Tag Archives: Matt Weiner

Death in the Afternoon

Everything Went Fine

by Matt Weiner

It feels indecent to call this euthanasia-based film from Francois Ozon “laid back.” But Everything Went Fine pulls off an exceptional character study with cool restraint, grounded performances and an unexpected well of humanity.

With a screenplay by Ozon based on a memoir by frequent collaborator Emmanuèle Bernheim, this dramatized version centers around the loving but complicated relationship between Emmanuèle (Sophie Marceau) and her father, André (André Dussollier, playing a difficult role with grace—and without sentimentality).

As the favored daughter, Emmanuèle bears the full emotional weight of her father’s request to end his life after a debilitating stroke at age 85. Assisted suicide is not an option for them in France, but the family has the means to maneuver through the quasi-legal (and not inexpensive) hoops for André to travel to a foundation in Switzerland that assists in the process.

The film counts down André’s final months with the matter-of-fact detailing of a documentary. The Bernheim sisters ride waves of false hope alongside “last milestones” together as André’s progress in physical therapy does not diminish his desire to leave the world on his terms.

Ozon presents the fullness of André’s life with a light touch—a mix of pregnant flashbacks, current regrets and the odd row with past lovers. André’s love for his daughters shines through it all, which is shadowed by a masterful cameo from Charlotte Rampling as André’s deeply depressed wife. Brief and reserved as her time is onscreen, Rampling’s detached presence breathes life into the couple’s challenging lifelong relationship.

The film mostly concerns itself with philosophical end-of-life questions. A sudden moment of legal suspense arises toward the end of André’s countdown, but Ozon clearly favors interpersonal drama over legal minutiae. Who are lawyers or the French courts to say what life means, anyway? That’s for the artists to decide. A noble sentiment from the filmmaker, if one that has the effect of blunting the controversial subject. There’s surprisingly little bite here for such a provocative topic from a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from taboo.

But even that works in the movie’s favor. The family’s various responses to death at first feel soulless, even for a group of wealthy, ultra-cool Parisians. But Ozon allows longstanding tensions to simmer slowly alongside familial bonds. And even if the pot never boils over, this more detached approach ends up being all the more cathartic in the end.

Don’t Attract the Worm


by Matt Weiner

With yet another worldwide success, director Makoto Shinkai’s newest film Suzume cements this stage of his career as one of the effective filmmakers dealing with ecological and psychological calamity.

Shinkai excels at balancing personal drama with major, world-altering stakes. Suzume feels in the same vein as his recent blockbuster successes, such as 2019’s Weathering with You and the smash hit Your Name. But Suzume also shows the difference between formula and formulaic.

There is plenty of coming-of-age and falling in love to be had during Suzume’s road trip. But there is also the inescapable backdrop of disaster, death and loss, as refracted through the 2011 earthquake that killed over 20,000 people and that Shinkai said has deeply affected his recent films.

That disaster is personal for Suzume Iwato (voiced by Nanoka Hara), the 17-year-old orphan who lost her mother at an early age. A chance encounter with the mysterious stranger Souta (Hokuto Matsumura) opens her eyes to an unseen world, where a dark worm-like force threatens to break into Japan, which, if successful would result in earthquakes and a catastrophic death toll.

The battle between hope and environmental doom stands out in Suzume, and here, too, Shinkai doesn’t lose his sense of optimism. This is helped along visually by his vibrant animation and palette. Whether it’s real-world Tokyo or the ethereal visions of the Ever-After, Shinkai’s exquisite art is both lived-in and otherworldly. To that Suzume adds a welcome bit of action and levity, helped along by Souta’s transformation into the cutest chair you’ll likely see all year.

The tonal shifts can be jarring for a film dealing with the end of the world, but it’s of a piece with Suzume’s story. Whether it’s the whole world ending or a more personal loss means your world is ending (or at least changing), you have to hold onto what matters. And there’s a quiet sweetness to the fact that even as the apocalyptic visions in his films sharpen, what matters to Shinkai above all appears to be love.

Love, Life Lessons & Basketball


by Matt Weiner

A team of ragtag misfits has to come together to win the big game, but not before they teach their washed up coach a thing or two about the power of teamwork in the process.

Yes, Champions is a remake of an older film, but it’s somehow not The Bad News Bears. In this case, it’s the 2018 Spanish hit Campeones. The kids are just as foul-mouthed, but this time the twist is that disgraced professional coach Marcus Markovich (Woody Harrelson, delivering a solid replacement-level version of classic Prickly Harrelson) has to work with a rec basketball team of intellectual disabled players as his court-ordered community service.

With a regional championship game looming in Canada for the Special Olympics, Marcus needs to juggle getting his own life and career back on track, dating new love interest Alex (Kaitlin Olson) and showing up for his team. The outcome of the game might be up in the air, but you can rest easy knowing that lessons are learned, love is found and use of the R-word is kept to a minimum and only to show personal growth. Neat.

While they might deserve a less stale vehicle to show off their skills, the performances from the actors with disabilities all rise above the cliched story (especially foul-mouthed Cosentino, played by Madison Tevlin, and Kevin Iannucci as Johnny, who gets caught in the middle of Marcus and Alex’s not-so-casual fling).

The team’s interactions with Marcus and one another make for the few genuinely earned emotions in a story that otherwise seems to exist to remind viewers in 2023 that people with intellectual disabilities also deserve to be treated with respect.

Olson is another acting standout. Her sharp comic timing wasn’t in doubt thanks to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but it’s surprising to see how much she shines in this kind of role. That is, surprising in the sense that she’s such a natural, refreshing fit that it seems impossible she hasn’t led more romantic comedies.

With Bobby Farrelly as director, it’s hard not to compare Champions to elements of past Farrelly Brothers work. We’re a long way from There’s Something About Mary – and let’s not speak of the inexorable Shallow Hal – but this film exists firmly and bizarrely in an era not so removed from that time. (A heartwarming sports comedy about Special Olympics athletes isn’t even new ground for the Farrellys – 2005’s The Ringer mixes up the beats but its basic dignity message about people with disabilities is the same.)

That Champions is appearing now feels less an indictment of Hollywood feet-dragging than a not-so-gentle suggestion that perhaps we’ve moved beyond needing generic sports movies with entry-level calls for respect to move the needle for any holdouts.

Champions does itself no favors by substituting coarseness for meanness. That’s preferable to what this movie might have looked like a few decades ago, but it manages to neuter the comic touch of Farrelly and writer Mark Rizzo while dulling any interesting edges at the same time. (For example, an ongoing plot about a manipulative employer taking advantage of discount labor gets reduced to deus ex machina to set up the final game.) It’s an odd twist that Peter Farrelly’s recent solo effort Green Book won the Academy Award for Best Picture. And yet Bobby’s Champions might be the film that traffics in fewer broad stereotypes. That’s a win worth celebrating on its own. Just don’t expect the taste of victory to linger longer than the closing credits.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

The Jesus Revolution

by Matt Weiner

In 1966, TIME Magazine captured the tumultuous era with a bleak cover question: “Is God Dead?”

One answer to that question was in the form of a countercultural movement that arose in the following years. The “Jesus Revolution” is less incongruous than it first sounds, placed among the backdrop of Vietnam, sex, drugs and rock & roll and a general spiritual ennui. The long-haired, sandal-wearing “love the stranger” Jesus spoke not just to some of the more soul-searching hippies but a wider generation trying to find its own voice.

At least that’s the message that Jesus Revolution wants to focus on. The film, written and directed by Christian film powerhouse Jon Erwin, falls more on the mainstream spectrum like Heaven Is for Real than the pricklier polemics like God’s Not Dead.

But for all its gloss, Jesus Revolution is a confounding movie. The production itself is a savvy, just saccharine enough dramatization of Pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) and the countercultural rise of the “Jesus freaks” in the late 60s and early 70s.

It’s a feel-good story, and the shiny treatment it gets here seems like a perfect match. But it’s also a story and a movement that deserves a more critical look than it gets here from the true believers.

Smith is a pivotal figure whose Calvary Chapel movement has influenced evangelical Christianity and the modern megachurch. Jesus Revolution wisely centers on an avuncular, befuddled version, with Grammer perfectly cast to deliver profundities like “It’s not something to be explained, it’s something to be experienced” in his soothing baritone.

It’s not until Smith meets the radical Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) that he comes to see that the Jesus of the Bible has a lot more in common with the growing hippie movement, and his unlikely partnership with Frisbee is part of a momentous time in evangelical history.

What the film omits from this “all are welcome” version of Smith, however, are any edges that might clash with a wider audience. Most notably, the pastor’s strident views against homosexuality. And while the script hints at Lonnie Frisbee’s split with Calvary and Smith, this is chalked up to doctrinal differences with no mention of Frisbee’s semi-open homosexuality.

