S.M.A.R.T. Chase

[2 stars]

I would have hoped that the director of the clever and intense Marcella, Charles Martin, could have produced a more watchable action/suspense story. The script certainly didn’t help the problem. Even with Orlando Bloom (Unlocked) in the lead, the story is barely watchable and completely and utterly unbelievable. Even the chases and fights are less than totally engaging in the way they’re filmed.

Hannah Quinlivan (Skyscraper), Simon Yam (Man of Tai Chi), Lynn Hung (Ip Man), and relative newcomers Jing Liang and Lei Wu all do their best. However, the struggle with language is obvious, which likely caused changes in the script for ease. Also, the halfway split between Western and Shanghai styled films leaves the movie with little solid ground. It is neither with enough plot for one nor broad enough for the other. Ultimately, this flick is just a set of relatively boring chase and action scenes despite some real potential in the plot. Best to avoid this one unless you absolutely must see Bloom in everything he does.

S.M.A.R.T. Chase

First Man

[3 stars]

Let’s first talk about what director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) did right and well with First Man; I’ll get to the frustrations later. Unlike The Right Stuff, this is a story about real people, not demigods. It really tries to tell the story of a man in the middle of history without knowing he’s in the middle of it. And while the space race was undoubtedly a point of national pride, the level of jingoism, as compared to previous tellings, was much reduced and was in context rather than propaganda and the point of the story.

Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) brings a humanity to Armstrong I’ve never seen. Perhaps a bit too much as I question his strength of mind for what he has to do, but nevertheless it made him more relateable. As his wife, Claire Foy (The Lady in the Van) is a balancing influence with some nice moments and layers to her as well.

Quite frankly, the rest of the cast, while all good, just don’t matter. This is Armstrong’s tale, and his family’s.

Pablo Schreiber (Den of Thieves), Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night), Ethan Embry (Grace and Frankie), Ciarán Hinds (Woman Walks Ahead), Jason Clarke (Winchester), Kyle Chandler (Game Night), Corey Stoll (The Seagull), Shea Whigham (Cop Car), Patrick Fugit (Gone Girl), Lukas Haas (The Revenant) get a mention here simply because it feels wrong not to acknowledge their efforts. Without them as backdrop, the Armstrong story couldn’t have been told.

Now, about that story…

Writer Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight) is clearly comfortable adapting stories both from books and from history. However, in this case what he delivered, and what Chazelle accepted, is part of what was so wrong with the film. Had it released a couple of years back, it probably wouldn’t have stood out so baldly. But, after Hidden Figures, how do you show NASA and this particular story without showing even one of the women, let alone black women, involved in the success? How do you only have housewives helping out by only “supporting their men?” How do you present the landing on the moon as the success of old white men only? It is a glaring and frustrating aspect, even if it was the perspective of the time.

Another choice of Chazelle’s caused some loud chatter, but that one didn’t bother me at all. I support not showing the planting of the flag, given the focus of the movie on people rather than countries; it was a story choice, not a political statement and you do see it in tableau. However, I didn’t find the most famous of the moments, that first step, all that triumphant. Perhaps because I knew it would happen. Perhaps because I remember watching it happen. But I think, really, it was because Chazelle lost the build-up and payoff in his structure and it whittered away rather than came home. Of course, the focus for being on the moon is shifted rather sharply for Armstrong. Very poignantly shifted, if the moments on the moon are to be believed. But if Chazelle didn’t want to focus on that iconic moment, he shouldn’t have focused on it for 20 minutes and then lost the tension.

Finally, from a film craft point of view, when the heck are directors going to understand that hand-held and large format movies don’t mix well. If you must use hand-held, do it sparingly. On IMAX it simply gets nauseating, throwing you out of the story. Chazelle used shakeycam all over the place. Some made sense, but a huge portion didn’t. I understand the use during the flights and tests, but we didn’t need the 8mm effect to have it feel like old home movies. There were specific moments he could have used it to emphasize Armstrong’s personal struggles, but because it was so overused, it lost all emotional value.

For only his third film, Chazelle continues to impress. This may not be the huge success that was hoped for, but he does show an ability to take on different types of stories and to continue to deliver interesting characters. I think, in this case, he needed to do more research and be more aware of the current times to tell the story well and fully. As it is, it is certainly impressive at moments and worth seeing overall, but the flaws are somewhat fatal for me in terms of ever needing to see it again (unlike his other films).

Bad Times at the El Royale

[4 stars]

Are you looking for something different? Then checking into the El Royale may be your best destination. Director and writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has a very particular style to his film making. His stories have a similar color pallet and the plots are recognizable but not formulaic. They buck tradition but cleave to a sense of moral reality that is believable. They feel almost refreshing in their approach despite playing heavily into genre, whether that is horror, science fiction, or, in this case, noir. And his stories are chock full of subtle references for those steeped in the movies and television. (One nod to Silence of the Lambs was inspired.) This story is subtly political in its message as well.

Goddard is also good at assembling talented casts capable of bringing his vision to life in earnest without losing track of the style he is aiming for. Jeff Bridges (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Cynthia Erivo (The Tunnel) are particularly solid at driving a good part of the action. But Jon Hamm (Nostalgia), Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash), Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising), and Lewis Pullman (Battle of the Sexes) complete the ensemble of odd characters who, despite coming to the El Royale for different reasons, find their paths crossing in unexpected ways. Nick Offerman (Hearts Beat Loud) has a nice cameo as well. As a final treat, Goddard got Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers) to reteam with him for a funny and terrifying role that continues to help establish his range (he can’t be Thor forever).

Like Cabin in the Woods, I suspect this film will take time to find its audience, which is a shame. It is crafted beautifully. Despite its almost 2.5 hour length it moves along crisply and keeps opening up surprises through till the finale. It is solidly acted and funny as well as dark and dangerous as its centering genre. It is very much a classic noir, but with Goddard at the helm very little can ever be assumed, and that is part of the joy of the story. And, as only his second stint in the director’s chair, it shows immense promise for what may come in the future as well. If you’re tired of sequels and formulaic drivel, support movies like this one that try to do something a bit different.

Colette

[3.5 stars]

Some films find their time, and Colette is certainly one of those. (If you want a bit more about its timing, read this.) As a story, ultimately, of female empowerment and personal freedom it is perfect for the political and social climate; it is also very well acted and executed.

Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty) in the title role is a wonderful blend of vulnerable power. She is a woman of her times, but with a mind and will to make her own way, at least eventually; social revolution is never a quick thing. What is fascinating is how the story resonates differently for people. Colette’s relationship with her husband, played by Dominic West (Tomb Raider) is challenging to watch. He loves her, but also takes advantage of her even if it is with her consent. My view of this history was a bit more malicious before I saw this portrayal. He is played, quite well, as a charismatic ass, but an ass nonetheless. West’s Willy (cause that is just fun to say) was a man who had a brand and what amounted to a factory for art under his name. Who knew “work for hire” went back that far?

Most of the film is the buildup to the inevitable resolution between Colette and Willy. But, in between, the relationship is a bit more hospitable and representative of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was a hotbed of art and social evolution. I also couldn’t help but hear echos of Big Eyes while watching, but the spousal dynamic is very different and more subtle in Colette–a dynamic that is sure to spur interesting debate between viewers.

In key roles around the couple, Denise Gough (Juliet, Naked), Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve), and Eleanor Tomlinson (Ordeal by Innocence) offer several perspectives on women in that time for Colette to consider. And Al Weaver (Grantchester) and Dickie Beau, in particular, provide some interesting performances and men for her life.

The film is very deliberate in its pacing, but gripping. Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) takes his time to establish Colette so we can watch her mature and explore and change. He also co-wrote it with his Still Alice collaborator Richard Glatzer with the assistance of Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience). Lenkiewicz helped rescue the film from some of the same pitfalls of Still Alice, which rushed to its end. However, the ending still didn’t quite nail the moment for me. It should have been an unmitigated triumph and was, instead, simply a solid moment. Westmoreland simply lost control of the pace to bring it off at full power for me.

This is a film worth seeing and, honestly, it is filmed for the big screen. It is lush and full of period detail. It may translate to a small screen for the story, but it will lose some of its scope and richness. It will also probably echo through awards season for the performances and production, so catch it early so you know why. And, while you’re at it, enjoy the story of independence and ability about a woman who is still one of the most celebrated European writer’s of all time.

Final Portrait

[3 stars]

The lives of the famous and artists fascinate us. Whether it is the fictional as in A Star is Born, or the mysterious such as Loving, Vincent, or the brainy like The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, or any of the many biopics about Oscar Wilde, the movies keep getting made. Perhaps we watch because we want to understand fame. Or maybe genius. Whatever the impetus, their lives are often, to be honest, fascinating.

While the artist Alberto Giaocometti probably isn’t one of the names that would jump to most people’s minds as possible subject, this true tale documented by the portrait’s subject, James Lord, is full of humor along with insights as to the nature of artistic drive. Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean) brings the artist to life in a wonderfully funny and darkly intense portrayal that draws us in just as it did the world and Lord, played by Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name). We watch Hammer’s Lord get pulled into Gioacometti’s spell, torn between having his portrait completed and frustration with a process he had no understanding of prior to agreeing to sit. Through the unexpected several week process Lord becomes our eyes into Giaocometti’s life, joys, thinking, and fears.

Around the two swarm Tony Shalhoub (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel), and Sylvie Testud who each highlight different aspects of the household and the times. And each deals with the challenges differently. What keeps them in his orbit is all part of the story.

The insanely prolific actor Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) took on this adaptation of Lord’s book about the experience as one of his few writing and directing challenges. He’s only done a handful over the year; his first was the wonderful Big Night and you can see how that sensibility and love of character has matured. Tucci has a great eye and keeps the energy up, even during long silences, by making us invest in the portrait’s completion ourselves. Though more of a slice-of-life than a full story, it is a fun, funny, and fascinating 90 minutes, with wonderful performances worth seeing.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

[3 stars]

Talk about an unlikely pairing: Robin Williams (Absolutely Anything) and Mila Kunis (Hell and Back). And yet, it works. Both have great comedy chops and put them to solid use alone and together in what amounts to a black comedy with heart. The tale, essentially, asks: What do you want to do with your life and why aren’t you already doing it? It’s a simple and often asked question in movies, but this one has a nice layer of entertainment wrapping it up.

Supporting the antics, issues, and events are Melissa Leo (Equalizer 2) and Peter Dinklage (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Though they both server their purpose well enough, Dinklage has the more nuanced character of the two. Frustratingly, Leo never quite finds the right groove for the tone of the movie. Hamish Linklater (Magic in the Moonlight) and Sutton Foster (Bunheads) round out the main cast nicely, but without a lot of impact. In addition, there are some cameos that are pleasant surprises.

Writer Assi Dayan adapted this film from his award winning Mr. Baum for English audiences and trusted it to director Phil Alden Robinson (Good Fight). The story is a bit halting and odd at times, I suspect from the conversion, but it holds up. It is also part of the collection of final films from Williams who did four that year before hanging up his shoes, making this movie both bittersweet and not a little ironic.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

Midnight’s Children

[3 stars]

Salman Rushdie has an obsession with dualities, starting with, or at least most notably with, his infamous Satanic Verses. He loves pitting good against evil, rich against poor, strong against weak. His stories are also rarely to be taken at face value. Midnight’s Children is no exception. This fable, ostensibly about two boys born at the same time on the eve of India’s independence, is more about the history of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh than it is the characters on the screen.

Narrated and written by Rushdie, the movie is a slightly fantastical tale told primarily in English. The story is fascinating, but a lot of the layers I’m sure were lost on me since it was all metaphor for the country, politics and culture. But even with the cultural gaps, it was a gripping story. It was certainly helped by Deepa Mehta, who has trod these themes before in her Water, Earth and Fire trilogy. She was a perfect director to take on the emotions and approach Rushdie intended.
This is an epic, so be prepared to strap in for 2.5 hours. But it is also done across three or four timeframes (depending on how you slice it) as the boys grow up and the country evolves. The time is necessary to set up and expose all of the issues. It is a rather light approach to the whole thing, by admission of the narrator and omission of the writer, but its points are unmistakable even if its punches are somewhat pulled.

Midnight

Venom

[3 stars]

Bottom line: It’s not bad, but it’s so not Marvel Studios.

When Sony last attempted to bring Venom to screen it was one of Sam Rami’s misfires: Spider-Man 3.  Their record hasn’t been the best with this universe from there forward (Spider-Man: Homecoming is really a Marvel film, so that doesn’t count). So, needless to say, I went into this movie with concerns but with an open mind and hope. There are some good aspects to what they delivered, but overall it is full of short cuts, almost unwatchable fight scenes (especially on IMAX), and comic-book logic full of science and plot holes, not to mention bad character choices. At only about 90 minutes of story (and 18 of credits) they didn’t take the time the story deserved. Entertaining? Sure, but not brilliant.

Despite this being a tent-pole flick, the entire movie spins around only three characters. Tom Hardy (The Revenant) toplines. He brings an interesting aspect to Eddie, but he isn’t very credible as a star investigative reporter. There is something just a bit dim about Hardy’s portrayal and the story has him just a bit too reckless to have gotten to such a height in his career.

Michelle Williams (I Feel Pretty) character holds her own better and has a bit more built in to make us respect her. Is she tough and judgmental? Yes, but with cause and she is anything but dumb.

On the other side of the coin is Riz Ahmed (Una), who presents a particular kind of sociopath impressively. He is a chameleon at the edge of social norms and, at this point in his life, often unconcerned about wearing his mask of normality. It isn’t a mustache twirling lord of evil, but he does borderline the geography. And, of course, it becomes a heavy-handed metaphor for the story.

A few smaller roles add to the mix, in particular Jenny Slate (Gifted). And, of course, there is the small cameo of Wood Harrelson (Shock and Awe) to hint at things to come. For the sharp eye, there is also Michelle Lee (Altered Carbon) floating around for a while.

Primarily used to TV, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) has had mixed success on the big screen. Despite its record opening, I don’t think this is setting him apart. The script, though co-written by the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle team, Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, along with Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), doesn’t really capitalize on any of their talents fully and devolves into easy things from the genre rather than breaking new ground or showing us something new. In fact, Venom doesn’t even acknowledge the rest of the MCU…no Spider-man, no Avengers, no aliens and alien tech. It is completely stand-alone and isolated, which just feels weird given Homecoming and the other 17 films that have built out that world.

Sony may have been mostly responsible for the comic-book Renaissance on screen thanks to the Rami trilogy they had the guts and vision to produce, but they’ve yet to learn how to do it well. The fear is that they will drive the Spidey universe into the ground yet again. And, given what they have planned on slate for the next several years, it is almost a guarantee. They are rushing to monetize the success of their partnership with Marvel without understanding why and how what they did with them worked. I will grant them the acting talent in the popcorner, they just have to get better scripts and someone solid to run the franchise with a longer vision.

All that said, this is a 90 minute romp with some good moments and some nice humor. It is far too short for an origin film of this complexity, but if you don’t care about the longevity of the series, it will probably do. I don’t suggest IMAX as it didn’t add much and some of the filming is too tight for the format.

Venom

Leave No Trace

[3.5 stars]

When this film kicked off I was afraid this was going to be a weird combination of Captain Fantastic and Short Term 12. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely; emotionally tight, but not a story of bad things happening. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a sad set of circumstances in play, but it isn’t about big bad nasty things surprising the characters. In fact, it is packed with people trying to do good things for one another, making this a very different kind of story than the majority out there these days. Ultimately, it is a quietly intense tale of family and the aftermath of trauma, done with a kind eye.

Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) and Thomasin McKenzie (Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies) make a wonderfully paired father/daughter team. Each is devoted to the other but also struggling, at times, to stay civil when things go poorly. The quiet internal tensions for these two are both different and very affecting. It is a beautiful exhibition of the battle between love and personal need.

Supporting them are some familiar faces, but these two should and do dominate the story. Enjoy the side characters for what they are: the periphery of life intruding into their bubble. It is ultimately a beautifully poetic film with both a story and, to a lesser degree, a message. That balance serves it well and director Debra Granik guides it with a delicate hand through the co-written screenplay with Anne Rosellini, who had previously paired with her for Winter’s Bone. This isn’t a fast trip through life and the woods, but it is a memorable one.

Leave No Trace

A Star is Born (2018)

[4 stars]

The bones may be old on this fifth remake of the 1937 classic, but Bradley Cooper (JoyGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) put fresh flesh on them in the roles of director, co-writer, and even co-star.

Cooper brought his own life to bear on the tale, enriching it with a sense of reality not to mention driving passion and real romance. While he did this for his own reasons, he also recognized he had an opportunity. Once in every generation or so a performer comes around who has the presence, charm, and ability to take on this role.

In 2018, it is Lady Gaga (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, American Horror Story), a woman of incredible talent. I’m not a huge fan of her music, but I respect her abilities both musically and in business (much as I did Madonna’s in the 80s). She has both the chops and the confidence to be part of something rather than having to dominate it. Because while A Star is Born is clearly her story, it is also very much Cooper’s. If she simply took it all over, there wouldn’t have been a film worth seeing. And the story is a heartrendingly beautiful one, danced by these two performers. Along with Sam Elliott (Grandma), and a surprise performance by Andrew Dice Clay, their lives unfold and their pasts exert their inevitable influence.

Cooper gets great performances out of everyone, including himself. Choosing to record all the music live adds a sense of reality and credibility to the entire endeavor as well. And though the story has been updated and made his own, he manages to hold onto a sense of nostalgia thanks to his choices in color timing the film to give it a slightly washed-out feel. The third act of the story drags a bit, but the overall impact is only slightly diminished for that drop in urgency. This isn’t a car chase movie, it is a paced tale of love, art, and family. For a first time director, it is also a major triumph. This is sure Oscar-bait, and it even has a chance at securing a statuette or two come next year’s ceremony.

Grab some popcorn and, maybe, even a few tissues and take someone you really care about to this for a date night. The movie is worth your time and it reminds you of what is important in your life in many expected and unexpected ways.

A Star Is Born

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