Tag Archives: 4stars

The Broken Hearts Gallery

[3.5 stars]

Every once in a while a pure, sweet escape is just the thing. And there is something about romantic NYC fantasies, especially when loaded with good comedy, that makes them infectious. And I mean that in a good way. Like the earlier romcom surprise of Palm Springs, Natalie Krinsky (Gossip Girl) doubled down on all the old tropes and found something new in them.

Geraldine Viswanathan (Miracle Workers) is a ball of energy and wit that never stops. She holds together this movie and manages to keep it grounded even when she’s delivering mile-a-minute monologues. Opposite her, Dacre Montgomery (Stranger Things, Power Rangers) redeems himself nicely from all of his previous pretty-boy, obnoxious characters with a soulful guy who just needs to relax and get on with his life.

You can tell how good the flick is by the fact that the supporting performance by Bernadette Peters (Mozart in the Jungle) ends up more a distraction than adding to the whole. She’s a fine choice, especially given the backstory, but she’s too recognizable amid the rest of the cast who hold their own just fine.

And, speaking of, the supporting cast are all a hoot. From the silent Nathan Dales (Letterkenny), the befuddled but self-centered Utkarsh Ambudkar (Blindspotting), and best-friend Arturo Castro (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), to the girl power collection of Molly Gordon (Life of the Party), Phillipa Soo (Hamilton), and Megan Ferguson (Upload) they all deliver in slightly over-the-top-but-believable ways. And two smaller roles by Suki Waterhouse (Pokémon Detective Pikachu) and Sheila McCarthy (Umbrella Academy) are expertly tipped over the net for impact.

When you’re ready for an escape with lots of belly laughs and even moments of sweet emotion, this is a wonderful choice alone or to share.

The Broken Hearts Gallery Poster

 

WandaVision

[4 stars]

Yes, I avoided talking about this till it was complete. Why? Because it was so clearly going to be a complex arc that wouldn’t likely be fully realized till the end. I’m glad I waited…and enjoyed the ride.

Like many complex tales, there are two experiences: the initial watch and the rewatch/looking-back review. The one thing that is utterly clear is that this massively risky experiment wouldn’t have worked without the incredible acting chops of Elizabeth Olsen (Ingrid Goes West). Her ability to morph through the various styles required, and her depth of emotional landscape sold an otherwise near-experimental theatre presentation. And in support around her through it all were Kathryn Hahn (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Paul Bettany (Uncle Frank) who balance and feed the confusion. It’s no Watchmen, but it is a heck of an out-there show.

And, yes, there are others, but most are surprises so I won’t enumerate. But Josh Stamberg (Pacific Rim: Uprising) is notable for a truly flawed performance. He was clearly directed by Matt Shakman to chew the furniture and he did so with relish, to the detriment of the series. Mind you, so does Hahn before it’s all over, which is a shame, but she has a wider ranging presentation. However, at least Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk) manages to pull off a rather unexpected arc without crossing those lines.

The shape of this series is everything. It begins with a 30 minute format and expands, as the story structure allows, till we get to an hour-long finale. But the first three episodes are slightly self-indulgent setups. Entertaining as heck, but stretched out a bit too long. There is a purpose and a reason for it all (thankfully) but it goes on too long. Shankman should have reined it in a little more. Similarly, the penultimate episode gets old quickly as, by that time, it’s simply revealing information we mostly know but the characters have yet to admit/understand. It could have been done better.

But the finale, which manages in true Marvel/MCU fashion to pull all the threads together, is a nice pay-off. And I say that even though it also, in true MCU fashion, has lots of open threads hinted at in the two codas.

Overall, this is a heck of an achievement. Flawed, and slightly misdirected at times, but not something most of us expected. And it resolves some of the original complaints about Wanda’s Age of Ultron introduction and story. Of course, if you don’t know about Wanda and Vision, you’ll frankly miss 80% of the story. So if you somehow missed the movies, go back to Age of Ultron and watch from there (or at least watch the Legends series to learn enough about the background).

My biggest concern with the story is how well it will stand the test of time and rewatching. Once you know the secrets and rewatch it once, is there enough there? As a stand-alone series, I suspect not. It is built as a vehicle to launch several new paths in the MCU (at least two movies link up with the ending). It isn’t a stand-alone gem of a story, it is an episode in the charcters’ existence, a bridge to what comes next. Very comic book. But is that what we ultimately want to tune in for? Dark Tower had originally planned a movie and TV pathway, because of the scope of the story, all tying together as a whole. Then they panicked and gave us a single, awful movie. So, perhaps, WandaVision is a new type of show and I’m being a little unfair to its purpose. Time will tell when we see if Disney can pay it all off in the year or so to come. Certainly, I give them credit for the ballsy and expensive attempt. Let’s see what they can do with it…

Judas and the Black Messiah

[3.5 stars]

The Black Panthers are a complicated subject. Not just for their own actions and politics but also because of the reason they even existed and the response at the local, state, and federal levels. Director and co-writer Shaka King tackles the subject through the particular thread of Fred Hampton’s life and assassination. And even though the story was done with Hampton’s family and the Panther’s blessing, he does so with honesty and minimal bias. I can’t imagine that was an easy feat.

Interestingly, Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcom X and the Black Panthers have been in the zeitgeist lately, showing up directly or tangentially in One Night in Miami, Small Axe, and Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as thematically in many other films. And, though unplanned, it’s important to notice that this film is releasing about a month after insurrectionists, led by white supremacists and incited by the president, stormed the Capital. Certainly puts an unexpected patina on it all.

The story, is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, given oily life by LaKeith Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). He drives the action that ultimately sweeps up Daniel Kaluuya’s (Widows) Hampton. Kaluuya himself slips into Hampton’s story comfortably and seamlessly, though perhaps not quite as poetically as the original. And Dominique Fishback (Project Power) provides a nuanced performance with grounded and conflicted emotions through which we watch Hampton.

In the background, pulling strings and guiding outcomes, Martin Sheen (Grace and Frankie) as Hoover and Jesse Plemons (Vice) make you squirm. Sheen for his sheer, vile hubris. But Plemons is more subtle and complex. The subtlety derives from the decisions he makes while internally sacrificing as he bends to pressure; doing so even as the implications of his actions become more apparent…he accepts all the choices despite those realizations.

This film is a tale of tragedy, but tempered with hope. It is also our history (and not a small part of our present, like it or not). The full scope of that history, and the truth of those involved, has yet to be widely told. This movie is a start and it is one you should see for the performances and the information.

Judas and the Black Messiah Poster

bliss

[4 stars]

There is definitely something brewing in the zeitgeist these days. What arguably began when The Matrix released (though it wasn’t a new idea then, and it isn’t now; it was just a fun and inventive adventure) has expanded and grown in the media. With stories like Devs, Upload, and others coming out with increasing frequency, people seem even more intrigued with the central questions of “what is reality”? The latest is Bliss, which tackles the same base questions and adds in addiction as a subplot. We know all of this within the first 5 minutes of the movie, but it is how it all plays out and plays with us that makes the next 100 minutes fascinating.

The journey is really just a dance between three characters. Salma Hayek (The Hummingbird Project) and Owen Wilson (Wonder) are the main core. We experience the world primarily through them. But Nesta Cooper (Travelers) adds a third axis to the story that is unexpected as it develops. Her performance is also extremely well controlled and modulated in a heartbreaking way. The three together create a pathway through the story that is as gripping as it is dark and wonderous.

I will say that the “truth” such as it is, is definitively presented and laid out by writer and director Mike Cahill (I Origins). But the resolution and choices are what the movie is really ultimately about. So even if you miss the clues, it really doesn’t ultimately matter. Cahill accomplishes what I honestly had wished the Wachowski’s had with their classic…which while fun, never was really willing to tackle the deeper and scarier questions about the world as a simulation. Of course, this also means Bliss doesn’t have super-fast pacing, but it is brimming with tension and suspense. At least it was for me.

Give Bliss a try, but don’t expect big effects, though there are some very subtle ones throughout (keep an eye on the background particularly through the first 15 minutes). The production is also beautifully designed with great care to enhance the ideas. And do expect some challenging science fiction and social questions. In other words, check it out when you want to think a little while you’re being entertained.

Bliss Poster

The Little Things

[3.5 stars]

This dark little mystery is brought to you via a triumvirate of talent. Led by Denzel Washington (Equalizer 2) and backed up by Rami Malek (Papillon) and Jared Leto (Blade Runner 2049), this is a steadily paced tale of justice and redemption. While there are numerous smaller roles, the movie is really these three. Washington provides the quiet, intense gravitas while Malek brings the youthful intensity and Leto…well, Leto brings the crazy.

John Lee Hancock wrote and directed this tale of a serial killer stalking 1990’s LA. And while it is quite clever, you can get rather far ahead if you try. Fortunately, that doesn’t really matter as confirmation feels just as good as surprise because of how the story unfolds. It isn’t so much a police procedural as it is one of introspection and personal demons.

Enjoy the ride of this one, and be prepared to contemplate the outcomes and revelations. It is a story that is very much of its time, but not necessarily an antidote for any of the issues. But it isn’t about corruption so much as a drive for doing the right thing to the exclusion of all else, and the cost of failing that mission.

The Little Things Poster

It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

The Mauritanian

[4 stars]

Director Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) is drawn to the harsher realities of life and making them accessible and understandable. The Mauritanian is the story Mohamedou Slahi previously popularized in his book, Guantánamo Diary. Slahi is one of the victims of the choices made after 9/11 and the establishing of the Guantanamo Bay facility and its ongoing embarrassment.

While the story is confusing and angering and disturbing, what is astounding is how Slahi made it through and stayed positive, even forgiving. Tahar Rahim brings Slahi to the screen with a raw energy and empathy that is magnetic.

What helps set this story apart is its lack of explicit lines. Almost no one is completely good or evil. They are all portrayed as driven and, to the extent they can be at any time, honest with themselves or the situation. Even Slahi’s champions, Jodie Foster (Hotel Artemis) and Shailene Woodley (Snowden), aren’t necessarily there for him at the start; they’re there to defend the law, as they see it. On the opposing side, Benedict Cumberbatch (1917) and Zachary Levi (Shazam!) are there in righteous anger, and with a sense of extreme duty. All these characters evolve in unexpected ways.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it isn’t devoid of positive aspects. It is a reminder of the fact that we still haven’t recovered from our tragedies and that many innocents got swept up in the wake of a country gone mad. It is also a reminder of why the rule of law is so important and not intended to be bent to the will of a single administration or person. Not to mention of a reminder that we still have a mess to clean up and apologies to make even 20 years later.

Trial of the Chicago 7

[4 stars]

Angering, funny, and terrifying. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) chose the last time in the modern age that our democracy balanced on a knife edge to both instruct and provide hope for the times we’re in now. We got through it back then, afterall. The system ultimately worked despite every effort to subvert and abuse it. And while I recognize that as a false equivalency as the system itself has been undermined massively over the last 12 years, it isn’t entirely without merit as an argument. It certainly is a reminder of responsibility and where the power of the government lies.

And yet, I will admit that I’d avoided this story afraid of having to deal with the frustration of the reality it depicts. And, yes, I was tense with anger and frustration for a good part of the movie. But Sorkin punctuates the tension with some well barbed humor and glimmers of humanity to keep it moving along. He also landed some amazing talent to recreate those involved.

As a whole the cast is truly fantastic and wonderful at representing their historical counterparts. But there were a few standouts. Sacha Baron Cohen (Alice Through the Looking Glass) as Abbie Hoffman is chief amongst those. Mark Rylance (Blitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) are close behind along with John Carroll Lynch (Big Sky). And, in a purposefully incidental role, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) quietly and righteously froths with intelligence and fury on the periphery.

On the other side of the aisle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Project Power) and Frank Langella (The Time Being) are impressive to watch, but neither really gets much of an arc to work with. Even Gordon-Levitt, who gets a few important moments, doesn’t really get to exploit or explore them for us in any fully satisfying way. But without either of them, the rest of the story would have sagged and the truth would have been less richly displayed.

With Jan 20 just around the corner, the movie is also a lot more palatable than it was two months ago…though also with a reminder that democracy is something we have to constantly nurture. This movie is heavy with history, but it is also full of entertainment to help put it all in perspective. That is Sorkin’s genius as a writer and, now with this sophomore outing, also as a director. Trial is not an anti-government film. It’s a story of what happens when the government forgets that it works for the people, not the other way around.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Poster

The Midnight Sky

[3.5 stars]

Nothing like a slow-burn tale of the end of the world to top off a pandemic year. Which isn’t to say this flick isn’t worth your time, it is. It just may not quite deliver the message or feeling you’re in search of at this moment. Because, while not devoid of hope, the die is cast at the beginning of the film leaving little doubt as to the ultimate ending. It even internally references On the Beach, just in case you missed the point. But it is also about survival and purpose. Like the more recent indies Aniara, These Final Hours or After We Leave, Midnight Sky is as much about trying to find someone and make sense of life before the end as it is about how to spend that time.

George Clooney (Money Monster) directed and stars in this contemplative feature. It even bears some resemblance to his previous starrer Solaris in style, though the pacing is better. There are also echoes of Gravity in the alternating pacing of calm and terror. And Mark L. Smith’s (Overlord) script adaptation is quiet but with enough tension to keep you locked in for the full two hours by bouncing between Clooney’s challenges and those upon the Aether, which is returning from Jupiter to a scorched Earth.

Clooney is helped along by a sharp cast in the counter-point group shipboard. Felicity Jones (On the Basis of Sex) and David Oyelowo (The Cloverfield Paradox) lead the crew, which is nicely stable despite the long time in space and the discoveries upon their return. This is what crews should be mentally, not quasi-hysterical or fractured individuals that tip over into instability at the first signs of challenge. Filling out the crew are some nice supporting performances by Demián Bichir (The Nun), Kyle Chandler (Godzilla: King of Monsters), and  Tiffany Boone (Beautiful Creatures).

But perhaps the biggest surprise in the cast is the young newcomer Caoilinn Springall. Her performance is riveting, with barely a dozen words to support it. The result is as much a credit to her as it is to Clooney’s direction.

This isn’t a perfect movie. There are aspects missing. But it is also wonderfully subtle and manages to connect with its audience in unexpected ways. Most importantly, it doesn’t feel the need to explain everything and insult its audience. The production decisions about the world in the movie are also nicely inventive and subtle. Only 50 years ahead of us, the team found a look that exploits technical trends without commenting on them, like 3D printing.

Know what you’re walking into before you spin it up, but keep this movie on your list until you do. The performances and approach are worth your time, even if the message and result are a bit harsh for a year filled with a constant sense of disaster.

 

The Midnight Sky Poster

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

[4 stars]

This intense day-in-the-life story of black performers will leave you breathless. It’s a powerful slow motion car crash of a tale that slowly exhumes the past and pain of its characters. But it is full of defiance and joy as well.

Based on the hit stage play, as part of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, it has made an uneasy transition to screen. Wilson’s dialogue is fast and dense. On stage that works, on screen it has a tendency to feel a little forced even when expertly delivered and directed. However, the rhythms and music of it all eventually settle in and pay off. You just have to have a little patience. The incomparable George C. Wolfe took the reins of this film to guide it through its paces and he knew how to get it where it needed to be.

But for all the excellent efforts that deserve praise, you see this offering for the performances of Viola Davis (Widows) and the late, great Chadwick Boseman (21 Bridges) who both utterly transform to transport you and shake you till your teeth rattle. They are simply jaw-dropping. The raw passion and life they’ve conjured is the kind of thing you remember for years.

Take Ma Rainey for a ride. It’s a bumpy one, and with a powerful one-two punch, but it isn’t something to be missed.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Poster