Some famous Irish troubadours once declared humanity must stridently walk on, emboldened with “all that you can’t leave behind,” and a new movie rummages through the lived-in baggage we tote to each stage of our existence. A story of Seoul mates who may also be soul mates provides the profound connection at the center of Korean-Canadian writer/director Celine Song’s memorable and melancholy debut drama Past Lives (A). Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, played as adults by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, are separated after Nora’s family leaves South Korea to immigrate to Toronto. Decades later, they reunite for several fateful days in her adopted hometown of New York City as they confront love, longing and the choices that impact their destinies. In a way the movie posits we are all immigrants or refugees from a stomping ground in our past where we came of age and where our self-concepts imprinted. Lee and Yoo are phenomenal in the crucial roles, exhibiting an incredible bond even as they share very few sequences together IRL. Both affecting actor John Magaro who humorously gets meta over pillow talk and NYC play crucial supporting roles; Manhattan looks like a dream lensed by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. Song frames the story with splendid grace and intimacy; her screenplay and directorial choices prove both instantly absorbing and universally resonant. Christopher Bear and Dan Rossen’s lovely music underscores this delicate and sensitive tale gorgeously told. Many of the notions explored in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and John Carney’s Once get a fresh examination here. You’ll believe the Korean concept of In-Yun, that who we are today is a version of who we were in our past lives, is indeed working its quiet machinations on the film’s characters. The film will undoubtedly spark conversations we all wish we were having.
Tag Archives: Drama
Movie Review: Little Brother (2023)
The grand tradition of the dramatic road trip movie, so splendidly rendered in films such as Rain Man and Y Tu Mamá También, can add a new sentimental two-hander to its ranks in Sheridan O’Donnell’s Little Brother (A-), an intimate and inspiring indie that world premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival. Jake, portrayed by Daniel Diemer, has been tasked by his father (J.K. Simmons) to reluctantly transport his suicidal older brother Pete, played by Philip Ettinger, home for a family intervention. The dynamic between the central brothers in motion through a brittle journey to face their sometimes fractured bond, is thoroughly captivating, alternately heartbreaking and hilarious; and their pathway through the gorgeous West in locations such as Albuquerque and Twin Falls makes for an enjoyable and enlightening ride. As Pete, Ellinger diffuses the effects of mental illness with humor and regression to juvenile highjinks to mask his inner tumult. He’s consistently absorbing and magnetic in the tricky part. As the sometimes stoic straight man, Diemer has a tough role too and slays it with steely restraint. His tender depiction of abiding brotherly love is also sublime. When the siblings come to breakthroughs in how to confront and reconcile mental distress that’s not likely to vanish from looming large, O’Donnell continues to nourish the story with direction and dialogue which is rarely reductive or overly sentimental. This is the kind of movie that can save lives, and its notions of making the most of one’s lived experience and savoring the familial bonds to lift us when most needed have the power to deeply move.
Movie Review: Showing Up (2023)
Indie writer/director Kelly Reichardt is generally regarded as the matriarch of “slow cinema,” and her leisurely paced drama Showing Up (B-) focused on a ceramics artist played by Michelle Williams could be characterized as next of kiln: a slow burn with the effect of making the viewer feel quite glazed over at times. But ultimately the minimalist auteur punctures the porcelain veneer of her peculiar observational character study with moments of pathos and humor bordering on therapeutic. There’s nary a plot, aside from Williams’ character readying her whimsical figurines for an exhibition night while nursing an injured pigeon back to health and checking in on a brother suffering a declining mental state. This sibling is effectively portrayed in an off-kilter performance by John Magaro, providing an allegory about how artistic obsession isn’t too far removed from going a little crazy. Williams sculpts an idiosyncratic performance at the film’s center opposite a talented cast in bit roles including Maryann Plunkett and Judd Hirsch as her estranged parents and Hong Chau (winning as always) and André Benjamin as fellow denizens of an insular artist colony. Reichardt’s voyeurism into the process of creation has a way of growing on the viewer and soon enough conjures a mild bit of a maelstrom in its timid teacup. Although the pigeon might be the undisputed VIP character in the heart of this art house fare, this film should reward those seeking a story that breaks the mold.
