REVIEW: “The Assistant” (2020)

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I had heard nothing but good things about Kitty Green’s feature film debut “The Assistant”. Unfortunately the COVID-19 outbreak cut short its theater run well before it made its way to many of the smaller markets. So I’ve been anxiously waiting for my chance to finally check out this #Me Too era drama that attempts to tackle head-on the long unchecked problem of workplace harassment.

Kitty Green had a couple of documentaries under her belt but was inspired to venture into feature films following the 1997 Harvey Weinstein revelations. After much study on workplace harassment she began writing the script for “The Assistant”. Unlike last year’s “Bombshell”, a movie smitten with its bomb-throwing at the expense of its characters, “The Assistant” feels far more rooted in truth and calibrated to a real-world setting that leaves you both unsettled and infuriated.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

The film follows a young woman named Jane played by the remarkably restrained Julia Garner. She’s only five weeks into her new job at a movie production company working as an assistant for a big-time Weinstein-ish film mogul. We learn all we need to know about him through her observations, from secondhand grumblings in the office, and his verbally abusive and patently unfair scoldings over the phone. In one of Green’s many interesting touches, Jane’s boss is never seen or named. The allusion is obvious but by not showing him Green allows us to put a face on the man. Also, it keeps the story’s focus where it belongs – on Jane.

But nothing is more informative for the audience than the workplace environment Green shrewdly creates. The story takes place over the course of one work day starting with Jane’s early morning commute from her home in Astoria to the offices in Manhattan. She is the one responsible for getting to work early, turning on the lights, booting the computers, and starting the coffee pot. Interestingly she’s one of three assistants but hardly on equal ground with the other two, both smarmy males. She’s the one expected to wash dishes in the break room, empty the trash, and pick up lunch – chores often unfairly relegated to women.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

Green takes us through the day nearly free of dialogue. What we get comes mostly in the form of office chatter surrounded by the ambient sounds of clacking keyboards, copy machines, and telephones. But it’s far from weightless. So much can be gleaned from Green’s sharp focus and purposely icy point of view. The indignities, disrespect, and condescension start subtle but add up and take full form as the movie goes on.

The one dialogue-rich exception comes when Jane goes to see the company’s Human Resource officer played by Matthew Macfadyen. What follows is a scene dripping with discomfort and anxiety as his disarming sincerity quickly gives way to a slyly manipulative and coldly calculated shift of blame. It’s one of the best written scenes of the year and both Garner and Macfadyen come at it with just the right balance. Neither overplay or underserve the material, conveying the scene’s meaning with masterful restraint.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

More on Julia Garner – she’s a revelation here and the movie doesn’t work without her precise and measured performance. Critically acclaimed for her role in the Netflix series “Ozark”, Garner is tasked here with being our eyes and ears while also defining her character, not through the usual dramatic storytelling, but through what she experiences onscreen. It’s a tricky part but from the very beginning Garner puts us in Jane’s shoes and maintains a sense of empathy throughout.

“The Assistant” may be low-key but its message is loud, clear and profoundly relevant. Kitty Green has created a timely, hard-hitting drama free of Hollywood gloss and anchored in the real-world experiences too many women are forced to endure. Don’t misconstrue the film’s observational perspective with slowness. Green takes a very calculated approach to her subject and the results are candid, insightful, and eye-opening.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Atlantics” (2019)

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In 2019 French-African director Mati Diop had the distinguished (and overdue) honor of being the first black woman to compete for the main prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Impressively, her first feature film “Atlantics” finished in second place behind Bong Joon Ho’s exceptional “Parasite”. That’s quite the debut.

“Atlantics” is a genre defying drama that opens like a documentary and ends as a poignant supernatural romance. In between we get a police procedural, a creepy ghost story, an examination of class injustice, and a rarely-seen look at Europe’s refugee crisis. Diop sets her film in the Senegalese coastal capital of Dakar where an ultra-modern skyscraper is being built. This is where we first meet a poor construction worker named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore).

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The film opens at a pretty high temperature as we see Souleiman and other frustrated laborers confronting their foreman. It turns out they’ve been stiffed out of three months worth of wages by the wealthy businessman in charge who refuses to answer the foreman’s calls. Discouraged and fed up, Souleiman and his friends head back to their village on the outskirts of the city.

Diop makes a surprising shift by introducing Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) and making her the lead character. She and Souleiman are in love but cultural/religious tradition has her set to marry the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla). The day before her arranged wedding Souleiman and several fellow construction workers vanish after secretly hopping a boat for Spain. Strange events begin to occur following their disappearance including a series of fires which police detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) is called to investigate.

It’s here that Diop makes yet another unexpected shift which I won’t spoil. It’s an interesting twist (if you want to call it that) even if it doesn’t come across as fully thought out. It brings a supernatural element that’s never really explained in a satisfying way. I’m not saying I need rules and thorough guidelines to how things like this work in a movie. But here it’s required that we simply go with it and I couldn’t help but have some questions.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

While the final act of “Atlantics” may lack some narrative detail, the film as a whole lacks nothing when it comes to its visual style. Diop has such a clear and perceptive eye. She and cinematographer Claire Mathon use the camera as an essential storytelling tool. Some scenes are shot with a dreamy haze imbuing them with an evocative, otherworldly quality. Others simply focus on the gentle ceaseless sway of the Atlantic Ocean as various levels of sunlight dance on the surface.

The metaphor-rich imagery speaks to many of the feelings at the heart of Diop’s film – loneliness, betrayal, an ever-present longing. But they also convey a silent rage towards the many injustices vividly portrayed throughout this haunting tale. It’s one of several indicators that this the work of smart and savvy filmmaker we all should keep our eye on.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Amy”

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I know this will kill my chances of being the coolest guy in the room, but I couldn’t name you one Amy Winehouse song. That’s not a slight to her. I’m simply not into newer music like I once was. But despite that I certainly knew who Amy Winehouse was. From 2003 through 2011 Winehouse became an international music sensation. Her powerful vocals and jazz-influenced sound gave her a uniqueness that was embraced by millions around the world. Unfortunately her life was also troubled which led to her sad and untimely death in 2011 at the age of only 27.

Asif Kapadia’s documentary simply titled “Amy” seeks to shed light on the young woman behind the music and the headlines. It offers viewers a chance to reevaluate Winehouse by diving deeper into her personal life, close relationships, and intense emotional struggles. Music is a key part of the film, but this is first and foremost an individual inner-exploration. And as someone who knew more about Winehouse from news headlines, this is an insightful and eye-opening look.

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Amazingly so much of Winehouse’s rise to fame and eventual tragic slide was caught on video. Kapadia gained access to hundreds of hours of footage highlighting her life much of it never before seen. Some of the footage comes from performances including her disastrous final show in Belgrade, Serbia approximately a month before she died.

Juggling this wealth of real-time information must have been a formidable undertaking, but Kapadia’s decisions on what to include and what to omit couldn’t have been much better. And then there are segments pulled from over 100 interviews. Kapadia’s approach along with Chris King’s impeccable editing create a fluid and cohesive narrative that will undoubtedly shed a new light on a talented young woman scared by her past and overwhelmed by her present.

“Amy” tells the singer’s story while also looking at a number of other pertinent topics such as aggressive media obsession, drug addiction, alcoholism, harmful relationships, and destructive personal lifestyles. These topics aren’t  wielded as weapons of judgment towards Amy Winehouse. They are respectfully used to explain and put her troubled life into perspective. But at the same time you can’t help but sense the subtle warnings Kapadia is showing us. These elements combine to give us an interesting and challenging documentary that transcends the simplicity of music or entertainment.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “All the Bright Places” (2020)

BRIGHTposterTeen dramas are a dime a dozen and finding a fresh one out of the enormous batch isn’t always an easy thing. Too often they mimic other movies or follow all-too-familiar formulas. The new Netflix original “All the Bright Places” does a little of both. But at its heart lies a thoughtful story about the teen experience that deals with weighty issues and has the guts to stick with its convictions.

The movie is an adaptation of Jennifer Niven’s 2015 young adult novel. It’s directed by Brett Haley from a screenplay written by Niven and Liz Hannah. The story takes a delicate and earnest look at teen mental health, grief, and suicide through the unlikely friendship/romance of two young people in very difficult places. The movie is sympathetic and well-meaning but also honest. So anyone sensitive to these issues should be cautious.

