Tag Archives: Early film

Birds of America

[3 stars]

Like loving family, watching this film is a bit of an act of faith. Elyse Friedman’s script feels like it is going nowhere fun or interesting for the first 3/4 of the story…and then it all comes together in both expected and unexpected ways.

Matthew Perry serves as the reluctant patriarch for his younger, orphaned sibs: Ben Foster (Leave No Trace) and Ginnifer Goodwin (Zootopia). The three form a very broken triangle of humanity and reaction to grief. And, along the way, they find a way forward.

There are also some nice side performances by the three wives of the piece: Lauren Graham (Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist) as Perry’s wife, Zoë Kravitz (High Fidelity) as Foster’s, and Hilary Swank (I Am Mother) as the neighbor.’s For Kravitz, it was also one of her earliest roles.

Director Craig Lucas, really much better known for his writing (Prelude to a Kiss, Longtime Companion), handles the oddities and extremes of the story fairly well. Some of the comedy is a little pushed, but mostly it is kept to just this side of uncomfortably real. And he manages to overcome some of the incomplete aspects of the script; the dangling threads of ideas. But, despite getting the relationships and characters nailed down nicely, Friedman’s script has issues. The title and opening explanation, in particular, lay out some very specific plot points that never get taken up. It is a complete mis-lead who’s resolution was either left on the cutting room floor or simply lost in revision and never fully corrected in the final cut for some reason.

Even with the weaknesses, if you trust it, the movie pays off. But, like family, unconditional trust can be tough at times. I’m sure neither Lucas or Friedman intended a physical metaphor for their tale, but they got one anyway.

Birds of America Poster

Silk (Gui si)

[3 stars]

While this is decidedly horror, writer/director Chao-Bin Su (Reign of Assassins) bridged multiple genre when he created Silk. The result is an intriguing mix of science fiction, horror, mystery, and romance in his Sophomore directing outing. Because of the odd mix, it has surprises at almost every turn, and the resolution is more metaphysical than it is splatter-fest.

That doesn’t make it a great film, but I found it entertaining and different in a way that was both familiar and satisfying. The story is primarily driven by the tension between Chang Chen (The Assassin) and Yôsuke Eguchi (Bleach), two men with differing agendas and temperaments. Chen is, by far, the more believable, with the help of  Kar Yan Lam to help drive his story.

When you want something in the Asian horror vein, but don’t want it quite so bloody or capricious in its driving plot, this will suit nicely.

Silk

Paradise Hills

[3 stars]

There is a lot to unpack in this movie. It is, above all else, sumptuously designed, rich in visuals, and minute in its detail. That alone makes it worth seeing. The story, an interesting twist on the old Stepford Wives trope (either version: 1975 or 2004…, though, better yet, just read the book), isn’t nearly as strong. The plot just doesn’t come together, even if it is a gorgeous trip getting there.

In short, director Alice Waddington Waddington produced a wonderful style over substance response to #metoo. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a message, just that the message is obvious and the path getting there is a bit weak. However, it is almost an entirely female cast, which is always a nice surprise.

Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) is the focus of the steam-punkish tale. She’s a fighter and has a brain. She’s joined by Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Chapter), doing Awkwafina, but it is entertaining. Completing the female fighting faction are Danielle Macdonald (Bird Box) and Eiza González (Baby Driver), who add some interesting moments, if not some depth.

Lording over all of them is a somewhat stilted Milla Jovovich (Hellboy). Some of her attitude becomes clarified during the tale, but it isn’t what you call a compelling performance.

And then there is one bit of boy toy in Jeremy Irvine (Stonewall) whose role is about what you’d expect.

As I said, this is less about the story and more about the visuals. If you can turn off your brain and just go with the story, it’s kinda fun and angering. If you look at it too hard it falls apart. Take from it what you can. I’d love to see what Waddington could do with a better script, she certainly has an eye. Though, to be fair, this was her story idea… but Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) and Brian DeLeeuw either couldn’t turn it into a cohesive story or Waddington didn’t recognize the gaps.

Paradise Hills

Plus One (+1)

[2.5 stars]

There is a definite How to Talk to Girls at Parties gone very dark here. Rather than a sweet, if odd, tale of self-discovery begun at an epic house party, this edges into horror. And not particularly satisfying or scary horror at that. It is more suspense and mystery horror, leading to a real moment, but somewhat ponderously getting there.

The cast is relatively untried. Only Logan Miller (Being Frank) stands out. But, I will admit, that Colleen Dengel (Damsels in Distress) and Natalie Hall get some unexpected moments. However the main action is driven by a rather weak Rhys Wakefield. The story is very much on his shoulders and only works if his path makes sense and if we have any sympathy for him. We don’t. Not at all. And without that, the whole house of cards collapses at the end.

