Tag Archives: Drama

Some COVID Fun – No, Really

There has been a wave of lock-down art recently. Well, what do you expect with a bunch of artists stuck at home with no outlet? Even the some finales (like All Rise) embraced the situation and wrote it into their tales.

Most of it has come in the form of at-home/garage concerts up till now. But, recently, a number of short video stories have begun to surface.

While there are many, these two really stood out. One for its sheer amusement and the other for its scope. Both are BBC, but I would expect them to be more generally available at some point.

Staged

What happens when David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) and Michael Sheen (Slaughterhouse Rulez) try to mount a play during the lock-down? Well, with the help of relatively unknown Simon Evans as writer/director/actor and their families, hilarity ensues. This series, comprised of 6 short episodes is self-aware, self-deprecating, and utterly irreverent. Find it…and remember to pay attention to and watch through the credits. The fun just keeps on giving while touching on the realities of the world as it is being reshaped.

Staged Poster

Unprecedented 

There are too many people involved here to list. In several half-hour episodes, each comprised of 3 10-minute plays, you see a huge scope of pandemic life. Some of it is is funny, some uncomfortable, and some just poignant, but all are worth seeing and none are so long as to get boring.

Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation Poster

Nightwatching / Rembrandt’s J’accuse

[3 stars]

Peter Greenaway (Eisenstein in Guanajuato) is one of the most singular and visionary directors in film. You may not like the results all the time, but he manipulates film like a canvas. This is because he is, at heart, a painter. His movies always reflect that, and often examine the role of art in society as well.

Greenaway became obsessed with The Night Watch, a painting crammed with symbology and unique in its presentation for the mid-1600s. Nightwatching  tackles the creative process behind the choices and the society it was part of…which leads to the exposure of a power struggle and a murder.

It all sounds very exciting and intriguing. And with Martin Freeman (Black Panther) in the role of Rembrandt, you are probably hoping for a wonderful jaunt down historical lane, filled with sex, intrigue, and mystery. Well, there is sex, and it is a living Rembrandt portrait in design, but it isn’t the most engaging film. The story is rather hard to follow, and the presentational style Greenaway adopts for many of his movies, that almost theatrical setting, distances you from getting too close. The fourth wall is often broken as well, making it as much lecture/explanation as it is story. The movie ends up feeling more like dramatic recreation rather than exposure of Rembrandt’s personality, creative process, and life.

But even Greenaway seemed to know that, and thus the companion documentary he released the following year: Rembrandt’s J’Accuse!

The docu attacks the same story, but in non-fiction style and utilizing some of Nightwatching’s footage. The result isn’t brilliant…while well organized it is overly produced and pompous. Greenaway, as narrator, rather than educating is more than a little condescending. The research and explanations are fascinating, however, which is what keeps you going through it. If you’ve never studied art history, it is likely to be a bit fast and overloaded. If you are at least a little familiar with the period of art and the kinds of symbology artists employed, it is likely a little more digestible.

Frankly, I’d skip Nightwatching and just watch J’Accuse, if you have any interest in these subjects or just want to learn a bit about one of the world’s most famous artists. It is a great reminder of just how conscious the visual arts are. Everything is there for a reason, even if we don’t realize it most of the time. And the tale behind The Night Watch is complicated and interesting. The presentation of artist as vigilante with brushes isn’t new in the world, but rarely are the indictments so meaningful and so packed.

Nightwatching Rembrandt's J'Accuse...!

Some Girl(s)

[2.5 stars]

What starts as a semi-amusing, if navel-gazing, journey of discovery for Adam Brody (Damsels in Distress), quickly becomes something darker for the audience observing the discussion duets. Each vignette exposes another layer of Brody’s truth. I had expected something a little lighter and funnier, but this is not that film. The fact that Brody’s character doesn’t even have a name, unlike the women, tells you a bit about the focus and judgement of Neil LaBute’s (Some Velvet Morning) script that brings LaBute’s own play to screen.

Brody’s supporting cast is, frankly, more of what had me load up the film. They are quite the range of talent and styles: Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), Jennifer Morrison (Bombshell), Emily Watson (The Happy Prince), Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars), and Mía Maestro. Each encounter exposes an aspect of Brody, and each section is intended to have the viewer self-examine their own lives, at least just a little.

Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s direction was adequate. She adapted to each story and character well enough, but she never quite made the uncomfortable moments feel natural and real. There was still a sense of it being forced and heightened as if it was a filmed play rather than a movie. Some of that has to fall to LaBute’s script, but it was Mayer’s job to smooth that over.

As a sort of curious mystery and exposé of a particular kind of young male life, the movie has some value. But it doesn’t really come together so much as take us through part of an endless journey. Whether you want to take that journey will have to be up to you. None of the performances are exceptional, and the message is a little dark if you are hoping for light distraction.

Some Girl(s)

The Impossible

[3 stars]

In every disaster there are stories that are worthy of telling and that beggar imagination. In fact, in many cases, had the tales been written as fiction, they’d have been dismissed as absurd and forced. But the truth is that survivors of massive events, like the Holocaust, 9/11, or in this case, the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, only live due to a collection of unlikely and random events.

J.A. Bayona (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) directed this story, reteaming with his The Orphanage writer Sergio G. Sánchez, to bring us the experience of one family. The result was highly awarded for its primary performances by Naomi Watts (Luce) and, in his first major role, Tom Holland (Onward). And, really, this is Holland’s story and film, which is not what you expect when it kicks off. Ewan McGregor (Birds of Prey), as the father, also has some great moments, but his role is very much supporting.

This film puts the power, danger, and horror of the event and the aftermath on screen well. If you didn’t know it was made years later, you’d have thought Bayona had a crew there the day of and through the days that followed. But, as compelling as individual moments were, and as taut as the moments leading to the end were directed, I can’t say I found the movie overly suspenseful because I knew the result. And it wasn’t that I knew the story going in, but there was something obvious about it that left me without doubts. It also barely looked outside the boundaries of the family, which was good for focus, but limited in its perspective. Whether any of that is a fair critique or not doesn’t really matter as it was my experience.

As a window into tsunami and its initial impact this is a fascinating story. As an opportunity to catch Holland at the launch of his career, it is eye opening. As a movie, it will keep your attention but I’m not entirely sure it will fully satisfy everyone, but it’s well executed if you need a tale of survival.

The Impossible

Into the Night

[3.5 stars]

In many ways this feels like an unauthorized and unofficial sequel to Hard Sun, not that any of the same people are involved; I speak only in terms of story. Or, if you prefer, a new twist to On the Beach. But Into the Night is far from laconic. It has a very clever conceit and structure which keeps the suspense at a constant high, and a credible backstory and clues to keep you engaged.

This is also a tale where no one is safe, which makes every one of the six episodes high-stakes. And, though we deep-dive on different individuals in each segment, they are not the sole focus of their titled vignette. In other words, trying to predict this one is a solid challenge and a compliment to adaptor/writer Jason George. His directing team however, Inti Calfat and Dirk Verheye, were a bit less adept. Some of the characters are portrayed a bit, well, extreme. The story attempts to provide reasons for that, but doesn’t always fully succeed. And there are some liberties taken with time and how long certain efforts might take which put some cracks in the foundation. However, generally, it remains fairly true to its choices.

The ensemble, as a whole, is fairly good. Pauline Etienne, Laurent Capelluto (Mr. Nobody), Stefano Cassetti (Rosemary’s Baby), and Mehmet Kurtulus are the strongest and most complicated players. But everyone on the flight has a tale to tell and something to lose.

Ultimately, the first series pays off nicely and has plenty of runway for the next set of installments…assuming they get to continue. I’m certainly hoping they will if they can keep up the intensity and the story so we can answer some of the open questions.

Into the Night

Darling Companion

[3 stars]

Imagine a Hallmark or Lifetime movie on steroids and you’ve got a sense of Darling Companion. It isn’t that it is over-the-top histrionic so much that it is loaded with acting talent for a script that is, well, a TV movie at best. It manages to capture tense but loving relationships, as Lawrence Kasdan (Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Big Chill) has shown he’s capable of, but it was all at the surface.

What I will give him credit for is that while the story revolves around Freeway, the foundling dog, it doesn’t focus on him. It really does spend almost all its time on the humans around him. There are no cutsey dog-reaction moments or inner thoughts. It is about how the arrival of this stray is the catalyst for those around him.

And the cast is a surprising wealth of talent, all of whom could be doing better things, but decided to do this. So take it in for what’s worth. I honestly was dragged into watching it, but wasn’t sorry I did. It isn’t that I don’t like sappy films (god knows, I do) but I really shy away from what I fear will be completely manipulative tales of children or animals with big eyes and forced moments. The Kasdans (as Meg Kasdan co-wrote) managed to avoid that almost entirely and give us a story about people finding themselves and romance in their own ways.

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)

(4 stars)

Asghar Farhadi’s story of family and truth earned every one of its mountain of nominations and wins. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a story where no one tells the truth for almost the entire film, and all for understandable, if sometimes frustrating reasons. There are no simple answers, and even what you think is the truth has layers.

In a tightly delivered performance, Peyman Maadi (6 Underground) drives the story in a brusk but intentional way. Opposite him, Sareh Bayat, Leila Hatami, and Sarina Farhadi provide mirrors and resistance to the world as he knows it, with Shahab Hosseini there to lob firebombs into the mix.

Suffice to say that this family drama is time well spent. It is neither overly light nor overly dramatic. It is life, with moments of shock and banality. It feels real and is a fascinating insight into Iranian culture and courts.

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