Movie reviews

Now, 189 days into his mission, Jakub Prochazka (Adam Sandler), the forlorn cosmonaut protagonist of “Spaceman,” is hurtling toward Jupiter to study the mysterious Chopra cloud. He is nearing his breaking point. Short on sleep in a malfunctioning spacecraft that has seen better days, what’s really occupying his mind isn’t the mission at hand — it’s the radio silence by his pregnant wife Lenka (Carey Mulligan). Despite efforts by his physician Peter (Kunal Nayyar) and Commissioner Tuma (an under-used Isabella Rossellini) at Mission Control to calm his fears, Jakub knows something is wrong. When a giant primordial spider named Hanus (voiced by Paul Dano) appears in his spacecraft, Jakub doesn’t know if the arachnid is real or a figment of a tired, desperate imagination. With the spider’s help, Jakub may just learn the secrets of the universe and of himself. 

With director Johan Renck’s “Spaceman,” which had its World Premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, a surprisingly subdued Sandler takes a swing at the sad boy space odyssey genre. These are films — “Ad Astra” and “First Man” — about stoic men who use a journey to the outer limits to resist confronting homegrown tragedies involving their children or their own long time daddy issues. Indeed, some men would rather go to space and talk to a giant spider than go to therapy. With Hanus, Jakub does initiate a kind of therapy, talking through his harsh childhood memories and present insecurities in a ruminative space film that is short on majesty but long on empathy.

The first half of “Spaceman,” however, is a chore. We are mostly confined to the cramped surroundings of the spacecraft; the only time we leave its restrictive interior is whenever Hanus probes Jakub’s memories to discover why this “skinny human,” as he lovingly calls him, is so depressed. These flashback sequences are shot by DP Jakob Ihre from the perspective of a spider, oblique and reflective, but nauseatingly limited in their capacity for composing informative frames to give us more than the equally narrow dialogue is providing. The images of space, no matter what the ethereal score is trying to sell, are also quite flat, looking more like purple sludge clouds than awe inspiring remnants of the galaxy’s beginning. The script’s dialogue, adapted from Jaroslav Kalfař’s sci-fi novel Spaceman of Bohemia is rendered repetitively: For a while it sounds like Mulligan’s only lines will be “Where you go, I go.” But then the film finds its rhythm. 

Sandler is quite different here than even his previous dramatic turns like “Uncut Gems” or “The Meyerowitz Stories.” There’s nary a loud outburst or a flash of uncontrollable rage. Sandler’s uncommon ability to mine dramatic grace notes from raw emotion has always been his best tool. So it’s initially a bit perplexing to see that hammer worn down, so to speak. That quiet melancholy is intended. Jakub isn’t really a likable guy. Still consumed by the traumatic memory of witnessing the death of his communist informant father — we’re supposed to believe Sandler and nearly the entire space team hails from the Czech Republic — he struggles to open up and to think of Lenka’s needs. Sandler’s sunken face, his exhausted mien and his rigid body lands the character even if we’re never totally sure why Lenka was ever attracted to him. 

Despite the dour tone and grim lighting, “Spaceman” does consciously maintain a silly air. I mean, it’s Sandler in space with a giant spider, it must have a few jokes. Some hilarious bits arise from Jakub’s depression being so overwhelming it causes the spider to feel it too, ultimately forcing the arachnid to turn to snacks to quell the sad vibes. But other funny moments naturally evolve from Dano’s low-key voice work. There is a heaviness to his presence, the kind you expect from a spider who might date back to the beginning of the universe. There’s also a vulnerability and sense of a charity that not only endears the character to Jakub, but to the viewer too. Together man and arachnid, two withdrawn beings finding friendship in one another, are a winning pair, to the point that a hug between them engenders both laughs and warmth. 

There are plenty of flaws in “Spaceman.” Mulligan’s character is underwritten — we don’t know what she does for a living or if she has her own dreams or aspirations, which might partially be the point. But the lithe script asks the actress to do some heavy lifting that in a lesser performer’s hands would simply crumble. With Mulligan, there is a tangible inner life in spite of the material. The overall tone might also be too sleepy, too introspective and despondent to some’s liking. But I just love Sandler in this register. It’s no longer a surprise when he pulls a well-defined and memorable dramatic performance. It’s become the norm. And in a ruminative film like “Spaceman,” which is about learning to move on, to care for another, and to redefine yourself before it’s too late, then it’s fitting that the idea of “the Sandman in space” isn’t reduced to a cheap tagline, but actually means something real and genuine is about to occur.

This review was filed from the Berlin Film Festival. It opens in limited release on February 23rd before landing on Netflix on March 1st.

Author: Robert Daniels
Posted: February 21, 2024, 6:30 pm

Coming out of “Drive-Away Dolls,” an uproarious, sexy and deliciously feminine B-movie, the immediate thing you might realize is just how dearly this particular Coen Brothers flavor has been missed. You know, that quirky, familiarly zany essence last seen in “Burn After Reading” (or perhaps “Hail, Caesar!”), living on its own zippy and colorful terms, unbothered with the rules and properness of anywhere else.

But it’s only one brother this time, to be clear — Ethan Coen in the director’s chair sans Joel, teaming up with screenwriter (and spouse) Tricia Cooke on the page. Free-spirited and willing to take bold chances, the duo craft a genuinely entertaining road movie that splits the difference between the crime artery of “Fargo” (though don’t expect anything dark or snowy in the sunny “Dolls”) and the goofy crookery of “Burn After Reading.” The result is two lesbian friends on a road trip to Tallahassee (the location itself is a cheeky running joke), driving through an original picture that winks at both the old-fashioned screwballs of yore and a ‘90s brand of indie grit, with plenty of knowingly ridiculous twists and, well, dildos of all shapes and sizes to spare.

Speaking of dildos, there is even a wall-mounted one in this joint. (Maybe it’s a real thing, maybe it’s not, but it’s very funny.) Inheriting the hilariously peculiar sex toy is the furious, gun-toting no-nonsense cop Sukie (an always great but never better Beanie Feldstein), after a painful breakup from her girlfriend. Her enraging ex? It’s the terrific Margaret Qualley’s feisty Jamie, a sexually very active adventurer who’d try anything once, fidelity be damned. And what’s a break-up for Jamie if not an opportunity to hop on a journey with her uptight and principled lesbian bestie Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan, with her quietly mesmerizing star power), who just wants to get to Florida for a spot of birdwatching. They would get there alright, but not before stopping at famous lesbian bars, BBQ spots and motels across an itinerary that Jamie has plotted, with the hopes of helping the brainy Marian loosen up a little, maybe even have some casual sex on the side.

The backdrop is 1999 with its Y2K frenzy and an impending conservatism in the air, a time-period that effectively (and thankfully) eliminates excessive cell phones and all of social media as obstructions to a successful crime caper. The women’s plan is simple—check out a drive-away car that is ought to be on its way to Tallahassee. They score one at Curlie’s (Bill Camp) shady little establishment that sets up such deals. Except, it ends up being the wrong car, loaded with a mystery suitcase once stolen by an enigmatic collector (Pedro Pascal) and supposed to be driven by a pair of small-time felons—the smooth-talking chatterer Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and the perennially agitated Flint (C. J. Wilson)—to its eventual owner. (Wait until you see its contents—unlike “Pulp Fiction,” this one will show you what’s inside.)

The film breezily toggles between Marian and Jamie’s borrowed Dodge Aries and the felons’ car tailing them, giving us not one, but two pairs of mismatched and bickering road buddies for the price of one. While Slotnick and Wilson — who were previously in Ethan Coen’s collection of stage plays, A Play Is a Poem — are intriguing enough, the main attraction is of course the dynamic bonding between Jamie and Marian. With her exaggerated Southern accent and at-ease body language both alluringly catty and muscular, Qualley is simply a firecracker, an explosive and voracious sprit bursting with the kind of energy that once again cements her as a once-in-a-generation talent. Balancing Qualley’s uncontainable energy is Viswanathan’s gradually swelling verve until her Marian is finally splayed open, an arc that Viswanathan beautifully charts as one of the most striking leading actors working today (and who should be trusted with a lot more leading roles pronto). Elsewhere, Feldstein is the film’s secret weapon as the ferocious officer who’d do anything to send the desperate goons after Jamie — she owns Sukie’s rightful rage and steals some of the film’s funniest scenes. In shorter roles, Matt Damon and Colman Domingo leave riotous impressions as a conservative and corrupt politician and the film’s chief baddie respectively.

Sometimes, there is the slightest air of obviousness in “Drive-Away Dolls,” which can’t avoid inevitable comparisons to older (and better) idiosyncratic crime capers, many of them by the Coens themselves. But that doesn’t lessen the nostalgic bliss the film stirs in one with all its foul-mouthed, naughty glory; not when the fun had by everyone involved in the project is so palpable on the screen. In that, there is a disarming what the hell, why not quality to Cooke and Coen’s writing, with the carefree words and actions of Jamie and Marian jovially bouncing off the page and landing on the viewers’ eyes and ears with the same jubilant vigor. More importantly, the aftertaste of this madcap escapade is unexpectedly sweet and romantic thanks to its unapologetic commitment to womanly smarts and pleasures. Across dusty Americana landscapes, vibrant locations frozen in time and a pair of trippy flashbacks, “Drive-Away Dolls” has the kind of oomph you simply want to run away with.

Author: Tomris Laffly
Posted: February 21, 2024, 6:00 pm

The word that will likely be used most often to describe Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two” is “massive.” Expect a whole lot of variations on the words “epic” and “spectacle” too. Whatever big words you apply to the result, Villeneuve undeniably did not approach Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi novel with modest aspirations, and it’s his ambition, along with the top tier of behind-the-scenes craftspeople with whom he collaborated, that have paid off in this superior follow-up to the Oscar-winning 2021 film. While that beloved blockbuster often felt like half a film, “Dune: Part Two” locates significantly higher stakes on Arrakis, while injecting just enough humor and nuanced themes about power and fanaticism to flavor the old-fashioned storytelling. More than a simple savior or chosen one story, “Dune: Part Two” is a robust piece of filmmaking, a reminder that this kind of broad-scale blockbuster can be done with artistry and flair.

“Dune: Part Two” picks up so closely on the heels of the first film that the Fremen are still transporting the body of Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun) home again after he was bested in the fight with Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet). After the massacre of House Atreides, Paul chose to go with the Fremen, much to the consternation of his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Thinking both Paul and Jessica were taken by the desert and all hopped up on violence after destroying the Atreides interlopers, House Harkonnen amplifies its attack on the Fremen, leading to a few remarkably staged battles between the warriors and soldiers. Villeneuve and his team deftly fill the first hour with battle sequences that counter the firepower of the Harkonnen military and the Fremen tribal combatants, who often literally emerge from the earth to destroy them. Bodies fall from the sky as enormous ships burst into flames in a way that feels nearly operatic. Amidst the chaos, Dave Bautista cannily sketches Rabban Harkonnen as a wartime leader who is in way over his bald head while Stellan Skargard leans even harder into a sort of blend between Nosferatu and Jabba the Hutt.

As the battle between the Fremen and the Harkonnens for control of Arrakis serves as the backdrop for “Dune: Part Two,” Paul’s arc from nervous young man at the beginning of the first film to potential leader plays out in the foreground. A Fremen tribal leader named Stilgar (Javier Bardem) is convinced that Paul Atreides is the chosen one that has been foretold among his people for generations. Even as so much of the mythology points to Paul’s savior role, the Emo King tries to blend into the Fremen, forming a relationship with a young warrior named Chani (Zendaya). Paul passes the tests put in front of him by the Fremen, takes on the tribal name of Muad’Dib, and vows vengeance against the Harkonnens who were behind his father’s death.

On another planet, an Emperor named Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken) counsels with his daughter Irulan (Florence Pugh) and a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother (Charlotte Rampling) on the state of Arrakis. It’s revealed early on that Shaddam basically sent House Atreides to its destruction, meaning he’s on that vengeance list that Paul’s been keeping, while Irulan serves as a sort-of narrator for “Dune: Part Two,” dictating some of the political developments into a device that’s really designed to keep audiences with the plot.

If the interstellar politics aren’t enough, writers Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts inject a nice dose of religious fanaticism for the inevitable think pieces too. Lady Jessica becomes a powerful religious figure of her own among the Fremen, guiding her son’s ascendance in a manner that feels nefarious and unsettling. “Dune: Part Two” is not a traditional hero’s journey in that it’s constantly questioning if being led by an outsider from another culture is the right move—Chani sure doesn’t think so, and Zendaya subtly finds notes to make viewers wonder what a happy ending would be for these characters. As Jessica and Paul learn more about Fremen history and culture, they threaten not to lead it as much as dismantle and own it. There’s a big difference.

While the plotting in “Part Two” is undeniably richer than the first film, its greatest assets are once again on a craft level. Greig Fraser, who won the Oscar for cinematography the first time, tops his work there with stunning use of color and light. It’s in the manner the sun hits Chalamet’s face at a certain angle or the wildly different palettes that differentiate the Harkonnens and the Fremen. The browns and blues of the desert culture don’t feel arid as much as grounded and tactile, while the Harkonnen world is so devoid of color that it’s often literally black and white—even what look like fireworks pop like someone throwing colorless paint at a wall. Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning score felt a bit overdone to me in the first film, but he smartly differentiates the cultures here, finding more metallic sounds for the cold Harkonnens to balance against the heated score for the Fremen. Finally, the effects and sound design feel denser this time, and the fight choreography reminds one how poorly this has been done in other blockbuster films.

As for performers, Chalamet is likely to be the most divisive element, often feeling a bit flat for someone believed to be the Neo of this world. However, those choices add up in a way that makes thematic sense, enhancing the uncertainty of Paul’s rise. Zendaya is solid—although she lacks chemistry with Chalamet that would have helped—but it’s Ferguson’s slippery performance and Bardem’s playful one that really add flavors here that weren’t in the first outing. Finally, Austin Butler leans hard into the exaggerated role of Feyd-Rautha, playing the sociopathic nephew of the Baron with all the scenery-chewing intensity that a character like this needs to work, finding the emotional void to balance out against Chalamet’s tempestuous inner monologue.

“Dune: Part Two” has been compared to “The Empire Strikes Back” in the run-up to its release, and that’s not quite right. The better comparison is “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” another film that built on what we knew about the characters from the first film, added a few new ones, and really amplified a sense of continuous battle and danger. Like both films, a third chapter feels inevitable. Critics will have to come up with a new synonym for massive.

Author: Brian Tallerico
Posted: February 21, 2024, 5:00 pm

There is a singular image that beautifully sums up the theme of Nenad Cicin-Sain’s “Kiss the Future” as well as the siege in Sarajevo itself. I have seen this image many times: as a CD cover, a poster, a heavily filtered image in a music video, on a giant screen in a stadium during a rock show and, finally, as raw footage. The image is that of a beauty pageant in a room that looks like a small dance hall. Nothing spectacular. About ten women, all clad in one-piece bathing suits. All tall, slender, smiling, beautiful. They do some runway walks. We get treated to close-ups of their radiant smiles. It all looks so innocent and harmless, just like any other low-budget beauty pageant. Then, and this is the singular image, they all help unfold a banner. It takes about thirty seconds to finally get it all unrolled and straightened out. The sign reads, with all the contestants standing behind it, in big, bold letters: DON’T LET THEM KILL US.

Above this basement dwelling in Sarajevo, citizens lived under siege of their own president, Slobodan Milošević, who used nationalist policies and ethnic cleansing as a way of driving out and massacring the diverse population of this peaceful city. The people had little means to fight back with actual weaponry, but they had a kind of resilience about them that had more to do with spirit than brawn. They were artists, humorists, punk rock bands, fans and, of course, beauty pageant contestants. “Kiss the Future” tells their story of how the people of Sarajevo used art as a means of survival and normalcy at night while dodging sniper fire from the Serbian army during the day. 

Cicin-Sain’s film sets the table for what might be another standard documentary about an atrocity from decades ago, one in which survivors recount one horrific story after another. Of course, war is hell. What a shame it would have been if the film maintained that usual course for 103 minutes instead of focusing on the people and culture of Sarajevo itself during this time. One of the first people we learn about is Enes Zlatar, the lead singer of punk band Sikter, who found himself volunteering for the fire department with no experience at all. Zlatar is full of smiles and wit. Amidst all the chaos, violence and constant gunfire in the streets — which became unrecognizable piles of hollowed out buildings, cars and decay — he found people need some semblance of normalcy. He and his bandmates decided to start playing shows in underground discos, powered by generators. Other artists followed his lead, and, soon, an underground art and punk movement took place, often covered by a local media station called RAT ART. 

The siege itself is hardly noticed by the mainstream media, apart from Christiane Amanpour doing some solid boots-on-the-ground coverage. It’s 1992-93 and the UN has barely noticed the atrocities taking place. They have grown accustomed to turning a blind eye to everything in Bosnia and Herzegovina. An independent journalist named Bill Carter (co-producer of this film) has been documenting all of this with his camera. He got it in his head to try and land an interview with his favorite band, U2, who happened to be on tour with the groundbreaking Zoo TV tour in Europe at this time, where they would beam in live television via satellite during their concerts. In one of the film’s funnier stories (yes, there are laughs in this), Carter recounts the circuitous way he finally landed a backstage interview with Bono, where he wanted to tell him about the situation in Sarajevo, but more importantly, the people and the culture. It’s all news to Bono and he appears genuinely intrigued about going there. 

From there, Cicin-Sain makes U2 a central focus for a few stretches of the film, and rightfully so. After all, the band landed on the front page of every newspaper in every city they visited while on tour. So, they decided to use that coverage to bring more attention to the war-torn streets of Sarajevo by doing live interviews with its citizens during their show. Carter hosted the interviews, many of whom tell their stories in this film, while Bono would talk to them in front of thousands of fans. Finally, because of this gesture, people in the media grew more aware. But Cicin-Sain doesn’t hold U2 up too high on the pedestal for this. Everyone in the U2 camp agreed on the flaw in this design: it really didn’t rouse people to enact change. One interview, in particular, brought a U2 show to a screeching halt, as a woman asked Bono, “What are you really doing for us? I think nothing.” “The Greatest Night in Pop” might play a little differently after watching this. 

Many years later, though, U2 fulfilled their promise to play a show in Sarajevo as part of their PopMart Tour in 1997-98, a show which serves as a climax for the film and the symbolic end to the war for many. U2’s fans (myself included) will make up a large chunk of the audience for this film, but Cicin-Sain knows that the bigger story here is how not just art, but normalcy and joy, can be used to combat those in power who seek to destroy and oppress. Nobody’s music or art or humor helped end the war or stop bullets from flying, but to be a participant or audience member at any show or beauty pageant of any kind felt like enough of an F.U. to everyone in power. Sometimes that’s enough. 

To U2’s credit, they insisted this film not be about them, but about the people of Sarajevo. Cicin-Sain does his best to maintain that balance, but the emotional payoff at the end might resonate with fans more than the casual viewer. “Kiss The Future” doesn’t take any stylistic risks and doesn’t add anything new to the documentary form. It’s pretty straightforward in its approach and we know there will be a “how this is relevant today” message by the film’s end. Luckily, Cicin-Sain keeps the obvious parallels to a minimum during the film’s closing so that we are not left with just anger, fear and crippling hopelessness as we look ahead to the 2024 election year and all the international strife currently unfolding. “Kiss The Future” uses hope, joy and love of art as its foundation for building its thesis on how the arts unifies, how it scares people in power and how it helped rebuild a city you’ll want to visit after seeing this film. The “DON’T LET THEM KILL US” sign is not just a plea to the rest of the world outside Sarajevo, but to the citizens themselves. 

Opens on February 23rd with some special screenings February 21st in some markets.

Author: Collin Souter
Posted: February 20, 2024, 10:10 pm

"The Arc of Oblivion" is a documentary about a lot of things, including the futility of its own existence. Writer-director Ian Cheney, who also narrates, presents himself as, basically, a hoarder, mainly of hard drives containing photos, video and audio of various things in his life, some of them undeniably important and others that fall under the heading of "curiosities" (including a framed photo of a man described as "the world's greatest barber" cutting another man's hair). Cheney also has material collected by others and either acquired or passed into his possession, such as a photo slide box kept for decades by his father, who wrote the words "The Ark" on the side. When Cheney finally opens it, it contains a shot of his mother sitting on a rock and two shots of red wine glasses in front of a pumpkin, and it's impossible to know why it was considered important enough to save.

The title is a pun that can be appreciated on multiple levels. The framework for the movie is Cheney's quest to construct an actual ark (small "k" on the end) like the ones in the Old Testament or the Epic of Gilgamesh on family property in the woods of Maine, in order to contain all of the stuff he wants preserved. The building of this vessel an attempt to superimpose form and limits (or boundaries) on a mountain of random ephemera and data that he's gathered up during the course of many decades, as well as a self-deprecatingly humorous lashing-out against the concept of impermanence (as if sticking all of his stuff in a boat on dry land isn't actually going to preserve it!). Building an ark is also a somewhat arbitrary and cool (verging on gimmicky — and Cheney realizes this) way to superimpose limits on the 98-minute movie you're watching. "The Arc of Oblivion" could just as easily have been nine or nine-hundred minutes long, considering what it's about. And the "c" in the word "arc" confirms that this is all ultimately pointless, even though we can fantasize otherwise. Or as Bruce Springsteen sang in "Atlantic City," "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back."

