Film Review: “Gagarine” Is a Grounded Reach for the Stars

My review for Gagarine on Film Festival Today!

The film opens with archival footage of the building’s inauguration in 1963, a celebration of the new and the community’s potential. Cut to present day, however, and the buildings are in acute disrepair. As an inspection draws near, Youri — along with his close friend and fellow Gagarine resident, Houssam and local Roma girl, Diana — strives to bring the place up to code. He spends his own money to buy supplies and devotes every moment to repairs and daydreaming of space travel … here’s displacement, community, and also coming of age, communication, loyalty, and, most importantly, survival. In many ways, Youri is the metaphorical captain of the collective structure of Gagarine, prepared to go down with the ship. He is played by Bathily with steadfast strength and vulnerability and, over the course of the story, it becomes painfully clear that he, like Gagarine itself, is full of every kind of potential that may or may not ever be realized … The film ultimately leaves you with the juxtaposition of how tragedy can drive us into desperation, isolation, and melancholy, and how it can unite a community.


Read the full review on Film Festival Today:
“Gagarine” Is a Grounded Reach for the Stars


Film Review: “I’ll Find You” Tells a Deceptively New Tale

My review for I’ll Find You on Film Festival Today!

While I’ll Find You might seem like an all-too-familiar period love story, it winds up being something of a collection of surprises… Young musicians Rachel and Robert meet while both passionately studying the violin in Poland. Their relationship, while at first rocky and competitive, evolves into young love, despite the fact that Robert is Catholic and Rachel, Jewish. The film jumps ahead several years when the two reunite… with the Nazi invasion of Poland, religion as a divisive factor falling by the wayside. While the rest of World War II is being fought elsewhere and, yes, Rachel happens to be the love of Robert’s life, this is one precarious attempt to save at least one family, even one life, from genocide.


Read the full review on Film Festival Today:
“I’ll Find You” Tells a Deceptively New Tale


Film Review: “Belle” Is a Peculiar Remix of “Beauty and the Beast”

My review for Belle on Film Festival Today!
If you dig “Beauty and the Beast” re-tellings, definitely check out “Belle.” Full review on FilmFestivalToday. This film is gorgeous and deeply moving. I cried more than once because, fair warning: it’s largely a grief story.

Belle is not much of a commentary on social-media culture or technology, nor is it even a straightforward love story. Instead, it’s largely an exploration of trauma, both immediate and long-term, specifically relating to loss and abuse … the film feels a bit crowded in story and theme … That said, the emotion is deft and hard-hitting, the plot far from predictable, and the mystery of who people really are behind their U façades offers surprisingly high stakes. There’s some role-switching, but more often writer/director Mamoru Hosoda blends archetypes and motivations between characters.


Read the full review on Film Festival Today:
“Belle” Is a Peculiar Remix of “Beauty and the Beast”


Film Review: “Being The Ricardos” Brims With Triumph and Tragedy

My review for Being The Ricardos on Film Festival Today!
This movie was surprisingly emotional for me, and not in the ways I expected. I was moved and I suspect others may be, as well.

There might be some question as to who Being the Ricardos is for … but the personal struggle at the center should appeal to a fairly broad range of viewers … Writer/director Aaron Sorkin brilliantly recreates classic moments from the groundbreaking sitcom without loitering on them. We get reference and homage but always stay grounded in the present storyline; apart, sometimes, from the framing device … Being the Ricardos may romanticize some parts of the history, but in other areas it pulls absolutely no punches … personal decisions have on the lives of everyone at the studio, professional and personal, each other included. Some of the impact is triumphant and some of it is heartbreaking, and it’s all interwoven beautifully.


Read the full review on Film Festival Today:
“Being The Ricardos” Brims With Triumph and Tragedy


Film Review: “India Sweets and Spices” Delivers Lush Spectacle and Deeper Meaning

My review for India Sweets and Spices on Film Festival Today.
This film was a delight and I would absolutely watch it again!

India Sweet and Spices has a lot to say. There are significant statements about culture, class, generational divides, and economic disparity, but writer/director Geeta Malik (Troublemaker) has a deft hold of her film and conveys these messages in a delightful story that largely avoids clichés, staying grounded, throughout. The film has a self-awareness and compelling rhythm that draws you in and makes you want to stay … The film does an especially great job showing how individual choices affect those around us … This is really a coming-of-age story … and though the film winds up relatively happily, it doesn’t erase all of what’s come before. The characters at the center of the story have a strong sense of what matters most and, ultimately, so do we.


Read the full review on Film Festival Today:
“India Sweets and Spices” Delivers Lush Spectacle and Deeper Meaning


Film Review: “Red Notice” Doesn’t Deliver the Thrills It Suggests

My review for RED NOTICE on Film Festival Today.

A heist-style action romp starring a team up (of sorts) between Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Godot seems like an inescapable win, or at least a promise of a great time. Yet despite having so much going for it, Red Notice falls surprisingly short. Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Skyscraper) does offer some genuinely creative and fun visuals here, but they don’t entirely make up for the surface-level pastiche to be found otherwise. The film doesn’t really commit in any direction. It’s too light to be add significant pressure or stakes to the characters’ lives, but also not light and whimsical enough to be a breezy blast, either … that said, however, the twist ending sets up a sequel, which boasts a far more compelling pitch. It certainly looks more fun, anyway.


Read the full review on Film Festival Today:
“Red Notice” Doesn’t Deliver The Thrills It Suggests


Film Review: “Rhapsody of Love” Is a Patchwork of Stories That Never Fully Resonates

My review for Rhapsody of Love on Film Festival Today.

Rhapsody of Love is an ensemble but feels like the thematic potential gets short-changed in order to make room for too many plotlines. The stories don’t ever really get the chance to thrive or take root. Despite the warmth and good-natured intent here, the numerous conflicts presented lack nuance and wind up feeling amiss …  Lives, loves, and ambitions subsequently clash and the film concludes in direct-to-camera interviews — abrupt given that director Hopwood only introduces them at the very end … Most of the women are growing in their careers and have big dreams, and yet––apart from Jess—they are often depicted as selfish, insensitive, or spoiled … The most powerful moments are the most understated, frequently platonic (rather than romantic), or containing very little dialogue at all.


Read the full review on Film Festival Today:
“Rhapsody of Love” Is a Patchwork of Stories That Never Fully Resonates


Film Review: “Dating & New York” Is Gratifying, If Predictable

My review for Dating & New York on Film Festival Today! If you like rom-coms (especially those of the 80s/90s/Nora Ephron variety) then definitely don’t miss Dating & New York!

Wendy and Milo…are courtship-weary millennials still pining for romance and…Wendy, a pragmatist, concocts an idea (and a contract): best friends with benefits. Milo, an idealist, is dubious of the arrangement at first, hoping for a real connection. Still, despite warnings from friends and Milo’s own misgivings, they proceed … From the jump, this is an of-the-moment story about dating-app culture and overall virtual communication … Nothing happens, plot-wise, that you can’t at least predict from the start. The surprises are found in smaller moments within those expected beats: when characters break through the digital haze, call each other out, zero in on mistakes, flaws, and quirks. The tonal shift should be jarring but it actually draws you further in. Much of this is owed to Reale and Young-White’s performances.

Read the full review on Film Festival Today:
“Dating & New York” Is Gratifying, If Predictable


Film Review: Free Guy (no spoilers)

Spoiler-Free Review!


Free Guy (2021)
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn
out of 4 stars.

I’m pretty neutral on Ryan Reynolds. I enjoy his brand of comedy for the most part but my interest in Free Guy sparked almost entirely from the casting of Joe Keery and that Shawn Levy was the director (as I am a devoted fan of Stranger Things). In reviewing Levy’s filmography as part of my research for my Coffee & Contemplation podcast, I realized that I often like his style and the stories he tends to tell; in particular, the Night at the Museum franchise, Arrival, The Famous Jett Jackson, and, obviously, Stranger Things. Like those properties, Free Guy seemed to be another effective blend of pastiche and originality. Plus Taika Waititi was in the cast, too? Sign me up.

The film itself far exceeded my expectations. Free Guy is celebratory rather than pretentious in its homage. While others are citing The Truman Show, The Lego Movie, and Wreck-It-Ralph as influences, I also detected a lot of the original Tron. Yet Free Guy carves out its own style, its own characters. How it manages to do so is nigh untraceable but it doesn’t really matter because you’re too busy enjoying the result. There are scant few things I didn’t enjoy about it — more on that later — and even in the spots where it doesn’t quite work, there’s a palpable spirit of enthusiasm. Some reviews criticize the film for not delving deeper into the more serious questions and concepts Free Guy indirectly presents — the nature of Artificial Intelligence, corporate strategy, sequels versus original IP, what qualifies as a soul — but I would argue that the film doesn’t avoid these subjects outright, either. The trailers also make it very clear that deep, intellectual exploration is not the point here. Science-Fiction is rife with such explorations and there’s plenty to be found elsewhere if you’re looking for that. In Free Guy, meanwhile, you can expect a buoyant, fun energy at its core. However, I was surprised at the — go with me — level of subtlety at play. No, seriously. There is no shortage of loud, brash, even salacious humor but it never goes too far off the rails and is even quite effectively balanced by some aspects that practically fly under the radar, along with some surprisingly sweet messages.

The real-world and Free-City-world feel equally balanced along with the arcs of the characters in each, both in the writing and the visuals. The cinematography (George Richmond, Rocketman) deftly shifts between cinematic and gaming styles. The cameos and Easter eggs are present and delightful but don’t distract from the center narrative. Guy’s story is our A-Plot, the Soonami story is the B-Plot, but the characters’ comparable screen time, combined with (I believe) dynamite performances by Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Britne Oldford, all synchronize successfully. Many critics are ragging on the real-world characters but I buy the characterizations and believe their performances are deeper than they’re getting credit for. Where some have cited that the Soonami storyline drags the film down in the middle, I would question whether Guy’s story — genuinely fun and entertaining though it is — would be able to sustain itself alone, without a supporting plot. Maybe, but I, for one, appreciate the range.

The only pieces that didn’t work for me mostly surrounded the underuse of Taika Waititi as Antwan and some of the humor. For all that the marketing emphasized his role, Waititi seems to be doing a lot with so very little. The film’s antagonist might be the one aspect where the film would have benefited from easing back on the humor in favor of complexity. Waititi would have been more than up to that task; but perhaps it weighed the film down too much? In any case, I’m hoping for a plethora of deleted scenes awaiting us on the eventual Blu-ray. And, apart from that, I found myself tired of the “gamers are lame dudes who live in their mom’s basement and never get laid” joke even just after watching the multiple trailers. It’s directly at odds with the appearances of Professional Streamers. I’m not sure that we needed that particular brand of degrading humor in a movie that is otherwise very uplifting – even respectful – of gamer culture.

Beyond that, though this is an overwhelming net positive. I already want to see the film again and look forward to the conversations that it will inevitably inspire. Will it change the world? No, but it is a huge mood boost, and amongst these dark times, sometimes that’s exactly what we all need.


Read Christopher Llewellyn Reed’s Film Festival Today review here!


Film Review: Free Guy (spoilers)

This review contains spoilers.


Free Guy (2021)
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn
out of 4 stars.

I’m pretty neutral on Ryan Reynolds. I enjoy his brand of comedy for the most part but my interest in Free Guy sparked almost entirely from knowing that Joe Keery was in the cast (because I’m a huge Stranger Things fan) and also that Shawn Levy was the director. In looking over his filmography as part of my research for my Coffee & Contemplation podcast, I realized that I often like his style and the stories he tends to tell; in particular, the Night at the Museum franchise, Arrival, The Famous Jett Jackson,and, obviously, Stranger Things. Like those properties, Free Guy seemed to be another effective blend of pastiche and originality. Plus Taika Waititi was in the cast, too? Sign me up.

The film itself far exceeded my expectations. Free Guy is celebratory rather than pretentious in its homage (Tron, anyone?) yet carves out its own style, its own characters. How it manages to do so is nigh untraceable but it doesn’t really matter because you’re too busy enjoying the result. There are scant few things I didn’t enjoy about it — more on that later — and even in the spots where it doesn’t quite work, there’s a palpable spirit of enthusiasm. Some reviews criticize the film for not delving deeper into the more serious questions and concepts Free Guy indirectly presents — the nature of Artificial Intelligence, corporate strategy, sequels versus original IP, what qualifies as a soul — but I would argue that the film doesn’t avoid these subjects outright, either. Many critics are ragging on the real-world characters but I buy the characterizations and believe their performances are deeper than they’re getting credit for. Where some have cited that the Soonami storyline drags the film down in the middle, I would question whether Guy’s story — genuinely fun and entertaining though it is — would be able to sustain itself alone, without a supporting plot. Maybe. But I, for one, appreciate the range. The trailers also make it very clear that deep, intellectual exploration is not the point here. Science-Fiction is rife with such explorations and there’s plenty to be found elsewhere if you’re looking for that but in Free Guy you can expect a buoyant, fun energy at its core. However, I was surprised at the — go with me — level of subtlety at play. No, seriously. There is no shortage of loud, brash, even salacious humor but it never goes too far off the rails and is even quite effectively balanced by some aspects that practically fly under the radar.


SPOILERS AHEAD!

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