Robinson Crusoe on Mars

[3 stars]

50 years before The Martian, this piece of survival adventure was brought to screen by director and special effects great Byron Haskin (War of the Worlds). But where The Martian was all about sciencing the hell of out of stuff, Robinson Crusoe is more like Cast Away, surviving on luck, happenstance, and a serious dose of colonial mentality. OK, not all of that is Cast Away, I was referring mostly to the surviving parts.

While Crusoe won’t win any science, or even acting awards, there is something compelling in its portrayal, especially given when it was made. Paul Mantee must solve challenge after challenge to survive on Mars after being stranded. You’d be forgiven thinking the lead for this tale was going to be Adam West as he is much more recognizable in the current times thanks to Batman and Family Guy. In addition to being a familiar face, for some reason he also dominates the opening of the film which is weird structurally.

Given the title, it should be no surprise that Friday shows up in the guise of Victor Lundin. He, along with the surviving monkey who, for some reason got to take a trip to Mars with Mantee and West for experiments, fight the elements and unseen enemies to make it to a rather abrupt and unlikely conclusion. Friday’s role is subtle, pushing back against some of the colonialism in Mantee and the audience in quiet ways, but never really rising above the noble savage in the script.

So why spend time with this you ask? Well first, the Criterion restoration is pretty incredible; the visuals are crisp and clean, though, admittedly, some of the sound levels are a bit loud. The story itself is universal, in terms of survival against the elements and the unknown. And, perhaps because of the highly clinical response to the dangers, the result is less melodramatic and more a fascinating puzzle. Certainly to modern audiences aspects of the discoveries and solutions are laughable, but this film was made after we’d barely gotten into orbit and not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis. We really didn’t know much about Mars at the time, though more than the script might suggest, and we were deep into the Cold War. While it is admittedly more a curio than a great film, the experience is a fascinating look back to a time not all that long ago and, honestly, not a bad evening for popcorn.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

[3-ish stars]

Ok, Fallen Kingdom’s prequel, Jurassic World, was no great piece of cinema, despite its ridiculously high box-office gross. This sequel, however, made it look like Pulitzer material in many ways. Honestly, I’m fine with escapist silliness when it is done well, but I don’t like having my intelligence insulted.

There is exactly one adult, thoughtful moment in this entire film. It comes near the end and it is a good one too. The moment, and its resolution, actually reflect the core of the story that is buried in the bones of this popcorn trifle. The rest of the action and plot are predictable and, frankly, frustrating. Evil people are evil. Good people are good. Old men are foolish. Dinosaurs with big eyes are cute. Humans are greedy. Dinosaurs with big teeth are… well, you get the idea. You know what you’re walking into; there are no shades of gray, it is all black and white which leaves no room for any real lasting or surprising emotions or experience.

I will grant director J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls) one thing: he kept the slaughter on screen to a minimum, though there is no shortage of comeuppance by the final credits. But Fallen Kingdom is merely a bridge to the third movie that Universal really wanted to make, which is hinted at in the tag after the credits. They realized that leap would have been too much to do straight from the end of the previous movie, so they made a nod at taking the time to tell it right. Unfortunately Trevorrow and Connolly’s follow-up script to their previous is even more rife with time, science, and character problems. Oh, let’s call it what it is: generally bad writing.

Will most people care? Probably not. They haven’t in previous installments, which were no better at times (including going all the way back to the beginning). It is a visual romp and the effects are, as always, pretty astounding. If you must see it, see it on a big screen and maybe even 3D to get the most you can out of the amusement park ride it is. In traditional 2D the fact that it is aimed squarely at pre-teens is unavoidable.

I expect more from my entertainment. Even when I want to turn my brain off it needs to be occupied rather than irritated to enjoy itself. I can suspend disbelief as long as things are consistent, honest, and marginally believable. Fallen Kingdom came close to those requirements, but, at least for me, missed just enough to leave me less entertained and more annoyed. As they say, your mileage may vary (and probably will).

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Soap (En soap)

[3 stars]

As the title and tag promise, this is very much structured as a sort of French new wave soap opera…in Danish.

  • It is low budget.
  • It is episodic, in a sort of forced way.
  • It is full of heightened emotion and strange characters.
  • It has unlikely and crazy antics.
  • It even has a cat fight, of sorts.

But, while done in earnest, it manages to keep its tongue firmly in cheek as well.

More importantly, Soap also manages to delve into the psychology of gender identity versus gender preference, something very few movies or shows have ever really tried to present. Even Transparent mostly missed that train.

David Dencik (The Snowman) gives us a wonderful Veronica as an actor, though he is always just a bit too unshaven to be credible for me. I don’t know if that was a choice or mistake, but it was distracting. Opposite him Trine Dyrholm walks the complex line of woman attempting to understand herself and find happiness. She struggles and fails and flails, but somehow remains sympathetic even as she lashes out at those around her. 

I can’t say this is a great film. It is, however, compelling in its way. And it is funny at times too. Directed by the multiple award-winning  Pernille Fischer Christensen who also co-wrote it with Kim Fupz Aakeson (Perfect Sense), this odd comic-romance feels like a throw-back to the 70s, but somehow keeps its footing here in the present. It isn’t something you need to queue up immediately, but at some point, sure, it is an interesting evening loaded with a lot of recognized talent.

Soap

Kiss & Spell (Yeu Di, Dung So!)

[3 stars]

This Vietnamese rom-com cum horror is an amusing and touching escape for an evening. A remake, or seriously inspired by, the Korean movie Spellbound, it follows a magician and his muse as they both struggle with finding out what actually makes them happy…with a bit of the supernatural thrown in along the lines of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

The comedy is broad at times, but it is well-contained and not nearly as over-the-top as you might fear. Even the romantic bits remain very sweet, but never melodramatic. Thanks to the late writer/director Stephane Gauger, it balances rather well and never wanes in energy despite its two hour length. He managed to walk the line of Far East and American comedy nicely, keeping it accessible to both audiences. Even the horror bits, which lean more toward Japanese horror influence, aren’t so much scary as pointed for the tale.

Gauger had a short but impactful career. He came out of the gate strong when he shifted to the director’s chair and gathered a number of awards quickly. He clearly had a career ahead him and it is a damn shame we’ll never see what it could have been. In the meantime, he left us with a range of films worth spending some time with…this one included.

 

Incredibles 2

[3 stars]

The largest part of what made The Incredibles so successful and ripe for a sequel was Brad Bird (Tomorrowland).  Up till now he never treated any of his animations as cartoons, he approached them like drawn movies. Few animators (and their studios) took that approach before him, though it is more common now. It isn’t just in the subject matter, it is in the composition of the frames and the choices of the edits. Watching a Bird animation you could sometimes forget these aren’t real people on screen, unlike, say the Despicable Me series.

But while this sequel picks up seconds (and 14 years) after the original ended, some of the Bird magic seems to be missing for me. For starters, the whole point of the first movie was the family learning to accept who they were and to work together. This second throws that out and starts again, admittedly for different reasons, but it still feels a bit like a loop rather than a progression. The action, probably thanks a lot to Jack Jack, is broader and more cartoon-y. And the mystery…just isn’t in this one. Or at least it wasn’t to me.

This is certainly enjoyable family fare…and with more going for it than most family movies. There are nods and comments for adults throughout that were noticed and enjoyed by the crowd. But I expect a bit more from Bird instead of a, basically, a solid Pixar action flick that took very little time to build characters. There weren’t even any voice performances worth calling out as anything special, though Catherine Keener (Nostalgia) and Bob Odenkirk (The Post) come close. Keener’s exchanges with Holly Hunter (The Big Sick) also verge on something unique, but never quite get there. Overall it felt like Bird was afraid to let the action lull too long and so quickly left any quiet moment. To be fair, it certainly seemed to work to keep the kids all engaged through the 2+ hours (including the uneven, if ultimately surprising, short, Bao).

Certainly, make time for this rollicking and entertaining distraction. But it isn’t quite everything I had hoped for, though it was great to spend time with these Supers again after so long; they deserved a new adventure. Perhaps we’ll get that next time.

Incredibles 2

Ocean’s 8

[4 stars]

Caper films are a wonderful and difficult genre. They can go hyper-violent, like Den of Thieves, or incredibly staid, like Topkapi (or it’s earlier incarnation, Rififi) and everything in between. There is always a challenge, a personal angle (usually revenge), and, often, a death. But what drives a great caper film is the tension and pace and the great chemistry of those involved.

Ocean’s 8 has the chemistry in spades, led confidently and in style, by Sandra Bullock (The Heat) and Cate Blanchett (Thor: Ragnarok). The rest of the gang is entertaining and, if not entirely credible, engaging enough to make us forget that aspect. Made up of Sarah Paulson (Carol), Mindy Kaling (A Wrinkle in Time),  Helena Bonham Carter (Alice Through the Looking Glass), Awkwafina (Storks), and Rhianna (Zootopia), the group play off each other well and create fun characters that feel like they have full lives. Even Carter, who plays into type (especially how she is dressed during the gala), still manages to give us something grounded and a bit new for her. With Anne Hathaway (Colossal) in the mix as the target L’Enfant terrible, great fun is had by all.

There aren’t a lot of surprises in this reboot of the series, but the more you know how these things work, the harder it is to misdirect. Logan Lucky learned that lesson last year.  But co-writers Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) and first timer Olivia Milch do some clever work to keep us wondering nonetheless. However Ross’s directing didn’t quite get the pop and flow that would make this film a classic. The pace is just a bit slow, the rhythm just a bit off. It feels polished, but not perfect.

However, it isn’t so far off as to be disappointing. The performances are fun and the dialogue and intent satisfying, pretty much all around. And, for those keeping count, the men are fairly incidental: Richard Armitage (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies), and James Corden (Into the Woods).

If you like amusing, quick-paced caper antics, you need to make time for this film. It may translate to the small screen, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another film with so many great female actors in once place (and I’ve only listed a few…there are some wonderful surprises too).

Ocean

Hereditary

[3.5 stars]

Ari Aster’s first major script and directing gig betrays a love of intelligent, suspenseful horror from the 70s. There is an air of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and even a bit of The Omen and the (much older) Cat People and the more recent Get Out. It is in the tension he creates and the way he drives the story by raising questions around what’s really happening that echoes these earlier classics. He certainly did himself no harm with the cast he gathered either.

Toni Collette (Please Stand By) delivers a shattering performance as the matriarch of a broken family. Gabriel Byrne (Carrie Pilby) supports her as her husband with immense restraint and love, but with diminishing capacity as the story unfolds. And, as the children, Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and first-timer Milly Shapiro turn in wonderfully creepy and sad performances that will break your heart before tearing it from your chest. As an added bonus, Ann Dowd (American Animals) gets to play a pivotal role and appear on multiple screens in different releases this season.

Hereditary is not an easy movie, either to watch or to define. Half the film I was wondering what I was watching, but was utterly riveted by the performances and the filmmaking. The end felt a bit forced and obvious, but the ride getting there was so solid I’ll give Aster a pass on his ultimate choices. The film gave everyone in its ensemble moments to shine, and made its audience gasp many more times than once. If you are looking for dark, creepy, and something just a bit different, you will want to see this on the big screen, in the dark, with others.

Hereditary

The City & The City

[3 stars]

Much like the title and conceit of the story, I had two simultaneous reactions to this story. First, I was awed watching the impossible being brought to screen. At the same time I was led down a path of disappointment in support of the purpose and the plot.

I’ll come back to that, but be assured there is a great ride for a long part of the series. A good part of that success goes to David Morrissey (Extant, Doctor Who). He is subtle but intense in his role, which is highly flavored with an East European flare. Mandeep Dhillon (Whitechapel), as his sidekick, is energizing and entertaining and far from superfluous. Maria Schrader (Fortitude), as another associate, brings a very different type of intensity to help it all along. And Lara Pulver (Electric Dreams) is a great Macguffin for the tale, slowly peeling back layers and history for Morrissey. And that’s just a sampling of the characters. You may have  noticed that despite the male lead, this story is dominated by strong women. In smaller, pivotal roles, Christian Camargo (Europa Report) and Danny Webb (A Little Chaos) are a bit less believable, but still serve their purposes.

Now, back to the plot. The first three episodes of the four installment series are brilliant and engaging. The combination of writing, directing, and cinematography walk you through a challenging set of ideas in a convoluted world. But in the fourth episode, after a promising start, it all falls apart into either an odd political polemic or disappointing bit of naturalism. I haven’t read China Miéville’s book of the same name yet, so can’t speak as to whether it follows the source closely, but I can believe it does; the flavor of the ending matches Miéville’s sensibilities.

But here’s the thing about The City & The City, you’ll get to the end and, probably, be annoyed. But you will keep thinking about this show and its  points and implications. In fact, it may not even land at first, but will keep poking at your brain demanding to be acknowledged; the metaphors are incredibly powerful. However, that doesn’t make it satisfying, only poignant. I think that it would have done better as an episode in an anthology series or a one-shot film rather than a four-part series that seems to lead in one direction only to veer off into another. Forewarned, it is likely a better experience than going in blind. So take this as your heads-up and then make time for the series, it really is worth it just for the brilliant execution of the near-impossible by director Tom Shankland (The Fades) and writer Tony Grisoni .

American Animals

[3 stars]

It’s easy to dismiss this as a story that depicts the basic truism “criminals are stupid” because, well, they certainly were in this case. However, that would be selling this quasi-documentary short. Bart Layton wrote and directed something that wasn’t so much unique as it is impressively seamless as it bounces between the real subjects of this story and the actors and situations depicting their tale from 13 years previous. It is a wonderful melding, raising re-enactment to an impressive level that maintains truth and also becomes a movie on its own.

Part of that success is how well Layton cast the younger criminals. Evan Peters (Elvis & Nixon), Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen), and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) each manage to embody their real-life counterparts and deliver nicely layered characters. Most importantly, you can see them growing into these men. But while Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) delivers a performance that, under other circumstances, would have been great, I had great difficulty seeing him grow up to be the real Spencer Reinhard. This isn’t just a matter of knowing the story and people involved, Reinhard and his cohorts deliver interviews and color commentary throughout the film…we see them and get to know them, which makes the younger portrayals all that more important. Around them are a solid ensemble making it all work. There are also some specific supporting bits from Udo Kier (Downsizing)  and Ann Dowd (Collateral Beauty) that stood out.

But ultimately, as engaging and suspenseful as the story is, the real question is what is this movie about? Certainly it chronicles the events and, to a degree, the lives of those involved. It raises some interesting questions about motive and growing up as a Millennial. It encourages us to wonder what we would do in these situations. But what it doesn’t do is provide satisfactory answers or a sense of conclusion. There is no indication that those involved even had answers to those questions or ideas. And that, perhaps, is part of Layton’s point in making American Animals, but I’m not sure that’s enough to justify having made the film, however well crafted it is.

Still, for the ride and to experience the beautiful craft that Layton employs, this movie was worth my time. I wanted more, but I can also acknowledge the filmmaker’s vision.

American Animals

Just Getting Started

[1.5 stars]

To riff on a theme from this empty, poorly-directed distraction, life is too short to waste it on this movie. Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) had some fun ideas and a very talented cast, but no sense of pace or character. Honestly, I turned it off after half an hour of waiting for it to gel.

Save yourself some time and skip this one…it isn’t even worth it for Morgan Freeman (Going in Style), Tommy Lee Jones (The Mechanic: Resurrection), Renee Russo (The Intern), Jane Seymour and the rest of the recognizable and very talented cast.

Just Getting Started

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