Category Archives: Movie Review

Mortal

[3 stars]

Unexplained super-powers is becoming an overdone trope, which is why when you find one that tries to do something new, it’s a particular delight. André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) returns to his Nordic, Trollhunter roots to bring us a slow but intense tale of a young man, Nat Wolff (Admission), who suddenly acquires powers he can’t control or explain.

Iben Akerlie (Little Drummer Girl) plays opposite Wolff and balances him out well. In fact, she and Per Frisch are about the only clear-headed folks in the movie while Priyanka Bose (Lion) serves to remind the world of why Americans just shouldn’t be trusted. A sad cliché, but she navigates it relatively well within the bounds of the script.

As you can imagine, tragedy and stupid government decisions begin to occur. But this isn’t quite the story you expect, nor does it unfold exactly as others of its ilk. Sadly, it also doesn’t quite get to a conclusion so much as a beginning. Whether the tale will continue I imagine is still in flux, but the path is certainly there. In the meantime, if you can handle being left hanging (think a Brightburn kind of ending in style, though not in content), give it a shot. Definitely something a bit more interesting than the typical version of these tales.

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Minari

[3 stars]

There is something very sweet and true about Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s latest tale. It has also been massively lauded out on the circuit. I can’t say, however, that I was as enthralled, though I wasn’t unimpressed.

Minari is a tale of an immigrant family. And there is a lot going on in Steven Yeun (Sorry to Bother You) and Yeri Han’s transplanted unit. While both of these actors deliver on their tightly wound and fraying relationship, it is Alan Kim, as their son, and Yuh-jung Youn (Sense8) who you’ll remember best. And I say that even with Will Patton’s (The November Man) truly off-beat, affable, bible-thumping intensity filling in the background. But unlike, say, The Farewell, it never quite acquires a full shape.

The experience of the Ye family is provided at an historical distance. We’re dropped into Arkansas of the early 1980s. Mind you, other than the clothes, cars, and some background news you probably can’t tell what era it is, and perhaps that is part of the point. But I wish it had been a bit more contemporary. It isn’t that bad things happen from a community point of view; this story is focused on the internal struggles of the family rather than society. In fact, the neighbors are relatively accepting and open to their new residents. And the Ye’s are not breaking any ground by arriving either. Because of all that I question the choice of era as it only serves to distance us from the events and provides no useful frame to the story.

That said, it is a beautiful and subtle film about the relationships. A father attempting to achieve his dreams at all costs. A mother trying to support her family and protect those around her. A grandmother overflowing with sass and love. And two children trying to figure out where they fit in the family and trying to buffer their parents. All relatable and all delivered with amusing and, sometimes, painful honesty.

There is a lot to be said for Minari and it should be seen. Compared to the rest of the field out there, I do think it is being more than a little over-hyped. Go into it with a moderated expectation for an insightful look at a family struggling to survive the challenges that come at them, and those that they bring with them.

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The Father

[4.5 stars]

Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable and storied. Olivia Williams (Maps to the Stars), Mark Gatiss (Locked Down), Rufus Sewell (The Pale Horse), and Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) perform a wonderfully seamless dance filling out the story.

This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.

My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.

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Nomadland

[3 stars]

Nomadland asks two fairly simple questions: What is home? What is family? The answers, as we all know, aren’t that simple. Director and writer Chloé Zhao tackles the concepts in a quiet, but compelling exhibition that is primarily populated by real Nomads. The result has garnered a mountain of praise and awards notice.

Holding the various talking head segments together is Frances McDormand (Isle of Dogs), whose journey into the nomad life is told with barely an initial explanation. With David Strathairn (Fast Color) as a catalyst, we watch McDormand struggle inwardly until near the end when details are expressed. Though, to be fair, most of those are already understood by the audience, just not by her character.

For all its lauds, and its craft at pulling you along, Nomadland isn’t as good a film as I was expecting. I think McDormand has had better and more challenging roles. Strathairn is a somewhat unfinished and empty character. The stories and ideas we hear are interesting, but they feel like a documentary invaded the story-telling. Somehow it does come together, but it is best to watch this with no expectations, despite the hype that has been building around it over the last year. You’ll find it satisfying, but for a two hour narrative I think Zhao could have been more focused in her script.

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Don’t Let Go

[3.5 stars]

You have to love a film that can suck you in early and then drag you along, guessing, right till the end. Writer/director Jacob Estes (The Details) delivers a driving suspense thriller that keeps going right up to the final credits. And that’s what you want from a ride like this. No time to really think. No slow moments to lose the momentum.

David Oyelowo (The Midnight Sky) is the primary driver of the story. His ability to give us a tough cop with a heart and screwed up family is really wonderful. He’s propelled through the story by his niece, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), who’s entertaining, but not entirely on the same level. Some of that is the writing and some the directing, but a good portion of it is on her. It’s a subtle role and she doesn’t always have the levels under control. Still, their relationship is compelling enough to keep it all going.

When you need a solid distraction of a good mystery with a bit of woo-woo mechanics, this one is definitely worth the time.

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Earwig and the Witch

[2.75 stars]

There’s 2/3’s of an entertaining movie here. Sadly, that last act is missing. Honestly, what you get is really just the first installment of a series…but there doesn’t seem to be another one in the works. And, besides, it’s a cheat to end mid-tale rather than to have a coda that can expand the story for later. In other words, every movie needs to stand on its own, even if it feeds into a bigger arc. Director Goro Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill) knows this, so I don’t quite understand the choices, unless they were driven by cost or other factors.

Added to the challenge is that Studio Ghibli is clearly trying out new tech with this film. The result is very cold, losing all the warmth and subtle artistry the group is famous for. The look of the characters is very plastic-y and the lips don’t sync well at all. Some of that may have been the voice talent, but it was more noticeable than I’ve seen before in a Ghibli release.

And the voice direction was only middling. So much so that only a couple of the smaller characters really stood out. Neither of them were the women at the heart of the tale. Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Dan Stevens (Colossal, Legion) were either given more leash or put in more effort, but it was their deliveries that were the most memorable.

Goro’s father, Hayao Miyazaki (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), apparently helped with the planning of this story. You can see his influence in some of the interesting flows and the general joy and humor of the film, but I can’t believe even he was happy with the ending.

Ultimately, assuming the story is continued, this will be an intriguing first installment. But if it ends up just standing on its own, it is somewhat pointless. Frankly, I’d hold off till there is the promise of more, or you’re either prepared to be left hanging, or know the original books enough to know what’s going on.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

[3.5 stars]

The Black Panthers are a complicated subject. Not just for their own actions and politics but also because of the reason they even existed and the response at the local, state, and federal levels. Director and co-writer Shaka King tackles the subject through the particular thread of Fred Hampton’s life and assassination. And even though the story was done with Hampton’s family and the Panther’s blessing, he does so with honesty and minimal bias. I can’t imagine that was an easy feat.

Interestingly, Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcom X and the Black Panthers have been in the zeitgeist lately, showing up directly or tangentially in One Night in Miami, Small Axe, and Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as thematically in many other films. And, though unplanned, it’s important to notice that this film is releasing about a month after insurrectionists, led by white supremacists and incited by the president, stormed the Capital. Certainly puts an unexpected patina on it all.

The story, is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, given oily life by LaKeith Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). He drives the action that ultimately sweeps up Daniel Kaluuya’s (Widows) Hampton. Kaluuya himself slips into Hampton’s story comfortably and seamlessly, though perhaps not quite as poetically as the original. And Dominique Fishback (Project Power) provides a nuanced performance with grounded and conflicted emotions through which we watch Hampton.

In the background, pulling strings and guiding outcomes, Martin Sheen (Grace and Frankie) as Hoover and Jesse Plemons (Vice) make you squirm. Sheen for his sheer, vile hubris. But Plemons is more subtle and complex. The subtlety derives from the decisions he makes while internally sacrificing as he bends to pressure; doing so even as the implications of his actions become more apparent…he accepts all the choices despite those realizations.

This film is a tale of tragedy, but tempered with hope. It is also our history (and not a small part of our present, like it or not). The full scope of that history, and the truth of those involved, has yet to be widely told. This movie is a start and it is one you should see for the performances and the information.

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Synchronic

[3.5 stars]

Some writer/directors have a signature to their work; a flavor that identifies their efforts but that can be executed in many different ways. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are such a pair. They have returned with another brainbender in Sychronic. Their previous couple of movies, Spring and The Endless, were solid proving grounds for pulling together this much more mature piece of film. They keep learning with each release how far they can push ideas and how much they can leave unexplained. They also managed to snag a talented cast to pull it off.

In the primary role, Anthony Mackie (Outside the Wire) drives the story. Mackie has had wide-ranging taste in his recent roles, but they’re always characters with an inner strength and sense of morality. Synchronic, despite its dark overtones, is no exception to that list. And, in this case, the script and story are actually a match for his efforts. Opposite him is Jamie Dornan (A Private War) who anchors the story, quite literally, for the drifting Mackie. The two long-time friends and co-workers butt heads but they are a solid pairing against the dark and seedy life of being New Orleans EMTs.

