Tag Archives: craft

Dark

[4 stars]

What would happen if Stranger Things collided with the last couple of seasons of Lost? Well, you’d get something like Dark.

This show takes some work follow, especially with the added challenge of subtitles (if you watch in its original German; and why wouldn’t you?). The story is incredibly complicated and slowly revealed over its 10 parts. Part of the fun of the story is trying to get ahead of it and only occasionally succeeding. But Dark is also aware and unapologetic about the challenge of the story, even providing guidance to help viewers. Some of that comes as some classroom teaching via the teens in the series, other assistance comes as voice over, and still more as allusion or as split-screen explanations.

But all the effort is worth it. I say this even admitting it is based on some of the worst kind of science fiction. What saves it is very clever plotting and structure and solid acting across the board.

One of the things that makes limited series so much better, typically, than the more standard American 20+ episode approach is that a limited series (or season) can be fully and carefully crafted; even over multiple arcs with less time pressure and more craft. And, while this is an example of that advantage, the series inevitably allows itself an escape hatch into series two. As long as there is a series two, I’m OK with that. However, too many shows do that with the hope of garnering enough outcry and interest to get renewed, when what really works isn’t so much open ended plot points as really good writing.

At the time of this writing, Netflix has yet to commit to the follow-up, but interest in the show points to a renewal. Give it a shot even without the commit, if you haven’t already.

Dark

What’s happening in awards season, (crafted) naturally

Awards season this year is highlighting an interesting trend. It wasn’t clear to me until recently when I saw Wind River. We appear to be seeing a new version of cinéma vérité, demarked more by the sense of the story than with the more readily identifiable “shaky cam.”

It isn’t about scriptless tales either, another hallmark of some of the old vérité movement and a lot of recent films (another aspect I’ve discussed in the past). Think of it as ‘crafted naturalism,’ if you will. This new trend is about intimacy and truth in the telling. You may argue that those aspects are essential for any film, and you’d be generally right. But these new films, in general, have a smaller, more intimate feel and feel less constructed–more ‘tales told’ than ‘tales built.’

The stories that are capturing the judges and the audiences are also about imperfect people, more gray than black & white in their actions and morals. Plots are not simple and obvious or highly crafted, they follow the natural and unexpected paths of life, leading to comedy, tragedy, and triumph, but rarely only one of those and often without perfect symmetries .

In addition, the stories that are floating to the top are also, almost to a one, about love. Often that is a romantic entanglement or desire, but family love is also represented. It isn’t a surprise that smaller films are dominating; they are the darlings of the early festivals and awards. But all indications are that the wave will carry over to the majors as well.

Successful entertainment is always a reflection of society at the time. It is a mirror that is accepted as truth; to cry out, or to escape. Whatever the reason for the popularity of a movie, it is always in context of the time. Enduring films either find a deep vein of truth that carries over and morphs in resonance with various evolutions of culture, or they are part of a deeper truth that is more stable within the culture. If it is accepted over the long term internationally it likely has hit on what we’d call “a human truth.” But, typically, these wide-ranging films tend to be more action and escapist rather than character driven. The exception to that tends to be sprawling, escapist romances (for example, Doctor Zhivago), but even those tend to fade or tarnish with time.

So what does this new trend tell us about our times? Let’s just look at the films that received multiple SAG nominations, as an example.

These are not big films. They are focused on individuals in the extreme. In the case of Get Out, in very interesting ways. But, on top of that aspect, they aren’t about obvious heroes or villains. There is nothing simple about the choices the characters are making, but the choices are very real (even based on reality in a few cases). They ring true rather than created. These aren’t soaring fantasies of life, they are windows onto it.

Some years we get many dramatizations, but they are often ‘big’ stories, even when focused on individuals. Think about Spotlight, The Big Short, or the upcoming The Post. Perhaps the right word is that they’re ‘slick.’ They don’t ring true so much as ring of a truth we want to believe in. This year, they just feel different to me…or perhaps it is just me and where I am in life that is affecting my experience. In any event, there is some kind of shift going on and it is worth noticing.

 

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

Product Details

Justice League

[3 stars]

Let’s start with the short version: Yes, it is better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Yes, it is a big-screen movie. Yes, it has some good (if flawed) entertainment value.

Now for the longer version: Little was going to completely rescue this movie. It was coming out of a long history and vision which had set the tone and approach. It was very much in the can before Joss Whedon (Avengers) was brought on to finish it after Zack Snyder’s family tragedy. Whedon brought some bright spots in dialogue and character, but the main structure of the story was set and there wasn’t going to be a massive rework.

One of the big draws for this installment was the return of Wonder Woman. Mind you, she is far from the focus of the story. In fact, no one is really the focus of this film, which is part of its flaw. It also suffers from a slightly different angle on the issue that Thor: Ragnarok has. Thor has a big “surprise” a third of the way in that we all knew because of the adverts. It didn’t ruin the movie, but it diminished the impact. Justice League is structured solely to get Superman back so the League can exist. Despite that, more than half the movie passes before we get to that goal and intent and, instead, we wallow for ages with guilt and battling a villain we don’t really care about (and whose CG was appallingly bad and whose character resolution was head-scratching, though that may be because I didn’t know the Darkseid background).

Despite those issues, there are lots of good moments that help buoy the weight of the plot. Whedon’s dialogue is primary there…mostly in the guise of Adam Driver’s (Silence) Flash and interchanges between the characters. If you want to see all the bits and pieces that Whedon changed, here is a near exhaustive, and spoiler-rich list. Definitely insightful and with only a few surprises in ownership.

Justice League serves as a bridge away from the Zack Snyder era and into whatever is next for DC. For the moment that looks like it will be Joss Whedon influenced, which could be the best thing to happen to them since Christopher Nolan. I would actually argue that is better that Nolan because Whedon is a much more entertaining storyteller overall, but that isn’t the discussion for today.

Snyder, for all his faults as a writer and director, has a singularity of vision and was in the forefront of defining how Hollywood brought to life a true sense of comic books. It was an unrelentingly, navel-gazing, and ultimately ill-conceived view, but it was undeniably well-intentioned on his part. Most movie-goers aren’t sorry to see him leave the fold at this point, but we shouldn’t begrudge him the props he is owed for getting us here nor deny that he may return again triumphant when he is ready to take up his seats again behind the camera.

As to Justice League… yeah, go see it. It isn’t the train wreck you fear, even if it isn’t the glory you’d wish for. It is an important stepping stone to whatever is to come and it really does deserve a big screen the first time you see it.

Justice League

Your Name. (Kimi no na wa.)

[5 stars]

If you follow anime, it was hard to miss hearing about Your Name. It had taken Japan by storm and then was released worldwide, finally landing on US shores last summer. In the States, despite the advance word of mouth, it only grossed around 5M. However, worldwide it had amassed an additional 350M. Outside of domestic juggernauts that we export, this is the second highest grossing animation to date (topped, I think, only by China’s Monster Hunt from the previous year).

So, why discuss money out of the gate? Because it is an indicator of impact. This story transcended its original audience and spoke to the world. Even the US box office is impressive when you consider this is a sub-titled animation.

And it deserves all of its accolades. Your Name is a surprising tale of love that will keep you guessing and hoping as the plot unwinds. It starts off feeling like it is aimed young, but it rapidly becomes clear that it is richer than the typical romantic comedy it hints at being as it veers into other territory. It is also beautifully drawn and directed and, though retaining some anime tropes in character reaction, well acted. It’s artistic approach lives comfortably with and echos films like When Marnie was There or The Wind Rises (or any other Miyazaki film). Writer and director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second) has created a classic film accessible to anyone over 12 years of age.

If I sound a little effusive, well…I am. This plays straight into my nature and love of films like Sliding Doors. But Shinkai’s novel and script is more complex and its plot not nearly as neatly constructed. Your Name has multiple, unrelated aspects playing out that interact with one another. Cause and effect aren’t quite as clear as they would be in a Western film where we prefer perfect construction.

Just set aside some time and see this gorgeously rendered animation with a tale that will grab you by the heart and shake you hard.

Your Name.

The Child in Time

[2.5 stars]

I completely get why Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Kelley MacDonald (T2: Trainspotting) tackled these complex and subtle parents working through tragedy. They are a different take on an all-too-common theme, and they have a different path to travel than you’d expect. Likewise, their mirror couple in the piece, Stephen Campbell Moore (Burnt) and Saskia Reeves (ShetlandThe Worricker Trilogy) had their own acting challenges that were probably irresistible.

For the acting and the sense of honesty in the tale, I enjoyed the trip till near the end. Director Julian Farino (The Oranges) navigates a layered story that isn’t very obvious and does what he can with Stephen Butchard’s (Falcon) adaptation.

But there’s the rub. You can see the beauty of the original book behind this adaptation. The story, ideas, and language are all what you’d expect in an Ian McEwan story. The problem is that as a movie, it just doesn’t quite work. It ends up feeling a little wrong and cheap by the end, even though you can see the intent.

Overall, I don’t think it really works, or at least it didn’t for me. Perhaps if the rest of McEwan’s five book series is done it would come together, but that’s no reason to give this telemovie a break; it should stand on its own believably, and it misses for me at the conclusion.

Thor: Ragnarok

[4 stars]

Thanks in large part to Taika Waititi (BoyWhat We Do in the Shadows), Thor lives somewhere between Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool in tone. It is a delightful, distracting piece of fun whose sole purpose is to bridge us into the next Avengers film. His writers, who came out of the one-shots, Agent Carter, and multiple Marvel animation series had a good handle on the possibilities as well. But if you know Waititi’s work, you see his stamp everywhere.

There are a load of inside jokes and references to previous films, and an amusing guest appearance by Liam Hemsworth (The Dressmaker) and Sam Neil (Mindgamers). Waititi even managed to put a fun role in there for himself. The movie is, of course, full of action as well. Big, world-busting action. And, by the end of the extra scenes, it answers and resolves a number of open threads from the previous cycle of movies.

