“Kajillionaire” Film Mini-Review

An exercise in how bored can you leave the audience before they fall asleep. Miranda July’s Kajillionaire is a thoughtful story that attempts to explore how one’s family can hold one back from healthy personal and professional development; however, the method of plot execution leaves the audience wondering why they should even care about the story. Had it not been for the compelling performances by the ensemble cast, I would’ve lost completely interest in the film. Kajillionaire desperately wants you to be engaged, but outstanding performances alone cannot keep an audience’s attention for the duration of the runtime. The film is billed as a comedy, but I never found myself laughing or even chuckling. Tonally, the film is all over the place. Had the film committed to striking a consistent tone, then perhaps the comedic elements would have stood out more instead of feeling random and forced. Clearly July set out to craft a motion picture that commented on brainwashing, neglect, and child rearing with a lack of empathy, sexual discovery, and those elements are depicted; but the film delivers a narrative that was so preoccupied with the message, that it forgot that it also needed to be even mildly entertaining. Quite frankly, the film has the personality and dimension of cardboard. Which is unfortunate, considering that the subject matter aims to be thought provoking. This film strikes me as one of those that is tailor-made made for #FilmTwitter to posit as the next great indie darling, when the story and characters are largely forgettable. What I will remember most about the film is the excellent performances delivered by the cast.

PS. I hope to be back to full reviews soon, but assisting the Florida Department of Health with COVID-19 data collection and analysis and writing for Four’s a Crowd Podcast, and of course my academic work at the University of Tampa, leaves me with limited time presently.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Ryan is also the creator of the Four’s a Crowd sitcom podcast now streaming on your favorite podcatcher. Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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“Romeo Kills Juliette” international short film review

German writer-director Leon Zitz is back with his newest short film, which reinterprets the classic story of Romeo and Juliette through a post-modern lens that places Romeo and Juliette in a hopeless, dismal society from which Romeo and Juliette are desperately desiring to escape. Zitz has demonstrated his penchant for auteur filmmaking through his previous shorts Bus Stop, The Applicant, and Time’s Up. His cinematic approach often delivers a stylistically “indie” aesthetic similar to many A24 films. Unfortunately, like with many auteur indie filmmakers, the character development and plot often suffer. While the plot is weak and asks far too much of the audience, the strength of this short is in the cinematography and production design. There are many wonderful shots and sequences in this film; furthermore, Zitz showcases an innate talent for capturing the emotion of a scene. From the lighting to the camera angles, Zitz beautifully demonstrates how to create that cinematic look and feel. Each and every frame is intentionally crafted to deliver a particular mood. Story-wise, this rendition, of the most famous and tragic love story of all time, follows two star-crossed lovers in their will to escape their gritty, grim. depressing hometown. When Juliette unintentionally reveals a secret about Romeo, she seals her fate. Perhaps Romeo Kills Juliette falls short in writing, but it benefits from strong technical elements and overall aesthetic appeal. The potential of this reimagination of Romeo and Juliette is held back by lack of exposition and coherent plotting. Even when I encounter an aspiring filmmaker that shows weakness in an area or two (in this case, screenwriting), I do my best to focus on and highlight what they do well. And Zitz consistently demonstrates a love for the art of motion pictures in terms of the visual appeal. There is a refreshing, unfiltered organic nature to each and every frame in his work. So, show this aspiring filmmaker some love by watching his short today.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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“Union Bridge” (2019) Indie Film Review

A neo-noir southern gothic directorial debut that delivers overwhelmingly on its foreboding sense of surreal dread, but underwhelmingly on its narrative substance in this slow-burn film. First-time writer-director Brian Levin showcases his command of atmosphere and world-building, but his screenplay lacks focus and direction. Levin certainly demonstrates his keen eye for crafting a haunting ambiance in the vein of David Lynch, but the overall experience suffers diegetically. While the premise is intriguing, the plot is all over the place. Following the central character who has returned to his hometown from the big city, the audience is taken on a surreal psychological journey into the darker side of this otherwise wholesome-looking town. Unfortunately, this journey lacks a destination and ultimately leaves the audience wondering why they should care about anything that happens in the film. Levin’s debut feature strikes the right tone for a neo-noir that teeters towards thriller-adjacency; but despite thriller being in the billing, it never quite reaches that goal. Perhaps screenwriting is not Levin’s strong suit; that said, there is much to be admired in his endeavor. All the mise en scene elements work together seamlessly to create an atmosphere that stimulates the senses and draws you in from the moment that the film opens. Union Bridge has everything else going for it in terms of casting, cinematography, score, editing, and production quality. Which tells me that Levin has what it takes to craft a visually compelling story for the screen, but needs to leave the writing to someone else. Should he pair up with a screenwriter that has a penchant for neo-noir or horror next time, then it is entirely possible that we may be having a different discussion.

Will Shipe (Scott Friend), the scion of a powerful family living near the Mason Dixon line, moves back home after years in the big city. His old friend Nick (Alex Breaux), who still lives in town, is feverishly digging in the land because of a vision he can’t escape. What is buried in this small town and the events around it have repercussions that effect many people. Most of all, Will Shipe, and the past and future of his legacy. Assisted by his high school sweetheart Mary (Emma Duncan), Will must uncover the long-kept family secrets buried beneath the fields of his hometown.

If you go into this expecting a southern gothic thriller, you will be disappointed. Not because it doesn’t feel like a gothic horror, but because it never delivers on the thrill. There really isn’t any suspense either, by Hitchcock definition, because the audience is never supplied with information. Incidentally, the audience will be desperately seeking information to make some sense of what is happening on screen. Levin introduces and sets up some potentially juicy plot devises and backstory, but never revisits any of them in a manner that pays off at any level. We never figure out what the family’s dark secret is, why Will has to return to his hometown (tho, it’s vaguely hinted at), or why Will’s mom’s despises her late husband. Will’s childhood sweetheart is said to be practicing a form of witchcraft, but Levin goes nowhere with that either. The family’s and town’s past and present are only connected because we are, in not so many words, told they are. So many ideas for a southern gothic thriller, but they come off as more of a stream of consciousness or outline than a coherent narrative. Even the romance between Mary and Will goes nowhere of particular interest. And when Will’s childhood friend Nick (spoiler alert) dies, you simply won’t care. This film deeply desires for you to give yourself over to it, but you won’t form an emotional connection with any aspect to the story. Perhaps this “story” can be characterized as the plot to nowhere–speaking of which–I’m still wondering where the “bridge” in the title even comes from; there is simply no bridge, past or present, in this landlocked town.

Okay, now that I got all the negative out of the way, I want to spend time on highlighting what I enjoyed in this picture. I’m often hesitant to be too professor-y or critical with a directorial debut, because I commend anyone, who for the first time, sets out to make a picture and get it distributed. So, I offer congratulations on a job well-done to Mr. Levin on completing something he set out to do. Thousands of people set out to shoot films that are often left incomplete for one reason or another. Where this film fails to deliver is the story–and no mistaking it–that is HUGE; however, Levin can use this as a learning opportunity that teaches him that he has director chops, not necessarily screenwriting chops. Should he choose to work with a different screenwriter, other than himself the next time, then he has what it takes to guide the production from page to screen.

I am a fan of David Lynch, and Muholland Drive and the TV show Twin Peaks are among my favorites of his. Even without knowing from press materials that Levin is also a fan of Lynch, I knew it within with first five minutes of the film. The cinematography, editing, and score are all reminiscent of Lynch, specifically Twin Peaks. Levin successfully blends the macabre and mundane nature of this town in a manner that reveals that the former is contained within the latter. Furthermore, Levin crafts an atmosphere that is familiar yet foreign to Will, and by extension, the audience. Although this story feels like it should have taken place in Georgia or South Carolina, the settings in Maryland were ideally suited for Union Bridge. The factories represent the past whereas Will represents the future (or let’s be real, the present), much in the same way that his mother lives in the past, and resists living in the present. When the past and present come face to face, the blurred area between the two is where this nightmare resides. Levin’s talent for direction is also witnessed in the actors’ performances. All the performances are generally fantastic, especially Breaux’s character of Nick. Each character is right out of a Lynchian film, and works perfectly in Levin’s surreal Maryland town. There are some beautiful nuances to the technical elements that work together to create this idyllic setting surrounded by an emanation of dread. Atmospherically, Levin knows precisely what to do, and I hope to see more of his craft paired with a better story in the future.

Union Bridge is available on a streaming service near you.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Jojo Rabbit” film review

A complex film about a complex subject, but finds a delicate balance between humor and respect for the subject matter. A satire or parody about Hitler and the Nazis isn’t anything new, from Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to Bialystock and Blooms Springtime for Hitler and even Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, one of the darkest times in the world’s history has been the source material for motion pictures. While Taika Waititi may not be breaking ground in using the Third Reich in this manner, he is offering a new perspective through the mind of a child of Nazi Germany. And that is where we spend the majority of the film–in the brainwashed mind of a child. His imaginary friend Hitler is a manifestation of the ideals Jojo (our central character) holds dear, misguided as they may be. Just as we interpret reality through our worldview that is shaped by our circles of influence, beliefs, past trauma, and the families in which we were reared, Jojo interprets the world around him in a similar fashion. Only his world was largely shaped by the effective Nazi propaganda that turned Germans against one another, and as you know, the rest is history. On one hand, he is still an innocent child whom cannot even remember to tie his shoes; on the other hand, he has been radicalized to completely buy into the ridiculous portrait of the Jews that the Nazis paint for the youth. On the surface, this film comments on how Jojo’s worldview of the Jews transforms; however, there are nods to other groups that were also seen as undesirables such as gays. The fact that is wasn’t only the Jews whom found themselves targets for annihilation is often forgotten by the masses. If Cabaret depicted the age of innocence that ended with the rise of the Third Reich, then JoJo Rabbit depicts innocence and disillusionment in the final days of the war. Though there are times that Waititi comes close to crossing the fine line that he is dancing, he never crosses it, which allows the film to be enjoyable and comment on coming of age in a rather provocative way.

Jojo is a lonely German boy who discovers that his single mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his imaginary friend — Adolf Hitler — Jojo must confront his blind nationalism as World War II continues to rage on.

Unlike Bialystock and Bloom’s Springtime for Hitler in the brilliant musical The Producers, this satire on Hitler and the Nazis doesn’t quite hit it out of the park as well as Mel Brooks’ hilarious film. However, neither is it a disaster. That is likely to do with just how close to the atrocities of WWII that Jojo Rabbit takes us. If you’re worried about the film being in good taste, you needn’t. It may come close to being in poor taste at times and even questionable in others, but it remains in a position that can find ironic humor while not glossing over the evil actions of the Third Reich. It is imperative that audiences realize and accept that the movie is the manifestation of the propaganda-filled mind of a 10 year old German boy. We ostensibly experience the world through his eyes. Jojo lives in a complex world that is beginning to implode around him. All the while, when we first meet him, he remains committed to that for which the Third Reich stands. Taika Waititi takes a similar path to commenting on the central conflict to that which was followed by Chaplin, one that seeks to deconstruct fascist thinking.

Instead of simply the audience witnessing the events on screen that lead to destroying the foundation of fascist thinking, our central character of Jojo slowly learns just how vile the Nazis are, and that their way of thinking is a threat to humankind. How? For the full effect, you have to watch this film. But for the sake of argument, and not to over simplify, Jojo forms a friendship with a young Jewish girl hiding in the walls of his house. In a way, Jojo is in a similar position as audiences were in when Chaplin’s famous film was released–in a world in which Hitler and the Nazis were ever present. Here is where we have the creative layers that give Waititi’s film so much depth. Just as the world watched as Germans (and other Third Reich sympathizers) began to realize that the Nazis were masters of propaganda that brainwashed their own people, we watch as Jojo goes through a similar journey and transformation. As 21st century citizens of the “western world,” we often wonder just how otherwise intelligent, rational people could believe the ridiculous lies that were fed to them by the Nazis. This film paints an image of just how that worked. For all intents and purposes, if you convince the youth of your world to believe and buy into your radical platform, then the youth grows up to be the adults of your world. Thus, a following and movement is born.

When tragedy hits home, in a mindblowing way, Jojo comes face to feet with the reprehensible, seemingly unstoppable evil of the Nazis. This moment is when he realizes what he has been supporting and advocating. And even in his brainwashed state, even after he said the vile things he said, we still feel great empathy for him. And it’s this moment where he is tested to see if he is capable of growing as a person and thinking as an individual. Jojo’s eyes are opened, for probably the first time ever. He also begins to see how others, that he respects in Hitler’s army, have seen the evils of their ways and are doing what they can to make a difference. It’s also at this point that audiences realize that the captain, Jojo so admires, is gay and his (lieutenant, I suppose) is his lover. The subtext isn’t clear, but Taika tips his hat to this likely being the case. Whereas Jojo may not pick up on the captain’s secret, he is forced to accept that the captain could a sympathizer because he does something that Jojo realizes is not in line with policy and procedure. All throughout the movie, Jojo is challenged. Challenged by Hitler, challenged by the captain, challenged by his mother, and challenged by the Jewish girl hiding in his walls. It is by way of these consistent challenges that he grows as an individual and sees the flawed thinking of the Third Reich.

Jojo Rabbit is a provocative motion picture that provides audiences with a glimpse into the mind of a brainwashed 10 year old Nazi boy whose worldview radically changes through challenges to his identity. It may not be as edgy or as outstanding as we had hoped that it would be, but it is still a solid film that delivers a different perspective on a sensitive subject.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Parasite” art house film review

An international film with domestic relevance. Writer-director Bong Joon-Ho delivers a thought-provoking satire on the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Winning the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Joon-Ho’s film is perhaps a new interpretation of the Wes Craven cult film The People Under the Stairs with a brilliant message of the lengths one goes to climb out of poverty in a world of massive income and opportunity disparity. For those whom may be worried that you’ll be distracted by the subtitles, you needn’t worry. To be perfectly candid, the visual storytelling and acting is so incredibly good that you won’t need the subtitles to follow the story. You’ve no doubt heard from the various critic circles that this film is a masterpiece, that it’s one of the best films of the year. That hype train is barreling past station after station, will it ever come to a stop? The short answer is not any time soon. But is the hype justified by the cinematic experience? In the opinion of this critic, no. I had incredibly high expectations for this film based upon everything I was hearing and reading, but it just didn’t do it for me. After the brilliant first half of excellently crafted suspense, foreshadowing, and plot setup, the second half loses the intrigue and just takes one convoluted turn after another for the sake of complicating the plot in an effort to make it say more than it actually does. Much of the griping tension is lost by the time the anticlimactic showdown comes to pass. What hampers the execution of the second half is taking too many predictable turns. It’s like a research paper that has a brilliant thesis, background, literature review, and method section, but the results are lacking in advancement. But, what the film lacks in plot execution, it makes up for in lavish visuals and exquisite production design. That house is a character in and of itself! While it may not be the best film of the year, it is one to watch in order to support original, independent stories that are slowly dying because of the increased difficulty to seek funding and theatrical distribution in a world dominated by superheroes, space fantasy, and remakes of animated classics.

Jobless, penniless, and, above all, hopeless, the unmotivated patriarch, Ki-taek, and his equally unambitious family–his supportive wife, Chung-sook; his cynical twenty-something daughter, Ki-jung, and his college-age son, Ki-woo–occupy themselves by working for peanuts in their squalid basement-level apartment. Then, by sheer luck, a lucrative business proposition will pave the way for an insidiously subtle scheme, as Ki-woo summons up the courage to pose as an English tutor for the teenage daughter of the affluent Park family. Now, the stage seems set for an unceasing winner-take-all class war. How does one get rid of a parasite? (IMDb)

Where this film shines brightest is the production design, specifically the house and neighborhood designed and built specifically for the film. Honestly, this is on Kubrick levels of cinematic immersion. From a principle photography point of view, this allows for the structures to (1) be designed to accommodate the action, blocking, and general movements of characters (2) externalize emotion or bring to light a reality that lies beyond our naked eye and (3) allow for efficient camera movement, artistic placement, and simply brings the setting in the screenplay to life to the very last detail. As I watched the film, I wondered where they found the perfect basement apartment and upscale house because the locations fit the characters and narrative perfectly. Then when I learned that both locations (not to mention the Ki’s neighborhood) were custom built, then it make sense how it could have been so perfect. That is commitment to narrative integrity right there! From the architecture to the interior design and furnishings, the art direction of this motion picture is astounding! It certainly stands out against the backdrop of most of the films to have hit theatres this year in terms of its visual appeal, scope, and scale of the story.

You’ll be hard pressed to find another film this year that has the brilliant setup that this one has. From the moment the film opens, you are hooked. All throughout the first act, the conflict that we are going to encounter in the second act is setup and foreshadowed with extreme precision. It doesn’t take long to develop these characters as members of South Korean society that are having a tough time climbing out of poverty; furthermore, the first act paints a portrait of a world that appears to be stacked against them. All that changes when a cousin gets one of them hired as a tutor to a wealthy family. For how the rest of the setup unfolds, you’ll just have to watch the film. I appreciate how this film takes the home invasion plot premise to a new level by subverting what we expect from home invasion or heist films. In addition to developing our ensemble cast of central characters, the first act also successfully provides excellent exposition so that the audience never feels lost in this non-english speaking film. Sometimes American audiences can get lost in international films because of the language and cultural barrier. Fortunately, the language is never an issue in this film and there is virtually  character for everyone in the audience to connect or empathize with. From the opening until about midway through the film, the plot is engaging, suspenseful, and the tension ratchets up greatly.

Unfortunately, most of the tension and suspense begins to decline as we near the anticlimactic showdown of the film. This is where the film lost me. Not lost me in that I couldn’t follow it–quite the contrary–I found the latter half of the film predictable and derivative. Gone is the ingenuity that I loved during the first half. There was such genius in the setup that I expected more out of the conflict and resolution. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still enjoyable and even intriguing at times in the second half, but not nearly to the levels it was during the first act. It’s almost as if Joon-Ho did not imagine the ending before writing the second act. There is stark contrast between the precise focus and direction of the first half and the lack of direction in the second half. There are some moments that I want to highlight from the second act though, that I truly liked. There is a scene in which the Park family boy notices that all the newly hired help smell the same. Of course, his parents dismiss that as childish foolishness, but thanks to dramatic irony, we know that he is close to ruining the entire charade.

More than than the film itself, I am mystified by the intense hype train that continues to zoom through social media, picking up new people at every turn. It’s a good film, but I cannot reconcile the motion picture I saw with the proliferated accolades on social media the the web. You’ll hear that this is “the best film of the year,” but just a couple weeks ago, The Lighthouse was the best film of the year, and before that many claimed that Midsommar was the best film of the year. Seems like we get a best film of the year every few weeks. The danger of dissenting opinions on films like Parasite and The Lighthouse is the critic and cinephile establishments seeking to revoke your membership card because your taste is simply not refined enough to appreciate the artistic masterpiece right in front of you. Of course, it is entirely possible that the film is just not AS outstanding as so many want to claim that it is, but jump on that hype train out of fear of missing out or being seen as an outsider. So to that point, I feel that Parasite is a solid film, even excellent in the first act, but the second and third acts hold the film back from its full potential to truly be a masterpiece of cinematic art.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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