All posts by Hg

War of the Worlds (2019)

[3.5 stars]

When HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds, he didn’t just see it as a good yarn. It was intentionally an allegory, as were many of his stories. They were warnings to the world of where we were headed if things didn’t change. In other words, it was also what science fiction (then called scientific romance) was in a position to portray like no other form of literature. And this story has clearly stood the test of time. Heck, it is even more relevant today than it has been in a long while as we watch good decisions regress into greed and plays for power around the world.

But a good message doesn’t necessarily make a good story. Fortunately, the BBC have produced a wonderful presentation and story as well. One that cleaves more closely to Wells’s original than has been done in the past.

Sure it’s a great invasion story, but it is also unabashedly a story of empire building where previous opressors are crushed in turn by someone else. It is also about the runaway industrial revolution that was decimating landsides and the health of a population. Director Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None) and writer Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) tackled the material with a clear intention to keep the original while updating it subtly to keep it relevant. Primarily, the updates are in the relationships and structure which give the whole story a slight steam-punk feel even though it remains purely Victorian in its presentation and trappings.

There are four main characters of note in this three-part tale. Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette) and Rafe Spall (Men in Black: International) are the core of the story. Their love and struggles provide our way through the challenges. Robert Carlyle  (Yesterday) and Rupert Graves (Sherlock) add additional complications and perspectives. These four raise the story above the message to a very personal struggle that is easy to invest in.

This latest adapataion of Wells’s classic is definitely worth your time, and the most true to the original material of the adaptations out there. But even if you’re not familiar, perhaps especially if you’re not, it is engaging and effective.

Child’s Play (2019)

[3 stars]

The Child’s Play series hit its peak with Bride of Chucky, to my mind. This reboot of the series tries to recapture that self-awareness and humor to keep the horror and mayhem moving along. It is a mixed success.

Tyler Burton Smith’s script, his first, is clever, even if it’s cloaking his very relevant idea in an old franchise to sell it. But director Lars Klevberg (Polaroid) doesn’t quite find the tone or pull the needed performance from his young lead, Gabriel Bateman (Dangerous Book for Boys), despite the kid’s chops. Bateman is generally OK, but often goes shrill, ruining the moments. On the other hand, Beatrice Kitsos (Exorcist) navigated her smaller role with real charm and ability, taking control when necessary, deftly.

But the actual best part of the film is the throw-away humor from Brian Tyree Henry (Hotel Artemis). Henry’s role is more than a little forced into the story, but he lifts the film nicely every time he comes on screen. However, Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West), who should have been a natural for this material and venue, was a bit lackluster and not always credible as the struggling mom.

One amusing surprise was Mark Hammill’s voice work for our new electronic Chucky. He stayed suitably saccharine, and then deftly flipping to rude, crude, and evil.

Overall, this isn’t a bad distraction. It isn’t a great one either. The core idea didn’t need to be shoe-horned into an existing property, but it was probably the only way to get it made and distributed by a studio. But in shifting the core reason for the bloodlust, it loses something. The whole idea behind the series, that of a trapped, evil soul unwilling to give up on life and his mission carries a bit more terror with it than just having your Alexa going psycho. The end result is some chuckles, some shocks, and a good deal of splattering blood without a lot of real, existential terror. A shame as the truth behind the plot is a bit terrifying and affects just about everyone these days (he wrote, staring at the ominous plusing of the blue ring on his Echo)…

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

[4.5 stars]

Fred Rogers was a unique man, and one that touched a huge swath of hearts over his years in his Neighborhood. The recent and wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was a great reminder of that. This story, which may be about him, is centered more on his legacy and effect than it is a dramatization of his life. In fact, what director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) managed to accomplish with writing duo Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script is just short of glorious.

Now, before this becomes overhype, let me be clear. It isn’t so much an in-your-face brilliant piece of cinema. It is simply structured so perfectly for its purpose, and so delightful despite the depth of its material as to transport you back to those days as a child sitting with Rogers and his crew as they helped you navigate the world.

Tom Hanks (The Post) isn’t a perfect visual fit for his role, but he exudes compassion and honesty in a way that makes you forget he isn’t the real thing. We learn about the man, but mostly through his actions and the comments of others.

The story really focuses on Matthew Rhys (Death Comes to Pemberly) and his family. Susan Kelechi Watson (This is Us) as his wife and, in particular, Chris Cooper as his father deliver amazing supporting roles.

The movie is just shy of perfect due to one extended fantasy sequence that, frankly, could have been much shorter or excised. I know why it was there, and it was amusing, but I think it was unnecessary. The rest was handled, performed, designed, and acted wonderfully. Look for this to get a slew of nominations and even, possibly, suprise in a few categories. It is an unassuming film, but it manages to be as magical as the subject it wishes to expose on screen. It is a must see for everyone, especially in these stressful times.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

[3 stars]

OK, I am NOT the audience for this movie, but I was still impressed with the adaptation. Converting an educational children’s cartoon into a live action adventure was never going to be easy. But, with the name cachet and potential, it was inevitable someone would try.

Getting someone like director James Bobin (Alice Through the Looking GlassMuppets Most Wanted) to take it on was a smart choice. He not only found a tone to sell it, he was able to maintain the tone without blinking through to the end.

Bobin also cast it well. Isabela Moner (aka Isabela Merced) (Instant Family) is a perfect Dora. She is positive, open, guileless, fearless, resourceful, and still admits to her emotions and being aware of what others think of her oddities. She is a wonderful proxy for pre-teens about to head out more into the world on their own.

Dora, of course, has to have her posse. Jeff Whalberg (Don’t Come Back from the Moon) as Diego was an interesting choice and good foil for Moner. Madeleine Madden (Tomorrow When the War Began) and Nicholas Coombe fill out the group providing appropriate comic relief and questions.

The adults are all very broad and silly. Eva Longoria, Michael Peña (Extinction), and Eugenio Derbez (How to be a Latin Lover) are consistent, but not really believable. But, then again, the audience is kids, not adults. The adult influence in this story is decidedly in the background and they are there to be saved by the kid’s ingenuity. For that purpose they work, even if it narrows the appeal of the movie overall.

The biggest mistake, to my mind, was the inclusion of the CG characters Boots and Swiper (voiced by Danny Trejo and Benicio Del Toro, respectively). I understand they’re iconic, but it constantly broke the fragile reality of the adventure. Absent them, or had they been dealt with differently, the movie would have moved up a couple notches in my opinon. Honestly, neither character needed to be in the tale, which made their inclusion even more distracting.

To watch with young kids, this would probably been an enjoyable afternoon. As adult fare, it is a bit of a struggle, but the full commit of the entire production made it watchable, if not one I’d recommend generally. Frankly, I was just curious to see what they’d done with it, so I made the trek into the jungle for my own reasons.

The Boy (2015)

[2 stars]

Motels and psychopaths go together like cookies and milk, or so the modern lore would have us believe (and not a few true tales of mayhem). But I didn’t know that was the focus of this movie going in. Based on the description I’d read, the story sounded something more like traditional supernatural horror of some sort. I was incorrect. I also came to this movie for Rainn Wilson (Backstrom) and David Morse (Horns), two actors I enjoy and who often deliver complex, interesting characters. While they both certainly delivered on that aspect, neither was the lead.

The focus of this story is really the young son of Morse’s character, played by Jared Breeze. He is the quintessential dissaffected youth. Though in his case it is due to isolation, maternal abandonment, and well, something not quite right inside. Breeze comes across as suitably creepy and even a little bit sympathetic at the beginning. But he is quickly identifiable as a sadistic sociopath in the making. And, lucky us, we get to watch his blooming.

Whether or not this was the story I wanted to see, it still might have pulled me in. But the pace dragged for me as it is about as subtle and inevitable from the opening moments as you can get. And, frankly, there isn’t a totally likeable character to latch onto in the story. Director/writer Craig William Macneill (Lizzie) delivered us Brightburn without the superpowers and with no handle into the family. Though, unlike Brightburn, this depiction takes us on many more small steps and, to Macneill’s credit, through very uncomfortable moments.

Entertaining is not a term I’d use for this journey, so beware before you check into the Mountain Vista Motel. The slow burn train wreck of a tale may be for you. It really wasn’t for me.

Frozen II

[4 stars]

I will grant Chris Buck (Frozen) and Jennifer Lee (Wrinkle in Time) this: they actually created a sequel to their previous mega-hit. It isn’t quite as good as the first, but then it couldn’t be. Part of the appeal of Frozen was that it was something different. That surprise is gone, but the characters still has journeys to take. And the duo managed it while still maintaining the aspects of the first film that made it such a breakthrough for Disney.

Buck and Lee didn’t make easy choices for their story. The young women are the focus of the story and are still pretty much in control of their own fates (well, mostly). And I also appreciated that the characters were dealing with getting older, much like their audience and acknowledging that years have past since the last story (six, to be exact); sometimes with hilarious results in the dialogue to entertaining the adults in the audience.

However, my favorite aspect of the film is probably a bit less expected, and a bit guilty. There is no breakout song like “Let it Go” that will haunt us a million times a day. The music, generally, isn’t nearly as good as the first film, but it supports the tale well. I was perfectly happy with that. I’m betting a lot of parents out there will be as well.

I don’t need to push this movie on anyone. Pretty much every family that can will be there over the next several weeks. And they won’t be disappointed.

(Note: Though it seems to be pretty well known, based on the number of families that hung about during the 12 minutes of credits, there is an amusing 30-sec tag after the credits that is pretty amusing.)

The Time Being

[3 stars]

Artists talking about art and process can often leave the audience behind. The filmmaker has to find a universal in that subject to reach the people in front of the screen. Never Look Away was the most recent film to negotiate that mine field, while The Square (to my mind) totally missed the mark. The Time Being is somewhere between those extremes.

Frank Langella (Captain Fantastic) and Wes Bentley (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) are two poles of the conversation. One old, one young. One famous, one ignored. Each is struggling with making meaning out of where they are in life and, by doing so together, they each provide guideposts to the other. The situation and actions are a bit forced, but it moves along in ways that keep you from disconnecting from the story.

Director Nenad Cicin-Sain tackled his script, co-written with fellow first-timer Richard N. Gladstein, with care. While some of the dialogue is a bit navel-gazing, most of the story is told visually. Through wonderful framing and art that really looks like art, we see Langella’s and Bentley’s visions evolve. Much like dance in The White Crow, the art actually serves to keep you believing rather than make you doubt these actors are really artists. And, ultimately, Cicin-Sain delivers a denoument that reflects back through the story.

Two supporting roles are also worth calling out. Sarah Paulson (Glass) has a nice, understated path. And Cory Stoll (First Man) turns in an honest, dramatic performance with no hint of comedy at all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that serious even in an interview; it was nice to see he had those chops.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. Artists, particularly artists in their 30s and 70s, will find verisimilitude with their lives. Others may find it head-scratching or just simply boring. The editing and mystery kept me engaged, but not everyone will. For a first time director, however, it shows an ability for clever vision and respect for his audience.

Knives Out

[4.5 stars]

Director and writer Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) began life as a humble indie director of such wonderfully dark and unique pieces like Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Looper. His foray into the force, while not yet completely over, wasn’t his most comfortable habitat. With Knives Out he has returned to his more natural setting.

Knives Out is subtly clever, amid some outright funny moments and twists. It is unapologetically modeled on TV mysteries like Murder She Wrote, Columbo, or Midsommer Murders (to name a very few) from its teaser opening to its act breaks. In many ways, it is an American remake of Gosford Park, but it isn’t entirely satiric. It is, in fact, in equal measure, an homage while recognizing the forced nature of the genre.

But, of course, this kind of story only works with a solid cast and a unique detective.

Enter Daniel Craig (Spectre ) as the “famous” detective. He is quick-witted and observant, but often gathering his understanding by simply stirring the pot. Lakeith Lee Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) and Noah Segan are his on-loan police officers who fascilitate, but aren’t necessarily competent or professional. Segan, in particular, has some fun moments in this capactiy.

And then there are the suspects of Christopher Plummer’s (Boundaries) unusual death. As you might expect, they are primarily his family. The motley crew are all unique characters brought to life by Chris Evans (Gifted, Endgame), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Michael Shannon (The Current War), Don Johnson (Book Club), and Toni Collette (Velvet Buzzsaw), with Katherine Langford (Love, Simon) and Jaeden Lieberher (It) in the two younger roles. Many get to play against type, particularly Evans. But all are having a lot of fun.

And then, of course, you need the innocent under attack that our intrepid detective must exonerate lest justice go astray. For that role we have Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049) who delivers a great and layered performance with both depth and comedy.

There are also some nice bit parts from Riki Lindhome (Garfunkle and Oats) , K Callan, and Marlene Forte (My Last Day Without You), to name only a few.

And, believe it or not, I’ve only provided info here you get in the first five minutes of the film. And, of course, it isn’t as straight-forward as it may sound or it wouldn’t be a Rian Johnson script.

Suffice to say, Knives Out is clever and entertaining, with excellent pacing and a love of what it is doing. From its opening moments to its closing shot, it pulls you along without respite. Make time for this over the holidays, it is definitely worth your time. And it isn’t a remake, a sequel, a reboot, origin story, or spin-off…how’s that for a treat these days?

The Lion King (2019)

[3 stars]

The Disney march to create live action analogs of their animated hits continues. We could ask why, but c’mon, we know it’s solely for the money.

Honestly (and however heretical), I can’t say I was overly impressed or pulled in by the result of this movie. Jeff Nathanson’s (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) script adaptation of the original skips along time-wise jarringly. There is little or no chance to feel connected to any character or situation, absent a couple solidly scary moments. And Rafiki, the baboon has no real meaning or place in this version of the tale. Without knowledge of the earlier animation it would have made no sense at all. Also, which animals can talk and which can’t is a bit problematic and subtly judgemental.

Coming of age stories are a staple with Disney. And using animals as a distancing way to approach those subjects for younger viewers is also well established. This movie echos all the back to Bambi. There is also an environmentalist overlay to Simba’s world, but that subplot is neither fully realized nor resolved. When the comic relief in the form of Timon (Billy Eichner), Pumba (Seth Rogen – The Disaster Artist), and Zazu (John Oliver – Wonder Park) are the highlight of the movie, you know something went wrong–that’s would be like Martin Freeman being the best part of Black Panther.

What I can say about this movie is that the technology Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home) ushered in to film the tale is astounding. However, much like other films that were in the vanguard of new tech, the result is a little mixed making it the source of much of my frustration.

Most impactfully, I found the photo-realism itself challenging. The animation was restricted to, well, reality. The voices never quite matched the mouth movements nor the characters. The experience felt like some odd, non-ironic verion of What’s Up Tiger Lily. Purely cartoon animation allows for some adjustment to faces that help us accept and connect to the characters. The animals don’t move or act 100% naturally, but they allow us to anthropromorphize them better.

Ultimately, this film is a bit of a victim of the perils of technology. As a first use, the results of the cinematography are astounding. But the distance it creates is exacerbated by the script. In the end, this is a pretty ride, but not a euphoric one nor, at least for me, a memorable one. However, the type of filming it has championed is going to affect the industry for a long time.

Eat With Me

[2.75 stars]

Yeah, I’m splitting hairs on the rating here. But that’s because while Eat With Me is enjoyable…it’s also a lo-fi, first film with many of the attending issues and tells that implies. Writer/director David Au came up with an interesting story and set of venues, but he’s still working through his craft. For instance, in pushing for naturalism on screen, he allowed a lot of moments to fall flat, and the rhythm of the film as it unspools is halting rather than smooth. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, it just means you should go in with correct exepectations.

The movie is loaded with semi-familiar faces, but only one you’ll know for sure; George Takei (To Be Takei) as, well, himself in a critical cameo. Mind you, Au could have delivered his story without George, but it was a nice bit.

The main tale is a mother/son relationship. Sharon Omi is the focus of this story, though that aspect gets a little lost at points. Her semi-estranged son, Edward Chen takes a lot of the focus, which feels right, but ultimately confuses the balance. Aidan Bristow and Nicole Sullivan flesh out the plot and momentum in supporting roles.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that, for a movie named “Eat With Me,” and with a main character who’s a cook, food never quite became the connecting or healing thread I would have expected. Food was only a convenient way to bring people into frame together. That just wasn’t quite enough for me. Again, this was more my expectation than, perhaps, Au’s intention, but it was what I was working with. Regardless of that, it is still a sweet tale of family and relationships and a peek at a new voice in film.

I couldn’t help but wonder how Au might have approached this if he’d started now rather than 5 years ago. With the unexpected hits and influence of Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Always Be My Maybe amongst other movies out there now, would any of his choices or execution have shifted given the interest and examples? Purely musing, but it is amazing how much the landscape has changed in the last couple years alone.