Saturday, September 19, 2020

Review: Cuties (2020)


Review written by Kelsey Zukowski

Starring: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou

Written & Directed by: Maïmouna Doucouré

Rating: 9/10 

Cuties is a multi-faceted coming of age film that tackles the difficult transition from childhood to womanhood with great realism. Through our protagonist we see what that journey of finding one’s femininity looks like amongst conflicting messages from familial upbringing, religion, social media, pop culture, and peers.  

It’s worth noting that the initial shock value promotional material Netflix used wasn’t a proper representation of the film. It got people’s attention for better or worse, which was likely the goal, but this is not the preteen Magic Mike. There is only around 5 minutes of sexy dancing in the entire running time and it is a fairly small focus of the film. The dance competition the characters are in mostly contains adult dancers and is open to all styles of dancing. It’s the protagonist’s fear of being viewed as childish and her desire to impress her new group of friends that influences them to sex up their routine and look. Anytime she is shown using her body in a more adult or flirtatious manner it is very clearly not condoned and even criticized by other characters, especially those who are older.

The film follows 11 year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who is the oldest child in a traditional Muslim family, living in a poor suburb of Paris. A lot of responsibility falls on her to help care for her younger siblings. Amy’s father has recently become engaged to his second wife. This is incredibly difficult for Amy’s mother, but something she is expected to accept and even be supportive of. As Amy sees the pain this causes her mother her resentment towards her father grows. She is already being groomed to become a good, modest, and content wife for a future husband, which is not something she is looking forward to.

Amy takes notice of a group of girls who are in an amateur dance crew and wear more revealing clothes than she is permitted to, which holds an alluring freedom to her. She doesn’t have any friends and begins to yearn to be a part of what this group of girls have. Most of the group is incredibly hostile towards her, but through the dance crew’s leader, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), she slowly finds friendship and a chance to dance with them; allowing her to feel more seen. She quickly becomes so desperate for their approval, which sends her on a descent in to rebellion, losing herself along the way.

The acting across the board was phenomenal and really added to the film feeling like a personal and powerful experience. The child actors did a great job of feeling very genuine. The combination of their presence and the directing added wonderful naturalism. The stand outs were our lead, Fathia Youssouf, and Maïmouna Gueye, who played her mother. Both showed incredibly strong emotion and layers, which was often subtle, but always evident. This film offered Youssouf a break out role and she showed that she was up to the challenge, beautifully showcasing her talents and adding a needed vulnerability to let the audience understand and empathize with what the character was going through.

The bond and relationship between Amy and her mother, Mariam, was among the strongest material as well.  The love between both of them, even at the height of Amy’s downward spiral and her mother’s shame and outrage, is clear. They are both struggling and under a lot of strain in their own ways, but there’s deep connection and understanding between them in the end. Mariam’s story shows both her sense of feeling lost and her strength. It acknowledges that even adults don’t necessarily have it all figured out, that this quest of finding who you are as woman, wife, mother, and individual is a lifelong one. The human experience and finding ones’ identity and role is an imperfect art. 

Filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré, based the film on her own experiences growing up and her difficulties in discovering what womanhood and feeling stuck between several cultures and stages of adolescence was like.  She interviewed hundreds of young girls for the film, wanting to accurately depict what that challenge of approaching teenagehood looked like today with the influences of social media and heavily sexualized images in media at large.

Cuties is tamer in content than many might expect. There is no nudity, implied nudity, or sexual acts depicted. Many other similar films like Kids, Thirteen, and Mysterious Skin, go further and contain more disturbing material by depicting underage sex, which is not at all present here. The moments of the young characters amplifying their sex appeal are troubling and uncomfortable, but they are meant to be.  The scene that contains the worst of this is portrayed in a completely negative context and serves as the breaking point for Amy, making her realize this is not true to whom she is or who she wants to be.

