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SIFF ’19: ‘YESTERDAY’ Part Sunny Beatles Musical, Part Terrible Rom-Com

With Yesterday, a rom-com Trojan-horsed in a concept comedy that imagines a world where Paul, John, George and Ringo never formed The Beatles, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) has allowed the musical catalog of that formative group to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting. If you’re up for a poppy movie about Beatles music that co-stars Ed Sheeran, this is the movie for you. Otherwise – yeah, probably best to not pay it much mind. Using just enough of Boyle’s trademark flair behind the camera to simulate a modicum of visual intrigue, Yesterday deeply fails its quasi-sci-fi conceit by treating the intriguing parallel universe concept as mere window dressings for a lukewarm romance between struggling artist Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) who strikes it big exploiting his knowledge of Beatles music, and his DIY manager Ellie (Lily James). The movie earns good graces when its blazing through the band’s discography and seeing the world at large react to their music for the first time but the rom-com-heavy second half drags it all off the rails with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually) succumbing to one tired, obnoxious cliché after another in increasingly painful manner. (C) Read More

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SIFF ’19: ‘THE DEATH OF DICK LONG’ A Dicked Up Black Comedy for the Sickos in the Crowd Like Me

In The Death of Dick Long, three close friends and bandmates are horsing around and, wouldn’t you know it, Dick Long dies. Causes are…mysterious.  Playing out like a demented Nickelback-version of Fargo, so begins the most incompetent criminal coverup of all time. Every effort Zeke (Michael Abbot Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland) take to conceal their part in the matter only serves to shape a police case against them. The film from Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man) is of the jet-black-comedy variety, loaded with schadenfreude and cringe humor that only gets weirdest as it circles a truly wild conclusion. What’s most shocking is that as it turns increasingly deranged, it finds an unexpected sensitive side, turning these Alabama fuck-ups into more than one-dimensional laughing stocks. Do note, this is a textbook A24-style acquired-taste-only films exclusively for those truly looking to get weird. (B+) Read More

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SIFF ’19: Zom-Com ’THE DEAD DON’T DIE’ Is Stiff Attempt at Satire

As if struck with rigor mortis, Jim Jarmusch’s take on zombies is a DOA satire of sorts, one that’s much too self-aware for its own good. Foregoing the traditional scares of an undead creeper, Jarmusch swings and misses trying to put the “dead” in deadpan comedy. Even his pairing of stars Adam Driver and Bill Murray remains something that sounds better on paper than actually works in this context, their synchronized low-energy, unfazed drift through the world of the undead unable to get much of a rise. Read More

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SIFF ’19: ‘WILD ROSE’ A Fierce And Ill-Mannered Country Music Come-Up

Featuring a star-making turn from Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose follows a recently released convict/songbird with Nashville dreams. Eyes will be superglued to Buckley who brings ragged life to a complicated deadbeat momma aspiring to be a country star in Tom Harper’s somewhat familiarly-written film that examines the shoals of starry-eyed aspirations and harsh real world realities. Fastened with warm, heartfelt soundtrack (performed with spellbinding beauty by Buckley) and with a solid foothold in semi-charmed redemption, Wild Rose is a white trash crowdpleaser that manages something new to say in a routine ‘star is born’ subgenre. (B) Read More

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SIFF ’19: ‘THE NIGHTINGALE’ Warbles A Brutal Tale of Colonial Oppression 

Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) is an evolving director. Shifting the focal point of trauma from monsters that lay in wait beneath your bed to the sociopolitical horrors of our collective pasts (colonial-era Tasmania is the setting here), Kent tells a rape-revenge western that explores the loss of power and the power of loss. The story of a woman hunting the man who raped her and killed her husband and baby is well over two hours but there wasn’t a moment that I was not glued to the screen. Kent’s second is a distinctively difficult feature, savagely blunt but not also without its nuance and beauty. Aisling Franciosi and  Baykali Ganambarr weave understated human compassion into characters separated by entrenched racism, with the Irish convict and aboriginal tracker banded together to seek retribution. Striking cinematography from Radek Ladczuk casts the often brutal imagery in gorgeous natural lights; luminous and ruminant, even through the darkness. (A-) Read More

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SIFF ’19: Deadpan ‘THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE’ Brilliantly Sharpens Riley Stearn’s Dark Wit

Fight Club by way of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), Riley Stearns’ screed on “might is right” toxic masculinity is a giggly black comedy that cowers down a twisty-turny rabbit hole. Jesse Eisenberg plays a neurotic weakling (shocker) who gets mugged and turns to karate to boast his manliness and self-confidence via the transformative power of foot punches and heavy metal. Importing the welcome strangeness of producers David and Nathan Zellner (Kumiko the Treasure Hunter), The Art of Self-Defense is hysterically dark, niche cinema, a deadpan mockery of the sanctity of life and the sacredness of death. It kicks ass. (A-) Read More

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SIFF ’19: ‘LATE NIGHT’ Millennial-splains Entertainment to Baby Boomers

Curmudgeonly talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson, essential here) has lost her edge over the years, her ratings have followed. So begins the glow up of “old crone gets new voice” that is Late Night. When amateur “diversity hire” Molly (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay) is given a seat on Newbury’s white-male-dominant writing staff, the unlikely pair develop a working relationship that promises professional rebirth and a deeper understanding of modern entertainment tastes – to middling, and often safe, effect. The enjoyable, if forgettable, comedy from director Nisha Ganatra doesn’t have a lot of tooth to bare, nor much bold to its protest, and its dramatic impact is dulled accordingly. The film functions much like late night television, lulling watchers into an amused (if hardly impassioned) trance; momentarily entertaining but rabid for whatever upcoming slice of disposal entertainment. (B-) Read More

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SIFF ’19: ’BLINDED BY THE LIGHT’ Proudly Belts Out Familiar Hit, Cheesy Heart Firmly on Sleeve

Against the cynical backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s UK, Blinded By the Light tells a true-and-true tale of a Pakistani writer finding his voice and independence through the discovery of American heartland rocker Bruce Springsteen. It’s a heartfelt fantasy wherein every problem can be solved with a well-placed Springsteen lyric but one that ultimately does little to distinguish its coming-of-age story from the countless working-class renditions that came before it. Javed’s status as an immigrant in an increasingly racist UK and strain on his relationship with his traditional father are explored to a degree but it all feels cliché, despite its unwavering earnestness and nagging personal touch. Almost giddily cheesy, this feel-good crowdpleaser benefits from its patent sincerity and thoughtful cultural angle, even if it is still much too long. (C+) Read More

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SIFF ’19: Awkwafina Gets Serious in A24’s Cross-Cultural Drama ‘THE FAREWELL’

Ignorance is power in A24’s celebrated Sundance hit The Farewell. The film follows Awkwafina’s Chinese family who, scattered across the globe, assemble when news breaks of the family matriarch’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The skinny is no one has told said matriarch, the family cooking up a ruse to keep that treasured info from her in increasingly heartbreaking and comical ways. The film from Lulu Wang is a rare family film that genuinely speaks to the deep, historied, and complicated bonds that tie while remaining thematically viable and content appropriate for practically all ages. Wang’s is a deeply felt and emotionally sincere film that benefits from its serio-comic nature, if not one that left me entirely moved. (B) Read More

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SIFF ’19: Confident ‘BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON’ Is a Big Fat Crowdpleaser 

Jillian Bell is off to the races as an overweight and under-motivated millennial living in the Big Apple who decides to turn her life around through the transformative power of running. The seriocomic account of seizing power from dark instincts is laced with the ripe reality of self-destruction and lifted by the hopefulness of finding self-love. Writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo structures the film as Brittany’s rom-com with herself and Bell, who packed on (and lost) quite a bit of weight for the role, is simply fantastic delivering a marathon of darkly-tinged comedy and uplifting pathos. (B) Read More