Tag Archives: Director

Hearts Beat Loud

[3.5 stars]

There have been many films about wannabe or aspiring musicians over recent years. They cover quite a bit of ground as well. From Juliet Naked to Begin Again to Sing Street to Song to Song or even the more tangential like Rudderless, they tend, mostly to focus on adults looking for their lost moments or kids getting together to make their way.

Don’t get me wrong, Nick Offerman (Nostalgia) certainly fills that adult bill in Hearts Beat Loud; but as much as he drives the movie, it isn’t about him. The point of the story really revolves about his daughter, Kiersey Clemons (Flatliners) and their relationship. Music is essential and plays a role, but this is primarily a film about family not fame.

Around the pair are some great supporting characters. Relative newcomer, Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Clemons make a great pairing. Their interactions are quietly intense, and, admittedly, a bit too chaste for 18 year olds, but still very effective.

For Offerman, Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Ted Danson build out his story and world with humor and complications. On the other hand, Bythe Danner (I’ll See You in My Dreams) is, sadly, all but lost in this story. She is a bit of background that you can see has meaning, but there is little done with it and it is one of the few real misfires in the flick for me.

Director and co-writer Brett Haley (The Hero) reteamed with Marc Basch to pen this story that lives in a comfortable groove in our expectations but manages to stay unexpected in its execution, like a good song. Even Keegan DeWitt’s (The Hero) music is not your typical choice of “new band creates massively brilliant music.” They are clearly songs filled with promise and with an indie approach to pop music, but none feel entirely finished. They feel, in fact, like a beginning songwriter with talent learning their craft.

The pacing of this movie is deliberate. Not slow, per se, but certainly not a runaway train. Haley lets the story layer and build so the ending has impact. When you want a sweet evening and have the need for a good story that takes you through a range of emotions, Hearts Beat Loud is a great choice.

Hearts Beat Loud

A Simple Favor

[4 stars]

Dark, funny, sexy, twisted, this mystery-cum-satire is a great ride, expertly executed by cast and crew alike. It has barely a misstep as it navigates its path to the end, and it sustains its off-plumb approach till the final credits.

The movie is led by a perfectly cast duo, Anna Kendrick (TrollsPitch Perfect) and Blake Lively (Cafe Society). What introduces itself as a simple tale of rich suburban hell slides into something quite different very early on when these women meet and become friends. Stuck in the crossfire of all the complexity is Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians), with a gullible savvy. The trio are the main engine of the story and keep it humming along.

But there is a host of great smaller characters as well. Linda Cardellini (Bloodline), Andrew Ranells (Why Him?), Rupert Friend (The Death of Stalin), Jean Smart (The Accountant), and Melissa O’Neill (Dark Matter) are just a few of the cameos. Each adds something to the tale, to one degree or another, thanks to a very tight script byJessica Sharzer. Sharzer is no stranger to the dark side of things having worked on American Horror Story and Nerve and it served her well here. You know you’ve come across something special when you can get ahead of it and it still doesn’t matter…because you really don’t get entirely ahead of it anyway.

As director, Paul Feig (Ghostbusters, and the MCU) took her script and ran with it, hitting just the right tone with his actors: allowing them to be utterly aware of the absurdities of their lives and still commit to them. The level of snark and sarcasm on screen is probably well above FDA standards, and incredibly funny. Smart, broad comedy is about the hardest to pull off because it is so self-conscious and also invites criticism due to its audience because no one can claim they don’t know what’s going on. But A Simple Favor needn’t worry, it can take it, dish it back, and come out on top. Make time for this one, it will surprise you.

A Simple Favor

Endless Poetry (Poesía Sin Fin)

[3 stars]

Endless Poetry picks up just about where Dance of Reality left off. In fact the overlap and reuse of actors and sets is so complete I thought I had started to rewatch Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous film and had to stop to be sure. However, it quickly veers as we follow the young Alejandro from his childhood home to Santiago. This next chapter of his life story is not about his parents so much as about his creative blooming.

