Tag Archives: First film

The Vast of Night

[3.5 stars]

On the surface this new streamer is a fairly standard, if cleverly told, story of 50s middle-America dealing with paranoia and possible invasion (by who and what are unknown). We’ve seen this many times before, and new director Andrew Patterson and his writers, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger don’t shy away from that fact. Indeed part of what sets this film apart is that they lean into it, framing the entire story in a Twilight Zone-like box.

I’ll come back to the story and presentation, but it’s first worth noting the cast, led by Sierra McCormick as a believable 16 year old in over her head, but afraid of nothing. She is backed up by a less heeled, but solid, Jake Horowitz as the two unravel and pursue the mystery that drops in their laps. Horowitz channels James Dean while McCormick is something like a super-charged Nancy Drew as they scramble with equipment and  have frequent dashes across town at an unrelenting pace. In a small but focused role, Gail Cronauer (Te Ata) is the only character to steal back the camera for a while from the two leads, delivering and extended and haunted tale full of emotion.

Now let’s get back to the presentation. Because, despite all these praises, the story is really fairly obvious and nothing new. What keeps you intrigued, even during the slower or overloaded segments (like the opening 20 minutes of setup and dialogue) is the direction and cinematography. Patterson squeezed the story to remove all moments of breath, but not so much that it feels rushed so much as normal. Even with Horowitz’s mumbling around his cigarette, which could get frustrating as a listener, it feels right and real and nothing of any import is missed.

But the real question, and nod, I have goes back to that framing. I don’t know if it was in the original script or, if during development or in the editing room, they realized they were doing pure homage and needed to find a way to set it apart to do their work justice. I lean heavily toward this latter suspicion since it was all done in post and changed none of the movie. They knew what they were doing with the story, but needed a way to tip that to the audience and reframe it so it wouldn’t feel stale and tired. And, in fact, the opening, closing, and few reminders, make it more fun and let you go with the flow.

However, it has an ancillary effect of leaving you wondering if it was part of the plot or only part of the presentation. And this is where I was a little more frustrated with the choice. The story doesn’t rise to the level of needing any meta-layers or messages. And 50s-style horror doesn’t particularly have a lot to say about the human condition that isn’t on the screen in big flashing neon. So the framing is a nice artistic choice, but a forced one for the story itself since it is merely a comment and never used. Add to this the ending, which can be read more than one way, and you’re left with one too many unanswered aspects…or at least I was.

To see these performances and a new set of voices entering the cinematic fray, this really is a movie worth seeing. It isn’t perfect, but it is crammed with promise and definitely put together with deft hands. And it is entertaining, enough so that I wanted to examine these other aspects rather than just taking it just for what it is. Watch for these people in the future, they’re sure to be coming up with something new and interesting.

The Vast of Night Poster

The Impossible

[3 stars]

In every disaster there are stories that are worthy of telling and that beggar imagination. In fact, in many cases, had the tales been written as fiction, they’d have been dismissed as absurd and forced. But the truth is that survivors of massive events, like the Holocaust, 9/11, or in this case, the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, only live due to a collection of unlikely and random events.

J.A. Bayona (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) directed this story, reteaming with his The Orphanage writer Sergio G. Sánchez, to bring us the experience of one family. The result was highly awarded for its primary performances by Naomi Watts (Luce) and, in his first major role, Tom Holland (Onward). And, really, this is Holland’s story and film, which is not what you expect when it kicks off. Ewan McGregor (Birds of Prey), as the father, also has some great moments, but his role is very much supporting.

This film puts the power, danger, and horror of the event and the aftermath on screen well. If you didn’t know it was made years later, you’d have thought Bayona had a crew there the day of and through the days that followed. But, as compelling as individual moments were, and as taut as the moments leading to the end were directed, I can’t say I found the movie overly suspenseful because I knew the result. And it wasn’t that I knew the story going in, but there was something obvious about it that left me without doubts. It also barely looked outside the boundaries of the family, which was good for focus, but limited in its perspective. Whether any of that is a fair critique or not doesn’t really matter as it was my experience.

As a window into tsunami and its initial impact this is a fascinating story. As an opportunity to catch Holland at the launch of his career, it is eye opening. As a movie, it will keep your attention but I’m not entirely sure it will fully satisfy everyone, but it’s well executed if you need a tale of survival.

The Impossible

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu)

[2 stars]

Sometimes you dig back into film history, particularly with The Criterion Collection as a guide, and find undiscovered gems to fill the gaps in your understanding of film. Valerie, clocking in at 50 years old, is not one of those. This hackily made vampire tale is, at best, confusing.

Director and adapter Jaromil Jires created a fractured tale of sexual awakening wrapped in a fable-like sensibility. Not unusual for the time and not off the mark for the analogies. But the presentation is a jumble of scenes that are often separated by hard cuts that provide little sense of relationship between them.

Jaroslava Schallerová in her first role as Valerie is the picture of confusion and innocence with a sense of longing. But it isn’t a breakthrough performance and it has no lasting impact. In fact, the film had no impact at all on me. Even in an historical context I found it overwrought and self-conscious to the point of annoyance; it was trying to commit art. And yet, I finished watching it as I kept hoping it would resolve into a story. It almost did.

Frankly, I’d skip this, but you may feel differently or have an interest in where it fell in cinema. At least the restoration is fairly good and it’s only about 75 minutes long, so your investment isn’t much if you decide to check it out.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Lambert & Stamp

[3.5 stars]

This is another odd documentary that isn’t exactly focused on what you expect. Lambert and Stamp were the guys behind The Who. They didn’t pull together the band, but they were the guiding force, for good and ill, behind their rise, direction, and, ultimately in many ways, their demise. But The Who are merely the foil to discuss the men and their work. At least that is the intent (and the title backs that up).

But, let’s face it, we’re talking about The Who… Townshend and Daltrey figure heavily in the present-day interviews, and there is a ton of performance footage. Of course the band and the men draw focus despite all efforts by the first-time-feature director, James D. Cooper.

What really sets this movie apart is that Lambert and Stamp had always intended a movie of their efforts managing the band. Mind you, they thought that would be a couple years before the band (whichever band they picked) would flame out and they could then focus on their purported first love: film. But as fate would have it, they ended up with The Who, one of the longer lasting forces in modern rock, which has ended up outlasting even them. But that plan and intent means is that there is a lot of high-quality footage and interviews from the very beginning of The Who’s journey with their producers/managers rather than the type of  “found footage” you’re stuck with 40 years down the pike looking back.

Cooper did an amazing job sifting all these years of archival footage and new interviews to pull together a story. It may not have been the story Lambert and Stamp had envisioned when they started their efforts, but it is still a fascinating one. And, with The Who as the backdrop for it all, it tends to be interesting generally.

That Awkward Moment

[3 stars]

Basically, this is a boys to men tale about three college friends: Zac Efron (The Disaster Artist), Miles Teller (Baby Driver), and Michael B. Jordon (Just Mercy). And “awkward” is a good word for the result. About the only things that set this rom-com apart from its peers is the cast and that it’s from the point of view of three guys rather than the the women. The women are the mature and stable ones: Imogen Poots (I Kill Giants), Mackenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate), and, to a degree, Jessica Lucas (Pompeii).

For his first movie writing and directing, Tom Gormican did manage to do pretty well. The The dialogue and situations careen from the absurd and outrageous, to the heartfelt and real. Never one direction for too long or too far so that any one group of viewers can fall away. That isn’t an easy balance to manage. But it’s far from a brilliant result, and the denouement is patently ridiculous, which is a shame as the idea of that moment is really good. But the trappings of the film, of the rather rich New Yorkers, is a bit tired, and none (and I do mean none) of the characters are believable in their chosen careers, which made it a bit of a challenge for me.

If I sound a bit conflicted on this flick, I am. There were a lot amusing moments and an overall arc that was engaging. But the extreme choices by characters (and occasionally stupid choices) pulled me up short. Viewer age will definitely come into play for enjoyment here. Someone in their 20s is going to connect more than someone in their 60s, but a good romcom is accessible to just about any age. This is a somewhat entertaining tale of discovering love, but it isn’t a great movie.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

[2.5 stars]

Such promise and such lost opportunities. And what a waste of wonderful production design. I had such hopes for this, but Harley Quinn is a sidekick and she works best as a foil and commentator. As a main character, she is a challenge. A challenge the filmmakers failed to meet.

Christina Hodson’s (Bumblebee) script starts off appropriately hyper-frentetic, but never really finds a focus. And director Cathy Yan was very much out of her depth, taking this on as her first feature gig. The main issue doesn’t even quite become apparent till the final moments of the film, which plays into the title and the effort. But it is at that point that the issues crystalize.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Margot Robbie (Bombshell) isn’t entertaining. She isn’t brilliant, but she’s fun. And Rosie Perez (The Dead Don’t Die), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Gemini Man), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (True Blood), and newcomer Ella Jay Basco all deliver entertaining, if disconnected, performances to support Robbie and the movie. (Though I do have to call out that, though not an actor in her retinue, what a total waste of a hyena!)

However, the men are a bit less helpful. Ewan McGregor (Doctor Sleep) as the main big bad just never quite worked. His performance was forced and without the tense terror that Joker brings to his mayhem (pick your actor for that one). As his sidekick, on the other hand, I must admit that Chris Messina (Ira & Abby) surprised. He is barely recognizable as the bleach-blond Zsasz, and is suitably creepy as evil gopher and knife man. But their story, both together and as plot drivers, is nebulous and unclear at best. We get the bones of it all, but there is no sense of the power dynamics in the city, especially given what we know of Gotham.

So, if you really must see this, do it for the design (costume, sets, and cinematography are all wonderful) and for the one-liners or moments. Run with that and call it a win. But, honestly, you can put this way down your list and wait till its free.

After We Leave

[3 stars]

Yes, the millionth-and-first end of the world movie. But, much like the recently viewed Last Night, this one is more contemplative although with a bit more action and violence thrown in. And while it’s a little predictable, there are some nice variations and sense of motivation helping lift the story.

For a first feature, Aleem Hossain wrote and directed his story with a sure and clever hand. The world and story aren’t over-explained, some things are just inferred or hinted at. And the resolution is both hopeful and weird but still manages to be romantic and obvious.

Brian Silverman does a nice job carrying the movie as a n’ere-do-well who’s turned the page on his life. And Anita Leeman Torres adds a subtle sub-plot to it all that allows for a lot of satisfying interpolation. The rest of the cast is, frankly, a bit over-wired, particularly Clay Wilcox. The choices can all work, but they felt too much like stock bad-guy decisions rather than organic decisions.

There is enough world-building in this story, even with the inconsistencies, to make it stand out. And there is enough tension and action to keep you connected even with the slower pace thanks to the story and the editing. I appreciated the movie and my time spent with it. Houssain has an interesting eye and an opportunity to build on a solid foundation with this first film. I’d definitely be curious to see what comes next.

After We Leave

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Standing Up, Falling Down

[3 stars]

Honestly, the elements of this film worried me to no end as it opened and laid them out for inspection. Boomerang kids trying to find their way, bad comics finding their path, old widower trying to make amends, and romantically desperate people aching for “the one that got away.” It just shouldn’t have worked. But Peter Hoare’s (Kevin Can Wait, Killing Hasselhoff) script is simple, honest, and clever, which Matt Ratner directs with great care. In fact, for a first feature, Ratner really shows some chops containing the potential disaster of elements and emotions, not to mention the cast he managed to land.

Without question, Billy Crystal (Monsters University) holds this story together. Without him, it would have simply fallen apart even though Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) is the main character driving the movie. Around these two, there are a host of solid performances and interactions. Grace Gummer (Learning to Drive) and Schwartz have some wonderful brother/sister interactions (again a credit to Ratner), and Debra Monk (Mozart in the Jungle) is the perfect Long Island mom. There are a lot of other fun, smaller roles worth spotting as well, but why give them all away?

This isn’t a revelatory movie, but it is well done and entertaining. It’s delightfully contained and rides the line between reality and absurdity with skill. Keep an eye out for it or pick it up on stream as it exits the festival circuit and becomes more generally and more affordably available.

Standing Up, Falling Down

The Peanut Butter Falcon

[3 stars]

This is one of those quiet films that gets under your skin in unexpected ways. It isn’t a fun story, though it is funny in its way. But it’s a reminder of what makes up a family and that the only limitations on our lives are those that we set for ourselves (and that, very often, we only achieve those goals with help from others).

Much of the success of the story is due to Shia LaBeouf’s (Nymphomaniac) surprising level of vulnerability and accessibility. This isn’t his story (directly) but through his actions and decisions we learn about him and watch him heal. Dakota Johnson (Suspiria) is less leveled, but ends up on a collision path with the two men that forces her to rethink her life.

There are also some wonderful smaller roles that fill in the gaps and push forward the action. Thomas Hayden Church (Hellboy), Bruce Dern (The Mustang), Jon Bernthal (Widows), and John Hawkes (The Driftless Area) are among these.

Of course, the real star of this film is Zack Gottsagen. He delivers a fearless performance that is both brash and subtle. Some of that is thanks to first-time feature directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who also co-wrote the script. They bring you into these character’s world and help you shift into their sense of life and understand their goals.

This film, for all its detail, isn’t reality. It’s more a down-to-earth fable; especially given the final moments. That’s OK given the purpose, but it may put off some viewers. But, generally, this is a quiet road-trip story with a bit more depth  than you might expect.

The Peanut Butter Falcon