously appreciates that type of slapstick, it doesn't know how to execute it in a way that sells it, so the result is more cringe-inducing than hilarious or charming. And in the end, it's hard to say what its opinion is of America, Germany, marriage, the role of pop culture iconography in shaping personalities, or anything else might be. Is this a satire? It carries itself as if it has something to say. But what? The CinemaScope-dimension imagery, credited to Marco Cappetta and Alexa Ihrt, is the second best thing about the film, although there are moments when it overwhelms the slightness of what's onscreen. The best thing about the movie is the near-nonstop use of snippets of Willie Nelson's music, but you could create that on your own with a playlist, were you so inclined. "Willie and Me" is made from love and a dream. I've rarely rooted harder for a movie to succeed or been sadder when it didn't. 

  • New Apple Sci-fi Series Constellation Crashes to Earth
    by Max Covill on February 9, 2024 at 2:40 PM

    Noomi Rapace must find something comforting about space. In 2012’s “Prometheus,” she was face-to-face with some of the most frightening creatures ever devised. Her new Apple TV+ series, “Constellation,” once again puts her into orbit with a nightmare equally as frightening. Engaging in an experiment aboard the ISS, Jo (Rapace) and her crew are hit with space debris, triggering a fire and the need for an immediate evacuation. After her death-defying return to Earth, she finds that her reality is not how she remembered it.  An original script from creator and writer Peter Harness (“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” “Doctor Who”), “Constellation” is an exploration into the psychology of astronauts and secrets in space travel. Harness quite literally uses space as a launching pad for the series and then takes off in another direction. Audiences expecting some kind of space exploration series will be disappointed to discover that it’s window-dressing for a psychological drama. It’s a shame because “Constellation” is a lot more compelling when its characters are in death-defying situations rather than the conspiracy-filled trappings it falls into.   The first three episodes (which premiere together) find Jo fighting insurmountable odds to get back to Earth to see her husband Magnus (James D’Arcy) and their daughter Alice (Davina and Rosie Coleman). The accident aboard the space station cost the life of commander Paul Lancaster (William Catlett) and the remaining crew quickly escaped in one of the emergency vessels. That leaves Jo with the difficult mission of preparing the last emergency vessel on her own, while her remaining oxygen quickly depletes. Meanwhile, the dutiful husband and daughter await news on Jo.  D’Arcy is excellent here as his character comes across as a sniveling, miserable partner who is unsure whether he truly wants his spouse to return from space. Mostly he desires Jo’s return so that their daughter Alice will have her mother again. Alice experiences similar reality-altering events that trouble her mother, giving some credence to the strange occurrences. It’s an impressive performance from the actresses, struggling with grief and questioning their reality. Eventually, Jo and Alice share screen time and it's there that “Constellation” is at its most compelling. It’s easy to accept that a mother would do anything to return to her child. Witnessing the horror on Rapace’s face as she wrestles with a daughter that she doesn’t remember is heartbreaking. And watching Alice discover that her mother might be gone despite standing in front of her is equally distressing. One character at odds with the mission is Commander Henry Caldera (Jonathan Banks). Above the safety of the astronauts, he’s obsessed with the retrieval of the experiment that might have influenced the trouble on the ISS. Banks, having shown his quietly menacing demeanor throughout his career on shows like "Breaking Bad," is the ideal actor for this calculating character. Like some of the other dual roles in “Constellation,” he gets to play double duty as Bud Caldera, an astronaut whose life trajectory altered significantly after a controversial space mission. The first introduction to this doppelganger reveals he’s an old curmudgeon working the convention circuit. A much different status than his counterpart Henry.  These early episodes are easily the most thrilling part of the series, with an emergency crash landing from a failed space shuttle sharing a lot of DNA with 2013’s “Gravity.” From there, “Constellation” struggles to maintain its momentum. As a thrilling space adventure, it fails to deliver constantly engaging threads to follow. Of course, the Russians have space secrets. Why should we care about this mysterious MacGuffin that has Banks' character so preoccupied? And let’s not even get started about the convenience of a working Fisher Price cassette player that ends up being a key element of the series. The plot contrivances do the “Constellation” no favors.  Much like Jo’s constant questioning of her reality, “Constellation” frequently alters viewpoints and timelines to suit its narrative too. It’s disorienting and designed to put audiences in a state of confusion like its protagonist. After all, most of the series hinges on Jo’s mental acuity. One frequently used gimmick of “Constellation” is that a character will see an event transpire in front of them and then that scene will be revisited with an alternate perspective. The intent is there, but the payoff never justifies the means. When used sparingly these alternating perspectives can illuminate certain scenes; when the series uses it as a crutch, the disorienting nature of the story loses some of its charm. It’s fine for the characters to be lost within the story, but there needs to be something that grounds the events. Fans of the many quality science-fiction offerings on Apple TV+ will likely be satisfied by “Constellation.” It's an interesting space drama with standout performances from its cast. While Rapace and Banks were expected to be the main draw of this series, and they’re excellent, the performances from Davina and Rosie Coleman are the glue that holds it together. But despite these moving performances, “Constellation” spends too much time floating aimlessly. The show likes to believe it's clever, but the reality is that it often falls flat.   “Constellation” premieres on Apple TV+ with the first three episodes on February 21st. Entire season screened for review.

  • Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League is Early-Year Gaming Disappointment
    by Brian Tallerico on February 9, 2024 at 2:40 PM

    How did this happen? And what is wrong with the Suicide Squad that they’re so cursed?  The ragtag crew of villains from the DC universe notoriously popped up in one of the most derided comic book movies of all time in David Ayer’s blockbuster, only to have them remade not long after in a film by James Gunn that also felt like a disappointment to fans (but, for the record, I kind of enjoyed on its own Troma-esque terms). Now, RockSteady, the gaming geniuses behind three great Batman games, have delivered a highly advertised blockbuster of a game called “Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League,” and the launch has been problematic, to say the least. Half the time I’ve tried to play, the game servers have been down, and this is a live-service game that requires players to be online to enjoy it. More importantly—because the servers will get fixed—this is a clunky experience from a studio that usually delivers refined games. The very mechanics of playing it can be wildly inconsistent and infuriating, to the point that I kind of dreaded every time I fired it up. Forget the Justice League, this game killed me a little bit. “Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League” allows you to pick one of four members of the legendary crew (with the enticing option to play co-op with friends taking on the other three): Captain Boomerang, King Shark, Harley Quinn, or my Squad choice most of the time, Deadshot. Aliens have invaded Metropolis and Brainiac have turned the traditional heroes like Superman, Green Lantern, Flash, Batman, and Wonder Woman into his willing subjects. Only the Suicide Squad can save the day from hordes of purple aliens descending on the city. It's a great idea, right? Imagine getting to actually battle Superman as Harley Quinn. Imagine going head-to-head with a legendary hero with the chaotic energy of the Suicide Squad. And then imagine that with the style and form of one of RockSteady’s “Arkham” games. You’ll have to keep imagining because “Kill the Justice League” is a consistent letdown. Instead of using this great skeleton to craft a compelling cinematic narrative, the developers at RockSteady chose to make their Suicide Squad game a loot farmer. What that means for the uninitiated is a series of repetitive missions that end with slightly better weapons, skill upgrades, and sometimes cosmetic skins. Over and over again. Across the same boring sandbox of a city.  Now, the funny thing is that I’m a fan of loot farmers. I have played “The Division,” “Destiny” (a massive influence here), “Diablo IV,” “Borderlands,” and more way past the point of sanity for someone with a family. So I don’t mind repetition for the sake of gradual character growth. When it’s done well, as in all those aforementioned franchises, the structure gains an addictive momentum in that every mission gives you a new toy that you want to play with on another mission, which gives you a new toy to test out for another mission, and so on, and so on. So what happened here? Well, it’s all about refinement. The first thing you notice is that the actual act of moving these characters around the world is clunky. Deadshot has a jet pack, Boomerang throws a boomerang to then teleport to, Harley swings, and Shark jumps. They’re remarkably annoying—I mainly stuck with Deadshot because his jetpack, especially when upgraded, could most consistently get me from point A to point B. A game like this that’s so reliant on doing the same thing over and over again lives and dies on its gameplay mechanics. And “Suicide Squad” is a mess. The button combinations for things like counters and mining shields from depleted enemies never feels fluid. And there’s a notable lack of actual teamwork in the gameplay. It’s a co-op game in which you don’t really need to pay attention to what your teammates are doing. The game—and this is truly stunning—also lacks the personality of its characters. You may play as anarchic creations like Shark and Harley Quinn, but they’re really just carrying assault rifles out of a game like “Destiny.” The “Arkham” games redefined stealth mechanics and melee—the current “Spider-Man” hits owe them a great debt. So why eschew all of that for such generic shooter combat?  It’s telling that “Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League” comes to life when it feels like the most like an “Arkham” game in its well-crafted cut scenes or goofy mission objectives.   The end result is a game that feels as chaotic as Harley herself, unsure of what it’s trying to do. The motivation to create a game that could be updated like so many hit live service games is understandable—the market has been moving in that direction for years now—but it’s possible that this is just not what RockSteady does well. It’s also possible that “Suicide Squad” will fix itself with better missions, mechanics, and more as updates are released in the future. It's happened with games like this before that stumbled on launch and were great a year later. The only question is if anyone will be left in Metropolis when they drop. The publisher provided a review copy of this title, which was played on PS5. It is also available on Xbox and PC.

