Tag Archives: 4stars

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.

A Private War

[3.5 stars]

Making war real on screen is incredibly challenging. Making it personal without losing the greater issues is even harder. A Private War, much like the writings of its subject Marie Colvin, manages to do both.

It succeeds thanks to both the behind-the-scenes guidance and the on-screen talent. However, even with the likes of Jamie Dornan (Robin Hood), Tom Hollander (Bird Box), and Stanley Tucci (Patient Zero) on screen, the only person that matters, the only story as her character would have put it, was Pike’s Colvin. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is this movie. Though I will say that Hollander delivers an uncharacteristically understated and sobering performance as Colvin’s bureau chief.

Colvin states it in her own words at the top of the film: fear comes later. Marie Brenner’s (The Insider) script captures how controlled and confident Colvin’s character was in war, and what a mess she was outside of it. An added aspect to this film’s success was director Matthew Heineman’s documentary roots. He manages to step back from the action to allow the story to tell itself.

In a growing collection of on-screen news-related tales, this one is a bit different. It isn’t about newspapers saving the world, like The Post, or destroying the world, like The Front Runner, or even being manipulated, like Vice. It is about war and the human cost on all sides. It is about what drives people to risk their lives to bring us the truth, without glorifying their choices.

In a fluke of the story and the timing, I was watching the film almost 7 years to the day from the last moments of the action, which provided one of the most chilling aspects of the film. I found myself doing the math and realizing that the horror of Homs, Syria being portrayed may have been from 7 years ago…but it was still going on today despite Colvin and other’s efforts and risks to get the world to notice; a final gift of the film reminding us that it is still up to all of us to act and not just observe.

Grantchester (Series 4)

[3.5 stars]

The first three series of this entertaining mystery show twisted emotionally around the heartache and confusions of the vicar of the titular town, James Norton’s (Flatliners) Sidney. Series four goes about remaking the show with a fascinating transition. And much like the recent Father Brown sequence, it is also bringing in more of the current world in reflection.

What hasn’t changed is the mysteries solved by teaming up with Robson Green’s (Being Human) Geordie. They are often violent, socially reflective, and interestingly twisted at times as they squeeze through a constabulary that wants things to be easy, even when they rarely are. But we also get some interesting side plots as threaded arcs through the series. While the lives of the others in the vicarage were always part of the tales, these are more pointed and very separate. Kacey Ainsworth finally gets a bit more of a life outside Geordie’s and Tessa Peake-Jones gets to settle into the marriage from the previous series while retaining her connection running the household. And Al Weaver (Colette) expands on his delicate and tragic course.

New additions are the main engines for the changes that take place. Most notably, Tom Brittney (Humans) who brings an equally committed and conflicted sense of religion and life to the show. In many ways his energy is much more welcome as it is more vibrant and less maudlin than Sidney’s character.

The series itself has a very complicated but controlled arc over its six episodes. Watching it all being torn apart and put back together, while getting some good stories to carry it along, is really quite entertaining. If you haven’t found Grantchester yet, start at the beginning as otherwise much of this latest series will be lost on you. If you have been enjoying it up till now, be assured the story continues to grow and satisfy, even as all the characters are forced through reckonings and realizations.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

[3.5 stars]

This third and final installment of the dragon epic is just as delightful and visually stunning as the previous releases. It is full of humor, emotional moments, and, of course, adorable dragons. The story brings the series full-circle and concludes in a satisfying tale of growing up and mature decisions.

My only disappointment is that I didn’t feel the resolution enough. It felt…muted. I don’t know if it was the sound levels or just a weakness in the script toward the end. It isn’t bad, I just wanted to feel more of a swell at the conclusion…something to really remember it all by. Instead it all felt a bit more rushed than the previous movies and bit more on the surface.

However, if you like the other movies in the series, you’ll love this one too. Even if you haven’t been following the story, seeing it on the big screen is worthwhile; the animation is often jaw-dropping in its beauty, scope, and depth. The voice acting is all fine, but nothing really stands out…all the credit for the characters goes to the animators and returning director Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon 2). They really understood what they had and how to sell it. So go and have fun. It is worth it on the big screen if you can make the time.

Umbrella Academy

[4 stars]

What a wonderfully weird and dark world. There are enough twists and turns amid the obvious and predictable to keep the inaugural 10 episodes of this series gripping. The production rides the line of comic book and real life beautifully, crossing back and forth between the natural and the absurd.

The ensemble is varied and impressive, much like the Academy was meant to be. And they all commit and deliver at every step, with their (eventually revealed) back-stories supporting their choices nicely. The core group is primarily lesser known talent with Tom Hopper (I Feel Pretty), David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and Robert Sheehan (Mortal Engines) each having some great stories to tell. And then there’s Ellen Page (Flatliners) in a truly challenging role, who does well, but she is the least credible for me. Page delivers, but a lot will depend on the anticipated second season as to whether I fully buy into her choices. However, if there is anyone who really gets to dominate this series it is Aidan Gallagher as Number 5, who graduates from Nickelodeon to adult fare. Coming across believably as a 50-something year old man in a 15 year old’s body isn’t easy at the best of times, but Gallagher has an amazing energy and ability to pull it off.

The world of Umbrella Academy is much larger than its homebase. Kate Walsh (13 Reasons Why), Mary J. Blige (Sherlock Gnomes), Cameron Britton (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Adam Godley (A Young Doctor’s Notebook), Colm Feore (Anon), John Magaro (Overlord), and stalwart Sheila McCarthy fill out the story and world with a mountain of award-winning talent, giving the show many levels and perspectives to latch onto.

Umbrella is first and foremost a comic adventure. Expect extremes and complexities. Expect the unexpected and the genuinely obvious. But mostly expect to be entertained and to have a rollicking good adventure that will have you trying to put the pieces together till the end. This sits in temperament somewhere between the Marvel and DC universes, delivering humor but also the gravitas and the dark. Think of it as a twisted, dark X-Men sequence by way of St. Trinian’s. It even echos a lot of the sensibility of Utopia (which is also being remade for US television). I had a great time with the result and, if you like these kinds of stories, you will too.

[And then there was this clever bit of launch event on Netflix’s part: https://deadline.com/2019/02/umbrella-academy-reigns-over-nyc-fans-wedding-with-times-square-parade-1202562593/]

Shoplifters

[4 stars]

Hirokazu Koreeda wrote and directed this heart-battering and darkly funny look at family that crosses the sense and sensibility of Roma with Florida Project. He continues to plumb some of his favorite themes around family that have often informed his movies and garnered him many awards and nominations.

Shoplifters is a subtle and complicated story that revolves around a low-income family struggling in a unidentified Japanese city. It is a view of that culture that will seem both familiar and utterly unexpected. Koreeda takes his time with the tale, but is constantly building it through the two hours. It is oddly hypnotic through its presentation and its story, but with a tension underneath that keeps your attention and curiosity.

This isn’t a simple tale, nor a perfectly happy one; it is more honest than aspirational. But it is beautiful and oddly hopeful and will leave you thinking about it and discussing it for days afterwards.

Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (series 1.0)

[4 stars]

Bletchley, through a series of clever and deliberate transitions, manages to cross the Atlantic successfully without losing its original sensibility. The ability to evolve a show so dramatically is something I really enjoy watching when it is done well, as it was here. In fact, there are several shows that have tackled that problem recently and successfully. Interestingly, most of them are from the UK (e.g., Father Brown) which is far less precious about their properties and far more focused, typically, on quality of story.

Through the first four episodes of this rebuilt Bletchley, we see a new collection of women with similar backgrounds as the original two series, but battling society in new ways (well, in some new ways). The full series consists of another four episodes, but I’ll get to that.

Julie Graham (Shetland) and Rachael Stirling (Their Finest) from the original series provide the anchor and backbone of the tale. The introduction of Crystal Balint, Chanelle Peloso, and Jennifer Spence (Travelers)manages to resurrect the magic of the first series and fill out the gang despite all the new faces.

The real power of this series isn’t the mysteries, which are clever, but rather the energy and intelligence of the women as they find the murderers, and they do it while fighting society’s dismissive view of them. It is a show that is perfectly suited to the times and shines a light into the dark corners of current society.

Now back to those last four episodes of the series. Frustratingly, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get to see the other half of the season as that appears locked onto BritBox, in the ever growing and complicated landscape of streaming services. Honestly, they’re all just shooting themselves in the foot…I’m not going to get a dozen different subscriptions, especially as most services only have one or two shows I even care about. But if you have BritBox or an opportunity to see the newly conceived series, you won’t be disappointed. If I ever get to see the rest myself, I’ll update this post to cover the full series.

Stan & Ollie

[4 stars]

How much of a comedy genius team was Laurel & Hardy? Watching their 90 year old routines elicit belly laughs in audiences, even when performed by stand-ins, is a clear indication. Steve Coogan (Ideal Home) and John C. Reilly (Ralph Breaks the Internet) resurrect the seminal comedy team of Laurel and Hardy so believably and effortlessly it is breathtaking. They inhabit the men and their material, playing them with love and subtlety. Reilly, in particular, disappears into Hardy’s bulk. And both men reassert that they’re capable of real acting and not just the broad, silly comedy they are more often associated with. In some ways, that background makes them perfect for these roles, adding meta layers to it all.

Despite the scope of years and geography, the cast isn’t much bigger than the titular characters. Nina Arianda (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Shirley Henderson (Lady Bird), as their respective wives add to the reality and humanity of the duo while also bringing their own characters into the light. And Rufus Jones (Holy Flying Circus) has a nice driving role as their tour manager in England. Combined, the five create a huge world out of a small ensemble.

My one frustration with the film is that the opening scene in 1937 doesn’t really give you a solid sense of the duo at the top of their game because it almost immediately dives into a conflict. It makes it hard to fully understand the change in 1953, where it leaps to in short order to the end of their career. It isn’t a fatal flaw in the movie, but one I wish director Jon S. Baird and writer Jeff Pope had polished away. I will grant, however, that the script does a delightful job of reflecting the comedy routines into their off-stage lives…sometimes in irony and sometimes not.

It’s wonderful to see an adult film that doesn’t rely on explosions, car chases, or action, but rather purely on the characters involved in a very quiet and real way. This is a story about two men that happen to be legends and are very much human and very much bound to one another. It is also a wonderful peek behind the performance curtain.