2018

The Happytime Murders (2018, Brian Henson)

The Happytime Murders is exceptionally foul and exceptionally funny. It’s set in a world where animate puppets and humans co-exist, with the human bigotry eradicated because they’ve all decided to hate on the puppets instead. There’s no explanation of how the puppets came to be or when they came to be or whatnot; they just exist. In the past, before the humans started hating on them, the puppets were entertainers who loved to dance. Now they’re all hooked on sucrose, which gets them high. It’s such intense sucrose it’d kill a human to ingest it, which both is and isn’t important to the story.

The first act sort of sets up the world—the lead, a disgraced ex-cop puppet private investigator (performed by a fantastic Bill Barretta), narrates. He’s in the City of Angels, he works out of a crappy office, he’s got a loyal human girl Friday for a secretary (Maya Rudolph, who’s also really good), and he’s trying to make things right for the downtrodden puppets. The movie opens with him getting a case from a fetching nymphomaniac puppet (Dorien Davies); it initially seems like a somewhat crude riff on a film noir, down to Barretta’s office looking like Sam Spade’s.

However, once Barretta gets to the puppet porn store, it’s clear Happytime is going a very, very, very different route. In fact, Barretta’s going to end up forgetting about client Davies because he gets wrapped up in a spree killing case where someone is targeting the puppets who used to be on a popular primetime sitcom, “The Happytime Gang.” Barretta’s involvement starts wrong place, wrong time, but then his old boss (a likable but dreadfully miscast Leslie David Baker) forces Barretta to work the case—as a consultant—with his old partner, human Melissa McCarthy.

Barretta and McCarthy used to be the best of partners, then there was a shooting gone wrong and McCarthy had Barretta not just drummed off the force but also got a law passed puppets can’t be cops. It’s unclear if the no puppet cops thing is nationwide or just L.A. The movie gives up on relevant exposition once McCarthy shows up, which is kind of fine. Todd Berger’s script has constantly hilarious moments but it’s not a good script, it just knows expertly executed puppets (by the post-Muppet Henson company no less) being inordinately obscene is going to be funny. Any deeper and Berger wouldn’t be able to handle it.

So it’s up to Barretta and McCarthy to get over their past history and solve the case. Or just survive the case, as they don’t just have to the bad guy to ferret out, they’ve also got to contend with jackass human FBI agent Joel McHale sticking his nose in. Oh, and Barretta’s ex-girlfriend, human Elizabeth Banks; he didn’t leave things quite right with her.

Mostly the movie is McCarthy mugging through scenes with puppets, aptly delivering filthy dialogue, with some nods at legitimate character development for Barretta as he reclaims his previous potential. While also delivering filthy dialogue.

It’s hilarious. McCarthy’s really good with the puppets. So good it doesn’t even matter she’s a barely shaded caricature who gets less personality in the script than Rudolph. More than Banks though, who initially seems like stunt casting, then not, then stunt casting again. Meanwhile McHale is… in a miscasting boat similar to Baker’s, but with less likability.

As far as Henson’s direction goes… well, the puppet work is outstanding. He does a great job directing the puppets. Otherwise, it’s a fairly bland effort on his part. Every shot seems constructed to be as simple as possible, which might be requisite given the puppets—the end credits show just how much work went into the production—but it’s nowhere near as enthusiastic as the movie needs. Maybe if Henson hadn’t shot it wide Panavision aspect ratio without any idea how to fill the frame; though Mitchell Amundsen’s similarly bland photography doesn’t help things. The puppetry is no doubt inventive, imaginative; the direction is neither.

The Happytime Murders isn’t a very good movie, but it’s still a somewhat awesome one. Barretta, McCarthy, and—to a smaller, but significant degree—Rudolph, make it happen.

It’s so exceptionally foul-minded, it has to be seen to be believed.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Brian Henson; screenplay by Todd Berger, based on a story by Berger and Dee Austin Robertson; director of photography, Mitchell Amundsen; edited by Brian Scott Olds; music by Christopher Lennertz; production designer, Chris L. Spellman; costume designer, Arjun Bhasin; produced by Ben Falcone, Jeffrey Hayes, Henson, and Melissa McCarthy; released by STX Entertainment.

Starring Bill Barretta (Phil Philips), Melissa McCarthy (Detective Connie Edwards), Maya Rudolph (Bubbles), Leslie David Baker (Lt. Banning), Dorien Davies (Sandra), Joel McHale (Agent Campbell), Victor Yerrid (Larry), Kevin Clash (Lyle), Drew Massey (Goofer), and Elizabeth Banks (Jenny).


Savage (2018, Cui Siwei)

Savage is not savage. It’s got some violence, some of it rough, and it’s got some mean bad guys, but it’s never savage. I mean, unless it’s supposed to be referring to hero—more than protagonist or lead—Chang Chen. He beats up some suspects pretty bad at the beginning because he’s mad about partner Li Guangjie getting killed in the third or fourth scene, after its established Li and Chang both want the same girl, doctor Ni Ni. Li dies in what should be a routine traffic stop and Chang can’t forgive himself, leading to a bad year between him and Ni (see, she actually wanted him anyway), which catches us up to the present action. Some of the year before stuff is important, most of it not. In fact, they could easily get away with none of it because the dead partner bit plays more to the melodrama, less to the tight, tough action noir. Savage takes too long getting started and ends badly but between the two is a well-executed, continuous (though not real time), very simple, and very physical action movie.

One year after robbing a gold shipment—which opens the movie, it seems somewhat savage but still not enough—robbers Liao Fan, Huang Jue, and Zhang Yicong return to the scene of the crime, where they also killed Li. Savage gives Chang every opportunity to avenge himself upon his foes but he never gives in, much to the film’s detriment as well as the lives of people around Chang. He hasn’t learned much since Li got killed apparently, other than beat up people and get away with it because you’re a cop. Though the guys in the restaurant harassing Ni had it comes and it’s nice to see her not getting smacked around when threatened, which happens a lot in the second half of the movie.

So Chang’s never Savage with the main villains. It’s weird.

The big boss is Liao Fan. He doesn’t talk much, just watches, thinks, acts. Liao’s great. Probably the film’s best performance. He’s fairly savage, but also not. For instance, he’s not as ruthless as Huang Jue, who’s gold-crazed. And excellent. Huang’s also great. Last guy is Zhang Yicong, playing Liao’s dipshit punk little brother. Liao makes Huang babysit Zhang. Zhang’s fine. He doesn’t any heavy lifting but also doesn’t seem to be capable of handling it if he did. Liao and Huang, who both mainly stay reflective versus proactive, seem like they’re in a different and better film in their scenes with Zhang. He doesn’t get it, which is meta, since his character doesn’t get it either.

The problem might just be director Cui and his interest in the actors. Cui and cinematographer Du Jie do a phenomenal job with the snow-pocalypse mountain where Chang chases the bad guys, but Cui couldn’t give a toss about the performances. The melodrama’s better at interior dialogue sequences (i.e. when the characters aren’t worried about getting buried in an avalanche but instead wondering why they can’t find any Swiss Miss in the lodge. The action’s either outside or in the lodge. Once it becomes clear everyone’s going to end up at the lodge, the strong action’s timer starts ticking down. It’s just obvious from early on Cui isn’t going to do as well inside a snowed-in lodge as he does in a snow-drowned wilderness. Cui likes taking time with the action; he needs lots of space.

Ni’s good even if she’s got a crap part and then is a punching bag to emphasis how the bad men are bad. Liu Hua’s good as the partial comic relief, the lodge manager who’s also infamous for poaching.

Even without dialogue, just being present, Liao kind of becomes the lead. Not the protagonist; Ni’s kind of the protagonist. So cop Chang’s the hero, damsel Ni’s the protagonist, and villain Liao’s the lead. It’s a very confused narrative. Cui’s script isn’t quite there.

Awesome music. I’ll be damned if I can find the name of the composer anywhere.

Savage is pretty good for most of its too long runtime. The melodrama doesn’t work, doesn’t inform the plot or the characters… the film’s lean, just not in the right way. And the parts could be a lot better. Cui really fails his actors, in script and direction. Worse, it’s just through indifference. Cui’s not even passionate about not being passionate about them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cui Siwei; director of photography, Du Jie; edited by Du Yuan; produced by Terence Chang; released by Huaxia Film Distribution.

Starring Chang Chen (Wang Kangho), Ni Ni (Sun Yan), Liao Fan (Lao Da), Huang Jue (Lao Er), Zhang Yicong (Lao San), Liu Hua (Guo San), and Li Guangjie (Han Xiaosong).


Fast Color (2018, Julia Hart)

Fast Color spends most its runtime saying it’s not a superhero movie—it’s just about people who happen to have superpowers—only for the third act to play like a low budget X-Men outing. And it’s not just the not-battle-in-the-streets battle-in-the-street resolution, it’s also how lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character arc becomes all about her superpowers and not her returning to her abandoned home, abandoned mother (Lorraine Toussaint), and abandoned tween daughter (Saniyya Sidney). It’s also not about how Mbatha-Raw’s gotten sober—drugs help keep her out-of-control powers in check—or how the world hasn’t had rain in the last seven or eight years. There’s a lot going on in the world of Fast Color and director Hart does a great job showing its more mundane side—utilizing the limited budget well—but engaging with the superhero movie tropes after promising to avoid them… it doesn’t undue the work of the film through most of its runtime, but it does leave the potential unrealized.

For instance, just when Mbatha-Raw and Sidney could be really connecting, the film concentrates on the superpowers. And it doesn’t even go all the way with the superpowers. It doesn’t just not show them, it doesn’t show their effect on anyone, so it’s like they’re not even there. Sorry, Fast Color’s finish is about the only disappointing thing in the film (as it compounds the problems with Toussaint’s part). Hence the harping.

The film opens with Mbatha-Raw on the run. She’s got some kind of earthquake power, which she can’t control at all but she at least tries to mitigate the damage. Water is an expensive item because of the lack of rain fall, but there’s still booze, eggs, electricity, all sorts of things just no smartphones. The whole no more rain subplot is fine but doesn’t add anything to the film. It mostly ends up serving as a budget limiter; so fine. But just fine.

Pretty soon we discover nerdy government scientist Christopher Denham is after Mbatha-Raw but also she’s gotten to her hometown, which he doesn’t realize. So she goes to mom Toussaint’s farm, even though Mbatha-Raw’s never met Sidney and Sidney doesn’t have any expectation of ever meeting Mbatha-Raw and then Toussaint makes Mbatha-Raw sleep out in the barn because her powers are so out-of-control. The film never directly addresses how Mbatha-Raw’s terrible life, on the run but also before, instead focusing on what she can do to improve her footprint, which is fine because it centers itself around Sidney’s well-being. Mbatha-Raw’s motivations and thoughts play out in her expressions versus actions or dialogue. She’s haunted by flashback sequences too. Mbatha-Raw gives an excellent lead performance but her part isn’t really enough the lead as far as the plot goes.

Most of the film is about what’s going to happen without raising much expectation. David Strathairn plays the local sheriff who’s also on Mbatha-Raw’s trail, trying not to let Denham and the feds take his case. Given how much the film ends up leveraging Strathairn, at the expense of other characters (and their actors), it’d have been nice if Strathairn weren’t involved in one of Fast Colors big secrets. The film has a lot of big secrets—well, either secrets or lies, because Toussaint wants to keep Sidney sheltered. See, Toussaint and Sidney also have powers, but they’re not as potentially damaging or affecting as Mbatha-Raw’s. When Mbatha-Raw bonds with Sidney, it’s over the powers, which is weird but the acting’s good—Sidney’s phenomenal—so Color can do whatever it wants as long as it stays focused on the characters.

The end abandons that focus and… the film suffers.

Technically, the film’s outstanding. Save the occasionally too DV night time photography. Many of photographer Michael Fimognari’s night time shots are fantastic, but when there’s a lot of movement on the screen… it looks off. Martin Pensa’s editing is good, Rob Simonsen’s music is good, Hart’s direction is good… Fast Color’s got all the pieces—well, okay, not Denham (who’s way too eh)—the script just doesn’t quite get them assembled right at the end.

The film gives Mbatha-Raw a solid lead, Sidney an okay supporting showcase (Sidney could handle more), and Toussaint a disappointing one. The film utilizes her but doesn’t showcase her, which really hurts in the third act.

Fast Color’s successful without exactly being a success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Julia Hart; written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz; director of photography, Michael Fimognari; edited by Martin Pensa; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Gae S. Buckley; produced by Horowitz, Mickey Liddell, and Pete Shilaimon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Ruth), Lorraine Toussaint (Bo), Saniyya Sidney (Lila), Christopher Denham (Bill), and David Strathairn (Ellis).


RELATED

Night Hunter (2018, David Raymond)

The first act of Night Hunter, which is just as stupid as the film’s original title, Nomis, but has nothing to do with the movie itself—unless Night Hunter refers to “lead” Henry Cavill, who at one point tells his daughter, played by Emma Tremblay, how he was a great SWAT cop until she was born. Now, Cavill’s thirty-five or so and Tremblay’s like fourteen so he and ex-wife Minka Kelly had her pretty young. And Cavill was already a SWAT bad ass when he was twenty. He’s also British and living in Minneapolis-St. Paul because that sort of thing makes sense in Night Hunter—I mean, also British Ben Kingsley was… a local judge.

If Night Hunter had just had the stones to embrace it’s Canadian heritage instead of pretending it takes place in the Twin Cities, which are a really dangerous place but also have the highest tech police department in the world—wait. I was talking about the first act.

Sorry.

The movie’s stupid in some amusing ways. Lots of potential tangents.

But the first act. The first act is fairly… engaging? I mean, it’s about tortured super cop Cavill who works homicide and seems really smart. Cavill doesn’t give a good performance—he doesn’t give a terrible one, we’ll get to the terrible ones in a bit—but he’s really good at acting smart. It might also be because he’s British. It might also be because he’s British and makes the dumb dialogue sound authoritative and all the other people, save Kingsley, are not British and speaking stupid dialogue and, therefore, do not sound authoritative. There’s a lot going wrong at once in Night Hunter. Makes for interesting fails; fails because nothing writer, director, and co-producer Raymond does succeeds. The one big plot twist isn’t as dumb as the alternative he’d been hinting at for a while. I suppose that statement is complementary.

Let me back up. The movie starts with a woman killing herself instead of being recaptured by the guy chasing her. Cavill’s the homicide cop. Meanwhile, Kingsley and Eliana Jones are vigilantes who castrate sexual predators. Kingsley’s a former judge who’s gone dark after his family got killed. Jones is a sexual abuse survivor. She’s bait. It’s a good setup and, frankly, a lot of fun to watch. Kingsley’s a good heavy. And Jones gives the best performance in the film. She gives a bit wider of a performance than Kingsley or Stanley Tucci, but her part’s better and Jones tries harder. Eventually, Cavill crosses paths with Kingsley and Jones and soon they’ve teamed up to find the killer.

And they catch him right away. Brendan Fletcher is the killer. Only once they lock him up and Cavill’s ex-girlfriend turned believer-in-multiple-personalities profiler Alexandra Daddario interviews Fletcher. Fletcher’s the intellectually, mildly physically disabled super-killer who took out however many women before they finally caught him, from his bad guy mansion out in the woods. Daddario’s convinced it’s multiple personalities, Cavill thinks Fletcher’s faking it, Kingsley and Jones are out of the movie for a while, and Stanley Tucci comes in to yell. It’s a terribly written part for Tucci but he weathers it.

But Fletcher and Daddario are godawful. Night Hunter has got no chance after they start sparring, these two actors unable to breathe life into a crappy script. The film finds its ceiling and for most of the second act, Daddario is slamming her head against it as she tries to unlock Fletcher’s secrets. Very, very stupidly. Because it’s a stupid script. The third act has its surprise, but it doesn’t get any smarter. It’s also not like Cavill turns out to be much of a Sherlock Holmes; maybe the implications in the first act really were just because of the accent. He catches on to everything after the audience. It’s almost like Raymond promises he’s going to be really, really stupid and then when he’s just really stupid instead, he treats it like a victory lap.

The end’s bad. Good special effects but still a bad ending.

Raymond doesn’t appear to direct his actors. Most of them don’t actually need it, but the most important ones definitely do—Fletcher, Daddario, Cavill (though Cavill’s more just absurdly miscast). The supporting cast is mostly solid. Nathan Fillion’s one of the other cops because he owed someone a favor or just really likes Winnipeg; he’s fine. Daniela Lavender’s the CSI. She’s more good than fine. She makes her expository scenes rather believable, even lending credibility to Cavill. But it doesn’t really matter because once the second act hits… it’s just Fletcher and Daddario and the occasional incredible set piece. See, Fletcher’s such a mastermind, he’s killing cops while he’s locked up with explosives and poison gas and whatever else.

Still, Night Hunter’s far from unwatchable. Michael Barrett’s photography is good, even when Raymond’s composition is bad. It’s not incompletely produced or anything, it’s just not well-directed or well-written or well-acted. But it’s not… embarrassing for some of the people involved. Jones’s quite good. Tremblay’s far better than the film desires. Kingsley’s decent. It’s unexceptionally bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Raymond; director of photography, Michael Barrett; music by Alex Lu and Benjamin Wallfisch; produced by Robert Ogden Barnum, Jeff Beesley, Rick Dugdale, Chris Pettit, and Raymond; released by Sabin Films.

Starring Henry Cavill (Marshall), Alexandra Daddario (Rachel), Ben Kingsley (Cooper), Eliana Jones (Lara), Brendan Fletcher (Simon), Stanley Tucci (Commissioner Harper), Emma Tremblay (Faye), Minka Kelly (Angie), Daniela Lavender (Dickerman), Mpho Koaho (Glasgow), and Nathan Fillion (Quinn).


Free Solo (2018, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)

Free Solo is ostensibly about rock climber Alex Honnold’s obsession to free solo (climbing alone without ropes, maybe falling to a gruesome death) Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain. You know, from Star Trek V. Does Honnold beat Captain Kirk’s time? You could watch and find out. Or Google.

Only it’s not about Honnold’s obsession because the film takes a year off from the story. So is it about making a movie about Honnold’s preparation to climb El Cap? No. So is it a movie about Honnold? No, not at all. At some point the movie seems to realize Honnold’s not sympathetic at all, even when he’s doing good works (which don’t really figure into his psyche, which would be far more of an interesting subject—how did this affectless person get the idea to start a charity). That discovery of the lack of sympathetic nature comes before Honnold’s girlfriend shows up—but after Honnold says he doesn’t want a serious relationship because it might screw up his climbing—and Free Solo does try to investigate some of his lack of affect. Is it because his amygdala doesn’t register danger? Don’t know, he gets medically questionable MRI and then it’s over. Is it because his mom only spoke French to him as a child? Don’t know, Mom disappears real quick after she shows up (she only speaks English in the movie so Honnold telling the French anecdotes sound specious). Because Honnold’s not a reliable narrator. He’s always lying to his girlfriend, whose interview segments initially seem like they’d be good training for a couples’ counselor but once they buy a house together it becomes the girlfriend’s craven middle class ambitions and Honnold’s utter disinterest. Presumably he’s fixating on his El Cap obsession but we never find out because the film doesn’t get deep with its subject.

Its subject who apparently set up the film project himself for himself. But there’s no ego. Honnold treats the film as an inconvenience, which makes sense. There are a number of rather inauthentic devices directors Vasarhelyi (who’s never in the film) and Chin (who’s in it a bunch) use.

In theory, Free Solo could just be about using amazing camera technology to film this guy free climbing El Capitan for the first time in history but… it’s not. The film’s very shady about how they actually shoot the climb. After eighty minutes of the camera crew being omnipresent, they disappear for the climb itself, even though the cameras are obviously there (and Chin talked to his camera crew all about their placement). But there are lots of cameras. And some really good microphones. At least, there had better have been really good microphones because if they added the sound of Honnold grunting through his climb into the movie? It’d be bigger bullshit than the scenes with the camera crew fretting over possibly recording Honnold fall to his death. They’re not just camera guys, they’re rock climbers and they’re Honnold’s friends. At least as close as he seems to get to friends. They’re going to be really sad if he dies and they’re filming it for this movie.

So the movie ends up being about the camera guys worrying Honnold’s going to fall and die. It’s not about his girlfriend worrying, it’s not about his challenge and achievement, it’s the camera guys feeling like if he dies, they’re partially responsible for turning it into a movie.

But Vasarhelyi and Chin already know if Honnold falls to his death. They know before the movie starts. They present the last third, featuring the footage of his climb, like an exploitative thriller, even hiding where they’ve got cameras and cameramen in the resolution. Wouldn’t it make more sense to showcase Honnold’s ability?

He’s the only guy who’s ever done this climb. This climb, captured on “film,” has never happened before. And they treat it like a chance to terrify instead of champion.

And given Honnold’s really questionable take on reality—he blathers about being a warrior and is a possibly obnoxious vegetarian (but not vegan, so it’s like, what are you bragging about). He’s also an emotionally absent boyfriend, but, hey, his girlfriend likes him… for reasons.

Is there a great movie in Free Solo? With better editors, a more earnest, more authentic narrative distance, not to mention better music… probably. But the filmmakers sit on some amazing climbing footage, which they tease out, set to iffy music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts and lackluster cutting from Bob Eisenhardt. It’s a bummer.

Especially since Honnold’s probably best observed through a telephoto lens.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin; directors of photography, Chin, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer; edited by Bob Eisenhardt; music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts; produced by Chin, Vasarhelyi, Shannon Dill, and Evan Hayes; released by National Geographic Documentary Films.


The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018, Terry Gilliam)

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens with a “twenty-five years in the making” title card; it seems for every year it took director Gilliam to get the film made, he added another ending. Don has a troubled third act, with Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni tacking on false ending after false ending, trying to get the story where it needs to go for the film to get its finish. Is it an effective finish… no. The finish looks pretty–Don always at least looks pretty thanks to Nicola Pecorini’s photography, even if some of Gilliam’s Panavision aspect shots are a little boring. Another thing you’d think he might’ve been more ready with—especially since there’s a plot point about storyboards in the first act.

The first act is less successful than the second act and better than the third act; it’s a little lazy, a little disingenuous, but it doesn’t have the herky-jerk narrative of the third act (when the film moves from ending to ending). Don is about wunderkind commercial director Adam Driver, who’s having a disastrous shoot on his latest project. He’s doing some kind of commercial—either the product isn’t mentioned or it isn’t repeated enough for me to remember—and he’s using a Don Quixote character, filming on location in Spain. Why Spain? Not sure. I mean, we soon find out Driver shot a student film in the area (about Don Quixote) but apparently forgot about it until confronted with a bootleg of said film. He’s just a whiny prima donna director, surrounded by a sniveling entourage. If Driver’s got enough charm to get through this portion of the film, Gilliam didn’t have him use it. The leads’ ineffectiveness ends up playing a big part in why Don fails.

Anyway. Pretty soon Driver’s remembering he spent two months making a zero budget Don Quixote film and goes off to visit the village where he shot it. There are a bunch of flashbacks to the first film’s production, with the moppy-headed Driver far more likable than his slick commercial auteur; it softens Driver up enough to get him sympathetic for the second act. It also introduces Don Quixote himself, Jonathan Pryce, and impressionable, vivacious teenage girl, Joana Ribeiro. Before the film, Pryce was a shoemaker and Ribeiro was just daughter of the restaurant owner. When Driver gets to the village, he finds out Ribeiro has—in the ten years since—become a fallen woman and Pryce has gone insane and thinks he’s actually Don Quixote.

After Driver reunites with Pryce, sees what’s happened, and flees, there’s a little bit more with the commercial-making—the film relies heavily on a subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård as Driver’s boss, Olga Kurylenko as Skarsgård’s wife and Driver’s occasional lover, and Jordi Mollà as the Russian oligarch who Skarsgård’s wooing—but it’s all water treading to finally team Driver up with Pryce. So they can go on great adventures.

Are the adventures great?

Eh.

There are moments during the adventures when Driver and Pryce click. Not enough of them. And not after Ribeiro returns to the story and Driver decides he’s got to save her from the really bad situation she’s in. Don is very paternalistic with its female characters, which is rather unfortunate since Ribeiro and Kurylenko are much better than the male actors in the film.

Neither Driver or Pryce have enough star wattage for the film. Not the way Gilliam directs it or writes it. Neither of them command the screen. They’re constantly upstaged by supporting players. They also have a lack of rapport they really need. Again, some of it is the script, some of it is the direction, but more compelling leads would get Don where it wants to go a little more smoothly.

Mollà’s either miscast, poorly directed, or bad; he doesn’t actually have enough material for it to matter. But he certainly doesn’t have the heft the part seems to require. Skarsgård’s in a similar situation, but he’s at least affable and enthused.

What else… oh, the ostensible political asides. Gilliam doesn’t want to commit to any of them but he does want to acknowledge “reality.” Not sure why. It just tacks needless minutes onto the film’s laborious runtime.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote could be a lot worse. Driver and Pryce are never bad, they’re just not… good enough. Ribeiro and Kurylenko are good enough, they just never get enough material. Though, to be fair, neither of them belong in the film. Without their subplots, maybe Driver and Pryce would spend enough time together to find some rhythm.

But given that twenty-five year lead time, you’d think it’d be a lot tighter of a production.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni; director of photography, Nicola Pecorini; edited by Teresa Font; music by Roque Baños; production designer, Benjamín Fernández; produced by Mariela Besuievsky, Amy Gilliam, Gerardo Herrero, and Grégoire Melin; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Adam Driver (Toby), Jonathan Pryce (Don Quixote), Joana Ribeiro (Angelica), Olga Kurylenko (Jacqui), Stellan Skarsgård (The Boss), Óscar Jaenada (The Gypsy), and Jordi Mollà (The Oligarch).


Greta (2018, Neil Jordan)

Greta is exceedingly competent. It’s way too unimaginative, predictable, traditional, and restrained in the final third, but it’s always exceedingly competent at those things. Even after it’s clear top-billed Isabelle Huppert isn’t going to create a singular cinema villain and even after it’s clear she’s not even as good as she was in the first hour… she’s always exceedingly competent. Ditto de facto lead Chloë Grace Moretz; she gets thin, melodramatic backstory, an annoying sidekick, a boring job, and a bland dad, but she always makes it work. Greta’s even able to make its utterly predictable last shot work.

Probably because the whole thing is utterly noncommittal and emotionally exploitative until the thriller dangers take over.

The film doesn’t start out noncommittal or emotionally exploitative. The first act at least hints at some sincerity—another of the script’s efficiencies—Moretz is a recent college (Smith, natch) graduate living the dream in New York City. Literally. She works as a waitress, but has no future ambitions and doesn’t need any because she lives with good friend Maika Monroe, whose dad bought her a loft for college graduation. Monroe doesn’t appear to do anything but yoga and party. Again, efficiency after efficiency. Moretz’s dad, Colm Feore, lives back in Boston. Moretz came to New York not because she gets to live rent-free in a bitchin’ loft but because her mom died the year before and she’s grieving. It’s implied Feore grieved his way immediately into another marriage, but it’s never explained. Because efficiency. And also the implied detail makes the film less shallow.

So one day Moretz finds a handbag on the train and—thanks to the lost and found not being open—has to bring it back to the owner herself. The owner is French-ish Isabelle Huppert, who lives all by herself because her husband died the year before and her daughter is off in Paris. Huppert and Moretz immediately bond, much to Monroe’s chagrin—she feels like Moretz is judging her negatively for being a superficial rich girl (which Moretz can’t be because she doesn’t do yoga and also dead mom). Except (and it happens before the second act) it turns out Huppert is seriously creepy creeper and Moretz tries to break off their relationship, only for Huppert to start stalking her. And eventually Monroe, leading to some great thriller sequences from Jordan, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and editor Nick Emerson.

Huppert’s stalking gets worse, leading to bigger and bigger set pieces, until the last third (or so) of the film when the danger to Moretz starts to become far more literal. No more foreshadowing, no more backstory hints (and the ones the film has revealed add up to nothing because of how the third act plays), just terror.

The conclusion is a mix of predictable, problematic, satisfying, and truncated. Greta runs just less than a hundred minutes and definitely could use a more thorough denouement. Jordan and co-writer Ray Wright go for intensity to get the film to the finish, which is fine in the moment, it just doesn’t add up to anything. Nothing in the film adds up to anything. None of the suspicions, none of the characters’ traumatic histories, none of the characters’ criminal histories (private investigator Stephen Rea discovers more about Huppert from one file folder than the cops do after multiple interactions with both Huppert and Moritz); none of it matters in the end. So no character development, not for Moritz or Huppert. Moritz definitely needed some. Huppert, if the villain role were better, might be able to get away without it. But the role’s not better. It’s lacking. Even if she does power through the third act quite well.

Moritz is good too, though the film’s patronizing towards her, like it resents her for not having enough to do because it doesn’t give her enough to do. Monroe gets better as things go on. She’s good at action, not at exposition. She’s real rough in the first act.

Rea’s great.

Feore’s okay. It’s a perfect role for stunt-casting or a character actor and instead it’s filler with Feore.

Like I said, it’s all exceedingly competent, making Greta a successful viewing experience without being a successful film.

It’s too bad. A better, sincerer, more ambitious script could’ve given Huppert, Moretz, and Monroe some great roles.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Jordan; screenplay by Ray Wright and Jordan, based on a story by Wright; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Nick Emerson; music by Javier Navarrete; production designer, Anna Rackard; produced by Lawrence Bender, James Flynn, Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti, and Karen Richards; released by Focus Features.

Starring Isabelle Huppert (Greta Hideg), Chloë Grace Moretz (Frances McCullen), Maika Monroe (Erica Penn), Zawe Ashton (Alexa Hammond), Stephen Rea (Brian Cody), and Colm Feore (Chris McCullen).


Thunder Road (2018, Jim Cummings)

Writer, director, and star Cummings has really long takes in Thunder Road. Usually of himself. The film opens with Cummings breaking down giving the eulogy at his mother’s funeral service, which kicks off his life going downhill. Not his mother dying, but the funeral service breakdown. Cummings already isn’t a good public speaker and he’s emotionally distraught and there’s dancing involved. Mom was a dancer. His small city responds by turning him into a viral joke.

Good thing Cummings isn’t very tech savvy.

The film runs ninety minutes. Cummings’s plunge takes up the first hour. He hits bottom and sort of treads water until it’s time for the big finale. Road has a very short third act, which is simultaneously fine—there’s only so much of Cummings’s constant personal failures one can endure—and not what the film needs. It’s what Cummings, star, needs; there’s nothing else Cummings, director, can do on the budget. Any further personal meltdowns would require explosions. But the ending also reveals just how little Cummings, writer, has actually done with the story. None of the other characters are fleshed out. Cummings, director, has great instincts for directing his cast and for how to edit their performances (he edits with Brian Vannucci) to imply depth but never development. It’s all about Cummings’s character. Hence the long takes.

And Cummings’s performance is phenomenal. It eclipses everything else. And probably would if Cummings gave anyone else anything to do.

