Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
A good crime comedy can leave you feeling a little dirty, but oddly satisfied. It takes a certain temperament to laugh at the dark humor inherent in the genre. Sensible people often know they probably shouldn’t laugh at those moments, but the absurdity of the way they are presented coax the laughs out almost uncontrollably. Fans of the Coens’ films like Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski, and the Oscar-winning Fargo will see glimmers of those films in director Nicol Paone’s new film The Kill Room. While it never gets to the level of those Coen films, there is enough of that DNA in it that fans will find something to enjoy.
Uma Thurman plays Patrice, an owner of an art gallery that isn’t making much money. Samuel L. Jackson plays Gordon Davis, an owner of a Jewish bakery, though that’s a front he uses for organizing hits for the mob with his partner Reggie a.k.a "The Bag Man” (Joe Manganiello), who needs a new way to launder their dirty money. Patrice is introduced to Gordon via her drug dealer (Matthew Maher). An arrangement is made where Reggie will make “art” and Patrice will sell it, giving them all a nice cut of the sale. However, when Reggie’s first piece sells for a notable price, it sets the art world abuzz, drawing unwanted attention to the hitman and his underworld buyers.
Thurman, Jackson, and Manganiello are definitely having a lot of fun making this movie. Their chemistry and performances make the film much more fun than it would have been otherwise. Thurman’s character especially feels underwritten at times, and the emotional stakes of her character aren’t as developed as they need to be to get the audience fully invested, but her performance helps fill in the gaps in the writing.
Manganiello's character opens the film with a somewhat cliche shot of a plastic bag floating in the wind, a la American Beauty, before showing one stuck on a storm grate he walks past. The camera tracks him as he enters a bodega. He demands a refund for bad coffee and an argument with the clerk, but it’s really just a rouse to find out if there is a security camera or not. This leads to the first kill we see, featuring a plastic bag paying off that opening cliche unexpectedly. The scene is a solid primer for what the film will be, as the scuff marks left by the first victim's shoes cross-fades into a piece of art on display at Patrice’s gallery. Audiences should know immediately if they’re on board for this particular ride.
The weakness of the film seems to mostly stem from the script. Apart from the characters not getting enough development, there are too many things going on that the film tries to juggle. Just in Patrice’s story, there are many players the film has to give time to, including her rival art gallery and its owner, the various collectors who now want a piece of the Bag Man, the art critic played by Debi Mazar, and her assistant (Amy Keum), all of whom have to be introduced and their roles in the plot explained. The underworld side has the mob bosses, and the backstory of Reggie worked into the film. It’s quite a complex story, and it's in these complexities that writers like the Coens find so much of the humor. It happens in this film, but not as expertly done.
Despite that, The Kill Room was a perfectly enjoyable time at the movies, assuming you find dark humor entertaining. Paone’s second feature film shows a lot of promise, and the cast seemed to have had a blast based on their screen presence. It’s possible that we all just need to find that inner artist to help express ourselves to escape the joyless job in which we are currently trapped.
The Kill Room is in theaters on September 29.
Review by Jonathan Berk
Writer and director John Carney has an incredible knack for creating non-traditional musical movies. His characters don’t break out randomly into songs with music playing from out of nowhere. Instead, in his films Once, Begin Again, Sing Street, and now Flora and Son, his characters are musicians who find the answers they are so desperately in need of through song. While the songs in this film aren't as strong as those in Once or Sing Street, Flora and Son excels in character and performance.
Flora (Eve Hewson) had her 14-year-old son Max (Orén Kinlan) when she was just 17. Their relationship would be strained enough if Max wasn’t also on the verge of being sent to juvenile detention. After being advised to get Max a hobby, Flora gets him an acoustic guitar. Max rejects the gift, which leads Flora to find online guitar lessons for herself from a Los Angeles-based teacher named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It takes the power of song to remind Flora and Max about the joys of life.
