Tag Archives: First film

Save Yourselves!

[3 stars]

Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson’s first feature is a silly romp that, till the end, manages to stay surprising and fresh. It isn’t a new story, nor even a new way to tell the story, but their cast’s slightly abrasive-but-loving relationship makes it work. And their down-to-earth humor keeps it all rolling along.

The oddly matched Sunita Mani (Mr. Robot) and John Reynolds (Stranger Things) work well together, keeping a delightful and playful tension alive through the story. It’s thanks to them, and the light touch of the directors keeping the humor constrained, that movie works at all.

What  Fischer and Wilson didn’t manage to do, however, was provide a complete story. Instead, we have a delightfully long skit that falls apart as it rushes to an end in the final moments. And then…well, there is a pseudo-intellectual wrap-up that explains nothing, comments on little, and leaves our main characters hanging. It borders on a commentary, but because it is so literal and with no clear intent it doesn’t feel like we even got to the punchline of a long joke.

The ride is still fun. And perhaps you’ll glean more from that ending than I did. It’s still an impressive showing in a challenging and overdone genre. Enough so that I’ll be watching to see what any of the four are part of next to see what more they can do.

Compassionate Sex (Sexo por compasión)

[4 stars]

A beautiful fable and mediation on love, life, and relationships…with a nod to religion and spirituality. Oh, yes, and it’s funny.

First-time feature director and writer Laura Mañá delivered this multiple award winning film, with unexpected wit and, as you might expect, compassion. It should fly off the rails more than once, and yet she keeps it all within the grasp  of sympathy and understanding. But the main reason for the success is the powerful and vulnerable performance of Elisabeth Margoni at the center of the film and village. Her subtle shifts of expression and emotion will melt your heart and convince you of her genuine intents.

When you’re looking for something a little different, a bit funny, and yet with a message that will surprise you in its delivery, queue this one up. There is a lot of talent to appreciate, and a warm and gooey center to help make your night feel full of possibilities.

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

[3 stars]

It’s rare when a TV show makes the leap to big screen, even in limited fashion. Certainly Miss Fisher was a solid candidate, with great characters, delightful dialogue, incredible costumes, and fun mysteries. However, this leap wasn’t quite able to stick the landing.

The original series was huge fun and ended way too soon. What made it work was the combination of sass and characters. While Deb Cox (from the original show crew) retained the sass in the script, going global really robbed the story of the wide range of characters and interplay we were invested in. And, sadly, even for the characters that had returned, the magic just wasn’t there anymore. The tension of will they/won’t they between Essie Davis (Assassin’s Creed) and Nathan Page, which had been ramped up over 3 years plus the wait for this tale, didn’t feel satisfying, or even all that interesting. And new characters like Rupert Penry-Jones (Charlotte Gray) never built up any flesh on their bones.

The main issue is that director Tony Tilse pushed for more of an action movie pacing, moving from moment to moment with small quips from characters to stitch it together. It made for almost no character building…and with only two main characters that we knew, that meant almost no characters at all that were fleshed out for us to connect with. Basically, Tilse wasn’t able to navigate the leap to feature film from small screen directing for their first go-round.

The movie isn’t a total loss. It has some fun moments and Fisher in multiple (unnecessary and unexplained) costumes. The dialogue, when it works, is at the standard you’d expect and the vistas are filmed quite nicely. My disappointment/frustration was in the anticipation. I loved the original series, and still rewatch it. After such a long wait, this wasn’t the result I’d hoped for. Originally there were three or four movies planned, and certainly this first sets up another. Hopefully they have learned from this initial foray and can improve going forward…assuming they go forward.

Sometimes Always Never

[4 stars]

Let’s face it, just about anything with Bill Nighy (Emma.) is worth watching just for him. Often it is only a taste of Nighy as a smaller side character. But in this film he and Sam Riley (Radioactive) share this story of family and survivorship. Both men play against their typical type, though Riley is a bit more consistent at it; Nighy’s accent kept slipping. However, both provide endearing and riveting performances as they verbally spar and converse.

The cast is also gifted with Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife) and Alice Lowe (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) who swirl around the two men with funny and poignant moments. Neither is given full rein, but both have impact and are part of why the film works so well. Even the young Louis Healy helps fill out the film nicely with minimal time.

As a first feature, Carl Hunter directs the tale with a confident hand and a delightfully playful vision. Despite the intense emotions of the story in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) script, Hunter keeps it all quietly real and funny. Also, the design of the film is breathtaking, from the wide vistas, to the distortion from the lenses, to the odd greenscreen and paper puppetry, it’s a unique combination of visuals that serve to amplify the story. Even the color pallet is retimed in order to make it, to put it mildly, bilious.

I didn’t know what to expect going into this story, and that was fine. I’d suggest you do the same. Go for the comedy and the sweet sense of family it creates. Stay for the performances, message, and the wonderfully odd presentation; but make time for this.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

[4 stars]

Unreliable narrators can be brilliant or frustrating. Having one is risky enough, but when you’ve four of them driving a movie, you’re really pressing your luck. But Scott B. Smith’s (Siberia) script adaptation is smart, crisp, and a delight in its story-telling.

Claes Bang (Dracula) is the main focus of the story, and from near the top we know there’s something off with him. He’s charismatic, smarmy, and quite full of himself, while being obviously desperate and damaged. Elizabeth Debicki (Widows) provides a wonderful foil and secondary locus as she dives into his orbit. The two are slowly revealed and challenged by Donald Sutherland  (Ad Astra) and Mick Jagger while the story takes shape.

And that is one of the wonderful aspects that sets this film apart: it is more than a third in before you’re even sure what the story is. For his first feature, director Giuseppe Capotondi took on some serious challenges, but he knocked it out of the park.

Burnt Orange Heresy is a deeply engrossing film that has as much to say about art and the artist as it does about human frailty and desire. To get a sense of the delivery of that message, imagine a Mamet play, without the cursing (think House of Games) or even Hitchcock with an elevated sense of philosophy.

If you enjoy intense, clever, and verbally dexterous tales, make time for this one. It isn’t a talk-fest, but practically all of the dialogue is a sparring match between the characters involved. It’s a dark joy of a movie.

The Burnt Orange Heresy Poster

Biohackers

[3 stars]

Germany is really producing some fun TV lately (think Dark). This newest, high-concept scifi conspiracy tale really works well… till near the end, when it’s a bit rushed and predictable. But up till then, the plot is nicely pushed along organically and without too much manipulation.

Luna Wedler, in the lead, manages to convey an intelligent adversary to her target, the coldly manipulative and driven Jessica Schwarz. And, of course, there’s a band of misfits helping it all along. And while Jing Xiang and Sebastian Jakob Doppelbauer are hopelessly silly through part of it, they are also entertaining as heck. Xiang, in particular, handles piles of monologue wonderfully. On the other hand, the more serious connections for Wedler are bit less clear in their motivations. Though they have depth, neither Adrian Julius Tillmann nor Thomas Prenn are entirely believable in their actions.

On the upside, this story was renewed, so we’re not to be left hanging on the final moments of the 6 episode wind-up. Suffice to say, it’s a pretty good ride, told in a way that didn’t put my teeth on edge with people being willful-stupid about those around them, or not speaking up when they should. In other words, most of the characters had some clear intelligence and lived in our world (science aspects aside). Definitely worth an investment of your time if you like these kind of shows.

Bloodshot

[3 stars]

For a distracting bit of action silliness, with some potential, this isn’t awful. It isn’t great either, but that has much to do with Jeff Wadlow (Truth or Dare?) and Eric Heisserer’s (Bird Box) somewhat bumpy script more than anything else.

This movie is the poster child for the challenge of where to begin a story. It has a 13 minute lead-in before the credits, which was an immediate alarm bell. Ultimately, I understood their choice, but it didn’t help the credibility of the movie. However, they did manage to get it to hold together, even if the flow of it (and some of the dialogue) were rough. Frankly, given their talent, I was little surprised by the end result.

The center of it all, as if you couldn’t tell, is Vin Diesel (The Fate of the Furious), who’s been searching for a new franchise and chasing the ghost of his first action-(anti)hero Riddick since he broke out. He’s never quite nailed another character that well, even taking Fast and Furious into account. He has the charisma and the attitude to carry this story, but he’s surrounded by uneven performances that range from mustache twirling to outrageous.

In the former group, Sam Heughan (Outlander) is the major offender. Guy Pearce (A Christmas Carol) comes in a close second, but his performance is more nuanced at times. In the latter, though he works in a weird way, is Lamorne Morris (Game Night) thanks to his comedy chops.

I imagine that first-time feature director Dave Wilson (Love, Death, & Robots) thought he could afford the extremes at the edges with Diesel and Eiza González (Paradise Hills) holding it together calmly in the center. He was wrong. It almost worked, but comic book adaptations are a challenge to start, and they only work in earnest. The second you give into the crazy, you distance the audience…unless that is the entire style of your flick.

All that said, I had fun and was entertained. It isn’t brilliant and won’t ever be the franchise Valiant or Diesel hoped for, but it isn’t a total waste of a night if you want a new story or enjoy the actors involved. Just keep the popcorn handy and be prepared to groan a bit till you understand the story… and then groan some more as it tries to wrap it all up.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

[4.5 stars]

Simple, calm, honest, and heartbreaking. Writer/director Eliza Hittman follows up her breakout Beach Rats by tackling a young woman’s challenge, making it an interesting companion piece even if they aren’t at all related.

Newcomers Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder take us on a journey that suggests more than it explains their lives. It is like the worst and best kind of voyeuristic observation. We never feel we’re intruding, but we also get to follow these young women where we shouldn’t.

This isn’t an easy film to describe. Basically, you should see it. It is a window into a world many will not have experienced, and an exposé of reality that far too many others have. That is done as art only heightens the effect and allows for some moments that will impact you unexpectedly…not because they are horrific in themselves, but because they are honest and imply ever so much more.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always Poster

Caramel (Sukkar banat)

[4 stars]

Writer/director Nadine Labaki loves people, and all their facets; and she puts those truths into her movies. Her pile of nominations and wins speaks to how much that resonates with audiences and critics. Every one of her movies, starting with this first feature of hers (and continuing with Where Do We Go Now? and Capernaum…even Rio, I Love You), builds upon this idea. Each movie expanded her ability and her recognition as a director, writer, and actor. Basically, her films are a joy to watch because they feel true and celebrate people, even when the circumstances are less than wonderful.

Caramel follows the lives of several women in Beirut. Each has a compelling story to share, but in many cases never even speaks to it. Their stories are on display, but we are granted the point of view and freedom to understand them. The movie is also very lo-fi, but Labaki makes you forget that by sucking you into the world of these women.

Adding to the interesting aspects of this film are that it was finished just days before war descended on Beirut. We get to see the city before it was ravaged (again). And, on a personal note, I watched it a day after Beirut was back in the news when a factory blew up, levelling a good part of the city again and killing 150+ people.

What comes through her films is how much she loves her country, in all its contradictions and flaws. But what makes the stories work is how much she loves and celebrates life. She doesn’t pick happy subjects, but the stories always feel hopeful. Her sense of the human condition is one of possibility, a sensibility that goes a long way in today’s world.

Caramel Poster

For My Father’s Kingdom

[3 stars]

Documentarians create films to expose truths, answer questions, and to understand the world. Lately, a number of these began as attempts to understand their own families, but exposed even broader and more universal stories than they originally imagined. Stories We Tell comes to mind, or Circus of Books.

Such is the case here for Vea Mafile’o. This story, inspired by her desire to understand her, if not estranged, certainly distant father and his actions, becomes a fascinating look at Tongan culture and church. As a window into both, it becomes a compelling story for those of us watching. This isn’t a society that is often depicted, even if there are many universals in the details as it unfolds. The story emerges despite some challenging choices in how it is put together, but it does still emerge. As an initial feature for both Mafile’o and co-director Jeremiah Tauamiti, their willingness to be honest and non-judgemental shows some solid promise for their projects ahead.

This is also an opportunity to see an outfit committed to capturing and promoting the Pacific islander life from the inside. In an age where society is trying to become so much more woke, outfits like Mafile’o’s  Malosi Pictures and her colleagues are indispensable. For that matter, just capturing and preserving the current cultures of the area as we homogenize is just as important.