Category: Movie Reviews

Queendom 0

Queendom

Jenna Marvin is a fearless 21-year-old queer artist in Russia. Using found objects, layers of makeup and tape, and a jaw-dropping amount of creativity, she manifests otherworldly outfits and strange creatures that seem to have fallen out of a sci-fi TV show and onto the streets of Moscow. Some of her outfits are fun and fanciful, others are directly political, drawing attention to the causes that matter most to Jenna. Her public drag performances earn the curiosity of the public; others scorn her, and the police are only too happy to keep her away from others. Jenna and her friends sometimes film these harsh encounters to capture the homophobic anger her silent presence in public spaces provokes in strangers. But after attending a protest taped in the colors of the Russian flag, Jenna is expelled from beauty school and returns home to Magadan, where her grandparents live and where she must decide for herself how to survive. 

Agniia Galdanova’s sympathetic portrait of the young artist finds Jenna at a delicate moment. One false move, and she could end up in even further trouble with the state. Wait too long to leave, and she could be conscripted into the country’s war on Ukraine. Through Jenna’s experiences, Galdanova’s “Queendom” shows how hostile the country remains to the queer community. Jenna is punished for protesting, for her art, and for simply walking around a grocery store or public spaces in costume. Every outdoor scene comes with a hint of danger, but mostly Jenna attracts puzzled stares. In a world where few people like Jenna feel safe enough to walk outside in an audacious costume, a performer like her is something of a novelty. 

Thankfully, “Queendom” is not a dull documentary on a fascinating subject. In addition to following Jenna through the highs and lows of her time as an artist in Russia, it gives her the space to create performances for the camera, visually accentuating her story in her own style. That includes scenes of Jenna surrounded by a gang of faceless bodies in red, white, and blue as they crowd and bury her as the school reads its decision to expel Jenna or in a mosquito-like costume wandering a strange sandy landscape. These scenes can be funny or serious, like when Jenna wraps up her body, head to toe in gold lamé to wander a desolate theme park and halfheartedly ride one of the rundown attractions, or when she emerges out of a cocoon of what looks like saran wrap, gasping for air as it seems she might be in danger of getting stuck in Russia at a time of war. 

Galdanova and cinematographer Ruslan Fedotov give Jenna marvelous closeups, highlighting the nuances of her performance, the articulate lines of makeup, and intricate costume designs for a dazzling effect. It’s almost as if sleek music videos kept popping up during the on-the-ground filming of Jenna in public. 

A world away from Moscow, Magadan is a desolate place, a former Soviet-era gulag that lived on past that chapter in the country’s history. Yet Jenna is in danger whether she’s in a major city or a rural town because Russia has only penalized its queer citizens, not protected them. Jenna is strikingly bold in her performance and courage, taking her creations to the streets, the faces of the people who might reject her, and this documentary. 

She’s not afraid to put her body on the line for the sake of protest, but she’s not so guarded as to leave out her personal life, itself an emotional tug-of-war between loving her grandparents and frustrated by their reactions to her. They don’t always quite understand her art or why she feels the need to put her safety at risk. They ask her to conform out of fear for her, and time and again, Jenna has to explain why that’s impossible. The struggle to be accepted as a queer person is fought on many fronts, be that internal, societal, and sometimes the most painful of all, with one’s family. Although Jenna’s protest art is strikingly her own, her journey of self-discovery and empowerment is a story many share. 

Brats 0

Brats

I have seen so many hagiographic clip reels masquerading as documentaries that I kind of just presumed that Hulu’s “Brats” would be a similar love letter to the young stars of the ‘80s, the actors and actresses who shaped pop culture in the middle of the decade in a way that’s still being felt today. I’m happy to report it’s not that. It’s an ambitious, introspective look at how pop culture and acting careers can be shaped by reputation and even just a nickname. The words “Brat Pack” became something of an anchor on the careers of the people deemed in this exclusive club of beautiful, successful young stars. One of its members, Andrew McCarthy, is at a point in his life that a lot of us reach when we ask ourselves how they got here. 

“Brats” makes a convincing case that the Brat Pack itself emerged from a shift in the cinematic landscape from movies made about adults for adults to a direct targeting of a younger audience through younger stars like Tom Cruise in “Risky Business” and Kevin Bacon in “Footloose.” Riding that wave were the members of what would become known as The Brat Pack. Using the rule that a Brat Pack movie stars at least two of the core members place the first such film as 1983’s “The Outsiders,” but the same year’s “Class” feels more in tune with what people remember about this group, and that’s followed by the John Hughes movies like “Sixteen Candles” and especially “The Breakfast Club.” Much of “Brats” discusses exactly who is in the Brat Pack – Jon Cryer definitely didn’t want the label back then, and Lea Thompson is more adjacent than in the club – but the most commonly agreed upon members are McCarthy, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy.

Their lives were changed in 1985 when a journalist named David Blum started a profile for Emilio Estevez for New York Magazine, noticing how much his subject and colleagues had a different level of popularity, coining the terms Brat Pack, which has an unbelievable origin story that Blum elucidates in a fantastic interview late in the film. Seriously, I was so happy that McCarthy got to talk to the man who shifted his entire life in a way he couldn’t have possibly predicted. The discussion is excellent when it comes to the complex dynamics that can sometimes arise between journalists and stars. McCarthy really gets to the core of what “Brats” is about in this interview, noting how Blum essentially took control of his career with what seems like a flippant nickname. As someone says earlier in the film, Martin Scorsese wouldn’t call “The Brat Pack,” so the label became a stop sign for these performers, some of whom took years to shake it off, and some who arguably never did.

