Tag Archives: First film

Klaus

[4.5 stars]

Honestly, I wouldn’t have bothered with this if it weren’t for the fact that it won the Annies for best feature this year. I mean, seriously, a Christmas cartoon? As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m even thinking it has a good shot at the Oscar.

It has been years since anyone has produced a holiday-themed animation that has risen to an annual must-see the way some of the old stop-motion animations of the 60s/70s did. But Klaus may have just changed the tide on that. It isn’t a musical bit of treacle like Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And it is more Hogfather in its sensibility and view of life than you’d expect. But it also tackles the season of retail and human nature in a beautifully honest way and weaves it into the story you expect…in ways that you really wouldn’t have predicted even as you see them becoming inevitable. But for all the intelligence and themes, it remains a children’s tale in the best of ways: it doesn’t talk down to them.

Sergio Pablos (who has spent years in animation and who previously helped write Smallfoot and Despicable Me) chose this as his first project where he was both writing and directing, and I can see why. It is a delicate balance of satire and sweetness that would have been hard to trust to someone other than the person who conceived it. Given that it took the top prize at the Annies this year, and it’s up for an Oscar, I’d say he was spot on.

Jason Schwartzman (Golden Exits) leads the cast with just the right amount of sarcasm and genunie feeling. He’s backed up by Rashida Jones (Spies in Disguise) and JK Simmons (Veronica Mars) with Joan Cusack (Welcome to Me) in a nice bit role. While the story is certainly an overblown fable, they all keep it grounded nicely. Simmons, in particular, has a slow evolution through the art and voice that is great to watch.

Klaus isn’t perfect. It is a bit rushed and hand-wavy in some of the story details. It has some inconsistencies. And, ultimately, it wraps up in a way that is heart-warming but, I felt, a slight cheat given the rest of the story you traverse getting there; but the story is what it is, so I just had to shrug and accept it (though honestly, seeing Klaus as a mildly schizophrenic widower was really fun for a while). Those are the reasons for dinging it just a bit on the rating. However, I can see rewatching this annually (along with Hog Father and Rare Exports, which are more to my holiday sensibilities) because it has a lot of great humor and it reminds you (with a soft hammer) what friends, family, and society can be if we just let them.

Bottom line: If you’ve avoided this because you thought it was just empty kid’s fare and not worth your time…rethink that opinion sometime soon.

Klaus

Five Feet Apart

[3 stars]

Yes, it’s a manipulative and predictable Romeo and Juliet riff, with cystic fibrosis as the wall between them, but it is executed relatively well if you’re in the mood for it.

Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen) and  Cole Sprouse (Riverdale, but more amusingly Grace Under Fire) are an inevitable couple, far too sharp witted and special for their own good. But, of course, we root for them as they discover what’s really important in life.

My biggest gripe, outside of a few saccharine moments, is that the one gay character, Moises Arias (Ender’s Game), is there for comic relief and to serve other cheap purposes in the script. He did well with the role, but his existence felt forced. While I get that this was a standard love story with a twist, it’s a shame they had to make the story so patently non-inclusive.

That aside, there are some nice turns in the hospital’s staff championed by Kimberly Hebert Gregory (Kevin (Probably) Saves the World)  and Parminder Nagra (Blinded By the Light).  Both manage to take standard characters and provde them some depth.

This is the first feature for director Justin Baldoni (better known as an actor in shows such as Jane the Virgin), as well as a first script for Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. As a first attempt, this is fairly polished and tight tale. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is pleasantly distracting for a night of light romance with a bit of medical issues. It will be interesting to see what lessons all involved take into their next projects.

Being Frank

[2.5 stars]

This odd, black comedy has just enough heart to sell its premise, but not quite enough story to sell the movie.

Part of the problem is that Miranda Bailey selected her her first fiction feature to be one with a very challenging plot. It wasn’t helped by the fact that it was also a first feature script by by writer Glen Lakin. Negotiating through to an ending was never going to be for the feint of heart nor the light of experience. I’d really like to see what Bailey could do with a better script, given her relative success with this one.

There are some funny moments and some nice work by the cast. Jim Gaffigan (Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation), as the titular character, is affable and bumbling. But while he’s the framework for the story, he isn’t the lead. That belongs to his screen-son Logan Miller (Escape Room) who is coming into his own and uncovering secrets. There are several other good performances, but Isabelle Phillips, in her first major role, is the one standout. She brings a light and charismatic performance into the midst of the dark chaos Gaffigan’s character has wrought.

This is far from a great film. To be honest, it is, ultimately, unsatisfying. But there is some good work to enjoy and some nicely contained broad comedy to keep it together. I wouldn’t go out of your way to see it, but if you enjoy this kind of comedy or any of the actors, it isn’t a total loss of time.

Cold Pursuit

[3.5 stars]

Coal-black comedy against a snow-white landscape. If only this movie had remembered what it really was, it could have been great. Despite the trailers you may have seen, this isn’t the standard Liam Neeson (Men in Black: International) revenge romp…it is something more like Boondock Saints in the Arctic. But as much as it wants to be a black comedy, it can’t quite commit to that path, though it punctuates the movie through to the very end.

Neeson is surrounded by a cadre of criminals, a bit of family, and a couple law enforcement officials. But they’re all just foils for the story. Most have no real life to go with them other than the immediate motivations needed to drive the tale. Emmy Rossum (Beautiful Creatures) is a marginal exception to that, having one of the more complete backgrounds and story of her own. Domenick Lombardozzi (Bridge of Spies) had an implied story, but without much depth. Even Tom Bateman (Murder on the Orient Express), despite being the big bad, never really fleshes out, though a good deal is implied.

For a first script, Frank Baldwin showed considerable bravery in the direction he set for this satirical revenge romp. Unfortunately, director Hans Petter Moland just couldn’t find the rhythm and style to quite sell it to general audiences.

[This write up has languished for months while I kept promising myself I’d also screen the original, In Order of Disappearance – Kraftidioten. Sadly that hasn’t happened but it clearly has an equally capable, if very differently energized, lead in Stellan Skarsgård (Our Kind of Traitor, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). At some point I will get to that as well, but for now, at least you get to hear about the remake.]

I Lost My Body

[4 stars]

There’s nothing more romantic than a severed hand making its way back to its body, right? OK, the whole thing is meant as metaphor, but this film takes the idea of soulmates and makes it literal, not to mention loss. Through the travels and adventures of the hand as it wends its way through Paris, we learn about the life and relationships the young man at the center of it all has experienced.

And somehow it works beautifully. Creepy as some of it can get, particularly for those of us who grew up watching horror films like The Beast with Five Fingers (or any number of others over the years), Jérémy Clapin’s first full-length anime somehow stays sweet and hopeful. As far as movie magic goes, this is amazing (and forgive me) sleight of hand.

Clapin delivers the story in an understated way, forcing you to pay attention, to evaluate and think about what you’re seeing. The animation is wonderful and simply falls away, leaving you with its reality. Unlike its probably awards competitors, this is a wholly adult film, with themes and statements that will resonate for anyone who ever had a romantic bone in their body, hands included. But while focused on that aspect, there are also oblique reflections on society today that make it a richer tale. That Clapin co-wrote this with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s oft-time partner and font of source material, Guillaume Laurant (The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, A Very Long Engagement, City of Lost Children, Amélie, Micmacs), should give you a sense of the core and scope of the film.

There is a reason I Lost My Body has been sucking up awards, and will continue to into the Oscar race this year. It may not be your typical fare, but it’s a magical and unexpected journey that never quite goes where you expect it to. More importantly, it sticks with you as you internalize and digest it long after the viewing. And, if you’ll forgive me one last bad reference, it is the visual equivalent of one hand clapping: creating the beautiful from the impossible.

 

Toy Story 4

[4 stars]

The first Toy Story had surprise going for it, both technologically and in the script. But I never found the series all that gripping or effective. However, this installment and (one hopes) resolution to the tale of motley toys is the best all around. Like the previous movies, it takes on adult themes beneath the surface of the silliness, but this script is richer and more subtle as it tackles growing up on several fronts.

It’s an even more impressive feat when you realize that it’s director Josh Cooley’s first feature and that the script and story had 9 different sets of hands stirring the pot. For a cohesive and interesting story to come out of that stew of sensibilities is pretty amazing, even if several had been involved in the series over the years.

There is also a huge list of voice talent involved. Many retuning voices will be familiar, as well as some new ones as guests. I’m not going to laundry list them all and, frankly, no one really stood out as brilliant. They all serve their purpose, which is the most important point.

This is the first of the series I actually recommend whole heartedly. It is certainly in contention for awards this year, including the yet to be announced Oscars. And, for a change, I agree it should be.

Spies in Disguise

[3.5 stars]

OK, this isn’t a Pixar masterpiece…it’s simply a Blue Sky (Ice Age) silly tale filled with humor and a relatively tight script (with more than a few shortcuts to be sure). The point is, it is entertaining for adults and kids, even while being as subtle as a sledgehammer in its message.

Will Smith (Aladdin) and Tom Holland (The Current War) play well together as the brawn and brains for the good guys. The two work through their own individual issues as well as those between them while being pursued on two fronts.

Rashida Jones and her team, which includes an amusing Karen Gillan (Jumanji: The Next Chapter) among others, are one of the teams. In their various altercations, you’ll recognize several James Bond films in nice light touches as well a few other action movies.

My only real gripe with this silly jaunt was Ben Mendelsohn’s (Captain Marvel) voice for the villain on the other team. It just didn’t work for me. Part of that was that it didn’t match the visual, but it also was just a bit too flat and forced, not to mention inconsistently executed by Mendelsohn. Fortunately, he doesn’t talk much.

For a first directing job by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, both of whom are normally behind the camera in the animation shop, it’s a very credible result. Kids are sure to like it, while the adults in the audience will not get bored as they pick up jokes intended just for them. Assuming this does as well as it has started, you can also be sure to see this expand as a francise in future.

Hello I Must Be Going

[3 stars]

When you feel like your life’s fallen apart, and you’ve nowhere to go, what do you do? Most go home, regardless of how challenging that may be. Now, admittedly, Melanie Lynskey’s (Girlboss) story is culturally narrow, but it is still emotionally effective.

Lynskey is recovering from a divorce, the story of which we get over the course of the movie. In the meantime, she has to deal with her parents, Blythe Danner (The Tomorrow Man) and John Rubinstein. Danner and Lynskey are very much at odds, but in a way that eventually makes sense. No one’s family makes sense until you understand it better and, like the divorce story, we learn more as the movie unspools.

In the middle of all this is Christopher Abbott (Catch 22) as the catalyst. He is a believably earnest 19 year old whose hormones and sense of privilege allow everything else to come into focus for Lynskey.  Their story is both entertaining and a little disturbing (though nothing like her turn in Perks of Being a Wallflower). But they manage to make it all very sweet, in its way.

Director Todd Louiso is better known for his acting ( and occassional writing (Macbeth), but does a nice job with Sarah Koskoff’s first script. It isn’t a particularly universal setting and set of characters, but the core of the story will resonate more widely. If you want a lighter tale of awakening and growing up with a bit of humor and pathos, this will do.

The Time Being

[3 stars]

Artists talking about art and process can often leave the audience behind. The filmmaker has to find a universal in that subject to reach the people in front of the screen. Never Look Away was the most recent film to negotiate that mine field, while The Square (to my mind) totally missed the mark. The Time Being is somewhere between those extremes.

Frank Langella (Captain Fantastic) and Wes Bentley (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) are two poles of the conversation. One old, one young. One famous, one ignored. Each is struggling with making meaning out of where they are in life and, by doing so together, they each provide guideposts to the other. The situation and actions are a bit forced, but it moves along in ways that keep you from disconnecting from the story.

Director Nenad Cicin-Sain tackled his script, co-written with fellow first-timer Richard N. Gladstein, with care. While some of the dialogue is a bit navel-gazing, most of the story is told visually. Through wonderful framing and art that really looks like art, we see Langella’s and Bentley’s visions evolve. Much like dance in The White Crow, the art actually serves to keep you believing rather than make you doubt these actors are really artists. And, ultimately, Cicin-Sain delivers a denoument that reflects back through the story.

Two supporting roles are also worth calling out. Sarah Paulson (Glass) has a nice, understated path. And Cory Stoll (First Man) turns in an honest, dramatic performance with no hint of comedy at all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that serious even in an interview; it was nice to see he had those chops.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. Artists, particularly artists in their 30s and 70s, will find verisimilitude with their lives. Others may find it head-scratching or just simply boring. The editing and mystery kept me engaged, but not everyone will. For a first time director, however, it shows an ability for clever vision and respect for his audience.

Eat With Me

[2.75 stars]

Yeah, I’m splitting hairs on the rating here. But that’s because while Eat With Me is enjoyable…it’s also a lo-fi, first film with many of the attending issues and tells that implies. Writer/director David Au came up with an interesting story and set of venues, but he’s still working through his craft. For instance, in pushing for naturalism on screen, he allowed a lot of moments to fall flat, and the rhythm of the film as it unspools is halting rather than smooth. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, it just means you should go in with correct exepectations.

The movie is loaded with semi-familiar faces, but only one you’ll know for sure; George Takei (To Be Takei) as, well, himself in a critical cameo. Mind you, Au could have delivered his story without George, but it was a nice bit.

The main tale is a mother/son relationship. Sharon Omi is the focus of this story, though that aspect gets a little lost at points. Her semi-estranged son, Edward Chen takes a lot of the focus, which feels right, but ultimately confuses the balance. Aidan Bristow and Nicole Sullivan flesh out the plot and momentum in supporting roles.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that, for a movie named “Eat With Me,” and with a main character who’s a cook, food never quite became the connecting or healing thread I would have expected. Food was only a convenient way to bring people into frame together. That just wasn’t quite enough for me. Again, this was more my expectation than, perhaps, Au’s intention, but it was what I was working with. Regardless of that, it is still a sweet tale of family and relationships and a peek at a new voice in film.

I couldn’t help but wonder how Au might have approached this if he’d started now rather than 5 years ago. With the unexpected hits and influence of Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Always Be My Maybe amongst other movies out there now, would any of his choices or execution have shifted given the interest and examples? Purely musing, but it is amazing how much the landscape has changed in the last couple years alone.