Drama

REVIEW: Hamilton

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 160 minutes
Director: Thomas Kail

Hamilton is particularly challenging to review as a film since it wasn’t made as a traditional movie, instead being a filmed stage production. If I had to nit pick one thing, it would be that because this ultimately is a staged performance, the cinematography was not the same as it would be an actual movie. They had to make up for the fact that we’ve lost the ability to see the entire stage at once like we would if we were actually attending the Broadway performance. So, in some cases where they could’ve used a more cinematically pleasing shot, they cut to different angles so we could see a different perspective (I’m specifically thinking of the “rewind scene” from “Satisfied”). This is not inherently bad, since if we were a part of the actual audience, our attention would be focused on different things at different times. However, it doesn’t quite translate over to a film as well. But overall, the cinematography is the best we could’ve hoped for from a musical of this caliber.

Another thing that limited Hamilton was its choice of provider–Disney+. Lin-Manuel Miranda clarified on his Twitter account that in order for Hamilton to keep a PG-13 rating, its three “F-bombs” would have to be censored. While it is understandable (Lin wanted audiences of all ages to be able to enjoy the historically based musical) I personally felt like they should’ve left it uncensored and left Hamitlon unrated. It’s a filmed stage production after all, it shouldn’t be subject to the same weird standards that the MPAA places on normal movies. However, I respect Lin’s and Disney’s choice on the matter.

I have been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for five years now, and I was ready to see the context in which the musical existed and I was blown away by all the performances. The advantage of filming the live production has given us the ability to see all the subtle emotions playing on the actors’ faces. Seeing the fear, anger, disgust, heartbreak, and tenderness made the musical all the more emotionally engaging. Seeing Daveed Diggs bounce around the stage as Lafayette/Jefferson left me grinning from ear to ear. I was particularly surprised by Leslie Odom Jr.’s subtle performance. For nearly the whole musical he kept this fake smile on his face (reflecting Burr’s “talk less, smile more” philosophy), but near the end of the final act it dropped to reveal the buried rage within. Truly a powerful performance.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and others member of the Hamilton cast perform on stage | Walt Disney Studios.

I was also stunned by how good everyone sounded. I’ve listened to the Original Cast Recording so much I’ve lost count, and I expected it to be the gold standard for the performances. However, I think the live singing was even better! My jaw actually dropped during “One Last Time” and “Satisfied” from the immense power of the vocals. Every solo was like this, so beautiful and powerful and emotional. I was also really surprised by the way Lin handled being the weakest link vocally. (Mind you, he actually held his own in his duet with Leslie in “Dear Theodosia”) Even though he’s not the best vocalist/singer, he portrays his singing with such earnesty and emotion that it overshadows his weaknesses. Honestly, all the cast were absolutely fantastic. Everyone was so good! 

RELATED:

Who Tells Your Story: The Legacy of Hamilton

Hamilton the movie is everything I wanted from the filmed stage production and more. As getting Hamilton tickets is a struggle, along with the pandemic affecting theaters across the country, this is the closest thing to actually seeing the live show as many people are going to get. Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a masterpiece, and I am so glad he’s sharing it with us.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Truth

Le Pacte
Rated: PG
Run Time: 106 minutes
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

One of the great things about Parasite winning best picture is it has inspired moviegoers to dive into the filmographies of great international filmmakers, like Parasite’s director Bong Joon Ho; a director that hopefully doesn’t get missed in this movement is Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. His filmography is truly exceptional with such wonderful films as 2018’s Shoplifters, 2015’s Our Little Sister, and 2008’s Still Walking. His films have a humanity to them that leave you with a sense of hope and connection. It also always feels like he has an affection for his characters and by his understanding them we, as viewers, feel more understood. In Kore-eda’s latest film The Truth he is branching out beyond his native Japan to France, making a simple film about a family that anyone can relate to.

The Truth has an excellent cast, led by the great French actor Catherine Deneuve. She plays Fabienne, a star of French cinema who has recently published her memoir which—to her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche)—is full of half-truths and falsehoods. Lumir comes to France with her working American-actor-husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), who is content with the simple pleasures of life. He does not care about the fact his life does not have the gravitas held in Fabienne’s memories—mostly left out of the memoir and oftentimes quite painful. He’s happy just to eat good food, spend time with his daughter, and act occasionally.

That’s the crux of the movie. What is a happy life? And what in our memories is the truth? Is Lumir’s version true? Is Fabienne’s? What does ambition get you? It’s interesting because The Truth as a movie doesn’t have a ton of plot. It’s the kind of film some people will find boring, but not yours truly. I liked spending time with these characters. It reminded me of lazy weekends with my own family (big personalities and memories included)!

Juliette Binoche, Clémentine Grenier and Ethan Hawke in a scene of The Truth | Le Pacte.

