Movie reviews

Jenna Marvin is a fearless 21-year-old queer artist in Russia. Using found objects, layers of makeup and tape, and a jaw-dropping amount of creativity, she manifests otherworldly outfits and strange creatures that seem to have fallen out of a sci-fi TV show and onto the streets of Moscow. Some of her outfits are fun and fanciful, others are directly political, drawing attention to the causes that matter most to Jenna. Her public drag performances earn the curiosity of the public; others scorn her, and the police are only too happy to keep her away from others. Jenna and her friends sometimes film these harsh encounters to capture the homophobic anger her silent presence in public spaces provokes in strangers. But after attending a protest taped in the colors of the Russian flag, Jenna is expelled from beauty school and returns home to Magadan, where her grandparents live and where she must decide for herself how to survive. 

Agniia Galdanova’s sympathetic portrait of the young artist finds Jenna at a delicate moment. One false move, and she could end up in even further trouble with the state. Wait too long to leave, and she could be conscripted into the country’s war on Ukraine. Through Jenna’s experiences, Galdanova’s “Queendom” shows how hostile the country remains to the queer community. Jenna is punished for protesting, for her art, and for simply walking around a grocery store or public spaces in costume. Every outdoor scene comes with a hint of danger, but mostly Jenna attracts puzzled stares. In a world where few people like Jenna feel safe enough to walk outside in an audacious costume, a performer like her is something of a novelty. 

Thankfully, “Queendom” is not a dull documentary on a fascinating subject. In addition to following Jenna through the highs and lows of her time as an artist in Russia, it gives her the space to create performances for the camera, visually accentuating her story in her own style. That includes scenes of Jenna surrounded by a gang of faceless bodies in red, white, and blue as they crowd and bury her as the school reads its decision to expel Jenna or in a mosquito-like costume wandering a strange sandy landscape. These scenes can be funny or serious, like when Jenna wraps up her body, head to toe in gold lamé to wander a desolate theme park and halfheartedly ride one of the rundown attractions, or when she emerges out of a cocoon of what looks like saran wrap, gasping for air as it seems she might be in danger of getting stuck in Russia at a time of war. 

Galdanova and cinematographer Ruslan Fedotov give Jenna marvelous closeups, highlighting the nuances of her performance, the articulate lines of makeup, and intricate costume designs for a dazzling effect. It's almost as if sleek music videos kept popping up during the on-the-ground filming of Jenna in public. 

A world away from Moscow, Magadan is a desolate place, a former Soviet-era gulag that lived on past that chapter in the country’s history. Yet Jenna is in danger whether she’s in a major city or a rural town because Russia has only penalized its queer citizens, not protected them. Jenna is strikingly bold in her performance and courage, taking her creations to the streets, the faces of the people who might reject her, and this documentary. 

She’s not afraid to put her body on the line for the sake of protest, but she’s not so guarded as to leave out her personal life, itself an emotional tug-of-war between loving her grandparents and frustrated by their reactions to her. They don’t always quite understand her art or why she feels the need to put her safety at risk. They ask her to conform out of fear for her, and time and again, Jenna has to explain why that’s impossible. The struggle to be accepted as a queer person is fought on many fronts, be that internal, societal, and sometimes the most painful of all, with one’s family. Although Jenna’s protest art is strikingly her own, her journey of self-discovery and empowerment is a story many share. 

Author: Monica Castillo
Posted: June 14, 2024, 2:56 pm

Wait. Pixar finally has a quality animated film hitting theaters? Granted, it’s a sequel. But after seeing “Turning Red” pushed to Disney+ while a lukewarm film like “Lightyear” took its theatrical place, it’s taken far too many years for the studio to have a distinguished domestically released animated adventure. Even as a reintroduction to a familiar world, Kelsey Mann’s feature directorial debut “Inside Out 2,” a zippy yet gooey animated quest about belonging and individuality during teenage girlhood feels like a final, albeit predictable, return to normalcy.  

The peppy sequel begins with the upbeat Joy (Amy Poehler) believing she has perfected an unimpeachable system. With the help of the usual crew—Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale), and Disgust (Liza Lapira)—she deposits the glass balls holding Riley’s worst memories to a distant realm called the ‘back of the mind' and deposits the best moments to an underground lake whose glowing tendrils reach from the glimmering waters toward the sky, forming the girl’s core beliefs. “I am a good person,” Riley often repeats to herself. 

You can’t really argue with Joy’s methods. Riley, now 13 years old, is giving, smart, and, by Joy’s own account, exceptional. The girl who once feared loneliness in her new Bay Area surroundings has a tight-knit friend group too: Grace (Grace Lu) and Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green). The trio are so close that they’ve formed a formidable team on their hockey squad. They’ve even caught the eye of Coach Roberts (Yvette Nicole Brown), a high school hockey coach who has invited them to a three-day camp where players like Val Ortiz (Lilimar)—Riley’s hero—attend. For Joy and her cohorts, you can’t ask for much more. 

Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein’s broad screenplay throws the biggest, most obvious obstacle possible at the teenager Riley: Puberty. A late-night alarm, in fact, announces its beginning, leading to some additional emotions appearing: the light-emo silence of Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), the French beatnik Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the needy Envy (Ayo Edebiri), and an ambitious Anxiety (Maya Hawke). When Riley learns her best friends will be attending a different high school next year, Anxiety takes it upon herself to wholly recraft Riley in the hopes that new version of her will impress Val. She throws away Riley's present sense of self to the back of her mind and exiles Joy and the other old emotions. It’s up to Joy and company to restore Riley’s former sense, journeying to the back of the mind, before Anxiety totally upends Riley’s ability to function.

