Tag Archives: Director

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

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

[3 stars]

Agatha Christie’s novels have been done to death (all puns intended) over the years. That doesn’t make them any less entertaining, but it does create a mine field for the actors who must tread well worn paths but somehow make them feel new. And no where is that path more worn than with Miss Marple and Poirot.

Bluntly, Kenneth Branagh (The Magic Flute) is no David Suchet, but he creates a new Poirot that has his moments, if not complete command of our love yet. Branagh also directs the piece expertly, keeping it moving along and offering credible interruptions of events to draw out the denouement. Michael Green’s (Blade Runner 2049) script helps him along on that point with clever dialogue and well-considered constructions. The cinematography is also gorgeous capturing both the landscapes and rich era. 

The film is fairly littered with known faces, far too many to list. But a few are of note. Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean), in particular, sells his linchpin role perfectly. The remaining cast succeed and fail to differing degrees. Sadly, Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul), is one of the weakest, though I couldn’t tell if that was due to Branagh’s lack of focus on her or simply her delivery. (This movie also completes a triptych of films with Dench for me over the last week.) On the other hand, Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!) and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) shown like beacons amid the gray and white of the landscape.

Whether you know this story or not, it is a great version of it. In fact, it may well be the best adaptation done yet for large or small screen; certainly it holds its own. Again, it isn’t the Poirot that I grew to love over decades, but my first Poirot was Ustinov and I got over it. You could do worse than your first as Branagh…just hunt down Suchet’s distillation at some point as well. No one has yet captured Christie’s little Belgian quite so well.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

[4 stars]

At its heart, this is a movie about love. That is also a biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman and his bold choices in a repressed era becomes window dressing. Though, I have to admit, I will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again.

Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train), Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon), and Rebecca Hall (The Dinner) pull off a beautiful triangle. They manage to bring to life the complex emotions, fears, and desires that drove and challenged the relationship they formed without making it puerile or cliche. In our current times, it is also a great lesson in moral fibre and learning to be who you are despite societal pressures or assumptions.

There are some very nice smaller roles that are worth noting as well, JJ Feild (Captain America: The First Avenger) in particular. On the sidelines are Oliver Platt (The Ticket), and Connie Britton (Beatriz at Dinner) that provide some intriguing bridging characters too, though we never really get to know them.

Writer and director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) does something wonderful with this tale. She approaches it without judgement of her characters, but rather flips that to her audience and those around the unusual family. As her second feature, it is beautifully modulated and subtle. I will say that while the romance and personal aspect of the story is very effective and believable, Robinson’s other goal (layering on Marston’s psych theory as a structure for the movie) is less effective. It doesn’t distract or diminish the film, but it doesn’t really add much to it either. You can see the ideas, you can’t avoid them given the transitions, but I didn’t find them to build on or explain much either. Frankly, it is a minor criticism in this story as it is still character appropriate and adds some interesting structure, even if it is less than impactful.

Whether you know the history of of these people, or have an interest in Wonder Woman comics, this is a story that will grab you early and keep you intrigued. Marston was no ordinary man, nor were the brilliant women he had in his life. What is fascinating is just how little things have changed since their story began in the late 1920s.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)

[3 stars]

Violence? Check. Dark comedy? Check? Crazy choreography? Check? Bizarre story? Check.

Blade is a manga adaptation (not to mention anime), and the dark humor and violent sensibility of that form are very present; right in director Takashi Miike’s (The Happiness of the Katakuris) wheelhouse. Blade adds another notch in his fluid and prolific opus.

This movie is never going to be a classic, nor is it something I need to see again, but if you enjoy the genre it is a pretty good romp. In some ways it feels like a riff on Kurosawa’s classic re-conceived as The Seven Anti-Samurai.

For a variety of reasons, I had to watch the dubbed version, which was unfortunate. The voices are off and mixed poorly (not unusual). But it is also a workable option once you settle into the story if you don’t want to get whiplash reading the rapid subtitles.

And there is a story, if a somewhat unexplained and unresolved one; it is essentially 2.5 hours of carnage and fighting. Despite the thin veneer, Miike does manage to take all his main characters and explain their actions; at least a little. Morality isn’t nearly as black and white as you think when it starts. But neither is there any really deep musing on the choices or philosophical meaning explored. But did you really expect there to be?

Blade of the Immortal

The Breadwinner

[3.5 stars]

If you follow animation at all, you are probably aware of the beautifully fantastical Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, the first co-directed by Nora Twomey and the latter she contributed to from the art department. These fantasies have a distinctive look of layered, cut paper and illuminated manuscripts which move like ancient puppets through incredible worlds rich in imagination and color. Breadwinner incorporates these signatures into aspects of its tale, but this film, directed by Twomey, is much more grounded in the real world.

In fact, the core of the story is very contemporary and disturbing, while still being appropriate for most audiences. And, though it is a chronicle of Afghanistan in 2001, it is just as upsettingly applicable today. The resulting film is is something like a combination of Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir with a dash of The Patience Stone and Wadjda. All films worth seeing if you’ve missed any of them.

There is nothing brilliant about the voice talent in the film, but neither is there anything wanting. They all do quite well, but the star is the art and the tale itself. Shifting between the real world and the interstitial story-world that Parvana is telling to her brother and herself. Both stories serve to pull you along, however that split focus also has some issues. Primarily, Parvana’s bedtime story has an odd energy and flow. The fable is told episodically, but without a feeling of closure or chapter endings, though clearly that is the intent of each break in the tale. It makes every one of the transitions from fable to real world story less than smooth. Not bad, necessarily, but not as crafted as you’d expect given the previous two films. Each change leaves a residual, unresolved energy like an incomplete chord which follows you back into the next scene, keeping you from re-engaging quickly as the story shifts.

Any concerns around that aside, it is a movie you should make time for now that it is generally available. If it flowed better, I’d say it should also kick Coco’s butt out of the Oscar seat, but that isn’t going to happen. Despite its powerful message, insights, and wide-eyed hope for a broken world, The Breadwinner just isn’t quite good enough to pull off the win. But it is good enough to demand your time and adds to a catalog of work that is visually unique and wonderful.

The Breadwinner

Early Man

[3 stars]

There is something about stop-action animation that remains magical to me. I don’t know if it is the effort behind it or simply the way inanimate objects come to life when it is done right, but it captured me as a kid and continues to grab me as an adult. Until Laika Studios (Kubo and the Two Strings) came online about 10 years ago, the torch and almost sole standard bearer for stop-action was Aardman Studios and, in particular, Nick Park.

Park created the wonderful Wallace & Grommit, Shaun the Sheep, and a slew of advertisements and short films. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck when a fire wiped out nearly all the decades of models and sets Aardman had brought to life. What has followed that devastation has never quite hit their high mark, at least in long-form adult fare.

Early Man is no exception. If you love footy and have kids, this film is a riot. It is full of humor (adult and child) and has a sweet and empowering tale for all children. And, of course, it has a great animal sidekick, voiced by Park himself, that steals the film. The rest of the story, for adults at least, is fine, but not brilliant despite a well-known and talented voice cast. Most importantly, the animation is wonderful.

Where does it lose adults, or at least me? The movie starts off with cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time in order to tie in the great meteor strike to the plot (wholly unnecessary, but they couldn’t resist the dinosaur thing). Then it goes on to not think through its production design; the clothing is all whole, wild animal furs when all they hunt are rabbits for example. And, finally, it has several key script contradictions. Will kids notice any of this? Probably a tiny bit, but most won’t. However, it was effort to keep having to forget the errors as I was watching–and I love Park’s work. I will say the script does have a lot of fun British humor. Perhaps part of the challenge was seeing the movie after seeing the new Shaun the Sheep trailer, which looks so very funny and sly…and this film just didn’t seem to have the same level of intelligence and cleverness.

I’m not saying don’t go to this film. I am saying go with the right expectations. This is a fabulous film for young kids with enough humor for adults that it works. It just isn’t the classic I had hoped for, and always hope for, with Aardman Studios. Their technique is still great and their sense of whimsy still very much alive, but they need to get better writers on board to keep the adults fully engaged. Though, admittedly, Mark Burton, who brought us the wonderful and clever Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, was one of the primary writers on this feature. So it isn’t so easy to point to where this particular film went off-track. But go and support the art form and enjoy the escapism of it all. It may not be a classic, but it is still solid animation from a studio that is a master of the art.

Early Man

Black Panther

[4.5 stars}

This last year in film (and the world) has been one of evolution and, in some cases, revolution. With Black Panther, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed), has managed to both stick to the Marvel vision of super hero mythologies and remake them all at once. Like Wonder Woman (but with a better script), Black Panther is loaded with strong and smart female heroes as well as showing us a new view and venue for a story, never once touching down in the USA ( except for flashback and tag). It is also unabashedly fits into our current times, commenting upon world politics and the challenges that face the world. Oh, and it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

And Coogler managed to do all that while building on the tiny threads we’ve been getting about Wakanda, and amplifying smaller characters like Andy Serkis’s (War for the Planet of the Apes) Klaue and looping in Martin Freeman’s (Sherlock) Agent Ross. Of course we’d already met Chadwick Boseman (Captain America: Civil War), but we knew very little about him until now.

Now we see Boseman as a child and in his kingdom. He is surrounded by strong women without whom he would die more than once: Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe) as his top spy and love interest, Danai Gurira (The Visitor) as his General, Letitia Wright (Humans) as his scientist/sister, and Angela Bassett (Survivor, Chi-Raq) as his mother are all loaded with responsibility, brains, guts, and brawn. They all also have a healthy sense of humor and humanity about their young King; he doesn’t get a free ride anywhere. Each has some challenging storylines of their own, particularly Gurira.

There are also some standout performances in his retinue and world from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Florence Kasumba (Emerald City),  Winston Duke (Person of Interest), and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us).

But every hero must have his nemesis, and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) brings it with incredible style and ability. Jordan’s storyline, like the rest of the script, is far from simple. He also serves as an oddly uncomfortable voice for politics and society today while hearkening back through various movements of the last 40 years (and more).

I saw this in IMAX, which was glorious, but it is also the reason I had to ding the rating of the film. As good and fun as the script is, Coogler doesn’t quite know how to film up-close fight scenes for the truly big screen. He was a bit too close and cutting far too quickly in many cases, making what were clearly good choreographed scenes a blur. I plan on catching the film again on a standard screen, though probably not 3D, before too long. I’m curious to see if that will help with some of the issues.

So go see this, for so many reasons: great script and story, great humor, incredible visuals and action, and the shattering of many walls. I don’t know where they’ll take this in future, but Black Panther has earned his place among the Avengers as well as film history.

Black Panther


[2 stars]

Straight up, I am a Darren Aronofsky (Noah) fan and have been since Pi. His narratives are almost always complex and unexpected. Certainly mother! is anything but straightforward. Oddly, though, it isn’t anything new or unexpected either. And it certainly didn’t land with most audiences.

From the outset of the film, you know there is something off. First there is the apparent rollback in time from a disaster. Then there is the odd tension between Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) and Javier Bardem (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) which just isn’t quite natural. By the time Ed Harris (Geostorm) and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, it is clear this isn’t reality, or isn’t being viewed from clear eyes. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) makes a solid appearance as well to help seal the deal.

If you insist on still seeing the story as reality at any level after that point, it is no wonder that you would hate the film. Honestly, I was willing to go along for the ride, but in a year that included similar themes, like the more recent Phantom Thread, I was looking for something new, not just visually surprising.

Aronofsky has created a very personal vision and tale of his favorite themes: art, love, and religion/spirituality. But ultimately it is about a half hour too long to sustain the story and audience interest. After the first 90 minutes, you want answers, not more outrageous and infuriating situations. I appreciate he wanted to slow burn to the climax, but he asked too much from his audience; he never really fully earns our trust, providing no answers, only mystery and weirdness upon strangeness and offkey oddity. He has always been great skirting the edge of reality, as in Black Swan, to lead to a point. Here, however, the end result here is more the feeling of a surrealist play that is weird for weirdness’ sake alone rather than a cohesive movie. By the way, achieving that play-like presentation and pulling us along inexorably while staying true to the media is no small feat in itself.

I truly admire the craft and acting in the film, even if I disliked the result; it doesn’t feel satisfying in the end. After his last film, I was worried Aronofsky would try to stay more mainstream…I suspect he feared the same and veered way off the track to try and prove he wouldn’t both to audiences and, more importantly, to himself. The result is mother! Now that he’s made his point, I hope he will find his path again. He is a gifted film maker, but this isn’t his best onscreen musing.


The Limehouse Golem

[4 stars]

Limehouse is a tense and complicated period mystery; a wonderful, precise, dark gem of a movie.

Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) leads this twisting tale with character-appropriate confidence and acting ability. By her side, Bill Nighy (Their Finest) pulls at the threads of his open case and imagines the possibilities in an effort to solve the murders and save the girl in 1880 London. Sprinkled within the fictional are real-life characters who were in the Limehouse at this time in history, which adds some sense of reality to the tapestry of the film world.

Central to the story in tale and geography is a music hall dominated by Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending). His character, even from the wings (as it were), is an overshadowing presence that has him driving the film in his own right, even getting the opening and closing frames. Additionally, Sam Reid (2:22), and María Valverde (Exodus: Gods and Kings) play integral, if slightly less layered roles.

Two smaller characters are given quiet life by Daniel Mays (Against the Law) and Eddie Marsan (Atomic Blonde). These two actors are always great at making the most of small moments and minimal dialogue, and this movie is no exception.

One of the best parts of this film is the script, which has a strong female lead and an unconventional narrative. Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) was on task to adapt this script from Peter Ackroyd’s book; the title of which is variously The Limehouse Golem, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (a reference to Booth’s character), and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (a reference to Cooke’s character). That it has existed with so many different titles gives you a sense of how much she had her work cut out for her. With Goldman’s history of delivering some of the most delightfully odd films of the last 20 years, she was a perfect choice to tackle this project. And director Juan Carlos Medina showed himself well with this Sophomore feature as it bounced between different themes, plots, and timelines.

Make time for this mystery. It will keep your brain going and engage you from the moment it begins. And while the surface story is wonderful, it is only one of the layers of this film, and only one of the ways to approach your understanding of the movie which is dense in meaning and language, making it eminently rewatchable.

The Limehouse Golem

The Book of Henry

[4 stars]

Henry was a rather divisive tale during its release, but I honestly don’t understand why. It is dark, yes, but on a clear trajectory from its outset and with an emotional intelligence that is rare in films, and even rarer in films driven by children.

Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), in the title role, is controlled but never forgets he is a child in a co-dependent relationship. Alongside him is the incredibly capable Jacob Tremblay (Wonder), who consciously takes a back seat in this film to his screen brother, but delivers a great performance nonetheless. In the third child role, Maddie Ziegler(Leap!) rides a very subtle line without ever overplaying her cards. Having three capable young actors driving a movie was a great surprise.

But this isn’t just a tale of the children. The adults around them have equally interesting paths to walk. Prime among them is Naomi Watts (The Glass Castle), who continues to be a conundrum for me. She is a very natural actor who never quite seems natural because she has such charisma and power on screen. This film manages to contain her relatively well, but it wavers at moments. Sarah Silverman (A Million Ways to Die in the West) is surprising as Watts’ best friend; funny, but in a dark and subtle way with a sad, but very real character. Finally, there are Dean Norris (Girlboss) and Lee Pace (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in critical, smaller roles. Both performances are quiet and full of implied layers which fill them out despite minimal screen time.

Colin Trevorrow has had an odd trajectory as director, going from the utterly delightful Safety Not Guaranteed to the overblown and absurd Jurassic Park and now a return to his more indie roots with Book of Henry. While Jurassic has made him a mint, it is clear that, left to his own devices, he can craft and control deeply emotional and complex tales. His execution of Gregg Hurwitz’s first feature script was done with real skill. It is oddly structured in ways that will keep surprising you as it subverts traditional plots.

I know this movie will not interest everyone; it somehow manages to credibly combine the sensibilities of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet and Florida Project and Gifted without a nod or a wink. It captures small-town life and the quiet corruption that can lie beneath, but it isn’t so jaded as to go sour. The performances are near flawless and the story is both timely and effective. In other words, for the right and receptive audience, it is a solid choice.

Side note: I don’t often do this, but I’d waited months to read the Esquire review of this film and feel compelled to link to it. Not because I agree with it all, but there are aspects that are interesting. There are also aspects that make it clear the reviewer wasn’t paying attention, so I have to discount the whole given how intricate the plot is; missing anything is to make it all shaky. Regardless, the reaction is typical of what I was seeing. Do be warned, he retells a lot of the plot, so I’d wait before you read it as I did.

The Book of Henry