Tag Archives: Early film

Fighting With My Family

[3 stars]

Who would have thought a sweet film about family and personal dreams would come out of a true story about a family of wrestlers…and that it has little to do with wrestling?

To be up front, I am not, and never have been, a fan of professional wrestling. For whatever reason, neither the stories nor the staged athleticism ever caught my interest. And yet, Dwayne Johnson (Skyscraper) is becoming a solid favorite for pure entertainment films and, frankly, as a person. But he is just a side character here. It is Florence Pugh (Little Drummer Girl) who adds the real heart to this story. Not much reality or sense of believability, but there is heart. And heart can be enough.

The issues with the story are down to writer/director (and even actor in this jaunt) Stephen Merchant (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). While he elicits honest emotions from his cast, and keeps the story flowing nicely in his sophomore outing, he didn’t quite get me to sense Pugh’s achievements, nor Jack Lowden’s (Mary Queen of Scots) losses and resurrection.  I wasn’t there to cheer with them as I should have been.

Nick Frost (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Lena Headey (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Game of Thrones), however, did add some great comedy and energy…and even their own sense of romance. You can barely believe them as characters…until you see the real family in the credits and realize they likely toned it all down for the film.

This movie is a perfect example of the truth sometimes being less interesting than fiction. I suspect the script cleaves closely to the reality of the Knight family. But it needed a bit more fiction and a bit more structure to let the human side of the story really soar. Sure it would have been manipulated, but it would have been in service to the story rather than pushing against it. Regardless, it is a surprisingly effective and inspiring tale of growing up and following your dreams, whether you’re a fan of the sport or not.

Us

[3 stars]

Us is at its best when it’s scaring us, and at its worst when it is trying to explain how and why it is scaring us. Basically, it’s a wonderful bit of creepy horror, but not quite as on point as social commentary as Jordan Peele’s previous Get Out. But, let’s face it, he had a very high bar to meet after that debut.

But Peele aside, this is Lupita Nyong’o’s (Black Panther) film. Period. Even with a fun performance from her Black Panther colleague, Winston Duke (Avengers: Endgame), she dominates the story in every way. Her performance makes this worth seeing regardless of any issues I experienced.

And there are issues. For instance, the plot doesn’t bear up under any kind of scrutiny. Us is much more traditional than Peele’s previous dark horror. Bad stuff happens, carnage occurs, people fight back. There are social overtones, but they are much more subtle and conceptual, requiring Peele’s explanation in a short featurette to get across all the aspects. That isn’t a great sign. The ideas are interesting, but they don’t hold together if you start to ask questions. And that’s the one thing you really don’t want anyone to do when watching your film: have them asking questions and poking holes in your ideas. When that happens, it pulls them out of the moment. A good chunk of the end of the film is explanation–and it just isn’t explanation that makes much sense.

However, for a really suspenseful blood-fest and popcorn spilling film, give Us your time if you haven’t already. It’s a perfectly solid horror pic. Don’t expect the powerful subtlety or outright gut-punches of Get Out, but there is meat on the bones and it is a well executed. Peele has nothing for the big screen currently scheduled, but he continues to show himself as a new and interesting voice in cinema, willing to tackle ideas as well as entertainment. I’m very much looking forward to his upcoming adaptation of Lovecraft Country on HBO. It is a perfect marriage of his ability, interests, and content sensibility.

Replicas

[1.5 stars]

How do you ruin an interesting idea? Well, first you throw a weak director at it, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who’s entire sense of credited science fiction is The Day After Tomorrow. Then you pass him a script by Chad St. John, who’s most recent flicks, Peppermint and London Has Fallen, were painful at times. And to top it off, put Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3: Parabellum) in the lead.

Reeves works in some roles, especially those where stoic is the anchor word for the character. But he requires a strong director to help him navigate a script with real emotion. He had no such help here and it shows. Even Alice Eve (Iron Fist) and John Ortiz (Peppermint), who have some proven range, can’t get past the bad stewardship of this story. Only Thomas Middleditch (The Final Girls) manages to come off as somewhat credible, but only because he’s playing himself…and he is more natural than credible in the role.

The movie is full of bad choices and contradictions, stupid decisions and ridiculous science. I mean REALLY ridiculous science that had me yelling at the screen. And it doesn’t just hit that science once as a Macguffin and run away. Oh no, it harps and harps on it, building upon shaky foundations with even more outrageous claims. And yet, with all that, the script doesn’t even attempt to get to the interesting aspects of the issues it raises, though it manages one clever choice in its 100ish minutes. This isn’t a horror tale masquerading as science fiction, nor is it philosophical conversation of the possibilities, like Ex Machina, it is simply a badly written, weakly executed waste of your time.

Brightburn

[3 stars]

Is there anything scarier than a 12-year old going through puberty? How about one with untried superpowers? The result is really more a horror flick than science fiction. Think We Need to Talk About Kevin, if Keven were Kal-El, more than Carrie with a guy.

Jackson A. Dunn’s Brandon Breyer isn’t so much an anti-hero as anti hero. He plays it nicely deadpan, but with enough confusion about  his new “feelings” to make it recognizable. Elizabeth Banks (The Happytime Murders) and David Denman (Puzzle) struggle as his parents to deal with his oncoming adulthood, as every parent does. Their concerns are essentially the same, but the price of failure and miscommunication are just higher. Watching them navigate the situation is as much fun as watching their son begin to come into his own. It makes Brightburn at once a tense trainwreck of a horror film and a darkly funny metaphor for adolescence. And the costuming for Brandon’s alter ego is a wonderful and subtle gift.

Brightburn isn’t exactly drawing in a wide audience. In some ways, it is timely in the superhero glutted days of movies as counterpoint. But we, as a population, flock to superheros when things are bad and we need hope. Is it surprising that during today’s struggles most people want their heroes to be heroes rather than … well, not? Go to this for the evil glee and mayhem that it offers. It isn’t brilliant in script or direction, but it is solid and delivers what it intends without the stupidity on the part of characters that most horror films provide and rely on. Frankly, I had fun with it, even as I found it disturbing as heck.

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud)

[3.5 stars]

Louis Malle’s (Vanya on 42nd Street) second film, dating from 1958, is an entertaining look at noir. From its opening moments to its close the story spins out of control in unexpected ways, headed toward a conclusion that has many possibilities; none of them likely good. Hey, it’s noir. But it isn’t quite the noir you know and expect. This story owes much to Dassin’s Rififi, particularly its treatment of silence and its quiet building of character.

The story is primarily guided through the inner dialogue of an emotive Jeanne Moreau in her breakout roll. Moreau is a light amid the beautifully filmed, dark night of the story. It also boasts a score and performance by Miles Davis, which deepens the sense of emotion and thickens the Parisian night into something almost palpable.

Though over 60 years old, the movie manages to hold up in many ways, though it’s style feels a little forced and dated. But it is a taut 90 minutes and, though aspects feel like bad writing, much more of it comes together than you’d expect. And it is an early look at one of the huge influencers of cinema.

Meet the Patels

[4 stars]

Surprising, sweet, and delightful, not to mention full of humor and genuine affection. I can’t say I knew what to expect going into this journey of Ravi and Geeta Patel and their family, but it engaged me almost immediately. This short, sort-of-documentary follows Ravi, better known as a character actor, as he attempts to find a wife. It is an open-eyed and open-minded look at arranged marriage and dating in the modern world.

Using rough family footage and interspersed simple animation, the two put together an overview-with-commentary of his year long journey.  Though she tries to remain behind the camera his sister is part of this journey as well, by extension and comments, making this very much a family affair.

Unless you are part of the culture, this isn’t likely an area you know much about, other than at a distance or through the last season of The Big Bang Theory. Dropping into the middle of it all in a positive way is a story worth hearing. And, fortunately, it is done with a great deal of heart and humor that invites us not only into Ravi’s life and his family’s, but also into the clan Patel.

Lizzie

[2.5 stars]

The story of Lizzie Borden has been told (and retold) many times. It has fascinated audiences for over 100 years. That’s staying power. Finding something new to say about it isn’t easy. To be honest, I’m not sure Craig William Macneill’s sophomore outing with  first-timer Bryce Kass’s script manages to, but they give it a good try.

This newest story is told in a chronologically looping narrative to slowly uncover the proposed facts of the infamous killing. It concentrates first on the motives and emotions and then, finally, on the deed itself. It is a very slow burn and with only a modicum of tension. Where it tries to separate itself from previous tales is in the counterpoint of the cast.

Chloë Sevigny (Beatriz at Dinner) presents her Lizzie as an interestingly modern woman amid her more classically period fellow cast. It sets her apart in a subtle way. It isn’t quite enough to carry the movie, but it is a noticeable choice and difference.

Jamey Sheridan (Battle of the Sexes) and Finoa Shaw (Mrs. Wilson), as her parents and the fated victims, are fairly standard portrayals. They are solid, but nothing much new. And Denis O’Hare, as the n’ere-do-well Uncle is an interesting inclusion, but only again as backdrop. It is Kristen Stewart (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), as the young Irish maid and Sevigny’s counterpart, who is the largest variable in this retelling. Her performance is good, but not groundbreaking. And, ultimately, doesn’t fully develop.

