Tag Archives: Early film

The Last Letter From Your Lover

[3 stars]

Yeah, up front, this is a sappy and manipulative movie by design. And I’m fine with that. Director Augustine Frizzell aimed the adaptation squarely at romantics, no others need apply. The story cleverly follows two couples from different periods through the lens of discovered letters and the mystery and curiosity they invoke.

In the 60s we follow a married woman discovering a life and love she didn’t even know was possible. But the relationship between Shailene Woodley (The Mauritanian) and Callum Turner (Emma.) comes across as more an act of desperation rather than a great love affair. Part of that is the period acting, but part is simply the lack of chemistry between the two. Given that our window to them is through letters, it could be a style choice to make it reflect more of a written romance; but many of the scenes are clearly flashbacks so that distance isn’t consistent.

On the other hand, Felicity Jones (The Midnight Sky) and  Nabhaan Rizwan (1917), in current times, are completely compelling as the inevitable couple that Jones refuses to acknowledge. Their mental and emotional dance is instantly tangible, even though neither knows quite what to do about it. We invest in them immediately and want them to succeed.

Outside of the main couples, Joe Alwyn (A Christmas Carol) plays the suitable cad of a husband for Woodley to react against. And the late Ben Cross turns in one of his final performances with a sweet and sad depth that carries all the emotion you wish the couple had had in their younger incarnations.

So find someone you really care about who can appreciate the movie for what it is, and curl up together. It will leave you happy to be in love and not unentertained.

The Last Letter from Your Lover Poster

Daniel Isn’t Real

[3 stars]

Imaginary friends in psychological horror films are far from new. But this entry into the mix by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Archenemy) is actually rather well done. It manages to skirt all the questions such on-screen situations raise without committing to any one answer till it decides it wants to or needs to.

Miles Robbins (Halloween) is the main focus of this story, along with his “friend,” given creepy life by  Patrick Schwarzenegger (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse). The two have a fun dynamic that progresses by degrees as you’d expect it to. Adding fuel to the fire are romantic and artistic interest Sasha Lane (Utopia) and, as his mother, Mary Stuart Masterson (Blindspot).

Robbins spends the film balancing what he thinks he wants and knows, with what he fears is really happening. Chukwudi Iwuji (John Wick: Chapter 2) provides a voice of reason… mostly. By the time the wheels all come off, everyone’s choices become suspect, though Lane’s approach remains credible and strong.

Figuring out what this movie is going to be is half the fun. It isn’t easy to pick apart and doesn’t quite follow the paths you expect. In the end you get the story Mortimer intends, but whether that is one you’ll agree with or even like is going to be a matter of taste. He could have done more with it, but he also needed to keep the tale moving because his audience was going to constantly be trying to leap ahead. The pacing never really allows that to happen in a way that spoils the story. On purely craft grounds, I think this one is worth it if you like the horror genre. And it’s way more satisfying than the similar attempt (in craft) in the also recent Flashback.

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Fear Street: Part One – 1994

[4 stars]

Pretty much out of the gate Leigh Janiak has the reins of Fear Street and drives it relentlessly and with style. Loaded with good scares, clever surprises, and wry humor, it never lets up and it has a lot of fun with horror tropes.

She also pulled together a solid cast who could play the genre with earnest irony. Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, and Julia Rehwald, in particular, manage a wonderful juggling act that bounces between femme victims and femme fatales. But, as a whole, the cast holds it together without a weak delivery among them (given the style).

Clearly this is a story that has a lot left to reveal since it’s a trilogy that goes back to it’s origin (1666). Also, it’s completely clear that the kids in this movie have no clue what is really going on yet, try as they might to make sense of it all. So while the Final Girls vibe is fun, I don’t know how it will all shift through the subsequent parts. However, if you’re looking for a fix before the next chapter of Stranger Things, but with a bit more of an edge, this is the ticket.

Code 8

[3 stars]

This is a nice piece of science fiction by Jeff Chan and Chris Pare, where nothing is clean cut; all of the main characters are one shade of grey or another. It makes for a much more interesting story. Code 8 has been sitting in my queue for a while. With the announcement that a sequel (with the original cast, writers, and director) is now in the works, I finally decided to let it spool. And I’m glad I did.

The story isn’t perfect, but it definitely works at making a complex alternate world where random people get powers and how that would affect things. It is, of course, really just a thinly veiled metaphor for how we deal with immigrants and people of different races, but rarely in such heavy-handed ways as to pull you out of the story.

And the story itself is really very small and human. Robbie Amell (Upload) is trying to earn money to help his family in a world where he can’t legally or easily get a job. Stephen Amell (Arrow), Robbie’s real-life cousin, provides another path for him. What unspools from their choices is a good heist/action story with a lot of heart and a bit of corruption and sacrifice.

Alongside the Amell boys there are a few deeper performances. Kyla Kane and Sung Kang are worth noting. And then there were a couple smaller, unexpected roles. One of the nicest surprises is Kari Matchett (Leverage) as the sick mother. Matchett is always a solid and engaging actor, and she elevates all her scripts because she takes them all seriously. Yes, I’m a fan, what can I say? Another unexpected bit is from Peter Outerbridge (Haunter), who barely appears in the story but who has an outsized weight in the plot. On a guess, this is where the sequel will focus.

Code 8 isn’t your typical sf distraction. It attempts to give you a full world and interesting characters that feel real. Is it a bit exaggerated? Sure, a bit. But it assumes people are complex and that actions and events have consequences. It doesn’t make things easy, and you come to the end feeling satisfied that you’ve seen a full story. I’m honestly looking forward to its sequel, when it arrives.

Code 8 Poster

Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know

[3.5 stars]

Not long ago the first picture, literally a photo, of a black hole was released to the public. It was a major milestone in astrophysics and was the culmination of years of work on the part of 100s of scientists. This documentary, in part, covers that journey and several key moments of its efforts. It is a fascinating look inside big science and what it takes to crack the code of the universe.

While interesting, that thread alone might not support a 90 minute docu aimed at the non-scientist. But director Peter Galison adds a complimentary thread that follows a few scientists who are collaborating to solve a huge challenge posited by Stephen Hawking as related to black holes: the memory paradox. Hawking was even working with the trio of brains on the effort before he died in 2018. The interplay of the two stories is a fascinating layer that helps expose the interplay of disciplines and efforts, some of which may not even know of one another.

It’s amazing that Galison got to be present and involved with these disparate groups and had the access to capture it all, not to mention the foresight to try. And now we get a glimpse of the multi-year process and effort that is involved in this rather intriguing film.

Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know Poster

In the Heights

[3 stars]

A story about finding and realizing your dreams, big and small, yours and others, deserves to be told in music. It is no wonder this caught the imagination of Broadway back in 2008. It isn’t just a quintessential NYC story, it is a very human story whether you’re a recent immigrant or not.

There were moments that I wondered if Lin-Manuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) wasn’t being too indulgent with the scope of the story; it is a long tale. But he uses all aspects of the pieces he lays out, and each fits together to provide a fuller picture at the end. Basically, trust the story-teller, he knew what he was doing.

Anthony Ramos (Honest Thief) carries the energy of the story well, if a bit light-heartedly. He is guileless and, often, clueless about how to approach what he really wants. Then again, part of the tale is him figuring that out, as it is with so many of the characters. Melissa Barrera (Vida) makes a wonderful object of his affection, and her personal interactions are great…though her drive to her own dream is somewhat washed out and weak for me. On the other hand, Leslie Grace has a thorny path that she treads well and shares beautifully for the screen as she struggles with her own doubts. She and Corey Hawkins (6 Underground) play well together as a couple, while she and Jimmy Smits have some very real engagements about life and family.

There are tons of additional characters filling out the Heights. Each gets a moment or two on their own. And all come together more than once to express joy or frustration together as a community. Of them Olga Merediz and Daphne Rubin-Vega are worth calling out for their presence and impact. But as a whole, the cast is solid and capable. All the voices are great and the choreography is inventive and fun (and occasionally a bit distracting, truth be told). Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) had a blast adapting the stage version and managed, for the most part, to make it feel like it was always intended for film with his direction.

Miranda also, despite the fantasy aspects of the story, allowed his characters moments of reality to keep it all grounded, providing windows into the real world. Which he then, of course, peanut butter’s over with great tunes and dance to take out the sting. The overall impact is as close to Fiddler on the Roof that I’ve seen in a long time. Few other musicals try to tell the story of a whole people (or peoples) and manage it with a full range of emotions. Heights isn’t at the level of Fiddler; the scope is more narrow, more personal. It tells parts of several people’s stories in a way that creates a pastiche of the experience and realities. However, it never fully acknowledges or tackles the whole ugly mess…it is more Hollywood musical (think La La Land) than off-Broadway life lesson. Still, it’s an entertaining love story and peek inside the lives of people who are so often unseen.

But, if you’re wondering why I haven’t rated it higher, it’s because it didn’t embrace some of the darker aspects of the stories we hear. Even though the script claims that not all dreams are fulfilled and not all endings are happy, Miranda couldn’t really stop himself from trying to make it that way. And I understand he wanted a celebration of life, but it made it feel too easy for me, which made the story less credible and less revisitable. Of course, others will have different reactions, or even prefer that approach, and that’s fine. Either way, you should take the trip north on the 1 train at least once at some point. And stay till the end of the credits for an extra, and amusing, scene.

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Flashback

[3 stars]

Memory, drugs, and multiple timelines all intertwine to create a maze of story in Flashback. But unlike many other movies that have attempted this before, Christopher MacBride manages to pull it all together into an understandable tale with a highly structured script and careful editing. Though, I have to say, the whole thing ends on a decidedly mixed message.

If you’re looking for a touchstone, though it isn’t in the same league, think Altered States. Yes, it involves drugs and huge metaphysical and metaphorical questions, but on a much smaller scale than Altered States attempted.

But it does have an equally solid cast, led by Dylan O’Brien (American Assassin) and Maika Monroe (Greta), around whom all else orbits. Add in an unexpectedly crass and stoned Emory Cohen (The OA) and Keir Gilchrist (It Follows), and you’ve a soup of recognizable High School interaction that jumps neatly between the decade long gap between the two stories at play. Liisa Repo-Martell and Hannah Gross (Joker) have some rather thankless roles that they deliver well, but which vanish into the chaos of the plot.

This is a story you just have to let happen to you. It makes marginal sense from the start, though you do have to fight the urge to slap O’Brien as he drifts through his life. MacBride takes his time building up the layers and the answers for the character’s actions. By the time you get to the end, it all makes a sort of sense within the framework we’re provided. What the characters do with that understanding is the real story. And, I suspect, many people will have differing opinions as to the choices.

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Psycho Goreman

[3 stars]

Sometimes you just need a crazy-ass bit of silly…and this is that. It echoes in style the 80s dark fantasies of kids waking up unspeakable evil. But, rather than running scared, our little champions learn to control said evil, which gives the story a sly eye to the humor and absurdity of it all. Oh, and there are buckets of stage blood and flying body parts as well. The entire film is just off the rails, but it’s also purposefully absurd and non-realistic, which makes it digestible and entertaining.

So now imagine if your psycho little sister got control of the ultimate evil. Nita-Josee Hanna gets to explore just that question while she berates and belittles her older brother  Owen Myre and her crush, Scout Flint. The sister/brother duo really carry the bulk of the film. And while the trope gets a bit long and wearying at times, there is enough of a story and some nice asides to get it over the finish line. Even the ineffectual parents Adam Brooks and Alexis Kara Hancey get to play into it. Though, again, you are left to wonder how this family survived as long as it has so far, let alone this particular crisis.

For all it’s B-grade trappings, Steven Kostanski’s script is relatively tight and with some unexpected levels to it. Good and evil are definitely not cleanly quantifiable. He knew how to ride the line directing the material as well. The style of the acting is most definitely with a nod and wink, but without ever completely breaking character. The creature work also really deserves some special notice; Kostanski leveraged his make-up background to be the creature designer as well. To say that he attacked that aspect of the film with a bit of dark whimsey is an understatement.

Suffice to say this isn’t a movie you take seriously. Load up the popcorn and your sense of humor. Have fun with it, but appreciate the care with which it was put together.

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Supernova

[3.5 stars]

Better known as an actor, Harry Macqueen wrote and directed this quietly intense story that should be recognizable to anyone who has ever been, or ever wanted to be, in a long-term relationship. Despite its framing, it isn’t a story about a gay couple, it’s a story about two lovers in crisis and holding on to one another as they navigate the issues. And he manages to do all this through quiet dialogue and without losing tension.

It’s worth every minute of this movie to follow Stanley Tucci (The Witches) and Colin Firth (Mary Poppins Returns) across the English countryside as they struggle to help one another accept the latest phase of their marriage. Both are wonderfully subtle actors, and the depth of their connection is undeniable.

It’s hard not to watch this and not compare it to The Leisure Seeker. Despite the radically different temperaments of the two movies, they tread the same ground in many ways; that of a deep and abiding love facing mortality. But unlike Leisure Seeker, little happens in this movie and few secrets are revealed. It really is a story about the two talking to each other and their friends. But, thanks to the clever direction and editing, it isn’t in the least boring.

This is definitely one to curl up on the couch with your nearest loved one and consider what it means to spend a lifetime together.

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Coda

[3 stars]

This is one of those small, quiet films that manages to grab you. It is also, possibly, the best depiction of the crippling pain of stage fright I’ve ever seen captured.

Patrick Stewart (Charlie’s Angels), as the aging pianist extraordinaire, is not only credible but he brings a quiet depth and gravitas to a story that is often only hinted at; something Stewart is truly great at. Katie Holmes (Logan Lucky) and Giancarlo Esposito (Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Unpregnant) form his support, and create the story structure around his return to the stage. While there are other characters in the story, this film is really just a three person play.

First-time director Claude Lalonde orchestrated Louis Godbout’s script deftly. The story never lags and never slips into histrionics or forced romantics. While certainly enhanced, it feels very real and human, which is how it manages to touch you right up till the end. Make time for it when you want something a bit more down-to-earth or if you just want to see Stewart flex his acting muscles outside of the characters that have dominated his career.

Coda Poster