This month marks the 50th anniversary of a seminal film in the American cinematic consciousness, Hal Ashby’s often misunderstood masterpiece, Harold and Maude. Starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort and written by Colin Higgins, Harold and Maude is a dark comedy about a death-obsessed young man and a lively, free-spirited older woman who fall in love. Its existentialist themes, dark comedy and taboo-breaking central relationship took a while to be embraced, but audiences finally found their way to it, and Harold and Maude has rightfully taken its place in the pantheon of classic American films, a romantic comedy truly ahead of its time.
No matter what kind of entertainment an artist pursues, they are always in search of a story and the best way to tell it. In the triumphant new documentary Flee, world premiering at Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses animation and archival footage to transport the audience back to Afghanistan in 1984, where we meet Amin, whose journey from that moment becomes the story, a refugee tale unlike any you have ever seen before.
Rasmussen felt compelled to tell his friend’s story as soon as he heard it. A refugee who had been forced to escape his home with his family when he was a child, Amin’s journey to Denmark, where he met Rasmussen and has lived since the ‘90s, is beyond harrowing, filled with tragedy, fear, helplessness and inhumanity. Instead of asking Amin to sit in front of a camera and recount his experiences, Rasmussen employs various styles of animation as a visual accompaniment to Amin’s narration. From Afghanistan to Russia to Denmark, Amin’s travels are filled with moments of panic, violence and fear, the details of which are simultaneously easier to watch and more nightmarish in animated form, as the style of drawing becomes more and more simplistic, dark and colorless during the most frightening moments.
It’s easy to believe Steven Spielberg can do anything. Arguably the world’s most beloved living director, Spielberg has proven, time and time again, that he can tackle any genre, any subject, any style, and make it work. As if his filmography hadn’t already proven the point, in 1993 Spielberg showed the world the true breadth of his skills by delivering not only one of the biggest blockbuster action films of all time, Jurassic Park, but also arguably one of the most masterful dramas of all time, Schindler’s List. For most directors, having made those two films in the span of an entire career would be legendary enough, but Spielberg made Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List IN THE SAME YEAR. One can either feel sorry for all the other directors he has challenged by setting the bar and continuing to elevate it higher, or be excited by what he inspires in his fellow artisans, daring themselves to expand the limits of their visions, comfort zones and capabilities. There is no doubt Steven Spielberg only makes the world of cinema a better place.
The crazy thing is, not only is Spielberg talented, but it seems he is fearless as well. At 74 years of age, Spielberg could easily rest on his laurels, having accomplished nearly everything there is to accomplish in his chosen profession. Instead, he decided to put his entire career on the line by doing two crazy things at the same time: make a musical (which he’s never done) and remake one of the most beloved films of all time. When it was announced that Spielberg would be remaking West Side Story, the 1961 Best Picture Oscar winner, one of only a few films in history that everyone agrees is a masterpiece, some wondered if Spielberg’s lucky streak had finally come to an end. How on earth could anyone do that? Or, more importantly, WHY would anyone do that?
As it turns out, we should have all trusted in Spielberg. We should have known he’d never let us down.
The world is finally warming up to Guillermo del Toro. Once viewed as the least accessible of the trio of award-winning Mexican directors who have dominated the Oscar circuit the last decade—the other two being Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Inarritu–del Toro’s films found a passionate fan base but struggled for mainstream appeal, due to the writer/director’s penchant for the dark and mystical. Having created his own subgenre of horror, one that revels in the beauty of the macabre, del Toro found a niche audience with films like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak, which solidified del Toro as a master, if still unappreciated, filmmaker. But then came The Shape of Water in 2017, which was just accessible enough to win Best Picture at the Oscars, but still found a way to stay true to del Toro’s signature vision and literal creature comforts.
The Shape of Water was the perfect del Toro film to break through, as it feels as if it is the most personal, a love letter to the creatures that del Toro holds close to his heart, the beings that live in the darkness, misunderstood and feared by the world. These freakish shadow-dwellers are del Toro’s muse, and they again take center stage in del Toro’s latest film, his first since The Shape of Water. Nightmare Alley is not only the perfect Guillermo del Toro film, but it proves that the director deserves to be in the same conversation with all the great artists working today, no matter the genre.
There is a whole lot of love in the new musical film Cyrano, directed by Joe Wright and starring Peter Dinklage, which seems quite appropriate for one of literature’s all-time classic love stories. Screenwriter Erica Schmidt, who adapted the screenplay from her own 2019 stage adaptation of the classic Edmond Rostand play, is married in real life to Dinklage, who played the title character in both the off-Broadway production and in the film, while director Joe Wright is married in real life to Haley Bennett, who plays Roxanne, the object of Cyrano’s affection. While all four artists are consummate professionals, there is no doubt that a certain amount of personal affection seeped in during this project, as the end result is a sumptuous, warm and truly heartfelt ode to love, a beautiful work of art made by artisans unafraid to explore their passions.
The setting is seventeenth-century Paris and Roxanne, a beautiful but poor noblewoman, has fallen in love with a man she sees across a crowded theatre. When she finds out that the man is Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a new cadet in the French army battalion stationed in the city, she calls upon her lifelong friend, Cyrano de Bergerac, who happens to be the leader of the battalion, and asks him to help bring them together, as she is certain Christian feels the same way. The request presents a real problem for Cyrano however, as he is secretly in love with Roxanne himself, never having had the courage to confess his feelings for her from fear of being rejected because he is a dwarf. While Cyrano makes up for his perceived shortcomings by being one of the most respected and admired soldiers and poets in the city, when it comes to Roxanne his confidence evaporates. But because he cannot ever deny a request from her, he agrees to help and promises that Christian will write to her. When Cyrano realizes that Christian is more capable with a sword than words, he offers to write the letters himself. Roxanne falls more and more in love with Christian with each poetic and beautiful letter and soon requests to meet face to face. When Christian fails mightily at living up to his/Cyrano’s letters in person, Cyrano comes up with a plan to have Christian woo Roxanne from below her balcony, where he can feed Christian the words to win her back. It works, and Roxanne and Christian’s romance blossoms. Meanwhile, the arrogant and disgusting Count de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn) has other plans, as he also is in love with Roxanne and will stop at nothing to keep Christian and her apart.
Because of COVID, I was totally expecting to be inundated with play adaptations—films with small casts, limited to a single location—and I was dreading it. Thankfully, though, the films that have followed that formula, films like Mass and The Humans, have been true treats nobody saw coming.
Although Mass wasn’t a play, The Humans was, and it works just as well on film that it must have on stage, and that’s saying a lot, considering the play won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2016. Stephen Karam not only wrote the play, but he also adapted the screenplay for the film and decided he’d be the best one to direct it as well. Even though he’d never directed before, A24 agreed and we should all be glad they did.
The Humans is a completely engaging, nearly mesmerizing one hour and forty-eight minutes spent with a family gathered together for Thanksgiving in a run-down walk-up apartment in Manhattan. The entire cast is excellent, particularly Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell (who reprises the Tony Award-winning role she played on Broadway), who traverse every emotional tightrope. But everyone is good, even Amy Schumer in her first dramatic film role, where she is surprisingly poignant, while still providing some much-needed comic relief.
But the star of the film is the production design, by David Gropman. It may seem cliché to say the apartment is a character in and of itself, but it absolutely is true here. The decaying apartment serves to amplify every emotional beat in this story, as the evening wears on and nerves get frayed and patience grows thin and conviviality starts to sour. This is a family at Thanksgiving, after all, so eventually all the warts will show, and the apartment reflects it perfectly, as it literally starts to fall apart all around them.
It is not too out of bounds to say the brilliant design and direction gradually make The Humans feel like a horror movie more than anything else, a psychological thriller that will hold you in its grasp until the very last door slams to black. But, in reality, it is just a family drama, no true horror here, but Karam’s magnificent staging, photography and design do a great job of making you feel just anxious and uncomfortable enough to realize that real life can be just as scary as anything you’ll ever see on screen.
While Oscar season is my favorite time of year, there is something that really bugs me about movies that feel as if they were made JUST for Oscar season. The Power of the Dog is one of those films. Director Jane Campion, who has made just four films since her breakout success of The Piano twenty-eight years ago, is a lot like Terrence Malick: they don’t make a lot of films, but, when they do, it’s treated as the second coming. It probably doesn’t help that I wasn’t a fan of The Piano, but I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to admire about The Power of the Dog, which is a lush, complex and brutally visceral story that features some incredible production values and performances. Campion adapted the screenplay from Thomas Savage’s novel (which I’m told is excellent), which is set in Montana in 1925 and focuses on two ranching brothers, Phil and George Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons. Despite having the same background, Phil and George could not be more different. Phil is cocky and abrasive, while George is introspective and sweet. Phil is a consummate bully, looking for any reason to belittle anyone he perceives as either inferior to him or some kind of a threat. So, when George takes a liking to Rose, a widow innkeeper, played by Kirsten Dunst, Phil takes the opportunity to mercilessly and cruelly tease her, along with her effeminate grown son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. As the story unfurls, we learn what’s behind Phil’s cruelty and find that Rose and Peter may not be as weak as Phil may believe.
There’s no escaping the fact that writer/director Benjamin Cleary’s debut film, Swan Song, feels very familiar. This “lo-fi sci-fi” film, set in the not-too-distant future, deals not with aliens and robots, but instead grapples with a much more subtle approach to how the advances of technology impact human lives, very reminiscent of several recent films and television shows, such as Black Mirror, Ex Machina and Devs. Where Cleary’s narrative diverges into its own territory, however, is in his approach to the subject. While most recent thoughtful sci-fi films have offered up cautionary tales, Cleary’s screenplay chooses to explore the emotional impact of technology on our lives much more than the physical. And while that makes it a much more significant theoretical experience, it unfortunately proves to be a slightly more tedious one as well.
Two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali plays Cameron, a happily married family man who seems to have it all. His wife, Poppy, played by Naomie Harris, is newly pregnant with their second child, and all is well. But what Cameron hasn’t told Poppy is that he’s dying and his oncologist has given him the name of a clinic that could offer him a unique opportunity to eliminate any of the pain for his family that would come from Cameron’s illness and death. After visiting the clinic, run by the enigmatic Dr. Scott (played by Glenn Close), Cameron has to make a decision that will affect his family’s life forever.
Fight movies are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, so to find a new way, a new approach to the genre is difficult and rare. Which makes it surprising that Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry would choose one to make her directorial debut with. She must have felt she had something unique to say, and, for the most part, she does come at the traditional fight movie from a new angle, but, unfortunately, the rest of it is still disappointingly standard.
Bruised is written by Michelle Rosenfarb and directed by Berry, who also stars as Jackie Justice, a former Mixed Martial Arts champion who was somehow disgraced at the end of her career, and is now cleaning toilets and living with her abusive boyfriend/manager, played by Adan Canto. Per standard genre rules, Jackie may be out of the ring—or octagon—but she still has the fire inside, so, when a promoter (Shamier Anderson) approaches her with a chance at a title fight with the current world champion, she decides to go for it. Because, of course she does. But Jackie has more to contend with than just preparing for her bout, as her estranged mother (Adriane Lenox) shows up on her doorstep with a six-year-old boy in tow (Danny Boyd, Jr.), Jackie’s son who had been living with his father, who has been suddenly killed, leaving the boy now in Jackie’s custody. Jackie has no clue how to be a mother and doesn’t know what to do with this boy, who is so traumatized by his father’s sudden death that he doesn’t speak and barely eats. Jackie must find a way to be a mother to her son, while at the same time prepare for the biggest fight of her life, one that might save her life or might just put her down for good.