Documentarian Kristen Johnson ("Cameraperson," “Dick Johnson is Dead”), whose own work has similar fascinations, appears in the film along with her brother Kirk Johnson, a paleontologist and fossil collector who tells the filmmaker that he wants to be buried in the Mississippi River because spots like that are where fossils are most likely to be formed, and he wants to be remembered somehow, even if it's only by the land itself. We also meet potter Yasmin Glinton Poitier, who lost her childhood house in a hurricane, and limestone magnate and Christian David Hoch, who does a quality check on the concrete being used in the ark’s foundation, then does a little presentation about limestone and its use in the so-called magic lantern, which is where the phrase "in the limelight" comes from; and married photographers Erin and Brian Palmer, who shoot cemeteries where the remains of Black Americans are interred. The score is by the director's brother Colin Cheney, who mixed the family’s audio and video with recordings of sounds that he made from interacting with objects his father stored in the family's barn.

The great German ruminator Werner Herzog didn't have much to do with "Arc of Oblivion" beyond executive producing it, but his spirit infuses the entire thing, including Cheney's narration, which has that Herzogian quality of disappearing into its own navel almost immediately and being entertaining and funny anyway because it's simultaneously self-mocking and sincere. There's also a buried (like, deep beneath the creative soil) acknowledgment of Herzog's own filmography, which is packed with stories about men who went on a mad quest to erect a monument to their own existence only to find out the hard way that it's a pointless exercise. 

It would be interesting to show this film as part of a triple feature with Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo," about a rubber baron obsessively trying to get a steamship over a hill in the Peruvian jungle, and "The Burden of Dreams," Les Blank's documentary about the making of "Fitzcarraldo." What Cheney is doing here is the self-effacing 21st century American bourgeois artist equivalent of what a Herzog hero would do when confronted with the inescapable fact that he and everyone else he knows or has ever heard of will eventually die, and that the civilization they were part of will fade, too, until only a fossil record remains.

This is a thoroughly stimulating movie. There's so much going on in it that you don't get it all the first time, mainly because Cheney and his collaborators have kept things loose and light, with a "no big deal" tone. One could pretty easily mistake it for an intellectualized form of escapism, like listening to a long National Public Radio story about an eccentric. I'm glad that I am writing about it almost a year after seeing it for the first time, during its 2023 South by Southwest film festival premiere. I see the fossil records embedded in the movie clearly now. This film is one for the ages, by which I mean that a few more decades, almost nobody will remember it, or the filmmaker, or me—although I wouldn't rule out the possibility of my thinking about it on my deathbed.

Author: Matt Zoller Seitz
Posted: February 16, 2024, 7:42 pm

Lily Sullivan, who broke through with an impressively physical performance in last year’s “Evil Dead Rise,” gives a remarkable one-woman show in Matt Vesely’s effective “Monolith,” a sci-fi thriller that somehow finds a way to make podcasting cinematic (mostly). It does so by mining what feels like that current of rising anxiety in the international consciousness for an old-fashioned slow burn of a sci-fi thriller. You know what I mean. It’s in the TikToks you stumble upon that are about purported glitches in the matrix or The Mandela Effect — a sense that something is wrong. Of course, anxiety isn’t new, but technology like podcasts seems to have amplified the conspiracy and anxiety receptors in the human brain. Or united people in a common understanding that everything is not what it seems. It depends on how you look at it.

Sullivan plays an unnamed journalist who has fallen from a lofty perch in her industry after a scandal that remains tantalizingly unclear. There are references to her not verifying something and glimpses of an email inbox with a lot of hateful subject lines. She made a mistake, and that sets her up in a vulnerable position, someone who not only wants to believe but wants to get the story to bring her back into the spotlight. Even with that set-up, she’s not exactly thrilled about joining the over-crowded and journalistically questionable world of podcasting, leading a new project called “Beyond Believable,” one of those podcasts that tells seemingly impossible stories.

Her life changes when she receives an anonymous email with a name, the words “the brick,” and a phone number. When she calls it, she starts a journey down a phenomenally conceived rabbit hole that sounds exactly like something one would stumble onto online in the middle of the night. The brief version is that some people out there have “received” — how they came into possession of them remains disturbingly vague, adding to the mystery — black bricks that seem to have some sort of supernatural power. They’re usually preceded by a terrifying vision — one man sees his brother who died years earlier while another speaks to the child who never knew him — and they’re usually followed by what could be called an overwhelming sense of dread.

Our protagonist is hesitant at first, but she starts to suspect there’s something to this brick story as her podcast numbers continue to rise. Writer Lucy Campbell is cleverly playing with a lot of ideas here, including what could be called audible virality, the sense that a story takes on more truth as it’s repeated. It's fascinating that the film is still called "Monolith" instead of, well, "Brick," as it allows interpretations of the monoliths of journalism, podcasting, and viral culture. 

Without spoiling, Campbell and Vesely are also playing with privilege when it comes to some late twists involving why this story is being told. Some of this is a little underdeveloped, but I don’t mind Campbell’s approach, which is to embed some of the morally thorny questions about podcasting and journalism in a sci-fi creeper. And Vesely uses his limited space very well, employing close-ups to enhance tension while also employing production design and a blue color palette that gives the whole thing a cold, foreboding energy.

And “Monolith” does get legitimately creepy. Some of our heroine’s choices as the film raises the stakes feel a bit unbelievable, but that can be forgiven given the single-setting, single-performer restrictions of the piece. In the end, the goal was clearly to trap us in the increasingly fractured mind of a single person who increasingly believes what is beyond believable. Mission accomplished.

Author: Brian Tallerico
Posted: February 16, 2024, 2:21 pm

In some ways, the father-daughter road trip drama “Bleeding Love” is utterly convincing. How could it not be with a real father — Ewan McGregor — and daughter — Clara Mathilde McGregor — in the lead roles? The duo’s familial chemistry is believable, obviously. And without speculating too much about the personal lives of famous strangers, elements of the characters’ dynamic parallel the stars’ own history: In the film, the father has moved on and started a new family, leaving his daughter from his first marriage behind. In real life, McGregor separated from Clara’s mother in 2017, and is now married to, and has a child with, actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead

The lack of character names in the previous paragraph is not a writerly conceit; the script declines to name them as well, presumably to make them universal symbols of a sort. This is, in its way, a Freudian slip on the part of the film’s creative team. Because despite an engaging first hour, eventually the film devolves into a series of events that could generously be called “archetypal” — and less generously, “trite.” 

Much of this drama stems from the film’s addiction plot, which shares equal importance with the estranged-parent one. As is revealed in snippets of conversation in the first third of the movie, Father is driving Daughter to “go visit an artist friend” (i.e., rehab) in the wake of her near-death by overdose the night before. This takes them on a trip through the American Southwest, where they encounter a series of quirky characters — a magical sex worker who wants to become a Broadway playwright, a tow-truck driver who moonlights as an astrologer — on the road to healing. 

The first hour of “Bleeding Love” passes remarkably quickly given how little really happens, as the McGregors’ father-daughter verbal tennis games (and slow reveal of their characters’ backstory) keep the story moving. The issue with this section of the film is that first-time director Emma Westenberg doesn’t seem to know what to do with her leads when she turns her camera onto one of the eccentrics mentioned above. As a result, there is a stunning number of shots in this film of one or both McGregors watching things happen in front of them, bemused smiles on their faces. They feel like tourists in their own movie, going on an “It’s A Small World” ride of American rural poverty. 

There are a lot of considered details in “Bleeding Love,” some there for aesthetic purposes and some meant to parcel out additional information about the characters and their world. Again, many of these are pleasing in the buildup phase of the story, but become groan-worthy when their final purpose is revealed. For example, throughout most of the movie, Westenberg keeps her characters hemmed in with claustrophobic framing, often inside the windshield of Father’s beat-up pickup truck. Later on, when they have learned important lessons about acceptance and forgiveness, the frame expands to reveal the wide-open spaces around them. 

That last bit is technically a spoiler, but not really. How else would you expect a story about a road trip between an ex-addict father and his addict daughter to end? If it’s what you would expect, it’s what will unfold in the second half of “Bleeding Love.” It’s a film that’s been thought out but doesn’t reach any new conclusions; that assembles some good elements, but doesn’t really consider how they all fit together. The truthful elements are not enough to overcome the clumsy and cliché ones, and in the end it’s a film that’s more satisfying before you know how it ends.

Author: Katie Rife
Posted: February 16, 2024, 2:20 pm

"God & Country" is an illustration of that classic conundrum faced by so many political documentaries with an alarmist tone. Even when its concerns are justified, such a project tends to alienate rather than entice, and those who are inclined to agree with its points will come away feeling that their worldview has been reinforced, while the viewers who are arguably most in need of seeing it will remain unaware of it or dismiss it as propaganda. I don't know what the answer is here, or if there is one—there's a case to be made that the real purpose of a film like this is to rally the faithful for a battle that lies ahead. 

The choice of religious language in that last sentence is intentional. Executive produced by Rob Reiner and directed by Dan Partland (who also did a documentary about former President Trump diagnosing him with narcissistic personality disorder and declaring him mentally unfit for office) "God & Country" investigates the rise of Christian Nationalist beliefs in the United States (spearheaded by evangelical Christians but also folding in other denominations, such as politically conservative Catholics) and the effect on legislation and electoral politics of a national network of churches that are sympathetic to those views and are ideally positioned to get out the vote. The film has an evangelical (with a small "e") sensibility itself: the end times are at hand, and we cover our eyes and ears at our peril.

As one expert points out, in America a dedicated minority can seize control of the apparatus of local, regional or national government because the citizens are notorious for failing to vote even when the stakes are critical. That's the threat, and one can see it at work in the banning of books at local and school libraries as a reaction to people who attend school board meetings who not only have zero children in the district but are often from out of state. The film explains that the reactionary wing of the U.S. electorate is louder than it is numerous. It actually comprises about a third of registered voters (far less than the mythical "half" cited by people who complain that such-and-such an entertainer's liberal political views are alienating to "half the country"). But these are folks who vote, percentage-wise, far more regularly than, say, left-leaning voters under 30, who talk a big game online but don't turn out on Election Day in numbers significant enough for the establishment to care what they have to say.

