Tag Archives: 3stars

Ripper Street (series finale)

Somewhere around series 3, Ripper Street lost its way and never found it again. It retained its beautiful language, a Western version of Shakespeare for lack of a better description, but it lost the drive of the characters and the inciting conceit of Edmund Reid’s policing.

In series 4 and 5 it all comes back around and, with contortions that PT Barnum would have hired, they manage to close the story. Sadly it isn’t with great skill, but with a wedge and shim. Series 4 leaped ahead in time, and the final episode in series 5 attempts, clumsily, to put a shape around the whole through a collection of vignettes to wrap up the present stories, and flashbacks to provide a mirror and meaning to them.

Does it work? Sort of, but it all feels so very forced. The show was provided more than enough advance notice to plan a better arc through its final 2 series. Instead we got the White Chapel Golem, which wasn’t uninteresting, but with a meandering plot and too much going on (and a load of death). We are left, at the end, with an idea and melancholy that has carried through the series as a whole. It is, to its credit, unwilling to go for the easy and pleasant solutions to all the issues, but in other ways it gave in exactly to expectations.

Ripper Street, as a series, was ambitious and richly textured. The first series is still the best focused, and the rest of the run certainly has moments and merits, if not stellar choices. I would have been happy with the conclusion at the end of series 3, but the 2-series wrap up did keep my attention, even if I was less than thrilled with the direction of that resolution.

On the up side, it was relatively self-contained so if you want to stop at 3, you don’t lose much by doing so. But, if you want to go forward and see the wrap-up for all the various characters, you have that option.

Ripper Street

The Fate of the Furious

Magic tricks are based on misdirection through visual distraction and patter. This eighth installment of the F&F franchise is a beautiful magic trick. While it is better than the previous couple of releases, it isn’t a great movie. But thanks to the application of the tenants of magic, it is entertaining and holds together more than what has come before.

When the series took a left turn in the sixth release from racing films to caper films, it revitalized the storyline and introduced new characters to expand the viewpoints and chances for comedy. Then came Furious 7, which was huge in stunts, but thin in story to the point of frustration for me (even with the Paul Walker reality in the background).

Fate takes the series to a new level. Don’t misunderstand me, Chris Morgan’s (47 Ronin) script is still full of holes and over-simplicities. So many and so obvious I had to pause the film to point out aspects a few times because I just couldn’t contain myself. But, that is where the magic comment comes in. The action is huge. Every time you see a hole, suddenly there is some eye candy to distract you from thinking about it or some clever dialogue to engage you so you let it slip by. F. Gary Gray’s (Straight Outta Compton) direction is responsible for that pace and success, and it is no easy feat.

But it wasn’t just the pacing that mattered. Bringing the story back to Vin Diesel’s (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) Dom recentered the movie. The level of tension and the opportunity for reversals keeps the film tight. OK, some of Dom’s story is forced to heck, but he plays it well and, again, Gray’s pacing keeps it rolling along nicely.

Where, I think, the movie made its best choices, however, was in some of the non-core cast members. Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) as the villain was a brilliant choice. She plays a wonderfully chilling and believable sociopath, never once giving in to cliche scene chewing, which kept the movie on an even keel. And the return of Kurt Russell (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.) also contributed to keeping the movie afloat, though in his case through dry, well-delivered humor. His protege, played by Scott Eastwood (Suicide Squad), however, was just a cutout, broad comedy character.

I don’t know where they go from here. Topping these latest stunts is going to be very hard. At some point, they are going to have to pull it all back to the simplicity of the first film or risk getting so absurd thta it crosses into comedy rather than staying exciting. The franchise has been managed very well, despite the weak scripts, so I’m sure they’re aware of the issue. Of course, when you make a $1B/film you kinda get to do whatever the heck you want. But I will admit, this movie was way better than I expected it to be…I’m almost sorry I didn’t see it sooner.

The Fate of the Furious

Going in Style

This is more Tower Heist than Hell or High Water, which is a bit of a shame as the talent in the film is pretty stand-up. Top lining are Morgan Freeman (Last Vegas), Alan Arkin (Love the Coopers), and Michael Caine (The Last Witch Hunter); three guys who have massive presence on screen and can still share it with others.

And this bouncy comedy, with a tinge of seriousness, has a great supporting cast as well. Ann-Margret, John Ortiz (Kong: Skull Island), Joey King (Independence Day: Resurgence), Matt Dillon (Wayward Pines), and some extra silliness by Christopher Lloyd fill out the lives of our main characters with some nice color.

The thing is, the story had more potential than that. Much like a ton of other options like Now You See Me, Stand Up Guys, Lavender Hill Mob, Topkapi, there were depths to be plumbed. It starts off more serious and on a note that will resonate with much of the audience out there. But that note, instead, is just a MacGuffin that has little bite and barely any threat.

A better script would have helped. Writer Melfi (St. Vincent), despite some good moments, really fell into cliche and obvious choices. Some of that blame, though, has to go to the director, Zach Braff (Scrubs), who has little sense of subtlety and who clearly played this for broad laughs rather than something, potentially, richer. It still could have been fun and funny, but it could also have had a bit more grounding to raise the stakes and involve the audience rather than solely using cheap tricks, like kids and hospitals, to win our affections.

I’m not saying don’t watch this movie. It is diverting. It is funny. It is relatively satisfying. But, much like eating a single Cheeto, once it dissolved I found I was still hungry.

Going in Style

The Lovers

So often, tales like this become overwrought or overplayed. But this film really tries to keep it all contained, much like the exhausted relationship of the main characters that has reached a failure (as opposed to a breaking) point. Debra Winger (The Ranch) and Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) turn in wonderfully understated and nuanced performances in what is really an odd and amusing farce about love.

In fact the only people who over-react in the film are the supporting characters: Aidan Gillen (Sing Street), Melora Walters (Big Love), and Tyler Ross (The Killing).  There is also a nicely balanced turn by Jessica Sula (Split).

Writer/director Azazel Jacobs (Doll & Em) really captured the age and sensibility of a long-term relationship that has drifted. More importantly, he did all of this without a syrupy sense of reality. He has a sense of the absurd, as does life, but he stays grounded in reality and honest to the story.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started watching the film, which way it would go and whether or not I’d even like the characters. But every one of them manages to gain just a bit of your sympathy, though not a lot in some cases. And the structure of the story is in itself a fun piece of commentary. I suspect it makes more sense the older you are, but the performances alone are really worth your time.

The Lovers

The Boss Baby

The ideas behind this silly bit of fluff are wonderful: how does an older child deal with the arrival of new baby, particularly an older child with a rampant imagination. The execution, however, is mediocre. The issue is deep in the conceit of how the tale is told. What is fantasy and what is reality gets more than a little munged and, frankly, confusing.

The voice talent is solid, but nothing groundbreaking. It is a long comic stand-up routine that provides a lot of one-liners, but very little acting. For that purpose, they found the right talent. For emotion, it relies on cheap tricks, like singing Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird to pull the heart strings and giant anime eyes on everyone to pull out a physiological response.  If I sound a bit cranky on these subjects, I am. I prefer movies to earn their moments rather than manipulating the audience. And, honestly, a good part of the movie left me nonplussed as it focused on absurd aspects. And we shall not even discuss the climactic scene and results. It may well have been intended as all fantasy, but that isn’t how it was presented as we see non-fantasy points of view of the action at least a few times which means it has to be actual events, not just Tim’s imagination.

Writer Michael McCullers (Peabody & Sherman) had a clear blast slipping in all manner of old references, from music cues, to visuals, to puns. There is plenty of private joking going on for the adults, if they’re paying attention.  And, of course, there is a lot of cheap baby humor. Director Tom McGrath (Megamind, Madagascar 3) tackled this script relatively well on the voice side, but didn’t manage to overcome the oddities of the story telling. He should have committed to it being complete fabrication or complete reality. The in-between state appears to entertain, but also manages to confuse and leave it all incomplete. 

What you end up with is an entertaining mess, from a pure movie point of view. However from an entertainment perspective, it will connect with anyone who has had or taken care of a baby. I’m not entirely sure it connects on the sibling level the way it was intended, but perhaps that is because it took almost half the movie to focus on that in earnest. If you approach this as just a way to see a bunch of short, funny moments, with a thin thread of plot, you’ll have enough fun to make it through the 90+ minutes. But a classic this most definitely is not. 

The Boss Baby

Wilson

It’s a good idea to be in a relatively good mood before you sit down for this disturbing, little flick. It is funny, in its way, but it is also a sort of dark Forrest Gump. Wood Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) delivers a curmudgeon you can almost understand. Unlike similar kinds of stories, like St. Vincent, the path for the main character is less sure and not entirely uplifting.

Moving along his trail of tears and cheers is a collection of oddly broken women including Laura Dern (99 Homes), Judy Greer (Men, Women, Children),  Cheryl Hines (Nine Lives), and relative newcomer Isabella Amara (Spider-Man: Homecoming). 

There are some dark laughs to be had as Wilson navigates his life with wide open eyes and and an even larger open mouth. But it is just as often painful. I think director Craig Johnson’s (Skeleton Twins) control of first-time script writer Daniel Clowes was solid and there was no residual sense of its graphic novel roots, other than the left turns in the plot. When you have the urge for a story that is more true to life than true to Lifetime, this may do.

Wilson

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Di Renjie: Shen du long wang)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was visually entertaining and intriguing enough that this follow-up prequel by the same writers and director caught my attention. Director and co-writer Hark Tsui has a boundless imagination and nearly overwhelms you with creative scenery and fights. Actually, if you are stuck with subtitles, it can be exhausting as the dialogue can be fast and furious, even during some of the action sequences.

But the story is full of action and humor and crazy, wild plot choices. Though there is a huge cast of characters, the film is really propped up by three actors: Mark Chao, Shaofeng Feng (Monkey King 2), and Angelababy (Independence Day: Resurgence). The fights are replete with wire work, which isn’t my favorite for martial arts, but this is a fantasy and that is part and parcel of the genre. The fights are still entertaining and inventive…even if they defy all known physics. 

I’m not sure why Tsui decided to loop back on Dee’s timeline to slip in this prequel even while he was planning the next main timeline movie, but perhaps that will become clear when Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings releases. In the meantime, you have this confection to chew on, if you are into this kind of thing.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness has many layers and is definitely not for everyone. It isn’t a great movie, but it is worth seeing.

It is, at its core, a suspense/horror film very much in the vein of Frankenstein and Dracula, even a dash of Phantom of the Opera. But it isn’t a B-grade flick nor is it histrionic or intended to get you with cheap scares.

Balancing the classic influences, there are also nods to Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut. For the former, it is the thin veneer of reality and matter-of-fact absurdity of what is going on, as well as some of the sense of the imagery. From the latter, it is the use of a simple, repeating musical theme and, particularly near the end, a sequence that echos Eyes and a load of Argento and other films from the 70s including Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and others.

Visually, the film is full of gorgeous cinematography by Bazelli. The composition and clarity of the shots will make you want to pause every few moments to really examine the detail and relationship of the various objects. It is painterly in its execution, but always in support of the story.

The story itself is somewhat obvious, but what is reality is somewhat not. There are clues, but it is ultimately contradictory, and the ending is nebulous at best. And yet, somehow this gorgeous, Gothic, mental trip to the Swiss Alps is mesmerizing, even with a 2.5 hour run. The whole is, somehow, more than its parts.

There are several nice, small performances, but are only three main roles that form the framework of the movie. Dean DeHaan (Valerian) as the lead isn’t any more likable than he is in other roles, but he has a bit more energy. Generally, I’m finding DeHaan to always have a cool distance; an odd disconnect between his voice and his physical movement that removes you from caring about him. It can be very effective when you aren’t intended to like him, but it makes it hard to even care about what happens to him.

On the other hand, Jason Isaacs (The OA) is wonderfully creepy. He rides the line between care and conspiring beautifully. And Mia Goth (Everest) is practically ephemeral, going through her inevitable changes in a controlled and believable progression. You can see why DeHaan is drawn to her, why anyone would be. And yet she also manages to have a layer of both innocence and poisonousness lurking beneath her surface, like a toxic flower.

As I suggested, the end feels like it could be read in many ways. It is a strong choice, but not a clear one. And I say this despite one of the characters providing an explicit meaning to the title and their philosophy…I just don’t think it covered all that was going on nor the last image. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I think the entire intent was, and that’s somewhat OK because I’ve plenty to chew on.

Director Gore Verbinski and writer Justin Haythe reteamed for this production after their somewhat confused and misfire of The Lone Ranger. Bazelli returned behind the camera again as well. Seeing their efforts in an unfettered venue, absent any expectations, gives me a much better sense of their creative scope. While the end-result is a little baffling, it is a ride I willingly took and continue to think about. Make time for this when you’re in a mood for something darkly beautiful but very different.

A Cure for Wellness

The Calling

Navigating a dark world of pain and murder in the Great White North, Susan Sarandon (3 Generations) leads a solid suspense story (if a bit flawed in the police procedure). Of course, I am partial to good serial killer tales, if you hadn’t noticed, so I’m in the target audience for this one.

Sarandon is supported by a surprisingly well-heeled cast: Gil Bellows (Ascension), Topher Grace (The Big Wedding), Ellen Burstyn (The Age of Adaline), Donald Sutherland (Hunger Games), and Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels). Their abilities and experience keep it all fresh and intriguing. 

What makes this particular story a bit different is the efforts by director, Jason Stone and writer, Scott Abramovitch; both having their first time at bat for a feature. In the script and the direction, the characters all act just a bit different than you expect. The plot, even when obvious, still has some very nice reveals. I will admit that the final moment, probably from the original material, is a tad eye-rolling, but not unanticipated, and it doesn’t diminish all that came before. It simply is a bit too, for lack of a better word, cutesy. 

If you like good suspense tales (and this is more suspense than mystery), it is worth your time investment. The driving purpose and the path to the resolution are really very clever. It would have made a great mini-series, but it manages not to feel too rushed, even in a two hour format.

The Calling