Review by Jonathan Berk
Director Stephen Frears's new film The Lost King is based on the true story of Philippa Langley (played by Sally Hawkins) on her quest to find the missing remains of King Richard III. It had long been believed his remains were scattered in the river 500 years before, and Philippa’s dedication and research pushed against academia. This all happened back in 2011, yet the story felt unfamiliar while watching the film. The journey Philippa goes on and the connection she feels for King Richard III clicks in the film, especially in Hawkins’s performance.
Hawkins's talent lies in her vulnerability. In both The Shape of Water and Spencer -- for the former of which she was nominated for an Oscar — her character has a clear desire and longing just beneath the surface. Hawkins can emote so much with the slightest twitch of her mouth, and it brings so much emotional stakes to every role. What makes her a great leading actress is her ability to still have a foundation of strength that supports that vulnerability. You believe she can overcome her obstacles because that strength is always present. Her role in Paddington 1 & 2 is a great example of her ability to perform as a strong female lead.
These qualities are used perfectly in this film to tell Philippa’s story. Philippa seems frequently disrespected by those around her. For example, she suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), and she frequently has to defend those around her by assuring them it is a real illness. We see she is picked over by younger co-workers, and it is implied she doesn’t stand up for herself often. Still, we see the potential in her early as she throws a little shade at her boss, even pointing out he seems to be reading out of an HR manual. These early scenes pay off when we see Philippa’s unwavering resolve to prove her research accurate. Philippa’s situation is empathetic on its own to anyone who ever felt unappreciated, and Hawkins’s performance only makes it more impactful.
Steve Coogan plays Philippa’s ex-husband, and he gives a very layered performance. It’s unclear how their relationship works, but over the course of the film, he becomes very lovable. There is a lot of humor sprinkled in the film, and that’s important, as there is a fantastical element. Philippa’s interest in King Richard III is sparked when she sees a performance of Shakespeare’s play, where the titular character is played by Harry Lloyd. Lloyd will be seen as Richard outside that theater in a clever plot device that may make or break an audience’s enjoyment of the film.
The Lost King was an often joyous film to watch, depicting the struggle of someone who frequently found herself in the position of an underdog. Hundreds of years of belief and an established “truth” are not easy to overturn. However, Phillipa refused to ignore the evidence and listen to the naysayers. The film's style and story paired with Hawkins and Coogan were enough to keep me invested, and realizing it was a true story only helped sell me on it.
The Lost King hits theaters on March 24.
ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? -- A Moving Portrait of Humanity Grappling With Guilt
Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
It is the waiting that hurts — the moments after you know you’ve done something wrong, and you are waiting to see how you will be punished. Will retribution come swiftly, or will the punishment be dealt out incrementally to prolong your suffering? Is it better to get away with a crime if your guilt feels worse than any punishment that could be given to you? First-time director Wen Shipei’s film Are You Lonesome Tonight? ponders the impact guilt can have on us in this time of lingering.
Eddie Peng plays Xueming, who believes he is responsible for a fatal accident he drives away from. While it seems he has gotten away with it, his guilt won’t allow him to move on. The story unfolds non-linearly, as more layers are peeled back and the audience is shown perspectives not initially seen. Peng’s guilt pushes him to contact the dead man’s wife, Mrs. Liang (Sylvia Chang), but his fear of punishment seems to keep him from opening up. Mrs. Liang is also feeling guilty for the way things were with her husband before his death. It is through these two characters that the exploration of guilt and our attempt to find retribution is explored.
Creating a crime thriller that’s ultimately a mediation on guilt and humanity is challenging, but Shipei succeeds in this film. The script by Zhao Binghao, Wang Yinuo, Noé Dodson, and Shipei is constucted to make for a gripping story. Every time the audience believes they understand the whole picture, a new element is introduced that recontextualizes their perspective. From the opening shot of a bull breaking off his rope, leading to the first image of Peng’s character in prison, the movie starts to set-up the tone. Peng poses the idea that after so many years of hearing the question of what did you do to end up there, the answer is often forgotten. The story jumps back and we start to see the answer, but it becomes clear that it will take some time to get all the pieces of this puzzle.
It’s not enough to just have a compelling story if what is on screening doesn’t look good. Fortunately, the style of this movie stands out. Sometimes the film is dark, but with some interesting lighting sets. When the accident occurs, for example, the inside of the car is suddenly bathed in red light. The implication is that the headlights have changed color due to the impact. The contrast in each image usually reflects the internal feelings of the characters and makes for a cool-looking movie. There are several frames in the film that stand out and would make for a cool piece of wall art.
For a debut film, Are You Lonesome Tonight is well-crafted and well-performed. It is a strong introduction for Shipei. This film has many personal elements built into, and that seems to have translated well. Fans of crime stories will likely find this a solid entry into the genre, but one focused on the aftermath more so than the act itself. It has more in common with In Bruges, Drive My Car, and Atonement than Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. That just so happens to work for me.
Are You Lonesome Tonight premieres on VOD on March 17.
Review by Jonathan Berk
Directors Ryuji Otsuka and Huang Ji's new film Stonewalling centers around Lynn (Yao Honggui - who worked with the directors previously in Foolish Bird and Egg and Stone), a 20-year-old uncertain about her future. Lynn is essentially stuck and is being told she needs English classes, flight attendant school, and an optimistic attitude. Realizing she’s pregnant sets in motion a different path, which involves lying to her boyfriend that she’s had an abortion, and instead returning to her feuding parents and their failing clinic to try and figure out what her next move should be.
The movie is set in China just before the COVID-19 pandemic hits in 2020, which this film grapples with in an interesting way. While Lynn’s twenty-something apathy is emblematic of many cultures, there are specific elements of the story tied to China that may not make sense to an international audience. For example, Lynn’s mother (played by one of the director’s actual mother) is part of Vitality Cream, which seems like a pyramid scheme of sorts. It is an important element of the film that American audiences may not be familiar with. There are a few other things like this that may require some research to get the full importance on the story and the film's themes. This isn’t inherently a detriment, but coupled with the pacing and static camera, it could be a reason for a viewer to disconnect with the story.
The name of the film is important to both the story and deliberate nature of the cinematography. Stonewalling means “delay or block” and that’s obviously what Lynn uses her pregnancy to do. She wants to put the brakes on growing up, as she clearly isn’t sure what she wants. Like Lynn, the camera rarely moves. Otsuka and Ji set the camera and allow the scenes to play out often in wide shots. The editing is paced similarly, with minimal cuts for the most part, as the filmmaking ponders the point of it all. There are a few scenes where a kind of clandestine meeting takes place in a parked car. The camera is in the backseat and never cuts to another angle as the conversation unfolds. On its surface, the conversation feels mundane, but the subject matter involves the future of Lynn’s unborn child. The audience is forced to sit in the back and listen to the future of someone planned for them, without being able to offer any input. This feels reflective of Lynn feeling like she is a passive observer of her own life.
Stonewalling’s tone is somber and contemplative, and every aspect of its filmmaking reflects that. Unfortunately, getting distracted and feeling as disconnected as the film’s main character is also easy. There is no denying the intentionality of the film, but there was also no denying the boredom that I felt while watching. It’s possible that at the age of 40, I couldn’t relate to the plight of a 20-year-old enough. Still, the feelings and themes the filmmakers focus on are worthy of contemplation. Audiences willing to take some time to reflect on the content will find there is much to dwell on long after the credits roll.
Stonewalling opens in theaters on March 10.
Review by Jonathan Berk
Sansón and Me is a documentary by filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes exploring the life of a young man named Sansón, an undocumented Mexican immigrant sentenced to life in prison without parole. Reyes met Sansón at his day job as a Spanish criminal interpreter in a small town in California. The director is sad to see someone so young lose the rest of their life because of a choice, and wants to learn his story. Reyes isn’t allowed to interview him because of Sansón’s circumstances, but for years the two exchange letters that morph into recreations of his childhood — many featuring members of Sansón's family. The process of making this movie is at the center of bringing up ethical questions of the genre and the role of art with legacy.
Whether it's tiny paintings on a vase, sprawling cave walls, or more modern moving pictures projected on silver screens, our stories have been passed on for generations through visual mediums. The collection and passing on of stories, no matter how big or small, seems to be a fundamental element of humankind. Reyes seems motivated to not let Sansón’s story be lost to the sands of time as another cog in the prison system. However, the film suggests the audience ponder the moral implications and responsibilities that Reyes takes on by telling Sansón’s story.
In one of the early letters, Sansón questions Reyes’s motivation to tell this story. Reyes cautions that this film is unlikely to help Sansón get out of jail or help his case. While filming the recreations, Reyes notes the stress it is putting on Sansón’s family for many reasons. The obligation of the filmmaker to help the subject or at least do no harm is definitely at the forefront of this film, as it blends the process with the final product. There is no definitive stance taken, but it leaves the audience with something to chew on as they walk away from the experience.
Regardless of where you fall on the aforementioned debate, there is no denying the power of storytelling. History teachers across the land are known for saying some version of “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” That phrase is predicated on the idea that we knew things to forget in the first place. However, what if you never knew about it? How many people have walked a similar path to Sansón and ended up with a life sentence or death? Reyes seems motivated by these questions to capture Sansón’s story. He doesn’t seem to want to pass judgment on the actions of the people in the film, but rather etch their existence into the ever-growing tapestry that is human history. He presents the information in interesting ways while turning the camera on himself, and the weight of responsibility in taking someone’s story.
Audiences looking for a true crime documentary won’t likely satisfy that itch with Sansón and Me, but those compelled by the never-ending struggle that is life will. Fans of filmmaking and documentary will appreciate the peek behind the curtain and the ethical debate about a filmmaker’s relationship to the subject. Reyes has an innate kindness about him, and his motivations seem genuine. He can also demonstrate his talent for narrative filmmaking through his recreations, and he is a director to keep an eye on for future projects.
Sansón and Me opens in theaters on March 3.
Review by Jonathan Berk
For Bruiser to be the directorial debut of Miles Warren is quite a statement of intent. The film opens with an overhead shot of three men who appear to be unconscious laying on a very green field. One of them slowly starts to move as the music crescendos to a smash cut of the title card. Immediately, the audience should feel themselves being guided by the capable hands of Warren as we follow Monica (Shinelle Azoroh) picking up her son Darius (Jalyn Hall) from boarding school. The storytelling in this film is efficient and impactful, helped by the strong visual style and the score. All these trappings are then rested on the shoulders of an incredible cast that keeps the film rolling until its finale. It is an impressive debut film, to say the least.
Darius is on summer break before his 8th-grade year, and we all know what a trying time that is. That age is when you are stuck in this transition period of not being a kid, but not yet an adult. Darius is also stuck between his rich friends from school and the neighborhood kids back home, which is ultimately laid out by his father, Malcolm (Shamier Anderson), when Darius asks for a new bike. Where the plot kicks in when Darius finds himself stuck between Malcolm and Porter (Trevante Rhodes), a charismatic drifter he meets on a chance encounter. These three characters and the dynamics between them and their past become the big pull of this movie, and young Darius is left spinning trying to unstick himself from all his 14-year-old struggles.
The performances of the three men are all outstanding. Hall was also in Till last year and continues to demonstrate his young talent. It would be surprising to not continue to see him in roles like this for many years to come. Anderson demonstrates this incredible duality in his performance as Malcolm. You see past the facade he wears to the turmoil writhing underneath. Malcolm so desperately wants to be the man he presents to the world, but internally fears he is all the things he doesn’t want to be. Malcolm clings so desperately to this hope that he doesn’t realize the damage it causes to the ones he loves. All of that is detectable by Anderson’s mannerisms and size. Rhodes delivers on the hope the cinematic world had for his career when he played Black in Moonlight. From the moment he shouts at Darius and introduces himself, Porter becomes an instantly compelling character. Rhodes uses his muscular form to insert himself both on screen and as a character to not trifle with. Every moment, word, and look Rhodes does is deliberate, and when things get heated, it all comes to a satisfying moment.
The film is quiet at times and wants the audience to meditate on the circumstances and relationships. Warren and his team demonstrate competence in the storytelling and building of tension throughout the movie. There is a simple scene where Darius decides to test his strength. The camera sets wide, and as the audience winces in anticipation of the impending doom, as we know Darius can’t possibly do the thing he’s attempting to do, the camera stays locked on. You can look away, but the camera will not. No rapid editing or close-ups hide the horror or reveal if anyone else is aware of what is happening. The tension rises, and not until it breaks does the camera cut to a new perspective. While there is no one way to do a scene, it is clear if the choices made are impactful once it is put on the screen. Whether that credit falls solely to Warren, the editor James Lesage, his co-writer Ben Medina, cinematographer Justin Derry, or a combination of the whole team, it doesn’t change the impact of that moment.
It would be a disservice not to mention the use of music in the film. Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee" is played at least three times in the film. The motif has a thematic impact, and the tone matches the film perfectly. It first appears on the car ride home from boarding school in a touching moment of reconnection with Monica and Darius. She is singing it, and he just isn’t having it. There is a clear distance between them after a year away, and she is trying to sneak past his guards. The cracks are visible, but he quickly pushes back and establishes his desire to be his own man, even if he isn’t ready to be there yet. The car becomes a major symbol of his maturity and independence throughout the film, starting here, as Monica lets him steer for a moment as they near the house.
Bruiser was a pleasant surprise at almost every turn. The performances were incredible, the story was tense and intriguing, and the film has many things to love about it. However, it is not a feel-good coming-of-age story, and the audience may be left feeling a bit gut-punched ruminating on the lyrics of “Cigarettes and Coffee” and the various interpretations of the events in the film. If that sounds like your cup of coffee, you’ll likely enjoy Bruiser.
Bruiser drops on Hulu on February 24.