Tag Archives: grrrls

Ripper Street (series finale)

Somewhere around series 3, Ripper Street lost its way and never found it again. It retained its beautiful language, a Western version of Shakespeare for lack of a better description, but it lost the drive of the characters and the inciting conceit of Edmund Reid’s policing.

In series 4 and 5 it all comes back around and, with contortions that PT Barnum would have hired, they manage to close the story. Sadly it isn’t with great skill, but with a wedge and shim. Series 4 leaped ahead in time, and the final episode in series 5 attempts, clumsily, to put a shape around the whole through a collection of vignettes to wrap up the present stories, and flashbacks to provide a mirror and meaning to them.

Does it work? Sort of, but it all feels so very forced. The show was provided more than enough advance notice to plan a better arc through its final 2 series. Instead we got the White Chapel Golem, which wasn’t uninteresting, but with a meandering plot and too much going on (and a load of death). We are left, at the end, with an idea and melancholy that has carried through the series as a whole. It is, to its credit, unwilling to go for the easy and pleasant solutions to all the issues, but in other ways it gave in exactly to expectations.

Ripper Street, as a series, was ambitious and richly textured. The first series is still the best focused, and the rest of the run certainly has moments and merits, if not stellar choices. I would have been happy with the conclusion at the end of series 3, but the 2-series wrap up did keep my attention, even if I was less than thrilled with the direction of that resolution.

On the up side, it was relatively self-contained so if you want to stop at 3, you don’t lose much by doing so. But, if you want to go forward and see the wrap-up for all the various characters, you have that option.

Ripper Street

The Fate of the Furious

Magic tricks are based on misdirection through visual distraction and patter. This eighth installment of the F&F franchise is a beautiful magic trick. While it is better than the previous couple of releases, it isn’t a great movie. But thanks to the application of the tenants of magic, it is entertaining and holds together more than what has come before.

When the series took a left turn in the sixth release from racing films to caper films, it revitalized the storyline and introduced new characters to expand the viewpoints and chances for comedy. Then came Furious 7, which was huge in stunts, but thin in story to the point of frustration for me (even with the Paul Walker reality in the background).

Fate takes the series to a new level. Don’t misunderstand me, Chris Morgan’s (47 Ronin) script is still full of holes and over-simplicities. So many and so obvious I had to pause the film to point out aspects a few times because I just couldn’t contain myself. But, that is where the magic comment comes in. The action is huge. Every time you see a hole, suddenly there is some eye candy to distract you from thinking about it or some clever dialogue to engage you so you let it slip by. F. Gary Gray’s (Straight Outta Compton) direction is responsible for that pace and success, and it is no easy feat.

But it wasn’t just the pacing that mattered. Bringing the story back to Vin Diesel’s (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) Dom recentered the movie. The level of tension and the opportunity for reversals keeps the film tight. OK, some of Dom’s story is forced to heck, but he plays it well and, again, Gray’s pacing keeps it rolling along nicely.

Where, I think, the movie made its best choices, however, was in some of the non-core cast members. Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) as the villain was a brilliant choice. She plays a wonderfully chilling and believable sociopath, never once giving in to cliche scene chewing, which kept the movie on an even keel. And the return of Kurt Russell (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.) also contributed to keeping the movie afloat, though in his case through dry, well-delivered humor. His protege, played by Scott Eastwood (Suicide Squad), however, was just a cutout, broad comedy character.

I don’t know where they go from here. Topping these latest stunts is going to be very hard. At some point, they are going to have to pull it all back to the simplicity of the first film or risk getting so absurd thta it crosses into comedy rather than staying exciting. The franchise has been managed very well, despite the weak scripts, so I’m sure they’re aware of the issue. Of course, when you make a $1B/film you kinda get to do whatever the heck you want. But I will admit, this movie was way better than I expected it to be…I’m almost sorry I didn’t see it sooner.

The Fate of the Furious

Free Fire

So, if Monty Python and Quentin Tarantino had a co-production to recreate the Black Knight of The Holy Grail as a heist gone wrong, you’d get Free Fire. This is an almost ceaselessly vulgar and violent confrontation at (of course) a gun sale gone wrong. Whether that is a good thing for you or not, is going to be a matter of mood and taste.

Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley reteamed with his High-Rise writer, Amy Jump, to bring this blood-fest to screen. The humor is dark and just as often missed the mark as hits it. On the other hand, the sound effects and engineering are really quite amazing. The biggest directing mistake Wheatley made was never giving us an overhead shot of the participants making their way around the killing field. It would have helped a little with the geography of the fight if folks were more easily located.

At the extreme end of the characters are Sharlto Copley (Chappie), Sam Riley (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Neither plays a believable character, but they certainly do so with abandon. It is the combination of both of them that is the excuse for the mayhem that follows.

As basic tough guys Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), Jack Reynor (Sing Street), Noah Taylor (Deep Water), Babou Ceesay (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Michael Smiley (Luther) fill out the gangs. Each feels a bit like stock characters, but none are overly empty of interest.

But the two that really stand out as characters for me were Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island). Each clearly has another life somewhere and all manner of things going on under the surface that we never get to understand, but which make their performances interesting rather than just loud.

Generally speaking, this isn’t a film for the weak of stomach or with sensitive hearing (language or gunfire). It, frankly, isn’t a very good film either, but it certainly will have its audience. I did laugh, on occasion, and winced a great deal through moments…even cheered once or twice quietly inside at the demise of a character or two. But there is little story and little to recommend. It is a vignette drawn out in loving detail for 90 minutes of lead filled hell. If that’s for you, then go for it, but there are plenty of better bullet strewn extravaganzas that actually have characters and plots you can latch onto.

Free Fire

The Lovers

So often, tales like this become overwrought or overplayed. But this film really tries to keep it all contained, much like the exhausted relationship of the main characters that has reached a failure (as opposed to a breaking) point. Debra Winger (The Ranch) and Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) turn in wonderfully understated and nuanced performances in what is really an odd and amusing farce about love.

In fact the only people who over-react in the film are the supporting characters: Aidan Gillen (Sing Street), Melora Walters (Big Love), and Tyler Ross (The Killing).  There is also a nicely balanced turn by Jessica Sula (Split).

Writer/director Azazel Jacobs (Doll & Em) really captured the age and sensibility of a long-term relationship that has drifted. More importantly, he did all of this without a syrupy sense of reality. He has a sense of the absurd, as does life, but he stays grounded in reality and honest to the story.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started watching the film, which way it would go and whether or not I’d even like the characters. But every one of them manages to gain just a bit of your sympathy, though not a lot in some cases. And the structure of the story is in itself a fun piece of commentary. I suspect it makes more sense the older you are, but the performances alone are really worth your time.

The Lovers

The Calling

Navigating a dark world of pain and murder in the Great White North, Susan Sarandon (3 Generations) leads a solid suspense story (if a bit flawed in the police procedure). Of course, I am partial to good serial killer tales, if you hadn’t noticed, so I’m in the target audience for this one.

Sarandon is supported by a surprisingly well-heeled cast: Gil Bellows (Ascension), Topher Grace (The Big Wedding), Ellen Burstyn (The Age of Adaline), Donald Sutherland (Hunger Games), and Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels). Their abilities and experience keep it all fresh and intriguing. 

What makes this particular story a bit different is the efforts by director, Jason Stone and writer, Scott Abramovitch; both having their first time at bat for a feature. In the script and the direction, the characters all act just a bit different than you expect. The plot, even when obvious, still has some very nice reveals. I will admit that the final moment, probably from the original material, is a tad eye-rolling, but not unanticipated, and it doesn’t diminish all that came before. It simply is a bit too, for lack of a better word, cutesy. 

If you like good suspense tales (and this is more suspense than mystery), it is worth your time investment. The driving purpose and the path to the resolution are really very clever. It would have made a great mini-series, but it manages not to feel too rushed, even in a two hour format.

The Calling

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It is going to kill me to write this review. Of all the movies this summer, this is the one I was really waiting for; the first big Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) film in years. I still think you should go see it, but I’ll get to why later. First the painful part.

The source material for Valerian predates and influenced a good part of the ‘classic’ scifi movie cannon, but it is coming to market long after they got to establish themselves. So what we see appears to be part Fifth Element and part Avatar, with healthy doses of Star Wars and Babylon 5 thrown in for good measure. It is visually stunning, no question. It also has some of the best depictions of AR done yet on film. But for all its inventiveness it feels a bit like a pastiche of what you already know even if the comic influenced them first. But that isn’t where the move is weakest.

