Tag Archives: 4stars

And Then We Danced

[4 stars]

All you need to know to understand this wonderful, poignant tale of life in Georgia (as in former Soviet Union) is in the credits; a special thanks to the choreographer, who couldn’t be named, but without whom the movie couldn’t have been made. That statement, which comes after the story, crystallizes it all.

Writer/director Levan Akin and newcomers Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili picked up a pile of well-deserved awards for their efforts. The two leads not only deliver sweetly nuanced performances, they can also dance…like, seriously dance.

This is a paced film that slowly unfolds and ultimately builds to its climax in the final few minutes of film. Sustaining that, and building the tension as it moves along is all very subtle, but effective. And without that effort, the final scene would have been cheap theatrics rather than an unequivocal statement. Forgetting the character relationships that need to be established, the audience needs that time and day-in-the-life moments to learn some history and culture to put it all in context.

This was a perfect film for Pride month, absolutely. But it’s also a great view into a world few will have experienced, even while presenting universal emotions and struggles.

And Then We Danced Poster

Some COVID Fun – No, Really

There has been a wave of lock-down art recently. Well, what do you expect with a bunch of artists stuck at home with no outlet? Even the some finales (like All Rise) embraced the situation and wrote it into their tales.

Most of it has come in the form of at-home/garage concerts up till now. But, recently, a number of short video stories have begun to surface.

While there are many, these two really stood out. One for its sheer amusement and the other for its scope. Both are BBC, but I would expect them to be more generally available at some point.

Staged

What happens when David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) and Michael Sheen (Slaughterhouse Rulez) try to mount a play during the lock-down? Well, with the help of relatively unknown Simon Evans as writer/director/actor and their families, hilarity ensues. This series, comprised of 6 short episodes is self-aware, self-deprecating, and utterly irreverent. Find it…and remember to pay attention to and watch through the credits. The fun just keeps on giving while touching on the realities of the world as it is being reshaped.

Staged Poster

Unprecedented 

There are too many people involved here to list. In several half-hour episodes, each comprised of 3 10-minute plays, you see a huge scope of pandemic life. Some of it is is funny, some uncomfortable, and some just poignant, but all are worth seeing and none are so long as to get boring.

Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation Poster

In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wah)

[4 stars]

Director/writer Wong Kar-wai (The Grandmaster) has a beautiful sensibility about film and about characters. It isn’t just about the framing, which is always impressive, it is about his awareness of the moments. He imparts emotion by virtue of how they are presented, adding a layer to the performances and story.

When paired with subtle performers like Tony Chiu Wai Leung (The Grandmaster) and Maggie Cheung (2046), the result is riveting. We swept up in their lives as they reevaluate their marriages and each other. It is always as much about the silences and what we can’t see that expands the story, sometimes even more so than what is on screen.

Beyond the story itself, Kar-wai plays some entertaining games with the film. Cheung, for instance, has an astonishing wardrobe that rarely repeats. Some characters are never fully in frame or seen from the front. Rain and smoke become motifs for emotion and thought. And the episodic nature of the film ultimately drives unexpected aspects of the tale. It is no wonder it picked up so many awards; it pulls you along with inexorable curiosity, longing, and hope.

In the Mood for Love Poster

Dark PSA

Just a friendly reminder that the third (and final) series of Dark drops on 27 June. Start rewatching now if you want to be ready and don’t want your head to explode while trying to watch it all.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, Dark is one of, if not the most, complicated plot I’ve ever seen on a TV serial. Possibly the most complicated I’ve seen in any visual media. So far it has managed to stay consistent through two series, but following it is a Herculean task of names, time-frames, and story threads. And yet it is worth every bit of struggle and pain because it all pays off.

The 18 previous episodes that lead to the final round can only be ingested at a moderate pace (one or two episodes a night at most). If you don’t have the time, find your favorite online resource for tracking all the characters… trust me, without one, the other, or both, you will be utterly lost.

Frankly, I can’t wait to see if they can pay this all off.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

[3.5 stars]

Yes, here I am trying to take my mind off of the goings on in the world and with the current state of politics by watching a docu on climate change. More the fool me. In truth, it wasn’t so much a choice as what showed up, but that’s another story for another day.

As it turns out, this follow-on to Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth, while full of depressing realities, is also bolstered by some sense of hope. And, yes, that includes taking the current administration into account. In fact, the movie more or less revolves around the 2015 Paris COP21 meeting that delivered the biggest step toward controlling and reversing climate change to date…despite 45’s pulling the US out of it as one of the first acts of his presidency.

This documentary continues Gore’s journey from his first movie as an advocate, showing us the mechanisms behind the rousing, and terrifying, speeches. It takes us through how he has been amplifying that message and the path forward. And it shows us a man of near-limitless optimism that we can solve the problem together if we can overcome the hypocrisy and corrupt influences that have death-grips on the fossil fuel economy. Honestly, he’ll make you believe, but not without many grindings of your teeth.

This movie is already two years old. And, let’s face it, much has happened. Not only have policies changed, but the EPA and other watchdog agencies and laws have been actively dismantled. But this is also an election year, and with a solid win, none of it has to be permanent, though sure as hell a lot of damage has been done. I want to remain with Gore and be optimistic. What’s the alternative? We can, as they say, “vote the bums out.” We can insist on logic and science to be drivers of policy and law. As the docu shows, this isn’t really a partisan divide…we just have to stop allowing certain industries from behaving like robber barons and hold accountable any who support them.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power Poster

Homecoming (series 2)

[3.5 stars]

The first season of Homecoming was a twisted tale of mind-bending fragments that coalesced into something more pedestrian and down-to-earth. That wasn’t a bad thing…it was honest and logical. The perspective was from inside the mystery and it added great suspense and confusion. But now we know the truth.

What we get with the second series is a look at some of the peripheral aspects and the extension of the fallout as we follow the thread left by Stephan James’s (21 Bridges) character. And there are some interesting paths and aspects to explore.

But the best reason to see this second round is Janelle Monáe (Welcome to Marwen) and Hong Chau (Watchmen). They are natural and unforced as a couple. They also each have their own stories and arcs to travel. Chau’s starts in the first season, but this provides another angle on the wonderful final moments she is part of. And Monáe fits seamlessly into the twisted world we traversed as if she’s always been there.

Like the first round, there is a mystery to unravel, though with fewer surprises. And it is full of suspense with bursts of activity. I was with the story completely (despite some willful stupid moments) until the final 10 minutes or so.

The ending didn’t ruin the ride for me; I can understand the decisions that were made. However, it left me very conflicted. To my mind it was out of proportion in scope and depth for the plot. Basically, it violated my sense of balance and left me without sympathy for the characters we probably should have had some sympathy for. Was it a fair choice by the writers? Maybe, but it wasn’t the satisfying punch I think they were hoping for. More importantly, it makes me question whether the third round, assuming it happens, is something I want to see.

Homecoming Poster

 

See You Yesterday

[4 stars]

If you just avoid thinking about the hand-wavy science and focus instead on the logic, story, and message this is one powerhouse of a flick. First-time feature director Stefon Bristol co-wrote this topical and clever tale with another first-timer, Fredrica Bailey.  The two shared the Independent Spirit Award for their efforts for good reason.

Not only is the tale entertaining and a nice variation on well-known theme, it’s also topical and honest about the world in unexpected ways. And, to top it all off, it is aimed at a younger audience while satisfying adults. While different in tenor and intent, this film would live comfortably with Attack the Block or Chronicle.

The film is driven by Eden Duncan-Smith (Annie). She brings a flawed, real person struggling with the realities of her life and the fact that she’s smarter than almost everyone around her. Her friends figure heavily, given life, if not quite as much depth, by new-comer Dante Crichlow and up-and-comer Johnathan Nieves (City of Angels). But as her older brother, Astro  (Luce) adds a number of  important and challenging levels.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, especially right now, but it is probably exactly what you should be watching. It is clever, entertaining, and even funny at times, but it also exposes aspects of reality that is rarely tackled with such honesty and sympathy. It also has a near-perfect ending for its purpose. You can think of it as a science-fantasy tackling of Waves or Do the Right Thing, but that would lead you a bit astray as well. Maybe it’s closer to being Run, Lola, Run in Flatbush if you still need a touchstone.  But, really, it is its own story, and you should see it. And I know I’m looking foward to seeing what Bristol and Bailey come up with next.

See You Yesterday

Ad Vitam

[4 stars]

What if you could live, essentially, forever? How would that change you and the world? And what about those who couldn’t or those that have to wait for treatment? There have been plenty of stories based on this idea…few have thought through the implications in interesting ways. Altered Carbon certainly did, but that’s far future. Ad Vitam is a look at a similar impact in the near term.