Mann doesn’t necessarily break the formula the first “Inside Out” established. This is a fairly straightforward yet affecting story about Joy and Anxiety, both realizing that personhood can’t be reverse-engineered. Riley is so focused on gaining Val’s approval, thereby negating her former best friends, that she merely reflects Val rather than herself. She is also so driven by her competitive desires that she only feels satisfaction whenever she either gains approval from Val or proves her competitive dominance. Seeing Anxiety remold Riley into a blank character as Joy and the other emotions trace through the recesses of Riley’s mind makes for a mostly satisfying structure, allowing the film to assuredly bounce through visually dazzling blitzes of color and whimsy for an intoxicating style that at once feels gentle, fun, and safely crowd-pleasing as it deals with the pressure of being a teenage girl trying to conform to the lofty standards set by other teenage girls.      

That doesn’t mean new jokes aren’t added along the way: a nightmare fueling "Blue’s Clues"-inspired character, a scene in Imagination Land recalling “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” and Mount Crushmore are sharp zingers. The new emotions, however, aren’t as memorable as the primary characters from the prior film. For such an urgent emotion, Envy pretty much fades into the background. Embarrassment has its moments, particularly when put in conversation with Sadness. Ennui’s act wears a tad thin after its initial fast start—the moodiness of being French is understandably a great well to keep hitting. 

None of the new characters carry the same heartbreaking resonance as Bing Bong, who, admittedly, is among the greatest animated characters of the past decade. It’s surprising, then, that Anxiety and Joy barely have any scenes together. Maybe trying to recreate the two-handed dynamic that fueled the first film felt too obvious of a narrative choice. But without much else to replace it, the film does lean heavily on the barrage of jokes it throws at the viewer to carry it through its predictable maneuvering. 

This is also another film that uses people of color—in this case, Riley's Asian and Black best friend—to prop up a white girl's personal growth. In this scenario, the white girl is unquestionably mean to her friends. But it's okay because she's going through it and needs their hurt to ultimately learn a valuable lesson that'll result in them forgiving her. It's simply more of the same trite privileging. 

Even with these bumps, “Inside Out 2” zips confidently along, fashioning a hypnotic and transportive imaginativeness that is incredible to take in. Powered by an aching core of emotion, the film still manages to be a wondrous distillation of the overwhelming angst, incredible solitude, and difficult changes many teenagers are going through. The film grants an immediate roadmap to navigate this period while allowing adults to laugh from the comfort of having already lived through that debilitating phase of life. 

In a late scene, Riley, unburdened by the drive to succeed, experiences pure joy. In her bliss, she nearly levitates, moving and breathing across the ice with the ease of light shining through a windowpane. Through her delight, you can’t help but feel how the message of learning to inhabit an activity for the love of it rather than for social cache or short-lived gratification is still necessary for all of us to hear.  Even if its ring sounds a tad too familiar.      

Author: Robert Daniels
Posted: June 14, 2024, 12:46 pm

Children take center stage but aren’t the real stars of “Ultraman: Rising,” a new animated superhero fantasy about absent parents, lost kids, and other Pixar-entrenched stock types. The movie follows (but predictably differs) from “Shin Ultraman,” the most recent high-profile project featuring the 58-year-old alien hero. “Shin Ultraman” was more of a retro-modern redo of the original “Ultraman” series and its serial format. “Ultraman: Rising” aims squarely for a family-friendly mass audience, one that’s probably less concerned with the character’s previous incarnations. That’s not a major or concerning difference, though it’s sometimes frustratingly apparent given that so much of this new movie’s formulaic daddy issues drama recycles decades of pseudo-adult animated movie clichés.

This new Ultraman’s a brooding hero who must grow up to be truly great, which in this case means getting over his domestic hangups—angry with his dad and missing his mom—and also taking care of a giant baby dragon monster. The dragon’s cute and instantly amusing, partly because it doesn’t speak or have a character beyond its wild mood swings and heart-tugging character design. This new version of Ultraman is also not as charming, especially not when he’s a regular person with a family and other mundane concerns. That was never exactly Ultraman’s strong suit, though he still looks good when wrestling with monsters, robots, and other sci-fi menaces.

In “Ultraman: Rising,” baseball prodigy Ken Sato (Christopher Sean) serves as Ultraman’s alias. Ken tries and mostly fails to juggle both a major league career and a kaiju-battling calling. Ken’s arrogance defines him for a while, though that and a few other qualities seem only to matter whenever the plot needs an extra push. Our hero avoids his doting father, Professor Sato (Gedde Watanabe), because he blames his dad for not protecting his mom, who goes missing after an early scene. In that establishing flashback, Sato tells Ken that the key to being a hero is finding balance. So Ken takes it upon himself, with some help from his robot minder Mina (Tamlyn Tomita), to care for Emi, a baby kaiju discovered shortly after a battle with the dragon Gigantron. This puts Ken at odds with the stern Dr. Onda (Keone Young), the generically militaristic leader of the Kaiju Defense Force.

It takes a village to raise Ken, who rejects all of his father’s calls and doesn’t know how to respond to nosy but well-meaning journalist Ami Wakita (Julia Harriman), a single mom of a young, Ultraman-obsessed daughter. Ami puts Ken on the right path, but Mina does most of the work of caring for both Emi and Ken. Dad inevitably swoops in later, but not until it’s time for him to rescue Ultraman from the burden of being a psychologically complex character.

By contrast, Emi is mostly defined by her attachment to Ultraman, whom she assumes is her mother, and her own monstrous bodily fluids, including slimy puke, fiery gas, and gooey “poopies.” These jokes seem to have written themselves, and so do most of the movie’s contrived plot twists and unseasoned dialogue.

The makers of “Ultraman: Rising” seemingly tried to be all things to all viewers, a strain that’s especially apparent whenever Ken’s the focus. Some of his dialogue doesn’t match the rest of the movie’s Dreamworks Lite tone, like when he rhetorically wonders aloud, “Is this the part where the villain sends a hidden force that we didn’t know about?” (Well, yeah.) It’s harder still to guess why one Ken-centric scene is scored with the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.” (No, really.)

At least Emi moves and acts sensibly, though her wobbly physical movements and expressive facial features mainly stand out compared to her human counterparts’ inarticulate facial features and stiff body language. The movie’s voice cast does what they can to jumpstart their lifeless characters, but there’s only so much spin you can put on awkward placeholder lines like, “Someday, when you have kids of your own, you’ll understand.”

Thankfully, “Ultraman: Rising” finds its footing whenever its title hero grabs the spotlight for himself. Working on the dorsal-finned visitor from the Land of Light seems to have brought out the best work from the movie’s deep bench of computer animators. Focusing on the ways superhuman giants move around each other, rather than how they gesture at their deeper feelings or motives, also seems to play to the filmmakers’ creative strengths.

More than anything else, “Ultraman: Rising” lacks a noteworthy vision of what it means to be a parent, let alone an adult struggling to wear several hats at once. The movie’s fun, if a bit staid, when it’s in all-monsters-attack mode, but “Ultraman: Rising” doesn’t stand out whenever it requires more of your attention.

On Netflix now.

Author: Simon Abrams
Posted: June 14, 2024, 12:44 pm

"Ghostlight," which focuses on a construction worker drawn into a production of "Romeo and Juliet," is a drama about traumatized people healing themselves with art. It's messy in the way that life is messy. It's one of those movies that simultaneously feels too long and not long enough. But there's a purity and earnestness to what it's doing that's increasingly unusual in American independent cinema. 

Co-directed by the Chicago-based filmmaking team of Kerry O'Sullivan and Alex Thompson (O'Sullivan wrote the script), the story focuses on a family played by an actual family of working actors. The father, Dan (Keith Kupferer), is a construction worker. He lives in a suburban neighborhood with his wife, Sharon (Tara Mallen), and their teenage daughter, Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer). This is a troubled family. You can see that long before the movie reveals all the pieces of their trouble and lets you examine them. 

Some viewers will be irritated by one of the qualities I found most intriguing about "Ghostlight": you don't really know what this family's "deal" is, so to speak, until fairly deep in the film (I won't say what it is; suffice to say it's an unimaginable loss). For quite a long time, you can't figure out why they're all acting the way they are. Dan is sullen and a bit of a space case at work. He has a hair-trigger temper that suddenly erupts through his personal fog and causes severe problems. Daisy also has a temper and is being disciplined for an outburst at her school. She uses profanity in settings where nobody uses profanity and doesn't care that a taboo is being violated. Sharon is a dutiful, attentive wife and mom who seems to be hanging on by a thread. In due time, you get little details about what happened to them, and the more you learn, the more you start to feel the weight of it yourself.

Dolly De Leon, a breakout in "Triangle of Sadness," plays Rita, an actress in the aforementioned local troupe who gets to know Dan because his crew is doing loud construction near the theater and ends up being his entry point into a very low-budget community theater production of "Romeo and Juliet." Even though Rita is in her 50s, she's playing Juliet, and when the much younger actor playing Romeo complains that it feels weird, Dan, who stumbled into the group, gets recruited to fill in. 

This is, unfortunately, the source of some of the film's weakest moments. Dan is embarrassed both by getting involved in theater (he's a strong-silent macho guy, for the most part) but also because it's a romantic role that involves kissing (there's a wonderful bit where the troupe's director Lanora, played by Hanna Dworkin, apologizes for not being able to afford an intimacy coordinator, then guides the two actors through some basic intimacy exercises for the stage). It's not so much the fact of Dan keeping his secret life a secret as the way that they expose it, which would've been a "big laugh" moment on a sitcom, and that doesn't make a lot of sense when you think about who's doing the discovering and what's in the room when the moment happens. There is a sitcom tendency to a few scenes, many of them involving Daisy, who's played by the younger Kupferer in a way that answers the question, "What if Joan Cusack and Nicolas Cage had a baby?" I.e., there's an innate bigness to her acting even when she's small.

But that also turns out to be the wellspring of many of the film's delights. Daisy is a Force-of-Nature type character, barreling through everyone's life like a petite tornado. Not only do you get used to her after a while, but you begin to appreciate that she (and the actress inhabiting her) never come at a scene or moment in quite the way you might expect. She's so intense that even when her character is silently observing another character, waiting for her turn to speak, or just being part of a bigger moment, the eye is naturally drawn to her, because you know she's thinking of five or six things at once.

