Tag Archives: Early film

First Man

[3 stars]

Let’s first talk about what director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) did right and well with First Man; I’ll get to the frustrations later. Unlike The Right Stuff, this is a story about real people, not demigods. It really tries to tell the story of a man in the middle of history without knowing he’s in the middle of it. And while the space race was undoubtedly a point of national pride, the level of jingoism, as compared to previous tellings, was much reduced and was in context rather than propaganda and the point of the story.

Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) brings a humanity to Armstrong I’ve never seen. Perhaps a bit too much as I question his strength of mind for what he has to do, but nevertheless it made him more relateable. As his wife, Claire Foy (The Lady in the Van) is a balancing influence with some nice moments and layers to her as well.

Quite frankly, the rest of the cast, while all good, just don’t matter. This is Armstrong’s tale, and his family’s.

Pablo Schreiber (Den of Thieves), Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night), Ethan Embry (Grace and Frankie), Ciarán Hinds (Woman Walks Ahead), Jason Clarke (Winchester), Kyle Chandler (Game Night), Corey Stoll (The Seagull), Shea Whigham (Cop Car), Patrick Fugit (Gone Girl), Lukas Haas (The Revenant) get a mention here simply because it feels wrong not to acknowledge their efforts. Without them as backdrop, the Armstrong story couldn’t have been told.

Now, about that story…

Writer Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight) is clearly comfortable adapting stories both from books and from history. However, in this case what he delivered, and what Chazelle accepted, is part of what was so wrong with the film. Had it released a couple of years back, it probably wouldn’t have stood out so baldly. But, after Hidden Figures, how do you show NASA and this particular story without showing even one of the women, let alone black women, involved in the success? How do you only have housewives helping out by only “supporting their men?” How do you present the landing on the moon as the success of old white men only? It is a glaring and frustrating aspect, even if it was the perspective of the time.

Another choice of Chazelle’s caused some loud chatter, but that one didn’t bother me at all. I support not showing the planting of the flag, given the focus of the movie on people rather than countries; it was a story choice, not a political statement and you do see it in tableau. However, I didn’t find the most famous of the moments, that first step, all that triumphant. Perhaps because I knew it would happen. Perhaps because I remember watching it happen. But I think, really, it was because Chazelle lost the build-up and payoff in his structure and it whittered away rather than came home. Of course, the focus for being on the moon is shifted rather sharply for Armstrong. Very poignantly shifted, if the moments on the moon are to be believed. But if Chazelle didn’t want to focus on that iconic moment, he shouldn’t have focused on it for 20 minutes and then lost the tension.

Finally, from a film craft point of view, when the heck are directors going to understand that hand-held and large format movies don’t mix well. If you must use hand-held, do it sparingly. On IMAX it simply gets nauseating, throwing you out of the story. Chazelle used shakeycam all over the place. Some made sense, but a huge portion didn’t. I understand the use during the flights and tests, but we didn’t need the 8mm effect to have it feel like old home movies. There were specific moments he could have used it to emphasize Armstrong’s personal struggles, but because it was so overused, it lost all emotional value.

For only his third film, Chazelle continues to impress. This may not be the huge success that was hoped for, but he does show an ability to take on different types of stories and to continue to deliver interesting characters. I think, in this case, he needed to do more research and be more aware of the current times to tell the story well and fully. As it is, it is certainly impressive at moments and worth seeing overall, but the flaws are somewhat fatal for me in terms of ever needing to see it again (unlike his other films).

Leave No Trace

[3.5 stars]

When this film kicked off I was afraid this was going to be a weird combination of Captain Fantastic and Short Term 12. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely; emotionally tight, but not a story of bad things happening. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a sad set of circumstances in play, but it isn’t about big bad nasty things surprising the characters. In fact, it is packed with people trying to do good things for one another, making this a very different kind of story than the majority out there these days. Ultimately, it is a quietly intense tale of family and the aftermath of trauma, done with a kind eye.

Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) and Thomasin McKenzie (Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies) make a wonderfully paired father/daughter team. Each is devoted to the other but also struggling, at times, to stay civil when things go poorly. The quiet internal tensions for these two are both different and very affecting. It is a beautiful exhibition of the battle between love and personal need.

Supporting them are some familiar faces, but these two should and do dominate the story. Enjoy the side characters for what they are: the periphery of life intruding into their bubble. It is ultimately a beautifully poetic film with both a story and, to a lesser degree, a message. That balance serves it well and director Debra Granik guides it with a delicate hand through the co-written screenplay with Anne Rosellini, who had previously paired with her for Winter’s Bone. This isn’t a fast trip through life and the woods, but it is a memorable one.

Leave No Trace

Imitation Girl

[3.5 stars]

Alien arrives on Earth and takes the guise of an adult movie star. Salacious, right? Possibly even puerile? You’d be wrong. It isn’t even more on the trippy side like Liquid Sky. Imitation Girl is a decidedly personal tale of a woman coming to terms with her life and her choices. It is anything but forcefully sexy, though it is certainly intimate.

Lauren Ashley Carter (Premium Rush) pulls off both main roles with an understated assurance that leaves you forgetting it is the same person. She is the movie, not to mention that she learned Farsi along the way. I look forward to seeing her in more roles at some point to see what more she can do. The rest of the cast are all fine, but they fall away as it all comes together. And, frankly, that is a good thing as they aren’t the focus.

The ending is sort of a non-ending, or it is hugely metaphorical. Though, to be fair, the entire story is metaphorical. But the end is also rather expected and, because of that, a tad of a let down after such an interesting ride. But this is a film that shows real talent on the part of the director/writer, Natasha Kermani. To navigate the world she created and to sell these characters without resorting to cheap and expected moments took a good eye and discipline. She is definitely a creator to watch for down the road.

Imitation Girl

Indignation

[3 stars]

Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) is not the first actor I would have considered for the lead role as a Jewish intellectual outcast in the wilds of Ohio 1951, but he surprised me. While his sense of inner turmoil and contradiction is less obvious than I might have preferred, his delivery and control helped sell the complicated young man. With Sarah Gadon (The 9th Life of Louis Drax) beside him much of the way, the two cut a tumultuous rug overhung by desire and dread. In short, a Philip Roth novel.

Around the young lovers are the adults that help define the story and results, though not a one of them would ever accept that responsibility. Which is, to my mind, part of the point. Tracy Letts (The Post), in particular, is a quiet powerhouse of a character. Letts embodies a personality that was common then and, sadly, still too far common now. And, as his parents, Danny Burstein (The Family Fang) and Linda Emond (Song to Song) are heartbreakingly real in their love and selfishness that influence Lerman’s life.

Writer/director James Schamus (Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet, Lust, Caution) is no stranger to delicate and fraught relationships.  His adaptation of Roth’s tale captures the intellectual and lyrical nature of the author nicely. For as simple as Roth’s stories are, the underlying intent and the social and personal commentary are not. His characters are constantly challenged and often fail. They question their purpose and their morality. They often don’t fit into the world around them at all; outsiders in a crowd. Sometimes outsiders in their own bodies. And they are passionate to the point of their own demise.

Indignation is loaded with history and layers. It is a quiet film that will pull you along to its final moments. It nicely hits on a personal level while leaving you with plenty to consider, and consider changing. And it captures its era beautifully…only reminding us how little has changed in human nature and politics.

Indignation

2036: Origin Unknown

[2.5 stars]

Origin Unkown pitches and yaws its way from interesting idea and moment to god-awful dialogue and plot points. Uneven is a kind word, but it has enough going for it to get you through to the end if you’re so inclined.

What you think of that end on reflection and the trip that got you there, well, that will be up to you. The heavy and unavoidable echos of 2001: A Space Odyssey are tackled head on from the choices in production design to the title, special effects, and cinematography. However, Hasraf Dulull (The Beyond) isn’t Kubrik nor did he have Arthur C. Clarke’s template to provide the foundation. Coming primarily from a visual f/x background, his move to front-of-camera hasn’t been entirely successful. Admittedly, though, as only his second feature it isn’t without some sense of potential for his future.

It was fun to see Katee Sackoff (Oculus) in space-ish again. She tries valiantly to pull the movie along, but can only compensate so much. Ray Fearon (Beauty and the Beast) and Julie Cox (The Oxford Murders) both drag down the story. Their interactions are forced and their deliveries, shallow. Only Steven Cree (Outlander), as the AI, feels at all real. Some of these issues are by design and intended as commentary, but some are just, honestly, bad acting, writing, and directing.

As a tale of AI and automation in the workplace, this would probably be a great short story. As a movie with grander themes, it is a little too full of itself and its desire to play homage to the classics it mirrors. With the 50th anniversary release of 2001 this month and other broad-plotted stories like Missions in the air, this movie just doesn’t feel very new, but more like a Black Mirror or Electric Dreams episode. For all that, I appreciated its desire to go big and its attempts to be realistic where it could or did.

2036 Origin Unknown

Sherlock Gnomes

[3 stars]

This sequel to the silly, but adorable, Gnomeo and Juliet is aimed at the same audience as its predecessor (15 and under). That isn’t to say that the riffs on Sherlock, and a dozen or more other shows and movies, aren’t entertaining for adults but it is thin feasting between those moments. However, the message of partnership and equality is a bit more palatable than most animated films aimed at this age group, which tend to fall into cringworthy cliché when it comes to relationships and roles.

Like the first, this also boasts amazing voice talent, adding Johnny Depp (Murder on the Orient Express), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Doctor Strange), Michael Caine (Going in Style), Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Matt Lucas (Doctor Who), Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van), and Julie Walters (Brooklyn) to a hoard of others whose names are less recognizable. James McAvoy (Atomic Blonde) and Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) reprised their un-starcrossed lovers to complete the cast.

This is John Stevenson’s (Kung Fu Panda) second feature from the director’s seat. He doesn’t break new ground, but he keeps up the pace and finds some solid moments. However, it isn’t for a broad audience like, say, The Incredibles, so approach with caution and ready distraction as you keep your younger companions company (or that necessary large glass of happy juice to launch a mindless evening of entertainment).

Sherlock Gnomes

Three Identical Strangers

[4.5 stars]

Tim Wardle’s matryoshka-like tale of three brothers separated at birth is fascinating. Even if you remember the story from when it happened, you don’t know the whole of it. Wardle’s control, revealing it in layers, takes you down a rabbit hole; it creates an experience as close to how the brothers themselves experienced it as you could hope for. The structure is a wonderful example of form and function, and yes, showmanship.

There is much to take away from this documentary. Some of it is wonderful and some of it less so. To discuss any of it would be to diminish the experience for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say, make time for this. Support it. And keep an eye on Wardle. He may have lucked out with subject matter on this one, but he still had to have the eye to find it and the skill to present it as powerfully as he did, while still being utterly fair to the facts.

Three Identical Strangers

The Endless

[3 stars]

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s follow-up to their surprising Spring is just as unique, if not quite as endearing. Where Spring was pretty much a horror/romance, Endless is more of a subtle science fiction piece with fewer direct answers, though with plenty of clues. In addition to writing and directing this one, they also decided to star in it as a pair of brothers working through their past and present together.

While there is a nice range in the cast, Callie Hernandez (Alien: Covenant) and Lew Temple (Walking Dead) are the two that stand-out alongside our dynamic duo. There are louder and brasher performances, but these two have more levels.

As writer/directors, Benson and Moorhead sensibility of character and the world is a bit like Kevin Smith, but their execution and intent is closer to Coppola or Kubrik. They’re not quite to that level yet, but their insistence on complex geometry in their plots, their liquidity of genre, and their economy of shots implies a great path for the future. The two really care about character and story. And while they’ll occasionally slip into the sophomoric, they don’t allow it to dominate their tales, only spice it.

If you liked Spring, you’ll like Endless. If you haven’t seen Spring, give this a shot for a sense of what goes on in the heads of a couple up and coming filmmakers. I can’t say I found it quite as satisfying as Spring, and it is more than a little male-heavy, but it left me thinking and intrigued on a story level, which is always a good sign.

The Endless

Flower

[3.5 stars]

Looking for one of the odder, darker, coming-of-age rom-coms? This will probably do you then. Well, it will do something. Flower is a delightfully enjoyable, entertaining, and weirdly bleakly hopeful story. Yeah, it really is all over the place, though some of that reaction may be due to a generation gap; hard to tell from this perspective.

The success of the story is really down (perhaps a poor choice of words) to the ebullient Zoey Deutch (Before I Fall). She continues to enchant and surprise me in her roles. She is scarily natural on film and comfortable playing whatever is necessary for the character without shame or judgement or even triumph; she just “is.” Her characters are also strong but not without levels.

Her unlikely counterpart, Joey Morgan (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), was a great foil and, ultimately, with a bit more to him than was originally obvious. And as their parents, Kathryn Hahn (The Visit) and Tim Heidecker create a backdrop that is a bit extreme, but suited to the occasion.

On the side is Adam Scott (Krampus) in a role unlike any of his others I’ve seen. It is contained and quiet, with an interesting tension underneath.

As his second feature film, Max Winkler directed this well, keeping it light but not without the gravitas it needed. Like a good sauce, it seamlessly thickens as it cooks and holds together well. Winkler also co-wrote the tale, with McAulay and Spicer (Ingrid Goes West). I can’t even imagine the story sessions this trio had coming up with the plot, but they clearly worked well together. [Sidebar: If you were hoping for the Liz Phair song that shares the titles name you’ll be disappointed; but I’m still convinced it was part impetus for this movie.]

Flower is not your traditional film, and may not be for everyone, but it is one worth seeing for its surprise and craft in front of and behind the camera.

Flower

Upgrade

[3 stars]

There is more to Upgrade than you expect. Not a lot more, but it has a better story and script than a good portion of the films that have come out so far this year. On the artistic and intellectual side there are clearly intentional nods to Da Vinci, Frankenstein, Robocop, even a bit of Hitler in the visuals. This isn’t so much a dystopic future as it is an apathetic one with economic divisions just a bit more obvious than the present.

But while it starts off with a sense of Ex Machina, it loses that higher ground to drift closer to the sensibility of Automata. Both good recommendations, but very different movies. Upgrade is certainly willing to dive into ideas, like the potential amorality (or different-morality) of AI and what evolution means. And it is equally unafraid of emotions or taking its time to set up and execute on story. But they say “write what you know,” and writer/director Leigh Whannell just couldn’t quite shake his roots in Saw and Insidious. The ultimate result here isn’t very surprising–a good action and horror piece done with some talent. As a sophomore delivery from behind the camera, Whannell delivered a fairly solid bit of splatter punk. If there is any weakness, it is that despite some truly nice vistas and sets, the piece feels claustrophobic on a world level.

That smallness to the world may be due to its small cast, but Blade Runner 2049 had a similarly small cast without that sense, so I think it has more to do with Whannell’s framing choices. The cast are fairly solid and led by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), who gives us an Everyman we can definitely sympathize and empathize with. He is a Luddite in a world of tech, but a person with deep passions and a sense of self and love of his wife and muscle cars (in that order). Betty Gabriel (Get Out) delivers to us a committed, if exhausted cop. Her role is challenging because we only see her decisions from the outside, which makes her seem disinterested or lazy, but I found myself enjoying the removed perspective and trying to piece together her off-screen and unspoken efforts. Harrison Gilbertson (Picnic at Hanging Rock) has an interesting challenge as well. Playing the distracted genius can be tiresome, but Gilbertson manages, by the end, to give us a shade of something new.

As purely a voice, Simon Maiden (The Dressmaker) imbues our nascent AI with a subtle personality. Stem is neither human nor too removed to keep it from becoming a character. There is a sense of HAL, but Maiden makes Stem very much his own. And, finally, there is Benedict Hardie’s (Hacksaw Ridge) neo-Nazi-ish villain. Here is where Whannell could have done a bit more. Hardie’s performance is well directed, keeping him from going to extreme, though his first scene is somewhat misleading on that point. But the character’s motivations and drive, though stated, never feel quite true. Some of that is on the script and some on the direction, but a better set of choices could have elevated this unexpected low-budget flick a couple more notches.

You do have to like violent, splatter-filled moments (not many, but enough of them) to enjoy this ride. It has the feeling of a video-game at times, but not so much that it breaks the story or the sense of the film. The story is actually engaging and the pace swift, even humorous at times, without short-changing the experience of the plot. Yes, there are some shortcuts, but most are given reasons not just shrugged off, and very little is too easy for our main character. And, yes, this one is dark, so keep that in mind as well.

Stem is not for everyone, but I have to admit I’m glad I got to see it and I’m glad it got a wider release than a non-traditional film like this normally would; definitely alternative popcorn fare for the right audience. And, perhaps most importantly, it is something new, not a sequel or prequel or reboot…and how many of those are we getting this year?

Upgrade