Tag Archives: Actor

Maggie’s Plan

[3 stars]

The story of Maggie’s Plan is an odd, modern look at romance and love which somehow manages a sense of the romantic and a jaundiced eye at the same time. It feels wholly unreal and utterly believable given the characters involved.

And it is the characters that make this very NY love story work, not to mention the cast that brought them to life. Ethan Hawke (Maudie) and Julianne Moore (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) are a cantankerous couple who are as much in love with one another as they are frustrated as they pursue careers and raise children. Similarly, Bill Hader (Power Rangers) and Maya Rudolph (Idiocracy) navigate those waters, with a different approach and somehow better results.

But is Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 20th Century Women) who pulls this all together and makes it work. There is something wholly engaging and magnetic about her as an actor, and this performance is no exception. She comes across like real person that has wandered onto the film set and somehow became part of the story.

Maggie’s plan is romantic at its heart, but not in the typical sense. But you can’t leave it without feeling like love is both real and possible. Whether you survive it or not is the bigger question.

Maggie

The Limehouse Golem

[4 stars]

Limehouse is a tense and complicated period mystery; a wonderful, precise, dark gem of a movie.

Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) leads this twisting tale with character-appropriate confidence and acting ability. By her side, Bill Nighy (Their Finest) pulls at the threads of his open case and imagines the possibilities in an effort to solve the murders and save the girl in 1880 London. Sprinkled within the fictional are real-life characters who were in the Limehouse at this time in history, which adds some sense of reality to the tapestry of the film world.

Central to the story in tale and geography is a music hall dominated by Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending). His character, even from the wings (as it were), is an overshadowing presence that has him driving the film in his own right, even getting the opening and closing frames. Additionally, Sam Reid (2:22), and María Valverde (Exodus: Gods and Kings) play integral, if slightly less layered roles.

Two smaller characters are given quiet life by Daniel Mays (Against the Law) and Eddie Marsan (Atomic Blonde). These two actors are always great at making the most of small moments and minimal dialogue, and this movie is no exception.

One of the best parts of this film is the script, which has a strong female lead and an unconventional narrative. Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) was on task to adapt this script from Peter Ackroyd’s book; the title of which is variously The Limehouse Golem, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (a reference to Booth’s character), and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (a reference to Cooke’s character). That it has existed with so many different titles gives you a sense of how much she had her work cut out for her. With Goldman’s history of delivering some of the most delightfully odd films of the last 20 years, she was a perfect choice to tackle this project. And director Juan Carlos Medina showed himself well with this Sophomore feature as it bounced between different themes, plots, and timelines.

Make time for this mystery. It will keep your brain going and engage you from the moment it begins. And while the surface story is wonderful, it is only one of the layers of this film, and only one of the ways to approach your understanding of the movie which is dense in meaning and language, making it eminently rewatchable.

The Limehouse Golem

The Cloverfield Paradox

[3 stars]

At the end of last year, Netflix stepped afield from original and purchased series programming and entered the big-budget feature game with Bright. It wasn’t an instant classic, but it was a shot across the bow of the current film distribution system and raised the bar in some ways for its pure streaming competitors.

This latest feature had a surprising trajectory that may remake the release landscape yet again. Bright was bought early in its inception  band guided by Netflix. In the case of Cloverfield, what was supposed to be a big theatrical release this April got picked up and near-instantly released by Netflix. Mind you, there are reasons it was available for such a purchase, but it speaks both to the power of the streaming giant and the new thinking of studios who are scared of losing money.

The movie itself, even with its flaws, is certainly on par with a lot of what hits the big screen; a low bar, I know. It parallels the Cloverfield universe, offering up (perhaps) some answers to where we left it off in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  And it tackles the story with the expected bad science fiction the series has embraced, and a great cast.

And the cast is probably one of the more surprising aspects of the story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Miss Sloane) drives this tale with incredible and complex (and occasionally questionable) emotional and intellectual strength. David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe), as well, brings a command and depth to his performance. Daniel Brühl (Burnt) is a bit forced, but commits to his part of the story. The same is true for Ziyi Zhang (The Grandmaster), Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), as well as the relatively unknown (in the US) Roger Davies. Chris O’Dowd (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) is the odd man out in the cast personality-wise. He works, but mostly as delightfully understated comic relief. He isn’t a particularly credible crew member, but then again, none of them are. The most abused by the bad aspects of the script was Aksel Hennie (The Martian), whose taciturn Russian was way too cookie-cutter.

As his second feature, director Julius Onah shows some solid promise controlling big stories. He built a good path in terms of energy and flow and elicited some real emotion in the middle of what is arguably just a horror film on the order of Event Horizon. The real weakness was Oren Uziel’s (Shimmer Lake) script, which had unrealistic characters as well as forced and unexplained plot trajectories and moments. Fun? Sure…and O’Dowd got to take the most advantage of that…but completely inconsistent in ways that just left too many questions rather than a sense of something happening. For all its absurdity, Life at least had their astronauts behave like astronauts and their creature obey some set of definable rules.

Netflix still doesn’t quite know how to produce a solid feature-length film, but they’re learning and getting to use some impressive name dropping to keep it going until they do. I’ve seen way (way) worse on the big screen over the last year, and this is a perfectly fun and distracting entertainment with a couple really good performances.

Ultimately, and not unsurprisingly, there are more Cloverfield stories to come. Overlord is due in October this year to continue the universe (or so it’s rumored). What dropping a critical installment of this sequence of films straight to streaming will do to the franchise will be an interesting story to follow.

The Book of Henry

[4 stars]

Henry was a rather divisive tale during its release, but I honestly don’t understand why. It is dark, yes, but on a clear trajectory from its outset and with an emotional intelligence that is rare in films, and even rarer in films driven by children.

Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), in the title role, is controlled but never forgets he is a child in a co-dependent relationship. Alongside him is the incredibly capable Jacob Tremblay (Wonder), who consciously takes a back seat in this film to his screen brother, but delivers a great performance nonetheless. In the third child role, Maddie Ziegler(Leap!) rides a very subtle line without ever overplaying her cards. Having three capable young actors driving a movie was a great surprise.

But this isn’t just a tale of the children. The adults around them have equally interesting paths to walk. Prime among them is Naomi Watts (The Glass Castle), who continues to be a conundrum for me. She is a very natural actor who never quite seems natural because she has such charisma and power on screen. This film manages to contain her relatively well, but it wavers at moments. Sarah Silverman (A Million Ways to Die in the West) is surprising as Watts’ best friend; funny, but in a dark and subtle way with a sad, but very real character. Finally, there are Dean Norris (Girlboss) and Lee Pace (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in critical, smaller roles. Both performances are quiet and full of implied layers which fill them out despite minimal screen time.

Colin Trevorrow has had an odd trajectory as director, going from the utterly delightful Safety Not Guaranteed to the overblown and absurd Jurassic Park and now a return to his more indie roots with Book of Henry. While Jurassic has made him a mint, it is clear that, left to his own devices, he can craft and control deeply emotional and complex tales. His execution of Gregg Hurwitz’s first feature script was done with real skill. It is oddly structured in ways that will keep surprising you as it subverts traditional plots.

I know this movie will not interest everyone; it somehow manages to credibly combine the sensibilities of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet and Florida Project and Gifted without a nod or a wink. It captures small-town life and the quiet corruption that can lie beneath, but it isn’t so jaded as to go sour. The performances are near flawless and the story is both timely and effective. In other words, for the right and receptive audience, it is a solid choice.

Side note: I don’t often do this, but I’d waited months to read the Esquire review of this film and feel compelled to link to it. Not because I agree with it all, but there are aspects that are interesting. There are also aspects that make it clear the reviewer wasn’t paying attention, so I have to discount the whole given how intricate the plot is; missing anything is to make it all shaky. Regardless, the reaction is typical of what I was seeing. Do be warned, he retells a lot of the plot, so I’d wait before you read it as I did.

The Book of Henry

Phantom Thread

[3.5 stars]

If you approach Phantom Thread at face value, as depicting simple reality, it is a somewhat diverting tale of artistic drive and obsession with beautiful production values. Frankly not that exciting and, at times, just bewildering in the relationships. However, if taken more as metaphor (think of it with the subtitle: The Story of a Muse and Her Boy ), it is a discussion of art and the artist and who owns who in that relationship.

Given the title, Phantom Thread, I have to think writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice) was going for something less prosaic than just sex and inspiration. In fact, there is no onscreen sex, though there is some implied. But all moments of intimacy lead to creation in this film. Much like The Post, the focus of shots is often not the people but rather the objects they are in service to. In this case that is the clothes. And, my oh my are there clothes! In the end, the drive to create, and the process involved, is powerfully driven home by the final scenes and revelations.

