The Broken Hearts Gallery

[3.5 stars]

Every once in a while a pure, sweet escape is just the thing. And there is something about romantic NYC fantasies, especially when loaded with good comedy, that makes them infectious. And I mean that in a good way. Like the earlier romcom surprise of Palm Springs, Natalie Krinsky (Gossip Girl) doubled down on all the old tropes and found something new in them.

Geraldine Viswanathan (Miracle Workers) is a ball of energy and wit that never stops. She holds together this movie and manages to keep it grounded even when she’s delivering mile-a-minute monologues. Opposite her, Dacre Montgomery (Stranger Things, Power Rangers) redeems himself nicely from all of his previous pretty-boy, obnoxious characters with a soulful guy who just needs to relax and get on with his life.

You can tell how good the flick is by the fact that the supporting performance by Bernadette Peters (Mozart in the Jungle) ends up more a distraction than adding to the whole. She’s a fine choice, especially given the backstory, but she’s too recognizable amid the rest of the cast who hold their own just fine.

And, speaking of, the supporting cast are all a hoot. From the silent Nathan Dales (Letterkenny), the befuddled but self-centered Utkarsh Ambudkar (Blindspotting), and best-friend Arturo Castro (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), to the girl power collection of Molly Gordon (Life of the Party), Phillipa Soo (Hamilton), and Megan Ferguson (Upload) they all deliver in slightly over-the-top-but-believable ways. And two smaller roles by Suki Waterhouse (Pokémon Detective Pikachu) and Sheila McCarthy (Umbrella Academy) are expertly tipped over the net for impact.

When you’re ready for an escape with lots of belly laughs and even moments of sweet emotion, this is a wonderful choice alone or to share.

The Broken Hearts Gallery Poster

 

Boss Level

[3 stars]

It’s  been a long while since we’ve had a Joe Carnahan (The Grey) directed film to enjoy. His last two major credits were just his scripts: Bad Boys For Life and Death Wish. The man knows suspense and action. I do wish he knew how to cast and direct actors a bit better, but you can’t have everything. Boss Level is a high-octane ride from start to finish, delivering a sort of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World meets Palm Springs.

The base weakness of the film is its lead, Frank Grillo (Disconnect, Avengers: Endgame). While Grillo is a great action actor, he doesn’t quite have the charisma and rakish charm necessary to be the leading man in a flick, even when that flick is mostly gritty action. It’s not a slam so much as a simple reality: some actors have “it” and some don’t. More the problem, after other darker anti-heroes like Deadpool, expectations are pretty high on how the character has to control the screen.

But the story is fun. Carnahan shares credit with Chris and Eddie Borey for the script. And it is nicely constructed, if a little late to the party on time-loop action tales. A shame, really; if it had come out sooner, it would have felt more unique.

Fortunately, with Naomi Watts (Ophelia) and a, surprisingly, contained and menacing Mel Gibson (The Expendables), there are some solid framing performances to hold it all down. Additional roles with Will Sasso (Klaus) and a much under-utilized Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery) help things along as well.

Boss Level was originally intended for a feature release. I think the shift to stream will actually gives it a better and longer life in the movie firmament. On screen it would have bombed, but as a stream, it better meets expectations and certainly entertains.

Boss Level Poster

WandaVision

[4 stars]

Yes, I avoided talking about this till it was complete. Why? Because it was so clearly going to be a complex arc that wouldn’t likely be fully realized till the end. I’m glad I waited…and enjoyed the ride.

Like many complex tales, there are two experiences: the initial watch and the rewatch/looking-back review. The one thing that is utterly clear is that this massively risky experiment wouldn’t have worked without the incredible acting chops of Elizabeth Olsen (Ingrid Goes West). Her ability to morph through the various styles required, and her depth of emotional landscape sold an otherwise near-experimental theatre presentation. And in support around her through it all were Kathryn Hahn (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Paul Bettany (Uncle Frank) who balance and feed the confusion. It’s no Watchmen, but it is a heck of an out-there show.

And, yes, there are others, but most are surprises so I won’t enumerate. But Josh Stamberg (Pacific Rim: Uprising) is notable for a truly flawed performance. He was clearly directed by Matt Shakman to chew the furniture and he did so with relish, to the detriment of the series. Mind you, so does Hahn before it’s all over, which is a shame, but she has a wider ranging presentation. However, at least Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk) manages to pull off a rather unexpected arc without crossing those lines.

The shape of this series is everything. It begins with a 30 minute format and expands, as the story structure allows, till we get to an hour-long finale. But the first three episodes are slightly self-indulgent setups. Entertaining as heck, but stretched out a bit too long. There is a purpose and a reason for it all (thankfully) but it goes on too long. Shankman should have reined it in a little more. Similarly, the penultimate episode gets old quickly as, by that time, it’s simply revealing information we mostly know but the characters have yet to admit/understand. It could have been done better.

