Tag Archives: craft

The Dead Don’t Die

[3 stars]

Is there anything quite as indie as a Jim Jarmusch (Paterson) movie? His latest foray into genre isn’t quite as sharp as his last, sadly, but it is still full of dark, flat humor. The Dead Don’t Die is more of a satirical/meta take on the zombie apocalypse rather than an exploration of what the condition might mean to characters. But the humor is unique and fun. And the story, while unashamedly inevitable, has plenty of surprises.

Part of those surprises is the cast. Jarmusch has always had his stable of actors. Tilda Swinton (The Souvenir) for one, Bill Murray (Zombieland) for another. Along with Adam Driver (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), the three really drive the story, but they’ve plenty of help from others, like Tom Waits (Old Man & the Gun), Chloë Sevigny (Golden Exits) and Steve Buscemi (The Death of Stalin). Jarmusch is also great at getting his actors to work against expected type. While broad in its approach, everyone remains very grounded and matter of fact. Not quite naturalistic, but definitely not the high drama of your typical horror film either. It is a quiet, if bloody, apocalypse.

What the story lacks is something more than the sly genre humor and in-your-face societal slams. There isn’t a lot being said that is new nor anything being done in a particularly special way (absent one amusing take on zombie focus). Perhaps that is, in part, due to the speed and challenges of its filming? However, if you like his work as I do, you’ll like this latest. It was definitely an enjoyable time spent for me.

Doctor Sleep

[3 stars]

How do you create a sequel to a classic? It was never going to be an easy task for The Shining. Forgetting the fact that it is a terrifying bit of modern horror, Sanley Kubrik really muddied the waters with his 1980 “interpretation” of Stephen King’s book. King’s recent book sequel is less terrifying than its Shining origins, but it is also more emotionally complex and satisfying…and it rightfully ignores Kubrik’s reimagining.

Enter Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil) who tackled the project. As with his previous movies, he wore multiple hats: writer, director, and editor. He succeeded at differing levels at all of these.

To be honest, it is an interesting adaptation, taking much from the book but also finding a way to marry it to the Kubrik outcome…without insulting either side. However, what he decided to keep and what to dump was a bit of a confusion. Unlike It, which navigated a long timeline and complex story while remaining tense and tight, Doctor Sleep takes a while to get rev’ing. There is a lot of setup and then a good deal of compaction in the tale as it races to the end.

The cast is certainly solid. Ewan McGregor (Christopher Robin) as the grown Redrum boy himself does a great job of being broken while searching for peace and a path forward. Rebecca Ferguson (Men in Black: International) is wonderfully creepy and hard while remaining seductive, as she must for this character. I wasn’t really happy with her casting originally, but she won me over with her performance. And Kyliegh Curran as the young lead did a great job as well.

Of the smaller roles, frankly only Zahn McClarnon stuck out as worth noticing, though Jacob Tremblay’s (Predator) brief turn as the young victim that sets it all in motion was very effective and bravely nasty.

But is Doctor Sleep worth seeing? Yes and no. It really needed to be higher tension or more tightly edited. Though Flannagan did a good job collapsing many of the threads that spanned years in the book, he left in other aspects that left characters and ideas hanging. And while I was glad it had room to breathe at 2.5 hours long, I also wanted it to move a bit faster and feel scarier. The final quarter of the film, which diverges widely from the book, is the best structured and most tense. It was certainly beautifully filmed and well acted. It is a nice character study for McGregor and Ferguson, but as a horror film it won’t deliver for many people. It is more an emotional movie of recovery than a tense drama of psychological horror.

Your going to have to make your own decision as to when and how you’d like to catch this sequel to a seminal classic. However, if you read the original book, I do recommend the book sequel regardless. King found a path for Danny Torrance that feels both real and heartbreaking, even if Rose the Hat and her gang are less terrifying than the denizens of the Overlook Hotel.

Terminator: Dark Fate

[4 stars]

I find myself having a complex reaction to this sequel/reboot, so stick with me here. Dark Fate is the sequel we deserved…15 years ago. But after three interceding sequels, I find it disingenous, and not a little petty, that they are to be swept aside and utterly forgotten (other than T3, which was so far outside the story line it is rarely acknowledged as existing anyway).

I know I’m in the minority, but I thought Terminator: Genisys was both clever and enjoyable (even if imperfect at times). It was a smart way to reset the universe and get it back on track after couple of weak sequels (Terminator 3 and Terminator: Salvation).  In fact, if you had rewatched the first two movies and then Genisys, it was even more impressive.

