Tag Archives: YourChoice

The Swimmer

[3 stars]

This blast from the past about a man swimming home via his neighbor’s pools is actually an unexpected commentary on Hollywood and privilege, and it predates #metoo by about 50 years. Frank Perry (backed silently by Sydney Pollack [Amazing Grace]) were surprisingly, and quietly, subversive in their directing choices.

You know there is something off with Burt Lancaster from the opening moments of the movie. It takes a good part of the film before you know generally what that is (and we never know exactly, though you can guess). We watch his interactions with a slew of recognizable faces as well as a few surprises like Joan Rivers and even Diana Muldaur in one of her few big screen roles. But it is Lancaster who is turned into an object from the outset of the story.

He is quite literally stripped bare (or nearly) and exposed to the effects of the world. The approach riffed against this movie’s time (1968) even though it was concurrent with the Women’s Lib movement. And as we follow Lancaster’s episodic journey, our perceptions and assumptions keep shifting, which helps drive the otherwise mundane, if odd, tale forward.

The foundation of this layered and pointed tale was driven by scriptwriter, and wife of the director, Eleanor Perry who adapted Cheever’s story for the screen. She structured the reveals carefully and subtly to help drive the improbable tale; it serves as its own metaphor as well as a sort of absurdist presentation of the action. I suspect that part of the success of the finished piece is due to her close relationship with the director providing some broader perspective to the events.

Whatever the realities, it ends up an unexpected gem that is hewn from a pile of rough material and realities. If you’re looking for something a bit different but still surprisingly relevant, seek this out.

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Uncut Gems

[1.5 stars]

Sometimes you’re just not the audience for a film, whether due to timing or timbre. This latest Safdie brothers (GoodTime) offering is clearly done with ability and Adam Sandler (Murder Mystery) delivers an amazing performance, but I just couldn’t watch it.

Sandler’s character is on a collision course with disaster from the opening moments, not because of circumstance, but entirely because of his own self-destructive nature. Honestly, at the best of times I find that hard to stomach or invest in, but at this particular moment, I found it impossible.

So, if you like the Safdies’ work, you’ll likely love it. If you can handle a dark rumination on the nature of addiction and wonders of the universe in the microcosm, you’ll probably find it engrossing. If you’re looking for something just a bit more positive or less self-inflicted…look elsewhere.

Uncut Gems

Color Out of Space

[2.75 stars]

Tackling HP Lovecraft is an act of hubris most of the time, especially if done in complete earnest rather than humor (such as Cast a Deadly Spell).  But what do you expect when you’re dealing with subjects like elder gods that can make you insane just by looking at them? It isn’t easy to make that serious and genuine without a nod and a wink.

Despite the risk, Color Out of Space tackles the material head-on. And there are some good aspects to the result. The cinematography and production design of the landscape are exceptional. However, the script and direction by Richard Stanley (Hardware) lacks credibility for almost every character. The only one even close to believability is Elliot Knight (Life Sentence). However, I will admit happily that the script doesn’t talk down to its audience. There is a lot of subtle and unexplained action where the answers are in the background or obvious when paying attention.

I can’t say I understand why Joley Richardson (Emerald City) agreed to join this adventure, but credit to her for committing to it utterly. And Tommy Chong (Zootopia) adds a certain sort of meta fun to it all. The two young adult actors, Madeleine Arthur (Magicians) and Brendan Meyer (The OA), tackle what they can with what they’ve got. Sadly, poor Julian Hilliard (Haunting of Hill House) is only allowed to stare emptily most of the time rather than exercise any real craft. And despite a lot of chatter likening this to Nick Cage’s recent Mandy, this film at least has an understandable and semi-logical plot (as logical as Lovecraft ever was). It does, however, allow Cage to cut loose again as he loses his grip on control and reality.

Perhaps the best way to think of this is as a horror version of Annihilation since it shares some ideas at the root. Color Out of Space, however, veers away from Annihilation’s intellectual path and quickly devolves into a slaughter-fest once it gets going. I can’t say that the resolution and implications are exactly clear, even with some of the explanation, but at least it tries to wrap it up into something complete. Ultimately, this is going to depend on your personal taste. I would have been fine if I hadn’t seen it, even having appreciated some of its better qualities, but if you love Lovecraft or enjoy purely grim slasher events, this may fill the bill at a reasonable level for you.

