Tag Archives: Drama

The Hate U Give

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a Spike Lee film that is less stylized and aimed more at teenagers (though still very resonate for adults) and you have a sense of this powerful offering by director George Tillman, Jr. It is uncomfortably honest and it builds tension very much like Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman. It also evokes and challenges all sides of the issues it raises, though it certainly has a point of view, and one it wastes no time establishing in its first scene. Getting that moment right was one of Tillman’s great triumphs in the film.

Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) drives this story from start to end. She is narrator and focus of the action as well as the gateway through which we enter both worlds she navigates. She is a talent we will be seeing a lot of over the coming years. The rest of the cast form up around her and every one of them has more levels than you expect as we travel through her story.

Among her family Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Russell Hornsby (Fences), and Common (Hunter Killer) stand out for the adults. Algee Smith (Earth to Echo), as her childhood friend, too. And then there is Anthony Mackie (Io), an actor we’re used to seeing with a bit more positive emotion and influence. His delivery is solid, though it is one of the least dimensional in the story. And, to be fair, it needs to be.

From Stenberg’s school-life, one of the more difficult roles was Stenberg’s friend, nicely created by Sabrina Carpenter. Carpenter has to stand in for every well-intentioned person of non-color and do so unselfconsciously. It is hard to watch and far too recognizable. And, as her boyfriend, K.J. Apa ( A Dog’s Purpose) was solid, but not particularly groundbreaking.

A good part of the success of this movie is its script. Audrey Wells (A Dog’s Purpose) adapted the book smoothly; there wasn’t a hint of it being a reflection of something else. It was entirely its own being, standing on its own feet and feeling whole and full of real people, situations, and emotions. Navigating that mine field with a teenage audience in mind wasn’t easy. Unlike Dope, it reaches out for a broader audience and more explicit message, but earns its moment of preaching in a very different way.

I have to admit I avoided this film for a long while, despite its excellent and deserved reviews. With all the hate and damage in the world, I wasn’t sure I could sit through a story about it as part of my evening relaxation. As it turns out, while it is certainly a tense story and unflinching at moments, its teenage perspective and the balance of the tale kept it digestible and still very powerful. Tillman’s ability to keep the tension going as he slips between the worlds that Stenberg navigates keeps you engaged and interested even as you may want to turn away or shout. He also employs subtle production values separating the haves and have-nots by time of day. Though some of that is story driven, it is also clearly intended to enhance light and dark.

Make time for this. It will leave a mark, but not one that will bleed too deeply. And it is a clear-eyed perspective that can start conversations or, at least, get people thinking. It is well acted, written,  and presented and will keep you guessing till the end.

Obit. (x2)

[3.5 stars]

Making a story about life out of writing about death seems contradictory, but Vanessa Gould’s long-form documentary about the New York Times obituary desk manages just that. It is also a fascinating look behind a section of the paper you may not have put a lot of thought behind.

Our tour is constructed of interviews with the small crew of writers as well as an amusing look at the news morgue and its denizens.  Through these Gould gives us a picture of the mechanics and the care brought to the often dry and sometimes entertaining encapsulations of life that grace the paper daily. It is a look back at an old craft as well as evolution of the craft in modern times.

It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is an interesting one, and crafted to carry you through. To be fair, it would be hard, without forcing it, to create a story around the subject, so it is more a behind-the-scenes and philosophical discussion. But whatever you think of obituaries or your interest in them, you will never notice them again in the same way.

As a bonus, while searching for this documentary I unexpectedly came across a clever short by the same name and did a double feature. Unlike the documentary, this is a short drama, but it makes a reflective coda to the evening.  Director Brian Tolle is much better known for his effects work on major blockbusters, but this short drama shows his eye for structure and character, handling Reddy’s script deftly and guiding George Maguire through a complex character over the 10 minutes. Tolle is a bit less sure with Sandra Fish (Sense8), but she has moments. Add this one to your list when you’ve a small gap of time to fill. It is fine with or without the double feature, but it definitely added something to see them together.

Obit

A Private War

[3.5 stars]

Making war real on screen is incredibly challenging. Making it personal without losing the greater issues is even harder. A Private War, much like the writings of its subject Marie Colvin, manages to do both.

It succeeds thanks to both the behind-the-scenes guidance and the on-screen talent. However, even with the likes of Jamie Dornan (Robin Hood), Tom Hollander (Bird Box), and Stanley Tucci (Patient Zero) on screen, the only person that matters, the only story as her character would have put it, was Pike’s Colvin. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is this movie. Though I will say that Hollander delivers an uncharacteristically understated and sobering performance as Colvin’s bureau chief.

Colvin states it in her own words at the top of the film: fear comes later. Marie Brenner’s (The Insider) script captures how controlled and confident Colvin’s character was in war, and what a mess she was outside of it. An added aspect to this film’s success was director Matthew Heineman’s documentary roots. He manages to step back from the action to allow the story to tell itself.

In a growing collection of on-screen news-related tales, this one is a bit different. It isn’t about newspapers saving the world, like The Post, or destroying the world, like The Front Runner, or even being manipulated, like Vice. It is about war and the human cost on all sides. It is about what drives people to risk their lives to bring us the truth, without glorifying their choices.

In a fluke of the story and the timing, I was watching the film almost 7 years to the day from the last moments of the action, which provided one of the most chilling aspects of the film. I found myself doing the math and realizing that the horror of Homs, Syria being portrayed may have been from 7 years ago…but it was still going on today despite Colvin and other’s efforts and risks to get the world to notice; a final gift of the film reminding us that it is still up to all of us to act and not just observe.

Shoplifters

[4 stars]

Hirokazu Koreeda wrote and directed this heart-battering and darkly funny look at family that crosses the sense and sensibility of Roma with Florida Project. He continues to plumb some of his favorite themes around family that have often informed his movies and garnered him many awards and nominations.

Shoplifters is a subtle and complicated story that revolves around a low-income family struggling in a unidentified Japanese city. It is a view of that culture that will seem both familiar and utterly unexpected. Koreeda takes his time with the tale, but is constantly building it through the two hours. It is oddly hypnotic through its presentation and its story, but with a tension underneath that keeps your attention and curiosity.

This isn’t a simple tale, nor a perfectly happy one; it is more honest than aspirational. But it is beautiful and oddly hopeful and will leave you thinking about it and discussing it for days afterwards.

At Eternity’s Gate

[3 stars]

Willem Dafoe (Aquaman) gives one of his most quiet, contained and intense performances as Vincent Van Gogh in this odd biopic. The story, as it is presented, is odd not for its subject, but for its style, but let me come back to that.

Dafoe is the lynchpin in this biopic. While there are other performances that help him along, Oscar Isaac (Life Itself) as Paul Gauguin, Rupert Friend (A Simple Favor) as his brother, and Mads Mikkelsen (Doctor Strange) and Mathieu Amalric (Grand Budapest Hotel) as confessors, only Dafoe really drives this story. Given that is through the eyes of a deeply disturbed and unsteady artist, that is either a strength or a weakness, depending on your experience of the story.

Director and co-writer Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) has a thing for artists. He is driven to explain and capture the fine line between genius and madness. For a lot of this film we are forced to view the world through a shaky-cam or with split focus to achieve at least part of that goal. It is disorienting and alienating and, frankly, far too obvious. Given Dafoe’s performance, he should have trusted the actors and audience more to understand. The camera tricks were off-putting and, at times for me, unwatchable. Had he used the approach only for a few crisis moments in the film I could have understood and handled it better, but it is better than three-quarters of the film which was already 20-30 minutes longer than necessary.

What is even more disappointing than the camera choices is that we really don’t learn a lot about Vincent’s life. We see events, but never really get to understand them. Vincent clearly does and makes many decisions due to them, so we’re not even emulating his thinking process. The script simply jumps about to various points in his life and assumes we either know the background or can guess it. As a first script for Louise Kugelberg, I can understand that gap, but because Schnabel co-wrote, along with the massively prolific and talented Jean-Claude Carrière (The Patience Stone), I was a little surprised by the result.

For Dafoe’s performance, and some of the inner life of the creative process the film portrays, this is a fascinating film. If you want to learn more about Van Gogh’s life, and mysteries surrounding it, even the recent Loving Vincent will provide more. And, perhaps, I am being unfair to Schanbel’s intentions with this story, but that is in part because the story does try to answer some questions, but never really does full enough. Clearly that was part of the intent as there are black-screen monologues and text explanations to try and fulfill that purpose. Had the film makers focused solely on Vincent’s inner life and process, it may have felt more complete. As it is, we get some interesting ideas and a fabulous performance to appreciate, but not much else.

Madeline’s Madeline

[2 stars]

About the only thing I can say good about this film is that the main leads have talent. The story never really comes together and the message, if any, is somewhat empty with nothing new to say.

Helena Howard, in her first role, really manages to own the screen and show range. And Molly Parker (Lost in Space) is a model of a mess along with Miranda July, both of whom serve as mother figures to Howard.

I will grant that Josephine Decker direction manages to pull you along an impossibly obtuse plot that seems to keep verging on meaning, but just as quickly falls apart. It is most certainly not meant to be taken as reality or at face value, but there are nuggets of “truth” in there that help build a world and the characters. Sadly, in the end, it is allowed to simply fall apart. I am all for non-traditional story-telling, but it has to get to a satisfying point to have made it worthwhile. In this case, it just didn’t get there.

Stan & Ollie

[4 stars]

How much of a comedy genius team was Laurel & Hardy? Watching their 90 year old routines elicit belly laughs in audiences, even when performed by stand-ins, is a clear indication. Steve Coogan (Ideal Home) and John C. Reilly (Ralph Breaks the Internet) resurrect the seminal comedy team of Laurel and Hardy so believably and effortlessly it is breathtaking. They inhabit the men and their material, playing them with love and subtlety. Reilly, in particular, disappears into Hardy’s bulk. And both men reassert that they’re capable of real acting and not just the broad, silly comedy they are more often associated with. In some ways, that background makes them perfect for these roles, adding meta layers to it all.

Despite the scope of years and geography, the cast isn’t much bigger than the titular characters. Nina Arianda (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Shirley Henderson (Lady Bird), as their respective wives add to the reality and humanity of the duo while also bringing their own characters into the light. And Rufus Jones (Holy Flying Circus) has a nice driving role as their tour manager in England. Combined, the five create a huge world out of a small ensemble.

My one frustration with the film is that the opening scene in 1937 doesn’t really give you a solid sense of the duo at the top of their game because it almost immediately dives into a conflict. It makes it hard to fully understand the change in 1953, where it leaps to in short order to the end of their career. It isn’t a fatal flaw in the movie, but one I wish director Jon S. Baird and writer Jeff Pope had polished away. I will grant, however, that the script does a delightful job of reflecting the comedy routines into their off-stage lives…sometimes in irony and sometimes not.

It’s wonderful to see an adult film that doesn’t rely on explosions, car chases, or action, but rather purely on the characters involved in a very quiet and real way. This is a story about two men that happen to be legends and are very much human and very much bound to one another. It is also a wonderful peek behind the performance curtain.

Spaceship

[2.5 stars]

Imagine, if you will, a mash-up of Skins and How to Talk to Girls at Parties. If you’re picturing a painful look at adolescence, loss, and love with some truly odd ideas bolted on, you’re not going to be far off.

There is something wonderfully lyrical about Spaceship, Alex Taylor’s first feature as writer/director. It clearly expands on themes in his previous shorts and feels very personal. He also manages to make it all feel very unscripted, but controlled. And, while the story leaps from perspective to perspective in a sort of epic piece of spoken word theatre, it all inter-relates and builds as as the short movie goes on.

Despite the literary aspects, it is also a very bald look at teenage life and thoughts. Some of which is likely to be, well, alien to a portion of the audience. But that is part of the point. Taylor found a solid younger cast to pull off the challenge. Alexa Davies (Mama Mia: Here We Go Again) drives a good part of the story, with assistance from Tallulah Haddon (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), Lara Peake (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), and a very important cameo by Steven Elder as well as a quiet thread kept in tact by Antti Reini.

This isn’t a great movie, but it is mesmerizing and, blessedly, only 80-ish minutes, so it really doesn’t overstay its intent or welcome. You have to be in a weird mood for this one, but it is an interesting experience if you’re ready for it.

Golem

[4.5 stars]

Not long ago, the 1927 Theatre Company recorded and aired their brilliant new take on the Golem tale. It is an astounding piece of stage craft that incorporates live talent and animation with a bit of music and movement thrown in. The story, in this conception, is about the control of media and commerce over humanity. The troop tell the story in a closed loop, spinning around the story of Robert, played  engagingly, and with spare irony, by Philippa Hambly.

Along with four other on-stage performers (Dunne Genevieve, Nathan Gregory, Rowena Lennon, and Felicity Sparks), the troop begin a story that you think you know, but which turns on you even as it makes your eyes and brain dance. The duality of what is happening on stage and how they are keeping you entranced is no accident. It is mesmerizing and pointed.

I have no idea if this will ever stream again or if it will be available on disc, but make time for it if you get the opportunity. Honestly, there are few stage productions that can really blow me away. This one had my jaw dropping constantly at the illusion, the humor, and the message. It’s not perfect, but it is darned close, and it is worth every minute you get to spend with it…and sadly that is ephemeral.

Mrs. Wilson

[3 stars]

This is one of those true stories that is stranger than fiction. In the beginning of this three part drama, Ruth Wilson (The Little Stranger) loses her husband of many years, Iain Glen (Cleverman). Quickly, she discovers that he wasn’t the man she thought in work, in life, or in love. Watching her struggle with the revelations is quite a shift from her usual more overtly tough characters.

The story is mostly about her wresting the truth from those who did know and then struggling with the knowing. Primarily, that is from Fiona Shaw (Colette) and Anupam Kher (The Big Sick), who still make her work for her answers, such as they are. Keeley Hawes (The Bodyguard) and Patrick Kennedy (London Has Fallen) add some other interesting aspects to the life being revealed.

Richard Laxton helms the triptych nicely, slowly peeling layers from the mystery and the characters. It is a fascinating story, if not an entirely satisfying conclusion. But the ending isn’t the fault of the actors or story, but rather of life, if the final credits are to be believed. Ultimately, it is a reminder to consider what makes your life right and good more than it is about collusion and deception. If it were placed in a more current time, I’m not sure we’d have gotten the same story, but it somehow feels right in its period.

For the performances and the slow ride of the story, it is worthy of the time spent. At this point I’m even curious to try and dive into the real history to learn more. And you may have noticed that the lead and the main character share a name…you may have wondered, and the answer is yes.