All posts by Hg

Dark

[4 stars]

What would happen if Stranger Things collided with the last couple of seasons of Lost? Well, you’d get something like Dark.

This show takes some work follow, especially with the added challenge of subtitles (if you watch in its original German; and why wouldn’t you?). The story is incredibly complicated and slowly revealed over its 10 parts. Part of the fun of the story is trying to get ahead of it and only occasionally succeeding. But Dark is also aware and unapologetic about the challenge of the story, even providing guidance to help viewers. Some of that comes as some classroom teaching via the teens in the series, other assistance comes as voice over, and still more as allusion or as split-screen explanations.

But all the effort is worth it. I say this even admitting it is based on some of the worst kind of science fiction. What saves it is very clever plotting and structure and solid acting across the board.

One of the things that makes limited series so much better, typically, than the more standard American 20+ episode approach is that a limited series (or season) can be fully and carefully crafted; even over multiple arcs with less time pressure and more craft. And, while this is an example of that advantage, the series inevitably allows itself an escape hatch into series two. As long as there is a series two, I’m OK with that. However, too many shows do that with the hope of garnering enough outcry and interest to get renewed, when what really works isn’t so much open ended plot points as really good writing.

At the time of this writing, Netflix has yet to commit to the follow-up, but interest in the show points to a renewal. Give it a shot even without the commit, if you haven’t already.

Dark

Wind River

[3.5 stars]

Earlier this year, Wind River was seen as a hands-down awards winner.  Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, also gets behind the camera for this film. He delivers another intense script of a murder on an Indian reservation.

Jeremy Renner (Arrival) dials back his action-boy push to return back to his Hurt Locker roots. He is focused, quiet, and emotionally primed, but kept in check as he pursues his goals. Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers: Age of Ultron) also gives a great performance of a young FBI officer, not incompetent, but certainly unseasoned. Gil Birmingham (The Lone Ranger) is the other impactful surprise in the story. As a bereaved father, and mirror for Renner, he swings between strength and devastation in heart-breaking ways.

Wind River did capture a number of earlier festivals. But it has hit some bumps in the road having released so early in the year and with a number of other great films just starting to screen. It also is bucking the trend of naturalism I’ve been seeing on the screen. Wind River is very well crafted, but it feels that way too, especially by the final act. That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It has incredible impact, though it does feel like Sheridan lost a little bit of his careful control during the climax of the film. But its competitors are large ideas and impact in smaller packages; more real life than screen life. What makes Wind River swim comfortably with these other films is the quality of its writing, acting, cinematography, and the reality that it is based on the truth. That last bit will leave you feeling hollow and ashamed by the final credits, and it should.

Wind River

What’s happening in awards season, (crafted) naturally

Awards season this year is highlighting an interesting trend. It wasn’t clear to me until recently when I saw Wind River. We appear to be seeing a new version of cinéma vérité, demarked more by the sense of the story than with the more readily identifiable “shaky cam.”

It isn’t about scriptless tales either, another hallmark of some of the old vérité movement and a lot of recent films (another aspect I’ve discussed in the past). Think of it as ‘crafted naturalism,’ if you will. This new trend is about intimacy and truth in the telling. You may argue that those aspects are essential for any film, and you’d be generally right. But these new films, in general, have a smaller, more intimate feel and feel less constructed–more ‘tales told’ than ‘tales built.’

The stories that are capturing the judges and the audiences are also about imperfect people, more gray than black & white in their actions and morals. Plots are not simple and obvious or highly crafted, they follow the natural and unexpected paths of life, leading to comedy, tragedy, and triumph, but rarely only one of those and often without perfect symmetries .

In addition, the stories that are floating to the top are also, almost to a one, about love. Often that is a romantic entanglement or desire, but family love is also represented. It isn’t a surprise that smaller films are dominating; they are the darlings of the early festivals and awards. But all indications are that the wave will carry over to the majors as well.

Successful entertainment is always a reflection of society at the time. It is a mirror that is accepted as truth; to cry out, or to escape. Whatever the reason for the popularity of a movie, it is always in context of the time. Enduring films either find a deep vein of truth that carries over and morphs in resonance with various evolutions of culture, or they are part of a deeper truth that is more stable within the culture. If it is accepted over the long term internationally it likely has hit on what we’d call “a human truth.” But, typically, these wide-ranging films tend to be more action and escapist rather than character driven. The exception to that tends to be sprawling, escapist romances (for example, Doctor Zhivago), but even those tend to fade or tarnish with time.

So what does this new trend tell us about our times? Let’s just look at the films that received multiple SAG nominations, as an example.

These are not big films. They are focused on individuals in the extreme. In the case of Get Out, in very interesting ways. But, on top of that aspect, they aren’t about obvious heroes or villains. There is nothing simple about the choices the characters are making, but the choices are very real (even based on reality in a few cases). They ring true rather than created. These aren’t soaring fantasies of life, they are windows onto it.

Some years we get many dramatizations, but they are often ‘big’ stories, even when focused on individuals. Think about Spotlight, The Big Short, or the upcoming The Post. Perhaps the right word is that they’re ‘slick.’ They don’t ring true so much as ring of a truth we want to believe in. This year, they just feel different to me…or perhaps it is just me and where I am in life that is affecting my experience. In any event, there is some kind of shift going on and it is worth noticing.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

[4 stars]

Awards season is off to a heck of a start, if Lady Bird and this film are any indication. Both are solid depictions of life with incredible casts and great film-making. In this case, writer/director Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) delicately balances a challenging story without devolving into melodrama or nihilism. He creates a real world, painted mostly in grays, that doesn’t drown in its own bile; there is humor in the dark and there is truth in the extreme. In fact, it is a story that probably has come out at the right time to find its audience.

The movie is also a brilliant platform for Frances McDormand (Hail, Caesar!). She delivers an amazing performance in a long career of strong, put-upon women. Despite many of her characters coming from the same bucket, McDormand continues to find unique ways to bring these people to life. And, as is often the case, she dominates the film.

But McDormand is not alone in delivering. There is a solid ensemble around her navigating a complicated set of creations. Woody Harrelson (The Glass Castle) tops that group. In recent years his characters have been getting more nuanced, and Chief Willoughby may top them all. If it weren’t for McDormand’s incredible presence, he might have easily taken over the film himself. Sam Rockwell (Laggies) also delivers one of his career finest. It isn’t perfect, but he manages a journey for the character that is unexpected and, for the most part, earned.

There is also a series of smaller, but essential roles. Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), Abbie Cornish (Robocop), Zeljko Ivanek (Madam Secretary), and Peter Dinklage (Rememory) each bring colors to the story. Every one of them gets at least a moment to shine and something new for their reels without detracting from the main story. And then there is Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea) who is having a really great couple of years in terms of projects and who keeps growing as an actor.

Three Billboards is a challenging story, no matter how you slice it. It forces you to considerable unanswerable questions and unthinkable acts. But whether you appreciate the bones of the story or not, it is worth seeing it for the performances alone. It is, in fact, only the end and a little (a very little) of Rockwell’s performance that has me knocking a bit off my rating. Because of these aspects, the film isn’t quite perfect but, damn, it is visually stunning, emotionally powerful, and at a level of intelligence that is usually avoided.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Unlocked

[3 stars]

Unlocked is a solid, but standard, espionage and betrayal tale with few surprises, but some fun action. Unfortunately, also completely without heart. There are no personal stakes here other than Noomi Rapace’s (Child 44) individual struggle with her past…death, even of friends, is far too cheap to get us to engage with the story. What should have been Rapace’s version of Salt ended up more a forgettable drama with some nice moments and a strong female lead.

Toni Collette (Japanese Story) delivers her own solid performance as well, and even gets to have a couple brilliantly fun moments. Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), Michael Douglas (Last Vegas) and John Malkovich (Shadow of the Vampire) fill out the known cast and each provide what was required. None however exceed that requirement in memorable ways. At least Bloom is playing a kind of character we’ve not really seen of him before, and he does it well. No one is bad in their role, they’re just victims of the movie itself.

The root problem of this film is in the inaugural movie script by Peter O’Brien. Michael Apted’s (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) direction was nicely contained and naturalistic, keeping it all within the realm of the believable amid the craziness, but it couldn’t solve the problems of predictability and uninspired mystery. The film isn’t boring, but it just isn’t surprising. We’ve seen all this before.

Unlocked

Logan Lucky

[3 stars]

Logan is a character-driven, Southern heist film that isn’t nearly as clever as it wants to be, but clever enough to entertain. The real problem is the pacing rather than the caper. It is slow. Very slow. Not at all what you’d expect from the director that brought us the slick Ocean’s 11/12/13 series. It is steeped in the sensibilities of its region both in attitude and energy.  That makes it both quirky and, well, at the lower end of the energy scale despite being set against the biggest NASCAR race of the year.

While there are no bad performances bringing this to life, there aren’t any brilliant ones either. There are, admittedly, a couple surprising ones. Seth MacFarlane (The Orville) is practically unrecognizable in his role.  It isn’t a great performance in that it is a little broad, but it serves its purpose. Adam Driver (Justice League) transforms as well, exchanging his typical frenetic energy for a less-educated, Southern twist on his Paterson role. While Channing Tatum (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) slows himself down and drives the story from a family angle in a laconic way, it isn’t something entirely new for him, just more extreme. And, while certainly not a female driven film, Riley Keough (It Comes at Night) provides at least one strong woman in the cast. Katie Holmes (Touched with Fire) isn’t weak, but she is very much in the background; the young  Farrah Mackenzie, as her and Tatum’s daughter, is a more impactful influence.

Director Steven Soderbergh directs Rebecca Blunt’s (which is likely a currently unbroken pseudonym) first script about as well as could be expected. It really is a family drama with a caper veneered over the top. The two aspects live in an unhappy balance through most of the film. You get a glimpse of what it wanted to be in the final moments, but not really much before that.

There are some fun and funny moments in this escape, but it isn’t going to end up on your top 10. Save it for an evening that needs filling and trust it as you watch…it will get to where it is going, just not as quickly as you probably would like.

Logan Lucky

A Ghost Story

[3 stars]

I truly admire what writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) wants to do with his latest film. It is a devastating look at love and loss, and a musing on the fabric of existence. Very heady stuff for a small indie film that focuses on a single relationship. OK, yes, and a little Sophomoric too. However, it rises mostly above that due to the performances and quality of the execution. Rooney Mara (Song to Song) and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) create a very believable pair whose lives are slowly exposed over the course of the tale. Both performances are quietly intense and subtle.

Frustratingly, far too much of the movie is too close to reality. It is easily 20 minutes longer than it need be to make its points. Frankly, you can only hold a shot so long before the value of the moment is gone and it begins to feel forced or more like a theatre “happening” rather than a specific moment in life intended to evoke empathy. We live in real life, we know the moment to moment is often boring and, sometimes, interminable. You can achieve that experience without adding explosions, quick cuts, or making an audience sit through all of it. In fact, we watch movies to avoid the bulk of the boring parts, so if you’re going to use those moments to make a point, you need to do it carefully.

The pacing issue is mostly through the first 2/3 of the film. And Lowery does find some very clever editing to overcome that criticism at points; even more so in the final third. After a long setup, this is where the film moves on to the meat of his vision and point (including one rather disturbing and long nihilistic diatribe by Jonny Mars in case you weren’t going to get there on your own).

There is a great deal to appreciate in this very different portrayal of a haunting. The cinematography is impressive, with some truly breath-taking shots. Though, personally, I found the forced 4:3 frame distracting. I think it was intended to elicit nostalgia, but it was too self-conscious for my taste, and already an out-moded frame of reference (if you will).

All that said, A Ghost Story is worth your time, but it isn’t quite the impactful and amazing movie I had been led to expect from the festival buzz it generated this past summer. You also shouldn’t start watching it if you’re tired or just looking for distraction. The film does eventually pay off and it is definitely something a little different from most of the offerings out there. Just be prepared to be a participant rather than just be an observer.

A Ghost Story

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

Product Details

Lady Bird

[4.5 stars]

Coming of age stories have been around since, well, people were coming of age. Often they are fraught with hyperbole, grandiose dreams, heightened emotions, heroes and villains, and often triumph or tragedy on a large scale.

Lady Bird bucks all of that. There are no villains. It is quietly wonderful. Beautiful and painfully realistic. It is an unvarnished mother-daughter relationship told honestly from the their points of view, but with the maturity of an unbiased eye with the distance to see the truth.

Soairse Ronan (Brooklyn) holds this film up from its shocking beginning to its reflective end. She is utterly compelling and completely believable as a California teen in the early aughts; an era that is more different and distant now than you might realize till you see it recreated.

As her parents, Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) and Tracy Letts (The Lovers) are brilliant centers of love and stress for the teen. There is nothing simple about this family and no one pretends otherwise. But no one is really wrong or right either. There is a deep connection between these characters, however strained it may get. Must like life.

Ronan, as high schoolers are wont to do, has a couple of relationship interests. For this movie they take the shape of two very different, but very believable young men, Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Timotheé Chalamet (Love the Coopers). Hedges, in particular, gets to create yet another character boiling inside with secrets and desires.

There are also the girl friends, in two very different flavors. Odeya Rush (The Giver) and, probably the least known in the cast, Beanie Feldstein are great foils and supports for Ronan’s Lady Bird. Feldstein will certainly be getting more after this performance.

There are a couple smaller roles worth calling out as well, for both their humor and humanity. Bob Stephenson (Jericho), Stephen Henderson (Fences), and Lois Smith (The Nice Guys) are all great character actors and really bring it for this movie. They add texture to the tapestry that is Lady Bird’s life and humor in very unexpected ways.

Lady Bird is a brilliant sophomore outing directing for Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women) and continues her sharp writing career. She has a wicked eye and sure hand to bring out the truth of the characters lives and the world around them while keeping it all interesting and well-paced. It has earned huge respect by critics and audiences alike, despite it being a very small and quiet tale. It will certainly be nominated for many of the big awards, and has already gathered some festival fame (and an unheard of 100% on Rotten Tomtoes with 185 reviews in to date). Whether it can walk away with any of them is still an open question but Gerwig will unquestionably get more opportunities in future. Her characters have been igniting audiences for years now. That she has brought those same qualities and ability to bear from behind the camera is an unusual and welcome feat.

So, yes, it is as good as you’ve heard. Go, relax, and fall into Lady Bird’s life and world. It isn’t an explosion filled adrenaline ride, but I laughed out loud many times (I mean really loud) and connected with this film on many levels. You may be wondering, given all the praise I’ve heaped, why I haven’t given it a perfect score myself? The simple answer is that the quality of the photography knocked it down a notch for me. The framing and editing were both well done, but the stock or the projection I saw was grainy and a tad soft in a way that I found slightly distracting. I don’t know if it was purposeful on Gerwig’s part to elicit a sense of nostalgia or if it was simply my theater, but either way it had me taking it just a shade off perfect.

Lady Bird

The Librarians (series 3)

[4 stars]

The Librarian movies weren’t brilliant pieces of fantasy adventure, but there was something wonderful about the concept and the characters in the franchise. The first movie, in particular, struck a chord. Then it began a long slide into silliness and, frankly, weaker and weaker writing. Entertaining, but not memorable.

When it was reimagined into a series, it carried that sensibility with it and, through sheer energy, overcame the overly simplistic, Nickelodeon-style approach to the tales. Nothing brilliant, but some fun distraction that I certainly took part in, being the geeky book collector and lover of genre that I am.

With season three, the show found its footing again. The story plots are full of short-cuts on the order of Scooby Doo, but the subject matter is, at its core, stuff adults can appreciate too. It has fun while being entirely self-conscious of its intentions. Much like a good library, the goal is to pull in younger viewers and excite them to learn more about all the stories and history. I don’t really classify this as educational TV, but it certainly plants seeds and introduces those who are curious to ideas and facts that could take root later.

The cast have always worked well together but, like their characters, they’re cooperative energy has gelled in their third season. Christian Kane (Leverage), Lindy Booth (Kick-Ass 2), and John Harlan Kim are more a cohesive unit and Rebecca Romijn (X-Men: First Class) more of the leader she needed to become as Noah Wyle (Falling Skies) has stepped further away from being the overriding authority. And, of course, John Larroquette (Me, Myself, & I) always brings a fun energy and delivery. Each season has its particular arc, and this one brings in Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty) to provide the friction. She provides a nicely myopic antagonist and walks a good line for younger and older viewers alike.

The writing and directing are less bombastic this season, which has helped its sensibility. Sure there are prat falls, but far fewer. And the scenery is only mildly chewed upon by the cast, and only on occasion. It is a fun run and suggests a stronger season to follow if they can stick to their creative guns and direction.

The Librarians