Brothers in Harms

Zeros and Ones

by Hope Madden

Abel Ferrara, man. Dude refuses to follow a traditional film structure, and sometimes that works so well. Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction — two of my favorites — took on a dreamlike atmosphere thanks to the filmmaker’s loose structure and it suited both pictures.

Beginning with 2014’s Pasolini, Ferrara seems to have abandoned the standard framework entirely, his films becoming more dreamlike than lucid. His latest, Zeros and Ones, follows that path.

Ethan Hawke stars in this hazily connected sequence of scenes emphasizing one man’s journey toward a realization about himself, his brother and the world around him. Hawke plays both the journeyman, a military specialist of some kind, and his brother, a freedom fighter in Rome.

Hawke wanders empty post-pandemic Rome as bits of military and religious debauchery and double-crossing weave and bob across the screen. Meanwhile, Hawke’s voiceover oscillates between meta-Christian reflections and calls to action.

For his part, Hawke delivers two discernibly different characters, sure, but in keeping with Ferrara’s themes, two distinct types: apostle and wayward soldier. Nothing feels scripted, and with a veteran like Hawke, that works out fine. Like Willem Dafoe in so many of Ferrara’s recent films, Hawke inhabits the desolate dreamscape with a weary resignation, a ghost guiding us toward some dark inevitability.

Zeros and Ones is a pandemic film, but rather than feeling like a filmmaker doing whatever they can with the situation, this one seems like an opportunity Ferrara has been waiting for. He isn’t doing his best within unreasonable constrictions, he’s finally found that empty, nihilistic apocalypse he’s prepared for. The empty streets and lonesome, masked figures feel apiece of his greater goal.

What was that goal? What is it always? The world is filth, hope is futile, man is doomed. You’ve seen his films, right? If so, you probably already know where you’ll fall on Zeros and Ones. It is less poetic and self-indulgent than Tommaso or Siberia, less sensible than his earlier work, and less compelling than a lot of what he’s done. And the explosions look ridiculous.

And yet, there is nothing quite like an Abel Ferrara film.

Louder Than Words

tick, tick…BOOM!

by George Wolf

What’s an aspiring writer to do when his first major work is bypassed for the eager anticipation about what he’ll do next?

He takes his agent’s advice to “move on to the next one. And write what you know.”

Broadway trailblazer Jonathan Larson – Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and composer of Rent – agonized for 8 years over Superbia, a futuristic musical that never earned a full production. When Larson did move on to the next one, it became tick, tick…BOOM!, his autobiographical story of a composer named Jon whose final days as a twentysomething bring feelings of rejection and inadequacy.

ttBOOM! made it to off-Broadway in 1990, with revivals beginning in 2001,15 years after both the phenomenal success of Rent and Larson’s tragic death from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35.

Now, director Lin-Manuel Miranda brings Larson’s story of struggling artistry to the screen with an infectious exuberance and undying respect for those committed to the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.

Andrew Garfield stars as Jon, who waits tables in a New York diner, works on his musical and worries about how much other people have accomplished before turning 30 (“Sondheim wrote West Side Story at 27!”)

While Jon struggles to find enough money to keep the lights on, his longtime girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) mulls a tempting job offer in the Berkshires, and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) decides it’s finally time to give up the Broadway dream and get a real 9 to 5 gig.

While everyone – including Sondheim himself! (a terrific Bradley Whitford) – tells him Superbia needs one more big song in the second act, Jon rebuffs any need for a life “backup plan,” even as his tenuous relationship status and a co-worker’s HIV diagnosis remind him of each precious tick of the clock.

Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hanson, Fosse/Verdon) effectively layer the musical segments with real-life inspirations and one-man show beginnings that build to workshop performances and Broadway fantasies. From the birthday defiance of “30/90” to the pleading interplay between Garfield, Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens (as Susan’s stage persona) on “Come to Your Senses,” Miranda’s staging is lively and stylish, peppered by plenty of Easter eggs and cameos saluting years of musical greats (including Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth and two of Hamiton‘s Schuyler sisters in the show-stopping “Sunday” alone).

Garfield delivers an electric, committed performance, singing well and absolutely selling the manic, no-sleep-til-curtain-time tunnel vision that Larson clings to instead of admitting that there might be any other way to live.

And as a tribute to this life, the creative process and one man who personified both, tick, tick…BOOM! is a runaway hit. But in the process, it forgoes a sense of intimacy that might have brought us closer to Larson himself. That’s a trade-off the film ultimately seems comfortable with. Miranda, Garfield and company are going big here, and end up reaching the balcony with crowd-pleasing panache.

A Pair of Aces

King Richard

by George Wolf

You know how many parents are convinced their kid is destined for athletic greatness? Quite a few, and that’s just in your neighborhood.

So how – and why – did Richard Williams’s predictions for daughters Venus and Serena come so incredulously true?

That’s a compelling story, one that King Richard tells with enough restraint and humanity to sidestep most sports movie cliches and find layers of true inspiration.

The Williams family – Richard (Will Smith), wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), Venus (Saniyya Sidney), Serena (Demi Singleton), and three additional daughters from Brandi’s previous relationship – weren’t exactly welcomed into the L.A. tennis community when Richard put his master plan in motion.

Tennis was a sport for the rich and the pale. They were a Black family from Compton, often dodging gang activity for a chance to practice on run down community courts. Richard was dogged in his search for a coach, first landing Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) before Venus earned the entire family an invite to Rick Macci’s (Jon Bernthal, playing delightfully against type) exclusive training center in Florida.

In his debut screenplay, writer Zach Baylin follows a fairly standard biopic formula, but manages to weave in necessary layers of nuance. While we see that the doubt Richard encounters about his daughters’ future greatness is understandable, the added barrier of racism is understood without an overplaying the hand. In fact, Baylin’s script (or the editing bay) occasionally downplays obstacles that the Williams’s surely encountered all too often, seemingly mindful of the film’s 138 minute running time.

But director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) has a good feel for pacing, with well-placed bits of tension, humor and impressively-staged tennis sequences that never let the film feel sluggish.

And while you can hardly be blamed for detecting the whiff of “Will Smith Oscar bait” in the air, don’t be surprised if he lands his third nomination. The film is an inspirational crowd pleaser that steers refreshingly clear of pandering, and Smith responds with a performance that leans into the colorful personality of Richard Williams while checking his penchant for heavy-handed mugging.

It helps that Smith is constantly elevated by Sidney and Singleton, the two wonderful young actresses playing Venus and Serena, and the always amazing Ellis (Lovecraft Country, Ray, The Help). Though Brandi’s character is often strong and silent, there are fine moments that prove just how vital she is to the Williams plan. And by the time Brandi is dressing down Richard as just another man that won’t admit he’s scared, it’s clear how vital Ellis is to the film’s resonance.

Though Venus and Serena get Executive Producer credits, the film doesn’t ignore some problematic areas in Richard’s personality, and Smith makes the mix of crazy-like-a-fox determination, gentle humor and hidden scars one that -like Smith himself – is hard to dislike.

As the older sister and the first to find success on the tour, it is Venus that gets much of the film’s focus. But Richard’s prediction for Serena (“the best ever”) serves as a natural pivot to send us home with a reminder about how lucky we’ve been to witness their greatness.

And as the best sports movies always do, King Richard scores often enough to land its message past the fault lines. The Williams plan may have been heavy on tennis, but it’s anchored by life lessons that not only benefitted all of Richard and Brandi’s children, but would undoubtedly be an asset in any arena.

So what made Richard’s vision so much clearer than every other parent in the stands?

Just some unending determination and confident stubbornness. Plus two daughters with once-in-a-generation gifts, the passionate drive to excel, and the desire to make the road a little smoother for the next young phenom that isn’t white or wealthy. That helps, too.

Nun But the Faithful

Agnes

by George Wolf

After Agnes, some disgruntled horror fans may end up checking the credits for the stamp of A24. Don’t get me wrong, I consistently love A24’s brand of spooky, but I can’t deny that some of their trailers write a visceral check that the films themselves don’t always cash.

So don’t come to Agnes for some standard demonic possession fare, cause it ain’t here. But what director/co-writer Mickey Reece has in store ends up being bold and weird, funny and captivating, and in the end, even sweetly hopeful.

Opening with a convent birthday gathering that gets out of hand fast, Reece then introduces us to Father Frank Donaghue (Ben Hall), whose knowledge of the rite of exorcism earns him a meeting with the Bishop. Back at Santa Teresa, young sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) seems to have the Devil in her. Church elders want Father Frank and his neophyte Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) to cast it out.

Things don’t go well, leading Father Frank to call in reinforcement from the renegade Father Black (Chris Browning), a cocky, chain-smoking padre who puts Agnes through a hilarious bit of exorcising straight out of Airplane!

If you saw Reece’s Climate of the Hunter, you won’t be surprised by the layer of dark humor running through his latest. But what might surprise you is realizing that what happens to Agnes isn’t really the point here. The point is what happens to Mary (Molly C. Quinn).

Sister Mary committed to the convent after a tragic loss in her life but abandons the order following those clumsy attempts at driving the devil from her friend. From there, Reece also leaves the convent behind to focus on Mary’s attempts at re-adjusting to “normal” life.

The film’s tone takes a major shift, establishing a clear contrast between nunnery silliness and real-world struggles that reinforces an early observation made by Father Frank.

Belief in evil is on the rise, so where is the increased belief in Godly things?

Quinn (Mrs. Grady in Doctor Sleep) invites both curiosity and sympathy as Mary wanders wide-eyed and often expressionless, looking for a reason to believe. She proves a wonderful vessel for both Mary’s crisis of faith and Reece’s unconventional methods for raising worthwhile questions.

Follow its admittedly jarring path and Agnes just might make you find comfort in your next ham sandwich.

Second Sight

The End of Blindness

by Rachel Willis

In Ethiopia, 1.6% of the population is blind, 80% of them with curable ailments. But for the nation’s poorest, care is beyond their reach.

In director A.J. Martinson’s documentary, The End of Blindness, we follow Dr. Samuel Bora, the only ophthalmologist for a population of more than 3 million, as he works to treat as many people as he can.

With the help of the non-profit organization, Tropical Health Alliance Foundation (THAF), Dr. Bora operates primarily in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa. However, he spends two weeks out of every month traveling the country to visit the nation’s poorest villages.

Though focusing primarily on Dr. Bora, the documentary takes time to follow a few of those who seek treatment: a young mother who has never seen the face of her four-month-old baby; an older woman out of work for two years because of her blindness; a nine-year-old boy suffering traumatic cataracts after an injury.

By allowing us to spend time with a few of the people who desperately need treatment, Martinson gives these startling numbers a human face. For those of us so far removed from the idea of a five-minute, $50 surgery being unattainable, this is a reminder of the importance of access to quality medical care. In some ways, this gives the film the feel of one of those depressing commercials that hopes to elicit donations.

Further contributing to this impression is the deep timber of the film’s narrator. The crisis is laid out in simple terms with the narrator’s occasional input. The documentary’s score makes sure we recognize the importance of Dr. Bora’s work.

Yet, it’s impossible not to be moved when a patient has their bandages removed and the blank expression on their face gives way to a radiant smile that tells us the operation was successful. Dr. Bora’s work is crucial for a country where so many are devastated by blindness. It’s a crisis worthy of the attention the documentary draws to it.

For the squeamish, a few close-ups of eye surgery may have you turning away, but the images underscore the ease of the surgery Dr. Bora performs. It’s a stark reminder that this quick surgery is only possible because of the dedication of one man – who sometimes performs 60 surgeries in one day.

His dedication is a reminder that one person can make a difference. His story is worth telling.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Sociopaths

Ankle Biters

by Christie Robb

As we near the end of the year, pop culture tries to sell us on the idea that the small people who live amongst us are little doe-eyed innocents that deserve to be spoiled with sweet treats and presents and matching sets of family pajamas. Glossed over are the moments when their grown-ups awake in a cold sweat to find a shadowy presence in a onesie staring down at them. Or the times when they inform Grandma that she’s likely going to die soon. Or the phase when they turn to you on the couch and very casually mention something bone-chillingly creepy like that they want to see what “mommy looks like without skin.” 

Bennet De Brabandere, writer/director of Ankle Biters (originally titled Cherrypicker), isn’t trying to sell you on this whole sugar and spice con. In his movie, the kiddos may be small and doe-eyed, but they are also cold, calculating, and capable.

When recently widowed mom Laura (Marianthi Evans) starts dating hockey jock Sean (Zion Forrest Lee), Laura’s four daughters are predisposed to dislike him. They don’t want their dad to be replaced.

When Sean invites them away to his lakeside cottage for a bonding weekend and they notice bruises on their mom, the girls start to get worried. When snooping, they find cell phone footage of Laura and Sean involved in some rough sex and light bondage and make a series of wrong conclusions. Determined to protect their mom, the four girls turn what could have been an innocent vacation into a horror-comedy.

While the practical effects are pretty good, the standouts in this movie are clearly the Reid sisters (Lily, Violet, Rosalee, and Dahlia). They manage to convey the winsomeness and feral grit that combine to make up the foundational character of a young girl.

The adult acting perhaps leaves a little bit to be desired. Most of the dialogue seems to have been re-recorded after the fact. And rather than reacting to what another person has said or done, the actors often exhibit the blank stare of a person waiting their turn to talk. The plot leaves some loose ends untied. (What’s with the dog? And the lawyer?) And it misses an opportunity for the girls to gradually turn the screws on Sean. But the climax is absolutely delightful.

Love And Mercy

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

by George Wolf

“Genius” is a term often thrown around too casually, but about one third of the way through Long Promised Road, a moment drops that leaves little doubt Brian Wilson fits the bill.

Veteran producer Don Was sits in a recording studio with the original masters of God Only Knows, the classic pop symphony Wilson wrote and produced for The Beach Boys in 1966. As Was isolates track after track of those ethereal harmonies, he’s left to just shake his head in amazement.

“I’ve been making records for 40 years, and I have no idea what he’s doing.”

Credited with being an innovator of recording studio possibilities and the architect of the unmistakable Beach Boys sound, Brian has a long list of music business admirers, and director/co-writer Brent Wilson lines up an array of famous faces to sing Brian’s praises. From Elton to Springsteen, Foo Fighters to Nick Jonas and more, we hear nothing but well-earned respect and praise for a once-in-a-lifetime virtuoso. 

And that’s great, but it’s not exactly anything new.

What makes Long Promised Road resonate is the time we spend with the man himself, in rare moments when Brian feels safe enough to let his guard down and revisit people and places from his life and career.

Our guide is the film’s co writer Jason Fine, a longtime journalist who gained Brian’s trust over the course of several years and many conversations. Brian started hearing voices at age 21, and he is still troubled by mental health issues which can make formal, sit down interviews uncomfortable for him. So instead, Jason and Brian take to the road for some engaging carpool conversation.

They tool around Brian’s old California stomping grounds (some of which are now actual landmarks saluting him and The Beach Boys) as Jason asks about the past and Brian answers, while often calling out song requests for Jason to cue up in the car. Through it all, Brian comes across as a dear, sweet soul with minimal ego (he excitedly introduces himself to Vanna White in a diner), full of deep feeling and affection for those who’ve touched his life (even his father Murray and his longtime doctor Eugene Landy – whose relationships with Brian were at best volatile and at worst criminal).

Director Wilson (Streetlight Harmonies) intersperses the conversation with some terrific archival footage, at one point layering film of a young Brian directing the famous “Wrecking Crew” of studio musicians alongside more recent footage of him onstage and in studio. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition that brings the film full circle, giving us both a warm and often moving look back with a fragile genius and an illuminating glimpse of the maestro in his element.

The Pipes Are Calling

Belfast

by Hope Madden & George Wolf

As an actor, Kenneth Branagh can be very ALL CAPS. As a director, he’s harder to pin down. The one thing you can point to, whether his directorial efforts work or do not, is that they are theatrical.

I mean that in a good way, usually. For his latest, the bittersweetly semi-autobiographical Belfast, I mean it in a good way specifically.

Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film. Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.

Set the whole thing to a steady beat of Van Morrison tunes (natch!), and just listen to those pipes start calling.

It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.

That boy, young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill, stunning), has to wade through a crush on a smarter, taller, Catholic girl as well as his beloved grandfather’s failing health, his parents’ bickering over money, and, of course, the Troubles. (That is to say, the civil unrest in Northern Ireland that erupted around the time Buddy turned 9.)

Branagh surrounds his young star with talent in every direction, some of it a bit of a surprise. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench delight as Buddy’s grandparents, while Jamie Dornan impresses with a tender, earnest turn as his father.

Caitriona Balfe shines nearly as brightly as Hill, playing his fierce mother. Balfe benefits from the story’s greatest arc and most of its heaviest emotional scenes, carrying the film’s weight with grace.

Young Hill charms in every scene, though that’s something Branagh’s film has to spare. The script he penned of his memories sweeps you into an idealized, meticulously crafted yarn so lyrical it could be nothing other than Irish.

Yes, the film’s brushstrokes get fairly wide, but take that as an invitation to let Branagh’s memories spur your own – of parents and grandparents, close knit neighborhoods and days where wonder could be found most anywhere.

Is Belfast too precious? It comes close, but between a truly game cast and sheer filmmaking craftsmanship, the vision is hard to deny — as is the opinion that this is Kenneth Branagh’s finest film.

Vicious Cycle

Night Raiders

by Brandon Thomas

Good science fiction has always held a mirror up to humanity’s failings. The complex ways we continue to make bad decisions that impact society, our families and the planet have been fodder for incredible storytelling for decades. The genre has routinely used the present to paint a complicated future. With Night Raiders, Canadian director Danis Goulet looks backward – to North America’s bloody genocidal past – to make a statement about free will, colonization and identity in a dystopian future. 

Night Raiders opens with Niska (Elle Maija-Tailfeathers) and her daughter, Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), living an isolated and dangerous existence in the wilderness. In their war-ravaged world, children are taken from their parents so that they can be thoroughly conditioned to become soldiers. When Waseese is injured, Niska is forced to take her to the city for treatment. The film then jumps forward nearly a year and finds Niskia with a group of rebels, while Waseese has ended up in a “children’s academy,” which is really a reeducation camp. 

On paper, Night Raiders doesn’t sound all that different from countless other dystopian sci-fi movies. However, the film’s details make it truly shine. Making this an indigenous story featuring indigenous leads gives Night Raiders the kind of gravitas it wouldn’t have had any other way. The colonization metaphor isn’t subtle, but Goulet doesn’t beat the audience over the head with it. It’s impossible to tell this story in this manner without connecting those dots. 

Goulet wisely lets a sense of mystery hang over large portions of the story. There aren’t any characters providing lengthy exposition dumps to help the audience catch up. No, this is simply a world where something terrible happened, and the bad guys won the day. Night Raiders trusts the audience to fill in the gaps where needed, while knowing that not every last detail needs an exclamation point after it. 

Night Raiders is an exciting and fresh bit of sci-fi that succeeds largely by telling a well-traveled story through a compelling point-of-view.

I’m So Eggcited

Red Notice

by George Wolf

Heist Movie? Gal Gadot? I’m in.

Plus Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds.

I said I’m in! Sounds like a bunch of fun.

But somehow, it’s just not.

Johnson is FBI agent John Hartley, and he’s on the trail of Nolan Booth (Reynolds), the 2nd most wanted art thief in the world.

Who’s number 1? That would be The Bishop (Gadot), a mysterious criminal who always seems one step ahead of Booth in the quest to reunite three priceless jeweled eggs that Marc Antony once gave to Cleopatra. Yes, Cleopatra.

After a snappy, parkour-heavy chase to open the film, Hartley offers Booth the chance to move up to the top spot on Interpol’s Red Notice (highest level arrest warrant) list. All he has to do is help Hartley and the Feds nab The Bishop.

And the game is on!

Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence, Skyscraper) has assembled three charismatic A-listers for a globe-trotting adventure with glamourous locales, double crosses and a script full of quippy banter. And it takes barely thirty minutes to begin wondering how it all went wrong.

You would think that watching Gadot, Reynolds and Johnson do anything together would be at least a marginal hoot, but nobody seems comfortable. What chemistry there is feels forced, at best, and none of the three stars bring much beyond the personas they’ve earned in better films. Reynolds carries most of the comedic weight, but with schtick that’s nearly interchangeable from his two Hitman’s Bodyguard films, a stale odor appears early and often.

There are a few LOL moments, most notably Hartley and Booth arguing about Jurassic Park and the real Ed Sheeran showing up to fight some federal agents. But with direct references that include Indiana Jones and Vin Diesel, plus multiple outlandish wardrobe changes (Johnson can’t exactly buy off the rack, so who had the tailor made safari outfit?), Thurber ends up navigating an awkward space that teeters on spoof.

Is Red Notice really trying to launch a new action/comedy franchise? Or is it just riffing on the genre? Either way, it ends up on the naughty list. Even those two Hitmans Bodyguard films embrace their own ridiculousness to deliver some dumb, forgettable fun. Red Notice manages two out of those three, and that ain’t good.