Tag Archives: Drama

A Ghost Story

[3 stars]

I truly admire what writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) wants to do with his latest film. It is a devastating look at love and loss, and a musing on the fabric of existence. Very heady stuff for a small indie film that focuses on a single relationship. OK, yes, and a little Sophomoric too. However, it rises mostly above that due to the performances and quality of the execution. Rooney Mara (Song to Song) and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) create a very believable pair whose lives are slowly exposed over the course of the tale. Both performances are quietly intense and subtle.

Frustratingly, far too much of the movie is too close to reality. It is easily 20 minutes longer than it need be to make its points. Frankly, you can only hold a shot so long before the value of the moment is gone and it begins to feel forced or more like a theatre “happening” rather than a specific moment in life intended to evoke empathy. We live in real life, we know the moment to moment is often boring and, sometimes, interminable. You can achieve that experience without adding explosions, quick cuts, or making an audience sit through all of it. In fact, we watch movies to avoid the bulk of the boring parts, so if you’re going to use those moments to make a point, you need to do it carefully.

The pacing issue is mostly through the first 2/3 of the film. And Lowery does find some very clever editing to overcome that criticism at points; even more so in the final third. After a long setup, this is where the film moves on to the meat of his vision and point (including one rather disturbing and long nihilistic diatribe by Jonny Mars in case you weren’t going to get there on your own).

There is a great deal to appreciate in this very different portrayal of a haunting. The cinematography is impressive, with some truly breath-taking shots. Though, personally, I found the forced 4:3 frame distracting. I think it was intended to elicit nostalgia, but it was too self-conscious for my taste, and already an out-moded frame of reference (if you will).

All that said, A Ghost Story is worth your time, but it isn’t quite the impactful and amazing movie I had been led to expect from the festival buzz it generated this past summer. You also shouldn’t start watching it if you’re tired or just looking for distraction. The film does eventually pay off and it is definitely something a little different from most of the offerings out there. Just be prepared to be a participant rather than just be an observer.

A Ghost Story

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

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Coco

[5 stars]

This is every bit as good as you’ve heard. And, yes, the 3D is even worth it, though not necessary. The story is more than enough to stand on its own without it if you don’t want to spend the dollars for the format. 3D simply adds some richness to it all. Still, you must see this on a big screen, so don’t wait for disc.

I honestly was worried at the top of the film. Primarily this was due to the Frozen short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that fronted the film, but more on that in a minute. The story, Coco, starts off so obvious and simple that I honestly didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I was sure I knew what I was in for and how it was all going to get there, so might as well lay back and and enjoy the art. What was provided, instead, was both provocative emotionally (as you’d expect) but also evocative in many ways, which you really only ever hope for and rarely get to see. Co-writers and co-directors, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and first-timer Adrian Molina, kept attacking the ideas with the rest of the writers until it was something more complex and interesting than, say, Book of Life managed even though they both tackle the same cultural tales.

The voice cast is solid, but it is dominated by three actors: Anthony Gonzalez (The Bridge), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), and Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange). Though special mention for Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Frida Kahlo really need be made. It isn’t that the other voice work isn’t good, but they are all side-notes to these stand-outs. As a whole, the world comes together gloriously in vision and sound. But it isn’t just at the macro level. There are also a lot of subtle clues and tiny details that will make this worth seeing more than a few times.

I do wish it had a bit more Spanish throughout to really make it feel more natural, but there is at least some. And it would have been better with a few strong female characters to help drive the story; there are women, but this is a male dominated tale without question. And I could have done without the (generally) reused face of the boy from The Good Dinosaur. But these ended up minor concerns compared to the overall success of the movie.

OK, back to Olaf’s intrusion into my viewing pleasure. Now I want to be clear that I loved Frozen. I will admit that Olaf wasn’t my favorite character, but my frustration with the short had less to do with that and more to do with the story. It was a flat-out Christmas tale, already jarring against the Día de Muertos story that was to follow, but also because it was only a Christmas tale. By the time it began explaining what all cultures do during “that time of year” as part of their Christmas tradition, my teeth were so on edge I wanted to scream.

To be clear, the religious observance of Hanukkah, as an example, existed millennia before the holiday traditions of Christmas. Literally. The Hanukkah lights are not lit because it is Christmas, which the story suggests in its plot and lyrics. And Hanukkah is only one of the observances subsumed into the tale. The short cartoon manages to avoid the worst of what it could have devolved into, but is still a misstep for Disney in terms of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. Actually pretty surprising given their foray into new cultural areas that Coco tries to map. It was also just a very bad match artistically for the main feature that followed, in my opinion.

That I still rated Coco so highly, despite the Frozen short, tells you how much power it had to get me over that hill of annoyance. Go see Coco and enjoy the magic, family, message, joy, and loss that is its world. There is something for all ages in its story and the production is a wonder to behold on the screen.

