Tag Archives: 5stars

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday Poster

The Father

[4.5 stars]

Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable and storied. Olivia Williams (Maps to the Stars), Mark Gatiss (Locked Down), Rufus Sewell (The Pale Horse), and Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) perform a wonderfully seamless dance filling out the story.

This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.

My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.

The Father Poster

Promising Young Woman

[4.5 stars]

Some movies just sucker punch you because you’ve no idea what to expect. In terms of quality, this one’s right up there with Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Palm Springs…among the best this season.

Even more impressive is that this is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) first feature; she’s better known for her acting chops. But Promising Young Woman makes an impressive application of all she’s learned over the years in front of the camera.

And then there is the woman at the center of the on-screen story, Carrie Mulligan (Collateral).  She flattens you with her powerful performance and shoulders the film on screen with her charisma, intelligence, and sense of humor. From the moment she appears you can’t take your eyes off of her. And once you understand her, you can’t help but cheer her on and not turn away.

There are some nice supporting roles by Lavern Cox (Orange is the New Black), Clancy Brown, Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), and Alison Brie (Happiest Season). But this story is utterly through Mulligan’s eyes and perspective by necessity, and she carries it off.

The movie does have its weak moments, but they’re few. One aspect is around some of the soundtrack, which goes just a bit overboard at times, not trusting the actors and situation to make the point. The other is around some transitional moments that are less than smooth. But in the face of the rest of the film, I forgive them all.

Promising Young Woman grabs you by the soft bits and drags you through to the end. And it manages to remain triumphant despite the subject and the situations. It is sure to generate controversy and contemplation for the actions and probably even leave a few in the dust as to the title. But that’s all part of the point. Make time for this one, both for the central performance and the story itself. Despite the weird festival season, it’s been making itself heard, and I expect that to continue through the majors over the next few months.

Promising Young Woman Poster

Soul

[4.5 stars]

Just wow. Not only is this a beautifully drawn and designed film, it’s a clever and engaging animated tale that will entertain young and old alike. In fact, the only reason I couldn’t give this a straight-up 5 stars was because of some of the minor bits that were there for laughs alone for the youngsters and small flaws that made no real-world sense. Otherwise, this is an instant classic and will bear up under rewatching for years to come.

The vocal duelling between Jamie Foxx (Project Power) and Tina Fey (Admission) is wonderfully entertaining and amusingly animated (literally and figuratively). Add the dry fun of Richard Ayoade (The Boxtrolls), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times), and Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) and you’ve an incredible pallet of humor to bounce off of. A host of smaller roles are given life by talented names as well. And then there’s the jazz arrangements and playing under the guidance of Jon Batiste.

Peter Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) co-directed and, with an assist by Mike Jones, co-wrote the script. It is a masterful piece of wry wit and honest reflection on life. There’s no point in describing more of it because you should just experience it, whether now or later. It’s a pity this one didn’t see the large screen, but it certainly entertains like it should and doesn’t disappoint.

Soul Poster

Enola Holmes

[4.5 stars]

Was there ever any doubt that Millie Bobby Brown (Godzilla: King of Monsters) had the chops to carry a movie? And what a wonderful vehicle she has found. Not only does she own the screen with her charisma and chops, but her character drives the tale, pushing her brothers Mycroft and Sherlock to the periphery, making it a decidedly female-driven story.

Sam Claflin (Charlie’s Angels) is a perfectly uptight Mycroft, while Henry Cavill (Witcher) is the thoroughly self-absorbed, but surprisingly available Sherlock. Throw in Helena Bonham Carter (Ocean’s 8) as their rather unique mum, and you’ve a family to be reckoned with…and likely a good salary for a mental health professional. But all their performances are tightly controlled under Fleabag  director Harry Bradbeer’s entirely capable hands.

Despite these lofty names in her family, the story really focuses more on her adventures with the young Louis Partridge; Enola’s master-in-distress. The story manages to both lean into and avoid the young love tropes without making it insulting to either of them. And with Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim: Uprising) constantly at their heels to push along the danger, there are adventures to be had.

The cast is also chock full of other great talents to help buoy the film. Adeel Akhtar (Murder Mystery), Susan Wokoma (Crazyhead), Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve), and Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van) help fill out the film with known and unknown characters from the Holmesian universe.

But it isn’t just all fun and games (afoot). Enola Holmes is a timely flick, in more than one way…and the fun is watching all that play out. The adaptation from Nancy Springer’s series by Jack Thorne (Radioactive) is wonderfully on point for current needs. And the result is also an example of what Netflix can find when it really tries, though it’s a shame this never saw the big screen. I think this film could have found an audience. Certainly the cinematography was with the larger format in mind, though it plays perfectly well on a home setup.

Make time for this one, whether you’ve a young woman at home with you or not. It’s fun, wry, sly, and full of adventure; perfect for a light escape that won’t insult your intelligence. And to see Brown beginning to come into her own just adds to the icing on this slightly savory confection.

All In: The Fight for Democracy

[5 stars]

The single, most important film this year so far. Whether you grew up during these fights or not. Whether you think you know all about it or not. Whether you want to hear the message or not:

See it. Get Angry. Vote.

Learn from it. Hear it. Vote.

Basically: VOTE

In case it isn’t obvious,  directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, with the help of Jack Youngelson’s script, created a compelling presentation of Stacey Abrams gubernatorial run, while providing a historical and contextual framework for the history of voting in America. It’s a call to action that cannot be denied.

Honestly, I wept and gritted my teeth openly…and I knew most of it going in.

Dark (series 3 – finale)

[5 stars]

I’ve been talking up Dark for a while now. And having rewatched it from front to back again, I plan on continuing.

The series starts as a fairly standard mystery and then rapidly evolves. By episode 1.3 you have some sense of the complexity. By the end of the first series your brain is likely bleeding. In the second series it only gets more complex and convoluted and yet…. either it was all planned brilliantly or retcon’d seamlessly because on every major point it holds together. There are some minor bits and pieces that are left hanging or glossed (and yes, I look at you episode 2.4). And I admit there is one choice in the series 2 finale that makes me grind my teeth as it wasn’t necessary for plot, but simply contrived to get a visual and then they got stuck with it. Then, at the end of series 2, you’ve taken a hard left turn.

But the big events, the important confluences, all work as one.

And here we are at the completion of the tale, series 3; it makes the first two runs look simple…in fact, the penultimate episode left me exhausted. More importantly, the finale brings it all together in a fair way, given the story that’s been laid out before us–the clues are all there. Even the title finally gets an explanation.

Ultimately, this is one of the best attempts to both philosophically attack and support a deterministic universe. There are characters on both sides fighting to defend and break it. And not a one of them is telling the truth. We know that early on, but never actually find solid ground till the end, when their intentions are truly revealed. Sure the science is, at best, fantastical at times, but not all of it. Some is well-established theory, and the mix of the two allows you to swallow the conceits in full; even when they get it horribly wrong.

One of the aspects that makes this series work is their, mostly, amazing casting. Only This is Us has come close to the need and quality of finding actors to portray characters at different ages. And, honestly, Dark has done it better. Some of the actors you will swear are the same person, just aged. It helps tremendously with keeping track of the story and the credibility of the plot. They also weren’t afraid to try new ways to work with the audience visually. Each series experiments with new visual cues and approaches to help you navigate the insanity. Series 3 even uses more than one approach over the eight episodes.

Dark lives comfortably with some of the great time-travel tales of the last few decades, including Timecrimes, Primer, Edge of Tomorrow, Predestination, Doctor Who (Blink), Looper, Safety Not GuaranteedWatchmen, The Magicians (ep 5.6: Oops..I did it Again), Babylon 5, and even (despite its flaws) Terminator: Genisys. If you haven’t tackled it yet, make the time…and watch it from start to finish in a straight go (no more than two episodes a night). There are so many subtle and wonderful moments and echos that will get missed if you stretch it out too long.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

[4.5 stars]

City of Angels is a richly appointed and complex tale of murder, espionage, love, and religious devotion (as well as religious hypocrisy), with a good helping of prejudice and capitalism thrown in.  It is also topical and historically well done, resulting in a beautiful and brutal series.

Natalie Dormer (Patient Zero) is a revelation in 3 of the 4 characters (she really can’t pull of the white Mexican well). It is obvious why she took the role. Likewise Nathan Lane (Carrie Pilby), who gets to play to all his strengths from wry humor to deep pathos. Bouncing between them is Daniel Zovatto (Lady Bird), who serves as the main spine for the series. From the opening scene, he is the man in the balance trapped between outcomes. But until the moments, he is stuck in the gray. We watch him struggle to be part of some world, any world, where he fits and can live with the choices. And it is a compelling tension.

