Tag Archives: 4stars

Jojo Rabbit

[4 stars]

Everyone’s goto for humor is Hitler and the Nazi regeim at the end of WWII; funny stuff, right? How Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) got this film made, I couldn’t possible explain, but it is a wickedly funny gut punch of a movie. (Appropriately [and amusingly] I found myself watching this satire on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which added to the schadenfreud of it all).

Everything you need to know about Jojo you get in the first 10 minutes (in one of the funniest, most absurd film openings I’ve seen in ages)… all the rest is journey. And what a journey it is, and not one you’re likely to get much ahead of during the setup. The resolution becomes inevitible, but with just enough room for doubts to keep it interesting. And his use of music to get his points across is, at times, genius. Unfortunately, it is also at times way off base, clashing with the onscreen sound and action.

While Scarlette Johansson (Isle of Dogs) and Sam Rockwell (Best of Enemies) provide some adult framework for the story, it is told through the eyes of children. Primarily that is through Roman Griffin Davis’s Jojo. For his first film, Davis carries the story admirably, with all the gravitas and sincerity a 10 year old can bring. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) serves as the friction point of his decision-making, while another newcome, Archie Yates, provides some peer comic relief. Watching these three young actors is great fun as Waititi keeps them honest in all aspects.

There are some other fun side bits that run through the film driven by smaller adult roles. Alfie Allen (Predator), Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic), and Stephen Merchant (Fighting With My Family) have the best, but there are many. Waititi’s Hitler isn’t really among them for me. I understand why he took the role himself in order to hit just the right tone he had in his head, but it is an uneven performance.

Satire is hard. Waititi pulls it off in style, if imperfectly. The broad Monty Pythonesque humor will work for most people, while the political commentary may turn off others. However, this isn’t just Waititi playing silly buggers, it’s his reaction to the world today. He is far from the first to reflect that back to WWII, but, so far, he’s done it with the most belly laughs to get the point across.

So, yes, go see this and strap in for a wild, unexpected ride. While Preacher may have tried to get there, no one since Mel Brooks’ The Producers has managed anything close to the result here. It isn’t always easy to stomach, but it is one of the more unique films you’ll see this year.

Parasite

[4 stars]

Joon-ho Bong (Okja) doesn’t make easy movies, nor does he have a high opinion of humanity. Even when he allows for happiness in his worlds, it is typically for children and in spite of what the reality is around them. Parasite is no exception. It is dark, funny, human, and, above all, a tragic tale of class and identity.

Parasite is, generally, a tale of two families, one with means and one who will do anything to achieve means. The cast is a mix of recognizable and newer faces, assuming you watch Korean films. Kang-ho Song (Snowpiercer),  Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi (Okja), and So-dam Park form the main focus, struggling to survive. They collide with Yeo-jeong Jo and her family as well as Jeong-eun Lee (Mother) and Myeong-hoon Park in funny ways that eventually turn pitch black.

But, of course, it is never so simple as it sounds in the description of Joon-ho’s films. Why any of these characters are succeeding or struggling is a matter of debate and perspective. And it all takes place in meticulously designed settings and cinematography that capture the story and subtext.

I know this is running at near 100% on Rotten Tomatos, and from a craft point of view I understand that. As an experience I found it a little more uneven. However, I can see why the movie has won so much attention and awards; but it is more a powerful experience than it is an entertaining or instructive movie. And while not as physcially violent and tackling different issues as the Korean classic, Oldeuboi (Oldboy), it is in many ways just as challenging. Joon-ho has delivered  a pitch-black comedy that is as timely as Joker. And, ultimately, both tackle many of the same aspects of people and society, leaving you breathless. The question is whether your psyche is strong enough to take the journey.

Terminator: Dark Fate

[4 stars]

I find myself having a complex reaction to this sequel/reboot, so stick with me here. Dark Fate is the sequel we deserved…15 years ago. But after three interceding sequels, I find it disingenous, and not a little petty, that they are to be swept aside and utterly forgotten (other than T3, which was so far outside the story line it is rarely acknowledged as existing anyway).

I know I’m in the minority, but I thought Terminator: Genisys was both clever and enjoyable (even if imperfect at times). It was a smart way to reset the universe and get it back on track after couple of weak sequels (Terminator 3 and Terminator: Salvation).  In fact, if you had rewatched the first two movies and then Genisys, it was even more impressive.

It could be argued that with time travel as a central aspect, that it’s a perfectly legitimate choice to bail on the previous storylines. In a fluid timeline, why not just pick up threads where you want them? Well, I’d argue that you don’t because of the fans…even if you think you’re serving them, you need to respect them and what’s come before. This installment was entirely an ego thing for James Cameron (Alita: Battle Angel), who can’t write to save his skin. Honestly, T1 and T2, for all their fun are just painful at times on screen (I rewatched them again before seeing Dark Fate). Some of that is writing and a lot of it is directing on his part–together you just want to look away at moments in embarrassment.

Fortunately, in this case, Cameron’s clunky style was taken to screen by Tim Miller (Deadpool, Love, Death, + Robots), which saved it. Miller pulled good performances from his cast even while hitting the big moments and chases well.

But, the truth is that it’s the inclusion of only two actors that created the buzz and main draw for this movie: Linda Hamilton (Defiance), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Maggie). The return of these iconic actors in the roles they originated and cemented into film history was great fun and got butts in the seats. Joyfully, Mackenzie Davis (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town), Diego Boneta (The Titan) and Natalia Reyes also not only held their own, but brought depth and interest to their new characters. Are they as iconic as the originals? Not really, though Reyes and Mackenzie were certainly interesting to watch as they developed before our eyes.

The upshot is that this is a great ride and clears the decks for a whole new direction in the Terminator universe. We’ll probably never see those other possible stories as the film just isn’t doing as well as the studio hoped so far. But you never know, and with streaming services available now, perhaps we’ll see the world expanded on smaller screen. In the meantime, if you want to see a fairly solid action film and an interesting possibility for the timelines, Dark Fate is certainly a feast of visual fun and quipy dialogue.  And, unlike any of the other movies that came before, some real character work and respect for their situations.

Like I said, I’m having a complex reaction to this one.

Aniara

[3.5 stars]

I’m not often surprised by a movie, let alone a science fiction movie, but Aniara managed to. It may be based on an old trope, but co-directors and co-writers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Liljait managed to lay out their story thoughtfully and completely. It was also their first feature, making it even more impressive.

That it is an adaptation (from a nobel prize winning writer’s 1956 epic science fiction poem made of 103 cantos) rather than wholly original doesn’t diminish their result. Most science fiction gets over-simplified for screen, or leaves science behind for fantasy to create better visual or metaphyscial effects. What Ad Astra failed to get close to, where High Life just simply lost its way, and while Gravity (and even The Martian) over-simplified the situation, Aniara found a path and a statement to make by respecting the genre and the story. In fact, as an adaptation, I am even more impressed by the result. [You can read more about Harry Martinson’s work, but I’d highly suggest staying ignorant of the source material until after you see the film.]

Emelie Jonsson is the core of this story. Along with Bianca Cruzeiro the two hold together the narrative through its evolutions. In addition, Anneli Martini delivers a wonderfully dry and caustic performance that is at once funny and sobering. There are men in this cast and crew, but it is a decidedly female driven tale.

The result is solid science fiction, even with one or two winks at how things might work. And it is entertaining and nicely styled, even if it isn’t about the visual effects or action. The film is about the story and the impact of the situation. If you read Cixin Liu (Three Body Problem), you have a sense of this film’s vibe in both emotion and scope. It is definitely worth your time if you like the genre and, honestly, even if you don’t and have the flexibility to watch stories that take place outside your normal boundaries.

The Tomorrow Man

[3.5 stars]

Quirky love stories are catnip to me. Watching two unlikely humans find one another and navigate the terror and joy that is a true connection is affirming, funny, frustrating, and ultimately joyous. John Lithgow (Pet Sematary) and Blythe Danner (What They Had) definitely run through all those emotions, creating two very differently broken people stumbling through life until they careen into one another.

The odd pair are surrounded by a few, solid supporting characters as well. Derek Cecil (House of Cards) and Eve Harlow (Heroes Reborn), in particular, provide sounding boards and act as proxy for the real world outside Lithgow and Danner’s orbit.

Nobel Jones directed and wrote his first feature with a steady and sure hand. The absurdity of his character’s lives never vaulted into the ridiculous. Their quirks and issues, when exposed, simply brought out their humanity and a deep empathy from the audience. It’s a solid story about people and love, with a wonderful and entertaining arc that leaves you with an unexpected smile.

Anna and the Apocalypse

[3.5 stars]

Subtle this movie isn’t, but it is clever and fun. It is also a nice alternative holiday movie, though less on point than, say, Rare Exports. The main focus is really the evolving Apocalypse and the relationships between the high schoolers involved rather than Christmas. And, yes, it is also a musical (as the original creator suggested of its genesis: think High School Musical meets zombies)!

While clearly tongue-in-cheek, it is executed with complete sincerity and effort. It could have used a couple more songs to make it feel more like a musical and less like a movie with a few song and dance numbers in it, but that’s a quibble as the music that is in it is really pretty good.

Ella Hunt (Robot Overlords) leads the cast with some solid talent and chops. She has a long career ahead of her if she wants it. Hunt is supported by a cast of other mostly unknowns, but all of whom bring moments of emotional complexity to what could have been cookie-cutter performances in lesser hands. Malcom Cumming, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, and Sarah Swire (who also choreographed) are generally all in new projects you’ll be seeing in the coming year.

And then there were the known faces, like Tom Benton (Shakespeare & Hathaway) who brought all his vulnerable best to bear as Hunt’s father. Only the prolific Paul Kaye really disappointed me in the cast. His choices and antics were notched up just a bit too high from the start…I never believed him nor had any sympathy for him. It’s probably the one truly bad choice I felt director John McPhail made with the otherwise very tight and clever delivery.

When you’re in the mood from something in the Cockneys vs. Zombies range, but with a beat, you should definitely check this one out.

 

Maiden

[3.5 stars]

Back in 1985 there were barely any women involved in the Whitbread Round the World Race (now known as The Ocean Race after a series of changes in sponsorship). Tracy Edwards was one of them. Her first experience with the chauvinistic wall she hit convinced her that the only way to be respected and get the opportunities she wanted was to put together her own crew and sail her own boat in the race. In 1989, she did just that with a crew made up solely of women.

Director Alex Holmes tells the story of the Maiden as well as the very personal journey of Tracy herself. One of the most amazing aspects of the film is how much original footage from the race, on the boat, that they had. Much like Free Solo, at some point you’re just as amazed that someone was taking the images as you are with the people in the situation.

While the story is fairly simple, the documentary pulls you along expertly, making you hope and gasp and shout…not to mention feel a sense of joy. It is a film every young woman must see but it speaks to everyone who has ever had what others determined was an impossible dream.

Greta

[3.5 stars]

Up for some intense suspense and a truly well-done, credible stalking movie? Then you’re in luck. Chloë Grace Moretz (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) spars with the wonderful Isabelle Huppert in this story of friendship, loneliness, obsession…and just a little insanity. It is a fun tango of pain and desired connection.

With Maika Monroe (Tau), the three form and interesting triangle of female empowerment and connection. There are also Colm Feore (Umbrella Academy) and Stephen Rea (Utopia) hanging about the edges of their story, but it is the women who drive it all. And though written by two men, the script rarely falls into the trap of making them stereotypes. Each is strong in their own ways.

As both co-writer and director, Neil Jordan (Byzantium) is in his element with intense relationships and tales of suspense. He and co-writer Ray Wright (The Crazies) helps pull you along through small moments and decisions, each adding up to inevitable danger and tragedy. It really is one of those films you cringe through as it unfolds in the only way it can, but that you’re unable to look away from because you have to know how it will resolve. But that very tension is why it may not be a movie for everyone, even though it is done well. So, tackle this one only if you can stand the stress.

Hail Satan?

[4 stars]

Hellz yes, you should see this film.

Documentarian Penny Lane (Our Nixon) provides an entertaining and informative look inside the The Satanic Temple… and it’s most likely not what you think at all. Her film is a timely piece of reporting and a fascinating mental shift to experience. The way she walks you away from your preconceptions to the reality also demonstrates her command of the story.

But this isn’t a dry and boring tale. I laughed a lot…in all the right places. Lane, and the members of the TST, are full of wry humor. Given the situations they are involved in, that alone will up-level your sense of respect.

So, yeah, make time for this.

[And for the heck of it…and completely off topic, though topical: a Quartz Obsession on the history of Hell]

Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

[4 stars]

This series, a prequel to the classic and beloved movie, fully captures the sense and production design of the original. That is both its blessing and its curse. But that said, this story grew on me as it played out, unlike the same-day-launched Amazon fantasy Carnival Row, which diminished over time for me.

Let me get the “curse” comment out of the way. Having just rewatched the original flick, I was looking forward to some significant updating of the approach, particularly the Gelfling designs to make their mouths move more naturally. I can see the bind the producers were in…update a classic and risk the wrath of fans, or cleave closely to the original and risk a more dated feel. Definitely no-win. But there were subtle updates, especially to the Skeksis, whose tongues were truly a thing of creepy beauty.

Also, in order to provide a launching pad for the series, they twisted the known facts a little. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry about it. If you have, you’ll need to be more than a little patient to accept the setup and await it all to make sense. Of course the big question is how long before the movie does this series take place? No one seems to know or want to commit. My best guess was about 100 years or so, though it could be longer. The studio was purposefully vague and won’t pin it down.

The voice talent is an astounding list of folks; far too long to enumerate here. The puppeteering is top notch. The production design clever enough to link to the movie but still make it their own. The world of Thra is expanded and gorgeously designed. There are familiar characters and new ones to enjoy. The story is richly complex, despite its clear aim to pull in a younger audience as well as adults. And this installment of the story finally plumbs some of the dark depths the original movie touched on but wasn’t willing to dive into. In fact, the writers and director Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) helped marry the tale to current times in wonderful ways.

They also left plenty of room for more stories and a whispered about second season, but not in an unsatisfying way…well, at least if you know the movie. However, if you’ve not found the movie yet, wait to see where the series goes and then get to the end of the story.

As both a revival and a continuation of the tale, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a winner for me. There is something about the craft of bringing these inanimate creatures to life that sparks the imagination in ways CGI, or even most stop-action animation just can’t touch. Here’s hoping they get to continue the story and fully complete the sequence.