Category Archives: Movie Review

Love, Simon

[4.5 stars]

Simon delivers in the most wonderful ways and still finds a core truth to make it work. In fact, my theater broke into applause more than once during the movie (once at the penultimate moment we’d been waiting for and once at the end credits). In the last 20 years I can only think of a few films that got genuine, spontaneous applause in a general viewing, so that’s saying something.

Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) does a great job embodying Becky Albertalli’s title character from her book. He gives us a Simon that is easy to like and understand, not to mention who you want to slap silly for his missteps (and then forgive him all the same). There is no nod or wink, he simply is a teenager dealing with life.

Robinson is helped along with a collection of other young actors, all dealing with life in their own ways. Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Brigsby Bear) complete the core group of friends. Logan Miller (Before I Fall), Keiynan Lonsdale (Legends of Tomorrow), Miles Heizer (13 Reasons Why), and Clark Moore are all nice additions around the rest of the tale.

Jennifer Garner (Men, Women, Children) and Josh Duhamel (Unsolved: Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.), as Simon’s parents strike just the right tone for this somewhat idealized, gee-I-wish-this-had-been-my-home feel. I dare you to make it through their critical scenes without shedding tears. Even Tony Hale’s (American Ultra) over-the-top Vice Principal manages to strike a tone that works for the story.

Speaking of tone, director Greg Berlanti did a brilliant job with that throughout, no doubt helped by his extensive background as a producer and writer. He took what writing team Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (This is Us, About a Boy) delivered and made it sing. Their script manages to tease out the humor and the emotions without wallowing. As a first feature film script, they also proved they can leap media. And, as a team, Love, Simon brings us the first major, main-stream release of a gay rom-com to screen. That it is aimed at teens should be no surprise since that generation is significantly less judgmental than most of their parents. The irony is that on a personal level, the struggle is still the same in any generation; coming into your own is never easy.

Which means there is both a specific truth and a general truth to this story, which is what makes it so wonderfully universal. The specific truth, the stress of coming out as a teenager, is the written core of this relatively faithful adaptation. But different is different in High School, regardless of what that difference is. And, of course, we all feel “different.” That is the general truth.

Go see this movie. Admit going in that when you see a film like this, you are accepting a contract to be manipulated. You do so not only willingly, but with the desire for the release. But it is wonderful and uplifting and, no matter how manipulated or idealized, it feels true or like you want it to be true. It is well acted and well delivered and will leave you holding someone close to you and grateful for having them in your life.

Love, Simon

Tomb Raider (2018)

[3.5 stars]

YAR (yet another remake). Which isn’t to say it is bad, it isn’t. In fact they took their charge seriously and tried to make a relatively good movie that hewed to the original material, sort of. To separate it from the previous films, Alicia Vikander (Tulip Fever) gives us a younger, more vulnerable Lara Croft. She is a woman who has to come into her own during the story rather than the fully established inheritor of her father’s wealth and lifestyle from the start. And Vikander is impressively up to the task both physically and with emotional chops. They make sure you understand and believe that from the top.

As her father, Dominic West (The Square) also does a credible job, though with a slightly more exaggerated sensibility. Similarly for Walton Goggins (Maze Runner: The Death Cure), who has to walk the line of mustache twirler, father, and slightly bonkers villain. Neither is completely realistic, but by the point in the story they show up, Lara’s deep into the fantastical world she will inhabit the rest of her life.

Three supporting roles were worth noting as well: Daniel Wu (Warcraft, Into the Badlands), Kristin Scott Thomas (The Darkest Hour), and Derek Jacobi (Last Tango in Halifax, Murder on the Orient Express). Ok the last simply because it was Jacobi…he doesn’t really get to do much, but I always enjoy his work.

Director Roar Uthaug  (The Wave), and his rather untried script writers Robertson-Dowert and Siddons, took their time to build a story and world for Croft to inhabit and to give her artifact-hunting motivations beyond some internal sense of guilt or nobelesse oblige.  Uthaug  mostly kept it all realistic in effort and response. Lara gets hurt. A lot. In fact she grunts more than Steffi Graff during a finals match. However, in the quest for reality, the script also leaves out some of the more interesting aspects of Croft’s world. I appreciated how they grounded the plot, but I like a bit more fantasy with my pony-tailed heroine.

