Tag Archives: Romance

A-X-L

[2.5 stars]

A dirtbike riding teen with a robot dog, how could this go wrong? Well, many ways. There are some things that go right, but this is a generally forgettable movie with a standard plot aimed at a pre-teen/tween audience.

What they did well was Becky G (Power Rangers), who was actually the sharpest pencil in the box. And, despite how they dressed her, well in control of herself and the situations around her. And the movements of the CGI dog were pretty spot on. Thomas Jane (The Expanse) was also nicely nuanced in a small role, but one with impact. As the capable, but slightly dim and rash lead, Alex Neustaedter (Colony) is OK, but the script did him no favors.

On the other hand, Alex MacNicoll (13 Reasons Why) was just such a stock character it was disappointing. MacNicoll didn’t do poorly with what he had, again the script just didn’t allow him much quarter. Dominic Rains (A Girl Walks Home Alone at NightAgents of SHEILD) didn’t even manage to rise above the script to credibility.

For a first film, Oliver Day held together the pacing and heavy effects issues well. Unfortunately, he also tried to write the script, which he didn’t execute as cleanly. He aimed at too young an audience for the subject matter and situations he wanted to address. Because of that, he glossed how some things work (the military, high security research bases, relationships, etc.). The result feels like an old TV show with a bit more budget and scope, but not much.

It isn’t that I didn’t feel entertained by Day’s result, but you could see the better movie hiding within its skin. Certainly it showed some ability, and for a younger crowd it may suffice for some distraction. Worth it in the theater? Not really…queue it up for a rental down the road.

As a sidenote, this flick will also go down as the movie that broke Global Road’s back. After the failure of Hotel Artemis and and AXL, bankruptcy seems the final destination for the recently formed studio collaboration.

AXL

The Names of Love (Le nom des gens)

[3.5 stars]

Quirky. Amusing. Sexy. And all with a purpose. It is very… French; a dark comedy that is also a political romance. There is nothing traditional about this one at all.

Sara Forestier (Gainsbourg: Vie Héroïque) is evanescent and the walking embodiment of Id and sex. She is also strong and independent to a fault. And, opposite her (in so many ways), Jacques Gamblin is about as buttoned down as one can get. Yet, somehow, they become an unlikely couple.

There isn’t much more to tell that won’t give away the surprises. If you like quirky romance and don’t mind some politics thrown in, this is for you. It is very funny at times, and a bit pointed at others. If you want just a light romance, this probably isn’t your best choice.

If you get this on disc, there is also a short film by co-writer Baya Kasmi that is clearly the inspiration for this longer piece she put together with director Michel Leclerc. The bones of the story are in this short, but the sensibility is quite a bit different. If you do watch The Names of Love, give the short a go and see what spawned it. It is a good little film in its own right.

The Names of Love

Crazy Rich Asians

[4 stars]

So all that joy, surprise, and summer delight that I had hoped Mama Mia! Here We Go Again would bring me is here in this movie. It is a broad rom-com to be sure, but it manages to go a bit beyond that. By the end this is more about real love than it is about idealized stories. Not that this isn’t a fantasy, it surely is, but it is one that does what it wants to do well and you’ll willingly go along with it.

In the leads, Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) and relative new-comer Henry Golding make a wonderful couple with great chemistry. You can believe and invest in them, even when Golding’s choices are a bit less than supportive around his family.

And it is Golding’s family that is at the core of challenges, with Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: DiscoveryThe Mechanic: Resurrection) as his mother. A side-plot with Gemma Chan (Humans) as his cousin is also well-delivered. In many ways, Chan’s presence actually starts to steal the movie, but that is kept in check by limiting her story’s screen time.

Wu’s Rachel has her own set of friends in Singapore, led by Akwafina (Ocean’s 8) and her crazy family. These are the broadest characters we meet. Given her father is Ken Jeong (The DUFF), that isn’t much of a surprise. Only Nico Santos (Superstore) matches their antics as part of the story. We expect a certain amount of this in a rom-com, but it sometimes skirts the edge of the cliff if it isn’t your type of humor. There are some side characters that actually jump off that cliff, but they don’t really matter for the plot in any real way.

After the bomb of Jem and the Holograms, director Jon M. Chu is probably breathing a huge sigh of relief at the success of this release. He manages the story well, never quite letting it get out of control and delivering the wrap-up with a solid punch. It leaves you smiling, tapping your feet, and celebrating love (and wishing you, too, were super rich, of course). This is a great piece of escapist fun and, as you’d expect, a great datenight flick.

Crazy Rich Asians

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

[3.5 stars]

Take a story by Neil Gaiman and give John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit HoleHedvig and the Angry Inch) the opportunity to turn it into a movie and you get a sort of punk rock coming-of-age fantasy that starts odd, gets odder, and manages to steal your heart.

Alex Sharp in his first movie (though a Tony winner for The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time) nails it. He and his friends, Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis, give us a group of young punks in 1977 Croydon looking for…something in all the wrong places. As most adolescents do. The story is best experienced without any preamble, so I’ll stop there.

The boys are supported by a great cast. Elle Fanning (Leap!), ever her ethereal self, headlines it all and seems to expand on her Neon Demon character. And in support, Nicole Kidman (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, Luther), and Matt Lucas (Sherlock Gnomes) each bring their own special brand of uniqueness to the characters.

But it isn’t just about the story and people directly. It is also about the music and movement that was just gaining steam in ’77. Real-life musician Martin Tomlinson leads the fictional Dyschords in a brilliant and believable set of performances to set the mood. As Gaiman put it when he saw it, they feel like a real band from that era you just somehow missed at the time. I’d add, if you ever cared about that era, you’d be sorry you did. And the rest of Nico Muhly and Jamie Stewart’s music is equally effective and engaging.

Entertainment and cleverness aside, Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett took the smallest of seeds from Gaiman’s story of the same name (published as part of his Fragile Things collection) and grew it into a wondrous and unexpected adventure. It is as if Sing Street tripped into Wonderland, or Across the Universe collided with Velvet Goldmine. And yet none of that is really accurate other than to imply the unexpectedness of it all. Despite all the expansions, it still retains the sense and point of the original piece. Truly a great example of adaptation. However, if you haven’t read the story first I’d read it after. The story will suffer for that, but the movie will probably be improved by protecting some of its uniqueness.

Check this out without finding out more and just let the story take you. Mitchell is wonderful at laying out secret and twisty paths and imbuing his creations with heart, even amid heartbreak. And in this case, with Gaiman’s sensibility to help inform it all, it comes together in delightful ways. This is a universal story, even if the trappings don’t appear so.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Indignation

[3 stars]

Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) is not the first actor I would have considered for the lead role as a Jewish intellectual outcast in the wilds of Ohio 1951, but he surprised me. While his sense of inner turmoil and contradiction is less obvious than I might have preferred, his delivery and control helped sell the complicated young man. With Sarah Gadon (The 9th Life of Louis Drax) beside him much of the way, the two cut a tumultuous rug overhung by desire and dread. In short, a Philip Roth novel.

Around the young lovers are the adults that help define the story and results, though not a one of them would ever accept that responsibility. Which is, to my mind, part of the point. Tracy Letts (The Post), in particular, is a quiet powerhouse of a character. Letts embodies a personality that was common then and, sadly, still too far common now. And, as his parents, Danny Burstein (The Family Fang) and Linda Emond (Song to Song) are heartbreakingly real in their love and selfishness that influence Lerman’s life.

Writer/director James Schamus (Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet, Lust, Caution) is no stranger to delicate and fraught relationships.  His adaptation of Roth’s tale captures the intellectual and lyrical nature of the author nicely. For as simple as Roth’s stories are, the underlying intent and the social and personal commentary are not. His characters are constantly challenged and often fail. They question their purpose and their morality. They often don’t fit into the world around them at all; outsiders in a crowd. Sometimes outsiders in their own bodies. And they are passionate to the point of their own demise.

Indignation is loaded with history and layers. It is a quiet film that will pull you along to its final moments. It nicely hits on a personal level while leaving you with plenty to consider, and consider changing. And it captures its era beautifully…only reminding us how little has changed in human nature and politics.

Indignation

Same Kind of Different as Me

[3 stars]

This is not a subtle film. In fact, first time feature director and co-writer Michael Carney was as delicate as a sledgehammer at times. This isn’t to say that the story (a true one) isn’t insightful or effective, it is. It is just generally much more provocative than evocative.

What saves this film from just being a Lifetime installment is the cast and the truthful earnestness of its tale. Djimon Hounsou (Seventh Son) captures the real-life Denver and his situation emotionally and with conviction. If anything, his performance made this worth its bloated, nearly two hour length. And, as the couple that comes into his life, Greg Kinnear (Brigsby Bear) and Renée Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) build a relationship fraught with reality and more than a little bit of idealism. In smaller, but important, roles Jon Voigt (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Geraldine Singer (Mudbound) add a different balance and storyline. The one truly odd bit in the cast is the son, played by Austin Filson. Filson is notable only for the fact that he doesn’t speak a single line the entire film even though his screen sister, Olivia Holt, has a plot thread of her own.

The message and insights of this story are important ones, particularly at this time in the country when we seem to have lost track of who people in need are and how they got there. I won’t go into the disturbing irony of that trend when we supposedly have such religious leadership. But an important message and good acting don’t always make a good movie. Not that this is a bad movie, but it’s just the wrong side of cloying for me, and is clearly aimed at a faith-based crowd. I stand by that description despite the fact that it takes one of the main characters literally to the threshold of a church and then keeps them entering. Faith is not a bad thing, but it brings a tone and level of unreality to it all, even if the base tale is true. And, certainly, it spurred an ongoing wave of good works (that somehow remain primarily in the background till the credits).

So, should you see this? Probably. It is a good check on your assumptions and a goose to your sense of possibility. In more practiced hands, this could have been a better movie, but as a message delivered with credible talent, it will hold you till the end. But know what you’re walking into and accept it for what it is and what it isn’t.

Same Kind of Different as Me

Extinction

[3 stars]

Extinction was originally intended to land on the big screen this August…and then Netflix bought the rights from Universal and dropped it into their library. As it turns out, that was probably a rather shrewd move on both sides.

The movie is far from straight forward and is intriguing, though it takes time building steam. The script also isn’t nearly as complex or intriguing as Eric Heisserer’s other sci-fi epic, Arrival, but it isn’t your typical science fiction fare either. What starts as a rather standard plot evolves over the course of the story. To be fair, Heisserer came in late and rewrote other people’s work. Also not helping is that the final delivery by director Young is a bit over-compressed and under-paced for the big screen. Even with these issues, it manages to maintain your interest.

But the result is that Extinction ends up feeling more like a great pilot, a la Babylon 5: The Gathering, than a major motion picture; offering up a rich world with solid potential for a series. And this is why both sides of the purchase won. Universal avoided another box office embarrassment and Netflix got their hands on a solid property to further exploit.

It was also great to see Michael Peña (Ant-Man and the Wasp) in a role that was bit more sedate and natural than the broad characters he’s better known for. It isn’t his strongest performance, but it shows a side of him that was unexpected. Lizzy Caplan (Disaster Artist) plays well opposite him too. They make an unlikely pair, but it works.

There aren’t many others notable in the cast from a story point of view. Israel Broussard (Happy Death Day) stands out with an integral performance. And Mike Colter (Luke Cage) plays the hand he’s dealt well, but he wasn’t given all that much. The focus is really on Peña and Caplan and their family.

If you like good science fiction, or something a little more involved than standard alien invasion stories, make time for Extinction. Much like Netflix’s previous big screen purchase Bright, the execution is still imperfect, but they’re starting to do better on that front. With luck, they’ll get their feet under them and continue the story.

Extinction

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

[4 stars]

The MI series is known for huge stunts, dry humor, and cheap emotion. This sixth installment is no exception on that front, though writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible 5 – Rogue Nation) does something a little special this time around. Fallout is brings back in Ian Hunt’s past and nods to several previous MI movies. It also manages to give a little more story time and weight to the rest of Hunt’s team, taking some of the pressure off of Tom Cruise (The Mummy) and enriching the series.

I have to admit, I was a bit worried as the movie started. Some of the choices and moments were less than nuanced and the “secrets” were bloody obvious. But it (mostly) gets past all of that by the end. Henry Cavill (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is suitably odd in his role, though I struggled with him at time. Ving Rhames (MI:5) actually got to out screen Simon Pegg (Ready Player One) this round in many ways. And the return of Sean Harris (Macbeth) was a nice touch to keep the world alive. Finally, though in a small role, Wes Bentley (Pete’s Dragon) does subtle and nice work that is almost all throw-away, but great to watch.

While this is still a heavily male dominated series, there were several strong female characters, each with their own stories as well. Rebecca Ferguson (Greatest Showman) gets to reprise her role and continue her and Hunt’s odd dance, as does Angela Bassett (Black Panther). Frustratingly, Bassett is the least credible of the characters thanks to the writing. The return of Michelle Monaghan (Sleepless) was an interesting choice by McQuarrie to flesh out Cruise’s life as Hunt. The addition, and far too little screen time, of Vanessa Kirby (The Dresser) was a nice treat too. I imagine we’ll be seeing much more of Kirby in the the next installment…and that installment is inevitable given the praises and dollars this movie has already garnered.

If you like the MI series, this fast-paced 2.5 hour adventure is a worthy addition to the collection. In many ways it is the best movie of the bunch, if not always the best MI story. Much like Equalizer 2, Cruise and McQuarrie are revitalizing the series by making it more personal while still holding onto most of the bare bones of its origins. Things still go wrong, spectacularly in some cases. The stakes are ridiculously high. The tech is important, but not always the answer. The world is mostly unaware of the craziness going on around them and shaping their lives. But deep underneath it all are a group of increasingly more human agents trying to do the right thing for the right reasons despite the politicos and evil-doers around them.

As escapist adventure with a bit of heart, this is probably the best popcorn film of the summer. And that’s what summer movie going is often for: escapism. So go, gasp, and escape for a couple hours.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Love After Love

[2.5 stars]

Love After Love is one of those movies that promises a lot, but never quite manages to deliver, despite a couple of nice performances by Chris O’Dowd (Loving Vincent) and Andie MacDowell (Magic Mike XXL). It starts off intriguingly enough, skipping through slices of life to expose the very real, drawn-out decline and loss of a loved one. Each splinter of time provides glimpses that build to a story.

But ultimately,  director and co-writer Russell Harbaugh got lost in his conceit and allowed it all to fall apart at the end. For his first major film, it was an interesting attempt and shows some promise. One of the biggest issues was his choice to not edit out a stand-up sequence that torpedoes his entire focus for the film in exchange for the minimal exposure of one of the side characters. Which isn’t to say there aren’t good performances. Two of the nicer, smaller performances were by Romy Byrne (Flower) and Francesca Faridany (Black Panther) who stood out nicely.

Generally, there are much better films out there on death, loss, life, and love. Nostalgia comes to mind immediately, or even A Ghost Story, both of which employ small slices of life to build up complex tales and commentary. This entry to the field is rather missable.

Love After Love

Disobedience

[3.5 stars]

Sebastián Lelio has had a hell of a run on screen. His last few films have all been quiet, emotionally powerful stories of women finding their feet in the world. With Gloria, he looked at an older woman reassessing her life. With A Fantastic Woman, he took on a transgender woman accepting herself and the loss of her love. With co-writer Lenkiewicz (Ida), in Disobedience, he tackles the intersection of deep, fundamentalist beliefs, desire and, as with all his films, escaping the weight of the past.

This film boasts a triumvirate of powerful characters embodied by Rachel Weisz (Denial), Rachel McAdams (Game Night) and Alessandro Nivola (Selma). Each of these people must navigate a complex web of connections and expectations as well as their own inner demons to find a way forward. While the main focus is on the women, there is history to the three that is only slowly revealed. The less you know going in, the better to appreciate the work that Lelio put into the film.

Lelio is a patient director. He lays out stories and insists that they slowly reveal themselves and build, much like life. We only see so much at a time and, rarely, do we get explanations. We have to intuit the issues or wait for an inciting moment to get details, but the information is there. Disobedience is no exception. He presents a situation and hints at unspoken tensions, but doesn’t explain them immediately, driving tension into otherwise mundane and quiet situations.

When you have a couple hours and want to see some real craft, both on screen and behind it, put this on. It tackles a culture that is rarely depicted with care and appreciation, and it is packed with brilliant acting and direction.

Disobedience