Tag Archives: ShouldSee

The Breadwinner

[3.5 stars]

If you follow animation at all, you are probably aware of the beautifully fantastical Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, the first co-directed by Nora Twomey and the latter she contributed to from the art department. These fantasies have a distinctive look of layered, cut paper and illuminated manuscripts which move like ancient puppets through incredible worlds rich in imagination and color. Breadwinner incorporates these signatures into aspects of its tale, but this film, directed by Twomey, is much more grounded in the real world.

In fact, the core of the story is very contemporary and disturbing, while still being appropriate for most audiences. And, though it is a chronicle of Afghanistan in 2001, it is just as upsettingly applicable today. The resulting film is is something like a combination of Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir with a dash of The Patience Stone and Wadjda. All films worth seeing if you’ve missed any of them.

There is nothing brilliant about the voice talent in the film, but neither is there anything wanting. They all do quite well, but the star is the art and the tale itself. Shifting between the real world and the interstitial story-world that Parvana is telling to her brother and herself. Both stories serve to pull you along, however that split focus also has some issues. Primarily, Parvana’s bedtime story has an odd energy and flow. The fable is told episodically, but without a feeling of closure or chapter endings, though clearly that is the intent of each break in the tale. It makes every one of the transitions from fable to real world story less than smooth. Not bad, necessarily, but not as crafted as you’d expect given the previous two films. Each change leaves a residual, unresolved energy like an incomplete chord which follows you back into the next scene, keeping you from re-engaging quickly as the story shifts.

Any concerns around that aside, it is a movie you should make time for now that it is generally available. If it flowed better, I’d say it should also kick Coco’s butt out of the Oscar seat, but that isn’t going to happen. Despite its powerful message, insights, and wide-eyed hope for a broken world, The Breadwinner just isn’t quite good enough to pull off the win. But it is good enough to demand your time and adds to a catalog of work that is visually unique and wonderful.

The Breadwinner

Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon

Black Panther

[4.5 stars}

This last year in film (and the world) has been one of evolution and, in some cases, revolution. With Black Panther, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed), has managed to both stick to the Marvel vision of super hero mythologies and remake them all at once. Like Wonder Woman (but with a better script), Black Panther is loaded with strong and smart female heroes as well as showing us a new view and venue for a story, never once touching down in the USA ( except for flashback and tag). It is also unabashedly fits into our current times, commenting upon world politics and the challenges that face the world. Oh, and it is also a hell of a lot of fun.

And Coogler managed to do all that while building on the tiny threads we’ve been getting about Wakanda, and amplifying smaller characters like Andy Serkis’s (War for the Planet of the Apes) Klaue and looping in Martin Freeman’s (Sherlock) Agent Ross. Of course we’d already met Chadwick Boseman (Captain America: Civil War), but we knew very little about him until now.

Now we see Boseman as a child and in his kingdom. He is surrounded by strong women without whom he would die more than once: Lupita Nyong’o (Queen of Katwe) as his top spy and love interest, Danai Gurira (The Visitor) as his General, Letitia Wright (Humans) as his scientist/sister, and Angela Bassett (Survivor, Chi-Raq) as his mother are all loaded with responsibility, brains, guts, and brawn. They all also have a healthy sense of humor and humanity about their young King; he doesn’t get a free ride anywhere. Each has some challenging storylines of their own, particularly Gurira.

There are also some standout performances in his retinue and world from Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Florence Kasumba (Emerald City),  Winston Duke (Person of Interest), and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us).

But every hero must have his nemesis, and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) brings it with incredible style and ability. Jordan’s storyline, like the rest of the script, is far from simple. He also serves as an oddly uncomfortable voice for politics and society today while hearkening back through various movements of the last 40 years (and more).

I saw this in IMAX, which was glorious, but it is also the reason I had to ding the rating of the film. As good and fun as the script is, Coogler doesn’t quite know how to film up-close fight scenes for the truly big screen. He was a bit too close and cutting far too quickly in many cases, making what were clearly good choreographed scenes a blur. I plan on catching the film again on a standard screen, though probably not 3D, before too long. I’m curious to see if that will help with some of the issues.

So go see this, for so many reasons: great script and story, great humor, incredible visuals and action, and the shattering of many walls. I don’t know where they’ll take this in future, but Black Panther has earned his place among the Avengers as well as film history.

Black Panther

The Limehouse Golem

[4 stars]

Limehouse is a tense and complicated period mystery; a wonderful, precise, dark gem of a movie.

Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) leads this twisting tale with character-appropriate confidence and acting ability. By her side, Bill Nighy (Their Finest) pulls at the threads of his open case and imagines the possibilities in an effort to solve the murders and save the girl in 1880 London. Sprinkled within the fictional are real-life characters who were in the Limehouse at this time in history, which adds some sense of reality to the tapestry of the film world.

Central to the story in tale and geography is a music hall dominated by Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending). His character, even from the wings (as it were), is an overshadowing presence that has him driving the film in his own right, even getting the opening and closing frames. Additionally, Sam Reid (2:22), and María Valverde (Exodus: Gods and Kings) play integral, if slightly less layered roles.

Two smaller characters are given quiet life by Daniel Mays (Against the Law) and Eddie Marsan (Atomic Blonde). These two actors are always great at making the most of small moments and minimal dialogue, and this movie is no exception.

One of the best parts of this film is the script, which has a strong female lead and an unconventional narrative. Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) was on task to adapt this script from Peter Ackroyd’s book; the title of which is variously The Limehouse Golem, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (a reference to Booth’s character), and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (a reference to Cooke’s character). That it has existed with so many different titles gives you a sense of how much she had her work cut out for her. With Goldman’s history of delivering some of the most delightfully odd films of the last 20 years, she was a perfect choice to tackle this project. And director Juan Carlos Medina showed himself well with this Sophomore feature as it bounced between different themes, plots, and timelines.

Make time for this mystery. It will keep your brain going and engage you from the moment it begins. And while the surface story is wonderful, it is only one of the layers of this film, and only one of the ways to approach your understanding of the movie which is dense in meaning and language, making it eminently rewatchable.

The Limehouse Golem

The Book of Henry

[4 stars]

Henry was a rather divisive tale during its release, but I honestly don’t understand why. It is dark, yes, but on a clear trajectory from its outset and with an emotional intelligence that is rare in films, and even rarer in films driven by children.

Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), in the title role, is controlled but never forgets he is a child in a co-dependent relationship. Alongside him is the incredibly capable Jacob Tremblay (Wonder), who consciously takes a back seat in this film to his screen brother, but delivers a great performance nonetheless. In the third child role, Maddie Ziegler(Leap!) rides a very subtle line without ever overplaying her cards. Having three capable young actors driving a movie was a great surprise.

But this isn’t just a tale of the children. The adults around them have equally interesting paths to walk. Prime among them is Naomi Watts (The Glass Castle), who continues to be a conundrum for me. She is a very natural actor who never quite seems natural because she has such charisma and power on screen. This film manages to contain her relatively well, but it wavers at moments. Sarah Silverman (A Million Ways to Die in the West) is surprising as Watts’ best friend; funny, but in a dark and subtle way with a sad, but very real character. Finally, there are Dean Norris (Girlboss) and Lee Pace (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in critical, smaller roles. Both performances are quiet and full of implied layers which fill them out despite minimal screen time.

Colin Trevorrow has had an odd trajectory as director, going from the utterly delightful Safety Not Guaranteed to the overblown and absurd Jurassic Park and now a return to his more indie roots with Book of Henry. While Jurassic has made him a mint, it is clear that, left to his own devices, he can craft and control deeply emotional and complex tales. His execution of Gregg Hurwitz’s first feature script was done with real skill. It is oddly structured in ways that will keep surprising you as it subverts traditional plots.

I know this movie will not interest everyone; it somehow manages to credibly combine the sensibilities of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet and Florida Project and Gifted without a nod or a wink. It captures small-town life and the quiet corruption that can lie beneath, but it isn’t so jaded as to go sour. The performances are near flawless and the story is both timely and effective. In other words, for the right and receptive audience, it is a solid choice.

Side note: I don’t often do this, but I’d waited months to read the Esquire review of this film and feel compelled to link to it. Not because I agree with it all, but there are aspects that are interesting. There are also aspects that make it clear the reviewer wasn’t paying attention, so I have to discount the whole given how intricate the plot is; missing anything is to make it all shaky. Regardless, the reaction is typical of what I was seeing. Do be warned, he retells a lot of the plot, so I’d wait before you read it as I did.

The Book of Henry

Battle of the Sexes

[3 stars]

Another timely biopic, handled with honesty and consummate ability by the main actors, Emma Stone (La La Land) and Steve Carell (Cafe Society, Despicable Me). Though neither actor looks quite like their real-life counterpart, both make you forget they aren’t the real Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs through subtle facial moves, posture, and vocal control. At times it is eerie.

Additional characters help provide story vector or commentary. Jessica McNamee (Sirens) as Margaret Court is an uncomfortable bridge from the past into the film’s present while Bill Pullman (The Equalizer) is a nasty depiction of the thoughts of the times. As a fun side-note, and probably most out of place in this movie, is Alan Cumming (queers.). But it’s Alan Cumming, so I really didn’t care that it felt just a bit shimmed in; he’s too much fun.

Two of the most thankless roles in this recounting are the spouses of King and Riggs. Austin Stowell (Colossal) and Elisabeth Shue (Hope Springs), respectively, are quiet pillars in the storm of their relationships, understanding who they were married to and finding ways to deal with that. And then there is Andrea Riseborough’s (Birdman) character, who wants to be part of the support, but who struggles to understand what is really going on. This collective of people is part of what sets this story apart. None are quite what you expect either in word or action. Writer Simon Beaufoy (Everest) did his most subtle work around these characters and helped make it feel even more real.

Interestingly, this was co-directed by wife/husband power team  Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Ruby Sparks, Little Miss Sunshine) which probably helped keep the sensibilities all in line, though their particular leaning is clear. The result is both humorous and enlightening. The film is certainly a cure for thinking we’ve made no progress in the last 40 years, as well as a reminder of how much more there still is to do, even after all this time and all that effort.

Aside: Just this morning (18 January 2018) Novak Djokovic put forward the idea of paying men more because they currently have higher TV ratings, and Martina Navratilova speaks out against it…just in case you thought this was purely historical: http://www.bbc.com/sport/tennis/42729296.

Battle of the Sexes

Electric Dreams

[4 stars]

While it may not be fair, it is hard to view a science fiction anthology series these days without comparing it to Netflix’s Black Mirror. So, lack of fairness acknowledged, this steam punk take on Black Mirror, by Amazon and the BBC, is entirely fascinating and captures Philip K. Dick’s (PDK’s) sense of the surreal wonderfully. It is Twilight Zone on drugs… which is to say that each episode has some great stories and compelling characters, but exists in a world with its own set of rules rather than just trying to shock or spook you out.

While both are creating cautionary tales, there are interesting contrasts as well. Black Mirror builds a world from the path we’re on, and even interlinks the stories via technology and reference. Each episode of Electric Dreams, however, is about a different world on a path not taken by ours; not quite real even though all of its messages still apply. Even when reaching into the bizarre, Electric Dreams has solid writing and is stocked with recognizable names and faces, that keep it all intriguing.

PKD was known for challenging your mind and sensibilities (and, yes, recreational drugs). His work is prone to dystopia. However, there is humanity in every one of the tales I’ve seen so far. It is that spark, that base reality, that makes them compelling and effective. It has a little bit of everything in it, from politics to comedy, and each served up as a little gem of its own.

Product Details

Roman J. Israel, Esq

[3.5 stars]

When writer/director Dan Gilroy isn’t focused on blockbuster fare (Kong: Skull Island), he likes to tackle tougher stories, like his highly acclaimed Nightcrawler. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is definitely more in the Nightcrawler arena of social commentary and challenging characters. There is something both wonderful and depressing about the film. It is loaded both with a sense of possibility and a crushing weight of injustice and history. And like Molly’s Game, taking it at a surface level misses the intent.

This is also not your typical Denzel Washington (Fences, Equalizer) movie or part. He is a man out of sync with time, and at odds with himself and the world, in a way that feels broken. We get that from everything Israel does, from his clothes, to his music, to his electronics. Making Israel feel like a time traveler in our world is a wonderful conceit to bring home the movie’s points. Despite being either a savant and/or on the Asperger’s scale, he isn’t an incapable character. Roman is simply so wrapped in his own world and needs, and has been so insulated or trapped over decades, that his understanding of the politics and culture of “now” doesn’t seem to apply anymore. We understand and expect his way of thinking to be right…but are as frustrated as he is when it keeps breaking on the shoals of reality.

Though across a fairly big scope, the movie is very tightly focused on Israel and two other characters. Carmen Ejogo (It Comes at Night) and Colin Farrell (The Beguiled) are Israel’s opportunity to reach across the gulf of time to replant the original seeds of purpose. Pompous as that sounds, the intent of this film really feels more about the loss of the roots of activism, the drift from pure intentions with clear goals, into something fractured and diminished in reach.

It isn’t an easy story, but it is subtle and timely. Fighting is exhausting. Anyone who has been pushing back against the shift in this country (and the world) for the last year has been reminded of that. It is tempting to give up, in fact if you’ve done it long enough, you feel entitled to give up. But you cannot. The fight for justice and fairness never ends. It becomes a literal piece of baggage that must be handed off from one person to another, one generation to another. Even if the face of constant defeat, you have to fight on so that, at some point, someone will succeed. And then you move on to the next fight. Freedom must constantly be defended.  In fact, this movie would make an intriguing companion piece to 13th, Selma, or even I Am Not Your Negro, for an interesting evening or three.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. exposes some realities that you may not really want to hear or may not even agree with. It isn’t an easy story to watch, but it is acted well and delivered with conviction. It’s message reveals itself over the length of the movie. It is a message that, at least for me, ended with a real sense of possibility and energy. And that is a welcome boost as we turn the corner into 2018 and, among other things, come up to the second Women’s March in a couple weeks.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

The Darkest Hour

[3.5 stars]

And now, as they say, for a bit of context. In the role of a lifetime, Gary Oldman (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) portrays Winston Churchill… no, belay that, he disappears into Churchill in a brilliant performance that follows Churchill’s installation as PM and lead-up to the evacuation at Dunkirk. It is a fascinating inside look at political cravenness, beaten down morale, and true patriotism. Actually rather a good mirror for today as well. Much of what Nolan leaves out of his movie is in this one. Together, you get a much better understanding of the situation and the desperation. What is mere exposition in Dunkirk becomes very real in The Darkest Hour.

Outside of Oldman, this film is really carried by only two other characters. Kristin Scott Thomas (My Old Lady) as Churchill’s wife and Lily James (Baby Driver) as his assistant provide Churchill’s conscience and connection back to humanity. And both relationships are funny and very real.

Coming off his disastrous Pan, Joe Wright acquits himself well with this latest film. His direction of Oldman alone will get him a lot of cred going forward. On the other hand, Anthony McCarten’s script isn’t quite as strong as his previous biopic offering, Theory of Everything. It is interestingly balanced to show Churchill’s transformation in the eyes of Parliament, and perhaps within himself, but the path isn’t quite as credible. The result makes the film a little uneven. While Oldman, Thomas, and James capture your heart and attention, the structure of the story and the flow to the end aren’t equally as strong. After a promising start, it drops the countdown conceit and fractures into too many storylines. Churchill’s transformation near the end is wonderful but also a tad abrupt. The critical scene itself is not based on any verifiable event, but is drawn and created from the historical record of Churchill’s actions as PM; but you so want it to be true. It is that emotional response that is part of the timeliness and impact of the movie.

But these are all minor details compared to the performance by Oldman. It is a must see portrayal. Oldman’s transformation is so complete it is jaw-dropping. And the film is still solid and interesting both as an historical and as a dark mirror into current politics and humanity.

Darkest Hour

Dunkirk

[3.5 stars]

Dunkirk is a testament to Christopher Nolan’s (Interstellar) ability to control his vision. It is a terrible beauty of a film that makes war about as personal as it can get and still show you the big picture. But it isn’t an easy film to discuss because Nolan employs a dozen points of view, laying out multiple time lines; it has almost no script and, to top it off, no real resolution. The film is practically Cubist in its design, offering us a whole via all the points of view from land, sea, and air with no single character providing the through-line. This approach leaves no real focus other than the titular event itself; the event of Dunkirk is the only real character. Basically, it is more a beautiful piece of art than a great story.  If you are looking for more of the story to understand the war, the English people, and what led to that day, see The Darkest Hour in close proximity to this movie which give more of a homefront view.

But it deserves notice that there are not many filmmakers who could have pulled off looking at a critical moment in WWII this way without sensationalizing or romanticizing it. Nolan even makes a crashed Allied plane a symbol of triumph rather than disaster…and not wanting that be the final word, he pulls back to make it personal and to make us consider some horror as to the cost of it all for the final moment. That final frame changes the filter for the film, a feat only a very few directors have ever pulled off.

Because of these aspects, this is a movie whose biggest triumph is the craft behind it rather than what we would view as a traditional story. You can see the love and careful effort Nolan put into setting up his frames and editing sequences. Heck, the sound design alone is worth the time to experience this film. It is a subliminal drive of a beating heart that keeps you on edge and engaged, dropping back just enough at times to keep you from being exhausted or numb. Again, few films achieve that level of perfect manipulation; the original Alien is one of the few that ever has. The performances are all good, but they aren’t what makes it work. They are incidental, in many ways, to the story of Dunkirk, and war, itself.

I missed this on the big screen it deserved; it does deserve a huge screen. But with a large screen or not, it is worth experiencing at least once for its impact and craft. After you’ve seen it once, then worry about the debate of it as a movie or simply an animated diorama.

Dunkirk