“Destiny has brought me here! Destiny has brought me this pork chop!”
And a silly food fight ensues between Napoleon and Josephine, just minutes before director Ridley Scott unveils a simply breathtaking recreation of 1805’s Battle of Austerlitz.
Scott’s Napoleon is a film that succeeds with moments both big and small, but suffers from a lack of connective tissue that might have formed it into one unforgettable whole.
Joaquin Phoenix makes the legendary emperor and military commander as endlessly fascinating as you’d expect, while Vanessa Kirby’s equally mesmerizing turn as Josephine creates a dynamic that authenticates Napoleon’s lifelong devotion.
But even if we didn’t already know Scott’s 4-hour director’s cut is coming, this 2 and 1/2 hour version ends up feeling like a stunningly crafted, IMAX-worthy appetizer. It’s every bit a grand spectacle with epic vision of history, but never quite the incisive character study that may be waiting in the streaming wings.
Somewhere on the other side of Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers lurks Emerald Fennell’s bacchanal, Saltburn.
Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a loner attending Oxford on scholarship, is befriended by the most beautiful, richest of the rich, Felix (Jacob Elordi, so good earlier this year in Priscilla). They become such good friends at school that Felix invites Ollie home to Saltburn, his family’s honest to God castle, for summer break.
A tale of casual cruelty versus calculated cruelty, Saltburn flirts with any number of have-nots in a have land stories: Rebecca, The Little Stranger, and most evidently, The Talented Mr. Ripley. That doesn’t mean the Oscar winner who penned Promising Young Woman lacks an original thought on the matter.
Fennell’s film is a seduction, sensuality dripping from every frame, every image – the interiors, the grounds, the bodies. On display is unimaginable wealth, and the fantasy of decadence and isolation that accompanies it. Felix’s family is drawn to Ollie like vampires to human flesh and blood. That they will tire of him is inevitable, and that he will do terrible things to remain in their graces is also inevitable. But that’s not truly the story.
And even if you have a clear sense of the direction the story will take, the tension will break you.
Not everything works in Fennell’s film, but man, Keoghan does. No one plays the vulnerable, potentially dangerous outsider quite as he does. Elordi is tender and lovely in an appropriately superficial way, and Gran Turismo’s Archie Madekwe nails the insecure wealthy-by-technicality cousin with ease.
The image of vacuous wealth becomes cartoonish, however wonderful Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike are as Felix’s wildly oblivious, inhumanly privileged parents.
It’s tough to watch a film that asks you to empathize with, much less pity, the grotesquely wealthy. Luckily, Fennell doesn’t. Her effort is far more cynical, finding obscene wealth and the desire for obscene wealth equally unappealing, if not equally villainous.
The filmmaker loses her way before she gets to the magnificent final dance scene. We relive clues and take a hard turn that feels too genre for what had been a glorious mess. In the end, Saltburn often feels like a story you’ve seen before, told with more style and meanness. But style and meanness count for something, and this cast understands that.
Paul Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” is a one minute and 43 second impression of being content and in the moment. It feels like a possible anthem for the Slow philosophy—an approach to life that values taking one’s time, doing things at the right pace, valuing the quality over the quantity in life.
Writer/director Lila Schmitz’s one hour and 13 minute documentary has a similar approach.
The Job of Songs is about the community of session musicians that populate the small village of Doolin in County Clare in the west of Ireland—the area around the Cliffs of Moher. An isolated village until the 1970s, folks gathered in homes to play traditional (“trad”) Irish music and to dance.
Opening the Cliffs to international tourism brought in increased revenue and enabled musicians to pursue their art professionally, but it also changed the cultural scene. Folks dashed in on day trips to take a snapshot of the Cliffs, but failed to linger and really take in the place and the people.
Tourism meant that performances moved from private to public spaces—out of the kitchen and parlor and into pubs and restaurants. But performing trad music is still a community activity. At a session, anyone is welcome to pick up their instrument or raise their voice and join in, even if they only know a couple of bars to a piece.
Through candid interviews and emotional performances, Schmitz’s film explores the changing culture of Doolin and the various purposes songs have in the lives of the Irish of the West country. It’s a source of entertainment, yes. But songs also carry the often melancholy history of the Irish people and culture, allow the saying of otherwise unspeakable things, and give people permission to feel things that are not easily understood intellectually.
