REVIEW: “Penguin Bloom” (2021)

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A seemingly perfect family life is upended follow a harrowing accident in “Penguin Bloom”, the new Netflix family drama from Australian director Glendyn Ivin. The film is based on the acclaimed book from photographer Cameron Bloom and New York Times bestselling author Bradley Trevor Greive. It tells a story so sweet and uplifting you’d swear it was fiction. But it’s actually based on a moving true story and brought to life through the sincere and resonant performances from Naomi Watts and Andrew Lincoln.

Sam Bloom (Watts) lives a fun and adventurous life. She loves to surf, loves nature, and loves to travel. She and her husband Cameron (Lincoln) have passed on their love for life to their three rambunctious but goodhearted young sons. But everything changed during a family vacation in Thailand. While taking in some local scenery from the roof of their hotel, an old wooden guardrail breaks sending Sam plunging 20 feet to the hard ground below. As a result of the fall Sam broke her back and was left paralyzed from her chest down.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

Back home following a long rehabilitation, Sam struggles to adjust to life in a wheelchair. Ivin along with screenwriters Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps make sure their film doesn’t sugarcoat Sam’s physical and emotional challenges. Watts, an Academy Award nominated actress, makes every aspect of it real for us, whether its something like her inability to roll over in bed or in visualizing the tortuous psychological toll which leads to a deep depression. Watts is too good of an actress to let her character sink into sentiment. Even as the movie hits us with its non-intrusive yet very familiar emotional cues Watts keeps her character grounded, never losing sight of the human element.

Hope comes in the most unlikeliest of places when their oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) finds a baby magpie alone on the beach. He brings it home and names it Penguin. The family instantly warms up to Penguin except for Sam. But over time an unexpected attachment forms between the two. Soon Sam is caring for the young bird which in a thoughtful way represents her longing to be a mother for her own children the way she once did. And as Penguin overcomes her own adversity and learns to fly, Sam begins to realize that maybe she can too.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

While subtlety isn’t the movie’s strength it gets the family dynamic just right. Lincoln’s low-key performance makes for a nice fit. His character fills in the cracks of the story by offering a look at Sam’s struggle from the family’s complicated point-of-view. And young Murray-Johnston has a lot of appeal playing a boy trying to adapt but missing his mother terribly. “It’s like mom was stolen from us,” he says in narration. He also battles guilt, blaming himself for his mother’s fall since he’s the one who wanted to go up to the roof. Jacki Weaver is great but underutilized playing Sam’s overbearing but well-meaning mother Jan who often speaks without a filter.

“Penguin Bloom” is a life-affirming story about overcoming adversity and rediscovering the love for life. It’s biggest problem is that everything is pretty much by-the-book. Don’t expect any original ideas or big surprises. It follows a tried-and-true feel-good formula that hits the normal beats and ends right where you expect. Yet it still makes for good viewing because of the heart-warming true story and the wonderful performances that bring it to the screen. They make us care, feel empathy, and root for this family to not only cherish their old adventures but find new ones as well.”Penguin Bloom” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Passing” (2021)

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Actress Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut at Sundance with “Passing”, a movie based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel. Set predominantly in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, “Passing” is an elegant and poignant period drama about biracial identity in 1920’s. Hall, who comes from a biracial family, touches on several other more opaque themes. But the film works best as a story of friendship – one marred by jealousy, obsession, and betrayal.

Noticeable right from the start, Hall’s debut employs stunning black-and-white cinematography. It’s not used as a gimmick or a nostalgic choice. The monochrome images have an intriguing symbiosis with the narrative and is thematically in-tune with the type of story being told. Hall also presents her film in a 4:3 aspect ratio that is both beautiful and evocative while feeding the film’s themes of confinement and boundaries. Some scenes utilize the format to relay the idea of being trapped within the life you’ve created. DP Eduard Grau’s images are a huge strength and practically every visual choice was made with meaning in mind.

The film’s title comes sharply into focus during the opening scene. Irene (Tessa Thompson), a biracial woman, walks into a shop with a hat tight on her head and covering a portion of her face. It’s a shop where she would normally be denied entry simple due to her ethnicity. But by ‘passing’ as a white woman she’s able to make her purchase and get out unnoticed. Immediately the theme of suppressing you racial identity is vividly laid out.

Afterwards a parched Irene stops for a drink at a Manhattan hotel. As she nervously waits for the waiter she’s surprised to see Clare (Ruth Negga), an old friend who she hasn’t spoken to in years. Clare is also biracial but has scrubbed out any hint of her true ethnicity. Now she’s ‘happily’ married to a wealthy and garishly racist white man named John (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no idea she is black. So as Irene ‘passes’ just to enter stores or to get a drink, Clare does it for the lavish white-only high society lifestyle.

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As the two old friends reconnect they begin reevaluating their lives. Clare’s secret visits to Harlem makes her realize how much she misses her people and her culture. Her free-spirited boundary-less personality quickly makes her a hit in the neighborhood and in Irene’s home. Clare relishes the attention. Irene has done everything by the book. She’s married to a hard-working man named Brian (a terrific André Holland). They have two bright children and a nice Harlem home. But for Irene, seeing Clare’s independence and self-assurance highlights her growing feelings of dissatisfaction.

From there the relationships fester with more complex emotions. Hall handles them all with a surprisingly nuanced approach. She doesn’t spell out how her characters feel from scene to scene, instead trusting her performers to convey to us what we need. Yet despite their great work, the emotions can be murky at times. For example Hall tries to wedge in a muddled sexual tension between Irene and Clare, but outside of a few arbitrary gazes there’s nothing there. These moments feel weirdly out-of-tune but it’s not because of the performances. Both Thompson and Negga dazzle, bringing depth and light to their characters. Thompson is more subdued and internal, her character slowly pulled under by a range of suppressed emotions. Negga infuses Clare with her own unique energy and verve despite being seen solely from Irene’s point-of-view. And both actresses give us plenty to ponder and piece together on our own.

“Passing” is an alluring work with great period detail, a delicate attention to character, and an invigorating trust in its audience. As Devante Hines’ delightful piano chords transition us from one scene to the next, Rebecca Hall uses her story to poke at various weighty issues and social constructs. But at it’s core “Passing” is an intimate look at a complicated friendship energized by two absorbing performances. It’s a slow-moving story, even meandering a bit in the middle, but it really comes together in a powerful way, coated in ambiguity and with a final punch that feels inevitable and earned.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Pieces of a Woman” (2020)

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Grief has proven to be one of cinema’s favorite themes to explore. And regardless of how many films have tackled the subject, we’re always finding potent new stories that plow this deeply human ground. One of the latest is “Pieces of a Woman” from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó and screenwriter Kata Wéber.

The film premiered in September at the Venice International Film Festival where star Vanessa Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. Strengthening its resume, Martin Scorsese serves as its executive producer and 3-time Oscar winner Howard Shore composes the movie’s beautiful and evocative score.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

But “Pieces of a Woman” always comes back to the performances namely Kirby’s. The English actress grabbed a lot of big screen attention for her appearances in the blockbusters “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and “Hobbs & Shaw”. But “Pieces” sees her in a meatier leading role, working with heavy material and burrowing deep into an emotionally shattered character. Kirby gives a career-defining performance, one that delicately but truthfully examines various facets of loss with an honest and clear-eyed perspective.

The film opens with what will probably be it’s most discussed and debated scene. It’s a 20-minute-plus uncut child delivery sequence set in the apartment of a Boston couple Martha (Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf). The scene begins with Martha having mild contractions. The couple follow their well rehearsed home-birth gameplan and call their midwife but she’s tied up with another client. So she sends over a trusted colleague named Eve (played by an excellent Molly Parker).

Mundruczó shoots the sequence in one steady unbroken take, with camera movements so subtle they’re easy to miss. He follows every step of their carefully planned procedure while Kirby strips away any hint of glamour and artifice. The scene moves through the intensifying labor straight to child birth which ends in heart-shattering tragedy. The devastating effects of the film’s opening reverberates throughout the remainder of the movie as this once intimate couple crumbles under the weight of sorrow and loss.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

The bulk of the story chronicles Martha’s attempt to navigate her grief. The film does a good job portraying the crushing effects of psychological trauma as Martha attempts to regain some semblance of a normal life. But everywhere she looks she sees reminders of what she lost: a young girl in a department store, baby dresses on a mannequin. Meanwhile her relationship with Sean can’t quite get back on track. LaBeouf is really good as a blue-collar construction worker and recovering alcoholic. Sean has always clashed with Martha’s white-collar family especially her domineering mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) who feels her daughter could do better. Of course both Sean and Elizabeth have their own ideas of how Martha should handle the tragedy.

Mundruczó and Wéber have pieced together a thoughtful movie about a woman’s painful quest to not only put her life back together, but to find her true self in the process. Not to be who her husband wants her to be or who her mother wants her to be. But to truly find herself. There are some interesting but slightly uneven story turns especially in the second half. But the movie never loses its central focus and Kirby gives a knock-out performance that more people need to be talking about as we enter awards season. “Pieces of a Woman” premieres on Netflix January 7th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Promising Young Woman” (2020)

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While Carey Mulligan has received her share of accolades and most consider her a good actress, in some sense she remains underappreciated and is rarely considered among the best of her craft. She’s certainly proven herself and her last four lead performances alone should be enough to quell any hesitation. Of the many things likely to come from her new film “Promising Young Woman”, hopefully one will be a deeper and fuller appreciation for just how good the 35-year-old London-born star really is.

“Promising Young Woman” is the feature film debut for director and screenwriter Emerald Fennell. The actress and author (currently appearing as Camilla in the hit Netflix series “The Crown”) has crafted a blistering #MeToo era revenge fantasy that defies all labels and expectations. It’s a wily and rightfully angry thriller soaked in style and with a disarming candy-colored coating. At the same time it’s darkly funny and its humor often hits at the most unexpected times. And all of it is anchored by Mulligan’s fierce and uncompromising lead performance.

Storywise Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan) had everything going for her. She was a college medical student with top-of-her-class smarts and a promising future ahead. But then something happened on campus, a sexual assault involving her childhood friend and med school classmate Nina. It led to both Cassie and Nina dropping out while the perpetrators went unprosecuted, graduating magna cum laude and set for a life of upper-class bliss.

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Image Courtesy of Focus Features

That was seven years ago. Now the 30-year-old Cassie works at a dead-end coffee shop, still living with her parents (wonderfully played by Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) and with no ambition or real relationships to speak of. The details of Nina’s fate trickle out over time but they have clearly left Cassie in a dark hole. They also fuel what you might consider her unconventional night job.

Roughly once a week Cassie enters a nightclub dressed to the nines and pretending to be so drunk she can’t stand on her own. Wielding her beauty like a weapon, Cassie lures in self-proclaimed “nice guys” who feign compassion and offer to help her home. To no surprise they magically end up taking her to their apartment. Once their poorly veiled predation reaches a certain point, Cassie snaps out of her faux drunkenness like a bear jolted from its hibernation, forcing the offenders to reckon with their deeds.

Enter comedian Bo Burnham playing Ryan, an old college classmate who has always had a thing for Cassie. He’s a self-depreciating and playfully charming guy; the kind that might actually break through Cassie’s hardened defenses. It helps that there is a tangible chemistry between Burnham and Mulligan. They’re also really funny together. It’s quite the opposite with Cassie’s secret darker side which sees her moving away from catching random slugs in a bar to targeting all those who wronged her friend in school. Fennell digs equally into both sides of the character, leaving us wondering which will ultimately win out.

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Image Courtesy of Focus Features

But none of it works without Mulligan who is convincing at every turn. Whether it’s a moment of vulnerability revealing glimpses of potential happiness or when she’s the unhinged antihero uncoiling in front of her prey with sociopathic glee. Mulligan never overacts or underplays which isn’t easy with this kind of material. And it helps to be surrounded by such a well-tuned supporting cast. In addition to the terrific Burnham is a number of familiar faces: Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Alfred Molina, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Connie Britton to name a few.

“Promising Young Woman” is a movie full of misdirections and ruses. One of my favorites is the film’s undeniable girly aesthetic set atop of its grittier subject matter. Deliciously snide confections like an intentionally corny pharmacy scene playing out to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”. It’s a scene that could be yanked from any number of cookie-cutter rom-coms. And how can you not appreciate a film that gleefully kicks in the groin any notion of expectation? One of the real treats from Fennell’s film (much like its main character) is the utter unpredictability. And there are so many fun comedic touches. Such as Cassie’s parents spending an evening watching Robert Mitchum’s “Night of the Hunter”.

Without question Fennell takes her subject seriously but she’s also having a wickedly good time. Occasionally the tones clash a bit, but I do enjoy watching a filmmaker buck conventions and stick with original ideas. And Fennell has plenty of ideas, from the way she shoots the movie to the way her story is told. You also have to admire a movie that can land this many well-placed shots at such a slimy and abusive subculture. “Promising Young Woman” opens December 25th.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Project Power” (2020)

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In a crazy year that has been essentially devoid of big action-packed tentpole movies, it’s kinda nice to see something like “Project Power” come along. This stylish Netflix banger from the directing duo of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman has the look and feel of a big screen summer blockbuster. And it has two catchy names as top draws – Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Both have fun bringing their signature charisma while successfully jumping a few narrative hurdles along the way.

“Project Power” is written by Mattson Tomlin who is also busy co-writing Matt Reeves’ new Batman film. It took winning a bidding war with several big studios for Netflix to snag the rights to Tomlin’s script. It’s a dark-sided superhero tale of sorts, not without moments of levity, and with some social commentary sprinkled in for good measure. The concept is undeniably silly on the surface, but Tomlin does some interesting things with it and says some meaningful things along the way.

A new drug is introduced onto the streets of New Orleans by Teleos – a shady defense contractor secretly operating with government sanction. Once taken the pill triggers a single unique superpower that lies dormant in every person. But they only have it for five minutes. And while many powers are good, some can be instantly fatal to the user. As a slimy broker tells a potential investor during a sales pitch, “Results may vary“.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Needing a test run before mass production, Teleos hires a handful of local pushers to get their drug into the bloodstream of urban New Orleans. Among them is a well-meaning teen named Robin (Dominique Fishback), an aspiring rapper who sells the power pill as a means of taking care of her sick mother. One of her buyers is a New Orleans police detective named Frank (Gordon-Levitt). He secretly uses the pill as a way of combating the recent wave of super-powered crime across the city.

Enter Art (Foxx), an ex-Army Ranger who rolls into town intent on tracking down the supplier of the new drug. His trail leads to Robin who he kidnaps and forces to help him. But the two form an unexpected bond after Art reveals to her his intensely personal reasons for being there. Meanwhile the police have been informed that Art is a powerful drug dealer who is setting up shop in the city. Frank is sent to apprehend him while Art continues his hunt for Teleos.

As you can expect, paths cross, truths are revealed, and alliances are formed. There’s also plenty of action, much of it easily exceeding the gore limit of the normal superhero movie. In one scene alone a thug is impaled through the neck with an ice sculpture. Another has his hand shot off. And one goon simply explodes after popping a power pill (I warned you about those side effects). And that’s not counting what is ‘chillingly’ going on in the background of the scene (I’ll leave it for you to discover). There are a couple of instances where they shaky cam and frantic editing are too much. But for the most part DP Michael Simmonds puts together some thrilling compositions and some of his camera tricks really pay off.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Joost and Schulman move from scene to scene with a propulsive energy, but they still make room for their characters to develop. There isn’t a lot of time wasted on backstory, most of which comes through haunting flashbacks inside of Art’s head. Instead it’s the interactions between the characters that inform us the most. To be clear, this isn’t a movie of complex relationships or deep dives in psychology. Still, the three main characters are well-served by Tomlin’s script and the good all-around performances from Foxx, Gordon-Levitt, and Fishback.

And while “Project Power” is far from a deep contemplative think piece, it does place itself in a setting rich with issues to speak on. Inner-city drug use, poverty, corruption, government neglect – its all addressed in some form or another. And perhaps more than anything, the movie explores the notion of the haves and the have-nots specifically in the area of power. As Art succinctly puts it, “In the real world power goes to where it always goes – to the people who already have it.”

“Project Power” comes along during a time when we all could use a little escapism. It ends up being a fun, high-energy offering of big screen caliber action, timely dashes of humor, and a lively chemistry between its three stars. I also admire it for being a superhero(ish) movie that doesn’t adhere to any genre formula nor does it waste our time with yet another origin story. The film doesn’t quite cover all of its story angles, but it’s still solid ‘kick back and enjoy’ entertainment and a nice getaway for those looking for one. “Project Power” premieres today on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Palm Springs” (2020)

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For the sake of honesty I have to admit that I’ve never quite connected with Andy Samberg’s brand of comedy. To be fair I’ve only seen glimpses of his television work (none of it stuck with me), but when it comes to his movies I’ve struggled to lock onto what others consider to be funny. That may have put me behind the eight ball when it came to seeing his new film “Palm Springs”.

Directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara, “Palm Springs” is a movie with a bit of an identity crisis. Obviously it’s a comedy first, one that can be mildly amusing but that insists on vainly going the low-hanging, low-brow route. It’s also a romance that takes too long getting going and then cuts it short just as the characters are taking shape and their relationship is becoming interesting. And it’s a half-baked science-fiction flick with a time loop, some kind of magic cave, and one character who becomes an quantum physicist after an online class and a few Google searches.

Samburg plays a wisecracking downer named Nyles who is in Palm Springs for a wedding with his spacey girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner). Meanwhile the sister of the bride and maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti) earns her reputation as the troubled black sheep of the family. Both Nyles and Sarah are essentially outcasts but for much different reasons. Sarah is fed up with herself and the life she lives. And witnessing the bliss of her highly accomplished younger sister (Camila Mendes) doesn’t help. Nyles, well he’s stuck in a time-loop where he relives the same day over and over again. Whenever he falls asleep he wakes up on the day of the wedding. If he dies, same thing.

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

That may sound like a spoiler but it’s actually revealed within the first 15 minutes or so. Nyles has watched the wedding play out countless times. He knows all the players and all the scenarios. It’s no wonder he comes across as bored and disaffected. He lives in a world of no consequences and no repercussions. That’s why he can show up to the wedding in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and chugging a can of beer. For him it’s all meaningless and no matter what he does (good or bad) it’ll all be erased once he wakes up again.

Then something unexpected happens. Nyles saves Sarah’s bacon at the reception leading to a walk under the stars and eventually the two of them making out. Then out of the blue Nyles is shot with an arrow by a lunatic commando wannabe named Roy (the always sturdy J.K. Simmons). A wounded Nyles gets away from his assailant and crawls into the glowing light beaming out of a mysterious nearby cave. But Sarah finds him and against his warnings enters the cave too. Poof! Guess who else is now caught in the time loop?

Throw aside the obvious questions like ‘What’s up with this cave?’ and ‘Why would Nyles take Sarah a few yards from said cave to make out?’ The movie isn’t interested in those things. Instead it slowly attempts to develop a believable relationship as Sarah comes to grips with her predicament while Nyles attempts to teach her the rules. We end up in a rom-com purgatory of sorts full of carefree hijinks leading to an eventual (and utterly predictable) romance.

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Photo Courtesy of Hulu

Yes Sarah falls for Nyles (something you can see coming a mile away) but I’m still not sure why. Her optimism does start to soften his nihilism which makes him slightly less obnoxious. But while Samberg and Milioti have a playful chemistry, there isn’t an ounce of romantic sizzle. It’s not the fault of the actors. Instead it’s Siara’s script which spends more time goofing around rather than digging into his characters. They say things that sound like depth and dimension, but it rarely gets below surface-level.

It’s a shame because you see the ingredients for something better especially when it comes to Sarah. There is a sadness and melancholy with the character that’s never fully explored. Yet it’s sold through Milioti’s strong conviction and go-for-it performance. Meanwhile Samberg is basically playing the same kind of goof he has many times before. I’m sure fans will love him here, but I didn’t find him (or the movie itself) all that funny. I will say Samberg has a dance number that initially doesn’t make sense at all, but it’s actually quite funny once you get your footing and see where it’s coming from. Otherwise the laughs are pretty sparse.

“Palm Springs” is essentially a less attractive and less nuanced “Groundhog Day”. It tries to differentiate itself by throwing out some new ideas but it doesn’t do enough with them. Instead it’s so beholden to its raunchy comedy ambitions that we end up with more cheap sex gags than meaningful character moments. And when we do finally get some of those moments they’ve had such little time to germinate that they end up feeling hollow. That’s how I felt about the movie as a whole and not even a wild-eyed, coked-up J.K. Simmons could change my mind. “Palm Springs” is now playing on Hulu.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars