REVIEW: “Memoria” (2021)

Tilda Swinton is haunted by a mysterious sound in the otherwise quiet and meditative “Memoria”, the evocative new drama from director, writer, and producer Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This is Weerasethakul’s first movie made outside his native Thailand, but those familiar with his work will almost instantly notice his distinct style of storytelling.

I was fortunate enough to see “Memoria” thanks to NEON’s awards season screener bundle. Otherwise it’s going to be a tough movie to catch. From what I understand, Weerasethakul has no plan for a physical home release or even a conventional theater run. Instead he’s taking his film on the road for a long run of week-long engagements at different stops across the country. It’s an unusual release strategy and one that’s certain to cost him some viewers. But at the same time, “Memoria” isn’t the kind of movie aimed at large crowds.

Image Courtesy of NEON

“Memoria” is a movie that defies definition. You could consider it a sensory journey that isn’t interested in plot as much as experience. Weerasethakul wants his audience to feel. But to do so will require viewers to get on his unique and unconventional wavelength. Admittedly, at first I found that to be a challenge. But once I was in tune with his patient and observant rhythm, “Memoria” turned into something I wasn’t expecting. Soon I found myself swept up by feelings of fascination, bewilderment, curiosity and full-on admiration.

You could also consider it slow cinema. Some will be quick to assert that often “nothing happens”, a perspective that Weerasethakul’s style partially contributes to. In many cases his scenes aren’t simply long takes, but they extend to well after the scene’s action has finished. Rather than cutting, Weerasethakul keeps his camera locked in place, allowing his audience time to soak up every detail of the frame. And as we do, not only are he pulled deeper into the film’s beguiling mystery, but Weerasethakul slyly put us into a similar headspace as the film’s central character, Jessica (Tilda Swinton).

I’m not sure any actress could be more fitting for this role than Swinton. She is perfectly tuned into Weerasethakul’s enigmatic frequency and she effectively channels the very apprehension and incertitude that we the audience also feel. Interestingly, everything about her character Jessica feels out of place. First, she’s a Scottish botanist living in Medellín, Columbia (the movie’s most overt sign of displacement). But she comes across as more than a foreigner in a new country. She conveys this perpetual sense of lostness, like someone trying to get a hold of the world she’s in.

The movie opens with Jessica shaken from her sleep by a jolting boom in the middle of the night. It’s a mysterious sound that she later describes as “a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal wall which is surrounded by seawater“. She travels to Bogotá to visit her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) who is hospitalized with a sudden illness. While there she hears the sound again and realizes that only she can hear it. Later Jessica is shaken again by the sound as she sits in an otherwise quiet park at night.

Image Courtesy of NEON

Not only do the mystifying whomps startle Jessica, but they jar us as well thanks to the film’s exquisite sound design. Soon the film’s gaunt, soft-spoken, and curious protagonist sets out (with us in tow) to determine the source of the assaultive sound in her head. A music professor friend connects her with Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), a sound engineer who tries to recreate the sound for Jessica. He succeeds but it doesn’t get us any closer to the sound’s source. “I think I’m going crazy,” she tells a friend.

As Jessica continues her search we’re fed very little in the form of answers. That’ll come as no surprise to those familiar with Weerasethakul’s work. But that doesn’t mean Jessica’s journey is empty or meaningless. Quite the opposite. It gets back to what I mentioned above – this is more about experiencing. There is an answer to the big question in the final few shots (an answer that I’m still chewing on days after seeing the film). But ultimately it’s about getting to that point. It’s about joining Jessica on her lonely melancholy peregrination. But to do so you have to still your mind, watch and listen. That’s where the real joy of Weerasethakul’s entrancing film is to be found.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Matrix Resurrections” (2021)

Toss me into the camp with the few who never really got into the “Matrix” movies. The first film of the series, 1999’s “The Matrix”, was entertaining and built itself around a pretty cool premise. The second film, “The Matrix Reloaded”, features three spectacular action scenes but little else worth revisiting. The third movie, “The Matrix Revolutions”, was a forgettable slog that mercifully brought the series to an end (or so we thought).

While the idea behind “The Matrix” is interesting and its video game-ish action can be fun, it’s the series creators, the Wachowskis, that I’ve often struggled with. Their movies tend to be built around big ideas but too often feel cold and empty. Movies like “Cloud Atlas” and “Jupiter Ascending” are shining examples of how high ambition mixed with overindulgence can overpower good storytelling.

Now some 18 years since the last movie, one-half of the Wachowskis, Lana, steps back into the Matrix with “Resurrections”, a movie that seems to have been made with die-hard fans in mind. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and maybe there’s enough of that fan base to make this movie worthwhile. But for lukewarm viewers like me, or for those who have moved on from the near 20-year-old trilogy, there’s not much here to latch onto. Even worse, “Resurrections” is a slog, overburdened by endless exposition and lacking anything that feels remotely fresh.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Wachowski’s fourth installment sees Keanu Reeves reprising his role of Neo. Following his sacrifice in the previous film, Neo has been brought back and programmed into the Matrix as video game developer Thomas Anderson. He’s the creator of a popular trilogy of games inspired by a series of unexplained dreams that are actually memories from his previous time in and out of the Matrix.

After their offices are attacked by tactical troops who shoot so poorly they make Stormtroopers from Star Wars look like expert marksmen, Thomas/Neo is approached by a duller but sharper dressed Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He once again gives the whole Red Pill/Blue Pill spiel which offers Neo a chance to have all his questions answered. Meanwhile Trinity (a returning Carrie Anne Moss) has been reinserted into the Matrix as a married mother of three named Tiffany who likes motorcycles and coffee (who doesn’t, right?)

After learning Trinity’s whereabouts, Neo wants to save her. But he’s informed by an old friend Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith reprising her role from the last two movies) that doing so could jeopardize the new underground human sanctuary called Io. But with the help of an ambitious and awe-struck young captain named Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and her utterly forgettable crew, Neo defies Niobe’s warning and sets out to free Trinity. But a new force at the center of the Matrix has other plans.

Of course that is a very short summary of the story. There’s actually a ton of information crammed in along the way. In fact, for a while it feels as if every other scene includes yet another long and often tedious info dump. Everyone Neo meets seems to have a lot of explaining to do before the film can ever move forward. It’s so noticeable that you can’t help but laugh as you wait for their long-winded conversations wrap up.

Among the other new faces we meet is Neil Patrick Harris who plays Thomas’ therapist who tries to help Neo distinguish his reoccurring dreams from “reality”. We also get a dry and bland Jonathan Groff as a new version of Neo’s arch-nemesis Agent Smith. It’s obvious Groff is trying his best to recreate the villain made famous by Hugo Weaving in the first three films. Unfortunately he can’t muster half the charisma or menace that Weaving brought to the role. As a result, this iteration of Smith falls flat.

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

There are several other noticeable issues that I couldn’t quite shake. For example, early on there’s this whole weird self-aggrandizing meta angle where Wachowski uses game designers in a brainstorming session to tout how smart, challenging, and subversive the Matrix movies are. The problem is it never feels natural to the story. Instead it feels like a filmmaker trying to be funny or clever (honestly it’s hard to tell which).

There’s also the issue of the movie’s rather generic effects. Like them or not, the Matrix movies have always had a slick and cool look, especially during the stylish action sequences. But here nothing stands out which is surprising considering how far digital effects have come. But even the fight scenes lack energy and come across as uninspired.

As for the performances, everyone is doing the best they can. But the script (co-written by Wachowski, David Mitchell, and Aleksandar Hemon) gives them painfully little to work with. Even the movie’s philosophical ramblings (a staple of the earlier films) aren’t nearly as smart or engaging as the movie thinks they are. Ultimately we’re left with a sequel that may have enough nostalgic callbacks to satisfy hardcore fans. For the rest of us it’s a needless revisit that lacks the originality of the first film and the memorable action sequences of the two earlier sequels. “The Matrix: Resurrections” is now showing in theaters and is streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Many Saints of Newark” (2021)

Prior to the revolution that dramatically changed the way we consume television, most of us counted on the major networks for our daily allowance of small screen serial entertainment. But a lot changed on the evening of January 10, 1999. That’s the night when HBO premiered the pilot episode of “The Sopranos”. The immensely popular hour-long mob drama would change the way people looked at and thought of serial television. And it opened the door for the countless cutting-edge shows that would follow.

“The Sopranos” wasn’t HBO’s first venture into television, but nothing changed the television landscape quite like the esteemed crime series which earned big ratings despite being on a premium cable network. The show would go on to receive a total of 111 Emmy nominations while winning 21 statues over the course of its six-season 86-episode run.

The success of the “The Sopranos” led to HBO changing their business model and investing more in original programming. It also paved the way, not only for other cable networks, but also for the lucrative streaming world we currently live in. It’s hard to overstate the show’s impact.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Built around the amusing premise of a mob boss seeking therapy to lower his stress levels, “The Sopranos” would evolve into a much more thoughtful and layered study. It was essentially a psychological family drama fused together with a grounded and gritty gangster story. The late James Gandolfini’s iconic Anthony “Tony” Soprano was the perfect anchor – an Italian-American wiseguy based in New Jersey with as many headaches at home as he had running his underworld business. While the series covered quite a bit of ground, there was still plenty of story left to be told.

Enter “The Many Saints of Newark”, a prequel to “The Sopranos” that sees show-runner David Chase return to the characters he spent years nurturing. Directed by Alan Taylor and co-written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, the story heads back to Newark, New Jersey and unfolds during the tumultuous 1960s and early 70s when the city’s racial tensions were at a boil and as rival gangs were springing up and taking aim at the powerful DiMeo crime family.

This is the world Anthony “Tony” Soprano grew up in. ”The Many Saints of Newark” begins in 1967 when the future mafia don (played early on by William Ludwig) was just a kid. Later it moves to the 1970s where, in an audacious bit of casting, James Gandolfini’s son Michael plays the younger version of the character his father made famous.

Perhaps most interesting is the way “Saints” tells Tony’s backstory. It doesn’t take the traditional route of following some detailed timeline of the central character’s life. Instead it unveils Tony’s story through the people closest to him. Chase puts a ton of effort into showing us where Tony came from, mostly centering on the knotty family history between the Sopranos and the Moltisantis. As you would expect, their history is marked by family drama, crime, betrayal and violence which a young Tony takes in while mostly sitting in the background.

The one principal figure in the story is Tony’s uncle in name only, Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Dickie is a suave and confident mob soldier working under his father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (a terrific Ray Liotta). Dickie is a handsome smooth-talker, brandishing a disarming smile and barely repressing a vengeful violent side. While he’s a good business man, Dickie’s judgement when it comes to family is a little wobbly. Such as when he takes a liking to his pompous father’s new (and considerably younger) trophy wife Guiseppina (Michela De Rossi). But he’s good to Tony, taking him under his wing while the kid’s father, Giovanni “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal) was doing time in prison.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Dickie makes for a fitting centerpiece, but “Saints” truly is an ensemble film. Chase fills his world with both new and familiar names, telling their stories with the same moral ambiguity as the series. They’re brought to life through phenomenal performances top to bottom. Among the best is Vera Farmiga as Tony’s paranoid and borderline neurotic mother Livia. Corey Stoll playing the younger Corrado “Junior” Soprano complete with his signature glasses and crankiness. And a fierce Leslie Odom Jr. as an ambitious numbers runner Harold McBrayer, who once worked under Dickie but is inspired by the city riots to start an underworld racket of his own.

Not everything works as well as it should. There’s a love triangle of sorts that springs out of nowhere. And considering how it ends, the angle really needed some kind of buildup. As for setting up Tony Soprano’s entrance into mob life, the movie does a great job presenting the influences that led him down the path. Yet it never lets us see him take the first step from aspiring football player and rock-n-roller into a life of organized crime.

Still, “Saints” is a solid “Sopranos” companion piece. There’s a fair amount of fan service and it helps to at least have a working knowledge of the characters. For those reasons, it may not be the most accessible entry point for newcomers. But with its stellar performances and the same alluring style of character-driven storytelling that made the series such a hit, “Saints” has plenty to offer to even the most casual mob movie fan.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Malignant” (2021)

CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

James Wan not only cut his teeth in the horror genre, but he’s also the man behind the camera of such franchise-launching movies as “Saw”, “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”. All three were modestly budgeted but wildly popular chillers. Wan stepped away from the spooky stuff to helm two major tentpole blockbusters, both big successes – 2015’s “Furious 7” and 2018’s “Aquaman”. Warner Bros. quickly signed him up for a second “Aquaman”, but before diving back into the big budget waters, Wan returns to his roots with “Malignant”, a devilishly creepy horror flick with a fun and nasty edge to it.

I suppose you could call me as a fan of Wan’s horror stuff. I generally like the first “Saw” but not its countless sequels, the two “Insidious” movies were fine yet nothing that ever stuck with me, and I truly love the two Wan-directed “Conjuring” films. They are what stoked my excitement for “Malignant”. But what’s best about his latest venture are the many things it does different; those things that set it apart and make it feel like something fresh (and more than a little bonkers).

Among my favorites of Wan’s many sly touches is how he teases us with an opening fifteen minutes that doesn’t feel new at all. In fact, it comes across an standard haunted house horror fare – kitchen appliances turning on by themselves, lights flickering throughout the house, the floors creaking and doors mysteriously opening. It’s all so intentionally unremarkable and (with the exception of one really cool overhead camera trick) it sees Wan retreading old ground that he himself helped make conventional.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

But then “Malignant” surprises us with the first of several unexpected turns as Wan starts to show what he’s really up to. And along the way its story (conceived by Wan, his wife Ingrid Bisu, and the film’s screenwriter Akela Cooper) takes on a number of different genre-inspired forms – that of a grisly crime thriller, a murder mystery, a supernatural horror, a slasher flick and something more that I won’t dare give away (PSA – avoid spoilers at all cost).

English actress Annabelle Wallis plays Madison Mitchell, a pregnant Seattle woman who we learn has suffered three miscarriages in two years. Her understandable anxiety isn’t helped by her cruel and abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). In an especially violent outburst, Derek slams Madison so hard against the wall it leaves her head gashed open. Later that night he gets his comeuppance at the hands of a brutal shadowy spirit.

The police chalk it up to a home invasion, but after learning of Derek’s abuse and noticing no signs of forced entry, they begin investigating Madison. In the meantime Madison begins having tormenting visions of gruesome murders as they’re happening in real-time across the city. The eerie way Wan and his effects team capture her visions is just one of several eye-popping touches you’ll find scattered throughout the movie.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m reluctant to share much more because “Malignant” is a movie that begs to be discovered. Part of the fun is in how the crafty storytelling lures us into thinking we have everything figured out only to prove us wrong over and over again. And as more truths are unearthed, Wallis ably navigates us through her emotionally knotty character arc, channeling terror in a way that’s more than simply screaming on cue. It’s a solid performance.

Everything comes together in a wild go-for-broke final act that you’ll never see coming. It’s as batty and gore-soaked as anything you’ll watch this year and earns every bit of the movie’s R-rating. It’s also a ton of fun. The last twenty minutes sees Wan and company gleefully letting loose with the kind of 80’s B-movie grotesquerie that once lined the horror section at your local video store.

It’s such a fitting finish for a movie that’s so proud of its influences – a movie that tips its hat to giallo and embraces camp without a moment of hesitation. It all makes ”Malignant” a movie that’s impossible to label or categorize. At the same time it’s not some cheap and messy hodgepodge of horror sub-genres. There’s a method to James Wan’s madness and he’s a nimble enough filmmaker to make it all work. What can I say, I kinda loved it. “Malignant” is now showing in theaters and on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

Classic Movie Spotlight: “My Favorite Wife” (1940)

FAVORITE WIFE POSTER

How can any true movie fan not love the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s? The once popular genre was recognized for its witty rapid-fire dialogue, wacky situations, bold and brash female leads, occasional slapstick humor and a feverish battle of the sexes.

During this zesty time for comedies many actors and actresses saw their careers flourish including screen legend Cary Grant. In “My Favorite Wife” Grant matches wits with Irene Dunne in what is a shining example of what makes this hysterical sub-genre so attractive.

The movie starts with arguably the funniest courtroom scene ever filmed. Nick Arden (Grant) is before a judge seeking to have his wife Ellen (Dunne) declared legally dead after being missing at sea for seven years. He’s there with Bianca (Gail Patrick) who he plans to marry after the judge’s ruling. Everything goes as planned, but as with most screwball comedies the harmony doesn’t last long. You see, Ellen isn’t really dead and she shows up after being rescued from a deserted island.

Wife1

When Ellen reveals herself to Nick things get pretty complicated. He’s crazy about her yet he doesn’t know how to end it with Bianca. It also doesn’t help that he’s a bit spineless and cowardly. Of course he drags things out leading to one comedic complication after another. And there you have what makes this movie so great – the nutty situations, the back-and-forth banter and the hilarious head-butting between the two leads.

One of the biggest strengths of “My Favorite Wife” lies in its screenplay. It’s smart, crafty and it avoids the annoyances found in many of today’s “comedies”. The film is plump with great scenes and hilarious lines. For instance take the opening courtroom scene. Veteran character actor Granville Bates plays the grumpy and cantankerous Judge Bryson. He steals the scene with his grumbling and impatience. It’s a perfect tablesetter for the fun and playful tone that carries through the rest of the picture.

Wife2

Of course a movie likes this has to have good performances from capable leads. I’ve already talked about Cary Grant and as expected he is fabulous. He has his usual charisma and that impeccable comedic timing he would become known for. But the real star just may be Irene Dunne. Some have called Dunne the greatest actress to never bring home an Oscar. Watch her here and you’ll get it. She matches Grant line for line and gag for gag. Randolph Scott and Gail Patrick are also a lot of fun in solid supporting roles.

“My Favorite Wife” is a really good film featuring sharp and sometimes corny wit and some really fun performances. Even though it was nominated for three Academy Awards, the film is rarely mentioned among the great screwball comedies of the time. And while I’ll admit that it may be missing that special ‘something’ that makes it truly great, I still think it’s a load of fun and it’s a movie that any lover of comedy should seek out.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Midnight in the Switchgrass” (2021)

There are a couple of early moments in “Midnight in the Switchgrass” that tease a gritty and multi-layered crime thriller. But that potential is all but squashed in the first twenty minutes or so. Instead of something fresh and engaging, we end up with a glaringly inert and poorly acted potboiler that treads way too much familiar ground. Strangely enough, it manages to be watchable despite never being anything more than aggressively average.

Directed by Randall Emmett working from a script by Alan Horsnail, “Midnight in the Switchgrass” begins the same way many of these stories do – with the body of a young woman found under a bridge. Turns out she’s one of several female victims reported missing and later found dead in the Pensacola area. It has all the markings and fits the profile of a serial killer. Florida State Police officer Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch) knows it and immediately connects it to the other killings.

Yet for some inexplicable reason Crawford’s chief refuses to pursue it and wants Crawford to just drop the case. Seriously! There’s never a reason given and no logical answer why. And when Crawford ignores the orders and investigates anyway, his insubordination is never met with an ounce of department pushback. There are no warnings, no repercussions. Nothing! It ends up being one of several meaningless details that are only in the movie because they’re written on the page.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Elsewhere Megan Fox and Bruce Willis play a couple of FBI agents running stings in the area to catch sex traffickers. Fox’s Agent Lombardo works as the undercover bait luring the pervs into their trap while her partner Agent Helter (Willis) listens in helplessly from the car. Helter has lost the stomach for their work and is ready to pack up for an easier assignment in Seattle. But when their operation crosses paths with Crawford’s investigation, Lombardo insists on sticking around and seeing it through.

Amid the sea of crime movie cliches and bland dialogue are a number of performances that are as unconvincing as the story itself. Hirsch gets third billing but he’s really the star of the movie, showing some nice restraint while sporting a truly awful and exaggerated Deep South accent. Willis continues his run of sleepwalking performances, completely detached and only there to add some name recognition. To Fox’s credit, she puts all she can into her role but finds herself chained (both literally and figuratively) to a script that puts her into some unwinnable positions. Cringy dialogue and some bad character beats (especially with her beau Machine Gun Kelly) are too much for her to overcome.

My favorite performance comes from Lukas Haas who plays the killer, a normal middle-America truck driver with a wife and young daughter. Haas is convincing both as a loving husband and father and as a creepy sociopath and killer. He provides a startling reminder that even the most normal exteriors can hide unspeakable evil. But Haas can only do so much, and soon even his storyline runs face-first into bad writing. It’s a recurring issue that handcuffs the movie from the very start. “Midnight in the Switchgrass” is now available on VOD”.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS