Strike

[3 stars]

The Robert Galbraith (better known as JK Rowling) Cormoran Strike detective series has enjoyed a good deal of notice in the UK, though less so in the US. It is an engaging series with likeable characters who have interesting quirks; just what you’d love in a BBC/HBO mystery.  And this adaptation is definitely worth some time investment thanks to some clever writing and even cleverer hand waving to avoid issues.

Led by Tom Burke (Musketeers) in the lead role with Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) as his second, the stories are complicated and entertaining all at once thanks to their interactions. There is also a nice path to grow both of their stories separately and together.

The series is launched with two tales, The three-part Cuckoo’s Calling, and the two-part The Silkworm. A third story, Career of Evil, has yet to be scheduled or released anywhere, but I am looking forward to see where the characters go. The initial mystery is nicely twisty and fun to follow as is the relationship of Strike and Robin. The second installment is an interesting concept but, frankly, very hard to follow. Compressing the complicated mystery with so many characters into two episodes did it no favors. However, it is really about the solidifying of the detective agency dynamic, and that takes the fore.

Police procedurals are always tempting to write, but a bear to get correct. Anything that is off in terms of evidence gathering, interviewing, court room process, or even jailhouse interaction can blow the credibility out of the water. Making the lead a PI rather than a cop (though he is an ex-cop, and ex-military) was a smart move by Rowling and provides a lot more leeway in action and story. Strike is entertaining and reasonably credible with characters you’ll want to learn more about and root for.

Strike Poster

Justice League

[3 stars]

Let’s start with the short version: Yes, it is better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Yes, it is a big-screen movie. Yes, it has some good (if flawed) entertainment value.

Now for the longer version: Little was going to completely rescue this movie. It was coming out of a long history and vision which had set the tone and approach. It was very much in the can before Joss Whedon (Avengers) was brought on to finish it after Zack Snyder’s family tragedy. Whedon brought some bright spots in dialogue and character, but the main structure of the story was set and there wasn’t going to be a massive rework.

One of the big draws for this installment was the return of Wonder Woman. Mind you, she is far from the focus of the story. In fact, no one is really the focus of this film, which is part of its flaw. It also suffers from a slightly different angle on the issue that Thor: Ragnarok has. Thor has a big “surprise” a third of the way in that we all knew because of the adverts. It didn’t ruin the movie, but it diminished the impact. Justice League is structured solely to get Superman back so the League can exist. Despite that, more than half the movie passes before we get to that goal and intent and, instead, we wallow for ages with guilt and battling a villain we don’t really care about (and whose CG was appallingly bad and whose character resolution was head-scratching, though that may be because I didn’t know the Darkseid background).

Despite those issues, there are lots of good moments that help buoy the weight of the plot. Whedon’s dialogue is primary there…mostly in the guise of Adam Driver’s (Silence) Flash and interchanges between the characters. If you want to see all the bits and pieces that Whedon changed, here is a near exhaustive, and spoiler-rich list. Definitely insightful and with only a few surprises in ownership.

Justice League serves as a bridge away from the Zack Snyder era and into whatever is next for DC. For the moment that looks like it will be Joss Whedon influenced, which could be the best thing to happen to them since Christopher Nolan. I would actually argue that is better that Nolan because Whedon is a much more entertaining storyteller overall, but that isn’t the discussion for today.

Snyder, for all his faults as a writer and director, has a singularity of vision and was in the forefront of defining how Hollywood brought to life a true sense of comic books. It was an unrelentingly, navel-gazing, and ultimately ill-conceived view, but it was undeniably well-intentioned on his part. Most movie-goers aren’t sorry to see him leave the fold at this point, but we shouldn’t begrudge him the props he is owed for getting us here nor deny that he may return again triumphant when he is ready to take up his seats again behind the camera.

As to Justice League… yeah, go see it. It isn’t the train wreck you fear, even if it isn’t the glory you’d wish for. It is an important stepping stone to whatever is to come and it really does deserve a big screen the first time you see it.

Justice League

Coco

[5 stars]

This is every bit as good as you’ve heard. And, yes, the 3D is even worth it, though not necessary. The story is more than enough to stand on its own without it if you don’t want to spend the dollars for the format. 3D simply adds some richness to it all. Still, you must see this on a big screen, so don’t wait for disc.

I honestly was worried at the top of the film. Primarily this was due to the Frozen short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that fronted the film, but more on that in a minute. The story, Coco, starts off so obvious and simple that I honestly didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I was sure I knew what I was in for and how it was all going to get there, so might as well lay back and and enjoy the art. What was provided, instead, was both provocative emotionally (as you’d expect) but also evocative in many ways, which you really only ever hope for and rarely get to see. Co-writers and co-directors, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and first-timer Adrian Molina, kept attacking the ideas with the rest of the writers until it was something more complex and interesting than, say, Book of Life managed even though they both tackle the same cultural tales.

The voice cast is solid, but it is dominated by three actors: Anthony Gonzalez (The Bridge), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), and Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange). Though special mention for Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Frida Kahlo really need be made. It isn’t that the other voice work isn’t good, but they are all side-notes to these stand-outs. As a whole, the world comes together gloriously in vision and sound. But it isn’t just at the macro level. There are also a lot of subtle clues and tiny details that will make this worth seeing more than a few times.

I do wish it had a bit more Spanish throughout to really make it feel more natural, but there is at least some. And it would have been better with a few strong female characters to help drive the story; there are women, but this is a male dominated tale without question. And I could have done without the (generally) reused face of the boy from The Good Dinosaur. But these ended up minor concerns compared to the overall success of the movie.

OK, back to Olaf’s intrusion into my viewing pleasure. Now I want to be clear that I loved Frozen. I will admit that Olaf wasn’t my favorite character, but my frustration with the short had less to do with that and more to do with the story. It was a flat-out Christmas tale, already jarring against the Día de Muertos story that was to follow, but also because it was only a Christmas tale. By the time it began explaining what all cultures do during “that time of year” as part of their Christmas tradition, my teeth were so on edge I wanted to scream.

To be clear, the religious observance of Hanukkah, as an example, existed millennia before the holiday traditions of Christmas. Literally. The Hanukkah lights are not lit because it is Christmas, which the story suggests in its plot and lyrics. And Hanukkah is only one of the observances subsumed into the tale. The short cartoon manages to avoid the worst of what it could have devolved into, but is still a misstep for Disney in terms of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. Actually pretty surprising given their foray into new cultural areas that Coco tries to map. It was also just a very bad match artistically for the main feature that followed, in my opinion.

That I still rated Coco so highly, despite the Frozen short, tells you how much power it had to get me over that hill of annoyance. Go see Coco and enjoy the magic, family, message, joy, and loss that is its world. There is something for all ages in its story and the production is a wonder to behold on the screen.

Coco

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

[3.5 stars]

Ryan Reynolds (Life) and Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) are two of the smartest mouths currently in the biz and, together in this film, join the best of buddy match-ups, like Rush Hour or Lethal Weapon. Reynolds and Jackson get to use all their signature moves of comedy and all their impact as tough-ass fighters.

As their counterparts, Elodie Yung (Daredevil) and Salma Hayek (Beatriz at Dinner) are solid action characters as well. And Hayek is particularly fun and surprising from the first moment we meet her on screen.

Of course, no action/comedy is complete without a big bad to fight against. Gary Oldman (The Space Between Us) is a cold as nails criminal. Terrifyingly so. Oldman’s Dukhovich is incredibly disturbing and worthy of the horror and anger his character elicits from the world around him. His character alone is almost worth watching the movie for, even if he has very little screen time.

The weakness of this movie is that, in many ways, it relies only on the leads well-known moves. We don’t really see anything new from them, just a lot of their greatest hits; I don’t think the film would have worked without them. It creates a hollow feeling in the film. Even with some truly great moments, particularly Jackson and Hayek’s first meeting scene, it just feels like there is something missing.

And yet, even with that gap, it’s a great ride and a lot of fun. However, despite hints at something better, it is only that, not the classic it aspired to be (and almost reached), even with the chemistry of Reynolds and Jackson. The set up of O’Connor’s script is a bit of a stretch in terms of the practical aspects of the conflict, even if Hughes direction of it keeps you moving too fast and with tons of fantastic stunts to examine it too closely. I really want to see what they come up with next; there is some serious potential there given how early it is in both their careers.

Give this an evening with a bowl of popcorn and someone you like. You will laugh and enjoy it together.  Whether you come back to it again over time, I’m not as sure.

The Hitman

47 Meters Down

[3 stars]

I’ll admit up front that this is a tautly constructed suspense tale, even when some of it is obvious. However, as a diver myself, I really cringed through a lot of the opening and cavalier stupidity of the choices Mandy Moore (This is Us) and Clare Holt (The Originals). It wasn’t unrealistic…people really are that dumb, especially when trying to prove something to themselves; it was just painful.

Matthew Modine (The Hippopotamus, Stranger Things) was a  surprisingly well done character too. His motivations and choices managed to avoid the expected at almost every turn. For a small role, his was an important one to keep the movie on track.

Co-writer and director Johannes Roberts’s crafted a good horror film out of a fairly simple concept that plays homage to Jaws, Alien, and dozens of other similar efforts but without feeling like a copy. The camera work and production also did a great job capturing the action and underwater world. I can see why it was such a surprise hit. I can’t say I’d need to see it again, but Roberts clearly has ability and a sense of how to hold an audience. I’d be curious to see what he manages next and if he can apply it to something a bit less cheap-genre.

47 Meters Down

Hocus Pocus

[2.5 stars]

Just about 25 years ago Disney was back on the upswing in its animation department and they took a swing with this live-action fantasy stocked with a couple rising stars [Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City 2) and Kathy Najimy (King of the Hill)] and one powerhouse: Bette Midler.  What was created embodied the best and worst of Disney, leaving a classically bad film in its wake.

Hocus Pocus has all the modern sensibility of a film from the 50s or 60s, but it is set, sadly, in the early 90s. It is all easy, breezy, and without much consequence despite high stakes. But in typical Disney sensibility of the time, there are no real risks or danger or doubt about what will happen. That could be acceptable if it also meant we got characters we could care about, but we don’t. Only the young Thora Birch (The Hole) manages to really dominate the screen and our interest.

A lot of the feel of this film comes from the creative roots of its crew. Co-writer Mick Garris has additional cred as a primary writer on the primarily-lost (though fun) TV run of She Wolf of London. Director Kenny Ortega was and remains primarily a TV director, like his remount of Rocky Horror last year. The fact that Hocus Pocus seems like a Wonderful World of Disney, Sunday night offering should be less confusing with that knowledge. About the only real risk they took was in who the virgin was in the curse…and they ran with that…often.

So it really all comes down to how much you like bad films that somehow transcend their badness enough to be entertaining. Either you laugh with them or against them. There are some good spot-the-actor moments in this one (one soon-to-be Buffy alum shows up and several adult roles are worthy catches too). But as a film, it is painfully sweet, silly, absurd, and intelligence insulting. Perhaps it is just aimed younger than I’d have liked, but I don’t think the plot points speak to a young audience, only to young minds.

Hocus Pocus

Kedi

[3 (or 5) stars]

Is this just cat porn? Well, yes, to a point. But it is also an insight into the philosophy and soul of Istanbul and people generally. Following the various, and credited, furry characters around provides an incredible view into the society and sociology of the animals. We get a day-in-the-life view of the animals and their various free-range human companions.

The result is a heck of a first film by Ceyda Torun. Pulling together a documentary that feels like a story from 180 hours of raw footage, gained by chasing cats around the city, was impressive. Which isn’t to oversell this heart-warming tale. The result, while effective, is really just a step or two above kitten fail videos on You Tube, which could explain why it was financed by You Tube Red. But it does show talent and vision. I’d love to see what she and her crew could do with a serious subject.

But Torun and her partners aren’t unaware of the light nature of their story. They took their efforts seriously, but also recognize its place in the pantheon of documentaries. The disc has some great making of, extra footage, and commentaries. But is also has one commentary by the cats themselves (which is probably exactly what you think it is).

All in all, it is interesting for those who like nature programs and a must-see for feline enthusiasts (and thus the split star rating). It is also a nice tour of parts of Istanbul as well.

Kedi

The End of the F***ing World

[3.5 stars]

Evil, evil fun (with a point) in the vein of Skins meets Misfits meets Perks of Being a Wallflower. It even brought to mind God Bless America and not a small dash of Bonnie & Clyde, though this takes place in England. I hate trying to describe things by comparing it to other offerings, but sometimes it is the best way to get across a sense of what a non-traditional or surprising bit of media is like. And, boy, is this surprising.

Jessica Barden (Penny Dreadful) and Alex Lawther (A Brilliant Young Mind) create compelling teens struggling through the hell of adolescence by creating strong facades. We get to hear their inner voices as well as watch their actions, which adds to both the pain and the humor. Let’s face it, there isn’t a person who survived into adulthood who hasn’t lived through at least a moment of that kind of duality. Their journey, while alternately absurdist and hyper-realistic, will resonate with most people if they can get past the violence of it all. 

Wunmi Mosaku (Fearless) and Gemma Whelan (queers.) are the officers in pursuit of these hapless teens. Mosaku is starting to get type-cast a bit in her cop roles, but Whelan got to try out some new moves and layers. This isn’t a police procedural or typical UK suspense. The relationship between these two characters is reflective of the kids they’re after, directly in their relationship to one another and indirectly as a representation of the “world that is against them.”

Better known as an actress in shows such as Marcella and Cucumber, writer Charlie Covell tackled the adaptation of Forsman’s graphic novel brutally and without flinching. It took some serious guts to even consider the tale and serious skill to sell it with the nod and wink she did; and she even manages a stark and effective conclusion.

The series itself is designed like the serial graphic novel that was its root. It is broken into 8 2-part shots, each shot about 10 min. It isn’t a long commitment, but it is a wild ride right up to the final unforgettable moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it, and can ifnd it, this is definitely worth your time.

Product Details

Your Name. (Kimi no na wa.)

[5 stars]

If you follow anime, it was hard to miss hearing about Your Name. It had taken Japan by storm and then was released worldwide, finally landing on US shores last summer. In the States, despite the advance word of mouth, it only grossed around 5M. However, worldwide it had amassed an additional 350M. Outside of domestic juggernauts that we export, this is the second highest grossing animation to date (topped, I think, only by China’s Monster Hunt from the previous year).

So, why discuss money out of the gate? Because it is an indicator of impact. This story transcended its original audience and spoke to the world. Even the US box office is impressive when you consider this is a sub-titled animation.

And it deserves all of its accolades. Your Name is a surprising tale of love that will keep you guessing and hoping as the plot unwinds. It starts off feeling like it is aimed young, but it rapidly becomes clear that it is richer than the typical romantic comedy it hints at being as it veers into other territory. It is also beautifully drawn and directed and, though retaining some anime tropes in character reaction, well acted. It’s artistic approach lives comfortably with and echos films like When Marnie was There or The Wind Rises (or any other Miyazaki film). Writer and director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second) has created a classic film accessible to anyone over 12 years of age.

If I sound a little effusive, well…I am. This plays straight into my nature and love of films like Sliding Doors. But Shinkai’s novel and script is more complex and its plot not nearly as neatly constructed. Your Name has multiple, unrelated aspects playing out that interact with one another. Cause and effect aren’t quite as clear as they would be in a Western film where we prefer perfect construction.

Just set aside some time and see this gorgeously rendered animation with a tale that will grab you by the heart and shake you hard.

Your Name.

The Beguiled

[3 stars]

Told from the reverse angle of the original film, this version of Beguiled looks at the arrival of a Union soldier from the women’s lives he invades. Sofia Coppola (Somewhere) brings her strong sense of visual design and female strength to the screen and script, but I think falls a bit short in selling the intent despite a solid cast.

Colin Farrell (A Home at the End of the World), Nicole Kidman (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Kirsten Dunst (Hidden Figures) make a mighty trinity on the screen, at least individually. The interaction is a little stilted, in part due to the nature of the period.

The younger women are a bevy of talent that few directors outside of Coppola could have pulled together. Among them, Angourie Rice (Spider-Man: Homecoming,The Nice Guys) and Oona Laurence (Pete’s Dragon) stood out nicely. On the other hand, Elle Fanning (3 Generations) while magnetic as ever, is still seeking the role that will make her a star. She is always interesting to watch, but rarely feels completely natural to me. Fanning has an otherworldly aspect, a detachment, to her performances that is haunting, but odd. And it is particularly off in period pieces such as this film.

But performances aren’t where this film feels weak to me, it is the directing and script choices. While Kidman and Dunst have some quiet moments of desire, and Fanning is pretty clear about what she wants, the conflict of jealousy is either too subtle for my blunt brain or it was just not strong enough to bring about the resolution. The women just never connect, either with each other or Farrell. Each is an island of desperation. Perhaps that was Coppola’s intention, but it made for a very distancing sensibility. I didn’t care for these women, didn’t worry for them, didn’t weep for their losses, nor enjoy their small triumphs. And the ending just sort of laid flat emotionally, though hauntingly beautiful in its presentation. That, to me, indicates the movie didn’t work or was, at most, a mixed success.

The Beguiled

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