Tag Archives: grrrls

Hearts Beat Loud

[3.5 stars]

There have been many films about wannabe or aspiring musicians over recent years. They cover quite a bit of ground as well. From Juliet Naked to Begin Again to Sing Street to Song to Song or even the more tangential like Rudderless, they tend, mostly to focus on adults looking for their lost moments or kids getting together to make their way.

Don’t get me wrong, Nick Offerman (Nostalgia) certainly fills that adult bill in Hearts Beat Loud; but as much as he drives the movie, it isn’t about him. The point of the story really revolves about his daughter, Kiersey Clemons (Flatliners) and their relationship. Music is essential and plays a role, but this is primarily a film about family not fame.

Around the pair are some great supporting characters. Relative newcomer, Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Clemons make a great pairing. Their interactions are quietly intense, and, admittedly, a bit too chaste for 18 year olds, but still very effective.

For Offerman, Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Ted Danson build out his story and world with humor and complications. On the other hand, Bythe Danner (I’ll See You in My Dreams) is, sadly, all but lost in this story. She is a bit of background that you can see has meaning, but there is little done with it and it is one of the few real misfires in the flick for me.

Director and co-writer Brett Haley (The Hero) reteamed with Marc Basch to pen this story that lives in a comfortable groove in our expectations but manages to stay unexpected in its execution, like a good song. Even Keegan DeWitt’s (The Hero) music is not your typical choice of “new band creates massively brilliant music.” They are clearly songs filled with promise and with an indie approach to pop music, but none feel entirely finished. They feel, in fact, like a beginning songwriter with talent learning their craft.

The pacing of this movie is deliberate. Not slow, per se, but certainly not a runaway train. Haley lets the story layer and build so the ending has impact. When you want a sweet evening and have the need for a good story that takes you through a range of emotions, Hearts Beat Loud is a great choice.

Hearts Beat Loud

A Simple Favor

[4 stars]

Dark, funny, sexy, twisted, this mystery-cum-satire is a great ride, expertly executed by cast and crew alike. It has barely a misstep as it navigates its path to the end, and it sustains its off-plumb approach till the final credits.

The movie is led by a perfectly cast duo, Anna Kendrick (TrollsPitch Perfect) and Blake Lively (Cafe Society). What introduces itself as a simple tale of rich suburban hell slides into something quite different very early on when these women meet and become friends. Stuck in the crossfire of all the complexity is Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians), with a gullible savvy. The trio are the main engine of the story and keep it humming along.

But there is a host of great smaller characters as well. Linda Cardellini (Bloodline), Andrew Ranells (Why Him?), Rupert Friend (The Death of Stalin), Jean Smart (The Accountant), and Melissa O’Neill (Dark Matter) are just a few of the cameos. Each adds something to the tale, to one degree or another, thanks to a very tight script byJessica Sharzer. Sharzer is no stranger to the dark side of things having worked on American Horror Story and Nerve and it served her well here. You know you’ve come across something special when you can get ahead of it and it still doesn’t matter…because you really don’t get entirely ahead of it anyway.

As director, Paul Feig (Ghostbusters, and the MCU) took her script and ran with it, hitting just the right tone with his actors: allowing them to be utterly aware of the absurdities of their lives and still commit to them. The level of snark and sarcasm on screen is probably well above FDA standards, and incredibly funny. Smart, broad comedy is about the hardest to pull off because it is so self-conscious and also invites criticism due to its audience because no one can claim they don’t know what’s going on. But A Simple Favor needn’t worry, it can take it, dish it back, and come out on top. Make time for this one, it will surprise you.

A Simple Favor

Predator (2018)

[3.5 stars]

The first Predator was popcorn malicious monster mayhem. Then there were a few…let’s just say misfires with a brief the amusement of AVP.  Shane Black (The Nice Guys) and co-writer Fred Dekker (Monster Squad) bring back the action and enhance the humor to bring us a silly romp with lots of fun and, actually, moderated gore despite all the violence. They even open the story with clear nods back to the first movie to anchor us before it starts to veer off. The resulting plot is very much a sequel, but with a reboot feel.

The latest collection of misfit commandos are led by Boyd Holbrook (Logan), who brings brains and brawn to our defenders. But, of course, they are defending against monsters of both alien and human-kind. The latter led by Sterling K. Brown (Black Panther) who chews and chews the scenery until it is a fine, pulpy mass. Fighting alongside Holbrook is a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest of souls.  Thomas Jane (AXL), Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones), Trevante Rhodes (Song to Song), Keegan-Michael Key (Why Him?), and Augusto Aguilera are all more than a little forced (for humor, more than anything else) but they do entertain.

