“The Batman” Review – Hi Vengeance, I’m Dad

It’s Halloween night. Do you know where the Batman is? Is he lurking in the shadows of that alleyway you face after a robbery you commit? Is he inside the building you’re vandalizing, waiting for your guard to drop? Or maybe he’s behind you in the subway as you heckle an innocent bystander. It’s a big city. He could be anywhere. He could be anybody. How would you ever know?

Matt Reeves’ interpretation of the caped crusader in “The Batman” focuses a lot on the fear that he instills. Fear has been in important plot device in every iteration, but it’s played on a lot here. A lot of criminals will boast how unafraid they actually are, but when they see the cowl erupt into the light, and the speed of him increase they can’t help but cower and lose that naive bravery.

But fear is not the only tool Batman/Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has in his arsenal. In addition to being a very imposing figure with incredible, but grounded, gadgets, Batman has his mind, where he takes on the identity of the world’s greatest detective, a famous moniker that Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (Colin Farrell) takes and puts on its heels. And he needs to be if he hopes to save the city from its latest threat, The Riddler (Paul Dano), a masked serial killer hellbent on revealing the corruption of the city of Gotham and its leaders. Not just the crooked cops but the elected officials, members of the mob, and philanthropists alike. Those who promise change, only to be forgotten and betrayed once the power they seek is attained.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Is Riddler wrong? Not necessarily. Corruption is a powerful weapon used to turn good men around into a life of deviance. But is he going about it the right way? Again, not really. But what can one do when the judges who would oversee the cases of the men put away are as corrupt as those that are put in front of them. That’s where the brute force of those like Batman who answer to nobody but themselves and the code they abide by comes in. There’s a line that you can cross, and once you do you’re just like those you seek to destroy.

Now if you’re reading this, and thinking “Well geez, this all sounds a little familiar” you would be on the right track. While Batman movies/comics/games have been saying more or less the same thing for the last 80+ years, the difference lies entirely in the execution. At this point with all the source material available, it’s hard to get the underlying of Batman wrong. Everything lies in the performance that is given, the stakes that are held, and the technical work behind and inside the camera.

One of the most talked about and prevalent aspects of this film is the beautiful and at times chilling score by Michael Giacchino. With his imposing theme, to the beautiful undertones of “Ave Maria”, there’s a lot to love. It’s a soundtrack that has the intense seat-gripping horns and the calm harps that can mold themselves to fit into whatever scene writer Matt Reeves and Peter Craig throw at the audience. And then there’s the cinematography by Greig Fraser. He has one of the best eyes for what the camera can show us in a modern blockbuster. He’s done the great work for “Dune”, “Vice”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, and more, proving time and time again he’s a force to be reckoned with and one that ultimately should be rewarded with an even more impressive career going forward.

There’s so much to talk about, but there’s also so much movie to be had. And keeping in theme with having this review be as spoiler-free as possible, it must be urged that the words on this page can’t express how much this movie deserves to be seen. Of course it won’t have any problem with that, seeing as it has sold out its early access fan screenings days before the official release.

Rapid firing what this movie had that was especially lovely: shirtless Robert Pattinson—Colin Farrell doing a little Penguin walk while tied up—Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman (nothing specific here, just her entire presence)—incredible action work by stunt coordinators Darko Tuscan, Steve Griffin, and everybody else on the stunt team.

Overall, “The Batman” brings a lot of the same to the table, but does it with a lot more craft and precision than some other efforts. The Batman was a wonderful film, and personally I can’t wait to see the rest of the story unfold in future movies.

“The Batman” releases in theaters this Friday, March 4th nationwide.

My rating:

“The Sky Is Everywhere” Review – An Overdramatic Mess

Josephine Decker’s films have always had so much incredible style embedded into them. Her latest film “The Sky Is Everywhere” is no exception. But the benefit of her incredible style is not to be had here, and the problem lies mostly in the script, based on the YA novel of the same name by Jandy Nelson who also pens this film’s pages. There is a lot in this film about the grief to be had with the loss of a loved one, and how it can spiral the lives of those left behind. Sadly, other films have tackled this subject and most of them do it so, so much better.

Taking place after the sudden death of her sister due to heart arrhythmia, Lennie Walker (Grace Kaufman) is free-falling trying to find a way to continue on. Lennie attempts to keep going but already has a lot on her plate. She’s a talented first-chair clarinetist with prospects for Juilliard, and the loss of her sister brings her inability to continue playing music with a tremendous amount of grief on her shoulders. Her grandmother Fiona (Cherry Jones) and Uncle Big (Jason Segel) are here to pop their heads in every now and then but become the punching bag for Lennie at this difficult point in her life. She’s also trying to juggle the romantic feelings she has for her sister’s boyfriend Toby (Pico Alexander) and with the new kid in town Joe (Jacques Colimon), another talented musician at her school.

Courtesy of A24/Apple TV+

While on paper, a lot of that can sound very endearing and simple enough as a formula for a good narrative. And with Decker’s direction at hand too? It sounds too good to be true. But if there was ever a mismatch of talent and abilities, it’s “The Sky Is Everywhere”. The film has a good look to it, although suffers a very digital sheen, with only color and solid movement to redeem it. Decker’s style, as said is very prevalent but is really the only identifier of her hand in the film. With musical notes bouncing through the screen and knocking over students in the hall, scribbled on the screen text message effects between Lennie and her friend Sarah (Ji-young You), and the forest literally coming to life and crashing down in the Californian forests. The gathered effect is beautiful but doesn’t belong in a film of this low effort and quality. It turns from being a wonderful visual storytelling device to being something that can be viewed as trying too hard to stick out and be different.

The main problem lies not necessarily with the direction of Decker, but the writing of Nelson. Rarely offering anything to dig into and reflect upon, but being upfront and loud about the characters’ emotions and thoughts. There is little time given to show which leads to these actors having to tell everything instead. The side-plots with Lennie and her rivaling clarinetist, her late sister’s boyfriend confusing and wildly inappropriate romantic embraces, and reveals for just about everything tragic that you can make happen to your characters over-stuff the film and it is just too much. It’s laughable during large chunks, which should not bode well for a film that is nowhere near being intended as a comedy.

The film feels overall juvenile, amateur, and not very well thought out. The film maybe could have done a bit better had it gone through more minds in the adaptation process to work out all of these kinks, and find a different director to punish with having this in their repertoire.

“The Sky Is Everywhere” is currently playing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.

My rating:

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” – Sundance Review

Cooper Raiff’s second feature “Cha Cha Real Smooth” elicited just about every emotion or feeling imaginable. There are moments that are so joyous, others that induce a strong anxiety, and it’s just an all around emotional rollercoaster. It all builds to a film that feels so real and while obviously a narrative feature film, feels documentarian with its naturalistic dialogue and down-to-Earth performances.

Alexander (Cooper Raiff) is coming right out of college and isn’t sure what life will hold for him. After his girlfriend travels away to Barcelona, he moves back home to save to eventually join her. Over the summer, he finds a way to get a job as a party-starter for the local bar mitzvahs where he meets the autistic Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) and her mother Domino (Dakota Johnson). Andrew and Domino share great amounts of chemistry, despite her lawyer fiancé Joseph (Raul Castill) who is also found to be out of town. Andrew is no stranger to his attraction towards older women, something the film isn’t shy to show after the Licorice Pizza-like dynamic in the opening scene of the film where he professes his love to Bella, a party-starter who he is brutally in love with.

Other dips and peaks of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” showcase the neatly cared for relationships between Andrew and his bi-polar mother (Leslie Mann), his recently tied down younger brother David (Evan Assante) looking for relationship advice to finally grab his first kiss, and the lovely moments with Lola which were some of the best scenes of the film. Andrew is incredibly patients with her, and like she says when asked by her mother what she thinks of him being a sitter for her: “He probably would not treat me like a baby.” They grow quite attached to each other, creating a bond for life.

Another over-riding relationship is that of Andrew and his new step-father (Brad Garrett) that he can’t stop butting heads with, until he shows his true affection and commitment to his mother after a kerfuffle at another bar mitzvah Andrew is party-starting. The car ride after, you can see an incredibly sudden change in attitude after Andrew sees this isn’t just a man that has invaded his family’s life, but a man who makes his mother happy. He’s a man who takes so much off of her plate, and will do anything to protect her and keep her safe.

What the film keeps coming back to is that spark between Johnson and Raiff, having so many flirtatious moments together the screen cries without their little moments together. They almost cross that barrier several times, but it becomes clear that while Andrew refuses to give up on her while she just enjoys being around something who makes her feel alive. He’s the exact person that is so dangerous to the fragility of Domino’s life. He’s so free and able to do anything with his life, he’s 22 and she’s old as she says.

Plot and everything aside, Cooper Raiff’s performance is so grounded and feels nothing short of real. There are moments when he’ll just be at work or laying on the floor looking through his phone and will just mumble out a meme (i.e. “You’re not that guy, pal”). In other films it’s something that feels so entirely forced, but when executed in a nonchalant way, where it isn’t played as a joke but a clue in to the character and what goes on in their head, it works very well and credits to his performance just can’t be said enough. This trickles down as well to other performances, which prove Raiff’s skills as a director/screenwriter to be equally as strong.

Overall, the film has a lot of the American indie-film-premiering-at-Sundance vibes that are expected with the characters trying to find themselves, but when it’s done right and the audience can plug themselves in to the characters within, it elevates from being a niche indie drama, to being something incredibly grounded that teeters the line between that narrative drama and real-life experience. It joins the canon of films about self-discovery and moving on in life without those who made such a huge impact on you. And if it all leads to getting to spend time with Dakota Johnson and a score co-written by Este Haim, doesn’t that make it all worth it? I rest my case.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” earned itself the Audience Award at Sundance where it competed in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and was recently picked up by Apple TV+ so by year-end expect to catch this film streaming.

My Rating:

“The Worst Person in the World” Review – Finding Yourself Through Trial and Error

What does it take to be able to find yourself? How many ventures will you go through, how many versions of yourself will you discard until you find the one that feels right? What kind of people will you meet to get there, and discard when you’ve moved on? These are some of the underlying questions that Joachim Trier’s film “The Worst Person in the World” asks.

There is always something so alluring about films that have their characters going through life’s tasks and trying to find themselves. It’s comforting, yet distressful all at once. Which is a lot of what Julie (Renate Reinsve) goes through for the entire film. Trier goes for a book-like approach to the making of this film, the third in his “Oslo Trilogy” of films alongside “Reprise” and “Oslo, 31 August”. There’s a prologue, 12 chapters, and an epilogue. And they’re all different chapters of Julie’s life. In the end, something has changed or been discovered and we’re on to the next chapter.

But it’s interesting watching Julie in her life and these changes. She changes in between each chapter slightly, but not that much really. Starting, Julie is a med school student but finds this to be something she’s not really suited for. Then, she decides she’ll study psychology. Then, she meets various men and finds that she thinks photography is what draws her in most. She drops out of school and uses the money to buy a camera. This is probably when she could have called it, pooled everything in, and really taken off. But she doesn’t. Because she meets somebody else now, at a bar. In comes the acclaimed comic-book artist Aksel (Anderson Danielsen Lie), and the next part of Julie’s life in the first major relationship we see her in. That’s the prologue.

Courtesy of NEON

Everything is going pretty well. But Julie has drifted away from her photography. When visiting Aksel’s parents, she’s asked “So what are you doing now” showing that her variance of passions is something people have noticed and latched on to. But Aksel already let them know she’s delved into the world of writing. It’s not really detailed what kind of writing, but she does later have an article published pretty successfully. But not after meeting somebody new, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) who works as a barista. This is where Julie again will get torn to her next part of life. She’s 30 now, and still working part-time at a bookstore. The two meet at a party and spend the entire time teetering the line between playful flirting, and cheating on their respective partners.

Eventually, Julie and Aksel split after an incredibly visual motif where time stops, and Julie runs to Eivind in the Barcode Project of Oslo and they finally cross that line together, with nobody to witness their trespasses but themselves. She loves Eivind for the reasons she couldn’t continue with Aksel. Aksel wants to move on with life and have kids. Julie still doesn’t know what she wants, and can’t stand to see him waste his life and desires waiting for her to catch up, saying that she’s too flaky. He hits back saying that’s exactly what he needs to pull him out of his intense drawing board sessions where he’ll lose himself. So she’s drawn to Eivind because they’re more alike than she and Aksel are different.

Truly though, this is a really great character study of a woman who is shaped so much by the world around her, but at the same time incredibly resilient against influence from other people, not wanting to follow in anybody’s steps or play along to their plans. In one scene on her 30th birthday, narration plays in place of her thoughts and reminisces over her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and so on and how their lives were different and what they each achieved by the age of 30. This leads her though to never keep growing with her life as it goes on. She’s stuck growing, and then almost immediately receding into the previous stage she was at.

The last part of this film though is probably the most heartbreaking and holds much of the film’s thesis in those final conversations where the most growth and understanding of life take place. Where Julie finally starts to understand that she need only go through life by her own path, rather than needing anybody else to help her through it all. Which is a lesson maybe a lot of people know. Too much of life is looking for somebody else, whether that be the never-ending search for a partner in life or looking to emulate somebody else’s success. Whereas what this film is saying, is that none of that matters. Be true to yourself, be kind, and everything else will fall into place. You’ll be just fine.

“The Worst Person in the World” had its premiere at the 2021 Canne Film Festival in competition for the Palme d’Or. Neon acquired distribution for the US, and MUBI picked up rights for India, the UK, and Ireland. No official release date stands, but it is set to be added into the Criterion Collection sometime in 2022.

My rating:

“Licorice Pizza” Review — Stumblin’ In To 70s Los Angeles

“Licorice Pizza” wastes no time at all bringing you right into the action of each moment in the film, something that starts as being fairly unnerving, but became something to be a bit more expected. Constantly asking you to move to the next scene, pretty much forgetting whatever happened in the scenes prior. The same way that the characters live their lives, the backdrop is constantly evolving to fit the next scheme that Gary drags Alana in to help him with. Whether it be selling waterbeds, running an electoral campaign for a young and upcoming politician, or working to open the first legal pinball arcade again.

The entire film, like its cast, is incredibly funny and charming, with a really lovely soundtrack and stunning cinematography. The performances of Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) are some of the best of the year. And in a small but appreciated supporting role, Bradley Cooper puts his backbone into playing Jon Peters by bringing his truly nonsensical mannerisms to screen. It was every crazy story that has been told about Peters, and then some extra bits on top. Presumingly, this came from personal experience at least a little bit as Bradly must have met Peters a number of times when directing/producing 2018’s “A Star Is Born,” of which Jon Peters was also a producer (as well as the Barbra Streisand-starring 1976 version).

Courtesy of MGM Studios

And of course, what everybody has heard so far about this movie is the difference between the two characters, and actors frankly though it is not as severe. While the age gap is present, up-front, and plentifully noted throughout the film, you can’t help but get caught up in this affair and chemistry that Alana and Cooper have together. Honestly, they are cute together in the movie and you’re rooting for them? Which feels incredibly weird and you just want to see Alana sort of coming to her senses about what she’s doing. Cooper’s character though, just has too much draw. If it’s not Alana, he’s smooth-talking himself onto one girl or another, whether they’re his age or not. He’s cute, he’s charismatic, and he’s an incredibly talented businessman being able to see what will stick and seemingly make a large chunk of cash. He’s like a more rounded version of Eddy from Cartoon Network’s “Ed, Edd n Eddy”

Where the film starts to lack a bit, is that it feels like a lot of ideas just thrown at a wall. And a few of them stick, and I want to delve into them more! But there’s just too much happening to make this feel like 70s L.A., instead of fleshing out these moments of which we can get to be with the characters a bit more, understand more. It often feels like each scene, after the first where we meet our protagonists decline ever so slightly sidelining either Gary or Alana rather than put them together. And to add insult to injury, some of the roles that originally felt like they would be larger, are much smaller in reality. Sean Penn, Tom Waits, and Benny Safdie were large draws as well as the Big Three mentioned earlier. But for the most part, they feel wasted in this. Especially Safdie, whose role was reduced to a small stereotypical gay role. It would have been nice to either have that side-plot be expanded or just redacted as a whole. To put it more eloquently, Zachary Morgason’s review from Letterboxd states: “I would personally like to request directors in this decade to stop writing gay couples as little more than stereotypes to prod main character conflicts. I don’t have a clue why that has been a revitalized trend this year, but it sucks! Please immediately desist.”

Despite some of these flaws that can be overlooked for the most part—I enjoyed this movie a lot, and the entire time I could not tear my eyes from the screen. I can not wait to see Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim (or any of the other Haim Sisters featured) in other films with how incredibly talented they are.

So while it’s not the meticulous storytelling and character work that has been felt from Anderson’s previous work, it is still one of the most fun movies I had the pleasure of waiting to finally be able to see this year. To be cliche about it—I laughed, I cried, I had a wonderful time delving into the world of “Licorice Pizza”. If anybody knows anything about me and the films I like, especially that of PTA and my potential bias towards his films, that should come as no shock at all.

Make sure to catch this when it comes out at Christmas time, it has some very serious promise for this awards season, and you won’t want to miss our coverage on it for The (Other) Film Guys podcast episode at the end of this year!

My rating:

“Petite Maman” — Houston Cinema Arts Festival Review

Céline Sciamma does a great job in “Petite Maman” of making a movie that is incredibly gentle while still being able to keep the audience engaged. It might come off as a stark contrast from Sciamma’s brutally emotional film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which gave her incredible acclaim and cemented her as a favorite for film lovers worldwide. After a small break between films, “Petite Maman” was filmed during the pandemic and is a staggeringly beautiful 72 minutes. While one of the shortest films in her library of work, an incredible effort is made to fill in every minute of screen time with great detail and attention, making it feel anything but short.

The film starts with Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) visiting a retirement home and saying goodbye to the residents. We learn pretty soon, her grandmother has passed away, and they’re here to go through the leftover belongings in her home to sort out what will be kept or discarded. Now please beware, there is a spoiler that is pretty important to understand for the remainder of the film. So if you prefer to be left unspoiled and find that out for yourself, this is your exit point.

Courtesy of NEON.

Nelly, her mother (Nina Meurisse), and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) then go through her mother’s childhood home house they’ll live out of for the next few days while sorting through items and cleaning it out. One thing to note is that we’re not given any time for the characters’ grieving in a way that other films might have done. There’s never a moment where the characters break down or outright question anything that happened. They do still grieve, of course, just in their distinct and subtle ways.

While the family is at her mother’s childhood home, she meets another girl about the same age and appearance as her. While not said out loud until about halfway through, it is made clear to the audience that the girl is her mother Marion (portrayed now by Joséphine’s twin sister Gabrielle). It should also be said the already existing sisterhood and chemistry between the two girls help immensely in their relationship in the film. So while this takes from the concept of “What if you got to see your parents when they were your age” from the likes of “Back To the Future” this movie does not devote a single second to any sort of temporal consequences of this situation. There is no time machine, fancy technology, or anything of the sort. For all we know, this is just a fantasy created inside of Nelly’s head to get to know her mother better and to process her grandmother’s death.

Not needing to worry about the physics or side effects is essential for the film’s point to come across. Maybe she can’t be inside this house where she is reminded of her lost mother–or even reminded of her childhood when she feared inheriting her mother’s condition. Nelly, of course, thinks like many children might when their parents go through when a parent leaves; “Is it my fault? What could I have done differently.” But when the children talk about it together, Marion reassures Nelly, “You didn’t invent my sadness.” One point it seems that the film is making is how much easier it can be to process these feelings with somebody else around to help distract from them. When alone, Nelly and Marion both seem to be quite melancholy. But they’ll put on a play together, make pancakes, and build their hut in the woods. This temporarily helps to distract them both from their respective sadnesses. It highlights that while these girls are written to be more emotionally intelligent and mature than you’d assume, they don’t yet have the tools to help themselves handle their emotions.

Child performances are usually quite difficult to get a meaningful performance from, but directing children is no strange act to Sciamma. She directed Zoé Héran as a 10-year-old in “Tomboy.” So she knows how to get these emotional and evocative performances from these girls that make the film that much more grounded and moving. There are moments where tears are difficult to hold back, like how Nelly gets to give her grandmother that last goodbye she told her mother about earlier, where she knows that she won’t be able to see her again. The lack of score is also surprisingly appreciated, keeping us always focused on the characters and their dialogs together. Overall, the film is like said at the beginning. Very relaxing yet still engaging, bringing on the emotions that the characters themselves feel to not only teach you about themselves, but maybe even yourself as a viewer.

The film originally premieres at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was acquired for North American distribution by NEON, with no distribution date currently set.

My rating:

“Red Rocket” — Houston Cinema Arts Festival Review

I was able to catch Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” this weekend at the 2021 Houston Cinema Arts Festival, with a Q&A from the indie filmmaker along with his wife/producer, and a few of the local cast members. What followed was 128 minutes of incredible comedy, amazing performances, and some great cinematography. It was an incredibly fun experience, and it was also very fittingly the Texas Premiere of the film.

Simon Rex stars as Mikey Davies, or Mikey Saber XXX, has been in the adult film industry in Los Angeles for the last 20 years. But once he falls out on hard times, he takes a bus back home to his Gulf Coast hometown of Texas City to shack up with his wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her mother. He goes around reminiscing around his old stomping grounds and bringing up stories about his various films and experiences to anybody who will listen. And the whole time, trying to find his ticket back to the life he loves so much. According to Baker, Simon Rex was always who this movie was going to be made for, having experience in the adult film world himself early on in his career made it a no-brainer.

Courtesy of A24

What this film does differently from every other film about kids who want to just get out of a dead-end town and start over, this film goes to somebody like Mikey and people like Lexi who, when times get hard, they went back home to start over. And it also shows how hard it is to start over. Mikey makes several attempts to get a job locally to help out Lexi and her mom, but once they find out about his previous “experience,” they’re quick to turn him away thinking it would be bad for business. Something that shows that while sex work is an incredibly valuable industry in the world, it does leave a nasty taste in the mouth of civilians as Mikey would say.

But representation for sex work was also very important for making this film. There were even 5 different consultants within the sex work industry brought on in the pre-production process to make sure there wasn’t anything that was casting bad light towards the industry and sex workers as a whole. And that kind of headspace is something that has been important over Baker’s career “Starlet,” “Tangerine,” and “The Florida Project.” Making sure that films like these have been able to represent sex work in a way to chip away the stigma that surrounds it.

But while Mikey is sort of trying to start over, he spends a great deal of the movie trying to find his next way back into the industry. Because deep down, that’s what he loves. He loves being in the action, he loves having sex, and he loves making porn out of it. Maybe he’ll try and bring Lexi back into the game, or maybe he’ll see somebody and target them into coming with him. “Suitcase Pimp” is what he’s referred to, always finding a way to manage the women he gets with and finagle them into his world.

And boy is he good at it. He’s incredibly funny, handsome, and too charismatic for his own good. With a small bucket to pull from in terms of population, he finds his ticket back. A 17-year-old high schooler, Strawberry (Suzanna Son) who is about to hit her 18th birthday. It’s perfect for him. He’s even surprised how easy it is and expresses that with his neighbor/friend/ride Lonnie (Ethan Darbone). And that’s sort of how a lot of this movie is, it’s easy. An easy-going story with barely a hitch until the last quarter of the film. Mikey does very well for himself by selling weed out of the Donut Hole. Perhaps it could have been shortened a hair, but it was very well edited by Baker himself and well written with Baker’s now four-time collaborator Chris Bergoch.

