Tag Archives: Drama

Golem

[4.5 stars]

Not long ago, the 1927 Theatre Company recorded and aired their brilliant new take on the Golem tale. It is an astounding piece of stage craft that incorporates live talent and animation with a bit of music and movement thrown in. The story, in this conception, is about the control of media and commerce over humanity. The troop tell the story in a closed loop, spinning around the story of Robert, played  engagingly, and with spare irony, by Philippa Hambly.

Along with four other on-stage performers (Dunne Genevieve, Nathan Gregory, Rowena Lennon, and Felicity Sparks), the troop begin a story that you think you know, but which turns on you even as it makes your eyes and brain dance. The duality of what is happening on stage and how they are keeping you entranced is no accident. It is mesmerizing and pointed.

I have no idea if this will ever stream again or if it will be available on disc, but make time for it if you get the opportunity. Honestly, there are few stage productions that can really blow me away. This one had my jaw dropping constantly at the illusion, the humor, and the message. It’s not perfect, but it is darned close, and it is worth every minute you get to spend with it…and sadly that is ephemeral.

Mrs. Wilson

[3 stars]

This is one of those true stories that is stranger than fiction. In the beginning of this three part drama, Ruth Wilson (The Little Stranger) loses her husband of many years, Iain Glen (Cleverman). Quickly, she discovers that he wasn’t the man she thought in work, in life, or in love. Watching her struggle with the revelations is quite a shift from her usual more overtly tough characters.

The story is mostly about her wresting the truth from those who did know and then struggling with the knowing. Primarily, that is from Fiona Shaw (Colette) and Anupam Kher (The Big Sick), who still make her work for her answers, such as they are. Keeley Hawes (The Bodyguard) and Patrick Kennedy (London Has Fallen) add some other interesting aspects to the life being revealed.

Richard Laxton helms the triptych nicely, slowly peeling layers from the mystery and the characters. It is a fascinating story, if not an entirely satisfying conclusion. But the ending isn’t the fault of the actors or story, but rather of life, if the final credits are to be believed. Ultimately, it is a reminder to consider what makes your life right and good more than it is about collusion and deception. If it were placed in a more current time, I’m not sure we’d have gotten the same story, but it somehow feels right in its period.

For the performances and the slow ride of the story, it is worthy of the time spent. At this point I’m even curious to try and dive into the real history to learn more.

What They Had

[3 stars]

Why do we watch movies? To escape? To be entertained? To learn? To see something that is able to speak for us what we are unable to voice? I imagine all of those things at different times. Sometimes, it is just to see that we’re not alone in our struggles.

What They Had is a quiet and true ensemble piece that strips back the challenge of aging parents while layering in the risks of not living your own life. I can’t say it is entertaining so much as well done and that it manages to resonate.

The cast is solid all around. Hilary Swank (Logan Lucky), Michael Shannon (Little Drummer Girl), Robert Forster (Survivor), Blythe Danner (Hearts Beat Loud), and Taissa Farmiga (The Nun) each get there time and story. Each sells what they’ve got. Danner, in particular, pulls together a full person from the shards of a life, though it takes the entire movie to get there.

For her first film, writer/director Elizabeth Chomko tackled a highly personal subject, capturing the love and pathos it brings to many families. If you’re in the mood or simply need to know that others out there struggle with these issues as well, go for it. If you want laughs or even tears, you’re not likely going to be satisfied. This is more life than drama, not that things don’t happen, nor that there aren’t emotional moments, they just are more real than heightened. That is a compliment, but it returns us to the question: what are you watching for?

Blindspotting

[3.5 stars]

Blindspotting joins a growing group of scathing social satire and commentary, from the outrageous Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, and Assassination Nation, to the truth-based BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, and Vice. This is on the more realistic side of that collective, which only makes it more powerful when it comes down to its final moments.

The movie is written by and stars Daveed Diggs (Wonder) and Rafael Casal. They’ve crafted a script that is both naturalistic and lyrical, bordering on Shakespearian at times. Diggs and Casal are also a great acting team that dominates the film with their energy and emotions. Janina Gavankar (Sleepy Hollow) and Jasmine Cephas Jones (Mistress America) have impact and each provide important sounding boards for the men and their journeys, but remain in the background.

