2019

Canceled (2019, Jimmy Caputo)

Canceled has a great sense of humor. It ends on a knowing smile but then the end credits have a few knowing big laughs. It’s about five minutes of action, real-time, as two friends (Laura Sacchetti and Maria Scenna) try to console a third (Katrina Rossi) over the loss of her favorite TV show. The first minute pretends the consoling is necessary because of a boyfriend and it switches gears at just the right time. Again, great sense of humor. And director Caputo’s script has a better sense of timing than the short itself, which is frustrating.

Some jokes don’t work (Jeremy Gaipo’s recurring boyfriend gag is a fail), some performances don’t work (Scenna’s bored, apathetic friend seems less like a performance and more like Scenna’s unwilling to exert any acting effort), but thanks to Rossi and also Sacchetti (who’s resilient, she works through the moment not exactly working, not giving up until it does), Canceled works. Also, obviously, Caputo’s script and about half his direction. Whenever Scenna’s onscreen, it’s like time stops—partially because Scenna’s an energy vampire, partially because Caputo’s shot isn’t particularly interesting. He’s got fine composition when the actors are making it work, not when they don’t. Because Canceled’s an actors’ short. It’s a showcase for Rossi. And a good one.

Technically, it’s decent. Cinematographer Max Goldberg’s fine as long as he’s not trying to match lighting between shots. It never works. Some of it’s Justin Wayne’s editing, which is more enthusiastic than it ought to be. Not overconfident exactly, just… the cuts rarely go smooth. Though he does really well cutting a zoom here and there. Like, startlingly well.

It’s a funny short and a strong showcase for Rossi and Caputo’s writing. The successful material overshadows the problems, even the ones you worry about (like Scenna).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jimmy Caputo; director of photography, Max Goldberg; edited by Justin Wayne; music by Tony Francis Rainone; produced by Caputo, Goldberg, and Wayne.

Starring Katrina Rossi (Molly), Laura Sacchetti (Julia), Maria Scenna (Sadie), and Jeremy Gaipo (Brian).


Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, J.J. Abrams)

It is a dark time for the Star Wars franchise. Although the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, white men really weren’t okay with Kelly Marie Tran getting a lot to do in the last “trilogy” movie, not to mention women telling ostensible alpha Oscar Isaac what to do, and nobody wanted to go see the Harrison Ford spin-off not starring Harrison Ford, so there was a lot of damage control on Rise of Skywalker. Not to mention Carrie Fisher died and instead of letting her rest, the Rise filmmakers instead decided to resurrect her with unused footage and CGI compositing. Suffice to say, none of it works—with Daisy Ridley not believable acting “opposite” the artificial Fisher—seriously, they couldn’t keep doing takes until they got a better one; despite costing a fifth of a billion dollars, Rise often feels like they went way too cheap on things… especially with the rebel base stuff (meaning “Fisher,” Ridley, Tran—who’s demoted to cameo level support staff because Disney, at least the Lucasfilm division, are cowards—Isaac, and John Boyega). There’s one sequence where they really need to make the base shine and the movie can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it. Partly because it can’t gin up any enthusiasm for anything, partly because the sets appear to be way too small.

Rise of Skywalker, despite being really long, feels really reductive. Director Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio would really rather not get too far into anything in the script, which has one actual big reveal but ought to have two. It turns out Ian McDiarmid’s back (hey, wasn’t Luke originally supposed to defeat the Emperor in Episode IX in Gary Kurtz’s Empire-era series outline), but Abrams and Terrio stick that reveal in the opening crawl. Rise’s opening crawl is so bad, so defeated—where’d all of Abrams’s enthusiasm for this franchise go—it makes you wish they’d brought back George Lucas to cameo write it; he couldn’t do worse. Speaking of cameos, let’s just get the John Williams thing out of the way now.

There’s barely any original music and it’s at best mediocre. But it’s barely there. On one hand, John Williams is 87 years old and he gets some slack. On the other hand, Rise of Skywalker is supposed to be the end of a storied, beloved franchise. You’d think they’d want the best score possible. But they don’t. They want a John Williams score. They want a Carrie Fisher credit. It’s not a question of Abrams and company playing it safe; it’s not like Disney Star Wars has ever taken any real chances because it’s Disney, but Rise is like a capitulation. Even when Abrams is able to hit some good nostalgia moments, it’s because old John Williams music really does work well, it’s because his actors are still taking their jobs seriously, even with the crap script. Ridley’s big reveal, teased since the first Disney Star Wars, somehow manages to result in negative character development. It’s incredible how good Abrams and Terrio are at coping out of narrative decisions. They’re not just inert with it, they actually manage to toggle the tide in reverse. The wind in Rise of Skywalker doesn’t blow, it sucks.

