Movie Review: Living (2022)

Playing in Atlanta January 27, 2023.

The new film Living (A-), directed by Oliver Hermanus, has a sterling lineage from an earlier incarnation as an Akira Kurosawa film and a Leo Tolstoy novella, and this fresh telling with the deeply moving Bill Nighy in the lead proves it’s a tale worth retelling. Nighy plays a bureaucrat in 1950s London who re-examines his outlook when he learns he has little time to live. The lead actor is the standout in the ensemble, exhibiting restraint in the most remarkable ways. Aimee Lou Wood is a wonderful foil as a peppy friend and colleague who reminds the protagonist of his youth and happiness. Hermanus frames the film with classic film tropes including the way opening credits and dissolves occur, and this format imbues the story with the feeling it’s just been found in a vault of favorites. The crafts are impeccable, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s crisp adapted screenplay to Sandy Powell’s handsome costumes to Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s soaring score. It’s a brisk and inspiring tale with at least one temporal twist shaking things up a bit. It will be remembered for Nighy’s performance and leaving audiences shedding happy tears.

Movie Review: The Son (2022)

Now in select theatres.

Most dramas about epic familial turmoil don’t take place on the planet of Pandora, but the characters in Florian Zeller’s NYC-set (D+) might as well be blue aliens, as they’re completely unrecognizable as behaving like actual people on this earthly world. Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern portray the divorced parents of a troubled teen, relative newcomer Zen McGrath. Vanessa Kirby gets the thankless task of embodying Jackman’s new wife who has a newborn of her own with him, and Anthony Hopkins has a small bit as his mercurial grandfather. No one in any of the film’s generations appears to be capable of rational discussions, and there are conflicting narratives about saving a depressed youth and breaking domestic cycles of dysfunctions, with neither plot line ever finding a satisfying something new to say. A clearly committed performer, Jackman is the primary subject, but his bewildered dad character perpetually asks really boorish and basic questions of his clearly depressed offspring. The script does no favors to McGrath either as its views of mental health feel locked in on discourse from many decades ago. The film never credibly gets inside the head of its titular character and instead focuses on how the situation weighs on pop. Neither flashbacks nor flash-forwards help make the talky screenplay any more palatable. Also if you watch the film on television, disable the close captioning or else you will often see the word “chuckles” describing characters’ frequent awkward laughs punctuating the strained dialogue. It’s indeed a grim watch, made all the more frustrating from strange tonal shifts, a repetitive and reductive story and talented actors misused. It also feels like a play in which much of the interesting stuff happens offstage.

Industry News: Top Ten from PGA

Here are my reviews of the 2023 Producers Guild of America Award nominations for the Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures: 

Movie Review: The Pale Blue Eye (2022)

Now on Netflix.

Until select elements of the final act come into focus, this is largely a tell-tale fail. Moody and mostly unfulfilling, Scott Cooper’s crime mystery The Pale Blue Eye (C) spends most of its 1830-set story exploring a pairing of a grizzled detective (Christian Bale) and a military cadet named Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling) who join forces to solve a series of gothic murders at a military academy. Both actors are distant and maudlin, a definite match for Cooper’s austere tone; and it’s a shame more isn’t made from the literary legend’s involvement. Howard Shore’s brassy score feels out of place against the deliberately paced proceedings. Lucy Boynton and Charlotte Gainsbourg don’t quite break through in underwritten roles, and the film squanders an ensemble of veteran actors Toby Jones, Gillian Anderson, Timothy Spall and Robert Duvall. Bale and Melling are too interesting a duo of actors to be this ho-hum. This film gets bogged down in its brand of bleak midwinter and doesn’t quite clue in on how to break through.

Movie Review: All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Now playing on Netflix.

The new German language production of a classic antiwar novel, Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues) (B+) is a gripping film remake set in the waning days of World War I featuring pounding music by Volker Bertelmann, stunning cinematography by James Friend and a split storyline that works better on the battlefield than in sequences involving discourse by diplomats. The main through-line follows an idealistic young German soldier, played with zeal by Felix Kammerer, who quickly finds himself demoralized by the grim realities of war as he battles uphill for mere survival. These types of war movies rarely slow down much for character development, but Albrecht Schuch hits some emotional grace notes as a sensitive comrade. A parallel story about the armistice negotiations provides additional context to the film’s tragedy but is far less engrossing than the exciting and appalling trench warfare. Berger examines the horror of war with grit and grandeur and an exceptional eye for film craft. This is filmmaking on an epic scale and will undoubtedly be mentioned in any conversations about the best of this genre.

Movie Review: M3GAN (2023)

Now in theatres.

