Tag Archives: First film

The Tomorrow Man

[3.5 stars]

Quirky love stories are catnip to me. Watching two unlikely humans find one another and navigate the terror and joy that is a true connection is affirming, funny, frustrating, and ultimately joyous. John Lithgow (Pet Sematary) and Blythe Danner (What They Had) definitely run through all those emotions, creating two very differently broken people stumbling through life until they careen into one another.

The odd pair are surrounded by a few, solid supporting characters as well. Derek Cecil (House of Cards) and Eve Harlow (Heroes Reborn), in particular, provide sounding boards and act as proxy for the real world outside Lithgow and Danner’s orbit.

Nobel Jones directed and wrote his first feature with a steady and sure hand. The absurdity of his character’s lives never vaulted into the ridiculous. Their quirks and issues, when exposed, simply brought out their humanity and a deep empathy from the audience. It’s a solid story about people and love, with a wonderful and entertaining arc that leaves you with an unexpected smile.

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.

Poms

[3 stars]

Insanely predictable, infectiously entertaining.  If movies like Finding Your Feet, Calendar Girls, or Last Vegas make you smile, this is another for your list. It’s a silly, but effective, romp with a group of older retirees, complete with old and young nasty girls arrayed against them.

Diane Keaton (Book Club) leads the motley gang of ladies with a curmudgeonly style. But it is Jacki Weaver (Bird Box) that dominates the screen with her brash energy. The group also has a number of recognizable and surprising faces like Pam Grier, Rhea Perlman  (I’ll See You in My Dreams), Phyllis Somerville, as well as relative newcomer (in this group), Alisha Bo  (Thirteen Reasons Why).

In addition to the women, there are a couple male characters that stand out. In particular, Charlie Tahan (Love is Strange) as the rescued grandchild and Bruce McGill as the comical chief of security.

As a first fiction feature by documentarian Zara Hayes, it is well-paced and cleverly avoids some challenges. And the imperfect script by first-timer Shane Atkinson makes its point; but aspects of the story are a little surfacy or rushed at times. However, if you don’t finish this one with a bittersweet smile ready to take on the world, this movie wasn’t for you.

Family

[3 stars]

The original descriptions of this first directorial outing by Laura Steinel (Red Oaks) left me utterly uninterested in exploring its twisted view of suburbia and work life. After chancing across a trailer, however, I gave it a shot and was surprised.

It is far from a great film, but when it stops trying to be funny, it actually is. And it comes together into a sweet tale of growing up…no matter your age. The story is told through Taylor Schilling’s (The Titan) point of view…a woman made of the cliche character fodder that made Tina Fey a star. But Bryn Vale (Red Band Society) works well with her and, almost steals the film with her lost, disaffected youth. There are also a few surprise supporting roles peppered throughout the story that were fun to pick out.

I can’t say Insane Clown Posse was ever high on my musical like lists, but this movie certainly shifted my perspective of their Juggalo followers (some history on the term here if you’re interested). And while this isn’t the greatest film you’ll see, it is unexpected. It isn’t a bad way to spend an evening if you’re looking for a bit of heart-warming humor.

I Am Not a Witch

[3 stars]

Disturbing is an understatement for this film. Using harsh simplicity, writer/director Rungano Nyoni examines what it is to be a woman, an immigrant, and a society through a fable-like tale of a young girl accused of witchcraft in Zambia.

The mostly untried cast is likewise raw in their presentations. In fact the entire story rests on the slim shoulders of Maggie Mulubwa. She is an intense and vulnerable young girl who has learned the lesson that less is more on screen.

Nyoni’s film certainly received a lot of notice on the festival circuit, winning about half of its nominations.  It isn’t a fast film, but it is well designed, bleakly funny, and able to drive home its points with a stiletto.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

[3.5 stars]

The number of emotions and ideas that this film sparks are too many and too complicated to try and explain here in less than a tome. Suffice to say that this grounded fable/tragi-comedy by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, and Rob Richert (a first feature for all of them) is inventive, powerful, and effective.

Jimmie Fails also leads in the film alongside Jonathan Majors (Captive State, When We Rise). The friendship of these two men and their journey through the city is both funny and surprising. The duo are supported by host of smaller characters including Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Micheal Epps, and Rob Morgan (Mudbound). Only two small roles by Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood) and Maximilienne Ewalt (Sense8) add any female influence to this story. Given the tight focus on Fails’s journey and the lack of women in his life, it is almost excusable. However, it is noticeable.

But that criticism aside, this was an unexpected film. If Spike Lee had been born 30 years later and on the West coast, this is the kind of story he’d have been telling. It is politically charged, but without losing track of the personal. It is funny, but without dropping the serious message and intent. It is raw and honest, but not without recognizing the inherent sadness and absurdity in the situation. This is a film worthy of the term and an interesting new set of voices for the industry.

Devil’s Gate

[2.5 stars]

I fully admit, I came to this based almost entirely on the cast…just pure curiosity. And, if I’m completely honest, my curiosity led me a bit astray here.

But the top-line cast of Shawn Ashmore (Conviction) and Milo Ventimiglia (Second Act) in a horror film was just too intriguing to skip. They’re joined by Amanda Schull (Suits) and Bridget Regan (Legend of the Seeker, White Collar). And, as an additional surprise, Jonathan Frakes  even steps out in front of the camera  briefly.

Clay Staub’s first feature production as director (as well as a first feature script, co-written with Peter Aperlo) demonstrates some solid potential. The team’s willingness to seek something new in a tired genre is admirable. Their ability to examine their own logic and make the tale cohesive is a little less so. In some ways it reminds me of a less capable, and  slightly reversed (genre-wise), Brightburn…though that may just be all the farmhouse footage.

This is, at best, a B-grade movie. It is mainly kept at that level by its cast, which isn’t too surprising given their chops. It makes a game run at bringing a fresh voice to screen, but Staub and Aperlo both need some more practice. I’d be willing to give them that seeing what they could do here. This is one of those rainy Saturday afternoon movies, and there is a place for such things in our lives if we enjoy that “genre.”

The Cured

[3 stars]

What would happen if most (metaphorical) zombies could be cured? David Freyne tackles this question in his first feature. While admittedly re-treading some ground that In The Flesh took on wonderfully, The Cured has its own focus and apropos political points for our times. Its many secrets aren’t surprising, but neither does Freyne hold them back for very long.

Ellen Page (Umbrella Academy) manages to dominate the movie, despite being a supporting player. Her story is the most accessible and complex and, frankly, she has the best chops in the flick. The real focus of the tale is on Sam Keeley (Burnt), one of the cured who tries to reassimilate into a world that mostly doesn’t want that to happen. Keeley follows his path admirably, but the script and editing prevent him from ever really gaining steam. It’s Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, somewhat reprising his Ebony Maw (Avengers: Endgame) character, who tends to steal screen. Unfortunately, neither the writing nor directing help him feel completely real.

Zombies (and again, this isn’t a zombie movie other than as shorthand) have long been used as metaphors for differing fears and social concepts. From the fear of science and communism to the more recent terror of AIDS and ongoing homophobia. Most are movies about finding the cure or just simply surviving. Few stories tackle the guilt of those that survive and can remember.

Unfortunately, Freyne, while making some nods toward the central question of guilt and forgiveness, ended up getting lost in the slaughter and the intrigue. In effect, no one aspect of his story managed to come through as the main point, other than the stupidity of human-kind. You can see the potential in this movie bubbling under the surface, which is what keeps it interesting. Had it committed to the more unique paths of its tale, it could have really stood out in a crowded space.

However, even though the story fails to become something spectacular, it does provide a generally different take on the genre. It also does so with some solid talent and an impressive delivery for a low-budget indie. It isn’t a brilliant film, but it is a good one that shows off a new talent in Freyne. If he can continue to attract such good casts and believe more in his vision, his subsequent releases will be worth watching for.

Medicine for Melancholy

[3 stars]

How do (or did) you navigate the morning after a one night stand? And what happened next? In this first feature by Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), we get to follow Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins for the day that follows their hook-up. We slowly get to know them as they learn about each other. The performances are nicely understated and unsure as they slowly reveal who they are and what they’re looking for.

Within the often forced dialog and awkward moments, you can see the roots of Jenkins’ films to follow. It is most evident in his focus on character and the sometimes painful discussions of inner beliefs we all experience with those we expose ourselves to. You can also see him reaching to find his voice, even as he plays with imitating influences like Spike Lee. If it weren’t for Jenkins’ subsequent films, this would simply be a notable, but not particularly great, indie. But as part of his opus, it is a curio worth checking out if you want to see his roots as a filmmaker or some of the early work of the story’s stars.

Breaking the Rule of Binge

I don’t, as a rule, binge watch programs. I like the episodic nature of stories. I like time to reflect and think on what has happened in a story and what may happen in the next installment. It’s an art to do it well and it’s satisfying as an experience for me. I know…I’m in the minority at this point.

Recently, however, I’ve been breaking my rule of no more than two episodes of a show per day due to some truly engaging writing. The first slip was for Jessica Jones‘s final series, and then shortly after for Stranger Things. The first because I had time, more than the structure, and the latter because of the cliff-hanger endings. But then came Russian Doll and Dark. Both seriously binge-worthy shows, though each for different reasons.

Russian Doll

I devoured this show in two sittings…and would have done it in one if I could have seen straight enough that first night. While the first episode wasn’t exactly giving me hope, there was something intriguing about it that brought me back. By the end of the second episode, I just couldn’t stop.

Groundhog Day, though not the first of its kind, is the de facto term for all repeating day stories. It is even a trope that has come back into vogue again with fun jaunts in many genre, like Happy Death Day. Russian Doll is yet another riff on this idea…and explained about as much any of them do, employing multiple references, including Felini. But who cares…that isn’t what the story is about. Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) knocks it out of the park with her gravelly-voiced, prickly NYC software designer.

Unsurprisingly, Russian Doll is already renewed (especially given its 11 Emmy nominations which were recently announced). My hope is that they don’t rush it, because even if they manage to expand on the story, like Happy Death Day 2U, I’d really like for them to do something as new and wonderful as their first round of this addictive and inventive tale.

Dark

Dark is wonderfully intriguing with interesting ideas and characters, and some great mysteries and events. But that isn’t why I ended up having to binge. It is simply one of the most brain hemorrhagingly complex stories I’ve every encountered…holding it all in your head requires watching it all close together. If you go more than a day without watching an episode, you’re going to need one of the many write-ups on the web (organized by family grouping or chronology).

Series one hooked me with it complexity and ended on a cliff-hanger where series two picks up.  This second chunk comes to a sort of conclusion, but opens up for the third series scheduled for next June (to coincide with the dates of the story). But my suggestion is that you watch the first two series back-to-back at a one or two a night clip…frankly, I don’t think the human brain can take more than that. If you can, power to you. Then, before watching the new stories, rewatch the series again so it’s fresh in your mind. Honestly, this thing needs visual aids, but it is delightfully and intricately structured…a true thing of beauty even if the story and characters aren’t.