Tag Archives: 4stars

Water

[4 stars]

This much recognized tale by director and co-writer Deepa Mehta is more than just an historical. In fact, despite its setting in 1938 India, it is disturbingly reflective of today with its abuse by the class system, treatment of women, religious fundamentalism, and general social unrest. And I don’t mean reflective of India, I mean worldwide. But commentary aside, the story alone is compelling.

In her first and only film to date, Sarala Kariyawasam, holds this film together with her young and intense presence. As a young widow (at 7 years of age) she is forced to live out the rest of her life cloistered. The collection of women she now lives with are faced with her indomitable spirit and the chaos she brings to their ordered world.

In parallel, John Abraham (Dhoom) and Lisa Ray (Endgame) provide a separate and adult focus of life and possibility. It is a tale we’ve seen before, in many ways, but one that doesn’t tend to get old if you like romance and believe love is more important than rules. That doesn’t mean this is an easy set of choices and the outcome is far from sure, but these actors bring you along the journey and help you believe the choices.

Overall, of course, there is the title: Water. The element here represents life, magic, love, and so much more and so much less. I am curious now about its companion pieces that I didn’t know about: Fire and Earth. Water completes the trilogy, which I can see given the ending, but I have no sense of the overall journey and shape from only this single movie.

This is a beautiful and emotionally frustrating film with a lot to say about the past and about the present. Definitely worth your time if you missed it till now.

Water

queers.

[4 stars]

A truly wonderful and surprising collection of eight, 20-minute monologues commissioned to celebrate the the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the first official step in England to decriminalize homosexuality. Each monologue tackles a different decade from 1917 up through the present. Cleverly, they do not progress in chronological order, but rather bounce from from 1917 to 1994 to 1987, 1957, 1967, 1941, 1929, and finally 2016.

The effect is one of historical context for each of the eras providing heartfelt stories without making it feel like a history lesson. And the finale, in 2016, works as commentary overall, though only through the reflection of the rest of the pieces. I laughed and cried often through the sequence thanks to mostly wonderful writing and great performances.

Originally performed at the Old Vic, these were also adapted and recorded for the BBC. The monologues succeed on different levels, some being much better than others. But each monologue captures its decade in poignant ways and every one is a frank conversation of the joys, fears, and dreams of the speaker of that time.

Driven by Mark Gatiss (Denial, Doctor Who), who also was one of the writers, the production collected up some solid talent to deliver the stories: Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), Rebecca Front (Humans), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Kadiff Kirwan (Chewing Gum), Russell Tovey (The Night Manager), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Ben Whishaw (Lilting)and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). If nothing else, it is a 2.6 hour acting and scripting class.

Make time for these if you get the chance. It is almost entirely focused on the gay experience rather than the lesbian or otherly identified, but the sense of otherness, the sense of triumph, the sense of love and need is universal.

Product Details

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

Blade Runner 2049

[4 stars]

When making a sequel, the first question you really have to ask is: Why? And in this case, the writer of the original Blade Runner, Hampton Fancher, along with his new co-writer Michael Green, found an answer. And with Denis Villenuve (Arrival) at the helm, this new tale in the universe is gripping and inexorable as it moves along. In fact, while 2049 is almost three hours long, an hour longer than the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, it feels shorter due to its editing and tension.

Unlike the original bottomless noir that was Blade Runner, this story is more a compelling personal journey for its main character, Ryan Gosling (Song to Song). It has light and hope, despite being sunk in the same ruined Earth and financial disparity that was established with that world 35 years ago. And yet, the story and world still feel timeless. And that is the interesting part, it still feels like it could be our dystopian future; now more than ever. A world of overcrowding, rampant poor, and authoritarian over-reach doesn’t feel that outlandish.

Villenuve managed to pay homage to the original story but create his own world all at once. Yes, if you have recently watched the first film, you will pick up nods and winks throughout, but it isn’t a copy of the original. The nods and mentions aren’t distracting ones, simply enough to make it clear that you never really left that universe. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is solid and complex. It will keep you thinking and wondering. That trick is attained thanks to the directing and, of course, the acting.

Along with Gosling’s subtle portrayal of K, there a number of women who fill out his world. Interestingly, his world is dominated by women. Primarily, Robin Wright (Rememory) as his boss walks an interesting line with him while Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) provides the most interesting companion since Her. In addition, Sylvia Hoeks does a nice riff and counterpoint to Sean Young’s Rachel. And then there are the additional building blocks for the rest of his story: Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror) and Carla Juri (Morris From America). As I said, quite the list of influence.

This isn’t to dismiss the men. David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) actually gives us a bit of real emotion in his role. Only Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) came off to me as oddly empty. He has the presence and the story (particularly if you watch the 3 prequel shorts that bridge the original and sequel), but not a lot of it gets to the screen. It would have distracted from Gosling’s story, to be sure, so I understand the choice. However, Harrison Ford’s (The Age of Adaline) role manages to feel more complete without much more screen time, and not just because we know his backstory, there is just more there in Ford’s performance.

Be aware, this is not an action flick. It is a slow-burn and very personal mystery. It is beautifully filmed and expertly edited and directed to keep it all moving along. The story is one worth telling, and while it would lead to yet another story, it is complete as it is. I do suggest watching the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner before viewing this, much as I suggested rewatching Terminator 1 & 2 before viewing Terminator: Genisys. Though Terminator was all about what was changing, Blade Runner is more about providing a real sense of grounding and appreciation for what will unfold before you.

In case it wasn’t obvious, in prep for this late-conceived sequel, I rewatched the original Blade Runner. To be more specific, I watched the Director’s Cut, followed by the final 3 scenes of the original version and the Final Cut for comparison’s sake. It was an interesting exercise. I chose the Director’s Cut as that best dovetails to this new expansion of the story. I have to admit, the Director’s Cut is hampered by its slow pacing due to the removal of the voice-overs but no additional editing of the screen time where it was excised. However, it is the closest storywise to enter 2049.

As a side note, I think one of the things I’ve come to finally realize is that Ridley Scott has made only one brilliant film in his life: Alien. Blade Runner blazed new ground, but it isn’t a wonderfully directed film, it is just a fascinating world and a good story that he got lucky enough to have control over. Blade Runner remains a powerful influence on cinema from the Hunger Games to Ghost in the Shell; the claustrophobic, elite-class dominated hopelessness appears again and again in film since its release. The fact that he recut it multiple times trying to say what he “really wanted to” tells you that he isn’t a great director. And certainly his ouvre that followed Alien has never equaled that incredible piece of heart-pounding terror and rich world.

But Scott isn’t part of this outing. This is all Villenuve and his ability continues to impress me. I can only hope that this film will find its audience as the original tale did. It is worth the time spent, especially on the large screen.

Blade Runner 2049

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

[3.5 stars]

The first Kingsman was a delightfully unexpected and irreverent romp in spy-land. Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle) returns for this middle story of a planned trilogy and manages to grow the character and give us another, if much more violent, round of spy games. It may have lost some of the element of surprise, but the movie compensates with sheer audacity of spectacle and story. And everyone gets to show off a bit in this film.

On team England, Mark Strong (Miss Sloane), Sophie Cookson (Huntsman: Winters’ War), and Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Baby) all reprise roles adding to the mythology. But the surprise addition of Hanna Alström (Kingsman: The Secret Service) showed us that Eggsy wasn’t just a love ’em and leave ’em guy, he was capable of commitment. It is a nice flourish for his story.

Team America (1) is a bit more complex to pull apart. A great deal was made of Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) and Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), but their parts are relatively small. It is more Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Pedro Pascal (The Great Wall) that drive that team. To be truthful, I wish I had known a lot less about this section of the film as it is slowly revealed over the first third of the plot, but it is impossible to not know it given the advertising and the cast.

Team America (2) is the US Government officials led by Bruce Greenwood (Spectral) and Emily Watson (Everest). Greenwood provides an ugly version of the office that was a scarily good guess at the current tenor given that it was in production during the changeover of administrations here at the time. Watson’s is an important role, but a bit of a cipher as a character, which is a shame given her abilities.

In opposition to them all are Edward Holcroft (London Spy) and Julianne Moore (Vanya on 42nd Street). Holcroft isn’t much more than a prop to bridge the movies and make it personal for Eggsy and the Kingsmen. There just isn’t much there other than anger and a desire to succeed. Julianne Moore, however, has a bit more meat on her character bones. Her speech on the motivation and plan she has put into action is one of the more interesting, subtle pieces of the social commentary that underlies this story. While she delivers it all well, there isn’t all that much for her to work with. Still, she kept it from being a cookie-cutter villainess. She also has one amusing, surprise guest with a fun story-line, but I’m not going to spoil that here.

The most interesting returnee to this universe is director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn. This is his first ever sequel. After launching Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, he left the franchises to others. He does a credible job coming back for this round, but he did miss a few marks. First, despite its scope, the film doesn’t feel international. It feels like Hollywood. This is in large part due to the rather nasty portrayal of the US government as well as only showing us a view of the world events via a fictionalized Fox News. “Fictionalized” as it is Fox actually doing news (rather than misreporting or opining). But there are no feeds from the other affected countries. That was a mistake I’m sure was insisted on by Fox Studios, but it really rather hurt the credibility of the tale. And Vaughn really has to stop trying to recreate his amazing “Time in a Bottle” sequence from X-Men. It just isn’t going to happen.

On a technical level, the film really excels. The script is constructed solidly to use everything as well as to redeem characters and even the golden circle symbol itself. And the editing, both between scenes and within fights, is pretty amazing. While there are moments it is very much obvious, which you don’t really want editing to be (like a couple of the cross-fades), they’re so beautifully executed that you can’t help but admire the choices. But the intra-fight editing is the real prize: is damn near seamless, which is astounding when you realize the complexity of the shots.

As a whole, this is just as entertaining as the first film in the series. It isn’t so much about discovery any longer, we’ve had our origin story after all. This round is about redemption and growth and finding a place in the world… and a whole lot of violence getting there, as adolescence often is. The film absolutely sets up a third installment, but fully resolves the story it starts in this outing. It has a ton of laughs, car chases worth of Fast & Furious or Bond, tons of flying lead and mashed bodes, and a social message that may or may not resonate for everyone, but that is certainly interesting to note. If you liked the first, you will like the second. If you haven’t found this series yet, start with The Secret Service and then return to this. While it may stand on its own, it will have a whole lot more depth with the background for you.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The Big Sick

[4 stars]

We all think we have a story to tell, and we do. But, some stories really are more equal than others, and The Big Sick is definitely more equal.

When writer and star Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) teamed up with his real life wife Emily V. Gordon, they took a leap and nailed it in one. The result is funny, sweet, charming, and oddly unexpected at times. And director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) manages to balance the story, which intersects a number of worlds and challenges, without losing any of the threads or the audience.

In some ways it reminds me of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Not in style or content, but in its exposure of cultural realities and challenges and the navigating of the two worlds by the main characters. What the two films do share is a love of the people that populate their worlds and a fiercely romantic heart.  

Zoe Kazan (In Your Eyes) tackles the role of Emily in the film well. She is an effortless actor, always seeming utterly planned-spontaneous while also seeming completely real. She continues to be a talent worth following to see where she’ll end up.

Added to the mix were Holly Hunter (Song to Song), doing Holly Hunter. Nothing bad, but nothing truly new for her. On the other hand, Ray Romano (Ice Age: Collision Course) manages something that is subtly difficult: he creates a character that isn’t funny. His timing and skill are still apparent, but he uses much like a real singer does who has to pretend they can’t sing; everything clunks perfectly.

In smaller roles, Adeel Akhtar (The Night Manager) and Anupam Kher (Sense8) help fill out important aspects of Kumail’s life. Neither are really given room to breathe and live, but we can intuit a lot from them in their short exchanges.

