Tag Archives: Early film

Agatha and the Truth of Murder

[3.5 stars]

If you like Christie, this is a must-see story. If you’re a mystery fan, it depends on your tolerance for a solidly standard BBC mystery with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. The movie stands on its own nicely, regardless of your familiarity with Christie and her works, but there is more to get out of it the more you know.

Many stories and speculations have been made about the 11 days that Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926.  Even the facts are still debated and discussed because no definitive answer has ever been documented (one theory, another theory). Of the fictions posited, several, including a Doctor Who episode, presume she went off to solve a real-life murder, because it would be the most amusing assumption.

This latest look at that real-life mystery is really rather fun. Tom Dalton’s script is clever and nicely reflective of Christie’s work while remaining both a good mystery and very self-aware. Christie, played nicely by Ruth Bradley (Humans), gets to learn about the real world and and her public before our eyes. It is a delightful performance that is both strong and vulnerable, and even a bit naive about the world.

Joined by Pippa Haywood (The Bodyguard), the two dive into a cold case with, of course, many suspects and an obscure motive. A perfect Christie set up with a solid supporting cast. Of note are two character actors, Tim McInnerny (The Hippopotamus) and Ralph Ineson (The Hurricane Heist). Each delivers a number of unexpected moments and levels to what could have been dull roles. Some credit to that success is the script, but the actors had to sell it, and they do.

The story does take some liberties with the truth, but nothing that is overly concerning. And director Terry Loane shows he has learned a lot during his second-unit years, keeping the tale moving along crisply, and packing a lot into the 90ish minutes of the run. This may not be as slickly appointed as many of the recent remakes of Christie’s work, but it is very well done and entertaining.

Escape Room

[3 stars]

Silly, satisfying popcorn fun, as you’d expect.

Much like Cube and Saw before it, this collection of crazily conceived challenges for the characters offers a lot of dark entertainment, and some nice attempts at making it all believable. As a first feature script for Schut and Melnik, there is a real attempt to create just-believable-enough scenarios and people to drive the well-worn genre and provide some unexpected moments, if not exactly surprises. Adam Robitel’s direction, as only his second feature, likewise shows some nice talent with pacing and finding emotional threads to keep it all going.

The result isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining. Nik Dodani (Atypical), in particular, gets ripped off as a character, never really becoming someone we care about. But Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil) and
Taylor Russell (Before I Fall) actually get to build quite a bit of backstory and sense of life. Logan Miller (Love, Simon) and Tyler Labine (Voltron: Legendary Defender), aren’t quite as lucky and Jay Ellis (The Game) is really just a parody. These uneven efforts work in this genre, but does make the film a bit less than it might of become.

So, if you’re a fan of these kinds of inventive evil mayhem that may or may not ever really make sense, make an appointment for the Escape Room. If you are hoping for something a bit richer and more complete, like It or some of the other more recent reinventions of horror/suspense, this is going to come up a bit short…primarily for the ending, but also because of the uneven character development.

Mock and Roll

[2 stars]

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. Parody is brutal.

If you haven’t sussed it from the title, this movie is in the third category. Sadly, the result here isn’t great, but it isn’t entirely without merit. As an early or first film for almost all involved, it is interesting to see who may grow from it. And the story certainly takes the idea head-on by making the center of the story a parody band of The Black Owls to add some layers to the movie. Fortunately, they’re also a reasonably talented group of musicians.

While the movie style is stilted, it is also full of clever and intelligent ideas and comments. That can’t carry the film, but it does help make it engaging. By having a parody band at the center of it all helps to set it apart from other movies in the genre, like Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind. It accepts it is a parody from the beginning rather than having the band in earnest. One of the more unexpected thoughts in the script is why Liberty Mean, the parody band that drives everything, is a parody band: they consider it a tribute to The Black Owls.

But that brings up part of the challenge with this movie: you have to know The Black Owls and Foghat music to really appreciate the efforts here. If you don’t know their canon cold, it’s like trying to listen to Weird Al without context. It is also worth noting that both Foghat and The Black Owls have a real presence in the film, which is a huge bonus to its profile.

But, other than the editing, director and co-writer (with Mark Stewart) Ben Bacharach-White doesn’t do his actors many favors in this romp. Through interesting cuts and visual games, he keeps the pace surprisingly brisk given some of the issues that remain in the movie.

At the top of those issues: no one comes across as real or comfortable. There are some glimmers of potential beyond their musical efforts. Aditi Molly Bhanja stands out as the high point of the cast, providing just enough real moments to keep it all percolating along. Andrew Yackel isn’t far behind, though his timing needs some work on what are, admittedly, some truly challenging verbal riffs. But it isn’t like any of it feels real enough to carry the plot: Liberty Mean trying to raise money to get to SXSW to bring their brand of tribute to the masses.

Basically, this is a low-budget romp through and through, but with some real effort at making it whole, and with some good music to carry it. If you know the bands in play, you’ll get a lot more out of it. And, honestly, the better read you are generally, the more you’ll pick up in the dialogue. But this strikes me as a flick that works best with, shall we say, mood enhancers and, possibly, if you were/are in a garage band or on the younger side.

The Nun

[3 stars]

What is the difference between a legitimate sequel/prequel and a cash grab? The easiest answer is the quality of the movie. This prequel to The Conjuring series is full of surprises and nice visuals. It is creepy and relatively well performed. And, I have to admit, it had a great trailer that got me to watch the full flick. As one of its gifts to its followers, Taissa Farmiga (The Final Girls) takes over from her mother as lead in this outing. Demián Bichir (Alien: Covenant), as the travelling Vatican demon hunter, and Jonas Bloquet (Three Days to Kill) are fine as well.

Truthfully, however, no one really stands out as great. Part of the issue is the number of stupid things they do, like running alone toward danger. Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) doesn’t even try and help the actors smooth over those moments, accepting the genre low-bar for expectations. Writer Gary Dauberman, who also penned the spin-off Annabelle series, was either rushed or simply didn’t put in the effort for the story which doesn’t quite hold together if you look at it too hard. The background ideas are engaging, but the execution is sloppy. I will grant him the humor and, rare, humanity he injects into the tale, but those moments stand out because of the story that surrounds them.

So, cash grab or not? Yeah, to my mind it is. This movie barely stands on its own. And, despite some fun moments, it is rife with bad horror tropes that make it too easy to stay ahead of dialogue or scares. If you’re a Conjuring fan, it is probably a lot of fun to see the genesis of the evil. And that’s one of the tricky parts: even knowing that it is a prequel helps give away a lot of the story, making a solid script even more necessary. As a distraction it isn’t a horrible 90 minutes, but it isn’t the first thing I’d queue up if you’re looking for an evening of chills and entertainment.

Mandy

[1.5 stars]

Often when I use the tag and term “unique” I mean it as a compliment. This is not one of those times. This is a misguided, lost, often laughable attempt at horror surrealism, with a nod to gaming, anime, and heavy metal cultures. In fact, it does come across as an uncomfortable mashup of Hellraiser, Heavy Metal, and Reefer Madness. It is not a pretty result.

While Nicolas Cage (Snowden) is a love him or hate him kind of actor, he certainly put his all into an impossible role. So did the rest of the cast. Andrea Riseborough (Disconnect) and Linus Roache (Non-Stop) are of the better heeled talents in this outing that try to do what they can with their scripts.

Director and co-writer Panos Cosmato had a vision. He probably got it on shrooms, or some similar hallucinogen. And that’s fine and has worked for plenty of artists in various media. However, if the result isn’t something that a greater audience can follow or connect to, they have failed. Admittedly, this film has a following, it is what got me to watch it and stick with it to the end…I had to see why it had such strong supporters. I still don’t know. It is, quite frankly, juvenile, predictable, absurd, and full of issues in plot and logic. Even the surreal has rules and awareness; this did not.

Honestly, if you are looking for a head-trip horror, see Suspiria (either version) or Hereditary. Or, if you’re looking for a movie about cults or charismatics, try MarthaMarcyMayMarlene. Otherwise, skip this ham-handed effort.

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.

Robin Hood (2018)

[3 stars]

If you want the short version: this is a empty romp with a lot of problems, from production design to script choices. However, it does manage to entertain and have some good action scenes. If you’re looking for a great movie or a solid reimagining of the myth, look elsewhere.

Now for the longer version.

Robin Hood is one of the most remade tales in movies. Part of that is that it’s public domain. But a very real part of it is that it resonates with people, especially in times of great inequity. This is certainly one of those times and, done well, it should have been a break-out hit. With affable talent like Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Jamie Foxx (Baby Driver) there was appeal and ability displayed on screen. Support from Ben Mendelsohn (Ready Player One), Eve Hewson (Bridge of Spies), Tim Minchin, Jamie Dornan (The 9th Life of Louis Drax), and the redoubtable F. Murray Abraham (Isle of Dogs) didn’t hurt either, though not all of these actors had substance to work with.

Director Otto Bathurst, in his first big-screen credit, is better known on TV; not easy TV either. Having directed the first Black Mirror episode National Anthem, I would have expected a more astute political mind at the helm. Robin Hood, instead, is all over the place. It isn’t just an action film, though there is plenty. It isn’t a political statement, like V for Vendetta or even Ben Hur, which it makes nods to. I mean, it quotes Hillel the Elder, but can’t seem to follow-through.  Instead we’re left with some weird half attempt at both while committing to neither. In other words, a very unsatisfying movie.

Writers Ben Chandler and David James Kelly are both newbies to this level. They needed someone with a bit more experience helping them to pull this story off. The fact is they had an interesting place to start. They ask us, literally, to forget everything we know about Robin Hood and launch into a nice revision of the story that has potential… and then they devolve into the story we know, but with a framework that doesn’t work. We don’t even really connect with the characters or the populace because we’re never given that chance in this, admittedly, fast-paced tale.

Add to these plot questions some of the most embarrassing production choices I’ve seen in a major film, and it gets even more frustrating. I don’t normally focus on costumes, but when you can see machine seaming on clothing and modern leotards on characters, not to mention perfectly forged metals, it tends to throw you out of the Middle Ages. I think there was a thought to pulling something of a Guy Ritchie and saying “screw the era, I want them to see themselves in this film.” Well, it failed on that level too.

So, yes, you can feel justified missing this if you want. It certainly isn’t great. It won’t translate to small screen well, but you can wait for it if you don’t care about that. On the other hand, if you can get a cheap seat or really love these actors, you’ll have a diverting couple hours. Just go in knowing they are trapped in an inferior reboot and are going to do the best they can. Yes, that was the long version.

Boy Erased

[4 stars]

There are no breakout performances in this story, which is both its strength and its weakness. There aren’t breakouts because there are no forced moments and only a few intense ones. Much like life. I’m not suggesting this is easy to watch or not charged, but it doesn’t try to overly craft a climax or an epiphany. Boy Erased just lays out the events and lets them eat at you and, on occasion, shock you.

This is Lucas Hedges’s (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) film and journey. In some ways it expands on his recent Lady Bird turn, though that is a coincidence of releases rather than the intent. It is a quiet performance of personal struggle and is very tightly contained. At times it feels like it is too contained, but then the turmoil bubbles out, giving you a glimpse of the struggle.

Nicole Kidman (How to Talk to Girls at Parties) has the next most interesting character, as his mother. Her journey is probably the one that most gives us hope through the ordeal. But that doesn’t discount Russell Crowe’s (The Mummy) efforts as his father and local pastor who has his own struggles. It may sound strange to sound almost sympathetic toward him, but that is part of the impressive nature of this movie.

Joel Edgerton (Red Sparrow), as writer, director, and actor in this adaptation did an amazing job of presenting the tale, and doing so without demonizing people. There is a clear right and wrong, but generally people are doing what they do because they do believe and they do want to do the right thing. The fact that their world view is too twisted to see the truth is more of a tragedy than a plot. It would have been easier to make them look evil, but Edgerton chose to see them as people, however hateful they were (both of themselves and others). As a second time out directing, after The Gift, it is impressive. That said, he does bungle the penultimate moment of the film a little in an effort to maintain the energy levels he has created. It doesn’t fail, but it felt a bit off and it lost a little of its drive. The moment is still enough to propel us into the final sequence, so I won’t harp on it, but it is one of the main reasons this is a bit less than perfect.

Clearly this isn’t a “fun” film. It is the true story of a young man coming to terms with himself when the world around him is telling him he’s an aberration and damned. But, though this is obviously focused on a particularly frustrating issue, the lessons and message of this biopic apply to many aspects of life, making this pointed and general at the same time. It is an issue and story that everyone should see because it is, sadly, still a huge issue across this nation. And because, whether they admit it or not, we all have non-straight individuals in our circles and family. How you deal with that matters, and figuring out what is more important to you about those people (what you believe or who they are in your life) is a struggle for more people than we would ever like to admit.

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.

Overlord

[3 stars]

If you were somehow lucky enough to miss all the ads and trailers for Overlord, stop now and just see the movie blind. Honestly, the studio really did the flick a disservice by telling you what it was about. Part of the fun of the film is watching it all getting revealed, and they took that from me in spades.

OK, from here out I’m assuming you’ve seen the trailers and the ads. You’ve been warned.

Sure this is nothing but an update to Resident Evil by way of Dunkirk, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. It is, in fact, fairly well done and full of good moments, surprises, and the kind of splatter that combination would suggest. There is also a real sense of a good war film here that goes, shall we say, quite sideways. It is well shot and really rather well acted by most of the leads.

Jovan Adepo (Fences) is our way into this band of brothers…and it is very much a bro film. But Adepo gives it both heart and sense of danger. From early on it is clear that no one is safe in this story and that registers clearly for him, and through him to us. The machines of war quickly begin to eat up the people we meet.

Alongside Adepo fight a mixed batch of characters that each bring different levels and layers to the story. Wyatt Russell (Ingrid Goes West) is the seasoned veteran there to run the mission. John Magaro (Carol) is the smart-mouth jackass who nevertheless proves his mettle. And Mathilde Ollivier, in an early film for her, gives them something to fight for and just a touch of badly needed estrogen in the film. In a smaller role, but fun to see, is Iain De Caestecker (Lost River, The Fades) who does a great accent and has a bit of fun.

Arrayed against this motley gang are the Axis. Only a single Nazi stands out worth mentioning in that bunch: Pilou Asbæk (Ghost in the Shell). While it is a somewhat scenery chewing depiction of a German officer, he manages to find some balance, though not any heart. He certainly finds the creepy, which was his purpose in the tale.

Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) delivers a very watchable, enjoyable, and surprising movie for his Sophomore outing. Sure it is of a particular genre, but he doesn’t treat it that way. He treats it like a film about war, people, and the horror of what it takes to win and survive. Part of that success was the script from an unlikely pairing of Billy Ray (Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant). Both writers have a wide range of styles, but of very different sensibilities. Playing off the real events of Operation Overlord gave the two a solid underpinning for the story and its drives that allowed their talents to mesh well.

This was originally rumored to be a Cloverfield universe film. It is, in fact, designed much like those movies…slowly unrolling layers that end with unexpected aspects. But it isn’t part of that franchise in any other way. I wish the studio had believed in the quality of the film and allowed it to surprise and gather an audience. I get that it would have been challenging given the genre mash-up. Folks going for a war film would have been pissed and those showing up for pure horror would have been confused and angry that it doesn’t really become that till more than halfway through. But the story is compelling, well-paced, and nicely delivered. Definitely worth the big screen if you like either mashups, splatter horror, or both. And Avery is definitely a director you’re going to be seeing again, regardless of how Overlord legs out or not at the box office.