All you need to know to understand this wonderful, poignant tale of life in Georgia (as in former Soviet Union) is in the credits; a special thanks to the choreographer, who couldn’t be named, but without whom the movie couldn’t have been made. That statement, which comes after the story, crystallizes it all.
Writer/director Levan Akin and newcomers Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili picked up a pile of well-deserved awards for their efforts. The two leads not only deliver sweetly nuanced performances, they can also dance…like, seriously dance.
This is a paced film that slowly unfolds and ultimately builds to its climax in the final few minutes of film. Sustaining that, and building the tension as it moves along is all very subtle, but effective. And without that effort, the final scene would have been cheap theatrics rather than an unequivocal statement. Forgetting the character relationships that need to be established, the audience needs that time and day-in-the-life moments to learn some history and culture to put it all in context.
This was a perfect film for Pride month, absolutely. But it’s also a great view into a world few will have experienced, even while presenting universal emotions and struggles.
City of Angels is a richly appointed and complex tale of murder, espionage, love, and religious devotion (as well as religious hypocrisy), with a good helping of prejudice and capitalism thrown in. It is also topical and historically well done, resulting in a beautiful and brutal series.
Natalie Dormer (Patient Zero) is a revelation in 3 of the 4 characters (she really can’t pull of the white Mexican well). It is obvious why she took the role. Likewise Nathan Lane (Carrie Pilby), who gets to play to all his strengths from wry humor to deep pathos. Bouncing between them is Daniel Zovatto (Lady Bird), who serves as the main spine for the series. From the opening scene, he is the man in the balance trapped between outcomes. But until the moments, he is stuck in the gray. We watch him struggle to be part of some world, any world, where he fits and can live with the choices. And it is a compelling tension.
A number of driving roles keep it all moving as well. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years), in particular, has a many layered story to navigate. Through him we see duality in detail: humanity and the inhumane. It is done without any nod and wink, nor any apology. And Michael Gladis (Extant) provides a suitably vile and craven political climber in a world that he wants to crush before it crushes him. Even Zovatto’s screen brother, Johnathan Nieves (See You Yesterday), brings in a set of layers born of hopelessness and anger. It’s a little one-note, but it doesn’t lack credibility even when his ultimate choices are a little forced. There are some nice treats along the way too, like Patty Lupone (Last Christmas) in concert and Brian Dennehy’s (The Seagull) final effort before his passing in April (though he may have other footage still to come in a couple projects).
This time in LA, the lead-up to WWII, has been often visited, but rarely with the kind of scope this series pulls off. Usually you get hyper-focused stories, like Zoot Suit, or Chinatown, or any number of mystery/suspense/noir stories that pull apart the high and low of society, or the gay and straight. City of Angels navigates all of these aspects, and then some. And it does so in a way that makes sense and shows the connecting threads. For that alone, it is worth seeing.
However, while I loved seeing a different take on the era, I have to admit that I was also somewhat upset that it removed primary responsibility for the horrors from the humans. Dormer’s character, as the sweet-tongued devil in many guises, becomes the main impetus for all the action. She really does much more than talk to make it all happen, which is where the trouble lies.
In addition, there is a challenge with the plot decisions that bothered me. While the presentation of how LGBTQ people were treated and viewed in the era is relatively, sadly accurate, the series also has no LGBTQ character who isn’t, for lack of a better word, evil. Not just tragic, but actively doing wrong. That feels a shame in a story as big as this and one that has so many levels of detail. And particularly wrong during Pride Month. It isn’t that the characters aren’t human, they just all feel irredeemable.
But, ultimately, this show is so on target for the current situation across the country, the awakening and mobilization of frustration and anger, that it’s uncanny and upsetting. All in an intentional way. City of Angels marks a brick in the path that leads to its own historical volatile times, but it is also a reflection of the powder keg that is today. It insists we look not only at the past but at how we want to navigate the future. And it also forces us to admit the perils of not paying attention to those lessons. Despite its slightly rushed wrap-up and some of the dangling threads, this is a definite must-see for our times and, should these times move on, a must-see for the historic scope and lessons of the past; and yes it’s entertaining as well.
I know it’s a classic, but it no longer (if it ever) works. It comes close, but refuses to gel. Generally, the world agreed that director Jean-Pierre Melville and writer/adapter Jean Cocteau’s collaboration yielded an imperfect translation to screen. It made “classic” status as part of their bodies of work, not this particular work itself.
In all honesty, this wasn’t the movie I had intended to see. Way back in 1995 I was lucky enough to see Indiscretions on Broadway. That was an adaptation of Cocteau’s earlier tale and film, Les Parents Terrible. A story that was a much more interesting, funny, sad, and dark tale of familial life and emotional incest. Over the intervening years, somehow the two titles got munged in my head and I ended up queuing Les Enfants. The two are not comparable.
None of the cast in this film really had much of a career. There is the nice curio that Cocteau himself provides the narrator’s voice-over. But nothing much else about the movie stands out as a reason to recommend it. Save your time and find some other french cinema of the era to sate your education and/or curiosity. Or, if you want, something newer that reflects that era, like The Dreamers.
There is nothing quite like a well-controlled French farce to help put a smile on your face. And director and writer Francis Veber (Dinner for Schmucks, La Cage Aux Folles) certainly understands farce. His main strength is almost always going for the understated response from his main characters, while allowing the peripheral ones to go broad. It keeps the entire story from ever getting too shrill or ridiculous, even when it is outlandish or ridiculous.
He also has a great touch for casting. Gad Elmaleh (Mood Indigo) is wonderfully comfortable with his life and choices, even when offered something much more. And Alice Taglioni and Kristin Scott Thomas (Tomb Raider), as pawns turned queens, provide some great moments as well as implying some deep backstories that we never really get to learn about directly.
There are many other amusing, smaller roles, some created by faces you’ll recognize from French and International cinema. They all add sparkle and entertainment, pushing the story along with many laughs.
For a bit of warm escape, this is a great choice…and also a good one to share with someone you care about. Pop the corn, pour the libations, and curl up together on the couch for a good laugh.
There has been a wave of lock-down art recently. Well, what do you expect with a bunch of artists stuck at home with no outlet? Even the some finales (like All Rise) embraced the situation and wrote it into their tales.
Most of it has come in the form of at-home/garage concerts up till now. But, recently, a number of short video stories have begun to surface.
While there are many, these two really stood out. One for its sheer amusement and the other for its scope. Both are BBC, but I would expect them to be more generally available at some point.
What happens when David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) and Michael Sheen (Slaughterhouse Rulez) try to mount a play during the lock-down? Well, with the help of relatively unknown Simon Evans as writer/director/actor and their families, hilarity ensues. This series, comprised of 6 short episodes is self-aware, self-deprecating, and utterly irreverent. Find it…and remember to pay attention to and watch through the credits. The fun just keeps on giving while touching on the realities of the world as it is being reshaped.
There are too many people involved here to list. In several half-hour episodes, each comprised of 3 10-minute plays, you see a huge scope of pandemic life. Some of it is is funny, some uncomfortable, and some just poignant, but all are worth seeing and none are so long as to get boring.
This isn’t a great film. The script, by first-timer Vincent R. Nebrida, is painful at times. And the effort to overcome those lacks by director Laurice Guillen doesn’t help her break into the States, despite being widely celebrated in the Philippines and abroad. Even the fairly experienced cast had trouble finding an even rhythm and delivery.
But, there is a sweetness to the story and the performances that made it engaging. Certainly the peek into Philippine culture was interesting (even if aspects were overblown at times). In between cringing at the dialogue and some of the acting, it will reach you and make you smile as you grow to understand this group of friends who bond over the past and food while negotiating their way into their futures.
Director/writer Wong Kar-wai (The Grandmaster) has a beautiful sensibility about film and about characters. It isn’t just about the framing, which is always impressive, it is about his awareness of the moments. He imparts emotion by virtue of how they are presented, adding a layer to the performances and story.
When paired with subtle performers like Tony Chiu Wai Leung (The Grandmaster) and Maggie Cheung (2046), the result is riveting. We swept up in their lives as they reevaluate their marriages and each other. It is always as much about the silences and what we can’t see that expands the story, sometimes even more so than what is on screen.
Beyond the story itself, Kar-wai plays some entertaining games with the film. Cheung, for instance, has an astonishing wardrobe that rarely repeats. Some characters are never fully in frame or seen from the front. Rain and smoke become motifs for emotion and thought. And the episodic nature of the film ultimately drives unexpected aspects of the tale. It is no wonder it picked up so many awards; it pulls you along with inexorable curiosity, longing, and hope.
Sometimes the whole isn’t more than the sum of its parts.
Lovebirds is at times a sweet and, at times, a painful romcom that never really comes together. It works best when Kumail Nanjiani (Men in Black: International) and Issa Rae (Little) are being honest with one another as characters. When they’re trying to out-comedy one another, it just falls apart, losing steam and focus while adding nothing really of value. Had that been more constrained and used more precisely by director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), it might have worked.
What is scary is that this was supposed to release in theaters till the pandemic hit. It was one of the first big films to dump plans and go straight to a streaming service. It was a definitely a better choice for it as it would have done middling, at best, out in the theaters. As part of Netflix, it’s level of quality is acceptable if disappointing.
(Side Note: I really hope that they start raising the bar a bit more on their acquisitions. I love the breadth of material they offer, especially the foreign fare, but their ability to recognize quality is definitely suspect far too often).
For an evening where you can’t find anything else or when you want a story that requires no effort or investment with a bit of humor (a very little bit), this will suffice. I did, afterall, watch the whole thing. But, honestly, you deserve and can do better.
Here are a few more streamers. Two worth your time and one that is entirely up to your sense of humor. Then again, I suppose they all depend on your sense of humor, but let’s just say I found the first two to have more of an easy entry and wider appeal, but that may just be me…
The Great (Hulu)
If The Favourite had spawned a series, in style and concept, this would have been the result. I know it is actually based on different IP (a play) but you can’t help but see the parallels, especially with Nicholas Hoult (The Current War) in one of the leads.
But this is really Elle Fanning’s (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) moment, her chance to take the reins and reign as an adult. Watching her navigate her world, and the absurd situations, is a riot and, at times, terrifying. Helping her along in her conspiracy to bring sanity to Russia are Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who) and Pheobe Fox (Eye in the Sky). And Belinda Bromilow (Doctor, Doctor) and Sebastian De Souza (Medici) add a wonderful counterpoint and humor to it all. Even Charity Wakefield (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and Adam Godley (Umbrella Academy) add a sort of caustic and clever nastiness. Honestly, there are too many good performances to call them all out. If you’re up for some (sort of) period comedy, this one is worth the effort.
Upload (Prime) A little bit science fiction, a little bit rock-n-roll… ok, more a little bit Sleeper with a huge dash of Her, though both with backflipping twists on the approach. Robbie Amell (ARQ) and Andy Allo (Pitch Perfect 3) drive this show wonderfully. Allo, in particular, skips through emotional changes like a quick-change artist. Creator Greg Daniels brought his Parks and Rec comedy chops, but with a bit more restraint, to sell this entertaining satire that also comes with a nice mystery embedded. The first series is a solid start, but while it gets to a pause-point, it definitely ends on some serious cliffhangers. Fortunately, it is already renewed, so you won’t be left hanging forever.
Avenue 5 (HBO)
Yeah, I’m sorry, I just don’t get the appeal of this one. And it’s not because Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager) isn’t great fun. Nor is it that Lenora Crichlow (Collision) doesn’t manage to balance out the craziness. It’s that the writing and, particularly, Josh Gad (Little Monsters) just don’t know how to set limits that keep it all fun.
What could have been the black humor counterpart to Aniara, turns into a broad comedy mess without much to say for itself.
It isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly predictable in many ways, but The Half of It is also down-to-earth and earnest in the best possible sense. And I say this even with the framework of Cyrano with echos of Love, Simon and Hedvig and the Angry Inch paving the way. Director/writer Alice Wu (Saving Face) really came through in her Sophomore outing. She navigates the sea of high school awakening and romance with confidence, honesty, and a good dash of fantasy to allow for dramatic moments. But she never loses credibility, despite the well trod ground.
Much of the success here goes to the three leads. Leah Lewis (Nancy Drew) as our Cyrano is heartbreakingly lost in her world, trying to balance life and family. Daniel Diemer, is surprisingly effective as a “inarticulate jock” with hidden capacities. And Alexxis Lemire, as the object of affection, walks an interesting line without stumbling. With Wu’s guidance, each of them manages to remain both aware and innocent, intelligent, but naive. In other words, very much of their age rather than adults playing at being teenagers.
This is where the movie sets itself apart from another similar outing in 10 Things I Hate About You. 10 Things, while practically a classic, leans into its classical underpinnings and loses the pretense of reality. The Half of It leans more into life, and embraces the joy and the suck (at least to a degree) that is being a teenager in love.
There is also one wonderful bit part worth mentioning, as it is a real standout. Becky Ann Baker (Girls), as Lewis’s teacher, has a few fabulous moments that also serve to expose the town at large with a few brushstrokes.
Make time for this one, if you haven’t already. It will put a smile on your face without rotting your teeth. And the story, humor, and moments are certainly worth revisiting again down the road.