Tag Archives: Early film

Indignation

[3 stars]

Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) is not the first actor I would have considered for the lead role as a Jewish intellectual outcast in the wilds of Ohio 1951, but he surprised me. While his sense of inner turmoil and contradiction is less obvious than I might have preferred, his delivery and control helped sell the complicated young man. With Sarah Gadon (The 9th Life of Louis Drax) beside him much of the way, the two cut a tumultuous rug overhung by desire and dread. In short, a Philip Roth novel.

Around the young lovers are the adults that help define the story and results, though not a one of them would ever accept that responsibility. Which is, to my mind, part of the point. Tracy Letts (The Post), in particular, is a quiet powerhouse of a character. Letts embodies a personality that was common then and, sadly, still too far common now. And, as his parents, Danny Burstein (The Family Fang) and Linda Emond (Song to Song) are heartbreakingly real in their love and selfishness that influence Lerman’s life.

Writer/director James Schamus (Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet, Lust, Caution) is no stranger to delicate and fraught relationships.  His adaptation of Roth’s tale captures the intellectual and lyrical nature of the author nicely. For as simple as Roth’s stories are, the underlying intent and the social and personal commentary are not. His characters are constantly challenged and often fail. They question their purpose and their morality. They often don’t fit into the world around them at all; outsiders in a crowd. Sometimes outsiders in their own bodies. And they are passionate to the point of their own demise.

Indignation is loaded with history and layers. It is a quiet film that will pull you along to its final moments. It nicely hits on a personal level while leaving you with plenty to consider, and consider changing. And it captures its era beautifully…only reminding us how little has changed in human nature and politics.

Indignation

2036: Origin Unknown

[2.5 stars]

Origin Unkown pitches and yaws its way from interesting idea and moment to god-awful dialogue and plot points. Uneven is a kind word, but it has enough going for it to get you through to the end if you’re so inclined.

What you think of that end on reflection and the trip that got you there, well, that will be up to you. The heavy and unavoidable echos of 2001: A Space Odyssey are tackled head on from the choices in production design to the title, special effects, and cinematography. However, Hasraf Dulull (The Beyond) isn’t Kubrik nor did he have Arthur C. Clarke’s template to provide the foundation. Coming primarily from a visual f/x background, his move to front-of-camera hasn’t been entirely successful. Admittedly, though, as only his second feature it isn’t without some sense of potential for his future.

It was fun to see Katee Sackoff (Oculus) in space-ish again. She tries valiantly to pull the movie along, but can only compensate so much. Ray Fearon (Beauty and the Beast) and Julie Cox (The Oxford Murders) both drag down the story. Their interactions are forced and their deliveries, shallow. Only Steven Cree (Outlander), as the AI, feels at all real. Some of these issues are by design and intended as commentary, but some are just, honestly, bad acting, writing, and directing.

As a tale of AI and automation in the workplace, this would probably be a great short story. As a movie with grander themes, it is a little too full of itself and its desire to play homage to the classics it mirrors. With the 50th anniversary release of 2001 this month and other broad-plotted stories like Missions in the air, this movie just doesn’t feel very new, but more like a Black Mirror or Electric Dreams episode. For all that, I appreciated its desire to go big and its attempts to be realistic where it could or did.

2036 Origin Unknown

Sherlock Gnomes

[3 stars]

This sequel to the silly, but adorable, Gnomeo and Juliet is aimed at the same audience as its predecessor (15 and under). That isn’t to say that the riffs on Sherlock, and a dozen or more other shows and movies, aren’t entertaining for adults but it is thin feasting between those moments. However, the message of partnership and equality is a bit more palatable than most animated films aimed at this age group, which tend to fall into cringworthy cliché when it comes to relationships and roles.

Like the first, this also boasts amazing voice talent, adding Johnny Depp (Murder on the Orient Express), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Doctor Strange), Michael Caine (Going in Style), Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Matt Lucas (Doctor Who), Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), and Julie Walters (Brooklyn) to a hoard of others whose names are less recognizable. James McAvoy (Atomic Blonde) and Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) reprised their un-starcrossed lovers to complete the cast.

This is John Stevenson’s (Kung Fu Panda) second feature from the director’s seat. He doesn’t break new ground, but he keeps up the pace and finds some solid moments. However, it isn’t for a broad audience like, say, The Incredibles, so approach with caution and ready distraction as you keep your younger companions company (or that necessary large glass of happy juice to launch a mindless evening of entertainment).

Sherlock Gnomes

Three Identical Strangers

[4.5 stars]

Tim Wardle’s matryoshka-like tale of three brothers separated at birth is fascinating. Even if you remember the story from when it happened, you don’t know the whole of it. Wardle’s control, revealing it in layers, takes you down a rabbit hole; it creates an experience as close to how the brothers themselves experienced it as you could hope for. The structure is a wonderful example of form and function, and yes, showmanship.

There is much to take away from this documentary. Some of it is wonderful and some of it less so. To discuss any of it would be to diminish the experience for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say, make time for this. Support it. And keep an eye on Wardle. He may have lucked out with subject matter on this one, but he still had to have the eye to find it and the skill to present it as powerfully as he did, while still being utterly fair to the facts.

Three Identical Strangers

The Endless

[3 stars]

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s follow-up to their surprising Spring is just as unique, if not quite as endearing. Where Spring was pretty much a horror/romance, Endless is more of a subtle science fiction piece with fewer direct answers, though with plenty of clues. In addition to writing and directing this one, they also decided to star in it as a pair of brothers working through their past and present together.

While there is a nice range in the cast, Callie Hernandez (Alien: Covenant) and Lew Temple (Walking Dead) are the two that stand-out alongside our dynamic duo. There are louder and brasher performances, but these two have more levels.

As writer/directors, Benson and Moorhead sensibility of character and the world is a bit like Kevin Smith, but their execution and intent is closer to Coppola or Kubrik. They’re not quite to that level yet, but their insistence on complex geometry in their plots, their liquidity of genre, and their economy of shots implies a great path for the future. The two really care about character and story. And while they’ll occasionally slip into the sophomoric, they don’t allow it to dominate their tales, only spice it.

If you liked Spring, you’ll like Endless. If you haven’t seen Spring, give this a shot for a sense of what goes on in the heads of a couple up and coming filmmakers. I can’t say I found it quite as satisfying as Spring, and it is more than a little male-heavy, but it left me thinking and intrigued on a story level, which is always a good sign.

The Endless

Flower

[3.5 stars]

Looking for one of the odder, darker, coming-of-age rom-coms? This will probably do you then. Well, it will do something. Flower is a delightfully enjoyable, entertaining, and weirdly bleakly hopeful story. Yeah, it really is all over the place, though some of that reaction may be due to a generation gap; hard to tell from this perspective.

The success of the story is really down (perhaps a poor choice of words) to the ebullient Zoey Deutch (Before I Fall). She continues to enchant and surprise me in her roles. She is scarily natural on film and comfortable playing whatever is necessary for the character without shame or judgement or even triumph; she just “is.” Her characters are also strong but not without levels.

Her unlikely counterpart, Joey Morgan (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), was a great foil and, ultimately, with a bit more to him than was originally obvious. And as their parents, Kathryn Hahn (The Visit) and Tim Heidecker create a backdrop that is a bit extreme, but suited to the occasion.

On the side is Adam Scott (Krampus) in a role unlike any of his others I’ve seen. It is contained and quiet, with an interesting tension underneath.

As his second feature film, Max Winkler directed this well, keeping it light but not without the gravitas it needed. Like a good sauce, it seamlessly thickens as it cooks and holds together well. Winkler also co-wrote the tale, with McAulay and Spicer (Ingrid Goes West). I can’t even imagine the story sessions this trio had coming up with the plot, but they clearly worked well together. [Sidebar: If you were hoping for the Liz Phair song that shares the titles name you’ll be disappointed; but I’m still convinced it was part impetus for this movie.]

Flower is not your traditional film, and may not be for everyone, but it is one worth seeing for its surprise and craft in front of and behind the camera.

Flower

Upgrade

[3 stars]

There is more to Upgrade than you expect. Not a lot more, but it has a better story and script than a good portion of the films that have come out so far this year. On the artistic and intellectual side there are clearly intentional nods to Da Vinci, Frankenstein, Robocop, even a bit of Hitler in the visuals. This isn’t so much a dystopic future as it is an apathetic one with economic divisions just a bit more obvious than the present.

But while it starts off with a sense of Ex Machina, it loses that higher ground to drift closer to the sensibility of Automata. Both good recommendations, but very different movies. Upgrade is certainly willing to dive into ideas, like the potential amorality (or different-morality) of AI and what evolution means. And it is equally unafraid of emotions or taking its time to set up and execute on story. But they say “write what you know,” and writer/director Leigh Whannell just couldn’t quite shake his roots in Saw and Insidious. The ultimate result here isn’t very surprising–a good action and horror piece done with some talent. As a sophomore delivery from behind the camera, Whannell delivered a fairly solid bit of splatter punk. If there is any weakness, it is that despite some truly nice vistas and sets, the piece feels claustrophobic on a world level.

That smallness to the world may be due to its small cast, but Blade Runner 2049 had a similarly small cast without that sense, so I think it has more to do with Whannell’s framing choices. The cast are fairly solid and led by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), who gives us an Everyman we can definitely sympathize and empathize with. He is a Luddite in a world of tech, but a person with deep passions and a sense of self and love of his wife and muscle cars (in that order). Betty Gabriel (Get Out) delivers to us a committed, if exhausted cop. Her role is challenging because we only see her decisions from the outside, which makes her seem disinterested or lazy, but I found myself enjoying the removed perspective and trying to piece together her off-screen and unspoken efforts. Harrison Gilbertson (Picnic at Hanging Rock) has an interesting challenge as well. Playing the distracted genius can be tiresome, but Gilbertson manages, by the end, to give us a shade of something new.

As purely a voice, Simon Maiden (The Dressmaker) imbues our nascent AI with a subtle personality. Stem is neither human nor too removed to keep it from becoming a character. There is a sense of HAL, but Maiden makes Stem very much his own. And, finally, there is Benedict Hardie’s (Hacksaw Ridge) neo-Nazi-ish villain. Here is where Whannell could have done a bit more. Hardie’s performance is well directed, keeping him from going to extreme, though his first scene is somewhat misleading on that point. But the character’s motivations and drive, though stated, never feel quite true. Some of that is on the script and some on the direction, but a better set of choices could have elevated this unexpected low-budget flick a couple more notches.

You do have to like violent, splatter-filled moments (not many, but enough of them) to enjoy this ride. It has the feeling of a video-game at times, but not so much that it breaks the story or the sense of the film. The story is actually engaging and the pace swift, even humorous at times, without short-changing the experience of the plot. Yes, there are some shortcuts, but most are given reasons not just shrugged off, and very little is too easy for our main character. And, yes, this one is dark, so keep that in mind as well.

Stem is not for everyone, but I have to admit I’m glad I got to see it and I’m glad it got a wider release than a non-traditional film like this normally would; definitely alternative popcorn fare for the right audience. And, perhaps most importantly, it is something new, not a sequel or prequel or reboot…and how many of those are we getting this year?

Upgrade

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados)

[3 stars]

A surreal romp about finding hope in hopelessness. At least that’s what I took away from it this viewing. Pedro Rivero and
Alberto Vázquez (with additional help from Stephanie Sheh [Your Name.] and Joe Deasy) give us a landscape that borders on Bakshi’s Wizards: post-apocalyptic, mutated, venal, self-absorbed, and still focused on the value of the past rather than providing life for the future.

The main characters are children; children who are trying to survive and find purpose in a broken world. Somehow that part of the story feels very contemporary in terms of the feelings and challenges if not the specific events and issues. The overall plot echos the global trend toward migration, economic disparity, and the ecological disaster that is picking up steam with every year. But this is less warning than it is the (merest) suggestion that there is a solution if we can just hold on to what makes life worthwhile and control the darkest parts of our own selves. It makes for a pretty packed 76 minutes.

For the animation alone, this film is worth it. It isn’t grand, highly CGI’d animation, rather it is a reflection of its graphic novel roots. It is simple, but effective. The result is fascinating, inventive, and gripping at times. It refuses to blink from horror, but also often twists it to something of beauty or potential beauty. If you like the craft and enjoy challenging animation, this is worth your time.

The Death of Stalin

[3 stars]

So what do you get when you have an unchecked leader running a country with only sycophants at his side? No, not that, I’m speaking of Russia in 1953. Though the parallels are utterly intended and the implications somewhat overwhelm the humor at times. But when Armando Iannucci, the co-writer and director of In the Loop and Veep, decided to tackle the Russian oligarchy for his second film, you rightly expect dry, wry. and bleakest black humor. If you didn’t, you probably have gone to the wrong movie.

Here’s the thing, this is not my favorite kind of humor. I enjoyed this movie to a degree, but I found it painful at times, and quite silly at others. It has a Monty Python-esque meets Chekov quality, and not just because Michael Palin (Remember Me, Absolutely Anything) is in it as Molokov (yes, that Molokov). That it also manages to cleave close to historical fact at the same time is a credit to Iannucci and his gang. But the movie doesn’t flow in a way that feels entirely right for my tastes. He does, however, know how to cast for his needs.

The actors are all top-notch comediens, from Steve Buscemi (Electric Dreams), to Jeffrey Tambor (The Accountant), to Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown), even to the stoic and surprising Olga Kurylenko (The Water Diviner). Andrea Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes) and Rupert Friend (Hitman: Agent 47) have their own little storyline to run out and Jason Isaacs (A Cure for Wellness) comes in hard and fast to steal a good part of the last of the film. But it is Paddy Considine (The Girl With All the Gifts) and Tom Brooke (Preacher) who launch us into the world and set the tone perfectly and who manage to bring it all back together, in its way.

Iannucci has given us a cautionary comedy; a well-done satire. For the right audience it will entertain completely. For others it will cause an uncomfortable frisson. And for yet others, it will simply stoke the frustration and anger they are currently feeling with the world. So go in knowing what kind of film you might be seeing and decide if it is for you.

The Death of Stalin

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.