Tag Archives: Early film

Squid Game

[3 stars]

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are at least aware of Squid Game. It has had even bigger viewership numbers than Bridgerton and has made the news and even a song on SNL. Everything everyone has said is true. It is hyperviolent. It is dark as hell. It is a bizarre lens and commentary on capitalism, life, and society. So no need to go there. I want to talk about what people aren’t mentioning.

To start off, I had spotted the show very early in its release, but the description/warning that pretty much just said that it was “hyperviolent” had me put it off. And then the hype grew and so I gave it a shot. The first episode was numbing and depressing. There were no obvious characters worth investing in, based on their actions. I knew who we were supposed to root for, but frankly couldn’t find a way in to do so. So I paused my return to the Korean spectacle.

And then the hype grew more. I just couldn’t grasp what was causing all the hoopla. So, I went back…and that’s where it all got interesting.

The storytelling in Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game is odd and non-linear. It starts us at a dark nadir for Lee Jung-jae as our main character. But then, with the second episode, we start getting backstory for him and the other players. None of it forgives their actions, but it provides context. And there are lots of stories to tell in this cast, though Park Hae-soo, Jung Hoyeon, and Oh Yeong-su have some of the more interesting. No one in this story is blameless and they all, essentially, accept the reality that they are where they are thanks to their own actions. But the context allows for some amount of empathy and, ultimately, some devastating moments. Unlike, say, Battle Royale, it definitely pays off with a purpose.

Add to all this the amazing production design and you have a show you can’t seem to look away from…unless of course you can’t handle hyper-violence, in which case what the heck are you doing watching this anyway? Ultimately, the story is allegorical and not a little absurd. It jumps the shark near the climax with the arrival of the VIPs for me, and the ending was neither overly surprising nor satisfying. It simply happened to allow for a second season. And, to be fair, I want to see what they do with it, even if I don’t forgive the character manipulation that brings us there.

This isn’t an easy show. It won’t raise your opinion of humanity. But, in a weird way, it leaves you feeling hopeful and with some faith in the individual. It will also put some questions in the back of your head that will rattle uncomfortably as you contemplate them in private. Should you watch it? Again, see hyperviolence. It is brutal at times. If you can’t deal with that, the answer is a flat: no. If you can tolerate the intensity and blood, yeah, it’s something you should see.

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Wendy

[3.5 stars]

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is not only a gifted storyteller and filmmaker, he is incredibly astute at finding young talent. And while this second feature didn’t get the same kind of attention his first movie did, his abilities are on raw display.

The story, by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is a clever retelling of Peter Pan evoking, yet again, their Louisiana roots. The story takes the fantasy and and the desire to never grow up and makes it even more magical that the original Barry tale in some ways.

Part of that success is down to new-comers Devin France and Yashua Mack, in the roles of Wendy and Peter. They are near spooky in their ability to be both children and to seem to carry the wisdom of years behind their eyes. Some of that is, no doubt, Zeitlin’s ability to direct them, but much is their own innate talents.

The film is fluid and unexpected in the way it deals with reality. It provides a framework, but not many answers. And, ultimately, it lands on a joyous metaphor that is both positive and bitter-sweet. The largest failing of the story is it’s climax, mirroring “clap if you believe in fairies.” It is a moment that will work for most audiences, but which I found distancing and demanding in a way that was not embracing. It threw me out of the flick entirely in a very bad way. I understand the choice and assumptions, but it was a shame, after so much else before and after that moment worked, that he and his sister couldn’t see the issue they had tripped on with their choice.

That aside, the movie and its ideas are really special. Zeitlin continues to be a filmmaker to watch, with a unique and powerful vision of the world and an ability to nurture talent that might otherwise go missed.

Wendy Poster

The Future

[2.5 stars]

Miranda July (Madeline’s Madeline) wrote, directed, and starred in this, her Sophomore feature outing a decade ago. She and Hamish Linklater (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) are a pair of aimless adults not quite in the swing of life. They’re lost and broken rather than open to the world around them and enjoying their “freedom.” And therein lies the spark that leads them down separate and twisting paths that include, amongst others, a creepy and sort of sweet turn by David Warfshofsky and an early appearance by Isabella Acres (Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) who has an equally odd little character.

This isn’t a fast or intense tale. It unfolds inexorably. But every time the story was starting to lag or get uninteresting, July would throw in something new or surprising to help keep it going. In fact, the last third was a completely brave crapshoot that saved the flick for me.

I can’t honestly say I actually enjoyed the full result, nor that I entirely understood her full intent, but I did stick it out to see where she’d end up. As with many indie’s, this one gets rather metaphorical. I think it’s intended to be positive, but I didn’t really feel that way at the end. It isn’t that I haven’t used the same dark mirror to carry an uplifting intent or message, but the order of things at the end didn’t add up that way for me.

If you’re looking for something a little different, a little quiet, but handled with some care, this may do you. It has romantic themes, but it is far from Romance. This is more a story of finding yourself and being open to what’s around you in a real way, not a reactive one. How you respond to it will depend a great deal on your own experiences and where you are in life now.

 

The Future Poster

Lady of the Manor

[2 stars]

The ideas in this movie are fine and even intriguing. And with Melanie Lynskey (Hello I Must Be Going) and Judy Greer (Uncle Frank) driving the center of it, I had hope. Hope that was dashed by 30 min in when the movie had yet to get going.

Written and directed by the brothers Long (Justin [Masters of the Universe: Revelation] and Christian), the flick kept creeping up to the edge of being something but refusing to tip over it. It didn’t help that we were bouncing between the grounded moments of Long and the brotastic and unrelenting bravado of Ryan Phillippe (Big Sky) as they catalyzed the tale. The movie never quite finds its groove on screen nor style in script.

Ultimately I jumped to the end to see if there were any surprises or aspects that might make me go back and watch the whole thing. There wasn’t. Even the outtakes (absent the final one) that run during the credits weren’t funny or intriguing. Basically, this is a complete miss for me. I wanted it to work, and it even has a sort of topical dénouement, but that isn’t worth the 90 minutes you’d have to spend to watch it.

Lady of the Manor Poster

The Voyeurs

[3 stars]

The Voyeurs is a movie that demands your trust, but it doesn’t really do enough to earn it, even if it eventually pays off. And because of that, Michael Mohan’s dark trip down a twisted rabbit hole never quite attains the credibility it needs to get you from event to event.

The real weakness here isn’t the story, it’s the casting. It aspires to be Rear Window with a dash of Eyes Wide Shut. But that cocktail requires a certain level of maturity and depth of character. We have to believe in each of these people and their choices. It isn’t that we haven’t all been in the position of choosing whether to keep watching something we shouldn’t or not, it’s that we have to believe in the obsession that builds for the main couple we’re watching (who are watching others…love the meta yet?).

Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) holds his own in this respect fairly well. So does Natasha Liu Bordizzo (Wish Dragon). But neither of their partners are, frankly, old enough to be believable. Sydney Sweeney (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) is literally too young to have the position her character holds. She has nice range, if a bit shallow, but she’d have to have been a tween in college. And Ben Hardy (6 Underground) has the needed ego and frenetic energy, but none of the magnetism and maturity to help ground the character and set him apart from those around him. And it makes the dynamic between him and Sweeney somewhat frat-boyish rather than with more levels.

I did appreciate Mohan’s approach to the story and the complexity he engineered, but the casting issues really diminished the impact. Though the addition of Katharine King So (Transplant) as a grounding voice in the midst of it all helped. Still, the movie is filmed and edited well, and the story will pull you along, even if you cringe at a few particular moments. But Mohan crafted the journey nicely. I just wish he had cast it to better meet his goals.

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How to Build a Girl

[3 stars]

Growing up is difficult, but finding your place in the world, generally, sucks. However, from the outside, those evolutions can be both enlightening, heartwarming, and hysterical. So, if you enjoy coming-of-age flicks like Sing Street, Blinded By the Light, and about a 100 other Brit music-based stories, this one’s for you. It has the added bonus of riffing a bit on Almost Famous as well.

Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart) dances on the edge of adulthood in this story of finding herself and escaping the financial struggles of her area and family. The film is loaded with recognizable and new faces, most of which are just fun to spot. But a couple standout as worth flagging. Laurie Kynaston as her brother and mirror, and Paddy Considine (The Third Day) as her supportive-but-often-pointless father are among them. And then there’s Alfie Allen (Jojo Rabbit) in an unexpectedly calm and contemplative role. The rest you’ll have to find for yourself.

Coky Giedroyc directed Caitlin Moran’s adaptation of her own book with a real sense of love and life. This isn’t a terribly deep story, but it has enough to sink your teeth into while also making you laugh. The side-eye commentary is plenty of fun as well. Check this out when you need a lighter laugh and a reminder of what it was to make that transition from thinking you are the world to being part of it.

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Cinderella (2021)

[3 stars]

Cinderella is a tale that is told over and over again in various formats, from Ella Enchanted to Pretty Woman to the recent classic retelling or even as another reimagined musical. It endures because it speaks to hope and escape. It can morph into many frameworks because those feelings and fears are untethered to a particular venue or time. So it is no surprise that Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect) wanted to tackle it with her own musical spin.

The result is entertaining, if very much on the surface. Imagine In the Heights meets Beauty and the Beast with a dash of Moulin Rouge. Songs you already know slotted into big numbers to bring a feudal setting to current life. Mind you, the songs often expand the running time unnecessarily and the choice of songs was odd to my ear. I knew most of them, but this was a movie aimed at young girls and women…and almost none of them were alive when they released and were popular. If Cannon was looking for familiar touchpoints, she mostly missed the mark in her selections.

The cast certainly gave it their all. X-Factor alumn Camila Cabello brings energy and joy to her Ella…enough to keep it all afloat. And she’s surrounded with some solid talent to help her along. But of them, Billy Porter (Pose), Minnie Driver (Spinning Man), and Idina Menzel (Frozen) are the most memorable. And while they all support Cabello well, there just isn’t enough Billy Porter. I understand why…Cannon wanted Ella to be her own savior. And I applaud that approach, but after he appears (way late in the film), his lack is sorely felt..and the story feels like it’s missing something.
On a more general note, though humorous, the CGI for the mice is awful. How they could cheap out on that aspect was a surprise as it ruins their moments on screen. And the songs are over-engineered to the point of almost being lifeless. They’re so clean as to have no emotion, no guts. Notes, yes, but no humanity.
Grumbles aside, there is a feminist message throughout that goes full-blown, Handmaids included, in a quietly angry musical number that is among the best and poignant in the flick. Ultimately, the story pays off in the way it should, even if unsurprising. Subtle the movie isn’t, but it does try to forge new ground. It just would have been nice if it had some depth to the soil it spread.
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Love and Monsters

[3.5 stars]

There was something quite fun in taking the action-hero oriented Dylan O’Brien (Infinite) and making him into a somewhat inept, but able to learn, heartsick dweeb during the apocalypse. It also helps that the script was wickedly funny and unpretentious. By combining the raw sarcasm of  Brian Duffield (Spontaneous) and sweet sensibility of Matthew Robinson (Dora and the Lost City of Gold), the result is an unexpectedly humorous and entertaining action romance.

The story is unabashedly absurd from the start, but not without heart. In fact, if anything, that is the point of the story: family and love (in case the title wasn’t enough of a clue). But it’s all done with a wry wink. Michael Rooker (Vivo) and Ariana Greenblat (Awake) add to that considerably. And Jessica Henwick (On the Rocks) provides a suitable and believable focus for our hero.

This isn’t brilliant comedy or action, but it is totally entertaining and never takes itself too seriously. And, even amidst the absurdity, there is a real base of emotion and intention. It’s a flick that fulfills many needs for an evening and will have you laughing and jumping. Had it not released during the pandemic, it may even have found a wider audience on the big screen, but now it will just have to grow it from a smaller one; and it should.

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SAS: The Rise of the Black Swan (aka Red Notice)

[3.5 stars]

Sure, this is a standard action/suspense thriller in most ways. But from the start it suggests a question that pulls you along wondering who it is going to focus on. While that becomes clearer as the story progresses, it is by no means simple…in fact, in some ways Laurence Malkin’s script is more than a little subversive in his attempt to show something a bit (just a bit) closer to the reality of mercenary and professional killer mentality. But that’s all the subtext.

Generally, this is just rockin’ good actioner with some solid talent and some clever surprises. It is cold and violent, however it also has a little bit of everything for almost everyone; even humor and romance.

Sam Heughan (Bloodshot) and Hannah John-Kamen (Brave New World), along with Tom Hopper (Umbrella Academy) are on one side of the line. Ruby Rose (The Meg, Batwoman) and Tom Wilkinson (The Happy Prince) are on the other while Andy Serkis (A Christmas Carol) gets to straddle the space in-between. The interplay between them all is understated and honest, if sometimes a bit ‘managed.’  But while this is probably the biggest project director Magnus Martens has tackled, he’s done a credible job keeping it all moving and clear.

One of the better aspects of this movie is that you can come to it just wanting to be entertained, or think about aspects of the world it takes time to expose. It doesn’t dwell on any of that…it is very much of its genre, but it does help set it apart just enough. It helps it feel new in a sea of similar thrillers. Certainly the script helped, but the actors also found just the right delivery. They aren’t acting evil, they are just acting as the sociopaths/psychopaths they need to be–on both sides of the line. This ended up being a solid launch to a possible franchise and I’d definitely be back to see where they could take it.

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Cosmos

[2.75 stars]

So, what kind of movie do you get when two documentarians and science-loving artists tackle a science fiction premise? Well…this. Elliot Weaver and Zander Weaver have produced a story that tries to show real science and moments of discovery that occur on a long night of sky-watching, but with a sort of superhero sensibility.

The small 3 person cast is actually pretty natural on screen. Tom England, Joshua Ford, and Arjun Singh Panam work well off of one another. Though the tension between them is also just a little, well, odd at times. There is a sort of Miles/Basheer vibe to the whole thing, though more as a trio. But they all feel like real individuals.

In some ways I really respect what the Weavers tried to do. The fact is that most science is about long hours and lots of grinding efforts. Scientists are heroes and they deserve their moment on screen. It was refreshing to see a tense tale of possibilities told from the perspective of the unsung geek heroes. But it’s all done just a little too preciously, and with swelling music little too often, to fully work.

Part of the problem is the flick is about 40 minutes longer than it needs to be, though like Dark Star or even Contact and Interstellar they use that time to try and add some reality to the efforts and actualities of research. Basically, it’s often just boring. And while there are times where the Weavers use (and, as mentioned, overuse) music to help enhance the moments of discovery, it’s just as often obvious they’ve watched The Right Stuff and other similarly hero-charged tales a bit too often. In fact, there were moments I almost laughed at the attempted emotional charge as it was so patently ridiculous.

But those gaffs and ego moments aside, the story was compelling. It won’t be for everyone. There are no explosions or massive effects, and some of the science and depictions are, shall we say, a little adjusted, but there is a sense of the real about it all. And that sense makes it feel more immediate…just not fast. So if you’ve ever done a night of starwatching and wondered what it would be like to make a major discovery while doing so, this is for you. If you want a more standard action/adventure film, this most definitely isn’t it.

Cosmos Poster