The story, like Moorhead and Benson’s previous offerings, slowly reveals itself, though not in a straight line. It teases and plays with you. And, more importantly, it tries to cover all its bases as it goes. We learn with the characters what the issues and possibilities are. And, in the end, we are left with a sense of wonderfully incomplete completeness that is sure to generate conversations while the credits roll. It also has to be called out that the cinematography and edits are in beautiful support of the story.

I wasn’t sure what Synchronic would be when I started it. And that is probably the best way to go into it. Just enjoy the ride. The road is dark, but the destination holds  warm fire, friends, and family at the end, even if in unexpected ways.

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bliss

[4 stars]

There is definitely something brewing in the zeitgeist these days. What arguably began when The Matrix released (though it wasn’t a new idea then, and it isn’t now; it was just a fun and inventive adventure) has expanded and grown in the media. With stories like Devs, Upload, and others coming out with increasing frequency, people seem even more intrigued with the central questions of “what is reality”? The latest is Bliss, which tackles the same base questions and adds in addiction as a subplot. We know all of this within the first 5 minutes of the movie, but it is how it all plays out and plays with us that makes the next 100 minutes fascinating.

The journey is really just a dance between three characters. Salma Hayek (The Hummingbird Project) and Owen Wilson (Wonder) are the main core. We experience the world primarily through them. But Nesta Cooper (Travelers) adds a third axis to the story that is unexpected as it develops. Her performance is also extremely well controlled and modulated in a heartbreaking way. The three together create a pathway through the story that is as gripping as it is dark and wonderous.

I will say that the “truth” such as it is, is definitively presented and laid out by writer and director Mike Cahill (I Origins). But the resolution and choices are what the movie is really ultimately about. So even if you miss the clues, it really doesn’t ultimately matter. Cahill accomplishes what I honestly had wished the Wachowski’s had with their classic…which while fun, never was really willing to tackle the deeper and scarier questions about the world as a simulation. Of course, this also means Bliss doesn’t have super-fast pacing, but it is brimming with tension and suspense. At least it was for me.

Give Bliss a try, but don’t expect big effects, though there are some very subtle ones throughout (keep an eye on the background particularly through the first 15 minutes). The production is also beautifully designed with great care to enhance the ideas. And do expect some challenging science fiction and social questions. In other words, check it out when you want to think a little while you’re being entertained.

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Life Like

[3 stars]

I’m recommending this flick based on its potential, not its delivery. Josh Janowicz’s first feature script and film is full of ideas and style choices, but it doesn’t quite work for all its effort.

For example, the choice to have James D’Arcy (Hot Zone) costumed to suggest him being a priest. Or to have Addison Timlin (Odd Thomas) and Drew Van Acker (Pretty Little Liars) speak in a very forced, shall we say robotic way by design (at least I hope it was by design), while Steven Strait (The Expanse) speaks more “humanly.” I get the points, but it’s a lot to sustain for a feature film.

Life Like plays in the same area as Humans, though with its own points and twists on the subject. But the human core of it all is very distanced. The main couple are uber-rich. Timlin’s character acts like the worst kind of white, middle-class, suburban privileged idiot you can imagine. While some of her clunky choices are intended to show the cracks in the relationship, both spouses come off very unsympathetic and unlikeable. That is not the position you want the audience in given the main points the movie intends. And while Strait actually delivers a subtle performance, it also doesn’t quite get you where you need to be with him by the end. However, while the resolution of the story is a bit rushed and forced, it isn’t uninteresting. It is also a little contradictory if you listen to all the sides, which makes you wonder about the world at large that these people live in…and you don’t get that explained.

As a bit of a side bar, the story also feels almost dated, because of  the locations and choices (like not using cell phones, connected devices, or tablets for, well, anything). This too may have been a design choice, but it lands oddly.

So why recommend this at all? Well, as I said, the ideas are there. The acting, within the constraints of the script, has its moments. Janowicz manages to buck general trends when it comes to whose skin he shows the most of. The boundaries of the relationships are nicely fluid, even if not quite as complex as they could have been. In other words, I wasn’t sorry I watched it even if I wish it had done so much more. As a first feature, it isn’t without impact and merit. And, at 90 minutes, it isn’t a huge investment to make if you’re curious on any level. But, in the end, it’s basically, your call whether you want to invest in it.

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