But the finale, which manages in true Marvel/MCU fashion to pull all the threads together, is a nice pay-off. And I say that even though it also, in true MCU fashion, has lots of open threads hinted at in the two codas.

Overall, this is a heck of an achievement. Flawed, and slightly misdirected at times, but not something most of us expected. And it resolves some of the original complaints about Wanda’s Age of Ultron introduction and story. Of course, if you don’t know about Wanda and Vision, you’ll frankly miss 80% of the story. So if you somehow missed the movies, go back to Age of Ultron and watch from there (or at least watch the Legends series to learn enough about the background).

My biggest concern with the story is how well it will stand the test of time and rewatching. Once you know the secrets and rewatch it once, is there enough there? As a stand-alone series, I suspect not. It is built as a vehicle to launch several new paths in the MCU (at least two movies link up with the ending). It isn’t a stand-alone gem of a story, it is an episode in the charcters’ existence, a bridge to what comes next. Very comic book. But is that what we ultimately want to tune in for? Dark Tower had originally planned a movie and TV pathway, because of the scope of the story, all tying together as a whole. Then they panicked and gave us a single, awful movie. So, perhaps, WandaVision is a new type of show and I’m being a little unfair to its purpose. Time will tell when we see if Disney can pay it all off in the year or so to come. Certainly, I give them credit for the ballsy and expensive attempt. Let’s see what they can do with it…

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday Poster

Proxima

[3 stars]

I honestly wanted to like this movie more than I did. It has a lot going for it, but it also has some uncomfortable flaws for me.

On the high side, it was nice to be reminded that science fiction simply means that the story cannot happen without an aspect of science holding it together. Proxima takes some of the themes we’re seeing now in tales like Away and Gravity and really focuses on the personal challenges of space travel without disaster as the background to drive it forward. It even takes place almost entirely before the mission rather than during it.

And, also on the plus-side, Eva Green (Dumbo) makes a relatively credible astronaut in training…relatively. And here is the turn. Some of her decisions would seem to make her psychologically unfit for the position, but her effort and focus in the face of the training and toxic male attitude from colleagues like Matt Dillon (The House that Jack Built) are impressive.

Then again, the problem is primarily with Alice Winocour’s (Mustang) script more than her direction of the story. Green is even saddled with an asshole of an ex-husband in Lars Eidinger (Dumbo, High Life) as the father and Zélie Boulant as the over-indulged and petulant daughter. If I sound judgmental on this, I am. I understand the desire to create tension for the characters, but given that this is a tale intended to be in our future rather than the past, the issues feel both forced, and Green’s reaction too accepting of the situation, rather than pushing against them. And, honestly, the character needs some serious parenting skills and a better divorce attorney.

And then there were the penultimate scenes leading to the finale, which really is more of a coda. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with the story as it was finally laid out. It was effective narratively, but bordered on the absurd.

Ultimately, the story tries to look at the conflict between dreams and family, as well as the cost of space travel and the kind of people and commitment it takes for it to happen. But what we get is a questionable statement of what it is to be a woman generally, let alone in a male dominated industry. We get no counterpoint or balancing commentary. The tension of motherhood versus career has been around for centuries, but some careers do have particular requirements, and any story that tackles those spaces should get it a bit closer to accurate.

All of my frustrations aside, again mostly focused on the end rather than the journey, Winocour does create an interesting tale. And Green delivers a smart, driven character (again, with certain qualifications). Given her previous efforts, I actually am a bit surprised by Winocour’s choices. Still, this film is worth seeing for a number of aspects, and your reaction to the resolution may be less intense than my own.

Proxima Poster

Tom and Jerry (2021)

[1 star]

I accept the fact that some folks may find this entertaining. I didn’t. I couldn’t even finish the movie. The blending of the animation and real world was, at best, odd and, at worst, just pointless. I don’t know what Tim Story was thinking when he agreed to take on this project with a script by Kevin Costello (Brigsby Bear). The blended animation and real-world makes no sense at all in action or substance.

Add to this that the acting, despite some reasonable talent, was stretched beyond credibility. It never found a tone that worked. In fact, Chloë Grace Moretz (Greta) couldn’t even modulate her voice to sound believable. Michael Peña (Fantasy Island) is absurd from the get-go. And, frankly, Jerry is just a dick in this story, way beyond what I remember from the cartoons growing up.

Perhaps the studio got what they wanted in the resulting movie. Maybe, even, Story hit the marks he was aiming for. What I can say is that I wasn’t the target on just about any level. I couldn’t appreciate the technology, the humor, nor the drama. I rarely turn off a movie, but after 30 minutes of this drivel I had to save my evening and I ran away. You shouldn’t even start.

Tom & Jerry Poster

News of the World

[3 stars]

There are different ways to think about this film. At it’s heart, it is a Western in just about every sense of the world. More on the True Grit sort of the scale than Magnificent Seven, but you get the idea. But it’s also an echo of today in surprising and disturbing ways. Let’s just say there is nothing about this movie that will improve your opinion of the south generally or Texas specifically. News of the World is a reminder of what division in a country really means and how bias and prejudice can poison people.

But, of course, all of that is backdrop to the main story of Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). He’s a Civil War vet wandering the country, coming to terms with his life and deeds. Hanks is the perfect choice for this man who can (mostly) talk his way out of anything with a calm demeanor and kind heart. And then into his path drops the young and abandoned Helena Zengel. From there you can probably write the story yourself; there really aren’t many surprises. Despite the predictability the two work wonderfully together and you can’t help but invest in their partnership as they knock up against all manner of issues.

I can’t say I really loved this film. Paul Greengrass (Jason Bourne ) delivered exactly what he wanted: a period Western with a modern sort of undertone. He and Luke Davies (Beautiful Boy) produced a script with a veiled message about as subtle as a brick. But, the real challenge for me is that I am not a fan of Westerns because of the kind of characters and situations they include to begin with. A movie that leans into that is going to distance me from the start, regardless of message.

My personal bias aside, Greengrass gives you beautiful vistas and gritty reality. Even as part of the genre, it manages to rise a bit above. If you’re a Hanks fan, you’ll also not be disappointed by the man’s quiet control and power on screen. And the young Zengel has been provided a platform to really show her potential. Whether it’s worth your time or not is going to have to be your decision.

News of the World Poster

Mortal

[3 stars]

Unexplained super-powers is becoming an overdone trope, which is why when you find one that tries to do something new, it’s a particular delight. André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) returns to his Nordic, Trollhunter roots to bring us a slow but intense tale of a young man, Nat Wolff (Admission), who suddenly acquires powers he can’t control or explain.

Iben Akerlie (Little Drummer Girl) plays opposite Wolff and balances him out well. In fact, she and Per Frisch are about the only clear-headed folks in the movie while Priyanka Bose (Lion) serves to remind the world of why Americans just shouldn’t be trusted. A sad cliché, but she navigates it relatively well within the bounds of the script.

As you can imagine, tragedy and stupid government decisions begin to occur. But this isn’t quite the story you expect, nor does it unfold exactly as others of its ilk. Sadly, it also doesn’t quite get to a conclusion so much as a beginning. Whether the tale will continue I imagine is still in flux, but the path is certainly there. In the meantime, if you can handle being left hanging (think a Brightburn kind of ending in style, though not in content), give it a shot. Definitely something a bit more interesting than the typical version of these tales.

Mortal Poster

Minari

[3 stars]

There is something very sweet and true about Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s latest tale. It has also been massively lauded out on the circuit. I can’t say, however, that I was as enthralled, though I wasn’t unimpressed.

Minari is a tale of an immigrant family. And there is a lot going on in Steven Yeun (Sorry to Bother You) and Yeri Han’s transplanted unit. While both of these actors deliver on their tightly wound and fraying relationship, it is Alan Kim, as their son, and Yuh-jung Youn (Sense8) who you’ll remember best. And I say that even with Will Patton’s (The November Man) truly off-beat, affable, bible-thumping intensity filling in the background. But unlike, say, The Farewell, it never quite acquires a full shape.

The experience of the Ye family is provided at an historical distance. We’re dropped into Arkansas of the early 1980s. Mind you, other than the clothes, cars, and some background news you probably can’t tell what era it is, and perhaps that is part of the point. But I wish it had been a bit more contemporary. It isn’t that bad things happen from a community point of view; this story is focused on the internal struggles of the family rather than society. In fact, the neighbors are relatively accepting and open to their new residents. And the Ye’s are not breaking any ground by arriving either. Because of all that I question the choice of era as it only serves to distance us from the events and provides no useful frame to the story.

That said, it is a beautiful and subtle film about the relationships. A father attempting to achieve his dreams at all costs. A mother trying to support her family and protect those around her. A grandmother overflowing with sass and love. And two children trying to figure out where they fit in the family and trying to buffer their parents. All relatable and all delivered with amusing and, sometimes, painful honesty.

There is a lot to be said for Minari and it should be seen. Compared to the rest of the field out there, I do think it is being more than a little over-hyped. Go into it with a moderated expectation for an insightful look at a family struggling to survive the challenges that come at them, and those that they bring with them.

Minari Poster

The Father

[4.5 stars]

Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable and storied. Olivia Williams (Maps to the Stars), Mark Gatiss (Locked Down), Rufus Sewell (The Pale Horse), and Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) perform a wonderfully seamless dance filling out the story.

This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.

My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.

The Father Poster

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