Tag Archives: First film

Get Out

Wow. Just, wow.

Probably the best horror film I’ve seen in ages. It has only one open question (resolved about 2/3 through) and one surprise; it derives its horror from how real it all feels. It is honest and rarely keeps you waiting when you’ve gotten ahead of it. That allows you to feel the tension of Daniel Kaluuya’s (Sicario) character to the fullest. He never comes off as dumb. He unpuzzles the plot as fast as the audience and acts. Part of what makes it so scary is the feeling that he really can’t avoid the inevitable. It is a powerful and compelling performance.

Helping that along are some equally solid performances by Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) and Allison Williams (Girls). The rest of the family is a bit less believable with Catherine Keener (Begin Again) being marginal, but intriguing, and Caleb Landry Jones (Stonewall) just feeling out of control. I think that was writer and first-time director Jordan Peele’s intent, but I wish he had reined it in more to keep it just a bit less obvious.

However, as the horror of the situation unfolds, we are swept along. It is uncomfortable and frustrating, embarrassing and angering. And, yes, pretty terrifying, but not in a monster-going-to-eat-your-face way, but more in a this-feels-almost-like-it-could-happen way. It makes Peele a great choice for the upcoming series adaptation of Lovecraft Country, which also has to walk that line. (Also a book I highly recommend.)

But Get Out goes beyond just the typical horror movie/teen angst level. There is a sociological aspect to this movie. It will be taught in years to come in universities and high schools by those brave enough to do so. The resonance of the tale, both as personal nightmare and social commentary is loud and disturbingly clear.

If this had released even 8 years ago (maybe less), it would have felt like propaganda or blaxploitation. In today’s times of stress and fear it comes across more as object lesson and metaphor. What is white privilege? What is it to abandon your own culture or have it co-opted? We get a complete spectrum of the latter with LilRel Howery (Carmichael Show) at one extreme end, Kaluuya as a middle ground, and Lakeith Stanfield (War Machine) at the far extreme end, with two painful touch-points by Marcus Henderson (Pete’s Dragon) and Betty Gabriel (Good Girls Revolt) as the family help. It isn’t, of course, that straight forward, but from an academic standpoint it is ripe for debate and examination. Add to it the realities of the plot itself, once revealed, and it is even more powerful.

This film had a huge reception in theaters, earning $250M worldwide. And while $$s aren’t always the best way to judge a film, in this case it is a great measure of the chord it struck. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is well done, well conceived. Like Hell or High Water, it is a movie of its time, though with frankly much more meat to the bone. If you somehow missed Get Out, make time for it. It is a great ride that also happens to comes with a message. If nothing else, it is guaranteed to start a conversation.

Get Out

The Lego Batman Movie

Yes, you probably saw this ages ago, but I wasn’t going to go pay for it in theaters. The Lego Movie was amusing, but not brilliant, at least for me. I am mainly writing this up as a measurement of my comedy preferences so you can judge my other recommendations.

My biggest question by the time I got to the end of this latest block adventure was: Why had they trusted such a lucrative franchise to the writer of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith and first-time feature director Chris McKay? Perhaps they thought the series was bullet-proof? It isn’t.

While it has a solid overall structure and story ideas, the result is uneven, at best, when it comes to flow and dialogue. It also lacks the layers that the original Lego had, trying instead to riff off of the absurd Batman character and relying on shots at Marvel and, even more often, DC and the overall history of Batman since the 60s in media. Cause, let’s face it, it has had quite the meandering road starting with Adam West and ending, for now, with Ben Affleck.

But it wasn’t just the execution and editing of the tale that was off, it was also the voices. They just didn’t quite ever feel right. This was especially true for Zach Galifianakis’s (Birdman) Joker for me, though many others didn’t quite fit either. The movie is loaded with voice talent…some surprising, but none brilliant. This really felt like a money grab by the studio and supported by the late night party game of a lot of actors who just did it for a lark. To be fair, Will Arnett, Michael Cera (Sausage Party), Rosario Dawson (Marvel’s Iron Fist), and Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash) all did fine in the main roles, but not memorably so.

Basically, if you need a distraction, you could do worse than this mostly empty confection. But, that also means you could do way better.

