In-House Reviews: To The Stars, Les Miserables, Swallow, Tokyo Drifter & More!

The following features reviews for To the Stars, Les Miserables, Swallow, Sergio, Selah and the Spades, The Ghost Who Walks, and Tokyo Drifter.

April is moving along, and there’s plenty to stream, as well as new reviews. As we left off: movies are largely postponed from original theatrical release dates, and going to the movies is not really an option. Things will be different for a while, but there’s still room for new reviews. Thanks to some films made digitally available either by studios or various streaming services, I have assembled some brief takes on new movies either currently available or arriving in the near future, along with one retro pick for the week. The following features reviews for To the Stars, Les Miserables, Swallow, Sergio, Selah and the Spades, The Ghost Who Walks, and Tokyo Drifter.

To The Stars: 8 out of 10

The Setup: Iris, a reclusive high school girl, living in a small town in 1960s Oklahoma makes friends with Maggie, a reckless new girl, shaking things up for others who are quick to judge.

Review: The most curious thing I’ve discovered with this film is that it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019 as a black and white feature. This current release is presented in color. I can merely speculate as to why the change was made and how well director Martha Stephens, writer Shannon Bradley-Colleary, and director of photography Andrew Reed responded to moving the film this direction, but perhaps it works as an odd way to take the film’s message as well.

Honestly, as well as the film works overall as a coming of age story concerning characters figuring out what types of people they want to be, this very significant change in the look of the film speaks to a reverse push on its core theme of self-discovery. It’s the main thing I keep coming back to, as the monochrome delivery of this story speaks to the idea of having characters desperate to break out of the image the rest of the town strives to keep intact. Presented in colors that properly evoke the time period, complete with the dustiness of this Oklahoma setting, there’s still a certain level of power possessed by the film, which comes as a strength of the writing.

Kara Hayward, of Moonrise Kingdom fame, does good work as Iris, the young woman slowly coming out of her shell thanks to the motormouthed Liana Liberato as Maggie. The two share good chemistry, and the rest of the actors playing high schoolers work as people who seem more naïve than villainous.

Adding more weight to the film is the adult cast that includes Shea Whigham and Jordana Spiro as Iris’ parents, and Malin Akerman and a very against-type Tony Hale as Maggie’s mother and father. The two pairs both represent plenty, as you get some glimpses as to the type of people they are, why they’ve come to be this way, and what regrets they have as far as the repressed feelings simmering underneath the surface.

To the Stars is not a complicated film in terms of structure. Other successful films before it accomplish much of the same. That in mind, there is a credit due to a movie that understands how to make a reliable genre work as the basis for something coming from a writer that’s either personal or channeling many ideas deemed worthy of exploring. While I remain interested in the dramatic visual shift, there’s enough working in the imagery presented, let alone the intended metaphors presented in a story that understands the need to favor a messy character-based conclusion over something more black and white.

Where To Watch: Available On Digital April 24, 2020

 

Les Misérables: 7 out of 10

The Setup: A fresh cop joins the anti-criminality brigade of Montfermeil, teaming up with a pair of officers who use questionable methods. As a long day only proves to become more difficult, the escalating tensions between various groups lead to drastic actions being taken.

Review: There’s a great movie inside of Lady Ly’s feature film directorial debut. Unfortunately, it can’t quite pull everything together as effectively as it could. From a technical standpoint, there is certainly a lot to praise here. It’s only when it comes to the lack of greater depth in areas that seemed more important, as well as a final moment that’s more frustrating than satisfying that throw me off.

The foundation is solid. Les Misérables opens with the citizens of Paris uniting in a massive crowd, following France’s victory at the 2018 World Cup. We meet Issa (Issa Perica), a young boy who takes pride in his country, only to see it get shaken up by the cops harassing him and the other kids. I wish this were the primary story, as watching that evolution could have been fascinating. Seeing more of a balance, in general, felt like a reliable way to depict what’s going on in this story. While the film is not closed off from exploring the lives of these characters, it focuses more on the cops.

This is not inherently wrong either. There’s Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), the new guy, Chris (Alexis Manenti), the hothead, and Gwada (Djebril Zong), the guy who mostly goes along with Chris’ actions. While Ruiz is the audience’s way in and Chris is more or less a stock character with minimal depth (he has a family), Gwada is easily the most interesting of these characters, yet gets almost no development. He’s Muslim, like the various citizens he interacts with, yet takes actions that go against them in many instances.

For a film like this, which feels heavily influenced from a variety of features including La Haine, Do the Right Thing, Training Day, and Battle of Algiers, there’s strength in seeing a filmmaker use what they’ve learned from older cinema as well as their current reality to go after some key themes and present them with such a distinct style. From a filmmaking standpoint, there is a lot to admire. However, it is those small concessions made in how to tell this story that holds back the film from being a thoroughly rewarding experience.

There is a lot to like in Les Misérables, making it worthy of a recommendation. The setting is portrayed with a sort of gripping intensity that helps the film remain exciting without feeling draining. That’s especially the case for a fairly visceral third act. However, despite some strong acting, and clever use of drone cameras, both cinematically and narratively, the film doesn’t quite reach the strongest conclusion to have it stand out as something more substantial.

Where To Watch: Currently Available on Amazon Prime

 

Swallow: 7 out of 10

The Setup: Hunter, a newly pregnant housewife, is faced with enough pressure tending to her immaculate home while her wealthy working husband is away at work that cracks begin to form in her life. A dangerous habit involving compulsively swallowing inanimate objects becomes a means for releasing the anxiety stemming from a dark past.

Review: This is a peculiar film that is equal parts unnerving and intriguing. It’s almost like a reverse on Butt Boy from a couple of weeks ago, as the compulsive obsession stems from an actual psychological disorder (pica), making the cerebral nature of Haley Bennett’s character more meaningful, compared to a pitch-black comedy posing (successfully) as a neo-noir. That in mind, delivering Swallow as a psychological thriller with character-based stakes is the way to go as far as getting something out of a film designed to make audiences squirm.

Often quite good, if the main issue revolves around the speed at which Hunter’s pica disorder ramps up, there’s at least a strong enough revelation to justify everything taking place. At the same time, the anti-chemistry at play in showing just how wrong Hunter and Austin Stowell’s Richie are for each other allows for a level of cringe humor firmly placing the audience on the side of the person depressed enough to swallow marbles and thumbtacks.

If anything, credit goes to Stowell for having the ability to go from reasonable to unlikable, given the circumstances. One has to shed a lot of vanity at risk of always seeming like a corporate jerk on camera. Still, even with solid support from David Rasche, Elizabeth Marvel, and Denis O’Hare, it’s the precise performance Bennett is giving that adds to the oddity of the film. While set in a modern time, it’s the meticulous work Hunter puts into her activities, framed with precision by director Carlo Mirabella-Davis and his crew, that allows the film to evoke a past era.

As the film pushes into more challenging territory in an attempt to resolve its story, the result is less fulfilling than one would hope, despite the emotional weight afforded to the characters involved. However, there is a sense of dread the film manages to hold for quite a while, before steadily chipping away through a sense of chaos, no matter how dangerous. This means Swallow has a certain power that’s worth chewing over.

Where To Watch: Currently Available On VOD

 

Sergio: 4 out of 10

The Setup: Set during the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a top UN diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mallo, attempts to navigate through deals with politicians and revolutionaries to protect the ordinary people, only for a bomb blast in Baghdad to force him to reflect on the recent choices he has made in regards to his family, relationships, and ambitions.

Review: I remember reading and hearing about this unfortunate story concerning Sergio back in 2003. A film chronicling his efforts during this time could have worked well in spelling out what kind of abilities he had to make him such a charismatic leader who was also doing good work to accomplish positive change. Alas, this cinematic telling of his story falls flat, with too much time focused on a romance that forms between Wagner Moura’s Sergio and Ana de Armas’ Carolina. As a result, there’s little showing what made Sergio tick when it came to his methods towards negotiations and reaching certain ideals.

Understandably by design, the film is told in a non-linear fashion, utilizing flashbacks to bring the audience up to speed, with an increasingly tragic present-day narrative keeping a certain level of tension. However, Craig Borten’s script does little to help tell a stronger story, regardless of the good work by the actors involved. Despite a strong use of production value, Sergio ends up feeling to thin to add more meaning.

Where To Watch: Currently Available on Netflix

 

Selah and the Spades: 5 out of 10

The Setup: Tension is at a high between the various factions of the student body at an elite Pennsylvania boarding school.

Review: I’m not one to tell anyone what their movie is trying to be, but writer/director Tayarisha Poe seems to have had her eye set on Rian Johnson’s Brick and Spike Lee’s School Daze when putting this film together. There’s a certain kind of stylistic undertaking here, down to the dialogue rhythm, but I never found myself on the same level as the world of this film. That disconnect ultimately left me cold when it came to having much to say about the film, beyond the delivery of something made well enough, with potential for all involved.

Where To Watch: Currently Available on Amazon Prime

 

The Ghost Who Walks: 6 out of 10

The Setup: A criminal is released from prison after ratting out his former boss, and spends Christmas Eve avoiding goons while hoping to meet his daughter for the first time.

Review: Early on, director Cody Stokes attempts to show audiences something with the first of several action sequences shot to resemble an unbroken take. The story is somewhat cliché and never rises above much, but there’s a layer of subtext surrounding a black convict dressed up in a Santa costume showing some additional thought in what to consider. Garland Scott makes for a great lead that I would be happy to see in high profile films. All of that said, gritty action is fun and all, but the final 10 minutes of this movie were far more powerful than I would have ever guessed, allowing the film to become slightly more than another grindhouse attempt.

Where To Watch: Currently Available on Netflix

Retro Pick: Tokyo Drifter: 10 out of 10

The Setup: A Yakuza enforcer looks to go legit, but is plagued by various old rivals and their attempts to assassinate him.

Review: File this one under incredibly cool movies that I somehow hadn’t seen already. Seijun Suzuki’s whirlwind of a dark gangster comedy has influenced many filmmakers, movies, and anime that I am a huge fan of, and I am all for looking into more of what the director had to offer. Tokyo Drifter was completely on my level in terms of taking a traditional story and adding plenty of vibrancy, ambition, and wild choices to push it into another level.

The hero, Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari), literally whistles his own theme music, while contending with the various gangsters looking to take him on. In a fascinating choice, Tetsu rarely puts in deadly effort to fight with these people, opting for stylish yet mostly non-lethal ways to dispatch his foes. Suzuki follows this path by providing plenty of editing choices that likely confused some audiences in their time, but feel awfully familiar today in terms of what the likes of Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Takeshi Kitano, among others, would do given similar options.

Honestly, this was a huge eye-opener in terms of what “cool” films looked like in 1966, particularly when it came to exploring the gangster genre. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai and John Boorman’s Point Blank would come along a year later to further emphasize the dangerously slick life these sorts of criminals lead, but Tokyo Drifter marches to its own jazzy beat and looks great doing it. There are lots of great uses of color, particularly in the various suits of these criminals. Terrific action sequences highlight both the absurdity as well as the skill associated with the multiple people involved.

This is a film that delivers the whole package for the right viewer, and I indeed fell into that category. It’s a highly stylized feature that isn’t without its thematic relevance. In particular, the film goes over the top in getting into how loyalty among gangsters functions, let alone the evolution of certain types trying to achieve more in life. All of it pays off in a big way to deliver something wild that hardly led to Suzuki backing down from his ambitious decisions. Bold and highly entertaining.

Where To Watch: Currently Available On VOD

***

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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