Tag Archives: Early film

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.

First Man

[3 stars]

Let’s first talk about what director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) did right and well with First Man; I’ll get to the frustrations later. Unlike The Right Stuff, this is a story about real people, not demigods. It really tries to tell the story of a man in the middle of history without knowing he’s in the middle of it. And while the space race was undoubtedly a point of national pride, the level of jingoism, as compared to previous tellings, was much reduced and was in context rather than propaganda and the point of the story.

Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) brings a humanity to Armstrong I’ve never seen. Perhaps a bit too much as I question his strength of mind for what he has to do, but nevertheless it made him more relateable. As his wife, Claire Foy (The Lady in the Van) is a balancing influence with some nice moments and layers to her as well.

Quite frankly, the rest of the cast, while all good, just don’t matter. This is Armstrong’s tale, and his family’s.

Pablo Schreiber (Den of Thieves), Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night), Ethan Embry (Grace and Frankie), Ciarán Hinds (Woman Walks Ahead), Jason Clarke (Winchester), Kyle Chandler (Game Night), Corey Stoll (The Seagull), Shea Whigham (Cop Car), Patrick Fugit (Gone Girl), Lukas Haas (The Revenant) get a mention here simply because it feels wrong not to acknowledge their efforts. Without them as backdrop, the Armstrong story couldn’t have been told.

Now, about that story…

Writer Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight) is clearly comfortable adapting stories both from books and from history. However, in this case what he delivered, and what Chazelle accepted, is part of what was so wrong with the film. Had it released a couple of years back, it probably wouldn’t have stood out so baldly. But, after Hidden Figures, how do you show NASA and this particular story without showing even one of the women, let alone black women, involved in the success? How do you only have housewives helping out by only “supporting their men?” How do you present the landing on the moon as the success of old white men only? It is a glaring and frustrating aspect, even if it was the perspective of the time.

Another choice of Chazelle’s caused some loud chatter, but that one didn’t bother me at all. I support not showing the planting of the flag, given the focus of the movie on people rather than countries; it was a story choice, not a political statement and you do see it in tableau. However, I didn’t find the most famous of the moments, that first step, all that triumphant. Perhaps because I knew it would happen. Perhaps because I remember watching it happen. But I think, really, it was because Chazelle lost the build-up and payoff in his structure and it whittered away rather than came home. Of course, the focus for being on the moon is shifted rather sharply for Armstrong. Very poignantly shifted, if the moments on the moon are to be believed. But if Chazelle didn’t want to focus on that iconic moment, he shouldn’t have focused on it for 20 minutes and then lost the tension.

Finally, from a film craft point of view, when the heck are directors going to understand that hand-held and large format movies don’t mix well. If you must use hand-held, do it sparingly. On IMAX it simply gets nauseating, throwing you out of the story. Chazelle used shakeycam all over the place. Some made sense, but a huge portion didn’t. I understand the use during the flights and tests, but we didn’t need the 8mm effect to have it feel like old home movies. There were specific moments he could have used it to emphasize Armstrong’s personal struggles, but because it was so overused, it lost all emotional value.

For only his third film, Chazelle continues to impress. This may not be the huge success that was hoped for, but he does show an ability to take on different types of stories and to continue to deliver interesting characters. I think, in this case, he needed to do more research and be more aware of the current times to tell the story well and fully. As it is, it is certainly impressive at moments and worth seeing overall, but the flaws are somewhat fatal for me in terms of ever needing to see it again (unlike his other films).

Leave No Trace

[3.5 stars]

When this film kicked off I was afraid this was going to be a weird combination of Captain Fantastic and Short Term 12. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely; emotionally tight, but not a story of bad things happening. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a sad set of circumstances in play, but it isn’t about big bad nasty things surprising the characters. In fact, it is packed with people trying to do good things for one another, making this a very different kind of story than the majority out there these days. Ultimately, it is a quietly intense tale of family and the aftermath of trauma, done with a kind eye.

Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) and Thomasin McKenzie (Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies) make a wonderfully paired father/daughter team. Each is devoted to the other but also struggling, at times, to stay civil when things go poorly. The quiet internal tensions for these two are both different and very affecting. It is a beautiful exhibition of the battle between love and personal need.

Supporting them are some familiar faces, but these two should and do dominate the story. Enjoy the side characters for what they are: the periphery of life intruding into their bubble. It is ultimately a beautifully poetic film with both a story and, to a lesser degree, a message. That balance serves it well and director Debra Granik guides it with a delicate hand through the co-written screenplay with Anne Rosellini, who had previously paired with her for Winter’s Bone. This isn’t a fast trip through life and the woods, but it is a memorable one.

Leave No Trace

Imitation Girl

[3.5 stars]

Alien arrives on Earth and takes the guise of an adult movie star. Salacious, right? Possibly even puerile? You’d be wrong. It isn’t even more on the trippy side like Liquid Sky. Imitation Girl is a decidedly personal tale of a woman coming to terms with her life and her choices. It is anything but forcefully sexy, though it is certainly intimate.

Lauren Ashley Carter (Premium Rush) pulls off both main roles with an understated assurance that leaves you forgetting it is the same person. She is the movie, not to mention that she learned Farsi along the way. I look forward to seeing her in more roles at some point to see what more she can do. The rest of the cast are all fine, but they fall away as it all comes together. And, frankly, that is a good thing as they aren’t the focus.

The ending is sort of a non-ending, or it is hugely metaphorical. Though, to be fair, the entire story is metaphorical. But the end is also rather expected and, because of that, a tad of a let down after such an interesting ride. But this is a film that shows real talent on the part of the director/writer, Natasha Kermani. To navigate the world she created and to sell these characters without resorting to cheap and expected moments took a good eye and discipline. She is definitely a creator to watch for down the road.

Imitation Girl

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