A pocketful of reviews, part 2

April showers bring may flowers… After a frigid Chicago winter, the weather has begun to finally shift and my life continues to be hectic after getting married last month.

In terms of film watching, winter was an opportunity to continue to catch up with the best-received films from 2018 and start to give a look at the 2019 crop.

Below I give you another batch of short reviews. With this group, I will finally reach the month of February. I hope to post again later this month to cover the rest and catch up with what I’ve seen until April.

BIRD BOX (2018) [ 3/5 ]

A very good Sandra Bullock plays Malorie Hayes, a middle-aged single woman who finds purpose and motherhood as the world comes to an end, in this unexpected Netflix hit from Susanne Bier.

Bird Box is the overcomplicated relative of another recent doomsday film: A Quiet Place. In the former the planet is invaded by unseen angels of terror that push people to suicide (with a few disturbing exceptions), while the latter does something similar but with very aggressive monsters who have a superior ability to detect sound.

Of the two, Bird Box is the more approachable, with a large lead performance, a bit of romance, sibling trauma and a whole lot of violence. The strong first act is mostly experienced as a flashback, where we slowly begin to unravel the series of tragedies that have put Malorie in a very precarious situation caring for two children all by herself. The structure of the film, which goes back and forth between past and present leaves a gap in the script that we instinctively fill ourselves. The problem is that as the film moves forward, so does its penchant for soapy drama, constantly rising the stakes by way of romance and threats to children.

What Bird Box has in mainstream appeal, it lacks in simplicity. While A Quiet Place used fantasy to tell a tale about family and parenthood, Bird Box tried to fit a story about womanhood and perseverance within the framework of a doomsday idea, sometimes failing to make it work.

RBG (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

As far as documentaries go, the strength of RBG lies, almost exclusively, on the inspirational tale of its subject: Ruth-Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice and cultural icon. Otherwise, RBG follows a rather straightforward documentary structure, with a mostly linear progression on the life of the great lady of the Court. At times, the film stops to explore the sacrifice and difficulties of her life but, for the most part, RBG seeks to appeal to a younger demographic, acting as a sort of historical document that introduces audiences to the legacy of this great lady.

A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN (2018) [ 4/5 ]

For a film of such brutality and despair, A Prayer Before Dawn is also surprisingly beautiful. Directed by Jean-Stephane Sauvaire and shot by David Ungaro, the film tells the true story of Billy Moore, an English boxer incarcerated in one of Thailand’s most dangerous prisons. His story is one of few words, told largely in Thai. For two hours, my eyes marveled at the camera’s treatment of light and the human body, capturing every bit of sweat, every muscle and every tattoo with graceful interest. Billy, played with physical abandon by up-and-coming English actor Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders), sticks like a sore thumb, both physically and culturally, struggling to survive against an unwelcoming environment. Through it, the film also tells a story of growth and reformation that is very effective in showing us Billy’s alienation with the world around him and with the cards he has been dealt.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

Writer-director Drew Goddard has built a career in the small and big screen that has shown his affinity for genre-specific work that embraces the unspoken rules of genre filmmaking only to deconstruct and satirize them. His work feels of a different era, crafting pulpy tales that blend the tone and prose complexity of a Tarantino film with something that may have been created by SNL alums. With Bad Times at El Royale, Goddard gives us a film imbued with nostalgia, set in mid-century America, and that borrows from film noir and Hitchcock to tell an unlikely story where the crisscrossing of characters and storylines provides twists and new plot avenues.

As with his last feature, the well-received Cabin in the Woods, Goddard also goes a bit too far. While some characters seem like real people, others are archetypes that serve the story in convenient ways. In doing so, not everyone Goddard devoted time to gets as satisfactory of an arc, even if discovering all of the characters’ true nature is part of the fun.

BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

Inspired by two novels based on real events, Beautiful Boy tells an evermore prevalent story of drug use in today’s youth. Like some other contemporary examinations of the subject, the film mostly avoids rationalizing drug addiction into an explainable disease that can be traced back to a tangible cause. Instead, it zeroes in the relationship between a father, played by Steve Carrell, and his son, played by Timotheé Chalamet. Both deliver solid performances but it is Carrell’s larger role that fills the screen with pain and helplessness. It is through his inability to help his son that we experience the film.

I only wish the script had taken more unconventional decisions and, with that, lessen the predictability of the story.

THE FAVOURITE (2018) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 Favorite Films

Yorgos Lanthimos’ offbeat brand of humor fits the English court like a glove. The Favourite is the Greek director’s largest and more approachable film yet after the success of Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster.

Unlike his previous work, Lanthimos creates a story about historical figures that touch on real-life events. While his work here is clearly within the realm of fiction, the monarchy serves as a perfect fold, giving beauty, scale and stakes to a story about women vying for power and influence that, set in a different period or setting, would have lost some of its tension.

The Favourite, like his previous work, allows the cast to play characters that are a blend of personalities, filled with secrets, and that display a different part of themselves depending on their audience. The triumvirate of women at the lead are a joy to watch. Each one displaying their comedic and dramatic chops. Emma Stone is electric as Abigail, continuing to build on an already impressive recent resume (after Battle of the Sexes, La La Land and Birdman within the last 4 years). Rachel Weisz delivers, yet again, a chameleonic and feisty performance as Lady Sarah; but it is Olivia Colman that makes everything coalesce in a career-best turn.

LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) [ 3/5 ]

Leave no Trace follows a father and daughter who call a nature reserve their home, if only because it is greener and more welcoming than the concrete and asphalt of Portland, its neighboring city.

From the first scene we are forced to watch a father, expertly played by Ben Foster, whose trauma and paranoia has uprooted his daughter from the safety and comfort of modern life. Though he questions the need to be “one of them”, we can see beyond it, noting that his words are nothing but philosophical justifications that seek to hide a more significant truth: an adult man whose unable to properly address past traumas.

The daughter, played by Thomasin McKenzie, is a tough young lady who loves her father more than he realizes. Though she is young and innocent, she is always two steps ahead of him, trying her best to help and play along, even if she knows it goes against her happiness.

Of the two, she acts like the adult, not because she knows what to do, but because she sees just how much he needs her.

In the telling of this tale, the film crafts a father figure whose hermeticism remains nearly unchanged by the time the credits roll in. Throughout, I wanted to shake him out of his stupor, frustrated by his extreme selfishness and unwillingness to get help. I was frustrated by the film’s general attitude towards him, somehow justifying his behavior due to PTSD.

Given the circumstances, I was hoping for more confrontation, but the film didn’t seem to know how to get out of its head.

HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) [ 2.5/5 ]

Borrowing from ideas I first saw in John Wick, Hotel Artemis is set in a future dystopian Los Angeles where social unrest has become the norm and criminals seek refuge from authorities (and each other) inside the walls of a violence-free hotel.

Like everything else in this chaotic future, Hotel Artemis is a rundown reminder of more prosperous times. Somehow, it is entirely run by only two people: a dedicated nurse tormented by past traumas, played by Jodie Foster, and her bulky brute assistant, played by Dave Bautista.

Given the impressive cast completed by the likes of Sterling K. Brown (This is Us) and Jeff Goldblum, it is a shame that Hotel Artemis is such a weak effort. Its attempts at drama are afterthoughts. The same film could have been written without giving Jodie Foster’s nurse the semblance of the backstory she ended up getting.

In a sea full of larger-than-life characters, Jeff Goldblum’s Niagara is the film’s only pleasure and saving grace. I only wish he had been on-screen longer.

THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN (2018) [ 4/5 ]

Filmed in Super 16 and a very strong follow-up to Lowery’s own A Ghost Story. Find my thoughts on the film here.

SUSPIRIA (2018) [ 3/5 ]

I’ve never seen the original Dario Argento classic and, after this, I’m not sure if I ever will. The reimagined 2018 version directed by the very capable Luca Guadagnino has a few strong moments that dissipate into an uneven and largely uneventful whole.

Once again, I am underwhelmed by a lead performance from Dakota Johnson, this time playing Susie Bannion, an aspiring American dancer. She plays the part with a smirk, as if she knows something we don’t, generally unconcerned by the mysterious happenings of the so-called dance company she enlists in. Later we find out why she does, but for much of the film, Susie’s blissful ignorance filled me with frustration.

As it often happens with remakes, there was an artistic desire to propose a new approach to an old tale. To do so Guadagnino attempted to anchor the story in its time and place. As brutally picturesque as Cold War Germany can be, what happens outside the dance company hardly carries any interest.

Though I watched it less than two months ago, I couldn’t tell you what happens in between the few moments in which dance, music and bravura filmmaking take over Suspiria. The film is built for those moments, but I only wish the in-between was as inventive or richly choreographed.

THE LAST LAUGH (2019) [ 2/5 ]

One of the worst things I have seen in Netflix.

The comedic legend Chevy Chase plays an over-the-hill show business manager who, after many years in the industry, is forced to reckon with the prospect of retirement after his last client passes from old age.

In the seemingly interminable 90+ minutes of dry and witless humor, the film attempts, rather unsuccessfully, to find something to say about accepting one’s life and embracing the waning of the light.

In a very unfortunate return to a lead performance in a feature film, Chevy Chase finds himself at odds with the script, often looking stiff and awkward, like an inanimate object who simply recites lines back at the screen. To be fair, the rest of the cast isn’t much better. Sadly, that includes a miscast Richard Dreyfuss playing a former comedian turned doctor.

EAST OF EDEN (1955) [ 3.5/5 ]

One of my most egregious faults as a young cinephile is my failure to watch films starring the late James Dean.

My first experience, with East of Eden, was a positive one, perhaps not up to the mythological level he has been ascended to, but at least reasonably impressed by the ease with which the thespian filled the screen.

The film, as its name suggests, is a biblical tale disguised as a uniquely American story. James Dean plays Cal Trask, the young black sheep of a family, whose alienation and fear of abandonment comes from the traumatizing discovery that his biological mother is alive and well, contrary to his father’s more flowery recollections.

Dean plays a brooding introvert beautifully well, even if some of the characters around him all lack the personality to give Cal an interesting target to all of his frustrations.

East of Eden, directed by the legendary Elia Kazan, tells its story in a mostly effective way, only sometimes faltering when its connections to the source material become too conspicuous.

As always, comments are welcomed! What are some highlights of your recent film watching?

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