Thomas Cailley created a result that is a great mystery wrapped in a very human story. And, yes, it is all very French, as the saying goes. But it is solid story-telling with plenty of surprises and resolutions. Led by Yvan Attal as a detective approaching the end of his career and a young woman connected to a past crime, Garance Marillier, who is the thread that unravels the story.

It is a typical mystery/suspense set up in a very new setting. If you like dark tales of the world and a look at the psyche of our species, this one is for you. While you can just let the story wash over you, it’s hard to ignore the bigger picture and commentary as the truth is uncovered. It is also a self-contained 6 episodes, making it a very satisfying viewing.

Ad Vitam

The Vast of Night

[3.5 stars]

On the surface this new streamer is a fairly standard, if cleverly told, story of 50s middle-America dealing with paranoia and possible invasion (by who and what are unknown). We’ve seen this many times before, and new director Andrew Patterson and his writers, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger don’t shy away from that fact. Indeed part of what sets this film apart is that they lean into it, framing the entire story in a Twilight Zone-like box.

I’ll come back to the story and presentation, but it’s first worth noting the cast, led by Sierra McCormick as a believable 16 year old in over her head, but afraid of nothing. She is backed up by a less heeled, but solid, Jake Horowitz as the two unravel and pursue the mystery that drops in their laps. Horowitz channels James Dean while McCormick is something like a super-charged Nancy Drew as they scramble with equipment and  have frequent dashes across town at an unrelenting pace. In a small but focused role, Gail Cronauer (Te Ata) is the only character to steal back the camera for a while from the two leads, delivering and extended and haunted tale full of emotion.

Now let’s get back to the presentation. Because, despite all these praises, the story is really fairly obvious and nothing new. What keeps you intrigued, even during the slower or overloaded segments (like the opening 20 minutes of setup and dialogue) is the direction and cinematography. Patterson squeezed the story to remove all moments of breath, but not so much that it feels rushed so much as normal. Even with Horowitz’s mumbling around his cigarette, which could get frustrating as a listener, it feels right and real and nothing of any import is missed.

But the real question, and nod, I have goes back to that framing. I don’t know if it was in the original script or, if during development or in the editing room, they realized they were doing pure homage and needed to find a way to set it apart to do their work justice. I lean heavily toward this latter suspicion since it was all done in post and changed none of the movie. They knew what they were doing with the story, but needed a way to tip that to the audience and reframe it so it wouldn’t feel stale and tired. And, in fact, the opening, closing, and few reminders, make it more fun and let you go with the flow.

However, it has an ancillary effect of leaving you wondering if it was part of the plot or only part of the presentation. And this is where I was a little more frustrated with the choice. The story doesn’t rise to the level of needing any meta-layers or messages. And 50s-style horror doesn’t particularly have a lot to say about the human condition that isn’t on the screen in big flashing neon. So the framing is a nice artistic choice, but a forced one for the story itself since it is merely a comment and never used. Add to this the ending, which can be read more than one way, and you’re left with one too many unanswered aspects…or at least I was.

To see these performances and a new set of voices entering the cinematic fray, this really is a movie worth seeing. It isn’t perfect, but it is crammed with promise and definitely put together with deft hands. And it is entertaining, enough so that I wanted to examine these other aspects rather than just taking it just for what it is. Watch for these people in the future, they’re sure to be coming up with something new and interesting.

The Vast of Night Poster

A Face in the Crowd

[4 stars]

Back in 1957 Budd Schulberg wrote a script that was disturbingly prescient; though it would seem to presage Regan more than 45 in the arc of it all. Still, his understanding of the power of media was spot on. I can only imagine that he’d be disappointed to learn that B-rolls and hot mic’s no longer seem to matter, and their truth can’t shake the machine.

With Elia Kazan at the helm, and a solid cast, the story is a swift couple hours about the rise and fall of Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes. Griffith is more than a little larger than life and broad in his performance (and perhaps a little loud) but it works. And he does manage to slip levels into there. Patricia Neal is a conundrum in the tale, being both the instigator of it all and his rock, but then somehow diminishing into a more typical female stereotype of the era. It works, in its way, but is also the weakest aspect of the story.

In a surprisingly quiet and atypical role there is Walter Matthau and also a very young Lee Remick, among others. And watch out for Mike Wallace and Walter Winchell playing themselves.

A Face in the Crowd is a compelling movie even more than 60 years later. Sure it is a little stagey, but the points are amazingly on target, and the journey clips along so quickly that it pulls you to the inevitable end without lagging.

A Face in the Crowd