Tag Archives: grrrls

Pinky Beauty Parlour

[3 stars]

This one will surprise you. It has a rocky start and is oddly constructed, but it unfolds and builds on itself. In fact, it sells itself through to the last line by keeping you guessing what happened right up till near the end. As director and writer, Akshay Singh tackled a rather complex piece for his first time behind the camera. And, to top it off, he plays a crucial role in front of it as well.

A few days ago I saw Water, which tackled a different set of cultural issues in India’s past. Pinky assaults modern issues in a present day India through drama and humor. Though to call this a comedy is to confuse Shakespeare’s clowns in any of his tragedies for the main point of the story. For all its silliness, the points to be made are rather strong.

Pinky is is definitely a low-budget effort, but it is done with heart and a lot more talent than is immediately evident. Give it time if you enjoy films from the region; it definitely has a Bollywood vibe. However, the structure of the story is different than you might expect and the result is more than just a resolution to the romance and plot. Do be warned that the subtitles are horrible translations much of the time. Unless you speak Urdu, you will need to do some quick rewrites in your head throughout for grammar and word choice. It isn’t unwatchable on that count at all, but it was frustrating on occasion.

Pinky Beauty Parlour Poster

Water

[4 stars]

This much recognized tale by director and co-writer Deepa Mehta is more than just an historical. In fact, despite its setting in 1938 India, it is disturbingly reflective of today with its abuse by the class system, treatment of women, religious fundamentalism, and general social unrest. And I don’t mean reflective of India, I mean worldwide. But commentary aside, the story alone is compelling.

In her first and only film to date, Sarala Kariyawasam, holds this film together with her young and intense presence. As a young widow (at 7 years of age) she is forced to live out the rest of her life cloistered. The collection of women she now lives with are faced with her indomitable spirit and the chaos she brings to their ordered world.

In parallel, John Abraham (Dhoom) and Lisa Ray (Endgame) provide a separate and adult focus of life and possibility. It is a tale we’ve seen before, in many ways, but one that doesn’t tend to get old if you like romance and believe love is more important than rules. That doesn’t mean this is an easy set of choices and the outcome is far from sure, but these actors bring you along the journey and help you believe the choices.

Overall, of course, there is the title: Water. The element here represents life, magic, love, and so much more and so much less. I am curious now about its companion pieces that I didn’t know about: Fire and Earth. Water completes the trilogy, which I can see given the ending, but I have no sense of the overall journey and shape from only this single movie.

This is a beautiful and emotionally frustrating film with a lot to say about the past and about the present. Definitely worth your time if you missed it till now.

Water

Blade Runner 2049

[4 stars]

When making a sequel, the first question you really have to ask is: Why? And in this case, the writer of the original Blade Runner, Hampton Fancher, along with his new co-writer Michael Green, found an answer. And with Denis Villenuve (Arrival) at the helm, this new tale in the universe is gripping and inexorable as it moves along. In fact, while 2049 is almost three hours long, an hour longer than the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, it feels shorter due to its editing and tension.

Unlike the original bottomless noir that was Blade Runner, this story is more a compelling personal journey for its main character, Ryan Gosling (Song to Song). It has light and hope, despite being sunk in the same ruined Earth and financial disparity that was established with that world 35 years ago. And yet, the story and world still feel timeless. And that is the interesting part, it still feels like it could be our dystopian future; now more than ever. A world of overcrowding, rampant poor, and authoritarian over-reach doesn’t feel that outlandish.

Villenuve managed to pay homage to the original story but create his own world all at once. Yes, if you have recently watched the first film, you will pick up nods and winks throughout, but it isn’t a copy of the original. The nods and mentions aren’t distracting ones, simply enough to make it clear that you never really left that universe. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is solid and complex. It will keep you thinking and wondering. That trick is attained thanks to the directing and, of course, the acting.

Along with Gosling’s subtle portrayal of K, there a number of women who fill out his world. Interestingly, his world is dominated by women. Primarily, Robin Wright (Rememory) as his boss walks an interesting line with him while Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) provides the most interesting companion since Her. In addition, Sylvia Hoeks does a nice riff and counterpoint to Sean Young’s Rachel. And then there are the additional building blocks for the rest of his story: Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror) and Carla Juri (Morris From America). As I said, quite the list of influence.

This isn’t to dismiss the men. David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) actually gives us a bit of real emotion in his role. Only Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) came off to me as oddly empty. He has the presence and the story (particularly if you watch the 3 prequel shorts that bridge the original and sequel), but not a lot of it gets to the screen. It would have distracted from Gosling’s story, to be sure, so I understand the choice. However, Harrison Ford’s (The Age of Adaline) role manages to feel more complete without much more screen time, and not just because we know his backstory, there is just more there in Ford’s performance.

Be aware, this is not an action flick. It is a slow-burn and very personal mystery. It is beautifully filmed and expertly edited and directed to keep it all moving along. The story is one worth telling, and while it would lead to yet another story, it is complete as it is. I do suggest watching the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner before viewing this, much as I suggested rewatching Terminator 1 & 2 before viewing Terminator: Genisys. Though Terminator was all about what was changing, Blade Runner is more about providing a real sense of grounding and appreciation for what will unfold before you.

In case it wasn’t obvious, in prep for this late-conceived sequel, I rewatched the original Blade Runner. To be more specific, I watched the Director’s Cut, followed by the final 3 scenes of the original version and the Final Cut for comparison’s sake. It was an interesting exercise. I chose the Director’s Cut as that best dovetails to this new expansion of the story. I have to admit, the Director’s Cut is hampered by its slow pacing due to the removal of the voice-overs but no additional editing of the screen time where it was excised. However, it is the closest storywise to enter 2049.

As a side note, I think one of the things I’ve come to finally realize is that Ridley Scott has made only one brilliant film in his life: Alien. Blade Runner blazed new ground, but it isn’t a wonderfully directed film, it is just a fascinating world and a good story that he got lucky enough to have control over. Blade Runner remains a powerful influence on cinema from the Hunger Games to Ghost in the Shell; the claustrophobic, elite-class dominated hopelessness appears again and again in film since its release. The fact that he recut it multiple times trying to say what he “really wanted to” tells you that he isn’t a great director. And certainly his ouvre that followed Alien has never equaled that incredible piece of heart-pounding terror and rich world.

But Scott isn’t part of this outing. This is all Villenuve and his ability continues to impress me. I can only hope that this film will find its audience as the original tale did. It is worth the time spent, especially on the large screen.

Blade Runner 2049

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

[3.5 stars]

The first Kingsman was a delightfully unexpected and irreverent romp in spy-land. Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle) returns for this middle story of a planned trilogy and manages to grow the character and give us another, if much more violent, round of spy games. It may have lost some of the element of surprise, but the movie compensates with sheer audacity of spectacle and story. And everyone gets to show off a bit in this film.

On team England, Mark Strong (Miss Sloane), Sophie Cookson (Huntsman: Winters’ War), and Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Baby) all reprise roles adding to the mythology. But the surprise addition of Hanna Alström (Kingsman: The Secret Service) showed us that Eggsy wasn’t just a love ’em and leave ’em guy, he was capable of commitment. It is a nice flourish for his story.

Team America (1) is a bit more complex to pull apart. A great deal was made of Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) and Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), but their parts are relatively small. It is more Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Pedro Pascal (The Great Wall) that drive that team. To be truthful, I wish I had known a lot less about this section of the film as it is slowly revealed over the first third of the plot, but it is impossible to not know it given the advertising and the cast.

Team America (2) is the US Government officials led by Bruce Greenwood (Spectral) and Emily Watson (Everest). Greenwood provides an ugly version of the office that was a scarily good guess at the current tenor given that it was in production during the changeover of administrations here at the time. Watson’s is an important role, but a bit of a cipher as a character, which is a shame given her abilities.

In opposition to them all are Edward Holcroft (London Spy) and Julianne Moore (Vanya on 42nd Street). Holcroft isn’t much more than a prop to bridge the movies and make it personal for Eggsy and the Kingsmen. There just isn’t much there other than anger and a desire to succeed. Julianne Moore, however, has a bit more meat on her character bones. Her speech on the motivation and plan she has put into action is one of the more interesting, subtle pieces of the social commentary that underlies this story. While she delivers it all well, there isn’t all that much for her to work with. Still, she kept it from being a cookie-cutter villainess. She also has one amusing, surprise guest with a fun story-line, but I’m not going to spoil that here.

