Where’d You Go Bernadette?

[3.5 stars]

Richard Linklater’s (Everybody Wants Some) latest film is imperfect in its details, but complete in its emotional journey. That is thanks to Cate Blanchett (The House with the Clock in the Walls) more than anything else. She takes us on Bernadette’s wild, and very personal ride, allowing us to both appreciate and find fault with her.  And, frankly, knitting together a scattered story and script.

Part of that tale is her family. Billy Crudup (Alien: Covenant), and newcomer Emma Nelson throw down with Blanchett to create a family in loving turmoil, fighting to make it through the storm. It is a surprisingly believable one, even though Crudup’s character feels very cliche for a good chunk of the film.

But many of the characters around Bernadette feel that way. Kristen Wiig (Ghostbusters) is similarly hollow, if recognizable and allowed to grow. Laurence Fishburne (John Wick 3: Parabellum) is a convenience. Only Zoe Chao (The OA) got entirely cheated by never being allowed to have impact or grow beyond the cheap comedy she was forced into. But each of these are bumpers for Bernadette to bounce off of and not much more. Important bumpers, each in their way, but not full characters.

The script adaptation appears to be most at fault for these gaps and slightly scattered story. It feels like too much was shoe-horned into the two hours, keeping the story from remaining focused. There were too many side-trips and events and not quite enough was sacrificed from the original book. This isn’t unusual in Linklater’s films, but editing is one of his weaknesses. What he sees as being naturalistic is often just indulgent or boring.

Most of this movie’s weaknesses are quickly forgiven, from factual errors to misrepresentations, but they are there.  What is frustrating is that they needn’t be, they were all clear director/writer choices. Fortunately, Blanchett can pull the entire load in her wake. For her performance, and the emotional release of the tale, this is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Missing Link

[3 stars]

I have been a fan of Laika Studios since Coraline, and still think they got ripped off when Kubo and the Two Strings didn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated. However, sadly, this latest movie isn’t quite up to their legacy in script or visuals.

It isn’t a bad film, and it is entertaining, but it’s just, well, confused. It’s neither a kid’s film nor an adult’s. It doesn’t even run that ephemeral line between the two, appealing to both audiences by cleverly balancing adult nods and silly humor. Chris Butler (ParaNorman) couldn’t quite find the tone in his script or direction to pull it all together.

However, it does eventually get to the point in the last quarter of the movie. If only the rest had had the punch of those final confrontations and sequences. But it doesn’t. Despite some impressive animation in scenes, the overall movie feels a little less polished than what Laika has put out before. The animation is a tad less smooth and the feeling a little less magical than I’d have expected from them. It will keep younger kids chuckling, though some will be beyond them and some may be a bit too frightening.

The Souvenir

[2.5 stars]

I so wanted to like this more. I kept trying. There is sense of something buried deeply in its recursive, meta, Sophomoric view of life. Unfortunately, I never quite found it…and the final denouement “Part 2 coming soon” after the credits made me shrink in horror rather than anticipation.

Despite that reaction, I was drawn through the story, though I think that was mostly on a misinformed idea that there would be a pay off. That said, it has Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) in, literally, a matronly role to her real-life and screen daughter Honor Swinton Byrne. The two work well together but Byrne’s character life is hampered by the telling of the story. We don’t really see her changes, we must mostly infer them. But we also never really understand her attraction to Tom Burke (Strike), who does a likewise solid job with what he has to work with. While we don’t have to agree with a character’s choice, we do have to understand it.

Writer/director Joanna Hogg  certainly has a track record, as does this movie, with awards or nominations for every one of her feature projects. But I don’t understand the enthusiasm around this offering. It may have been created with skill, but that didn’t translate into a good movie. At least it didn’t for me.

The Farewell

[4.5 stars]

The Farewell has been quietly saying, “Hello” to cinemas around the country, expanding each week to new audiences. It’s a greeting you should answer. Lulu Wang has created a deceptively simple film that is wonderfully honest, funny, and complex while remaining delightfully entertaining. From the opening moment of the film, you know that is going to be something a little bit different.

Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) lands a great performance of a young woman finding herself and navigating a family crisis. And Wang helps her navigate it wonderfully and shed her typically over-broad delivery. The rest of the cast is solid, including Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, and, as the beloved Nai Nai, Shuzhen Zhao. Lin and Zhao, in particular may end up in conversations come awards time along with Awkwafina and Wang. And this film should be in that conversation.

But even if I’m wrong on the awards front, and it gets forgotten or snubbed, you should make time for this unexpected treat. It certainly touches on strong emotions, but its overall impact is a positive one; its messages (however you interpret them) and moments sticking with you long after the credits have faded.

Amazing Grace

[3 stars]

Aretha! What more do you need to know?

Come to this for the joy of the music and the significance of the moment (not to mention some of the people captured on screen).

OK, to be fair, this is more a behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of the most famous gospel albums of all time than a full documentary.

What you get is a peek at Aretha working, as opposed to just purely performing. You get to see her roots, some of the depth of her beliefs, and a little of her family and background.

Recorded live with an audience, Sydney Pollack (Sliding Doors, Eyes Wide Shut) tried to capture the event and energy. This is not Pollack’s Stop Making Sense. It doesn’t create a story, it is unable to really capture the feeling of live gospel, and the quality of the visuals is pretty grainy (though the sound is restored nicely). There are reasons for all this, not the least that it is from 1972 and many technical issues plagued the shooting and post-production. Aretha herself never wanted this movie released, even after they solved many of the sound problems; no one in public knows what her objections were.

But it is released now and it is a gift to her public. It isn’t her best performance. The music isn’t the most exciting, nor is it organized in a way to pull you along or take you on an emotional journey. It simply is. It is a visual album that is a balm to the nerves and delight to your heart, even if it isn’t your type of music or even your religion (for the record, it is neither to me). But it is worth your time.

Another Life

[3 stars]

Imagine Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Nightflyers all melded into one. In many ways, this is what Nighflyers wanted to be, but missed on so many levels. But Another Life is much more space opera than it is science fiction. Science is, at best, a convenient idea to be used or changed as needed (yes, even worse than Star Trek because it feels more like science fiction). Knowing that going in, despite the trappings of the show, will keep you from getting agitated later (assuming you care about such things).

Katee Sackhoff  (2036: Origin Unknown) delivers a complex and strong female leader. Admittedly, the script has her doing some stupid things at times, but her emotional core is solid. The rest of the shipboard cast, with two exceptions, do well too. Samuel Anderson (Doctor Who, DCI Banks) navigates a difficult road to sentience…your mileage may vary on the results, but it is still a complicated performance. Likewise Blu Hunt, A.J. Rivera, Alex Ozerov (Cardinal), and JayR Tinaco created shipboard life that is at once interesting and, in some ways, ridiculous. But that is more a problem of the Space Opera approach than it is the actors.

Unfortunately, there were also some weaker, or at least uneven performances as well. Top among those were Jake Abel (Love & Mercy) and Jessica Camacho (The Flash). Neither had a subtle bone in their body and, in the case of Abel especially, no presence whatsoever. Back on Earth, Selma Blair (Anger Management), who I normally enjoy, was just as imprecise and unreal in her pivotal role, which was a shame.

The other main Earth-locked cast was fairly solid. Justin Chatwin (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and the young Lina Renna make a great anchor for Sackhoff’s character.

Creator Aaron Martin has a diverse writing background on shows from Degrassi: The Next Generation, to Being Erica, and SyFy romp Killjoys. He isn’t afraid to push limits or relationships and it shows. This series takes a very matter-of-fact approach to the broad spectrum of sexuality that only Sense8 has really challenged in the genre so far. This isn’t the driver for the action, but it certainly adds some nice aspects to the characters and story.

The story also attempts, rather ham-handedly to be honest, to raise the challenge of understanding an alien mind. How much human psychology can you assign to actions and questions an alien raises? How closely will AI evolve to be like or dislike its creators?

I can’t say I ever was sure of the title: Another Life. It has interesting resonance throughout the story, changing as it goes. By the end of this first series I was still unsure of the intention, but had flipped through various options. Perhaps that was the point, but it never felt reflected in the characters.

This show is also a great example of being better streaming than it would have been on broadcast. The story is relentless, ending episodes on intriguing points or cliffhangers and starting off, often, with new situations. In other words, it pulls you along nicely for a binge. If, however, it had been released on a 1-a-week schedule, it would never have hooked in a audience because of that rhythm.

For some interesting distraction, this is a fun series. I’m hoping that it not only gets a second round, but that they learn from this first and take the scripts up a notch. It wouldn’t take much to take it to a higher level and really build out a franchise.

Summer of Rockets

[3 stars]

The first three-quarters of this limited series are both intriguing and engaging. We are introduced to a complex group of people in an intriguing historical period and provided just enough plot to keep us wondering where the heck things are going to go. And then it takes a turn. It is a fair turn in retrospect, but the resolution and motivations are, at best, forced.

Despite the sort of non-ending provided, the rest of the ride is actually interesting and the cast is chock full of solid performers. Among them is Keeley Hawes (Mrs. Wilson) who appears to be in just about every BBC show these days. But the tale revolves more around Toby Stephens’ (Vexed, Lost in Space) Petrukhin, a Russian-Jewish inventor trying to make a place for himself and his family in 1950s British society. A far from easy task.

Along with Linus Roache (Mandy), Lucy Cohu (Ripper Street), Mark Bonnar (Shetland), Timothy Spall (Finding Your Feet), Claire Bloom, as well as a nice Sophomore turn for Lily Sacofsky (Bancroft) and freshman outing for Rose Ayling-Ellis, we get a look at many facets of British life, fears, and prejudices of the era. While not ground- breaking, putting a rising Jewish family at the center of the story provides a lens that we haven’t often seen through in these stories.

Whether the plot feels fair and complete to you I imagine will be a matter of expectation. I suggest you just roll with it. This starts as an intimate story and ends the same. But it certainly has a lot of meat in the middle to work with and keep you wondering and wanting more.

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein

[2.5 stars]

For the title alone, I had to check out this silly satire, and clear vanity project, by David Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) on Netflix.

The short film is full of nods and winks to the History Channel, Dark Shadows, and Documentary Now among other shows. It also takes many hilarious slams at the acting craft generally. Against this background Harbour explores his family’s fictional past in search of… well, that would be the problem overall. We never really understand why he’s doing this, what “questions” he has to answer. And, in the end, we don’t know what he’s discovered or embraced. Perhaps the open ended aspect was part of the satire, but it left me as a viewer wondering why I’d spent the half hour.

Given director Daniel Gray Longino’s background with Portlandia, and both he and writer John Levenstein’s involvement with The Kroll Show, the sensibility of this 30 minute distraction shouldn’t be a surprise. Mainly, it’s just disappointing, or was for me. But at 30 minutes, it isn’t a huge chunk of your life to lose for some funny moments. Just don’t expect it to hold together or pay off in a great way and you’ll be fine.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

[4 stars]

Watching the animus between Dwayne Johnson’s (Fighting With My Family) Hobbs and Jason Statham’s (The Meg) Shaw through the Fast & Furious franchise has always been entertaining, but it also got a bit tiring. It was just so forced and so over-the-top. This latest installment to the franchise gives the characters space to breathe. Sure the one-liners and fights barely stop between the two, but the story actually builds a relationship between them that allows the jokes and slams to continue, but now in a more believable way. “Believable” is, of course, a relative term in the world they’ve created, but compared to other stories in the franchise, this one felt more complete amidst the insane fights and stunts.

Part of the reason is that it is hyperfocused on only two of the characters we follow. And, added to that mix for tension, they found a great female lead to join them in Vanessa Kirby (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and a great villain in Idris Elba (Luther). There are also several surprise cameos to help tether the story to the main franchise.

Honestly, this was exactly what I needed at this point in my summer. It is a great popcorn film with just enough story and character to allow me to enjoy it without having to forgive it. I wish more of the F&F films had as much meat on them, but they’ve become thin excuses for huge stunts, bad jokes, and little else. Whether this latest becomes a bridge for the plot there, which appears a possibility, or perhaps elevates the stories a bit more remains to be seen. For that matter, whether these characters return to the franchise proper or not is still not known, but it was great to see them on their own adventure.

As you can imagine, yes, you should see this on the big screen if you have any interest at all. David Leitch (Deadpool 2) continues to improve his directing skills without losing his stunt edge. And Chris Morgan (The Fate of the Furious) who has helped turn the F&F franchise from pure car show to something more with his scripts is exploring his characters more. We’re still talking just serious summer fun, but that’s fine. And, should you go, watch through to the end of the credits. There are several front-loaded scenes and one at the end of the roll.

 

Little

[2.5 stars]

Cute idea. Childish execution. Tina Gordon directed this movie as a Disney Channel special rather than as a feature release. The style and script, with co-writer Tina Oliver (Girl’s Trip), is very much a child’s view of the world rather than an adult learning about how to view the world as a child again.

It doesn’t help that Regina Hall’s (The Hate U Give) performance is so broad at the beginning at that I almost turned off the flick in frustration. There was no way this person would have still had a company with her behavior. This means that the movie started at a massive deficit…and I could never quite suspend disbelief because it was so obviously wrong. Issa Rae (Insecure) and Marsai Martin (Black-ish) help pull the movie back toward center, but never manage to make up for the the rest of the weaknesses even with their efforts.

People have been trying to recapture the magic that was Big for decades. The sentiment never really goes out of style, but while the general story is what people remember (even with the reversal), the filmmakers forgot that it was the chemistry of that film that really made it a classic. And no one in this cast matches Hanks’ vulnerability and charisma.

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