Hewson is an absolute powerhouse in this movie. She is funny, charming, melancholic, and even scary at times. She delivers exactly what the scenes call for in terms of emotion. Her chemistry with everyone in the film is great, but her interactions with Gordon-Levitt are where the film shines. There is an incredible set piece that benefits from Carney’s decision to present their long-distance Zoom conversations in a more compelling visual way. The two characters are on the roof of her apartment, playing a song together for the first time. There is a slightly stage-like aesthetic to the production design, which makes this scene feel the most like a traditional musical. The scene stands out due to the song, the performances, and the set all working in perfect harmony.
That's not to undersell the young talent that Kinlan displays. He isn’t the focus of this film, but he gets some incredible scenes. When Flora discovers Max’s true reason for having a laptop, the film gets going. The familial relationship between the two and Max’s dad (Carney alum Jack Reynor) is the backbone of the film. All of the set-ups get expertly paid off and the end. Carney even employs a similar final shot in this film, reminiscent of Once’s iconic — and most expensive — crane shot. It appears that this time they lent him a drone to get his long take of the Dublin street.
For fans of Carney’s style and messaging, Flora and Son will be an instant favorite. His grasp of the effect music has on people is always evident. He makes musicals that people who hate musicals can often still enjoy.
Flora and Son will be available on Apple TV+ on September 29.
Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
Few film titles grab your attention and demand audiences to ask, “What in the world is this about?” more than Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose. Written and directed by Adam Sigal, the movie is based on a possibly true story set in 1935 London. Simon Pegg plays the famed paranormal psychologist Dr. Nandor Fodor, who travels with his assistant Anne (Minnie Driver) to investigate a family’s claim of a talking animal. Already a skeptic, Fodor is determined to find the truth but uncovers a series of questionable motives related to the supposed talking animal.
The performances in the film are exceptional, with Pegg leading the pack. His accent makes his voice almost unrecognizable as he becomes the Hungarian psychologist. He learns of the talking animal's existence by Dr. Harry Price (Christopher Lloyd). Lloyd is chewing the scenery and having a bit of fun with his smaller role, but the two play well off one another. Driver gives a humorous performance that also grounds the film a bit. Her character is also a skeptic, but not as committed as Fodor, creating an interesting dynamic as the film’s story moves forward.
Fans of other mystery comedies like Knives Out, See How They Run, or Amsterdam will find several familiar elements in Nandor. The mystery at the core of the story seems to inspire the film's aesthetic. The color palette, costuming, and cinematography generate a mysterious feeling that straddles the line between the supernatural and reality. Audience members will likely not find this movie to hit the highs of Knives Out, but it is better than the other two aforementioned films. Sigal plays well with the genre elements and blurs the supernatural aspects compellingly, all perfectly accented by the performances.
The talking animal in question is voiced by Neil Gaiman, whose voice performance adds another layer of mystique to the film. Lloyd informs Pegg of the talking mongoose and his first encounter with the family’s claim. His backstory outlines the mystery that Pegg will attempt to solve: Is the voice really coming from a mongoose? This is one of those films where it will be hard not to look up everything available on the character and this particular moment in his life. If audiences don’t find enjoyment in the mystery, the comedy, or the performances, perhaps they’ll find it in their exploration of the story on which Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose is based.
Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose will be in theaters on September 1.
Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
Scrapper is the ambitious, smart, and funny debut from writer and director Charlotte Regan. While not every idea works, the film is quirky and full of charm. It will inherently be compared to Aftersun and possibly My Girl for older audience members, but Scrapper is doing its own thing by bringing genuine laughs before making the tears flow.
Lola Campbell makes her acting debut playing Georgie, a 12-year-old who lives alone in a flat in London after the death of her mother. She is earning money with her friend Ali (Alin Uzun, who is also making his acting debut) stealing bikes. Georgie feels like she’s got a grip on things until her estranged father, Jason (Harris Dickinson), shows up unexpectedly. Jason is determined to get Georgie to face the reality that she can’t continue living on her own, but he isn’t sure he’s ready to be a dad.
Campbell is an instant on-screen presence to watch out for. Tasked with carrying the majority of the film and doing so effortlessly, her delivery of dialogue is very natural, and the scenes that ask her to be emotionally vulnerable work incredibly well. She has strong chemistry with Uzun, making their scenes feel very organic. One scene, in particular, has Uzun explaining how a vampire and werewolf hybrid creature could be made that just feels like two teenagers being teenagers. However, the film's full success comes from the interactions with Dickinson and Campbell.
Dickinson was excellent in Triangle of Sadness last year and continues that level of performance in this film. He expertly portrays desperation and fear as the character struggles to know how to approach his daughter. The conflict between them and the clear stakes it results in make the film’s emotional scenes land like a punch to the gut. At the same time, you’ll get these touching moments where they get to know each other and have a bit of fun as they bond. Campbell has to do a lot in her performance to make these scenes reflect the character’s initial attitude and gradual change. It’s an impressive performance.
Regan takes some interesting swings in the filmmaking style. One element that doesn’t quite work — or at least isn’t given any context — is documentary interviews. At various times throughout the film, the aspect ratio will change to a square, and ancillary characters directly address the camera and comment on Georgie’s situation. It doesn’t completely take the audience out of the film, but it is jarring and seemingly disconnected.
Fortunately, Regan has some strong visual instincts that work, particularly in the scenes that take place in Georgie’s mind to one degree or another. She and cinematographer Molly Manning Walker shoot these surreal moments exquisitely, establishing Regan as a clear stylistic voice.
Scrapper is a powerful and fun coming-of-age story full of great performances. The story feels clearer than what Aftersun was doing, and, at least for me, made this a better viewing experience. The stylistic flourishes that Regan brings mostly work in terms of storytelling, and linger in one’s memory once the film concludes.
Scrapper opens in theaters on Aug 25.
Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
Between Two Worlds marks Emmanuel Carrère’s return to directing for the first time since The Moustache. The film is adapted from Florence Aubenas’s bestselling non-fiction work Le Quai de Ouistreham (The Night Cleaner) and has been a long-time passion project for its star, Juliette Binoche. That passion is visible in every frame of the film, as the characters and their relationships develop to their emotional conclusion.
Marianne Winckler (Binoche) is actively looking for work in a small city in Northern France. Job options are limited, but she finally lands a few cleaning jobs with various companies. The catch is that Marianne is actually a famed author who has gone undercover to investigate the exploitation of the working class in this region. At first, it is all clinical, but as Marianne begins to feel close connections to the women she works with, she also struggles with her deception, despite it being for the greater good.
Binoche is in top form, easily playing the internal struggle that Marianne is going through. There is a longing for the friendships she is developing to not go away. While Marianne is the protagonist, the film instead opens with a tracking shot of a character who will become significant eventually. Played expertly by newcomer Hélène Lambert, this worker immediately makes an impact demanding to speak about a paperwork error while Marianne idly watches. She shows up at a few jobs Marianne takes, and the two begin to develop a friendship. It is the heart of the film, and the chemistry between the two is undeniable. Binoche’s performance allows the audience to feel the guilt of her lies, but she believes her book will help bring awareness to the struggles the women she works with face.
Carrère’s film brings a real sense of the challenges women face. The first time Marianne is brought in to clean, the ferry feels undeniably tense. There is a ticking clock, since each room must be thoroughly cleaned, beds made, toilets scrubbed, and trash changed in under four minutes. Marianne is clearly out of her depth, and the audience can feel her anxiety. The other jobs had been challenging, but the extreme nature of the ferry gig shows how underpaid and disrespected the cleaning crews are. Yet, the surrogate family element of the team is not lost, and the relationships make even the smallest role feel important.
Between Two Worlds feels undeniably sincere in its messaging. No one who works as hard as the characters should struggle financially. The story shines a light on the faces of those often overlooked by society. Of course, it’s in large part the tremendous — yet subtle — performances by the leads that really sell the idea. While there is an ethical debate about the choice the main character makes, it does feel that, in this case, the ends justify the means. Hopefully, the film will make people aware of the plight of the workers, and maybe a change will follow.
Between Two Worlds is out in theaters on August 11.
Review by Jonathan Berk
Director Clement Virgo’s film Brother weaves three time periods together to show the lives of Michael (Lamar Johnson), his older brother Francis (Aaron Pierre), and their mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) living in Toronto. The film opens with a shot of power lines fading into the horizon, with the camera pulling back slowly to reveal two brothers when they’re high school age. Framed beneath a transmission tower, Francis begins explaining to Michael why they will climb it, and how the higher they go, the more risky it will be. He states that every step they make must be precise and with intention, or it could lead to their death. The metaphor is clear from the opening, having an immediate impact on the audience.
Most of the story takes place during their childhood, and then we reunite with them ten years later in their adulthood. The later timeline is also the first time we meet Aisha (Kiana Madeira), as Michael picks her up from the bus stop. The story's structure allows the film to feel like a mystery for us to decipher. It becomes clear to us that Francis will not be part of this part of the story, so we are left to wonder and anticipate what happened. The same is true with our first encounter with Aisha. She's returning, and there is clearly a history with her and the brothers, but we don’t yet know what it was. The jumping between the three timelines really allows the viewer to build the story with the film and try anticipate what led them to their current situations. The young sequence seems so full of hope, and the oldest so bleak. We now want to answer what led to this dramatic shift in perspectives and prospects for our characters.
The production design helps sell the film. For example, the boys' bedroom with bunk beds that is full of love in the two early time periods feels sad and desolate in the third. The city and the few places we see the brothers living in sell the feeling of the era. It is all made more impactful via the cinematography by Guy Godfree and the score by Todor Kobakov. The feel and look of the movie are so essential to getting the vibe of the time and what the boys are going through.
Pierre and Johnson are both very great in this film, but Johnson’s character takes a little more to understand. Francis is the man of the house, and it’s established in the youngest sequences that he takes that role seriously. Yet, it also weighs heavy on his shoulders, and it becomes apparent much later on how much of a burden it truly is. Michael seems content with being the younger brother with much less responsibility, which makes his character more frustrating in the later timeline. He’s taken the role from the now-absent Francis, but he doesn’t seem comfortable in it at all. Still, both actors deliver incredible performances full of nuance and heart.
Brother is a powerful movie with well-written characters. There are several elements of the story that will feel familiar, but the presentation of them makes them feel revitalized. It's a quiet film that will make you reflect on the events and process why the characters make the choices they do.
Brother will be in theaters and on VOD on August 4.
Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
Choosing what project to make your directorial debut on is a big one. If that choice says something about the one making it, then D. Smith is brave, bold, and beautiful. Kokomo City is simple as a documentary film. It is a person with a camera pointed at the subjects sharing their lives. Where this film is elevated is the stunning black and white cinematography, unique camera placement, and both the stories shared and the people to whom they belong.
Smith’s movie features four Black transgender sex workers out of Atlanta and New York City — Daniella Carter, Koko Da Doll, Liyah Mitchell, and Dominique Silver — who share stories unreservedly about their profession and the struggles they have faced with acceptance. While the film mostly focuses on the four transgender women, it also frequently returns to Lo, a music producer and writer, and his experience with an internet relationship with a transgender woman. His reluctance to admit his interest really helps land the struggles the core four experience. There are other interviews and conversations to supplement the main stories, but Lo seems particularly compelling as the film returns to him and his struggle.
Black and white cinematography has seen a resurgence over the last few years, but it is still infrequent. For some people, the lack of color on screen is enough of a reason to walk away from a movie or show, and thus a risk a filmmaker takes. However, Smith’s decision to shoot this in black and white pays off. There are so many gorgeous frames in this documentary, it is often easy to forget it’s not a fashion ad. The great juxtaposition of the exquisite look is the realness Smith asked the four transgender women to maintain.
Smith said, “I wanted those walls down. In this film, I was able to share the private lives of four transgender sex workers who are never represented publicly. I offered the girls freedom. Freedom to talk like us. Look like us. Don’t worry about politics. Forget about makeup. Don’t worry about calling your glam squad today. Just tell your story. I wanted to humanize the transgender experience.” This idea is present in every moment of the film, and it is executed to great impact.
Kokomo City touches on many hot-button topics in our world right now. While many stories are comedic, Smith’s film slowly turns towards many of the struggles faced by black transgender women. The focus of finding ones place and our desire to find acceptance rings true and loud. This film emphasizes how sad it is that our society makes people feel unable to exist openly and freely. The final shot of the film is a powerful one that stamps Smith’s statement completely.
