Tag Archives: Early film

Mortal

[3 stars]

Unexplained super-powers is becoming an overdone trope, which is why when you find one that tries to do something new, it’s a particular delight. André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) returns to his Nordic, Trollhunter roots to bring us a slow but intense tale of a young man, Nat Wolff (Admission), who suddenly acquires powers he can’t control or explain.

Iben Akerlie (Little Drummer Girl) plays opposite Wolff and balances him out well. In fact, she and Per Frisch are about the only clear-headed folks in the movie while Priyanka Bose (Lion) serves to remind the world of why Americans just shouldn’t be trusted. A sad cliché, but she navigates it relatively well within the bounds of the script.

As you can imagine, tragedy and stupid government decisions begin to occur. But this isn’t quite the story you expect, nor does it unfold exactly as others of its ilk. Sadly, it also doesn’t quite get to a conclusion so much as a beginning. Whether the tale will continue I imagine is still in flux, but the path is certainly there. In the meantime, if you can handle being left hanging (think a Brightburn kind of ending in style, though not in content), give it a shot. Definitely something a bit more interesting than the typical version of these tales.

Mortal Poster

Earwig and the Witch

[2.75 stars]

There’s 2/3’s of an entertaining movie here. Sadly, that last act is missing. Honestly, what you get is really just the first installment of a series…but there doesn’t seem to be another one in the works. And, besides, it’s a cheat to end mid-tale rather than to have a coda that can expand the story for later. In other words, every movie needs to stand on its own, even if it feeds into a bigger arc. Director Goro Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill) knows this, so I don’t quite understand the choices, unless they were driven by cost or other factors.

Added to the challenge is that Studio Ghibli is clearly trying out new tech with this film. The result is very cold, losing all the warmth and subtle artistry the group is famous for. The look of the characters is very plastic-y and the lips don’t sync well at all. Some of that may have been the voice talent, but it was more noticeable than I’ve seen before in a Ghibli release.

And the voice direction was only middling. So much so that only a couple of the smaller characters really stood out. Neither of them were the women at the heart of the tale. Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Dan Stevens (Colossal, Legion) were either given more leash or put in more effort, but it was their deliveries that were the most memorable.

Goro’s father, Hayao Miyazaki (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), apparently helped with the planning of this story. You can see his influence in some of the interesting flows and the general joy and humor of the film, but I can’t believe even he was happy with the ending.

Ultimately, assuming the story is continued, this will be an intriguing first installment. But if it ends up just standing on its own, it is somewhat pointless. Frankly, I’d hold off till there is the promise of more, or you’re either prepared to be left hanging, or know the original books enough to know what’s going on.

Earwig and the Witch Poster

2067

[2 stars]

You’re allowed one big lie in a story to get it going. This is especially true in genre fiction. 2067 decided to go for three…starting with an absurd premise about “synthetic” oxygen. And I might have bought into that without the misunderstandings about fusion or the biggest McGuffin of them all: time travel (and, in this case, a conscious decision to create a paradox).

And OK, maybe I could have even gone along with all of that if Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Dark Phoenix ) hadn’t whined through so much of the action that he sounded like a 5 year old. At least Ryan Kwanten (The Hurricane Heist) balanced out the shrill noise, but he didn’t have much to work with. Smit-McPhee just didn’t have any chemistry with anyone, including his supposedly devoted wife, Sana’a Shaik, who seriously tried to make it all look believable.

Writer and director Seth Larney, who is more commonly behind the camera, stepped a bit closer for this release. Unfortunately, he really just didn’t have the story under control. There was no sense of pacing and no real tension after the first scene (which was rather well done, science aside). There are some interesting ideas and conundrums in the tale, and a reasonable resolution. However, it would work better as a short story than it does as a flick because so much of it relies on clearly the internal struggle of Smit-McPhee’s character.

I honestly can’t recommend this, despite the effort, ideas, and the production values. It’s overlong and just not particularly engaging. Larney has some ability, however. If he can learn from this, I’d be curious to see what’s next.

