Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

Oniony, experimental doc with fewer layers than there are syllables in its title, but still quite a few: set entirely in Central Park, we see a film crew in action as they make a fictional, ill-defined documentary, which its director says is about “sexuality,” without much further explanation. We also see that the crew is, in turn, being filmed by yet another film crew (the crew shooting that crew is off-screen, capturing the outermost layer of the film). That’s it, that’s as simply as I can think to put it. Each level has its moments of interest: when, at one point, the first crew debates what kind of movie they’re making, it’s striking how much the men apparently love the sound of their own voices, the women not so easily getting a word in. Perhaps most fascinating is how the levels are periodically collapsed through an inspired use of split screens, which led me to imagine how it might have worked as a multi-channel video installation versus as a feature film. Meta to the nth degree, its navel-gazing is in service of questions about performance versus authenticity, and the tension between a director as a creative individual and a crew as collective entity.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One Trailer

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

Follow Michael on Letterboxd or connect with him on Twitter.

King Richard

Written by Patrick Hao

62/100

I forgot how good of a movie star Will Smith is. Maybe because Smith hasn’t really been able to shine as a movie star since Focus. Maybe it’s because he has crafted an overly upbeat, created by an algorithm online social media persona. But geez, King Richard only works because Will Smith is a goddamn bonafide movie star. 

While formally King Richard is entirely rote and average, its conception is weird. King Richard is a biopic, not of Venus or Serena Williams, the famous tennis stars, but of their father Richard Williams (Will Smith) as he gets the two the training that they need to become who they would become, all while instilling wholesome values of family and work ethic. It seems strange for a biopic and sports drama whose subject is the father of the famous athlete until it is revealed that the Williams sisters had a big part in the production of the film. The film portrays the idealized family, struggling in poverty in Compton, but trying to rise above classicism and racism to become icons. 

Early on, Richard Williams composes a document detailing how he would get his daughters to success. This includes getting them lessons from renowned coaches like Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) through sheer force of will. The film delves a bit into William’s short-tempered-ness and a brief hankering over how he is working his daughters to the bone, but overall the film takes a decidedly approving attitude towards Williams’s treatment of his daughters. The film only provides thin sketches of the Williams sisters as there are just mere conduits to celebrate the persistence of their father. 

This is all well and good because we know the results of Richard Williams’s persistence. But, the film’s choice to not interrogate Williams as a person or his methods belies how this film is a vanity project celebration of two of the producer’s father. This is especially apparent as the film casts a judgemental eye towards other parents overburdening their children with the pressure of becoming a great sports star. The story is too clean and simple. Slight changes to the tone could easily make this film about the toxicity of a father. Instead the film, rightly or wrongly, focuses on the Horatio Alger aspects of the film. There is some pushback from Brandy Williams (Aunjanue Wallis), the matriarch of the family who is just as instrumental as a coach and parent to the success of Venus and Serena as Richard. But, she ultimately supports her husband’s actions as their relationship is portrayed ideally with no sense of true marital strife, despite later divorcing after the events of the movie.

Yet, despite it all, the film works on Smith’s sheer movie stardom. He infuses Williams with an affable poeticism. His ticks do not seem to mirror the real-life Williams but work for the character he is portraying. He is hunched, burdened by life unspoken, and thinks faster than he can speak. This is a similar type of down-home performance by Smith that was previously able to carry the cloying sentimentality of a project like The Pursuit of Happiness to a rousing success.

Rousing success is the goal of this film too. It is hard not to root for Williams and the Williams sisters. They have been part of pop culture for almost three decades now. The sports scenes are also filmed with workmanlike quality that is hard to resist as well. Like Richard Williams’ persistence to make his daughters a success, Will Smith’s persistence makes King Richard a success.

King Richard Trailer

King Richard is in wide theatrical release and available to stream on HBO Max.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Episode 120: Rescreening Yojimbo

“Man is a genius when he dreams. Dream what you are capable of. The harder you dream it, the sooner it will come true.”

Akira Kurosawa, Director of Yojimbo

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Deezer | Gaana | Google Podcasts | iHeartRadio | JioSaavn | LibSyn | Player FM | RadioPublic | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

On Episode 120 of Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor Rescreen Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and provide a First Impression of the next Rescreening episode title, Max Ophüls Letter from an Unknown Woman.

Yojimbo Trailer

Yojimbo is currently streaming on Criterion Channel and HBO Max and is available to rent and purchase on most major digital storefronts.

Connect with us on your preferred Social Media Platform Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Michael Clawson on Letterboxd | Taylor Baker on Letterboxd

Episode 118: Rescreening A Woman Under the Influence

“The greatest location in the world is the human face.”

John Cassavetes, Director of A Woman Under the Influence

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Deezer | Gaana | Google Podcasts | iHeartRadio | JioSaavn | LibSyn | Player FM | RadioPublic | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

On Episode 118 of Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor Rescreen John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and provide a First Impression of the next Rescreening episode title, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

Connect with us on your preferred Social Media Platform Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Michael Clawson on Letterboxd | Taylor Baker on Letterboxd

A Woman Under the Influence Trailer

A Woman Under the Influence is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

Yojimbo is currently streaming on Criterion Channel and HBO Max and is available to rent and purchase on most major digital storefronts.

Episode 117: 1971 Retrospective: McCabe & Mrs. Miller / Death in Venice / The Last Picture Show

“Comedy is the hardest thing to get right. I remember a joke we did in ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ that didn’t get a single laugh. So we moved the shot a foot-and-a-half to one side, and all of a sudden, the laugh was there. It drives you crazy; the balance is so delicate.”

Peter Bogdanovich, Director of The Last Picture Show

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Deezer | Gaana | Google Podcasts | iHeartRadio | JioSaavn | LibSyn | Player FM | RadioPublic | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

On Episode 117 of Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Scenes from a Marriage & Titane. Then they look back 50 years to three 1971 Feature Films: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Death in Venice, and The Last Picture Show.

Streaming links for titles this episode

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is currently streaming on HBO Max.

Death in Venice and The Last Picture Show are currently available to rent and purchase on most major VOD platforms.

Visit us on your preferred Social Media Platform Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Michael Clawson on Letterboxd | Taylor Baker on Letterboxd

Dune

Written by Taylor Baker

50/100

Unless you’ve been under a rock the last two and a half years you surely know that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is finally being released to both theatrical and home audiences via HBO Max on October 22nd. Like me you may have had some of your most blissful cinematic moments with Villeneuve. From his enthralling detective drama Prisoners to his otherworldly narrating fish in Maelström Denis has constantly shirked convention and brought to life a visual story that feels fresh or an improvisation on the previous tools of cinema. Which is a long way of saying that walking into a Villeneuve film feels very much like walking into a Spielberg. You have expectations, how could you not. And unfortunately those expectations were unmet.

Anyone familiar with Dune knows the moments that are cinematic and has personal moments that are cinematic to them, the ones that played like a filmbook in their heads, whether it’s the thopter rescue sequence on Arrakis, Paul reaching into the box, the hunter seeker sequence, or the siege by the Harkonnen. You will have personally had these sprawling crystal clear visions of cinematic splendor or stark pieces of affecting drama in your head. And that’s precisely where Dune begins to fall apart; nothing feels personal. Intimacy is missing between the audience and the vistas of Arrakis, the characters of Dune, and it’s storyline. From the lack of world building to the poorly framed miniatures on screen meant to erupt as yawning behemoths, even the worlds of Calladan and Arrakis are small. They lack character, their meaning to the audience is clouded and we’re nearly always briskly trotting somewhere new with Paul which keeps us from ever becoming invested in the characters around him, which are the true magic of the world.

Despite the scaling issues, the drop off from Villeneuve’s recent SciFi film collaborators is noticeable. The step down from Roger Deakins in Blade Runner 2049 with some of the best cinematography in the last decade and Bradford Young in Arrival with a intimacy and love sickness that somehow feels woven into the imagery to recent Adam McKay collaborator Greig Fraser is severe. The layered compositions are absent, instead stark cold images hang like laundry on screen, uninteresting and rigid. Obscured by nothing and harshly naked. The images aren’t zhuzhed up, they don’t seem to have been made with an effort to make them more appealing, or framed in a way to exemplify the scale we should feel we’re witnessing. Not just the cinematography but the whole film seems like more than this team was capable of taking on. But I must commend the splendor and effectiveness of Hans Zimmer’s score. Using an assortment of wind instruments to make the sands and billowing winds of Arrakis come to life aurally. With Bagpipes, wind chimes, and what seems to be the sounds of wind itself used in tandem with other musical components. Zimmer schemed out and achieved something big through small choices to conjure the atmosphere of an otherwise meaningless place.

