Bless Me, Ulima

[3 stars]

How much has changed since 1944 New Mexico? Well, after watching Carl Franklin’s adaptation of the same named novel, I fear not much.  That isn’t Franklin’s point, but I’m watching this 9 years after its release and art is nothing if not contextually interpreted. Though, to be fair, some of those aspects (inequality, power, prejudice) were Franklin’s intent, they just resonate a bit differently in a world where we’re slamming shut our borders and separating families out of fear and greed.

While there is some nice storytelling through the eyes of a young boy which borders on magic realism, this isn’t a great adaptation. The use of voice over, in particular, is somewhat cheap and distracting. The plot also leaps along in some odd ways, and aspects of the world are a bit forced. Fortunately, the main message of being bonded to the world and each other, never really goes out of style. And Franklin found a unique time and family to deliver that idea. But for all the plot, it feels more like a slice of life than a deep tale worthy of feature film. An interesting slice at times, but incomplete. So, while this is a somewhat interesting film, I can’t strongly recommend it. However, as a brake from all the standard fare out there, it is certainly a different world and set of characters.

Bless Me, Ultima

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917

A Christmas Carol (2019)

[3.5 stars]

Seriously, did we need another Christmas Carol? Well, actually, as it turns out: yes. Steven Knight’s (Serenity) take on Scrooge’s tale is creepy and revelatory, as opposed to rushed and predictable. Guy Pearce (Mary Queen of Scots) embraces the dark and navigates our humbug-spewing character through memories and experiences that finally make it clear why and when he lost his way.

Joe Alwyn (Harriet) provides a solid foil as Crachit, though he is well over-shadowed by his screen-wife Vinette Robinson (Sherlock). Robinson drives the true catalyst of change. But these are the characters we always have known. Part of what Knight does is broaden the tale and provide Marley with a voice in Stephen Graham (The Irishman). Marley was always just an excuse to tell Dicken’s story in previous adaptations. In this one, he truly has something at stake.

Even the other Christmas ghosts have a bit more going on in this telling. Andy Serkis (Black Panther) and Charlotte Riley (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), especially, get their own tales.

If, like me, you have always found the saccharine retelling of redemption just a bit too much to stomach, this will give you new appreciation of the story and the message. The experience is probably a lot closer to how Dicken’s audience received the story as well.

Admittedly, you still have to believe someone can utterly change just by seeing the truth, but Knight doesn’t really let anyone completely off the hook in his resolution. It’s messy, like life, but he allows for the nearest thing to a believable change in this classic tale that I’ve seen.

Dracula (2019)

[4 stars]

I’m not here to stake Dracula, but to praise him. Well at least Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for their imaginative retelling of Stoker’s classic. The two used their Sherlock chops to capture the original’s sense and structure, but recast it and the dialogue into something more digestible for today’s audience.

Gatiss (Christopher Robin) also took the plum bit part of Renfield for himself. Who can blame him, it is always a tasty role.

But while Claes Bang (The Square) burns up the screen as a rather self-aware Dracula, it is Dolly Wells (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who steals this show utterly. Her alacrity with language and facility with accent set her apart. She really has the best lines as well. Which isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t strong. They are, and many are recognizable from earlier Moffat/Gatiss collaborations. Outside of the known ensemble, there was also a nice showing by Matthew Beard (Vienna Blood) and Lydia West (Years and Years) in smaller roles sequestered to the third episode and a nice, if type-cast role, for Patrick Walshe McBride (Shakespeare & Hathaway).

The 3 90-minute episodes allow the story to expand in ways that a 2 hour movie just can’t manage. We get depth and scope as well as answers (some clever, and some inconsistent) and a solid parallel to the book that is usually a jumping off point rather than template. That said, the series definitely departs radically from the book in specifics, but somehow retains the intent and purpose, making it the most authentic version I’ve seen. Even the ending, which is not exactly satisfying (to say the least), best mirrors Stoker’s final pages as compared to other adaptations (the book ending was challenging as well).

Overall, this is an emotionally and intellecutally dense portrait of Dracula, with enough of all the bits we’ve particularly loved about this tale over the last 123 years (sex, violence, murder, seduction, romance). Moffat and Gatiss yet again prove they can take dated, original material and honor it without just slavishly following it.