Movie Review: Chevalier (2023)
Do you hear the peoples’ strings? A French Revolution set historical costume drama about a virtuoso violinist whose contributions to classical music had been heretofore lost to history, Chevalier (B+), directed by Stephen Williams, is old-fashioned entertainment with a twist. The illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, Joseph Bologne. brilliantly portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr., rises to inconceivable heights in French society as a celebrated violinist-composer and fencer, dangerously liaising with a married woman (Samara Weaving) and Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). The women in the ensemble are uniformly strong (including a vamping Minnie Driver) and more than compensate for the supporting male performances, largely a predictably disapproving lot of prune faces. Although Williams won’t win any prizes for cinematic breakthroughs, he moves the story along briskly and frankly hits some operatic crescendos at times. In the lead role, Harrison commands his every sequence and commendably connotes his heartbreak of being caught between two worlds punctuated by the braggadocio of his public persona. It’s a rousing, crowd-pleasing biography with high relatability for those who liked Moulin Rouge or The Woman King, plus the music is also magnificent at the end of the day.
Movie Review: Air (2023)
It’s the ultimate “inside baseball” about the world’s most iconic basketball shoe. Director Ben Affleck’s ‘80s-set chronicle about Nike’s courtship of rookie hoops star Michael Jordan, Air (B+) is a crowd-pleasing triumph. Matt Damon is effective as the wonkish mid-level exec fixated on attaching his swoosh to a champion of the court, with Affleck offering comic relief as the new-age company head. Jason Bateman and Chris Tucker also get plum roles as their business associates in a film that’s essentially a talky bake-off between Nike and adversaries at Adidas and Converse, not to mention a battle to outwit a sleazy sports agent middle man, played masterfully and mercilessly by Chris Messina. Delivering grace and gravitas to her role, Viola Davis makes her mark as MJ’s mom and unofficial sponsorship gatekeeper. The film succeeds with the rat-tat-tat of hilarious bro banter and the sparks of being scrappy. Setting his movie to a banger of a vintage MTV greatest hits soundtrack, filmmaker Affleck tells an unlikely true story with humor and pathos, giving Damon space to set just the right tone at the center of the quest. These real-life underdogs fight red tape with metaphorical mixed tapes in glorious fashion. For a movie about famous sports shoes, it keeps things loose and limber and pivots in an instant.
Guest Movie Review: Hunger (2023)
Sitisiri Mongkolsiri’s Bangkok-set Hunger (B-) is a visually appealing film meant to provide commentary on the upper echelon of society as far as it applies to perceived (and perhaps well substantiated) pretentiousness when it comes to the finer things in life. Aoy, played by Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, is a chef working at the family restaurant she is intended to inherit, but when a customer working for a fine dining chef tells her she’s too good for the establishment, she decides to make a switch. This is where Chef Paul (Nopachai Jayanama) comes into play, the owner of a private catering service serving high paying clients. The film makes a point to present the food in a manner that isn’t entirely appetizing, showcasing scenes of surrealism as the clients devour dishes such as animals. The film, while well executed, slips into some derivative territory with its “eat the rich” mentality. It puts forth the message that decadence and money aren’t everything and when compared with the simple things life can provide, the alternative is soulless. We’ve heard this message before so don’t go into the film thinking you’ll be met with any deep philosophical questions. It’s still a fun watch, while not particularly challenging, and will certainly be palatable for a Friday Netflix night.
Movie Review: A Thousand and One (2023)
A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One (B+) is a glorious parallel tale about motherhood against all odds set against an unfolding story of gentrification in Harlem in the ‘90s and 2000s. Teyana Taylor is brilliant as the unapologetic and free-spirited Inez who kidnaps her 6-year-old son Terry from the foster care system. Together mother and son set out to reclaim their sense of home, identity and stability in a rapidly changing town while harboring secrets. A talented Josiah Cross shares several gripping sequences opposite Taylor as her character’s young adult son (played earlier in life by Aaron Kingsley at age 6 and Aven Courtney at age 13). Will Catlett also gives a winning performance as Lucky, her love interest. The film will have audiences questioning whether Inez is making good choices but never doubting the sincerity of her maternal love. Rockwell also plumbs issues of erasure as literal human lives and real plights seem to be wiped away in the name of NYC’s progress. The soundtrack music by Gary Gunn is brisk and propulsive, dotted with radio voices of mayors prattling about jaywalking and other inconsequential issues while the film’s central characters seek food or shelter for the night. It’s an effective movie with tear jerking moments but an indomitable spirit. And a star is born in Taylor.
Movie Review: Creed III (2023)
The third movie in the Rocky spin-off series follows a formula (imagine that!), but it’s a handsomely produced sports drama with dexterous dramatic momentum. Michael B. Jordan stars as the title character and directs Creed III (B+), and opposite Jonathan Majors as a childhood friend turned would-be adversary, he orchestrates some Shakespearean subtext between the bouts. The central conflict between two men eclipses and sidelines other supporting players, and Majors additionally overshadows Jordan in the acting department. But the boxing ring clashes are epic, including one with unexpected stylized flourishes, and the cinematic crafts in the dramatic build-up are on deft display. If Jordan’s directorial debut isn’t quite a full-throttle knockout, it’s certainly a crowd pleaser.
Movie Review: Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023)
All this tease from a tepid trilogy has revealed Tampa’s titular hero has simply been a frustrated theatrical choreographer all along. Steven Soderbergh is back at the helm for the third and hopefully final outing, Magic Mike’s Last Dance (C-). The director smashes his endowed everyman Channing Tatum against a proposal from a wealthy businesswoman played by Salma Hayek Pinault to direct a West End London adult entertainment revue disguised as a comedy of manners. It’s a convoluted plot when one isn’t really needed, plus it’s punctuated with observational voice-over narration as if it’s an academic exercise tracking the taxonomies of exotic dancers for a medical journal. Since there really is a British live stage show based on the dancing characters from this series, it’s also one of cinema’s most naked commercial cash grabs since Mac and Me and Million Dollar Mystery, ‘80s films that hawked fast food and trash bags, respectively. There’s a nicely shot smooth dance sequence at the beginning and another at the end, and the central romance between the charming leads has a swirl of sweet moments, but most of the film is either dull or misbegotten. A full proscenium of pole dancers still can’t conjure a respectable spectacle. Unlike the first two films when the ensemble is a winning part of the formula, this time the talented dancers are hardly given any speaking parts at all. Of course Soderbergh is trading in fantasy wish fulfillment, but the plot strains credulity and logic in too many ways to be taken seriously or even to function as campy guilty pleasure. The tones are so wildly different in this trio of thong and dance films that they might as well be classified as an anthology loosely based on a similar notion with one common cast member. What started with a g-string and a prayer has packed on so many layers, the series has almost forgotten it’s supposed to be about strippers. This film strains for the graceful exit.
Review of previous film in the trilogy
Movie Review: Spoiler Alert (2022)
Michael Showalter has made a cottage industry of finding the humor and humanity in tough situations such as terminal illnesses, and his latest directorial effort, Spoiler Alert (C+), presents some charming and underrepresented character types facing the Big Sick at the center of what would otherwise be a melodramatic “Movie of the Week” type format. Jim Parsons portrays real-life television critic Michael Ausiello, and Ben Aldridge plays his partner Kit Cowan who faces a cancer diagnosis. The film traces the duo’s unlikely romance, introduces some underused supporting characters including Sally Field as Kit’s mom and flashes to occasional strained sitcom tropes to punctuate the proceedings. Parsons is a wet blanket of a romantic lead, barely capable of bearing the burden of the story on his shoulders. Although often heartfelt and packing a few laughs and tears, the film doesn’t rise to the level of being very magnetic or memorable.
Movie Review: Living (2022)
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: To Leslie (2022)
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.