In a funkified morality tale fusing Frankenstein’s Monster and Gremlins, the invention in question is Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN (B), an orphaned girl’s companion robot who proves to be more wired for overprotection than child’s play. Allison Williams is effective as a tightly wound toy maker who inherits a niece (game kid actress Violet McGraw) whose unusual bond with the automaton becomes increasingly concerning. The title character played by Amie Donald and the voice of Jenna Davis is a sass machine full of tangy twitches, and an ensemble including a funny Ronny Chieng becomes the prey-things for the uncanny valley of the doll. The endoskeleton of the story has been told many times before, but Johnstone imbues his entertaining enterprise with suspense, satire and panache. The musical numbers alone were unexpected and amusing, and the jump scares prove pretty fun for a PG-13 outing. The story sputters a bit toward the end, and the whole movie could have been much scarier; but it’s overall very crafty and creative and elicits some wily smiles. These android adventures in babysitting are largely a light horror hoot. 

Movie Review: Emancipation (2022)

Now on AppleTV+.

Antoine Fuqua’s relentlessly violent slavery survival film Emancipation (C) both showcases and demands endurance. It is tonally out of balance, caught between being a prestige piece about a grim time in American history and an exploitative action film. Will Smith is effective in an underwritten role, and the film’s tropes and characters don’t illuminate much fresh light on their subject. Fuqua’s monochromatic cinematography is often expansive and expressive but paints its images over a hollow story. It spends long passages with dogs chasing escaped slaves who must brave forests and swamps and brush fires in an attempted journey back to family. Ben Foster has the thankless task of antagonist in a nightmarish work that doesn’t give anyone much of a showcase. There’s an important and well-intentioned story shrouded in the film, but Fuqua goes about telling it with little new or nuanced.

Movie Review: White Noise (2022)

Now on Netflix.

The future in plastics once predicted in the ‘60s comes full circle in Noah Baumbach’s absurdist ‘80s-set dark comedy White Noise (C), in which airborne toxic events, misbegotten drug deals and the power of suggestion in consumerist culture swirl in the whirling dervish of a day-glo college town. This is far from linear or logical stuff, and it only works in spurts despite lots of creativity. Based on Don DeLillo’s notoriously unadaptable postmodern novel, this go-for-broke movie introduces all sorts of intriguing ideas which are equal parts fascinating and face palm worthy. Adam Driver is the assured oddity at the center of the proceedings as an eccentric professor of Hitler studies, surrounded domestically by a bunch of loquacious, precocious offspring from multiple marriages. His current wife played by a wryly funny Greta Gerwig is largely defined by a penne pasta meets poodle inspired haircut and a possible secret. Another talky teacher friend played with relish by Don Cheadle harbors awe for Elvis and supermarkets. The plot is a series of strange events, some that linger too lovingly long on their source material roots. The ensemble’s commitment to a hilariously heightened vibe is admirable though and makes for an uneven but readymade cult sensation, a bonkers love child of Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg and Kurt Vonnegut. Perhaps the film should be accompanied Rocky Horror style with a survival kit baggie of edibles. If you make it to the end, enjoy a closing credit musical sequence that’s somewhat more thematically cogent than the feature overstaying its welcome preceding it. 

Movie Review: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022)

Now in theatres.

A new biopic spans three octaves and a major second with a wide range of major music hits and a double dose of love interests. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (B-), directed by Kasi Lemmons, features a lovely titular performance by Naomi Ackie and a paint-by-numbers chronicle of life events that only occasionally transcends the Wikipedia entry of same. Nafeesa Williams is engaging as Robyn Crawford, Whitney’s former girlfriend and assistant, and the usually reliable Ashton Sanders is fine in a fleeting and underwritten part as husband Bobby Brown. Stanley Tucci fares much better with some authentic moments as producer Clive Davis opposite the singing superstar. Lemmons does strong work re-creating some of the most triumphant musical moments of Houston’s oeuvre and is a bit less successful in tracing her Icarus-style flirtation with dangerous drugs and relationships cutting short the iconic voice of a generation. Although she doesn’t resemble her real life character and lip syncs her vocals, Ackie is very believable in the role and is one of the very best elements of the movie, barreling past plot holes with finesse. The director’s reenactment of some live singing moments stretches out the film’s run time and short-changes several intriguing subplots. Still, if you go to the film for performances and songs, they’re there in all their entertaining glory along with sequins and sweatsuits, and it’s a highly watchable if not all that original true story. As a tribute to Miss Houston, it’s not all right, but it’s okay.

Movie Review: Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (2022)

Now on Netflix.