Very low okay direction from Abrams. He’s in way too much of a hurry, especially for almost two and a half hours, though he doesn’t get much help from editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube. Everyone seems to have a different pace for the film—Abrams, both as director and screenwriter, the actors, the editors, the music. Rise of Skywalker feels slapped together, like the bad opening crawl is to compensate for the addition of McDiarmid after they started shooting but didn’t have enough time to get any real scenes with him and Adam Driver, who ping pong balls around the film, showing up whenever needed to give Ridley some conflict, sometimes with lightsabers.

What’s maybe strangest about Rise of Skywalker is how well Driver and Ridley make out, performance-wise. Ridley’s got a shit part. Like, she plays second fiddle to Driver even when she’s running a scene—and, ostensibly, the entire plot (buds Isaac and Boyega accompany her on her mission because they’re a family and she needs boys to make sure she’s all right)—but she still manages to turn in an okay performance. She acts better than the script gives ever, implying some kind of character development… within reason. Abrams, as writer and as director, works against her. He doesn’t work against Driver, however, who ends up with a great part. I mean, as great a part as you can have in Rise of Skywalker, but a good showcase anyway. Lots of range. And some of the character development Ridley should’ve gotten.

Though Ridley does get friends. Driver doesn’t not just get friends, the movie sets him up having sidekicks and then he never interacts with them. And he’s barely got any time with fellow Imperial baddies Domhnall Gleeson and Richard E. Grant. Grant has the closest thing to fun in Rise. Gleeson’s got what should be a fun part (finally) and he manages to screw it up. Whatever. At least he’s not an E.T. or something.

Isaac and Boyega get to continue their bromance, albeit neutered and straight-coded thanks to romantic interests (name cameo Keri Russell who might only actually be in one shot and the rest a voice performance for Isaac and more… mainstream appropriate Naomi Ackie for Boyega). Now, funny thing about Boyega—who gets no time with previous movie love interest Tran—and Ackie… while the script plays it like they have chemistry, they don’t have any chemistry. And they don’t play for it either. Boyega’s interested in Ackie as a comrade with shared history, but there’s no attempt at sparking. Isaac and Russell’s disembodied voice are at least cute together.

Isaac’s effortlessly charming and not much else. Boyega’s a lot of forced smiles and enthusiasm. Though even his enthusiasm runs out.

What else….

Billy Dee Williams is back for a glorified cameo—seriously, if Carrie Fisher hadn’t died he wasn’t going to be in the movie, was he—and it’s nice to have him around. He’s really not in it enough.

Anthony Daniels has a story arc, but it gets dropped in the third act. So much for the droids being the Saga constants.

All production problems aside, the film relies way too heavily on the scale CGI can provide. Rise of Skywalker tries to supersize its threats and just makes them more and more absurd, which isn’t a bad thing because it covers a lot of what would otherwise just be plain stupid.

Rise of Skywalker is a disappointing conclusion to a forty-two year-old story. But it’s a far less disappointing conclusion to that story than the one Disney Star Wars started for Ridley, Driver, Boyega, and Isaac four years ago. Though it still manages to be a more disappointing sequel to the previous entry two years ago. Abrams succeeded faster at failing Star Wars than even George Lucas. It took Lucas sixteen years to chooch the franchise with the first prequel. Abrams did it in two.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Chris Terrio and Abrams, based on a story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Terrio, and Abrams and characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube; music by John Williams; production designers, Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; produced by Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michelle Rejwan; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Keri Russell (Zorii), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Billy Dee Williams (Lando), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), Richard E. Grant (Pryde), and Ian McDiarmid (Sheev).


Alien: Harvest (2019, Benjamin Howdeshell)

Alien: Harvest operates at that all too familiar intersection of bad and stupid. It’s a stupid idea badly executed, though it’s not clear whose at fault for each. For instance, the short is about four survivors on a space ship trying to get the lifeboat before the ship blows up in seven (or eight) minutes. It’s a seven or eight minute short. You’d think it’d be real-time… but no. So who decided to do stylistically weak montage (the second time jump, the first they just cut), director Howdeshell or writer Craig Dewey?

Howdeshell’s direction is bad throughout, sure, but Dewey’s writing is stupid throughout too. For instance, how is it possible no one in the Alien universe knows how to read a motion tracker? Especially given lead (or at least character given the most reaction shots) Agnes Albright ought to know how to read one, given her character’s background. Though Albright’s background is yet another of the script’s stupidities; for an officially produced “Alien Universe” short, Harvest plays pretty fast and loose with the franchise “rules.” And always just for shock value. Dewey and Howdeshell don’t have anything good up their sleeves so they’re just going for the jumps. They don’t get any. They get some eye rolls, which is impressive because it’s usually too stupid to bother wasting the energy to roll the eyes.

There’s one good performance—Jessica Clark, as the pregnant and therefore sympathetic survivor. Adam Sinclair’s pretty bad as her dude, James C. Burns is even worse as the mansplainer. Watching Burns makes you appreciate how even some bad actors are at least not godawful at it. He’s fairly godawful.

Albright’s… not good. It’s a crap part but she’s not good.