Daniel Day Lewis (Nine, Lincoln) gives another memorable performance as the couturier, Reynolds. A man recognizable as the head of any house of fashion but uniquely his own. Opposite him, Vicky Krieps (A Most Wanted Man) holds her own and often dominates the screen quietly and with subtle expressions. Their relationship never fully jumps off the screen, but it doesn’t have to. It isn’t about romance, it is about their give and take with one another; the battle for supremacy. It is all very Greek.

Around the two main characters are two wonderful supporting performances. Lesley Manville (River) as Reynold’s sister is a master of understated humor and control. And Harriet Sansom Harris, in a critical, but small role, is sadly hysterical; you both feel for this lost woman and laugh at her.

Phantom Thread isn’t going to resonate with a wide audience. It is a highly personal view of the creative impulse at the far edge of genius, something that most people just don’t think about. Making it manifest has been done before (in The Muse, for example, or Ruby Sparks), though never quite like this.

Perhaps I am being an apologist for a flawed romance story, but I don’t think so. If you are looking for something a bit more straightforward, you’ll likely be disappointed. If, however, you’re a fan of haute couture or Anderson himself or are fascinated by the root of creativity, you will enjoy this half-fantastical journey, not to mention a chance to see Lewis’s farewell performance (maybe) on screen.

Phantom Thread

The Post

[3 stars]

As I prepped for the Women’s March, and only a day after the current president launched The Fakies, making time for The Post seemed both a necessity and a wonderful warm-up for the cause. The Post is a phenomenally important movie and message. I’ll get to the rating later.

This is Meryl Streep’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) story, without question. It is that extra layer of her coming into her own that really makes the film. But, surprisingly, while Tom Hanks (Inferno) , may share the marquis with her, it is really her relationship with Tracy Letts (Lady Bird) that is the flash point for her evolution; and his character enjoys that moment immensely.

There are a slew of other solid performances as well. Bob Odenkirk (Hell and Back) and Bruce Greenwood (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), for instance. But it is Bradley Whitford (Get Out) that stood out for me. His weasley Arthur Parsons was a study, mostly, in subtlety and restraint as an actor. And, though the performance isn’t particularly noteworthy, Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name) makes his fourth appearance in a top film this year; we should all have such a good agent working on our behalf!

While Streep’s character rules the story, it is the papers and message that rule the plot. This is clear in the way the Speilberg (The BFG) directs the shots and provides focus, often following the papers rather than the people. His message and warnings are clear about where we are today and what we cannot ever allow to happen. And the final moments slam that home with almost embarrassing abandon.  But I have to tell you, we were all clapping come the final credits and when is the last time that happened in a movie for you? It wasn’t quite the hopeful rush that V for Vendetta brought to me during the W years, but, then again, this wasn’t a movie of hope, it was a call to arms.

All the import aside, it is only, really, a middling movie on its own. Much like Bridge of Spies, it feels somewhat sanitized. There is no grit and grime like, say, Roman J. Israel, Esq. had. It sometimes felt more like the memory of an era rather than the time itself. The beats, even if you don’t know the history, are all pretty predictable. The moments that stand out are the moments that show us Streep’s world and reality (and a couple will take the air out of your sails). But her transitions aren’t very crisp…you see them and know they happen, but I never saw the “moment” it clicked over only the moment before and after. Perhaps more of the blame belongs to fairly fresh writers Hannah and Singer, but it was still Spielberg’s to bring to life.

So yes, see it. You must. If not for the performances, for the reminder and for the energy to act. It is most certainly not a waste of your time even if it isn’t the instant classic of The Paper Chase (which would make a great double feature).

See you at the March, I hope…

The Post

Battle of the Sexes

[3 stars]

Another timely biopic, handled with honesty and consummate ability by the main actors, Emma Stone (La La Land) and Steve Carell (Cafe Society, Despicable Me). Though neither actor looks quite like their real-life counterpart, both make you forget they aren’t the real Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs through subtle facial moves, posture, and vocal control. At times it is eerie.

Additional characters help provide story vector or commentary. Jessica McNamee (Sirens) as Margaret Court is an uncomfortable bridge from the past into the film’s present while Bill Pullman (The Equalizer) is a nasty depiction of the thoughts of the times. As a fun side-note, and probably most out of place in this movie, is Alan Cumming (queers.). But it’s Alan Cumming, so I really didn’t care that it felt just a bit shimmed in; he’s too much fun.

Two of the most thankless roles in this recounting are the spouses of King and Riggs. Austin Stowell (Colossal) and Elisabeth Shue (Hope Springs), respectively, are quiet pillars in the storm of their relationships, understanding who they were married to and finding ways to deal with that. And then there is Andrea Riseborough’s (Birdman) character, who wants to be part of the support, but who struggles to understand what is really going on. This collective of people is part of what sets this story apart. None are quite what you expect either in word or action. Writer Simon Beaufoy (Everest) did his most subtle work around these characters and helped make it feel even more real.

Interestingly, this was co-directed by wife/husband power team  Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Ruby Sparks, Little Miss Sunshine) which probably helped keep the sensibilities all in line, though their particular leaning is clear. The result is both humorous and enlightening. The film is certainly a cure for thinking we’ve made no progress in the last 40 years, as well as a reminder of how much more there still is to do, even after all this time and all that effort.

Aside: Just this morning (18 January 2018) Novak Djokovic put forward the idea of paying men more because they currently have higher TV ratings, and Martina Navratilova speaks out against it…just in case you thought this was purely historical: http://www.bbc.com/sport/tennis/42729296.

Battle of the Sexes

Roman J. Israel, Esq

[3.5 stars]

When writer/director Dan Gilroy isn’t focused on blockbuster fare (Kong: Skull Island), he likes to tackle tougher stories, like his highly acclaimed Nightcrawler. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is definitely more in the Nightcrawler arena of social commentary and challenging characters. There is something both wonderful and depressing about the film. It is loaded both with a sense of possibility and a crushing weight of injustice and history. And like Molly’s Game, taking it at a surface level misses the intent.

This is also not your typical Denzel Washington (Fences, Equalizer) movie or part. He is a man out of sync with time, and at odds with himself and the world, in a way that feels broken. We get that from everything Israel does, from his clothes, to his music, to his electronics. Making Israel feel like a time traveler in our world is a wonderful conceit to bring home the movie’s points. Despite being either a savant and/or on the Asperger’s scale, he isn’t an incapable character. Roman is simply so wrapped in his own world and needs, and has been so insulated or trapped over decades, that his understanding of the politics and culture of “now” doesn’t seem to apply anymore. We understand and expect his way of thinking to be right…but are as frustrated as he is when it keeps breaking on the shoals of reality.

Though across a fairly big scope, the movie is very tightly focused on Israel and two other characters. Carmen Ejogo (It Comes at Night) and Colin Farrell (The Beguiled) are Israel’s opportunity to reach across the gulf of time to replant the original seeds of purpose. Pompous as that sounds, the intent of this film really feels more about the loss of the roots of activism, the drift from pure intentions with clear goals, into something fractured and diminished in reach.

It isn’t an easy story, but it is subtle and timely. Fighting is exhausting. Anyone who has been pushing back against the shift in this country (and the world) for the last year has been reminded of that. It is tempting to give up, in fact if you’ve done it long enough, you feel entitled to give up. But you cannot. The fight for justice and fairness never ends. It becomes a literal piece of baggage that must be handed off from one person to another, one generation to another. Even if the face of constant defeat, you have to fight on so that, at some point, someone will succeed. And then you move on to the next fight. Freedom must constantly be defended.  In fact, this movie would make an intriguing companion piece to 13th, Selma, or even I Am Not Your Negro, for an interesting evening or three.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. exposes some realities that you may not really want to hear or may not even agree with. It isn’t an easy story to watch, but it is acted well and delivered with conviction. It’s message reveals itself over the length of the movie. It is a message that, at least for me, ended with a real sense of possibility and energy. And that is a welcome boost as we turn the corner into 2018 and, among other things, come up to the second Women’s March in a couple weeks.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Call Me By Your Name

[3 stars]

I very much wanted to like this movie more. It is from the directorial hands of Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash), who has a wonderful sense of humanity and a love of Italy, food, and all things sensual. It has some great actors, including two who have the incredible fortune to each be in more than one of the top talked-about films of the year. Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water) and Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird) must be thanking whatever gods they pray too for their luck. Chalamet even has one more to go this awards season: Hostiles.

Most of the acting in this movie is very solid. Stuhlbarg is a quiet force on screen. He hangs mostly in the background orchestrating and bridging the action. And Armie Hammer (Free Fire), though subtle in a very different way, was particularly effective. His is a role that takes some acceptance, but it is both provocative and painful to watch.

Unfortunately, in the lead role, I found Chalamet less compelling. He is alternately believable and not, at least for me. I think where it failed me was in Ivory’s (Maurice) script. There is a surety and a bravado to both men that feels right for Hammer, but wrong for the younger Chalamet. I never understood who Chalamet was before Hammer showed up. I don’t get the sense of a young man coming to terms with himself or even feeling the depths of emotion that he claims…at least not till the end. The entire success of the film really all comes down to the last two scenes, but to get there you have to navigate close to two hours of rather uneven story.

Ultimately, this just isn’t the solid journey of Guadagnino’s other work. As beautifully filmed and subtly directed as it is, Guadagnino struggled with the shape of the tale. The pieces and steps getting from point A to point B are full of gaps. His choices and use of music were also jarring and, frankly, artistically confusing given the opening credits and setup.

And, oddly, the story is also massively untouched by the AIDS crisis, which was sweeping world culture by 1983 (yes, yet another story from the 80s, but that’s a different conversation). Even if Chalamet’s family was slow to hear about the crisis (doubtful in an academic family), Hammer was coming from America where things were becoming truly horrific. Admittedly the story isn’t about that; it is an internal tale of first love and growing up, but it did strike me as a missing eddy in the choices being made. Given that the source book was written far enough after the years of the setting for there to be perspective, it is disappointing.

And now I’m sounding like I disliked the film, which I did not. I was rather taken with it on a moment-by-moment basis. It was the whole that didn’t quite gel for me. I can see why it resonates for many people. The story transcends any particular sexuality. It is about the emotions and realities of modern life in a global world. It is, most importantly, about feeling and embracing life, regardless of where it takes you.

So, yes, see Call Me By Your Name. You will be hearing a lot more about the movie through awards season, so you might as well educate yourself in it so you can make up your own mind. You may well disagree with me on the character journeys. I can only bring my own perspective to the experience, you will have yours. You won’t be sorry you invested the time, but you’ll likely have to consider the hype and final result on your own.

Call Me by Your Name

The Darkest Hour

[3.5 stars]

And now, as they say, for a bit of context. In the role of a lifetime, Gary Oldman (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) portrays Winston Churchill… no, belay that, he disappears into Churchill in a brilliant performance that follows Churchill’s installation as PM and lead-up to the evacuation at Dunkirk. It is a fascinating inside look at political cravenness, beaten down morale, and true patriotism. Actually rather a good mirror for today as well. Much of what Nolan leaves out of his movie is in this one. Together, you get a much better understanding of the situation and the desperation. What is mere exposition in Dunkirk becomes very real in The Darkest Hour.

Outside of Oldman, this film is really carried by only two other characters. Kristin Scott Thomas (My Old Lady) as Churchill’s wife and Lily James (Baby Driver) as his assistant provide Churchill’s conscience and connection back to humanity. And both relationships are funny and very real.

Coming off his disastrous Pan, Joe Wright acquits himself well with this latest film. His direction of Oldman alone will get him a lot of cred going forward. On the other hand, Anthony McCarten’s script isn’t quite as strong as his previous biopic offering, Theory of Everything. It is interestingly balanced to show Churchill’s transformation in the eyes of Parliament, and perhaps within himself, but the path isn’t quite as credible. The result makes the film a little uneven. While Oldman, Thomas, and James capture your heart and attention, the structure of the story and the flow to the end aren’t equally as strong. After a promising start, it drops the countdown conceit and fractures into too many storylines. Churchill’s transformation near the end is wonderful but also a tad abrupt. The critical scene itself is not based on any verifiable event, but is drawn and created from the historical record of Churchill’s actions as PM; but you so want it to be true. It is that emotional response that is part of the timeliness and impact of the movie.

But these are all minor details compared to the performance by Oldman. It is a must see portrayal. Oldman’s transformation is so complete it is jaw-dropping. And the film is still solid and interesting both as an historical and as a dark mirror into current politics and humanity.

Darkest Hour