Everything is Illuminated

[3.5 stars]

This is a sneaky little film, and all to the good. Liev Schreiber (Pawn Sacrifice) pulls off a clever bit of structure that would often destroy a film in less sure hands. Here it works wonderfully. And given that this was his first attempt at both writing and directing, it is an even more impressive result.

Elija Wood (The Last Witch Hunter) is the only readily recognizable face in the film. He provides a great spine for the tale. An equally strong performance is from a face you may or may not recognize, Boris Leskin. The interplay of these two characters is part of the magic that Schreiber pulls off.

I don’t know how much of the story from the original book is true, but the impact forgives it any embellishments. If you missed this in the past, make time for this story at some point. Let its quiet pace and wry humor take you along to unexpected places and endings. It is powerful and, sadly, still very relevant in today’s world.

Everything Is Illuminated

Sherlock Gnomes

[3 stars]

This sequel to the silly, but adorable, Gnomeo and Juliet is aimed at the same audience as its predecessor (15 and under). That isn’t to say that the riffs on Sherlock, and a dozen or more other shows and movies, aren’t entertaining for adults but it is thin feasting between those moments. However, the message of partnership and equality is a bit more palatable than most animated films aimed at this age group, which tend to fall into cringworthy cliché when it comes to relationships and roles.

Like the first, this also boasts amazing voice talent, adding Johnny Depp (Murder on the Orient Express), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Doctor Strange), Michael Caine (Going in Style), Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Matt Lucas (Doctor Who), Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), and Julie Walters (Brooklyn) to a hoard of others whose names are less recognizable. James McAvoy (Atomic Blonde) and Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) reprised their un-starcrossed lovers to complete the cast.

This is John Stevenson’s (Kung Fu Panda) second feature from the director’s seat. He doesn’t break new ground, but he keeps up the pace and finds some solid moments. However, it isn’t for a broad audience like, say, The Incredibles, so approach with caution and ready distraction as you keep your younger companions company (or that necessary large glass of happy juice to launch a mindless evening of entertainment).

Sherlock Gnomes

Humans (series 3)

[4 stars]

Talk about picking up on a zeitgeist before it peaks. The third series of Humans picks up a year after the arrival of consciousness for the synths globally. The fallout for the synths and the family we’ve come to know is the focus of the 8-episode offering.

There are some inevitables in the story, though how it all plays out will keep you guessing, even through most of the final episode. The series is packed with threads and commentary that is more than a little timely for the world today despite being written and filmed almost a year earlier.

Make time for this show, if you haven’t already. It is painful to watch at times, as mirrors often are, but it is worth every minute to see this complex tale. It is unclear whether there will be a fourth series, though there is certainly an interesting path forward if they do.

Humans

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

[3 stars]

You don’t check into the Hotel Transylvania expecting depth or subtlety, even though it was directing and co-written by Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack). You check in for silly fun, like its previous installments.

There isn’t any voice talent really worth calling out other than Chris Parnell (Life of the Party), whose silly fish was nicely surprising and dry. The rest are either reprising their roles from the past movies or are standard cartoon. Even the new additions of Jim Gaffigan and Kathryn Hahn (Flower), while effective, weren’t great performances.

There some good aspects to this cinematic distraction. Primarily, it is some silly distraction and humor for the summer and kids. The message is solid and well placed for its young audience (and even a good reminder for adults these days). Oddly, the best joke of the entire film is a throw-away chupacabra reference for which the film pauses and then moves on. It doesn’t really come back or mean anything, but it is clearly a gift that Tartakovsky or the producers weren’t willing to give up, even though it added nothing other than a brilliant nod and wink to the audience for those that understood it.

There are some big issues as well. The animation is a bit uneven in design approach. There are very realistic moments followed by oddly flat, cartoonish sequences. Though you can can clearly see Tartakovsky’s sensibility in some of the characters, but it isn’t nearly as inventive overall. Also disappointing was the ending battle, which desperately needed a music expert to pull it off. The idea was a riot, but the presentation was far too clunky to get to the result. A shame, really. It could have been an amazing final sequence.

If you enjoy the series, be assured it hasn’t really diminished over time. It is what it always was and even opens up some new avenues to continue. It isn’t really aimed at adults, though there are some gifts sprinkled in the script throughout. Go to escape the heat or distract your kids, but it isn’t some high form of animation.

Three Identical Strangers

[4.5 stars]

Tim Wardle’s matryoshka-like tale of three brothers separated at birth is fascinating. Even if you remember the story from when it happened, you don’t know the whole of it. Wardle’s control, revealing it in layers, takes you down a rabbit hole; it creates an experience as close to how the brothers themselves experienced it as you could hope for. The structure is a wonderful example of form and function, and yes, showmanship.

There is much to take away from this documentary. Some of it is wonderful and some of it less so. To discuss any of it would be to diminish the experience for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say, make time for this. Support it. And keep an eye on Wardle. He may have lucked out with subject matter on this one, but he still had to have the eye to find it and the skill to present it as powerfully as he did, while still being utterly fair to the facts.

Three Identical Strangers

Skyscraper

[3 stars]

The real star of this predictable actioner is the title character. The concept building brought to life is jaw-dropping in its scope and design. And, thanks to an utterly bland script by Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence), it is the most interesting part of the story.

The issue? Well, there are some typically bad research problems about how some things work, but let’s assume you can squint through them. But the main lack is tension. In a PG rated film, you know who’s going to die and how and who just isn’t. Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) and Neve Campbell (House of Cards) deliver what they can, but you never really worry that they or their twins will survive. And there isn’t even enough outright humor to make it a fun romp. It is purely a series of puzzles for Johnson to solve, admittedly some spectacular, in order to get to endgame.

Many compare this to a watered-down Die Hard, which is fair. Towering Inferno also came to mind for me. But Thurber didn’t manage to really secure the bones of either of these classics and update them; he simply borrowed their set-ups. If this had been more of a hard R presentation, there would have been more tension and anticipation. Good characters are allowed to die in the red-band world. But if you aren’t going to kill them, let them at least have some killer laughs.

Having poked this bear a lot, I’m not going to say it wasn’t a little bit of fun. It was distracting, even when I was saying the lines before the characters (because they were that obvious). Certainly many around me were gasping and enjoying the romp. It is a pretty distraction if not a great one. I guess it depends on how much you want to see yet another Johnson film in less than a year, and how old your movie-going partners are going to be.

Skyscraper

The Endless

[3 stars]

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s follow-up to their surprising Spring is just as unique, if not quite as endearing. Where Spring was pretty much a horror/romance, Endless is more of a subtle science fiction piece with fewer direct answers, though with plenty of clues. In addition to writing and directing this one, they also decided to star in it as a pair of brothers working through their past and present together.

While there is a nice range in the cast, Callie Hernandez (Alien: Covenant) and Lew Temple (Walking Dead) are the two that stand-out alongside our dynamic duo. There are louder and brasher performances, but these two have more levels.

As writer/directors, Benson and Moorhead sensibility of character and the world is a bit like Kevin Smith, but their execution and intent is closer to Coppola or Kubrik. They’re not quite to that level yet, but their insistence on complex geometry in their plots, their liquidity of genre, and their economy of shots implies a great path for the future. The two really care about character and story. And while they’ll occasionally slip into the sophomoric, they don’t allow it to dominate their tales, only spice it.

If you liked Spring, you’ll like Endless. If you haven’t seen Spring, give this a shot for a sense of what goes on in the heads of a couple up and coming filmmakers. I can’t say I found it quite as satisfying as Spring, and it is more than a little male-heavy, but it left me thinking and intrigued on a story level, which is always a good sign.

The Endless

Our Kind of Traitor

[3.5 stars]

Most John le Carré adaptations, like A Most Wanted Man or even The Night Manager, are slow, intense burns, usually from the perspective of the criminal or an abandoned spy. Out Kind of Traitor, however, is from the perspective of a basically normal couple, Ewan McGregor (T2: Trainspotting) and Naomi Watts (Rampage), who get caught up in a hot mess…due to a criminal and an abandoned spy. OK, some things don’t change.

Stellan Skarsgård (Cinderella) puts together a delightfully over-the-top Russian mobster that becomes the pivot for the tale. He manages to swing between affable and homicidal without blinking, but remains sympathetic throughout. Even Damian Lewis (Billions), as a disgraced and desperate MI-6 agent, manages to create an understandable, if often despicable human being.

However Hossein Amin’s (The Snowman) script and Susanna White’s (Bleak House) direction manage to keep it as a suspense drama while inching it along with more an action-film pace. The story is unrelenting in its tension, which starts with something marital and quickly expands to something more deadly.

Is it perfect? No. There are some foolish errors in the script (can we talk cell phones, procedures, and monologuing?) but it still works rather well and will keep you guessing as to whether this will end as a triumph or a tragedy. If you enjoy tight spy tales, this is one you should have in your list.

Our Kind of Traitor

Sense8 (Finale)

[4.5 stars]

I originally wasn’t  going to bother writing up this late add-on to Sense8. In fact, I had avoided it fearing a huge let-down. The show was cancelled and this was a nod by Netflix to not totally tick off the fans. Who knew what it would manage to do in a single episode wrap-up?

BUT, I needn’t have worried. This was a fabulous and breathless finale that ran 2.5 hours without a moment’s hesitation or break, and ends with a complete wrap up and sense of release (literally). While I still preferred the first series’ approach to the multi-cultural and multi-language issues, this finale managed to find a balance in language and culture that the second series missed in moving to all English.

If you waited like me, I do recommend rewatching the final episode (You Want a War) in the regular series to retrench you on where things were. The finale picks up directly and carries on from there. Yes, it is a bit rushed and, yes, the final image could be debated, but overall it was an amazing effort. The result compacts a huge vision into a small space in order to explain and complete the story that was intended to stretch over seasons. Honestly, it is the best we could have hoped for given the circumstances, even as we mourn what might have been for the series had it continued.

Sense8 is one of the most audacious and amazing bits of television, let alone science fiction, to ever grace the screen. The Wachowski’s, Straczynski, and Netflix (not to mention Tykwer) all need to be thanked for their bravery and talent in creating it. Someday it will be recognized for the seminal event it is, but for now, for those of us who discovered and can enjoy it, we should celebrate it and its message of hope and love.

Backtrack

[3.5 stars]

Backtrack will feel very familiar when it begins. In fact, you’ll likely be thinking, “I’ve seen this all before…I know what’s going on.” And, to a degree, you’d be right. However writer/director Micheal Petroni (Till Human Voices Wake Us) manages to subvert and co-opt the situation and take it somewhere more interesting.

Adrien Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel) brings all his vulnerable and scruffy best to his distraught and mildly unhinged psychologist. He’s helped along his journey nicely by Sam Neill (Mindgamers) and Robin McLeavy (Hell On Wheels). But it is George Shevtsov’s (Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries) quiet energy as his estranged father that adds the last bit of necessary tension to pull the whole story together.

This bit of suspense/horror doesn’t break new ground, but it does navigate it all very well. And at 90 tight minutes, it will keep you focused, interested, and never let you get too far ahead of it all. It also has some very nice and creepy scares to spike your adrenaline. When you’re looking for a clever horror distraction, this is a good choice for your popcorn evening.

Backtrack

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