What this movie does better though than a lot of the technical aspects of the film, is something that has been appreciated from Baker’s entire career. He is very good at using local talent around to help the films come to life. Crew is often limited, and the cast picked from the streets, particularly in the case of Lonnie and June (Brittney Rodriguez) who were found just flipping burgers or walking their dog. That in part comes from their ability to portray these characters, but in how Baker can direct actors who have never done any kind of professional acting before. And it helps not just fill the movie with people who look like they live in Texas City, because they do, but it just makes every interaction seem that much more authentic and real.

“Red Rocket” initially premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to great reception and is scheduled for release by A24 on December 10 just in time for the awards circuit to start heating up. And for a few categories, it might just have a shot.

My rating:

“Nine Days” Review — Interviewing for the Gift of Life

What does it mean to be alive? What if before being born, we had to interview for the position? While not the first time that a film asks existential questions like what it means to be human, “Nine Days,” Edson Oda’s feature-film debut, they are asked again, yet still in a different way. What if we already knew about the world, and already had our preconceived notions about how the world is, and what can be done about it better or differently?

Note: Some spoilers will be given but will try and remain as vague as possible.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The film starts pretty emptily, starting with Will (Winston Duke) watching different people’s lives, filmed in first person. Watching all of the screens, every day, taking notes. And it is revealed that Will is not just watching these tapes for fun, but he is closely monitoring the lives of those previously selected to live. Other than applicants when one life ends and needs to be filled, Will is joined by his friend, and previous applicant, Kyo (Benedict Wong). Kyo helps assist Will around the house and with the different tasks given to applicants.

Kyo will often pop into different interviewers’ homes and likes to indulge in their selections’ lives. One that interests both, and that Will develops quite an attachment to, a violin prodigy known as Amanda. When they gather to enjoy her latest concerto, she dies unexpectedly and thus begins the search for her replacement.

Among the applicants for the empty slot, we have the care-free Alex (Tony Hale), the artistic Michael (David Rysdahl), the romantic Maria (Arianna Ortiz), the pessimistic Kane (Bill Skarsgård, and lastly the free-spirited Emma (Zazie Beetz). And as the title suggests, they each will have nine days to prove why they should be chosen to move on from this pre-existence life, and on to the real world as a newborn child. All five of the applicants have their interviews carried out at Will’s home in the desert, with only the natural landscape of whatever state of being they exist in.

What is amazing about this film is that nothing is ever really explained more than it needs to be. In something like Pixar’s “Soul,” there is quite a bit of explaining to the world and process of selection. In “Nine Days” however, it’s thrown at the audience much more forward. Albeit, both films are very different in both their approach and target audience. So it is to be understood the difference between the two. Instead of focusing on the different aspects of how the final choice will be made, we focus instead on the characters and their worldview. Whether you view everything in life as a cynic, or maybe through a religious lens, or whatever it might be. There’s room for everything.

Most of Will’s questions have this very existential filter on them, that he uses for picking the soul to continue. Many hypothetical situations, and often very heavy. Because that can be when people will show their true natures. In one of the situations, Will shows the applicants a showdown between a current human Fernando, and how he became to be paralyzed. Varied responses come, such as saying they would have fought back without hesitation. Others, making a joke out of the situation, and laugh it off as being too heavy.

And throughout this nine-day free trial, some applicants do get eliminated. But before doing so, they get to pick one moment they would like to experience before ceasing existence. Moments that might be taken for granted. Walking along the beach, feeling the sand between your toes. The feeling of waves crashing around your feet. Or even riding your bike down an empty street, feeling the wind through your hair and watching the people and the cars and the buildings fly by you as you pass them.

“Nine Days,” through all of asking what it means to be alive, takes the time to celebrate what you receive from existence. All of these small moments add to a larger interpretation of what life is. But we don’t just get exposed to the beauties of life, but to the cruelties that come along. The endless bullying of a child, or the death of a prodigy with a loving family. Winston Duke even describes his downsides. How he had loved the act of performing. How that was the one thing that made him feel alive. But he never pursued that feeling, instead going through the motions of life and never amounting to the person that he wanted to be and knew that he could have been.

Other characters like Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, and Zazie Beetz, all help to highlight the different aspects of humanity. Giving very thoughtful, and real performances. They lift the film from a high fantasy about natural selection into a deeper drama with passion and heart. The film has visually impressive cinematography (Wyatt Garfield), and the music (Antonio Pinto) is very lovely with a lovely and grounded orchestral theme.

The film initially premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Released in theaters by Sony Pictures Classics initially on July 30, 2021. The film will be available on Blu-ray and digital VOD on November 2, 2021. And it is definitely something to be watched before the year is over.

My rating:

“The Power of the Dog” Review — All Power, No Dog

I need to watch more movies by Jane Campion. That was my biggest takeaway from watching “The Power of the Dog,” one of a few westerns coming out this year, and even one of a few films set in Montana, something that is greatly appreciated by somebody who loves the landscape. It’s Campion’s first film since 2009’s “Bright Star.” The film is so gently told, which is a surprising contrast to the callous personality of its protagonist. Adapted from a 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, we see Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, and Kirsten Dunst give some of their best performances, alongside the film’s shining player Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Set on the backdrop of rural New Zealand, disguised as 1925 rural Montana (as a born Montanan you weren’t fooling me for a second), we do get some wonder visuals from cinematographer Ari Wegner (Zola, Lady Macbeth, In Fabric). Some of the shots over at the hills are just absolutely breathtaking. Mainly set at the ranch/childhood home of the Burbanks, there’s not much to take a gander at rather than the surrounding landscape, and the beautifully decorated but ghostly interior house.

Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons) Burbank do manage the successful cattle ranch together. Phil handles more of the ranch hand duties, whereas George is more on the business side making sure they settle up after dinner, and handling the finances of the ranch.

Courtesy of Netflix

The Burbank brothers have been going at the ranch for 25 years, all the while sharing the same bed and any changes to their routine is surely bound to set Phil off in a rage. When there is even wind of the blooming relationship that George and Rose (Dunst), he sends word straight to their mother in disbelief. And when George brings Rose home as his wife, with her gentle son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, we see Phil turn into an even darker presence. Calling Peter names, insulting his seeming lack of masculinity and spine.

When not on the ranch, Peter is off at school studying to be a doctor, like his father who had taken his life. And even when on the ranch, he’s making paper flowers, dissecting and studying fauna. But after Peter stumbles onto some explanation of Phil’s darkness, he starts to take him under his wing and give him a lot more attention. He teaches him how to ride a horse, tie a rope, and other things that Phil’s departed best friend/mentor Bronco Henry taught him when he was Peter’s age, a still developing boy.

We also know that Phil is not only an excellent rancher, but great at tormenting those around him and getting under their skin. From an incredibly frustrated Rose rehearsing piano and getting bombarded with Phil playing the same piece she has difficulty with on his banjo, to taking immense pleasure in catching Rose travel around the property to stashes of bourbon.

All of this is accompanied by another incredible score by Jonny Greenwood, who has proven time and time again that he sure knows how to write music. Mostly all stringed instruments in great Greenwood style. A dissonant guitar, with some lovely violins and cellos accompanying. Up there with the complexity and beauty of his “Phantom Thread” score, with some the eerie tone of “There Will Be Blood.” It does incredibly well to set the mood for the runtime of the story, and only ever serves as a tool for the film and never a distraction. But it does lead to think about where the film is going.

Phil starts to surmise that there was more than just friendship with the often mentioned and adored Bronco Henry. With his own memorial and countless stories, it’s not hard to know they were close. But with Smit-McPhee’s ability to be hard to read, it’s difficult to tell what events are destined for these characters. It’s still, at this point, hard to tell whether Phil and Peter are developing a genuine bond with one another, or if Phil is playing his hand at making Peter into something his mother can only recognize as an extension of himself. But Peter isn’t as foolish as Phil likes to think he is, and he knows more than Phil thinks he does.

Benedict Cumberbatch has always been an incredibly interesting on-screen force. And when put to the task of playing a shady, cold, and damaged man, he puts his incredibly charming characteristics to work to help you see him in the role even more. Kirsten Dunst portrays Rose as an incredibly delicate woman, playing into the roles set for the time; cleaning and helping around while the men work, but also showing the effects of such roles with her spiral into alcoholism and fear of the environment surrounding. And Jesse Plemons plays a similar role to what we might be used to. His quietness and neutrality deceive, making him seem like he might just be a victim to Phil’s toxicity, but he does hold firm in his positions. Among the principal cast, Thomas McKenzie plays a young maid, with an incredibly limited screen presence, and Genevieve Lemon plays a role as the housekeeper for the Burbank ranch, a return collaborator for Jane Campion. Overall, the cast was really great, yet did feel somewhat limited by their screen time in comparison to Benedict and Kodi.

The movie plays incredibly well, and while some might find it a bit dragging, it’s hard to take eyes off the screen for the inevitable tragedy that befalls its characters. “The Power of the Dog” releases in limited locations on November 17, and will be available for all Netflix subscribers on December 1.

My rating:

“Dune” Review — A Breathtaking Epic That Leaves Me Wanting More

In this year’s “Dune”, Denis Villeneuve takes Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, and adapts it into one of the most epic films of the year in terms of it’s scale and impact that it will have on 2021’s cinematic offerings. The cinematography is just absolutely stunning, the characters are deeply storied, and the tensions are vast. Everything you could come to expect from the film, is hand delivered to you. But when it’s done, you’re just left wanting more.

“Dune,” follows suit with many now-established science fiction tropes, although it is to be said that they were inspired/created by the original source material. There is a vast power struggle brewing, a power-hungry villain, and what science fiction/fantasy world would be complete without a Savior. Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of Duke Atreides, Oscar Issac, and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). On one side, he is being raised as the future of House Atreides; and on the other he is being raised as Lisan al-Gaib, or simply the Messiah. His mother Jessica does this as an acolyte of the “Bene Gesserit,” a female group whose mission is to breed together different bloodlines until they create “The One.”

Now one of the best movies to do this kind of world building and show that there is one person made for this divine purpose and is set to save everybody and defeat evil, and what you think of the entire time, is “Star Wars”. It’s nearly impossibly to see the resemblance and think of while watching this movie. And what Star Wars did well, so does “Dune.” It gives some truly incredible world-building paired with incredible visuals to back it up. Especially when compared to David Lynch’s 1984 attempt, this film does everything better. The story is more compelling the visuals are a tool rather than a distraction.

Now, getting into the movie itself. And be warned, this will get into some spoilers for the movie. So for the faint of heart, beware.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

We start with voiceover narration from Chani (Zendaya), who gives us the first backdrop for the movie. For 80 years, Arrakis has been governed and ruled by the Harkonnen. They rule with absolute authority, and work to produce a valuable resource known as spice, an obvious metaphor for oil and drugs. It produces superhuman abilities such as extended life, and achieving higher levels of thought. Spice also gives the ability for faster-than-light travel, making it incredibly valuable. From the occupation of Arrakis, the Harkonnen have grown incredibly rich, even mores than the Emperor that assigned them to the planet.

But after 80 years, the Emperor makes a change. He assigns House Atreides to Arrakis. A move known to Duke Atreides as a setup. He knows that a power change like this will cause chaos and war. So it is his intention to befriend the natural occupants of the planet, the Fremen, to fill the space their dominance has lacked: desert.

There are some remarkable moments in the first 30 minutes of the movie that set up what’s to come. We find the first inklings of Paul’s abilities, he dreams of events that will happen (the Sight) and his mother helps him to hone his ability to command others (the Voice). These again start to show the influence this novel had on science fiction, taken right off the page and dropped into “Star Wars.” And we see some truly haunting scenes with Baron Harkonnen (an incredibly transformed Stellan Skarsgård), who is constantly setting the plot into motion: kill off the Atreides to take back Arrakis.

Where some movies might choose to see a bit more of a struggle, the Baron is pretty successful. Just about everybody the movie throws at you that you care about is killed, but not without a fight. Duke Atreides gets poisoned by the house doctor, but is given a cyanide-pill like tooth that expels poison in the area around him. Duncan Idaho (a great friend to Paul, played by Jason Momoa), dies in an incredible fight scene stalling the attacking army so Paul and Jessica can escape. And this all leads to the third act, Paul and Jessica attempting to go further into the desert to get the help of the Fremen led by Stilgar (Javier Bardem) Paul has an intense ritual duel with Jamis where he is doubted to win, but ends up coming on top and taking his first life to survive.

Now let’s talk about all of this. The film opens up with the title “Dune: Part I” and that really already hooks you in. For the next 2 hours and 35 minutes, you know there’s going to be another one, a promise that something as epic as this movie is something that will be continued, and has too much for just one movie. I think where this fails the movie though, is that you know there’s going to be a next one. While we do lose a bit of the characters, we know the story isn’t over at the end. This is where some franchises greatly fail. Where others like “Star Wars” succeed is that it sort of ends as a closed story. The other movies are just in addition, and to build upon the story in better and more intense ways.

Now the ending does leave you wanting more, we see the Fremen and Paul walking further into the desert, even seeing somebody in the distance riding a sandworm, but that’s about it. Nothing is really resolved, and no real satisfaction aside from Paul’s victory. But the second movie hasn’t been made yet. I’m sure tons of planning and pre-production thought has been put into what we will see and how it will be tackled producing the film in even more of a pandemic. But the possibility of a second film will largely depend on the success of this movie. With it being a highly anticipated film with incredible talent drawing audiences, I’m sure it will not be hard. But with it already leaking online, releasing same-day on HBO Max, and further surges of COVID-19, it definitely has an uphill climb to make.

That may sound really negative, but I don’t see it that way. This movie was incredibly engrossing, and has some of the best cinematography (Greig Fraser) this year has offered thus far. The score by Hans Zimmer is addictive and has been playing the entire time this review has been written. And the performances all around left nothing to be desired. Everybody is incredible, whether how much or little screen time they had (cough cough, David Dastmalchian.) It lived up to the hype for me, and whether or not Part II comes, I’m glad to have been able to experience it.

My Rating: