Tag Archives: Drama

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.

Destroyer

[3 stars]

Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) delivers a devastatingly broken-but-not-down detective, evoking more Charlize Theron than the characters we’ve come to expect from her. She is ugly, both mentally and physically; an anti-hero extraordinaire. Intense and gripping, but with the smallest bit of sympathy to keep us on her side.

Kidman navigates the world, past and present, with the help of a great supporting cast. Toby Kebbell (The Female Brain), Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya, Avengers), and Bradley Whitford (The Darkest Minds) chief among them. And then there was the otherwise unrecognizable Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). If it weren’t for the credits, I wouldn’t even have spotted her, and it wasn’t for lack of screen time.

Better known for her television work, director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) is no stranger to female driven tales. In this case, however, she tries just a little too hard to maintain the atmosphere. The music is heavy-handed and the pacing just a tad strained at moments. But she does manage to create a dark, dark tale… a daylight noir in the harsh LA sun that drives forward relentlessly as flashbacks fill in the history. Oft-time writing collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (R.I.P.D.) gave Kusuma a well constructed script to work with, but it is Kidman’s and Kusuma’s molding and delivery of that tale that makes it work.

Make time for this one when you’re in a mood for a bit of violence and mystery. The performances make it worth it alone, but the story is, itself, a good ride.

Capernaum

[3.5 stars]

There is a lot of hyperbole (and awards) thrown around about Nadine Labaki’s (Where Do We Go Now?) latest film. And they are deserved. As with her other work, she is brilliant at exposing humanity in the most impossible circumstances. She doesn’t give into dramatic cliche in order to rivet you to the screen, she employs simple truths and and hard choices along with quiet moments of desperation and joy to do it. She invites you into areas of the world few, if any, of her viewers would have experienced and makes you understand.

This film, more than her others, is relentless in its message and, for lack of a better term, existential horror. There are few moments of respite or joy. But it was the right choice for the story she wanted to tell. To have falsely buoyed the characters would have been to cheat the tale.

The entire story depends upon the slender thread of first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea. He is an unbelievably charismatic and powerful presence, despite his age and stature. In an intersecting story, Yordanos Shiferaw, also new to screen, delivers her own gripping tale.

You may be wondering, as I was, what the title meant. It isn’t a word, it is a place…and it adds an entire level of commentary to the story. But, frankly, better to discover that afterwards as it is a bit self-conscious.

This isn’t a fun film, to be honest. You’ll find yourself angry, sad, and, at times, likely yelling at the screen. The subtitles also sometimes flash so quickly (less than a second) as to be unreadable…but I didn’t find any of the gaps to be unfillable by logic and flow. Still, it was a shame to have such a simple technical blemish on the experience. Ultimately, the movie will not leave you feeling hopeless, but the trip is a little exhausting…much to Labaki’s credit, you’ll thank her for that.

New and Continuing Foreign Series

Baptiste
At the core of The Missing was the calming and obsessive Detective Baptiste, played by Tchéky Karyo. He was never the focus, but was the uniting factor of the series, and in many ways one of the more interesting characters. Well, now he has his own series. With the story solely on him, it is a bit lower energy but just as dark. Tom Hollander (A Private War) adds an interesting counterpoint, and a very complex character to the mix. And Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) provides a suitably evil opponent for both. There are some strong women in this series, and some damaged ones [Jessica Raine (An Adventure in Space and Time), Anastasia Hille (Tulip Fever), Barbara Sarafian, Talisa Garcia] but it is driven by the male characters.

There is a nice mix of mystery and suspense, though Karyo’s Baptiste seems to get to move with near impunity through the legal system of more than one country. But the show also continues the threads of his home life and past, which expands on what we know in interesting ways. Whether this show can be sustained over more than this limited story, I’m not sure. Karyo isn’t young and the character himself is winding down in his abilities as part of the plot. And the end of this clever and twisty six-parter was a bit rushed and, in some ways, forced. To their credit, it is satisfying and allows it to feel complete without closing the door to further stories.

