Tag Archives: First film

Same Kind of Different as Me

[3 stars]

This is not a subtle film. In fact, first time feature director and co-writer Michael Carney was as delicate as a sledgehammer at times. This isn’t to say that the story (a true one) isn’t insightful or effective, it is. It is just generally much more provocative than evocative.

What saves this film from just being a Lifetime installment is the cast and the truthful earnestness of its tale. Djimon Hounsou (Seventh Son) captures the real-life Denver and his situation emotionally and with conviction. If anything, his performance made this worth its bloated, nearly two hour length. And, as the couple that comes into his life, Greg Kinnear (Brigsby Bear) and Renée Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) build a relationship fraught with reality and more than a little bit of idealism. In smaller, but important, roles Jon Voigt (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Geraldine Singer (Mudbound) add a different balance and storyline. The one truly odd bit in the cast is the son, played by Austin Filson. Filson is notable only for the fact that he doesn’t speak a single line the entire film even though his screen sister, Olivia Holt, has a plot thread of her own.

The message and insights of this story are important ones, particularly at this time in the country when we seem to have lost track of who people in need are and how they got there. I won’t go into the disturbing irony of that trend when we supposedly have such religious leadership. But an important message and good acting don’t always make a good movie. Not that this is a bad movie, but it’s just the wrong side of cloying for me, and is clearly aimed at a faith-based crowd. I stand by that description despite the fact that it takes one of the main characters literally to the threshold of a church and then keeps them entering. Faith is not a bad thing, but it brings a tone and level of unreality to it all, even if the base tale is true. And, certainly, it spurred an ongoing wave of good works (that somehow remain primarily in the background till the credits).

So, should you see this? Probably. It is a good check on your assumptions and a goose to your sense of possibility. In more practiced hands, this could have been a better movie, but as a message delivered with credible talent, it will hold you till the end. But know what you’re walking into and accept it for what it is and what it isn’t.

Same Kind of Different as Me

Love After Love

[2.5 stars]

Love After Love is one of those movies that promises a lot, but never quite manages to deliver, despite a couple of nice performances by Chris O’Dowd (Loving Vincent) and Andie MacDowell (Magic Mike XXL). It starts off intriguingly enough, skipping through slices of life to expose the very real, drawn-out decline and loss of a loved one. Each splinter of time provides glimpses that build to a story.

But ultimately,  director and co-writer Russell Harbaugh got lost in his conceit and allowed it all to fall apart at the end. For his first major film, it was an interesting attempt and shows some promise. One of the biggest issues was his choice to not edit out a stand-up sequence that torpedoes his entire focus for the film in exchange for the minimal exposure of one of the side characters. Which isn’t to say there aren’t good performances. Two of the nicer, smaller performances were by Romy Byrne (Flower) and Francesca Faridany (Black Panther) who stood out nicely.

Generally, there are much better films out there on death, loss, life, and love. Nostalgia comes to mind immediately, or even A Ghost Story, both of which employ small slices of life to build up complex tales and commentary. This entry to the field is rather missable.

Love After Love

Eighth Grade

[3.5 stars]

For his first film, writer/director Bo Burnham gives us a painful gem of what it is to be 13-ish. I can’t say I ever wanted to go back there in my mind but, despite the technology aspects, clearly little has changed. And that is part of the point.

What the technology brings to the story is a wonderful mirror for Elsie Fisher (Dirty Girl) to play with and against as we see her inner and outer voices. Her performance is wonderful and honest, with only a few forced hitches. Josh Hamilton (13 Reasons Why), as her father, also turns in a wonderfully subtle performance as a foil for Fisher. There are many other young actors who fill out Fisher’s school and world. Of them, Jake Ryan’s (Isle of Dogs) awkward tween Casanova is the most memorable.

Despite its particular and narrow focus, Eighth Grade is a reminder of just how alone and together we all are, regardless of age or family situation. It is honest to the point of making you cringe. The result is a great indicator of what Burnham and Fisher each may be capable of down the road. A24 continues to show off their ability to find unique and resonate films to distribute; see this at some point.

Eighth Grade

Everything is Illuminated

[3.5 stars]

This is a sneaky little film, and all to the good. Liev Schreiber (Pawn Sacrifice) pulls off a clever bit of structure that would often destroy a film in less sure hands. Here it works wonderfully. And given that this was his first attempt at both writing and directing, it is an even more impressive result.

Elija Wood (The Last Witch Hunter) is the only readily recognizable face in the film. He provides a great spine for the tale. An equally strong performance is from a face you may or may not recognize, Boris Leskin. The interplay of these two characters is part of the magic that Schreiber pulls off.

I don’t know how much of the story from the original book is true, but the impact forgives it any embellishments. If you missed this in the past, make time for this story at some point. Let its quiet pace and wry humor take you along to unexpected places and endings. It is powerful and, sadly, still very relevant in today’s world.

Everything Is Illuminated

I Kill Giants

[3 stars]

First to give this movie its props: it is almost an entirely female cast; men are, at best, incidental. And in the lead, teen actor Madison Wolfe (Zoo) dominates I Kill Giants with unexpected strength through most of the film. She assails assumptions and delivers someone very different from what you expect when the film opens.

Wolfe is assisted nicely by Zoe Saldana (The Terminal, Avengers: Infinity Warand Sydney Wade (Una). Supporting bits by Noel Clarke (Mute) and Imogen Poots (The Look of Love) help fill out the world with some nice brush strokes.

However, what starts strong and interesting loses steam as the final third of the story opens up. Saldana’s character, whose training is suspect from the outset, loses credibility quickly and Wolfe’s steadfast efforts wilt too rapidly under pressure. In other words, the ending is rushed and the world a little too under-researched to maintain full believability.

As a first feature, Anders Walter controls a rather complex challenge presented by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura’s original graphic novel and their self-adapted script. He manages some very nice blending of real world and fantasy and slowly reveals the potential truths under events without denying the fantastical.

It is impossible not to compare it as a riff on A Monster Calls which navigates similar ground from similar source material. Monster suffers some of the same issues, though navigates to the end more completely and satisfyingly for me. But each of these movies has their charm, message, and unique flavor. And both are emotionally effective, even with the issues they run into trying to maintain a positive message in the face of tragic circumstances and issues. It may not have been everything I hoped for when it started, but I wasn’t sorry to have spent time in its world and getting to see Wolfe’s and Walter’s early efforts.

I Kill Giants

Hereditary

[3.5 stars]

Ari Aster’s first major script and directing gig betrays a love of intelligent, suspenseful horror from the 70s. There is an air of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and even a bit of The Omen and the (much older) Cat People and the more recent Get Out. It is in the tension he creates and the way he drives the story by raising questions around what’s really happening that echoes these earlier classics. He certainly did himself no harm with the cast he gathered either.

Toni Collette (Please Stand By) delivers a shattering performance as the matriarch of a broken family. Gabriel Byrne (Carrie Pilby) supports her as her husband with immense restraint and love, but with diminishing capacity as the story unfolds. And, as the children, Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and first-timer Milly Shapiro turn in wonderfully creepy and sad performances that will break your heart before tearing it from your chest. As an added bonus, Ann Dowd (American Animals) gets to play a pivotal role and appear on multiple screens in different releases this season.

Hereditary is not an easy movie, either to watch or to define. Half the film I was wondering what I was watching, but was utterly riveted by the performances and the filmmaking. The end felt a bit forced and obvious, but the ride getting there was so solid I’ll give Aster a pass on his ultimate choices. The film gave everyone in its ensemble moments to shine, and made its audience gasp many more times than once. If you are looking for dark, creepy, and something just a bit different, you will want to see this on the big screen, in the dark, with others.

Hereditary

Thoroughbreds

[3.5 stars]

In his first script and major directing gig, Cory Finley really delivers. Thoroughbreds is controlled, paced, and loaded with clever sound cues and framing choices. It is magnetic and darkly funny in very unexpected ways. And, also in the most unlikely of ways, it gets you to invest in two sociopaths. There are some echoes with The End of the F***ing World, but Thoroughbreds is more quiet and focused.

A large part of the success of this film is down to the casting; it is  perfect for the purpose. In fact, this is the role that Olivia Cooke deserved to play after having to suffer through Ready Player One. Likewise Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) gets to stretch her acting chops and have some fun in this dark suspense/comedy.

And I know I’ve said this before, but I think this is the last of Anton Yelchin’s film appearances we will be graced with. It isn’t his most groundbreaking role, but it is layered in a way that most actors wouldn’t be able to accomplish with such a character. And, in an odd way, having him appear is a bit ghoulish, but in a good way that reflects on the story.

I was surprised by this film; not just for its solid directing, excellent acting, and brave subject matter, but also for how it kept its energy up to the last frame. Admittedly, you need to be in the mood for this kind of story, but it is surprisingly engaging from the moment it begins right through till the end. Finley’s last frame nails home the story he wants to tell, and those sound cues continue through the final credit roll as well. I’m looking forward to more work from him and the two young actors.

Thoroughbreds

Ingrid Goes West

[3 stars]

Despite my reservations about the experience of this film, I will grant you that Ingrid is an effective commentary on the social media age.

As a first-time feature director, Matt Spicer took his and co-writer’s David Branson Smith script through to its painful and natural ends well. The duo captured the insidious and dark nature of the social world and how it affects some people. But while a movie about mostly unlikable, imperfect people can work, it isn’t an entirely pleasant experience. When the ultimate result is no better than where it all started, it becomes an even bigger challenge to enjoy or recommend. Part of the issue is that it is generally too naturalistic and caustic to be dark comedy, at least for me. There are funny moments, but I found it often more painful than amusing.

That is as much a compliment as it is a slight to the cast; they did their jobs well. But, let’s be honest, Aubrey Plaza (The Little Hours) as a slightly psycho social stalker isn’t a huge stretch in terms of new characters for her to play, even if she does play them so well. However, getting to see Elizabeth Olsen (Wind River) in a light and happy role was certainly a change, even if the mien eventually shatters. Billy Magnussen (Game Night), as her out-of-control brother, gets to cut loose in a foul character, but his and Olsen’s relationship doesn’t quite gel. Only Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Den of Thieves) come across as good people, though each are flawed in their own ways. One neat surprise was Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) in a bit role.

This one I have to leave to you on whether to watch it or not. If you don’t want to go to dark places or can’t enjoy trainwrecks as entertainment, steer clear. If you must see it for the actors or are feeling deeply sarcastic about the world, it might fly for you.

Ingrid Goes West

Book Club

[3 stars]

Book Club is exactly what you expect it to be: a semi-sappy, slightly sarcastic look at love later in life for four women. What makes the movie is who those four women are. Each is a solid actor and comedienne. Each brings a slightly different type of outlook, and each manages to make you invest in them.

It is also true that they are each somewhat typecast. Diane Keaton (Love the Coopers) is slightly neurotic, lost, and sweet. Candice Bergen (Boston Legal) is tough but seeking connection even as she denies it. Mary Steenburgen (A Walk in the Woods) is the devoted wife with a bit of romantic wild-side. And Jane Fonda (Youth) is the tough-as-marshmallow-filled-nails successful woman who’s denied herself to avoid pain. All of this is laid out for you in the first few minutes and you know exactly what is to come: the men that will change their lives.

And the male cast makes as much a difference here as the female. Primarily that is Craig T. Nelson (Grace and Frankie), Don Johnson (Django Unchained), and Andy Garcia (Geostorm). But there are a few nice cameos and smaller roles as well. There are no cads in this story, just mismatches. It maintains its light and fluffy sensibility through to the end.

First-time director Bill Holderman re-paired with his A Walk in the Woods producing partner, Erin Simms, to write this diverting bit of trifle. It is effective at what it does, well-paced, and, of course, expertly acted. In fact, it is the smartest thing Holderman and Simms did was in the casting. And, I admit, I had all the right Pavlovian responses to the tale.

That aside, the story, left me vaguely uncomfortable. On a sociological level, we’re looking at 8 white adults of privilege, who have never suffered or wanted, complaining about their lives. But more disturbing was the odd sense of anti-feminism. Yes, the women are strong and, eventually, in control of their lives (sort of). But they are also very clearly incomplete without a man and, in several cases, having their lives dominated by the choices of the men around them…even when they seem to be in control. It isn’t overt, nor it is it even enough to ruin the film, but it was there as a feint odor under the light comic romance that may have been unavoidable given the genre. The central role of 50 Shades of Grey didn’t work for me either. Admittedly, they needed some MacGuffin to get the story rolling, and it was perhaps the right choice, but it was also about a year or two late for social relevance.

So, if you know what you’re looking for and are willing to be swept up in its highly myopic view of the world, it is worth seeing. If you simply love the actors involved, it is worth it for them as well. If you are hoping for something a bit more transformative or with a conscience…you’ll probably be more like me and wonder why the silly and light fantasy that worked while it was running left an odd flavor in your mouth as you left theater. That isn’t so much an indictment as it is a recognition.

Book Club

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

[4 stars]

Bombshell is well named and well punned by first time writer/director Alexandra Dean. She brings us a wonderful examination of one of the best known faces of the 20th Century: Hedy Lamarr. It is all the more poignant is that this arrives in an atmosphere of the #metoo movement and the rising concerns of the potentially eroding position women hold in society.

What Dean makes immediately clear is that while Lamarr’s face was known, and maybe some of her life, who she really was remained ignored till recently. Through interviews with family, friends, and industry colleagues, as well as extensive recorded interviews and footage, we get a sense of the astonishing person behind the tabloid history that dominated her legacy. Which isn’t to say her life wasn’t tumultuous, but it was also full of invention…literally.

Take 90 minutes to learn about Lamarr and how she has shaped your life in ways you have never known. And, while you’re at it, gain an appreciation for both the horror of the studio system and the implicit bias that still pervades the world.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story