Tag Archives: Drama

Away

[3.5 stars]

Movies of all types have been trying to capture the challenge of space travel for years… and, for some reason, even moreso in the last few years. From Passengers, to First Man, to Ad Astra, or even Aniara, they all run into the same challenge: being in space may be pretty, but it’s boring. This is what Dark Star tackled decades ago, though with a great deal more tongue-in-cheek. This isn’t to say that these movies were bad or boring, but that they manufactured tension to embrace and carry that basic reality. And only Aniara comes at all close to the truth, though aspects of the others include it.

With that as prologue, consider Away. There is a lot about its science that is, let’s just say creative, but they try to capture that trapped sensibility and the challenge of the time of flight. The result is mixed and just a tad soapy. Even with some really good performances carrying it along, and some nicely mirrored plots Earth-side and on board the ship, it all feels forced and improbable in the results. Which doesn’t make it bad, just not particularly accurate much of the time. For instance, even an international coalition is going to be sure that the crew all get along and are solidly stable, because they want it to succeed.

In between tense, potential disasters that are manufactured each week, the story revolves around several relationships. Primarily  it is around Hilary Swank (I Am Mother) and her husband, played nicely by Josh Charles (Freeheld). In a world of entertainment where married couple stories are about marriages at odds, this is a supportive relationship that is strained by their very concerns for each other. Their daughter provides a young-love perspective as well, which Talitha Eliana Bateman (Geostorm) and Adam Irigoyen (The Last Ship) navigate to varying degrees of credibility.

The rest of the crew have both inter-personal challenges and revelations of their past. Vivian Wu, Ray Panthaki (Colette), Ato Essandoh (Tales from the Loop), and Mark Ivanir each get their moments and without whom the rest would have been boring.

But ultimately the real question is: Is it worth taking the journey with Away? And, generally, I’m going to say, yes. Even with the “adjusted” science and forced events, it’s a tense, but entertaining 10 episodes delivered by a talented cast and some unexpected maturity in the relationships. And it is a rare, solid example of near-term science fiction. It also definitely feels like something new and different, and it can stand on its own or go forward. Frankly, I kinda hope they will leave it as a stand-alone event series and not try carry the story any further. It made its point and can only get repetitive or become pale reflections of other shows and movies that have come before. If they chose to leap forward a number of years, there are possibilities, but I’m not sure what it planned.

Sometimes Always Never

[4 stars]

Let’s face it, just about anything with Bill Nighy (Emma.) is worth watching just for him. Often it is only a taste of Nighy as a smaller side character. But in this film he and Sam Riley (Radioactive) share this story of family and survivorship. Both men play against their typical type, though Riley is a bit more consistent at it; Nighy’s accent kept slipping. However, both provide endearing and riveting performances as they verbally spar and converse.

The cast is also gifted with Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife) and Alice Lowe (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) who swirl around the two men with funny and poignant moments. Neither is given full rein, but both have impact and are part of why the film works so well. Even the young Louis Healy helps fill out the film nicely with minimal time.

As a first feature, Carl Hunter directs the tale with a confident hand and a delightfully playful vision. Despite the intense emotions of the story in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) script, Hunter keeps it all quietly real and funny. Also, the design of the film is breathtaking, from the wide vistas, to the distortion from the lenses, to the odd greenscreen and paper puppetry, it’s a unique combination of visuals that serve to amplify the story. Even the color pallet is retimed in order to make it, to put it mildly, bilious.

I didn’t know what to expect going into this story, and that was fine. I’d suggest you do the same. Go for the comedy and the sweet sense of family it creates. Stay for the performances, message, and the wonderfully odd presentation; but make time for this.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

[4.5 stars]

Simple, calm, honest, and heartbreaking. Writer/director Eliza Hittman follows up her breakout Beach Rats by tackling a young woman’s challenge, making it an interesting companion piece even if they aren’t at all related.

Newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder take us on a journey that suggests more than it explains their lives. It is like the worst and best kind of voyeuristic observation. We never feel we’re intruding, but we also get to follow these young women where we shouldn’t.

This isn’t an easy film to describe. Basically, you should see it. It is a window into a world many will not have experienced, and an exposé of reality that far too many others have. That is done as art only heightens the effect and allows for some moments that will impact you unexpectedly…not because they are horrific in themselves, but because they are honest and imply ever so much more.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always Poster

Loveless (Nelyubov)

[4 stars]

When I finally had a chance to see Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (Leviathan) latest movie, albeit late, I wasn’t disappointed. I was, however, left drained. While Leviathan was harsh, it was also darkly funny. Loveless is completely upfront, from title and opening credits to the the story itself, about the emptiness and harsh, sad reality the characters share.

The script, also by Zvyagintsev and his Leviathan collaborator Oleg Negin, is generally minimalist. A joy for a subtitled movie (I could actually concentrate on the visuals). But the spare dialogue doesn’t reduce the information provided. Zvyagintsev crafts his moments with great care. They are dense with detail, subtext, and implication. But the interesting aspect of the family is that while the story revolves around the parents, Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin (Leviathan), it is the outsider, Aleksey Fateev (Proxima), who has the most interesting character. Fateev, without ever having an “emotional” scene manages to impart a world of understanding and response. But to give him his due, Matvey Novikov, as the son, has some wonderful and intense moments as well…and they’ll tear you apart.

Loveless isn’t a fun film. I’m sure that’s not a surprise. But it is honest and directed in such a way as to pull you through. There are parts of every character that you can identify with, even if, in their entirety, you just want to slap them. But, much like Leviathan, while there is a surface story to engage in, Zvyagintsev and Negin are telling you another story of their country as well. It is nested in their choice of era and in the background news that suffuses the film, as well as the metaphor of the plot itself. It isn’t heavy-handed, but it is there ready to fizz to the surface as you think about it all later.

Zvyagintsev continues to impress me. I hope, like Leviathan, Loveless continues to find an audience. It certainly found awards joy when it released, though it somehow lost to The Square in its Oscar bid that year. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get to it; it’s a powerful film, and a very well crafted one. Definitely worth your time when you’re feeling resilient.

The Last Wave (La dernière vague)

[3 stars]

To get a sense of this odd, supernatural suspense/thriller series, imagine if Les Revenants took place on a beach in the South of France and had more than passing cross-pollination with The 4400. Admittedly, those references may be too obscure for most folks. Think Manifest on the beach, perhaps?

One of the things that I enjoy about French genre entertainment is that, whether it is based more on science (like Ad Vitam) or fantasy  (like Les Revenants) it always focuses on the effect of the issues on people and society. Because, in the end, what’s important is how it affects people, not the secret or issue itself; that’s just a medium to explore humanity.

The Last Wave is definitely more on the fantasy side of things, but with the trappings of science. An event occurs in a small town and then, with a bunch of hand-wavy explanations, we are treated to a struggle of conscience and politics that carries the story through to the end. The writing isn’t brilliant, but the story is very engaging and wide ranging. But, in the end, I was happy to ride their wave to the finale, which is complete and as-intended. So, no cliff-hanger that will leave you wondering if you’ll ever see the end.

Corpus Christi (Boze Cialo)

[4 stars]

The story of this movie, by first-timer Mateusz Pacewicz, is intense and uncompromising in many ways. It is reminiscent of Sweet Hereafter in both its pace and issues, but all in a very different frame. Playing on the idea of Corpus Christi, this is as much a personal tale as it is an allegory. But those overtones only come to you post-film thanks to its powerful presentation. Jan Komasa (@Suicide Room) took Pacewicz’s script and created a film that has been celebrated around the world.

And within those efforts by Pacewicz, Bartosz Bielenia owns this film; we spend almost the entire two hours watching Bielenia struggle and rejoice in life. There are a number of good performances around him, but they are all supporting in nature. If I were to call out anyone, it would be his two hosts in the lumber town, Aleksandra Konieczna and Eliza Rycembel, who both have several, quietly complex levels.

The film is inexorable and wonderful and painful all at once. It is aspirational and unflinching. It is a mirror to our best and worst selves. And it’s a reminder of what we can all be, and sometimes what we all are. I don’t mean to wax overly poetic, but while the experience of watching the movie is very down-to-earth, in trying to explain it, a string of superlatives just naturally comes to mind. The ending takes time to absorb and, no doubt, stirs reactions both good and bad. Not everyone who sees the film will agree it works, but, on reflection, I think it does.

Pacewicz continues to impress me with his choice of material and his ability to navigate the darker side of humanity with heart. This is film worth seeing, but it is intense enough that I don’t know if I’d watch it again more than once down the road. But I’m certainly glad I saw it at least this once.

Corpus Christi Poster

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