Tag Archives: Unique

Language Lessons

[3.5 stars]

Natalie Morales’ (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Mark Duplass’ (The Lazarus Effect) Language Lessons is probably the cleverest pandemic film I’ve seen in the last 18 months… precisely because it isn’t about the pandemic, even though it is obviously constructed as it is because of it. Unlike other completed efforts like Staged, Locked Down, or Songbird, this movie is more timeless. It took its constraints as a way to create something rather than as the reason for the story.

And the story is funny and touching all at once (and not entirely what you think it’s going to be). It manages to make an improbable situation feel completely honest and real. Morales did a great job directing and editing the final piece, and the story and script by Duplass and her is surprisingly compelling. The result is something truly affecting. The film’s already started to gather awards, and I suspect you’ll hear more about it as the season picks up. In a world hemmed in by Zoom calls, this manages to break out of the frame, even while staying within it.

Language Lessons Poster

Annette

[3 stars]

Describing Annette in explicit detail is pointless because it would provide events absent context…and Annette is all about context. The movie is, in truth, an opera couched as a meta musical. It’s about love and fame and family and pop culture and the insatiable need by the public to be fed a story. It’s also about children and narcissism and that moment when children become their own beings. It’s broad and yet also microscopic in its focus.  But is it good?

Well, it’s certainly unique. So let me come back to that question.

Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and Sparks have put together a mesmerizing story of intense fame and intense love. It is obvious it’s a tragedy from the start, but the path to that end, and then end of that path, makes you pull for change of course.

Adam Driver (Marriage Story) and Marion Cotillard (Assassin’s Creed) are an odd couple, by design. Each performs wonderfully, but I can’t say I ever really understood why the two of them were together. Perhaps that was by explicit choice or perhaps a lack of chemistry. Honestly, I can’t say which. It works for the story, but it is a bit less satisfying for the viewer.

Other than the chorus there aren’t many other individual characters to lay out this tale. But two others certainly make an impression. Simon Helberg (Florence Foster Jenkins) puts in a fine showing from their periphery, and the very young Devyn McDowell frankly blows the doors off with her scenes.

But again, is it good?

I honestly am struggling with that question. It is fascinating. It is inventive. It is almost so true to life as to not feel like it was an opera. It left me with ideas and images. And it was beautifully filmed and presented, right up there with a Peter Greenaway flick. I don’t want to talk about specifics because, honestly, you should be allowed to experience them as they appear… if you decide to put in the 2.5 hour commitment the film requires. Suffice to say, if this isn’t your cup of whiskey, you’ll turn it off in the first few minutes. If it is, you’ll find it a long sip to the bottom, but probably as intriguing as I found it. So let’s allow the decision of “good” to be in the eye of the beholder.

Annette Poster

Schmigadoon

[4 stars]

This wonderful anti-musical is a riot of satire and wry humor. The more you know classic musicals the funnier it is, but knowing is not required. Not since Galavant has anyone really tried to tackle this vein of humor and production. And even those who hate musicals have found joy in the show, because it makes fun of the format as much as committing to it fully. And at only 30 minutes each, no episode is too long to support the joke.

It also doesn’t hurt that the cast of this crazy production is a glorious collection of singing powerhouses. Giving any of them away sort of spoils the surprises. But it’s all held together by the love story of Keegan Michael-Key (The Prom) and Cecily Strong (The Female Brain), an unlikely power couple from NYC trying to save their relationship.

Go for the fun and absurdity of it all, but stay for the very real sense of emotion it leaves you with. Barry Sonnenfeld (Nine Lives) gave us six episodes that traverse a landmine of clichés without a single miss-step. Go visit Schmigadoon and embrace its silly wonderfulness and biting wit.

Schmigadoon! Poster

Tig Notaro: Drawn

[3 stars]

Stand-up comedy is a thing unto itself. There is a format: a person and a mic. It’s that high-wire aspect to it all, that dangerous exposure for the talent, that makes it so much fun to watch; especially when done well. Though every comic has their style, few challenge that format in any meaningful way. Hannah Gadsby is the only one in recent memory to really turn it all on its head, and even then she worked within certain familiar parameters.

With Drawn, Notaro has tried a brave experiment, but I can’t say it worked as she or director Greg Franklin probably hoped.  They are challenging the very meaning and structure of stand-up. But there’s a reason some folks prefer to read a book over seeing a movie. Or, more precisely, to read the book rather than to see the movie of the book. Comedy is partly material, but it’s entirely delivery. And Notaro has a particularly quiet and blank delivery. All the comedy is in how she can hold a silence, how she looks at the audience, and how your mind fills in the blanks.

By animating all the stuff that would normally just be part of what you’d imagine, she and Franklin made the decisions for you, just as the movie of a book does. And, more oddly, by animating some of the audience interaction, it felt like a violation of trust. Notaro always has a bit of a challenging relationship with her audience who she often treats as friendly hecklers, the way you would a good friend. The animation of some of the audience members wasn’t at all kind and even came across as mean, which is out of tune with her normal approach.

I’m sure someone thought this whole presentation would be a great way to fill in Notaro’s signature silences with even more humor. Or, sadly, perhaps they hoped to bring in a wider audience who didn’t care for those silences and strange stories.

Either way the result is a lot of animation that steals that joy you get, that humor of the absurd, that you imagine as she tells her side of the tales. I can’t say I cared much for the approach. In many ways, it weakened the comedy that was there…and with Notaro it’s always a knife-edge as to whether it is comedy or not. As an experiment, I applaud her and her crew, but as an audience member, I would much rather just be watching and listening to her and letting my brain do the rest of the work.

Tig Notaro: Drawn Poster

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.

My Octopus Teacher Poster

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.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Poster

 

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.

The Father Poster

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.

Locked Down Poster

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.

Soul Poster

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.

Wander Darkly Poster