Tag Archives: Director

The Magnificent Ambersons

[3 stars]

Going back to find classics you missed can be exciting and enlightening. Sometimes it is just surprising. Ambersons is truly an odd fish from Orson Wells. While based on Tarkington’s book of the same title, I think it would have been better expressed as The Comical Tragedy of the Ambersons, but perhaps the irony is built into the original title, it just wasn’t quite there for me.

This tale of the rise of Industrialized America crossed with the extreme universal tale of the spoiled child, is somehow weirdly timeless and utterly appropriate for today. And despite that, it is also dated and arch, making it as much a piece of fragile glass as a moving picture; the tale is purposefully broad in its telling. It is, however, full of Wells’s trademark camerawork and his dry sense of humor.

Constant Wells colleague Joseph Cotten is very much at the center of the movie, though he is technically on the side of the plot and focus. Tim Holt as Dolores Costello’s spoiled son is a frustratingly selfish SOB that it is hard to want to watch, but fortunately he is supposed to be so. And Agnes Moorehead, as his spinster Aunt, is so over-the-top as to be absurd at times, and tragic at others. The best showing, however is by Anne Baxter in one of her earliest roles. She is charismatic and alive in an otherwise rather stodgy framework of people around her.

Ambersons isn’t a great film. As a story it is hard to digest and the characters beg to be slapped silly until they see sense. But there is something compelling about how it is told. Wells never lost sight of the humor, dark as it got, even if he didn’t quite manage to pay off the final act. Regardless, as a piece of film and Hollywood history, it is a nice piece to slot in when you have an afternoon or evening.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Water

[4 stars]

This much recognized tale by director and co-writer Deepa Mehta is more than just an historical. In fact, despite its setting in 1938 India, it is disturbingly reflective of today with its abuse by the class system, treatment of women, religious fundamentalism, and general social unrest. And I don’t mean reflective of India, I mean worldwide. But commentary aside, the story alone is compelling.

In her first and only film to date, Sarala Kariyawasam, holds this film together with her young and intense presence. As a young widow (at 7 years of age) she is forced to live out the rest of her life cloistered. The collection of women she now lives with are faced with her indomitable spirit and the chaos she brings to their ordered world.

In parallel, John Abraham (Dhoom) and Lisa Ray (Endgame) provide a separate and adult focus of life and possibility. It is a tale we’ve seen before, in many ways, but one that doesn’t tend to get old if you like romance and believe love is more important than rules. That doesn’t mean this is an easy set of choices and the outcome is far from sure, but these actors bring you along the journey and help you believe the choices.

Overall, of course, there is the title: Water. The element here represents life, magic, love, and so much more and so much less. I am curious now about its companion pieces that I didn’t know about: Fire and Earth. Water completes the trilogy, which I can see given the ending, but I have no sense of the overall journey and shape from only this single movie.

This is a beautiful and emotionally frustrating film with a lot to say about the past and about the present. Definitely worth your time if you missed it till now.

Water

Blade Runner 2049

[4 stars]

When making a sequel, the first question you really have to ask is: Why? And in this case, the writer of the original Blade Runner, Hampton Fancher, along with his new co-writer Michael Green, found an answer. And with Denis Villenuve (Arrival) at the helm, this new tale in the universe is gripping and inexorable as it moves along. In fact, while 2049 is almost three hours long, an hour longer than the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, it feels shorter due to its editing and tension.

Unlike the original bottomless noir that was Blade Runner, this story is more a compelling personal journey for its main character, Ryan Gosling (Song to Song). It has light and hope, despite being sunk in the same ruined Earth and financial disparity that was established with that world 35 years ago. And yet, the story and world still feel timeless. And that is the interesting part, it still feels like it could be our dystopian future; now more than ever. A world of overcrowding, rampant poor, and authoritarian over-reach doesn’t feel that outlandish.

Villenuve managed to pay homage to the original story but create his own world all at once. Yes, if you have recently watched the first film, you will pick up nods and winks throughout, but it isn’t a copy of the original. The nods and mentions aren’t distracting ones, simply enough to make it clear that you never really left that universe. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is solid and complex. It will keep you thinking and wondering. That trick is attained thanks to the directing and, of course, the acting.

Along with Gosling’s subtle portrayal of K, there a number of women who fill out his world. Interestingly, his world is dominated by women. Primarily, Robin Wright (Rememory) as his boss walks an interesting line with him while Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) provides the most interesting companion since Her. In addition, Sylvia Hoeks does a nice riff and counterpoint to Sean Young’s Rachel. And then there are the additional building blocks for the rest of his story: Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror) and Carla Juri (Morris From America). As I said, quite the list of influence.

This isn’t to dismiss the men. David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) actually gives us a bit of real emotion in his role. Only Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) came off to me as oddly empty. He has the presence and the story (particularly if you watch the 3 prequel shorts that bridge the original and sequel), but not a lot of it gets to the screen. It would have distracted from Gosling’s story, to be sure, so I understand the choice. However, Harrison Ford’s (The Age of Adaline) role manages to feel more complete without much more screen time, and not just because we know his backstory, there is just more there in Ford’s performance.

Be aware, this is not an action flick. It is a slow-burn and very personal mystery. It is beautifully filmed and expertly edited and directed to keep it all moving along. The story is one worth telling, and while it would lead to yet another story, it is complete as it is. I do suggest watching the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner before viewing this, much as I suggested rewatching Terminator 1 & 2 before viewing Terminator: Genisys. Though Terminator was all about what was changing, Blade Runner is more about providing a real sense of grounding and appreciation for what will unfold before you.

In case it wasn’t obvious, in prep for this late-conceived sequel, I rewatched the original Blade Runner. To be more specific, I watched the Director’s Cut, followed by the final 3 scenes of the original version and the Final Cut for comparison’s sake. It was an interesting exercise. I chose the Director’s Cut as that best dovetails to this new expansion of the story. I have to admit, the Director’s Cut is hampered by its slow pacing due to the removal of the voice-overs but no additional editing of the screen time where it was excised. However, it is the closest storywise to enter 2049.

As a side note, I think one of the things I’ve come to finally realize is that Ridley Scott has made only one brilliant film in his life: Alien. Blade Runner blazed new ground, but it isn’t a wonderfully directed film, it is just a fascinating world and a good story that he got lucky enough to have control over. Blade Runner remains a powerful influence on cinema from the Hunger Games to Ghost in the Shell; the claustrophobic, elite-class dominated hopelessness appears again and again in film since its release. The fact that he recut it multiple times trying to say what he “really wanted to” tells you that he isn’t a great director. And certainly his ouvre that followed Alien has never equaled that incredible piece of heart-pounding terror and rich world.

But Scott isn’t part of this outing. This is all Villenuve and his ability continues to impress me. I can only hope that this film will find its audience as the original tale did. It is worth the time spent, especially on the large screen.

Blade Runner 2049

Happy Accidents

[3.5 stars]

One of the joys of this film is that it plays directly into the need for love to matter. Yes, I’ve already admitted I’m a hopeless romantic, so that is going to play well for me. Also, it has a great deal of sadly accurate fun with NYC dating and living.

Marissa Tomei (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Emerald City) make the unlikeliest of pairs, but they make it work. You believe in the ineffable attraction and the unbridled passion that drives the two of them together, even if you don’t understand it. Both players have complicated histories and manage that rough hulled vulnerability that they are known for.

There are some great supporting roles as well. Holland Taylor (D.E.B.S.) does something just a bit different for her typical characters. And Nadia Dajani gets to do a bit more than here typical TV supporting roles. But, as Tomei’s mother, it was Tovah Feldshuh who really got to make an impact, with very little screen time; she is a wonderful study in restraint.

Writer/director Brad Anderson (The Call) is no stranger to the odd. His previous Next Stop Wonderland and The Machinist each have elements you can see him developing further with this offering. While Anderson spends most of his time on TV projects, his screen projects always seem to hit a decent mark. He loves his characters, which saves them, or at least redeems them in some way, for us regardless of their circumstances.

Happy Accidents is one of those curl-up-on-the-couch films with someone to enjoy the ride and message. It isn’t a simple and easy romance, but it has its impact and some good performances from actors earlier in their careers. It also gives you a chance to see a new and different facet of Anderson’s work.

Happy Accidents

The Orville vs. Star Trek: Discovery

Star Trek is a cultural institution, pretty much world-wide. Now, after a multiple year gap of all things Trek on the small and large screens, we are suddenly being handed two very different options in what has grown from a property to a genre in itself.

The Orville, brainchild of Seth McFarlane (Ted, Million Ways to Die in the West, Family Guy), takes the formula we’ve known for decades and gives it a hard look with both a jaundiced eye and a big hug. It is neither fish nor fowl, approaching the world it has created as satire, but tackling real storylines at the same time.

If I had any doubts about whether Orville could find its footing, its third episode, “About a Girl,” proved they were serious about their television mission. Bringing Brannon Braga, main helmer (and some think destroyer) of Trek since Next Generation, on to direct indicated that as well. The melding of the two men’s sensibilities brings an uncomfortable detente to the series, but one that somehow works. It allows us to laugh at the absurd seriousness of the situations and still enjoy and invest in them.

Discovery, on the other hand, takes a different approach. When it was original conceived with Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods, Pushing Daisies, WonderfallsDead Like Me) at the helm, I was excited (despite the CBS All Access plan). Fuller had the potential to bring a level of dark reality to a franchise he had written for in the past, but which had drifted to become a bit too mainstream, too predictable, and without a  lot of teeth.

But somewhere along the development process, Fuller exited and the studio took over. Honestly, I’ve not dug into the what and whys, I just didn’t care enough. When Fuller left I was pretty sure the series would devolve back into its rut. Fuller likes living on a knife edge of sensibility. He has created, wrote, and run some of the best television out there, all of which got cancelled before their time but which became instant cult favorites. And Hannibal may even be resurrected.

Discovery is burdened by the very fabric in inhabits. 50+ years of history drape and inform it. But what has always made Trek work wasn’t the stories, it was the characters. Discovery doesn’t really have that chemistry at its outset. I don’t see or feel it either from the main individuals (except for the blue guy) or between these people who have supposedly served together for years. The first double-episode should have felt solid and shocking. Instead it had me in a wait-and-see sensibility.

To be fair, not all shows can be hits out of the gate. But I am more impressed with The Orville for feeling like it has its act together with no history to back it than I am with Discovery, who has a known property and a solid universe to build from. Discovery, especially because of its subscription wall, has to hit it out of the park to keep me around. I don’t see that happening at the moment… and I have suffered through every other Trek series to the bitter end on both principle and doggedness. We’ll see if my sense of completeness insists on my attendance going forward.

The Orville 

Summer Hours (L’heure d’été)

[3 stars]

Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria) wrote and directed this  deceptively simple, and highly awarded, story about family several years back. I say “deceptively” because there are layers to this story that are unavoidable, even if they aren’t Assayas’s main focus.

On the surface we have Edith Scob (Holy Motors) as the matriarch of a modern, dispersed family admitting and dealing with her mortality. The frank recognition of her family’s real trajectories and the “residue of the past” in the form of her house and art collection, is both honest and saddening. What she really thinks of the realities is part of what we want to know and part of what at least one of her children, Charles Berling (Elle), must contend with. Also, as the oldest, he must balance his sib’s reactions and desires. Juliet Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) and Jérémie Renier (In Bruges) balance him nicely, hinting at a deep history and long-standing disagreements that they’ve all somehow managed to balance in order to keep their relationships.

But on a deeper level, and sometimes a bit too spelled out, is the deconstruction of the collection from its human surrounds. We watch art become isolated and are forced to question the value of possessions and its meaning, absent people around it. This is true for the collection as well as the family house. While the interactions and story are certainly engaging, it was this aspect of the tale that I found most intriguing, though I wish it had been a bit subtler in the dialogue.

But Assayas wanted to focus on a different story. He was taken more with the generational aspect of life. How do things, ideas, and memories get handed down from the elders to the children. What form does that take and how does it happen? Basically, how does familial history get formed and preserved, and should it or does it need to. He explores this in various ways and to unequal effect. But the story pulls you along far enough before it simply drops you to consider life on your own. Beautifully filmed and nicely acted, it is an interlude worth the time.

Summer Hours

The Hero

[3 stars]

Sam Elliot (Grandma) is a fixture of the last many (many) decades, probably much to his joy and chagrin. There is more than a little of him in this quiet rumination that uses film and celebrity as metaphors for life. And he is, as always, a quiet force on screen in that commanding way and with his signature deep, rumbling voice.

While this is very much a movie centered on a man, there are two notable female performances. Laura Prepon (The Girl on the Train) actually manages to steal scenes from Elliott by force of charisma alone. She has always been an intense personality and this is no exception. And, as always, she uses her chops and ability to deliver a complex character, even if there is little there to work from. Along with Prepon was a surprisingly vulnerable turn by Krysten Ritter that couldn’t be farther from her breakout Jessica Jones. This Ritter is meek and tenderly broken, despite her hostile demeanor.

After their collaboration on I’ll See You in My Dreams, Brett Haley and Marc Basch teamed up again with Haley back at the helm. In some ways, this is the reverse view of that previous story, at least in gender perspective. It is also a bit more successful overall. The two creatives make a great team and I look forward to what they produce next given their growth with each film. 

The Hero

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

[3.5 stars]

The first Kingsman was a delightfully unexpected and irreverent romp in spy-land. Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle) returns for this middle story of a planned trilogy and manages to grow the character and give us another, if much more violent, round of spy games. It may have lost some of the element of surprise, but the movie compensates with sheer audacity of spectacle and story. And everyone gets to show off a bit in this film.

On team England, Mark Strong (Miss Sloane), Sophie Cookson (Huntsman: Winters’ War), and Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Baby) all reprise roles adding to the mythology. But the surprise addition of Hanna Alström (Kingsman: The Secret Service) showed us that Eggsy wasn’t just a love ’em and leave ’em guy, he was capable of commitment. It is a nice flourish for his story.

Team America (1) is a bit more complex to pull apart. A great deal was made of Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) and Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), but their parts are relatively small. It is more Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Pedro Pascal (The Great Wall) that drive that team. To be truthful, I wish I had known a lot less about this section of the film as it is slowly revealed over the first third of the plot, but it is impossible to not know it given the advertising and the cast.

Team America (2) is the US Government officials led by Bruce Greenwood (Spectral) and Emily Watson (Everest). Greenwood provides an ugly version of the office that was a scarily good guess at the current tenor given that it was in production during the changeover of administrations here at the time. Watson’s is an important role, but a bit of a cipher as a character, which is a shame given her abilities.

In opposition to them all are Edward Holcroft (London Spy) and Julianne Moore (Vanya on 42nd Street). Holcroft isn’t much more than a prop to bridge the movies and make it personal for Eggsy and the Kingsmen. There just isn’t much there other than anger and a desire to succeed. Julianne Moore, however, has a bit more meat on her character bones. Her speech on the motivation and plan she has put into action is one of the more interesting, subtle pieces of the social commentary that underlies this story. While she delivers it all well, there isn’t all that much for her to work with. Still, she kept it from being a cookie-cutter villainess. She also has one amusing, surprise guest with a fun story-line, but I’m not going to spoil that here.

The most interesting returnee to this universe is director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn. This is his first ever sequel. After launching Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, he left the franchises to others. He does a credible job coming back for this round, but he did miss a few marks. First, despite its scope, the film doesn’t feel international. It feels like Hollywood. This is in large part due to the rather nasty portrayal of the US government as well as only showing us a view of the world events via a fictionalized Fox News. “Fictionalized” as it is Fox actually doing news (rather than misreporting or opining). But there are no feeds from the other affected countries. That was a mistake I’m sure was insisted on by Fox Studios, but it really rather hurt the credibility of the tale. And Vaughn really has to stop trying to recreate his amazing “Time in a Bottle” sequence from X-Men. It just isn’t going to happen.

On a technical level, the film really excels. The script is constructed solidly to use everything as well as to redeem characters and even the golden circle symbol itself. And the editing, both between scenes and within fights, is pretty amazing. While there are moments it is very much obvious, which you don’t really want editing to be (like a couple of the cross-fades), they’re so beautifully executed that you can’t help but admire the choices. But the intra-fight editing is the real prize: is damn near seamless, which is astounding when you realize the complexity of the shots.

As a whole, this is just as entertaining as the first film in the series. It isn’t so much about discovery any longer, we’ve had our origin story after all. This round is about redemption and growth and finding a place in the world… and a whole lot of violence getting there, as adolescence often is. The film absolutely sets up a third installment, but fully resolves the story it starts in this outing. It has a ton of laughs, car chases worth of Fast & Furious or Bond, tons of flying lead and mashed bodes, and a social message that may or may not resonate for everyone, but that is certainly interesting to note. If you liked the first, you will like the second. If you haven’t found this series yet, start with The Secret Service and then return to this. While it may stand on its own, it will have a whole lot more depth with the background for you.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Yi Yi (a one and a two)

[3 stars]

This three hour tale from Taipei feels more like a soap opera than a movie as you sink into its humor and pathos. It even leads off with a wedding and eventually ends with a funeral. But as it moves along, it becomes more a mediation on life and family as we watch the reflections in the generations. This final, and well recognized, film by Edward Yang is huge in scope but very narrow in its messages when it finally comes down to it.

Packed with a range of new (at the time) and established faces from Taiwan and Japan, the world of the Jiang family and their friends is slowly exposed and examined. Yang also used window and mirror reflection throughout the film to remind us of this point (and to save camera set-ups, admittedly).

I want to say I understand the English translation of the title, but I’m still turning that one to try and put it in context. I suspect it is a miss-reference due to translation. It reads as a musical cue (which works, but not particularly great) rather than as, perhaps, a countdown for a picture, which is more on point in many ways. I’m just going to have to keep mulling that for now and talk to a few friends from the island to see what more I can glean.

Sadly, the transfer of the film is really pretty crude. Even for a 1999 release the encoding is very poor. However, despite that distraction, I found myself drawn into the story and engaged with the characters and their lives; eventually, even looking at my own. You have to set aside a good chunk of an evening to watch Yi Yi, but I do recommend it if you can accept its deliberate pace and quiet sensibility.

Yi Yi

Gifted

[4 stars]

It is rare when a small movie can tackle larger ideas without losing focus on the intimate story it wants to tell. Under the guidance of Marc Webb (Amazing Spider-Man) and writer Tom Flynn, Gifted manages to be succeed on that point, telling the story of family and childhood, but also tackling larger issues like parenthood, normality, feminism, and mental health.

Personal tales like this rarely succeed without solid performances, and this is where Webb also soared. Mckenna Grace (Designated Survivor) is a firecracker, with a lot of potential ahead of her. She captures the intelligence of her young character without losing the “kid” in her. And, of course, she has a winning smile and charisma.

Surprisingly, even with Grace’s magnetism, she does not dominate the film the way kid-centered stories often do. Chris Evans (Captain America: Civil War) and Lindsay Duncan (Sherlock) not only hold their own, but deliver powerful and believable performances as they struggle with one another and themselves. Even Jenny Slate (Zootopia) delivers a character that is more complex than you’d expect given where she starts. And the balance between them all, including Grace, is handled beautifully.

If there is a weakness in the film, it is in Evan’s stated reasons for his actions near the end. We don’t really see the shift in his character, or I didn’t anyway. This feels more like editing choices than the actor to me, but it smudges an otherwise wonderful performance.

Gifted is probably everything you expect it to be in a child custody film. But I promise you, there is more to it than what you’re expecting. It is not only done well, it is done with intensity over sturm und drang. It is worth your time and probably worth seeing more than once, simply for the joy of it and the reminders of what life can and should be.

Gifted