Much like the last (and all of Jodorowsky’s) work, this is in his unique voice. While highly biographical and personal, it is also surreal and experimental. Not quite film and not quite theatre it flows along leaving you with incredible visuals, intriguing ideas, and moments of beauty set off by disturbing scenes of ugliness. Though I will say that this film seems to find the beauty in everything it sees, no matter how base or fouled.

As the title implies, this is the path by which our intrepid artist learns to see poetry in everything in life. It is a hopelessly optimistic approach, but not an unfair depiction of a young poet. It echos a lot of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s (The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet) early work. The rich colors, the odd characters, the fantastical approaches to life. The bottomless ability to find the positive amid the disturbing. And, ultimately, the core belief that the human spirit can not only survive anything but also use it to create art.

This is a film you watch for the experience. What you take from it will change depending on when you watch it. It is a stunning piece of vision making it worthwhile even when the story itself is so personal to Jodorowsky as to be inscrutable. But, of course, you have to like that experimental theatre feel and approach.

Endless Poetry

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

[3 stars]

Joseph Cedar’s fictional depiction of backroom politics and influence was prescient given that it came out in 2016. It isn’t a highly tense political drama, like The Post, or even a snappy depiction of events, like The Big Short, but is more a quiet grinding of an inevitable train wreck. Cedar does get clever with his story-telling, but the plot becomes almost incidental to the story of Norman himself.

Richard Gere (The Dinner) embodies a NYC nebbish with precision and practicality. He has created a highly flawed but capable character who is constantly swimming out of his depth, but who is surprisingly successful by simply persisting and believing in himself. His performance makes this movie and makes it worth seeing. In fact, it was the reason I ended up sticking with it through to the end despite being only mildly engaged for the first third. Gere and Cedar managed a subtle alchemy that allowed them to tell the story they wanted, how they wanted, and not lose me.

There are many recognizable faces filling in the rest of the film. Of them, only Lior Ashkenazi is really worth calling out. His is the only other complex performance in a sea of fairly standard deliveries. But the tapestry of the whole does eventually come together into something surprising. Norman is a very recognizable template if you’ve ever lived in NYC. He comes close to a stereotype, but never crosses that insulting line. We’ve all known Norman’s of one degree or another, but at this level of influence his ilk is now front and center in our lives thanks to current politics; intentionally or not. 

At some point, seeing this movie for Gere’s performance is really worth your time. The film itself is also good, but more a study in some subtle craft than the creation of a must-see classic. There is much to take away from Norman, and some uncomfortable mirrors to look into as well. While it did not make a huge splash in release, it is sure to be quietly around a long time as a success, much like the titular character himself.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Ida

[4 stars]

Ida navigates a crisp landscape of grays with quiet tension. In fact the black and white filmed film goes to great pains to keep it all gray except for notable spots of deep black that are intended to draw our eye. It is a beautiful and painful film that focuses on personal choice and identity, despite being surrounded with many tales of morality.

The young Ida, given life by Agata Trzebuchowska in her first role, is as near silent and immobile as one of the idols she maintains in her convent. But it is a stillness that radiates information and emotion. She is brought into the greater world by her aunt, inhabited by a near equally quiet and complex Agata Kulesza. They know nothing of one another, for reasons that become plain, but are drawn together by the bonds of family as the only remaining survivors of WWII. The women make an odd combination, talking more in their silences than they do with their words.  It is a beautiful thing to watch.

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski has an amazing eye and sure hand. His co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience) and he kept paring down the script to its essentials in words and moments. The entire film comes in at 1:22, but it is like eating a super-rich cake. A small amount is filling and satisfying…and in no way feels like a small thing when you’re done.

Ida was massively nominated and won many awards. All deserved. Appreciate this film for the story, the characters, and the gorgeous cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal (Loving Vincent). It is very much time well spent.

Ida

Maps to the Stars

[2.5 stars]

I was rather rooting for this movie from about 15 minutes in. You can feel the craft and control as threads quickly begin to come together. No surprise given it is a dark fantasy by David Cronenberg (Crash). Unfortunately, the meaning and purpose all sort of drifted away by the end into the stardust it references. Perhaps I was just too dense to get the references, but even a bit of research afterwards didn’t illuminate anything obvious for me.

