Tag Archives: grrrls

Widows

[4 stars]

Think of this as the flip-side of Ocean’s 8; a very dark and disturbing flip-side, closer to Den of Thieves in sensibility.

Widows is a female-driven heist film dominated by Viola Davis (Fences) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox). These women have the most compelling tales and the strongest screen impact despite it being primarily an ensemble movie. Joined by the equally capable, if less story impactful, Michelle Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles, Fast & Furious) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), this group of women find themselves and their mettle trying to survive a lousy situation as they dig themselves out of the holes their respective partners dropped them in.

And speaking of their partners, the top line there is an unusual role for Liam Neeson (Peppermint) and a fairly standard one for Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver). Neeson’s time on screen is necessarily brief, but his and Davis’s intense relationship drive the entire tale. Garret Dillahunt (The Scribbler), Jacki Weaver (The Disaster Artist), and Carrie Coon (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) also each get their moments to shine as the story unfolds.

Driving the movie from outside the women’s collective are a group of men, each with their own issues and particular brand of evil. Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has the most layered of these characters. He never quite comes into focus, but he is clearly conflicted and buffeted along by the past and the current situation. You never really know whether to feel sorry for him or to revile him. The same can’t be said for Brian Tyree Henry (Irreplaceable You), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), or Robert Duvall (The Judge). These other men are dark, twisted, and out for themselves regardless of the pain and damage they cause. And they do. This is a violent film and hard to watch at moments.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) took an interesting risk directing this story. First, he dove into the story quickly, getting to the meat of the tale at the top. Typically, this would have been a good and obvious move. However, then he plowed on before we got to know anyone. He remained very natural rather than heightening or manipulating the audience with standard structures, letting us see realities, but not allowing us to bring emotion to it. We don’t know these people and we can’t yet sympathize with them at the beginning. We can abhor the situations, but there is no connection. The challenge is that it makes the first third of the film very flat in some ways. However, as the movie continues, it slowly builds the story and gets there; but it takes its time.

The story itself has some serious cred behind it. It was originally written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and then adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and McQueen himself. None of these artists thinks in a straight line nor bends toward the light and airy in plot. Widows will coddle and assault you, but it will bring you along and make you invest. I will admit that while the ending left me wondering if I’d really understood the McQueen’s main point in the film, but I didn’t feel cheated, only a sense of pondering. It also contained a particularly wonderful moment with mirrors (which seem to be getting more popular again in films).

Widows is not your typical heist film, not just for its female leads, but also in its approach to story. If you want something different for your holiday week’s fare, this is one that should be on your list.

Puzzle

[4 stars]

I so enjoy being surprised by a movie. You wouldn’t be wrong assuming this is a small, simple romantic comedy of sorts. However, it is much richer than that, with complicated relationships and less than obvious paths. I’m not saying it isn’t a bit oversimplified and a little over-structured, but it is a wonderful ride with lots of nice sharp turns.

Kelly Macdonald (Goodbye Christopher Robin) dominates this film from a position so unassuming you don’t even see her doing the driving. It is an odd role in that way, but one we’re seeing more often. Gloria and Shape of Water each come to mind for different reasons.

David Denman (Logan Lucky) and Irrfan Khan (Inferno) each play their roles well. Neither is breakout, but they are there for a purpose and they don’t overstep it. Likewise, Austin Abrams (Tragedy Girls) and Bubba Weiler (The Ranger), in much smaller roles. The collective whole the men around Macdonald form is essential and entirely real. And a lot of that sense is down to the careful directing.

Better known as a producer than a director, Marc Turtletaub (Gods Behaving Badly) tackled this very genuine story with confidence. The opening sequence, in fact, is inspired. With great economy he  sets up a wealth of relationships and history before the front credits have even completed. And while I haven’t seen its Argentinian original, Rompecabezas, this remake has no sense of hollowness to it the way some remakes can. It feels unique and solidly on its own feet. Turtletaub claims to have not viewed the original until his own final cut was complete; a smart move on his part that paid off.

Practiced remaker Oren Moverman (The Dinner) paired up with newcomer Polly Mann to adapt the script. I have some minor quibbles with aspects of the story and pieces that get lost (no pun intended), but it feels comfortable in its shift to NYC and Bridgeport from its South American origins.

This is a film definitely worth your time. It is sweet, but not saccharine. It is honest, but not preachy. It is simple, but not boring or painfully predictable. And, yes, it is romantic, but not palling. Watching the story come together into a complete picture is a wonderful experience.

The Darkest Minds

[3 stars]

I have to admit, this movie was a good deal better than I expected given how badly it bombed at the box office. That doesn’t mean it’s great, but it was watchable…with occasional moments of yelling at the screen for dumb story choices. I’ll get back to the writing, but better first to compliment the cast who shouldn’t be overlooked for the weaknesses in the production.

Amandla Stenberg, who got her first big break as Rue in The Hunger Games, leads the cast of young actors through this latest hellish landscape of a dystopian future. She does so with a good deal of charisma and a nice emotional journey. Along with her companions, Harris Dickinson (Trust), Skylan Brooks (The Get Down), and Miya Cech, they battle their way to a potential future. And, of course, there’s the only slightly veiled, slightly creepy (and much toned down from book) Patrick Gibson (The OA) who joins them along the way.

The young cast hang onto control of the movie well, even when there are much more practiced adult actors sharing the stage with them. Among those, Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down), Gwendoline Christie (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Wade Williams are the ones that pop. And then, of course, there is the amusing West Wing revenge of Bradley Whitford (The Post) who finally gets to sit in the President’s chair for this one.

Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda) managed her cast and the material she had well. But that is the problem, the material, which is solidly tween/teen in its maturity.

So, now back to the story itself.

Writer Chad Hodge (Wayward Pines) delivered a very un-adult script. Why things happen and how the world deals with them are lensed through the mind of a teen, with a teen’s understanding of how the world works. I’m not talking about perspective of the film, I’m talking about the writer and the amount of thought and research he put into their plot. If I’d known it was Hodge behind the keyboard going in I’d have been less surprised.

Dystopian stories are currently all the rage, but they are all riding the coattails of The Hunger Games. Hunger Games didn’t create YA dystopias, but it certainly set the expectation bar for how much money could be made by turning them into movies. The problem is, the studios have never understood why that movie took off and others (The Host, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc.) never really did.

Certainly there was a difference in the quality of the writing and, in some cases, the quality of the casting and/or directing. But really the answer is much simpler. Hunger Games, for all its futuristic framework, looks like this world and acts (mostly) like this world, and included adult thinking in its plot choices. It also took an important lesson from the Harry Potter series.

People who don’t read a great deal of science fiction or fantasy are not comfortable in thoroughly made-up worlds they are unfamiliar with. Hunger Games, like Potter, slowly acclimated a generation of readers into its world. Potter spent more than the first half of the first book in an English town and then only slowly opened the world around Hogwarts over the next 2 books. By the time they got there, most readers were completely unaware of the journey they’d taken and were willing to accept all amount of strangeness, because now it was familiar. Hunger Games managed a similar, if a bit more rapid, immersion.

Darkest Minds is a familiar world, but almost immediately has people with powers, which jumps the credibility line for a good deal of the viewing public. They’ll buy into it, but in fewer numbers and with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek nodding. It’s a shame, really, as almost all fiction these days is really genre based…Michael Crichton started that trend in spades decades back. But if the world is familiar enough to start, you can get an audience to go with you. This movie leaps too quickly into the weird and different to bring a large audience with it.

If you’re looking for distraction and some reasonable performances from up and coming young adults, it isn’t a bad afternoon. Certainly it is no more than a popcorn flick with grand intentions that are never achieved. Reaching for franchise had it stumbling. They should have gone for a standalone and hoped for the chance to take it further. The meat of a story was in there. The script let it down.

The Darkest Minds

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

[2.5 stars]

When Stieg Larsson died in 2004, he left us all hanging on the intended fate of Lisbeth Salander. His first three books weren’t the entire journey he’d envisioned. His fourth book will never see the light of day due to legal stupidity and family greed. And the final six lived only in his head. However, his remaining legal family licensed out the characters and commissioned more books, starting with The Girl in the Spider’s Web. I refused to support the ongoing book series, but I couldn’t resist checking out the movie. I wish I had.

Despite some real effort on the part of Claire Foy (First Man), this is a hollow movie with no heart at the core. The gap is in the plot and the script, which assume you know the previous stories (and are willing to forget parts of it as well). The story also veers radically from the central drives for Salandar and her relationships in the world.

This is most notable with Sverrir Gudnason (The Circle), who does a fine job of acting, but he isn’t Blomkvist. He’s far to young and pretty. And he has no emotional thread to grasp; though one is indicated in the script, the story isn’t there. He is a complicated man with complicated relationships, not just a foil or convenience with which to move the plot. Even the usually entertaining hacker Plague, Cameron Britton (Mindhunter), was somewhat flat in this story.

Three new characters were introduced into the series. Stephen Merchant (Logan) probably had the most levels to play with because the writers had to give him a story; we knew nothing about him from the beginning and it is his actions that start the plot. On the other hand Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) is OK, but sort of cookie-cutter American NSA from a European point of view. The writers assumed actions would obviate the need for character on his part. They were wrong.

More surprising was the lack of a character for Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049) playing Lisbeth’s sister. Forgetting how this and the rest of the revised/ignored backstory affects the series canon, there were rich possibilities for this woman, none of which were plumbed.

Director and co-writer Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did a beautiful visual job with the film. He also managed to capture the Swedish emotional sense with a lot of the characters. But he failed to recognize the weaknesses in the script and fight for better. And he allowed cliche to triumph over effort by some of his cast.

So the core issues of this come back to the script by writers Steven Knight (November Criminals) and Jay Basu. It feels like they took a passing knowledge of the books and decided to take those characters and throw them into a standard story. There is a small nod to the core of Salander’s, saving women or reacting to injustice, but that is simply there as a short grace note before dropping her into a Bond-like story that just isn’t a good fit and doesn’t further her purpose. However, and in some ways worse, some of the law enforcement research is awful, making the Swedish police and secret service into idiots.

So, to sum up, this is a somewhat mediocre action film and a very poor continuation of the Millennium series. Foy does a game job capturing the character, but never really gets to emotionally explore or expand her. As a stand-alone flick, without any knowledge of the base tale, you’d be watching a rather empty action movie with some clever bits to it. And there are some good moments and aspects, but this could have been a triumph, especially in the current climate. I’ll leave it to you whether or not to spend you time with it.

Bel Canto

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Paul Weitz (Grandma) has always enjoyed the unusual and quirky in stories. Bel Canto is certainly in that group, though a good deal darker than the rest of his opus. Unfortunately, it is also clear he isn’t very comfortable in that area. He was constantly dragging this story back more toward the lighter side, which diminished its tension and credibility.

Normally, Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars) would have overcome those issues and provided a performance to balance the lacks. Not in this case. Her Roxanne Coss is neither Diva nor wilting violet. And worse, she had no credibility as a singer. It is close, but her posture is all wrong, which ruined several key moments in the movie for me.

Ken Watanabe (Sea of Trees), as well, just never quite gains control of the story to give us someone to focus on, though he has nice interaction with Moore and Ryo Kase. Kase, more than these two, turns in a nice performance; perhaps the most believable of the cast.

The other half of the cast, the rebels, are all fine if not brilliant. The most interesting characters are Tenoch Huerta and María Mercedes Coroy who get to stand out by virtue of interactions with Moore and Kase.

In important side roles, Christopher Lambert (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) and Sebastian Koch (Bridge of Spies) make an impression as well.

Most of the movie issues are down to script and direction. There are powerful and interesting ideas in Bel Canto, but to absorb them you have to let go of reality and treat it as a near-surreal play. To really succeed it needed to stay more realistic. Without that there is no sense of threat and danger, not to mention loss. Weitz’s script is clear about what the story is from very near the beginning. For that approach to work we need to invest in the growing sense of connection and recognition of rebels as people without losing touch of the underlying realities. Koch’s character is intended as that interlocutor, but it just never comes together, at least not fully.

This is a movie for completists, whether for the director or the cast. I can’t say it is worth the investment solely on its own merits despite its message and reflection of current society.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Suspiria (2018)

[3.5 stars]

While Dakota Johnson (Bad Times at the El Royale) does a passable job in her role, and Chloë Grace Moretz (November Criminals) helps launch the tale, they aren’t the reasons to see this movie. The reason to see this film is Tilda Swinton (Okja), who executes three roles in service to the story and the intent. Her main role is obvious, as the Dance Master of the troop. But the other two roles take a bit of effort to see. All three are done beautifully, with the complex emotions and physicality you’d expect from this wonderful performer. Her efforts alone were worth the price of admission for me.

Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has taken Dario Argento’s original concept and, with the help of David Kajganich’s (A Bigger Splash) script, expanded on it as well as added meat to its bones. This remake is more of a real story than just a psychological splatter pic. The multiple roles for Swinton are just the tip of it. There are dualities and mirrors all over the story, from a divided Berlin to the  Baader-Meinhof connection (and even its subsequent psychological phenomenon) to male/female, high/low, etc. The layering is thick and fast; this is a movie that takes time to unpack.

Let me put it this way: Have you ever finished a film and feel like it came to a point, but have a heck of a time nailing it down? This remake of Suspiria is like that. There is a lot going on with metaphors upon metaphors not to mention just a darn good classic horror/suspense thing going on. But it doesn’t exactly spoon feed you (or force feed you) all of its intent. Some is obvious from the beginning, other aspects develop, and some will likely leave you pondering the purpose. The original was as much art house as it was horror as well, so building on that legacy isn’t a bad thing. It does mean that not everyone will be satisfied, especially when such a classic horror like Halloween is available in the theater next door.

Like the original, this movie is also violent. Whether it is violent toward women or in support of them is arguable. It is intensely weird and definitely dense and inscrutable at times. Guardagnino makes some challenging choices near the end that force you to shift your thinking. But it does feel complete, as I’ve said. The structure is there and, as I chipped away at it for hours after viewing, I made sense of a lot of it. Does that mean it worked or that, despite oblique choices, I was able to create sense out of a chaos? I guess you’ll have to be the judge.

If you’re a fan of the original or like horror that has a bit more going on, like Hereditary, then you should give this a chance. If you don’t want to go to theater, it will end up on Prime eventually, but it is visually impressive on the big screen.

Tig

[3.5 stars]

Tig Notaro (In a World…) is a comic with a unique delivery and an even more unique story. I know I’m late to discovering this one, but I was impressed enough with the docu to recommend it to those who also may have missed it up till now.

Notaro was a rising star when events conspired, in an avalanche, to try and derail her. What followed those events was a study in perseverance and, yes I’ll say it, moxy. She took tragedy and coped with it by turning into something of value. Not immediately and not easily, but she did it. That is one portion of this docu.

The other aspect of this documentary is a smaller portion, but adds an interesting layer. You get to watch the evolution of a routine and the honing of a joke. I was reminded strongly of the ongoing edit sequence of the comedian’s efforts in All That Jazz till it was perfect. It is a lesson and a wonder to watch the choices and the subtlety of the effort (not to mention the bravery of a stand-up trying out work to see what’s ready or bombing).

I will admit that while I very much enjoyed this Tig installment, her more recent 2018 special Tig Notaro: Happy to Be Here is less solid. I don’t fault her for that, and it makes a fascinating companion piece to see what three years and life changes offered her comedy. I imagine that will continue to evolve because, if nothing else, this docu and her specials prove she is a comedienne through and through, and one to be reckoned with who will continue to surprise as life offers her material.  And, regardless of your interest in comedy, Notaro’s story is ultimately an empowering and positive one.