Christian Nationalists, the film explains, are working behind the scenes and in broad daylight to restructure the political machinery through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the installation of friendly federal judges to allow for permanent rule by a minority: theirs. "We are going to impose Christian rule in this country!" declares Rick Wiles, a pastor and the founder of TruNews, a website described as offering "comments on global events and trends with a conservative, orthodox Christian worldview." Conservative columnist David French of The New York Times accuses this movement of practicing "malice and cruelty and division and partisanship" to further its aims, while Bishop William J. Barber III, a congregationalist minister, criticizes the worship of material wealth and guns, and says that the movement "is so loud about what God says so little about, and so quiet about what God says so much about," such as ending poverty and "caring for the least of thee." 

The best parts of the film are when it becomes more of a history lesson—for example, in a section counteracting false talking points about the United States always having been "a Christian nation" by pointing out that the government was, in fact, most certainly not based on The Ten Commandments, that George Washington didn't pray in the snow at Valley Forge, that instituting prayer in schools happened during the 1950s panic over Communism, that the Bible has zero to say about abortion, that "In God We Trust" wasn't added to currency until 1864, and that the rise of evangelical Christianity as a modern political force happened in the 1980s, largely as a backlash against government-mandated desegregation of schools in the '60s and '70s.

In the end, however, the unpleasant truth is that there's not a lot to see here that you can't absorb by going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole or watching "The Daily Show" or "Last Week Tonight" or Rachel Maddow. The quotes are chosen for maximum oomph and social media shareability. Among the more incendiary is by Greg Locke, pastor of Global Vision Bible Church, who tells his congregation, "If you vote Democrat, I don't even want you around this church! You can get out, you demon! You can get out, you baby-butcherin' election thief!" 

The cascade of images intertwines with talking head interviews to produce an effect that's probably a bit like watching 180 thirty-second Political Action Committee ads strung end-to-end. The soundtrack favors creepy/insinuating "Terrorists have planted bombs, will our heroes be able to find and defuse them in time?" sort of music, although there are a few warm, quieter passages of acoustic guitar and pizzicato strings (but only when the good guys are onscreen). It's hard to imagine anything in it that might neutralize or overcome the countervailing diet offered by the likes of Fox News Channel, OANN, Alex Jones, or any one of the many local drive-time DJs in large cities who tell listeners that America is being invaded from the south by an army of rapists, terrorists and drug dealers. 

The Other Side, as it were, makes films like this, in the opposite direction. The cutting is breathlessly fast. Maybe I'm nostalgic for the sorts of documentaries that would have brought a camera into one of the churches briefly mentioned in this movie and let the parishioners and clergy talk to the viewer and each other and give us a sense of the culture and belief system that produced them, as well as the threat they pose to democracy. Or maybe I just want something more like the dominant American documentary mode of the mid-twentieth century, where the primary purpose was to, well, document, and there were likely to be stray marvelous or mysterious details: splashes of color preventing black-and-white readings.

There are other media, other ways, to do what this movie is doing. I agree with its politics almost completely, but would still rather have watched one of those queasy, politically and morally slippery right-wing action films by somebody like Mel Gibson or S. Craig Zahler again, or a social realist drama by somebody like Spike Lee or Ken Loach, whose values reflect my own, because then I'd see some art.

Author: Matt Zoller Seitz
Posted: February 16, 2024, 2:20 pm

The experimental documentarian and fiction filmmaker Kimi Takesue, in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, said, recalling her struggles in getting this movie out into the world, “We need work that is impossible to describe.” On its surface, “Onlookers” is a movie that can be described very simply. For about an hour and twenty minutes, a series of very neatly composed shots depict natives of Laos and tourists observing a variety of sights and sites. This is accompanied by sound, of course, most of it diegetic, but clearly mixed to a fare-thee-well — the birdsong in shots taking place in the morning is particularly vivid.

We open with a solidly framed shot of a temple, its façade a glittering gold that lives to reflect sunlight. A little later on we see a temple in a state of far-gone disrepair. A line of monks walks up a sidewalk, and local residents drop coins in the cups they hold — a form of alms-giving — and tourists on the other side of the scene take snapshots. Because Takesue is filming with a small digital camera around other people taking pictures, her presence doesn’t create much stir, except when it does, as when a chubby schoolboy, about eight, starts looking back at the camera and mugging and posing for it.

So, this is not a movie that actually teems with event. Some of the views, particularly of the Mekong River (at least I presume it to be the Mekong — the movie has no subtitles or explanatory titles fixing the places it visits) are very picturesque. Nothing happens, or maybe better to say that the viewer has to come to some conclusion about what is happening besides nothing. What Takesue leaves out is important. We don’t see money changing hands. We don’t see scenes of night or nightlife. We hear people speaking English, and more people speaking French — “Laos” itself is a French word, the capital of the country is Vientiane, and the country was long a part of what was called “French Indochina.” So we can think, as we watch, about colonialism, national identity, the spectacles and the leisure activities and the climate that attract tourists, and so on. But all this lifting is up to us. If you’re not up for it, all you have is … a series of pictures.

This is the kind of movie that not merely allows, but practically invites, film studies MFAs the world over to flex their degrees by verbally bench-pressing the Ideology of the Shot, which is a real concept to be sure, but man, some intellectuals can overexert themselves into inadvertent hilarity with it. The shot of some white folks in a semi-outdoor bar, sprawled on benches indifferently looking at a rerun of “Friends” on a triptych of TV displays can potentially really put the “AAAARRRRRRR” in “Baudrillard” if you get what I’m saying, and I think you do. Viewers lacking advanced degrees (and I am one, actually) may miss out on some of the potential engagement.

That sounds glib, I understand. And I myself got enough out of “Onlookers” that I don’t ultimately feel it belongs in the “For Avant-Garde Documentary Lovers” category exclusively. You don’t need a degree to grok the global-village irony of a barkeep writing on a chalkboard “REGGAE BAR: Back To My Roots” while Toots and the Maytals’ “Reggae Got Soul” blares from his boombox-quality audio system. 

Author: Glenn Kenny
Posted: February 16, 2024, 2:20 pm

There are two heroes in the frustrating military actioner “Land of Bad,” and one of them’s more convincing than the other. During a hostage extraction mission gone bad, both heroes fight the kind of terrorists who behead a hostage in an establishing scene and then later philosophize about the real difference between us and them (it’s a doozy).

“Land of Bad” is most compelling when it sticks to hero #1, the capable but inexperienced Air Force Sergeant J.J. “Playboy” Kinney (Liam Hemsworth). Hemsworth’s a believable man of action, thanks in no small part to strong action choreography and filmmaking. His co-star, Russell Crowe, is no slouch either, even though it is harder to appreciate his performance given his irritating role as hero #2. Crowe plays Captain Eddie “Reaper” Grimm, the socially awkward, but professionally adept drone pilot who tries to guide Kinney away from terrorists and missiles, and then eventually towards rescue.

Crowe’s most endearing when he’s staring wide-eyed at mood-lit banks of computer monitors, relaying and extrapolating information with his supportive wing-lady, Staff Sergeant Nia Branson (Chika Ikogwe). Grimm’s a lot less charming when he’s mostly explicitly making the movie’s big bathetic point, all about the military’s failure to support capable, dedicated professionals like Grimm, who has to fight up-hill to be taken seriously. “Land of Bad” may sell itself as a post-“Black Hawk Down” rescue mission thriller, but it’s too often a baggy dramatized lecture about what’s really wrong with the American military and modern warfare.

As Kinney’s handler, Grimm guides Hemsworth’s overwhelmed, but capable soldier while he shoots, climbs, and wades through enemy territory in search of a high priority hostage. The prisoner in question is a CIA spy who’s been gathering intelligence on a dangerous Russian arms dealer. None of that matters once Kinney’s team engages with their bloodthirsty enemies, who, according to some introductory on-screen narration, are among “the most violent extremist groups in Southern Asia.”

The makers of “Land of Bad” mostly reduce their movie’s antagonists to generic obstacles for Kinney, except for a few key scenes that strain to establish why they’re actually the worst. These bad guys (briefly) revel in their psychopathy, torturing and executing their prisoners in a “Saw”-looking cave prison. “I look a man in the eye and I make my choice intimate,” one torture-prone terrorist boasts, moments after Kinney insists, “That’s not the conversation we should be having right now.”

So when is the right time? Maybe not in “Land of Bad,” where hero #1 rarely slows down long enough to explain himself while hero #2 should probably follow suit. Grimm’s a neurotic mess, an energy-drink fueled loner who takes great umbrage with snotty (and notably younger) Colonel Virgil Packett, played by Daniel MacPherson. Some pains are taken to humanize Grimm, mostly during for-the-cheap-seats comedic asides about how ignoble, but also down-to-earth he is.

Grimm’s particular about his work chair. He makes a big to do about Keurig-style coffee pods and is painfully sincere when he tells Branson that a wedding is, “probably the greatest social ritual that humanity has.” Grimm’s also the only one who can bring Kinney back safe, a rote characterization that’s mainly unbearable given how plodding and plentiful Grimm’s scenes are. Why is there so much of hero #2 in this movie, or really, why do we have to know so much about him in order for his rapport with hero #1 to matter?

Grimm accidentally puts his finger on why most of his scenes are so irritating, both as a dramatic break and defense of Kinney’s grisly and sometimes thrilling scenes. Speaking about his fourth wife, he tells Branson the old joke about how you can tell if someone’s a vegan. “They will tell you,” he laughs to himself.

Any “Land of Bad” scene where characters show you why they’re the best at what they do is usually enticing, at least compared when they desperately try to make you see pulpy cyphers as flesh-and-blood people. Director William Eubank already proved his technical finesse and solid understanding in earlier features, like the Kristen Stewart-led 2020 disaster adventure “Underwater.” So it’s not surprising to see that “Land of Bad”’s action scenes are eerily poised and even beautiful because they're dynamically lit and paced, and generally full-throated in their sensationalism. An airborne missile strike that takes out and ignites a hillside of militants (and their truck!) serves as a strong showcase for what Eubank’s latest has to offer. 

In its faint defense, “Land of Bad” delivers simple pleasures, like when Milo Ventimiglia, who’s also in this movie, shanks a terrorist in the neck with a broken dinner plate. Eubank and his collaborators might have delivered a better movie if they’d just made a high-toned programmer. As it is, “Land of Bad” is a pandering drama with some action movie thrills.

 

Author: Simon Abrams
Posted: February 16, 2024, 2:19 pm