Tag Archives: First film

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

Den of Thieves

[2.75 stars]

When the writer of London Has Fallen, Christian Gudegast, decided to write, direct, and produce this bit of caper-violence, I didn’t hold out much hope despite its surprisingly good reception on release. The result is mixed. It is either hyper-realistic, like The Departed without the careful control, or slow and boring with little understanding of pacing, depending on your point of view and likes. On its side, Gudegast really tries to create characters with depth on all sides rather than cardboard cutouts. The problem is that there isn’t a single likable character in the tale and it is clear from early on where the story going to end up, at least it was for me.

The two sides are led by Gerard Butler (Geostorm) and Pablo Schreiber (American Gods). Both are powerful actors and each brings some levels to these fairly flat characters. They each have a crew of misfits and some have families, but no one really stands out as anything special.

The plot is very much in the spirit of Oceans 11 (remake or the original) and Logan Lucky, though without the humor. In fact, the characters lead lives of fairly obvious desperation.  The plan is clever and the cat-and-mouse game with the police is intriguing. However, much of the police part lacks credibility and the final heist is a bit unexplained and unseen. Regarding the latter, it isn’t that you can’t guess what happened, but a few shots are missing to make it clear.

Overall, this will appeal to those who like dark and violent crime stories with exceedingly flawed characters. It isn’t so much a tragedy as it is a clusterf@*# on all sides. For Gudegast’s first time directing, it is an impressive show of juggling, and his script is better than some of his previous, but it isn’t a high recommendation. Basically, this is a distraction for the right audience, but it isn’t something that will demand rewatches to appreciate any nuance that may have been missed.

Den of Thieves

I Feel Pretty

[3 stars]

Sure, this is exactly what you expect it to be…though, actually, it’s probably a bit better. Despite over-reaching a few times on the humor it still manages to be effective. Frankly, I was surprised as I’m not a fan of self-deprecating, broad humor based on silly or stupid choices. But Amy Schumer (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) manages to pull it off by embodying the fears and insecurities (and ultimately the egos) we all have. Yes, this is directed at women, heck you even get to hear the film pitch in the climax, but the message is pretty much universal.

While Schumer’s personality and delivery make this work, it is only because first-time directing and long-time writing duo, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, knew when to pull back and reset the boundaries. Their script is passable, but their control of the acting and the pace keep you there. And though this deals with some adult subjects, it really does stick to its PG-13 intent without losing its impact.

Opposite Schumer are a few roles that serve a grounding purpose. Yes, there are her friends played by Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps with rather obvious and surfacey efforts. But it was more Lauren Hutton and Michelle Williams (The Greatest Showman) that gave her something to bounce off of. Williams, despite an inconsistent, if very funny, portrayal creates an hysterical character of insecurities and depth. Sadly, it doesn’t get paid off as completely as you’d like, but doing so would have delayed the the ending. What these two women manage in their short scenes is still very entertaining and pivotal to the story.

There is actually something in this flick for men as well. Rory Scovel’s (Those Who Can’t) non-traditional character helps mirror Schumer’s for men. That is highlighted by Tom Hopper (Merlin), whose not-quite-nere-do-well role is almost throwaway, except for his moment of catalyst related to Scovel’s.

There is nothing surprising in the plot of this film. It is pure entertainment with a message. And the message is simple, but rather important these days. It is actually a great delivery mechanism for anyone doubting themselves in just about any way. And, yeah, it’s a bit of amusing distraction as well. Whether you see it now or the small screen, when you’re looking for this kind of humor, you won’t be disappointed.

I Feel Pretty

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

Una

[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.

A

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.

God