Nican Robinson gets a bit. He’s Cummings’s partner. See, Cummings is an incredibly unlikely cop and Robinson has to take care of him once the grieving process destroys Cummings. Or does it? It’s never believable Cummings is a decorated police officer much less a still employed one. His temperament is all off. He shows concern for someone else once in the movie—Jacqueline Doke’s a teenage girl out with boys she shouldn’t be out with—but otherwise he’s an egomaniac. Of course, everyone he knows is a shit. The treatment he gets for his breakdown at his mom’s funeral makes every single person in the film unlikable.

Of course, Cummings’s immediately previous relationship with his mom is never explained. Neither is how he ended up married to harpy caricature Jocelyn DeBoer, who has successfully turned fourth grade daughter Kendal Farr against Cummings. Of course they both disappear after a while, which seems like it might be budgetary. Like, even though DeBoer has left Cummings for her divorce attorney, she doesn’t show up in court to see Cummings break down there. Because if there’s a location, Cummings is going to have some kind of breakdown in it.

Some of the issue is the narrative distance. Because Thunder Road is somehow not a character study. Not with the size of the deus ex machina Cummings employs at the end. And the only reason he’s able to get away with it is because of his performance. Otherwise it’d flop.

Cummings’s script is great when it comes to the monologues. His monologues, Robinson gets something close to one… well, no one else. But Cummings’s monologues are great. And the writing for the supporting cast is good too. The script gives them more material than Cummings’s direction lets them have. Everyone’s got to be looking at Cummings at all times.

Thunder Road started as a short film and would probably work better as one. Or a mini-series. The ninety minute film skips over way too much without Cummings able to justify the brevity. He does a lot with his budget, but Thunder Road feels pretty incomplete.

Really nice photography from Lowell A. Meyer. Pretty good soundtrack selections. Cummings’s composition is fine; it’s all about the length of the take and how he and Vannucci cut it.

Besides Robinson, the most personality in the supporting cast comes from Shelley Calene-Black as Cummings’s lawyer in one scene and Chelsea Edmundson as his de facto estranged sister. Edmundson is just thrown in to fill out the runtime but she makes an impression. Farr is fine as the kid. Even though she’s a little shit. And DeBoer’s an adequate harpy ex-wife caricature. It’d be nice if Farr and DeBoer got real characters. But they don’t. Because Thunder Road is all about Cummings.

Cummings’s character is also a bit of a dope, which makes everything about his situation hard to believe. At one point he wrecks his house but it’s hard to imagine how he was able not to destroy it in the previous year he’s been there.

The breakdown at the funeral never feels like an inciting incident but regular behavior from Cummings, which sort of sums up the whole problem. These characters only exist when onscreen, including Cummings.

Good direction, great monologues, and exceptional lead performance though. Thunder Road just never transcends its constraints; worse, Cummings never even tries to transcend them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Cummings; director of photography, Lowell A. Meyer; edited by Cummings and Brian Vannucci; production designer, Charlie Textor; produced by Natalie Metzger, Zack Parker, and Benjamin Wiessner; released by Vanishing Angle.

Starring Jim Cummings (Officer Jim Arnaud), Nican Robinson (Officer Nate Lewis), Kendal Farr (Crystal Arnaud), Jocelyn DeBoer (Rosalind Arnaud), Ammie Masterson (Celia Lewis), Shelley Calene-Black (Donna), and Chelsea Edmundson (Morgan Arnaud).


This post is part of the The “Cops” Blog-A-Thon hosted by J-Dub of Dubism.

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Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham)

With a single exception, no one expounds onscreen in Eighth Grade. There’s obviously some implied offscreen exposition, but once lead Elsie Fisher stops recording for her updated-daily YouTube channel, director (and writer) Burnham sets the narrative distance and keeps it. Fisher’s got her on-YouTube exposition, which we both see and hear in voiceover as Burnham juxtaposes words and deeds; otherwise, she doesn’t offer any insight. Or, if she does, Burnham doesn’t want to show it. Eighth Grade is a character study, just one where Burnham wants to keep a very respectful distance to the subject. We’re going to be seeing Fisher go through her week and the moments we get to share are mostly ones where she’s processing things going on around her or trying to figure out how to engage with those things.

It’s a big week for Fisher—the last week of eighth grade. The film opens with her winning “most quiet” student or something to that effect. She’s got a single parent, painfully uncool dad Josh Hamilton. It takes Burnham a long time to get to talking about Mom, which turns out to be just the right move because that eventual exposition (the single one) ends up informing back on so much before the film heads into the third act. It’s awesome. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film has a number of big events in Fisher’s week, strung together by YouTube videos and scenes at school. First up is a pool birthday party, which Hamilton basically forces Fisher to attend. Fisher doesn’t want to go because she doesn’t like birthday kid Catherine Oliviere, who doesn’t like Fisher either but her mom made her invite Fisher. The pool party scene is uncomfortable as Grade gets. The film gets dangerous and serious, but it never gets quite as uncomfortable. Because it goes on forever. And we already know Fisher doesn’t want to go and never would without Hamilton pressuring her. Grade oozes tension from its pores—Burnham’s got three things going on with it. First, he’s doing a character study. Second, that character study has a set present action and a series of events to hit. Third and most important, he’s trying to do those two things from Fisher’s… emotionality. Not point of view events, but her emotional experience of events. The tension is part of that emotional experience. Fisher’s shy. There’s no way she’s not going to be socially awkward with Hamilton as a dad. But even though she’s shy and socially awkward she desperately wants to not be those things, as her YouTube monologues reveal. She’s profoundly unhappy without understanding why or what to do about it, but with a lot of information about what she’s supposed to be doing about it.

The next big event is when Fisher goes to the high school to shadow senior Emily Robinson, who—unlike the kids at Fisher’s middle school—thinks Fisher is awesome. And Fisher perceives it as an expectation to meet, without really understanding what Robinson’s saying. Robinson also doesn’t really understand what she’s saying. Eighth Grade’s characters frequently lack the vocabulary to express their thoughts and feelings. Fisher and Robinson because even though they have the capacity for self-reflection, they’re kids. Hamilton can’t do it because he’s a goof, he’s just not exactly the goof you expect him to be.

The third event is Fisher going to hang out that night with Robinson and her friends at the mall. Hamilton screws it up for Fisher and the night is a mess.

The events don’t correspond to acts, they’re just the set pieces outside Fisher’s house and the school. In addition to the film taking place the last week before eighth grade graduation, there’s also this subplot about Fisher getting back the time capsule she made in sixth grade for her eighth grade self. Burnham writes that one something beautiful, but—as with anything else—it’s all about Fisher’s performance. The complexities of her situation she cannot describe or even properly acknowledge. Because she’s a kid. She’s just got to experience, essay; frame after frame.

Burnham’s somewhat loose with the film’s target audience—there are enough cues for adults, but not too many it drags. Doing a character study of tween from a detached but tight third person perspective on the lead? It’s a lot.

Eighth Grade is a success because of Fisher’s performance. It’s natural without being loose. Every moment in the film feels intentional, every expression on Fisher’s face deliberate. After all, we’ve often only got Fisher’s expressions to move a scene along. She doesn’t talk a lot; when she does, her dialogue feels like punctuation for an already conveyed expression.

The film’s mostly Fisher and Hamilton. He’s good. Fisher’s exceptional. Robinson’s good; Luke Prael (as Fisher’s crush) is hilarious. Burnham does an extraordinary job directing the performances. The way he and editor Jennifer Lilly cut the film together is fantastic. Also fantastic are Sam Lisenco’s production design, Andrew Wehde’s photography, Anna Meredith’s music. Outstandingly executed film.

Eighth Grade is great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Bo Burnham; director of photography, Andrew Wehde; edited by Jennifer Lilly; music by Anna Meredith; production designer, Sam Lisenco; produced by Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Christopher Storer, and Lila Yacoub; released by A24.

Starring Elsie Fisher (Kayla Day), Josh Hamilton (Mark Day), Emily Robinson (Olivia), Jake Ryan (Gabe), Daniel Zolghadri (Riley), Fred Hechinger (Trevor), Imani Lewis (Aniyah), Luke Prael (Aiden), and Catherine Oliviere (Kennedy).



Thistles and Thorns (2018, Kalie Acheson)

Thistles and Thorns opens with a girl (Madison Vance) going into a forest preserve after school. Vance is practically beaming as she does, which doesn’t initially make sense—when she’s walking on the street—but does once she’s in the forest, looking around at all the nature. She goes to a rock formation and gets a storybook out of a hiding place. She starts reading the book (Thistles and Thorns) and the action moves into the book.

The lead of the fairy tale is Yazmin Monet Watkins, who’s on a hero’s quest. Watkins also narrates the short from this point, reading the fairy tale. Watkins’s reading style is storytelling, excited by the text, so even though Vance has disappeared from the screen, Thorns feels like someone is reading it to her, being told to her; the story has a life of its own. It takes a minute or two for Watkins’s narration to really sell that tone. The transition between Vance and the fairy tale she’s reading is pretty sudden, even with the visual cues.

And Watkins’s narration is somewhat detached from the onscreen action. There’s no dialogue from the characters on screen, just Watkins reading the dialogue from the fairy tale. It also takes the narration a moment to catch on because the direction of the fairy tale itself is so fantastic, there’s not room to think about anything else, especially after director Acheson starts moving the camera. When the fairy tale starts, it seems like Watkins is moving through a realistic forest. As real as the one Vance entered at the beginning, albeit a fairy tale one. But Thorns’s set design is expressionist and entirely shot in profile. Acheson will move the camera behind Watkins but it’s always temporary, it’s always going to move back to that profile shot, showing this imagined landscape. The way the camera is always in a tracking shot makes Thorns feel like a story book being read, the action always being revealed from the right side of the screen, which works really well juxtaposed with the narration.

Watkins’s quest has a nice moral and a suitably positive, expansive finish for the tale. The direction, Watkins’s two performances, and the production design make Thistles and Thorns something special.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Kalie Acheson; written by Yazmin Monet Wakins and David Vieux; director of photography, Kyle Stryker; edited by Ethan Coco and Charles Latham; music by Dre Babinski, Selina Carrera, and William Collela; production designers, Acheson and Latham; produced by Acheson and Latham for Animi.

Starring Yazmin Monet Watkins (Assata), Kelli Wheeler (Hummingbird), Himerria Wortham (Fox), and Madison Vance (school girl); narrated by Watkins.


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