Shoplifters

[4 stars]

Hirokazu Koreeda wrote and directed this heart-battering and darkly funny look at family that crosses the sense and sensibility of Roma with Florida Project. He continues to plumb some of his favorite themes around family that have often informed his movies and garnered him many awards and nominations.

Shoplifters is a subtle and complicated story that revolves around a low-income family struggling in a unidentified Japanese city. It is a view of that culture that will seem both familiar and utterly unexpected. Koreeda takes his time with the tale, but is constantly building it through the two hours. It is oddly hypnotic through its presentation and its story, but with a tension underneath that keeps your attention and curiosity.

This isn’t a simple tale, nor a perfectly happy one; it is more honest than aspirational. But it is beautiful and oddly hopeful and will leave you thinking about it and discussing it for days afterwards.

Alita: Battle Angel

[3 stars]

There is a lot to like and a lot to hate in this epic adventure. It is packed with incredible visuals, a strong female lead, amazing fights, and some great moments. To dislike, with prejudice, are several chunks of the script and the non-ending (again, thanks to the script). Did I mention the script?

There was so much anticipation around this first big offering of 2019. The pedigree was solid with Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), king of the low-budget high-impact green screen, at the helm. It even had James Cameron behind it as producer and co-writer along with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon) with solid source material in a well-loved manga (Gunnm).

And, honestly, it starts off pretty well. Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) tackles Alita with a guileless honesty that manages to not feel stupid. Christoph Waltz (Tulip Fever) guides her journey with some actual depth and character. Even Jennifer Connelly (Stuck in Love), whose character is more than a little cliche, manages to broaden it out to something richer than what was provided on the page. Keean Johnson (Nashville) gives Salazar a reasonable foil and love interest, though he doesn’t quite have the experience to make the role much more than how it was written. Then, of course, there is Mehershala Ali (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), the man who’s everywhere this year. Ali gets to have some fun…if not blaze new ground or create a role of a lifetime. Jackie Earle Haley (Damnation Alley) and Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled) put together some fun, if unsurprising, villains as well. Even Ed Norton (Isle of Dogs) has a small and, unremarkable, appearance.

But the story is incomplete. It literally ends on an ellipsis without a sense of completion. That is entirely on the script. This film was clearly intended as a first installment in a franchise…one that will never get made (at least for the big screen). But rather than help it stand on its own with a possibility of a future, it simply gets through some stuff and ends without any feeling of resolution. Some slight edits at the end might have helped avoid that feeling by moving some of the final action into or after the credits, but that isn’t what Rodriguez did. After bringing the story to a rather nice climax emotionally, he drops the ball and speeds directly through to the final moments and images.

And then there are the eyes. Alita’s eyes, a weird homage to its anime roots and attempt to make her look different, are, well, distracting. I think there was some intent there to highlight her uniqueness. But in a world where cyborgs and body mods are common, no one there seems to notice them and, as viewers, we just keep getting put off. Salazar’s acting was more than enough to get across the point, the eyes were overkill. It doesn’t ruin the performances or film, but it was the one serious production mistake.

The truth is that if you have any interest in this story or movie, you should see it on the big screen (3D or not is up to you, I saw it in Dobly and was suitably impressed) because it really won’t translate to small screen. Like Valerian, this is a sprawling visual feast with a lot of story that feels pretty common since its release (almost 20 years ago in this case). It is worth supporting for its attempt to do something new, despite its weak script. On the other hand, if you aren’t living to see this or desire some visual acrobatics for a relaxing couple hours away from the world, there are plenty of other choices out there.

At Eternity’s Gate

[3 stars]

Willem Dafoe (Aquaman) gives one of his most quiet, contained and intense performances as Vincent Van Gogh in this odd biopic. The story, as it is presented, is odd not for its subject, but for its style, but let me come back to that.

Dafoe is the lynchpin in this biopic. While there are other performances that help him along, Oscar Isaac (Life Itself) as Paul Gauguin, Rupert Friend (A Simple Favor) as his brother, and Mads Mikkelsen (Doctor Strange) and Mathieu Amalric (Grand Budapest Hotel) as confessors, only Dafoe really drives this story. Given that is through the eyes of a deeply disturbed and unsteady artist, that is either a strength or a weakness, depending on your experience of the story.

Director and co-writer Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) has a thing for artists. He is driven to explain and capture the fine line between genius and madness. For a lot of this film we are forced to view the world through a shaky-cam or with split focus to achieve at least part of that goal. It is disorienting and alienating and, frankly, far too obvious. Given Dafoe’s performance, he should have trusted the actors and audience more to understand. The camera tricks were off-putting and, at times for me, unwatchable. Had he used the approach only for a few crisis moments in the film I could have understood and handled it better, but it is better than three-quarters of the film which was already 20-30 minutes longer than necessary.

What is even more disappointing than the camera choices is that we really don’t learn a lot about Vincent’s life. We see events, but never really get to understand them. Vincent clearly does and makes many decisions due to them, so we’re not even emulating his thinking process. The script simply jumps about to various points in his life and assumes we either know the background or can guess it. As a first script for Louise Kugelberg, I can understand that gap, but because Schnabel co-wrote, along with the massively prolific and talented Jean-Claude Carrière (The Patience Stone), I was a little surprised by the result.

For Dafoe’s performance, and some of the inner life of the creative process the film portrays, this is a fascinating film. If you want to learn more about Van Gogh’s life, and mysteries surrounding it, even the recent Loving Vincent will provide more. And, perhaps, I am being unfair to Schanbel’s intentions with this story, but that is in part because the story does try to answer some questions, but never really does full enough. Clearly that was part of the intent as there are black-screen monologues and text explanations to try and fulfill that purpose. Had the film makers focused solely on Vincent’s inner life and process, it may have felt more complete. As it is, we get some interesting ideas and a fabulous performance to appreciate, but not much else.

Agatha and the Truth of Murder

[3.5 stars]

If you like Christie, this is a must-see story. If you’re a mystery fan, it depends on your tolerance for a solidly standard BBC mystery with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. The movie stands on its own nicely, regardless of your familiarity with Christie and her works, but there is more to get out of it the more you know.

Many stories and speculations have been made about the 11 days that Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926.  Even the facts are still debated and discussed because no definitive answer has ever been documented (one theory, another theory). Of the fictions posited, several, including a Doctor Who episode, presume she went off to solve a real-life murder, because it would be the most amusing assumption.

This latest look at that real-life mystery is really rather fun. Tom Dalton’s script is clever and nicely reflective of Christie’s work while remaining both a good mystery and very self-aware. Christie, played nicely by Ruth Bradley (Humans), gets to learn about the real world and and her public before our eyes. It is a delightful performance that is both strong and vulnerable, and even a bit naive about the world.

Joined by Pippa Haywood (The Bodyguard), the two dive into a cold case with, of course, many suspects and an obscure motive. A perfect Christie set up with a solid supporting cast. Of note are two character actors, Tim McInnerny (The Hippopotamus) and Ralph Ineson (The Hurricane Heist). Each delivers a number of unexpected moments and levels to what could have been dull roles. Some credit to that success is the script, but the actors had to sell it, and they do.

The story does take some liberties with the truth, but nothing that is overly concerning. And director Terry Loane shows he has learned a lot during his second-unit years, keeping the tale moving along crisply, and packing a lot into the 90ish minutes of the run. This may not be as slickly appointed as many of the recent remakes of Christie’s work, but it is very well done and entertaining.

Io

[2.5 stars]

The best science fiction takes an aspect of science and uses it to illuminate human nature or present dangers. The trick is that the science has to be real, or at least believable… and you can get away with one really big lie (like faster-than-light travel or communication). Io has some truly human moments and struggles and it is nicely driven by Margaret Qualley (Death Note) and Anthony Mackie (Love the Coopers, Avengers) with a small assist from Danny Houston (Game Night).

The science, however, is truly, horribly wrong from the very opening moments of the film. I had hoped that by ignoring the opening monologue I could enjoy the rest of the movie more, but the writers doubled and even tripled down on their awful understanding of space travel and evolution making it difficult not to grimace. I will admit that director Jonathan Helpert managed to build the tension and keep the story going despite these issues. With only three characters that took some effort, even with the talent he had to work with.

This one is really your choice. Qualley continues to show her talent and Mackie gets to work with a new type of character. If you like these actors or want to see more of their work, you can make it through this flick. But as a story, it is the kind of science fiction I’d like to stamp out.

Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (series 1.0)

[4 stars]

Bletchley, through a series of clever and deliberate transitions, manages to cross the Atlantic successfully without losing its original sensibility. The ability to evolve a show so dramatically is something I really enjoy watching when it is done well, as it was here. In fact, there are several shows that have tackled that problem recently and successfully. Interestingly, most of them are from the UK (e.g., Father Brown) which is far less precious about their properties and far more focused, typically, on quality of story.

Through the first four episodes of this rebuilt Bletchley, we see a new collection of women with similar backgrounds as the original two series, but battling society in new ways (well, in some new ways). The full series consists of another four episodes, but I’ll get to that.

Julie Graham (Shetland) and Rachael Stirling (Their Finest) from the original series provide the anchor and backbone of the tale. The introduction of Crystal Balint, Chanelle Peloso, and Jennifer Spence (Travelers)manages to resurrect the magic of the first series and fill out the gang despite all the new faces.

The real power of this series isn’t the mysteries, which are clever, but rather the energy and intelligence of the women as they find the murderers, and they do it while fighting society’s dismissive view of them. It is a show that is perfectly suited to the times and shines a light into the dark corners of current society.

Now back to those last four episodes of the series. Frustratingly, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get to see the other half of the season as that appears locked onto BritBox, in the ever growing and complicated landscape of streaming services. Honestly, they’re all just shooting themselves in the foot…I’m not going to get a dozen different subscriptions, especially as most services only have one or two shows I even care about. But if you have BritBox or an opportunity to see the newly conceived series, you won’t be disappointed. If I ever get to see the rest myself, I’ll update this post to cover the full series.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

[3 stars]

A new Coen brothers (Hail, Caesar!) movie is always reason to celebrate, or at least to take notice. They are responsible for some of the weirdest and most wonderful cinema of the last 30 years. And they have garnered nearly 300 award nominations, winning nearly half of them. Their work is idiosyncratic and uneven, but always inventive and intense. Buster Scruggs is no exception.

So what is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? It is a collection of six shorts held together only by the Western theme that binds the framing book that opens the film. If you are a lover of subversive westerns (think The Dressmaker or Pale Rider, though thoughts of Blazing Saddles probably aren’t out of order), this is probably for you. The stories are organized to become increasingly dark and reserved, but, honestly, the first half of the anthology is much more interesting and effective than the latter half. And it never really came together as a whole for me.

It opens with the eponymous segment, which is a hilarious send up led with real talent by Tim Blake Nelson (Colossal). From there, things begin to shift and take a very dark turn by the wonderful third segment, Meal Ticket, in which Harry Melling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) steals the screen from Liam Neeson (Widows). The remaining segments aren’t bad, but become more about what the West really was than how we picture it. And the latter three stories drag a little for my taste. In many ways, thanks to the dose of reality, they are closer to real Westerns despite their moments of satire and commentary. I’m not particularly a Western fan, so it isn’t surprising that they left me a little nonplussed. Certainly, like all Coen brothers films, the are all loaded with recognizable and talented faces.

All that said, I’m not entirely sure how this particular offering garnered three Oscar nominations, even if they were for song, costume, and screenplay. I don’t think it really has a chance at any of them given the competition. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing, it is. And, nicely, you can exit it at the end of any one of the sequences and probably feel satisfied though I’m sure the Coen’s would argue you aren’t going to get their point. But I didn’t really get their point and I did watch the whole thing. Or perhaps I did, but got it early and didn’t need to be hammered. Regardless, there are moments through to the end that are worth seeing, if you’ve the patience, and performances are all very entertaining.

Now to the bigger question, is Netflix really a player in cinema now? Between Roma and this movie, they’ve got more than two fist fulls of Oscar nominations, not to mention all the other noms and wins this season. But what is more important to the art of the industry is that Netflix offered both movies the chance to be what their creators envisioned, without the obligation to create something to be a “hit.” In an odd way, Netflix, and other services, are reinvigorating the idea of artistic vision in a way that the studios have crushed in their search for tentpoles and only tentpoles. The success of Roma in particular is challenging the idea that streaming and theatrical releases can’t co-exist. They Shall Not Grow Old has also had a huge theater run, though initially through TV, then Fathom Events, and now broader release. The rules are definitely changing and maybe it’s time for Hollywood and the theater chains to catch up.

Velvet Buzzsaw

[3 stars]

If you’re a fan of films like Theater of Blood, Vincent Price and Diana Rigg’s 1973 horror delight, you’ll likely enjoy this latest, admittedly imperfect, Netflix release. It is a wry look at the art world but also quite dark. Not a huge surprise given it is writer/director Dan Gilroy (Roman J. Israeal, Esq), though the tenor of this movie is quite a bit more tongue-in-cheek despite the horror elements.

Gilroy pulled together a talented and committed cast that pivots primarily around his reunited Nightcrawler leads Jake Gyllenhaal (Okja) and Renee Russo (Just Getting Started). The other substantial role is delivered with mixed results by Zawe Ashton (Oasis). She isn’t so much bad as without plumbable depths. Perhaps it was part of the point, but the result diminishes her impact and the impact of the story. Adding to the mix in a series of supporting character roles are Toni Collette (Hearts Beat Loud), John Malkovich (The ABC Murders), Billy Magnussen (Ingrid Goes West), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting), and Tom Sturridge (Song to Song). Each is a forced extreme, but all are entertaining in their ways.

But if you were hoping for a break-out horror, like Get Out, based on Gilroy’s previous powerful main releases, you’re going to be disappointed. It isn’t horrific enough for the horror fans nor intellectual enough for lovers of satire. This is simply some evil fun with a social eye and a mean desire to slam the more obvious absurdities of the art world. Where it fails is in its lack of clear explanation or point and, ultimately, by not providing anything positive about an industry that Gilroy knows has value…and is even using to send his message. In other words, it is somewhat rudderless with some fun moments and serious talent, but that’s about it. That doesn’t make this flick something to skip, but go in knowing it isn’t what you think it is and probably won’t reach what you hope it is.

Smallfoot

[3 stars]

There are some real gems jammed into the goop of Smallfoot. For instance, the opening is a wonderfully rich satire that is a story in and of itself. Much like the opening of Up it was its own tale before the tale. And Smallfoot’s main message is equally as adult and important, and it is delivered cleverly with the Yeti and Humans unable to easily communicate (in a surprisingly accurate way).

But, ultimately, co-writer/co-director Karey Kirkpatrick (Spiderwick Chronicles, Chicken Run) gave us a kid’s film trying hard to be Frozen and slipping into silliness too often to make it a classic…or even all that good. The musical numbers are bolted on and poorly mixed, even if delivered with talent. The dialogue is just OK and the plot, generally, is way too obvious (though it has at least one nice twist).  One of the issues may have been the number of other co-writers and co-directors that worked on the film (3 other writers and one other director). Just too many chefs.

Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) takes the lead in the cast as a guileless Yeti coming to terms with new knowledge. Along with James Corden (Ocean’s 8), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Common (John Wick: Chapter 2), Danny DeVito (The Lorax), Gina Rodriguez (Annihilation), and even
LeBron James (possibly in prep for his upcoming Space Jam 2), the cast has quite the scope and solid delivery of what they had to work with. But you can’t overcome a weak script no matter how talented you are, you can only sell it well.

So, yes, you can probably watch this once, alongside a youngster, without being too bored. However, if those same mini-people demand it on repeat, set it up and walk out of earshot. Once is more than enough for this, despite any of the good bits that it may contain.

Madeline’s Madeline

[2 stars]

About the only thing I can say good about this film is that the main leads have talent. The story never really comes together and the message, if any, is somewhat empty with nothing new to say.

Helena Howard, in her first role, really manages to own the screen and show range. And Molly Parker (Lost in Space) is a model of a mess along with Miranda July, both of whom serve as mother figures to Howard.

I will grant that Josephine Decker direction manages to pull you along an impossibly obtuse plot that seems to keep verging on meaning, but just as quickly falls apart. It is most certainly not meant to be taken as reality or at face value, but there are nuggets of “truth” in there that help build a world and the characters. Sadly, in the end, it is allowed to simply fall apart. I am all for non-traditional story-telling, but it has to get to a satisfying point to have made it worthwhile. In this case, it just didn’t get there.

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