Tag Archives: Director

Dating Amber

[3.5 stars]

The stories we tell don’t change over time, but how we tell them does. And to that point, David Freyne (The Cured) has delivered not so much new ground in this coming-of-age tale, as a new approach. And that makes all the difference.

Fionn O’Shea (Normal People) and Lola Petticrew (A Bump Along the Way) take us through their last year of secondary school which includes personal revelations, experiments, and, eventually, acceptances. Unexpectedly, while told primarily through the scared and challenged O’Shea, Petticrew tends to dominate the screen when she is there. Part of that is the characters, but she also fairly glows with charisma and energy in a way that O’Shea just can’t touch despite his acting chops.

While the two teens dominate the film, there are several smaller performances with depth and impact. Sharon Horgan (Military Wives) has a subtle job as O’Shea’s mother navigating her stressed marriage to Barry Ward (The Fall) and her struggling children. Simone Kirby (Jimmy’s Hall) has a similar challenge as Petticrew’s mother. And, as a bit of running comic relief, Ian O’Reilly (Moone Boy) has some wonderful moments and solid timing.

While set in 1995, this story still applies today because teens have always struggled with accepting themselves and being accepted for who they are. Petticrew and O’Shea tackle their stories with heart and honesty while avoiding most of the ugly that it sometimes causes. But the movie is intended to be on the lighter side, with plenty of warm and funny moments and with an inexorable drive toward joy, however bumpy the road.

You’re probably thinking you don’t need another coming-of-age story, but make time for it. You won’t be disappointed in the film and watching Freyne develop his cinema voice is an extra benefit.

[If you’re looking for some insights after seeing the film, check out these short interviews with Freyne, and this with O’Shea.]

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Uncle Frank

[3.5 stars]

Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under) tackles the-truth-in-the-quirky  like Aaron Sorkin tackles the-poetic-in-the-mundane. His string of shows and movies all focus on characters, and the beauty and tragedy of life. This outing, literally and figuratively, he tackles the late 1960s life in NYC and rural South Carolina. Two venues that couldn’t be more different then, or today.

But, as always with Ball, part of what makes his stories work is the incredible talent he gets to inhabit those characters. While the story is about Frank, the title clues you into the point of view, which is led by Sophia Lillis (I Am Not Okay With This) as Frank’s niece. Lillis, again, proves she is not only up to the task of a lead, but is capable of wonderful and subtle emotional range. Her family, including Frank played by Paul Bettany (Avengers: Endgame), all orbit around her axis.

Which isn’t to say they are minor or side characters, it is simply that she is the spine around which the whole tale depends. It is her story into which they feed. And it’s a story many will relate to, directly or indirectly. The family is filled out by the likes of Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes), Margot Martindale (The Hollars), Stephen Root (On the Basis of Sex), and Judy Greer (Halloween).

Completing the cast, in what is one of the most complicated and challenging roles, is Peter Macdissi (Towelhead). Bettany and Macdissi have an easy give and take amid the sturm and drang of their lives. But with little explanation, their history feels obvious and real. And their love for one another is equally palpable.

While this is a story of secrets, they aren’t secrets for the audience, generally. The big things are all obvious. It’s how Lillis’s Beth becomes awakened by them, how she grows and changes because of them, and how she learns to see and appreciate things for what they are rather than how she elevated them. In other words, it’s a tale of growing into adulthood and learning to accept yourself and those around you for who they are. It may be a bitter-sweet journey, but this isn’t a tragedy; it’s a heart-warming tale of struggle and triumph. And one I do highly recommend.

Uncle Frank Poster

On the Rocks

[3.5 stars]

Sofia Coppola (The Beguiled) may be the the best Bill Murray (The Dead Don’t Die) whisperer out there. She consistently pulls controlled, but emotional performances from the man without diluting his comedy. In this performance, he also comes across as an incredibly capable person, believably highly successful in the world, but with deep rifts of personal issues swimming beneath the surface. And yet, for all the emotional churn, he and the story are funny.

Playing opposite Murray, Rashida Jones (Klaus) is the true heart of the film. A daughter lost in the world she’s created for herself and doubting her own abilities, not to mention her marriage to Marlon Wayans. In what amounts to a sort of dark, farcical comedy she finds her way back to herself and the life she deserves.

Rounding out the cast, and filling in the world are some other wonderful actors. Jessica Henwick (Underwater), Jenny Slate (Hotel Artemis), and a small but fun appearance by Barbara Bain stood out for me.

Coppola’s script is playful, honest, and entertaining. You feel for Jones and her situation, but recognize her issues as well. But Coppola also keeps you wondering till near the end as to what the truth of her situation is. It’s a wonderful balancing act that helps drive the story forward. That said, the venue for her tale is the upper reaches of society again…a world Coppola knows well, but which is out of reach for most of us. It didn’t feel wrong, but it does add a little distance to the situation.

But whatever you think this movie is, you’re probably wrong. It’s sweet, funny, and entertaining while tackling some real aspects of marriage and life. Jones and Murray turn in wonderful performances and Coppola continues to show her strengths and growth as a director and writer. At 90 minutes, it’s definitely worth your time.

On the Rocks Poster

Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari)

[3 stars]

War sucks. Men are greedy. Money’s pointless. Women can save us (at a cost to themselves). Love is forever. Fate’s a bitch.

That about sums up this 1953 adaptation of classic fables by Kenji Mizoguchi in one of his last films. Basically this is a ghost story, in the traditional Japanese sense, which made for some appropriate October viewing.

But I can’t say I recommend the film other than to film buffs or historians. While beautifully filmed, it’s slow, marginally acted, and barely gripping. Some of this is style choice, to be sure. However, that doesn’t mean it survived the years well. This one is definitely a choice you’ll have to make for yourself.

Ugetsu Poster

Military Wives

[3 stars]

This is exactly what you expect and need it to be, once you realize it is more Calendar Girls than GI Jane. It’s heart-warming, at times raw, and just a bit manipulative. What else would you expect from the hands of Peter Cattaneo, director of The Full Monty? This time round he delivers a feel-good, fictionalized account of military wives in the UK that formed the first wives’ choir. Sometimes “feel-good” is enough, but it isn’t all the movie has to offer.

The real reason to see the movie, other than to escape the current day-to-day, is to watch the journeys of Kristin Scott Thomas (The Valet) and Sharon Horgan (Game Night). Each of these women chart a course and evolution on screen that is magnetic, from their opening clashes to their inevitable understanding. In addition there is the simple delivery of Amy James-Kelly (Gentleman Jack) which is nicely understated without losing its power.

The rest, to be honest, you’ve seen before. These movies have a rhythm and a point, and they’ll wring you dry and make you laugh in alternate waves. They are cathartic and satisfying and I’ve no bones against them, but it isn’t something new, it’s just something comforting. The added benefit of some solid performances makes it one you should queue up. And, these days as I’ve said, sometimes comforting is enough anyway.

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Weathering With You (Tenki no ko)

[3 stars]

Makoto Shinkai’s (5 Centimeters Per Second) latest piece of animation plays to his strengths, but is ultimately a little confused and problematic.

Shinkai is devoted to the passion of love; young love in particular. He waxes poetic both visually and in plot chasing that ideal. And his animation is wonderful. That’s enough to pull you along through his tales.

But Weathering, while hitting on those notes well, ends up delivering a confused message about climate change in an alternative Tokyo that isn’t quite thought through. And, frankly, it just isn’t up to the standards of his previous work story-wise. There isn’t enough meat there, nor enough resolution to really sell it all.

All this to say: it’s pretty, it’s well voiced (in both Japanese and English), and it’s certainly inventive in its telling and ideas. But after a tour de force like Your name. my expectations were higher than he could deliver.

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Elegy

[3 stars]

An adaptation of a Philip Roth novel is never going to be a laughfest. Nor is it going to be chock full of particularly loveable characters. But Nicholas Meyer’s (Medici) adaptation, delivered through Isabel Coixet’s (The Bookshop) capable hands, stays palatable and beautiful. Despite any of the darker or distasteful aspects of the main characters, she brings out the humanity of these flawed people.

Ben Kingsley (A Birder’s Guide to Everything) and Penélope Cruz (Broken Embraces) make an odd couple and an odd center around which this story spirals. Kingsley, in particular, has a tough path. He starts as a rather vile, if charismatic, person. He has to win us over to make the story work. For me, he did, though I don’t know that I found the ending entirely satisfying or believable. Still, it reflects the meaning in the title well.

Supporting the couple are a few really great performances by Dennis Hopper and Patricia Clarkson (The Bookshop) as Kingsley’s associates. Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) as his son is less impressive, but plays into the narrative nicely as well. In addition to the main cast, there is a host of faces you’ll recognize in small roles, like Deborah Harry and even some without lines. But why ruin the surprises?

Elegy isn’t a typical romantic film, but it is a film about romance and love. The women are strong, though you may question their choices. And Kingsley’s journey is one many men have to make, though most do so earlier in their lives. His sense of subtle control and deep emotion sells the story, while Cruz’s strength, conviction, and commitment allow it to hold shape. But if it weren’t for Coixet’s vision and ability, this would have been an utter train wreck rather than a contemplative piece that attempts to bridge generations.

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Compassionate Sex (Sexo por compasión)

[4 stars]

A beautiful fable and mediation on love, life, and relationships…with a nod to religion and spirituality. Oh, yes, and it’s funny.

First-time feature director and writer Laura Mañá delivered this multiple award winning film, with unexpected wit and, as you might expect, compassion. It should fly off the rails more than once, and yet she keeps it all within the grasp  of sympathy and understanding. But the main reason for the success is the powerful and vulnerable performance of Elisabeth Margoni at the center of the film and village. Her subtle shifts of expression and emotion will melt your heart and convince you of her genuine intents.

When you’re looking for something a little different, a bit funny, and yet with a message that will surprise you in its delivery, queue this one up. There is a lot of talent to appreciate, and a warm and gooey center to help make your night feel full of possibilities.

Enola Holmes

[4.5 stars]

Was there ever any doubt that Millie Bobby Brown (Godzilla: King of Monsters) had the chops to carry a movie? And what a wonderful vehicle she has found. Not only does she own the screen with her charisma and chops, but her character drives the tale, pushing her brothers Mycroft and Sherlock to the periphery, making it a decidedly female-driven story.

Sam Claflin (Charlie’s Angels) is a perfectly uptight Mycroft, while Henry Cavill (Witcher) is the thoroughly self-absorbed, but surprisingly available Sherlock. Throw in Helena Bonham Carter (Ocean’s 8) as their rather unique mum, and you’ve a family to be reckoned with…and likely a good salary for a mental health professional. But all their performances are tightly controlled under Fleabag  director Harry Bradbeer’s entirely capable hands.

Despite these lofty names in her family, the story really focuses more on her adventures with the young Louis Partridge; Enola’s master-in-distress. The story manages to both lean into and avoid the young love tropes without making it insulting to either of them. And with Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim: Uprising) constantly at their heels to push along the danger, there are adventures to be had.

The cast is also chock full of other great talents to help buoy the film. Adeel Akhtar (Murder Mystery), Susan Wokoma (Crazyhead), Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve), and Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van) help fill out the film with known and unknown characters from the Holmesian universe.

But it isn’t just all fun and games (afoot). Enola Holmes is a timely flick, in more than one way…and the fun is watching all that play out. The adaptation from Nancy Springer’s series by Jack Thorne (Radioactive) is wonderfully on point for current needs. And the result is also an example of what Netflix can find when it really tries, though it’s a shame this never saw the big screen. I think this film could have found an audience. Certainly the cinematography was with the larger format in mind, though it plays perfectly well on a home setup.

Make time for this one, whether you’ve a young woman at home with you or not. It’s fun, wry, sly, and full of adventure; perfect for a light escape that won’t insult your intelligence. And to see Brown beginning to come into her own just adds to the icing on this slightly savory confection.

Time Freak

[4 stars]

Romance, comedy, and time travel, especially when wrapped in honesty and told with some intelligence, is a triumverate always guaranteed to grab my attention. Unlike the recent Palm Springs, the character intent here is deliberate, but they both deliver the story in a similar way that let’s you connect with it immediately and get on board for the ride.

The story, despite its scope, is really driven by just three characters. Asa Butterfield (Slaughterhouse Rulez) and Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) are the romantic crux of the story. And while that may sound like an odd combo, it’s supposed to be. And yet the two have a believable chemistry between them. More surprisingly, it comes mostly from Turner’s performance, which is the best I’ve seen her do. I actually believed her completely, something all of her previous performances have lacked for me. Butterfield is playing into his strengths in this film, but does so with heartfelt earnestness that wins you over.

While the main couple certainly carries the story forward and keeps it focused, Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) adds the final element that makes it all work: comic relief and, often, common sense. This is especially amusing as he’s a complete screw-up. This isn’t the basis for comedy I usually enjoy, but it works here due to its restraint and evolution. Even Will Peltz’s (In Time) side character, as extreme as he takes it, manages to find ground often enough to add to the depth of the tale rather than distract from it.

Writer/director Andrew Bowler expanded his Oscar nominated short into this truly delightful and funny exploration of life, love, and relationships. The cleverly written script spends the first third in familiar territory. And, honestly, even if it hadn’t expanded on that, I would have enjoyed the movie thanks to his control of the performances and pace. But it is Bowler’s willingness to try to explore the characters and plot more deeply that makes this particular run at the sub-genre something worth seeing.

When you need something enjoyable and not entirely devoid of logic and intelligence, queue this one up. You won’t be sorry.