Tag Archives: Drama

Puzzle

[4 stars]

I so enjoy being surprised by a movie. You wouldn’t be wrong assuming this is a small, simple romantic comedy of sorts. However, it is much richer than that, with complicated relationships and less than obvious paths. I’m not saying it isn’t a bit oversimplified and a little over-structured, but it is a wonderful ride with lots of nice sharp turns.

Kelly Macdonald (Goodbye Christopher Robin) dominates this film from a position so unassuming you don’t even see her doing the driving. It is an odd role in that way, but one we’re seeing more often. Gloria and Shape of Water each come to mind for different reasons.

David Denman (Logan Lucky) and Irrfan Khan (Inferno) each play their roles well. Neither is breakout, but they are there for a purpose and they don’t overstep it. Likewise, Austin Abrams (Tragedy Girls) and Bubba Weiler (The Ranger), in much smaller roles. The collective whole the men around Macdonald form is essential and entirely real. And a lot of that sense is down to the careful directing.

Better known as a producer than a director, Marc Turtletaub (Gods Behaving Badly) tackled this very genuine story with confidence. The opening sequence, in fact, is inspired. With great economy he  sets up a wealth of relationships and history before the front credits have even completed. And while I haven’t seen its Argentinian original, Rompecabezas, this remake has no sense of hollowness to it the way some remakes can. It feels unique and solidly on its own feet. Turtletaub claims to have not viewed the original until his own final cut was complete; a smart move on his part that paid off.

Practiced remaker Oren Moverman (The Dinner) paired up with newcomer Polly Mann to adapt the script. I have some minor quibbles with aspects of the story and pieces that get lost (no pun intended), but it feels comfortable in its shift to NYC and Bridgeport from its South American origins.

This is a film definitely worth your time. It is sweet, but not saccharine. It is honest, but not preachy. It is simple, but not boring or painfully predictable. And, yes, it is romantic, but not palling. Watching the story come together into a complete picture is a wonderful experience.

I Think We’re Alone Now

[3 stars]

Peter Dinklage (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) and Elle Fanning (How to Talk to Girls at Parties) may not be your first thought as a pairing, but the two balance each other nicely with neither’s presence taking over the screen at the cost of the other.  And, as unlikely as they are, they make a credible couple…given the circumstances. And, yes, circumstances matter. These two are the latest to tackle what is becoming a renewed trend: quiet apocalypse films.

Director Reed Morano (Handmaid’s Tale) takes her time laying out the tone and emotional landscape of these survivors. Like Into the Forest, These Final Hours, Z for Zachariah, even 10 Cloverfield Lane and A Quiet Place, to a degree, the end of the world is a backdrop to an emotional drama rather than the point of the story. The movie also manages marry current sensibilities with two classics from The Twilight Zone: Burgess Meredith’s turn in Time Enough at Last and Elizabeth Montgomery/Charles Bronson’s Two. And if you haven’t seen these two, find time to do so.

Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Snowman) and Paul Giamatti (Morgan) round out the small cast and add some necessary layers. Neither is particularly brilliant in their roles, but they are intended to feel out of place.

By the end, it is clear the film is as much metaphor as it is its own story. In fact, it has several messages, some highly personal and human and some social commentary (particularly in the final moments). It is to Marano’s credit that she delivers a kaleidoscope that allows you resolve those aspects that reflect on your own mood and place in life.

As always, watching Dinklage perform is a pleasure. Fanning delivers as well, adding another positive result in an opus that is less consistent for me. This isn’t a fast or even overly intense story, but it is highly human and very effective.

The Bodyguard

[3.5 stars]

A six part series that can keep you off balance to near the end is a rarity. The Bodyguard delivers on this point. Richard Madden (Oasis) is the largest part of that success. He brings painful and unexpected layers to the character willing himself between ice block and utterly vulnerable.

In addition to Madden, UK mystery/suspense stalwarts Keeley Hawes (High-Rise), Gina McKee (Line of Duty), and Pippa Haywood (Scott & Bailey) each bring different kinds of strong women to the tale. There are some other familiar faces, such as Stuart Bowman (Versailles), but despite a male lead, this is a heavily female-driven tale. One real standout is Anjli Mohindra (Bancroft) who has really grown up since the Sarah Jane Adventures.

The finale episode is this show’s only real stumble. The breathless rush to the ending confrontation is well orchestrated but is done primarily to (hopefully) keep you from noticing the bad plotting and choices. It works emotionally, but it is utterly wrong technically. Squint a little and you’re fine. It frustrated me mainly because up to these moments it had been so well done. The show as a whole is still very much worth the viewing time, but it is a slightly flawed resolution.

First Man

[3 stars]

Let’s first talk about what director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) did right and well with First Man; I’ll get to the frustrations later. Unlike The Right Stuff, this is a story about real people, not demigods. It really tries to tell the story of a man in the middle of history without knowing he’s in the middle of it. And while the space race was undoubtedly a point of national pride, the level of jingoism, as compared to previous tellings, was much reduced and was in context rather than propaganda and the point of the story.

Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) brings a humanity to Armstrong I’ve never seen. Perhaps a bit too much as I question his strength of mind for what he has to do, but nevertheless it made him more relateable. As his wife, Claire Foy (The Lady in the Van) is a balancing influence with some nice moments and layers to her as well.

Quite frankly, the rest of the cast, while all good, just don’t matter. This is Armstrong’s tale, and his family’s.

Pablo Schreiber (Den of Thieves), Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night), Ethan Embry (Grace and Frankie), Ciarán Hinds (Woman Walks Ahead), Jason Clarke (Winchester), Kyle Chandler (Game Night), Corey Stoll (The Seagull), Shea Whigham (Cop Car), Patrick Fugit (Gone Girl), Lukas Haas (The Revenant) get a mention here simply because it feels wrong not to acknowledge their efforts. Without them as backdrop, the Armstrong story couldn’t have been told.

Now, about that story…

Writer Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight) is clearly comfortable adapting stories both from books and from history. However, in this case what he delivered, and what Chazelle accepted, is part of what was so wrong with the film. Had it released a couple of years back, it probably wouldn’t have stood out so baldly. But, after Hidden Figures, how do you show NASA and this particular story without showing even one of the women, let alone black women, involved in the success? How do you only have housewives helping out by only “supporting their men?” How do you present the landing on the moon as the success of old white men only? It is a glaring and frustrating aspect, even if it was the perspective of the time.

Another choice of Chazelle’s caused some loud chatter, but that one didn’t bother me at all. I support not showing the planting of the flag, given the focus of the movie on people rather than countries; it was a story choice, not a political statement and you do see it in tableau. However, I didn’t find the most famous of the moments, that first step, all that triumphant. Perhaps because I knew it would happen. Perhaps because I remember watching it happen. But I think, really, it was because Chazelle lost the build-up and payoff in his structure and it whittered away rather than came home. Of course, the focus for being on the moon is shifted rather sharply for Armstrong. Very poignantly shifted, if the moments on the moon are to be believed. But if Chazelle didn’t want to focus on that iconic moment, he shouldn’t have focused on it for 20 minutes and then lost the tension.

Finally, from a film craft point of view, when the heck are directors going to understand that hand-held and large format movies don’t mix well. If you must use hand-held, do it sparingly. On IMAX it simply gets nauseating, throwing you out of the story. Chazelle used shakeycam all over the place. Some made sense, but a huge portion didn’t. I understand the use during the flights and tests, but we didn’t need the 8mm effect to have it feel like old home movies. There were specific moments he could have used it to emphasize Armstrong’s personal struggles, but because it was so overused, it lost all emotional value.

For only his third film, Chazelle continues to impress. This may not be the huge success that was hoped for, but he does show an ability to take on different types of stories and to continue to deliver interesting characters. I think, in this case, he needed to do more research and be more aware of the current times to tell the story well and fully. As it is, it is certainly impressive at moments and worth seeing overall, but the flaws are somewhat fatal for me in terms of ever needing to see it again (unlike his other films).

Colette

[3.5 stars]

Some films find their time, and Colette is certainly one of those. (If you want a bit more about its timing, read this.) As a story, ultimately, of female empowerment and personal freedom it is perfect for the political and social climate; it is also very well acted and executed.

Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty) in the title role is a wonderful blend of vulnerable power. She is a woman of her times, but with a mind and will to make her own way, at least eventually; social revolution is never a quick thing. What is fascinating is how the story resonates differently for people. Colette’s relationship with her husband, played by Dominic West (Tomb Raider) is challenging to watch. He loves her, but also takes advantage of her even if it is with her consent. My view of this history was a bit more malicious before I saw this portrayal. He is played, quite well, as a charismatic ass, but an ass nonetheless. West’s Willy (cause that is just fun to say) was a man who had a brand and what amounted to a factory for art under his name. Who knew “work for hire” went back that far?

Most of the film is the buildup to the inevitable resolution between Colette and Willy. But, in between, the relationship is a bit more hospitable and representative of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was a hotbed of art and social evolution. I also couldn’t help but hear echos of Big Eyes while watching, but the spousal dynamic is very different and more subtle in Colette–a dynamic that is sure to spur interesting debate between viewers.

In key roles around the couple, Denise Gough (Juliet, Naked), Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve), and Eleanor Tomlinson (Ordeal by Innocence) offer several perspectives on women in that time for Colette to consider. And Al Weaver (Grantchester) and Dickie Beau, in particular, provide some interesting performances and men for her life.

The film is very deliberate in its pacing, but gripping. Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) takes his time to establish Colette so we can watch her mature and explore and change. He also co-wrote it with his Still Alice collaborator Richard Glatzer with the assistance of Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience). Lenkiewicz helped rescue the film from some of the same pitfalls of Still Alice, which rushed to its end. However, the ending still didn’t quite nail the moment for me. It should have been an unmitigated triumph and was, instead, simply a solid moment. Westmoreland simply lost control of the pace to bring it off at full power for me.

This is a film worth seeing and, honestly, it is filmed for the big screen. It is lush and full of period detail. It may translate to a small screen for the story, but it will lose some of its scope and richness. It will also probably echo through awards season for the performances and production, so catch it early so you know why. And, while you’re at it, enjoy the story of independence and ability about a woman who is still one of the most celebrated European writer’s of all time.

Final Portrait

[3 stars]

The lives of the famous and artists fascinate us. Whether it is the fictional as in A Star is Born, or the mysterious such as Loving, Vincent, or the brainy like The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, or any of the many biopics about Oscar Wilde, the movies keep getting made. Perhaps we watch because we want to understand fame. Or maybe genius. Whatever the impetus, their lives are often, to be honest, fascinating.

While the artist Alberto Giaocometti probably isn’t one of the names that would jump to most people’s minds as possible subject, this true tale documented by the portrait’s subject, James Lord, is full of humor along with insights as to the nature of artistic drive. Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean) brings the artist to life in a wonderfully funny and darkly intense portrayal that draws us in just as it did the world and Lord, played by Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name). We watch Hammer’s Lord get pulled into Gioacometti’s spell, torn between having his portrait completed and frustration with a process he had no understanding of prior to agreeing to sit. Through the unexpected several week process Lord becomes our eyes into Giaocometti’s life, joys, thinking, and fears.

Around the two swarm Tony Shalhoub (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel), and Sylvie Testud who each highlight different aspects of the household and the times. And each deals with the challenges differently. What keeps them in his orbit is all part of the story.