And then there are the outliers that try to broaden the plot and give it a bit more meat. You’ll have to decide for yourself how credibly that is achieved. Jacob Tremblay (Book of Henry) and Yvonne Strahovski (I, FrankensteinHandmaid’s Tale) are each fine in their roles as Holbrook’s semi-estranged family. Tremblay is a bit inconsistent, but Strahovski gets in some good levels. Finally, there is Olivia Munn (Ocean’s 8) who gets to kick some butt and have some fun, but not really much of a purpose. And this is where the movie lost some of its rating for me. There are a lot of intentions toward a complex plot, but not much delivery, just lip service.

Basically, the trick with this film is to not look too closely. Despite many attempts to bring story and explanation to the tale, and some very self-conscious exposition (purposefully done), the story doesn’t really hold up to close inspection. That said, when do they ever? This is entertainment, pure and simple, with a sequel setup and the likely event of there being more to come. It does manage to recreate the fun of the first film again. I laughed, I flinched, and I enjoyed the heck out of the hunt and tech. But this isn’t groundbreaking, just entertaining (which, honestly, can be enough).

The Predator

Peppermint

[3 stars]

There is definitely some fatigue on the vigilante vengeance front. Even with Jennifer Garner’s (Love, Simon) effort, quietly resurrecting aspects of her Alias persona, the entertainment is all pretty standard in this movie. Some great choreography, a few good moments, and a cathartic climax. Also worth noting, while Garner has the attitude to carry off her character, and the moves, she didn’t have the physique, which was distracting. But though the talent was there to help the story succeed, with John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) and John Ortiz (Nostalgia)…the movie just sort of floats over the plot with the intention of focusing mostly on the action. To be fair, The Commuter wasn’t much different. And while The Equalizer 2 was an anomaly in its approach, and a little divisive, its first outing was similarly standard.

Over the last year there have been a few female action flicks. Proud Mary, Atomic Blonde, Unlocked, or even Breaking In, just to name a few. They have succeeded and failed in different ways. None has yet found a formula that rivals Liam Neeson’s run or the success of John Wick. Some of that is due to the writing, but I imagine a fair amount is due to the audience expectations as well. No one has given us a female assassin that grabs the imagination in quite the same way and that is unique in both her efforts and her gender. We’ve had kick-ass women in movies over the years: Gloria, Alien, uncountable side-kicks or secondary leads (Wonder Woman and Valkyrie are a different genre and discussion). But society doesn’t seem ready for a real female vigilante. We end up, instead, with folks like Harley Quinn or Imperator Furiosa; strong but broken women seeking restitution.

It is notable that, with the exception of Garner, the only female character of note is Annie Ilonzeh. Is it commentary that it is Garner versus a sea of men or more of the same cultural lag of putting women in lead roles of power and action?

Director Pierre Morel (From Paris with Love) was surely handicapped by his writer, Chad St. John (London Has Fallen), on the story side. But it was his choice to accept the script and direct it, so he has to take some of the blame. And neither of them, nor the studio, were strong enough to do the actual ending the film demanded. That said, this is entertaining, just not a breakaway.

Peppermint

Cardinal: Blackfly Season (series 2)

[3 stars]

The first series for Cardinal was highly personal, very twisted and very bloody. This second series picks up the story where it left off with Billy Campbell (Modus) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) putting their lives back together and expanding their partnership to catch killers. And, yes, this one is as gruesome as the first, though with considerably fewer unknowns.

Campbell’s story this round revolves around the return of his wife and the challenges of mental illness. Vanasse’s story is less clear this time and, frankly, rather side-lined. Overall, this felt like a transition series where the writers were trying to get the characters to a new place, but chose not to jump there. Instead, we are taking the long journey. While that works with a darker, slower-paced show like Wallander, it made this series drag a bit with a lack of energy, despite all the events.

On the wrong side of the law are two rather chilling, and very different, sociopaths embodied by Bruce Ramsay (Behind the Candleabra) and Dan Petronijevic (19-2). Unfortunately on this side of the story, though we also have Alex Paxton-Beesley (Copper) and Jonathan Keltz (Reign), there is nothing much sympathetic about any of them. The result is that we don’t invest overmuch in the outcomes. In the first series, we had characters to care about on all sides, so this was a definitely step backwards.

The series remains hard to get a hold of, but I expect it will eventually get wider distribution as it is about to go into its third series on CBC. If you like the darker suspense mysteries, this is one to add to your queue.

Cardinal Poster

Crooked House

[3 stars]

Unlike the recent Ordeal by Innocence, this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s twisted mystery is more arch, following the traditions of the previous decades. It is certainly enjoyable, but I find the newer approach to the stories to be more believable. Crooked House is still chock full of talent.

As the elderly aunt, Glenn Close (The Girl With All the Gifts) steals the movie along with the precocious Honor Kneafsey (Miss You Already) as the youngest child. The two bristle in their environment rather than feeding into it, helping them stand out. They also get some of the best lines, which doesn’t hurt.

But the story is really driven by Stephanie Martini (Prime Suspect: 1973), whose noirish debutante feels a lot like a Ruth Wilson copy, and Max Irons (Terminal), who is a marginally effective detective in well over his head. And that is part of the issue. Irons becomes the excuse for the story to occur rather than the man who picks apart the threads for the truth. He isn’t completely ineffective, but his purpose is more romantic than responsible.

Gillian Anderson (X-Files),Christina Hendricks (The Neon Demon),  and Terence Stamp (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) add some nice fun to the story in smaller roles. The rest of the cast is just as recognizable and fill in the tale.

Director and co-writer Gilles Paquet-Brenner is clearly a lover of the classic Christie mysteries, be it the TV versions or the recent remake of Murder on the Orient Express. It is all very much in the tenor of the books, though it is an approach that is starting to feel a little thread-bare and forced as culture marches on. The sensibility shouldn’t be too surprising given that one of the co-writers was Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey). However, this is still fun if you like Christie’s look at the upper-class and murder through a marginally satiric lens, and this is no exception.

Crooked House

Maps to the Stars

[2.5 stars]

I was rather rooting for this movie from about 15 minutes in. You can feel the craft and control as threads quickly begin to come together. No surprise given it is a dark fantasy by David Cronenberg (Crash). Unfortunately, the meaning and purpose all sort of drifted away by the end into the stardust it references. Perhaps I was just too dense to get the references, but even a bit of research afterwards didn’t illuminate anything obvious for me.

That said, there are some very good performances in this peek behind the surface of families and Hollywood. There really isn’t a truly sympathetic character in the cast, but there are those that are less despicable and more pathetic. However, there is no one who you can really feel good supporting or wanting to succeed, which makes the story a bit of a slog at times.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is the best of the cast. She is intriguing and the most believable. The rest are all interesting to watch, but not entirely credible. Robert Pattinson (Water For Elephants) comes close, but then gets let down by the script. Julianne Moore (Maggie’s Plan) gives a brave and raw performance that is likely close to reality, but not a reality that many of us will have experienced and certainly not one that you’d support emotionally. Olivia Williams (Victoria & Abdul) and John Cusack (Chi-Raq), as bumbling parents, make a microcosm within the film that is interesting, but not much explored. Cusack does gets to explore a rather different character than his usual, which is intriguing to watch. And, finally, Evan Bird (The Killing) creates an l’enfant terrible, but without a lot of depth, only a wooden and hollow sort of desperation.

Admittedly, there are layers to this story…layers I also much admit I couldn’t uncover though it tickled my brain at the edge of understanding. Either I was trying to build patterns from chaos or I just missed the point. And, frankly, there were so many lost story opportunities to explore in the tale that it felt as surfacey as the culture it was exploring. It is also interesting to consider that this was released four years ago, before #metoo. I’m not entirely sure how reactions might differ before that boundary in culture. Within the first 5 minutes of the movie, several references are already out-of-date, not to mention nods and appearances by recognizable figures who have since died.

David Cronenberg loves crawling in the muck of people’s lives and emotions. But he is capable of good storytelling while doing so. He took Bruce Wagner’s complex script and slowly revealed its levels. But while there is a solid conclusion to the story, there isn’t a final meaning to it all. This can work when the point of the multiplicity of storylines and lack of direct connection is the intent, but not when you’ve gone to great lengths to imply a mythological or otherwise greater tale being told. It feels like a Sophomoric attempt to force meaning to come from the brain of the viewer rather than the mind of the filmmaker. Not a satisfying way to wrap your travelings through some very dark woods.

Maps to the Stars

The Little Stranger

[3.5 stars]

You never go into an adaptation of a Sarah Waters story expecting something straightforward. Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, The Handmaiden, are all complex and layered tales of deep psychological intensity. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) understood this when he tackled directing this Gothic horror that lives comfortably alongside Remember MeTurn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House (its latest upcoming remake), and other deliberately paced, unsettling fare.

Abrahamson had each actor wound so tight they were always on the verge of flying to bits. Domhnall Gleeson’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) pauses and looks each spoke volumes to his motivations and actions. Ruth Wilson (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), alternating between cornered mouse and mother bear, was also utterly transformed into something we’ve not really seen before with a new accent and even a new walk. Will Poulter (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) was a sympathetic and twisted wreck of a man, barely holding onto his sanity after the war and severe injury. And Charlotte Rampling (Red Sparrow), while the least transformed physically, was a walking wound of a bereaved mother and fallen aristocracy.

Writer Lucinda Coxon (Danish Girl) gave each of the characters beautifully trimmed sentences that were loaded with subtext, thanks to sure directing and deft acting. Unlike most Waters’ stories, this is presented primarily from a male point of view and its sense of the supernatural is quiet but very palpable. Waters often plays along this line, but in this tale it is up to the audience to decide what is really going on, at least as it is told by Coxon and Abrahamson.

This is a horror story, but it is aimed at lovers of period drama and psychological terror. It isn’t about cheap scares or buckets of gore. Because of that, it is likely to never find a wide audience despite its excellent craft and delivery. If that is the kind of story you enjoy, make time for it. If you are hoping for highly paced action and scares, move along to something else. This is a movie to absorb, contemplate, and even discuss after the credits roll.

The Little Stranger

Juliet, Naked

[4 stars]

Sure, in many ways this is a standard rom-com. There is broad humor, unlikely pairings, and personal awakenings. But it is much more than that. The film is packed with subtleties and small scenes of unremarked upon revelations. It is a story about life and, of course, music. It is adapted from a Nick Hornby novel after all, the writer who gave us High Fidelity and About a Boy among other tales and movies.

Rose Byrne (The Meddler) and Chris O’Dowd (Love After Love) make an amusingly broken couple who remain in each other’s orbits by pure inertia at the top of the film. From there, quiet hilarity ensues as each tries to find their place with one other and the world.

While the movie is framed by O’Dowd and the story is carried primarily on Byrne’s back, it is Ethan Hawke (Maggie’s Plan), as the broken and drifting ex-musician, that lights up the movie. His character is complex and sympathetic while still being a bit of a douche as he tries to make up for his past. The man has surprisingly good chops too. And Azhy Robertson, as his son, makes for great interactions and moments. There are many solid supporting roles to fill the film out as well.

Director Jesse Peretz keeps everything flowing and knows when to just let a scene have its own quiet focus. Which isn’t to say there aren’t laugh out loud moments, but there are as many inward smiles too. While not a big screen movie, it isn’t one  you should wait for if it comes to a theater near you. It is a great entertainment that will leave you feeling great about life, love, and possibility without having to grab you by the throat to do it, like so many in this genre.

Juliet, Naked

Terminal

[3 stars]

This beautifully designed Alice-in-Wonderland noir is a fever dream of dark delight. Rather than pretend there is a hidden agenda, everyone’s agenda is pretty much on the table from the beginning. The interesting bit is watching it all play out.

Margot Robbie (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as femme fatale is perfect casting. She is magnetic on screen and has just the right level of crazy dancing behind her eyes. Imagine her Harley Quinn character with complete self-control or her Tonya Harding with a lot more brain power and focus. It is a salacious and undeniably disturbing performance.

Into her orbit drift a collection of folks. Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) provides a nicely down-trodden and quiet soul struggling with life. Dexter Fletcher (Cockneys vs. Zombies) and Max Irons (Dorian Gray) make an interesting pair, if more than a little cliché, for her to play with. And, finally, Mike Meyers was practically unrecognizable in his own fun and twisted role at the periphery of it all.

For his first major film as writer/director, Vaughn Stein delivered a strong vision visually and story-wise. The production design evokes Blade Runner, creating a not-quite-our-world sensibility but not a world that couldn’t exist here and now.  And the game of Lewis Carroll references is fun. The story rushes near the end and flies just a bit off the rails in intent, but was worth the ride completely. There is plenty to feast on, from a craft point of view as well. Though, admittedly, if you don’t like noir it will probably leave you wanting. Coming on the heels of John Wick and Atomic Blonde, this movie got a bit lost in the shuffle. Personally, I had a great time with it and I’m curious to see what Stein can come up with next.

Terminal