The fact that “Midnight Traveler” even exists is a bit of a miracle.
Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his family shot the documentary entirely on three mobile phones while on the run from the Taliban, which had put out a hit on him. Throughout their arduous, often terrifying trek across three years and 3,500 miles in search of asylum, they kept shooting. While hiding in the forest with smugglers or cramming into the cramped quarters of a refugee camp or sleeping on cardboard slabs in a half-built building beneath a flutter of snowflakes, they kept shooting.
That Fazili, his wife and their two young daughters had the presence of mind to document their trials no matter the circumstances is stunning – and it leads to some internal ethical debates along the way. But then the next difficult step was keeping the footage intact and assembling it into a cohesive and compelling narrative, which director Fazili did with the help of writer-editor-producer Emilie Mahdavian. The result is bare bones and straightforward but the drama more than speaks for itself, and it achieves its mission of putting an intimate, human face on a seemingly overwhelming, faraway subject.
From the start, one of the more relatable motifs in “Midnight Traveler” is how Fazili and his wife, fellow filmmaker Fatima Hossaini, try to make life as normal as possible for their daughters: Nargis, who looks to be about 7 at the film’s start, and toddler Zahra. The kids squirm impatiently in the back seat of the car during the primary journey from Tajikistan, where the family had been living for the past 14 months while applying for asylum, and Fazili’s hometown of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, where they must return briefly before setting out in earnest. Zahra cuddles on her mom’s chest. Nargis look out the window at the vast, endless stretches of dry, desolate nothing. She’s bored. Later, at a refugee camp in Sofia, Bulgaria, she will cry big, convulsive tears of boredom, but her underlying angst and fear are palpable. Still, they could any family on any road trip to any tourist destination.
“Midnight Traveler” follows the Fazilis as they travel from Afghanistan through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and finally to Hungary, where they’re held in a transit zone that looks more like a prison while awaiting a response to their case. Barbed wire fences surround harsh metal buildings with the surreal sight of a swing set sitting in the middle of the gravel ground. Along the way, we witness challenges large and small: riots in the city streets and bedbug bites in the sheets, the threat of kidnapping and the ache of an ankle injury.
You’re engrossed in the drama of it but you’re still frequently reminded that you’re watching a movie, that there are actual people capturing these images and that they’re making decisions not just about what to include but how. One of the film’s more compelling conflicts is also its most prosaic: a jealousy-fueled tiff between husband and wife. At the Sofia refugee camp, Fazili has complimented a teenage girl who’s a family friend on her looks. The feisty Fatima tells him his remark is totally inappropriate on a number of levels. As their conversation escalates, she insists he stop recording, which he finds surprising and even appalling: “You’re supposed to be an artist,” he argues. “A filmmaker.” At this point, we’re not even two months into their journey.
But while the creative drive is clearly on display, the emotions behind it remain a bit of a mystery, Granted, Fazili is behind the camera much of the time as he’s occupied with telling the story that’s unfolding around him. But “Midnight Traveler” might have carried an even greater emotional wallop if we had a greater understanding of the feelings of the filmmaker whose work has endangered the lives of the people he loves most.
The pervasive sense of misery makes the bursts of pleasure that much more joyous: the girls playing a make-believe game with kids who speak various languages at a refugee camp, or building a makeshift “Christmas man” out of snow and twigs. And when Nargis sings along to a video of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us” on dad’s phone – the few English words she knows – and busts out some of Jackson’s signature moves, it feels like more than just a kid connecting with a catchy tune. It’s a battle cry for people like her whose troubles get swept under the rug if they’re acknowledged at all. “Midnight Traveler” is a step toward changing that.
Although buried near the end of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the premiere of Noah Hawley’s dreadful “Lucy in the Sky” could not be hidden from curious moviegoers and reluctant critics on assignment. Based on the story of Lisa Nowak, Hawley’s movie was sold as a loose retelling of the sensational mid-aughts crime story about an astronaut who tried to kidnap another NASA colleague at the Orlando airport (not far from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida) after an affair with a different astronaut soured. What Hawley has delivered is a garden variety bad movie, proving the TV wunderkind of “Fargo” and “Legion” was not quite ready for the big screen.
The movie opens with Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), yes, quite literally in the sky in mid-mission. Already, she seems a little spacey, someone prone to staring off into some great distance only she can see. However, the rest of the crew has work to do, and the audience has a movie to see. She’s reeled back in but can’t shake the starstruck feeling of being in space. Inexplicably, Hawley uses these revolving environments to change aspect ratios not once but several times throughout the film, from the box-like Instagram friendly choice of 4:4 to even more extended variations of widescreen’s 16:9 ratio. To what end, you might ask? There’s really no purpose for it, other than keep the edges of the screen moving every 10-15 minutes (or less!). Whatever magic cinematographer Polly Morgan (also a “Legion” collaborator of Hawley’s) was trying to capture within the frame goes out the window quickly. We can’t help but stare at the collision of misguided aesthetics and rotten screenwriting.