The main weakness isn’t even in the plot. The plot is relatively obvious by design. There is no pretense about who is good and who is evil in this tale. Clive Owen (Words and Pictures) is about as subtle as a nuke in his role. And are you really unclear that the species experiencing genocide is probably on the side of right? The story, at its bones, is interesting and has captivated audiences for years in comic form as a classic good and evil struggle. Besson could have softened that a bit, grayed out Owen’s role, in particular, to help raise the emotion and tension of the decisions, but it could have worked either way.

No, the weakness of the film is squarely on the acting of the two main characters.

Because there are few character surprises, the strength of the film has to rely on the chemistry between Dean DeHaan’s (Life After Beth) and Cara Delevingne‘s (Suicide Squad) characters. Much like the Bruce Willis/Mila Jovovich interchanges in Fifth Element, it isn’t so much what is happening around the main characters as much as what is happening between them. And, sadly, there is bloody nothing happening in that space for DeHaan and Delevingne. Zip. A gallon jug of liquid nitrogen couldn’t cool their romance any more than it already is. They don’t even seem to react at the carnage they leave in their path during their normal day-to-day assignments. It may be, in part, the directing, but, frankly, neither of these actors has impressed me much in their previous roles. So let’s say it is as much a casting as an acting problem, which still is at Besson’s feet.

All that said, you do have to see this film for a couple reasons. First, it is a big screen experience, no question. The level of detail and artistry on the screen has rarely, if ever, been matched. Second, it is one of the few original ideas out there in the tentpole space. Everything we’re being fed this year is spin-off, sequel, prequel, or remake. Besson is giving us something new. That is a gift in these days of recycling properties and studios too scared to try something new. They need a reason to gamble and that means showing them “new” can sell. Go in knowing you’re there for a visual ride and you’re fine.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Authors Anonymous

It isn’t that there aren’t some good moments in this Chris Guest wannabe about a writing group, but it is too uneven and unsatisfying to outright recommend. That said, if you are in a writing group, you will probably find a lot that is familiar.

Delivering the comedy is a host of recognizable faces. Kaley Cuoco (Why Him?), Chris Klein (Wilfred), Teri Polo (The Hole), Dylan Walsh (Unforgettable), Tricia Helfer (Lucifer), Meagen Foy (La La Land), among them. And, in one of his last performances, Dennis Farina provides his trademark bruised, tough guy.

Director Ellie Kanner is better known for her casting prowess than she is her directing. I can’t honestly say that either aspect shows itself well in this movie. While the individual roles are cast well, the chemistry of the group is off. You don’t really believe these individuals would associate with one another for a long time. That is as much on first-time writer David Congalton as it is on Kanner. The understanding of the current state of publishing just isn’t there. This feels like it was written more than ten years ago, though it was only completed in 2013.

Part of my problem with this flick the use of improvisation for dialogue. The movie bounces between mockumentary-style interviews and long, fly-on-the-wall moments. As I’ve mentioned before, I often find this mixed approach forced and unsatisfying. Authors was no exception.

It isn’t an unwatchable film, but it just doesn’t really connect for me. Even with the two codas during the credits, I’m left feeling a general wondering at why I spent 90 minutes getting to that point. You may find the humor and situation more engaging than I did, but I can’t recommend it.

Authors Anonymous

Love Affair (to Remember)

Ever been watching a film and thought, “I’ve seen this before?”

I recently caught a presentation of Love Affair (1939) with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, directed by Leo McCrarey. About 10 minutes in I realized it was reminding me of something else I’d seen not too long ago: An Affair to Remember (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, also directed by Leo McCrarey.

You aren’t misreading, McCrarey directed both. It is an incredible example of a director getting a complete do-over later in his life with (almost) the same script, but an entirely different life view and technology advantage. The result is, in many ways, two entirely different films with almost the same plot and words. I don’t know of any other film pairing that could whet the appetite of a film lover more than the chance to see that in action, especially with such big names attached.

I recommend both movies for different reasons. Love Affair has the energy and sensibility of The Thin Man pairing of Powell and Loy. An Affair to Remember is quite a bit more serious and emotional. Both are gorgeously filmed and well executed. And, as dated as both are in some ways, they stand the test of time rather well because they focus more on the emotions than the culture of the era.  Make time for both of these at some point. Together, they are fascinating nuggets of film history; on their own, they are just good films as well.

I could spend an exhaustive amount of effort going through the comparisons, but the folks at Spectrum Culture have already done so, and it is an excellent, if spoiler-ridden, read. So if you want detail before or after you dig these films up, here is a link to the article:

Re-Make/Re-Model: Love Affair (1939) vs. An Affair to Remember (1957)

Love Affair An Affair to Remember

Speech & Debate

If you ever spent time in a fringe club in High School or, in particular, worked for the school paper, in drama, or on the forensics team, this movie will ring many bells for you. Even if you haven’t, it captures the frustration and sense of awakening that everyone goes through at around that age, and, for some, the need to act. It is on that point where the reality of this tale gets delightfully stretched…but only a little.

The three young leads that carry the film are an unlikely crew thrown together by need. Their surety and fearlessness tested at every turn, they simply move forward until they can’t.

Sarah Steele (Adult Beginners), reprises her role from the original stage production while Liam James (The Way Way Back) and Austin P. McKenzie (When We Rise) join her to complete the group. They are all endearing and frustrating in their ways, and each has their own challenges outside the main plot to overcome. Together they find a sense of strength and belonging, as you’d hope.

This film began life as a well-received Stephen Karam play before he adapted it for this film version. As a credit to his writing, you’d never know it started in a different medium.

The adults in this story are definitely secondary characters with small, implied storylines of their own. Kal Penn (Designated Survivor), Janeane Garofalo (Wet Hot American Summer: First Days of Camp), Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect 2), suggest rich, unseen interactions in particular.

This is a funny and painful romp through old memories and the new ways of the world (and how they haven’t really changed). Or, if you’re contemporary to the characters, a reminder that everyone is struggling through the same junk and can do so in quiet or with style. Regardless, watch through the end of the credits for an amusing coda.

Speech & Debate

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

You’ve probably already seen this (I hadn’t) and nothing I’m going to say here will change your mind.

So, if you loved this film, power to you and move along, you’ll probably think I’m being sour and unromantic, but I’m not. I love this story, and am particularly fond of the Grimm’s version and the Cocteau film, which leans heavily on that source. I even like the TV version (but, hey, that gave us Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, not to mention George RR Martin). But this Disney version is simplified and just not as engaging.

Like all fairy tales, there is a base truth Beauty wishes to convey, to teach. There are many ways to get there if you want to do variations of the story, but to really get there, in all cases, you have to truly care for the characters and their situations. You need to feel their fear and see their changes. Disney’s offering is all distraction and almost no emotion. That doesn’t make it un-entertaining, it just makes it empty entertainment, however pretty. And, to be fair,  the production design (real and digital) is truly a thing of beauty and imagination. Also, the nods to Sound of Music and Esther Williams, among others, are a riot.

But the story itself is rushed and almost utterly without tension or sense of time. It all seems to happen over the course of, at most, five days. I certainly believe in immediate connections between people, but they don’t usually involve kidnap, threats, and imprisonment. That takes time to overcome. In this case, everyone walked in knowing what would happen and didn’t even try to pretend it wouldn’t…the closest feint was the faked, depressing ending which the Enchantress (whom we’ve been spotting hanging out all along) deals with silently and completely without comment.

Does it still work? In its way, yes, but not because it is on the screen, but because it is in your mind. That is not only a cheat, but ultimately unsatisfying. It didn’t really do anything new for us. Frankly, there was too much other stuff to allow there to be characters and acting so that we actually cared about Belle, the Beast, her father, etc., and not just about the “story.”

There were other annoyances as well. The forced amount of diversity in the cast, seemingly without purpose, meaning, or basis. The continuity gaffs with the horse who magically appears at either end of the journey as needed, with or without tack. Peasants that suddenly have fancy dress. And then there was the great “controversy,” which was over so fast I actually almost missed it. Man people are screwed up if that was what flipped them out.

Ultimately, this is an OK piece of distraction, but not a great or classic film; it is simply big and flashy. Sure, it’s worth a single watch, but there isn’t a single performance worthy of mention, nor specific results calling out.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)