Blindspotting isn’t the most fun ride, though it does have humor, but it is a well crafted ride with some truly unforgettable moments and a very strong message. Definitely worth your time when you’re up for their approach, which pulls no punches but which also very much loves its characters.

McFarland, USA

[3 stars]

When McFarland came out three years ago, it was seen as a movie of possibility and perseverance in the vein of Brooklyn Castle or Spare Parts. Today, with the rise of 45 to office and the rhetoric about immigrants, it has an entirely different resonance. It is, in fact, a view of society that a good part of the country needs to see to be reminded of who immigrants are, what they endure, why they came here, and how they contribute. But, to be fair, that is all subtext to the main story of young men learning to believe in themselves rather than to believe other’s opinions of them.

This is one of those perfect Kevin Costner (Hidden Figures) vehicles; a slightly curmudgeonly middle-aged man with a big heart and belief in others. There is a large and talented supporting cast as well, though Maria Bello (Prisoners) and Carlos Pratts (The Bridge) are the main standouts for the story.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) sells the story in a Hallmark sort of way. The last third of the movie really diminishes its possibilities. However close to truth, it is primarily designed to manipulate, losing some of its credibility in exchange for cheap emotional punch. It still works, but it becomes very predictable and forced.

For a feel-good evening and, perhaps, education, it is worth your time. Certainly the real story deserves to be heard, however heightened the transition to screen made it.

Assassination Nation

[3.5 stars]

This is a hard film to watch, but probably not for the reasons you think. Yes, it is full of violence and it will anger and disturb you, that is true. But the hard part of this film is that it feels all too real and possible.

Writer/director Sam Levinson pulls off a neat magic trick by taking vulgar mayhem and making it into an honest-to-god statement about society and people. It takes a while to get there but when it does, it is a solid gut-punch. But even the journey is unexpectedly intriguing thanks to the cast.

Led solidly by Odessa Young, a small group of friends navigates high school and life as it all crumbles around them…literally. Abra, Suki Waterhouse (Future World), and Hari Nef (Transparent) back up Young nicely, and each has their own plotline to spin out. These four, young women each embody different aspects of the challenges of growing up in a world saturated with social media.

The adults around them are at turns clueless and, at turns, active in the unavoidable disaster that begins as the credits roll. Joel McHale (The Happytime Murders) is the only one with any real plot to work with though Anika Noni Rose (Ralph Breaks the Internet) does get her moment. Jeff Pope (Hap and Leonard) and Colman Domingo (The Kick) don’t really have any story of consequence, but each creates a recognizable character to push it all along.

Like I said, this isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is worth your time if you have a high enough tolerance for violence. You get a reminder and warning at the top of the movie as well, to give you one last chance to bail. But as a piece of social commentary, this is an effective and solid film. If Levinson can continue to develop that aspect of his voice and continue to match his stories to the need, he’s going to be a director and writer to watch.

Welcome to Marwen

[4.5 stars]

It’s easy and obvious to go to the musicals, the comedies, and the action films over the holidays. But if you don’t make time for this most unique and wonderful of stories, you’re cheating yourself.

Welcome to Marwen is entertaining, challenging, and hopeful. And a lot of the reason for that success is Steve Carell (Battle of the Sexes), who continues to prove his mettle as a serious actor. In this incarnation he is as vulnerable and powerful as ever; his performance will rip out your heart and hand it back to you reinforced.

Along with Carell are several women, some of whom barely, if ever, show up as anything other than dolls. Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) and Leslie Mann (Rio 2) are chief among those in his real life that need be mentioned. Both have engaging stories of their own that intersect with Carell’s Hogancamp, but it is their way of dealing with him that makes them stand out. Though Gwendoline Christie (The Darkest Minds) has a wonderful cameo that really pops as well.

The rest of the cast, particularly those that appear mostly or only as dolls are good, but they are very much there to move the plot along more than anything else. Even Diane Kruger’s (In the Fade) Deja is more impetus than real. That doesn’t diminish the work of any of the men or women, such as Janelle Monáe (Moonlight), it simply acknowledges where they live in the story.

Robert Zemeckis (The Walk) has finally found the perfect story for his motion capture tech. The odd flatness of the rendering is perfect for dolls. The effect feeds into the experience rather than fighting it as has often been the case in his previous movies like Polar Express or Beowulf. The story itself is also a nice match for his emotional sensibility. Zemeckis unfolds the story at its own pace, bringing us to a cathartic and bittersweet end that is both unavoidable and wonderful. The fact that it is also a true story only makes it more magical and inspiring.

The only reason I couldn’t give this 5 stars was that there are some dropped threads in the otherwise brilliant script. It takes it just a tad off perfect, but doesn’t diminish the story. This isn’t like anything else you’re likely to see this season, or any season. Make time for Marwen. Let it open your mind and your heart.

Papillon (2018)

[3.5 stars]

Eighty years after the real events and forty years after the first movie, this remake still finds resonance. But tales of human survival, justice, perseverance, and personal strength don’t really go out of style, they just become more or less believable depending on the times.  And with lesser personalities in the main roles this round, it is also just a bit more approachable. At least that is my recollection as it has been years since I saw the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman version.

Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) shows he is capable of solid acting when given a script and director that offer something. And Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), who’s star is now ascendant, wasn’t as well known when this released. His performance isn’t overly impressive, but it serves its need for Hunnam and the story, and he has his moment as well.  With the support of committed cast of characters from folks like Roland Møller (Skyscraper), Michael Socha (Being Human), and Yorick van Wageningen (Blackhat) among others, the world feels real and disturbing.

Director Michael Noer’s background in documentaries helped him navigate this fictionalized recounting of Henri Charrière’s life. And Prisoners scribe Aaron Guzikowski had the chops to approach all the characters as full people. The result is a tale of strength and love, in the purest sense. The ending, is a little rushed, but I understand the desire to bring it all full circle and it has to end somewhere. The horrors of the French foreign prisons and the “justice” that kept them open reflect interestingly in today’s climate of isolationism and rising inequalities. In other words, the story’s time has come again, which is part of what makes it so effective. It isn’t just an historical tale, it is a dark mirror and cautionary story of today.

In addition to solid performances and intensely gripping story, it is also filmed and edited beautifully. This isn’t a light film, but it isn’t grindingly heavy either. Make time for it when you have a couple hours and want to go through a solid drama that can re-energize your sense of possibility, commitment, and drive.

Creed II

[3.5 stars]

Creed II picks up nicely from the first film. But, like the first, it is impossible to leave the Rocky legacy behind. In fact, the Creed series seems to be repackaging the “best of” Rocky moments to create something both satisfying and new. And, you know what? That’s OK. It works. The rise and fall and risks of a boxer with heart is just as engrossing now as it was 40+ years ago. That we have an actual storyline that reaches back that far just enriches it.

Steven Caple Jr., with few big credits behind him, managed to take this complicated reflection across the finish line without it feeling like a cheap copy or tripping over its baggage.

Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) and Tessa Thompson (Sorry to Bother You) make a great couple and have a real sense of growth from the first film. And, of course, seeing Sylvester Stallone (Escape Plan 2: Hades) and Dolph Lundgren (The Expendables 3) reprise their Rocky IV roles was a kick, even if aspects were a little cliche.

The truth is that this is an engaging film with triumphs and tragedy paced perfectly to pull you along. Like Creed, the film surprises in quality and doesn’t stumble up the sequel step, despite clearly being both a sequel and remake at the same time. And credit to Stallone and co-writer Juel Taylor for looking back at the Rocky films and pulling that off so well.

There is room for the Creed story to continue, and given its success it probably will, but it would be fine to just let it end before it stumbles. In fact, I’d love to just have Creed retire and allow these movies to stand as a testament to what Stallone and his cast could create. But I’m sure greed will trump Creed eventually…it is the standard story in Hollywood and, just as often, aging boxers.

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.