Pose

[4 stars]

What makes Pose brilliant isn’t it’s use of transgendered actors (been done before in Transparent, Boy Meets Girl, Orange is the New Black, etc). It isn’t the exposè style of the Balls (been shown before in Paris is Burning and Saturday Church, and elsewhere). It isn’t even the heart-felt tales of the characters (we’ve seen a lot of these kinds of tales before).

No, the genius of Pose is that it treats its characters as normal; that you cannot help but see them as they see themselves, especially the women. In particular Mj Rodriguez  and Indya Moore, from Saturday Church, and Dominique Jackson whose stories dominate the eight episodes. But there are rooms-full of these incredible women struggling for recognition, in every way you can define that.

But it isn’t just about the women. Billy Porter (American Horror Story) brings an energy as MC to the Balls and to the series. He navigates his own complicated tale and manages to draw on his wide variety of talents. Newcomer Ryan Jamaal Swain delivers a sweet and vibrant ball of hope to story while his dance teacher, Charlayne Woodard (Glass), provides some additional outside perspective.

The other contributing factor to the genius of Pose is that it also manages to bring the late-80s period piece into current political and cultural relevance with the parallel storylines of Evan Peters (American Animals), Kate Mara (Morgan), and James Van Der Beek (Downsizing). The reflections and tangling of the two worlds offers surprises and insights as well as a few dark laughs.

Ryan Murphy’s breadth of genre and his ability to make them each so personal, be it high school, horror, or history, continues to surprise and find success. Pose isn’t perfect. It is a tad arch, which isn’t surprising, and some of the actors are natural, but a little untried. But the overall impact and journey is surprisingly effective and avoids feeling exploitative or in any way disingenuous.

Dumbo

[3 stars]

You can see the dark edges of Tim Burton (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) in the production design and the plot of the first act of Dumbo, but not his trademark sense of wonder and magic. The movie, as a whole, has a lack of focus in tone and a lack of characters. Given the potential of some of the clever updates to the story, the result is surprising.

In their first roles, Nico Parker, as a bright young woman who drives the story in the stead of the mice from the Disney cartoon, and Finley Hobbins as her brother are solid, but flat. Even Colin Farrell (Widows), Eva Green (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children), and Danny DeVito (Smallfoot), all with solid foundations in the story, were left without much development or payoff. DeVito, in particular, has rich potential, but was left to be just a clown. Michael Keaton (American Assassin)never moves beyond being a simple black hat with no depth at all. And Alan Arkin (Going in Style) was just a throw-away.

Adaptations are just hard. Fighting everyone’s memory of an original while trying to create something new is challenging at best. Dumbo was due an update to leave its problematic issues behind and bring it into the modern world. It is a great tale of believing in yourself and family. And there are interesting new choices in this telling of the tale, but they just aren’t fully explored. Ehren Kruger’s (Ghost in the Shell) script is devoid of real challenges and resolutions for the human characters. Everything is either too easy or too assumed. The reality is that a flying elephant isn’t magical on its own, it has to become magical…  romance doesn’t just happen, it has to be earned… families don’t heal on their own, you have to work at it. And even Dumbo’s challenges all seem too easily resolved, not to mention that his understanding of the world is inconsistent and seemingly omniscient at times.

I will say that Burton’s dark take on Disney World is delightfully subversive and ironic, but it doesn’t make up for the missing magic in the movie. What is left is a somewhat entertaining, though surprisingly surfacey story that never reaches the heights it should have, but isn’t entirely without entertainment or merit, it just isn’t a new classic. As always, Burton’s designs are best on a big screen, but this is a somewhat neutered fantasy that will play better to younger audiences than adults and that won’t survive the ravages of time.

If Beale Street Could Talk

[3.5 stars]

On the surface, this is a small and personal tale of love and family. But it is, of course, much more than that. It is also, in its way, a modern day Color Purple, exposing social injustice on an intimate level, making it impossible to ignore or pretend to not understand. In some ways, the social injustice reflections are intrusive and jarring, much like portions of BlacKkKlansman, but in other ways it’s like having a friend explain their point of view and experience in a very real way.

Much like Barry Jenkin’s previous Moonlight, this is as much a poem as it is a story. It is told in small vignettes across two timelines. We see the start of the relationship between Stephan James (Selma) and KiKi Layne reflected against the ultimate resolution of it. It is a beautiful story full of unexpected moments and passion. It is a tale about what makes family and how family makes us. The young pair are magnetic and we can recognize our own passions in them even if we’ve outgrown some of the intensity.

Regina King is as solid as her golden statuette for the role suggests. She and the rest of the cast tend to surprise in their reactions to the world and one another. Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq) and Colman Domingo (Assassination Nation) complete Layne’s immediate family, who are fiercely supportive of one another. There is certainly strife, but it is clear from the outset how they can pull together.

There a number of important characters in smaller roles. Among them are a barely recognizable Ed Skrein (Tau), leveraging his trademark nasty streak and Finn Wittrock (La La Land) at the other end of that spectrum as examples.

After Moonlight, all eyes were on Barry Jenkins to deliver. With over 150 awards nominations, including 3 Oscar nods and a win, you could say he succeeded at least on some level. But whether this is a good movie or not is going to be a matter of personal taste. it is laconic in its narrative. It is intense in its emotions. It is preachy at times in its message. But it is effective and affecting not to mention beautifully filmed and directed.

Along with other recent films like The Hate U Give, Dope, Straight Outta Compton, or even Selma, 13th, and Hidden Figures, Beale Street gives us a view of America that has been long avoided but that is now starting to make its way into the mainstream. What we, as a society, do with that awareness is the next big question.

Second Act

[3 stars]

Some movies are seasonally sensitive, and this is one of them. Not that Second Act isn’t entertaining, but it is squarely in that Christmas or mid-Summer fantasy sensibility that insists we just go with emotionally sweet, comically unlikely situations. And that can be enough when done well.

Jennifer Lopez (Shades of Blue), though clearly the center of this story, is surprisingly rather bland. Powerful at times, but not the brightest light in the landscape charisma-wise. She is surrounded by talent that shines brighter. Perhaps that was a story choice or an attempt to tamp her down to keep the movie balanced rather than just a star vehicle, but it is noticeable even if it works.

Among those brighter lights are Vanessa Hudgens (Freaks of Nature), Leah Remini (King of Queens), and Charlyne Yi (House). The latter two with their comic chops and Hudgens with just the pure light of youth.

Treat Williams (127 Hours) and Milo Ventimiglia (Cursed) add some nice balance around the often broad comedy that peppers the movie. And bit roles by Dave Foley (Monsters University) and Larry Miller (God Bless America) added to the overall fun. And there is a host of solid comedy talent throughout, but far too many to list.

Director Peter Segal’s predilection for over-the-top comedy, like Get Smart, was tempered by his 50 First Dates romantic chops to find a middle ground for this movie. And writers Justin Zackham (Bucket List) and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas put together a tight plot that threads self-awakening with romance without falling too far into the treacle camp. Given the cast it is hard not to think of the result as This is Us meets The King of Queens. It manages both ends of the spectrum, though not always as smoothly and comfortably as I’d have liked.

And thus the seasonal comment. We’re willing to forgive certain eccentricities during certain times of the year. Dropping this last holiday season was smart. Away from Christmas it is an amusing romcom, uneven but with some nice choices, but not a brilliant movie or even classic holiday tale. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. While they did give away a couple of the funniest moments of the film in the trailers, fortunately it does have more going for it than just those few moments.

Hitchcock/Truffaut

[4 stars]

What makes this documentary fascinating is less the presentation of the material than the insights it provides. It is also one of the oddest adaptations I think I’ve encountered. Kent Jones attempts to bring to life the infamous 1960s interviews that produced the book Hitchcock/Truffaut by Truffaut…a book which he later revised and re-released in 1985 a few years after Hitch left us and just before his own death.

What emerges, however, is more of an audio book and commentary about the interview’s revelations, cherry-picked by Jones and his collection of famous directors who were influenced by these two giants of cinema. Think of it as skipping through the book to some of the more interesting parts and getting to chat about them. The result is still a fascinating look at Hitchcock’s thinking, though more so at the way others interpret him. It also likely expands your knowledge of size of Hitchcock’s opus. You may find  yourself trying to find at least some of his earlier films that are much less well known.

This docu is certainly an interesting multiplier to the fictionalized look at his life in The Girl and Hitchcock even if its shape is a bit amorphous. If you love cinema and are drawn to understanding it, this is a must see film. But even those with passing interest will find something to chew on and will recognize the men…and it is all men…discussing how watching Hitch and Truffaut provided the impetus and artistic goals that have guided their lives and our viewing history for the last nearly 100 years.

New and Continuing Foreign Series

Baptiste
At the core of The Missing was the calming and obsessive Detective Baptiste, played by Tchéky Karyo. He was never the focus, but was the uniting factor of the series, and in many ways one of the more interesting characters. Well, now he has his own series. With the story solely on him, it is a bit lower energy but just as dark. Tom Hollander (A Private War) adds an interesting counterpoint, and a very complex character to the mix. And Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) provides a suitably evil opponent for both. There are some strong women in this series, and some damaged ones [Jessica Raine (An Adventure in Space and Time), Anastasia Hille (Tulip Fever), Barbara Sarafian, Talisa Garcia] but it is driven by the male characters.

There is a nice mix of mystery and suspense, though Karyo’s Baptiste seems to get to move with near impunity through the legal system of more than one country. But the show also continues the threads of his home life and past, which expands on what we know in interesting ways. Whether this show can be sustained over more than this limited story, I’m not sure. Karyo isn’t young and the character himself is winding down in his abilities as part of the plot. And the end of this clever and twisty six-parter was a bit rushed and, in some ways, forced. To their credit, it is satisfying and allows it to feel complete without closing the door to further stories.

Shakespeare and Hathaway (series 2)
The first series of this silly series was amusing…even more so if you know the plays of the Bard…but the mysteries were never brilliant. This second round is still fun, but the writing is much more hit and miss. In fact, the first half is painful at times, but they finally find their footing about episode 5. The main issue is more around police procedural and willfully stupid choices by characters. But this isn’t necessarily a show you want to over-analyze anyway. If you liked the first series, the second will happily distract you. If they can get more consistent writing, it has a chance for a long and amusing life.

Trapped (series 2)
The second series of Trapped takes on immigration and hate crimes on top of the delicate politics of country and family that the first series tackled. It picks up some time later from the first go-round, with some significant changes and some continuing tropes and battles. The mystery gets off to an immediate start and spins out from there intriguingly playing in the overlap between the far right and environmentalism. While the first series traps its characters literally, this series a more psychological reading of that title. Many first series characters recur and their storylines and tensions continue. The story itself unfolds very slowly, constantly going in new directions until the full tale is revealed and resolved.

Endeavour (series 6)
The latest 4 installments of Endeavour are coming back around to establishing the quirks and mannerisms of Shaun Evans’ (The Scandalous Lady W) titular detective. The last couple sequences laid some groundwork, but it was all inferred rather than direct. One of the things that made the first two series so great was watching Morse being born. This sequence really sets the stage for the relationship with Sean Rigby’s DS Strange and James Bradshaw’s  Dr. DeBryn, as well as tackling some challenges with Roger Allam’s (The Hippopotamus) DI Thursday and Anton Lesser’s CSI Bright.

There are still a few years to go before the series hits the wall it cannot pass (overlap with the original series and the elevation of Morse to DCI in the 80s). With the next series, they launch into the 70s… but they could continue there for years at a paltry four episodes a go, which either means great news for lovers of the show or danger of spinning wheels and driving it into a hopeless rut. Given how carefully Russell Lewis has tended to Colin Dexter’s characters and has conspired to give us this early slice of Morse, I’m hopeful he can sustain the effort.

Shetland (series 5)
Shetland continues its travels with its characters and its dark mysteries across harsh landscapes. And, if its been a while since your last visit it may take a bit to get your footing with the characters and their relationships. Douglas Henshall’s (Collision) dark but seethingly emotional detective remains at the center of the mismatched family on the tiny and battered island. Mark Bonnar (Line of Duty), Steven Robertson (Luther),  and Alison O’Donnell remain core to the story with him and to each other. In many ways, this is one of their best crafted seasons; it has a complex mystery with many switchbacks and character growth in parallel over the six episodes. Not that previous series weren’t equally complex, but this one felt the most evenly put together. Interestingly, series 5 is also journeying along similar ground as Baptiste and Trapped, taking on human trafficking as a core issue.

The Hate U Give

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a Spike Lee film that is less stylized and aimed more at teenagers (though still very resonate for adults) and you have a sense of this powerful offering by director George Tillman, Jr. It is uncomfortably honest and it builds tension very much like Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman. It also evokes and challenges all sides of the issues it raises, though it certainly has a point of view, and one it wastes no time establishing in its first scene. Getting that moment right was one of Tillman’s great triumphs in the film.

Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) drives this story from start to end. She is narrator and focus of the action as well as the gateway through which we enter both worlds she navigates. She is a talent we will be seeing a lot of over the coming years. The rest of the cast form up around her and every one of them has more levels than you expect as we travel through her story.

Among her family Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Russell Hornsby (Fences), and Common (Hunter Killer) stand out for the adults. Algee Smith (Earth to Echo), as her childhood friend, too. And then there is Anthony Mackie (Io), an actor we’re used to seeing with a bit more positive emotion and influence. His delivery is solid, though it is one of the least dimensional in the story. And, to be fair, it needs to be.

From Stenberg’s school-life, one of the more difficult roles was Stenberg’s friend, nicely created by Sabrina Carpenter. Carpenter has to stand in for every well-intentioned person of non-color and do so unselfconsciously. It is hard to watch and far too recognizable. And, as her boyfriend, K.J. Apa ( A Dog’s Purpose) was solid, but not particularly groundbreaking.

A good part of the success of this movie is its script. Audrey Wells (A Dog’s Purpose) adapted the book smoothly; there wasn’t a hint of it being a reflection of something else. It was entirely its own being, standing on its own feet and feeling whole and full of real people, situations, and emotions. Navigating that mine field with a teenage audience in mind wasn’t easy. Unlike Dope, it reaches out for a broader audience and more explicit message, but earns its moment of preaching in a very different way.

I have to admit I avoided this film for a long while, despite its excellent and deserved reviews. With all the hate and damage in the world, I wasn’t sure I could sit through a story about it as part of my evening relaxation. As it turns out, while it is certainly a tense story and unflinching at moments, its teenage perspective and the balance of the tale kept it digestible and still very powerful. Tillman’s ability to keep the tension going as he slips between the worlds that Stenberg navigates keeps you engaged and interested even as you may want to turn away or shout. He also employs subtle production values separating the haves and have-nots by time of day. Though some of that is story driven, it is also clearly intended to enhance light and dark.

Make time for this. It will leave a mark, but not one that will bleed too deeply. And it is a clear-eyed perspective that can start conversations or, at least, get people thinking. It is well acted, written,  and presented and will keep you guessing till the end.

Instant Family

[3 stars]

Instant Family is probably exactly what you expect. Humor, forced emotion, and light entertainment in an attempt to tackle a serious subject and encourage more family’s to foster and adopt. It is entertaining, but while Mark Wahlberg (Mile 22) and Rose Byrne (Juliet, Naked) are the stars, it is really Isabela Moner (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) that carries the film and comes across as anything close to real and honest.

The tone and result shouldn’t be too surprising with Sean Anders at the helm and also penning the script with long-time collaborator John Morris (Daddy’s Home 2). Subtle is not this duo’s forte. In this case is sort of works, though a bit more reality may have served the greater intention better. It didn’t have to be Short Term 12, but I would have liked it a little less broad at moments where it often busted the seams of the film.

Smaller supporting roles by Octavia Spencer (Shape of Water), Tig Notaro (Tig), and Margo Martindale (The Hollars) definitely keep it all humming. Martindale comes on a force of nature while Notaro and Spencer actually make a great comedy pairing, though you’d never really expect it.

For a sort of sweet, with a bit of bite, evening you can curl up with this. It doesn’t break any ground and it is utterly unrealistic far too often, but as a light entertainment and a slight propaganda film, it isn’t a total loss.

Studio 54

[3 stars]

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) tackles the late 70s hedonistic phenomena that spent a little over 30 months as the navel of party that shook the world. After Watergate and Viet Nam and before GRID/AIDS there was Studio 54. A place to see and be seen, and a legendary space to be outrageous without consequences. You were no one in the zeitgeist if you didn’t make it past the velvet rope at least once.

If you were too young to even know about Studio 54, other than as one of its resurrected flops or as a concert and play venue, you are missing a bit of history that set the stage for all the clubs that followed it. Nothing has matched its success or its atmosphere since. It arrived at a unique time in society and provided the closest thing to the Jazz Age since the 1920s (or Bread and Circuses since the Romans)… but it did it as a unique and sole purveyor of that experience.

There was a lot to love and hate about Studio 54, and Tyrnauer doesn’t shrink from that, just as he hasn’t from subjects in the past. He allows the story to tell itself, though the story he is trying to tell here isn’t very crisp due to its scope. But it is primarily about the rise and fall of the club as well as the impact on its creators Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. The story is told through archival footage and many reminiscences of employees, patrons, and Schrager himself.

The timing of this story is particularly good now as the wealth gap continues to grow around the world. And there is something oddly resonate about the downfall of Rubell and Schrager with today’s politics. The sense of abuse of power is rife, though no one denies they were guilty of plenty. But it is also the way the public themselves raised them up and then tore them down that feels very present in the hyper-social-media environment of today.

The story of Studio 54 is hypnotic, much like the venue itself. It feels very far away now and yet it is still in the bones of today’s world. The story rides a crest of historical waves that no one saw coming but was a necessary catharsis for the country and world. It raises interesting, if unspoken, questions about notoriety and power. And it has a sound track that will jangle your nostalgia or, if you’re younger, seem quaint.  And it has a cast of characters, like Roy Cohn, who are back in the news again these days on a regular basis (even though he’s been dead for over 30 years), thanks to their connections to current power.

Basically, this an historical feast and tale, which may not be fully balanced or complete, but is an interesting window to gaze through.

Lizzie

[2.5 stars]

The story of Lizzie Borden has been told (and retold) many times. It has fascinated audiences for over 100 years. That’s staying power. Finding something new to say about it isn’t easy. To be honest, I’m not sure Craig William Macneill’s sophomore outing with  first-timer Bryce Kass’s script manages to, but they give it a good try.

This newest story is told in a chronologically looping narrative to slowly uncover the proposed facts of the infamous killing. It concentrates first on the motives and emotions and then, finally, on the deed itself. It is a very slow burn and with only a modicum of tension. Where it tries to separate itself from previous tales is in the counterpoint of the cast.

Chloë Sevigny (Beatriz at Dinner) presents her Lizzie as an interestingly modern woman amid her more classically period fellow cast. It sets her apart in a subtle way. It isn’t quite enough to carry the movie, but it is a noticeable choice and difference.

Jamey Sheridan (Battle of the Sexes) and Finoa Shaw (Mrs. Wilson), as her parents and the fated victims, are fairly standard portrayals. They are solid, but nothing much new. And Denis O’Hare, as the n’ere-do-well Uncle is an interesting inclusion, but only again as backdrop. It is Kristen Stewart (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), as the young Irish maid and Sevigny’s counterpart, who is the largest variable in this retelling. Her performance is good, but not groundbreaking. And, ultimately, doesn’t fully develop.

If you were looking for something new in this story, you will find tidbits. But it is far from historically complete or insightful. It includes some facts but omits others. It avoids recorded aspects and invents some never really in evidence as it posits a potential scenario. For those hopelessly fascinated by the story, it is probably more interesting. But the movie never manages to rise above its retelling enough to become a platform for something more. And that is a shame. There is some good work in this film, but it isn’t a must-see on any level, except perhaps as a chance to see Macneill and Kass’s early steps in cinema.

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