It could be argued that with time travel as a central aspect, that it’s a perfectly legitimate choice to bail on the previous storylines. In a fluid timeline, why not just pick up threads where you want them? Well, I’d argue that you don’t because of the fans…even if you think you’re serving them, you need to respect them and what’s come before. This installment was entirely an ego thing for James Cameron (Alita: Battle Angel), who can’t write to save his skin. Honestly, T1 and T2, for all their fun are just painful at times on screen (I rewatched them again before seeing Dark Fate). Some of that is writing and a lot of it is directing on his part–together you just want to look away at moments in embarrassment.

Fortunately, in this case, Cameron’s clunky style was taken to screen by Tim Miller (Deadpool, Love, Death, + Robots), which saved it. Miller pulled good performances from his cast even while hitting the big moments and chases well.

But, the truth is that it’s the inclusion of only two actors that created the buzz and main draw for this movie: Linda Hamilton (Defiance), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Maggie). The return of these iconic actors in the roles they originated and cemented into film history was great fun and got butts in the seats. Joyfully, Mackenzie Davis (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town), Diego Boneta (The Titan) and Natalia Reyes also not only held their own, but brought depth and interest to their new characters. Are they as iconic as the originals? Not really, though Reyes and Mackenzie were certainly interesting to watch as they developed before our eyes.

The upshot is that this is a great ride and clears the decks for a whole new direction in the Terminator universe. We’ll probably never see those other possible stories as the film just isn’t doing as well as the studio hoped so far. But you never know, and with streaming services available now, perhaps we’ll see the world expanded on smaller screen. In the meantime, if you want to see a fairly solid action film and an interesting possibility for the timelines, Dark Fate is certainly a feast of visual fun and quipy dialogue.  And, unlike any of the other movies that came before, some real character work and respect for their situations.

Like I said, I’m having a complex reaction to this one.

Wonder Park

[2.75 stars]

There are so many lost opportunities in this movie, it is a wonder. The core of the story is there, but the opening setup is long while the rest of the story is rushed and way too scary for its intended audience.

The writing team behind Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, couldn’t quite find the appropriate rhythm or tone. This story is for young kids…not tweens, not adults, not anyone with any real experience in the world. That’s fine, but if you’re going to aim young, you have to respect their attention spans and their limits, and this story did neither. First-time (and uncredited) director Dylan Brown didn’t help the result either, though some of his cast delivered some good voice talent behind the ink.

But for all the names you might recognize in the cast, the movie is stolen by John Oliver. He walks away with the best lines and moments with his dry delivery and amazing timing. Jennifer Garner (Peppermint), Matthew Broderick (Manchester by the Sea), Ken Jeong (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween), Mila Kunis (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn), and even the young lead, Sofia Mali, all just exist. They aren’t bad, but there isn’t much there because they’re rushed from moment to moment. Only Oliver manages to feel different.

If the movie were less scary or faster out of the blocks (the first third or more is setup) or even less frenetic for the last part of it, it might have sold me more. As it is, it really needed stronger hands at the helm and a good set of discussions before they went into production to focus it better. As I said, there is a story here, and a good one. It just doesn’t quite sell it (except forAnne Preven’s Pi Song, which is a throw-away hoot).

The White Crow

[3 stars]

Dance biopics are often disappointing because the actors playing the subject of the film can’t…well, dance. That is not a gap here. Is Oleg Ivenko as good as Rudolf Nureyev? No, and the movie even highlights that in the credits. However, he is credible and you never watch thinking “a shame the guy can’t dance.”  The guy, and the company, can dance.

With that first challenge successfully won, you can watch the story. And the story is interesting. I do have to admit that the great David Hare’s (Collateral) script wasn’t quite up to his usual quality. The story meanders and isn’t particularly focused. What drives Nureyev both in dance and in life is left quite a bit to the imagination. Perhaps that’s fair. But there were subjects Hare danced around (no pun intended), and others he poured out in exposition. I’m not sure I ever really understood Nureyev or many of the people around him. By the time we get to the pivotal moment near the end, I can’t say, other than the obvious, why he or Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) act quite as they do.

While Ralph Fiennes (The Lego Batman Movie) directed, not to mention acted, competently, he wasn’t able to expose the subtleties of the character as cleanly for me as I’d have liked. Perhaps that was my own problem and density, but it was all a little muddled. More concerning was Fiennes handling of the timeline, which bounces through three periods trying to build out Nureyev’s character motivations. Finnes didn’t negotiate those boundaries as cleanly as he could have. It was easy to lose track of which period you were in and where it was in his life even with some cinematic clues helping.

My concerns aside, it is a story worth seeing. It’s one of the most believable portrayals of a dance giant as well as peek back at a period of history that’s worth remembering as its spectre reasserts today. Finnes likes tackling tough subjects and, as his directing chops grow, I look forward to seeing more of what he can accomplish.

