Tag Archives: Director

The Valet (La doublure)

[3 stars]

There is nothing quite like a well-controlled French farce to help put a smile on your face. And director and writer Francis Veber (Dinner for Schmucks, La Cage Aux Folles) certainly understands farce. His main strength is almost always going for the understated response from his main characters, while allowing the peripheral ones to go  broad. It keeps the entire story from ever getting too shrill or ridiculous, even when it is outlandish or ridiculous.

He also has a great touch for casting. Gad Elmaleh (Mood Indigo) is wonderfully comfortable with his life and choices, even when offered something much more. And Alice Taglioni and Kristin Scott Thomas (Tomb Raider), as pawns turned queens, provide some great moments as well as implying some deep backstories that we never really get to learn about directly.

There are many other amusing, smaller roles, some created by faces you’ll recognize from French and International cinema. They all add sparkle and entertainment, pushing the story along with many laughs.

For a bit of warm escape, this is a great choice…and also a good one to share with someone you care about. Pop the corn, pour the libations, and curl up together on the couch for a good laugh.

The Valet Poster

In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wah)

[4 stars]

Director/writer Wong Kar-wai (The Grandmaster) has a beautiful sensibility about film and about characters. It isn’t just about the framing, which is always impressive, it is about his awareness of the moments. He imparts emotion by virtue of how they are presented, adding a layer to the performances and story.

When paired with subtle performers like Tony Chiu Wai Leung (The Grandmaster) and Maggie Cheung (2046), the result is riveting. We swept up in their lives as they reevaluate their marriages and each other. It is always as much about the silences and what we can’t see that expands the story, sometimes even more so than what is on screen.

Beyond the story itself, Kar-wai plays some entertaining games with the film. Cheung, for instance, has an astonishing wardrobe that rarely repeats. Some characters are never fully in frame or seen from the front. Rain and smoke become motifs for emotion and thought. And the episodic nature of the film ultimately drives unexpected aspects of the tale. It is no wonder it picked up so many awards; it pulls you along with inexorable curiosity, longing, and hope.

In the Mood for Love Poster

Paradise Hills

[3 stars]

There is a lot to unpack in this movie. It is, above all else, sumptuously designed, rich in visuals, and minute in its detail. That alone makes it worth seeing. The story, an interesting twist on the old Stepford Wives trope (either version: 1975 or 2004…, though, better yet, just read the book), isn’t nearly as strong. The plot just doesn’t come together, even if it is a gorgeous trip getting there.

In short, director Alice Waddington Waddington produced a wonderful style over substance response to #metoo. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a message, just that the message is obvious and the path getting there is a bit weak. However, it is almost an entirely female cast, which is always a nice surprise.

Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) is the focus of the steam-punkish tale. She’s a fighter and has a brain. She’s joined by Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Chapter), doing Awkwafina, but it is entertaining. Completing the female fighting faction are Danielle Macdonald (Bird Box) and Eiza González (Baby Driver), who add some interesting moments, if not some depth.

Lording over all of them is a somewhat stilted Milla Jovovich (Hellboy). Some of her attitude becomes clarified during the tale, but it isn’t what you call a compelling performance.

And then there is one bit of boy toy in Jeremy Irvine (Stonewall) whose role is about what you’d expect.

As I said, this is less about the story and more about the visuals. If you can turn off your brain and just go with the story, it’s kinda fun and angering. If you look at it too hard it falls apart. Take from it what you can. I’d love to see what Waddington could do with a better script, she certainly has an eye. Though, to be fair, this was her story idea… but Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) and Brian DeLeeuw either couldn’t turn it into a cohesive story or Waddington didn’t recognize the gaps.

Paradise Hills

The Vast of Night

[3.5 stars]

On the surface this new streamer is a fairly standard, if cleverly told, story of 50s middle-America dealing with paranoia and possible invasion (by who and what are unknown). We’ve seen this many times before, and new director Andrew Patterson and his writers, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger don’t shy away from that fact. Indeed part of what sets this film apart is that they lean into it, framing the entire story in a Twilight Zone-like box.

I’ll come back to the story and presentation, but it’s first worth noting the cast, led by Sierra McCormick as a believable 16 year old in over her head, but afraid of nothing. She is backed up by a less heeled, but solid, Jake Horowitz as the two unravel and pursue the mystery that drops in their laps. Horowitz channels James Dean while McCormick is something like a super-charged Nancy Drew as they scramble with equipment and  have frequent dashes across town at an unrelenting pace. In a small but focused role, Gail Cronauer (Te Ata) is the only character to steal back the camera for a while from the two leads, delivering and extended and haunted tale full of emotion.

Now let’s get back to the presentation. Because, despite all these praises, the story is really fairly obvious and nothing new. What keeps you intrigued, even during the slower or overloaded segments (like the opening 20 minutes of setup and dialogue) is the direction and cinematography. Patterson squeezed the story to remove all moments of breath, but not so much that it feels rushed so much as normal. Even with Horowitz’s mumbling around his cigarette, which could get frustrating as a listener, it feels right and real and nothing of any import is missed.

But the real question, and nod, I have goes back to that framing. I don’t know if it was in the original script or, if during development or in the editing room, they realized they were doing pure homage and needed to find a way to set it apart to do their work justice. I lean heavily toward this latter suspicion since it was all done in post and changed none of the movie. They knew what they were doing with the story, but needed a way to tip that to the audience and reframe it so it wouldn’t feel stale and tired. And, in fact, the opening, closing, and few reminders, make it more fun and let you go with the flow.

However, it has an ancillary effect of leaving you wondering if it was part of the plot or only part of the presentation. And this is where I was a little more frustrated with the choice. The story doesn’t rise to the level of needing any meta-layers or messages. And 50s-style horror doesn’t particularly have a lot to say about the human condition that isn’t on the screen in big flashing neon. So the framing is a nice artistic choice, but a forced one for the story itself since it is merely a comment and never used. Add to this the ending, which can be read more than one way, and you’re left with one too many unanswered aspects…or at least I was.

To see these performances and a new set of voices entering the cinematic fray, this really is a movie worth seeing. It isn’t perfect, but it is crammed with promise and definitely put together with deft hands. And it is entertaining, enough so that I wanted to examine these other aspects rather than just taking it just for what it is. Watch for these people in the future, they’re sure to be coming up with something new and interesting.

The Vast of Night Poster

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

[4.5 stars]

In her follow-up to Nannette, Gadsby once-again defies tradition and description. It isn’t quite the power-blast of Nannette, but it is a brilliantly structured piece of comedy. She starts exactly where she needs to and drags you laughing through to the end, pulling everything together as she does.

Whether or not you liked Nannette, you should see Douglas. It has its serious comments, but it is very much a comedy special put together with deft hands and a wickedly sharp mind.

[But if you haven’t seen Nannette as well, you should. It is a different animal, but it is a brilliantly, near-perfect, piece of stage craft.  It isn’t comedy, per se, but it is funny, and cathartic, and a wonder to behold]

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

Nightwatching / Rembrandt’s J’accuse

[3 stars]

Peter Greenaway (Eisenstein in Guanajuato) is one of the most singular and visionary directors in film. You may not like the results all the time, but he manipulates film like a canvas. This is because he is, at heart, a painter. His movies always reflect that, and often examine the role of art in society as well.

Greenaway became obsessed with The Night Watch, a painting crammed with symbology and unique in its presentation for the mid-1600s. Nightwatching  tackles the creative process behind the choices and the society it was part of…which leads to the exposure of a power struggle and a murder.

It all sounds very exciting and intriguing. And with Martin Freeman (Black Panther) in the role of Rembrandt, you are probably hoping for a wonderful jaunt down historical lane, filled with sex, intrigue, and mystery. Well, there is sex, and it is a living Rembrandt portrait in design, but it isn’t the most engaging film. The story is rather hard to follow, and the presentational style Greenaway adopts for many of his movies, that almost theatrical setting, distances you from getting too close. The fourth wall is often broken as well, making it as much lecture/explanation as it is story. The movie ends up feeling more like dramatic recreation rather than exposure of Rembrandt’s personality, creative process, and life.

But even Greenaway seemed to know that, and thus the companion documentary he released the following year: Rembrandt’s J’Accuse!

The docu attacks the same story, but in non-fiction style and utilizing some of Nightwatching’s footage. The result isn’t brilliant…while well organized it is overly produced and pompous. Greenaway, as narrator, rather than educating is more than a little condescending. The research and explanations are fascinating, however, which is what keeps you going through it. If you’ve never studied art history, it is likely to be a bit fast and overloaded. If you are at least a little familiar with the period of art and the kinds of symbology artists employed, it is likely a little more digestible.

Frankly, I’d skip Nightwatching and just watch J’Accuse, if you have any interest in these subjects or just want to learn a bit about one of the world’s most famous artists. It is a great reminder of just how conscious the visual arts are. Everything is there for a reason, even if we don’t realize it most of the time. And the tale behind The Night Watch is complicated and interesting. The presentation of artist as vigilante with brushes isn’t new in the world, but rarely are the indictments so meaningful and so packed.

Nightwatching Rembrandt's J'Accuse...!

RocknRolla

[?? stars]

It’s all a question of style. This 2008 Guy Ritchie (Aladdin) comedy-heist film is pure Ritchie. His natural voice and approach have a clear signature. It is a dark sort of comedy, with a lot of quick cuts, dry delivery, and violent action. And, for whatever reason, and despite its relative success and following, I just could not make it through this one at this time. Perhaps it’s the pandemic, perhaps my tastes have shifted, but people being that awful to each other for no other reason than greed, and no character having truly redeemable qualities, just isn’t an escape for me right now…it’s a horror show.

I realize this probably says more about me than the movie. And normally I wouldn’t even have written this up because I don’t believe this is a fair reflection on the effort…but that’s why I also didn’t actually rate it. If I were being paid for this effort, I’d have forced myself through and found a way to be unbiased, but since this is purely a labor of love, the hell with it. Life is to stressful and short right now to waste time on something that isn’t engaging me in any kind of positive way (which isn’t to say it has to be a positive movie…I love dark comedy).

So, with apologies to the most excellent cast and even to Ritchie, I’m passing on this one. I wish I’d seen it long ago when my mood may have allowed me to enjoy it, the way I have many of his earlier films. Maybe someday I’ll come back to this and be willing to take the ride. But not today.

RockNRolla

The Half of It

[4 stars]

It isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly predictable in many ways, but The Half of It is also down-to-earth and earnest in the best possible sense. And I say this even with the framework of Cyrano with echos of Love, Simon and Hedvig and the Angry Inch paving the way. Director/writer Alice Wu (Saving Face) really came through in her Sophomore outing. She navigates the sea of high school awakening and romance with confidence, honesty, and a good dash of fantasy to allow for dramatic moments. But she never loses credibility, despite the well trod ground.

Much of the success here goes to the three leads. Leah Lewis (Nancy Drew) as our Cyrano is heartbreakingly lost in her world, trying to balance life and family. Daniel Diemer, is surprisingly effective as a “inarticulate jock” with hidden capacities. And Alexxis Lemire, as the object of affection, walks an interesting line without stumbling. With Wu’s guidance, each of them manages to remain both aware and innocent, intelligent, but naive. In other words, very much of their age rather than adults playing at being teenagers.

This is where the movie sets itself apart from another similar outing in 10 Things I Hate About You. 10 Things, while practically a classic, leans into its classical underpinnings and loses the pretense of reality. The Half of It leans more into life, and embraces the joy and the suck (at least to a degree) that is being a teenager in love.

There is also one wonderful bit part worth mentioning, as it is a real standout. Becky Ann Baker (Girls), as Lewis’s teacher, has a few fabulous moments that also serve to expose the town at large with a few brushstrokes.

Make time for this one, if you haven’t already. It will put a smile on your face without rotting your teeth. And the story, humor, and moments are certainly worth revisiting again down the road.

The Half of It

Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016)

[4.5 stars]

Russell T. Davies’ (Years and Years) adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy managed something I’ve never seen in this play: a real sense of danger and motivation. Even Julie Taymor’s inventive take on it didn’t manage that. But Davies also had the courage to reconceive the story and edit it down to 90 minutes. Honestly, it is the better for it in this production. It helps balance the characters into a true ensemble and streamline the story without losing the intent. And director David Kerr took Davies’ script and ran with it.

From its opening, with John Hannah (Sliding Doors) blasting onto scene as a tyrannous Theseus, we know we’re in for something different. This Midsummer owes a lot to many films, from Richard III and Silence of the Lambs to Hunger Games and Wizard of Oz, and a slew of others too long to mention. Few of these are overdone, most are brushstrokes to evoke emotions. But it all works nicely.

Matt Lucas (How to Talk to Girls at Parties) and Maxine Peake (The Bisexual) as Bottom and Titania are two of the amusing standouts, though the young lovers acquit themselves well too, especially Matthew Tennyson (Pride) and Prisca Bakare. I wanted to like Kate Kennedy’s Helena more, but it is always a challenging role to believe, even with the changes that helped it this round. If anyone really got short-changed in this production it was Hiran Abeysekera, whose Puck is entertaining, but most decidedly a minor character rather than the typical scene stealer he has become over the centuries.

As a whole, this is probably the best interpretation, and nearest to perfect, I’ve seen of this play. It’s also one of the best riffs on Shakespeare as well, showing both reverence and a keen sense of its current audience to make it accessible and enjoyable.

Midsummer Night

I Am Not Okay With This

[3.5 stars]

This odd, 7-episode season inhabits a fun place in the streaming pantheon somewhere between Heros and The End of the F***ing World. Frankly, if it had done more than just barely set things up for the next series I would have rated it quite a bit higher, but little is resolved by the end and far too little really happens to make it feel complete.

That said, the journey is really quite a bit of unexpected fun. Sophia Lillis (Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase) continues to expand her range and work on her delivery. She is magnetic and quirkily charismatic as she negotiates her High School and evolving powers. Joined by fellow It alum, Wyatt Oleff, we see well into the lives of their families, often without having to see it explicitly. The work by creator/director Jonathan Entwistle (The End of the F***ing World) to expose by inference and off-screen action is one of the more powerful aspects to the show: the implied, the hidden.

Sofia Bryant (Birdboy: The Forgotten Children) adds both bridge and irritant to the relationship of the main characters, and access to the other cliques at the school. The three, together, form an odd set of bonds and uneasy relationships that typify late teen years…especially those who are more self-aware.

Entwistle has a solid vision and ability to navigate  heightened truth and make it feel utterly imperative and real. In other words, he can tap his inner teen really, really well. This slightly less offensive (by typical standards) series show he’s also getting more savvy in his content pics without compromising his desire to live at the edge. I’m curious to see where he takes this, as his follow-up series to The End of the F***ing World really didn’t sustain its impact and unique qualities. But this has more potential and more of an open-ended tale, so I’ve hope.

I Am Not Okay with This