Shakespeare and Hathaway (series 2)
The first series of this silly series was amusing…even more so if you know the plays of the Bard…but the mysteries were never brilliant. This second round is still fun, but the writing is much more hit and miss. In fact, the first half is painful at times, but they finally find their footing about episode 5. The main issue is more around police procedural and willfully stupid choices by characters. But this isn’t necessarily a show you want to over-analyze anyway. If you liked the first series, the second will happily distract you. If they can get more consistent writing, it has a chance for a long and amusing life.

Trapped (series 2)
The second series of Trapped takes on immigration and hate crimes on top of the delicate politics of country and family that the first series tackled. It picks up some time later from the first go-round, with some significant changes and some continuing tropes and battles. The mystery gets off to an immediate start and spins out from there intriguingly playing in the overlap between the far right and environmentalism. While the first series traps its characters literally, this series a more psychological reading of that title. Many first series characters recur and their storylines and tensions continue. The story itself unfolds very slowly, constantly going in new directions until the full tale is revealed and resolved.

Endeavour (series 6)
The latest 4 installments of Endeavour are coming back around to establishing the quirks and mannerisms of Shaun Evans’ (The Scandalous Lady W) titular detective. The last couple sequences laid some groundwork, but it was all inferred rather than direct. One of the things that made the first two series so great was watching Morse being born. This sequence really sets the stage for the relationship with Sean Rigby’s DS Strange and James Bradshaw’s  Dr. DeBryn, as well as tackling some challenges with Roger Allam’s (The Hippopotamus) DI Thursday and Anton Lesser’s CSI Bright.

There are still a few years to go before the series hits the wall it cannot pass (overlap with the original series and the elevation of Morse to DCI in the 80s). With the next series, they launch into the 70s… but they could continue there for years at a paltry four episodes a go, which either means great news for lovers of the show or danger of spinning wheels and driving it into a hopeless rut. Given how carefully Russell Lewis has tended to Colin Dexter’s characters and has conspired to give us this early slice of Morse, I’m hopeful he can sustain the effort.

Shetland (series 5)
Shetland continues its travels with its characters and its dark mysteries across harsh landscapes. And, if its been a while since your last visit it may take a bit to get your footing with the characters and their relationships. Douglas Henshall’s (Collision) dark but seethingly emotional detective remains at the center of the mismatched family on the tiny and battered island. Mark Bonnar (Line of Duty), Steven Robertson (Luther),  and Alison O’Donnell remain core to the story with him and to each other. In many ways, this is one of their best crafted seasons; it has a complex mystery with many switchbacks and character growth in parallel over the six episodes. Not that previous series weren’t equally complex, but this one felt the most evenly put together. Interestingly, series 5 is also journeying along similar ground as Baptiste and Trapped, taking on human trafficking as a core issue.

The Hate U Give

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a Spike Lee film that is less stylized and aimed more at teenagers (though still very resonate for adults) and you have a sense of this powerful offering by director George Tillman, Jr. It is uncomfortably honest and it builds tension very much like Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman. It also evokes and challenges all sides of the issues it raises, though it certainly has a point of view, and one it wastes no time establishing in its first scene. Getting that moment right was one of Tillman’s great triumphs in the film.

Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) drives this story from start to end. She is narrator and focus of the action as well as the gateway through which we enter both worlds she navigates. She is a talent we will be seeing a lot of over the coming years. The rest of the cast form up around her and every one of them has more levels than you expect as we travel through her story.

Among her family Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Russell Hornsby (Fences), and Common (Hunter Killer) stand out for the adults. Algee Smith (Earth to Echo), as her childhood friend, too. And then there is Anthony Mackie (Io), an actor we’re used to seeing with a bit more positive emotion and influence. His delivery is solid, though it is one of the least dimensional in the story. And, to be fair, it needs to be.

From Stenberg’s school-life, one of the more difficult roles was Stenberg’s friend, nicely created by Sabrina Carpenter. Carpenter has to stand in for every well-intentioned person of non-color and do so unselfconsciously. It is hard to watch and far too recognizable. And, as her boyfriend, K.J. Apa ( A Dog’s Purpose) was solid, but not particularly groundbreaking.

A good part of the success of this movie is its script. Audrey Wells (A Dog’s Purpose) adapted the book smoothly; there wasn’t a hint of it being a reflection of something else. It was entirely its own being, standing on its own feet and feeling whole and full of real people, situations, and emotions. Navigating that mine field with a teenage audience in mind wasn’t easy. Unlike Dope, it reaches out for a broader audience and more explicit message, but earns its moment of preaching in a very different way.

I have to admit I avoided this film for a long while, despite its excellent and deserved reviews. With all the hate and damage in the world, I wasn’t sure I could sit through a story about it as part of my evening relaxation. As it turns out, while it is certainly a tense story and unflinching at moments, its teenage perspective and the balance of the tale kept it digestible and still very powerful. Tillman’s ability to keep the tension going as he slips between the worlds that Stenberg navigates keeps you engaged and interested even as you may want to turn away or shout. He also employs subtle production values separating the haves and have-nots by time of day. Though some of that is story driven, it is also clearly intended to enhance light and dark.

Make time for this. It will leave a mark, but not one that will bleed too deeply. And it is a clear-eyed perspective that can start conversations or, at least, get people thinking. It is well acted, written,  and presented and will keep you guessing till the end.

Obit. (x2)

[3.5 stars]

Making a story about life out of writing about death seems contradictory, but Vanessa Gould’s long-form documentary about the New York Times obituary desk manages just that. It is also a fascinating look behind a section of the paper you may not have put a lot of thought behind.

Our tour is constructed of interviews with the small crew of writers as well as an amusing look at the news morgue and its denizens.  Through these Gould gives us a picture of the mechanics and the care brought to the often dry and sometimes entertaining encapsulations of life that grace the paper daily. It is a look back at an old craft as well as evolution of the craft in modern times.

It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is an interesting one, and crafted to carry you through. To be fair, it would be hard, without forcing it, to create a story around the subject, so it is more a behind-the-scenes and philosophical discussion. But whatever you think of obituaries or your interest in them, you will never notice them again in the same way.

As a bonus, while searching for this documentary I unexpectedly came across a clever short by the same name and did a double feature. Unlike the documentary, this is a short drama, but it makes a reflective coda to the evening.  Director Brian Tolle is much better known for his effects work on major blockbusters, but this short drama shows his eye for structure and character, handling Reddy’s script deftly and guiding George Maguire through a complex character over the 10 minutes. Tolle is a bit less sure with Sandra Fish (Sense8), but she has moments. Add this one to your list when you’ve a small gap of time to fill. It is fine with or without the double feature, but it definitely added something to see them together.

Obit

A Private War

[3.5 stars]

Making war real on screen is incredibly challenging. Making it personal without losing the greater issues is even harder. A Private War, much like the writings of its subject Marie Colvin, manages to do both.

It succeeds thanks to both the behind-the-scenes guidance and the on-screen talent. However, even with the likes of Jamie Dornan (Robin Hood), Tom Hollander (Bird Box), and Stanley Tucci (Patient Zero) on screen, the only person that matters, the only story as her character would have put it, was Pike’s Colvin. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is this movie. Though I will say that Hollander delivers an uncharacteristically understated and sobering performance as Colvin’s bureau chief.

Colvin states it in her own words at the top of the film: fear comes later. Marie Brenner’s (The Insider) script captures how controlled and confident Colvin’s character was in war, and what a mess she was outside of it. An added aspect to this film’s success was director Matthew Heineman’s documentary roots. He manages to step back from the action to allow the story to tell itself.