I do have to admit, while the movie grabbed me early on, and despite the echos of Don’t Think Twice, it was the spectre of Dr. Phibes that sold me utterly. But I was an easy target on that one. Phibes lives and looms very much in my genre closet.

Of course, timing couldn’t have been better for this film about cultural diversity and integration. But it is the heart in this film that ultimately sells it, not the trappings.  

The Big Sick

The Hippopotamus

[4 stars]

A delightfully weird, wonderful, and often unpredictable comedy cum drawing room mystery. Based on a Stephen Fry (Love & Friendship) novel, you can be sure it is irreverent and witty with a keen social eye and few boundaries. It attacks art, society, family, and religion with equal and unapologetic measure, but with an oddly optimistic sensibility to the human condition. Oh, and it’s funny. Very funny.

Roger Allam (The Lady in the Van), in a send-up of Fry’s own persona, leads the story as the critical observer and assigned debunker of certain “events.” He carries the broad comedy and erudite demeanor beautifully.

Along with Allam are a host of players. Of note are Emily Berrington (Humans), Fiona Shaw (Emerald City), Tim McInnerny (Eddie the Eagle),  and Tommy Knight (Sarah Jane Adventures). They are far from alone, but they were the stand-outs for me. 

The dialogue is delightful, the satire sharp, and the humanity, ultimately, bruised, vulnerable, and triumphant in its way. It is definitely dark comedy, but with a beating heart. You’ll know early on if it is a movie for you, so you don’t have much to lose by giving it 10 minutes to convince you. I had a great time with it and look forward to watching it again as I’m sure I missed some great exchanges because I was still laughing at others.

As a side note, there is a serious sort of critical overtone to the tale, despite all the amusement. It is indicated in the title (from a TS Eliot poem), a reference made clear in the opening, but still required some look-up to fully appreciate. With or without that additional layer, the movie is far from vague and the result very entertaining.

The Hippopotamus

Gifted

[4 stars]

It is rare when a small movie can tackle larger ideas without losing focus on the intimate story it wants to tell. Under the guidance of Marc Webb (Amazing Spider-Man) and writer Tom Flynn, Gifted manages to be succeed on that point, telling the story of family and childhood, but also tackling larger issues like parenthood, normality, feminism, and mental health.

Personal tales like this rarely succeed without solid performances, and this is where Webb also soared. Mckenna Grace (Designated Survivor) is a firecracker, with a lot of potential ahead of her. She captures the intelligence of her young character without losing the “kid” in her. And, of course, she has a winning smile and charisma.

Surprisingly, even with Grace’s magnetism, she does not dominate the film the way kid-centered stories often do. Chris Evans (Captain America: Civil War) and Lindsay Duncan (Sherlock) not only hold their own, but deliver powerful and believable performances as they struggle with one another and themselves. Even Jenny Slate (Zootopia) delivers a character that is more complex than you’d expect given where she starts. And the balance between them all, including Grace, is handled beautifully.

If there is a weakness in the film, it is in Evan’s stated reasons for his actions near the end. We don’t really see the shift in his character, or I didn’t anyway. This feels more like editing choices than the actor to me, but it smudges an otherwise wonderful performance.

Gifted is probably everything you expect it to be in a child custody film. But I promise you, there is more to it than what you’re expecting. It is not only done well, it is done with intensity over sturm und drang. It is worth your time and probably worth seeing more than once, simply for the joy of it and the reminders of what life can and should be.

Gifted

Their Finest

[4 stars]

Let’s start with the important part: you wan to see this film, despite any of its weaknesses. As well as being topical, it satisfies in unexpected ways. Now on with the rest of it…

Earlier this year there was another Dunkirk-based story, though from quite a different angle than Christopher Nolan’s. Lone Scherfig’s (An Education) takes on the event after-the-fact and from the propaganda office side, using it as an inspirational tale for the world. It becomes both an insightful and entertaining look inside film-making as well as into the politics and culture of WWII London during the Blitz. 

