Tag Archives: Unique

My Octopus Teacher

[4 stars]

I am so late to this one, I’m embarrassed. It was in my queue for ages, but got lost. If you still haven’t seen this beautifully filmed tale of a man lost, found, and freed…all thanks to his obsession with an octopus, then make the time. You will not be sorry.

Now up for an Oscar, I must admit that this docu is one of the odder I may have ever seen. Not because of the subject, but because the intended focus is utterly orthogonal to the central subject. It certainly films the year-long life of young octopus and its, for lack of a better word, friendship with nature writer and filmmaker Craig Foster. But the story is more about Foster and his self-professed reawakening from the experience.

Foster’s is battling a personal crisis and isolation at the beginning  of the story. It’s that journey, through the experience of meeting the octopus and joining it daily in its world, about which the story flows. Though how much he learns or took away from the experience is something I am still discussing today with others who’ve seen the film.

It is telling that Foster didn’t direct and write this documentary, but allowed fellow artists Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed to tell the story, though they never appear on screen. Without that distance, there would have been a lack of honesty in the final result.

Frankly, the film just has to be experienced…and experienced on your own terms to interpret. I’ve spent days thinking about it afterwards, struggling to write it up and realized that there was no definitive way to do so. It is a must-see film. What you take from it is going to be based on your own experience and state of mind. Certainly, pandemic viewing has impacted that filter.

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Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

[2.5 stars]

If I were judging this on chutzpah, I’d be raving about Sasha Baron Cohen’s (Trial of the Chicago 7) return to the painfully satirical Kazakhstan reporter. And his supporting star, Maria Bakalova is every bit his equal, and certainly being recognized for her utterly unselfconscious performance. Their story and trials together transform into an entirely expected, but still touching, resolution.

But as a movie…let’s just say I knew I wasn’t their audience 3 minutes in, but I stuck with it primarily to see Bakalova. Once she had appeared, I hung on out of curiosity and just pure amazement at how much they got away with. But I still almost turned it off several times. I appreciated Cohen’s points and the final, crafted shape of it all, but I can’t say I enjoyed more than a small portion of the movie outright. The rest was through gritted teeth and being thankful that he was a brutal editor and kept most of the segments under the SNL pain limit.

I fully understand that many people will find this movie hysterical, diverting, and even rewatchable. And power to them. And power to Cohen and his crew for pulling off a high-wire act that is the epitome of dangerous art. But I can’t recommend it to those who align more with my sense of humor. I know I’m disappointing many friends by saying so, but there you go.

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The Father

[4.5 stars]

Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable and storied. Olivia Williams (Maps to the Stars), Mark Gatiss (Locked Down), Rufus Sewell (The Pale Horse), and Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) perform a wonderfully seamless dance filling out the story.

This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.

My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.

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Locked Down

[3 stars]

A unique anti-heist movie with a solid cast and steady pace. Anne Hathaway (The Witches) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Old Guard) give us a couple in their final throes, which the pandemic has only, paradoxically, both accelerated and restrained via the lockdown.

Steven Knight’s (A Christmas Carol) script submerges us in the couple’s frustration and despondency, while slowly exposing their secrets and emotional turmoil. He also slowly builds out a pathway that would, in most stories of this type, have been the focus. Unlike a typical film in the genre, like Ocean’s 8, Locked Down builds a deep foundation for the choices and manages a pathway to allow it to happen relatively without consequence. It is still fraught with tension and risk, but we’re presented with the options as the characters are, and we can fully follow their choices.

Director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) embraces the claustrophobia and lethargy of the pandemic, and also the desperate need for contact. We see people, but most only through video screens or through windows. But he still populated that background and interactions with a pile of great talent. People like Ben Kingsley (Elegy), Ben Stiller (Tower Heist), and Mark Gatiss (Dracula) stand out particularly. Sadly, the story is short on women. Though Mindy Kaling (Late Night) appears, she’s barely used, and few others have more impact.

This is definitely a slow burn story, and it must be to retain any credibility and still work. It isn’t about two bad people planning something nefarious, it’s about two desperate people taking advantage of a situation. It’s all still very morally ambiguous, but Knight’s script does it’s best to make it palatable, and Liman guides his actors in a way that makes it feel possible.

But let’s be clear. This is a story of it’s time and only works because we’re still going through it. While the journey is honest, our empathy will not last much past the end of the current pandemic. And for those that come after, it probably won’t stand the test of time. However, for now and for a fun escape (and a bit of a leap of faith) it’s definitely worth your time.

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Soul

[4.5 stars]

Just wow. Not only is this a beautifully drawn and designed film, it’s a clever and engaging animated tale that will entertain young and old alike. In fact, the only reason I couldn’t give this a straight-up 5 stars was because of some of the minor bits that were there for laughs alone for the youngsters and small flaws that made no real-world sense. Otherwise, this is an instant classic and will bear up under rewatching for years to come.

The vocal duelling between Jamie Foxx (Project Power) and Tina Fey (Admission) is wonderfully entertaining and amusingly animated (literally and figuratively). Add the dry fun of Richard Ayoade (The Boxtrolls), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times), and Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) and you’ve an incredible pallet of humor to bounce off of. A host of smaller roles are given life by talented names as well. And then there’s the jazz arrangements and playing under the guidance of Jon Batiste.

Peter Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) co-directed and, with an assist by Mike Jones, co-wrote the script. It is a masterful piece of wry wit and honest reflection on life. There’s no point in describing more of it because you should just experience it, whether now or later. It’s a pity this one didn’t see the large screen, but it certainly entertains like it should and doesn’t disappoint.

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Wander Darkly

[3 stars]

What might have been/What if stories, particularly as “life after death” tales, are often tedious and obvious. But I will admit that Tara Miele’s story of a couple coming to terms with each other and their reality is a fluid, poetic stroll through their lives. And the couple’s willingness to re-evaluate their lives as it is happening is also a welcome dose of honesty. The movie itself has some challenges, but that is somewhat offset by the actors.

Sienna Miller (High-Rise) is the solid core of this story. She and Diego Luna (Flatliners) have a strained and tenuous relationship based on…well, frankly, we never really quite understand what it’s based on or why they stayed together. But that is more the fault of the script than the acting. The two navigate their rumination of their relationship with raw frustration and moments of passion.

One of the nice surprises in the supporting roles was Vanessa Bayer’s (Carrie Pilby) quiet portrayal of Miller’s friend. She avoided all her broad comedy urges and was just there for her.

While the story does come to a conclusion, and a new foundation for the two, it doesn’t entirely feel like it was a journey worth taking. However, this movie is a master class on editing. If you like the craft of film, that aspect makes it worth seeing.  If that isn’t going to be enough, you can probably find a better way to spend an evening, despite Miller’s performance.

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Monsterland

[4 stars]

Hulu’s new anthology series returns horror to its roots. Sure it’s full of shocks and disturbing images, but the stories are about people. The horrors we encounter in the series are all reflections of, or serve to highlight the monsters in us.

Because it’s an anthology, I’m not going to enumerate any of the specific tales. However, I will say that they consistently surprised me, taking plots in unexpected ways and they were willing to look into the deepest, darkest crevices of the human psyche without apology. This makes the episodes as intriguing as they are disturbing to watch. And unlike Black Mirror, you’re forced to confront the revelations within context of our real world.

Helping along the success are a host of solid acting and creative directing. The show took chances with unknown and lesser-known actors as well as approaching the story-telling in unexpected ways. The series is also very cinematic, feeling like a series of hour-long movies rather than a bunch of loosely related episodes.

Monsterland may sound like a timing mismatch (like Brave New World or Utopia were) but because it is horror, it had just enough mental distance to keep me watching. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for something with a unique and new voice, not just in the genre, but in television.

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Lovecraft Country

[4 stars]

The origin of this series is the book of the same name by Matt Ruff. The book is a perfect match for our times all on its own, and predated the explosion of outcries that have swept the nation in a prescient coup when it was published back at the top of 2017. The book even predates Get Out. Like the HBO adaptation, it’s also episodic by design and full of adventure amid the message. And Jordan Peele (Us) is the perfect match for overseeing series that Misha Green has created. Much like Watchmen and Penny Dreadful: City of Angles, this is an entertaining commentary that is impossible to look away from and devastating to run through.

From the beginning the show separates its action from the book, but manages to retain the sense and direction of it entirely. It’s quite a feat of adaptation. There are reasonable arguments to be made that they tried to do too much, overloaded the metaphors with too many examples and storylines. But I enjoyed the additional layers; the arc of this series builds a house of cards through its 10 episodes that we get to asail in the finale. How it all plays out is completely open till the end which helps add to the suspense. And, of course, there is setup for what could be an even wilder ride for a season 2 (read more about that here after you’ve seen the current series). However, one of the impacts of the changes from the book is also a much less likeable cast of characters. None of them are wholly positive, and all of them are often prickly to the point of being nasty.

The story itself is a quietly complex and intense tale that slips in and out of the world we know and a world that only haunts nightmares. More impressively, it makes horror, well, feel more real. It isn’t about making you jump, it’s about making you metaphysically ill and uncomfortable while making the characters truly afraid. Despite the wild situations, they all feel very grounded in truth, be it real humans and their repugnant ways or ghosts and elder gods and their swinging tentacles and many eyes. Look, in particular, at the third episode, “Holy Ghost,” and consider these aspects.

Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Birds of Prey) are the primary focus pulling us along. Their relationship, and tension in that relationship, evolves over the stretch of the story and serves as the backboard against which so much else bounces.

Smollett-Bell is also just one of many powerful women in the story. She is joined by Aunjanue Ellis (If Beale Street Could Talk), Wunmi Mosaku (The End of the F***ing World), and Abbey Lee (The Dark Tower) who serve as example and preachers to the plight of women and the taking of power. Even Courtney B. Vance (Project Power) and Michael Kenneth Williams (Motherless Brooklyn) take backseats to their storms.

There are too many amazing episodes to call out, though “I Am” certainly ranks up there requiring a special call out…if nothing else for its audacity given the mainstream audience target. In a good year of content creation, Lovecraft would have stood out as something special. In the year of the pandemic where new material is fairly restricted, it towers over most of the rest. Much like Watchmen’s sweep of awards last season, watch for Lovecraft to dominate nominations, if not also taking home many awards.

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Unknown Origins (Orígenes Secretos)

[4 stars]

One of the best geekfests since Deadpool, and considerably more down to earth. I could explain more, but it would give away the fun.

Director and co-writer David Galán Galindo walks a very difficult line to deliver an odd buddy-cop movie that somehow rides the border of absurd without ever quite losing control. And while a lot of that is due to the script, it is in large part thanks to his cast.

Brays Efe, begins as a clear riff on Jack Black, but evolves into his own, becoming someone quite a bit more as we learn about him and as the plot demands. And Verónica Echegui (Fortitude) starts off equally absurd, but quickly proves her abilities and status. Even Ernesto Alterio’s slightly gleeful and dedicated coroner pushes edges but never loses credibility. The story is helped by the solid center of Antonio Resines as the outgoing guard and the incoming Javier Rey, who are both more traditional detectives, thought at very different ends of their careers. Rey’s earnest nature provides ample foil for the rest of the cast while he finds his way.

Somehow the grabbag of strange characters comes together into something believable enough to entertain and be taken almost seriously. It is definitely more than the sum of its parts and aimed squarely at a particular kind of audience. While it may work generally, the more you know of the superhero or comic world, the more you will enjoy the tale. Anyone with a leaning in these areas should make time for this; you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and don’t miss the bonus scene at the end of the credits for a final treat…

Dante’s Inferno (2007)

[2.5 stars]

This film is a triumph of style over result. Part of the problem is the source material, which has been done over and over again. In books as diverse as science fiction (Niven & Pournelle’s or Steven Boyett’s, for example) not to mention too many movies to mention, and mainstream fiction. But the very nature of Inferno is that is episodic exposition after episodic exposition; speech upon speech about morality and the wages of sin.

That may have worked in Dante’s time, and certainly fit the structure of his cantos, but not so much anymore. Even when using it as a foil, it tends to devolve into a playground for airing personal senses of justice about current times or historic figures rather than about the characters in the story. This wasn’t even the only movie to attack Inferno in animation. Just a couple years later, in 2010, there was another: Dante’s anime, though that was adapted both from Dante and a video game.

So what does this movie have going for it? Inventiveness, for one. This is done with paper puppets manipulated by a talented crew headed by Paul Zaloom. This was all clearly a labor of love put together with collaborators Sean Meredith (who was also the primary director), Sandow Birk (also the primary writer), and Zaloom. And they got two capable actors to voice the main characters: Dante by Dermot Mulroney (The Mountain Between Us) and James Cromwell (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) as Virgil.

But it doesn’t really come together as more than a curio. The puppetry is interesting. The political commentary is also unnervingly on point even 13 years later. In the end, however, it just sort of happens and then it’s over. True to the original material, but not quite enough for me to feel satisfied.

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