Tag Archives: Early film

Slaughterhouse Rulez

[3 stars]

Whenever Simon Pegg (Terminal) and Nick Frost (Fighting With My Family) are involved, even just as actors and producers, you know it isn’t going to be a straight-forward story. Slaughterhouse Rulez reteams them with Crispian Mills’s (A Fantastic Fear of Everything) for a coming-of-age bording school black comedy…with an eco-message and monsters and not a few oblique swipes at Harry Potter and a dash of St. Trinian’s thrown in.

That crazy salad aside, there is little to surprise in Mills’s script; it’s all about the delivery. And Mills got the talent to deliver it with for sure. Michael Sheen (Dolittle), Margot Robbie (Bombshell), Asa Butterfield (The Space Between Us), and Tom Rhys Harries (Hunky Dory) carry a good part of the story. However, like Kingsman: The Secret Service, it finds in Finn Cole (Peaky Blinders) the pleeb in us all to let us root for someone to survive, as much as you do engage on that level.

Because it isn’t riffing on a specific genre, like Shaun of the Dead, it doesn’t have quite the same underlying punch or support. That doesn’t make it unfunny, just not quite as focused and digestible. But the reality is that either you like this kind of comedy or you don’t. If you do, give this the time. If you don’t, there are better options out there to try it out.

Slaughterhouse Rulez

Midsommar

[4 stars]

Looking for something different in your horror? This may be the answer. Like his Hereditary from last year, writer/director Ari Aster’s lastest takes a page from horror past from tales such as The Wicker Man (and a bit of an “Hereditary in the sun vibe”). It isn’t about blood and guts, it is about human frailty and weakness. If there is a supernatural element, it is purely as part of the psychotropic drugs used by the characters in the film.

What sets Aster’s work apart is the level of detail he puts into his worlds. Midsommar has a deep mythos and culture governing its world and characters. It isn’t unpredictable…you’ll likely know exactly where it’s going early on. But that’s OK. It works because of how it slowly reveals itself in inventive and, often, unexpected ways. Aster continues to improve his craft with this film, showing he has a very trained eye and a unique voice. As challenging as his films are, he is someone I’ll continue to pay attention to regardless of content.

Aster’s other gift is in casting. While the structure of the movie will pull you along, it’s Florence Pugh (Little Women) that really serves as lynch pin holding the whole thing together. Her raw performance often grabs you by the throat even as you want to shake her and make her choose differently. Her journey through Aster’s world is complicated and, often, uncomfortable. Pugh makes this movie work the way that Collette raised Hereditary to a different level.

Pugh’s story is, at least initially, driven by her association with Jack Reynor (On the Basis of Sex), William Jackson Harper (The Good Place), and Will Poulter (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). None of these men are paragons of, well, just about anything. That is clear from the beginning, but their presence is essential as part of the facets Midsommar reflects upon. If there is a fault here, it is that they are not really sympathetic, which makes them and their journeys less interesting. They aren’t unrealistic (entirely) but they aren’t anyone you really care about.

So for some creepy, beautifully appointed horror, Midsommar is a solid choice. It isn’t fast, but it is intense.

Midsommar

Luce

[4 stars]

Powerful and tense, this is a challenging film in most of the right ways. It has a good story and some very intelligent plotting to force internal conflicts for the viewer as the plot unfolds. Adapted by Julius Onah and J.C. Lee from Lee’s play, it is also a solid conversion from stage to screen. There is nary a hint of its physical roots other than, perhaps, the level of the language utilized. Onah’s direction is also subtle, keeping the charged situations contained to pressurize them until they are at full steam…and even then it’s a controlled release.

At the center of the film is the young Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves), who navigates the ridiculously layered title character. Octavia Spencer (Instant Family) as his teacher brings it as well; her character is well meaning, misguided, and completely out of her depth. Both are unexpectedly grounded performances in roles that could have easily gotten out of control.