Nothing’s good about Harvest, though the space CGI exteriors aren’t bad and Danny Cocke’s music could be worse. At least it’s not too derivative of the source material, whereas Dewey reuses lines from the real movies.

Bad editing from Jake Shaver, though it’s unclear if its his cutting or just Howdeshell’s footage. It seems more like the latter… if you forget the ineptitude of the fifteen second montage to show the characters passing forty-five seconds of present action.

It’s never any good, but the utter stupidity of the finish (and the real-time fails) make Harvest much worse than expected.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Benjamin Howdeshell; screenplay by Craig Dewey, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Chris Saul; edited by Jake Shaver; music by Danny Cocke; production designer, Troy Spino; costume designer, David Tabbert; produced by Shawn Wallace; released by IGN.

Starring Agnes Albright (Mari), Jessica Clark (Hannah), Adam Sinclair (Alec), and James C. Burns (Sturgis).


Hobbs & Shaw (2019, David Leitch)

Hobbs & Shaw is a tad too aware of how little it needs to try to succeed. Like it knows it doesn't just have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it's got him giving a downright good performance in an energy drink version of a James Bond movie. Sure, Jason Statham–Shaw to Johnson’s Hobbs—doesn’t really work out, but Vanessa Kirby makes up for him as his fugitive secret agent sister. Rounding out the leads is Idris Elba as the villain. He’s basically a Bond henchman but well-acted (one wonders how Elba kept a straight face during some of the exposition); he’s got an unseen boss with an electronically disguised voice so they can wait for the sequel to cast him. So Elba’s stuff when he’s talking to the unseen Big Bad is silly but Elba still keeps it going. If Statham were better and the script weren’t insipid, the movie might have more of a chance. And if the second act weren’t such a slog.

But the first act and the third are really solid, mostly because of Kirby in the third and Johnson in the first. Despite being a Fast and Furious spin-off, the movie’s got no attachment to its parent franchise other than Johnson, Statham, Johnson having a kid (Eliana Sua), and Statham having a criminal Helen Mirren for a mum. Mirren’s got a fine cameo, but given how much she’s holding Statham up for it, it should’ve been a sign he was going to run out of energy. But he actually never gets it. Kirby’s got it, Johnson’s got it, Elba’s got it. But not Statham. He never does anything wrong in a scene, but he never tries either. The scenes where he and Johnson banter back and forth, Johnson’s carrying Statham and the scene. Same goes for Kirby. Maybe they cut out Statham’s subplot because the movie’s already two hours and seventeen minutes and it’s incredibly bloated in the second act.

Or maybe Statham just isn’t enthusiastic enough for the movie. Hobbs & Shaw, in general, confuses bombast for enthusiasm. Statham has neither. Johnson’s got enough to share, so it works out.

There are also the silly cameos, which are funnier than they ought to be because their inclusion is so desperate. Because the biggest one is for Johnson, who doesn’t need the help; unless the Helen Mirren scene with Statham is supposed to count but it doesn’t. For a movie with endless exposition, somehow Hobbs & Shaw is always missing the right exposition. Instead it’s nonsense about cyborg supermen, human evolution, and programmable viruses. It’s cartoon blather but the film knows it doesn’t have to do better because Johnson’s charming and is about to have a decent action sequence—albeit one with lousy digital background composites, a problem plaguing the film and its action—so it doesn’t try. It doesn’t make Statham do better, it doesn’t worry about the messy second act.

It’s not wrong about it’s ability to land the proverbial plane despite the turbulence. The film finds a way to get sillier but also more human, becoming cartoonish in a good way, and the third act is good. The sequel set up is obnoxious but as long as Kirby’s back, it’d be worth it.

Also perfectly good in the supporting cast are Eddie Marsan and Cliff Curtis. Marsan’s a little rocky at the start, but he finds the film’s rhythm. Curtis is so sturdy you wish he’d had a bigger part.

Hobbs & Shaw is stupid, fun, and funny. The soundtrack is loud and omnipresent—including a full song montage presumably for the artist placement—and never seems like the track complimenting the action is as important as the track getting used. The film’s also big on production placement, McLaren underwrites Statham’s garage of sports cars while Elba’s cybernetically-linked (it’s a cartoon, just go with it) Triumph motorcycles gets a lot of screen time.

It ought to be better, it’s not as good as it should be, but it makes clear it could’ve been worse. Johnson, Elba, and especially Kirby make it work.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, based on a story by Morgan; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Christopher Rouse; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; produced by Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Hiram Garcia, and Morgan; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Jason Statham (Shaw), Idris Elba (Brixton), Vanessa Kirby (Hattie), Helen Mirren (Queenie), Eddie Marsan (Professor Andreiko), Eliana Sua (Sam), Cliff Curtis (Jonah), and Lori Pelenise Tuisano (Sefina).


Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde)

Booksmart opens with high school senior Beanie Feldstein getting up on her last day of school; graduation is in the morning. She listens to self-affirmations about—politely—crushing your adversaries as you excel past them. Now, Feldstein lives in an apartment building. Not a terrible one, but not a nice one. Her lack of perception of privilege and class are going to bite her a little so it’s an important detail. Similarly, when best friend Kaitlyn Dever pulls up to drive to school, Dever’s not in a great car. Booksmart is going to exist in a very particular bubble and the film’s got no problem with that bubble, it just doesn’t examine it. Because Booksmart is a comedy. Yes, Feldstein’s an overachiever from a different economic class from her classmates and Dever’s an out lesbian teenager living with two Christian but supportive parent. They’ve got things going on. But the film’s more concerned with being funny and fun, which is exactly what it needs to be doing.

At school, Feldstein gets a rude awakening to how the world of college acceptance works from her classmates, who she assumed were all headed to a trade school and it turns out, no, not only are they going to the same school (Yale) or better than her, even the kid who flunked seventh grade twice (Eduardo Franco) has already got a coding job at Google. Feldstein had no fun and excelled but they had fun and excelled, meaning she was wrong and the things weren’t mutually exclusive—which is true, especially once you find out the kids are all rich. Some are 1%, the others are 3-6%. Turns out Dever’s parents have a great house and the old car is just a Dever thing. The class and privilege aspects gradually get brushed over with the comedy. The details aren’t presently important for Feldstein and Dever, who are going to go on to have their own character development—outstanding character development—usually these little moments in the reactions or dialogue amid the comedy. Booksmart’s always working towards a laugh, usually at least medium ones.

The film knows how to get a laugh and it knows what kind of laugh it’s going to get—some of its the script (Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman—so maybe the most successful four-writer movie in a while), most of its Wilde’s direction and Feldstein and Dever’s performances. Wilde’s sense of timing is exquisite. She and editor Jamie Gross cut the humor perfectly, but then it turns out they’ve also got these more ambitious sequences. There’s this fantastic dance sequence out of nowhere and then this emotional visually poetic underwater swimming sequence. Both those sequences serve Feldstein and Dever, but they’re also the showiest Wilde’s going to be able to get in the film and she ties the filmmaking ambition to the stars; they’re breathtaking sequences. And right after them, Booksmart turns out not to really have an idea of how to get from point C to point D. The film’s second to third act transition is exceptionally rough. It’s well-acted, it’s well-directed—Wilde even does this “hands off” thing when it gets too intense dramatically; Booksmart is about the comedy. The specifics of the drama aren’t the point. Especially not since it concerns Feldstein and Dever’s friendship—because of course it does, it’s a high school best friends comedy, weren’t you paying attention to the genre tropes; even when Felstein and Dever are spouting exposition about their history, Wilde always takes a hands-off approach with the pair. Their friendship needs to illuminate itself through the performances, not the specifics of the dialogue, which is very important as well because it’s often hilarious and the film needs to hit the laugh.

After some brief pathos for the stars, the third act then amps up the physical comedy in the search of an ending. Booksmart’s got a great epilogue, but the ending of the film’s narrative gets desperate at the end and plays a lot on the film’s goodwill. Nicely, the film’s still generating goodwill through the rough spots; Feldstein and Dever can handle the pathos fine, it’s just not serving a purpose. Kind of like the kind of icky thirty-something teacher and the twenty-year old student. That one is the film’s only actual problem, even though it too is a high school movie trope… it’s just one in need of more examination of how it executes in Booksmart, where it’s a C plot.

Okay, time to go over the supporting cast. It’s big, but the actors are essential to the film’s success. It’s one of those apparently perfectly casted films—even though Booksmart’s got the epical narrative, it’s also a hangout movie. And Wilde knows how to showcase the supporting cast. Billie Lourd’s the richest girl, who doesn’t make much impression in her introduction but becomes the film’s best running joke. And Lourd’s great. Then there’s Mason Gooding as Feldstein’s dope of a vice president… but a really hot one who Feldstein’s got a secret crush on. Meanwhile, Dever’s got a years long crush on skater girl Victoria Ruesga, who wishes Dever would party on weekends so… possibilities. Molly Gordon’s the mean girl who turns out to have a bunch of depth. Noah Galvin and Austin Crute are hilarious as the theater guys. Then Skyler Gisondo is the richest boy, who’s extremely socially awkward and seems to have a crush on Feldstein, which Feldstein’s mortified about.

The way the night unfolds—and the plot perturbs—informs how the supporting cast is going to interact with Feldstein and Dever, which leads to reaction scenes for the two of them as their expectations get realized and dashed. And Feldstein and Dever get the funniest material—Wilde sets the narrative distance constantly inform their relationship (and performances) more than anything else, even when the supporting cast is getting some big comic moment. Wilde’s stunningly good at the directing thing. Booksmart’s always impressive for one reason or another.