A number of driving roles keep it all moving as well. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years), in particular, has a many layered story to navigate. Through him we see duality in detail: humanity and the inhumane. It is done without any nod and wink, nor any apology. And Michael Gladis (Extant) provides a suitably vile and craven political climber in a world that he wants to crush before it crushes him. Even Zovatto’s screen brother, Johnathan Nieves (See You Yesterday), brings in a set of layers born of hopelessness and anger. It’s a little one-note, but it doesn’t lack credibility even when his ultimate choices are a little forced. There are some nice treats along the way too, like Patty Lupone (Last Christmas) in concert and Brian Dennehy’s (The Seagull) final effort before his passing in April (though he may have other footage still to come in a couple projects).

This time in LA, the lead-up to WWII, has been often visited, but rarely with the kind of scope this series pulls off. Usually you get hyper-focused stories, like Zoot Suit, or Chinatown, or any number of mystery/suspense/noir stories that pull apart the high and low of society, or the gay and straight. City of Angels navigates all of these aspects, and then some. And it does so in a way that makes sense and shows the connecting threads. For that alone, it is worth seeing.

However, while I loved seeing a different take on the era, I have to admit that I was also somewhat upset that it removed primary responsibility for the horrors from the humans. Dormer’s character, as the sweet-tongued devil in many guises, becomes the main impetus for all the action. She really does much more than talk to make it all happen, which is where the trouble lies.

In addition, there is a challenge with the plot decisions that bothered me. While the presentation of how LGBTQ people were treated and viewed in the era is relatively, sadly accurate, the series also has no LGBTQ character who isn’t, for lack of a better word, evil. Not just tragic, but actively doing wrong. That feels a shame in a story as big as this and one that has so many levels of detail. And particularly wrong during Pride Month. It isn’t that the characters aren’t human, they just all feel irredeemable.

But, ultimately, this show is so on target for the current situation across the country, the awakening and mobilization of frustration and anger, that it’s uncanny and upsetting. All in an intentional way. City of Angels marks a brick in the path that leads to its own historical volatile times, but it is also a reflection of the powder keg that is today. It insists we look not only at the past but at how we want to navigate the future. And it also forces us to admit the perils of not paying attention to those lessons. Despite its slightly rushed wrap-up and some of the dangling threads, this is a definite must-see for our times and, should these times move on, a must-see for the historic scope and lessons of the past; and yes it’s entertaining as well.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

V for Vendetta (redux x)

[4.5 stars]

Still relevant…and increasingly prescient.

I’ve seen this film a dozen times or more. It never fails to amaze and recharge me. It provided me hope and entertainment when it first came out and, in the midst of the horrors of what has happened over the last few years, it provides me some glimmer of hope now.

But, I admit, this rewatch was particularly spooky; pandemics, economic crisis, social unrest, and authoritarian governments out of control all map eerily to today (even the death counts). With the nationwide marches rising up,  it is even more on point. However, this is a movie about taking back power and making government again afraid of its people, not the other way around. It’s a message we all need to hear and believe right now.

Hugo Weaving (Mortal Engines) delivers that message with an amazingly subtle performance, and without ever once showing his face. Natalie Portman (Vox Lux), as the unexpected heroine, was divisive in the role, but some of that was the foreshortened story in the Wachowski’s (Sense8) adaptation. The film is also loaded with UK talent: Stephen Rea (Greta), John Hurt (Jackie), Stephen Fry (The Hippopotamus), Rupert Graves (War of the Worlds), Roger Allam (Endeavour), Sinéad Cusack (Marcella), and Tim Pigott-Smith (Victoria & Abdul).

I recognize it isn’t a perfect movie (particularly regarding its lack of diversity). However, if you need an escape and a boost, it’s hard to beat this movie and its message as the delivery method. The end still practically brings me to my feet shouting in joy and with tears in my eyes as it did the first time. And, just let me say, I’d love to see one of our internet billionaires make the ending of this flick come true…that could be an amazing use of some of their windfall, and a way to unite a splintered populace.

V for Vendetta

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

[4.5 stars]

In her follow-up to Nannette, Gadsby once-again defies tradition and description. It isn’t quite the power-blast of Nannette, but it is a brilliantly structured piece of comedy. She starts exactly where she needs to and drags you laughing through to the end, pulling everything together as she does.

Whether or not you liked Nannette, you should see Douglas. It has its serious comments, but it is very much a comedy special put together with deft hands and a wickedly sharp mind.

[But if you haven’t seen Nannette as well, you should. It is a different animal, but it is a brilliantly, near-perfect, piece of stage craft.  It isn’t comedy, per se, but it is funny, and cathartic, and a wonder to behold]

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas