Tag Archives: 3stars

The Darkest Minds

[3 stars]

I have to admit, this movie was a good deal better than I expected given how badly it bombed at the box office. That doesn’t mean it’s great, but it was watchable…with occasional moments of yelling at the screen for dumb story choices. I’ll get back to the writing, but better first to compliment the cast who shouldn’t be overlooked for the weaknesses in the production.

Amandla Stenberg, who got her first big break as Rue in The Hunger Games, leads the cast of young actors through this latest hellish landscape of a dystopian future. She does so with a good deal of charisma and a nice emotional journey. Along with her companions, Harris Dickinson (Trust), Skylan Brooks (The Get Down), and Miya Cech, they battle their way to a potential future. And, of course, there’s the only slightly veiled, slightly creepy (and much toned down from book) Patrick Gibson (The OA) who joins them along the way.

The young cast hang onto control of the movie well, even when there are much more practiced adult actors sharing the stage with them. Among those, Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down), Gwendoline Christie (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Wade Williams are the ones that pop. And then, of course, there is the amusing West Wing revenge of Bradley Whitford (The Post) who finally gets to sit in the President’s chair for this one.

Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda) managed her cast and the material she had well. But that is the problem, the material, which is solidly tween/teen in its maturity.

So, now back to the story itself.

Writer Chad Hodge (Wayward Pines) delivered a very un-adult script. Why things happen and how the world deals with them are lensed through the mind of a teen, with a teen’s understanding of how the world works. I’m not talking about perspective of the film, I’m talking about the writer and the amount of thought and research he put into their plot. If I’d known it was Hodge behind the keyboard going in I’d have been less surprised.

Dystopian stories are currently all the rage, but they are all riding the coattails of The Hunger Games. Hunger Games didn’t create YA dystopias, but it certainly set the expectation bar for how much money could be made by turning them into movies. The problem is, the studios have never understood why that movie took off and others (The Host, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc.) never really did.

Certainly there was a difference in the quality of the writing and, in some cases, the quality of the casting and/or directing. But really the answer is much simpler. Hunger Games, for all its futuristic framework, looks like this world and acts (mostly) like this world, and included adult thinking in its plot choices. It also took an important lesson from the Harry Potter series.

People who don’t read a great deal of science fiction or fantasy are not comfortable in thoroughly made-up worlds they are unfamiliar with. Hunger Games, like Potter, slowly acclimated a generation of readers into its world. Potter spent more than the first half of the first book in an English town and then only slowly opened the world around Hogwarts over the next 2 books. By the time they got there, most readers were completely unaware of the journey they’d taken and were willing to accept all amount of strangeness, because now it was familiar. Hunger Games managed a similar, if a bit more rapid, immersion.

Darkest Minds is a familiar world, but almost immediately has people with powers, which jumps the credibility line for a good deal of the viewing public. They’ll buy into it, but in fewer numbers and with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek nodding. It’s a shame, really, as almost all fiction these days is really genre based…Michael Crichton started that trend in spades decades back. But if the world is familiar enough to start, you can get an audience to go with you. This movie leaps too quickly into the weird and different to bring a large audience with it.

If you’re looking for distraction and some reasonable performances from up and coming young adults, it isn’t a bad afternoon. Certainly it is no more than a popcorn flick with grand intentions that are never achieved. Reaching for franchise had it stumbling. They should have gone for a standalone and hoped for the chance to take it further. The meat of a story was in there. The script let it down.

The Darkest Minds

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

[2.5 stars]

When Stieg Larsson died in 2004, he left us all hanging on the intended fate of Lisbeth Salander. His first three books weren’t the entire journey he’d envisioned. His fourth book will never see the light of day due to legal stupidity and family greed. And the final six lived only in his head. However, his remaining legal family licensed out the characters and commissioned more books, starting with The Girl in the Spider’s Web. I refused to support the ongoing book series, but I couldn’t resist checking out the movie. I wish I had.

Despite some real effort on the part of Claire Foy (First Man), this is a hollow movie with no heart at the core. The gap is in the plot and the script, which assume you know the previous stories (and are willing to forget parts of it as well). The story also veers radically from the central drives for Salandar and her relationships in the world.

This is most notable with Sverrir Gudnason (The Circle), who does a fine job of acting, but he isn’t Blomkvist. He’s far to young and pretty. And he has no emotional thread to grasp; though one is indicated in the script, the story isn’t there. He is a complicated man with complicated relationships, not just a foil or convenience with which to move the plot. Even the usually entertaining hacker Plague, Cameron Britton (Mindhunter), was somewhat flat in this story.

Three new characters were introduced into the series. Stephen Merchant (Logan) probably had the most levels to play with because the writers had to give him a story; we knew nothing about him from the beginning and it is his actions that start the plot. On the other hand Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) is OK, but sort of cookie-cutter American NSA from a European point of view. The writers assumed actions would obviate the need for character on his part. They were wrong.

More surprising was the lack of a character for Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049) playing Lisbeth’s sister. Forgetting how this and the rest of the revised/ignored backstory affects the series canon, there were rich possibilities for this woman, none of which were plumbed.

Director and co-writer Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did a beautiful visual job with the film. He also managed to capture the Swedish emotional sense with a lot of the characters. But he failed to recognize the weaknesses in the script and fight for better. And he allowed cliche to triumph over effort by some of his cast.

So the core issues of this come back to the script by writers Steven Knight (November Criminals) and Jay Basu. It feels like they took a passing knowledge of the books and decided to take those characters and throw them into a standard story. There is a small nod to the core of Salander’s, saving women or reacting to injustice, but that is simply there as a short grace note before dropping her into a Bond-like story that just isn’t a good fit and doesn’t further her purpose. However, and in some ways worse, some of the law enforcement research is awful, making the Swedish police and secret service into idiots.

So, to sum up, this is a somewhat mediocre action film and a very poor continuation of the Millennium series. Foy does a game job capturing the character, but never really gets to emotionally explore or expand her. As a stand-alone flick, without any knowledge of the base tale, you’d be watching a rather empty action movie with some clever bits to it. And there are some good moments and aspects, but this could have been a triumph, especially in the current climate. I’ll leave it to you whether or not to spend you time with it.

Overlord

[3 stars]

If you were somehow lucky enough to miss all the ads and trailers for Overlord, stop now and just see the movie blind. Honestly, the studio really did the flick a disservice by telling you what it was about. Part of the fun of the film is watching it all getting revealed, and they took that from me in spades.

OK, from here out I’m assuming you’ve seen the trailers and the ads. You’ve been warned.

Sure this is nothing but an update to Resident Evil by way of Dunkirk, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. It is, in fact, fairly well done and full of good moments, surprises, and the kind of splatter that combination would suggest. There is also a real sense of a good war film here that goes, shall we say, quite sideways. It is well shot and really rather well acted by most of the leads.

Jovan Adepo (Fences) is our way into this band of brothers…and it is very much a bro film. But Adepo gives it both heart and sense of danger. From early on it is clear that no one is safe in this story and that registers clearly for him, and through him to us. The machines of war quickly begin to eat up the people we meet.

Alongside Adepo fight a mixed batch of characters that each bring different levels and layers to the story. Wyatt Russell (Ingrid Goes West) is the seasoned veteran there to run the mission. John Magaro (Carol) is the smart-mouth jackass who nevertheless proves his mettle. And Mathilde Ollivier, in an early film for her, gives them something to fight for and just a touch of badly needed estrogen in the film. In a smaller role, but fun to see, is Iain De Caestecker (Lost River, The Fades) who does a great accent and has a bit of fun.

Arrayed against this motley gang are the Axis. Only a single Nazi stands out worth mentioning in that bunch: Pilou Asbæk (Ghost in the Shell). While it is a somewhat scenery chewing depiction of a German officer, he manages to find some balance, though not any heart. He certainly finds the creepy, which was his purpose in the tale.

Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) delivers a very watchable, enjoyable, and surprising movie for his Sophomore outing. Sure it is of a particular genre, but he doesn’t treat it that way. He treats it like a film about war, people, and the horror of what it takes to win and survive. Part of that success was the script from an unlikely pairing of Billy Ray (Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant). Both writers have a wide range of styles, but of very different sensibilities. Playing off the real events of Operation Overlord gave the two a solid underpinning for the story and its drives that allowed their talents to mesh well.

This was originally rumored to be a Cloverfield universe film. It is, in fact, designed much like those movies…slowly unrolling layers that end with unexpected aspects. But it isn’t part of that franchise in any other way. I wish the studio had believed in the quality of the film and allowed it to surprise and gather an audience. I get that it would have been challenging given the genre mash-up. Folks going for a war film would have been pissed and those showing up for pure horror would have been confused and angry that it doesn’t really become that till more than halfway through. But the story is compelling, well-paced, and nicely delivered. Definitely worth the big screen if you like either mashups, splatter horror, or both. And Avery is definitely a director you’re going to be seeing again, regardless of how Overlord legs out or not at the box office.

Bel Canto

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Paul Weitz (Grandma) has always enjoyed the unusual and quirky in stories. Bel Canto is certainly in that group, though a good deal darker than the rest of his opus. Unfortunately, it is also clear he isn’t very comfortable in that area. He was constantly dragging this story back more toward the lighter side, which diminished its tension and credibility.

Normally, Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars) would have overcome those issues and provided a performance to balance the lacks. Not in this case. Her Roxanne Coss is neither Diva nor wilting violet. And worse, she had no credibility as a singer. It is close, but her posture is all wrong, which ruined several key moments in the movie for me.

Ken Watanabe (Sea of Trees), as well, just never quite gains control of the story to give us someone to focus on, though he has nice interaction with Moore and Ryo Kase. Kase, more than these two, turns in a nice performance; perhaps the most believable of the cast.

The other half of the cast, the rebels, are all fine if not brilliant. The most interesting characters are Tenoch Huerta and María Mercedes Coroy who get to stand out by virtue of interactions with Moore and Kase.

In important side roles, Christopher Lambert (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) and Sebastian Koch (Bridge of Spies) make an impression as well.

Most of the movie issues are down to script and direction. There are powerful and interesting ideas in Bel Canto, but to absorb them you have to let go of reality and treat it as a near-surreal play. To really succeed it needed to stay more realistic. Without that there is no sense of threat and danger, not to mention loss. Weitz’s script is clear about what the story is from very near the beginning. For that approach to work we need to invest in the growing sense of connection and recognition of rebels as people without losing touch of the underlying realities. Koch’s character is intended as that interlocutor, but it just never comes together, at least not fully.

This is a movie for completists, whether for the director or the cast. I can’t say it is worth the investment solely on its own merits despite its message and reflection of current society.

Suspiria (2018)

[3.5 stars]

While Dakota Johnson (Bad Times at the El Royale) does a passable job in her role, and Chloë Grace Moretz (November Criminals) helps launch the tale, they aren’t the reasons to see this movie. The reason to see this film is Tilda Swinton (Okja), who executes three roles in service to the story and the intent. Her main role is obvious, as the Dance Master of the troop. But the other two roles take a bit of effort to see. All three are done beautifully, with the complex emotions and physicality you’d expect from this wonderful performer. Her efforts alone were worth the price of admission for me.

Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has taken Dario Argento’s original concept and, with the help of David Kajganich’s (A Bigger Splash) script, expanded on it as well as added meat to its bones. This remake is more of a real story than just a psychological splatter pic. The multiple roles for Swinton are just the tip of it. There are dualities and mirrors all over the story, from a divided Berlin to the  Baader-Meinhof connection (and even its subsequent psychological phenomenon) to male/female, high/low, etc. The layering is thick and fast; this is a movie that takes time to unpack.

Let me put it this way: Have you ever finished a film and feel like it came to a point, but have a heck of a time nailing it down? This remake of Suspiria is like that. There is a lot going on with metaphors upon metaphors not to mention just a darn good classic horror/suspense thing going on. But it doesn’t exactly spoon feed you (or force feed you) all of its intent. Some is obvious from the beginning, other aspects develop, and some will likely leave you pondering the purpose. The original was as much art house as it was horror as well, so building on that legacy isn’t a bad thing. It does mean that not everyone will be satisfied, especially when such a classic horror like Halloween is available in the theater next door.

Like the original, this movie is also violent. Whether it is violent toward women or in support of them is arguable. It is intensely weird and definitely dense and inscrutable at times. Guardagnino makes some challenging choices near the end that force you to shift your thinking. But it does feel complete, as I’ve said. The structure is there and, as I chipped away at it for hours after viewing, I made sense of a lot of it. Does that mean it worked or that, despite oblique choices, I was able to create sense out of a chaos? I guess you’ll have to be the judge.

If you’re a fan of the original or like horror that has a bit more going on, like Hereditary, then you should give this a chance. If you don’t want to go to theater, it will end up on Prime eventually, but it is visually impressive on the big screen.

The Happy Prince

[3  stars]

When Oscar Wilde died, he was buried beneath a monstrosity of neo-classical faux Egyptian frieze of his own design…that, of course, had an enormous phallus extending from the winged vision of himself like some kind of air rudder or, more likely, a final statement to the world for how they treated him. So the story goes, shortly after its unveiling an elderly woman came by and whacked the adornment off with her umbrella.

Whether apocryphal or accurate, the sense of that ongoing tale, told daily in Père Lachaise cemetery, is mirrored in this reflection of Wilde’s final years. A clash of ego and society, a sense of self versus a sense of decorum. Woven though the movie is the thread of Wilde’s own children’s tale, The Happy Prince, which metes out the lesson much more poignantly. It reminds us also what he gave to the world and what the world did to him.

Writer, director, and star Rupert Everett (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) wore many hats for this period production. He gives us a tired and ruined Wilde in the last couple years of life, but with a strong memory of what came before. It is an intriguing performance, though only sympathetic through the actions of others against him; Wilde is just not a very nice guy in almost any way in this portrayal, though he is deeply passionate. Everett’s directing is subtle and he navigates a very complex narrative to bring us to the end. Ultimately this is as much metaphor about artists and outsiders as it is about Wilde (the near ultimate of both).

Everett is helped along by a number of solid performances, by the likes of Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), Emily Watson (Lear), and Tom Wilkinson (The Titan) to name a few. Joshua McGuire (Lovesick [nee Scrotal Recall]) has a particularly strong bit part to deliver too. However, it is Colin Morgan (The Living and the Dead), as Wilde’s long-time and volatile lover, Bosie (Lord Douglas), and Edwin Thomas as Wilde’s longtime friend that form the structure of the tale and its downward spiral with intense performances.

The Happy Prince isn’t a happy tale, to be sure. I can’t tell whether Everett liked or disliked Wilde, but he certainly tried to tackle him in one big gulp with this first feature script and first time directing. Unlike another recent artist biopic, Final Portrait, while we do get a glimpse inside the mature artist at the end of his days, we don’t quite get a sense of why he was the icon he had been; it is in this I think Everett missed, or perhaps made, his point. Honestly, either works but we’re more used to seeing Wilde as an outrageous and brilliant character than as a broken man. It isn’t that there aren’t moments of joy and glimpses of his glorious past, but simply that it is all through Wilde’s lens of loss with little triumph.

Ultimately, it isn’t a great film due to its pacing and slightly muddled resolution and focus. But it is a disturbing reflection of our current times and a hard look at the end of Wilde’s life without flinching. If you are intrigued by Wilde’s life, it is a look at this period in a rather different way than we’ve seen before in films like Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance or the more recent (and wonderful) Wilde. The performances are a study in quiet longing and devotion, even when unreciprocated. And the recreation of the era across several countries well executed. That may sound a bit clinical, but as I noted, Wilde, who dominates the story, isn’t particularly sympathetic, even if those around him are. It is a film you need to be in the mood or be warned that it may take you some dark places.

Tig

[3.5 stars]

Tig Notaro (In a World…) is a comic with a unique delivery and an even more unique story. I know I’m late to discovering this one, but I was impressed enough with the docu to recommend it to those who also may have missed it up till now.

Notaro was a rising star when events conspired, in an avalanche, to try and derail her. What followed those events was a study in perseverance and, yes I’ll say it, moxy. She took tragedy and coped with it by turning into something of value. Not immediately and not easily, but she did it. That is one portion of this docu.

The other aspect of this documentary is a smaller portion, but adds an interesting layer. You get to watch the evolution of a routine and the honing of a joke. I was reminded strongly of the ongoing edit sequence of the comedian’s efforts in All That Jazz till it was perfect. It is a lesson and a wonder to watch the choices and the subtlety of the effort (not to mention the bravery of a stand-up trying out work to see what’s ready or bombing).

I will admit that while I very much enjoyed this Tig installment, her more recent 2018 special Tig Notaro: Happy to Be Here is less solid. I don’t fault her for that, and it makes a fascinating companion piece to see what three years and life changes offered her comedy. I imagine that will continue to evolve because, if nothing else, this docu and her specials prove she is a comedienne through and through, and one to be reckoned with who will continue to surprise as life offers her material.  And, regardless of your interest in comedy, Notaro’s story is ultimately an empowering and positive one.

Sorry to Bother You

[3 stars]

Writer/director Boots Riley certainly didn’t tackle an easy narrative for his first feature film. This movie goes from broad humor, to dark humor, to absurdist, to surreal over the course of its unreeling. A strange journey indeed. Sort of a more grounded Idiocracy, and yet more disturbing for that fact. Riley even consciously nods to Eyes Wide Shut in both his approach and specific scenes.  It is also the latest in a growing collection of social commentaries across many genre (Get OutBlacKkKlansman, etc).

Lakeith Stanfield (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) carries this film with a guileless approach. He accepts all the world has to throw at him and tries to play by the rules and then to use the rules to his favor. He is supported by his primary companions Tessa Thompson (Furlough), Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts), and Steven Yeun (Okja), who are each on their own journey and with their own sets of challenges for him and for themselves.

Three smaller roles provide impetus. Danny Glover (Old Man & the Gun) and Terry Crews (Deadpool 2) become mentors, of a sort. They represent two sides of the same coin for Stanfield to consider. And then there is Armie Hammer (Final Portrait), who gets to play an understated Steve Jobs-like character that serves a multitude of purposes. Hammer does an excellent job of keeping him human, despite the baggage the character has to represent.

There is no question that this is an interesting film. It is often funny. It is packed with commentary, some of it shouted at a very shrill pitch. But it isn’t just aimed at race, it encompasses art, personal success, corporate responsibility, political ennui, general happiness…the list goes on. Like I said, Riley tackled a complex narrative. It isn’t an easy film, but it manages to keep you as the world and story gets stranger and stranger, through to the final moments. But it definitely isn’t a film for everyone; it really depends on your tolerance for the bizarre.

I Think We’re Alone Now

[3 stars]

Peter Dinklage (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) and Elle Fanning (How to Talk to Girls at Parties) may not be your first thought as a pairing, but the two balance each other nicely with neither’s presence taking over the screen at the cost of the other.  And, as unlikely as they are, they make a credible couple…given the circumstances. And, yes, circumstances matter. These two are the latest to tackle what is becoming a renewed trend: quiet apocalypse films.

Director Reed Morano (Handmaid’s Tale) takes her time laying out the tone and emotional landscape of these survivors. Like Into the Forest, These Final Hours, Z for Zachariah, even 10 Cloverfield Lane and A Quiet Place, to a degree, the end of the world is a backdrop to an emotional drama rather than the point of the story. The movie also manages marry current sensibilities with two classics from The Twilight Zone: Burgess Meredith’s turn in Time Enough at Last and Elizabeth Montgomery/Charles Bronson’s Two. And if you haven’t seen these two, find time to do so.

Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Snowman) and Paul Giamatti (Morgan) round out the small cast and add some necessary layers. Neither is particularly brilliant in their roles, but they are intended to feel out of place.

By the end, it is clear the film is as much metaphor as it is its own story. In fact, it has several messages, some highly personal and human and some social commentary (particularly in the final moments). It is to Marano’s credit that she delivers a kaleidoscope that allows you resolve those aspects that reflect on your own mood and place in life.

As always, watching Dinklage perform is a pleasure. Fanning delivers as well, adding another positive result in an opus that is less consistent for me. This isn’t a fast or even overly intense story, but it is highly human and very effective.

Boundaries

[3 stars]

This is a hard one to discuss. There are reasons to see this movie, but it isn’t ultimately for the story. Rather, you see this for the performances.

Christopher Plummer (Remember) sheds all of his typical uptightness and let’s loose with a morally reprehensible character who is also funny as hell. Vera Farmiga (The Commuter) as his semi-wannabe-estranged daughter manages to present the conflict of an ignored and abused child-now-adult dealing with the fallout. And as her son, Lewis MacDougall (A Monster Calls) creates a third generation casualty of the same. The dance between these three is the movie and is just as often disturbing as it is amusing. Around them are a collection of other interesting characters which they bounce off of during a most unusual road trip.

The issue with this movie isn’t that it isn’t entertaining, it is. And I will warn you that I am possibly giving away a bit here: It is also some of the worst wish-fulfillment and glossing of issues I’ve seen in similarly talent-laden movies. Real issues are brought up in the story. Real moments and confrontations occur throughout. But, somehow, that all gets forgotten or forgiven with barely a blink. Honestly, I kinda had to grit my teeth through the fairy tale ending and final cascade of shots. Writer/director Shana Feste (Country Strong) should be banned from creating scripts until she learns how to really commit and tell the story she intended (laughs, warts, and all) and not wimp out. There was a different road that could have been taken and that still could have been redemptive.

So should you see this? Yes. See it for the main actors and their supporting cast. There are some really good and complex performances. Just be prepared for a less than genuine resolution.