Tag Archives: 4stars

Luce

[4 stars]

Powerful and tense, this is a challenging film in most of the right ways. It has a good story and some very intelligent plotting to force internal conflicts for the viewer as the plot unfolds. Adapted by Julius Onah and J.C. Lee from Lee’s play, it is also a solid conversion from stage to screen. There is nary a hint of its physical roots other than, perhaps, the level of the language utilized. Onah’s direction is also subtle, keeping the charged situations contained to pressurize them until they are at full steam…and even then it’s a controlled release.

At the center of the film is the young Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves), who navigates the ridiculously layered title character. Octavia Spencer (Instant Family) as his teacher brings it as well; her character is well meaning, misguided, and completely out of her depth. Both are unexpectedly grounded performances in roles that could have easily gotten out of control.

Naomi Watts (The Book of Henry) and Tim Roth (The Hateful Eight) as Luce’s parents are good and evolve through their story. Though, honestly, I had great difficulty buying either of them entirely. Some of that was purposeful on Onah’s part in his direction and casting, but I’m not sure it was compeltely effective.

Luce is also surrounded by a number fellow students in his school. There are some nice turns, but Andrea Bang (Kim’s Convenience) is the one standout. She not only delivers but manages to remain an intriguing cypher through to the end.

Luce isn’t an easy film to watch at times, but it is beautifully real and subtle, playing with your better angels and quiet devils while setting them to war. And though the story is essentially a small tale of a young student, its reach is much broader than that because of Luce’s history. It isn’t perfectly acted or executed at times, but I forgive all its small flaws for the success of its bigger aims and I suspect most viewers would.

Luce

Two hits and a miss on Netflix

Three new Netflix series dropped in the last couple weeks. For a change, I had a chance to sample them near to their release. It was a mixed bag, but quite the range in material.

AJ and the Queen

Sweet and entertaining, without the extreme intensity of Pose and with just enough Drag Race to keep it all moving.  Which isn’t to say it doesn’t get a bit broad but it’s approach is generally very down-to-earth to keep it feeling real. That does make the pacing a little slower than some may like, but I’m finding it cozy. And while RuPaul is his wonderful self and driving the show, newcomer Izzy G. is making quite the impression as AJ with some serious chips. And, as you find out at the top, it is AJ’s story, not his. Hoping they can continue the effort and build on the characters.

Messiah

This is certainly not the first show to posit the Second Coming…in fact, squint a little and the opening episode echos Dune, among dozens of other stories, shows, and movies. But Messiah is intense and fascinating, with multiple threads all being woven into an intriguing tapestry.

With Mehdi Dehbi  (The Other Son) in the title role and Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) watching from the CIA side, the clashes are inevitible, but the message and the commentary are well educated and non-denominationally specific (so far) and intended to challenge. And with James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Sense8) at the directing helm of more than half the episodes, I’m feeling confident about the show’s ability to navigate the divisive material in an intelligent and entertaining way.

Medical Police

Yeah, couldn’t even get through the first episode. Not my humor, though it could be yours (Reno 911 anyone)? The pacing is off and the wry humor just falls flat more than hitting the mark. I’m out…you can decide on your own.

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917

A Christmas Carol (2019)

[3.5 stars]

Seriously, did we need another Christmas Carol? Well, actually, as it turns out: yes. Steven Knight’s (Serenity) take on Scrooge’s tale is creepy and revelatory, as opposed to rushed and predictable. Guy Pearce (Mary Queen of Scots) embraces the dark and navigates our humbug-spewing character through memories and experiences that finally make it clear why and when he lost his way.

Joe Alwyn (Harriet) provides a solid foil as Crachit, though he is well over-shadowed by his screen-wife Vinette Robinson (Sherlock). Robinson drives the true catalyst of change. But these are the characters we always have known. Part of what Knight does is broaden the tale and provide Marley with a voice in Stephen Graham (The Irishman). Marley was always just an excuse to tell Dicken’s story in previous adaptations. In this one, he truly has something at stake.

Even the other Christmas ghosts have a bit more going on in this telling. Andy Serkis (Black Panther) and Charlotte Riley (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), especially, get their own tales.

If, like me, you have always found the saccharine retelling of redemption just a bit too much to stomach, this will give you new appreciation of the story and the message. The experience is probably a lot closer to how Dicken’s audience received the story as well.

Admittedly, you still have to believe someone can utterly change just by seeing the truth, but Knight doesn’t really let anyone completely off the hook in his resolution. It’s messy, like life, but he allows for the nearest thing to a believable change in this classic tale that I’ve seen.

Dracula (2019)

[4 stars]

I’m not here to stake Dracula, but to praise him. Well at least Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for their imaginative retelling of Stoker’s classic. The two used their Sherlock chops to capture the original’s sense and structure, but recast it and the dialogue into something more digestible for today’s audience.

Gatiss (Christopher Robin) also took the plum bit part of Renfield for himself. Who can blame him, it is always a tasty role.

But while Claes Bang (The Square) burns up the screen as a rather self-aware Dracula, it is Dolly Wells (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who steals this show utterly. Her alacrity with language and facility with accent set her apart. She really has the best lines as well. Which isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t strong. They are, and many are recognizable from earlier Moffat/Gatiss collaborations. Outside of the known ensemble, there was also a nice showing by Matthew Beard (Vienna Blood) and Lydia West (Years and Years) in smaller roles sequestered to the third episode and a nice, if type-cast role, for Patrick Walshe McBride (Shakespeare & Hathaway).

The 3 90-minute episodes allow the story to expand in ways that a 2 hour movie just can’t manage. We get depth and scope as well as answers (some clever, and some inconsistent) and a solid parallel to the book that is usually a jumping off point rather than template. That said, the series definitely departs radically from the book in specifics, but somehow retains the intent and purpose, making it the most authentic version I’ve seen. Even the ending, which is not exactly satisfying (to say the least), best mirrors Stoker’s final pages as compared to other adaptations (the book ending was challenging as well).

Overall, this is an emotionally and intellecutally dense portrait of Dracula, with enough of all the bits we’ve particularly loved about this tale over the last 123 years (sex, violence, murder, seduction, romance). Moffat and Gatiss yet again prove they can take dated, original material and honor it without just slavishly following it.

 

 

I Lost My Body

[4 stars]

There’s nothing more romantic than a severed hand making its way back to its body, right? OK, the whole thing is meant as metaphor, but this film takes the idea of soulmates and makes it literal, not to mention loss. Through the travels and adventures of the hand as it wends its way through Paris, we learn about the life and relationships the young man at the center of it all has experienced.

And somehow it works beautifully. Creepy as some of it can get, particularly for those of us who grew up watching horror films like The Beast with Five Fingers (or any number of others over the years), Jérémy Clapin’s first full-length anime somehow stays sweet and hopeful. As far as movie magic goes, this is amazing (and forgive me) sleight of hand.

Clapin delivers the story in an understated way, forcing you to pay attention, to evaluate and think about what you’re seeing. The animation is wonderful and simply falls away, leaving you with its reality. Unlike its probably awards competitors, this is a wholly adult film, with themes and statements that will resonate for anyone who ever had a romantic bone in their body, hands included. But while focused on that aspect, there are also oblique reflections on society today that make it a richer tale. That Clapin co-wrote this with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s oft-time partner and font of source material, Guillaume Laurant (The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, A Very Long Engagement, City of Lost Children, Amélie, Micmacs), should give you a sense of the core and scope of the film.

There is a reason I Lost My Body has been sucking up awards, and will continue to into the Oscar race this year. It may not be your typical fare, but it’s a magical and unexpected journey that never quite goes where you expect it to. More importantly, it sticks with you as you internalize and digest it long after the viewing. And, if you’ll forgive me one last bad reference, it is the visual equivalent of one hand clapping: creating the beautiful from the impossible.

 

The Two Popes

[3.5 stars]

So, why is a nice Jewish boy like me watching a movie about the papacy? Well, honestly, I only turn it on because of the buzz around the script and Jonathan Pryce’s (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) performance. OK, and a bit of curiosity.

I have to admit, Anthony McCarten’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) script is an unexpected delight, which Fernando Meirelles (Constant Gardner) brought to life with both gravitas and a sense of humor. The result is a 2-person play with Anthony Hopkins (Lear) that unwinds as a personal and philosophical debate on the purpose of the Church in life. Except, it isn’t as dry as all that.

However, as much I enjoyed the give and take, and the story, I did have to wonder at the purpose of the piece overall. It comes off as both an apologia and advertisement for both Popes. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with that effect on either side. Perhaps I am observing it a little more clinically, given my perspective, but art is always lensed through the observer so what can I say?

Well, I can say that I laughed out loud…a lot. And I learned about both men as well as got a sense of appreciation for their positions. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting couple hours, and likely not at all what you expect before turning it on.

You’ll be hearing a lot of about this film during this awards season, so take the gamble and start it up; you can always bail out if it doesn’t grab you. But I have to warn you, it had me at the first scene and I suspect it will have you too.

Toy Story 4

[4 stars]

The first Toy Story had surprise going for it, both technologically and in the script. But I never found the series all that gripping or effective. However, this installment and (one hopes) resolution to the tale of motley toys is the best all around. Like the previous movies, it takes on adult themes beneath the surface of the silliness, but this script is richer and more subtle as it tackles growing up on several fronts.

It’s an even more impressive feat when you realize that it’s director Josh Cooley’s first feature and that the script and story had 9 different sets of hands stirring the pot. For a cohesive and interesting story to come out of that stew of sensibilities is pretty amazing, even if several had been involved in the series over the years.

There is also a huge list of voice talent involved. Many retuning voices will be familiar, as well as some new ones as guests. I’m not going to laundry list them all and, frankly, no one really stood out as brilliant. They all serve their purpose, which is the most important point.

This is the first of the series I actually recommend whole heartedly. It is certainly in contention for awards this year, including the yet to be announced Oscars. And, for a change, I agree it should be.

Abominable

[3.5 stars]

While I fully admit this is a children’s animation, it’s a cut above most of those I’ve seen this past year for a number of reasons that let me recommend it.

First, it is set in China without explanation or apology. It simply is, and allows (generally) the story to be driven culturally from there. It is certainly Westernized, but it is also suprising and unique for that, and remains so despite echoing Missing Link in few places. Second, it has humor that isn’t entirely juvenile…at least not without purpose. It manages to surprise, even amidst the predictable. And, finally, because it’s production design is clever and well thought through.

Jill Culton co-directed with her Open Season co-directorTodd Wilderman. She also wrote the script, no doubt leveraging her story experience from Monsters, Inc. to create relatable characters and a child’s sense of wonder and adventure. The result is pretty to watch and entertaining. Brilliant? No, not really, but it feels different and certainly was better than I anticipated. Give it shot if you’ve got a youngster to share it with. It isn’t really for most adults without that incentive.

Marriage Story

[4 stars]

Noah Baumbach’s (While We’re Young) latest film is a wonderful example of what a unique eye can bring to a common situation in order to defy expectations, and how framing is everything.

Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die) and Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit) are riding high as actors this year with multiple roles receiving multiple awards nods. This effort is no disappointment. Together they create a wonderful and subtle story of a family weathering divorce while trying to remember how they got there, who they are, and what they really want.

This sounds depressing as hell, doesn’t it? And I won’t lie, it has its moments, especially thanks to Laura Dern’s (Wilson) and Ray Liotta’s (Pawn) portrayl of evil-incarnate divorce attorneys who assume all divorces must be blood baths. However, this isn’t Kramer v Kramer...because of how Baumbach framed the film. The overall effect he creates, and even much of the journey, is one of relief and hope rather than depression and anger.

Marriage Story is an homage to the institution and to love, while recognizing that it doesn’t always work out. But, as the story tells, that doesn’t mean it has to be a permanent disaster nor unending strife. Life goes on and, especially when kids are involved, a bond remains as a reminder of what was, even if the deepest emotions that created that life no longer apply.