Tag Archives: Drama

Skyscraper

[3 stars]

The real star of this predictable actioner is the title character. The concept building brought to life is jaw-dropping in its scope and design. And, thanks to an utterly bland script by Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence), it is the most interesting part of the story.

The issue? Well, there are some typically bad research problems about how some things work, but let’s assume you can squint through them. But the main lack is tension. In a PG rated film, you know who’s going to die and how and who just isn’t. Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) and Neve Campbell (House of Cards) deliver what they can, but you never really worry that they or their twins will survive. And there isn’t even enough outright humor to make it a fun romp. It is purely a series of puzzles for Johnson to solve, admittedly some spectacular, in order to get to endgame.

Many compare this to a watered-down Die Hard, which is fair. Towering Inferno also came to mind for me. But Thurber didn’t manage to really secure the bones of either of these classics and update them; he simply borrowed their set-ups. If this had been more of a hard R presentation, there would have been more tension and anticipation. Good characters are allowed to die in the red-band world. But if you aren’t going to kill them, let them at least have some killer laughs.

Having poked this bear a lot, I’m not going to say it wasn’t a little bit of fun. It was distracting, even when I was saying the lines before the characters (because they were that obvious). Certainly many around me were gasping and enjoying the romp. It is a pretty distraction if not a great one. I guess it depends on how much you want to see yet another Johnson film in less than a year, and how old your movie-going partners are going to be.

Skyscraper

I Kill Giants

[3 stars]

First to give this movie its props: it is almost an entirely female cast; men are, at best, incidental. And in the lead, teen actor Madison Wolfe (Zoo) dominates I Kill Giants with unexpected strength through most of the film. She assails assumptions and delivers someone very different from what you expect when the film opens.

Wolfe is assisted nicely by Zoe Saldana (The Terminal, Avengers: Infinity Warand Sydney Wade (Una). Supporting bits by Noel Clarke (Mute) and Imogen Poots (The Look of Love) help fill out the world with some nice brush strokes.

However, what starts strong and interesting loses steam as the final third of the story opens up. Saldana’s character, whose training is suspect from the outset, loses credibility quickly and Wolfe’s steadfast efforts wilt too rapidly under pressure. In other words, the ending is rushed and the world a little too under-researched to maintain full believability.

As a first feature, Anders Walter controls a rather complex challenge presented by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura’s original graphic novel and their self-adapted script. He manages some very nice blending of real world and fantasy and slowly reveals the potential truths under events without denying the fantastical.

It is impossible not to compare it as a riff on A Monster Calls which navigates similar ground from similar source material. Monster suffers some of the same issues, though navigates to the end more completely and satisfyingly for me. But each of these movies has their charm, message, and unique flavor. And both are emotionally effective, even with the issues they run into trying to maintain a positive message in the face of tragic circumstances and issues. It may not have been everything I hoped for when it started, but I wasn’t sorry to have spent time in its world and getting to see Wolfe’s and Walter’s early efforts.

I Kill Giants

Ingrid Goes West

[3 stars]

Despite my reservations about the experience of this film, I will grant you that Ingrid is an effective commentary on the social media age.

As a first-time feature director, Matt Spicer took his and co-writer’s David Branson Smith script through to its painful and natural ends well. The duo captured the insidious and dark nature of the social world and how it affects some people. But while a movie about mostly unlikable, imperfect people can work, it isn’t an entirely pleasant experience. When the ultimate result is no better than where it all started, it becomes an even bigger challenge to enjoy or recommend. Part of the issue is that it is generally too naturalistic and caustic to be dark comedy, at least for me. There are funny moments, but I found it often more painful than amusing.

That is as much a compliment as it is a slight to the cast; they did their jobs well. But, let’s be honest, Aubrey Plaza (The Little Hours) as a slightly psycho social stalker isn’t a huge stretch in terms of new characters for her to play, even if she does play them so well. However, getting to see Elizabeth Olsen (Wind River) in a light and happy role was certainly a change, even if the mien eventually shatters. Billy Magnussen (Game Night), as her out-of-control brother, gets to cut loose in a foul character, but his and Olsen’s relationship doesn’t quite gel. Only Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Den of Thieves) come across as good people, though each are flawed in their own ways. One neat surprise was Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) in a bit role.

This one I have to leave to you on whether to watch it or not. If you don’t want to go to dark places or can’t enjoy trainwrecks as entertainment, steer clear. If you must see it for the actors or are feeling deeply sarcastic about the world, it might fly for you.

Ingrid Goes West

Nostalgia

[3 stars]

Nostalgia is not a subtle movie, but it is poetic, handing off the narrative from one character to another like Le Ronde. Through a series of deliberately paced vignettes it explores our attachments to the past and the objects that trigger or hold those memories. It would make an interesting double feature with A Ghost Story, though you might need some extra caffeine to make it through both given their mutual paces. Nostalgia also tackles, to an extent, what that means in a highly digital world. In some ways this movie reminded me strongly of Marjorie Prime, though that may have been in part because Jon Hamm (Baby Driver) is also in this film .

Hamm isn’t the only recognizable face. The cast is full of solid performers. John Ortiz (Going in Style), Ellen Burstyn (The Calling), Catherine Keener (We Don’t Belong Here), Patton Oswalt (Freaks of Nature), Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight), Nick Offerman (A Walk in the Woods), Amber Tamblyn (127 Hours), and Arye Gross, just cover some of it. Each has a moment or two they would be happy to add to their reels, though no one character owns the story.

Director and co-writer Mark Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies) isn’t a likely choice for this project, though perhaps his deep background in documentaries of bands plays into the semi-ethereal structure. To be fair, the movie is probably about 20 minutes too long, but none of it is bad. Even when the script is a bit forced by its lyrical bent, the sentiment remains very real and the questions will resonate for you.

Nostalgia

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

[3.5 stars]

In the Fade packs a lot of story into its shy two hours. And while I’m not a Diane Kruger (The Host) fan, often finding her stiff and unemotional, she is powerful and painfully exposed in this film; she carries it utterly. In fact, the only other actor that leaves a real impression is Johannes Krisch, who’s super creepy and foul lawyer will twist your guts as he does his work.

Director/co-writer Fatih Akin tackles what is becoming an all-to-common story in the last ten years. However, he focuses the story very personally and small, expertly guiding Kruger and the cast, keeping it paced and under control. The story, however charged, stays ensconced in the painfully mundane, which is part of how it earned the many awards it was was nominated for and/or won last year.

Admittedly, In the Fade is not a light film for a night of simple distraction, but it is a well-done film that should be seen at some point. Because it focuses on the individual rather than the broader societal threads, it is oddly more palatable. We connect with Kruger and invest in her need for meaning, even when her actions are far from anything we may personally identify with…and even more so when they are.

In the Fade

Furlough

[2.5 stars]

There are many things that can draw you to a movie. On rare occasions, such as this one, it is the cast alone. With billing for Melissa Leo (The Equalizer) , Anna Paquin (Bellevue), Whoopi Goldberg, and Tessa Thompson (Annihilation) I wanted to see how that bucket of talent came together. The answer is that it sort of doesn’t. Leo and Thompson drive the story and do play well off each other. However, though Leo makes a credible inmate, Thompson doesn’t really strike the figure of a credible prison guard. And while you can suspend disbelief for chunks of time, it crumbles again and again due to her decisions and actions.

To be fair, the choices are more on Surgatz’s script, which is a bit forced and not particularly believable. But a larger, more imposing woman may have worked better. Even had Thompson brought her angst-ridden Valkyrie persona to bear from Thor, I don’t think she could have dominated Leo’s personality nor made us believe the plot.

Another missed opportunity was Whoopi. She is lost in this tale, there more for cheap comic relief than real impact. Of the cast, Paquin probably has the best role. It is small, but rich in unspoken emotion. A lot of groundwork from Leo and Thompson goes into that moment to pay it off, but it still Paquin that gets to take it away.

The faults in this movie are really more with the material than the actors. Collyer’s (SherryBaby) direction helps them to some good moments, but overall it never really sustains itself nor finds a rhythm. It wants to be a road movie with kooky side-stories that mound up into a tale of redemption and moving forward for Leo and Thompson. Instead, what we get is vignettes with some funny moments and some some touching moments, but no feeling of fulfillment at the end. I can’t really recommend the movie, but if you like the actors enough, you may find it fills an evening.

Furlough

A Quiet Place

[3.5 stars]

A tight, post-apocalyptic family drama, told with real skill. From the beginning, you are made aware that while the story is familiar, the rules you know may not apply. It is also a beautifully appointed tale of deaf child coming into her own in a world of imposed silence, which makes for some great, if never spoken, contrasts.

The danger of this film was really with writer, director, and one of the three main actors, John Krasinski (The Hollars). That is a lot of hats to wear and not screw something up. As you might have guessed, he didn’t. He builds a level of tension through scenes that few other directors have pulled off without cheap tricks. This is very important as some of the key moments you’ll see coming, but the editing and performances will keep you gripping your armrest. And, sure, you’ll recognize some of the moments and where he learned them from, but this world is very much his own. I was so involved with the story on screen that it was only afterwards that the echos came to the surface for me.

The story is entirely about Krasinski’s small family trying to survive together in a near-impossible situation. With Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) as his wife, she again proves her mettle on screen. It may not be her kick-ass warrior from Edge of Tomorrow, but she brings the energy and determination. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), on the other hand, brings the tragedy and strength that you would have normally expected one of the adult actors to take on. It is a complicated role that succeeds enough for its purpose. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses. The last main cast member I expected a bit more subtlety from given his turn in Wonder, but Noah Jupe’s tackling of the family’s son was a bit ham-handed for me at times. Honestly, that was Krasinski’s mistake more than Jupe’s, but it stood out for me amidst the other more contained performances.

All that said, this taut, 90 minute science-fictionesque/family/horror/drama is really fun and worth your time to see with an audience. When the whole room gets tense and groans and jumps with you, the experience is heightened even more. And while there are certainly brief moments of contained gore, it is really more all about the tension and release.

We Don’t Belong Here

[3 stars]

This is definitely an unconventional narrative that plays out in intriguing, and unexpected ways. As a first script and directing delivery by Peer Pedersen, it is both what you expect and not what you anticipate. So, basically, a well-executed indie with a solid cast.

Catherine Keener (November Criminals) is the relatively patient matriarch of one heck of a messed up family. She provides a shifting center to the story as all threads come back to pass through her, though she isn’t the primary point of view.

Her four children are all damaged in different ways, and all dealing with their issues in worlds of their own devising. Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12), Riley Keough (Logan Lucky), Annie Starke (Albert Nobbs), and Anton Yelchin (Jack) work well together as sibs without losing their individual aspects. And it is Dever’s point of view that walks us through the story, though the approach is inconsistent and less than edifying, particularly near the end.

Maya Rudolph (Maggie’s Plan) and Cary Elwes (Shadow of the Vampire) bring another set of layers to the tale. Each is nicely compartmentalized and human despite their own particular struggles. It is only Molly Shannon (The Little Hours) in the cast who comes off completely wrong, though there may be reasons for that…just none I felt supported her and her choices.

You can’t watch this movie without considering the loss of Yelchin. Bizarrely, I watched this the same day Yelchin’s family settled the suit for his tragic death. Since his passing, his last films have been trickling out into the wild. With this film dropping direct-to-disc and Thoroughbreds finally out in theaters, we’ve actually (and sadly) reached the end of his recorded efforts. This movie contains a powerful performance, but all the more bittersweet given the plot and knowing it is one of his very last.

We Don’t Belong Here is a quiet film, but Pedersen kept it full of tension and intellectual challenge. He did a great job laying out his plots and editing to the final moments. It isn’t for a wide audience, but if you enjoy a true indie spirit and approach, you’ll find this one worth your time.

We Don

Goodbye Christopher Robin

[3 stars]

They say you should never look in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant…and in some ways that applies to your favorite stories as well. There is practically no child that hasn’t grown up knowing Winnie the Pooh. There is a magic to that silly old bear. But, having grown up, you do need to ask yourself if you want to know what the truth, real story, and inspiration were behind the wondrous Hundred Acre Wood. As several of the biographies of the last decade or so highlight, the life of the Milnes wasn’t storybook by any stretch.

But writers Frank Cottrell Boyce (Revengers Tragedy) and first-timer Simon Vaughan did a good job of distilling Robin’s story even while telling it primarily from his father’s point of view. That approach allowed them to navigate all aspects of the family, though the intent of the focus is on Robin’s experience. The tale is very layered and complex, often in subtle ways. It tackles class, war, parenthood, child rearing, love, show business in various forms, art, and the creative process, not just the specific genesis of Pooh and his friends. Probably not the story you imagine.

Will Tilston, in his first major role as Christopher Robin, was a brilliant bit of casting. While his acting may not be quite as polished as the rest of the cast, director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) elicited a great performance that struck just the right tone for his challenged childhood. Alex Lawther (The End of the F**ing World) then takes that setup as the older Robin and pays it off rather well.

But while the story is about Christopher, it is primarily told from the adult point of view. Domhnall Gleeson (mother!) delivers a powerful and sympathetic performance as A.A. Milne. Like many men (for instance Tolkien) returning from WWI, he struggled in near silence to recover. How that affected his writing is a critical part of the history. As his mother, Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) walks a very odd path of love and motherhood that is particular to that era and at that strata. There is love there, but of a particular kind. It is Kelly Macdonald (T2: Trainspotting) that Robin recognizes as the main source of intimacy in his life, and Macdonald provides a good target for it. It isn’t a new type of performance for her, but rather a comfortable and recognizable character delivered with expertise.

A side-effect of the scope of the story is that the movie is a little challenging to follow emotionally. The focus is split between the generations. That isn’t ultimately a bad thing, but it dilutes the result through much of the film, even as it pays it all off by the end. Also, it wasn’t helped by the aging make-up toward the end of the movie which really fails and broke the reality of the moments for me.

I started this write-up with a warning, which I’ll reiterate. If you want to keep the pure magic of the stories you know, you don’t want to see this film. The film has its own magic and, certainly, respects the phenomena that is the stories that are quickly approaching their first century in print. But it also exposes the reality of a difficult childhood and fumbled parenting. On a pure movie level, the acting and directing are solid, however, so I certainly recommend it if you aren’t worried about seeing how the meal was made.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

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