  • Here
    by Sheila O'Malley on February 9, 2024 at 2:39 PM

    Early on in Bas Devos’ "Here," Stefan (Stefan Gota), a Romanian construction worker living in Brussels, stands with a friend, watching the city trains roll by. The friend tells Stefan that the first trains in Europe "came through here." Later in the film, Stefan stands next to Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a woman he just met, looking out over the city from the wooded spot they've been exploring. After a long silence, he tells her the first trains in Europe "came through here". There's no further discussion in either moment. It's just a small factoid offered up by one friend to another, which is then offered to someone else. The second exchange clarified the first, underlining the significance. In "Here," what matters is not what is offered, but the act of offering itself. This philosophical standpoint sounds rather grandiose when written down, but it's soothing and intriguing in Davos' approach. "Here" is experiential rather than story-driven. The big things happen not in the words, but through gestures, physical and emotional. Gestures like showing someone something. Pointing at something you want them to see. Opening your hands to show someone what you are holding. Offerings, all. And so even though "Here" is a sparsely populated film, the feeling is that of a collective, a group created by the offerings—of conversation, listening, looking, giving—even in brief chance encounters.Stefan and Shuxiu don't intersect at all until maybe 40 minutes in. They meet on a rainy night when he comes into the restaurant for takeout and decides to eat there. There's a flicker of a spark between them, awareness of the other as a full human being. They see each other. The next time they meet is also by chance.Stefan is about to go home to Romania to visit family. Shuxiu is a bryologist, studying moss under a microscope by day, helping out in her aunt's Chinese restaurant by night. Stefan is blue-collar, Shuxiu an academic. They circulate in totally different orbits. Shuxiu is first heard, not seen, speaking in voiceover, relating her strange experience of waking up and forgetting the names for things. She was left, temporarily, in "a nameless world". Stefan tells his sister he spends his days "wandering," and he does. Stefan is a true flâneur.Devos' film is also a flâneur. There are places to go, but there's no rush to get there. Stefan makes a soup with the leftover vegetables in his fridge and ladles it into Tupperware containers. He visits his friend at work, he visits his sister at work, he goes to check on his car being worked on by a mechanic friend (Teodor Corban). Stefan brings containers of soup to everyone. It's so quietly generous. His gesture is not remarked on, but everyone eats the soup. Making food for people is so intimate, it's such a casually loving thing to do. The soup thing, just like the trains comment, doesn't reveal how significant it is until it repeats.The film could be read metaphorically or literally. Under the microscope, Shuxiu's moss is a luscious green proliferating universe, with no boundaries, no limit to its growth. Moss is tough, moss will push itself through concrete, moss will survive. "Here" drifts back and forth between the city and nature. Brussels is intimate enough that nature is incorporated into it, with spaces of green, and a whole forest right outside of town. Nature exists in the city, but all those construction cranes viewed in the first scene tells us nature will perhaps lose the battle.Boris Debackere's sound design is exquisite, and extremely important in establishing the meditation and sometimes dreamlike mood. There is a symphony of buzzing bees, whispering wind, rustling long grasses, bird chirps, woodpeckers, distant booms of construction. Sometimes most of the sound drops out, leaving only the woodpecker, or the bees. This has a disorienting almost dizzying effect. Stefan and Shuxiu walk through the woods, and sometimes their footsteps are heard crunching on the dirt, sometimes the footsteps are dropped from the mix, leaving only the buzzing of bees. It's a startling sound design, dramatic but in a very unobtrusive way.Cinematographer Grimm Vandekerckhove focuses his camera on the natural world in all its microscopic splendor. He gets as close as possible to a raindrop trembling on the edge of a leaf, the deep greens of moss spreading across tree trunks. Nature shots are interspersed throughout: even in city scenes, there's an awareness of nature, still out there, right over there.The film's title is thought-provoking. It's like a children's picture book: here is the city, here are the woods. Here is always right now. The saying isn't "live in the there and now". Here is close, whereas "there" is far. Shuxiu gestures for Stefan to come close, so she can show him the moss: "Here, look." Stefan passes out soup, "Here's some soup." Trains come through here, did you know that? Stefan and Shuxiu don't even exchange names, but they name everything else. It's comforting to be two flâneurs, wandering in the woods, pointing and saying, "Here, look," making offerings of themselves, of their attention, their knowledge, their time. In a "nameless world," maybe that's all we can really strive for. In the here and now, it's everything.

  • Molli and Max in the Future
    by Katie Rife on February 9, 2024 at 2:39 PM

    Throughout history, across centuries and cultures, human beings have been preoccupied with a few basic questions: Why am I here? What can I do to make a difference? Will anyone ever love me? (To be fair, for most of it finding enough to eat and not dying in a plague trumped all of that but stay with me here.) And, given the consistency with which we’ve collectively fretted over these problems, it follows that humans will still be obsessed with finding love and meaning 1,000 years from now.  This is the basic idea behind “Molli and Max in the Future,” a sci-fi rom-com that takes “When Harry Met Sally” and rockets it into an undefined far-future world where tentacled demigods lead sex cults and parallel universes are accessible via an old-fashioned phone handset. Given the film’s modest budget, in practice this means placing leads Zosia Mamet and Aristotle Athari in front of green screens and having them exchange witticisms about made-up technologies, a strategy that works far better than it should.  Molli (Mamet) and Max’s (Athari) meet-cute is about as quirky as they get: She swerves to avoid a chaotic jumble of space debris while out hunting magic crystals in her flying car, he crash-lands on her windshield in an old-fashioned astronaut suit, he guilts her into taking him into the city for a robot fight, they keep hanging out afterwards. But the romantic tension between them never leads to anything, and soon larger concerns—the chip on his shoulder, her quest for spiritual enlightenment—separate them, at least temporarily.  The film is divided into chapters, in the style of its inspiration; it’s set over the course of 12 years, also in imitation of Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron’s rom-com classic. (The interstitial interviews are missing here.) Their path to realization, self- and otherwise, is winding and full of diversions: Familiar comedic actors like Aparna Nancherla, Matteo Lane, and Arturo Castro pop in and out of the narrative, as do fantastical locations that are named-dropped as casually as if they were exits on the New Jersey Turnpike. (One of the funnier jokes of this type is the Quantum Zone, a dimension spun off from a popular podcast.)  It’s all either whimsically charming or annoyingly cute, depending on your temperament. The thing that keeps the film from spinning out into the atmosphere (literally or figuratively, your choice) is the chemistry between Mamet and Athari. On the whole, Mamet gives the more dynamic performance; her character’s angst feels both specific and universal in a way that reads as broadly, quintessentially human. But the all-important back-and-forth is easy and unforced, making it feel like these are actually two friends who might one day become lovers—if they can ever get over themselves. Stabs at political satire—Nancherla’s character is a Hillary Clinton stand-in in a futuristic re-litigation of the 2016 election—are more contrived, and a spin into COVID-era humor late in the film instantly dates it, as COVID-era references always do. That being said, there are some sharp satirical bits: At one point, Molli laments that the universe is going to be swallowed by a black hole in 15 years, an unexpected, apocalyptic side effect of cheese production. Why then, Max asks, is cheese still on the market? “People really like cheese,” a defeated Molli replies. As was mentioned up top, the majority of “Molli and Max in the Future” was shot in front of green screens, with some light prosthetic makeups and witty futuristic props used to fill out the film’s otherwise flat sci-fi backdrops. This does limit the scope of the world Litwak is trying to create, an issue that the writer-director’s witty script works mightily to overcome. By the midway point, it becomes less noticeable. By the end, it’s no big deal. That’s the power of good banter.

  • Drift
    by Peyton Robinson on February 9, 2024 at 2:39 PM

    Footprints in the sand lay inches away from the progressing waterline of the shore, which eventually creeps far enough to wash them from existence. These are the opening moments of Anthony Chen’s “Drift.” However, this meditative beginning becomes an omen for the film’s overall impact, which begins with intrigue and slowly but surely gets flooded away.  Jacqueline (Cynthia Erivo) is in flux—houseless (and away from home), alone, and vulnerable. She’s a Liberian woman who has found herself in Greece, offering foot massages to tourists on the beach in exchange for a few euros and tucking herself away into unoccupied corners of the waterfront at night to sleep. Chen’s film begins with very little dialogue, just quiet observation as Jacqueline treks through her day, scrounging for meals and aimlessly wandering through time. Through periodic flashbacks we eventually learn that Jacqueline came from a wealthy Liberian family but had been living in London. How did she get to Greece? When a curious tourist asks, Jacqueline replies, “Same as anyone. Plane, ferry … luck.” And that’s the end of that. It’s simply not enough. Especially given that as these flashbacks progress, we learn that on a visit back home to Liberia, Jacqueline was forced to flee due to conflict, taking nothing but her traumatic memories with her. The film never gives any context as to what this war or conflict is. Unless you’re historically tapped in (or motivated to Google after the film has wrapped), you wouldn’t know about Liberia’s civil war, which ended in 2003. But “Drift” does nothing to establish itself within a time period. There’s no inkling of evidence to suggest that it isn’t present day, and this oversight is glib.  Jacqueline’s trauma is the center of the film, as is her Blackness, but no attention is meaningfully devoted to the details of either. The consequential suggestion is that there would be a lack of curiosity surrounding the context of her war-torn home, and the implication is the monolithic treatment of African countries in media as places ravaged by poverty, violence, or both, and that the depiction comes with no further questions asked. Jacqueline walks the beaches of Greece as a phantom to the privileged white vacationers and a hyper-visible figure to the city’s natives, who immediately clock her trying to sweep food at their restaurants or, as police, stop and question her. Another African man, Ousmane (Ibrahima Ba) is a constant (at times to unbelievable degrees) popup in her days. Who is he? We don’t know, but he is always attempting to look out for her, even as Jacqueline’s hypervigilance sends her bobbing and weaving through the streets to escape him. The implied attachment is their Blackness, or more specifically Africanness, yet “Drift” treats him as a peripheral symbol or plot device depending on the scene. The true connection of the film comes in the form of Callie (Alia Shawkat), an American tour guide whose open and self-effacing demeanor inspires a relationship that cracks through Jacqueline’s defensive walls. This relationship, and Jacqueline’s touch-and-go willingness to give in to it, is the most authentic aspect of “Drift.” Through it, we are allotted time with Jacqueline’s vulnerability, and learn about her through how she interacts with others as she slowly allows herself to be known. Given the relationships she’s lost, those of her family as well as her London girlfriend, Helen (Honor Swinton Byrne), “Drift” makes a somewhat eloquent statement about the plague of past lives on future ones and the stagnance that trauma can force. Shawkat also introduces a bit of levity to an otherwise dreary, slow trudge of a film, and scenes with her are a welcome respite. Erivo impressively fulfills the expressiveness required by the film’s limited dialogue, but her character feels cornered by the script’s desire to see her as meek, and even a bit helpless. While the flashbacks give us moments of Jacqueline’s joy, like train rides with her girlfriend or outdoor dances with her sister, they are fleeting and fractional moments compared to her present doe-eyed fear and reactive panic. Perhaps with less questions left unanswered, “Drift” would permit a more sympathetic lead, but the flatness and flippance of its context leaves everything on the surface. Chen’s voyeuristic direction is a thematic complement to Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik’s script, but overall “Drift” has a development issue. It throws nuggets of plot with little information to support it, and between a frustrating lack of understanding and a blase visual style, “Drift” doesn’t compel much engagement. The sparse script is equally light on dialogue and history, crawling in every sense of the word. “Drift” implores you to notice how much effort it’s putting into making you feel, and by consequence, cheapens all of it. Further, in a scant story, it is the moments of dour violence that are treated with the most textual and visual gusto, leaving behind a taste of manipulation and exploitation in a film that claims to be more interested in human aftermath than traumatic impact.

  • Cobweb
    by Brian Tallerico on February 9, 2024 at 2:38 PM

    Kim Jee-woon is one of Korea’s most impressive filmmakers, a creator who likes to subvert genre and stretch the visual limits of his material in standouts like “A Tale of Two Sisters,” “The Good the Bad the Weird,” “I Saw the Devil,” and “The Age of Shadows.” He’s a creator who always gets my attention even on television (Apple’s “Dr. Brain”) or in his one diversion to U.S. action cinema (“The Last Stand”). This mini-bio is all to say that if “Cobweb” were made by another filmmaker, it may not be as disappointing. Although it is also may have been unwatchable without Kim’s craftsmanship to hold this slap-dash comedy together as much he does. “Cobweb” takes place almost entirely on a soundstage for a Korean horror film being shot in the 1970s by a troubled director named, of course, Kim (the amazing Song Kang-ho of “Parasite” fame, along with so many others). Kim is making what needs to be his masterpiece—he calls it that more than once—a black-and-white feature about stormy nights, betrayals, stabbings, and spiders. But he’s been struggling with the ending. When he rewrites to what he thinks is perfection, he struggles to get it approved by the Korean censors but decides to go forward anyway, leading to a series of almost slapstick scenes in which the cast and crew have to hide what they’re really doing from the authorities trying to shut the production down.  Meanwhile, the actors don’t understand their new roles, and have more than their share of interpersonal drama behind the scenes to add to the tension and humor. The studio boss (Jang Young-nam) is being kept out of the loop; the leading man Ho-se (Oh Jung-se) can’t stop cheating on his wife; the young star Yu-rim (Jung Soo-jung) is hiding a pregnancy—it’s all a recipe for what they call “creative differences” in the industry. One notable problem with “Cobweb” is that the film within the film looks like the better watch. Give me a Kim Jee-woon black-and-white joint that features giant spider webs, canted angles lit by lightning, and multiple murders. Sadly, that’s only a small part of this “Cobweb,” which is more about the webs a creator weaves when trying to make a feature film, and how easy it is for people to get caught up in a vision gone awry. Echoes of “Ed Wood,” “Birdman,” and other films about the chaos of movie sets feel intentional, but there’s a spark missing here, and a surprising lack of substance to it all. Is Kim poking fun at his art? Noting how silly it can be to make something so serious? Or is his intent more to reveal how complex his passion can be?  It doesn’t feel like any of those questions were really asked. Instead, Kim seems to be reaching for farce, something like a Noel Coward play with Korean flair. It all looks incredible under the lens of DP Kim Ji-yong (“Decision to Leave”), but it keeps falling flat as the tone seems to evade Kim. There’s a slack nature to the film that almost feels like it has to be an intentional experiment from a filmmaker who has been so precise and intricate with his work in the past. It’s as if Kim is testing himself to see if he could make a self-indulgent, unsubstantial lark of a comedy. He can. Sorta. Now let’s get back to the good stuff.

  • Marmalade
    by Monica Castillo on February 9, 2024 at 2:38 PM

    Keir O'Donnell’s delightful feature debut “Marmalade” is the kind of comedy that zigs when you expect it to zag, like a carnival ride that catches you by surprise. It’s a story of love and crime, of betrayals and chases, and yet it feels fresh and exciting once the first unexpected dip throws you off-course. This is not your typical “bank robbery gone wrong” kind of movie, nor does it follow the familiar beats of a Bonnie and Clyde-style “lovers on the lam” story. “Marmalade” is a strange mix of its own, launching the rom com criminal premise to thrilling heights.  Baron (Joe Keery) is a long-haired, lovestruck young man who lands in prison after robbing a bank. As he tells his fellow inmate, Otis (Aldis Hodge), he bumbled into the bank robbing business to impress his girl, a manic pixie dream robber named Marmalade (Camila Morrone), who despite her pink tresses and dresses, knew her way around a gun and seemed quite familiar with sticking up banks. She burst into his life at a low point: a dying mom, fired from his postal service job, stuck in a town where there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. With her outrageous personality and verve, it looked like these two lovers could do anything they wanted—until the cops showed up.  That is just the first third of the movie, and to avoid spoiling any of the other thrills, I won’t go into the rest. However, my thoughts during that first segment were less than impressed and closer to bracing myself for a clunky “boy meets bad girl, boy does crime” yarn. At first, Baron is our aw-shucks narrator, Otis feels like he’s playing too tough to be serious or this inquisitive, and Marmalade, well, she’s just a loose cannon, a whirl of pink and chaos, and while entertaining, they do act as one-note as they sound. Thankfully, the gears shift, and the movie doesn’t stop surprising until the credits roll.   After a lengthy resume as an actor, O’Donnell switched gears for “Marmalade,” jumping behind the camera as both writer and director. With its well-executed comedic beats and misdirections, “Marmalade” feels like the film of a much more experienced director. It’s stylish yet funny, dark at moments, then gleefully anarchic. Perhaps because of that acting background, O’Donell knew just how to hide elements of the story into the actors’ performances, a feat he also works into the narrative when hiding clues throughout the story pointing to the still at-large suspect, Marmalade. Along with O’Donnell, editor Stewart Reeves revs up the story for its zany conclusion, quickening the pace as the pursuit heats up, and cinematographer Polly Morgan makes gorgeous imagery out of the mundane and pulls off quirky dream sequences with equal panache.  As for our madly in love Bonnie and Clyde, Baron and Marmalade, Keery and Morrone are an electric pair. Keery plays Baron like a well-meaning kid looking after his mom and dutifully tending to his job until Marmalade comes along and rocks his world. As Baron tells Otis again and again, he just wants to get back to his girl, even offering Otis $250,000 to help him escape. Morrone steps into Marmalade’s boots with freewheeling abandon, the kind of extroverted spirit that breaks the soft-spoken Baron out of his monotony and takes him to a bank robbery. As if too good to be true, Marmalade seems driven by something sinister but hides it long enough to trap Baron well within her plans, and Morrone’s Cheshire Cat grin is a perfect mask for almost every occasion. Even as the outsider listening in, there’s more to Otis than at first glance, and Hodge seems to have as much fun as Keery when both of their characters evolve over the course of this wild movie. So, buckle up and enjoy “Marmalade,” and while it’s perhaps not quite what you expected, that’s all part of its appeal.

  • Out of Darkness
    by Glenn Kenny on February 9, 2024 at 2:38 PM

    Cinematic depictions of ancient or near-ancient times have come a long way since the likes of 1960s cheese classics like “Prehistoric Women” and “Creatures That Time Forgot,” pictures that put the curvaceous likes of Martine Beswick and Julie Ege into animal skins and made them grunt in no particular lingo and pivot provocatively as they fled all manner of primordial danger. The new Scottish near-horror picture “Out of Darkness,” set 45,000 years prior to the present day, has copious dialogue in a language called “Tola,” concocted by a linguist and archeologist based on real research and everything. It also doesn’t have a cheesy or cheesecake-oriented bone in its body — in the cold climes of this picture every character is layered up to the extent that secondary sexual characteristics have no chance of making themselves known. And in any event, in their increasingly desperate efforts to survive, sensual activity is the furthest from everyone’s mind. The movie begins around a campfire, and there are stories being told there. We’re in the company of a nomadic clan, with its own alpha male, named Adem (Chuku Modu), aptly enough. He’s a commonsensical type. When the elder of this band, Odal (Arno Lüning) tries to scare young Heron (Luna Mwezi) with a tale of demons, Adem sternly states “There are no demons.” And yet there’s something stalking them as they negotiate hostile-to-human forests and rugged coastlines. That thing kidnaps Heron, and threatens the well-being of Ave (Iola Evans), who’s carrying Adem’s child. The unknown force compels the individuals in the small group to put down their own agendas for the nonce and concentrate on not getting killed. One member of the band is a stray woman Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), whom Adem does have some sensual-activity aspirations toward; the younger man Geirr (Kit Young) is a warrior-in-training of sorts. This is a clan not wholly united by blood ties — the time in which they live renders the existence nasty, brutish and short, so bonds are forged by necessity, the movie demonstrates. But the contingent nature of alliance breeds mistrust, and callous disregard, as we see when certain members of the group start being treated like bargaining chips relative to an enemy these parties don’t understand and can’t seem to battle. The performers are clearly committed to their characterizations in ways that seem to go above and beyond the requirements of their call sheets — their roles are physically demanding for one thing, and the personalities they’re depicting have few contemporary traits by which the viewer might be ingratiated.  The eerie music from Adam Janota Bzowski, the vivid dark-hued cinematography from Ben Fordesman, and the ultra-crunchy sound design from Paul Davies and his crew make this challenging atmosphere an engrossing environment to visit while constantly compelling you to note that you sure as hell would not want to live in it. The story told in “Out of Darkness” is ultimately sad more than terrifying, a parable about violence and the roots of human war. It’s an impressively credible and gnarly journey back in time. 

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