Tag Archives: 4stars

Hearts Beat Loud

[3.5 stars]

There have been many films about wannabe or aspiring musicians over recent years. They cover quite a bit of ground as well. From Juliet Naked to Begin Again to Sing Street to Song to Song or even the more tangential like Rudderless, they tend, mostly to focus on adults looking for their lost moments or kids getting together to make their way.

Don’t get me wrong, Nick Offerman (Nostalgia) certainly fills that adult bill in Hearts Beat Loud; but as much as he drives the movie, it isn’t about him. The point of the story really revolves about his daughter, Kiersey Clemons (Flatliners) and their relationship. Music is essential and plays a role, but this is primarily a film about family not fame.

Around the pair are some great supporting characters. Relative newcomer, Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Clemons make a great pairing. Their interactions are quietly intense, and, admittedly, a bit too chaste for 18 year olds, but still very effective.

For Offerman, Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Ted Danson build out his story and world with humor and complications. On the other hand, Bythe Danner (I’ll See You in My Dreams) is, sadly, all but lost in this story. She is a bit of background that you can see has meaning, but there is little done with it and it is one of the few real misfires in the flick for me.

Director and co-writer Brett Haley (The Hero) reteamed with Marc Basch to pen this story that lives in a comfortable groove in our expectations but manages to stay unexpected in its execution, like a good song. Even Keegan DeWitt’s (The Hero) music is not your typical choice of “new band creates massively brilliant music.” They are clearly songs filled with promise and with an indie approach to pop music, but none feel entirely finished. They feel, in fact, like a beginning songwriter with talent learning their craft.

The pacing of this movie is deliberate. Not slow, per se, but certainly not a runaway train. Haley lets the story layer and build so the ending has impact. When you want a sweet evening and have the need for a good story that takes you through a range of emotions, Hearts Beat Loud is a great choice.

Hearts Beat Loud

A Simple Favor

[4 stars]

Dark, funny, sexy, twisted, this mystery-cum-satire is a great ride, expertly executed by cast and crew alike. It has barely a misstep as it navigates its path to the end, and it sustains its off-plumb approach till the final credits.

The movie is led by a perfectly cast duo, Anna Kendrick (TrollsPitch Perfect) and Blake Lively (Cafe Society). What introduces itself as a simple tale of rich suburban hell slides into something quite different very early on when these women meet and become friends. Stuck in the crossfire of all the complexity is Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians), with a gullible savvy. The trio are the main engine of the story and keep it humming along.

But there is a host of great smaller characters as well. Linda Cardellini (Bloodline), Andrew Ranells (Why Him?), Rupert Friend (The Death of Stalin), Jean Smart (The Accountant), and Melissa O’Neill (Dark Matter) are just a few of the cameos. Each adds something to the tale, to one degree or another, thanks to a very tight script byJessica Sharzer. Sharzer is no stranger to the dark side of things having worked on American Horror Story and Nerve and it served her well here. You know you’ve come across something special when you can get ahead of it and it still doesn’t matter…because you really don’t get entirely ahead of it anyway.

As director, Paul Feig (Ghostbusters, and the MCU) took her script and ran with it, hitting just the right tone with his actors: allowing them to be utterly aware of the absurdities of their lives and still commit to them. The level of snark and sarcasm on screen is probably well above FDA standards, and incredibly funny. Smart, broad comedy is about the hardest to pull off because it is so self-conscious and also invites criticism due to its audience because no one can claim they don’t know what’s going on. But A Simple Favor needn’t worry, it can take it, dish it back, and come out on top. Make time for this one, it will surprise you.

A Simple Favor

Juliet, Naked

[4 stars]

Sure, in many ways this is a standard rom-com. There is broad humor, unlikely pairings, and personal awakenings. But it is much more than that. The film is packed with subtleties and small scenes of unremarked upon revelations. It is a story about life and, of course, music. It is adapted from a Nick Hornby novel after all, the writer who gave us High Fidelity and About a Boy among other tales and movies.

Rose Byrne (The Meddler) and Chris O’Dowd (Love After Love) make an amusingly broken couple who remain in each other’s orbits by pure inertia at the top of the film. From there, quiet hilarity ensues as each tries to find their place with one other and the world.

While the movie is framed by O’Dowd and the story is carried primarily on Byrne’s back, it is Ethan Hawke (Maggie’s Plan), as the broken and drifting ex-musician, that lights up the movie. His character is complex and sympathetic while still being a bit of a douche as he tries to make up for his past. The man has surprisingly good chops too. And Azhy Robertson, as his son, makes for great interactions and moments. There are many solid supporting roles to fill the film out as well.

Director Jesse Peretz keeps everything flowing and knows when to just let a scene have its own quiet focus. Which isn’t to say there aren’t laugh out loud moments, but there are as many inward smiles too. While not a big screen movie, it isn’t one  you should wait for if it comes to a theater near you. It is a great entertainment that will leave you feeling great about life, love, and possibility without having to grab you by the throat to do it, like so many in this genre.

Juliet, Naked

The Names of Love (Le nom des gens)

[3.5 stars]

Quirky. Amusing. Sexy. And all with a purpose. It is very… French; a dark comedy that is also a political romance. There is nothing traditional about this one at all.

Sara Forestier (Gainsbourg: Vie Héroïque) is evanescent and the walking embodiment of Id and sex. She is also strong and independent to a fault. And, opposite her (in so many ways), Jacques Gamblin is about as buttoned down as one can get. Yet, somehow, they become an unlikely couple.

There isn’t much more to tell that won’t give away the surprises. If you like quirky romance and don’t mind some politics thrown in, this is for you. It is very funny at times, and a bit pointed at others. If you want just a light romance, this probably isn’t your best choice.

If you get this on disc, there is also a short film by co-writer Baya Kasmi that is clearly the inspiration for this longer piece she put together with director Michel Leclerc. The bones of the story are in this short, but the sensibility is quite a bit different. If you do watch The Names of Love, give the short a go and see what spawned it. It is a good little film in its own right.

The Names of Love

Crazy Rich Asians

[4 stars]

So all that joy, surprise, and summer delight that I had hoped Mama Mia! Here We Go Again would bring me is here in this movie. It is a broad rom-com to be sure, but it manages to go a bit beyond that. By the end this is more about real love than it is about idealized stories. Not that this isn’t a fantasy, it surely is, but it is one that does what it wants to do well and you’ll willingly go along with it.

In the leads, Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) and relative new-comer Henry Golding make a wonderful couple with great chemistry. You can believe and invest in them, even when Golding’s choices are a bit less than supportive around his family.

And it is Golding’s family that is at the core of challenges, with Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: DiscoveryThe Mechanic: Resurrection) as his mother. A side-plot with Gemma Chan (Humans) as his cousin is also well-delivered. In many ways, Chan’s presence actually starts to steal the movie, but that is kept in check by limiting her story’s screen time.

Wu’s Rachel has her own set of friends in Singapore, led by Akwafina (Ocean’s 8) and her crazy family. These are the broadest characters we meet. Given her father is Ken Jeong (The DUFF), that isn’t much of a surprise. Only Nico Santos (Superstore) matches their antics as part of the story. We expect a certain amount of this in a rom-com, but it sometimes skirts the edge of the cliff if it isn’t your type of humor. There are some side characters that actually jump off that cliff, but they don’t really matter for the plot in any real way.

After the bomb of Jem and the Holograms, director Jon M. Chu is probably breathing a huge sigh of relief at the success of this release. He manages the story well, never quite letting it get out of control and delivering the wrap-up with a solid punch. It leaves you smiling, tapping your feet, and celebrating love (and wishing you, too, were super rich, of course). This is a great piece of escapist fun and, as you’d expect, a great datenight flick.

Crazy Rich Asians

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

[3.5 stars]

Take a story by Neil Gaiman and give John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit HoleHedvig and the Angry Inch) the opportunity to turn it into a movie and you get a sort of punk rock coming-of-age fantasy that starts odd, gets odder, and manages to steal your heart.

Alex Sharp in his first movie (though a Tony winner for The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time) nails it. He and his friends, Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis, give us a group of young punks in 1977 Croydon looking for…something in all the wrong places. As most adolescents do. The story is best experienced without any preamble, so I’ll stop there.

The boys are supported by a great cast. Elle Fanning (Leap!), ever her ethereal self, headlines it all and seems to expand on her Neon Demon character. And in support, Nicole Kidman (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, Luther), and Matt Lucas (Sherlock Gnomes) each bring their own special brand of uniqueness to the characters.

But it isn’t just about the story and people directly. It is also about the music and movement that was just gaining steam in ’77. Real-life musician Martin Tomlinson leads the fictional Dyschords in a brilliant and believable set of performances to set the mood. As Gaiman put it when he saw it, they feel like a real band from that era you just somehow missed at the time. I’d add, if you ever cared about that era, you’d be sorry you did. And the rest of Nico Muhly and Jamie Stewart’s music is equally effective and engaging.

Entertainment and cleverness aside, Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett took the smallest of seeds from Gaiman’s story of the same name (published as part of his Fragile Things collection) and grew it into a wondrous and unexpected adventure. It is as if Sing Street tripped into Wonderland, or Across the Universe collided with Velvet Goldmine. And yet none of that is really accurate other than to imply the unexpectedness of it all. Despite all the expansions, it still retains the sense and point of the original piece. Truly a great example of adaptation. However, if you haven’t read the story first I’d read it after. The story will suffer for that, but the movie will probably be improved by protecting some of its uniqueness.

Check this out without finding out more and just let the story take you. Mitchell is wonderful at laying out secret and twisty paths and imbuing his creations with heart, even amid heartbreak. And in this case, with Gaiman’s sensibility to help inform it all, it comes together in delightful ways. This is a universal story, even if the trappings don’t appear so.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

The Meg

[3.5 stars]

You can’t do a shark movie without invoking Jaws. It’s just not possible. When you understand that and can embrace it, as The Meg does, it becomes a non-issue, even when they copy shots. The Meg is both homage and riff, satire and step-brother of the 1975 classic that cleared a 1000 beaches. Though, to be fair, this is a bit more Piranha than Jaws in its sensibility, and that’s OK too. Delivered with conviction by the cast, and guided by Turteltaub’s (Last Vegas) direction, it manages to thrill, scare, and entertain in just the right measures for a late summer entertainment.

Jason Statham (The Mechanic: Retribution) and Li Bingbing (Resident Evil: Resurrection) are not the most natural couple on screen, but they each deliver performances that work well for the story. And the young Sophia Cai does an admirable job of getting between them. Rain Wilson (Backstrom) is probably the most perfectly cast of the group, riding the line of bastard and benevolent Billionaire to fund and push the story along. And it is always fun to see Ruby Rose (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) and her smart-ass ways. The only bit of writing that made my skin crawl was for Page Kennedy (Backstrom), who was turned into a very uncomfortably-close-to-racist stereotype. It isn’t throughout, but it definitely was ill-considered and it was clear they had no idea of why Kennedy’s character was even in the mix.

The movie is a bit less humorous than the early trailers would have led you to believe, but not by much. It injects just enough humor to keep the absurdities from being too apparent. And, of course, it is full of action and visual candy. In other words, this is a great piece of escapist silliness with just enough edge to sell the suspense and action.

The Meg

Lear (2018)

[3.5 stars]

In the world of Shakespeare on film, there are many citizens, but only a few really stand out. Akira Kursawa’s Throne of Blood (nee Macbeth) and Ian MacKellen’s Richard III for their fascinating interpretations and performances come immediately to mind. And then there are Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Hamlet for their classic and down-to-earth depictions (not to mention full-text presentations). There are filmed stage performances as well, but those are a different discussion and, arguably, a different genre.

As Hamlet is a requirement for younger actors, Lear, like Prospero (or Prospera), is a right of passage for venerable actors. In fact, Glenda Jackson is joining that list soon as well. It would have been a great disappointment not to see Anthony Hopkins (Thor: Ragnarok) tackle Lear before he folded up his career…not that that seems to be coming any time soon. And Richard Eyre’s (The Dresser) adaptation and direction makes this an interesting Lear indeed.

One of the challenges of Lear is that it starts far into the story of this tragic family. We can intuit a lot, but it often starts with such a level of animosity from the children that it feels like a cheat. Eyre’s choices help us really see the fear and hatred build in Regan and Goneril, played by Emily Watson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Emma Thompson (Bridget Jones’s Baby) . We also see Lear change and deteriorate wonderfully through the piece. And though not quite as topically impactful as Ian McKellen’s Richard III, the modern setting also works nicely allowing it to resonate with the growing concerns of eldercare.

There are some wonderful side performances in the various houses as well from Christopher Eccleston (Unfinished Song), Tobias Menzies (The Night Manager), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey), and Jim Broadbent (The Lady in the Van). However, you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the two integral roles of Cordelia and The Fool, respectively played by Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) and Karl Johnson. Both are serviceable in their roles, but neither really left an impact for me, which has something to do with the actors, but also with some burden on the directing choices in which Eyre’s approach has some intriguing shifts in focus beyond setting.

It is the Edmund/Edgar machinations which are made the center of the story for most of the movie. These mirrored relationships were always important, but wrenching the center of the play off the titular character was interesting. The bastard, played by John Macmillan, and the son, by Andrew Scott (Sherlock), are both powerful performers. However, despite the interesting effect on plot structure, their screen relationship is forced and never really gels…even at the end. Another interesting change is that the Fool is disposed of with scant comment (and probably without much import for most of the audience). It is done in set-up for the final scenes, which are always discussed dramaturgically as the substitution of Cordelia for the Fool (and after Lear and Mad Tom have each taken some ownership), but it has an incomplete impact and import the because it is executed so dismissively.

For all the solutions this production finds in bringing the motivations to life, the film exacerbates the problem of compressed time by virtue of its length. Despite good visual bridges, the plot is forced along far too quickly (115 minutes). Honestly, this tale could probably sustain a mini-series in length and thereby get places more believably. Shakespeare’s wonderful prose aside, the credibility of the choices has always been a challenge in this play. Huge leaps based on long-festering slights are necessary, but hard to digest for the audience given the scope of Lear’s travels and the evolution and impact of his story on an entire country.

I could keep dissecting this production, which is actually a good sign. There is much to chew on. Often you only get one or two interesting aspects to chew on…but Eyre and Hopkins provide a full meal, if not all the courses. If you enjoy Shakespeare, you must see this production. If you come to the Bard only on occasion, you may find this a bit different than what you expect, intriguing, and certainly shorter than your typical play. It is the magic of Shakespeare that his work continues to make sense and have impact in various conceptualizations, settings, and times, even when some of the specifics may be confusing as society changes.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

[4 stars]

The MI series is known for huge stunts, dry humor, and cheap emotion. This sixth installment is no exception on that front, though writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible 5 – Rogue Nation) does something a little special this time around. Fallout is brings back in Ian Hunt’s past and nods to several previous MI movies. It also manages to give a little more story time and weight to the rest of Hunt’s team, taking some of the pressure off of Tom Cruise (The Mummy) and enriching the series.

I have to admit, I was a bit worried as the movie started. Some of the choices and moments were less than nuanced and the “secrets” were bloody obvious. But it (mostly) gets past all of that by the end. Henry Cavill (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is suitably odd in his role, though I struggled with him at time. Ving Rhames (MI:5) actually got to out screen Simon Pegg (Ready Player One) this round in many ways. And the return of Sean Harris (Macbeth) was a nice touch to keep the world alive. Finally, though in a small role, Wes Bentley (Pete’s Dragon) does subtle and nice work that is almost all throw-away, but great to watch.

While this is still a heavily male dominated series, there were several strong female characters, each with their own stories as well. Rebecca Ferguson (Greatest Showman) gets to reprise her role and continue her and Hunt’s odd dance, as does Angela Bassett (Black Panther). Frustratingly, Bassett is the least credible of the characters thanks to the writing. The return of Michelle Monaghan (Sleepless) was an interesting choice by McQuarrie to flesh out Cruise’s life as Hunt. The addition, and far too little screen time, of Vanessa Kirby (The Dresser) was a nice treat too. I imagine we’ll be seeing much more of Kirby in the the next installment…and that installment is inevitable given the praises and dollars this movie has already garnered.

If you like the MI series, this fast-paced 2.5 hour adventure is a worthy addition to the collection. In many ways it is the best movie of the bunch, if not always the best MI story. Much like Equalizer 2, Cruise and McQuarrie are revitalizing the series by making it more personal while still holding onto most of the bare bones of its origins. Things still go wrong, spectacularly in some cases. The stakes are ridiculously high. The tech is important, but not always the answer. The world is mostly unaware of the craziness going on around them and shaping their lives. But deep underneath it all are a group of increasingly more human agents trying to do the right thing for the right reasons despite the politicos and evil-doers around them.

As escapist adventure with a bit of heart, this is probably the best popcorn film of the summer. And that’s what summer movie going is often for: escapism. So go, gasp, and escape for a couple hours.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Ordeal by Innocence

[3.5 stars]

The latest evolution of Agatha Christie continues. Unlike the better known story Murder on the Orient Express, however, this particular stand-alone mystery is less familiar, though it was turned into a Marple mystery and a separate movie. I’ve seen both of these versions, but frankly don’t remember them that well. This incarnation, however, is a gripping three-part drama that keeps you guessing till the very end.

Sarah Phelps, who also wrote the recent and wonderful Witness for the Prosecution, adapted and constructed this mystery to provide a number of believable suspects. Director Sandra Goldbacher (Me Without You) controls the mystery and motives to keep you rethinking your options. The field of possible murderers doesn’t even start to diminish until the last 30 minutes of the three episode series, as the truth fully comes out.

Casting certainly was in their favor as well. With Bill Nighy (The Limehouse Golem) leading the family along with Anna Chancellor (Shetland), there is a great dynamic that sets the tension. The family of adopted children each bring their own sensibility and motivations. Anthony Boyle has the most complex role of the sibs, but he is well supported by Christian Cooke (Witches of East End), Crystal Clarke (Assassin’s Creed), Ella Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children), and Eleanor Tomlinson (Death Comes to Pemberly). A couple of outsiders bring in the final ingredients: Luke Treadaway (Fortitude) and Matthew Goode (Self/less).

To be honest, it isn’t an entirely fair mystery; some information is held back till the final episode. Some of the blind spots are obvious (we see the murder multiple times from different time frames and angles) but some are about hidden relationships. However, even though the “who” is strung out, the clues and other aspects of the construction are beautiful. It all adds up to a much more believable story than we usually get to see, and one that is delightfully dark and satisfying through to the final frame.