Huge performers like Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin scarcely have a moment of solitude or development. Everything is reactionary, and what brief exposition is achieved is typically narrowly focused on Paul in ways that don’t inform the feeling of the further picture at large. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s portrayal of the Mentat Thufir Hawat is one particularly effective bit of casting that allows one of our era’s great character actors to use his miniscule moments to humanize and embolden the sentimentality of what we’re witnessing. Chalamet is restrained, perhaps those not looking for a 14 year old boy will be more moved by his performance, but with all the other poorly stacked bricks underneath him Chalamet’s Paul fell apart. Over acting in moments and seeming like stone in others. Charlotte Rampling’s Reverend Mother Mohaim thankfully does lots of heavy lifting unquestionably in mere moments. As does Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Oscar Isaac is sturdy, believable and as you might expect from my previous words underused. In Dune’s case I think it’s safe to say the volume of talent has nothing to do with it’s issues. But rather the strategy at play to employ the available resources.

If I were an audience member inexperienced with the narrative I think I would be lost. Failing to grasp the script or grandeur of the beginning of this otherworldly tale. Unsure of it’s religious names and their meanings, unclear on the topography of Arrakis, the distance of Calladan to Arrakis, where exactly the Empire is located(not to mention what they are), what the guilds are, or how interstellar travel is achieved from the spice. In essence this is nothing more than a proof of concept standard comic book hero origin story. The fact that at the end of the film we’re unclear not only all the things I mentioned but the very reason why Paul appears to be some sort of a religious figure to this planet is presumably an enormous reason why it fails. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a novel built on meaning, stakes, loss, hope, gains, and language itself. The fact that none of those strength are transitory into this representation of the narrative by Villeneuve despite the two additional writers that worked with him raises questions not only about the draft of this film. But the drafts of part 2 and further should they be allowed the chance to make further entries. You can’t remove the heart of Dune and still succeed in telling it’s story.

Perhaps my most biting piece of criticism would be to look at the exposition of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace of Star Wars. How clearly and how effectively it sets up the entire arc of what’s going on with the empire and in comparison how entirely unclear and incidental that understanding is conveyed to the audience, especially those unfamiliar with the sprawling tales of Frank Herbert on which it’s based. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t focus some attention on the bungled enterprise that was bringing Lady Jessica to life on screen. She not only lacks character but seems to be a constantly crying and cold woman. Nearly all we see is her crying, being silent, or harshly instructing Paul. A far cry from the intimacy and confrontations she shares with Duke Leto, Thufir Hawat, and Paul in the first novel. The very moments of the plot where her intimacy and character and complexity come to life have been erased, rushed passed completely without being compensated for. Leaving one to wonder how much is on the cutting room floor and why they would favor a shot of palm trees rather than a sequence under their new citadel on Arrakis that if you’re familiar with you’ll know is one of the most transitory moments of the novel in conveying the character of this mother and son to the reader. Dune isn’t a bad film, but it’s so cold, distant, and unsplendorous that it could be easily mistaken for the next high budget Amazon project that has no staying power. The excruciating wait for Dune did no favors for what was already a middling exercise in adaptation of a storied novel. If anything, maybe now we’ll all have a renewed appreciation for the undertaking of Lynch in his adaptation to tell the whole story (roughly) and establish the Empire and its politics and factions all in one feature. Any way you slice it Dune fails to live up to its expectations, fair or unfair as they may be. We’ll see if Denis gets to make Part Two but for now I’m not counting on it.

Dune Trailer

Dune releases in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22nd.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

The Many Saints of Newark

Written by Alexander Reams

85/100

14 years ago one of the most acclaimed TV shows of all time ended. A time when all TV audiences expected catharsis for the characters they’d grown to know before the end. David Chase instead decided to fade to black not giving that final closure to Tony Soprano. Something that has haunted audiences since its air date. Chase returns to the Soprano’s world 30 years prior to it’s first season. Focusing on who was in power before Tony Soprano ever took over.

Dickie Moltisanti. Moltisanti, translates to Many Saints in English, of Newark. While also attempting to tackle the 1967 Newark race riots, and provide a backstory for Tony Soprano. Sounds like a lot to cover in a 120-minute film? That’s because it is. 

Rarely will a film fall into the issue of being too short, more often than not it’s an issue of being too long. Many Saints is too short. The film has so much it wants to cover and gives itself far too little time to cover each of these events. This could have easily been a 150-165-minute film and it likely would’ve worked even better and been decidedly more effective. Unfortunately, David Chase’s hubris wouldn’t let him make a longer film. A tragedy for sure, because once the film began I never wanted it to end. 

Chase’s new leading man is an actor that I have long loved, and have waited for him to get his big break. Something Chase and I have a shared sentiment about. The brilliant Alessandro Nivola. He has not only been good for years, he is frequently the standout in films where he is relegated to supporting roles. In The Many Saints of Newark Nivola is leading the biggest film of his career and he takes advantage of it. He embodies this mythological god that is Gentlemen Dickie Moltisanti (the father of future Tony Soprano victim Christopher Moltisanti) with such class and brutality that even Tony Soprano would be frightened. 

Filling out the rest of this world is Corey Stoll as a hilarious Uncle Junior, Vera Farmiga as the wonderful asshole Livia Soprano, Jon Bernthal as a somewhat forgettable Johnny Boy Soprano, Leslie Odom Jr. as a gleefully angered Harold McBrayer, Ray Liotta pulling double duty as Hollywood Dick Moltisanti and Salvatore Moltisanti (I was just as surprised as you when I saw this for the first time.), Michaela de Rossi as Giuseppina Moltisanti, Hollywood Dick’s wife, and Gentlemen Dickie’s “goomar” (don’t ask, it just makes it even weirder.). Billy Magnussen as a pitch-perfect Paulie Walnuts, John Magaro doing his best Steven Van Zandt impression with Silvio Dante, and Samson Moeakiokla as Big Pussy. Finally, Michael Gandolfini, son of James Gandolfini, is a younger version of his father’s iconic turn as Tony Soprano.

From the get-go, we are introduced to this world with a level of respect to the audience. Chase expects you to have seen at least part of the show, if not all of it. While it is difficult to talk about the film without spoiling some fantastic reveals, I will say that watching Nivola chew up every scene he is in is a great pleasure to watch, and his, brief bits with Gandolfini are nothing short of electric, though rushed. An issue that hangs over this film like the FBI watching Tony’s house. Calling it “the formative years of Tony Soprano” is more than a bit misleading. The film treats it as an afterthought, instead of the main plot. For which the blame falls on Chase. 

The time jumps in the film are not surprising but continue this overarching issue of being rushed. However in those time jumps we still are gifted with wonderful dialogue between everyone, something Chase can do brilliantly along with strong cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau. Even with all of these strengths in the film, I can’t let go of the fact that it is just too short. It needed to be longer, I think somewhere in Chase’s head he knew that, and if we get another film in this time period, he will hopefully rectify it. The final note he leaves us with is a perfect way to set up another film, while also being a great ending if he doesn’t wish to return to this world, something Christopher Moltisanti wished he could do before it was too late, but Chase will have to do it for him.

The Many Saints of Newark Trailer

The Many Saints of Newark is currently streaming on HBO Max and in wide theatrical release.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Cry Macho

Written by Taylor Baker

55/100

Cry Macho as much as anything else seems to be a lingering look at those sleepy border towns that Westerns like those Clint got his start in are so often framed against. The year is 1978 and shortly after Howard Poak (played dreadfully by Dwight Yoakim) fires his old ranch-hand and bronco buster Mike Milo (played by Clint Eastwood) he barges into Milo’s home. While he stands absently fondling the nonagenarian’s trophies and awards Poak begins hemming and hawing his way through a narrative spew that’s goal is to guilt trip Milo into going down to Mexico to save his son from an alcoholic mother and abusive living situation. This is all predicated on the premise that, “Milo owes him one.” Which holds as much water as a fishing net after previously watching a coffee sipping Milo get fired by Poak in the first 5 minutes of the film.

Ultimately Milo agrees to bring Rafo up from Mexico. And heads south of the border in his old manual truck. There are moments along the multiple road sequences that Ben Davis’ cinematography capture the beauty and illustrious ecology and topography of the region. As he also worked with Chloe Zhao on Marvel’s forthcoming film The Eternals, I suspect that Ben Davis’ name will bring more notoriety in November than it does right now. His exteriors which are what the film is primarily sewed together with bring an ephemeral and majestic look that doesn’t come across as forced, so much as a communication to the audience of the place our characters are in.

Ultimately Milo makes it down to where Rafo is staying and is confronted and propositioned by Rafo’s mother Fernanda Urrejola. After a quick back and forth Milo, saunters on confident he can find the boy. Which he does by capturing and threatening to wring the neck of Macho. Rafo’s fighting chicken. Which eventually leads to a fireside chat where Clint’s Milo utters the seemingly timeless line: “If a man wants to name his cock Macho that’s fine with me.”

These two like in any road movie form an unlikely friendship. One is a man in his 90’s doing a favor for his old boss who fired him, and is now being chased by gunmen. The other, a teenager dreaming of more, unsure of his place in the world, and unsure of his place within his family. Represented clearly by the delineation of a border between the two halves. Eventually the two after some roadside meals and stolen cars end up at a sleepy border town. Where Clint’s Mike helps the townspeople with various ailments to their animals, sets to fixing things that don’t work and begins to swoon for Natalia Traven’s Marta, a local mother and restaurant owner who has taken them in.

Like all road movies eventually what you’re escaping catches up with you and after a nice time with Marta and her family our central characters are back on the road with the police on their heels. Along a small dusty road their pulled over by two officers and their cars luggage is strewn on the ground. It’s seats cut into by a knife. The police officers say they have a tip that these two are running drugs and were ordered to stop them. Which conjures that image of Clint on the roadside behind his truck in The Mule to mind. Ultimately they let the two go, and like the film itself it’s all a bit understated. A bit unceremonious. 

Instead of a classic fetch quest narrative in which a renegade or run down lawman has to make one last trip south of the border to bring a person or object back to America and he along with it, Cry Macho opts instead, for Mike to show Eduardo Minett’s Rafo the North side of the border while he plants his cowboy heels firmly in Mexican soil. Cry Macho is slow road movie, about finding a new home when the old ones done in, and having the where with all to know it and return to it. I’m not ready for it to be Clint’s last film but of the last half dozen I’ve seen while he was an octogenarian it seems this first on the other side of 90 is the most contemplative and ultimately the most content.

Cry Macho Trailer

Cry Macho is currently playing in theatrical wide release and streaming on HBO Max.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Malignant

Written by Alexander Reams

73/100

I can see a young James Wan watching a Giallo film, and thinking “Oh I’m gonna make some weird shit” (kudos to James Gunn and Chris Pratt for giving us that line). Throughout his career, Wan has riffed on many genres, and now we can add Giallo to that list. The iconic Italian horror genre was made popular in the 1970s, particularly by Dario Argento. James Wan takes the iconic genre and mixes it with modern themes and messages. Maddy (Annabelle Wallis) is in an abusive marriage with Derek (Jake Abel), she begins to experience visions of a sinister force and fights to protect herself and her family. 

This is not Annabelle Wallis’ first collaboration with James Wan, she was the lead in the spinoff to The Conjuring. Given that previous history, it seemed to reason that they would work together down the line, and here they offer up a beautiful metaphor for abuse and toxic relationships. Wallis not only conveys the past of her character but also (quite literally) embodies this person who is haunted by past memories and trauma. While she does not fully elevate the script to the iconic female horror leads we know and love, she still does more than the previous female characters in Wan’s repertoire, which is a welcome breath of fresh air. 

Something Wallis and Wan both excel in is the brilliant horror sequences. Allowing for the pair, and DP Michael Burgess to present unique and original sequences which are unlike any I have seen. One in the early parts of the film mixes visual and practical effects to transform a house into another environment, and the metamorphasis is transfixing and spine-chilling. 

Wan’s relationship with Michael Burgess is a relatively new one, however, he has worked with Don Burgess, Michael’s father, many times, and with the younger Burgess just coming off another horror film, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, following it up with a James Wan original just makes sense. Michael Burgess takes the potential shown in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and flies with it, demonstrating his brilliance as a DP, and a master of framing and camera movement. 

Even with all of this greatness, rarely is a film without flaws, and Wan’s latest offering is not without its faults. Akela Cooper, whose credits include Hell Fest, Luke Cage, and 2 other pictures that struggled in their writing serves as screenwriter. Cooper took a brilliant premise by the husband-wife duo of Wan and Ingrid Bisu and unfortunately wrote in watered down dialogue, which should be heartbreaking and is instead laugh-inducing at times. This half-baked screenplay doesn’t take away from what is happening in front of us. Wan doesn’t need dialogue to convey emotion, and this shines in the final act. Transforming the film into someone mind-bending, and full of heart and emotion. In this writer’s opinion, this is Wan’s most emotionally charged film. From the mother-daughter relationship to the sister relationship, all leading to the most unexpected reveal. Which ends the film on a somewhat positive note that also leaves the door open to future stories in this world, which excites this writer to no end.

Malignant Trailer

Malignant is currently playing in wide theatrical release and available to stream on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.