Tag Archives: craft

Three Identical Strangers

[4.5 stars]

Tim Wardle’s matryoshka-like tale of three brothers separated at birth is fascinating. Even if you remember the story from when it happened, you don’t know the whole of it. Wardle’s control, revealing it in layers, takes you down a rabbit hole; it creates an experience as close to how the brothers themselves experienced it as you could hope for. The structure is a wonderful example of form and function, and yes, showmanship.

There is much to take away from this documentary. Some of it is wonderful and some of it less so. To discuss any of it would be to diminish the experience for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say, make time for this. Support it. And keep an eye on Wardle. He may have lucked out with subject matter on this one, but he still had to have the eye to find it and the skill to present it as powerfully as he did, while still being utterly fair to the facts.

Three Identical Strangers

Death Wish (2018)

[3 stars]

A movie about violence in times of ineffective government is probably not the best timed release. Death Wish has always been a bit problematic as a story. Stories like Die Hard or Taken or other similar machismo-based tales of fathers and/or husbands fighting back, tended to be with a rescue in mind or they were forced into action due to time constraints or other issues. Death Wish is about the conscious choice to become a vigilante for the sole purpose of revenge…and not even against the perpetrators, but against all criminals that cross his path.

There is a 7-year-old part of me that applauds that sensibility, but there is also the adult that knows where that leads. In the current climate of hate being encouraged from the very top of our government, it is actually pretty terrifying. I’m not overstating it to say this is how the brown shirts got their start in the 1920s and 30s. So I have to wonder if we needed this remake at all.

Joe Carnahan’s (The Grey) script tries to balance this conversation, but ultimately ends up celebrating the choices. That happens in part due to the very nature of film, but also because of Eli Roth’s direction. While the first third or more is set up and family and relationships, the final third of the film progresses steadily off the rails both in plot situation/choices and violence. It shifts from a man getting involved to a man reveling in the carnage while the cops, essentially, give him a pass. And the final moment belies any positive message the story could have raised.

Bruce Willis (Rock the Kasbah) does a credible job as a distraught father and victim and a middling one as a surgeon. Script and direction on the hospital sequences were rather, let’s say under-researched. But it works fine enough for the intention. Vincent D’Onofrio (Emerald City) is an interesting foil for Willis as his brother. But while Elisabeth Shue (Battle of the Sexes) made a good showing as his wife, the less heeled Camila Morrone as their daughter was less engaging for me. To be fair, Morrone was there to serve a purpose rather than a character and the script didn’t really help show her off.

Outside of the family unit, Dean Norris (The Book of Henry) and Kimberly Elise (Dope) make an interesting detective duo. They manage to come off relatively competently but overwhelmed. It is the subtlest part of the script. Their characters break down towards the end, but through most of the story, we see them as a glimpse of sanity and potential rather than as ineffective or buffoons.

You may have noticed I don’t even mention the criminals. They’re there, but none came off as real. They’re all extreme portrayals intended to go without sympathy. We’re not supposed to care that they are offed in violent or tortured ways, so why flesh them out? Well, that is part of what is wrong with the pic…by not fleshing them out, they become purely “other” and it is OK to kill them, even enjoyable. The issue isn’t that these kinds of people don’t exist or even if they did or didn’t deserve their fates, the issue is that it makes it OK to view people as “other” and absolve yourself of the effect you have on them or the judgement you make of them. That is a major part of what is wrong with society and getting worse right now: we don’t recognize each other as fundamentally the same regardless of age, skin color, sexual preference, economic status, sexual identity, political affiliation, fill in the descriptor here.

So, did we need a remake of this Charles Bronson 1974 classic? The 70s were a different time, in many ways. The violence was as much about racial and economic tension as it was the existential horror of war. Today, hmmm… well, maybe it isn’t all that different, but the message should have been updated as well. Something more like The Equalizer in flavor, where the system honestly tried, but failed or where justice and humanity co-existed would have worked better for me. Stoking the anger and hate and divisiveness between people is the wrong message to enhance right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t have revenge movies or even movies about personal justice, but they should be better balanced. I guess what it comes down to is whether or not this movie depicted a world I’d like to live in and the answer for me in this case was: no. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that is the kind of story you need to see or not.

Death Wish (2018)

The Commuter

[3 stars]

Did we really need to see Liam Neeson (Silence) kick a bunch of butt again? Is there really anything new to see here? Well, honestly, no, not much. No matter how well he sings his nice-guy-with-a-secret-past, it is a tired tune.

Of course, Neeson has to have an interesting villain to push against. Vera Farmiga (The Judge) provides a nicely cool opponent, but the script didn’t do her many favors. It is an incredulous set of circumstances and actions, however nicely tied up and pushed along with action and tension.

One fun surprise in casting was the brief appearance of Letitia Wright (Black Panther). Shazad Latif (Star Trek: Discovery) also has a small role. There are other supporting roles of note, particularly, Clara Lago, Jonathan Banks (Mudbound), Patrick Wilson (Young Adult), and Sam Neill (Thor: Ragnarok) but generally there are no standouts, just plot movers.

What is worth seeing in this movie is the opening 10 minutes or so of the the film. Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (Non-Stop) first few minutes of the credits and action set up a tremendous amount about Neeson’s relationships, allowing Collet-Serra to focus the film on the plot, mystery, and action rather than backstory. Though for a rather different purpose (and not nearly as evocative) it is reminiscent of the brilliant opening of Up.

For a pure escapist, brain dead kind of evening, The Commuter is fine fare…and Neeson gets as much as he gives in this one. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is well crafted and paced. There are some nice moments, and at least one forced “but wouldn’t it be nice if the world was this way” moments that you can see coming a mile off. But this movie shouldn’t be high on your list. Get to it if an when you have an urge.

The Commuter

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

[4.5 stars]

Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom)  has put together a lo-fi cure for hopelessness in these dark and desperate times. This is not a flashy film. It is full of old, grainy footage, talking heads, and simple conversations, much like Fred Roger’s shows. And yet it is profoundly powerful, like watching old, previously lost films from the attic of your childhood or of your family (or the family you wish you had).

If you grew up on Roger’s shows, it is easy to miss how subversive they were. This is especially true if you watched them from the beginning in the late 60’s. His willingness to discuss hard subjects with children, his inherent belief that children were people capable of understanding and, more importantly, were wells of potential goodness in the world was unlike anyone else in the media. Both he and his show embodied that in the tone, the pace, and the simplicity of its presentation. Reflecting on those shows, the events surrounding them, and his philosophy is to acknowledge something we’ve lost.

Not that it really matters, but given it has been 15 years since Roger’s passing, I did wonder about the impetus for this documentary. Part way through the movie, I think I got my answer when Yo-Yo Ma made an appearance; Yo-Yo Ma and Rogers were long-time friends. My guess is that Neville was inspired during the creation of The Music of Strangers to look at Rogers as a subject. The timing of the release may well be happenstance, but I expect it is, in part, in recognition of how far society in this country has drifted from Roger’s simple ministry of ideals and hopes.

Personally, I went into this film despondent over the last week in the news. Shattered, actually. Won’t You Be My Neighbor gave me back a sense of hope, but not in a blind way. Roger’s moment fighting for PBS in Congress subtly sums up so much of what has gone wrong in this country and shows that it could be something else…because it once was. It is a perfect film for a troubled time as a reminder of what we are capable of and how we should approach people and the world and, yes, even politics.

[If you want to see just how low I had gotten prior to this film, you can read When Hyberbole Meets Axis (password: politicalplace)]

Won

Double Lover (L’amant double)

[3 stars]

Writer/director François Ozon (Potiche) has created a highly tense, psychological drama delivered with deft visual and editing craft. The result is something like The Square meets Dead Ringers by way of Tully…maybe even a dash of Antichrist or mother! with an echo of Blue Velvet thrown in.  How’s that for a heady cocktail? Double Lover is full of incredible visual shots, with some expected elements that skirt horror, and with an unsure foundation of reality. Basically, this is not an easy movie to watch without squirming quite a bit as it unfolds.

The entire film is held in the capable hands of the young Marine Vacth (Young and Beautiful). From the outset, she is a complex and vulnerable woman in search of answers, but also with a poor sense of boundaries and choices. She is literally and figuratively laid open to us. Opposite her, Jérémie Renier (Saint Laurent) provides balance and reflection (an ongoing theme) as they battle and regroup emotionally and physically. The movie is really these two characters locked in a tarantella that is as fascinating as it is disturbing. There is also a small, but nice role for Jacqueline Bisset (Dancing on the Edge).

Ozon admits this is “freely adapted” from a Joyce Carol Oates tale. Not having read the short story I can’t say how freely, but I suspect it isn’t very true to that narrative. Unfortunately for Ozon, it also is rather violent toward women, making it fairly tone-deaf for the times. The intent is certainly more complex than that simple statement, but it will make many too uncomfortable to sit through the story to understand the action. I also think that the film is about 20-30 minutes too long to support its intent…at least for me. Some compression in the narrative might have improved the impact and pacing.

Ozon is no stranger to complex relationships, dark subjects, raw sexuality, and strong women. He is a very capable filmmaker with visual flare and little fear. This film struggles a bit to find a satisfying balance between the purposefully provocative and the honestly emotional. That is part of the point, but it will leave a percentage of the audience angry. This is especially true because of how long it takes to pay off the setup. This is a film for a night you feel patient and want to be challenged.

Double Lover

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

[3-ish stars]

Ok, Fallen Kingdom’s prequel, Jurassic World, was no great piece of cinema, despite its ridiculously high box-office gross. This sequel, however, made it look like Pulitzer material in many ways. Honestly, I’m fine with escapist silliness when it is done well, but I don’t like having my intelligence insulted.

There is exactly one adult, thoughtful moment in this entire film. It comes near the end and it is a good one too. The moment, and its resolution, actually reflect the core of the story that is buried in the bones of this popcorn trifle. The rest of the action and plot are predictable and, frankly, frustrating. Evil people are evil. Good people are good. Old men are foolish. Dinosaurs with big eyes are cute. Humans are greedy. Dinosaurs with big teeth are… well, you get the idea. You know what you’re walking into; there are no shades of gray, it is all black and white which leaves no room for any real lasting or surprising emotions or experience.

I will grant director J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls) one thing: he kept the slaughter on screen to a minimum, though there is no shortage of comeuppance by the final credits. But Fallen Kingdom is merely a bridge to the third movie that Universal really wanted to make, which is hinted at in the tag after the credits. They realized that leap would have been too much to do straight from the end of the previous movie, so they made a nod at taking the time to tell it right. Unfortunately Trevorrow and Connolly’s follow-up script to their previous is even more rife with time, science, and character problems. Oh, let’s call it what it is: generally bad writing.

Will most people care? Probably not. They haven’t in previous installments, which were no better at times (including going all the way back to the beginning). It is a visual romp and the effects are, as always, pretty astounding. If you must see it, see it on a big screen and maybe even 3D to get the most you can out of the amusement park ride it is. In traditional 2D the fact that it is aimed squarely at pre-teens is unavoidable.

I expect more from my entertainment. Even when I want to turn my brain off it needs to be occupied rather than irritated to enjoy itself. I can suspend disbelief as long as things are consistent, honest, and marginally believable. Fallen Kingdom came close to those requirements, but, at least for me, missed just enough to leave me less entertained and more annoyed. As they say, your mileage may vary (and probably will).

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Incredibles 2

[3 stars]

The largest part of what made The Incredibles so successful and ripe for a sequel was Brad Bird (Tomorrowland).  Up till now he never treated any of his animations as cartoons, he approached them like drawn movies. Few animators (and their studios) took that approach before him, though it is more common now. It isn’t just in the subject matter, it is in the composition of the frames and the choices of the edits. Watching a Bird animation you could sometimes forget these aren’t real people on screen, unlike, say the Despicable Me series.

But while this sequel picks up seconds (and 14 years) after the original ended, some of the Bird magic seems to be missing for me. For starters, the whole point of the first movie was the family learning to accept who they were and to work together. This second throws that out and starts again, admittedly for different reasons, but it still feels a bit like a loop rather than a progression. The action, probably thanks a lot to Jack Jack, is broader and more cartoon-y. And the mystery…just isn’t in this one. Or at least it wasn’t to me.

This is certainly enjoyable family fare…and with more going for it than most family movies. There are nods and comments for adults throughout that were noticed and enjoyed by the crowd. But I expect a bit more from Bird instead of a, basically, a solid Pixar action flick that took very little time to build characters. There weren’t even any voice performances worth calling out as anything special, though Catherine Keener (Nostalgia) and Bob Odenkirk (The Post) come close. Keener’s exchanges with Holly Hunter (The Big Sick) also verge on something unique, but never quite get there. Overall it felt like Bird was afraid to let the action lull too long and so quickly left any quiet moment. To be fair, it certainly seemed to work to keep the kids all engaged through the 2+ hours (including the uneven, if ultimately surprising, short, Bao).

Certainly, make time for this rollicking and entertaining distraction. But it isn’t quite everything I had hoped for, though it was great to spend time with these Supers again after so long; they deserved a new adventure. Perhaps we’ll get that next time.

Incredibles 2

Hereditary

[3.5 stars]

Ari Aster’s first major script and directing gig betrays a love of intelligent, suspenseful horror from the 70s. There is an air of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and even a bit of The Omen and the (much older) Cat People and the more recent Get Out. It is in the tension he creates and the way he drives the story by raising questions around what’s really happening that echoes these earlier classics. He certainly did himself no harm with the cast he gathered either.

