Tag Archives: craft

Boss Level

[3 stars]

It’s  been a long while since we’ve had a Joe Carnahan (The Grey) directed film to enjoy. His last two major credits were just his scripts: Bad Boys For Life and Death Wish. The man knows suspense and action. I do wish he knew how to cast and direct actors a bit better, but you can’t have everything. Boss Level is a high-octane ride from start to finish, delivering a sort of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World meets Palm Springs.

The base weakness of the film is its lead, Frank Grillo (Disconnect, Avengers: Endgame). While Grillo is a great action actor, he doesn’t quite have the charisma and rakish charm necessary to be the leading man in a flick, even when that flick is mostly gritty action. It’s not a slam so much as a simple reality: some actors have “it” and some don’t. More the problem, after other darker anti-heroes like Deadpool, expectations are pretty high on how the character has to control the screen.

But the story is fun. Carnahan shares credit with Chris and Eddie Borey for the script. And it is nicely constructed, if a little late to the party on time-loop action tales. A shame, really; if it had come out sooner, it would have felt more unique.

Fortunately, with Naomi Watts (Ophelia) and a, surprisingly, contained and menacing Mel Gibson (The Expendables), there are some solid framing performances to hold it all down. Additional roles with Will Sasso (Klaus) and a much under-utilized Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery) help things along as well.

Boss Level was originally intended for a feature release. I think the shift to stream will actually gives it a better and longer life in the movie firmament. On screen it would have bombed, but as a stream, it better meets expectations and certainly entertains.

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WandaVision

[4 stars]

Yes, I avoided talking about this till it was complete. Why? Because it was so clearly going to be a complex arc that wouldn’t likely be fully realized till the end. I’m glad I waited…and enjoyed the ride.

Like many complex tales, there are two experiences: the initial watch and the rewatch/looking-back review. The one thing that is utterly clear is that this massively risky experiment wouldn’t have worked without the incredible acting chops of Elizabeth Olsen (Ingrid Goes West). Her ability to morph through the various styles required, and her depth of emotional landscape sold an otherwise near-experimental theatre presentation. And in support around her through it all were Kathryn Hahn (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Paul Bettany (Uncle Frank) who balance and feed the confusion. It’s no Watchmen, but it is a heck of an out-there show.

And, yes, there are others, but most are surprises so I won’t enumerate. But Josh Stamberg (Pacific Rim: Uprising) is notable for a truly flawed performance. He was clearly directed by Matt Shakman to chew the furniture and he did so with relish, to the detriment of the series. Mind you, so does Hahn before it’s all over, which is a shame, but she has a wider ranging presentation. However, at least Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk) manages to pull off a rather unexpected arc without crossing those lines.

The shape of this series is everything. It begins with a 30 minute format and expands, as the story structure allows, till we get to an hour-long finale. But the first three episodes are slightly self-indulgent setups. Entertaining as heck, but stretched out a bit too long. There is a purpose and a reason for it all (thankfully) but it goes on too long. Shankman should have reined it in a little more. Similarly, the penultimate episode gets old quickly as, by that time, it’s simply revealing information we mostly know but the characters have yet to admit/understand. It could have been done better.

But the finale, which manages in true Marvel/MCU fashion to pull all the threads together, is a nice pay-off. And I say that even though it also, in true MCU fashion, has lots of open threads hinted at in the two codas.

Overall, this is a heck of an achievement. Flawed, and slightly misdirected at times, but not something most of us expected. And it resolves some of the original complaints about Wanda’s Age of Ultron introduction and story. Of course, if you don’t know about Wanda and Vision, you’ll frankly miss 80% of the story. So if you somehow missed the movies, go back to Age of Ultron and watch from there (or at least watch the Legends series to learn enough about the background).

My biggest concern with the story is how well it will stand the test of time and rewatching. Once you know the secrets and rewatch it once, is there enough there? As a stand-alone series, I suspect not. It is built as a vehicle to launch several new paths in the MCU (at least two movies link up with the ending). It isn’t a stand-alone gem of a story, it is an episode in the charcters’ existence, a bridge to what comes next. Very comic book. But is that what we ultimately want to tune in for? Dark Tower had originally planned a movie and TV pathway, because of the scope of the story, all tying together as a whole. Then they panicked and gave us a single, awful movie. So, perhaps, WandaVision is a new type of show and I’m being a little unfair to its purpose. Time will tell when we see if Disney can pay it all off in the year or so to come. Certainly, I give them credit for the ballsy and expensive attempt. Let’s see what they can do with it…

Proxima

[3 stars]

I honestly wanted to like this movie more than I did. It has a lot going for it, but it also has some uncomfortable flaws for me.

On the high side, it was nice to be reminded that science fiction simply means that the story cannot happen without an aspect of science holding it together. Proxima takes some of the themes we’re seeing now in tales like Away and Gravity and really focuses on the personal challenges of space travel without disaster as the background to drive it forward. It even takes place almost entirely before the mission rather than during it.

And, also on the plus-side, Eva Green (Dumbo) makes a relatively credible astronaut in training…relatively. And here is the turn. Some of her decisions would seem to make her psychologically unfit for the position, but her effort and focus in the face of the training and toxic male attitude from colleagues like Matt Dillon (The House that Jack Built) are impressive.

Then again, the problem is primarily with Alice Winocour’s (Mustang) script more than her direction of the story. Green is even saddled with an asshole of an ex-husband in Lars Eidinger (Dumbo, High Life) as the father and Zélie Boulant as the over-indulged and petulant daughter. If I sound judgmental on this, I am. I understand the desire to create tension for the characters, but given that this is a tale intended to be in our future rather than the past, the issues feel both forced, and Green’s reaction too accepting of the situation, rather than pushing against them. And, honestly, the character needs some serious parenting skills and a better divorce attorney.

And then there were the penultimate scenes leading to the finale, which really is more of a coda. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with the story as it was finally laid out. It was effective narratively, but bordered on the absurd.

Ultimately, the story tries to look at the conflict between dreams and family, as well as the cost of space travel and the kind of people and commitment it takes for it to happen. But what we get is a questionable statement of what it is to be a woman generally, let alone in a male dominated industry. We get no counterpoint or balancing commentary. The tension of motherhood versus career has been around for centuries, but some careers do have particular requirements, and any story that tackles those spaces should get it a bit closer to accurate.

All of my frustrations aside, again mostly focused on the end rather than the journey, Winocour does create an interesting tale. And Green delivers a smart, driven character (again, with certain qualifications). Given her previous efforts, I actually am a bit surprised by Winocour’s choices. Still, this film is worth seeing for a number of aspects, and your reaction to the resolution may be less intense than my own.

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News of the World

[3 stars]

There are different ways to think about this film. At it’s heart, it is a Western in just about every sense of the world. More on the True Grit sort of the scale than Magnificent Seven, but you get the idea. But it’s also an echo of today in surprising and disturbing ways. Let’s just say there is nothing about this movie that will improve your opinion of the south generally or Texas specifically. News of the World is a reminder of what division in a country really means and how bias and prejudice can poison people.

But, of course, all of that is backdrop to the main story of Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). He’s a Civil War vet wandering the country, coming to terms with his life and deeds. Hanks is the perfect choice for this man who can (mostly) talk his way out of anything with a calm demeanor and kind heart. And then into his path drops the young and abandoned Helena Zengel. From there you can probably write the story yourself; there really aren’t many surprises. Despite the predictability the two work wonderfully together and you can’t help but invest in their partnership as they knock up against all manner of issues.

I can’t say I really loved this film. Paul Greengrass (Jason Bourne ) delivered exactly what he wanted: a period Western with a modern sort of undertone. He and Luke Davies (Beautiful Boy) produced a script with a veiled message about as subtle as a brick. But, the real challenge for me is that I am not a fan of Westerns because of the kind of characters and situations they include to begin with. A movie that leans into that is going to distance me from the start, regardless of message.

My personal bias aside, Greengrass gives you beautiful vistas and gritty reality. Even as part of the genre, it manages to rise a bit above. If you’re a Hanks fan, you’ll also not be disappointed by the man’s quiet control and power on screen. And the young Zengel has been provided a platform to really show her potential. Whether it’s worth your time or not is going to have to be your decision.

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The Father

[4.5 stars]

Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable and storied. Olivia Williams (Maps to the Stars), Mark Gatiss (Locked Down), Rufus Sewell (The Pale Horse), and Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) perform a wonderfully seamless dance filling out the story.

This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.

My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.

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Nomadland

[3 stars]

Nomadland asks two fairly simple questions: What is home? What is family? The answers, as we all know, aren’t that simple. Director and writer Chloé Zhao tackles the concepts in a quiet, but compelling exhibition that is primarily populated by real Nomads. The result has garnered a mountain of praise and awards notice.

Holding the various talking head segments together is Frances McDormand (Isle of Dogs), whose journey into the nomad life is told with barely an initial explanation. With David Strathairn (Fast Color) as a catalyst, we watch McDormand struggle inwardly until near the end when details are expressed. Though, to be fair, most of those are already understood by the audience, just not by her character.

For all its lauds, and its craft at pulling you along, Nomadland isn’t as good a film as I was expecting. I think McDormand has had better and more challenging roles. Strathairn is a somewhat unfinished and empty character. The stories and ideas we hear are interesting, but they feel like a documentary invaded the story-telling. Somehow it does come together, but it is best to watch this with no expectations, despite the hype that has been building around it over the last year. You’ll find it satisfying, but for a two hour narrative I think Zhao could have been more focused in her script.

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The Stand (2021)

[3 stars]

Timing is everything in entertainment and The Stand, well, it couldn’t have picked a worse time. Despite the long anticipation, and the desire to see this epic tale told with the breadth it deserves, watching a story of a pandemic (even if it is just a McGuffin) doesn’t quite ring right at the moment.

But timing isn’t its only issue. The show suffers from all that was good in the book and all that was bad. Some of the casting works nicely, like Amber Heard’s (Aquaman) Nadine, Odessa Young’s (Shirley) Frannie, and even James Marsden’s (Sonic the Hedgehog) Stu. Other characters like Owen Teague’s (It: Chapter Two) Harold Lauder, and Nat Wolff’s (Admission) Lloyd, aren’t credible…and, in fact, Lauder isn’t even afforded some of his evolutions from the book despite the available time in the series.

Other changes to the story, like making Flagg the actual devil and Mother Abigail potentially an angel (though really more of a prophet) removes too much of the interesting aspects and struggles. Part of the real suspense in the book is that people have to choose (including Flagg and Abigail). That Flagg actually has a supernatural hand in causing the pandemic is just so frigging cheap a choice and shows no imagination on the part of the writers. It’s too easy and lets people off the hook. I do admit that Alexander Skarsgard (The Hummingbird Project) is a near-perfect choice for Flagg. Whoopie Goldberg is a bit less perfect as Abigail, but that felt more like the writing than her efforts.

There are also some nice smaller appearances that work nicely. Natalie Martinez (Self/less) gets to have a nice arc. And Brad William Henke (Bright) delivers within the limitations of Tom’s boundaries nicely. Even Ezra Miller’s (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) Trashcan man, for all its outlandishness, works for the need and the part. But Nadine’s story gets rushed at the end.  And the Vegas crew, generally, is just so over the top as to be entirely ridiculous. You never wonder about the outcome. Only the Colorado side feels real and sustainable (which has its own commentary and point eventually).

When the book came out 40+ years ago, it was something really new. That just isn’t the case anymore. And, worse, it feels culturally old. Despite having been updated in time the characters and situations haven’t been updated for a 2020 sensibility in politics, identities, nor culturally. That gap is squarely on the writer’s and directors. While a lot of the plot is sadly timeless, how we deal with one another has changed and the rhythm and language just feels off.

Ultimately, I wish the writers had been willing to really rework the story without losing its main premise and tension. Good vs. Evil doesn’t have to be extremes. In fact, some of the biggest impacts on both sides are often small gestures or choices that ripple out. Sure, we want it to build to a great crescendo, but the series even pulled that moment from us in an odd throwaway, supernatural event that doesn’t even really fit with the rest of the tale. In fact, the choice utterly cheapened all the efforts of the people involved because, ultimately, they didn’t matter. I do like that they had a coda episode that shows that stories just continue, that they don’t end just because of a plot milestone. Using it to create a second climax, another Stand, was clever. However, again, it cheapened everyone else’s choices and lives by forcing the God/Devil fight directly into it all rather than done at a distance. Deus ex machina is not a satisfying solution for a 9 part series, even if it can be used as a point in shorter fare.

Despite some good performances, incredible scope, and solid production values, this version of The Stand still isn’t the one we deserved after so long. Much like Dune, it struggles to find an artist who can breathe life into its rich and complicated world without making it feel like a farce.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

[3.5 stars]

The Black Panthers are a complicated subject. Not just for their own actions and politics but also because of the reason they even existed and the response at the local, state, and federal levels. Director and co-writer Shaka King tackles the subject through the particular thread of Fred Hampton’s life and assassination. And even though the story was done with Hampton’s family and the Panther’s blessing, he does so with honesty and minimal bias. I can’t imagine that was an easy feat.