McCarthy’s film consists primarily of conversations between McCarthy and former Brat Pack members like Estevez, Lowe, Sheedy, and Moore, some of whom he hasn’t seen in decades. One of the most shocking elements of “Brats” for fans of these actors (and that era) may be how much it feels like the label broke up a band some hardcore fans would like to think is still running around a library on detention. Estevez says that a project with him and McCarthy immediately fell apart as every actor in this group fled the label to try to further their careers. Moore seems to have reached the best place about it all, putting it in a context that’s downright moving regarding how much we tend to wallow in things we cannot change and how growth can only come when we stop.

McCarthy smartly refuses to turn “Brats” into mere reminiscence, even going so far as to get cultural commentary from luminaries like Malcolm Gladwell and the great critic Kate Erbland. What he’s done with “Brats” is turn a label into a conversation. Why do we need pop culture brands to help us define what we love? What happens to artists when we put them in creative boxes? There are times when it feels almost like McCarthy is tackling too much, especially when the film diverts to become a sort of love letter to John Hughes for a bit too long. Still, I’ll gladly take a documentary about a pop culture moment with too much to talk about when so many of them feel like they have nothing to say beyond what we already know and love.

I’m just old enough to remember the explosion of fame that greeted the Brat Pack, who some may forget were barely old enough themselves to know what was happening. The well-spoken Lowe makes an intriguing case that the Brat Pack were the main driving force in an entire cultural shift to stories of young people, which gives “Brats” unexpected poignancy in that these actors and actresses who made such an impact were reduced to an undeniably insulting label. “Brats” is a reclamation and a reshaping of that label. And it’s overdue.

On Hulu now.

Inside Out 2 0

Inside Out 2

Wait. Pixar finally has a quality animated film hitting theaters? Granted, it’s a sequel. But after seeing “Turning Red” pushed to Disney+ while a lukewarm film like “Lightyear” took its theatrical place, it’s taken far too many years for the studio to have a distinguished domestically released animated adventure. Even as a reintroduction to a familiar world, Kelsey Mann’s feature directorial debut “Inside Out 2,” a zippy yet gooey animated quest about belonging and individuality during teenage girlhood feels like a final, albeit predictable, return to normalcy.  

The peppy sequel begins with the upbeat Joy (Amy Poehler) believing she has perfected an unimpeachable system. With the help of the usual crew—Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale), and Disgust (Liza Lapira)—she deposits the glass balls holding Riley’s worst memories to a distant realm called the ‘back of the mind’ and deposits the best moments to an underground lake whose glowing tendrils reach from the glimmering waters toward the sky, forming the girl’s core beliefs. “I am a good person,” Riley often repeats to herself. 

You can’t really argue with Joy’s methods. Riley, now 13 years old, is giving, smart, and, by Joy’s own account, exceptional. The girl who once feared loneliness in her new Bay Area surroundings has a tight-knit friend group too: Grace (Grace Lu) and Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green). The trio are so close that they’ve formed a formidable team on their hockey squad. They’ve even caught the eye of Coach Roberts (Yvette Nicole Brown), a high school hockey coach who has invited them to a three-day camp where players like Val Ortiz (Lilimar)—Riley’s hero—attend. For Joy and her cohorts, you can’t ask for much more. 

Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein’s broad screenplay throws the biggest, most obvious obstacle possible at the teenager Riley: Puberty. A late-night alarm, in fact, announces its beginning, leading to some additional emotions appearing: the light-emo silence of Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), the French beatnik Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the needy Envy (Ayo Edebiri), and an ambitious Anxiety (Maya Hawke). When Riley learns her best friends will be attending a different high school next year, Anxiety takes it upon herself to wholly recraft Riley in the hopes that new version of her will impress Val. She throws away Riley’s present sense of self to the back of her mind and exiles Joy and the other old emotions. It’s up to Joy and company to restore Riley’s former sense, journeying to the back of the mind, before Anxiety totally upends Riley’s ability to function.

Mann doesn’t necessarily break the formula the first “Inside Out” established. This is a fairly straightforward yet affecting story about Joy and Anxiety, both realizing that personhood can’t be reverse-engineered. Riley is so focused on gaining Val’s approval, thereby negating her former best friends, that she merely reflects Val rather than herself. She is also so driven by her competitive desires that she only feels satisfaction whenever she either gains approval from Val or proves her competitive dominance. Seeing Anxiety remold Riley into a blank character as Joy and the other emotions trace through the recesses of Riley’s mind makes for a mostly satisfying structure, allowing the film to assuredly bounce through visually dazzling blitzes of color and whimsy for an intoxicating style that at once feels gentle, fun, and safely crowd-pleasing as it deals with the pressure of being a teenage girl trying to conform to the lofty standards set by other teenage girls.      

That doesn’t mean new jokes aren’t added along the way: a nightmare fueling “Blue’s Clues”-inspired character, a scene in Imagination Land recalling “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” and Mount Crushmore are sharp zingers. The new emotions, however, aren’t as memorable as the primary characters from the prior film. For such an urgent emotion, Envy pretty much fades into the background. Embarrassment has its moments, particularly when put in conversation with Sadness. Ennui’s act wears a tad thin after its initial fast start—the moodiness of being French is understandably a great well to keep hitting. 

None of the new characters carry the same heartbreaking resonance as Bing Bong, who, admittedly, is among the greatest animated characters of the past decade. It’s surprising, then, that Anxiety and Joy barely have any scenes together. Maybe trying to recreate the two-handed dynamic that fueled the first film felt too obvious of a narrative choice. But without much else to replace it, the film does lean heavily on the barrage of jokes it throws at the viewer to carry it through its predictable maneuvering. 

This is also another film that uses people of color—in this case, Riley’s Asian and Black best friend—to prop up a white girl’s personal growth. In this scenario, the white girl is unquestionably mean to her friends. But it’s okay because she’s going through it and needs their hurt to ultimately learn a valuable lesson that’ll result in them forgiving her. It’s simply more of the same trite privileging. 

Even with these bumps, “Inside Out 2” zips confidently along, fashioning a hypnotic and transportive imaginativeness that is incredible to take in. Powered by an aching core of emotion, the film still manages to be a wondrous distillation of the overwhelming angst, incredible solitude, and difficult changes many teenagers are going through. The film grants an immediate roadmap to navigate this period while allowing adults to laugh from the comfort of having already lived through that debilitating phase of life. 

In a late scene, Riley, unburdened by the drive to succeed, experiences pure joy. In her bliss, she nearly levitates, moving and breathing across the ice with the ease of light shining through a windowpane. Through her delight, you can’t help but feel how the message of learning to inhabit an activity for the love of it rather than for social cache or short-lived gratification is still necessary for all of us to hear.  Even if its ring sounds a tad too familiar.      

Lumberjack the Monster 0

Lumberjack the Monster

It’s incredible that a filmmaker as renowned as Takashi Miike can have a film stealth drop on Netflix. But that’s what happens when you make as many flicks as the director of “Audition,” “13 Assassins,” and “Ichi the Killer” has helmed over his illustrious career. Seriously, there’s a very strong chance he’s on a set right now, having accumulated over 100 directorial credits as of this writing. However, Miike is more than a “stat compiler”; he’s an ace craftsman who rarely phones it in, elevating a truly clunky project like “Lumberjack the Monster” into something better than it has any right to be. The script by Hiroyoshi Koiwai doesn’t exactly hold together narratively or thematically. Still, there are Miike touches throughout “Lumberjack” that keep it entertaining, even if he’s probably made a better movie while you’re reading this.

“Lumberjack” opens with a horrifying scene involving a deranged woman, multiple dead bodies of children, and a blood spray that can only be described as a geyser. When people die in a Miike movie like this, there’s almost a cartoonish theatricality to it that’s truly effective, an exaggerated quality that gives a genre pic like this a more operatic register – honestly, the movie could have used more of it. Right from this opening scene, there’s a sense that Miike is having the kind of twisted fun he used to do more often when he broke through internationally. However, one of the issues with “Lumberjack” is that it constantly feels like the script is holding Miike back from his more intense tendencies. He finds a way around some of that, but there’s a better version of this film that goes for broke. The less conservative – and that’s putting it lightly – Miike of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s would have whipped this movie into a frenzy.

And that’s because the narrative potential is there. “Lumberjack” is about a serial killer named Akira Ninomiya (an effectively chilly Kazuya Kamenashi) who is attacked by a figure dressed like a character from a children’s book named Lumberjack. When he’s being treated after the assault, the doctor discovers a neurochip in Akira’s brain and discovers that all of Lumberjack’s victims have a similar chip, one that can be traced back to an orphanage and the aforementioned deranged woman. It turns out that the chip has something to do with Akira’s murderous behavior, and figuring out how his life was shaped by his past is the only way to figure out who’s trying to kill him.

The one-on-one between a serial killer who might be finally feeling a moral pang of guilt for the first time in his life and a nearly supernatural being trying to provide him a sort of karmic justice is the strength of “Lumberjack the Monster.” The rest of the cast is pretty thinly portrayed, although Nanao, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, and especially Shido Nakamura do their best with underwritten roles. When “Lumberjack the Monster” gets bogged down in exposition explaining the motives of the title character and Akira, it gets flattened by an unengaging story. Still, it pops back up like an unkillable monster through Miike’s craft, evident not just in the big sequences but the overall flow of the movie.

“Lumberjack the Monster” isn’t a great film but it’s good enough for Miike fans, and could maybe even be a gateway to his career for those who stumble on it on Netflix. You don’t know what kind of cinematic chaos (and greatness) awaits you.

On Netflix now.

Under Paris 0

Under Paris

Xavier Gens is back with his second stateside release of the year in a film that’s already topped the Netflix charts, the defiantly goofy “Under Paris,” a movie that almost feels like it’s paying homage to the master in its nods to Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” before going full “Sharknado” in an insane final act that will be the reason most people remember this movie. Gens can’t quite find the balance between those two films and much of “Under Paris” looks as ridiculous as its plotting with over-done CGI and stylish cinematography, but this is a reasonable diversion on a summer day, a Netflix flick that gets in, gets bloody, and gets out in a way that sets up an inevitable sequel that will likely be even more preposterous than this one—in a good way.

