Tag Archives: grrrls

Teen Spirit

[3 stars]

There is nothing particularly bad about Teen Spirit. It is a sweet film about a singer coming into her own, dealing with the challenges of family and the industry. There is also nothing particularly brilliant, though it works on its own level. Elle Fanning (I Think We’re Alone Now) is as impressive as ever in her abilities, and it turns out she has some vocal chops as well. She lacks presence on screen though, a problem this waif-like actor often has, which is a deficit in this story. Despite her one big number, she just never really commands attention the way you’d expect someone destined to be a star could do. But, then again, neither does her coach, Zlatko Buric, who was supposed to be a star in his past.

The real star of Teen Spririt is writer/director Max Minghella (Into the Forest) who, for his first directing gig and sophomore script, shows some real promise. His editing choices, in particular, make it clear he was in command of his vision. And he pulled solid performances out of his cast.

The sensibility of the story is more Worried About the Boy than it is Sing Street or Once. The energy is very personal and introspective with moments of song. But its moment of triumph isn’t intended to be on stage, though that is part of it. Accepting that aspect of the flow helps with embracing the intent.

Late Night

[3 stars]

Though it has a bit of a rocky start, this comedy eventually finds its tone and legs for a good dash to the end. And leading the running pack are Emma Thompson (Years and Years) and Mindy Kaling (Ocean’s 8), who are this film. Sure there are other characters…even good performances, but this is their film. Even John Lithgow (Beatriz at Dinner) falls into the background, despite providing a lot of punch for very little screen time.

However, it is also probably worth calling out a few supporting roles: Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) for his lovable rake, Reid Scott (Venom) for his petulant-but-open-minded writer, and Denis O’Hare (Lizzie) for his role as exhausted handler. All of whom Thompson and Kaling bulldoze on screen with charisma and action.

Director Nisha Ganatra’s heavy TV background shows in this movie. The pacing, presentation, and choices all feel a bit more small screen than large. Kaling’s script, likewise, picks up the story’s venue in its exchanges and scope, or at least feels like it does. And given that it is an Amazon film, with small screen as it’s ultimate venue (if not the screen on your phone) perhaps it was also the right choice. But whether for small or large screen, this is an entertaining romp, with just enough bite to provide a light meal.

 

Carnival Row

[3 stars]

If Ripper Street and Copper had a magical baby, this is pretty much what you’d get. For me, however, the poor child took on the worse qualities of both parents. A shame as it had the potential to tackle the current issues of immigration and xenophobia sweeping a good part of the globe.

In the end, Carnival Row is a marginally thought-through bit of genre, full of strife and demons (personal as well as real). It is a by-the-numbers fantasy with few surprises and cliche characters; the pacing commensurate with its genre, which is to say: slow.

The show isn’t helped by its female lead in Cara Delevingne (Tulip Fever), who has the look of a Fae, but the emotional credibility of cardboard. Despite Orlando Bloom’s (S.M.A.R.T. Chase) backing her, and with some interesting tension between them, she just never became real for me. Even the host of solid supporting actors are generally forced into tiny boxes of behavior, by script and directing, that does little to show off their talents.

Ultimately, I’m still not sure if I enjoyed this first season or not. It is clear that the it was built around the first episode and final moments in the last…with a whole bunch of stretched out filler in-between. It is, in fact, more of a prologue or setup for a story to come. You may find it more engaging than I did, but despite the grand production values, I found myself frustrated far too often to settle into the tale and become a fan.

I Am Not a Witch

[3 stars]

Disturbing is an understatement for this film. Using harsh simplicity, writer/director Rungano Nyoni examines what it is to be a woman, an immigrant, and a society through a fable-like tale of a young girl accused of witchcraft in Zambia.

The mostly untried cast is likewise raw in their presentations. In fact the entire story rests on the slim shoulders of Maggie Mulubwa. She is an intense and vulnerable young girl who has learned the lesson that less is more on screen.

Nyoni’s film certainly received a lot of notice on the festival circuit, winning about half of its nominations.  It isn’t a fast film, but it is well designed, bleakly funny, and able to drive home its points with a stiletto.

Ugly Dolls

[2.5 stars]

Ugly Dolls suffers from a number of issues, but the main challenge was not understanding how to construct a musical. For example, the movie begins by introducing us to a character being created in a factory…but then we lose a bunch of time jumping to who will really be our main character… who gets a huge song and dance number… which is interrupted by the arrival of the first character and then continues… but then first character just sort of fades away as a bit part for the rest of the tale. I get the strong sense that something happened in the editing or the story breakdown that was just never fixed.

The truth is that Kelly Clarkson’s Moxy is infectious and sweet. And sure, like much of the cast, the woman has pipes. And while the songs are close to bubblegum pop, there is some nice effort on the lyrics to keep them from being too mind numbing.

For a young audience, say under 14, this flick will probably entertain, at least a little. Above that, it starts to wear thin in its relentless optimism and simplified view of the world, not to mention its generally unsurprising storyline.

The Cured

[3 stars]

What would happen if most (metaphorical) zombies could be cured? David Freyne tackles this question in his first feature. While admittedly re-treading some ground that In The Flesh took on wonderfully, The Cured has its own focus and apropos political points for our times. Its many secrets aren’t surprising, but neither does Freyne hold them back for very long.

Ellen Page (Umbrella Academy) manages to dominate the movie, despite being a supporting player. Her story is the most accessible and complex and, frankly, she has the best chops in the flick. The real focus of the tale is on Sam Keeley (Burnt), one of the cured who tries to reassimilate into a world that mostly doesn’t want that to happen. Keeley follows his path admirably, but the script and editing prevent him from ever really gaining steam. It’s Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, somewhat reprising his Ebony Maw (Avengers: Endgame) character, who tends to steal screen. Unfortunately, neither the writing nor directing help him feel completely real.

Zombies (and again, this isn’t a zombie movie other than as shorthand) have long been used as metaphors for differing fears and social concepts. From the fear of science and communism to the more recent terror of AIDS and ongoing homophobia. Most are movies about finding the cure or just simply surviving. Few stories tackle the guilt of those that survive and can remember.

Unfortunately, Freyne, while making some nods toward the central question of guilt and forgiveness, ended up getting lost in the slaughter and the intrigue. In effect, no one aspect of his story managed to come through as the main point, other than the stupidity of human-kind. You can see the potential in this movie bubbling under the surface, which is what keeps it interesting. Had it committed to the more unique paths of its tale, it could have really stood out in a crowded space.

However, even though the story fails to become something spectacular, it does provide a generally different take on the genre. It also does so with some solid talent and an impressive delivery for a low-budget indie. It isn’t a brilliant film, but it is a good one that shows off a new talent in Freyne. If he can continue to attract such good casts and believe more in his vision, his subsequent releases will be worth watching for.

Fast Color

[3 stars]

If you like social science fiction, like I Think We’re Alone Now meets The Endless, over effects-laden romps, this movie is for you. While it is a fantasy/suspense film, Fast Color is definitely more contemplative than explosive. Which isn’t to say things don’t get tense or happen, but Julia Hart (Miss Stevens) has created a sort of Daughters of the Dust vibe in this movie as we get to meet and learn about three generations of women with a secret to protect.

And the women are far from perfect. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (A Wrinkle in Time), in particular, has personal demons and a past to overcome. Lorraine Toussaint (Into the Badlands) and Saniyya Sidney (Hidden Figures) also struggle in their own ways to find the right path. With a bit of help from David Strathairn (Godzilla: King of Monsters), the women work to find a resolution.  Each gets to explore and explain their character in ways that reach us and continually have us re-evaluate our assessments of them.

The weakest performance in the movie is from Christopher Denham (The Bay). But he is at the apex of an aspect of the tale that is the least well thought through. In a world that is slowly falling apart, there is a group of men arrayed against the women for reasons that are either cliche or completely undefined. And this is unabashedly a movie about the women; the men are mostly ciphers.

With the complex character set-up and the mostly unexplored world and dangers, it isn’t a surprise that is also soon to be a streaming series on Amazon. With that kind of space, we should get a lot more of what is going on. While this movie wasn’t intended as, and doesn’t feel, like a pilot, it certainly makes a solid version of one. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can create from this intriguing beginning.

I have to admit I wanted to like this film more than I did. The performances and direction are emotionally satisfying. I just wanted a little more meat on the bones of the male characters and the purpose of the “bad guys.” It would have made the world and situation more complete and less of an excuse against which to tell the story Hart and her co-writer, Jordan Horowitz, wanted to tell.

Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries

[3 stars]

This expansion of the Miss Fisher mysteries by Acorn TV isn’t awful, but it isn’t the Miss Fisher we knew and loved. It is simply a fun set of mysteries and characters.

The core issue is the title character. Geraldine Hakewill is fine, but she doesn’t have even a small portion of the energy and charisma that Essie Davis brought to the original character. And though surrounded by a fun group of well-executed characters, she just doesn’t dominate the stories the way she needs to for this role.

Basically, much like The ABC Murders, Acorn is trying to capitalize on a property without being able to deliver the same quality. It is a shame as the story and characters are entertaining…they’re just not what you want or hope for even though it is substantially the same production crew from the original.

Geraldine Hakewill in Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries (2019)

Where’d You Go Bernadette?

[3.5 stars]

Richard Linklater’s (Everybody Wants Some) latest film is imperfect in its details, but complete in its emotional journey. That is thanks to Cate Blanchett (The House with the Clock in the Walls) more than anything else. She takes us on Bernadette’s wild, and very personal ride, allowing us to both appreciate and find fault with her.  And, frankly, knitting together a scattered story and script.

Part of that tale is her family. Billy Crudup (Alien: Covenant), and newcomer Emma Nelson throw down with Blanchett to create a family in loving turmoil, fighting to make it through the storm. It is a surprisingly believable one, even though Crudup’s character feels very cliche for a good chunk of the film.

But many of the characters around Bernadette feel that way. Kristen Wiig (Ghostbusters) is similarly hollow, if recognizable and allowed to grow. Laurence Fishburne (John Wick 3: Parabellum) is a convenience. Only Zoe Chao (The OA) got entirely cheated by never being allowed to have impact or grow beyond the cheap comedy she was forced into. But each of these are bumpers for Bernadette to bounce off of and not much more. Important bumpers, each in their way, but not full characters.

The script adaptation appears to be most at fault for these gaps and slightly scattered story. It feels like too much was shoe-horned into the two hours, keeping the story from remaining focused. There were too many side-trips and events and not quite enough was sacrificed from the original book. This isn’t unusual in Linklater’s films, but editing is one of his weaknesses. What he sees as being naturalistic is often just indulgent or boring.

Most of this movie’s weaknesses are quickly forgiven, from factual errors to misrepresentations, but they are there.  What is frustrating is that they needn’t be, they were all clear director/writer choices. Fortunately, Blanchett can pull the entire load in her wake. For her performance, and the emotional release of the tale, this is definitely a movie worth seeing.

The Farewell

[4.5 stars]

The Farewell has been quietly saying, “Hello” to cinemas around the country, expanding each week to new audiences. It’s a greeting you should answer. Lulu Wang has created a deceptively simple film that is wonderfully honest, funny, and complex while remaining delightfully entertaining. From the opening moment of the film, you know that is going to be something a little bit different.

Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) lands a great performance of a young woman finding herself and navigating a family crisis. And Wang helps her navigate it wonderfully and shed her typically over-broad delivery. The rest of the cast is solid, including Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, and, as the beloved Nai Nai, Shuzhen Zhao. Lin and Zhao, in particular may end up in conversations come awards time along with Awkwafina and Wang. And this film should be in that conversation.

But even if I’m wrong on the awards front, and it gets forgotten or snubbed, you should make time for this unexpected treat. It certainly touches on strong emotions, but its overall impact is a positive one; its messages (however you interpret them) and moments sticking with you long after the credits have faded.