Tag Archives: Early film

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.

The Farewell

[4.5 stars]

The Farewell has been quietly saying, “Hello” to cinemas around the country, expanding each week to new audiences. It’s a greeting you should answer. Lulu Wang has created a deceptively simple film that is wonderfully honest, funny, and complex while remaining delightfully entertaining. From the opening moment of the film, you know that is going to be something a little bit different.

Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) lands a great performance of a young woman finding herself and navigating a family crisis. And Wang helps her navigate it wonderfully and shed her typically over-broad delivery. The rest of the cast is solid, including Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, and, as the beloved Nai Nai, Shuzhen Zhao. Lin and Zhao, in particular may end up in conversations come awards time along with Awkwafina and Wang. And this film should be in that conversation.

But even if I’m wrong on the awards front, and it gets forgotten or snubbed, you should make time for this unexpected treat. It certainly touches on strong emotions, but its overall impact is a positive one; its messages (however you interpret them) and moments sticking with you long after the credits have faded.

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.

Fighting With My Family

[3 stars]

Who would have thought a sweet film about family and personal dreams would come out of a true story about a family of wrestlers…and that it has little to do with wrestling?

To be up front, I am not, and never have been, a fan of professional wrestling. For whatever reason, neither the stories nor the staged athleticism ever caught my interest. And yet, Dwayne Johnson (Skyscraper) is becoming a solid favorite for pure entertainment films and, frankly, as a person. But he is just a side character here. It is Florence Pugh (Little Drummer Girl) who adds the real heart to this story. Not much reality or sense of believability, but there is heart. And heart can be enough.

The issues with the story are down to writer/director (and even actor in this jaunt) Stephen Merchant (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). While he elicits honest emotions from his cast, and keeps the story flowing nicely in his sophomore outing, he didn’t quite get me to sense Pugh’s achievements, nor Jack Lowden’s (Mary Queen of Scots) losses and resurrection.  I wasn’t there to cheer with them as I should have been.

Nick Frost (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Lena Headey (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Game of Thrones), however, did add some great comedy and energy…and even their own sense of romance. You can barely believe them as characters…until you see the real family in the credits and realize they likely toned it all down for the film.

This movie is a perfect example of the truth sometimes being less interesting than fiction. I suspect the script cleaves closely to the reality of the Knight family. But it needed a bit more fiction and a bit more structure to let the human side of the story really soar. Sure it would have been manipulated, but it would have been in service to the story rather than pushing against it. Regardless, it is a surprisingly effective and inspiring tale of growing up and following your dreams, whether you’re a fan of the sport or not.

Us

[3 stars]

Us is at its best when it’s scaring us, and at its worst when it is trying to explain how and why it is scaring us. Basically, it’s a wonderful bit of creepy horror, but not quite as on point as social commentary as Jordan Peele’s previous Get Out. But, let’s face it, he had a very high bar to meet after that debut.

But Peele aside, this is Lupita Nyong’o’s (Black Panther) film. Period. Even with a fun performance from her Black Panther colleague, Winston Duke (Avengers: Endgame), she dominates the story in every way. Her performance makes this worth seeing regardless of any issues I experienced.

And there are issues. For instance, the plot doesn’t bear up under any kind of scrutiny. Us is much more traditional than Peele’s previous dark horror. Bad stuff happens, carnage occurs, people fight back. There are social overtones, but they are much more subtle and conceptual, requiring Peele’s explanation in a short featurette to get across all the aspects. That isn’t a great sign. The ideas are interesting, but they don’t hold together if you start to ask questions. And that’s the one thing you really don’t want anyone to do when watching your film: have them asking questions and poking holes in your ideas. When that happens, it pulls them out of the moment. A good chunk of the end of the film is explanation–and it just isn’t explanation that makes much sense.

However, for a really suspenseful blood-fest and popcorn spilling film, give Us your time if you haven’t already. It’s a perfectly solid horror pic. Don’t expect the powerful subtlety or outright gut-punches of Get Out, but there is meat on the bones and it is a well executed. Peele has nothing for the big screen currently scheduled, but he continues to show himself as a new and interesting voice in cinema, willing to tackle ideas as well as entertainment. I’m very much looking forward to his upcoming adaptation of Lovecraft Country on HBO. It is a perfect marriage of his ability, interests, and content sensibility.