Tag Archives: Unique

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.

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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

A Home at the End of the World

[4 stars]

This is a quirky but warm love story. Unusual in its choices but utterly devoted in its feeling. That honesty sets it apart from the kind of movie you think it is by that fact alone.

It may also be Colin Farrell’s (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) most normal and, possibly, even most effective role. He was incredibly natural and open in a way I’ve not seen in his other personas, which tend toward the quirky and frenetic. And Erik Smith (Squatters), as his younger self, is a scary, shrunken doppleganger of Farrell. Their rhythm and emotional core are astoundingly seamless across the scenes.  Director Michael Mayer (Smash) did a heck of a job in his first outing to get those performances.

Robin Wright (Blade Runner 2049) and Dallas Roberts (Dallas Buyers Club) play off each other and Farrell wonderfully, creating family, romance, and tension in a perfect balance. Absent that juggling game, the entire story would fall apart.

The final piece to this puzzle are two other influences. As the “trapped” but feisty housewife, Sissy Spacek (Carrie) has a blast. She has to walk a very fine line and manages it well. And it is always fun to see Matt Frewer (Orphan Black); though his screen time here is minimal, his role is important and has its moment.

There is something wonderful about this movie, and something rather unexpected. Yes, some of the action and outcomes are obvious, but they get there in ways you don’t quite expect, and with emotions that are far more accessible than they are histrionic. It is a reflection of life rather than art, which makes it all the more poignant.

A Home at the End of the World

queers.

[4 stars]

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

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

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

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

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

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Midsummer Night

Song to Song

Calling this a movie is a bit of a stretch. It is more of a tone poem than a traditional story, which is somewhat appropriate given the title and Rooney Mara’s (The Discovery) comments in her voice over. There is a tale to be gleaned from the visuals, dialogue, and brief scenes, but it isn’t straight forward. The result feels like an extrapolation of Eyes Wide Shut, but with a more complete result.  At 2+ hours, that is both an impressive achievement by writer/director Terrance Malick (Knight of Cups) and a lot of effort for the audience. I’m not sure it is effort that is well reimbursed.

Whether or not you like Terrance Malick’s style, he can surely put a cast together: Michael Fassbender (Assassin’s Creed), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Cate Blanchett (Carol), Holly Hunter (Top of the Lake), Bérénice Marlohe (Skyfall), Val Kilmer (Twixt), Benicio Del Toro (Sicario), Linda Emond (3 Generations), Tom Sturridge (Far From the Madding Crowd). Then there are music icons like Iggy Pop (Gimme Danger), Florence Welch, Patti Smith, and others.

In other words, a whole heck of a lot of talent went into the creation of this piece. It is also down to Malick’s editing of the moments that the story becomes at all apparent. But as a movie it is middling and as an entertainment it is lacking. Basically, you have to love these actors or Malick to want to spend over two hours to get to the point and resolution. So this one is up to you…I had to respect the film making, but I can’t say I really enjoyed the experience enough to recommend it unreservedly or even with enthusiasm for anyone who isn’t more interested in craft than they are experience.

Song to Song

Sense8 (series 2)

The first series of Sense8 was a mind-blowing experience. Its scope and inventiveness blazed new ground for the small screen. It challenged its viewers on many levels and managed to set up a world and set of conflicts that had you begging for more. Even if it wasn’t new material for readers of folks like Theodore Sturgeon, it was the best depiction of those ideas I’d ever seen in visual media.

Then came the holiday special, which was an important story bridge, but which also indicated a potential shift in quality. So it was with no little trepidation that I dove into the long awaited second series.

One of the first things that is immediately obvious is that one of the rich aspects of the show, the 8 languages, has been shifted to all English. It is a subtle change at first, but as the show goes on it definitely feels diminished and less credible. One of the fascinating and wonderful aspects to Sense8 was the multi-cultural breadth of the characters. It is part of its core message that people of all countries and creeds can work closely together, can love one another. Now, not only does it all sound the same, but some of the actors are struggling with the language, and subtleties, such as using English as a way to make others feel dumb or less, have been lost.

The scale of the show has also been pulled back. In some ways this was anticipated. Sense8 is not one of Netflix’s most successful shows in terms of sheer force. It will work for them for years, I’ve no doubt, but budgets aren’t typically planned on that hope. So I can forgive this, especially if it means we get more. However, there was at least one great addition to the cast (which I can’t discuss without blowing surprises), but I will say that Doctor Who fans will be pleased.

While Straczynski (Babylon 5), and Lana and Lilly Wachowski (Jupiter Ascending) are all still very involved, I was sad to see Tom Tykwer (Drei/3)disappear from the creative staff. There was a magic with all of them that seems just a little less without him there. And the rules of this world are somewhat fungible at this time… this could be because our main characters really are still learning about what they are or it could be that the writers are not staying consistent. Time will tell on that, but it does need to clarify how Sensoriums can reach out to one another and when/how someone can take over someone else.

OK, all of that said, this is still a fascinating and brave show. It is doing things and dealing with themes that no one else really is, and certainly not in this way. The end of this series, of course, sets up the next and it has definitely raised the stakes again.  So, yes, I am anticipating the the next series already. I hope it gets renewed and I hope it comes with a bit more of the original series feeling back into it.

[Updated 1 June, 2017: And this is why fans have such trouble committing to great shows: Sense8 is officially cancelled]

Sense8

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster