If you’ve ever been frustrated by how fairy tales and myths have been depicted on screen, this may be the film for you. This movie takes a non-sanitized approach to, if not exactly purely adapting, the collected fairy tales of the late 16th Century poet Giambattista Basile’s. Given that it is from director Matteo Garrone (Gomorah), the dark aspects of the story shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should the sure hand behind the camera guiding you through its interconnected tales.
While there are some recognizable faces in this movie, no one really stands out. The star here is the story and the production. Think adult bedtime stories of a darker nature and you’ll get the idea. Being a collection, it doesn’t really come together into a single story, but characters keep crossing paths from the opening story to the final. Basically, if you like auteur cinema, the original Grimm tales, or simply twisted plots, you’ll likely enjoy this colorful romp of moralistic and humanistic failings. If you prefer a cohesive plot with a single purpose, this isn’t your movie.
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.
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.
When tackling difficult material, like racism and the Klan, you have to find a way into the material that doesn’t drive your audience away. BlacKkKlansman took its own approach, as did Green Book. And Blazing Saddles took yet another as part of its comical tale. But, when truth is stranger than fiction, you sometimes just have to go with it head-on.
Taraji P. Henson (What Men Want) transforms into activist Ann Atwater with both humor and heart…and the help of some prosthetics. Along with Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon), as Klan leader C.P. Ellis, the two drive this story in often unexpected ways. But, as good as he is in this, I am getting a little tired of seeing Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon) reprise his “bad guys with a heart” (or at least some form of integrity) that started with Three Billboards. He nails it every time, but because it is becoming his signature, the impact is diminished. Ultimately, his actions aren’t a surprise, and it becomes less triumphant with each repetition.
But the reason this film doesn’t succeed at the level it should goes back to my first comments: how do you tackle material like this in a way that doesn’t drive away your audience. To get us into the story first-time writer/director Robin Bissell opts for an almost dark comedy presentation as we meet the characters and watch their despicable acts. He does this to provide some distance from the horror, though it comes perilously close to making it feel acceptable. Given the overall sense of the film, I can understand the approach, though it was discomforting. Perhaps that was Bissell’s intention?
But as a first film I’m willing to handicap Bissell’s result. Despite the initial odd feeling of the movie, he brings it back around to a satisfying, even hopeful ending. An ending hopeful even more so because it is true. In this case it is also an important reminder that, despite today’s politics, we can still listen to one another and change for the better.
If this is what Bissell does with little experience, it will be interesting to see what he can do with some tempered tools in his belt. In the meantime, set aside an evening for this story, if nothing else to learn about a story you probably didn’t know and would never think could happen.
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.
Who would have thought a sweet film about family and personal dreams would come out of a true story about a family of wrestlers…and that it has little to do with wrestling?
To be up front, I am not, and never have been, a fan of professional wrestling. For whatever reason, neither the stories nor the staged athleticism ever caught my interest. And yet, Dwayne Johnson (Skyscraper) is becoming a solid favorite for pure entertainment films and, frankly, as a person. But he is just a side character here. It is Florence Pugh (Little Drummer Girl) who adds the real heart to this story. Not much reality or sense of believability, but there is heart. And heart can be enough.
The issues with the story are down to writer/director (and even actor in this jaunt) Stephen Merchant (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). While he elicits honest emotions from his cast, and keeps the story flowing nicely in his sophomore outing, he didn’t quite get me to sense Pugh’s achievements, nor Jack Lowden’s (Mary Queen of Scots) losses and resurrection. I wasn’t there to cheer with them as I should have been.
This movie is a perfect example of the truth sometimes being less interesting than fiction. I suspect the script cleaves closely to the reality of the Knight family. But it needed a bit more fiction and a bit more structure to let the human side of the story really soar. Sure it would have been manipulated, but it would have been in service to the story rather than pushing against it. Regardless, it is a surprisingly effective and inspiring tale of growing up and following your dreams, whether you’re a fan of the sport or not.
First you have to ask yourself: Did we really need another installment in this universe? We didn’t. The original trilogy, while never great writing, relied heavily on character over plot to make it work. And, more importantly, it wrapped up nicely. OK, moving on because they did make it…
This latest offering is entertaining, but feels more like a knock-off than a solid relaunch, despite some really good comic work by the Avengers duo Chris Hemsworth (Bad Times at the El Royale) and Tessa Thompson (Creed II). In fact, even with the addition of Emma Thompson (Lear), Liam Neeson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), Rebecca Ferguson (The Kid Who Would Be King), and Rafe Spall (A Brilliant Young Mind) there is nothing really new or surprising here. That’s saying something with that kind of cast pile. And, again despite Thompson’s work, there is nothing like the characters that Smith and Jones created in the original material to draw us in both emotionally and plot-wise. I will admit that Larry and Laurent Bourgeois (aka Les Twins), were done quite well, however. That high point was thanks to a combination of the actors with some excellent CG to make them both fascinating and menacing.
But the mediocre results aren’t just down to writing. There is also a major flaw in the structure of the movie…and I suspect it came down to a decision by director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) trying to find a way to kick the story into gear immediately rather than ease into it. It was a mistake. The opening starts 3 years in the past, then jumps 20 years in the past, and then comes to the present. The time shifts are not only mind bending to track but they also make it difficult to figure out what character is intended as the focus. It’s supposed to be Thompson, but the opening diminishes that. It could have been fixed by interleaving the two important plot points, but presented as two chunks from frame-open, it was a bad mistake.
That said, for some popcorn distraction this isn’t bad it just isn’t great. Compared to a lot of the sequels this summer, it’s actually a cut above. But I kinda wish they had just let the property die and done something new instead. Or at least found a new story to tell. If you like the universe, do catch this at some point. Sure it’s more of the same, but it will provide good distraction. It’s also certainly f/x heavy and will play better on the big screen if you have the time and desire. But if you’re not chomping to see it or don’t have the time, later on disc will probably do.
Good Omens (4 stars)
Honestly, for David Tennant (Mary Queen of Scots) and Michael Sheen (Far From the Madding Crowd) alone this farcical romp about the world, life, and religion is worth it. It is delightfully Pratchett and Gaiman, just as their book was. For those unfamiliar, think an updated Monty Python’s Holy Grail in style, but with more of a coherent through line. That Gaiman wrote the series didn’t hurt in preserving its translation to small screen. And Douglas Mackinnon directed the material flawlessly.
With Jack Whitehall (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Miranda Richardson (iBoy ), Adira Arjona (Emerald City ), and Michael McKean in inventive pivotal roles, the amusement and pointedness just keeps coming. The show is also chock full of special guest stars and smaller roles as well, which only adds to the fun. If you like British humor and don’t mind having religious institutions poked at, make time for this wonderful comedy.
The Tick (series 2) (3 stars)
I had my doubts when Amazon took up the Tick in its third broadcast incarnation (previously there was the animated series and a short-lived network series). Each captured aspects of the original graphic novels, but neither had found a solid enough formula to keep it going. The first series on Amazon was no exception. It was misbalanced and not quite credible, but it was amusing enough and with some nice character work to make you come back for more. The second series really found its footing and came together nicely. The balance of humor and absurd is much better and the story is more complex and compelling. I’d have loved to see what came next.
Unfortunately, the improvements weren’t enough for Amazon, who decided this would be the last season (at least for now). And this is part of my frustration with streaming services. Yes, they’re taking risks on new content, but they tend to throw it out there and then let it sink or swim on its own and forget about it when it isn’t an instant success. Even Cheers took years to build its audience. The point of these services was to try something new… perpetual content means you should be able to come to it when you’re ready. Sometimes that isn’t when the company drops the entire season at once. We’re just back to where we started with the inability to trust something will actually be supported and be back another season. So much for serving the niche audiences, as we were promised. Services should, at the least, insist all series come to an end so no one is left hanging if they get cancelled. That doesn’t mean the stories can’t continue, but the main narrative shouldn’t be left as a cliff-hanger. At least The Tick embraced that credo so we weren’t totally left to wonder.
Lucifer (series 4) (3.5 stars)
The last broadcast season of Lucifer was a mess. So much so that it lost enough viewers to find itself begging for a venue. Fortunately, Netflix saw the potential and revived the wonderfully acerbic and amusing mystery/romance/comedy… whatever it is. This season, having lost the fetters of the broadcast censors, is able to finally be much more of what it really could be (it still PG-ish, bordering on a soft R). And they took time with the writing this series to make it a much more satisfying journey. The characters this season all act much more believably than the last go-round. If you at all liked the first season of Lucifer and gritted your teeth through the subsequent two seasons as it diminished, come back to it again. Netflix really breathed life back into the afterlife on this one. Well, at least for one more season to come, which is to be its finale. I will add that the final moment of the fourth season has one of my favorite unspoken jokes of the year. It is a silent joke during a moment that isn’t intended as funny…but someone slipped in the chuckle. And, given the show, it is much in keeping with the show’s sensibility.
Love, Death, and Robots (3 stars)
This anthology series is everything great and everything awful about anime. It is a testosterone fueled set of adventures with buxom broads and hairy men (and the occasional funny episode). It was an idea rich with possibilities, but David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Tim Miller (Deadpool) as the primary producers got lost in their 13-year-old selves and missed the chance to tell a much wider range of stories. It isn’t that any individual episode isn’t interesting, they are all good in their own way. And the range of styles and ideas is pretty unique with all types of animation on display. But it is so male-dominated and full of violence and, mostly, naked women that after a few you’re almost embarrassed to watch it…its like someone found your porn stash but it’s up on your TV screen.
The issue isn’t the talent or the tech or the acting, it is simply that the anthology is horribly unbalanced and ends up missing an audience it could have had. Watch it, but in small doses to keep from burning out on it. I found 2 or 3, at about 5-15 min. each, sufficient for an evening. Beyond that, they got numbingly similar. On the up side, a second season is on order and it has Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who drove much of the animation for and directed the last two Kung Fu Panda movies, at the helm. Perhaps her sensibility will help bring some variety to the series. Certainly I applaud the idea behind the show; I’d like to see it succeed.
How often do you get a second bite at the apple? Even with all the time-travel in the X-Men universe, I never thought we’d get a chance to see Dark Phoenix after the horrible rendition of it in X-Men: The Last Stand. I mean, it was done, they’re not going to go back and pick it up again, right? Better to leave it buried and forgotten.
Well, nothing is ever really dead and gone in the MCU (or apparently Star Wars either). But why do you give this last of the pre-merger Marvel films to a basically untried director, Simon Kinberg? He may have a lot of producing and writing credits, including the previous two First Class films, but there was a lot to make up for after Apocalypse that no amount of Logan (or even Deadpool) was ever going to wash away.
So what we’ve been offered, as a wrap up to this cycle of X-Men, is a great idea with a talented cast, and some of the worst direction I’ve seen in a major in years. When Jennifer Lawrence (Red Sparrow), James McAvoy (Glass) and Michael Fassbender (The Snowman) can all come off as disingenuous, or worse: wooden, the director has failed them. (At least Lawrence managed to deliver the best line in the movie.) Even returning and proven up-and-comers Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), Alexandra Shipp (Spinning Man), Evan Peters (Pose), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (A Birder’s Guide to Everything) felt disconnected from their previously portrayed versions of these younger X-Men. Sheridan, in particular, just had no leadership qualities whatsoever, and no chemistry with Lawrence.
Only Jessica Chastain (Woman Walks Ahead) and Scott Shepherd (Bridge of Spies), who were integral but not amongst the major characters, gave us any kind of performance. Neither was a brilliant performance, but at least they felt real. Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), in the title character, was somewhere between the ineptitudes of her younger colleagues and these established two. In better directorial hands, she may have actually, fully delivered.
The story of the Dark Phoenix is legend, and Kinberg’s script had some really good ideas and structure…even some good dialogue. But the final delivery and handling of the material was amateurish, at best. The result isn’t quite as bad as Last Stand, which killed the franchise for years, but the damage is done. Should the X-Men be folded back into the Marvel Universe now that they’re all under the same banner again, they’ll have to wait for the disappointing taste of this movie to fade before they try again.
