It’s been a long while since we’ve had a Joe Carnahan (The Grey) directed film to enjoy. His last two major credits were just his scripts: Bad Boys For Life and Death Wish. The man knows suspense and action. I do wish he knew how to cast and direct actors a bit better, but you can’t have everything. Boss Level is a high-octane ride from start to finish, delivering a sort of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World meets Palm Springs.
The base weakness of the film is its lead, Frank Grillo (Disconnect, Avengers: Endgame). While Grillo is a great action actor, he doesn’t quite have the charisma and rakish charm necessary to be the leading man in a flick, even when that flick is mostly gritty action. It’s not a slam so much as a simple reality: some actors have “it” and some don’t. More the problem, after other darker anti-heroes like Deadpool, expectations are pretty high on how the character has to control the screen.
But the story is fun. Carnahan shares credit with Chris and Eddie Borey for the script. And it is nicely constructed, if a little late to the party on time-loop action tales. A shame, really; if it had come out sooner, it would have felt more unique.
Fortunately, with Naomi Watts (Ophelia) and a, surprisingly, contained and menacing Mel Gibson (The Expendables), there are some solid framing performances to hold it all down. Additional roles with Will Sasso (Klaus) and a much under-utilized Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery) help things along as well.
Boss Level was originally intended for a feature release. I think the shift to stream will actually gives it a better and longer life in the movie firmament. On screen it would have bombed, but as a stream, it better meets expectations and certainly entertains.
Yes, I avoided talking about this till it was complete. Why? Because it was so clearly going to be a complex arc that wouldn’t likely be fully realized till the end. I’m glad I waited…and enjoyed the ride.
Like many complex tales, there are two experiences: the initial watch and the rewatch/looking-back review. The one thing that is utterly clear is that this massively risky experiment wouldn’t have worked without the incredible acting chops of Elizabeth Olsen (Ingrid Goes West). Her ability to morph through the various styles required, and her depth of emotional landscape sold an otherwise near-experimental theatre presentation. And in support around her through it all were Kathryn Hahn (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Paul Bettany (Uncle Frank) who balance and feed the confusion. It’s no Watchmen, but it is a heck of an out-there show.
And, yes, there are others, but most are surprises so I won’t enumerate. But Josh Stamberg (Pacific Rim: Uprising) is notable for a truly flawed performance. He was clearly directed by Matt Shakman to chew the furniture and he did so with relish, to the detriment of the series. Mind you, so does Hahn before it’s all over, which is a shame, but she has a wider ranging presentation. However, at least Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk) manages to pull off a rather unexpected arc without crossing those lines.
The shape of this series is everything. It begins with a 30 minute format and expands, as the story structure allows, till we get to an hour-long finale. But the first three episodes are slightly self-indulgent setups. Entertaining as heck, but stretched out a bit too long. There is a purpose and a reason for it all (thankfully) but it goes on too long. Shankman should have reined it in a little more. Similarly, the penultimate episode gets old quickly as, by that time, it’s simply revealing information we mostly know but the characters have yet to admit/understand. It could have been done better.
But the finale, which manages in true Marvel/MCU fashion to pull all the threads together, is a nice pay-off. And I say that even though it also, in true MCU fashion, has lots of open threads hinted at in the two codas.
Overall, this is a heck of an achievement. Flawed, and slightly misdirected at times, but not something most of us expected. And it resolves some of the original complaints about Wanda’s Age of Ultron introduction and story. Of course, if you don’t know about Wanda and Vision, you’ll frankly miss 80% of the story. So if you somehow missed the movies, go back to Age of Ultron and watch from there (or at least watch the Legends series to learn enough about the background).
My biggest concern with the story is how well it will stand the test of time and rewatching. Once you know the secrets and rewatch it once, is there enough there? As a stand-alone series, I suspect not. It is built as a vehicle to launch several new paths in the MCU (at least two movies link up with the ending). It isn’t a stand-alone gem of a story, it is an episode in the charcters’ existence, a bridge to what comes next. Very comic book. But is that what we ultimately want to tune in for? Dark Tower had originally planned a movie and TV pathway, because of the scope of the story, all tying together as a whole. Then they panicked and gave us a single, awful movie. So, perhaps, WandaVision is a new type of show and I’m being a little unfair to its purpose. Time will tell when we see if Disney can pay it all off in the year or so to come. Certainly, I give them credit for the ballsy and expensive attempt. Let’s see what they can do with it…
I honestly wanted to like this movie more than I did. It has a lot going for it, but it also has some uncomfortable flaws for me.
On the high side, it was nice to be reminded that science fiction simply means that the story cannot happen without an aspect of science holding it together. Proxima takes some of the themes we’re seeing now in tales like Away and Gravity and really focuses on the personal challenges of space travel without disaster as the background to drive it forward. It even takes place almost entirely before the mission rather than during it.
And, also on the plus-side, Eva Green (Dumbo) makes a relatively credible astronaut in training…relatively. And here is the turn. Some of her decisions would seem to make her psychologically unfit for the position, but her effort and focus in the face of the training and toxic male attitude from colleagues like Matt Dillon (The House that Jack Built) are impressive.
Then again, the problem is primarily with Alice Winocour’s (Mustang) script more than her direction of the story. Green is even saddled with an asshole of an ex-husband in Lars Eidinger (Dumbo, High Life) as the father and Zélie Boulant as the over-indulged and petulant daughter. If I sound judgmental on this, I am. I understand the desire to create tension for the characters, but given that this is a tale intended to be in our future rather than the past, the issues feel both forced, and Green’s reaction too accepting of the situation, rather than pushing against them. And, honestly, the character needs some serious parenting skills and a better divorce attorney.
And then there were the penultimate scenes leading to the finale, which really is more of a coda. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with the story as it was finally laid out. It was effective narratively, but bordered on the absurd.
Ultimately, the story tries to look at the conflict between dreams and family, as well as the cost of space travel and the kind of people and commitment it takes for it to happen. But what we get is a questionable statement of what it is to be a woman generally, let alone in a male dominated industry. We get no counterpoint or balancing commentary. The tension of motherhood versus career has been around for centuries, but some careers do have particular requirements, and any story that tackles those spaces should get it a bit closer to accurate.
All of my frustrations aside, again mostly focused on the end rather than the journey, Winocour does create an interesting tale. And Green delivers a smart, driven character (again, with certain qualifications). Given her previous efforts, I actually am a bit surprised by Winocour’s choices. Still, this film is worth seeing for a number of aspects, and your reaction to the resolution may be less intense than my own.
Unexplained super-powers is becoming an overdone trope, which is why when you find one that tries to do something new, it’s a particular delight. André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) returns to his Nordic, Trollhunter roots to bring us a slow but intense tale of a young man, Nat Wolff (Admission), who suddenly acquires powers he can’t control or explain.
Iben Akerlie (Little Drummer Girl) plays opposite Wolff and balances him out well. In fact, she and Per Frisch are about the only clear-headed folks in the movie while Priyanka Bose (Lion) serves to remind the world of why Americans just shouldn’t be trusted. A sad cliché, but she navigates it relatively well within the bounds of the script.
As you can imagine, tragedy and stupid government decisions begin to occur. But this isn’t quite the story you expect, nor does it unfold exactly as others of its ilk. Sadly, it also doesn’t quite get to a conclusion so much as a beginning. Whether the tale will continue I imagine is still in flux, but the path is certainly there. In the meantime, if you can handle being left hanging (think a Brightburn kind of ending in style, though not in content), give it a shot. Definitely something a bit more interesting than the typical version of these tales.
There is something very sweet and true about Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s latest tale. It has also been massively lauded out on the circuit. I can’t say, however, that I was as enthralled, though I wasn’t unimpressed.
Minari is a tale of an immigrant family. And there is a lot going on in Steven Yeun (Sorry to Bother You) and Yeri Han’s transplanted unit. While both of these actors deliver on their tightly wound and fraying relationship, it is Alan Kim, as their son, and Yuh-jung Youn (Sense8) who you’ll remember best. And I say that even with Will Patton’s (The November Man) truly off-beat, affable, bible-thumping intensity filling in the background. But unlike, say, The Farewell, it never quite acquires a full shape.
The experience of the Ye family is provided at an historical distance. We’re dropped into Arkansas of the early 1980s. Mind you, other than the clothes, cars, and some background news you probably can’t tell what era it is, and perhaps that is part of the point. But I wish it had been a bit more contemporary. It isn’t that bad things happen from a community point of view; this story is focused on the internal struggles of the family rather than society. In fact, the neighbors are relatively accepting and open to their new residents. And the Ye’s are not breaking any ground by arriving either. Because of all that I question the choice of era as it only serves to distance us from the events and provides no useful frame to the story.
That said, it is a beautiful and subtle film about the relationships. A father attempting to achieve his dreams at all costs. A mother trying to support her family and protect those around her. A grandmother overflowing with sass and love. And two children trying to figure out where they fit in the family and trying to buffer their parents. All relatable and all delivered with amusing and, sometimes, painful honesty.
There is a lot to be said for Minari and it should be seen. Compared to the rest of the field out there, I do think it is being more than a little over-hyped. Go into it with a moderated expectation for an insightful look at a family struggling to survive the challenges that come at them, and those that they bring with them.
Nomadland asks two fairly simple questions: What is home? What is family? The answers, as we all know, aren’t that simple. Director and writer Chloé Zhao tackles the concepts in a quiet, but compelling exhibition that is primarily populated by real Nomads. The result has garnered a mountain of praise and awards notice.
Holding the various talking head segments together is Frances McDormand (Isle of Dogs), whose journey into the nomad life is told with barely an initial explanation. With David Strathairn (Fast Color) as a catalyst, we watch McDormand struggle inwardly until near the end when details are expressed. Though, to be fair, most of those are already understood by the audience, just not by her character.
For all its lauds, and its craft at pulling you along, Nomadland isn’t as good a film as I was expecting. I think McDormand has had better and more challenging roles. Strathairn is a somewhat unfinished and empty character. The stories and ideas we hear are interesting, but they feel like a documentary invaded the story-telling. Somehow it does come together, but it is best to watch this with no expectations, despite the hype that has been building around it over the last year. You’ll find it satisfying, but for a two hour narrative I think Zhao could have been more focused in her script.
Staged is back and picks up from where the first series left off. David Tennant (Deadwater Fell) and Michael Sheen (Admission) return but are bit more…well, more this round. Further into the pandemic, and with their project being ripped from them, they’ve gone a bit intense.
The story is again loaded with guest spots. I won’t spoil them here, but some are a riot, though none quite as unexpected and funny as Dame Judy Dench’s appearance last round. These are all a bit more confrontational. Tennant and Sheen have no shame in allowing themselves to be the butt of jokes and pointed observation. It is part of their charm.
Staged continues to focus on the oddity of home isolation, but also explores the friendship of the two men more deeply. It is all very tangential to the machinations and arguments, but it is clear that neither character could do well without the other in their lives. And it provides a soft cushion for all of us to observe our own growing intensity as the pandemic passes the one year mark. For a dark laugh, including some serious belly laughs, check out the second installment of this short form series. With luck, we won’t need a third as we’ll all be back out in the world before Simon Evans can write it.
You have to love a film that can suck you in early and then drag you along, guessing, right till the end. Writer/director Jacob Estes (The Details) delivers a driving suspense thriller that keeps going right up to the final credits. And that’s what you want from a ride like this. No time to really think. No slow moments to lose the momentum.
David Oyelowo (The Midnight Sky) is the primary driver of the story. His ability to give us a tough cop with a heart and screwed up family is really wonderful. He’s propelled through the story by his niece, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), who’s entertaining, but not entirely on the same level. Some of that is the writing and some the directing, but a good portion of it is on her. It’s a subtle role and she doesn’t always have the levels under control. Still, their relationship is compelling enough to keep it all going.
When you need a solid distraction of a good mystery with a bit of woo-woo mechanics, this one is definitely worth the time.
David Tennant (Staged) plays a great sociopath. He can go from affable to cold in a split second. But the interesting aspect of this 4-parter is that you don’t know if he is involved with the crime or not till near the end. That’s a credit not just to Tennant but also to writer Daisy Coulam (Grantchester) and the somewhat less storied director Lynsey Miller.
The series itself has a familiar tenor…small Scottish village experiences a tragedy and all the secrets come spilling out as the seams that bind the residents together fall apart. It’s a tried and true formula that has been echoed across the globe for entertainment, but particularly around the UK.
While Tennant is the the better known face in the cast, he’s part of a great ensemble. Cush Jumbo (Vera) is his primary foil, even though it is Anna Madeley (The Children) who plays his wife. And Matthew McNulty (Doctor Who), as Jumbo’s partner, has his own path to forge. Around the periphery is Maureen Beattie (The Decoy Bride) as Tennant’s mum. The interplay of this group is what drives the four episodes to their soul grinding end.
As dark as the story is, it is compelling. The plot isn’t over-stretched and the performances all combine into a wonderful Greek chorus. It isn’t the best mystery, but it is a solid distraction and very much of its sub-genre.
Some writer/directors have a signature to their work; a flavor that identifies their efforts but that can be executed in many different ways. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are such a pair. They have returned with another brainbender in Sychronic. Their previous couple of movies, Spring and The Endless, were solid proving grounds for pulling together this much more mature piece of film. They keep learning with each release how far they can push ideas and how much they can leave unexplained. They also managed to snag a talented cast to pull it off.
In the primary role, Anthony Mackie (Outside the Wire) drives the story. Mackie has had wide-ranging taste in his recent roles, but they’re always characters with an inner strength and sense of morality. Synchronic, despite its dark overtones, is no exception to that list. And, in this case, the script and story are actually a match for his efforts. Opposite him is Jamie Dornan (A Private War) who anchors the story, quite literally, for the drifting Mackie. The two long-time friends and co-workers butt heads but they are a solid pairing against the dark and seedy life of being New Orleans EMTs.
The story, like Moorhead and Benson’s previous offerings, slowly reveals itself, though not in a straight line. It teases and plays with you. And, more importantly, it tries to cover all its bases as it goes. We learn with the characters what the issues and possibilities are. And, in the end, we are left with a sense of wonderfully incomplete completeness that is sure to generate conversations while the credits roll. It also has to be called out that the cinematography and edits are in beautiful support of the story.
I wasn’t sure what Synchronic would be when I started it. And that is probably the best way to go into it. Just enjoy the ride. The road is dark, but the destination holds warm fire, friends, and family at the end, even if in unexpected ways.