Tag Archives: 4stars

Ant-Man and the Wasp

[4 stars]

After the intensity of Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a welcome romp. Of course, the big question going into this latest Marvel Phase III movie was where it was going to fit with Avengers: Infinity War. Would we get answers? Would we get hints? So let’s get it out of the way: this tale takes place between Civil War and Infinity War. The logic to keep them all separate from the global goings-on is a bit tortured and led, comedy-forward, by Randall Park (The Hollars). It takes a bit to piece together the situation, but director Peyton Reed (Ant-Man) returns to nicely expand the world of this lesser-known and slightly weird character and fill us in.

For instance, we get a lot more on Michael Douglas’s (Unlocked) Pym, and it is far from complimentary. Evangeline Lilly (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) also gets to kick a lot more butt and drive a lot more story. Even the comic trio led by Michael Peña (Collateral Beauty) gets to move on to some new situations, though their humor and characters are more or less the same.

Some of the better aspects of casting were the addition of Michelle Pfeiffer (Murder on the Orient Express) and Hannah John-Kamen (Ready Player One), who bring some welcome female strength and some interesting characters to the MCU. Laurence Fishburne (Passengers) also has a few nice moments and an important role to play.

Interestingly, Paul Rudd (Mute) is more a passenger in this installment. It isn’t that he doesn’t do a lot, but his character doesn’t really expand…he is more the foil for everyone else, even his screen-daughter Abby Ryder Fortson. He’s a solid foil, but don’t expect a lot of character growth.

The story of Ant-Man and Wasp is somewhat expected based on the first movie, but the use of the technology has taken some inventive and considered leaps. The fights, in particular, really think through the possibilities and have great fun using it.

As a summer snack while we wait for more on Infinity War and as a set-up for yet more tales and more characters, this is great fun if still not the strongest character line in the MCU. Of course, there is a tag (or two). Stay for them if you want to know more.

[Sidenote: This is the first film (or at least major film) where I’ve seen the San Francisco skyline redefined by the Salesforce Tower. For decades, the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Warf, and the Transamerica Building were the indicators for the city. With Ant-Man and the Wasp, the establishing shots focused on the skyline’s new tower. It isn’t often a city gets redefined; just interesting to note.]

Ant-Man and the Wasp

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

[4 stars]

Like his award-winning Gloria, this award-winning film by Sebastián Lelio focuses tightly on an individual woman’s experience of family and death. He re-teamed with Gonzalo Maza to write the script as well. Daniela Vega, who brought her very real experiences to the set and story as a consultant and who ended up playing the lead role, is powerful in her portrayal.

The story is a simple one and one almost everyone has experienced: The death of a family member and the resulting fallout and personalities that are released. Admittedly, Vega’s character and situation add some wrinkles to everything, and certainly serves to expose a seething sort of bile in a good number of Santiago’s residents, but the situation itself is common. While the story is quiet, it is held so taut in Lelio’s hands as to make emotions sing even while Vega navigates it all with a calm reticence.

Also like Gloria, A Fantastic Woman taps into emotions anyone can understand and mines a deep intensity in its characters with few words and simple gestures. It is a beautiful film and emotionally battering at times. While it doesn’t quite reach the same triumphant moment in its finale as Gloria, it makes its point nonetheless. Just be prepared to look up the opera reference unless you know your music really well or your subtitles are better than mine were (which didn’t translate the obviously important lyrics). If it weren’t for that choice at the very end, which shifts from an emotional core to something a bit more intellectual, this would have been a five star movie. That shift, however important and poignant, took some of the intensity and deflected it for me. It did not in any way ruin the film.

See this one when you get the chance. And keep Lelio on your list of directors to follow. He has an uncanny ability to strip away the surface of a character and present the core in wonderful ways.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

[4.5 stars]

Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom)  has put together a lo-fi cure for hopelessness in these dark and desperate times. This is not a flashy film. It is full of old, grainy footage, talking heads, and simple conversations, much like Fred Roger’s shows. And yet it is profoundly powerful, like watching old, previously lost films from the attic of your childhood or of your family (or the family you wish you had).

If you grew up on Roger’s shows, it is easy to miss how subversive they were. This is especially true if you watched them from the beginning in the late 60’s. His willingness to discuss hard subjects with children, his inherent belief that children were people capable of understanding and, more importantly, were wells of potential goodness in the world was unlike anyone else in the media. Both he and his show embodied that in the tone, the pace, and the simplicity of its presentation. Reflecting on those shows, the events surrounding them, and his philosophy is to acknowledge something we’ve lost.

Not that it really matters, but given it has been 15 years since Roger’s passing, I did wonder about the impetus for this documentary. Part way through the movie, I think I got my answer when Yo-Yo Ma made an appearance; Yo-Yo Ma and Rogers were long-time friends. My guess is that Neville was inspired during the creation of The Music of Strangers to look at Rogers as a subject. The timing of the release may well be happenstance, but I expect it is, in part, in recognition of how far society in this country has drifted from Roger’s simple ministry of ideals and hopes.

Personally, I went into this film despondent over the last week in the news. Shattered, actually. Won’t You Be My Neighbor gave me back a sense of hope, but not in a blind way. Roger’s moment fighting for PBS in Congress subtly sums up so much of what has gone wrong in this country and shows that it could be something else…because it once was. It is a perfect film for a troubled time as a reminder of what we are capable of and how we should approach people and the world and, yes, even politics.

[If you want to see just how low I had gotten prior to this film, you can read When Hyberbole Meets Axis (password: politicalplace)]

Won

Flower

[3.5 stars]

Looking for one of the odder, darker, coming-of-age rom-coms? This will probably do you then. Well, it will do something. Flower is a delightfully enjoyable, entertaining, and weirdly bleakly hopeful story. Yeah, it really is all over the place, though some of that reaction may be due to a generation gap; hard to tell from this perspective.

The success of the story is really down (perhaps a poor choice of words) to the ebullient Zoey Deutch (Before I Fall). She continues to enchant and surprise me in her roles. She is scarily natural on film and comfortable playing whatever is necessary for the character without shame or judgement or even triumph; she just “is.” Her characters are also strong but not without levels.

Her unlikely counterpart, Joey Morgan (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), was a great foil and, ultimately, with a bit more to him than was originally obvious. And as their parents, Kathryn Hahn (The Visit) and Tim Heidecker create a backdrop that is a bit extreme, but suited to the occasion.

On the side is Adam Scott (Krampus) in a role unlike any of his others I’ve seen. It is contained and quiet, with an interesting tension underneath.

As his second feature film, Max Winkler directed this well, keeping it light but not without the gravitas it needed. Like a good sauce, it seamlessly thickens as it cooks and holds together well. Winkler also co-wrote the tale, with McAulay and Spicer (Ingrid Goes West). I can’t even imagine the story sessions this trio had coming up with the plot, but they clearly worked well together. [Sidebar: If you were hoping for the Liz Phair song that shares the titles name you’ll be disappointed; but I’m still convinced it was part impetus for this movie.]

Flower is not your traditional film, and may not be for everyone, but it is one worth seeing for its surprise and craft in front of and behind the camera.

Flower

Ocean’s 8

[4 stars]

Caper films are a wonderful and difficult genre. They can go hyper-violent, like Den of Thieves, or incredibly staid, like Topkapi (or it’s earlier incarnation, Rififi) and everything in between. There is always a challenge, a personal angle (usually revenge), and, often, a death. But what drives a great caper film is the tension and pace and the great chemistry of those involved.

Ocean’s 8 has the chemistry in spades, led confidently and in style, by Sandra Bullock (The Heat) and Cate Blanchett (Thor: Ragnarok). The rest of the gang is entertaining and, if not entirely credible, engaging enough to make us forget that aspect. Made up of Sarah Paulson (Carol), Mindy Kaling (A Wrinkle in Time),  Helena Bonham Carter (Alice Through the Looking Glass), Awkwafina (Storks), and Rhianna (Zootopia), the group play off each other well and create fun characters that feel like they have full lives. Even Carter, who plays into type (especially how she is dressed during the gala), still manages to give us something grounded and a bit new for her. With Anne Hathaway (Colossal) in the mix as the target L’Enfant terrible, great fun is had by all.

There aren’t a lot of surprises in this reboot of the series, but the more you know how these things work, the harder it is to misdirect. Logan Lucky learned that lesson last year.  But co-writers Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) and first timer Olivia Milch do some clever work to keep us wondering nonetheless. However Ross’s directing didn’t quite get the pop and flow that would make this film a classic. The pace is just a bit slow, the rhythm just a bit off. It feels polished, but not perfect.

However, it isn’t so far off as to be disappointing. The performances are fun and the dialogue and intent satisfying, pretty much all around. And, for those keeping count, the men are fairly incidental: Richard Armitage (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies), and James Corden (Into the Woods).

If you like amusing, quick-paced caper antics, you need to make time for this film. It may translate to the small screen, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another film with so many great female actors in once place (and I’ve only listed a few…there are some wonderful surprises too).

Ocean

Hereditary

[3.5 stars]

Ari Aster’s first major script and directing gig betrays a love of intelligent, suspenseful horror from the 70s. There is an air of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and even a bit of The Omen and the (much older) Cat People and the more recent Get Out. It is in the tension he creates and the way he drives the story by raising questions around what’s really happening that echoes these earlier classics. He certainly did himself no harm with the cast he gathered either.

Toni Collette (Please Stand By) delivers a shattering performance as the matriarch of a broken family. Gabriel Byrne (Carrie Pilby) supports her as her husband with immense restraint and love, but with diminishing capacity as the story unfolds. And, as the children, Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and first-timer Milly Shapiro turn in wonderfully creepy and sad performances that will break your heart before tearing it from your chest. As an added bonus, Ann Dowd (American Animals) gets to play a pivotal role and appear on multiple screens in different releases this season.

Hereditary is not an easy movie, either to watch or to define. Half the film I was wondering what I was watching, but was utterly riveted by the performances and the filmmaking. The end felt a bit forced and obvious, but the ride getting there was so solid I’ll give Aster a pass on his ultimate choices. The film gave everyone in its ensemble moments to shine, and made its audience gasp many more times than once. If you are looking for dark, creepy, and something just a bit different, you will want to see this on the big screen, in the dark, with others.

Hereditary

Thoroughbreds

[3.5 stars]

In his first script and major directing gig, Cory Finley really delivers. Thoroughbreds is controlled, paced, and loaded with clever sound cues and framing choices. It is magnetic and darkly funny in very unexpected ways. And, also in the most unlikely of ways, it gets you to invest in two sociopaths. There are some echoes with The End of the F***ing World, but Thoroughbreds is more quiet and focused.

A large part of the success of this film is down to the casting; it is  perfect for the purpose. In fact, this is the role that Olivia Cooke deserved to play after having to suffer through Ready Player One. Likewise Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) gets to stretch her acting chops and have some fun in this dark suspense/comedy.

And I know I’ve said this before, but I think this is the last of Anton Yelchin’s film appearances we will be graced with. It isn’t his most groundbreaking role, but it is layered in a way that most actors wouldn’t be able to accomplish with such a character. And, in an odd way, having him appear is a bit ghoulish, but in a good way that reflects on the story.

I was surprised by this film; not just for its solid directing, excellent acting, and brave subject matter, but also for how it kept its energy up to the last frame. Admittedly, you need to be in the mood for this kind of story, but it is surprisingly engaging from the moment it begins right through till the end. Finley’s last frame nails home the story he wants to tell, and those sound cues continue through the final credit roll as well. I’m looking forward to more work from him and the two young actors.

Thoroughbreds

RBG

[4 stars]

Legal icon. Trailblazer. Intellectual champion. Übermensch. Octogenarian superstar. Notorious RBG has earned her moniker and the respect of multiple generations. Quietly and steadily, this unassuming 5′ 4″, soft-spoken woman reset the course of law in this country in support of equal rights for all. It is story that will give you hope in these divisive and regressive times…and really make you wonder how we went from people of her caliber to nominations like the decidedly unqualified and poorly spoken Gorsuch,  or 45 (not that I have an opinion there).

As a documentary, this is a fairly straight-forward recounting of Ginsburg’s life and career and the steps that have led her to be such a loud voice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Some you probably know, a lot you probably don’t. There is little subtlety to the film, but there is great respect and a surprising range of voices in her corner. The film-makers go out of their way to avoid too much controversy, which is a bit of a shame. Given that the Red Scare is the reason Ginsburg is a judge, and particularly a judge focused on civil liberties, they had an opportunity to create something a bit more pointed for the present day. As it is, there are hints and nods, but it is generally very matter-of-fact with some delightful peeks at her family life and out-of-court persona.

RBG is worth seeing just to get a sense of history and change that has occurred over the last 50 years; a lot of it very good. It is important to remember there has been movement…and just as important to remember you must always defend the gains lest people take them away. With stalwarts like RBG still on the bench, at least we have her voice when things go in the wrong direction. Sometimes that voice alone is enough to move mountains…just ask Lilly Ledbetter. And that is comforting.

RBG

Tom of Finland

[3.5 stars]

Many things can define a culture or a group. It can be music, food, fashion…or in this case: art. You may not know his nome de pencil,  Tom of Finland, but you can’t have escaped the images that Touko Valio Laaksonen produced. He defined a great deal of gay culture starting in the 40s up through the 80s, evolving his art from providing a voice to the fantasies of forbidden desire to, ultimately, celebrations of life in the face of illness. Whether or not you were part of the leather culture, his images captured raw sexuality in a heightened way that was an equal response to, and a statement about, how repressed culture was pretty much everywhere.

Beyond his art, Laaksonen himself, had a fascinating life that we pick up during WWII. Yes, he struggled with a repressive culture and horrifying laws and bias, but he also struggled with simply being a veteran of war. His wish to avoid confrontation, to not have to fight anymore, is something universal to soldiers returned from the front. Seeing that play out in his life was an unexpected aspect of the history.

Director Dome Karukoski also told the story in an interesting way, without explanation flipping around the chronologies at times, but always with a purpose that would pay off. He maintains a respectable distance from his subjects, but allows us to invest in them and hope for them. There is an odd clinical feeling to many of the exchanges that is reflective of Finland and Germany, but it never leaves you feeling closed out. In some ways the lack of warmth heightens the brief moments of connection for Touko and contrasts nicely with his later life.

This movie works equally well as a story and as a documentary/biopic. Primarily in Finnish, it also has plenty of German and English dialogue and nothing is so rapid fire as to cause subtitle strain. In fact, a lot of the film is without dialogue, allowing the story to play out with looks and action alone. It is well done and, ultimately, educating. It will also provide you a new appreciation for Tom of Finland, his work and his purpose, not to mention his place in history.

Tom of Finland

 

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

[3.5 stars]

In the Fade packs a lot of story into its shy two hours. And while I’m not a Diane Kruger (The Host) fan, often finding her stiff and unemotional, she is powerful and painfully exposed in this film; she carries it utterly. In fact, the only other actor that leaves a real impression is Johannes Krisch, who’s super creepy and foul lawyer will twist your guts as he does his work.

Director/co-writer Fatih Akin tackles what is becoming an all-to-common story in the last ten years. However, he focuses the story very personally and small, expertly guiding Kruger and the cast, keeping it paced and under control. The story, however charged, stays ensconced in the painfully mundane, which is part of how it earned the many awards it was was nominated for and/or won last year.

Admittedly, In the Fade is not a light film for a night of simple distraction, but it is a well-done film that should be seen at some point. Because it focuses on the individual rather than the broader societal threads, it is oddly more palatable. We connect with Kruger and invest in her need for meaning, even when her actions are far from anything we may personally identify with…and even more so when they are.

In the Fade