Tag Archives: Director

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

[3.5 stars]

In the Fade packs a lot of story into its shy two hours. And while I’m not a Diane Kruger (The Host) fan, often finding her stiff and unemotional, she is powerful and painfully exposed in this film; she carries it utterly. In fact, the only other actor that leaves a real impression is Johannes Krisch, who’s super creepy and foul lawyer will twist your guts as he does his work.

Director/co-writer Fatih Akin tackles what is becoming an all-to-common story in the last ten years. However, he focuses the story very personally and small, expertly guiding Kruger and the cast, keeping it paced and under control. The story, however charged, stays ensconced in the painfully mundane, which is part of how it earned the many awards it was was nominated for and/or won last year.

Admittedly, In the Fade is not a light film for a night of simple distraction, but it is a well-done film that should be seen at some point. Because it focuses on the individual rather than the broader societal threads, it is oddly more palatable. We connect with Kruger and invest in her need for meaning, even when her actions are far from anything we may personally identify with…and even more so when they are.

In the Fade

Tully

[4 stars]

In their first pairing since Juno, director Jason Reitman (Men, Women, Children) and writer Diablo Cody (Ricki and the Flash) yet again bring their A-game to the screen. Tully is a glaringly honest look at being a parent with a newborn. It is also a story of trying to survive seemingly insurmountable odds in life.

Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) last worked with Cody on a story about a different kind of broken woman in Young Adult. Theron, as always, gives herself over to this new character, allowing herself to be as unquaffed and unclean and unpleasant as the story needed at times. It is a great and sympathetic performance that anyone who has felt crushed by life’s events will understand. As her husband, Ron Livingston (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) gets his own interesting path to navigate through this story as well.

Though the two make a solid couple, it is Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049) in the title role that pulls it all together. She brings a sort of wonderfully twisted Mary Poppins energy to her night nanny.  She sweeps in and sweeps Theron’s family off their feet, working to put them back on track with a focus on Theron’s needs. It is a challenging role, and one she executes with style and craft.

This isn’t an easy film to classify. It is very much a slice-of-life film, but with a broader impact and with more going on that is very obvious at first. It is also a great piece of film-making that should get a lot more attention as word of mouth spreads (or it certainly deserves to). Be on the watch for this one come awards season, particularly for Theron, Reitman, and Cody.

Tully

Mute

[3 stars]

Mute is not a feel-good romp nor even what could be termed a fun distraction. Its roots are in films like Blade Runner, but without the history to support it. However, it has its own sort of magnetic pull thanks to director and co-writer Duncan Jones’s (Warcraft) efforts in this noirish confection.

The film unfolds at Jones’s typical laconic, but compelling, pace. The story and genre aspects aren’t entirely right, but it is consistent in its approach which allows it to work. And Jones’s nod to his previous release, Moon, is both subtle and amusing… it took me a few minutes to even realize what I’d just seen. Nods like that, which also fit into the world that has been built, you have to respect.

Most dystopian stories are about overthrowing the status quo so that sanity and justice can reign. Not this tale. This dark story is small and intimate against the background of the greater darkness of a totally screwed-up world that looks all-to-familiar. Mute also takes time weaving its its multi-threaded story into whole cloth. And then it heads down a corridor that almost ends on one of the darkest moments I’ve witnessed (we’re talking Oldboy dark). Fortunately it goes beyond that to get to someplace more palatable, but still not what one would really call happy.

The main dance is between a near silent Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan) and a hyper-juiced Paul Rudd (The Fundamentals of Caring). Their paths intersect over and over, eventually pulling them into the same story. Around these two are a bevy of odd characters. Justin Theroux (The Girl on the Train) as Rudd’s sidekick is creepy if not entirely believable. And Robert Sheehan (Geostorm) gets to totally tear it up with his outlandish character, but still manages to give him a bit of heart. Just a bit. I was also surprised to spot Dominic Monaghan (The Day) and Noel Clarke (Star Trek Into Darkness) in a couple of smaller and nastier roles.

This movie had a long road to screen. That it landed on the little screen rather than the large is probably for the best. While it has visual scope, it definitely would have had a narrow audience appeal. However, the restrictions of theatrical release may have also forced Jones to tighten up his final cut a bit as well; sort of a dual sword. The story-telling and conceits of the result, particularly the unique blending of cultures he works with, make this an interesting couple hours. Just don’t go in depressed or angry as this will only feed that spiral.

I enjoy Jones’s willingness to try new things and difficult story lines, and to tell them at his own pace. His opus definitely isn’t for everyone, but there is a talent there that is still developing and one worth watching. He got great a great performance out of Skarsgård and took Rudd some places I’ve not seen him do…and even managed to guide him to just enough humanity to pay off the plot. If you like Jones’s previous work, you should give this your time. If you haven’t yet discovered Jones, you can try this, but you might want to start with Moon and decide if his style jibes with yours first.

Mute

Gloria (2013)

[4 stars]

Even when a movie like this one earns your attention and trust you aren’t always sure it’s working until the final moments. By the end, however, it most definitely pays off; in fact, the final moments are transcendent for the character and the audience.

The success of the final scene is worth the entire movie to get to…and wouldn’t work without what comes before. Paulina García’s (Narcos) subtle performance holds you and endears you to her over time. And, it must be said, she is certainly helped along in the finale by the 80s hit that shares the same title. (As a side-note, there is a fascinating history to the song and its lyrics and why you may not recognize the translation.) Without question, this is García’s film. While Sergio Hernández certainly gives her something to work off of, she controls the story and screen from start to finish.

Gloria is a quiet film of discovery and life for its main character. The tale is interesting, but not provocative. Like Finding Your Feet, it allows the information to seep out and inform over time. We travel with Gloria through a critical period of her life, starting 12 years after her divorce. It is clear that, up till now, she had drifted through life’s events, shifting directions as they sent her. We aren’t really sure where she’ll end up nor whether anything is going to change as we see her wake up to that reality; the tension of that question and the accessibility of her character pull you along to the end.

Director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio’s (A Fantastic Woman) love of the character and his trust in the material and in the audience is wonderful. He is expert at showing us what we need, and nothing more, while helping us celebrate his characters, flaws and all. You would be excused for not seeing how well its working till the end; but the final scene makes it clear how undeniably good his craft is and why, even with a small opus, he has so many awards nominations and wins. Make time to celebrate Gloria at some point, and keep an eye on Lelio. He is clearly a talent to watch with many more tales to tell.

Gloria

Finding Your Feet

[3.5 stars]

Yes, another tale of late-life discovery and rebirth. But it does it well, with humor, and with a hell of a cast.

The story is led by the incomparable Imelda Staunton (Pride) and Celia Imrie (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as a pair of estranged sisters reconnecting after more than a decade. The two work brilliantly together both emotionally and with their timing. Imrie’s world is full of other characters that spur Staunton’s rediscovery of herself and life. Chief among these are Joanna Lumley (Me Before You) and David Hayman (Macbeth) as the core of her group along with the most unlikely of the cast: Timothy Spall (Denial). Spall has often carried stories, but rarely, as in this case, as the romantic male lead. Not your typical choice, and yet he manages a sweet magnetism and vulnerability that makes it all work.

The script for this life and aging adventure was from a pair of writers: first-timer Meg Leonard and the more-heeled Nick Moorcroft (Burke & Hare). But as fun as the film is, it falls prey to taking a couple simple “outs” with the plot rather than working toward their goal in a more challenging way. Honestly, it was a bit of a shame as the scope of the story across age, love, and loss was pretty sweeping; perhaps a little too sweeping given how they solved the problems. But, they still manage to land the moments and the point, even if a few of the paths were far too generic and obvious from the get-go.

Regardless of any weaknesses or clichè in the script, Richard Loncraine (Richard III) directed the story with a sure and powerful hand, controlling the leaps in time and emotional evolution well. The story borders on broad comedy, but has just enough of a tinge of bitterness and embarrassment to feel real during the most challenging moments. It is also unafraid to quietly feel pain at its rawest.

As a tale and reminder that life doesn’t end until it does, this is a great couple of hours. It is for the romantic, at whatever age, and the time invested is worth it just to get to the final frame.

Finding Your Feet

Thelma

[3 stars]

Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) brought his award-winning ability directing and co-writing (with constant collaborator Eskil Vogt) this intense and suspenseful tale. It isn’t an easily defined story, but Eili Harboe (The Wave) owns the title role with wonderful subtlety and angst.

The result, as close as I can come, is a coming-of-age horror(ish) tale. You know from the opening scene that something isn’t quite right but it is a paced story that builds the situation from Thelma’s point of view. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen support Harboe as Thelma’s parents in echos of many other similar stories, but without becoming histrionic.

In fact, that is one of the biggest differences in this riff on a plot you’ll recognize quickly, it is told simply and naturalistically rather than with big moments and effects. It is, above all, a story about Thelma and her becoming an independent adult. It is also doesn’t explain everything or provide simple answers to some of the actions, though it certainly raises questions. The story is as much metaphor as truth.

This isn’t a fast film, but it is gripping and interesting,  performed and constructed with real ability. It was nominated for and won many awards deservedly, but it is more on the art-house end of the spectrum than, say, A Quiet Place, that subverts the genre in a different way. When you want something familiar, but that feels new, check this out.

Thelma

A Quiet Place

[3.5 stars]

A tight, post-apocalyptic family drama, told with real skill. From the beginning, you are made aware that while the story is familiar, the rules you know may not apply. It is also a beautifully appointed tale of deaf child coming into her own in a world of imposed silence, which makes for some great, if never spoken, contrasts.

The danger of this film was really with writer, director, and one of the three main actors, John Krasinski (The Hollars). That is a lot of hats to wear and not screw something up. As you might have guessed, he didn’t. He builds a level of tension through scenes that few other directors have pulled off without cheap tricks. This is very important as some of the key moments you’ll see coming, but the editing and performances will keep you gripping your armrest. And, sure, you’ll recognize some of the moments and where he learned them from, but this world is very much his own. I was so involved with the story on screen that it was only afterwards that the echos came to the surface for me.

The story is entirely about Krasinski’s small family trying to survive together in a near-impossible situation. With Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) as his wife, she again proves her mettle on screen. It may not be her kick-ass warrior from Edge of Tomorrow, but she brings the energy and determination. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), on the other hand, brings the tragedy and strength that you would have normally expected one of the adult actors to take on. It is a complicated role that succeeds enough for its purpose. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses. The last main cast member I expected a bit more subtlety from given his turn in Wonder, but Noah Jupe’s tackling of the family’s son was a bit ham-handed for me at times. Honestly, that was Krasinski’s mistake more than Jupe’s, but it stood out for me amidst the other more contained performances.

All that said, this taut, 90 minute science-fictionesque/family/horror/drama is really fun and worth your time to see with an audience. When the whole room gets tense and groans and jumps with you, the experience is heightened even more. And while there are certainly brief moments of contained gore, it is really more all about the tension and release.

Isle of Dogs

[4 stars]

It’s hard to believe, but it has been four years since Wes Anderson brought us the near-perfect Grand Budapest Hotel.  Since then he has been working on this piece of stop-action magic, his second effort in the art after The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Isle of Dogs, by luck or incredible insight on the part of Anderson and his various co-writers, is a mirror of today’s politics and growing xenophobia, but in a fun way. It is, to say the least, quirky, but full of heart and humor. One thing it isn’t, it isn’t for kids. These characters lead rough lives and live in a corrupted and selfish world, but they remain driven and hopeful throughout. You could say they’re dogged, but that might get you slapped.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you may have noticed that the voice talent for this movie is extraordinary. In fact, it is far too long to even try and list. But Bryan Cranston (Why Him?) leads the story with Ed Norton (Collateral Beauty), Jeff Goldblum (Thor: Ragnarok), Bill Murray (The Jungle Book), and Bob Balaban (The Monuments Men) poking him from the sidelines. All, in Anderson’s style, just let the story unfold and show itself. Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell), Greta Gerwig (Maggie’s Plan), and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) balance them all out with quiet performances of their own. However, this is very much a male dominated story.

There is something magic about this movie. Like Budapest used music, Dogs uses Japanese stage-craft to pull you into its world and set up the approach. And it also plays with keeping you in the dog’s perspective. For instance, one of the main characters speaks only untranslated Japanese, but yet you understand him.

It is hard to explain why this film works, but it does. If you like Anderson’s work at all, this is a must-see. If you enjoy stop-action animation, it is also worth seeing, though it isn’t up to the standards of Laika studios (e.g., Kubo and the Two Strings). But it is delightful, adult, and emotionally satisfying which still providing a good story and a point. As it expands its number of screens, find a theater and go see it. If nothing else, it will be one of the  most unique films you see this year.

Isle of Dogs

Ready Player One

[3 stars]

While Ready Player One is a fun romp while you watch it, it isn’t a great movie; it missed being the brilliant classic it should have been.

Like many of the gamers in the Oasis, it hovers at the edges of greatness, but never manages to cross the finish line. There are certainly casting and script reasons for this, but primarily the fault lies with Spielberg’s (The Post) direction. What he delivered feels something like The Wizard of Oz meets Tron (with a bit of Zardoz thrown in) for High Schoolers. But let’s start with the good.

Production-wise, the creative team really got it. Even forgetting the lack of tech advancement they envisioned at points, they created wonderful interfaces and a good sense of an immersive game world. The VR sequences are imaginative and absorbing. See it on a big screen to really get the full effect and appreciate the richness and complexity of the view.

Another great part of the fun in this popcorn flick is that Spielberg manages to make more bald references to other movies than any other film I can remember (barring satires like Scary Movie that do it to make fun of the source). There were constant groans and laughs of joy at recognizing the references. I won’t spoil any here as, honestly, they are about the best part of the film. Now, whether those references were appropriate for a story that takes place in 2045 is a different question.

Despite these pluses, action, and visual candy, the movie just ends up sitting there on screen.

Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse) is a large part of the reason for that lack of life. He just isn’t up to the task of carrying a major motion picture, though Olivia Cooke (The Limehouse Golem) does her level-best to help him through it and support him. She sparkles on screen. But you just can’t connect to the characters or story. Sure, we want the crazy kids to recognize their totally obvious and middle-America attraction to one another as two healthy, white, young folk (talk about unbrave choices given the possibilities that are even discussed at several points). There are also some great one liners and moments by T.J. Miller (Deadpool) and Lena Waithe (Master of None) but neither gets a plotline or payoff. Ultimately, we don’t really care all that much who lives or dies or who gets together or not. Heck, even Sheridan doesn’t seem to care who lives or dies; he doesn’t carry the weight of any action that occurs to or around him in the tale as it progresses.

Even the bad guys, Ben Mendelsohn (Una) and Hannah John-Kamen (The Tunnel), don’t raise a burning need in the audience to wipe them out. Why? First, because we’re always sure who will win, but second because there is no gray. Our bad guys are just bad and their storylines are just absurd. C’mon, John-Kamen’s character is named F’Nale. Seriously? Only Cameron’s unobtanium was sillier. If you’re going to go for that kind of tongue-in-cheek, then you have to do it across the board, not just in spots.

The truth is that most of these gaps in acting are really more how they were directed. In trying to make a 4-quadrant film, Spielberg blew it, however sacrilegious that may be to say. The result was something that aimed broadly intellectually, but was emotionally targeted squarely at the 12-17 year old bracket. The real-world sequences are as distant and unbelievable as the VR sequences are wonderfully fantastic. It is an issue Spielberg often has (A.I. comes to mind as a comparable tale in scope and maturity). Spielberg, when aiming at a younger audience, never quite lets you in to connect with anyone. He likes to keep it all “safe.” And the ending sequences in the real world of Ready Player One just fall apart, being both unbelievable, too easy, and just plain, well, stupid.

Part of the problem was the script by Penn (Alphas) and source book author Cline. It shortcuts a lot of the plot and forces relationships and situations in very unnuanced ways. That approach played into Spielberg’s hands and weaknesses. He loves evoking that sense of the 50s in modern garb, trying for a storybook feel that offends no one but, at this point, also illuminates nothing. We’re past the days of E.T. and Close Encounters feeling real; show us less than truth and reality and our bullshit meters goes off. Life is messier and we know that. We may crave simplicity, but it needs to be a believable simplicity.

Spielberg, even misdirected the brilliant Mark Rylance (The BFG) and Simon Pegg (Ice Age: Collision Course), allowing them to be put in makeup and costumes that made them look ridiculous. The intent was to bring out the nerd in the nostalgia, but they just never came across a bit as believable or natural. They felt like clowns, neither smart enough nor adept enough to have built the empire that included the Oasis.

Ready Player One is a reasonable distraction. There have been many adaptations of video games to screen, most of which have been middling at best. The recent Tomb Raider was only the latest in a long line. We’ve also been assaulted by adaptations of books since the beginning of film to varying degrees of success; for me, that was most recently Love, Simon. This is, however, one of the few times I can remember an adaptation of a book about a fictitious video game. Talk about going completely meta. Only Jumanji (which was a way better movie) comes to mind, but that was a picture book, not an adult novel.

Ready Player One is certainly a big screen film, so if you do want to see it, you really do have to see it at the theater. But, as a story, it will not stand the test of time. For many, I suspect it will not stand the test of its 2.5 hours as anything other than as a short-lived amusement. You can see the possibilities in the result and you’ll enjoy the cultural insider jokes that glue it all together, but you’ll leave it empty and unfulfilled, or perhaps filling in the missing aspects mentally for yourself to prop it up. The more I thought about the film as I walked away, the more disappointed I became with it. That was not the experience I had hoped for, nor the experience I had expected from such a master filmmaker. At one point, all I could think was that I wished Spielberg’s good friend Kubrik had still been alive to take this one on. He would have the balls to keep it real and dark while still entertaining. As it is, Ready Player One needs some Extra Life of its own to succeed.

Ready Player One

Wonder Wheel

[3.5 stars]

Wonder Wheel starts off like many Woody Allen (Cafe Society) films: A hapless narrator explaining the romance/farce/tragedy that is about to unfold. In this case, it is a bit of all of that, but it also quickly shifts into a new mode for Allen. With the immense help of Jim Belushi (Twin Peaks) and Kate Winslet (Collateral Beauty), we are suddenly transported into a Eugene O’Neill play with moments of Tennessee Williams, complete with claustrophobic set, heavy use of alcohol, violence, and disastrous romantic longings. Not to detract from Winslet’s more subtle performance, but Belushi is the real powerhouse behind these scenes; he is an unexpected gut punch in what you expect to be a light, period romance.

Those truly phenomenal scenes are broken up with more typical Allen moments, but without the forced, halting aspects that tend to distract in his movies. All of the scenes flow nicely, though the tenor of the dialog becomes lighter and a tad stilted. Justin Timberlake (Trolls) tends to herald these moments. To a degree, I understand the choice and it is explained at the very top of the film, but the scenes cut into a more powerful story and I think it could have been smoothed through a bit better.

Running between the two worlds along with Winslet is Juno Temple (Black Mass). She brings most of the Tennessee Williams sensibility: fragile, naive, tough, intelligent, lost, and desperate to be loved. She is a breath of Southern Gothic dropped into the Northeast Tragedy.

In many ways, while not necessarily the best Woody Allen film, it is one of his most impressive. The use of language and setting is powerful. The story is relateable and yet utterly designed. The tragedy inevitable and yet totally avoidable. If not for the recent events in the industry, Wonder Wheel would have garnered a lot more attention and nominations. That it didn’t is a complicated conversation every person will have to answer for themselves. But, from a purely artistic point of view, I can recommend the film for the performances, writing, and direction and it may suggest an entirely new direction for Allen’s oeuvre.

Wonder Wheel