Tag Archives: Director

Beach Rats

[4 stars]

I was a long time getting around to this first film by Eliza Hittman . In fact, I found her second, first: Never Rarely Sometimes Always. But it was the empathy and craft of that story that sent me back to her debut with Beach Rats. I’m late to the game to say she is someone to really watch, but it is still worth saying.

Hittman didn’t give us a likeable hero in her first film. Harris Dickinson (The Darkest Minds) is flawed in both endearing and truly ugly ways. But he is also trapped by circumstance and his own struggles. And Dickinson committed to all of that without reservation on screen. So much so that you aren’t sure if the movie is a coming of age story or a tragedy. And, frankly, you still won’t be by the end.

Hittman puts you so deeply into the point of view of Dickinson’s character that you completely inhabit his world. At points you even forget you’re not just watching through hidden cameras at his life. But despite being steeped in a sort of macho hell, Dickinson’s Frankie has two strong female influences in his circles: his mother, played by Kate Hodge and his girlfriend, Madeline Weinstein (Mare of Easttown). Both are quiet but strong influences, though whether they can break through to him is all part of the story.

And the tension of the story is drawn so taut that the ending is almost a release on its own. It’s clear this isn’t going to be a happy tale from the beginning, but it also isn’t without sparks of hope.

For a first film Eliza Hittman packed it with subtlety and power. It has been living on my list since its release in 2017, but I hadn’t had the nerve to spin it up. If you’ve been avoiding either of her films for fear of the subject, well, suck it up and make the time. These aren’t easy characters to love, but they are so very human and real as to encourage our commitment.

Beach Rats Poster

Space Jam: A New Legacy

[3 stars]

OK, I get it. I understand why some folks will just love this crazy and silly romp through parenthood and basketball. And, to be completely fair, LeBron James actually pulls off his role believably. And Don Cheadle (Avengers: Endgame) gets to eat some serious scenery as well.

As a story, this is about on par with a Looney Tunes cartoon. It doesn’t hold up under any scrutiny. But the Tron/Matrix send up, and totally unabashed WB advertisement for every bit of IP they still own, entertains on several levels. The more you know, the more you’ll enjoy the references and background characters. (Though I also have to admit that voices for the classic ‘toons and some of their characterizations, esp. Bugs, didn’t quite work for me.)

Helping James out as his on-screen son, Cedric Joe feels about perfect. And Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery) got to show us a new side of herself as James’ partner.

But most of the kudos really have to go to director Malcolm D. Lee who found the tone and the pace to keep it all going. He’s the core reason this crazy gamble worked. A brilliant classic? No. But certainly not an embarrassment. And while it will work on the big screen, it honestly is fine on a smaller one as well.

Space Jam: A New Legacy Poster

Fear Street: Part 3 – 1666

[3 stars]

It’s all comes down to this: the origin. And what a nice payoff it is. As you’d expect, given the previous two parts, the cast reprises from the previous 1994 and 1978 time frames to inhabit the 1666 characters. Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch are back at the center along with Ashley Zukerman (The Code), Gillian Jacobs (Life Partners), and, now with a bit more range, Benjamin Flores Jr. (Rim of the World).

Having the setup of the previous two parts, this third flies in a swift 2 hours of suspense, action, and frustration. But the best part is that everything you’ve learned comes back into play right up through the end. And there is where it stumbles just the tiniest bit.

The main action resolves perfectly fine and acceptably. But there is a moment, and you can’t miss it, where there is an obvious and boneheaded oversight. I know it’s a trope of the genre, but it could have been less ham-handed. In fact, if it weren’t for that, I’d have rated the whole movie higher. That gaff cost it because after all the clever, subversive, and frankly well thought out planning, it was cheap and insulting to the audience.

But that frustration aside, which is small in comparison to the journey, this is a great trilogy of dark fun executed with a clever eye and solid talent. Leigh Janiak pulled the sequence off with aplomb and will have me watching for her next project for sure; as well as some of the cast.

Fear Street: 1666 Poster

Fear Street: Part 2-1978

[3 stars]

When last we left our story in 1994, we thought we had an idea of what was going on…only to be disabused of that at the very end. So here we are in 1978 to learn more. Leigh Janiak returns to continue guiding the story, and this time it’s decidedly darker.

Gone is the wry humor, though there is a certain amount of sarcasm. Gone is the light fun. This one is deadly serious and angsty; much more a typical slasher in the woods film than the previous. Janiak captures the era in color pallet and sensibility nicely, but I did miss the fun of the first part. A change in her co-writer to the up-and-coming Zak Olkewicz probably helped inform that shift.

That said, the cast and her direction continues to impress: Embracing the genre and running with it while still managing to keep it female forward. The additions of Sadie Sink (Stranger Things), Emily Rudd, and Ted Sutherland to the sprawling tale also worked nicely. The three drive the majority of the action and expand what we know of the characters and the mystery from the ’94 frame.

Fear Street is turning out to be a wonderfully crafted, long story. As a series of movie releases over months or years, it would have been a frustrating wait and lose momentum. As a three week sequence it is building nicely and keeping me engaged. I’m curious to see how it continues to evolve into the 1666 origin time-frame and if it can pay off. But, even if it falls flat, the first two are credible horror flicks, full of fun, mayhem, surprises, and nice twists to the genre.

Fear Street Part Two: 1978 Poster

Daniel Isn’t Real

[3 stars]

Imaginary friends in psychological horror films are far from new. But this entry into the mix by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Archenemy) is actually rather well done. It manages to skirt all the questions such on-screen situations raise without committing to any one answer till it decides it wants to or needs to.

Miles Robbins (Halloween) is the main focus of this story, along with his “friend,” given creepy life by  Patrick Schwarzenegger (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse). The two have a fun dynamic that progresses by degrees as you’d expect it to. Adding fuel to the fire are romantic and artistic interest Sasha Lane (Utopia) and, as his mother, Mary Stuart Masterson (Blindspot).

Robbins spends the film balancing what he thinks he wants and knows, with what he fears is really happening. Chukwudi Iwuji (John Wick: Chapter 2) provides a voice of reason… mostly. By the time the wheels all come off, everyone’s choices become suspect, though Lane’s approach remains credible and strong.

Figuring out what this movie is going to be is half the fun. It isn’t easy to pick apart and doesn’t quite follow the paths you expect. In the end you get the story Mortimer intends, but whether that is one you’ll agree with or even like is going to be a matter of taste. He could have done more with it, but he also needed to keep the tale moving because his audience was going to constantly be trying to leap ahead. The pacing never really allows that to happen in a way that spoils the story. On purely craft grounds, I think this one is worth it if you like the horror genre. And it’s way more satisfying than the similar attempt (in craft) in the also recent Flashback.

Daniel Isn't Real Poster

The Nevers (series 1)

[4 stars]

The Nevers is probably the most complex and dense new world created for genre TV since Game of Thrones. The six episodes are so packed as to be, at times, exhausting to keep up with. But it is worth every gasp and bit of effort. If I have any real criticism of the show it’s that it should have had at least 8 episodes to get started, but I loved every minute we did get.

Originally put together by Joss Whedon, but then carried forward by other ex-Buffy crew Douglas Petrie (Daredevil) and Jane Espenson (Jessica Jones, Husbands), the show will constantly keep you guessing as to motive and plot. No mystery is held back too long and the overall story is wonderfully unique, on television at least.

The story is led by Laura Donnelly (The Fall) with amazingly controlled intensity and depth. She’s surrounded by a group of wonderful performers, some known and some less so (at least in the States). In the latter category, Ann Skelly, Tom Riley (Da Vinci’s DemonsSt. Trinian’s: Legend of Fritton’s Gold), Rochelle Neil (Terminator: Dark Fate), and Amy Manson (Being Human) rise to the top, but are far from the list that should be acknowledged.

And then there are the better known faces. Among them James Norton (Grantchester), Olivia Williams (The Father), Nick Frost (Truth Seekers), and Pip Torrens (Roadkill, and so much more) are the ones that immediately come to mind. And then there is a great smaller role by Claudia Black. Again, that is far from the full number of recognizable faces and great characters there are to enjoy and revile.

I will admit, the show isn’t perfect. Particularly some of the sound mix, which tends to mask the dialogue which is often tossed off so casually as to be too quiet or so heavily accented as to be a challenge (and I watch a LOT of British TV). And as I said, the story is dense and, at times, hard to track all the various threads when you’ve a week between drops. This last problem can be averted by binging (or rewatching) which I will certainly be doing at some point. Some of the plot is inscrutable until later in the season because…secrets. And that one I can live with. And some of the plot is just left hanging due to the lack of time to resolve all the threads.

All that said, it’s worth the effort. Especially true if you like watching strong women (in all kinds of ways) in surprising roles. The society very well mapped to the history we know when England was doing everything in its power to maintain an Aristocracy in control, an Empire cowed, and women in their place. And the finale (reminiscent of Dollhouse’s two season finales) which reveals and confirms much while it whipsaws you in wonderful ways.

I have no idea where the second series of this show will go, but I can’t wait to see what they do with it. The finale raised at least as many questions as it answered. But the main point is that if you haven’t dived into this world yet, make time for it.

The Nevers Poster

Coda

[3 stars]

This is one of those small, quiet films that manages to grab you. It is also, possibly, the best depiction of the crippling pain of stage fright I’ve ever seen captured.

Patrick Stewart (Charlie’s Angels), as the aging pianist extraordinaire, is not only credible but he brings a quiet depth and gravitas to a story that is often only hinted at; something Stewart is truly great at. Katie Holmes (Logan Lucky) and Giancarlo Esposito (Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Unpregnant) form his support, and create the story structure around his return to the stage. While there are other characters in the story, this film is really just a three person play.

First-time director Claude Lalonde orchestrated Louis Godbout’s script deftly. The story never lags and never slips into histrionics or forced romantics. While certainly enhanced, it feels very real and human, which is how it manages to touch you right up till the end. Make time for it when you want something a bit more down-to-earth or if you just want to see Stewart flex his acting muscles outside of the characters that have dominated his career.

Coda Poster

The Human Voice

[3.5 stars]

Tilda Swinton (The Dead Don’t Die) is one of those singular individuals in look and style. She also happens to be incredibly talented. And thanks to Swinton’s intensity and brilliant timing, Pedro Almodovar’s (Julieta) take on this Jean Cocteau play is riveting.

The 30 minute short follows Swinton though, primarily, a one-side phone conversation that sounds like anything but. To watch her masterfully make that conversation come alive is worth the short investment of time alone. But the story and commentary itself, on life and love, is also impactful.

Almodovar freely, as he puts it on screen, adapted the story. While the presentation harkens to Cocteau’s theatrical roots, the story and color pallet reflect Almodovar’s opus. In fact, Laws of Desire, in particular, gets picked up more than once directly and indirectly.

The short film is more than a little self-conscious, but that is the Cocteau coming through more than anything else. The story and sentiment are wholly recognizable, and the resolution, in many ways, releasing. Definitely make time for this at some point… for the time cost of a cheap sit-com you can have something to really sink your teeth into, not to mention bearing witness to an amazing performance.

The Human Voice Poster

Da 5 Bloods

[3 stars]

Watching a Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) joint is like watching jazz on screen.  He has a style and rhythm to his work that is always evolving, but always identifiable. Da 5 Bloods, for all its interesting moments and ideas (and trademark politics) seems to be missing a beat or flow. The elements are there, but the music is absent.

There are many good performances holding together the story. But, primarily, it swirls around Delroy Lindo (LX 2048) and Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country), as his son. Lindo’s struggle with PTSD and his past is the engine that drives all the events, while Majors serves as catalyst and potential redemption.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie was Lee’s choice to use the older actors as their younger selves in the flashbacks, rather than casting age-appropriate performers. It really drives home how war lives with soldiers their entire lives. One of the creepiest aspects is watching Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and his storyline in the movie. It was one of his last and still before anyone knew he was ill.

Almost every major director of the last century has taken on a war movie. It’s a platform for commentary and a challenge as an artist to do well. Lee, for all his talent, isn’t a stranger to fighting and conflict on screen, and he certainly had fun mirroring many great films that have come before. Some of that is visual, but just as often with sound and score.

And, speaking of, this film had one of the most distracting film scores I’ve heard in a long time. The fact that I “heard” the score so loud and clear for the first third of the film is part of the problem. It was horribly distracting and not as well used as it was after that first act of the story.

Overall, Da 5 Bloods is a mixed bag of value. The main story is a McGuffin for the intent. That becomes relatively clear early on. But the film is also under-edited, creating a jarring experience that makes absorbing the real points harder to do. It feels like Lee was rushed on delivery rather than applying his typical, detailed care to all elements. It’s still worth seeing for the performances and the messages, but it isn’t exactly a fun ride despite some humor along the way.

Da 5 Bloods Poster

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

[3.5 stars]

Films are the realization of a vision. Usually collaborative, occasionally unique to the filmmaker. When Zack Snyder had to exit Justice League, his work got passed to a different artist and, from the results of this epic recut, one that really didn’t understand the intent. And I love Joss Whedon (the director…struggling these days with the man, like many are).

To be clear, I don’t have a lot of respect for Snyder’s previous work, like Batman v Superman which leads into this film. He’s always been too much in his own head and too precious and serious with his plots. But in this expansive version of Justice League, the format changes the entire experience. It is literally operatic for its first half hour or more. At over 4 hours, it has room to ruminate without feeling like it’s out of place. It has room to expand on stories that got little or no shrift in the original release. It allows characters (and god knows their are many of them in this) to become something more than ink and paper. He even manages a few origin stories within the framework of it all.

In other words, it tries to do too much in a single film. But I have to admit, this 4 hour version… a version that would never see the light of the big screen… is actually better than the released version. It makes more sense and has a more cohesive plot and arc for its characters. It also refocuses the entire tale differently than the original release. The result is still a little too serious and the small attempts at humor to buoy it tend to be a little lost and flat. And, in the end, it falls apart in focus while setting up the next, and never made (at least to date), story. But it is at least all within the same framework.

Other than Blade Runner, I can’t recall a director recutting a film in a way that so fundamentally changed the original result. But in this case, I have to admit Snyder succeeded in making it better. Great? No. But certainly better. Despite the long running time, I never got bored. Only one aspect left me confused…and after the epilogue and some research, it was quickly cleared up. I don’t know that we needed this version, but it will certainly be remembered and discussed in film classes and amongst DC fans for years to come.

So if you’re at all curious, stock up some food and settle in for an unexpected treat. And know that it is broken into parts that allow for some bio-breaks along the way.

Zack Snyder's Justice League Poster