Great lead performances, great supporting performances, great direction, outstanding script; technically it’s excellent—Gross’s editing, Jason McCormick’s photography, Dan The Automator’s score, all superb. It’s a humdinger of a first feature from director Wilde.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Olivia Wilde; written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman; director of photography, Jason McCormick; edited by Jamie Gross; music by Dan The Automator; production designer, Katie Byron; produced by Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfeld, Jessica Elbaum, Megan Ellison, and Silberman; released by Annapurna Pictures.

Starring Beanie Feldstein (Molly), Kaitlyn Dever (Amy), Skyler Gisondo (Jared), Billie Lourd (Gigi), Victoria Ruesga (Ryan), Mason Gooding (Nick), Diana Silvers (Hope), Molly Gordon (Triple A), Noah Galvin (George), Austin Crute (Alan), Eduardo Franco (Theo), Nico Hiraga (Tanner), and Jason Sudeikis (Principal Brown).


The Divine Fury (2019, Kim Joo-hwan)

The Divine Fury is a very bad film. It’s not poorly made; director Kim is mediocre, Cho Sang-yun’s photography is good, Koo Ja-wan’s score is fine. Yes, the editing is wanting, but often more because Kim’s mediocre than anything else. Like the big fight scene at the end? The big, very bad, not at all worth sitting through the movie about an MMA fighter (Park Seo-joon) taking on a Dark Bishop (Woo Do-Hwan) who’s running a shitty nightclub with low patronage (the film’s limited budget is only obvious because of the lack of background extras and scenery) and bringing demons to Earth. He brings the demons, who then possess Catholics–you know they’re Catholic because of the Catholic art on all their walls–and then priests come in and exorcize, rinsing the soul super clean, so Woo then sends those fresh souls to Hell.

Or the movie’s about a lonely old priest Ahn Sung-Ki who can no longer recruit young priests to accompany him on his exorcisms slash physical and mental abusing of people with mental problems… oh, wait, no, because in Divine Fury all the magic is real. Lead Park is an avowed atheist—not a real thing, as Ahn explains, because hating God means you believe in God—and none of the magic ever sways his opinion on God. He hates God because God killed his dad (Lee Seung-Joon) even though a priest told him if he prayed hard enough God would save him. So Park also hates the Catholic Church, which is the only form of religion shown to exist in Divine Fury’s South Korea.

Where Catholics make up something like seven percent of the population.

You know, it’d make more sense if Divine Fury were secretly funded by the Catholic Church in hopes they get priest recruitment up in South Korea. There’s a scene where Ahn brags about being able to drink and smoke—it’s okay as long as you don’t pray after, which is just weird too. When Park finally becomes a demon-hunting superhero with a motorcycle, his costume is a priest outfit like Park’s got some rabid female fans who want him dressed up as a bad boy priest. It’s really goofy and bad.

If Park gave an enthusiastic performance, Divine Fury might be saved. He’s got stigmata, he’s got a flaming fist, he can kill demons, he’s got that motorcycle, he’s edgy cool but not… he also doesn’t enjoy it at all. Some of it’s the direction. Kim’s not good at directing Ahn and Park with the special effects. Sometimes it looks like the actors decide at separate times when they’re supposed to be seeing the CGI demonic imagery. Even if Park were just an energetic bad, it might be fun. But no, he’s broody and terrible. Ahn’s ostensibly lovable and terrible. Woo’s not convincing as the chief bad guy, which is fine because Park’s not convincing as an MMA fighter and Ahn’s not convincing as an exorcising priest.

The only good performance in the film, which doesn’t give its cast good parts ever—the only good performance is Jung Ji-hoon. He’s this little kid who gets possessed by multiple demons. Jung’s great. Sadly we don’t get to see him kill the good guys and win and then the movie can end. Because then Park wouldn’t get his biker priest martial artist finale. The absurd finale he doesn’t even appear to enjoy doing.

Divine Fury is ostensibly a martial arts horror action Catholic Christian movie. The horror’s never scary, the martial arts are bad, the action’s bad. All it does with enthusiasm is preach, which could conceivably not be terrible if only Kim’s script weren’t terrible and Ahn and Park weren’t bad, particularly during those scenes. If the movie has some actual propaganda behind the scenes thing going on, at least it’d make sense. Otherwise… it just wants to be bad.

And excels at it.

Except Jung; Jung’s amazing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Joo-hwan; director of photography, Cho Sang-yun; edited by Kim Sun-min; music by Koo Ja-wan; production designer, Han Yoo-jung; produced by Park Sung-hye and Shin Pil-soon; released by Lotte Entertainment.

Starring Park Seo-joon (Yong-hoo), Ahn Sung-ki (Father Ahn), Woo Do-hwan (Ji-sin), Choi Woo-sik (Father Choi), Jung Ji-hoon (Ho-seok), and Lee Seung-joon (Police Sergeant Park).


Smiling Woman (2019, Alex Magaña)

Smiling Woman runs just under three minutes, which is too short. It needs at least another minute; frustratingly, the material’s already there, the film rushes through it. The establishing shots and the point of view shots from lead Ariel Fullinwider are too quick. Even though they're quick and don't invite scrutiny, they seem sped up. Smiling is in a hurry and it doesn't need to be.

Writer-director-producer-editor-cinematographer Magaña is good at almost everything the short tries. Magaña’s composition is good, the lighting is excellent, he directs Fullinwider well. The problem is entirely with the hurried pace and the abbreviated feel to the runtime.

Fullinwider is alone at a train station, waiting. All of a sudden she sees a creepy, smiling woman (Merlynda Sol) on the opposite platform. Then Sol vanishes when Fullinwider looks away. Then Fullinwider starts getting texts from an unknown source—it's so strange how, as technology advances, so do malevolent supernatural beings’ ability to manipulate it… if only boomers were as good with tech as ghosts. Eventually Fullinwider runs away, with Magaña fast forwarding a bit from the initially real-time pace.

Fullinwider’s good. She can handle the pace. Sol’s creepy but not annoyingly so. You never get too much Smiling Woman in Smiling Woman. The short needs to take its time, even if it's just for a good jump scare.

Magaña’s use of music—licensed stock stuff—is excellent but the music itself lacks personality. It's competent, generic scary music. Combined with the too short run time, the music turns Smiling into a great proof of concept for a commercial or something. Magaña’s enforced brevity tries to solve problems the short doesn't have.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, directed, edited, and photographed by Alex Magaña.

Starring Ariel Fullinwider (commuter) and Merlynda Sol (smiling woman).


Blinded by the Light (2019, Gurinder Chadha)

What’s not clear about Blinded by the Light is how much of the film’s success is because of lead Viveik Kalra or because about ninety straight minutes of soundtrack consists of The Best of Bruce Springsteen. The film, based on an actual British Pakistani Springsteen stan, is about teenager Kalra discovering Springsteen at just the right time in his life—it’s 1987, Thatcher’s England has no jobs and overt skinheads (it’s also funny how this film, set in the 80s and in the UK, feels very 2019 for the US), Kalra’s got a controlling dad (Kulvinder Ghir, in the film’s most troubled part), he’s starting at a new school, his best friend (Dean-Charles Chapman) has got a Pet Shop Boys knock-off band and accompanying style. Kalra’s feeling caged and, after a chance encounter with the only other East Asian guy at his new high school—Aaron Phagura, who’s appealing enough but literally has no personality beyond a smile. Phagura loans Kalra a couple Springsteen tapes; it takes him a few days and a few significantly severe new problems in his life to listen.

Once he does, Light becomes an attempt at visualizing how a person connects with a song. It’s obvious stuff—emphasized lyric excerpts on the screen with some Adobe animation on the text itself—but director Chadha goes all in on it. Get over whether to not it’s creative enough and focus on whether or not it’s functional enough. Because the film tries to avoid ever actually talking about politics. It shows the politics. It shows Ghir gets attacked by Neo-Nazis; they’re matching and blocking the way to Kalra’s cousin’s wedding. But it doesn’t get close to the characters as they experience it. There’s a detached narrative distance, which gets stylized to some degree with the music, but the film never explicitly ties the events surrounding Kalra to the accompanying Springsteen songs. It seems like there’s an intentional clue from Chadha on how to watch the film at one point—Kalra is in an East Asian dance club and puts on Springsteen and watches how the sixteen year-old working class Pakistani girls really are just the sixteen year-old working class American girls in the song. And so on. It’s a great moment, though Chadha doesn’t know how to amplify it. Though Light’s even keel, tone-wise, is one of its most consistent successes. Other than Kalra. And the accompanying Springsteen songs doing their job because they’re Springsteen songs.

The film’s got a lot of inconsistent successes. Something works here for a while, stops working for a while, starts working again. Or something working goes away then comes back, still working. The plot is better than the script, which is most exemplified with dad Ghir. Ghir’s got the film’s biggest personal journey—Kalra’s Bruce Springsteen obsession is indicative of far more serious problems—and Light is way too comfortable letting Ghir be a caricature. When it’s time for Ghir to get a moment to act and not react to someone else, the film cuts away. By the time Ghir starts putting his foot down about Kalra’s very un-Pakistani attitudes, it’s too late for the scene to carry much weight. The film actively encourages everyone involved to give up on Ghir because even as he’s a Springsteen song character too… the way the film grafts it with the working class Pakistani father in the eighties story doesn’t give Ghir much agency. It’s a really effective performance from Ghir, but it’s not a good part.

To be fair, there aren’t a lot of good supporting parts. There are lots of good supporting performances, but the parts are all rushed; if you’re a supporting cast member, you don’t get a complete story arc. You’re lucky if you get even a brief subplot—like Kalra’s sister, Nikita Mehta, clubbing and having a boyfriend—or Kalra’s eventual love interest, Nell Williams, and her struggle against her conservative parents. Williams is a great eighties movie character—the costuming in Light are fantastic, ditto the production design. By Annie Hardings and Nick Ellis, respectively. Director Chadha is definitely able to realize a comprehensive vision here, it’s just a very safe one. The film doesn’t go hard on the musical stuff; there are some musical numbers, which are good, but they go away pretty soon in the second half, replaced by montages, which are different. It also doesn’t go hard on the political stuff. Outside the fight with the Neo-Nazis, Kalra and Ghir are always keeping a stiff upper lip and turning the other cheek as far as the racism goes. And Light never gets into the characters’ heads for their reactions to it.

So the good supporting performances—Mehta, Chapman, mom Meera Ganatra (who gets the film’s worst part, but kind of because it should be from her perspective instead), Williams; Phagura’s fine. He’s got nothing to do but he’s likable. The only iffy performance is Tara Divina as Kalra’s cousin who comes to live with them recently before the movie it seems like… maybe? There’s something murky in the ground situation but she’s a brat and Divina’s too thin about it. Great cameos from Rob Brydon, Hayley Atwell, David Hayman.

Blinded by the Light hits its target but isn’t aiming high enough; it’s just too middle of the road, leveraging Kalra and Springsteen instead of informing them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gurinder Chadha; screenplay by Sarfraz Manzoor, Chadha, and Paul Mayeda Berges, based on a book by Sarfraz Manzoor and inspired by music by Bruce Springsteen; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Justin Krish; music by A.R. Rahman; production designer, Nick Ellis; produced by Jane Barclay, Chadha, and Jamal Daniel; released by Entertainment One.

Starring Viveik Kalra (Javed), Kulvinder Ghir (Malik), Dean-Charles Chapman (Matt), Nell Williams (Eliza), Meera Ganatra (Noor), Aaron Phagura (Roops), Nikita Mehta (Shazia), Tara Divina (Yasmeen), David Hayman (Mr. Evans), Hayley Atwell (Ms. Clay), and Rob Brydon (Matt’s father).


Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho)

Metaphor is a luxury item in Parasite. First act lead Choi Woo-sik excitedly talks about the metaphorical when things are still going well. Choi, a floundering, unemployed early twenty-something from an unemployed floundering family, lucks into the perfect gig—tutoring a rich teenager with her English. Choi’s great at his English, he just doesn’t apply himself. Or he’s really bad at math (he didn’t go to college, despite acing his English language tests over and over). Even better, the mom (Jo Yeo-jeong) is a bit of a bimbo. A very well-spoken, well-informed one, but not someone who, you know, reads. She knows how to talk about reading though. It’s a very interesting part; Jo’s great. Probably giving the film’s best performance, which isn’t an easy task, but the script never turns her into a caricature. It’s weird watching her at first, because you’re waiting for director Bong and co-writer Han Jin-woo to go for some easy bit and they never do. The film’s got a very particular narrative distance with wealthy Jo and her husband, Lee Sun-kyun. See, Choi and his family come to see Jo and Lee as the caricatures, while….

And I’m ahead of myself.

On his first tutoring lesson, Jo tells Choi about how her other kid—Choi’s tutoring the teenage girl, played by Jung Ji-so—but Jo’s other kid, the younger boy (Jung Hyun-jun) he’s actually an artistic genius. Well, Jo’s convinced herself he’s an artistic genius, anyway. And Choi sees the chance to get his artistically talented sister—so good she faked his college transcript for the job interview—a gig tutoring the clearly not a next level genius son. Park So-dam is Choi’s sister. Once she gets into the house and is able to manipulate Jo better than Choi can (or thought to), it’s time to get dad Song Kang-ho and mom Jang Hye-jin gigs too. They just need to get rid of the other servants to make vacancies. Because Park and Choi have a whole plan worked out, complete with role-playing lessons to get Song and Jang ready for their parts. Choi’s lucked the whole family’s way into full employment.

Something Bong and Han carefully foreshadow.

They’re similarly careful about how they juxtapose the two families. Because, obviously, they don’t let on they’re related. Becausee they’re being very safe about how they’re conning and exploiting Jo and Lee and with some empathy—to protect them from getting exploited by someone else. Song’s gone positively soft for the family and what he thinks is their naiveté, Choi’s got a crush on his inappropriately young tutee; they’re all in on the con, with Choi and Park starting to work out plans for the future. Only Choi and Park are inexperienced kids and even though Song and Jang are ready and willing with the con, they’re not any more experienced in this world either. Jo and Lee live in this distinct, gigantic literal architect’s dream home. Bong has these great shots of how much area Choi and his family have to walk to get around. They live in a basement apartment where drunks piss on their windows. There’s not room in that apartment for a long shot, there’s not enough room for Bong to pan the shot to follow them. Everyone’s got their own kind of naiveté in Parasite; the audience can’t necessarily see into the characters’ blindspots either. Bong and Han don’t exactly have any mysteries, but they’ve got some Brobdingnagian surprises.

Sometimes those surprises impact the epical narrative, sometimes they impact the subtext. Parasite says a lot, looks at a lot. Bong never forces it, some of he and Han’s moves so subtle you don’t catch on to when they started laying the groundwork until they’re ahead a couple more reveals. Kind of like the aforementioned metaphor as a luxury item. They’re already two or three metaphors in between they reveal they’re metaphors. It’s so good. Sometimes watching Bong pull it off, thanks also to Hong Kyung-pyo’s photography and Yang Jin-mo’s editing—sometimes it gets distracting, how well this scene or that scene works. How ably Bong is accomplishing with the film. And it doesn’t take until the the third act for that feeling, it hits in the early second. Parasite’s great from really, really early on.

The acting helps with that early success. Everyone’s excellent. They’re different kinds of excellent, because no one’s got the exact same kind of function in the script—mom Jang’s got a great long sequence where she’s never the focus of a scene but how she’s moving through the background is the actually important thing going on. Meanwhile, Song’s got a very different kind of part; his part changes the most throughout, and not just because he and Jang start the film more in supporting roles. It takes a while. Bong and Han never hurry it either. There’s not a wasted moment in the film.

The best performances are Jo, Sang, and probably Lee Jeong-eun (the kindly housekeeper who could foil Sang and family’s plans). Jo and Sang have a handful of scenes together and they’re always so great because Jo and Sang are giving such nuanced, guarded performances. The script demands it, more than for anyone else, and seeing them acting together is something special. Because they’re doing separate things, which are then informing the scene in how they spark off one another.

It’s fantastic to watch.

Park and Jang are both really good. Park’s got the hardest part in the first act—she’s got to be the most different between home and work—and she’s great. She gets less later on, but when it’s all on her, Park nails it. Lee—the rich husband—he’s good. Choi’s really good. Parasite’s just really good in general; also specific to its many parts. Bong sets up the film as an experience, something for the audience to go through. It’s not an inaccessible experience. In fact, what makes it so impressive is how often Bong and Han just go for their big symbolism and such. Bong’s fearless.

Parasite’s outstanding.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong and Han Jin-won; director of photography, Hong Kyung-pyo; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jung Jae-il; production designer, Ha-jun Lee; produced by Bong, Jang Young-Hwan, Moon Yang-kwon, and Kwak Sin-ae; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Kim Ki-taek), Choi Woo-sik (Kim Ki-woo), Park So-dam (Kim Ki-jung), Jang Hye-jin (Kim Chung-sook), Jo Yeo-jeong (Park Yeon-kyo), Lee Sun-kyun (Park Dong-ik), Jung Ji-so (Park Da-hye), Jung Hyun-jun (Park Da-song), and Jeong-eun Lee (Moon-gwang).


Peter’s To-Do List (2019, Jon Watts)

Peter's To-Do List is some next level lazy. It’s an “all-new” short film included on the Spider-Man: Far From Home home video releases. It’s actually just a montage mostly cut from the movie; better yet, the footage also appears in the deleted scenes section of the disc. There are no opening titles, no end credits, nothing new.

But it’s a good montage. It’s not like it’s at all bad, it’s well-made, It’s funny, it moves well. It’s just not “all-new.”

And it’s not particularly essential. Or even inessential. The important stuff from List do appear in the movie proper, so it’s just like… why. Well, I get why—Sony has a long history of aggrandizing deleted scenes to create special features (including extended versions of the movie made without filmmaker involvement, just reinserting deleted scenes).

Where To-Do List is… potentially interesting is in its positioning and promotion. “All-New Short Film” is a claim and a promise. To-Do List fails the claim but maybe not the promise. It’s Tom Holland being adorable as he goes around trying to get ready for the Far From Home part of the movie. He’s got a list of errands to run, culminating in taking down a bunch of gangsters. That sequence is rather good—and it’s impressive to see how, even in under four minutes, Holland and the filmmakers are able to maintain this consistent tone between Holland’s mundane tasks and his technologically accelerated fisticuffs with bad guys.

Tack on some titles, some credits (which would be difficult, I imagine, because then they might owe residuals), To-Do List would almost be “all-new.” With the right titles and credits anyway.

It’s even lazier than the old “Marvel One-Shots,” which was a series of short home video exclusives mostly made out of cut scenes and Clark Gregg shooting inserts. That series eventually got better. But I don’t think even the laziest one was as lazy as To-Do List.

I mean, technically it’s Recommended but only because it’s an incomplete. Hell, throw on a teaser for the rest of the movie and it’s basically a concept trailer. Instead, it’s a short mid-quel (defined by Petrana Radulovic as “side adventures taking place during the events of the original film”), just made out of cut footage….

So lazy.

But an amusing three and a half minutes.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Matthew J. Lloyd; edited by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige; released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Jacob Batalon (Ned), and Hemky Madera (Delmar).


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