Tag Archives: ShouldSee

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


[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.


Dave Made a Maze

[3.5 stars]

How do you describe a totally gonzo film? Endlessly inventive seems trite. Perhaps mention the fact that it won the hearts of a dozen film festivals? Or, perhaps, just mention that as director and co-writer, Bill Watterson’s deliver a surprisingly solid movie out of an idea that, in most hands, would have failed; he and Steven Sears’s script is totally absurd (in a good way). Or, maybe, that Watterson, as his first time directing, navigates the cast through the tale genuinely, which keeps it all grounded?

The cast were a game bunch, some of whom you’ll recognize and some you won’t. Nick Thune (Garfunkel & Oats, Bad Johnson) and Meera Rohit Kumbhani (Donny!) are the core of the gang and embody a lot of modern relationship issues, but are clearly committed to one another despite everything. Their friends are a motley crew of abrasive and supportive pals that are recognizable in just about anyone’s life. Adam Busch (Colony), James Urbaniak (The Boxtrolls), Stephanie Allynne (One Mississippi, In a World…), and Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds) are principal in those roles. Despite the insanity around them, their performances remain calm and accepting of the insanity and focus on solving the problems.

I don’t want to oversell this film. It isn’t so much that it’s brilliant as that it is surprising. Despite its low budget and crazy ideas, it is funny and, in its way, touching. But it doesn’t really come to a conclusion. It is more a giant metaphor for imagination and artistic desire, or humanity’s drive to build and succeed. But it is definitely worth your time when you want something a bit different and wryly amusing.

Dave Made a Maze

Molly’s Game

[4.5 stars]

As a writer, Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs) is nearly unsurpassed. This is a man who was able to make selecting a stamp or the math behind the census interesting, fascinating even. He brings fierce intelligence and knowledge to every subject he tackles. And he generally views humanity as intelligent as well and treats us that way.

Molly’s Game is the first time Sorkin has also been behind the camera as director. And, clearly, he has been paying attention to what happens on set in the past. This film is an incredibly strong first offering from a director. It is well paced, well filmed, and completely engaging with solid performances from his cast.

Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloane), as the eponymous Molly, commands the screen with drive and integrity. And Idris Elba (Thor: Ragnarok) manages something I didn’t know he could do…he actually dials back his presence on screen so as to not overshadow Molly.

There are a host of other good performances in this film as well, but the standouts are Chastain and the script, each feeding one another with breathless energy. The movie takes off from the start and doesn’t let up till the end. It is filled with great moments and one-liners as well as some long-game payoffs. And, yes, he played with the truth to tell a better story at points, but this tale, much like the repeatedly mentioned “The Crucible,” isn’t necessarily about what is seems to be about. I think Sorkin was attracted to Molly as a proxy for his own sensibility about Hollywood and politics in general. The need for integrity pervades the tale. It is also a very timely story give the #MeToo movement and revelations.

Much like I, Tonya, you may not have thought you needed to see this film, but you do. And it reminds me again what a gift Sorkin is to entertainment; especially now that he has branched into directing as well.


The Shape of Water

[4.5 stars]

A beautiful period creature tale or simply a wonderful love story, either way this film is like a warm hug on screen. And I say this despite some of the uglier sides of the period being unequivocally shown, not to mention the obvious nods to our current culture. It is both clear-eyed and well timed as a reminder of how things were and how they have been going.

Sally Hawkins (Maudie) is captivating as Elisa, and she manages it with nary a spoken word. Richard Jenkins (Kong: Skull Island) is heartbreakingly wonderful as well. Even Michael Stuhlbarg (Miss Sloane) gets to put on a (mostly) good face for a change, and delivers a nicely nuanced character. Only Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) is stuck with cliche, and even he gets to add some uniqueness to it all.

This film also marks the opportunity for Doug Jones (Star Trek: Discovery) to expand on his Abe Sapien role from the Hellboy series. Abe is a character that has always deserved his own story. Though this is not that tale, it feels like a satisfying exploration and conclusion given that Del Toro will not be completing his trilogy. And, ultimately, you won’t even see the creature suit. Without speaking a word, Jones lets you see the “person” inside the skin of his character.

Supporting the story, Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) does a great job as well. Though not her best role, it is full of detail, humor, and bite. Smaller roles by Morgan Kelly (Killjoys), David Hewlett (Stargate: Atlantis), and Nigel Bennett are some of the more notable other appearances. 

Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone) has always been a story teller with a particular vision. Each of his tales is unique, but they all bear his signature in look and feel. Shape is no exception in that regard. It is a luscious production suffused with light and corridors and odd but human characters. He loves humanity and has a strange, dark optimism about us as a culture and a species. Or maybe he’s just a hopeless romantic, as this tale of otherness finding love may attest.

See this on the big screen. It has amazing production values and excellent sound. Let it make a hopeless romantic of you as well.

Warning: Spoiler Follows

My only gripe with this incredible film is that I knew exactly where the film ended just as it began. It was a bad choice and could have been easily covered if I’d only seen one side of Hawkins’s neck rather than both. It isn’t that you don’t know where it is all going anyway, so it isn’t a huge loss, but I would have loved that Aha! moment that I heard in gasps around me at the theater. Instead, I had been waiting almost 2 hours to see it play out. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again so I can let go of the anticipation and just fully enjoy the ride.

The Shape of Water

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time (Christmas 2017)

[4.5 stars]

Well, it was a long slog getting to this finale, starting back with the opening frames of World Enough and Time last season and then getting teased at the end of The Doctor Falls at the end of series 10.  But it definitely paid off. This farewell to Moffat as writer and show-runner, not to mention Capaldi as the Doctor, is poignant, well crafted, and full of nice moments. And, yes, probably a few mistakes in history and dropping of some threads regarding The Mastress. Having Rachel Talalay direct the entire through-line certainly helped keep it all steady in look and feel.

The impact of this sequence aside, it was also just a really good Who episode and not overly Christmas-y. In the best way it integrated the holiday for those who wanted it without making it the focus of the story in a way that pushed away others. The bridging plot of Mark Gatiss’s (queers.) character made that both possible and wonderful. And the “return” of Hartnell’s original Who, through the capable hands of  Game of Thrones alum David Bradley, was surprisingly effective. I also want to call out some great editing and camerawork that helped on that point, especially the cuts from past to present and back again.

Overall, this was a wonderfully strong ending for a Doctor who should have had a longer run. And, as I’ve railed over the last few years, a better set of scripts. I am looking forward to seeing where the show goes now with Chris Chibnall at the helm. Chibnall has a wide-ranging background and a series of critical and popular hits under his belt and a clear love of the Who universe. He is likely to bring a darker view, and a more science fiction approach back to the show. But he is also getting to blaze new ground and was left with one heck of a cliff hanger…one that mirrors the arrival of Matt Smith who was also brought new direction to the series.

All in all, a great ending to a mixed run by Moffat and a satisfying close to the Capaldi years, despite wondering what might of been.

Doctor Who


[4 stars]

First off, what you have to know is that Downsizing isn’t the light comedy the ads and trailers have been suggesting. Funny? Yes, but dark comedy at best. And, sure, it is a seriously good social satire straight out of the Golden Age of science fiction.  But, at its heart, it is a tale of self-discovery and humanity more than anything else. Like director and co-writer Alexander Payne’s previous film gem, Nebraska, the focus this sprawling landscape and tale is really an individual learning to navigate himself and the world.

Matt Damon’s (The Great Wall) journey is heartbreakingly compelling and easy to identify with, like all of Payne’s main characters. Through Damon we learn the new world. And it is a world populated with some interesting characters, in a broadly aware Upstairs/Downstairs sort of way.

Most notably is Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) who sweeps onto the screen, grabs it, and shakes it till the end of the final reel. It is a performance that is getting a lot of deserved notice. If Damon’s performance is getting less applause, it is because Payne makes Damon into both main character and catalyst, observer and actor. He doesn’t allow him to become a full-fledged person until the very last frame.

While Hong is a powerhouse, she is also about the only real female influence in the cast. The rest of the supporting cast, each solid in their own way, are men: Rolf Lassgård (A Man Called Ove), Christoph Waltz (The Legend of Tarzan) and, as a delightful surprise, Udo Kier (Nymphomaniac). Each of them provides influence, points of view, and choices in Damon’s world. There are also a slew of bit roles and cameos throughout.

Payne, and oft-time co-writer Jim Taylor, put in some serious effort to think through the ideas of Downsizing. They approached the world as another one of the main characters and really put effort into considering how the events would change the world in a real way. Unlike other general release satires, like Idiocracy, Downsizing is intended to be a believable and natural outcome of the world impacted by one significant event: miniaturization made possible. The effort shows and makes the story all that more effective, especially with the wonderfully subtle production design and special effects.

Downsizing is likely going to disappoint a lot of people, and surprise many more. Opening weekend is almost certainly aimed at the wrong audience thanks to the ad campaign, but I suspect it will find its viewers by word of mouth fairly quickly. It is a wonderfully done piece delivered at the right time for its message. And, as always with Payne, it is handled with emotional surety and care. You can’t see this film and not hear the questions it raises on both a global and personal scale. Admittedly, there are more questions than answers. But it is, ultimately, a personally positive message.

If you want something with a bit more meat on it than the typical holiday fare, this is certainly a good option. Ignore the trailers and what you think you know about it and go with the flow when the movie begins. The opening 15 minutes set the tone for the rest of what’s to come, and it is great two hours that follow. But whether you see it now or later, see it eventually.



[4 stars]

What would happen if Stranger Things collided with the last couple of seasons of Lost? Well, you’d get something like Dark.

This show takes some work to follow, especially with the added challenge of subtitles (if you watch in its original German; and why wouldn’t you?). The story is incredibly complicated and slowly revealed over its 10 parts. Part of the fun of the story is trying to get ahead of it and only occasionally succeeding. But Dark is also aware and unapologetic about the challenge of the story, even providing guidance to help viewers. Some of that comes as some classroom teaching via the teens in the series, other assistance comes as voice over, and still more as allusion or as split-screen explanations.

But all the effort is worth it. I say this even admitting it is based on some of the worst kind of science fiction. What saves it is very clever plotting and structure and solid acting across the board.

One of the things that makes limited series so much better, typically, than the more standard American 20+ episode approach is that a limited series (or season) can be fully and carefully crafted; even over multiple arcs with less time pressure and more craft. And, while this is an example of that advantage, the series inevitably allows itself an escape hatch into series two. As long as there is a series two, I’m OK with that. However, too many shows do that with the hope of garnering enough outcry and interest to get renewed, when what really works isn’t so much open ended plot points as really good writing.

At the time of this writing, Netflix has yet to commit to the follow-up, but interest in the show points to a renewal. Give it a shot even without the commit, if you haven’t already.


Wind River

[3.5 stars]

Earlier this year, Wind River was seen as a hands-down awards winner.  Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, also gets behind the camera for this film. He delivers another intense script of a murder on an Indian reservation.

Jeremy Renner (Arrival) dials back his action-boy push to return back to his Hurt Locker roots. He is focused, quiet, and emotionally primed, but kept in check as he pursues his goals. Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers: Age of Ultron) also gives a great performance of a young FBI officer, not incompetent, but certainly unseasoned. Gil Birmingham (The Lone Ranger) is the other impactful surprise in the story. As a bereaved father, and mirror for Renner, he swings between strength and devastation in heart-breaking ways.

Wind River did capture a number of earlier festivals. But it has hit some bumps in the road having released so early in the year and with a number of other great films just starting to screen. It also is bucking the trend of naturalism I’ve been seeing on the screen. Wind River is very well crafted, but it feels that way too, especially by the final act. That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It has incredible impact, though it does feel like Sheridan lost a little bit of his careful control during the climax of the film. But its competitors are large ideas and impact in smaller packages; more real life than screen life. What makes Wind River swim comfortably with these other films is the quality of its writing, acting, cinematography, and the reality that it is based on the truth. That last bit will leave you feeling hollow and ashamed by the final credits, and it should.

Wind River

Thor: Ragnarok

[4 stars]

Thanks in large part to Taika Waititi (BoyWhat We Do in the Shadows), Thor lives somewhere between Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool in tone. It is a delightful, distracting piece of fun whose sole purpose is to bridge us into the next Avengers film. His writers, who came out of the one-shots, Agent Carter, and multiple Marvel animation series had a good handle on the possibilities as well. But if you know Waititi’s work, you see his stamp everywhere.

There are a load of inside jokes and references to previous films, and an amusing guest appearance by Liam Hemsworth (The Dressmaker) and Sam Neil (Mindgamers). Waititi even managed to put a fun role in there for himself. The movie is, of course, full of action as well. Big, world-busting action. And, by the end of the extra scenes, it answers and resolves a number of open threads from the previous cycle of movies.

Waititi tackled the franchise with his usual flare for the silly and absurd, but always anchored with a human heart-beat. It is, I must admit, sometimes an uncomfortable melding of styles.  Much like McFarlane’s Orville, he injects his particular brand of humor onto a known template; it sometimes breaks the flow even while being wildly entertaining.

But the cast is game for both sides of that equation and gives it their all. Over-the-top and yet somehow grounded, these gods and super heroes battle it out with verve and slapstick.

Getting to see Chris Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) and Mark Ruffalo (Now You See Me 2) finally cut loose with humor that has been hinted at for years was a load of fun. Add in Tom Hiddleston (Kong: Skull Island) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) playing into it all and it becomes like a great party. Of all the returning characters, only Idris Elba (The Dark Tower) and Anthony Hopkins (The Dresser) don’t seem to get to get their moments of humor. They do, however, get their moments.

And then there are the new folks. Cate Blanchett (Song to Song) falls so far into her role, and the make-up alters her so subtly, that she is almost unrecognizable but for her incredible voice and command of the screen. In the other main female lead, Tessa Thompson (Creed) brings in a great anti-Wonder Woman sort of flare to accompany her heroics. Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon), while no stranger to dry humor, gets to try something new as well…melding his humor to what feels like a refugee from Mad Max. And then there are Jeff Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) and Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), in her first truly big film thanks to Waititi’s coattails (having been in almost every one of his other films), as a wonderfully comic couple.

If I had one major gripe it was that the studios gave away the first third of the film, totally zapping a big reveal of its power. It may still be a fun and great moment, but man ‘o man, I wish I hadn’t known and had only the clues (and they are there) and curiosity to go on. But, we’ll never know because there wasn’t even an option to avoid that knowledge.

Go. Have fun. See it on the big screen. 3D is optional for this one, but it deserves a big screen. It also has a great application of Zepplin’s Immigrant Song. What more can you ask for?

Thor: Ragnarok