Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains

[3 stars]

I don’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed that this movie still works after almost 40 years. Its points still hold and its humor is still on point. Not bad for Lou Adler’s (Up in Smoke) only second directing gig. And it has some fairly good music performances in it as well.

But, message and amusement aside, it is the cast that wows you. Not because they deliver such great performances…they’re reasonable. But the main cast are young stars that were all near the beginning of their careers. Diane Lane (Serenity) is the front person for the Stains; a young woman with an axe to grind and a desire to succeed. She’s joined by Laura Dern (Marriage Story) and one of Marin Kanter’s few performances. And then there are early appearances of Christine Lahti (Operator) and Ray Winstone (Point Break) as well.

This isn’t a great movie, but it is surprisingly effective for all its lo-fi, indie feel. It captures a small sense of the era, and takes some wicked swipes at the music industry. When you have time and want to spelunk the early 80s and the Punk/New Wave movement in a light way, it is a fun and entertaining view.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains Poster

Precarious

[3 stars]

Much like the recent surprise, The Vast of Night, this festival indie embraces its own strong point of view. In this case, though, the style is more magic realism than 50s scifi/horror homage. From the gorgeous opening credits through to the final visuals, it is a feast for the eyes. Your brain, admittedly, needs to take a bit of a holiday about the plot, but your eyes will be happy it did. The art direction and production quality are amazing as you glide through a twisted world of desperation and, for all intents, addiction in a sort of noir-esque tale of money and power. But it’s all kicked off, if not tied up with, a murder mystery that launches the story.

Like Blue Velvet, or the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, or just about any Jodorowsky, the story quickly slips sideways into a world of its own rules and language. We learn about it as the main characters do…or as they admit they do in any case. It isn’t a rushed journey. Some of the languid pace works for its purpose, though it would have been better for some tightening of shots, edits, and scenes.

But, if nothing else, watch at least the opening credits should you get the chance. If those don’t suck you in, then this flick isn’t for you.

In the end, the story doesn’t quite come together and make sense. This type of fantasy rarely does. However, in this case the logic, fully expanded, implies an undesired outcome, though the movie tries to suggest otherwise. But getting there is really quite a journey of practical effects and visual joy that just kept surprising me.

Check it out for some names you may be seeing again, especially Louise Franco as the art director. I’d also be curious to see what Weston Terray will come up with next to direct; he squeezed a lot out of this story and created a consistent and semi-magical mood out of a tough script (of his own devising). I’d love to see what he could do with a more solid tale and a more vicious editor. Ben Eshbach’s score was also a wonderful compliment to the mood and intent.

Precarious Poster

Emma. (2020)

[3 stars]

Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries) wrote a wonderful adaptation of Austen’s famous novel, which Autumn de Wilde directed flawlessly in her first feature outing. If you like Austen, you’re sure to love the result. If you like Austen. I’m fairly certain I’ve expressed my frustration with her work in the past. It isn’t a flat-out dismissal, but my bar is high for success.

I will say that I very much enjoyed the second half of this film. The first half was a rather tedious setup for the remainder. Not that there weren’t funny moment as we learned the characters. Anya Taylor-Joy (Glass) proves again what a range and depth she has as an actor as she dominates her house and neighbors. She is surrounded by many women of talent. Amber Anderson (Strike) and Taylor-Joy even perform their own music for the camera. Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness) is completely sympathetic as the simpering and sad-but-dedicated pawn who is the secondary thread that ties it all together. And Gemma Whelan (The End of the F***ing World) and Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) add some wonderful color to the world. As the quietly (mostly) ineffective head of household, Bill Nighy (Pokémon Detective Pikachu), of course, is hilarious throughout.

And then there were the suitors. Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) and Johnny Flynn (Lovesick/Scrotal Recall) were wonderfully odd and oddly human, and the standouts. Flynn, in particular, bringing Knightley to life in a heart-warming way.

My personal tastes aside, I do want to acknowledge that, for a first feature for both Catton and de Wilde, the result is amazing. I’d certainly look for more of de Wilde’s work. Catton I’d be more reticent about. I tried The Luminaries and was bored out of my skull. Like the first half of this movie, it moved very slowly with little to chew on that wasn’t obvious or kept my interest. I appreciate period dramas that retrain their sensibilities, but I do also demand to be intrigued and entertained in a way my contemporary brain expects to some degree. Otherwise what you have is a museum piece, not a show.