If you were looking for something new in this story, you will find tidbits. But it is far from historically complete or insightful. It includes some facts but omits others. It avoids recorded aspects and invents some never really in evidence as it posits a potential scenario. For those hopelessly fascinated by the story, it is probably more interesting. But the movie never manages to rise above its retelling enough to become a platform for something more. And that is a shame. There is some good work in this film, but it isn’t a must-see on any level, except perhaps as a chance to see Macneill and Kass’s early steps in cinema.

Obit. (x2)

[3.5 stars]

Making a story about life out of writing about death seems contradictory, but Vanessa Gould’s long-form documentary about the New York Times obituary desk manages just that. It is also a fascinating look behind a section of the paper you may not have put a lot of thought behind.

Our tour is constructed of interviews with the small crew of writers as well as an amusing look at the news morgue and its denizens.  Through these Gould gives us a picture of the mechanics and the care brought to the often dry and sometimes entertaining encapsulations of life that grace the paper daily. It is a look back at an old craft as well as evolution of the craft in modern times.

It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is an interesting one, and crafted to carry you through. To be fair, it would be hard, without forcing it, to create a story around the subject, so it is more a behind-the-scenes and philosophical discussion. But whatever you think of obituaries or your interest in them, you will never notice them again in the same way.

As a bonus, while searching for this documentary I unexpectedly came across a clever short by the same name and did a double feature. Unlike the documentary, this is a short drama, but it makes a reflective coda to the evening.  Director Brian Tolle is much better known for his effects work on major blockbusters, but this short drama shows his eye for structure and character, handling Reddy’s script deftly and guiding George Maguire through a complex character over the 10 minutes. Tolle is a bit less sure with Sandra Fish (Sense8), but she has moments. Add this one to your list when you’ve a small gap of time to fill. It is fine with or without the double feature, but it definitely added something to see them together.

Obit

Vox Lux

[2.5 stars]

While known for his acting, writer/director Brady Corbet comes at this movie with only one other feature under his belt. He attempts to employ some interesting story-telling techinques, with Willem DaFoe (At Eternity’s Gate) as the narrator to a faux documentary, but the story never really gels. Corbet, frankly, tackles too much, trying to create something like an updated Breaking Glass crossed with Rudderless. We do get a lot of realistic behind-the-scenes look at music, which helps set this sort of fantasy and commentary apart.

Ultimately, the only thing that saves this movie is the performances and a bit of the production value. Natalie Portman (Annihilation) as a hard-living, nasty-talking star is a magnetic trainwreck thanks to the underlying emotions with which she infuses her character. Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) in two roles (which was an odd and un-utilized choice) holds her own nicely alongside Stacy Martin’s (Nymphomaniac) older sister/aunt.  And Jude Law (Captain Marvel) as the sort of genuine, slightly corrupt producer is interesting, but without much depth.

Ultimately, there just isn’t a story here. It is more of an imagining about what is behind big production pop tours, both in the current time and what led to it. But the layering of the narration attempts to push it into something else, something grander, and on that level it simply fails, leaving you hanging at the end with no understanding of why you invested your time to watch it. At least in my opinion.

A Private War

[3.5 stars]

Making war real on screen is incredibly challenging. Making it personal without losing the greater issues is even harder. A Private War, much like the writings of its subject Marie Colvin, manages to do both.

It succeeds thanks to both the behind-the-scenes guidance and the on-screen talent. However, even with the likes of Jamie Dornan (Robin Hood), Tom Hollander (Bird Box), and Stanley Tucci (Patient Zero) on screen, the only person that matters, the only story as her character would have put it, was Pike’s Colvin. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is this movie. Though I will say that Hollander delivers an uncharacteristically understated and sobering performance as Colvin’s bureau chief.

Colvin states it in her own words at the top of the film: fear comes later. Marie Brenner’s (The Insider) script captures how controlled and confident Colvin’s character was in war, and what a mess she was outside of it. An added aspect to this film’s success was director Matthew Heineman’s documentary roots. He manages to step back from the action to allow the story to tell itself.

In a growing collection of on-screen news-related tales, this one is a bit different. It isn’t about newspapers saving the world, like The Post, or destroying the world, like The Front Runner, or even being manipulated, like Vice. It is about war and the human cost on all sides. It is about what drives people to risk their lives to bring us the truth, without glorifying their choices.

In a fluke of the story and the timing, I was watching the film almost 7 years to the day from the last moments of the action, which provided one of the most chilling aspects of the film. I found myself doing the math and realizing that the horror of Homs, Syria being portrayed may have been from 7 years ago…but it was still going on today despite Colvin and other’s efforts and risks to get the world to notice; a final gift of the film reminding us that it is still up to all of us to act and not just observe.