Tag Archives: Drama

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

[3.5 stars]

In the Fade packs a lot of story into its shy two hours. And while I’m not a Diane Kruger (The Host) fan, often finding her stiff and unemotional, she is powerful and painfully exposed in this film; she carries it utterly. In fact, the only other actor that leaves a real impression is Johannes Krisch, who’s super creepy and foul lawyer will twist your guts as he does his work.

Director/co-writer Fatih Akin tackles what is becoming an all-to-common story in the last ten years. However, he focuses the story very personally and small, expertly guiding Kruger and the cast, keeping it paced and under control. The story, however charged, stays ensconced in the painfully mundane, which is part of how it earned the many awards it was was nominated for and/or won last year.

Admittedly, In the Fade is not a light film for a night of simple distraction, but it is a well-done film that should be seen at some point. Because it focuses on the individual rather than the broader societal threads, it is oddly more palatable. We connect with Kruger and invest in her need for meaning, even when her actions are far from anything we may personally identify with…and even more so when they are.

In the Fade

Furlough

[2.5 stars]

There are many things that can draw you to a movie. On rare occasions, such as this one, it is the cast alone. With billing for Melissa Leo (The Equalizer) , Anna Paquin (Bellevue), Whoopi Goldberg, and Tessa Thompson (Annihilation) I wanted to see how that bucket of talent came together. The answer is that it sort of doesn’t. Leo and Thompson drive the story and do play well off each other. However, though Leo makes a credible inmate, Thompson doesn’t really strike the figure of a credible prison guard. And while you can suspend disbelief for chunks of time, it crumbles again and again due to her decisions and actions.

To be fair, the choices are more on Surgatz’s script, which is a bit forced and not particularly believable. But a larger, more imposing woman may have worked better. Even had Thompson brought her angst-ridden Valkyrie persona to bear from Thor, I don’t think she could have dominated Leo’s personality nor made us believe the plot.

Another missed opportunity was Whoopi. She is lost in this tale, there more for cheap comic relief than real impact. Of the cast, Paquin probably has the best role. It is small, but rich in unspoken emotion. A lot of groundwork from Leo and Thompson goes into that moment to pay it off, but it still Paquin that gets to take it away.

The faults in this movie are really more with the material than the actors. Collyer’s (SherryBaby) direction helps them to some good moments, but overall it never really sustains itself nor finds a rhythm. It wants to be a road movie with kooky side-stories that mound up into a tale of redemption and moving forward for Leo and Thompson. Instead, what we get is vignettes with some funny moments and some some touching moments, but no feeling of fulfillment at the end. I can’t really recommend the movie, but if you like the actors enough, you may find it fills an evening.

Furlough

A Quiet Place

[3.5 stars]

A tight, post-apocalyptic family drama, told with real skill. From the beginning, you are made aware that while the story is familiar, the rules you know may not apply. It is also a beautifully appointed tale of deaf child coming into her own in a world of imposed silence, which makes for some great, if never spoken, contrasts.

The danger of this film was really with writer, director, and one of the three main actors, John Krasinski (The Hollars). That is a lot of hats to wear and not screw something up. As you might have guessed, he didn’t. He builds a level of tension through scenes that few other directors have pulled off without cheap tricks. This is very important as some of the key moments you’ll see coming, but the editing and performances will keep you gripping your armrest. And, sure, you’ll recognize some of the moments and where he learned them from, but this world is very much his own. I was so involved with the story on screen that it was only afterwards that the echos came to the surface for me.

The story is entirely about Krasinski’s small family trying to survive together in a near-impossible situation. With Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) as his wife, she again proves her mettle on screen. It may not be her kick-ass warrior from Edge of Tomorrow, but she brings the energy and determination. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), on the other hand, brings the tragedy and strength that you would have normally expected one of the adult actors to take on. It is a complicated role that succeeds enough for its purpose. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses. The last main cast member I expected a bit more subtlety from given his turn in Wonder, but Noah Jupe’s tackling of the family’s son was a bit ham-handed for me at times. Honestly, that was Krasinski’s mistake more than Jupe’s, but it stood out for me amidst the other more contained performances.

All that said, this taut, 90 minute science-fictionesque/family/horror/drama is really fun and worth your time to see with an audience. When the whole room gets tense and groans and jumps with you, the experience is heightened even more. And while there are certainly brief moments of contained gore, it is really more all about the tension and release.

We Don’t Belong Here

[3 stars]

This is definitely an unconventional narrative that plays out in intriguing, and unexpected ways. As a first script and directing delivery by Peer Pedersen, it is both what you expect and not what you anticipate. So, basically, a well-executed indie with a solid cast.

Catherine Keener (November Criminals) is the relatively patient matriarch of one heck of a messed up family. She provides a shifting center to the story as all threads come back to pass through her, though she isn’t the primary point of view.

Her four children are all damaged in different ways, and all dealing with their issues in worlds of their own devising. Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12), Riley Keough (Logan Lucky), Annie Starke (Albert Nobbs), and Anton Yelchin (Jack) work well together as sibs without losing their individual aspects. And it is Dever’s point of view that walks us through the story, though the approach is inconsistent and less than edifying, particularly near the end.

Maya Rudolph (Maggie’s Plan) and Cary Elwes (Shadow of the Vampire) bring another set of layers to the tale. Each is nicely compartmentalized and human despite their own particular struggles. It is only Molly Shannon (The Little Hours) in the cast who comes off completely wrong, though there may be reasons for that…just none I felt supported her and her choices.

You can’t watch this movie without considering the loss of Yelchin. Bizarrely, I watched this the same day Yelchin’s family settled the suit for his tragic death. Since his passing, his last films have been trickling out into the wild. With this film dropping direct-to-disc and Thoroughbreds finally out in theaters, we’ve actually (and sadly) reached the end of his recorded efforts. This movie contains a powerful performance, but all the more bittersweet given the plot and knowing it is one of his very last.

We Don’t Belong Here is a quiet film, but Pedersen kept it full of tension and intellectual challenge. He did a great job laying out his plots and editing to the final moments. It isn’t for a wide audience, but if you enjoy a true indie spirit and approach, you’ll find this one worth your time.

We Don

Goodbye Christopher Robin

[3 stars]

They say you should never look in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant…and in some ways that applies to your favorite stories as well. There is practically no child that hasn’t grown up knowing Winnie the Pooh. There is a magic to that silly old bear. But, having grown up, you do need to ask yourself if you want to know what the truth, real story, and inspiration were behind the wondrous Hundred Acre Wood. As several of the biographies of the last decade or so highlight, the life of the Milnes wasn’t storybook by any stretch.

But writers Frank Cottrell Boyce (Revengers Tragedy) and first-timer Simon Vaughan did a good job of distilling Robin’s story even while telling it primarily from his father’s point of view. That approach allowed them to navigate all aspects of the family, though the intent of the focus is on Robin’s experience. The tale is very layered and complex, often in subtle ways. It tackles class, war, parenthood, child rearing, love, show business in various forms, art, and the creative process, not just the specific genesis of Pooh and his friends. Probably not the story you imagine.

Will Tilston, in his first major role as Christopher Robin, was a brilliant bit of casting. While his acting may not be quite as polished as the rest of the cast, director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) elicited a great performance that struck just the right tone for his challenged childhood. Alex Lawther (The End of the F**ing World) then takes that setup as the older Robin and pays it off rather well.

But while the story is about Christopher, it is primarily told from the adult point of view. Domhnall Gleeson (mother!) delivers a powerful and sympathetic performance as A.A. Milne. Like many men (for instance Tolkien) returning from WWI, he struggled in near silence to recover. How that affected his writing is a critical part of the history. As his mother, Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) walks a very odd path of love and motherhood that is particular to that era and at that strata. There is love there, but of a particular kind. It is Kelly Macdonald (T2: Trainspotting) that Robin recognizes as the main source of intimacy in his life, and Macdonald provides a good target for it. It isn’t a new type of performance for her, but rather a comfortable and recognizable character delivered with expertise.

A side-effect of the scope of the story is that the movie is a little challenging to follow emotionally. The focus is split between the generations. That isn’t ultimately a bad thing, but it dilutes the result through much of the film, even as it pays it all off by the end. Also, it wasn’t helped by the aging make-up toward the end of the movie which really fails and broke the reality of the moments for me.

I started this write-up with a warning, which I’ll reiterate. If you want to keep the pure magic of the stories you know, you don’t want to see this film. The film has its own magic and, certainly, respects the phenomena that is the stories that are quickly approaching their first century in print. But it also exposes the reality of a difficult childhood and fumbled parenting. On a pure movie level, the acting and directing are solid, however, so I certainly recommend it if you aren’t worried about seeing how the meal was made.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

The Square

[2 stars]

Some movies are inscrutable, but at least this one is long and subtitled to boot. And I do mean long for this kind of movie; it clocks in at 150 minutes.

At best, The Square is a series of vignettes about man’s inhumanity and the definition and business of art, held together loosely by a single event. But that’s being somewhat generous. I think Ruben Östlund had aspirations of updating The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; assailing the limits of our willingness to intervene and help one another, and the taboos that sit at those boundaries. Frankly, he failed, giving us some nuggets of thought, but never grabbing us or pulling it all into a single, clarifying instant. The movie simply peters out, unresolved and unsatisfying. I guess Östlund would ask, did that make it art? His previous Force Majeure much more successfully ranged across humanity while focusing very specifically on individuals.

It isn’t that there aren’t some interesting questions in the film. And the peek behind the scenes of museum purchasing and marketing is interesting and disturbing, to be sure. But that isn’t enough to to make a movie. And if he wanted to turn the movie into a virtual square itself (which I do think he intended), Östlund should have begun and ended the film in 4:3 aspect rather than 16:9 to make the point.

The story is dominated by Claes Bang (The Bridge) whose awakening to the world around him is full of unrealized potential. He is clearly a well-to-do man in a position of power, and full of self-importance. Watching that surface erode, first with humor and, eventually with some humility, is intriguing. But we never connect with him in a way that makes us care. It is halfway through the tale before we even know he has kids; which is part of the point, I’m sure, but it just doesn’t work.

At the periphery of the story are Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake: China Girl) and Dominic West (Money Monster) who each bring a little of the outside world to Bang. They aren’t brilliant performances, but they’re probably the only faces you’ll recognize in the film.

One interesting, recurring bit part is played by Terry Notary. What makes it interesting is that he has stepped to our side of the motion capture suit to appear as human rather than as creature, as he has in Kong, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit, etc. His casting is surely meant as another intended commentary on art, but you’d have to know who he is to even trip over the point.

Ultimately, this is a heck of a lot of time to spend in a world that is neither compelling nor fully realized. I can only think that the awards it won was due to people being duped into it being art, much like some of the odder installations in the movie itself (which isn’t to say those examples couldn’t be art, but even the story chips away at the core of that idea).

Personally, my though is that you could take the time you’d spend on this movie and see two other films that are much better…and you should.

The Square

A Wrinkle in Time

[3 stars]

Some books stick with you from childhood. When I discovered tesseracts at age 9 or 10, the world opened up for me and I was sold on science fiction for the rest of my life. And it is still one of the first books I give to young kids when they move up a level in their reading. What makes the book so special is that it doesn’t talk down to children. Children are, in fact, the heroes in a very real way. While there are more books like that now, there definitely weren’t when it came out in 1962. And it still has the power to enthrall today, despite any competition because it is so accessible and understandable to children on an emotional level. As the trailers were released for this movie, everyone in the audience was murmuring how they wanted to see it and how much they loved the book, to a time.

Well, first let me warn you, let go of the book. In focusing the story so it would fit into a feature-length tale, Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terebithia) decided on some large changes right off the top, especially around Charles Wallace. Most of those are acceptable, but dropping the other siblings and shortening the trials of the children (and a significant change to the ending) left me wondering about their choices.

Ava DuVernay (13th) directed the script she had well. The pace is measured, but matches the book. Despite its impact, the book is very surfacey in its way, and full of huge leaps of place and understanding, but it is true in its emotional core, which DuVernay completely understood. She also walked the line of young love beautifully. But the film is aimed purposefully at 8-15 year olds by design. That is a fair choice, but it makes it less interesting for the returning adult or the more world-aware tween.

Of course, a lot has been made of the three Misses: Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Mindy Kaling (Inside Out), and Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler). But this is primarily Storm Reid’s (12 Years a Slave) movie, and she carries it well. She also bounces off her screen brother Deric McCabe nicely. McCabe has his own burdens to carry in this film and is generally good. Because of the changes to his character, though, I did find accepting him a little harder to do. On the other hand, Levi Miller’s (Pan) Calvin is spot on. He too works well with Reid.

Chris Pine (Wonder Woman), does an amazing amount with very few lines and little screen time. Similarly, though with less range, does Gugu Mbatha-Raw (The Cloverfield Paradox). They make great parents in need of rescue. Sadly, Zach Galifianakis (Tulip Fever) was given one of the best roles in the film, but it was so dampened in the adaptation that he is just forgettable.

The visuals are mostly impressive, though often they feel like flash over substance. The story, well, as I said if you can let go of the book and find your inner 9 year old, it will increase your enjoyment. For me, there were moments that were captured and others that were missed. It was like seeing part of a great painting, but not quite all of it. I do understand the point of the writers and director in their approach…but, the excisions and reconceptualizations should have been left to those with a better understanding of the story who could have also looped in the intent. For instance, despite the opening and closing frames trying to impart one of the great reveals and lessons (and it failed on that), they ignored core chunks of the tale. Giving us the simplest, bare emotional core of the story ultimately diminished rather than expanded its potential audience in my opinion. They should have trusted that the book remained so popular because of its detail, not just because of its message.

This isn’t the first attempt to adapt Wrinkle in Time to screen, nor is it the best, but it makes a game try and is a solid story for children trying to find their place in the world, even if it leaves out and changes great swaths of the original book. So, if you have a young person in your life, sure take them. Skip the IMAX… it just isn’t filmed for it on the whole. And, if they haven’t read the book before the movie, make sure they read it after so they truly understand the magic and possibilities. The remaining four books in the series are totally missable in my opinion. The second is interesting, but the rest… well, make up your own mind. As for the movie…I wanted it to be so much more than it was, but it wasn’t a total fail. I don’t see a franchise coming out of this, but perhaps a Disney Channel series.

Someday, I’d love to see the book tackled again as a mini-series, bringing in the best of this and the best of the 2003 version, which had its good points too (though no widescreen version was ever released). For now, we have this attempt to hold us till someone does it the right way.

A Wrinkle in Time

The Post

[3 stars]

As I prepped for the Women’s March, and only a day after the current president launched The Fakies, making time for The Post seemed both a necessity and a wonderful warm-up for the cause. The Post is a phenomenally important movie and message. I’ll get to the rating later.

This is Meryl Streep’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) story, without question. It is that extra layer of her coming into her own that really makes the film. But, surprisingly, while Tom Hanks (Inferno) , may share the marquis with her, it is really her relationship with Tracy Letts (Lady Bird) that is the flash point for her evolution; and his character enjoys that moment immensely.

There are a slew of other solid performances as well. Bob Odenkirk (Hell and Back) and Bruce Greenwood (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), for instance. But it is Bradley Whitford (Get Out) that stood out for me. His weasley Arthur Parsons was a study, mostly, in subtlety and restraint as an actor. And, though the performance isn’t particularly noteworthy, Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name) makes his fourth appearance in a top film this year; we should all have such a good agent working on our behalf!

While Streep’s character rules the story, it is the papers and message that rule the plot. This is clear in the way the Speilberg (The BFG) directs the shots and provides focus, often following the papers rather than the people. His message and warnings are clear about where we are today and what we cannot ever allow to happen. And the final moments slam that home with almost embarrassing abandon.  But I have to tell you, we were all clapping come the final credits and when is the last time that happened in a movie for you? It wasn’t quite the hopeful rush that V for Vendetta brought to me during the W years, but, then again, this wasn’t a movie of hope, it was a call to arms.

All the import aside, it is only, really, a middling movie on its own. Much like Bridge of Spies, it feels somewhat sanitized. There is no grit and grime like, say, Roman J. Israel, Esq. had. It sometimes felt more like the memory of an era rather than the time itself. The beats, even if you don’t know the history, are all pretty predictable. The moments that stand out are the moments that show us Streep’s world and reality (and a couple will take the air out of your sails). But her transitions aren’t very crisp…you see them and know they happen, but I never saw the “moment” it clicked over only the moment before and after. Perhaps more of the blame belongs to fairly fresh writers Hannah and Singer, but it was still Spielberg’s to bring to life.

So yes, see it. You must. If not for the performances, for the reminder and for the energy to act. It is most certainly not a waste of your time even if it isn’t the instant classic of The Paper Chase (which would make a great double feature).

See you at the March, I hope…

The Post

Mudbound

[3 stars]

The first part of this film is practically Spoon River on the Delta or some other kind of multi-voiced poem. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a tale to be told nor characters to get to know. Mudbound deconstructs the post-WWII South with an unflinching eye, even if it doesn’t quite have the same lyricism as Daughters of the Dust, nor the scope of The Color Purple. There is also a sense of the slice of life approach and class implications of Tree of Wooden Clogs. Suffice to say, it isn’t easy viewing, despite its moments of joy and despite its victories against all odds.

At its core, this is a simple tale of two families. Each is played well by a collection of great talent.

Carry Mulligan (Far From the Madding Crowd), Jason Clarke (Everest), Garrett Hedlund (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and Jonathan Banks are the owners on one side of the Mississippi homestead. They cover a broad swath of sensibilities, but none of them are particularly people you’d want to praise.

The sharecroppers are led by Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan (Daredevil), and Jason Mitchell (Kong: Skull Island, Straight Outta Compton). Like the white land owners, this is a family in transition of ideas thanks in large part to WWII. And it is Mitchell who ultimately dominates the family portrayal and transition into a more modern world.

Dee Rees (Pariah) navigated the complex narrative with confidence as director and co-writer. And though her politics are clear, she does try to show a range of attitudes and people. But you can’t help but realize you are looking at the once and future America; it is the very world a number of our current leaders are actively trying to make us return to. In fact, the day I watched this was the day of the S*thole countries tweet. Sobering to say the least.

But is it a great movie? Not really. It is a well-crafted story with some very powerful performances and moments. It is an emotionally effective one at times too. But it isn’t very strong in its ultimate message nor is the narrative compelling in a way that pulls you along–it is a framed loop with a coda in structure, so you have a pretty good sense of the story before you’re more than a scene or two in. The voice-overs were generally distancing rather than informative for me; I would have preferred action to convey the ideas over being told about them. However, it is a brave, bald piece that probably does need to be seen by a good sized segment of the populace so we can avoid backsliding. And the movie is told in an unusual way with a ultimate sense of hope in the cruelest of situations; we can all use some of that these days.

Mudbound

Roman J. Israel, Esq

[3.5 stars]

When writer/director Dan Gilroy isn’t focused on blockbuster fare (Kong: Skull Island), he likes to tackle tougher stories, like his highly acclaimed Nightcrawler. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is definitely more in the Nightcrawler arena of social commentary and challenging characters. There is something both wonderful and depressing about the film. It is loaded both with a sense of possibility and a crushing weight of injustice and history. And like Molly’s Game, taking it at a surface level misses the intent.

This is also not your typical Denzel Washington (Fences, Equalizer) movie or part. He is a man out of sync with time, and at odds with himself and the world, in a way that feels broken. We get that from everything Israel does, from his clothes, to his music, to his electronics. Making Israel feel like a time traveler in our world is a wonderful conceit to bring home the movie’s points. Despite being either a savant and/or on the Asperger’s scale, he isn’t an incapable character. Roman is simply so wrapped in his own world and needs, and has been so insulated or trapped over decades, that his understanding of the politics and culture of “now” doesn’t seem to apply anymore. We understand and expect his way of thinking to be right…but are as frustrated as he is when it keeps breaking on the shoals of reality.

Though across a fairly big scope, the movie is very tightly focused on Israel and two other characters. Carmen Ejogo (It Comes at Night) and Colin Farrell (The Beguiled) are Israel’s opportunity to reach across the gulf of time to replant the original seeds of purpose. Pompous as that sounds, the intent of this film really feels more about the loss of the roots of activism, the drift from pure intentions with clear goals, into something fractured and diminished in reach.

It isn’t an easy story, but it is subtle and timely. Fighting is exhausting. Anyone who has been pushing back against the shift in this country (and the world) for the last year has been reminded of that. It is tempting to give up, in fact if you’ve done it long enough, you feel entitled to give up. But you cannot. The fight for justice and fairness never ends. It becomes a literal piece of baggage that must be handed off from one person to another, one generation to another. Even if the face of constant defeat, you have to fight on so that, at some point, someone will succeed. And then you move on to the next fight. Freedom must constantly be defended.  In fact, this movie would make an intriguing companion piece to 13th, Selma, or even I Am Not Your Negro, for an interesting evening or three.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. exposes some realities that you may not really want to hear or may not even agree with. It isn’t an easy story to watch, but it is acted well and delivered with conviction. It’s message reveals itself over the length of the movie. It is a message that, at least for me, ended with a real sense of possibility and energy. And that is a welcome boost as we turn the corner into 2018 and, among other things, come up to the second Women’s March in a couple weeks.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.