Tag Archives: Actor

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…

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

Nomadland

[3 stars]

Nomadland asks two fairly simple questions: What is home? What is family? The answers, as we all know, aren’t that simple. Director and writer Chloé Zhao tackles the concepts in a quiet, but compelling exhibition that is primarily populated by real Nomads. The result has garnered a mountain of praise and awards notice.

Holding the various talking head segments together is Frances McDormand (Isle of Dogs), whose journey into the nomad life is told with barely an initial explanation. With David Strathairn (Fast Color) as a catalyst, we watch McDormand struggle inwardly until near the end when details are expressed. Though, to be fair, most of those are already understood by the audience, just not by her character.

For all its lauds, and its craft at pulling you along, Nomadland isn’t as good a film as I was expecting. I think McDormand has had better and more challenging roles. Strathairn is a somewhat unfinished and empty character. The stories and ideas we hear are interesting, but they feel like a documentary invaded the story-telling. Somehow it does come together, but it is best to watch this with no expectations, despite the hype that has been building around it over the last year. You’ll find it satisfying, but for a two hour narrative I think Zhao could have been more focused in her script.

Nomadland Poster

The Way Back

[3 stars]

Everything you need to know about this story is in the title, though that meaning is certainly multi-layered. And while sports may drive this tale of redemption, it isn’t the point. But, to its credit, Brad Ingelsby’s (Out of the Furnace) script slowly gives up its secrets and resolutions in ways that feel satisfying and gripping. And Ben Affleck (The Town) delivers a performance that is quietly painful and raw without ever becoming so weighty as to be unwatchable.

While Affleck is the absolutely center of this story, director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant) marshalled a number of nuanced performances around him to blunt the tight focus. Among them, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar (Blindspotting), and Michaela Watkins (How to be a Latin Lover) stand out for their complex impact, though there are many others as well.

I have to admit, I wasn’t overly enthused about sitting down for this one. Affleck is a hit and miss actor for me. Basketball is not something I spend any time caring about. The world feels depressing enough these days without having to journey through someone else’s darkness. But all of those concerns lifted very quickly as the story unspooled. The performances are all very good and the story isn’t a disaster, though it is certainly upsetting at times. But it also feels very honest and assailable, keeping it from ever being crushed under its own weight. It’s definitely one of Affleck’s better performances and a number of the younger actors have some good screen time as well.

The Way Back 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.

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

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.

The Flight Attendant

[3 stars]

Watching trainwrecks is not something that typically entertains me. Self-destruction is neither funny nor darkly fascinating. So I went into Flight Attendant with a huge deal of caution and concern because Kaley Cuoco’s (Authors Anonymous) flight attendant is the embodiment of self-destruction. So why did I stick with it? Because it’s apparent that there are reasons for her actions (which we slowly get to learn) and because the show sets up a series of nice mysteries and suspense to carry you along. In other words the self-destruction is a symptom of a bigger, human story, not the focus of humor, derision, or weird life lesson in and of itself.

Cuoco is also surrounded by some fabulous talent who keep the series going. Michael Huisman (The Age of Adaline), Zosia Mamet (Girls), Michelle Gomez (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Doctor Who), T.R. Knight (Grey’s Anatomy), Rosie Perez (Birds of Prey), and Merle Dandridge (Greenleaf) are chief among them, though there are many more over the 9 episodes.

This series could have been an episode or two shorter and been the better for it, in my opinion. The ongoing trainwreck of Cuoco’s character gets repetitive and loses sympathy as it continues on past bottom. And, frankly, some of the surprises just… aren’t. But the ride is highly bingeable, and the interactions and humanity of it all are surprising. But you do have to strap yourself in for a crazy ride full of mystery, sex, violence, and a mountain of bad choices. And, ultimately, it’s set up nicely for a new season with entirely different parameters.

The Flight Attendant 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