Monday, 28 December 2020

Film Review: "Nomadland" (2020).


From the director of The Rider comes Nomadland. This drama film adapted and directed by Chloé Zhao and based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad.

In March 2018, Frances McDormand and Zhao met a day before the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards, and instantly wanted to do a film together. By Fall, Frances McDormand, David Strathairn and Peter Spears, as well as real-life nomads Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells, were cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and lasted over four months, with Zhao splitting time between set and pre-production for Eternals (2021). Filming took place in seven states during four months, during which McDormand actually performed several of the jobs done by people who do nomadic work and inspired the book, such as harvesting beets and packaging Amazon orders with the CamperForce program. McDormand, Zhao, and other crew members lived out of vans over the course of production. McDormand blended into the nomadic community so well that one of the local Targets offered her an application for a job. Frances' experience of living in a van took four to five months, covering seven states. She adopted a lifestyle of being constantly on the move to make the movie seem more authentic, rather than just acting the scenes. The film's initial release date before it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The film stars McDormand, Strathairn and Spears. McDormand, no matter the closeness to her own cinematic equivalent, brings this yearning, good-hearted soul to life with a virtuosic application of body, mind, and heart.

Zhao's Nomadland serves as a testament for why making the extra effort to tell underrepresented stories matters. Throughout all of the film, Zhao maintains her tone and, to a lesser extent, her pace, seeing her work more as a poem than as a narrative picture. The craft evidenced by Zhao is great when she improvises and adapts to the actors and situation, but less so when she has complete control. The piece works because Zhao has the open eyes and big heart of a humanitarian, and she refuses to ignore inspiration in any form when it strikes her squarely between the eyes. The sort of deep, meaningful film that reminds us why we are so lucky the independent film industry exists in the first place. It reminds us of the dignifying power of work and purpose in human existence, even as it ponders the meaning of life when these things are taken away. A delicate and tremulous thing, at once confident and gentle, lyrically composed yet as tragic as the American Dream ideal it so carefully deconstructs. Zhao's lyricism, brought to shimmering life by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, turns what could have easily been a leaden docudrama into a work of astonishing beauty.

Simon says Nomadland receives:



Also, see my review for The Rider.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Film Review: "The Croods: A New Age" (2020).


"The future ain't what it used to be" in The Croods: A New Age. This computer-animated adventure comedy film directed by Joel Crawford, his feature directorial debut, written by Dan and Kevin Hageman, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan, and produced by DreamWorks Animation. It is the sequel to The Croods (2013). Searching for a safer habitat, the prehistoric Crood family discovers an idyllic, walled-in paradise that meets all of its needs. Unfortunately, they must also learn to live with the Bettermans -- a family that's a couple of steps above the Croods on the evolutionary ladder. As tensions between the new neighbors start to rise, a new threat soon propels both clans on an epic adventure that forces them to embrace their differences, draw strength from one another, and survive together.

In April 2013, DreamWorks Animation announced the sequel with original directors and writers Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco set to return to helm the sequel. In mid June 2014, it was announced the film was set for a November 3, 2017 release date. However, in late August, the film was delayed to December 22, 2017. However, in early August 2016, nearing Comcast's impending acquisition of DreamWorks Animation, 20th Century Fox removed the film from the release schedule. The film would be instead released by Universal Pictures sometime in 2018. Later that month, it was reported that Kevin and Dan Hageman were hired to rewrite the script. In early November, DreamWorks announced that production for the sequel was cancelled. However, in September 2017, DreamWorks and Universal revealed that the film was back in production with a September 18, 2020 release date. It was also revealed that both DeMicco and Sanders would not be returning. In October 2017, it was reported that Crawford would replace both DeMicco and Sanders as director. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, production of the film shifted to employees working at home.

The film features the voice talents of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, repairing their roles, with Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann and Kelly Marie Tran. The original cast are all very good in their respective roles, but it is the supporting characters that really make the film a cut above most family fare. The characters are charming, the animation really is spectacularly smooth and expressive, and the Looney Tunes-style humor and pop-culture in-jokes are as inventive and hilarious as before.

The film actually tells a creative story and doesn't just make fun of the fairytale genre but subverts it in some clever ways. The animation by which it stands or falls is as brilliant as ever and, though it wouldn't really be right to call it totally anti-Disney, it certainly trumps that institution for sharpness of focus, notably as far as the screenplay is concerned. Don't get me wrong. I'm not sulking. I liked the film. Honest. Kids will like the film. Most mums and dads will like the film. My problem is this: I didn't love it the way I loved the first one.

Simon says The Croods: A New Age receives:



Also, see my review for The Croods and Trolls World Tour.

Film Review: "Soul" (2020).


"Everybody has a soul. Joe Gardner is about to find his" in Soul. This computer-animated comedy-drama film co-directed by Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers, written by Doctor, Powers and Mike Jones, and produced by Pixar Animation Studios. A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.

In January 2016, a new film was announced with Doctor as director. In June 2018, it was announced that Docter was planning to complete his film despite being appointed Chief Creative Officer at Pixar after John Lasseter's departure. In June 2019, Pixar announced the film's title as Soul with a synopsis released on Twitter. In late August, during the 2019 D23 Expo, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were announced to be composing the film's score, while Jon Batiste was announced to be writing jazz songs for the film. The film was originally set for a June 19, 2020 release date. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was delayed to November 20, 2020. Ultimately, in early October 2020, the film's theatrical release was cancelled in favour of releasing the film on Disney+. However, unlike Mulan (2020), the film will not be a "premiere access" for an additional price, but will be free for all subscribers.

The film features the voice talents of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Donnell Rawlings, June Squibb, Esther Chae, Sakina Jaffrey, Cathy Cavadini, and John Ratzenberger. The usual brilliant animation by Pixar and great voice acting by the likes of Foxx, Fey, and Bassett just make this unusual film that much better.

An ingenious, moving story about the phenomenon of life and death, as well as the human condition, that delights older and younger viewers alike. The film is as funny as it is emotional. It's a rare comedy that can bring both tears of sadness and joy to your eyes, sometimes within seconds of each other. Even after having a narrative so magnified that it focuses on the human experience of one person, it remains universal and penetrating. Great filmmaking is empathetic. It lets us experience the world through the eyes of someone else, and connects a specific experience to a larger, shared whole. The film is great filmmaking. The film displays a keen understanding of childhood and its most precious joys and deepest fears, synthesizing them into something that is instantly relatable to children and adults alike. The film's philosophical script is matched both by its visual splendor, often invoking the spirit of Miyazaki, and its humanist reach, which extends to both family and friend alike. The film lovingly explores the complex interplay of life and death with Pixar's apparently endless talent for innovation and visual design. Overall, Disney Pixar does an amazing job on digging into people's feelings and the importance of letting people know how to live.

Simon says Soul receives:



Also, see my reviews for Inside Out and Onward.

Film Review: "We Can Be Heroes" (2020).


"Power comes in all sizes" in We Can Be Heroes. This superhero film written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. The film serves as a stand-alone sequel to The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005). When alien invaders kidnap Earth's superheroes, their kids are whisked away to a government safe house. But whip-smart tween Missy Moreno will stop at nothing to rescue her superhero dad, Marcus Moreno. Missy teams up with the rest of the superkids to escape their mysterious government babysitter, Ms. Granada. If they're going to save their parents, they'll have to work together by using their individual powers - from elasticity to time control to predicting the future - and form an out-of-this-world team.

By August 2019, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Pedro Pascal, Adriana Barraza, Boyd Holbrook, Christian Slater, Sung Kang, Christopher McDonald, Taylor Dooley, YaYa Gosselin, Lyon Daniels, Andy Walken, Hala Finley, Lotus Blossom, Dylan Henry Lau, Isaiah Russell-Bailey, Akira Akbar, Nathan Blair and Vivien Blair were cast in a superhero film written and to be directed by Rodriguez and produced by Netflix. At the same time, principal photography commenced and filming took place at Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas. The film was originally scheduled for a January 1, 2021 release date before it was pushed forward to December 25, 2020.

The film stars Chopra Jonas, Pascal, Barraza, Holbrook, Slater, Kang, McDonald, Dooley, Gosselin, Daniels, Walken, Finley, Blossom, Lau, Russell-Bailey, Akbar, Nathan and Vivien Blair. Despite the strong cast, the film is mind-numbingly boring and woodenly acted. Rodriguez was subjecting everyone to their own expensive home movie.

A fun Christmas film for grade school kids, it avoids the subtle meanness and double entendres that filmmakers sometimes insert into films geared to children. Script-wise, the film dutifully harps on the importance of believing in oneself, but it is painfully repetitive and something that is proclaimed more than demonstrated. The film will entertain the youngest viewers but likely erode the good will Rodriguez has built up in the family film genre. The film feels like a whimsical afterthought, a colourful kid-centric lark filled with admirable ideas and nothing to keep older viewers entertained. The film, while noble, imaginative and a huge valentine to family involvement, unfortunately just isn't all that interesting. Sounds like a grand old time -- a hip fusion of Nickelodeon attitude, the wittier children's books, and retro kitsch culture. In fact, it's a nearly unwatchable combination of the worst elements of all three. Youngsters will enjoy it even as they more worldly and cynical elders - anyone over the age of ten - will wish they were someplace else. It's hard to argue that a film won't capture a kid's imagination when it comes from a kid's imagination. But I will argue nonetheless. Looks and sounds and feels as if it were made by kids who'd broken into Dad's toolshed and borrowed his filmmaking toys. Okay, it's simplistic Saturday-morning-cartoon stuff, but it's so cool looking that the younger set will be taken in. Pure Rodriguez creativity, bordering on insanity, but definitely something different. Give him credit. Rodriguez sure knows how to switch gears.

Simon says We Can Be Heroes receives:



Also, see my review for Alita: Battle Angel.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Film Review: "Wonder Woman 1984" (2020).


"A new era of wonder begins" in Wonder Woman 1984. This superhero film directed by Patty Jenkins, written by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and David Callaham, and based on the DC Comics character created by William Moulton Marston. It is the sequel to 2017's Wonder Woman and the ninth installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). Diana Prince lives quietly among mortals in the vibrant, sleek 1980s -- an era of excess driven by the pursuit of having it all. Though she's come into her full powers, she maintains a low profile by curating ancient artifacts, and only performing heroic acts incognito. But soon, Diana will have to muster all of her strength, wisdom and courage as she squares off against Maxwell Lord and the Cheetah, a villainess who possesses superhuman strength and agility.

In June 2017, after the release of Wonder Woman, during an interview with Variety, Johns revealed that he and Jenkins had started writing the treatment for a sequel and that he had a "cool idea for the second one". In late July, at San Diego Comic-Con, the studio officially announced a sequel, entitled Wonder Woman 2, would be produced. By mid September 2017, it was officially confirmed that Jenkins would be directing the sequel. Additionally, it was reported that Callaham was hired to co-write the script with Jenkins and Johns, who had already been working on it for several months. In mid June, the title of the film was announced to be Wonder Woman 1984. By mid June, Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, and Connie Nielsen would reprise their roles, with Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal would round out the cast as newcomers. At the same time, with a budget of $200 million, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late December under the working title Magic Hour. Filming took place in Alexandria, Virginia; Washington, District of Columbia; Canary Islands, Spain; Almería, Andalucía, Spain; and Warner Bros. Studios, in Leavesden, England. The film was shot with IMAX film cameras for select action sequences. In August, Hans Zimmer was announced as the film's composer, replacing Rupert Gregson-Williams, who scored the first film. The film was originally set for a December 13, 2019 release date, before being moved up to a November 8, 2019 release date, then it was delayed to June 5, 2020. In late March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was again delayed to August 14, 2020. In June, the film was once again delayed to October 2, 2020, before it was finally delayed to December 25, 2020.

The film stars Gadot, Pine, Wiig, Pascal, Wright, and Nielsen. Mostly this film is great because of the journey of the characters, especially Wonder Woman, and the strong performances. Substantial credit should also go to Wiig's casually menacing Cheetah, who transcends her questionable costume and make-up to appear a convincing threat.

It is easily the best spectacle movie of the season. On some levels soars above its predecessor with a more personal story; credible, menacing villains and an impeccable cast.

Simon says Wonder Woman 1984 receives:



Also, see my reviews for Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Film Review: "The Witches" (2020).


"This Halloween, bring the big screen home" with The Witches. This dark fantasy comedy film directed by Robert Zemeckis, adapted by Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro, and based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. The film tells the darkly humorous and heartwarming tale of a young orphaned boy who, in late 1967, goes to live with his loving Grandma in the rural Alabama town of Demopolis. As the boy and his grandmother encounter some deceptively glamorous but thoroughly diabolical witches, she wisely whisks him away to a seaside resort. Regrettably, they arrive at precisely the same time that the world's Grand High Witch has gathered her fellow cronies from around the globe-undercover-to carry out her nefarious plans.

In December 2008, talks of a new adaptation of Dahl's novel began when del Toro expressed interest in writing and directing a stop motion film. No further developments on the potential project emerged until ten years later in June 2018, when Zemeckis was hired to direct and co-write. Del Toro would produce, alongside Zemeckis and Alfonso Cuarón. In January 2019, Anne Hathaway was cast in the role of Grand High Witch. Claire Foy, Uma Thurman, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, Rachel Weisz, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kristin Kreuk, Salma Hayek, Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman, Kate Beckinsale, Charlotte Riley, Natalie Dormer and Jennifer Lopez were all considered as possible candidates for the role. In February, Octavia Spencer was cast as Grandma. By early May, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, and Chris Rock rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late June. Filming took place in Warner Brothers Studios, Leavesden and Surrey, England; Alabama and Georgia. In July 2019, Zemeckis's regular collaborator, Alan Silvestri, was hired to score the film. The film was originally scheduled for October 16, 2020 release date. However, in late October, Warner Bros. moved up the release of the film by a week. However, in early June 2020, Warner Bros. announced that they pulled the film off the 2020 schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, the film was digitally released in the United States on October 22, 2020 via HBO Max, with an October 28 2020 release date for international markets.

The film stars Hathaway, Spencer, Tucci, Chenoweth, Bruno, and Rock. The cast hits the sweet spot despite Hathaway's 'interesting' take on the Grand High Witch.

Witty, wonderful and wildly imaginative, Zemeckis's first proper 'family movie' since A Christmas Carol delivers a fun scare that'll last for days. Zemeckis commands his environments with such exacting precision that one can't help but lose oneself in the intricate layers of sets and costumes. Though the idea of a Zemeckis / Dahl collaboration would seem a perfect aligning of sensibilities, it becomes incredibly apparent that the director's pretenses get in the way of Dahl's simpler intent. Of the somewhat overlong a hundred-and-six minute running time, there's an entertaining ninety minutes of eye candy with a dark, daring center.

Simon says The Witches receives:




Also, see my review for Welcome to Marwen.

Monday, 7 December 2020

Film Review: "The Mystery of D.B. Cooper" (2020).


"The crime that spawned an obsession." This is The Mystery of D.B. Cooper. This documentary film written and directed by John Dower. The film brings to life the stories of four individuals fervently believed by their family and friends to be "D.B. Cooper", the mystery man who hijacked a 727 flying out of Seattle, traded the passengers’ lives for $200,000 and four parachutes, lept from the jet over some of Washington state’s roughest terrain, and was never heard from again. Almost fifty years later, the case continues to confound the FBI and inspire wild speculation as it remains the only unsolved airplane hijacking in United States history.‌ The film draws from a combination of recreated and archival footage, as well as exclusive interviews with those most connected to the infamous case and its likeliest culprit, and explores how the heist inspired copycat hijackings around the world and elevated Cooper to "legend" status before his plane even touched back down on land.

Despite an extensive manhunt and protracted FBI investigation, the perpetrator has never been located or identified. It remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in commercial aviation history. Many FBI agents are of the opinion that Cooper probably did not survive his high-risk jump, but his remains have never been recovered. The FBI maintained an active investigation for forty-nine years after the hijacking. Despite a case file that has grown to over sixty volumes over that period, no definitive conclusions have been reached regarding Cooper's true identity or whereabouts. Numerous theories of widely varying plausibility have been proposed over the years by investigators, reporters, and amateur enthusiasts. A young boy discovered a small cache of banknotes from the ransom along the banks of the Columbia River in February 1980. The find triggered renewed interest but ultimately only deepened the mystery, and the great majority of the ransom remains unrecovered. In July 2016, the FBI officially suspended active investigation of the case, but the agency continues to request that any physical evidence that might emerge related to the parachutes or the ransom money be submitted for analysis.

The film might not be a perfect documentary, but it gets us inside the hijacking, by hook or crook, and lets us examine what dark secrets they are hiding. While the film provides a very entertaining tour of some of the questions that swirl around D.B. Cooper, viewers who've followed the story through the decades will find little that's new or unexpected. There is little factual revelation here but by the powerful conclusion, you do feel that Dower has uncovered something of the dark side of the nation's obsession. The lack of answers here is frustrating but understandable, and the journey to find them provides an entertaining look at the nature of mysteries and legends. However, the film is an illuminating insight into the hijacking, the man and the aftermath and subsequent birth of the Robin Hood-like legend, but one that must settle for walking the perimeter fence, looking in.

Simon says The Mystery of D.B. Cooper receives:



Also, see my review for My Scientology Movie.

Film Review: "Ava" (2020).


"Kill. Or Be Killed." This is Ava. This action thriller film directed by Tate Taylor and written by Matthew Newton. Ava is a deadly assassin who works for a black ops organization, traveling the globe specializing in high profile hits. When a job goes dangerously wrong she is forced to fight for her own survival.

In August 2018, it was reported that Taylor had been hired to direct the film Eve, replacing Matthew Newton. By late September 2018, Jessica Chastain had been cast in the lead. John Malkovich, Common, Geena Davis, Colin Farrell, Ioan Gruffudd and Joan Chen rounded out the cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late October. Filming took place in Boston, Massachusetts. During shooting, Ava's name was Eve. For unknown reasons, the studio decided to change the main character's name after the film wrapped. This then affected the title when the film was retitled to Ava in November 2019. Since all scenes were filmed prior to this decision, this presumably required cast to do additional audio or shooting.

The film stars Chastain, Malkovich, Common, Davis, Farrell, Gruffudd and Chen. The film isn't a total disaster thanks to the cast led by Chastain, but even they can't turn this film into something watchable. It benefits from Chastain in the lead. She is just riveting and when she finally gears up for action the film steps into high gear and delivers grueling action and a surprise punch at the end.

It is a cliched, sloppy mess of sub-standard action and forgettable lines that might entertain someone who has never seen a movie from the last decade of R-rated action cinema. As just about every element of the film ranges from underwhelming to bad, I would be hard-pressed to recommend the film to anyone other than hardcore fans of Chastain, and even then, there are countless better action films. It is nearly two hours of sensory overload that attempts to be a slick and gritty thriller but comes off as a brash, cluttered and crude film. Two-dimensional characters, questionable casting choices and a lacklustre script means that the hour-and-a-half runtime slogged from start to finish rather than feeling like an adrenaline-induced, blood-filled dream that it could have been. Every second grates and confuses in equal measure, with nary a thrill of inventive, exciting action filmmaking to break up the monotony. It could probably have successfully built on its clichéd plot if the execution was great, but too few of the scenes hit the level of imagination or wit needed. It appears the target audience for this film are overly horny teenage boys who want to see a sexy female assassin and violence with little to no real plot. It is painful to watch, and not just in the many scenes of violence that it revels in. Its disrespect for the audience can only be rivalled by its disrespect for women. It is a juvenile, pedestrian, and boring film that tries to imitate Atomic Blonde and ends up as a terrible imitation that everyone involved should be embarrassed about.

Simon says Ava receives:



Also, see my review for Ma.

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Film Review: "Mank" (2020).


"Netflix International Pictures Presents" Mank. This biographical drama film directed by David Fincher and written by his late father Jack Fincher. 1930s Hollywood is re-evaluated through the eyes of scathing wit and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish Citizen Kane.

In July 2019, the film was officially announced with Fincher set to direct with a script written by his late father (prior to his death in 2003), and Gary Oldman to star in the title role. During the film's press tour, Fincher shed some light on what many believe to be his most ambitious, unique feature to date. And as Fincher explains to Variety, this also might be the project that has taken the most time to finally see the light of day, but thanks to Netflix, he finally was given the chance to direct the film. It's a project that Fincher has been working on since the early '90s and is based on a script written by his father. And at one point, the film looked like it was going to be made in the '90s, but there was a major snag that put the film back in development hell. According to the report, the '90s version of the film was set up at Polygram, and Fincher had already begun the process of casting. He was hoping to get Kevin Spacey to star as Mankiewicz and Jodie Foster as Marion Davies, the long-time mistress to William Randolph Hearst. Unfortunately, there were issues with Fincher's insistence on shooting in black-and-white that prevented the deal to film to ever get made. Now, more than twenty years later, Netflix is releasing Mank on its streaming platform and didn't balk at the notion of shooting in black-and-white or the price tag that is associated with a Fincher film. The hundred and twenty-page draft of the initial script closely followed a claim voiced by Pauline Kael in her 1971 New Yorker article Raising Kane that Welles did not deserve screenwriting credit. The article angered many critics, including Welles's friend and fellow filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich who rebutted Kael's claims point by point in The Kane Mutiny, an October 1972 article for Esquire. Her argument was discredited by several film scholars through the years, including Robert L. Carringer in his study of The Scripts of Citizen Kane. According to Fincher, Orson Welles is a talented filmmaker, but definitely not a film god like he's often regarded. Speaking to the French outlet, Premiere, Fincher was asked about his thoughts on Welles. This is clearly a question aimed at Fincher because of the film, which details the struggles of Citizen Kane (1941) Mankiewicz during the making of what would become an Academy Award-winning hit. Fincher believes that Welles was above all a showman and a juggler with this immense talent. Fincher went on to say this, "Well, I think Orson Welles's tragedy lies in the mix between monumental talent and filthy immaturity," explained Fincher. "Sure, there is genius in 'Citizen Kane,' who could argue? But when Welles says, 'It only takes an afternoon to learn everything there is to know about cinematography,' ... Let's say that this is the remark of someone who has been lucky to have Gregg Toland around him to prepare the next shot... Gregg Toland, damn it, an insane genius!" He continued, "I say that without wanting to be disrespectful to Welles, I know what I owe him, like I know what I owe Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, or Hal Ashby. But at twenty-five, you don't know what you don't know. Period. Neither Welles, nor anyone. It doesn't take anything away from him, and especially not his place in the pantheon of those who have influenced entire generations of filmmakers. But to claim that Orson Welles came out of nowhere to make 'Citizen Kane' and that the rest of his filmography was ruined by the interventions of ill-intentioned people, it's not serious, and it is underestimating the disastrous impact of his own delusional hubris." While some might scoff at what Fincher says about Welles, however, in the decades after Citizen Kane, when Welles struggled to live up to the acclaim of his feature debut, there were many that started to wonder how much of the success was due to the filmmaker and how much was due to his talented crew? In Fincher's eyes, that's the real question and points to the fact that Welles might have been talented, but maybe not as talented as he actually believed he was. 

By early November, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane, Toby Leonard Moore, Bill Nye, and Charles Dance rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in early February 2020. Filming took place in Los Angeles and Victorville, California, and was shot on RED Ranger Helium Monochrome 8K cameras with Leica Summilux-C Lenses. The film has a monaural sound mix, similar to what films had before the stereophonic sound system was introduced in the mid-twentieth century. This means that instead of multiple soundtracks dedicated to dialogue, music, and other sound effects respectively, all of the aforementioned will be shared on one single track. Fincher discussed in an extensive New York Magazine interview, explaining how the film transports you into the period of Hollywood of the 1930s and early '40s through its visuals and sound design. Fincher states: "Ren Klyce, who is the sound designer, and I started talking years ago about how we wanted to make this feel like it was found in the UCLA archives -- or in Martin Scorsese's basement on its way to restoration," Fincher said. "Everything has been compressed and made to sound like the 1940s. The music has been recorded with older microphones so it has a sort of sizzle and wheeze around the edges -- you get it from strings, but you mostly get it from brass. What you're hearing is a revival house -- an old theater playing a movie." Fincher further mentioned that in screenings so far viewers have reacted to the noticeably vintage sound quality. "It's funny because I've played it for some people who ask, 'What is going on with the sound? It's so warm.' And I respond, 'Well, what you mean when you say 'warm' is it sounds like an old movie. It sounds analog.'" Fincher also added that the process of degrading the sound design dragged the post-production process on longer than expected. "We went three weeks over schedule on the mix trying to figure out how to split that atom," Fincher said. "[Visually,] our notion was we're going to shoot super-high resolution and then we're going to degrade it. So, we took most everything and softened it to an absurd extent to try to match the look of the era. We probably lost two-thirds of the resolution in order to make it have the same feel, and then we put in little scratches and digs and cigarette burns." Another throwback to the Hollywood of yesteryear, the film also features the reel-change circles you'd see throughout an old celluloid print in a movie theater. "We made the soundtrack pop like it does when you do a reel changeover. It's one of the most comforting sounds in my life. They're so little that they're very difficult to hear until you hear them. It has what we ended up calling patina, these tiny little pops and crackles that happen, and they're very beautiful."

The film stars Oldman in the title role, Seyfried, Collins, Howard, Pelphrey, Troughton, Kingsley, Middleton, Burke, Cross, McShane, Moore, Nye, and Dance. The performances of Oldman as Mank and Seyfried as Marion Davies are award-worthy. Collins as Rita Alexander, also gives an impressive performance. Oldman's performance is nothing less than astonishing. He makes every moment believable in voice, walk, and gesture. Even in his drunk scenes is effective. 

Mank is unforgettable and his intense character study is a masterpiece of cinematic sublimity that is rarely, if ever, equalled. The question of whether the twenty-six-year-old Welles is the genius behind the 1941 classic or if it was due to in large part to forty-three-year-old Mankiewicz. This is a great film, any way one looks at it. And it brings to the motion picture industry an exciting new personality - like Welles, Fincher, a man whose talents as director will be acclaimed by audiences far and wide. The film, written by Fincher's late father, a talent who never got his recognition until now, is an outstanding film, amazing in its presentation and vast in its conception. Most people don't care about Kane's revolutionary script but there's so much more to admire, appreciate and enjoy about this cinematic edifice. It proves Mank's reckless genius - as exasperating as it is fascinating - is triumphant in the medium and history of cinema. Mank isn't only a great film but it's a classic for a new era in filmmaking.

Simon says Mank receives:



Also, see my review for Gone Girl.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Film Review: "Mario Puzo's The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone" (2020).


"All the power on earth can't change destiny" in Mario Puzo's The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. This crime film directed by Francis Ford Coppola and written by Coppola and Mario Puzo. It is the third and final installment in The Godfather trilogy. It is a sequel to The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974). Celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of The Godfather: Part III, Coppola brings a definitive new edit and restoration of the final film in his epic Godfather trilogy. Michael Corleone, now in his sixties, seeks to free his family from crime and find a suitable successor to his empire. That successor could be fiery Vincent... but he may also be the spark that turns Michael's hope of business legitimacy into an inferno of mob violence.

After the critical and commercial success of Part II, a third installment was in development. Coppola felt that the first two films had told the complete Corleone saga. However, after the critical and commercial failure of One from the Heart (1982), the dire financial situation compelled him to take up Paramount's offer to make a third installment. He intended Part III to be an epilogue to the first two films. Coppola once admitted that he was still unhappy over the final result because of lack of time to write the script. According to him, he had wanted $6 million for the writer, producer, and director fee and six months to write the script. Instead, the studio gave him only $1 million in fees and only six weeks to work on the script (in order to meet the Christmas 1990 release date). Additionally, Coppola and Puzo preferred the title The Death of Michael Corleone, but Paramount Pictures rejected it. 

In September 2020, for the film's upcoming thirtieth anniversary, it was announced that a recut version of the film titled Mario Puzo's The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone would have a limited theatrical release on December 4, 2020, followed by digital and Blu-ray releases on December 8. Coppola's recut would include both a new beginning and ending and some re-edited scenes and musical cues. The total runtime of this recut version is hundred and fifty eight minutes compared to the original film's hundred and sixty two minutes. The resulting project reflects Puzo and Coppola’s original intentions of Part III, and delivers, in the words of Coppola, "a more appropriate conclusion to The Godfather and Part II." Coppola said the recut film is the version that he and Puzo had originally envisioned and that it "vindicates" its status in The Godfather trilogy as well as his daughter Sofia's performance.

The film stars Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy García, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Bridget Fonda, George Hamilton, Sofia Coppola, John Savage and Al Martino. Despite a stellar cast, the performances were a mixed bag, though no fault of the performers who lacked.

Coppola's recut of his final Godfather film is a triumph of a revisitation and breathes new life. While it does not elevated to the quality of its predecessors, this new film makes it finally worthy of the name.

Simon says Mario Puzo's The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone receives:



Also, see my review for Apocalypse Now: Final Cut.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Film Review: "Hillbilly Elegy" (2020).


"From the director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind" comes Hillbilly Elegy. This drama film directed by Ron Howard, written by Vanessa Taylor, and based on the 2016 memoir of the same name written by J.D. Vance. An urgent phone call pulls a Yale Law student back to his Ohio hometown, where he reflects on three generations of family history and his own future.

Published in 2016, Vance's memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is about the Appalachian values of his Kentucky family and their relation to the social problems of his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, where his mother's parents moved when they were young. The book was popularized by an interview with the author published by The American Conservative in late July 2016. The volume of requests briefly disabled the website. Halfway through the next month, The New York Times wrote that the title had remained in the top ten Amazon bestsellers since the interview's publication.

In April 2017, Imagine Entertainment won the film rights to Vance's memoir for Howard to direct. In February 2018, Taylor was hired to pen the script. In January 2019, Netflix won the rights to the film after bidding $45 million on the project. By early June, Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, and Bo Hopkins were cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in early August. Filming took place in Atlanta, Georgia and Middletown, Ohio under the code-name Ivan.

The film stars Close, Adams, Basso, Bennett, Pinto, and Hopkins. There's a lot of good actors in this movie, but they're given so little to do besides looking and acting like country bumpkins in hillbilly town. The two principle actresses embody their roles well but the problem is not much happens after they have been introduced as hillbillies.

Despite having a strong cast and a talented director, the film struggles to get going, and even when it eventually begins to chug along, it fails to be as exciting as it believes itself to be. Despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, the film is a few knots away from being the transformative cinema experience intended. Howard wants his film to be so much more than a mere battle between an educated man and his hillbilly family, and, at times, you can feel him getting that across. Unfortunately, the characters and sense of danger are too watered down. The film's overlapping themes and one-dimensional characters feel conspicuously flimsy, especially against the film's vivid realism and attention to graphic detail. There are moments that drag like a fouled anchor, when Howard's Hollywood sensibility gets a little schmaltzy-swelling music, philosophical points driven home with hitting-us-over-the-head-with-a-rock-like subtlety, and a bracketing story that interrupts more often than it informs. The film is an all-around disappointment. The film suffers from poor direction, an unfocused narrative, and some very underdeveloped characters. Idea-wise the film is great, but the premise is forgettable and doesn't offer much.

Simon says Hillbilly Elegy receives:



Also, see my review for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Film Review: "Possessor" (2020).


"No Body is Safe" in Possessor. This science fiction psychological horror film written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg. Elite, corporate assassin Tasya Vos uses brain-implant technology. Vos takes control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets. As she sinks deeper into her latest assignment Vos becomes trapped inside a mind that threatens to obliterate her.

There are two versions of the script. Cronenberg has said there is a possibility of a second movie down the line, one that would encompass the material that didn't make it into this film. Cronenberg said that José Delgado's 1970s book Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society, his past short film Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You served and the films of Dario Argento, particularly Opera (1987) served as inspirations. By early April 2019, Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Rossif Sutherland, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean and Jennifer Jason Leigh were cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and filming took place in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Most of the special effects in the film were done practically, with an effort to use as little VFX work as possible. The hallucination scenes' effects in particular were done in-camera. Cronenberg credits his effects specialists, Dan Martin and Derek Liscoumb, and his longtime cinematographer Karim Hussain for being able to pull off convincing visuals with a minimum of CGI.
 
The film stars Riseborough, Abbott, Sutherland, Middleton, Bean and Jason Leigh. Riseborough is an ideal Cronenberg heroine, projecting a personality that is broken, wary and capable of obsessiveness. Leigh, who in the past loved to play the absolute cynic with curled lip and gutteral voice, has never looked and sounded a doomwatcher.

Here, Cronenberg is a provocateur only to a point - boldly striding past boundaries of comfort but getting the heebie-jeebies upon approaching true profundity. But he wasn't too far from figuring out which incisions could cut the deepest. Cronenberg's most visionary and audacious film up to the time of its making, the film is a fascinating rumination on humanity, technology, entertainment, sex, and politics that is virtually incomprehensible on first viewing. Like his father, Brandon Cronenberg doesn't have the stylistic resources to match the forcefulness of his ideas, but his movies remain in the mind for the pull of their private obsessions. Everything in the film calls for the viewer seduced by the film's proposal to irretrievably surrender to its overwhelming visual personality. Never coherent and frequently pretentious, the film remains an audacious attempt to place obsessive personal images before a popular audience. Though the film finally grows grotesque and a little confused, it begins very well and sustains its cleverness for a long while. Thematically, it connects easily with most other titles in the Cronenberg oeuvre, with the added treat of having been released far ahead of its time. The film continues Cronenberg's growth out of more obvious horror realms and ups the stakes with heavier philosophical entreaties for his characters to endure.

Simon says Possessor receives:



Also, see my review for Antiviral.

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Film Review: "On the Rocks" (2020).


From the director of Lost in Translation and Apple TV+ comes On the Rocks. This comedy-drama film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. A young New York mother faced with sudden doubts about her marriage teams up with her larger-than-life playboy father to tail her husband. What follows is a sparkling comic adventure across the city – drawing father and daughter closer together despite one detour after another. Laura thinks she’s happily hitched, but when her husband Dean starts logging late hours at the office with a new co-worker, Laura begins to fear the worst. She turns to the one man she suspects may have insight: her charming, impulsive father Felix, who insists they investigate the situation. As the two begin prowling New York at night, careening from uptown parties to downtown hotspots, they discover at the heart of their journey lies their own relationship.

In mid November 2018, it was announced that Apple had entered into a multi-year agreement with entertainment company A24 to produce a slate of original films in partnership with their worldwide video unit. In mid January 2019, it was announced that the first film produced under that partnership would be a film entitled On the Rocks with Coppola as writer and director, and with Bill Murray and Rashida Jones attached to star. By June 2019, Marlon Wayans, Jessica Henwick, Jenny Slate, and Barbara Bain rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and took place in New York City.

The film. stars Jones, Murray, Wayans, Henwick, Slate, and Bain. Murray, playing an extension of himself, fills the role with ease, and Jones is right in step with him. So far as the central relationship goes, the film is almost European in its subtlety and nuance.

Like her Academy Award-winning film, Lost in Translation, Coppola creates a beautiful-looking film with depth and texture, along with a couple of outstanding performances from its lead actors. Coppola's latest film (following the aforementioned film as well as Somewhere) is another exploration of delicate relationships and uncommunicated frustrations, this one in a beautifully composed atmosphere of isolation. Depicts a very specific mental state too shaded and delicate for most movies to feel comfortable approaching it. A relationship picture with elegant connective tissue; it's brittle and real, focused on the nuances of body language and unspoken desire, while indulging in a cheeky bit of knowing absurdity when the mood strikes. The film revels in contradictions. It's a comedy about melancholy, a romance without consummation, a travelogue that rarely hits the road. Very much a mood piece, the film's deft balance of humor and poignancy makes it both a pleasurable and melancholy experience. Transcends its initial culture clash comic riffs to evolve into something altogether more moving by the end. As a result, it's a work of considerable power and pathos. The intensity of the film lies in its smaller, seemingly insignificant, quieter moments. In many ways Coppola's film exhibits marks of classic European art cinema.

Simon says On the Rocks receives:



Also, see my review for The Beguiled.

Series Review: "The Queen's Gambit" (2020).


From the director of Godless and Netflix comes The Queen's Gambit. This coming-of-age period drama streaming television miniseries created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, adapted and directed by Frank, and based on Walter Tevis' 1983 novel of the same name. In a 1950s orphanage, a young girl reveals an astonishing talent for chess and begins an unlikely journey to stardom while grappling with addiction.

In late March 2019, it was announced that Netflix gave a series order, consisting of six episodes, for an adaptation of Tevis' 1983 novel with Frank to adapt and direct. Scott had been involved in attempts to get the book on screen since 1992, when he purchased the screenplay rights from Tevis' widow. Heath Ledger was originally attached to direct a film adaptation with Elliot Page in the lead role before his untimely death. Alongside the series order announcement, it was announced that Anya Taylor-Joy was set to star as the lead. By early September, Bill Camp, Christiane Seidel, Marielle Heller, Harry Melling, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster rounded out the series' cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late December. Filming took place in Berlin, Germany and Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and chess coach Bruce Pandolfini acted as consultants. Pandolfini had consulted with Tevis prior to the novel's publication some thirty-eight years earlier, even coming up with the title The Queen's Gambit. Pandolfini, together with consultants John Paul Atkinson and Iepe Rubingh came up with several hundred chess positions to be used for various situations in the script. Then Kasparov developed critical moments in the story, such as when a real 1998 game between grandmasters Arshak Petrosian and Vladimir Akopian was improved to showcase Beth Harmon's skill. In an interview, Taylor-Joy said that before taking the role, her level of chess knowledge was "0, none." She went on to say that throughout the filming of the series, she was "invited into a very secret world..." She elaborated, "it was so exciting to be able to have the pressure of 'you have to learn this very complicated sequence, over 3 boards, as quick as you can in 5 minutes'..." She concluded, "it's up there with the proudest I've ever been of something that my brain was able to do because I tricked myself into believing I was a really good chess player." Brodie-Sangster and Melling also admitted that they knew very little about the game prior to filming.

The series stars Taylor-Joy, Camp, Seidel, Heller, Melling, and Brodie-Sangster. There's great acting to be found thanks to the talented cast led by Taylor-Joy.

The series is a work of confident artistry, casting well-worn clichés and archetypes in a fresh, illuminating light. I'm a sucker for the stories of a talented yet tortured prodigy. And I love it even more when those stories recognize the social realities of the time. The series does all that and more. I can definitely appreciate Frank tackling this particular untouched subject matter.

Simon says The Queen's Gambit receives:



Also, see my review for Godless.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Film Review: "I Am Greta" (2020).


"A force of nature." This is I Am Greta. This documentary film directed by Nathan Grossman. The story of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is told through compelling, never-before-seen footage in this intimate documentary from Swedish director Nathan Grossman. Starting with her one-person school strike for climate action outside the Swedish Parliament, Grossman follows Greta—a shy student with Asperger’s—in her rise to prominence and her galvanizing global impact as she sparks school strikes around the world. The film culminates with her extraordinary wind-powered voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City.

On 3 January 2003, the internationally known Swedish environmental activist, Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg, was born. She began her activism by missing school to protest what she perceives is the inaction and/or insufficient response of governments and the business sector to the United Nations Paris Agreement on climate change. Thunberg is known for her youth and her straightforward speaking manner, both in public and to political leaders and assemblies, in which she criticises world leaders for their failure to take sufficient action to address the climate crisis. Thunberg's activism started after convincing her parents to adopt several lifestyle choices to reduce their own carbon footprint. In August 2018, at age fifteen, she started spending her school days outside the Swedish parliament to call for stronger action on climate change by holding up a sign reading "School strike for climate". Soon, other students engaged in similar protests in their own communities. Together, they organised a school climate strike movement under the name Fridays for Future. After Thunberg addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, student strikes took place every week somewhere in the world. In 2019, there were multiple coordinated multi-city protests involving over a million students each. To avoid flying, Thunberg sailed to North America where she attended the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. Her sudden rise to world fame has made her both a leader and a target for critics. Her influence on the world stage has been described by The Guardian and other newspapers as the "Greta effect". She has received numerous honours and awards including an inclusion in Time's 100 most influential people, being the youngest Time Person of the Year, inclusion in the Forbes list of The World's 100 Most Powerful Women (2019), and two consecutive nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize (2019 and 2020).

This Hulu documentary is a sobering, uncompromising portrait of an extraordinary figure and her fight to educate the world on the effects of global warming on our world. The film should not have to change minds, but perhaps it will change them anyway, or at least make this seem as pressing as it needs to be. Thunberg took a stern, pissed-off tone when she was in the spotlight, grimacing in an anorak in the middle of a field, as though her patience was nearly spent. Watching the film may just be the best use you can make of your time this evening.

Simon says I Am Greta receives:


Film Review: "The Trial of the Chicago 7" (2020).


"In 1968, democracy refused to back down." This is The Trial of the Chicago 7. This historical legal drama film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. What was supposed to be a peaceful protest turned into a violent clash with the police. What followed was one of the most notorious trials in history.

In July 2020, in a Vanity Fair interview, Sorkin stated that he first found out about the planned film during a visit to Steven Spielberg's home in 2006. In July 2007, Sorkin wrote the script based on the conspiracy trial of the so-called Chicago 7. Spielberg, Walter F. Parkes, and Laurie MacDonald collaborated on the development of Sorkin's script, with Spielberg intending to direct the film. Sacha Baron Cohen was cast as Abbie Hoffman as early as 2007, while, at the time, Spielberg approached Will Smith for the role of Bobby Seale, and planned to meet with Heath Ledger about playing Tom Hayden. The Writers Guild of America strike, which started in November 2007 and lasted one hundred days, delayed filming and the project was suspended. Sorkin later continued to rewrite the script for Spielberg, and the director intended to mostly cast unknowns to keep the budget down. In 2008, Ben Stiller was reported to be working with Sorkin while considering directing the film. In July 2013, it was announced that Paul Greengrass would direct but he exited the project two months later when a budget could not be agreed upon, and it did not move forward. In December 2018, the film was put on hold due to budgetary concerns, until it was revived and ready for distribution offers, with DreamWorks Pictures' former parent company, Paramount Pictures initially picking up distribution rights, as the film was excluded from Amblin Partners' distribution deal with Cross Creek Pictures' former distribution partner, Universal Pictures. After the release of Molly's Game and after Trump became President, Spielberg suggested to Sorkin that Sorkin direct it. Ultimately, Sorkin agreed. By October 2019, Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J. C. MacKenzie, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton, John Doman, Caitlin FitzGerald, Max Adler, Alex Sharp, Noah Robbins, and Daniel Flaherty were cast. Seth Rogen was set to play Jerry Rubin until Strong replaced Rogen. Jonathan Majors was set to play Bobby Seale until Abdul-Mateen II replaced Majors. At the same time, principal photography commenced and took place in Patterson, New Jersey and Chicago, Illinois.

The film stars an ensemble cast that includes Cohen, Redmayne, Strong, Lynch, Abdul-Mateen II, Harrison Jr., Rylance, Gordon-Levitt, MacKenzie, Langella, Keaton, Doman, FitzGerald, Adler, Sharp, Robbins, and Flaherty. Each member of the cast are aces throughout the entire film.

Based on real events, this tale of a group of seven men trying to fight for justice and refusing to back down gains extra currency in the post-Trump climate. The film is an entertaining and confident sophomore effort for Sorkin, even if it's definitely too slow.

Simon says The Trial of the Chicago 7 receives:



Also, see my review for Molly's Game.

Film Review: "Rebecca" (2020).


From the director of High-Rise and Happy New Year, Colin Burstead comes Rebecca. This British romantic thriller film directed by Ben Wheatley, adapted by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, and based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. After a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo with handsome widower Maxim de Winter, a newly married young woman arrives at Manderley, her new husband's imposing family estate on a windswept English coast. Naive and inexperienced, she begins to settle into the trappings of her new life, but finds herself battling the shadow of Maxim's first wife, the elegant and urbane Rebecca, whose haunting legacy is kept alive by Manderley's sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

Published in 1938, English author Dam Daphne du Maurier's Gothic novel concerns an unnamed young woman who impetuously marries a wealthy widower, only to discover that he and his household are haunted by the memory of his late first wife, the title character. A best-seller which has never gone out of print, the novel sold 2.8 million copies between its publication in 1938 and 1965. It has been adapted numerous times for stage and screen, including a 1939 play by du Maurier herself, the film Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In November 2018, it was announced a Netflix adaptation of du Maurier's 1938 literary classic with Wheatley as director, and with Lily James and Armie Hammer to star. By early June, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ann Dowd, Sam Riley, Bill Paterson, and Ben Crompton rounded out the cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and filming took place in Dorset and Devon, England.

The film stars James, Hammer, Scott Thomas, Dowd, Riley, Paterson, and Crompton. The cast, especially James, Hammer and Thomas, represent the characters with uncommon intensity.

The film is so faithful in spirit and detail that the same eerie spell emanates from the screen as from the book. Wheatley's direction is a masterpiece, one of the best that the Netflix screen has seen, and Laura Rose's photography is likewise raveworthy. A meeting of two cinematic titans who made a film that managed to feel like a product of both and neither of them at the same time. The film is a ghost story without a ghost, a murder mystery without an explicit act of murder. In its essence, the film is another entry in the Wuthering Heights school of dour, somber, psychological drama, steeped in ultra-British atmosphere. Though overlong...it is beautifully done. There are so many rich interpersonal relationships. This is not a romance or a history, but a bout of delicious Gothic psychoanalysis. Wheatley's first Netflix film is a sumptuous and suspenseful adaptation of du Maurier's romantic novel. It's an elegant production, beautifully photographed and designed like a dream house shrouded in mourning, but it also favors the pictorial over the cinematic and surface over subtext. The Hitchcock adaptation, however, ultimately prevents the film from living up to its reputation as one of Wheatley's best.

Simon says Rebecca receives:



Also, see my review for Happy New Year, Colin Burstead.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Series Review: "The Haunting of Bly Manor" (2020).


"From the creator of The Haunting of Hill House" comes The Haunting of Bly Manor. This Gothic romance drama series, created by Mike Flanagan and loosely based on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. It is the follow-up series to The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and the second entry in The Haunting anthology series. Dead doesn't mean gone. An au pair plunges into an abyss of chilling secrets in this gothic romance.

In late February 2019, Netflix announced a follow-up series to Hill House entitled The Haunting of Bly Manor, loosely based on James' 1898 horror classic. Though it would serve as a follow-up series to Hill House, it is a standalone story, indicating that there would be "no dramatic link between The Haunting of Bly Manor and its predecessor." Although the prominent source for the adaptation is The Turn of the Screw, the season also adapts (some more loosely) multiple James works, some of which had never been adapted previously, including The Romance of Certain Old Clothes and The Jolly Corner. By late September 2019, Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Carla Gugino, Rahul Kohli, Greg Sestero, Lynda Boyd, and Alex Essoe were cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late February 2020. Filming took place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The series stars Pedretti, Jackson-Cohen, Thomas, Siegel, Gugino, Kohli, Sestero, Boyd, and Essoe. The cast brilliantly showcased relatable characters trying their best to conquer demonstrable villainy inside the house and inside themselves.

A cinematic masterpiece of the small screen. One of the best Netflix original shows out there, and my favorite horror experience in recent years. It's atmospheric, with a nearly consistent undertone of dread, peppered with just the right amount of jump scares to spice things. Yet, at its heart, the series is much more than a ghost story. Another achievement of Flanagan's vision is that the series never really feels overbearing or long - each episode is crafted to keep the audience engaged and on their toes with existential dream looming around every corner. The series rewards those who aren't afraid to confront their own ghosts, those bumps in the past that still linger, and head back to where it all began. It's absolutely worth booking a room. Classical, but innovative, precious in the visual but without more squeamishness than necessary, Flanagan distances himself from the cinematic trends with a series full of interesting details. The show's exploration of collective and individual grief, while often moving, can also feel a little trite and glib. Still, this is an unusually earnest attempt to look at emotional trauma within a horror setting. A really cool concept win which no one ever really talks about what happens to people after the haunted houses, the anxiety and the trauma. It is so cool to watch, and I love the way it bounces back and forth. Flanagan puts together a project that pulses with an eerie but naturalistic vibe, further concurring that horror can not only be great, but it can be fantastic.

Simon says The Haunting of Bly Manor receives:



Also, see my review for The Haunting of Hill House and Doctor Sleep.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Film Review: "Dick Johnson Is Dead" (2020).


From the director of Cameraperson comes Dick Johnson Is DeadThis documentary film directed by Kirsten Johnson and co-written by Johnson and Nels Bangerter. As her father nears the end of his life, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson stages his death in inventive and comical ways to help them both face the inevitable.

Johnson was inspired to make the film after having a dream in which "there was a man in a casket and he sat up and said, 'I'm Dick Johnson and I'm not dead yet'". When she pitched the idea to her father, she asked him, "Dad, what if we make a movie where we kill you over and over again until you really die? And he laughed". The film incorporates Johnson family photographs and home movies, including that of Richard Johnson's wife who died from Alzheimer's disease in 2007.

To explore Johnson's immersive film is to witness a unique, powerful memoir unfolding and unfurling. It is a fascinating and largely successful exploration of a form, a body of work, and of an incredibly talented cinematographer. Utterly captivating. Memories shape who we are as individuals. With that context in mind, the film becomes one individual's noble attempt to capture those unforgettable moments in her life and forever memorialize them. Gorgeous and captivating; full of themes of war, motherhood, and oppression; this is a compelling, moving look at the creative process and the people behind the camera. The film is one of those rare viewing experiences that may really test your patience, and only you will know if that's a good or bad thing. This is a film I won't soon forget, and a big part of me wants other notable documentary cinematographers to make movies just like it, telling their stories in a similar fashion. The film comes alive with possibilities in every scene, mutating and evolving from moment to moment like an engrossing conversation. This is the essay film at its finest, a personalized meandering through ideas and stories, at once autobiographical and universal. It serves as a peek behind the curtain of documentary filmmaking, exposing even more than what's usually shown in the genre. It's a fascinating glimpse into the work of the person behind the camera, composing and fretting, making sure every shot is aesthetically sensible. An autobiography of sorts, the film demands we think beyond Johnson's own extraordinary career and reflect upon our own status as observers, and the ethical and emotional responsibilities that come with it. Slow, subtle, yet ultimately mesmerizing, the film is a very personal testament to one exceptional filmmaker's love affair with her profession. By drawing no distinction between her personal and professional lives, Johnson suggests that she values her work as much as her family. Johnson's film is nothing less than a masterpiece of documentary cinema, one that welcomes the complexities and contradictions of subjectivity. A life behind the lens is examined in the film, a fascinating, purposely disjointed documentary from Johnson.

Simon says Dick Johnson Is Dead receives:



Also, see my review for Cameraperson.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Film Review: "The Social Dilemma" (2020).


"The technology that connects also controls us." This is The Social Dilemma. This docudrama film directed by Jeff Orlowski and written by Orlowski, Davis Coombe, and Vickie Curtis. Set in the dark underbelly of Silicon Valley, this film hybrid fuses investigative documentary with enlightening narrative drama. Expert testimony from tech whistle-blowers exposes our disturbing predicament: the services Big Tech provides-search engines, networks, instant information, etc.-are merely the candy that lures us to bite. Once we're hooked and coming back for more, the real commodity they sell is their prowess to influence and manipulate us.

In addition to exploring the rise of social media and the damage it has caused to society, it focuses on its exploitation of its users for financial gain through surveillance capitalism and data mining, how its design is meant to nurture an addiction, its use in politics, its effect on mental health (including the mental health of adolescents and rising teen suicide rates), and its role in spreading conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and aiding groups such as flat-earthers. The film features interviews with former Google design ethicist and Center for Humane Technology co-founder Tristan Harris, his fellow Center for Humane Technology co-founder Aza Raskin, Asana co-founder and Facebook like button co-creator Justin Rosenstein, Harvard University professor Shoshana Zuboff, former Pinterest president Tim Kendall, AI Now director of policy research Rashida Richardson, Yonder director of research Renee DiResta, Stanford University Addiction Medicine Fellowship program director Anna Lembke, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier. 

Orlowski's suspenseful and thought-provoking documentary focuses on the ethical and existential crisis of technology. The film makes you feel vaguely sick, especially when it explains how the destruction of moral ethics could lead to the existential destruction of humanity. A story of passionate pioneers and experts who are concerned about technology's moral ambiguity becomes a clarion call for change and one of the year's most essential movies. The film is a remarkable experience, one that teeters between overwhelming the viewer with the scope of humanity's ruin and inspiring them to find ways to help. I strongly recommend watching the film, after which I urge you to please reconsider your social media accounts. Because seriously, folks, you will never see them in the same way again. The urgency of this problem requires people to become informed about the issues, starting with seeing the film either at the IFC or on Netflix. This cautionary tale is far more grand than social media, and once we realize as much, perhaps we can reverse the consequences before it is too late. By film's end, you'll not only see your social media differently but also as nightmares in which they will be no escape if you allow it to control you. The film makes a powerful case less through argument than by using cinema's most basic tool: visual proof. The message will stay with you, but so will the nagging sense that you can't really do anything unless you happen to be a world leader.

Simon says The Social Dilemma receives:



Also, see my review for Chasing Coral.