Kokomo City is out in theaters on July 28.
Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
Nimona is the new animated film by directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno, which was a long time coming. It stars Riz Ahmed as Ballister Boldheart is a knight in a futuristic medieval world who has made a stir by being the first knight not of nobility. He is framed for a serious crime and forced into hiding. That’s when Nimona, a mischievous teen who happens to be a shapeshifting creature (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz) arrives to be his sidekick and help him as a super-villain. There’s clearly a miscommunication at first, but the two team up to prove Ballister’s innocence.
If you’ve seen Ahmed’s performance in movies like Sound of Metal or Nightcrawler, you’d know how much emotion he can convey with just a look. His eyes are unbelievably expressive, which does no good for a voice-acting role in an animated movie. Yet, Ahmed proves that he can bring whatever emotion a character and story needs through whatever medium you ask. His performance in this film is outstanding, and he brings so much to the role. It’s almost as if you are seeing him through his animated avatar. Kudos to him and the animators for bringing his performance to life.
Moretz also brings tons of energy to this role. In many ways, her manic repartee and constant jokes call back to her first cinematic bad-ass, Hit-Girl, from Kick-Ass. In fact, the first time Hitgirl shows up and demonstrates her fighting ability, “The Tra La La Song” kicks in and sets the energy for the scene. That song makes an appearance in a key action sequence when Nimona shows off her shapeshifting skills and takes on many knights. Nimona is a character who truly embraces who she is and has a lot of fun being the “monster”, which totally feels like a spiritual connection to Hit-Girl. This character has more deep-seated insecurities that play heavily into the themes of the film.
The allegory of this story is a bit on the nose, but is so vital to the world we live in. The city the movie is set in is surrounded by a wall to keep the monsters out. Ballister keeps asking Nimona what her deal is and if it hurts when she shapesshifts. There is a lot about this film that mirrors the bigotry and push back of those perceived as “different.” While this film will likely upset many people who do not want to see LGBTQIA+ acceptance in our stories, it may also feel like it is pandering. It may be naive to still believe that a story has the power to change the views of someone, but Roger Ebert once said, “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” If that’s true, this film can put its audience in the shoes of a fictional character in a fictional world who struggles to be accepted exactly as they are… maybe it’s enough to change someone’s perspective.
Nimona is gorgeously animated and features a few different styles at the same time. The two leads have so much chemistry, and it bursts out of the screen, creating a fun ride for its audience. Between some cool set pieces, compelling characters, and lots of heartfelt comedy, Nimona is a powerful animated movie that’s sure to be in the Oscar discussion at the beginning of next year.
Nimona will be streaming on Netflix June 30.
Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
Director Kelley Kali’s film Jagged Mind is a mix of films like Groundhog Day and Unsane. It stars Maisie Richardson-Sellers as Billie, who slowly enters a relationship with Alex (Shannon Woodward). It becomes apparent to the audience that something isn’t quite right, as scenes begin to loop with slight variations. However, Billie’s blackouts and memory loss are easily tossed aside as early stages of dementia, a condition she likely inherited from her mother. As visions begin to accompany her blackouts, Billie suspects there is something more going on than she initially believed.
Richardson-Sellers gives a good performance as Billie. There is a lot asked of her between repeating scenes with slight variations, and then dealing with the various revelations in the story. Woodward's performance is sometimes a little more wooden. There is a stiffness that comes as part of the role the character plays, but she never quite clicks into who Alex is supposed to be. It’s like she has an idea of who Alex is, but is unsure of how to fully realize the character. It’s possible, though, that this problem stems from the script, not the performance.
Overall, the story moves well, and the boxes are checked as Billie goes through the various stages familiar with loop stories. Sometimes the dialogue feels a little too stilted, and even though the words are spoken by characters, it feels like we are reading a text message exchange. Lines of dialogue feel too blunt and end abruptly, as though displayed in a bubble with minimal inflection on any of the words. For a horror film that deals so much with a relationship, this inhuman form of speaking feels odd. It’s not always noticeable, but Alex’s character often feels the most impacted by the unusual dialogue. There is some justification for this in the story, but it still never felt like it fit the mood the film was going for.
The overall look and vibe of the Jagged Mind works, though. Whether it is the atmospheric lighting, the gorgeous production design, or the feel of the art-infused world that Billie inhabits, the movie does manage to suck you in. Thus, it’s easy to root for Billie, and hope she can figure out what’s going on. We’re informed of other bad relationships she’s been unable to fully escape from, and we want Alex to be a good one. It’s clear early that this is probably not the situation, as these blackouts and visions seem to suggest this could be the worst relationship anyone could find themselves trapped in. Still, there is enough going on to keep audiences engaged throughout.
Jagged Mind is available on Hulu on June 15.
Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
Aloners is an incredible debut film by director Hong Sung-eun that focuses on a Korean term "honjok," which is a phenomenon of young people who live alone and skirt social interaction. Interestingly, the film was conceived and shot at the end of 2019 — thus the isolation elements are not a reaction to the global lockdown — but will likely resonate even more with audiences having now lived through it. The "honjok" depicted in the film by Hong looks to understand why one may put up walls and choose to be alone.
Gong Seung-yeon plays Jina, who is the best employee at a credit card call center thriving at following the manual for all of the customers' calls. Outside of her interaction with customers via her headset, Jina lives alone, eats alone, sleeps alone, and watches content on her cell phone. Her isolated way of living is threatened by three separate instances: her father (Park Jeong-hak) begins reaching out to her to cope with his own sense of loneliness; her boss (Kim Hae-na) assigns Sujin (Jeong Da-eun) to Jina for training; and a new neighbor (Seo Hyun-woo) insists on getting to know her.
Isolation is inherently cinematic. Hong uses every frame and set to help emphasize this idea, as Jina is often in the center of the frame with the background slightly out of focus. Her apartment is small and organized in such a way that implies there are no plans for another person to ever be there. Even on the bus, her isolation is on display for us. We watch her voyeuristically as she watches a video on her phone, with her ever-present headphones snugly tucked into her ears to imply that even we aren’t being let into her world completely. No one knows exactly what Jina is going through — except Jina. Every aspect of the film is functional in telling this story, and its impact pays off exceptionally at its end.
Gong’s performance would be easy to overlook because of how understated much of it is. Yet, there is a complexity in her silence, and her inactions. We see her eating alone several times throughout the film. The way she eats changes subtly throughout the film, all building towards an emotional breakdown. It may seem imperceptible at first, but the moment Jina is finally ready to confront the reason for her isolation, the change in her eating will be clear. It’s also why Jeong’s performance as Sujin is also so impactful. The two seem to be polar opposites, as Sujin early declares how many friends she had back home, and would hate to eat alone as people may assume she has none. It is in this relationship that the film is able to explore Jina’s character and lifestyle more so than any other.
There is a straightforwardness to the major story that is easy to appreciate. However, it is the smaller pieces that really give the audience something to sink their teeth into. For example, one customer who calls a few times is listed as mentally ill. He believes he is a time traveler, and wants to use a credit card in his travels as paper money could become cumbersome. His story is far more complex than it needs to be, and the peeling back of its layers reveals much about the film's central message. Another element that would be easy to overlook is another bus rider’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty cellphone case positioned directly behind Jina’s head. It is an odd film for a person in 2019 to have as a cellphone case until you remember how much Walter lived inside of his own head, and that film’s story is about him setting aside his fears to pursue the relationships he desired. There is no wasted space in this film, and Hong clearly demonstrates her understanding of the craft.
Aloners was one of the most engaging quiet films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. As a self-proclaimed introvert, it wasn’t always easy seeing elements of my own life on screen. I never felt judged by the ideas in the film, but I did find myself frequently reflecting on my own interactions with people. Jina’s story unfolds in fascinating ways that never seem to say she is wrong for living alone but seeks to understand why she has chosen this lifestyle. Even while we are forced to watch Jina in Aloners from a distance at times, she too watches her world in a multitude of ways. It is an undeniable exploration that Hong offers her audience in an expertly crafted movie.
Aloners is out on VOD on June 9.