Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon

Early Man

[3 stars]

There is something about stop-action animation that remains magical to me. I don’t know if it is the effort behind it or simply the way inanimate objects come to life when it is done right, but it captured me as a kid and continues to grab me as an adult. Until Laika Studios (Kubo and the Two Strings) came online about 10 years ago, the torch and almost sole standard bearer for stop-action was Aardman Studios and, in particular, Nick Park.

Park created the wonderful Wallace & Grommit, Shaun the Sheep, and a slew of advertisements and short films. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck when a fire wiped out nearly all the decades of models and sets Aardman had brought to life. What has followed that devastation has never quite hit their high mark, at least in long-form adult fare.

Early Man is no exception. If you love footy and have kids, this film is a riot. It is full of humor (adult and child) and has a sweet and empowering tale for all children. And, of course, it has a great animal sidekick, voiced by Park himself, that steals the film. The rest of the story, for adults at least, is fine, but not brilliant despite a well-known and talented voice cast. Most importantly, the animation is wonderful.

Where does it lose adults, or at least me? The movie starts off with cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time in order to tie in the great meteor strike to the plot (wholly unnecessary, but they couldn’t resist the dinosaur thing). Then it goes on to not think through its production design; the clothing is all whole, wild animal furs when all they hunt are rabbits for example. And, finally, it has several key script contradictions. Will kids notice any of this? Probably a tiny bit, but most won’t. However, it was effort to keep having to forget the errors as I was watching–and I love Park’s work. I will say the script does have a lot of fun British humor. Perhaps part of the challenge was seeing the movie after seeing the new Shaun the Sheep trailer, which looks so very funny and sly…and this film just didn’t seem to have the same level of intelligence and cleverness.

I’m not saying don’t go to this film. I am saying go with the right expectations. This is a fabulous film for young kids with enough humor for adults that it works. It just isn’t the classic I had hoped for, and always hope for, with Aardman Studios. Their technique is still great and their sense of whimsy still very much alive, but they need to get better writers on board to keep the adults fully engaged. Though, admittedly, Mark Burton, who brought us the wonderful and clever Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, was one of the primary writers on this feature. So it isn’t so easy to point to where this particular film went off-track. But go and support the art form and enjoy the escapism of it all. It may not be a classic, but it is still solid animation from a studio that is a master of the art.

Early Man

Black Panther

[4.5 stars}

This last year in film (and the world) has been one of evolution and, in some cases, revolution. With Black Panther, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed), has managed to both stick to the Marvel vision of super hero mythologies and remake them all at once. Like Wonder Woman (but with a better script), Black Panther is loaded with strong and smart female heroes as well as showing us a new view and venue for a story, never once touching down in the USA ( except for flashback and tag). It is also unabashedly fits into our current times, commenting upon world politics and the challenges that face the world. Oh, and it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

And Coogler managed to do all that while building on the tiny threads we’ve been getting about Wakanda, and amplifying smaller characters like Andy Serkis’s (War for the Planet of the Apes) Klaue and looping in Martin Freeman’s (Sherlock) Agent Ross. Of course we’d already met Chadwick Boseman (Captain America: Civil War), but we knew very little about him until now.

Now we see Boseman as a child and in his kingdom. He is surrounded by strong women without whom he would die more than once: Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe) as his top spy and love interest, Danai Gurira (The Visitor) as his General, Letitia Wright (Humans) as his scientist/sister, and Angela Bassett (Survivor, Chi-Raq) as his mother are all loaded with responsibility, brains, guts, and brawn. They all also have a healthy sense of humor and humanity about their young King; he doesn’t get a free ride anywhere. Each has some challenging storylines of their own, particularly Gurira.

There are also some standout performances in his retinue and world from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Florence Kasumba (Emerald City),  Winston Duke (Person of Interest), and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us).

But every hero must have his nemesis, and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) brings it with incredible style and ability. Jordan’s storyline, like the rest of the script, is far from simple. He also serves as an oddly uncomfortable voice for politics and society today while hearkening back through various movements of the last 40 years (and more).

I saw this in IMAX, which was glorious, but it is also the reason I had to ding the rating of the film. As good and fun as the script is, Coogler doesn’t quite know how to film up-close fight scenes for the truly big screen. He was a bit too close and cutting far too quickly in many cases, making what were clearly good choreographed scenes a blur. I plan on catching the film again on a standard screen, though probably not 3D, before too long. I’m curious to see if that will help with some of the issues.

So go see this, for so many reasons: great script and story, great humor, incredible visuals and action, and the shattering of many walls. I don’t know where they’ll take this in future, but Black Panther has earned his place among the Avengers as well as film history.

Black Panther

November Criminals

[2 stars]

While this flick starts off with an interesting premise, it quickly slides into vague mediocrity. It is a shame since the cast is really pretty solid. Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) and Chloë Grace Moretz (The Equalizer) work well together, and David Strathairn (The Darkest Hour) and Catherine Keener (Get Out), as their respective parents, deliver too. Even the ideas, as it heads down a Vanishing sort of path, is full of possibilities.

However, the adaptation from director and co-writer Sacha Gervasi (Hitchcock) is overly compressed. All the interesting stuff that is hinted at bleeds out to the point that even the title is never explained (I had to look it up to figure it out–turns out Elgort’s character in the book loved dark, Nazi-tinged  humor; the term refers to those that involved with the Versailles Treaty at the end of WWI which led to the Weimar Replublik and the rise of the jackbooted fiends). Even after learning the roots of the title, I can’t map it to the actions in the movie, which implies strongly that it failed. I imagine the title was kept only to try and draw in the book audience, even though much of the book’s core had been scrubbed out.

The overall movie holds together, in a sort of light way, but there was clearly a lot more there when it started. The locations were a lousy choice as well; trying to pretend Rhode Island is Washington DC was a deadly stretch. In the end, it feels like Gervasi ran out of shooting time and made of it what he could.

As a high school romance, with a bit of life thrown in, I suppose it could be diverting for some. For the rest, I’d say just skip it. All of these actors have better venues to be seen in and you have better ways to spend your time.

November Criminals

Brigsby Bear

[3 stars]

Director,  and fellow SNL alum, Dave McCary took Kyle Mooney (Hello My Name is Doris)  and Kevin Costello’s script and delivered a heart-felt, just slightly off, feel-good comedy about life. The support of Mark Hamill (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Greg Kinnear (Stuck in Love) helped give the movie some solid footing as well.

Brigsby is a tale in the spirit of Frank, Room, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and even a bit of The Disaster Artist all rolled into one. The first two thirds of it are wonderful and it had me solidly…before it stumbled. The story recovers from its blunder of bad story choice to accelerate the tale to its finale, but only because I decided to forgive it so that I could enjoy the final third of the film. Short of that moment, it was a delightful and fun bit of silliness with a beating heart you really can’t ignore.

Brigsby Bear

mother!

[2 stars]

Straight up, I am a Darren Aronofsky (Noah) fan and have been since Pi. His narratives are almost always complex and unexpected. Certainly mother! is anything but straightforward. Oddly, though, it isn’t anything new or unexpected either. And it certainly didn’t land with most audiences.

From the outset of the film, you know there is something off. First there is the apparent rollback in time from a disaster. Then there is the odd tension between Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) and Javier Bardem (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) which just isn’t quite natural. By the time Ed Harris (Geostorm) and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, it is clear this isn’t reality, or isn’t being viewed from clear eyes. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) makes a solid appearance as well to help seal the deal.

If you insist on still seeing the story as reality at any level after that point, it is no wonder that you would hate the film. Honestly, I was willing to go along for the ride, but in a year that included similar themes, like the more recent Phantom Thread, I was looking for something new, not just visually surprising.

Aronofsky has created a very personal vision and tale of his favorite themes: art, love, and religion/spirituality. But ultimately it is about a half hour too long to sustain the story and audience interest. After the first 90 minutes, you want answers, not more outrageous and infuriating situations. I appreciate he wanted to slow burn to the climax, but he asked too much from his audience; he never really fully earns our trust, providing no answers, only mystery and weirdness upon strangeness and offkey oddity. He has always been great skirting the edge of reality, as in Black Swan, to lead to a point. Here, however, the end result here is more the feeling of a surrealist play that is weird for weirdness’ sake alone rather than a cohesive movie. By the way, achieving that play-like presentation and pulling us along inexorably while staying true to the media is no small feat in itself.

I truly admire the craft and acting in the film, even if I disliked the result; it doesn’t feel satisfying in the end. After his last film, I was worried Aronofsky would try to stay more mainstream…I suspect he feared the same and veered way off the track to try and prove he wouldn’t both to audiences and, more importantly, to himself. The result is mother! Now that he’s made his point, I hope he will find his path again. He is a gifted film maker, but this isn’t his best onscreen musing.

Mother!

It (2017)

[4 stars]

So here was a chance for me to eat my words about remakes that I covered when discussing Flatliners. And I am. But as good as it (It) is, and it is, director Andy Muschietti’s (Mama) is eerily similar to the previous classic and equally brilliant adaptation of King’s book by director/co-writer Tommy Lee Wallace. But we’ll get back to that comparison.

First things first, how was this movie? It is full of tension, scares, and compelling relationships despite knowing what’s going to happen nearly every step of the way. In short, the flick is really good and worth your time if you like tense horror. It perfectly captures the logic and sense of the world from a child’s perspective and understands how that terror can dog us into adulthood.

As with the book and the original adaptation, the core of the story is the Loser’s Club of unlikely friends. In this version, it is also a collection of capable young actors: Jaeden Lieberher (Book of Henry), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Geostorm), Sophia Lillis (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things), Chosen Jacobs (Hawaii Five-O), Jack Dylan Grazer (Me, Myself, & I), and Wyatt Oleff (Guardians of the Galaxy). Most of them are getting their first big break in this film, but a few have already shown themselves capable in recent movies and shows.

The adults are all fine, but it is in the structure of the story that they are simply other monsters in our intrepid children’s lives. They may not even really be their parents; they may instead be projections or controlled by the monster beneath the streets. In other words, they aren’t really worth talking about in this chapter of the story as they are instigators rather than full characters.

The nemesis of this suspense horror cannot escape comparisons to the previous adaptation either (fair or not) performed by the creepy and wonderful Tim Curry. Curry’s performance was marked indelibly on the horror pantheon and into the brains of more than one generation of terrified children and adults. Enter Bill Skarsgård (Hemlock Grove), who had to tackle what is one of the Hamlet’s of the horror genre (along with Freddy, Dracula, and a very few others); the part everyone wants to play but which will always be compared to what came before. In this case, only a singular comparison. But Skarsgård holds his own well and adds his own sort of childlike undertone to the creepy clown. Is it a lot like Curry’s approach? Well, yes, and that brings me back to my first statement.

It is a true credit to the clarity and impact of the book that two different productions are so similar in sensibility and character. Each is its own version, but any of the characters and events could comfortably be shifted into one or the other’s venue. The differences are primarily around rating and budget. Because Muschietti was on the big screen with an R rating (which he rightly fought for), it is a bit darker, a tad more violent, and with more realistic language against a larger backdrop of a world than the TV version.

But the characters, despite being written by wildly different kinds of scribes, talk and act almost exactly the same. The 1990 version was co-written by its director. This version was a triumverate of horror and literary writers: Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation), Gary Dauberman (Anabelle: Creation), and new-comer Chase Palmer. But all of the writers respected the source material. One of the more interesting changes in the new version is that it is told in chronological order rather than as revealing flashbacks, which was more like the book. Given it was a theatrical release it made more sense to do it that way, though it will be interesting to see how that plays out in Chapter 2 next year.

In both cases, the power of the original material maintained a long shadow and strong control over the final product. There are variations, particularly around Pennywise’s domain, but they are not materially impactful or distracting, they are simply different views of the same tale, like looking in the side window versus the front. But no matter how you slice it, the room inside is bloody and full of scary shadows.

It (2017)

The Limehouse Golem

[4 stars]

Limehouse is a tense and complicated period mystery; a wonderful, precise, dark gem of a movie.

Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) leads this twisting tale with character-appropriate confidence and acting ability. By her side, Bill Nighy (Their Finest) pulls at the threads of his open case and imagines the possibilities in an effort to solve the murders and save the girl in 1880 London. Sprinkled within the fictional are real-life characters who were in the Limehouse at this time in history, which adds some sense of reality to the tapestry of the film world.

Central to the story in tale and geography is a music hall dominated by Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending). His character, even from the wings (as it were), is an overshadowing presence that has him driving the film in his own right, even getting the opening and closing frames. Additionally, Sam Reid (2:22), and María Valverde (Exodus: Gods and Kings) play integral, if slightly less layered roles.

Two smaller characters are given quiet life by Daniel Mays (Against the Law) and Eddie Marsan (Atomic Blonde). These two actors are always great at making the most of small moments and minimal dialogue, and this movie is no exception.

One of the best parts of this film is the script, which has a strong female lead and an unconventional narrative. Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) was on task to adapt this script from Peter Ackroyd’s book; the title of which is variously The Limehouse Golem, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (a reference to Booth’s character), and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (a reference to Cooke’s character). That it has existed with so many different titles gives you a sense of how much she had her work cut out for her. With Goldman’s history of delivering some of the most delightfully odd films of the last 20 years, she was a perfect choice to tackle this project. And director Juan Carlos Medina showed himself well with this Sophomore feature as it bounced between different themes, plots, and timelines.

Make time for this mystery. It will keep your brain going and engage you from the moment it begins. And while the surface story is wonderful, it is only one of the layers of this film, and only one of the ways to approach your understanding of the movie which is dense in meaning and language, making it eminently rewatchable.

The Limehouse Golem

The Cloverfield Paradox

[3 stars]

At the end of last year, Netflix stepped afield from original and purchased series programming and entered the big-budget feature game with Bright. It wasn’t an instant classic, but it was a shot across the bow of the current film distribution system and raised the bar in some ways for its pure streaming competitors.

This latest feature had a surprising trajectory that may remake the release landscape yet again. Bright was bought early in its inception  band guided by Netflix. In the case of Cloverfield, what was supposed to be a big theatrical release this April got picked up and near-instantly released by Netflix. Mind you, there are reasons it was available for such a purchase, but it speaks both to the power of the streaming giant and the new thinking of studios who are scared of losing money.

The movie itself, even with its flaws, is certainly on par with a lot of what hits the big screen; a low bar, I know. It parallels the Cloverfield universe, offering up (perhaps) some answers to where we left it off in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  And it tackles the story with the expected bad science fiction the series has embraced, and a great cast.

And the cast is probably one of the more surprising aspects of the story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Miss Sloane) drives this tale with incredible and complex (and occasionally questionable) emotional and intellectual strength. David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe), as well, brings a command and depth to his performance. Daniel Brühl (Burnt) is a bit forced, but commits to his part of the story. The same is true for Ziyi Zhang (The Grandmaster), Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), as well as the relatively unknown (in the US) Roger Davies. Chris O’Dowd (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) is the odd man out in the cast personality-wise. He works, but mostly as delightfully understated comic relief. He isn’t a particularly credible crew member, but then again, none of them are. The most abused by the bad aspects of the script was Aksel Hennie (The Martian), whose taciturn Russian was way too cookie-cutter.

As his second feature, director Julius Onah shows some solid promise controlling big stories. He built a good path in terms of energy and flow and elicited some real emotion in the middle of what is arguably just a horror film on the order of Event Horizon. The real weakness was Oren Uziel’s (Shimmer Lake) script, which had unrealistic characters as well as forced and unexplained plot trajectories and moments. Fun? Sure…and O’Dowd got to take the most advantage of that…but completely inconsistent in ways that just left too many questions rather than a sense of something happening. For all its absurdity, Life at least had their astronauts behave like astronauts and their creature obey some set of definable rules.

Netflix still doesn’t quite know how to produce a solid feature-length film, but they’re learning and getting to use some impressive name dropping to keep it going until they do. I’ve seen way (way) worse on the big screen over the last year, and this is a perfectly fun and distracting entertainment with a couple really good performances.

Ultimately, and not unsurprisingly, there are more Cloverfield stories to come. Overlord is due in October this year to continue the universe (or so it’s rumored). What dropping a critical installment of this sequence of films straight to streaming will do to the franchise will be an interesting story to follow.

Winchester

[3 stars]

Winchester struggles from the moment it starts. It can’t decide if wants to be a Gothic horror, a modern horror, a romantic supernatural, or a true history movie. Given the guts and clarity of vision of the Spierig  brothers previous Predestination, the vacillation and lack of control were surprising.

It isn’t a complete loss. There is a good story at the core of it all, but it takes more than half the film for it to come into focus and, by that point, you just want it all to resolve. There are some good scares; even the utterly predictable ones will get you to jump. Certainly it has some great production values and a heck of a cast.

Part of the story focus issues may well have been because of Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty), who was certainly the name-draw for the film. But while her story wants to dominate the film, it is really just the McGuffin to Jason Clarke’s (Mudbound) journey.  Clarke, however, doesn’t have the same level of presence nor familiarity for audiences; his efforts seem to constantly take a back-seat to the rest of Mirren’s efforts, even when they really aren’t.

Sarah Snook (Steve Jobs) and Eamon Farren (Twin Peaks) round out the important characters, each with their own sense of oddity. Neither gets to develop their character much, but neither feels unformed either.

The Winchester house is a fascinating study in guilt. Unlike the Nobel family, Winchester simply pushed away the ill gotten gains rather than trying to have it do good in the world. Unless, of course, you believe this film. In any event, there are some clever ideas and weaving in of real history. It isn’t a great movie, but does have some nice visuals and a number of good scares. Frankly, though, unless you’re a Mirren complete-ist or hooked on one of the other actors, go watch something else to get your heart pumping.

Winchester

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