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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Two-Film Review: I’m No Longer Here & Minari

Real American Stories

by A.R. Solar

Two new movies—one in Mexican vernacular Spanish and the other in Korean—use realism to depict the hearts and lives of the newest arrivals to the United States. Fernando Frías’ I’m No Longer Here and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari are films that delve deeply into the lives of American immigrants—real people, not soundbites on the evening news.

Both artworks explore culture and family, how these people dance, how they talk, how they deal with conflict in their daily lives. The result is a feeling that you really know them, which serves viewers better than movies that rely on simplistic caricatures.

I’m No Longer Here is the story of a young man who finds himself in the crosshairs of an ambitious drug cartel in Monterrey, Mexico. He flees for the U.S., but becomes homesick for his own small-time gang and their adopted, music-rich lifestyle called kolombia. Gritty and handsomely photographed, the film satisfies on both intellectual and visceral levels.

Minari is a delicately observed and efficiently realized movie about a young family of four from Korea. They move to Arkansas determined to farm their way to financial independence. Mom and dad work at a chicken hatchery while dad slowly develops the crops. The conflicts and obstacles along the way help reveal the filmmakers’ philosophy on the true meanings of family and home. Fine performances, led by Steven Yeun as the father, combine with a smart script full of symbolism to form this picture of quiet power and unusual insight.

I’m No Longer Here and Minari are deservedly receiving nominations this awards season. They’d be worth seeking out if they were hard to find, which they aren’t. They’re streaming on Netflix and Prime Video respectively.

the international CRITIQUE ratings:

I’m No Longer Here

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Minari

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Nomadland

by A.R. Solar

Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao (The Rider [2017]) sees the American West with fascinating eyes. In Nomadland, she takes source material from the non-fiction book of the same name and sets it bracingly free on screen.

With camera and cinematographer seemingly imperceptible to the actors, Zhao transports us into the midst of a group of American nomadic workers. Living in their vans and modest RVs, they travel across the West working temporary, seasonal jobs at National Parks, amusement parks, and even a sprawling warehouse of the online retailer Amazon.

The director’s third feature, it’s a gentle, but unflinching film. A true hybrid of drama and documentary, it’s form and structure are not just for the sake of combining two storytelling methods, but because it serves the story.

If you watch many documentaries, you’re familiar with the “talking head” device, used to give first-person accounts of the events at hand. You’ve probably noticed that few docs manage to get around using this typical shot. To the extent that Nomadland is a documentary, director Zhao avoids talking heads. The characters might be similarly framed at times, but they are, technically, characters and not real people testifying about what they know. At the same time, they are exactly that. The fine line between fiction and non-fiction that Zhao draws is part of the miracle of this picture.

And what more can be said about Frances McDormand? Here we see the craft and talent that put her in the top tier among living actors. Committed to her roles and to the work required for excellence, in Nomadland she takes it all to a higher level. Instead of living among the van-dwelling travelers as preparation for her performance, McDormand immerses herself into the nomadic-worker culture in the performance itself. Most of the supporting cast play fictionalized versions of themselves, which results in an unusual level of realism.

Zhao and McDormand have fully realized the concept of filmmakers as explorers, and it’s unlikely that you’ve seen a film much like Nomadland. With remarkable depth of emotion, it’s a movie and a story that stay with you long after the closing credits.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Judas & the Black Messiah

by A.R. Solar

Writer/director Shaka King (Newlyweeds [2013]) boldly avoids the sophomore slump with his ambitious and accomplished second feature. Judas & the Black Messiah, based on real events, is a big movie in several ways. In it, King depicts the dynamic rise (and eventual demise) of the Illinois Black Panther Party and its fervent chairman, Fred Hampton, in the 1970s.

Hampton managed to, among other things, bring together disparate sides of the Chicago slums—even a White people’s club—to address the needs of the community. Among those needs are ones that still exist today, of course. Putting an end to police abuse and corruption. Providing food and education to needy youths. Director King seamlessly weaves all these many elements and stories into a cohesive, taut historical thriller.

Maybe even more impressive are the performances of Daniel Kaluuya (as Hampton) and LaKeith Stanfield (as car-thief-turned-FBI-informant William O’Neal). The latter is a complex, often-conflicted personality that Stanfield embodies with aplomb. In a scene where Hampton waits like a coiled king cobra for his introduction on stage, Kaluuya plays him with the perfect swagger, beautifully inhabiting the role. He’s a treat to watch. 

Creative editing gives the film greater grit and provides ballast for Sean Bobbit’s slick cinematography. Here we see how slick doesn’t necessarily mean glossy, as the director and his production design team have chosen a muted palette of pastels and earth tones, for day shots, and long-shadowy blacks-on-black for night. 

But it’s neo-noir sans nostalgia (Sin City [2005], this is not). Judas & the Black Messiah’s story and action pack wallops more akin to Scorsese circa The Departed (2006). It would have made a good crime movie or an excellent historical biography—lucky for us, it’s both.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Ammonite

by A.R. Solar

Writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country [2017]) tells a story here loosely based on the celebrated early-19th-Century English paleontologist Mary Anning. 

The biodiversity of the English Channel coast over the millennia resulted in all manner of objects of geological and archeological interest, attracting the talented scientist Anning and, eventually, tourists. It’s a wholly believable and relatable tale: a human being living daily with the crunch of stones beneath her feet, and the abrasiveness of fossils at her hands, comes to crave the softness of another’s flesh.

Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones (God’s Own Country), and James McArdle (Mary Queen of Scots [2018]) highly satisfy in the striking degree to which they inhabit their roles. The director steers Ammonite away from all things ponderous, and the actors transmit the on-location fun to the audience.

I can’t think of a recent film in which sound design was so important to the themes, or one in which it was so successfully realized—the waves lapping at the shore, the clicks and rubbing together of wet pebbles. Perfect angles and lighting from cinematographer Stephane Fontaine also contribute to the sublime atmosphere. A parade of fantastic stovepipe hats leads the way in the creative, enjoyable costume design. The movie is rich with symbolism, which works for it and, to a lesser degree, against it.

In the end, Ammonite is a lusty steampunk study in contrast and texture. One that invites the viewer to scrape away their own fossilized layers and lay themselves bare, soft, and vulnerable to love.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Some Kind of Heaven

From South Florida documentarian Lance Oppenheim comes the cringiest film of the year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Some Kind of Heaven offers moments when it does feel bad. It opens with a sequence of shots that are intended to illicit this response: “Wow, look at those old people doing THAT!” Synchronized swimming, synchronized golf carts, and dancing—lots of dancing.

Later, the director turns his lens, in close-up, toward four elderly residents of The Villages, the world’s largest retirement community. This is where the surprises emerge. Some of these older folks are boozing, drugging, sexing, lying, cheating, manipulating, criminal people. All under the rather easy facades of kindly retirees.

Oppenheim’s fishbowl approach gives the film its candidness, but also feels a bit like cheating. The director keeps hidden two major parts of each subject’s life: their history and their family. So, The-Villages-as-Disney-World-for-seniors metaphor appears that much more tawdry. The residents might be doing whatever the hell they want, but watching them do it puts us in the unfortunate position of cringing voyeur.

Still, there are thought-provoking moments in “Some Kind of Heaven.” The old “What is the meaning of life?” comes to mind, but also, “How does that meaning change throughout the stages of life?” Though its strangeness is sometimes manipulated into place, the documentary is pleasantly strange. If Jim Morrison had lived and become a filmmaker, his work might look something like this.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: The Little Things

by A.R. Solar

The American director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, 2009) brings forth a crime “thriller” with no thrills and no fun. The plot? A serial killer is on the loose. That’s it. Seriously. With fewer twists than a landing strip, The Little Things plods along, almost dutifully presenting unlikely behaviors from its two-dimensional characters every 15 minutes.

Why does Hancock feel so comfortable asking us to make these leaps of faith? Because it’s a big-budget movie, and we should be grateful we only paid seven dollars for the privilege of beholding it? Because he’s got not one, not two, but three Oscar winners in the cast? Well, Jared Leto won for Dallas Buyers Club which, by now, most honest critics agree was a mediocre film. Leto’s performance in it was flamboyant but not great in hindsight. And Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody… what can be said? It was an absurd performance in the most laughable “serious” movie in decades. Is all this what made Hancock so sure of himself?

Along the way, the director strikes some hackneyed noir notes, like the stoic detective (two, in this case) who “has his own reasons” for obsessing over catching the killer. Hancock seems to subscribe to the idea that audiences love cliches and, having provided plenty of them, he needn’t furnish plot details or full characterizations. “The audience will fill in the blanks!” you can imagine him rejoicing. It’s a sour and cynical way to make movies, and the filmmakers ought to pay dearly for this $30-million, bona fide bomb. It all must have looked very good on paper, bless Denzel Washington’s heart.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Girl

by A.R. Solar

The content war among streaming services rages, and you have to be a sharpshooter to find a good movie amidst the carnage these days. Enter the 2020 release, and Bella Thorne (“Big Love”) vehicle, Girl (wherein the filmmakers were too lazy to even name the main character).

The first feature by Canadian writer/director/supporting actor Chad Faust, it centers on a twenty-something millennial who has some unfinished business with her estranged father. Faust’s main concern seems to have been keeping the action moving along, and in that he succeeds. Elsewhere—in plot, dialogue, suspense, characterization, photography, and editing—the effort and resulting work falter badly.

At this point, one might think the hatchet-wielding “girl” might make for a fine protagonist in an enjoyable B-movie. Unfortunately, that would be wishful thinking. Girl, the movie, takes itself way too seriously. In a scene where Thorne’s movie-mother reminds her brusquely that she worked hard and made the girl “spaghetti and chicken pies,” the dialogue almost gets into  venerated so-bad-it’s-good territory. But, ultimately Faust—perhaps encouraged by his own and Thorne’s serviceable acting—stands pat and tries to hoist the film onto a thought-provoking, psychological thriller pedestal where it has no rightful business.

I’m always curious as to how a script like this gets made. Did Faust make an irresistible pitch to Thorne, who also got an executive producer credit? Both have respectable pedigrees in television acting with some experience in movies. Thorne’s sex appeal—she made her directorial debut with the X-rated film Her & Him (2019)—might also have influenced financiers to put up the total of about $1 million. Whatever the deals were, the producers and filmmakers set themselves too low a bar for a serious movie and too high a bar for B-movie schlock.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.


Categories
Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: MLK/FBI

by A.R. Solar

In time for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday comes this marginally important, if mostly pedestrian, documentary from director Sam Pollard (The Talk: Race in America, 2017). It centers on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s malignant and downright creepy obsession with the great American orator and patron saint of the civil rights movement.

MLK/FBI also spends a chunk of time on things (which many already know) that made King human and not a saint. It strangely agrees, in that way, with Hoover’s belief that MLK’s extramarital affairs are something of great interest. Pollard does include interviews with scholars and veterans of the movement who state that King’s philandering does not, in their minds, change or irretrievably taint the man’s legacy.

The film’s greatest weakness lies in its reliance on footage that is by now cliche in this genre. Pollard augments the familiar, yet beautifully restored, archival photography with clips from various then-contemporary “G-Men” movies. These semi-humorous clips neither offer true comic relief nor fit well with the overall tone.

Pollard’s perspective in the proceedings is unclear. He seems to miss important details, like King’s bigger vision in the speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” here presented as strictly an anti-war lecture. At the same time, the director fails to present the voices of the anti-war movement, thus tacitly endorsing the horrific blowback MLK received after his speech at Riverside Church in New York, exactly one year before he was assassinated. The viewer is left wishing the film had addressed how misled Dr. King’s war-hungry detractors were and how terribly misunderstood “Beyond Vietnam” was at the time—perhaps still is.

In that speech and elsewhere, MLK offered a grand vision for America and it’s one that’s worth revisiting for its timeliness right now. Perhaps like nothing else, King’s vision helps put BLM in perspective. Black lives matter as much as White lives, he might say. His edict of nonviolence would contrast starkly with the violent, authoritarian attack on the Capitol. Beyond that, his was a vision that America still cannot afford to ignore.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Featured Article News

Dear Streaming Services: It’s About Your Menu “Design”

by A.R. Solar

Yes, I am about to complain about the menus on streaming sites, and I won’t apologize. Because: America. I even let HBO Max know that I’m fed up (details below).

There’s little danger that anyone would mistake what the streaming services do as curation—they’re dumps. One need only look at the “Recently Added” tray. Something like 20 movies, new and old, no rhyme or reason, dumped onto the menu. Do the services think we get a thrill from that, because we don’t.

Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and the others probably look proudly upon their pages, beaming about the plethora of choices. On every page! Under every category! Note: The industry word for the horizontal sections/categories/genres you see on screen is “trays.”

On Prime Video, the thumbnail (for each movie) is approximately 4.5 x 7 inches, or 0.22 sq. ft. on a 48-inch television screen. That means you can fit a little more than 34 streaming-service thumbnails on a standard movie poster. If your screen is smaller, you can fit many more. And, just for the record, any given screen view on Prime Video boasts 18 movie thumbnails.

It’s all too much too look at. Worse, it diminishes the grandeur and importance of cinema. How can the streaming services make their menus better? I don’t know, it’s definitely above my pay grade. But, would making the thumbnails bigger hurt? I don’t think so, and personally, I don’t need to see 18 choices on every view—of any type of menu, honestly.

I asked WarnerMedia Entertainment’s (HBO Max’s parent company) Communications VP Chris Willard about all this on December 30th, and he told me he’d “get back to [me] after the holidays.” When he did, as promised, Mr. Willard was actually quite helpful, if unmistakably being a good PR man for his company. He relayed that a whopping two-thirds of the time, viewers look for something specific they had in mind before even signing on. “They’re going back to something they were already watching or they’re seeking something in particular,” Willard said. As for the other third, he insisted they’re in the good hands of… HBOMax “curators.” I stand corrected!

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Promising Young Woman

by A.R. Solar

A disclaimer of sorts: It’s not easy to write honestly about movies that carry a strong #MeToo message and, in this case, one that’s created by a (rightfully) unapologetically direct director who is a woman. This might be especially true when the critic is a man. If he does his job—to tell the good and the bad of an artwork—there will nonetheless be some accusations of bias and sexism. If we can agree that works with good messages can also be bad art, then the following review may be of interest to you.

“Revenge”: That’s the word marketers of the new Carey Mulligan vehicle Promising Young Woman want us to latch onto. After all, revenge is a personal form of war, and all’s fair in that department. “All’s fair,” “anything goes,” “sweet revenge”—these are convenient euphemisms for a film at which everything was thrown to see what would stick. Turns out precious little stuck, but what’s Focus Features supposed to do with it, go straight to VOD and DVD?

Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who experienced secondary trauma in college and has turned to revenge against sexual offenders as a coping mechanism. 

The tremendous tonal challenges in telling such a story seem lost on writer/director Emerald Fennell (or maybe she simply chose to ignore them). So we’re introduced to character after character with nearly no intellectual lives or interiority, as if they’ve learned everything they know from watching television. (Which verges on disturbing when you consider that Fennell’s day job is showrunning BBC America’s “Killing Eve.”)

Unlike the genre it so readily claims for itself, Promising Young Woman depicts little of the burden which the obsessed, vengeful person carries. Cassie seems casually afflicted with her “hobby,” but never genuinely seethes or stews obsessively.

So, the satisfaction that, for better or worse, the viewer shares with the protagonist—the whole reward of the revenge genre—is wholly missing here. Worse, the script is so lazily composed and the direction so cavalier that hardly 20 frames go by without a predominant phoniness. (How many times can a viewer tolerate the thought that “Nobody talks like that!”) This makes for a difficult trudge of nearly two hours.

Can a #MeToo revenge movie ever succeed, then? Of course, and someone probably ought to accept that challenge—acknowledging that it won’t be easy, and eschewing the idea that being part of an important, righteous social movement makes one immune from making bad art.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.