Tag Archives: Drama

The Current War: Director’s Cut

[2.5 stars]

After a long, torturous road to screen, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) image of this story finally made it to theaters. Unfortunately, what arrived was a soulless outline of a story, however well acted and filmed, due to first time feature writer Michael Mitnick’s (Vinyl) script. But I’ll come back to that.

The cast is loaded with recognizable talent. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Child in Time) and Matthew Macfadyen (Ripper Street) work with what they have reasonably well, though with little payoff. They are also both rather sanitized from their infamous and documented personalities. Nicholas Hoult (Tolkien) is a great, but wasted, Tesla (you get a more interesting and complete picture of Tesla from The Prestige). Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) isn’t particularly good, but he isn’t bad…he’s just a bit too young to sell his role. The women (all two of them), Tuppence Middleton (MI-5) and Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald), are actually both intriguing, but are tiny parts of the tale. Only Michael Shannon (What They Had) has a character with any real depth to it, allowing him to take over the center of the story….but who was going to come out to a movie about George Westinghouse?

What this movie needed was Aaron Sorkin on script to bring the past to life or Baz Lurhman to transform it into a modern fantasy as a dark mirror for our times. And that was the real brass ring it could have aimed for, but it missed its mark, in making the story applicable to today. The story of Edison v Tesla v Westinghouse v Morgan is a wonderful parallel for the current battle between Amazon, Google, and Facebook to control the internet and information. But that layer is completely lost, though enough of a whiff of it remains to make you long for it.

Current War should have been a timely story of the fight for the American future and soul at a time when industrialists got to control that fight unchecked. It looks eerily familar to the now times. So, assuming you can connect the dots for yourself, take this as entertainment or as object lesson. But do it at your leisure, this isn’t really worth your time to run out and see it despite Chung-hoon Chung‘s gorgeous cinematography.

Joker

[5 stars]

Holy Makeover, Batman! Whatever you think this movie is, whether from trailer or your knowledge of the DC universe, you’re wrong. This is a complex tale of psychology and humanity, of society and sociology. It is dark as hell, but worth every moment you spend with it watching the world mold the iconic character into the villain we thought we knew. It isn’t a comic book movie, though it is, in all fairness, an origin story.

The Joker himself has had a parade of notables behind the make-up. The character has become the modern equivalent of Hamlet for actors in the current age. Each has made his mark, even rising to Oscar worthiness…and we may be there again with Joaquin Phoenix (An Irrational Man). Phoenix is the movie, even with Frances Conroy (No Pay, Nudity) and Robert De Niro (Last Vegas) hanging about in key roles, and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) supporting him.

But Phoenix would have been nowhere without his director and the script. Admittedly, Todd Phillips is not a director I would typically run to see but, with co-writer Scott Silver (The Fighter), Joker is one of the most gripping and well-crafted films of the year so far. It gets that distinction because it isn’t really about the Joker. Even though it is his origin story, that isn’t all it’s about. In fact, in many ways they have delivered a darker and more ironic V for Vendetta. In other words, the timing couldn’t have been better for this particular story. And I haven’t even touched on the craft of how well they made NYC/Gotham in the 70s live again.

Joker joins The Farewell on my list of the top movies this year. I’m willing to put my money on the table and say it will be nominated pretty much across the board: actor, director, script, production design, costumes, editing, and possibly sound as well. It isn’t 100% perfect, and we could quibble about some of the choices, but it is so close that it doesn’t matter if there are blemishes. Make time for this; just strap in and be prepared for the darkness.

Ad Astra

[3 stars]

Despite what your eyes may be telling your brain, this is not a science fiction epic…it’s an allegory. And, as an allegory, it is about 30 minutes too long, though given the story framework James Gray (Lost City of Z) stuck himself with, it is probably about right for hitting all the plot points.

The movie is pretty much a one man show for Brad Pitt (The Big Short). It is told tightly from his point of view and with him narrating his inner thoughts. That narration dominates; the psychology of Ad Astra is the unifying center of the solar system spanning story.

Pitt isn’t alone, but most of the rest of the characters have short scenes or cameos. Only Tommy Lee Jones (Shock and Awe), Ruth Negga (Loving), and Donald Sutherland (The Leisure Seeker) get any added depth. Negga and Sutherland are gone too soon, and Jones’s depth is a very shallow pool.

Most disappointingly for me, the science throughout the movie is fairly weak, or adjusted for convenience. I can forgive the latter, but the former made me itch a bit. And after Gravity, I expect depictions of space to be a little more accurate (at least in terms of the effects of movement and weight).

Certainly this is a pretty film. And it has style and mood. But it isn’t what it purports to be. The movie is a weird cross between Contact and Solaris; a very personal story amidst the isolation of space with the thin framework of the search for intelligent life, all told at a leisurely pace. The truth is, this same story could have been told if Jones had buggered off to Africa or South America and disappeared for 18 years. In other words, there was no scientific center that was necessary to tell this story, which is why it isn’t science fiction…it is simply an artistic choice to frame a question and emotional journey.

If you have an interest in seeing it, do see it on a big screen as it won’t translate nicely to small. But be prepared to let go of what you think it may be about and just go with it.

Hustlers

[4 stars]

Probably the funniest sad movie you’ll see in a long while. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) tackled the world and people of Hustlers with open eyes. No one comes off great in this film, but everyone comes off as someone real. Which isn’t to say the story isn’t stylized and energized, but it also isn’t entirely sanitized.

Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) are the primary focus of the movie. While Lopez sells the hard as nails aspect more than Wu, Wu captures the desperation and emotional drive for their decisions. Both performances are gripping and win you over. And then, of course, there is the delightful, though somewhat throwaway role, for Mercedes Rheul. Rheul, other than her “motherly” role, exists in this story for continuity and information, but she sells it well. There are plenty of other fun performances populating the film as well, but Julia Stiles (Jason Bourne) is the only other major player to stand out. In fact, Stiles does so with much less screen time than anyone else, not to mention hardly any lines.

Hustlers is an entertaining and fascinating peek inside a few different worlds. We’ve seen these worlds before, though often from very a different perspective. And rarely has the result felt as honest without becoming a diatribe or so dark that the watching was a chore.

Hustlers will let you laugh (a lot) and enjoy the story, it just won’t apologize for not covering up at least some of the darker realities of the lives it is sharing. And, more importantly, it is definitely a film and performances worth your time to see on the big screen, where the intimacy is forced upon you. On a small screen this movie will lose some of its punch by providing you distance and the ability to more easily look away from what you don’t want to see.

 

Wild Rose

[3 stars]

It’s hard to cheer for a horribly flawed character who can’t get out of their own way, but Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl) manages to (eventually) get you behind her. It’s a strong and exposed performance. But, be warned, it is a long and frustrating journey getting to that ending.

For her first feature script, Nicole Taylor created a raw and uncompromising look at the life of Rose-Lynne. While that approach often makes it hard to watch, there is also a warmth and sense of hope buried in there to keep you engaged. A lot of that comes from from Julie Walters (Mary Poppins Returns) and Sophie Okonedo (Hellboy), who each support Rose-Lynne’s efforts in different ways.

Director Tom Harper (Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) also helps by keeping the tale rolling along. His hands are mostly invisible as he pulls the strings, allowing the story to tell itself. But when he wants to make a point, he’s more than willing to manipulate the frame or moment to drive it home. Time and space throughout the film are a little fungible; I never had a sense of distance, geography, or time throughout the film. That gap didn’t always matter, but there were moments when it would have enhanced the story and the lack was distracting. In addition, the ending and the message of Rose-Lynn’s journey, is less than clear. I know what both Harper and Taylor want you to think (there are plenty of interviews available to suss it out if it wasn’t intuitable), but I can’t say either I or my viewing partner felt the intended message.

The end result is something like a more hopeful cross between Broken Circle Breakdown and the more recent Vox Lux. Wild Rose is entertaining and angering and satisfying. Given the lack of clarity of vision, how it resonates with your own life and sensibilities isn’t something I think I can predict. But the performances are fantastic and even the music, whether or not you like Country (I don’t, typically), is well selected to engage all listeners.

Family

[3 stars]

The original descriptions of this first directorial outing by Laura Steinel (Red Oaks) left me utterly uninterested in exploring its twisted view of suburbia and work life. After chancing across a trailer, however, I gave it a shot and was surprised.

It is far from a great film, but when it stops trying to be funny, it actually is. And it comes together into a sweet tale of growing up…no matter your age. The story is told through Taylor Schilling’s (The Titan) point of view…a woman made of the cliche character fodder that made Tina Fey a star. But Bryn Vale (Red Band Society) works well with her and, almost steals the film with her lost, disaffected youth. There are also a few surprise supporting roles peppered throughout the story that were fun to pick out.

I can’t say Insane Clown Posse was ever high on my musical like lists, but this movie certainly shifted my perspective of their Juggalo followers (some history on the term here if you’re interested). And while this isn’t the greatest film you’ll see, it is unexpected. It isn’t a bad way to spend an evening if you’re looking for a bit of heart-warming humor.

The Hummingbird Project

[3 stars]

Well, this is no Big Short, but it tries hard to make an audacious effort interesting through the personal journeys around it. Unfortunately, writer/director Kim Nguyen (Bellevue) never quite gets us to buy into that effort, nor the people, enough to invest in the human aspect of the story. And neither does the overall metaphor really drive the experience. But, just in case you missed it, he drives it all home in the end to be sure you got the message.

Jesse Eisenberg (Cafe Society) top-lines and drives the movie’s plot, but it’s Alexander Skarsgård (The Aftermath) who runs away with this movie. It is an unusual role for him in many ways…not the least of it being his partially shaved head. I must admit this last aspect was incredibly distracting for me because it was so out of place for the actor I recognized. However, his performance was solid and complex.

Salma Hayek (How to be a Latin Lover) was also interesting in a supporting role, but I could never decide if I believed her or not. The world of Finance exposed in the story is specific and rarefied. Many of the choices around her were good, but there was something lacking either in the story or her performance to completely sell it for me. The movie didn’t grab me enough to make me dig too deeply into that lack to better define it. Michael Mando (Spider-Man: Homecoming), on the other hand, brought in a completely believable engineer and crew chief. He had the most thankless of the parts in the cast, but is very much the glue that holds it all together.

The bones of the plot are based on very real challenges and fights that continue to go on in the trading world. And while it affects everyone, nearly no one is aware or wants to be aware. On Nguyen’s side, I think that’s why he took this niche aspect as a wedge to a bigger truth in today’s society. He just doesn’t manage to balance it all to permit both aspects to come through with impact.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

[3.5 stars]

The number of emotions and ideas that this film sparks are too many and too complicated to try and explain here in less than a tome. Suffice to say that this grounded fable/tragi-comedy by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, and Rob Richert (a first feature for all of them) is inventive, powerful, and effective.

Jimmie Fails also leads in the film alongside Jonathan Majors (Captive State, When We Rise). The friendship of these two men and their journey through the city is both funny and surprising. The duo are supported by host of smaller characters including Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Micheal Epps, and Rob Morgan (Mudbound). Only two small roles by Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood) and Maximilienne Ewalt (Sense8) add any female influence to this story. Given the tight focus on Fails’s journey and the lack of women in his life, it is almost excusable. However, it is noticeable.

But that criticism aside, this was an unexpected film. If Spike Lee had been born 30 years later and on the West coast, this is the kind of story he’d have been telling. It is politically charged, but without losing track of the personal. It is funny, but without dropping the serious message and intent. It is raw and honest, but not without recognizing the inherent sadness and absurdity in the situation. This is a film worthy of the term and an interesting new set of voices for the industry.

The Farewell

[4.5 stars]

The Farewell has been quietly saying, “Hello” to cinemas around the country, expanding each week to new audiences. It’s a greeting you should answer. Lulu Wang has created a deceptively simple film that is wonderfully honest, funny, and complex while remaining delightfully entertaining. From the opening moment of the film, you know that is going to be something a little bit different.

Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) lands a great performance of a young woman finding herself and navigating a family crisis. And Wang helps her navigate it wonderfully and shed her typically over-broad delivery. The rest of the cast is solid, including Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, and, as the beloved Nai Nai, Shuzhen Zhao. Lin and Zhao, in particular may end up in conversations come awards time along with Awkwafina and Wang. And this film should be in that conversation.

But even if I’m wrong on the awards front, and it gets forgotten or snubbed, you should make time for this unexpected treat. It certainly touches on strong emotions, but its overall impact is a positive one; its messages (however you interpret them) and moments sticking with you long after the credits have faded.

Golden Exits

[2.5 stars]

Have you ever watched a film and thought: this would make a great play? Golden Exits definitely struck me as better suited to the stage than screen. It is full of long, introspective monologues that attempt to be-ever-so-insightful-and-clever about the world, but really just come across as pompous on screen. Director Alex Ross Perry guided his actors well, but his script for them was just ponderous and over-written for film.

Honestly, I knew little of the story going in. I checked this movie out for the cast, which had Emily Browning (God Help the Girl), Mary- Louise Parker (RED), and Chloë Sevigny (Lizzie) in major roles. In addition, Analeigh Tipton (Warm Bodies) and Lily Rabe (Pawn Sacrifice) add to the female pack. Each of these women had challenging paths to explore, even if the script rarely let them go very far with it. Mixed into their various struggles were Adam Horovitz (While We’re Young) and Jason Schwartzman (Big Eyes) who succeed and fail variously as partners and friends to those around them.

But there just isn’t anyone who is very sympathetic in this story. Some manage to do the right thing…eventually. But, primarily, they all muse about either doing the wrong thing or anything, as long as it’s different from what they’re doing now. The story is, essentially, how they manage to leave what they’ve got behind them, or at least start to. Basically, it is a very unsatisfying film with actors struggling to make mountains of text feel natural…or at least interesting enough that we don’t care that it is completely unnatural. Despite the cast and the game attempt, save yourself some time and find something else to take you on a journey of self-discovery.