Gemma Arterton (Girl With All the Gifts) puts on a great Welsh accent and a delightful naivtee tempered with an inner strength and bruised heart that comes together in a satisfying and intriguing character. She spars with Sam Claflin (Me Before You) in amusing ways as the two find their way to one another in the midst of the chaos of the war, their lives, and their jobs.

Rachel Stirling (Bletchley Circle) and Bill Nighy (Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) are the most notable characters supporting the two leads. Both provide some good humor and subplot. In addition, Jack Huston (Kill Your Darlings), Jake Lacey (Miss Sloane), Eddie Marsan (A Brilliant Young Mind), and Helen McCrory (Fearless) fill out the time, city, and touch points necessary to complete the tale.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, and I did, the adaptation is rather meandering. Gaby Chiappe’s first feature script is ultimately effective, but not crisp. It comes back together well, but the focus is all over the place, making it feel like it wanted to be a mini-series more than a single movie. This is no surprise as she is primarily known for TV series scripts (typically good ones), but it definitely shows promise for future films. I’d love to see what she does next. 

Trust the journey Their Finest lays out for you and take the ride. It will take its time getting there, but it does get there. I can’t tell if I like how it was constructed or if my misgivings are simply expectation highlighted by the commentary provided in the story itself (in terms of what audiences want). However, both in performance and message, this is a movie worth the time invested on several levels.

Their Finest

The Loch, Dark and Fearless

This is a collection of three new series from the UK. All three are rather intense, but all boast strong female leads and nicely complex mysteries.

The Loch [3 stars]
A serial murder mystery set in the fictional community of Lochnafoy, on the shores of Loch Ness. Full of interesting characters and plenty of suspects, it is the weakest writing of these three, but still very engaging. At issue is that there are just too many unlikable characters who do some really foolish things. On the other hand, the mystery is nicely complex and is peeled back well over several episodes. How you feel about the final resolution may vary. I was a left feeling it was a bit unlikely, but not entirely unsatisfied. Siobhan Finneran (Happy Valley) and Laura Fraser (The Missing) are the driving female presences, balancing each other well. And there is a whole town of recognizable and new faces to enjoy as the bodies pile up and the detectives focus in on their perpetrator.

In the Dark [3 stars]
The shortest of the three series in this post (it is only two, two episode stories) it is also one of the slowest to reveal its character secrets, though less-so on the suspects. Its lead, MyAnna Buring (Lesbian Vampire Killers), just off the series wrap of Ripper Street, is transformed into an entirely different woman. If aspects of her face weren’t so distinct, I don’t think I’d have even realized who it was. The mysteries themselves are solid BBC style guessing games of possibilities. The first episode is a stronger story than the second, but both build on Buring’s character and set her up as a driven and strong detective, if not a bit reckless. She is supported by a range of recognizable men in her life, some in decidedly different roles than usual. How they go forward I’m not entirely sure, but I’d go back to see more if they make them.

Fearless [4 stars]
In some ways, this is the darkest of the three tales because it is such a reflection of our times and so close to the bigger realities. It spins around the political tides of public fear, war, and espionage even while the main plot is highly personal. It is definitely the strongest of the three on offer thanks to its writing and cast. Helen McCrory (A Little Chaos) is the primary driver in this unsettling, but likely to be more common theme, of terrorism and bad government actors (particularly the US) given today’s politics. She is joined by Wunmi Mosaku (In the Flesh) and Robin Weigert (Pawn Sacrifice). Each is a true-believer in their areas and has varying degrees of integrity based on those beliefs. What lines they will cross is part of the tale to tell. There is also a host of men it was good to see, starting with Michael Gambon (The Casual Vacancy), Jamie Bamber (Marcella), and, finally, Alec Newman who had been doing mostly voice overs for the last while. The story holds its tension from the first to the last and resolves in a believable and complete way. I am hopeful that we’ll see another mystery down the road for McCrory’s character. She is set up as an icon of public justice, which not only has a huge well to draw from, but is a much needed sensibility in today’s world.

The Loch Poster In the Dark Poster Fearless Poster