Tag Archives: Director

Widows

[4 stars]

Think of this as the flip-side of Ocean’s 8; a very dark and disturbing flip-side, closer to Den of Thieves in sensibility.

Widows is a female-driven heist film dominated by Viola Davis (Fences) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox). These women have the most compelling tales and the strongest screen impact despite it being primarily an ensemble movie. Joined by the equally capable, if less story impactful, Michelle Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles, Fast & Furious) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), this group of women find themselves and their mettle trying to survive a lousy situation as they dig themselves out of the holes their respective partners dropped them in.

And speaking of their partners, the top line there is an unusual role for Liam Neeson (Peppermint) and a fairly standard one for Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver). Neeson’s time on screen is necessarily brief, but his and Davis’s intense relationship drive the entire tale. Garret Dillahunt (The Scribbler), Jacki Weaver (The Disaster Artist), and Carrie Coon (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) also each get their moments to shine as the story unfolds.

Driving the movie from outside the women’s collective are a group of men, each with their own issues and particular brand of evil. Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has the most layered of these characters. He never quite comes into focus, but he is clearly conflicted and buffeted along by the past and the current situation. You never really know whether to feel sorry for him or to revile him. The same can’t be said for Brian Tyree Henry (Irreplaceable You), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), or Robert Duvall (The Judge). These other men are dark, twisted, and out for themselves regardless of the pain and damage they cause. And they do. This is a violent film and hard to watch at moments.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) took an interesting risk directing this story. First, he dove into the story quickly, getting to the meat of the tale at the top. Typically, this would have been a good and obvious move. However, then he plowed on before we got to know anyone. He remained very natural rather than heightening or manipulating the audience with standard structures, letting us see realities, but not allowing us to bring emotion to it. We don’t know these people and we can’t yet sympathize with them at the beginning. We can abhor the situations, but there is no connection. The challenge is that it makes the first third of the film very flat in some ways. However, as the movie continues, it slowly builds the story and gets there; but it takes its time.

The story itself has some serious cred behind it. It was originally written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and then adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and McQueen himself. None of these artists thinks in a straight line nor bends toward the light and airy in plot. Widows will coddle and assault you, but it will bring you along and make you invest. I will admit that while the ending left me wondering if I’d really understood the McQueen’s main point in the film, but I didn’t feel cheated, only a sense of pondering. It also contained a particularly wonderful moment with mirrors (which seem to be getting more popular again in films).

Widows is not your typical heist film, not just for its female leads, but also in its approach to story. If you want something different for your holiday week’s fare, this is one that should be on your list.

They Shall Not Grow Old

[5 stars]

WWI has always felt distant to contemporary audiences. The old, jerky, mis-timed black & white footage is almost comic despite its subject. The photos are often horrific, but drained of impact for anyone who grew up with color photography and TV. Now imagine tackling the subject like a Ken Burns documentary on steroids, and with a much expanded f/x budget, and you get a sense of They Shall Not Grow Old.

Through enhancements and brilliant sound design, Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) helps you experience just a bit of the sense of the battles in the trenches. It is a very clever and disturbing trip, often hard to watch, but also fascinating. It brings to life and humanizes the meatgrinder that destroyed over a million lives and shredded a countryside. Jackson delivers a visceral vision of WWI unlike any you’ve ever seen. It is a perfect, sober recognition of its centenary.

Using the recorded interviews, photos, and archival footage, sprinkled with some very clever magic dust, we are taken full circle in the story. It begins with enlistment and carries us through the return home and the struggles, triumphs, and the odd reality of the last war that was fought with a sense of adventure…the first war that was heavily documented in media, even if that was filtered to the public. No war was the same after The Great War (and you could argue that WWII was just a continuation of the first). Technology had changed the tactics and repercussions. Medicine had more people surviving with debilitating injuries. Politics had gone global in a way never before seen. And people still had to catch up with all of those realities.

The journey is, by necessity, compact. It focuses on a single battle site as a proxy for a four+ year engagement, but it makes its point. Listening to the men who served is a revelation in perspective. Seeing the footage, even when some of the effects look a little creepy, is surprisingly impactful. You leave the viewing both aware of the horror and amazed at the resilience of the people involved. It isn’t comprehensive, but it is revealatory and presented with a true love of the people who were there, whether they survived or not.

I am not a huge fan of documentaries about war. They are rarely neutral in their conversation and presentation. And, far too often, they bend toward the jingoistic. Certainly, this movie has its attitude crafted by the editing choices. But it also manages to walk the line and retain the cultural sense of the time while providing enough of the facts to let us ponder our own conclusions. This really is a must watch 95 minutes. It will bring to life an era that has always felt distant, despite its fallout in politics, industry, immigration, and global life that has direct-line effects on our current lives.

Overlord

[3 stars]

If you were somehow lucky enough to miss all the ads and trailers for Overlord, stop now and just see the movie blind. Honestly, the studio really did the flick a disservice by telling you what it was about. Part of the fun of the film is watching it all getting revealed, and they took that from me in spades.

OK, from here out I’m assuming you’ve seen the trailers and the ads. You’ve been warned.

Sure this is nothing but an update to Resident Evil by way of Dunkirk, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. It is, in fact, fairly well done and full of good moments, surprises, and the kind of splatter that combination would suggest. There is also a real sense of a good war film here that goes, shall we say, quite sideways. It is well shot and really rather well acted by most of the leads.

Jovan Adepo (Fences) is our way into this band of brothers…and it is very much a bro film. But Adepo gives it both heart and sense of danger. From early on it is clear that no one is safe in this story and that registers clearly for him, and through him to us. The machines of war quickly begin to eat up the people we meet.

Alongside Adepo fight a mixed batch of characters that each bring different levels and layers to the story. Wyatt Russell (Ingrid Goes West) is the seasoned veteran there to run the mission. John Magaro (Carol) is the smart-mouth jackass who nevertheless proves his mettle. And Mathilde Ollivier, in an early film for her, gives them something to fight for and just a touch of badly needed estrogen in the film. In a smaller role, but fun to see, is Iain De Caestecker (Lost River, The Fades) who does a great accent and has a bit of fun.

Arrayed against this motley gang are the Axis. Only a single Nazi stands out worth mentioning in that bunch: Pilou Asbæk (Ghost in the Shell). While it is a somewhat scenery chewing depiction of a German officer, he manages to find some balance, though not any heart. He certainly finds the creepy, which was his purpose in the tale.

Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) delivers a very watchable, enjoyable, and surprising movie for his Sophomore outing. Sure it is of a particular genre, but he doesn’t treat it that way. He treats it like a film about war, people, and the horror of what it takes to win and survive. Part of that success was the script from an unlikely pairing of Billy Ray (Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant). Both writers have a wide range of styles, but of very different sensibilities. Playing off the real events of Operation Overlord gave the two a solid underpinning for the story and its drives that allowed their talents to mesh well.

This was originally rumored to be a Cloverfield universe film. It is, in fact, designed much like those movies…slowly unrolling layers that end with unexpected aspects. But it isn’t part of that franchise in any other way. I wish the studio had believed in the quality of the film and allowed it to surprise and gather an audience. I get that it would have been challenging given the genre mash-up. Folks going for a war film would have been pissed and those showing up for pure horror would have been confused and angry that it doesn’t really become that till more than halfway through. But the story is compelling, well-paced, and nicely delivered. Definitely worth the big screen if you like either mashups, splatter horror, or both. And Avery is definitely a director you’re going to be seeing again, regardless of how Overlord legs out or not at the box office.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Old Man & the Gun

[4 stars]

Whether or not this is Robert Redford’s (The Discovery) final film, as he claims, it would be a solid one to go out on in performance and message. Redford is in full charm offensive and as wonderfully subtle as ever in his acting. Though he has Danny Glover (Proud Mary) and Tom Waits (Seven Psychopaths) as his partners-in-crime, his gang and this story is really a cult of personality: his.

And from the fringes and the pews, Redford brings along a motley group of additional folks. Primarily he pulls Sissy Spacek (A Home at the End of the World) into his orbit, who is every bit Redford’s equal in performance. Along with Spacek was an understated but effective Casey Affleck (A Ghost Story) as a disaffected cop looking for justice and what’s “right,” even when the choices aren’t easy or obvious. And, in a smaller role supporting Affleck, Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) is magnetic.

Writer/director David Lowery gathered Redford and Affleck from his previous efforts to pull off this rather impressive film: Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story respectively. What makes Old Man & The Gun so good is that Lowery gets us to gets us to react just like the people Tucker robbed. We cheer for Forrest Tucker and don’t feel bad about doing it. Lowery leaves us feeling both great about Tucker and about our own possibilities.

Lowery also did some clever work with the film to make it feel like the early 80s; from shaky credits, to washed out color, to the choice of fonts, a sense of appropriate nostalgia and current action was established. Amusingly, it was also screened for me on an old, reflective screen at an aging theater, which added an unintended layer to Lowery’s efforts that was wholly appropriate.

While this isn’t a big screen must, it is a wonderfully entertaining and, ultimately, positive film. It will be part of the awards buzz this year, so see it now rather than wait. And it doesn’t hurt to remind studios and distributors that there is a big market out there for just good film. Not everything has to flash, buzz, or blow-up to keep our attention. Though I certainly don’t mind that occasionally either, I like variety in my entertainment diet.

Bad Times at the El Royale

[4 stars]

Are you looking for something different? Then checking into the El Royale may be your best destination. Director and writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has a very particular style to his film making. His stories have a similar color pallet and the plots are recognizable but not formulaic. They buck tradition but cleave to a sense of moral reality that is believable. They feel almost refreshing in their approach despite playing heavily into genre, whether that is horror, science fiction, or, in this case, noir. And his stories are chock full of subtle references for those steeped in the movies and television. (One nod to Silence of the Lambs was inspired.) This story is subtly political in its message as well.

Goddard is also good at assembling talented casts capable of bringing his vision to life in earnest without losing track of the style he is aiming for. Jeff Bridges (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Cynthia Erivo (The Tunnel) are particularly solid at driving a good part of the action. But Jon Hamm (Nostalgia), Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash), Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising), and Lewis Pullman (Battle of the Sexes) complete the ensemble of odd characters who, despite coming to the El Royale for different reasons, find their paths crossing in unexpected ways. Nick Offerman (Hearts Beat Loud) has a nice cameo as well. As a final treat, Goddard got Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers) to reteam with him for a funny and terrifying role that continues to help establish his range (he can’t be Thor forever).

Like Cabin in the Woods, I suspect this film will take time to find its audience, which is a shame. It is crafted beautifully. Despite its almost 2.5 hour length it moves along crisply and keeps opening up surprises through till the finale. It is solidly acted and funny as well as dark and dangerous as its centering genre. It is very much a classic noir, but with Goddard at the helm very little can ever be assumed, and that is part of the joy of the story. And, as only his second stint in the director’s chair, it shows immense promise for what may come in the future as well. If you’re tired of sequels and formulaic drivel, support movies like this one that try to do something a bit different.

Final Portrait

[3 stars]

The lives of the famous and artists fascinate us. Whether it is the fictional as in A Star is Born, or the mysterious such as Loving, Vincent, or the brainy like The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, or any of the many biopics about Oscar Wilde, the movies keep getting made. Perhaps we watch because we want to understand fame. Or maybe genius. Whatever the impetus, their lives are often, to be honest, fascinating.

While the artist Alberto Giaocometti probably isn’t one of the names that would jump to most people’s minds as possible subject, this true tale documented by the portrait’s subject, James Lord, is full of humor along with insights as to the nature of artistic drive. Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean) brings the artist to life in a wonderfully funny and darkly intense portrayal that draws us in just as it did the world and Lord, played by Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name). We watch Hammer’s Lord get pulled into Gioacometti’s spell, torn between having his portrait completed and frustration with a process he had no understanding of prior to agreeing to sit. Through the unexpected several week process Lord becomes our eyes into Giaocometti’s life, joys, thinking, and fears.

Around the two swarm Tony Shalhoub (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel), and Sylvie Testud who each highlight different aspects of the household and the times. And each deals with the challenges differently. What keeps them in his orbit is all part of the story.

The insanely prolific actor Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) took on this adaptation of Lord’s book about the experience as one of his few writing and directing challenges. He’s only done a handful over the year; his first was the wonderful Big Night and you can see how that sensibility and love of character has matured. Tucci has a great eye and keeps the energy up, even during long silences, by making us invest in the portrait’s completion ourselves. Though more of a slice-of-life than a full story, it is a fun, funny, and fascinating 90 minutes, with wonderful performances worth seeing.

Midnight’s Children

[3 stars]

Salman Rushdie has an obsession with dualities, starting with, or at least most notably with, his infamous Satanic Verses. He loves pitting good against evil, rich against poor, strong against weak. His stories are also rarely to be taken at face value. Midnight’s Children is no exception. This fable, ostensibly about two boys born at the same time on the eve of India’s independence, is more about the history of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh than it is the characters on the screen.

Narrated and written by Rushdie, the movie is a slightly fantastical tale told primarily in English. The story is fascinating, but a lot of the layers I’m sure were lost on me since it was all metaphor for the country, politics and culture. But even with the cultural gaps, it was a gripping story. It was certainly helped by Deepa Mehta, who has trod these themes before in her Water, Earth and Fire trilogy. She was a perfect director to take on the emotions and approach Rushdie intended.
This is an epic, so be prepared to strap in for 2.5 hours. But it is also done across three or four timeframes (depending on how you slice it) as the boys grow up and the country evolves. The time is necessary to set up and expose all of the issues. It is a rather light approach to the whole thing, by admission of the narrator and omission of the writer, but its points are unmistakable even if its punches are somewhat pulled.

