Tag Archives: 3stars

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.

Hunter Killer

[2.5 stars]

An uneven adventure film that has its moments, but pisses them away at almost every turn with painful cliches though it manages to escape others. And, saddest of all, the last major appearance of Michael Nyqvist (John Wick). It isn’t as bad as Raul Julia’s Street Fighter, but this clunky action film gets sunk by Donovan Marsh’s uneven directing that no amount of talent can overcome. I will admit that there are moments where it works, particularly when the military in the field are working together. But that is, often as not, followed up by moments of absurd scenes with the likes of Gary Oldman (Tau), whose great talent is sorely abused into an histrionic military leader who would have never risen to his position.

That aspect of the characters makes this actioner into a weird, blue-collar polemic. Simply put: Those in power are fools; those on the ground are the sober thinkers. The truth is that most military leaders in first-world countries are very calm, considered people who hate to risk lives without purpose or to play politics… well, ever. The fantasy world of Hunter Killer resurrects false views of the military, at least our military, from decades ago.

The movie isn’t entirely absurd on that level though. There are few characters that have risen to admirable leaders. Gerard Butler (Den of Thieves) is a fairly credible, if somewhat wooden-er than usual, submarine captain. And Nyqvst gives us a subtle and stoic Russian as his counterpart. But Common (Smallfoot), though calm and collected, just has no credibility as a 1-star general. It is a hollow performance, however earnest. And Linda Cardellini (Green Book), though allowed to have brains, is also guilty of a silent coup thanks to the writing. And even some of Butler’s crew come across as having been inappropriately promoted, particularly his XO played by Carter MacIntyre.

Now, all that said, if you squint…quite a bit…the story is engaging and tense, particular during the fighting and evading scenes as most good sub stories can be. The setup is intriguing and the cinematography really something spectacular at times. But it isn’t a good movie. It is barely a passable one. It could have been so much more, but the producers clearly had a point of view and no sense of the real world, only the macho world they envision as they mouth-breathe their nights away.

Obit. (x2)

[3.5 stars]

Making a story about life out of writing about death seems contradictory, but Vanessa Gould’s long-form documentary about the New York Times obituary desk manages just that. It is also a fascinating look behind a section of the paper you may not have put a lot of thought behind.

Our tour is constructed of interviews with the small crew of writers as well as an amusing look at the news morgue and its denizens.  Through these Gould gives us a picture of the mechanics and the care brought to the often dry and sometimes entertaining encapsulations of life that grace the paper daily. It is a look back at an old craft as well as evolution of the craft in modern times.

It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is an interesting one, and crafted to carry you through. To be fair, it would be hard, without forcing it, to create a story around the subject, so it is more a behind-the-scenes and philosophical discussion. But whatever you think of obituaries or your interest in them, you will never notice them again in the same way.

As a bonus, while searching for this documentary I unexpectedly came across a clever short by the same name and did a double feature. Unlike the documentary, this is a short drama, but it makes a reflective coda to the evening.  Director Brian Tolle is much better known for his effects work on major blockbusters, but this short drama shows his eye for structure and character, handling Reddy’s script deftly and guiding George Maguire through a complex character over the 10 minutes. Tolle is a bit less sure with Sandra Fish (Sense8), but she has moments. Add this one to your list when you’ve a small gap of time to fill. It is fine with or without the double feature, but it definitely added something to see them together.

Obit

Isn’t It Romantic

[3 stars]

This is a movie for cynics, cynics who secretly harbor a romantic heart, and romantics tired of the same-old story, even though they constantly order it on the menu. It isn’t a great movie, but it is a diverting one. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson takes the same wry look at this genre as he did with horror in Final Girls.  He skewers the romance genre while also delivering exactly the kind of movie you expect. It isn’t as smooth or complete as his previous offering, but it is certainly entertaining.

Primarily the success of the approach here is down to Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect 3, Night at the Museum). Her energy and cranky wit stand in for our incredulity and hopes. She is this film. Of course, she has some good talent to play off of as well.

Adam Devine (The Intern), her off-time comedy other-half, comes through nicely. He even gets to be more restrained in this completely unrestrained romp. Liam Hemsworth (Independence Day: Resurgence) gets to expand on the family Hemsworth tradition of gorgeous hunks making fun of themselves. And Betty Gilpin (Glow) and Brandon Scott Jones (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) each get to have some nice transformations.

Most of the issues in this silly story are down to script. As an early film by the triumverate of writers on the project, it isn’t at all bad, just a little unpolished and uneven (and weirdly neither American nor Australian in its feel and execution). It is still very funny and, at times, even insightful as it embraces and makes fun of the genre and its audience.

For a silly distraction, and a bit of heart-felt warmth, give this one a shot when you’re ready for it. That could be to make fun of it or to cheer it along. Part of the smarts of this film is that it works for either sensibility.

Nutcracker and the Four Realms

[3 stars]

So, if you thought from the trailers that this was a thinly re-veneered Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz, you’d be mostly right. But it is also an interesting retelling of the story Tchaikovsky adapted to his infamous ballet over 100 years ago. While it is more complete as a story than the ballet, it is still aimed at a young audience and is rather simple in its telling and resolution. Given its primary audience is tweens that isn’t unfair, it just is less enduring and interesting in the result.

I will say that co-directors, Lasse Hallström (A Dog’s Purpose) and Joe Johnston (Captain America) and first-time feature writer Ashleigh Powell did manage to provide a strong heroine to lead the tale. Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) is not just an observer in this story. She is bright, charismatic, strong and very much her own savior.

The production values and design are also wonderful. Among these aspects I include the supporting players from the realms who are built out of that vision. Helen Mirren (The Leisure Seeker), Keira Knightley (Colette), Morgan Freeman (Just Getting Started), and relative newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight are all just extensions of that world and each delivers nicely.

This isn’t a great movie. It is a simple tale of a young woman growing up and accepting herself and her family. There are no surprises and even the warmest moments feel a little glossed over. It doesn’t even rely heavily on the music you are so familiar with, which will be a disappointment to many, I’m sure. But it is a reasonable and beautifully escape for an evening and it has a good message. I didn’t feel I’d waste my time, I just don’t see this becoming the classic it might have been had the story been a little richer.

The Front Runner

[3 stars]

I want to start with what is good with this story because, honestly, it is a film worth seeing even if it doesn’t accomplish what I’d have liked.

At the top of the positive aspects of the film is Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman) who delivers a solid performance as the idealistic Gary Hart. Vera Farmiga (Boundaries), as his wife, also tackles the challenge of her situation with a decidedly adult demeanor. The rest of the cast is solid, but none pop. Even J.K. Simmons (The Snowman), who normally stands out amid a crowd, just isn’t enough of a focus to make him memorable. This is mostly because the story is very focused on Hart and his family. The resulting story is neither a whitewash nor a vilification of Hart, Rice, or even most of the journos involved. Jason Reitman’s (Tully) direction keeps the story honest (even if the script misses the mark by a wide margin on making it’s point).

So let’s talk about what the movie missed. This moment in history was a seminal moment in politics and journalism, one from which we’ve never recovered. But the impact of that is never really achieved on screen. Recently, Vice laid out another aspect of the dismantling of objective journalism and the ending of the Fairness Doctrine. But it was only one aspect of the changes that have occurred. The story of Gary Hart is the other.

Front Runner never establishes what things were like before the moment the Miami Herald made Donna Rice a household name. There are brief conversations, but no real sense of the indelible change and the impact that has brought us to today. A day when there is absolutely no privacy and journalism, real journalism, is a dying skill…a skill who’s value is not even understood by a large portion of the public it used to serve. Worse, the highest offices in the land seem fit to claim open, honest, balanced journalism is “an enemy of the people.” Well, this is how it all really started. But without a clear touchstone for what it had been, it simply becomes a story we watch rather than comprehend.

With a well-documented serial philanderer in the White House, and blatant racists serving in Congress and state houses, it is easy to forget that politicians not only used to be held to a higher standard when confronted, but that any information on their private lives was not even considered germane only 35 years ago. Everything changed with the journalistic and self-destruction of Gary Hart.

Unfortunately, this movie didn’t quite capture that aspect. While there is still real investigative reporting out there, the larger group of news, print, and online are chasing entertainment or simply printing what they need to get eyeballs, regardless of the rigor behind the story or the veracity. And by doing so, they’ve often become the unwitting weapons of those they are trying to expose. And many readers have lost the ability to take in the information critically to pull apart fact from conjecture and opinion. They’d rather take their news in unverified tweets. In other words, the Fifth Estate is under siege from both within and without.

Think this is all hyperbole? Consider that just last week (blog time) Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion suggesting that libel law protections for journalists and their papers put in place by New York Time vs Solomon should be overturned.

OK, rant over. As a movie Front Runner is definitely worth seeing. You may want to dig a bit more into the information to understand the context. This isn’t The Post, it is really more about the man than the implications. That was a legitimate choice, but not the more important one in my opinion.

The Bookshop

[3.5 stars]

One of the things I love most about independent British cinema is that even when they are following formulas, they never quite get there as you expect. And with The Bookshop, well, it isn’t even the formula you think it is…not entirely. While it is a romance, it is also a look at small town politics, reputation, privilege, and personal values. And, yes, books.

There are many tropes in Isabel Coixet’s (Learning to Drive) adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. Each trope is loaded with expectations and given just enough rope to make it complete through her careful direction. How each resolves, or might resolve, is part of the journey. And the journey certainly intrigued a number of festivals and awards juries.

Emily Mortimer (Mary Poppins Returns) drives the story with an odd but powerful presence. She never quite fully gels for me, but is still compelling. Bill Nighy (Ordeal by Innocence), Patricia Clarkson (Maze Runner: The Death Cure), James Lance (The Look of Love), and even the young Honor Kneafsey (Crooked House) are also all equally gripping but somehow not quite real. Since the entire film is framed with a forced narration, turning it into a story on its own, that seems about right, if a little unexpected in feeling.

Whatever you think this movie is going in, or even while watching it for that matter, just let it take you where it wants. It is a journey worth taking though it may not be quite the journey you expected or even quite at the level of believability in tone as you’d like. It works, and it is full of wonderful moments and prompts for your own, personal consideration, just like the good book it aspires to be.

Alita: Battle Angel

[3 stars]

There is a lot to like and a lot to hate in this epic adventure. It is packed with incredible visuals, a strong female lead, amazing fights, and some great moments. To dislike, with prejudice, are several chunks of the script and the non-ending (again, thanks to the script). Did I mention the script?

There was so much anticipation around this first big offering of 2019. The pedigree was solid with Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), king of the low-budget high-impact green screen, at the helm. It even had James Cameron behind it as producer and co-writer along with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon) with solid source material in a well-loved manga (Gunnm).

And, honestly, it starts off pretty well. Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) tackles Alita with a guileless honesty that manages to not feel stupid. Christoph Waltz (Tulip Fever) guides her journey with some actual depth and character. Even Jennifer Connelly (Stuck in Love), whose character is more than a little cliche, manages to broaden it out to something richer than what was provided on the page. Keean Johnson (Nashville) gives Salazar a reasonable foil and love interest, though he doesn’t quite have the experience to make the role much more than how it was written. Then, of course, there is Mehershala Ali (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), the man who’s everywhere this year. Ali gets to have some fun…if not blaze new ground or create a role of a lifetime. Jackie Earle Haley (Damnation Alley) and Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled) put together some fun, if unsurprising, villains as well. Even Ed Norton (Isle of Dogs) has a small and, unremarkable, appearance.

But the story is incomplete. It literally ends on an ellipsis without a sense of completion. That is entirely on the script. This film was clearly intended as a first installment in a franchise…one that will never get made (at least for the big screen). But rather than help it stand on its own with a possibility of a future, it simply gets through some stuff and ends without any feeling of resolution. Some slight edits at the end might have helped avoid that feeling by moving some of the final action into or after the credits, but that isn’t what Rodriguez did. After bringing the story to a rather nice climax emotionally, he drops the ball and speeds directly through to the final moments and images.

And then there are the eyes. Alita’s eyes, a weird homage to its anime roots and attempt to make her look different, are, well, distracting. I think there was some intent there to highlight her uniqueness. But in a world where cyborgs and body mods are common, no one there seems to notice them and, as viewers, we just keep getting put off. Salazar’s acting was more than enough to get across the point, the eyes were overkill. It doesn’t ruin the performances or film, but it was the one serious production mistake.

The truth is that if you have any interest in this story or movie, you should see it on the big screen (3D or not is up to you, I saw it in Dobly and was suitably impressed) because it really won’t translate to small screen. Like Valerian, this is a sprawling visual feast with a lot of story that feels pretty common since its release (almost 20 years ago in this case). It is worth supporting for its attempt to do something new, despite its weak script. On the other hand, if you aren’t living to see this or desire some visual acrobatics for a relaxing couple hours away from the world, there are plenty of other choices out there.