The screenplay department is in no better shape than the aspect ratios. Although there’s five credits attached to the script including two story by credits for Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi and three for revisions: Brown, DiGuiseppi and Hawley, the final work clearly needed more hands on deck to save the sinking ship. If the awkwardly handled characterization and dialogue doesn’t get on your nerves, perhaps the clichéd on-the-nose metaphor about butterflies emerging out of cocoons and the sight of rocket taking off as Lucy enjoys an orgasm in the office will. If you need more reasons to cringe, imagine watching John Hamm, here playing Lucy’s love interest Mark, as he watches and re-watches the news broadcast of the Challenger explosion on his TiVo. There’s no narrative reason for this, other than to make the audience feel worse for a guy who had an affair and is now getting stalked by one of his co-workers. Because “Lucy in the Sky” was so astronomically botched by a group of three men, I wonder if a woman might have taken a more empathetic, less campy approach to her story. Although, it’s possible that no one could have saved “Lucy” from itself.
Despite assembling a reasonably solid cast, there’s no one strong enough to save the film. Portman’s astronaut is little more than a space cadet when she returns home from her mission and there are many moments where she just stares off or gets lost in her thoughts. When she is interacting with others, it’s like watching a toddler protest not getting their way or lying to dodge blame. Thankfully, not all of the women in NASA behave like Lucy, and others like Erin (Zazie Beetz) feel like taking a break from babysitting. Dan Stevens seems to have a little fun as Lucy’s cuckold husband, charmingly oblivious to her affair with Mark. A new character to the story, Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson), joins Lucy on her unhinged scheme to kidnap Erin, but she’s not so much a character as she is the audience’s moral compass, on hand to look outraged and puzzled by her aunt’s incoherent plans. Armed with a few choice bawdy one-liners, Lucy’s mom (Ellen Burstyn) is quite the scene-stealer and earns some of the movie’s few intentional laughs.
There’s a sense of tragedy in Howak’s story that Hawley cannot capture with his metaphor-laden script and slow-tuned rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Although the film tries to be sympathetic to its heroine, it might actually turn the audience against her. Even though it skips the tale's most lurid detail—that Howak wore diapers to catch her target so not to waste time on pit stops (which the former astronaut denies)—the movie makes her on-screen counterpart a laughingstock, less complicated and more cartoonishly predictable. There’s a point at which this joke stops being funny and turns sad, and it’s very early in its over two hours runtime.
This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival.
For many people, Judy Garland’s story is the story of Hollywood: a natural talent who grew up in front of the movie camera, the pressures of fame that consumed her and the tragedy she eventually met. She comes to mind anytime we lose a star too early, whenever we reference “The Wizard of Oz,” or when we hear her golden voice on the radio over the holidays. Naturally, she’s a figure whose story still has the power to fascinate many, and in Rupert Goold’s new biopic “Judy,” we revisit the last few months of her time on earth with us: the booing crowds, the empty bank accounts, and the custody battle to come. It’s less the portrait of the glamorous Judy Garland we’ve put on a pedestal, forever young and singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “The Trolley Song,” and more the wounded figure still unsure if she could perform again the next night.
Adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s play, Goold’s “Judy” finds its star struggling to stay afloat in Los Angeles and London. Although she gives her everything on stage, behind-the-scenes, she’s broke and in desperate need of another break. She leaves her two younger children, Lorna and Joe, in the care of their father Sidney (Rufus Sewell) and embarks on yer another redemption tour in England that would help revitalize both her reputation and her fortunes. Unfortunately, no one understands the trauma Judy endured in her childhood years, and many of her present-day handlers and casual observers write her off as merely a has-been diva. If only they knew what the audience could see in the movie’s flashbacks to Judy’s tortured past.
As played by Renée Zellweger, this Judy is painfully and visibly anxious. Or, perhaps this is her idea of drug-induced twitching. Either way, there are spots in the movie where Zellweger’s affected manners become too distracting and overshadow everything else around her. These tweaks and fidgets may be so noticeable because the team behind the film might have hoped to chase that “A Star is Born” awards luster, or court groups with a penchant for rewarding mediocre biopics. Try as she might, Zellweger’s Judy never goes beyond an impression of the multi-talented artist; her all-caps version of acting fails to allow the role to feel natural. In trying so hard, Zellweger defeats herself. The audience is meant to feel and see every muscle in her strained back and flailing arms while performing, but watching the actress work is not why most of us would buy a ticket to “Judy.”
For purists and die-hard fans, “Judy” might smack of heresy. Of course, it’s not altogether factual—there’s entertainment to be made. Better to punch up the details for some dramatic tension than to play it out like a dusty made-for-TV documentary. But even the show-stopping numbers with Garland’s hits fail to strike the right tone. Goold manhandles these scenes with poor directing, barely masking Zellweger’s noticeable lip syncing. Some of the shots during the performances are unforgivably atrocious, cutting Judy’s face out of frame so that she holds less than a third of the screen and the empty air hogs the rest. It feels like an artless attempt to seem deep. The script also includes a subplot in which Garland is rescued by two “friends of Judy” that feels more contrived than a well-meaning tribute.
Although “Judy” is not without its stumbling blocks, it does surprisingly well at contextualizing Garland’s abusive childhood. The audience watches uncomfortably as young Judy (Darci Shaw) is forced on and off pills with enough regularity to warrant a call to child services. We also learn how she was shamed for wanting to eat burgers and play like other kids, and about the latent creepiness and control MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer held over her early years. It was enough unhappiness to last many lifetimes, but for Garland, it was enough to cut hers short. Although the fascination with her twilight days may only feed the mythology around her death, this move to explain what drove her to an early grave at 47 is the film’s most humanistic touch. I wish that humanism had extended to the rest of the film.
This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival.