Midnight

The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy (Julius Cesar, Henry IV, Tempest)

[3.5 stars]

The Donmar project Shakespeare trilogy is a fascinating piece of all-female repertory theatre inspired by work with female prison inmates. The prisoners selected three unrelated plays whose themes and action spoke to them (power/abuse, addiction/family, justice/responsibility) and Phyllida Lloyd (Iron Lady, Mama Mia!) created a trilogy of them by wrapping each in a shared conceit as an envelope to hold them together.  While this approach initially feels forced and not quite comfortable, it ultimately paints an additional layer of meeting over the whole and binds them together in a bigger theme. While I’ll call out specific performances, it is one hell of an ensemble generally.

Julius Cesar

The first of the three plays focused on the need for action to battle unjust rule and tyranny. Think domestic abuse. Though that is not at all injected into the show directly it has knock-on effects for the characters. For instance, Harriet Walter’s Brutus is oddly weak and emotional, very much feeling beaten down and with a need to make the world right. To Walter’s praise, she manages this while still maintaining an amazing stage presence.

Cesar, played by Clare Dunne, is charismatic and strong. Clearly a swaggering ass who knows how to play the crowd and those around him. Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony, likewise is manipulator, using words to destroy while holding back all of his ire till the final, physical battle. Anouka is one of the bright spots in this trilogy, and a reason to see them all, which will become obvious.

The direction is engaging and surprising, and even occasionally funny. But it is the ending where it takes your head and spins it round as the envelope takes over and forces new meaning upon it.

Henry IV

Henry survives or fails on the quality of the Falsataff, Hal, and Hotspur. The casting here is astoundingly good. Sophie Stanton (Una) as Falstaff is compelling and entertaining, if not entirely endearing. Clare Dunne’s Hal delivers but doesn’t quite sell the entire journey from reprobate to king (this covers parts I and II of the play). However Jade Anouka as Hotspur is riveting and wonderfully acted and directed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hotspur that lived up both to the name and the ability to lead a rebellion.

I do wish the addiction theme was heightened a little more throughout the piece to help pull it all together, but it was still an interesting flavor to add.

The Tempest

Of the three plays, this one is the most on point and, frankly, the best conceived. Of course, Tempest is tailor made to discuss justice and responsibility; even Joyce Carol Oats took advantage of it in Hagseed.

The play is carried by Harriet Walter as Prospero with a deep and wounded approach. Jade Anouka (I told you she was one to watch) takes on Ariel and is paired with Sophie Stanton now as Calaban. Along with Sheila Atim (Harlots) as Ferdinand and Leah Harvey (Uncle) as Miranda, the story clips along engagingly and with a sense of real sweetness and possibility while still showing the harsher edge of gender roles and life.

Lloyd’s direction of this piece captures the magic and the longing, the humor and the anger. It is one of the best distillations of the play I think I’ve seen, or perhaps it was simply the framing of the story and the even larger framing of the trilogy. Whatever the reason, it is inventive, gripping, and fascinating to watch with plenty of wry winks and fist slams. If you choose only one of the three to watch, choose this one, though some of the bigger messages will not resonate as much without the previous two.

Imitation Girl

[3.5 stars]

Alien arrives on Earth and takes the guise of an adult movie star. Salacious, right? Possibly even puerile? You’d be wrong. It isn’t even more on the trippy side like Liquid Sky. Imitation Girl is a decidedly personal tale of a woman coming to terms with her life and her choices. It is anything but forcefully sexy, though it is certainly intimate.

Lauren Ashley Carter (Premium Rush) pulls off both main roles with an understated assurance that leaves you forgetting it is the same person. She is the movie, not to mention that she learned Farsi along the way. I look forward to seeing her in more roles at some point to see what more she can do. The rest of the cast are all fine, but they fall away as it all comes together. And, frankly, that is a good thing as they aren’t the focus.

The ending is sort of a non-ending, or it is hugely metaphorical. Though, to be fair, the entire story is metaphorical. But the end is also rather expected and, because of that, a tad of a let down after such an interesting ride. But this is a film that shows real talent on the part of the director/writer, Natasha Kermani. To navigate the world she created and to sell these characters without resorting to cheap and expected moments took a good eye and discipline. She is definitely a creator to watch for down the road.

Imitation Girl