Tag Archives: 4stars

Beach Rats

[4 stars]

I was a long time getting around to this first film by Eliza Hittman . In fact, I found her second, first: Never Rarely Sometimes Always. But it was the empathy and craft of that story that sent me back to her debut with Beach Rats. I’m late to the game to say she is someone to really watch, but it is still worth saying.

Hittman didn’t give us a likeable hero in her first film. Harris Dickinson (The Darkest Minds) is flawed in both endearing and truly ugly ways. But he is also trapped by circumstance and his own struggles. And Dickinson committed to all of that without reservation on screen. So much so that you aren’t sure if the movie is a coming of age story or a tragedy. And, frankly, you still won’t be by the end.

Hittman puts you so deeply into the point of view of Dickinson’s character that you completely inhabit his world. At points you even forget you’re not just watching through hidden cameras at his life. But despite being steeped in a sort of macho hell, Dickinson’s Frankie has two strong female influences in his circles: his mother, played by Kate Hodge and his girlfriend, Madeline Weinstein (Mare of Easttown). Both are quiet but strong influences, though whether they can break through to him is all part of the story.

And the tension of the story is drawn so taut that the ending is almost a release on its own. It’s clear this isn’t going to be a happy tale from the beginning, but it also isn’t without sparks of hope.

For a first film Eliza Hittman packed it with subtlety and power. It has been living on my list since its release in 2017, but I hadn’t had the nerve to spin it up. If you’ve been avoiding either of her films for fear of the subject, well, suck it up and make the time. These aren’t easy characters to love, but they are so very human and real as to encourage our commitment.

Beach Rats Poster

Fear Street: Part 3 – 1666

[3 stars]

It’s all comes down to this: the origin. And what a nice payoff it is. As you’d expect, given the previous two parts, the cast reprises from the previous 1994 and 1978 time frames to inhabit the 1666 characters. Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch are back at the center along with Ashley Zukerman (The Code), Gillian Jacobs (Life Partners), and, now with a bit more range, Benjamin Flores Jr. (Rim of the World).

Having the setup of the previous two parts, this third flies in a swift 2 hours of suspense, action, and frustration. But the best part is that everything you’ve learned comes back into play right up through the end. And there is where it stumbles just the tiniest bit.

The main action resolves perfectly fine and acceptably. But there is a moment, and you can’t miss it, where there is an obvious and boneheaded oversight. I know it’s a trope of the genre, but it could have been less ham-handed. In fact, if it weren’t for that, I’d have rated the whole movie higher. That gaff cost it because after all the clever, subversive, and frankly well thought out planning, it was cheap and insulting to the audience.

But that frustration aside, which is small in comparison to the journey, this is a great trilogy of dark fun executed with a clever eye and solid talent. Leigh Janiak pulled the sequence off with aplomb and will have me watching for her next project for sure; as well as some of the cast.

Fear Street: 1666 Poster

Gunpowder Milkshake

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a blend of John Wick and Bad Times at the El Royale, with maybe a dash of Terminal thrown in. Think a sort of hyper-real, female assassins tale. It isn’t quite as lyrical as it might have been, and the editing and timing were off for the first half of the film bringing down the energy, but it holds together and is definitely a fun ride.

At the center of it all is Karen Gillan (Spies in Disguise), in full Nebula voice, as a disassociated, abandoned woman doing the only thing she’s ever known how to do. And she does it very well. Things, of course, go wrong and she finds herself suddenly in the position of trying to do the right thing to balance out the voices in her head. This brings us to another wonderful performance by Chloe Coleman (My Spy), who has now lost her second chance at a big screen launch thanks to the pandemic, but who continues to impress.

Joining Gillan, from her past and present, are a collection of strong women fighters, cast as much for the abilities as they are for their past roles, providing a fun resonance. Lena Headey (Fighting With My Family), Michelle Yeoh (Boss Level), Carla Gugino (The Space Between Us), and Angela Bassett (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) make an impressive set of co-conspirators. And each gets their moment to shine. Paul Giamatti (I Think We’re Alone Now) adds a small bit of patriarchy for them to respond to.

This isn’t a perfect film. As I mentioned, the energy and timing are off for the first third to half. However, it does come together and has room for more stories. Much like John Wick, there is ongoing potential as the various levels of the onion get involved. For a bit of mayhem and girl power, spin this one up and enjoy the carnage.

Gunpowder Milkshake Poster

Loki

[4 stars]

The third of the D+ MCU series is, again, unique in design and storytelling, playing into it’s main character to inform the style. I give them great credit for that. Like each of the original comics the series are based on, they are allowing creators the freedom to tell the character stories in the most appropriate ways.

However that means that each time, each show has to level-set for the audience. Because of that the initial pacing of this short series, much like WandaVision, was slow, but it had an ever-increasing cadence that came together by the end. Interestingly, the light-hearted feeling of it all made the entire season feel like a close cousin of Doctor Who, especially given one of the bigger reveals. For those who don’t watch both shows, they would have had no dissonance while watching. But, for those of us who are broader omnivores in the genre, the tone and pace were unmistakable. It wasn’t a bad thing, but it was occasionally distracting for me.

Also, much like WandaVision, I feel like this is a show that is going to be more enjoyable on rewatch…once it all makes sense. I didn’t have  suspense pulling me along so much as curiosity while all the parts were spinning in the air. Some of that is the Owen Wilson (bliss) interplay with Tom Hiddleston (Thor: Ragnarok), which was amusing, but not quite intense enough to pull me in.

On the other hand, Sophia Di Martino, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Motherless Brooklyn), and Wunmi Mosaku (Lovecraft Country) really brought the energy and impact throughout the story. There are several shorter-lasting roles of note too, but to list them would be to spoil. Suffice to say that the cast embraced the absurdity of it all and ran with it in earnest. (Also not unlike Doctor Who.) And they sold it well. It certainly helped to have a single director, Kate Herron, to guide the entire ship into its final port. Herron’s complete guidance was especially needed so that the delightful physical metaphor in play could be handled well from beginning to end.

My biggest gripe: I only wish it had more than six episodes for the season. Even though it didn’t feel rushed, and I got ahead of several aspects, I’d love to see what more they could have explored. Fortunately, there is a second season already planned.

As a total sidebar, what is happening now in the MCU as Phase 4 is getting spun up is exactly what Ron Howard had hoped to do with Dark Tower (jumping between movies and TV series). The idea was thwarted by the studios. You gotta believe Howard is watching with a certain amount of evil glee at the success of the MCU. You’d also hope that the studios are kicking themselves at this point having missed the chance to blaze that ground and build an empire. But studios don’t have a soul…or long memory…so I suspect they’ve not even acknowledged the miss.

Loki Poster

A Quiet Place: Part II

[3.5 stars]

While this sequel can’t compete with the unrelenting tension of the first installment, it is an adventure all its own, building out the world and the story. It’s also a hand-off of sorts, shifting focus from Emily Blunt (Animal Crackers) to her children, Noah Jupe (The Titan) and Millicent Simmonds (A Quiet Place). Though I must admit, I don’t recall Jupe’s character being so bloody foolish in the first movie.

Director John Krasinski (Animal Crackers) also nicely shifted the adult focus to Cillian Murphy (Anna), providing a different view of the invasion and its impact. And he continued to show his writing ability with a tightly constructed story that uses everything he threw into it.

But this story has quite a bit more soundtrack in it than the first. To be fair, Krasinski sort of tapped that trick in the first part and repeating it would have been boring. But the film definitely had a bit less suspense for the talking. And the impact of Djimon Honsou (Serenity) was less than I’d have hoped for, though I appreciate Krasinski’s strong choices again for the story and structure.

If you liked the first part of this tale, you do have to see the second. Watching the characters grow (literally and emotionally) isn’t something you get often enough anymore. Natural sequels are hard to come by, but this found a way.

A Quiet Place Part II Poster

How I Became a Superhero (Comment je suis devenu super-héros)

[3.5 stars]

Every time you think this genre has been tapped out, someone comes up with a fresh or entertaining entry. This French police procedural/superhero tale creates a rich world full of humor and complex characters, but with some solid bite and depth to make it interesting. All the more impressive it’s coming from a first time director, Douglas Attal.

In the focus of the story, Pio Marmaï draws us in with an unexpected charm and a character who slowly peels back layers with every scene. He is initially easy to pigeon hole and dismiss, as even his partner, Vimala Pons, is tempted to do. But she, like us, realize there is something more there worth digging into. And, with the help of Leïla Bekhti and Benoît Poelvoorde (The Brand New Testament), society is protected from Swann Arlaud (Romantics Anonymous). But the story is not quite as straight forward as that. Nor would you want it to be.

Definitely queue this up if you at all like the genre. It’s clever, funny, and with a nice French edge to it all that keeps it from becoming too much anything else.

How I Became a Superhero Poster

Bosch (series finale)

[4 stars]

There is nothing more wonderful for a show than to go out on a high, and Bosch most definitely did. In many ways, this was their best season yet, though it stood and relied on all the underpinnings of the previous 6.

Titus Welliver (Escape Plan 2: Hades) embodied Connelly’s detective. He created a tough, thoughtful man, driven by justice more than rules, but very specific about when he’s willing to color outside the lines.

Supported by Jamie Hector as his slightly messed up partner and Amy Aquino (The Lazarus Effect) as his strong but besieged Captain, he’s navigated multiple crimes and corruption, joy and tragedy. Lance Reddick (Sylvie’s Love) as the Chief of Police certainly contributed to both sides of that equation over time. And, as comic relief (often with more than a little edge) Troy Evans and Gregory Scott Cummins as the OG detective partners in the room make the best old married couple on TV.

Madison Lintz grew with the show as Bosch’s daughter. We got to watch her find her feet as an actor and a character. By the end, she has found her footing, with the surprising help of Mimi Rogers, and has blended the best of Bosch and her mother.

There is little doubt where the series had to end, given some of the changes that were made when it was adapted. Both readers and watchers will feel a sense of completion with the arc, regardless of how they came to it. Despite a number of parallel threads running through the season, all are tied up nicely (and one perhaps a bit too conveniently, but was necessary for dramatic effect). And there is still room for it to go forward if they execute on the rumors that are circulating. Suffice to say, if you enjoy police procedural, this is one of the best done in a long time. It is, in some ways, the male counterpart to Prime Suspect, but with a very different perspective and a very different set of flaws.

Bosch Poster

Black Widow

[3.5 stars]

Preface: It has been 18 months since I last saw a movie in the theater. The last film I saw before lockdown was a dual weekend of Bad Boys for Life and Dolittle. I have wide tastes, what can I say? It wasn’t until the beginning of June I was even considering the possibility of returning thanks to finally being able to be vax’d in my state. But it wasn’t until this movie I was even motivated to try again.

So why did we even need this movie? It’s a reasonable question given what we know of Black Widow’s path. This movie nestles between Civil War and Infinity War for Scarlett Johansson’s (Marriage Story) character. We know where she ends up. So why? The simple answer is that she was always an enigma. It was part of her allure and charm. But we also had hints of her past and how it haunted her throughout Phases 1-3. There was never time to explore those tales because they would have been distracting to the main plots. This movie focuses solely on her and gives us the depth and some of the answers we had been looking for: who was Natasha and what was all that red ink she was on about for so long?

Basically, Johansson got the send off her character deserved in this gap-filling flick. But that is, of course, also part of the problem. We know a good deal of who lives and who dies because, well, we know what came next. It sucks some of the tension out of Eric Pearson’s (Godzilla vs. Kong) script which is, otherwise, an action and suspense-filled story. Though Director Cate Shortland did her best to keep us distracted from those facts with lots of clever fights and a mostly great cast.

As Johansson’s sister, Florence Pugh (Midsommar) is more than up to the task. No real surprise there either given her range and previous showings. And as her “parents,” Rachel Weisz (The Favourite) and David Harbour (Extraction) are comically and nicely cast. Harbour is doomed to be a sidekick the rest of his life, but he does it well.

If there is a flaw in the cast, it is Ray Winstone (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains). He just comes across as absurd and uncredible. Even if you buy into what he appears to have achieved, his demeanor and how he uses it feels wrong. From his accent to his posture he feels fake. Certainly, we enjoy his wrap up to this tale, but I would have liked to see someone else in that role who could have carried it with a bit more gravitas and truth.

Another aspect to this movie is that it was delayed almost 18 months. It should have come out before Falcon and Winter Soldier (which, in turn, should have been out before WandaVision). The only real connection is the tag to Black Widow, which is echoed at the end of Falcon and Winter Soldier, but it is also about the shape of the stories and information. Someday I may rewatch it all in the right order to see what that’s like, but it is interesting seeing the all the intended bits finally. And there is still plenty left untold about Black Widow…some of which I think we might see in the forthcoming Hawkeye. But if not, I’m OK with that too.

And to the last and most important question: is it worth seeing in theaters? That answer is mixed. It is certainly filmed for the big screen (I did go see it in IMAX). It’s gorgeous at times. But the pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already bad before the lockdowns: people think the theater is their living rooms. Talking, phones, etc were all on display. And, on a personal note, having folks right next to us (they opened the seats that morning unbeknownst to me) wasn’t very comfortable.

The truth is, a good movie is good on the big or the smaller screen, because it is about the story, not the spectacle. Black Widow will certainly be less breath-taking at moments on a home setup, even with a large TV, but the story should hold up and be engaging if you have interest in the MCU.

To be honest, I haven’t decided if I’m going back to the theater any time soon. My recent experience has left me a tad nonplussed on the idea, but we’ll see. And given the rise of variants, it may not even be a choice I have in a couple weeks, cause that’s just the world we live in now. Part of the reason I pushed for this outing was that I saw a window of opportunity and wanted to take advantage. It was certainly interesting to be packed in with the public again after so long. It also helped me realize just how nice my own home setup is now, having enhanced it a bit during the pandemic.

Black Widow Poster

Lupin (parts 1 & 2)

[4 stars]

In an entertainment landscape where we’ve been trained to want and expect chases, explosion, and gunfights, it’s so nice to have a high-concept mystery show again that is about tension and cleverness. I know there are others out there, but this feels new and different, even if it’s based on 100 year old books.

I will admit, the main core of the fight that Omar Sy (Inferno) wages against the truly repellant Hervé Pierre got a little tiresome at points during the sequence. But I also admit that by the end of the second part, it all paid-off wonderfully.

Where the first part focuses on the crime and revenge, the second focuses more on the people around Lupin and the bonds that hold them. Getting to see some of the backstory and expansion of characters like Antoine Gouy and Clotilde Hesme (The Returned) was great fun. And the continued development of Soufiane Guerrab’s (Moloch) put-upon detective becomes a wonderful evolution in the tale.

Much like the original books, the story feels very “managed,” for lack of a better word. It is relatively easy to get ahead of it all well before the end. The clues are there in both the script and structure. But, honestly, it didn’t matter. Lupin is about the pay-off and the fun; it has both. And a third part on the way that I am hoping will help it break free of the current main story and move on to a new mystery. Honestly, this one has played out and continuing it would devolve into bad telenovella territory, regardless of how interesting the characters are. In the meantime, if you haven’t discovered or tried Lupin yet, queue it up.

Lupin Poster

Fear Street: Part One – 1994

[4 stars]

Pretty much out of the gate Leigh Janiak has the reins of Fear Street and drives it relentlessly and with style. Loaded with good scares, clever surprises, and wry humor, it never lets up and it has a lot of fun with horror tropes.

She also pulled together a solid cast who could play the genre with earnest irony. Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, and Julia Rehwald, in particular, manage a wonderful juggling act that bounces between femme victims and femme fatales. But, as a whole, the cast holds it together without a weak delivery among them (given the style).

Clearly this is a story that has a lot left to reveal since it’s a trilogy that goes back to it’s origin (1666). Also, it’s completely clear that the kids in this movie have no clue what is really going on yet, try as they might to make sense of it all. So while the Final Girls vibe is fun, I don’t know how it will all shift through the subsequent parts. However, if you’re looking for a fix before the next chapter of Stranger Things, but with a bit more of an edge, this is the ticket.