Naomi Watts (The Book of Henry) and Tim Roth (The Hateful Eight) as Luce’s parents are good and evolve through their story. Though, honestly, I had great difficulty buying either of them entirely. Some of that was purposeful on Onah’s part in his direction and casting, but I’m not sure it was compeltely effective.

Luce is also surrounded by a number fellow students in his school. There are some nice turns, but Andrea Bang (Kim’s Convenience) is the one standout. She not only delivers but manages to remain an intriguing cypher through to the end.

Luce isn’t an easy film to watch at times, but it is beautifully real and subtle, playing with your better angels and quiet devils while setting them to war. And though the story is essentially a small tale of a young student, its reach is much broader than that because of Luce’s history. It isn’t perfectly acted or executed at times, but I forgive all its small flaws for the success of its bigger aims and I suspect most viewers would.

Luce

The Angry Birds Movie 2

[3 stars]

OK, let’s be honest, the first Angry Birds movie was awful. I only came back for the sequel because there was something about the trailer that gave me some hope. And it wasn’t unwarranted, though it wasn’t fully rewarded either.

The first movie tried to leverage the game that spawned the characters far too much. It was a confrontational movie between birds and pigs, and creepy and unsatisfying on many levels (not to mention a really bad script). But they learned from those errors.

This sequel is more about “pranks” between the birds and pigs (rather than omnivorous emnity). The plot requires them to work together. The humor has a lot of levels, from the slapstick to the more subtle. And the main characters have some arc to them.

Don’t misunderstand, this is still children’s fare to be ingested with lots of sweets or popcorn, but it isn’t a painful affair to spend time with. It’s simply a silly distraction stacked with an impressive voice cast list (though nothing worth calling out). Up to you if you want to spend time with it or simply need to distract some youngsters while you do something else. Either way, it was nice to see that they learned from their errors and put more creativity into this sequel.

Sylvia

[2.5 stars]

Are famous people interesting because they’re famous or famous because they’re interesting? Which is to ask: why did Christine Jeffs (Sunshine Cleaning) decide to take on John Brownlow’s (The Miniaturist) weak attempt to dramatize Sylvia Plath’s tale? And I ask because, while there are some nice performances, the story is a vapid and male-filtered view of Plath’s struggles with writing and mental health, not to mention life in general. Not what you’d expect from a female director taking on this icon of poetry.

It’s important, I suppose, to note this movie is 16 years old at this point, well before #metoo, though still in a world that was self-aware enough to recognize the issues with the cleansed biography. While Gwyneth Paltrow’s (Iron Man, Sliding Doors) journey as Plath finds many levels and nuances, the presentation is not kind nor sympathetic to her (unlike Joker was for Phoenix) when portraying mental health issues.

Despite the point of view being clearly through Plath’s eyes, her story seems to be lensed through her husband’s experience, Daniel Craig (Knives Out) as Ted Hughes, and her friend, Jared Harris (Carnival Row). Michael Gambon (Judy) and Blythe Danner (Hello I Must Be Going) add some sympathy and insight to Plath’s portrayal and life, but not enough to overcome the inherent issues.

The story is neither honest enough nor gripping enough to excuse its nearly two hours on screen. The issues here are very much with the direction and script rather than the performances, so if you want to catch some earlier roles for the leads, particularly Craig before his breakout in Layer Cake, you can invest your time. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

Hello I Must Be Going

[3 stars]

When you feel like your life’s fallen apart, and you’ve nowhere to go, what do you do? Most go home, regardless of how challenging that may be. Now, admittedly, Melanie Lynskey’s (Girlboss) story is culturally narrow, but it is still emotionally effective.

Lynskey is recovering from a divorce, the story of which we get over the course of the movie. In the meantime, she has to deal with her parents, Blythe Danner (The Tomorrow Man) and John Rubinstein. Danner and Lynskey are very much at odds, but in a way that eventually makes sense. No one’s family makes sense until you understand it better and, like the divorce story, we learn more as the movie unspools.

In the middle of all this is Christopher Abbott (Catch 22) as the catalyst. He is a believably earnest 19 year old whose hormones and sense of privilege allow everything else to come into focus for Lynskey.  Their story is both entertaining and a little disturbing (though nothing like her turn in Perks of Being a Wallflower). But they manage to make it all very sweet, in its way.

Director Todd Louiso is better known for his acting ( and occassional writing (Macbeth), but does a nice job with Sarah Koskoff’s first script. It isn’t a particularly universal setting and set of characters, but the core of the story will resonate more widely. If you want a lighter tale of awakening and growing up with a bit of humor and pathos, this will do.

Waves

[3 stars]

Horror auteur Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) takes a hard left with his latest production. Waves is an often painful, sometimes triumphant look at a Florida family, all to the backbeat of a range of curated music. Structured in two parts, we get to watch the disintegration of one sibling and its effect on the family and remaining sib.

Shults didn’t just work with his actors to set mood and action. His camera work and lighting, from the opening through to the final moment, are designed to elicit emotion and energy. He manages to create the out-of-control energy of being a teenager as well as the contemplative, anchorless sense of being lost as a way to inform the already powerful performances. However, if you suffer any degree of motion sickness or sensitivty to flashing lights you may find it challenging to watch at times.

Part one of the story is focused on Kelvin Harrison Jr.  (It Comes at Night) and Alexa Demie (Euphoria), whose relationship is intensely passionate. At the same time, we see Harrison navigate the expectations of his parents and himself. The combination is, as you’d expect, volatile.

Taylor Russell (Escape Room) and Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased) head up part two of the story, who pick up the thread of the story and tie it back to the opening of the film. The relationship here is the yin to her brother’s yang tale. The combination turns the movie into a visual Taoist structure.

In a bridging story, Sterling K. Brown (Hotel Artemis)  and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) give us the parent’s perspective that wraps and reflects on the young adults around them. It’s a complicated situation for them and their household, but it is also a little forced as written.

The movie is a bit more of an interesting experiment and piece of art than it is a great film. In part that is due to its length and structure, but it is also due to the self-conscious visuals and editing. That isn’t so much a ding as an acknoweldgement that this story happens more to you than with you. It is sweet and brutal and honest, but it is also somewhat presentational. That said, there are moments that will drop your jaw and, in my theater, had people talking out loud. So there is no doubt it is effective.

Child’s Play (2019)

[3 stars]

The Child’s Play series hit its peak with Bride of Chucky, to my mind. This reboot of the series tries to recapture that self-awareness and humor to keep the horror and mayhem moving along. It is a mixed success.

Tyler Burton Smith’s script, his first, is clever, even if it’s cloaking his very relevant idea in an old franchise to sell it. But director Lars Klevberg (Polaroid) doesn’t quite find the tone or pull the needed performance from his young lead, Gabriel Bateman (Dangerous Book for Boys), despite the kid’s chops. Bateman is generally OK, but often goes shrill, ruining the moments. On the other hand, Beatrice Kitsos (Exorcist) navigated her smaller role with real charm and ability, taking control when necessary, deftly.

But the actual best part of the film is the throw-away humor from Brian Tyree Henry (Hotel Artemis). Henry’s role is more than a little forced into the story, but he lifts the film nicely every time he comes on screen. However, Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West), who should have been a natural for this material and venue, was a bit lackluster and not always credible as the struggling mom.

One amusing surprise was Mark Hammill’s voice work for our new electronic Chucky. He stayed suitably saccharine, and then deftly flipping to rude, crude, and evil.

Overall, this isn’t a bad distraction. It isn’t a great one either. The core idea didn’t need to be shoe-horned into an existing property, but it was probably the only way to get it made and distributed by a studio. But in shifting the core reason for the bloodlust, it loses something. The whole idea behind the series, that of a trapped, evil soul unwilling to give up on life and his mission carries a bit more terror with it than just having your Alexa going psycho. The end result is some chuckles, some shocks, and a good deal of splattering blood without a lot of real, existential terror. A shame as the truth behind the plot is a bit terrifying and affects just about everyone these days (he wrote, staring at the ominous plusing of the blue ring on his Echo)…

Motherless Brooklyn

[3.5 stars]

Are you craving a classic noir with a patina of modern times to it? Then you’re in luck, this is very much a noir, tempered with contemporary sensibilities and commentary. For his sophomore directorial outing and writing debut, Edward Norton (Collateral Beauty) tackled a monster. It may have taken 20 years to drag Johathan Lethem’s book to screen, but it found its time, especially in theme.

To make the result more impressive, Norton also stars in the film as a physically and emotionally complicated, aspiring detective on a mission. The film is also told almost entirely through his perspective, making his directorial accomplishments even more impressive…there is almost no scene he isn’t in.

But Norton also loaded the cast with talent. Top among those is Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color). She is wicked smart, but also the damsel in distress with which his life gets entangled.

Several smaller roles bring the story and world to life as well.  Michael Kenneth Williams (Assassin’s Creed) brings entertainment in character and music. Willem Dafoe (Vox Lux) and  Cherry Jones (The Beaver) create poles around which information and plot flows. And, of course, Bruce Willis (Glass) gets it all moving along with a hardboiled kick.

Only Bobby Cannavale (I, Tonya, Ant-Man) and Alec Baldwin (BlacKkKlansman) felt wrong to me. Cannavale was just too obvious…possibly the fault of script and directing more than the actor, but it diminished his work. And Baldwin was probably the only complete miscast in the film. He does fine, but his very presence (and probably on purpose) evokes his SNL persona of the last few years. When they began production, Norton probably had no sense of how popular that satire would become, but it worked against him here. While appropriate for the tale and the point, it pulled me out of the film multiple times.

Overall, this is both a period detective movie and a modern commentary. It makes the plot somewhat predictble and obvious, but not in a destructive way, just a familiar one. And the more you know of New York City history and politics (I’m talking about you, Robert Moses), the more you can pull from the story which is only a thinly veiled retelling of the past…way closer to reality than you might expect. I’m not entirely sure why it was all veiled given how close it is to the truth, but there you go.

The film does take its pacing queues from the past, but it manages to keep the tension high and the mystery intriguing which makes the 2.5 hours move along as you stumble with Norton through the dark and glorious sets that recreate the NYC of old. If you like old movies and want to see something different from the majority fare currently in theaters, this is a solid choice.

Aniara

[3.5 stars]

I’m not often surprised by a movie, let alone a science fiction movie, but Aniara managed to. It may be based on an old trope, but co-directors and co-writers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Liljait managed to lay out their story thoughtfully and completely. It was also their first feature, making it even more impressive.

That it is an adaptation (from a nobel prize winning writer’s 1956 epic science fiction poem made of 103 cantos) rather than wholly original doesn’t diminish their result. Most science fiction gets over-simplified for screen, or leaves science behind for fantasy to create better visual or metaphyscial effects. What Ad Astra failed to get close to, where High Life just simply lost its way, and while Gravity (and even The Martian) over-simplified the situation, Aniara found a path and a statement to make by respecting the genre and the story. In fact, as an adaptation, I am even more impressed by the result. [You can read more about Harry Martinson’s work, but I’d highly suggest staying ignorant of the source material until after you see the film.]

Emelie Jonsson is the core of this story. Along with Bianca Cruzeiro the two hold together the narrative through its evolutions. In addition, Anneli Martini delivers a wonderfully dry and caustic performance that is at once funny and sobering. There are men in this cast and crew, but it is a decidedly female driven tale.

The result is solid science fiction, even with one or two winks at how things might work. And it is entertaining and nicely styled, even if it isn’t about the visual effects or action. The film is about the story and the impact of the situation. If you read Cixin Liu (Three Body Problem), you have a sense of this film’s vibe in both emotion and scope. It is definitely worth your time if you like the genre and, honestly, even if you don’t and have the flexibility to watch stories that take place outside your normal boundaries.