Tag Archives: First film

We Don’t Belong Here

[3 stars]

This is definitely an unconventional narrative that plays out in intriguing, and unexpected ways. As a first script and directing delivery by Peer Pedersen, it is both what you expect and not what you anticipate. So, basically, a well-executed indie with a solid cast.

Catherine Keener (November Criminals) is the relatively patient matriarch of one heck of a messed up family. She provides a shifting center to the story as all threads come back to pass through her, though she isn’t the primary point of view.

Her four children are all damaged in different ways, and all dealing with their issues in worlds of their own devising. Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12), Riley Keough (Logan Lucky), Annie Starke (Albert Nobbs), and Anton Yelchin (Jack) work well together as sibs without losing their individual aspects. And it is Dever’s point of view that walks us through the story, though the approach is inconsistent and less than edifying, particularly near the end.

Maya Rudolph (Maggie’s Plan) and Cary Elwes (Shadow of the Vampire) bring another set of layers to the tale. Each is nicely compartmentalized and human despite their own particular struggles. It is only Molly Shannon (The Little Hours) in the cast who comes off completely wrong, though there may be reasons for that…just none I felt supported her and her choices.

You can’t watch this movie without considering the loss of Yelchin. Bizarrely, I watched this the same day Yelchin’s family settled the suit for his tragic death. Since his passing, his last films have been trickling out into the wild. With this film dropping direct-to-disc and Thoroughbreds finally out in theaters, we’ve actually (and sadly) reached the end of his recorded efforts. This movie contains a powerful performance, but all the more bittersweet given the plot and knowing it is one of his very last.

We Don’t Belong Here is a quiet film, but Pedersen kept it full of tension and intellectual challenge. He did a great job laying out his plots and editing to the final moments. It isn’t for a wide audience, but if you enjoy a true indie spirit and approach, you’ll find this one worth your time.

We Don


[2.5 stars]

This isn’t an entire waste of a film, but in the #MeToo era it rings a bit oddly and, frankly, doesn’t manage a satisfying journey even absent that cultural phenomenon. I will say that David Harrower did manage to adapt his own play successfully to a movie script, but Benedict Andrews’s direction of the result never quite leaves his National Theatre roots behind.

The experience is basically a two-person play with a few extra characters thrown in, despite the number of locations and situations that are used. Rooney Mara (A Ghost Story) does believably create the results and shattered confusion of a young victim grown up. It isn’t a break-through performance, but builds on her odd energy and presence to help us feel her damage. Opposite her, Ben Mendelsohn (Lost River) gives us a tortured, denying predator. There is also a nice turn by Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, The OA) who helps pull some of the threads together.

The struggle with the film in this hyper-aware atmosphere is that it dances between something a bit too close to Lolita and a bit too far from something like The Club or Mysterious Skin or any number of other titles. A couple of years ago, this may have been seen as intriguing or challenging, but today it is politically deaf, even with the best interpretation of the ending. It isn’t that the story doesn’t have points to make, it is that it plays heavily in the gray area of the subject at a time when only black & white are going to resonate. So, if you do want to give it your time, watch with care and awareness that it may be a tad out of step with your expectations.


God’s Own Country

[3 stars]

Josh O’Connor (The Durells In Corfu) and, in his first major role, Alec Secareanu make an unlikely and wonderful pair in the harsh northern England countryside. The growth and challenge of their relationship is almost all internal, but completely obvious. O’Connor, in particular, takes us from not really liking him, to understanding him, to cheering for him all while his navigates a personal path that is barely mentioned.

In his first feature, acting as both writer and director, Francis Lee has created a painfully wonderful tale of first love. In fact, though mostly missed by audiences, it covers a lot of the same ground as Call Me By Your Name, but better highlighting a lot of the emotions I felt were missing in the Oscar contender.

Driving the story from the background are two well-known faces: Gemma Jones and Ian Hart as O’Connor’s parents. The interplay here is also subtle and almost entirely unspoken. Some of this is the culture of the north, but some is Lee’s respect for his audience; not forcing explanations and confrontations and trusting the viewer to understand. Both deliver solid performances.

Do be warned of one aspect. This film is not for the feint of heart when it comes to what it is to really be a farmer with livestock. There are a few moments that remind you why some people become vegans. It is all done with a purpose and, frankly, all fair and true to life, but not everyone will want to see it. The moments are short and you can avert your eyes and continue on if it bothers you, but the warning is necessary.

As a whole, this is a slow, intense film, but very well done, especially if you handicap it for the number of new roles its creators were taking on. It is touching and sad all at once, but ultimately uplifting as each character finds their place in the world, even if it isn’t quite how they expect to.


Brigsby Bear

[3 stars]

Director,  and fellow SNL alum, Dave McCary took Kyle Mooney (Hello My Name is Doris)  and Kevin Costello’s script and delivered a heart-felt, just slightly off, feel-good comedy about life. The support of Mark Hamill (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Greg Kinnear (Stuck in Love) helped give the movie some solid footing as well.

Brigsby is a tale in the spirit of Frank, Room, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and even a bit of The Disaster Artist all rolled into one. The first two thirds of it are wonderful and it had me solidly…before it stumbled. The story recovers from its blunder of bad story choice to accelerate the tale to its finale, but only because I decided to forgive it so that I could enjoy the final third of the film. Short of that moment, it was a delightful and fun bit of silliness with a beating heart you really can’t ignore.

Brigsby Bear

Dave Made a Maze

[3.5 stars]

How do you describe a totally gonzo film? Endlessly inventive seems trite. Perhaps mention the fact that it won the hearts of a dozen film festivals? Or, perhaps, just mention that as director and co-writer, Bill Watterson’s deliver a surprisingly solid movie out of an idea that, in most hands, would have failed; he and Steven Sears’s script is totally absurd (in a good way). Or, maybe, that Watterson, as his first time directing, navigates the cast through the tale genuinely, which keeps it all grounded?

The cast were a game bunch, some of whom you’ll recognize and some you won’t. Nick Thune (Garfunkel & Oats, Bad Johnson) and Meera Rohit Kumbhani (Donny!) are the core of the gang and embody a lot of modern relationship issues, but are clearly committed to one another despite everything. Their friends are a motley crew of abrasive and supportive pals that are recognizable in just about anyone’s life. Adam Busch (Colony), James Urbaniak (The Boxtrolls), Stephanie Allynne (One Mississippi, In a World…), and Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds) are principal in those roles. Despite the insanity around them, their performances remain calm and accepting of the insanity and focus on solving the problems.

I don’t want to oversell this film. It isn’t so much that it’s brilliant as that it is surprising. Despite its low budget and crazy ideas, it is funny and, in its way, touching. But it doesn’t really come to a conclusion. It is more a giant metaphor for imagination and artistic desire, or humanity’s drive to build and succeed. But it is definitely worth your time when you want something a bit different and wryly amusing.

Dave Made a Maze

Molly’s Game

[4.5 stars]

As a writer, Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs) is nearly unsurpassed. This is a man who was able to make selecting a stamp or the math behind the census interesting, fascinating even. He brings fierce intelligence and knowledge to every subject he tackles. And he generally views humanity as intelligent as well and treats us that way.

Molly’s Game is the first time Sorkin has also been behind the camera as director. And, clearly, he has been paying attention to what happens on set in the past. This film is an incredibly strong first offering from a director. It is well paced, well filmed, and completely engaging with solid performances from his cast.

Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane), as the eponymous Molly, commands the screen with drive and integrity. And Idris Elba (Thor: Ragnarok) manages something I didn’t know he could do…he actually dials back his presence on screen so as to not overshadow Molly.

There are a host of other good performances in this film as well, but the standouts are Chastain and the script, each feeding one another with breathless energy. The movie takes off from the start and doesn’t let up till the end. It is filled with great moments and one-liners as well as some long-game payoffs. And, yes, he played with the truth to tell a better story at points, but this tale, much like the repeatedly mentioned “The Crucible,” isn’t necessarily about what is seems to be about. I think Sorkin was attracted to Molly as a proxy for his own sensibility about Hollywood and politics in general. The need for integrity pervades the tale. It is also a very timely story give the #MeToo movement and revelations.

Much like I, Tonya, you may not have thought you needed to see this film, but you do. And it reminds me again what a gift Sorkin is to entertainment; especially now that he has branched into directing as well.


How to be a Latin Lover

[3 stars]

When you’re in the mood for a broad (and I do mean broad) comedy, this will fill an evening. Eudenio Derbez (The Book of Life) is comfortable slipping between farce and emotional truth. No matter how outrageous his actions, he seems to be able to pull you back to his side with a simple look of remorse or self-deprecation.

Salma Hayek (The Hitmam’s Bodyguard) and Rob Lowe (The Orville) back him up well, while Kristen Bell (The Boss) provides some background humor that just keeps building through to the end. The two younger actors also do a great job. Raphael Alejandro (Once Upon a Time) and  Mckenna Grace (Gifted) act as a nice counterweight to the adults. And, as a special treat, Linda Lavin (The Intern) and Raquel Welch (Myra Breckinridge) each get to have some truly special fun.

Ken Marino (In a World…), better known for being in front of the camera, directed this trifle reasonably well, if a little unevenly. Not bad for a first feature. Even the script was a first feature by Spain and Zack. Handicapped for these aspects, it is an impressive delivery…again, when you’re in the mood for it. I struggle with overly broad comedy at times. But, even unready for it, I enjoyed the romp thanks to its willingness to pull back on the accelerator rather than just getting more and more out of control.

How to Be a Latin Lover

Paris Can Wait (aka Bonjour Anne)

[3 stars]

Dang but its nice to see truly adult characters on screen in a comedy. Diane Lane (Trumbo) turns in a wonderful performance in this odd (sort-of-romantic) comedy. Her character is utterly compelling and in control while also being just a bit mischievous and aware of Arnaud Viard’s intentions. Watching the dance of these two, in a waltz of seduction-by-proxy via food, wine, art, and landscapes is quite a bit of fun to drool over.

Writer/director Eleanor Coppola (yes, wife of THAT Coppola, but with a cv all her own) helms this bit of diversion. Paris, however, is her first time directing a piece of fiction. She very cleverly structures the film so that we are also pulled into our own side trips as we gawk at the food and art and landscapes ourselves, forgetting the movie (the intention) for the moment, just like Lane. She captures Lane’s awakening and joy by making us, if not feel it too, wish we could. She delivers that sense even as she ratchets up the tension between the characters. And that is the “sort-of-romantic comedy” comment; it is more about Lane’s love of herself than it is about the men in her life, but the men do figure into the drive of it all.

As a movie, Paris Can Wait is, itself, a wonderful diversion for an evening. The performances are nicely understated and believable. The emotional intent is sweet without feeling too forced. The result, while not perfect, is a strong delivery out of the gate for Coppola and another great notch for Lane’s reel.

Paris Can Wait

Lady Macbeth

[3 stars]

With a title like Lady Macbeth, you do have some sense of what’s to come in this twice-removed adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tale of power and betrayal. However it lands as a middle ground between being a direct adaptation of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Shakespeare’s tale, though it lists Leskov as the main inspiration.

The story is recognizable enough: bored estate wife finds life again through an affair with one of the peasants. Florence Pugh (Marcella) creates a lady of the house who is both innocent and driven. Her motivations, fueled primarily by a lack of attention and respect, build naturally, if a bit quickly. Her counterpart, Cosmo Jarvis (Humans) gets dragged into her machinations willingly, but struggles with aspects, much like the Scottish king. Pugh’s evolution from meek chattel to ruling lady is horrifying, all the more so because you sort of root for her. But, much like her titular namesake, it is an unending hunger for power which, ultimately, cannot lead to a happy ending. Likewise, Jarvis’s awakening to his situation is intriguing to watch.

There are some significant differences from the book in Birch’s script; primarily the last act of the movie. They don’t really matter if you don’t know them…and to keep it at a reasonable length, the changes were necessary. They also provide a nice arc for Naomi Ackie, as the chambermaid. Ackie’s story actually risks taking over the movie, but the structure, particularly the first and last frames, keep it all on track nicely.

William Oldroyd directs the story with a sense of affection and dread for the characters. He makes them human but doesn’t shy away from the twisted nature of their decisions. As a first feature, for both he and Birch, and with a mostly untried cast, it is quite a launch of talent. It isn’t a fast film, but it is credibly well-made and subtle.

Lady Macbeth

The Greatest Showman

[3.5 stars]

As piece of pure escapism with a nod to family, you’d do well with Greatest Showman. Much like Barnum’s approach to everything, it really is holiday humbug (in the old sense) to set your feet tapping and to pull a bit at your heartstrings. First time director Michael Gracey really deserves some kudos for keeping the unrelenting energy and flow going through to till the end. However, it was a little rushed to really have the impact he wanted.

As a story, it is a bit less successful. I’d like to think that some of what the writers Jenny Bicks (The Big C) and Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) did got left on the cutting room floor. The film is about 15-20 minutes too short for the story they want to tell. The bones of the tale are great, but the overall effect is lacking. Without a moment to breathe, jumping from song to production number to song, we lose the immediate humanity necessary to allow us to really connect with Barnum and his family. The songs don’t feel like they come out of a moment so much as attempt to substitute for one. Sure, spectacle is great, but emotion is what makes it truly, you should excuse the expression, sing.

It starts off well enough (in fact wonderfully … with a very Fosse-like opening I have to think came from Condon, given his history with adapting Chicago). We get to see PT grow up and get what he wants and then watch him scrabble for what he thinks he wants.

Hugh Jackman (Logan) sells Barnum perfectly as a man of huge dreams, big heart, wide talent, and minimal scruples. He and Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) work well together and almost make a legendary pair (but for the weakness in the  script). Zac Efron (Baywatch) delivers credibly as well, though his purpose is muddy in the story. And Rebecca Ferguson (Life) is a surprisingly layered character, making the most of minimal screen time.

Barnum was always going to be a challenge. The story touches on the bigotry, lawlessness, and classism, but only in the lightest way, afraid to really tackle the issues. Or maybe I just wanted it to be a bit more relevant for today rather than just an entertainment. Also, with the recent ending of what remained of his namesake…you can’t view the circus today without thinking about the current and exposed realities.

While the music by Paul (La La Land) and score by Trapenese (Straight Outta Compton)  are pretty catchy and fun, the lyrics by Debney and Pasek’s (La La Land) lyrics had moments, but often just repeated themselves. Again, I expected more from those talents than simple pop tunes. While the reuse of the lyrics as dialogue worked for the character development, they missed the opportunity to flesh out the characters and tale even more in the songs.

Basically, I wanted this to be more than it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. In fact, I plan on seeing it again and perhaps will change my (ahem) tune. Sometimes expectations can get in the way…I want to see this film on its own terms and give it another shot, not unlike Paul Sparks (House of Cards) critic in the film, James Gordon Bennett. This movie is a crowd pleaser, to be sure. I just expected a little more substance in my meal.

The Greatest Showman