The apple must not have fallen far from the tree(s): both the elder Kupferer and Mallen unpack previously hidden layers in Mom and Dad, and avoid obvious reactions and readings. Mallen has a strong scene near the end where Sharon chastises her husband for playing the hero while she's doing the family's grunt work that will ring uncomfortably true for many viewers. Daddy Kupferer, meanwhile, plays sadness in a way that's refreshingly realistic. You understand why nobody around Dan understands the depths of his sorrow or can recognize the symptoms of a man who's constantly on the edge of either cratering or exploding. 

There were a fair number of English and Australian comedy-dramas made twenty to thirty years ago that explored the liberating and transformative power of art in the lives of people who never thought of themselves as creative, including "The Full Monty" and "Brassed Off." Patrick Wang's recent masterpieces "A Bread Factory Part 1" and "A Bread Factory Part 2" explored similar material in a more formally audacious way. "Ghostlight" is an honorable entry in that tradition. The movie has the good sense to let the actors articulate the meanings themselves by inhabiting the characters. It shows us their emotions rather than weighing everybody down with exposition or thematically reductive speeches that distill profundity into a bumper sticker or a meme. 

"Ghostlight" doesn't capitalize on all the rich possibilities of its premise. It would not surprise me to learn that there's a three- or four-hour cut in the filmmakers' draft folders. But I don't think it's lesser for failing to do everything it theoretically could have done. It seems to have been made intuitively, and it's definitely onto something in how it expresses itself. It tests your patience early but becomes powerful as it goes along. The last thirty minutes hit hard, partly because you can't precisely map all the different meanings and associations it calls up. You just have to let it be the thing it's turning into, then make the decision to bond with it and let its emotions become yours.  

Some of the elements that might initially seem odd become the source of great strength for the movie as drama, like the fact that the troupe has cast two middle-aged people as Romeo and Juliet (which might get older viewers to thinking about how the mind doesn't age in the way that the body does) or the very idea that Romeo and Juliet would be the Shakespeare play that would connect this family to their grief in a way that would help them process it. 

Turns out this was the right play for the family and the film that follows them. One of the many mysterious and wonderful things about art is that under the right circumstances, and thanks to the right group of talented people, you can become immersed in a piece that outwardly has zero connection to the details of your own life and suddenly realize, "Oh, my God—that's me up there."

Author: Matt Zoller Seitz
Posted: June 14, 2024, 12:44 pm

Valérie Donzelli's "Just the Two of Us" is reminiscent of the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and '40s, films like "Stella Dallas," "Possessed," "Kitty Foyle," and "Letter from an Unknown Woman". These were melodramas, told from the woman's point of view, dealing with often tragic circumstances: exploitation, having children out of wedlock, man/money problems, and the struggles of being a woman in the world. The actresses who populated these films - Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford - provided catharsis for the audiences who flocked to see them. The plots were often heightened, but the emotions powering them were all too real. Melodramas, then and now, have been dismissed as "soapy" or shallow, but melodrama is often the best vehicle for serious social and even political commentary. "Just the Two of Us" is being marketed as a thriller. This is misleading. The film is an extremely effective melodrama, dealing with something many women experience: being married to a frightening man. "Just the Two of Us" is not clever, self-important, or stylistically overt. This is a story, well told.

Blanche (Virginie Efira), living in Normandy where she grew up, meets Grégoire (Melvil Poupaud) at a party. Sparks fly. Grégoire is charming and sweeps her off her feet. In the middle of such a pleasurable whirlwind, it is difficult to perceive that instant intimacy of this kind can be a huge red flag. Blanche's twin sister Rose (also played by Efira) is concerned, but their mother has a more romantic sensibility and lives vicariously. Blanche has never been so happy. Before she has time to think about it, she and Grégoire have married, and he takes a job in a location far away from Normandy. It all seems exciting to Blanche. However, it doesn't take long for Grégoire to display some rather troubling behavior.

Grégoire calls her at work constantly. He grills her on what she does when he's not around. He insists they only need one car, forcing Blanche to take the bus to work (so he can more easily control her schedule). He is openly jealous of Blanche's relationship with Rose. It irritates him that they are twins. There is a part of Blanche's heart that will never be his, and it drives him insane. The couple eventually have two children, and Blanche wakes up one day, after years of what she considered just minor irritations, to realize she is trapped. She sees him for what he is now. And she is afraid.

Belgian-French actress Virginia Efira has quickly become one of the top dramatic actresses in France. The last couple of years have been especially amazing, with "Madeleine Collins," "Revoir Paris" and Paul Verhoeven's "Benedetta" coming in quick succession. She won the César for "Revoir Paris" and has been nominated six other times. This took place in less than a decade, which is even more extraordinary when considering Efira's start. A beautiful blonde, she was a weather forecaster and hosted TV game shows. Her first acting roles were in light comedies and romcoms, and nothing suggested the depth and sensitivity she would bring to the dramatic material. Paul Verhoeven saw it when he cast her as the rapist's wife in "Elle".

She is now in a dominant position. Smart directors know that the story, whatever it is, will take place mainly on her face. Her emotions are palpable, and it's fascinating when she tries to suppress them, whether it's happiness, sexuality, or sadness. She is always thinking; there's always an internal motor running. The slightest shift in mood is reflected on her face. It's a pleasing way to receive a story as an audience member because nothing is being handed to you. The story comes at you through the look in her eyes, the tightening of the jaw, the sudden bursting grin. It makes me think of Steven Spielberg saying his favorite thing in movies is watching a person think.

