Tag Archives: Early film

Loving Vincent

[3 stars]

Have you ever wanted to fall into a painting and see what the world was like in there? Loving Vincent, whose title serves both as the core sense of the film and comes from the artist’s own epigram, does just that. Using van Gogh’s style, an army of artists hand painted each frame making it feel like you’re in his world. The result is somewhere between stop-action and traditional animation, evoking Aleksandr Petrov or even early Takahata and Miyazaki.

But the story itself isn’t what you likely anticipate given that description. Unexpectedly, this Oscar contender kicks off a year after van Gogh’s death; an event most of us grew up thinking we understood. It was suicide, wasn’t it? Turns out there is a story there to be told. Douglas Booth (Limehouse Golem) is the man trying to ferret out the truth, at first reluctantly, and eventually with solid obsession and a large collection of characters to interview.

Among the notable supporting cast: Chris O’Dowd (The Cloverfield Paradox), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Helen McCrory (Their Finest),  Aidan Turner (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Being Human), John Sessions (The Loch), and Jerome Flynn (Ripper Street, Game of Thrones). Due to the techniques of the film, the actors are more than just voices in this story. All of the actors are recognizable, their images painted over to fit into the atmosphere.

This amazing cast, listed and unlisted, are also part of the issues with the film. Though each looks a lot like the real-world counterparts in Vincent’s world, the rotoscoping is a little distracting. The style of the film, which uses overlays and masks to create the style at times, can also be a bit hard to focus on as it flows across the screen. It brings to life van Gogh, making his static indication of vibrancy real, but what worked in static can feel over amplified in constant motion. Still, the overall effect and story are fascinating and clearly a true labor of love.

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman directed and co-wrote this odd historical along with Jacek Dehnel. For all involved this was an early contribution to feature film and a heck of a leap of art to try. While it deserves its place among the Oscar notables this year, it isn’t likely to win more than the honor of nomination. However, I am very curious to see what this trio (or individuals) attack next. It took a very creative brain to recognize there was a movie here, and to conceive of way to tell it that would capture audiences in a new way. Make time for Vincent…it is truly unexpected.

Loving Vincent

Black Panther

[4.5 stars}

This last year in film (and the world) has been one of evolution and, in some cases, revolution. With Black Panther, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed), has managed to both stick to the Marvel vision of super hero mythologies and remake them all at once. Like Wonder Woman (but with a better script), Black Panther is loaded with strong and smart female heroes as well as showing us a new view and venue for a story, never once touching down in the USA ( except for flashback and tag). It is also unabashedly fits into our current times, commenting upon world politics and the challenges that face the world. Oh, and it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

And Coogler managed to do all that while building on the tiny threads we’ve been getting about Wakanda, and amplifying smaller characters like Andy Serkis’s (War for the Planet of the Apes) Klaue and looping in Martin Freeman’s (Sherlock) Agent Ross. Of course we’d already met Chadwick Boseman (Captain America: Civil War), but we knew very little about him until now.

Now we see Boseman as a child and in his kingdom. He is surrounded by strong women without whom he would die more than once: Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe) as his top spy and love interest, Danai Gurira (The Visitor) as his General, Letitia Wright (Humans) as his scientist/sister, and Angela Bassett (Survivor, Chi-Raq) as his mother are all loaded with responsibility, brains, guts, and brawn. They all also have a healthy sense of humor and humanity about their young King; he doesn’t get a free ride anywhere. Each has some challenging storylines of their own, particularly Gurira.

There are also some standout performances in his retinue and world from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Florence Kasumba (Emerald City),  Winston Duke (Person of Interest), and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us).

But every hero must have his nemesis, and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) brings it with incredible style and ability. Jordan’s storyline, like the rest of the script, is far from simple. He also serves as an oddly uncomfortable voice for politics and society today while hearkening back through various movements of the last 40 years (and more).

I saw this in IMAX, which was glorious, but it is also the reason I had to ding the rating of the film. As good and fun as the script is, Coogler doesn’t quite know how to film up-close fight scenes for the truly big screen. He was a bit too close and cutting far too quickly in many cases, making what were clearly good choreographed scenes a blur. I plan on catching the film again on a standard screen, though probably not 3D, before too long. I’m curious to see if that will help with some of the issues.

So go see this, for so many reasons: great script and story, great humor, incredible visuals and action, and the shattering of many walls. I don’t know where they’ll take this in future, but Black Panther has earned his place among the Avengers as well as film history.

Black Panther

November Criminals

[2 stars]

While this flick starts off with an interesting premise, it quickly slides into vague mediocrity. It is a shame since the cast is really pretty solid. Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) and Chloë Grace Moretz (The Equalizer) work well together, and David Strathairn (The Darkest Hour) and Catherine Keener (Get Out), as their respective parents, deliver too. Even the ideas, as it heads down a Vanishing sort of path, is full of possibilities.

However, the adaptation from director and co-writer Sacha Gervasi (Hitchcock) is overly compressed. All the interesting stuff that is hinted at bleeds out to the point that even the title is never explained (I had to look it up to figure it out–turns out Elgort’s character in the book loved dark, Nazi-tinged  humor; the term refers to those that involved with the Versailles Treaty at the end of WWI which led to the Weimar Replublik and the rise of the jackbooted fiends). Even after learning the roots of the title, I can’t map it to the actions in the movie, which implies strongly that it failed. I imagine the title was kept only to try and draw in the book audience, even though much of the book’s core had been scrubbed out.

The overall movie holds together, in a sort of light way, but there was clearly a lot more there when it started. The locations were a lousy choice as well; trying to pretend Rhode Island is Washington DC was a deadly stretch. In the end, it feels like Gervasi ran out of shooting time and made of it what he could.

As a high school romance, with a bit of life thrown in, I suppose it could be diverting for some. For the rest, I’d say just skip it. All of these actors have better venues to be seen in and you have better ways to spend your time.

November Criminals

The Limehouse Golem

[4 stars]

Limehouse is a tense and complicated period mystery; a wonderful, precise, dark gem of a movie.

Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) leads this twisting tale with character-appropriate confidence and acting ability. By her side, Bill Nighy (Their Finest) pulls at the threads of his open case and imagines the possibilities in an effort to solve the murders and save the girl in 1880 London. Sprinkled within the fictional are real-life characters who were in the Limehouse at this time in history, which adds some sense of reality to the tapestry of the film world.

Central to the story in tale and geography is a music hall dominated by Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending). His character, even from the wings (as it were), is an overshadowing presence that has him driving the film in his own right, even getting the opening and closing frames. Additionally, Sam Reid (2:22), and María Valverde (Exodus: Gods and Kings) play integral, if slightly less layered roles.

Two smaller characters are given quiet life by Daniel Mays (Against the Law) and Eddie Marsan (Atomic Blonde). These two actors are always great at making the most of small moments and minimal dialogue, and this movie is no exception.

One of the best parts of this film is the script, which has a strong female lead and an unconventional narrative. Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) was on task to adapt this script from Peter Ackroyd’s book; the title of which is variously The Limehouse Golem, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (a reference to Booth’s character), and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (a reference to Cooke’s character). That it has existed with so many different titles gives you a sense of how much she had her work cut out for her. With Goldman’s history of delivering some of the most delightfully odd films of the last 20 years, she was a perfect choice to tackle this project. And director Juan Carlos Medina showed himself well with this Sophomore feature as it bounced between different themes, plots, and timelines.

Make time for this mystery. It will keep your brain going and engage you from the moment it begins. And while the surface story is wonderful, it is only one of the layers of this film, and only one of the ways to approach your understanding of the movie which is dense in meaning and language, making it eminently rewatchable.

The Limehouse Golem

The Cloverfield Paradox

[3 stars]

At the end of last year, Netflix stepped afield from original and purchased series programming and entered the big-budget feature game with Bright. It wasn’t an instant classic, but it was a shot across the bow of the current film distribution system and raised the bar in some ways for its pure streaming competitors.

This latest feature had a surprising trajectory that may remake the release landscape yet again. Bright was bought early in its inception  band guided by Netflix. In the case of Cloverfield, what was supposed to be a big theatrical release this April got picked up and near-instantly released by Netflix. Mind you, there are reasons it was available for such a purchase, but it speaks both to the power of the streaming giant and the new thinking of studios who are scared of losing money.

The movie itself, even with its flaws, is certainly on par with a lot of what hits the big screen; a low bar, I know. It parallels the Cloverfield universe, offering up (perhaps) some answers to where we left it off in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  And it tackles the story with the expected bad science fiction the series has embraced, and a great cast.

And the cast is probably one of the more surprising aspects of the story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Miss Sloane) drives this tale with incredible and complex (and occasionally questionable) emotional and intellectual strength. David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe), as well, brings a command and depth to his performance. Daniel Brühl (Burnt) is a bit forced, but commits to his part of the story. The same is true for Ziyi Zhang (The Grandmaster), Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), as well as the relatively unknown (in the US) Roger Davies. Chris O’Dowd (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) is the odd man out in the cast personality-wise. He works, but mostly as delightfully understated comic relief. He isn’t a particularly credible crew member, but then again, none of them are. The most abused by the bad aspects of the script was Aksel Hennie (The Martian), whose taciturn Russian was way too cookie-cutter.

As his second feature, director Julius Onah shows some solid promise controlling big stories. He built a good path in terms of energy and flow and elicited some real emotion in the middle of what is arguably just a horror film on the order of Event Horizon. The real weakness was Oren Uziel’s (Shimmer Lake) script, which had unrealistic characters as well as forced and unexplained plot trajectories and moments. Fun? Sure…and O’Dowd got to take the most advantage of that…but completely inconsistent in ways that just left too many questions rather than a sense of something happening. For all its absurdity, Life at least had their astronauts behave like astronauts and their creature obey some set of definable rules.

Netflix still doesn’t quite know how to produce a solid feature-length film, but they’re learning and getting to use some impressive name dropping to keep it going until they do. I’ve seen way (way) worse on the big screen over the last year, and this is a perfectly fun and distracting entertainment with a couple really good performances.

Ultimately, and not unsurprisingly, there are more Cloverfield stories to come. Overlord is due in October this year to continue the universe (or so it’s rumored). What dropping a critical installment of this sequence of films straight to streaming will do to the franchise will be an interesting story to follow.

The Book of Henry

[4 stars]

Henry was a rather divisive tale during its release, but I honestly don’t understand why. It is dark, yes, but on a clear trajectory from its outset and with an emotional intelligence that is rare in films, and even rarer in films driven by children.

Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), in the title role, is controlled but never forgets he is a child in a co-dependent relationship. Alongside him is the incredibly capable Jacob Tremblay (Wonder), who consciously takes a back seat in this film to his screen brother, but delivers a great performance nonetheless. In the third child role, Maddie Ziegler(Leap!) rides a very subtle line without ever overplaying her cards. Having three capable young actors driving a movie was a great surprise.

But this isn’t just a tale of the children. The adults around them have equally interesting paths to walk. Prime among them is Naomi Watts (The Glass Castle), who continues to be a conundrum for me. She is a very natural actor who never quite seems natural because she has such charisma and power on screen. This film manages to contain her relatively well, but it wavers at moments. Sarah Silverman (A Million Ways to Die in the West) is surprising as Watts’ best friend; funny, but in a dark and subtle way with a sad, but very real character. Finally, there are Dean Norris (Girlboss) and Lee Pace (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in critical, smaller roles. Both performances are quiet and full of implied layers which fill them out despite minimal screen time.

Colin Trevorrow has had an odd trajectory as director, going from the utterly delightful Safety Not Guaranteed to the overblown and absurd Jurassic Park and now a return to his more indie roots with Book of Henry. While Jurassic has made him a mint, it is clear that, left to his own devices, he can craft and control deeply emotional and complex tales. His execution of Gregg Hurwitz’s first feature script was done with real skill. It is oddly structured in ways that will keep surprising you as it subverts traditional plots.

I know this movie will not interest everyone; it somehow manages to credibly combine the sensibilities of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet and Florida Project and Gifted without a nod or a wink. It captures small-town life and the quiet corruption that can lie beneath, but it isn’t so jaded as to go sour. The performances are near flawless and the story is both timely and effective. In other words, for the right and receptive audience, it is a solid choice.

Side note: I don’t often do this, but I’d waited months to read the Esquire review of this film and feel compelled to link to it. Not because I agree with it all, but there are aspects that are interesting. There are also aspects that make it clear the reviewer wasn’t paying attention, so I have to discount the whole given how intricate the plot is; missing anything is to make it all shaky. Regardless, the reaction is typical of what I was seeing. Do be warned, he retells a lot of the plot, so I’d wait before you read it as I did.

The Book of Henry

The Post

[3 stars]

As I prepped for the Women’s March, and only a day after the current president launched The Fakies, making time for The Post seemed both a necessity and a wonderful warm-up for the cause. The Post is a phenomenally important movie and message. I’ll get to the rating later.

This is Meryl Streep’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) story, without question. It is that extra layer of her coming into her own that really makes the film. But, surprisingly, while Tom Hanks (Inferno) , may share the marquis with her, it is really her relationship with Tracy Letts (Lady Bird) that is the flash point for her evolution; and his character enjoys that moment immensely.

There are a slew of other solid performances as well. Bob Odenkirk (Hell and Back) and Bruce Greenwood (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), for instance. But it is Bradley Whitford (Get Out) that stood out for me. His weasley Arthur Parsons was a study, mostly, in subtlety and restraint as an actor. And, though the performance isn’t particularly noteworthy, Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name) makes his fourth appearance in a top film this year; we should all have such a good agent working on our behalf!

While Streep’s character rules the story, it is the papers and message that rule the plot. This is clear in the way the Speilberg (The BFG) directs the shots and provides focus, often following the papers rather than the people. His message and warnings are clear about where we are today and what we cannot ever allow to happen. And the final moments slam that home with almost embarrassing abandon.  But I have to tell you, we were all clapping come the final credits and when is the last time that happened in a movie for you? It wasn’t quite the hopeful rush that V for Vendetta brought to me during the W years, but, then again, this wasn’t a movie of hope, it was a call to arms.

All the import aside, it is only, really, a middling movie on its own. Much like Bridge of Spies, it feels somewhat sanitized. There is no grit and grime like, say, Roman J. Israel, Esq. had. It sometimes felt more like the memory of an era rather than the time itself. The beats, even if you don’t know the history, are all pretty predictable. The moments that stand out are the moments that show us Streep’s world and reality (and a couple will take the air out of your sails). But her transitions aren’t very crisp…you see them and know they happen, but I never saw the “moment” it clicked over only the moment before and after. Perhaps more of the blame belongs to fairly fresh writers Hannah and Singer, but it was still Spielberg’s to bring to life.

So yes, see it. You must. If not for the performances, for the reminder and for the energy to act. It is most certainly not a waste of your time even if it isn’t the instant classic of The Paper Chase (which would make a great double feature).

See you at the March, I hope…

The Post

The Darkest Hour

[3.5 stars]

And now, as they say, for a bit of context. In the role of a lifetime, Gary Oldman (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) portrays Winston Churchill… no, belay that, he disappears into Churchill in a brilliant performance that follows Churchill’s installation as PM and lead-up to the evacuation at Dunkirk. It is a fascinating inside look at political cravenness, beaten down morale, and true patriotism. Actually rather a good mirror for today as well. Much of what Nolan leaves out of his movie is in this one. Together, you get a much better understanding of the situation and the desperation. What is mere exposition in Dunkirk becomes very real in The Darkest Hour.

Outside of Oldman, this film is really carried by only two other characters. Kristin Scott Thomas (My Old Lady) as Churchill’s wife and Lily James (Baby Driver) as his assistant provide Churchill’s conscience and connection back to humanity. And both relationships are funny and very real.

Coming off his disastrous Pan, Joe Wright acquits himself well with this latest film. His direction of Oldman alone will get him a lot of cred going forward. On the other hand, Anthony McCarten’s script isn’t quite as strong as his previous biopic offering, Theory of Everything. It is interestingly balanced to show Churchill’s transformation in the eyes of Parliament, and perhaps within himself, but the path isn’t quite as credible. The result makes the film a little uneven. While Oldman, Thomas, and James capture your heart and attention, the structure of the story and the flow to the end aren’t equally as strong. After a promising start, it drops the countdown conceit and fractures into too many storylines. Churchill’s transformation near the end is wonderful but also a tad abrupt. The critical scene itself is not based on any verifiable event, but is drawn and created from the historical record of Churchill’s actions as PM; but you so want it to be true. It is that emotional response that is part of the timeliness and impact of the movie.

But these are all minor details compared to the performance by Oldman. It is a must see portrayal. Oldman’s transformation is so complete it is jaw-dropping. And the film is still solid and interesting both as an historical and as a dark mirror into current politics and humanity.

Darkest Hour

Lady Macbeth

[3 stars]

With a title like Lady Macbeth, you do have some sense of what’s to come in this twice-removed adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tale of power and betrayal. However it lands as a middle ground between being a direct adaptation of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Shakespeare’s tale, though it lists Leskov as the main inspiration.

The story is recognizable enough: bored estate wife finds life again through an affair with one of the peasants. Florence Pugh (Marcella) creates a lady of the house who is both innocent and driven. Her motivations, fueled primarily by a lack of attention and respect, build naturally, if a bit quickly. Her counterpart, Cosmo Jarvis (Humans) gets dragged into her machinations willingly, but struggles with aspects, much like the Scottish king. Pugh’s evolution from meek chattel to ruling lady is horrifying, all the more so because you sort of root for her. But, much like her titular namesake, it is an unending hunger for power which, ultimately, cannot lead to a happy ending. Likewise, Jarvis’s awakening to his situation is intriguing to watch.

There are some significant differences from the book in Birch’s script; primarily the last act of the movie. They don’t really matter if you don’t know them…and to keep it at a reasonable length, the changes were necessary. They also provide a nice arc for Naomi Ackie, as the chambermaid. Ackie’s story actually risks taking over the movie, but the structure, particularly the first and last frames, keep it all on track nicely.

William Oldroyd directs the story with a sense of affection and dread for the characters. He makes them human but doesn’t shy away from the twisted nature of their decisions. As a first feature, for both he and Birch, and with a mostly untried cast, it is quite a launch of talent. It isn’t a fast film, but it is credibly well-made and subtle.

Lady Macbeth

2:22

[3 stars]

When creating a story longer than 500 words, or several lines of poetry, most people know the obvious: you need an idea and a  beginning, middle, and an end. But, in actuality, you typically need two ideas that come together in an interesting way to have a tale that isn’t a one-line point or joke. 2:22 revolves around a single, albeit poetic, idea. It seems like it is more than one idea, but, boiled down, it is really just the one and that idea is not enough to carry the whole tale.

In addition, at two critical confrontations it loses credibility, allowing the tenuous structure to collapse and simply become interesting rather than good. And it is an interesting and clever take on a number of common tropes. To explain that or to provide examples would rob this film of its impact, so I won’t. The way the story unfolds, to slowly reveal and define the mystery, is also quite well done.

The main cast are fairly good as well. Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones, Age of Adaline) and Teresa Palmer (Point Break) have great chemistry. The script by Stein and Parker, however, lets them down. A rather unexpected turn of events given Parker’s previous script for Moon. Currie’s direction, despite some good effort, can’t dig them out of the hole when the things get difficult. And Sam Reid, as the third pole of the main plot, is also less than convincing for me.

As purely a bit of fantastical romance, 2:22 mostly works. It lacks the lasting joy and wow of, say, Mr Nobody, but it isn’t without its merits. As an early project for almost everyone involved behind the camera, it also shows some promise if they can better spot the weaknesses in their efforts and shore them up.

2:22