Tag Archives: craft

It: Chapter Two

[3.5 stars]

Director Andy Muschietti definitely delivered on the promise he made with It: Chapter One.  From its powerful opening moments through to its end, the story drives relentlessly and wraps up the Derry saga.

Part of the strong showing of this story is the brilliant ensemble, which is perfectly balanced to keep any one character from dominating. And the casting choices to help bridge the 27 year gap was mostly dead on. In fact, it is so nicely seamless, I don’t see a need to call out anyone individually.

This was always going to be the harder of the two parts of the tale to tell. For starters, the adults are more complex characteres, complicated by age and amnesia. Gary Dauberman (The Nun) made some interesting choices in his adaptation. Some of them were clever and interesting, and others were baffling. In particular, there are catch phrases (“dead lights,” “beep, beep”) that didn’t show up in the first part, but that play in the second. Also, while the opening of this movie sets up the horror and mood, it isn’t particularly well used in the end. I understand the purpose, but also wonder at some of the choices which were made to set the movie apart from the book. And it seems like there are some timeline challenges as well if you look too closely.

I did indeed rewatch It (Chapter One) before heading to this resolution. I probably didn’t need to as the film does a good job of reminding you of the parts you need to recall. It also spends time in the past as the Losers recover their memories.

If you enjoyed the first movie and like the book, you will enjoy the second movie. But you can’t rightly call it a sequel because the stories just don’t mean much separately, and there is a beauty to seeing them in close proximity. This does include a challenge for the audience, as you have to be willing to understand the characters as adults and let go of their childhood. That is one of the best aspects of the classic novel, but some folks may find it hard to let go of the simple innocence of the children for the more nuanced adults. When the film is looking at those more adult problems, it is frankly at its best…better even than the many shocking scares, which will make you jump, but which are just variations on what we’ve all seen before.

At nearly 3 hours, the movie is quite the investment in time, but I never found myself bored and am glad I saw it on big screen, where Muschietti’s efforts and eye are very much on display. And in Dolby, the subsonics will shake the heck out of your seat. Obviously, this isn’t a stand-alone flick, so don’t jump into it here, see the first part…well, first. As a whole, it is quite the exercise in adaptation. Sure, I have issues with aspects of the results and choices, but it is still quite the achievement to make it float (sorry) for the 5.5 hour total screen time.

High Life

[2 stars]

I don’t mind mixing science and the metaphysical, but I do need some credibility under it all to hold the story and message together. High Life misses on almost all counts. The crux of the tale is, frankly, absurd and such a bad science fiction premise that I had to force myself to continue with the story. In addition, the emotional and metaphysical aspects of the story are, at turns, trite and, at turns, so self-referential as to be completely obfuscated.

Director and co-writer Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In ) is no stranger to mixing narrative with metaphor. Perhaps there was a bigger point here she was trying to make, but it missed me almost entirely. Certainly there is commentary on love, sex, parenthood, and redemption. But there isn’t a clear through-line that knits it together into a whole. We end up with something more like Dark Star meets Sunshine, but with all the negatives of both and few of the positives of either.

Honestly, I can’t recommend this, even with Robert Pattinson’s (Maps to the Stars) subtle performance and Juliette  Binoche’s (Summer Hours) rather frentic, untethered one. There are definitely better ways to spend a couple hours of your life than trying to pick apart this confused, philosophical mess.

Blinded By the Light

[4 stars]

While this is a triumphant coming-of-age story, it is not just the light musical the trailers would have you believe. It is also a movie of the times that holds a mirror to mid-80s England to force us to re-evaluate our current situation. In other words, it is a pretty typical BBC movie in many ways, unafraid of the truth on the way to entertaining you.

Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha (It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, Bend it Like Beckham) is known for her quirky and funny, but honest, depictions of life.  She is equally adept at pulling heart-strings, making a point, or making us laugh. This film is no exception to that track record. Chadha finds the universal in the seemingly different and specific, which is why her films speak to such a broad audience.

Like Rocketman, she is also unafraid to use fantasy to capture reality. Sequences are heightened to bring Javed’s inner life into the real world at critical points in the story. Viveik Kalra’s performance hits the screen at these moments with heart and raw energy. Music transforms his life in a way any one of us could recognize, even if the breadth of the impact is far greater. Along with other young, and relatively unknown actors, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Nikita Mehta we’re taken on a journey of self-discovery, independence, and acceptance; and, of course, the meaning and value of family embodied by his parents, Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra.

There are also more recognizable faces, each with roles that shape the story through smaller moments. Hayley Atwell (Christopher Robin), Rob Brydon (The Trip), and David Hayman (Finding Your Feet) provide perspective and hope in an era that was rapidly losing both. Mid-80s England was seeing the rise of the NF and the political conservatism of Thatcher, all amidst a struggling economy that was impacting everyone, but particularly immigrant and low-income workers. Sound familiar?

Intended or not for the timing, Chadha has delivered a wonderful film of life and love that also happens to echo current travails. That it is also based on a true story makes it just that much more a delightful meal to feed exhausted nerves. And you’ll probably never hear Bruce the same way again. It isn’t purely entertainment, but it is also apologetically entertaining and unequivocally worth your time.

Where’d You Go Bernadette?

[3.5 stars]

Richard Linklater’s (Everybody Wants Some) latest film is imperfect in its details, but complete in its emotional journey. That is thanks to Cate Blanchett (The House with the Clock in the Walls) more than anything else. She takes us on Bernadette’s wild, and very personal ride, allowing us to both appreciate and find fault with her.  And, frankly, knitting together a scattered story and script.

Part of that tale is her family. Billy Crudup (Alien: Covenant), and newcomer Emma Nelson throw down with Blanchett to create a family in loving turmoil, fighting to make it through the storm. It is a surprisingly believable one, even though Crudup’s character feels very cliche for a good chunk of the film.

But many of the characters around Bernadette feel that way. Kristen Wiig (Ghostbusters) is similarly hollow, if recognizable and allowed to grow. Laurence Fishburne (John Wick 3: Parabellum) is a convenience. Only Zoe Chao (The OA) got entirely cheated by never being allowed to have impact or grow beyond the cheap comedy she was forced into. But each of these are bumpers for Bernadette to bounce off of and not much more. Important bumpers, each in their way, but not full characters.

The script adaptation appears to be most at fault for these gaps and slightly scattered story. It feels like too much was shoe-horned into the two hours, keeping the story from remaining focused. There were too many side-trips and events and not quite enough was sacrificed from the original book. This isn’t unusual in Linklater’s films, but editing is one of his weaknesses. What he sees as being naturalistic is often just indulgent or boring.

Most of this movie’s weaknesses are quickly forgiven, from factual errors to misrepresentations, but they are there.  What is frustrating is that they needn’t be, they were all clear director/writer choices. Fortunately, Blanchett can pull the entire load in her wake. For her performance, and the emotional release of the tale, this is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Missing Link

[3 stars]

I have been a fan of Laika Studios since Coraline, and still think they got ripped off when Kubo and the Two Strings didn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated. However, sadly, this latest movie isn’t quite up to their legacy in script or visuals.

It isn’t a bad film, and it is entertaining, but it’s just, well, confused. It’s neither a kid’s film nor an adult’s. It doesn’t even run that ephemeral line between the two, appealing to both audiences by cleverly balancing adult nods and silly humor. Chris Butler (ParaNorman) couldn’t quite find the tone in his script or direction to pull it all together.

However, it does eventually get to the point in the last quarter of the movie. If only the rest had had the punch of those final confrontations and sequences. But it doesn’t. Despite some impressive animation in scenes, the overall movie feels a little less polished than what Laika has put out before. The animation is a tad less smooth and the feeling a little less magical than I’d have expected from them. It will keep younger kids chuckling, though some will be beyond them and some may be a bit too frightening.

The Souvenir

[2.5 stars]

I so wanted to like this more. I kept trying. There is sense of something buried deeply in its recursive, meta, Sophomoric view of life. Unfortunately, I never quite found it…and the final denouement “Part 2 coming soon” after the credits made me shrink in horror rather than anticipation.

Despite that reaction, I was drawn through the story, though I think that was mostly on a misinformed idea that there would be a pay off. That said, it has Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) in, literally, a matronly role to her real-life and screen daughter Honor Swinton Byrne. The two work well together but Byrne’s character life is hampered by the telling of the story. We don’t really see her changes, we must mostly infer them. But we also never really understand her attraction to Tom Burke (Strike), who does a likewise solid job with what he has to work with. While we don’t have to agree with a character’s choice, we do have to understand it.

Writer/director Joanna Hogg  certainly has a track record, as does this movie, with awards or nominations for every one of her feature projects. But I don’t understand the enthusiasm around this offering. It may have been created with skill, but that didn’t translate into a good movie. At least it didn’t for me.

Amazing Grace

[3 stars]

Aretha! What more do you need to know?

Come to this for the joy of the music and the significance of the moment (not to mention some of the people captured on screen).

OK, to be fair, this is more a behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of the most famous gospel albums of all time than a full documentary.

What you get is a peek at Aretha working, as opposed to just purely performing. You get to see her roots, some of the depth of her beliefs, and a little of her family and background.

Recorded live with an audience, Sydney Pollack (Sliding Doors, Eyes Wide Shut) tried to capture the event and energy. This is not Pollack’s Stop Making Sense. It doesn’t create a story, it is unable to really capture the feeling of live gospel, and the quality of the visuals is pretty grainy (though the sound is restored nicely). There are reasons for all this, not the least that it is from 1972 and many technical issues plagued the shooting and post-production. Aretha herself never wanted this movie released, even after they solved many of the sound problems; no one in public knows what her objections were.

But it is released now and it is a gift to her public. It isn’t her best performance. The music isn’t the most exciting, nor is it organized in a way to pull you along or take you on an emotional journey. It simply is. It is a visual album that is a balm to the nerves and delight to your heart, even if it isn’t your type of music or even your religion (for the record, it is neither to me). But it is worth your time.

Captive State

[3 stars]

There is nothing particularly bad about this Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) alien invasion/human insurgency story, but there is also nothing particularly special either. Well, I’ll modify that, there is one thing from Wyatt’s and Beeney’s co-written script that is so right, and so real, it had me seeking a reference that didn’t exist…and it’s the opening to the flick: Light a match. Ignite a war. It sounds so familiar, even comfortable in association with a host of figures from the 60s, I was sure I recognized it. But if it is attributable, I couldn’t find it. That’s a rather impressive invention.

As to the rest of the movie, it is nicely understated with low amounts of pure exposition, allowing images and videos to explain the world and the situation. And the story doesn’t insult us by trying to explain everything. Some information is just never provided, and that’s OK. And the cast is certainly talented.

John Goodman (Black Earth Rising) and Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) topline the story from different sides of the tale. They are relatively interesting, but not overly compelling characters, which is part of the weakness in the movie. We don’t entirely care about either of them. Some nice support from Vera Farmiga (Godzilla: King of Monsters), James Ransone (Bosch), Ben Daniels (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Alan Ruck (Goats) helps sell the situation and add some depth but they are all bit players in the larger scheme.

Basically, there is little surprising in the plot and there isn’t quite enough suspense to sell it on suspense alone. There are certainly some nice effects (and a couple really bad ones). I didn’t feel bored nor that my time was wasted, but I wanted more than just a setup for a franchise. I wanted a sense of triumph or disaster. I wanted more than an obvious metaphor for our times. I wanted to invest emotionally rather than just with my eyes. And, sadly, I never really did, and I suspect you won’t either. For a popcorn evening, there is some craftsmanship here…just not a great movie.

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.