Category Archives: Movie Review

And Then We Danced

[4 stars]

All you need to know to understand this wonderful, poignant tale of life in Georgia (as in former Soviet Union) is in the credits; a special thanks to the choreographer, who couldn’t be named, but without whom the movie couldn’t have been made. That statement, which comes after the story, crystallizes it all.

Writer/director Levan Akin and newcomers Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili picked up a pile of well-deserved awards for their efforts. The two leads not only deliver sweetly nuanced performances, they can also dance…like, seriously dance.

This is a paced film that slowly unfolds and ultimately builds to its climax in the final few minutes of film. Sustaining that, and building the tension as it moves along is all very subtle, but effective. And without that effort, the final scene would have been cheap theatrics rather than an unequivocal statement. Forgetting the character relationships that need to be established, the audience needs that time and day-in-the-life moments to learn some history and culture to put it all in context.

This was a perfect film for Pride month, absolutely. But it’s also a great view into a world few will have experienced, even while presenting universal emotions and struggles.

And Then We Danced Poster

Dark (series 3 – finale)

[5 stars]

I’ve been talking up Dark for a while now. And having rewatched it from front to back again, I plan on continuing.

The series starts as a fairly standard mystery and then rapidly evolves. By episode 1.3 you have some sense of the complexity. By the end of the first series your brain is likely bleeding. In the second series it only gets more complex and convoluted and yet…. either it was all planned brilliantly or retcon’d seamlessly because on every major point it holds together. There are some minor bits and pieces that are left hanging or glossed (and yes, I look at you episode 2.4). And I admit there is one choice in the series 2 finale that makes me grind my teeth as it wasn’t necessary for plot, but simply contrived to get a visual and then they got stuck with it. Then, at the end of series 2, you’ve taken a hard left turn.

But the big events, the important confluences, all work as one.

And here we are at the completion of the tale, series 3; it makes the first two runs look simple…in fact, the penultimate episode left me exhausted. More importantly, the finale brings it all together in a fair way, given the story that’s been laid out before us–the clues are all there. Even the title finally gets an explanation.

Ultimately, this is one of the best attempts to both philosophically attack and support a deterministic universe. There are characters on both sides fighting to defend and break it. And not a one of them is telling the truth. We know that early on, but never actually find solid ground till the end, when their intentions are truly revealed. Sure the science is, at best, fantastical at times, but not all of it. Some is well-established theory, and the mix of the two allows you to swallow the conceits in full; even when they get it horribly wrong.

One of the aspects that makes this series work is their, mostly, amazing casting. Only This is Us has come close to the need and quality of finding actors to portray characters at different ages. And, honestly, Dark has done it better. Some of the actors you will swear are the same person, just aged. It helps tremendously with keeping track of the story and the credibility of the plot. They also weren’t afraid to try new ways to work with the audience visually. Each series experiments with new visual cues and approaches to help you navigate the insanity. Series 3 even uses more than one approach over the eight episodes.

Dark lives comfortably with some of the great time-travel tales of the last few decades, including Timecrimes, Primer, Edge of Tomorrow, Predestination, Doctor Who (Blink), Looper, Safety Not GuaranteedWatchmen, The Magicians (ep 5.6: Oops..I did it Again), Babylon 5, and even (despite its flaws) Terminator: Genisys. If you haven’t tackled it yet, make the time…and watch it from start to finish in a straight go (no more than two episodes a night). There are so many subtle and wonderful moments and echos that will get missed if you stretch it out too long.

The Promise (Wu ji)

[2 stars]

A fantasy about capricious gods and untrustworthy humans, even if there is a modicum of redemption, isn’t a great foundation for a tale. At least not an escapist tale. When the script, effects, and wire-work are also weak, it only makes it harder to enjoy. Add to these challenges the halting and rough rhythm of the story and I’m left scratching my head that this was from director and co-writer Kaige Chen. I guess everyone gets one wrong at some point.

Jang Dong-Gun, Hiroyuki Sanada (Life), Cecilia Cheung, and Ye Liu are the high points, such as they are. Each has moments that are satisfying, despite so many more that are not. These are all solid actors, but they can’t overcome the leaps, gaps, and forced aspects of the story.

After a bit of searching I found, perhaps, the reason for the issues. Most fantasies of this type are long..often over two hours long while this was only 1:40. As it turns out, I think my copy was the US released theatrical version which apparently was heavily edited. The extra scenes were on the disc, but at the time I saw no reason to torture myself any more by viewing them. But now I realize it may have filled in some of the plot leaps.

Now, this excuse uncovered doesn’t forgive the general concerns, but it may have smoothed out some of the aspects that were exacerbated by it. If you are compelled to see the movie, make sure you’re seeing the original version. But, either way, this was pretty much a disappointing miss for me.

The Promise Poster

He Died With a Falafel in His Hand

[3 stars]

I know, I know. This has been on my list for years, but I hadn’t gotten to it until now. And it was entertaining, if a little out of time (especially one or two very un-woke scenes that couldn’t be done now).

I have to admit, I’ve no idea what attracted director/writer Richard Lowenstein to adapt this odd travelogue of life through the eyes of a slacker. Especially as his main focus has been music videos for years. But something about the story spoke to him. I can’t say the characters or story spoke much to me, but the presentation and path of the story kept me mostly entertained.

Noah Taylor (Free Fire) plays it all with a flat, who cares sort of attitude, even while clearly wishing there was something more. And in his wake drift several people who keep washing up on his shores, for better or worse. Emily HamiltonRomane Bohringer, and Brett Stewart continually bounce off Taylor’s character, changing with each encounter, even as he remains primarily unaffected and unchanged. But Taylor watches and clearly considers each evolution even when he’s unsure in what way to react to it all.

It has a resolution of sorts. It isn’t overly satisfying, or wasn’t for me, but the journey was amusing, if both dark and a little gratuitously violent at times. And I didn’t feel like it ever got to any substantial point (even if I did see the visual joke and commentary). This is definitely a movie that many will enjoy and just as many will find inscrutable. You’re just going to have to make up your own mind.

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand Poster

Les Enfant Terribles

[2 stars]

I know it’s a classic, but it no longer (if it ever) works. It comes close, but refuses to gel. Generally, the world agreed that director Jean-Pierre Melville and writer/adapter Jean Cocteau’s collaboration yielded an imperfect translation to screen. It made “classic” status as part of their bodies of work, not this particular work itself.

In all honesty, this wasn’t the movie I had intended to see. Way back in 1995 I was lucky enough to see Indiscretions on Broadway. That was an adaptation of Cocteau’s earlier tale and film, Les Parents Terrible.  A story that was a much more interesting, funny, sad, and dark tale of familial life and emotional incest. Over the intervening years, somehow the two titles got munged in my head and I ended up queuing Les Enfants. The two are not comparable.

None of the cast in this film really had much of a career. There is the nice curio that Cocteau himself provides the narrator’s voice-over. But nothing much else about the movie stands out as a reason to recommend it. Save your time and find some other french cinema of the era to sate your education and/or curiosity. Or, if you want, something newer that reflects that era, like The Dreamers.

Les Enfants Terribles Poster

Birds of America

[3 stars]

Like loving family, watching this film is a bit of an act of faith. Elyse Friedman’s script feels like it is going nowhere fun or interesting for the first 3/4 of the story…and then it all comes together in both expected and unexpected ways.

Matthew Perry serves as the reluctant patriarch for his younger, orphaned sibs: Ben Foster (Leave No Trace) and Ginnifer Goodwin (Zootopia). The three form a very broken triangle of humanity and reaction to grief. And, along the way, they find a way forward.

There are also some nice side performances by the three wives of the piece: Lauren Graham (Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist) as Perry’s wife, Zoë Kravitz (High Fidelity) as Foster’s, and Hilary Swank (I Am Mother) as the neighbor.’s For Kravitz, it was also one of her earliest roles.

Director Craig Lucas, really much better known for his writing (Prelude to a Kiss, Longtime Companion), handles the oddities and extremes of the story fairly well. Some of the comedy is a little pushed, but mostly it is kept to just this side of uncomfortably real. And he manages to overcome some of the incomplete aspects of the script; the dangling threads of ideas. But, despite getting the relationships and characters nailed down nicely, Friedman’s script has issues. The title and opening explanation, in particular, lay out some very specific plot points that never get taken up. It is a complete mis-lead who’s resolution was either left on the cutting room floor or simply lost in revision and never fully corrected in the final cut for some reason.

Even with the weaknesses, if you trust it, the movie pays off. But, like family, unconditional trust can be tough at times. I’m sure neither Lucas or Friedman intended a physical metaphor for their tale, but they got one anyway.

Birds of America Poster

The Valet (La doublure)

[3 stars]

There is nothing quite like a well-controlled French farce to help put a smile on your face. And director and writer Francis Veber (Dinner for Schmucks, La Cage Aux Folles) certainly understands farce. His main strength is almost always going for the understated response from his main characters, while allowing the peripheral ones to go  broad. It keeps the entire story from ever getting too shrill or ridiculous, even when it is outlandish or ridiculous.

He also has a great touch for casting. Gad Elmaleh (Mood Indigo) is wonderfully comfortable with his life and choices, even when offered something much more. And Alice Taglioni and Kristin Scott Thomas (Tomb Raider), as pawns turned queens, provide some great moments as well as implying some deep backstories that we never really get to learn about directly.

There are many other amusing, smaller roles, some created by faces you’ll recognize from French and International cinema. They all add sparkle and entertainment, pushing the story along with many laughs.

For a bit of warm escape, this is a great choice…and also a good one to share with someone you care about. Pop the corn, pour the libations, and curl up together on the couch for a good laugh.

The Valet Poster

Ne Zha (Ne Zha zhi mo tong jiang shi)

[3 stars]

This skews rather young, but with some good moments, some (though not all) incredible animation, and a truly not-American story. Which is part of both its interest and charm. It isn’t a simple tale nor one that follows the standard Hollywood tropes.  And, as a first feature by Yu Yang, it’s rather ambitious and delivers in a bit of an uneven way. But it kept me watching.

I also found little entertainment difference between the subtitled and dub versions. In fact, there is an interesting advantage to the dub. Even while watching the  dub version, I kept the English subtitles on as they were often quite different from the spoken dialogue. Not just subtle differences…plot differences. It all added a whole other layer of intrigue for me. The legends and culture upon which the story is based have no touchstone in Western myth. The conflict in translation is fascinating.

And, as it turns out, this is the first part of a longer story…the next piece gets laid out during the credits. I actually hope the other parts are forthcoming. I’m curious to see how they can keep it all going now that they’ve laid out their origin story.

Nezha Poster

Admission

[3 stars]

Director Paul Weitz (Bel Canto) loves the unexpected, whether in plot or in character. Admission is no exception. Despite being pretty much a standard trope, it manages to make its own path with some nice, unexpected curves.

The success of the story is also very much down to the cast; if not their particular talents all the time, certainly for their individual charisma and personalities. Primarily this is with Tina Fey (This is Where I Leave You), both her direct story and the interactions with Paul Rudd (Ideal Home). Nat Wolff (Leap!), pulled along in their wake, manages to make himself known as well.

Outside the main three are some great supporting characters too. Lily Tomlin (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Wallace Shawn (Vanya on 42nd Street), and Michael Sheen (Staged) sprinkle in a little magic in particular.

Writer Karen Croner (One True Thing) adapted the story. The result is a multi-layered comedy and look at life. It is still a broad comedy, but not over-the-top in ways that would normally turn me off. It has touchstones and core level of truth that makes the silly laughter a bit poignant while Weitz’s inventive presentation keeps it alive and engaging. And, of course, it has a wonderful sort of frisson with the current ways of the world where standardized test scores, like the SAT, are not being used for admissions for the foreseeable thanks to the dual pressures of the pandemic and recognition of endemic social inequality.

Admission

American Adobo

[3 stars]

This isn’t a great film. The script, by first-timer Vincent R. Nebrida, is painful at times. And the effort to overcome those lacks by director Laurice Guillen doesn’t help her break into the States, despite being widely celebrated in the Philippines and abroad. Even the fairly experienced cast had trouble finding an even rhythm and delivery.

But, there is a sweetness to the story and the performances that made it engaging. Certainly the peek into Philippine culture was interesting (even if aspects were overblown at times). In between cringing at the dialogue and some of the acting, it will reach you and make you smile as you grow to understand this group of friends who bond over the past and food while negotiating their way into their futures.

American Adobo Poster