[Early Review] The Sparks Brothers (2021)

Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael
135 mins. Rated R.

When I first heard that Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) had directed a documentary, I remember taking a moment to ponder the idea. How would an Edgar Wright documentary actually work? What topic would Wright choose to document? Where would his signature style best be utilized? After the moment ended, I said, “Well, it would have to be a music doc, right?” Yes, as a matter of fact, it was.

The Sparks Brothers is the story of…well, the Sparks Brothers, or perhaps, the band Sparks and the two brothers who have continued to make music for about 50 years, having created 25 albums, and basically being the most underground of musicians, loved by many but never discussed in the pantheon of great artists. As musician Beck eloquently puts it at the beginning, if you get a bunch of musicians together for a conversation, by the end of the night, they’ll end up talking about Sparks (he put it better than I did, but I don’t have the quote in front of me). But who exactly are Ron and Russell Mael? Are they really Americans? How have they persisted, decade after decade, as the culture has evolved? And why does no one talk about them the way they deserve? These are the questions Edgar Wright, fan of the band, puts forward, as we hear from former members of the band and fans like Patton Oswalt, Weird Al, and Mike Myers, as well as the titular brother themselves. The film is a narrative odyssey of a band I never knew.

As stated above, I was familiar with one Sparks song, and I’d only heard that one song one time, and I can’t even remember where, so don’t take this next statement lightly: in less than 2 1/2 hours, Edgar Wright turned me into a Sparks die-hard fanboy. I caught the film last night at an early screening, and all day today, I’ve been listening to their music nonstop. At lunch, I stopped by a record store to see if I could find any old albums. I’ve been humming the music even when it’s not playing. I’m obsessed, and there lies the brilliance of this Edgar Wright documentary. It’s not the style (though the style is great), it’s that he chose a topic that is so universally unrecognized, and he gave a crash course for viewers like me. In a way, this is a sister (or perhaps brother) doc to Searching for Sugar Man, another brilliant doc from several years back chronicling a musician that the public seems to have missed.

We spend a lot of time with the brothers, Ron and Russell, throughout the film, and their onstage charisma works just as well when they’re sitting on some stools being asked questions and walking us through their careers and lives. From the noble beginnings as Half Nelson to all their successes and failures (though I would only refer to these as commercial failures because the music throughout is never less than astonishingly funny, catchy, entertaining, and deeper than expected), we see a band led by two artists in a constant state of rebirth. Sparks is like a butterfly that gets out of the cocoon and then says, no, let me try that again, before jumping back in.

It was also interesting to see the wide berth of fans that the band has accumulated in their time. There are some interesting personalities I wouldn’t have guessed to appear here, like Neil Gaiman and Flea. Hearing how each of them fell in love with the band is just as much fun as hearing the songs themselves.

On that note, Wright makes the strong choice of dissecting the band from their very beginning, understanding that many of the people who watch this documentary will likely not have known much about them. I didn’t, and the doc is at its best when it recognizes this feat. Perhaps the only flaw (if there has to be one) is that the finished film is pretty long, but I’m not even sure what I would cut. I think it takes a bit before it really gets going. I wanted to hear the music of the band, so perhaps waiting on the backstory and childhoods of the brothers in order to anoint viewers with the band as adults might actually have helped, but again, I don’t think I’d cut anything. The film is working to its strengths as it guides us through, album by album, year by year, like a stylistic and frenetic VH1 Behind the Music episode.

I cannot recommend The Sparks Brothers highly enough. Seek this film out, and (dare I say) see it in a theater if you can. I know, you’re probably balking, “But it’s just a documentary!” To that, I would argue that this doc feels, at times, like a concert film and a comedy and a love letter to music, artistry, and pop culture. Edgar Wright’s masterful directing keeps the narrative flow at an accessible level, even for those of us who knew nothing about Sparks going in. It will make a fan out of you, one song at a time.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, click here.
For my review of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, click here.
For the Why I Love…Cinema episode on Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, click here.

[Early Review] In the Heights (2021)

Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Screenplay: Quiara Alegría Hudes
143 mins. Rated PG-13.

We are starting to return to a level of normalcy. Projects that I’ve been excited about for many months are actually coming out, and they are coming to theaters (and, in some cases, HBO Max at the same time). Last week was the first official time I’ve been in a theater since March 2020. I went to see Spiral (From the Book of Saw). A few days later, I attended my first Early Screening for another anticipated film, In the Heights, which we’ll be discussing today. In the Heights is an exciting movie for me in many ways. Following up on Crazy Rich Asians, I was very excited to see what director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) would direct next. I’ve also become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda (even though, I’ll say it, I haven’t seen Hamilton yet), and I’ve enjoyed the music and elements he has added to productions like The Force Awakens and Moana. I’ve also been following the trajectory of Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKLansman, Iron Man 3), who has consistently impressed me. The trailers also continued to raise my interest in the project (I love a stylish new musical), and thankfully, upon seeing the finished product, I have to consider it (mostly) successful.

Set on the streets of Washington Heights, New York, we follow several intersecting stories in the days leading up to a massive blackout in the hot summer. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, A Star is Born, Hamilton) strives for identity as he searches for a way out of Washington Heights, all the while working up the courage to utter just a few words to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, L for Leisure, Two Times You), a frequent customer in his bodega. Benny (Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher, finds his situation further complicated when his ex, Nina (Leslie Grace), returns home from Stanford unexpectedly. Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector, TV’s NYPD Blue) has been scraping and surviving to help pay her college, but in doing so, he is losing a portion of himself. As the days get hotter and we head toward that inevitable power outage, the residents of Washington Heights are all in search of their passions and worth in a society that seems so often to forget them.

A film adaptation for In the Heights has been in development since 2008, and several directors have stepped in to attempt to get the project off the ground, and off the success of Miranda’s Hamilton, the project finally saw some movement, and director Chu at the helm was the perfect choice to capably adapt the musical for theater audiences. There’s an understanding from Chu that adaptation is not perfect translation (a stage musical is very much not the same thing as a film), and he adds stylistic flair to the film, especially during the many musical numbers, that showcase that this is indeed a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals and their occasional excessive grandeur. Specifically, I really liked the added animation as our cast of characters head toward the pool, and I wish the film did this more often. Chu has a notable gloss to his visuals, sometimes to his detriment, but in a film like In the Heights (and his glamorous predecessor Crazy Rich Asians), it provides a joyful and entertaining bit of movie-making that’s just beautiful to look at. The cinematography, in conjunction with the impressive dance choreography, is stunningly on display here.

The musical numbers may not work for everyone who doesn’t like the speed of rapid-fire rap dialogue, but I rather enjoyed them, even if I admit to have missed a lot of information being relayed in each song. The film’s simultaneous release on HBO Max may actually work to its benefit (the experience is best in theaters, but I’m excited for a free second viewing on my HBO Max account on release day just to put subtitles on and re-experience the music this way). Most musicals require a second viewing for a full appreciation (or at least some repeat YouTube plays for some of the more memorable numbers) and In the Heights is no exception, but at least you have the option of that second viewing at home. I’m particularly looking forward to revisiting “96,000” (seriously, knowing nothing of the film, I wondered how a song with that title could be enjoyable, and I admit defeat in this arena).

It’s obvious that the director took inspiration from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in presenting Washington Heights in the hot summer sun. Whereas Lee’s film showed the heat heading to a boiling point, Chu’s less-stressful film instead allows the resiliency of his characters to be whittled away amid the heat. Keeping all the action on these streets and using the ticking time-bomb of the blackout, similarly to Tarantino’s countdown to the Manson murders of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is very effective and consistently reminds the audience that we are heading to a collision, uncertain of what exactly will transpire when the lights go out on Washington Heights.

Let’s talk about the characters, starting with Usnavi. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the theatrical production as well) captures something very exciting about Usnavi, and her creation of the character alongside Anthony Ramos’s earnest portrayal gives a larger-than-life character that still feels so human and relatable. I foresee a solid future for Ramos, who stayed memorable with limited screen time in A Star is Born and truly shines here. The framing device works even if it is something we’ve seen before and know where it’s heading the whole time.

Corey Hawkins and Jimmy Smits both consistently turn in exemplary work, no matter the project, and here again is no exception. Hawkins takes the musical stylings he learned while working on Straight Outta Compton and turns Benny into a likable albeit flawed man who oversteps his bounds when his heart is checked, and I liked the back-and-forth with Smits’s Kevin Rosario, who mines the tension from their working relationship and the complication of his daughter Nina. Smits is never not putting forth the effort and elevating the work around him.

For me, the absolute surprise breakout of In the Heights has to be Melissa Barrera as Vanessa. I’m unfamiliar with anything she’s done previously, but I was unable to take my eyes off her throughout most of her screen time. Hers is an honest and passionate portrayal of someone who feels the unflinching hands of time working against her and life goals, and I felt for the confusion she is facing as multiple major life decisions come upon her. She never once feels overplayed or cliché, even in a film that has more than a few plot conveniences.

I can’t think of a single performance in In the Heights that was underwhelming, and the biggest flaw with the film is not the performances of the characters but perhaps a bit too much focus on too many secondary characters. In the Heights is overly long, and it feels lagging after the major blackout begins. The night of the blackout is full of interesting plot movement, but the days following the blackout up until when the electricity finally returns to Washington Heights feel unnecessary, seeking to service too many characters that don’t have the impact of our leads. I kept wondering why the film continued, and it wasn’t until the final time jump following the blackout that the film finally reeled me back in. In the Heights does not need to be over two hours, and while some of the secondary characters perhaps had more purpose in the theatrical production, I just didn’t need to see an ending for some of the secondary characters like Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wild Things, Sex and the City), and it didn’t really grab me until we returned focus back to Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa. I like the vignette-style of the film, but I didn’t feel the need to keep checking in on certain characters. Look at the Piragua Guy (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). His character shows up a few times, gives some lightheartedness and musical delight, and then recedes. I needed nothing more from his character, and the film didn’t necessitate an arc for him. That same mentality could have been given to Daniela and the salon girls. They provided some great character beats early in the film, but the meandering post-blackout story for both them and other secondary characters gave me nothing of interest to grasp onto.

In the Heights was a breath of fresh air, and it seems like the perfect film for this time. Not only is the Midwest experiencing an epic heat wave (power, don’t fail me now), but as we continue our return to normal life and, for many of us, return to the cinema for the first time in months, In the Heights is a joyful welcome back, full of captivating characters, an accessible and relatable story, and a significant reflection on the immigrant experience in America. I don’t have to tell you that, as a straight white male in society, I am represented to an overwhelming extent within the entertainment industry, but I love seeing the full representation of other races that movies like In the Heights and Crazy Rich Asians brings to cinemas. Though the finished film drags a bit, In the Heights was the enjoyable experience I needed as life returns to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy, and I think you’ll find something to love here too.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Land (2021)

Director: Robin Wright
Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir
Screenplay: Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam
89 mins. Rated PG-13.

The story behind Robin Wright’s directing of Land, her feature directorial debut, came about by a mere scheduling conflict. Wright, who had previously helmed several episodes of House of Cards as well as the short film The Dark of Night, was asked to direct the film when all the pieces had come into play but there was no director, and the film had to be completed with production in 29 days. The entirety of Land was shot in those 29 days with Wright, who appears in every scene, behind the camera as well as in front.

Land is the story of Edee (Wright), a grieving woman who has purchased a plot of land deep in the Wyoming forest. She doesn’t seem particularly skilled at living off the grid, minus a phone and any technology, and when she nearly dies in a snowstorm, she is luckily rescued and brought back to health by Miguel (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight, Chaos Walking), who also lives in the wilderness nearby and has passed her house several times. Edee would much rather be alone, but she’s in no condition to push Miguel away. Miguel instead offers to teach her to successfully hunt, fish, and care for herself in the wild. Edee takes him up on his offer, and she begins to see all the ways that they are more similar than she expected.

Land is a solid debut for Robin Wright as a feature director, but it is not without its faults. The pacing of the narrative holds mostly well for 89 minutes, but this is a case where even 89 minutes feels a little too long. I don’t think the extended periods of Wright all alone on screen consistently maintained my interest. I held this criticism for the Robert Redford film All is Lost, another movie with even less dialogue than Land, but both struggled to keep my focus on the narrative with the lack of visual action onscreen. I never had flat-out signs of boredom, but I found myself checking the time more than once.

The film’s cinematography makes up a lot of ground, though, thanks to some truly striking imagery of the beauty in Wyoming (well, the film was shot in Canada, but we are meant to see Wyoming). The shot composition did a lot to position me in the world with Edee. I felt cold watching the snowy environment and I could almost smell the morning dew on the blades of grass. It’s a wholly arresting bit of scenery that evokes every sense.

I also found Wright’s performance to be quite strong as Edee. I would have liked to peel back the layers of her character earlier on in the narrative. We get a big emotional information dump at the end of the film that would have been more interesting had it shown up earlier than the final ten minutes. We get bits and pieces of her backstory as the film moves along, but we never really get the ability to reconcile with her past and her pain because the movie ends as soon as we get the story that Edee’s been struggling to bury at the very end and therefore the reckoning that we’ve been waiting on never really occurs, though we are meant to believe it has.

Wright plays off of Bichir very well. In fact, so often, Demián Bichir is the secret weapon of any film, as he can do so much with so little. He’s easily the best part of the underwhelming The Grudge from last year, and he even stand out among The Hateful Eight with limited dialogue and screen time. Bichir and Wright have such solid chemistry and they each come at their roles differently, Wright with stoic sadness and Bichir with a limited sense of hope and happiness. The scenes with the two of them onscreen are electrifying.

The only element of the film that flat-out doesn’t work is the invasive and, dare I say, annoying score that invades every scene like an unwelcome intruder. It grates on the ear drums and, though I can sense what it’s trying to do, it never seems to add anything to the film but irritation.

Land has more strengths than weaknesses, and the strong acting from Wright and Bichir as well as an arresting bit of visual delight save an otherwise more forgettable movie. There’s just a lot here that has been done before, and better, but I wouldn’t say that Wright’s feature directorial debut is a bust. It’s a solid little movie for an afternoon matinee, and I would still give it a slight recommendation, if you can handle the score.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] The Mauritanian (2021)

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch
Screenplay: Michael Bronner, Sohrab Noshirvani
129 mins. Rated R.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most people haven’t heard about Guantanamo Diary or Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I had only heard bits and pieces in passing and had never taken the chance to look into the story of Slahi and his incarceration at Guantanamo Bay, but that’s where film can help to cohesively relate the story of a man without freedom in the aftermath of 9/11. Of course, we can’t always rely on film to “teach” us anything; that’s not its most important purpose. We are merely here to be taken away, to experience the world in a different light, and through that lens, The Mauritanian has a lot to show us.

After an opening sequence just months after the terror attacks of 2001, we jump to 2005 and meet Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs, Contact), a defense attorney who is brought in to help with Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet, The Kindness of Strangers) and his case, or non-case really. Slahi has been held at Guantanamo Bay for years. He hasn’t been charged with a crime, and yet, he is interrogated for 18 hours a day and treated like a prisoner. He is not allowed contact with his family, and he’s run out of ways to say that he doesn’t have any credible answers to the questions he’s being asked. Now, Hollander has to prove that the United States has no legal rights to hold him, but her quest becomes more complicated as various agencies are unwilling to part with, what they call, classified evidence.

I’m not alone amongst viewers of this film that recognize The Mauritanian’s problematic pacing issue. I don’t think it ruins the film by any stretch, but the film flip-flops between a fast and pulse-pounding movement and an agonizingly slow plotting that damages the second act. In a way, this pacing helps to underline the frustration that Nancy feels in trying to peel back the layers of this mystery, but after a time, it just started losing me. If not for the captivating finale, I don’t know if I would have been as engaged with the film to the extent that I was.

And make no mistake, I think The Mauritanian is quite good. It’s cast is captained by the always-excellent Jodie Foster, a uniquely-talented performer who turns in another impressive role in a way that only she can. There’s a subtlety and nuance to the way Foster acts; she isn’t bombastic or explosive, but there’s a simmering to the way she acts that showcases a lot of storm beneath the calm that she exudes, and her take on Nancy is no exception. The scenes she shares with Rahim are layered and powerful.

Rahim is also getting a lot of attention as Slahi, and though I can’t really recall being aware of him before, he definitely leaves his mark on the character and the film. Rahim has the toughest role in the film. To those of us who don’t know how this story played out in real life, we can’t be honestly certain of his guilt; perhaps he has a dark secret, perhaps he is truly innocent, and a good amount of tension is mined from that question throughout the narrative. Rahim has to play Slahi with a level of humanity that makes us uncertain to trust him as much as he has uncertainty to trust Nancy, and then his performance must make the audience question why they do or do not trust him, and he capably holds his own with a powerhouse like Foster.

Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 1917) appears in the film as Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor for Slahi’s eventual trial, and yet again, he confirms that he can do just about any role. His screen time is short, but he provides an interesting antagonistic approach to essentially the same task as Hollander. He’s looking through mountains of evidence, trying to find something that can be linked to Slahi, and he’s doing it with a timer ticking down to a forced trial date.

If there’s a weak link in the main cast, it’s Shailene Woodley (Divergent, Endings, Beginnings), who plays Teri Duncan, associate of Hollander’s who finds that her connection to the case is creating more problems at home. I can’t fault Woodley for her performance, but more because she really isn’t given anything to do that allows her to actually perform, and the one interesting facet about her character is given surface-level screen time and nothing really gets fleshed out. It’s not that her performance, it’s merely that doesn’t need to be there.

The Mauritanian also struggles with its narrative timeline. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Life in a Day 2020) plays with some aspect ratios to highlight the jumping-around-in-time narrative structure, but each time we flashed back, it took me a minute to ascertain where I was in the timeline. This is far too dense a story to make this leaping from time period to time period really work the way Macdonald envisioned it. It also underplayed Rahim’s impressive work by jarring me out of the film for every flashback, most of them surrounding Slahi’s incarceration.

The Mauritanian doesn’t get everything right, but its shining performances make up for a plodding execution and a screenplay that seems, at times, unfocused. With Foster and Rahim at the head, though, we get some truly memorable work from a giant of the business and a rising star. It also has a third act that left me emotionally drained. It’s not the feel-good movie of the year (in fact, its at-times bleak outlook may prove too much for 2021 audiences), but I still think it’s well-worth your time.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] [Dark Star Festival] Climate of the Hunter (2019)

Director: Mickey Reece
Cast: Mary Buss, Ginger Gilmartin, Ben Hall
Screenplay: Mickey Reece, John Selvidge
82 mins. Not Rated.

Recently, I was able to virtually attend the Dark Star Festival, where I was treated to several new and upcoming releases. While I was not fortunate enough to catch all the films that played, I was able to see Climate of the Hunter, a low-budget horror film with a lot of style and a unique filmmaker behind the camera. Today, let’s take a look at this “vampire” film and see if it’s worth hunting down.

Climate of the Hunter is a small story, mainly concerned with two sisters, Elizabeth (Mary Buss, Lord Finn, Camp Cold Brook) and Alma (Ginger Gilmartin, Fingerprints, Hosea) as they meet up at a cabin to reunite with an old friend they’ve not seen for twenty years, Wesley (Ben Hall, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, Adventures of Rufus: The Fantastic Pet). As Elizabeth and Alma each try to gain the romantic interest of Wesley, Alma begins to suspect that he is a vampire.

There’s little new in terms of story for Climate of the Hunter (it almost feels like a mumblecore vampire film in the simplest terms), but the real impact of the film is in its director, Mickey Reece (Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart, Arrows of Outrageous Fortune) and his uncanny ability to present a simple and easily accessible story within the confines of a gorgeously atmospheric dreamscape of a film. Reece has crafted a visually arresting world here that is unlike much of what I’ve seen before, even though the film’s cinematography evokes elements of 1970s horror cinema in its execution. There’s also bits of Napoleon Dynamite-like meal platters and bits of dialogue that seemingly misdirect viewers in the narrative. It’s almost like a hangout movie mixed with gothic horror to great appeal, but it never feels like it’s trying to be smarter than its audience. Though full of dreamlike, striking imagery, it isn’t attempting to go over your head, at least for the most part.

Where the film ultimately stumbles for me is in its climax and closing moments, for I was quite enthralled by most of the story up until that point. I felt like the narrative was driving us somewhere captivating and unusual for its finale, I ended up being quite let down by an easily guessable, underwhelming end that left a sour taste in my mouth, and not in any way that works. It’s an ending that we’ve seen before, and it never seems to work for me. It’s also an ending that leans away from the atmosphere that the whole film has been building to. It’s just all-around a disappointing way to complete a journey like this one. I won’t go as far as to say that it is a bad ending or that it ruined the film. It just lessened the impact of the movie drastically.

Climate of the Hunter works until it doesn’t. Thankfully, it works for the first 90%, and the swift run time allows for a less-than-stellar ending to not fully detract from the overall experience of the film. It also gets my recommendation. It’s a weird, wild, surreal, and memorable movie that makes a hell of a case for its crew. Mickey Reece is a director to keep an eye out for, and Climate of the Hunter is a strong outing, for the most part.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Songbird (2020)

Director: Adam Mason
Cast: KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser, Demi Moore
Screenplay: Adam Mason, Simon Boyes
90 mins. Rated PG-13.

Songbird is a film I didn’t know anything about before I started my screening. All I really had going for me was a very Quiet Place-y looking poster and the notion that it was written, filmed, and edited during the 2020 pandemic. I didn’t know what the plot was but the cast list was pretty respectable. Also, Michael Bay produced it, so I wasn’t sure how he could put explosions into a movie that was made during a pandemic, but I was curious to find out. I always have a laugh when Michael Bay produces a movie that uses his name in the marketing because he isn’t a great director, so the name doesn’t help, but Songbird is a film that couldn’t be any worse than if Bay himself had helmed. I can make it pretty clear for you: this movie sucks.

Set in 2024, Songbird tells the story of the world of COVID-23, a much more deadly version of the coronavirus that has a higher mortality rate, as it ravages the world. We are given several interconnected stories mostly set in the LA area, mostly centered around Nico (KJ Apa, I Still Believe, TV’s Riverdale), an immune delivery boy who wishes to get an illegal immunity bracelet for his girlfriend in order to free her from lockdown in her apartment. We also get a look at a budding friendship between artist and streamer May (Alexandra Daddario, Baywatch, 1 Night in San Diego) and one of her followers, Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya, Da 5 Bloods), as she struggles with a relationship with someone who promises to help her career but seems to only want one thing from her.

I’m not sure if there’s a message to Songbird. In fact, I hope there isn’t one, because this movie is riddled with issues, most notably the main character, someone we should want to root for, is breaking the law to free his girlfriend, a potential carrier of a deadly virus. Why should we feel for them? Why should we want them to win? Then, there’s the narrative that people go to the “Q Zone” when quarantined but they don’t come back. Now, I get that the virus of the film is not COVID-19, but naming your virus COVID-23 creates the sense you are trying to connect the two. It’s clear that director Adam Mason (Blood River, Alice in Chains: Black Antenna) doesn’t understand how COVID-19 works, and he just decided to make COVID-23 do whatever is interesting for his narrative, unaware of the perception he is creating for viewers.

None of the stories in the film are entertaining, and none of the characters ever get out of a place of stock character tropes and plot points seen before in more interesting stories. The screenplay, co-written by Mason, just kind of has a lot of things happening, none of the very interesting. The idea, from the very beginning, that anyone would want to watch a pandemic horror movie about COVID is fundamentally flawed, and his storytelling showcases a lack of respect for the current situation of the country, where we are right now, where we were just months ago, and where we may be in a year. I’m not sure what the plan was for this narrative, for these characters, and for this movie, but it feels like this respectable cast owed a favor to a member of the production staff.

Even from a technical perspective, nothing in the film is very engaging. The cinematography is simple (the production crew needs a lesson in lighting), the editing boring, and the sound design rather dull. I could get past all of this in the grand scheme of things (filmmaking with a small crew and social distance guidelines) if the story wasn’t just so dull. As it comes down to it, the technical aspects of the film are the least of their problems. Hell, I’m not even sure what Songbird means as a title. Did I miss something?

Songbird is a bad movie on every level. There’s nothing that works here, from the inception of the story to the completion of the final product. Beyond that, this is just a tone-deaf piece of cinema that is clearly missing the mark in every way. This is a pandemic horror-thriller that should stay quarantined from viewers. I wouldn’t be so mad if this film didn’t try to make a mockery of the pandemic we’re currently in, but that’s exactly what it does. Seriously, this is one of the worst movies ever made. Ever.

1/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Uncle Frank (2020)

Director: Alan Ball
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root
Screenplay: Alan Ball
95 mins. Rated R for language, some sexual references and drug use.

On first look, the poster for Uncle Frank didn’t really win me over. It wasn’t until I saw the cast list and realized that it was written and directed by Alan Ball (Towelhead). Now, that got me interested. I’ve been a big fan of Ball’s work in the television field with shows like Six Feet Under and True Blood, and I really enjoyed his screenplay for American Beauty, but I hadn’t heard of Uncle Frank at all until seeing this poster, usually a bad sign. I was hesitant but intrigued as I prepared for this screening (thank you to Amazon for letting me stream the film in advance from my home), but I’m pleased to say that Uncle Frank is one of the best movies of the year.

Told from the perspective of young college-bound Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis, It, TV’s I Am Not Okay with This), the film is a recounting of the events of 1973, in which she traveled back home to attend her grandfather’s funeral with her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Solo: A Star Wars Story). Frank is heading toward the reunion with trepidation. He’s a homosexual, and he’s been keeping his secret for years. His family doesn’t know, and his deceased father hated him. Frank’s journey is further complicated when he is join by his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi, The Losers, TV’s Six Feet Under). As Beth attempts to understand her uncle in this new way, she sees him heading for a confrontation with his past.

I love a good family drama with enough dry wit to keep the tone bubbling, and that’s something that Alan Ball excels with. Uncle Frank is like the best of the family dinner episodes of Six Feet Under, where awkwardness and drama hold hands at the table and force everyone to air their dirty laundry. His writing is witty, his emotional beats pack a punch, and his direction is very character-focused. Ball’s camera is laser-focused on the character interactions and he lets them drive his story, and while that story has been told before, it’s done so here with a sense of joy that these types of stories don’t often get. You can critique the occasional schmaltz of the narrative, but I really needed that, and the catharsis is both interesting and relatable, proving that it isn’t the story you tell, but how you tell it, that matters.

Paul Bettany has always had the ability to disappear in the role by mixing elements of the written character with his own natural charisma, but as Frank, he plays it so well that you forget he’s even acting. It’s hard to even call his work a performance because it’s so real that I couldn’t find the theatricality behind it. Perhaps that’s because he is so well-paired with the overly-theatrical Peter Macdissi as Wally, Frank’s secret partner. The two have such tremendous chemistry, and Macdissi is much less hard-edged than I’ve seen him in other work, that the dramedy mined from their relationship just feels lived-in.

I was also impressed with Sophia Lillis, who burst onto the scene back in 2017 with It and the 2019 sequel. Oftentimes, you wonder if these younger actors have the experience to flourish as they select new projects, but Lillis proved to be capable in commanding the screen with more well-known performers. The rest of the supporting cast is filled with veteran performers all giving solid supporting work, from the always underrated Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Tall Girl), as Frank’s brother Mike, to the sharp-tongued Margo Martindale (August: Osage County, The Kitchen) as Frank’s mother.

Uncle Frank does not reinvent the wheel. This story has been told many times, and yet, under the strong screenwriting hand of Alan Ball, and with his keen attention to character, this story is a lovely and sometimes joyful but always poignant story that deserves being told again. While I wished we got to see more of the journey to the funeral (it sells itself as a road movie but spends a lot less time in transit), I was still entranced from beginning to end. See this movie. It just might be one of my favorites of the year.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Sound of Metal (2019)

Director: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric
Screenplay: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder
130 mins. Rated R.

Sound of Metal has had a long road on the way to being completed. Initially Derek Cianfrance had been working on a film called Metalhead, described as a docufiction, which has languished in post-production since 2009. That film will likely not see the light of day anytime soon, so one of the writers of that film, Darius Marder (Loot), has instead stepped into the director’s chair with a complete reworking of that film’s story from the ground up, crafting a new movie from the bones of Metalhead, with Cianfrance’s blessing. There was also a previous attempt at making this film in 2015 with a completely different cast, and now, after premiering in the film festival circuit last year, Sound of Metal is finally dropping on Amazon Prime in December. It’s been a long road, so is the movie any good?

The film stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Weathering With You) as Ruben, a drummer touring the nation with girlfriend and band mate Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One, Life Itself). Through several nightly concerts, Ruben begins experiencing sudden spurts of hearing loss. Ruben also learns that the cost of implants to save some of his hearing is going to run tens of thousands of dollars, money he doesn’t have. The stress of losing his most important sense has Ruben contemplating drug use again, so his sponsor sets him up at a rehab clinic for the deaf, where he begins a journey of discovery in a world without sound.

Sound of Metal is a character piece, through and through, and it doesn’t work if its central character doesn’t work. After many notable supporting roles, Riz Ahmed kills it as Ruben. There are a lot of emotional beats in this performance, from Ruben’s anxiety and stress to his emotional loneliness while at the rehab home, and in his frustrations in trying to communicate in a world without sound. Not to mention Ruben’s contemplation over drug use after years of being clean. There’s a lot happening in Ruben’s head, and then taking away the character’s ability to hear and interpret conversation in the way he is used to needs to come across realistically. Ahmed is able to handle all of these factors in a performance that is equal parts bombastic and subtle, creating a well-rounded character that isn’t always likable but always captivating.

The rest of the supporting cast is quite strong as well, most of it made up of a largely deaf group of actors. They add layers of realism to the world and help to elevate Ahmed’s performance. I was quite fond of Olivia Cooke’s work as Lou. She disappeared into the role so seamlessly that I didn’t even realize it was her, thanks to a strong level of makeup and costuming with her character. Then there’s Paul Raci (No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie, She Wants Me) as Joe. I don’t think I’ve seen Paul Raci in a performance before, but he was wholly captivating, and his chemistry with Ahmed was incredibly strong. Their scenes ranged from emotional to heated and sometimes both at the same time, and I was taken in by it all. All of these players just added to the sense of realism at play here.

Marder’s film does not try to dazzle with unique cinematography, it isn’t showy in its execution, but where it does stand out, from a technical perspective, is in its exemplary sound design. The way in which the sound is given to us as viewers and then taken away to put us in Ruben’s headspace is some truly powerful work in forcing us to confront the problems he is encountering with him. This element, combined with the choice not to utilize subtitles for the ASL scenes until Ruben begins to understand them help to put us in the character’s shoes in a way that left me in awe.

Sound of Metal is a hard watch, I’m not aching to see it again, but Darius Marder’s film really drives home life’s way of surprising us. It’s a story about coming to terms with unpredictability on our individual journeys, and for me, it broke my heart to see Ruben consistently struggle throughout the film. It’s an introspective movie, one that I very much recommend.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

Director: Jake Kasdan

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito

Screenplay: Jack Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg

123 mins. Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content, and some language.

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle kind of surprised everyone when it came out back in 2017. I was not expecting much, and similar to Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, the trailers left me not knowing what to expect. Was it a true sequel to the original film or an updated remake? Why exactly did it exist at all? Well, upon seeing it, I and many like me were in shock with how much fun it was, and I was looking forward to a sequel. The question, however, still remained: could director Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Sex Tape) do it again?

It’s been some time since Spencer (Alex Wolff, Hereditary, Dude) and his friends had their journey in Jumanji, and now they are out of high school. It seems like everything is going well for them, except that Spencer is depressed, missing the purpose he once had in the game, and he decides to go back, but the game is broken, and it’s starting to glitch. When Martha (Morgan Turner, Invincible, Wonderstruck), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain, Literally Right Before Aaron, TV’s Charmed), and Bethany (Madison Iseman, Annabelle Comes Home, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween) learn that Spencer is in Jumanji, they decide to go in after him, but with the game glitching, they end up not choosing their characters, and the game has pulled in two other unlikely allies to join them on the journey.

The Next Level does not reinvent the franchise in the way that its predecessor did, but it’s still a fine and funny little adventure. Again, our main avatars are a lot of fun. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, San Andreas) is probably the most mixed of the performances here, as his impression of Danny DeVito (Matilda, Dumbo) has its hits and misses, never getting to the groan-worthy level but never being flat-out spot-on either.

This is perhaps my favorite performance by Kevin Hart (Ride Along, The Secret Life of Pets 2) in any film. How he melds Moose Finbar with Milo Walker (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon, The Dead Don’t Die) is comedy gold.

We also get new to the series Awkwafina (Ocean’s Eight, Between Two Ferns: The Movie) as Ming, a stereotyped video game character that proves that whatever spirits were in charge of creating the Jumanji game were pretty prejudiced. In fact, let’s see that movie next time. Back to Awkwafina though, who proves herself capable of melding the comedy, the action, and the emotion of playing Ming as an avatar.

The adventure this time around is a little zanier, a little more wild, and I personally felt, considerably less difficult. Seriously, the fact that Smolder and Moose are both pretty worthless for a bulk of the film, the actual gameplay of getting through Jumanji goes a lot simpler for the players. I guess I could write it off as a game that adjusts difficulty for its players, but is it really?

Jumanji: The Next Level doesn’t bring anything crazy to the franchise. It’s a lot funnier than the previous film and the action is quite fun to behold, and even though Jake Kasdan aims for the stars, it isn’t altogether a more cohesive and sensible follow-up. There’s a lot in the movie that doesn’t really make sense and some things that stretch belief, even in a film like this. All in all, fans of Welcome to the Jungle will have a lot of fun. I sure did, but I don’t think this is the one to win over critics of the previous installment.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Jake Kasdan’s Sex Tape, click here.

[Early Review] 1917 (2019)

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Dubercq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Screenplay: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns

119 mins. Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language.

 

I knew very little of 1917 until I caught it at an early screening. The single trailer I had seen looked impressive, but I didn’t know about the task of creating the film that led to its most incredible and jaw-dropping feat, the fact that it was filmed and styled to look as though it were shot in a single take. At first thought, this film seemed like one that’s narrative may not allow for something as difficult as that to actually successfully happen, so how did it all turn out?

Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Before I Go to Sleep, Blinded by the Light) has been tasked with delivering an urgent message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game, Avengers: Endgame), and he has less than 24 hours to do it, as Mackenzie and his men are about to walk into an ambush that could lead to the deaths of 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s older brother. Now, Blake and his fellow soldier and friend, Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Been So Long), have precious hours to complete their mission, and time is their greatest enemy in the journey.

Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Away We Go) always has a unique vision to his projects, and 1917 is no exception. It would seem that his time with the James Bond films has upped his ambition, and 1917 proves to be his most challenging visual film. As I stated earlier, he and cinematographer Roger Deakins (the greatest DP is history, just saying) have crafted their film to look as though it was shot in one long-continuous take. This requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, as obviously their mission took longer than 120 minutes, but it’s more about the journey it puts the audience in than the realistic time-frame of the mission. For the most part, too, it’s an incredible feat of filmmaking. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the expertly-planned shots, and it did trick some people into thinking the film was done in a single-take.

Care should also be given to the editing. A film like 1917 wouldn’t work without someone able to stitch the whole thing together and create the illusion of a single-shot, single-take. The pacing of the overall film as sequences flow from one to another is only able to keep interest if the editing works, and it does.

Our two leads in Chapman and MacKay do some pretty good work together. Neither of them are the best of the year performers, but given minimal dialogue and a mostly physical performance from both, there’s a level of strained-friendship and brotherhood between the two of them, something that war and battle have the ability to create in its soldiers.

The screenplay, Mendes’s first, co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairnes, is mostly incredible, but I feel like it didn’t service the two leads with enough character development to really flesh them out for the audience. There’s some emotional beats in the film that would have been better served if the characters were more-layered early on in the film. Blake and Schofield are developed through their actions quite nicely, but I just needed more character.

The rest of the supporting cast is exemplary in the film. In order to elevate the two relative newcomers in the lead roles, Mendes and the casting director placed as many upper-talent supporting roles in place to help, and it’s great to see so many fine actors supporting the journey, and it works to elevate MacKay and Chapman through interaction.

1917 is an excellent war film, one of the best ever put to film. This is an instant classic in so many ways as it illustrates the unrelenting nature of battle and war and the toll it takes on those involved. It’s also a story of brotherhood among soldiers and a promise made, and I was absolutely enthralled in it from start to finish. For a film done seemingly in one shot, there are countless sequences that are seared into my brain and I can’t stop thinking about it. This will stay with you long after leaving the theater.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Sam Mendes’s Spectre, click here.

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