Tag Archives: First film

The Scarlet Hour

[4 stars]

Remember when films were ephemeral events…before it was all stored and streamable from the cloud? How exciting is it that we’re still in an era where movies can be rediscovered after vanishing from screens for decades. Thanks to The Palm Springs Noir Fesitival one of these, The Scarlet Hour, was presented with a pristine new print supplied by Paramount. And what a treat.

Noir is definitely a matter of taste. The style is delightfully (or painfully) arch and the character types are amusing or insulting, depending on your point of view. But when lines like, “If I were dead, you couldn’t take me to the morgue,” get bandied about, I lean more toward the amused entertainment side of interpretation.

But this isn’t just about femme fatales, malleable good guys, and mustache twirling bad guys, not to mention just simply bad choices, it is about moral indignation and escapism. And, when done well or with the right cast, a rewatchable classic.

OK, Scarlet Hour, despite its pedigree director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, White Christmas) isn’t quite a classic. But it has a number of aspects going for it, thanks to Curtiz’s ability to discover new talent. Scarlet Hour boasts several new, or relatively unknown, actors at the time including Carol Ohmart, Tom Tryon, and Jody Lawrance.

But it is Elaine Stritch (Just Shoot Me), in her film debut, that steals this movie utterly. She is the most believable and displays the trademark wit and timing that would distinguish her career for the next 60 years.

In addition, a number of recognizable faces of the time were around. Among them, James Gregory, E.G. Marshall, Edward Binns, David Lewis, and Richard Deacon. Each elicited applause or sighs of appreciation upon their appearance from the audience.

The movie knows what it is…even going so far as to have a copy of White Christmas in a bargain box at a record store in one scene. It doesn’t apologize for the heightened emotions and choices. It gobbles down the genre while still providing some nice variations and unexpected moments. It probably helped that Frank Tashlin adapted his own novel for the script, with the help of John Meredyth Lucas and Alford Van Ronkel. The final moments are all very much in question as the story unspools. It isn’t entirely satisfying, but it is certainly genre-acceptable.

There are many reasons to see this flick if you get the chance. The actors, the director, the silly fun of it all. But it is also a piece of history and a lens into time and style. And Curtiz distills a lot of it nicely and with a bit of a knowing wink.

The Scarlet Hour Poster

Life Partners

[3.5 stars]

What kind of difference can the right casting make? This is a movie that is emblematic of the answer. There is nothing much new in Life Partners, but Leighton Meester (Like Sunday, Like Rain) and Gillian Jacobs (Life of the Party) make the film work. Both women are entertaining comediennes on their own, but here they are perfectly paired as best friends in this very sweet indie. Their humor and delivery makes it feel like they grew up together which, in turn, makes the script disappear into the performances.

To be fair, they don’t do it alone. Adam Brody (The Oranges) adds a nice tension to the friendship and, dutifully, hangs in the background of it all. Mark Feuerstein (In Your Eyes) and Gabourey Sidibe (Tower Heist) also provide a few nice moments in smaller roles. But this is Meester and Jacobs’ film.

Honestly, it’s a surprisingly effective film…it is done with such honesty and warmth that you can’t help but enjoy it. In her feature debut as director and co-writer, Susan Fogel shows she has both heart and talent. She was able to breathe life into the story and control the energy and flow of the performances to bring it all together in delightful ways. For a light and sweet evening that can give you hope without making your teeth ache, this one is worth your time.

The Upside

[3.5 stars]

When do American remakes ever really stand up to the originals? They creatives involved typically just go for the cheap laughs or the silly sap and forget the humanity that often marks the small foreign successes they are copying. Adding to my doubt going in was that this is an adaptation of a retelling and my confidence on the potential result was low. The original, Intouchables, was a heart-warming, but often gritty tale of two men finding their way. It was full of surprises and interesting tensions that captured audiences and helping it gross nearly 500M worldwide. I suppose with only 10M of that coming from the US, studios saw an opportunity.

Jon Hartmere’s rewrite, The Upside, keeps the base story laid out in the original, but finds a different tale and path. The story remains  surprising, but in different ways. As a first feature script, it was a surprisingly effective achievement. Even with the momentary lapses of Kevin Hart (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) drifting back into his shtick, the movie holds up nicely. In fact, much better than I expected.

But it is Neil Burger’s (Divergent, Limitless) direction that keeps it all on track. Everyone is in a restrained tension within themselves and with each other. It helps that he balanced Hart with two extraordinary performers in Bryan Cranston (Isle of Dogs) and Nicole Kidman (Destroyer). Both of their performances are compelling and spot-on. Kidman even manages to look frumpy with some very minor changes of appearance. Against them, Hart feels appropriately abrasive and out of tune. But Hart also gets his moments. I can’t say I truly invested in his reality, but Cranston and Kidman kept me anchored and pleased with the story.

If you haven’t seen the original, you should. But the two movies really are different, despite the main plots tracking closely. Two very different story tellers are at work and the results will transport you in different ways.

Prospect

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help but think of Dark Star while watching this film, even though Prospect has much more action and story. The reason, I think, is that Prospect, like Dark Star, tries to show real life for the grunts out in the universe. In other words, it isn’t particularly quick-paced. However, it’s not a comedy, dark or otherwise. Prospect is a character-focused drama that takes place within an interesting world and set of challenges.

It is also, basically, a Western in space. Pedro Pascal  (Equalizer 2) doesn’t even try to hide that…in fact, he leans into it massively. Pascal uses Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s first feature (as writers and directors) to deliver overblown homilies and colorful language that seem at once self-conscious and, somehow, wholly believable thanks to Pascal’s consistency and talent.

But it is really Sophie Thatcher, in her feature debut, that holds everything together as we get to know her and her abilities, not to mention rooting for her survival. She is a strong female character who has layers we discover over time. At first, with her father, Jay Duplass (Beatriz at Dinner), Thatcher is the supportive, if frustrated, daughter. But it becomes apparent rapidly that she has much more going on.

As I said, this isn’t a fast film, despite its action. And it isn’t a great film, despite its ambitions and delivery. However, it is a good film if you trust it. Enjoy the characters and the complicated world that is presented. Caldwell and Earl don’t insult you by explaining too much and they allow the actors to shade in their stories around the edges of it all. You do have to be a science fiction geek to want to spend the time, but if you are, it is worth it. I’d love to see what they come up with next; it is so rare to see a story like this that isn’t ham-handed in its world-building.

I Love You Both

[3 stars]

Twins have always been fertile ground for stories, whether modern tales of living, horror, or, in this case, sort of romance. Part of what helps set this very indie film apart is that it was written, directed, and stars the twins in question: Kristin and Doug Archibald.

The slow, naturalisticly paced tale of co-dependence is at times a riot and, at times, a bit painful. It’s fairly solid for a first film, but it certainly suffers for pacing even as it manages to land some of its points.

A catalyst to the mix is Lucas Neff (Raising Hope). His arrival causes, let’s just say, quiet complications. That aspect, however, never dominates the story the Archibald’s wanted to tell. That is both a compliment and a failing of the story. Frankly, Neff’s character and interference into the small world of the twins is actually the most fun and interesting part of the story; it also includes the most believable scenes in the movie. The awakening of the twins to a new plateau in their lives, while highly personal to them, is less impactful for the audience. It isn’t that the story needed to change, so much as the balance needed to adjust just a bit so that the ending felt clearer.

All of that said, the movie is entertaining and enjoyable. It shows talent and wonderfully wry sense of humor. Though the comedy is a little more broad that I like at times, it never lingered there so long as to make me run away. If you want a slightly skewed story with a bit of humor and romance, this is a reasonable choice for an evening.

 

Arctic

[3 stars]

It’s a fair question to ask: Do I really need to see another man vs nature survival film? In this case, yes, and I say that as not a particularly large fan of the genre. But director Joe Penna (and co-writer with Ryan Morrison) delivered this well-researched first feature with the typical dangers but also some nice subtleties. In some ways it’s reminiscent of All is Lost, but on ice.

Mads Mikkelsen (At Eternity’s Gate) spends most of this movie simply looking at things and allowing emotions and thoughts to pass across his face. Whole stories, and a number of smaller mysteries, are revealed by simply watching him. Performances like this one are when you can see real talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Stringing together a story from silence and action alone simply isn’t easy.

Mikkelsen isn’t entirely alone through the film. Maria Thelma Smáradóttir keeps the choices and results nicely unsure. There isn’t much of a performance from her, but there isn’t intended to be; we get her story through Mikkelsen.

In addition to the performances and the direction, there is the incredible landscape. Watching this film, you are sure to feel just a bit colder than your room temperature, and more than a little awed by the vistas. As intimate as the story is, you are never under any illusion about the size and intensity of Mikkelsen’s nemesis. The result overall is a gripping tale of perseverance and ability, with plenty of room for individual interpretation.

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

[3 stars}

We all know Mapplethorpes (both sides: people, flowers), Worhals, Lichtensteins, Michaelangelos, Calders, Pollacks, Van Gogh, Banksys, and Degas (the list can go on and on), if not by name by familiar sight. But did you ever wonder why you knew them? Why, when these artists were pushing the boundaries of art, who was it that was explaining to the world why it mattered? Or, at least, convinced the world it mattered. In centuries past, it was dynasties like the Medici. In current times it is critics and collectors who have the ear of the museums and media.

The Square attempted to tackle this question a couple years ago in fiction. But this documentary takes on the life and impact of a single man who was a fulcrum point for many artistic movements and shifts in public perception, not to mention culture: Sam Wagstaff. Not a name that comes trippingly to the tongue, but an important one nonetheless.

Learning about Wagstaff’s life and impact are the best parts of James Crump’s documentary, which is otherwise extremely staid, dry, and in its way, scholarly. In other words this 80ish minute walk through history and lives is more like a class lesson than a gripping bit of documentary. That doesn’t make it less interesting, but certainly shrinks its audience to the PBS crowd even if the subject matter might intrigue a wider group.

Despite the title, this really is about Wagstaff, with some passing information on his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe is important to Wagstaff’s story, but the title is a bit misleading. Mapplethorpe was a flashpoint in American art, arts funding, and the government. He was the tipping point that conservatives used to start killing the NEA and NEH and using it, instead, as a propaganda machine for conservative values. The terrified conservatives weren’t completely successful, but you can trace the approach and hate and battle that is going on today between government funding for the arts in a fairly straight line back to the early 80s and artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano.

This is far from a great documentary, but it is some interesting background and a huge amount of visual representation, video and stills, of the pieces involved. Many people, including Patti Smith, who knew the men well provide first-hand accounts of their lives and interactions. As a lesson in art history it is a nicely condensed overview of Wagstaff and his life and impact, with nods to Mapplethorpe. As a question raised as to the veracity of taste and what drives what is accepted, it is somewhat intriguing. As a movie, even as a first documentary for Crump, it is middling but for its willingness to show and discuss material that is often avoided.

Capernaum

[3.5 stars]

There is a lot of hyperbole (and awards) thrown around about Nadine Labaki’s (Where Do We Go Now?) latest film. And they are deserved. As with her other work, she is brilliant at exposing humanity in the most impossible circumstances. She doesn’t give into dramatic cliche in order to rivet you to the screen, she employs simple truths and and hard choices along with quiet moments of desperation and joy to do it. She invites you into areas of the world few, if any, of her viewers would have experienced and makes you understand.

This film, more than her others, is relentless in its message and, for lack of a better term, existential horror. There are few moments of respite or joy. But it was the right choice for the story she wanted to tell. To have falsely buoyed the characters would have been to cheat the tale.

The entire story depends upon the slender thread of first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea. He is an unbelievably charismatic and powerful presence, despite his age and stature. In an intersecting story, Yordanos Shiferaw, also new to screen, delivers her own gripping tale.

You may be wondering, as I was, what the title meant. It isn’t a word, it is a place…and it adds an entire level of commentary to the story. But, frankly, better to discover that afterwards as it is a bit self-conscious.

This isn’t a fun film, to be honest. You’ll find yourself angry, sad, and, at times, likely yelling at the screen. The subtitles also sometimes flash so quickly (less than a second) as to be unreadable…but I didn’t find any of the gaps to be unfillable by logic and flow. Still, it was a shame to have such a simple technical blemish on the experience. Ultimately, the movie will not leave you feeling hopeless, but the trip is a little exhausting…much to Labaki’s credit, you’ll thank her for that.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything

[3 stars]

As his first feature directing and co-writing (with Luke Matheny) Rob Meyer put together a sweet coming-of-age tale. It isn’t particularly better than many others of its genre, but it is certainly enjoyable and has some very good moments and humor.

The story centers around Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Apocalypse) and his struggle with his father and soon-to-be step-mother. The parents are played nicely by Daniela Lavender (Learning to Drive) and James LeGros (Nostalgia) but the script doesn’t really help them much. The situation and conversations are a little forced, and the parenting skills suspect, at best.

Smit-McPhee is joined by a motley collection of, well, nerds. Alex Wolff (Hereditary) and Katie Chang get some nice stories of their own. While Michael Chen is little more than a sad cliche.

The best, smaller role is unsurprisingly brought in by Ben Kingsley (The Jungle Book). Kingsley, with barely 5 minutes on screen, puts together the most memorable character of the film.

When this released in 2013, it was more unique and interesting. But a lot has happened in the intervening years. The world is more stressed and the expectations for films about young love have shifted. But, while it may not be best in class, it is certainly 90 minutes well spent. You won’t be sorry you got to know these characters, but it isn’t a movie you’re likely to come back to again.

We the Animals

[3 stars]

A deep and disturbing look at growing up and how much children pick up from their parents. But this story never quite goes where you expect it to, keeping what could have been an overwhelming drudge something darkly magical.

The three leads, Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian work beautifully together as free-range sibs. Only Gabriel had any previous credits, but they all come across as natural and with a sense of craft. The story is primarily from Rosado’s point of view, but without his onscreen brothers, the story wouldn’t have worked.

In a supporting, but brutal role, Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) gives us a mother surviving and loving while stumbling through life. Likewise, as their father, Raúl Castillo (Atypical) delivers an honest, destructive, and somehow still loving role model. Neither parent is going to win awards, but neither is so devoid of love and compassion as to be utterly evil in our eyes. That complexity is part of what sets this story apart.

In his first feature, Jeremiah Zagar drew on his documentarian roots in directing and co-writing this adaptation. He creates an atmosphere that is part Florida Project, part Kings of Summer, and maybe a dash of the atmosphere of Moonlight. It is deliberate and nearly poetic as it follows the three brothers through their days and lives over the period of about a year. It also managed to stack up a number of awards.

Honestly, this isn’t an easy film to watch. It is emotionally challenging and it flows at a low energy, allowing everything to feel very natural (which can border on naturally boring). But it pulls you along inexorably to the final moments. While it isn’t an entirely dark and depressing story, do save it for a night of catharsis or when you’re already feeling well centered. But see it for Zagar’s efforts and the performances, all of which will have an impact.