The film explores the different aspects, both dark and light, that this musical culture has in people’s lives. While the session scene brings people together, it also has ties to drink, depression, and suicide. And though singing the old trad songs maintains a connection to Ireland’s past with its history of brutal colonization, famine, and emigration, Schmitz also leaves space to explore the change that technology, tourism, and a recent history of immigration has brought to the scene. She shows how a culture so rooted in a place can slowly change over time.
The music of Luka Bloom, Eoin O’Neill, Kate Theasby, Christy Barry, and Ted McCormac (among others) could be draw enough, but slowing down to appreciate the way the cozy light of the pub provides an antidote to winter’s gloom goes a long way toward making a person feel pretty groovy. As does the drama inherent in the view of the green of the land ending abruptly in the pounding of the ocean. It’s a movie worth savoring.
An insurance investigator is pulled into a who-done-it murder mystery in writer/director Travis Burgess’s film, Hayseed.
Bored from the moment he enters the small town of Emmaus, Michigan, investigator Leo Hobbins (Bill Sage) becomes intrigued when Darlene (Ismenia Mendes) tells him the esteemed reverend’s death wasn’t an accident, nor was it suicide (Hobbins’s reason for investigating). It was murder.
From the get-go, we’re introduced to a colorful cast of characters, each with their own stories and ideas about what happened. It’s a small-town, so gossip runs rampant – some of it true, most of it false. Several characters feel like people you know. Others are awfully quirky, but it works for this comedic mystery.
Hobbins might draw comparison to some of the other big-screen detectives we’ve seen over the last several years, but Sage creates his own character – one who is charismatic in his own droll way. Though Darlene is a member of the community, her status is that of an outcast. Several question her relationship to the reverend and her influence on him. Together, our dynamic duo leads us deeper into the mystery surrounding the reverend’s untimely end.
There are several moments when you might feel like you know where the mystery is headed, but it doesn’t harm the film. Many pieces fall into place as we prod further alongside Hobbins. There aren’t any obvious red herrings, nor are any threads untied. This is a tidy package, one wrapped by a writer who knows how to draw you in and lets you attempt the solve the mystery.
While the conclusions might not be entirely obvious, there is enough on the table to leave you satisfied by what comes of the sleuthing.
With a larger cast, some characters are less well-developed than others, but no one feels underdeveloped. These are all people who have a place, and it’s easy to differentiate one from another – no small feat when working with so many characters. While our two leads are the focus of the show, there are others who stand-out, particularly Joyce Metts (Kathryn Morris) with her bitchy gossip and snide comments.
Overall, this is a film that works well. While it might be overlooked in comparison to other, recent murder mysteries, it’s not fair to draw too many comparisons. This is a movie that deserves its own consideration, and you’ll have fun if you let yourself be draw into the mystery.
Adorably subversive, that’s how I would label Disney’s new animated feature, Wish. Chris Buck’s latest, co-directed with Fawn Veerasunthorn, strings together in-jokes and homages to Disney’s past to camouflage its fight the power message. Unfortunately, the balance doesn’t emphasize storytelling and the result is middling.
Asha (Oscar winner Ariana DeBose) is interviewing to become apprentice to King Magnifico (Chris Pine). Magnifico is much beloved, and not just because he’s so very handsome. It’s also because he takes such good care of his people’s wishes, which they donate to him when they turn 18 and then forget all about. Once in a great while, he grants one. But mainly that’s to mollify the masses.
I smell a message, and it is one I can get behind. Hold your elected official accountable, people. Do it! You owe them nothing.
Your animated movie owes you some things, though, and Wish struggles a bit to provide those things. Obviously DeBose has a voice, and her songs are solid. Pine’s a charmer and spot-on as the aggrieved leader. Better still, Alan Tudyk voices the Disney-required sassy animal sidekick, Valentino. He’s unnecessary and adds nothing to the actual narrative, but he’s a bit of fun and Tudyk’s an impressive vocal talent.
Asha also has seven buddies. One’s smart and wears glasses. Another sneezes a lot. One’s bashful. Another one is always drowsy. Get it? Just one (or seven) needless winks, as if to say, “We love Disney! We just hate entitled men in power who refuse to share that power with the very people who’ve built their fortune.”
Bit of a mixed message.
Of course, none of that matters if the film itself is a fun, gorgeous, memorable time for the kids. Wish has its moments. It often looks quite lovely. Each performance delivers something bright and fun. While the songs are not especially memorable, they’re enjoyable enough while you’re watching.
In truth, Wish shares a lot in theme with last week’s The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. And though that film is no masterpiece, it digs into the idea that you cannot fight the power from within. This is where Wish misses the point. It’s trying to do something radical without upsetting anybody, and that’s just not possible.
Adam Sandler and the whole TV Funhouse bunch get together for an animated kids’ film about a classroom pet who puts his many years of observing children to good use.
Leo (Sandler) the lizard, along with terrarium pal Squirtle (Bill Burr) the turtle, has lived in the same Florida 5th grade classroom for decades. At 74, and believing his life expectancy merits it, Leo plans to make a break for freedom. Instead, he becomes a kind of life coach to 10-year-olds.
Leo has a lot going for it. Sandler’s soft-hearted comedic presence feels perfectly at home in the classroom, while Burr’s patented “get off my lawn” crankiness offsets things nicely. The story, written by Sandler along with co-director Robert Smigel as well as Sandler’s frequent writing partner Paul Sado, touches on helicopter parenting and other anxieties authentic to modern youngsters.
The premise allows for lots of fun and funny moments as, by helping each kid better understand themselves, Leo comes to recognize his own purpose. There are also wildly random moments of comedy that feel in keeping with the filmmakers’ TV Funhouse origins while helping the film stay fresh.
The downside? Leo the film cannot seem to find its own purpose. It is essentially a musical, although in between songs you will forget that entirely. Nothing about the proceedings suggests the whimsy or theatricality of a musical, and though a couple of the songs are fun, every single number feels stitched in for no reason. Very few of the singers can sing and not one of the songs is memorable enough to merit its inclusion.
Worse still, Leo feels long. Trimming the songs wouldn’t hurt the story and it would seriously benefit the run time.
Sandler’s carved out a mainly mediocre presence in family entertainment, with three Hotel Transylvania films and Hubie Halloween. Earlier this year, he produced and co-starred in the absolute charmer You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, also for Netflix.
Leo doesn’t reach the heights of YASNITMBM, but it aims higher than the others and frequently endears.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
by Hope Madden
If I’m honest, I didn’t need another Hunger Games. While I recognize that the history of the games, the political upheaval that pushed society toward this level of privileged inhumanity, was certainly rife with possibility. But I couldn’t muster any interest, certainly not 2 ½ hours worth.
That’s saying something, because two of my all-time favorite actors – Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage – co-star. And Davis plays a mad scientist of sorts, which is inarguably intriguing. And Dinklage plays the actual creator of the hunger games themselves, so both villains? OK, I’m not made of stone. I’m in.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes – while too long and cumbersome for a single film – delivers a scathing and pointed reflection of modern society with more precision and bite than any of its predecessors.
Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blythe) would one day rule the Hunger Games and all of Panem (played in the previous four films by Donald Sutherland), but today, he’s just trying to finish prep school and win the coveted Plinth scholarship to the university. But this year, there’s a catch. To win the scholarship, you need to mentor a tribute. They don’t have to win, they just have to make enough of an impression to draw viewers.
Again taken from a dystopian YA novel by Suzanne Collins, the latest Hunger Games holds a mirror up to society and sees power and privilege – and the lust to keep them – as cataclysmic to humanity. Collins is not wrong. And she’s not in a forgiving mood, bless her.
Davis and Dinklage are characteristically wonderful, Davis a particular delight in a weirdly sinister role while Dinklage offers a mournful, broken soul for the film.
Blythe’s arc is long and tough, and he convinces with a very human turn that’s all the more chilling for its understatement. Rachel Zegler plays the tribute in question, Lucy Gray, stealing scenes with a rebellious fire and f- you attitude. Jason Schwartzman is weatherman/amateur magician and Hunger Games host Lucky Flickerman, injecting the film with humor that’s equal parts flashy and cynical.
Francis Lawrence returns to direct, after helming all but the 2012 original. While his previous efforts balanced flash with action, the latest installment loses footing as it travels from one grim reality to another. But when a protagonist’s future is not in question, it can be tough to generate real empathy, interest or tension. Lawrence, thanks to a game cast and a go-for-blood script, manages to do it.
At this point, it’s a good bet that any Rolling Stones fan who is familiar with the name Brian Jones is 1) dedicated 2) old or 3) both.
With The Stones and Brian Jones, documentarian Nick Broomfield aims to add some numbers to that list, reminding all who will listen about Jones’s place in the Stones enduring legacy.
It was, after all, guitarist and blues devotee Brian who is credited with forming the band at the age of 19. He recruited Mick, Keith, Charlie and Bill via other groups or local advertisements, and was the Stones figurehead until the Jagger/Richards cocktail of rock charisma and songwriting prowess began to take over.
As he did with 2019’s Words of Love: Marianne and Leonard, Broomfield leans on archival footage and interview audio to effectively stamp the time and place. He surrounds us with England in the 1960s, pulling us into the story of a young man whose troubled relationship with his parents drove both his ambition and his self-destructive nature.
We hear from other musicians (retired Stone and devoted archivist Bill Wyman serves as a consultant on the film), friends, family and the various girlfriends who bore his 5 children. And while we certainly get a peek behind the rock star curtain (“He just uses people”), Jones’s eventual fade into the background comes off as inevitable.
His haircut was mod, his aim to keep the band bluesy was pure and his attention to fan mail was sweet, but he didn’t sing and didn’t write songs.
Again, do the math.
For music fans, Broomfield has assembled a wealth of audio and video that feels like a must-see scrapbook on the birth of a legend. Ironically, it all casts a spell that’s only broken by the more recent Zoom-like interviews that are included (including Wyman, which only draws more attention to the absence of Mick and Keith).
It’s hard not to smile as a young Brian tells a reporter that he’d do it all again “a hundred times,” and wonder if he ever could have imagined that even today, the history of the band he started would somehow still be adding chapters.
But Brian’s personal history was cut short, and much like in Words of Love, a parting note from long ago becomes a bittersweet ode to the real lives that got away from the people living them. Mr. Jones may not have been a survivor, but as Broomfield makes clear, he should be remembered as more than a footnote.
He hasn’t gone anywhere, and I don’t mean to imply that what he’s made in recent years is bad. In 2021 he made a remarkable documentary on The Velvet Underground, and his previous two narrative features – Dark Waters and Wonderstruck – were worthwhile and interesting. They just weren’t very Todd Haynes.
Perhaps after his 2015 masterpiece Carol, the capstone to a string of magnificent and unusual films (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven and I’m Not There), it was time for Haynes to find his stride with a more mainstream audience.
May December feels more like Haynes of old: a sultry situation masquerading as hum drum, populated by Tennessee Williams-esque damaged beauties wanting, wanting. Plus, Julianne Moore.
Moore, who stunned in both Safe and Far from Heaven, returns to Haynes-land as Gracie. Years back, beautiful Gracie went to prison for loving the wrong man. Well, boy. 7th grader, actually. Indeed, she had Joe Yoo’s (played in adulthood by Charles Melton) baby behind bars. But after prison, Gracie and Joe built a life together. Their oldest daughter is in college now, and their twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu) are just about to graduate from high school.
Soon-to-be empty nesters, Gracie and Joe welcome (if somewhat reluctantly) TV star Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) to their home. In just a few weeks, Elizabeth will play Gracie in a new independent feature film about Joe and Gracie’s life.
Portman is magnificent, biting into a role with more salty meat than anything she’s handled since Black Swan. Elizabeth is, of course, not what she appears to be. But what’s magical in Portman’s performance is the way the actor utilizes odd moments to reveal who Elizabeth truly is.
Moore is characteristically brilliant and wonderfully enigmatic. Elizabeth’s goal is to understand Gracie, which makes that the main goal of May December, but Moore’s not giving an inch. Is Gracie the master manipulator people might believe, or is she the babe in the woods she projects? Or is human nature more complicated than that, no matter how much movies and actors and audiences try to believe otherwise?
The whole cast impresses, but it’s Melton who truly surprises. The one innocent in the film, stunted by a lifetime of repressed and lived trauma, his Joe is the heartbreaking emotional honesty in a film that flaunts insincerity.
The filmmaker, working from a script by Samy Burch and Alex Menchanik, finds wry humor in the soap opera nature of the tale. It’s a morally ambiguous, gorgeously realized character study. It’s so good to have Todd Haynes back.