REVIEW: “Ava” (2020)

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In case you didn’t know it, Jessica Chastain is a bonafide movie star. Case in point, take a look at her latest film “Ava”, a mixed bag of a movie made considerably better by Chastain’s terrific lead turn. Star-powered performances can often (but not always) carry a movie and elevate it beyond what it would have been otherwise. Chastain does just that with “Ava”, driving the film with killer charisma and intense commitment.

As you probably guessed, Chastain plays the title character Ava Faulkner, a globetrotting assassin doing jobs for a shadow organization simply known as “management”. Sound familiar? That’s because writer Matthew Newton borrows a lot from the action genre he’s playing in. Newton was also slated to direct the film but bowed out amid assault and domestic violence allegations. Tate Taylor was hired as a replacement, directing Newton’s script but bringing nothing particularly new to the film. Instead he puts the bulk of the load onto his able cast, specifically Chastain.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Ava is one of the organization’s best assassins but she comes with some baggage. She’s a recovering alcoholic slowly losing her grip on sobriety. She’s also having bouts with her conscience. In hopes of justifying her actions, Ava begins questioning her “subjects” about their sins before offing them. That’s a big no-no in her line of work and “management” starts to worry. Thankfully she has Duke (John Malkovich), her handler for the organization and proverbial father figure, a welcomed replacement for the slug of a dad she had growing up. Duke works to convince his boss Simon (Colin Farrell) that Ava is stable and still an asset. MmmHmm.

That’s all one side of the story. We get the flipside once Ava returns home to Boston. Surprisingly, the movie spends a ton of its running time on this part of Ava’s story. In one sense the filmmakers should be applauded for bringing depth to its lead character. They do so by digging into her dysfunctional family history with her sharp-tongued mother (Geena Davis) and her embittered sister Judy (Jess Weixler). Toss in the presence of Ava’s ex-fiancée Michael (a painfully wooden Common) who’s now engaged to Judy. Talk about throwing gas on an already raging family fire.

Chastain shines in both sides of Ava’s story. She’s a tough, physical force and makes for a thoroughly believable action movie lead. And she brings strong and relatable emotion to the family drama half of “Ava”. The problem is the two sides of the story are at odds with each other. You watch and wait for their inevitable convergence but oddly they never come together (at least not in a truly meaningful way). Instead they both kinda play out, connecting superficially rather than substantively.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Strangely both of the movie’s two halves work good on their own but they don’t gel together in the way they need to. Sadly it’s the action stuff that gets shortchanged the most. Chastain brings intensity and physicality to the shoot-outs and fight scenes while Bear McCreary’s pulsing score amps up the energy. But ultimately it all needs more time and setup.

While “Ava” may not come together to form the most cohesive movie, it has enough meat on its bones to make for an entertaining escape. It’s also sure to catch a lot of people off guard, especially those expecting a more straightforward action flick. Instead “Ava” is just as much a tough dysfunctional family drama. If only the two parts melded together to make a better whole. So we’re left with a movie that teases franchise ambitions but will probably end up as a one-and-done. It’s a shame because I wouldn’t mind following Chastain’s Ava on the next leg of her journey. “Ava” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “A Girl Missing” (2020)

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There is so much packed into the new Japanese drama “A Girl Missing” – jealousy, spite, brokenness, and revenge. It looks at elderly care and rabid news media. Guilt by association and the dangers of keeping quiet only scratch the film’s thematic surface. You would think a movie with this many narrative tendrils would have its hands full covering so much ground. Instead “A Girl Rising” is every bit of a slow burn – a movie almost too casual to add punch to any of its interests.

“A Girl Rising” comes from writer-director Kōji Fukada and is the follow up to his highly acclaimed 2016 film “Harmonium”. Fukada has some interesting ideas most notably starting his one single storyline in two different places and then walking them to their inevitable convergence. It’s crafty storytelling no doubt. Unfortunately the parallel stories clash more than they connect adding a level of confusion to much of the film. But when Fukada does bring it all together, it paints a big picture that I couldn’t help but admire.

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Photo Courtesy of Film Movement

Mariko Tsutsui gives a terrific two-pronged lead performance. We first meet her as Risa, a troubled and downcast woman who develops what seems like an obsessive attraction to a hairstylist named Yoneda (played by Sosuke Ikematsu). Next we see Tsutsui playing Ichiko, a caring and compassionate home health nurse who loves her job and is engaged to be married. Two very different lives at two dramatically different junctures.

Ichiko’s story gets the bulk of the attention and it’s by far the most cohesive of the two. She works as a caregiver for an elderly ex-painter and through her caring service she has become close with the matriarch’s family. Especially the two granddaughters, the moody Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and her outgoing younger sister Saki (Miyu Ogawa) who Ichiko helps with their studies.

After one of their study sessions Saki disappears and her story quickly makes citywide headlines. Police believe it’s an abduction and Ichiko’s nephew Tatsuo (Ren Sudo) the prime subject. Motoko convinces a reluctant Ichiko not to share her family connection to Tatsuo for fear that she’ll be fired. But Motoko’s motivations are murky and keeping that kind of a secret adds suspicion whether deserved or not.

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Photo Courtesy of Film Movement

Interestingly the abduction of Saki (and the film’s title itself) plays a relatively small part in the story. Instead the film’s main focus is on how quickly the walls of Ichiko’s happy life crumble. Meanwhile Risa’s pursuit of Yoneda turns into a patchwork romance that essentially springs out of nowhere. Most of the character detail and patience put into Ichiko’s angle is missing from Risa’s. Thankfully Fukada does eventually connect the dots in a satisfying way that makes you rethink Risa’s story. But getting that point is a little rocky.

So “A Girl Missing” ends up being both fascinating and frustrating. One angle puts ample attention into building its character and exploring the unfolding drama surrounding her. The other feels like an appendage, tagging along and waiting for the movie to finally grant it relevance. Once together, Fukada’s vision is impressive, even audacious. And I really admire Mariko Tsutsui’s performance and the depth she brings to her Ichiko character. She infuses that storyline with a wealth of humanity and Fukada gives her plenty of room to work. If only the other story angle worked as well.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “A Call to Spy” (2020)

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In August of 1941 the German occupation of Europe was well underway. Northern France was next to fall leaving Great Britain alone and vulnerable. With Hitler poised to cross the English Channel a desperate Winston Churchill orders a section of his Special Operations Executive (SOE) to begin recruiting and training women as spies. Their goal would be to infiltrate and disrupt the occupying German forces in France while building a clandestine network of resistance.

This is the compelling premise of “A Call to Spy”, a mature character-driven historical drama that examines yet another shamefully untold true story from World War II. It may be a tad too ambitious when it comes to scope, but for a small budget indie it’s a remarkable accomplishment. More importantly the film never loses sight of its characters, their individual plights, and their dedication to service. Not only are their stories informative and inspirational, but they’re rich with lessons still relevant today. Better yet this is a female led movie that shines on both sides of the camera. Take note Hollywood.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

The film features an Oscar-nominated director in Lydia Dean Pilcher who ably covers a lot of ground while never allowing the dialogue-heavy story to bog down. That’s made easier by Sarah Megan Thomas who is the heart of the film both on screen and behind its production. Thomas stars, produces and writes the screenplay with passion, motivation and empathy. Extensive research and family interviews led her to make something far more intimate and illuminating than your typical genre period piece.

The story focuses on three woman, each with their own personal obstacles to overcome but joined in their determination and courage. The first is Vera Atkins (brilliantly portrayed by Stana Katic), Romanian by birth and positioned as the secretary to SOE section head Colonel Maurice Buckmaster (Linus Roache). In reality Vera was his head of intelligence, but due to constantly being declined British citizenship she was restricted from officially holding an officer’s position. Despite often being the smartest person in the room, Vera frequently comes face-or-face with the military’s longstanding patriarchy. And even Buckmaster’s unwavering trust can’t protect her from some of the quieter prejudices that surface later in the film.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Vera is tasked with finding and vetting their initial batch of female recruits. “Women would be more inconspicuous.” They would be tested, trained and then sent off “to build resistance and set France ablaze“. Vera in instantly drawn to Virginia Hall (played by Thomas), an American eager to serve as a diplomat but repeatedly denied by her country because she’s a woman and due to her “condition”. She has a wooden leg which she affectionately calls Cuthbert, the result of a tragic hunting accident years prior. Intelligent and committed, Virginia instantly shows grit and leadership, both invaluable assets in the “ungentlemanly warfare” she would be facing.

Next is Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a gentle, unassuming Indian pacifist and top-notch wireless operator. She’s immediately met with skepticism by many of the men who view her small stature and kind spirit as weaknesses. But Noor earns the confidence of Vera and Buckmaster and begins training for fieldwork. Meanwhile Virginia is sent to Lyon to establish a secret hub for the growing resistance. Once there we follow her as she makes connections and works to win the trust of the already embedded operatives. With England desperate for information and the German occupation intensifying, Noor soon joins Virginia despite not finishing her training.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Thomas’ script nimbly moves back-and-forth between the stories of the three women. Each story thread is neatly connected to the others while still feeling very personal to the individual characters. For example Virginia quickly develops into a keen resistance leader, managing the many lives hinging on her decisions and making tough calls when need be. But her disability is a very real part of her story. Thomas doesn’t gloss over it, acutely showing it as both a strength and a struggle. She shows the same sensibility for Noor, a brave young woman out of her element, moving from place to place while narrowly avoiding capture. Same for Vera who follows her recruits from back home, parsing through messages and supporting their efforts while feeling the breath of sexist and anti-Semitic sentiment.

“A Call to Spy” is exactly the movie I hoped for. An eye-opening true story of uncommon valor, told through capable direction, a smart affecting script, and three central performances that vividly portray these heroes. And their heroism wasn’t just reserved for the arena of war. Whether in the trenches or the war room, these woman fought uphill showing their true mettle in the face of hardship. The film also works as a thoughtful World War II history piece with an immersive setting and ample reminders of what was at stake and the sacrifices made. “A Call to Spy” opens October 2nd in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Antebellum” (2020)

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“Antebellum” begins with one brilliant tone-setting tracking shot. Co-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz start with their camera gazing upwards as rays of sunlight beam through treetops draped in Spanish moss. The camera pans down to an elegant plantation house, a young girl skipping in the front yard picking flowers as horses graze on the lush green grass. It’s a beautiful portrait.

But as the camera moves the idyllic storybook facade gives way to the ugliness of reality. It slowly winds through the plantation’s slave quarters as Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur’s searing score steadily escalates. The camera settles on an act of unspeakable violence – a jarring and unsettling moment that instantly and firmly plants our feet in Bush and Renz’s world.

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Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate

With that gripping opening Bush and Renz provide one of the best 10 minute stretches I’ve seen in a movie all year. And it gets “Antebellum” off on a strong foot. Genre-wise their feature film debut resembles Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” minus the plot holes and freshman filmmaker miscalculations. Both are horror movies but not in the traditional sense and both tell stories with strong social consciences.

“Antebellum” stars Janelle Monáe who gives two dramatically different yet equally compelling performances. We get our first glimpse of her during the opening tracking shot as she is brought to a Louisiana plantation. Six months pass and we see her picking cotton under the eye of an abusive white foreman (Jack Huston). We learn that her name is Eden and she is the chosen favorite of a possessive confederate officer (Eric Lange). Through Eden’s eyes and the film’s unflinching sense of conviction we see plantation life often in visceral detail.

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Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate

Suddenly, at around the 40 minute mark a cell phone rings, shattering our sense of time and transporting us to modern day. The phone is answered by Veronica Henley (Monáe’s other role), an acclaimed author and activist living lavishly with her husband Nick (Marque Richardson) and their young daughter Kennedi (London Boyce). Veronica is a picture of success, self-made and a go-getter. You could say she’s living a version of the “American Dream” but one built on shaky ground – something that becomes clearer as the movie progresses.

It would be a disservice to reveal any more. All I’ll say is Veronica flies to New Orleans to deliver a lecture on black empowerment. While there Bush and Renz (who also penned the script) slyly begin to connect the narrative dots. There is a time or two when Veronica’s storyline strays a bit. Take a dinner sequence with her and two friends played Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles. On its own the scene is well written and performed. But within the movie itself, the nearly seven minute sequence grinds the tension-building to a halt. There are also tonal issues as the scene focuses almost entirely on Sidibe’s character who plays a tad too much like comic relief.

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Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate

But it doesn’t take long for “Antebellum” to get back on track. Bush and Renz craft a nail-biting final act that illuminates the two stories before arriving at its satisfying conclusion. It’s not that hard to pick up where things are going well before the big ending. But watching it all come together and seeing the details cleverly ironed out makes for a worthwhile payoff. And it doesn’t hurt to have such a brilliantly multifaceted performance from Monáe who finally gets her first (and much deserved) lead role. She works with such authenticity and commitment which proves to be invaluable to both Eden and Veronica.

“Antebellum” falls among the ever-growing list of movies affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was originally slated for a theatrical release before finally landing on VOD this weekend. While I wish it could have gotten the big screen treatment, I’m glad people finally get the chance to see it. “Antebellum” deserves an audience, not just for being good genre entertainment (which it is), but also for the richness of its underlying message. It tells a penetrating story that will leave you primed for a second viewing. “Antebellum” premieres September 18th on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Au revoir les enfants” (1987)

 

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“Au revoir les enfants”, which means “Goodbye Children”, is a 1987 Oscar nominated drama from French filmmaker Louis Malle. This autobiographical film is unquestionably Malle’s most personal project and its story is taken from actual events of his childhood. He wrote, produced, and directed this stirring film that grounds its storytelling in authenticity and in pure earned emotion.

The film is set in 1944 and almost all of it takes place at a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. Children are sent to the school by wealthy parents in hopes of protecting them from the dangers of the war. One such student is young Julien (Gaspard Manesse). He is respected by the other kids but he’s still a bit of an outsider. He would prefer to read novels and learn piano rather than the usual horseplay the boys engage in. He’s tough and strong-minded but we also see a tender and somber side to him as well. He doesn’t like being away from home and he never seems completely happy at school.

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Things at the school change when three new students are introduced. One is Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö) a quiet and unassuming boy who is quickly assimilated into the school’s routine. Jean is teased and picked on, sometimes by Julien, but he soon finds his own small place to fit in. Over time Julien becomes fascinated with Jean due to his talents in math and music. Julien is also curious after noticing several differences in how Jean is treated by the school’s headmaster and teachers. Despite some contentious early dealings, the two boys develop a respect and friendship which makes the film’s later turns all the more crushing and heartbreaking.

There are several things that stand out about Malle’s technique. First off he’s not the least bit interested in the normal Hollywood-style melodrama or cliches. He doesn’t milk emotion or stage scenes in ways that feel false. Instead he puts great emphasis on the natural flow of school life in its purest form. You get a sense that he is recollecting and expressing things to his audience. These kids look, feel, and act like kids both through their virtue and their degeneracy. Malle wants us to believe what we are seeing because it’s true and personal to him.

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Another interesting thing is how the war quietly lingers in the distance for most of the film. It rarely makes its presence known other than through the occasional air raid sirens which the children hardly take seriously. But it is definitely there and we get a handful of strategic scenes that serve as a reminder. And as the film moves forward the boys are faced with several war-related moral quandaries that reveal the darker and more upsetting side of their world. It is through these moments that we the audience fully realize the loss of innocence particularly with young Julien.

It’s impossible to watch “Au revoir les enfants” without being deeply moved by its poignant story and obvious personal touch from Louis Malle. It’s a meticulously crafted film that builds up our emotional connection to the characters and then crushes them on the rocks of cold reality. The movie looks at the time and events through the eyes of these boys and it never loses that point-of-view which is vital to the story’s power. It’s such an amazing movie and a beautiful piece of film history.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Artemis Fowl” (2020)

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Full disclosure, I had never heard of “Artemis Fowl” prior to its feature film announcement. I knew nothing of Irish author Eoin Colfer’s popular series of children’s novels that featured a total of eight books released from 2001 to 2012. So I can honestly say I came into Disney’s $125 million adaptation with fresh eyes and bearing no allegiance to the source material. I actually prefer seeing movies that way.

The first plans to turn “Artemis Fowl” into a movie began brewing back in 2001. For ten years it languished in development hell until resurfacing in 2011 with Saoirse Ronan attached. Disney grabbed the rights in 2013, hired Kenneth Branagh to direct in 2015, booted Harvey Weinstein in 2017, and set the film for a 2019 release. It was delayed until May 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of its theatrical release. Instead it was released last Friday on Disney’s streaming platform. After seeing it, that’s probably where it belongs.

“Artemis Fowl” is essentially a fruitless franchise launch for a series I doubt we will ever see again. Disney clearly have aspirations, the blatant sequel setup ending proves that. But I can’t imagine this film rousing a passionate enough fanbase for there to actually be more installments. From the very start it stumbles out of the gate, never gaining its footing and ultimately failing to capture the wonder of its magical fantasy setting.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

Nestled on the scenic coast of Ireland is the remote Fowl Manor, home to wealthy antiquities collector Artemis Fowl, Sr. (Colin Farrell). Now from what I read this widowed father is supposed to be a “criminal mastermind” but the film does a terrible job of convincing us. I’m still not sure what he did to earn himself such a lofty underworld title. Nonetheless, he lives in the mansion with his only son Artemis II (Ferdia Shaw), a 12-year-old child prodigy whose lone desire is to be with his often absent father.

While on one of his business trips Artemis Sr. goes missing at sea amid news media reports that he was involved in the theft of numerous priceless artifacts. Artemis Jr. receives a call from a shadowy cloaked figure who has kidnapped the senior Fowl and threatens dastardly harm if the young boy doesn’t retrieve something called the Aculos which his father had stolen. Leaning on his dad’s fantastical teachings on the magical world of fairies, trolls, sprites and goblins, Artemis Jr. sets out to find the Aculos and rescue his pop.

Another story thread is set in the subterranean world of Haven City. It’s a high-tech civilization ran by fairies, most notably a cranky, gravelly-voiced Judi Dench who is more convincing as a three pack-a-day smoker than a hard-as-nails fairy police commander. Turns out the Aculos was stolen from them and they want it back. Unseasoned officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) is sent on a mission to retrieve it, her mission crosses over with Artemis Jr.’s, and so on. Other not-so-entertaining characters include Josh Gad as an oversized dwarf and Nonso Anozie as the Fowl family’s butler (but don’t you dare call him “butler”). The rest of the cast have such little resonance you’ll barely notice them.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

While Branagh’s direction won’t win any awards, it’s the screenplay (from Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl) that really drags this thing down. Aside from the blandest storytelling and the most cookie-cutter characters, the dialogue is mind-numbing. Not in the sense of terrible lines (although we get plenty of those), but in the relentless voice-overs, narration, and exposition. Practically everyone in this movie speaks in stilted overly-explanatory language and nearly every line is treated as a critical information dump. At times it feels more like a college lecture than a movie script as things are spelled out to the most minute detail.

Case in point, we get exchanges like this:

What is that?”

A creature that consumes humans in 2.97 seconds and fairies in less than 1.”

Mercifully that is one of the shortest examples I could find but it makes the point. “Artemis Fowl” doesn’t give its audience any credit for being able to figure things out nor does it leave anything to the imagination.

Aside from that we get an incredibly cold and dry lead performance from Shaw. I don’t want to drum on a young actor, but the lack of charisma and charm he brings to his character makes him hard to digest as a serious protagonist. Add to that an astonishingly shallow villain so thinly-sketched that we basically forget about her for most of the movie. Her origins, her motivations, her end goal – who knows and frankly who cares.

Now it’s 100% possible young children may love “Artemis Fowl”. In fact I’m almost certain some will. So if you have kiddos this is a pretty harmless time-passer especially as part of your Disney+ subscription. But I can’t review the film through their eyes, only mine. And it’s hard to give this movie a pass when so many others have appealed to children while being enjoyable and competently made.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars