Tag Archives: Unique

Flower

[3.5 stars]

Looking for one of the odder, darker, coming-of-age rom-coms? This will probably do you then. Well, it will do something. Flower is a delightfully enjoyable, entertaining, and weirdly bleakly hopeful story. Yeah, it really is all over the place, though some of that reaction may be due to a generation gap; hard to tell from this perspective.

The success of the story is really down (perhaps a poor choice of words) to the ebullient Zoey Deutch (Before I Fall). She continues to enchant and surprise me in her roles. She is scarily natural on film and comfortable playing whatever is necessary for the character without shame or judgement or even triumph; she just “is.” Her characters are also strong but not without levels.

Her unlikely counterpart, Joey Morgan (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), was a great foil and, ultimately, with a bit more to him than was originally obvious. And as their parents, Kathryn Hahn (The Visit) and Tim Heidecker create a backdrop that is a bit extreme, but suited to the occasion.

On the side is Adam Scott (Krampus) in a role unlike any of his others I’ve seen. It is contained and quiet, with an interesting tension underneath.

As his second feature film, Max Winkler directed this well, keeping it light but not without the gravitas it needed. Like a good sauce, it seamlessly thickens as it cooks and holds together well. Winkler also co-wrote the tale, with McAulay and Spicer (Ingrid Goes West). I can’t even imagine the story sessions this trio had coming up with the plot, but they clearly worked well together. [Sidebar: If you were hoping for the Liz Phair song that shares the titles name you’ll be disappointed; but I’m still convinced it was part impetus for this movie.]

Flower is not your traditional film, and may not be for everyone, but it is one worth seeing for its surprise and craft in front of and behind the camera.

Flower

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados)

[3 stars]

A surreal romp about finding hope in hopelessness. At least that’s what I took away from it this viewing. Pedro Rivero and
Alberto Vázquez (with additional help from Stephanie Sheh [Your Name.] and Joe Deasy) give us a landscape that borders on Bakshi’s Wizards: post-apocalyptic, mutated, venal, self-absorbed, and still focused on the value of the past rather than providing life for the future.

The main characters are children; children who are trying to survive and find purpose in a broken world. Somehow that part of the story feels very contemporary in terms of the feelings and challenges if not the specific events and issues. The overall plot echos the global trend toward migration, economic disparity, and the ecological disaster that is picking up steam with every year. But this is less warning than it is the (merest) suggestion that there is a solution if we can just hold on to what makes life worthwhile and control the darkest parts of our own selves. It makes for a pretty packed 76 minutes.

For the animation alone, this film is worth it. It isn’t grand, highly CGI’d animation, rather it is a reflection of its graphic novel roots. It is simple, but effective. The result is fascinating, inventive, and gripping at times. It refuses to blink from horror, but also often twists it to something of beauty or potential beauty. If you like the craft and enjoy challenging animation, this is worth your time.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

[4 stars]

At its heart, this is a movie about love. That is also a biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman and his bold choices in a repressed era becomes window dressing. Though, I have to admit, I will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again.

Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train), Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon), and Rebecca Hall (The Dinner) pull off a beautiful triangle. They manage to bring to life the complex emotions, fears, and desires that drove and challenged the relationship they formed without making it puerile or cliche. In our current times, it is also a great lesson in moral fibre and learning to be who you are despite societal pressures or assumptions.

There are some very nice smaller roles that are worth noting as well, JJ Feild (Captain America: The First Avenger) in particular. On the sidelines are Oliver Platt (The Ticket), and Connie Britton (Beatriz at Dinner) that provide some intriguing bridging characters too, though we never really get to know them.

Writer and director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) does something wonderful with this tale. She approaches it without judgement of her characters, but rather flips that to her audience and those around the unusual family. As her second feature, it is beautifully modulated and subtle. I will say that while the romance and personal aspect of the story is very effective and believable, Robinson’s other goal (layering on Marston’s psych theory as a structure for the movie) is less effective. It doesn’t distract or diminish the film, but it doesn’t really add much to it either. You can see the ideas, you can’t avoid them given the transitions, but I didn’t find them to build on or explain much either. Frankly, it is a minor criticism in this story as it is still character appropriate and adds some interesting structure, even if it is less than impactful.

Whether you know the history of of these people, or have an interest in Wonder Woman comics, this is a story that will grab you early and keep you intrigued. Marston was no ordinary man, nor were the brilliant women he had in his life. What is fascinating is just how little things have changed since their story began in the late 1920s.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Mudbound

[3 stars]

The first part of this film is practically Spoon River on the Delta or some other kind of multi-voiced poem. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a tale to be told nor characters to get to know. Mudbound deconstructs the post-WWII South with an unflinching eye, even if it doesn’t quite have the same lyricism as Daughters of the Dust, nor the scope of The Color Purple. There is also a sense of the slice of life approach and class implications of Tree of Wooden Clogs. Suffice to say, it isn’t easy viewing, despite its moments of joy and despite its victories against all odds.

At its core, this is a simple tale of two families. Each is played well by a collection of great talent.

Carry Mulligan (Far From the Madding Crowd), Jason Clarke (Everest), Garrett Hedlund (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and Jonathan Banks are the owners on one side of the Mississippi homestead. They cover a broad swath of sensibilities, but none of them are particularly people you’d want to praise.

The sharecroppers are led by Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan (Daredevil), and Jason Mitchell (Kong: Skull Island, Straight Outta Compton). Like the white land owners, this is a family in transition of ideas thanks in large part to WWII. And it is Mitchell who ultimately dominates the family portrayal and transition into a more modern world.

Dee Rees (Pariah) navigated the complex narrative with confidence as director and co-writer. And though her politics are clear, she does try to show a range of attitudes and people. But you can’t help but realize you are looking at the once and future America; it is the very world a number of our current leaders are actively trying to make us return to. In fact, the day I watched this was the day of the S*thole countries tweet. Sobering to say the least.

But is it a great movie? Not really. It is a well-crafted story with some very powerful performances and moments. It is an emotionally effective one at times too. But it isn’t very strong in its ultimate message nor is the narrative compelling in a way that pulls you along–it is a framed loop with a coda in structure, so you have a pretty good sense of the story before you’re more than a scene or two in. The voice-overs were generally distancing rather than informative for me; I would have preferred action to convey the ideas over being told about them. However, it is a brave, bald piece that probably does need to be seen by a good sized segment of the populace so we can avoid backsliding. And the movie is told in an unusual way with a ultimate sense of hope in the cruelest of situations; we can all use some of that these days.

Mudbound

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

The Disaster Artist

[3 stars]

Oddly, the reason for this rather good movie is a rather bad one. The Room; a movie so bad it has achieved cult status, raises many questions in your head beyond “how the hell did this thing ever become part of the zeitgeist?” For instance: Is belief in yourself, without self-reflection (or self awareness), an asset to success or not?

The answer to these is hard to tell given the true story behind this quasi-biopic/making of movie. As director and, appropriately enough, star, James Franco (Why Him?) took the reins in this re-enactment/retelling to expose, or maybe explain, the making of the beloved train-wreck. In fact, it is so true to the events, that side-by-side re-enactments of scenes are played just before the credit roll, and the precision is uncanny. Of course writers Neustadter and  Weber (the duo behind The Spectacular Now and The Fault in our Stars) had hours of documentary material and some insiders to help with recreating the events.

Also uncanny is Franco’s performance as Wiseau. It is a skin-crawlingly honest performance of the man; so genuine to its core that it is hard to watch at times. Dave Franco (Now You See Me 2), James’s brother, as Wiseau’s best friend turns in an equally powerful effort.

Much like The Room itself, you cannot seem to turn away from the story unfolding on the screen. Franco’s presentation of The Room this film lets you see it as an exposure of raw human longing and desire that Hollywood has instilled into the world culture. And though it feels like it has a fairy tale aspect to it in terms of financing and such, well, that is just part of the true history.

Alongside the Francos, there are many faces you’ll recognize in smaller roles. From Jacki Weaver (Equals) to Zac Efron (The Greatest Showman) and Alison Brie (GLOW) to Ari Gaynor (Wiener-Dog). Even Seth Rogen (Steve Jobs), Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) and Megan Mullally (Why Him?) have some good story lines.

So a moment about The Room itself. Sadly, I can honestly say it still isn’t the worst film I’ve seen. That dubious prize goes to either The FP or Highlander: The Source. But make no mistake, The Room is bad. Awful, in fact. It is full of cliches, bad porn styling, and a level of misogyny that is utterly breath taking. The Room isn’t inadvertently funny enough nor so bad that it requires the cult following it has spawned, but who can understand what drives pop culture? Seriously, seeing it once is more than enough, why do it again and again?  But you don’t have to have seen The Room to appreciate Disaster Artist. You get everything you need to know on screen.

But, more importantly, you ask, is The Disaster Artist, unlike its inciting roots, a good movie? Well, it is certainly well put together and faithful to its subject in tone and presentation. It pulls you in, sometimes through pure jaw-dropping lack of belief, but it does and it doesn’t let you go. And it does it with love and respect for its subjects. It is certainly a unique story and one that has left an indelible mark on Hollywood and the culture. But it is also painful to watch, like watching a small child getting hurt learning to walk or make its way in the world. Or, worse, watching old films of yourself as a young kid in a room full of your adult friends.

So enter into this with a sense of humility and a sense of humor. And ask yourself: If you had to choose, would you pick infamy over obscurity? My question isn’t the driving choice, or even intent, of Disaster Artist, but it certainly leaves you with that question as well. But it is Weaver’s character who gets to state the driving factors behind this oddity from an industry point of view. She sums it all up in a single sentence for us and the characters around her. Though, I would say that in a broader sense it is really about humanity and the desire for a connection.

Watch this at some point. Laugh and cringe, but definitely appreciate the effort that went into this docudrama. It feels effortlessly real, which is about one of the hardest things to do on screen. And expect to see Franco nominated for his Wiseau performance; it is unforgettably spooky.

The Disaster Artist

A Ghost Story

[3 stars]

I truly admire what writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) wants to do with his latest film. It is a devastating look at love and loss, and a musing on the fabric of existence. Very heady stuff for a small indie film that focuses on a single relationship. OK, yes, and a little Sophomoric too. However, it rises mostly above that due to the performances and quality of the execution. Rooney Mara (Song to Song) and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) create a very believable pair whose lives are slowly exposed over the course of the tale. Both performances are quietly intense and subtle.

Frustratingly, far too much of the movie is too close to reality. It is easily 20 minutes longer than it need be to make its points. Frankly, you can only hold a shot so long before the value of the moment is gone and it begins to feel forced or more like a theatre “happening” rather than a specific moment in life intended to evoke empathy. We live in real life, we know the moment to moment is often boring and, sometimes, interminable. You can achieve that experience without adding explosions, quick cuts, or making an audience sit through all of it. In fact, we watch movies to avoid the bulk of the boring parts, so if you’re going to use those moments to make a point, you need to do it carefully.

The pacing issue is mostly through the first 2/3 of the film. And Lowery does find some very clever editing to overcome that criticism at points; even more so in the final third. After a long setup, this is where the film moves on to the meat of his vision and point (including one rather disturbing and long nihilistic diatribe by Jonny Mars in case you weren’t going to get there on your own).

There is a great deal to appreciate in this very different portrayal of a haunting. The cinematography is impressive, with some truly breath-taking shots. Though, personally, I found the forced 4:3 frame distracting. I think it was intended to elicit nostalgia, but it was too self-conscious for my taste, and already an out-moded frame of reference (if you will).

All that said, A Ghost Story is worth your time, but it isn’t quite the impactful and amazing movie I had been led to expect from the festival buzz it generated this past summer. You also shouldn’t start watching it if you’re tired or just looking for distraction. The film does eventually pay off and it is definitely something a little different from most of the offerings out there. Just be prepared to be a participant rather than just be an observer.

A Ghost Story

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

Product Details

Rellik

[3 stars]

We’ve all seen stories told in reverse before, but you’ve never seen anything quite like Rellik. It sustains the trope for 5 of the six episodes in its story (5 of the 6 hours) and keeps working its way backwards in varying increments to reveal the surprises. I still got well ahead of it, but that didn’t really matter because the reverse telling keeps you off balance. Your sense of narrative is totally mucked because you keep trying to think forward but are going backward. Honestly, it was a lot of work and probably drawn out too long. Still, it had quite the list of revelations to play with, though it certainly lost track of some folks as they became unimportant in the past (a flaw in the design since they become important again in the future).

The writers, who also created The Missing, played fast and loose with medical and police matters. But as a mystery and and a police suspense, it kept my attention despite any missteps.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the performances as, again, we watch them devolve rather than evolve. In particular, Richard Dormer (Fortitude) felt wrong going in this direction while Jodi Balfour (Primeval: New World) managed to stay in focus for me. Rosalind Eleazar also manages a rather interesting and creepy character for the run.

It isn’t a perfect mystery/suspense, but it is somewhat unique if you can deal with the effort. Sometimes “new” is enough. Certainly the gaps weren’t with the performers or director. Any weak choices for me came from the script, especially the forced denoument of discovering the killer’s identity with such hand-wavy tech that I actually threw insults at the screen and then got on with it. It certainly isn’t the first show to go with an easy answer because they watch too much CSI, and it won’t be the last. It wasn’t enough to spoil the trip which, in the end, is all that mattered.

Rellik

Baby Driver

[4 stars]

Edgar Wright is known for his outlandish films. From the Cornetto Trilogy (Worlds’ End, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) to Scott Pilgrim he attacks the worlds of his films with complete commitment. It makes them unique and, often divisive with a reduced audience, but always, to my mind, a fun experience. It has also garnered him a pile of awards and nominations.

Why bring all of that up for what is, arguably, a basic car-chase film styled as a long music video? Because that description, however apt, sell the experience of the movie short by a few leagues. The craft in the construction and look of this wonderful piece of escapism is evident from the opening and carries through to the final frames. It takes a very human response to music, applying the songs we hear to our real lives, and turns that into the focus of a young man’s grip on the world, the life he’s carved out for himself, and the trouble he’s attempting to escape. And, of course, there’s a romantic relationship or two to mix it all up.

Ansel Elgort (Men, Women, Children) drives this film, no pun intended, with a quiet intensity and focus. His performance is very reminiscent of Miles Teller’s in Whiplash…a mono-maniacally focused youth on the cusp of life. He and Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) make a great couple that you could see at the center of any John Mellencamp video. It is the sweet purity and desperation of their attachment that gives the otherwise crazy tale of robbery and mayhem a focus and purpose.

There are a host of great actors around Elgort that kick the story into gear. Kevin Spacey (Nine Lives) as the conductor of it all is a perfectly calm and scary criminal mastermind; a role he always plays well. Jon Hamm (A Young Doctor’s Notebook) and Eiza González (Jem and the Holograms) play a creepy Bonnie and Clyde that dominates the screen nicely when they’re present. Even Jon Bernthal (The Accountant) and Flea make an appearance. Jamie Foxx (Sleepless) quickly rises to the top as the irritant in the smooth workings of the story. He is both believable and a curiosity. Criminals that crazy don’t tend to survive as long as he has…I’d like to have understood a bit more about him, but as a catalyst, he served his purpose well. As a character he left me scratching my head and a little dubious. But, in the structure and intent of the film, I gave the concerns a pass.

From the top of the movie, you know it is all going to go off the rails at some point. You aren’t entirely sure when, how, or where it will end up, but it is clearly an unstable and untenable balancing act. When it all goes south, it goes with intensity and absurdity. It also travels with one of the best soundtracks and driving scenes collected for screen. Think Transporter or Fast & Furious, but with a real script and characters, not just tongue-in-cheek nods to the audience.

There is a reason this was one of the surprise hits of the summer. It is funny, pulse pounding, and jaw dropping in its execution. It is also full of heart and joy. The ending is what it has to be to complete the intent…just go with it. This is ride worth making time for. My dings on its rating are purely for some of the believability gaps that I think could have been filled. They bugged me just enough to keep it out of the five star range, but I really did enjoy the movie regardless.

Baby Driver