The LEGO Batman Movie

The Last Word

Shirley MacLaine (Bernie) dominates this film with a quiet surety and great craft. Much like Tomlin’s turn in Grandma, MacLaine slowly peels back layers of Harriet such that we eventually understand and embrace all of her. Amanda Seyfried (The Big Wedding) keeps up with MacLaine nicely, though it takes some time for her character to settle in on screen. It should also be noted that in her first film, AnnJewel Lee Dixon delivers a firecracker of a performance that bodes well for her career.

As a movie, Word is entertaining, if a bit manipulated. Given that this was also a first feature movie for both director Pellington and writer Fink, it is actually rather impressive. The weaknesses likely stem from Pellington’s TV background, where he stole overused tropes as shorthand to get to moments. But that is a small disparagement for the amusement and emotional tale that is Last Word.

This is a story of life lessons and mottoes with a bit of humor and and a few truly winning moments. It is also a great reminder of where women have come from in the last 70 years and what they had to do in order to pave the way; timely given current society and the recent release of Wonder Woman.

The Last Word

Miss Sloane

This is a story that you are hoping has been heightened for drama, but you secretly fear has been watered down to be credible. Basically, it is a behind-the-scenes fiction of the influence and methods of lobbyists on the laws of the land. As if you didn’t have enough to feel frustrated by and fear in DC, this will give you more of both.

Jessica Chastain (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) championed this film to release and you can see why she wanted the role. Her character is strong, driven, and massively flawed. Unfortunately, she isn’t very sympathetic, even though her cause is just and her lack of self-delusion is fairly small. Basically, you can respect and admire her efforts, but you can’t help but revile the person (or blame her) for her actions and self-same efforts despite any results she may attain.

The rest of the cast breaks down into three groups. Mark Strong (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Jupiter Ascending), in larger roles that work with Chastain’s character directly. Both deliver interesting performances. Mark Strong, in particular, shows a different side of himself from what we’ve seen in the past.

Opposing Chastain’s Sloane are a collection of solid actors, if not solid performances, who were probably picking splinters from their teeth at the end of the tale. Michael Stuhlbarg (Arrival), Sam Waterston (Grace and Frankie), and John Lithgow (The Accountant) were all just a little too arch and a little too angry. These are all men capable of subtlety, but only Lithgow even came close to trying for a lighter touch.

In the last group are some smaller, but noticeable roles played by Allison Pill (Hail, Caesar!), Douglas Smith (Terminator: Genisys), and Jake Lacy (Obvious Child). Pill and Lacy each have a couple very nice moments story-wise, while Smith just has great presence on screen, despite having very little to do.

What this film really needed was Aaron Sorkin to write the script. Not that Perera’s script isn’t quite solid and fast and in the style of Sorkin, but Sorkin it ain’t. To be fair, however, as Perera’s first script, it is impressive. Director John Madden (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) kept up the pace and intensity nicely for the 2+ hours and stuck to the bare realities of the story, rarely going for manipulation. However, Madden takes some of the blame for any over-acting that existed as well. Keeping it all a bit more restrained would have heightened the disturbing nature of the movie. Instead, he hoped to provide a sense of relief and joy as Chastain battles the “monsters” even though she, herself, isn’t much better as an individual; she simply chose the more palatable cause.

If you are up for some political intrigue and the continued dashing of what hopes you may have that we live in a functional society, this is a good movie for you. It will also work if you like complex suspense films that are more cerebral than flashy, as the story and the machinations are wonderfully complex. However, if you’re looking for some escapism, you should run the other way. This isn’t going to get your mind off anything.

Miss Sloane

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)

Animation is so often seen as a children’s medium. Zucchini turns this on its head by making the kids the subject of the film. And not just any kids, this bit of stop-motion (an oddly poetic medium for this tale) focuses on the broken, abused, and ignored children of society. It isn’t a maudlin tale, it is, in fact, hopeful and sweet, but it doesn’t ignore the harder truths in life.

The voice work (French and English) is interesting and subtly effective. By design, it feels almost documentary-like in its delivery. The approach and sound quality, however, also leaves it oddly distancing. Perhaps that is a good thing given some of the emotions. We get to hover above it all and enjoy the successes rather than struggle with the realities.

As his first feature, director and co-writer Claude Barras adaptation of this challenging tale is impressive and even snagged an Oscar nomination as well as other nods. There is even a delightfully weird short animation on the disc to enjoy (The Genie in the Ravioli) that exposes his odd sense of wonder and design even more. I imagine we’ll be seeing more of Barras and his crew in years to come.

Even if it isn’t overly brilliant animation (which isn’t to say it isn’t good), make time for this if you haven’t already. It is pretty unique in its tale and is definitely worth the 70 mins you’d need to invest.

My Life as a Zucchini

The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

Red Turtle is beautifully animated and sweetly written. Told almost entirely without dialogue, there is never a question about the interactions of the characters. That result is even more impressive when you realize how simply and minimally drawn everything is.

The core of the story, however, is a rather odd bit of fantasy/myth that wraps it all up. How you parse the meaning, well, that will be up to you. There are sweet ways to interpret the overall tale and more cynical versions as well. I tend to be a romantic, but honestly leaned toward the cynical at the end of this one. Perhaps it was simply a matter of timing for me.

Regardless of how you parse it, the story is an effective tale of frustration and love. As his first full-length feature, Michael Dudok de Wit’s results are pretty amazing. The lack of a clear choice probably hurt it the most during the Oscars, though it certainly did well enough everywhere else. Much like Takahata’s (Only Yesterday) work, who served as artistic producer, the tale is allowed to speak for itself and is approached with the lightest of hands artistically. It is a beautiful screen meditation, and worth seeing, but not one that I will be coming back to again and again. At least, I don’t think I will.

The Red Turtle

Beyond the Edge

I will say this for Beyond the Edge, in a large field of movies about this subject, this one remained interesting up till near the end. At that point, it all goes just a bit weird and confusing as it tries to represent the concepts in question. I really think this is a tale that would have fared better as a short story rather than as a movie. Trying to depict quantum/existential concepts in film is like trying to clearly depict a 9 dimensional object on the 2 dimensional plane of a piece of paper. Only Mr. Nobody really succeeded for me in recent memory, but I still give this one props for trying.

First time director and co-writer Zellen probably should have tackled something a bit less complex for his first outing. The result wasn’t unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying. I will say that the effects, design, and some of the moments were impressive for a low-budget indie.

To be fair, when one of your main actors is a massive B-Movie face, Casper Van Dien, and you even have Adrienne Barbeau showing up, you know it is also a little tongue-in-cheek by design. Van Dien knows this and really has some fun with his role. (And, yes, I’m aware that Van Dien also has some solid credits.) So does Sean Maher (Firefly) playing opposite him. Maher has the harder job of the two and manages fairly well. However, since so much is not clarified, it isn’t easy to judge all of his efforts.

Overall, there are some interesting aspects and a good tackle at a challenging subject. For a rainy Saturday, or if you’re totally at loose ends for a choice, go for it. Otherwise, well, I wouldn’t say I want my two hours back, but I probably could have made a stronger selection. I will say that I’d watch for Zellen in the future to see what he has learned and what he comes up with next. It took guts to do this film and do it as well as he did.

Beyond the Edge

Carrie Pilby

Pilby is a balancing act of coming-of-age and romance in about equal measures. While not perfect, it is very sweet and funny and doesn’t quite fit into any particular box thanks to its plot; Pilby’s age, combined with her intellect, helps it bridge a broader audience than you’d typically expect.

Now, I do have to admit that I may just be crushing a bit on Bel Powley (Equals). Powley’s characters are intelligent, witty, charismatic, vulnerable, and honest. Carrie Pilby is no exception, and she carries the movie admirably. She reminds me of a young Emma Stone or a less-edgy Ellen Page, though entirely her own persona.

Into Pilby’s life comes Colin O’Donoghue (Once Upon a Time), Jason Ritter (The East), and William Moseley (Chronicles of Narnia). Each has their qualities, but they are all really there for her to respond to as she finds her way. And while Ritter has some depth, and O’Donoghue is a recognizable rake, only Moseley feels entirely whole.

Amusingly, this film also matches up Gabriel Byrne and Nathan Lane again, close on the heels of No Pay, Nudity. And with Byrne in the lineup, almost all of the main characters in this comedy are from the UK, though only half are putting on an American accent.

As director Susan Johnson’s first feature, there is a solid sense of character. Johnson’s empathy is touching and her love of the character is clear. Indications of time passage still needs some honing, but there are enough clues to keep it all working. Find someone to share this with and make some couch time.

Carrie Pilby

No Pay, Nudity

The actor’s life… it isn’t an easy one and it isn’t a life that can be avoided. In truth, it pretty much sucks but is punctuated by moments of transcendent joy; it is institutionalized manic-depression. And, if you are hooked, you wouldn’t have it any other way… in fact, you couldn’t.

There is a lot to this film, as simple as it appears. Much is inferred and some is a bit of inside baseball. In fact, the provocative title alone should indicate that to you… even if it means something entirely different than you might expect. First-time director Lee Wilkof attacked Sandler’s feature-length script (also a first) with the love and understanding of a long-time actor. It is uncomfortably true at times, especially if you have ever lived the life.

Gabriel Byrne (Vampire Academy) drives the tale along with a triumvirate of pals in Frances Conroy (Ira & Abby), Nathan Lane (Mirror Mirror), and a young Jon Michael Hill (Elementary). Donna Murphy (True Blood) also has a good catalytic role to play. Imagine Diner but in the Actor’s Equity lounge and you have a sense of the story, even if that is an imperfect reference.

However, overall there is an odd structure to the result that I would bet was a cutting room addition. Lane’s voiceover provides wry commentary and explanation that begins a little into the film and closes it. I suspect Wilkof didn’t think the intent was coming across and enlisted Lane to provide the context. Whether true or not, it felt rather bolted on and distracting to me. But, of course, I’m his target audience, not the broader appeal he was hoping to reach.

There is a great joy and a humor to the movie, despite some of its darker moments. It is a reminder that possibilities are often the results of our own choices and that success definitely is. That doesn’t mean that luck and fate or chance and randomness don’t play a role of their own, but you have to know what to do with opportunities that come your way, however long they may take to arrive. And, perseverance in this industry is sometimes a reasonable tactic…  you don’t have to run faster than the bear, you only have to run faster and longer than the person next to you. It’s a lot easier to do that if you are motivated for where you’re trying to go rather than just running from what you don’t want to happen. That’s a subversion of the point of the film, to an extent, but it does play its part.

As a total aside, Blue Pearl Vet Hospital is featured at the top of the film, and not in the best light. Having used them in the past (more than once) for emergencies, I have to say they are really great. At least the one I use is. Hated to see them shown as not very compassionate or capable (so not my experience) and wanted to provide a vote for them here.

This is ultimately a feel-good film, though not necessarily a triumphant one for the characters. The goal is to love what you do and do what you love. Sometimes that brings fame and fortune and sometimes it just brings joy. If you’re really, really lucky, it brings both.

No Pay, Nudity

The Girl With All the Gifts

You have to respect a horror film that really considers the biology and implications of their conceits. Zombie films, in particular, tend to be rather silly, even when fun. It has been a long while since I’ve seen a world where the science was derived from real life and thought through to give us a plot. Think 28 Days Later or Pitch Black (or even to some degree The Great Wall). Girl is a plague story with planned and realistic motivations, and with a script that doesn’t insult the viewer. In fact it goes places and considers issues with an incredible intelligence that belies its gory genre.

At the head of it all is the diminutive Sennia Nanua in her first major role. Expect to see more of her. She is confident and layered in her performance in a way that few young actors can achieve. She is supported by a talented adult cast as well. Paddy Considine (Miss You Already), Gemma Arterton (The Voices), Fisayo Akinade (Cucumber), and Glenn Close (The Great Gilly Hopkins) round out the main cast and become Nanua’s way to understand her world.

I have to believe that part of the reason for the success of this picture is the wide range of material under the directorial belt of Colm McCarthy. He does a great job of revealing the world and focusing the performances for Carey’s adaptation (of Carey’s own novel), navigating the genre without losing its humanity. McCarthy also understands the rhythms needed, keeping the emotional intelligence and human moments suitably calm so that the explosions of violence have impact. Even where it is predictable it is often unpredictable or satisfyingly complete; it never feels cheap. It is a rare that a director doesn’t give in to the histrionics and clichés in established horror tropes.

If you are looking for something fun and intelligent, this is your bowl of popcorn. It is full of action as well as thought and is every bit as good as you may have been hearing. If it weren’t for the genre, you’d probably have heard a whole heck of a lot more about it.

The Girl with All the Gifts