Interestingly, Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcom X and the Black Panthers have been in the zeitgeist lately, showing up directly or tangentially in One Night in Miami, Small Axe, and Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as thematically in many other films. And, though unplanned, it’s important to notice that this film is releasing about a month after insurrectionists, led by white supremacists and incited by the president, stormed the Capital. Certainly puts an unexpected patina on it all.

The story, is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, given oily life by LaKeith Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). He drives the action that ultimately sweeps up Daniel Kaluuya’s (Widows) Hampton. Kaluuya himself slips into Hampton’s story comfortably and seamlessly, though perhaps not quite as poetically as the original. And Dominique Fishback (Project Power) provides a nuanced performance with grounded and conflicted emotions through which we watch Hampton.

In the background, pulling strings and guiding outcomes, Martin Sheen (Grace and Frankie) as Hoover and Jesse Plemons (Vice) make you squirm. Sheen for his sheer, vile hubris. But Plemons is more subtle and complex. The subtlety derives from the decisions he makes while internally sacrificing as he bends to pressure; doing so even as the implications of his actions become more apparent…he accepts all the choices despite those realizations.

This film is a tale of tragedy, but tempered with hope. It is also our history (and not a small part of our present, like it or not). The full scope of that history, and the truth of those involved, has yet to be widely told. This movie is a start and it is one you should see for the performances and the information.

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Life Like

[3 stars]

I’m recommending this flick based on its potential, not its delivery. Josh Janowicz’s first feature script and film is full of ideas and style choices, but it doesn’t quite work for all its effort.

For example, the choice to have James D’Arcy (Hot Zone) costumed to suggest him being a priest. Or to have Addison Timlin (Odd Thomas) and Drew Van Acker (Pretty Little Liars) speak in a very forced, shall we say robotic way by design (at least I hope it was by design), while Steven Strait (The Expanse) speaks more “humanly.” I get the points, but it’s a lot to sustain for a feature film.

Life Like plays in the same area as Humans, though with its own points and twists on the subject. But the human core of it all is very distanced. The main couple are uber-rich. Timlin’s character acts like the worst kind of white, middle-class, suburban privileged idiot you can imagine. While some of her clunky choices are intended to show the cracks in the relationship, both spouses come off very unsympathetic and unlikeable. That is not the position you want the audience in given the main points the movie intends. And while Strait actually delivers a subtle performance, it also doesn’t quite get you where you need to be with him by the end. However, while the resolution of the story is a bit rushed and forced, it isn’t uninteresting. It is also a little contradictory if you listen to all the sides, which makes you wonder about the world at large that these people live in…and you don’t get that explained.

As a bit of a side bar, the story also feels almost dated, because of  the locations and choices (like not using cell phones, connected devices, or tablets for, well, anything). This too may have been a design choice, but it lands oddly.

So why recommend this at all? Well, as I said, the ideas are there. The acting, within the constraints of the script, has its moments. Janowicz manages to buck general trends when it comes to whose skin he shows the most of. The boundaries of the relationships are nicely fluid, even if not quite as complex as they could have been. In other words, I wasn’t sorry I watched it even if I wish it had done so much more. As a first feature, it isn’t without impact and merit. And, at 90 minutes, it isn’t a huge investment to make if you’re curious on any level. But, in the end, it’s basically, your call whether you want to invest in it.

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2067

[2 stars]

You’re allowed one big lie in a story to get it going. This is especially true in genre fiction. 2067 decided to go for three…starting with an absurd premise about “synthetic” oxygen. And I might have bought into that without the misunderstandings about fusion or the biggest McGuffin of them all: time travel (and, in this case, a conscious decision to create a paradox).

And OK, maybe I could have even gone along with all of that if Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Dark Phoenix ) hadn’t whined through so much of the action that he sounded like a 5 year old. At least Ryan Kwanten (The Hurricane Heist) balanced out the shrill noise, but he didn’t have much to work with. Smit-McPhee just didn’t have any chemistry with anyone, including his supposedly devoted wife, Sana’a Shaik, who seriously tried to make it all look believable.

Writer and director Seth Larney, who is more commonly behind the camera, stepped a bit closer for this release. Unfortunately, he really just didn’t have the story under control. There was no sense of pacing and no real tension after the first scene (which was rather well done, science aside). There are some interesting ideas and conundrums in the tale, and a reasonable resolution. However, it would work better as a short story than it does as a flick because so much of it relies on clearly the internal struggle of Smit-McPhee’s character.

I honestly can’t recommend this, despite the effort, ideas, and the production values. It’s overlong and just not particularly engaging. Larney has some ability, however. If he can learn from this, I’d be curious to see what’s next.

2067 Poster