"Revoir Paris" told the story of a woman struggling with PTSD after surviving a terrorist attack. Efira's sense of dislocation and dissociation is palpable. She can't put her feelings into words, but Efira doesn't need to. The same is true, even more so, in "Just the Two of Us," where you watch a woman go from melting in her new lover's arms to a diminished woman on high alert for any change in his mood. She practically shrinks in size as she tries to navigate the land mines set by her husband.

Donzelli tells the story simply and practically, for the most part, but the way she blurs out the background to sometimes extreme degrees is an apt choice. This puts all the focus on Blanche in the foreground. The rest of the world is indistinct, and the blurring is the stylistic rendering of trauma's pinhole vision.

We've seen all this before, even the "stunt" of having the same actress play twin sisters. We've often seen scenes where women cringe as their violent husbands throw things or scream in their faces. But with Efira, the terror comes from somewhere so deep and authentic that it feels different than a Lifetime movie representing the same. If you've been in a situation where the strong man supposed to love you throws you across a room, then you know there's nothing cliched about it, nothing "melodramatic" at all. It's real, and it's terrifying.

Author: Sheila O'Malley
Posted: June 14, 2024, 12:43 pm

The Australian-born novelist and essayist Lily Brett is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and writes frequently on that topic and condition. Her 2001 novel Too Many Men is about a father and daughter who travel to Poland to explore the father’s tragic past. One of the book’s many features is a series of conversations the daughter has with what she imagines as the ghost of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Hoess. That’s right, the Rudolph Hoess, also spelled Hoss, a real-life personage who was the lead character in Jonathan Glazer’s controversial “The Zone of Interest” last year.

In adapting Brett’s novel for the screen, director and co-writer (with John Questor) Julia von Heinz omits the Hoss material, possibly wisely, but what she comes up with to add in its stead is relatively mortifying. “Treasure” retains the father-daughter journey narrative — set in 1991, if you were wondering just how old these characters are, anyway. Ruth Rothwax, played by Lena Dunham, is a New-York-based journalist consumed with self-loathing over a failed marriage, her weight issues (she carries with her plastic containers of stems and nuts with which she makes parsimonious meals at her hotel breakfast table), and her tetchy relationship with father Edek, a Polish Jew played by Stephen Fry. Ruth is perpetually tetchy, not least because she thinks Edek is being a bit too blithe about their shared investigation into his harrowing past. Ruth is also very big on expecting everyone around her to understand and speak English, an annoying trait among American tourists in general, and even more annoying somehow when it’s repeated ad infinitum in a movie narrative.

Did I say narrative? “Treasure” is packed with emotion and emoting at the expense of story. Things do happen, of course: In Lodz, where Edek was raised before being plucked out with his family and sent to Auschwitz, his old house is occupied by a nasty and poverty-stricken family that’s apparently been there since 1940 and still has the fine China owned by the Rothwax family. Well, Ruth wants to get it back, and Edek wants to let it go.

Then there’s the matter of Auschwitz itself. Will Edek go with Ruth when she visits the death camp — which several Poles they interact with call a “museum,” eliciting a furious response from Ruth — or not? This is one of many bones of contention.

People who possess a certain empathy can intuit that the reason some people who’ve experienced trauma in their past don’t wish to discuss that trauma, because it’s, you know, triggering. Ruth really isn’t one of those people. She holds her father’s reticence against him while holing up in her hotel room, consuming Nazi history and trying not to eat. In the meantime, Edek is partying with some female seniors. His wife had died the year before; the very idea of her father enjoying some companionship now is enough to turn Ruth into a petulant prig tyrant.

This is a confounding movie. Its pace is leaden, its structure lopsided, and while Dunham and Fry are both first-rate performers, their respective personae — both public and on-screen — are difficult for them to fully transcend. Still, they break through in powerful individual scenes, such as when Edek is inappropriately nosy (with a point) about Ruth’s personal life or when Ruth semi-haggles over the china with those house occupants. And the Auschwitz sequence is surprisingly well-handled. Almost enough that you might feel inclined to forgive the sentimental denouement. 

Author: Glenn Kenny
Posted: June 14, 2024, 12:43 pm

When it premiered at Tribeca last year, David Duchovny’s “Reverse the Curse” was titled “Bucky F*cking Dent,” which is a title that would have at least given this remarkably lifeless film a bit of personality. It’s also the title of the book, also by Duchovny, on which this maudlin film is based. It's a story about baseball and father-son relationships that doesn’t understand either, content to use fandom and a terminal diagnosis in cheap, manipulative ways. Duchovny the director never bothers to ground his melodrama in something that feels real, missing the target on the period in which it’s set and an honest understanding of the people who live and die on the success and failure of their favorite teams.

Set in 1978 - although it never really feels like it outside of Jimmy Carter clips and some questionable fashion choices - "Reverse the Curse" is the story of Ted (Logan Marshall-Green), a writer who pays the bills as a peanut vendor at Yankee Stadium even though his pop Marty (Duchovny) is a lifelong fan of the New York baseball team’s rival, the Boston Red Sox. As anyone with even a passing knowledge of baseball knows, the Red Sox were reportedly cursed when Babe Ruth left them to go to the Yankees, leading to a championship drought that lasted multiple generations. They didn’t win the World Series from 1918 to 2004, so “Reverse the Curse” takes place right in the heart of that torture for Red Sox fans everywhere.

