All posts by Stephen Michael Brown

I've reviewed films for more than 30 years. Current movie reviews of new theatrical releases and streaming films are added weekly to the Silver Screen Capture movie news site. Many capsule critiques originally appeared in expanded form in my syndicated Lights Camera Reaction column.

Aronofsky’s “Postcard from Earth” a Must-See Nature Film at Vegas Sphere

A new movie built for a special venue is engineered to blow your mind and, despite its gargantuan magnitude, possesses small spellbinding ways to change the way audiences view our world. There hasn’t been an immersive movie before quite like Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth (A-), developed as an installation for The Sphere in Las Vegas and building on a grand tradition that makes CinemaScope, Cinerama, IMAX and even Disney’s Soarin’ look like tiny canvasses. The sheer technological audacity of 18K resolution images by new Big Sky cameras, a flood of 500,000 gigabytes of data on a 160,000 foot domed video screen 35 stories high featuring 270 degrees of viewing experience, climate control, 4D haptic capabilities for the venue’s seating, and scents to create an immersive environment makes for a cinematic wonder to behold.  Aronofsky’s blend of a sci-fi framing device and majestic imagery of nature and civilizations chronicles the story of life on Earth with both dreamlike plaintiveness and pulse-pounding urgency. On a distant planet, astronauts Byron (Brandon Santana) and Fang (Zaya Ribeiro) land in a state of stasis to be reminded of the earth where they one lived. What follows is a nearly hourlong narrated journey of spectacular footage across seven continents to witness glorious plains and prairies, wondrous oceans and canyons, breathtaking cathedrals and cityscapes and humans and animals in daily rituals paying homage to earth’s glory or harming it. The director wields both a telescope and a microscope to showcase parades of elephants, the panorama of hikers atop the highest mountaintops or revelers celebrating high holy days as well as the smallest creatures in their own habitats. The music is triumphant. 4D effects conjure thunder, wind and rocket propulsion directly to the seats of audience members, as faint scents of nature briefly waft through the auditorium. It’s a picturesque love letter to Mother Earth on a screen four football fields large, with so much epic visual splendor at times, you’ll want to crane your neck to see even more. The “save the planet” message is clear and not nearly as preachy as it could have been given the filmmaker’s proclivity for characters obsessed with creation myths. The film is a must-see; and, in its poetic and transfixing beauty, has the capacity to bring people together in newfound respect for our precious resources and glorious planet home.

Wonderful Documentary Shows Why Women “Still Working 9 to 5” and Beyond for Equal Rights

In months since the release of a Barbie movie celebrated for giving voice to the plight of women but derided by detractors for being pedantic, it’s clear we are witnessing history repeating. Camille Hardman and Gary Lane’s compelling documentary Still Working 9 to 5 (B+) explores the past decades of the women’s rights movement with the 1980 film comedy 9 to 5 as a pop cultural anchor. The co-directors congregate the film’s funny trio Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton for fond reminiscences as the popular movie made them unofficial spokeswomen of an equal rights movement picking up steam. Interlaced in the documentary are participants in pop culture with workplace pioneers such as Lilly Ledbetter, each sharing their personal anecdotes across the continuum. The movie also does an elegant  job linking the early exposure of topics such as fair pay and sexual harassment with later movements such as #MeToo. Fans of the classic workplace satire will find themselves enjoying the behind the scenes footage and back stories while learning important lessons of modern American history too. Hardman and Lane deliver a touching and timely look at vital issues affecting us all. They tell their story with nifty nostalgia and utmost urgency.

Food and Romance are on Display in “The Taste of Things”

The central couple of Trần Anh Hùng’s The Taste of Things (aka La Passion de Dodin Bouffant) (B-) finds their best way of communicating to one another is through gourmet cooking, and this French film is a series of gastronomic love letters between Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche. Call it Culinary Paradiso. The film is notable for its gorgeously lensed sequences of creation in the kitchen, as the lovers make sumptuous entrees, soups and desserts for one another. You may leave craving quail or Baked Alaska. The central characters are a bit elusive, but it’s nonetheless a joy to see them cooking. Ensemble characters seen at dinner parties or sampling dishes before they are served are undercooked in the screenplay, with much of the film a two-hander. Ironically the film doesn’t always set the table stakes for the payoff it purports to conjure up; it’s sometimes an empty soufflé. Go for the gorgeous stovetop stylings and stay for a few nice insights about feeding a relationship.

Despite Inspirational Story, “One Life” is One-Note”

A case of a miraculously story told too conventionally, One Life (C), directed by John Hawes, splits its time between 1939 and 1987 with Johnny Flynn and Anthony Hopkins both portraying British humanitarian Nicholas Winton, who helped save hundreds of predominantly Jewish children from the Nazis on the eve of World War II. Hopkins is strong as always, channeling melancholy, but Flynn makes little impression playing what’s supposed to be a meticulous mastermind in the underwritten backstory. The most riveting parts of the plot about how Winton saved the children are only partially dramatized, leaving much of the history safely shared in overly talky sequences. The final act swells with emotion, but the overall film is simply not specific or gripping enough. The triumph of history doesn’t translate to a triumph of a movie.

