The Time Being

[3 stars]

Artists talking about art and process can often leave the audience behind. The filmmaker has to find a universal in that subject to reach the people in front of the screen. Never Look Away was the most recent film to negotiate that mine field, while The Square (to my mind) totally missed the mark. The Time Being is somewhere between those extremes.

Frank Langella (Captain Fantastic) and Wes Bentley (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) are two poles of the conversation. One old, one young. One famous, one ignored. Each is struggling with making meaning out of where they are in life and, by doing so together, they each provide guideposts to the other. The situation and actions are a bit forced, but it moves along in ways that keep you from disconnecting from the story.

Director Nenad Cicin-Sain tackled his script, co-written with fellow first-timer Richard N. Gladstein, with care. While some of the dialogue is a bit navel-gazing, most of the story is told visually. Through wonderful framing and art that really looks like art, we see Langella’s and Bentley’s visions evolve. Much like dance in The White Crow, the art actually serves to keep you believing rather than make you doubt these actors are really artists. And, ultimately, Cicin-Sain delivers a denoument that reflects back through the story.

Two supporting roles are also worth calling out. Sarah Paulson (Glass) has a nice, understated path. And Cory Stoll (First Man) turns in an honest, dramatic performance with no hint of comedy at all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that serious even in an interview; it was nice to see he had those chops.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. Artists, particularly artists in their 30s and 70s, will find verisimilitude with their lives. Others may find it head-scratching or just simply boring. The editing and mystery kept me engaged, but not everyone will. For a first time director, however, it shows an ability for clever vision and respect for his audience.

Knives Out

[4.5 stars]

Director and writer Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) began life as a humble indie director of such wonderfully dark and unique pieces like Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Looper. His foray into the force, while not yet completely over, wasn’t his most comfortable habitat. With Knives Out he has returned to his more natural setting.

Knives Out is subtly clever, amid some outright funny moments and twists. It is unapologetically modeled on TV mysteries like Murder She Wrote, Columbo, or Midsommer Murders (to name a very few) from its teaser opening to its act breaks. In many ways, it is an American remake of Gosford Park, but it isn’t entirely satiric. It is, in fact, in equal measure, an homage while recognizing the forced nature of the genre.

But, of course, this kind of story only works with a solid cast and a unique detective.

Enter Daniel Craig (Spectre ) as the “famous” detective. He is quick-witted and observant, but often gathering his understanding by simply stirring the pot. Lakeith Lee Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) and Noah Segan are his on-loan police officers who fascilitate, but aren’t necessarily competent or professional. Segan, in particular, has some fun moments in this capactiy.

And then there are the suspects of Christopher Plummer’s (Boundaries) unusual death. As you might expect, they are primarily his family. The motley crew are all unique characters brought to life by Chris Evans (Gifted, Endgame), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Michael Shannon (The Current War), Don Johnson (Book Club), and Toni Collette (Velvet Buzzsaw), with Katherine Langford (Love, Simon) and Jaeden Lieberher (It) in the two younger roles. Many get to play against type, particularly Evans. But all are having a lot of fun.

And then, of course, you need the innocent under attack that our intrepid detective must exonerate lest justice go astray. For that role we have Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049) who delivers a great and layered performance with both depth and comedy.

There are also some nice bit parts from Riki Lindhome (Garfunkle and Oats) , K Callan, and Marlene Forte (My Last Day Without You), to name only a few.

And, believe it or not, I’ve only provided info here you get in the first five minutes of the film. And, of course, it isn’t as straight-forward as it may sound or it wouldn’t be a Rian Johnson script.

Suffice to say, Knives Out is clever and entertaining, with excellent pacing and a love of what it is doing. From its opening moments to its closing shot, it pulls you along without respite. Make time for this over the holidays, it is definitely worth your time. And it isn’t a remake, a sequel, a reboot, origin story, or spin-off…how’s that for a treat these days?

The Lion King (2019)

[3 stars]

The Disney march to create live action analogs of their animated hits continues. We could ask why, but c’mon, we know it’s solely for the money.

Honestly (and however heretical), I can’t say I was overly impressed or pulled in by the result of this movie. Jeff Nathanson’s (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) script adaptation of the original skips along time-wise jarringly. There is little or no chance to feel connected to any character or situation, absent a couple solidly scary moments. And Rafiki, the baboon has no real meaning or place in this version of the tale. Without knowledge of the earlier animation it would have made no sense at all. Also, which animals can talk and which can’t is a bit problematic and subtly judgemental.

Coming of age stories are a staple with Disney. And using animals as a distancing way to approach those subjects for younger viewers is also well established. This movie echos all the back to Bambi. There is also an environmentalist overlay to Simba’s world, but that subplot is neither fully realized nor resolved. When the comic relief in the form of Timon (Billy Eichner), Pumba (Seth Rogen – The Disaster Artist), and Zazu (John Oliver – Wonder Park) are the highlight of the movie, you know something went wrong–that’s would be like Martin Freeman being the best part of Black Panther.

What I can say about this movie is that the technology Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home) ushered in to film the tale is astounding. However, much like other films that were in the vanguard of new tech, the result is a little mixed making it the source of much of my frustration.

Most impactfully, I found the photo-realism itself challenging. The animation was restricted to, well, reality. The voices never quite matched the mouth movements nor the characters. The experience felt like some odd, non-ironic verion of What’s Up Tiger Lily. Purely cartoon animation allows for some adjustment to faces that help us accept and connect to the characters. The animals don’t move or act 100% naturally, but they allow us to anthropromorphize them better.

Ultimately, this film is a bit of a victim of the perils of technology. As a first use, the results of the cinematography are astounding. But the distance it creates is exacerbated by the script. In the end, this is a pretty ride, but not a euphoric one nor, at least for me, a memorable one. However, the type of filming it has championed is going to affect the industry for a long time.

Eat With Me

[2.75 stars]

Yeah, I’m splitting hairs on the rating here. But that’s because while Eat With Me is enjoyable…it’s also a lo-fi, first film with many of the attending issues and tells that implies. Writer/director David Au came up with an interesting story and set of venues, but he’s still working through his craft. For instance, in pushing for naturalism on screen, he allowed a lot of moments to fall flat, and the rhythm of the film as it unspools is halting rather than smooth. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, it just means you should go in with correct exepectations.

The movie is loaded with semi-familiar faces, but only one you’ll know for sure; George Takei (To Be Takei) as, well, himself in a critical cameo. Mind you, Au could have delivered his story without George, but it was a nice bit.

The main tale is a mother/son relationship. Sharon Omi is the focus of this story, though that aspect gets a little lost at points. Her semi-estranged son, Edward Chen takes a lot of the focus, which feels right, but ultimately confuses the balance. Aidan Bristow and Nicole Sullivan flesh out the plot and momentum in supporting roles.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that, for a movie named “Eat With Me,” and with a main character who’s a cook, food never quite became the connecting or healing thread I would have expected. Food was only a convenient way to bring people into frame together. That just wasn’t quite enough for me. Again, this was more my expectation than, perhaps, Au’s intention, but it was what I was working with. Regardless of that, it is still a sweet tale of family and relationships and a peek at a new voice in film.

I couldn’t help but wonder how Au might have approached this if he’d started now rather than 5 years ago. With the unexpected hits and influence of Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Always Be My Maybe amongst other movies out there now, would any of his choices or execution have shifted given the interest and examples? Purely musing, but it is amazing how much the landscape has changed in the last couple years alone.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

[3 stars]

Solid, classic horror done with just enough self-awareness and creativity to keep it fresh is rare. Scary Stories dances along that line like some kind of refugee from decades past. But unlike Stranger Things, it isn’t so much tongue-in-cheek as it is honest with its characters. Director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) managed to keep the story somewhere between real and fantasy in its feel, though clearly lensing the world through eyes of a young teen.

Zoe Margaret Colletti (Skin) is the solid spine of this movie. Her confidence and vunlerability sell the possibility of the story. She has a cadre of followers in Michael Garza (Wayward Pines), Gabriel Rush (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Austin Zajur. They, of course, have their nemeses in the guise of nasty high schoolers…complicated by the supernatural.

Dan and Kevin Hagerman (Hotel Transylvania) joined with Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) to pull together a clever script that manages to maintain the sense of a horror anthology but pulled together into a solid and seamless story. The ending is a little empty, but the journey getting there was better than I expected. As a fun distraction, it was a good evening for snacks and rain pounding on the windows.

 

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

[3 stars]

Girl power should beat out just about anything these days at the box office…in theory at least. Unfortunately, though it is entertaining, this third go-round for the Angels, sheapharded by Elizabeth Banks (Brightburn), is unevn and unfocused. The fault is really very much with Banks’s script and her control of the vision. I’ll circle back on this, but I want to be sure to give her cast their due first.

Her current angels were all pretty solid: Kristen Stewart (Lizzie) and Naomi Scott (Aladdin) were paired with relative newcomer (though she held her own well), Ella Balinska. Stewart is the bright spot here, spewing humor and action in equal measure confidently. We never entirely get to know her, but that is by design. She still becomes the glue for the trio and keeps the energy and pace up throughout the story.

Unsurprisingly, the men are in this tale to serve the women’s stories. This makes them all just a bit superficial, though each with moments. Sam Claflin (Their Finest) and Patrick Stewart (The Kid Who Would Be King) are the larger roles. Claflin is a bit broad in his delivery, while Stewart is a bit low in energy to carry his part. Neither is awful, but both could have been directed better.

In smaller, but fun, roles Luis Gerardo Méndez (Murder Mystery), Noah Centineo (To Al the Boys I Loved Before), Jonathan Tucker (Veronika Decides to Die) and Chris Pang (Crazy Rich Asians) really shine for their humor. Each also adds some unspoken depth to their bit parts.

So, back to Banks and her script and directorial choices. The script itself is frustrating in its flow. There are far too many failures and odd decisions for our heroes. The overall intention could have been worked out better and with a few more positives, particularly as Scott’s character is being pulled ever-deeper into the Agency. But that was the minor problem.

The larger issue was one of style. This movie couldn’t settle on whether it was an action movie with humor, a comedy with action, or a broad satire of the series. The first movie and it’s sequel found the  line they wanted to walk and tightroped it much more elegantly. Banks is all over the place and constantly mis-stepping by doing things like cracking jokes about someone who just died rather than allowing the moment to add a darker edge and reality to the fantasy.

It’s clear from the opening that the intention of the movie is to empower women. Charlie’s Angels is tailor made for that intent, but it needed a much stronger hand and a sharper script to succeed. That doesn’t mean this isn’t fun or funny, or even clever and exciting at times, but it whiplashes between intents leaving you unsure of what you’re watching and how best to engage with the story. That keeps you at an unfortunate distance without a chance to fully engage with the women and their triumphs and losses on screen.

The Good Liar

[3 stars]

In all the decades of their careers, it is unimaginable to realize that Helen Mirren (Anna) and Ian McKellen (Lear, All is True) have never appeared together in a film. It is long past time, but I wish it had been with a better vehicle.

The problem with The Good Liar isn’t its acting, its directing, or its production values. The problem is that you know way too much going in. As Hitchcockian as this story is (and that is already too much to know), it struggles to surprise in part because of the caliber of the cast. A cast that, I will happily say, included Russell Tovey  (Years and Years), who is starting to get some dues.

Bill Condon (The Greatest Showman) managed the story well from the director’s chair. I wish, however, that writer Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) had had the guts to rework the story more completely from its source. He should have accepted the reality of today’s audience and how the film would have been marketed and realized we needed the story from more than just McKellen’s perspective. The mysteries and classic vibe could have remained, but the cat-and-mouse game would have been ever so much more delicious if we were included more all around.

You should still see this film. It is classically put together and impeccably performed. Just know it is also exactly what you expect, and don’t expect it to be more.

The Kitchen

[3 stars]

Not to be confused with the 2013 dark social comedy The Kitchen, this is a hard, if fanciful, look at mob protection with some nice twists. Andrea  Berloff’s (Straight Outta Compton) adaptation of the same-named comics takes place in the late 70’s in NYC. At that time Times Square was still Times Square, Studio 54 was at its peak, and Hell’s Kitchen was the dangerous place Daredevil stalked trying to keep it safe. And, more germane to this movie, women were still completely sidelined by society and institutions despite Gloria Steinem and the feminism movement.

Sitting in her first director’s chair, Andrea Berloff tackles that dark and interesting world through three women trying to rise above their circumstances. Berloff’s script is bald and honest. But beyond her sensibilities, it was her cast who sold this emancipation story.

In the case of Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), she continues to plumb her dramatic depths well, but doesn’t add much new to her opus. On the other hand Tiffany Haddish (The Secret Life of Pets 2) gives us a hard-as-nails character who is ambitious and in control, and without a single broad-comedy bone in her body. But it is Elisabeth Moss (The Seagull) who runs away with the movie in this trinity. Her journey is painful and fascinating as she extricates herself from an abusive marriage and finds her inner strength and power with brilliant assistance from Domhnall Gleeson (The Little Stranger). And, it should be noted, that Margo Martindale (Instant Family) has a fun, smaller role to add to the dark view and comedy of the story.

This is not a light movie. Worth your time? Yes. But not a night for relaxing or unwinding. It is intense, violent, even while being oddly compelling. For Moss and Haddish’s performances alone it is worth seeing. And Gleeson’s is an extra little gift amidst it all.

The Dead Don’t Die

[3 stars]

Is there anything quite as indie as a Jim Jarmusch (Paterson) movie? His latest foray into genre isn’t quite as sharp as his last, sadly, but it is still full of dark, flat humor. The Dead Don’t Die is more of a satirical/meta take on the zombie apocalypse rather than an exploration of what the condition might mean to characters. But the humor is unique and fun. And the story, while unashamedly inevitable, has plenty of surprises.

Part of those surprises is the cast. Jarmusch has always had his stable of actors. Tilda Swinton (The Souvenir) for one, Bill Murray (Zombieland) for another. Along with Adam Driver (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), the three really drive the story, but they’ve plenty of help from others, like Tom Waits (Old Man & the Gun), Chloë Sevigny (Golden Exits) and Steve Buscemi (The Death of Stalin). Jarmusch is also great at getting his actors to work against expected type. While broad in its approach, everyone remains very grounded and matter of fact. Not quite naturalistic, but definitely not the high drama of your typical horror film either. It is a quiet, if bloody, apocalypse.

What the story lacks is something more than the sly genre humor and in-your-face societal slams. There isn’t a lot being said that is new nor anything being done in a particularly special way (absent one amusing take on zombie focus). Perhaps that is, in part, due to the speed and challenges of its filming? However, if you like his work as I do, you’ll like this latest. It was definitely an enjoyable time spent for me.

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase

[3 stars]

This is a nicely updated Nancy Drew that captures the original’s sense and sensibility, but anchors it nicely in today’s world without altering it beyond recognition as the CW did. (While I was never a  particular fan of Drew or the Hardy Boys, I can see where drifting too far from that material was disturbing to some.)

But the best reason to see this amusing tween adventure is its lead, Sophia Lillis (It). Her positive energy, sense of timing, and vulnerability make for an engaging and even complex Ms. Drew. The rest of the young cast is good, but not particularly exceptional, though Andrew Matthew Welch (Ma) negotiates a nicely supporting role as Drew’s police assist. She also has some adult help selling the story with Sam Tramell (3 Generations) and Linda Lavin (How to be a Latin Lover) as her family and clients in need of rescue.

Katt Shea directed the tale with a sense of fun without losing the sense of urgency. She kept the mystery just edgy enough to provide suspense while not allowing the danger to exceed the boundaries of its target audience, which is clearly young. She definitely had some advantages with her Handmaid’s Tale writing duo, Nina Fiore and John Herrera, producing a clever adaptation.

For a simple and fun evening, you could do way worse. And, should you have young women in your home, it is good choice you all can share without insulting either side too much.

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