Tag Archives: actors turned directors

TIFF20: One Night In Miami

One night in Miami, Cassius Clay, not yet Muhammad Ali, is celebrating his heavyweight world boxing title rather quietly, in a seedy motel room, with a few of his friends. This is a fictional account, the way screenwriter Kemp Powers (who adapts it from his own play) imagined it, of one remarkable night where four Black icons – Clay (Eli Goree), soul man Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), NFL star turned movie star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) got together and inevitably discussed their roles in the civil rights movement, what they did or did not owe their people, the cost of their success, and the general cultural upheaval of the 1960s.

Of course, Malcolm X’s idea of a good time is vanilla ice cream and a lecture. He wants and expects his friends to be weapons in the cause. His expectations are sky high and everyone around him invariable feel as though they aren’t measuring up. They were young, black, famous, and unapologetic, but they had one thing that Malcolm X felt they took for granted, that he wanted for all his people, not just a few lucky exceptions: power. Black power.

One Night In Miami does an exceptional job of putting us in the mind frame of Malcolm X shortly he was martyred for his cause. His idea of brotherhood was strong if unconventional, and he was willing to push the Black compatriots who were positioned to effect change just as much as he was challenging the white people invested in keeping them down. This was not the time for people to sit on the fence, he believed, not with Black folks dying in the street. And with so simple a phrase, screenwriter Powers reminds us how timely this movement still is, even 60 years later.

Regina King choose this as her feature-length directorial debut, and what a time and place for her to come out swinging. Making full use of Malcolm X’s last days and last words, she pins us to the moment while tethering us to the movement at large, to its consequences and to the work still to be done. King and company reframe was at the time attributed to “militance” to passion, urgency, and prescience.

Regina King describes her film as “a love letter to the Black man’s experience in America.” Four cultural icons who may not be living the average Black experience, but who are open and vulnerable with each other, expressing fears and concerns. Knowing her film had a valuable contribution to make in the current conversation, King pushed herself to get the film made despite this year’s many obstacles, and made history on Monday night as the first African American woman to have her film be selected by the Venice Film Festival, notorious for its lack of diversity and gender parity. Her film is pushing more than one needle in the right direction, and TIFF audiences should be grateful to participate.

Random Acts of Violence

Todd (Jesse Williams) writes a comic book inspired by a real-life serial killer known as Slasherman. The murders took place in and around the small town where Todd grew up and caught people’s interest because of their brutal and seemingly random nature. The killer was never caught but Todd has made him the hero of his graphic novels. Slasherman doesn’t just kill, his murder scenes are the canvas to a very bloody work of art.

The Slasherman comic books are coming to an end. Todd’s publisher Ezra (Jay Baruchel) has arranged for a little book tour of sorts, through small town Americana, where Todd can draw inspiration and push through the writer’s blog that’s plaguing his last issue. Joining them on the road is his assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) and his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster). Kathy’s got a mission of her own. She’s interviewing anyone with ties to Slasherman’s actual victims. She’s worried that Todd’s work fetishizes horrific crime and glorifies the perpetrator. She wants to keep the victims in people’s memories, but to Todd, and from the story-teller’s perspective, the victims’ stories are finished but Slasherman lives on. As you can imagine, it’s a point of contention between them.

But ethical debates are soon going to fall by the wayside because this little press tour is going to attract more attention than they’d planned for. Someone is committing the exact same murders Todd has illustrated in his book. Shit’s about to get real, boiiiiii.

Jay Baruchel turns director for this film (he cowrote it as well, with Jesse Chabot, based on the comic by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray) and clearly has a handle on what a slasher flick should be. He plays around with colour in an interesting way, he fleetingly touches on themes like our fascination with anti-heros and whether they legitimize violence, but ultimately, it styles itself a horror film and it delivers the goods: dread and gore.

This is a movie based on a comic book about a guy who writes a comic book about a serial killer protagonist who then gets stalked by a serial killer himself. There are so many levels of meta it’s best not to do the math. It wants to say something about the implications of consuming graphic violence while also presenting graphic violence. It has a brain, but most of all it has guts. Guts galore. The violence may or may not be random, but it is brutal and it is varied. Enjoy.

Arkansas

Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clark Duke, who also directs) are bottom-tier drug dealers who are glad to be promoted to wholesale distribution by their kingpin (a man they’ve never met).  They are on their way to their first wholesale dropoff when they’re suddenly rerouted by Ranger Bright (John Malkovich) to his trailer park in Arkansas.  Bright also works for the same kingpin, who apparently has reconsidered Kyle and Swin’s promotions.  Kyle and Swin try to settle into the Arkansas chapter of this drug ring, but things soon go sideways when a rival lowlife follows them back to the trailer park after their first drop-off, and his robbery attempt leaves two people dead.

arkansasVince Vaughn and Vivica A. Fox also make appearances in Arkansas as Kyle and Swin make enemies at every turn.  The saddest part is that their attempts to lay low end up creating, then escalating, a conflict between them and Frog, who can’t figure out whether the two are trying to steal from him or whether they are completely inept.  As with most things, the answer ends up being a bit of both.

For the most part, Arkansas is a character study, which is highly problematic when the lesser Hemsworth is your lead.  Liam’s brother Chris clearly got all the family’s charisma, and Kyle’s only observable character trait is an unexplained limp.  All in all, there’s really nothing coming from Hemsworth to keep the viewer interested.  Swin is not worse but he’s hardly better, as he remains a complete mystery through to the end, leaving Hemsworth to carry most of the load.

Casting better lead actors may not have saved this one, because the film’s ending is a jumbled mess as all those left standing must fight for control of Frog’s drug ring.  But with better leads, Arkansas would at least have been a more interesting journey.  As it stands, Arkansas is a boring film with no real payoff.  I would much rather have followed the supporting characters’  stories (especially Ranger Bright) than have to spend so much (or really, any) time with Kyle and Swin.

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Old Bosley (Patrick Stewart) out, new Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) in; turns out, Bosley wasn’t a name, it was a rank.

Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Elena (Naomi Scott) are fellow Angels and kind of frenemies but not only are they going to need to get along for this next mission, they’ll also be training a newbie on the fly as mild-mannered, law-abiding layperson Jane (Ella Balinska) gets swept up into the fray.

Jane is a systems engineer who blows the whistle on a piece of tech that sounds revolutionary and life-changing but also dangerous and possibly weaponized. So of course the Angels are called upon to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, and believe me, several grubby, evil little hands are doing the “gimme gimme” gesture in its direction. The Angels are willing to risk their lives to save us all, but they more they uncover the more their own agency seems compromised and nobody knows who to trust.

The movie got off to a rocky start for me because it was a little too “girl power!” And obviously I’m all about strong, capable women but let’s just show rather than tell. We don’t always need banners and slogans. But the movie seemed to get that stuff out of the way pretty early on, and then we hurtle through action sequences like it’s against the law to slow down.

The movie isn’t as bad as you likely heard from early reviews, but it never quite manages to be all that you want it to be either. If you’re remaking this particular movie in 2019, maybe make it subversive? Maybe challenge the status quo? Definitely justify its existence by updating some of the more dated concepts and definitely, definitely have fun with it. That’s its biggest problem: a lack of identity. It’s never really sure where on the spectrum of action movies it wants to fall and it never dazzles us with any distinguishing features. When the Angels’ closets are revealed, containing a to-die-for wardrobe, heavy weaponry, and a plethora of beautiful bobbles and accessories all hiding James Bond-type gadgets, there’s no zeal. I wanted pageantry. I wanted at least as much fun as the boys in the Kingsman movies, combined with the snappy chemistry between Melissa McCarthy and Miranda Hart in Spy.

Kirsten Stewart appears to enjoy showing off but otherwise there’s little fizz on the screen. It feels like work for them, and indeed I admit that I don’t appear to be having fun at my job either, and it would also make for a rather boring movie. But if you’re bothering to make this a movie, then I want glamour and I want fun. I want you to either embrace the silliness and really go for it, or I want you to skewer the concept and serve it on a silver platter with so much garnish I don’t know what to do with it. I do not want you to take the well-traveled, extremely trampled middle path of been there, done that.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

There’s flooding in Mozambique, and when the rains finally come in Malawi, they come heavy. The farmers have been struggling for years, unable to cope after the big tobacco farms went elsewhere. The wealthy estates take advantage, offering a lump sum in exchange for the lumber on their lands. Cash-strapped, many are tempted, but the village chief warns that these trees are they only resource they have to protect from serious flooding.

William (Maxwell Simba) must drop out of school when his family’s money runs out. The harvest is poorer than anyone predicted; his father Trywell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) manages less than 70 ears of corn, and that’s all the family will have for the entire dry season. The government denies a food shortage but hunger makes people do bad things. Whole villages are starving.

William thinks he can generate power by building a windmill that would operate a water pump, extending the growing season, but to do so he’d need to sacrifice the family’s only possession, a bicycle. Trywell refuses. You might guess from the title that William will prevail. And if a movie is willing to spoil itself right in the title, then you know it’s about the journey, not the destination.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is about hunger. Not just an empty belly, but a need for something, a strong desire. And that kind of hunger can be very motivating. But a child surpassing his parent is hard on both.

Chiwetel Ejiofor directs himself in the film; he bought the rights to the book after reading it and set to learning Chichewa, the Malawi dialect spoken in the film. He shot it on location in Malawi, helping to bring authenticity and context to a true story. Farming is getting harder for everyone, everywhere. Global warming makes weather unpredictable, too wet, too dry. In Africa, where so many have so little, there is little margin of error. A thirteen year old boy saved his village from famine by cobbling together a wind generator built out of garbage. He was self-taught from books he wasn’t technically allowed to read, not having paid his school fees. He makes it look easy, but for him, it was simply and urgently necessary. This impressing directorial debut from Ejiofor communicates both the hope and the despair, but above all, ingenuity.

 

Matilda

Matilda is a precocious little girl who just doesn’t fit in with her family. Her father’s a crook, her mother’s a bingo hound, and her brother is a bully and a dullard. Six year old Matilda is mostly left to her own devices, which is probably for the best. She devours books from the local library but isn’t sent to school until the elementary school’s principal buys a lemon from her sleazy salesman father and her fate is sealed. Now poor Matilda’s got three adults on her case: her buffoon of a father (Danny DeVito), her flighty mother (Rhea Perlman), and the horrid Mz. Trunchbull (Pam Ferris).

It turns out Principal Trunchbull doesn’t just terrorize the students at her school, but the teachers too, and Matilda’s sainted teacher Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz) in particular because it turns out Trunchbully is also the mean old aunt who raised her. So Miss Honey and Matilda have loads in common, aside from the fact that they both read at the same level. They’re both looking to replace the misfit families they were born into.

As a story for children, Matilda is a bit of a weird one. It turns out that Matilda has special powers that come in handy when an adult in her life treats her unfairly. And objectively, the adults in her life are deserving of her scorn, but they’re wildly drawn caricatures, sadists and criminals. I suppose Roald Dhal wanted to acknowledge that sometimes children feel powerless and small and Matilda gets to confront this imbalance in a way that most little kids never will. They’ll simply wait to grow up and hopefully do it to their own kids one day. Such is life. Matilda gets to exact her revenge now, and it’s exactly the kind of revenge a 6 year old would think up.

Danny DeVito directs this little ensemble and though the effects have aged incredibly poorly, it must be said that the casting of Mara Wilson as the eponymous star was a stroke of genius. She is believable as a little know it all but somehow always sweet, never obnoxious. She never seems like a brat. She’s the kind of kid you might just want to scoop up and take home – so it’s almost understandable when the lovely Miss Honey does just that. Okay, not really. In real life I think it’s much harder to adopt a kid who has two living parents. But in the movie, both Matilda and Miss Honey get their happy ending, and it’s hard to argue that.

However, it’s easier to argue other things. Like when Miss Honey confides in Matilda that her father’s suicide was actually probably murder, and Principal Trunchbull the murderer. Which is a weird thing to unload on a kid. And to not share with the authorities for decades. But Miss Honey isn’t exactly the angelic teacher we’re led to believe she is. She rather passively stands by and watches her wee tiny students get abused on a regular basis. She actually seems a bit like an idiot. But who’s counting?

Light Of My Life

A man known only to us as Dad (Casey Affleck) is camping deep in the forest with his young daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky). Only it turns out they’re not so much “camping” as “hiding” and “surviving.” They’ve been doing it for so long that Rag, who’s about 10, has never really known other people. Their lives depend on escape plans and emergency contingencies; their home consists of whatever of their campsite they were able to shove into a sack before fleeing. Dad is paranoid about everyone. They take no chances.

Is this another Leave No Trace? Sort of. But with a bit of Bird Box mixed in. A “female plague” has decimated the female population, leaving the country in ruins. Rag is one of only few girls left, and her father is desperate to keep the secret. I could easily imagine the intense pressure of safe-guarding what is most precious to him. We are never without a sense of dread. It’s actually a bit difficult to watch because the tension is enormous – we are always anticipating the next threat around the corner, even when their lives are quite peaceable.

Written and directed by Affleck, he’s awfully fond of really long scenes in which he tells rambling, long-winded stories. Sean had more patience for this than I did. I preferred exploring the unique bond that crops up between father and daughter when they have no one else in the whole world, and what it does to a kid to grow up with such vague but serious threats: everyone is the enemy, even if she’s not yet old enough to understand what these “bad men” want with her. Her innocence rubs up against our own understanding of the hostility toward her. It’s an agonizing watch, really, brutal and brilliant, a dismaying test of ethics.

Phil

Phil (Greg Kinnear) is a depressed dentist who becomes obsessed with his patient Michael (Bradley Whitford) who seems to have it all. Chasing the secret to happiness, Phil more or less stalks the guy and his perfect family. Phil’s as surprised as anyone when Michael suddenly, and seemingly inexplicably, commits suicide. If the guy who has everything takes his life, where does that leave guys like Phil who most decidedly do not?

If you answered black-out drunk on Michael’s grave, you answered right! That’s where Michael’s widow Alicia (Emily Mortimer) finds him the next morning, hung over with a face full of dirt. But it does not account for why Phil decides on the spot to impersonate Michael’s long-lost Greek friend Spiros as a way of ingratiating himself into the grieving family. Before you know it, he’s renovating their bathroom while digging through Michael’s belongings trying to answer the age old question WHY?

I get it. Suicide is one of those tricky things, like cancer, that leave us feeling vulnerable. We want to know why so that we can feel safe. If someone got cancer because they smoke, we feel relieved because we ourselves are not smokers. Bullet dodged. If someone commits suicide because they have huge gambling debts, lucky us again, because we aren’t gamblers. Phew. We need these tangible markers to help us feel insulated from these scary possibilities. When a vegetarian marathon runner gets cancer, well, that reminds us how random it can all be. And when someone who lives a good life ends it – well, don’t we all sleep a little worse at night wondering why?

Both Phil and Michael’s widow Alicia would like to understand Michael’s motivations, but the truth is, those aren’t always knowable. Mental health is complicated and the things that make one person feel hopeless and helpless don’t always translate. Is better, then, to have each other – even if one of them is not who they claim?

Greg Kinnear stars and directs himself in Phil, a very dark comedy that doesn’t work more often than it does. And it’s not just the tricky subject matter, though it’s difficult to feel good about watching one man find the meaning in his life because of another man’s suicide. Doesn’t quite feel right. Or maybe it’s just not pushed far enough to be convincing. It’s obviously got dark undertones but Greg Kinnear often pushes the goofy side, and those two things don’t always pair well. The script is clunky and the direction doesn’t help – even the performances struggle to rise above. Phil is fine, a mild disappointment I suppose. There’s worse to watch but better too, so I suggest you scroll a little further before clicking on this one.

Benjamin

This intervention is classy as fuck. I mean, how often do you see hors d’oeuvres at these things?

Ed (Bob Saget) smelled crystal meth through his teenage son’s door and panicked. He has assembled what can only be described as a rag-tag game of misfits to confront his son and force him into rehab…IF he has a problem, which Ed is still loathe to admit. Aunt Clarice (Chery Oteri) and Uncle Mitch (Dave Foley) haven’t seen him since he was a baby. Ed’s BBF, a doctor also named Ed (Rob Corddry) will lead the way despite the fact that he’s an OB-GYN. Jeanette (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is running the whole thing, though she prefers to emphasize her girlfriend part of her credentials rather than assistant. Benjamin’s sister Amber brings a date, and a spare, and is mostly there to antagonize her father. It is unclear who put together the guest list, but the guest list was their first mistake. It was not their last.

Long story short: these people may be bigger fuckups than the kid they’re intervening, and without any moral superiority, it’s hard to sustain authority. Ya know?

Bob Saget is not a good enough actor to be allowed to direct himself (and yet here we are). I’m not saying he’s the worst part of this but…he is. He totally is. And there are a LOT of broken parts. Danny Tanner would have done a better job and – dare I say it – he would have been less corny. Saget might have one of the most recognizable faces on the shoddiest piece of work: total amateur hour. How was Full House his prime? How on earth do you go downhill from America’s Funniest Home Videos? Benjamin styles itself as a dark comedy but you know what’s problematic about that? I didn’t hear anyone laughing.

TIFF19: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn looks a lot cooler than it is. Gosh it pains me to say that. I really wanted Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn to be great, and it isn’t bad, but it doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private detective who works for friend and boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who’s into something deeper than he should be. Lionel doesn’t know what, but when Frank winds up dead on his watch, you can be sure he’s going to find the fuck out.

Lionel, with his tics and Tourette’s, is not your typical P.I. – it’s hard for him to really stay under the radar when he’s yelling out rude things. But he does good work, and he’s very motivated to do right by his friend. Following the clues leads him to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and to exactly where these things always lead: dirty politicians. Is there any other kind?

Anyway, the movie is a send-up to ye olde film noir of yesteryear, when men wore trenchcoats with deep pockets stuffed with revolvers and fedoras worn specifically so they could be doffed each time a dame walked into the office, though you could barely see her through the yellowed fog of cigarette smoke. The detective was haunted by his past, of course, possibly by a dame he didn’t save in time, but he was stoic, never talked about it much. Just fingered his gun and smoked some more. Motherless Brooklyn puts a slight spin on things by introducing a detective who can’t shut up. And gives him a dame who is, and I’ll whisper this part: not white.

The film is so meticulously put together that sometimes it feels more like a history lesson than gumshoe caper; the diorama of NYC is gritty and seedy, so lovingly rendered that it doubtless earns its A+ but also serves as a distraction in an already bloated movie. And the maddening thing about Motherless Brooklyn is the performances are roundly very good, engaging and solid. But when you throw in the period setting and the metaphors and the big moods and Norton’s search for political relevance, something is bound to get lost. And clocking in at 2.5 hours, that’s a long time to devote your attention to each of the film’s moving parts, especially when things don’t quite add up to what they’ve promised. I also, if I may, think this was a missed opportunity to shoot in black and white. I mean, go all in if you’re gonna go all in. The actual result is a bit of a mixed bag. I think the good outweighs the bad, but at 144 minutes, I think there was opportunity to excise some of the bad completely, but no one has the courage to really wield the knife.