Tag Archives: Early film

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados)

[3 stars]

A surreal romp about finding hope in hopelessness. At least that’s what I took away from it this viewing. Pedro Rivero and
Alberto Vázquez (with additional help from Stephanie Sheh [Your Name.] and Joe Deasy) give us a landscape that borders on Bakshi’s Wizards: post-apocalyptic, mutated, venal, self-absorbed, and still focused on the value of the past rather than providing life for the future.

The main characters are children; children who are trying to survive and find purpose in a broken world. Somehow that part of the story feels very contemporary in terms of the feelings and challenges if not the specific events and issues. The overall plot echos the global trend toward migration, economic disparity, and the ecological disaster that is picking up steam with every year. But this is less warning than it is the (merest) suggestion that there is a solution if we can just hold on to what makes life worthwhile and control the darkest parts of our own selves. It makes for a pretty packed 76 minutes.

For the animation alone, this film is worth it. It isn’t grand, highly CGI’d animation, rather it is a reflection of its graphic novel roots. It is simple, but effective. The result is fascinating, inventive, and gripping at times. It refuses to blink from horror, but also often twists it to something of beauty or potential beauty. If you like the craft and enjoy challenging animation, this is worth your time.

The Death of Stalin

[3 stars]

So what do you get when you have an unchecked leader running a country with only sycophants at his side? No, not that, I’m speaking of Russia in 1953. Though the parallels are utterly intended and the implications somewhat overwhelm the humor at times. But when Armando Iannucci, the co-writer and director of In the Loop and Veep, decided to tackle the Russian oligarchy for his second film, you rightly expect dry, wry. and bleakest black humor. If you didn’t, you probably have gone to the wrong movie.

Here’s the thing, this is not my favorite kind of humor. I enjoyed this movie to a degree, but I found it painful at times, and quite silly at others. It has a Monty Python-esque meets Chekov quality, and not just because Michael Palin (Remember Me, Absolutely Anything) is in it as Molokov (yes, that Molokov). That it also manages to cleave close to historical fact at the same time is a credit to Iannucci and his gang. But the movie doesn’t flow in a way that feels entirely right for my tastes. He does, however, know how to cast for his needs.

The actors are all top-notch comediens, from Steve Buscemi (Electric Dreams), to Jeffrey Tambor (The Accountant), to Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown), even to the stoic and surprising Olga Kurylenko (The Water Diviner). Andrea Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes) and Rupert Friend (Hitman: Agent 47) have their own little storyline to run out and Jason Isaacs (A Cure for Wellness) comes in hard and fast to steal a good part of the last of the film. But it is Paddy Considine (The Girl With All the Gifts) and Tom Brooke (Preacher) who launch us into the world and set the tone perfectly and who manage to bring it all back together, in its way.

Iannucci has given us a cautionary comedy; a well-done satire. For the right audience it will entertain completely. For others it will cause an uncomfortable frisson. And for yet others, it will simply stoke the frustration and anger they are currently feeling with the world. So go in knowing what kind of film you might be seeing and decide if it is for you.

The Death of Stalin

A Quiet Place

[3.5 stars]

A tight, post-apocalyptic family drama, told with real skill. From the beginning, you are made aware that while the story is familiar, the rules you know may not apply. It is also a beautifully appointed tale of deaf child coming into her own in a world of imposed silence, which makes for some great, if never spoken, contrasts.

The danger of this film was really with writer, director, and one of the three main actors, John Krasinski (The Hollars). That is a lot of hats to wear and not screw something up. As you might have guessed, he didn’t. He builds a level of tension through scenes that few other directors have pulled off without cheap tricks. This is very important as some of the key moments you’ll see coming, but the editing and performances will keep you gripping your armrest. And, sure, you’ll recognize some of the moments and where he learned them from, but this world is very much his own. I was so involved with the story on screen that it was only afterwards that the echos came to the surface for me.

The story is entirely about Krasinski’s small family trying to survive together in a near-impossible situation. With Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) as his wife, she again proves her mettle on screen. It may not be her kick-ass warrior from Edge of Tomorrow, but she brings the energy and determination. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), on the other hand, brings the tragedy and strength that you would have normally expected one of the adult actors to take on. It is a complicated role that succeeds enough for its purpose. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses. The last main cast member I expected a bit more subtlety from given his turn in Wonder, but Noah Jupe’s tackling of the family’s son was a bit ham-handed for me at times. Honestly, that was Krasinski’s mistake more than Jupe’s, but it stood out for me amidst the other more contained performances.

All that said, this taut, 90 minute science-fictionesque/family/horror/drama is really fun and worth your time to see with an audience. When the whole room gets tense and groans and jumps with you, the experience is heightened even more. And while there are certainly brief moments of contained gore, it is really more all about the tension and release.

Love, Simon

[4.5 stars]

Simon delivers in the most wonderful ways and still finds a core truth to make it work. In fact, my theater broke into applause more than once during the movie (once at the penultimate moment we’d been waiting for and once at the end credits). In the last 20 years I can only think of a few films that got genuine, spontaneous applause in a general viewing, so that’s saying something.

Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) does a great job embodying Becky Albertalli’s title character from her book. He gives us a Simon that is easy to like and understand, not to mention who you want to slap silly for his missteps (and then forgive him all the same). There is no nod or wink, he simply is a teenager dealing with life.

Robinson is helped along with a collection of other young actors, all dealing with life in their own ways. Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Brigsby Bear) complete the core group of friends. Logan Miller (Before I Fall), Keiynan Lonsdale (Legends of Tomorrow), Miles Heizer (13 Reasons Why), and Clark Moore are all nice additions around the rest of the tale.

Jennifer Garner (Men, Women, Children) and Josh Duhamel (Unsolved: Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.), as Simon’s parents strike just the right tone for this somewhat idealized, gee-I-wish-this-had-been-my-home feel. I dare you to make it through their critical scenes without shedding tears. Even Tony Hale’s (American Ultra) over-the-top Vice Principal manages to strike a tone that works for the story.

Speaking of tone, director Greg Berlanti did a brilliant job with that throughout, no doubt helped by his extensive background as a producer and writer. He took what writing team Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (This is Us, About a Boy) delivered and made it sing. Their script manages to tease out the humor and the emotions without wallowing. As a first feature film script, they also proved they can leap media. And, as a team, Love, Simon brings us the first major, main-stream release of a gay rom-com to screen. That it is aimed at teens should be no surprise since that generation is significantly less judgmental than most of their parents. The irony is that on a personal level, the struggle is still the same in any generation; coming into your own is never easy.

Which means there is both a specific truth and a general truth to this story, which is what makes it so wonderfully universal. The specific truth, the stress of coming out as a teenager, is the written core of this relatively faithful adaptation. But different is different in High School, regardless of what that difference is. And, of course, we all feel “different.” That is the general truth.

Go see this movie. Admit going in that when you see a film like this, you are accepting a contract to be manipulated. You do so not only willingly, but with the desire for the release. But it is wonderful and uplifting and, no matter how manipulated or idealized, it feels true or like you want it to be true. It is well acted and well delivered and will leave you holding someone close to you and grateful for having them in your life.

Love, Simon

Tomb Raider (2018)

[3.5 stars]

YAR (yet another remake). Which isn’t to say it is bad, it isn’t. In fact they took their charge seriously and tried to make a relatively good movie that hewed to the original material, sort of. To separate it from the previous films, Alicia Vikander (Tulip Fever) gives us a younger, more vulnerable Lara Croft. She is a woman who has to come into her own during the story rather than the fully established inheritor of her father’s wealth and lifestyle from the start. And Vikander is impressively up to the task both physically and with emotional chops. They make sure you understand and believe that from the top.

As her father, Dominic West (The Square) also does a credible job, though with a slightly more exaggerated sensibility. Similarly for Walton Goggins (Maze Runner: The Death Cure), who has to walk the line of mustache twirler, father, and slightly bonkers villain. Neither is completely realistic, but by the point in the story they show up, Lara’s deep into the fantastical world she will inhabit the rest of her life.

Three supporting roles were worth noting as well: Daniel Wu (Warcraft, Into the Badlands), Kristin Scott Thomas (The Darkest Hour), and Derek Jacobi (Last Tango in Halifax, Murder on the Orient Express). Ok the last simply because it was Jacobi…he doesn’t really get to do much, but I always enjoy his work.

Director Roar Uthaug  (The Wave), and his rather untried script writers Robertson-Dowert and Siddons, took their time to build a story and world for Croft to inhabit and to give her artifact-hunting motivations beyond some internal sense of guilt or nobelesse oblige.  Uthaug  mostly kept it all realistic in effort and response. Lara gets hurt. A lot. In fact she grunts more than Steffi Graff during a finals match. However, in the quest for reality, the script also leaves out some of the more interesting aspects of Croft’s world. I appreciated how they grounded the plot, but I like a bit more fantasy with my pony-tailed heroine.

There is a ton of action to keep this all going. There is even some humor and just enough emotion to tie it together. Personally, I prefer the more established Lara over this rite-of-passage version that will lead to her. It really depends on whether you want to see a super hero kind of film or something more grounded. This film skirts the edge of both. You’ll have fun, but since it isn’t likely to spawn a franchise, it feels a bit less satisfying as a stand-alone. Also, I’d recommend not seeing the larger format screens. There is a good deal of shakey-cam (used for purpose) that I always find annoying and difficult to watch on that size screen.