So, again, if you like Austen, you’ve found a perfect piece for your dietary needs. If you’re not a fan, and have some patience, this does pay off during the downslope side of the tale. It is certainly a gorgeous production from a cinematography and costume point of view as well.

Emma. Poster

My Spy

[3.5 stars]

I kicked off this Dave Bautista (Hotel Artemis) comedy/actioner half-flinching and sure it was going to be painfully unwatchable. It surprised me. The production quality is solid (it was going to be a wide release before the pandemic upended everything), but the trailers hadn’t given me any confidence in the movie.

As it turns out, their marketing folks should have had more faith in their product. It’s really pretty entertaining, especially thanks to the scarily competent Chloe Coleman (Upload). No 11-year-old should be that smooth an actor. But she and Bautista make an amusing pairing. As her mother, Parisa Fitz-Henley (Midnight, Texas, Luke Cage) is also solid, funny, and believable in a not very believable plot.

And that’s where the shame really is in this movie. A bit more effort  on the script to make it credible rather than silly and it would have been so much more. Kristen Schaal (A Walk in the Woods) and Ken Jeong (Wonder Park), in particular, were well reined in by director Peter Segal. They were actually almost human. However, though they were funny at times, I refuse to discuss how painfully outlandish Noah Dalton Danby and Devere Rogers were.

My real frustration was the specifics of the plot: how operations worked, what decisions were made, etc. Those were just absurd at times. I don’t even think kids were being fooled by the flawed logic. Given the script is from Erich and Jon Hoeber (The Meg), you have some sense of what you’re in for.

But squint through that stuff, and you get a funny, at time heart-warming, bit of comedy action that is a fine 90 minutes of fun. Brilliant? No, but certainly not a complete time waste for what it is. And Coleman’s performance alone is worth the time.

My Spy Poster

And Then We Danced

[4 stars]

All you need to know to understand this wonderful, poignant tale of life in Georgia (as in former Soviet Union) is in the credits; a special thanks to the choreographer, who couldn’t be named, but without whom the movie couldn’t have been made. That statement, which comes after the story, crystallizes it all.

Writer/director Levan Akin and newcomers Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili picked up a pile of well-deserved awards for their efforts. The two leads not only deliver sweetly nuanced performances, they can also dance…like, seriously dance.

This is a paced film that slowly unfolds and ultimately builds to its climax in the final few minutes of film. Sustaining that, and building the tension as it moves along is all very subtle, but effective. And without that effort, the final scene would have been cheap theatrics rather than an unequivocal statement. Forgetting the character relationships that need to be established, the audience needs that time and day-in-the-life moments to learn some history and culture to put it all in context.

This was a perfect film for Pride month, absolutely. But it’s also a great view into a world few will have experienced, even while presenting universal emotions and struggles.

And Then We Danced Poster

Dark (series 3 – finale)

[5 stars]

I’ve been talking up Dark for a while now. And having rewatched it from front to back again, I plan on continuing.

The series starts as a fairly standard mystery and then rapidly evolves. By episode 1.3 you have some sense of the complexity. By the end of the first series your brain is likely bleeding. In the second series it only gets more complex and convoluted and yet…. either it was all planned brilliantly or retcon’d seamlessly because on every major point it holds together. There are some minor bits and pieces that are left hanging or glossed (and yes, I look at you episode 2.4). And I admit there is one choice in the series 2 finale that makes me grind my teeth as it wasn’t necessary for plot, but simply contrived to get a visual and then they got stuck with it. Then, at the end of series 2, you’ve taken a hard left turn.

But the big events, the important confluences, all work as one.

And here we are at the completion of the tale, series 3; it makes the first two runs look simple…in fact, the penultimate episode left me exhausted. More importantly, the finale brings it all together in a fair way, given the story that’s been laid out before us–the clues are all there. Even the title finally gets an explanation.

Ultimately, this is one of the best attempts to both philosophically attack and support a deterministic universe. There are characters on both sides fighting to defend and break it. And not a one of them is telling the truth. We know that early on, but never actually find solid ground till the end, when their intentions are truly revealed. Sure the science is, at best, fantastical at times, but not all of it. Some is well-established theory, and the mix of the two allows you to swallow the conceits in full; even when they get it horribly wrong.

One of the aspects that makes this series work is their, mostly, amazing casting. Only This is Us has come close to the need and quality of finding actors to portray characters at different ages. And, honestly, Dark has done it better. Some of the actors you will swear are the same person, just aged. It helps tremendously with keeping track of the story and the credibility of the plot. They also weren’t afraid to try new ways to work with the audience visually. Each series experiments with new visual cues and approaches to help you navigate the insanity. Series 3 even uses more than one approach over the eight episodes.

Dark lives comfortably with some of the great time-travel tales of the last few decades, including Timecrimes, Primer, Edge of Tomorrow, Predestination, Doctor Who (Blink), Looper, Safety Not GuaranteedWatchmen, The Magicians (ep 5.6: Oops..I did it Again), Babylon 5, and even (despite its flaws) Terminator: Genisys. If you haven’t tackled it yet, make the time…and watch it from start to finish in a straight go (no more than two episodes a night). There are so many subtle and wonderful moments and echos that will get missed if you stretch it out too long.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

[4.5 stars]

City of Angels is a richly appointed and complex tale of murder, espionage, love, and religious devotion (as well as religious hypocrisy), with a good helping of prejudice and capitalism thrown in.  It is also topical and historically well done, resulting in a beautiful and brutal series.

Natalie Dormer (Patient Zero) is a revelation in 3 of the 4 characters (she really can’t pull of the white Mexican well). It is obvious why she took the role. Likewise Nathan Lane (Carrie Pilby), who gets to play to all his strengths from wry humor to deep pathos. Bouncing between them is Daniel Zovatto (Lady Bird), who serves as the main spine for the series. From the opening scene, he is the man in the balance trapped between outcomes. But until the moments, he is stuck in the gray. We watch him struggle to be part of some world, any world, where he fits and can live with the choices. And it is a compelling tension.

A number of driving roles keep it all moving as well. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years), in particular, has a many layered story to navigate. Through him we see duality in detail: humanity and the inhumane. It is done without any nod and wink, nor any apology. And Michael Gladis (Extant) provides a suitably vile and craven political climber in a world that he wants to crush before it crushes him. Even Zovatto’s screen brother, Johnathan Nieves (See You Yesterday), brings in a set of layers born of hopelessness and anger. It’s a little one-note, but it doesn’t lack credibility even when his ultimate choices are a little forced. There are some nice treats along the way too, like Patty Lupone (Last Christmas) in concert and Brian Dennehy’s (The Seagull) final effort before his passing in April (though he may have other footage still to come in a couple projects).

This time in LA, the lead-up to WWII, has been often visited, but rarely with the kind of scope this series pulls off. Usually you get hyper-focused stories, like Zoot Suit, or Chinatown, or any number of mystery/suspense/noir stories that pull apart the high and low of society, or the gay and straight. City of Angels navigates all of these aspects, and then some. And it does so in a way that makes sense and shows the connecting threads. For that alone, it is worth seeing.

However, while I loved seeing a different take on the era, I have to admit that I was also somewhat upset that it removed primary responsibility for the horrors from the humans. Dormer’s character, as the sweet-tongued devil in many guises, becomes the main impetus for all the action. She really does much more than talk to make it all happen, which is where the trouble lies.

In addition, there is a challenge with the plot decisions that bothered me. While the presentation of how LGBTQ people were treated and viewed in the era is relatively, sadly accurate, the series also has no LGBTQ character who isn’t, for lack of a better word, evil. Not just tragic, but actively doing wrong. That feels a shame in a story as big as this and one that has so many levels of detail. And particularly wrong during Pride Month. It isn’t that the characters aren’t human, they just all feel irredeemable.

But, ultimately, this show is so on target for the current situation across the country, the awakening and mobilization of frustration and anger, that it’s uncanny and upsetting. All in an intentional way. City of Angels marks a brick in the path that leads to its own historical volatile times, but it is also a reflection of the powder keg that is today. It insists we look not only at the past but at how we want to navigate the future. And it also forces us to admit the perils of not paying attention to those lessons. Despite its slightly rushed wrap-up and some of the dangling threads, this is a definite must-see for our times and, should these times move on, a must-see for the historic scope and lessons of the past; and yes it’s entertaining as well.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

Space Force

[2 stars]

OK, I’m throwing in the towel on this one.

Up front, I am not and never was an Office fan. The humor just never worked for me…not that I hadn’t lived the cube-life at points, and not that I hadn’t seen a good deal of the truth in the satire. However, mean humor just doesn’t entertain me, it angers me. So, sort of counter-productive. Because of that, it was with trepidation that I entered into the world of Space Force. And it was pure stubbornness that I delayed and delayed this write up trying to watch more of the show even though it left me empty of joy.

What made The Office work was its core truth and that its audience knew, and had internalized, that truth. This satire has none of that advantage. It needed to find something more human for us to latch onto. Frankly, it reminds me of a lot of the issues Avenue 5 has.

The fact is, at least in this household, that despite a cast packed with talent, the show feels surprisingly lifeless. It has moments, but because it isn’t in a familiar setting, and because its inception itself feels like a national joke (something they lean into), it’s hard to relate to or support the characters. We may understand the military, but most of us don’t live it, unlike office life. In other words, we can’t quite grasp all of the intent and, frankly, based on some of the people I know, I know they got a lot of it completely wrong.

With all that said, I couldn’t make it past the second episode, even with John Malkovich (Velvet Buzzsaw) chewing up the scenery in a most satisfactory way. I tried. You may find it more to your liking than I did…humor is highly individual, afterall.

The Promise (Wu ji)

[2 stars]

A fantasy about capricious gods and untrustworthy humans, even if there is a modicum of redemption, isn’t a great foundation for a tale. At least not an escapist tale. When the script, effects, and wire-work are also weak, it only makes it harder to enjoy. Add to these challenges the halting and rough rhythm of the story and I’m left scratching my head that this was from director and co-writer Kaige Chen. I guess everyone gets one wrong at some point.

Jang Dong-Gun, Hiroyuki Sanada (Life), Cecilia Cheung, and Ye Liu are the high points, such as they are. Each has moments that are satisfying, despite so many more that are not. These are all solid actors, but they can’t overcome the leaps, gaps, and forced aspects of the story.

After a bit of searching I found, perhaps, the reason for the issues. Most fantasies of this type are long..often over two hours long while this was only 1:40. As it turns out, I think my copy was the US released theatrical version which apparently was heavily edited. The extra scenes were on the disc, but at the time I saw no reason to torture myself any more by viewing them. But now I realize it may have filled in some of the plot leaps.

Now, this excuse uncovered doesn’t forgive the general concerns, but it may have smoothed out some of the aspects that were exacerbated by it. If you are compelled to see the movie, make sure you’re seeing the original version. But, either way, this was pretty much a disappointing miss for me.

The Promise Poster

He Died With a Falafel in His Hand

[3 stars]

I know, I know. This has been on my list for years, but I hadn’t gotten to it until now. And it was entertaining, if a little out of time (especially one or two very un-woke scenes that couldn’t be done now).

I have to admit, I’ve no idea what attracted director/writer Richard Lowenstein to adapt this odd travelogue of life through the eyes of a slacker. Especially as his main focus has been music videos for years. But something about the story spoke to him. I can’t say the characters or story spoke much to me, but the presentation and path of the story kept me mostly entertained.

Noah Taylor (Free Fire) plays it all with a flat, who cares sort of attitude, even while clearly wishing there was something more. And in his wake drift several people who keep washing up on his shores, for better or worse. Emily HamiltonRomane Bohringer, and Brett Stewart continually bounce off Taylor’s character, changing with each encounter, even as he remains primarily unaffected and unchanged. But Taylor watches and clearly considers each evolution even when he’s unsure in what way to react to it all.

It has a resolution of sorts. It isn’t overly satisfying, or wasn’t for me, but the journey was amusing, if both dark and a little gratuitously violent at times. And I didn’t feel like it ever got to any substantial point (even if I did see the visual joke and commentary). This is definitely a movie that many will enjoy and just as many will find inscrutable. You’re just going to have to make up your own mind.

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand Poster

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

%d bloggers like this: