All posts by Hg

Paradise Hills

[3 stars]

There is a lot to unpack in this movie. It is, above all else, sumptuously designed, rich in visuals, and minute in its detail. That alone makes it worth seeing. The story, an interesting twist on the old Stepford Wives trope (either version: 1975 or 2004…, though, better yet, just read the book), isn’t nearly as strong. The plot just doesn’t come together, even if it is a gorgeous trip getting there.

In short, director Alice Waddington Waddington produced a wonderful style over substance response to #metoo. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a message, just that the message is obvious and the path getting there is a bit weak. However, it is almost an entirely female cast, which is always a nice surprise.

Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) is the focus of the steam-punkish tale. She’s a fighter and has a brain. She’s joined by Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Chapter), doing Awkwafina, but it is entertaining. Completing the female fighting faction are Danielle Macdonald (Bird Box) and Eiza González (Baby Driver), who add some interesting moments, if not some depth.

Lording over all of them is a somewhat stilted Milla Jovovich (Hellboy). Some of her attitude becomes clarified during the tale, but it isn’t what you call a compelling performance.

And then there is one bit of boy toy in Jeremy Irvine (Stonewall) whose role is about what you’d expect.

As I said, this is less about the story and more about the visuals. If you can turn off your brain and just go with the story, it’s kinda fun and angering. If you look at it too hard it falls apart. Take from it what you can. I’d love to see what Waddington could do with a better script, she certainly has an eye. Though, to be fair, this was her story idea… but Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) and Brian DeLeeuw either couldn’t turn it into a cohesive story or Waddington didn’t recognize the gaps.

Paradise Hills

Ad Vitam

[4 stars]

What if you could live, essentially, forever? How would that change you and the world? And what about those who couldn’t or those that have to wait for treatment? There have been plenty of stories based on this idea…few have thought through the implications in interesting ways. Altered Carbon certainly did, but that’s far future. Ad Vitam is a look at a similar impact in the near term.

Thomas Cailley created a result that is a great mystery wrapped in a very human story. And, yes, it is all very French, as the saying goes. But it is solid story-telling with plenty of surprises and resolutions. Led by Yvan Attal as a detective approaching the end of his career and a young woman connected to a past crime, Garance Marillier, who is the thread that unravels the story.

It is a typical mystery/suspense set up in a very new setting. If you like dark tales of the world and a look at the psyche of our species, this one is for you. While you can just let the story wash over you, it’s hard to ignore the bigger picture and commentary as the truth is uncovered. It is also a self-contained 6 episodes, making it a very satisfying viewing.

Ad Vitam

The Vast of Night

[3.5 stars]

On the surface this new streamer is a fairly standard, if cleverly told, story of 50s middle-America dealing with paranoia and possible invasion (by who and what are unknown). We’ve seen this many times before, and new director Andrew Patterson and his writers, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger don’t shy away from that fact. Indeed part of what sets this film apart is that they lean into it, framing the entire story in a Twilight Zone-like box.

I’ll come back to the story and presentation, but it’s first worth noting the cast, led by Sierra McCormick as a believable 16 year old in over her head, but afraid of nothing. She is backed up by a less heeled, but solid, Jake Horowitz as the two unravel and pursue the mystery that drops in their laps. Horowitz channels James Dean while McCormick is something like a super-charged Nancy Drew as they scramble with equipment and  have frequent dashes across town at an unrelenting pace. In a small but focused role, Gail Cronauer (Te Ata) is the only character to steal back the camera for a while from the two leads, delivering and extended and haunted tale full of emotion.

Now let’s get back to the presentation. Because, despite all these praises, the story is really fairly obvious and nothing new. What keeps you intrigued, even during the slower or overloaded segments (like the opening 20 minutes of setup and dialogue) is the direction and cinematography. Patterson squeezed the story to remove all moments of breath, but not so much that it feels rushed so much as normal. Even with Horowitz’s mumbling around his cigarette, which could get frustrating as a listener, it feels right and real and nothing of any import is missed.

But the real question, and nod, I have goes back to that framing. I don’t know if it was in the original script or, if during development or in the editing room, they realized they were doing pure homage and needed to find a way to set it apart to do their work justice. I lean heavily toward this latter suspicion since it was all done in post and changed none of the movie. They knew what they were doing with the story, but needed a way to tip that to the audience and reframe it so it wouldn’t feel stale and tired. And, in fact, the opening, closing, and few reminders, make it more fun and let you go with the flow.

However, it has an ancillary effect of leaving you wondering if it was part of the plot or only part of the presentation. And this is where I was a little more frustrated with the choice. The story doesn’t rise to the level of needing any meta-layers or messages. And 50s-style horror doesn’t particularly have a lot to say about the human condition that isn’t on the screen in big flashing neon. So the framing is a nice artistic choice, but a forced one for the story itself since it is merely a comment and never used. Add to this the ending, which can be read more than one way, and you’re left with one too many unanswered aspects…or at least I was.

To see these performances and a new set of voices entering the cinematic fray, this really is a movie worth seeing. It isn’t perfect, but it is crammed with promise and definitely put together with deft hands. And it is entertaining, enough so that I wanted to examine these other aspects rather than just taking it just for what it is. Watch for these people in the future, they’re sure to be coming up with something new and interesting.

The Vast of Night Poster

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

[3 stars]

While this Studio Ghibli film has echos of Spirited Away, it has neither the richness of animation nor the depth of story to compare. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does shift the audience to be decidedly younger. And, for a younger audience, it is likely quite magical and engaging; especially for girls since the main character is a young girl who gets to save the day.

Director and co-writer Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty) knows the language of children, their sense of wonder, and their unrelenting drive. He captures that aspect well. But without more meat, like his previous When Marnie Was There, it is really just a pleasant distraction and long-form cartoon rather than a movie.

If you like Ghibli’s catalog, particularly the stories intended for their newest enthusiasts in your household, this is a great choice. It has just enough adventure and danger to keep it feeling exciting for them, but nothing permanently bad happens, making it safe. For adults, it will depend on your tolerance for the sillier aspects and overly-simplified plot in exchange for some of the more creative efforts.

Mary and the Witch's Flower

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

[4.5 stars]

In her follow-up to Nannette, Gadsby once-again defies tradition and description. It isn’t quite the power-blast of Nannette, but it is a brilliantly structured piece of comedy. She starts exactly where she needs to and drags you laughing through to the end, pulling everything together as she does.

Whether or not you liked Nannette, you should see Douglas. It has its serious comments, but it is very much a comedy special put together with deft hands and a wickedly sharp mind.

[But if you haven’t seen Nannette as well, you should. It is a different animal, but it is a brilliantly, near-perfect, piece of stage craft.  It isn’t comedy, per se, but it is funny, and cathartic, and a wonder to behold]

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

Nightwatching / Rembrandt’s J’accuse

[3 stars]

Peter Greenaway (Eisenstein in Guanajuato) is one of the most singular and visionary directors in film. You may not like the results all the time, but he manipulates film like a canvas. This is because he is, at heart, a painter. His movies always reflect that, and often examine the role of art in society as well.

Greenaway became obsessed with The Night Watch, a painting crammed with symbology and unique in its presentation for the mid-1600s. Nightwatching  tackles the creative process behind the choices and the society it was part of…which leads to the exposure of a power struggle and a murder.

It all sounds very exciting and intriguing. And with Martin Freeman (Black Panther) in the role of Rembrandt, you are probably hoping for a wonderful jaunt down historical lane, filled with sex, intrigue, and mystery. Well, there is sex, and it is a living Rembrandt portrait in design, but it isn’t the most engaging film. The story is rather hard to follow, and the presentational style Greenaway adopts for many of his movies, that almost theatrical setting, distances you from getting too close. The fourth wall is often broken as well, making it as much lecture/explanation as it is story. The movie ends up feeling more like dramatic recreation rather than exposure of Rembrandt’s personality, creative process, and life.

But even Greenaway seemed to know that, and thus the companion documentary he released the following year: Rembrandt’s J’Accuse!

The docu attacks the same story, but in non-fiction style and utilizing some of Nightwatching’s footage. The result isn’t brilliant…while well organized it is overly produced and pompous. Greenaway, as narrator, rather than educating is more than a little condescending. The research and explanations are fascinating, however, which is what keeps you going through it. If you’ve never studied art history, it is likely to be a bit fast and overloaded. If you are at least a little familiar with the period of art and the kinds of symbology artists employed, it is likely a little more digestible.

Frankly, I’d skip Nightwatching and just watch J’Accuse, if you have any interest in these subjects or just want to learn a bit about one of the world’s most famous artists. It is a great reminder of just how conscious the visual arts are. Everything is there for a reason, even if we don’t realize it most of the time. And the tale behind The Night Watch is complicated and interesting. The presentation of artist as vigilante with brushes isn’t new in the world, but rarely are the indictments so meaningful and so packed.

Nightwatching Rembrandt's J'Accuse...!

A Face in the Crowd

[4 stars]

Back in 1957 Budd Schulberg wrote a script that was disturbingly prescient; though it would seem to presage Regan more than 45 in the arc of it all. Still, his understanding of the power of media was spot on. I can only imagine that he’d be disappointed to learn that B-rolls and hot mic’s no longer seem to matter, and their truth can’t shake the machine.

With Elia Kazan at the helm, and a solid cast, the story is a swift couple hours about the rise and fall of Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes. Griffith is more than a little larger than life and broad in his performance (and perhaps a little loud) but it works. And he does manage to slip levels into there. Patricia Neal is a conundrum in the tale, being both the instigator of it all and his rock, but then somehow diminishing into a more typical female stereotype of the era. It works, in its way, but is also the weakest aspect of the story.

In a surprisingly quiet and atypical role there is Walter Matthau and also a very young Lee Remick, among others. And watch out for Mike Wallace and Walter Winchell playing themselves.

A Face in the Crowd is a compelling movie even more than 60 years later. Sure it is a little stagey, but the points are amazingly on target, and the journey clips along so quickly that it pulls you to the inevitable end without lagging.

A Face in the Crowd

Motherland: Fort Salem

[3 stars]

I wasn’t looking for this one. I tend to find alternate history shows more than a little frustrating as so few really find a good hook in or follow through with their logic. Motherland is sort of a grown up Charmed (or rebooted Charmed if you prefer), though still aimed at the younger, and particularly female, set. But it is more empowering and with significantly more grit than the CW show.

One of the things that sets this show apart is the complexity of the magic and the depth of the rules. Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) spent time on his creation to be sure it remained consistent rather than just inventing rules as he needed them to support his plots. This is what makes great fantasy, and it’s a rare commodity. It is building to be as complex as Buffy, though without that level of dialogue and cast chemistry (but what does?).

That doesn’t mean to say the cast is bad. Taylor Hickson (Deadly Class), Amalia Holm (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), and Ashley Nicole Williams form the primary triumvirate and center of the show. They’re not an entirely balanced ensemble, but they slowly come together over the season and each has a particular charisma. With the help of Jessica Sutton (Escape Room), Demetria McKinney (House of Payne), and Lyne Renée (The Hippopotamus), among others, the world is filled out and made complicated.

The inaugural season as a whole starts strong, but does make one huge and cheap leap to take the turn to the finale in the final episodes. It is only one major miss-step, so I’ll give it to them, but it was unworthy writing compared to what had come before. And it was completely avoidable and lazy. The finale was also rushed, pulling together a number of threads, not entirely satisfactorily, and leaving you with multiple cliff-hangers rather than a comfortable pause. In other words, it was sort of cheap. Those two aspects, more than anything, are why I dinged its rating. That said, I’m glad they’re renewed and I’m looking forward to seeing where the series may go. I just hope the quality that I can see in there is nurtured more in the next round.

Plus One (+1)

[2.5 stars]

There is a definite How to Talk to Girls at Parties gone very dark here. Rather than a sweet, if odd, tale of self-discovery begun at an epic house party, this edges into horror. And not particularly satisfying or scary horror at that. It is more suspense and mystery horror, leading to a real moment, but somewhat ponderously getting there.

The cast is relatively untried. Only Logan Miller (Being Frank) stands out. But, I will admit, that Colleen Dengel (Damsels in Distress) and Natalie Hall get some unexpected moments. However the main action is driven by a rather weak Rhys Wakefield. The story is very much on his shoulders and only works if his path makes sense and if we have any sympathy for him. We don’t. Not at all. And without that, the whole house of cards collapses at the end.

To be fair to Wakefield, director Dennis Iliadis (Last House on the Left) took Bill Gullo’s (The Quitter) script and followed its lead, but left it stilted on screen. He didn’t help his actors find their truths in the way he needed to sell what could have been a wonderfully creepy and psychologically challenging tale. He did, at least, keep the story clear in the midst of a complicated concept.  And the script, while clever in idea, doesn’t quite go all the places it could have to make it richer and more interesting.

I can’t say I recommend this one, but some may find it satisfying. It has moments if not a completely satisfying delivery. If you gravitate to teen splatter horror (which this isn’t, per se, but it bumps against those tropes) you’re more likely to find it fun.

+1

The Great Upload on Avenue 5

Here are a few more streamers. Two worth your time and one that is entirely up to your sense of humor. Then again, I suppose they all depend on your sense of humor, but let’s just say I found the first two to have more of an easy entry and wider appeal, but that may just be me…

The Great (Hulu)
If The Favourite had spawned a series, in style and concept, this would have been the result. I know it is actually based on different IP (a play) but you can’t help but see the parallels, especially with Nicholas Hoult (The Current War) in one of the leads.

But this is really Elle Fanning’s (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) moment, her chance to take the reins and reign as an adult. Watching her navigate her world, and the absurd situations, is a riot and, at times, terrifying. Helping her along in her conspiracy to bring sanity to Russia are Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who) and Pheobe Fox (Eye in the Sky). And Belinda Bromilow (Doctor, Doctor) and Sebastian De Souza (Medici) add a wonderful counterpoint and humor to it all. Even Charity Wakefield (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and Adam Godley (Umbrella Academy) add a sort of caustic and clever nastiness. Honestly, there are too many good performances to call them all out. If you’re up for some (sort of) period comedy, this one is worth the effort.

The Great

Upload (Prime)
A little bit science fiction, a little bit rock-n-roll… ok, more a little bit Sleeper with a huge dash of Her, though both with backflipping twists on the approach. Robbie Amell (ARQ) and Andy Allo (Pitch Perfect 3) drive this show wonderfully. Allo, in particular, skips through emotional changes like a quick-change artist. Creator Greg Daniels brought his Parks and Rec comedy chops, but with a bit more restraint, to sell this entertaining satire that also comes with a nice mystery embedded. The first series is a solid start, but while it gets to a pause-point, it definitely ends on some serious cliffhangers. Fortunately, it is already renewed, so you won’t be left hanging forever.

Upload

Avenue 5 (HBO)
Yeah, I’m sorry, I just don’t get the appeal of this one. And it’s not because Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager) isn’t great fun. Nor is it that Lenora Crichlow (Collision) doesn’t manage to balance out the craziness. It’s that the writing and, particularly, Josh Gad (Little Monsters) just don’t know how to set limits that keep it all fun.

What could have been the black humor counterpart to Aniara, turns into a broad comedy mess without much to say for itself.

Avenue 5