Tag Archives: Writer

Beach Rats

[4 stars]

I was a long time getting around to this first film by Eliza Hittman . In fact, I found her second, first: Never Rarely Sometimes Always. But it was the empathy and craft of that story that sent me back to her debut with Beach Rats. I’m late to the game to say she is someone to really watch, but it is still worth saying.

Hittman didn’t give us a likeable hero in her first film. Harris Dickinson (The Darkest Minds) is flawed in both endearing and truly ugly ways. But he is also trapped by circumstance and his own struggles. And Dickinson committed to all of that without reservation on screen. So much so that you aren’t sure if the movie is a coming of age story or a tragedy. And, frankly, you still won’t be by the end.

Hittman puts you so deeply into the point of view of Dickinson’s character that you completely inhabit his world. At points you even forget you’re not just watching through hidden cameras at his life. But despite being steeped in a sort of macho hell, Dickinson’s Frankie has two strong female influences in his circles: his mother, played by Kate Hodge and his girlfriend, Madeline Weinstein (Mare of Easttown). Both are quiet but strong influences, though whether they can break through to him is all part of the story.

And the tension of the story is drawn so taut that the ending is almost a release on its own. It’s clear this isn’t going to be a happy tale from the beginning, but it also isn’t without sparks of hope.

For a first film Eliza Hittman packed it with subtlety and power. It has been living on my list since its release in 2017, but I hadn’t had the nerve to spin it up. If you’ve been avoiding either of her films for fear of the subject, well, suck it up and make the time. These aren’t easy characters to love, but they are so very human and real as to encourage our commitment.

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The Nevers (series 1)

[4 stars]

The Nevers is probably the most complex and dense new world created for genre TV since Game of Thrones. The six episodes are so packed as to be, at times, exhausting to keep up with. But it is worth every gasp and bit of effort. If I have any real criticism of the show it’s that it should have had at least 8 episodes to get started, but I loved every minute we did get.

Originally put together by Joss Whedon, but then carried forward by other ex-Buffy crew Douglas Petrie (Daredevil) and Jane Espenson (Jessica Jones, Husbands), the show will constantly keep you guessing as to motive and plot. No mystery is held back too long and the overall story is wonderfully unique, on television at least.

The story is led by Laura Donnelly (The Fall) with amazingly controlled intensity and depth. She’s surrounded by a group of wonderful performers, some known and some less so (at least in the States). In the latter category, Ann Skelly, Tom Riley (Da Vinci’s DemonsSt. Trinian’s: Legend of Fritton’s Gold), Rochelle Neil (Terminator: Dark Fate), and Amy Manson (Being Human) rise to the top, but are far from the list that should be acknowledged.

And then there are the better known faces. Among them James Norton (Grantchester), Olivia Williams (The Father), Nick Frost (Truth Seekers), and Pip Torrens (Roadkill, and so much more) are the ones that immediately come to mind. And then there is a great smaller role by Claudia Black. Again, that is far from the full number of recognizable faces and great characters there are to enjoy and revile.

I will admit, the show isn’t perfect. Particularly some of the sound mix, which tends to mask the dialogue which is often tossed off so casually as to be too quiet or so heavily accented as to be a challenge (and I watch a LOT of British TV). And as I said, the story is dense and, at times, hard to track all the various threads when you’ve a week between drops. This last problem can be averted by binging (or rewatching) which I will certainly be doing at some point. Some of the plot is inscrutable until later in the season because…secrets. And that one I can live with. And some of the plot is just left hanging due to the lack of time to resolve all the threads.

All that said, it’s worth the effort. Especially true if you like watching strong women (in all kinds of ways) in surprising roles. The society very well mapped to the history we know when England was doing everything in its power to maintain an Aristocracy in control, an Empire cowed, and women in their place. And the finale (reminiscent of Dollhouse’s two season finales) which reveals and confirms much while it whipsaws you in wonderful ways.

I have no idea where the second series of this show will go, but I can’t wait to see what they do with it. The finale raised at least as many questions as it answered. But the main point is that if you haven’t dived into this world yet, make time for it.

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Stowaway

[4 stars]

The truth is that space travel is mostly boring. Nothing happens till something happens. Dark Star was based on this. And Away tried to tackle it but couldn’t let go of the need to be a soap opera. Stowaway covers some of the same ground as Away, but cleaves much closer to The Cold Equations, while setting it a near-term future. All of which is to say that it is some relatively solid science fiction without losing the human element that help it appeal to a wider audience.

Director Joe Penna (Arctic) kept a sense of the claustrophobic and the expansive in constant tension, working his and Ryan Morrison’s script for every moment in what amounts to a four-person play. It isn’t full of physical explosions, but it is loaded with emotional bombs as the realities of the situation shifts.

The four characters, played by Anna Kendrick (Love Life), Toni Collette (Knives Out), Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy), and Shamier Anderson (Destroyer), manage to keep the story intimate, but not disconnected from the larger world. And one of the greatest aspects of the story is that the characters are all credible as having been selected for a space trip. No one is psychotic. No one is so self-centered as to be insufferable. No one is an ass. They are all professional and heroic in their way. They are there for the mission and making the mission work. Easier said than done.

Some may balk at the quiet nature of this film, but the more I have thought about it the more I appreciated its choices; all of them. It constantly drives forward, sort of like The Martian, but without the histrionics. It may not be 100% accurate, but it is intensely engaging and quietly beautiful and clever.

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Hillbilly Elegy

[3 stars]

How long are you willing to wait to see hope in a film? Hillbilly Elegy certainly pushes boundaries. While there is undeniably hope hinted at from the beginning, Ron Howard’s (Beatles: Eight Days a Week) latest tale of growing up is a long slog to the final moments of (qualified) triumph. Given that this is based on Vance’s memoir, I don’t know whether to be impressed with Howard’s guts to lay it out in relative order to heighten the result, or lambast him for the dark road travelled to get there.

To be honest, despite the truly great performances by Glenn Close (The Wife), Amy Adams (Vice), and the older/younger versions of Vance in Gabriel Basso (The Kings of Summer) and Owen Asztalos (The Flight Attendant), I just can’t recommend this experience. It was frustrating, dark, sad, angering. It is an unflinching look at poverty, abuse, and addiction, as well as the generational impact of those challenges. Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) adapted Vance’s book with harsh honesty, allowing characters to be much less than perfect but not without humanity and love. But I watched the entire film with clenched jaw and angry at the situation and, just as often, the characters.

If you can handle that kind of tension or, now knowing that there is a end point that isn’t utterly tragic, and you want to see some amazing transformations and performances, give this a shot. But go in feeling strong and strap in to have that mood challenged. In other words, I am struggling to recommend this film not because it isn’t done well, but because it is. You have to ask yourself if you’re ready for that.

Hillbilly Elegy Poster

Synchronic

[3.5 stars]

Some writer/directors have a signature to their work; a flavor that identifies their efforts but that can be executed in many different ways. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are such a pair. They have returned with another brainbender in Sychronic. Their previous couple of movies, Spring and The Endless, were solid proving grounds for pulling together this much more mature piece of film. They keep learning with each release how far they can push ideas and how much they can leave unexplained. They also managed to snag a talented cast to pull it off.

In the primary role, Anthony Mackie (Outside the Wire) drives the story. Mackie has had wide-ranging taste in his recent roles, but they’re always characters with an inner strength and sense of morality. Synchronic, despite its dark overtones, is no exception to that list. And, in this case, the script and story are actually a match for his efforts. Opposite him is Jamie Dornan (A Private War) who anchors the story, quite literally, for the drifting Mackie. The two long-time friends and co-workers butt heads but they are a solid pairing against the dark and seedy life of being New Orleans EMTs.

The story, like Moorhead and Benson’s previous offerings, slowly reveals itself, though not in a straight line. It teases and plays with you. And, more importantly, it tries to cover all its bases as it goes. We learn with the characters what the issues and possibilities are. And, in the end, we are left with a sense of wonderfully incomplete completeness that is sure to generate conversations while the credits roll. It also has to be called out that the cinematography and edits are in beautiful support of the story.

I wasn’t sure what Synchronic would be when I started it. And that is probably the best way to go into it. Just enjoy the ride. The road is dark, but the destination holds  warm fire, friends, and family at the end, even if in unexpected ways.

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bliss

[4 stars]

There is definitely something brewing in the zeitgeist these days. What arguably began when The Matrix released (though it wasn’t a new idea then, and it isn’t now; it was just a fun and inventive adventure) has expanded and grown in the media. With stories like Devs, Upload, and others coming out with increasing frequency, people seem even more intrigued with the central questions of “what is reality”? The latest is Bliss, which tackles the same base questions and adds in addiction as a subplot. We know all of this within the first 5 minutes of the movie, but it is how it all plays out and plays with us that makes the next 100 minutes fascinating.

The journey is really just a dance between three characters. Salma Hayek (The Hummingbird Project) and Owen Wilson (Wonder) are the main core. We experience the world primarily through them. But Nesta Cooper (Travelers) adds a third axis to the story that is unexpected as it develops. Her performance is also extremely well controlled and modulated in a heartbreaking way. The three together create a pathway through the story that is as gripping as it is dark and wonderous.

I will say that the “truth” such as it is, is definitively presented and laid out by writer and director Mike Cahill (I Origins). But the resolution and choices are what the movie is really ultimately about. So even if you miss the clues, it really doesn’t ultimately matter. Cahill accomplishes what I honestly had wished the Wachowski’s had with their classic…which while fun, never was really willing to tackle the deeper and scarier questions about the world as a simulation. Of course, this also means Bliss doesn’t have super-fast pacing, but it is brimming with tension and suspense. At least it was for me.

Give Bliss a try, but don’t expect big effects, though there are some very subtle ones throughout (keep an eye on the background particularly through the first 15 minutes). The production is also beautifully designed with great care to enhance the ideas. And do expect some challenging science fiction and social questions. In other words, check it out when you want to think a little while you’re being entertained.

Bliss Poster

The Way Back

[3 stars]

Everything you need to know about this story is in the title, though that meaning is certainly multi-layered. And while sports may drive this tale of redemption, it isn’t the point. But, to its credit, Brad Ingelsby’s (Out of the Furnace) script slowly gives up its secrets and resolutions in ways that feel satisfying and gripping. And Ben Affleck (The Town) delivers a performance that is quietly painful and raw without ever becoming so weighty as to be unwatchable.

While Affleck is the absolutely center of this story, director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant) marshalled a number of nuanced performances around him to blunt the tight focus. Among them, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar (Blindspotting), and Michaela Watkins (How to be a Latin Lover) stand out for their complex impact, though there are many others as well.

I have to admit, I wasn’t overly enthused about sitting down for this one. Affleck is a hit and miss actor for me. Basketball is not something I spend any time caring about. The world feels depressing enough these days without having to journey through someone else’s darkness. But all of those concerns lifted very quickly as the story unspooled. The performances are all very good and the story isn’t a disaster, though it is certainly upsetting at times. But it also feels very honest and assailable, keeping it from ever being crushed under its own weight. It’s definitely one of Affleck’s better performances and a number of the younger actors have some good screen time as well.

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It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

Promising Young Woman

[4.5 stars]

Some movies just sucker punch you because you’ve no idea what to expect. In terms of quality, this one’s right up there with Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Palm Springs…among the best this season.

Even more impressive is that this is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) first feature; she’s better known for her acting chops. But Promising Young Woman makes an impressive application of all she’s learned over the years in front of the camera.

And then there is the woman at the center of the on-screen story, Carrie Mulligan (Collateral).  She flattens you with her powerful performance and shoulders the film on screen with her charisma, intelligence, and sense of humor. From the moment she appears you can’t take your eyes off of her. And once you understand her, you can’t help but cheer her on and not turn away.

There are some nice supporting roles by Lavern Cox (Orange is the New Black), Clancy Brown, Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), and Alison Brie (Happiest Season). But this story is utterly through Mulligan’s eyes and perspective by necessity, and she carries it off.

The movie does have its weak moments, but they’re few. One aspect is around some of the soundtrack, which goes just a bit overboard at times, not trusting the actors and situation to make the point. The other is around some transitional moments that are less than smooth. But in the face of the rest of the film, I forgive them all.

Promising Young Woman grabs you by the soft bits and drags you through to the end. And it manages to remain triumphant despite the subject and the situations. It is sure to generate controversy and contemplation for the actions and probably even leave a few in the dust as to the title. But that’s all part of the point. Make time for this one, both for the central performance and the story itself. Despite the weird festival season, it’s been making itself heard, and I expect that to continue through the majors over the next few months.

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Trial of the Chicago 7

[4 stars]

Angering, funny, and terrifying. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) chose the last time in the modern age that our democracy balanced on a knife edge to both instruct and provide hope for the times we’re in now. We got through it back then, afterall. The system ultimately worked despite every effort to subvert and abuse it. And while I recognize that as a false equivalency as the system itself has been undermined massively over the last 12 years, it isn’t entirely without merit as an argument. It certainly is a reminder of responsibility and where the power of the government lies.

And yet, I will admit that I’d avoided this story afraid of having to deal with the frustration of the reality it depicts. And, yes, I was tense with anger and frustration for a good part of the movie. But Sorkin punctuates the tension with some well barbed humor and glimmers of humanity to keep it moving along. He also landed some amazing talent to recreate those involved.

As a whole the cast is truly fantastic and wonderful at representing their historical counterparts. But there were a few standouts. Sacha Baron Cohen (Alice Through the Looking Glass) as Abbie Hoffman is chief amongst those. Mark Rylance (Blitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) are close behind along with John Carroll Lynch (Big Sky). And, in a purposefully incidental role, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) quietly and righteously froths with intelligence and fury on the periphery.

On the other side of the aisle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Project Power) and Frank Langella (The Time Being) are impressive to watch, but neither really gets much of an arc to work with. Even Gordon-Levitt, who gets a few important moments, doesn’t really get to exploit or explore them for us in any fully satisfying way. But without either of them, the rest of the story would have sagged and the truth would have been less richly displayed.

With Jan 20 just around the corner, the movie is also a lot more palatable than it was two months ago…though also with a reminder that democracy is something we have to constantly nurture. This movie is heavy with history, but it is also full of entertainment to help put it all in perspective. That is Sorkin’s genius as a writer and, now with this sophomore outing, also as a director. Trial is not an anti-government film. It’s a story of what happens when the government forgets that it works for the people, not the other way around.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Poster