SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Shortcomings” (2023)

Randall Park makes his directorial debut with “Shortcomings”, a romantic(ish) comedy written by Adrian Tomine. In many ways the film bucks many of the trends that have become synonymous with the romcom genre. But in several other ways it falls right in line with what we’ve come to expect. Ultimately it’s that inconsistency, along with some pretty glaring box-checking, that keeps the movie from fully gelling.

At first, Ben (Justin H. Min) and Miko (Ally Maki) seem like a form-fitting couple. They have their different likes and unique perspectives. For example he’s obsessed with artsy cinema while she’s much more politically minded. Yet differences aside, they’ve been together for six years and seem to love each other. But we start seeing cracks in their relationship which comes to a head when Miko gets accepted to a three-month internship in New York City. They agree to take “some time off” and she goes to the Big Apple while he stays in California.

Ben is a mix of pitiful and insufferable, and his only release outlet is his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola). She’s your stereotypical romantic comedy comic relief. She risqué, eccentric, and faithful, but mainly there to fill in a role and get some quick laughs. Cola’s performance is good and she does hit us with a funny line or two. But she’s the prototypical romcom sidekick who stands by the lead character and drops nuggets of wisdom in between her crude gags and obvious observations.

After Miko doesn’t answer his calls, Ben quickly looks for a cure to his loneliness. He starts by hanging out with Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), a wacky new employee at the movie theater he manages. Later it’s an acquaintance of Alice’s named Sasha (Debby Ryan). But they only open his eyes to what he had with Miko. The question is, has he waited too late to finally realize what he had? And does he have it in him to put his own ego aside?

We get some really good performances from Min and Maki who both do well in bringing out their characters’ personalities. But best is how Park writes them. While Ben is tough to bear, Miko is no angel which leads to some fairly interesting second half tension. Jacob Batalon also pops up in a small but funny role (he has one particularly funny line that Marvel Cinematic Universe fans will definitely enjoy).

Yet as a whole “Shortcomings” doesn’t offer as much to its genre as it clearly hopes to. It shows signs of originality and even ends on a pretty satisfying note. But you can see it working hard to have a modern appeal, despite leaning on a few too many tropes. Ultimately nothing about it feels all that fresh. It’s certainly a solid debut for Park. But the inconsistencies of the script, are a little too much for the first-time director to overcome.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Shutter Island” (2010)

“Shutter Island” is a film that usually gets tossed aside when discussing the greater movies of filmmaker Martin Scorsese. But since first seeing it in the theater during its original 2010 release (three times actually), I’ve stood firmly by my assertion that it’s absolutely top-tier Scorsese. I loved everything about it then, and I’ve found that it still holds up to repeat viewings. The cast, the script, the costumes, the production design, and (of course) the direction are all top-notch.

Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, “Shutter Island” (at the time) marked the fourth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio (they would re-team in 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” and their latest, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is due out next year). Here Scorsese delves into the psychological thriller genre while also brilliantly injecting elements of horror and even classic noir. It all fits great with the cool period setting and the overall captivating premise.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

DiCaprio plays Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, who is summoned to Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island in Boston Harbor. It’s a mental hospital for the criminally insane where a patient has recently gone missing. Teddy is accompanied by his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the disappearance, but they’re immediately met with a lack of cooperation. Teddy grows increasingly impatient, particularly with the facility’s head psychiatrist, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). To complicate matters, Teddy is being haunted by recurring dreams of his wife (Michelle Williams) who we learn died two years earlier.

Scorsese is meticulous and deliberate in unfolding the many layers of the story (written by Laeta Kalogridis), often focusing on misdirection more than a straightforward narrative. He sends us in several different directions but never gives us any firm footing until the end. And as usual for Scorsese, he never does anything without a purpose or reason. Whether it’s metaphorical, revelatory, or a simple homage, his scenes are filmed with specificity and intent. If you fail to soak in the details there’s a good chance you may miss much of what he’s going for.

In a movie like this, the less you say about the story the better. But as the mystery uncoils, Scorsese reveals as much through his camera as through the script. The riveting cinematography (from Quentin Tarantino regular Robert Richardson) helps make the island one of the most effective supporting characters. Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor was used for the haunting, panoramic shots of Shutter Island and was particularly effective in setting the tone in the chilling opening sequence. From there, the camera steadily works to immerse us deeper and deeper into the story’s dark and unsettling setting.

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As for the performances, DiCaprio delivers what is one of my favorite performances of his to date. He’s handed some challenging and emotionally heavy material, and he nails it. Ruffalo, Williams, and Kingsley along with Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earl Haley, and John Carroll Lynch make for a stellar supporting cast. We even get the late great Max von Sydow is small yet terrific role playing a creepy German doctor with a mysterious presence. Scorsese is known for surrounded himself with quality performers, and it’s certainly no different here.

“Shutter Island” was one of the best films of 2010, and it remains among my favorites from Martin Scorsese. It’s impossible to restrict it to any one genre, it maintains a wonderfully eerie tone, and the direction and visual energy is sublime. Scorsese takes us on an emotional ride that can be hard to watch especially as truths are slowly unearthed. The movie does require patience, but the payoff, both narratively and cinematically, makes every second of this extraordinary film worthwhile.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “She Said” (2022)

I have a thing for journalism procedurals, but sadly it’s not the kind of movie that comes around very often. With “She Said”, director Maria Schrader and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz scratch that itch for fans of the genre like me. Their film is very much a procedural in every sense of the word. It’s no “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight”, but it features many of the things those films do so well. Among them is highlighting the intrinsic value of investigative journalism, now more than ever.

“She Said” is based on the 2019 nonfiction book of the same name by New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. It chronicles their work to uncover and expose the sexual harassment and sexual abuse of high-profile film producer Harvey Weinstein. Over 80 women would end up coming forward accusing Weinstein of sexual misconduct including rape. His abuse spanned 30 years (at the very least) and was brought to a stop thanks the the reporting of Kantor and Twohey along with the brave victims who came forward to share their story. The 70-year-old Weinstein is currently serving 23 years in prison with more charges pending.

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After what feels like some obligatory back-patting in the shaky and self-regarding opening ten minutes, “She Said” gets on track after New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) gets wind of a possible sexual assault by high-ranking Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. After conversations with actresses Rose McGowen, Ashley Judd, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Kantor realizes she has a much bigger story on her hands. So she recruits fellow Times reporter Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) to help root out the truth.

Mulligan and Kazan give strong performances, gelling with Lenkiewicz’s gloss-free yet undeniably polished screenplay to give us credible reporters on the trail of a story that would shake the industry and spark a movement. Both relay their characters’ fervor for the truth while touching on the psychological and emotional toll their investigation had on them and their families. Among the film’s biggest strengths – chronicling the ups and downs that come with investigative reporting. The movie also excels in giving voices to the victims who often remained hidden behind headlines. None are better than Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton who deliver the film’s most emotionally impactful moments.

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That said, this is very much a self-celebrating movie, with journalists portrayed in such heavenly light that there’s little room for them to be anything more than journalists. Yes, Twohey is cool and iron-willed while Kantor is timid yet resolute. But those traits don’t really give us an idea of who these two women are. Even their bosses, Rebecca Corbett and Dean Bacquet (very well played by Patricia Clarkson and Andrew Braugher) bask in the same self-celebratory glow. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the movie was revealing things we didn’t already know. Instead everyone are just filling roles that are more or less defined for us from the first moment they appear on screen.

But that’s not to say “She Said” doesn’t have its values. Quite the opposite in fact. The above-mentioned interviews with victims really bring Weinstein’s damage to light (a few others, particularly with Ashley Judd who appears as herself, not so much). And it’s fascinating to watch Kantor and Twohey walk the fine-line between encouraging the victims to come forward as named sources and respecting their apprehension and reluctance. And again, if you’re someone who enjoys by-the-book journalism procedurals, “She Said” has exactly what you’re was looking for. “She Said” is out now in theaters now.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Son” (2022)

Playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and director Florian Zeller blew me away with his 2020 directorial debut, “The Father”. The film, an adaptation of his own 2012 play of the same name, was a heart-wrenching story of an elderly Welsh man suffering from dementia. The film’s lead performance earned Anthony Hopkins his second Best Actor Academy Award which was one of the most deserving Oscar wins in recent years. So naturally I was excited for what Zeller would do next.

His sophomore feature is “The Son”, another deeply human drama yet again based on his own stage play of the same name, this one from 2018. The film sees Zeller exploring painfully real subject matter that doesn’t make for the most comfortable viewing. But much like its predecessor, “The Son” keeps its characters and its story grounded in such fashion that it’s hard to turn away. Overall it may not be as seamless or as focused as “The Father”. But the script (co-written by Zeller and Christopher Hampton), combined with some truly absorbing performances, vividly brings this character-driven story to life and keeps us glued to every meaningful exchange.

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Where as “The Father” dealt with an octogenarian with dementia, “The Son” revolves around a teenager with clinical depression. But it’s just as much about a broken family and a man confronted with his own failures as a father. Zeller takes a deep look at depression, from the warning signs to the near unexplainable nature of the pain to its crushing effects. But it’s seen mostly through the eyes of a well-meaning dad who struggles to grasp his son’s mental illness while coming to grips with how his own past actions might have contributed to it.

For Peter (a devastating Hugh Jackman), things couldn’t be better. He’s a successful attorney working for a big New York City law firm, and he’s just been offered a prominent role in a Delaware senator’s upcoming campaign. At home, he and his second wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby) just had a healthy baby boy. But Peter’s seemingly blissful life is shaken when his ex-wife, Kate (Laura Dern) unexpectedly shows up at his door and tells him that she’s concerned about their 17-year-old son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath). She mentions his anger, detachment, and the fact that he’s been skipping school for nearly a month.

The next day, Peter stops by Kate’s to see Nicholas. Their conversation stalls mainly because Peter believes his son is simply going through a phase, while Nicholas knows he can’t explain his feelings in a way his father would understand. It ends with Nicholas asking if he can come live with Peter and Beth. Knowing it’s the right thing to do (and possibly out of a sense of guilt), Peter agrees. Beth has concerns, but she stands by her husband.

To Peter’s credit, he loves Nicholas and truly wants what’s best for him. But his blind optimism keeps him from truly seeing his son’s condition. In Peter’s mind, all Nicholas needs is a change of scene – a new school, some new friends, and everything will be alright. Peter even makes an effort to be around more for Nicholas, like a good dad should. It’s all sincere and well-intended, though slightly self-serving. Peter also wants to prove to himself that he’s better than his own vain and coldhearted father (played in one profoundly revealing scene by the indelible Anthony Hopkins).

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To no surprise, Peter’s efforts only exacerbate the problem. He finds himself routinely suggesting the wrong thing or responding the wrong way. Communication breaks down, deep-seated pain comes to light, animosity and resentment set in. Through it all Zeller maintains a tight rein, and his stagecraft proves to be an asset. He’s very good at fleshing out characters through rich organic dialogue. And in doing so, his cast is given some strong material to work with. Jackman benefits most and gives what may be the best performance of his career. Kirby is excellent as is Dern. Unfortunately the latter disappears for much of the second half which is a shame considering Kate offers a fascinating angle to the story. McGrath is shakier and can’t quite match his seasoned co-stars. He especially struggles in the more emotionally demanding scenes.

In “The Father”, Zeller cleverly used point-of-view to catch us off-guard and pull us into the failing mind of his main character. Here his storytelling is more streamlined and straightforward. But to be honest, that’s exactly what material like this needs. There is a questionable choice at the end that means well but doesn’t really work. Outside of that one noticeable stumble, the storytelling is top-notch, the character work is dynamic, and the handling of subject matter is admirable. It all works to make “The Son” a worthwhile follow up to “The Father” and further establishes Florian Zeller as one of the most exciting dramatic filmmakers of this new batch. I can’t wait to see what he does next. “The Son” opens November 25th in Los Angeles and New York.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Stranger” (2022)

Actor, director, producer, screenwriter, and playwright Thomas M. Wright helms “The Stranger”, a new psychological crime thriller inspired by the real-life police investigation into the murder of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe. In 2003, young Morcombe was abducted while waiting at a bus stop. Eight years later, police arrested Brett Peter Cowan and charged him with Morcombe’s murder. Cowan was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.

“The Stranger” is based on Kate Kyriacou’s non-fiction book “The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer”. Wright fictionalizes the intense undercover sting operation that eventually brought the killer to justice. Out of respect for the family, all the real names were changed and the movie (thankfully) makes no attempt at recreating the boy’s death. Instead it stays focused on the police officers – those working covertly in the field and those working behind the scenes putting the pieces together in order to build a case. It does move to its own unique gritty rhythm. But once you get in step with it, it’s hard to turn away.

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Wright’s story takes place in 2010, some eight years after the abduction and murder of a young boy James Liston. The police suspect a man named Henry Peter Teague (a cryptically chilling Sean Harris) but they lack the evidence for a conviction. So they set up a Mr. Big operation. That’s when the police create an elaborate ruse meant to fool their suspect into making a confession. It often consists of undercover cops creating a fake organized crime ring and then luring the suspect to join. They then build a relationship with the suspect in hopes of earning their trust.

Joel Edgerton plays a cop going by the assumed name Mark Frame who works in the Undercover Crimes Unit of the Western Australian Police. He’s good at his job and committed to every case. But it’s starting to take a toll. We get references to stress, depression, and trouble sleeping. He’s haunted by terrifying dreams, often connected to his work. And we see him laboring at home to be the best father he can be to his young son.

A fellow deep-cover officer named Paul (Steve Mouzakis) strikes up a conversation with Henry Teague on a late-night bus ride. Paul offers to let Henry in on some small jobs for the make-believe gang he works for. Henry accepts and is introduced to Mark who who takes him under his wing. Mark’s job is to loosen Henry up over time and get him to start talking. But this proves to be difficult and taxing. Since Henry is considered too dangerous for densely populated areas, Mark is ordered to isolate him. But that leaves Mark unprotected and unobserved (aside from his unreliable recording gear). Exasperated and worn down, it becomes a question of whether or not Mark can keep it together long enough to get the confession they need.

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While Mark works in the field, Wright routinely cuts back to Detective Senior Constable Kate Rylett (Jada Alberts). Her side of the story plays as a serious-minded police procedural as she works to put together a case against Henry that will stick. While her scenes feel a bit underserved, they’re still compelling and Wright uses them to offer us another side of the police-work that goes into cases like these.

As “The Stranger” shows, this kind of cop work changes people, and Mark is no different. Is it the prolonged close proximity to evil? Is it the crushing stress? Is it the feeling of isolation? Wright shows how all three wear down his lead character. And Joel Edgerton is essential to conveying Wright’s message, thoroughly convincing in his portrayal of a tortured man slowly losing his edge. It’s a central piece of this understated yet gripping thriller; a key ingredient that makes this cold, moody, and evocative slow-burn work so well. “The Stranger” is now streaming on Netflix

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Smile” (2022)

2022 has been a weird year for horror movies. Per usual, studios have pumped out a steady stream of them; some good and others not so much. But what’s been strange is seeing fair-to-middling horror flicks (à la “Barbarian”, “X”, “Bodies Bodies Bodies”, “Scream”, etc.) being granted ‘instant classic’ status by some truly passionate fan bases. Now don’t get me wrong, these films aren’t in the same abysmal vein as the “Firestarter” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” reboots from earlier this year. Not even close. But it’s strange to see this level of enthusiasm over such unremarkable genre entries.

Thankfully 2022 has had a few good horror movies, including several originals (“Fresh”, “The Black Phone”, “Hatching”), a killer prequel (“Pearl”), and an unexpectedly satisfying sequel (“Orphan: First Kill”). Now we have another one to add to the list of bangers. “Smile” is a genuinely creepy chiller with all the ingredients genre lovers will be looking for. But it’s also surprisingly clever in how it deals with depression, trauma, and even suicide. The film peers beyond the cheery facial expression of its title to show that many things can be hidden behind a simple smile.

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A really good Sosie Bacon plays Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist at a New Jersey hospital’s emergency psychiatric unit. The film opens with Rose meeting a new patient – a traumatized young woman named Laura (Caitlin Stasey) who recently witnessed the suicide of her college professor. Laura begins telling Rose about her horrific visions. “I’m seeing something,” she says, visibly rattled but unable to put who or what she sees into words. All she can describe is the sinister, blood-chilling smile carved into its face.

Much of Rose’s job is spent trying to convince disturbed people that what they’re seeing is in their minds. But Laura is convinced that her visions are real. Then their session takes a horrifying turn. Laura suddenly calms, an eerie smile spreads across her face, then she slits her own throat right in front of Rose. Cut to title card!

That brilliantly orchestrated opening helps set the tone for the entirety of “Smile”. And it maintains that same unsettling mood for its duration. It’s not often that a horror movie can keep an audience in its clutches quite like this. But first-time feature director Parker Finn (who also wrote the script) deserves a ton of credit for creating and keeping a disquieting atmosphere. He also tells a story that’s simple on the surface, but with harrowing layers, often rooted in truth, that keep us on edge. The film’s biggest weakness comes when Finn loses faith in what he’s crafted and resorts to annoying over-used jump scares.

Reasonably so, Rose is shaken by the events of the opening and after the stress starts affecting her work, she’s asked by her boss (Kal Penn) to take a paid week off to clear her head. But when Rose starts having terrifying visions similar to those described by Laura, suddenly she’s the one who must convince those closest to her that she’s not crazy. It starts with her paper-thin fiancé, Trevor (Jessie T. Usher), by far the weakest of the movie’s characters. Then it’s her self-centered sister, Holly (Gillian Zinser), her former therapist, Madeline (Robin Weigert), and even her ex-boyfriend, Joel (Kyle Gallner).

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Of course rather than believing Rose is being tortured by a malevolent spirit who smiles a lot, those close to her think she’s having a mental breakdown. And that gets to part of the genius of “Smile” – the indescribable nature of the entity itself. It makes the victims sound delusional despite describing the evil to the best of their abilities. As she’s constantly doubted, Rose’s growing feelings of isolation and despair only intensifies and opens the door for her own personal traumas to resurface. Soon she’s fighting two wars – one with a devilish supernatural evil and the other within her own head.

With the subtle (and some not-so-subtle) metaphors for mental health and its rich theme of processing past trauma, Parker Finn thrusts us into a world that pulsates with real-life resonance despite its outlandish (yet undeniably fun) premise. Not all of the dot-connecting works particularly well, and the above-mentioned jump scares cheapen things a bit. But Finn creates and sustains a gnawing tension, leaning on some gruesome visual effects, DP Charlie Sarroff’s disorienting camera, and the droning and wailing of Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s mood-setting score. It all makes for a gnarly cocktail; one packed with as many surprises as frights. “Smile” is out now in theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS