Teen Spirit

[3 stars]

There is nothing particularly bad about Teen Spirit. It is a sweet film about a singer coming into her own, dealing with the challenges of family and the industry. There is also nothing particularly brilliant, though it works on its own level. Elle Fanning (I Think We’re Alone Now) is as impressive as ever in her abilities, and it turns out she has some vocal chops as well. She lacks presence on screen though, a problem this waif-like actor often has, which is a deficit in this story. Despite her one big number, she just never really commands attention the way you’d expect someone destined to be a star could do. But, then again, neither does her coach, Zlatko Buric, who was supposed to be a star in his past.

The real star of Teen Spririt is writer/director Max Minghella (Into the Forest) who, for his first directing gig and sophomore script, shows some real promise. His editing choices, in particular, make it clear he was in command of his vision. And he pulled solid performances out of his cast.

The sensibility of the story is more Worried About the Boy than it is Sing Street or Once. The energy is very personal and introspective with moments of song. But its moment of triumph isn’t intended to be on stage, though that is part of it. Accepting that aspect of the flow helps with embracing the intent.

Legacy: Black Ops

[3 stars]

It isn’t so much the story that makes this powerful as much as Idris Elba’s (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) performance. The story itself is fairly straight-forward and obvious, but his journey through the story is not. And the ending will leave you with more questions than answers (in a good way).

Director, writer (and even editor) Thomas Ikimi crafts this primarily psychological suspense with a sharp eye. He backs Elba’s efforts with careful visual construction. He only distrusts his audience once or twice in the 90ish minutes, and never in a way that is insulting. The ultimate point and message of the story is slowly eeked out before hammering it home. One interesting bit of trivia about this movie is that it introduced Lara Pulver (The City & The City) to screen in a supporting role.

Even 10 years after its release, this movie is still topical and insightful, but this isn’t a laid-back or relaxed story for a fun evening; be prepared for the dark.

The Hummingbird Project

[3 stars]

Well, this is no Big Short, but it tries hard to make an audacious effort interesting through the personal journeys around it. Unfortunately, writer/director Kim Nguyen (Bellevue) never quite gets us to buy into that effort, nor the people, enough to invest in the human aspect of the story. And neither does the overall metaphor really drive the experience. But, just in case you missed it, he drives it all home in the end to be sure you got the message.

Jesse Eisenberg (Cafe Society) top-lines and drives the movie’s plot, but it’s Alexander Skarsgård (The Aftermath) who runs away with this movie. It is an unusual role for him in many ways…not the least of it being his partially shaved head. I must admit this last aspect was incredibly distracting for me because it was so out of place for the actor I recognized. However, his performance was solid and complex.

Salma Hayek (How to be a Latin Lover) was also interesting in a supporting role, but I could never decide if I believed her or not. The world of Finance exposed in the story is specific and rarefied. Many of the choices around her were good, but there was something lacking either in the story or her performance to completely sell it for me. The movie didn’t grab me enough to make me dig too deeply into that lack to better define it. Michael Mando (Spider-Man: Homecoming), on the other hand, brought in a completely believable engineer and crew chief. He had the most thankless of the parts in the cast, but is very much the glue that holds it all together.

The bones of the plot are based on very real challenges and fights that continue to go on in the trading world. And while it affects everyone, nearly no one is aware or wants to be aware. On Nguyen’s side, I think that’s why he took this niche aspect as a wedge to a bigger truth in today’s society. He just doesn’t manage to balance it all to permit both aspects to come through with impact.

It: Chapter Two

[3.5 stars]

Director Andy Muschietti definitely delivered on the promise he made with It: Chapter One.  From its powerful opening moments through to its end, the story drives relentlessly and wraps up the Derry saga.

Part of the strong showing of this story is the brilliant ensemble, which is perfectly balanced to keep any one character from dominating. And the casting choices to help bridge the 27 year gap was mostly dead on. In fact, it is so nicely seamless, I don’t see a need to call out anyone individually.

This was always going to be the harder of the two parts of the tale to tell. For starters, the adults are more complex characteres, complicated by age and amnesia. Gary Dauberman (The Nun) made some interesting choices in his adaptation. Some of them were clever and interesting, and others were baffling. In particular, there are catch phrases (“dead lights,” “beep, beep”) that didn’t show up in the first part, but that play in the second. Also, while the opening of this movie sets up the horror and mood, it isn’t particularly well used in the end. I understand the purpose, but also wonder at some of the choices which were made to set the movie apart from the book. And it seems like there are some timeline challenges as well if you look too closely.

I did indeed rewatch It (Chapter One) before heading to this resolution. I probably didn’t need to as the film does a good job of reminding you of the parts you need to recall. It also spends time in the past as the Losers recover their memories.

If you enjoyed the first movie and like the book, you will enjoy the second movie. But you can’t rightly call it a sequel because the stories just don’t mean much separately, and there is a beauty to seeing them in close proximity. This does include a challenge for the audience, as you have to be willing to understand the characters as adults and let go of their childhood. That is one of the best aspects of the classic novel, but some folks may find it hard to let go of the simple innocence of the children for the more nuanced adults. When the film is looking at those more adult problems, it is frankly at its best…better even than the many shocking scares, which will make you jump, but which are just variations on what we’ve all seen before.

At nearly 3 hours, the movie is quite the investment in time, but I never found myself bored and am glad I saw it on big screen, where Muschietti’s efforts and eye are very much on display. And in Dolby, the subsonics will shake the heck out of your seat. Obviously, this isn’t a stand-alone flick, so don’t jump into it here, see the first part…well, first. As a whole, it is quite the exercise in adaptation. Sure, I have issues with aspects of the results and choices, but it is still quite the achievement to make it float (sorry) for the 5.5 hour total screen time.

Late Night

[3 stars]

Though it has a bit of a rocky start, this comedy eventually finds its tone and legs for a good dash to the end. And leading the running pack are Emma Thompson (Years and Years) and Mindy Kaling (Ocean’s 8), who are this film. Sure there are other characters…even good performances, but this is their film. Even John Lithgow (Beatriz at Dinner) falls into the background, despite providing a lot of punch for very little screen time.

However, it is also probably worth calling out a few supporting roles: Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) for his lovable rake, Reid Scott (Venom) for his petulant-but-open-minded writer, and Denis O’Hare (Lizzie) for his role as exhausted handler. All of whom Thompson and Kaling bulldoze on screen with charisma and action.

Director Nisha Ganatra’s heavy TV background shows in this movie. The pacing, presentation, and choices all feel a bit more small screen than large. Kaling’s script, likewise, picks up the story’s venue in its exchanges and scope, or at least feels like it does. And given that it is an Amazon film, with small screen as it’s ultimate venue (if not the screen on your phone) perhaps it was also the right choice. But whether for small or large screen, this is an entertaining romp, with just enough bite to provide a light meal.

 

Carnival Row

[3 stars]

If Ripper Street and Copper had a magical baby, this is pretty much what you’d get. For me, however, the poor child took on the worse qualities of both parents. A shame as it had the potential to tackle the current issues of immigration and xenophobia sweeping a good part of the globe.

In the end, Carnival Row is a marginally thought-through bit of genre, full of strife and demons (personal as well as real). It is a by-the-numbers fantasy with few surprises and cliche characters; the pacing commensurate with its genre, which is to say: slow.

The show isn’t helped by its female lead in Cara Delevingne (Tulip Fever), who has the look of a Fae, but the emotional credibility of cardboard. Despite Orlando Bloom’s (S.M.A.R.T. Chase) backing her, and with some interesting tension between them, she just never became real for me. Even the host of solid supporting actors are generally forced into tiny boxes of behavior, by script and directing, that does little to show off their talents.

Ultimately, I’m still not sure if I enjoyed this first season or not. It is clear that the it was built around the first episode and final moments in the last…with a whole bunch of stretched out filler in-between. It is, in fact, more of a prologue or setup for a story to come. You may find it more engaging than I did, but despite the grand production values, I found myself frustrated far too often to settle into the tale and become a fan.

I Am Not a Witch

[3 stars]

Disturbing is an understatement for this film. Using harsh simplicity, writer/director Rungano Nyoni examines what it is to be a woman, an immigrant, and a society through a fable-like tale of a young girl accused of witchcraft in Zambia.

The mostly untried cast is likewise raw in their presentations. In fact the entire story rests on the slim shoulders of Maggie Mulubwa. She is an intense and vulnerable young girl who has learned the lesson that less is more on screen.

Nyoni’s film certainly received a lot of notice on the festival circuit, winning about half of its nominations.  It isn’t a fast film, but it is well designed, bleakly funny, and able to drive home its points with a stiletto.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

[3.5 stars]

The number of emotions and ideas that this film sparks are too many and too complicated to try and explain here in less than a tome. Suffice to say that this grounded fable/tragi-comedy by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, and Rob Richert (a first feature for all of them) is inventive, powerful, and effective.

Jimmie Fails also leads in the film alongside Jonathan Majors (Captive State, When We Rise). The friendship of these two men and their journey through the city is both funny and surprising. The duo are supported by host of smaller characters including Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Micheal Epps, and Rob Morgan (Mudbound). Only two small roles by Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood) and Maximilienne Ewalt (Sense8) add any female influence to this story. Given the tight focus on Fails’s journey and the lack of women in his life, it is almost excusable. However, it is noticeable.

But that criticism aside, this was an unexpected film. If Spike Lee had been born 30 years later and on the West coast, this is the kind of story he’d have been telling. It is politically charged, but without losing track of the personal. It is funny, but without dropping the serious message and intent. It is raw and honest, but not without recognizing the inherent sadness and absurdity in the situation. This is a film worthy of the term and an interesting new set of voices for the industry.

Time for Two and Two For Time

Without planning, there were two time travel/paradox stories that hit my plate this week. One was quite good. The other was interesting, but more as a logic experiment than as a quality entertainment.

Let’s face it, a good time travel story is hard to find. So often it is simply a trope to tell another story. But stories that really think it all through…or as much as possible as paradoxes inevitably create challenges…are rare and fun to find. Predestination, Timecrimes, or even Terminator: Genisys were the last movie attempts to do this well that I’ve seen. And no one has managed to top Looper yet on screen (or Blink on the small screen). Still, at least both of these new offerings make time travel integral to the plot.

I’ll Follow You Down [3 stars]

This movie has its issues, but it definitely has some solid thinking in it that allows me to recommend it.

In addition to the good story, it also has a good cast. Rufus Sewell (Dangerous Beauty, The Man in the High Castle) and Gillian Anderson (Crooked House) catch attention as the parents to Haley Joel Osment (Tusk). Osment is the real lead in this tale, with some nice support by Victor Garber (Sicario) and Susanna Fournier (Being Human (US)). Osment has some great moments, but his performance is uneven and, at times, forced or false. There are plot moments that just clunk like a tin can rolling down stairs. But they are just moments in the midst of some solid acting and well considered issues.

Absent that roller-coaster of belief, I’ll Follow You Down would have been great instead of just good. Director/writer Richie Mehta (Delhli Crime) has certainly peaked my curiosity to see what may come next in his opus. And if you like movies with a bit of intellect behind them, this one pays off nicely.

Excursion [2.5 stars]

Martin Grof’s first feature as writer and director is loaded with ideas. Unfortunately these ideas are often discussed at length by the characters rather than showing us or just trusting the audience. It is primarily a political diatribe blended with a bit of black humor and clever historical revisionism.

To make this kind of script and story work, though, you need a very talented cast. This cast isn’t really up to the task. Other than Johnny Mindlin and Jeryl Burgess, they are often stiff and completely without credibility. And even these two bright spots for naturalism are a little forced at times.

As a curio, this is interesting. Not brilliant, but interesting. However, save it for a time when you’ve nothing else and about 80 minutes to spare. You may find the approach more engaging than I did.

Devil’s Gate

[2.5 stars]

I fully admit, I came to this based almost entirely on the cast…just pure curiosity. And, if I’m completely honest, my curiosity led me a bit astray here.

But the top-line cast of Shawn Ashmore (Conviction) and Milo Ventimiglia (Second Act) in a horror film was just too intriguing to skip. They’re joined by Amanda Schull (Suits) and Bridget Regan (Legend of the Seeker, White Collar). And, as an additional surprise, Jonathan Frakes  even steps out in front of the camera  briefly.

Clay Staub’s first feature production as director (as well as a first feature script, co-written with Peter Aperlo) demonstrates some solid potential. The team’s willingness to seek something new in a tired genre is admirable. Their ability to examine their own logic and make the tale cohesive is a little less so. In some ways it reminds me of a less capable, and  slightly reversed (genre-wise), Brightburn…though that may just be all the farmhouse footage.

This is, at best, a B-grade movie. It is mainly kept at that level by its cast, which isn’t too surprising given their chops. It makes a game run at bringing a fresh voice to screen, but Staub and Aperlo both need some more practice. I’d be willing to give them that seeing what they could do here. This is one of those rainy Saturday afternoon movies, and there is a place for such things in our lives if we enjoy that “genre.”

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