Tag Archives: Early film

Child’s Play (2019)

[3 stars]

The Child’s Play series hit its peak with Bride of Chucky, to my mind. This reboot of the series tries to recapture that self-awareness and humor to keep the horror and mayhem moving along. It is a mixed success.

Tyler Burton Smith’s script, his first, is clever, even if it’s cloaking his very relevant idea in an old franchise to sell it. But director Lars Klevberg (Polaroid) doesn’t quite find the tone or pull the needed performance from his young lead, Gabriel Bateman (Dangerous Book for Boys), despite the kid’s chops. Bateman is generally OK, but often goes shrill, ruining the moments. On the other hand, Beatrice Kitsos (Exorcist) navigated her smaller role with real charm and ability, taking control when necessary, deftly.

But the actual best part of the film is the throw-away humor from Brian Tyree Henry (Hotel Artemis). Henry’s role is more than a little forced into the story, but he lifts the film nicely every time he comes on screen. However, Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West), who should have been a natural for this material and venue, was a bit lackluster and not always credible as the struggling mom.

One amusing surprise was Mark Hammill’s voice work for our new electronic Chucky. He stayed suitably saccharine, and then deftly flipping to rude, crude, and evil.

Overall, this isn’t a bad distraction. It isn’t a great one either. The core idea didn’t need to be shoe-horned into an existing property, but it was probably the only way to get it made and distributed by a studio. But in shifting the core reason for the bloodlust, it loses something. The whole idea behind the series, that of a trapped, evil soul unwilling to give up on life and his mission carries a bit more terror with it than just having your Alexa going psycho. The end result is some chuckles, some shocks, and a good deal of splattering blood without a lot of real, existential terror. A shame as the truth behind the plot is a bit terrifying and affects just about everyone these days (he wrote, staring at the ominous plusing of the blue ring on his Echo)…

Motherless Brooklyn

[3.5 stars]

Are you craving a classic noir with a patina of modern times to it? Then you’re in luck, this is very much a noir, tempered with contemporary sensibilities and commentary. For his sophomore directorial outing and writing debut, Edward Norton (Collateral Beauty) tackled a monster. It may have taken 20 years to drag Johathan Lethem’s book to screen, but it found its time, especially in theme.

To make the result more impressive, Norton also stars in the film as a physically and emotionally complicated, aspiring detective on a mission. The film is also told almost entirely through his perspective, making his directorial accomplishments even more impressive…there is almost no scene he isn’t in.

But Norton also loaded the cast with talent. Top among those is Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color). She is wicked smart, but also the damsel in distress with which his life gets entangled.

Several smaller roles bring the story and world to life as well.  Michael Kenneth Williams (Assassin’s Creed) brings entertainment in character and music. Willem Dafoe (Vox Lux) and  Cherry Jones (The Beaver) create poles around which information and plot flows. And, of course, Bruce Willis (Glass) gets it all moving along with a hardboiled kick.

Only Bobby Cannavale (I, Tonya, Ant-Man) and Alec Baldwin (BlacKkKlansman) felt wrong to me. Cannavale was just too obvious…possibly the fault of script and directing more than the actor, but it diminished his work. And Baldwin was probably the only complete miscast in the film. He does fine, but his very presence (and probably on purpose) evokes his SNL persona of the last few years. When they began production, Norton probably had no sense of how popular that satire would become, but it worked against him here. While appropriate for the tale and the point, it pulled me out of the film multiple times.

Overall, this is both a period detective movie and a modern commentary. It makes the plot somewhat predictble and obvious, but not in a destructive way, just a familiar one. And the more you know of New York City history and politics (I’m talking about you, Robert Moses), the more you can pull from the story which is only a thinly veiled retelling of the past…way closer to reality than you might expect. I’m not entirely sure why it was all veiled given how close it is to the truth, but there you go.

The film does take its pacing queues from the past, but it manages to keep the tension high and the mystery intriguing which makes the 2.5 hours move along as you stumble with Norton through the dark and glorious sets that recreate the NYC of old. If you like old movies and want to see something different from the majority fare currently in theaters, this is a solid choice.

