I Feel Pretty

[3 stars]

Sure, this is exactly what you expect it to be…though, actually, it’s probably a bit better. Despite over-reaching a few times on the humor it still manages to be effective. Frankly, I was surprised as I’m not a fan of self-deprecating, broad humor based on silly or stupid choices. But Amy Schumer (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) manages to pull it off by embodying the fears and insecurities (and ultimately the egos) we all have. Yes, this is directed at women, heck you even get to hear the film pitch in the climax, but the message is pretty much universal.

While Schumer’s personality and delivery make this work, it is only because first-time directing and long-time writing duo, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, knew when to pull back and reset the boundaries. Their script is passable, but their control of the acting and the pace keep you there. And though this deals with some adult subjects, it really does stick to its PG-13 intent without losing its impact.

Opposite Schumer are a few roles that serve a grounding purpose. Yes, there are her friends played by Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps with rather obvious and surfacey efforts. But it was more Lauren Hutton and Michelle Williams (The Greatest Showman) that gave her something to bounce off of. Williams, despite an inconsistent, if very funny, portrayal creates an hysterical character of insecurities and depth. Sadly, it doesn’t get paid off as completely as you’d like, but doing so would have delayed the the ending. What these two women manage in their short scenes is still very entertaining and pivotal to the story.

There is actually something in this flick for men as well. Rory Scovel’s (Those Who Can’t) non-traditional character helps mirror Schumer’s for men. That is highlighted by Tom Hopper (Merlin), whose not-quite-nere-do-well role is almost throwaway, except for his moment of catalyst related to Scovel’s.

There is nothing surprising in the plot of this film. It is pure entertainment with a message. And the message is simple, but rather important these days. It is actually a great delivery mechanism for anyone doubting themselves in just about any way. And, yeah, it’s a bit of amusing distraction as well. Whether you see it now or the small screen, when you’re looking for this kind of humor, you won’t be disappointed.

I Feel Pretty

Proud Mary

[2.5 stars]

Coming on the heels of Atomic Blonde and John Wick 2, this movie felt like it had a lot to prove. It wasn’t helped by the miss-promotion of it as a kissing cousin to Jackie Brown. But it really isn’t any of these. The reality is that it owes more to the 1980  classic Gloria. In fact, one of the co-writers, Steve Antin, even worked on the 1999 remake of Gloria. And Gloria, of course, was also reflected of the equally classic Léon: The Professional. But Proud Mary is a pale reflection of all of these because it isn’t really anything on its own.

The heart of the issue is that Proud Mary relies on a single thing to sell it: all women want to have kids. Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) is better than that, but I can understand why she took the role despite its weaknesses. How often do you get to drive a Maserati and play action hero? But the films from which it takes its roots got around the parenthood issues by removing that from the equation. Gloria and Léon were drawn into  protecting their wards by circumstance, not desire. It is the struggle of them finding a human connection again that drives the stories. It isn’t that they want to be parents, it is that they want to be human.

Proud Mary does attempt to set up the reasoning for Henson’s path, but we don’t really see any transition from guilt to love, though there is lip service to that being the case. Of course, director Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) isn’t the most subtle or capable of guides, though he gets a great sense of 70s films at the outset of the movie. But, frankly, if that’s what you’re looking for, just rewatch Jackie Brown.

So basically, yes, skip this unless you have a real jonesing for Henson or Danny Glover…because though Jahi Di’Allo Winston (Everything Sucks!) does a fantastic job as the young man, the rest of the film and the performances are really pretty mediocre at best.

Proud Mary

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados)

[3 stars]

A surreal romp about finding hope in hopelessness. At least that’s what I took away from it this viewing. Pedro Rivero and
Alberto Vázquez (with additional help from Stephanie Sheh [Your Name.] and Joe Deasy) give us a landscape that borders on Bakshi’s Wizards: post-apocalyptic, mutated, venal, self-absorbed, and still focused on the value of the past rather than providing life for the future.

The main characters are children; children who are trying to survive and find purpose in a broken world. Somehow that part of the story feels very contemporary in terms of the feelings and challenges if not the specific events and issues. The overall plot echos the global trend toward migration, economic disparity, and the ecological disaster that is picking up steam with every year. But this is less warning than it is the (merest) suggestion that there is a solution if we can just hold on to what makes life worthwhile and control the darkest parts of our own selves. It makes for a pretty packed 76 minutes.

For the animation alone, this film is worth it. It isn’t grand, highly CGI’d animation, rather it is a reflection of its graphic novel roots. It is simple, but effective. The result is fascinating, inventive, and gripping at times. It refuses to blink from horror, but also often twists it to something of beauty or potential beauty. If you like the craft and enjoy challenging animation, this is worth your time.

Furlough

[2.5 stars]

There are many things that can draw you to a movie. On rare occasions, such as this one, it is the cast alone. With billing for Melissa Leo (The Equalizer) , Anna Paquin (Bellevue), Whoopi Goldberg, and Tessa Thompson (Annihilation) I wanted to see how that bucket of talent came together. The answer is that it sort of doesn’t. Leo and Thompson drive the story and do play well off each other. However, though Leo makes a credible inmate, Thompson doesn’t really strike the figure of a credible prison guard. And while you can suspend disbelief for chunks of time, it crumbles again and again due to her decisions and actions.

To be fair, the choices are more on Surgatz’s script, which is a bit forced and not particularly believable. But a larger, more imposing woman may have worked better. Even had Thompson brought her angst-ridden Valkyrie persona to bear from Thor, I don’t think she could have dominated Leo’s personality nor made us believe the plot.

Another missed opportunity was Whoopi. She is lost in this tale, there more for cheap comic relief than real impact. Of the cast, Paquin probably has the best role. It is small, but rich in unspoken emotion. A lot of groundwork from Leo and Thompson goes into that moment to pay it off, but it still Paquin that gets to take it away.

The faults in this movie are really more with the material than the actors. Collyer’s (SherryBaby) direction helps them to some good moments, but overall it never really sustains itself nor finds a rhythm. It wants to be a road movie with kooky side-stories that mound up into a tale of redemption and moving forward for Leo and Thompson. Instead, what we get is vignettes with some funny moments and some some touching moments, but no feeling of fulfillment at the end. I can’t really recommend the movie, but if you like the actors enough, you may find it fills an evening.

Furlough

Rampage

[2.5 stars]

Abandon hope all ye who saw Jumanji. Not even The Rock could save this weak offering with his charisma and humor. I’d say it was on par with Geostorm, expect that weak bit of sci-fi had more believable villains. I really had a secret hope this latest Dwayne Johnson entertainer would surprise me. Well, it didn’t, other than at how ham-handed and bad the script and direction was. Johnson certainly gave it his standard all, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the writing.

Likewise, Naomie Harris (Moonlight) did her level best opposite Johnson, even though they barely made her credible as a person and as a scientist. There were other familiar faces that struggled along in the same way. Perhaps the least harmed was Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike XXL), whose scarred mercenary was never anything but over the top. Then there was Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Extant), whose cowboy caricature just got tiresome, even with him modifying it at times. Again, a game effort, but not fully successful.

But for our good guys to truly triumph, you need credible and engaging villains. Sadly, Malin Akerman (I’ll See You in My Dreams) and Jake Lacy (Miss Sloane) as sister and brother baddies were about as cardboard as they come. Stupid criminals that never would have survived as long as these two supposedly had (especially Lacy’s character).

There is basis of a fun story here, despite being adapted from a video game. And there are moments (some massively obvious or telegraphed) and some good one-liners, but there are no real characters and just horrible plot construction. Director Brad Peyton (San Andreas) just went a bit too broad to make this work. The result is too intense for the young audience level it was aimed at but not believable enough for the people showing up. It isn’t even a non-stop action ride which might have helped cover for the bad plotting; it certainly has for many other films by The Rock.

Honestly, if you’re looking for a good Kaiju distraction, Pacific Rim: Uprising is much better.

Rampage

Thelma

[3 stars]

Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) brought his award-winning ability directing and co-writing (with constant collaborator Eskil Vogt) this intense and suspenseful tale. It isn’t an easily defined story, but Eili Harboe (The Wave) owns the title role with wonderful subtlety and angst.

The result, as close as I can come, is a coming-of-age horror(ish) tale. You know from the opening scene that something isn’t quite right but it is a paced story that builds the situation from Thelma’s point of view. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen support Harboe as Thelma’s parents in echos of many other similar stories, but without becoming histrionic.

In fact, that is one of the biggest differences in this riff on a plot you’ll recognize quickly, it is told simply and naturalistically rather than with big moments and effects. It is, above all, a story about Thelma and her becoming an independent adult. It is also doesn’t explain everything or provide simple answers to some of the actions, though it certainly raises questions. The story is as much metaphor as truth.

This isn’t a fast film, but it is gripping and interesting,  performed and constructed with real ability. It was nominated for and won many awards deservedly, but it is more on the art-house end of the spectrum than, say, A Quiet Place, that subverts the genre in a different way. When you want something familiar, but that feels new, check this out.

Thelma

The Death of Stalin

[3 stars]

So what do you get when you have an unchecked leader running a country with only sycophants at his side? No, not that, I’m speaking of Russia in 1953. Though the parallels are utterly intended and the implications somewhat overwhelm the humor at times. But when Armando Iannucci, the co-writer and director of In the Loop and Veep, decided to tackle the Russian oligarchy for his second film, you rightly expect dry, wry. and bleakest black humor. If you didn’t, you probably have gone to the wrong movie.

Here’s the thing, this is not my favorite kind of humor. I enjoyed this movie to a degree, but I found it painful at times, and quite silly at others. It has a Monty Python-esque meets Chekov quality, and not just because Michael Palin (Remember Me, Absolutely Anything) is in it as Molokov (yes, that Molokov). That it also manages to cleave close to historical fact at the same time is a credit to Iannucci and his gang. But the movie doesn’t flow in a way that feels entirely right for my tastes. He does, however, know how to cast for his needs.

The actors are all top-notch comediens, from Steve Buscemi (Electric Dreams), to Jeffrey Tambor (The Accountant), to Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown), even to the stoic and surprising Olga Kurylenko (The Water Diviner). Andrea Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes) and Rupert Friend (Hitman: Agent 47) have their own little storyline to run out and Jason Isaacs (A Cure for Wellness) comes in hard and fast to steal a good part of the last of the film. But it is Paddy Considine (The Girl With All the Gifts) and Tom Brooke (Preacher) who launch us into the world and set the tone perfectly and who manage to bring it all back together, in its way.

Iannucci has given us a cautionary comedy; a well-done satire. For the right audience it will entertain completely. For others it will cause an uncomfortable frisson. And for yet others, it will simply stoke the frustration and anger they are currently feeling with the world. So go in knowing what kind of film you might be seeing and decide if it is for you.

The Death of Stalin

The Leisure Seeker

[4.5 stars]

Forgive me, I’m going to kvell a little. It just isn’t all that often that a movie grabs me so completely. Director and co-writer Paolo Virzì (Like Crazy) delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of love and life that will suck you in and wring you dry;  a wonderful, emotional canon which I highly recommend for any movie lover or romantic. It is both obvious and subtle, tackling aspects of age and marriage in wonderfully real ways. But it is relationship that takes the fore, with the ailments that ultimately drive the story very much in the background rather than the front and center focus of other films, like Still Alice or, for that matter, Marjorie Prime or The Memory of a Killer.

Virzì gifts us with a set of performances and story that quietly grips you from the moment it begins and refuses to let you go until the last, triumphant moment. It is both a tragedy and a comedy, a love story and a tale of glory (in its way). It is inevitable and unavoidable, but the path and the revelations are constantly surprising. The resulting film and performances are already up for awards this year, but will likely be forgotten for the majors since it released so early though I hope it won’t be.

Though Helen Mirren (Winchester) dominates the screen throughout, it is Donald Sutherland’s (The Calling) quiet performance and moments of shift that make this a devastating and emotional film. In a wonderful bit of direction, Janel Moloney (American Crime), as their daughter, delivers a performance that mirrors Sutherland’s in many ways.

I will admit, it isn’t quite a perfect movie, though it is close. It chooses to nail itself down in time to the summer of 2016 irrevocably for reasons I never quite puzzled out. And Christian McKay’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) turn as Mirren and Sutherland’s son is just slightly off, never quite fitting into the movie as a whole. Neither choice ruins the movie, but it knocks it down just a notch in my rating and recommendation.

But this is a must-see film for film lovers and anyone with either elderly family members or those in or above middle-age. It is a reminder of why we struggle and why we love. It is, above all, an homage to marriage and relationships, with all their warts and shine. You will laugh a lot, cry a lot, and ultimately smile as you leave the theater.

The Leisure Seeker

A Quiet Place

[3.5 stars]

A tight, post-apocalyptic family drama, told with real skill. From the beginning, you are made aware that while the story is familiar, the rules you know may not apply. It is also a beautifully appointed tale of deaf child coming into her own in a world of imposed silence, which makes for some great, if never spoken, contrasts.

The danger of this film was really with writer, director, and one of the three main actors, John Krasinski (The Hollars). That is a lot of hats to wear and not screw something up. As you might have guessed, he didn’t. He builds a level of tension through scenes that few other directors have pulled off without cheap tricks. This is very important as some of the key moments you’ll see coming, but the editing and performances will keep you gripping your armrest. And, sure, you’ll recognize some of the moments and where he learned them from, but this world is very much his own. I was so involved with the story on screen that it was only afterwards that the echos came to the surface for me.

The story is entirely about Krasinski’s small family trying to survive together in a near-impossible situation. With Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) as his wife, she again proves her mettle on screen. It may not be her kick-ass warrior from Edge of Tomorrow, but she brings the energy and determination. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), on the other hand, brings the tragedy and strength that you would have normally expected one of the adult actors to take on. It is a complicated role that succeeds enough for its purpose. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses. The last main cast member I expected a bit more subtlety from given his turn in Wonder, but Noah Jupe’s tackling of the family’s son was a bit ham-handed for me at times. Honestly, that was Krasinski’s mistake more than Jupe’s, but it stood out for me amidst the other more contained performances.

All that said, this taut, 90 minute science-fictionesque/family/horror/drama is really fun and worth your time to see with an audience. When the whole room gets tense and groans and jumps with you, the experience is heightened even more. And while there are certainly brief moments of contained gore, it is really more all about the tension and release.

The Divine Order (Die göttliche Ordnung)

[3 stars]

Picture it: 1971 Switzerland. Rolling farmland. Mountains. And women still without the right to vote. Yes, seriously. This film chronicles the weeks leading up to the 1971 referendum that reversed that absurdity (though it would be another 10 years before it was added to the constitution).

What is weirder is watching the story and seeing the world that so many in power today pine for.  It is a village locked in the 40s and 50s in look and 1800s in mentality. For all that, it is full of humor and entertainment. It isn’t a belly laugh kind of film, well not often, but it balances the darker side of the reality with the lighter side. There is a particularly wonderful scene with Sofia Helin (The Bridge) on that front.

Unlike other “rights” movies, like the wonderful Pride, there is never a huge moment of triumph, despite the wins. Writer/director Petra Volpe instead gives us a series of small victories and a sense that the efforts have to always be going on to maintain and protect those rights. Sound familiar?

Definitely a timely and interesting film to see against the backdrop of today. It is well acted and emotionally satisfying, capturing the culture and the history in unexpected ways. Oh, and it was well recognized on the festival circuit as well.  Make time for this movie for both inspiration and entertainment.

The Divine Order

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…