Note: This screening was part of the 2024 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. The festival’s theatrical movies run through February 26 with streaming films also available through March 7. Full line-up of offerings can be found here: https://ajff.org

“Remembering Gene Wilder” is Fond Farewell to Beloved Actor

One of the great comic actors of film is immortalized with a warm tribute in Ron Frank’s documentary Remembering Gene Wilder (B), chock-full of clips, interviews, behind the scenes footage and the title subject’s own narration from the audiobook of his 2005 memoir. Mel Brooks is always an enjoyable interview, and he doesn’t disappoint here with his sentimental observations. The best parts of the film involve recollections of work on Brooks films The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein plus Willy Wonka and his series of pairings with Richard Pryor. The late stages of Wilder’s life are marred by tragedy, which is covered gracefully. The film is a solid if uninspired largely chronological telling of Wilder’s life without too many surprises. Unlike many of the actor’s most memorable manic performances, the film could have been just a little wilder. 

Note: This screening was part of the 2024 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. The festival’s theatrical movies run through February 26 with streaming films also available through March 7. Full line-up of offerings can be found here: https://ajff.org

Comedy Musical “Less Than Kosher” Breaks Through with Surprising Take on Jewish Identity

A funny new film focuses on that pivitol time as a young person making a way in the world when you rediscover or finally find your voice. Shaina Silver-Baird, whose comic sensibility evokes a wry, mischievous love child of Aubrey Plaza and Kate McKinnon, is the co-creator/co-writer, executive producer and star of director Daniel AM Rosenberg’s comic musical Less Than Kosher (B+). She plays Viv, a washed-up thirtysomething ex-pop star and self-proclaimed “bad Jew” who reluctantly lands an unlikely job as the music leader at her family’s synagogue. Familial sassiness, a “meet not so cute” with the rabbi’s son, a memorable mushroom drug trip and a TikTok trending montage of “Judeo-Pop” remixes are among the funny episodes punctuated with devilish Tarantino yellow font chapter headings. The film is a joyous roundabout story of modern young Jewish life approaching its characters with no judgment as they maneuver the trappings of adulting. Viv’s sequences as cantor quickly become out-of-body spiritual experiences, one of which feels ripped out of a Disney Broadway showstopper. Silver-Baird proves she’s a gregarious comedienne as well as a lovely songstress, and she is matched in goofy temperament and tone opposite funnymen David Eisner and David Reale as rabbi and son, respectively. Rosenberg holds it all together with fun physical comedy and lots of original zingers. He leaves you wanting more as it’s not entirely clear what comes next for the comic characters, but it’s a berserk and buoyant work with lots of laughs and heart.

Note: This screening was part of the young professionals night at the 2024 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. The festival’s theatrical movies run through February 26 with streaming films also available through March 7. Full line-up of films can be found here: https://ajff.org

Sophie Nélisse is Stirring as Real-Life Holocaust Heroine in AJFF Opener

Our heroine thwarts her antagonist in the most unlikely of places, right under his nose and abode, in Louise Archambault’s thrilling and often moving dramatic WWII-era film Irena’s Vow (B). Real-life Roman Catholic nurse Irena Gut, splendidly played by Sophie Nélisse, makes a life-changing decision to be resilient in the face of evil after she witnesses an atrocity in the streets of occupied Poland. Soon she finds herself sheltering and protecting twelve Jewish people during the Holocaust by hiding them in the cellar of the home where she is employed as a housekeeper by Nazi officer Eduard Rügemer (a somewhat thankless role played by Dougray Scott). The dozen refugees hidden below in this upstairs/downstairs scenario are largely secondary in a story that focuses on the suspense of close calls between Irena and Eduard. Polish actors Eliza Rycembel and Filip Kosior are among the supporting standouts, creative while confined. Andrzej Seweryn is wonderful as an ally and Maciej Nawrocki terrifying as an adversary. Archambault continually amps up the tension, allowing the protagonist to demonstrate her cleverness in the face of great danger. Nélisse is impressive and believable in the pivotal titular role. Some of the story’s payoffs play out better than others, but the overall miracle of the rescue of lives will undoubtedly move those who see the film.

Note: This movie was the opening night screening of the 2024 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival with theatrical movies running through February 26 and streaming films through March 7. An encore screening of this feature is scheduled for Wednesday, February 14 at the Tara Theatre. Full line-up of films can be found here: https://ajff.org

Cloak and Dagger Double Agents of “Argylle” Overstay Welcome

So insistent on its own cleverness as it churns out plot twists like sorcerer’s apprentice brooms, Matthew Vaughn’s meta spy thriller comedy Argylle (C) has the cumulative effect of wearing out its welcome. Bryce Dallas Howard plays a cat-loving spy novelist drawn into a real-life adventure similar to the events in her popular book series, accompanied by visions of her fictional hero (an underused Henry Cavill) and a mysterious stranger portrayed by a scrappy Sam Rockwell, who wrings whatever comedy he can out of his character. Howard and Rockwell lack the chemistry or distinction to cannily add much to the “author embroiled in her own book” canon à la Romancing the Stone and Lost City, so Vaughn spends most of the film’s unnatural duration trying to confound audience expectations with a Russian roulette of reveals. Once it’s apparent the central characters are mind-numbingly mid, all the shooting spree ballets and choreographed lair infiltrations feel like a prodigious pile-on. The notion of doubling down and doubling back on double agents leading double lives starts off octo-feisty but devolves into fussy galore. Meanwhile the busy enterprise squanders the talents of John Cena, Bryan Cranston, Ariana DeBose, Samuel L. Jackson and Catherine O’Hara while gliding through lackluster set pieces. The dapper design aesthetic Vaughn has been building for his Kingsman films just feels like a joyless rut here, with globetrotting locales appearing like LED screen backdrops; and for all the kinetic stunts and needle drops, the movie doesn’t register as brisk or snappy. There are occasional inspired bits and handsome flourishes dotting this often leaden lark, but it’s all too much at the service of a clunky vehicle in constant motion. Overly salted and shaken, this action romp proves to be cluttered popcorn.

Sundance Documentary ”Every Little Thing” Shows Hummingbirds Learning to Fly Again

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A surprising film debuted at Sundance 2024, and you could say it’s got buzz. And whistles, beeps and chirps. Sally Aitken’s documentary Every Little Thing (B) is a gentle, non-ironic glimpse at the life’s work  of a West coast woman named Terry Masear, who operates a hummingbird rescue mission out of her L.A. home. This consummate and patient healer’s own wounded background undergirds the true tale, but the recovering birds are really center cage in this realm, each with cute names and back stories as they begin their fragile resurgence. Aitken gently follows some amazing animals in startling close-up as they learn their flights of fancy again. Like March of the Penguins, it’s a canny diorama exploring the sociological machinations of a bird order. This engaging journey is quietly observant, inspiring and entertaining. 

”Layla” is Belle of the Ball at 2024 Sundance Festival

Writer/director Amrou Al-Kadhi’s title character of Layla (B-) is a Muslim drag performer in East London with a one-of-a-kind story to tell in one of several Sundance Film Festival 2024 entries focused on queer identity. Bilal Hasna is mostly sensational in the central role of what is ostensibly a romance film, playing opposite Louis Greatorex, who has a more conventional and mainstream way of presenting himself to society. Opposite such a complex persona, this boyfriend hardly stands a chance. Constantly negotiating several dimensions of identity in one fabulous vessel, Hasna’s Layla is a fascinating portrait, augmented by marvelous costumes, kaleidoscopic parties and music that could be just a little bit better. Saltburn has nothing on this film’s stilettos as the movie balances a walk on the wild side with romcom tropes. Somewhat flimsy writing and fleeting characters threaten to derail the perfectly good pairing at the film’s center, but Layla prevails. Layla’s story deserved just a little bit better but is still an absorbing, singular and fierce wonder to behold.

Sundance International Feature “Veni Vidi Vici” Agonizes Over One-Note Argument

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Just because it debuted at Sundance doesn’t mean it’s any good. And co-directors Daniel Hoesl and Julia Niemann’s German dark comedy Veni Vidi Vici (D+) certainly doesn’t seem to be here to make any friends. It’s a stark portrait of a billionare crime family living in its own bucolic bubble, unimpeachable in every way as they go about terrible activities such as furtive sniper shootings of local innocents. Photographed beautifully but soulless in spirit, the film is dead-set on shocking viewers about these aristocrats without a moral compass but neglects to offer a story or counterpoint to yield any intrigue or interest. The ensemble including Laurence Rupp and Ursina Lardi as the twisted parents and Dominik Warta as a potentially intriguing outsider aren’t given much at all to do. It looks like and is sometimes filmed like a social satire but only tells part of one side of a story. For all the fuss, it ends up a great one-note bore.

Sundance Festival Presents Intimate, Explicit Portrait of “Sebastian”

As more megaplex audiences get to experience the story of an author exploring his pseudonym in the mainstream hit American Fiction, a new Sundance Film Festival entry depicts a young British novelist leading a shocking double life in Mikko Mäkelä’s Sebastian (B-). Rharidh Mollica plays the indie film’s title aspiring writer who becomes a sex worker to land fascinating stories; and although the actor’s own part is a bit underwritten, his vantage point becomes a gateway to bridging his understanding of several generations of older gay men, with all its fights, frailty and fantasia. The film is very explicit in its bedroom scenes but also rich in honesty and humanity. Sequences opposite the great actor Jonathan Hyde demonstrate why films like this deserve a place in the discourse. Cinematographer Iikka Salminen’s London is one of deep isolation and loneliness, underscoring the austere and clinical viewpoint of its title character. There are also some titillating bits, so get ready. The movie falls into some of the typical traps of auto-fiction and gives scant development to characters such as the protagonist’s friend and colleague played by Hiftu Quasem. Ultimately the film escorts viewers to tender and touching revelations mostly more than skin deep.