Tag Archives: grrrls

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

[4 stars]

A quiet but intense love story that is (dare I say it?) a slow burn. I was worried that, despite all its awards, director/writer Céline Sciamma’s (Tomboy) two hour story of a portraitist and her subject would drag. It doesn’t.

The silences between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are tense with unspoken thoughts. Their verbal sparring is equally charged, though spare with words. And Merlant’s relationship with her supplies and canvas is just as intriguing. Watching these women discover each other and themselves never let’s you relax.

Around the main story are smaller tales supported by Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino. Both women bring a lot of story with very little explained.

One of Sciamma’s achievements with this film is that it is, essentially, all women. And all strong women, in their way. Men are not only incidental, they are a hindrance to their worlds. It is also visually a stunning piece of cinematography; as painterly as the story it tells. And the final moments of the story are a collection of joyously heartbreaking scenes. It reminded me of the end of Gloria in its ability to deliver a resolution.

Portrait is an unexpectedly moving story and one worth seeing. On big screen it must have been breathtaking, but even on a smaller screen it is a feast for all your movie senses.

Frankie

[3 stars]

A rumination on the nature of love, life, and family against the beautiful backdrop of Sintra, Portugal. In many ways, Frankie is After the Wedding’s less overwrought cousin. There are several common themes and dynamics, though the stories are driven by different stakes and pressures.

Isabelle Huppert (Greta) is the lynchpin at the center of a blended family that spans multiple marriages. Her sense of entitlement as well as her own sense of self keeps bumping up against her recognition of the realities of that complexity, but all in very quiet and introspective ways. There are few histrionics despite the tensions between people and the situation in which they are mired. It is all about the reactions and silences, which director and co-writer Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) orchestrates with great confidence.

Along with Huppert, Brendan Gleeson (Assassin’s Creed), Marisa Tomei (Only You), Jérémie Renier (Double Lover), Vinette Robinson (A Christmas Carol), Sennia Nanua (The Girl With All the Gifts), and Greg Kinnear (Same Kind of Different as Me) fill out the other main roles. Their paths are all separate, but also all reflect and intersect on Huppert’s journey and life.

This isn’t a fast movie, but it is gripping in a very quiet way. And, ultimately, it brings together its point and moments in a wonderful bit of visual metaphor that is simply presented for us to absorb and enjoy. Frankie is about life and legacy and the meaning and complications of love. It is certainly bittersweet, but manages to avoid being maudlin or at all self-righteous. It’s simply a view and point of view of a collection of lives bound by blood and circumstance. And, like Sachs other works, emotionally hypnotic through to the end.

 

Frankie

Dotor Who (series 12)

[3.5 stars]

Honestly, I don’t know whether to be excited or infuriated by this latest series. There are so many possibilities and answers and openings, and yet it was executed a bit ham-handedly and, ultimately, rushed.

Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch) continues to grow her sense of the Doctor…and does so with aplomb. Our intrepid companions are evolving, though they have been pushed more to the side as the Doctor has gained confidence and energy. The dynamic of the foursome isn’t always smooth from a story point of view, but they all work well together. I think when Chibnall really gets a feeling of the reins, he could equal Davies first few seasons. But first he really has to get some guidance on what building an arc really means.

This season is very reminiscent of Moffat’s disastrous series 8 as show-runner; fractured and confused. Though I think Chibnall’s overall quality is significantly better than Moffat’s awful season. But Chibnall has struggled with the overall arc and flow. He also allowed the series to get “in your face” preachy about too many issues. The ideas, and even presentations, were fine, but the expositions were painful. The same ideas could have been imparted without stating it all out in detail. In other words, he didn’t trust his audience enough. Even kids would have understood the implications without the pulpit speeches. At least, I do think Chibnall has the sensibility of Dr. Who correct (unlike Moffat much of the time). I just wish he’d be a bit more Torchwood and a bit less Saturday morning kid’s show.

Overall, it wasn’t an unengaging season, and it has some things to chew on, but I’m hoping next round will have more control and shape.

And now, the play by play as the series aired, if you want to understand how I came to these statements.

By the episode (with spoilers): 

Spyfall (parts 1 & 2)
As a sendup of Skyfall, this Bond-like episode has a lot of fun and opens up some new avenues. However, I missed not having a stand-alone holiday special rather than just launching into the 12th series. In part I was also very, very frustrated with the revelation of the big bad. Not that Sacha Dhawan (Iron Fist) isn’t entertaining (if not exactly a Master I can get behind quite yet), but I really felt like that thread had been tied up ever so nicely during the Capaldi years. I suppose, however, that Chibnall just couldn’t resist trying to tackle one of the primary enemies and put his own stamp on it. What these episodes brought us, however, was the shape of the upcoming season with the reveals at the end. Was it worth it? I guess we’ll see.

Orphan 55
This episode starts off interestingly, but devolves into the worst kind of preachy science fiction that just doesn’t work well. Surprising as Ed Hime wrote one of the more challenging episodes from the previous season, It Takes You Away. It’s a shame as there were missed opportunities and, certainly, some fun riffs on Damnation Alley that could have taken the story in different directions. For instance, what if the Dregs were the results of virus infected terraforming tech that Kane was using. But, as it is, it’s one of the weakest episodes they’ve had a in long while. At least it was well directed and acted. And it was fun to see Laura Lane (The Loch) and Lewin Lloyd (Judy) in some different roles. Perhaps this is the one really weak episode this season (there’s always one)…and we’re getting it out of the early rather than late.

Nicola Tesla’s Night of Horrors
Well, I’ll give them this, Edison was portrayed at least a bit like the ass he was. The episode as a whole was OK. It’s another high octane, hand-wavy adventure in history, though this time on American soil with Goran Visnjic (Beginners) and Robert Glenister guesting as Tesla and Edison respectively. Fun, sure, and nice to see Tesla sort of get his due. it was also somewhat clever (and perhaps disingenuous) that Who elevates his ideas, even if the tragic aspects of his life remain.

I do have to wonder, after setting up the larger arc in the first episodes, why have we not even touched on it again yet? There aren’t that many eps to play with so waiting seems like a bad idea to me.

Renegade of the Judoon
Now this is what I’m talking about! This was the best and most complex episode of the season so far. It picks up the opening mystery and explodes it with two major reveals of multiple time lines and the delightful return of John Barrowman’s Capt. Jack Harkness. As a mid-season pivot, it’s wonderful. Why they dropped the thread for a couple eps escapes me as there is clearly a lot of material to work with. The mysteries should have at least been tagged into the intervening episodes to keep it more alive. But we’re here now…hoping the momentum continues and it’s a sprint to the finale.

Praxeus
Really? They couldn’t just keep focusing on the main thread? We had to have yet another “we’re destroying the planet” PSA? And, by the way, they’re getting a bit much and far too preachy in the writing. I know this is aimed at kids, but they’re smarter than the script allows for as well.

The episode is definitely an energetic and entertaining one. It even brings in Warren Brown (Good Cop), who gets to recap a lot of his characters in this one, but with some nice twists with the help of Matthew McNulty (The Paradise). But we just left off a huge revelation and there isn’t even a hint of that in this story.  There are only four episodes left and a hell of a lot to wrap up. Chibnall needs to get a better grip of his seasonal arcs and learn how to weave a whole cloth.

Can You Hear Me?
This fast-paced and energized adventure is great fun and sets up…something. Not sure what yet, but I don’t think this will be the last we know and see of these newest “monsters.” But the story is almost entirely off thread from the main series arc. At least it certainly appears to be stand-alone. What is clear from this episode is that we’re headed to some sort of change-over in, at least, the companions.

The Haunting of Villa Diodati
OK, here we are again with another view of the night Frankenstein was created (the most recent being Mary Shelley). Admittedly, this is a fun and unique use of that infamous (though more likely apocryphal) night. And it gets us back on the main arc…though with more questions than answers by the end.

With only two episodes left in the series, and the stakes and issues all finally at the forefront (although a continued aversion to discussing Jack or the other Doctor), I certainly hope they are both about wrapping all this up. This particularly story is fine, but because of the many recreations of this night, the trappings frankly felt a bit tired to me despite the creative concepts.

Ascension of the Cybermen
Talk about a long lead. Finally we are closing the loop begun in the first episode. This is an action packed story that raises the horror of the Cybermen another notch. While not an official two-parter, the resolution won’t come till next week’s finale. Frankly, not much really happens in this episode other than some adrenaline-based setup and the pulling in of at least some of the open threads. Mind you, there are still far too many left untouched, but I suspect that will change. I just hope the final episode of the series is super-sized so they don’t have to rush the resolution or, worse, leave it unresolved until the holiday special or next season. In other words, this was a fun and exciting episode, but not a complete or satisfying one on its own.

The Timeless Children
As I feared, this episode ended up rushed and, ultimately, open-ended. That said, at least we finally have an answer to Matt Smith’s regeneration from a few seasons back (that infamous number 13) which was never explained. You can buy into that or not, but at least Chibnall has attempted to provide an answer without shattering the canon. However, the depiction of The Master here, both by Sacha Dhawan and as written, is just over the top and weakly supported…and it flies in the face of the most recent incarnations. Sure The Master was always a bit off his nut, and a lot of that was due to his personal competition with The Doctor, but it needed more foundation and explanation throughout the series to get him onto a new path. And the one thing this episode never explained is how The Master survived the end of last season.

And, finally, the tag was more than a little angering. While it pulled back in aspects of the opening episode nicely, it leaves us utterly hanging at least until much later this year (with a possible special). I would have much preferred a conclusion and then a bridging special with tag into the 13th. It felt like a desperate attempt to get folks back after a mixed-result series.

Doctor Who

After the Wedding

[3 stars]

This is a slippery film in many ways. It doesn’t hold a lot of surprises, or didn’t for me, but the performances and the motivations are nicely shifting sea of emotion and interaction that keep it flowing along.

Director and writer Bart Freundlich navigated the material well, holding back his actors from breaking until the right moments. He was particularly lucky to land Michelle Williams (Fosse/Verdon) and Julianne Moore (Bel Canto) in the main roles. [To be fair, it didn’t hurt that Freundlich and Moore are married in making that happen]. And Billy Crudup (Where’d You Go Bernadette?) added a wonderful pivot point between the two.

The story itself, while a dark sort of romantic fantasy, manages to keep just to the right side of credible. Given the players and the stakes, that wasn’t an easy task. Freundlich’s adaptation of Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen’s 2006 version manages to flip the situation nicely for some new facets to emerge.

This is, for all the tears and provocative situations, a somewhat light story of family: what makes it, what you’d do for it, and how to keep it. It’s the performances and framing of the tale that makes it worth your time.

After the Wedding

Red Joan

[3.5 stars]

Movies of political intrigue are often entertaining but, because they tend to concentrate on the action and suspense and lose the humanity, they are not typically great movies. Red Joan is all about the humanity, with enough suspense and intrigue (though no real action) to keep it riveting. Based on a true story, and a timely one in many ways, it’s a wonderful depiction of living with a moral ambiguity in a world that wants all things to be simple.

Judy Dench (All is True), who is far from a frail old woman, manages to crumble before us as Joan. She is clearly tired and, in her way, happy to finally have the truth come out rather than keeping all the secrets that have influenced the direction of her life. While Dench’s moments are powerful and essential, it is Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) as her younger self that carries the movie in the main. She does so as a woman in search of acceptance in a man’s world, though never giving into that aspect; she remains both strong and human throughout.

Tom Hughes (About Time), Ben Miles (Collateral), and Stephen Campbell Moore (The Child in Time) fill out the critical roles around Joan. Each brings a particular element and challenge. And each has their own contribution to the resolution.

Trevor Nunn (Lear) directed Lindsay Shapero’s first feature script with an honest eye. There are few, if any, histrionics despite the tension and stakes; but they aren’t needed. The story carries itself in quiet moments that are stretched to breaking. But this isn’t a Le Carre tale like Little Drummer Girl, the tension is in the characters more than the risks. The personal story itself is enough, especially when delivered by such a solid cast.

Red Joan

Ready or Not

[3 stars]

I wanted to like this silly satire more than I did. To its credit, it doesn’t even pretend to try to surprise. The movie’s opening scene lays out for you the mystery and some roots for the resolution. The rest is just snarky comments and mayhem. Certainly it can be entertaining, but it is no Cabin in the Woods, Bad Time at the El Royale, or even Knives Out, though it shares aspects of each. What it is missing, as compared to any of these, is layers. It’s a simple popcorn distraction.

What makes it work, as far as it does, is the complete commitment of the actors; Samara Weaving (Picnic at Hanging Rock), Adam Brody (Life Partners), Mark O’Brien (Marriage Story) in particular. These three have the only emotional conflicts and complexity to them. Though Nicky Guadagni (Suspiria) has a subtle sort of path to follow, and is a hoot and it was fun to see Kristian Bruun (Orphan Black) even if he really wasn’t given much to do.

If you’re looking for some bloody distraction with some amusing, if obvious, humor, this is your treat. There isn’t much more to it than that, and the ending is both oddly satisfying and weirdly disappointing. To its credit, at least it doesn’t go for cheap ways to try and build a franchise.

Ready or Not

Wild Nights with Emily

[3 stars]

Emily Dickinson has remained a surprisingly controversal character in the field of poetry.  This somewhat comic biography/exposé of her life isn’t likely to reduce that. In fact, for some, it may shatter their sense of her.

The movie is at its best when writer/director Madeleine Olnek (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) is using the story to skewer the literary world and literary criticism. Primarily this is through the voice and actions of Amy Seimetz (Pet Sematary), who’s smarmy, self-important Mabel Loomis Todd provides the narrative thread to explain what we thought we knew about Dickinson’s life and art. Olnek counterpoints it throughout with the re-enactments/fictional conceptions based on the recent revelations of Dickinson’s letters and poetry.

Molly Shannon’s (We Don’t Belong Here) is often restrained as Dickinson, but occasionlly a little unleashed. She and Susan Ziegler (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) present the challenge of a life-long relationship in an era where it should have been impossible. And yet, it appears to have been one of the worst kept secrets of its village and family. It was the rewriting of that history that hid that truth for over 100 years.

Where Olnek’s film is at its weakest is when she allowed the comedy to get too broad (no pun intended). Some of this is with Shannon, but it extends to side characters too, such as maid Lisa Haas (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) or Emily’s brother played by Kevin Seal (Laggies). Also, the overall structure is somewhat fractured, slipping between a sort of forced period movie approach and contemporary speech and editing. The combination isn’t always comfortable or effective.

The odd sensibility and choices aside, the film works. The angering absurdity of the time and situation, not to mention the impact of the decisions, hits home well. For something a little different that will entertain and even educate a little, this is a good choice.

Wild Nights with Emily

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

[3 stars]

Before Jojo Rabbit, but after Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, Carole Lombard and Jack Benny took on Hitler and WWII in their own slightly-screwball comedy of Polish acting royalty battling the Nazi invasion in Warsaw. And they had help from a very young Robert Stack.

There is a lot to enjoy in this wartime, feel-good flick. Director Ernst Lubitsch helped the cast navigate the darker sides of war, leaning into it as a foil rather than sinking into it in despair. Given this was created and released less than a year after Pearl Harbor, that’s pretty amazing.

Admittedly, the rhythm of the comedy overall is a bit odd for today. Though Lombard’s fast, sharp wit, a la her previous Twentieth Century, is certainly one of highlights. Overall, there is more of a stage sensibility with the dialogue and odd pauses. But, despite the dated feel, it manages to entertain and surprise with a clever script and focus on the human in the danger. But it isn’t a satire or larger commentary, it is purely a romantic comedy with WWII trappings.

And I could be wrong, but To Be or Not To Be is also probably one of the last comedies about Hitler until Mel Brooks tackled him again in The Producers 25 years later. (Note: though I know Abbot and Costello made Hitler Ho!, I can’t find a year for it anywhere, let alone a copy). As WWII quickly progressed, humor about it was not what people were looking for.

For a silly escape with some historical significance, this is worth looking up at some point…and the Criterion restoration is crisp and beautiful.

To Be or Not to Be

As You Like It (2006)

[3 stars]

Kenneth Branagh (All Is True) has been associated with Shakespeare since he burst onto the international scene in 1989 with Henry V. Though his career ranges wide, he has continued to circle back to the Bard, investing in and reinventing the canon as actor, director, and writer. This particular comedy is no exception, but it also marked the beginning of his departure from standard period presentations of the tales.

Branagh sets his As You LIke It in feudal Japan, though with a cast of British ex-pats in the main roles. And quite the cast he pulled together as well…frankly too long to list, but with a number of established as well as up-and-comers to enjoy. The important aspect of this transposition is that it provides a nice foundation for the initial coup and sense of danger necessary to get the tale rolling, and it adds a sort of magical aspect to the feeling of the piece.

The play itself, like all the comedies, is somewhat interchangeable with most of Shakespeare’s other secondary tales. It explores love in many aspects through four different couples and three sibling relationships. And thanks to Branagh’s deft directing and writing, those reflections and comparrisons stay crisp and interesting rather than just seeming happenstance as they often do in the longer play. He even shfits the coda to further embrace his theatrical audience and to remind the audience to not take anything too seriously.

There is little believable in the the actual story of As You Like It, other than the emotions and desires. It is simply a romp with reminders that our relationships and our hearts are more important than our possessions and power. It is a comedy, so despite any of the darker aspects, no one is left unredeemed or saved in some way. And it is, of course, funny (often laugh-out-loud funny). So for a light evening of entertainment in iambic pentameter, settle in for some pleasant escape and great performances.

As You Like It

The Addams Family (2019)

[3 stars]

The first 10 minutes of this remake do a wonderful job setting up the tone, humor, and new origin story of the creepy, kooky, ooky family we’ve known for so long. And while there remains, peppered throughout, a number of wonderful moments, the inventiveness pretty much ends there.

This latest iteration of the Addams Family tells the same story we’ve seen for decades: people fear them, then hate them, then apologize to them. And, if you’re going to remake it, at least bring it into today (it was somewhat stuck in the 50s in style if not in fact) and give me a new challenge. I will admit that they do tackle some topical aspects of today and manage to make it a mostly woman-powered plot. The men are generally treated as jokes…effective and useful, but not particularly bright.

While there is a lot of top-shelf voice talent, Charlize Theron (Bombshell) as Morticia and Chloë Grace Mortez (Greta) as Wednesday are the real standouts, delivering lines with dry aplomb. The rest of the cast is servicable, though nothing particularly brilliant, though Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) takes a good run at her role to make it more than a cookie-cutter middle schooler.

Generally, this is a diverting, but not fabulous, animation. There are clever bits and, perhaps, if it hadn’t arrived on my doorstep with decades of baggage, it may even have seemed inventive. But in trying to reboot it all, I can’t help but compare it to the past and judge its lack of originality. Heck, at the end they literally recreate the opening of the TV show, so how do you not consider that as part of your viewing? But, if you don’t have that nostaligia, or aren’t as attached to the original comics and other iterations, it may impress more. IOW, YMMV.

The Addams Family