Toni Collette (Please Stand By) delivers a shattering performance as the matriarch of a broken family. Gabriel Byrne (Carrie Pilby) supports her as her husband with immense restraint and love, but with diminishing capacity as the story unfolds. And, as the children, Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and first-timer Milly Shapiro turn in wonderfully creepy and sad performances that will break your heart before tearing it from your chest. As an added bonus, Ann Dowd (American Animals) gets to play a pivotal role and appear on multiple screens in different releases this season.

Hereditary is not an easy movie, either to watch or to define. Half the film I was wondering what I was watching, but was utterly riveted by the performances and the filmmaking. The end felt a bit forced and obvious, but the ride getting there was so solid I’ll give Aster a pass on his ultimate choices. The film gave everyone in its ensemble moments to shine, and made its audience gasp many more times than once. If you are looking for dark, creepy, and something just a bit different, you will want to see this on the big screen, in the dark, with others.

Hereditary

The City & The City

[3 stars]

Much like the title and conceit of the story, I had two simultaneous reactions to this story. First, I was awed watching the impossible being brought to screen. At the same time I was led down a path of disappointment in support of the purpose and the plot.

I’ll come back to that, but be assured there is a great ride for a long part of the series. A good part of that success goes to David Morrissey (Extant, Doctor Who). He is subtle but intense in his role, which is highly flavored with an East European flare. Mandeep Dhillon (Whitechapel), as his sidekick, is energizing and entertaining and far from superfluous. Maria Schrader (Fortitude), as another associate, brings a very different type of intensity to help it all along. And Lara Pulver (Electric Dreams) is a great Macguffin for the tale, slowly peeling back layers and history for Morrissey. And that’s just a sampling of the characters. You may have  noticed that despite the male lead, this story is dominated by strong women. In smaller, pivotal roles, Christian Camargo (Europa Report) and Danny Webb (A Little Chaos) are a bit less believable, but still serve their purposes.

Now, back to the plot. The first three episodes of the four installment series are brilliant and engaging. The combination of writing, directing, and cinematography walk you through a challenging set of ideas in a convoluted world. But in the fourth episode, after a promising start, it all falls apart into either an odd political polemic or disappointing bit of naturalism. I haven’t read China Miéville’s book of the same name yet, so can’t speak as to whether it follows the source closely, but I can believe it does; the flavor of the ending matches Miéville’s sensibilities.

But here’s the thing about The City & The City, you’ll get to the end and, probably, be annoyed. But you will keep thinking about this show and its  points and implications. In fact, it may not even land at first, but will keep poking at your brain demanding to be acknowledged; the metaphors are incredibly powerful. However, that doesn’t make it satisfying, only poignant. I think that it would have done better as an episode in an anthology series or a one-shot film rather than a four-part series that seems to lead in one direction only to veer off into another. Forewarned, it is likely a better experience than going in blind. So take this as your heads-up and then make time for the series, it really is worth it just for the brilliant execution of the near-impossible by director Tom Shankland (The Fades) and writer Tony Grisoni .

American Animals

[3 stars]

It’s easy to dismiss this as a story that depicts the basic truism “criminals are stupid” because, well, they certainly were in this case. However, that would be selling this quasi-documentary short. Bart Layton wrote and directed something that wasn’t so much unique as it is impressively seamless as it bounces between the real subjects of this story and the actors and situations depicting their tale from 13 years previous. It is a wonderful melding, raising re-enactment to an impressive level that maintains truth and also becomes a movie on its own.

Part of that success is how well Layton cast the younger criminals. Evan Peters (Elvis & Nixon), Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen), and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) each manage to embody their real-life counterparts and deliver nicely layered characters. Most importantly, you can see them growing into these men. But while Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) delivers a performance that, under other circumstances, would have been great, I had great difficulty seeing him grow up to be the real Spencer Reinhard. This isn’t just a matter of knowing the story and people involved, Reinhard and his cohorts deliver interviews and color commentary throughout the film…we see them and get to know them, which makes the younger portrayals all that more important. Around them are a solid ensemble making it all work. There are also some specific supporting bits from Udo Kier (Downsizing)  and Ann Dowd (Collateral Beauty) that stood out.

But ultimately, as engaging and suspenseful as the story is, the real question is what is this movie about? Certainly it chronicles the events and, to a degree, the lives of those involved. It raises some interesting questions about motive and growing up as a Millennial. It encourages us to wonder what we would do in these situations. But what it doesn’t do is provide satisfactory answers or a sense of conclusion. There is no indication that those involved even had answers to those questions or ideas. And that, perhaps, is part of Layton’s point in making American Animals, but I’m not sure that’s enough to justify having made the film, however well crafted it is.

Still, for the ride and to experience the beautiful craft that Layton employs, this movie was worth my time. I wanted more, but I can also acknowledge the filmmaker’s vision.

American Animals