Tag Archives: craft

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

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

New micro-story on Story Seed Vault

A new tale of mine, a bit of cyber espionage, is up on Story Seed Vault today.

The challenge for this market is to tell a whole story in 140 characters or less; essentially no more than one Tweet’s worth. And the story has to be based on some new bit of science. They can explain it a bit more and how you can tackle entry into the Vault yourself.

You can find the current tale at: https://storyseedvault.com/2017/10/06/1451/

I have at least once more appearing in this venue soon, so stay tuned!

My previous tale is still on the site at:
https://storyseedvault.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/40/

The Orville vs. Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek is a cultural institution, pretty much world-wide. Now, after a multiple year gap of all things Trek on the small and large screens, we are suddenly being handed two very different options in what has grown from a property to a genre in itself.

The Orville, brainchild of Seth McFarlane (Ted, Million Ways to Die in the West, Family Guy), takes the formula we’ve known for decades and gives it a hard look with both a jaundiced eye and a big hug. It is neither fish nor fowl, approaching the world it has created as satire, but tackling real storylines at the same time.

If I had any doubts about whether Orville could find its footing, its third episode, “About a Girl,” proved they were serious about their television mission. Bringing Brannon Braga, main helmer (and some think destroyer) of Trek since Next Generation, on to direct indicated that as well. The melding of the two men’s sensibilities brings an uncomfortable detente to the series, but one that somehow works. It allows us to laugh at the absurd seriousness of the situations and still enjoy and invest in them.

Discovery, on the other hand, takes a different approach. When it was original conceived with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods, Pushing Daisies, WonderfallsDead Like Me) at the helm, I was excited (despite the CBS All Access plan). Fuller had the potential to bring a level of dark reality to a franchise he had written for in the past, but which had drifted to become a bit too mainstream, too predictable, and without a  lot of teeth.

But somewhere along the development process, Fuller exited and the studio took over. Honestly, I’ve not dug into the what and whys, I just didn’t care enough. When Fuller left I was pretty sure the series would devolve back into its rut. Fuller likes living on a knife edge of sensibility. He has created, wrote, and run some of the best television out there, all of which got cancelled before their time but which became instant cult favorites. And Hannibal may even be resurrected.

Discovery is burdened by the very fabric in inhabits. 50+ years of history drape and inform it. But what has always made Trek work wasn’t the stories, it was the characters. Discovery doesn’t really have that chemistry at its outset. I don’t see or feel it either from the main individuals (except for the blue guy) or between these people who have supposedly served together for years. The first double-episode should have felt solid and shocking. Instead it had me in a wait-and-see sensibility.

To be fair, not all shows can be hits out of the gate. But I am more impressed with The Orville for feeling like it has its act together with no history to back it than I am with Discovery, who has a known property and a solid universe to build from. Discovery, especially because of its subscription wall, has to hit it out of the park to keep me around. I don’t see that happening at the moment… and I have suffered through every other Trek series to the bitter end on both principle and doggedness. We’ll see if my sense of completeness insists on my attendance going forward.

The Orville 

Summer Hours (L’heure d’été)

[3 stars]

Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria) wrote and directed this  deceptively simple, and highly awarded, story about family several years back. I say “deceptively” because there are layers to this story that are unavoidable, even if they aren’t Assayas’s main focus.

On the surface we have Edith Scob (Holy Motors) as the matriarch of a modern, dispersed family admitting and dealing with her mortality. The frank recognition of her family’s real trajectories and the “residue of the past” in the form of her house and art collection, is both honest and saddening. What she really thinks of the realities is part of what we want to know and part of what at least one of her children, Charles Berling (Elle), must contend with. Also, as the oldest, he must balance his sib’s reactions and desires. Juliet Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) and Jérémie Renier (In Bruges) balance him nicely, hinting at a deep history and long-standing disagreements that they’ve all somehow managed to balance in order to keep their relationships.

But on a deeper level, and sometimes a bit too spelled out, is the deconstruction of the collection from its human surrounds. We watch art become isolated and are forced to question the value of possessions and its meaning, absent people around it. This is true for the collection as well as the family house. While the interactions and story are certainly engaging, it was this aspect of the tale that I found most intriguing, though I wish it had been a bit subtler in the dialogue.

But Assayas wanted to focus on a different story. He was taken more with the generational aspect of life. How do things, ideas, and memories get handed down from the elders to the children. What form does that take and how does it happen? Basically, how does familial history get formed and preserved, and should it or does it need to. He explores this in various ways and to unequal effect. But the story pulls you along far enough before it simply drops you to consider life on your own. Beautifully filmed and nicely acted, it is an interlude worth the time.

Summer Hours

Oh, Hello

[2 stars]

When you are the target audience for a bit of satirical comedy and it leaves you nonplussed, it isn’t a great sign.  Oh, Hello is an ironic poison pen letter to New York theatre. Or, if not poison pen, certainly with more than a little bit of ire and frustration. And I do say this as their target audience, based on the subject matter (NYC living and the theater/entertainment world).

Honestly, I just found it mean-spirited and relatively uninspired in its message. With the exception of a couple cameos, it wasn’t even all that funny. Nick Kroll (Sing) and John Mulaney (Documentary Now!) are only marginally decent at playing older men, not that they are intended to be realistic. But the script is just, well, boring. It takes a half hour for the setup to complete so that the jokes can start paying off. But they don’t continue. There are side stories and sophomoric silliness and absurdities and a ton of inside jokes that would leave most people scratching their heads.

I’m sure there is an audience for this; it isn’t entirely unenjoyable. As part of my Netflix subscription it was favorably priced for its value, but I am glad I didn’t spend Broadway prices (or anything in addition) to see it.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

[3.5 stars]

The first Kingsman was a delightfully unexpected and irreverent romp in spy-land. Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle) returns for this middle story of a planned trilogy and manages to grow the character and give us another, if much more violent, round of spy games. It may have lost some of the element of surprise, but the movie compensates with sheer audacity of spectacle and story. And everyone gets to show off a bit in this film.

On team England, Mark Strong (Miss Sloane), Sophie Cookson (Huntsman: Winters’ War), and Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Baby) all reprise roles adding to the mythology. But the surprise addition of Hanna Alström (Kingsman: The Secret Service) showed us that Eggsy wasn’t just a love ’em and leave ’em guy, he was capable of commitment. It is a nice flourish for his story.

Team America (1) is a bit more complex to pull apart. A great deal was made of Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) and Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), but their parts are relatively small. It is more Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Pedro Pascal (The Great Wall) that drive that team. To be truthful, I wish I had known a lot less about this section of the film as it is slowly revealed over the first third of the plot, but it is impossible to not know it given the advertising and the cast.

Team America (2) is the US Government officials led by Bruce Greenwood (Spectral) and Emily Watson (Everest). Greenwood provides an ugly version of the office that was a scarily good guess at the current tenor given that it was in production during the changeover of administrations here at the time. Watson’s is an important role, but a bit of a cipher as a character, which is a shame given her abilities.

In opposition to them all are Edward Holcroft (London Spy) and Julianne Moore (Vanya on 42nd Street). Holcroft isn’t much more than a prop to bridge the movies and make it personal for Eggsy and the Kingsmen. There just isn’t much there other than anger and a desire to succeed. Julianne Moore, however, has a bit more meat on her character bones. Her speech on the motivation and plan she has put into action is one of the more interesting, subtle pieces of the social commentary that underlies this story. While she delivers it all well, there isn’t all that much for her to work with. Still, she kept it from being a cookie-cutter villainess. She also has one amusing, surprise guest with a fun story-line, but I’m not going to spoil that here.

The most interesting returnee to this universe is director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn. This is his first ever sequel. After launching Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, he left the franchises to others. He does a credible job coming back for this round, but he did miss a few marks. First, despite its scope, the film doesn’t feel international. It feels like Hollywood. This is in large part due to the rather nasty portrayal of the US government as well as only showing us a view of the world events via a fictionalized Fox News. “Fictionalized” as it is Fox actually doing news (rather than misreporting or opining). But there are no feeds from the other affected countries. That was a mistake I’m sure was insisted on by Fox Studios, but it really rather hurt the credibility of the tale. And Vaughn really has to stop trying to recreate his amazing “Time in a Bottle” sequence from X-Men. It just isn’t going to happen.

On a technical level, the film really excels. The script is constructed solidly to use everything as well as to redeem characters and even the golden circle symbol itself. And the editing, both between scenes and within fights, is pretty amazing. While there are moments it is very much obvious, which you don’t really want editing to be (like a couple of the cross-fades), they’re so beautifully executed that you can’t help but admire the choices. But the intra-fight editing is the real prize: is damn near seamless, which is astounding when you realize the complexity of the shots.

As a whole, this is just as entertaining as the first film in the series. It isn’t so much about discovery any longer, we’ve had our origin story after all. This round is about redemption and growth and finding a place in the world… and a whole lot of violence getting there, as adolescence often is. The film absolutely sets up a third installment, but fully resolves the story it starts in this outing. It has a ton of laughs, car chases worth of Fast & Furious or Bond, tons of flying lead and mashed bodes, and a social message that may or may not resonate for everyone, but that is certainly interesting to note. If you liked the first, you will like the second. If you haven’t found this series yet, start with The Secret Service and then return to this. While it may stand on its own, it will have a whole lot more depth with the background for you.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Mindgamers

[2 stars]

I have to admit, thanks to the inclusion of Sam Neill (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) in this cast, not to mention the design of Enoch, I couldn’t get Event Horizon out of my head. There are aspects that make the two somewhat brethren, though they are movies with very very different intentions. Mindgamers is much more sf/horror while Event Horizon was really just horror with sf trappings.

Admittedly, though Neill is at the core of this story, the movie is driven by Tom Payne (Luck) and his group of hapless geeks. That group is completed with some competent and committed actors: Dominique Tipper (Girl with All the Gifts), Antonia Campbell-Hughes (Split), Oliver Stark (Into the Badlands), Turlough Convery (Poldark). It isn’t really entirely their fault that the script is oblique and over-written.

Working against or with them (depending on the scene and your interpretation) is Melia Kreiling (Last Tycoon). She brings a cool creepiness to her character, though very little depth. 

Director Andrew Goth and writer Joanne Reay  are frequent collaborators. You can sense the simpatico from script and vision to screen. The trip, for there is no better way to describe the result, is fluid and done without apology and with little explanation. It is clear that reality is something that isn’t defined crisply from very near the beginning. I actually applaud the guts of that approach, but the result wasn’t particularly great. A Cure for Wellness, for all its faults, tackled the psychological part of that much more effectively.

Basically, no, I can’t recommend this flick. Despite its amusing launch in theaters (a la William Castle) offering a mind-linked experience, the story just isn’t there for all the visual and choreography cleverness. Their locations also became a distraction for me as they were more interesting than the movie and and some were recognizable from other films (in particular, Spectral). So, my recommendation is either watch this highly altered or simply pass it by. Someone will do the theme better justice at some point.

MindGamers

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

[3 stars] Reimagining classic tales and myths is not something new. It has been going on for as long as they’ve existed. As a writer myself, it would be hypocritical of me to say it is something that shouldn’t be done. Writers steal and riff all the time. Sometimes the effort gives you new insight or ideas about a tale, like when you tell it from a different point of view or change one aspect of a main character to help explain aspects of the story.

Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie managed to pull this approach off with his Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes retained, just barely, enough recognizable aspects of the stories to be an entertaining riff, though you had to let go of the original. And Ritchie isn’t alone in playing with Holmes. Sherlock and Mr. Holmes are just two other recent riffs that worked (better in my opinion) as well.

But you have to have a reason to make these changes. Just screwing with a well-known story because you can or because you want to use the title for marketing achieves nothing. In fact, it works against you as people walk in with expectations and then have their heads whipped around. That approach risks never getting them back on board for the ride.

King Arthur has been dog-piled on by critics far and wide. It is overblown, unfocused, only mildly entertaining, and it shreds a known classic to no great advantage. If we’ve learned anything from Game of Thrones, you can create a magical, pre-industrial story that will sell if you write it well enough. The group of writers on Arthur didn’t.

There are some aspects of this movie that aren’t bad. The sequence showing Arthur growing up is classic Ritchie, as is some of his early, bantering encounters. They also didn’t turn this into a romance in any way, and had a wonderful idea on the genesis of the sword in the stone. And Ritchie did pull together a talented cast to try and sell the melange he put together.

Charlie Hunnam (Crimson Peak) pulls off the intelligent barbarian pretty well, and he understands humor. And Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (I Origins) provides a nice analog to Merlin, though she remains rather on the outside of things in a way that diminishes her in the overall story. Jude Law (Genius) tries to enrich his Vortigern, but it just isn’t in the script. There are a slew of supporting characters. Most effective in that crew: Neil Maskell (Utopia), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Vera), Bleu Landau (Eastenders), and Aidan Gillen (The Lovers).

But let’s be clear, this movie is only marginally passable, quite long, and more sound and fury than substance. It had been intended as the launch to a massive franchise, but ended as one of the biggest flops on record. The lesson here isn’t “don’t screw with a classic” but rather “if you’re going to screw with a classic, write a damned good script.” So for a popcorn night with some libation, this will pass muster. However, go in with low expectations and a willingness to forget anything you may have known about King Arthur.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Ripper Street (series finale)

[3 stars] Somewhere around series 3, Ripper Street lost its way and never found it again. It retained its beautiful language, a Western version of Shakespeare for lack of a better description, but it lost the drive of the characters and the inciting conceit of Edmund Reid’s policing.

In series 4 and 5 it all comes back around and, with contortions that PT Barnum would have hired, they manage to close the story. Sadly it isn’t with great skill, but with a wedge and shim. Series 4 leaped ahead in time, and the final episode in series 5 attempts, clumsily, to put a shape around the whole through a collection of vignettes to wrap up the present stories, and flashbacks to provide a mirror and meaning to them.

Does it work? Sort of, but it all feels so very forced. The show was provided more than enough advance notice to plan a better arc through its final 2 series. Instead we got the White Chapel Golem, which wasn’t uninteresting, but with a meandering plot and too much going on (and a load of death). We are left, at the end, with an idea and melancholy that has carried through the series as a whole. It is, to its credit, unwilling to go for the easy and pleasant solutions to all the issues, but in other ways it gave in exactly to expectations.

Ripper Street, as a series, was ambitious and richly textured. The first series is still the best focused, and the rest of the run certainly has moments and merits, if not stellar choices. I would have been happy with the conclusion at the end of series 3, but the 2-series wrap up did keep my attention, even if I was less than thrilled with the direction of that resolution.

On the up side, it was relatively self-contained so if you want to stop at 3, you don’t lose much by doing so. But, if you want to go forward and see the wrap-up for all the various characters, you have that option.

Ripper Street