Twenty years have passed since Eddie Murphy last used the kind of R-rated profanity he frequently employs in “Dolemite Is My Name,” and it’s a homecoming of sorts. After decades of comedic PG and PG-13 rated fare, not to mention more dramatic turns like his Oscar-nominated role in “Dreamgirls” and his unwise choice of “Mr. Church,” the self-proclaimed “Mister F--k You Man” is back. Less than a minute into director Craig Brewer’s very entertaining biopic, Murphy drops the word Samuel L. Jackson is most famous for uttering. It’s not just the triumphant return to cussin’ that fans have been craving, it’s also a reminder: Sam Jackson’s favorite word may be maternal-adjacent and twelve letters long, but before he commandeered it, it was owned by Rudy Ray Moore.
Murphy plays Moore, the chameleon-like hustler who parlayed his ability to change and his tenaciousness into a career as a stand-up comedian whose signature character, Dolemite, made him famous. Before discovering the self-promoting, badass trickster pimp of the title, Moore tried his hand at shake dancing, magic acts and even singing. As the film opens, Moore is trying to convince a local DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play a record he recorded in his aunt’s living room. The DJ is unmoved by the outdated R&B sound. “Our time has passed,” says DJ Snoop. “You think I wanna be running a radio station out of a ghetto record store?”
That record store keeps them both employed, along with Moore’s friend Toney (Titus Burgess). It’s Toney’s job to shoo away the wino (Ron Cephas Jones) who keeps coming in to ask for change. Jones may be physically funky, but his verbal game reeks of potential genius. Stumbling into the store, he regales anyone who will listen with tales of the “baddest motherf----r who ever lived, Dolemite.” Dolemite bragged about his preternatural sexual prowess and his fabled feats of derring-do. He “handcuffed lightning and threw thunder’s ass in jail.” With gravel in his voice and the shakes of possible withdrawal on his person, Jones is electrifying in this brief cameo, captivating the audience as much as he does the onscreen Moore. With a little sharpening of the punchlines, Moore can take these stories and produce a comedy album reflecting them back into the world.
The real Rudy Ray Moore is on record crediting this neighborhood wino as the genesis for his Dolemite stories and raps. As one person says in the film, a lot of these guys had been in jail and, to pass the time, crafted these tall tales of signifying and braggadocio from their own experiences and the colorful dialogue they heard on the corners. Moore collects these stores in a scene set around a garbage can fire where Jones and his fellow street denizens spin their yarns for cash. Yet Moore wasn’t alone in mining this particular vein for comedic gold: When Richard Pryor turned his comedy away from the White gaze and peered into his own front yard, he created Mudbone, the hard-drinking street philosopher who premiered on record the same year Dolemite made his onscreen debut. From Ned the Wino on “Good Times” to “Do the Right Thing”’s Da Mayor, this particular character has often been used as a foil who hid bitter truths within broad humor, like Shakespeare’s fools but with more hyperbole. Drunk and downtrodden they may be, but it doesn’t negate the wisdom earned from the harsh realities of their experiences. As the saying goes, in vino veritas.
After the success of his comedy albums, one of which even charts on Billboard, Moore considers what’s next for Dolemite. While watching Billy Wilder’s “The Front Page” with his buddies, Moore realizes that true immortality resides on the screen, where the beam of light shooting from the projector is like a cave etching. He thinks filmmaking is easy because, to him and his cronies, Wilder’s comedy isn’t amusing at all, yet it got made and is on screens all over America. “This movie had no titties, no funny and no kung-fu,” Moore says, “the stuff people like us wanna see.” Moore is determined to make a Dolemite movie. And he isn’t going to let his lack of cinematic knowledge get in the way.
When writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were announced, I thought they were the wrong choice for this material, but in many ways, Moore’s story has parallels with their former subject, Ed Wood. Like Burton’s film, “Dolemite Is My Name” has a supporting cast of colorful characters who are lovably weird, starting with Wesley Snipes’ D’Urville Martin. Martin is the most pedigreed person on the set, having worked as an actor with Roman Polanski (“oh, you were the elevator operator in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’,” someone points out) and Moore’s fellow do-it-yourself filmmaker Fred Williamson. Martin isn’t on board until Moore offers “Dolemite” as his directorial debut in addition to the role of the film’s antagonist. Drunk with power, Snipes gives an outrageously funny performance that combines prima donna preening with bemused resignation over what he perceives as an amateurish affair beneath his talents. Also on hand in amusing performances are Keegan-Michael Key as writer Jerry Jones and Craig Robinson as Ben Taylor, the man who does for Dolemite what Ike Hayes did for Shaft, minus the Oscar.
Holding court in the center of “Dolemite Is My Name” is Eddie Murphy, whose performance left me a bit conflicted. A brilliant mimic, Murphy could have gone for a full-on vocal imitation of Moore (though, even with the pudgy gut, he doesn’t really resemble his real-life counterpart), which is what I expected he would do. Instead, Murphy pretty much uses his own voice, so the scene where Dolemite is rapping “The Signifyin’ Monkey,” plays more like Eddie Murphy paying homage to his hero rather than becoming him. However, there’s something else going on here, something akin to what Anthony Hopkins did in “Nixon,” or perhaps what Diana Ross did in “Lady Sings the Blues.” This isn’t facsimile; instead it captures the essence of the person the actor is playing. The real Moore had genuine empathy for the people around him, as well as a tenacity that sprung from his ego yet was tempered by self-deprecation. Murphy conveys all this superbly, much of it reflected in his eyes. There’s that mischievous twinkle we’ve come to know and love Eddie for, but there’s also a sweetness and vulnerability I haven’t seen from Murphy since Lisa gave Prince Akeem back his earrings on the MTA in “Coming to America.”
Look at the loving way he platonically dotes on Lady Reed (an excellent Da'Vine Joy Randolph), the patron at his comedy club who will later star as the madam of Dolemite’s stable of kung-fu women. In her, he sees an equally confident kindred spirit, a big, beautiful woman counterpart to his doughy, average looking man. Their hilariously filthy country music parody duet is one of the film’s highlights. Reed gets a speech about representation that at first seemed like overkill—we can infer what she’s saying from the scenes she’s in—but perhaps it needed to be vocalized anyway so the folks in the back can hear it.
Comparisons are certain to be made between this film and the much more sour and terrible “The Disaster Artist,” but a closer skew would be Mario van Peebles’ “Baadasssss!” Like van Peebles’ chronicle of the making of his father’s indie classic, “Dolemite Is My Name” plays like something that was made while on the run, evoking the feel of its subject matter. Its plentiful humor is never bitter or self-mocking, even in its most absurd moments. Moore’s “Dolemite” may seem like a “The Room”-style midnight movie, but as Simon Abrams and I pointed out on this site, any snide mockery of “Dolemite” from today’s audiences runs counter to how it played when I saw it in 1975. Additionally, the film and the character had an unmistakable influence on countless future rappers like Snoop Dogg and Big Daddy Kane.
“Dolemite Is My Name” is a typical biopic buoyed by its unrelenting hilarity, its affection for its subject and commitment to the time and place it is set. And yet, something still nags at me about its lead performance. Don’t get me wrong, Murphy is very, very good, and on the basis of this, I’d love to see him tackle Pryor next. I just buy him more as Rudy Ray Moore than I do as Dolemite. That is very likely the intention here, as Moore says numerous times in the film that the role is entirely a put-on. That I keep rolling this performance around in my head says something about its staying power. Murphy is not exactly the most charitable of actors when he’s the lead, a by-product of his star power, but he’s at his best here when he’s slyly letting the scene be stolen from underneath him. His last scene is an excellent example of this—who thought his onscreen wise-ass persona could be this humble?
This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival.
Just because something works in one medium doesn’t mean it automatically will in another. There’s an egotism in Hollywood that often leads people to assume that anything—a TV show, a play, certainly a Pulitzer Prize-winning book—can be made into a feature film. But the urgency of being in a theater with actors, the depth allowed by hundreds of pages in a book, the episodic structure of television—you simply can’t mimic it. And there may be no better example of that blind assumption than John Crowley’s “The Goldfinch,” which adapts Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winner with disastrous results, zapping it of all nuance, leaving only the plot, which wasn’t exactly the source material's strength. If Tartt’s book is about grief and the sudden trauma that can derail a life’s trajectory, Crowley’s film feels like it doesn’t understand either of those things at all, merely using them as exploitative decoration on a beautiful but shockingly hollow experience.
The title of the book and movie refers to a painting that was on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art on the day that Theo Decker’s life changed forever. Theo (Oakes Fegley) was there with his mother when a terrorist attack happened, killing her and others, and leaving rubble. Theo awoke and took the painting, something that had survived for centuries, handed down over generations, but now looks like it could get lost in the grief spiral that Theo is about to enter over the next two decades of his life.
Before taking the painting, Theo is handed a ring by a dying man, and told to take it back to his partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright). With his mother dead and his father MIA, young Theo becomes a part of two worlds—that of an upper-class family that takes him in, led by a matriarch played by Nicole Kidman, and the antiques shop run by Hobie. Of course, both are incredibly formative, and one of the strongest themes of this narrative is what Paul Auster calls “the music of chance”—the idea that random events, even tragedies, shape us into people we wouldn’t otherwise be.
If all of this sounds like deep, philosophical material, much of it is in Tartt’s book, but Peter Straughan’s incredibly frustrating screenplay diminishes almost all of the character detail from a book that’s dense with it. Over nearly 800 pages, told in first-person, Tartt has the freedom to get readers into the development of Theodore Decker in ways that they simply never figured out how to replicate on film. He’s a black hole at the center of this movie, someone who merely reacts to what is around him, and while Fegley is solid as the child version, poor Ansel Elgort completely loses his way as the older version. Although the poor dialogue and incredibly awkward handling of some of the action in the final act can’t really be blamed on hm. Overall, most of the performances are lacking—Kidman is wasted to an upsetting degree—with the possible exception of Wright, one of the few cast members who seems to be playing character more than plot.
There is a lot of money and talent behind “The Goldfinch” and so it looks “important.” After all, Roger Deakins shot it, and he’s not about to make an ugly movie. The costumes, the lavish interiors, even the score by Trevor Gureckis—it’s all designed to give the impression of a high-class, serious drama—sometimes called “prestige,” or, less kindly “awards bait.” And Crowley knows how to frame a shot—he certainly proved that in the excellent “Brooklyn.” But the desperate grandiosity of “The Goldfinch” eventually makes it sterile, draining the story of its humanity, and the audience's potential to have empathy for the characters' traumas. There's nothing below the surface of this soulless movie.
There’s a subplot in which Theo learns about cobbling together broken antiques to make them look new again. They aren’t original antiques, and Hobie warns him not to sell them as such. They’re fake, produced by machines from spare parts and lacking the human touch of the real thing. If a film ever had a better in-story symbol of its own failing, I can’t think of it.
This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2019.
Jennifer Lopez struts onto the main stage of a cavernous strip club in “Hustlers” to the blaring tune of Fiona Apple’s late ‘90s anthem “Criminal”—the first line of which, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl,” suggests the knowing, playful tease to come.
Lusty men in musty suits immediately begin throwing money at her legendary derriere—not Lopez’s, exactly, but that of the veteran exotic dancer she portrays, the impeccably preserved Ramona. Still, it’s hard to discern completely between Lopez the superstar and the larger-than-life character she plays in “Hustlers,” and that’s actually part of the pleasure of watching this career-best performance from the multi-talented multi-hyphenate. We know this figure—we know the swagger, the magnetism, the incandescent ability to work an audience—and yet, Lopez has repurposed and repackaged all her well-honed abilities here as a reminder that before she was known as J.Lo, she was a naturally gifted actress.
Seeing Lopez’s best screen work since her early heyday of “Selena” and “Out of Sight” isn’t the only reason to check out writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s crime drama, but it’s a huge draw. In telling the true story of a group of strippers who lured, drugged and fleeced their wealthy Wall Street clients out of millions, “Hustlers” as a whole is a blast, stomping and striding with the confidence of Lopez’s thrilling introduction.
Scafaria leans a bit too heavily into classic Scorsese filmmaking tactics: the matter-of-fact narration describing the scam, her use of slow motion and zooms to heighten the emotion of a moment, the pop, rock and R&B soundtrack ranging from Janet Jackson and Britney Spears to Bob Seger and The Four Seasons, with Chopin sprinkled throughout. (Her long, opening tracking shot—from a dressing room, through a hallway, onto the stage, down the stairs and out into the crowd—does provide an impressive, immersive entrée to this realm.) And perhaps we get one or two montages too many of the high-end shopping and lavish lifestyle these ladies enjoyed with their ill-gotten gains. It’s “Goodfellas” in a G-string. But Scafaria’s film is always a blast to watch, resulting in a surprising level of emotional depth.
Based closely on Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine article (with Julia Stiles serving as the journalist’s stand-in), “Hustlers” follows Constance Wu’s shy “new girl,” who goes by the stage name Destiny: a Queens native and child of immigrants navigating the world of Costco-sized strip clubs in The Big City. She’s doing it for financial survival to support the grandmother who raised her (Wai Ching Ho) and she doesn’t show much enthusiasm or talent for this pursuit at first. But seeing Ramona command the stage makes her realize how powerful—and lucrative—such work can be. The sequence in which Ramona and another stripper (Cardi B, a proud, Latina product of the Bronx like Jenny from the Block making her charismatic film debut) teach Destiny the finer points of pole spinning and lap dancing is hilarious and actually kind of sweet, and it’s an early indicator of the way these ladies look out for each other.
The money is good for a while, especially with Ramona and Destiny working together as a seductive duo in the champagne room. But then the 2008 recession hits—and it hits the Wall Street jerks hard, which means they have less cash to toss at people’s posteriors. The crazy, addictive energy of the film’s beginning eventually gives way to a more low-key tone as work dries up, the dancers go their separate ways and Destiny gives birth to a baby girl.
But desperation also inspires Ramona’s scheme to go after even bigger money: concocting a potent mix of MDMA and ketamine, sprinkling just a dash in the drink of an unsuspecting mark at a bar and then dragging him back to the strip club to drain his credit cards. (The drug-cooking sequence in the kitchen of Ramona’s minimalist Upper East Side apartment is lively and humorous but it also provides another unshakable “Goodfellas” comparison.) Ramona and Destiny recruit a couple of trusted fellow dancers—Keke Palmer’s Mercedes and Lili Reinhart’s Annabelle, who add to the cast’s chemistry—to create a diverse lineup of sirens, and the nightly heists kick into high gear.
Scafaria doesn’t seem terribly interested in examining the morality of the women’s crimes. She suggests that these guys have it coming to them by virtue of their chosen profession; they’re crooks and scam artists themselves, albeit of the white-collar variety. They’re also obnoxious, awful human beings for the most part, which seems to justify the women’s actions, as well. Rather, we’re meant to root for these hard-working ladies to bask in the glory of their much-deserved riches. It may seem shallow, but Scafaria makes a persuasive argument in amassing such a likable ensemble.
Ramona is, of course, the powerhouse driving the action; she’s both the brash ringleader and the warm mother hen, and Lopez fully embodies all her character’s contradictions and complexities. (Early on, during a chilly nighttime smoke break on the strip club rooftop, Ramona invites Destiny to climb inside her fur even before they’ve introduced themselves to each other. Who could possibly say no?) As Destiny, meanwhile, Wu gets to demonstrate more of an arc, transforming herself from wide-eyed neophyte to ruthless perpetrator. She also gets to show even more dramatic depth than her star-making performance in “Crazy Rich Asians” suggested. The teary-eyed bond between these two characters—their protective sisterhood in a world full of predators—feels unexpectedly substantive by the end, given the flashy, duplicitous nature of their dealings.
And walking out of “Hustlers,” you may experience a sensation similar to that of the strippers’ victims: You may not remember everything that happened, but you’ll know you had a great time.
American indie horror king Larry Fessenden (“The Last Winter,” “Wendigo”) is just as much a pulp fiction aficionado as he is a neo-gothic romantic: his doomed heroes and sorrowful monsters are all messy, small people whose apparent sense of compassion is often dwarfed by their titanic egos and their general cosmic insignificance. Fessenden’s low-budget film horror movies are not the most cuddly (or polished), but his body of work as a writer and director (and producer and editor) is consistent in its investment in human-scaled people. Fessenden’s prickly sense of humanism makes a considerable difference in “Depraved,” his engrossing take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and maybe his best movie to date.
Set mostly in a decrepit factory by Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, “Depraved” follows three troubled men and a constellation of tragic supporting characters, some of whom are women. There’s Adam (Alex Breaux), a cadaverous amnesiac with prominent scars on his gaunt face and semi-clothed body; and Henry (David Call), an egotistical, PTSD-afflicted ex-army medic and current research scientist; and Polidori (Joshua Leonard), Henry’s boastful, cynical patron, and a wannabe pharmaceutical mogul. There’s also Liz (Ana Kayne), Henry’s concerned girlfriend; and Georgina (Maria Dizzia), Polidori’s aloof wife; and Lucy (Chloe Levine), the kind girl that Adam can’t stop thinking about, mostly because Adam’s not really Adam.
In a former life, Adam used to be beanie-clad hipster Alex (Owen Campbell), before Henry gave him an absurd new name, a battery of radical antibiotics, and an unreliable sort of companionship. Alex was callow, but not unsympathetic: in an introductory scene, he pushes Lucy away when she semi-casually mentions that he would make a good father. Alex is a mess—anxious, untrusting, young—but also real enough. Adam is somewhat similar, a child looking for guidance and love. His innocence draws people to him like a magnet, partly because everybody in “Depraved” is living on borrowed time, but doesn’t want to admit it, as Fessenden often reminds us through blunt, but effectively pulpy dialogue, and lo-fi psychedelic imagery (the movie’s trippy visual/optical effects are credited to cinematographer James Siewert).
One of the most charming aspects of “Depraved” is the way that Fessenden is able to synthesize his pet themes into a lo-fi psychedelic multi-character study. But you don’t have to be familiar with his work to appreciate the idiosyncrasies that make “Depraved” such a stirring horror movie, though it certainly doesn’t hurt (check out “Skin and Bones,” his 2008 entry in the short-lived TV anthology series “Fear Itself”). Everything you need to “get” this movie is in the movie, so while Fessenden’s generally soft-spoken characters sometimes declaim their intentions, that’s only because they are young and careless (ex: “Most of America is on drugs” and “Henry, you brought the war home with you ...”). Fessenden also tends to rely on horror archetypes—the nouveau riche villain, his Byronic surrogate sons, and their worried muses—but only because he likes all of them too much to completely deconstruct or dismiss them. Fessenden’s also probably more of a hippy and/or fatalist than many viewers will be comfortable with, especially given his bleak view of humanity as a daisy chain of small-minded, unhappy creatures who’d rather preserve their lives than embrace their mortality. His characters are, in this way, doomed to inhabit roles that were prescribed to them as soon as Fessenden decided what type of horror story “Depraved” is.
But what’s most remarkable about “Depraved” is the way that Fessenden makes you care about his characters, even when you know that they’re either too kind or too greedy to live. Polidori is the hardest character to warm up to: he wants to be a father figure to Adam because Henry is too proud to accept his benefactor’s cruel, over-simplified view of humanity. Polidori also tends to speechify about humanity’s fleeting genius, like when he gives Adam a guided tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and airily dismisses the whole institution as a “mausoleum to the aspirations of man.”
It’s also hard to accept the peripheral roles that women like Liz play in Adam’s story, though Fessenden is characteristically sensitive enough to give his actresses enough space to inhabit their respective roles. I’m especially taken with the scene where Adam tries to bond with Shelley (Addison Timlin), a warm, but wary local barfly who thinks Adam looks like Iggy Pop. This scene’s inevitable conclusion annoyed and saddened me the first time I saw “Depraved,” but made more sense the second time around; this scene captures the pulse of the movie’s bleeding heart. “Depraved” may not take you anywhere that you haven’t been before, but it might leave you with a renewed appreciation for Shelley’s mythic story.
The documentary “Moonlight Sonata” is about a deaf boy named Jonas trying to play a Beethoven piece on the piano, even though he’s been warned he’s not ready for it yet. Meanwhile, his deaf grandparents—Paul and Sally—grapple with the realities of age.
The boy’s determination to master the piece is sparked by the fact that Beethoven was deaf, and wrote “Moonlight Sonata” to come to terms with his condition; Paul and Sally have been married for nearly 60 years, and didn’t get cochlear implants until they were in their sixties (an experience captured in Brodsky’s 2007 documentary “Hear and Now”). Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky—Jonas’ mother and Paul and Sally’s daughter—this is the kind of film where simplicity generates feeling, and meanings are mainly carried through images of people doing things, going places, talking to each other, and sitting in close-up, lost in thought.
