Tag Archives: film

Station to Station

Bullet Train

by Hope Madden & George Wolf

It took us decades to embrace it, but Brad Pitt is really funny. We all saw those acceptance speeches, right? Burn After Reading? And he was easily the funniest thing about the Sandra Bullock/Channing Tatum romance adventure The Lost City.

But those were acceptance speeches and supporting turns. Pitt’s comedic stylings are front and center in David Leitch’s highly advertised Bullet Train.

He’s not alone. There are about 100 other people on this train, most of them for the same reason.

Hitman twins Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are on a job for the mysterious Japanese gang lord known as White Death. Prince (Joey King) is a young woman with more plans for the trip than just finishing her book. Kimura (Andrew Koji) will do whatever it takes to keep his kidnapped son alive, and Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio aka Bad Bunny) just wants to settle an old score with Ladybug.

Pitt would be Ladybug, an adorable code name given to him by his handler (Sandra Bullock). His first job back from sabbatical is a quick, easy one: grab a briefcase off a train and then get off that train. But there are so many other stories and bandits and snakes and whatnot, and that automatic door just keeps closing station after station before Ladybug can make his exit.

Leitch can stage action. You’ve seen Atomic Blonde, right? And since the director’s official 2017 feature debut (he gets an uncredited nod for the original John Wick), his focus has been on slight, action-heavy comedies: Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw.

His Bullet Train continues that tradition: it’s slight, action-packed, silly fun. He and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz adapt Kôtarô Isaka’s novel via a mishmash of styles, blending a spoonful of Edgar Wright with a heaping helping of Guy Ritchie and a smidge of Tarantino. It’s bloody and hyperactive with witty banter and surprise dot connecting, all trying their best to distract you from the lack of tension and bloated run time.

The cast sure seems to be having a blast with it, especially Pitt. He makes Ladybug an endearing mix of daily affirmations and lethal force (with an unusual interest in lavatory facilities).

Throw in a couple other big star cameos, and Bullet Train is a stylish concoction that never finds the right balance of hip action and self-aware absurdity. It’s clever but not really funny, full of high gloss stuck in economy class. The ride may seem fun while it lasts, just don’t expect anything memorable waiting at the destination.

Secret Chords

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

by George Wolf

For longtime fans of Leonard Cohen, the continued pop culture embrace of “Hallelujah” can sometimes feel bittersweet. Other times it just makes you want to scream.

Jeff Buckley didn’t write it! It’s not a Christmas song! And for God’s sake, stop messing with the lyrics!

And even though that’s satisfying to yell when another TV talent show contestant attacks Cohen’s masterpiece with more bluster than feeling, you can’t deny you’re guilty of an equally false claim of ownership. As singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile rightly points out, by now the song “Is its own person. It has a life of its own.”

So, how’d that happen? Back in the early 80s, “Hallelujah” was DOA, buried on a Cohen album that Columbia Records dismissed outright as unworthy to release.

Alan Light first tracked the song’s ascent in his 2012 bestseller “The Holy or the Broken,” and Light serves as a consultant to co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine for their documentary examination. Straddling the line between biopic and expose, the film gives the uninitiated an overview of Cohen’s background while indulging veteran admirers with a deeper dive into his most acclaimed composition.

Geller and Goldfine interview fans, friends and journalists, tracking Cohen’s unique troubadour life alongside the gradual wave of “Hallelujah” cover versions. It seems only right that Bob Dylan was one of the first to recognize the song’s genius, and it’s a treat to hear his interpretation set the stage for the mainstream breakthrough that came via Jeff Buckley and Shrek (John Cale in the film, Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack).

But the film’s strongest moments come through the intimacy of hearing from Cohen himself, and getting closer to his often tortured songwriting process (“If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often”). We see notebook after notebook full of lyrics, while handwritten lines appear and disappear as guesses are made as to just how many verses (100? 180?) Cohen wrote for “Hallelujah” alone.

At times Geller and Goldfine lean back on biography just when the musical detective work is cooking, but A Journey, A Song ultimately connects the two with a resonant thread.

Leonard Cohen was a seeker, always striving to reconcile the primal with the spiritual. The process may have taken several years, but he wrote a song that lays that search bare with unparalleled eloquence. And though Cohen himself admitted before his death that “too many people sing it,” Geller and Goldfine are smart enough to include plenty of footage of Cohen performing the song himself, and to close with k.d. lang’s goosebump-time version that Cohen hinted was his favorite.

Go West, Young D-bag

Vengeance

by George Wolf

As you may have noticed, we’re living in extraordinary times. So when we’re looking back decades from now, what film commentaries will separate themselves as the most insightful of the day?

In the words of Sammy Hagar, only time will tell what stands the test of time. But there are two releasing just this week that seem like good bets to at least make the team picture.

Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay takes some satirical daggers to the social media age, while Vengeance broadens the focus for a lightly comical mystery with some hot button issues on its mind.

It’s the feature debut as writer and director for familiar face B. J. Novak, and it instantly marks him as a smart, sly, and entertaining storyteller.

Novak (Saving Mr. Banks, Inglourious Basterds, TV’s The Office) also stars as Ben, a writer for the New Yorker who wants to be more. He wants to be a “voice.” Fate steps in when he’s lured to West Texas after the fatal opioid overdose of his occasional hookup Abilene (Crazy, Stupid, Love‘s Lio Tipton). Abi may have been little more than a fling, but Abi’s family thinks she and Ben were a longtime committed couple.

They also think Abi was murdered, and when her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook, terrifically nutty) proposes a teamup to avenge Abi’s death, Ben seizes the chance to pitch a “Dead White Girl” true crime podcast to his editor Eloise (Issa Rae, always welcome).

Early on, Novak gets laughs from throwing a “hundred percent, hundred percent” New York hipster into the home of an eccentrically red state brood who will teach him many things about Texas, including what makes Whataburger so great.

“It’s right there!”

But as Ben starts piecing together Abi’s last days, and glimpsing her dreams of stardom with a local record producer (Ashton Kutcher, understated and better than he’s ever been), Novak begins weaving some impressive and resonant layers.

Speeches are made and then refuted. Stereotypes are outlined and defended, only to be punctured as Novak and Ben dig deeper, searching for the heart of a “new American reality” that took shape when truth became unacceptable.

From podcasts, conspiracy theories and hot takes to the ideological divide between coastal elites and country bumpkins, Vengeance sure feels like an authentic national portrait.

It’s also a funny and entertaining mystery caper, self-effacing but not afraid to wander into some dark places, with a social conscience that Novak reveals in organic and endearing ways. We are more just the record of ourselves in and around new media, and our evolving societal challenges deserve more than convenient cop-outs.

Sounds like a good start to Novak’s transition into filmmaking.

Hundred percent.

Delete Your Account

Not Okay

by George Wolf

Wait, did that viewer discretion advisory before the opening credits just warn of “an unlikable female protagonist?”

Oh, Quinn Shephard, I wanna sit next to you.

Shephard, who at age 20 wrote, produced, directed, edited and starred in her 2017 feature debut Blame, returns with another sharply insightful look at young adults navigating expectations and judgement.

And this time, she brings along a wicked sense of humor tipped off by that early caveat.

Zoey Deutch stars as Danni, a self-involved New York twentysomething who lets us know right away that she’s longing to be noticed – for any reason. If she’s not getting the likes and follows, I mean what is she even doing?

What she’s doing is using photoshop to fake a trip to a writer’s retreat in Paris. And it’s all berets and baguettes on the ‘gram until Paris falls prey to terrorist bombings. That’s bad for the world, but pretty great for Danni’s social profile!

So she runs with it, playing the traumatized victim, launching #iamnotokay and managing to become besties with Rowan (Mia Isaac, also currently in Hulu’s Don’t Make Me Go), a school shooting survivor who’s a leader in the movement to combat gun violence.

We know from the start that Danni’s facade blows up in her face, and Shephard makes sure the rise and fall is deliciously fun. Don’t expect any sacred cows, as Shephard skewers nearly every player in our social media culture, even casting herself in a priceless cameo that ups the volume on exasperation.

She has the perfect vessel in Deutch, who proves again she is an absolutely natural comedic talent. From the way Danni answers “I will!” when her boss suggests taking a mental health day, to her chipper attitude at a support group, Deutch embodies the oblivious self-absorption needed for all these daggers to land.

Dylan O’Brien gives standout support as a white bread boy from Maine wearing a hardcore rap persona, but it’s Isaac who nearly steals the movie as a scarred young girl struggling with actual trauma. When Danni’s lie is revealed, Rowan’s hurt is palpable and heartfelt, with Isaac delivering a blistering spoken-word declaration that’s reminiscent of Daveed Digg’s powerful performance in the finale of Blindspotting.

And while Shephard’s defiant attitude toward her protagonist’s unlikability is refreshing, it only increases the curiosity over whether Danni will be learning something today.

Not Okay doesn’t toe this narrative line as expertly as, say, Young Adult, but it doesn’t fold all its cards, either. Shephard is a filmmaker with vision and voice, and she’s able to address the social media revolution with a better handle than most on juggling the serious and the satirical.

Head in the Clouds

Nope

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There are some truly frightening moments in Nope. Some revolve around things you may think you know based on the trailer. Others feature a bloody monkey in a party hat.

All these and more are tucked inside the kind of patient and expansive brand of storytelling you might not expect from writer/director/producer Jordan Peele. Where the filmmaker’s first two exceptional features explored wildly different styles of horror, his third effort, though scary, taps much more into Sci-Fi.

And Nope has plenty to say about Black cowboys, the arrogance of spectacle, and getting that elusive perfect shot.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) work under their father Otis, Sr. (Keith David) at the only Black-owned horse training business in Hollywood. The Haywood lineage dates back to the very first “assembly of photographs to create a motion picture,” and Haywood’s Hollywood Horses serves various TV and film productions out of a remote California ranch.

But recently, OJ has also been doing business with Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who runs a nearby tourist attraction. Some amazing things have been happening there, and Ricky seems to need more and more horses to keep the people amazed.

Toss in Brandon Perea as a dangerously curious tech store worker and the inimitable Michael Wincott as an esteemed and disenchanted cinematographer and you have a remarkable set of oddball characters, each brought to life with peculiar but sympathetic performances.

Peele’s direction and writing effortlessly mine comedic moments, but Nope is no comedy. He unravels a mystery before your eyes, and his shot-making has never been so on point. The way he splashes color and motion across this arid landscape is stunning. His visual cues—often executed with macabre humor and panache—amplify the film’s themes while inducing anxiety.

Palmer and Kaluuya are a fantastic pair, sharing an uneasy, lived-in familial tension. Their battling energy—OJ is slow-moving and soft-spoken to Em’s live wire—contributes to the film’s discombobulating feel. Yeun delivers a surprise turn as a man still trading on past glories at a theme park. But everyone here has a relationship to the dangerous, life-altering, perhaps idiotic act of filming, of entertainment, of spectacle.

It feels a bit like Peele is saying that making a movie will kill you, if you’re lucky. But opening a film with a Biblical passage is no accident, and on a grander scale, Peele has crafted a genre-loving ode to a comeuppance tempted by grandiose delusions.

Nope is a tense, gorgeous, funny, insightful and ambitious thrill ride, which updates the filmmaker’s scorecard to three for three. And while Peele may still feel like he’s chasing perfection, here’s hoping he just keeps chasing.

Sticky Icky

This is GWAR

by George Wolf

“People like getting spewed on.”

True enough.

Back in the early 90s, I tended bar on the Ohio State University campus, at a place right beside a concert venue that Gwar would invade on a regular basis.

I can attest that fans lined up plenty early for a chance to be in the firing line of Gwar’s goo, and the kids poured out at show’s end with fists pumping after another slimy soaking.

But This Is GWAR wants you to know that goo was FDA approved, and the band behind it has traveled a long and sticky road that’s worth a closer look.

Director Scott Barber rolls out plenty of archival footage and first person interviews, taking us all the way back to the band’s creation by a group of misfit artists at Virginia Commonwealth University in the early 80s.

Hunter Jackson and Chuck Varga were art students who were told their fantasy-leaning stuff was dumb, so they planned to make a movie called Scumdogs of the Universe. Dave Brockie was singer and bassist for a local punk band named Death Piggy.

Then they all decided to put on costumes from the movie and open Death Piggy shows as a heavy metal band of barbarians that would sacrifice fake animals…and Gwar was born.

And when that opening band started drawing bigger crowds? Jackson, Brockie and a constantly rotating group of musicians adopted garish latex costumes and names like Flattis Maximus to set off as “barbarian interplanetary warlords” on a quest to search, spew and destroy.

Barber’s approach is well-rounded and determined, looking to put together not only a complete history of the band and the art collective that’s propelled it for decades, but also a tribute that would satisfy longtime fans.

Of course, you’ll find the arcs of excess and conflict that once drove Behind the Music to the heights of cliche, but this isn’t your normal band biopic simply because this band isn’t normal. And even if “the sickest band in the world” isn’t your jam, its history and the circus of talented people that keeps it running is just interesting.

But at just under two hours, the doc’s expanse errs more on the side of Gwar devotees (like Weird Al, one of the famous fans Barber features) than neophytes, and that’s probably as it should be.

Wear that goo as a badge of honor, This Is GWAR and this is for you.

Marsh Mellow Girl

Where the Crawdads Sing

by George Wolf

“I had to do life alone. People don’t stay.”

Well-placed within a novel, those words could have major impact. But when you tell it to a movie audience, the power of your visual medium is wasted. You’re not showing us anything, you’re reading to us.

And like so many of these stories of a special girl who hides in plain sight, the big screen version of the Delia Owens bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing employs voiceover narration too early and too often. That’s disappointing, because the film does have its moments.

Most of those moments come from Daisy Edgar-Jones, who stars as Kya Clark, the “Marsh Girl” of Barkley Cove, NC who’s on trial in the late 1960s for the murder of local rich boy Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson).

Kya won’t agree to a plea deal, and throughout her defense from kindly lawyer Tom Milton (the always reliable David Strathairn), director Olivia Newman weaves in flashbacks of a reclusive young girl who grows up alone in the marshes, somehow emerging closer to Miss Carolina than Nell.

Overthinking it? Maybe, but seeing Beast of the Southern Wild screenwriter Lucy Alibar’s writing credit brings more attention to how often this self-reliance tale leans into fantasy. She and Newman sanitize the southern swamp song for convenience, replacing realistic grit with a makeover-in-waiting.

But if you haven’t read the book, there is a surprise or two in store, and a nuanced turn from Edgar-Jones (Fresh, TV’s Normal People and War of the Worlds) that stands out in a parade of broadly-brushed role players.

The lessons about classism and misogyny may be admirable, but they’re as obvious and as soft-peddled as the quick glimpses of racism and the idyllic marsh environment that’s somehow free of thunderstorms or bug bites.

Where the Crawdads Sing does Southern Gothic like Justin Beiber doing Delta blues. You’ll recognize the words and music, but any true feeling is bogged down by all the polish.

Sleeping With the Past

Both Sides of the Blade

by George Wolf

Claire Denis is an endlessly fascinating filmmaker. She might be working in horror (Trouble Every Day), sci-fi (High Life), documentaries (Toward Mathilde, Venice 70) or shorts (various), but Denis is always mining ways to subvert your expectations and probe her characters’ motives.

With Both Side of the Blade (originally titled Fire), Denis digs into the erotic drama landscape via the same game plan, crafting an abstract and often challenging narrative that’s built around a good ol’ love triangle.

Sara (Denis favorite Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Titane‘s Vincent Lindon) are longtime partners, and when the film opens they are wrapping up a vacation that seems to have been a wonderfully affectionate and often orgasmic time.

But back home, Sara catches a glimpse of her former lover Francois (Grégoire Colin) and is left shaken. Feelings are stirred even more by Jean’s new plan to start a business with Francois. The two men are also old friends, and Sara’s nearly decade-old decision to leave Francois for Jean seems like a wound long healed.

Well, that depends.

And as the past begins to fracture the couple’s present, Jean is also working to mend the relationship with his teenage son (Issa Perica) that was strained from Jean’s stint in prison years earlier.

But while all of the stakes may be easy enough to grasp, Denis and co-writer Christine Angot twist the personal interactions in intriguing ways. Denis doesn’t do sentimentality, but the film’s first two acts present character choices and dramatic histrionics that just don’t ring true unless we allow for some intimacies that will not be divulged.

Binoche and Lindon are astounding together, locking Sara and Jean into a conflict fueled by a battle with their own identities, as Colin provides the mysterious temptation always lurking on the periphery.

Why does Jean seem to be pushing his wife toward her former lover, only to burn with jealousy? Does Sara truly love either man, or only a version of herself that always seems out of reach?

It’s only in the final act that Denis moves away from pulling at the seams of this genre to let her actors deliver a finale rich with emotional honesty. Peace is finally made, and not only with the choices from Sara and Jean’s respective pasts. Challenges and complexities from the film’s earlier moments melt away, and Both Sides of the Blade becomes a moving and rewarding psychological study.

Standing Her Ground

Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down

by George Wolf

If the title Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down immediately has you humming a certain Tom Petty tune, that’s fine. In fact, the way the film incorporates that and other hits, and music in general, is one of its many charms.

Giffords was an Arizona Congresswoman and a rising star in the Democratic party when she was shot in the head while meeting constituents in Jan. of 2011. Music therapy was pivotal to Giffords’s quest to regain her speech, and directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West are gifted with intimate home video footage that conveys the magnitude of her comeback story.

Giffords chances of surviving the gunshot were less than ten percent, and in fact her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was at one point informed that his wife had died. But when Gabby fought back, Kelly was convinced she would one day want to look back on her journey, so he picked up a video camera.

There’s little doubt that Cohen and West (the Oscar-nominated RBG) have a healthy admiration for Giffords, but they make a pretty compelling case why the rest of us should be “Gab-ified,” too. Her courage, strength and determination cannot be denied.

Archival footage and interviews with fans (including former President Obama) outline Gabby’s transition from manager of the family’s Arizona tire store to fresh-faced Washington centrist. She’s nearly impossible to dislike, while her partnership with the space-traveling Kelly sends the all-American appeal into the stratosphere.

And when Cohen and West line up footage of Gabby’s brain surgery alongside her husband’s intricate space station docking maneuver, it’s game over and the feels have won.

So when the film transitions to the horrors of America’s gun violence epidemic, it seems at first like too much of a tonal clash. But as Kelly is elected to the Senate and Giffords focuses on her Gun Owners For Safety movement, it’s clear that the issue is just as much a part of Gabby as is the music she loves. Avoiding her current advocacy would result in an incomplete picture.

Don’t be fooled by the relentless positivity here. Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down isn’t simply a greatest hits mixtape made by fans for more fans. It’s a gritty story of survival, and of making a commitment to making a difference.

And the joy of jamming to the 80s. Can’t forget that one.

Forbidden Fruit

Apples

by George Wolf

Apples opens with the thump-thump-thump of Aris (Aris Servetalis) slowly and deliberately hitting his head against a wall. We won’t know why for about 90 minutes, as director/co-writer Christos Nikou reveals the layers of his debut feature as carefully as Aris peels his favorite fruit.

Later, on a city bus, a confused Aris becomes the latest victim of a worldwide pandemic that causes sudden amnesia. When his condition does not improve and no relatives can be located, Aris is enrolled as “14843” in a recovery program designed to help “unclaimed” patients build entirely new identities.

Armed with a Polaroid camera and a list of assignments from his doctors, Aris must document the completion of each directive with photos to be displayed on separate pages of an album.

Even if you didn’t know Nikou got his start as second unit director for Yorgos Lanthimos on Dogtooth, you would instantly notice the similarities in detached mood and deliberate pacing. And while it may be unfair to expect anyone to rival Lanthimos’s skill with deadpan irony, Nikou favors a dour, awkward brand of humor (Aris dances the twist!), and a more clear-eyed and gentle resolution to an opaque turn of events.

Nikou’s beautifully realized world resembles the present day, but it is consistently quiet, slow paced and free of digital tech (hence the Polaroid). The film’s comment on disassociation is a compelling surface layer, but Apples has a more haunting goal in mind.

How much of who we are do we owe to our memories? And how far might we be willing to go to put painful memories out of reach? Nikou’s approach to these questions is finely textured, displaying a blend of craftsmanship and vision that bears attention, both now and for whatever he takes a bite of next.