Summer of Rockets

[3 stars]

The first three-quarters of this limited series are both intriguing and engaging. We are introduced to a complex group of people in an intriguing historical period and provided just enough plot to keep us wondering where the heck things are going to go. And then it takes a turn. It is a fair turn in retrospect, but the resolution and motivations are, at best, forced.

Despite the sort of non-ending provided, the rest of the ride is actually interesting and the cast is chock full of solid performers. Among them is Keeley Hawes (Mrs. Wilson) who appears to be in just about every BBC show these days. But the tale revolves more around Toby Stephens’ (Vexed, Lost in Space) Petrukhin, a Russian-Jewish inventor trying to make a place for himself and his family in 1950s British society. A far from easy task.

Along with Linus Roache (Mandy), Lucy Cohu (Ripper Street), Mark Bonnar (Shetland), Timothy Spall (Finding Your Feet), Claire Bloom, as well as a nice Sophomore turn for Lily Sacofsky (Bancroft) and freshman outing for Rose Ayling-Ellis, we get a look at many facets of British life, fears, and prejudices of the era. While not ground- breaking, putting a rising Jewish family at the center of the story provides a lens that we haven’t often seen through in these stories.

Whether the plot feels fair and complete to you I imagine will be a matter of expectation. I suggest you just roll with it. This starts as an intimate story and ends the same. But it certainly has a lot of meat in the middle to work with and keep you wondering and wanting more.

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein

[2.5 stars]

For the title alone, I had to check out this silly satire, and clear vanity project, by David Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) on Netflix.

The short film is full of nods and winks to the History Channel, Dark Shadows, and Documentary Now among other shows. It also takes many hilarious slams at the acting craft generally. Against this background Harbour explores his family’s fictional past in search of… well, that would be the problem overall. We never really understand why he’s doing this, what “questions” he has to answer. And, in the end, we don’t know what he’s discovered or embraced. Perhaps the open ended aspect was part of the satire, but it left me as a viewer wondering why I’d spent the half hour.

Given director Daniel Gray Longino’s background with Portlandia, and both he and writer John Levenstein’s involvement with The Kroll Show, the sensibility of this 30 minute distraction shouldn’t be a surprise. Mainly, it’s just disappointing, or was for me. But at 30 minutes, it isn’t a huge chunk of your life to lose for some funny moments. Just don’t expect it to hold together or pay off in a great way and you’ll be fine.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

[4 stars]

Watching the animus between Dwayne Johnson’s (Fighting With My Family) Hobbs and Jason Statham’s (The Meg) Shaw through the Fast & Furious franchise has always been entertaining, but it also got a bit tiring. It was just so forced and so over-the-top. This latest installment to the franchise gives the characters space to breathe. Sure the one-liners and fights barely stop between the two, but the story actually builds a relationship between them that allows the jokes and slams to continue, but now in a more believable way. “Believable” is, of course, a relative term in the world they’ve created, but compared to other stories in the franchise, this one felt more complete amidst the insane fights and stunts.

Part of the reason is that it is hyperfocused on only two of the characters we follow. And, added to that mix for tension, they found a great female lead to join them in Vanessa Kirby (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and a great villain in Idris Elba (Luther). There are also several surprise cameos to help tether the story to the main franchise.

Honestly, this was exactly what I needed at this point in my summer. It is a great popcorn film with just enough story and character to allow me to enjoy it without having to forgive it. I wish more of the F&F films had as much meat on them, but they’ve become thin excuses for huge stunts, bad jokes, and little else. Whether this latest becomes a bridge for the plot there, which appears a possibility, or perhaps elevates the stories a bit more remains to be seen. For that matter, whether these characters return to the franchise proper or not is still not known, but it was great to see them on their own adventure.

As you can imagine, yes, you should see this on the big screen if you have any interest at all. David Leitch (Deadpool 2) continues to improve his directing skills without losing his stunt edge. And Chris Morgan (The Fate of the Furious) who has helped turn the F&F franchise from pure car show to something more with his scripts is exploring his characters more. We’re still talking just serious summer fun, but that’s fine. And, should you go, watch through to the end of the credits. There are several front-loaded scenes and one at the end of the roll.

 

Little

[2.5 stars]

Cute idea. Childish execution. Tina Gordon directed this movie as a Disney Channel special rather than as a feature release. The style and script, with co-writer Tina Oliver (Girl’s Trip), is very much a child’s view of the world rather than an adult learning about how to view the world as a child again.

It doesn’t help that Regina Hall’s (The Hate U Give) performance is so broad at the beginning at that I almost turned off the flick in frustration. There was no way this person would have still had a company with her behavior. This means that the movie started at a massive deficit…and I could never quite suspend disbelief because it was so obviously wrong. Issa Rae (Insecure) and Marsai Martin (Black-ish) help pull the movie back toward center, but never manage to make up for the the rest of the weaknesses even with their efforts.

People have been trying to recapture the magic that was Big for decades. The sentiment never really goes out of style, but while the general story is what people remember (even with the reversal), the filmmakers forgot that it was the chemistry of that film that really made it a classic. And no one in this cast matches Hanks’ vulnerability and charisma.

Veronica Mars (series 4)

[4 stars]

You just can’t keep a good detective down….or at least an obsessed one. We all thought the fan gift of the Veronica Mars movie was the end of the line for the intrepid investigator. But having left High School behind, Mars Investigations continues on in this engaging bridge season that maintains the wonderful noir sensibility of the original series, for all the good and bad that can bring.

The good is very much in the dialogue and twisty plot. Kristen Bell (How to be a Latin Lover) is as acerbic, witty, and broken as always. She and  Enrico Colantoni (Travelers) continue the father/daughter love and comedy in style. The return of Jason Dohring (iZombie) adds some character evolution and fun, while the addition of Izabela Vidovic (Wonder) provides some reflection on the once and future past.

And then there are the new characters bouncing around. Patton Oswalt (Nostalgia), Max Greenfield (What Men Want), J.K. Simmons (The Front Runner), not to mention the Pulp Fiction-esque Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Barry), Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos add plenty of pop to Neptune’s known residents.

Where it is weak is where it has always been weak. Procedural accuracy isn’t a top concern of noir, never has been. And Mars has always played loose with the rules and the realities for the sake of the mysteries. We trade that for the rest of the fun, though I’d really like to see what Rob Thomas could do with that added aspect. But all those aspects that may have brought you to Mars in the first place are still there, though admittedly not much more. But if you liked what came before, you’ll enjoy this latest expansion. And do make sure you watch the opening credits through the whole season for a subtle, small extra.

Captive State

[3 stars]

There is nothing particularly bad about this Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) alien invasion/human insurgency story, but there is also nothing particularly special either. Well, I’ll modify that, there is one thing from Wyatt’s and Beeney’s co-written script that is so right, and so real, it had me seeking a reference that didn’t exist…and it’s the opening to the flick: Light a match. Ignite a war. It sounds so familiar, even comfortable in association with a host of figures from the 60s, I was sure I recognized it. But if it is attributable, I couldn’t find it. That’s a rather impressive invention.

As to the rest of the movie, it is nicely understated with low amounts of pure exposition, allowing images and videos to explain the world and the situation. And the story doesn’t insult us by trying to explain everything. Some information is just never provided, and that’s OK. And the cast is certainly talented.

John Goodman (Black Earth Rising) and Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) topline the story from different sides of the tale. They are relatively interesting, but not overly compelling characters, which is part of the weakness in the movie. We don’t entirely care about either of them. Some nice support from Vera Farmiga (Godzilla: King of Monsters), James Ransone (Bosch), Ben Daniels (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Alan Ruck (Goats) helps sell the situation and add some depth but they are all bit players in the larger scheme.

Basically, there is little surprising in the plot and there isn’t quite enough suspense to sell it on suspense alone. There are certainly some nice effects (and a couple really bad ones). I didn’t feel bored nor that my time was wasted, but I wanted more than just a setup for a franchise. I wanted a sense of triumph or disaster. I wanted more than an obvious metaphor for our times. I wanted to invest emotionally rather than just with my eyes. And, sadly, I never really did, and I suspect you won’t either. For a popcorn evening, there is some craftsmanship here…just not a great movie.

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.

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