Tag Archives: Actor

The Magnificent Ambersons

[3 stars]

Going back to find classics you missed can be exciting and enlightening. Sometimes it is just surprising. Ambersons is truly an odd fish from Orson Wells. While based on Tarkington’s book of the same title, I think it would have been better expressed as The Comical Tragedy of the Ambersons, but perhaps the irony is built into the original title, it just wasn’t quite there for me.

This tale of the rise of Industrialized America crossed with the extreme universal tale of the spoiled child, is somehow weirdly timeless and utterly appropriate for today. And despite that, it is also dated and arch, making it as much a piece of fragile glass as a moving picture; the tale is purposefully broad in its telling. It is, however, full of Wells’s trademark camerawork and his dry sense of humor.

Constant Wells colleague Joseph Cotten is very much at the center of the movie, though he is technically on the side of the plot and focus. Tim Holt as Dolores Costello’s spoiled son is a frustratingly selfish SOB that it is hard to want to watch, but fortunately he is supposed to be so. And Agnes Moorehead, as his spinster Aunt, is so over-the-top as to be absurd at times, and tragic at others. The best showing, however is by Anne Baxter in one of her earliest roles. She is charismatic and alive in an otherwise rather stodgy framework of people around her.

Ambersons isn’t a great film. As a story it is hard to digest and the characters beg to be slapped silly until they see sense. But there is something compelling about how it is told. Wells never lost sight of the humor, dark as it got, even if he didn’t quite manage to pay off the final act. Regardless, as a piece of film and Hollywood history, it is a nice piece to slot in when you have an afternoon or evening.

The Magnificent Ambersons

queers.

[4 stars]

A truly wonderful and surprising collection of eight, 20-minute monologues commissioned to celebrate the the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the first official step in England to decriminalize homosexuality. Each monologue tackles a different decade from 1917 up through the present. Cleverly, they do not progress in chronological order, but rather bounce from from 1917 to 1994 to 1987, 1957, 1967, 1941, 1929, and finally 2016.

The effect is one of historical context for each of the eras providing heartfelt stories without making it feel like a history lesson. And the finale, in 2016, works as commentary overall, though only through the reflection of the rest of the pieces. I laughed and cried often through the sequence thanks to mostly wonderful writing and great performances.

Originally performed at the Old Vic, these were also adapted and recorded for the BBC. The monologues succeed on different levels, some being much better than others. But each monologue captures its decade in poignant ways and every one is a frank conversation of the joys, fears, and dreams of the speaker of that time.

Driven by Mark Gatiss (Denial, Doctor Who), who also was one of the writers, the production collected up some solid talent to deliver the stories: Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), Rebecca Front (Humans), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Kadiff Kirwan (Chewing Gum), Russell Tovey (The Night Manager), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Ben Whishaw (Lilting)and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). If nothing else, it is a 2.6 hour acting and scripting class.

Make time for these if you get the chance. It is almost entirely focused on the gay experience rather than the lesbian or otherly identified, but the sense of otherness, the sense of triumph, the sense of love and need is universal.

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Jack

[2.5 stars]

This isn’t a great film. It has odd pacing, is a clumsy adaptation, and doesn’t earn its ending. It is worth seeing, but that has more to do with the cast than the execution.

This is one of Anton Yelchin’s (Rememory) earliest roles. He leads this story about family and divorce from a young teen’s point of view. Even at 14 he could drive a film and deliver a tightly contained character with storms of emotion going on under the skin. His trademark approach of understated presentation is in full bloom, and he holds his own with much more experienced co-stars Ron Silver and Stockard Channing.

There is a spooky quality to this tale as well, given Yelchin’s untimely death. Silver, as well, is no longer around. The Jack character speaks a great deal about life and growing up. You cannot help but bounce that off the reality of the actors’ deaths.

As to the story itself, it is timely, but nothing you haven’t seen before. Though it was a Showtime flick, it doesn’t really have that TV movie neutering, which is a plus. That is likely thanks to director Lee Rose, who has extensive credits in TV, but on the edgier side of that platform. The real weakness is Holmes self adaptation of her own book and not wanting to let go of the format to get to the message.