Sometimes a wonderfully simple pitch is all a movie needs: There’s a shark (or sharks) in the Seine. Go! That’s the wonderfully effective premise of “Under Paris,” which actually opens in what is basically a water garbage dump in the Pacific (which is a real thing), where we’re introduced to a marine researcher named Sophia Assalas (Bérénice Bejo of “The Artist” and “The Past,” who gives a notable amount of gravity to what could have been a thankless role) who is hunting a mako shark named Lilith. When Sophia’s husband tries to take a blood sample from the shark, he’s attacked and killed, setting up both a personal trauma for our heroine and a personal connection to the shark. Check and check.

Three years later, Sophia is working in Paris when she discovers that Lilith is not just alive and well, but happens to be in the Seine, the river that runs through the heart of the City of Lights, which also happens to be the upcoming site of a triathlon because of course it is. The attention that the event will bring to the city gives “Under Paris” a nice layer of “Jaws”-esque tension with Sophia and her team knowing that there’s danger in the water but the mayor (Anne Marivin) refusing to take the precautions necessary to prevent the loss of life and the gain of shark food. Caught in the middle of the tug-of-war between Sophia and the mayor is a cop named Adil (the charismatic Nassim Lyes, who also starred in Gens’ last film “Mayhem!”), who everyone who has ever seen a movie knows will eventually be convinced by Sophia to do something to stop the upcoming watery bloodshed. But will it be too late?

Gens and his team of writers—there are four credited, and one can sometimes sense a few too many cooks in this kitchen—take a bit too long setting things up, but they deliver when they need to. Even though Gens is obviously foreshadowing the carnage to come in the final scenes of “Under Paris,” they really pay off on that promise with a few scenes that need to be seen by anyone who has scheduled viewings around Shark Week or seen all four “Jaws” movies multiple times. It’s impressive insanity, and it ends with a sequence that recalls Roland Emmerich as much as it does Steven Spielberg.

There’s a version of “Under Paris” that’s smarter than this one (and a bit tighter in the editing department), but this is the kind of no-nonsense genre flick that seems perfect for Netflix in its brutal simplicity. It’s “Jaws” in the Seine. And there’s something almost charming about its willingness to be a blunt instrument in a time when so many movies overcomplicate or drag out their storytelling. “Under Paris” has a little bit of ecological messaging and commentary on the political games that cost lives, but it’s mostly just about sharks and swimmers. And that works in any language. 

Bad Boys: Ride or Die 0

Bad Boys: Ride or Die

I’m not coming out and accusing the writers of “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” of using A.I., a touchy subject in Hollywood these days. But if a computer had written this blockbuster sequel, it wouldn’t turn out much different. 

Serving as a more direct sequel to 2020’s “Bad Boys for Life” than people might expect, “Ride or Die” checks all the boxes of a movie like this in a way that feels depressingly half-hearted, afraid to do anything new or creative. It admittedly comes to life in spurts primarily through its hyperkinetic photography and editing. Still, it lacks enough spontaneity or ingenuity, completely content to go through the motions by taking as few risks as possible. It turns out that there was a third option: Ride, Die, or Tread Water.

Almost everything in “Ride or Die” aggressively mirrors something in the last film, from the nausea-inducing drive through Miami that opens each installment to a close encounter with the Grim Reaper for one of the beloved characters. The previous film saw Mike Lowery (Will Smith) getting shot on South Beach, while this one gets going with Marcus Miles (Martin Lawrence) having a heart attack at Mike’s wedding to Christine (Melanie Liburd). While the attempted murder in the third film started a narrative about friendship and making the most of another chance at life, this one is used for a bit goofier purpose as Marcus believes he’s now basically immortal. After all, while he was near death, the ghost of Captain Conrad Howard (Joe Pantoliano) told him that it wasn’t his time—so now he can run through traffic, even though his wife and work life partner won’t let him eat Skittles anymore.

Whereas “For Life” had immediacy with the attempt on Mike’s life launching the plot, this one meanders for too long before getting down to business. While Marcus was clinging to life, Conrad-Wan Kenobi told him that “a storm is coming,” which turns out to be in the form of a cartel enforcer named McGrath (a truly dull and uninspired Eric Dane), who is basically just a plot function for action. One of the most poorly defined and generally incompetent villains in a blockbuster in years is introduced, framing Howard for corruption by wiring drug money into the deceased captain’s account. As the system seems to be burning Howard’s legacy, Marcus and Mike know that they have to clear his name at whatever cost, a mission that requires some insider cartel knowledge courtesy of the incarcerated Armando (the charismatic Jacob Scipio), Mike’s son from the last film.

It’s not a “Bad Boys” movie if the heroes aren’t pushing back against the system, which includes in this film a potential future Miami mayor named Lockwood (Ioan Gruffudd), who is romantic partners with Mike’s ex and the new Captain, Rita Secada (Paola Nunez). It also turns out that Captain Howard’s daughter Judy (Rhea Seehorn) is a US Marshall, and her daughter Callie (Quinn Hemphill) joins the action largely to be another eventual damsel-in-distress. A cast that’s way too big also includes Tasha Smith as Marcus’s wife Theresa (a recasting from Theresa Randle), the return of Vanessa Hudgens & Alexander Ludwig, and a bunch of random cameos, some of which are inspired, some of which are again echoes of things done better in previous films.

