Tag Archives: craft

Climax

[1 star]

This is one of those odd situations where you can appreciate the artist but hate the art. At least I did. Gaspar Noé (Love) puts a lot of technical joy into Climax, with interesting camera work, edits, and choreography. He even managed to attack the structure of film in service to his goals. I can’t say I could tell you what those goals were, but the opening of the movie and the first 20 minutes are designed to make you pay attention and to put your expectations off-balance.

But none of the characters he provides us are particularly likable. Even Sofia Boutella (Hotel Artemis) is more repulsive than magnetic. Without a connection to the characters what happens to them is empty, however real they are being portrayed.

Ultimately, I fast-forwarded a large part of the second half of the movie in hopes of finding a purpose or at least a moment of interest. I never did. And the final reveal just didn’t matter to me. There is some commentary on the nature of people in the story, but nothing you haven’t seen before done better. Noé doesn’t even manage to portray the bending of reality for the characters in any kind of new or unique way (like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote managed). So, my recommendation? Skip this and never wonder what you missed. You’ll have missed nothing. But check out Noé’s other work at some point. He is talented and willing to buck convention and expectation to achieve his purpose. When you play in that arena, you’re allowed a failure or two in pursuit of your art…even if that means you more often fail than succeed.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

[3.5 stars]

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.

Step

[3 stars]

Step is an interesting look at the lives of three young women trying to escape poverty. It isn’t, however, a great documentary about how Step made that possible for them, despite the title. Unlike Brooklyn Castle, the story promised in the title of this film never really takes shape. Step isn’t so much the goal and glue that shapes the women as it is simply the crossroads that brings them and the filmmaker, Amanda Lipitz, together to tell their story.

That doesn’t make it uninteresting as a long form piece of journalism, but it is better going in knowing the real focus. In addition, Lipitz had no idea how to film the Step performances so you could see them well either, which was frustrating. Step is best viewed from a little distance so you can see whole team. But this film does a lot of close-ups, odd angles, and unnecessary quick cuts that keep you from ever appreciating what the team put together.

For the stories of the women and to see what a school that takes its charge seriously, to teach and improve the lives of its students, this is worth the viewing time. As a film, it is middling at best. Go in expecting an extended 60 Minutes piece and you’ll be better attuned to the journey you are provided.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

[3.5 stars]

Before the opening scene begins to roll, even writer/director Terry Gilliam (The Zero Theorem) admits this was a long time coming. As one of the most cursed productions ever undertaken, expectations for the final result were probably wildly out of balance, even given its pedigree.

The movie that was finally delivered is a modern fantasy that never quite anchors itself in reality, all in service to the inspiring, original Cervantes material. It is absurd and entertaining, confusing and frustrating, but ultimately bittersweet and triumphant. It has a large cast, but the story is really held together by Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Jonathan Pryce (The Wife), and Olga Kurylenko (The Death of Stalin). The three form the Quixote, Sancho, Dulcinea trinity.

This is one of Gilliam’s most grounded films, slipping between reality and fantasy without ever showing you the line. It can be disorienting and, at times, angering, but it is all appropriate. It is also beautifully filmed for the big screen–which I didn’t get to experience, sadly, but you should if you can still find it in theaters. Don Quixote is one of those movies that you will keep thinking about it long after its heroes have trotted off into the sunset. It implies a lot but says very little directly. It is wildly inventive but emotionally very simple, keeping it focused and relatable moment to moment even when the whole hasn’t revealed itself.

This may or may not be the story you had been waiting for after 25 years. It isn’t perfect, but it is the tale we eventually got. I admit I am a Gilliam fan, so there was unlikely any chance I’d have disliked whatever result I was offered. However, worth the wait or not, it is a movie with enough layers to bring me back at least a couple more times. It will need that to fully absorb it and put it in both its own context and the context of its production journey.

Fighting With My Family

[3 stars]

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.

Nick Frost (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Lena Headey (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Game of Thrones), however, did add some great comedy and energy…and even their own sense of romance. You can barely believe them as characters…until you see the real family in the credits and realize they likely toned it all down for the film.

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.

Years and Years

[4.5 stars]

Years and Years embraces the aphorism: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. And quite the journey it is, from the smallest to the largest step along the road of choices that marks out this slippery narrative.

Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Bob & Rose) offers up a far spanning look at current politics, all lensed through the very human and personal eyes of a single family. We follow them across a decade as they deal with the fallout and shifting landscape of a world in transition. It is often difficult to watch, especially the time period closest to our own, but it is also hypnotic and gripping. As it moves forward a hundred steps, and then a thousand steps, the world is completely unrecognizable and yet utterly familiar and undeniable. It often isn’t easy seeing how people act and react, but we’ve millennia of proof that we are seeing typical responses.

Though the story is bleak at times, it also celebrates the resilience of people. Survival is key: financial, emotional, physical, and even intellectual. Because that is how it works, the world goes nuts and people do what they must to survive. It is rare that a single event is “the end of it all.” But, of course, as things move on, that is always the risk.

The cast are very much up to the task of bringing this story to life; a bevy of recognizable faces, young and old. Some of the more stand-out performances are Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax ), Russell Tovey  (queers. ), Emma Thompson (Men in Black: International), T’Nia Miller (Marcella ), Jessica Hynes (Bridget Jones’s Baby), and Rory Kinnear (Spectre). But, honestly, it is really quite the cast all around, even Lydia West in her first major role shines nicely.

Years and Years is a visceral response by a writer to the world; when good writers get mad they get writing. When they are also artists, they give us timeless classics like The Crucible. Years and Years is likewise a reaction to today’s political insanity and, if not quite as timeless as Miller’s play, it is certainly powerful and impactful. This is a must-see piece of television that will transport you to the very last moments of the series. It won’t satisfy everyone as the ending does leave some things open, but life is rarely fully satisfying…it simply keeps on keeping on. And as long as we can do that, we survive.

Men in Black: International

[3 stars]

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.

The Mustang

[3 stars]

There are few surprises in this movie, but it is done with such emotional care and intensity that it works. And I say that despite the fact that it is essentially one long, rather abused metaphor. But director and co-writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre tackles that head-on and without apology, making it all palatable. She even plays with it in some clever ways.

But, directing aside, it is Matthias Schoenaerts’s (Red Sparrow) performance that sells the story. He is stretched so tightly through most of the movie that you expect him to literally burst. He maps a compelling journey that is far from a simple happy ending, but yet still manages to provide some closure for the audience. Bruce Dern (Nostalgia), Connie Britton (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women) and Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) along with Gideon Adlon provide the walls for Schoenaerts to bounce off of and reveal himself.

Filmed beautifully, and kept taut as a story, it is easy to make it through this movie even when you are sure of its direction. It is a glimpse into the criminal justice system and the Mustang program as well as a personal journey that reflects, at least in facets, aspects in most of us.

What Men Want

[3 stars]

I wanted to like this more than I did.  It is funny and distracting, but, for me, the humor was just a little too stretched at times. Over and over again, just as I would invest and believe, the characters would fall into broad slapstick and lose credibility. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny, or even poignant at times, but it lacked consistency and an over-all believability.

Taraji P. Henson (Ralph Breaks the Internet) gives a fine comedic and emotional performance, backed by Aldis Hodge (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), Josh Brener (The Front Runner), Max Greenfield (Hello, My Name is Doris). And with ultimately throw-away performances by Jason Jones and Kellan Lutz (The Expendables 3), there are a lot of avenues to travel. However, despite the female empowerment message, and even plotting, you’ll notice that the cast is dominated by men rather than women. There are female characters, Erykah Badu in particular, but it is the men that stand-out around here. Some of that is the focus of the story…it is the men’s heads she’s focused on…but it’s far from a woman’s movie (like Sex and the City or even Mama Mia!); it is more a comedy for women than about them.

Director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) is no stranger to outlandish comedy. This movie, however, slips in and out of that sensibility rather than holding onto an approach. The effect is like being whipsawed on a roller-coaster as the transitions are abrupt from scene to scene rather than eased into and out of, generally. I had fun, but this isn’t a new classic comedy, or even one I’d likely go back to watch again, because it just isn’t that smoothly done. Once the jokes are delivered and the message complete, there isn’t much left there to return to. See it once and laugh with someone, but then you can confidently forget it and move on to the next empty comedy.

Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

[4 stars]

Few movies can sustain 3+ hours of narrative. Fewer still can do so absent some amount of action. Avengers: Endgame had story, but also a fair amount of pure adrenaline moments to keep it all going. Never Look Away has only story and still manages to remain riveting through to the end. It does employ, like other longer films, a somewhat episodic approach to revive the story every so often. In this case, it has three distinct chapters that cover the childhood and young adult life of Tom Schilling’s (Woman in Gold) Kurt.

Schilling, along with Sebastian Koch (Bel Canto), dominate the story that starts in 1937 Germany (outside Dresden, no less) and tracks through the early 1960s. I had no idea how writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s (The Tourist) was going to keep me interested for so long and through so many frustrating situations, but the script is nicely segmented and filled with enough genuine emotion and moments to keep you going.

Supporting roles by Oliver Masucc (Dark), Saskia Rosendahl, and Paula Beer were also a help. It is easy to see why this was an Oscar contender, not to mention other awards. It packs a punch without, usually, using a hammer to do so. It is an honest story of the war, but it is mostly about the meaning and communication of art. Where springs the impetus? What is an artist trying to communicate? Should they be trying to communicate? Is it just a craft or something more? All highly philosophical stuff, but they are discussions that are happening around the romance and dangers of Schilling’s life, which remains the focus.

This is also just a simple story of deep, abiding love of all kinds: familial, romantic, erotic, ideological, political. The world created by von Donnersmarck is seductively drawn and subtly appointed. And its central message in the title is not so much a challenge as an invitation and reminder that life is happening. Even with its somewhat ironic penultimate scene, its point is made. Though I will say that while I had anticipated and awaited the final moments of the film, it didn’t quite reach the pinnacle my emotions wanted, even if it did logically. That small gap was more my desire for complete closure on one of the threads, which was left to the imagination rather than on-screen resolution. Missing that, however, my anticipation made me trip over the last moment and caused cracks in the nearly perfectly constructed journey for me. And yet, I’d still highly recommend the film; it will surprise you.

One slight warning…some of the subtitles seemed to just blink on for a split second before vanishing. Honestly, I was able to fill in the gaps very easily, but it was frustrating. This is the second film I’ve run into this and I’m not sure why (it doesn’t appear to be a setting I can control, like the positioning on the screen). This seems an easy thing to avoid and quality control should be picking this kind of gaff up. It certainly knocked me out of the story more than once. Had this been a lesser movie, it probably would have lost my faith completely.