Tag Archives: 4stars

22 Hot Zone Heroes, or More Streaming Fun

The Hot Zone
This is an old story given new, and surprisingly terrifying, life given we know the outcome and that Preston’s book is well over 20 years old. It is a little uneven in acting, though the issue is more casting than performance. While Julianna Margulies (The Upside) is solid as army research doctor, James D’Arcy (Survivor)  just didn’t work for me on multiple levels from his accent to his whiny nature. But that aside, the story is surprisingly gripping and the warning not a little unsettling.

Catch-22
The real question with this one was: How do you film the impossible book? Well, up till the end, apparently really well. This six-part look at the absurdity of war and humanity generally is funny (till it’s not) and gripping through till its final moments (when it isn’t). On screen, the reason for its success is unequivocally Christopher Abbott (First Man) in the main role of Yossarian/Yo-Yo. Without him, it all falls apart. Around him are a cadre of characters that are, basically, absurdist creations that remain all too connected to truth. On its own, this version of Heller’s classic has a point to make. But if you’ve read the book, you might find the finale more than a little frustrating, especially after having been teased along so expertly for the rest of the journey.

MARVEL ACROSS THE GENERATIONS
Marvel is everywhere and, it seems, represented on almost every major channel or streaming option. Hulu and Netflix have some of the most interesting offerings. And, between them, they reach out to a range of ages.

Jessica Jones (series 3)
Jessica Jones is, by far, the most adult of the range. Since its inception, Jones has been one of the most interesting characters. As a flawed, powerful anti-hero, she was instantly engaging, even when those around her weren’t. This finale to the series is worthy of her journey, even if it was somewhat cut short.

Cloak and Dagger (series 1 & 2)
This teen-oriented, but delightfully dark story of two teens tied together by happenstance is lots of fun and often shocking for the places it’s willing to go. It is much more fantasy than science fiction, leaning heavily on New Orleans hoo doo. But the show maintains its consistency and drags you along into its weird and wonderful world. It isn’t perfect, often dipping heavily into clichè, but Olivia Holt (Same Kind of Different as Me), Aubrey Joseph, and Emma Lahana (Haven) get to have a heck of journey over the first two seasons…and a lot of fun, sweat, and tears getting there.

Runaways (series 2)
Of all the Marvel shows, I was actually most interested in this one, till I got to see it. Mostly it had my attention because of the various writers of the comics over the years. But the result is something aimed to the tween audience (or younger) and rarely with any credibility. There is enough of a mystery to keep me semi-interested, but I grind my teeth way too often while trying. The writing is weak, the plotting forced, the characters willfully ignorant or just plain stupid, and the purposes just downright confusing at times. Ultimately I fell away halfway through the second season, though I may pick it up again to see how they resolve it all.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð)

[4 stars]

Whether you think of this as a tale of activism, environmentalism, or eco-terrorism, Woman at War will provide something to chew on. And, though you wouldn’t expect such a film to be a source of comedy while making its point, it manages to walk that line wonderfully as well.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Trapped) plays this as honest and driven, but never strident. As herself and her own twin, she explores many layers and pulls us along her journey. She is joined by a small cast to fill out the tale in and around Reykjavik. Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is the odd character out in a thankless but important role that is both comic relief and additional social commentary.

Director Benedikt Erlingsson put together a darkly amusing script with Trapped’s Ólafur Egilsson (and a few of its cast). It never loses track of its point, but manages to deal with it all without getting overly earnest. Even as it purposefully reflects other movies at points (Force Majeure comes to mind), it keeps the story just light enough to make itself heard.

Make time for this one…especially if you’ve been watching or reading any of the sagas coming out of Iceland of late.

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

[3.5 stars]

After Avengers: Endgame, we needed tale to help wrap up the fallout of the decades-long saga. In the past Ant-Man’s filled that role as a lighter coda to more intense events. But for the official end of Phase 3, we have the sequel to the relaunch of Spider-Man.

From the moment it opens with its first musical salvo, you begin to understand just how much the MCU is worth…and then the tone is quickly set as heavily tongue-in-cheek. Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming) returns as the affable, geeky, and not a little gawky teen. This story is, or should be, about him growing up, not to mention getting his feet back under him after losing his second (third?) father-figure and returning from the “blip.” (We won’t touch on the convenience that all the characters we knew around him from the previous story all blipped as well.)

What we get, instead, is a summer romp with a slightly dark edge. It has great moments, but doesn’t really pull together as a great movie, but I’ll get to that. Zendaya (Smallfoot), Marisa Tomei (Happy Accidents), and Jon Favreau (Solo: A Star Wars Story) are all back in the primary pivotal roles in Peter Parker’s life, not to mention as his private army of Deus Ex Machina.

Helping it along, Jacob Batalon and Angourie Rice (The Beguiled) return as comic relief along with Toni Revolori (Dope). The filmmakers still don’t know quite what to do with Revolori other than to use him as a convenient punching bag or plot point, as needed, but he gives it his all.

The biggest new addition to the story is Jake Gyllenhaal (Velvet Buzzsaw). Gyllenhaal is a solid fit for half the film…and then his performance goes a little wrong. And this is where the movie truly begins to falter, for all its clever plotting and ideas.

But to put this all in perspective, you have to remember that this isn’t really a Marvel outing; it’s a Sony/Marvel arrangement. And Sony, as feared when the contracts were struck, has started to take more control of the stories (at least that is my sense of it all). With the previous success of Homecoming and Venom, they feel they’ve got a handle on how to rebuild the franchise. They don’t.

Even though Jon Watts returned as director for this amusingly imperfect romp, and writing duo Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, fresh off Ant-Man and the Wasp and Jumanji, returned to write it, it felt rushed to screen and without an anchor to the 23 films around it except in the thinnest and most obvious of ways. It isn’t another Iron Man 2, but it also isn’t quite worthy of the Marvel logo. Ultimately, they didn’t quite know how to build on their world and into the Marvel universe this time even with the help of Samuel L. Jackson (Captain Marvel) and Cobie Smulders (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back). It is a little too easy, a little too surfacey, a little too devoid of consequences. Basically, it has no real heart, only a facsimile of one. As a coda, it is allowed to be more of an after-dinner treat, but there were serious themes that needed addressing. Of course, there also isn’t an explicit Phase 4 for them to plug into, which limited their opportunities for a lift from the greater net of the MCU.

The technical aspects of the film were also a little off from previous Marvel offerings. The IMAX was good, but the 3D was underwhelming and unnecessary, barely used to any impact. Even the special effects were, at times, pretty weak. Basically, after Endgame, I’d have expected more.

Do be warned, stay through the end of the credits. There are two tags to this story and both are essential. So don’t walk out before it is all done, however tempted you may be during the 14 minute roll. It gives us a hint of what’s to come, but I can’t say they were as encouraging as that first tag at the end of Iron Man for bringing us along into a new future. All it appears we have to look forward to is a loosely associated set of sequels and prequels with no overriding intelligence holding it together. That doesn’t mean there won’t be bright moments ahead, but it may be a long while before anyone tries to replicate the scope of the MCU Phases 1-3.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

[3.5 stars]

Before the opening scene begins to roll, even writer/director Terry Gilliam (The Zero Theorem) admits this was a long time coming. As one of the most cursed productions ever undertaken, expectations for the final result were probably wildly out of balance, even given its pedigree.

The movie that was finally delivered is a modern fantasy that never quite anchors itself in reality, all in service to the inspiring, original Cervantes material. It is absurd and entertaining, confusing and frustrating, but ultimately bittersweet and triumphant. It has a large cast, but the story is really held together by Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Jonathan Pryce (The Wife), and Olga Kurylenko (The Death of Stalin). The three form the Quixote, Sancho, Dulcinea trinity.

This is one of Gilliam’s most grounded films, slipping between reality and fantasy without ever showing you the line. It can be disorienting and, at times, angering, but it is all appropriate. It is also beautifully filmed for the big screen–which I didn’t get to experience, sadly, but you should if you can still find it in theaters. Don Quixote is one of those movies that you will keep thinking about it long after its heroes have trotted off into the sunset. It implies a lot but says very little directly. It is wildly inventive but emotionally very simple, keeping it focused and relatable moment to moment even when the whole hasn’t revealed itself.

This may or may not be the story you had been waiting for after 25 years. It isn’t perfect, but it is the tale we eventually got. I admit I am a Gilliam fan, so there was unlikely any chance I’d have disliked whatever result I was offered. However, worth the wait or not, it is a movie with enough layers to bring me back at least a couple more times. It will need that to fully absorb it and put it in both its own context and the context of its production journey.

All Is True

[3.5 stars]

It is fair to say that if anyone currently had the right to take on Shakespeare, the man, in his later years, it is Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express). From his early launch into the public eye with Henry V and his unedited Hamlet, not to mention all his other adaptations on stage and film, he owns the Bard. Even Julie Taymor (Tempest), who has assailed his works as well, isn’t as immersed on all sides of the process like Branagh, who has adapted, directed, and played the roles. That isn’t to say there aren’t others (the Donmar Warehouse comes to mind) as well, but in scope and depth, again Branagh has earned the right and has the deep, personal affinity to do it.

And Branagh brings all that experience, love, and ability to bear on this fictionalized look at Shakespeare’s last years. But, that said, he isn’t the best actor of the movie, despite tackling the title role. That actually goes to Judy Dench (Victoria & Abdul) as Shakespeare’s wife and his screen daughters Lydia Wilson (Requiem) and Kathryn Wilder who all have very complicated and fraught relationships with the men around them.

Ben Elton’s script is a brilliant bit of detective and fictional effort to explain everything from Shakespeare’s will to his final years sans quill.  It is clever and entertaining, but also unwilling to let anything go. A point in fact, Ian McKellan (X-Men: Days of Future Past) has possibly one of the most beautiful and most unnecessary scenes in the movie. It would have been a shame to cut it, but cut it Branagh should have. It did nothing to advance the main, or even secondary, plots and was just a possible explanation of one of the most enigmatic collections of Shakespeare’s writing. Interesting? Sure. But not part of the movie that made it to screen.

How great figures exit this world has long fascinated people. The truth is that most just fade out of public scrutiny until they simply disappear. This film provides a sympathetic framework to understand one of the most celebrated and long-lasting writers in human history. It is sumptuously filmed and honestly delivered. It isn’t perfect, but it is a delight…especially so if you know his works and the various hypotheses that have followed him through the centuries. It is most definitely worth your time and worth it on the big screen if you can see it there. I barely caught it myself during its brief expansion. But, even on the small screen, make time for it if you have any interest in the Bard at all… or just to see some truly remarkably subtle performances.

Hotel Mumbai

[3.5 stars]

Have you ever watched an action film and wanted to shout at the characters for monologuing or otherwise doing stupid stuff rather than just taking the shot? That isn’t an issue in this depiction of the 2008 Taj Hotel siege. It is an utterly chilling recounting of the events executed (literally) with a cold and realistic eye. The terrorists truly don’t see their victims as human and callously dispatch them with calm and self-righteous demeanors.

The result is an incredible inside-view of events, at least in feeling. As a first feature film as director and co-writer, Anthony Maras truly pulled no punches. Against the backdrop of violence, he provides a few people for us to invest in and follow. Among them Armie Hammer (Never Look Away), Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin), Dev Patel (Lion), Tilda Cobham-Hervey (The Kettering Incident),  Nazanin Boniadi (Counterpart), and Anupam Kher (Mrs. Wilson) each have stories for us to follow. Some of their narratives feel a little forced and overly contrived, but the truth is also that surviving such an event is usually due to a collection of odd circumstances.

Maras, in an attempt to provide some sense of completion and hope at the end of the film, stretches out the final moments a little too much. The ending could have been trimmed considerably and still provided the needed sense of relief and whatever solace was going to be possible. In fact, the end sequence had the only real moments that dragged during the story.

I want to stress again that this is not an entertainment. It is a fascinating look at a horrific event, but don’t go into it lightly or expecting a actioner with the good guys spouting quips and homemade grenades. It is a true horror show, all the more so because it really happened and because we are not shielded from the nature of the evil. In fact, you barely can comprehend them enough to even react to them…they are a cold force of nature beyond the understanding of sane, empathetic individuals. Like I said, not for a night’s entertainment on the couch, but still a story worth understanding when the world is what it is today.

Some Streaming Odds and Ends

Good Omens (4 stars)
Honestly, for David Tennant (Mary Queen of Scots) and Michael Sheen (Far From the Madding Crowd) alone this farcical romp about the world, life, and religion is worth it. It is delightfully Pratchett and Gaiman, just as their book was. For those unfamiliar, think an updated Monty Python’s Holy Grail in style, but with more of a coherent through line. That Gaiman wrote the series didn’t hurt in preserving its translation to small screen. And Douglas Mackinnon directed the material flawlessly.

With Jack Whitehall (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Miranda Richardson (iBoy ), Adira Arjona (Emerald City ), and Michael McKean in inventive pivotal roles, the amusement and pointedness just keeps coming. The show is also chock full of special guest stars and smaller roles as well, which only adds to the fun. If you like British humor and don’t mind having religious institutions poked at, make time for this wonderful comedy.

The Tick (series 2) (3 stars)
I had my doubts when Amazon took up the Tick in its third broadcast incarnation (previously there was the animated series and a short-lived network series). Each captured aspects of the original graphic novels, but neither had found a solid enough formula to keep it going. The first series on Amazon was no exception. It was misbalanced and not quite credible, but it was amusing enough and with some nice character work to make you come back for more. The second series really found its footing and came together nicely. The balance of humor and absurd is much better and the story is more complex and compelling. I’d have loved to see what came next.

Unfortunately, the improvements weren’t enough for Amazon, who decided this would be the last season (at least for now). And this is part of my frustration with streaming services. Yes, they’re taking risks on new content, but they tend to throw it out there and then let it sink or swim on its own and forget about it when it isn’t an instant success. Even Cheers took years to build its audience. The point of these services was to try something new… perpetual content means you should be able to come to it when you’re ready. Sometimes that isn’t when the company drops the entire season at once. We’re just back to where we started with the inability to trust something will actually be supported and be back another season.  So much for serving the niche audiences, as we were promised. Services should, at the least, insist all series come to an end so no one is left hanging if they get cancelled. That doesn’t mean the stories can’t continue, but the main narrative shouldn’t be left as a cliff-hanger. At least The Tick embraced that credo so we weren’t totally left to wonder.

Lucifer (series 4) (3.5 stars)
The last broadcast season of Lucifer was a mess. So much so that it lost enough viewers to find itself begging for a venue. Fortunately, Netflix saw the potential and revived the wonderfully acerbic and amusing mystery/romance/comedy… whatever it is. This season, having lost the fetters of the broadcast censors, is able to finally be much more of what it really could be (it still PG-ish, bordering on a soft R). And they took time with the writing this series to make it a much more satisfying journey. The characters this season all act much more believably than the last go-round. If you at all liked the first season of Lucifer and gritted your teeth through the subsequent two seasons as it diminished, come back to it again. Netflix really breathed life back into the afterlife on this one. Well, at least for one more season to come, which is to be its finale. I will add that the final moment of the fourth season has one of my favorite unspoken jokes of the year. It is a silent joke during a moment that isn’t intended as funny…but someone slipped in the chuckle. And, given the show, it is much in keeping with the show’s sensibility.

Love, Death, and Robots (3 stars)
This anthology series is everything great and everything awful about anime. It is a testosterone fueled set of adventures with buxom broads and hairy men (and the occasional funny episode). It was an idea rich with possibilities, but David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Tim Miller (Deadpool) as the primary producers got lost in their 13-year-old selves and missed the chance to tell a much wider range of stories. It isn’t that any individual episode isn’t interesting, they are all good in their own way. And the range of styles and ideas is pretty unique with all types of animation on display. But it is so male-dominated and full of violence and, mostly, naked women that after a few you’re almost embarrassed to watch it…its like someone found your porn stash but it’s up on your TV screen.

The issue isn’t the talent or the tech or the acting, it is simply that the anthology is horribly unbalanced and ends up missing an audience it could have had. Watch it, but in small doses to keep from burning out on it. I found 2 or 3, at about 5-15 min. each, sufficient for an evening. Beyond that, they got numbingly similar. On the up side, a second season is on order and it has Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who drove much of the animation for and directed the last two Kung Fu Panda movies, at the helm. Perhaps her sensibility will help bring some variety to the series. Certainly I applaud the idea behind the show; I’d like to see it succeed.

 

The Scarlet Hour

[4 stars]

Remember when films were ephemeral events…before it was all stored and streamable from the cloud? How exciting is it that we’re still in an era where movies can be rediscovered after vanishing from screens for decades. Thanks to The Palm Springs Noir Fesitival one of these, The Scarlet Hour, was presented with a pristine new print supplied by Paramount. And what a treat.

Noir is definitely a matter of taste. The style is delightfully (or painfully) arch and the character types are amusing or insulting, depending on your point of view. But when lines like, “If I were dead, you couldn’t take me to the morgue,” get bandied about, I lean more toward the amused entertainment side of interpretation.

But this isn’t just about femme fatales, malleable good guys, and mustache twirling bad guys, not to mention just simply bad choices, it is about moral indignation and escapism. And, when done well or with the right cast, a rewatchable classic.

OK, Scarlet Hour, despite its pedigree director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, White Christmas) isn’t quite a classic. But it has a number of aspects going for it, thanks to Curtiz’s ability to discover new talent. Scarlet Hour boasts several new, or relatively unknown, actors at the time including Carol Ohmart, Tom Tryon, and Jody Lawrance.

But it is Elaine Stritch (Just Shoot Me), in her film debut, that steals this movie utterly. She is the most believable and displays the trademark wit and timing that would distinguish her career for the next 60 years.

In addition, a number of recognizable faces of the time were around. Among them, James Gregory, E.G. Marshall, Edward Binns, David Lewis, and Richard Deacon. Each elicited applause or sighs of appreciation upon their appearance from the audience.

The movie knows what it is…even going so far as to have a copy of White Christmas in a bargain box at a record store in one scene. It doesn’t apologize for the heightened emotions and choices. It gobbles down the genre while still providing some nice variations and unexpected moments. It probably helped that Frank Tashlin adapted his own novel for the script, with the help of John Meredyth Lucas and Alford Van Ronkel. The final moments are all very much in question as the story unspools. It isn’t entirely satisfying, but it is certainly genre-acceptable.

There are many reasons to see this flick if you get the chance. The actors, the director, the silly fun of it all. But it is also a piece of history and a lens into time and style. And Curtiz distills a lot of it nicely and with a bit of a knowing wink.

The Scarlet Hour Poster

Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

[4 stars]

Few movies can sustain 3+ hours of narrative. Fewer still can do so absent some amount of action. Avengers: Endgame had story, but also a fair amount of pure adrenaline moments to keep it all going. Never Look Away has only story and still manages to remain riveting through to the end. It does employ, like other longer films, a somewhat episodic approach to revive the story every so often. In this case, it has three distinct chapters that cover the childhood and young adult life of Tom Schilling’s (Woman in Gold) Kurt.

Schilling, along with Sebastian Koch (Bel Canto), dominate the story that starts in 1937 Germany (outside Dresden, no less) and tracks through the early 1960s. I had no idea how writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s (The Tourist) was going to keep me interested for so long and through so many frustrating situations, but the script is nicely segmented and filled with enough genuine emotion and moments to keep you going.

Supporting roles by Oliver Masucc (Dark), Saskia Rosendahl, and Paula Beer were also a help. It is easy to see why this was an Oscar contender, not to mention other awards. It packs a punch without, usually, using a hammer to do so. It is an honest story of the war, but it is mostly about the meaning and communication of art. Where springs the impetus? What is an artist trying to communicate? Should they be trying to communicate? Is it just a craft or something more? All highly philosophical stuff, but they are discussions that are happening around the romance and dangers of Schilling’s life, which remains the focus.

This is also just a simple story of deep, abiding love of all kinds: familial, romantic, erotic, ideological, political. The world created by von Donnersmarck is seductively drawn and subtly appointed. And its central message in the title is not so much a challenge as an invitation and reminder that life is happening. Even with its somewhat ironic penultimate scene, its point is made. Though I will say that while I had anticipated and awaited the final moments of the film, it didn’t quite reach the pinnacle my emotions wanted, even if it did logically. That small gap was more my desire for complete closure on one of the threads, which was left to the imagination rather than on-screen resolution. Missing that, however, my anticipation made me trip over the last moment and caused cracks in the nearly perfectly constructed journey for me. And yet, I’d still highly recommend the film; it will surprise you.

One slight warning…some of the subtitles seemed to just blink on for a split second before vanishing. Honestly, I was able to fill in the gaps very easily, but it was frustrating. This is the second film I’ve run into this and I’m not sure why (it doesn’t appear to be a setting I can control, like the positioning on the screen). This seems an easy thing to avoid and quality control should be picking this kind of gaff up. It certainly knocked me out of the story more than once. Had this been a lesser movie, it probably would have lost my faith completely.