Tag Archives: First film

Madeline’s Madeline

[2 stars]

About the only thing I can say good about this film is that the main leads have talent. The story never really comes together and the message, if any, is somewhat empty with nothing new to say.

Helena Howard, in her first role, really manages to own the screen and show range. And Molly Parker (Lost in Space) is a model of a mess along with Miranda July, both of whom serve as mother figures to Howard.

I will grant that Josephine Decker direction manages to pull you along an impossibly obtuse plot that seems to keep verging on meaning, but just as quickly falls apart. It is most certainly not meant to be taken as reality or at face value, but there are nuggets of “truth” in there that help build a world and the characters. Sadly, in the end, it is allowed to simply fall apart. I am all for non-traditional story-telling, but it has to get to a satisfying point to have made it worthwhile. In this case, it just didn’t get there.

Kusama: Infinity

[3.5 stars]

Like Cutie and the Boxer, this is a documentary about art, but it is much more about the politics of art and the artist’s life. Kusama has had a fascinating and challenging life. All of which has led to her impetus for creation, but not necessarily a penchant for happiness. She is also probably one of the more important artists of the modern movement that you may not have heard of, or at the least, understood her place in art history. (I know I didn’t before seeing this portrait of her life.)

Kusama’s art is challenging and, often as not, may leave you scratching your head. But the results of her efforts and ideas had profound impact on art you do know. I imagine that is a large part of why Heather Lenz was drawn to this story as her first directing feature. It is epic in scope and also a disturbing example sexism and racism, and it is has demonstrable historical importance. Though, it should be noted that that Kusama is still alive and producing and having sell-out shows around the globe.

As a movie, it is oddly constructed, but it also didn’t have an obvious path for the telling. Lenz jumps back and forth in Kusama’s life to provide context and a sense of her influences. It makes for some jarring moments, but told purely chronologically it would have been less interesting. Given Kusama’s art, the more gestalt approach to her story is probably appropriate. And, at less than 90 minutes, it isn’t a large investment for a glimpse inside an fascinating mind and a clearer understanding of many aspects of the modern art movement.

What They Had

[3 stars]

Why do we watch movies? To escape? To be entertained? To learn? To see something that is able to speak for us what we are unable to voice? I imagine all of those things at different times. Sometimes, it is just to see that we’re not alone in our struggles.

What They Had is a quiet and true ensemble piece that strips back the challenge of aging parents while layering in the risks of not living your own life. I can’t say it is entertaining so much as well done and that it manages to resonate.

The cast is solid all around. Hilary Swank (Logan Lucky), Michael Shannon (Little Drummer Girl), Robert Forster (Survivor), Blythe Danner (Hearts Beat Loud), and Taissa Farmiga (The Nun) each get there time and story. Each sells what they’ve got. Danner, in particular, pulls together a full person from the shards of a life, though it takes the entire movie to get there.

For her first film, writer/director Elizabeth Chomko tackled a highly personal subject, capturing the love and pathos it brings to many families. If you’re in the mood or simply need to know that others out there struggle with these issues as well, go for it. If you want laughs or even tears, you’re not likely going to be satisfied. This is more life than drama, not that things don’t happen, nor that there aren’t emotional moments, they just are more real than heightened. That is a compliment, but it returns us to the question: what are you watching for?

Cutie and the Boxer

[4 stars]

Certainly you can approach this purely as a documentary about Ushio Shinohara and/or Noriko  Shinohara, but that is just the surface of this odd window into the lives of the couple.

Zachary Heinzerling’s first film captured, as well as forced, a story to creation simply by being present in lives of these two people. We learn of their art and their impetus, but we also watch them change and say things that have clearly long been gestating…and you get the strong sense that they never would have been said without the cameras being present. That aspect brings an odd and wonderful layer to this documentary. It creates as well as captures art, simply by existing.

While this may all sound rather breezy, the story that unfolds is actually rather complex and, at times, dark. But it is also full of powerful attachment and love. Love we come to understand and, ultimately, see played out during the final role of the credits in a very direct way.

The result of Heinzerling’s efforts was the well deserved receipt of multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination. How you view the final product, as art, story, performance, or simply couple’s therapy is part of the charm and fascination of the piece.

Roma

[4.5 stars]

This is one of the most affecting portrayals of real life I’ve seen. It is heartwarming and heartbreaking, occasionally terrifying and always engaging. It’s filmed with an ease and relaxed eye that provides a moving window on the action without ever letting you get too comfortable with that view. In some ways it evokes the Italian classic The Tree of Wooden Clogs, but with a more complete story to share. 

A lot of the success of the film is down to newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who is the center of it all. It is a great entree into film for her. She is engaging and honest on screen, full of depths that are sometimes stirred, but often left to build up with sediment that we watch rain down on her. Our view of her life is uncompromising, but her openness is disturbingly inviting to us as voyeurs. 

Roma is unique in a lot of ways. As primarily a streaming movie from a major director it raised eyebrows (and a lot of awards). As a black & white presentation in a high-def-color world, it forces a sense of nostalgia and provides a gorgeous pallet. As a moment in history, regarding immigration and inequality, it is timely. And, as a piece of film, it is nearly the complete vision of a single man. Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) was director, writer, cinematographer, and editor as well as producer on Roma. It makes this film a wonderfully personal and whole concept. It allowed Cuarón to take his time setting scenes and telling the story exactly as he intended without someone else’s filter being layered on. Of course, as a single vision, it is a tiny bit bloated and could probably have been trimmed ever so slightly. But it only shaves a tiny bit off the perfection of its final form. 

If you can see this on one of the rare big screen showings, make the time. It is beautiful visually. However, it still works on a reasonably sized television as well. But no matter how you see it, make time for this film. It will slowly enfold you in its arms before battering you around a bit; but it is full of hope as well as tragedy. It is, above all, human. 

Marwencol

[3 stars]

Before there was Welcome to Marwen, there was this  2010 documentary that brought the real Mark Hogancamp’s story to the world beyond his gallery events and photos.

There are two aspects to discuss here. The first is the documentary itself on its own merits and the other is how that translated into the recent movie. I purposefully didn’t watch this docu before the adaptation to avoid mental frisson; it seemed easier to take on the truth later rather than untangle it while watching the fiction. It was the right choice as the fiction reveals things in a deliberate way and aspects would have been spoiled had I known going in. So, if you haven’t seen either, start with Welcome to Marwen and then learn more. And, yes, I recommend both for your time.

As a first full-length documentary subject for director Jeff Malmberg, Hogancamp’s tale was a gem of a find in terms of uniqueness. The story is unlike anything else. However, his completed result is a little less crafted and smooth in narration than it might have been. There is a great deal of interesting information and revelation, but it all feels rather fragmented in the way it is told. The story comes across as a bucket of interesting facts rather than a complete narrative. While there are times avoiding putting together that thread can be a good thing for a documentary, in this case it was more jarring than revealatory. I will say that he did manage to maintain an objective distance from the information. In the end, however, I didn’t feel that I got to know Hogancamp very well, but only just got a flavor of his experience and struggles, with a sense of hope and direction of where he was going.

In the fictionalization, Zemeckis took the bones of this information and sewed them together into a story. Some of it is clearly pure fiction; the presentation of Hogancamp is more a distillation of the indicators of what we see in this documentary rather than the factual truth. But the core of the movie is very much obviously drawn from what we see in this documentary. Zemeckis simply finds a story to pull it all together in a satisfying way. It is also interesting to see which shots he directly took from the documentary and how he evolved, in particular, the Belgian witch, Deja, to provide a spine for Hogancamp’s struggles and a message for the audience.

The two movies together create a wonderful lab for learning about adaptation. The actual facts and recordings are not always the best way to get a point across…or, for that matter, the truth. In many ways, the fictional movie manages to surface more of the struggles and realities of Hogancamp’s life and the world than the documentary, even if some of it is patently changed and made-up. But each of these films provide different insights and work well together to give a more complete picture of Marwen(col) as well as a peek inside each of our own dark mental meanderings that get us through every day.

Mock and Roll

[2 stars]

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. Parody is brutal.

If you haven’t sussed it from the title, this movie is in the third category. Sadly, the result here isn’t great, but it isn’t entirely without merit. As an early or first film for almost all involved, it is interesting to see who may grow from it. And the story certainly takes the idea head-on by making the center of the story a parody band of The Black Owls to add some layers to the movie. Fortunately, they’re also a reasonably talented group of musicians.

While the movie style is stilted, it is also full of clever and intelligent ideas and comments. That can’t carry the film, but it does help make it engaging. By having a parody band at the center of it all helps to set it apart from other movies in the genre, like Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind. It accepts it is a parody from the beginning rather than having the band in earnest. One of the more unexpected thoughts in the script is why Liberty Mean, the parody band that drives everything, is a parody band: they consider it a tribute to The Black Owls.

But that brings up part of the challenge with this movie: you have to know The Black Owls and Foghat music to really appreciate the efforts here. If you don’t know their canon cold, it’s like trying to listen to Weird Al without context. It is also worth noting that both Foghat and The Black Owls have a real presence in the film, which is a huge bonus to its profile.

But, other than the editing, director and co-writer (with Mark Stewart) Ben Bacharach-White doesn’t do his actors many favors in this romp. Through interesting cuts and visual games, he keeps the pace surprisingly brisk given some of the issues that remain in the movie.

At the top of those issues: no one comes across as real or comfortable. There are some glimmers of potential beyond their musical efforts. Aditi Molly Bhanja stands out as the high point of the cast, providing just enough real moments to keep it all percolating along. Andrew Yackel isn’t far behind, though his timing needs some work on what are, admittedly, some truly challenging verbal riffs. But it isn’t like any of it feels real enough to carry the plot: Liberty Mean trying to raise money to get to SXSW to bring their brand of tribute to the masses.

Basically, this is a low-budget romp through and through, but with some real effort at making it whole, and with some good music to carry it. If you know the bands in play, you’ll get a lot more out of it. And, honestly, the better read you are generally, the more you’ll pick up in the dialogue. But this strikes me as a flick that works best with, shall we say, mood enhancers and, possibly, if you were/are in a garage band or on the younger side.

Mortal Engines

[3 stars]

Let’s start with the positive: Mortal Engines is visually stunning and inventive. The production design is wonderful. Even the tech is cleverly thought through to make it just believable enough to go with it. If this sounds like it is leading up to a Valerian-sized “but,” you’re not wrong.

First it is worth noting Robert Sheehan (Mute) has finally been given a role and direction that keeps him contained and normalish, without losing his charm and ability. Of all the actors, he fares the best because it really added to his range of work. Hera Hilmar (Da Vinci’s Demons) is fine in what should have been the more dominating lead, but she doesn’t have much to work with. And the chemistry between the two isn’t quite intense enough to sell their decisions.

And, sure, Hugo Weaving (Hacksaw Ridge), Jihae (Mars), Stephen Lang (The Girl on the Train), Ronan Raftery (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Peter Malahide (The Paradise), Colin Salmon (Limitless), and even newcomer Leila George all do fine, but none get to act. They are all just pawns for the script and the moving of massive set pieces and effects.

Now to focus on that huge “but.” When Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh, the writers and producers of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, get behind a big steam-punk fantasy, you expect something spectacular. Instead, we get an impossibly weak script that is full of logic holes, dropped threads, bad choices, and cheap short-cuts. Worse, there are also no surprises. And I do mean none. Everything is obvious from the beginning. For the Wingnut gang to give something this big and complex to first-time director Christian Rivers, even with his years in their art department, did him no service. His direction isn’t bad, but he didn’t have the experience to see what wasn’t working and correct it. Given the messages in the story and our current times, a more experienced director could have done a lot more, even with the same bare bones to work with. They also did the movie no favor by releasing it during the holidays. It would have done much better in the spring or late summer, when the appetite and expectations would have matched it a bit more.

If you are going to see this because you’re a fan of the books or just looking for some pure popcorn escape, see it on big screen. It does deserve that scope and it won’t translate to anything smaller than a 75 inch screen at home. It is glorious to look at. It just isn’t a particularly glorious movie.

Basically, if you want to see some Jackson & co. magic this season, go see the truly amazing They Shall Not Grow Old. It may not be a genre flick, but it is much better film making.

Searching

[3.5 stars]

When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I honestly expected a really poor movie tied together with clever tricks. Instead, I got a rather good suspense/mystery that really captured a lot of how life has changed over the last 10 years or so for families. It is far from perfect and definitely gets some things very wrong, but it clips along nicely and has compelling characters.

John Cho (Gemini) gives us a father we can relate to and sympathize with, even as you want to occasionally slap him. But his hyperfocus and obstinance are necessary elements to drive the tale. Debra Messing (Like Sunday, Like Rain) surprised me as a very down-to-earth detective. She is very much in control, but not unemotional. It is a very different role for her, but one which she delivers on nicely.

First time feature director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty made quite a splash with this low-budget thriller. There was lots of buzz about it as it over-performed in release, but I still felt like it would do fine on a small screen and skipped it in theater. To a degree, the result does feel familiar. 11 Cameras comes to mind, or even the more recent Disconnect. And it is timed unexpectedly well given the rise of social media as a primary source for news. However Chaganty also manages to create a driving mystery, with just enough technical wizardry to make it feel real but possible. And he gives us characters and high stakes without resorting to soap-opera like relationships.

Searching is a surprising film, if only because you just don’t expect it to be so engaging. The 100 minute ride is tight from beginning to end. I’m definitely curious to see what Chaganty delivers next. Meantime, for a good distraction, pop this one in or, more appropriately, stream it and enjoy.

Love, Gilda

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help thinking, through a good part of this biography, that Love, Gilda is exactly the kind of story Radner would have hated being told about herself. Ultimately, I changed my mind on that point, but she is very clear about how she wants to interact with the public for much of her career, and this kind of tell-all (or a lot) definitely was not her style. At least not when she started.

Much as you’d expect from the title, Lisa Dapolito has created a love letter to Radner from Radner’s own audio tapes, interviews, home movies, and notebooks. With some additional commentary by friends and family, we get a sense of what drove Radner and what, at times, broke her. And, most importantly, also what brought her great joy. It is, by the nature of its telling, also a love letter from Radner to her audience, but that aspect isn’t as clear at first.

Radner was a force in comedy and part of the modern female comedienne movement, even if unwittingly. She was magnetic and intense and, along with the original Saturday Night Live cast, part of an evolution in comedy and comedy history that has defined the industry for over 40 years.  Her life was complex and challenging and a story in its own right. If you’ve read her autobiography you may know a lot of the tale already, but this is now in her own voice and with archival footage to illustrate and explain.

However, while Dapolito did an impressive job of interweaving the various collections of media and molding their presentation into an interesting documentary, it isn’t a very emotionally compelling one. The result feels almost clinical at times, even if intriguing. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for that, honestly. Perhaps it was the pacing or the reliance on frequently having the audience read Radner’s own writing that causes the movie to become more like research than a journey. But the result is that it is empty of some of the emotional impact I would have expected. It is still worth checking out, especially if you like Radner’s work or knew only a little about her.  She was an important figure that influenced many of the big female comedy stars today…some of which are in the documentary to declare just that.

So, give Gilda another 90 minutes of your time for a visit, or just come to get to know her a little better. However, to truly get the message that Radner and Dapolito want to tell you, stay through the credits for the final tag. It’s worth the moment.