Tag Archives: Drama

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


[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.


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.


[3 stars]

Yep, it is manipulative as heck, full of all the things you’d expect (including, but not limited to): sweet story, funny kids, funny pets, understanding adults, and an idealized, fairly nice world. I’d avoided this movie initially for fear of that being all it was. But, I admit, the story is told in an engaging way and the casting is superb. Jacob Tremblay (Room) proves again he can negotiate complex emotional roles despite his young years.

Izabela Vidovic (About a Boy), as his older sister, also builds out a nice performance. His two friends, Noah Jupe (The Night Manager) and Millie Davis (Orphan Black) have some great moments and arcs as well. There are plenty of other good performances, but these three really dominated the younger cast.

There are some big-name adults in this tale too. Julia Roberts (Money Monster) , Owen Wilson (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), and Mandy Patinkin (Homeland) figure most prominently. Each are complex, but perfected versions of the characters they inhabit. That perfection makes the whole movie feel rather safe and sanitized. Great for younger audiences, I suppose, but it makes it a little less believable for adults. It is a credit to the film that you want to believe their sense of the world, but it also makes the overall film evaporate in your head like mental cotton candy when you leave the theater.

Unlike writer/director Stephen Chbosky’s previous, non-traditional Perks of Being a Wallflower, this script runs closer to his Beauty and the Beast adaptation in level of risk. To be fair, this movie was also co-written with two others, which may have shifted the sensibility. However, Jack Thorne (The Fades) and Steve Conrad (Secret Life of Walter Mitty) each have edgy credits of their own, so perhaps it was just the source material. It isn’t something that will be easily untangled without inside information, so I have to point fingers at all of them on the result.

Wonder will do all the things you expect of it. You will be tied in knots, and laugh, and inwardly cheer at the various twists and turns of the story. It will leave you feeling good about the world and about the possibilities of life. It has great messages for everyone about how to be better and more embracing of the world. Yes, I enjoyed the ride of it all, and you will too…it is designed that way. I can’t say it is a great film, but I can say it won’t waste your time when you’re willing to be ridden like a horse to where it wants to take you. And, you know what? Sometimes we all like to get on a roller-coaster that we know where its going and what it will do to us…this is one of those better delivered roller-coasters.


Molly’s Game

[4.5 stars]

As a writer, Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs) is nearly unsurpassed. This is a man who was able to make selecting a stamp or the math behind the census interesting, fascinating even. He brings fierce intelligence and knowledge to every subject he tackles. And he generally views humanity as intelligent as well and treats us that way.

Molly’s Game is the first time Sorkin has also been behind the camera as director. And, clearly, he has been paying attention to what happens on set in the past. This film is an incredibly strong first offering from a director. It is well paced, well filmed, and completely engaging with solid performances from his cast.

Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane), as the eponymous Molly, commands the screen with drive and integrity. And Idris Elba (Thor: Ragnarok) manages something I didn’t know he could do…he actually dials back his presence on screen so as to not overshadow Molly.

There are a host of other good performances in this film as well, but the standouts are Chastain and the script, each feeding one another with breathless energy. The movie takes off from the start and doesn’t let up till the end. It is filled with great moments and one-liners as well as some long-game payoffs. And, yes, he played with the truth to tell a better story at points, but this tale, much like the repeatedly mentioned “The Crucible,” isn’t necessarily about what is seems to be about. I think Sorkin was attracted to Molly as a proxy for his own sensibility about Hollywood and politics in general. The need for integrity pervades the tale. It is also a very timely story give the #MeToo movement and revelations.

Much like I, Tonya, you may not have thought you needed to see this film, but you do. And it reminds me again what a gift Sorkin is to entertainment; especially now that he has branched into directing as well.


A Ghost Story

[3 stars]

I truly admire what writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) wants to do with his latest film. It is a devastating look at love and loss, and a musing on the fabric of existence. Very heady stuff for a small indie film that focuses on a single relationship. OK, yes, and a little Sophomoric too. However, it rises mostly above that due to the performances and quality of the execution. Rooney Mara (Song to Song) and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) create a very believable pair whose lives are slowly exposed over the course of the tale. Both performances are quietly intense and subtle.

Frustratingly, far too much of the movie is too close to reality. It is easily 20 minutes longer than it need be to make its points. Frankly, you can only hold a shot so long before the value of the moment is gone and it begins to feel forced or more like a theatre “happening” rather than a specific moment in life intended to evoke empathy. We live in real life, we know the moment to moment is often boring and, sometimes, interminable. You can achieve that experience without adding explosions, quick cuts, or making an audience sit through all of it. In fact, we watch movies to avoid the bulk of the boring parts, so if you’re going to use those moments to make a point, you need to do it carefully.

The pacing issue is mostly through the first 2/3 of the film. And Lowery does find some very clever editing to overcome that criticism at points; even more so in the final third. After a long setup, this is where the film moves on to the meat of his vision and point (including one rather disturbing and long nihilistic diatribe by Jonny Mars in case you weren’t going to get there on your own).

There is a great deal to appreciate in this very different portrayal of a haunting. The cinematography is impressive, with some truly breath-taking shots. Though, personally, I found the forced 4:3 frame distracting. I think it was intended to elicit nostalgia, but it was too self-conscious for my taste, and already an out-moded frame of reference (if you will).

All that said, A Ghost Story is worth your time, but it isn’t quite the impactful and amazing movie I had been led to expect from the festival buzz it generated this past summer. You also shouldn’t start watching it if you’re tired or just looking for distraction. The film does eventually pay off and it is definitely something a little different from most of the offerings out there. Just be prepared to be a participant rather than just be an observer.

A Ghost Story

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

Product Details


[5 stars]

This is every bit as good as you’ve heard. And, yes, the 3D is even worth it, though not necessary. The story is more than enough to stand on its own without it if you don’t want to spend the dollars for the format. 3D simply adds some richness to it all. Still, you must see this on a big screen, so don’t wait for disc.

I honestly was worried at the top of the film. Primarily this was due to the Frozen short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that fronted the film, but more on that in a minute. The story, Coco, starts off so obvious and simple that I honestly didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I was sure I knew what I was in for and how it was all going to get there, so might as well lay back and and enjoy the art. What was provided, instead, was both provocative emotionally (as you’d expect) but also evocative in many ways, which you really only ever hope for and rarely get to see. Co-writers and co-directors, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and first-timer Adrian Molina, kept attacking the ideas with the rest of the writers until it was something more complex and interesting than, say, Book of Life managed even though they both tackle the same cultural tales.

The voice cast is solid, but it is dominated by three actors: Anthony Gonzalez (The Bridge), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), and Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange). Though special mention for Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Frida Kahlo really need be made. It isn’t that the other voice work isn’t good, but they are all side-notes to these stand-outs. As a whole, the world comes together gloriously in vision and sound. But it isn’t just at the macro level. There are also a lot of subtle clues and tiny details that will make this worth seeing more than a few times.

I do wish it had a bit more Spanish throughout to really make it feel more natural, but there is at least some. And it would have been better with a few strong female characters to help drive the story; there are women, but this is a male dominated tale without question. And I could have done without the (generally) reused face of the boy from The Good Dinosaur. But these ended up minor concerns compared to the overall success of the movie.

OK, back to Olaf’s intrusion into my viewing pleasure. Now I want to be clear that I loved Frozen. I will admit that Olaf wasn’t my favorite character, but my frustration with the short had less to do with that and more to do with the story. It was a flat-out Christmas tale, already jarring against the Día de Muertos story that was to follow, but also because it was only a Christmas tale. By the time it began explaining what all cultures do during “that time of year” as part of their Christmas tradition, my teeth were so on edge I wanted to scream.

To be clear, the religious observance of Hanukkah, as an example, existed millennia before the holiday traditions of Christmas. Literally. The Hanukkah lights are not lit because it is Christmas, which the story suggests in its plot and lyrics. And Hanukkah is only one of the observances subsumed into the tale. The short cartoon manages to avoid the worst of what it could have devolved into, but is still a misstep for Disney in terms of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. Actually pretty surprising given their foray into new cultural areas that Coco tries to map. It was also just a very bad match artistically for the main feature that followed, in my opinion.

That I still rated Coco so highly, despite the Frozen short, tells you how much power it had to get me over that hill of annoyance. Go see Coco and enjoy the magic, family, message, joy, and loss that is its world. There is something for all ages in its story and the production is a wonder to behold on the screen.