At what point does the reality of a biography subject veer so far from the adaptation’s message that it becomes disingenuous? This friction-free adaptation goes well beyond that line. Which is curious, given that director Jon Erwin also wrote and directed the exceptional documentary The Jesus Music in 2021.

It’s a low bar to clear, but that sweeping look at contemporary Christian music from the era of Smith and Frisbee to artists today takes a more frank look at internecine debates and controversies, both within the movement and alongside secular culture at large. As someone whose personal history with religion starts and stops with the Old Testament, I feel confident recommending The Jesus Music as the better choice—both as film and agitprop—for those not already in the movement.

Where does that leave Jesus Revolution? To say it’s a Hallmark movie with better production values undersells how watchable the movie is. But if the film succeeds in standing on its own, with a goal of preaching beyond the choir, it also deserves to be judged that way. And that means bringing in the messy earthly politics that the script assiduously avoids. The likely reality is that church viewings will get an extremely competent adaptation of a historical era that continues to shape the country.

Secular audiences get a decent airplane movie that’s worth it for Kelsey Grammer completists. It’s win-win—unless you’re gay, in which case you might be incurring divine wrath, if you ask Pastor Smith. Better not to dwell on that part of Smith’s theology for a mainstream movie, though, and instead rely on the Old Testament and split the baby.

Holy Terror

Holy Spider

by Matt Weiner

A killer on the loose, inept authorities and simmering political protest come together in the taut, unflinching Holy Spider, the latest from writer/director Ali Abbasi (Border).

After a tense opening sequence, there’s little mystery who the killer is. Saeed, played to cipher-like perfection by Mehdi Bajestani, is a construction worker and family man by day who spends his nights strangling sex workers in the Iranian city of Masshad.

Rahimi (Zar Amiur-Ebrahimi, who took home Best Actress for the role at Cannes) is an out-of-town reporter chasing down the story—often propelling the authorities to even consider the killing spree an urgent matter. As her investigation quickly outpaces that of the police, she becomes determined to crack the case, even if it means becoming the next victim.

If that sounds like a dated setup for a serial killer movie, Abbasi quickly shifts focus. His film sits at the timely intersection of two issues. There’s the handling of the wildly popular true crime genre, undergoing its own interrogation for a focus on lurid storytelling and police narratives at the expense of real people. And then there are the protests and unrest in Iran, sparked by the death of a young woman by the Morality Police.

Holy Spider is based on the real-life Spider killer Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 sex workers in the city of Mashhad and was celebrated as doing God’s work by hardline factions after his arrest. And while Holy Spider was made before recent protests, it’s impossible to miss Abbasi’s indictment of how Iranian society at large treats women, especially the most marginalized among them.

It’s not subtle, but it makes for a powerful twist on the usual true crime narrative. Abbasi’s script resists depicting Saeed as a suave or supernatural monster. Saeed is merely an instrument, yes, but it’s not God’s work. It’s the authorities and even Saeed’s own neighbors who show so little care in catching a man who can barely be bothered to cover his tracks. It turns out, choosing victims deemed immoral by society is all he needs to do.

Rahimi’s overt line of questioning wins her no friends in the police department, and Rahimi herself is subject to the same harassment that has allowed Saeed to turn the holy city of Mashhad into a body dump. (There are echoes in Rahimi’s backstory to the actress Ebrahimi’s own past, now an exile living in Paris after an alleged sex tape scandal blew up her career in Iran. It’s an unusual meta-narrative, but there’s nothing gimmicky about Ebrahimi’s fierce, grounded turn.)

If you look up photos of the real Saeed, it’s uncanny how Abbasi is sure to capture his self-assured smile in the courtroom. But more than that, the filmmaker drives home how the real terror lies with Saeed’s certainty that this will all turn out okay in the end. How could it not, for someone just doing what’s expected of him?

Polemic as Poetry

I Didn’t See You There

by Matt Weiner

Early on in the documentary I Didn’t See You There, filmmaker Reid Davenport says that his new camera allows him to look for shapes and patterns in a way that wasn’t possible when he wasn’t the one physically filming his movies. Davenport succeeds, wildly—and the end result is so poetic, bracing and beautiful that it’s more than a bit of an understatement.

I Didn’t See You There is shot entirely from Davenport’s perspective. Often this is from his wheelchair, with unbroken shots on the streets of Oakland, California, that start to take on their own captivating rhythm. At least until Davenport is nearly taken out by inattentive drivers or forced to stop at a blocked crosswalk.

It’s a deeply personal and unabashedly political film. As Davenport shows, what other choice is there? Every public act, from taking the bus to using the ramp to get into one’s own home, becomes a negotiation with (at best) apathetic parties.

The presence of a circus tent in his neighborhood becomes a jumping-off point for Davenport to tie in the cultural history of the freak show and this country’s treatment of people with disabilities. It’s a connection Davenport can’t avoid—during a trip back east to his family, he points out that he shares a birthplace with P.T. Barnum.

At the same time, Davenport interrogates this throughout the film, his intimate filmmaking and perspective on the environment turn the personal documentary into a visually stunning meditation on the connections we have to our built environments.

Davenport’s eye calls attention to every bump in the street, or shrub encroaching on the sidewalk—there’s a fresh beauty to the tessellated patterns of urban design that he uncovers, and a hostility always there beneath the surface.

I Didn’t See You There presents an undeniably unique perspective. But it also feels impossible to view one’s own environment the same way afterward.

Hallowed Be His Name

Memories of My Father

by Matt Weiner

Like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, Memories of My Father confronts what happens when a deadly serious story faces off against an endless supply of sentimentality.

It’s certainly a story worth remembering. Memories of My Father celebrates Colombian doctor, professor and public health leader Héctor Abad Gómez (Javier Cámara), as seen through the eyes of his son, the renowned Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince.

After spending decades trying to alleviate the health of Medellín’s poorest citizens (and winning few friends among the Catholic church and his university administration), Abad Gómez becomes increasingly active in politics during the country’s tumultuous 1980s.

Memories of My Father is well-intentioned and well-acted, with sensitive performances not just from Cámara but from those in the roles of the numerous women in Abad’s life. They are given little to work with in this treatment but do their best—as various university secretaries, devoted daughters and especially Patricia Tamayo as Abad Gómez’s wife—to give the hagiography some connection to humanity.

These moments are few and far between, however. As adapted from the memoir by Abad Faciolince, the film (with a screenplay by David Trueba) spends much of its time in the past establishing Abad Gómez as the world’s most attentive father devoted to his family and public health in equal measure.

Whereas Abad Faciolince’s memoir is the story of both one man and the decade of violence, paramilitary forces, cartels and militias that led to so many assassinations in the 1980s, Memories of My Father narrows its lens mostly to just the man. One gets a sense even from the way Abad Gómez is talked about in his own movie that the real person was a lot more interesting and less inclined to sentimentality than his onscreen treatment.

The film’s decision to keep politics on the periphery, with Abad Gómez himself asserting that he’s “just a doctor,” also seems to put this movie version at odds with reality. What is more maximally political than being on a state-approved list for targeted assassinations?

Memories of My Father gives us what amounts to a series of Very Special Episodes on moral childrearing, but very little in the way of historical context to prepare for the sudden, shattering final act.  If the purpose of this story is to rescue Abad Gómez’s name from oblivion, he also needs to be rescued from the lack of nuance paid to a man who was unafraid to lead marches and write public letters to government officials. Turning Abad Gómez into a secular saint divorced from earthly concerns might keep his name alive, but this portrayal studiously avoids examining why his righteous crusade was needed in the first place.

Spy vs. Spy


by Matt Weiner

If Squid Game was Lee Jung-jae’s international coming out party, his directorial debut Hunt is a confident and original statement that the engaging actor isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

Loosely inspired by real-world events during the waning days of South Korea’s military dictatorship, Hunt (written by Lee and Jo Seung-Hee) follows a cat-and-mouse game between the heads of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency’s Foreign Unit, Park Pyong-ho (Lee), and the Domestic Unit, Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung).

The agency is grappling with a student uprising against the president, ever-present North Korean belligerence, and of course, meddling American intelligence agencies. When an assassination attempt on the South Korean president comes dangerously close to succeeding, the KCIA suspects a mole. Park and Kim are pitted against each other, and no agent is above suspicion.

Lee stuffs his debut with impressive action set pieces. But this is not the most nuanced of spy thrillers. Lee tends to paint his arterial spatter with a firehose rather than a brush—and it’s a bright, busy canvas by the time Park and Kim are done rooting out the mole.

And then there are the frequent (and graphic) torture sequences perpetrated by the South Korean security forces, carried out almost unthinkingly on friend and “foe” alike. While Lee doesn’t shy away from over-the-top action, he also takes care to shade his characters with enough moral ambiguity that after the umpteenth double cross it’s no longer clear which outcome anyone is rooting for—including the characters themselves.

There’s not much downtime from start to finish. If anything, the story ultimately suffers from the relentless action, especially as the cold war paranoia turns hot. They might not be the quiet tragic heroes of le Carré, but Park and Kim’s deadly game plays so well that it excuses any number of absurd plot twists.

Hunt sticks to the hits with its dueling double (or triple?) agents, but Lee directs with a flourish for action. There’s enough here for action fans, and it’s even more promising as the start of a new phase in Lee’s prolific career.

I Guess This Is Growing Up


by Matt Weiner

Not to go Don Draper over a movie with an extended gag involving a dog and a condom, but Bromates isn’t a buddy comedy… It’s science fiction, letting us travel back to the early 2000s. This is a heady time, where men need a romantic contrivance to show emotion, women are cardboard cutouts and all manner of sin will be forgiven once you put on a shirt with buttons and confess to having “grown up.”

The ties to the past are strong, if not deep, with Bromates writer and director Court Crandall serving as one of the writers for Old School. And Bromates offers a superficial nod to that kind of throwback comedy, only with an even more threadbare setup.

Solar panel salesman Sid (Josh Brener) gets talked into moving in with his close friend Jonesie (Lil Rel Howery, one of the few bright spots in the movie) after both men are dumped by their girlfriends. Sid, consummate nice guy and eco-do-gooder, discovers his influencer girlfriend has been cheating on him with their next-door neighbor. And Jonesie is too immature, although for some reason the story codes “immature” as “hiring a sex worker while his girlfriend is out of the apartment.” (The nerve of that harpy to break up over a peccadillo.)

It’s important to stop here to point out that this is, without exaggeration, the extent of character development we get for the rest of the film. Jonesie concocts a plan to help Sid get over his breakup, there’s an impromptu trip to Texas that takes up a good chunk of the story but seems to exist solely to set up a Snoop Dogg cameo (which at least makes some sense, as he produced the film), and the rest of the time is devoted to Sid’s workplace drama. Also, somewhere along the way, Sid falls in love with a woman who is onscreen for maybe 5 total minutes.

Bromates is less a fleshed-out movie and more a series of bits, tossed out at a pace that feels desperate rather than zany. It’s a pattern that repeats itself so often that it goes from disorienting to discouraging. Nothing gets developed, nothing gets heightened. Ostensibly, this is a movie by people who understand this kind of comedy, but Crandall shows no interest in establishing an internal logic even by the low standards of the tropes the film leans on.

It’s not all bad. There’s an end credits bit that’s funnier and more pointed than what made it into the main movie. Plus the runtime is barely an hour and a half, so you don’t have to wait too long to get there.

Ashikaga Rhapsody


by Matt Weiner

Inu-Oh is one of those movies where the less you know going in, the more of a delight it becomes as the story unfolds. Stop right now, go see the movie and you won’t be disappointed.

To call director Masaaki Yuasa’s take on feudal Japan a Noh rock opera undersells the delirious places the movie goes, even for Yuasa (although if you watched his Devilman Crybaby on Netflix, you know what you’re in for). What starts with a ghost story and a brief history of the birth of Noh in 14th century Japan becomes a rollicking, righteous homage to the likes of Queen and Bowie.

The animation is as fluid and rhythmic as the music, and Inu-Oh is always beautiful to look at. But the music is where the film soars—along with its almost relentlessly on-message theme. The story focuses on the friendship between Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), a blind biwa player looking to avenge his father, and Inu-oh (Avu-chan), a demonic child who can only exorcise his curse through storytelling.

But these aren’t just any stories. Tomona and Inu-oh form a band and start staging modern rock performances that inspire crowds but anger the shogun and the more traditional troupes that will become the highly regimented Noh.

For Tomona, there is a creative imperative to be yourself and decide who that is, even under threat of execution. And for Inu-oh, their new form of expression is even more essential. As he tells these forgotten stories of dead Heike warriors, he slowly becomes more and more human.

The message isn’t subtle, and just in case, it’s spelled out explicitly by Tomona and Inu-oh. The songs are a way to honor memories. If our stories are forgotten, what do we have left?

Still, it’s hard to argue. And harder still to resist when delivered in the form of Yuasa’s brilliantly conceived stage performances that blend traditional, modern and downright trippy into something wholly new. It’s about as joyful a movie as you’re likely to get for a feudal ghost story about curses and family tragedy. It’s also a movie that manages to be both epic and immediate. History for Inu-oh is alive. And art needs to be as well if it’s going to have any lasting relevance for an audience