In fact, Marty is so attached to his team that it impacts his declining health. Struck down with a terminal cancer diagnosis, Ted notices that pop has better days when the Red Sox win, so he sets about on a scheme to basically lie to the old man, replacing the box scores in his daily paper with winning ones and even getting Marty’s buddies to help fake storms – hose on roof, metal to mimic thunder – so dad will think a loss was merely a rainout. While Ted loosely comes to terms with his relationship with his father in a manner that feels half-hearted at best, he also forms a relationship with Marty’s “Death Specialist,” a charming woman named Marianna (Stephanie Beatriz). Can Ted keep Marty around long enough to finally see the curse reversed during the notorious playoff stretch of 1978? And maybe even fall in love at the same time?

It's hard to tell someone who has dedicated as much of himself to a project as Duchovny did here – writing the book, screenplay, and directing – that he’s not right for the role, but that probably should have happened. Not only does Duchovny, an eternally youthful looking performer, just not come off as old enough to really sell the history of this part, he just doesn’t have the kind of everyman gravity that a dying Red Sox fan needs. Marshall-Green is also miscast, but it’s Beatriz who frustrates most; the underrated “Encanto” star struggles to push through the melodrama of her character to find something grounded. She succeeds more than anyone in giving the film a solid foundation, but one wishes it was a part of a project that didn’t waste her work.

Besides a few funny scenes and Beatriz’s work, there’s too little truth in “Reverse the Curse.” It may not seem like that big of a deal given that this isn’t really a baseball movie, but it’s a story about fandom of the sport that doesn’t seem to know much about it or be made by people who love it. There’s a superficiality to this story of sports and dads that feels almost exploitative in the way it uses both to pull strings instead of illuminating anything about character or humanity that feels true. 

How so many people have lived and died around their favorite teams is a topic that should invoke more passion than the surprisingly soulless film seems interested in doing. It’s partially because Duchovny’s style has always been more aloof than engaged, which works in the right material, but not here. There’s nothing aloof about almost 90 years of sports heartbreak. Trust me. I’ve been down that road. I’m not convinced anyone who made this film has.

Author: Brian Tallerico
Posted: June 14, 2024, 12:43 pm

Instead of a feature-length movie, "The Grab," a 106-minute documentary about shady land deals and global food insecurity, often resembles an overstuffed pilot for an over-ambitious new series. The movie’s creators start by making specific connections and anecdotes, mostly focusing on the sale and seizure of land in Zambia and other African countries. Then, they elaborate with unfocused speculation that’s either too vague or dissimilar to neatly fit into their otherwise believable presentation.

Both an overstimulated multimedia lecture and an anxiety-stoking conspiracy thriller, “The Grab” urges viewers to follow the money, look at the big picture, and so on. The movie’s talking points are synopsized and partly dramatized by a team of investigative journalists led by award-winning reporter Nate Halverson and with support from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Halverson introduces the movie’s thesis—multiple world powers, including the American government, are buying massive amounts of arable land to secure food and water for themselves and their people—and then connects way too many dots using a combination of talking head interviews, archival news reports, and a generic mix of hidden, closed-circuit, and drone camera footage.

“The Grab” begins as a story about a journalist (Halverson) who discovers and soon frets about the security of “The Trove,” a cache of thousands of classified documents concerning notorious mercenary Erik Prince. The movie ends with a half-placating, half-alarming call to action implicating several world governments and capitalism, then praises a couple of social-justice-minded organizations and individuals for restoring their clients’ land and water rights.

Halverson often proves to be a charismatic and well-spoken narrator, so it’s no surprise that the most convincing parts of “The Grab” concern The Trove and Halverson’s work to understand and explain its implications. It’s also hard to nod along and wring one’s hands at the same time, even if everything does seem to be somewhat connected.

In The Trove’s glut of private correspondence, Halverson locates a series of communications that links Prince, founder of the notorious private military organization Blackwater, to a series of land deals in Africa, particularly in Zambia. Along with the Chinese-funded Frontier Services Group, Prince has been associated with the seizure and defense of land from its native owners.

The contents of The Trove are presumed to be too hot to handle. For example, during an aborted 2021 trip to Zambia, Halverson and his fellow journalists were mysteriously detained by airport security, who confiscated the journalists’ passports. Turns out that they had all been declared enemies of the Zambian state, though it’s unclear exactly why. They’re told that their press passes were issued “improperly,” but that seems like an excuse to protect the interests of wealthy corporate landowners.

That dizzying speculation tracks, and so do many of the talking points Halverson and his colleagues bring up. There are still not enough specific details to tie down so many wide-cast nets, especially not when topics of discussion include bread basket Americans who unwittingly paid for their dispossession; hapless Zambian farmers who are bullied off their land by armed Blackwater-esque soldiers; and Somali fishermen, who became modern-day sea pirates after their local waters were drained of fish.

There are also too-brief mentions of stuff like experimental/futuristic-sounding Chinese jet packs and invisibility cloaks—in case some CEOs need to flee when local residents inevitably try to reclaim their land—as well as the heavily implied suggestion that Erik Prince and his associates either are or were working with the United Arab Emirates and specifically Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his associates. It’s still often hard to agree when one talking head interviewee says, “In order to tell this story, you have to tell it on a global scale—it’s all connected.”

Rather than focus on three or four specific organizations, individuals, or countries, “The Grab” veers from one sensational and/or unsettling talking point to the next. Maybe they could have addressed the likelihood of some of their scarier quotes, like what are the odds that Smithfield Foods, which was acquired by a Chinese company, would stop exporting meat, thereby creating what one interviewee calls “global Armageddon”? It’d also be nice to know more about what happened with Erik Prince in Zambia, or what Simon Mann, an ex-military mercenary, means when he says he knows that Prince is invested in African land because “he’s a friend of mine.” Some follow-up questions could’ve been enlightening, you know?

“The Grab” ends with Halverson and his team shutting the outer gates to the Center of Investigative Reporting’s Emeryville, California headquarters. Apparently, it’s now up to us, the viewers, to decide what we believe. A longer or more episodic version of “The Grab” might have been able to accommodate tangents about pirates and jetpacks; this version of “The Grab” doesn’t even have an unhappy ending.  

Author: Simon Abrams
Posted: June 14, 2024, 12:42 pm

In 1991, country superstar Garth Brooks crooned, "Well, it's bulls and blood/It's the dust and mud/It's the roar of a Sunday crowd/It's the white in the knuckles/The gold in the buckle/He'll win the next go-'round." The lyrics, about the ups and downs of a man who dedicates everything to the rodeo lifestyle, rattled around in my head as I watched the opening sequence of writer-director-star Jake Allyn's feature film debut "Ride." As we follow a beat-up old cowboy walking through the bowels of a stadium and out towards the rodeo ground, it is as if the song had come to visceral life. I could feel the buzzing energy of the crowd. I could smell the dirt and the dust. I could even feel the blood and the pain.

Allyn stars as Peter, a bull rider fresh out of prison, having served four years for vehicular manslaughter. Peter is an addict, hooked on alcohol, opioids, and rodeo. His addiction led to the crash, which not only ended a life but also injured his baby sister Virginia (Zia Carlock). Picked up from the slammer by his grandfather Al (Forrie J. Smith), a one-time rodeo rider turned preacher, Peter is estranged from his parents, John (the always stellar C. Thomas Howell), also a former rodeo star turned rancher and FFA teacher, and Monica (Annabeth Gish), the local sheriff. Both are struggling to forgive their son, although the accident led to the early detection of cancer in Virginia. 

Just as Peter arrives back in town - Stephenville, Texas, aka the Cowboy Capital of the World - Virginia's cancer comes roaring back, and the family needs $40K on top of their insurance before she can begin the aggressive treatment she needs. Soon, the newly sober Peter is back riding bulls in hopes that the prize money will help, and John finds himself selling everything he owns and contemplating risky schemes to raise the funds. The pressure pushes them both into contact with shady drug dealer Tyler (Patrick Murney, a livewire), who is as comfortable ruthlessly branding someone with a hot iron as he is tipping his hat and saying “ma’am.” 

Although crime and melodrama elements pulse through the film, they are not the focus. At its heart, "Ride" is a character study, examining men like Peter and John and where they fit in today's world. But it's also trying to make sense of that very world. What does it say about today's world when so often a family with two incomes still can't afford the life-saving cancer treatment their daughter needs? How can anyone navigate that kind of truth? John, Peter, and Al's rocky relationship with the rodeo becomes a metaphor for life. Late in the film, Peter confesses, "When I'm riding bulls, when that shoot opens, all my pain, all that emptiness, just goes away. For eight seconds, it's just like all I gotta do is hold on." Even with all the unpredictable chaos that comes with bull riding, for someone like Peter, it's something tangible, a goal that is occasionally achievable. 

Like his actors C. Thomas Howell and Forrie J. Smith, Allyn has a bull riding and rodeo background. This fact is as clear from his gangly gait as it is in the rich world-building of his film. Filmed on location in real rodeos, Allyn transports you into this world with a symphony of clanging metal gates, cheering crowds, and omnipresent country music. Here's a land lit by the dreamy red, white, and blue light of fireworks and the harsh, unforgiving light of floodlights. A land of bulls named Tempest and Twister, of rodeo clowns in all their grotesque grandeur and glory, of good 'ol boys in ten-gallon hats and rodeo queens with their hair piled high on their heads. Within this cacophony of clichés, the script, co-written by Allyn with Josh Plasse, and the director's keen work with his actors keep us grounded in the sincere and the personal.

Just before I watched the film, I had finished reading Louise Brooks' memoir, in which she writes that every great director "holds the camera on the actors' eyes in every vital scene," recalling that G.W. Pabst once told her the audience must "see it in the actors' eyes." This is something Allyn, as an actor turned director, knows instinctively. In one of the film's most emotionally devastating scenes, Allyn holds his unwavering camera on C. Thomas Howell's face as John hears the bad news about his daughter's cancer. First, his gaze holds on his terminally ill daughter asleep in her hospital bed. Then, he turns to face the doctor, whose chipper voice as she says the expensive oncology hospital "technically" has a spot for the girl who might as well be nailed on a chalkboard. It's all there in his eyes. The fear for his daughter's life. The disdain for the hoops of modern medicine. The anxiety over how on earth he's going to pay for this new treatment. His gaze contains every conflicting emotional state all at once. 

In another pivotal scene, a bruised and bloodied Peter stares at an Oxy pill that has fallen to the floor of the locker room. His rib is broken, and he’s in unbelievable pain, but he’s still got one more bull to ride. Al tells him to “cowboy up.” As Peter’s eyes focus on the pill, we know his ride never actually ends, that just like the rodeo, this thing we call life is a constant battle. Allyn plays Peter as a man haunted by ghosts. The ghost of the woman he accidentally killed. The ghost of his family that no longer speaks to him—the ghost of his former self. The weight of these ghosts pull at his very being, his mouth nearly always fixed in a frown. His lanky body never quite fits anywhere. 

“Ride” works best when it focuses on the core relationship issues between Peter, John, and Al, three generations of rodeo men navigating a changing world. Peter feeds his addictions to help his family live up to the expectations set up by bull riders of the past. John won't take charity to pay for his daughter's medical expenses, stubbornly insisting that he must take responsibility for his family. Al pushes both to extremes through a mixture of prayer and old-fashioned machismo. The film never condemns these men but doesn't glorify them either. Instead, Allyn leaves it to the audience to make up their minds.

Not all of the film's many characters are as well woven into the tapestry as they could be. Sheriff Monica is mostly underutilized, although a scene in which she lets hot coffee scald her fingers gives us a glimpse of her inner turmoil, and a third-act reveal gives Gish the chance to play in the same landscape of murky morals as the boys. While I did enjoy the scenes with Peter's other sibling, Noah (Josh Plasse), and his girlfriend Libby (Laci Kaye Booth), which offer color and texture to the world of Stephenville and the ordinary people who call it home, I almost wish we could have spent more time Peter's baby sister Virginia instead. 

"Ride" is a film overstuffed with themes, ideas, and characters, but it works because it's made with the kind of urgency that comes from a filmmaker who has to tell this story and get it out on celluloid right now, or they'll bust. This is a film that gets the modern American West, a place rife with traditions and contradictions, clinging on to its way of life like a stick stuck in the mud even when the mud begins to dry up and turn to dust. 

Author: Marya E. Gates
Posted: June 14, 2024, 12:42 pm

Julia Louis-Dreyfus gives a performance of breathtaking vulnerability as the mother of a dying teenager in “Tuesday,” a film that tells the story of the most shattering loss of all without melodrama or a score filled with syrupy strings. Writer/director Daina Oniunas-Pusic makes the characters’ pain real through the most improbable of metaphors. We have seen Death imagined as a character who is glamorously beautiful (Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz,” Brad Pitt in “Meet Joe Black,” Frederic March in “Death Takes a Holiday”) or British and dapper (Sir Cedric Hardwicke in “On Borrowed Time”), or sepulchral, wearing the traditional hooded cloak and scythe (“The Seventh Seal,” “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”). “Tuesday” is the first to imagine the figure who ends all lives as a lonely parrot who loves hip-hop and sarcasm (voiced by Arinzé Kene). 

The title does not refer to the day of the week. Tuesday is the name of a 15-year-old with an unnamed wasting disease (Lola Petticrew) who lives in England with her American mother, Zora (Louis-Dreyfus). She spends her days in a hospital bed on the first floor of her home, with the help of a hospice nurse (Leah Harvey as Billie).  She has a nasal cannula for oxygen and has to be hoisted out of bed or into a bathtub. Sometimes, she goes outside in a wheelchair.   

As the movie begins, Zora spends her days anywhere else. We first see her impatiently looking out the window, waiting for Billie to arrive. Zora bargains with a store owner over the price of some odd items she wants to sell and then drifts through the day at a coffee shop and a park, falling asleep on a bench. Billie gently suggests that Tuesday needs to spend more time with her mother, and she gets furious. And when Billie says seriously that she has something to say to Zora, her mother forces a quick smile, says, “First thing tomorrow,” and suggests they watch a movie. 

We can all recite the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross stages people go through when facing death. Zora is still stuck in the first stage, denial. It is just too painful to be anywhere else; any parents’ most foundational belief is that the child must outlive them. They are the spring to our winter. They are what makes time move forward. It is contrary to everything we believe about the world to have to bury a child. 

Tuesday is at the final stage, though, acceptance, and that is made real for us as the parrot arrives and she immediately understands why he is there. She engages with him, making him laugh, noticing that he is dirty and giving him a gentle bath in the sink. We have seen how others react to him – begging, spitting in his eye – Tuesday asks him about his experience. She empathizes with him. She befriends him.

However, Zora responds as any parent would when she sees the parrot. She will do anything to protect her child, fight any battle, and hurl herself at any threat.  The denial she holds on to so tightly makes her believe she can stop the death parrot. Instead, she internalizes it. A series of stunning visuals work as metaphor, fairy tale, and embodiment of Zora’s thoughts and emotions. The CGI of the parrot is excellent, from his bright blue gimlet eye to the ruffles of his feathers and expressive breadth of his wings. Louis-Dreyfus and Petticrew interact with the bird with great conviction, specificity, and physicality that grounds a fantastical story. 

Characters shrink and grow like a version of Alice in Hades-land, with canny camera placement to guide our perspective. There are subtle touches as well. Tuesday looks healthier than she is in the film's first part because we see her through Zora’s eyes. As Zora moves away from the furious spinning in her head that keeps her from accepting the reality. That's not just the reality that Tuesday is near death. It is the reality that as long as Tuesday is there, it remains Zora's first obligation as a parent to do what is best for her daughter, no matter the cost to herself. Tuesday has been the grown-up in their relationship. Zora needs to be the mother Tuesday deserves.

Like the under-seen "A Monster Calls," this movie is frank about the messiness of the emotions around death. We might like to think that the greatest loss would inspire us to selflessness and purity of heart. Unfortunately, we remain imperfect souls. But along with grief, we cannot help being selfish and angry and scared. That is why we need movies like this one. We may be devastated, selfish, angry, and scared, but at least we are not alone.

Author: Nell Minow
Posted: June 14, 2024, 12:41 pm