Elle Fanning plays Violet, once a social butterfly but now withdrawn from her friends and family following the death of her older sister from a car accident. By sealing herself off Violet has no release for her grief which leads her to the ledge of a bridge where she  considers ending her life. But then she has a chance encounter with classmate Theodore who goes by Finch (Justice Smith). Out for an early morning jog, Finch sees the silhouette of Violet (Elle Fanning) standing high on the ledge. He talks her down setting their complex relationship in motion.

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PHOTO: Netflix

Finch works hard to get Violet to open up but in the process we see he has his own troubles. He’s an outsider at school and known as “the freak” due to his bursts of erratic, disruptive behavior. His “dark moods” leave him feeling isolated and out of control. During these times even the best efforts of his guidance counselor (Keegan-Michael Key) and sister (Alexandra Shipp) can’t seem to break through. And much like Violet, he keeps his feelings bottled up leading to him often being misunderstood by those around him.

Thankfully, the movie doesn’t get into diagnosing illnesses and disorders. It’s much more interested in the emotional toil and looking almost exclusively at the human side of the struggle. It’s can be ugly and messy. Often there is no quick fix. Thankfully the movie does have its moments of light. Violet and Finch partner up for a class project highlighting hidden landmarks across their home state of Indiana. As the two “wander” together it brings them closer and a romance sparks. Not the sappy sentimental kind. It’s more cathartic and entirely earned. At the same time a cloud of uncertainty hovers overhead.

Fanning and Smith are good-looking leads with a nice chemistry. They keep their characters grounded, navigating their complexities with empathy and intelligence. At times you can see Smith working a little too hard, but he’s charismatic enough to win us over. His cool, charming side shows a kid who listens to vinyl, quotes Virginia Woolf, and has a therapeutic affection for Post-it notes (not the off brand mind you). But Smith really digs into Finch’s darker side showing the weight of the character’s emotional burdens.

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PHOTO: Netflix

Fanning has great instincts, showing off a dynamic range but with enough subtlety to keep Violet firmly planted in reality. It’s a role that could turn schmaltzy in a flash, but neither Fanning nor the material allows for that. Sure, there’s a little sap here and there, but not enough to gripe about. Depicting any type of mental illness is touchy territory, but the sincere and measured approach (starting with the young actors) leads to an authenticity that’s crucial to our investment.

While the story itself is a roller-coaster of feelings, Haley does a good job keeping things at the right temperature. Meanwhile composer Keegan DeWitt’s soothing mixture of gentle piano chords and elegant strings moves gracefully between enchanting and melancholy. And while the movie carries some of the lightweight genre appeal you would expect, “All the Bright Places” deserves credit for not just having serious intentions, but actually showing them on the screen.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Apollo 11” (2019)

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The Apollo 11 space mission and mankind’s first ever walk on the moon has been covered exhaustively through books, television, and movies (both dramas and documentaries). So a new film chronicling the lunar landing and the events surrounding it may not sound all that alluring on the surface. But don’t be fooled. “Apollo 11” is not only a riveting look back at a major historical moment. It’s hands-down the best documentary of 2019.

Todd Douglas Miller directs, co-produces, and (most impressively) edits this documentary that takes a very unique approach to telling a very familiar story. “Apollo 11” (mostly)follows the timeline completely through archived footage, much of it never before seen. Miller was given access to hundreds of reels of film ranging from 35mm to newly discovered 70mm footage. Even more, he and his team went through 18,000 hours of uncatalogued audio, all to create the most authentic portrayal to date.

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© 2019 Neon CNN Films

You immediately notice “Apollo 11” consists entirely of real footage and audio. There is no voice-over narration or contemporary interviews. The only slightly modern touches are a handful of simple line-drawn animations meant to clarify certain mission details. But even these few scenes are inspired by the 1971 Theo Kamecke documentary “Moonwalk One”. So the entire doc tells the story exclusively through the lenses and voices of its time.

At the same time, one of the most astonishing accomplishments is the amazing quality of the footage. Digitally scanned and meticulously restored, there are moments where the images could easily pass for current day. From the early shots showing masses of people gathering miles away from Kennedy Space Center just to get a glimpse of history. To the scenes capturing the careful and precise teamwork at Mission Control in Houston, Texas. And of course, the space and moon footage which can be exhilarating.

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© 2019 Neon CNN Films

But what may be the most surprising element of “Apollo 11” is Miller’s ability to not only build suspense but maintain it. It’s truly wondrous considering we already know the details of how this mission plays out. And the movie acutely captures the human element particularly with the three astronauts who manned the mission: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins. It’s no deep emotional dive but the film deftly humanizes them through the very mission action itself.

The Apollo 11 space mission brought mankind together during a year full of conflict and tumult. For nine days NASA overshadowed all of the world’s troubles, showcasing the insatiable power of the human spirit. Todd Douglas Miller captures that in the simplest but most profound of ways – through the actual sights, sounds, and words themselves. No modern day talking heads. No excessive exposition. He simply sucks us into the actual experience. And the results are breathtaking, whether you’re old enough to remember those days in July of 1969 or you’re younger and coming at it with fresh eyes.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Fall from Grace” (2020)

GraceposterNot everyone deserves grace“. Apparently that includes the audience. Actually those dual-meaning words slide across the screen in the trailer for Tyler Perry’s latest thriller that just debuted on Netflix. “A Fall from Grace”, front-ended with Perry’s familiar brand tag, marks the twentieth film where the entertainment heavyweight has served as writer, director, and producer. And it’s yet another film of his that would feel right at home on a Tyler Perry version of the Hallmark Channel. But to be honest, even Hallmark would send the film back to him for much needed re-shoots.

I don’t want to be too harsh because there is a lot to admire about Perry and his contributions to a community he clearly cares for. He works tirelessly and pours in a ton of his own resources and efforts to create opportunities in areas that sorely lack them. Those are all great qualities despite what Spike Lee says. I just wish Perry’s movies were better.

For what it’s worth, “A Fall from Grace” is never boring and it navigates its often shaky material on the back on one particularly strong performance from Crystal Fox. She plays Grace Waters who is set to go on trial for the murder of her younger husband Shannon (Mehcad Brooks). A freshly minted attorney named Jasmine Bryant (Bresha Webb) works for the Public Defender’s office and is assigned Grace’s case by her indifferent boss Rory (Perry). It seems pretty cut-and-dried. Grace wants to plead guilty, Jasmine is to manage the plea deal, case closed.

But Jasmine is encouraged to dig a little deeper much to the chagrin of her grumpy boss. She learns from Grace’s best friend (Phylicia Rashad) that she was a Sunday School teacher, sang in her church choir, and baked cookies for the neighborhood children. She urges Grace to share her story and through their conversations (and a series of flashbacks) were learn about what put her prison. We learn Grace, divorced and lonely, was swept off her feet by the young hipster Shannon. But all was not what it seemed and the scamming Casanova made Grace’s life a veritable hell.

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Image via Netflix / Charles Bergmann

I’ll leave the story there but suffice it to say Grace is convinced to let Jasmine fight for her which leads to a final act courtroom drama that is mind-blowing but not in a good way. The later court scenes not only look stunningly cheap but play out like the whole thing is on a time clock. Not to mention it features some of the most astonishingly bad lawyering I have ever seen in a movie or on TV. Watching half a season of Law and Order would have led to a better case than Jasmine presented.

In fairness the movie was shot over the course of five days and unfortunately you can tell. So many scenes desperately need more attention and certain overlooked details stick out like a sore thumb. And boy has the internet been quick to point them out. Take the much talked about bad wigs which sometimes take wildly different forms within the very same scene. And then there is a diner scene where extras sitting in the background stare directly into the camera, drink water from empty glasses, and eat invisible food. I’m not making this stuff up.

I hate to be so hard on “A Fall from Grace” because my wife and I actually got a kick out of watching it together. The problem is much of our enjoyment came at the film’s expense. The cast gives it their all and you have to applaud them for working hard with some pretty bad material. But the story is riddled with head-scratching moments and I haven’t even talked about the ludicrous ending. Add in the production value which highlights the low budget rather than overcomes it and you have a movie that doesn’t exactly herald Tyler Perry’s arrival to Netflix.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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