Tag Archives: Daniel Baldwin

Screening Room: Missing, The Son, Alice Darling & More

That New God Smell

New Gods: Yang Jian

by Daniel Baldwin

Much like its 2021 counterpart, New Gods: Nezha Reborn, this latest film from director Zhao Ji offers up a brand new take on another portion of Chinese mythology. In New Gods: Yang Jian, we follow god Yang Jian, who after the war of the heavens has been forced to take up a job as a bounty hunter scouring both the immortal and mortal realms for quarry. After all, one has to pay for (cosmic) gas and food somehow. Whoever said gods couldn’t be relatable?

Armed with fighting abilities, his wits, and a harmonica, Yang Jian sets out on an epic quest in a world that pulls as much from steampunk and western tropes as it does swashbuckling fantasy. Add in a host of spirits, demons, creatures, and other gods and you’ve got yourself a compelling concoction. The animation brings it all to life, stunningly created with CGI; standing toe-to-toe with everything that the animation studios of Disney, Sony, and DreamWorks conjure up, year in and out.

Beneath its numerous fantastical elements lies a generational tale of family, love loss, grief, and regret. Yang Jian carries a heavy burden in his mind and heart over the loss of his sister (as well as the events that led to it). These feelings are only further complicated when his quest brings him face to face with her now-grown son, whom he had promised to protect, but ultimately abandoned to the care of others. They’ll have to set aside their differences and work together to stave off magical disaster, neither of which will be any small feat. If that sounds tropey, it is! But that’s not a bad thing for stories of this nature. The fun of them is in the journey itself, not in guessable destinations.

New Gods: Yang Jian might not be bursting with narrative originality, but what it lacks on that front, it makes up for in gorgeous visuals, fun characters, and exciting fantasy-action setpieces. If you want something that can offer up the heart of family adventure animation and the derring-do of superhero entertainment, you’ll get your money’s worth. Also, be sure to stick through the credits!

Aimless Butterflies and Deluded Bees

My Father Muhammad Ali: The Untold Story

by Daniel Baldwin

What becomes of the child of one of the most famous people in the world? What’s it like to have a father who you never really knew, because he was constantly on the road? What’s it like to have a mother that chose the fortune & glory of her husband’s life on the road over you? These are hard questions that this documentary is asking. Ones with very tough answers.

The title points toward a documentary focused on an untold side of Muhammad Ali’s life, but the actual film itself is almost entirely focused on the current life of one of his children, 50-year-old Muhammad Ali Jr. Junior has lived through decades of drug addiction, harassment, abandonment, financial issues, marital strife, etc. This is about him looking back at the trials, tribulations, and mistakes of his own life, in comparison to those of his iconic father.

Others are interviewed throughout – sometimes about Ali, sometimes about Junior – but Junior himself is the primary storyteller. He is an unreliable narrator; constantly dishing out his version of events and frequently dropping into unprompted impressions of his father as a defensive coping mechanism whenever his own faults are focused on too closely for his liking. It’s rather heartbreaking.

If that sounds compelling, it is, at least on paper. The filmmakers never seem to settle on any sort of thematic throughline for what they are showcasing, leaving the narrative (or lack thereof) being spun before us to just meander along in a highly segmented fashion. Because of this, the finished work feels less like a film and more like a miniseries that has been chopped down to feature-length.

The filmmakers know that Junior is often deceiving them, as well as himself, but outside of a few moments with a therapist, he is never called on it. Nor are enough witnesses to the contrary present to fully illustrate this. The sheer lack of voices from his early life leaves us with an unclear picture of his past. Context is key and this film is sorely lacking it.

There’s also the matter of his best friend/manager, who the filmmakers clearly do not entirely trust, but once again, they never bother to fully interrogate that. If they were intentionally leaving room for interpretation, they left too much. In the end, the final question is less “Are the sins of the father repeated by the son?” and more “Why does this film exist?”

Life Is Better in the Milky Way

Mars One

by Daniel Baldwin

The latest drama from Brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Martins, Mars One, lays out the story of a family’s trials and tribulations, set against the backdrop of a fascist right-wing leader being elected to power in 2018. The Martins are a lower-middle-class family, struggling to make ends meet. Their wants, needs, and beliefs are all running in separate directions, which is a tense thing to be occurring amidst such political upheaval.

Matriarch Tercia (Rejane Faria) has become overwhelmed by the supernatural fear that she is cursed. Patriarch Wellington (Carlos Francisco) sees that, given their skin color, their only salvation for future financial security can come in the form of son Deivinho’s (Cicero Lucas) soccer skills. After all, raw sports talent often glosses over any issues with social and/or cultural standing. Problem there is that Deivinho isn’t too keen on becoming a professional athlete. His personal dreams lie not in the clouds, but above them: he wants to become an astronaut and help colonize Mars as part of the (then-)planned Mars One mission.

Then there’s daughter Eunice (Camilla Damião), who longs to leave and live elsewhere with her girlfriend, out from under the influences of her parents. All of this makes for a rather tense and chaotic environment for the family, especially when it comes to understanding one another’s differences, but it’s not a situation devoid of love. Because of this, there’s a very tender and emotional undercurrent flowing deeply through the film amidst all of the familial strife on display. The performances are all touching, even those that hail from non-professional actors.

Where Mars One trips up is when it tries to focus on each family member’s arc equally. By serving no master, the film comes up short on delivering the goods as well as it might have had one family member been the primary focus. After all, there’s only so much story that can fit into a two-hour runtime. Still, this is a moving and often relatable family drama. It’s not hard to see why it has garnered such acclaim on the festival circuit. If down-to-earth familial drama is your thing, you’ll want to check this one out.

Screening Room: Avatar: The Way of Water, If These Walls Could Sing, Utama, Onoda, High Heat

Trope-ic Thunder

Black Warrant

by Daniel Baldwin

What do you get when you make an action film that combines Tom Berenger, Cam Gigandet, the director of The Gate, and a story by actor Michael Pare? You get an undercooked terrorism-themed actioner. You get Black Warrant.

The story follows two leads: Nick (Berenger) and Anthony (Gigandet). Nick is a long-since-retired CIA assassin that’s been pulled back into the field to take out three high-profile targets in Tijuana, Mexico. Anthony is a seasoned DEA agent following a trail of breadcrumbs toward the same sinister folks in the wake of a bust gone bad.

If you’re thinking the two are eventually going to come together to take out their mutual enemies, you’re right. If you’re thinking that the film also holds a really big & silly twist, you’re also right. This is bog-standard, trope-filled stuff that is content to never rock the boat throughout on a narrative level. You’ve seen this before and you’ve seen it done better.

The good news is that, even after 20 years of working in DTV action, Tom Berenger still isn’t phoning it in. He gives Nick doses of humanity that you don’t often see in films of this type. He manages to be charming enough in the role that one doesn’t mind as much that he’s clearly too old to be playing it. One would assume that an earlier version of the project was meant to star the aforementioned Pare instead. Given that he’s a decade younger than Berenger, he might have been a better fit on an action level, although perhaps not a performance one.

Gigandet is equally engaging as Anthony, giving the film another performance that it doesn’t really deserve. The movie also gets an extra bit of swagger in the form of a cameoing Jeff Fahey. The cherry on top, however, is Helena Haro as female lead Mina. A chef pulled into the middle of all of this insanity, she is the shining beacon of light at the center of this otherwise lackluster affair. Haro is beaming with excitement and charm in almost every scene. She’s a breath of fresh air and her chemistry with Gigandet somehow manages to make their poorly-sketched romance work.

If it weren’t for the cast, the writing and pacing issues would utterly sink this. Black Warrant may not be a terrible film, but everyone involved has done better work elsewhere. DTV action die hards might find things to like, but all others should steer clear.

No Leftovers Reqired

The King of Laughter

by Daniel Baldwin

Biopics can be a crapshoot sometimes. Try to cover too much of someone’s life and the film ends up reading more like a Wikipedia entry than it does a worthwhile story. Hyperfocus on one event and you risk missing the forest for the trees. Try to be too realistic and clinical with them and you’re likely to lose your audience. Try to get too wild and you might lose them too! It’s a fine line, one that many a filmmaker has tripped on.

Much like its subject, writer/director Mario Martone’s The King of Laughter is too much. A biographical drama about late 1800s Neapolitan playwright and actor Eduardo Scarpetta, the film is largely about Scarpetta’s legal conflict with playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio , whose play The Daughter of Iorio Scarpetta parodied. Given that the film is 133 minutes long, however, it’s not just about that.

Martone manages to pack so much movie into his movie here that it feels unlikely to drive viewers to seek out more info on Eduardo Scarpetta once it ends. Much like the feeling of being overfed after a big holiday meal, odds are high that viewers exit this film feeling that they’ve more than had enough of Eduardo. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It simply means that, for better or worse, Martone left it all on the field here. Baz Luhrmann did something similar with Elvis earlier in the year, although this isn’t nearly as successful. It’s just all a bit too unwieldy and overstuffed for its own good.

That’s fine, however, because the true centerpiece of this work is lead actor Toni Servillo’s showstopping turn as Scarpetta. An already massively-respected, award-winning performer whom arthouse viewers might recognize from Gomorrah and/or Il Divo, Servillo is positively on fire here from start to finish, delivering what is undoubtedly one of the best performances of the year. It’s truly no wonder that this film was in contention for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival only a few months back.

The movie around Servillo’s powerhouse turn is a bit too long, a bit too loud, a bit too garish, and just all around a bit too much. To paraphrase today’s kids, The King of Laughter is extra. Extra extra, even. Odds are that you already know whether or not that will appeal to you. All that aside, if you’re going to see it, Toni Servillo himself is 100% the reason to seek it out.

Someone Else’s Baggage

Bantú Mama

by Daniel Baldwin

When Bantú Mama first opens, we follow Emma (Claire Albrecht) – a French woman of African descent – as she quietly returns home on a city bus. She says hello to some neighbors, has dinner, feeds her parrot, and goes to bed. The next morning, she sets off on a vacation to the Dominican Republic, where she will spend a week relaxing at a luxurious resort.

Or so she thinks. Only a day or two into her stay, she gets a phone call. We don’t hear the other side of the conversation, but it’s clear that she’s going to be heading home early. We see her meet up with an unknown man and switch her belongings over to a different suitcase, before heading to the airport. There she is taken into custody by the authorities. The charge? Trafficking. It seems Emma is a drug mule.

Not long after, as luck would have it, Emma manages to escape custody and finds herself hiding/living in a dangerous Santo Domingo barrio with a group of children. They help care for Emma and she, in turn, helps care for them. After all, she’s not a bad person. She’s just spent her life surviving as best she can and this situation is no different. It might lack the luxury of the resort or even her previous life back home, but life is what we make of it. That said, maybe don’t go around carrying other people’s baggage? Literally, in this case.

Bantú Mama is a timely story of hardship, culture clash, compassion, and chosen family. The core performances are all compelling and refreshingly naturalistic. So too is the absolutely gorgeous cinematography, which primarily utilizes natural light. This is one of the most beautifully shot films of the year, so it’s no wonder that it is already in contention for awards season.

If the film has any major fault, it’s that it doesn’t really have a third act. There’s simply Emma’s life before the arrest and her life after it. Not every story needs to follow a traditional narrative structure, especially one like this that willfully plays around with more commercial thriller and dramatic tropes. It does, however, rob the story of some impact and staying power.

Still, this is a striking debut from filmmaker Ivan Herrera, who we should keep an eye on going forward. Ditto for cinematographer Sebastian Cabrera Chelin, who deserves some major recognition for the work on display here.

The Day the Music Lied

One Piece Film: Red

by Daniel Baldwin

What if Taylor Swift lured everyone to a huge music festival, promising to save the world with her new songs, literally through the power of music, Bill & Ted-style? Would you believe her? Would you go?

(Psst…you should say no.)

One Piece Film: Red is the fifteenth film in the One Piece franchise, which has also spanned 20 seasons of television and multiple other forms of media. It posits a world where magic exists, roving bands of superpowered pirates sail the oceans and seas, and a one-world government wields a powerful navy set on destroying them. So you can see why one might want all of the fighting to end. Enter Uta, a talent & supernaturally-gifted singer. She has a plan to save the people of the world and give birth to a new era of carefree fun. The problem is that everyone has to die first! That’s a mighty big ask.

This might be the fifteenth film in this series, but it functions pretty well as a standalone story. Viewers with a greater familiarity with the franchise might gain a deeper appreciation for what unfolds within, but the filmmakers have been careful to make everything (and everyone) make sense for novices. If you are willing to roll with a universe filled with superhero pirates, a music demon, merfolk, a talking skeleton with a sword cane, snails that double as radios, a rock & roll band staffed with manimals, portals, alternate worlds, and magic that can manifest just about anything, then you’re in for a pretty wild time.

The animation is top-notch and is full of striking imagery from start to finish. If you happen to be a fan of musicals, you’re in luck, as there are over a dozen tunes laced throughout its 2 hour running time. If there’s any real negative here, it’s that – at 40 minutes – the final battle goes on a bit too long. This is undoubtedly done to make sure that the huge cast of characters all get standout moments, but it’s a bit too overindulgent and causes the film to drag during its third act.

One Piece Film: Red isn’t the most original anime feature out there, but its delightfully chaotic world and wacky pop-rock opera apocalypse storytelling elements make for a fun ride. If you’re inclined to love this corner of cinema, you’ll have a good time with it.