That said, there are some very good performances in this peek behind the surface of families and Hollywood. There really isn’t a truly sympathetic character in the cast, but there are those that are less despicable and more pathetic. However, there is no one who you can really feel good supporting or wanting to succeed, which makes the story a bit of a slog at times.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is the best of the cast. She is intriguing and the most believable. The rest are all interesting to watch, but not entirely credible. Robert Pattinson (Water For Elephants) comes close, but then gets let down by the script. Julianne Moore (Maggie’s Plan) gives a brave and raw performance that is likely close to reality, but not a reality that many of us will have experienced and certainly not one that you’d support emotionally. Olivia Williams (Victoria & Abdul) and John Cusack (Chi-Raq), as bumbling parents, make a microcosm within the film that is interesting, but not much explored. Cusack does gets to explore a rather different character than his usual, which is intriguing to watch. And, finally, Evan Bird (The Killing) creates an l’enfant terrible, but without a lot of depth, only a wooden and hollow sort of desperation.

Admittedly, there are layers to this story…layers I also much admit I couldn’t uncover though it tickled my brain at the edge of understanding. Either I was trying to build patterns from chaos or I just missed the point. And, frankly, there were so many lost story opportunities to explore in the tale that it felt as surfacey as the culture it was exploring. It is also interesting to consider that this was released four years ago, before #metoo. I’m not entirely sure how reactions might differ before that boundary in culture. Within the first 5 minutes of the movie, several references are already out-of-date, not to mention nods and appearances by recognizable figures who have since died.

David Cronenberg loves crawling in the muck of people’s lives and emotions. But he is capable of good storytelling while doing so. He took Bruce Wagner’s complex script and slowly revealed its levels. But while there is a solid conclusion to the story, there isn’t a final meaning to it all. This can work when the point of the multiplicity of storylines and lack of direct connection is the intent, but not when you’ve gone to great lengths to imply a mythological or otherwise greater tale being told. It feels like a Sophomoric attempt to force meaning to come from the brain of the viewer rather than the mind of the filmmaker. Not a satisfying way to wrap your travelings through some very dark woods.

Maps to the Stars

The Little Stranger

[3.5 stars]

You never go into an adaptation of a Sarah Waters story expecting something straightforward. Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, The Handmaiden, are all complex and layered tales of deep psychological intensity. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) understood this when he tackled directing this Gothic horror that lives comfortably alongside Remember MeTurn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House (its latest upcoming remake), and other deliberately paced, unsettling fare.

Abrahamson had each actor wound so tight they were always on the verge of flying to bits. Domhnall Gleeson’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) pauses and looks each spoke volumes to his motivations and actions. Ruth Wilson (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), alternating between cornered mouse and mother bear, was also utterly transformed into something we’ve not really seen before with a new accent and even a new walk. Will Poulter (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) was a sympathetic and twisted wreck of a man, barely holding onto his sanity after the war and severe injury. And Charlotte Rampling (Red Sparrow), while the least transformed physically, was a walking wound of a bereaved mother and fallen aristocracy.

Writer Lucinda Coxon (Danish Girl) gave each of the characters beautifully trimmed sentences that were loaded with subtext, thanks to sure directing and deft acting. Unlike most Waters’ stories, this is presented primarily from a male point of view and its sense of the supernatural is quiet but very palpable. Waters often plays along this line, but in this tale it is up to the audience to decide what is really going on, at least as it is told by Coxon and Abrahamson.

This is a horror story, but it is aimed at lovers of period drama and psychological terror. It isn’t about cheap scares or buckets of gore. Because of that, it is likely to never find a wide audience despite its excellent craft and delivery. If that is the kind of story you enjoy, make time for it. If you are hoping for highly paced action and scares, move along to something else. This is a movie to absorb, contemplate, and even discuss after the credits roll.

The Little Stranger

Juliet, Naked

[4 stars]

Sure, in many ways this is a standard rom-com. There is broad humor, unlikely pairings, and personal awakenings. But it is much more than that. The film is packed with subtleties and small scenes of unremarked upon revelations. It is a story about life and, of course, music. It is adapted from a Nick Hornby novel after all, the writer who gave us High Fidelity and About a Boy among other tales and movies.

