Sunday, August 2, 2020

Adam Bloom

Spoiler-free!

In this coming of age drama that works beautifully to make the most of a shoestring budget, an aspiring street photographer moves in with his grandma in NYC so he can intern with an aging photographer and hone his craft.

You know how indie movies will have their characters be interested in a learnable skill (usually some form of writing) and if you the viewer have any experience in that field you can spot the fake from a mile away? Well, this movie actually understands photography. That's to do with the director, Noah David Smith who also co-wrote the script and worked as his own cinematographer. A cinematographer first, he clearly understands that there is a difference between having an eye for framing and lighting, and being able to insert that almost indefinable, magical quality into your photos which gives them life and meaning.

I used to be a photographer. And I like that this movie made me more comfortable in saying that than less. It doesn't posture about art. 

And this is what Adam sets out to learn over the course of the laid-back, and wonderfully shot little story. How to be a person: how to express himself, and make his work live. It's a simple narrative task in concept, and takes barely 80 minutes to accomplish it. It's deceptively strong and intricate work. Though the film has that indie, real-life quality to it that makes many films meandering, this one doesn't fall into that trap, and creates a clear rise and fall with its drama. I could feel the shifts and turning points in the plot without having to pay attention for them, and felt myself easily drawn into the world of unique and well-framed characters.

The reason I found and had a desire to check this out was because of how much I enjoyed watching Jake Horowitz's screen presence and naturalistic performance in this year's The Vast of Night. Here, the character is more subtle, but my hopes of seeing more of the same talent were not let down. He brings that same powerful stillness and nuance of expression that creates easygoing magnetism on screen. I sincerely hope he catches his big break soon -- one because I'd love to see more of his work, and also because he deserves it. The rest of the actors here give flawless performances too. It's not overwrought, Oscar-level material, it simply rings consistently true, which is what's important.

I really enjoyed the piano score, too. Simple but effective.

Adam's grandma Rosalia (Abigail G. Smith) especially, and also Harris Sutton (David Margulies), the old photographer he works for, are out-of-the-box characters without ruffling the feathers of realism or becoming caricatures. They speak wisdom, sometimes stating outright the ideas that hold the story together. You hardly know it though, since they are so well defined and personal. This is a credit to the script -- I already said that the story structure is excellent and the shape of the drama robust -- but even the dialogue itself and what the movie chooses to say is fascinating. I think at heart, it is searching for a way to describe the way it feels to be able to create art out of images, and it came closer than I've ever been able to articulate.

The script also has set up and pay off that you don't see coming. And in places where some films might leave your questions hanging, this one doesn't want to leave you behind. It wants you to wonder, and then it wants to answer your questions. Some of the things it makes you wonder about would seem like trivial quirks if presented without that sense of mystery. But with the natural progression of curiosity they're presented with, they instead add to the characters in memorable and engaging ways. I have to say, I wasn't expecting to see this much concentrated dedication to quality when I first sat down with this film. I suppose the makers knew that nothing less could do the subject matter justice.

There's also themes of old age vs. old soul, and the hard beauty of a slowly decaying life. The more I think about it the more I find that there's a lot to pick apart here.

After all, it's a film about a young man learning to express himself in his art; to capture what he truly sees, as Harris tells him, not just images of pretty or interesting things. The film explores the relationship that art has with emotion and strife, and it packs a strong yet tender punch on that score. It understands the need of art to express, and then it does not fail to be that itself. A sweet and charming work of -- and about -- art.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Old Guard

Spoiler-free!

A group of immortals, (Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli) whose bodies heal themselves from any injury, go around the world and get themselves in dangerous situations in the two-fold hope that they'll do some good in the world... and that maybe someday they'll die.

If that sounds like an interesting, exciting flick to you, then I'm sorry to report: that isn't what actually happens in the movie. That is the premise of the characters' existence, only. The plot of the movie is that a new immortal (KiKi Layne) becomes known to them in a vision directly after they mess up on one of those said missions and get some bad guys on their tail. (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling) They have to find and recruit her to their ranks before facing down the baddies who want to study them for a cure for death.

My one hope was that it'd be better than Bloodshot. No dice.

Even that sounds more exciting than the movie winds up being. It's Deadpool without the comedy, and half the action. It's a long series of droning conversations about things that are more ambiguous than deep, inter-cut occasionally with quota-filling fight scenes that do nothing to drive the plot forward. Sometimes action happens off screen, then when the character who witnessed it relates the event to the others, the movie flashes back so we can see it, too. It's desperate to put in as much action as possible, but it can't keep itself from those meaningless conversations in which people who are hundreds of years old act like whiny children, cynical of their own existence.

There really aren't any positive sides to it for me, but if you tend to enjoy action -- fight scenes with hands, guns, and swords kind of stuff, complete with improbable choreography -- then this movie does have that going for it. Shaky cam has finally, and thankfully, died, so you can see what's going on in the film, and none of the set pieces are too extravagant to need an excess of CGI. A good thing, because the CGI isn't great. (when is it ever?) Still, the fights aren't particularly exciting, filmed typically, and without stakes in the narrative to back it up.

They spend the whole movie telling us why we should care, and never give us a reason to.

The film opens on the group complaining, and arguing over whether they should take another "case", which made me instantly not care about them. There's only four yet they're developed so shallowly. Charlize is the whiny leader, Matthias is handsome, and the other two are gay. (And Marwan was Jafar in that awful live action Aladdin!) That's it. The new girl isn't better developed, but she starts off on a good, likable foot. She's a marine who's killed in action, and once she wakes up, the confused reaction and mistrust from her unit is the most compelling slice of story the film has to offer. I wish they'd focused the story down to her.

Instead they fight nonthreatening or uncommitted bad guys (or their red-shirt henchmen with laughably bad training) until the plot is resolved because enough people have been killed to render it inert. And the new group goes off again, to do their thing of exotic locations and extreme, daring, dangerous missions for the good of mankind. Wouldn't that have been nice to see. Clearly a sequel is desired. But now we've been disappointed and bored out of wanting one.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Palm Springs

Spoiler-free!

It's the wedding day of her little sister, and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) isn't feeling it. She's saved from a maid of honor speech she didn't know was required of her by a strange guy in swim trunks and a Hawaiian shirt who gives a speech that she feels like is directed at her. Then he dances through a crowd as if he knew every move each person would make. Weird, but funny. He's Nyles (Andy Samberg) and the day only gets weirder from there, once they go out in the desert together and a man with a camo-painted face starts hunting Nyles with a compound bow. Sarah follows Nyles into a cave where there's a weird orange light -- and then wakes up on her sister's wedding day. Again.

Now available on Hulu!

Yep! It's a time-loop movie. With the slight twist that people can share the loop. Nyles has been there a long time, and so has bow-hunting man (J.K. Simmons), and naturally, Sarah's mad that she got stuck too, even though Nyles definitely told her not to go in the cave. How to escape the loop? And what to do to fill the days until they figure it out? Well, the movie has a fun answer for the first question. It's answer for the second is a mixed bag.

Since the death of the 90's rom-com, every rom-com now must have an explanation for when there's a slightly fantastic element needed to create the situation. Bill Murray's time-loop had no explanation, nor did it need one. But this movie does. I find that unspoken requirement worryingly limiting, but this flick takes good advantage. It's scifi streak is one of the better things it has going for it. The movie is strongest when the streak is more prominent. It's mostly at the beginning and the end, when you feel the weight of the weird, impossible circumstance, and the characters have a clear goal in front of them -- of escape.

Without a goal the movie begins to sprawl distractedly.

In the middle, particularly the earlier middle, it's more about having fun with the loop and doing all the things you'd do if you knew what will happen every day. This is where mediocrity creeps in. Perhaps slightly because both our main characters are aware and make different choices every day, so the looping doesn't feel as present. But they're also put away from the wedding party too often, which gives their days unwanted variety. The repeated moments are limited to one or two lines, never entire scenes or even conversations. Instead they get to know each other through the days. Almost like a normal rom-com. But the film does insert some character mysteries for the audience to pick up on during that time, too.

These "mysteries" were my favorite thing because of the slight way they were introduced, and then handled to bring some genuine depth to the characters. The film still leans heavily to the comedy side, but a little drama and a tad of darkness rounds out the tone. Even more rounding would have been welcome if handled well. But Andy Samberg is far more suited to comedy anyway. He ranges from charming to cynical, but it's all for humor. Cristin Milioti isn't as effortlessly funny, but also digs in deeper for the dramatic moments. Their chemistry was bubbly and warm, which sets a pleasant, light-hearted feel for the film. Even when the movie went too far for me, it was hard to be irked for too long.

I didn't fall in love, but I was charmed enough to not care.

Palm Springs doesn't waste its time trying to stand out from the pack of movies that took inspiration from Groundhog Day. Instead, it embraces the comical situation, feeds the expected romantic side without too much cynicism, and doesn't neglect pondering a little on the deeper side of life, with a lightly life-affirming message. It throws a few new elements at us to keep us on our toes, but at its core, it's classically done. And though the execution isn't without missteps or unnecessary rabbit trails, it clearly understands the appeal of this niche and always fun premise. Like a familiar and cozy place that you can visit again and again.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Upcoming Movie Roundup - July

Well I'm 10 days late with this post, but hey -- better late than never, right? I think I need these posts to stay sane, even though I'm scraping the bottom of the (nearly empty) movie barrel.

Last month I was convinced to not pay $20 to rent The King of Staten Island, so now I'm waiting for the rental fee to cheapen. I did see Eurovision: The story of Fire Saga! And it was better than I expected! A bit too much unfunny slapstick style comedy for my taste but it wasn't unbearable, and in between there was genuine charm and good music. At this point I probably won't review it, even though I should. Eh. Oh well.

I did catch up a bit with The Invisible Man -- it was cool, though not as great as I was promised. (review)

I'm currently in the middle of Dark on Netflix, and it is as expected so far. The same show in all the particulars, but not on the same level as that stunning first season.

July has... not much going for it, surprise surprise. I was really hoping to be gearing up for TENET at this point. But here's what I'll be settling for instead:



The Old guard
On Netflix July 10
I'm not holding onto hope that this will be very high on the quality scale, but it looks high enough on the fun scale to give it a go! Based on a graphic novel... fantasy and "real world"... immortality... sounds better than Bloodshot already! Starring Charlize Theron, with Matthias Schoenaerts, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the baddie, it seems.




Palm Springs
On Hulu July 10th
This one was on my to-watch list even before COVID happened. I was on board based on premise alone, that it was a com-rom with some kind of scifi twist, starring Andy Samberg who I think is pretty funny. But I actually watched the trailer just now and now and even more on board because wow do I like a good Groundhog Day concept! And the idea of two characters experiencing the repeating days together is a new, fun twist to add.




Vivarium
On Amazon Prime July 11th
Interesting concept low-fi scifi movie where a couple looking for a house to buy stumbles into the wrong neighborhood -- which they literally cannot find their way out of. Starring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg. The style is very Stepford with a modern arthouse edge, and the premise has my curiosity piqued.




Cursed
TV series on Netflix July 17th
Ehh, I was interesting at the idea of a medieval fantasy series on Netflix, but watching the trailer makes it look like there isn't much meat to dig into. I dunno, I might give it a chance.




The Kissing Booth 2
On Netflix July 24th
All but guaranteed to be worse than the already spectacularly bad original -- but what it Netflix for if not to watch awful teen rom-coms while the world stands still in the middle of summer? A waste of time? Absolutely. But what else am I going to do with the surplus? Lol, I hate that I know I'm going to hate this and am still planning to watch it.




The Umbrella Academy - Season 2
TV series on Netflix July 31st
The first season was good. I will continue watching it until it isn't good anymore. Basically these adopted siblings with quirky superpowers stop the apocalypse from happening in various different ways every season. It's a hoot!




Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Invisible Man

Spoiler-free!

Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) escapes from her abusive rich scientist boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and holes up with her friends (Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid) in their house in abject terror. She's sure he'll find her; he said she could never leave him. Finally, her sister (Harriet Dyer) brings the news that Adrian has killed himself, and everything's okay now. Tentatively, she starts to feel more comfortable. But why does she still feel like she's being watched? Slowly she discovers the truth; Adrian isn't dead, he's just invisible. Either that, or she's crazy!

This modern re-imagining comes from Leigh Whannell, the writer/director of Upgrade.

I loved Upgrade and was hoping The Invisible Man would be a similar, self-contained and lean thriller. It's not, but it doesn't totally fail to produce a palpable style of its own either. That being said, cleaner plotting could have only been an improvement. There are several threads that I waited to get answers on that were simply ignored--as if I wasn't supposed to expect explanations at all. I was out of sync with the movie's direction. And that came through with Cecilia's decisions sometimes, too. The movie is good to not expound on her every inner thought, but she often did things where her reasoning was foreign to me. It took the movie in unexpected directions, but also left me playing catch-up more than once.

The good comes directly from the premise. A stalking ex with bad intentions that the heroine literally cannot see. The best scenes are the ones where you know he's there--somewhere!--but cannot tell where. These scenes play like horror movie that have slow rising tension that leads to a chilling moment, and one step closer to breaking for the protagonist. And seeing that from what's technically a science fiction thriller is a pleasantly unique experience. I wish more of the film had been like that, because when the movie is less restrained, it leaps over into ridiculous territory for a frustrating decline of smarts and quality. 

We're told that Adrian is a genius, but the way he turns Cecilia's sister and friends against her is so mind-bogglingly simple that it belongs in A Cinderella Story 7: A Disney Channel Original, not movies with rational adults as characters. This movie sacrifices reason and the semblance of reality to heighten the stakes and tension, but for me, it deflated my investment in the story. What I wound up enjoying instead was the technical aspects of the film. Style, the building of tension, acting, and the unique appeal of the scenes where evidence the invisible man is present. Even that decays; but ultimately the final act sets everything back on track and closes the film out in a concise way, in line with the best of the film.

I liked when the camera would show you all this extra space like this and ask that you look for what's not there. 

It ended so well that I almost forgot about all the threads I wanted answers for but wound up being skimmed-over plot holes. I wouldn't mind so much, but several of the unanswered questions are asked by the movie itself. Whether it was meant to be tidy or not, the messiness was a distraction to me, and a detriment to the film. Yet Cecilia is a good character and Moss plays her engagingly, on the line between sure and insane. The insanity seeps over to the audience with strong visual design, and several well-crafted moments. In short, the movie delivers what it promises--just not 100% of the time. And you'd think a film that has cracked the code to invisibility would be more adept at hiding its flaws. 

Friday, June 5, 2020

Upcoming Movie Roundup - June

I didn't do one of these posts for April or May, and that makes me sad. Nor did I see the movies I was most interested in for March because of cancellations. I watched Onward on demand, and was glad I did, because I liked it enough to watch it twice. In fact I rather loved it. (Review here!) And I just rented Bloodshot the other day. If I don't completely regret that $6, it certainly is close. It was not a good movie. (Review here!

I didn't pay attention at all to the VOD releases in May, and one worthy film, The Vast of Night -- a stylish and impressive sci-fi flick with absolutely wonderful characters (review here!) -- nearly slipped past my radar because I wasn't paying attention. So I decided to get back to it, even if the pickings are slim and theaters are still closed. There's at least two things in June that I'm eager to see at home.

Hope you're all doing well amid the chaos that is 2020! What have you been watching lately, and what are you looking forward to seeing in the future?


The King of Staten Island
on VOD June 12th
This movie is the main reason I decided I had to get back into this post series. This was meant for theaters, but is instead going to "Theater at Home" VOD. Now, I've never seen a Judd Apatow movie. Or seen Pete Davidson do... anything. But as soon as this trailer started playing as a YouTube ad I knew it was something I'd be interested to see. I love the vibe it gives. Kinda like The Way Way Back, coming-of-age-dramedy, but more mature. I didn't realize all the true-to-life aspects of it, and that makes it even more appealing. That it's parallel to Pete's real-life experiences. I really expect it to be good and would even consider paying $20 to rent it. (Idk if it'll be that high, but some Theater at Home releases have been.) Either way, I'm determined to see it eventually, and wouldn't be surprised if it cracks my top 5 of the year. High expectations. We'll see how it goes. (Trailer contains language.)



Artemis Fowl 
on Disney+ June 12th
I wanted to see this, but don't have (and will not get) a Disney+ subscription, so that's too bad. I wonder if it'll be available to rent elsewhere... I don't have much hope it'll be good, but I enjoy sci-fi (and goofy spy capers) in all shapes and sizes. And ages. And yes, this is decidedly a kids movie, in the way that give me little reason to think that adults could enjoy it very much. So I'll probably be disappointed, but for some reason that knowledge doesn't dissuade my curiosity. 



Babyteeth 
on VOD June 19th
This looks pretty interesting -- an Australian, family-centered drama starring Beth from last year's Little Women (Eliza Scanlen). I tend to enjoy Australian dramas, so I'll keep an eye on this, even if it does have that "sick teen" element that isn't quite so appealing. It looks well-acted if nothing else. Ben Mendelsohn is always a plus!



Lost Bullet
on Netflix June 19th
This is a French action flick, I believe, that's coming to Netflix. Netflix is overloaded with non-English-speaking films lately. Before, you could count on the foreign films they included to be good, because there was a demand for them to be there even with audiences that are notoriously hesitant to watch something that requires subtitles. Now, I'm not so sure. But this teaser trailer looks good and stylish enough to grab my interest, and even if it's not great it could make for a nice Sunday afternoon watch anyway.



Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga 
on Netflix June 26th
I have no clue what this movie is actually about, but this "trailer" is Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams singing a weird song with over-the-top dramatic cheese, so let's just say that they have my full and complete attention. 



Dark Season 3 
on Netflix June 27th
And this is my must-watch of the month. If you know me you know I adore this beautiful, moody scifi show, and peddle it wherever I can, because it's the best thing in Netflix, and criminally under-watched. Season 2 wasn't as shockingly spectacular as season 1, but doesn't ruin it by far. It's is still one of my favorites and I can't wait to see what cool twists and turns come next -- and last, since this season apparently will wrap things up. I haven't watched the below teaser and do not plan to. (Or any subsequent trailers.) I don't want to get my preconceptions going, and am already as guaranteed to watch it as is humanly possible!




Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Vast of Night

Spoiler-free!

What if... a 50's era scifi B-movie... but artistically?

That's the question that serves as pitch and premise for The Vast of Night. It introduces itself like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Then the camera moves into the TV world and we meet Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick). It's the night of the big basketball game in small-town New Mexico, and everyone's going but them. Everett is the local radio station DJ, and Fay is manning the telephone switchboard. The two are friends because of a mutual fascination with sound, and the technology that allows them to record and broadcast it. When Fay hears a strange sound interrupt Everett's show, and then come through the phone lines, they team up to find out what it is, where it comes from, and what it means.

An Amazon Original, available on Prime.

And the movie delivers exactly what it promises -- an artistically built scifi tale that feels like it jumped straight out of the 1950's. The first thing you'll notice is that there is constant dialogue, particularly in the opening and set-up, as important information is fed through casual conversations. Packed full of 50's jargon, and delivered at speed. Second thing you'll notice is that the camera is very particular. It follows its characters as is it were an invisible entity stalking them, with many long takes and tracking shots, often keeping its distance. And the third thing, is that the lighting is dark. Really dark. The movie seems interested to highlight the audio element -- and why not considering its premise -- and to that end, it cuts to a black screen at least twice so that we have no choice but to exclusively listen to what's being said.

The dark, and the stalking camera are for me, both admirable and frustrating. For one, I love when the frame is allowed to open up and isn't always right on the characters faces. I like to see where they are (in the world and in relation to each other) and be able to observe body language. I also like when characters feel slightly obscured so that I'm naturally compelled to pay closer attention to see and understand them. If it's possible to go too far with that, this movie may have found the line. There was no moment that didn't feel obscured. Both leads wear thick-rimmed glasses that seem intended to hide their eyes, even in closeups. But the camera knows what it's doing. There's always a glint; a flash; and just enough light to show you what you need to see.

And as an admirer of details I appreciate that careful dedication.

This method would fall flat if the acting weren't up to snuff. Good thing it is. And not just passable; the performances, characterization, and casting -- though it's a smaller movie and the leads are unknowns -- are all quite frankly fantastic. The thing that impressed me the most. It took about ten minutes for me to fall in love with Everett and Fay. Their developed personalities, the way they're written, the way the bounce off each other, and the easy-going, full-bodied performances the actors give all adds up to what won me over about this tale. Even though I kept searching for more, the movie never failed to convey what it wanted, and without ever going overboard. No slamming ideas on your head. No blatant exposition. No overacting. The craft is undeniable.

The movie is as perfect as it set out to be. It achieved what it intended, and I applaud it for that. For me though, there was something wanting. Something that's hard to pinpoint. I watched the movie over again to think it through, and liked it even better, but it was still there. Or, not there. What it lacked for me, was a moment of truth. A thematic conclusion; a reason for the story to have been told. And I think the movie did intend there to be one. It's spoilers so I won't say, but like the rest of the movie, it was subtle, and implied, but clear. Still, I felt a lack. I wanted more. Because the movie holds your attention so well and because the characters are so lovable, that lack doesn't destroy the film. Still it frustrates me to think of what might have been.

If it had been made more for my sensibilities, this could've been a new favorite. But in a way, it still is. 

2020 is an oddball year to put it lightly, and this is the first new film in a full two months that I'm certain to remember by the end of the year. Personal lack or not, this movie gave me joy and is extremely welcome. There are some technical aspects to it that I'd like to see how it was done. The tone is both familiar and old-fashioned. It builds smoothly to a visceral climax, always with a frantic undercurrent that keeps you engaged. And though I still want more out of the conclusion, I can't deny that it fits with the rest of the film and the goals it set for itself. So -- what if a 50's era scifi B-movie, artistically? That sounds like a sound worth hearing!