More Film Reviews of 2020

A Brazen Riff On 'Groundhog Day,' 'Palm Springs' Is Better Suited For The Small Screen | The ARTery

Since I watched more contemporary films than I usually do for award season, I put together some capsule reviews. There’s not too much rhyme or reason to these, but I thought I would include them here. Let me know what you thought of these movies. Thank you!

Palm Springs

In some serendipitous twist of fate, Palm Springs feels like the film made for the year of the pandemic — where the days are recycled and we are besieged by all the existential questions the world has to offer. It’s not just Groundhog’s Day redux because while Andy Samberg and Cristin Miloti spark romantic chemistry, the key is how they are stuck in a wedding day time loop together.

There are two ways to go about it: either accept the status quo or rage against it in the pursuit of something better. It speaks to love and intimacy and marriage in a way that wades through the refuse and the raunch and comes out with a resolute optimism. Life’s not just about finding your “Irvine.” It’s also made better when you find someone to walk alongside, especially when it’s for an eternity. 

The Way Back

If you’ve seen Hoosiers or any of those sports movies of old, there’s nothing particularly new about The Way Back. In spite of this, there’s something compelling; it’s borne on the performance of Ben Affleck — the inner demons of his character and this fractured road to redemption. It means something genuine and true to people who have played sports — been filled with that indescribable elation — and those who have been subjected to tragedy. It’s not just Affleck, but there’s a quiet and reserved profundity to many of these performances. I appreciated it a great deal more than I was expecting. 

Promising Young Woman

It grieves me that a film like this is deemed relevant in our contemporary society and of course I have no argument to the contrary because it’s true. Although the pieces of plot and fluctuating tone never totally gel with me, Carey Mulligan gives an evocative showing as per usual. I’m particularly fascinated by Fennell’s use of the thriller genre as a commentary, which feels perhaps more incisive than a one for one based on a true story expose might be.

All the pieces are there, the twists and turns, and the stings to a misogynistic society. But rather like last year’s Joker, I still rue the fact we’ve come to such a place in contemporary cinema — another discomforting representation of man’s inhumanity of man — much less man’s inhumanity to woman. It’s not like we were totally unaware of it before. However, we’ve given ourselves over to the vindictive nihilism of it all. I hope and pray for restoration. 

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Mank 

The film itself boasts a bounty of Classic Hollywood references and the kind of mimesis that might well turn moviegoers into black and white junkies. Alas, for me it had the opposite effect and despite any amount of technique and artistry by David Fincher, there never was a sense of true suspension of disbelief. Like Trumbo or Hitch, and other films before it, regardless of some notable performances, it all felt a bit like play-acting. And of course, such material cannot be taken as gospel. It’s a movie about movies after all.

But somehow the picture also lacks movie magic. I never felt truly captivated. For a film that took a closer, more personal look at one of the architects of that grand monolith Citizen Kane, somehow I wished the film had taken a more intimate even mundane scale. Oldman is winsome, but I couldn’t help flashing to Seyfried and Collins. Somehow their characters proved his most fascinating talking partners, though many have all but forgotten them in the shadow of Orson Welles and others.

Wonder Woman 84

Although it’s slow to get going and the pieces don’t always feel totally cohesive, there’s still a modicum of relish to be had from Patty Jenkins’s latest actioner. The 80s are not simply set dressing and eye candy, but they provide the perfect apex of consumer culture. Beyond hairstyles and workout regimens, it’s the emerging generation of instant gratification. Comfort and easy fixes are the world’s salve for any number of discomforts. But society still manages to splinter at its seams into an unfathomable entropy.

Diana (Gal Gadot) is once more a mighty protector of the nations, but the absence of Steve (Chris Pine), leaves a void in her life. This is her version of discontentment. While it never delivers the emotional import of its predecessor, it does attempt to synthesize some moderately intriguing thematic ideas. The ultimate temptation comes with the devil telling her she can have everything she wants. It becomes a tension of trading out selfish gain for a kind of utility, even personal sacrifice in service of truth. Wonder Woman’s greatest strength once again is her perceptive empathy. This doesn’t fail even when the blockbuster does. 

The Truth

While it provides a radically new context for Koreeda’s cinema, the quietly meditative quality that pervades his work is still present. The content feels foreign to us, but the form is familiar. Logistically, you can only imagine how the principal members were able to pull it off without a shared language. Still, cinema prevails. It’s steeped in this history, real and imagined, as the real-life legacies of Deneuve and Binoche, in particular, provide a richer backdrop for the film. Within the context of this tenuous mother-daughter relationship, it’s hard not to consider aspects like the tragedy of sister Francoise Dorleac or the missed opportunity to work with Hitchcock.

However, as Deneuve has her granddaughter brush her hair, we see the actress’s face in the mirror, and it must give us pause. She’s older but poised and immaculate as she has been for generations.  It’s so easy to impart our own desires of what the movie might be. After all, we have some of the greatest talents in French cinema. In comparison, Koreeda’s picture feels slight and deliberate. But for the gracious viewer, all these elements might just play to its advantage. 

Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' Hopes to Kick Off Moviegoing Again - Variety

Tenet

Christopher Nolan is a director with unparalleled ambitions in the realms of narrative. It’s true Tenet is firmly entrenched in the traditions of Memento and Inception as he sculpts with time, in this case inverted, like we’ve rarely seen it before. It brings together many of his fascinations and folds them into a globetrotting spy thriller. There is so much here. We sit back, our minds racing as we take in the spectacle and look to play catch up with the story.

Because it is a puzzle and cipher for us to break as John David Washington, Robert Pattison, and Elizabeth Debicki are all implicated. There’s only one problem; it seems like comprehensible emotional stakes are missing altogether because we spend the whole time trying to crack Nolan’s code. There’s room for nothing else. If you’re contented with the perplexity of it all, the pincers through time might be enough, but I have an inkling a myriad of people will be dissatisfied. Still, others will feel he’s outdone himself. He’s a director always up for a new challenge.  

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods stands at the crossroads of Vietnam and the black experience carved out across a tumultuous half-century of American history. There can be no other soundtrack than Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Spike Lee is made to tell this story and he uses the tableau of newsreel footage to lay the groundwork for our story if it’s not already inculcated within our collective consciousness. It’s an impassioned collage of history, culture, and the like from Apocalypse Now’s “Flight of the Valkyrie” to John Huston’s Treasure of The Sierra Madre.

There are moments where the scripting feels corny and even the special effects feel abruptly unpolished. However, it revels in these moments of b-grade thrills creating a vehicle for a band of brothers to reunite in one last mission.  As our Bogey stand-in, Delroy Lindo positively seethes. Although when he marches off into the woods bellowing out the words of Psalm 23 or embracing his long-lost comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), there’s a semblance of healing rising up through his veins. He aids in making the movie about something substantive.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

insidel2More often than not Llewyn Davis turns out to be a worthy character and I mean that in the sense that he is readily watchable. This probably isn’t the real folk scene of the 1960s, but it is the time and place seen through the Coen Brothers’ somber lens. Inspired by musician Dave Von Ronk, Llewyn is his own unique entity entirely. The film itself has a dreary look of washed out tones mimicking the days that most of us now know from black and white imagery. There are folk tunes wall to wall, befitting such a melancholy film, adding layers of melody and ambiance to this austere world of isolation.

In fact, we first meet Llewyn in a low lit bar singing the ode “Hang me, Oh hang me.” He’s not some budding talent or has-been. He had a partner once, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. They had a record that came and went out almost as fast. The unsold copies sit in a warehouse somewhere rotting away with the rats. That’s really Llewyn’s life. He’s couch hopping his way through Greenwich Village, a pitiful wanderer with the cat he was entrusted with in one hand and his guitar in the other. In the frigid winter air, he doesn’t even have a real overcoat. He can barely afford it.

insidel4The film goes so many places only to return to where it was. So much goes on without anything happening and so on. Llewyn has it out with Jean, a transformed and caustic Carey Mulligan, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. How it could ever be Llewyn’s doesn’t make much sense, since she seems to despise his guts. Why would she sleep with him?

Llewyn alienates his sister with his misanthropic outlook and foul mouth. He loses and tries to recover the cat of his folk-loving friends the Gorffeins. How they ever became friends we’ll never know. A spur of the moment trip to Chicago comes up and with it, there’s the token John Goodman performance that feels like an absurd aside to the entire plot. Then again, the film’s only plot is the wanderings of Davis, so if meeting passengers while hitchhiker marks his journey it seems pertinent.  A trip to the Gate of Horn for an impromptu audition turns out to be unfruitful and it is the film’s most difficult scene. Davis lays all his heart and soul out there in a poignant performance and all he gets from the producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is that he should join a trio. He’s not solo material.

insidel5Llewyn returns to Greenwich dejected and things continue going poorly for him. So we end up leaving him about where we started. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez would come in time, but it’s the musicians like Davis that are a sadder tale. Those who faded away over the years. Who lay beat up in an alley for heckling a performance in a hole-in-the-wall bar. It’s the circle of life of a folk singer and you wonder if he would ever have it any other way. Undoubtedly this folk oasis was a more hopping, more welcoming place than the Coen’s painted it, but it does suggest something powerful.

Why would somebody subject themselves to this type of lifestyle? Unless they’re insane and like to suffer, it must be that they really believe in the music. They believe in bearing their heart and soul because the music makes them feel alive. Obviously, there is more to life than music, some would argue that point, but it is a brilliant starting point. We can respect someone who sticks by their convictions and their passions. Even if it means chasing through the streets of Greenwich Village looking for a cat. You would never see me doing that. Maybe if it were a dog. Maybe.

4/5 Stars

Drive (2011)

drive1You always think of the man in the getaway car as the wimp. Why else is he supposed to keep the engine running instead of helping with the job? Well, not anymore. Ryan Gosling completely demolishes that myth with Drive. It’s a neo-noir of sorts, but don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t your conventional Hollywood action flick. Albert Brook’s corrupt thug sans eyebrows says he used to back sexy European action films and that’s ironically enough what Drive is. There’s a new age electronic score to match the stylized action. Silky smooth slo-mo mixed with golden illumination of the characters and the L.A. nightscape.

Although he’s really a stunt driver and spends his spare time working as a mechanic for the shop owner (Bryan Cranston), the Kid (Gosling) works jobs on the side as a getaway car driver, and he’s the best of the best. He proves it in the opening minutes, perfectly timing his escape with the conclusion of a Clippers game. It makes disappearing into the night that much easier.

He keeps things in check, keeps his cards close to his body, and at times reminds me of Alain Delon in Le Samourai. He’s not quite so icy cool, almost serene, and yet that can disappear in a flash. So still, so slight of word and movement, and yet behind the wheel, he has so much purpose. He doesn’t use a gun. His methods are more brutal, and he only uses them when absolutely necessary. Such a role gives me a new found respect for Ryan Gosling. He really does seem to have the true ability to take on some interesting roles of varying degrees and intensities.

drive2All the characters around him are not necessarily fully developed entities on their own, but they function as more of an essence, developing this stylized world. Carey Mulligan is the aloof woman next door with the far-off gaze and quiet demeanor. There is an aura around her much like the Driver, maybe because they don’t talk much. There’s a mystery to them. Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks have relatively short screen time, but they play pivotal roles in the film and they lend credence to the story because even if they’re no good, we have at least a little empathy towards them. And then Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman are real crud of the earth who we don’t mind seeing suffer. It may not be a nice thing to say, but it’s undoubtedly the truth. The Driver seems outside of this fray at first, but he ends up getting involved in it whether it’s because of Irene or her husband’s botched robbery attempt. It becomes his business and it proves cataclysmic.

Aside from Le Samourai, there’s a bit of Bullitt here thanks to the ultra sleek car chases, and maybe even some Point Blank, another film that functions as a dreamy, unconventional thriller. We never see the inside of whatever jobs are being pulled, but it actually builds the tension as we sit on the outside waiting with the driver. He’s all business as the audience sits sweating it.

drive3What this film has and what I am not necessarily a proponent of, is the brutality and stylized gore. It fits the overall tone of Drive, but it does rub against me rather abrasively in a way that seems to make a spectacle of violence. That’s something that I don’t want. But then what is that saying about me? Do I find violence more palatable when it looks like an ugly and vile act? Yes, certainly, but I think I like it best when it is implied because that in itself seems perhaps even more stylized, and far less offensive.

But nevertheless, this story that parallels the fable of the scorpion and the frog is an engaging, albeit jarring ride.  You can help someone, you can want no part of them, but they will come right back and sting you because it’s in their nature. This is a story of relationships, of destruction, and a man who kicks it into high gear.

4/5 Stars

Never Let Me Go (2010)

neverletmego1The film is adapted from the novel of  British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also penned The Remains of the Day. Having not read the source material, I was obliged to take this material on its own merit and so here it goes. This is a numbing, wistful, sorrowful film and the dystopia is set in England circa 1978 in a boarding school. That’s where we first meet the students at Hailsham, who are special individuals with an important purpose in society. They will grow up to be “Carers” and “Donors” in society so that others might be given life. Although it’s an important role it ultimately means a shorter life expectancy compared to normal individuals and they are completely isolated from the outside world until their adult years.

The main people of interest are Kathy, who quickly befriends Tommy, a boy who is often made fun of, and she is secretly smitten. But as time passes one of her closest companions Ruth steals him away from her despite constantly making fun of him initially. Now as they get ready to move onto the next stage of their lives at The Cottage, Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is noticeably still hurt that Tommy (Andrew Garfield) is with Ruth (Keira Knightley) and not her. That plagues her and tears her apart inside. You can see it in her eyes and body language, although she never says it explicitly. It’s there.

I must admit, not having read the novel, I have a feeling I did not grasp all the ins and outs of this world, but I did understand what this love triangle meant for those involved. Also, in the back of their minds, they know life as they know it will be ending soon enough. After years pass Kathy is now a “Carer” and is reconnected with both her old friends, who look a lot more gaunt than they ever did before. Ruth admits she should never have come between the other two and they do get together, but it seems far too late for another love story.

neverletmego2Never Let Me Go speaks to the transience of life, the limited time we have on this earth because in the case of these characters life is even shorter. It got to me with its melancholy and I don’t mean that it simply saddened my mood, but by the denouement, I felt deeply affected. Keira Knightley’s role seemed rather unextraordinary although necessary. The real interest for me was watching the relationship form between Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield before being quickly taken away. Then hearing the narration of Mulligan as she tries to make sense of this story and what has happened. On a lighter note, the hairstyles in the film are quite impressive with the bangs and whatever Garfield has going on there near the beginning.

3.5/5 Stars