Rose Byrne (The Meddler) and Chris O’Dowd (Love After Love) make an amusingly broken couple who remain in each other’s orbits by pure inertia at the top of the film. From there, quiet hilarity ensues as each tries to find their place with one other and the world.

While the movie is framed by O’Dowd and the story is carried primarily on Byrne’s back, it is Ethan Hawke (Maggie’s Plan), as the broken and drifting ex-musician, that lights up the movie. His character is complex and sympathetic while still being a bit of a douche as he tries to make up for his past. The man has surprisingly good chops too. And Azhy Robertson, as his son, makes for great interactions and moments. There are many solid supporting roles to fill the film out as well.

Director Jesse Peretz keeps everything flowing and knows when to just let a scene have its own quiet focus. Which isn’t to say there aren’t laugh out loud moments, but there are as many inward smiles too. While not a big screen movie, it isn’t one  you should wait for if it comes to a theater near you. It is a great entertainment that will leave you feeling great about life, love, and possibility without having to grab you by the throat to do it, like so many in this genre.

Juliet, Naked

Terminal

[3 stars]

This beautifully designed Alice-in-Wonderland noir is a fever dream of dark delight. Rather than pretend there is a hidden agenda, everyone’s agenda is pretty much on the table from the beginning. The interesting bit is watching it all play out.

Margot Robbie (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as femme fatale is perfect casting. She is magnetic on screen and has just the right level of crazy dancing behind her eyes. Imagine her Harley Quinn character with complete self-control or her Tonya Harding with a lot more brain power and focus. It is a salacious and undeniably disturbing performance.

Into her orbit drift a collection of folks. Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) provides a nicely down-trodden and quiet soul struggling with life. Dexter Fletcher (Cockneys vs. Zombies) and Max Irons (Dorian Gray) make an interesting pair, if more than a little cliché, for her to play with. And, finally, Mike Meyers was practically unrecognizable in his own fun and twisted role at the periphery of it all.

For his first major film as writer/director, Vaughn Stein delivered a strong vision visually and story-wise. The production design evokes Blade Runner, creating a not-quite-our-world sensibility but not a world that couldn’t exist here and now.  And the game of Lewis Carroll references is fun. The story rushes near the end and flies just a bit off the rails in intent, but was worth the ride completely. There is plenty to feast on, from a craft point of view as well. Though, admittedly, if you don’t like noir it will probably leave you wanting. Coming on the heels of John Wick and Atomic Blonde, this movie got a bit lost in the shuffle. Personally, I had a great time with it and I’m curious to see what Stein can come up with next.

Terminal

Anon

[3.5 stars]

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Good Kill) loves to look at technology and see how it will affect society and the human condition. He has looked at near-term and long-term impacts across his opus. This addition is more along the lines of his earlier Gattaca in sensibility and pacing, though not as well written. Anon ends up more thought experiment than complete world, though it is still quite worth watching.

Clive Owen (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) does a great job internalizing the tech and making it part of his portrayal. Amanda Seyfreid (While We’re Young, Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) plays the femme fatale well, but it isn’t a huge leap from her creepy turn as Chloe. The two have an interesting dance, but one of the intriguing ideas of the movie is that no one really connects, despite the complete transparency of their lives.

Even without deep emotional entanglements, the movie keeps you engaged, and the world and inside view of it are thought through nicely. The plot, however, has some holes in logic and action that did give me pause. And the full impact upon the human ability to remember and interrogate information wasn’t fully explored. It does brush up against questions of memory, evoking other recent movies like Nostalgia or Marjorie Prime.

Anon was another of the films that Netflix swept in and took shortly before its intended release window. Like Extinction, I think it worked out for the best. This film was never going to be a major hit, despite its pedigree. Netflix gives it a chance to find its audience, and probably a few more folks as well. This is a great piece of science fiction, if not a brilliant movie. It is like a good Black Mirror episode that’s been given time to breathe and grow; I mean that in a good way.

If you like intelligent science fiction or noir mysteries (or both), this is definitely worth your time to check out. Niccol is a solid director and he will leave you with something to think about as well as entertain you.