Tag Archives: First film

Love, Gilda

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help thinking, through a good part of this biography, that Love, Gilda is exactly the kind of story Radner would have hated being told about herself. Ultimately, I changed my mind on that point, but she is very clear about how she wants to interact with the public for much of her career, and this kind of tell-all (or a lot) definitely was not her style. At least not when she started.

Much as you’d expect from the title, Lisa Dapolito has created a love letter to Radner from Radner’s own audio tapes, interviews, home movies, and notebooks. With some additional commentary by friends and family, we get a sense of what drove Radner and what, at times, broke her. And, most importantly, also what brought her great joy. It is, by the nature of its telling, also a love letter from Radner to her audience, but that aspect isn’t as clear at first.

Radner was a force in comedy and part of the modern female comedienne movement, even if unwittingly. She was magnetic and intense and, along with the original Saturday Night Live cast, part of an evolution in comedy and comedy history that has defined the industry for over 40 years.  Her life was complex and challenging and a story in its own right. If you’ve read her autobiography you may know a lot of the tale already, but this is now in her own voice and with archival footage to illustrate and explain.

However, while Dapolito did an impressive job of interweaving the various collections of media and molding their presentation into an interesting documentary, it isn’t a very emotionally compelling one. The result feels almost clinical at times, even if intriguing. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for that, honestly. Perhaps it was the pacing or the reliance on frequently having the audience read Radner’s own writing that causes the movie to become more like research than a journey. But the result is that it is empty of some of the emotional impact I would have expected. It is still worth checking out, especially if you like Radner’s work or knew only a little about her.  She was an important figure that influenced many of the big female comedy stars today…some of which are in the documentary to declare just that.

So, give Gilda another 90 minutes of your time for a visit, or just come to get to know her a little better. However, to truly get the message that Radner and Dapolito want to tell you, stay through the credits for the final tag. It’s worth the moment.

Robin Hood (2018)

[3 stars]

If you want the short version: this is a empty romp with a lot of problems, from production design to script choices. However, it does manage to entertain and have some good action scenes. If you’re looking for a great movie or a solid reimagining of the myth, look elsewhere.

Now for the longer version.

Robin Hood is one of the most remade tales in movies. Part of that is that it’s public domain. But a very real part of it is that it resonates with people, especially in times of great inequity. This is certainly one of those times and, done well, it should have been a break-out hit. With affable talent like Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Jamie Foxx (Baby Driver) there was appeal and ability displayed on screen. Support from Ben Mendelsohn (Ready Player One), Eve Hewson (Bridge of Spies), Tim Minchin, Jamie Dornan (The 9th Life of Louis Drax), and the redoubtable F. Murray Abraham (Isle of Dogs) didn’t hurt either, though not all of these actors had substance to work with.

Director Otto Bathurst, in his first big-screen credit, is better known on TV; not easy TV either. Having directed the first Black Mirror episode National Anthem, I would have expected a more astute political mind at the helm. Robin Hood, instead, is all over the place. It isn’t just an action film, though there is plenty. It isn’t a political statement, like V for Vendetta or even Ben Hur, which it makes nods to. I mean, it quotes Hillel the Elder, but can’t seem to follow-through.  Instead we’re left with some weird half attempt at both while committing to neither. In other words, a very unsatisfying movie.

Writers Ben Chandler and David James Kelly are both newbies to this level. They needed someone with a bit more experience helping them to pull this story off. The fact is they had an interesting place to start. They ask us, literally, to forget everything we know about Robin Hood and launch into a nice revision of the story that has potential… and then they devolve into the story we know, but with a framework that doesn’t work. We don’t even really connect with the characters or the populace because we’re never given that chance in this, admittedly, fast-paced tale.

Add to these plot questions some of the most embarrassing production choices I’ve seen in a major film, and it gets even more frustrating. I don’t normally focus on costumes, but when you can see machine seaming on clothing and modern leotards on characters, not to mention perfectly forged metals, it tends to throw you out of the Middle Ages. I think there was a thought to pulling something of a Guy Ritchie and saying “screw the era, I want them to see themselves in this film.” Well, it failed on that level too.

So, yes, you can feel justified missing this if you want. It certainly isn’t great. It won’t translate to small screen well, but you can wait for it if you don’t care about that. On the other hand, if you can get a cheap seat or really love these actors, you’ll have a diverting couple hours. Just go in knowing they are trapped in an inferior reboot and are going to do the best they can. Yes, that was the long version.

The Happy Prince

[3  stars]

When Oscar Wilde died, he was buried beneath a monstrosity of neo-classical faux Egyptian frieze of his own design…that, of course, had an enormous phallus extending from the winged vision of himself like some kind of air rudder or, more likely, a final statement to the world for how they treated him. So the story goes, shortly after its unveiling an elderly woman came by and whacked the adornment off with her umbrella.

Whether apocryphal or accurate, the sense of that ongoing tale, told daily in Père Lachaise cemetery, is mirrored in this reflection of Wilde’s final years. A clash of ego and society, a sense of self versus a sense of decorum. Woven though the movie is the thread of Wilde’s own children’s tale, The Happy Prince, which metes out the lesson much more poignantly. It reminds us also what he gave to the world and what the world did to him.

Writer, director, and star Rupert Everett (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) wore many hats for this period production. He gives us a tired and ruined Wilde in the last couple years of life, but with a strong memory of what came before. It is an intriguing performance, though only sympathetic through the actions of others against him; Wilde is just not a very nice guy in almost any way in this portrayal, though he is deeply passionate. Everett’s directing is subtle and he navigates a very complex narrative to bring us to the end. Ultimately this is as much metaphor about artists and outsiders as it is about Wilde (the near ultimate of both).

Everett is helped along by a number of solid performances, by the likes of Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), Emily Watson (Lear), and Tom Wilkinson (The Titan) to name a few. Joshua McGuire (Lovesick [nee Scrotal Recall]) has a particularly strong bit part to deliver too. However, it is Colin Morgan (The Living and the Dead), as Wilde’s long-time and volatile lover, Bosie (Lord Douglas), and Edwin Thomas as Wilde’s longtime friend that form the structure of the tale and its downward spiral with intense performances.

The Happy Prince isn’t a happy tale, to be sure. I can’t tell whether Everett liked or disliked Wilde, but he certainly tried to tackle him in one big gulp with this first feature script and first time directing. Unlike another recent artist biopic, Final Portrait, while we do get a glimpse inside the mature artist at the end of his days, we don’t quite get a sense of why he was the icon he had been; it is in this I think Everett missed, or perhaps made, his point. Honestly, either works but we’re more used to seeing Wilde as an outrageous and brilliant character than as a broken man. It isn’t that there aren’t moments of joy and glimpses of his glorious past, but simply that it is all through Wilde’s lens of loss with little triumph.

Ultimately, it isn’t a great film due to its pacing and slightly muddled resolution and focus. But it is a disturbing reflection of our current times and a hard look at the end of Wilde’s life without flinching. If you are intrigued by Wilde’s life, it is a look at this period in a rather different way than we’ve seen before in films like Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance or the more recent (and wonderful) Wilde. The performances are a study in quiet longing and devotion, even when unreciprocated. And the recreation of the era across several countries well executed. That may sound a bit clinical, but as I noted, Wilde, who dominates the story, isn’t particularly sympathetic, even if those around him are. It is a film you need to be in the mood or be warned that it may take you some dark places.

Sorry to Bother You

[3 stars]

Writer/director Boots Riley certainly didn’t tackle an easy narrative for his first feature film. This movie goes from broad humor, to dark humor, to absurdist, to surreal over the course of its unreeling. A strange journey indeed. Sort of a more grounded Idiocracy, and yet more disturbing for that fact. Riley even consciously nods to Eyes Wide Shut in both his approach and specific scenes.  It is also the latest in a growing collection of social commentaries across many genre (Get OutBlacKkKlansman, etc).

Lakeith Stanfield (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) carries this film with a guileless approach. He accepts all the world has to throw at him and tries to play by the rules and then to use the rules to his favor. He is supported by his primary companions Tessa Thompson (Furlough), Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts), and Steven Yeun (Okja), who are each on their own journey and with their own sets of challenges for him and for themselves.

Three smaller roles provide impetus. Danny Glover (Old Man & the Gun) and Terry Crews (Deadpool 2) become mentors, of a sort. They represent two sides of the same coin for Stanfield to consider. And then there is Armie Hammer (Final Portrait), who gets to play an understated Steve Jobs-like character that serves a multitude of purposes. Hammer does an excellent job of keeping him human, despite the baggage the character has to represent.

There is no question that this is an interesting film. It is often funny. It is packed with commentary, some of it shouted at a very shrill pitch. But it isn’t just aimed at race, it encompasses art, personal success, corporate responsibility, political ennui, general happiness…the list goes on. Like I said, Riley tackled a complex narrative. It isn’t an easy film, but it manages to keep you as the world and story gets stranger and stranger, through to the final moments. But it definitely isn’t a film for everyone; it really depends on your tolerance for the bizarre.

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.