Tag Archives: Drama

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.

Years and Years

[4.5 stars]

Years and Years embraces the aphorism: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. And quite the journey it is, from the smallest to the largest step along the road of choices that marks out this slippery narrative.

Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Bob & Rose) offers up a far spanning look at current politics, all lensed through the very human and personal eyes of a single family. We follow them across a decade as they deal with the fallout and shifting landscape of a world in transition. It is often difficult to watch, especially the time period closest to our own, but it is also hypnotic and gripping. As it moves forward a hundred steps, and then a thousand steps, the world is completely unrecognizable and yet utterly familiar and undeniable. It often isn’t easy seeing how people act and react, but we’ve millennia of proof that we are seeing typical responses.

Though the story is bleak at times, it also celebrates the resilience of people. Survival is key: financial, emotional, physical, and even intellectual. Because that is how it works, the world goes nuts and people do what they must to survive. It is rare that a single event is “the end of it all.” But, of course, as things move on, that is always the risk.

The cast are very much up to the task of bringing this story to life; a bevy of recognizable faces, young and old. Some of the more stand-out performances are Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax ), Russell Tovey  (queers. ), Emma Thompson (Men in Black: International), T’Nia Miller (Marcella ), Jessica Hynes (Bridget Jones’s Baby), and Rory Kinnear (Spectre). But, honestly, it is really quite the cast all around, even Lydia West in her first major role shines nicely.

Years and Years is a visceral response by a writer to the world; when good writers get mad they get writing. When they are also artists, they give us timeless classics like The Crucible. Years and Years is likewise a reaction to today’s political insanity and, if not quite as timeless as Miller’s play, it is certainly powerful and impactful. This is a must-see piece of television that will transport you to the very last moments of the series. It won’t satisfy everyone as the ending does leave some things open, but life is rarely fully satisfying…it simply keeps on keeping on. And as long as we can do that, we survive.

The Mustang

[3 stars]

There are few surprises in this movie, but it is done with such emotional care and intensity that it works. And I say that despite the fact that it is essentially one long, rather abused metaphor. But director and co-writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre tackles that head-on and without apology, making it all palatable. She even plays with it in some clever ways.

But, directing aside, it is Matthias Schoenaerts’s (Red Sparrow) performance that sells the story. He is stretched so tightly through most of the movie that you expect him to literally burst. He maps a compelling journey that is far from a simple happy ending, but yet still manages to provide some closure for the audience. Bruce Dern (Nostalgia), Connie Britton (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women) and Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) along with Gideon Adlon provide the walls for Schoenaerts to bounce off of and reveal himself.

Filmed beautifully, and kept taut as a story, it is easy to make it through this movie even when you are sure of its direction. It is a glimpse into the criminal justice system and the Mustang program as well as a personal journey that reflects, at least in facets, aspects in most of us.

The Upside

[3.5 stars]

When do American remakes ever really stand up to the originals? They creatives involved typically just go for the cheap laughs or the silly sap and forget the humanity that often marks the small foreign successes they are copying. Adding to my doubt going in was that this is an adaptation of a retelling and my confidence on the potential result was low. The original, Intouchables, was a heart-warming, but often gritty tale of two men finding their way. It was full of surprises and interesting tensions that captured audiences and helping it gross nearly 500M worldwide. I suppose with only 10M of that coming from the US, studios saw an opportunity.

Jon Hartmere’s rewrite, The Upside, keeps the base story laid out in the original, but finds a different tale and path. The story remains  surprising, but in different ways. As a first feature script, it was a surprisingly effective achievement. Even with the momentary lapses of Kevin Hart (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) drifting back into his shtick, the movie holds up nicely. In fact, much better than I expected.

But it is Neil Burger’s (Divergent, Limitless) direction that keeps it all on track. Everyone is in a restrained tension within themselves and with each other. It helps that he balanced Hart with two extraordinary performers in Bryan Cranston (Isle of Dogs) and Nicole Kidman (Destroyer). Both of their performances are compelling and spot-on. Kidman even manages to look frumpy with some very minor changes of appearance. Against them, Hart feels appropriately abrasive and out of tune. But Hart also gets his moments. I can’t say I truly invested in his reality, but Cranston and Kidman kept me anchored and pleased with the story.

If you haven’t seen the original, you should. But the two movies really are different, despite the main plots tracking closely. Two very different story tellers are at work and the results will transport you in different ways.

The Quake (Skjelvet)

[3 stars]

You’d think that writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg would have scratched their collective disaster-itch with The Wave. But, like their first, much lies hidden in plain sight beneath the feet of humanity, and they wanted to bring it into the light.

However, this isn’t just a repeat of the first film’s formula, even though it picks up the story and the family from after their survival. There is the mystery and the suspense of the titular event, but the film isn’t about tilting at windmills, it’s about getting out alive, and family. Think of it as a San Andreas in the north, but with an actual script and story that that is way more than the special f/x (which are certainly impressive for an indie).

Director John Andreas Andersen takes over the helm of this tale, acquitting himself nicely. He keeps the reactions and interplay very natural, while not losing track of the stakes. Certainly there is some lack of communication between characters I’d like to have seen done differently, but some of that was cultural more than weakness. And it was all within the scope of the characters we’d met before.

Ultimately, The Quake is a tale about family and redemption. Survivor’s guilt and PTSD play into it as well. We care about Kristoffer Joner (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and his continuing journey, while still wanting to slap him on occasion. And the facts of the story, much like The Wave, make it clear that the fictional risk is very close to the truth. This sequel is also less preachy than the first film, which hammers both the science and the resistance to facts a little too hard.

I can’t imagine watching the two films back-to-back. However, watching them in close proximity would be interesting to see just how well it all comes together over the several year span of the tale. I’d like to see what the writers come up with next…but I am hoping it is a new tale with a new focus. They’ve shown themselves capable, but I’d like to see it applied to something less specifically pointed.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

[3 stars]

To quote the movie: What evs.

The first Lego movie had the element of surprise and uniqueness going for it. The last 20 minutes of the film, especially, helped set it apart. But that aspect now revealed, left writers Lord and Miller (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) with a challenge that the humor and approach just couldn’t manage to overcome when revisiting the world. The first movie was funny, but relied on those final moments to make it something special.

This literal continuation of the tale, starting from the final moments of the first, just isn’t nearly as clever or interesting. It is too forced and not nearly as funny because it is obvious. Director Mike Mitchell (Trolls) just couldn’t find something new, though it has its moments.

One of those moments is the end credits, which are both visually impressive and, at least for the first minute or so, a wonderfully self-conscious plea to watch them. But the rest of the movie was fine for kids, obvious for adults, and more or less a retread of the first. You’ll have to decide if there’s enough there for you to see that again…for me, I’d have been fine if I’d never gotten around to this somewhat empty sequel.

Arctic

[3 stars]

It’s a fair question to ask: Do I really need to see another man vs nature survival film? In this case, yes, and I say that as not a particularly large fan of the genre. But director Joe Penna (and co-writer with Ryan Morrison) delivered this well-researched first feature with the typical dangers but also some nice subtleties. In some ways it’s reminiscent of All is Lost, but on ice.

Mads Mikkelsen (At Eternity’s Gate) spends most of this movie simply looking at things and allowing emotions and thoughts to pass across his face. Whole stories, and a number of smaller mysteries, are revealed by simply watching him. Performances like this one are when you can see real talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Stringing together a story from silence and action alone simply isn’t easy.

Mikkelsen isn’t entirely alone through the film. Maria Thelma Smáradóttir keeps the choices and results nicely unsure. There isn’t much of a performance from her, but there isn’t intended to be; we get her story through Mikkelsen.

In addition to the performances and the direction, there is the incredible landscape. Watching this film, you are sure to feel just a bit colder than your room temperature, and more than a little awed by the vistas. As intimate as the story is, you are never under any illusion about the size and intensity of Mikkelsen’s nemesis. The result overall is a gripping tale of perseverance and ability, with plenty of room for individual interpretation.