Save this for an open slot in your schedule when you want to be a bit more complete in your Yelchin trivia (or Silver or Channing, for that matter). Expect to be engaged, but I don’t expect it will end up on anyone’s top film list. Also, be warned that at least my copy of the disc started to fall out of audio sync starting about half way through. It wasn’t unwatchable, but it did get distracting and no amount of stop and start seemed to fully rectify the issue.

Jack

Happy Accidents

[3.5 stars]

One of the joys of this film is that it plays directly into the need for love to matter. Yes, I’ve already admitted I’m a hopeless romantic, so that is going to play well for me. Also, it has a great deal of sadly accurate fun with NYC dating and living.

Marissa Tomei (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Emerald City) make the unlikeliest of pairs, but they make it work. You believe in the ineffable attraction and the unbridled passion that drives the two of them together, even if you don’t understand it. Both players have complicated histories and manage that rough hulled vulnerability that they are known for.

There are some great supporting roles as well. Holland Taylor (D.E.B.S.) does something just a bit different for her typical characters. And Nadia Dajani gets to do a bit more than here typical TV supporting roles. But, as Tomei’s mother, it was Tovah Feldshuh who really got to make an impact, with very little screen time; she is a wonderful study in restraint.

Writer/director Brad Anderson (The Call) is no stranger to the odd. His previous Next Stop Wonderland and The Machinist each have elements you can see him developing further with this offering. While Anderson spends most of his time on TV projects, his screen projects always seem to hit a decent mark. He loves his characters, which saves them, or at least redeems them in some way, for us regardless of their circumstances.

Happy Accidents is one of those curl-up-on-the-couch films with someone to enjoy the ride and message. It isn’t a simple and easy romance, but it has its impact and some good performances from actors earlier in their careers. It also gives you a chance to see a new and different facet of Anderson’s work.

Happy Accidents

Against the Law

[3 stars]

It is sometimes hard to remember how much the world has changed in the last 60 years. Despite recent setbacks, in general the world and humanity have matured as the distance and time between global points has diminished, and become more accepting of those around them. The sense of “otherness” is becoming common place rather than exotic. To survive, we have realized that we must embrace those around us rather than fight or feeling threatened. Hey, I did say “in general.”

But back as recently as the 1950’s, homosexuality was still a crime in most of the world, punishable by prison. Peter Wildeblood, a London journalist in that era, was caught up in the hypocrisy of his time and was part of the infamous Lord Montagu of Beaulieu trial.  Alongside Alan Turing, one of the other notable attacks on so-called inverts at the time.

Wildeblood, in this portrayal, is given life by Daniel Mays (Byzantium). He is the story, though he has some nice support from those around him. And, inter-cut into the movie are interviews with men from the era who recount their experiences and reactions. It is an interesting counterpoint but it does make the rest feel a bit more clinical than emotional, despite a rousing conclusion to the film as it comes into the present.

After prison, Wildeblood fought in the only way he knew how, by writing about his life, the trial, and declaring himself to the world and, specifically, to the Wolfenden committee. The committee ultimately declared “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.”

While this seemingly groundbreaking report was delivered on 4 Sept, 1957, it would be almost 10 years before the laws in Britain would begin to change. On 27 July, 1967, homosexuality between consenting adults of 21 years or older was decriminalized. And it wouldn’t be until 1994 that the law was brought into full parity with non-homosexual relationships and the age of consent dropped to age 16.  There is a wonderful overview of of non-conforming individuals in a series of monologues produced by Mark Gatiss (Denial) also in this film, called “queers.” which I highly recommend; writer Writer Brian Fillis (An Englishman in New York ) also wrote one of the monologues in queers.

Against the Law is an effective, if not entirely a solid film. Its intention is to educate and remind. On those counts it does admirably. And Mays provides a sympathetic focus, though a somewhat stunted arc as a character due to the structure. Still, I can recommend this based on his performance and the impact of the included interviews.

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The Hero

[3 stars]

Sam Elliot (Grandma) is a fixture of the last many (many) decades, probably much to his joy and chagrin. There is more than a little of him in this quiet rumination that uses film and celebrity as metaphors for life. And he is, as always, a quiet force on screen in that commanding way and with his signature deep, rumbling voice.

While this is very much a movie centered on a man, there are two notable female performances. Laura Prepon (The Girl on the Train) actually manages to steal scenes from Elliott by force of charisma alone. She has always been an intense personality and this is no exception. And, as always, she uses her chops and ability to deliver a complex character, even if there is little there to work from. Along with Prepon was a surprisingly vulnerable turn by Krysten Ritter that couldn’t be farther from her breakout Jessica Jones. This Ritter is meek and tenderly broken, despite her hostile demeanor.

After their collaboration on I’ll See You in My Dreams, Brett Haley and Marc Basch teamed up again with Haley back at the helm. In some ways, this is the reverse view of that previous story, at least in gender perspective. It is also a bit more successful overall. The two creatives make a great team and I look forward to what they produce next given their growth with each film. 

The Hero

 

Gifted

[4 stars]

It is rare when a small movie can tackle larger ideas without losing focus on the intimate story it wants to tell. Under the guidance of Marc Webb (Amazing Spider-Man) and writer Tom Flynn, Gifted manages to be succeed on that point, telling the story of family and childhood, but also tackling larger issues like parenthood, normality, feminism, and mental health.

Personal tales like this rarely succeed without solid performances, and this is where Webb also soared. Mckenna Grace (Designated Survivor) is a firecracker, with a lot of potential ahead of her. She captures the intelligence of her young character without losing the “kid” in her. And, of course, she has a winning smile and charisma.

Surprisingly, even with Grace’s magnetism, she does not dominate the film the way kid-centered stories often do. Chris Evans (Captain America: Civil War) and Lindsay Duncan (Sherlock) not only hold their own, but deliver powerful and believable performances as they struggle with one another and themselves. Even Jenny Slate (Zootopia) delivers a character that is more complex than you’d expect given where she starts. And the balance between them all, including Grace, is handled beautifully.

If there is a weakness in the film, it is in Evan’s stated reasons for his actions near the end. We don’t really see the shift in his character, or I didn’t anyway. This feels more like editing choices than the actor to me, but it smudges an otherwise wonderful performance.

Gifted is probably everything you expect it to be in a child custody film. But I promise you, there is more to it than what you’re expecting. It is not only done well, it is done with intensity over sturm und drang. It is worth your time and probably worth seeing more than once, simply for the joy of it and the reminders of what life can and should be.

Gifted

The Dinner (2017)

[3 stars]

Welcome to an evening with family. Yes, that is every bit as good and horrible as you can imagine, especially with this crew. It does bear mentioning that the food looks amazing, however. Yes, I have a sleight obsession on this point and I admit it. But before you judge me, keep in mind that the food and the structure of the meal inform the flow of the film directly.

Created first in Dutch (2013) and then Italian (2014), both heavily recognized on the awards circuit, The Dinner has now arrived in an English version…clearly the core story (based on real events) has resonated around the world. And no wonder. It is powerful and the base familial conflicts will resonate with most people in one way or another.

It is a dark view of families, politics, and society and all the more disturbing because of how real it all feels. What makes it worth your time is the performances.

While Laura Linney (Nocturnal Animals), Richard Gere (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and Rebecca Hall (The Town) all have their moments and arcs, it is Steve Coogan (The Look of Love) who really stands out in this film. His performance is subtle, at first, and builds speed and impact through till the end. His isn’t a pretty character, even at the beginning, but it is a compelling and curious one. To be honest, there isn’t a likable character among them , though there are (potentially) some sympathetic ones.

As he did with his script for Love & Mercy, writer/director Oren Moverman (Time Out of Mind) returns to the subject of mental illness and society, though from a very different perspective. The story takes an evening among family and slowly allows it to desolve in the present while providing glimpses of the past to add context. It is an intensely uncomfortable set of exchanges, but hard to turn away from as it unfolds.

I haven’t seen the other versions of this story yet. And, honestly, after this round, I’m not sure I want to. One time through this tale is probably more than enough, but it is worth that one meal. You can always go to a different restaurant another night.

The Dinner

Their Finest

[4 stars]

Let’s start with the important part: you wan to see this film, despite any of its weaknesses. As well as being topical, it satisfies in unexpected ways. Now on with the rest of it…

Earlier this year there was another Dunkirk-based story, though from quite a different angle than Christopher Nolan’s. Lone Scherfig’s (An Education) takes on the event after-the-fact and from the propaganda office side, using it as an inspirational tale for the world. It becomes both an insightful and entertaining look inside film-making as well as into the politics and culture of WWII London during the Blitz. 

Gemma Arterton (Girl With All the Gifts) puts on a great Welsh accent and a delightful naivtee tempered with an inner strength and bruised heart that comes together in a satisfying and intriguing character. She spars with Sam Claflin (Me Before You) in amusing ways as the two find their way to one another in the midst of the chaos of the war, their lives, and their jobs.

Rachel Stirling (Bletchley Circle) and Bill Nighy (Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) are the most notable characters supporting the two leads. Both provide some good humor and subplot. In addition, Jack Huston (Kill Your Darlings), Jake Lacey (Miss Sloane), Eddie Marsan (A Brilliant Young Mind), and Helen McCrory (Fearless) fill out the time, city, and touch points necessary to complete the tale.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, and I did, the adaptation is rather meandering. Gaby Chiappe’s first feature script is ultimately effective, but not crisp. It comes back together well, but the focus is all over the place, making it feel like it wanted to be a mini-series more than a single movie. This is no surprise as she is primarily known for TV series scripts (typically good ones), but it definitely shows promise for future films. I’d love to see what she does next. 

Trust the journey Their Finest lays out for you and take the ride. It will take its time getting there, but it does get there. I can’t tell if I like how it was constructed or if my misgivings are simply expectation highlighted by the commentary provided in the story itself (in terms of what audiences want). However, both in performance and message, this is a movie worth the time invested on several levels.

Their Finest

The Loch, Dark and Fearless

This is a collection of three new series from the UK. All three are rather intense, but all boast strong female leads and nicely complex mysteries.

The Loch [3 stars]
A serial murder mystery set in the fictional community of Lochnafoy, on the shores of Loch Ness. Full of interesting characters and plenty of suspects, it is the weakest writing of these three, but still very engaging. At issue is that there are just too many unlikable characters who do some really foolish things. On the other hand, the mystery is nicely complex and is peeled back well over several episodes. How you feel about the final resolution may vary. I was a left feeling it was a bit unlikely, but not entirely unsatisfied. Siobhan Finneran (Happy Valley) and Laura Fraser (The Missing) are the driving female presences, balancing each other well. And there is a whole town of recognizable and new faces to enjoy as the bodies pile up and the detectives focus in on their perpetrator.

In the Dark [3 stars]
The shortest of the three series in this post (it is only two, two episode stories) it is also one of the slowest to reveal its character secrets, though less-so on the suspects. Its lead, MyAnna Buring (Lesbian Vampire Killers), just off the series wrap of Ripper Street, is transformed into an entirely different woman. If aspects of her face weren’t so distinct, I don’t think I’d have even realized who it was. The mysteries themselves are solid BBC style guessing games of possibilities. The first episode is a stronger story than the second, but both build on Buring’s character and set her up as a driven and strong detective, if not a bit reckless. She is supported by a range of recognizable men in her life, some in decidedly different roles than usual. How they go forward I’m not entirely sure, but I’d go back to see more if they make them.

Fearless [4 stars]
In some ways, this is the darkest of the three tales because it is such a reflection of our times and so close to the bigger realities. It spins around the political tides of public fear, war, and espionage even while the main plot is highly personal. It is definitely the strongest of the three on offer thanks to its writing and cast. Helen McCrory (A Little Chaos) is the primary driver in this unsettling, but likely to be more common theme, of terrorism and bad government actors (particularly the US) given today’s politics. She is joined by Wunmi Mosaku (In the Flesh) and Robin Weigert (Pawn Sacrifice). Each is a true-believer in their areas and has varying degrees of integrity based on those beliefs. What lines they will cross is part of the tale to tell. There is also a host of men it was good to see, starting with Michael Gambon (The Casual Vacancy), Jamie Bamber (Marcella), and, finally, Alec Newman who had been doing mostly voice overs for the last while. The story holds its tension from the first to the last and resolves in a believable and complete way. I am hopeful that we’ll see another mystery down the road for McCrory’s character. She is set up as an icon of public justice, which not only has a huge well to draw from, but is a much needed sensibility in today’s world.

The Loch Poster In the Dark Poster Fearless Poster