Category Archives: Movie Review

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

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

Blade Runner 2049

[4 stars]

When making a sequel, the first question you really have to ask is: Why? And in this case, the writer of the original Blade Runner, Hampton Fancher, along with his new co-writer Michael Green, found an answer. And with Denis Villenuve (Arrival) at the helm, this new tale in the universe is gripping and inexorable as it moves along. In fact, while 2049 is almost three hours long, an hour longer than the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, it feels shorter due to its editing and tension.

Unlike the original bottomless noir that was Blade Runner, this story is more a compelling personal journey for its main character, Ryan Gosling (Song to Song). It has light and hope, despite being sunk in the same ruined Earth and financial disparity that was established with that world 35 years ago. And yet, the story and world still feel timeless. And that is the interesting part, it still feels like it could be our dystopian future; now more than ever. A world of overcrowding, rampant poor, and authoritarian over-reach doesn’t feel that outlandish.

Villenuve managed to pay homage to the original story but create his own world all at once. Yes, if you have recently watched the first film, you will pick up nods and winks throughout, but it isn’t a copy of the original. The nods and mentions aren’t distracting ones, simply enough to make it clear that you never really left that universe. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is solid and complex. It will keep you thinking and wondering. That trick is attained thanks to the directing and, of course, the acting.

Along with Gosling’s subtle portrayal of K, there a number of women who fill out his world. Interestingly, his world is dominated by women. Primarily, Robin Wright (Rememory) as his boss walks an interesting line with him while Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) provides the most interesting companion since Her. In addition, Sylvia Hoeks does a nice riff and counterpoint to Sean Young’s Rachel. And then there are the additional building blocks for the rest of his story: Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror) and Carla Juri (Morris From America). As I said, quite the list of influence.

This isn’t to dismiss the men. David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) actually gives us a bit of real emotion in his role. Only Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) came off to me as oddly empty. He has the presence and the story (particularly if you watch the 3 prequel shorts that bridge the original and sequel), but not a lot of it gets to the screen. It would have distracted from Gosling’s story, to be sure, so I understand the choice. However, Harrison Ford’s (The Age of Adaline) role manages to feel more complete without much more screen time, and not just because we know his backstory, there is just more there in Ford’s performance.

Be aware, this is not an action flick. It is a slow-burn and very personal mystery. It is beautifully filmed and expertly edited and directed to keep it all moving along. The story is one worth telling, and while it would lead to yet another story, it is complete as it is. I do suggest watching the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner before viewing this, much as I suggested rewatching Terminator 1 & 2 before viewing Terminator: Genisys. Though Terminator was all about what was changing, Blade Runner is more about providing a real sense of grounding and appreciation for what will unfold before you.

In case it wasn’t obvious, in prep for this late-conceived sequel, I rewatched the original Blade Runner. To be more specific, I watched the Director’s Cut, followed by the final 3 scenes of the original version and the Final Cut for comparison’s sake. It was an interesting exercise. I chose the Director’s Cut as that best dovetails to this new expansion of the story. I have to admit, the Director’s Cut is hampered by its slow pacing due to the removal of the voice-overs but no additional editing of the screen time where it was excised. However, it is the closest storywise to enter 2049.

As a side note, I think one of the things I’ve come to finally realize is that Ridley Scott has made only one brilliant film in his life: Alien. Blade Runner blazed new ground, but it isn’t a wonderfully directed film, it is just a fascinating world and a good story that he got lucky enough to have control over. Blade Runner remains a powerful influence on cinema from the Hunger Games to Ghost in the Shell; the claustrophobic, elite-class dominated hopelessness appears again and again in film since its release. The fact that he recut it multiple times trying to say what he “really wanted to” tells you that he isn’t a great director. And certainly his ouvre that followed Alien has never equaled that incredible piece of heart-pounding terror and rich world.

But Scott isn’t part of this outing. This is all Villenuve and his ability continues to impress me. I can only hope that this film will find its audience as the original tale did. It is worth the time spent, especially on the large screen.

Blade Runner 2049

Happy Accidents

[3.5 stars]

One of the joys of this film is that it plays directly into the need for love to matter. Yes, I’ve already admitted I’m a hopeless romantic, so that is going to play well for me. Also, it has a great deal of sadly accurate fun with NYC dating and living.

Marissa Tomei (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Emerald City) make the unlikeliest of pairs, but they make it work. You believe in the ineffable attraction and the unbridled passion that drives the two of them together, even if you don’t understand it. Both players have complicated histories and manage that rough hulled vulnerability that they are known for.

There are some great supporting roles as well. Holland Taylor (D.E.B.S.) does something just a bit different for her typical characters. And Nadia Dajani gets to do a bit more than here typical TV supporting roles. But, as Tomei’s mother, it was Tovah Feldshuh who really got to make an impact, with very little screen time; she is a wonderful study in restraint.

Writer/director Brad Anderson (The Call) is no stranger to the odd. His previous Next Stop Wonderland and The Machinist each have elements you can see him developing further with this offering. While Anderson spends most of his time on TV projects, his screen projects always seem to hit a decent mark. He loves his characters, which saves them, or at least redeems them in some way, for us regardless of their circumstances.

Happy Accidents is one of those curl-up-on-the-couch films with someone to enjoy the ride and message. It isn’t a simple and easy romance, but it has its impact and some good performances from actors earlier in their careers. It also gives you a chance to see a new and different facet of Anderson’s work.

Happy Accidents