If there’s one thing that five years of film school taught me, it is that every director should adopt a “show, don’t tell” approach as much as possible. Alfred Hitchcock even went out and developed a quasi-theory based on the Kuleshov effect called “pure cinematics,” in which one gaze or look from an actor can convey so much more than any dialogue spoken by any of them. He dubs it “pure cinematics” because it’s the purest cinematic expression you can ever achieve with the camera’s power, editing, and how the actor perceives the camera he’s looking at. Look at his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much as an example and Doris Day’s magnificent reaction when she sees the gun being pulled out of the curtain—no words, just an agonizing scream, and fright on her eyes to convey the expression of fear and anguish.
Nick Stagliano certainly didn’t listen to Hitchcock when he made The Virtuoso, starring one of the greatest expressive actors of our time, Anson Mount, the only good part of Marvel’s disastrous Inhumans series. In that show, he represented many expressions only from his non-verbal emotions since his character’s voice can end the world. In The Virtuoso, Mount’s titular character has to painstakingly explain everything through inherently pointless voiceover, as he completes a mission from his mentor (Anthony Hopkins) to assassinate someone named “White Rivers”—whom he has no idea what/who he/she is. But guess what? It doesn’t really matter because before you can grasp what’s going, The Virtuoso will put you to sleep quicker than you can say “White Rivers.”
Oh, God, oh God. It’s been a while that a film has been more tedious than this—hell, the last time I was this bored at a movie was during James Gray’s Ad Astra, another movie that doesn’t know how to use voiceover in a thoughtful light (it made everything sound like Willem Dafoe’s parodic Carson Clay’s Playback Time in Mr. Bean’s Holiday). When you overexplain every minute detail of The Virtuoso’s operations, it makes it look as if you don’t trust the audience’s intelligence. You already know he’s doing a mission to kill someone (visual cues tell us that he’s a contract killer)—why do we need to know everything about him, even the most baffling, fruitless moments? The Virtuoso walks into a house’s parking lot and babbles, “Your first concern on a night assault is dogs. The fact that it’s been quiet so far can be misleading. On nights like this, only the most cruel of owners leave their dogs out.”
All of that could be fine if a dog were showing up, but there isn’t sooooooooooooooooooo why talk about it, then? There might be a dog? Is that it? Who cares?!? No, really, who cares? Even if there were a dog (and if there was no voiceover), the tension would’ve been amplified a tad more. The film already has a cold atmosphere, evidently exposed by its brooding cinematography; it doesn’t need any voiceover narration pronounced by any character. Heck, the characters are already explaining the plot as it goes along, so why must we know everything that’s going on in the protagonist’s mind every two seconds? If your voiceover will add nothing to our appreciation of the movie or will worsen the overall atmosphere, don’t use it. Scrap it. Already you have a somewhat interesting shell of a movie if the narration was stripped from it—I mean, the plot isn’t any good, but it would’ve held my attention.
Look at Ridley Scott’s theatrical cut of Blade Runner, an infamously terrible cut, botched by a phonetic voiceover narration from Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, because the studio didn’t think the audience would be able to understand what was going on, solely through expressions. When the Director’s Cut (and Final Cut) hit shelves, it was reappraised and lauded as a sci-fi masterpiece, compared to its initial release—and Scott only made minor changes to the story (he removed the “happy ending” and stripped the narration). Stripping the voiceover made for a better film, where audiences could interpret what was conveyed visually rather than orally. The same thing could’ve been used with Ad Astra and The Virtuoso, whose voiceover narration botches the entire quality of the film.
Anson Mount has proven himself a skillful (and highly expressive) actor from his tenure in Inhumans and Star Trek: Discovery. He and Anthony Hopkins are the only good parts of this terribly drab movie. Hopkins has one incredible 10-minute monologue sequence where he continues to prove he’s one of the greatest actors working today (who highly deserved his Academy Award for The Father, even though whatever happened that night wasn’t his fault). Mount superbly holds his own during many sequences, particularly when he has to confront one of his targets (played in a fun cameo by Eddie Marsan), as he laces his drink with…Viagra (don’t ask). It’s still a terribly anticlimactic film, particularly when you see the big “twist” coming from a mile away. As soon as Mount enters a diner and sees Abbie Cornish as a waitress, you almost certainly know that it’s WHITE RIVERS. Hell, they could’ve just written it on her forehead because of how terribly obvious it is. Stagliano and co-screenwriter James C. Wolf don’t even make any effort to hide it—as they’re too busy giving endless amounts of dialogue for The Virtuoso to blabber on and on to put their audience to sleep.
Minus one memorable action sequence, packing the extreme grittiness and schlock-like qualities reminiscent of S. Craig Zahler’s extreme-violent pictures, The Virtuoso is a terribly uneventful (and predictable) bore, ruined by a terrible voice-over narration that undermines every single thing happening in the movie. Anson Mount, Anthony Hopkins, David Morse, Eddie Marsan, and Abbie Cornish are all great actors who all deserve better than whatever they thought The Virtuoso offered them…oh, probably a big paycheck. That usually does the trick.
The Virtuoso is now playing in select theatres and available to rent on video-on-demand.
Werewolf by Night Review | The MCU’s Halloween Special is a (Trick or) Treat for Fans
Michael Giacchino’s MCU directorial debut is a stark (and welcomed) change of pace for the franchise that’s become like a fast food chain that arrives just in time for the Spooky Season.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve witnessed the MCU accustom its audience to the smaller screen with the influx of series that reside on Disney+. Some have been good (WandaVision), others have been bad (Moon Knight), but all of them — in my opinion — have had the same issue of starting relatively strong and then collapsing by the end. My working theory is that this is due to the writers having too many ideas for a two-hour film but not enough ideas for a six-hour miniseries. Whatever the case, the MCU has now debuted a new medium for their content: the TV special. While we’re due the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special later this year, Werewolf by Night — the surprise Halloween special that was announced at D23 last month — is legendary composer Michael Giacchino‘s directorial debut and doesn’t have to worry about the restraints that have held back the MCU Disney+ series.
Many moons ago, a group of monster hunters was summoned to Bloodstone Manor after their ringleader died and all take part in a deadly battle royale/ritual of sorts that will crown a new leader of the crusade. The competition takes place on what appears to be the world’s coolest laser tag/paintball map ever as all of the hunters attempt to get their hands on a glowing red thing that looks like an infinity stone.
Included in this survival of the fittest is Jack Rusell (Gael Garcia Bernal) — who’s just not like other monster hunters — and Else Bloodstone (Laura Donnelly). These two lead the film and do some great acting work, especially for an MCU project. Everyone will talk about Bernal, and rightfully so, but Donnelly was the scene-stealer for me. Bloodstone, as her name would suggest, is a badass, and the place where her story opens the door for some exciting possibilities much in the same way that Xu Xialing’s story in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings did.
Quick shoutout to Harriet Sansom Harris, who plays Verusa — Ulysse’s widow and interim leader of the monster hunters. This is about as unhinged and hammed up of a performance as the MCU will allow, and Harris really goes in full throttle with every line.
Aside from a select number of scenes in the Shadow Realm in Thor: Love & Thunder, Werewolf by Night is the first MCU project in my mind to spend time with a black-and-white aesthetic; really emphasizing the Universal Classic Monsters aesthetic. And unlike Love & Thunder, Werewolf by Night spends at least 95% of its runtime with its gothic filter.
This all leads to Giacchino, who has never directed a film before with the exception of a handful of shorts. I don’t know much about Giacchino personally, but he must be a fan of the Universal Classic Monsters; or a student of them, at the very least. Giacchino serves the job well behind the camera as most MCU directors do — they are prone to hire bobbleheads behind the camera — but the craftwork really enhances the film. It’s not just the black-and-white filter; the film’s score — also done by Giacchino — sound design, production design and choreography are all great by the MCU’s standards.
