Tag Archives: Early film

Inheritance (2020)

[2.5 stars]

There is only one reason to see this rather predictable, if nicely tense, movie…and that’s Simon Pegg (Slaughterhouse Rulez). His complete transformation and performance is really quite amazing.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn’t quite so engaging. Lily Collins (Tolkien) is completely miscast as a highly respected and tough NYC DA. She just doesn’t have that gravitas…and her reactions through much of the story are, well, not from a woman who should be more  prepossessed. Chace Crawford (The Boys) is fine, but sadly typecast in his role; there are no surprises there.

And then there’s the story. To be honest, as director Vaughn Stein’s follow-up to his more stylish and satisfying Terminal, I was rather disappointed. His handling of the script is fine, but he should have pushed for something beyond the obvious. There was an opportunity for a more interesting conclusion that was completely missed. By taking it just one more step to complete Collins’ journey, a bland and obvious ending could have been elevated; but that isn’t what’s on offer.

Certainly, there is some good tension and by-play in this piece, but I can’t really recommend the cost of nearly two hours. However, if you do tune in, Pegg alone may keep you nailed to your seat to stick it out. Just don’t expect revelation at the conclusion, merely an ending.

Fantasy Island (2020)

[3 stars]

It’s easy to forget that Fantasy Island wasn’t all 80’s kitsch and sweetness, it had a dark side. This remake tries to capitalize on that aspect. And, for the most part, it’s successful, even if the logic is stretched and the plot falls apart near the end. But up till then, director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow, along with the rest of his previous Truth or Dare? team (Jillian Jacobs and Chris Roach), is somewhat clever in how he helps it embrace both aspects of the classic show.

Much like the original, this is a collection of stories. In the wide-ranging ensemble, Lucy Hale (Truth or Dare?), Maggie Q (Priest), and Jimmy O. Yang (Space Force) stand out by force of charisma. They’re joined by a number of other good players that bump the plot along, such as Michael Rooker (Brightburn), Portia Doubleday (Mr Robot), and Parisa Fitz-Henley (My Spy). The rest of the cast serve simply to fill out the story; not poorly, just not memorably.

However Michael Peña (Dora and the Lost City of Gold), in the pivotal Mr. Roarke roll, feels utterly wrong. You have to be both pulled to the man and terrified of him. Peña has neither the presence nor the menace necessary.

What I will grant the movie is that it is a movie, not just an overblown TV episode. But while it can stand on its own, I suspect it has much more impact as a retcon of the series. Were it not for the wobble near the end, it would have been much more satisfying. But it’s a pretty big wobble as it tries to wrap it all up. Fortunately, the final moments are a bit more fulfilling. As to whether you should book a trip here…well, that’s up to you.

Irresistible

[3 stars]

There is little subtlety to this latest outing by Jon Stewart (Rosewater). But, then again, did you expect any?

Steve Carell (Vice) and Rose Byrne (Instant Family) are the core of the movie. They are both absurd in their presentation…partly to make a point, but partly because Stewart just couldn’t resist hammering it all home. It’s a shame as pulling them back a little, to make it feel a bit more real, would have been more interesting. I wonder if he wasn’t trying to get a broader audience by making fun of the DC pundits with impunity. But, frankly, it only worked for the first few scenes of it… after that it became an SNL skit (with admittedly better writing and timing).

While there is a pile of really solid talent backing up and propping up the rest of the movie, it’s Chris Cooper (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) and Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment) that carry it all home.

The best moments are, frankly, the pre-credit scenes and the end sequences, but you need the middle to get there, even if you have a sense of what’s coming; it is a comedy afterall.

I understand this doesn’t feel like a glowing review, and in ways it isn’t. But the movie is funny. And, more importantly, its points, which carry through the credits, are a call to action. It’s both a love letter and indictment of the current political system. One thing Stewart did very well was to edit it down to a swift 100 minutes so that it rarely overstays its welcome. But, even if you decide to bail on it, watch the short interview that runs during the credits. Understand that the absurd is not only possible, it’s legal. And while this doesn’t have the punch of All In: The Fight for Democracy as a call to action, it should urge you to your feet regardless.

Freaks: You’re One of Us (Freaks: Du Bist Eine Von Uns)

[3 stars]

I love that we are looking more and more at the dark side of superhero-dom. Mind you, we’re in danger of getting as swamped with those kinds of movies as we are the more earnest versions. But it’s nice to have some balance.

And Freaks is a bit more than just an anti-superhero tale. It’s a bare philosophical metaphor for mental illness and otherness in general. The argument can be made that almost all superhero stories are about otherness, but they often bury it or ignore it entirely in their stories, leaving it to critics to make the case. Freaks makes it front and center.

Though it is played for honesty, particularly by Cornelia Gröschel in the lead as a struggling, young parent, it drifts into a rather arch confrontation and events. Her counterpart, Tim Oliver Schultz, in particular, spirals pretty far afield from the grounded beginning. The result ends up being more like a TV pilot than a movie. That doesn’t make it bad. It’s very entertaining and relatively well thought-through. The approach does, however, make it less than it could have been.

The TV feel to the overall shape is partially due to director Felix Binder, who’s spent most of his career in the smaller venue and pushing shows. He made a lot of choices that were reflections of that experience. On the other hand, some of the success to the result also goes to writer Marc O. Seng, who wrote several of the episodes for Dark.

Basically, Freaks is a fun distraction for an evening. It trods well-known ground, but finds a way to keep it feeling fresh and provides characters to keep us interested.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

[4.5 stars]

Simple, calm, honest, and heartbreaking. Writer/director Eliza Hittman follows up her breakout Beach Rats by tackling a young woman’s challenge, making it an interesting companion piece even if they aren’t at all related.

Newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder take us on a journey that suggests more than it explains their lives. It is like the worst and best kind of voyeuristic observation. We never feel we’re intruding, but we also get to follow these young women where we shouldn’t.

This isn’t an easy film to describe. Basically, you should see it. It is a window into a world many will not have experienced, and an exposé of reality that far too many others have. That is done as art only heightens the effect and allows for some moments that will impact you unexpectedly…not because they are horrific in themselves, but because they are honest and imply ever so much more.

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Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage)

[3 stars]

Sixty years has not dulled the impressive sensibility of this classic French horror. Beautifully filmed and quietly acted, it manages to make a shock movie (for its time) and an existential statement. I mentioned it was French, right?

This doesn’t make it a great movie in 2020, but it was still interesting and fun to watch. Some of the effects are also rather impressive for the time…and some even hold up now. Certainly the mask design is a piece of creepy beauty.

But it’s the bona fides of this film that make it most interesting. It was adapted, in part, by the duo Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, who had also given us Vertigo and Diabolique. They try for quiet tensions that build to the inevitable finale. They don’t explain everything, but allow you to fill in aspects from your own imagination.

In addition to the writer bones, it is directed by Georges Franju, who is better known for founding the Cinematheque Française with Henri Langlois. While certainly capable behind the camera, his contribution to cinema is certainly more permanently engraved in the industry by that involvement.

It’s also worth noting that Criterion produced a beautiful transfer of the movie. It is clean and crisp with plenty of shadow where intended. Don’t expect to be shocked or surprised by this story, but it will carry you along and, perhaps, surprise you with its approach and delivery. Coming out of the 50s monster era, this is a shift into more contemplative, modern horror.

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Project Power

[3.5 stars]

It ain’t perfect, but it is a great ride and tightly put together by Nerve duo Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. (The two were also responsible for the unexpected docu Catfish.) The story is an alternating tale of high-octane and quiet exchanges tied up in a nice riff on the superhero genre.

While Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Snowden) and Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy) top line the movie, and they’re both great in their parts, it’s relative newcomer Dominique Fishback (The Hate U Give) who is the spine of the film. She is quietly and wonderfully in control, even when put off-balance. There is a real sense of survival and savvy in the way she talks, moves, and commands the screen. And the woman’s got flow.

The movie also has levels, though unlike See You Yesterday which takes on some of the same societal scope and perspective, this is done in pure earnest. It’s a straight-up sci-fi actioner with all the pluses and minuses that can include. You just have to buy the science and enjoy the silly that ensues. Interestingly, up till this year I would have thought the loose tale that holds it all together with Amy Landecker (Beatriz at Dinner) at the head and Rodrigo Santoro (Focus) as her lackey, was utterly absurd. But, I can’t say that anymore. That isn’t a credit to up-and-comer Mattson Tomlin’s script so much as the timing, but it still works.

For some big screen distraction on your small screen at home, this will do. It’s fun, funny at times, interesting, and set up for sequels without feeling like it was unfinished. It also plays with the comic book sensibilities of the superhero craze in some refreshing ways. No one in this movie is wholly good or evil, even when their goals are laudable or not. Well, OK, the evil are pretty much just evil, but the good guys are a lot grayer than usual. If both sides had been handled that way, it would have been a truly great film, but I’ll take entertaining.

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Loveless (Nelyubov)

[4 stars]

When I finally had a chance to see Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (Leviathan) latest movie, albeit late, I wasn’t disappointed. I was, however, left drained. While Leviathan was harsh, it was also darkly funny. Loveless is completely upfront, from title and opening credits to the the story itself, about the emptiness and harsh, sad reality the characters share.

The script, also by Zvyagintsev and his Leviathan collaborator Oleg Negin, is generally minimalist. A joy for a subtitled movie (I could actually concentrate on the visuals). But the spare dialogue doesn’t reduce the information provided. Zvyagintsev crafts his moments with great care. They are dense with detail, subtext, and implication. But the interesting aspect of the family is that while the story revolves around the parents, Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin (Leviathan), it is the outsider, Aleksey Fateev (Proxima), who has the most interesting character. Fateev, without ever having an “emotional” scene manages to impart a world of understanding and response. But to give him his due, Matvey Novikov, as the son, has some wonderful and intense moments as well…and they’ll tear you apart.

Loveless isn’t a fun film. I’m sure that’s not a surprise. But it is honest and directed in such a way as to pull you through. There are parts of every character that you can identify with, even if, in their entirety, you just want to slap them. But, much like Leviathan, while there is a surface story to engage in, Zvyagintsev and Negin are telling you another story of their country as well. It is nested in their choice of era and in the background news that suffuses the film, as well as the metaphor of the plot itself. It isn’t heavy-handed, but it is there ready to fizz to the surface as you think about it all later.

Zvyagintsev continues to impress me. I hope, like Leviathan, Loveless continues to find an audience. It certainly found awards joy when it released, though it somehow lost to The Square in its Oscar bid that year. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get to it; it’s a powerful film, and a very well crafted one. Definitely worth your time when you’re feeling resilient.

I’m A Porn Star

[3 stars]

Through interviews, and copious amounts of often graphic footage, writer/director Charlie David introduces us to a range of adult film/web performers, gay and straight, and delves into their lives and drives. Thanks to the subject matter, this docu also makes a wonderful adjunct to Circus of Books.

The result is, admittedly, a bit raw in many respects. However, you can see promise in David’s early attempt to share a story through non-fiction; especially his sense of humor and whimsy. On the weaker side, the footage is often repetitive and reused; but the stories themselves are probably not what you expect, which makes the movie a bit stronger. And, unlike Rocco, these are not self-congratulatory or even celebratory stories, generally. Not that any of these performers are embarrassed by their choices, but neither have they tried to build cults around their bodies. Instead, they are focused on making a living and enjoying life. And, seven years after its release, some of the men have also achieved their goals and exited the industry.

As interesting as some of the conversations are, it’s David’s abbreviated history that introduces the film that really sets up the stories and makes it more relevant. In addition, his ability to keep the subject entertaining without turning it into porn on its own (graphic yes, but not porn) that normalizes it for critical viewing. Though, to be fair, David would likely argue that wouldn’t have been a big deal if it had crossed the line in any case.

If you ever wondered about the people on the other side of the lens, both performers and crew, this is a brief visit with some insight. It isn’t a great movie, but it does show off David’s budding abilities.

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The Last Wave (La dernière vague)

[3 stars]

To get a sense of this odd, supernatural suspense/thriller series, imagine if Les Revenants took place on a beach in the South of France and had more than passing cross-pollination with The 4400. Admittedly, those references may be too obscure for most folks. Think Manifest on the beach, perhaps?

One of the things that I enjoy about French genre entertainment is that, whether it is based more on science (like Ad Vitam) or fantasy  (like Les Revenants) it always focuses on the effect of the issues on people and society. Because, in the end, what’s important is how it affects people, not the secret or issue itself; that’s just a medium to explore humanity.

The Last Wave is definitely more on the fantasy side of things, but with the trappings of science. An event occurs in a small town and then, with a bunch of hand-wavy explanations, we are treated to a struggle of conscience and politics that carries the story through to the end. The writing isn’t brilliant, but the story is very engaging and wide ranging. But, in the end, I was happy to ride their wave to the finale, which is complete and as-intended. So, no cliff-hanger that will leave you wondering if you’ll ever see the end.