Coco

The Glass Castle

[3 stars]

Watching Glass Castle, I couldn’t help but view it as a dark reflection of Captain Fantastic. Both tackle similar kinds of family, but Glass Castle is less simple and more realistic, which shouldn’t be a surprise as it is based on Jeannette Wall’s real life.

Some excellent performances make this film solid. Woody Harrelson (Wilson), Brie Larson (Free Fire) and Ella Anderson (Mother’s Day), as Larson’s younger self, are the real standouts. Naomi Watts (3 Generations) has some moments, but her character is mutable and not easy to understand which diminished the performance for me.

Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) tackled the story as director and co-writer in a clever way. He used a lot of flashback; not because it was easy but because it removed a host of expectations about where the story would go. Told in order, you’d be expecting tragedy over and over. It isn’t an easy story of growing up, but if you believe the people telling the tale, tragedy isn’t the point nor the outcome. And that is the issue for me, performances and flimmaking aside.

The end implies a forgiveness I’m not sure the people earned, even though the post-film footage makes it clear that it is what occurred. So this is either a testament to the strength of people, and children in particular, or is suggestion that anything can be and should be forgiven. I don’t know if I can get behind that sentiment. You certainly need to get past aspects of life, but that doesn’t mean you forgive or stay involved with those that created the bad situation. To Cretton ‘s credit, you want to buy into that choice, making this a challenging tale from a good filmmaker. For that, and the performances, it is worth the time. And it is certainly a fascinating look into humanity and our own individual choices.

The Glass Castle

The Child in Time

[2.5 stars]

I completely get why Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Kelley MacDonald (T2: Trainspotting) tackled these complex and subtle parents working through tragedy. They are a different take on an all-too-common theme, and they have a different path to travel than you’d expect. Likewise, their mirror couple in the piece, Stephen Campbell Moore (Burnt) and Saskia Reeves (ShetlandThe Worricker Trilogy) had their own acting challenges that were probably irresistible.

For the acting and the sense of honesty in the tale, I enjoyed the trip till near the end. Director Julian Farino (The Oranges) navigates a layered story that isn’t very obvious and does what he can with Stephen Butchard’s (Falcon) adaptation.

But there’s the rub. You can see the beauty of the original book behind this adaptation. The story, ideas, and language are all what you’d expect in an Ian McEwan story. The problem is that as a movie, it just doesn’t quite work. It ends up feeling a little wrong and cheap by the end, even though you can see the intent.

Overall, I don’t think it really works, or at least it didn’t for me. Perhaps if the rest of McEwan’s five book series is done it would come together, but that’s no reason to give this telemovie a break; it should stand on its own believably, and it misses for me at the conclusion.

Beatriz at Dinner

[2.75 stars]

Yeah, I know, that is a weird rating, but it comes down to how the movie paid itself off…or not. Salma Hayek (Sausage Party) does a wonderful job driving this film and navigating a journey of revelation and frustration. But the resolution took days to crystallize for me…and even after I finally got it to make sense, I wasn’t entirely sold on it.

The ending aside, there is a great dynamic set up, Led by Connie Britton (American Ultra) and John Lithgow (Miss Sloane). Britton serves as the uncomfortable bridge between Hayek and Lithgow’s worlds. Each brings a particular kind of tension to the screen.

Jay Duplass (Transparent) and Cloë Sevigny (Love  & Friendship), provide some distraction and a peek at the next generation coming up in the world. They are an odd couple, and come off with varying degrees of believability. In addition, Amy Landecker (Project Almanac) and David Warshofsky (Now You See Me 2) are side notes to the tale. Warshofsky is probably the most grounded and credible of the cast, outside of Hayek, but has relatively little screen time. Landecker is  her typical, crass, ugly person. She does it well, but it is rarely an approach I find sympathetic or engaging.

You can’t help but compare this to The Dinner, which released around the same time and has a similar sort of dynamic and pathway. And again, the path and story are intriguing in Beatriz, but it ultimately didn’t pay off for me. I will admit this is a huge leap above Mark White’s most recent script, The Emoji Movie. The level of maturity is an entirely different league. And Arteta’s direction of it is uncomfortably realistic while maintaining a sort of theatrical stage sensibility. Perhaps I wasn’t able to see the point or wasn’t ready to see the point, but either way, it left me (amusingly given White’s involvement) with a “meh” feeling.

Ultimately, you see this for the performances. So whether you seek this out or not has to be left up to you.

Beatriz at Dinner

Pinky Beauty Parlour

[3 stars]

This one will surprise you. It has a rocky start and is oddly constructed, but it unfolds and builds on itself. In fact, it sells itself through to the last line by keeping you guessing what happened right up till near the end. As director and writer, Akshay Singh tackled a rather complex piece for his first time behind the camera. And, to top it off, he plays a crucial role in front of it as well.

A few days ago I saw Water, which tackled a different set of cultural issues in India’s past. Pinky assaults modern issues in a present day India through drama and humor. Though to call this a comedy is to confuse Shakespeare’s clowns in any of his tragedies for the main point of the story. For all its silliness, the points to be made are rather strong.

Pinky is is definitely a low-budget effort, but it is done with heart and a lot more talent than is immediately evident. Give it time if you enjoy films from the region; it definitely has a Bollywood vibe. However, the structure of the story is different than you might expect and the result is more than just a resolution to the romance and plot. Do be warned that the subtitles are horrible translations much of the time. Unless you speak Urdu, you will need to do some quick rewrites in your head throughout for grammar and word choice. It isn’t unwatchable on that count at all, but it was frustrating on occasion.

Pinky Beauty Parlour Poster

Water

[4 stars]

This much recognized tale by director and co-writer Deepa Mehta is more than just an historical. In fact, despite its setting in 1938 India, it is disturbingly reflective of today with its abuse by the class system, treatment of women, religious fundamentalism, and general social unrest. And I don’t mean reflective of India, I mean worldwide. But commentary aside, the story alone is compelling.

In her first and only film to date, Sarala Kariyawasam, holds this film together with her young and intense presence. As a young widow (at 7 years of age) she is forced to live out the rest of her life cloistered. The collection of women she now lives with are faced with her indomitable spirit and the chaos she brings to their ordered world.

In parallel, John Abraham (Dhoom) and Lisa Ray (Endgame) provide a separate and adult focus of life and possibility. It is a tale we’ve seen before, in many ways, but one that doesn’t tend to get old if you like romance and believe love is more important than rules. That doesn’t mean this is an easy set of choices and the outcome is far from sure, but these actors bring you along the journey and help you believe the choices.

Overall, of course, there is the title: Water. The element here represents life, magic, love, and so much more and so much less. I am curious now about its companion pieces that I didn’t know about: Fire and Earth. Water completes the trilogy, which I can see given the ending, but I have no sense of the overall journey and shape from only this single movie.

This is a beautiful and emotionally frustrating film with a lot to say about the past and about the present. Definitely worth your time if you missed it till now.

Water

Summer Hours (L’heure d’été)

[3 stars]

Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria) wrote and directed this  deceptively simple, and highly awarded, story about family several years back. I say “deceptively” because there are layers to this story that are unavoidable, even if they aren’t Assayas’s main focus.

On the surface we have Edith Scob (Holy Motors) as the matriarch of a modern, dispersed family admitting and dealing with her mortality. The frank recognition of her family’s real trajectories and the “residue of the past” in the form of her house and art collection, is both honest and saddening. What she really thinks of the realities is part of what we want to know and part of what at least one of her children, Charles Berling (Elle), must contend with. Also, as the oldest, he must balance his sib’s reactions and desires. Juliet Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) and Jérémie Renier (In Bruges) balance him nicely, hinting at a deep history and long-standing disagreements that they’ve all somehow managed to balance in order to keep their relationships.

But on a deeper level, and sometimes a bit too spelled out, is the deconstruction of the collection from its human surrounds. We watch art become isolated and are forced to question the value of possessions and its meaning, absent people around it. This is true for the collection as well as the family house. While the interactions and story are certainly engaging, it was this aspect of the tale that I found most intriguing, though I wish it had been a bit subtler in the dialogue.

But Assayas wanted to focus on a different story. He was taken more with the generational aspect of life. How do things, ideas, and memories get handed down from the elders to the children. What form does that take and how does it happen? Basically, how does familial history get formed and preserved, and should it or does it need to. He explores this in various ways and to unequal effect. But the story pulls you along far enough before it simply drops you to consider life on your own. Beautifully filmed and nicely acted, it is an interlude worth the time.

Summer Hours

The Hero

[3 stars]

Sam Elliot (Grandma) is a fixture of the last many (many) decades, probably much to his joy and chagrin. There is more than a little of him in this quiet rumination that uses film and celebrity as metaphors for life. And he is, as always, a quiet force on screen in that commanding way and with his signature deep, rumbling voice.

While this is very much a movie centered on a man, there are two notable female performances. Laura Prepon (The Girl on the Train) actually manages to steal scenes from Elliott by force of charisma alone. She has always been an intense personality and this is no exception. And, as always, she uses her chops and ability to deliver a complex character, even if there is little there to work from. Along with Prepon was a surprisingly vulnerable turn by Krysten Ritter that couldn’t be farther from her breakout Jessica Jones. This Ritter is meek and tenderly broken, despite her hostile demeanor.

After their collaboration on I’ll See You in My Dreams, Brett Haley and Marc Basch teamed up again with Haley back at the helm. In some ways, this is the reverse view of that previous story, at least in gender perspective. It is also a bit more successful overall. The two creatives make a great team and I look forward to what they produce next given their growth with each film. 

The Hero