Aniara

[3.5 stars]

I’m not often surprised by a movie, let alone a science fiction movie, but Aniara managed to. It may be based on an old trope, but co-directors and co-writers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Liljait managed to lay out their story thoughtfully and completely. It was also their first feature, making it even more impressive.

That it is an adaptation (from a nobel prize winning writer’s 1956 epic science fiction poem made of 103 cantos) rather than wholly original doesn’t diminish their result. Most science fiction gets over-simplified for screen, or leaves science behind for fantasy to create better visual or metaphyscial effects. What Ad Astra failed to get close to, where High Life just simply lost its way, and while Gravity (and even The Martian) over-simplified the situation, Aniara found a path and a statement to make by respecting the genre and the story. In fact, as an adaptation, I am even more impressed by the result. [You can read more about Harry Martinson’s work, but I’d highly suggest staying ignorant of the source material until after you see the film.]

Emelie Jonsson is the core of this story. Along with Bianca Cruzeiro the two hold together the narrative through its evolutions. In addition, Anneli Martini delivers a wonderfully dry and caustic performance that is at once funny and sobering. There are men in this cast and crew, but it is a decidedly female driven tale.

The result is solid science fiction, even with one or two winks at how things might work. And it is entertaining and nicely styled, even if it isn’t about the visual effects or action. The film is about the story and the impact of the situation. If you read Cixin Liu (Three Body Problem), you have a sense of this film’s vibe in both emotion and scope. It is definitely worth your time if you like the genre and, honestly, even if you don’t and have the flexibility to watch stories that take place outside your normal boundaries.

The White Crow

[3 stars]

Dance biopics are often disappointing because the actors playing the subject of the film can’t…well, dance. That is not a gap here. Is Oleg Ivenko as good as Rudolf Nureyev? No, and the movie even highlights that in the credits. However, he is credible and you never watch thinking “a shame the guy can’t dance.”  The guy, and the company, can dance.

With that first challenge successfully won, you can watch the story. And the story is interesting. I do have to admit that the great David Hare’s (Collateral) script wasn’t quite up to his usual quality. The story meanders and isn’t particularly focused. What drives Nureyev both in dance and in life is left quite a bit to the imagination. Perhaps that’s fair. But there were subjects Hare danced around (no pun intended), and others he poured out in exposition. I’m not sure I ever really understood Nureyev or many of the people around him. By the time we get to the pivotal moment near the end, I can’t say, other than the obvious, why he or Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) act quite as they do.

While Ralph Fiennes (The Lego Batman Movie) directed, not to mention acted, competently, he wasn’t able to expose the subtleties of the character as cleanly for me as I’d have liked. Perhaps that was my own problem and density, but it was all a little muddled. More concerning was Fiennes handling of the timeline, which bounces through three periods trying to build out Nureyev’s character motivations. Finnes didn’t negotiate those boundaries as cleanly as he could have. It was easy to lose track of which period you were in and where it was in his life even with some cinematic clues helping.

My concerns aside, it is a story worth seeing. It’s one of the most believable portrayals of a dance giant as well as peek back at a period of history that’s worth remembering as its spectre reasserts today. Finnes likes tackling tough subjects and, as his directing chops grow, I look forward to seeing more of what he can accomplish.

Anna and the Apocalypse

[3.5 stars]

Subtle this movie isn’t, but it is clever and fun. It is also a nice alternative holiday movie, though less on point than, say, Rare Exports. The main focus is really the evolving Apocalypse and the relationships between the high schoolers involved rather than Christmas. And, yes, it is also a musical (as the original creator suggested of its genesis: think High School Musical meets zombies)!

While clearly tongue-in-cheek, it is executed with complete sincerity and effort. It could have used a couple more songs to make it feel more like a musical and less like a movie with a few song and dance numbers in it, but that’s a quibble as the music that is in it is really pretty good.

Ella Hunt (Robot Overlords) leads the cast with some solid talent and chops. She has a long career ahead of her if she wants it. Hunt is supported by a cast of other mostly unknowns, but all of whom bring moments of emotional complexity to what could have been cookie-cutter performances in lesser hands. Malcom Cumming, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, and Sarah Swire (who also choreographed) are generally all in new projects you’ll be seeing in the coming year.

And then there were the known faces, like Tom Benton (Shakespeare & Hathaway) who brought all his vulnerable best to bear as Hunt’s father. Only the prolific Paul Kaye really disappointed me in the cast. His choices and antics were notched up just a bit too high from the start…I never believed him nor had any sympathy for him. It’s probably the one truly bad choice I felt director John McPhail made with the otherwise very tight and clever delivery.

When you’re in the mood from something in the Cockneys vs. Zombies range, but with a beat, you should definitely check this one out.

 

Mary Shelley

[3 stars]

Mary Shelley wraps the well-known, apocryphal tale of the genesis of Frankenstein. But where the earlier movie, Gothic, focused solely on the infamous and inspirational evening, this movie focuses primarily on the romance and disappointment of Shelley’s life that fed that inspiration. The two depictions of Mary herself are also significantly different, but they make an interesting pairing.

Alone, this movie is much more of a period romance than it is an historical retelling. It plays with feminism, as it should given the characters involved, but ultimately focuses more on character than polemic. Elle Fanning (Teen Spirit) is a perfect choice for the soft-spoken, galvanized young woman who wrote one of the most enduring pieces of literature in the last two centuries.

Douglas Booth (Loving Vincent) provides the story with a charismatic rake that we eventually recognize for what he is. Tom Sturridge (Velvet Buzzsaw) as Byron helps goad him along and serve as catalyst for the main event. The men in Mary’s adult life are complexly narcissistic, even while often being supportive. Her family, given life by Stephen Dillane (The Tunnel: Vengeance) as Mary’s father, and Bel Powley (Carrie Pilby) as her sister, are also constantly at odds with their own support of her.

Director and co-writer (with Emma Jensen) Haifaa Al Mansour (Wadjda) delivers a tale of women, their place in society, and their strength to ignore those boundaries. Al Mansour’s Mary isn’t a woman to be trifled with or ignored. Though she is failable, she is also aware and learns from her choices. While the result gets tied up in the realities of period drama, there is also a clear message to women to be who they want to be, even when it may not be easy or pleasant.

This isn’t as clean a film as I’d have liked in its message and intent. Given its purpose, it needed to take more lessons from Coppala’s Marie Antoinette than, say, Downton Abbey. It is still well executed and entertaining, at least at times, but it feels more weighed down by its period setting than transcending it. That said, it is one of the more complete views of Mary Shelley’s life I’ve seen.

Wild Rose

[3 stars]

It’s hard to cheer for a horribly flawed character who can’t get out of their own way, but Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl) manages to (eventually) get you behind her. It’s a strong and exposed performance. But, be warned, it is a long and frustrating journey getting to that ending.

For her first feature script, Nicole Taylor created a raw and uncompromising look at the life of Rose-Lynne. While that approach often makes it hard to watch, there is also a warmth and sense of hope buried in there to keep you engaged. A lot of that comes from from Julie Walters (Mary Poppins Returns) and Sophie Okonedo (Hellboy), who each support Rose-Lynne’s efforts in different ways.

Director Tom Harper (Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) also helps by keeping the tale rolling along. His hands are mostly invisible as he pulls the strings, allowing the story to tell itself. But when he wants to make a point, he’s more than willing to manipulate the frame or moment to drive it home. Time and space throughout the film are a little fungible; I never had a sense of distance, geography, or time throughout the film. That gap didn’t always matter, but there were moments when it would have enhanced the story and the lack was distracting. In addition, the ending and the message of Rose-Lynn’s journey, is less than clear. I know what both Harper and Taylor want you to think (there are plenty of interviews available to suss it out if it wasn’t intuitable), but I can’t say either I or my viewing partner felt the intended message.

