Category: Movie Reviews

Disenchanted 0

Disenchanted

In 2007’s “Enchanted,” the clash between the naiveté and eternal optimism of classic Disney-ified animated fairytales and the cynical real world of Manhattan felt fresh and invigorating. Amy Adams’ committed performance as Giselle, a Disney princess personified, catapulted her into mainstream success. But as Disney’s IP continues to saturate the market, it’s fitting that their latest direct-to-streaming dip back into this magical well is entitled “Disenchanted.”

Directed by Adam Shankman, the story is set about a decade after the events depicted in the first film. Giselle and high powered Manhattan lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey) have married, had a baby named Sofia, and wide-eyed little Morgan (Gabriella Baldacchino, taking over the role from Rachel Covey) has become a stereotypical surly teen. We barely see the baby despite her existence being an impetus for the family to flee cramped Manhattan for the comfort of the suburbs, and it’s symptomatic of just how underdeveloped pretty much all the new characters are in the film. 

Of course, suburbia isn’t immediately the “after happily ever after” of their dreams. Although they’ve moved into a beautiful, pink, two-story home complete with a castle-like spire that many would consider dream home goals, the “fixer upper” is disparaged by just about everyone, from Morgan to the PTA queen bee of Monroeville, Malvina Monroe (Maya Rudolph), and even the King and Queen of Andalasia (James Marsden and Idina Menzel, reprising their roles). The script (which has four credited writers) doesn’t really explore their adjustment period, though it does give Giselle and Morgan plenty of time to bicker. 

As a teen, Morgan doesn’t have time for Giselle or the magical memories of her childhood. Giselle laments she doesn’t “sing the right song anymore.” After a fight with Morgan ends with her angrily telling Giselle she’s only her “stepmother,” Giselle makes a desperate wish on a magic wishing wand (a house-warming present from Andalasia) for them to have a “fairytale life.” The song here is wonderfully bittersweet, with Adams bringing a tinge of sorrow to her shining voice. 

But stepmothers are always wicked in fairytales, and so this wish naturally becomes a curse, slowly turning the town into Monrolasia (clearly inspired by Belle’s village from “Beauty and the Beast”) and Giselle’s goodness into evil. As she becomes aware of the fairytale cracking veneer, Morgan discovers she has until the final stroke of midnight to undo everything.

While the script is heavy on action, it’s incredibly light on any kind of real characterization. Malvina is a stock suburban queen bee, with Rudolph responding by playing her less as a wholly realized character than as Evil Maya Rudolph. Adams has fun with Giselle’s descent, altering her sweet lilt to a deep poison tongue. The two get a few showdowns, and one zippy duet entitled “Badder,” but the tension is nowhere near as delicious as what Adams crafted with Susan Sarandon’s big bad in the first film. 

Longtime collaborators Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz know the formula for the perfect Disney song, having nabbed three Oscar nominations for their work on “Enchanted.” Here each song serves its purpose for the narrative, but there is nary a catchy earworm. There is one showstopper, performed by Menzel, who did not sing in the previous film. Her song “Love Power” may have a woefully generic name, but her voice is as powerful and spine-tinglingly beautiful as ever. 

In fact, Menzel’s performance is one of the few that manages to transcend beyond the subpar trappings of “Disenchanted,” which soars when she and Marsden (just as charming and dimwitted as ever) grace the screen. It’s unfortunate, then, that they’re relegated to only a handful of scenes towards the beginning and during the final act. The parody-homage within Andalasia and its inhabitants remains the strongest element of the world-building. 

Monroeville is never built out beyond a few minutes in a high school hallway, the commuter train station platform, and one coffee shop. What does this film actually have to say about those who leave the city for the suburbs or those who live in them? If the idea is that it’s not the “closest thing to a fairytale” after all, then we need to see more of what it actually is before it becomes part of Giselle’s accidental curse. We need to meet more than just Malvina and her cronies (Yvette Nicole Brown and Jayma Mays), a few mean girls whose names we never hear, and Malvina’s generic jock son Tyson (Kolton Stewart). The setting also never fully meshes with the film’s exploration of the power of memory. 

Although it’s gorgeous to look at (especially Joan Bergin’s costumes), “Disenchanted” fails to truly rekindle the magic, or the biting wit of its predecessor. Like most things stamped Disney these days, the film feels just like the mass-produced bobbles for sale at the Disney store. There may be a little bit of recognizable magic left on the surface, but that’s about it. 

Now playing on Disney+. 

The People We Hate at the Wedding 0

The People We Hate at the Wedding

Every holiday season is a yearly reminder that having your family all in one place is not always the easiest. The traditional dynamics of your household as a child are reinstated and family beef (of the lowkey and highkey varieties) are expressed or repressed, but existent nonetheless. The same can be said about a wedding. 

Director Claire Scanlon’s “The People We Hate at the Wedding” both examines and pokes fun at the consequences of unspoken familial grievances and the dramatic ways they can manifest. The film follows siblings Alice (Kristen Bell) and Paul (Ben Platt), their mother Donna (Alison Janney), and their tense reunion for the English wedding of their semi-estranged half-sister Eloise (Cynthia Addai-Robinson).

“The People We Hate at the Wedding” does not aim to do anything revolutionary or experimental with the comedic genre, nor should it be expected to. Its goal is to be a feel-good film, and it sort of accomplishes that. But from the predictable plot structure and series of overt zingers to the eye-rolling litany of on-the-nose needle drops, “The People We Hate at the Wedding” is awkwardly executed. 

Bell cannot carry the entire film on her shoulders, though she makes a valiant effort as the undeniable standout both with the film’s humor and heart. She nails most of her punchlines, and her execution of Alice’s blunt, jaded facade perfectly sets up the character arc that Bell achieves with seamless transition. Her chemistry with Dennis (Dustin Milligan), her opposite in the film’s will-they-won’t-they subplot, is believable even within the context of their overwritten dialogue. Their pairing is the only relationship within the film that feels adequately matched in terms of performance, and therefore, narrative credibility. 

Platt is bone-dry in the majority of his scenes, and almost comes across confused with every line he delivers. His comedic acting feels desperate and his character’s emotional “peak” is plateaued by a lackluster performance. Janney has her moments but is a victim to either poor writing, misguided direction, or most likely, both. All the while, the film’s core source of tension, Addai-Robinson, feels disengaged with her character, and the gears turning with every line are persistently visible in her eyes.

However, despite a disappointing deficit in performance, the value of “The People We Hate at the Wedding” still makes itself apparent. While the comedic writing lacks flow and punch, the overall narrative of the family’s confrontation with their demons makes an impression. The film cleverly investigates the repercussions when families age, and the ways that the methods of protecting yourself, or others, can become issues of intention versus impact that often go undiscussed. 

But while there is certainly merit in creating a comfortable comedy, the massively formulaic “The People We Hate at the Wedding” is not up to scratch. Scanlon’s film makes its thesis known by the time the credits roll, but has a fleeting shelf life, lasting about a day in your memory before expiring.

Now playing on Prime Video.

There There 0

There There

It’d be interesting to hear the reactions to writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s “There There” from people who don’t know the background story of its filming. The background contextualizes the often startling and seemingly un-motivated visual choices made, all of which creates an awkward and stilted atmosphere. But without the background context, how will people make sense of this strange almost flat-affect experience? Bujalski isn’t really returning to his mumblecore roots with “There There,” although I’ve heard comments along those lines. The film is DIY lo-fi, but it’s also high concept.

Filmed during the height of the pandemic, when the restrictions were their most stringent, “There There” is made up of six two-character scenes, interrupted by musical interludes, performed onscreen by Jon Natchez in various homey settings (a garage, a stairway, a kitchen). The seven actors—Lili Taylor, Lennie James, Annie LaGanga, Avi Nash, Jason Schwartzman, Roy Nathanson, and Molly Gordon—were filmed separately (and shot remotely by cinematographer Matthias Grunsky on an iPhone). No one was in the same place at the same time. At any given moment, there is only one person onscreen. The camera never moves. This unusual process is sometimes interesting, but sometimes not, and it loses steam as it progresses.

In the first scene Lili Taylor and Lennie James’ unnamed characters lie in bed, blissed out after a hook-up. He expresses a desire to see her again. She is put off by his openness, even though she had a good time too. Suddenly she’s talking about serial killers and he’s wondering what happened to the afterglow. In the next scene, Taylor sits in a cafe with her AA sponsor (LaGanga), who listens with irritation and incredulity as Taylor babbles on about her former sponsor’s New Age-y beliefs. Like a relay race, in the next scene LaGanga meets with her son’s high school English teacher, an overwhelmed Molly Gordon (who seems barely out of high school herself). LaGanga’s son has been harassing girls in class, taking upskirt videos, and demands to know why the teacher has lost control of the classroom. The scene crackles with mutual hostility, and is “There There”‘s high point. It’s an emotional intergenerational stand-off. 

In the next scene, a lawyer (Schwartzman) consults with his client (Nash), a developer whose platform is under fire for hosting porn (including, presumably, LaGanga’s son’s videos). The next scene shows the insomniac lawyer being “visited” by an apparition from beyond the grave, and, in the final scene, Molly Gordon gets drunk at a bar and encounters both Nash’s techbro and Lennie James.

The illusion that these characters are in the same space at the same time never materializes (and maybe it’s not supposed to). And the idea that we’re separated into little pods, even when we are actually in each others’ presence, is on the table, but it’s not explored in particularly interesting ways. The limitations imposed on filming lead to scenes that are like an uncanny-valley version of two people talking. It sounds like dialogue but something’s not quite right. The air is dead and flat. There were other films shot in 2020 and 2021, experiments in form where the pandemic is present, even if just as an unspoken threat. Bo Burnham’s “Inside” and Radu Jude’s “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” shimmer with a kind of nervy danger and anxiety, the feeling that humanity has come to some sort of brink. “There There” doesn’t come to life, even as an intellectual or artistic exercise.

Isolating each person onscreen, while attempting to create an illusion of togetherness, all while acknowledging the abyss between the characters, could be seen as an apt metaphor for modern life and all that, particularly with the imposed isolation of the pandemic. Maybe “There There” would have had more resonance if it came out in 2020 or 2021. It might have been hailed as a brave example of continuing to make art even if we can’t be together while we’re doing it. Is the title “There There” meant to echo the consoling comment made to crying children? Or is it a description of the close-up to close-up back-and-forth shot construction, imposed by separation? Maybe. I couldn’t help but think, though, of Gertrude Stein’s famous remark: “There is no there there.” 

Now playing in theaters. 

Slumberland 0

Slumberland

With its innovative design (including panels that would grow and shrink to help convey a genuine sense of proportion to readers), bold use of color, and trippy storylines, Little Nemo in Slumberland was a comic strip like no other when it debuted in the New York Herald in 1905. Those audacious elements would lead to its creator, Winsor McCay, to be dubbed “the first original genius of the comic strip medium” by historian R.C. Harvey and cited as an influence by the likes of R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Federico Fellini. McCay would also prove to be a leader in the early days of animated film as well and, in fact, his first movie, “Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics,” was a live-action/animation hybrid that depicted him producing 4,000 drawings of Nemo, a young boy whose adventures in the world of dreams were the subject of the strip, that were then brought to life in a four-minute animated segment. (This film can be found online and is kind of charming, although his use of ethnic stereotyping, especially in the case of one of Nemo’s pals, African Impie, is troubling to witness today, even if it was par for the course back when it was created.)

This would not prove to be the only attempt to bring the adventures of Little Nemo to the big screen. In 1984, there was an expensive European version entitled “Dream One” that was co-produced by John Boorman, featured a cast that included the likes of Harvey Keitel, Nipsey Russell, Carole Bouquet, and Michel Blanc and was, by most accounts, somewhat of a disaster. A few years later, the Japanese-American animated co-production “Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland” came out and was also a failure, though it was at least an occasionally interesting one. Frankly, the one film that has actually come the closest to capturing McCay’s blend of strikingly hallucinatory imagery and ambitious storytelling to date is the Terry Gilliam classic “Time Bandits,” right down to McCay’s willingness to deal with darker themes within his wild narratives.

A new cinematic take on McCay’s creation has now arrived in the form of Francis Lawrence‘s “Slumberland” and while it’s a film few will actually like, your reasons for disliking it will presumably vary with your personal knowledge of the source material. If you’re familiar with McCay and his place in comics history, the film is a profound betrayal of his work that takes a startlingly unique creation and renders it into the kind of utterly forgettable sludge. Those who have never heard of the likes of Nemo or McCay will instead look at it as just another bland fantasy epic that spends tens of millions of dollars but somehow fails to come up with a single memorable image in return.

This time around, Nemo (Marlow Barkley) is a nine-year-old girl living in an isolated lighthouse with her father (Kyle Chandler), who regales her nightly with elaborate bedtime stories involving fabulous treasures, dangerous creatures, and his faithful companion, a rogue known as Flip. When her father dies at sea, Nemo is sent to live with his estranged brother, Philip (Chris O’Dowd), a city-dwelling dullard who sells doorknobs for a living and has no idea of how to communicate with any child, let alone a grieving one. 

This leaves Nemo turning to the world of her dreams as a way of coping with her loss and perhaps even getting a chance to see her father once again. While there, she happens upon the actual Flip (Jason Momoa), a smugly incompetent thief looking for a map belonging to her dad that will allow him to traverse throughout Slumberland, hopping from one person’s dream to the next. Nemo finds the map and uses it to force Flip to help her track down her father. The two bound from one dream to the next—minus occasional returns to the real world and Uncle Philip, who is so boring he claims to never dream himself—while being relentlessly pursued by Agent Green (Weruche Opia), a representative of the bureaucracy that governs the dream world and is determined to crack down on the likes of Flip. The two are also pursued by a massive shadowy nightmare determined to engulf Nemo for good.

A lot of money has clearly gone into producing “Slumberland” but there is a precious shortage of imagination on display throughout. In films like “Constantine” and the last three entries in the “Hunger Games” saga, director Francis Lawrence has proven himself to be a decent enough craftsman but he lacks the kind of wild imagination needed for something like this—he presents an elaborate visual tableaux (including a recreation of one of McCay’s most famous images, a giant walking bed) that never connects in any meaningful or memorable way. (Woe to those who play that “Framed” game if “Slumberland” ever gets used as one of its subjects.) 

The screenplay by David Guion and Michael Handelman at least initially tries to grapple with examining the use of dreams as a way for a child to cope with unimaginable grief. But that idea is quickly set aside for a series of endless chases, explosions, and moments seemingly cribbed from other popular fantasy films from the last couple of decades. Although Barkley is okay as Nemo, especially in some of her trickier scenes with O’Dowd, the usually reliable Momoa is a real disappointment. His obnoxiously flailing turn seems to have been designed to do for him what “Pirates of the Caribbean” did for Johnny Depp, but ends up more like “Mortdecai.”

In the end, the biggest problem with “Slumberland” is its utter innocuousness. Because it is bright, noisy, and things are constantly happening, little kids might like it as a momentary distraction—but it certainly won’t inspire them to check out McCay’s original work for themselves. That’s a shame, because despite the aforementioned ethnic stereotyping, those comics display the kind of rich and detailed vision that inspires people to want to become artists themselves. By comparison, it’s doubtful that most viewers will retain anything about “Slumberland” the day after they see it.

Now playing on Netflix.

Love, Charlie 0

Love, Charlie

Rebecca Halpern’s “Love, Charlie” is an admiring history lesson about one of Chicago’s greatest chefs, Charlie Trotter. At its peak in the ’90s, his Chicago restaurant Charlie Trotter was considered to be one of the best in the world. Trotter achieved celebrity status alongside the TV chef ascendance of Chef Emeril Lagasse, and could count Anthony Bourdain, Chef Wolfgang Puck, and countless visitors as his fans. And some of his former collaborators, like Chef Grant Achatz now of Chicago’s gastronomic miracle Alinea restaurant, can share kitchen stories of interactions that are equally filled by terror or awe. 

There’s a certain level of dedication helps one achieve this greatness and status, and “Love, Charlie” allows the more challenging parts about Trotter to lay as they do. His kitchen, for one, was an intense, cutthroat atmosphere that one could either say is par the course for the restaurant industry, or not worth romanticizing (this documentary does not do that). Many stories are shared here of his temper and volume when chastising his crew; even his cameo in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” has him portraying a version of himself in a frantic kitchen, threatening to kill an employee’s family if they screw up. It was in-joke that came from a certain place, however much it was meant to be parody. 

“Love, Charlie” recounts Trotter’s various achievements that have impacted the way we think about, look, and experience food. He was considered a forward-thinker when it came to providing more vegetarian-friendly dishes; his cookbooks shot food in sumptuous close-up, with Achatz lovingly calling it “pornographic”; he put a special table in the middle of the kitchen for patrons to appreciate the process that went into their foods. 

The editorial assembly and talking-head presentation of “Love, Charlie,” is a bit too dry for my taste, struggling to build an intriguing pacing with and-then-this-happened storytelling. But the emotional power of the film benefits from its extensive archive, and how it displays it. Through countless letters and photos, Trotter feels to be an active presence in the movie, with Halpern cutting to close-ups every now and then of his tiny but microscopic penmanship. Collected largely by his first wife, these different artifacts allow him to be the chorus in this retelling of his story. When “Love, Charlie” reaches a particularly tough part of his life, after the restaurant has closed and isolated him from his working self, he hauntingly wrote: “If you ever go through a recluse period, my friend, make the most of it.” 

“Love, Charlie” throws around the word “enigma” when trying to sell Trotter to viewers, without embracing all of him. It’s a key term, as enigmas are mysteries, contradictions. Halpern’s documentary does best when its tone is able to balance admiring his achievement but also stay honest about the bridges he burned, the employees he seemingly worked to the ground, or the toll that his own passions took onto him. Halpern’s film doesn’t try to have all the answers about Trotter, so much as stand back and look at all of the pieces together. 

Now playing in theaters and available on Apple TV+ and Amazon.

Taurus 0

Taurus

Like all addicts, “Taurus” has its moments of clarity. Midway through writer/director Tim Sutton’s mind-numbingly indulgent character study of an uninteresting rap-rock musician, Chris Taurus (Colson Baker, a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly) sits down for an on-camera interview. Up to this point, the character has barely been sentient enough to form a full sentence. But once the reporter starts asking him questions, he comes alive, speaking intelligently and articulately about art, fame, and other big ideas. It’s enough to suggest that maybe there is more to this character, and to “Taurus,” than there appears to be on the surface. But the reprieve is brief.

For the majority of this film’s 106-minute running time, Chris has all the charisma of a rag soaked in chloroform. At one point, he sucks nitrous oxide out of a metal canister, then sits with his eyes half-closed and his head flopping on top of his tattooed neck for nearly a full minute before picking up his phone and berating a woman who we soon find out is the mother of his child. We watch him pass out in a pool, on a couch, in the passenger seat of a car, and in the bedroom of an abandoned house he stumbles into while a girlfriend scores drugs across the street. In a flourish that’s very The Slim Shady LP-era Eminem, it turns out that the child who used to sleep there recently murdered his parents, and has a Chris Taurus poster hanging on his bedroom wall. 

When he’s not unconscious, or on the verge of it, Chris is snorting coke in the back room of strip clubs, ignoring his young daughter (she seems used to it), and having sex with a woman who comes by late at night on hybrid drug dealing/sex work errands. He’s every rockstar cliché rolled into one, a tortured artist in the Kurt Cobain mold who spends his days desperately chasing oblivion in an attempt to outrun his fame. At times, he gestures towards making music, moments that throw isolated creative sparks like those in the interview scene mentioned above. But we don’t hear a full song until the very end of the film, a choice that does little to make the case for Chris’ genius—and, therefore, the audience’s engagement.

The point that “Taurus” is trying to make—that fame is a prison, and celebrities are prisoners whose souls become public property once they sell enough records—is unlikely to blow the mind of anyone who’s old enough to have a driver’s license. Visually, Kelly does cut a striking silhouette, with his underwear-model good looks, bleached blonde hair, and broken-puppet posture. And Sutton’s camera is infatuated with him, filming him using different types of cameras and under different lighting schemes. But the blank expression remains the same. 

The only thing that makes “Taurus” interesting is how uncomfortably real it feels at times. Parts of this film evoke Penelope Spheeris’ seminal 1988 hair-metal doc “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years,” in that they make rock ‘n’ roll debauchery seem like a flashy band-aid covering bottomless wells of personal pain. You have to know a little bit about Baker/Kelly—namely, that he’s faced similar demons as his character in “Taurus,” and unlike his character, he’s come out the other side—to appreciate his performance, which imitates the flat, zonked-out affect of someone perpetually stoned out of his gourd so realistically that it could easily be mistaken for the real thing. Maddie Hasson also delivers a first-rate performance as Chris’ put-upon assistant Ilana, with whom he has a codependent, sibling-like relationship. (She’s probably too good for this movie, to be completely honest.)  

The plot of “Taurus” has uncomfortable parallels to the death by overdose of rapper Mac Miller, whose brother raised an outcry against the film under its original title, “Good News.” The name was then changed to “Taurus,” Baker/Kelly’s real-life astrological sign—a telling indicator of how little thought, and how much navel-gazing, is going on here. “Taurus” isn’t meant to lionize its protagonist. But even in offering a cautionary tale, all it can deliver is shallow provocation and monotonous cliché.

Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms.

Fleishman is in Trouble 0

Fleishman is in Trouble

Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s “Fleishman is in Trouble” is a potent collection of crises, a mini-epic about being in one’s forties and not having everything figured out, as one might believe it all should be. That realization scares them. It makes them angry; it makes them run away. One’s marital status (happily together or blissfully apart) and having children doesn’t bind characters like Toby, Rachel, and Libby to a greater sense of certainty of themselves, which they only have a lens-flare-heavy sense of the past of which to fact-check. “Fleishman is in Trouble” is a saga across time, relationships, and even bounds of empathy that offers the best kind of whiplash. When this FX adaptation’s excellent cast and storytelling are truly in sync, its wisdom can be inescapable. 

The series starts with the character that Brodesser-Akner’s arguably biggest influence, Philip Roth, would relate to most. Eisenberg’s Toby, a liver specialist in New York City, has just hit a strange point in his life: he’s divorced from his wife of 15 years, Rachel (Claire Danes), and finally seeing himself as a hot commodity thanks to dating apps. He’s having a lot of sex. A whole world of opportunity has been opened for him, or so it seems, as he chases the rush of getting a hot stranger from your phone to want you. That high only lasts so long when he is stuck taking care of his two young kids, Solly and Hannah, after theater agent and hard-working ex-wife Rachel suddenly drops the kids off in his apartment early one morning and ghosts everyone. She seemingly drops off the face of the earth, no calls to her assistant answered. 

There is a lot of initial angst in this story toward Rachel, especially as Toby looks back on a relationship that began with love and corroded with passive-aggressive disagreements about practically everything. Rachel is missing, but she haunts this story, and making its reflections about their clashes about money, status, and his considerably more attentive parenting all the more gutting. In a Roth narrative, this might all play out differently, or its anger toward women might feel a certain kind of way. But part of the power of “Fleishman is in Trouble,” as a series but also a true page-turner, is how this is a Trojan horse to a greater understanding about the women in Toby’s life. 

We learn about Toby’s life initially from the off-screen presence of Libby (Lizzy Caplan) whose voice hits us from the beginning. Libby has known Toby since a trip abroad in college (along with the suave and directionless Seth [Adam Brody]), but they have been out of touch for years, until Toby reaches out to find a friend. She’s also faced her own big changes in life, having moved to the New Jersey suburbs and become a stay-at-home mom, leaving behind a previous version of herself that worked in a magazine, prowled New York City art house movie theaters, and had more independence. Like Rachel, Libby orbits around other moms whose lives seem to revolve around their status and offspring. And like Rachel, Libby does not have a #MomSoHard preciousness for this life role. (Libby’s awesome vintage t-shirt collection is its own rebellion against the catch-phrase shirts about brunch, wine, etc. that populate this series’ costuming for modern motherhood.) 

In creating this world through her observations about Toby—she becomes the voice of his conscience, and in turn his ideas get in her head—Caplan does an incredible, distinct job as a narrator. Her voice is sometimes rich with excitement, sometimes grief, but always attention-grabbing. Caplan’s work highlights too how “Fleishman is in Trouble” fills out with a different perspective than we normally get on a guy like Toby, and sharp writing. (The book is the kind you want to read with a highlighter, and the series carries on much of its prose.) For a story that’s about characters going in circles with their thoughts, hardly grabbing any concrete answers on each go around, Libby’s narration sticks with you. It gets in your head, too. 

Spreading its best material comfortably across eight episodes, this version highlights how much its pacing feeds off of going from one character to character, especially for a story that initially has a missing person, and then intentionally forgets about her to study other people. It’s funny, then, how the book is more expansive but seems to flag less than the series does, maybe because certain parts of the series are more draining when it’s multiple hours of a flattened version of Toby. He is the least compelling of the main characters, and in a difference worth calling out, is just not as funny when played by Eisenberg. The kind of satire that comes from the character seemingly on a tear away from past frustrations is played too straight here; instead of his performance gaining some dimension, it’s more reliant on Eisenberg’s fast-speaking anger, or the silent, cold glare he can send like a hurt boy waiting to hurt back. 

But the expansiveness of the series also provides us later great episodes that make “Me-Time” for Rachel and Libby; Danes and Caplan give excellent performances that show how there are no clear villains in these intricate crises and conjure a walloping sense of empathy for women who have swallowed an immense sadness, anger, and uncertainty. Brodesser-Akner confidently walks a fine line in how to present these pained women so that we understand more about why they have done what they have. Like how Rachel is, through Toby’s eyes, presented as negligent, constantly nagging, and never making him feel like enough; her true backstory, her life experiences muted by their lack of visibility to Toby and others is staggering and moving. In getting to know these women though these vivid performances and impactful standalone episodes, “Fleishman is in Trouble” helps us see its entire world with more warmth. 

“Fleishman is in Trouble” boasts the rare series adaptation credit in that Brodesser-Akner created the series and wrote many of the episodes (Michael Goldbach adapted an episode also). As such, it’s especially faithful, along with its careful treatment by notable visual storytellers who have grappled with battles of the sexes (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris), New York stories and polarizing people (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini), or complicated feelings of muted urges (Alice Wu). They help make the story like an eight-hour modern indie epic, with quirky, spiraling camera movements for Toby’s bouts in bed, ugly fights caught in handheld, and numerous shots of New York City upside down to match the book’s cover and its characters’ general state of mind. It’s a show clearly made with a great deal of care for the story, and the internal turmoil of everyone involved. One can tell that many people involved in this production knew they something special in their hands—not just a great book to work from, but a storytelling structure that can uniquely surprise and move the Tobys, Rachels, and Libbys out there. 

Entire series screened for review. “Fleishman is in Trouble” is now streaming on FX on Hulu. 

Bantú Mama 0

Bantú Mama

Azure sky, clear waters, and a blindingly-white beach surround the all-inclusive Dominican resort where a French-Cameroonian woman named Emma (co-writer Clarisse Albrecht) unwinds at the beginning of the Dominican Republic’s Oscar hopeful “Bantú Mama” from director and co-writer Ivan Herrera. Her relaxation is cut short when she receives a phone call saying a dubious meeting has been moved up a week today. Suddenly she’s checked out, her luggage thrown into a sugar cane field, and back at the airport with an identical case and a little excess baggage. When things go awry after she’s arrested, Emma finds herself rescued by a trio of semi-orphaned kids who hide her in the most dangerous neighborhood in Santo Domingo. 

Through this set up, writer/actress Albrecht uses her own experiences living in France, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and the Dominican Republic to explore the inexorable cultural connections between Africa and the Caribbean. Director Herrera proves to be an apt partner, bringing a strong visual acumen to the film, creating a lively world and coaxing unforgettable performances from a cast of mostly first time actors. 

Through visual cues and smart dialogue, the film hints at the pull between the worlds that resides within Emma. She shares her apartment with a parrot named Coco, her walls decorated with traditional raffia masks. As she leaves for the airport she spins a bronze statue, its arms outstretched as if reaching in two directions. Later, an immigrant working at the resort braids Emma’s hair. While chatting Emma says she’s from “France … and Cameroon.” The woman responds, “I would love to go to Africa one day.” “Me too,” she replies, a wistful look on her face. 

How and why Emma has found herself smuggling drugs is left intentionally obscured, though cross-cutting to visions of another idyllic ocean imply it’s a means for Emma to make her dream of Africa a reality. Albrecht’s psychologically complex performance renders total clarity unnecessary. We’re in it with her as she waits for her flight to board, when security randomly pulls her aside, and again when she’s arrested. Herrera keeps his camera focused on Emma, centered in the frame, her face projecting all her fears and dashed hopes.

Although the means of Emma’s escape and later discovery by T.I.N.A. (Scarlet Reyes) and her older brother $hulo (Arturo Perez) is a bit contrived, her connection with the kids is natural and unforced. Reyes in particular is a force of nature as a girl who has had to grow up and take charge of her life, and that of her brothers, way too young. Euris Javiel as Tina’s youngest brother Cuki gives one of those authentic kid performances that transcends precociousness, serving instead the honest sweetness that children of that age naturally possess. 

Awaiting some falsified papers and transport to a French associated island like Guadalupe, Emma bonds with the children, whose mother is out of the picture and whose father has recently been jailed. Over breakfast on their first day together they learn of dishes shared by both their cultures. While discussing Africa, Cuki asks how she can be French and Bantú at the same time, to which she responds “One doesn’t exclude the other.” She teaches T.I.N.A. how to wear a scarf in her hair “like a queen.”

As she brings African culture into their lives, all three children brighten and begin to dream of a world across the Atlantic where more possibilities might await them. Yet, even with these dreams across the ocean ever present, the film takes care to show that Santo Domingo has a vibrant culture of its own. Emma shops for fresh food at an outdoor market. T.I.N.A. and $hulo observe boys riding dirt bikes through the streets. Unfortunately, also present throughout the neighborhood are drug raids and callous cops who frisk people on the street for their identification, rounding them up if they do not. 

Although she’s grown a tough exterior for herself, T.I.N.A. knows the future has already been written for her and for $hulo. But through their connection with Emma, a new path may have formed for the gentle Cuki, and she’s willing to sacrifice everything to make that future happen for him. The scenes in which T.I.N.A. makes her plans for her brother clear to Emma allow both Albrecht and Reyes to showcase their capabilities for raw and complex emotional depth. In their final scene together, Herrera holds on Reyes’ face, her eyes like the ocean reflecting great sadness and great hope simultaneously. 

It’s no accident that the sea is shown as a savior throughout the film. The sea brought T.I.N.A.’s family to the islands, just as they brought Emma’s to France. The sea connects both places to each other, and to the coast of Africa. It’s a bittersweet connection, fraught with a bloody past, but also the possibility of a brighter future. Cinematographer Sebastian Cabrera Chelin captures its contradictory nature throughout the film, displaying its bright blue hues during the day and its shimmering darkness at night. 

Ultimately, “Bantú Mama” is a film that finds the light in the darkest place, preferring to believe in hope above all else. Co-writers Albrecht and Herrera clearly have a deep connection to its setting in the Dominican Republic, to the island’s past, present and its future. They also deeply feel the ever-present current of African culture that persists throughout the post-colonial diaspora. They see the beauty and the complexity of feeling as though you belong in two places, to two cultures equally and at the same time. 

Now playing on Netflix.

Poker Face 0

Poker Face

Actor, movie star, and here first-time feature director Russell Crowe is not a billionaire, but he’s likely been in closer proximity to billionaires than most of us. One figures that kind of exposure might have informed his performance here as a tech billionaire—who gives his profession as “gambler” to a would-be portrait painter—arranging an eccentric sendoff for himself in “Poker Face.”

It’s not one of Crowe’s most virtuosic performances, but it does have a comfortable, lived-in feel, despite the considerable anxiety his character, Jake Foley, is feeling. Or may be feeling. He doesn’t entirely let on, which is the point of the title. The movie begins with Crowe’s character in his early teens, bicycling with best buddy Drew, to the local swimming hole. The local AUSTRALIAN swimming hole, I might add. You know, one that’s off the lip of a cliff, and has a waterfall attached. At any rate, it is there that young Jake and his young buddies learn how to play and how to win at cards, in a sequence that bristles with tension at first but then dissipates into a “isn’t it great to be young and heedless” celebration to the tune of Indoor Garden Party’s “Fight Another Day.”

Eventually we’re let in on the source of the current day Foley’s fortune: surveillance software that grew out of computer gaming programs that Jake worked out with his pals. We also learn that Jake’s getting ready to check out, because he pays a visit to a guy named Shaman Bill (Down Under cinema stalwart Jack Thompson) who talks mortality with Jake and trips him out with a truth serum of sorts, which will come into play later. After exchanges with his second wife (the first one died in a car accident, as the truth-serum montage showed) and teen daughter, Jake helicopters to his kitted-out and rare-art-filled house to offer three of his old friends a choice: take a million-dollar car or risk five million in chips on a poker match. Only it’s not a conventional poker match. One of the friends is a liar on too-intimate terms with a member of Jake’s family. The other is a blackmail victim who’s setting Jake up. The one played by Liam Hemsworth (who’s like 26 years younger than Crowe, which makes childhood bestie status a bit improbable, but who’s counting) is a suicidal addict. And Jake’s got just the medicine to make these guys face up to reality.

Except the aforementioned setup is also in play—a trio of armed robbers is on its way to the house to abscond with some of that art. Foley and pals, accompanied by a trusty assistant and eventually by Drew, now played by RZA—sans an Australian accent, but again who’s counting—wind up in the house’s panic room. Armed only with an automatic pistol with one bullet in it (long story). So they determine to wait out the more heavily armed baddies.

But oops, then the second wife and the teen daughter show up. Attention must be paid, action must be taken. Written by Crowe and Stephen M. Coates, “Poker Face” wants to be an awful lot of different things over the course of a commendably short running time. (It’s an hour and thirty-nine minutes, but the credits start at more like an hour-twenty-eight.) The contemplation of mortality drama, the revenge puzzle, the captivity thriller—they all get a whirl here. And it’s all topped off with the Unified Theory of the Good or At Least Redeemable Billionaire. Even if you can sense the fun Crowe is having with the camera setups in certain scenes, “Poker Face” is simultaneously a lot and not all that much.

In theaters today.

Master of Light 0

Master of Light

“It is so complicated to talk about my mom, but she is where my strength comes from. My mother had me when she was sixteen years old, and she was an orphan by the time she was ten. She was the first person to ever love me completely and the first person to ever reject me wholly. We grew up together, so much so that people thought we were brother and sister.”

This is what writer/director Elegance Bratton told me during our recent interview about his achingly personal debut feature, “The Inspection,” which is based on his own experience of discovering his inner strength while serving in the Marine Corps. His sense of worthlessness was instilled in him by his mother, who rejected him after learning he was gay, yet that betrayal did not stop Bratton from loving her or wanting to mend their relationship. He knew that it was the strength she harnessed in order to bring him into the world and care for him, despite all the odds stacked against her, that fueled his own endurance in his journey toward self-acceptance. 

His story echoes that of George Anthony Morton, the subject of Rosa Ruth Boesten’s haunting HBO documentary, “Master of Light,” who details how his mother had him at the mere age of fifteen and was like a sister to him. She only knew how to provide for her child by selling drugs, a lifestyle that resulted in George being locked away for over 11 years in federal prison, robbed of the entirety of his twenties for possessing two ounces of crack cocaine. Only years after his release do his siblings inform him that his mother may have in fact set him up to serve time. It’s the sort of betrayal that other films would select as its chief focus, but “Master of Light” is about the rebuilding of a life rather than the destruction of one. As Morton instructs his young nephew, “I am not what has happened to me, but what I choose to become.”

Just as Bratton funneled his pain into his artistry, Morton spent his years behind bars honing his craft as an extraordinary painter in the tradition of his artistic inspiration, Rembrandt. The film itself is gorgeously lensed by Jurgen Lisse, who plays with the duality of light and darkness expressed throughout both the work and personal struggles of Morton, as he straddles the line between occupying the art world and the impoverished existence of his mother. Yet Boesten and her editor Ephraim Kirkwood also structure the film like a portrait that only gradually reveals itself as each detail is added to the canvas. 

Aside from a couple title cards specifying locations such as Morton’s birthplace of Kansas City, Missouri, the film never places onscreen the names of Morton’s family members or specifies their relationship to one another, leaving us to rely on our own listening skills to complete the family tree. By the film’s final moments, we feel as if we have reached a clearer understanding of each person from Morton’s life that he has chosen to paint, including his devoted partner Ashley, whose upbringing was entirely different from Morton’s, which occasionally causes friction between them as she warns him against aiding his self-destructive mother.

The film’s co-producer, Roger Ross Williams, directed one of the most astonishing films I’ve seen about the transformative power of art, 2016’s “Life Animated,” which explores the ways in which Disney films helped an autistic man connect with the surrounding world that had once seemed out of reach. “Master of Light” is every bit as profound and insightful in illuminating how painting has had a therapeutic role in Morton’s life, enabling him to grapple with his anger at a system designed to entrap people in his situation. His stated aim is to carry into the future artistic traditions that “people of African descent have not had a dignified part in” over the past centuries. 

There’s a striking 360 degree pan around Morton walking through an art museum as he finds himself surrounded on all sides by the framed faces of Caucasians. He compares his experience of finding himself shackled up in Oklahoma to being on an auction block as his prison was selected for him. Many of the film’s most moving moments center on Morton’s interactions with his nephew, who expresses his fear in light of the horrific murders of Black people at the hands of police that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement. Morton argues that it is, in fact, white perpetrators such as these who fear the giant within people like his nephew who has now woken up, and it’s wonderful to see the budding young artist penning rap songs as a way of tackling his own demons.   

As I watched Boesten’s film, I kept being reminded of what Bratton had to said to me about finding strength in forgiveness. “If I had held onto everything that happened, I wouldn’t be here,” he told me. “I would be upset somewhere in a bar, mad at the world.” I imagine Morton feels the same way, and indeed, there is a moment in “Master of Light” in which it appears that he is ready to sever his ties from his mother for good, enraged at her seeming efforts to halt him from succeeding in life. Yet he later tells his therapist that he ultimately wants to believe his mother, who denies her children’s accusations that she sent her son to jail in exchange for avoiding her own incarceration. In many ways, this film would make a hugely rewarding double bill with Bratton’s “The Inspection,” considering how both films take an uncommonly frank and unsentimental look at how one can persevere in the face of rejection. 

“Is it not evident that there was some beauty in the ugliness of all this?” asks Morton during the film’s final moments, just prior to us seeing the beauty on full display upon his canvas. It is there in the face of his mother, whose own desire to love and be loved brought him to this earth and drove her refusal to let him go, even with the countless obstacles and inequities she faced on a daily basis. Boesten’s picture leaves viewers contemplating all that they have been unwilling to forgive, and all that could be achieved once that baggage has been thrust from their shoulders.