Category Archives: Film Review

Ikiru (1952)

It’s entirely possible that the West’s fondness for Akira Kurosawa is borne of the fact that he frequently addresses themes of individuality, personal distinctiveness, and the importance of being true to yourself. Those aren’t very Japanese themes, traditionally, even if the popular “nail that sticks out gets hammered down” axiom is a bit simplistic these days. But the corporate-cog-finds-new-lease-on-life narrative seems especially well-suited to the notoriously workaholic Japanese culture, and nowhere is that narrative more effective than in Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Now streaming on The Criterion Channel, Ikiru stars Kurosawa stalwart Takashi Shimura as a spiritless bureaucrat grappling with the futility of his mortal days.

There is a sequence in the film — possibly the most famous in a film full of memorable sequences — where a group of parents approach a number of different government offices in an attempt to get a local cesspool drained and replaced by a park for their children. The first office refers them to another, that office refers to a third, and on and on. The buck is passed until the parents are so worn down by the perpetual runaround that they give up. If you’ve never seen Ikiru or would just like to rewatch the scene, you can stream the sequence here.

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The Stranger (1946)

As is the case with the work of many a cinematic genius, the filmography of Orson Welles is especially revealing when considered as a whole. Hits, flops, stretches of obsession, gaps of inactivity, passion projects and moneygrabs — in some ways this kind of retrospective review can tell us more about the filmmaker than the films themselves. It’s the “God’s-eye view,” to steal the name of an aerial shot favored by Welles, and it serves to highlight the ideas that the writer/director would experiment with, return to, or transform entirely in successive efforts. The other edge of the sword, of course, is that each individual film inexorably loses something when viewed alongside a slew of cinema which may otherwise share little by way of plot, theme, style or cultural impact.

The best case-in-point: The Stranger, Welles’ 1946 Nazi-hunting thriller. It was either his third or fourth feature outing, depending on whether you account for one technicality. His first two were Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, utilizing a special technique called setting the bar high. But studio meddling with Ambersons soured Welles on Hollywood, and so his work on 1943’s Journey Into Fear is that aforementioned technicality. Tied up in a tussle over the final cut of Ambersons, Welles received no directing, producing or screenwriting credits in Journey, only appearing in a minor acting role as a Turkish inspector. In actuality Welles directed and wrote portions (at least) of Journey, and the theatrical poster seemingly has no issue declaring this as “ORSON WELLES’ Production…Starring ORSON WELLES.” Coincidentally or not, Journey Into Fear is a fairly feeble thriller that barely justifies a brief hourlong runtime.

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Avengers: Endgame (2019)

April 2019 was a pretty earth-shaking month in pop culture terms. We had the first tangible fallout from the Disney/Fox merger and some really interesting developments in the Great Streaming Wars (the launch of the fantastic Criterion Channel, details on the upcoming Disney+), we had new blockbuster releases (Shazam!, Hellboy, Pet Sematary), and we had strong holdovers from March (Captain Marvel, Us). Even beyond all that, this month seemed to consistently mark the climax or conclusion of cultural behemoths known all over the world. Game of Thrones launched a final season that culminates the biggest television production in history. The announcement of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker gave us a glimpse at the film that will round out the Skywalker Saga. But for the moment, even those sort of seem like drops in the bucket compared to Avengers: Endgame.

The implications of such a convergence of influential entertainment raises interesting quandaries about the ways in which we as a society consume…oh, who am I kidding. We just saw Avengers: Endgame and internet etiquette dictates we lay down a few buffer paragraphs as a necessity, lest any spoilers be spoilt. But no one’s really here to discuss industry patterns — we’re here to discuss that badass part where SPOILER uses a massive SPOILER as a freakin’ SPOILER. So if you haven’t yet seen the blockbuster-to-end-all-blockbusters, then I highly recommend Robert Mueller’s heavily-redacted review of the film until you manage to get tickets for the next available Endgame screening 30 years from now.

Seriously, massive spoilers below. Good to go? Good. Let’s go.

