Tag Archives: SeeIt

Kiss & Spell (Yeu Di, Dung So!)

[3 stars]

This Vietnamese rom-com cum horror is an amusing and touching escape for an evening. A remake, or seriously inspired by, the Korean movie Spellbound, it follows a magician and his muse as they both struggle with finding out what actually makes them happy…with a bit of the supernatural thrown in along the lines of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

The comedy is broad at times, but it is well-contained and not nearly as over-the-top as you might fear. Even the romantic bits remain very sweet, but never melodramatic. Thanks to the late writer/director Stephane Gauger, it balances rather well and never wanes in energy despite its two hour length. He managed to walk the line of Far East and American comedy nicely, keeping it accessible to both audiences. Even the horror bits, which lean more toward Japanese horror influence, aren’t so much scary as pointed for the tale.

Gauger had a short but impactful career. He came out of the gate strong when he shifted to the director’s chair and gathered a number of awards quickly. He clearly had a career ahead him and it is a damn shame we’ll never see what it could have been. In the meantime, he left us with a range of films worth spending some time with…this one included.

 

Ocean’s 8

[4 stars]

Caper films are a wonderful and difficult genre. They can go hyper-violent, like Den of Thieves, or incredibly staid, like Topkapi (or it’s earlier incarnation, Rififi) and everything in between. There is always a challenge, a personal angle (usually revenge), and, often, a death. But what drives a great caper film is the tension and pace and the great chemistry of those involved.

Ocean’s 8 has the chemistry in spades, led confidently and in style, by Sandra Bullock (The Heat) and Cate Blanchett (Thor: Ragnarok). The rest of the gang is entertaining and, if not entirely credible, engaging enough to make us forget that aspect. Made up of Sarah Paulson (Carol), Mindy Kaling (A Wrinkle in Time),  Helena Bonham Carter (Alice Through the Looking Glass), Awkwafina (Storks), and Rhianna (Zootopia), the group play off each other well and create fun characters that feel like they have full lives. Even Carter, who plays into type (especially how she is dressed during the gala), still manages to give us something grounded and a bit new for her. With Anne Hathaway (Colossal) in the mix as the target L’Enfant terrible, great fun is had by all.

There aren’t a lot of surprises in this reboot of the series, but the more you know how these things work, the harder it is to misdirect. Logan Lucky learned that lesson last year.  But co-writers Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) and first timer Olivia Milch do some clever work to keep us wondering nonetheless. However Ross’s directing didn’t quite get the pop and flow that would make this film a classic. The pace is just a bit slow, the rhythm just a bit off. It feels polished, but not perfect.

However, it isn’t so far off as to be disappointing. The performances are fun and the dialogue and intent satisfying, pretty much all around. And, for those keeping count, the men are fairly incidental: Richard Armitage (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies), and James Corden (Into the Woods).

If you like amusing, quick-paced caper antics, you need to make time for this film. It may translate to the small screen, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another film with so many great female actors in once place (and I’ve only listed a few…there are some wonderful surprises too).

Ocean

Hereditary

[3.5 stars]

Ari Aster’s first major script and directing gig betrays a love of intelligent, suspenseful horror from the 70s. There is an air of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and even a bit of The Omen and the (much older) Cat People and the more recent Get Out. It is in the tension he creates and the way he drives the story by raising questions around what’s really happening that echoes these earlier classics. He certainly did himself no harm with the cast he gathered either.

Toni Collette (Please Stand By) delivers a shattering performance as the matriarch of a broken family. Gabriel Byrne (Carrie Pilby) supports her as her husband with immense restraint and love, but with diminishing capacity as the story unfolds. And, as the children, Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and first-timer Milly Shapiro turn in wonderfully creepy and sad performances that will break your heart before tearing it from your chest. As an added bonus, Ann Dowd (American Animals) gets to play a pivotal role and appear on multiple screens in different releases this season.