There are plenty of scenes where the girls on the dance team are being silly, having fun, and essentially savoring being kids in a climate pushing them to grow up. There is going to be an instinct to resist some female roles before them and flock to others. It’s only natural for them to mimic what they see, especially at this age where their bodies are changing and fitting in and feeling validated is huge to a their confidence and happiness. Both sides of these two stages in their growth are present and are an important part of the narrative.

Most powerful art tackles difficult subjects; subjects that we wish weren’t present in our world at all. Even more reason why exploring these things, understanding their temptation and influence, is vital and has value. Looking back to experiences of my own and those of my peers at this age, what is depicted here is not a stretch at all. I also say that as someone who grew up without social media and some of the images, pressures, and messages that it sends to girls today. You can only imagine how hypersexualization in our society and young people feeling this pressure is only becoming more prevalent and damaging. Every artist has the right to tell their story and truth. Doucouré did that with bravery and honesty, creating a film many can relate to, males included, as young boys have their own pressures and stereotypes they face. It addresses concerns that should be exposed and talked about. Some may not be comfortable venturing there with her, but for those who go in with an open mind, it can be a captivating and enlightening experience worth your time.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Mentally Apart (2020)

Review: Mentally Apart is definitely not your every day run of the mill horror movie. It is deep, thought provoking horror full of symbolism and clues, many of which you are likely to miss on a first time viewing. But it is certainly worth multiple revisits. So what is it about? Well, the movie is about the relationship of beautiful couple, Luna (Christine James Walker) and Chuck (Larry Bernardo). As weeks pass into months in their apartment, bizarre things begin to manifest. And dark emotions begin to surface. What happens when the dream becomes a nightmare? And the perfect relationship sours..

I don’t want to divulge too much about the movie because it really boils down to something you must experience for yourself to get the full effect. But I will say that it likely won’t be for everyone. Some will no doubt love it, but by the same token there is going to be others who will likely hate it, or simply find it too bizarrely out there to really formulate an opinion. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because what that proves is that, Mentally Apart is a thought provoking film with a dash of psychological horror, that, while it might not be horror in a conventional manner, it definitely hits you where it counts. In short, it is a work of artistic brilliance!

In his feature debut, writer/director Joe Pomarico brought the goods with Mentally Apart. He captured the atmosphere and spiritual tone of something straight out of a Lars Von Trier film. It will be very interesting to see what his next feature will be. As for the acting. Christine James Walker was fantastic in the role as Luna. She has a very likable and charismatic personality which perfectly compliments her acting skill. There’s also a classic pinup look about her that fit the atmospheric dream like setting like a fine glove. And her on screen chemistry with Larry Bernardo really makes everything about the film work. I wasn’t too impressed with Larry Bernardo as Chuck at the start of the film. But, by the second act I was easily won over by his solid performance. As a duo, these two work incredibly well, and I hope to see them team up again.

Final Verdict: Mentally Apart is not for every horror fan. But regardless of whether or not you liked the film, you cannot deny the lasting impression it will leave on you. Does it have repeat value? In my Honest opinion, it certainly does.. because upon my second viewing I noticed a bunch little details that really added to the overall quality of the film that I hadn’t noticed in my previous viewing. And when a film manages to give you something new with each repeat viewing, that shows true cinematic quality. I highly recommend!

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Review: Taxicab Ride with Jesus (2020)

Review: Imagine if you had a chance to talk to Jesus Christ for 20 minutes. What would you even say in a situation like that? More importantly, would you even believe him? In my honest opinion there is no correct answer to this question because even the most faithful would likely question the legitimacy of a total stranger claiming to be the son of god.

But I digress, from director Dan Brennan, the creative mind behind The Video Guys (2008) and Maggie Marvel (2010) comes Silly Sisters’ latest production Taxicab Ride with Jesus (2020) a short film about Billy (Dan Brennan) a down on his luck cab driver who’s going through a rough time having to balance a growing mountain of bills and medical debt, his wife Clare (Marybeth Paul) stressed and worried, and their daughter Wendy (Juliana Sousa) hospitalized in a coma, and who’s health is rapidly declining. Billy’s latest fare, however, happens to be Jesus Christ (Russ Camarda). Yup, THAT Jesus.

TRWJ is a heartfelt short that teaches one to find the inner courage and faith to take responsibility in life, even in the bleakest of times. Seeing Dan Brennan and Russ Camadra together on screen is always a treat to behold. While both actors are without question fantastic performers on their own, it’s whenever this dual share the screen together that, in my opinion, is when the real magic happens. Dan’s performance as Billy comes off as sympathetic and relating. He delivers an accurate representation of the every day man fighting through the day to day struggles of life. Russ’s take on Jesus is both fresh and to be frank, quite enjoyable. This isn’t the overly praise the lord churchy Jesus. This is a variation who quietly observed humanity in all their flawed ways for the past 2000 years, and quite frankly, have grown somewhat annoyed to see how little we have learned from past mistakes. This iteration of Christ might be viewed as a little controversial to some, sure, but I personally found it to be a welcoming breath of fresh air. Ed Cryer as God was perfection, absolutely perfection! With a cast like this I wouldn’t expect anyone else in the role of the all mighty! I also enjoyed Marybeth Paul performance as Clare, and Juliana Sousa as Wendy. Both did exceptionally well in their respective roles.

Final Verdict: I really enjoyed TRWJ. It’s well shot and well paced with suburb editing done by Russ Camadra himself. I really loved the Taxicab Confessions vibe the film gives off during Billy and Jesus’s conversation. It’s blunt and comes across in a no-bullshit attitude, but also doesn’t come off as too preachy. I also really appreciated the piano score, which in my opinion, added that extra special touch. My only complaint is that, I really wished it were just a tad bit longer than 20 minutes. All in all, TRWJ is a worth watching short, especially now more than ever with content being somewhat limited in availability.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Review: The Invisible Man (2020)

Review: At the start of the early 2010’s Universal Pictures was on track to launch their very own shared cinematic universe aka the DARK UNIVERSE. Which initially would have began with Dracula Untold (2014), followed with The Mummy (2017) and then work it’s way through their catalog of classic monsters movies leading up to the “AVENGERS” event (Monster Mash). However things didn’t quite pan out the way the some had hoped for, and the critical and commercial failure of 2017’s The Mummy was the final nail in the coffin for any future plans for a shared universe in it’s current inception. While the concept of a shared universe can be thrilling and highly enjoyable. 2020’s The Invisible Man proves that not every iconic franchise needs it. In this review I will be breaking down the mentionable things I loved, the things I liked, and the things I, for the lack of a better word, did not.

First off, the opening sequence really sets the tone for Invisible Man with it’s eerie silence. The anticipating build up as Cecilia Kass (Moss) attempts to pack her things up and get the fuck outta dodge while her abusive boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Cohen). The entire fricken opening sequence is unnerving to the core, and really sets the tone for what’s in store. This is largely attributed to The Handmaids Tale star Elizabeth Moss. Who really shows off her range of acting here. There are actors who can act their hearts out when given a good script. And then, there are great actors who can make any roll great through their performance alone. Elizabeth Moss is the latter. Her range of express is near limitless, and no doubt one of the most captivating aspect of any role she takes on. In this regard, in the absence of a physical co-star on screen, Moss’ performance picks up the slack and really amps up every scene. This is further complimented with the film’s beautiful cinematography, which takes these very brilliant wide angled shots that gives each and every scene a real sense purpose, and added atmospheric anxiety. I literally found myself scanning each scene up and down wondering, “where is Adrian? Is he here somewhere?”. The answer is, you don’t know. And that’s what makes it so terrifying. It’s not the scenes where he makes his presence known. It’s when he doesn’t.

This not knowing plays in well with the plot and the developing relationships between Kass, her sister Emily (Dyer), her friend James (Hodge), and his daughter Sydney (Reid). Because Kass suffers from PTSD due to her abusive relationship with Adrian, her motives and reactions are continuously questioned and doubted by all those around her. They think she’s going through a downward spiral into a mental break. And it’s frustrating for you, the viewer, because you know she’s not crazy, but they don’t. And it’s both maddening and brilliant at the same time. I loved the relationship between James, Sydney and Kass. It gave the movie a sense of grounding and a bit of relief from the intense build up. One of my overall favorite aspects of The Invisible Man is message of female empowerment embedded deep within it’s core. It shines light on psychological trauma victims tend to experience during abusive relationships. People typically assume that abuse only comes in the form of the physical, and while this is true to an extent, it also isn’t because its making light of the deep emotional and mental scars abuse leaves on a person. Kass isn’t just beaten. She was belittled and forced to be someone she wasn’t. Adrian got inside her head, it wasn’t bad enough he beat her, he needed to make her think how he wanted her to think, live and sleep how he wanted. Force her to be obedient in every sense of the word. But, when push comes to shove, there is only so much a person can take before they fight back. The movie doesn’t treat feminism like a trope. It’s worked in there quite organically and it works incredibly well thanks to writer/director Leigh Whannell. This is further cemented with the film’s ending, which in my honest opening, is one of the most satisfying movie ending I’ve had the pleasure of viewing in years. It’s the perfect payoff to a slow burn buildup. And it’s such an ingenious note to end the film on.

Final Verdict: So is there anything I hated? Well, I thought about it long and hard, and I honestly can say there isn’t a thing about this movie that I actually hated. There’s some nit picky things I wasn’t wholly satisfied with. But not something I outright hated. I wish we got a deeper look into who Adrain Griffin was, and what his motivations were that made him dangerously obsessive, controlling, and abusive. I certainly wish we had more onscreen time with actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen because he is a really good actor and did a magnificent job in the role. But I also understand that more onscreen time with him would absolutely defeat the purpose of the film’s title. Beyond the minor nit picking, The Invisible Man was near perfect, and had earned the rare top tier rating from me.

Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Review: Guns Akimbo (2020)

Review: It’s almost like a rite of passage for any child actor to take on a role that is out of the boundaries of what they’re expected. And yeah, for actor Daniel Radcliffe there have been a fair amount of films to cross those boundaries since his Harry Potter days. Films like The Woman in Black (2012), Horns (2013), Swiss Army Man (2016) just to name a few, are all evident of that chapter of sweet innocence coming to a closed in his career. That being said however, none of those films really struck a cored with me. They aren’t trash by any means. But I don’t consider them really “shock” value. That is until I watched Guns Akimbo. Now before I dive into the real meat of this review let me address the elephant in the room. [waves at Bill the wallflower elephant] No but seriously, this film is surrounded by a plethora of controversy. Mostly centered around the film’s director, Jason Lei Howden just prior to the movie’s theatrical release. I won’t go into the details regarding the disturbing controversy because this review isn’t about that, or him for that matter. If you want to know more about that then I suggest you look it up for yourself, which believe me isn’t hard at all to find. and it is quite the doozy of a read. But I digress..

Guns Akimbo is a nut cracking, ultra violent rollercoaster ride that, once the wheels start rolling you’re on a one way psychedelic trip to crazy town, and you forgot to put on some pants, baby! The plot revolves around Miles (Radcliffe) a soft spoken video game developer who divides his free time between secretly obsessing over his ex-girlfriend like a creeper through social media, and being a typical keyboard warrior picking fights with online trolls. That is until he picks a fight with the wrong motherfucker and finds himself in a heap of shit when a notorious organization known as Skizm shows up to bolt two pistols to his hands. Skizm is an entertainment terror group who force’s individuals of different backgrounds (ranging drug dealers, psychos, criminally insane, and your Garden variety bully) to fight each other to the death while millions of viewers watch via the internet and cheer on their favorites. Soon Miles finds himself being hunted by Skizm’s MVP, Nix (Weaving) a murder happy, coke snorting psycho who will stop at nothing to get her target. If there’s one person you don’t want to fuck with, it’s definitely Nix. Guns Akimbo in many ways remind me of Birds of Prey, in that it is a balls to the wall wild, but also super stylish film. Especially with it’s color pallet. It’s almost as if Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, and Shoot ‘Em Up had a coke fueled one night stand, and nine months later Guns Akimbo was the unintended result of not using protection. Yes, it’s that wild in my opinion!

The action sequences are very well choreographed, one scene in particular feels like it could have been ripped right from a John Wick movie. The violence is unforgiving and unrelenting, and is without a doubt pleasing is so many ways because it’s so fucking ridiculous that I could not help but love it! The intense violence is then complimented with a dark sense of humor. This is where Radcliffe truly shines in the film. His ability to hit the mark with comedic timing is so on point and awkwardly funny, that it’s hard not to laugh at the predicament and relate at the same time. But while Radcliffe might be the film’s headliner, the true star of Guns Akimbo that pretty much steals the whole fucking picture is without a doubt Samara Weaving. Her performance as Nix is so off the wall nuts, that at times she reminds me of a little of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn (minus the colorful outfits and overly done Brooklyn accent, of course). Hands down she is the absolute best part of Guns Akimbo. Not a single scene involving her comes off as dull, or boring in the slightest. Hell, I’d go as far as to say that I’d be willing to pay good money to see a Nix movie starring Samara Weaving! Ned Dennehy does exceptionally well as the film’s main antagonist, Riktor. A villain with an egotistical personality and power complex that is larger than life itself. But to be frank, the character isn’t really fleshed out all too much with backstory or substance to go on. Which unfortunately is a recurring theme for most of the characters in the film. There are so many potential plot points and opportunities for substance that go ignored. Or in some cases, begin, starts to go somewhere interesting, and then flatlines. Never to be brought up again, or have any sort of meaningful conclusion. It’s kinda like the equivalent to taking a massive peanut butter shit and then realizing after the fact that there isn’t any toilet paper in the fucking bathroom. So now you need to wobble your ridiculous ass off the crapper to get a fresh roll hoping above all hope, that no one catches you in such a compromising situation. Yeah, it’s that unsatisfying. Another issue I had was the unrealistic responses from normal every day people while all these fire fights are occurring around town throughout the story’s progression. In one scene two characters unload over a hundred rounds in an apartment with an open window. Yet people are going about their business walking on the sidewalk just outside. One of the characters then encounter a couple of police officers just around the corner. And you’re telling me they didn’t hear all the gunshots fired!? This is only but a single example of multiple occurrences throughout the film in which the loud as fuck gunplay goes completely ignored by passerby’s. Maybe it’s nitpicking. But its a pretty bad oversight that should have been noticed and corrected by the filmmaker.

Now that’s not to say the unfinished plot points, or unrealistic responses fire fights are a deal breaker. Despite the the films multiple issues, or the drug fueled insanity of gunplay that never really stops once the peddle is punched down. There is a much more to Guns Akimbo than meats the eye. Beneath the surface, the movie is a commentary on society at large, and the direction we are in many ways heading. From cyber bullying, toxic mob mentality, to people simply lacking empathy for their fellow man, especially on social media. That’s the ultimate message director Jason Lei Howden was trying to get across with Guns Akimbo. While I do think that message could have been put forward a little better, and the film in general done better. The movie is far from being shit. It can be a bit try hard at times, yes this is true. But it’s nowhere near the level of human waist that Hollywood has shot out from it’s poop shoot over the years.

Final Verdict: All in all. Guns Akimbo is a fun rollercoaster ride of violence and mayhem from start to finish with a corky sense of humor. Is it perfect? Far from it. The pros slightly outweigh the cons. But while it does have it’s problematic issues, the movie is still a pretty cool way to kill a couple of hours. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s got a pretty killer 80’s soundtrack to further compliment it’s over the top action sequences!

Rating: 7/10