The end result is something like a more hopeful cross between Broken Circle Breakdown and the more recent Vox Lux. Wild Rose is entertaining and angering and satisfying. Given the lack of clarity of vision, how it resonates with your own life and sensibilities isn’t something I think I can predict. But the performances are fantastic and even the music, whether or not you like Country (I don’t, typically), is well selected to engage all listeners.

Teen Spirit

[3 stars]

There is nothing particularly bad about Teen Spirit. It is a sweet film about a singer coming into her own, dealing with the challenges of family and the industry. There is also nothing particularly brilliant, though it works on its own level. Elle Fanning (I Think We’re Alone Now) is as impressive as ever in her abilities, and it turns out she has some vocal chops as well. She lacks presence on screen though, a problem this waif-like actor often has, which is a deficit in this story. Despite her one big number, she just never really commands attention the way you’d expect someone destined to be a star could do. But, then again, neither does her coach, Zlatko Buric, who was supposed to be a star in his past.

The real star of Teen Spririt is writer/director Max Minghella (Into the Forest) who, for his first directing gig and sophomore script, shows some real promise. His editing choices, in particular, make it clear he was in command of his vision. And he pulled solid performances out of his cast.

The sensibility of the story is more Worried About the Boy than it is Sing Street or Once. The energy is very personal and introspective with moments of song. But its moment of triumph isn’t intended to be on stage, though that is part of it. Accepting that aspect of the flow helps with embracing the intent.

Legacy: Black Ops

[3 stars]

It isn’t so much the story that makes this powerful as much as Idris Elba’s (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) performance. The story itself is fairly straight-forward and obvious, but his journey through the story is not. And the ending will leave you with more questions than answers (in a good way).

Director, writer (and even editor) Thomas Ikimi crafts this primarily psychological suspense with a sharp eye. He backs Elba’s efforts with careful visual construction. He only distrusts his audience once or twice in the 90ish minutes, and never in a way that is insulting. The ultimate point and message of the story is slowly eeked out before hammering it home. One interesting bit of trivia about this movie is that it introduced Lara Pulver (The City & The City) to screen in a supporting role.

Even 10 years after its release, this movie is still topical and insightful, but this isn’t a laid-back or relaxed story for a fun evening; be prepared for the dark.

Fast Color

[3 stars]

If you like social science fiction, like I Think We’re Alone Now meets The Endless, over effects-laden romps, this movie is for you. While it is a fantasy/suspense film, Fast Color is definitely more contemplative than explosive. Which isn’t to say things don’t get tense or happen, but Julia Hart (Miss Stevens) has created a sort of Daughters of the Dust vibe in this movie as we get to meet and learn about three generations of women with a secret to protect.

And the women are far from perfect. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (A Wrinkle in Time), in particular, has personal demons and a past to overcome. Lorraine Toussaint (Into the Badlands) and Saniyya Sidney (Hidden Figures) also struggle in their own ways to find the right path. With a bit of help from David Strathairn (Godzilla: King of Monsters), the women work to find a resolution.  Each gets to explore and explain their character in ways that reach us and continually have us re-evaluate our assessments of them.

The weakest performance in the movie is from Christopher Denham (The Bay). But he is at the apex of an aspect of the tale that is the least well thought through. In a world that is slowly falling apart, there is a group of men arrayed against the women for reasons that are either cliche or completely undefined. And this is unabashedly a movie about the women; the men are mostly ciphers.

With the complex character set-up and the mostly unexplored world and dangers, it isn’t a surprise that is also soon to be a streaming series on Amazon. With that kind of space, we should get a lot more of what is going on. While this movie wasn’t intended as, and doesn’t feel, like a pilot, it certainly makes a solid version of one. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can create from this intriguing beginning.

I have to admit I wanted to like this film more than I did. The performances and direction are emotionally satisfying. I just wanted a little more meat on the bones of the male characters and the purpose of the “bad guys.” It would have made the world and situation more complete and less of an excuse against which to tell the story Hart and her co-writer, Jordan Horowitz, wanted to tell.