Tag Archives: 3stars

Boss Level

[3 stars]

It’s  been a long while since we’ve had a Joe Carnahan (The Grey) directed film to enjoy. His last two major credits were just his scripts: Bad Boys For Life and Death Wish. The man knows suspense and action. I do wish he knew how to cast and direct actors a bit better, but you can’t have everything. Boss Level is a high-octane ride from start to finish, delivering a sort of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World meets Palm Springs.

The base weakness of the film is its lead, Frank Grillo (Disconnect, Avengers: Endgame). While Grillo is a great action actor, he doesn’t quite have the charisma and rakish charm necessary to be the leading man in a flick, even when that flick is mostly gritty action. It’s not a slam so much as a simple reality: some actors have “it” and some don’t. More the problem, after other darker anti-heroes like Deadpool, expectations are pretty high on how the character has to control the screen.

But the story is fun. Carnahan shares credit with Chris and Eddie Borey for the script. And it is nicely constructed, if a little late to the party on time-loop action tales. A shame, really; if it had come out sooner, it would have felt more unique.

Fortunately, with Naomi Watts (Ophelia) and a, surprisingly, contained and menacing Mel Gibson (The Expendables), there are some solid framing performances to hold it all down. Additional roles with Will Sasso (Klaus) and a much under-utilized Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery) help things along as well.

Boss Level was originally intended for a feature release. I think the shift to stream will actually gives it a better and longer life in the movie firmament. On screen it would have bombed, but as a stream, it better meets expectations and certainly entertains.

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Proxima

[3 stars]

I honestly wanted to like this movie more than I did. It has a lot going for it, but it also has some uncomfortable flaws for me.

On the high side, it was nice to be reminded that science fiction simply means that the story cannot happen without an aspect of science holding it together. Proxima takes some of the themes we’re seeing now in tales like Away and Gravity and really focuses on the personal challenges of space travel without disaster as the background to drive it forward. It even takes place almost entirely before the mission rather than during it.

And, also on the plus-side, Eva Green (Dumbo) makes a relatively credible astronaut in training…relatively. And here is the turn. Some of her decisions would seem to make her psychologically unfit for the position, but her effort and focus in the face of the training and toxic male attitude from colleagues like Matt Dillon (The House that Jack Built) are impressive.

Then again, the problem is primarily with Alice Winocour’s (Mustang) script more than her direction of the story. Green is even saddled with an asshole of an ex-husband in Lars Eidinger (Dumbo, High Life) as the father and Zélie Boulant as the over-indulged and petulant daughter. If I sound judgmental on this, I am. I understand the desire to create tension for the characters, but given that this is a tale intended to be in our future rather than the past, the issues feel both forced, and Green’s reaction too accepting of the situation, rather than pushing against them. And, honestly, the character needs some serious parenting skills and a better divorce attorney.

And then there were the penultimate scenes leading to the finale, which really is more of a coda. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with the story as it was finally laid out. It was effective narratively, but bordered on the absurd.

Ultimately, the story tries to look at the conflict between dreams and family, as well as the cost of space travel and the kind of people and commitment it takes for it to happen. But what we get is a questionable statement of what it is to be a woman generally, let alone in a male dominated industry. We get no counterpoint or balancing commentary. The tension of motherhood versus career has been around for centuries, but some careers do have particular requirements, and any story that tackles those spaces should get it a bit closer to accurate.

All of my frustrations aside, again mostly focused on the end rather than the journey, Winocour does create an interesting tale. And Green delivers a smart, driven character (again, with certain qualifications). Given her previous efforts, I actually am a bit surprised by Winocour’s choices. Still, this film is worth seeing for a number of aspects, and your reaction to the resolution may be less intense than my own.

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News of the World

[3 stars]

There are different ways to think about this film. At it’s heart, it is a Western in just about every sense of the world. More on the True Grit sort of the scale than Magnificent Seven, but you get the idea. But it’s also an echo of today in surprising and disturbing ways. Let’s just say there is nothing about this movie that will improve your opinion of the south generally or Texas specifically. News of the World is a reminder of what division in a country really means and how bias and prejudice can poison people.

But, of course, all of that is backdrop to the main story of Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). He’s a Civil War vet wandering the country, coming to terms with his life and deeds. Hanks is the perfect choice for this man who can (mostly) talk his way out of anything with a calm demeanor and kind heart. And then into his path drops the young and abandoned Helena Zengel. From there you can probably write the story yourself; there really aren’t many surprises. Despite the predictability the two work wonderfully together and you can’t help but invest in their partnership as they knock up against all manner of issues.

I can’t say I really loved this film. Paul Greengrass (Jason Bourne ) delivered exactly what he wanted: a period Western with a modern sort of undertone. He and Luke Davies (Beautiful Boy) produced a script with a veiled message about as subtle as a brick. But, the real challenge for me is that I am not a fan of Westerns because of the kind of characters and situations they include to begin with. A movie that leans into that is going to distance me from the start, regardless of message.

My personal bias aside, Greengrass gives you beautiful vistas and gritty reality. Even as part of the genre, it manages to rise a bit above. If you’re a Hanks fan, you’ll also not be disappointed by the man’s quiet control and power on screen. And the young Zengel has been provided a platform to really show her potential. Whether it’s worth your time or not is going to have to be your decision.

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Mortal

[3 stars]

Unexplained super-powers is becoming an overdone trope, which is why when you find one that tries to do something new, it’s a particular delight. André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) returns to his Nordic, Trollhunter roots to bring us a slow but intense tale of a young man, Nat Wolff (Admission), who suddenly acquires powers he can’t control or explain.

Iben Akerlie (Little Drummer Girl) plays opposite Wolff and balances him out well. In fact, she and Per Frisch are about the only clear-headed folks in the movie while Priyanka Bose (Lion) serves to remind the world of why Americans just shouldn’t be trusted. A sad cliché, but she navigates it relatively well within the bounds of the script.

As you can imagine, tragedy and stupid government decisions begin to occur. But this isn’t quite the story you expect, nor does it unfold exactly as others of its ilk. Sadly, it also doesn’t quite get to a conclusion so much as a beginning. Whether the tale will continue I imagine is still in flux, but the path is certainly there. In the meantime, if you can handle being left hanging (think a Brightburn kind of ending in style, though not in content), give it a shot. Definitely something a bit more interesting than the typical version of these tales.

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Minari

[3 stars]

There is something very sweet and true about Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s latest tale. It has also been massively lauded out on the circuit. I can’t say, however, that I was as enthralled, though I wasn’t unimpressed.

Minari is a tale of an immigrant family. And there is a lot going on in Steven Yeun (Sorry to Bother You) and Yeri Han’s transplanted unit. While both of these actors deliver on their tightly wound and fraying relationship, it is Alan Kim, as their son, and Yuh-jung Youn (Sense8) who you’ll remember best. And I say that even with Will Patton’s (The November Man) truly off-beat, affable, bible-thumping intensity filling in the background. But unlike, say, The Farewell, it never quite acquires a full shape.

The experience of the Ye family is provided at an historical distance. We’re dropped into Arkansas of the early 1980s. Mind you, other than the clothes, cars, and some background news you probably can’t tell what era it is, and perhaps that is part of the point. But I wish it had been a bit more contemporary. It isn’t that bad things happen from a community point of view; this story is focused on the internal struggles of the family rather than society. In fact, the neighbors are relatively accepting and open to their new residents. And the Ye’s are not breaking any ground by arriving either. Because of all that I question the choice of era as it only serves to distance us from the events and provides no useful frame to the story.

That said, it is a beautiful and subtle film about the relationships. A father attempting to achieve his dreams at all costs. A mother trying to support her family and protect those around her. A grandmother overflowing with sass and love. And two children trying to figure out where they fit in the family and trying to buffer their parents. All relatable and all delivered with amusing and, sometimes, painful honesty.

There is a lot to be said for Minari and it should be seen. Compared to the rest of the field out there, I do think it is being more than a little over-hyped. Go into it with a moderated expectation for an insightful look at a family struggling to survive the challenges that come at them, and those that they bring with them.

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Nomadland

[3 stars]

Nomadland asks two fairly simple questions: What is home? What is family? The answers, as we all know, aren’t that simple. Director and writer Chloé Zhao tackles the concepts in a quiet, but compelling exhibition that is primarily populated by real Nomads. The result has garnered a mountain of praise and awards notice.

Holding the various talking head segments together is Frances McDormand (Isle of Dogs), whose journey into the nomad life is told with barely an initial explanation. With David Strathairn (Fast Color) as a catalyst, we watch McDormand struggle inwardly until near the end when details are expressed. Though, to be fair, most of those are already understood by the audience, just not by her character.

For all its lauds, and its craft at pulling you along, Nomadland isn’t as good a film as I was expecting. I think McDormand has had better and more challenging roles. Strathairn is a somewhat unfinished and empty character. The stories and ideas we hear are interesting, but they feel like a documentary invaded the story-telling. Somehow it does come together, but it is best to watch this with no expectations, despite the hype that has been building around it over the last year. You’ll find it satisfying, but for a two hour narrative I think Zhao could have been more focused in her script.

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Staged (series 2)

[3 stars]

Staged is back and picks up from where the first series left off. David Tennant (Deadwater Fell) and Michael Sheen (Admission) return but are bit more…well, more this round. Further into the pandemic, and with their project being ripped from them, they’ve gone a bit intense.

The story is again loaded with guest spots. I won’t spoil them here, but some are a riot, though none quite as unexpected and funny as Dame Judy Dench’s appearance last round. These are all a bit more confrontational. Tennant and Sheen have no shame in allowing themselves to be the butt of jokes and pointed observation. It is part of their charm.

Staged continues to focus on the oddity of home isolation, but also explores the friendship of the two men more deeply. It is all very tangential to the machinations and arguments, but it is clear that neither character could do well without the other in their lives. And it provides a soft cushion for all of us to observe our own growing intensity as the pandemic passes the one year mark. For a dark laugh, including some serious belly laughs, check out the second installment of this short form series. With luck, we won’t need a third as we’ll all be back out in the world before Simon Evans can write it.

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Don’t Let Go

[3.5 stars]

You have to love a film that can suck you in early and then drag you along, guessing, right till the end. Writer/director Jacob Estes (The Details) delivers a driving suspense thriller that keeps going right up to the final credits. And that’s what you want from a ride like this. No time to really think. No slow moments to lose the momentum.

David Oyelowo (The Midnight Sky) is the primary driver of the story. His ability to give us a tough cop with a heart and screwed up family is really wonderful. He’s propelled through the story by his niece, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), who’s entertaining, but not entirely on the same level. Some of that is the writing and some the directing, but a good portion of it is on her. It’s a subtle role and she doesn’t always have the levels under control. Still, their relationship is compelling enough to keep it all going.

When you need a solid distraction of a good mystery with a bit of woo-woo mechanics, this one is definitely worth the time.

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The Stand (2021)

[3 stars]

Timing is everything in entertainment and The Stand, well, it couldn’t have picked a worse time. Despite the long anticipation, and the desire to see this epic tale told with the breadth it deserves, watching a story of a pandemic (even if it is just a McGuffin) doesn’t quite ring right at the moment.

But timing isn’t its only issue. The show suffers from all that was good in the book and all that was bad. Some of the casting works nicely, like Amber Heard’s (Aquaman) Nadine, Odessa Young’s (Shirley) Frannie, and even James Marsden’s (Sonic the Hedgehog) Stu. Other characters like Owen Teague’s (It: Chapter Two) Harold Lauder, and Nat Wolff’s (Admission) Lloyd, aren’t credible…and, in fact, Lauder isn’t even afforded some of his evolutions from the book despite the available time in the series.

Other changes to the story, like making Flagg the actual devil and Mother Abigail potentially an angel (though really more of a prophet) removes too much of the interesting aspects and struggles. Part of the real suspense in the book is that people have to choose (including Flagg and Abigail). That Flagg actually has a supernatural hand in causing the pandemic is just so frigging cheap a choice and shows no imagination on the part of the writers. It’s too easy and lets people off the hook. I do admit that Alexander Skarsgard (The Hummingbird Project) is a near-perfect choice for Flagg. Whoopie Goldberg is a bit less perfect as Abigail, but that felt more like the writing than her efforts.

There are also some nice smaller appearances that work nicely. Natalie Martinez (Self/less) gets to have a nice arc. And Brad William Henke (Bright) delivers within the limitations of Tom’s boundaries nicely. Even Ezra Miller’s (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) Trashcan man, for all its outlandishness, works for the need and the part. But Nadine’s story gets rushed at the end.  And the Vegas crew, generally, is just so over the top as to be entirely ridiculous. You never wonder about the outcome. Only the Colorado side feels real and sustainable (which has its own commentary and point eventually).

When the book came out 40+ years ago, it was something really new. That just isn’t the case anymore. And, worse, it feels culturally old. Despite having been updated in time the characters and situations haven’t been updated for a 2020 sensibility in politics, identities, nor culturally. That gap is squarely on the writer’s and directors. While a lot of the plot is sadly timeless, how we deal with one another has changed and the rhythm and language just feels off.

Ultimately, I wish the writers had been willing to really rework the story without losing its main premise and tension. Good vs. Evil doesn’t have to be extremes. In fact, some of the biggest impacts on both sides are often small gestures or choices that ripple out. Sure, we want it to build to a great crescendo, but the series even pulled that moment from us in an odd throwaway, supernatural event that doesn’t even really fit with the rest of the tale. In fact, the choice utterly cheapened all the efforts of the people involved because, ultimately, they didn’t matter. I do like that they had a coda episode that shows that stories just continue, that they don’t end just because of a plot milestone. Using it to create a second climax, another Stand, was clever. However, again, it cheapened everyone else’s choices and lives by forcing the God/Devil fight directly into it all rather than done at a distance. Deus ex machina is not a satisfying solution for a 9 part series, even if it can be used as a point in shorter fare.

Despite some good performances, incredible scope, and solid production values, this version of The Stand still isn’t the one we deserved after so long. Much like Dune, it struggles to find an artist who can breathe life into its rich and complicated world without making it feel like a farce.

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Deadwater Fell

[3 stars]

David Tennant (Staged) plays a great sociopath. He can go from affable to cold in a split second. But the interesting aspect of this 4-parter is that you don’t know if he is involved with the crime or not till near the end. That’s a credit not just to Tennant but also to writer Daisy Coulam (Grantchester) and the somewhat less storied director Lynsey Miller.

The series itself has a familiar tenor…small Scottish village experiences a tragedy and all the secrets come spilling out as the seams that bind the residents together fall apart. It’s a tried and true formula that has been echoed across the globe for entertainment, but particularly around the UK.

While Tennant is the the better known face in the cast, he’s part of a great ensemble. Cush Jumbo (Vera) is his primary foil, even though it is Anna Madeley (The Children) who plays his wife. And Matthew McNulty (Doctor Who), as Jumbo’s partner, has his own path to forge. Around the periphery is Maureen Beattie (The Decoy Bride) as Tennant’s mum. The interplay of this group is what drives the four episodes to their soul grinding end.

As dark as the story is, it is compelling. The plot isn’t over-stretched and the performances all combine into a wonderful Greek chorus. It isn’t the best mystery, but it is a solid distraction and very much of its sub-genre.

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