Of course, a Bad Boys movie is about the leads—the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence has always been at the heart of why people love these movies. Much of the charm of the 2020 flick was seeing how they hadn’t lost a step in that department despite 17 years between flicks. Bluntly, it’s just not as tight here, with a lot of jokes in the first half falling flat and so much of the material that’s supposed to read as dramatic feeling shallow and overly familiar, making for a film that’s shorter than the last one but feels notably longer because of its clunky flow. Sure, no one comes to a Bad Boys for depth, but writers Chris Bremner and Will Beall can’t find the right voice. This crops up most notably in the way they keep peppering in more complex ideas like rampant corruption and even their villain’s radicalization through torture, only to do precisely nothing with it. If you’re gonna be goofy and dumb, lean into it—don’t casually bring up how 9/11 changed the world.

To be fair, directors Adil & Bilall know how to deliver in a few action set-pieces wherein their obsession with drone photography gets to be the film’s real star. Every shootout features a circling drone camera view of the action, spinning around the room in a manner that gives the movie most of its momentum. Sure, some of it may be designed to hide that Smith and Lawrence can’t exactly pull off John Wick-esque choreography at this point, but there’s a chaotic fluidity to the action that’s the film’s greatest strength. It’s flashy and stylish and keeps the viewer’s eye bouncing around the frame to take it all in. A helicopter sequence and a final shootout at a gator farm are truly enjoyable—even as the plot and the motivations of the cogs within them make less and less sense as the movie goes on (never mind the physics that give Marcus the strength of the Hulk in that copter)—and Scipio deserves some credit for the way he carries action scenes with an intensity that the rest of the film often lacks. He could easily carry his own ‘Bad Boys Jr.’

“Bad Boys for Life” had the element of surprise, a much-delayed sequel that blended nostalgia and modern action filmmaking techniques to satisfy viewers just before the pandemic. It’s understandable why the team behind “Ride or Die” chose to run it back again instead of taking risks and building on what worked about that comeback with something new. Financially understandable doesn’t make it good. Even A.I. can tell you that.

The Dead Don’t Hurt 0

The Dead Don’t Hurt

One of my great great great grandfathers fought for the Union and survived the Battle of Antietam. After his infantry unit was wiped out, he survived by crawling under a heap of corpses and staying there for two days. As a child, I often found myself thinking about a person doing what he did and then going on to live a normal life, or whatever was classified as normal in the late 1800s. I thought about him again watching Viggo Mortensen’s film “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” a movie that injects the sorts of monumental moments of suffering and violence that you’re used to seeing in more traditional, action-oriented Westerns into a tale that is mainly interested in the relationship between a man, a woman, and a child, and the intrigue among various characters who live in the nearest small town. 

Written, directed and scored by Mortensen (in his second venture behind the camera, following the contemporary family drama “Falling“), and set before and during the US Civil War, “The Dead Don’t Hurt” has standard genre elements, but treats them as a way into something different than the usual. There’s a sadistic psychopath who dresses in black, some rich men who lord their power over a Southwestern town, a goodhearted and soft-spoken sheriff, his steely wife, their beautiful, innocent son, and other variations on types that you tend to encounter in movies set during this period of US history. But there are no stagecoach or train robberies, quick-draws at high noon, extended gunfights, dynamite explosions, etc. There is violence of various kinds, and it’s presented realistically and unsparingly, but not at such length that the movie seems to be getting off on pain. The pacing is what you would call “slow” if you don’t like the movie, “deliberate” if you do. Underlying all if it is a mysteriousness regarding how things happen, why they happen, who they happen to, and whether anything that any character did could have prevented any of it.

Mortensen stars as Holger Olsen, a Danish immigrant who ends up as the sheriff of a small town in the American West. He lives in a tiny cabin in canyon. I won’t tell you exactly where the movie begins or ends because it’s nonlinear, and accounting for things in the manner of a linear timeline would give a false impression of the movie and spoil important moments. Suffice to say that Holger goes to San Francisco and meets Vivienne Le Coudy (Vicky Krieps), a French Canadian flower seller, and takes her back to his cabin, where she overcomes her disappointment at his bare bones lifestyle and tries to build a life for them and the son they will eventually raise together. 

At the same time, the movie keeps returning to the aforementioned town, which is controlled by an arrogant businessman named Alfred Jeffries (Garret Dillahunt), his violent, entitled son, Weston (Solly McLeod), and the town mayor Rudolph Schiller (Danny Huston), who controls most of the local real estate, plus the bank. There’s tension surrounding the ownership of a saloon that’s tended by an eloquent barkeep-manager named Alan Kendall (W Earl Brown). A shootout depicted early in the movie passes the saloon into the hands of the Jeffries family. Vivienne ends up working there. Weston takes a fancy to her, and doesn’t respond well to being told he can’t have her.

I mentioned earlier that this is a nonlinear movie and I’m mentioning it again here just in case you think there’s any standard cause-and-effect dynamic at work. It takes a while to get used to how the story is  told. Mortensen’s script deliberately confounds the way our moviegoing brains are typically asked to function. He starts near the end of his story and moves from the present tense into different parts of the past as needed. Time-shifts are not tied to plot or even theme. They seem as intuitive as brushstrokes in a painting. 