I don’t mean to damn with feint praise, but I did want a bit more than I got even as I was surprised by how well it was all done. I will admit, it may have been more my expectations than what was delivered, but this is a well-established character, so I can’t be the only one with assumptions. Should a miracle occur and they continue the franchise, this is a solid world and character start, if not an Iron Man-style blowout.

Tomb Raider

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

[4 stars]

At its heart, this is a movie about love. That is also a biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman and his bold choices in a repressed era becomes window dressing. Though, I have to admit, I will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again.

Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train), Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon), and Rebecca Hall (The Dinner) pull off a beautiful triangle. They manage to bring to life the complex emotions, fears, and desires that drove and challenged the relationship they formed without making it puerile or cliche. In our current times, it is also a great lesson in moral fibre and learning to be who you are despite societal pressures or assumptions.

There are some very nice smaller roles that are worth noting as well, JJ Feild (Captain America: The First Avenger) in particular. On the sidelines are Oliver Platt (The Ticket), and Connie Britton (Beatriz at Dinner) that provide some intriguing bridging characters too, though we never really get to know them.

Writer and director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) does something wonderful with this tale. She approaches it without judgement of her characters, but rather flips that to her audience and those around the unusual family. As her second feature, it is beautifully modulated and subtle. I will say that while the romance and personal aspect of the story is very effective and believable, Robinson’s other goal (layering on Marston’s psych theory as a structure for the movie) is less effective. It doesn’t distract or diminish the film, but it doesn’t really add much to it either. You can see the ideas, you can’t avoid them given the transitions, but I didn’t find them to build on or explain much either. Frankly, it is a minor criticism in this story as it is still character appropriate and adds some interesting structure, even if it is less than impactful.

Whether you know the history of of these people, or have an interest in Wonder Woman comics, this is a story that will grab you early and keep you intrigued. Marston was no ordinary man, nor were the brilliant women he had in his life. What is fascinating is just how little things have changed since their story began in the late 1920s.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Game Night

[3.5 stars]

Though an ensemble film, the driving forces in this romp are Jason Bateman (The Family Fang) and Rachel McAdams (Doctor Strange). The two have great chemistry and timing, running the knife edge of comedy, action, and romance. As absurd and predictable as the movie can get, you really care for and cheer on this couple.

Around them are  are a host of, generally, small-screen actors breaking out nicely on the big screen. From Kyle Chandler (Carol), Sharon Horgan (Catastrope), Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Lamorne Morris (New Girl), to Kylie Bunbury (Under the Dome), there isn’t a performance that doesn’t match the need.

And then there is the outsider Jesse Plemons (Battleship) who has been popping up all over the place these days. Plemons plays a dry and creepy neighbor so over-the-top you almost believe in him. And, finally, there are two smaller amusements with Danny Huston (Wonder Woman) and Michael C. Hall (Dexter).

While this movie wouldn’t have worked without the comic and dramatic abilities of its cast, the real star is the direction and script that threaded the needle. The co-directors of the much less funny Vacation, John Francis Daley (also known for his turn in Bones) and Jonathan Goldstein, reteamed for this very entertaining farce. Add to it the clever, even when predictable, script by Mark Perez (Accepted) and the team really brought unexpected magic to what could have died up on the screen.

I admit, I wouldn’t have gone to this weren’t it for MoviePass, but it surprised me. I laughed a lot more than I expected and was even surprised at times. I admit, for me Bateman was also a draw. I find his brand of dark humor compelling most of the time, and he certainly entertained on that account. Whether you see this on big or small screen, make time for it when you want an off-color but not tasteless romp with action and humor. You won’t be disappointed.

Game Night

Una

[2.5 stars]

This isn’t an entire waste of a film, but in the #MeToo era it rings a bit oddly and, frankly, doesn’t manage a satisfying journey even absent that cultural phenomenon. I will say that David Harrower did manage to adapt his own play successfully to a movie script, but Benedict Andrews’s direction of the result never quite leaves his National Theatre roots behind.

The experience is basically a two-person play with a few extra characters thrown in, despite the number of locations and situations that are used. Rooney Mara (A Ghost Story) does believably create the results and shattered confusion of a young victim grown up. It isn’t a break-through performance, but builds on her odd energy and presence to help us feel her damage. Opposite her, Ben Mendelsohn (Lost River) gives us a tortured, denying predator. There is also a nice turn by Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, The OA) who helps pull some of the threads together.

The struggle with the film in this hyper-aware atmosphere is that it dances between something a bit too close to Lolita and a bit too far from something like The Club or Mysterious Skin or any number of other titles. A couple of years ago, this may have been seen as intriguing or challenging, but today it is politically deaf, even with the best interpretation of the ending. It isn’t that the story doesn’t have points to make, it is that it plays heavily in the gray area of the subject at a time when only black & white are going to resonate. So, if you do want to give it your time, watch with care and awareness that it may be a tad out of step with your expectations.

A

Annihilation

[3 stars]

Much like my comments about Altered Carbon, Annihilation is an actual piece of science fiction intended to inspire thought rather than just show off effects. Not a huge surprise given this is the follow-up feature for Alex Garland after his surprise hit Ex Machina. So strap in for a taught, but paced story that explores the definition of life, the waging of war, and the question of intention while still managing to have a highly intimate tale as its core. I’m not saying it is without flaws…there are definitely some gaps in logic and some forced choices, but it is generally rather well done. 

In addition to tackling large topics, it is also an almost all female driven tale. With Natalie Portman (Song to Song) at the helm as a credible ex-military/current-biologist, the motley collection of women head off into the unknown. Jennifer Jason Leigh (Morgan) is the next most impactful character, again both strong and intelligent, if a bit odd and lost at times. Rounding out the group are Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Tuva Novotny (ID: A) in two distinctly differing portrayals of what a troubled adulthood can look like. The last member, and surprisingly least credible, was Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin). To be fair, Rodriguez was given a tough task and, frankly, was left hanging more by the script than her own petard.

There are some men in the mix in integral roles as well, but they are side-characters. Despite the lack of lines and screen time, Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) do well.

As this is adapted from a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer,  don’t expect complete closure nor complete answers. In fact, I don’t think Garland would have been happy if there were pat answers to it all. And while this is a major studio release, it has much more of a sense of an indie to it. Despite a budget almost 50 times that of his previous film, Garland clearly told the story his way. Sadly, that is also going to cost him and the flick at the box office, but hopefully it will eventually find its audience and its place. It is a gorgeously filmed piece and with enough meat to make multiple viewings both desirable and enjoyable; assuming, of course, you’re there for the story and not just looking for empty entertainment and action.

As a final sort of spoilerish (but not much) comment, the ending goes off into 2001 land by way of a particular puzzle in the first Tomb Raider game. Given the set up and explanations, the choices are all fair, but I have to admit the imagery rang in my brain a bit more than I’d have liked it to at the climax. Regardless, I still think it was worth my time and that Garland has an interesting career ahead of him.

Annihilation

Loving Vincent

[3 stars]

Have you ever wanted to fall into a painting and see what the world was like in there? Loving Vincent, whose title serves both as the core sense of the film and comes from the artist’s own epigram, does just that. Using van Gogh’s style, an army of artists hand painted each frame making it feel like you’re in his world. The result is somewhere between stop-action and traditional animation, evoking Aleksandr Petrov or even early Takahata and Miyazaki.

But the story itself isn’t what you likely anticipate given that description. Unexpectedly, this Oscar contender kicks off a year after van Gogh’s death; an event most of us grew up thinking we understood. It was suicide, wasn’t it? Turns out there is a story there to be told. Douglas Booth (Limehouse Golem) is the man trying to ferret out the truth, at first reluctantly, and eventually with solid obsession and a large collection of characters to interview.

Among the notable supporting cast: Chris O’Dowd (The Cloverfield Paradox), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Helen McCrory (Their Finest),  Aidan Turner (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Being Human), John Sessions (The Loch), and Jerome Flynn (Ripper Street, Game of Thrones). Due to the techniques of the film, the actors are more than just voices in this story. All of the actors are recognizable, their images painted over to fit into the atmosphere.

This amazing cast, listed and unlisted, are also part of the issues with the film. Though each looks a lot like the real-world counterparts in Vincent’s world, the rotoscoping is a little distracting. The style of the film, which uses overlays and masks to create the style at times, can also be a bit hard to focus on as it flows across the screen. It brings to life van Gogh, making his static indication of vibrancy real, but what worked in static can feel over amplified in constant motion. Still, the overall effect and story are fascinating and clearly a true labor of love.

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman directed and co-wrote this odd historical along with Jacek Dehnel. For all involved this was an early contribution to feature film and a heck of a leap of art to try. While it deserves its place among the Oscar notables this year, it isn’t likely to win more than the honor of nomination. However, I am very curious to see what this trio (or individuals) attack next. It took a very creative brain to recognize there was a movie here, and to conceive of way to tell it that would capture audiences in a new way. Make time for Vincent…it is truly unexpected.

Loving Vincent