Tag Archives: popcorn

Cyrano de Bergerac (2008)

[4 stars]

I haven’t seen Cyrano for many years…and had totally forgotten just how wonderful a story it is. And this production of it, with Kevin Kline (Last Vegas) as the titular man with the nose, is transcendent. His control of the language and the emotion is gripping.

And then there is the rest of the cast. While Jennifer Garner (Wonder Park), as Roxanne, eventually finds her feet in this play, she’s nothing particularly wonderful. On the other hand, Chris Sarandon (Fright Night) is more than up to the task of playing Kline’s nemesis, as is Daniel Sunjata (Manifest) for playing his handsome but dim-witted rival.

Filmed stage plays aren’t always successful. They often feel too distanced or too forced. But director Matthew Diamond guided the play and preserved the performance wonderfully. And the staging and set are clever, functional, and flexible. In other words, it is a feast for all the senses and aspects of theatre love.

Make time for this when you can. Honestly, it is so much better than you likely remember, in large part due to the fabulous Anthony Burgess translation, but also for the sheer romance and comedy of it all, no matter how dark some of it may get.

Cyrano de Bergerac

After We Leave

[3 stars]

Yes, the millionth-and-first end of the world movie. But, much like the recently viewed Last Night, this one is more contemplative although with a bit more action and violence thrown in. And while it’s a little predictable, there are some nice variations and sense of motivation helping lift the story.

For a first feature, Aleem Hossain wrote and directed his story with a sure and clever hand. The world and story aren’t over-explained, some things are just inferred or hinted at. And the resolution is both hopeful and weird but still manages to be romantic and obvious.

Brian Silverman does a nice job carrying the movie as a n’ere-do-well who’s turned the page on his life. And Anita Leeman Torres adds a subtle sub-plot to it all that allows for a lot of satisfying interpolation. The rest of the cast is, frankly, a bit over-wired, particularly Clay Wilcox. The choices can all work, but they felt too much like stock bad-guy decisions rather than organic decisions.

There is enough world-building in this story, even with the inconsistencies, to make it stand out. And there is enough tension and action to keep you connected even with the slower pace thanks to the story and the editing. I appreciated the movie and my time spent with it. Houssain has an interesting eye and an opportunity to build on a solid foundation with this first film. I’d definitely be curious to see what comes next.

After We Leave

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Little Joe

[3 stars]

I’m always a sucker for intelligent science fiction, whether it is near-term like Arrival or far-future philosophical like Blade Runner 2049 (and it says something that both of those are by the same director) or even total gonzo pieces like Aniara or 28 Days Later. The point isn’t the presentation, it is the amount of thought behind the world and characters that snags me.

Little Joe walks some very well-trod ground, but approaches it with care and at an oblique angle. It even picked up several awards, including a Cannes Palme d’Or nomination and a Cannes win for Emily Beacham (Hail, Caesar!, Into the Badlands) as best actress. Honestly, I don’t really quite understand either recognition, though director and co-writer Jessica Hausner certainly maintained control and vision throughout the piece. And her script, written with Géraldine Bajard, is an interesting riff on a subject that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the genre.

Supporting Beacham are Ben Whishaw (Mary Poppins Returns), Kerry Fox (The Dressmaker), Kit Connor (His Dark Materials) and Sebastian Hülk (Dark). Each brings a different level of creepy or concern to the story. None of the performances are particularly brilliant, but the quiet, understated approach to the tale is consistent and, often, subtle.

The film is just a little long for its inevitable payoff for my taste (both in metaphor and reality), but it does manage to pull you along and the production design is striking. Little Joe is a worthwhile time investment if you like genre. It isn’t a perfect little gem, but it is a surprising ride, being dealt with intelligently and as adult fare.

Little Joe

Color Out of Space

[2.75 stars]

Tackling HP Lovecraft is an act of hubris most of the time, especially if done in complete earnest rather than humor (such as Cast a Deadly Spell).  But what do you expect when you’re dealing with subjects like elder gods that can make you insane just by looking at them? It isn’t easy to make that serious and genuine without a nod and a wink.

Despite the risk, Color Out of Space tackles the material head-on. And there are some good aspects to the result. The cinematography and production design of the landscape are exceptional. However, the script and direction by Richard Stanley (Hardware) lacks credibility for almost every character. The only one even close to believability is Elliot Knight (Life Sentence). However, I will admit happily that the script doesn’t talk down to its audience. There is a lot of subtle and unexplained action where the answers are in the background or obvious when paying attention.

I can’t say I understand why Joley Richardson (Emerald City) agreed to join this adventure, but credit to her for committing to it utterly. And Tommy Chong (Zootopia) adds a certain sort of meta fun to it all. The two young adult actors, Madeleine Arthur (Magicians) and Brendan Meyer (The OA), tackle what they can with what they’ve got. Sadly, poor Julian Hilliard (Haunting of Hill House) is only allowed to stare emptily most of the time rather than exercise any real craft. And despite a lot of chatter likening this to Nick Cage’s recent Mandy, this film at least has an understandable and semi-logical plot (as logical as Lovecraft ever was). It does, however, allow Cage to cut loose again as he loses his grip on control and reality.

Perhaps the best way to think of this is as a horror version of Annihilation since it shares some ideas at the root. Color Out of Space, however, veers away from Annihilation’s intellectual path and quickly devolves into a slaughter-fest once it gets going. I can’t say that the resolution and implications are exactly clear, even with some of the explanation, but at least it tries to wrap it up into something complete. Ultimately, this is going to depend on your personal taste. I would have been fine if I hadn’t seen it, even having appreciated some of its better qualities, but if you love Lovecraft or enjoy purely grim slasher events, this may fill the bill at a reasonable level for you.

Color Out of Space

Battle Beyond the Stars

[3 stars]

To be a little oxymoronic, this decidedly low-budget Roger Corman (Extraordinary Tales) space opera is more interesting for its camp and historical aspects than it is for the movie itself, which is just as often unintentionally funny as it is intentionally so in John Sayles’ script. Part of that is, admittedly, the execution of story. While Jimmy T. Murakami is officially credited for directing, Corman was in there stirring the pot too. It shows in the choice to deliver much of the arch/stock dialogue in absolute earnest, keeping the movie on keel but making some moments delightfully absurd.

For context, this flick was released just two years after the original Star Wars. Everyone wanted to replicate that success and we were getting inundated with bad space opera. But it was even earlier that films began poking fun at Flash Gordon and its ilk with the groundbreaking Barbarella. There is more than a little of that kind of humor in Battle, even as it attempts to wrap it all in a serious struggle for the survival of a planetfull of people under siege by a galactic bully, in the guise of John Saxon.

Leading the charge against Saxon’s Sador is Richard Thomas (The Americans) fresh off The Waltons. He and his smart-mouthed ship spearhead the search for warriors to protect his pacifist planet. The motley crew he assembles includes George Peppard (Damnation Alley ), Robert Vaughn, and Earl Boen.

Importantly, working behind the camera was a young James Cameron who was earning his bones and seeing how it was all done. Boen would meet Cameron and, a few short years later, find himself in The Terminator and Cameron at the forefront of his long career.

Battle is, at best, diverting and, at worse, painful to watch. It is sexist, absurd, culturally white bread, poorly plotted, and ridiculously executed. Which is all part of what makes it popcorn fun. But a good movie this isn’t. You watch it for how bad it is at times, and at how impressive the effects are for the time and budget they were working with. It is really more a classic because of who was involved than anything else. Either you’re a fan of “so bad its good/fun” or you’re not. If you’re not, just run away now.

Battle Beyond the Stars

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

Only You (1994)

[3 stars]

Romcoms never quite go out of style, though only a few retain their well-intentioned joy as years go by. Only You is somewhat on the cusp of losing its mandate due to cultural shifts. However Norman Jewison’s (Moonstruck) light romance, echoing Roman Holiday, had one aspect really going for its longevity: it’s cast.

Long before they were to match up (non-romantically) in Spider-Man, Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. got tangled up in this light comedy. And while Downey certainly has some fun and commands the screen, Tomei is the one to watch here. She is as luminescent as Audrey Hepburn, with the same vulnerability and strength. She takes the weakest of lines and moments and turns them into something magnetic, keeping the story rolling along despite any of outlandish choices Diane Drake’s (What Women Want) script forces her to make.

Along with Bonnie Hunt (Toy Story 4), and some smaller roles by Fisher Stevens (Motherless Brooklyn) and Billy Zane (Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight),  the story unspools across two relationships, one new and one old. And, of course, the question of destiny and love hangs over it all.

This isn’t a brilliant film. And, as I mentioned, it’s showing its ages at the seams. However, it is a reasonable distraction just to see Tomei work the screen and glow as she does. So if you’re in the mood for a light romance and to see a couple of stars in their younger days, turn this one on and let it wash over you. Just don’t expect too much or think too hard.

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

Klaus

[4.5 stars]

Honestly, I wouldn’t have bothered with this if it weren’t for the fact that it won the Annies for best feature this year. I mean, seriously, a Christmas cartoon? As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m even thinking it has a good shot at the Oscar.

It has been years since anyone has produced a holiday-themed animation that has risen to an annual must-see the way some of the old stop-motion animations of the 60s/70s did. But Klaus may have just changed the tide on that. It isn’t a musical bit of treacle like Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And it is more Hogfather in its sensibility and view of life than you’d expect. But it also tackles the season of retail and human nature in a beautifully honest way and weaves it into the story you expect…in ways that you really wouldn’t have predicted even as you see them becoming inevitable. But for all the intelligence and themes, it remains a children’s tale in the best of ways: it doesn’t talk down to them.

Sergio Pablos (who has spent years in animation and who previously helped write Smallfoot and Despicable Me) chose this as his first project where he was both writing and directing, and I can see why. It is a delicate balance of satire and sweetness that would have been hard to trust to someone other than the person who conceived it. Given that it took the top prize at the Annies this year, and it’s up for an Oscar, I’d say he was spot on.

Jason Schwartzman (Golden Exits) leads the cast with just the right amount of sarcasm and genunie feeling. He’s backed up by Rashida Jones (Spies in Disguise) and JK Simmons (Veronica Mars) with Joan Cusack (Welcome to Me) in a nice bit role. While the story is certainly an overblown fable, they all keep it grounded nicely. Simmons, in particular, has a slow evolution through the art and voice that is great to watch.

Klaus isn’t perfect. It is a bit rushed and hand-wavy in some of the story details. It has some inconsistencies. And, ultimately, it wraps up in a way that is heart-warming but, I felt, a slight cheat given the rest of the story you traverse getting there; but the story is what it is, so I just had to shrug and accept it (though honestly, seeing Klaus as a mildly schizophrenic widower was really fun for a while). Those are the reasons for dinging it just a bit on the rating. However, I can see rewatching this annually (along with Hog Father and Rare Exports, which are more to my holiday sensibilities) because it has a lot of great humor and it reminds you (with a soft hammer) what friends, family, and society can be if we just let them.

Bottom line: If you’ve avoided this because you thought it was just empty kid’s fare and not worth your time…rethink that opinion sometime soon.

Klaus