In a growing collection of on-screen news-related tales, this one is a bit different. It isn’t about newspapers saving the world, like The Post, or destroying the world, like The Front Runner, or even being manipulated, like Vice. It is about war and the human cost on all sides. It is about what drives people to risk their lives to bring us the truth, without glorifying their choices.

In a fluke of the story and the timing, I was watching the film almost 7 years to the day from the last moments of the action, which provided one of the most chilling aspects of the film. I found myself doing the math and realizing that the horror of Homs, Syria being portrayed may have been from 7 years ago…but it was still going on today despite Colvin and other’s efforts and risks to get the world to notice; a final gift of the film reminding us that it is still up to all of us to act and not just observe.

Shoplifters

[4 stars]

Hirokazu Koreeda wrote and directed this heart-battering and darkly funny look at family that crosses the sense and sensibility of Roma with Florida Project. He continues to plumb some of his favorite themes around family that have often informed his movies and garnered him many awards and nominations.

Shoplifters is a subtle and complicated story that revolves around a low-income family struggling in a unidentified Japanese city. It is a view of that culture that will seem both familiar and utterly unexpected. Koreeda takes his time with the tale, but is constantly building it through the two hours. It is oddly hypnotic through its presentation and its story, but with a tension underneath that keeps your attention and curiosity.

This isn’t a simple tale, nor a perfectly happy one; it is more honest than aspirational. But it is beautiful and oddly hopeful and will leave you thinking about it and discussing it for days afterwards.

At Eternity’s Gate

[3 stars]

Willem Dafoe (Aquaman) gives one of his most quiet, contained and intense performances as Vincent Van Gogh in this odd biopic. The story, as it is presented, is odd not for its subject, but for its style, but let me come back to that.

Dafoe is the lynchpin in this biopic. While there are other performances that help him along, Oscar Isaac (Life Itself) as Paul Gauguin, Rupert Friend (A Simple Favor) as his brother, and Mads Mikkelsen (Doctor Strange) and Mathieu Amalric (Grand Budapest Hotel) as confessors, only Dafoe really drives this story. Given that is through the eyes of a deeply disturbed and unsteady artist, that is either a strength or a weakness, depending on your experience of the story.

Director and co-writer Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) has a thing for artists. He is driven to explain and capture the fine line between genius and madness. For a lot of this film we are forced to view the world through a shaky-cam or with split focus to achieve at least part of that goal. It is disorienting and alienating and, frankly, far too obvious. Given Dafoe’s performance, he should have trusted the actors and audience more to understand. The camera tricks were off-putting and, at times for me, unwatchable. Had he used the approach only for a few crisis moments in the film I could have understood and handled it better, but it is better than three-quarters of the film which was already 20-30 minutes longer than necessary.

What is even more disappointing than the camera choices is that we really don’t learn a lot about Vincent’s life. We see events, but never really get to understand them. Vincent clearly does and makes many decisions due to them, so we’re not even emulating his thinking process. The script simply jumps about to various points in his life and assumes we either know the background or can guess it. As a first script for Louise Kugelberg, I can understand that gap, but because Schnabel co-wrote, along with the massively prolific and talented Jean-Claude Carrière (The Patience Stone), I was a little surprised by the result.

For Dafoe’s performance, and some of the inner life of the creative process the film portrays, this is a fascinating film. If you want to learn more about Van Gogh’s life, and mysteries surrounding it, even the recent Loving Vincent will provide more. And, perhaps, I am being unfair to Schanbel’s intentions with this story, but that is in part because the story does try to answer some questions, but never really does full enough. Clearly that was part of the intent as there are black-screen monologues and text explanations to try and fulfill that purpose. Had the film makers focused solely on Vincent’s inner life and process, it may have felt more complete. As it is, we get some interesting ideas and a fabulous performance to appreciate, but not much else.