Cargo Space is Cold

[2.5 stars]

I wanted so much more than I got out of this movie. There are some interesting ideas in here, but none are entirely new, even in the combination they are put together. There are riffs and nods to all manner of other films from Alien to Event Horizon, not to mention The Matrix and so many others. Which isn’t to say the plots were copied, but the production design and some sequences echo very loudly.

The film does tackle some of its ideas head-on, however, rather than leaving them as a surprise ending. For that I do give it credit. But the writing is very hit and miss. Some aspects of physics and space they nail and then follow it up with a scene or interaction that is a short-cut or blatantly stupid choice. Frustrating.

On the up side, at least this story does try to make a point and make you think. Admittedly not too hard, but at least there is an intention to use science fiction at its best rather than as just trappings for special effects and scares alone. It is just enough to get you through to the end, if you have a mind. But, to be brutally honest, you wouldn’t have lost much never having seen it either.

Cargo

Maps to the Stars

[2.5 stars]

I was rather rooting for this movie from about 15 minutes in. You can feel the craft and control as threads quickly begin to come together. No surprise given it is a dark fantasy by David Cronenberg (Crash). Unfortunately, the meaning and purpose all sort of drifted away by the end into the stardust it references. Perhaps I was just too dense to get the references, but even a bit of research afterwards didn’t illuminate anything obvious for me.

That said, there are some very good performances in this peek behind the surface of families and Hollywood. There really isn’t a truly sympathetic character in the cast, but there are those that are less despicable and more pathetic. However, there is no one who you can really feel good supporting or wanting to succeed, which makes the story a bit of a slog at times.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is the best of the cast. She is intriguing and the most believable. The rest are all interesting to watch, but not entirely credible. Robert Pattinson (Water For Elephants) comes close, but then gets let down by the script. Julianne Moore (Maggie’s Plan) gives a brave and raw performance that is likely close to reality, but not a reality that many of us will have experienced and certainly not one that you’d support emotionally. Olivia Williams (Victoria & Abdul) and John Cusack (Chi-Raq), as bumbling parents, make a microcosm within the film that is interesting, but not much explored. Cusack does gets to explore a rather different character than his usual, which is intriguing to watch. And, finally, Evan Bird (The Killing) creates an l’enfant terrible, but without a lot of depth, only a wooden and hollow sort of desperation.

Admittedly, there are layers to this story…layers I also much admit I couldn’t uncover though it tickled my brain at the edge of understanding. Either I was trying to build patterns from chaos or I just missed the point. And, frankly, there were so many lost story opportunities to explore in the tale that it felt as surfacey as the culture it was exploring. It is also interesting to consider that this was released four years ago, before #metoo. I’m not entirely sure how reactions might differ before that boundary in culture. Within the first 5 minutes of the movie, several references are already out-of-date, not to mention nods and appearances by recognizable figures who have since died.

David Cronenberg loves crawling in the muck of people’s lives and emotions. But he is capable of good storytelling while doing so. He took Bruce Wagner’s complex script and slowly revealed its levels. But while there is a solid conclusion to the story, there isn’t a final meaning to it all. This can work when the point of the multiplicity of storylines and lack of direct connection is the intent, but not when you’ve gone to great lengths to imply a mythological or otherwise greater tale being told. It feels like a Sophomoric attempt to force meaning to come from the brain of the viewer rather than the mind of the filmmaker. Not a satisfying way to wrap your travelings through some very dark woods.

Maps to the Stars

The Little Stranger

[3.5 stars]

You never go into an adaptation of a Sarah Waters story expecting something straightforward. Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, The Handmaiden, are all complex and layered tales of deep psychological intensity. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) understood this when he tackled directing this Gothic horror that lives comfortably alongside Remember MeTurn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House (its latest upcoming remake), and other deliberately paced, unsettling fare.

Abrahamson had each actor wound so tight they were always on the verge of flying to bits. Domhnall Gleeson’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) pauses and looks each spoke volumes to his motivations and actions. Ruth Wilson (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), alternating between cornered mouse and mother bear, was also utterly transformed into something we’ve not really seen before with a new accent and even a new walk. Will Poulter (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) was a sympathetic and twisted wreck of a man, barely holding onto his sanity after the war and severe injury. And Charlotte Rampling (Red Sparrow), while the least transformed physically, was a walking wound of a bereaved mother and fallen aristocracy.

Writer Lucinda Coxon (Danish Girl) gave each of the characters beautifully trimmed sentences that were loaded with subtext, thanks to sure directing and deft acting. Unlike most Waters’ stories, this is presented primarily from a male point of view and its sense of the supernatural is quiet but very palpable. Waters often plays along this line, but in this tale it is up to the audience to decide what is really going on, at least as it is told by Coxon and Abrahamson.

This is a horror story, but it is aimed at lovers of period drama and psychological terror. It isn’t about cheap scares or buckets of gore. Because of that, it is likely to never find a wide audience despite its excellent craft and delivery. If that is the kind of story you enjoy, make time for it. If you are hoping for highly paced action and scares, move along to something else. This is a movie to absorb, contemplate, and even discuss after the credits roll.

The Little Stranger

Kin

[2 stars]

Sometimes bad films happen to good casts. This is one of them.

Myles Truitt (Queen Sugar) does an admirable job carrying the film. Jack Reynor (Free Fire) and Zoë Kravitz (Gemini) support him nicely. Dennis Quaid (A Dog’s Purpose ) does well with what he has to work with. Though, honestly, I couldn’t get James Franco’s Future World performance out of my head while watching this variation on his  damaged (and stupid) bad guy. They all try hard to make what is a weak script with lousy plot choices better, but none of them can overcome its inherent weakness.

There are so many ways this movie goes wrong. Some of them are not its fault. There are intentional choices, that I respect, but which were executed poorly. The intent was to make a small, intimate and personal film about family and a kid coming of age in extraordinary circumstances. That shouldn’t have precluded making it more dynamic and interesting, but in this case it did. The pacing is slow and while the stakes are high, the emotions just aren’t there. The other problems were just bad choices and bad writing. And there is lots of both.

To be fair, I really was hoping for something a bit more Attack the Block than Sleight. In the end it was really just a weak prequel to a story we’ll never see. It comes off more as a bad TV pilot rather than a franchise launch. All of that is at the feet of Jonathan and Josh Baker and their writer, Casey, who penned the adaptation of their previous short film, Bag Man. In expanding that small idea into something new, the group made the fatal error of holding back all the interesting ideas till near the end. In trying to make a film about family, despite its trappings, they completely misjudged their opportunities when it came to the story. You aren’t left at the end looking forward to seeing what comes next, you’re wondering why the heck you had to slog through what came before to get left hanging just as it got interesting.

There are moments and short sequences that really show some directing promise from the Bakers; I would definitely give them another chance. Certainly their judgement to take the script they did is suspect, but there is ability there. However, I wouldn’t waste your time on this first outing in theater. If you want to check it out on disc or stream at some point where you can yell to your heart’s content at the characters or simply walk away without guilt, do that instead.

Kin

Juliet, Naked

[4 stars]

Sure, in many ways this is a standard rom-com. There is broad humor, unlikely pairings, and personal awakenings. But it is much more than that. The film is packed with subtleties and small scenes of unremarked upon revelations. It is a story about life and, of course, music. It is adapted from a Nick Hornby novel after all, the writer who gave us High Fidelity and About a Boy among other tales and movies.

Rose Byrne (The Meddler) and Chris O’Dowd (Love After Love) make an amusingly broken couple who remain in each other’s orbits by pure inertia at the top of the film. From there, quiet hilarity ensues as each tries to find their place with one other and the world.

While the movie is framed by O’Dowd and the story is carried primarily on Byrne’s back, it is Ethan Hawke (Maggie’s Plan), as the broken and drifting ex-musician, that lights up the movie. His character is complex and sympathetic while still being a bit of a douche as he tries to make up for his past. The man has surprisingly good chops too. And Azhy Robertson, as his son, makes for great interactions and moments. There are many solid supporting roles to fill the film out as well.

Director Jesse Peretz keeps everything flowing and knows when to just let a scene have its own quiet focus. Which isn’t to say there aren’t laugh out loud moments, but there are as many inward smiles too. While not a big screen movie, it isn’t one  you should wait for if it comes to a theater near you. It is a great entertainment that will leave you feeling great about life, love, and possibility without having to grab you by the throat to do it, like so many in this genre.

Juliet, Naked

Terminal

[3 stars]

This beautifully designed Alice-in-Wonderland noir is a fever dream of dark delight. Rather than pretend there is a hidden agenda, everyone’s agenda is pretty much on the table from the beginning. The interesting bit is watching it all play out.

Margot Robbie (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as femme fatale is perfect casting. She is magnetic on screen and has just the right level of crazy dancing behind her eyes. Imagine her Harley Quinn character with complete self-control or her Tonya Harding with a lot more brain power and focus. It is a salacious and undeniably disturbing performance.

Into her orbit drift a collection of folks. Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) provides a nicely down-trodden and quiet soul struggling with life. Dexter Fletcher (Cockneys vs. Zombies) and Max Irons (Dorian Gray) make an interesting pair, if more than a little cliché, for her to play with. And, finally, Mike Meyers was practically unrecognizable in his own fun and twisted role at the periphery of it all.

For his first major film as writer/director, Vaughn Stein delivered a strong vision visually and story-wise. The production design evokes Blade Runner, creating a not-quite-our-world sensibility but not a world that couldn’t exist here and now.  And the game of Lewis Carroll references is fun. The story rushes near the end and flies just a bit off the rails in intent, but was worth the ride completely. There is plenty to feast on, from a craft point of view as well. Though, admittedly, if you don’t like noir it will probably leave you wanting. Coming on the heels of John Wick and Atomic Blonde, this movie got a bit lost in the shuffle. Personally, I had a great time with it and I’m curious to see what Stein can come up with next.

Terminal

Quatermass and the Pit

[3.5 stars]

I would have sworn to you that I’d seen this before. But when I got the opportunity to “re-watch” it recently, I discovered I was very wrong. What I had seen was 5 Million Years to Earth. That flick is a condensed, movie-version of this 6-part serial by the same writer, Nigel Kneale. Confusing matters is that 5 Million Years to Earth is also a title that has been used for the series at times through the years.

[As a side note if these titles sound familiar, don’t confuse it with their contemporary, 20 Million Years to Earth, which is a whole different thing and a classic in its own right.]

Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the show is a victim of its era, but it is also decidedly ahead of it in some ways. In fact, it is rather on point for today’s rise in xenophobia. It’s even brave enough to reuse film from the Blitz as part of its action and message barely ten years after the events. Also, the female assistant,  Christine Finn, who’s voice you might recognize from the original Thunderbirdsis about the most competent of the adults in the room.

Now, it also depicts government types as bullheaded and uneducated… OK perhaps that’s on point for our times as well more than we’d like to admit. However, generally, it was just an easy way out to write the plot, which is more complex and deeper than you’d expect for a 1958 genre classic. And, of course, there are the buckets of tea made by characters when things get dicey.

Adding to the fun and the history of it all is that Quatermass is also a direct pre-cursor to Doctor Who, which would launch 5 years later. Whether in the air or as an influencer, it is an unavoidable comparison. Seeing the bones of what inspired Who was really quite eye opening. The first Doctor even has a lot of the same mannerisms and demeanor as André Morell’s Quatermass, particularly in this sequence of the on-again, off-again show. By the way, his colleague in the plot, Cec Linder, and he both worked in TV and film until they died…these were two solid actors who gave it their all, even in this off-beat BBC offering. 

But the Who link isn’t the reason to make time for the series. Quatermass tackles questions that are still debated today and, unabashedly, suggests some answers. Given the recent discovery of a liquid lake on Mars, perhaps not entirely nutty answers. Yes, it is low-fi in its presentation, but it dose a lot with what it has, often by only inferring what you see. Yes, the plot is pushed along by less than delicate means at times. But it is just as often surprising and is undeniably captivating if you enjoy the genre at all. Make sure you see this rather than being sure you have. It wouldn’t be a waste to rewatch it, but it would certainly be a shame to never have.

Quatermass and the Pit

A-X-L

[2.5 stars]

A dirtbike riding teen with a robot dog, how could this go wrong? Well, many ways. There are some things that go right, but this is a generally forgettable movie with a standard plot aimed at a pre-teen/tween audience.

What they did well was Becky G (Power Rangers), who was actually the sharpest pencil in the box. And, despite how they dressed her, well in control of herself and the situations around her. And the movements of the CGI dog were pretty spot on. Thomas Jane (The Expanse) was also nicely nuanced in a small role, but one with impact. As the capable, but slightly dim and rash lead, Alex Neustaedter (Colony) is OK, but the script did him no favors.

On the other hand, Alex MacNicoll (13 Reasons Why) was just such a stock character it was disappointing. MacNicoll didn’t do poorly with what he had, again the script just didn’t allow him much quarter. Dominic Rains (A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightAgents of SHEILD) didn’t even manage to rise above the script to credibility.

For a first film, Oliver Day held together the pacing and heavy effects issues well. Unfortunately, he also tried to write the script, which he didn’t execute as cleanly. He aimed at too young an audience for the subject matter and situations he wanted to address. Because of that, he glossed how some things work (the military, high security research bases, relationships, etc.). The result feels like an old TV show with a bit more budget and scope, but not much.

It isn’t that I didn’t feel entertained by Day’s result, but you could see the better movie hiding within its skin. Certainly it showed some ability, and for a younger crowd it may suffice for some distraction. Worth it in the theater? Not really…queue it up for a rental down the road.

As a sidenote, this flick will also go down as the movie that broke Global Road’s back. After the failure of Hotel Artemis and and AXL, bankruptcy seems the final destination for the recently formed studio collaboration.

AXL

The Happytime Murders

[3.5 stars]

This isn’t the first R-rated puppet story put out to the public. There was the brilliant Smile Time episode of Angel, Avenue Q on Broadway, and, of course Ted. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, as does this silly and fun Brian Henson confection.

One of the things that really makes this work is that Melissa McCarthy (Life of the Party) isn’t actually the lead. Back in a supporting role capacity she adds character and her antics don’t dominate the story. The lead is Muppets veteran Bill Barretta, whose tough talking private dick hits just the right note of felt-noir to carry this all off.

There are a few supporting roles that really help as well. Maya Rudolph (Life of the Party), in particular, knew what she was in and went for it completely. Her love-lorn Bubbles is a hoot. And Elizabeth Banks (Power Rangers) had some fun with her part as well.

The world is amusing, but it never quite leaves its Muppets roots. When Angel did this, they didn’t act like puppets, they acted like, well, characters. The muppets in this tale, by plot design, are very much puppets of fluff. And the movie truly missed it opportunity to discuss prejudice in a unique and effective way, especially with McCarthy’s storyline. I will grant Henson one important directing kudos, unlike Ted, he knew when to back off a joke (most of the time).

I had fun with this, even with the “what it could have been” thoughts. It is a great end of summer escape. It is definitely unique for this year’s releases, and it is done relatively well with sense of both mystery and whimsy (even if a lot of the mystery is obvious). The first few stars are because it is a fun watch. That extra half star in my rating is for its guts to do the movie in the first place.

The Happytime Murders

The Names of Love (Le nom des gens)

[3.5 stars]

Quirky. Amusing. Sexy. And all with a purpose. It is very… French; a dark comedy that is also a political romance. There is nothing traditional about this one at all.

Sara Forestier (Gainsbourg: Vie Héroïque) is evanescent and the walking embodiment of Id and sex. She is also strong and independent to a fault. And, opposite her (in so many ways), Jacques Gamblin is about as buttoned down as one can get. Yet, somehow, they become an unlikely couple.

There isn’t much more to tell that won’t give away the surprises. If you like quirky romance and don’t mind some politics thrown in, this is for you. It is very funny at times, and a bit pointed at others. If you want just a light romance, this probably isn’t your best choice.

If you get this on disc, there is also a short film by co-writer Baya Kasmi that is clearly the inspiration for this longer piece she put together with director Michel Leclerc. The bones of the story are in this short, but the sensibility is quite a bit different. If you do watch The Names of Love, give the short a go and see what spawned it. It is a good little film in its own right.

The Names of Love

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