Fabienne is also acting in a film called Memories of My Mother, about a woman who goes to space when she finds out she only has two years to live because “nobody grows old out there.” As Fabienne reads for the role (including one great scene with Hawke), she is forced to contemplate her own memories even more; in particular her own relationship with her daughter as she deals with her daughter in the film (played by Manon Clavel).

The Truth will not be for everyone. It’s a movie of simple pleasures. Again, if you like spending time with a family and contemplating the bigger questions of life then it will be for you. If that sounds like a super snooze then it won’t. I don’t know if it has quite the emotion of Kore-eda’s great films. It does feel a little easy to digest at times, but I still really enjoyed it. At times it reminded me of the Before Sunrise movies that are also about the ins and outs of a relationship or family group and seeing how everything turns out. I’d be interested to see how this family turns out just like we have been able to do in the Before Sunrise movies. Movies like The Truth make me want to try harder with my own family; and in this crazy world of coronavirus and panic, that’s pretty special.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

8 out of 10

REVIEW: Feel the Beat

NETFLIX
Rated: G
Run Time: 107 minutes
Director: Elissa Down

Feel the Beat is a Netflix original movie directed by Elissa Down about a small town dance company that rises to a national level thanks to the tutelage of a disgraced Broadway dancer. I initially found out about this movie through the Ai-Media page on Facebook—a page celebrating Deaf culture and Sign Language. Shaylee Mansfield is a young, deaf actress who stars in this film playing a deaf character using American Sign Language. As I am Hard of Hearing myself, I will jump at the chance to see almost any film celebrating sign language and deaf characters. What I found is one of the best feel-good family films I’ve seen in a long time. 

My Quibbles

As (almost) no film is perfect, there was one thing about the movie that I had a slight quibble over: the plot is extremely formulaic. It suffers from what some have called the “Cars phenomenon.” It’s a movie about a successful jerk who goes to a small town and rediscovers their love for humanity and rekindles their passion. It’s the kind of movie that if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly how the movie is going to pan out. However, despite being that type of movie, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of it too much.

What I Liked

Like I said in another review, representation in media is super important and will elevate any film when done properly. Sadly, most films end with simply having a POC (person of color), woman, or disabled character in them without doing the proper writing and character development to make the character’s inclusion valuable. Or the film’s creators will parade their progressiveness months before the film’s actual release. Most of the time in that case, those characters get very minimal screen time, hardly worth the positive PR that the studios try to gain.

Sofia Carson instructs dancers in a scene of Feel the Beat | Netflix | Photo credit: Ian Watson.

Incredibly, Feel the Beat manages to check almost all of the diversity boxes without feeling forced at all: the main character is a woman of color; her roommate is a gay Black man. Among the group of young dancers there is a Black girl, a chubby girl, a deaf girl, and a young boy, and not once did I feel like the movie was shoving itself in my face yelling, “See how progressive we are!” Every character felt like they naturally belonged in the narrative. Rather than elevating one demographic above the other to showcase it, the movie allows the characters to exist with each other, creating a more realistic world. I also have a soft spot for any deaf representation in media, so this was a huge plus for me. (Fun fact: the movie is called Feel the Beat because that’s how a lot of deaf people enjoy music, by feeling the vibrations.)

Although the plot is simplistic and predictable, the film actually incorporates a lot of really good messages that I think a lot of young people should be hearing. It shows the hard work the dancers have to do in order to achieve the level of excellence that they do by the end of the movie. They have to be dedicated, hard working, and have a passion for what they do. 

It also shatters gender stereotypes as a young boy eventually joins the dance team and becomes one of its showcase members. The message that boys can participate in “girly things” like dance is a message that young children need to hear. It helps children become more rounded and enjoy many more different kinds of experiences in life.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how many good child actors there were in this movie. They portrayed all the emotional scenes with such sincerity that it was hard not to feel for them. I totally bought all of their performances.

Sofia Carson performs a dance routine in Feel the Beat | Netflix.

And let’s talk about the dancing in this film—HOLY COW. I was so impressed by how well done the choreography was, not to mention how impressive the children were dancing. It took some real dedication for them to be able to perform all the dances. They were even doing the Dirty Dancing lift and absolutely nailing it! All in all, there were some incredible performances.

Final Thoughts

Feel the Beat may be a predictable movie, but it’s jam-packed with healthy diversity and representation, great dancing and performances, and good messages for young children. With all of the mindless family movies that are being churned out these days, Feel the Beat is easily one of the best family films of the past few years.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 154 minutes
Director: Spike Lee

Da 5 Bloods is a war drama film directed and produced by Spike Lee. The film stars Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, and Chadwick Boseman. The film follows a group of aging Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam in search of treasure they buried while stationed there. Otis (Peters), Paul (Lindo), Melvin (Whitlock) and Eddie (Lewis) journey through Vietnam to retrieve their squad commander’s (Boseman) remains for a proper military burial.

Spike Lee is known as one of Hollywood’s best storytellers and his films are typically referred to as “Spike Lee Joints.” Lee received a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University in 1983, and his first feature-film, She’s Gotta Have It was released three years later. Over the course of his career Lee has directed 23 films and only 6 of them were not written by him. He has also starred in ten of them. His most famous works are She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), 25th Hour (2002), Inside Man (2006), Chi-Raq (2015), and BlacKkKlansman (2018). In addition to his filmography, Lee has directed a number of music videos by artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Eminem. His work has won him numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Student Academy Award, a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, two Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and the Cannes Grand Prix. Also interestingly, prior to Da 5 Bloods, Inside Man is his biggest box office hit, and BlacKkKlansman is the only film for which he has won an Academy Award. His films have explored race relations, colorism in the black community, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other social and political issues.

(From left to right) Director Spike Lee, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX. Photo credit: David Lee.

The Story & Direction

As with many “Spike Lee Joints,” Lee is able to explore his themes and messages in a very compelling way. In Da 5 Bloods he is able to mix a fictional story with real-life imagery flawlessly. One of the most obvious allegories is how this film shows the duality of how war in general deals with the Black community. These men go fight for the United States against an enemy that did nothing directly to them. Then when they return to their home country, they are treated as secondary citizens. This idea can be applied to almost all veterans in general, but it is especially evident toward the Black community. The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964 and American intervention in the war started only a year later. The country had just started to recognize that discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was wrong. Even now, there are still problems in our country involving civil rights—not just people of color, but also women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, different religious groups, and people from different countries.

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DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

The current social climate adds to Lee’s (mostly) engaging and thought-provoking film. The film highlights the disproportionate nature of the African American sacrifice in Vietnam; African Americans suffered disproportionately high casualty rates in Vietnam. In 1965 alone, they comprised 14.1% of total combat deaths when they were 11% of the total U.S. population at the time (1). Furthermore in 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara initiated ‘Project 100,000’ which further lowered military standards which he said would provide valuable training, skills, and opportunity to America’s poor. This allowed many Black men who had previously been ineligible to be drafted along with many poor and racially intolerant white men from the US South. This led to increased racial tension in the military (2). Out of all of the newly eligible draftees, 41% were black. Blacks often made up a disproportionate 25% or more of combat units, while constituting only 12% of the military. 20% of black males were combat soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. At the end of the war, black casualties averaged 12.5% of US combat deaths (1).

The film also feeds into issues of Black patriotism, inequality, and justice. In one flashback, in the Vietnamese jungle, the five comrades learn of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They also learn of the rioting back home in response to MLK’s death and the brutal government response to the riots. The broadcaster then asks, “Why you fight against us so far away from where you are needed?” to which Lee overplays footage of the 1968 riots that look unfortunately similar to the past few weeks. The film is partially an attempt to reclaim the Vietnam War historical narrative, but it’s also a terrific heist drama. As the story reaches the completion of getting the gold, the film is only halfway. This makes the second half almost uncertain. Along the journey, there is some great cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and the audience gets to know “Da 5 Bloods.”

Cast members in a scene of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX.

The Characters

This film has some amazing performances by the cast: the typical jester in Otis; grounded medic, Eddie; and the character, Paul, who is still haunted by his experience. They are also joined by Paul’s son, David. Lee is able to show this squad having a camaraderie that only occurs between brothers. The film starts off very similar to films like The Best Man (1999), Bridesmaids (2011), Last Vegas (2013), Going in Style (2017), and Girls Trip (2017)—this genre of films that have a bunch of friends getting back together to do one last big event. Whether you like that genre of film or not, one thing that they always have is chemistry between the stars. This adds an authentic feeling to them, and this film is no different in that aspect. All of the actors have chemistry with each other which makes each scene enjoyable. The standout is Lindo’s character who deals with guilt, greed, and PTSD. Lindo provides one of the best performances of the year so far, and his anti-hero never becomes cliche.

Lindo’s character, Paul, represents how so many veterans suffer from mental health issues after returning home from war. The film says people need counseling which some veterans can get and some cannot. It is said early on in the film that Paul doesn’t have a lot of money, so it is possible he cannot afford it. He is shown to be very proud, so even if he had money, he probably wouldn’t admit that he needed it. Plus, the older generation as a whole do not embrace therapy, especially minority populations (3). Lindo gives this character a very special performance. It’s very touching to see his friends rally around him when he is struggling. When his PTSD panic attack hits he thinks he’s all alone and that none of his friends will understand. This isn’t the case; they all have the same struggles and are in this together, adding to the realism of their brotherhood. The other actors are good, but Lindo definitely outshines them. The notion of Black servicemen fighting overseas for a country that disenfranchised them isn’t new but the way this film approaches it feels fresh. Boseman is not in the film too much but his charisma still finds a way to show itself.  His last scene in the film is very emotional and powerful. There’s also a small subplot dealing with one of the men and a local Vietnamese woman that touches on the many Amerasian children left behind in Vietnam after the war.

The Flaws

Unfortunately, some of the characters do feel awkward as not much is given to their backstory aside from a few one-liners here and there. Boseman isn’t in the film that much even though he has been shown to be a really good actor, e.g. 42 (2013), Get On Up (2014), and Marshall (2017). This is not to say his acting is poor in any way; in fact, it is really good, but his ability sadly feels wasted. He has proven to be a starring actor. Additionally, Lee’s writing has a lot going on in this film that does not use it’s 2.5 hour run time efficiently. He could have cut a few scenes here and there to make the story feel more fluid. The film’s pacing has some problems at the beginning that can feel rushed; the film switches that up and then slows down. The editing is also choppy at times and is very noticeable. There also appears to be no age disparity between the flashbacks and “present” day. Some of the actors look the exact same and also the “camera” footage that one of the characters was filming seemed very dated in comparison to the time period the film takes place in. (Maybe that’s the only working tech they have?) It’s never explained, though it is a cool aesthetic. One potential flaw for people could be how obvious Lee’s political views are in this film, which makes sense as he has always been outspoken on that matter.

Overall

Even with the odd pacing and not always efficient storytelling, this film has a good message that it is trying to get across. Spike Lee is one of the few directors that is able to tackle messages in both good and bad ways. In films like Da 5 Bloods, he is able do it with a great amount of brilliance. This film is extremely thrilling at times, and uses genre cliches in unique ways to reclaim a historical narrative. It works on pretty much every level. It will work as a conversation piece, an action movie, and a comedy. It gives the audience superb performances, especially by Lindo, and is able to bring back Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as one of the best anti-war songs of all time. Spike Lee has made a movie that not only speaks about the past but also feel very relevant for today. Even if the obvious political opinions are taken out, Da 5 Bloods is one of the best movies of the year and is definitely recommendable to anyone.

Citations:

  1. Westheider, James E. Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War; New York University Press; 1997; pp. 11–16
  2. Appy, Christian. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers & Vietnam. University of North Carolina Press; 2003; pp. 31–33.
  3. Murry, V.M., Heflinger, C.A., Suiter, S.V. et al. Examining Perceptions About Mental Health Care and Help-Seeking Among Rural African American Families of Adolescents. J Youth Adolescence 40, 1118–1131 (2011).

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: My Hindu Friend

Rock Salt Releasing
Rated: Unrated
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Hector Babenco

My Hindu Friend is Brazilian drama film, directed and written by Hector Babenco, starring Willem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Bárbara Paz, Selton Mello and Reynaldo Gianecchini.

This film was made back in 2015, but due to the director’s passing directly after the premiere, it is only now being released this year. The reason why is likely due to the film being based on the director’s personal experiences. His stand-in character is Diego played by Dafoe who is diagnosed with cancer. While he is hospitalized, he meets and befriends another patient, a Hindu 8-year-old boy who is also battling his own sickness.

Brazilian filmmaker Babenco directed many films over the course of 40+ years. His most famous film is Kiss of the Spider Woman for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director—the first Latin American to be nominated in that category. This film is meant to be his swan song, and for that this film is fairly poetic. The film documents his real-life battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and his subsequent bone marrow transplant.

The Characters

At the beginning of the movie, Diego learns that his cancer has spread to his lungs and his doctor advises that he gets a bone marrow transplant. Undoubtedly, the shared sentiment with most cancer patients, Diego wants to live. The film then becomes an autobiographical series of snapshots including a wedding between Diego and his supporting partner, Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido). The film then goes through every grueling step of treating Diego’s cancer: chemotherapy, removal of bone marrow samples, comatose nights that include visions of a mysterious otherworldly character. In an extremely meta way, Diego lets his passion for cinema and his friendship with the young Hindu boy (Rio Adlakha) give him a reason to live again, but it ends up being more difficult than he thought.

Willem Dafoe and Maria Fernanda Cândido in a scene of My Hindu Friend | Rock Salt Releasing.

Dafoe as Diego is mesmerizing as he is able to make the audience care for him and hate him at the same time. Diego is indifferent to the world and is miserable to his wife. He constantly accuses her of having affairs but expects her to be there for him when he can’t handle the pain anymore; however, because of the circumstances and Dafoe’s brilliant acting, audience members never hate him too much. Viewers understand that he’s in mortal fear of his life and he’s angry. Each scene feels very natural and realistic, and any viewer can feel the despair happening in this movie. Candido, as his dutiful partner, is also quite good, and her character’s relationship with Diego is the powerhouse point of the film.

The Flaws

The film really struggles with its balance between the serious aspects and outrageous aspects; the latter can really affect the viewing experience as they are so odd that they feel completely different from the prior scenes. They are there to be Diego’s hallucinations, but the transitions between them and real life feel really abrupt. The title of the film feels a little off since the interactions between Diego and the little Hindu boy are limited in comparison to those outside of the hospital. This may have been purposefully done; however, given the amount of hallucinations and the title of the film, it is not too clear on why it was done. The film does drag on a little bit which may dissuade some viewers.

Willem Dafoe in a scene of My Hindu Friend | Rock Salt Releasing.

Overall

It is fairly interesting to see how this film essentially had Babenco analyzing himself and (given this film is his last) it ends up giving more sympathy to the man’s career. The beauty of this film is in the small moments of this procedure where the audience gets to see the feelings of the characters. That is where Dafoe is perhaps at his best. This is another film in his resume that shows he is one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated actors. This film may not be perfect and it is odd at times but it is very touching when it tackles themes of mortality and rediscovering life. This film is definitely worth checking out as it is a rather surreal experience that allows the viewer to see how Babenco confronts death. It is now on Amazon Prime.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: True History of the Kelly Gang

IFC Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Justin Kurzel

When a film titled True History begins by telling you that nothing you’re about to see is true, you brace yourself for what comes next. Ned Kelly, the infamous bushranger and Australian legend, apparently said that a man should write his own history and thus the True History of the Kelly Gang was born.

Adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name, True History is faithful in the intent to explore Ned Kelly’s life and the personal and political motivations that inspired his defiance to British colonialism. The approach of both projects is what separates myth from reality. Director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed) bathes this film in ugliness, and cinematographer Ari Wegner juxtaposes what transpires on screen with beautiful color and dream-like landscapes that can only be provided by the Australian wilderness. Combine those visuals with an almost UK punk aesthetic and you get a movie that’s as divisive as its subject matter. Think Guy Ritchie by way of The Revenant.

There were many moments I failed to understand the significance of what I was seeing. I don’t know Australian history, though a few minutes on Wikipedia and Google will get anyone up to speed on “facts.” As I watched True History I couldn’t help but think that there is a cultural significance to the project that I could possibly never appreciate; the most notable example I can think of is Black Panther. As universally accepted as that film has been, there is a cultural level to it that many of its admirers cannot know. I get the impression that True History is much of the same. I have no doubt it hits on different levels depending on Australian politics and ancestry. There’s plenty I can say about the face value of the film. The acting is great and it’s a technically superb and creative movie. I also know there is a deeper context.

George McKay appears in a scene of True History of the Kelly Gang | IFC Films

I haven’t decided if the film is worth the extracurricular activity needed to fully appreciate it. Perhaps reading the novel or an Internet history lesson will be enough for you; if so, do it before you watch. True History is an ugly film that goes out of its way to bring you the harshness of life in the bush. It explores violence and masculinity in a way that might make some uncomfortable. Though I now have a better understanding of what the project explores, I have no desire to watch it again. I realize that both the novel and the film are a deconstruction of Ned Kelly’s legend. I also realize that there are pieces to the puzzle that I may never be able to fill in on my own.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Capone

Vertical Entertainment
Rated: R
Run Time: 104 minutes
Director: Josh Trank

First off, I haven’t been more uncertain as to what the actual title for a movie is since the Tom Cruise-alien combat-version of Groundhog Day. Once and for all, is it Fonzo or Capone?! Feel free to weigh in. 

In any case, the common usage of the first or last name of the lead character in a title seems to be an attempt (however feeble) to reel people into a juicy biopic. Between that and the expectation of an intricate and spectacular performance from Tom Hardy, I have to say, it caught my attention. 

Whether you love Tom Hardy or think he’s overrated, I think you’d have to admit that he inhibits a uniquely infectious brand that makes any movie or T.V. show he’s associated with 10 times more anticipated by general audiences. But here’s my opinion: I think he’s talented. I’m a huge Hardy fan; from watching Bronson as a teen discovering independent films, to his blood pumping action sequences in Warrior, The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road, and his truly Oscar-worthy performances in The Revenant and Locke. I think for many cinephiles, Tom Hardy’s name and face slapped onto a biopic is enough to bring in open hearts and minds to what would likely be a great film with a great lead performance. 

Enter Josh Trank: Director, Writer and Editor.

Aside from nailing a solid lead actor (I guess they’re actually close friends), I really was excited to give Trank a chance with this film. We were all ready to give him the benefit of the doubt that he really wasn’t to blame for the critical and financial atomic bomb that was Fantastic Four; maybe it really was just studio interference. Unfortunately, he just might not be a talented director, and he certainly shouldn’t be editing or writing. A big problem is that from the top, he chose a period in a “true story” that really just didn’t have a lot to work with. 

Tom Hardy as Al Capone in Capone | Vertical Entertainment

Now there’s plenty of movies that can and have been made with someone as infamous as Al Capone playing or inspiring some sort of role; whether that’s as a main character, a co-star (as in The Untouchables), or even just referenced to (as in Scarface, Road to Perdition, even the likes of The Godfather).

Trank chose to base a near two-hour movie around Capone’s life—post the gangs, guns, and criminal glory. Even past the fall from said glory and his imprisonment due to tax evasion. The film takes place just after he’s released from prison, is mentally and physically deteriorating from disease, and is living out the rest of his life on a quiet, private manor in Florida.   

From there, it has all of the depressing elements of a central figure delving into dementia, along with all of the incontinence you’d ever need in a movie without any meaningful point to be cemented, though attempts were made. 

To Trank’s credit, I understand what kind of perspective he was trying to give the audience of this villainous, all-powerful mob boss we’ve come to know through pop culture. 

I think Trank was trying to help us empathize with the vulnerable, unbearably mortal side of a once ruthless giant. We watch the post-golden era of a king that’s lost his throne, and witness his slow and steady erosion. There’s an element of him regretting his innocence lost, as well as violent and irresponsible decisions he has made in the name of good business (all shown in flashbacks or hallucinations, or maybe both). Old Capone is trying to hold a grasp of authority and relevance, but age and sickness have left him without any devices. And no, I don’t mean to poke at this being a metaphor for Trank’s career, but there are some unfortunate parallels. 

There’s also a potentially interesting subplot of the feds trying to get whatever they can out of Capone’s last days. But every one of these potentially lifesaving elements aren’t explored in-depth enough to make the film have any sort of an impact. And the crazy thing is that none of those underwhelming elements are grounded in facts (not even the incontinence). If you’re going to puff up a true story with your own plot points, make them good—make them engage the audience. The film isn’t concerned with developing those areas, but instead is more concerned with having you watch Tom Hardy be versatile. 

Tom Hardy as Al Capone in Capone | Vertical Entertainment

To be fair, Hardy does great with what he’s been given. The best part of this movie is his performance, whether wholly accurate to the historical figure or not. But there’s a moment where you get a glimpse of what he looked like as Capone in his hay day and that is the movie I really want. Tom Hardy is too much in his prime to be taking roles that have to make so much out of an old, decrepit, terminally-ill vegetable. He needs to be swinging a bat and making spontaneous, intimidating monologues like De Niro in The Untouchables. I’m not saying we need a literal remake, but it’s been enough time since  an actual Al Capone movie featuring him as we think we’ve come to know him. And with the likes of Tom Hardy in the lead role? I’m convinced that something great, if not entertaining, could have been done here. 

Instead we got some semblance of a fading personality for the first 30 minutes. Then you get a beating corpse for an hour. Of course, there’s a respect for Hardy’s commitment to the unique role, but Daniel Day Lewis couldn’t have saved this movie.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea to take a derivative from your common gangster movie formula, and show this kind of unsung final chapter to a life of crime. But again there wasn’t enough to work with, and you’re left staring at a man who’s staring at nothing for the length of the movie. If they wanted to keep with the unique change in tone, they could’ve started with Capone going to prison, then we could get the actual fall and the aftermath. The content of the 100 minutes of screen time could’ve been reduced to a 10 or 20 minute epilogue in a more holistic approach, and it would’ve been far more impactful because you’d lose the fluff!

Bear with me while I spurt out my imaginings of a better film that would accomplish the same thing: There’s 11 years of him in prison that hasn’t been (recently) put to screen. You could explore the celebrity welcome he got at the Atlanta and Alcatraz prisons and his subsequent manner of living. You could show him still trying to run his failing business from behind bars, and the disarrayed reactions to prohibition ending and his purpose becoming null. Leading right up to the ending Capone offers, you can see how his demeanor went from that of a titan to a debilitated wreck. All in all, I’d be more than interested in seeing that flick with Tom Hardy.

Alas, I need to accept that just wasn’t the movie we got. Where credit is due: the original score was interesting enough, and the backdrop and much of the cinematography was well done. 

Lastly, I’ll just mention one thing about the editing. In every conversation, it feels like the camera has attention issues constantly cutting back and forth from close ups of one character to another. I think he’s trying to show subtle details in the acting (that aren’t actually there) as one speaks and one listens. Honestly, if you want to catch the dramatics in the dialogue, just use a wider angle with both characters in the shot. And let your actors act. That’s pretty “backseat” of me to say, but we don’t claim to be anything else!

Let us know if you have outlying questions or if you agree or disagree with this review in the comments below!

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: 18 Presents

NETFLIX
Rated: TV-MA
Run Time: 115 minutes
Director: Francesco Amato

I have never been to Italy nor lost a close family relative to a terminal illness, but I do have a mother and, like her, I am a crier. Watching 18 Presents accompanied by my mother late at night on Mother’s Day was a recipe for disaster, especially when the real-life inspiration for the film is revealed. If you’re looking for something to turn your tear ducts into sprinklers and don’t mind reading subtitles, you’ve come to the right place.

The premise is this: Elisa (played by Italian actress Vittoria Puccini) is pregnant with a baby girl when she finds out that she has terminal cancer. Knowing that the progression of the illness would likely result in her dying during the child’s infancy, the mother-to-be decides to buy her unborn child 18 presents: one for every birthday until she becomes an adult. Sure, it might be hard to shop for someone you’ve never met, but isn’t it the thought that counts? Apparently not. Her now grown daughter, Anna (Italian actress Benedetta Porcaroli), actually hates these gifts from her mother, and her dad has to force her to open them, even as early as her 5th birthday. By 18, Anna has become a Lydia Deetz (Beetlejuice) look-a-like with a far worse attitude and talent for self-destruction. I literally hated her. In the notes I made while watching the film, I wrote, “There is just no redeeming this character.” The biggest compliment I can give 18 Presents is that it proved me wrong: by the end, I forgave Anna, and couldn’t find it in me to hate her even the slightest. I remain impressed by this unexpected redemption. 

As the plot progresses, and thanks to some extraordinary circumstances, Anna gets to meet her mother and relive the last few months of her life beside her. Thus, there are plenty of scenes of mother and daughter interacting whilst simultaneously longing for a past/future that will never occur. These moments are genuinely sweet and get you right in the feels. The ending had me sending twin waterfalls down my cheeks, not unlike the emoji titled “loudly crying face 😭” (though it should be noted that my tears were silently dignified and not noisy). 

Vittoria Puccini and Benedetta Porcaroli in a scene of 18 Presents | NETFLIX

My quibbles are petty, but still I will quibble. First, I felt like Italy was another planet, or at least a world the Kardashians would find more relatable than I would. For instance, what would you do if you accidentally locked yourself out of your house? When I was growing up, that meant my Mom busted out the crowbar and boosted me through one of the windows so I could get in and unlock the door from the inside. I guess that makes me a trashy American, because this film would have you believe that the only sensible thing to do when locked out is rent a penthouse for the night, complete with a pool, and simply wait until morning to call a locksmith. Second, when Elisa is in her cancer support group, her suggestion of buying eighteen gifts for her unborn daughter is met with awkward silence and sideways glances (while other members are discussing their sexual promiscuity and whether they should have their cremated ashes converted into diamonds). In fact, everybody acts like the idea of a mother trying to substitute her presence with presents for her daughter’s birthdays is insane and awful. At one point it’s suggested that Anna is unfairly burdened by these gifts from her dead mother. I guess that’s just how the other half lives; burdened by too many gifts and slumming it in penthouses. It made me feel sorry for Italians.

18 Presents is the brain-child of daytime soap opera and Hallmark with an affinity for the F-word and cigarettes. Though it has its virtues, I have a hard time universally recommending a tear-jerker unless it is almost above reproach. This movie has its audience, and cry-fests are necessary evils in their time and season, but it lacks any “must-see” qualities. Considering how hard it is these days to acquire tissues, maybe go with something on Sam Cooley’sUltimate Feel-Good Movie list” instead. 

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Tigertail

NETFLIX
Rated: PG
Run Time: 91 minutes
Director: Alan Yang

May is a special month for me as it is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Essentially, it’s a time to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian-Americans towards the United States. When deciding on what film I wanted to review in May I tried to keep this special month in mind, and luckily Netflix had the hookup with their release of the film Tigertail. Directed by Alan Yang, who worked on the fantastic Netflix show Master of None, Tigertail tells the story of Pin-Jui: starting with his childhood in Taiwan and leading to his adulthood as an American immigrant. 

As a young man Pin-Jui has big dreams. He works the rice fields making a meager wage and longs to live a life where he no longer has to worry about his financial situation, and so he can retire and take care of his mother. This desire leads him to accept his boss’s offer of an arranged marriage and also a chance at a new life in New York City. But this comes at a cost as he must leave all he knows behind—including his childhood love, Yuan.

