Tag Archives: Director

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917

The Two Popes

[3.5 stars]

So, why is a nice Jewish boy like me watching a movie about the papacy? Well, honestly, I only turn it on because of the buzz around the script and Jonathan Pryce’s (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) performance. OK, and a bit of curiosity.

I have to admit, Anthony McCarten’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) script is an unexpected delight, which Fernando Meirelles (Constant Gardner) brought to life with both gravitas and a sense of humor. The result is a 2-person play with Anthony Hopkins (Lear) that unwinds as a personal and philosophical debate on the purpose of the Church in life. Except, it isn’t as dry as all that.

However, as much I enjoyed the give and take, and the story, I did have to wonder at the purpose of the piece overall. It comes off as both an apologia and advertisement for both Popes. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with that effect on either side. Perhaps I am observing it a little more clinically, given my perspective, but art is always lensed through the observer so what can I say?

Well, I can say that I laughed out loud…a lot. And I learned about both men as well as got a sense of appreciation for their positions. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting couple hours, and likely not at all what you expect before turning it on.

You’ll be hearing a lot of about this film during this awards season, so take the gamble and start it up; you can always bail out if it doesn’t grab you. But I have to warn you, it had me at the first scene and I suspect it will have you too.

Little Women (2019)

[3 stars]

I have to be honest here, I only went to this film because of Greta Gerwig (Isle of Dogs). The reality is that I am not a fan of the original material, even after playing Laurie myself in a production. But I do like Gerwig’s light touch, sense of humor, and her refreshing perspective on the world and was intrigued to see what she could produce.

And Gerwig did draw out some great and award-worthy performances, particularly from Saoirse Ronan (Mary Queen of Scots), Florence Pugh (Fighting With My Family), and Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy). Each of these characters had nicely crafted arcs and at least one scene that is truly great. Unfortunately, most of these have been shown over and over during interviews and trailers which sucked a bit of the power out of them when finally seen on screen.

There is also the amusing addition of Tracy Letts (Ford v Ferrari) and Larua Dern (Marriage Story) to the cast. Each are notable for their other performances this season, but they are playing quite different characters in this movie for some interesting dissonance as you burn through the awards nominated fims this year.

However, despite being inventive and engaging, Little Women is an uneven whole. There are some great scenes, but they are knitted together by far more lesser ones. The anachronistic is mixed with the period in dialogue, but without a lot of purpose. And in this epic, the young protagonists themselves don’t believably appear as girls so they can grow up. In addition, the time frames aren’t crisp as we bounce back and forth in the narrative.

In other words, it felt just a bit beyond the scope of Gerwig to control. I almost wish Gerwig and co-directed and co-written this with Sofia Coppola, who tackled a lot of these same problems with her Marie Antoinette rather more successfully and bravely.

What I will grant Gerwig and this production is that her love of the characters is clear. Her rework of the ending, inspired. And her ability to make many of the muddier choices of the book more believable, well done. It is an enjoyable movie, if not brilliant. And it didn’t make me feel ashamed to be without ovaries while sitting in the audience, nor to be male at the end. Clearly, however, the more you are enamored of the book, the more you will enjoy her offering.

Marriage Story

[4 stars]

Noah Baumbach’s (While We’re Young) latest film is a wonderful example of what a unique eye can bring to a common situation in order to defy expectations, and how framing is everything.

Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die) and Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit) are riding high as actors this year with multiple roles receiving multiple awards nods. This effort is no disappointment. Together they create a wonderful and subtle story of a family weathering divorce while trying to remember how they got there, who they are, and what they really want.

This sounds depressing as hell, doesn’t it? And I won’t lie, it has its moments, especially thanks to Laura Dern’s (Wilson) and Ray Liotta’s (Pawn) portrayl of evil-incarnate divorce attorneys who assume all divorces must be blood baths. However, this isn’t Kramer v Kramer...because of how Baumbach framed the film. The overall effect he creates, and even much of the journey, is one of relief and hope rather than depression and anger.

Marriage Story is an homage to the institution and to love, while recognizing that it doesn’t always work out. But, as the story tells, that doesn’t mean it has to be a permanent disaster nor unending strife. Life goes on and, especially when kids are involved, a bond remains as a reminder of what was, even if the deepest emotions that created that life no longer apply.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

[2 stars]

I know I’m going against the common response and reaction, but I just didn’t think this was a good movie. It is self-referential, self-indulgent, slowly paced, poorly constructed, and with only the barest of throughlines. Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s previous alternate history offerings, were equally as expansive, but also had pacing and humor and, well, a point. They deserved discussion and rewatching. This long, meandering tale of a failing actor finding his way through against the tangential (though intersecting plot) of Charlie Manson is neither engaging, encouraging, nor in the least enticting.

But, more importantly, how can you take seriously putting the Manson murders on the same stage and scale as Hitler and Slavery?

Tarantino’s script is a broken series of short scenes and flashbacks that never quite gel. Even the final, bloody and violent confrontation, which is quintessential Taratino, has little entertainment value. It is simply a lot of blood and chaos serving no point at all. Or maybe that was his point, but it didn’t need almost three hours of film to get there.

Because the story is so fractured, the performances are, frankly, beside the point. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant) and Brad Pitt (Ad Astra) have some levels and moments, but no story. There are hints of a story, particularly for Pitt, but they’re never really explored. Even Margot Robbie (Mary Queen of Scots) is, frankly, bland and empty. She ends up neither as tragic nor as hero.

I don’t get all the hype for this movie. Admittedly it is probably building on the echo chamber of Hollywood and for those die-hard fans of the three main characters, but it simply and honestly isn’t a good movie. You’re welcome to disagree, but I wouldn’t waste my time if you haven’t already.

Waves

[3 stars]

Horror auteur Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) takes a hard left with his latest production. Waves is an often painful, sometimes triumphant look at a Florida family, all to the backbeat of a range of curated music. Structured in two parts, we get to watch the disintegration of one sibling and its effect on the family and remaining sib.

Shults didn’t just work with his actors to set mood and action. His camera work and lighting, from the opening through to the final moment, are designed to elicit emotion and energy. He manages to create the out-of-control energy of being a teenager as well as the contemplative, anchorless sense of being lost as a way to inform the already powerful performances. However, if you suffer any degree of motion sickness or sensitivty to flashing lights you may find it challenging to watch at times.

Part one of the story is focused on Kelvin Harrison Jr.  (It Comes at Night) and Alexa Demie (Euphoria), whose relationship is intensely passionate. At the same time, we see Harrison navigate the expectations of his parents and himself. The combination is, as you’d expect, volatile.

Taylor Russell (Escape Room) and Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased) head up part two of the story, who pick up the thread of the story and tie it back to the opening of the film. The relationship here is the yin to her brother’s yang tale. The combination turns the movie into a visual Taoist structure.

In a bridging story, Sterling K. Brown (Hotel Artemis)  and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) give us the parent’s perspective that wraps and reflects on the young adults around them. It’s a complicated situation for them and their household, but it is also a little forced as written.

The movie is a bit more of an interesting experiment and piece of art than it is a great film. In part that is due to its length and structure, but it is also due to the self-conscious visuals and editing. That isn’t so much a ding as an acknoweldgement that this story happens more to you than with you. It is sweet and brutal and honest, but it is also somewhat presentational. That said, there are moments that will drop your jaw and, in my theater, had people talking out loud. So there is no doubt it is effective.

The Irishman

[4.5 stars]

Some films are good by themselves and some acquire additional greatness in the context of an entire opus. Martin Scrosese’s Irishman is definitely in the latter group; a masterpiece of epic storytelling that stands alone, but is also a reflection of his entire past. It presents a huge canvas and expansive story that is, at its heart (and to its success), a very simple tale. But as a piece of his entire canon, Irishman resonates both with humor and across time. It takes the harsh and frenetic world of Goodfellas and blends it with with tense normality of Raging Bull to come up with charged banality that occasionally explodes with moments, but is simply a tale of life.

Scorsese’s shaping and moulding of Steven Zaillian’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) script is a wonder to watch. The script disappears and the story, though it crosses decades, reamains easy and interesting to follow through its 3.5 hours. There are many clever milemarkers across the years, from fashion to historic events to movie titles. And, through it all, the growth and shift of the characters.

Robert De Niro (Joker) is at the center of it all. It is his story we experience; the world through his eyes. Joe Pesci (Love Ranch) and Al Pacino (Danny Collins) create the additional focal points of the tension in the story as the three men each exert influence. There are dozens of other great smaller roles, some nearly silent such as Anna Paquin’s (Furlough) powerful turn as De Niro’s daughter.

This is definitely in contention for Scorsese’s best so far. His control of the scope, the handling of the performances, and the execution of the final edit are all lessons in brilliance. He manages to infer much more than is ever there, avoiding a lot (though not all) of the extreme violence in his previous movies about organized crime. And that is probably its greatest aspect of success. All of those issues and ideas are there, but they aren’t the focus despite the purile allure it might have exerted on lesser directors.

Irishman is also a showcase for technology, particularly de-aging, in a way that is jaw-dropping. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci evolve through decades, though often in counter to their current realities. But, if you didn’t know that, you’d never spot the fantasy the digital work and make-up have wrought.

The Irishman, despite all the hoopla and arguments over its theatrical release versus streaming, or Scorsese’s narrow minded thinking about modern stories, such as superheroes, and despite its lack of diverstity (in large part due to the realities of the subjects and era), is a new and instant classic. Find a day to carve out the hours needed and tuck in for a great ride.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

[4.5 stars]

Fred Rogers was a unique man, and one that touched a huge swath of hearts over his years in his Neighborhood. The recent and wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was a great reminder of that. This story, which may be about him, is centered more on his legacy and effect than it is a dramatization of his life. In fact, what director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) managed to accomplish with writing duo Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script is just short of glorious.

Now, before this becomes overhype, let me be clear. It isn’t so much an in-your-face brilliant piece of cinema. It is simply structured so perfectly for its purpose, and so delightful despite the depth of its material as to transport you back to those days as a child sitting with Rogers and his crew as they helped you navigate the world.

Tom Hanks (The Post) isn’t a perfect visual fit for his role, but he exudes compassion and honesty in a way that makes you forget he isn’t the real thing. We learn about the man, but mostly through his actions and the comments of others.

The story really focuses on Matthew Rhys (Death Comes to Pemberly) and his family. Susan Kelechi Watson (This is Us) as his wife and, in particular, Chris Cooper as his father deliver amazing supporting roles.

The movie is just shy of perfect due to one extended fantasy sequence that, frankly, could have been much shorter or excised. I know why it was there, and it was amusing, but I think it was unnecessary. The rest was handled, performed, designed, and acted wonderfully. Look for this to get a slew of nominations and even, possibly, suprise in a few categories. It is an unassuming film, but it manages to be as magical as the subject it wishes to expose on screen. It is a must see for everyone, especially in these stressful times.

Knives Out

[4.5 stars]

Director and writer Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) began life as a humble indie director of such wonderfully dark and unique pieces like Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Looper. His foray into the force, while not yet completely over, wasn’t his most comfortable habitat. With Knives Out he has returned to his more natural setting.

Knives Out is subtly clever, amid some outright funny moments and twists. It is unapologetically modeled on TV mysteries like Murder She Wrote, Columbo, or Midsommer Murders (to name a very few) from its teaser opening to its act breaks. In many ways, it is an American remake of Gosford Park, but it isn’t entirely satiric. It is, in fact, in equal measure, an homage while recognizing the forced nature of the genre.

But, of course, this kind of story only works with a solid cast and a unique detective.

Enter Daniel Craig (Spectre ) as the “famous” detective. He is quick-witted and observant, but often gathering his understanding by simply stirring the pot. Lakeith Lee Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) and Noah Segan are his on-loan police officers who fascilitate, but aren’t necessarily competent or professional. Segan, in particular, has some fun moments in this capactiy.

And then there are the suspects of Christopher Plummer’s (Boundaries) unusual death. As you might expect, they are primarily his family. The motley crew are all unique characters brought to life by Chris Evans (Gifted, Endgame), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Michael Shannon (The Current War), Don Johnson (Book Club), and Toni Collette (Velvet Buzzsaw), with Katherine Langford (Love, Simon) and Jaeden Lieberher (It) in the two younger roles. Many get to play against type, particularly Evans. But all are having a lot of fun.

And then, of course, you need the innocent under attack that our intrepid detective must exonerate lest justice go astray. For that role we have Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049) who delivers a great and layered performance with both depth and comedy.

There are also some nice bit parts from Riki Lindhome (Garfunkle and Oats) , K Callan, and Marlene Forte (My Last Day Without You), to name only a few.

And, believe it or not, I’ve only provided info here you get in the first five minutes of the film. And, of course, it isn’t as straight-forward as it may sound or it wouldn’t be a Rian Johnson script.

Suffice to say, Knives Out is clever and entertaining, with excellent pacing and a love of what it is doing. From its opening moments to its closing shot, it pulls you along without respite. Make time for this over the holidays, it is definitely worth your time. And it isn’t a remake, a sequel, a reboot, origin story, or spin-off…how’s that for a treat these days?

The Kitchen

[3 stars]

Not to be confused with the 2013 dark social comedy The Kitchen, this is a hard, if fanciful, look at mob protection with some nice twists. Andrea  Berloff’s (Straight Outta Compton) adaptation of the same-named comics takes place in the late 70’s in NYC. At that time Times Square was still Times Square, Studio 54 was at its peak, and Hell’s Kitchen was the dangerous place Daredevil stalked trying to keep it safe. And, more germane to this movie, women were still completely sidelined by society and institutions despite Gloria Steinem and the feminism movement.

Sitting in her first director’s chair, Andrea Berloff tackles that dark and interesting world through three women trying to rise above their circumstances. Berloff’s script is bald and honest. But beyond her sensibilities, it was her cast who sold this emancipation story.

In the case of Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), she continues to plumb her dramatic depths well, but doesn’t add much new to her opus. On the other hand Tiffany Haddish (The Secret Life of Pets 2) gives us a hard-as-nails character who is ambitious and in control, and without a single broad-comedy bone in her body. But it is Elisabeth Moss (The Seagull) who runs away with the movie in this trinity. Her journey is painful and fascinating as she extricates herself from an abusive marriage and finds her inner strength and power with brilliant assistance from Domhnall Gleeson (The Little Stranger). And, it should be noted, that Margo Martindale (Instant Family) has a fun, smaller role to add to the dark view and comedy of the story.

This is not a light movie. Worth your time? Yes. But not a night for relaxing or unwinding. It is intense, violent, even while being oddly compelling. For Moss and Haddish’s performances alone it is worth seeing. And Gleeson’s is an extra little gift amidst it all.