Tag Archives: Drama

The Swimmer

[3 stars]

This blast from the past about a man swimming home via his neighbor’s pools is actually an unexpected commentary on Hollywood and privilege, and it predates #metoo by about 50 years. Frank Perry (backed silently by Sydney Pollack [Amazing Grace]) were surprisingly, and quietly, subversive in their directing choices.

You know there is something off with Burt Lancaster from the opening moments of the movie. It takes a good part of the film before you know generally what that is (and we never know exactly, though you can guess). We watch his interactions with a slew of recognizable faces as well as a few surprises like Joan Rivers and even Diana Muldaur in one of her few big screen roles. But it is Lancaster who is turned into an object from the outset of the story.

He is quite literally stripped bare (or nearly) and exposed to the effects of the world. The approach riffed against this movie’s time (1968) even though it was concurrent with the Women’s Lib movement. And as we follow Lancaster’s episodic journey, our perceptions and assumptions keep shifting, which helps drive the otherwise mundane, if odd, tale forward.

The foundation of this layered and pointed tale was driven by scriptwriter, and wife of the director, Eleanor Perry who adapted Cheever’s story for the screen. She structured the reveals carefully and subtly to help drive the improbable tale; it serves as its own metaphor as well as a sort of absurdist presentation of the action. I suspect that part of the success of the finished piece is due to her close relationship with the director providing some broader perspective to the events.

Whatever the realities, it ends up an unexpected gem that is hewn from a pile of rough material and realities. If you’re looking for something a bit different but still surprisingly relevant, seek this out.

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Standing Up, Falling Down

[3 stars]

Honestly, the elements of this film worried me to no end as it opened and laid them out for inspection. Boomerang kids trying to find their way, bad comics finding their path, old widower trying to make amends, and romantically desperate people aching for “the one that got away.” It just shouldn’t have worked. But Peter Hoare’s (Kevin Can Wait, Killing Hasselhoff) script is simple, honest, and clever, which Matt Ratner directs with great care. In fact, for a first feature, Ratner really shows some chops containing the potential disaster of elements and emotions, not to mention the cast he managed to land.

Without question, Billy Crystal (Monsters University) holds this story together. Without him, it would have simply fallen apart even though Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) is the main character driving the movie. Around these two, there are a host of solid performances and interactions. Grace Gummer (Learning to Drive) and Schwartz have some wonderful brother/sister interactions (again a credit to Ratner), and Debra Monk (Mozart in the Jungle) is the perfect Long Island mom. There are a lot of other fun, smaller roles worth spotting as well, but why give them all away?

This isn’t a revelatory movie, but it is well done and entertaining. It’s delightfully contained and rides the line between reality and absurdity with skill. Keep an eye out for it or pick it up on stream as it exits the festival circuit and becomes more generally and more affordably available.

Standing Up, Falling Down

Uncut Gems

[1.5 stars]

Sometimes you’re just not the audience for a film, whether due to timing or timbre. This latest Safdie brothers (GoodTime) offering is clearly done with ability and Adam Sandler (Murder Mystery) delivers an amazing performance, but I just couldn’t watch it.

Sandler’s character is on a collision course with disaster from the opening moments, not because of circumstance, but entirely because of his own self-destructive nature. Honestly, at the best of times I find that hard to stomach or invest in, but at this particular moment, I found it impossible.

So, if you like the Safdies’ work, you’ll likely love it. If you can handle a dark rumination on the nature of addiction and wonders of the universe in the microcosm, you’ll probably find it engrossing. If you’re looking for something just a bit more positive or less self-inflicted…look elsewhere.

Uncut Gems

The Peanut Butter Falcon

[3 stars]

This is one of those quiet films that gets under your skin in unexpected ways. It isn’t a fun story, though it is funny in its way. But it’s a reminder of what makes up a family and that the only limitations on our lives are those that we set for ourselves (and that, very often, we only achieve those goals with help from others).

Much of the success of the story is due to Shia LaBeouf’s (Nymphomaniac) surprising level of vulnerability and accessibility. This isn’t his story (directly) but through his actions and decisions we learn about him and watch him heal. Dakota Johnson (Suspiria) is less leveled, but ends up on a collision path with the two men that forces her to rethink her life.

There are also some wonderful smaller roles that fill in the gaps and push forward the action. Thomas Hayden Church (Hellboy), Bruce Dern (The Mustang), Jon Bernthal (Widows), and John Hawkes (The Driftless Area) are among these.

Of course, the real star of this film is Zack Gottsagen. He delivers a fearless performance that is both brash and subtle. Some of that is thanks to first-time feature directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who also co-wrote the script. They bring you into these character’s world and help you shift into their sense of life and understand their goals.

This film, for all its detail, isn’t reality. It’s more a down-to-earth fable; especially given the final moments. That’s OK given the purpose, but it may put off some viewers. But, generally, this is a quiet road-trip story with a bit more depth  than you might expect.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

@Suicide Room

[3.5 stars]

Suicide as a subject, even when the best intentions are observed as with 13 Reasons Why, often ends up exploitative. Writer/director Jan Komasa, most recently lauded for his Corpus Christi (including an Oscar nomination), managed to respect its realities and create an engrossing story.

Jakub Gierszal (Dracula Untold) is at the center of this gut-punch of a tale; a teenage boy who starts (over)confidently and then crumbles despite and because of everything around him. His performance is raw and, at times, uncomfortable, but always gripping. Roma Gasiorowska becomes his gadfly and external conscience as he withdraws from the world that is simultaneously pushing him away. She is as magnetic as she is mercurial. In a smaller but pivotal role is Bartosz Gelner (Floating Skyscrapers), providing the catalyst and lighting the fuse for Gierszal’s discovery of his online world and a group of lost individuals.

The story has a lot of interesting devices and tremendous amount of emotionally exposed nerves. It is at once a fable and plain look at broken people. And broken here has many levels for both the kids and the adults. Frankly, the story itself starts strong and then loses its thread and references, but pulls it all together at the end in a way that works, even if it is far off track from where you think it may go from the opening 20 minutes.

Don’t go into this one lightly. It feels light at the top, but that masks the currents in the depths that will eventually reach the surface. However, it is another stepping stone for Komasa’s body of work, which continues to impress me. And it is a peek into Polish culture and family that isn’t often seen.

Suicide Room

Luce

[4 stars]

Powerful and tense, this is a challenging film in most of the right ways. It has a good story and some very intelligent plotting to force internal conflicts for the viewer as the plot unfolds. Adapted by Julius Onah and J.C. Lee from Lee’s play, it is also a solid conversion from stage to screen. There is nary a hint of its physical roots other than, perhaps, the level of the language utilized. Onah’s direction is also subtle, keeping the charged situations contained to pressurize them until they are at full steam…and even then it’s a controlled release.

At the center of the film is the young Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves), who navigates the ridiculously layered title character. Octavia Spencer (Instant Family) as his teacher brings it as well; her character is well meaning, misguided, and completely out of her depth. Both are unexpectedly grounded performances in roles that could have easily gotten out of control.

Naomi Watts (The Book of Henry) and Tim Roth (The Hateful Eight) as Luce’s parents are good and evolve through their story. Though, honestly, I had great difficulty buying either of them entirely. Some of that was purposeful on Onah’s part in his direction and casting, but I’m not sure it was compeltely effective.

Luce is also surrounded by a number fellow students in his school. There are some nice turns, but Andrea Bang (Kim’s Convenience) is the one standout. She not only delivers but manages to remain an intriguing cypher through to the end.

Luce isn’t an easy film to watch at times, but it is beautifully real and subtle, playing with your better angels and quiet devils while setting them to war. And though the story is essentially a small tale of a young student, its reach is much broader than that because of Luce’s history. It isn’t perfectly acted or executed at times, but I forgive all its small flaws for the success of its bigger aims and I suspect most viewers would.

Luce

The Other Son (Le fils de l’autre)

(3.5 stars)

Changeling tales offer up interesting opportunies to investigate identity and family. Few, however, found quite the flashpoint as swapped births between an Israeli and Palestinian family.  Lorraine Lévy’s tale of two young men discovering their past is quiet and simple, with a modicum of political and religious fervor from the outside. It is focused more on how the young Jules Sitruk (Son of Rambow) and Mehdi Dehbi (A Most Wanted Man, Messiah) reassess who they are because of the revelations rather than how the world views them.

How their families deal with the revelations is part of the success and failures of the story as a whole. It tends to remain, wonderfully, understated. There are emotional moments and stressors, but this isn’t a melodrama. However, some of the choices and conversations feel manipulated to allow for other things to occur, which got a little frustrating even while the interplay was good. Fortunately, Lévy directed it all with a calm, sure hand rooted in reality rather than histrionics.

I have to admit I spent a good deal of the film waiting for it all to blow up into some kind of tragedy. And while an argument could be made that the tension that provides adds to the story, I found it more a distraction. So, I’m letting you know it isn’t a tragedy, though neither is it devoid of bigger issues and problems.

The Other Son is a thoughtful mental experiment that forces some interesting questions upon its characters, and through them the audience. Despite its quiet demeanor it is suprisingly gripping, and ultimately worth the journey.

The Other Son

Bless Me, Ulima

[3 stars]

How much has changed since 1944 New Mexico? Well, after watching Carl Franklin’s adaptation of the same named novel, I fear not much.  That isn’t Franklin’s point, but I’m watching this 9 years after its release and art is nothing if not contextually interpreted. Though, to be fair, some of those aspects (inequality, power, prejudice) were Franklin’s intent, they just resonate a bit differently in a world where we’re slamming shut our borders and separating families out of fear and greed.

While there is some nice storytelling through the eyes of a young boy which borders on magic realism, this isn’t a great adaptation. The use of voice over, in particular, is somewhat cheap and distracting. The plot also leaps along in some odd ways, and aspects of the world are a bit forced. Fortunately, the main message of being bonded to the world and each other, never really goes out of style. And Franklin found a unique time and family to deliver that idea. But for all the plot, it feels more like a slice of life than a deep tale worthy of feature film. An interesting slice at times, but incomplete. So, while this is a somewhat interesting film, I can’t strongly recommend it. However, as a brake from all the standard fare out there, it is certainly a different world and set of characters.

Bless Me, Ultima

Five Feet Apart

[3 stars]

Yes, it’s a manipulative and predictable Romeo and Juliet riff, with cystic fibrosis as the wall between them, but it is executed relatively well if you’re in the mood for it.

Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen) and  Cole Sprouse (Riverdale, but more amusingly Grace Under Fire) are an inevitable couple, far too sharp witted and special for their own good. But, of course, we root for them as they discover what’s really important in life.

My biggest gripe, outside of a few saccharine moments, is that the one gay character, Moises Arias (Ender’s Game), is there for comic relief and to serve other cheap purposes in the script. He did well with the role, but his existence felt forced. While I get that this was a standard love story with a twist, it’s a shame they had to make the story so patently non-inclusive.

That aside, there are some nice turns in the hospital’s staff championed by Kimberly Hebert Gregory (Kevin (Probably) Saves the World)  and Parminder Nagra (Blinded By the Light).  Both manage to take standard characters and provde them some depth.

This is the first feature for director Justin Baldoni (better known as an actor in shows such as Jane the Virgin), as well as a first script for Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. As a first attempt, this is fairly polished and tight tale. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is pleasantly distracting for a night of light romance with a bit of medical issues. It will be interesting to see what lessons all involved take into their next projects.