Ultimately, if you like this storyline and these characters, you do have to see this final installment (for now). It isn’t unwatchable, but it is lacking in the humor and emotion of the previous movies that made them work so well. It feels like they filmed a dress rehearsal rather than a full performance, with some characters just hitting their marks and saying their lines rather than acting. This all comes back to Kinberg who directed the takes and selected the edits. He just wasn’t ready for this kind of challenge, no matter how familiar he was with the story and involved with the earlier movies. I wish I could be more enthusiastic…I waited a long time only to be disappointed again. I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment.
Remember when films were ephemeral events…before it was all stored and streamable from the cloud? How exciting is it that we’re still in an era where movies can be rediscovered after vanishing from screens for decades. Thanks to The Palm Springs Noir Fesitival one of these, The Scarlet Hour, was presented with a pristine new print supplied by Paramount. And what a treat.
Noir is definitely a matter of taste. The style is delightfully (or painfully) arch and the character types are amusing or insulting, depending on your point of view. But when lines like, “If I were dead, you couldn’t take me to the morgue,” get bandied about, I lean more toward the amused entertainment side of interpretation.
But this isn’t just about femme fatales, malleable good guys, and mustache twirling bad guys, not to mention just simply bad choices, it is about moral indignation and escapism. And, when done well or with the right cast, a rewatchable classic.
But it is Elaine Stritch (Just Shoot Me), in her film debut, that steals this movie utterly. She is the most believable and displays the trademark wit and timing that would distinguish her career for the next 60 years.
The movie knows what it is…even going so far as to have a copy of White Christmas in a bargain box at a record store in one scene. It doesn’t apologize for the heightened emotions and choices. It gobbles down the genre while still providing some nice variations and unexpected moments. It probably helped that Frank Tashlin adapted his own novel for the script, with the help of John Meredyth Lucas and Alford Van Ronkel. The final moments are all very much in question as the story unspools. It isn’t entirely satisfying, but it is certainly genre-acceptable.
There are many reasons to see this flick if you get the chance. The actors, the director, the silly fun of it all. But it is also a piece of history and a lens into time and style. And Curtiz distills a lot of it nicely and with a bit of a knowing wink.
It isn’t the movie, it’s the nostalgia that creates the joy in this latest Godzilla sequel…and the huge spectacle doesn’t hurt. The very fact that the production design keeps the CGI monsters very close to the original men-in-rubber-suits look is one of the biggest indicators of just how hard they lean into that sensibility. And, frankly, that’s OK. It strikes all the right chords on that level, but with an updated look and feel.
Returning to continue their story are Kyle Chandler (First Man) and Vera Farmiga (The Front Runner) and they’re joined by Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) as their grown daughter. Wait, you don’t remember them from the first movie? There’s a reason for that, they weren’t there. However, the flick does a good job of convincing you they were. I have to give them credit on that point alone. However, it is only Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), David Strathairn (November Criminals), and Ken Watanabe (Bel Canto) returning to connect the flicks. Additionally new to the mix, and to varying degrees of low-end success, are Charles Dance, Bradley Whitford (Destroyer), and Thomas Middleditch (Replicas). Honestly, none of them are at all believable.
Writer/director Michael Dougherty has a mixed set of results in his past and this movie is no exception. From Trick ‘r Treat to Krampus to X-Men: Apocalypse he often has good ideas and partial execution. In the case of this Godzilla installment, there is some real attempt to make the science work by him and collaborator Zach Shields; at least as much as it can. It is still a lot of hand-wavy nonsense, but the veneer does help. And there is an over-arching plot that is being set to tie together the past movie with this and those to come.
In some ways, the driving eco-terrorism plot the writers concoct is true to the roots of Godzilla, but comes across in a sort of uncomfortable way. While the original movies were about what was wrong in the world and what needed to change, this is much more negative on the side of those who see the truth and want to fix it all. But that isn’t the reason we all show up anyway. We’re there for the big monster fights and crazy situations. All make an appearance. This is also mainly just a bridging movie to get us to Godzilla vs. Kong.
I never expected much of this film… and, in fact, I got more than I anticipated. Is it great? No. But it is sufficient to the purpose of entertainment and it is a BIG screen movie. So grab some popcorn and settle in for the silly and the mayhem. As long as you like the genre, you’ll like the movie. If you don’t, well, it’d be a waste of your time. It doesn’t rise above its roots in any way that will reach beyond its core audience.
Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…