The Ipcress File

[3 stars]

Sometimes it is nice to dig out a classic you’ve missed. I recently did that with Iprcress. It is very much out of date at this point, but with some amusing moments and a rather young Michael Caine (Sherlock Gnomes). Ipcress released the year before Caine’s breakout in Alfie (1966), which really launched him on the international stage.

The plot of this flick isn’t very surprising, though it is all carried off with a quiet English humor and a staid set of reactions. It feels like a weak version of The Manchurian Candidate, which released a few years earlier. However the wry humor is an unexpected aspect to it all. It isn’t Kingsman funny, but it is somewhere between that and Bond.

One of the things that caught me off guard was how much the opening is reflected in the series opening sequence of Dexter. Even the music is similar. As it turns out, I’m not even close to the first to realize that. Really, it is jarring how close it is.

As a film, it is diverting and is executed well, though more of an interesting curio than brilliant movie. Still, entertaining.  It is also packed with a slew of talent that is no longer with us. Caine is one of the few survivors in that cast, along with director Sidney J. Furie. That Caine is still putting out quality work is what makes him one of the most working and recognizable actors of our time, and Furie continues to dabble across all genre over his equally wide ranging career.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

[2.5 stars]

The first Goosebumps movie in this series was, honestly, a surprise. It was certainly aimed at kids, but had enough meat and story to hold the adults attention as well. This second installment has its moments, but is unabashedly aimed at kids and tweens with little for adults.

The cast isn’t at fault here. Director Ari  Sandel (The DUFF) found a good ensemble and, though he certainly focused on a particular audience, he kept it consistent and moving along.

The younger crew of Madison Iseman (Jumanji), Jeremy Ray Taylor (It) and Caleel Harris (Castle Rock) work well together and are engaging, if a bit sanitized and simplified. It’s really the adults that don’t feel even a little credible. Wendi McLendon-Covey (Speech & Debate), Ken Jeong (Crazy Rich Asians), and Chris Parnell (Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation) are all paper-thin caricatures of parents and neighbors. Even Jack Black’s (The House with the Clock in the Walls) reprise of his RL Stine feels less than believable.

The issue is almost entirely on Rob Lieber’s (Peter Rabbit) script. But it isn’t just about the tone and tale, it is also about the plot itself. If you’ve seen the first installment, you’ll be a tad confused for a while. Since this is a sequel, you’re expecting it to pick up from where it left off. But that isn’t really the case at all. It takes about 20 minutes for Lieber to explain why we’re in a different town and how Stine’s book ended up there. I like that it is intended as more a standalone, but it also seems to remake some of the rules established in the first film.

Am I being picky about a silly kid’s film? Probably, but it is what separates the successes of the Jumanji’s from these kinds of releases. If you’ve someone young, or on heavy medication, to watch this with, it is entertaining enough. It just isn’t a good movie for anyone over 14.

Strawberry and Chocolate

[3 stars]

This is a decidedly low-budget affair with moments of brilliance amidst a lot of mediocre and painful presentation. But those moments really do make the time worthwhile, as numerous festivals and the Oscars agreed.

Jorge Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz make an unlikely pairing of friends from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Cruz is a true believer in the Communist party in Cuba, while Perugorría is a bit more aware of the realities of life and politics…not to mention a gay man in a macho society.  With a bit of help from the neighbor, Mirta Ibarra, the three become friends and help one another heal.

The story that plays out is more than a little forced, but the commentary and emotions that are surfaced are as applicable today as they were over 20 years ago when this film was made. The relationships that form are genuine, even if the ages of the actors and backstories for the characters are a little off. As a peek inside Cuban culture, and loving look at people generally, it is a funny and heartwarming journey as director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s penultimate contribution to film.

 

Mrs. Wilson

[3 stars]

This is one of those true stories that is stranger than fiction. In the beginning of this three part drama, Ruth Wilson (The Little Stranger) loses her husband of many years, Iain Glen (Cleverman). Quickly, she discovers that he wasn’t the man she thought in work, in life, or in love. Watching her struggle with the revelations is quite a shift from her usual more overtly tough characters.

The story is mostly about her wresting the truth from those who did know and then struggling with the knowing. Primarily, that is from Fiona Shaw (Colette) and Anupam Kher (The Big Sick), who still make her work for her answers, such as they are. Keeley Hawes (The Bodyguard) and Patrick Kennedy (London Has Fallen) add some other interesting aspects to the life being revealed.

Richard Laxton helms the triptych nicely, slowly peeling layers from the mystery and the characters. It is a fascinating story, if not an entirely satisfying conclusion. But the ending isn’t the fault of the actors or story, but rather of life, if the final credits are to be believed. Ultimately, it is a reminder to consider what makes your life right and good more than it is about collusion and deception. If it were placed in a more current time, I’m not sure we’d have gotten the same story, but it somehow feels right in its period.

For the performances and the slow ride of the story, it is worthy of the time spent. At this point I’m even curious to try and dive into the real history to learn more.

On the Basis of Sex

[4 stars]

Who would have thought that a movie about tax law could be so riveting? It brings to mind The West Wing, which famously made the census and picking a postage stamp must-see TV.  But, of course, this film isn’t about tax law, it is about equality and a social movement that still struggles today. In fact, next week will mark the third Women’s March, inspired by the continuing fight against people who would like to throw the country back to an earlier era where women, in particular, were seen as second class citizens at best, and property at worst.

On the Basis of Sex isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a solid one thanks to a heart-felt script and a solid cast. Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) takes on the mantel of RBG, bringing her to life as a young woman and, more importantly, a person. With Armie Hammer (Sorry to Bother You) by her side and Cailee Spaeny (Bad Times at the El RoyaleVice) as their daughter, we see a family engaged in the process and devoted to one another’s efforts and successes. Depicting them as a family adds the deeply personal to the deeply political that could have easily overwhelmed the story.

Justin Theroux (Mute), as the ACLU’s Mel Wulf and Kathy Bates (The Great Gilly Hopkins) have nice supporting roles who both guided and impeded RBG at times. But ultimately, they helped push her to becoming the great, practicing jurist she has become.

On opposing counsel, Sam Waterston (Miss Sloane),  who continues his lifelong career of onscreen litigators, got to portray an out and out asshole, mired in a past that is far too reflective of a good part of today’s political world. Along with Jack Reynor (Kin) and Stephen Root (Life of the Party) the three become the voice of fear and oppression. They are true believers, and perhaps a bit too emphatic in their delivery, rather than calm. Emotionally, it is more palatable for them to be evil and wrong, rather than contemplative and wrong, but it made them less believable as people.

That said, the strength of Daniel Stiepleman’s first script is that it tends to remain focused on the human rather than the political in the story. Yes, the law and the impact are central, but the motivations and the impact are all personal. That the real story of RBG is, in fact, a wonderfully dramatic starting point didn’t hurt his efforts.

For all the great joy, impact, and subtlety of this film, Mimi Leder’s direction let it all deflate at the end. Honestly, I was ready to applaud when the final credits rolled, as was the fairly packed theater I saw it in. And then Leder let the story just sort of die with blocks of text. Truly a shame. It didn’t ruin the film, but it certainly robbed it of a feeling of triumph and possibility. And, frustratingly, a small set of edits could have kept up the energy and feeling rolling so that the last moments of zipping into the present would have felt triumphant rather than as a quiet button to the tale. Despite that let down, it does leave you with a sense of how far we have come and what we risk losing as a society if we don’t keep fighting to protect it.

So, yes, you should see this wonderful depiction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and impact on law in this country. Bring  your daughters and sons or young person of your acquaintance. Remind them how new and vulnerable the law is and society can be, why we fought and why we must continue to fight. Getting entertained at the same time is a nice bonus.

What They Had

[3 stars]

Why do we watch movies? To escape? To be entertained? To learn? To see something that is able to speak for us what we are unable to voice? I imagine all of those things at different times. Sometimes, it is just to see that we’re not alone in our struggles.

What They Had is a quiet and true ensemble piece that strips back the challenge of aging parents while layering in the risks of not living your own life. I can’t say it is entertaining so much as well done and that it manages to resonate.

The cast is solid all around. Hilary Swank (Logan Lucky), Michael Shannon (Little Drummer Girl), Robert Forster (Survivor), Blythe Danner (Hearts Beat Loud), and Taissa Farmiga (The Nun) each get there time and story. Each sells what they’ve got. Danner, in particular, pulls together a full person from the shards of a life, though it takes the entire movie to get there.

For her first film, writer/director Elizabeth Chomko tackled a highly personal subject, capturing the love and pathos it brings to many families. If you’re in the mood or simply need to know that others out there struggle with these issues as well, go for it. If you want laughs or even tears, you’re not likely going to be satisfied. This is more life than drama, not that things don’t happen, nor that there aren’t emotional moments, they just are more real than heightened. That is a compliment, but it returns us to the question: what are you watching for?

Blake Mysteries: Ghost Story

[3 stars]

Ballarat is back, but not with the Blake you’ve beloved (sorry…that was a stretch for the final “B”). Jumping ahead a few years from what had felt like a series farewell, we find a changing of the guard. There This two episode movie relaunch allows a lot of familiar faces to finally get to dominate the story rather than play second fiddle. Most obvious among these are Nadine Gardner as the abandoned/widowed(?) wife of the missing Doctor Blake, and Belinda McClory as the delightfully curmudgeonly medical examiner Alice Harvey.

Honestly, as much as I’d enjoyed the series, I’d not been writing it up as it was fun, but not noteworthy. This shift, whatever the cause, is worth calling out as it was handled smoothly and well. The result keeps the sensibility of the previous five series, but heads off in a solid new direction with new leads, while taking advantage of a new cultural era to help smooth it all over.

The future of this series is probably assured now, regardless of real-life events, though what direction it will go was left purposefully open-ended. Who knows, we may end up with an Australian update of Hart to Hart set in the 60s when all is done. Having now given these characters their due, I can’t see dialing them back in any satisfying way.

Cutie and the Boxer

[4 stars]

Certainly you can approach this purely as a documentary about Ushio Shinohara and/or Noriko  Shinohara, but that is just the surface of this odd window into the lives of the couple.

Zachary Heinzerling’s first film captured, as well as forced, a story to creation simply by being present in lives of these two people. We learn of their art and their impetus, but we also watch them change and say things that have clearly long been gestating…and you get the strong sense that they never would have been said without the cameras being present. That aspect brings an odd and wonderful layer to this documentary. It creates as well as captures art, simply by existing.

While this may all sound rather breezy, the story that unfolds is actually rather complex and, at times, dark. But it is also full of powerful attachment and love. Love we come to understand and, ultimately, see played out during the final role of the credits in a very direct way.

The result of Heinzerling’s efforts was the well deserved receipt of multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination. How you view the final product, as art, story, performance, or simply couple’s therapy is part of the charm and fascination of the piece.

Flower Of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto)

[3 stars]

Admittedly, as a filmmaker, Pedro Almodavar (I’m So Excited) is a matter of personal taste. I happen to enjoy his dark humor and skewed vision of the world. Flower of My Secret is actually a bit more mainstream than a lot of his earlier work, though Almodavar was a great choice for adapting the Dorothy Parker short story (The Lovely Leave).

In many ways it is riffing on a theme of independence that is getting a lot of attention these days (though this is from 1995). It would live comfortably alongside another Spanish language offering, Gloria nicely, though with a very different sensibility. 

Marisa Paredes (Queens) is wonderful as a grand dame lost and without a sense of her own strength, but eventually fighting to find it. Opposite her, in an unlikely role, is Juan Echanove. “Unlikely” because of his story and path, not because of the actor. Their relationship is best described as symbiotically odd. And yet, it works in Almodavar’s capable hands. 

Smaller roles by Almodavar stalwarts Rossy De Palma (Broken Embraces) as Paredes’ sister and the late Chus Lampreave (Broken Embraces) as her mother bring in some needed comedy and homespun grounding. The three work together wonderfully as a dysfunctional family devoted to one another. Another actor no longer with us,  Manuela Vargas, adds some other wonderful layers and moments as Paredes’ maid. 

For a bit of distraction that is less bittersweet than usual, this is worth catching up with if you missed it when it came out. Almodavar never picks easy characters for us to love, but he usually wins us over to their side before the final credits and helps us see ourselves in them while he’s at it. 

2000 and counting

As you may have surmised, this marks the 2000th post (and approx. the 500,000 word milestone) for this blog, covering well over 2000 movies and shows. When I started it back at the end of 2009, it was for two reasons.

Primarily, I wanted to capture my thoughts and prevent having to repeat myself endlessly to friends who kept asking me, “What should I watch?” As a side benefit, it helped me remember what I’d seen, since I watch around 200-300 films a year. And here’s the scary confession: I write up less than half of what I see (if that) during the year. Most movies make it, most TV and streaming series and presentations do not.

My other main drive was to keep my writing skills and habits lubricated. Basically, I wanted to be writing every day. I’ve continued to write and publish my fiction through all of this. Not as much as I’d like, but still some here and there, and I’ve collected the requisite mountain of rejections in between to prove it. (As a sneek preview, I’ve a new story coming out shortly and will announce that when I have the dates.) My lifetime writing total in words has easily surpassed 1 million, which is daunting even if done in small chunks over a long period. Talk about water wearing away a rock. Not that the effort is ever likely to pay off, if the NYT is to be believed.  (To be fair, there is nothing in that article I couldn’t have told you before reading it based on what I make for stories and the current well-known advances for novels my friends are getting.)

I know that the last couple years have exposed more than my critical thoughts on entertainment…I do try to keep that to a minimum, but it has been challenging. Every once in a while I feel I just have to get the word out or, at least, relieve the pressure in my head. If you don’t agree, that’s fine. I don’t tend to judge other’s beliefs. I’m just not particularly fond of bullies, particularly those who abuse their power and are, to paraphrase Pooh, people of very little brain. Apologies to anyone those posts annoy.

I do want to thank everyone and anyone who has used this site as either entertainment or sign post. If I’m helpful either for what to watch, what to not watch, or even if it is: He likes that? I’d hate it! Cool. That’s the point here, to provide a stable and predictable benchmark that helps you save time and pain as well as discover the new and wonderful.

And now on to 2001 and beyond!

 

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