Hereditary is not an easy movie, either to watch or to define. Half the film I was wondering what I was watching, but was utterly riveted by the performances and the filmmaking. The end felt a bit forced and obvious, but the ride getting there was so solid I’ll give Aster a pass on his ultimate choices. The film gave everyone in its ensemble moments to shine, and made its audience gasp many more times than once. If you are looking for dark, creepy, and something just a bit different, you will want to see this on the big screen, in the dark, with others.

Hereditary

The City & The City

[3 stars]

Much like the title and conceit of the story, I had two simultaneous reactions to this story. First, I was awed watching the impossible being brought to screen. At the same time I was led down a path of disappointment in support of the purpose and the plot.

I’ll come back to that, but be assured there is a great ride for a long part of the series. A good part of that success goes to David Morrissey (Extant, Doctor Who). He is subtle but intense in his role, which is highly flavored with an East European flare. Mandeep Dhillon (Whitechapel), as his sidekick, is energizing and entertaining and far from superfluous. Maria Schrader (Fortitude), as another associate, brings a very different type of intensity to help it all along. And Lara Pulver (Electric Dreams) is a great Macguffin for the tale, slowly peeling back layers and history for Morrissey. And that’s just a sampling of the characters. You may have  noticed that despite the male lead, this story is dominated by strong women. In smaller, pivotal roles, Christian Camargo (Europa Report) and Danny Webb (A Little Chaos) are a bit less believable, but still serve their purposes.

Now, back to the plot. The first three episodes of the four installment series are brilliant and engaging. The combination of writing, directing, and cinematography walk you through a challenging set of ideas in a convoluted world. But in the fourth episode, after a promising start, it all falls apart into either an odd political polemic or disappointing bit of naturalism. I haven’t read China Miéville’s book of the same name yet, so can’t speak as to whether it follows the source closely, but I can believe it does; the flavor of the ending matches Miéville’s sensibilities.

But here’s the thing about The City & The City, you’ll get to the end and, probably, be annoyed. But you will keep thinking about this show and its  points and implications. In fact, it may not even land at first, but will keep poking at your brain demanding to be acknowledged; the metaphors are incredibly powerful. However, that doesn’t make it satisfying, only poignant. I think that it would have done better as an episode in an anthology series or a one-shot film rather than a four-part series that seems to lead in one direction only to veer off into another. Forewarned, it is likely a better experience than going in blind. So take this as your heads-up and then make time for the series, it really is worth it just for the brilliant execution of the near-impossible by director Tom Shankland (The Fades) and writer Tony Grisoni .

American Animals

[3 stars]

It’s easy to dismiss this as a story that depicts the basic truism “criminals are stupid” because, well, they certainly were in this case. However, that would be selling this quasi-documentary short. Bart Layton wrote and directed something that wasn’t so much unique as it is impressively seamless as it bounces between the real subjects of this story and the actors and situations depicting their tale from 13 years previous. It is a wonderful melding, raising re-enactment to an impressive level that maintains truth and also becomes a movie on its own.

Part of that success is how well Layton cast the younger criminals. Evan Peters (Elvis & Nixon), Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen), and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) each manage to embody their real-life counterparts and deliver nicely layered characters. Most importantly, you can see them growing into these men. But while Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) delivers a performance that, under other circumstances, would have been great, I had great difficulty seeing him grow up to be the real Spencer Reinhard. This isn’t just a matter of knowing the story and people involved, Reinhard and his cohorts deliver interviews and color commentary throughout the film…we see them and get to know them, which makes the younger portrayals all that more important. Around them are a solid ensemble making it all work. There are also some specific supporting bits from Udo Kier (Downsizing)  and Ann Dowd (Collateral Beauty) that stood out.

But ultimately, as engaging and suspenseful as the story is, the real question is what is this movie about? Certainly it chronicles the events and, to a degree, the lives of those involved. It raises some interesting questions about motive and growing up as a Millennial. It encourages us to wonder what we would do in these situations. But what it doesn’t do is provide satisfactory answers or a sense of conclusion. There is no indication that those involved even had answers to those questions or ideas. And that, perhaps, is part of Layton’s point in making American Animals, but I’m not sure that’s enough to justify having made the film, however well crafted it is.

Still, for the ride and to experience the beautiful craft that Layton employs, this movie was worth my time. I wanted more, but I can also acknowledge the filmmaker’s vision.

American Animals

Thoroughbreds

[3.5 stars]

In his first script and major directing gig, Cory Finley really delivers. Thoroughbreds is controlled, paced, and loaded with clever sound cues and framing choices. It is magnetic and darkly funny in very unexpected ways. And, also in the most unlikely of ways, it gets you to invest in two sociopaths. There are some echoes with The End of the F***ing World, but Thoroughbreds is more quiet and focused.

A large part of the success of this film is down to the casting; it is  perfect for the purpose. In fact, this is the role that Olivia Cooke deserved to play after having to suffer through Ready Player One. Likewise Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) gets to stretch her acting chops and have some fun in this dark suspense/comedy.

And I know I’ve said this before, but I think this is the last of Anton Yelchin’s film appearances we will be graced with. It isn’t his most groundbreaking role, but it is layered in a way that most actors wouldn’t be able to accomplish with such a character. And, in an odd way, having him appear is a bit ghoulish, but in a good way that reflects on the story.

I was surprised by this film; not just for its solid directing, excellent acting, and brave subject matter, but also for how it kept its energy up to the last frame. Admittedly, you need to be in the mood for this kind of story, but it is surprisingly engaging from the moment it begins right through till the end. Finley’s last frame nails home the story he wants to tell, and those sound cues continue through the final credit roll as well. I’m looking forward to more work from him and the two young actors.

Thoroughbreds

The Mountain Between Us

[3 stars]

Two great actors and an indefatigable dog make this a hard movie not to like. Kate Winslet (Wonder Wheel) and Idris Elba (Molly’s Game) make an interesting pair, in acting chops and romantically. The story goes from the mundane to the extreme quickly, though some of the character secrets are held back more by force than logic. Small parts by Beau Bridges (Bloodline) and Dermot Mulroney (Sleepless) help round out the tale…and, of course, the aforementioned dog.

The script is a departure for Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Cinderella, Rogue One) who is more often on the light fantasy side of things. But he was balanced by J. Mills Goodloe (Age of Adaline, Pride) who tends to stick closer to romance and more real-world relationships. But it is director Hany Abu-Assad, whose pension for depicting desire in the midst of adversity, who takes it all over the finish line.

The survival tale is a good one, and relatively credible. But, in reality, this is more a long metaphor for love and relationships…and on that level it gets a little strained, however on the mark it may be. And I get the sense the dog’s story got lost or his import somehow drained out on the cutting room floor. In the final cut, he is entertaining, but superfluous other than as additional color. Both of these aspects lower the final assessment of the movie for me, despite the successful building of the delicate relationship and aftermath of the adventure.

All that said, the scenery is gorgeous. The tension and dangers palpable. And the interplay is well done. The movie is worth your time when you’re in the mood for either a story of survival or of relationships forged from shared experiences and needs. The tight focus on the two main characters for the majority of the film is intense; it is rare you get to see that kind of talent with little distraction around it. But do bring a blanket…watching all that snow and ice really gets to your bones.

The Mountain Between Us

Upgrade

[3 stars]

There is more to Upgrade than you expect. Not a lot more, but it has a better story and script than a good portion of the films that have come out so far this year. On the artistic and intellectual side there are clearly intentional nods to Da Vinci, Frankenstein, Robocop, even a bit of Hitler in the visuals. This isn’t so much a dystopic future as it is an apathetic one with economic divisions just a bit more obvious than the present.

But while it starts off with a sense of Ex Machina, it loses that higher ground to drift closer to the sensibility of Automata. Both good recommendations, but very different movies. Upgrade is certainly willing to dive into ideas, like the potential amorality (or different-morality) of AI and what evolution means. And it is equally unafraid of emotions or taking its time to set up and execute on story. But they say “write what you know,” and writer/director Leigh Whannell just couldn’t quite shake his roots in Saw and Insidious. The ultimate result here isn’t very surprising–a good action and horror piece done with some talent. As a sophomore delivery from behind the camera, Whannell delivered a fairly solid bit of splatter punk. If there is any weakness, it is that despite some truly nice vistas and sets, the piece feels claustrophobic on a world level.

That smallness to the world may be due to its small cast, but Blade Runner 2049 had a similarly small cast without that sense, so I think it has more to do with Whannell’s framing choices. The cast are fairly solid and led by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), who gives us an Everyman we can definitely sympathize and empathize with. He is a Luddite in a world of tech, but a person with deep passions and a sense of self and love of his wife and muscle cars (in that order). Betty Gabriel (Get Out) delivers to us a committed, if exhausted cop. Her role is challenging because we only see her decisions from the outside, which makes her seem disinterested or lazy, but I found myself enjoying the removed perspective and trying to piece together her off-screen and unspoken efforts. Harrison Gilbertson (Picnic at Hanging Rock) has an interesting challenge as well. Playing the distracted genius can be tiresome, but Gilbertson manages, by the end, to give us a shade of something new.

As purely a voice, Simon Maiden (The Dressmaker) imbues our nascent AI with a subtle personality. Stem is neither human nor too removed to keep it from becoming a character. There is a sense of HAL, but Maiden makes Stem very much his own. And, finally, there is Benedict Hardie’s (Hacksaw Ridge) neo-Nazi-ish villain. Here is where Whannell could have done a bit more. Hardie’s performance is well directed, keeping him from going to extreme, though his first scene is somewhat misleading on that point. But the character’s motivations and drive, though stated, never feel quite true. Some of that is on the script and some on the direction, but a better set of choices could have elevated this unexpected low-budget flick a couple more notches.

You do have to like violent, splatter-filled moments (not many, but enough of them) to enjoy this ride. It has the feeling of a video-game at times, but not so much that it breaks the story or the sense of the film. The story is actually engaging and the pace swift, even humorous at times, without short-changing the experience of the plot. Yes, there are some shortcuts, but most are given reasons not just shrugged off, and very little is too easy for our main character. And, yes, this one is dark, so keep that in mind as well.

Stem is not for everyone, but I have to admit I’m glad I got to see it and I’m glad it got a wider release than a non-traditional film like this normally would; definitely alternative popcorn fare for the right audience. And, perhaps most importantly, it is something new, not a sequel or prequel or reboot…and how many of those are we getting this year?

Upgrade

Book Club

[3 stars]

Book Club is exactly what you expect it to be: a semi-sappy, slightly sarcastic look at love later in life for four women. What makes the movie is who those four women are. Each is a solid actor and comedienne. Each brings a slightly different type of outlook, and each manages to make you invest in them.

It is also true that they are each somewhat typecast. Diane Keaton (Love the Coopers) is slightly neurotic, lost, and sweet. Candice Bergen (Boston Legal) is tough but seeking connection even as she denies it. Mary Steenburgen (A Walk in the Woods) is the devoted wife with a bit of romantic wild-side. And Jane Fonda (Youth) is the tough-as-marshmallow-filled-nails successful woman who’s denied herself to avoid pain. All of this is laid out for you in the first few minutes and you know exactly what is to come: the men that will change their lives.

And the male cast makes as much a difference here as the female. Primarily that is Craig T. Nelson (Grace and Frankie), Don Johnson (Django Unchained), and Andy Garcia (Geostorm). But there are a few nice cameos and smaller roles as well. There are no cads in this story, just mismatches. It maintains its light and fluffy sensibility through to the end.

First-time director Bill Holderman re-paired with his A Walk in the Woods producing partner, Erin Simms, to write this diverting bit of trifle. It is effective at what it does, well-paced, and, of course, expertly acted. In fact, it is the smartest thing Holderman and Simms did was in the casting. And, I admit, I had all the right Pavlovian responses to the tale.

That aside, the story, left me vaguely uncomfortable. On a sociological level, we’re looking at 8 white adults of privilege, who have never suffered or wanted, complaining about their lives. But more disturbing was the odd sense of anti-feminism. Yes, the women are strong and, eventually, in control of their lives (sort of). But they are also very clearly incomplete without a man and, in several cases, having their lives dominated by the choices of the men around them…even when they seem to be in control. It isn’t overt, nor it is it even enough to ruin the film, but it was there as a feint odor under the light comic romance that may have been unavoidable given the genre. The central role of 50 Shades of Grey didn’t work for me either. Admittedly, they needed some MacGuffin to get the story rolling, and it was perhaps the right choice, but it was also about a year or two late for social relevance.

So, if you know what you’re looking for and are willing to be swept up in its highly myopic view of the world, it is worth seeing. If you simply love the actors involved, it is worth it for them as well. If you are hoping for something a bit more transformative or with a conscience…you’ll probably be more like me and wonder why the silly and light fantasy that worked while it was running left an odd flavor in your mouth as you left theater. That isn’t so much an indictment as it is a recognition.

Book Club

Solo: A Star Wars Story

[3 stars]

Solo marks the first attempt at a really new direction for Star Wars since the end of the first trilogy. Episodes 1-3 and 7-9 are all echos of of 4-6…a bit by design and a lot by laziness and inability to write good stories. The fact that this story overlaps with the worst of the triple trilogy and dovetails into that morass is a different matter.

There is also a lot of cultural weight pressing down on these characters. Solo and Chewy are two of most recognizable and beloved of the many movies. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) had huge shoes to fill…and his feet are almost the right size, but not quite. He doesn’t have the same charisma nor the acting ability to help me see Harrison Ford the way that, say, Josh Brolin did for Tommy Lee Jones in MIB III or the entire cast of Star Trek did for that prequel. Donald Glover (Spider-Man: Homecoming) came a bit closer for Lando, but there was more leeway there, even if the script made him a bit more craven than swashbuckling. Also, all that talk of pan-sexuality for Lando in this incarnation is utter bull.

The real standouts in this story are Emilia Clarke (Me Before You, Game of Thrones), Paul Bettany (Avengers: Infinity War, Transcendance), and the very unexpected scene-stealing showing by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Flea Bag, Goodbye Christopher Robin). The three new characters they brought actually had some depth and interest. OK mostly that was only Clarke. Bettany was interesting, but not very deep…bit more of a cookie-cutter psycho. And Waller-Bridge was quite amusing, but not with a lot of impact, despite the plot attempts to elevate her. Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) was not bad, but again, just didn’t really rise above what you’d expect in this adventure. Jon Favreau’s (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Thandie Newton’s (Westworld) characters also stood out and had promise, but the story never did anything with them.

The real issue with this film is two fold. First, the script by the father/son Kasdan duo is predictable and without any risk whatsoever. Second, Ron Howard’s (Inferno) directing is just empty. That Howard came late to this project and still managed to save its release is impressive, especially having reshot more than 70% of the film after his arrival. But the film is flat. There are no great highs, though there are fun and funny moments. There are no great surprises, though there are one or two surprising moments. Even the music avoids the emotional touchstone of the series until the very end. I actually think that last bit could have been a good thing since it provides some breathing room for what is set to become a new branch of the canon. But no one was clapping or excited at the end in my theater. I’ve never seen that at a Star Wars film. Even Rogue One, the only other standalone to date, had chatter and at least light applause as the credits rolled.

So here’s what you get for your ticket. Huge effects. Beautiful scenery. Some interesting background. A couple of new characters. Some potentially classically comic moments. Some answers to some questions. Two and a half hours of distraction. Worth it on the big screen? Yes. Good as a movie? Eh. I admit I am not a rabid fan any longer (Episodes 1-3 took care of that), but I was willing to be won back. Apparently I left the theater un-wooed, but not entirely un-entertained. I just wasn’t wow’ed the way I wanted to be or certainly expected after the Avengers summer kickoff.

Solo: A Star Wars Story