2067 Poster

It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

The Nest

[3 stars]

Sean Durkin’s (Martha Marcy May Marlene) latest pondering on human relationships and identity uses the go-go 80’s as its backdrop. Jude Law is the quintessential 80s trader chasing his sense of fulfillment and dragging long suffering (and occasionally insufferable) Carrie Coon (Widows) in his wake along with their kids.

There is a quiet intensity to this story, with layers slowly peeling back as it unwinds. But there isn’t much to like in any of these characters. Certainly there is empathy for their kids, but the adults are all, well, all those people you disliked in the 80s that brought the financial world to its knees in the first of several crashes to follow. In other words, it feels like we’re being asked to understand some really rather shallow and reprehensible people and feel sympathy of some sort. Sorry, no.

Even the ending of this story, which does bring the characters to the brink of change, never quite feels like it’s completed or paid off. It ends on a moment of potential…and that may be enough for some folks, but not me in this case. While it felt earned, it didn’t feel complete or satisfying. The children, in particular, are left in pain and without real support. So, up to you on this one. The performances are solid and the flow is good, pulling you along despite the low key of it all.

The Nest Poster

American Swing

[2.75 stars]

While focused on the infamous rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat, this docu is really about Larry Levenson, the man behind the bedsheet. Because of that, the historical and psychological aspects of the phenomenon end up ultimately getting sidebarred. The story is eventually overtaken by Levenson’s tale rather than truly examining the sex club’s impact on society in general and NYC in particular.

It’s unlikely you never heard of Plato’s if you’re over 30. But you may not know its history or even it’s reality, though the myths continue to circulate. What American Swing does is try to put a human face to it all. It isn’t entirely without judgement, but it tries to stay balanced within the framework it constructs. There are some interesting interviews, some by recognized names but also many just regular members. As a documentary, I’m not sure what story it has to tell. I get the impression that when Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman set out to expand on Hart’s article, they didn’t realize they had no more than a history report until part way through production. Than they shifted to a focus on Levenson to provide it an arc and some structure.

As a bit of history, American Swing is interesting. Not perfect and not particularly insightful, but it is a glimpse into a part of NYC’s past for those who were only vaguely aware of the club.

American Swing Poster

Trial of the Chicago 7

[4 stars]

Angering, funny, and terrifying. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) chose the last time in the modern age that our democracy balanced on a knife edge to both instruct and provide hope for the times we’re in now. We got through it back then, afterall. The system ultimately worked despite every effort to subvert and abuse it. And while I recognize that as a false equivalency as the system itself has been undermined massively over the last 12 years, it isn’t entirely without merit as an argument. It certainly is a reminder of responsibility and where the power of the government lies.

And yet, I will admit that I’d avoided this story afraid of having to deal with the frustration of the reality it depicts. And, yes, I was tense with anger and frustration for a good part of the movie. But Sorkin punctuates the tension with some well barbed humor and glimmers of humanity to keep it moving along. He also landed some amazing talent to recreate those involved.

As a whole the cast is truly fantastic and wonderful at representing their historical counterparts. But there were a few standouts. Sacha Baron Cohen (Alice Through the Looking Glass) as Abbie Hoffman is chief amongst those. Mark Rylance (Blitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) are close behind along with John Carroll Lynch (Big Sky). And, in a purposefully incidental role, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) quietly and righteously froths with intelligence and fury on the periphery.

On the other side of the aisle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Project Power) and Frank Langella (The Time Being) are impressive to watch, but neither really gets much of an arc to work with. Even Gordon-Levitt, who gets a few important moments, doesn’t really get to exploit or explore them for us in any fully satisfying way. But without either of them, the rest of the story would have sagged and the truth would have been less richly displayed.

With Jan 20 just around the corner, the movie is also a lot more palatable than it was two months ago…though also with a reminder that democracy is something we have to constantly nurture. This movie is heavy with history, but it is also full of entertainment to help put it all in perspective. That is Sorkin’s genius as a writer and, now with this sophomore outing, also as a director. Trial is not an anti-government film. It’s a story of what happens when the government forgets that it works for the people, not the other way around.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Poster

The Flight Attendant

[3 stars]

Watching trainwrecks is not something that typically entertains me. Self-destruction is neither funny nor darkly fascinating. So I went into Flight Attendant with a huge deal of caution and concern because Kaley Cuoco’s (Authors Anonymous) flight attendant is the embodiment of self-destruction. So why did I stick with it? Because it’s apparent that there are reasons for her actions (which we slowly get to learn) and because the show sets up a series of nice mysteries and suspense to carry you along. In other words the self-destruction is a symptom of a bigger, human story, not the focus of humor, derision, or weird life lesson in and of itself.

Cuoco is also surrounded by some fabulous talent who keep the series going. Michael Huisman (The Age of Adaline), Zosia Mamet (Girls), Michelle Gomez (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Doctor Who), T.R. Knight (Grey’s Anatomy), Rosie Perez (Birds of Prey), and Merle Dandridge (Greenleaf) are chief among them, though there are many more over the 9 episodes.

This series could have been an episode or two shorter and been the better for it, in my opinion. The ongoing trainwreck of Cuoco’s character gets repetitive and loses sympathy as it continues on past bottom. And, frankly, some of the surprises just… aren’t. But the ride is highly bingeable, and the interactions and humanity of it all are surprising. But you do have to strap yourself in for a crazy ride full of mystery, sex, violence, and a mountain of bad choices. And, ultimately, it’s set up nicely for a new season with entirely different parameters.

The Flight Attendant Poster

Unpregnant

[4 stars]

This one caught me off guard. After Never Rarely Sometimes Always I was expecting another solid, but intense, journey of two young women. Instead, I got a dark comedy with a message and some very grounded, if exaggerated, plotting. So add a bit of Booksmart (but way more palatable) to get the sensibility. And, to director and co-writer Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s (Valley Girl) credit, the script uses everything she throws in there, and not in ways you really expect. Not bad for a Sophomore outing.

But a huge part of the success of this film is down to its intrepid youths. Haley Lu Richardson (Five Feet Apart) and Barbara Ferreira (Euphoria) work beautifully together. And Richardson, in particular, manages to negotiate a challenging subject with a real humanity and sense of reality.

There are some nice cameos in the film to keep it moving along through its somewhat crazy road trip, but why spoil them? Unpregnant is a delightful comedy about a serious subject and a bitch-slap to the conservative bastards that have put women at risk to serve their own ends. And the ending is some of the most honest and tender presentations I may have ever seen. Make time for for Unpregnant. It will both surprise and entertain you.

Unpregnant Poster

 

One Night in Miami

[3.5 stars]

A boxer, a singer, a preacher, and a football player walk into a motel… It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in this case it not only really happened, but it was four towering figures of their time: Mohammed Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcom X, and Jim Brown. Four men who knew one another well, and all of whom were at inflection points for themselves and all those around them. The gathering was to celebrate the night Cassius Clay decked Sonny Liston and became the reigning world champion.

Kemp Powers imagined that conversation first as a stage play and then as this adaptation, which Regina King (Watchmen) directed as her first big-screen feature. And she did a bang up job choreographing the four men in a tiny room. Despite it being primarily a dialogue-heavy exchange, it never really flags in energy or interest. Kingsley Ben-Adir (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword),
Eli Goree (Riverdale), Aldis Hodge (What Men Want), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Harriet) keep everything moving and offer insight into these pivotal men. Ben-Adir, in particular, delivers a Malcom X near the end of his life full of fire and purpose, but more than equally full of compassion and care. Odom Jr’s chops are something to be reckoned with as well.

This is a surprisingly quiet film for the combination of people involved and the moment in history. It feels, quite literally, like being let into a secret and private party. We know the public-facing versions of these people, but what did they really think in private and what did they admit to each other? Cooke, in particular, has little on record about his private life. Many sides of issues are raised and the result leaves you feeling you understand not just these men, but the era and the ongoing issues more completely. I will say that I was surprised  that, with King at the helm, how little there was of the women in the lives of these men on screen. If I have any major criticism of the story, it’s that.

On a side note, writer Powers is about to have a hell of a year. After working on the initial season of Star Trek: Discovery he moved on to the play version of One Night in Miami. Both this movie and the much anticipated and lauded Soul (now only on Disney+) are hitting screens at the same time.

One Night in Miami... Poster