Tag Archives: ShouldSee

queers.

[4 stars]

A truly wonderful and surprising collection of eight, 20-minute monologues commissioned to celebrate the the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the first official step in England to decriminalize homosexuality. Each monologue tackles a different decade from 1917 up through the present. Cleverly, they do not progress in chronological order, but rather bounce from from 1917 to 1994 to 1987, 1957, 1967, 1941, 1929, and finally 2016.

The effect is one of historical context for each of the eras providing heartfelt stories without making it feel like a history lesson. And the finale, in 2016, works as commentary overall, though only through the reflection of the rest of the pieces. I laughed and cried often through the sequence thanks to mostly wonderful writing and great performances.

Originally performed at the Old Vic, these were also adapted and recorded for the BBC. The monologues succeed on different levels, some being much better than others. But each monologue captures its decade in poignant ways and every one is a frank conversation of the joys, fears, and dreams of the speaker of that time.

Driven by Mark Gatiss (Denial, Doctor Who), who also was one of the writers, the production collected up some solid talent to deliver the stories: Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), Rebecca Front (Humans), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Kadiff Kirwan (Chewing Gum), Russell Tovey (The Night Manager), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Ben Whishaw (Lilting)and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). If nothing else, it is a 2.6 hour acting and scripting class.

Make time for these if you get the chance. It is almost entirely focused on the gay experience rather than the lesbian or otherly identified, but the sense of otherness, the sense of triumph, the sense of love and need is universal.

Product Details

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

Blade Runner 2049

[4 stars]

When making a sequel, the first question you really have to ask is: Why? And in this case, the writer of the original Blade Runner, Hampton Fancher, along with his new co-writer Michael Green, found an answer. And with Denis Villenuve (Arrival) at the helm, this new tale in the universe is gripping and inexorable as it moves along. In fact, while 2049 is almost three hours long, an hour longer than the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, it feels shorter due to its editing and tension.

Unlike the original bottomless noir that was Blade Runner, this story is more a compelling personal journey for its main character, Ryan Gosling (Song to Song). It has light and hope, despite being sunk in the same ruined Earth and financial disparity that was established with that world 35 years ago. And yet, the story and world still feel timeless. And that is the interesting part, it still feels like it could be our dystopian future; now more than ever. A world of overcrowding, rampant poor, and authoritarian over-reach doesn’t feel that outlandish.

Villenuve managed to pay homage to the original story but create his own world all at once. Yes, if you have recently watched the first film, you will pick up nods and winks throughout, but it isn’t a copy of the original. The nods and mentions aren’t distracting ones, simply enough to make it clear that you never really left that universe. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is solid and complex. It will keep you thinking and wondering. That trick is attained thanks to the directing and, of course, the acting.

Along with Gosling’s subtle portrayal of K, there a number of women who fill out his world. Interestingly, his world is dominated by women. Primarily, Robin Wright (Rememory) as his boss walks an interesting line with him while Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) provides the most interesting companion since Her. In addition, Sylvia Hoeks does a nice riff and counterpoint to Sean Young’s Rachel. And then there are the additional building blocks for the rest of his story: Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror) and Carla Juri (Morris From America). As I said, quite the list of influence.

This isn’t to dismiss the men. David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) actually gives us a bit of real emotion in his role. Only Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) came off to me as oddly empty. He has the presence and the story (particularly if you watch the 3 prequel shorts that bridge the original and sequel), but not a lot of it gets to the screen. It would have distracted from Gosling’s story, to be sure, so I understand the choice. However, Harrison Ford’s (The Age of Adaline) role manages to feel more complete without much more screen time, and not just because we know his backstory, there is just more there in Ford’s performance.

Be aware, this is not an action flick. It is a slow-burn and very personal mystery. It is beautifully filmed and expertly edited and directed to keep it all moving along. The story is one worth telling, and while it would lead to yet another story, it is complete as it is. I do suggest watching the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner before viewing this, much as I suggested rewatching Terminator 1 & 2 before viewing Terminator: Genisys. Though Terminator was all about what was changing, Blade Runner is more about providing a real sense of grounding and appreciation for what will unfold before you.

In case it wasn’t obvious, in prep for this late-conceived sequel, I rewatched the original Blade Runner. To be more specific, I watched the Director’s Cut, followed by the final 3 scenes of the original version and the Final Cut for comparison’s sake. It was an interesting exercise. I chose the Director’s Cut as that best dovetails to this new expansion of the story. I have to admit, the Director’s Cut is hampered by its slow pacing due to the removal of the voice-overs but no additional editing of the screen time where it was excised. However, it is the closest storywise to enter 2049.

As a side note, I think one of the things I’ve come to finally realize is that Ridley Scott has made only one brilliant film in his life: Alien. Blade Runner blazed new ground, but it isn’t a wonderfully directed film, it is just a fascinating world and a good story that he got lucky enough to have control over. Blade Runner remains a powerful influence on cinema from the Hunger Games to Ghost in the Shell; the claustrophobic, elite-class dominated hopelessness appears again and again in film since its release. The fact that he recut it multiple times trying to say what he “really wanted to” tells you that he isn’t a great director. And certainly his ouvre that followed Alien has never equaled that incredible piece of heart-pounding terror and rich world.

But Scott isn’t part of this outing. This is all Villenuve and his ability continues to impress me. I can only hope that this film will find its audience as the original tale did. It is worth the time spent, especially on the large screen.

Blade Runner 2049

The Big Sick

[4 stars]

We all think we have a story to tell, and we do. But, some stories really are more equal than others, and The Big Sick is definitely more equal.

When writer and star Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) teamed up with his real life wife Emily V. Gordon, they took a leap and nailed it in one. The result is funny, sweet, charming, and oddly unexpected at times. And director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) manages to balance the story, which intersects a number of worlds and challenges, without losing any of the threads or the audience.

In some ways it reminds me of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Not in style or content, but in its exposure of cultural realities and challenges and the navigating of the two worlds by the main characters. What the two films do share is a love of the people that populate their worlds and a fiercely romantic heart.  

Zoe Kazan (In Your Eyes) tackles the role of Emily in the film well. She is an effortless actor, always seeming utterly planned-spontaneous while also seeming completely real. She continues to be a talent worth following to see where she’ll end up.

Added to the mix were Holly Hunter (Song to Song), doing Holly Hunter. Nothing bad, but nothing truly new for her. On the other hand, Ray Romano (Ice Age: Collision Course) manages something that is subtly difficult: he creates a character that isn’t funny. His timing and skill are still apparent, but he uses much like a real singer does who has to pretend they can’t sing; everything clunks perfectly.

In smaller roles, Adeel Akhtar (The Night Manager) and Anupam Kher (Sense8) help fill out important aspects of Kumail’s life. Neither are really given room to breathe and live, but we can intuit a lot from them in their short exchanges.

I do have to admit, while the movie grabbed me early on, and despite the echos of Don’t Think Twice, it was the spectre of Dr. Phibes that sold me utterly. But I was an easy target on that one. Phibes lives and looms very much in my genre closet.

Of course, timing couldn’t have been better for this film about cultural diversity and integration. But it is the heart in this film that ultimately sells it, not the trappings.  

The Big Sick

Gifted

[4 stars]

It is rare when a small movie can tackle larger ideas without losing focus on the intimate story it wants to tell. Under the guidance of Marc Webb (Amazing Spider-Man) and writer Tom Flynn, Gifted manages to be succeed on that point, telling the story of family and childhood, but also tackling larger issues like parenthood, normality, feminism, and mental health.

Personal tales like this rarely succeed without solid performances, and this is where Webb also soared. Mckenna Grace (Designated Survivor) is a firecracker, with a lot of potential ahead of her. She captures the intelligence of her young character without losing the “kid” in her. And, of course, she has a winning smile and charisma.

Surprisingly, even with Grace’s magnetism, she does not dominate the film the way kid-centered stories often do. Chris Evans (Captain America: Civil War) and Lindsay Duncan (Sherlock) not only hold their own, but deliver powerful and believable performances as they struggle with one another and themselves. Even Jenny Slate (Zootopia) delivers a character that is more complex than you’d expect given where she starts. And the balance between them all, including Grace, is handled beautifully.

If there is a weakness in the film, it is in Evan’s stated reasons for his actions near the end. We don’t really see the shift in his character, or I didn’t anyway. This feels more like editing choices than the actor to me, but it smudges an otherwise wonderful performance.

Gifted is probably everything you expect it to be in a child custody film. But I promise you, there is more to it than what you’re expecting. It is not only done well, it is done with intensity over sturm und drang. It is worth your time and probably worth seeing more than once, simply for the joy of it and the reminders of what life can and should be.

Gifted

Their Finest

[4 stars]

Let’s start with the important part: you wan to see this film, despite any of its weaknesses. As well as being topical, it satisfies in unexpected ways. Now on with the rest of it…

Earlier this year there was another Dunkirk-based story, though from quite a different angle than Christopher Nolan’s. Lone Scherfig’s (An Education) takes on the event after-the-fact and from the propaganda office side, using it as an inspirational tale for the world. It becomes both an insightful and entertaining look inside film-making as well as into the politics and culture of WWII London during the Blitz. 

Gemma Arterton (Girl With All the Gifts) puts on a great Welsh accent and a delightful naivtee tempered with an inner strength and bruised heart that comes together in a satisfying and intriguing character. She spars with Sam Claflin (Me Before You) in amusing ways as the two find their way to one another in the midst of the chaos of the war, their lives, and their jobs.

Rachel Stirling (Bletchley Circle) and Bill Nighy (Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) are the most notable characters supporting the two leads. Both provide some good humor and subplot. In addition, Jack Huston (Kill Your Darlings), Jake Lacey (Miss Sloane), Eddie Marsan (A Brilliant Young Mind), and Helen McCrory (Fearless) fill out the time, city, and touch points necessary to complete the tale.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, and I did, the adaptation is rather meandering. Gaby Chiappe’s first feature script is ultimately effective, but not crisp. It comes back together well, but the focus is all over the place, making it feel like it wanted to be a mini-series more than a single movie. This is no surprise as she is primarily known for TV series scripts (typically good ones), but it definitely shows promise for future films. I’d love to see what she does next. 

Trust the journey Their Finest lays out for you and take the ride. It will take its time getting there, but it does get there. I can’t tell if I like how it was constructed or if my misgivings are simply expectation highlighted by the commentary provided in the story itself (in terms of what audiences want). However, both in performance and message, this is a movie worth the time invested on several levels.

Their Finest

Love Affair (to Remember)

Ever been watching a film and thought, “I’ve seen this before?”

I recently caught a presentation of Love Affair (1939) with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, directed by Leo McCrarey. About 10 minutes in I realized it was reminding me of something else I’d seen not too long ago: An Affair to Remember (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, also directed by Leo McCrarey.

You aren’t misreading, McCrarey directed both. It is an incredible example of a director getting a complete do-over later in his life with (almost) the same script, but an entirely different life view and technology advantage. The result is, in many ways, two entirely different films with almost the same plot and words. I don’t know of any other film pairing that could whet the appetite of a film lover more than the chance to see that in action, especially with such big names attached.

I recommend both movies for different reasons. Love Affair has the energy and sensibility of The Thin Man pairing of Powell and Loy. An Affair to Remember is quite a bit more serious and emotional. Both are gorgeously filmed and well executed. And, as dated as both are in some ways, they stand the test of time rather well because they focus more on the emotions than the culture of the era.  Make time for both of these at some point. Together, they are fascinating nuggets of film history; on their own, they are just good films as well.

I could spend an exhaustive amount of effort going through the comparisons, but the folks at Spectrum Culture have already done so, and it is an excellent, if spoiler-ridden, read. So if you want detail before or after you dig these films up, here is a link to the article:

Re-Make/Re-Model: Love Affair (1939) vs. An Affair to Remember (1957)

Love Affair An Affair to Remember

War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes is the first of this rebooted series that I actually went to the theater for. Like many, I was massively dubious when Rise of the Planet of the Apes hit screens back in 2011. Why bother remaking what was a wonderful, if campy, bit of social science fiction from the 70s? And, like many, I was massively surprised by the result (even with its one really huge leap of logic).

Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback’s  script for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued to build on the world and characters, while improving the writing, and I got a bit more hooked. So I was willing to gamble on this third in the series, which had another Reeves/Bomback script, especially as the reviews were coming out massively positive prior to the release. And they’re not wrong.

This may be an action movie, but it is a movie first and action second. It is an intense piece of commentary on what it is to be human, what the value of war is, and how fundamentalist and biased beliefs, of any kind, on any side, only lead to destruction. Despite its 2.5 hour running time, it doesn’t feel long. And the final hour leading to the climax fairly bolts along. But without the heart beneath the skin of this film, it wouldn’t have worked.

Andy Serkis’s (Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens) Caesar is interesting to watch. Technology aside, it is about the directing by Matt Reeves and Serkis’s efforts. Caesar’s voice is practically flat through the film. His emotion is all in the eyes, mouth, and gestures, which is an interesting choice. It keeps him alien but accessible. We understand his emotions even if we don’t necessarily understand how he thinks all the time. It was a clever choice. It is also in direct opposition to Steve Zahn’s (Captain Fantastic) highly recognizable, and entertaining performance as Bad Ape. Or Karin Konoval’s emotive turn as Maurice.  

Wood Harrelson is the lone performance in this movie that I had trouble with. He isn’t quite intense enough, and yet also not laid back enough to feel believable. It is just a shade off, but it made him more a stock character, despite his rich backstory, than the charismatic leader he needs to be. It works, but I think they missed an opportunity for something truly impactful with him.

But this isn’t just about what’s new in the Apes universe. The movie is loaded with nods to the original series, which are fun to spot. The script never forgets it is a riff on something we might know well and it manages to reference major points without pulling you out of the tale they are telling. And their riff is a clever one indeed.

Something else to realize is that the film is definitely crafted for the big screen. It is loaded with wide, beautiful shots for both background and action scenes. It is also the kind of film that deserves to be supported because it is good; it isn’t just a hollow summer film. You’ll definitely have fun, be entertained, and even a bit touched. It completes the story begun in Rise, but allows for there to be future tales as well. Apes has everything you need and it is a step above a lot of the drivel summer usually throws at us. So get out and see this on the big screen. It is definitely worth the time and effort.

War for the Planet of the Apes

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Really, yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Or, perhaps, “Shakespeare? Honestly, why do I need to see this?” The answer to both is: Julie Taymor (The Tempest).

Taymor is one of the most visionary stage directors of our time. She employs simple techniques to create magnificent effects. Think the puppets in The Lion King, which have become her trademark. Midsummer certainly leverages that aspect of her talent, but also her ability to distill a play to its essence and manifest it. The opening moments of this filmed performance will grab you and make you wish you’d been in the audience. She takes several minutes before the first piece of uttered dialogue to visually create the world and your expectations, to invite you into a magical realm, to escape for a while into the silliness of this comedy.

There are a number of solid performances, but chief among them in Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Her Puck is brilliant and carries the show well through acting, voice, and movement. As Oberon, David Harewood (The Night Manager) brings both a power and heart to the self-important ruler, though it is still rather hobbled by the plot he must walk.

The Mechanicals, led by Max Casella’s (Jackie) Bottom, are suitably absurd, and each has their moment. But it is Zachary Infante (Carrie Pilby) as Flute that really shines in one of the play’s most important moments near the end of the film.

The approach to filming the play is done rather well, capturing both an audience feel and “in the action” keeping it from feeling too static. There are a few moments that I’d rather have seen from long shots, to really appreciate the staging, but generally, the cameras floated among the characters like the fairies in the play.

So here’s the truth: The play isn’t perfect. Frankly no Shakespeare is. Sensibilities have moved on and the plays tend to be a bit longer for their purpose than modern times tends to care for and, clearly, a little too forgiving of cultural mores that are well out of date. In the case of Midsummer, the opening scene and the overlong wrap-up probably will grate a little. You are also forgiven for wondering why the heck we have to sit through the mechanical’s presentation while the Duke and co. heckle them. The Mechanical’s play is funny and, really, it is used to get to the single moment with Flute, whose declaration of love is one of the most heart-felt in the entire play, which is full of overblown histrionics by design. That moment brings it all back to earth. More generally, in today’s terms, Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and needed to wrap up the threads and entertain the cheap seats. However, to be a little more fair, the original intent of the play was about (and for) the wedding.

If you’ve never seen Midsummer, this is a great one to start with. If you have, it may well become your favorite interpretation on a broad scale. There have certainly been better and more memorable individual performances of characters in this play, but as an overall delivery, this version is truly extraordinary and wonderful to watch.

A Midsummer Night

Speech & Debate

If you ever spent time in a fringe club in High School or, in particular, worked for the school paper, in drama, or on the forensics team, this movie will ring many bells for you. Even if you haven’t, it captures the frustration and sense of awakening that everyone goes through at around that age, and, for some, the need to act. It is on that point where the reality of this tale gets delightfully stretched…but only a little.

The three young leads that carry the film are an unlikely crew thrown together by need. Their surety and fearlessness tested at every turn, they simply move forward until they can’t.

Sarah Steele (Adult Beginners), reprises her role from the original stage production while Liam James (The Way Way Back) and Austin P. McKenzie (When We Rise) join her to complete the group. They are all endearing and frustrating in their ways, and each has their own challenges outside the main plot to overcome. Together they find a sense of strength and belonging, as you’d hope.

This film began life as a well-received Stephen Karam play before he adapted it for this film version. As a credit to his writing, you’d never know it started in a different medium.

The adults in this story are definitely secondary characters with small, implied storylines of their own. Kal Penn (Designated Survivor), Janeane Garofalo (Wet Hot American Summer: First Days of Camp), Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect 2), suggest rich, unseen interactions in particular.

This is a funny and painful romp through old memories and the new ways of the world (and how they haven’t really changed). Or, if you’re contemporary to the characters, a reminder that everyone is struggling through the same junk and can do so in quiet or with style. Regardless, watch through the end of the credits for an amusing coda.

Speech & Debate