Flickers of self-reflection and self-loathing dot the terrain of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Mexico-set semi-autobiographical seriocomedy Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (C-) as it leisurely meanders through its bloated running time. There are many ambitious ideas and a few lovely and dreamlike visual flourishes, but this film rarely transcends its bursts of inspiration. Daniel Giménez Cacho is a stand-in for the director, who is often quite passive in his own morality tale. Just as this tepid protagonist is caught between the worlds of his Mexican homeland and the Hollywood/America where he has immigrated, the film alternates between meta realism and smug fantasies. It’s all quite self-indulgent and mostly hangs like a punishing squawking albatross. The film feels a little bored with its own gimmickry and may have the same effect on audiences.

Movie Review: Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

Now in theatres.

Director James Cameron misses the mark again with gorgeous visuals at the service of a subpar screenplay in the action adventure Avatar: The Way of Water (C). Motion capture performers Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldaña as elongated blue creatures do lots of swimming as they endeavor to protect their family and the planet of Pandora from pesky human invaders. The first hour introduces their sprawling family, too many to much care about; the second feels like a nice visit to an aquarium as one of their teens communes with a large sea creature; and then there’s a frenzied finale of a showdown with battleships and annoying kids used as bait. Much of the conflict could have been saved by a better babysitter, and nobody needed a human character named “Spider” or a teen voiced by Sigourney Weaver. Still, the undersea vistas are often quite stunning. Perhaps this director, who has made many great movies to his credit, has a future in screen savers.  I’ll save you three plus hours: “save the whales.” 

Feature List: Stephen Brown’s Top 25 Movies of 2022

Top left to right bottom): Aftersun, RRR, Top Gun: Maverick, The Woman King, The Batman, The Fabelmans

It was actually a pretty stellar year for movies for those who followed the art form. My populist proclivities are dotted with a few indie gems throughout the mix. It was a solid year for studio franchise films, twisted horror and dark comedy on streaming services. I’m still catching up on some international films and documentaries and haven’t seen Women Talking yet. Critical darlings Triangle of Sadness and the Avatar sequel didn’t make my top 25, nor did curiosities I wanted to adore such as Crimes of the Future, but lots of other surprising titles did. All are reviewed here on the website as well as on Letterboxd.

1 Aftersun – an emotional drama about a woman’s memory of her last vacation with her dad, told partially in home movies

2 RRR – two legendary Indian revolutionaries fight back against British colonialists in the 1920s in an action musical extravaganza 

3 The Batman – a caped detective ventures into Gotham City’s underworld when a sadistic killer leaves behind a trail of cryptic clues

4 The Woman King – an all-female army of warriors protects its African kingdom from foreign invasions in the 1800s

5 Top Gun: Maverick – a top Navy aviator confronts the ghosts of his past as he trains new pilots for a dangerous mission

6 Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – after losing its leader, a nation must rise to confront a new threat 

7 The Fabelmans – a budding filmmaker grapples with how his camera captures the breakup of his family 

8 The Banshees of Inisherin – the end of a friendship and an ultimatum are just the beginning of a quirky dark comedy set on an Irish isle 

9 The Automat – documentary chronicles the rise and fall of NYC and Philly’s egalitarian eatery paralleling changes in American life 

10 TÁR – a controlling conductor begins to crack as she faces getting cancelled 

11 Babylon – vintage Hollywood tramples a troubled trio in a scandalously sordid comedy action drama

12 Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – a motley gang of modern influencers convene on an island for the ultimate whodunit 

13 Elvis – a rock and roll legend ascends despite the machinations of his corrupt manager 

14 Three Thousand Years of Longing – an intellectual gets more than she bargained for including fantastical tales when a djinn offers her three wishes 

15 Everything Everywhere All At Once – a creative fantasy in which an ordinary woman must traverse the multiverse to reconcile with her family

16 Cha Cha Real Smooth – an aimless twentysomething learns life lessons from a mother and daughter he meets on the bar and bat mitzvah DJ circuit 

17 Bones and All – two young cannibals in love travel cross country in search of safety

18 Prey – the hunt is on as the “Predator” made famous in past action movies faces off with a First Nations tribe

19 The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – an actor must channel his iconic and beloved characters when a birthday party abroad becomes the scene of espionage 

20 Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – a lonely woodworker builds himself a son in this stop-motion animated film set in Fascist Italy 

21 The Black Phone – an abducted 1970s suburban teenager must plot his escape from a psychotic man called The Grabber in this psychological thriller 

22 X – a film shoot becomes the site of a Texas massacre as an elderly couple doesn’t take kindly to the antics taking place on their land in this taut horror movie 

23 I Want You Back – two recently dumped strangers team up to sabotage the new relationships of their exes in a reverse romantic comedy 

24 Do Revenge – two high school outsiders devise a plan to avenge the act of one another’s rivals in a candy-colored dark comedy

25 Barbarian – a young woman discovers the rental home she booked is already occupied by a stranger, but that’s just the start of a twisty tale of terror 

%d bloggers like this: