Tag Archives: 4stars

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

[3.5 stars]

The number of emotions and ideas that this film sparks are too many and too complicated to try and explain here in less than a tome. Suffice to say that this grounded fable/tragi-comedy by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, and Rob Richert (a first feature for all of them) is inventive, powerful, and effective.

Jimmie Fails also leads in the film alongside Jonathan Majors (Captive State, When We Rise). The friendship of these two men and their journey through the city is both funny and surprising. The duo are supported by host of smaller characters including Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Micheal Epps, and Rob Morgan (Mudbound). Only two small roles by Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood) and Maximilienne Ewalt (Sense8) add any female influence to this story. Given the tight focus on Fails’s journey and the lack of women in his life, it is almost excusable. However, it is noticeable.

But that criticism aside, this was an unexpected film. If Spike Lee had been born 30 years later and on the West coast, this is the kind of story he’d have been telling. It is politically charged, but without losing track of the personal. It is funny, but without dropping the serious message and intent. It is raw and honest, but not without recognizing the inherent sadness and absurdity in the situation. This is a film worthy of the term and an interesting new set of voices for the industry.

Blinded By the Light

[4 stars]

While this is a triumphant coming-of-age story, it is not just the light musical the trailers would have you believe. It is also a movie of the times that holds a mirror to mid-80s England to force us to re-evaluate our current situation. In other words, it is a pretty typical BBC movie in many ways, unafraid of the truth on the way to entertaining you.

Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha (It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, Bend it Like Beckham) is known for her quirky and funny, but honest, depictions of life.  She is equally adept at pulling heart-strings, making a point, or making us laugh. This film is no exception to that track record. Chadha finds the universal in the seemingly different and specific, which is why her films speak to such a broad audience.

Like Rocketman, she is also unafraid to use fantasy to capture reality. Sequences are heightened to bring Javed’s inner life into the real world at critical points in the story. Viveik Kalra’s performance hits the screen at these moments with heart and raw energy. Music transforms his life in a way any one of us could recognize, even if the breadth of the impact is far greater. Along with other young, and relatively unknown actors, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Nikita Mehta we’re taken on a journey of self-discovery, independence, and acceptance; and, of course, the meaning and value of family embodied by his parents, Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra.

There are also more recognizable faces, each with roles that shape the story through smaller moments. Hayley Atwell (Christopher Robin), Rob Brydon (The Trip), and David Hayman (Finding Your Feet) provide perspective and hope in an era that was rapidly losing both. Mid-80s England was seeing the rise of the NF and the political conservatism of Thatcher, all amidst a struggling economy that was impacting everyone, but particularly immigrant and low-income workers. Sound familiar?

Intended or not for the timing, Chadha has delivered a wonderful film of life and love that also happens to echo current travails. That it is also based on a true story makes it just that much more a delightful meal to feed exhausted nerves. And you’ll probably never hear Bruce the same way again. It isn’t purely entertainment, but it is also apologetically entertaining and unequivocally worth your time.

Where’d You Go Bernadette?

[3.5 stars]

Richard Linklater’s (Everybody Wants Some) latest film is imperfect in its details, but complete in its emotional journey. That is thanks to Cate Blanchett (The House with the Clock in the Walls) more than anything else. She takes us on Bernadette’s wild, and very personal ride, allowing us to both appreciate and find fault with her.  And, frankly, knitting together a scattered story and script.

Part of that tale is her family. Billy Crudup (Alien: Covenant), and newcomer Emma Nelson throw down with Blanchett to create a family in loving turmoil, fighting to make it through the storm. It is a surprisingly believable one, even though Crudup’s character feels very cliche for a good chunk of the film.

But many of the characters around Bernadette feel that way. Kristen Wiig (Ghostbusters) is similarly hollow, if recognizable and allowed to grow. Laurence Fishburne (John Wick 3: Parabellum) is a convenience. Only Zoe Chao (The OA) got entirely cheated by never being allowed to have impact or grow beyond the cheap comedy she was forced into. But each of these are bumpers for Bernadette to bounce off of and not much more. Important bumpers, each in their way, but not full characters.

The script adaptation appears to be most at fault for these gaps and slightly scattered story. It feels like too much was shoe-horned into the two hours, keeping the story from remaining focused. There were too many side-trips and events and not quite enough was sacrificed from the original book. This isn’t unusual in Linklater’s films, but editing is one of his weaknesses. What he sees as being naturalistic is often just indulgent or boring.

Most of this movie’s weaknesses are quickly forgiven, from factual errors to misrepresentations, but they are there.  What is frustrating is that they needn’t be, they were all clear director/writer choices. Fortunately, Blanchett can pull the entire load in her wake. For her performance, and the emotional release of the tale, this is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

[4 stars]

Watching the animus between Dwayne Johnson’s (Fighting With My Family) Hobbs and Jason Statham’s (The Meg) Shaw through the Fast & Furious franchise has always been entertaining, but it also got a bit tiring. It was just so forced and so over-the-top. This latest installment to the franchise gives the characters space to breathe. Sure the one-liners and fights barely stop between the two, but the story actually builds a relationship between them that allows the jokes and slams to continue, but now in a more believable way. “Believable” is, of course, a relative term in the world they’ve created, but compared to other stories in the franchise, this one felt more complete amidst the insane fights and stunts.

Part of the reason is that it is hyperfocused on only two of the characters we follow. And, added to that mix for tension, they found a great female lead to join them in Vanessa Kirby (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and a great villain in Idris Elba (Luther). There are also several surprise cameos to help tether the story to the main franchise.

Honestly, this was exactly what I needed at this point in my summer. It is a great popcorn film with just enough story and character to allow me to enjoy it without having to forgive it. I wish more of the F&F films had as much meat on them, but they’ve become thin excuses for huge stunts, bad jokes, and little else. Whether this latest becomes a bridge for the plot there, which appears a possibility, or perhaps elevates the stories a bit more remains to be seen. For that matter, whether these characters return to the franchise proper or not is still not known, but it was great to see them on their own adventure.

As you can imagine, yes, you should see this on the big screen if you have any interest at all. David Leitch (Deadpool 2) continues to improve his directing skills without losing his stunt edge. And Chris Morgan (The Fate of the Furious) who has helped turn the F&F franchise from pure car show to something more with his scripts is exploring his characters more. We’re still talking just serious summer fun, but that’s fine. And, should you go, watch through to the end of the credits. There are several front-loaded scenes and one at the end of the roll.

 

Veronica Mars (series 4)

[4 stars]

You just can’t keep a good detective down….or at least an obsessed one. We all thought the fan gift of the Veronica Mars movie was the end of the line for the intrepid investigator. But having left High School behind, Mars Investigations continues on in this engaging bridge season that maintains the wonderful noir sensibility of the original series, for all the good and bad that can bring.

The good is very much in the dialogue and twisty plot. Kristen Bell (How to be a Latin Lover) is as acerbic, witty, and broken as always. She and  Enrico Colantoni (Travelers) continue the father/daughter love and comedy in style. The return of Jason Dohring (iZombie) adds some character evolution and fun, while the addition of Izabela Vidovic (Wonder) provides some reflection on the once and future past.

And then there are the new characters bouncing around. Patton Oswalt (Nostalgia), Max Greenfield (What Men Want), J.K. Simmons (The Front Runner), not to mention the Pulp Fiction-esque Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Barry), Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos add plenty of pop to Neptune’s known residents.

Where it is weak is where it has always been weak. Procedural accuracy isn’t a top concern of noir, never has been. And Mars has always played loose with the rules and the realities for the sake of the mysteries. We trade that for the rest of the fun, though I’d really like to see what Rob Thomas could do with that added aspect. But all those aspects that may have brought you to Mars in the first place are still there, though admittedly not much more. But if you liked what came before, you’ll enjoy this latest expansion. And do make sure you watch the opening credits through the whole season for a subtle, small extra.

Breaking the Rule of Binge

I don’t, as a rule, binge watch programs. I like the episodic nature of stories. I like time to reflect and think on what has happened in a story and what may happen in the next installment. It’s an art to do it well and it’s satisfying as an experience for me. I know…I’m in the minority at this point.

Recently, however, I’ve been breaking my rule of no more than two episodes of a show per day due to some truly engaging writing. The first slip was for Jessica Jones‘s final series, and then shortly after for Stranger Things. The first because I had time, more than the structure, and the latter because of the cliff-hanger endings. But then came Russian Doll and Dark. Both seriously binge-worthy shows, though each for different reasons.

Russian Doll

I devoured this show in two sittings…and would have done it in one if I could have seen straight enough that first night. While the first episode wasn’t exactly giving me hope, there was something intriguing about it that brought me back. By the end of the second episode, I just couldn’t stop.

Groundhog Day, though not the first of its kind, is the de facto term for all repeating day stories. It is even a trope that has come back into vogue again with fun jaunts in many genre, like Happy Death Day. Russian Doll is yet another riff on this idea…and explained about as much any of them do, employing multiple references, including Felini. But who cares…that isn’t what the story is about. Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) knocks it out of the park with her gravelly-voiced, prickly NYC software designer.

Unsurprisingly, Russian Doll is already renewed (especially given its 11 Emmy nominations which were recently announced). My hope is that they don’t rush it, because even if they manage to expand on the story, like Happy Death Day 2U, I’d really like for them to do something as new and wonderful as their first round of this addictive and inventive tale.

Dark

Dark is wonderfully intriguing with interesting ideas and characters, and some great mysteries and events. But that isn’t why I ended up having to binge. It is simply one of the most brain hemorrhagingly complex stories I’ve every encountered…holding it all in your head requires watching it all close together. If you go more than a day without watching an episode, you’re going to need one of the many write-ups on the web (organized by family grouping or chronology).

Series one hooked me with it complexity and ended on a cliff-hanger where series two picks up.  This second chunk comes to a sort of conclusion, but opens up for the third series scheduled for next June (to coincide with the dates of the story). But my suggestion is that you watch the first two series back-to-back at a one or two a night clip…frankly, I don’t think the human brain can take more than that. If you can, power to you. Then, before watching the new stories, rewatch the series again so it’s fresh in your mind. Honestly, this thing needs visual aids, but it is delightfully and intricately structured…a true thing of beauty even if the story and characters aren’t.

22 Hot Zone Heroes, or More Streaming Fun

The Hot Zone
This is an old story given new, and surprisingly terrifying, life given we know the outcome and that Preston’s book is well over 20 years old. It is a little uneven in acting, though the issue is more casting than performance. While Julianna Margulies (The Upside) is solid as army research doctor, James D’Arcy (Survivor)  just didn’t work for me on multiple levels from his accent to his whiny nature. But that aside, the story is surprisingly gripping and the warning not a little unsettling.

Catch-22
The real question with this one was: How do you film the impossible book? Well, up till the end, apparently really well. This six-part look at the absurdity of war and humanity generally is funny (till it’s not) and gripping through till its final moments (when it isn’t). On screen, the reason for its success is unequivocally Christopher Abbott (First Man) in the main role of Yossarian/Yo-Yo. Without him, it all falls apart. Around him are a cadre of characters that are, basically, absurdist creations that remain all too connected to truth. On its own, this version of Heller’s classic has a point to make. But if you’ve read the book, you might find the finale more than a little frustrating, especially after having been teased along so expertly for the rest of the journey.

MARVEL ACROSS THE GENERATIONS
Marvel is everywhere and, it seems, represented on almost every major channel or streaming option. Hulu and Netflix have some of the most interesting offerings. And, between them, they reach out to a range of ages.

Jessica Jones (series 3)
Jessica Jones is, by far, the most adult of the range. Since its inception, Jones has been one of the most interesting characters. As a flawed, powerful anti-hero, she was instantly engaging, even when those around her weren’t. This finale to the series is worthy of her journey, even if it was somewhat cut short.

Cloak and Dagger (series 1 & 2)
This teen-oriented, but delightfully dark story of two teens tied together by happenstance is lots of fun and often shocking for the places it’s willing to go. It is much more fantasy than science fiction, leaning heavily on New Orleans hoo doo. But the show maintains its consistency and drags you along into its weird and wonderful world. It isn’t perfect, often dipping heavily into clichè, but Olivia Holt (Same Kind of Different as Me), Aubrey Joseph, and Emma Lahana (Haven) get to have a heck of journey over the first two seasons…and a lot of fun, sweat, and tears getting there.

Runaways (series 2)
Of all the Marvel shows, I was actually most interested in this one, till I got to see it. Mostly it had my attention because of the various writers of the comics over the years. But the result is something aimed to the tween audience (or younger) and rarely with any credibility. There is enough of a mystery to keep me semi-interested, but I grind my teeth way too often while trying. The writing is weak, the plotting forced, the characters willfully ignorant or just plain stupid, and the purposes just downright confusing at times. Ultimately I fell away halfway through the second season, though I may pick it up again to see how they resolve it all.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð)

[4 stars]

Whether you think of this as a tale of activism, environmentalism, or eco-terrorism, Woman at War will provide something to chew on. And, though you wouldn’t expect such a film to be a source of comedy while making its point, it manages to walk that line wonderfully as well.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Trapped) plays this as honest and driven, but never strident. As herself and her own twin, she explores many layers and pulls us along her journey. She is joined by a small cast to fill out the tale in and around Reykjavik. Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is the odd character out in a thankless but important role that is both comic relief and additional social commentary.

Director Benedikt Erlingsson put together a darkly amusing script with Trapped’s Ólafur Egilsson (and a few of its cast). It never loses track of its point, but manages to deal with it all without getting overly earnest. Even as it purposefully reflects other movies at points (Force Majeure comes to mind), it keeps the story just light enough to make itself heard.

Make time for this one…especially if you’ve been watching or reading any of the sagas coming out of Iceland of late.

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

[3.5 stars]

After Avengers: Endgame, we needed tale to help wrap up the fallout of the decades-long saga. In the past Ant-Man’s filled that role as a lighter coda to more intense events. But for the official end of Phase 3, we have the sequel to the relaunch of Spider-Man.

From the moment it opens with its first musical salvo, you begin to understand just how much the MCU is worth…and then the tone is quickly set as heavily tongue-in-cheek. Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming) returns as the affable, geeky, and not a little gawky teen. This story is, or should be, about him growing up, not to mention getting his feet back under him after losing his second (third?) father-figure and returning from the “blip.” (We won’t touch on the convenience that all the characters we knew around him from the previous story all blipped as well.)

What we get, instead, is a summer romp with a slightly dark edge. It has great moments, but doesn’t really pull together as a great movie, but I’ll get to that. Zendaya (Smallfoot), Marisa Tomei (Happy Accidents), and Jon Favreau (Solo: A Star Wars Story) are all back in the primary pivotal roles in Peter Parker’s life, not to mention as his private army of Deus Ex Machina.

Helping it along, Jacob Batalon and Angourie Rice (The Beguiled) return as comic relief along with Toni Revolori (Dope). The filmmakers still don’t know quite what to do with Revolori other than to use him as a convenient punching bag or plot point, as needed, but he gives it his all.

The biggest new addition to the story is Jake Gyllenhaal (Velvet Buzzsaw). Gyllenhaal is a solid fit for half the film…and then his performance goes a little wrong. And this is where the movie truly begins to falter, for all its clever plotting and ideas.

But to put this all in perspective, you have to remember that this isn’t really a Marvel outing; it’s a Sony/Marvel arrangement. And Sony, as feared when the contracts were struck, has started to take more control of the stories (at least that is my sense of it all). With the previous success of Homecoming and Venom, they feel they’ve got a handle on how to rebuild the franchise. They don’t.

Even though Jon Watts returned as director for this amusingly imperfect romp, and writing duo Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, fresh off Ant-Man and the Wasp and Jumanji, returned to write it, it felt rushed to screen and without an anchor to the 23 films around it except in the thinnest and most obvious of ways. It isn’t another Iron Man 2, but it also isn’t quite worthy of the Marvel logo. Ultimately, they didn’t quite know how to build on their world and into the Marvel universe this time even with the help of Samuel L. Jackson (Captain Marvel) and Cobie Smulders (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back). It is a little too easy, a little too surfacey, a little too devoid of consequences. Basically, it has no real heart, only a facsimile of one. As a coda, it is allowed to be more of an after-dinner treat, but there were serious themes that needed addressing. Of course, there also isn’t an explicit Phase 4 for them to plug into, which limited their opportunities for a lift from the greater net of the MCU.

The technical aspects of the film were also a little off from previous Marvel offerings. The IMAX was good, but the 3D was underwhelming and unnecessary, barely used to any impact. Even the special effects were, at times, pretty weak. Basically, after Endgame, I’d have expected more.

Do be warned, stay through the end of the credits. There are two tags to this story and both are essential. So don’t walk out before it is all done, however tempted you may be during the 14 minute roll. It gives us a hint of what’s to come, but I can’t say they were as encouraging as that first tag at the end of Iron Man for bringing us along into a new future. All it appears we have to look forward to is a loosely associated set of sequels and prequels with no overriding intelligence holding it together. That doesn’t mean there won’t be bright moments ahead, but it may be a long while before anyone tries to replicate the scope of the MCU Phases 1-3.