The Current War: Director’s Cut

[2.5 stars]

After a long, torturous road to screen, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) image of this story finally made it to theaters. Unfortunately, what arrived was a soulless outline of a story, however well acted and filmed, due to first time feature writer Michael Mitnick’s (Vinyl) script. But I’ll come back to that.

The cast is loaded with recognizable talent. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Child in Time) and Matthew Macfadyen (Ripper Street) work with what they have reasonably well, though with little payoff. They are also both rather sanitized from their infamous and documented personalities. Nicholas Hoult (Tolkien) is a great, but wasted, Tesla (you get a more interesting and complete picture of Tesla from The Prestige). Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) isn’t particularly good, but he isn’t bad…he’s just a bit too young to sell his role. The women (all two of them), Tuppence Middleton (MI-5) and Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald), are actually both intriguing, but are tiny parts of the tale. Only Michael Shannon (What They Had) has a character with any real depth to it, allowing him to take over the center of the story….but who was going to come out to a movie about George Westinghouse?

What this movie needed was Aaron Sorkin on script to bring the past to life or Baz Lurhman to transform it into a modern fantasy as a dark mirror for our times. And that was the real brass ring it could have aimed for, but it missed its mark, in making the story applicable to today. The story of Edison v Tesla v Westinghouse v Morgan is a wonderful parallel for the current battle between Amazon, Google, and Facebook to control the internet and information. But that layer is completely lost, though enough of a whiff of it remains to make you long for it.

Current War should have been a timely story of the fight for the American future and soul at a time when industrialists got to control that fight unchecked. It looks eerily familar to the now times. So, assuming you can connect the dots for yourself, take this as entertainment or as object lesson. But do it at your leisure, this isn’t really worth your time to run out and see it despite Chung-hoon Chung‘s gorgeous cinematography.

Apollo 11

[3 stars]

This is less a documentary and more a sort of clear-eyed nostalgia trip. There are no revelations, except perhaps for seeing the dark side footage and the instrumenation alerts during the final lunar descent (more on that if you’re curious and from one of the programmers). However, the clarity of the images, both the remastered and the newly discovered 65mm fim from archives, makes it all immediate in a way that a blurry black & white TV couldn’t in 1969.

By using only archvied, and often concurrent, audio to create the story, director Todd Douglas Miller brings you along the 9 days  in a fascinating 90 minute moving picturebook. It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is well constructed to acheive its goals: to relive the event. I imagine it works best for those that grew up watching the Apollo missions rather than those who were weaned on the space shuttle or, more sadly, in the gap that followed the 2011 Atlantis mission. But for anyone who is intrigued by space flight, it is a visual journal of historic proportions worth making time for.

Aladdin (2019)

[3 stars]

Guy Ritchie (Robin Hood) may have rehabbed his reputation in the industry with this remake of the beloved animation classic, but I can’t say he did much for me. I will grant him, and co-writer John August (Frankenweenie), a nod for their re-negotiating the end of the story. But it was otherwise a fairly unmagical journey.

Part of the challenge was that the two leads, Mena Massoud (Jack Ryan) and Naomi Scott (Power Rangers) felt out of place in Agrabah. Their accents are flat American against a rich backdrop. And while Scott has some levels to her, Massoud is fairly empty despite some complex plotting around him. Added to this was the choice for Jafar. Marwan Kenzari (Murder on the Orient Express) is too young and, oddly, not manipulative enough to be believable for me. Jafar should drip smarm so that you understand how he rose to and kept his position of power. That is what makes him so dangerous.

And, of course, there is Will Smith (Gemini Man) stepping into the shoes of the late and glorious Robin Williams. Smith made the part his own, but it still fell short of equalling the iconic performance built out of the storm that was Williams’s brain. But, like many, I don’t think I ever expected him too, and he was smart to not try.

There is something about the escape of animation that allows the fantastical to take on life. Adapting it to live action, even with the tech we have today, is a dangerous leap. In this case, I think misstep. Sure it was pretty, but even the biggest numbers couldn’t match the frenetic insanity and overload of the animation. The result was that they came across as less impressive in this incarnation; exactly the opposite reaction you’d want from an audience. And even some of the character CGI fell short. While the parrot Iago looked relatively real, Abu the monkey looked a tad plastic to me, which kept dropping me out of the moment.

Generally, the entire movie felt like a paint-by-numbers rehash. The new music was also glaringly out of place in feel. I liked the idea, but it didn’t fall seamlessly into the score. For kids who never saw the original, this is probably a magical journey. I wonder what they’d think of the animation that spawned it…would they be as unimpressed with the drawn characters as I am with the live? I don’t honestly know, but I’d hope they’d see the magic of it, even if it wasn’t in the latest on-screen formats. Certainly the original has more humor to keep them entertained.

Tolkien

[3 stars]

Where Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody each used fantasy as a way to tell their realities, Tolkien went the other route: it uses reality to tell the fantasy. Well, about the fantasy, at any rate. The movie is a bit of a confused mess, but it does eventually come together to its point.

Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) is really quite good at negotiating both the complex emotional challenge and the age challenge of his role as the story unfolds. Lily Collins (Okja), likewise, gets to work a lot of levels, not all of which are comfortable. The rest of the cast is servicable, with folks like Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) and Patrick Gibson (The Darkest Minds) probably standing out the most. But, frankly, no one really matters outside the main couple.

The main challenge with this film is that it isn’t very focused. It jumps back and forth in time attempting to show the connections in Tolkien’s life that led him to author his stories. But the narrative is a little forced as we follow him through the trenches while his febrile brain keeps triggering memories. It wasn’t sustainable for the whole movie, so the approach ends about two thirds of the way through. A more chronological telling may have been more effective for the majority of the story; or, perhaps, a more complete commitment to the flashback. The mix and unbalance of the two leaves the rhythm of the film uneven and confused.

Director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) certainly took care with his portrayal. And writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford (Pride) were likewise sympathetic. It doesn’t feel like a real biography or look at the man, but rather an homage to him and the work he left behind. And perhaps that is the better way to view the movie: as a biography of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring rather than of Tolkien himself. On that level it succeeds quite a bit more than as an historical recounting.

Gemini Man

[4 stars]

Movies, generally, shouldn’t be recommended solely for their technology. But there are exceptions. Avatar, was a lousy movie, but amazing 3D. Life of Pi was a gorgeous fantasy that pushed limits, but wasn’t a perfect film. Gravity took liberties with physics to tell its own (strained) story, but also used the value of 3D in exciting ways. In each of these cases, seeing the film in 2D was a disservice to the director and to the audience. They were conceived in 3D and were intended to be seen that way. You wouldn’t view a statue only as a photograph if it was there in front of you, why should we see a flattened version of story?

Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) attacked Gemini Man very much in the same vein. He wanted to push the value of 3D and to create a new experience for his audience with a high frame rate (HFR) presentation. He succeeded, but far too few people will see the movie as intended. And, to be fair, without 3D and HFR the movie will seem like just a rehash of older adventure film without much to offer. See this movie as intended. It is either the swan song of 3D in movies or the genesis of a new approach and experience.

But let’s talk about the story first. One of the challenges with this film is that the original material had been in development for over 20 years. That sensibility continues to inform it. The studio also didn’t know how to promote it without giving away a huge portion of the plot, so we’re all in on the crux of the tale going in. It’s not as bad a reveal as ruining The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game for someone, but it certainly changes your viewing of it.

Will Smith (Bright) is compelling as an aging assassin and as his younger self. He isn’t just world weary, he is awakening. By his side, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Hollars) offers up a solid companion and comptent fighter, while Benedict Wong (Annihilation) helps focus the humor and assist in the action.

Clive Owen (Anon), on the other hand, is a little cookie-cutter in his bad merceny role. There were levels there, but they didn’t quite sell for me. This was as much a choice as a fault and part of the 80s/90s vibe of the overall movie that writers David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Darren Lemke (Goosebumps), and Billy Ray (Overlord) baked into the script. But the story is exciting, entertaining, and enjoyable…just not revelatory for spy thrillers.

Now let’s get to the technology layer that brings this film over the top. First off, the digital Will Smith came across as completely real for me. However, I saw Gemini in a modified HFR 3D (60 fps/2K resolution). Unfortunately, only four theaters in the country can show the fim as intended (120fps/4K resolution)…and I envy those that could see it that way. Why? Because at even at half the rate and resolution of the intended viewing, it was astounding. The clarity was jaw dropping. The action was visceral. The use of 3D was mostly carefully selected to enhance the tale. The movie literally jumps off the screen putting you in it at points. HFR tricks your brain into making it feel real. Typical films keep you at a distance at 30fps. Your brain sees it as unreal. But at 60fps it can’t always tell the difference.

It does cause some cognitive dissonance. At least for me, when there were extreme closeups, putting giant heads into frame, my brain balked at the relative perspective issues. But action sequences were like being on a roller coaster. No motion sickness, but you do feel like you are strapped in with the characters. The point is that the tech doesn’t just make it all pretty (though wait till you see the water scenes) it changes your experience of the film.  An interview with Lee goes over some of the technology and story aspects if you want it from the horses mouth.

Go see Gemini in HFR 3D if you can. It is fun and it is something you haven’t seen before, unless you were fortunate (or unfortuanate, as some have claimed) to see The Hobbit in its HFR release. In 2D, Gemini probably will leave you a bit underwhelmed because half the story and experience won’t be there for you.