There are also flashbacks to Vivienne’s childhood, wherein she lost her father to war against the English—a trauma that sparks a dream or fantasy about a knight in armor riding through a forest. This image connects to the midsection of the movie, which is where Holger impulsively decides to enlist in the Union army to go off and fight against slavery and earn a promised enlistment payment, leaving Vivienne alone in that tiny house in the canyon. This might strike contemporary viewers as a casually callous thing to do, but it’s the kind of thing that happened plenty back then, and tends to be described in family histories with a sentence like, “Then he went off to fight in the war and came home a year later.” 

The writing and acting of all the characters is intelligent and measured. You get a sense of a complete person who lived a full life offscreen even when you’re observing a character who only has a few judiciously chosen moments, such as Brown’s character, who is a bit too pleased with his own eloquence but sometimes seems ashamed after he verbally runs roughshod over others; or a judge played by Ray McKinnon who presides over the trial of a citizen wrongly accused of a horrible crime, and carries on as if God guides his gavel-hand; or a reverend played by veteran character actor John Getz (of “Blood Simple” and “The Fly”) whose community role requires him to oversee an execution whether it’s justified or not. (Brown, Dillahunt and McKinnon were all on the HBO Western “Deadwood,” a go-to casting resource for this type of project; it’s a treat to see them fully inhabit very different characters from ones they’ve played in the past.) 

None of the characters unveil themselves as you might expect. Holger initially comes across as a Clint Eastwood-style, strong-silent he-man archetype, but he’s less decisive, more sensitive and learned. We often see him reading books or writing in a journal or on parchment. He dotes on Little Vincent (Atlas Green), his son with Vivienne, with a sensitivity and physical warmth that’s unusual in male-dominated films like this. His sense of honor and his relationship to the Westerns hero code that’s often summed up as “doing what a man’s gotta do” is complicated as well. Olsen makes a lot of decisions that would result in negative comments on audience preview cards at a focus group screening (hard to imagine Mortensen doing one) because they are, to say the least, not things that a typical Western action hero would do. They’re more like what a real person with a complicated psychology would do—things he might regret in hindsight. 

Krieps, who broke out with “Phantom Thread,” is the true star of this movie, even though it’s bracketed by Mortensen’s character riding out on a long journey. She’s the only character who gets flashbacks and dreams. She threads the needle of making her character seem self-assured, tough, and self-respecting yet never anachronistically “feminist,” in the contrived, phony way that a lot of period pieces feel obligated to write female characters of earlier times. Though unassuming in how she applies technique, Krieps is a deep and substantive film star, in the tradition of actresses from earlier eras like Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman. She makes a connection with the viewer. You can feel the hope drain from Vivienne when she keeps a stiff upper lip during awful experiences that she has no control over. But you also feel the resolve when she makes the best of a bad situation, and the excitement that blossoms in her when she’s treated as a person of value.

Not too many filmmakers have ever made movies like this, and when you do come across one (such as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” or the Charlton Heston movie “Will Penny”, or “Deadwood”, or the 1970s movie “The Emigrants“) it stands out, in part because it avoids the predicable, ritualized high points that the genre is built upon, and instead concentrates on significant moments of interaction between characters who do not have a 20th or 21st century mindset superimposed on them. The lack of pandering to contemporary sensibilities means that all the characters remain slightly at a remove from us throughout the story. It also means that they come across as more real. Yes, certain aspects of the human experience are universal and have never changed. But there is a huge difference across time periods in how individuals understand themselves and each other, and this is a rare movie that respects that.

The movie also has a genuinely cinematic instinct for when to linger on a moment and when to cut around it, or allude to it as something that occurred offscreen. A lot of the longer sequences are just extended interactions between the film’s two romantic leads, who have a pleasing banter but derive a lot of their chemistry from looking at each other with resentment, yearning, gratitude, or disappointment. You almost never get to see material of this sort play out at length in a film set in the American West. Or any kind of film.

Mortensen is 65 now, three years older than Eastwood when he made “Unforgiven,” and the entertainment industry is even less hospitable to Westerns now than it was three-plus decades ago, so it’s tough to imagine him making more movies like this one. But he might turn out to be one of the great Western directors if he did. 

Young Woman and the Sea 0

Young Woman and the Sea

Daisy Ridley battles jellyfish and the patriarchy with equal pluck and aplomb in “Young Woman and the Sea.”  

Ridley stars in this compelling biographical drama as Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel. Ederle accomplished this feat in 1926—nearly a century before the open-water swimming triumph depicted in last year’s Oscar-nominated “Nyad,” to which comparisons are inevitable. For one thing, sports nutrition has come a long way since then. No one was lowering nets full of tea and fried chicken down to Diana Nyad as she made the arduous 100-mile journey from Cuba to Florida. 

That’s one of the most fascinating and frustrating elements of director Joachim Rønning’s film, based on sportswriter Glenn Stout’s book of the same name: The way in which the men in charge of this sport fundamentally misunderstand what Ederle and other female athletes need to train, compete and thrive. Also, they simply don’t care. Mostly, they’re downright hostile, even to Olympians. But as women, we’re resourceful, and Ederle consistently finds a way. Her quick wit and a strong sense of self buoy her when others underestimate her; the same fierce spark we saw in Ridley as Rey in the last three “Star Wars” movies burns brightly here, as well. 

“Young Woman and the Sea” is a worthwhile film for other young women to see, especially if they’re involved in sports. But its themes of daring and perseverance should resonate with anyone who’s ever gone after a goal. Rønning has found a solid balance here: He’s made a feel-good sports film that’s stirring without being schmaltzy, one that dips into genre tropes just enough to provide familiarity and structure.  

It’s also a thrilling adventure. The Norwegian filmmaker, whose Oscar-nominated “Kon-Tiki” from 2012 probably prepared him for the challenges of shooting in the water, makes us feel like we’re slicing through the waves alongside Ederle. Her passage across a bright-red jellyfish field is particularly harrowing, and the depth of her fear is evident, even in the dark of night, once she’s forced to go it alone in the shallows outside Dover. Cinematographer Oscar Faura (“The Impossible,” “The Imitation Game”) vividly depicts a variety of environments, from Ederle’s cramped, working-class upbringing to the sun-dappled vastness of the English Channel.  

But when we first see Ederle, as a sickly child in 1914 Manhattan, she’s on the brink of succumbing to measles. The adorable Olive Abercrombie plays her as a spirited tween who overcomes this physical adversity to pursue her dream of learning to swim, even though that’s something girls just don’t do, as her traditional, German-immigrant father (Kim Bodnia) repeatedly scolds her. Ridley takes over as a teenager, with Tilda Cobham-Hervey (Helen Reddy in the biopic “I Am Woman”) playing Trudy’s older sister, Meg. (They’re well-cast as sisters and share a warm chemistry, but both actresses look too mature to be playing characters who are so much younger, which is distracting for a while.) Their elegant and headstrong mother (Jeanette Hain) insists that both daughters should become swimmers, which inspires the obligatory training montages in a tiny, indoor pool, led by the amusingly no-nonsense Lottie Epstein (Sian Clifford).  

The script from veteran screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can,” “The Terminal”) poignantly balances Trudy’s home life and her athletic ambitions – the friction between what’s expected of her as a butcher’s daughter and what she wants for herself. She’s fully aware of the path that’s been set for her—the arranged marriage to a nice German boy, the neighborhood she’d likely never leave—and she simply rejects it all. The way she holds her own at a hotel bar in the French coastal town that’s the launching point for her 21-mile swim suggests she’ll be just fine before she ever sets foot in the water. Among the hard-drinking locals, Stephen Graham and Alexander Karim stand out in crucial roles as competitors who become unlikely allies when they recognize their own insane drive in her. 

Still, this is a movie in which the journey is the destination, quite literally. The low-tech method of reporting on her progress across the English Channel initially provides some laughs, then great tension. The ebullient sense of joy on the other hand is crowd-pleasing without being corny. “Young Woman and the Sea” doesn’t reinvent the genre in any way, but it keeps us engrossed for every strenuous stroke.

Ren Faire 0

Ren Faire

Lance Oppenheim’s three-part HBO docuseries “Ren Faire” walks that fine line between mocking and celebrating its incredibly unique subjects. I told a friend just now that I was reviewing a docuseries about a “Succession”-esque power struggle at a Renaissance fair, and he said, “So, a comedy?” Yes and no. While aspects of “Ren Faire” are undeniably funny, there are also parts that are equally fascinating regarding the human condition to give everything you have to one thing, either because you love it or really because you know nothing else. These people certainly don’t think there’s anything comedic about Renaissance cosplay or the art of perfecting kettle corn. And while Oppenheim’s series sometimes feels a little over-directed and over-heated, that makes sense for the world of Renaissance Fairs, where what some might dismiss as comedy is taken very, very seriously.

You won’t soon forget King George Coulam, the octogenarian multi-millionaire founder of the Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest of these events in the world. Coulam is obscenely wealthy—a glimpse of his profile on a site where he’s looking for a woman half his age to be a sugar daddy for lists his wealth at over $100 million—and, well, the descriptor ‘irascible’ would be the politest way to define him. Coulam lords over his empire like an actual King, clearly taking his position in this operation seriously but also succumbing to what would delicately be called a toxic workplace. He randomly yells at employees when he’s not scouring the web for a woman to live out his last decade on Earth with. A series of dates with potential partners at Olive Garden wherein Coulam repeatedly asserts the importance of natural breasts are truly amazing docu-theater, the kind of docuseries moments that make this show feel a bit more like “The Righteous Gemstones” than “Succession.”

Coulam’s empire is more than turkey legs in an abandoned field and endless breadsticks on awkward dates. The Texas Renaissance Festival is an impressive operation—one wishes the series spent a bit more time just on the sheer scope of an event with thousands of attendees, multiple shops, events, restaurants, etc. And Coulam loves to bathe in his success, whether it’s the opulence of his “rococo” house—which he basically explains means a lot of extravagance—or the fact that he’s basically founded a small town around the festival, over which he’s the mayor, of course. Coulam is judge, jury, and executioner in this mini-society, proclaiming how he wants to step down and find a successor but is increasingly erratic in his judgments and behaviors. It’s hard to be the King.

“Ren Faire” pushes forward three potential heirs to the Coulam throne: Jeff Baldwin, Louie Migliaccio, and Darla Smith. Baldwin is the most sympathetic of the bunch, an actor who loves Shrek: The Musical and seems to come to life on the stage. As the general manager of the festival, the kind Baldwin has undeniably been a success, but King George doubts his instincts to run the whole thing and gets obsessed with the fact that Jeff wants to hire his wife, even though she’s qualified and experienced to take the job. George is the insulated and privileged boss whose quirks can become toxic if you happen to rub him the wrong way on the wrong day. One feels that Jeff has done that a few times, which is normal for an employee, but George isn’t a normal boss. To take the “Succession” thing a step further, if George is Logan than Jeff is Kendall—the obvious heir to everyone but daddy.

The competition for the throne comes down to a kettle corn pioneer named Louie Migliaccio, who has created and managed numerous businesses on the Ren Faire property and has the bankroll from a family of wealthy donors to buy out George’s legacy. Vendor coordinator Darla Smith watches as Louie and Jeff battle each other and makes a bid for power on her own. Other personalities move in and out of King George’s court. Still, Oppenheim latches onto the “Game of Thrones” aspect of this business almost to a fault. There’s a version of “Ren Faire” that grounds its drama in a world that feels less exaggerated merely by presenting a few more of the “normal” people around George and his successors. For example, an assistant spends his days updating George’s dozen-plus dating website profiles and taking him to the aforementioned Olive Garden encounters. I wanted a whole episode about what he thinks of all of this.

However, the insulated, tight POV in “Ren Faire” is intentional in that it makes us feel as crazy as George and keeps the series engaging in George’s unpredictable immediacy. He is a man driven around his empire, complaining when people aren’t wearing hats or yelling at his minions about their lack of planning. He is feared as much as he is respected, a man who seems downright confused at times … except when he’s talking about his fair. He is a riveting docuseries subject in that he seems entirely unaware of his flaws, having been lauded and admired in his self-created kingdom for generations. No wonder he doesn’t want to give up the throne. Who would he be without it?

Whole series screened for review. Premieres on HBO on June 2nd.

What You Wish For 0

What You Wish For

The issue of the spoiler remains a critical one in cinematic discourse. At this moment, it weighs on this reviewer particularly heavily. “What You Wish For,” a picture written and directed by Nicholas Tomnay and starring Nick Stahl, is one that I went into relatively cold, and that contributed significantly to my enjoyment of the thriller that moves into horror territory (is that a spoiler already?).

So, my intention here is to recommend the movie, which is anchored by a consistently understated performance by Stahl. While only in his mid-40s, his character here, Ryan, looks like he’s had a bumpy ride through maybe more than one dissolute lifetime. His facial features seem to have been sculpted by nicotine and alcohol. After he gets off a plane that’s deposited him in an unnamed South or Central American country, he looks at his phone, expresses silent distress at a text message from a party named “Rabbit,” and naively waves a ten-dollar bill at some locals hoping for a ride into a rain forest. He’s eager to disappear. To his surprise, he’s greeted by a driver who whisks him into the mountains. He is, as it happens, expected. His bro buddy Jack (Brian Groh) is roosting in a gorgeous house, and he’s invited Ryan to hang with him a bit. Both Ryan and Jack are high-end chefs, and Jack’s got himself a high-end private dining gig while Ryan is on the run from gamblers—repped by the aforementioned “Rabbit”—who eventually start threatening Ryan’s mom.

Jack has to drive into town—he’s bought a junk car, deliberately, for obscure reasons (at least at first) to conduct his shopping trips with—and Ryan idly looks at Jack’s laptop and discovers the guy’s got a relatively massive bank account. He asks his buddy about the gig he’s on, and he offers his services as a sous-chef. Jack shrugs that off and later complains that he’s working for “the worst people in the world.” This confounds Ryan a little bit. With this kind of money, in these kinds of settings, what can be wrong?

Well, Ryan finds out, and this is where this reviewer encounters a quandary. Now, if you’re keen on guessing the deal, it might be easy—a friend did it at lunch the other day. The thing was, he was joking. The revelation may strike some as slightly risible, at least. One of the things that makes the movie work is that it acknowledges this fact but then makes the premise terrifyingly credible. The movie’s title, “What You Wish For,” adapted from a familiar adage, implies a variation of a “Talented Mr. Ripley.” Ryan envies Jack’s circumstances without first appreciating that their origins are in something far gnarlier than a patrician trust fund. Once the realization sets in, Ryan’s terror turns to desperation and, even scarier, resignation.

Stahl’s acting has always had a quiet power, communicating roiling emotional distress under an often vaguely menacing stillness. This gives a fresh perspective to Ryan’s eventual impotence as he negotiates his new identity—because Jack indeed leaves the picture about a quarter into the film—and tries to please his very particular clients, fronted by the ever-so-polite Imogene (Tamsin Topolski).

Again, without overtly giving too much away, because this is the choice I have made, much of the movie has the kind of suspense reminiscent of the scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in which Norman Bates is dumping Marion Crane’s car, with her dead body in the trunk, into the swamp behind the Bates Motel. It sinks steadily for a while, then stalls, and we gasp. And we wonder, why are we gasping? We shouldn’t really be rooting for Norman here, but we do. So it is with Stahl’s Ryan. Who, the movie continues to insist throughout, happens to be a damn deft chef.