Tag Archives: Writer

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.

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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.

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Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

[3.5 stars]

When we left off series 12, there was a major cliff hanger and change was very much in the air. And, I will admit, that my opinion of this current season has improved a little after rewatching it in prep for this holiday special, which also serves as the technical end to the 12th series.

I’m going to have to be brief here as almost any discussion is going to be full of spoilers…and I’ve some really intriguing ideas of where this all may be going. It isn’t the best of the specials, but it is definitely a bridge to what’s to come.

And, like so many of the specials, the show landed a special cast to help spice it up. Harriet Walter (herself) Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Soulmates) were fun additions. And the return of  Chris Noth reprising his series 11 character was initially concerning, but it ends up working in some fun and cheap ways. And, of course, John Barrowman finally making good on his earlier promise was a hoot. Honestly, he’s the best recurring character in the Who-verse. And, other than the Master, may be the most recurring.

But the real question is was it any good? The answer is mixed. This is neither a stand-alone nor a completely integrated episode. After taking another look at the rest of the season that leads to it, there is a certain amount of completion and resetting for the Doctor. Not all aspects of the story are dealt with in depth, or even believably in some ways, but she has to come to terms with all the new information and her own sense of self. And, frankly, there was a lot to take in. Time became meaningless and her isolation/imprisonment became a gift for her. But it is all solved pretty easily and the main plot, the Daleks, is ultimately a Macguffin (and a bit of a mirror) without a lot of teeth, despite some nice battle effects.

Who, as a series, is still going through its transition with Chibnall pulling hard on the reins taking her to a new path. And Chibnall is still learning how to be a show-runner at this level. I can see a destination that would blow people’s minds, but I honestly don’t know what he has in mind. The show is definitely playing a long game. I do continue to be on board to see what it may be. Most importantly, Jodie Whittaker continues to be entertaining and able to add depth to a character that has been around for over 50 years. I can’t wait to see what the next series brings.

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Soulmates

[3 stars]

Soulmates starts with a fabulous premise: what if you could identify your soulmate? How would that affect current couples? How would it change how you date or your expectations. It doesn’t make life as simple as it would seem on the surface.

Unfortunately, after the great premise, and admittedly some interesting situations and events, frankly the show fails to meet expectations. In trying to be the answer to Black Mirror, and to stay in the mainstream, it also avoids all the other lovely complications that, say episode one of Weird City was more than happy to tackle, or even Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers. That said, the main writers/creators William Bridges (Black Mirror: USS Callister) and Roy Kent (Ted Lasso) are both very talented. I just don’t think they had the freedom or, perhaps, the guts to really tackle the possibilities.

Fortunately, the episodes are chock full of talent to carry off the stories they did offer. Some highlights are Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami), Malin Akerman (Rampage), Sarah Snook (Winchester), Bill Skarsgård (It: Chapter Two),  Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Utopia), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things),  Tom Goodman-Hill (Residue, Humans), and Steven Mackintosh (Rocketman). You may have noticed a number of Europeans in that list… and you’d be right. It is part of the odd feel of the series as they are almost all playing Americans (or North Americans, at any rate).

I’m not saying avoid this series. It’s definitely thought provoking and often clever. It just didn’t quite meet the expectations it set for me given the writers involved and the foundation of the premise. But I’d love to see if they could grow on what they’ve started and really expand their thinking and risks in a second series. And, in the meantime, we get these six stories to whet our appetite.

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Books of Blood (2020)

[3.25 stars]

Horror is a tricky beast. Most horror focuses on those things that terrified us as children, the stuff that goes bump in the night, the eyes in the dark, that kind of stuff. Most writers create their stories with that kind of scare in mind; Stephen King being the top of the bunch there. But Clive Barker always focused on the adolescent and adult kinds of horror. Not just the fear, but also the sense of betrayal or loneliness or failure or even the pain of just being in the world, and manifestations of those and similar fears. This is part of what set his stories apart, like Imajica or, in this case, his woven collection of tales in Books of Blood.

This incarnation of the book (there was an earlier, less effective, movie) is wonderfully creepy and deeply disturbing, even if some of it feels familiar. And the three storylines are knit together in some very clever ways.

The movie is driven primarily by Britt Robinson (A Dog’s Purpose) and Anna Friel (The Look of Love), who each anchor different storylines. Their controlled performances add to the creep factor and the humanity. There are several other roles, but it’s Freda Foh Shen (Ad Astra) and Nicholas Campbell (Coroner) in Robinson’s tale and Rafi Gavron (Catch-22) in Friel who stand out…each for different reasons.

I have to admit I was surprised the movie was directed and co-written by  Brannon Braga (The Orville), who doesn’t typically delve into that level of darkness. Finding a horror movie in this vein isn’t easy. It isn’t devoid of the scares or guts or terror, but it is filled with a level of believability and sick fascination that makes for truly great horror. Even, in this case, a horror that is worth seeing more than once. If you like the genre and want to see something a bit different and definitely on its game, make time for it.

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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.

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