 

 

The Angry Birds Movie 2

[3 stars]

OK, let’s be honest, the first Angry Birds movie was awful. I only came back for the sequel because there was something about the trailer that gave me some hope. And it wasn’t unwarranted, though it wasn’t fully rewarded either.

The first movie tried to leverage the game that spawned the characters far too much. It was a confrontational movie between birds and pigs, and creepy and unsatisfying on many levels (not to mention a really bad script). But they learned from those errors.

This sequel is more about “pranks” between the birds and pigs (rather than omnivorous emnity). The plot requires them to work together. The humor has a lot of levels, from the slapstick to the more subtle. And the main characters have some arc to them.

Don’t misunderstand, this is still children’s fare to be ingested with lots of sweets or popcorn, but it isn’t a painful affair to spend time with. It’s simply a silly distraction stacked with an impressive voice cast list (though nothing worth calling out). Up to you if you want to spend time with it or simply need to distract some youngsters while you do something else. Either way, it was nice to see that they learned from their errors and put more creativity into this sequel.

Five Feet Apart

[3 stars]

Yes, it’s a manipulative and predictable Romeo and Juliet riff, with cystic fibrosis as the wall between them, but it is executed relatively well if you’re in the mood for it.

Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen) and  Cole Sprouse (Riverdale, but more amusingly Grace Under Fire) are an inevitable couple, far too sharp witted and special for their own good. But, of course, we root for them as they discover what’s really important in life.

My biggest gripe, outside of a few saccharine moments, is that the one gay character, Moises Arias (Ender’s Game), is there for comic relief and to serve other cheap purposes in the script. He did well with the role, but his existence felt forced. While I get that this was a standard love story with a twist, it’s a shame they had to make the story so patently non-inclusive.

That aside, there are some nice turns in the hospital’s staff championed by Kimberly Hebert Gregory (Kevin (Probably) Saves the World)  and Parminder Nagra (Blinded By the Light).  Both manage to take standard characters and provde them some depth.

This is the first feature for director Justin Baldoni (better known as an actor in shows such as Jane the Virgin), as well as a first script for Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. As a first attempt, this is fairly polished and tight tale. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is pleasantly distracting for a night of light romance with a bit of medical issues. It will be interesting to see what lessons all involved take into their next projects.

Being Frank

[2.5 stars]

This odd, black comedy has just enough heart to sell its premise, but not quite enough story to sell the movie.

Part of the problem is that Miranda Bailey selected her her first fiction feature to be one with a very challenging plot. It wasn’t helped by the fact that it was also a first feature script by by writer Glen Lakin. Negotiating through to an ending was never going to be for the feint of heart nor the light of experience. I’d really like to see what Bailey could do with a better script, given her relative success with this one.

There are some funny moments and some nice work by the cast. Jim Gaffigan (Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation), as the titular character, is affable and bumbling. But while he’s the framework for the story, he isn’t the lead. That belongs to his screen-son Logan Miller (Escape Room) who is coming into his own and uncovering secrets. There are several other good performances, but Isabelle Phillips, in her first major role, is the one standout. She brings a light and charismatic performance into the midst of the dark chaos Gaffigan’s character has wrought.

This is far from a great film. To be honest, it is, ultimately, unsatisfying. But there is some good work to enjoy and some nicely contained broad comedy to keep it together. I wouldn’t go out of your way to see it, but if you enjoy this kind of comedy or any of the actors, it isn’t a total loss of time.

Cold Pursuit

[3.5 stars]

Coal-black comedy against a snow-white landscape. If only this movie had remembered what it really was, it could have been great. Despite the trailers you may have seen, this isn’t the standard Liam Neeson (Men in Black: International) revenge romp…it is something more like Boondock Saints in the Arctic. But as much as it wants to be a black comedy, it can’t quite commit to that path, though it punctuates the movie through to the very end.

Neeson is surrounded by a cadre of criminals, a bit of family, and a couple law enforcement officials. But they’re all just foils for the story. Most have no real life to go with them other than the immediate motivations needed to drive the tale. Emmy Rossum (Beautiful Creatures) is a marginal exception to that, having one of the more complete backgrounds and story of her own. Domenick Lombardozzi (Bridge of Spies) had an implied story, but without much depth. Even Tom Bateman (Murder on the Orient Express), despite being the big bad, never really fleshes out, though a good deal is implied.

For a first script, Frank Baldwin showed considerable bravery in the direction he set for this satirical revenge romp. Unfortunately, director Hans Petter Moland just couldn’t find the rhythm and style to quite sell it to general audiences.

[This write up has languished for months while I kept promising myself I’d also screen the original, In Order of Disappearance – Kraftidioten. Sadly that hasn’t happened but it clearly has an equally capable, if very differently energized, lead in Stellan Skarsgård (Our Kind of Traitor, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). At some point I will get to that as well, but for now, at least you get to hear about the remake.]

I Lost My Body

[4 stars]

There’s nothing more romantic than a severed hand making its way back to its body, right? OK, the whole thing is meant as metaphor, but this film takes the idea of soulmates and makes it literal, not to mention loss. Through the travels and adventures of the hand as it wends its way through Paris, we learn about the life and relationships the young man at the center of it all has experienced.

And somehow it works beautifully. Creepy as some of it can get, particularly for those of us who grew up watching horror films like The Beast with Five Fingers (or any number of others over the years), Jérémy Clapin’s first full-length anime somehow stays sweet and hopeful. As far as movie magic goes, this is amazing (and forgive me) sleight of hand.

Clapin delivers the story in an understated way, forcing you to pay attention, to evaluate and think about what you’re seeing. The animation is wonderful and simply falls away, leaving you with its reality. Unlike its probably awards competitors, this is a wholly adult film, with themes and statements that will resonate for anyone who ever had a romantic bone in their body, hands included. But while focused on that aspect, there are also oblique reflections on society today that make it a richer tale. That Clapin co-wrote this with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s oft-time partner and font of source material, Guillaume Laurant (The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, A Very Long Engagement, City of Lost Children, Amélie, Micmacs), should give you a sense of the core and scope of the film.

There is a reason I Lost My Body has been sucking up awards, and will continue to into the Oscar race this year. It may not be your typical fare, but it’s a magical and unexpected journey that never quite goes where you expect it to. More importantly, it sticks with you as you internalize and digest it long after the viewing. And, if you’ll forgive me one last bad reference, it is the visual equivalent of one hand clapping: creating the beautiful from the impossible.

 

Mysterious Witchers Lost in Space

Each of these streamers deserves to be seen and to have their own write up. But that felt like overkill and, I suspect, many folks will have been ahead of me already. However, all are enjoyable, intelligent, and all are very different.

Witcher

Henry Cavill (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) was a perfect choice for the lead in this entertaining, if not brilliant, series. He captures the sarcasm and dry wit of the game character, not to mention he is the physical emodiment of Geralt of Rivia. He’s backed up nicely by Joey Batey and Anya Chalotra. There are other, more recognizable faces, such as MyAnna Buring (In the Dark) and Anna-Louise Plowman, but it is generally a lot of semi-familiar and unknown faces.

The series is challenging thanks to its narrative form (which is part of the secret of the first season, so I really can’t discuss it here). I think it could have been handled more clearly, but it ultimatley comes together in interesting ways and I appreciate that they didn’t treat their audience like idiots. Much like Watchmen, it lends itself to rewatching once you understand it all. I’m definitely on board for the next season, but that isn’t coming till 2021, so you’ve plenty of time to watch the series and/or play the games if you want beforehand.

Lost in Space 2

The first season reboot of this show surprised me completely. Netflix transformed the silly Saturday morning show into something richer and darker, if still with a child’s sensibility of adventure. And if you thought Dr. Smith was complex and dark in the first series, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Parker Posey (Cafe Society) has definitely found a role she’ll be remembered for.

This season is incredibly well constructed, even if some of the writing still takes too many character and plot short-cuts. Still, I admire the risks they were willing to take even if getting there has some flaws. And every major character gets their moment to grow and expand in some very nice ways. The new season pulls you along with barely a chance to breathe, making it a great binge show, but also means it is over too soon. Series 3 isn’t officially confirmed, but expect it to take another year, if for no other reason to complete all the f/x needed for the show.

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

This wonderfully self-aware reconception of the cartoon classic is more Buffy than kid’s show. Conceived as a complete 2-season arc, and loaded with adult nods and layers of mystery, it is both wonderful nostaligia and entertaining distraction in 20-minute bites. It’s also loaded with surprise voice talent in major roles and guest roles. Give it a shot, you’ll know in a few minutes if it is for you or not.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…