West Side Story (2021, Directed by Steven Spielberg) English Good Film

Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana Debose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Corey Stoll, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James

(Good Film)

In 1950s New York, the Sharks and the Jets are constantly at war with each other. Why? Because they look different from one another; the Jets being lower-class whites and the Sharks poor immigrants from Puerto Rico. Tony (Elgort) is the leader of the Jets, or he was once, but after a stint in prison, he’s just trying to keep his head above water. When he meets Maria (Zegler), sister to the leader of the Sharks, they fall in love, and what was petty strife quickly becomes tragic à la Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story is an iconic musical and my first question was why remake a classic. Spielberg proved me wrong on that count. This West Side story might not match the stature of the 1961 film, yet, in many ways, it improves upon it. The Spanish-speaking cast truly make a difference and Spielberg proves a natural in his first attempt at a musical. West Side Story (2021) somehow manages some grit and authenticity to go with the more traditional artificial stylings of classic movie musicals. The dancing is great, the sweeping camera movements, performances, set pieces are all great. All in all, I’d call Spielberg’s West Side Story a rousing success, despite disappointing at the box-office. My issues with this film apply to every version of the hit play and its adaptations. It’s long, it feels long, and not every song is enjoyable. Some songs like “Maria” thrill me and others like “Gee, Officer Krupke” have me checking my watch.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Memoirs of a Geisha (2005, Directed by Rob Marshall) English Good Film

Starring Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe, Kaori Momoi, Mako, Youki Kudoh, Kōji Hashimoto

(Good Film)

At the end of the 1920s, a young Japanese girl, Chiyo, with unique eyes begins working in a geisha house where the work is hard and jealousy abounds. As she grows up and Japan enters into World War, Chiyo (Ziyi) becomes one of the most desired geishas in the area but never gives up her dream of being with a kind older gentleman, the Chairman (Watanabe), she met as a child. Doomed to unfair criticism by casting controversy-the three leads are Chinese-Memoirs of a Geisha is a wonderful escapist fantasy provided you understand that this is what it’s aiming for. It’s not a gritty, realistic look at the hardships these women faced during that era. It’s a glossy, sumptuous fairy-tale and the director, Rob Marshall, excels. Those looking for weightier themes may want to look elsewhere, but those who can accept beauty as a theme and happiness as an ending will be glad to lose themselves in the world of Chiyo. As for the casting controversy, I believe that it was only an issue because the three Chinese women are so famous, so recognizable that for some, it may be a distraction.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Batman (2022, Directed by Matt Reeves) English Good Film

Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Colin Farrell, Jeffrey Wright, Andy Serkis, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Jayme Lawson

(Good Film)

A new decade. A new Batman. Robert Pattinson, picking up the mantle cast aside by Ben Affleck, plays the character with relentless solemnity. Over the years, it seems whenever a new incarnation of the character hits big screens, the focus has been to make it darker each time. That trend continues here. Tracking a masked maniac known as the Riddler (Dano) who’s killing off corrupt officials, Batman teams with Selina Kyle (Kravitz) and James Gordon (Wright) to unravel the plot. Involved somehow are the powerful underworld figures of Carmine Falcone (Turturro) and rising gangster, Oswald Cobblepot (Farrell). The Batman is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. Its atmosphere, visuals, and mood are first-rate and make any problems I have with, what should be, key components of the film (acting, story-telling) seem like mere quibbles. This is a mood piece, a comic strip passed through a grunge factory, a visual tour-de-force and the performances that work for me-the majority of the cast-blend right in with ambience of the film as a whole. I, however, was not impressed with Paul Dano’s ostentatious performance as The Riddler, seeing it as too broad and unsurprising. The Batman loses something because of it. Happily, the rest of the cast fill their roles nicely, and the movie is triumph of visual story-telling.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Viy 2: Journey to China (2019, Directed by Oleg Stepchenko) English Bad Film

Starring Jason Flemyng, Xingtong Yao, Anna Churina, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Dance, Rutger Hauer

(Bad Film)

Three disparate men, a Chinese master (Chan), a Russian in an iron mask (Kolokolnikov), and an old westerner, lie locked up in the Tower of London under the thumb of its warden, the bullish James Hook (Schwarzenegger), who ensures that no one ever gets out, but the Russian must get out, you see, because he, we learn, is Peter the Great and his country needs him desperately to avoid war. At the same time, cartographer, Jonathan Green (Flemyng), travels east with a Chinese princess, falling victim to supernatural forces and his wife scrambles to help him. This is surely the most convoluted plot either Jackie Chan or Schwarzenegger have ever been involved in and, despite the film’s promotion, they’re not actually that involved. Their characters are superfluous and their presence does little to elevate the muddled material or its unspectacular effects. From start to finish, I asked myself, “where is this going?” or “how did we get here?” or “why is this necessary?” Scenes from Viy 2 are, at times, enjoyable enough divorced from the whole, but the film, all together, is a mess and never a fun mess.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Fantastic Planet (1973, Directed by René Laloux) French Okay Film

Voices of Jennifer Drake, Eric Baugin, Jean Valmont, Jean Topart, Yves Barsacq

(Okay Film)

In this bizarrely animated picture from French filmmaker, René Laloux, on a distant planet far from Earth, blue humanoids called Draags have dominion. Under their tyrannical feet stand Oms, primitive humans populating this planet sometimes as wild animals and sometimes as pets. Interesting as a spin on the world as we know it, also perhaps a critique on animal treatment or injustice as a whole, Fantastic Planet has an excellent reputation as both an experimental film as well as a cult film, and its ’70s era soundtrack will be familiar to any fan of classic hip-hop. Despite its reputation, it’s not a great film. Its strange setting is kept at a distance, as a concept, rather than an immersive world that we, the audience, can escape into to and enjoy. The story, then, follows the same line. Admirable but never exciting.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Directed by Guillermo Del Toro) Spanish Great Film

Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdú, Álex Angulo, Doug Jones

(Great Film)

While we (I’m American) were in the grips of World War II, Spain suffered a civil war and lasting strife for years to come. It’s a period I know very little about and a period the young heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia (Baquero), occupies. It’s the summer of 1944 and Ofelia arrives with her pregnant mother to the home of Captain Vidal (López), her new step-father. The fascist Captain Vidal wastes no time in revealing himself to be a deranged bully as he hunts down local rebels, but Ofelia finds escape and adventure away from this terror, a place where fairies and monsters live, a place that offers her a chance at immortality should she prove herself in a trio of frightening tasks. Pan’s Labyrinth is universally beloved, a dark fantasy that can resonate with any viewer. It’s vision of evil is as stark as any I’ve seen- Captain Vidal is a relentless sadist- and Ofelia is pure innocence. It’s the perfect culmination of its director, Guillermo Del Toro’s, talent with its incredible creatures, grotesque imagery, affection for characters who are outsiders, and stomach-turning violence.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Silver Lode (1954, Directed by Allan Dwan) English Good Film

Starring John Payne, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, Dolores Moran, Emile Meyer, Alan Hale Jr., Harry Carey Jr.

(Good Film)

When U.S Marshall, Fred McCarty (Duryea), and his deputies ride into town, what was to be a joyous wedding day in Silver Lode quickly becomes a nightmare of frenzied action and hysteria. They’ve come to collect on Dan Ballard (Payne), the groom-to-be, a popular newcomer to town, and though the handbill says dead or alive, you get the feeling Marshall McCarty would prefer to take Ballard in dead. The town stands behind Ballard at first when he questions the legitimacy of McCarty’s handbill and position as a Marshall, but slowly turn on him as the day wears on. Silver Lode is another ’50s allegory for McCarthyism and compares just as easily to The Crucible as it does to High Noon. Mob mentality reigns in this town despite its population of well-meaning, upstanding citizens, and, by the end, friends turn on friends and relationships are broken. This is a solid western on the surface, expertly staged, with a wealth of subtext making it a favorite of film critics. I appreciate the characterization of Ballard. His stoic, unapologetic demeanor had even me questioning him a time or two and Duryea is, as always, a fantastic creep. I don’t hold it in the same esteem as the very best of the genre-like other critical favorites, it’s more entertaining as a discussion point than it is to watch-but there’s no denying it’s an exceptional film.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Kubo and the Two Strings (2016, Directed by Travis Knight) English Great Film

Voices of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

(Great Film)

In ancient Japan, with his father dead and his mother sick, young Kubo (Parkinson) is left to fend for himself, relying on his storytelling and musical abilities to fetch a day’s bread. Disregarding his mother’s warning about staying out past dusk, Kubo is soon chased out of his quaint existence by his wrathful, god-like grandfather and aunts. With only a hard-willed snow monkey (Theron) and later a cursed beetle-like warrior (McConaughey) to protect him, Kubo sets out to find his late father’s armor and confront his grandfather. Quibbles about its largely white-washed cast aside, Kubo and the Two Strings is a wonderful film. Its production company, Laika, have made a handful of features, very good films, but to date, this is their most exceptional achievement. A marriage of awesome visuals with a story that’s bold and mysterious. The cherishing of memories and time spent with parents is obviously at the heart of Kubo, but there seems to be a depth beyond that that’s slightly obscure. It gives the film a mystique that I find dazzling.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Unbelievable Truth (1989, Directed by Hal Hartley) English 7

Starring Adrienne Shelly, Robert Burke, Christopher Cooke, Julia McNeal, Matt Malloy, Edie Falco, Paul Schultze, Bill Sage

(7-Very Good Film)

Odd. Engaging. Clever.

Josh Hutton: The last time I took a drink, I got into a car crash and I killed a girl.

Josh Hutton (Burke) seems like a kind, quiet soul. When he returns to his hometown after a stint in prison, he’s mistaken by some for a priest, but the majority of the people in town know what he did. He killed his girlfriend and her father. Meanwhile, beautiful Audry (Shelly) prepares for life after high school deciding between colleges and a burgeoning career as a model. To her overbearing parents’ dismay, she’s attracted to Josh. You’d be correct to think this sounds like the stuff of overwrought melodrama, but The Unbelievable Truth is mostly an irreverent comedy with a deadpan manner. Bizarre conversations, recurring gags, call-backs, and an off-kilter tone may take a while to grow used to, but I found the film clever and eventually charming.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Directed by Howard Hawks) English 9

Starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthalmess, Sig Ruman, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr.

Only Angels Have Wings 1939, directed by Howard Hawks | Film review

(9-Great Film)

Adventurous. Exciting. Polished.

Bonnie Lee: I’m hard to get, Geoff. All you have to do is ask me.

When Bonnie Lee (Arthur), American showgirl, stops over in Barranca, a remote airbase in South America, she expected to stay for a night. After meeting and instantly falling for the brusque Geoff Carter (Grant), head-pilot and the base’s leader, Bonnie finds she doesn’t want to leave but can’t bear to watch him put his life in danger night in and night out. He loves her but refuses to stop flying. Only Angels Have Wings is an excellent picture. It’s amazing to me how quickly filmmakers figured out the art of filmmaking and how adeptly they expanded its limits. Howard Hawks was a consummate Hollywood storyteller and he’s working with two of its greatest stars in Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Wonderful, well-drawn characters, romance and action.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-