Tag Archives: First film

The Titan

[3 stars]

Back in 1976 Frederik Pohl wrote the classic Man Plus.  Though unacknowledged (perhaps even unaware), The Titan leans heavily on this earlier tale. But while the film is engaging for the majority of the story, it ultimately loses its thread. So, if you like the idea, read Man Plus for a better sense of follow-through and completeness. But that is the fault of the script, not the cast who try to elevate the results admirably.

Sam Worthington (Hacksaw Ridge) is certainly the focus of a lot of the movie, but this is really more Taylor Schilling’s (Orange is the New Black) story. Add in Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) and you have a nice atomic family from which to fission. The family also get some solid time to set up their relationships before the inevitable.

A couple of other performances worth calling out are Nathalie Emmanuel (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) and Diego Boneta (Before I Fall) as additional volunteers for the experiments. Neither gets to fully realize their stories, but each tries to fill out their characters with more than your usual depth for this kind of film.

Running the program are Tom Wilkinson (Denial) and Agyness Deyn (Hard Sun).Both try to overcome their weak scripts, but only so much could be done. Wilkinson especially gets short-shrift thanks to the clumsy final third of the story. Up till then he was a driven man, trying to do well by humanity against horrible odds and near-despicable means. But he ends up being devolved into a pointless villain.

For a first feature, Lennart Ruff does a good job focusing the story on his initial intent: what do these changes mean to Worthington and his family. There are some clever visuals and nice moments to establish the story and the relationships, even if the production design feels off for the world he created and the science is, at best, wishful and often absurd. However, despite the nice emotional arc that Ruff builds, the last third of the film devolves into truly bad sf and action/horror. Also, the ending is forced, confusing, and unsatisfying thanks to losing track of their original point for the plot.

However, more important to recognize is that the film feels more like a book than a movie, especially in its pacing. I can enjoy that when it is done well, but this just felt like a clumsy but true adaptation, though again no acknowledgement of a prior work was made. This flick really did need to be more of a movie.

I will admit that I thought I knew where they would go, which may have been a bit derivative as well, but would have been more satisfying and more on point for the purpose of the Titan project. But I was wrong, for better or worse.

If you like near-term science fiction (even though this defies the likely possibilities) give this a shot. The effort is there even if the control isn’t. How you react to the finale will depend a lot on your own likes and dislikes. It certainly isn’t off from a lot out there, but it had real potential to exceed the common drivel and squandered it.

A Star is Born (2018)

[4 stars]

The bones may be old on this fifth remake of the 1937 classic, but Bradley Cooper (JoyGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) put fresh flesh on them in the roles of director, co-writer, and even co-star.

Cooper brought his own life to bear on the tale, enriching it with a sense of reality not to mention driving passion and real romance. While he did this for his own reasons, he also recognized he had an opportunity. Once in every generation or so a performer comes around who has the presence, charm, and ability to take on this role.

In 2018, it is Lady Gaga (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, American Horror Story), a woman of incredible talent. I’m not a huge fan of her music, but I respect her abilities both musically and in business (much as I did Madonna’s in the 80s). She has both the chops and the confidence to be part of something rather than having to dominate it. Because while A Star is Born is clearly her story, it is also very much Cooper’s. If she simply took it all over, there wouldn’t have been a film worth seeing. And the story is a heartrendingly beautiful one, danced by these two performers. Along with Sam Elliott (Grandma), and a surprise performance by Andrew Dice Clay, their lives unfold and their pasts exert their inevitable influence.

Cooper gets great performances out of everyone, including himself. Choosing to record all the music live adds a sense of reality and credibility to the entire endeavor as well. And though the story has been updated and made his own, he manages to hold onto a sense of nostalgia thanks to his choices in color timing the film to give it a slightly washed-out feel. The third act of the story drags a bit, but the overall impact is only slightly diminished for that drop in urgency. This isn’t a car chase movie, it is a paced tale of love, art, and family. For a first time director, it is also a major triumph. This is sure Oscar-bait, and it even has a chance at securing a statuette or two come next year’s ceremony.

Grab some popcorn and, maybe, even a few tissues and take someone you really care about to this for a date night. The movie is worth your time and it reminds you of what is important in your life in many expected and unexpected ways.

A Star Is Born

Disconnect

[3 stars]

Social media has remade relationships: familial, romantic, and even legal. Not a particularly clever statement nor revealatory, but still true. Disconnect is a cleverly plotted trip through various aspects of that idea. In a bit of nice subtlety, it intertwines several concurrent stories without forcing the combinations. The overall trip feels like a twisted path through a dark wood.

In one story, Jason Bateman (Game Night), Hope Davis (Wayward Pines), Haley Ramm, and Jonah Bobo (Choke) navigate family and school life…not exactly together, which is the point.

In the other main tale, Alexander Skarsgård (Mute), Paula Patton (Warcraft), and Michael Nyqvist (John Wick) form a tangled triumvirate working toward resolution.

Frank Grillo (Captain America: Civil War) and Colin Ford (Under the Dome) have their own familial challenges both within and without their house. These two form a natural point of intersection in the story to nicely bring it into a single focus.

And then there is Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin) and Max Thieriot (Point Break) who dance a tarantella that raises all sorts of interesting questions, of which technology is only a small part. Their story rides mostly outside the others and, while the least compelling in many ways, also raises the most questions.

Every one of the actors delivers a strong performance. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is actually how the various actors are mostly playing against their typical types. Grillo is probably the least off his normal characters, though his tough ex-cop is grounded in family life and emotional connection.

As a first film in the primary director’s seat, Henry Alex Rubin tackled a dark and complicated vision in Andrew Stern’s script (also a first time on big screen). There isn’t anything really new in the story, even from when it was made six years back, but it handles the various lines of social commentary naturally. It is less about exposure and more about raising questions and offering glimpses of issues across a whole environment. The end result is a taut suspense that slowly ratchets up the tension before releasing the wires all at once. To see Rubin and Stern’s potential and some nice performances, it is definitely worth your time, but you’re going to walk away from this one more contemplative than smiling.

Disconnect

Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town

[3 stars]

Without Mackenzie Davis (Tully), I can’t really imagine this film working. Thanks to her stark honesty, energy, and vulnerability what should be an uncomfortable tragedy of a life becomes an oddly compelling tale of finding yourself. It is still 90 minutes of a Greek Odyssey in modern Santa Monica without much of a connecting thread outside of the journey itself.

Davis goes through a sequence of challenges and encounters with some fun faces. Among them are Annie Potts (Young Sheldon), Haley Joel Osmet (Tusk), Lakeith Stanfield (Death Note), Alia Shawkat (The Driftless Area), and Carrie Coon (Kin). Each creates an odd character with a story all their own that intersects with Davis as she travels the SoCal landsacpe.

As a first feature film Christian Papierniak produced something surprising, if not entirely palatable at times. It is a dark and, occasionally, ugly look at life and choices. Davis is not a character you root for so much as sympathize with and, likely secretly, have felt like at some point in your life. The result is a little rushed toward the end, but follows the rhythm of what has come before. It isn’t so much a fun film to watch as intriguing. Davis is undoubtedly a train wreck, but there is something redeemable about her Izzy that keeps you invested and curious.

Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town

Brooklyn Castle

[4 stars]

Nine years ago, when this was primarily filmed, we were in the heart of the Great Recession and NY public school IS 318 was struggling to keep its funding. The story was one of struggle and unexpected excellence; a reminder that circumstances do not make the person, but can certainly affect their lives. But that is the undercurrent. The real story is watching these young mental athletes find their footing and ability as they try to make their way in the world, and it is riveting.

I expect that the school and documentarian Katie Dellamaggiore never envisioned the attack on education, and particularly for the poor, would remain under such siege in the heart of the recovery these 9 years later. And yet, here we are with a movie that resonates in very interesting ways long after its completion.

Brooklyn Castle

Singularity

[2 stars]

Just run away. How and why John Cusack (Maps to the Stars) and Carmen  Argenziano (Future World) ended up in this mess is beyond me. The logic and story of Robert Kouba’s first feature film is broken beyond explaining. Even the production design is wrong, though the effects are relatively well executed. The result is a bad Saturday morning movie, not even worth the popcorn you might want to make to carry you through it. Singularity was obviously meant as either a series or pilot, but I can’t say there was anything that would get me back to see what happens next.

Despite the two larger names, Julian Schaffner and Jeannine Wacker are the main focus of this story. They were not well served by Kouba’s script or direction. They also have no chemistry between them at all, which is necessary to pull off the motivations. But on an even larger level, Kouba shows a complete lack of understanding of what the “singularity” is and how it would fall out, turning it instead into a Terminator wannabe rather than a real examination of how it would manifest. Even 2036: Origin Unknown, for all its faults, gets it way better.

And that is enough time spent on this sadly missable attempt at high-concept science fiction/love story/apocalypse. If you venture into it, it isn’t because I didn’t warn you.

The Beyond

[3 stars]

The Beyond is Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull’s  first film. It actually has a bit more going for it than his second outing, 2036: Origin Unknown, but also some particular issues. However, on a craft level it is a fascinating little trip.

So let’s talk a bit about how the story was told first, because that is where this movie is the most intriguing. While the pseudo-documentary approach is a little tired generally, this is the best execution of the idea in the genre I’ve seen since Europa Report. The result is down to two aspects. The first is editing and effects which are both done well. Scenes are presented in short bursts to keep you pulled along, even past some of the weaker moments, while the effects are impressive (unsurprising given his f/x background). The second aspect was the delivery. The actors really hit the right tone, especially Jane Perry (A Hologram for the King) who sold it perfectly.

The main story is reasonably good, if a standard trope in many ways. But the script is full of issues, errors, and contradictions, which was a bit frustrating. There are a number of facts that change from scene to scene as well as leaps of logic. A bit of squinting gets you past it all, but not without some gritted teeth and frustration. Still, it manages to work and go some interesting places. The ending, much like 2036, will either resonate, annoy, or anger depending on your particular mood, patience, and beliefs.

I like that Dulull wants to tackle big ideas and issues. I’m not sure he’s found the best ways to translate those to screen, but the results aren’t unwatchable, just abrupt and rushed. For the execution of the film alone, The Beyond is an interesting presentation. As a first film, it is highly polished and executed; Dulull clearly has ability. But, right now, his plots feel more like written stories put on screen than stories written for the media he’s using. He needs a writing collaborator and some extra eyes to help his talent reach its best delivery, but the talent is definitely there.

Ida

[4 stars]

Ida navigates a crisp landscape of grays with quiet tension. In fact the black and white filmed film goes to great pains to keep it all gray except for notable spots of deep black that are intended to draw our eye. It is a beautiful and painful film that focuses on personal choice and identity, despite being surrounded with many tales of morality.

The young Ida, given life by Agata Trzebuchowska in her first role, is as near silent and immobile as one of the idols she maintains in her convent. But it is a stillness that radiates information and emotion. She is brought into the greater world by her aunt, inhabited by a near equally quiet and complex Agata Kulesza. They know nothing of one another, for reasons that become plain, but are drawn together by the bonds of family as the only remaining survivors of WWII. The women make an odd combination, talking more in their silences than they do with their words.  It is a beautiful thing to watch.

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski has an amazing eye and sure hand. His co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience) and he kept paring down the script to its essentials in words and moments. The entire film comes in at 1:22, but it is like eating a super-rich cake. A small amount is filling and satisfying…and in no way feels like a small thing when you’re done.

Ida was massively nominated and won many awards. All deserved. Appreciate this film for the story, the characters, and the gorgeous cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal (Loving Vincent). It is very much time well spent.

Ida

Kin

[2 stars]

Sometimes bad films happen to good casts. This is one of them.

Myles Truitt (Queen Sugar) does an admirable job carrying the film. Jack Reynor (Free Fire) and Zoë Kravitz (Gemini) support him nicely. Dennis Quaid (A Dog’s Purpose ) does well with what he has to work with. Though, honestly, I couldn’t get James Franco’s Future World performance out of my head while watching this variation on his  damaged (and stupid) bad guy. They all try hard to make what is a weak script with lousy plot choices better, but none of them can overcome its inherent weakness.

There are so many ways this movie goes wrong. Some of them are not its fault. There are intentional choices, that I respect, but which were executed poorly. The intent was to make a small, intimate and personal film about family and a kid coming of age in extraordinary circumstances. That shouldn’t have precluded making it more dynamic and interesting, but in this case it did. The pacing is slow and while the stakes are high, the emotions just aren’t there. The other problems were just bad choices and bad writing. And there is lots of both.

To be fair, I really was hoping for something a bit more Attack the Block than Sleight. In the end it was really just a weak prequel to a story we’ll never see. It comes off more as a bad TV pilot rather than a franchise launch. All of that is at the feet of Jonathan and Josh Baker and their writer, Casey, who penned the adaptation of their previous short film, Bag Man. In expanding that small idea into something new, the group made the fatal error of holding back all the interesting ideas till near the end. In trying to make a film about family, despite its trappings, they completely misjudged their opportunities when it came to the story. You aren’t left at the end looking forward to seeing what comes next, you’re wondering why the heck you had to slog through what came before to get left hanging just as it got interesting.

There are moments and short sequences that really show some directing promise from the Bakers; I would definitely give them another chance. Certainly their judgement to take the script they did is suspect, but there is ability there. However, I wouldn’t waste your time on this first outing in theater. If you want to check it out on disc or stream at some point where you can yell to your heart’s content at the characters or simply walk away without guilt, do that instead.

Kin

Terminal

[3 stars]

This beautifully designed Alice-in-Wonderland noir is a fever dream of dark delight. Rather than pretend there is a hidden agenda, everyone’s agenda is pretty much on the table from the beginning. The interesting bit is watching it all play out.

Margot Robbie (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as femme fatale is perfect casting. She is magnetic on screen and has just the right level of crazy dancing behind her eyes. Imagine her Harley Quinn character with complete self-control or her Tonya Harding with a lot more brain power and focus. It is a salacious and undeniably disturbing performance.

Into her orbit drift a collection of folks. Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) provides a nicely down-trodden and quiet soul struggling with life. Dexter Fletcher (Cockneys vs. Zombies) and Max Irons (Dorian Gray) make an interesting pair, if more than a little cliché, for her to play with. And, finally, Mike Meyers was practically unrecognizable in his own fun and twisted role at the periphery of it all.

For his first major film as writer/director, Vaughn Stein delivered a strong vision visually and story-wise. The production design evokes Blade Runner, creating a not-quite-our-world sensibility but not a world that couldn’t exist here and now.  And the game of Lewis Carroll references is fun. The story rushes near the end and flies just a bit off the rails in intent, but was worth the ride completely. There is plenty to feast on, from a craft point of view as well. Though, admittedly, if you don’t like noir it will probably leave you wanting. Coming on the heels of John Wick and Atomic Blonde, this movie got a bit lost in the shuffle. Personally, I had a great time with it and I’m curious to see what Stein can come up with next.

Terminal