There is a ton of action to keep this all going. There is even some humor and just enough emotion to tie it together. Personally, I prefer the more established Lara over this rite-of-passage version that will lead to her. It really depends on whether you want to see a super hero kind of film or something more grounded. This film skirts the edge of both. You’ll have fun, but since it isn’t likely to spawn a franchise, it feels a bit less satisfying as a stand-alone. Also, I’d recommend not seeing the larger format screens. There is a good deal of shakey-cam (used for purpose) that I always find annoying and difficult to watch on that size screen.

I don’t mean to damn with feint praise, but I did want a bit more than I got even as I was surprised by how well it was all done. I will admit, it may have been more my expectations than what was delivered, but this is a well-established character, so I can’t be the only one with assumptions. Should a miracle occur and they continue the franchise, this is a solid world and character start, if not an Iron Man-style blowout.

Tomb Raider

The Square

[2 stars]

Some movies are inscrutable, but at least this one is long and subtitled to boot. And I do mean long for this kind of movie; it clocks in at 150 minutes.

At best, The Square is a series of vignettes about man’s inhumanity and the definition and business of art, held together loosely by a single event. But that’s being somewhat generous. I think Ruben Östlund had aspirations of updating The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; assailing the limits of our willingness to intervene and help one another, and the taboos that sit at those boundaries. Frankly, he failed, giving us some nuggets of thought, but never grabbing us or pulling it all into a single, clarifying instant. The movie simply peters out, unresolved and unsatisfying. I guess Östlund would ask, did that make it art? His previous Force Majeure much more successfully ranged across humanity while focusing very specifically on individuals.

It isn’t that there aren’t some interesting questions in the film. And the peek behind the scenes of museum purchasing and marketing is interesting and disturbing, to be sure. But that isn’t enough to to make a movie. And if he wanted to turn the movie into a virtual square itself (which I do think he intended), Östlund should have begun and ended the film in 4:3 aspect rather than 16:9 to make the point.

The story is dominated by Claes Bang (The Bridge) whose awakening to the world around him is full of unrealized potential. He is clearly a well-to-do man in a position of power, and full of self-importance. Watching that surface erode, first with humor and, eventually with some humility, is intriguing. But we never connect with him in a way that makes us care. It is halfway through the tale before we even know he has kids; which is part of the point, I’m sure, but it just doesn’t work.

At the periphery of the story are Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake: China Girl) and Dominic West (Money Monster) who each bring a little of the outside world to Bang. They aren’t brilliant performances, but they’re probably the only faces you’ll recognize in the film.

One interesting, recurring bit part is played by Terry Notary. What makes it interesting is that he has stepped to our side of the motion capture suit to appear as human rather than as creature, as he has in Kong, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit, etc. His casting is surely meant as another intended commentary on art, but you’d have to know who he is to even trip over the point.

Ultimately, this is a heck of a lot of time to spend in a world that is neither compelling nor fully realized. I can only think that the awards it won was due to people being duped into it being art, much like some of the odder installations in the movie itself (which isn’t to say those examples couldn’t be art, but even the story chips away at the core of that idea).

Personally, my though is that you could take the time you’d spend on this movie and see two other films that are much better…and you should.

The Square

Wonder Wheel

[3.5 stars]

Wonder Wheel starts off like many Woody Allen (Cafe Society) films: A hapless narrator explaining the romance/farce/tragedy that is about to unfold. In this case, it is a bit of all of that, but it also quickly shifts into a new mode for Allen. With the immense help of Jim Belushi (Twin Peaks) and Kate Winslet (Collateral Beauty), we are suddenly transported into a Eugene O’Neill play with moments of Tennessee Williams, complete with claustrophobic set, heavy use of alcohol, violence, and disastrous romantic longings. Not to detract from Winslet’s more subtle performance, but Belushi is the real powerhouse behind these scenes; he is an unexpected gut punch in what you expect to be a light, period romance.

Those truly phenomenal scenes are broken up with more typical Allen moments, but without the forced, halting aspects that tend to distract in his movies. All of the scenes flow nicely, though the tenor of the dialog becomes lighter and a tad stilted. Justin Timberlake (Trolls) tends to herald these moments. To a degree, I understand the choice and it is explained at the very top of the film, but the scenes cut into a more powerful story and I think it could have been smoothed through a bit better.

Running between the two worlds along with Winslet is Juno Temple (Black Mass). She brings most of the Tennessee Williams sensibility: fragile, naive, tough, intelligent, lost, and desperate to be loved. She is a breath of Southern Gothic dropped into the Northeast Tragedy.

In many ways, while not necessarily the best Woody Allen film, it is one of his most impressive. The use of language and setting is powerful. The story is relateable and yet utterly designed. The tragedy inevitable and yet totally avoidable. If not for the recent events in the industry, Wonder Wheel would have garnered a lot more attention and nominations. That it didn’t is a complicated conversation every person will have to answer for themselves. But, from a purely artistic point of view, I can recommend the film for the performances, writing, and direction and it may suggest an entirely new direction for Allen’s oeuvre.

Wonder Wheel

A Wrinkle in Time

[3 stars]

Some books stick with you from childhood. When I discovered tesseracts at age 9 or 10, the world opened up for me and I was sold on science fiction for the rest of my life. And it is still one of the first books I give to young kids when they move up a level in their reading. What makes the book so special is that it doesn’t talk down to children. Children are, in fact, the heroes in a very real way. While there are more books like that now, there definitely weren’t when it came out in 1962. And it still has the power to enthrall today, despite any competition because it is so accessible and understandable to children on an emotional level. As the trailers were released for this movie, everyone in the audience was murmuring how they wanted to see it and how much they loved the book, to a time.

Well, first let me warn you, let go of the book. In focusing the story so it would fit into a feature-length tale, Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terebithia) decided on some large changes right off the top, especially around Charles Wallace. Most of those are acceptable, but dropping the other siblings and shortening the trials of the children (and a significant change to the ending) left me wondering about their choices.

Ava DuVernay (13th) directed the script she had well. The pace is measured, but matches the book. Despite its impact, the book is very surfacey in its way, and full of huge leaps of place and understanding, but it is true in its emotional core, which DuVernay completely understood. She also walked the line of young love beautifully. But the film is aimed purposefully at 8-15 year olds by design. That is a fair choice, but it makes it less interesting for the returning adult or the more world-aware tween.

Of course, a lot has been made of the three Misses: Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Mindy Kaling (Inside Out), and Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler). But this is primarily Storm Reid’s (12 Years a Slave) movie, and she carries it well. She also bounces off her screen brother Deric McCabe nicely. McCabe has his own burdens to carry in this film and is generally good. Because of the changes to his character, though, I did find accepting him a little harder to do. On the other hand, Levi Miller’s (Pan) Calvin is spot on. He too works well with Reid.

Chris Pine (Wonder Woman), does an amazing amount with very few lines and little screen time. Similarly, though with less range, does Gugu Mbatha-Raw (The Cloverfield Paradox). They make great parents in need of rescue. Sadly, Zach Galifianakis (Tulip Fever) was given one of the best roles in the film, but it was so dampened in the adaptation that he is just forgettable.

The visuals are mostly impressive, though often they feel like flash over substance. The story, well, as I said if you can let go of the book and find your inner 9 year old, it will increase your enjoyment. For me, there were moments that were captured and others that were missed. It was like seeing part of a great painting, but not quite all of it. I do understand the point of the writers and director in their approach…but, the excisions and reconceptualizations should have been left to those with a better understanding of the story who could have also looped in the intent. For instance, despite the opening and closing frames trying to impart one of the great reveals and lessons (and it failed on that), they ignored core chunks of the tale. Giving us the simplest, bare emotional core of the story ultimately diminished rather than expanded its potential audience in my opinion. They should have trusted that the book remained so popular because of its detail, not just because of its message.

This isn’t the first attempt to adapt Wrinkle in Time to screen, nor is it the best, but it makes a game try and is a solid story for children trying to find their place in the world, even if it leaves out and changes great swaths of the original book. So, if you have a young person in your life, sure take them. Skip the IMAX… it just isn’t filmed for it on the whole. And, if they haven’t read the book before the movie, make sure they read it after so they truly understand the magic and possibilities. The remaining four books in the series are totally missable in my opinion. The second is interesting, but the rest… well, make up your own mind. As for the movie…I wanted it to be so much more than it was, but it wasn’t a total fail. I don’t see a franchise coming out of this, but perhaps a Disney Channel series.

Someday, I’d love to see the book tackled again as a mini-series, bringing in the best of this and the best of the 2003 version, which had its good points too (though no widescreen version was ever released). For now, we have this attempt to hold us till someone does it the right way.

A Wrinkle in Time

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

[3 stars]

Agatha Christie’s novels have been done to death (all puns intended) over the years. That doesn’t make them any less entertaining, but it does create a mine field for the actors who must tread well worn paths but somehow make them feel new. And no where is that path more worn than with Miss Marple and Poirot.

Bluntly, Kenneth Branagh (The Magic Flute) is no David Suchet, but he creates a new Poirot that has his moments, if not complete command of our love yet. Branagh also directs the piece expertly, keeping it moving along and offering credible interruptions of events to draw out the denouement. Michael Green’s (Blade Runner 2049) script helps him along on that point with clever dialogue and well-considered constructions. The cinematography is also gorgeous capturing both the landscapes and rich era. 

The film is fairly littered with known faces, far too many to list. But a few are of note. Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean), in particular, sells his linchpin role perfectly. The remaining cast succeed and fail to differing degrees. Sadly, Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul), is one of the weakest, though I couldn’t tell if that was due to Branagh’s lack of focus on her or simply her delivery. (This movie also completes a triptych of films with Dench for me over the last week.) On the other hand, Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!) and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) shown like beacons amid the gray and white of the landscape.

Whether you know this story or not, it is a great version of it. In fact, it may well be the best adaptation done yet for large or small screen; certainly it holds its own. Again, it isn’t the Poirot that I grew to love over decades, but my first Poirot was Ustinov and I got over it. You could do worse than your first as Branagh…just hunt down Suchet’s distillation at some point as well. No one has yet captured Christie’s little Belgian quite so well.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Victoria & Abdul

[3 stars]

From the very beginning you know the tone of this tale is not going to be the dry historical you probably expected. Victoria & Abdul is, for a large part of the movie, a light film filled with comedy and joy, though it certainly takes on important issues while it both celebrates and lambastes the pomp of royalty and the untenable position of a monarch. Judi Dench (Tulip Fever) tackles the leader of the British empire 20 years after her previous turn in the position in Mrs. Brown. In fact, this movie picks up that persona well into her years, long past Albert, and years after Victoria was again on her own. The two would make a great double feature as you can see the foundation of what leads to Victoria’s choices and household.

In the other title role, Ali Fazal (3 Idiots) brings an interesting energy to his character that feels almost false or forced, but somehow real. He is the perfect optimist opposite Adeel Akhtar’s (The Big Sick) whingeing and political ire in opposition to the court around him. Of note in that group are Eddie Izzard (Absolutely Anything), Olivia Williams (Man Up), and Paul Higgins (Utopia), among a host of others.

What starts as silly, progresses roughly as you’d expect as jealousies and prejudice begin to assert themselves. But Victoria was a tough old cookie, even till the end;  nothing was ever going to be simple.

Having already tackled Queen Elizabeth II, it shouldn’t be surprising to see director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins) take on Victoria. He is well at home in the upper crustiest of crusts, and happy to show all the cracks as well. He coaxed a wonderfully balanced set of performances out of the entire cast and filmed it with care and love for his central characters.

And though the tale is oversimplified, Lee Hall’s (War Horse) script provides enough meat to keep it all feeling complete. The dialogue is also often delightfully unexpected.

This isn’t a brilliant film, but it is entertaining and worth the investment of an evening to learn about a newly discovered bit of history. Seeing Dench take on the mantle of the monarchy again to complete the story she started back in 1997 is also a gift.

Victoria & Abdul

Tulip Fever

[2.5 stars]

Tulip Fever, much like the mercurial bloom’s marketplace namesake, is beautifully filmed, but ultimately not particularly satisfying on any level. The story here is purportedly one of romance, but it is as much about feminism, class, politics, greed, and a reflection of modern times. Unfortunately, all of that is easy to see, but not really felt in the final cut.

The story revolves around two couples and one man. Alicia Vikander (Jason Bourne) and Dane DeHaan (A Cure for Wellness) are the focus of the story, providing the main thread to pull us through. But the story is being told by Holliday Grainger (Strike), who’s relationship with Jack O’Connell (Money Monster) is affected as well. Both couples do what they can, though neither are particularly magnetic nor gripping in their passions emotionally, despite some nice on-screen physical examples. Frankly, when all is said and done, it is the path that Christoph Waltz (Downsizing) walks that is the most interesting. It is his most sympathetic and compelling role in a while. He is subtle and tormented in fascinating ways, and he manages to support the film from the background rather than trying to dominate it with a crazy portrayal.

There are also several notable supporting roles and characters. Tom Hollander (The Night Manager) and Judi Dench (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) are the most amusing and believable, but Matthew Morrison (Glee) and Zach Galifianakis (Lego Batman Movie) add their own value too. Galifianakis is hurt more by the script than his performance in this (but I’ll get to that). Finally, in a bit part that sort of goes nowhere is Cara Delevingne (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). The only reason to call her out is that she was paired with DeHaan in her next film; the performance here is fine, and I give her credit for making of it what she could.

So with all this talent, why did it fail? Despite being co-written by the great Tom Stoppard (Anna Karenina), the script is the real problem for this story. It depends entirely on two incredibly stupid choices by characters. It isn’t that the choices aren’t set up, but they are both avoidable and, in one case, purely ridiculous that no one stops it from happening. No amount of commitment or clever aspect of plot nor unexpected endings can overcome those points for me because they undercut the credibility of the story as a whole. Using the conceits of farce amid the romance just deflated the whole for me. And, while these items are also used in classic tragedy, they need to be credible to work. In this case they were blindingly avoidable.

There is some interesting history and reflection to absorb with this film. And Chadwick directed it reasonably well. But only make time for this if you must see the actors or have some deep interest in Holland in the 1620s, though historically you are likely to feel short-shrifted.

Tulip Fever

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

[4 stars]

At its heart, this is a movie about love. That is also a biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman and his bold choices in a repressed era becomes window dressing. Though, I have to admit, I will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again.

Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train), Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon), and Rebecca Hall (The Dinner) pull off a beautiful triangle. They manage to bring to life the complex emotions, fears, and desires that drove and challenged the relationship they formed without making it puerile or cliche. In our current times, it is also a great lesson in moral fibre and learning to be who you are despite societal pressures or assumptions.

There are some very nice smaller roles that are worth noting as well, JJ Feild (Captain America: The First Avenger) in particular. On the sidelines are Oliver Platt (The Ticket), and Connie Britton (Beatriz at Dinner) that provide some intriguing bridging characters too, though we never really get to know them.

Writer and director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) does something wonderful with this tale. She approaches it without judgement of her characters, but rather flips that to her audience and those around the unusual family. As her second feature, it is beautifully modulated and subtle. I will say that while the romance and personal aspect of the story is very effective and believable, Robinson’s other goal (layering on Marston’s psych theory as a structure for the movie) is less effective. It doesn’t distract or diminish the film, but it doesn’t really add much to it either. You can see the ideas, you can’t avoid them given the transitions, but I didn’t find them to build on or explain much either. Frankly, it is a minor criticism in this story as it is still character appropriate and adds some interesting structure, even if it is less than impactful.

Whether you know the history of of these people, or have an interest in Wonder Woman comics, this is a story that will grab you early and keep you intrigued. Marston was no ordinary man, nor were the brilliant women he had in his life. What is fascinating is just how little things have changed since their story began in the late 1920s.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Red Sparrow

[3.5 stars]

Red Sparrow is a surprisingly taut, female-lead spy drama that is Atomic Blonde by way of A Most Wanted Man.  Definitely Jennifer Lawrence’s (mother!) best turn in a long while, to my mind. Her character is fiercely intelligent, capable, and emotionally strong while being able to remain human. She finds a nugget of herself to hold onto until the bitter end.

As the men both caught in, and weaving Lawrence’s web, Joel Edgerton (Bright) and Matthias Schoenaerts (Far From the Madding Crowd) are both solid. The joy of this film is that everyone thinks they know what the others are doing, including the audience. But even when you are sure of what is to come, there is enough of a thread of doubt to keep the tension high and your curiosity peaked.

In two smaller roles, Joely Richardson (Emerald City) and Jeremy Irons (Assassin’s Creed) do some nice work. More so Richardson, to be honest, who’s existence is the MacGuffin for Lawrence’s entire set of actions. She doesn’t overplay it, nor does she disappear.

The weakest performance, frankly, was a surprise. Charlotte Rampling (Assassin’s Creed) just did’t fit in this production. Her accent was so wrong that even though her energy and demeanor were great it threw me straight out of the movie.

Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games) embraced the dark of writer Haythe’s (A Cure for Wellness) script and didn’t try to apologize for it. It isn’t overly brutal, but it implies a great deal of human darkness and pain. In fact, he makes it feel like there is much more on screen than there actually is, which is another nod back to the old days of movies; he allowed our imaginations to work for him.

This may not have been a film on your list for any number of reasons, but if you enjoy solid spy dramas, this will fit the bill nicely.

Red Sparrow