Tag Archives: 4stars

Capernaum

[3.5 stars]

There is a lot of hyperbole (and awards) thrown around about Nadine Labaki’s (Where Do We Go Now?) latest film. And they are deserved. As with her other work, she is brilliant at exposing humanity in the most impossible circumstances. She doesn’t give into dramatic cliche in order to rivet you to the screen, she employs simple truths and and hard choices along with quiet moments of desperation and joy to do it. She invites you into areas of the world few, if any, of her viewers would have experienced and makes you understand.

This film, more than her others, is relentless in its message and, for lack of a better term, existential horror. There are few moments of respite or joy. But it was the right choice for the story she wanted to tell. To have falsely buoyed the characters would have been to cheat the tale.

The entire story depends upon the slender thread of first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea. He is an unbelievably charismatic and powerful presence, despite his age and stature. In an intersecting story, Yordanos Shiferaw, also new to screen, delivers her own gripping tale.

You may be wondering, as I was, what the title meant. It isn’t a word, it is a place…and it adds an entire level of commentary to the story. But, frankly, better to discover that afterwards as it is a bit self-conscious.

This isn’t a fun film, to be honest. You’ll find yourself angry, sad, and, at times, likely yelling at the screen. The subtitles also sometimes flash so quickly (less than a second) as to be unreadable…but I didn’t find any of the gaps to be unfillable by logic and flow. Still, it was a shame to have such a simple technical blemish on the experience. Ultimately, the movie will not leave you feeling hopeless, but the trip is a little exhausting…much to Labaki’s credit, you’ll thank her for that.

Cold War

[3.5 stars]

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski follows up his 2013 Ida with another black and white masterpiece that looks at the personal tragedy of politics and war. Evoking the likes of Bergman, Bertolucci, and Felini, in the composition if not the story construction, Cold War examines where love fits into war and repressive society. Or it looks at the struggles of love with that as the metaphor…it really depends on how cynical you are.

Unlike Ida, this story is seen primarily through the perspective of Tomasz Kot rather than Joanna Kulig (Hanna), the strong woman at the center of the script. Using Kot as the story lens feels a little odd as Kulig drives most of the action; but it is more his story than in the end. And, despite the historical context, the story could easily have happened anywhere in the world. The film stays very focused on couple as their relationship ebbs, flows, and evolves. However, the struggles of Eastern Bloc politics provides some interesting historical insight and emotional tension without becoming the typical thriller.

One of the films greatest strengths, and conversely its weaknesses, is just how beautifully it is filmed. Much like Ida, every shot is gorgeously composed. So much so it is self-conscious, rather than the very real, open, and equally beautiful work done by its Oscar competitor Roma. That choice keeps you at a distance, making you consider the action rather than be absorbed into it. It works for the intent, but it makes it a little emotionally distant; more a painting to observe than a film to escape into. It is ultimately still very effective and well executed, but this self-conscious aspect may not work for some.

Meet the Patels

[4 stars]

Surprising, sweet, and delightful, not to mention full of humor and genuine affection. I can’t say I knew what to expect going into this journey of Ravi and Geeta Patel and their family, but it engaged me almost immediately. This short, sort-of-documentary follows Ravi, better known as a character actor, as he attempts to find a wife. It is an open-eyed and open-minded look at arranged marriage and dating in the modern world.

Using rough family footage and interspersed simple animation, the two put together an overview-with-commentary of his year long journey.  Though she tries to remain behind the camera his sister is part of this journey as well, by extension and comments, making this very much a family affair.

Unless you are part of the culture, this isn’t likely an area you know much about, other than at a distance or through the last season of The Big Bang Theory. Dropping into the middle of it all in a positive way is a story worth hearing. And, fortunately, it is done with a great deal of heart and humor that invites us not only into Ravi’s life and his family’s, but also into the clan Patel.

Pose

[4 stars]

What makes Pose brilliant isn’t it’s use of transgendered actors (been done before in Transparent, Boy Meets Girl, Orange is the New Black, etc). It isn’t the exposè style of the Balls (been shown before in Paris is Burning and Saturday Church, and elsewhere). It isn’t even the heart-felt tales of the characters (we’ve seen a lot of these kinds of tales before).

No, the genius of Pose is that it treats its characters as normal; that you cannot help but see them as they see themselves, especially the women. In particular Mj Rodriguez  and Indya Moore, from Saturday Church, and Dominique Jackson whose stories dominate the eight episodes. But there are rooms-full of these incredible women struggling for recognition, in every way you can define that.

But it isn’t just about the women. Billy Porter (American Horror Story) brings an energy as MC to the Balls and to the series. He navigates his own complicated tale and manages to draw on his wide variety of talents. Newcomer Ryan Jamaal Swain delivers a sweet and vibrant ball of hope to story while his dance teacher, Charlayne Woodard (Glass), provides some additional outside perspective.

The other contributing factor to the genius of Pose is that it also manages to bring the late-80s period piece into current political and cultural relevance with the parallel storylines of Evan Peters (American Animals), Kate Mara (Morgan), and James Van Der Beek (Downsizing). The reflections and tangling of the two worlds offers surprises and insights as well as a few dark laughs.

Ryan Murphy’s breadth of genre and his ability to make them each so personal, be it high school, horror, or history, continues to surprise and find success. Pose isn’t perfect. It is a tad arch, which isn’t surprising, and some of the actors are natural, but a little untried. But the overall impact and journey is surprisingly effective and avoids feeling exploitative or in any way disingenuous.

If Beale Street Could Talk

[3.5 stars]

On the surface, this is a small and personal tale of love and family. But it is, of course, much more than that. It is also, in its way, a modern day Color Purple, exposing social injustice on an intimate level, making it impossible to ignore or pretend to not understand. In some ways, the social injustice reflections are intrusive and jarring, much like portions of BlacKkKlansman, but in other ways it’s like having a friend explain their point of view and experience in a very real way.

Much like Barry Jenkin’s previous Moonlight, this is as much a poem as it is a story. It is told in small vignettes across two timelines. We see the start of the relationship between Stephan James (Selma) and KiKi Layne reflected against the ultimate resolution of it. It is a beautiful story full of unexpected moments and passion. It is a tale about what makes family and how family makes us. The young pair are magnetic and we can recognize our own passions in them even if we’ve outgrown some of the intensity.

Regina King is as solid as her golden statuette for the role suggests. She and the rest of the cast tend to surprise in their reactions to the world and one another. Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq) and Colman Domingo (Assassination Nation) complete Layne’s immediate family, who are fiercely supportive of one another. There is certainly strife, but it is clear from the outset how they can pull together.

There a number of important characters in smaller roles. Among them are a barely recognizable Ed Skrein (Tau), leveraging his trademark nasty streak and Finn Wittrock (La La Land) at the other end of that spectrum as examples.

After Moonlight, all eyes were on Barry Jenkins to deliver. With over 150 awards nominations, including 3 Oscar nods and a win, you could say he succeeded at least on some level. But whether this is a good movie or not is going to be a matter of personal taste. it is laconic in its narrative. It is intense in its emotions. It is preachy at times in its message. But it is effective and affecting not to mention beautifully filmed and directed.

Along with other recent films like The Hate U Give, Dope, Straight Outta Compton, or even Selma, 13th, and Hidden Figures, Beale Street gives us a view of America that has been long avoided but that is now starting to make its way into the mainstream. What we, as a society, do with that awareness is the next big question.

Hitchcock/Truffaut

[4 stars]

What makes this documentary fascinating is less the presentation of the material than the insights it provides. It is also one of the oddest adaptations I think I’ve encountered. Kent Jones attempts to bring to life the infamous 1960s interviews that produced the book Hitchcock/Truffaut by Truffaut…a book which he later revised and re-released in 1985 a few years after Hitch left us and just before his own death.

What emerges, however, is more of an audio book and commentary about the interview’s revelations, cherry-picked by Jones and his collection of famous directors who were influenced by these two giants of cinema. Think of it as skipping through the book to some of the more interesting parts and getting to chat about them. The result is still a fascinating look at Hitchcock’s thinking, though more so at the way others interpret him. It also likely expands your knowledge of size of Hitchcock’s opus. You may find  yourself trying to find at least some of his earlier films that are much less well known.

This docu is certainly an interesting multiplier to the fictionalized look at his life in The Girl and Hitchcock even if its shape is a bit amorphous. If you love cinema and are drawn to understanding it, this is a must see film. But even those with passing interest will find something to chew on and will recognize the men…and it is all men…discussing how watching Hitch and Truffaut provided the impetus and artistic goals that have guided their lives and our viewing history for the last nearly 100 years.

New and Continuing Foreign Series

Baptiste
At the core of The Missing was the calming and obsessive Detective Baptiste, played by Tchéky Karyo. He was never the focus, but was the uniting factor of the series, and in many ways one of the more interesting characters. Well, now he has his own series. With the story solely on him, it is a bit lower energy but just as dark. Tom Hollander (A Private War) adds an interesting counterpoint, and a very complex character to the mix. And Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) provides a suitably evil opponent for both. There are some strong women in this series, and some damaged ones [Jessica Raine (An Adventure in Space and Time), Anastasia Hille (Tulip Fever), Barbara Sarafian, Talisa Garcia] but it is driven by the male characters.

There is a nice mix of mystery and suspense, though Karyo’s Baptiste seems to get to move with near impunity through the legal system of more than one country. But the show also continues the threads of his home life and past, which expands on what we know in interesting ways. Whether this show can be sustained over more than this limited story, I’m not sure. Karyo isn’t young and the character himself is winding down in his abilities as part of the plot. And the end of this clever and twisty six-parter was a bit rushed and, in some ways, forced. To their credit, it is satisfying and allows it to feel complete without closing the door to further stories.

Shakespeare and Hathaway (series 2)
The first series of this silly series was amusing…even more so if you know the plays of the Bard…but the mysteries were never brilliant. This second round is still fun, but the writing is much more hit and miss. In fact, the first half is painful at times, but they finally find their footing about episode 5. The main issue is more around police procedural and willfully stupid choices by characters. But this isn’t necessarily a show you want to over-analyze anyway. If you liked the first series, the second will happily distract you. If they can get more consistent writing, it has a chance for a long and amusing life.

Trapped (series 2)
The second series of Trapped takes on immigration and hate crimes on top of the delicate politics of country and family that the first series tackled. It picks up some time later from the first go-round, with some significant changes and some continuing tropes and battles. The mystery gets off to an immediate start and spins out from there intriguingly playing in the overlap between the far right and environmentalism. While the first series traps its characters literally, this series a more psychological reading of that title. Many first series characters recur and their storylines and tensions continue. The story itself unfolds very slowly, constantly going in new directions until the full tale is revealed and resolved.

Endeavour (series 6)
The latest 4 installments of Endeavour are coming back around to establishing the quirks and mannerisms of Shaun Evans’ (The Scandalous Lady W) titular detective. The last couple sequences laid some groundwork, but it was all inferred rather than direct. One of the things that made the first two series so great was watching Morse being born. This sequence really sets the stage for the relationship with Sean Rigby’s DS Strange and James Bradshaw’s  Dr. DeBryn, as well as tackling some challenges with Roger Allam’s (The Hippopotamus) DI Thursday and Anton Lesser’s CSI Bright.

There are still a few years to go before the series hits the wall it cannot pass (overlap with the original series and the elevation of Morse to DCI in the 80s). With the next series, they launch into the 70s… but they could continue there for years at a paltry four episodes a go, which either means great news for lovers of the show or danger of spinning wheels and driving it into a hopeless rut. Given how carefully Russell Lewis has tended to Colin Dexter’s characters and has conspired to give us this early slice of Morse, I’m hopeful he can sustain the effort.

Shetland (series 5)
Shetland continues its travels with its characters and its dark mysteries across harsh landscapes. And, if its been a while since your last visit it may take a bit to get your footing with the characters and their relationships. Douglas Henshall’s (Collision) dark but seethingly emotional detective remains at the center of the mismatched family on the tiny and battered island. Mark Bonnar (Line of Duty), Steven Robertson (Luther),  and Alison O’Donnell remain core to the story with him and to each other. In many ways, this is one of their best crafted seasons; it has a complex mystery with many switchbacks and character growth in parallel over the six episodes. Not that previous series weren’t equally complex, but this one felt the most evenly put together. Interestingly, series 5 is also journeying along similar ground as Baptiste and Trapped, taking on human trafficking as a core issue.

The Hate U Give

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a Spike Lee film that is less stylized and aimed more at teenagers (though still very resonate for adults) and you have a sense of this powerful offering by director George Tillman, Jr. It is uncomfortably honest and it builds tension very much like Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman. It also evokes and challenges all sides of the issues it raises, though it certainly has a point of view, and one it wastes no time establishing in its first scene. Getting that moment right was one of Tillman’s great triumphs in the film.

Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) drives this story from start to end. She is narrator and focus of the action as well as the gateway through which we enter both worlds she navigates. She is a talent we will be seeing a lot of over the coming years. The rest of the cast form up around her and every one of them has more levels than you expect as we travel through her story.

Among her family Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Russell Hornsby (Fences), and Common (Hunter Killer) stand out for the adults. Algee Smith (Earth to Echo), as her childhood friend, too. And then there is Anthony Mackie (Io), an actor we’re used to seeing with a bit more positive emotion and influence. His delivery is solid, though it is one of the least dimensional in the story. And, to be fair, it needs to be.

From Stenberg’s school-life, one of the more difficult roles was Stenberg’s friend, nicely created by Sabrina Carpenter. Carpenter has to stand in for every well-intentioned person of non-color and do so unselfconsciously. It is hard to watch and far too recognizable. And, as her boyfriend, K.J. Apa ( A Dog’s Purpose) was solid, but not particularly groundbreaking.

A good part of the success of this movie is its script. Audrey Wells (A Dog’s Purpose) adapted the book smoothly; there wasn’t a hint of it being a reflection of something else. It was entirely its own being, standing on its own feet and feeling whole and full of real people, situations, and emotions. Navigating that mine field with a teenage audience in mind wasn’t easy. Unlike Dope, it reaches out for a broader audience and more explicit message, but earns its moment of preaching in a very different way.

I have to admit I avoided this film for a long while, despite its excellent and deserved reviews. With all the hate and damage in the world, I wasn’t sure I could sit through a story about it as part of my evening relaxation. As it turns out, while it is certainly a tense story and unflinching at moments, its teenage perspective and the balance of the tale kept it digestible and still very powerful. Tillman’s ability to keep the tension going as he slips between the worlds that Stenberg navigates keeps you engaged and interested even as you may want to turn away or shout. He also employs subtle production values separating the haves and have-nots by time of day. Though some of that is story driven, it is also clearly intended to enhance light and dark.

Make time for this. It will leave a mark, but not one that will bleed too deeply. And it is a clear-eyed perspective that can start conversations or, at least, get people thinking. It is well acted, written,  and presented and will keep you guessing till the end.

Free Solo

[4 stars]

How many people spend 8 years waking up every morning thinking: I’d like to risk my life climbing that sheer rock face without a rope?Well, Alex Honnold did, planning and then executing a nearly inhuman feat. You end the journey with him feeling entirely inadequate…and also full of possibility.

Through phenomenal photography and honest story-telling, you spend 90 minutes on the edge of your seat, riveted and tense. Frankly, it is both exhilarating and exhausting. But you leave with an appreciation of the skills needed to accomplish such a feat and the kind of mentality it takes to even consider it.

Of course the story may be centered on the scaling of El Capitan, but it is the “why” of it all that adds the emotional tension to the very real physical fear Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary manages to elicit. They layer the physical challenge with Honnold’s personal and emotional challenges in life. We never quite get a full picture of of him, past or present, but much is teased. We are left with an incomplete metaphor for Honnold’s efforts as they reflect in his life, but it adds to the moment the entire film is focused on. Had this just been about the climb on the final day, it may have been pretty and intriguing, but it would have revealed nothing about the man, the sport, nor, to be a bit broad, the human condition.

It is clear that it takes a particular kind of mindset and approach to life to free solo at the level Honnold and his colleagues do. The film doesn’t exactly celebrate nor judge that mindset, but it definitely attempts to present it with genuine affection and wonder. It is beautifully and amazingly filmed. Without distracting from the story, the documentary even becomes part of the story itself. And, yes, it is most definitely worth your time. It definitely earned its Oscar.

Maniac

[4 stars]

Yeah, I’m a bit late on this one. I started to watch it early and, frankly, while it had caught me, I wasn’t driven to get back to it too quickly. I am, however, glad I went back.

With Emma Stone (The Favourite) and Jonah Hill (True Story) driving the tale, and Justin Theroux (On the Basis of Sex), Sally Field (Hello, My Name is Doris), and Sonoya Mizuno (Crazy Rich Asians) supporting it, there is some serious talent brought to bear. That talent saves the series, selling the odd and weird with commitment and nuance. Because despite all the clever aspects to the story and presentation, it really is a tortured and overly drawn-out metaphor, however entertaining.

Ultimately Maniac is an intriguing look at love, life, and schizophrenia, helping to make it one of the oddest love stories ever devised. Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) and Patrick Somerville delivered a series that is, at turns, intriguing and amusing…and ultimately affecting.