Tag Archives: First film

The Time Being

[3 stars]

Artists talking about art and process can often leave the audience behind. The filmmaker has to find a universal in that subject to reach the people in front of the screen. Never Look Away was the most recent film to negotiate that mine field, while The Square (to my mind) totally missed the mark. The Time Being is somewhere between those extremes.

Frank Langella (Captain Fantastic) and Wes Bentley (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) are two poles of the conversation. One old, one young. One famous, one ignored. Each is struggling with making meaning out of where they are in life and, by doing so together, they each provide guideposts to the other. The situation and actions are a bit forced, but it moves along in ways that keep you from disconnecting from the story.

Director Nenad Cicin-Sain tackled his script, co-written with fellow first-timer Richard N. Gladstein, with care. While some of the dialogue is a bit navel-gazing, most of the story is told visually. Through wonderful framing and art that really looks like art, we see Langella’s and Bentley’s visions evolve. Much like dance in The White Crow, the art actually serves to keep you believing rather than make you doubt these actors are really artists. And, ultimately, Cicin-Sain delivers a denoument that reflects back through the story.

Two supporting roles are also worth calling out. Sarah Paulson (Glass) has a nice, understated path. And Cory Stoll (First Man) turns in an honest, dramatic performance with no hint of comedy at all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that serious even in an interview; it was nice to see he had those chops.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. Artists, particularly artists in their 30s and 70s, will find verisimilitude with their lives. Others may find it head-scratching or just simply boring. The editing and mystery kept me engaged, but not everyone will. For a first time director, however, it shows an ability for clever vision and respect for his audience.

Eat With Me

[2.75 stars]

Yeah, I’m splitting hairs on the rating here. But that’s because while Eat With Me is enjoyable…it’s also a lo-fi, first film with many of the attending issues and tells that implies. Writer/director David Au came up with an interesting story and set of venues, but he’s still working through his craft. For instance, in pushing for naturalism on screen, he allowed a lot of moments to fall flat, and the rhythm of the film as it unspools is halting rather than smooth. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, it just means you should go in with correct exepectations.

The movie is loaded with semi-familiar faces, but only one you’ll know for sure; George Takei (To Be Takei) as, well, himself in a critical cameo. Mind you, Au could have delivered his story without George, but it was a nice bit.

The main tale is a mother/son relationship. Sharon Omi is the focus of this story, though that aspect gets a little lost at points. Her semi-estranged son, Edward Chen takes a lot of the focus, which feels right, but ultimately confuses the balance. Aidan Bristow and Nicole Sullivan flesh out the plot and momentum in supporting roles.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that, for a movie named “Eat With Me,” and with a main character who’s a cook, food never quite became the connecting or healing thread I would have expected. Food was only a convenient way to bring people into frame together. That just wasn’t quite enough for me. Again, this was more my expectation than, perhaps, Au’s intention, but it was what I was working with. Regardless of that, it is still a sweet tale of family and relationships and a peek at a new voice in film.

I couldn’t help but wonder how Au might have approached this if he’d started now rather than 5 years ago. With the unexpected hits and influence of Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Always Be My Maybe amongst other movies out there now, would any of his choices or execution have shifted given the interest and examples? Purely musing, but it is amazing how much the landscape has changed in the last couple years alone.

The Kitchen

[3 stars]

Not to be confused with the 2013 dark social comedy The Kitchen, this is a hard, if fanciful, look at mob protection with some nice twists. Andrea  Berloff’s (Straight Outta Compton) adaptation of the same-named comics takes place in the late 70’s in NYC. At that time Times Square was still Times Square, Studio 54 was at its peak, and Hell’s Kitchen was the dangerous place Daredevil stalked trying to keep it safe. And, more germane to this movie, women were still completely sidelined by society and institutions despite Gloria Steinem and the feminism movement.

Sitting in her first director’s chair, Andrea Berloff tackles that dark and interesting world through three women trying to rise above their circumstances. Berloff’s script is bald and honest. But beyond her sensibilities, it was her cast who sold this emancipation story.

In the case of Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), she continues to plumb her dramatic depths well, but doesn’t add much new to her opus. On the other hand Tiffany Haddish (The Secret Life of Pets 2) gives us a hard-as-nails character who is ambitious and in control, and without a single broad-comedy bone in her body. But it is Elisabeth Moss (The Seagull) who runs away with the movie in this trinity. Her journey is painful and fascinating as she extricates herself from an abusive marriage and finds her inner strength and power with brilliant assistance from Domhnall Gleeson (The Little Stranger). And, it should be noted, that Margo Martindale (Instant Family) has a fun, smaller role to add to the dark view and comedy of the story.

This is not a light movie. Worth your time? Yes. But not a night for relaxing or unwinding. It is intense, violent, even while being oddly compelling. For Moss and Haddish’s performances alone it is worth seeing. And Gleeson’s is an extra little gift amidst it all.

Jojo Rabbit

[4 stars]

Everyone’s goto for humor is Hitler and the Nazi regeim at the end of WWII; funny stuff, right? How Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) got this film made, I couldn’t possible explain, but it is a wickedly funny gut punch of a movie. (Appropriately [and amusingly] I found myself watching this satire on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which added to the schadenfreud of it all).

Everything you need to know about Jojo you get in the first 10 minutes (in one of the funniest, most absurd film openings I’ve seen in ages)… all the rest is journey. And what a journey it is, and not one you’re likely to get much ahead of during the setup. The resolution becomes inevitible, but with just enough room for doubts to keep it interesting. And his use of music to get his points across is, at times, genius. Unfortunately, it is also at times way off base, clashing with the onscreen sound and action.

While Scarlette Johansson (Isle of Dogs) and Sam Rockwell (Best of Enemies) provide some adult framework for the story, it is told through the eyes of children. Primarily that is through Roman Griffin Davis’s Jojo. For his first film, Davis carries the story admirably, with all the gravitas and sincerity a 10 year old can bring. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) serves as the friction point of his decision-making, while another newcome, Archie Yates, provides some peer comic relief. Watching these three young actors is great fun as Waititi keeps them honest in all aspects.

There are some other fun side bits that run through the film driven by smaller adult roles. Alfie Allen (Predator), Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic), and Stephen Merchant (Fighting With My Family) have the best, but there are many. Waititi’s Hitler isn’t really among them for me. I understand why he took the role himself in order to hit just the right tone he had in his head, but it is an uneven performance.

Satire is hard. Waititi pulls it off in style, if imperfectly. The broad Monty Pythonesque humor will work for most people, while the political commentary may turn off others. However, this isn’t just Waititi playing silly buggers, it’s his reaction to the world today. He is far from the first to reflect that back to WWII, but, so far, he’s done it with the most belly laughs to get the point across.

So, yes, go see this and strap in for a wild, unexpected ride. While Preacher may have tried to get there, no one since Mel Brooks’ The Producers has managed anything close to the result here. It isn’t always easy to stomach, but it is one of the more unique films you’ll see this year.

Tickled

[3 stars]

David Farrier and Dylan Reeve take us on a strange and funny journey of investigative journalism. It all starts innocently enough for Farrier, but then things go strange. Then stranger. Then downright bizarre. That I found this movie because of its trailer on Hail Satan? should give you a sense of the tone.

If you like odd tales of humanity with a bit of a mystery twist and a real sense of dark humor, you should make time for this true story. Honestly, it’s just best to dive into it without knowing a thing because, well, it’s just that odd.

Wonder Park

[2.75 stars]

There are so many lost opportunities in this movie, it is a wonder. The core of the story is there, but the opening setup is long while the rest of the story is rushed and way too scary for its intended audience.

The writing team behind Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, couldn’t quite find the appropriate rhythm or tone. This story is for young kids…not tweens, not adults, not anyone with any real experience in the world. That’s fine, but if you’re going to aim young, you have to respect their attention spans and their limits, and this story did neither. First-time (and uncredited) director Dylan Brown didn’t help the result either, though some of his cast delivered some good voice talent behind the ink.

But for all the names you might recognize in the cast, the movie is stolen by John Oliver. He walks away with the best lines and moments with his dry delivery and amazing timing. Jennifer Garner (Peppermint), Matthew Broderick (Manchester by the Sea), Ken Jeong (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween), Mila Kunis (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn), and even the young lead, Sofia Mali, all just exist. They aren’t bad, but there isn’t much there because they’re rushed from moment to moment. Only Oliver manages to feel different.

If the movie were less scary or faster out of the blocks (the first third or more is setup) or even less frenetic for the last part of it, it might have sold me more. As it is, it really needed stronger hands at the helm and a good set of discussions before they went into production to focus it better. As I said, there is a story here, and a good one. It just doesn’t quite sell it (except forAnne Preven’s Pi Song, which is a throw-away hoot).

Aniara

[3.5 stars]

I’m not often surprised by a movie, let alone a science fiction movie, but Aniara managed to. It may be based on an old trope, but co-directors and co-writers Pella Kågerman and Hugo Liljait managed to lay out their story thoughtfully and completely. It was also their first feature, making it even more impressive.

That it is an adaptation (from a nobel prize winning writer’s 1956 epic science fiction poem made of 103 cantos) rather than wholly original doesn’t diminish their result. Most science fiction gets over-simplified for screen, or leaves science behind for fantasy to create better visual or metaphyscial effects. What Ad Astra failed to get close to, where High Life just simply lost its way, and while Gravity (and even The Martian) over-simplified the situation, Aniara found a path and a statement to make by respecting the genre and the story. In fact, as an adaptation, I am even more impressed by the result. [You can read more about Harry Martinson’s work, but I’d highly suggest staying ignorant of the source material until after you see the film.]

Emelie Jonsson is the core of this story. Along with Bianca Cruzeiro the two hold together the narrative through its evolutions. In addition, Anneli Martini delivers a wonderfully dry and caustic performance that is at once funny and sobering. There are men in this cast and crew, but it is a decidedly female driven tale.

The result is solid science fiction, even with one or two winks at how things might work. And it is entertaining and nicely styled, even if it isn’t about the visual effects or action. The film is about the story and the impact of the situation. If you read Cixin Liu (Three Body Problem), you have a sense of this film’s vibe in both emotion and scope. It is definitely worth your time if you like the genre and, honestly, even if you don’t and have the flexibility to watch stories that take place outside your normal boundaries.

The White Crow

[3 stars]

Dance biopics are often disappointing because the actors playing the subject of the film can’t…well, dance. That is not a gap here. Is Oleg Ivenko as good as Rudolf Nureyev? No, and the movie even highlights that in the credits. However, he is credible and you never watch thinking “a shame the guy can’t dance.”  The guy, and the company, can dance.

With that first challenge successfully won, you can watch the story. And the story is interesting. I do have to admit that the great David Hare’s (Collateral) script wasn’t quite up to his usual quality. The story meanders and isn’t particularly focused. What drives Nureyev both in dance and in life is left quite a bit to the imagination. Perhaps that’s fair. But there were subjects Hare danced around (no pun intended), and others he poured out in exposition. I’m not sure I ever really understood Nureyev or many of the people around him. By the time we get to the pivotal moment near the end, I can’t say, other than the obvious, why he or Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) act quite as they do.

While Ralph Fiennes (The Lego Batman Movie) directed, not to mention acted, competently, he wasn’t able to expose the subtleties of the character as cleanly for me as I’d have liked. Perhaps that was my own problem and density, but it was all a little muddled. More concerning was Fiennes handling of the timeline, which bounces through three periods trying to build out Nureyev’s character motivations. Finnes didn’t negotiate those boundaries as cleanly as he could have. It was easy to lose track of which period you were in and where it was in his life even with some cinematic clues helping.

My concerns aside, it is a story worth seeing. It’s one of the most believable portrayals of a dance giant as well as peek back at a period of history that’s worth remembering as its spectre reasserts today. Finnes likes tackling tough subjects and, as his directing chops grow, I look forward to seeing more of what he can accomplish.

Booksmart

[1.5 stars]

I really had been looking forward to this movie after all the hype. But either I missed the point, or I’m just not the audience. This was not Lady Bird, Eight Grade, Flower, or any number other coming of age stories. It was basically just The Hangover with kids. And I wasn’t the audience for that either.

Despite a few funny moments, and a great turning point of realization for Beanie Feldstein (The Female Brain), and despite the great work between her and Kaitlyn Dever (We Don’t Belong Here), I couldn’t even watch the whole film. I was bored and unable to suspend disbelief to accept the broad story and characters. It wasn’t just metaphor for the huge feelings of young adulthood, it was an absurdist reimagining of High School and stepping into adulthood.

For a first feature, director Olivia Wilde (Life Itself) showed some solid control and good handling of her charges. This isn’t a classic, or even a good film to my mind, but it isn’t a bad demo real for Wilde. However, the script was a mess and aimed at a small segment of audience. Given that the four writers involved are well grounded in broad sitcom and movie humor, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised.

I realize your mileage may vary, but this isn’t about gender…I know several women who were also unable to watch the whole thing, and who considered it just as ridiculous and absurd as I did.

The Tomorrow Man

[3.5 stars]

Quirky love stories are catnip to me. Watching two unlikely humans find one another and navigate the terror and joy that is a true connection is affirming, funny, frustrating, and ultimately joyous. John Lithgow (Pet Sematary) and Blythe Danner (What They Had) definitely run through all those emotions, creating two very differently broken people stumbling through life until they careen into one another.

The odd pair are surrounded by a few, solid supporting characters as well. Derek Cecil (House of Cards) and Eve Harlow (Heroes Reborn), in particular, provide sounding boards and act as proxy for the real world outside Lithgow and Danner’s orbit.

Nobel Jones directed and wrote his first feature with a steady and sure hand. The absurdity of his character’s lives never vaulted into the ridiculous. Their quirks and issues, when exposed, simply brought out their humanity and a deep empathy from the audience. It’s a solid story about people and love, with a wonderful and entertaining arc that leaves you with an unexpected smile.