Tag Archives: First film

Promising Young Woman

[4.5 stars]

Some movies just sucker punch you because you’ve no idea what to expect. In terms of quality, this one’s right up there with Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Palm Springs…among the best this season.

Even more impressive is that this is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) first feature; she’s better known for her acting chops. But Promising Young Woman makes an impressive application of all she’s learned over the years in front of the camera.

And then there is the woman at the center of the on-screen story, Carrie Mulligan (Collateral).  She flattens you with her powerful performance and shoulders the film on screen with her charisma, intelligence, and sense of humor. From the moment she appears you can’t take your eyes off of her. And once you understand her, you can’t help but cheer her on and not turn away.

There are some nice supporting roles by Lavern Cox (Orange is the New Black), Clancy Brown, Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), and Alison Brie (Happiest Season). But this story is utterly through Mulligan’s eyes and perspective by necessity, and she carries it off.

The movie does have its weak moments, but they’re few. One aspect is around some of the soundtrack, which goes just a bit overboard at times, not trusting the actors and situation to make the point. The other is around some transitional moments that are less than smooth. But in the face of the rest of the film, I forgive them all.

Promising Young Woman grabs you by the soft bits and drags you through to the end. And it manages to remain triumphant despite the subject and the situations. It is sure to generate controversy and contemplation for the actions and probably even leave a few in the dust as to the title. But that’s all part of the point. Make time for this one, both for the central performance and the story itself. Despite the weird festival season, it’s been making itself heard, and I expect that to continue through the majors over the next few months.

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American Swing

[2.75 stars]

While focused on the infamous rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat, this docu is really about Larry Levenson, the man behind the bedsheet. Because of that, the historical and psychological aspects of the phenomenon end up ultimately getting sidebarred. The story is eventually overtaken by Levenson’s tale rather than truly examining the sex club’s impact on society in general and NYC in particular.

It’s unlikely you never heard of Plato’s if you’re over 30. But you may not know its history or even it’s reality, though the myths continue to circulate. What American Swing does is try to put a human face to it all. It isn’t entirely without judgement, but it tries to stay balanced within the framework it constructs. There are some interesting interviews, some by recognized names but also many just regular members. As a documentary, I’m not sure what story it has to tell. I get the impression that when Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman set out to expand on Hart’s article, they didn’t realize they had no more than a history report until part way through production. Than they shifted to a focus on Levenson to provide it an arc and some structure.

As a bit of history, American Swing is interesting. Not perfect and not particularly insightful, but it is a glimpse into a part of NYC’s past for those who were only vaguely aware of the club.

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One Night in Miami

[3.5 stars]

A boxer, a singer, a preacher, and a football player walk into a motel… It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in this case it not only really happened, but it was four towering figures of their time: Mohammed Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcom X, and Jim Brown. Four men who knew one another well, and all of whom were at inflection points for themselves and all those around them. The gathering was to celebrate the night Cassius Clay decked Sonny Liston and became the reigning world champion.

Kemp Powers imagined that conversation first as a stage play and then as this adaptation, which Regina King (Watchmen) directed as her first big-screen feature. And she did a bang up job choreographing the four men in a tiny room. Despite it being primarily a dialogue-heavy exchange, it never really flags in energy or interest. Kingsley Ben-Adir (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword),
Eli Goree (Riverdale), Aldis Hodge (What Men Want), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Harriet) keep everything moving and offer insight into these pivotal men. Ben-Adir, in particular, delivers a Malcom X near the end of his life full of fire and purpose, but more than equally full of compassion and care. Odom Jr’s chops are something to be reckoned with as well.

This is a surprisingly quiet film for the combination of people involved and the moment in history. It feels, quite literally, like being let into a secret and private party. We know the public-facing versions of these people, but what did they really think in private and what did they admit to each other? Cooke, in particular, has little on record about his private life. Many sides of issues are raised and the result leaves you feeling you understand not just these men, but the era and the ongoing issues more completely. I will say that I was surprised  that, with King at the helm, how little there was of the women in the lives of these men on screen. If I have any major criticism of the story, it’s that.

On a side note, writer Powers is about to have a hell of a year. After working on the initial season of Star Trek: Discovery he moved on to the play version of One Night in Miami. Both this movie and the much anticipated and lauded Soul (now only on Disney+) are hitting screens at the same time.

One Night in Miami... Poster

All Joking Aside

[3 stars]

It must always be acknowledged that comedy is hard…stand-up is a self-inflicted hell that only the bravest assail. And not only are more women entering that arena than ever, but stories about them are also starting to increase. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has played no small part in that rise, though that is the high-end and more slick version of a tale that is usually quite a bit less glamorous. All Joking Aside, despite some issues in the mechanics of open mic nights, is a more down-to-earth look at the reality, with a nice story wrapped up around it.

Shannon Kohli, better known for edgy TV fare such as The Magicians and Motherland: Fort Salem, directed this as her first feature. The pacing isn’t quite sharp enough, but the character work is nicely handled. The story, an expansion of James Pickering’s earlier short, The Comedienne, follows the effort of Katrina Reynolds to achieve her dreams and Brian Markinson to rediscover his. Neither story is a particularly straight line and, while it is certainly manipulated, it flows nicely and with enough credibility to keep you tied in.

Make time for this when you a 90 minute distraction. Reynolds has some chops and this is a good chance to see her early, not to mention Kholi and Pickering as well. Markinson is just a delightful bag of snide, sarcasm, and heart.

All Joking Aside Poster

Working Man

[3 stars]

Robert Jury’s first feature is a quiet bit of unique Americana. It starts commonly enough: a factory shuts down, putting a good part of a community out of work. At this point you expect something in the vein of Made in Dagenham, but that isn’t this tale. In fact, it isn’t really where the story starts, but that’s all part of the charm and emotional hook of this tale.

Familiar character actor Peter Gerety (Sneaky Pete) takes the reins of this story in an inexorable way. Billy Brown (How to Get Away With Murder) and Talia Shire (Grace and Frankie) back Gerety up and drive the film forward. And drive forward it does to a slow burn and sweet, joyous finale.

Working Man isn’t big and flashy, but its focus on characters and life challenges pulls you in quickly and hangs onto you till the end. For a first feature, it’s incredibly impressive. But even absent that qualifier, it’s an engaging, often funny, always interesting collection of people and issues.

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