Movie Review: To Leslie (2022)

On demand via Amazon Prime.

A Lone Star State lottery winner spirals out of control in a Texas toast of fits and starts on her journey to recovery from alcoholism in the indie character study To Leslie (B), directed by Michael Morris. Andrea Riseborough is fully committed to the central performance of a failed mother and nomadic barfly, deeply flawed but highly sympathetic. She is a feral force of nature who constantly brushes herself off from homeless nights and grievous gaffes and finds her footing opposite Marc Maron as a kind man who gives her a second chance on the grounds of the ramshackle motel he runs. Allison Janney and Stephen Root provide solid support in small roles as skeptical relatives. Morris grounds his deeply atmospheric story with grace notes transcending his shades of melodrama. There are heartbreaking passages in which Riseborough’s Leslie hits rock bottom plus some glimmers of hope as she climbs out of her despair with help of a surrogate family. The film and its central performance are ultimately quite affecting.

Movie Review: Skinamarink (2023)

Now in theatres.

Welcome to the latest horror movie escape room: unfortunately it may provoke in even the most patient viewers an unwavering desire for that final moment of freedom through the multiplex exit door. A triumph of sustained, unblinking mood and atmosphere with an equally confounding sense of storytelling, Kyle Edward Ball’s little suspense movie that could, Skinamarink (C+) is an admirable micro budgeted cult curiosity. It feels like an art project brought to life as two largely off-camera preschoolers roam their house in the middle of the night, whispering (with necessary subtitles) about missing parents, noting vanished windows and observing their toys are moving on their own to the soundscape of diabolical public domain cartoons. It’s likely the first found footage genre film to showcase such an ambitious unfinished Lego project or highlight how many low budget ways filmmakers can show a toilet disappear. Ball employs an intriguing grainy film stock to invoke a sort-of 1995 with some creepy objects and angles and a few choice “audio jump scares” in what is otherwise the very definition of a slow burn. Yes, the movie was evidently made for $15,000, but the subtitles required more proofreading and the TV sets needed frame rate adjustment. The story doesn’t sufficiently reveal themes or intentions; and although the ambiguity may stoke some viewers’ imaginations, it will leave many shaking their heads and some saying, “Hey, Blair Witch, hold my juice box.”

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.

Movie Review: Missing (2023)

In theatres January 20.

There ought to be awards for best supporting apps as Siri, Taskrabbit, Google, Instagram, YouTube and many of their cyber companions become utility players in Nick Johnson and Will Merrick’s computer screen mystery thriller Missing (B). This standalone sequel to Searching follows a teenager (Storm Reid) who wields various technologies to find her missing mother (Nia Long) after she disappears on vacation in Colombia with her new boyfriend (Ken Leung). Reid is effective in the central role and lots of fun opposite Joaquim de Almeida as a deputized detective of the gig economy. The format popularized during the pandemic shows some signs of strain at first, but the co-directors weave an impressive and nail-biting narrative as the intrepid teen endeavors further down the linked looking glass. Film flourishes including webcams and cracking codes keep the action less desk-bound. Ultimately the successful story transcends the form and trumps initial trepidation about the story-told-on-a-synced-desktop trope.

Movie Review: Women Talking (2022)

Sarah Polley’s Women Talking (B) starts like a really long homeowner association meeting with a lingering SWOT analysis and transcends into a bit of a moviemaking miracle about resiliency, triumph and restored faith. Set a decade and a half ago, the story focuses on eight women from an isolated Mennonite colony who grapple with reconciling their reality with their religion after it is revealed that men from their community drugged and raped the community’s women at night for years. It’s solemn material for sure, and Polley makes the stagey cinematic with lush cinematography and a desaturated color palette plus a soaring score by Hildur Guðnadóttir. Rooney Mara and Judith Ivey are luminous standouts in a multigenerational ensemble also getting lots of attention for two women shouting, Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy. Like a war movie, though, the strength is in the composite set of performances and central conflict rather than in the work of any one or two individuals. The final reel is missing some requisite suspense but compensates with bursts of emotion. Overall Polley as screenwriter and director delivers a moving work, grounded in old-fashioned sentiment with a brazen modern touch, that undoubtedly will gain more appreciation over time. 

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.

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