The most interesting returnee to this universe is director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn. This is his first ever sequel. After launching Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, he left the franchises to others. He does a credible job coming back for this round, but he did miss a few marks. First, despite its scope, the film doesn’t feel international. It feels like Hollywood. This is in large part due to the rather nasty portrayal of the US government as well as only showing us a view of the world events via a fictionalized Fox News. “Fictionalized” as it is Fox actually doing news (rather than misreporting or opining). But there are no feeds from the other affected countries. That was a mistake I’m sure was insisted on by Fox Studios, but it really rather hurt the credibility of the tale. And Vaughn really has to stop trying to recreate his amazing “Time in a Bottle” sequence from X-Men. It just isn’t going to happen.

On a technical level, the film really excels. The script is constructed solidly to use everything as well as to redeem characters and even the golden circle symbol itself. And the editing, both between scenes and within fights, is pretty amazing. While there are moments it is very much obvious, which you don’t really want editing to be (like a couple of the cross-fades), they’re so beautifully executed that you can’t help but admire the choices. But the intra-fight editing is the real prize: is damn near seamless, which is astounding when you realize the complexity of the shots.

As a whole, this is just as entertaining as the first film in the series. It isn’t so much about discovery any longer, we’ve had our origin story after all. This round is about redemption and growth and finding a place in the world… and a whole lot of violence getting there, as adolescence often is. The film absolutely sets up a third installment, but fully resolves the story it starts in this outing. It has a ton of laughs, car chases worth of Fast & Furious or Bond, tons of flying lead and mashed bodes, and a social message that may or may not resonate for everyone, but that is certainly interesting to note. If you liked the first, you will like the second. If you haven’t found this series yet, start with The Secret Service and then return to this. While it may stand on its own, it will have a whole lot more depth with the background for you.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The Big Sick

[4 stars]

We all think we have a story to tell, and we do. But, some stories really are more equal than others, and The Big Sick is definitely more equal.

When writer and star Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) teamed up with his real life wife Emily V. Gordon, they took a leap and nailed it in one. The result is funny, sweet, charming, and oddly unexpected at times. And director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) manages to balance the story, which intersects a number of worlds and challenges, without losing any of the threads or the audience.

In some ways it reminds me of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Not in style or content, but in its exposure of cultural realities and challenges and the navigating of the two worlds by the main characters. What the two films do share is a love of the people that populate their worlds and a fiercely romantic heart.  

Zoe Kazan (In Your Eyes) tackles the role of Emily in the film well. She is an effortless actor, always seeming utterly planned-spontaneous while also seeming completely real. She continues to be a talent worth following to see where she’ll end up.

Added to the mix were Holly Hunter (Song to Song), doing Holly Hunter. Nothing bad, but nothing truly new for her. On the other hand, Ray Romano (Ice Age: Collision Course) manages something that is subtly difficult: he creates a character that isn’t funny. His timing and skill are still apparent, but he uses much like a real singer does who has to pretend they can’t sing; everything clunks perfectly.

In smaller roles, Adeel Akhtar (The Night Manager) and Anupam Kher (Sense8) help fill out important aspects of Kumail’s life. Neither are really given room to breathe and live, but we can intuit a lot from them in their short exchanges.

I do have to admit, while the movie grabbed me early on, and despite the echos of Don’t Think Twice, it was the spectre of Dr. Phibes that sold me utterly. But I was an easy target on that one. Phibes lives and looms very much in my genre closet.

Of course, timing couldn’t have been better for this film about cultural diversity and integration. But it is the heart in this film that ultimately sells it, not the trappings.  

The Big Sick

Cleverman (Series 1 & 2)

[3 stars]

If it weren’t for the politics and events of the last 8 months or so, Cleverman would just be a middling science fiction series discussing the endemic social schisms that exist today. Despite some good, as well as internationally recognizable talent such as Iain Glenn (Game of Thrones) and Frances O’Conner (The Missing), it is often ham-handed and rushed.

The first series was intriguing on a purely cultural level for me. Out of Australia, this show uses the aboriginal myths and template to posit a recently discovered race of long-lived, powerful hominids that have co-existed with humans. All manner of racism and fear ensue (and a lot of really, really bad wigs). But by crossing the idea with aspects of The Dreaming, other metaphysical concepts, and some truly screwed up families, you got enough to keep you watching the journey of the main character played by Hunter Page-Lochard (The Sapphires). It built to an inevitable crescendo of violence that ensured you’d watch the next series.

Series 2 improved a little in its subtleties and information. We get to understand more…and cringe more. The family drama continues to compound and the relatively unknown Rob Collins tries to bring credibility to a ridiculously overwrought story-line. With only six episodes again this series, the writers were forced to rush their ending and left us hanging in rather frustrating, if again intriguing, ways. I (think) I know how they write themselves out of the final moments, but I’ve no clue where they are going to take it from there that won’t make the series more Planet of the Apes than, say, Gattaca.

Generally, Cleverman isn’t a great series, but it is probably different enough, and short enough in episodes, to keep you hooked. Given the improvements from the first series to the second, I’m hoping that a final or continuing series will continue to build on lessons learned.

Cleverman

Man in an Orange Shirt

[3 stars]

Man in an Orange Shirt manages to be something different than your standard coming out story. First, it spans two time periods (1940s/50s and the present), following a family line. Second, it looks beyond just the personal turmoil of the men involved.

Director Michael Samuels had some advantage tackling this kind of story having previously delivered Any Human Heart, which also spanned decades and characters. But the surprise for me here was was Patrick Gale’s script. He managed the subtleties and range of characters so well even though this was his first major script. While it feels like a standard tale at first, it takes some rather interesting turns by the end to pull everything together. It is at once romantic and bluntly honest and cruel, though it ultimately is a tale of coming to terms rather than a tragedy.

The cast has a lot to do with the success of the 2-part drama. Joanna Vanderham (What Maisie Knew), James McArdle (The Worricker Trilogy), and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Emerald City), from the WWII era are a wonderful collection of contradictory desires and beliefs. In the present, Vanessa Redgrave (Foxcatcher), Julian Morris (Pretty Little Liars), and David Gyasi (Containment) capture current times without losing the thread to the past. 

There are also a few nice, smaller roles with Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van), Julian Sands (Extraordinary Tales), and Adrian Schiller (The Danish Girl). 

There are many stories about being closeted and accepting who you are. This isn’t limited to the LBGTQ experience, but that is the primary focus of stories of this sort. Man in an Orange Shirt opens itself to a broad range of emotional issues to bring you something more and different in the genre without losing its emotional impact.

Man in an Orange Shirt: The Complete Series [DVD]

Gifted

[4 stars]

It is rare when a small movie can tackle larger ideas without losing focus on the intimate story it wants to tell. Under the guidance of Marc Webb (Amazing Spider-Man) and writer Tom Flynn, Gifted manages to be succeed on that point, telling the story of family and childhood, but also tackling larger issues like parenthood, normality, feminism, and mental health.

Personal tales like this rarely succeed without solid performances, and this is where Webb also soared. Mckenna Grace (Designated Survivor) is a firecracker, with a lot of potential ahead of her. She captures the intelligence of her young character without losing the “kid” in her. And, of course, she has a winning smile and charisma.

Surprisingly, even with Grace’s magnetism, she does not dominate the film the way kid-centered stories often do. Chris Evans (Captain America: Civil War) and Lindsay Duncan (Sherlock) not only hold their own, but deliver powerful and believable performances as they struggle with one another and themselves. Even Jenny Slate (Zootopia) delivers a character that is more complex than you’d expect given where she starts. And the balance between them all, including Grace, is handled beautifully.

If there is a weakness in the film, it is in Evan’s stated reasons for his actions near the end. We don’t really see the shift in his character, or I didn’t anyway. This feels more like editing choices than the actor to me, but it smudges an otherwise wonderful performance.

Gifted is probably everything you expect it to be in a child custody film. But I promise you, there is more to it than what you’re expecting. It is not only done well, it is done with intensity over sturm und drang. It is worth your time and probably worth seeing more than once, simply for the joy of it and the reminders of what life can and should be.

Gifted

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

[3 stars]

This is a tough one. Any time you tackle a classic you risk annoying people or messing it up. Ghost in the Shell has close to biblical import in the manga and anime worlds, so it was even more fraught with peril.

But let’s tackle the story problem first. How do you make an exciting story about an emotionless cyborg looking for its humanity? It ain’t easy. We have lots of eye candy, enough to rival Blade Runner or even the more recent Valerian. The world is rich, incredibly designed to the smallest detail, and evocative of the roots of the material.

Scarlett Johansson (The Jungle Book) is solid as the female mercenary lead. Believable in action and cold in execution. But it is not much different from her turns in Lucy, Under the Skin, Her, or even as Black Widow, in many ways. It is a solid go-to for her and she shades each differently, but it is all getting a bit the same. Sometimes, that can be enough, but this is a complex tale of identity and horror…and the script leaves both her and us hanging on resolving and dealing with those aspects.

To get around her character’s lack of emtion, we do have some of her team to reflect on. Pilou Asbæk (Great Wall, or even better as Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) in particular and Juliet Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria) as well. Both have connections to Major that provide emotion by proxy.

But then there is the white washing problem. Why are all the cyborgs Western? And, while that could be a choice in order to distance the new entity from its past, it is something that could have been covered by commenting on it. We know she has a Japanese mother and was at least half-Japanese herself from this film. I’m not trying to be overly PC, but it can be as jarring as watching a cast of Englishmen playing Frenchmen without even bothering to try and change the accent (let alone language). Culture and race (even if only from a morphological point of view) are even more core and affect credibility.

Given this was director Rupert Sanders’s (Snow White and the Huntsman) second feature, it was at an impressive scale. But, ultimately, like Valerian, this is mostly an empty ride. Even the climax ends up missing the mark as the relationships aren’t really established to make it believable nor is the key phrase used to set it off quite how its been set up through the script (though I liked the idea). Truly a shame as it was almost a powerful finale.

Do you want to spend some time in this universe? If you want the eye candy (both CGI and the skin-tight clad Ms. Johansson), sure. It isn’t a brilliant script. It isn’t mindblowing acting. It isn’t more than a middling adaptation. Sometimes, that can all be enough for a bit of distraction. Can’t it?

Ghost in the Shell

The Dinner (2017)

[3 stars]

Welcome to an evening with family. Yes, that is every bit as good and horrible as you can imagine, especially with this crew. It does bear mentioning that the food looks amazing, however. Yes, I have a sleight obsession on this point and I admit it. But before you judge me, keep in mind that the food and the structure of the meal inform the flow of the film directly.

Created first in Dutch (2013) and then Italian (2014), both heavily recognized on the awards circuit, The Dinner has now arrived in an English version…clearly the core story (based on real events) has resonated around the world. And no wonder. It is powerful and the base familial conflicts will resonate with most people in one way or another.

It is a dark view of families, politics, and society and all the more disturbing because of how real it all feels. What makes it worth your time is the performances.

While Laura Linney (Nocturnal Animals), Richard Gere (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and Rebecca Hall (The Town) all have their moments and arcs, it is Steve Coogan (The Look of Love) who really stands out in this film. His performance is subtle, at first, and builds speed and impact through till the end. His isn’t a pretty character, even at the beginning, but it is a compelling and curious one. To be honest, there isn’t a likable character among them , though there are (potentially) some sympathetic ones.

As he did with his script for Love & Mercy, writer/director Oren Moverman (Time Out of Mind) returns to the subject of mental illness and society, though from a very different perspective. The story takes an evening among family and slowly allows it to desolve in the present while providing glimpses of the past to add context. It is an intensely uncomfortable set of exchanges, but hard to turn away from as it unfolds.

I haven’t seen the other versions of this story yet. And, honestly, after this round, I’m not sure I want to. One time through this tale is probably more than enough, but it is worth that one meal. You can always go to a different restaurant another night.

The Dinner