Category Archives: Movie Review

Shazam!

[3 stars]

If you are a 13-yr old boy, in fact or at heart, this is the movie for you. That isn’t to say that older folk or women won’t enjoy it. It’s a fun romp for its target audience, with moments for the rest of us, but it is not an adult, let alone a full family, film. And, sadly, that puts a lot of the humor and choices more at a remove for a lot of the audience rather than allowing them to be a part of the fun.

Jack Dylan Grazer (It) is the real breakout in the story…and he does it as the side-kick rather than in the title role co-held by Asher Angel and Zachary Levi (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). That the side-kick dominates the story tells you a lot about the overall quality.

The real drawback to the story is the script. Henry Gayden did a much better job of threading the needle with Earth to Echo than he did here. You’d have thought that with director David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation), who’s background is horror, we’d have gotten something with a bit more meat on its bones. Or, at least, something less fluffy. Even Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) glowering his best glower is little more than cartoonish. It fits the feel of the movie, but feels like it missed some serious opportunities.

I admit that I actively missed Shazam! during its big screen run. Not a single trailer convinced me it would be more than a teenage boy’s fantasy. After finally sitting down through the 2.25 hour franchise launch, I feel vindicated in my assumptions.

All that said, with a bowl of popcorn and a silly attitude (and lowered expectations) go for it. I certainly laughed and had some fun, but in the age of Marvel don’t we deserve something better?

Medicine for Melancholy

[3 stars]

How do (or did) you navigate the morning after a one night stand? And what happened next? In this first feature by Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), we get to follow Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins for the day that follows their hook-up. We slowly get to know them as they learn about each other. The performances are nicely understated and unsure as they slowly reveal who they are and what they’re looking for.

Within the often forced dialog and awkward moments, you can see the roots of Jenkins’ films to follow. It is most evident in his focus on character and the sometimes painful discussions of inner beliefs we all experience with those we expose ourselves to. You can also see him reaching to find his voice, even as he plays with imitating influences like Spike Lee. If it weren’t for Jenkins’ subsequent films, this would simply be a notable, but not particularly great, indie. But as part of his opus, it is a curio worth checking out if you want to see his roots as a filmmaker or some of the early work of the story’s stars.

Breaking the Rule of Binge

I don’t, as a rule, binge watch programs. I like the episodic nature of stories. I like time to reflect and think on what has happened in a story and what may happen in the next installment. It’s an art to do it well and it’s satisfying as an experience for me. I know…I’m in the minority at this point.

Recently, however, I’ve been breaking my rule of no more than two episodes of a show per day due to some truly engaging writing. The first slip was for Jessica Jones‘s final series, and then shortly after for Stranger Things. The first because I had time, more than the structure, and the latter because of the cliff-hanger endings. But then came Russian Doll and Dark. Both seriously binge-worthy shows, though each for different reasons.

Russian Doll

I devoured this show in two sittings…and would have done it in one if I could have seen straight enough that first night. While the first episode wasn’t exactly giving me hope, there was something intriguing about it that brought me back. By the end of the second episode, I just couldn’t stop.

Groundhog Day, though not the first of its kind, is the de facto term for all repeating day stories. It is even a trope that has come back into vogue again with fun jaunts in many genre, like Happy Death Day. Russian Doll is yet another riff on this idea…and explained about as much any of them do, employing multiple references, including Felini. But who cares…that isn’t what the story is about. Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) knocks it out of the park with her gravelly-voiced, prickly NYC software designer.

Unsurprisingly, Russian Doll is already renewed (especially given its 11 Emmy nominations which were recently announced). My hope is that they don’t rush it, because even if they manage to expand on the story, like Happy Death Day 2U, I’d really like for them to do something as new and wonderful as their first round of this addictive and inventive tale.

Dark

Dark is wonderfully intriguing with interesting ideas and characters, and some great mysteries and events. But that isn’t why I ended up having to binge. It is simply one of the most brain hemorrhagingly complex stories I’ve every encountered…holding it all in your head requires watching it all close together. If you go more than a day without watching an episode, you’re going to need one of the many write-ups on the web (organized by family grouping or chronology).

Series one hooked me with it complexity and ended on a cliff-hanger where series two picks up.  This second chunk comes to a sort of conclusion, but opens up for the third series scheduled for next June (to coincide with the dates of the story). But my suggestion is that you watch the first two series back-to-back at a one or two a night clip…frankly, I don’t think the human brain can take more than that. If you can, power to you. Then, before watching the new stories, rewatch the series again so it’s fresh in your mind. Honestly, this thing needs visual aids, but it is delightfully and intricately structured…a true thing of beauty even if the story and characters aren’t.

Tale of Tales

[3 stars]

If you’ve ever been frustrated by how fairy tales and myths have been depicted on screen, this may be the film for you. This movie takes a non-sanitized approach to, if not exactly purely adapting, the collected fairy tales of the late 16th Century poet Giambattista Basile’s. Given that it is from director Matteo Garrone (Gomorah), the dark aspects of the story shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should the sure hand behind the camera guiding you through its interconnected tales.

While there are some recognizable faces in this movie, no one really stands out. The star here is the story and the production. Think adult bedtime stories of a darker nature and you’ll get the idea. Being a collection, it doesn’t really come together into a single story, but characters keep crossing paths from the opening story to the final. Basically, if you like auteur cinema, the original Grimm tales, or simply twisted plots, you’ll likely enjoy this colorful romp of moralistic and humanistic failings. If you prefer a cohesive plot with a single purpose, this isn’t your movie.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð)

[4 stars]

Whether you think of this as a tale of activism, environmentalism, or eco-terrorism, Woman at War will provide something to chew on. And, though you wouldn’t expect such a film to be a source of comedy while making its point, it manages to walk that line wonderfully as well.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Trapped) plays this as honest and driven, but never strident. As herself and her own twin, she explores many layers and pulls us along her journey. She is joined by a small cast to fill out the tale in and around Reykjavik. Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is the odd character out in a thankless but important role that is both comic relief and additional social commentary.

Director Benedikt Erlingsson put together a darkly amusing script with Trapped’s Ólafur Egilsson (and a few of its cast). It never loses track of its point, but manages to deal with it all without getting overly earnest. Even as it purposefully reflects other movies at points (Force Majeure comes to mind), it keeps the story just light enough to make itself heard.

Make time for this one…especially if you’ve been watching or reading any of the sagas coming out of Iceland of late.

Golden Exits

[2.5 stars]

Have you ever watched a film and thought: this would make a great play? Golden Exits definitely struck me as better suited to the stage than screen. It is full of long, introspective monologues that attempt to be-ever-so-insightful-and-clever about the world, but really just come across as pompous on screen. Director Alex Ross Perry guided his actors well, but his script for them was just ponderous and over-written for film.

Honestly, I knew little of the story going in. I checked this movie out for the cast, which had Emily Browning (God Help the Girl), Mary- Louise Parker (RED), and Chloë Sevigny (Lizzie) in major roles. In addition, Analeigh Tipton (Warm Bodies) and Lily Rabe (Pawn Sacrifice) add to the female pack. Each of these women had challenging paths to explore, even if the script rarely let them go very far with it. Mixed into their various struggles were Adam Horovitz (While We’re Young) and Jason Schwartzman (Big Eyes) who succeed and fail variously as partners and friends to those around them.

But there just isn’t anyone who is very sympathetic in this story. Some manage to do the right thing…eventually. But, primarily, they all muse about either doing the wrong thing or anything, as long as it’s different from what they’re doing now. The story is, essentially, how they manage to leave what they’ve got behind them, or at least start to. Basically, it is a very unsatisfying film with actors struggling to make mountains of text feel natural…or at least interesting enough that we don’t care that it is completely unnatural. Despite the cast and the game attempt, save yourself some time and find something else to take you on a journey of self-discovery.

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.

Best of Enemies

[3 stars]

When tackling difficult material, like racism and the Klan, you have to find a way into the material that doesn’t drive your audience away. BlacKkKlansman took its own approach, as did Green Book. And Blazing Saddles took yet another as part of its comical tale. But, when truth is stranger than fiction, you sometimes just have to go with it head-on.

Taraji P. Henson (What Men Want) transforms into activist Ann Atwater with both humor and heart…and the help of some prosthetics. Along with Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon), as Klan leader C.P. Ellis, the two drive this story in often unexpected ways. But, as good as he is in this, I am getting a little tired of seeing Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon) reprise his “bad guys with a heart” (or at least some form of integrity) that started with Three Billboards. He nails it every time, but because it is becoming his signature, the impact is diminished. Ultimately, his actions aren’t a surprise, and it becomes less triumphant with each repetition.

But the reason this film doesn’t succeed at the level it should goes back to my first comments: how do you tackle material like this in a way that doesn’t drive away your audience.  To get us into the story first-time writer/director Robin Bissell opts for an almost dark comedy presentation as we meet the characters and watch their despicable acts. He does this to provide some distance from the horror, though it comes perilously close to making it feel acceptable. Given the overall sense of the film, I can understand the approach, though it was discomforting. Perhaps that was Bissell’s intention?

But as a first film I’m willing to handicap Bissell’s result. Despite the initial odd feeling of the movie, he brings it back around to a satisfying, even hopeful ending. An ending hopeful even more so because it is true. In this case it is also an important reminder that, despite today’s politics, we can still listen to one another and change for the better.

If this is what Bissell does with little experience, it will be interesting to see what he can do with some tempered tools in his belt. In the meantime, set aside an evening for this story, if nothing else to learn about a story you probably didn’t know and would never think could happen.

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.

Climax

[1 star]

This is one of those odd situations where you can appreciate the artist but hate the art. At least I did. Gaspar Noé (Love) puts a lot of technical joy into Climax, with interesting camera work, edits, and choreography. He even managed to attack the structure of film in service to his goals. I can’t say I could tell you what those goals were, but the opening of the movie and the first 20 minutes are designed to make you pay attention and to put your expectations off-balance.

But none of the characters he provides us are particularly likable. Even Sofia Boutella (Hotel Artemis) is more repulsive than magnetic. Without a connection to the characters what happens to them is empty, however real they are being portrayed.

Ultimately, I fast-forwarded a large part of the second half of the movie in hopes of finding a purpose or at least a moment of interest. I never did. And the final reveal just didn’t matter to me. There is some commentary on the nature of people in the story, but nothing you haven’t seen before done better. Noé doesn’t even manage to portray the bending of reality for the characters in any kind of new or unique way (like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote managed). So, my recommendation? Skip this and never wonder what you missed. You’ll have missed nothing. But check out Noé’s other work at some point. He is talented and willing to buck convention and expectation to achieve his purpose. When you play in that arena, you’re allowed a failure or two in pursuit of your art…even if that means you more often fail than succeed.