Waititi tackled the franchise with his usual flare for the silly and absurd, but always anchored with a human heart-beat. It is, I must admit, sometimes an uncomfortable melding of styles.  Much like McFarlane’s Orville, he injects his particular brand of humor onto a known template; it sometimes breaks the flow even while being wildly entertaining.

But the cast is game for both sides of that equation and gives it their all. Over-the-top and yet somehow grounded, these gods and super heroes battle it out with verve and slapstick.

Getting to see Chris Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) and Mark Ruffalo (Now You See Me 2) finally cut loose with humor that has been hinted at for years was a load of fun. Add in Tom Hiddleston (Kong: Skull Island) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) playing into it all and it becomes like a great party. Of all the returning characters, only Idris Elba (The Dark Tower) and Anthony Hopkins (The Dresser) don’t seem to get to get their moments of humor. They do, however, get their moments.

And then there are the new folks. Cate Blanchett (Song to Song) falls so far into her role, and the make-up alters her so subtly, that she is almost unrecognizable but for her incredible voice and command of the screen. In the other main female lead, Tessa Thompson (Creed) brings in a great anti-Wonder Woman sort of flare to accompany her heroics. Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon), while no stranger to dry humor, gets to try something new as well…melding his humor to what feels like a refugee from Mad Max. And then there are Jeff Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) and Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), in her first truly big film thanks to Waititi’s coattails (having been in almost every one of his other films), as a wonderfully comic couple.

If I had one major gripe it was that the studios gave away the first third of the film, totally zapping a big reveal of its power. It may still be a fun and great moment, but man ‘o man, I wish I hadn’t known and had only the clues (and they are there) and curiosity to go on. But, we’ll never know because there wasn’t even an option to avoid that knowledge.

Go. Have fun. See it on the big screen. 3D is optional for this one, but it deserves a big screen. It also has a great application of Zepplin’s Immigrant Song. What more can you ask for?

Thor: Ragnarok

Three peas in the pod (new Story Seed Vault tale)

A new small bit of humor this time (literally), is up on Story Seed Vault today.

The challenge for this market is to tell a whole story in 140 characters or less; essentially no more than one Tweet’s worth. And the story has to be based on some new bit of science. They can explain it a bit more and how you can tackle entry into the Vault yourself.

The current tale is at:
https://storyseedvault.com/2017/10/24/70/

My previous tale is still on the site at:
https://storyseedvault.com/2017/10/06/1451/
https://storyseedvault.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/40/

Baby Driver

[4 stars]

Edgar Wright is known for his outlandish films. From the Cornetto Trilogy (Worlds’ End, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) to Scott Pilgrim he attacks the worlds of his films with complete commitment. It makes them unique and, often divisive with a reduced audience, but always, to my mind, a fun experience. It has also garnered him a pile of awards and nominations.

Why bring all of that up for what is, arguably, a basic car-chase film styled as a long music video? Because that description, however apt, sell the experience of the movie short by a few leagues. The craft in the construction and look of this wonderful piece of escapism is evident from the opening and carries through to the final frames. It takes a very human response to music, applying the songs we hear to our real lives, and turns that into the focus of a young man’s grip on the world, the life he’s carved out for himself, and the trouble he’s attempting to escape. And, of course, there’s a romantic relationship or two to mix it all up.

Ansel Elgort (Men, Women, Children) drives this film, no pun intended, with a quiet intensity and focus. His performance is very reminiscent of Miles Teller’s in Whiplash…a mono-maniacally focused youth on the cusp of life. He and Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) make a great couple that you could see at the center of any John Mellencamp video. It is the sweet purity and desperation of their attachment that gives the otherwise crazy tale of robbery and mayhem a focus and purpose.

There are a host of great actors around Elgort that kick the story into gear. Kevin Spacey (Nine Lives) as the conductor of it all is a perfectly calm and scary criminal mastermind; a role he always plays well. Jon Hamm (A Young Doctor’s Notebook) and Eiza González (Jem and the Holograms) play a creepy Bonnie and Clyde that dominates the screen nicely when they’re present. Even Jon Bernthal (The Accountant) and Flea make an appearance. Jamie Foxx (Sleepless) quickly rises to the top as the irritant in the smooth workings of the story. He is both believable and a curiosity. Criminals that crazy don’t tend to survive as long as he has…I’d like to have understood a bit more about him, but as a catalyst, he served his purpose well. As a character he left me scratching my head and a little dubious. But, in the structure and intent of the film, I gave the concerns a pass.

From the top of the movie, you know it is all going to go off the rails at some point. You aren’t entirely sure when, how, or where it will end up, but it is clearly an unstable and untenable balancing act. When it all goes south, it goes with intensity and absurdity. It also travels with one of the best soundtracks and driving scenes collected for screen. Think Transporter or Fast & Furious, but with a real script and characters, not just tongue-in-cheek nods to the audience.

There is a reason this was one of the surprise hits of the summer. It is funny, pulse pounding, and jaw dropping in its execution. It is also full of heart and joy. The ending is what it has to be to complete the intent…just go with it. This is ride worth making time for. My dings on its rating are purely for some of the believability gaps that I think could have been filled. They bugged me just enough to keep it out of the five star range, but I really did enjoy the movie regardless.

Baby Driver

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step