Color Out of Space

Battle Beyond the Stars

[3 stars]

To be a little oxymoronic, this decidedly low-budget Roger Corman (Extraordinary Tales) space opera is more interesting for its camp and historical aspects than it is for the movie itself, which is just as often unintentionally funny as it is intentionally so in John Sayles’ script. Part of that is, admittedly, the execution of story. While Jimmy T. Murakami is officially credited for directing, Corman was in there stirring the pot too. It shows in the choice to deliver much of the arch/stock dialogue in absolute earnest, keeping the movie on keel but making some moments delightfully absurd.

For context, this flick was released just two years after the original Star Wars. Everyone wanted to replicate that success and we were getting inundated with bad space opera. But it was even earlier that films began poking fun at Flash Gordon and its ilk with the groundbreaking Barbarella. There is more than a little of that kind of humor in Battle, even as it attempts to wrap it all in a serious struggle for the survival of a planetfull of people under siege by a galactic bully, in the guise of John Saxon.

Leading the charge against Saxon’s Sador is Richard Thomas (The Americans) fresh off The Waltons. He and his smart-mouthed ship spearhead the search for warriors to protect his pacifist planet. The motley crew he assembles includes George Peppard (Damnation Alley ), Robert Vaughn, and Earl Boen.

Importantly, working behind the camera was a young James Cameron who was earning his bones and seeing how it was all done. Boen would meet Cameron and, a few short years later, find himself in The Terminator and Cameron at the forefront of his long career.

Battle is, at best, diverting and, at worse, painful to watch. It is sexist, absurd, culturally white bread, poorly plotted, and ridiculously executed. Which is all part of what makes it popcorn fun. But a good movie this isn’t. You watch it for how bad it is at times, and at how impressive the effects are for the time and budget they were working with. It is really more a classic because of who was involved than anything else. Either you’re a fan of “so bad its good/fun” or you’re not. If you’re not, just run away now.

Battle Beyond the Stars

The Pale Horse

[3 stars]

Sarah Phelps (The ABC Murders) is becoming the preeminent adapter of Agatha Christie. Her skills are best when she sticks close to the original material, as she did for Ordeal By Innocence. But when we she veers from that material, like The ABC Murders, the work is less worthy. It should be noted that she also works outside Christie’s ouvre, with intriguingly built adaptations like Dublin Murders. In other words, the writer/creator has chops.

The Pale Horse is one of those lesser known, rarely (if ever?) produced stand-alone Christies. Previous incarnations of it dragged it inappropriately into the Marple or Poirot worlds, as I recall. It is, as a book, still in the cozy category, with a pair of intrepid lovers discovering and solving a string of murders. Phelps reconceives the tale as something closer to Turning of the Screw crossed with Crime and Punishment, bringing it squarely into the psychological horror arena and putting the lovers at odds with one another. It has a highly stylized presentation, with a lot of creep factor; think Midsommar (the horror film, not the series).

Led by, and generally through the eyes of, Rufus Sewell (Judy), the story begins as a dark mystery of loss and fear and spins out from there. As a horror story it is effective, if not entirely satisfying by the end. Kaya Scodelario (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gets to stretch her muscles into a role that is more adult than teenager for the first time. Her stressed 60s housewife is both darkly funny and depressing. Sean Pertwee (Gotham), on the other hand, gets somewhat abused as Inspector Lejeune. And Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) has some fun in the mix, getting to wear a pair of the ugliest dentures ever seen on TV. But, generally, all of the cast do well filling out the world, victims, and those pulling the strings.

Perhaps part of the delivery gap of this series is down to young director Leonora Lonsdale. This is only her second full-length delivery. While the result, absent context, is fun, she allowed Phelps script to lead her too far astray from the source material. Depending on your relationship with Christie, your opinion and enjoyment of the story will vary. It is definitely not a light tale of murder on the green, but it is a complicated and layered tale of loss and greed, with just a suggestion of the supernatural.

Ready or Not

[3 stars]

I wanted to like this silly satire more than I did. To its credit, it doesn’t even pretend to try to surprise. The movie’s opening scene lays out for you the mystery and some roots for the resolution. The rest is just snarky comments and mayhem. Certainly it can be entertaining, but it is no Cabin in the Woods, Bad Time at the El Royale, or even Knives Out, though it shares aspects of each. What it is missing, as compared to any of these, is layers. It’s a simple popcorn distraction.

What makes it work, as far as it does, is the complete commitment of the actors; Samara Weaving (Picnic at Hanging Rock), Adam Brody (Life Partners), Mark O’Brien (Marriage Story) in particular. These three have the only emotional conflicts and complexity to them. Though Nicky Guadagni (Suspiria) has a subtle sort of path to follow, and is a hoot and it was fun to see Kristian Bruun (Orphan Black) even if he really wasn’t given much to do.

If you’re looking for some bloody distraction with some amusing, if obvious, humor, this is your treat. There isn’t much more to it than that, and the ending is both oddly satisfying and weirdly disappointing. To its credit, at least it doesn’t go for cheap ways to try and build a franchise.

Ready or Not

Angel Has Fallen

[2.5 stars]

Before 300, who would have ever pegged Gerard Butler (Hunter Killer) as the leader of action franchises? Since then he’s done a string of entertaining, but not particularly good, films. And this particular series is as uneven as they come. Olympus Has Fallen was surprising…but its sequel was just awful. However, it made enough to bring us this threquel, which is somewhere between the two in quality.

There are some things going for this story. First, embracing its aging lead and recognizing that a job that involves as many explosions and physical contact as Butler’s has a deteriorating effect on the body. Also, there are some great moments peppered throughout and, perhaps best, the relationship and by-play with Nick Nolte (A Walk in the Woods).

Unfortunately, these tidbits of good are bound together by some of the weakest mysteries, worst logic, and bad writing I’ve seen in a major in quite a while. Poor Jada Pinkett Smith (Magic Mike XXL) is saddled with a character that put the “feeble” in FBI. And Tim Blake Nelson (Just Mercy) is about as credible as a hedghog as the vice president.

Part of what worked against the movie is that its effects and stunts are top notch, making the B-grade script and story show its warts all the more. So, whether you see this one has to be up to you. I’ve seen worse, but I’ve certainly seen so much better. The script is so insulting to the audience that you need to disengage, yell at the screen till you’re too tired to continue doing that, or turn it into a drinking game. Choose your approach carefully.

Angel Has Fallen

The House that Jack Built

[2.5 stars]

Lars von Trier (Nymphomaniac) is never an easy artist to watch. And, of late, I’m not entirely sure he’s as capable of delivering a complete and cohesive message, as he did with films like Melancholia. But you can’t say he isn’t fearless in the material he tackles.

His latest film is a foray into the sociopathic mind by way of Dante, and it isn’t just a little self-referential at times. As Jack, Matt Dillon (Going in Style), spends 2.5 hours explaining his concept of art and his reason for his efforts to Bruno Ganz (Remember) in a wide-ranging and rambling dialogue. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the surface of it, but as metaphor for filmmaking it’s a message to von Trier’s audiences and critics. Whether you accept that message or not, well that’s up to you.

But, as always, von Trier pulled together a solid supporting cast to help make his point. Top among them are Uma Thurman (Burnt), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Wayward Pines), Sofie Gråbøl (Fortitude), and particularly Riley Keough (We Don’t Belong Here). Keough transforms for her role completely and is the most complex of the women in this offering.

So, do you need to spend time in Jack’s house? That’s pretty much up to you. If you’re a completist or truly love von Trier’s work, then you should settle in for the assault. If you are new to von Trier or are simply looking for a movie to make you think… you may want to look elsewhere. I’m still torn about it as there are moments and an overall shape and motion that was intriguing. But ultimately, I think, it is too self-conscious and takes too long to get to the point.

The House That Jack Built

The Addams Family (2019)

[3 stars]

The first 10 minutes of this remake do a wonderful job setting up the tone, humor, and new origin story of the creepy, kooky, ooky family we’ve known for so long. And while there remains, peppered throughout, a number of wonderful moments, the inventiveness pretty much ends there.

This latest iteration of the Addams Family tells the same story we’ve seen for decades: people fear them, then hate them, then apologize to them. And, if you’re going to remake it, at least bring it into today (it was somewhat stuck in the 50s in style if not in fact) and give me a new challenge. I will admit that they do tackle some topical aspects of today and manage to make it a mostly woman-powered plot. The men are generally treated as jokes…effective and useful, but not particularly bright.

While there is a lot of top-shelf voice talent, Charlize Theron (Bombshell) as Morticia and Chloë Grace Mortez (Greta) as Wednesday are the real standouts, delivering lines with dry aplomb. The rest of the cast is servicable, though nothing particularly brilliant, though Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) takes a good run at her role to make it more than a cookie-cutter middle schooler.

Generally, this is a diverting, but not fabulous, animation. There are clever bits and, perhaps, if it hadn’t arrived on my doorstep with decades of baggage, it may even have seemed inventive. But in trying to reboot it all, I can’t help but compare it to the past and judge its lack of originality. Heck, at the end they literally recreate the opening of the TV show, so how do you not consider that as part of your viewing? But, if you don’t have that nostaligia, or aren’t as attached to the original comics and other iterations, it may impress more. IOW, YMMV.

The Addams Family