To be fair to Wakefield, director Dennis Iliadis (Last House on the Left) took Bill Gullo’s (The Quitter) script and followed its lead, but left it stilted on screen. He didn’t help his actors find their truths in the way he needed to sell what could have been a wonderfully creepy and psychologically challenging tale. He did, at least, keep the story clear in the midst of a complicated concept.  And the script, while clever in idea, doesn’t quite go all the places it could have to make it richer and more interesting.

I can’t say I recommend this one, but some may find it satisfying. It has moments if not a completely satisfying delivery. If you gravitate to teen splatter horror (which this isn’t, per se, but it bumps against those tropes) you’re more likely to find it fun.

+1

The Half of It

[4 stars]

It isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly predictable in many ways, but The Half of It is also down-to-earth and earnest in the best possible sense. And I say this even with the framework of Cyrano with echos of Love, Simon and Hedvig and the Angry Inch paving the way. Director/writer Alice Wu (Saving Face) really came through in her Sophomore outing. She navigates the sea of high school awakening and romance with confidence, honesty, and a good dash of fantasy to allow for dramatic moments. But she never loses credibility, despite the well trod ground.

Much of the success here goes to the three leads. Leah Lewis (Nancy Drew) as our Cyrano is heartbreakingly lost in her world, trying to balance life and family. Daniel Diemer, is surprisingly effective as a “inarticulate jock” with hidden capacities. And Alexxis Lemire, as the object of affection, walks an interesting line without stumbling. With Wu’s guidance, each of them manages to remain both aware and innocent, intelligent, but naive. In other words, very much of their age rather than adults playing at being teenagers.

This is where the movie sets itself apart from another similar outing in 10 Things I Hate About You. 10 Things, while practically a classic, leans into its classical underpinnings and loses the pretense of reality. The Half of It leans more into life, and embraces the joy and the suck (at least to a degree) that is being a teenager in love.

There is also one wonderful bit part worth mentioning, as it is a real standout. Becky Ann Baker (Girls), as Lewis’s teacher, has a few fabulous moments that also serve to expose the town at large with a few brushstrokes.

Make time for this one, if you haven’t already. It will put a smile on your face without rotting your teeth. And the story, humor, and moments are certainly worth revisiting again down the road.

The Half of It

Fantastic Planet

[3 stars]

Despite being 47 years old, and highly stylized, this ground-breaking anime is still effective and, sadly, still relevant today. As René Laloux’s first feature, and one of his few releases, it is a hypnotic tale of humanity from the point of view of aliens. The look is a bit like Monty Python meets Yellow Submarine, but it manages to make you care and pay attention despite the rough edges of the art and movement.

The story is based on on a book by French science fiction author Stephan Wul and is presented as a surviving diary of the main character. Admittedly, it is a bit rushed and more than a little too on-the-nose at times. However, when you’re stuck at home due to a pandemic with fools running the response and idiots screaming that they should be allowed to go about their lives regardless of who it puts at risk, you can’t just ignore the lack of progress in humanity and the human condition.

At about 70 minutes, it is on the short side of feature, but it won notice at Cannes and from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) for a reason, and is still worth your time today if you enjoy anime on any level.

Brainstorm

[3 stars]

This early-1980’s science-fiction/horror is more Altered States than Scanners or Dreamscape despite some common ground. Brainstorm’s horror is very much focused on the human in the equation and the philosophical and existentialism of the era.

Brainstorm stuck out for several reasons. Among other things, it was Nathalie Wood’s last film. Not as bad a legacy as Raul Julia’s Street Fighter, but her passing was quite a bit more unexpected. Her death caused delays in the post-production and release, possibly also costing the movie it’s moment. The two year shift in its release, and a lacklust promotion engine, had it fall flat in theaters when it finally made it out the door.

But what sets this movie apart from its brethren is how much they got right by filming in an actual R&D lab, and focusing on the human in the horror rather than blood and guts. This is a story about people and conscience as well as consciousness. Certainly having Christopher Walken (Nine Lives) and Louise Fletcher (Girlboss) as the other primaries doesn’t hurt its credibility either. Cliff Robertson has a small role to play as well.

Another reason for this film’s infamy is that it derailed director Douglas Trumbull’s career, by his own choice and frustration, because of his experience with this film. After getting off to a strong start with socially conscious material, like Silent Running, we’ll never know what more he could have brought to the screen and what influence he may have had.

I don’t want to oversell this flick. It is very much of its time…but it also has a lot more going for it than you probably imagine going in. And while it may feel trite and dated now, in historical context, it has some chops. For an evening’s entertainment filling in some gaps in your film memory, or, perhaps, refreshing it, it’s an interesting ride to take.

Brainstorm

Circus of Books

[4 stars]

Rachel Mason’s (The Lives of Hamilton Fish) documentary of her family’s infamous bookstore is a wonderful journey of discovery. What begins as a purported history and examination of the store and its place in the culture, shifts to become a tale of family. Much like Stories We Tell, Mason was feeling her way along a story she hadn’t defined, but which slowly revealed itself as she did her interviews and sifted her footage.

In  some ways that approach makes this film a little oddly structured. You can feel the focus shift as it goes along, but it leaves the first quarter of the story feeling a little uneven until the real tale starts to become obvious. But, while getting there, Mason’s overview of the politics, period, and people is still worthwhile and interesting. And, to be honest, it plays in and against the story she does end up telling.

The story of Circus of Books is filled with humor, heart, and revelation…and one I do highly recommend.

Extraction

[3 stars]

If you’re looking for a nearly pure action distraction with just enough story to fig-leaf it as a movie, this isn’t a bad choice. It has high production values and solid, if somewhat repetitive, fight choreography. Think Black Hawk Down meets Taken or an alternate version of Mile 22. Basically, the movie is a nearly real-time view of a hostage extraction from overwhelming odds.

Stunt coordinator turned director Sam Hargrave does a fair job for his first feature outing, especially given the scope. But the adapted script from Joe Russo, who is better known as a director (Avengers: Endgame), is just too predictable and thin to support the two hours of action.

Chris Hemsworth (Men in Black: International) toplines this movie and brings a number of layers to his broken-down mercenary. He has both motivation and emotion between his bursts of necessary violence. There are only a couple other characters of note. The young victim is nicely played by relative new-comer Rudhraksh Jaiswal. It isn’t a breakthrough performance, but he gets a few beats are impressive…but he’s otherwise there as a foil/prop for Hemsworth’s battles, internal and external.

Two smaller roles are add some depth to the mayhem. Golshifteh Farahani (Paterson) has a small supporting role from which Hargrave manages to wring a good deal of information with her just looking silently. But David Harbour (Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein), delivers what he can with a ham-handed character; the script did him no favors.

Is this worthwhile as a film?…well, it isn’t a great film, but it is a well-made distraction if you’re in the mood for what it has to offer. It does show what Netflix is starting to become capable of as they start putting lots of daylight between them and their nearest competitors while we’re all locked away. Enjoy it for what it is. There are much worse of this genre out there, but it still hasn’t quite reached the quality on all levels I’d like to see the streamer achieve in the feature category. But it is getting closer.

Cantinflas

[3 stars]

Cantinflas: if you grew up in the States, probably the most famous and well-paid actor you never heard of. This biopic attempts to correct that blind spot. Unfortunately, though each of the parts are there, the story, like Mario Moreno’s (aka Cantinflas) comedy, didn’t translate well in Edui Tijerina and Sebastian del Amo’s script. But neither had a lot of experience on their cv’s at the time to help them. And, adding to the challenge, del Amo also directed.

The story is told across two timelines, primarily in English and Spanish, that eventually converge. One tracks Moreno’s origins and rise and the other the efforts by Mike Todd, played solidly by Michael Imperioli (The Scribbler), to produce and direct Around the World in 80 Days. Spoiler: the movie does get made, Moreno (as Cantinflas) plays Passepartout, and both make huge box office history and win several prestigious awards. Why give that away? First, it’s history and you’ll likely start to look it up during the movie just to find out how true it is. Second, without that knowledge the movie is empty to those who don’t know or care about Moreno’s story going in.

That isn’t the fault of Óscar Jaenada (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), who is wonderfully cast as Cantinflas. He captures the man’s Chaplin-esque comedy and movements. He comes across as both shrewd and capable. But the movie doesn’t provide him a clear story and progression. We get a series of vignettes that hit important moments which never quite all come together as a triumph in the industry or his life. Amusingly, this movie won more awards than Around the World, but none of those were in the majors–however it speaks to the appetite for the insights into Moreno’s life.

It also has to be noted that, other than Jaenada and Imperioli, the casting in the film is awful. No one looks like their historical counterparts, which is a problem when you’re dealing with icons like Brando, Brynner, and others (though I will admit that Bárbara Mori comes passably close to Taylor).

As a bit of historical context and some interesting insights into the waning years of United Artists, when the studios were crushing the independents (though never quite successfully), this is an intriguing film. As a story itself that stands on its own, it’s far less successful. This will appeal to those that know Cantinflas and to cinefiles who’s knowledge contains gaps about international stars.