Tag Archives: First film

Jolt

[3 stars]

Kate Beckinsale (Love  & Friendship) has made a portion of her career playing tough fighters in poorly scripted movies (can we talk Underworld?). And here we are again in an obvious franchise play with a script that is just as often good as it is, well, not.

This isn’t a story with a lot of surprises, just a lot of clever quips and many fun fights. Jai Courtney (Honest Thief) serves as catalyst for Beckinsale’s Lindy with a sort of guilelessness. And Bobby Cannavale (Thunder Force) and Lavern Cox (Promising Young Woman) provide a weird, almost believable cop duo. And while you’d expect the addition of Stanley Tucci (Supernova) and Susan Sarandon (The Calling) to elevate the story some, they’re just there to have fun.

For a first script by Scott Wascha’s it isn’t unwatchable, just occasionally cringey (especially the prologue). And director Tanya Wexler (Hysteria) manages to keep it all moving along with just enough character to the action. The result is a hyper-real tale of female power, not unlike, though with considerably less finesse and panache, as Gunpowder Milkshake or Sin City. It isn’t great, but it is definitely diverting and, if you can handle the violence, entertaining.

I’d love to see where they could take this story and if they can expand on the universe in a way that makes sense. Certainly they’ve queued it up to be an ongoing black-ops series. Time will tell, but at least this movie is relatively self-contained (and with a tag during the credits) in a way that doesn’t leave you hanging.

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Beach Rats

[4 stars]

I was a long time getting around to this first film by Eliza Hittman . In fact, I found her second, first: Never Rarely Sometimes Always. But it was the empathy and craft of that story that sent me back to her debut with Beach Rats. I’m late to the game to say she is someone to really watch, but it is still worth saying.

Hittman didn’t give us a likeable hero in her first film. Harris Dickinson (The Darkest Minds) is flawed in both endearing and truly ugly ways. But he is also trapped by circumstance and his own struggles. And Dickinson committed to all of that without reservation on screen. So much so that you aren’t sure if the movie is a coming of age story or a tragedy. And, frankly, you still won’t be by the end.

Hittman puts you so deeply into the point of view of Dickinson’s character that you completely inhabit his world. At points you even forget you’re not just watching through hidden cameras at his life. But despite being steeped in a sort of macho hell, Dickinson’s Frankie has two strong female influences in his circles: his mother, played by Kate Hodge and his girlfriend, Madeline Weinstein (Mare of Easttown). Both are quiet but strong influences, though whether they can break through to him is all part of the story.

And the tension of the story is drawn so taut that the ending is almost a release on its own. It’s clear this isn’t going to be a happy tale from the beginning, but it also isn’t without sparks of hope.

For a first film Eliza Hittman packed it with subtlety and power. It has been living on my list since its release in 2017, but I hadn’t had the nerve to spin it up. If you’ve been avoiding either of her films for fear of the subject, well, suck it up and make the time. These aren’t easy characters to love, but they are so very human and real as to encourage our commitment.

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Shiva Baby

[3 stars]

Shiva. It’s a thing. And Emma Seligman captures it in a way that is both delightfully uncomfortable and weirdly accurate. Not so much in the specifics, but definitely in the feel of it all. Seligman hit it all dead-on in her script and in her directing. Not bad for a first feature that presents a black comedy with more heart than you anticipate.

She also managed some great casting for her needs. Rachel Sennott (Call Your Mother) manages to be petulantly put-upon while also staying somewhat tragic. She’s a hot mess, but somewhat formed by the world she grew up in.  And Molly Gordon (The Broken Hearts Gallery) is a great counter-balance to Sennott as the calm core of the crazy day of mourning.

Frothing around the two are some fabulous characters. Polly Draper and Fred Melamed (In a World…) as her parents are painfully fun. They run the line between mean and caring in a way that many will recognize. And Dianna Agron (I Am Number Four) brings an outside, quiet tension to the gathering that stays utterly controlled. The rest of the rooms are filled with recognizable faces that lob quiet bombs and cross-conversation through the flick. Seligman just lets the conversations wash over you at times as Sennott passes through or is within proximity; often to funny effect.

If you enjoyed movies like Barney’s Version or This is Where I Leave You, this is probably another you should throw onto your list.

Shiva Baby Poster

How I Became a Superhero (Comment je suis devenu super-héros)

[3.5 stars]

Every time you think this genre has been tapped out, someone comes up with a fresh or entertaining entry. This French police procedural/superhero tale creates a rich world full of humor and complex characters, but with some solid bite and depth to make it interesting. All the more impressive it’s coming from a first time director, Douglas Attal.

In the focus of the story, Pio Marmaï draws us in with an unexpected charm and a character who slowly peels back layers with every scene. He is initially easy to pigeon hole and dismiss, as even his partner, Vimala Pons, is tempted to do. But she, like us, realize there is something more there worth digging into. And, with the help of Leïla Bekhti and Benoît Poelvoorde (The Brand New Testament), society is protected from Swann Arlaud (Romantics Anonymous). But the story is not quite as straight forward as that. Nor would you want it to be.

Definitely queue this up if you at all like the genre. It’s clever, funny, and with a nice French edge to it all that keeps it from becoming too much anything else.

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Intersect

[2 stars]

When a story is taking place at Miskatonic University, it sets up some expectations. Some of those are met in this odd little indie, mostly it is left wholly unsatisfying.

Admittedly, I came because Gus Holwerda added in a time paradox. The two concepts together were too intriguing to avoid. And there is some interesting story telling going on. As is typical we start at the end and work our way backwards-ish. Slowly revealing the truths and issues of the past.

It doesn’t help that some of the script is just bad science and some is just woodenly delivered; ultimately that isn’t it’s greatest flaw. Jason Spisak (Pacific Rim: The Black) and Leeann Dearing (despite her costuming) do relatively fine with their parts. And James Morrison adds some solidity for the time he is present. Abe Ruthless, however, isn’t the least credible. But it also isn’t the acting that’s the issue. Where it all fails is the final moments.

Time paradoxes need a resolution or a definitive lack of one to end comfortably. They also need a clear and obvious paradox. The ending to this tale is an unresolved chord with a sense of what might happen but with nothing clear. In fact, in some ways it makes no sense at all, in terms of resolving the unidentified paradox or threat and the outcomes from it.

I did love that Holwerda allowed this to be a slow burn. It isn’t at all rushed and there are layers to experience. But because of the end, I can’t really recommend it. If you are intrigued enough to seek it out on your own, remember I did warn you.

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A Sexplanation

[4 stars]

Sex. We all think about it. We all talk about it. Wanting it. Getting it. Having it. But we almost never really talk about “it.” Not about the specifics. And probably not with anyone of importance even if we do, like our partners, let alone ourselves. Why is that? Really… ask yourself when was the last time you talked about sex, I mean really talked about it? How about the last time you talked about it with your parents? Alex Liu dives into the subject of why this subject make us so uncomfortable. And he does it with heart, hilarity, and honesty.

Liu goes for broke in his first full-length piece (sorry, couldn’t resist) and even takes center stage as he explores our attitudes toward sex and how to become less stressed about it all. But he never loses track of the fact that this is a documentary for everyone, not just himself.

The 90 minute piece is wonderfully executed and is full of experts and lay people. And, yes, he talks to his parents in a way he’s never done before. You will come away from the journey asking yourself some of the same questions Liu began with, but equipped, emboldened, and encouraged to consider doing something about it. And, if nothing else, you’ll laugh a lot while you learn about what’s going on in the field. Because it is, above all, a genuine dive into the subject.

Wish Dragon

[4 stars]

When Wish Dragon starts, you’re sure you’ve got it sussed. I mean, c’mon, a wish granting dragon stuck in a teapot…shades of Aladdin, right? Well, yes and no. Certainly there are commonalities, but writer/director Chris Appelhans not only steeped the tale in Chinese culture, he also told it simply and with unexpected honesty. And while aimed at and safe for kids, adults will find plenty in it to be entertained by. Impressive for a first-time effort in the driver’s seat.

Jimmy Wong (Mulan) plays the guileless and true-hearted master of the teapot trying to reconnect with his friend Natasha Liu Bordizzo. Their path and relationship are the heart of the tale while Constance Wu (Solos) and Will Yun Lee (San Andreas) voice the parents of the respective kids. And none of it would work without the vocal acrobatics of John Cho (Mirai) as the dragon, Long.

I can’t pretend this isn’t a movie for children, but I found myself utterly drawn in and entertained. Maybe that says more about me or my current state of mind, but I recommend this one and even plan on watching it again. It has wonderful messages and reminders of life. And, most importantly, manages to get there in some surprising ways, even if other aspects choose tried and true paths. Could it have been more realistic or included more of the real world? Sure, but it doesn’t feel lacking for its efforts. And, sure, it has to wrap it up on a high note, but the successes are all through human toil and effort, not through wishes granted, which is a more powerful message than you typically get in these stories.

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We Are From There (Nahnou men hounak)

[3 stars]

This is more a window on the world than it is a full story. But there is a tone poem that the two brothers create with their commentary.  And it is one that will echo for anyone who has ever questioned their choices and place in the world. So, yeah, everyone.

The documentary follows Milad and Jamil from Syria to, ultimately, different countries in Europe. Both these young men felt they had nothing in Syria to hold them, that it would, in fact, hold them back. But they constantly reflect upon their childhood there, recalling and leaning on the memories.

The third perspective of this story is their cousin Wissam, who is also the writer and director of this film. Wissam stayed in Syria but remained closely in touch with his cousins. He provides the bridge between them and their past. And, in doing so, becomes part of the tale rather than just an impartial third eye. And, in this case, much like in Stories We Tell, it’s a necessary bit of glue.

Overall, this isn’t a very polished docu, but it has a fascinating quality and honesty. Even as it raises more questions than answers, it somehow manages to feel complete. And, despite hailing from one of the most war-torn areas of the world, it doesn’t dwell on those aspects, but on rather more universal emotions, without ignoring the roots of it all.

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Oxygen

[3 stars]

After reading the logline for Oxygen I was worried it was just going to be a cheap rehash of 2011’s Buried. But even when you get ahead of Christie LeBlanc’s Oxygen script, you don’t entirely get ahead of it.

The story is the perfect pandemic project: just Mélanie Laurent (6 Underground) in a box with Mathieu Amalric’s (At Eternity’s Gate) voice as her nearly sole connection to the outside world. The two banter and battle, and Laurent rides a roller-coaster of emotions and challenges untangling her situation and her past.

Alexandre Aja (The 9th Life of Louis Drax) kept the direction tight. Despite a near complete lack of movement, the tension ebbs and swells constantly, pulling you along for an astonishing 100+ minutes as the story is slowly pieced together, or verified depending on how far ahead you get.

The cinematography (Maxime Alexandre) and production design (Jean Rabasse) are also both top-notch. Despite being confined to a small area, the screen is rich with detail and our view of it shifts constantly without feeling forced.

This is a particular kind of story, much like Buried was. You have to want to engage and invest wholly with a single character. You have to want to be part of a puzzle and be willing to think and rethink the information as more is revealed. But, if you do enjoy that kind of story, it’s a fun and well-executed ride.

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Coda

[3 stars]

This is one of those small, quiet films that manages to grab you. It is also, possibly, the best depiction of the crippling pain of stage fright I’ve ever seen captured.

Patrick Stewart (Charlie’s Angels), as the aging pianist extraordinaire, is not only credible but he brings a quiet depth and gravitas to a story that is often only hinted at; something Stewart is truly great at. Katie Holmes (Logan Lucky) and Giancarlo Esposito (Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Unpregnant) form his support, and create the story structure around his return to the stage. While there are other characters in the story, this film is really just a three person play.

First-time director Claude Lalonde orchestrated Louis Godbout’s script deftly. The story never lags and never slips into histrionics or forced romantics. While certainly enhanced, it feels very real and human, which is how it manages to touch you right up till the end. Make time for it when you want something a bit more down-to-earth or if you just want to see Stewart flex his acting muscles outside of the characters that have dominated his career.

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