Tag Archives: Early film

Side by Side

[4 stars]

It is the rare documentary that manages to keep me utterly intrigued. And Side by Side, while not the most perfect docu, pulls together such a wealth of top voices in the industry to discuss the advent of digital film vs. celluloid emulsion that it held my attention throughout. OK, it did drag a bit on the wrap up, but it was still fascinating.

Christopher Kenneally put this film together over a couple years, releasing it in 2012 and then extended versions of it a couple years later. He chose as his narrator Keanu Reeves (Replicas). One amusing effect of the time span is watching Reeves’s hair and beard change from scene to scene. Where most docus these days avoid having the interviewer present or visible on screen to help focus purely on the subject, Reeves is very much a part of the conversation.

While digital film has improved in the intervening years, the arguments haven’t really changed. However, the trends they interviewees have spun out are all coming to roost in pretty much the way they all agreed it would happen, with one unforseen notable exception: COVID-19. In a world currently locked down by a pandemic, cinemas closed everywhere, and 8K TVs already available on shelves, timing has changed. Not only will this event help accelerate digital filming, but it is changing the intended and predominant delivery venue from large screen to small. Dozens of major releases shifted to stream early or stream-only in the last few weeks and that genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The greatest governor to the advent of digital film has been quality on the big screen… and while that gap has narrowed, the issue is much less noticeable on the small screen.

In many ways, this movie is like a Nova episode on steroids. There is some very basic science and history surrounded by luminaries discussing their views and the implications. But it is the very quality of those views, put forth by those who have set the bar for decades, as well as the floor for the next generation of filmmakers, that makes it so interesting. Even if you’re not a fanatic about cinema, this is an engaging and intriguing conversation to listen in on for 90 or so minutes. Make the time for it.

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Standing Up, Falling Down

[3 stars]

Honestly, the elements of this film worried me to no end as it opened and laid them out for inspection. Boomerang kids trying to find their way, bad comics finding their path, old widower trying to make amends, and romantically desperate people aching for “the one that got away.” It just shouldn’t have worked. But Peter Hoare’s (Kevin Can Wait, Killing Hasselhoff) script is simple, honest, and clever, which Matt Ratner directs with great care. In fact, for a first feature, Ratner really shows some chops containing the potential disaster of elements and emotions, not to mention the cast he managed to land.

Without question, Billy Crystal (Monsters University) holds this story together. Without him, it would have simply fallen apart even though Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) is the main character driving the movie. Around these two, there are a host of solid performances and interactions. Grace Gummer (Learning to Drive) and Schwartz have some wonderful brother/sister interactions (again a credit to Ratner), and Debra Monk (Mozart in the Jungle) is the perfect Long Island mom. There are a lot of other fun, smaller roles worth spotting as well, but why give them all away?

This isn’t a revelatory movie, but it is well done and entertaining. It’s delightfully contained and rides the line between reality and absurdity with skill. Keep an eye out for it or pick it up on stream as it exits the festival circuit and becomes more generally and more affordably available.

Standing Up, Falling Down

Battle Beyond the Stars

[3 stars]

To be a little oxymoronic, this decidedly low-budget Roger Corman (Extraordinary Tales) space opera is more interesting for its camp and historical aspects than it is for the movie itself, which is just as often unintentionally funny as it is intentionally so in John Sayles’ script. Part of that is, admittedly, the execution of story. While Jimmy T. Murakami is officially credited for directing, Corman was in there stirring the pot too. It shows in the choice to deliver much of the arch/stock dialogue in absolute earnest, keeping the movie on keel but making some moments delightfully absurd.

For context, this flick was released just two years after the original Star Wars. Everyone wanted to replicate that success and we were getting inundated with bad space opera. But it was even earlier that films began poking fun at Flash Gordon and its ilk with the groundbreaking Barbarella. There is more than a little of that kind of humor in Battle, even as it attempts to wrap it all in a serious struggle for the survival of a planetfull of people under siege by a galactic bully, in the guise of John Saxon.

Leading the charge against Saxon’s Sador is Richard Thomas (The Americans) fresh off The Waltons. He and his smart-mouthed ship spearhead the search for warriors to protect his pacifist planet. The motley crew he assembles includes George Peppard (Damnation Alley ), Robert Vaughn, and Earl Boen.

Importantly, working behind the camera was a young James Cameron who was earning his bones and seeing how it was all done. Boen would meet Cameron and, a few short years later, find himself in The Terminator and Cameron at the forefront of his long career.

Battle is, at best, diverting and, at worse, painful to watch. It is sexist, absurd, culturally white bread, poorly plotted, and ridiculously executed. Which is all part of what makes it popcorn fun. But a good movie this isn’t. You watch it for how bad it is at times, and at how impressive the effects are for the time and budget they were working with. It is really more a classic because of who was involved than anything else. Either you’re a fan of “so bad its good/fun” or you’re not. If you’re not, just run away now.

Battle Beyond the Stars

The Pale Horse

[3 stars]

Sarah Phelps (The ABC Murders) is becoming the preeminent adapter of Agatha Christie. Her skills are best when she sticks close to the original material, as she did for Ordeal By Innocence. But when we she veers from that material, like The ABC Murders, the work is less worthy. It should be noted that she also works outside Christie’s ouvre, with intriguingly built adaptations like Dublin Murders. In other words, the writer/creator has chops.

The Pale Horse is one of those lesser known, rarely (if ever?) produced stand-alone Christies. Previous incarnations of it dragged it inappropriately into the Marple or Poirot worlds, as I recall. It is, as a book, still in the cozy category, with a pair of intrepid lovers discovering and solving a string of murders. Phelps reconceives the tale as something closer to Turning of the Screw crossed with Crime and Punishment, bringing it squarely into the psychological horror arena and putting the lovers at odds with one another. It has a highly stylized presentation, with a lot of creep factor; think Midsommar (the horror film, not the series).

Led by, and generally through the eyes of, Rufus Sewell (Judy), the story begins as a dark mystery of loss and fear and spins out from there. As a horror story it is effective, if not entirely satisfying by the end. Kaya Scodelario (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gets to stretch her muscles into a role that is more adult than teenager for the first time. Her stressed 60s housewife is both darkly funny and depressing. Sean Pertwee (Gotham), on the other hand, gets somewhat abused as Inspector Lejeune. And Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) has some fun in the mix, getting to wear a pair of the ugliest dentures ever seen on TV. But, generally, all of the cast do well filling out the world, victims, and those pulling the strings.

Perhaps part of the delivery gap of this series is down to young director Leonora Lonsdale. This is only her second full-length delivery. While the result, absent context, is fun, she allowed Phelps script to lead her too far astray from the source material. Depending on your relationship with Christie, your opinion and enjoyment of the story will vary. It is definitely not a light tale of murder on the green, but it is a complicated and layered tale of loss and greed, with just a suggestion of the supernatural.

Klaus

[4.5 stars]

Honestly, I wouldn’t have bothered with this if it weren’t for the fact that it won the Annies for best feature this year. I mean, seriously, a Christmas cartoon? As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m even thinking it has a good shot at the Oscar.

It has been years since anyone has produced a holiday-themed animation that has risen to an annual must-see the way some of the old stop-motion animations of the 60s/70s did. But Klaus may have just changed the tide on that. It isn’t a musical bit of treacle like Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And it is more Hogfather in its sensibility and view of life than you’d expect. But it also tackles the season of retail and human nature in a beautifully honest way and weaves it into the story you expect…in ways that you really wouldn’t have predicted even as you see them becoming inevitable. But for all the intelligence and themes, it remains a children’s tale in the best of ways: it doesn’t talk down to them.

Sergio Pablos (who has spent years in animation and who previously helped write Smallfoot and Despicable Me) chose this as his first project where he was both writing and directing, and I can see why. It is a delicate balance of satire and sweetness that would have been hard to trust to someone other than the person who conceived it. Given that it took the top prize at the Annies this year, and it’s up for an Oscar, I’d say he was spot on.

Jason Schwartzman (Golden Exits) leads the cast with just the right amount of sarcasm and genunie feeling. He’s backed up by Rashida Jones (Spies in Disguise) and JK Simmons (Veronica Mars) with Joan Cusack (Welcome to Me) in a nice bit role. While the story is certainly an overblown fable, they all keep it grounded nicely. Simmons, in particular, has a slow evolution through the art and voice that is great to watch.

Klaus isn’t perfect. It is a bit rushed and hand-wavy in some of the story details. It has some inconsistencies. And, ultimately, it wraps up in a way that is heart-warming but, I felt, a slight cheat given the rest of the story you traverse getting there; but the story is what it is, so I just had to shrug and accept it (though honestly, seeing Klaus as a mildly schizophrenic widower was really fun for a while). Those are the reasons for dinging it just a bit on the rating. However, I can see rewatching this annually (along with Hog Father and Rare Exports, which are more to my holiday sensibilities) because it has a lot of great humor and it reminds you (with a soft hammer) what friends, family, and society can be if we just let them.

Bottom line: If you’ve avoided this because you thought it was just empty kid’s fare and not worth your time…rethink that opinion sometime soon.

Klaus

5 Centimeters Per Second (Byôsoku 5 senchimêtoru)

[3.5 stars]

Like Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name., this much earlier film of his is a simple story of love and growing up that taps into universal emotions. But unlike his later global hit, the structure of this film is a bit more straight-forward. This tale is told in tryptic: three segments from three perspectives…and it sneaks up on you. You don’t even realize how deeply it’s sunk in its hooks till it has you by the chest  and reminds you of your own moments of revelation about the world.

Each episode in the movie focuses on a different aspect of a relationship between two children as they grow into young adults…and grow slowly apart, as the title and opening scene suggest. It’s profoundly beautiful and spare in how it rolls out that tale. At only an hour it’s worth the time for anyone who enjoys solid anime, or who wants to see what came before Shinkai’s explosion on the scene in 2017/2018.

5 Centimeters per Second

 

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