Tigertail’s story structure bounces between Pin-Jui’s past life and his present. When the story takes place in the past the color palette of the film pertains rich, strong hues, while the present is desaturated and dull; the sets also have a very distinct look for each time period. However, the structure hamstrings the film—I ended up confused as to where the film was taking place, and it becomes further complicated as the present storyline is shared with Pin-Jui’s daughter Angela (played by Christine Ko), and shares her strained relationship with her father and fiancé.

Christine Ko and Tzi Ma in a scene of Tigertail |NETFLIX

Pin-Jui is a deeply flawed character (which I admired), and when he told his daughter that “crying is for the weak” it struck me to the core: he isn’t a cruel character but rather a tragic one. He sacrificed all he loved to chase the American Dream, something that he thought would solve his problems, but the cost of that dream is in the emotional consequences. Pin-Jui is played by the excellent Tzi Ma and I could really feel his struggles. He lets you see someone who’s been taught to keep his emotions bottled up and when he finally tries to let them out he fumbles so hard it’s difficult to watch—it reminded me a lot of my own father.

Despite my issues with the film’s editing and pacing, the story was something I very strongly resonated with; being the son of Asian immigrants, there was a lot I could reflect back on. When I was younger I always thought my parents were too hard on me, and they always pushed me so hard to succeed to the point where I would be incredibly frustrated. Looking back and reflecting after watching this film I understand why they pushed me so much: they simply didn’t want me to struggle and suffer like they did when they were younger. Tigertail is a wonderful story about the cost of starting a new life and the pain of leaving your life behind to start something new. It is an introspective film and a very personal act of love, showing how important it is to honor and respect those that sacrifice what they hold dear so that the next generation can succeed.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Horse Girl

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 103 minutes
Director: Jeff Baena

My recent run of movies that I’ve chosen to review have been, in a word, torturous. The continuation of movie theater closures during the Coronavirus pandemic has kept our choice of new movies very limited. Netflix seems to have been totally unaffected with releasing new movies in 2020. Their audience is already built in with over 100 million subscribers tuning into their Netflix Original content. Of course, their new movie and T.V. series productions have been impacted, but that is new content for 2021.

Netflix is such a fascinating, modern studio that I hope one day goes full meta and makes a docu-series of itself. “Netflix Presents: The Making of Netflix, a Netflix Original.” They’ve completely changed the game as it relates to how we consume our video content. They’ve disrupted the “norm” of the old Hollywood guard, and the industry will never be the same. Netflix has given opportunity to up-and-coming filmmakers, producers, writers, etc. that otherwise would not have that same opportunity when dealing with the larger movie studios. And with the risk-taking approach that has built Netflix into the giant that it is, comes the tares mixed in with the wheat.

I came across Horse Girl while browsing new content on Netflix. Nothing about it seemed remarkable, but this was a new movie released in 2020, and at the time, that was enough of a reason for me to watch it. At first glance, the only actor I recognized in the movie was Molly Shannon (a SNL staple during my adolescence) but after a little research I realized that I was familiar with some of the work that the lead actress, Alison Brie, had done (The Disaster Artist, The Post, The Lego Movie 2). Brie co-wrote the script for Horse Girl along with Director, Jeff Baena, and the film was screened earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Baena and Brie also worked together on The Little Hours which debuted back in 2017. Unfortunately, after watching Horse Girl, any new project with Baena and Brie’s names attached to it is something I will likley avoid.

Horse Girl tells the story of a socially awkward and isolated woman named Sarah, who continually loses her grip on reality. Sarah has been deeply affected by her mother’s suicide the year before, and the loss of her horse to new owners. She spends her time between her job at a crafts store, and watching a supernatural crime show. Even with the help of her roommate, Nikki (played by Debby Ryan) who sets Sarah up on a date and encourages her to be more social, Sarah continues to plunge deeper and deeper into a schizophrenic state.

Alison Brie in a scene of Horse Girl | NETFLIX

A series of very bizarre events, that leave me struggling for words to even attempt to explain, intensify as the film goes on. Events that make you wonder what the writers were thinking or experiencing that made them come to the conclusion that these were good ideas and something people would want to see in a film. In all honesty, I really struggled to even get through the film. I’ve never experienced the use of psychedelic drugs, so it’s unfair for me to compare the experience I had while watching this movie, but other explanations seem to be lacking. From bizarre fantasy sex scenes, to dreams of random strangers and then seeing those strangers in real life, to alien abductions, the movie seems to have the tools to be an interesting story, and somewhat engaging film, but will end up leaving you completely dazed and confused as to what this movie even is.

In all good conscience I cannot recommend this movie in the least bit. There are so many other new Netflix Originals that are worth your time (see: Spencer Confidential or Extraction), that Horse Girl should be the last thing you consider turning on before exploring other options.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

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