Paul, an inventor of communications devices for the hearing impaired, bought the director her first camera when she was a just a girl and taught her how to use it. The images of the grandfather’s invention (which looks like a hybrid of a typewriter and a piano) connect with the grandson’s attempts to master Beethoven as well as the daughter's quest to evoke her family’s difficulties through images and sounds. Everywhere you look (and listen), there is language, imperfectly striving to capture the moments that define our lives.
This artistic reaching-out across the centuries is made dynamic in scenes of Jonas, who got cochlear implants as a toddler but sometimes takes them out at the keyboard, practicing with his teacher, Colleen. We should all be so lucky as to have somebody like her as an instructor. Colleen demands commitment and focus, but while she's not above busting chops, she's never cruel, and she doesn’t believe in perfection, only improvement. She honors Jonas’ tenacity by telling him the truth instead of what he wants to hear. When he improves, she gives him a peppermint. When he asks for more than one, she says no, unless he makes her laugh.
Their athlete-and-coach dynamic is as inspiring as anything in a sports drama. Brodsky leans on the comparison a bit too hard sometimes, even throwing in the equivalent of a training montage near the end. There are other moments where her nerve fails her, and she comes in with voice-over narration that's thoughtfully written and subtly performed but not always necessary, lays on music where silence was all that was needed, or otherwise fails to embrace the innate power of the extraordinarily intimate moments she’s captured (especially at the end, which rushes through a scene that deserved to unfold out at length).
But such lapses are noticeable only because there are so few of them. For the most part, this is an exceptional movie that works on several layers at once, with such tunnel-vision (like Jonas at his keyboard) that it seems not to care whether you notice how much thought went into its creation. “Moonlight Sonata” is about music, language, and music-as-language. It’s about ability and disability, youth and old age, memory and experience. And it’s a film about how the gifts of discipline and artistic expression are paid forward through generations. It’s a powerful film about parents and children, told with enough restraint that its more affecting moments may sneak up on you.
But mainly it's about the boy at the piano, chipping away at a sonata, day by day, week by week, dreaming at first of mastering it, then of getting through it with no mistakes, then realizing that in music, as in life, just getting through it is challenge enough.
It isn’t until deep into “Moonlight Sonata” that you start to realize how many patterns Brodsky has woven into the fabric of this tale—everything from the three-movement structure, which mirrors the three generations of Brodskys, to the repeated shots of flying creatures (ducks and bats, some live-action, others animated) flitting across the screen in V-formations and in whirling clouds that change shape and direction on a dime. At various points, Beethoven, Jonas and Paul are all associated with a bird that travels alone, always remaining in sighting distance of a flock but never allowing himself to become part of it. In time, we associate each member of the Brodsky family with that bird, flying solo yet always in view of the flock, following its own course, wherever it leads.
[There are some spoilers in the following “One Cut of the Dead” review. Do what feels right, as long as you’re not hurting anybody.]
Last year, the Japanese zombie-comedy “One Cut of the Dead” was a word-of-mouth smash on both the international film festival circuit and in its native country. The micro-budget movie’s multivalent success wouldn’t be so remarkable if the movie’s fans weren’t so good at keeping its twists a secret. For months now—almost two years, if you count the 2017 Tokyo premiere—horror movie buffs have kept this cult oddity’s nesting doll narrative under wraps. They’ve also helped to hype up the movie’s reputation to the point where I almost fell out of my chair (literally) when I saw that “One Cut of the Dead” was finally receiving a US theatrical release. And I already owned the damn thing on DVD. I had to know: what did I miss when I regrettably bailed on it (after 30+ minutes) at the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival?
Having now seen “One Cut of the Dead” all the way through, I can tell you a couple of things, and speculate about a few more. For starters: yes, you should probably see this one knowing as little about it as possible. I’m not generally a spoiler-phobe, but I appreciate that part of the movie’s charm comes from the almost impenetrable aura of mystery that surrounds it.
With that said: “One Cut of the Dead” requires some patience. It begins as a visually flat, mostly by-the-numbers zombie comedy about a low-budget film crew who are menaced by zombies in real time while filming a zombie movie. So for the first 37 minutes, we follow a group of uninteresting, indistinct characters while they wander and occasionally flee from various shambling zombies in, up, and around an abandoned factory.
This portion of the movie is still, upon rewatch, not great. Granted, writer/director Shinichiro Ueda throws some gas in his otherwise fume-driven genre vehicle just by filming his movie’s opening segment in one continuous, uninterrupted take. You may also enjoy watching characters run around while deranged, realism-obsessed director Hirugashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) occasionally pops up, as if out of thin air, to yell “action” or ramble about “true filmmaking: "There is no fiction, no lies! This is reality!” Still: imagine you’re watching somebody else play a generic first-person video game (one of the “Resident Evil” ripoffs, maybe), and you’ll probably understand why I bailed on “One Cut of the Dead” two years ago.
Thankfully, there’s more. After those 37 minutes, “One Cut of the Dead” digs a little deeper into its meta-comedy: we join Hirugashi as he’s asked to direct the short movie that we just saw. This narrative gear shift is welcome, though it doesn’t really make Ueda’s movie pick up much speed. Viewers follow Hirugashi and some members of his crew as they figure out how to make the best zombie movie they can given the time, cast, and resources available to them. Guerilla filmmaking—even of z-grade quality—can be tough, so it’s nice to see a movie about movies show how many deferred opinions, budgetary restraints, and creative gaffes can happen behind the scenes on a dinky genre movie that, on its surface, doesn’t really stand out. At this point, Ueda’s film is what you’d get if “Day for Night” and “Ed Wood” had an inferior, but still likable movie-baby.
Soon enough, “One Cut of the Dead” goes further with its meta-reflexive humor, and finally starts to move as we re-watch the film’s first third again, only this time through Hirugashi’s eyes. Now we see all the last-minute work that was happening while they shot their short, from wrangling actors to securing equipment. This part of “One Cut of the Dead” is fun, partly because Ueda and his co-creators don’t conflate filmmaking rigor with artistic merit (ie: they worked really hard on this passable high-concept comedy, so you should respect them for it). But for the most part: “One Cut of the Dead” works thanks to the simple joys of pattern recognition and variation: what starts as a strained attempt at self-aware playfulness finally becomes genuinely lively.
With that said: I’m not sure if the payoff at the end of “One Cut of the Dead” is good enough to warrant such a drawn-out, belabored set-up. The jokes and characterizations are generally one-note, and Ueda’s movie appears, for the most part, to be indifferently assembled. You have to want to invest in his characters in order for “One Cut of the Dead” to really take off, so your mileage may vary on how long that will take, if it takes at all. For me, “One Cut of the Dead” is good enough. It sometimes surprised me while I waited for a payoff that Ueda basically delivered, even if he and his collaborators never made me involuntarily leave my seat.
On a lonely mountaintop above the clouds, somewhere in Latin America, a group of teenage commandos—part of an amorphous army called "The Organization"—live in a feral state, awaiting orders from their superior, a frightening figure who shows up at random from the landscape far below, to put them through physical and emotional drills, drop off supplies, harangue them. The teenagers' squadron name is "Monos" (monkey), and all go by noms de guerre—Wolf, Lady, Boom Boom, Dog, Rambo. They are given charge of a milk cow and a prisoner (an American engineer referred to only as "Doctora"). Neither cow nor prisoner can be harmed. Why "Doctora" has been kidnapped isn't made clear, and it doesn't matter to the kids, anyway. Connected to the outside world only via radio (if it works), whatever war they're fighting in is very far away and very abstract. This is the set-up of "Monos," Alejandro Landes’ third feature, a fascinating and sometimes frustrating film. These kids—maybe orphans or street kids, maybe kidnapped or pressed into service—and then brutalized by military discipline and indoctrination—are left totally alone, no adults in sight, to create their own world. If you've read Lord of the Flies, you know a society created by kids left up to their own devices is rarely good or healthy or wise.
Landes, who also wrote the script, does not put "Monos" in a specific locale. This is not the story of a specific war, or a specific country (although Colombia feels like the most natural choice). By leaving out details like this, by having the characters speak in a shorthand with one another, with absolutely no expository text, the audience is thrust into the thick of the confusion on that mountain, the kids cavorting around bonfires, shooting their weapons into the air, rolling around in the mud, teasing and tormenting their prisoner "Doctora" (Julianne Nicholson). This is the story of what happens to kids in war, what happens to the mind under a kind of brainwashing, especially a susceptible teenage mind. If "mercy" is seen as weak, if the group decides "mercy" is bad, it's very difficult to go against that grain, to maintain your sense of humanity. This is how "peer pressure" works in its most sinister state. If it's hard for adults to stay their own course, then imagine how hard it is for teenagers. One of the kids, named "Rambo" (Sofia Buenaventura), has somehow kept a spark alive, a spark of softness and care for others. Her sense of empathy makes you wonder if her nom de guerre was a mean-spirited tease imposed on her by the squadron.
Except for Rambo and the wild-eyed Bigfoot (Moises Arias), the guerrilla soldier kids don't emerge as individuals, which I imagine is the point. Individuality is crushed in this environment. "Doctora," forced to participate in their games, forced to make "proof of life" videos where she holds up a daily newspaper, huddles in her "room" in a huge abandoned bunker, and at first Nicholson gives off an air of such frayed-nerve trauma she's like an automaton. But as "Monos" progresses, "Doctora"—malnourished and in shock—takes on a firmer shape. She's trying to survive a completely mad situation. The kids are frighteningly unpredictable. None of them speak English and her Spanish is halting, at best. Their "playing" is always rough-housing. They eat mushrooms and go on a group psychedelic trip. Every moment is a hazing opportunity, only it's hazing done by children waving around gigantic automatic weapons. Eventually, the order comes that "Doctora" needs to be moved off the mountain and down into the jungle. It's hard to tell how the war is going. To the kids of "Monos," the war is wherever they stand.
None of this is all that profound, and has been examined in countless films with more depth and complexity than "Monos" achieves. But "Monos" is elevated into epic territory by the superb work of cinematographer Jasper Wolf, whose feel for the power of landscapes and light is inspired: mountaintops blanketed in thick fog, thunderstorms rolling by far below the outpost, the impenetrable green walls of the jungle, the vastness of nature so palpable it's a shock when an actual building eventually appears, late in the film. You had forgotten there was such a thing as a floor or walls. Composer Mica Levi's omnipresent electronic score creates an unnerving undercurrent, throbbing with menace and danger. The sense of being "right there" in the thick of it is often unbearable, with hand-held camerawork bringing us close in to the kids' faces, with a looming grandiose landscape blurred-out behind them. They're always on the edge of an abyss.
This is a stunningly photographed film, and although I realize it won't be possible for many, I suggest seeing this one on the big screen if you can.