Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

[4 stars]

This series, a prequel to the classic and beloved movie, fully captures the sense and production design of the original. That is both its blessing and its curse. But that said, this story grew on me as it played out, unlike the same-day-launched Amazon fantasy Carnival Row, which diminished over time for me.

Let me get the “curse” comment out of the way. Having just rewatched the original flick, I was looking forward to some significant updating of the approach, particularly the Gelfling designs to make their mouths move more naturally. I can see the bind the producers were in…update a classic and risk the wrath of fans, or cleave closely to the original and risk a more dated feel. Definitely no-win. But there were subtle updates, especially to the Skeksis, whose tongues were truly a thing of creepy beauty.

Also, in order to provide a launching pad for the series, they twisted the known facts a little. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry about it. If you have, you’ll need to be more than a little patient to accept the setup and await it all to make sense. Of course the big question is how long before the movie does this series take place? No one seems to know or want to commit. My best guess was about 100 years or so, though it could be longer. The studio was purposefully vague and won’t pin it down.

The voice talent is an astounding list of folks; far too long to enumerate here. The puppeteering is top notch. The production design clever enough to link to the movie but still make it their own. The world of Thra is expanded and gorgeously designed. There are familiar characters and new ones to enjoy. The story is richly complex, despite its clear aim to pull in a younger audience as well as adults. And this installment of the story finally plumbs some of the dark depths the original movie touched on but wasn’t willing to dive into. In fact, the writers and director Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) helped marry the tale to current times in wonderful ways.

They also left plenty of room for more stories and a whispered about second season, but not in an unsatisfying way…well, at least if you know the movie. However, if you’ve not found the movie yet, wait to see where the series goes and then get to the end of the story.

As both a revival and a continuation of the tale, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a winner for me. There is something about the craft of bringing these inanimate creatures to life that sparks the imagination in ways CGI, or even most stop-action animation just can’t touch. Here’s hoping they get to continue the story and fully complete the sequence.

Ad Astra

[3 stars]

Despite what your eyes may be telling your brain, this is not a science fiction epic…it’s an allegory. And, as an allegory, it is about 30 minutes too long, though given the story framework James Gray (Lost City of Z) stuck himself with, it is probably about right for hitting all the plot points.

The movie is pretty much a one man show for Brad Pitt (The Big Short). It is told tightly from his point of view and with him narrating his inner thoughts. That narration dominates; the psychology of Ad Astra is the unifying center of the solar system spanning story.

Pitt isn’t alone, but most of the rest of the characters have short scenes or cameos. Only Tommy Lee Jones (Shock and Awe), Ruth Negga (Loving), and Donald Sutherland (The Leisure Seeker) get any added depth. Negga and Sutherland are gone too soon, and Jones’s depth is a very shallow pool.

Most disappointingly for me, the science throughout the movie is fairly weak, or adjusted for convenience. I can forgive the latter, but the former made me itch a bit. And after Gravity, I expect depictions of space to be a little more accurate (at least in terms of the effects of movement and weight).

Certainly this is a pretty film. And it has style and mood. But it isn’t what it purports to be. The movie is a weird cross between Contact and Solaris; a very personal story amidst the isolation of space with the thin framework of the search for intelligent life, all told at a leisurely pace. The truth is, this same story could have been told if Jones had buggered off to Africa or South America and disappeared for 18 years. In other words, there was no scientific center that was necessary to tell this story, which is why it isn’t science fiction…it is simply an artistic choice to frame a question and emotional journey.

If you have an interest in seeing it, do see it on a big screen as it won’t translate nicely to small. But be prepared to let go of what you think it may be about and just go with it.

Hustlers

[4 stars]

Probably the funniest sad movie you’ll see in a long while. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) tackled the world and people of Hustlers with open eyes. No one comes off great in this film, but everyone comes off as someone real. Which isn’t to say the story isn’t stylized and energized, but it also isn’t entirely sanitized.

Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) are the primary focus of the movie. While Lopez sells the hard as nails aspect more than Wu, Wu captures the desperation and emotional drive for their decisions. Both performances are gripping and win you over. And then, of course, there is the delightful, though somewhat throwaway role, for Mercedes Rheul. Rheul, other than her “motherly” role, exists in this story for continuity and information, but she sells it well. There are plenty of other fun performances populating the film as well, but Julia Stiles (Jason Bourne) is the only other major player to stand out. In fact, Stiles does so with much less screen time than anyone else, not to mention hardly any lines.

Hustlers is an entertaining and fascinating peek inside a few different worlds. We’ve seen these worlds before, though often from very a different perspective. And rarely has the result felt as honest without becoming a diatribe or so dark that the watching was a chore.

Hustlers will let you laugh (a lot) and enjoy the story, it just won’t apologize for not covering up at least some of the darker realities of the lives it is sharing. And, more importantly, it is definitely a film and performances worth your time to see on the big screen, where the intimacy is forced upon you. On a small screen this movie will lose some of its punch by providing you distance and the ability to more easily look away from what you don’t want to see.

 

Wild Rose

[3 stars]

It’s hard to cheer for a horribly flawed character who can’t get out of their own way, but Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl) manages to (eventually) get you behind her. It’s a strong and exposed performance. But, be warned, it is a long and frustrating journey getting to that ending.

For her first feature script, Nicole Taylor created a raw and uncompromising look at the life of Rose-Lynne. While that approach often makes it hard to watch, there is also a warmth and sense of hope buried in there to keep you engaged. A lot of that comes from from Julie Walters (Mary Poppins Returns) and Sophie Okonedo (Hellboy), who each support Rose-Lynne’s efforts in different ways.

Director Tom Harper (Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) also helps by keeping the tale rolling along. His hands are mostly invisible as he pulls the strings, allowing the story to tell itself. But when he wants to make a point, he’s more than willing to manipulate the frame or moment to drive it home. Time and space throughout the film are a little fungible; I never had a sense of distance, geography, or time throughout the film. That gap didn’t always matter, but there were moments when it would have enhanced the story and the lack was distracting. In addition, the ending and the message of Rose-Lynn’s journey, is less than clear. I know what both Harper and Taylor want you to think (there are plenty of interviews available to suss it out if it wasn’t intuitable), but I can’t say either I or my viewing partner felt the intended message.

The end result is something like a more hopeful cross between Broken Circle Breakdown and the more recent Vox Lux. Wild Rose is entertaining and angering and satisfying. Given the lack of clarity of vision, how it resonates with your own life and sensibilities isn’t something I think I can predict. But the performances are fantastic and even the music, whether or not you like Country (I don’t, typically), is well selected to engage all listeners.

Poms

[3 stars]

Insanely predictable, infectiously entertaining.  If movies like Finding Your Feet, Calendar Girls, or Last Vegas make you smile, this is another for your list. It’s a silly, but effective, romp with a group of older retirees, complete with old and young nasty girls arrayed against them.

Diane Keaton (Book Club) leads the motley gang of ladies with a curmudgeonly style. But it is Jacki Weaver (Bird Box) that dominates the screen with her brash energy. The group also has a number of recognizable and surprising faces like Pam Grier, Rhea Perlman  (I’ll See You in My Dreams), Phyllis Somerville, as well as relative newcomer (in this group), Alisha Bo  (Thirteen Reasons Why).

In addition to the women, there are a couple male characters that stand out. In particular, Charlie Tahan (Love is Strange) as the rescued grandchild and Bruce McGill as the comical chief of security.

As a first fiction feature by documentarian Zara Hayes, it is well-paced and cleverly avoids some challenges. And the imperfect script by first-timer Shane Atkinson makes its point; but aspects of the story are a little surfacy or rushed at times. However, if you don’t finish this one with a bittersweet smile ready to take on the world, this movie wasn’t for you.

Family

[3 stars]

The original descriptions of this first directorial outing by Laura Steinel (Red Oaks) left me utterly uninterested in exploring its twisted view of suburbia and work life. After chancing across a trailer, however, I gave it a shot and was surprised.

It is far from a great film, but when it stops trying to be funny, it actually is. And it comes together into a sweet tale of growing up…no matter your age. The story is told through Taylor Schilling’s (The Titan) point of view…a woman made of the cliche character fodder that made Tina Fey a star. But Bryn Vale (Red Band Society) works well with her and, almost steals the film with her lost, disaffected youth. There are also a few surprise supporting roles peppered throughout the story that were fun to pick out.

I can’t say Insane Clown Posse was ever high on my musical like lists, but this movie certainly shifted my perspective of their Juggalo followers (some history on the term here if you’re interested). And while this isn’t the greatest film you’ll see, it is unexpected. It isn’t a bad way to spend an evening if you’re looking for a bit of heart-warming humor.

Teen Spirit

[3 stars]

There is nothing particularly bad about Teen Spirit. It is a sweet film about a singer coming into her own, dealing with the challenges of family and the industry. There is also nothing particularly brilliant, though it works on its own level. Elle Fanning (I Think We’re Alone Now) is as impressive as ever in her abilities, and it turns out she has some vocal chops as well. She lacks presence on screen though, a problem this waif-like actor often has, which is a deficit in this story. Despite her one big number, she just never really commands attention the way you’d expect someone destined to be a star could do. But, then again, neither does her coach, Zlatko Buric, who was supposed to be a star in his past.

The real star of Teen Spririt is writer/director Max Minghella (Into the Forest) who, for his first directing gig and sophomore script, shows some real promise. His editing choices, in particular, make it clear he was in command of his vision. And he pulled solid performances out of his cast.

The sensibility of the story is more Worried About the Boy than it is Sing Street or Once. The energy is very personal and introspective with moments of song. But its moment of triumph isn’t intended to be on stage, though that is part of it. Accepting that aspect of the flow helps with embracing the intent.

Legacy: Black Ops

[3 stars]

It isn’t so much the story that makes this powerful as much as Idris Elba’s (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) performance. The story itself is fairly straight-forward and obvious, but his journey through the story is not. And the ending will leave you with more questions than answers (in a good way).

Director, writer (and even editor) Thomas Ikimi crafts this primarily psychological suspense with a sharp eye. He backs Elba’s efforts with careful visual construction. He only distrusts his audience once or twice in the 90ish minutes, and never in a way that is insulting. The ultimate point and message of the story is slowly eeked out before hammering it home. One interesting bit of trivia about this movie is that it introduced Lara Pulver (The City & The City) to screen in a supporting role.

Even 10 years after its release, this movie is still topical and insightful, but this isn’t a laid-back or relaxed story for a fun evening; be prepared for the dark.

The Hummingbird Project

[3 stars]

Well, this is no Big Short, but it tries hard to make an audacious effort interesting through the personal journeys around it. Unfortunately, writer/director Kim Nguyen (Bellevue) never quite gets us to buy into that effort, nor the people, enough to invest in the human aspect of the story. And neither does the overall metaphor really drive the experience. But, just in case you missed it, he drives it all home in the end to be sure you got the message.

Jesse Eisenberg (Cafe Society) top-lines and drives the movie’s plot, but it’s Alexander Skarsgård (The Aftermath) who runs away with this movie. It is an unusual role for him in many ways…not the least of it being his partially shaved head. I must admit this last aspect was incredibly distracting for me because it was so out of place for the actor I recognized. However, his performance was solid and complex.

Salma Hayek (How to be a Latin Lover) was also interesting in a supporting role, but I could never decide if I believed her or not. The world of Finance exposed in the story is specific and rarefied. Many of the choices around her were good, but there was something lacking either in the story or her performance to completely sell it for me. The movie didn’t grab me enough to make me dig too deeply into that lack to better define it. Michael Mando (Spider-Man: Homecoming), on the other hand, brought in a completely believable engineer and crew chief. He had the most thankless of the parts in the cast, but is very much the glue that holds it all together.

The bones of the plot are based on very real challenges and fights that continue to go on in the trading world. And while it affects everyone, nearly no one is aware or wants to be aware. On Nguyen’s side, I think that’s why he took this niche aspect as a wedge to a bigger truth in today’s society. He just doesn’t manage to balance it all to permit both aspects to come through with impact.

It: Chapter Two

[3.5 stars]

Director Andy Muschietti definitely delivered on the promise he made with It: Chapter One.  From its powerful opening moments through to its end, the story drives relentlessly and wraps up the Derry saga.

Part of the strong showing of this story is the brilliant ensemble, which is perfectly balanced to keep any one character from dominating. And the casting choices to help bridge the 27 year gap was mostly dead on. In fact, it is so nicely seamless, I don’t see a need to call out anyone individually.

This was always going to be the harder of the two parts of the tale to tell. For starters, the adults are more complex characteres, complicated by age and amnesia. Gary Dauberman (The Nun) made some interesting choices in his adaptation. Some of them were clever and interesting, and others were baffling. In particular, there are catch phrases (“dead lights,” “beep, beep”) that didn’t show up in the first part, but that play in the second. Also, while the opening of this movie sets up the horror and mood, it isn’t particularly well used in the end. I understand the purpose, but also wonder at some of the choices which were made to set the movie apart from the book. And it seems like there are some timeline challenges as well if you look too closely.

I did indeed rewatch It (Chapter One) before heading to this resolution. I probably didn’t need to as the film does a good job of reminding you of the parts you need to recall. It also spends time in the past as the Losers recover their memories.

If you enjoyed the first movie and like the book, you will enjoy the second movie. But you can’t rightly call it a sequel because the stories just don’t mean much separately, and there is a beauty to seeing them in close proximity. This does include a challenge for the audience, as you have to be willing to understand the characters as adults and let go of their childhood. That is one of the best aspects of the classic novel, but some folks may find it hard to let go of the simple innocence of the children for the more nuanced adults. When the film is looking at those more adult problems, it is frankly at its best…better even than the many shocking scares, which will make you jump, but which are just variations on what we’ve all seen before.

At nearly 3 hours, the movie is quite the investment in time, but I never found myself bored and am glad I saw it on big screen, where Muschietti’s efforts and eye are very much on display. And in Dolby, the subsonics will shake the heck out of your seat. Obviously, this isn’t a stand-alone flick, so don’t jump into it here, see the first part…well, first. As a whole, it is quite the exercise in adaptation. Sure, I have issues with aspects of the results and choices, but it is still quite the achievement to make it float (sorry) for the 5.5 hour total screen time.

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