The Good Liar

[3 stars]

In all the decades of their careers, it is unimaginable to realize that Helen Mirren (Anna) and Ian McKellen (Lear, All is True) have never appeared together in a film. It is long past time, but I wish it had been with a better vehicle.

The problem with The Good Liar isn’t its acting, its directing, or its production values. The problem is that you know way too much going in. As Hitchcockian as this story is (and that is already too much to know), it struggles to surprise in part because of the caliber of the cast. A cast that, I will happily say, included Russell Tovey  (Years and Years), who is starting to get some dues.

Bill Condon (The Greatest Showman) managed the story well from the director’s chair. I wish, however, that writer Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) had had the guts to rework the story more completely from its source. He should have accepted the reality of today’s audience and how the film would have been marketed and realized we needed the story from more than just McKellen’s perspective. The mysteries and classic vibe could have remained, but the cat-and-mouse game would have been ever so much more delicious if we were included more all around.

You should still see this film. It is classically put together and impeccably performed. Just know it is also exactly what you expect, and don’t expect it to be more.

The Kitchen

[3 stars]

Not to be confused with the 2013 dark social comedy The Kitchen, this is a hard, if fanciful, look at mob protection with some nice twists. Andrea  Berloff’s (Straight Outta Compton) adaptation of the same-named comics takes place in the late 70’s in NYC. At that time Times Square was still Times Square, Studio 54 was at its peak, and Hell’s Kitchen was the dangerous place Daredevil stalked trying to keep it safe. And, more germane to this movie, women were still completely sidelined by society and institutions despite Gloria Steinem and the feminism movement.

Sitting in her first director’s chair, Andrea Berloff tackles that dark and interesting world through three women trying to rise above their circumstances. Berloff’s script is bald and honest. But beyond her sensibilities, it was her cast who sold this emancipation story.

In the case of Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), she continues to plumb her dramatic depths well, but doesn’t add much new to her opus. On the other hand Tiffany Haddish (The Secret Life of Pets 2) gives us a hard-as-nails character who is ambitious and in control, and without a single broad-comedy bone in her body. But it is Elisabeth Moss (The Seagull) who runs away with the movie in this trinity. Her journey is painful and fascinating as she extricates herself from an abusive marriage and finds her inner strength and power with brilliant assistance from Domhnall Gleeson (The Little Stranger). And, it should be noted, that Margo Martindale (Instant Family) has a fun, smaller role to add to the dark view and comedy of the story.

This is not a light movie. Worth your time? Yes. But not a night for relaxing or unwinding. It is intense, violent, even while being oddly compelling. For Moss and Haddish’s performances alone it is worth seeing. And Gleeson’s is an extra little gift amidst it all.

The Dead Don’t Die

[3 stars]

Is there anything quite as indie as a Jim Jarmusch (Paterson) movie? His latest foray into genre isn’t quite as sharp as his last, sadly, but it is still full of dark, flat humor. The Dead Don’t Die is more of a satirical/meta take on the zombie apocalypse rather than an exploration of what the condition might mean to characters. But the humor is unique and fun. And the story, while unashamedly inevitable, has plenty of surprises.

Part of those surprises is the cast. Jarmusch has always had his stable of actors. Tilda Swinton (The Souvenir) for one, Bill Murray (Zombieland) for another. Along with Adam Driver (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), the three really drive the story, but they’ve plenty of help from others, like Tom Waits (Old Man & the Gun), Chloë Sevigny (Golden Exits) and Steve Buscemi (The Death of Stalin). Jarmusch is also great at getting his actors to work against expected type. While broad in its approach, everyone remains very grounded and matter of fact. Not quite naturalistic, but definitely not the high drama of your typical horror film either. It is a quiet, if bloody, apocalypse.

What the story lacks is something more than the sly genre humor and in-your-face societal slams. There isn’t a lot being said that is new nor anything being done in a particularly special way (absent one amusing take on zombie focus). Perhaps that is, in part, due to the speed and challenges of its filming? However, if you like his work as I do, you’ll like this latest. It was definitely an enjoyable time spent for me.

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase

[3 stars]

This is a nicely updated Nancy Drew that captures the original’s sense and sensibility, but anchors it nicely in today’s world without altering it beyond recognition as the CW did. (While I was never a  particular fan of Drew or the Hardy Boys, I can see where drifting too far from that material was disturbing to some.)

But the best reason to see this amusing tween adventure is its lead, Sophia Lillis (It). Her positive energy, sense of timing, and vulnerability make for an engaging and even complex Ms. Drew. The rest of the young cast is good, but not particularly exceptional, though Andrew Matthew Welch (Ma) negotiates a nicely supporting role as Drew’s police assist. She also has some adult help selling the story with Sam Tramell (3 Generations) and Linda Lavin (How to be a Latin Lover) as her family and clients in need of rescue.

Katt Shea directed the tale with a sense of fun without losing the sense of urgency. She kept the mystery just edgy enough to provide suspense while not allowing the danger to exceed the boundaries of its target audience, which is clearly young. She definitely had some advantages with her Handmaid’s Tale writing duo, Nina Fiore and John Herrera, producing a clever adaptation.

For a simple and fun evening, you could do way worse. And, should you have young women in your home, it is good choice you all can share without insulting either side too much.

Doctor Sleep

[3 stars]

How do you create a sequel to a classic? It was never going to be an easy task for The Shining. Forgetting the fact that it is a terrifying bit of modern horror, Sanley Kubrik really muddied the waters with his 1980 “interpretation” of Stephen King’s book. King’s recent book sequel is less terrifying than its Shining origins, but it is also more emotionally complex and satisfying…and it rightfully ignores Kubrik’s reimagining.

Enter Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil) who tackled the project. As with his previous movies, he wore multiple hats: writer, director, and editor. He succeeded at differing levels at all of these.

To be honest, it is an interesting adaptation, taking much from the book but also finding a way to marry it to the Kubrik outcome…without insulting either side. However, what he decided to keep and what to dump was a bit of a confusion. Unlike It, which navigated a long timeline and complex story while remaining tense and tight, Doctor Sleep takes a while to get rev’ing. There is a lot of setup and then a good deal of compaction in the tale as it races to the end.

The cast is certainly solid. Ewan McGregor (Christopher Robin) as the grown Redrum boy himself does a great job of being broken while searching for peace and a path forward. Rebecca Ferguson (Men in Black: International) is wonderfully creepy and hard while remaining seductive, as she must for this character. I wasn’t really happy with her casting originally, but she won me over with her performance. And Kyliegh Curran as the young lead did a great job as well.

Of the smaller roles, frankly only Zahn McClarnon stuck out as worth noticing, though Jacob Tremblay’s (Predator) brief turn as the young victim that sets it all in motion was very effective and bravely nasty.

But is Doctor Sleep worth seeing? Yes and no. It really needed to be higher tension or more tightly edited. Though Flannagan did a good job collapsing many of the threads that spanned years in the book, he left in other aspects that left characters and ideas hanging. And while I was glad it had room to breathe at 2.5 hours long, I also wanted it to move a bit faster and feel scarier. The final quarter of the film, which diverges widely from the book, is the best structured and most tense. It was certainly beautifully filmed and well acted. It is a nice character study for McGregor and Ferguson, but as a horror film it won’t deliver for many people. It is more an emotional movie of recovery than a tense drama of psychological horror.

Your going to have to make your own decision as to when and how you’d like to catch this sequel to a seminal classic. However, if you read the original book, I do recommend the book sequel regardless. King found a path for Danny Torrance that feels both real and heartbreaking, even if Rose the Hat and her gang are less terrifying than the denizens of the Overlook Hotel.

Jojo Rabbit

[4 stars]

Everyone’s goto for humor is Hitler and the Nazi regeim at the end of WWII; funny stuff, right? How Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) got this film made, I couldn’t possible explain, but it is a wickedly funny gut punch of a movie. (Appropriately [and amusingly] I found myself watching this satire on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which added to the schadenfreud of it all).

Everything you need to know about Jojo you get in the first 10 minutes (in one of the funniest, most absurd film openings I’ve seen in ages)… all the rest is journey. And what a journey it is, and not one you’re likely to get much ahead of during the setup. The resolution becomes inevitible, but with just enough room for doubts to keep it interesting. And his use of music to get his points across is, at times, genius. Unfortunately, it is also at times way off base, clashing with the onscreen sound and action.

While Scarlette Johansson (Isle of Dogs) and Sam Rockwell (Best of Enemies) provide some adult framework for the story, it is told through the eyes of children. Primarily that is through Roman Griffin Davis’s Jojo. For his first film, Davis carries the story admirably, with all the gravitas and sincerity a 10 year old can bring. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) serves as the friction point of his decision-making, while another newcome, Archie Yates, provides some peer comic relief. Watching these three young actors is great fun as Waititi keeps them honest in all aspects.

There are some other fun side bits that run through the film driven by smaller adult roles. Alfie Allen (Predator), Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic), and Stephen Merchant (Fighting With My Family) have the best, but there are many. Waititi’s Hitler isn’t really among them for me. I understand why he took the role himself in order to hit just the right tone he had in his head, but it is an uneven performance.

Satire is hard. Waititi pulls it off in style, if imperfectly. The broad Monty Pythonesque humor will work for most people, while the political commentary may turn off others. However, this isn’t just Waititi playing silly buggers, it’s his reaction to the world today. He is far from the first to reflect that back to WWII, but, so far, he’s done it with the most belly laughs to get the point across.

So, yes, go see this and strap in for a wild, unexpected ride. While Preacher may have tried to get there, no one since Mel Brooks’ The Producers has managed anything close to the result here. It isn’t always easy to stomach, but it is one of the more unique films you’ll see this year.

Last Christmas

[3 stars]

I know what you’re thinking: It’s damned early in the year for a Christmas movie. And too bloody right you are. However, I am a sucker for a well-done romance. Fortunately, Last Christmas delivers more to the romance with a slightly cynical/amused eye to the holiday. A solid script, co-written by Emma Thompson (Late Night), and direction by Paul Feig (A Simple Favor) give it a leg up with sharp English wit and intelligence amid the holiday sweetness.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that Emilia Clarke (Solo: A Star Wars Story) has charisma and wonderful comic timing. She and Henry Golding (A Simple Favor) make a fun, reluctant couple while Clarke builds a family around Michele Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians), Emma Thompson, and Lydia Leonard (Abstentia). There are also some fun cameos from Maxim Baldry (Years and Years), Patti LuPone (Parker), Peter Serafinowicz (The Tick), Peter Mygind, Jade Anouka (Turn Up Charlie) and others.

As a solid date night film, with just enough brains and bittersweet in it to keep it from collapsing under its own weight in sugar, this is a fun outing. And I say that even if it is way too early to be starting the themed stories this year. Though, admittedly, it may well have gotten lost in the crush of tentpoles if they’d waited. Take someone you care about and enjoy being played like the proverbial piano in a way that will leave you warm, happy, and high on life.

Motherless Brooklyn

[3.5 stars]

Are you craving a classic noir with a patina of modern times to it? Then you’re in luck, this is very much a noir, tempered with contemporary sensibilities and commentary. For his sophomore directorial outing and writing debut, Edward Norton (Collateral Beauty) tackled a monster. It may have taken 20 years to drag Johathan Lethem’s book to screen, but it found its time, especially in theme.

To make the result more impressive, Norton also stars in the film as a physically and emotionally complicated, aspiring detective on a mission. The film is also told almost entirely through his perspective, making his directorial accomplishments even more impressive…there is almost no scene he isn’t in.

But Norton also loaded the cast with talent. Top among those is Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color). She is wicked smart, but also the damsel in distress with which his life gets entangled.

Several smaller roles bring the story and world to life as well.  Michael Kenneth Williams (Assassin’s Creed) brings entertainment in character and music. Willem Dafoe (Vox Lux) and  Cherry Jones (The Beaver) create poles around which information and plot flows. And, of course, Bruce Willis (Glass) gets it all moving along with a hardboiled kick.

Only Bobby Cannavale (I, Tonya, Ant-Man) and Alec Baldwin (BlacKkKlansman) felt wrong to me. Cannavale was just too obvious…possibly the fault of script and directing more than the actor, but it diminished his work. And Baldwin was probably the only complete miscast in the film. He does fine, but his very presence (and probably on purpose) evokes his SNL persona of the last few years. When they began production, Norton probably had no sense of how popular that satire would become, but it worked against him here. While appropriate for the tale and the point, it pulled me out of the film multiple times.

Overall, this is both a period detective movie and a modern commentary. It makes the plot somewhat predictble and obvious, but not in a destructive way, just a familiar one. And the more you know of New York City history and politics (I’m talking about you, Robert Moses), the more you can pull from the story which is only a thinly veiled retelling of the past…way closer to reality than you might expect. I’m not entirely sure why it was all veiled given how close it is to the truth, but there you go.

The film does take its pacing queues from the past, but it manages to keep the tension high and the mystery intriguing which makes the 2.5 hours move along as you stumble with Norton through the dark and glorious sets that recreate the NYC of old. If you like old movies and want to see something different from the majority fare currently in theaters, this is a solid choice.

Parasite

[4 stars]

Joon-ho Bong (Okja) doesn’t make easy movies, nor does he have a high opinion of humanity. Even when he allows for happiness in his worlds, it is typically for children and in spite of what the reality is around them. Parasite is no exception. It is dark, funny, human, and, above all, a tragic tale of class and identity.

Parasite is, generally, a tale of two families, one with means and one who will do anything to achieve means. The cast is a mix of recognizable and newer faces, assuming you watch Korean films. Kang-ho Song (Snowpiercer),  Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi (Okja), and So-dam Park form the main focus, struggling to survive. They collide with Yeo-jeong Jo and her family as well as Jeong-eun Lee (Mother) and Myeong-hoon Park in funny ways that eventually turn pitch black.

But, of course, it is never so simple as it sounds in the description of Joon-ho’s films. Why any of these characters are succeeding or struggling is a matter of debate and perspective. And it all takes place in meticulously designed settings and cinematography that capture the story and subtext.

I know this is running at near 100% on Rotten Tomatos, and from a craft point of view I understand that. As an experience I found it a little more uneven. However, I can see why the movie has won so much attention and awards; but it is more a powerful experience than it is an entertaining or instructive movie. And while not as physcially violent and tackling different issues as the Korean classic, Oldeuboi (Oldboy), it is in many ways just as challenging. Joon-ho has delivered  a pitch-black comedy that is as timely as Joker. And, ultimately, both tackle many of the same aspects of people and society, leaving you breathless. The question is whether your psyche is strong enough to take the journey.

Shadow (Ying)

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Yimou Zhang (The Great Wall) brings his sense of production and action to this court intrigue with umbrellas. That isn’t, “he does it with umbrellas,” but rather that it is a “court intrigue with umbrellas.” Really, that will make more sense when you see it.

Chao Deng (Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame) does an amazing job of playing the two roles of a man and his double. The distinction between the two is complete, though admittedly helped by the forced nature of one of them. Li Sun and Xiaotong Guan provide Deng a nice backdrop along with the slightly extreme Ryan Zheng (The Great Wall). But the story is more subtle than you expect, especially by the end. While the characters are in some ways fairly stock, each has layers and moments that break those boundaries.

Shadow isn’t brilliant, but it is gorgeous and intriguing. It keeps your interest and continually surprises both in plot and visually. If you enjoy Chinese cinema, and Yimou’s work in particular, it is a nice addition to his opus.

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