All posts by Hg

The Magnificent Ambersons

[3 stars]

Going back to find classics you missed can be exciting and enlightening. Sometimes it is just surprising. Ambersons is truly an odd fish from Orson Wells. While based on Tarkington’s book of the same title, I think it would have been better expressed as The Comical Tragedy of the Ambersons, but perhaps the irony is built into the original title, it just wasn’t quite there for me.

This tale of the rise of Industrialized America crossed with the extreme universal tale of the spoiled child, is somehow weirdly timeless and utterly appropriate for today. And despite that, it is also dated and arch, making it as much a piece of fragile glass as a moving picture; the tale is purposefully broad in its telling. It is, however, full of Wells’s trademark camerawork and his dry sense of humor.

Constant Wells colleague Joseph Cotten is very much at the center of the movie, though he is technically on the side of the plot and focus. Tim Holt as Dolores Costello’s spoiled son is a frustratingly selfish SOB that it is hard to want to watch, but fortunately he is supposed to be so. And Agnes Moorehead, as his spinster Aunt, is so over-the-top as to be absurd at times, and tragic at others. The best showing, however is by Anne Baxter in one of her earliest roles. She is charismatic and alive in an otherwise rather stodgy framework of people around her.

Ambersons isn’t a great film. As a story it is hard to digest and the characters beg to be slapped silly until they see sense. But there is something compelling about how it is told. Wells never lost sight of the humor, dark as it got, even if he didn’t quite manage to pay off the final act. Regardless, as a piece of film and Hollywood history, it is a nice piece to slot in when you have an afternoon or evening.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Pinky Beauty Parlour

[3 stars]

This one will surprise you. It has a rocky start and is oddly constructed, but it unfolds and builds on itself. In fact, it sells itself through to the last line by keeping you guessing what happened right up till near the end. As director and writer, Akshay Singh tackled a rather complex piece for his first time behind the camera. And, to top it off, he plays a crucial role in front of it as well.

A few days ago I saw Water, which tackled a different set of cultural issues in India’s past. Pinky assaults modern issues in a present day India through drama and humor. Though to call this a comedy is to confuse Shakespeare’s clowns in any of his tragedies for the main point of the story. For all its silliness, the points to be made are rather strong.

Pinky is is definitely a low-budget effort, but it is done with heart and a lot more talent than is immediately evident. Give it time if you enjoy films from the region; it definitely has a Bollywood vibe. However, the structure of the story is different than you might expect and the result is more than just a resolution to the romance and plot. Do be warned that the subtitles are horrible translations much of the time. Unless you speak Urdu, you will need to do some quick rewrites in your head throughout for grammar and word choice. It isn’t unwatchable on that count at all, but it was frustrating on occasion.

Pinky Beauty Parlour Poster

Baywatch

[3 stars]

Yes, I know, even I’m embarrassed to admit I made time to watch this. Why did I? Curiosity, mainly. I never watched the show and never wanted to. I guess I was looking for a bit of harmless distraction in the midst of trying times and a rather challenging week.

There is certainly no complexity in this story to force you to think. There are some pretty bodies, some light action, some gnashing of teeth, and a lot of broad humor. The humor is probably where it falls apart the most for me. It is all so cheap and obvious, aimed at teenage boys when their audience was older. It also made Dwayne Johnson’s (Moana) and Zac Efron’s (The Paperboy) characters come across as just, well, dumb. But, then again, I wasn’t looking for the next Seventh Seal when I put this on, so I shouldn’t complain; but neither was I looking for The Three Stooges.

Though this tale is very much dominated by the men, there are several women who are more than just pretty faces, though not much leverage in the plot. Ilfenesh Hadera (Chi-Raq), Alexandra Daddario (San Andreas), Kelly Rohrbach, and Priyanka Chopra (Quantico) are all strong and with brains and bods. It would have been better if they’d also been instrumental in the story rather than just connective tissue, but it really isn’t that kind of movie.

I’m not sure this trifle is even something I can recommend as a distraction you should seek out. If it came on unbidden in the schedule, it is probably not something you should run from, but even fans of the show were disappointed by the lack of actual Baywatch-ness to the flick. They had their nods (a couple actually amusing) but generally didn’t manage to be satire nor homage…it simply co-opted the title for marketing and tried to run with it. The result isn’t unwatchable, it is just not recommendable. So this is entirely up to you on whether to make a beach party of it or to choose a different distraction.

Baywatch

Water

[4 stars]

This much recognized tale by director and co-writer Deepa Mehta is more than just an historical. In fact, despite its setting in 1938 India, it is disturbingly reflective of today with its abuse by the class system, treatment of women, religious fundamentalism, and general social unrest. And I don’t mean reflective of India, I mean worldwide. But commentary aside, the story alone is compelling.

In her first and only film to date, Sarala Kariyawasam, holds this film together with her young and intense presence. As a young widow (at 7 years of age) she is forced to live out the rest of her life cloistered. The collection of women she now lives with are faced with her indomitable spirit and the chaos she brings to their ordered world.

In parallel, John Abraham (Dhoom) and Lisa Ray (Endgame) provide a separate and adult focus of life and possibility. It is a tale we’ve seen before, in many ways, but one that doesn’t tend to get old if you like romance and believe love is more important than rules. That doesn’t mean this is an easy set of choices and the outcome is far from sure, but these actors bring you along the journey and help you believe the choices.

Overall, of course, there is the title: Water. The element here represents life, magic, love, and so much more and so much less. I am curious now about its companion pieces that I didn’t know about: Fire and Earth. Water completes the trilogy, which I can see given the ending, but I have no sense of the overall journey and shape from only this single movie.

This is a beautiful and emotionally frustrating film with a lot to say about the past and about the present. Definitely worth your time if you missed it till now.

Water

queers.

[4 stars]

A truly wonderful and surprising collection of eight, 20-minute monologues commissioned to celebrate the the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the first official step in England to decriminalize homosexuality. Each monologue tackles a different decade from 1917 up through the present. Cleverly, they do not progress in chronological order, but rather bounce from from 1917 to 1994 to 1987, 1957, 1967, 1941, 1929, and finally 2016.

The effect is one of historical context for each of the eras providing heartfelt stories without making it feel like a history lesson. And the finale, in 2016, works as commentary overall, though only through the reflection of the rest of the pieces. I laughed and cried often through the sequence thanks to mostly wonderful writing and great performances.

Originally performed at the Old Vic, these were also adapted and recorded for the BBC. The monologues succeed on different levels, some being much better than others. But each monologue captures its decade in poignant ways and every one is a frank conversation of the joys, fears, and dreams of the speaker of that time.

Driven by Mark Gatiss (Denial, Doctor Who), who also was one of the writers, the production collected up some solid talent to deliver the stories: Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), Rebecca Front (Humans), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Kadiff Kirwan (Chewing Gum), Russell Tovey (The Night Manager), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Ben Whishaw (Lilting)and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). If nothing else, it is a 2.6 hour acting and scripting class.

Make time for these if you get the chance. It is almost entirely focused on the gay experience rather than the lesbian or otherly identified, but the sense of otherness, the sense of triumph, the sense of love and need is universal.

Product Details

The Mummy (2017)

[2.5 stars]

This movie was clearly in trouble from the first few moments with the silly voice-over and set up. It then went on to try and recapture the 1999  sense of humor, but misses completely. The relationship between Tom Cruise (Eyes Wide Shut) and Annabelle Wallis (King Arthur) isn’t compelling and Jake Johnson (Jurassic World) doesn’t come across as either a soldier nor suitable side-kick for Cruise.

The original 1932 Mummy is kitschy, but also a wonderful classic. The 1999 remake is filled with action and humor. There have been many spin-off and sequels based on this Universal monster over the 80+ years of its life on screen. So if you’re going to do it yet again, especially to launch a new monster-universe franchise, you’d think the studio would spend some time on the script. I’m not sure how they went wrong, but having six writers involved couldn’t have helped no matter how successful most of them have been on their own in the past.

I have to admit, the ideas and intent were interesting, at least on aspects of the mummy part. But the script and story are simply put: crap. And I won’t even touch the Russel Crowe (The Nice Guys) Dr. Jekyll role, who apparently would be a bridging component between the planned movies. But let’s talk about some of the issues (and only some and a tad spoilery, but nothing that really matters since you’ll know it all going in):

  • Why, when you have an ultimate evil well imprisoned would you have a way to break them out of that prison already set up and ready to go
  • Crash victims are already in the morgue for identification while wreckage is still being discovered and burning
  • Consecrated warriors are taken over by “evil” without a struggle or even a nod to the power of the faith the movie tries to make into reality
  • And let’s talk about the Westernization of Egyptian myth. Set is neither evil nor the devil. He is the ruler of wild lands, the deserts, foreign lands, and the storm, and protects the Boat of Ra during the night journey when it is threatened by the serpent monster of chaos, Apep. (Thanks, Matt, for the detail and correction.) And he isn’t a monster, as stated in the script. To paraphrase one of the great moments in Buffy: he’s a god.
  • Then there was all the distracting nods to other horror films like An American Werewolf in London and Night of the Living Dead (pick a version)
  • The decisions around how to solve the main problem of the tale are a stretch at best and stupidly risky as worst. For the love of a god, just break the offending object of power and be done with it!

But it wasn’t just script choices, and there were so many more, the direction of the characters was often weak and ill conceived.  Annabelle Wallis is completely non-credible as an archaeologist. Sure, she has her secrets and such, but her actions and reactions are all in service to the story to come rather than realistic reactions in the moment of the action. That is on the director Kurtzman more than her, but it was very frustrating and weakened her character.

Generally, this movie was a weak mess that has some entertainment value, but a whole lot of meh (to quote some friends). I leave it entirely up to you if you want to watch it. I won’t be putting it on again, if that is any help in your decision making.

The Mummy

 

 

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

Jack

[2.5 stars]

This isn’t a great film. It has odd pacing, is a clumsy adaptation, and doesn’t earn its ending. It is worth seeing, but that has more to do with the cast than the execution.

This is one of Anton Yelchin’s (Rememory) earliest roles. He leads this story about family and divorce from a young teen’s point of view. Even at 14 he could drive a film and deliver a tightly contained character with storms of emotion going on under the skin. His trademark approach of understated presentation is in full bloom, and he holds his own with much more experienced co-stars Ron Silver and Stockard Channing.

There is a spooky quality to this tale as well, given Yelchin’s untimely death. Silver, as well, is no longer around. The Jack character speaks a great deal about life and growing up. You cannot help but bounce that off the reality of the actors’ deaths.

As to the story itself, it is timely, but nothing you haven’t seen before. Though it was a Showtime flick, it doesn’t really have that TV movie neutering, which is a plus. That is likely thanks to director Lee Rose, who has extensive credits in TV, but on the edgier side of that platform. The real weakness is Holmes self adaptation of her own book and not wanting to let go of the format to get to the message.

Save this for an open slot in your schedule when you want to be a bit more complete in your Yelchin trivia (or Silver or Channing, for that matter). Expect to be engaged, but I don’t expect it will end up on anyone’s top film list. Also, be warned that at least my copy of the disc started to fall out of audio sync starting about half way through. It wasn’t unwatchable, but it did get distracting and no amount of stop and start seemed to fully rectify the issue.

Jack

Death Note (2017)

[3 stars]

Death Note has had many incarnations: manga, anime, live action (twice over with this entry, and the previous one was a trilogy). It is a great story that continues to draw an audience. Each version had its own focus and sensibility, but the overall message remained the same throughout: With great power comes great decompensation.

Basically, given the ultimate power over life and death, what would happen to a teen…y’know that age when we’re all so incredibly stable as it is. Let’s face it, it isn’t a pretty concept, but it is a fascinating ethical problem.

Nat Wolf (The Intern) and Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys) make an interesting Bonnie and Clyde (or Sid and Nancy) combo. Each plays their part and path well without overselling it. Having them grounded really brings out the horror of what happens as the story progresses. And Wingard has plenty of blood and creative carnage to accompany the tale. And Willem Dafoe’s (The Great Wall) vocal talents to help drive the amused bedlam.

Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) as L is a bit less believable for me. The character is already an absurdist rendition of an OCD hacker, but that seems to work fine in Anime. And the previous live action versions toned him down a little to get to believability. In this production he starts odd, and gets even odder. It is a good counter-point to the ethical dilemma about abuse of power, but Stanfield just didn’t sell me with his delivery that this person could really exist.

I was concerned that the 100 minute treatment of the first part of this tale would feel thin or overly compressed. But director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) took the script from the combined efforts of the writers of Immortals and Fantastic Four (not great bona fides) and wrangled it into something really pretty engaging.

Death Note

Fall TV 2017: The New Stuff

OK, I can’t (and don’t want to) watch everything. But here are my initial impressions of the new crop of stuff after the first episode (or so). I’ll likely post what survived my schedule later this fall.

In no particular order:

The Orville
I expected to really dislike this show, but it continues to surprise me. For all its weakness (usually around its broad humor moments), it is trying to ride the line of satire and homage and doing it well. In many ways it is more Star Trek than the latest Trek offering, which makes the timing of this drama especially interesting in contrast to Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: Discovery
The franchise had a middling opening on the script and acting front, but no worse than Next Generation’s launch. It’s easy to forget just how bad the first season of TNG was, but it was really pretty bad. It survived due the vacuum of similar shows and went on to become something rather good.

Discovery is burdened by a future we know, so it really will be the characters that sell this, not the plots, per se. So far, the characters aren’t particularly compelling..so much so that even the first two hours didn’t elicit from me a gasp. And the technology and creature anachronisms are frustrating.

You can see the Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods) influence on the bones of this show, but his exit and subsequent rework by Paramount is leaving it in an uncomfortable place. The energy is odd and the sensibility feels at war with itself. It may find its feet over the season, but I can’t say the pilot filled me with curiosity to come back for more the way The Orville did. And by the end of the third episode I was left wondering if they were trying to remake themselves in the image of Babylon 5 (even more so than DS9 did).

There is a big universe for Discovery to play with, though it feels like a lot more of the same. That can be good and bad. TNG and DS9 both expanded the Star Trek universe in different ways to differing success with the same underlying issue. But is it worth a separate subscription fee to see every week? Right now, I’m thinking not, though if it were on free broadcast I’d probably give it more time. We shall see how it develops.

Good Doctor
Weak start but with some stuff to build on. Unless the writing picks up, however, the story alone isn’t enough to hold it together or keep me coming back. Just too many medical gaffs and overwrought moments. It was good to see Antonia Thomas (Lovesick/Scrotal Recall) in a larger production to get her broader exposure. And, writing issues aside, while Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel) has created an interesting character in the lead, Graham Verchere as his younger self just isn’t up to the task which is weakening the story.

Young Sheldon
Surprisingly engaging for a spin-off tale. Keeping the Sheldon we know as a bridge definitely helps, but the solid relationships and struggles of the family are also well done. While the young Sheldon is good, Raegan Revord as his twin sister and Zoe Perry (No Pay, Nudity), as his mother are the real stars of this sitcom so far.

Me, Myself, & I
Had to see this for the cast and the conceit. As it turns out, it was better than I anticipated, though not brilliant. The 30 minute format is very tight for 3 characters across time every week. Very frenetic to follow. The potential is there. It is up to the writers to make it work. So far, they are not impressing me.

Will & Grace
Seriously it is like there wasn’t a 10 year gap, which is bloody impressive. From the opening moments through to the end, the show still has its original, ephemeral magic. You either love or hate, but you can’t fault it for maintaining the magic.

Inhumans
An incredibly weak launch to a show that had huge potential and one of the longest set-ups (via the Marvel movies and Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D) I can ever recall. Even the solid talent, like Iwan Rheon (Residue, Game of Thrones) and Ken Leung (Lost, Star Wars: Force Awakens) couldn’t overcome an obvious, plodding, and ill conceived story. The world is incompletely thought through, the rules nebulous at best, and with a depth measured in millimeters. While I will give it another episode or so to see if it finds its feet, after the end of the double-episode launch, I was gnashing my teeth at the ‘surprise’ ending. If it is emblematic of the kind of scripts, and it appears it is, that are to come, it isn’t going to keep me in attendance. And I thought Iron Fist was going to be the nadir with the hope that it would serve as the TV division’s Iron Man 2; I wish I’d been right.

The Gifted
Another incredibly weak start for an action/adventure in a crowded and over-worked field. I’ll give anything with Amy Acker (Much Ado About Nothing) a shot, but this only gets one more before a decision is made. Just too serious and too much of the same, even if it is spawned from one of my more favorite branches of the X-Men universe.

10 Days in the Valley
While intense, this is a slow burn of a train wreck and tragedy. It is good to have Kyra Sedgwick (The Edge of Seventeen) back on screen, but not sure I’m looking for this kind of a character and story at this time. I do have some police procedural frustrations with the show, but I could get over them. Really the issue is timing.

9JKL
Great concept and some talent in the cast, including Linda Lavin, David Walton, and Liza Lapira. But the writing and directing are just awful. This one died on my list in the first episode. I didn’t even see any hope for it.

Kevin (Probably) Saves the World
I have to admit this one pulled it out at the very end for me…at least enough to give it a shot. It has that Joan of Arcadia feel to it, amusingly given Jason Ritter’s (Carrie Pilby) presence. It could quickly get tiresome, but they avoided some initial pitfalls. And I have to admit I enjoyed the heavy Amy Adams/Arrival vibe they gave the first episode. Still, it isn’t like we haven’t seen this story in the past (usually as horror) and their rules are squishy at best…either he is the only one or the other 35 meteorites anointed the rest of the gang and the rest is just for comedy. Will give it another round to see where it goes, but it will need to step up its game to keep me.

Ghosted
So this is The Orville of X-Files. It was just good enough in its launch to get another shot, but it only made it the first 15 minutes of the second. It just isn’t written well enough nor are the main characters all that engaging for me. I imagine it will find an audience out there, but it may not be enough to survive.

Wisdom of the Crowd
Probably the most attuned to the sense of the day and with a great conceit. Admittedly, it is a bit forced and it dances around the law quite a bit. But for all its weaknesses in credibility, it is terrifyingly willing to tackle some real social issues and technology. In addition to Jeremy Piven (Mr Selfridge) we also get Natalia Tena (Game of Thrones) to help drive it forward and both have some good chops to do so.