The Power of the Dog

Written by Patrick Hao

90/100

For a film set on the plains of 1925 Montana, and shot against the beautiful wide vistas of Jane Campion’s home country of New Zealand, The Power of the Dog often feels hauntingly constrained. That is because Campion’s film is one of intense emotions caused by the unspoken, whether it is because of social mores or simply because they couldn’t.. The great director is no stranger to such themes in her oeuvre. She literally renders her lead character a mute in The Piano.

Reductively, The Power of the Dog has been described as a movie about toxic masculinity. And while that is true, the film is interested in the greater ways the oppressive forces of systems pray on people. The system at play here is never spoken of but is one of class, money, and gender. The film follows the brutish ranch hand Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his entrepreneurial brother George (Jesse Plemons), although you wouldn’t know they were brothers by looking at them. George is clean-shaven but for his mustache, concerned with respectability instilled by their wealthy parents. Phil is covered head to toe in dirt, and happily so. He is cruel, calling his brother Fatso with glee. While George handles business, Phil handles a group of ranch hands. Phil is concerned by how his men think of him which makes him resentful of the wealth he comes from. The push-pull of these two disparate men is palpable. At one point, Phil even describes their kinship as akin to Romulus and Remus. 

Their business finds them staying in an inn run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who along with her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) serves the brothers and ranchers dinner one night. While George offers Rose kindness, Phil is outright cruel to the socially awkward Peter. Phil is threatened by Peter allowing himself not to be bound by traditional masculinity. This cruelty eventually extends to Rose, who marries George, as Phil becomes resentful to her as well. A psychological cat and mouse game brews between Phil and Rose, leading to Rose finding solace in alcohol. 

One set-piece after the other, Campion unfolds this piece of unnerving cruelty people can inflict on each other. George needs Rose to be a presentable wife to high society. Rose needs to live up to an ideal that she feels unable to reach. Phil too is not entirely the ideal man he wants to be, and as a result, lashes out on everyone around him. Caught in the middle of this struggle is the coming of age tale of Peter. He is intellectual, sweet, and sensitive. But, masculinity threatens to pull him away from his natural disposition. We learn that at one point, Phil used to be an intellectual as well, but strayed away for a life as a cowboy.

Campion moves slowly through these proceedings and it takes a while to truly understand what she is attempting to do. But, Campion is a master of her craft and once she latches on, she does not relent. This is psychological warfare after all, in which the interiority of all these characters gets magnified as the tension ramps. Campion is able to explore a gamut of thoughts just through a simple closeup. This is all underscored by another great score by Jonny Greenwood with his harsh dissonant chords, ratcheting up the tension of these mental tug of wars. 

The four central actors, Cumberbatch, Dunst, Smit-McPhee, and Plemons are all exceptional in this four-hander chamber piece, playing off each other. Cumberbatch in particular is physically rigid like a hardened wood, but when he speaks, his voice coils like a python. It is unnerving. Very soon it becomes a psychological Mexican stand-off between the four. With love, tenderness, bitterness, and resentment being the weapons of choice. 

By the end of The Power of the Dog, it becomes unsuspectingly devastating. It is as if Campion is able to instill in the viewer the same feelings of repressed emotions the characters are facing. The ache lingers long after the credit rolls.

The Power of the Dog Trailer

The Power of the Dog is currently playing in limited theatrical release and will begin streaming on Netflix on December 1st.

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

tick, tick… BOOM!

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

If you did musical theater or sang in a school chorus growing up, chances are you heard “Seasons of Love” sung so often that just those simple opening piano notes were enough to send you from the room, howling—or maybe that was just me. Yet while Rent’s most popular song may have become a bit too popular in certain circles, there is no denying the show it originated from reshaped the musical theater landscape; take it or leave it (ha, guys, get it?), Rent revamped Broadway, inspiring a generation of future playwrights and librettists to pull from the current, messy world as the source of their inspiration. But before Rent, and before his untimely death from an aortic aneurysm the day before opening previews, Jonathan Larson wrote a semi-autobiographical one-man show called tick, tick… BOOM!, which would be revamped after Larson’s passing and morphed into a three-person show, enjoying many Off-Broadway performances before Lin-Manuel Miranda (who had previously starred as Jonathan in one of those productions) decided to try his hand at a film adaptation, where he proves to be as nimble a director as he is a writer.

Starring Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson the character, tick, tick… BOOM! employs two framing devices, the first being Jonathan’s girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) narrating from an unspecified time after his death over grainy faux home video footage, giving us the requisite information about Jonathan’s life before Rent, and the second being Jonathan’s first performance of tick, tick… BOOM! at the New York Theatre Workshop; the latter is quite fun, but the former feels a bit too cloying. As Jon begins to describe the mess of feelings he experienced in the days leading up to his 30th birthday, the camera cuts to those days as he juggles working at the Moondance Diner and prepping for a reading of a new musical he has written, Superbia; from here on out, the film will smoothly cut between Larson performing tick, tick… BOOM! onstage and him experiencing the events that inspired it.

“Lately,” Jonathan tells us, “I’ve been hearing this sound everywhere I go. Like a tick, tick, tick.” Like a time bomb. Like the end of his so-far lackluster writing career is fast approaching as he inches closer to the big three-oh with nothing to show for it—by that time, Stephen Sondheim had already written the lyrics to two Broadway shows (West Side Story and Gypsy), and Jon’s own father had started a bustling family, while Jon still waits tables and writes ditties about the sugar on them. Even though he has a workshop of Superbia the next week, his agent, Rosa (Judith Light), has barely been in contact about it, he can’t write the big act two number he needs Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) to sing, Susan is debating whether to take a job outside of the city as a dance teacher, his colleagues are dying to AIDs, and his friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has stopped trying to be an actor and instead has become a marketing bigwig, and is trying to convince Jonathan to join him. And, on top of this, Jon is behind on the, um, rent. The ticking clock hovers at the movie, getting louder and louder as everything seems to crash down onto Jon’s shoulders.

tick, tick… BOOM! is most definitely a movie made by musical theater kids for musical theater kids—and I say “kids” because you never stop being a theater kid, even as an adult—but it’s so earnest in its adoration of the art form, so genuine in its awe of the creative process, that even if you detest those annoying theater kids, it would be hard not to be won over by tick, tick… BOOM!. Miranda crafts each shot with care and precision; even if not all of his creative choices fully work (one number in particular recalls to mind Elrond’s floating head in Fellowship of the Ring), they are at least bold, and there can no doubt that Miranda has as much potential with a camera as a pen. He combines the best of both live theater and the movies: there are big dances, there are ballads and patter songs and group numbers, and they are all captured by the camera in a way that, while it doesn’t quite capture the magic of a live show, adds its own filmic twist that creates an entirely new layer.

His treatment of Jonathan Larson, whom he idolized as a teenager, is reverent without glossing over the man’s flaws; this is helped by an absolutely superb performance from Andrew Garfield, who won a Tony for Angels in America but has never tried his hand at musical theater—after this, we can only hope he chooses to do so. He imbues Jon with a fierce kinetic energy; whether he’s rejoicing in Michael’s new and fancy apartment or pulling his hair out trying to write a song, his gangly frame never quite still: his foot is always tapping, his fingers are always playing an imaginary piano. Of the supporting cast, only de Jesús, himself a Broadway veteran who co-starred with Miranda in In the Heights, can hope to match him; the rest are left handily in the dust.

tick, tick… BOOM! is one big, frenetic love letter to musical theater, to the creative process, and to the real Larson, genuine and open in a way that few things are nowadays. Just about anyone who is anyone on Broadway has a cameo, and homages to musicals such as Sunday in the Park with George abound (Bradley Whitford even shows up playing Stephen Sondheim in an excellent imitation, and the real Sondheim cameos as a voicemail), yet it’s not just for the musical theater kids: tick, tick… BOOM! is for anyone who has ever had a dream, for anyone who has ever believed they have more to offer the world, for anyone with eyes and ears and, most importantly, a heart.

tick, tick… BOOM! Trailer

tick, tick… BOOM! is currently available to stream on Netflix.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

The Two Popes

Written by Michael Clawson

70/100

Terrific performances by Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are the sole saving grace of The Two Popes, a fairly tedious, over-edited, and poorly shot dramatization of conversations between Pope Benedict and then Cardinal Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) in 2012, shortly after the papacy had become embroiled in scandal and unbeknownst to the world, Benedict was seeking a successor.

“I don’t agree with anything you say!” blurts Benedict, capping off one of his first discussions with Bergoglio, during which Anthony McMarten’s screenplay inelegantly delineates their opposing beliefs on matters such as abortion, communion, and celibacy. As is true of the dialogue elsewhere, the contrast between Benedict’s conservatism and Bergoglio’s progressivism is too plainly spelled out to be engrossing. Flashbacks to the events in Bergoglio’s native Argentina that burdened him with long-lasting guilt and that he and Benedict go on to discuss aren’t any more compelling.

Steadicam and handheld, wide shots and close ups, canted angles and bird’s eye views – director Fernando Meirelles rapidly and erratically varies his technique, and the jumbled syntax badly disagrees with Benedict and Bergoglio’s thoughtful back and forth in palatial gardens and Vatican halls. The cinematography is egregiously flat; it deepened my appreciation of Jorg Widmer’s work in A Hidden Life, whose camera seemed to worship the ornate detail of the churches it floated through. 

The tone of the film is casual and often incompatible with the weight of the material, such as when Pope Francis speaks about the migrant crisis and a clip of a migrant boat walloped by an giant ocean wave clashes with the enthusiastic vibe of the soundtrack. Details such as Pope Benedict liking ABBA, wearing a FitBit, and regularly watching some TV show about a German Shepherd are included as light comedy, but the humor isn’t all that inspired, and rather annoyingly seems to be saying, “Look, popes are people just like you and me!”

But to return to that one positive, Hopkins and Pryce both effectively convey their character’s convictions and doubts. I just wish they were in a better movie.

The Two Popes Trailer

The Two Popes is streaming on Netflix

Red Notice

Written by Taylor Baker

10/100

Netflix’s latest big-budget film Red Notice looks like a film, talks like a film, and acts like a film but is devoid of meaning, humanity, and sincerity. It’s reminiscent to the thin layer of laminate you often find on countertops and floors. Only brought to life by what lays behind it, which in this case are three of the biggest movie stars on the planet, forcing their persona’s as if they’re characters themselves into a shell of a screenplay. With awful CGI, continuity errors, and more drone cinematography than it knows how to use, it’s clear that Rawson Marshall Thurber bit off more than he could chew.

Rawson’s first film debuted over a decade ago in 2004, a perennially quoted comedy classic in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Between then and now he’s had varied success with We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence, and Skyscraper. The last two films were not only collaborations with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but also massive successes earning more than 150 million dollars over their respective budgets at the box office. It’s clear what Netflix saw in getting a project from Thurber and Johnson on their platform. It’s hard to argue they’re wrong, from a dollars and cents standpoint. But this Nazi memorabilia frolic through meaningless landscapes spanning different continents seems as frivolous as Netflix’s bigger films have ever been. 

The premise of the film is an art heist with a few double crosses, the likes of which we’ve seen on and off for at least the last 70 years. Dwayne Johnson’s John Hartley serves as FBI Profiler, and as the film begins he’s attempting to stop Nolan Booth played by Ryan Reynolds from making off with one of Cleopatra’s famed eggs. In the background is the faceless Bishop who tips off Hartley on Booth’s plan to steal the egg. But after an extended chase sequence which feels absent both excitement and consequences we see our hero gather the thief and the loot, only to be tricked by Gal Gadot’s Bishop and end up imprisoned in Russia with Booth. If this feels like a paint-by-numbers plot that’s because it distinctly is.

Michael Bay’s big budget Netflix behemoth 6 Underground (notably with a budget 150 million, 50 million dollars cheaper for those keeping score) that also featured Reynolds looked dazzling, had exciting moments, and felt steeped in real consequences. Sure, it was glossy and built around set pieces too, but it mostly like real humans going through those daring events. Red Notice shows endless streams of bullets flying thru the air toward a wall of baddies only to not hit anyone. And when they do get taken down it tends to be from something in the environment like when a rock wall dislodge a nameless baddy with the patented Star Wars scream sound effect.

The violence doesn’t just ring hollow but artificial. It seems as if earnings forecasts and algorithms comprise the very identity of the film. There’s an interesting real world correlation to Gadot’s Bishop hunting for the eggs of Cleopatra. Eggs which we may very well see again in her upcoming film with Patty Jenkins, Cleopatra. And early next year we’ll see her in Egypt for Branagh’s Death on the Nile. By the end of the film, it’s clear that the only chemistry that does exist is between Reynolds and Johnson. It’s hard to see how things get any better with the inevitable sequel that is set up in the falling action. I suspect that for the time being, we’re going to get more of these meaningless movie star films whether we like them or not.

Red Notice Trailer

Red Notice is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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

The Harder They Fall

Written by Patrick Hao

20/100

The goal of Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall is stated in its opening title cards. “While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” This platitude should be a warning to anyone who starts this slick new Netflix release of just how empty and meaningless this genre exercise is.

The sentiment is clear. It is well known that the legends of the Old West have been dominated by stories of white people, despite the fact that in reality there were many people of color who have enough stories, heroics, and escapades that would put them in line with Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and folk heroes. However, Samuel tries to assemble some of these characters – Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary, Bass Reeves, Cherokee Bill, and several others – into one overstuffed movie like they were in Joss Whedon’s The Justice League. It is unclear, besides representation of people not normally seen in westerns, exactly what Samuel intended to do with these characters based on the story he tells.

That story attempts to be epic in scale like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western revolving around Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), a bandit who is seeking revenge for the killer of his family, Rufus Black (Idris Elba). The film jumps between two gangs led by each. In Nat’s gang, there is sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), quick draw gunman Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), and saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz). They are later joined by a Wyatt Earp-esque lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). For Rufus Black’s gang, there is the sadistic Trudy Smith (Regina King) and the mysterious Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). Obviously, everything is leading up to a final shootout between these gangs.

To have all these characters in one film ultimately defeats the purpose of Samuel’s opening mantra. Those names existed for people, but the thinness of each character points to the fact that the people on screen have never existed. What use does this amazing cast portraying these characters do for the legends of these real-life people? Rather than highlight their exploits, this fictional mishmash simply drowns them in a sea of vacuous gunfire.

So, the question becomes, does this movie exist simply to give us a representation of black people in a western? The town that the film takes place in is entirely black-owned and populated by only black people. That is a noble effort but seemingly puts representation as the goal upfront rather than simply making a good western. It is unclear from this film how much Jeymes Samuel even likes westerns. Sure, there is the stylized cowboy dialogue and the classic old west posturing, but much of the film feels like a pastiche of a pastiche. This is less Quentin Tarantino doing Sam Peckinpah and more Samuel doing Tarantino doing Peckinpah. And this makes sense because Samuel is a DJ whose work is primarily based around the idea of remixing. However, it seems clear that Samuel loves the aesthetics over the genre of movies itself.

And the film is dominated by overwhelming aesthetics as if we were on the set of a GQ cover shoot as opposed to an actual movie. The costumes are well-tailored, colorful, and the cast looks great wearing the attires. Yet, there is no dust or dirt in the film, nor texture to the sets. This leads to flat set pieces and a two-dimensional effect every time characters move across the screen, deflating any sense of cool or tension that Samuel was trying to engender. To have a $90 million budget and look this bad is embarrassing. Just as Samuel does not have a handle on the visuals of the film, he is a bad actor director as well. With such a large cast, everyone feels like they were in a different film. While Majors is trying to embody a classic Western silent type – a cross between Eastwood and Will Rogers – he is surrounded by quirky characters rather than characters with quirks. The tonal whiplash is as disorientating as the intentions of the film.

Once again, I come back to the question of why this film was made? Netflix is certainly marketing this film as a high level of prestige. Westerns have been a genre of superficial pleasure – action, suspense, shootouts, bank robberies – that has been used as a vehicle to both construct and demystify the story of America. The film’s prestige is stemming from the fact that it is about Black characters set in this genre but has nothing to say about it. Redwood City, the town that centers the film, can be seen as utopic for black folks – an entirely black town with black-owned businesses, banks, and saloons. Yet, it seems weird that Samuel chooses to say nothing about this place, a year removed from everyone fiercely googling Tulsa Race Riots. There is still a warring faction of bandits that leads to the town riddled with bullet holes and virtuous lawmen.

I could not help but to think of two other black westerns throughout this one: Mario Van Peebles’ Posse and John Singleton’s Rosewood. Both films were made in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict and the LA riots. Both films seem to be in direct conversation with the times that they were made, both having the superficial pleasures of the Western genre while also being smart meditations on the black people’s space in the American Western mythos. Rosewood in particular is about a wholly populated black town that was driven apart by white supremacists.

The Harder They Fall is seemingly divorced from any relevant conversation. Sure, it wants to believe that it says something by simply existing, but art should be more than just existing. Unfortunately, The Harder They Fall succeeded in its goal. It simply exists.

The Harder They Fall Trailer

The Harder They Fall is currently streaming on Netflix.

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

Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate)

Written by Michael Clawson

60/100

Slippery and sensuous, Fever Dream is an immersion in a woman’s frightened, discombobulated headspace. When we first meet Amanda (María Valverde), she’s lying in a stupor in a marshy forest, her vision blurry, her body immobile as she converses with an unseen young boy named David. “You have to stay awake,” David calmly insists as he drags Amanda across the forest’s leafy floor. “You have to understand what’s important.” David acts as a sort of guide for Amanda throughout Fever Dream, a mysteriously hazy but minimally unsettling thriller, which then, through a puzzle-like flashback structure, depicts Amanda untangling how her move to the Argentinian countryside with her young daughter led to her being alone and paralyzed in the woods, her daughter’s well-being and whereabouts unknown.

The unraveling hinges on Amanda’s tentative friendship with Carola (Dolores Fonzi), a local in the rural farm town where Amanda moves with her little girl Nina (Amanda’s husband is set to join them later). Carola is David’s mother, it turns out, and she unnerves Amanda when she suggests there’s something malevolent about her son. In a continuous back-and-forth heard in voiceover, David prods Amanda to remember her and his mother’s interactions – their time by his family’s pool, their trips to the river – strangely encouraging her to concentrate on details, as if only in the minutiae can the key to the film’s vaguely defined mysteries be found. Unease drifts through the summery, bucolic setting (think Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienega) as we’re led to wonder if something sinister has indeed taken up residence in David, or if something more disturbing is afoot across the community at large.

Adapted from a novel by Samanta Shweblin and directed by Claudia Llosa, Fever Dream’s English title suits the movie’s disorienting form, while its Spanish title, Rescue Distance, speaks to one of its key interests: motherly protectiveness. Rescue distance, Amanda says, is the furthest distance she can be from Nina and still have time to get to her should Nina come in harm’s way. Much of the film’s dread (or lack thereof) is sourced from not just Amanda’s constant calculating of this distance, but also from a growing sense that Nina – and others, for that matter – are in danger of something Amanda isn’t seeing. As Llosa drops larger and larger hints about the threat being environmental, Fever Dream doesn’t abandon its supernatural suggestions entirely, but it does vigorously nod towards real-world concerns about ecological negligence. So if the movie comes up short, it’s not for a lack of thematic substance or attractive images (on the contrary, cinematographer Oscar Faura’s lensing of sun-dappled water and farmland is nice). The issue is the obfuscation: it smothers more than it illuminates the film’s characters.

Fever Dream Trailer

Fever Dream is currently available to stream on Netflix.

Follow Michael on Letterboxd or connect with him on Twitter.

Army of Thieves

Written by Alexander Reams

90/100

It’s always clear when Netflix trusts their IPs and their creators. Clearly, they have trust in Zack “I will make movies however long I want and you’ll like it” Snyder, and I am okay with it. They let him make a wild, fun, huge zombie/action/Dave Bautista one-liner film and it was a blast. Not 6 months later a prequel film focusing on standout Ludwig Dieter was released with Matthias Schweighöfer returning as the awkward and lovable safe-cracker and also jumping in the director’s chair as well. Bringing his own style that somehow fits into the universe that Snyder created while also standing by itself as well. 

Before zombies took over Las Vegas and turned it into their own playground, there was a life for Ludwig Dieter. Not much of one, make a YouTube video (that gets no views), get coffee, go to work (where he clearly does not care), and go home. Repeat, every day, until he finally gets a view on one of his videos, and a comment. Things are looking up for old Ludwig until he gets a very mysterious invite to a safe-cracking competition. Here he is able to show off his skills and impress jewel thief Gwendoline. After making quick work of his competitors he is recruited to the team. Consisting of Korina Dominguez (a woefully underrated Ruby O. Fee), Brad Cage (a generic bad guy with the funniest name; Stuart Martin), Rolph (standout Guz Khan). 

As with the previous entry in the Army of the Dead Snyder-Netflix-verse, there is money involved, but a lot less of those pesky undead folks getting in the way of good old-fashioned money stealing. Instead, this time we have a pesky- and stop me if you’ve heard this one before- Interpol agent with a connection to one of the heisters from the past who now is obsessive over catching the entire team so much that it affects his personality to comic results. While this was funny at first Delecroix outstayed his welcome very quickly. The cat and mouse aspect is one of the key elements of a heist film and was executed here very poorly, which unfortunately falls on Writer Shay Hatten (who returns to this universe after co-writing with Zack Snyder on Army of the Dead).

Read Alexander’s review of Army of the Dead

These YouTube videos that Ludwig makes are often the subject of fictional safe-maker Hans Wagner (and the Richard Wagner connection is only beginning). After a long stint of being in a creative rut, and losing his wife and children, Wagner creates his version of his namesake’s Ring Cycle. For Hans, it means four safes, each inspired by one of the operas in the Ring Cycle (at this point in the film the classical music nerd in me was losing his mind over the love for Wagner present). Those three safes are Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and the Siegfried. The final safe was lost and never found, the one that completes the Ring Cycle, the Götterdämmerung

Four key aspects that meshed together very well and elevated the film to a high quality level of humor and heart. Firstly, Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro’s score. Combining a mesh of strings and modern sounds to make a soundtrack that constantly controlled the tension perfectly, especially in the safe-cracking scenes. Secondly and thirdly, the editing by Alexander Berner and the cinematography by Bernhard Jasper. Constantly on beat with the music and never quick cutting during action sequences, especially during the Prague burglary. Jasper chose to use the Alexa Mini LF, which is not a loss in quality compared to larger Alexa cameras, but is lighter so can be used in faster-paced films. 

Finally, Director, star, king of beautiful curly hair, Matthias Schweighöfer. Without his love and care for this project and this character the film would not work. Snyder made the right move trusting Schweighöfer to expand the universe he set up, and he expanded it well. Throwing in subtle nods to what’s to come, a news report here, a name drop there, all adding up to two surprising cameos in the end. This will be one of the most underrated films of the year and incidentally one of my favorites, from the technical aspects, the subtle humor that never beats you over the head, the score, and the fact that a modern film can appreciate such perfect classical music. 

Bring on the Götterdämmerung.

Army of Thieves Trailer

Army of Thieves is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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

The Irishman

Written by Michael Clawson

Elegiac and exceedingly well-acted, this is my kind of crime epic. The kind with all the explosions and executions you’d expect, but that’s as interested in the lines on its aging mobster’s faces, the simple pleasures they enjoy, their stubborn ways and petty grievances, as it is with the mechanics of their wheeling and dealing in politics and business. It made me think less of Scorcese’s own gangster movies than Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. The Irishman isn’t wistful in the same way that movie is because the Manson murder victims were innocent people, whereas Sheeran, Bufalino, and the rest are obviously not innocent – they’re brutal criminals. 

But the melancholy that comes from our knowing of the Manson victim’s tragic fate as we watch them go about their day is not unlike the effect of learning of these mobster’s demise as we meet them. They’re all going to end up killing each other, or in jail, and for what? Again, the pleasures they enjoy are simple ones: juicy steaks, ice cream sundaes, bread with grape juice, if not wine; things they need don’t money and power to have and share with their children, whose affection they struggle to earn. And on that note, the runtime is essential to shaping Frank’s relationship to his kids: the length enmeshes us in the mobster milieu and mindset, defined by its indifference to the life and death of others, which makes watching his daughters look at him with so much trepidation so unsurprising and poignant. And to think they don’t even know just how many guns their dad had to throw in the river.

The Irishman Trailer

The Irishman is currently streaming on Netflix.

Dave Chappelle: The Closer

Written by Taylor Baker

90/100

Mark Twain Award Winning humorist and self aware greatest of all time(GOAT) comedian Dave Chappelle returns to Netflix to have his patented open conversations with himself – sharing some laughs, some hurt – all while inhaling some smoke. Dave has long talked of his place in our global community of Earth, national community of America, and, especially since The Chappelle Show, how he feels in his skin, in his circumstances. And he’s never been shy about translating that feeling to the larger demographics he considers himself a part of. Whether African-American, Black, Man, Ohioan, Comedian, Artist, or Human Being. Dave has zeroed in on providing perspectives from personal angles and done so loquaciously. Albeit with occasional cultural backlash if not turmoil.

The thing about comedy, and comedians is they’re using words to debate culture, to keep a check and balance on it. They’re fighting ideas and improvising outloud to make their personal experiences mappable to you, with the structured up front goal of making you laugh. If they succeed, they did their job. If they didn’t, they failed. Simple. Men like Gilbert Gottfried have done it for years with use of his harsh tone of voice and clever black comedy lines that you couldn’t repeat to your grandmother. More recently Taylor Tomlinson has expressed moments of her personal life history to enormous effect. Kathrine Ryan has done the same with a totally different personal story. Comedy has always been about the personal, if not directly as reference material for a comedian’s act. It’s what one finds funny. 

So what’s different? Why is The Closer hitting “differently” than Chappelle’s other work? It’s because he’s talking about his emotions and viewpoint from what he might call in his previous special Sticks and Stones, his seat in the car. While the LGBTQ+ community after the release of the special sits center to the conversation about it, they’re one of many groups and individuals Dave speaks on. Naturally a political and cultural battleground is a draw for critics and commentators. Where duty and topical melt into each other, and what is a comedian if not a critic and a commentator at once, giving us a performative art that reflects the very identity of who we are right now?

Dave eschews the LGBTQ+ community at large within The Closer – as he’s done with almost every single larger community. A running theme from almost all great comedians has always been to disregard, if not disrespect, the larger groups in favor of persons and personal stories. Dave, like so many before him, focuses on what is personal and meaningful to him. Drawing a distinction between groupthink and social cohesion by focusing on the people he cares about, the people he loves. These are individuals with messy lives that don’t fit the molds of our cultural conversation. Dave knows our society’s larger groupings are ugly, and rather than turning away from one of the most vibrant and flourishing communities today, he looks directly at them, despite any dangers of an inevitable backlash or controversy. Following the proverb, “Excluding someone from a joke is worse than a joke about them.” 

I can’t say that you won’t have a negative reaction to some of Dave’s material, or that you won’t be hurt by it. What I can say is Dave’s entire body of work demonstrates an immense belief foundationally in equality. Dave’s friend Daphne Dorman committed suicide shortly after the release of his previous special Sticks and Stones. And it seems as if everything uttered before he recounts her tale in the special is exclusively in service to this final piece of the act working. Not just as “material” for laughs but for the audience, emotionally, so we take it seriously and so we take Daphne seriously. He recounts a brief personal story about her and in it delivers the climax of the special. The climax isn’t simply the story about Daphne herself, it’s what she tells Dave while he’s on stage after they’ve dialogued and he says he just can’t understand her. To which she replies, “I don’t need you to understand me. I just need you to understand that I’m having a human experience.” I don’t think there’s anything else I can say that is more important in unlocking this special or Dave as a person. This is the baby in the bathwater. If you can accept that Dave is operating in good faith and compassion, then I think you’ll have a memorable time with this piece. If you can’t, it’s easy to scroll to Netflix “New Releases”.

Dave Chappelle: The Closer Trailer

Dave Chappelle: The Closer is currently streaming on Netflix.

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

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: The Guilty (2021)

Written by Taylor Baker

48/100

Before talking about Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty one has to mention the Danish film on which it’s based. Gustav Möller’s Den skyldige which translates to The Guilty, was submitted by Denmark for their Foreign Language Category at the Oscars in 2019. All that to say Fuqua isn’t remaking a poor film, one that perhaps needs it. Instead he with Netflix is retelling nearly the same story from 3 years ago absent any meaningful reason other than the original wasn’t in English.

Fuqua is coming off his worst film to date in May on Paramount+ he released Infinite. Which starred a checked out Mark Wahlberg opposite of a dialed in maniacal Chiwetel Ejiofor. Fuqua’s gone back and forth with hits and misses his whole career. Whether you measure from critical acclaim or actual dough at the box office. The Guilty is a return to form in that it’s fine. It dots i’s it crosses t’s. He puts a great actor in front of his camera and makes him work. Jake Gyllenhaal is game. Chewing on the darkness and wheezing his way through conversations to save a little girl at the other end of the phone line.

It’s all just a little thin though. I can’t quite believe the circumstances surrounding our character Joe Baylor played by Gyllenhaal. He’s supposedly a complex and ranging bad guy. I mean he is one of our “guilty” from the title, after all. But he seems heroic not just for moments but nearly the entire runtime. And when his ugly moments do come out he seems pathetic rather than responsible. There’s a tonal loss of control from the originals central character Asger Hold performed expertly by Jakob Cedergren and this rendition.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Instead of sticking to the tight, suffocating atmosphere that worked so well, Fuqua opts instead to constantly look out through the TV screens to fires raging in LA. His message, themes if you want to be courteous enough to call them that are worn on his knuckles. He’s trying to juggle a bunch of different issues that in his own words preceding the film he wants to bring attention to. Well unfortunately, bringing attention to things and doing a service to them are very different and though his heart may be in the right place his storytelling wasn’t.

The Guilty is at it’s best Gyllenhaal is bug eyed on the phone with Emily and Abby. Trying to help them be reunited safely. The brief moments Gyllenhaal’s Officer Baylor shares with Ethan Hawke’s no bullshit Sgt. Bill Miller ring as a revelation. Hawke as voice actor is superb. Venomous, witty, clever, and insightful all through his annunciation. Once casting directors see what he can do I suspect there will be a late career boom of Ethan Hawke voice acting.

Fuqua’s “one roomer” does little to build on its predecessor. But it doesn’t do it a disservice. The original is undeniably better, but I expect this rendition to be receive lots more eyes with the language shift. Undoubtedly one of the better Netflix Original films to come out this year.

The Guilty Trailer

The Guilty was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival and will be available on Netflix starting October 1st, 2021.

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