How to Talk to Girls at Parties

[3.5 stars]

Take a story by Neil Gaiman and give John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit HoleHedvig and the Angry Inch) the opportunity to turn it into a movie and you get a sort of punk rock coming-of-age fantasy that starts odd, gets odder, and manages to steal your heart.

Alex Sharp in his first movie (though a Tony winner for The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time) nails it. He and his friends, Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis, give us a group of young punks in 1977 Croydon looking for…something in all the wrong places. As most adolescents do. The story is best experienced without any preamble, so I’ll stop there.

The boys are supported by a great cast. Elle Fanning (Leap!), ever her ethereal self, headlines it all and seems to expand on her Neon Demon character. And in support, Nicole Kidman (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, Luther), and Matt Lucas (Sherlock Gnomes) each bring their own special brand of uniqueness to the characters.

But it isn’t just about the story and people directly. It is also about the music and movement that was just gaining steam in ’77. Real-life musician Martin Tomlinson leads the fictional Dyschords in a brilliant and believable set of performances to set the mood. As Gaiman put it when he saw it, they feel like a real band from that era you just somehow missed at the time. I’d add, if you ever cared about that era, you’d be sorry you did. And the rest of Nico Muhly and Jamie Stewart’s music is equally effective and engaging.

Entertainment and cleverness aside, Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett took the smallest of seeds from Gaiman’s story of the same name (published as part of his Fragile Things collection) and grew it into a wondrous and unexpected adventure. It is as if Sing Street tripped into Wonderland, or Across the Universe collided with Velvet Goldmine. And yet none of that is really accurate other than to imply the unexpectedness of it all. Despite all the expansions, it still retains the sense and point of the original piece. Truly a great example of adaptation. However, if you haven’t read the story first I’d read it after. The story will suffer for that, but the movie will probably be improved by protecting some of its uniqueness.

Check this out without finding out more and just let the story take you. Mitchell is wonderful at laying out secret and twisty paths and imbuing his creations with heart, even amid heartbreak. And in this case, with Gaiman’s sensibility to help inform it all, it comes together in delightful ways. This is a universal story, even if the trappings don’t appear so.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Mile 22

[2.5 stars]

Oh, Peter Berg (Battleship), you always promise so much and deliver so little. This bit of what amounts to terrorist porn is certainly full of action, but bereft of character. While Mark Whalberg (Ted 2) may have created a fast-talking and somewhat entertaining team leader, he isn’t a person, he is simply putting on an interesting idea.

And while there are strong female parts, they aren’t much in the way of characters either. Ronda Rousey (Furious 7) doesn’t really get to explore what she had to work with. And Lauren Cohan (Chuck, The Walking Dead), who is certainly a tough-as-nails fighter, overplays the mother side of what was written. Not because a kick-ass military person can’t have family and emotion in their lives or even care that much, but because she came off as schizophrenic rather than as competent; and she’s meant to be Wahlberg’s protege.

Iko Uwais (The Raid 2) shows off his skills as a fighter and, to a degree, as an actor. To be fair, he really just has to look enigmatic most of the time rather than plumb any serious levels. And John Malkovich reprises his Unlocked gig, which isn’t saying much for a man with such talent.

Where this movie really goes wrong isn’t so much in its conception or even its subject matter. Even the basic plot is intriguing. Where it goes wrong is the framing, which is, essentially, a solipsistic treatise excusing government funded murder as necessary, even to be celebrated. For some audiences that will work just fine. In the world we live in now, even while admitting I was mildly entertained by the action and well paced suspense, I found the message rather off-putting at the end. Nearly the same plot could have been used without the commentary and it would have worked better. As it is, you go for the action, blood, and gore, if you go, but not for the story or any cogent political awakening.

Mile 22

BlacKkKlansman

[5 stars]

Undoubtedly, this is Spike Lee’s (Chi-Raq) best film since Do The Right Thing. Not because he is back on political ground, he never left it, but because it flows, it is human, and it is a masterful piece of storytelling that takes you from Point A to a Point B in unexpected ways. It is an hypnotic film that draws you in with its humor and, while never subtle, slowly turns the screws to leave you with that same self-reflective feeling Do The Right Thing managed way back when.

Certainly Lee’s trademark camera work and shots are present, but he holds them back for better impact than he has in the past. And his direction for the actors is subtle as he orchestrates the off-beat and nearly unbelievable tale.

In the lead, John David Washington (Ballers) floats perfectly through Stallworth’s story. Adam Driver (Logan Lucky) supports him well by his side and navigating his own complex history. As difficult as these roles were to play, Topher Grace (The Calling), Ryan Eggold (Lucky Them), Jasper Pääkkönen (Vikings), and Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) deserve special notice. They had to navigate some very dark places with conviction and without allowing them to become caricatures; no easy task.

This film is rather female poor, which was a surprise. However, Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Ashlie Atkinson (One Dollar) each create fascinating, true-believers who are very much part of the story. As a surprise short bit, Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) sets the tone nicely if not entirely fits in the movie. There are many other performances to notice, but this would get too long to list them all. Suffice to say that it is a well heeled and directed cast.

But, unlike the also true Shock and Awe, Lee managed to find the personal stories in the tale and to talk to us openly and honestly, bringing home the point of his film. In fact, he baldly lectures and nods to our present day. Because he does, but within the strictures of the story he’s telling, it becomes wry, sarcastic humor rather than pure chest-beating exposition. I don’t know how he managed that, but it worked.

The movie has its flaws, but not many. Most of the concerns I had fled as the movie wrapped up and the reasons for many choices became clear. It is certainly an odd structure, but it is also a beautiful piece of architecture and a movie not to be missed. Make time for this film in the theater. It isn’t necessarily a big-screen flick, though Lee certainly knows how to frame things, but it does deserve your support and time. It isn’t a pleasant subject, but you get plenty of sugar with the medicine. That BlacKkKlansman is a true story only adds to the weird and scary wonderfulness of it all.

BlacKkKlansman

Indignation

[3 stars]

Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) is not the first actor I would have considered for the lead role as a Jewish intellectual outcast in the wilds of Ohio 1951, but he surprised me. While his sense of inner turmoil and contradiction is less obvious than I might have preferred, his delivery and control helped sell the complicated young man. With Sarah Gadon (The 9th Life of Louis Drax) beside him much of the way, the two cut a tumultuous rug overhung by desire and dread. In short, a Philip Roth novel.

Around the young lovers are the adults that help define the story and results, though not a one of them would ever accept that responsibility. Which is, to my mind, part of the point. Tracy Letts (The Post), in particular, is a quiet powerhouse of a character. Letts embodies a personality that was common then and, sadly, still too far common now. And, as his parents, Danny Burstein (The Family Fang) and Linda Emond (Song to Song) are heartbreakingly real in their love and selfishness that influence Lerman’s life.

Writer/director James Schamus (Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet, Lust, Caution) is no stranger to delicate and fraught relationships.  His adaptation of Roth’s tale captures the intellectual and lyrical nature of the author nicely. For as simple as Roth’s stories are, the underlying intent and the social and personal commentary are not. His characters are constantly challenged and often fail. They question their purpose and their morality. They often don’t fit into the world around them at all; outsiders in a crowd. Sometimes outsiders in their own bodies. And they are passionate to the point of their own demise.

Indignation is loaded with history and layers. It is a quiet film that will pull you along to its final moments. It nicely hits on a personal level while leaving you with plenty to consider, and consider changing. And it captures its era beautifully…only reminding us how little has changed in human nature and politics.

Indignation

The Meg

[3.5 stars]

You can’t do a shark movie without invoking Jaws. It’s just not possible. When you understand that and can embrace it, as The Meg does, it becomes a non-issue, even when they copy shots. The Meg is both homage and riff, satire and step-brother of the 1975 classic that cleared a 1000 beaches. Though, to be fair, this is a bit more Piranha than Jaws in its sensibility, and that’s OK too. Delivered with conviction by the cast, and guided by Turteltaub’s (Last Vegas) direction, it manages to thrill, scare, and entertain in just the right measures for a late summer entertainment.

Jason Statham (The Mechanic: Retribution) and Li Bingbing (Resident Evil: Resurrection) are not the most natural couple on screen, but they each deliver performances that work well for the story. And the young Sophia Cai does an admirable job of getting between them. Rain Wilson (Backstrom) is probably the most perfectly cast of the group, riding the line of bastard and benevolent Billionaire to fund and push the story along. And it is always fun to see Ruby Rose (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) and her smart-ass ways. The only bit of writing that made my skin crawl was for Page Kennedy (Backstrom), who was turned into a very uncomfortably-close-to-racist stereotype. It isn’t throughout, but it definitely was ill-considered and it was clear they had no idea of why Kennedy’s character was even in the mix.

The movie is a bit less humorous than the early trailers would have led you to believe, but not by much. It injects just enough humor to keep the absurdities from being too apparent. And, of course, it is full of action and visual candy. In other words, this is a great piece of escapist silliness with just enough edge to sell the suspense and action.

The Meg

The Tunnel: Vengeance (series 3)

[4.5 stars]

Much like the recent finale of The Bridge, the creators of its spin-off, The Tunnel: Vengeance, knew this was the last visit we would have in this world. It gave them the freedom to remove all the typical boundaries and safeguards. While the two shows paralleled each other up through the end in many ways, they diverged greatly as well, each becoming distinct despite sharing the same roots.

The Bridge had only a few characters that lasted from start to finish as the consequences of its plots mounted up. The Tunnel chose to follow the same characters through all three, complex stories changing the trajectories of the interactions. But, in both cases, it is the female lead that became the fascinating center of it all, even when the story was being told from another’s point of view. In The Tunnel, that was Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel) whose Elise, though a riff on The Bridge’s Saga, was very much her own character and with her own history. While a great deal of the Tunnel is driven by her partner, Stephen Dillane (The Darkest Hour, Game of Thrones), she is the one we fall for and care about. In part that is because she is the injured and blameless one. Dillane, like his inciting counterpart in Bridge, is quite a bit more flawed. While each influences the other over the course of the series, their base natures remain the same.

Expanded roles for a number of the minor characters were welcome in this sequence as well. William Ash (The Loch) and Juliette Navis, in particular, get to expand on a complicated and often funny interaction.

The Tunnel is a rare instance of a spin-off being as good as the original and finding its own way. For its finale, it even brought in new creative talent behind the scenes, which reinvigorated the storyline without violating the feeling of it all. It is, like its origins, decidedly dark and the events and plans byzantine, to say the least. However, it is driven by humanity and by refreshingly flawed heroes. If you haven’t caught this series or its inspiration yet, do. If you’ve been following it, you won’t be disappointed by its conclusion.

The Tunnel

2036: Origin Unknown

[2.5 stars]

Origin Unkown pitches and yaws its way from interesting idea and moment to god-awful dialogue and plot points. Uneven is a kind word, but it has enough going for it to get you through to the end if you’re so inclined.

What you think of that end on reflection and the trip that got you there, well, that will be up to you. The heavy and unavoidable echos of 2001: A Space Odyssey are tackled head on from the choices in production design to the title, special effects, and cinematography. However, Hasraf Dulull (The Beyond) isn’t Kubrik nor did he have Arthur C. Clarke’s template to provide the foundation. Coming primarily from a visual f/x background, his move to front-of-camera hasn’t been entirely successful. Admittedly, though, as only his second feature it isn’t without some sense of potential for his future.

It was fun to see Katee Sackoff (Oculus) in space-ish again. She tries valiantly to pull the movie along, but can only compensate so much. Ray Fearon (Beauty and the Beast) and Julie Cox (The Oxford Murders) both drag down the story. Their interactions are forced and their deliveries, shallow. Only Steven Cree (Outlander), as the AI, feels at all real. Some of these issues are by design and intended as commentary, but some are just, honestly, bad acting, writing, and directing.

As a tale of AI and automation in the workplace, this would probably be a great short story. As a movie with grander themes, it is a little too full of itself and its desire to play homage to the classics it mirrors. With the 50th anniversary release of 2001 this month and other broad-plotted stories like Missions in the air, this movie just doesn’t feel very new, but more like a Black Mirror or Electric Dreams episode. For all that, I appreciated its desire to go big and its attempts to be realistic where it could or did.

2036 Origin Unknown

Shock and Awe

[3 stars]

At a time when the free press is under attack from the very highest offices in the government; and at a time that these self-same leaders are inciting and encouraging literal attacks on those in the Fourth Estate, Shock and Awe is a reminder of the power of, the need for, and the fragility of the foundation of news organizations and their place in a democracy.

Rob Reiner really couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time to create and deliver this story. Like The Post, this is also an accurate tale of finding and reporting a truth that the public needed to know. Unlike The Post, the people standing in the way were not the government, but rather the newspaper editors themselves due to an extreme rise of nationalist fervor in the wake of 9/11.

As a reminder of truth and the value of a free press, this movie is invaluable. As a film, it is crafted with journeymen-like care but it isn’t necessarily a great movie. It tends to avoid deep dives and explanations, shifting the focus from an All The President’s Men effort to that of a more personal story. In some ways, that is fair and more impactful; the only mystery here was why no one would print the truth rather than what the truth was. To hold it together, Reiner frames it with a very personal story to remind us of the consequences of such situations.

Shock and Awe is competently delivered by the cast. In addition to Reiner, Wood Harrelson (Solo: A Star Wars Story) and James Marsden (Welcome to Me) make a great and competitive team. Tommy Lee Jones (Just Getting Started) brings in his trademark curmudgeon with a brain and heart. Most surprising was a nice turn by Milla Jovovich (Future World) who breaks type and works well with Harrelson. Jessica Biel (Hitchcock) gives us a nice character, but doesn’t really add to the main story. Even the introduction of Richard Schiff (Geostorm), whose character is directly related to the tale and whose performance is nicely balanced, doesn’t quite build up the story as it could. Combined, we get a taste of the world they were all a part of, including their personal lives, even if we don’t ever really understand the details or feel it as deeply as we should.

The result is a watered-down polemic about what nationalism can bring and why questioning, generally, is a good thing. It is also a solid reminder of why the press isn’t “the enemy of the people” as our current leadership has been heard to say, and often repeat.

What is a surprise in this story is that it also reminds us that, in majority, those with careers in government do care about the truth and the country. That may seem an odd thing to say, but more than one person I know has expressed the sense that those in elected office are craven and self-serving, unconcerned about anyone and anything other than their own comfort and finances. Or perhaps that doesn’t seem so odd to say these days when we’ve a leader who has hired his whole family and pushes government meetings and international guests to his own properties while still accepting deals in apparent trade for favors overseas?

What is made clear is that the only people who fear a free and honest press are those trying to hide the truth. But it is also important to hold the press to account, as this story does, because they do wield immense power. However, we do need them as an un-jaundiced eye on the world to understand it.

[Keep in mind that there is variant of reporting that is really just entertainment. Fox News (and its ilk) if you go for that kind of thing, is fine entertainment, but it isn’t news. In fact, it legally isn’t news. It is classified as entertainment, and they often lie and misreport to get ratings; they have no legal obligation to the truth (and no morals to speak of). This is factual statement, go look up the court cases and interviews with their leadership that prove it.]

News, on the other hand, has to be balanced and honest, and stick to the facts, editorializing only when necessary and always doing so openly. News organizations aren’t infallible, but they do have to make every attempt to be accurate. Shock and Awe puts up a mirror to the past and what can happen when the press doesn’t do their job… and how bad and long-lasting the consequences can be.

Shock and Awe

Ideal Home

[3 stars]

Yes, you’ve seen the base aspect of this story before: young child comes into the lives of adults without children who are already struggling with their own relationship. And, yes, this latest entry into this odd sub-genre is generally sweet and fluffy, but with a wonderful main difference and edge.

The unexpected parents are Steve Coogan (The Dinner) and Paul Rudd (Ant-Man and the Wasp) who play bickering lovers, a la Vicious. There is plenty expected, but one thing that isn’t… the story here is about family and how we love, not about the genitals of who loves whom. The relationship between Coogan and Rudd is utterly, wonderfully superfluous other than, at times, as a foil for some delightfully evil dialogue. At times, the choice borders on a cheap trick, but since the entire film dances on the surface of the subject, it is easy to roll with. At no time do Coogan or Rudd make fun of their characters or situation; they’re just a bit brash.

The final pieces of the puzzle are the errant parent, Jake McDorman (Limitless, Lady Bird) and his son, Jack Gore (Billions). McDorman has one of the hardest roles, having to play the stark realities against the brighter backdrop, but he does so well. Gore isn’t bad, but he isn’t brilliant. What is nice is that Gore isn’t playing for cute, he’s much more clearly a kid from a challenged home and life.

Writer/director Andrew Fleming (Hamlet 2, Younger) is unafraid of odd material and he knows how to control it well. He likes to challenge expectations and have fun with genres. Fleming is also somewhat obsessed with growing up…most typically about adults finally growing up when forced to by circumstance. While he tends to control the comedy of his work well, he also is often unwilling to dive too deep into the emotional truths, though he dips into it enough to make it work. Basically, he creates fun and unexpected entertainments that are a big edgy and a lot funny, and with just a touch of message. This movie is no exception and will leave you with a smile.

Ideal Home

Lear (2018)

[3.5 stars]

In the world of Shakespeare on film, there are many citizens, but only a few really stand out. Akira Kursawa’s Throne of Blood (nee Macbeth) and Ian MacKellen’s Richard III for their fascinating interpretations and performances come immediately to mind. And then there are Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Hamlet for their classic and down-to-earth depictions (not to mention full-text presentations). There are filmed stage performances as well, but those are a different discussion and, arguably, a different genre.

As Hamlet is a requirement for younger actors, Lear, like Prospero (or Prospera), is a right of passage for venerable actors. In fact, Glenda Jackson is joining that list soon as well. It would have been a great disappointment not to see Anthony Hopkins (Thor: Ragnarok) tackle Lear before he folded up his career…not that that seems to be coming any time soon. And Richard Eyre’s (The Dresser) adaptation and direction makes this an interesting Lear indeed.

One of the challenges of Lear is that it starts far into the story of this tragic family. We can intuit a lot, but it often starts with such a level of animosity from the children that it feels like a cheat. Eyre’s choices help us really see the fear and hatred build in Regan and Goneril, played by Emily Watson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Emma Thompson (Bridget Jones’s Baby) . We also see Lear change and deteriorate wonderfully through the piece. And though not quite as topically impactful as Ian McKellen’s Richard III, the modern setting also works nicely allowing it to resonate with the growing concerns of eldercare.

There are some wonderful side performances in the various houses as well from Christopher Eccleston (Unfinished Song), Tobias Menzies (The Night Manager), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey), and Jim Broadbent (The Lady in the Van). However, you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the two integral roles of Cordelia and The Fool, respectively played by Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) and Karl Johnson. Both are serviceable in their roles, but neither really left an impact for me, which has something to do with the actors, but also with some burden on the directing choices in which Eyre’s approach has some intriguing shifts in focus beyond setting.

It is the Edmund/Edgar machinations which are made the center of the story for most of the movie. These mirrored relationships were always important, but wrenching the center of the play off the titular character was interesting. The bastard, played by John Macmillan, and the son, by Andrew Scott (Sherlock), are both powerful performers. However, despite the interesting effect on plot structure, their screen relationship is forced and never really gels…even at the end. Another interesting change is that the Fool is disposed of with scant comment (and probably without much import for most of the audience). It is done in set-up for the final scenes, which are always discussed dramaturgically as the substitution of Cordelia for the Fool (and after Lear and Mad Tom have each taken some ownership), but it has an incomplete impact and import the because it is executed so dismissively.

For all the solutions this production finds in bringing the motivations to life, the film exacerbates the problem of compressed time by virtue of its length. Despite good visual bridges, the plot is forced along far too quickly (115 minutes). Honestly, this tale could probably sustain a mini-series in length and thereby get places more believably. Shakespeare’s wonderful prose aside, the credibility of the choices has always been a challenge in this play. Huge leaps based on long-festering slights are necessary, but hard to digest for the audience given the scope of Lear’s travels and the evolution and impact of his story on an entire country.

I could keep dissecting this production, which is actually a good sign. There is much to chew on. Often you only get one or two interesting aspects to chew on…but Eyre and Hopkins provide a full meal, if not all the courses. If you enjoy Shakespeare, you must see this production. If you come to the Bard only on occasion, you may find this a bit different than what you expect, intriguing, and certainly shorter than your typical play. It is the magic of Shakespeare that his work continues to make sense and have impact in various conceptualizations, settings, and times, even when some of the specifics may be confusing as society changes.

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