Diving a little bit deeper than the black-and-white filter, for another first in the MCU, “cigarette burns” occasionally make their way onto the top right part of the screen. Now, this isn’t Licorice Pizza at the DGA Theater on 70mm, and perhaps there are a few too many in the second half, but it is nice to see fragments of true filmmaking in the MCU. Admittedly, it still feels as though Kevin Fiege and co. have a chip on their shoulders and are attempting to prove the haters wrong and prove that the MCU can make “cinema.” The cigarette burns may have been a desperate attempt at legitimizing the film. It’s just too bad that the illusion is broken whenever a CGI character takes the screen. Thankfully, the Werewolf by Night character itself appears to be practical and really leans into the Universal Monsters of it all, but a certain creature looks a bit silly in comparison to the rest of the film.
The choreography of the fight sequences is a lot more violent than expected. It’s nothing that a PG-13 moviegoer hasn’t seen before, to be fair, but someone has their head bashed into a concrete wall a handful of times a la that scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (less bloodshed and no broken noses here). But even if Werewolf by Night is far from a Tarantino film in terms of its violence and gore, there’s still a good amount of bloodshed in this film. At one point, blood splatters across the camera and there’s even more gory goodness throughout.
But by Night loses its howl in the same place that many MCU projects falter despite their best efforts: MCU-isms. Yes, Werewolf by Night is an MCU project, so I can’t act appalled at this, but how many times have we seen two characters trapped in a prison of sorts and they have a heart-to-heart before one character realizes they have an easy escape? Most of the dialogue in the film works in the film’s favor — usually delivering the right amount of camp — but the infamous MCU quips make their way into Werewolf by Night, much to my chagrin.
For example, the leader of the crusade — who has stellar character design and looks like a creepy haunted house animatronic — delivers the exposition necessary to set the stage for the battle royale. However, at the end of his speech, he cracks a ridiculously unfunny joke before wrapping it up by chalking it up to “graveyard humor.” In the context of Werewolf by Night, the cheesy quips stand out like a sore thumb even more so than they do in a standard MCU project. Imagine watching a play about the signing of the Declaration of Independence where Thomas Jefferson starts saying “triggered” or interrupts the signing to do his daily BeReal post.
While I could not tell you whether or not Jack Russell will have a presence in the MCU going forward — nor do I care, frankly — I can tell you that the character is a welcomed addition to this mega-franchise that’s become more of a factory than a series and I’d welcome more stories in this pocket of the MCU with open arms. Werewolf by Night feels special because it’s distinctly different from other MCU projects we’ve seen, and fans of classic horror and the MCU alike finally have something to sink their teeth into together. Werewolf by Night is the perfect Halloween treat that all of us should have in our trick-or-treat baskets.
Werewolf by Night debuts on Disney+ on October 7.
One Fine Morning Review | Mia Hansen-Løve Knocks it Out of the Park Again
NYFF: Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest is no Bergman Safari and tackles mundane tragedies in everyday life.
While I’ve only seen two of Mia Hansen-Løve‘s films — Bergman Island and One Fine Morning — I have become a fan. The former was one of my favorite films of last year for its commentary on artistic expression and stellar performances from all four of its leads (Tim Roth, Vicky Krieps, Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie). It’s a film that I’m dying for a Blu-ray release of — ball’s in your court, Criterion Collection — and I cannot recommend it enough since it’s available to stream on Hulu now.
But Hansen-Løve’s new film is no walk in the park — or venture through the Bergman Safari. Shifting gears from the easy-going demeanor of Bergman Island is One Fine Morning; a film that explores love, aging and everything in between. Hansen-Løve has a knack for pairing herself with some incredibly talented actors and has gone from Krieps to Léa Seydoux, one of the most reliable performers working today.
Sandra (Seydoux) is a single mother to her young daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins). Life is anything but easy for Sandra as her father (Pascal Greggory), a famous author, has a deteriorating mental condition that is getting worse by the day. She has to balance moving him into an elderly home and a new love that arises, Clément (Melvil Poupaud).
Unlike other guys, Clément fulfills all of Sandra’s needs. Sandra, despite being a grown woman, shows vulnerability. She still sports a wide-grinned smile when she receives a text from Clément like she’s a teen texting her first boyfriend, but is still shown to also be a very lonely figure. Seydoux does a masterful job of portraying the sorrow behind a brave face that so many mothers do.
There’s also the tug of war between the morality of Sandra’s decisions. She’s technically doing nothing wrong by seeing Clément, but it’s the fact that he’s married and has a child that complicates things as he stays with a single mother and her young daughter. And Linn is a far smarter child than you think; she knows exactly what’s going on when Clément stays the night.
And the film really strikes an emotional chord, even if you haven’t been the mistress or have a young child. Sandra’s father and his struggle leave a profound mark. Personally, I remember times when visiting my grandmother in an elderly home where we’d say our goodbyes only for her to forget and begin walking down the hall calling my name. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s moments like those that really bring it home.
If there was one complaint to just get out of the way, I wish that the film further explored the relationship between Sandra and Linn. Linn is not thrown on the sidelines as much as June (Grace Delrue) is in Bergman Island — granted, that was a story about writer’s block and getting away from distractions — but there’s some untapped potential whether that means more scenes with Sandra or with Clément, whom we see she (adorably) gets along with in the film.
Everything else in Hansen-Løve’s film is excellent. From the score to the soundtrack selections — who knew that “LIksom en Herdinna” and “Love Will Remain” could be used so powerfully in a film? — and the subtle script, all of the elements work in unison. And the final scene is so touching. Say what you want about Hansen-Løve, one thing you cannot deny is that she knows how to end a film.
Hansen-Løve has done it again with an emotionally-driven character study that observes a single mother. Seydoux gives a great performance and is helped out by co-stars Poupaud and Martins. The film is powerful whilst portraying a mundane life with tragedies that can happen to anyone. One Fine Morning may not be quite as contemplative as Hansen-Løve’s last film, but it’s still far more emotionally gripping than a vast majority of what we see in American cinema. And for that, I applaud her and want to take a deep dive into her filmography.
One Fine Morning had its world premiere on May 20 at the Cannes Film Festival and will have an Oscars-qualifying run in late 2022 before having a wide release in early 2023.
White Noise Review | Noah Baumbach’s Latest is Exactly That
NYFF: Despite some great performances, stunning set design and a lush score, Noah Baumbach’s latest is a disappointment.
When I think of the term “white noise,” I think of some noise that just blends in with the rest of the background commotion going on at a given moment. Heck, there are machines that manufacture the sound for those that need it. For Noah Baumbach, one of the world’s best directors, his latest film attempts to tell a big story with his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name; mixing in some timely comparisons to recent pandemics and political agendas, Baumbach’s film, unfortunately, isn’t loud enough and ends up becoming, well, exactly what its title suggests: white noise.
White Noise follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) — a leading professor in an up-and-coming educational program (please catch the sarcasm), Hitler studies — and his family including his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) as they deal with a catastrophic “Airborne Toxic Event” that dominates the news and the world much like a very recent pandemic. In addition to the near extinction event, tensions rise between the Gladneys as Babette has some medication issues and her daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy). This leads down a path that can best be summed up by saying that men are vengeful creatures.
There’s something weirdly entrancing about the world that Baumbach has created. A prime example of this is the supermarket where Jack, along with everyone else in his town, does grocery shopping. It blends this weird fake aesthetic a la the grocery store on Guy’s Grocery Games but also feels like a real store. I know those statements contradicted one another, but you have to see it to believe it. The posters residing outside of the Walter Reade Theater shared this old-school aesthetic and are gorgeous posters.
This grocery store is also where Baumbach works in his metaphors subtly (in addition to his usage of ”Can’t Help Falling in Love”). This isn’t always the case, as will be discussed, but the motif of American consumerism — Jack only buys name brand products while his friend Murray (Don Cheadle) buys the store brand items such as “Pretzel Rods,” which are fitting stored in plain white bags and bold font.
In most other cases, Baumbach’s subtlety only goes as far as the conveyer belts in the supermarket. The film’s central plot revolving around the “Airborne Toxic Event” is a nifty metaphor for the pandemic that we’re still dealing with to some degree. And the film has nothing interesting to say besides calling for attention from its audience as they see images they surely remember (e.g. facemasks, hospitals and shelters being full, the spreading of misinformation).
I know it’s easy to poke fun at conservatives and talk about their spreading of misinformation, but couldn’t this have been done any more gracefully than having the kids of the Gladney family randomly constantly spewing “facts” that you can’t verify while in a movie theater? In fairness, another film I liked that had equal rhetoric, B.J. Novak‘s Vengeance, simplifies its targets to the burlesque extreme. However, in the case of Vengeance, the clowning makes sense because the film never tries to hide the fact that the overall message is that “conservatives are gun-loving morons.” Agree with the message or not, the film never runs from that. White Noise, whether due to the fact it was written many years ago or that Baumbach simply didn’t want to dig in that deep, never attempts to scratch below the surface.
This part of the plot also results in Babette becoming afraid of the outside world. The fearmongering has clearly set in after a while, but for as hard as White Noise tries to make its extinction event as much of a spectacle as the recent pandemic, it never hits that mark. The metaphor hits you over the head like a mallet and it’s really not that the film is speaking of the subject matter too soon, it’s just not done tastefully.
The only time where the pandemic metaphor is used effectively is in the touching existential crisis that the Gladneys face. The couple spends a lot of time worrying about their mortality. This could be due to the fact that Driver and Gerwig’s characters are both reaching an age where their children are going into their teen years right before their eyes and in most cases, that suggests you’re getting older. It’s natural to fear death, but what happens when a near extinction event occurs? While bleak, this is the most humane aspect of the film.
White Noise is a film that’s at its peak when it’s completely unhinged. There’s a dance number towards the end that’s the best of the film by a mile — though the Hitler-Elvis debate gives it a run for its money — and all of the performances are perfectly turned up to 11 — specifically from Driver and Gerwig. It’s moments like these that make the film watchable. The rest, however, is a different story.
Despite the film’s over-the-top and comedic nature, there’s something endearing about the performances of Driver and Gerwig. For one, Driver playing a professor and a father that’s just a little bit dorky was a pleasant change of pace. It’s amazing that Driver, whom I first saw as Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens in middle school, is now one of the most versatile actors working. You also can’t go wrong with Gerwig in her husband’s films, and she gives a very real performance. I actually thought that she was Kristen Wiig in the early parts of the film. Regardless, these two are great. Add Cheadle to the mix and you have an excellent starring trio. Cheadle isn’t given a whole lot in the film, but the scenes and dialogue he shares with Driver are top-notch stuff.
From what I understand, the film is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel. I bought a copy in advance of the film but opted to read it afterward when I heard this. And now, days later, I can say that the film does adapt the pages quite faithfully from what I’ve read. The only difference I’ve spotted is the POV change (the book tells it from Jack’s perspective.). Regardless, it perhaps could have punched up the source material a teensy bit. I heard that the third act, or at least the climax, differs from the novel. Even so, the film takes a very conventional route to its end that is then prolonged like a Peter Frampton guitar solo.
To be clear, Baumbach is a wonderful filmmaker with the likes of Frances Ha and Marriage Story to his name. Those two films are so personal and feel real whereas White Noise feels distant. It’s like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which is a fine film on its own but it lacks the authenticity of his previous work and fails to live up to that standard. And sure, White Noise is a dark comedy/satire through and through — as evident in Jack’s inability to speak German as the dean of the Hitler studies program at College on the Hill — but the way it handles its subject matter that goes deeper than that begs the question of whether or not this really is satire, or at least an effective one. I certainly see how DeLillo’s book, assuming this is a faithful page-to-screen adaptation, is easy to translate into any era, but White Noise often feels like a misguided attempt at being relevant. It’s perhaps a tad more subtle than Don’t Look Up, but one is far more entertaining than the other.
And perhaps this is due to the fact that White Noise is the first project in Baumbach’s filmography that isn’t penned by him. The authenticity of his other films could be due to the fact that he’s wielding the pen and can tell the story his way.
All of this is sad to report because White Noise was a film that I was so excited to see that I jumped out of bed and got on a bus by 6:00 a.m. to be one of the first in line at Lincoln Center (I wasn’t even the first in line). After a near-three-hour wait — which is almost as much sleep as I got that night — I was so ready to once again be blown away by Baumbach. Unfortunately, you could really debate if the satire packs any punch at all. Outside of its aesthetics and perfectly overdone performances, White Noise is very little more than exactly what its title implies.
White Noise held its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on August 31 and will be released in select theaters on November 25 and available to stream on Netflix on December 30.
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