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Luce (2019)

Julius Onah has a lot to say. He stepped onstage just before Luce, his third feature as director, screened as the Opening Night film at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston. Typically a pre-movie appearance from an auteur amounts to a wave, a bow, a “thanks for coming out!” or, at worst, a visible hostage situation at the hands of a ruthless moderator. Onah, in the span of what seemed like less than a minute, reflected on Luce‘s premiere at Sundance and his hopes for the conversations the film will continue to spur; he referred to the movie theater as “his church”; he drew parallels from the film to his own life experience, having emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria when he was ten; and he even snuck in a playful dig at IFFBoston, noting that he’d submitted several short films for consideration years ago, all of which were rejected.

His film is similarly assertive of numerous ideas without ever being overly verbose. Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star high school student in Arlington, Virginia who spent the first seven years of his life surrounded by the violence of war-torn Eritrea. His adoption by a white upper-class American couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) meant a new start, though it also meant a long period of adjustment and self-reconciliation. When his stern (some would say “bitchy”) teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) reads an unsettling essay by Luce and finds illegal fireworks in his locker, the question arises as to whether that period of self-reconciliation is actually still underway. Is Luce the model young American everyone makes him out to be? Or is there a darker side within him, manifesting itself as a sociopathic danger to others?

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Shazam! (2019)

Is the DCEU still a thing? Conceived as the answer to Marvel’s unfathomably successful Cinematic Universe, DC’s interconnected supertales never quite coalesced the way they were intended to. You could point to any number of reasons for this derailment: a lack of a Kevin Feige-type visionary at the helm, or a violent shift in tone from one movie to the next, or poor casting in crucial roles, or the general cart-before-the-horse nature in which this series was rushed into existence. Those are all blameworthy when considering the ineffectiveness of a franchise. But because each individual film in the DCEU — Man of Steel, Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Aquaman — is mighty flawed in a vacuum, I’m inclined to point to crappy, one-note villains as an unfortunate recurring theme which, if given proper TLC, might just right the DCEU ship.

Well, you’re saying, that sounds like a massive oversimplification. It is, probably, considering we’re now in an era so dominated by superhero movies that the more experimental outings are the most interesting ones. Deadpool, Logan and Into the Spider-Verse all have villain types we’ve seen before, but they still manage to break the mold. Exactly, you’re saying, and besides, I happen to like General Zod and some of the other DC villains. Granted, ascribing a matter of opinion as the sole reason for the failure of a billion-dollar film franchise could be a stretch. Definitely, you’re saying, and besides, aren’t you supposed to be talking about the new one instead of whining about the old ones?

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Us (2019)

Jordan Peele’s Us is nothing short of exceptionally entertaining horror. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as the mother and father of a prototypical American family, Us joins a long tradition of doppelgänger horror while still emerging from that tradition into definitive modernity. Like Peele’s debut Get Out, the American Dream — as a white-picket-fence fantasy and as a dark reality — is crucial not only to the implicit themes of the film, but to the reason both films are scary in the first place. Yes, Us has a preponderance of classic horror moments, from jump-scares to home invasions to creepy coincidences foreshadowing a coming threat. But these tropes become entertaining again only in context of a strong underlying assertion that speaks to something in our everyday life, and while Us may not speak as explicitly as Get Out, the potency of the film is drawn from a similar source.

That aforementioned line of doppelgänger-narrative-as-horror is an interesting one, and one that makes perfect sense for Peele’s sensibilities as a writer. It’s a premise that’s been used for terrifying stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dead Ringers, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and a number of unsettling works from David Lynch. Last year’s venture was Annihilation, which played with the doppelgänger motif in a supernatural way. It’s elementally creepy, the idea of meeting yourself. The question it raises is as existential as it gets: if that’s me…then who am I?

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Captain Marvel (2019)

In 2017 The Last Jedi ignited a culture war between lovers of Star Wars on the one side and…well, lovers of Star Wars on the other side. This war was ostensibly borne of debate over the film, praise versus criticism, and there certainly is a battlefront of this war that does engage in genuine discourse over Jedi. There’s another front, of course, comprised mostly of warriors fighting with a willing blindness to the merits or pitfalls of the film as a film; some people just despise Jedi for puerile personal reasons, some just defend it simply because it’s Star Wars. This is the Ultimate First World Problem, such hatred and ire thrown about over the seventh sequel to a space fantasy from 1977. But intentionally or not, a particular faction of “critics” revealed themselves during this war. We’ll call them the Shitboys, because they’re mostly boys and they mostly shit on everything.

The Shitboys are that splinter cell of Jedi-haters that conspired to sink the Rotten Tomatoes score of the film by flooding the internet with bad reviews. They sent death threats to director Rian Johnson from the safety of their mother’s basements. They made cute little petitions that proposed Disney literally remake the movie they just released. Eventually, they shit the same shit over Black Panther, actually claiming that white males were becoming a marginalized group in Hollywood. Once the rest of us stopped laughing/crying and once Panther walked home with billions of dollars and a few Oscars, the Shitboys regrouped and set to work on Captain Marvel:

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Destroyer (2019)

I was pretty darn excited by Destroyer just prior to watching Destroyer. The fact of a female-led, female-directed crime film with such noir grit would’ve been enticing enough. That female lead, of course, is Nicole Kidman, which always helps in the Excitement category. But frankly director Karyn Kusama was even more of a draw, coming off her last effort The Invitation. While not altogether a classic, Invitation stuck in the mind for its slow-burn tension and creepy performances. It was almost a suburban spin on a haunted house tale, Ice Storm meets Amityville Horror, accomplished with confidence by Kusama on a comparatively small budget of $1 million. Destroyer upped the ante, left the suburban mansion for the L.A. streets, but the fact that it was still an original thriller was mighty exciting.

And I was even pretty darn excited by Destroyer just after watching Destroyer, because the ending was a deft twist with a songlike quality only hinted at elsewhere in the film. But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Destroyer while I was actually watching Destroyer. As an upstanding member of the critical community, of course, I must admit, reader, that in entering the screening for Destroyer I simultaneously expunged every bias while still expecting, honestly, based on advertising, to be destroyed.

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Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

I went to the Tate Modern in London once. Modern art is easy to shit on, the philosophy of experimentation and willful disregard for tradition seeming to some haphazard, easy, cheap or just plain juvenile. That day at the Tate somebody had left a crumpled-up brochure on the ground, dead center of a pristine exhibit hall, and visitors would occasionally encircle it with hushed regard as they mistook it for art. It was the most surreal thing in a museum of exclusively surreal things, watching a piece of trash receive such vigilant appreciation.

Velvet Buzzsaw grips that inherently satirical premise and throttles it bloody. There’s a scene that almost recreated my day at the Tate verbatim, except it’s a dead body in a pool of blood that museum-goers believe to be a cutting-edge installation. Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to Nightcrawler is on Netflix now and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs as critics, agents, curators and artists in the world of high-end L.A. art. When a mysterious artist’s work begins to gain posthumous acclaim, the sales and monetization of that work result in supernatural consequences for those involved.

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Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking Alita: Battle Angel to be a new movie by James Cameron. It gives off his scent in more ways than one, but primarily in the union of completely gangbusters special effects and a completely lackluster script. Cameron’s credited as a producer, though, not that the title of “producer” can actually ever have one single definition. Based on the manga series Battle Angel Alita, the film adaptation is in actuality directed by Mexico Trilogy and Sin City helmer Robert Rodriguez, the guy who once claimed his approach as “Mariachi-style” — in which “creativity, not money, is used to solve problems.” There’s an immediate discordance between that approach and the mere notion of James “Titanic” Cameron, and Alita very clearly exhibits the latter’s big-budget sensibility at the expense of an underdog’s incumbent creativity.

Which is a shame, because that’s ostensibly what Alita is about. The title character (played by Rosa Salazar) is a spunky cyborg with a mysterious past, brought back to life by kindhearted scientist Ido (Christoph Waltz) in a war-torn world all but discarded by the elite who reside on a giant floating city in the sky. “Lower” and “upper” class are literalized, and promise of ascension to that higher world is enough leverage to get anyone to do anything. The setup is nearly verbatim to that of Elysium, with an impending reckoning between the rough-and-tumble Earth-dwellers and those nasty domineers above. But the reckoning never happens, despite a colossal amount of exposition pointing in that direction, and apart from a useless cameo (more on that in a second) we never even glimpse one of those nasty domineers.

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