Sorry to Bother You

[3 stars]

Writer/director Boots Riley certainly didn’t tackle an easy narrative for his first feature film. This movie goes from broad humor, to dark humor, to absurdist, to surreal over the course of its unreeling. A strange journey indeed. Sort of a more grounded Idiocracy, and yet more disturbing for that fact. Riley even consciously nods to Eyes Wide Shut in both his approach and specific scenes.  It is also the latest in a growing collection of social commentaries across many genre (Get OutBlacKkKlansman, etc).

Lakeith Stanfield (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) carries this film with a guileless approach. He accepts all the world has to throw at him and tries to play by the rules and then to use the rules to his favor. He is supported by his primary companions Tessa Thompson (Furlough), Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts), and Steven Yeun (Okja), who are each on their own journey and with their own sets of challenges for him and for themselves.

Three smaller roles provide impetus. Danny Glover (Old Man & the Gun) and Terry Crews (Deadpool 2) become mentors, of a sort. They represent two sides of the same coin for Stanfield to consider. And then there is Armie Hammer (Final Portrait), who gets to play an understated Steve Jobs-like character that serves a multitude of purposes. Hammer does an excellent job of keeping him human, despite the baggage the character has to represent.

There is no question that this is an interesting film. It is often funny. It is packed with commentary, some of it shouted at a very shrill pitch. But it isn’t just aimed at race, it encompasses art, personal success, corporate responsibility, political ennui, general happiness…the list goes on. Like I said, Riley tackled a complex narrative. It isn’t an easy film, but it manages to keep you as the world and story gets stranger and stranger, through to the final moments. But it definitely isn’t a film for everyone; it really depends on your tolerance for the bizarre.

Halloween (2018)

[3.5 stars]

This sequel is different than most. One of its most radical choices is that it discarded every film that followed the 1978 original, even those with Jamie Lee Curtis in them, to give us a different follow-up and one more fitting for the times. The depiction of a woman under threat and not being believed becomes a metaphor made manifest. The result is a bit more than a slasher flick…but not much. Though it tried to subvert that formula, it ended up bowing to the weight of expectation and gave in a bit too often.

Along with Curtis Judy Greer (Wilson) and Andi Matichak as her daughter and granddaughter add some generational expansion and views. And there is a host of potential and realized fodder with some nice talent throughout, including Virginia Gardner (Runaways) and Dylan Arnold (Mudbound) for some nice teenage hijinks. The rest of the cast is good. But then there was Haluk Bilginer’s (Rosewater) shrink, who fills the hole left by the late Donald Pleasence. Like Dr. Loomis, he is an obsessive with his own agenda. This is also where the script is at its weakest and moves the furthest from its updated feel. But none of it is far from the genre.

Director and co-writer David Gordon Green (Your Highness) was a mere 3 years old when the original Halloween hit screens in 1978 and spawned a 40 year franchise. Despite growing up with the sequels, he really managed to make it his own but with nods to both the original and the sequels as we knew them. Stylistically, however, it fits right in with the original. The script, co-written with Danny McBride (Hell and Back) and Jeff Fradley shows a real love for the series and the horror experience. It isn’t brilliant, but it manages a few surprises and some grounded aspects to its plotting.

As a side note, I’ve been watching a number of conversations about why horror is making such a come-back these days. One explanation is that horror is best experienced with others in a theater, that is more fun and satisfying that way. Sure, I’ll give you that, but I think it has more to do with our current state of the world. As with during the Cold War, people want safe ways to feel scared and in control. Then it was primarily scifi monsters. There is also a new trend in horror (Get Out, Quiet Place, It), that takes itself seriously as film, not just pulp. Halloween doesn’t rise to that level, though it certainly takes itself a half-step above pure slasher film by the end very cleverly.

For the heck of it, I also decided to see this in one of AMC’s new Dolby theaters, assuming that sound was more important than visuals for this kind of skin crawl and seat jump film. I have to say, the visuals and sound are pretty astounding. While it doesn’t quite have the visual scope of IMAX, it certainly has impact. If you’re wanting to try it out, pick a film like this one to try it out where you are less invested and think sound will be impactful.

But back to the film in question. If you like this kind of horror or just have a penchant for Halloween, you’ll have fun with this. I wish it had been a little more, but I definitely had fun and appreciated the result.