Tag Archives: 3stars

iBoy

Every story is allowed one really big lie. I’ve said it before, but it is really necessary to restate for this movie because it has one really big leap you have to make in order for it all to happen. Happily, once it does, it is actually a reasonable tale of teenage heroics and recognition that the world, very often, just sucks.

Director Adam Randall’s sophomore outing of writer, Joe Barton’s (Humans) adaptation is definitely aimed at a younger audience, but is willing to (lightly) tackle some tougher subjects.

Bill Milner (Broken) carries the film well. We watch him come into his own as a young man, though not quite adult. His story, as a physical metaphor for adolescence, is actually pretty good. Silly at times, but good. In the other young lead, Maisie Williams (Doctor Who)  continues to broaden her cv away from Game of Thrones. Her performance here is compelling, but is certainly held back by the material from exploring all aspects and reactions to her situation. But, again, this is for a younger audience, so I gave her a pass on that.

Thrown into this mix of young folks surviving the projects are two main adults: Miranda Richardson and Rory Kinnear (Man Up). Without them, the story would have ended up feeling  like a comic book. They add just enough from the real world to make the story feel almost possible.

For a fun distraction with action, humor, and a some fanciful leaps of faith, it really is a good distraction by some solid talent.

Miranda Richardson in iBOY

The Discovery & 13 Reasons Why

Both The Discovery and 13 Reasons Why ask the same two questions: What is life? Why stick around for it? They come to roughly the same answers, though by very different routes.

The Discovery does this through the lens of science fiction. It asks: What if we knew there was something after death? And then it goes on to explore the impact, but tries to remained focused on the smaller stories. It is a rumination on “what if,” bordering on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in feel.

13 Reasons Why does this from the 7th circle of Hell, otherwise known to most people as: High School. 13 Reasons tries to expose the realities of teenage perspective by offering up multiple stories and, potentially, the different variations of truth to them as we learn more. Ultimately, this is more a tale in the vein of Veronica Mars than it is a deep psychological expose, more structured as entertainment than open discourse, but it manages to make its points.

Their overlapping discussions of suicide make them a natural and topical pairing.

In The Discovery, suicide becomes a real, and less scary option for many people. Frankly, I think probably on a much bigger scale than the show posits. The script doesn’t try to simplify the risks or answer questions unequivocally, but it does nicely, if narrowly, follow enough characters to explore the idea.

Robert Redford (Pete’s Dragon), Jason Segel (The Muppets), and Rooney Mara (Lion) topline this intellectual thought experiment. With such a great cast, and a neat premise, it could have been so much more. But it is still engaging and thought provoking. And the ending is anything but passive for the viewer.

13 Reasons Why has a number of strong performances, but the primary standouts are Kate Walsh, Katherine Langford, and Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps). Walsh delivers a solidly heart-breaking performance of a mother dealing with loss and guilt. Langford lays out a progression of decisions and emotional fractures that help you follow her path, if not totally agree with the results–all the more impressive as it is her lead acting debut. And Minnette is a perfect “every kid” lost in the political tides of adolescence and inside his own head.

It is the confluence of these presentations that makes them so interesting to me. Either alone would have been something to notice. But two major releases, and even other shows like Transparent jumping onto the suicide depiction train (and there are many, many more, like Collateral Beauty), speaks to a subject in the air that needs dealing with in some way. Perhaps the documented rise of clinical depression over the last six months, particularly in women, is part of the explanation.

Regardless of the deeper zeitgeist, both of these streams deserve your time for their performances and their ideas. As to the bigger picture…time will tell.

The Discovery 13 Reasons Why

The Lego Batman Movie

Yes, you probably saw this ages ago, but I wasn’t going to go pay for it in theaters. The Lego Movie was amusing, but not brilliant, at least for me. I am mainly writing this up as a measurement of my comedy preferences so you can judge my other recommendations.

My biggest question by the time I got to the end of this latest block adventure was: Why had they trusted such a lucrative franchise to the writer of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith and first-time feature director Chris McKay? Perhaps they thought the series was bullet-proof? It isn’t.

While it has a solid overall structure and story ideas, the result is uneven, at best, when it comes to flow and dialogue. It also lacks the layers that the original Lego had, trying instead to riff off of the absurd Batman character and relying on shots at Marvel and, even more often, DC and the overall history of Batman since the 60s in media. Cause, let’s face it, it has had quite the meandering road starting with Adam West and ending, for now, with Ben Affleck.

But it wasn’t just the execution and editing of the tale that was off, it was also the voices. They just didn’t quite ever feel right. This was especially true for Zach Galifianakis’s (Birdman) Joker for me, though many others didn’t quite fit either. The movie is loaded with voice talent…some surprising, but none brilliant. This really felt like a money grab by the studio and supported by the late night party game of a lot of actors who just did it for a lark. To be fair, Will Arnett, Michael Cera (Sausage Party), Rosario Dawson (Marvel’s Iron Fist), and Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash) all did fine in the main roles, but not memorably so.

Basically, if you need a distraction, you could do worse than this mostly empty confection. But, that also means you could do way better.

The LEGO Batman Movie

ARQ

I do love me a good time travel tale, and really hate bad ones. ARQ falls into the good camp. Every time (no pun intended) you think it is going to get boring or obvious, it shifts just enough to keep you interested. The world keeps expanding and the stakes keep rising.

Robbie Amell (Nine Lives) and Rachel Taylor (Jessica Jones) are suitably earnest if not entirely perfectly matched as a couple. They are both believable, though some of the driving motivations take time to reveal.

Though an established writer, Elliott (Orphan Black), this was Elliott’s first time directing a feature-length film. He kept it all taut and focused, managing to get the complex aspects of the story across well. He definitely should get more directorial work based on this result.

I do have to warn you that it doesn’t provide a great ending, unfortunately. Ultimately, it feels more like a pilot, or perhaps the plot became intractable, and so the story was wrapped up in an obvious way. But up to that last moment, it really is pretty clever and worth the time. And even with the flawed ending, it is a good ride.

ARQ

3 Generations

This is best thought of as a film about family rather than a story about a young trans man played by Elle Fanning (20th Century Women). It is primarily a tale about how this unique family inter-relates. And, in the end, this movie is really more Naomi Watts (Sea of Trees) story than it is Fanning’s.

But, truth be told, it is Susan Sarandon (The Meddler) and Linda Emond (The Family Fang) who steal this movie. Their characters and interactions are beautifully understated and comfortable. They throw away their lines like the old, partnered couple they are supposed to be but also manage to stay in the background. They take focus because of their quality, not because they are scene stealing.

There was so much controversy over this film as it came to screens. The MPAA tried to saddle it with an R rating due to its subject matter (learn more about the MPAA) and because Fanning was playing the role rather than a trans actor. Fanning (20th Century Women) does try to do her best, but I honestly never really bought her in the role both because the on-screen and script choices didn’t really fully jibe with my own experiences with people in transition.

The movie is simply, fundamentally flawed. Director and co-writer Gaby Dellal worked with Nikole Beckwith, but didn’t quite nail the story either in balance or action. Added to that, there is a forced layer of auteur visuals in the videos created by Fanning’s character that don’t feel at all on point or by him. And there is also a more metaphorical aspect of resampling and recreating music into something by that character. In neither case does the film pursue the threads, leaving them dangling, unfulfilled, and even distracting in some ways. And the men in this film, Tate Donovan (Argo) and Sam Trammell (The Fault in Our Stars), are somewhat pointless, but that is by design, though an odd message given the core focus.

Ultimately, there is entertainment and warm fuzzies to be had here, and a couple of the performances really are worth seeing. But as a movie it is middling in its success.

3 Generations

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Objectively, this film had a lot going for it in its conception. It had global scale and an established global cast. Unfortunately it also had a pedestrian script and a weak director.

Admittedly, I was never a huge fan of the first xXx (and no one liked the second). This was definitely the best of the three, with a more complex plot, but sadly also with about as much depth. It is neither James Bond serious, Suicide Squad bizarre, nor Kingsman comic-bookish but has aspects of all those approaches. It can’t quite focus on whether its humor is ridiculously arch, as Toni Collette (Miss You Already) does it, or whether it is deadly serious. Director Caruso’s (I Am Number Four) pacing is all over the place keeping the various aspects from coming together seamlessly.

More frustratingly, while the action is wonderfully conceived, the filming, by design, never really caught a lot of the action (literally, they wanted it to feel like the camera just couldn’t keep up with it). And isn’t that the reason we go to films like these?

The cast is an extraordinary collection of talent. In fact, outside of the Expendables series, probably the densest collection of stars put together for an action film. Vin Diesel (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) of course heads the gang of adrenaline junkies, but he has added two of the top martial artists in the world, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa (The Protector 2).

Into that mix he sprinkles in Ruby Rose (John Wick: Chapter 2), Deepika Padukone, Nina Dobrev (The Final Girls), Game of Thrones’ Hound, Rory McCann, and Chinese sensation Kris Wu, not to mention UFC’s Michael Bisping and real-life footballer Neymar. And (yes, more “and’s”) let’s not forget Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island). Seriously, there is someone for everyone in this punch, drive, shoot, explosion, free-fall fest.

In watching the extras, you get a real sense of what it was they thought and hoped they were creating. In many ways Vin was trying to evolve the xXx series as the Fast & Furious had, but with a bit more actual story. But it lost its way despite some excellent schematics to get it there. International audiences were kinder to the film (on the order of 7x the domestic box take), probably due to recognizable faces for them in the cast and a general emphasis on action over dialogue. Vin may be able to pull this out yet…he had the right idea, he just needs a better director and script.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Girlboss

Silly, crude, empowering, oddly romantic, and not a little embarrassing, this is a fun series. And, yes, here we go again with Brit Robertson (A Dog’s Purpose). Seriously unintentional… just a matter of timing.

With this series, Robertson hard turns from young, sure teen to the kind of trainwreck most suitors can’t resist and yet should probably run away from. She cuts loose as the driven, and not a little scary, Sophia, who is trying to figure out her life while simultaneously blowing it up (including dating a drummer).

Her anchors, Jonathan James Simmons (The To Do List) and relative new-comer Ellie Reed, provide both encouragement and guidance, though not always the right kind. But all work well together and balance nicely. And, as her father, Dean Norris (Men, Women, Children) adds a solid sense of familial love and strife.  To add to the fun, there area host of recurring guest appearances by folks such as Melanie Lynskey (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Jim Rash, Louise Fletcher and the infamous and fabulous RuPaul.

The show is full of humor and reality… and quite a bit of reality stretching, but that is admitted to right up front. Created and written by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect 2), she brings the same kind of humor and heightened reality she loves playing in. The series is a fun distraction, with some reasonable life lessons, and a moment to mark for Robertson, as she has definitely left her child-actor years behind her.

Girlboss

The Last Word

Shirley MacLaine (Bernie) dominates this film with a quiet surety and great craft. Much like Tomlin’s turn in Grandma, MacLaine slowly peels back layers of Harriet such that we eventually understand and embrace all of her. Amanda Seyfried (The Big Wedding) keeps up with MacLaine nicely, though it takes some time for her character to settle in on screen. It should also be noted that in her first film, AnnJewel Lee Dixon delivers a firecracker of a performance that bodes well for her career.

As a movie, Word is entertaining, if a bit manipulated. Given that this was also a first feature movie for both director Pellington and writer Fink, it is actually rather impressive. The weaknesses likely stem from Pellington’s TV background, where he stole overused tropes as shorthand to get to moments. But that is a small disparagement for the amusement and emotional tale that is Last Word.

This is a story of life lessons and mottoes with a bit of humor and and a few truly winning moments. It is also a great reminder of where women have come from in the last 70 years and what they had to do in order to pave the way; timely given current society and the recent release of Wonder Woman.

The Last Word

Miss Sloane

This is a story that you are hoping has been heightened for drama, but you secretly fear has been watered down to be credible. Basically, it is a behind-the-scenes fiction of the influence and methods of lobbyists on the laws of the land. As if you didn’t have enough to feel frustrated by and fear in DC, this will give you more of both.

Jessica Chastain (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) championed this film to release and you can see why she wanted the role. Her character is strong, driven, and massively flawed. Unfortunately, she isn’t very sympathetic, even though her cause is just and her lack of self-delusion is fairly small. Basically, you can respect and admire her efforts, but you can’t help but revile the person (or blame her) for her actions and self-same efforts despite any results she may attain.

The rest of the cast breaks down into three groups. Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Jupiter Ascending), in larger roles that work with Chastain’s character directly. Both deliver interesting performances. Mark Strong, in particular, shows a different side of himself from what we’ve seen in the past.

Opposing Chastain’s Sloane are a collection of solid actors, if not solid performances, who were probably picking splinters from their teeth at the end of the tale. Michael Stuhlbarg (Arrival), Sam Waterston (Grace and Frankie), and John Lithgow (The Accountant) were all just a little too arch and a little too angry. These are all men capable of subtlety, but only Lithgow even came close to trying for a lighter touch.

In the last group are some smaller, but noticeable roles played by Allison Pill (Hail, Caesar!), Douglas Smith (Terminator: Genisys), and Jake Lacy (Obvious Child). Pill and Lacy each have a couple very nice moments story-wise, while Smith just has great presence on screen, despite having very little to do.

What this film really needed was Aaron Sorkin to write the script. Not that Perera’s script isn’t quite solid and fast and in the style of Sorkin, but Sorkin it ain’t. To be fair, however, as Perera’s first script, it is impressive. Director John Madden (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) kept up the pace and intensity nicely for the 2+ hours and stuck to the bare realities of the story, rarely going for manipulation. However, Madden takes some of the blame for any over-acting that existed as well. Keeping it all a bit more restrained would have heightened the disturbing nature of the movie. Instead, he hoped to provide a sense of relief and joy as Chastain battles the “monsters” even though she, herself, isn’t much better as an individual; she simply chose the more palatable cause.

If you are up for some political intrigue and the continued dashing of what hopes you may have that we live in a functional society, this is a good movie for you. It will also work if you like complex suspense films that are more cerebral than flashy, as the story and the machinations are wonderfully complex. However, if you’re looking for some escapism, you should run the other way. This isn’t going to get your mind off anything.

Miss Sloane

The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

Between making Mimic and Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak) co-wrote and directed this creepy piece of horror in a 1930s Spanish orphanage. It is loaded with trademark elements of del Toro (underground venues, visually disturbing images, odd characters). Backbone sits somewhere between classic and modern horror films in its approach. It is much more loaded with suspense than gore, but it also tackles subjects that are disturbingly human. The visual metaphor of the unexploded bomb is also a fascinating bit of understated drama and comment.

The Criterion disc is filled with extras. Perhaps the most intriguing bit of information was the guidance from del Toro that Backbone was intended as a companion piece for Pan’s Labyrinth.  There is a certain visual synergy between the two, though the later film was so strongly influenced by his Hellboy efforts that it is leaps ahead in the production design. But the essentials of the effects of war on children remain a constant.

If you’re looking for a del Toro you’ve missed or are in need of a quieter form of horror in counterpoint to most of what’s out there now, this could fill the bill.  It isn’t his best, or even his most entertaining from that time period, but it is solid and, with Pan’s an interesting set of commentaries.

The Devil