Festival season is upon us, which means hours spent glued to computer screens due to the current COVID conditions. While the situation does put a damper on the typical festival spirit, it does allow critics like me the chance to sift through a wide array of content fairly easily. With that being said, here are my thoughts on some of the notable festival darlings grabbing audience’s interest, including films from NYFF (New York Film Festival), AFI (American Film Institute), Nightstream, Hampton, and Middleburg respectively.
MINARI: THE HEARTLAND FILM FESTIVAL
Synopsis: It’s the 1980s, and David, a seven-year-old Korean American boy, is faced with new surroundings and a different way of life when his father, Jacob, moves their family from the West Coast to rural Arkansas.
Drawn from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s personal experiences, Minari thrives as one of the rare comings of age tales to weave in a deeply-intimate, yet universally profound narrative about a family staying afloat while chasing the American Dream. It’s also one of the rare awards fare movies that are able to convey their central conceits with a humanistic eye, shying away from the theatrical grandiosity that plagues several dramas of this nature.
For Chung, this is an impressive breakout effort. He skillfully paints around the crevices, favoring finite moments of familial connection over major plot beats. The film’s low-key nature is part of its charm, allowing audiences to breathe with the characters and their personal journey. Chung and Director of Photography Lachlan Milne find visually-inspired ways to capture the story, while Chung’s screenplay rarely misses a beat from an authenticity standpoint. He balances the character’s plights with comforting warmth and humor, controlling the tonal balance with a deft sensibility (this is quietly one of the year’s funniest movies).
The performance work across the board is also exceptional, with Steven Yeun and Yuh-Jung Youn delivering two Oscar-worthy performances (Yeun conveys the character’s personal and paternal struggles while Youn is a joy as David’s eccentric grandma). Aside from a somewhat rushed and chaotic third act, there’s little to nitpick about Minari, which will likely be a film discussed throughout the 2021 awards season.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI: MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL
Synopsis: A fictional account of one incredible night where icons Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown gathered discussing their roles in the civil rights movement and cultural upheaval of the 60s.
Few festival films live up to their outsized hype, yet Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami accomplishes that rare feat. Using its fictionalized set-up to meditate on black celebrities’ roles as agents of representation and progress, this is a rare film that ably speaks volumes about the past and our contemporary world.
Miami boasts one of the year’s strongest ensemble casts. Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Eli Goree (Muhammad Ali), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) continue their impressive career ascensions, but its relative newcomer Kingsley Ben-Adir who leaves the strongest impression as the impassioned Malcolm X. Each actor is able to imbue their historic personas with nuance and agency, creating lived-in portraits that come to life in ways few biopics can match. Kemp Powers screenplay pops with lively dialogue exchanges and intelligent ruminations, eschewing the “Oscar bait” trappings that often hinder films of this caliber.
Some will critique King’s lack of visceral craft, though the actresses turned director accomplishes an impressive achievement with her first outing. Ruminating on its central conciets with soul and intelligence, One Night in Miami makes a powerful and exceedingly relevant statement.
THE FRENCH EXIT: NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
Synopsis: An aging Manhattan socialite living on what’s barely left of her inheritance moves to a small apartment in Paris with her son and cat.
French Exit operates as a distinctly mannered comedy unafraid to embrace a quirky sensibility. Few films can pull off having a cat (played by Tracy Letts) voice the dead spirit of a deceased love one with a straight face, but that’s just one of the many charming asides that Azazel Jacobs new film brings to the table. I wasn’t a huge fan of Jacobs’ last film The Lovers, which asked interesting questions about monogamy before bailing on its conceits in the third act. Here, Jacobs works vehemently to elicit an acerbic tonality that takes risks with its seemingly conventional set-up. Akin to the deadpan delivery of Wes Anderson films, Jacobs imbues a certain sincerity to the material that sells the bizarre gags, including a supporting cast of colorful characters who elevate their one-note roles.
While the film’s detached sensibility won’t sell everyone, its strong central performance will certainly turn heads. This was a role tailor-made for Michelle Pfeiffer’s bitting ability, bringing Frances’ sharp persona to life with wit and proper dimension. Lucas Hedges also offers one of his best performances as Frances’ neurotic son, ably working to define the character outside of his conditioned mannerisms. There’s a lingering sense of melancholy that pairs nicely with the comedic sensibility, as the film occasionally explores the intimacy, or lack thereof, of the mother-son duo (ruminations on the wealth’s ambivalent detachment to the world around them also register, as Frances makes a spirited effort to upend this with large monetary donations to random strangers).
That being said, French Exit lacks the refined visual identity and impactful emotional core to truly elevate its material. I can see some film fans clamoring to label this as a Wes Anderson rip-off (early world out of NYFF has been mixed), but that would be an unfair distinction to Jacobs’ work. While it may not register as the “awards film” people predicted it to be, Jacobs’ film unearths a humorous odyssey from the character’s separation with wealth and the baggage it brings.
CONCRETE COWBOY: MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL
Synopsis: A teenager discovers the world of urban horseback riding when he moves in with his estranged father in North Philadelphia.
I was enamored with what Concrete Cowboy attempts to uncover onscreen. Along with highlighting underserved real-world communities, writer/director Ricky Staub’s film critiques the numerous ways black frontier culture has been whitewashed in American history. At its peak, Staub’s effort personifies its own voice within the western ascetic while aptly representing thoughtful societal dynamics through his stylistic verve.
This innate promise makes Concrete Cowboy’s inconsistent delivery frustrating to endure. As an adaptation of Greg Neri’s novel, the narrative doesn’t translate well on screen, adapting a melody of cliches while never defining a consistent structure (the third act feels rushed and thinly-conceived). It’s a letdown to see a vital concept consistently marred by antiquated plot mechanics, including a distant father/son dynamic that lacks authenticity. Caleb McLaughlin and Idris Elba are a compelling onscreen pair, yet their charismatic performances feel underserved at every turn.
There are elements to appreciate throughout Staub’s film, but Concrete Cowboy ultimately lands as a missed opportunity.
SHADOW IN THE CLOUD: AFI FILM FESTIVAL
Synopsis: A female WWII pilot traveling with top-secret documents on a B-17 Flying Fortress encounters an evil presence on board the flight.
Winner of the TIFF Midnight Madness award, Shadow in the Cloud boasts the scrappy allures of a guilty pleasure B-movie. Director Roseanne Liang invents a few high-flying setpieces despite strict resources, including a third act that depicts its aerial dogfights with slick camera work. She pushes her 83-minute film with her frenetic pace, using her boilerplate set-up to convey an air of tension and intrigue.
Liang’s efforts are admirable, yet her film struggles to find its footing when the action isn’t onscreen. Liang’s script strives to critique the overt chauvinism of the era, an admirable intention that lacks proper nuance. The characters and dialogue are steeped in hokey 40’s cliches that severely undercut any dramatic aspirations. It’s a bummer, especially since Chloe Grace Moretz’s lead performance carries the film with a chipper and commanding energy.
Shadow in the Cloud has the shameless joys of a satisfying low-rent diversion. The issues arise when viewing the film as anything greater than that limited context.
MANDIBLES: THE NIGHTSTREAM FILM FESTIVAL
Synopsis: Two simple-minded friends discover a giant fly in the trunk of a car and decide to domesticate it to earn money with it.
Quentin Dupieux continues to push forward his surrealist comedic sensibility, with films like Rubber, Wrong Cops, and Deerskin showcasing a craftsman operating with an idiosyncratic voice onscreen. His latest Mandibles continues to push his unique vision forward, although it’s not quite as refined as some of his previous endeavors.
That’s not to say Mandibles is without its charming allures. Dupiex’s oddball sincerity is always admirable, knowingly handling bizarre gags with a straight-face delivery that sells the ridiculousness. His latest film brings a Dumb and Dumber approach to The Fly, following two abscent-minded friends (Gregoire Ludig and David Marsais) who continuously find unintelligible answers to their problems. The two central performances convey the idiocy with a certain charisma and conviction, often drawing laughs as the film sets up its premise.
Mandibles eventually overstays its welcome though, employing a plethora of gags that feel more grating than gratifying (Blue is the Warmest Color star Adele Exarchopoulos plays a character who shrieks all of her dialogue). Dupiex’s films go as far as their concept can take them, but I felt Mandibles ran out of steam even before its 77-minute runtime concluded. Still, his latest is sure to incite passionate support from some of his loyal followers.
BLACK BEAR: NIGHTSTREAM
Synopsis: A filmmaker at a creative impasse seeks solace from her tumultuous past at a rural retreat, only to find that the woods summon her inner demons in intense and surprising ways.
Few films this year have kept me on my toes like Lawrence Michael Levine’s latest Black Bear. Audiences who go in with a blind notion about the project will discover a film that continually evolves itself, ultimately creating a compelling character-driven piece that meditates on its own genre’s existence.
Without giving much away (I recommend avoiding the trailers if possible), Levine splits his narrative into two central halves, though he meshes these conjoined realities through the character’s insecurities and baggage. The second half is where the film finds its true voice, delving into the manner in which filmmakers and actors evoke their own damaged realities into their work. Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott’s performances are stunning, with Plaza conveying an emotional whirlwind that is hard to look away from. It’s a joy to see her find new wrinkles in her persona, while Abbott continues to prove himself as one of the industry’s unheralded gems (he captures the neurotic focus of a director with wit and a deranged dedication).
Black Bear is a true must-see, boldly deconstructing its indie sensibility through an inventive narrative framework. It descends into emotionally raw and cerebral territory with impressive ease, possessing the ability to become a future cult staple.
THE DOORMAN: NIGHTSTREAM
Synopsis: A woman returns from combat and befriends a family in NYC. A gang of thieves plot to take the family’s valuables, and she is all that stands between them and their lives.
Ruby Rose has operated as a capable action star, yet her latest starring vehicle The Doorman does little to boost her profile. Contently swimming in a pool of genre contrivances, this straight-forward actioner rarely reanimates its antiquated roots.
It’s frustrating to see considering Rose and director Ryuhei Kitamura’s talents. The Midnight Meat Train director displays some stylistic verve with his framing, although his ingenuity is often hindered by the apparent budgetary restrictions. The narrative takes a promising Die Hard-esque approach that’s never spiced with fresh ingredients. Rose’s protagonist Ali isn’t much better, straddling the actress with a stoic, thinly-drawn hero that fails to engage.
Adequately passing the time but rarely engaging, The Doorman greets audiences with an oppressive sense of familiarity.
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