Tag: netflix

NiNoKuni


NiNoKuni (2019)
★ / ★★★★

For a story that involves jumping between two worlds in which the lives of their respective inhabitants are linked somehow, Yoshiyuki Momose’s “Ni No Kuni,” inspired by a highly charming and emotionally moving video game series of the same name, is impoverished of imagination and wonder. Instead of focusing on world-building; creating convincing character development; and laying out its universe’s complex rules and giving the audience a chance to understand them, notice how the picture is so eager to jump into action out of fear, perhaps, that curiosity would not be enough to garner interest. What results is a movie without soul and magic, just a series of empty disagreements among friends and noises of would-be epic battles. In the middle of it, I wished there was a spell to redo the film because its current state is an embarrassment.

Best friends Yu (voiced by Kento Yamazaki) and Haru (Mackenyu) find themselves transported to a strange world in the middle of their desperate attempt to take their dying friend, Kotona (Mei Nagano), who has been stabbed, to the hospital. In this world filled with humanoid beasts and magical beings, Yu is not paralyzed from the waist down and Haru’s athleticism does not make him feel special. In fact, it seems that in this alternate world, Yu is the special one since he appears to have the gift of magic. It is a workable beginning to a possible rivalry of young men whose friendship is defined by a particular power dynamic. This coming-of-age angle, however, is not explored in meaningful ways because the screenplay by Akihiro Hino leans too heavily on tired fantasy tropes like saving a princess from a curse and the hero falling in love with her, vice-versa. It is boring and does not leave much room for compelling drama.

While watchable on its own, the style of animation fails to match the story being told. The first game in the series, “Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch,” offers animated sequences produced by Studio Ghibli. They are stunning; they compel us to look at the images and examine them. They may be eye-catching and cute at first glance, but as a whole they are designed to immerse the player first and foremost. In this film, the animation comes across as flat and stiff; it does not stand out among other Japanese animated films that fall under the same genre. But this shortcoming can be overlooked if the content of the story were actually captivating. It is so predictable that from the moment we lay eyes on certain characters, we know he or she would end up becoming a villain, for example. There is no curiosity or mystique about it.

Since the screenplay fails to take the time to lay out the important rules, those who have not played the games are likely to become very confused. For instance, during the first scene we are greeted with a possibly senile old man yelling, “Gateway!” at the hospital rooftops. Those who experience the games would know that this is a spell that summons… well, a gateway, between the “real” world and the other world.

But, for some reason, in the film Yu and Haru are randomly able to move between worlds without ever uttering the spell. Instead, they must to endanger their lives in either world—like plunging a van into a river while they’re inside—and soon they would find themselves waking up in the next world. Why is the old man required to cast a spell while the young men are not? This is only one example of the material’s brazen lack of consistency. How can we get involved in the story when are left scratching our heads every other scene?

“NiNoKuni” comes across as a rushed project designed to keep the brand relevant. The soul of this brand is an epic sense of adventure; its heart the lessons it imparts on how one might lead a healthier, happier life despite outside elements that could embitter or numb a person over time. We get no sense of humanity here, and so there is no doubt the film is a failure.

Sweetheart


Sweetheart (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

A creature-feature with enough expected elements to scratch the itch of those invested in the sub-genre, “Sweetheart” tells the story of a young woman named Jennifer (Kiersey Clemons) who finds herself washed ashore on a small deserted island. Not only must she contend with hunger and exposure, it seems there is a monster living in a hole just off the island. It tends to come out only during the night. Co-writers J.D. Dillard (who also directs), Alex Hyner, and Alex Theurer possess an understanding of the genre. They keep it short and sweet with just the right amount of tension, violence, and gore. It’s a good flick to watch during a rainy day.

Clemons does plenty with what she is provided. It is a role not reliant on words or dialogue and so she is required to communicate thoroughly using her eyes and body language. Right when we meet Jenn as she regains consciousness on the beach, Clemons plays the character with a level of alertness, intelligence, and grit. Because she portrays Jenn with a high level of urgency from the get-go, even though we already have an idea regarding the initial elements she must come up against, we become interested in how the character might fare on this island. I enjoyed moments of humor, particularly when our heroine is learning how to open coconuts, how to fish, to trap larger prey. Desperation can be played for suspense and thrills. But it can also be played for humor.

The monster living in the ocean is terrifying precisely because not much of it is shown. We learn a number of things about the creature (Andrew Crawford), like how it sounds, how it prefers to hunt, how it moves on land versus water, how sensitive it is to sound and smell, what it prefers to eat, if any. It is a formidable enemy not just because of its incredible speed, strength, and body size; Dillard drenches the monster in mystery. It is the correct decision not to explain the creature’s origins or whether it has a special weakness. The only thing we know for certain is that it must die in order for Jenn to live or possibly even escape the island.

The picture’s weakness involves additional human characters introduced about two-thirds of the way through (Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence). I will not reveal who they are, but I found them to be of great annoyance. I was particularly surprised by how generic Cohen portrays his character since he is a character actor. I felt no inspiration from him this time around. Clemons completely overpowers her co-stars nearly every second they share the screen. And when Clemons is not in the frame, I caught myself wondering where Jenn is and what she is doing.

However, the Cohen and Lawrence cardboard cutouts introduce an idea: that Jenn is a person with whom others find difficult to believe. Is it because she has a history of lying and getting caught? A simple case of being a poor storyteller? Is there something in her life back home that contributes to a potential attention-seeking behavior? The screenplay fails to delve into this curious topic—which I think is a big mistake. But putting these planks of wood into the mix long enough to broach the subject allows the creature to function as a metaphor for the story.

The Irishman


The Irishman (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” reaches full power only in its final seventy-five minutes—which is a long wait because the entire work is about three-and-a-half hours. Within this compelling final section, we observe two things: Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) betraying a friend during his time as a hitman for the Mafia and his family leaving him, Frank now a regretful elderly man who cannot even walk, in the nursing home to rot. The latter is a betrayal in itself—at least Frank’s mind. Because, for him, working for the Mafia for as long as he did was an act of protecting his family. In reality, however, the strangers he called friends could have just as quickly turned their backs on him. This is a story of a man who lost everything. And by the end he is nothing.

We meet numerous personalities within the Philadelphia crime family. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian is peppered with a wicked sense of humor, especially when the movie screeches to halt and right next to a man’s face is a quick description of how he would come to meet his demise. More savage is in how Scorsese focuses on the big personalities—like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), one of the leaders of the Mafia, and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), leader of the labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters with an obsession for decorum and punctuality—and constantly puts them through a wringer. Bufalino and Hoffa are nearly complete opposites, in temperament and physicality, but Scorsese is so confident and so focused in communicating to us what gets under these men’s skins. Pesci and Pacino deliver strong, hypnotic performances—they are masters of keeping silent but saying more than enough. And De Niro matches their terrific performances every step of the way with seeming ease.

However, the majority of the film failed to engage me in a way that is completely enveloping. While showing Frank’s rise within the Mafia ranks is consistently beautifully photographed, especially in getting period details exactly right, the dialogue possessing a firecracker quality at times, and historical events are tied into the plot in a relatively seamless manner, I found nothing particularly fresh in the rising action. I felt as though the director has told this type of story before with far more energy and creativity in “Mean Streets,” “GoodFellas,” and “Casino.” It feels like dragging our feet while traversing a familiar pathway. It is without question that the work lags and sags in parts.

Another problematic element is the de-aging technology. While it is impressive to see the performers magically turn young, I urge you to look a little closer. Focus on the eyes. This technology fails to get the eyes right because a young face is often shown possessing old eyes. It is creepy at times, yes, and some may even find it amusing, but more problematic is the fact that it is highly distracting during the most dramatic or tense sequences. As a viewer who has made it a habit to really look into the eyes of the characters in order to try to understand what it is they really mean behind their words, silence, and actions, aged eyes not matching much younger faces is impossible to overlook.

An additional shortcoming, but to lesser degree of severity, is the occasional voiceover not quite matching the lips. A tighter editing might have helped to cover up the poor audio post production. But for a high caliber director like Scorsese, this is an elementary mistake; I found it insulting that the final product, from a technical standpoint, is this sloppy.

“The Irishman” is worth seeing at least once, but it is far from this master filmmaker’s best work. The intention to tell a sprawling but personal story is present, but I feel both the innovation when it comes to telling a fresh crime story and the discipline to ensure the presence of top-notch technological and technical elements are not always present. See it mainly for the performances.

Terrifier


Terrifier (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The high on gore, low on scares slasher flick “Terrifier” may appeal to those who are simply in it for the gratuitous violence, but those looking for a solid story with (even marginally) interesting characters are advised to stay away. It is apparent that writer-director Damien Leone aims to deliver a work that pays homage to 1980s horror pictures. On the surface, an argument can be made that it succeeds. There is a high body count. The plot is straightforward. Even the ending hints a possible sequel. But it is lacking in ways that really count.

The story unfolds during Halloween, but it does not seem to serve much purpose. Sure, it gives the excuse for potential victims, often female, to wear sexy costumes. They scream, trip, and slither their way through confined spaces. They get stabbed, gutted, suffocated, and the like. Standard stuff. I grew tired of it by the third victim. It, too, provides the villain a way to blend into the environment. Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) wears a black and white clown outfit with a death white mask to complete the ensemble. He carries around a trash bag. He sports a creepy smile. He does not say a word. He does not even scream even when a massive nail is impaled on his foot. There is a cartoonish quality behind the goings-on. But take away the holiday aspect and these killings could have occurred on any given night.

I was not amused by any of it and yet I was not able to look away. I was marginally curious whether either of the two friends, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran), on their way home from a Halloween party, would make it through the night. These two are archetypes: the sensible brunette and the dumb blonde. The only difference between these girls and their ‘80s counterparts is that they have a cell phone. Odds are the blonde will not make it halfway through the film. She fails to recognize a threat nearly every single time. Surely, the writer-director will attempt to modernize the tried-and-true formula… right?

And therein lies the problem: A case can be made that taking either route of the blonde or the brunette surviving is a cliché. In the post- post-modern era of slashing and stabbing, nothing feels fresh any longer. When Tara phones her sister, Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi), about twenty minutes into the picture, alarms going off in our heads suggest she is likely to be the final girl. She is the studious type. The girl who stays in during Halloween to prepare for a midterm the next day. We are constantly ahead of its maneuverings and it makes for a passive experience.

What makes Art the Clown terrifying? Is it because he relishes taunting his victims? Is it because he shows no sign of remorse as he mutilates his prey? Is it solely due to the clown mask and costume? He is provided no background information. The thing about the better ‘80s slasher flicks (“A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Sleepaway Camp,” “Friday the 13th”) is that the antagonist is provided at least a semblance of substance. Although unsettling at times, Art the Clown is neither an effective nor a memorable villain. He is not terrifying. It would have been more appropriate to name the movie “Mutilator.” This clown will not be remembered twenty years from now. Not even five years from now.

The final ten to fifteen minutes shows the screenplay at its weakest. There are plenty of opportunities to slay the killer, but they are not taken. Characters appear to step out of danger just in time and then the very next shot is them dead or dying. The most minute common sense is thrown out the window altogether. Particularly idiotic is when the final girl finally makes it outside and yet… she runs back into the building of horrors where she can once again get trapped by the assailant. At the very least she should be screaming to the top of her lungs while outside so the neighbors could hear and call for help.

Marriage Story


Marriage Story (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite the plot revolving around a messy divorce, it is without question that “Marriage Story” is first and foremost a love story between two people who must go their separate ways. This is because writer-director Noah Baumbach is able to recognize that although events must occur to push the story forward, he puts the most time and effort in ensuring that the script is alive and the lead performances fine-tuned to the highest quality so that the standard plot turns are never bland, gathering tension the more we learn about the circumstances. What results is a work that has something universal to say about love: sometimes loving another person—even loving them deeply—may still not be enough to sustain a marriage.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the couple, Nicole and Charlie—she a one-time movie star in Los Angeles who decided to move to New York City with him and he a theater director who is so passionate about what he does, he doesn’t seem to mind making pennies despite his prodigious talent. She gets to star in his plays. They have a child eventually. For a while, the usual rhythm and beat of their chosen lifestyle has worked for them. But, just like any other marriage, the small flaws in their relationship soon begin to tilt the balance. They begin to question what they deserve, what they have accomplished, are they truly happy or simply plateaued? Johansson and Driver deliver terrific performances; they are so effective at both comic and dramatic scenes that you never know what to expect when a scene starts to unravel.

For instance, when a situation appears to build up to a massive confrontation, it is instead diffused. The reason is because Charlie and Nicole know each other so well, they know how one another might respond when approached a certain way or when a specific subject is broached. And so they try to get ahead of it. But then there are moments when they really wish to get under each other’s skin—often due to the resulting frustrations of the divorce process—that they drill and drill until the yelling in room is deafening and pointless. We get a genuine impression that this former couple has a long, detailed, and complex history—which is critical in humanistic dramas.

I appreciated that neither parent is portrayed as a monster nor a saint. Charlie, for example, is so busy with making sure that the final product is the best play it can be that it would have been easier to show us a neglectful father. Instead, it is shown that he cares a whole lot for his son and tries to be there when he can—but discerning viewers will quickly recognize that it just isn’t enough. Charlie is both a father who loves his family as well as a workaholic. Nicole, too, is given shades of complexity. On the one hand, she enjoys being a stage actress in NYC. But she misses LA, her home, and being recognized as the star—not just the director’s wife who just so happens to be playing the lead role. For Nicole, it is a matter of being seen and respected.

The picture is also elevated by memorable supporting characters and performances. Some of them appear a few times, others only once or twice. But every person gets a reaction from us, from Laura Dern as a divorced divorce lawyer representing Nicole with such enthusiasm one cannot help but wonder if she is genuine initially; Ray Liotta as a cunning (and expensive) NYC lawyer who is not above a shouting match in court; Alan Alda also another lawyer but a different breed: he seems to genuinely care about the people involved in the divorce, not just who wins or loses—notice how he takes his time to deliver his words and gestures; Martha Kelly aptly credited as “The Evaluator” because her character blends into the background… until she decides to speak up with that muted but creepy voice.

“Marriage Story” is an effective drama with observant comic moments because it bothers with the details: of the divorce, of how a parent interacts with his or her child; of how a child processes difficult situations; of how a lawyer’s strategy changes when provided potentially juicy information; of how feelings and motivations change with time. Clearly, Baumbach understands divorce from a deeply personal experience. The work would not have been this searing, this complicated, this true had it been otherwise.

The King


The King (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Leave it to director David Michôd for pushing a more introspective take on a typical historical drama in which a person who does not wish to be king ends up with the throne, the crown, and every problem that comes with it. Based on several plays from William Shakespeare’s “Henriad,” “The King” stars Timothée Chalamet as Henry Prince of Wales (referred to as “Hal” by those closest to him), the wayward son of King Henry IV of England (Ben Mendelsohn) who would rather drink all night, sleep all day, and spend time with muddy commoners than to learn the finer points of how to lead a kingdom. It is an inspired choice of casting because the performer knows precisely how to convey crippling loneliness, as he has shown in Luca Guadagnino’s sublime “Call Me by Your Name,” and Hal is a subject plagued with this emotion from the moment he agrees to take on the responsibilities of a king.

Propelled by a slow but calculated pacing, I admired the writers’ decision (Michôd, Joel Edgerton) to focus solely on who Hal is as person—a young man with a title but without power—for about a third of the picture. (An exploration of who he is as a leader comprises the rest of the film.) It is a risk because political machinations are pushed to the background and we hear of civil unrest and war abroad mostly in passing. It would have been the more generic choice to insert confrontations among old men of power—whether it be war of words or weapons—in between moments of characterization in order to compel the audience into paying attention. Here, overt action is used sparingly; most of the action employed is internal.

Instead, the viewers are flooded with instances of Hal being tested prior to becoming ruler. We learn about his level of patience, what gets him angry, who he considers a friend, what qualities he respects in a person, his fears. We take note of his weaknesses which may come to haunt him later. And so when he becomes king eventually, we have an understanding or appreciation of his core values. We expect how he might react to certain challenges surrounding his crown and country, but he retains the ability to surprise—just like a real person. Chalamet ensures to highlight the flaws of his character, especially during moments of deafening silence, because imperfection is interesting.

The relationship between Hal and Falstaff (Edgerton) is begging for refinement. For far too long Falstaff is shown as a jesting fool who just so happens to possess bouts of wisdom. Later, he is revealed to have a prodigious reputation. It would have been a compelling angle to tell their stories in parallel: the directionless young man who would don the crown and the drunken buffoon who must revert to becoming a warrior-tactician. Particularly during the latter part of the story, when political machinations and war have migrated to the forefront, I felt as though the friendship is somewhat disconnected rather than one that functions as symbiosis. I did not feel the big emotions being conveyed during critical moments.

It is without question the filmmakers are intrigued with political chess. The number of meetings that must be had is somewhat amusing, and these give way for the more colorful personalities to stand out or be introduced. Most memorable is the Dauphin of France who claims to enjoy speaking in English because it is simple and sounds ugly. This rough, vile, hilarious character who deems himself superior to everyone else is played with infectious joy by Robert Pattinson. He demands to be heard, to be seen, to be respected—just like Hal, interestingly enough. But there is a vast difference between the two figures. It is a risk-taking performance because most will regard the Dauphin as a joke. Yet he proves to have a venomous bite.

“The King” shows that a period drama need not be stuffy to be respectable. It is accessible, intelligent, aware of how human nature and psychology works. There are short as well as drawn-out battle scenes—every single one well-choreographed—but these are not the central attractions. Instead, we are invited to learn about a person who must find peace—peace for his kingdom, peace within himself—amidst the chaos he inherited. Ultimately, it is a sad story, I think, because although Hal is a king, an argument can be made that from the second he agreed to carry on the torch, he has chosen to become a prisoner of tradition, of great expectations.

Assimilate


Assimilate (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Take any version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and dilute the creativity, energy, surprises about ten to twenty times and you get close to the crushing blandness of “Assimilate,” a horrible, unconvincing sci-fi horror knockoff by writer-director John Murlowski (Steven Palmer Peterson also serving as co-writer). With a smorgasbord of mainstream and independent movies pushing a similar premise right at the writers’ fingertips, it is astounding that just about every decision is uninspired, predictable, and boring. I felt sorry for the young performers on-screen because they are actually quite watchable. They deserve better. And we do, too.

The story opens with Zach (Joel Courtney) and Randy (Calum Worthy) starting yet another video project that they hope would become a success since their last foray was a complete failure. They live in middle-of-nowhere Multon, Missouri and their goal is to show the residents—should they actually choose to watch the enthusiastic duo’s videos—who they really are. Their approach is to attach small cameras onto their shirt collars and capture raw, unedited moments. But something strange is afoot. People are beginning to claim that their loved ones have been replaced by near-perfect copies somehow. These copies stand out because they fail to show emotions. Zach and Randy decide to investigate.

A critical element that the writers seem to forget is the fact that body invasion movies are not just about regular people running all over town to avoid becoming copies themselves. The sub-genre is a tool by which to exorcise fears or concerns of a specific time period and so the movie becomes an allegory. By taking this familiar premise as is, it doesn’t work because the project is reduced to a regurgitation of what came before… but devoid of meaning or context.

There is, I think, a way to circumvent this—and it is not easy. The screenplay must function on such a high level that every scenario must have a twist on the familiar. This way, we are forced to stand on our toes and constantly evaluate situations opposite of what we expect. There must be suspense, foreplay, irony, perhaps even a savage sense of humor prior to pummeling us with truly horrific imagery. This route can offer entertainment value. But the movie is not at all ambitious. Too many times we are forced to endure the usual motions of a character looking sad after the discovery that his or her family members have fallen victims to the extraterrestrial invaders.

It opens with some promise. It is established early on that Multon is a small town where religion is of dire importance. If this weren’t the case, the pastor (Terry Dale Parks) would not be such a respected figure of authority. It is a shame that the material fails to expand upon the idea that religion can be utilized as a weapon to brainwash a population. (Hence why the copies act like zombies.) Maybe this angle is rendered less sharp in order to appeal to more people? But that does not make sense because “Body Snatchers” films are risks; they are meant to function as social commentary.

Despite its lack of thrills and scares, the young actors share good chemistry. I wanted to know more about Zach and Randy’s failed video projects because Courtney and Worthy exhibit an effortless goodness and a sense of camaraderie when playing off each other. There is also a cute—but predictable and at times syrupy—romantic subplot concerning Zach and a childhood friend named Kayla (Andi Matichak). As the movie crawls toward the tired finale, I wished for the three leads to find work in the future that would actually make use of their talents.