Tag Archives: Unique

They Shall Not Grow Old

[5 stars]

WWI has always felt distant to contemporary audiences. The old, jerky, mis-timed black & white footage is almost comic despite its subject. The photos are often horrific, but drained of impact for anyone who grew up with color photography and TV. Now imagine tackling the subject like a Ken Burns documentary on steroids, and with a much expanded f/x budget, and you get a sense of They Shall Not Grow Old.

Through enhancements and brilliant sound design, Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) helps you experience just a bit of the sense of the battles in the trenches. It is a very clever and disturbing trip, often hard to watch, but also fascinating. It brings to life and humanizes the meatgrinder that destroyed over a million lives and shredded a countryside. Jackson delivers a visceral vision of WWI unlike any you’ve ever seen. It is a perfect, sober recognition of its centenary.

Using the recorded interviews, photos, and archival footage, sprinkled with some very clever magic dust, we are taken full circle in the story. It begins with enlistment and carries us through the return home and the struggles, triumphs, and the odd reality of the last war that was fought with a sense of adventure…the first war that was heavily documented in media, even if that was filtered to the public. No war was the same after The Great War (and you could argue that WWII was just a continuation of the first). Technology had changed the tactics and repercussions. Medicine had more people surviving with debilitating injuries. Politics had gone global in a way never before seen. And people still had to catch up with all of those realities.

The journey is, by necessity, compact. It focuses on a single battle site as a proxy for a four+ year engagement, but it makes its point. Listening to the men who served is a revelation in perspective. Seeing the footage, even when some of the effects look a little creepy, is surprisingly impactful. You leave the viewing both aware of the horror and amazed at the resilience of the people involved. It isn’t comprehensive, but it is revealatory and presented with a true love of the people who were there, whether they survived or not.

I am not a huge fan of documentaries about war. They are rarely neutral in their conversation and presentation. And, far too often, they bend toward the jingoistic. Certainly, this movie has its attitude crafted by the editing choices. But it also manages to walk the line and retain the cultural sense of the time while providing enough of the facts to let us ponder our own conclusions. This really is a must watch 95 minutes. It will bring to life an era that has always felt distant, despite its fallout in politics, industry, immigration, and global life that has direct-line effects on our current lives.

Sorry to Bother You

[3 stars]

Writer/director Boots Riley certainly didn’t tackle an easy narrative for his first feature film. This movie goes from broad humor, to dark humor, to absurdist, to surreal over the course of its unreeling. A strange journey indeed. Sort of a more grounded Idiocracy, and yet more disturbing for that fact. Riley even consciously nods to Eyes Wide Shut in both his approach and specific scenes.  It is also the latest in a growing collection of social commentaries across many genre (Get OutBlacKkKlansman, etc).

Lakeith Stanfield (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) carries this film with a guileless approach. He accepts all the world has to throw at him and tries to play by the rules and then to use the rules to his favor. He is supported by his primary companions Tessa Thompson (Furlough), Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts), and Steven Yeun (Okja), who are each on their own journey and with their own sets of challenges for him and for themselves.

Three smaller roles provide impetus. Danny Glover (Old Man & the Gun) and Terry Crews (Deadpool 2) become mentors, of a sort. They represent two sides of the same coin for Stanfield to consider. And then there is Armie Hammer (Final Portrait), who gets to play an understated Steve Jobs-like character that serves a multitude of purposes. Hammer does an excellent job of keeping him human, despite the baggage the character has to represent.

There is no question that this is an interesting film. It is often funny. It is packed with commentary, some of it shouted at a very shrill pitch. But it isn’t just aimed at race, it encompasses art, personal success, corporate responsibility, political ennui, general happiness…the list goes on. Like I said, Riley tackled a complex narrative. It isn’t an easy film, but it manages to keep you as the world and story gets stranger and stranger, through to the final moments. But it definitely isn’t a film for everyone; it really depends on your tolerance for the bizarre.

The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy (Julius Cesar, Henry IV, Tempest)

[3.5 stars]

The Donmar project Shakespeare trilogy is a fascinating piece of all-female repertory theatre inspired by work with female prison inmates. The prisoners selected three unrelated plays whose themes and action spoke to them (power/abuse, addiction/family, justice/responsibility) and Phyllida Lloyd (Iron Lady, Mama Mia!) created a trilogy of them by wrapping each in a shared conceit as an envelope to hold them together.  While this approach initially feels forced and not quite comfortable, it ultimately paints an additional layer of meeting over the whole and binds them together in a bigger theme. While I’ll call out specific performances, it is one hell of an ensemble generally.

Julius Cesar

The first of the three plays focused on the need for action to battle unjust rule and tyranny. Think domestic abuse. Though that is not at all injected into the show directly it has knock-on effects for the characters. For instance, Harriet Walter’s Brutus is oddly weak and emotional, very much feeling beaten down and with a need to make the world right. To Walter’s praise, she manages this while still maintaining an amazing stage presence.

Cesar, played by Clare Dunne, is charismatic and strong. Clearly a swaggering ass who knows how to play the crowd and those around him. Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony, likewise is manipulator, using words to destroy while holding back all of his ire till the final, physical battle. Anouka is one of the bright spots in this trilogy, and a reason to see them all, which will become obvious.

The direction is engaging and surprising, and even occasionally funny. But it is the ending where it takes your head and spins it round as the envelope takes over and forces new meaning upon it.

Henry IV

Henry survives or fails on the quality of the Falsataff, Hal, and Hotspur. The casting here is astoundingly good. Sophie Stanton (Una) as Falstaff is compelling and entertaining, if not entirely endearing. Clare Dunne’s Hal delivers but doesn’t quite sell the entire journey from reprobate to king (this covers parts I and II of the play). However Jade Anouka as Hotspur is riveting and wonderfully acted and directed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hotspur that lived up both to the name and the ability to lead a rebellion.

I do wish the addiction theme was heightened a little more throughout the piece to help pull it all together, but it was still an interesting flavor to add.

The Tempest

Of the three plays, this one is the most on point and, frankly, the best conceived. Of course, Tempest is tailor made to discuss justice and responsibility; even Joyce Carol Oats took advantage of it in Hagseed.

The play is carried by Harriet Walter as Prospero with a deep and wounded approach. Jade Anouka (I told you she was one to watch) takes on Ariel and is paired with Sophie Stanton now as Calaban. Along with Sheila Atim (Harlots) as Ferdinand and Leah Harvey (Uncle) as Miranda, the story clips along engagingly and with a sense of real sweetness and possibility while still showing the harsher edge of gender roles and life.

Lloyd’s direction of this piece captures the magic and the longing, the humor and the anger. It is one of the best distillations of the play I think I’ve seen, or perhaps it was simply the framing of the story and the even larger framing of the trilogy. Whatever the reason, it is inventive, gripping, and fascinating to watch with plenty of wry winks and fist slams. If you choose only one of the three to watch, choose this one, though some of the bigger messages will not resonate as much without the previous two.

Endless Poetry (Poesía Sin Fin)

[3 stars]

Endless Poetry picks up just about where Dance of Reality left off. In fact the overlap and reuse of actors and sets is so complete I thought I had started to rewatch Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous film and had to stop to be sure. However, it quickly veers as we follow the young Alejandro from his childhood home to Santiago. This next chapter of his life story is not about his parents so much as about his creative blooming.

Much like the last (and all of Jodorowsky’s) work, this is in his unique voice. While highly biographical and personal, it is also surreal and experimental. Not quite film and not quite theatre it flows along leaving you with incredible visuals, intriguing ideas, and moments of beauty set off by disturbing scenes of ugliness. Though I will say that this film seems to find the beauty in everything it sees, no matter how base or fouled.

As the title implies, this is the path by which our intrepid artist learns to see poetry in everything in life. It is a hopelessly optimistic approach, but not an unfair depiction of a young poet. It echos a lot of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s (The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet) early work. The rich colors, the odd characters, the fantastical approaches to life. The bottomless ability to find the positive amid the disturbing. And, ultimately, the core belief that the human spirit can not only survive anything but also use it to create art.

This is a film you watch for the experience. What you take from it will change depending on when you watch it. It is a stunning piece of vision making it worthwhile even when the story itself is so personal to Jodorowsky as to be inscrutable. But, of course, you have to like that experimental theatre feel and approach.

Endless Poetry

Roar

[2 stars] or [5 stars]

No this isn’t about the Heath Ledger Celtic prince series. This is even a bigger oddity and, by far, the most outrageous, batsh*t crazy flick I’ve ever seen. Not because of the movie itself…there really isn’t much of one…but because it was done with untrained animals. A LOT of untrained animals. I was utterly spellbound watching the film due to the insanity of it all. It truly has to be seen to be believed, which is why this has such a wonky rating. It ends up more of a curiosity than a movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, in a carnival sort of way.

Roar was intended as a environmental flick masquerading (thinly) as a horror/suspense that pits Hitchcock darling Tippi Hendren (The Birds, Marnie) and her real-life family (daughter, Melanie Griffith (Automata), husband, Noel Marshall, and two of their sons) against a house of feral felines of the great cat variety. It is, in fact, the only screen credit for Marshall in front of the camera, who was more typically with producing credits. But this was a family labor of love in front of and behind the camera; Joel Marshall, another son, was doing the seamless art and production design.

There is nothing remotely believable about the acting or story in Roar, but that isn’t the reason to see it. The Marshall family personally raised well over 100 lions over the course of 11 years (five of those were during filming in the late 70s) in order to get a houseful of great cats for their vision. Honestly, you’ve just never seen anything like it (didn’t I say that already?). They even give the cats writing credit up front. The commentary and related Q&A on the disc are also fascinating and cover the background of the making of the film.

To be fair to the result, you know this isn’t meant to be taken too seriously by the music and opening credits. However, the final messages (subtle as a sledgehammer) are sadly still relevant, if not even more important, today.

While unrelated, it is worth noting that Hendren continues to work to this day, though it may still be her past we are all obsessed with. Her time with Hitchcock even inspired two different movies in recent years. Roar isn’t something she is going to be remembered for, at least for her acting, but it is a testament to her and her family’s determination and vision…and not just a little bit of crazy in there.

Roar

The Happytime Murders

[3.5 stars]

This isn’t the first R-rated puppet story put out to the public. There was the brilliant Smile Time episode of Angel, Avenue Q on Broadway, and, of course Ted. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, as does this silly and fun Brian Henson confection.

One of the things that really makes this work is that Melissa McCarthy (Life of the Party) isn’t actually the lead. Back in a supporting role capacity she adds character and her antics don’t dominate the story. The lead is Muppets veteran Bill Barretta, whose tough talking private dick hits just the right note of felt-noir to carry this all off.

There are a few supporting roles that really help as well. Maya Rudolph (Life of the Party), in particular, knew what she was in and went for it completely. Her love-lorn Bubbles is a hoot. And Elizabeth Banks (Power Rangers) had some fun with her part as well.

The world is amusing, but it never quite leaves its Muppets roots. When Angel did this, they didn’t act like puppets, they acted like, well, characters. The muppets in this tale, by plot design, are very much puppets of fluff. And the movie truly missed it opportunity to discuss prejudice in a unique and effective way, especially with McCarthy’s storyline. I will grant Henson one important directing kudos, unlike Ted, he knew when to back off a joke (most of the time).

I had fun with this, even with the “what it could have been” thoughts. It is a great end of summer escape. It is definitely unique for this year’s releases, and it is done relatively well with sense of both mystery and whimsy (even if a lot of the mystery is obvious). The first few stars are because it is a fun watch. That extra half star in my rating is for its guts to do the movie in the first place.

The Happytime Murders

Everything is Illuminated

[3.5 stars]

This is a sneaky little film, and all to the good. Liev Schreiber (Pawn Sacrifice) pulls off a clever bit of structure that would often destroy a film in less sure hands. Here it works wonderfully. And given that this was his first attempt at both writing and directing, it is an even more impressive result.

Elija Wood (The Last Witch Hunter) is the only readily recognizable face in the film. He provides a great spine for the tale. An equally strong performance is from a face you may or may not recognize, Boris Leskin. The interplay of these two characters is part of the magic that Schreiber pulls off.

I don’t know how much of the story from the original book is true, but the impact forgives it any embellishments. If you missed this in the past, make time for this story at some point. Let its quiet pace and wry humor take you along to unexpected places and endings. It is powerful and, sadly, still very relevant in today’s world.

Everything Is Illuminated

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