The insanely prolific actor Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) took on this adaptation of Lord’s book about the experience as one of his few writing and directing challenges. He’s only done a handful over the year; his first was the wonderful Big Night and you can see how that sensibility and love of character has matured. Tucci has a great eye and keeps the energy up, even during long silences, by making us invest in the portrait’s completion ourselves. Though more of a slice-of-life than a full story, it is a fun, funny, and fascinating 90 minutes, with wonderful performances worth seeing.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

[3 stars]

Talk about an unlikely pairing: Robin Williams (Absolutely Anything) and Mila Kunis (Hell and Back). And yet, it works. Both have great comedy chops and put them to solid use alone and together in what amounts to a black comedy with heart. The tale, essentially, asks: What do you want to do with your life and why aren’t you already doing it? It’s a simple and often asked question in movies, but this one has a nice layer of entertainment wrapping it up.

Supporting the antics, issues, and events are Melissa Leo (Equalizer 2) and Peter Dinklage (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Though they both server their purpose well enough, Dinklage has the more nuanced character of the two. Frustratingly, Leo never quite finds the right groove for the tone of the movie. Hamish Linklater (Magic in the Moonlight) and Sutton Foster (Bunheads) round out the main cast nicely, but without a lot of impact. In addition, there are some cameos that are pleasant surprises.

Writer Assi Dayan adapted this film from his award winning Mr. Baum for English audiences and trusted it to director Phil Alden Robinson (Good Fight). The story is a bit halting and odd at times, I suspect from the conversion, but it holds up. It is also part of the collection of final films from Williams who did four that year before hanging up his shoes, making this movie both bittersweet and not a little ironic.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

Leave No Trace

[3.5 stars]

When this film kicked off I was afraid this was going to be a weird combination of Captain Fantastic and Short Term 12. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely; emotionally tight, but not a story of bad things happening. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a sad set of circumstances in play, but it isn’t about big bad nasty things surprising the characters. In fact, it is packed with people trying to do good things for one another, making this a very different kind of story than the majority out there these days. Ultimately, it is a quietly intense tale of family and the aftermath of trauma, done with a kind eye.

Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) and Thomasin McKenzie (Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies) make a wonderfully paired father/daughter team. Each is devoted to the other but also struggling, at times, to stay civil when things go poorly. The quiet internal tensions for these two are both different and very affecting. It is a beautiful exhibition of the battle between love and personal need.

Supporting them are some familiar faces, but these two should and do dominate the story. Enjoy the side characters for what they are: the periphery of life intruding into their bubble. It is ultimately a beautifully poetic film with both a story and, to a lesser degree, a message. That balance serves it well and director Debra Granik guides it with a delicate hand through the co-written screenplay with Anne Rosellini, who had previously paired with her for Winter’s Bone. This isn’t a fast trip through life and the woods, but it is a memorable one.

Leave No Trace

Disconnect

[3 stars]

Social media has remade relationships: familial, romantic, and even legal. Not a particularly clever statement nor revealatory, but still true. Disconnect is a cleverly plotted trip through various aspects of that idea. In a bit of nice subtlety, it intertwines several concurrent stories without forcing the combinations. The overall trip feels like a twisted path through a dark wood.

In one story, Jason Bateman (Game Night), Hope Davis (Wayward Pines), Haley Ramm, and Jonah Bobo (Choke) navigate family and school life…not exactly together, which is the point.

In the other main tale, Alexander Skarsgård (Mute), Paula Patton (Warcraft), and Michael Nyqvist (John Wick) form a tangled triumvirate working toward resolution.

Frank Grillo (Captain America: Civil War) and Colin Ford (Under the Dome) have their own familial challenges both within and without their house. These two form a natural point of intersection in the story to nicely bring it into a single focus.

And then there is Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin) and Max Thieriot (Point Break) who dance a tarantella that raises all sorts of interesting questions, of which technology is only a small part. Their story rides mostly outside the others and, while the least compelling in many ways, also raises the most questions.

Every one of the actors delivers a strong performance. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is actually how the various actors are mostly playing against their typical types. Grillo is probably the least off his normal characters, though his tough ex-cop is grounded in family life and emotional connection.

As a first film in the primary director’s seat, Henry Alex Rubin tackled a dark and complicated vision in Andrew Stern’s script (also a first time on big screen). There isn’t anything really new in the story, even from when it was made six years back, but it handles the various lines of social commentary naturally. It is less about exposure and more about raising questions and offering glimpses of issues across a whole environment. The end result is a taut suspense that slowly ratchets up the tension before releasing the wires all at once. To see Rubin and Stern’s potential and some nice performances, it is definitely worth your time, but you’re going to walk away from this one more contemplative than smiling.

Disconnect

The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy (Julius Cesar, Henry IV, Tempest)

[3.5 stars]

The Donmar project Shakespeare trilogy is a fascinating piece of all-female repertory theatre inspired by work with female prison inmates. The prisoners selected three unrelated plays whose themes and action spoke to them (power/abuse, addiction/family, justice/responsibility) and Phyllida Lloyd (Iron Lady, Mama Mia!) created a trilogy of them by wrapping each in a shared conceit as an envelope to hold them together.  While this approach initially feels forced and not quite comfortable, it ultimately paints an additional layer of meeting over the whole and binds them together in a bigger theme. While I’ll call out specific performances, it is one hell of an ensemble generally.

Julius Cesar

The first of the three plays focused on the need for action to battle unjust rule and tyranny. Think domestic abuse. Though that is not at all injected into the show directly it has knock-on effects for the characters. For instance, Harriet Walter’s Brutus is oddly weak and emotional, very much feeling beaten down and with a need to make the world right. To Walter’s praise, she manages this while still maintaining an amazing stage presence.

Cesar, played by Clare Dunne, is charismatic and strong. Clearly a swaggering ass who knows how to play the crowd and those around him. Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony, likewise is manipulator, using words to destroy while holding back all of his ire till the final, physical battle. Anouka is one of the bright spots in this trilogy, and a reason to see them all, which will become obvious.

The direction is engaging and surprising, and even occasionally funny. But it is the ending where it takes your head and spins it round as the envelope takes over and forces new meaning upon it.

Henry IV

Henry survives or fails on the quality of the Falsataff, Hal, and Hotspur. The casting here is astoundingly good. Sophie Stanton (Una) as Falstaff is compelling and entertaining, if not entirely endearing. Clare Dunne’s Hal delivers but doesn’t quite sell the entire journey from reprobate to king (this covers parts I and II of the play). However Jade Anouka as Hotspur is riveting and wonderfully acted and directed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hotspur that lived up both to the name and the ability to lead a rebellion.

I do wish the addiction theme was heightened a little more throughout the piece to help pull it all together, but it was still an interesting flavor to add.

The Tempest

Of the three plays, this one is the most on point and, frankly, the best conceived. Of course, Tempest is tailor made to discuss justice and responsibility; even Joyce Carol Oats took advantage of it in Hagseed.

The play is carried by Harriet Walter as Prospero with a deep and wounded approach. Jade Anouka (I told you she was one to watch) takes on Ariel and is paired with Sophie Stanton now as Calaban. Along with Sheila Atim (Harlots) as Ferdinand and Leah Harvey (Uncle) as Miranda, the story clips along engagingly and with a sense of real sweetness and possibility while still showing the harsher edge of gender roles and life.

Lloyd’s direction of this piece captures the magic and the longing, the humor and the anger. It is one of the best distillations of the play I think I’ve seen, or perhaps it was simply the framing of the story and the even larger framing of the trilogy. Whatever the reason, it is inventive, gripping, and fascinating to watch with plenty of wry winks and fist slams. If you choose only one of the three to watch, choose this one, though some of the bigger messages will not resonate as much without the previous two.