Thursday, January 07, 2021

33 Short Movie and Television Reviews

Ad Astra  - A contemplative sci-fi story starring Brad Pitt. A space station worker is continuously tested mentally by his superiors to see if he remains fit for his job, much in the way that replicants are in Blade Runner. He is tasked with traveling to Mars in order to send a message out to the end of the solar system from where strange and dangerous transmissions are originating. It's possible that these transmissions may be originating from a mission manned by his father, who he had been told had died. On his way to Mars (and beyond), he thinks a lot, experiences confusion in chains of command, questions what is important, and experiences encounters with pirates and other dangers.

Is this a quest to find his father? Himself? God? The closest comparisons for this movie's feel are Moon and Gattaca. A lot of inner monologue with questions and a continuous sense of loss and loneliness by the main character. It's nice, well acted and shot. In the end it adds up to a little less than it should: some simple allegory and few answers. This is well made, acted, and shot, although Interstellar feels like more of a movie.

Bombshell - The story of three women at Fox News who bring down Robert Murdoch with their complaints and lawsuits over sexual harassment. Well acted and watchable but forgettable. Although Nicole Kidman tries to bring something interesting to her portrayal of Megyn Kelly, and everyone else does a fine job, it's so straightforward that it might as well be a documentary. A well-researched article is probably more entertaining and illuminating.

Charlie's Angels (2019) - Another reboot to the franchise, this one justifies its existence by explaining at the beginning how each previous television and movie instantiation represented other angels, Charlies, and Bosleys in the same, continuing organization. The story is thin and dull, and so are the actors. Then again, this description also applies to the television episodes that spawned this franchise. Acting is middling, and while there are some good scenes, there are also many scenes that are boring or painful to sit through. It's not hard to follow and winds up being not truly awful. Whatever, I won't see it again.

Enola Holmes - The story of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes' spunky sister and suffrage mother. Millie Bobby Brown gives us an fourth-wall breaking Enola who investigates where her mother has disappeared to and lands into her own chases and mysteries. The movie feels more like the pilot of a television series. It's promising, but light and silly. The movie tells us to not take itself too seriously, which was a choice that I didn't like. Sherlock, the television show, also had humor, but remained serious; there is no reason that this one could not have done this, too.

Millie is quite good, of course, as is Louis Partidge as her male fop companion. Despite some good efforts, the story and twists are not so emotionally involving. You can see how they could be if they make a few sequels, and if they take these stories and characters more seriously.

Falling Inn Love - A straightforward romcom about a woman who loses her American high-tech job and "wins" an inn in New Zealand. She goes to fix it up and sell it, but along the way might fall for the local handyman whom she meets in the nearby quirky town. Maybe she will decide that love and a slower living in a lovely inn and pastoral country is better than loneliness back in the busy city-life of the United States? Maybe? It was fine.

The Farewell - Awkwafina stars as a girl in a Chinese family that visits China to see their grandmother who is diagnosed with a fatal disease ... but doesn't know it, and it is their family's custom not to tell such things to the sick. The family arranges a fake wedding as their excuse for why everyone has come to visit. Based on a true story, one that might be familiar to other people in other cultures. This is a comedy, well done, very much an Awkwafina film, if you know what that means (in turns cutesy and frenzied and in turns pathetic and poignant). Not the best, but fine, worth watching once.

Frozen II - Following up on the first movie, this one finds Anna and Elsa continuing to rely on each other when they hear some strange callings and then discover some troubling facts about their kingdom's past. They must accept some truths and right what was made wrong. You know Frozen and Disney in general, so you know the basic idea. The music is not up to that of the original's, but it is fine. The story is decent. An enjoyable sequel.

The Go-Go's - A documentary, nothing special.

Hanna (Seasons 1 and 2) - The continuing story about a Scandinavian man who raised his daughter Hanna in the forest from age 1, after her mother was killed. He trained her to be an assassin, because she/they are still being hunted by ... someone or some group. Hanna, for reasons that are different in the movie and the TV series, eventually is parted from her father and must make her way in civilization to reunite with him, while avoiding the hunter(s).

The TV series extends the basic premise of the movie, adds many details, and begins to verge into new territory by the end of the first season. Season 2 is entirely new, adding a host of new girls who have similarities to Hanna, but remains focused on Hanna's story. Like the movie Hanna, the TV series is excellent: very well acted, incredibly well scripted and shot, and remarkably entertaining, if you don't mind some occasional violence. It is hip and European, often tense, and sometimes funny or touching.

Happiest Season - A romcom wherein Abby (Kristen Stewart) agrees to go visit her girlfriend Harper's (Mackenzie Davis) quirky family over Christmas only to find out at the last moment that Harper is not yet "out" to her family, so she must pretend to be just a friend during the visit. Some subplots about family, politics, and acceptance. A sweet and nicely done movie, formulaic in some ways but interesting in others. Aubrey Plaza plays Mackenzie's quite normal, and perhaps saner, former girlfriend. Worth watching.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice - A documentary, nothing special.

Long Shot - I am very much NOT a Seth Rogen fan, so it is good to be able to recommend this movie as a reasonable, slightly toned down version of him. This movie is similar to The American President (Michael Douglas and Annette Bening), with the genders reversed. In this case, Charlize Theron plays a woman running for president, and Seth plays a lobbyist / speechwriter who is a passionate but common shlub, but love conquers all, right?

It sounds like a ridiculous male fantasy disaster, but it's not as over the top as one might expect. It otherwise follows the usual romcom formula.

The Mandalorian (Seasons 1 and 2) - Possibly the best television series I have seen in the last ten years, and the best Star Wars product I have seen since The Empire Strikes Back. It is THAT good.

This is a Western / Samurai / road trip show about a bounty hunter who decides not to kill / give up his latest quarry - an adorable child of Yoda's species - and instead goes on the run trying to figure out what to do with him or her (or it). The series is often a "quest of the week" situation, and a few episodes each season are weaker filler, but most of them introduce important characters or move the main story forward. Even the weaker episodes are well shot, well acted, beautifully produced, and just so great. This is what the Star Wars fan base has been waiting for since ... well, since certain comics? Since Return of the Jedi?

They get everything right, with enough tie in to the main universe to satisfy those who know what to look for, but completely independent story-wise for those who don't. Of course, with its success, we can now look forward to twenty or so other SW-based TV programs to come. Hopefully some of them will be as good as this one. Must see, more than once.

Mank - A story about screenwriter Herman Mankowitz (Gary Oldman), the (alleged) screenwriter of Citizen Kane, as well as the people he pissed off by writing it. Shot in black and white, well acted, directed, and scripted, the narrative is told through quick scene cuts and flashbacks (Citizen Kane-like?), which can make it hard to follow. Assuming you buy the narrative, it is an intriguing period piece and character study. I was a little annoyed by how Mank speaks, in a too-quick snarky tone of quips and comebacks, like an Amy Sherman Palladino character (he reminded me of Midge's father Abe Weissman in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel). I'm on the fence about this; probably worth watching if you have an interest in the time period and/or in cinema. It might be that, if I see it again, my opinion will go up.

Miss Americana - A Taylor Swift documentary, nothing special. The scene where she preps to make her political voice known is a little different, I suppose.

Mulan (2020) - The age-old story of a girl who dresses up as a man to take her father's place in the Chinese army, which is, if discovered, a death sentence. Until she proves herself and saves the kingdom. All style and no substance (or humor, or much sense). All of the messages of the original Disney version are lost, and it undercuts its own messages by skipping character development, giving the heroine and a villain unearned magical powers, and jumping straight past personal struggles to focus on cool visuals. Not worth watching, and so much less of a movie than the original Disney version. Too bad.

On the Rocks - Bill Murray is into his curmudgeonly older gentleman movie period. This one, directed by Sophia Coppola (who did fantastic work with Murray in Lost in Translation) casts Murray as a father who feeds his daughter's (Rashida Jones) fears that her husband is cheating on her, and leads them both on a few nights of bonding and surveillance.

The result is watchable, but not particularly remarkable, insightful, or important.

Onward - One of two very strange Pixar movies from 2020, this one stars the voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Octavia Spencer. Pixar movies are always amazing (Cars perhaps a little less so), but they used to be straightforward. Then came Inside Out and Coco, which were departures from the formula, combining formulaic fantasy stories with unique psychological or spiritual overtones.

Onward presents a world of magical beings who no longer practice magic because inventions, science, electricity, etc are much more dependable, cheap, and easy. It's a little like how the animals in Zootopia abandoned their natures to live in urban harmony, but for less moralistic reasons. Anyhoo, for two brothers who no longer have a father, the younger discovers on his 16th birthday a magic spell that will restore his dead father for one day. Unfortunately, his lack of magic and limited resources are enough only to complete the spell halfway, returning only the father's bottom half. The two brothers have only 24 hours to find more magic to bring the rest of their father back. Many random encounters and quests ensue, including run-ins with more magic, a manticore, a police centaur, Hell's pixies, a golem dragon guardian, and a boat through a cave. In the end, discoveries about what is most important ensue.

As usual, the animation is incredible. This is a weird movie, stringing together somewhat disconnected scenes, but I think the story was easy enough to follow. It is inventive, often fun, while still retaining a formulaic lesson. Not on par with Inside Out, but wort watching once.

The Princess Switch / Switched Again - The movie and its sequel are two light modern romocoms based on the Prince and the Pauper, less sensible but more sweet. In the fictional Belgravia, Stacy, a female cook attends a baking contest with her friend Kevin, and runs into her lookalike, the duchess Margaret, who is about to marry the prince. They switch roles for a few days, hi-jinks and deception ensure, and each one falls in love with the wrong guy. It all works out. In the second movie, a coronation is due to take place. The previous relationships need some renewing, a third lookalike nefarious cousin wants to make off with the kingdom's money, and a triple switch occurs. It all works out.

I would like to note that kissing someone when they are deceived as to who you are is not actually okay, but we can let that go. The movies are possible lighter than they appear at first glance, but otherwise exactly what you would expect. Well-acted, plotted simply, with fetching lead characters, and a spunky kid.

The Queen's Gambit (Series) - Seven part mini-series about antisocial brilliant female Chess player Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in the early 1960s, based on a novel by the author of The Color of Money. This is a wonderful, engaging series, disappointing only in that it is only seven episodes long. The acting, script, and filming (especially the use of light, color, and shadow) are all phenomenal. Beth experiences some sexism, but the world of Chess soon becomes a place where absolute skill triumphs. She also experiences school issues, family issues, friend issues, and drug issues, the latter of which is the most problematic for her. However, I think they glossed over the drug issue in the end, which looked like it was going to end up being far more of a problem.

Although every Chess move and board state in the game is real, as is the depiction of what tournaments are like, you don't really need to know anything about Chess to understand what is going on and to enjoy the show. This is a must watch.

Rebecca (2020) - A remake of this Daphne du Maurier classic novel, the original Hitchcock version was wonderful, while this one is just okay. It misses much of the intensity, gothic horror, and suspense, in place of some better visuals and more modern acting. A young woman falls for an older, brooding widower and moves into his famous mansion on the English coast, only to find that the mansion is haunted by the strange housekeeper who loved Max's first wife, and, perhaps, by the ghost of this wife.

Lily James is far too worldly to be the new Mrs de Winter, and Arnie Hammer is too un-tormented and too close to be Maximillion. As for the "reveal", this was the only weak moment in the Hitchcock version, because the Hayes code would not allow him to present the book's version. In every other sense, Hitchcock's version is superior.

This new version is not a complete failure, but the Hitchcock version is recommended.

Soul - Another 2020 Pixar movie, and another one that is just as strange and unusual as Inside Out and Coco. Jamie Foxx plays Joe, who is a music teacher, never having gotten a chance to perform using his immense Jazz piano talents. Right after he receives an invitation to perform, he ... um ... dies. But he jumps off the path to the Afterlife and plummets instead to the Great Before, where souls are given personalities in preparation for being born. He runs into a soul (Tina Fey) who is resisting all such opportunities, and they agree for him to swap places if it can be arranged. A series of events leads both of the to Earth in misplaced bodies, the unborn soul in his body, and his soul in a cat. Many other wanderings and events occur; on the way, both he and the unborn soul learn something about purpose and passion for living.

This is, perhaps, stranger even than Onward, and the moral lessons were not entirely clear to me on first reflection (I eventually figured it out). It is a wonderful, beautiful, and meaningful tale, with lovely music, and stunning visuals. It also presents an entire cosmology that only generally reflects many religions that I know. Which is kind of a trip. If you only watch one, this one is far more interesting and meaningful (for an adult) than Onward.

Sword of Trust - If you know Marc Meron, this is a Marc Meron vehicle: disgruntled, unbelieving, and funny. The story of a progressive lesbian couple who inherit a sword that, according to certain conspiracy nuts, provides additional evidence that the South won the American Civil War (what?). They try to sell it to Mel (Marc) who in turn partners with them to sell it to one of the conspiracy nuts, who is part of a dangerous but incompetent group of other nuts.

It's an independent film, and it feels like it: quirky, daring, and intelligent. Not as funny as Marc Maeron standup, but still funny. Worth watching.

Tenet - I love Nolan's intelligent, complexly structured, and intensely stylized movies, such as Memento, Insomnia, Intersteller, Inception, Dunkirk, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight. I would love to love this one, too, since it contains many good ideas, but I don't.

One of the problems is that it is nearly impossible to describe the plot, because even after watching it (and according to some of the actors, even after acting in it), it is hard to know exactly what happened. How much of a problem that time travel causes your movie depends on how central to the plot this time travel is. As a small side plot, we can ignore it (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). As a large part of the plot, we may be able to suspend belief if the result is a comedy, at least (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). When the central element to the plot, then you better a) explain it well, and b) have thought it through (Primer). Tenet does neither.

Roughly speaking, the unnamed protagonist (John David Washington) gets swept up into a plot to destroy the world using people and objects that "travel backwards in time", tools that the protagonist also has to use to fight against the plot. Except that none of if really makes sense: things traveling back in time seems to experience many things, like some perception and conversations, forward in time. Furthermore, as is the usual case with many time travel movies, the entire conceit that something in the future can alter something in the past makes no sense if the things was never altered in the past to start with, as it was not until someone in the future decided to act.

As I mentioned, in some cases you can explain or ignore this point; in this movie, you can't, and it's a problem. Inception was wild and complex with a confusing subject, but the movie tried to help you make sense of it; it didn't try to deliberately confuse you. This movie does. Arrival deliberately tried to confuse you, but the resulting mental exercise to figure it out in the end was satisfying. This one was not. Ymmv.

The cinematography is quite interesting and cute. But, like in Interstellar, the music and sounds are sometimes too loud for the dialog to be heard clearly. Kenneth Branagh is excellently terrifying as the main bad guy and Elizabeth Dibicki us great as his suffering wife.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 - An Aaron Sorkin docudrama about the infamous riots, police reaction, and trial of anti-Vietnam protesters around and following the 1968 Chicago Democratic national convention. It's Sorkin to the hilt: snappy dialog, a mix of drama, humor, and pathos, great filming, and well-acted. It features many true events and quotes, but strays from or rearranges other events and quotes for unknown reasons (drama?). Sacha Baron Cohen is great as Abbie Hoffman, but it is a real ensemble cast, and they all are wonderful, especially Frank Langella as the odious judge.

Well worth watching, but not groundbreaking in any way.

The Two Popes - A two man show with Anthony Hokins and Jonathan Pryce playing pope Benedict and cardinal (eventually pope) Bergoglio, the former of whom is considering retiring if God will provide him a worthy replacement. The two disagree on nearly everything regarding the church, but Benedict is gradually coming to believe that he might not be in the right, after all. Especially with the specters of molestation scandals plaguing the church.

A nice docudrama, limited in scope, but quiet, intelligent, and well scripted. Worth watching. It's not possible to know how much of the conversations from the movie were real, but the performances are wonderful.

Unorthodox (Series) - There are hundreds of variations of "religious" Judaism. Even in the hasidic community, there are sects with more or less extreme customs  / laws. This limited series presents a young woman "escaping" from one such extreme sect, one where girls and boys are taught Yiddish but little of the outside world or their own bodies.

The four part miniseries is a different story from the one told in the book, but it is still very good. Shira Haas plays Esther, a young married woman who runs away from her marriage to Berlin, of all places, simply because her mother let her know that she can apply for citizenship in Germany. Not that she has any connection or relationship to her mother, who also lives in Berlin. She begins to adjust to the outside world while trying to figure out how to survive in it. Meanwhile, she is pursued by her ex-husband and his somewhat deviant cousin.

Beautifully acted, filmed, and directed, this too short series should be relatable to many people outside of Judaism. It's a similar story to ones that I hear once in a while about Mormons, certain sects of Catholics and Muslims, and so forth. I had a few problems with the plot - she overcomes a few difficulties too easily and without enough explanation - but it is worth watching.

The Vow / Seduced (Series / Series) - Both of these series tell the story of the American sex trafficking cult that claimed to be a multi-level marketing company (which was bad enough). Led by the chilling psychopath Keith Raniere and the bewildering Nacy Salzman, other major figures included some B-list actors and children of multi-billionaires.

The Vow (9 episodes) is told by some of the people who were major figures who found their way out and turned on the organization. It also tells the story of one woman's fight to get her daughter out. Seduced (4 episodes) is a series told by the daughter, who believed that The Vow is too sympathetic to the people who found their way out and does not give a clear enough picture of how she was seduced. Both series are very well done with professional cinematography and sound, and incredibly insightful.

I think The Vow was better, perhaps, although both only give part of the story. 9 episodes is long, so there are some stretches that could have been shorter. What is amazing, is that both of them ended just around the time that Keith and several other major players were being judges and sentenced of their acts. The Vow is supposed to have a second season next year, although it's not clear what is left to tell

Wild Mountain Thyme - Although this film was widely ridiculed for the bad Irish accents attempted by all of the main characters, and more narrowly ridiculed for perpetuating some Irish stereotypes, it is actually a sweet and off-kilter romcom. Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan play grown children of neighboring farmers in Ireland, and they have some chemistry. Jon Hamm is the American cousin who might get in the way, although he sounds and looks exactly like his Mad Men character.

Some people complained that the story goes off the rails in the denouement and long confrontation, but that's the good part of the movie, because it shakes up the formula a little. I saw this as the play Outside Mullingar in a small Vermont theater a few years ago, and, while it was better as a play, it is not a bad watch on the screen. Although the accents are pretty awful.

Wonder Woman 1984 - This movie is so bad that it caused me to negatively reevaluate my feelings about the first movie Wonder Woman, which I loved. Well, I loved it except for the ending, which didn't make sense: how can you blame all bad human behavior on the god of war? Doesn't that defeat the message of the film that humans are flawed but still worth defending? Also, in what universe did WWI end with all of us looking up, as if from a fog, immediately laying down our weapons and agreeing to love each other? Although these things bothered me when I first watched the film, I shrugged them off.

This new movie is infinitely worse, full of so many dumb ideas, such as about how all of us, from the terrorist fighting a holy war to the little child missing his father to the desperate businessman trying to earn a living and save his dying wife, are all the same and want the same thing. I am now more annoyed at what bothered me in the last movie, because I can't shrug it off as easily as misunderstanding the director (Patty Jenkins).

In this movie, which never explains why Wonder Woman or her sister demigods let WWII and all of the other horrors of the twentieth century happen without any stepping in to help, Wonder Woman and a new friend Barbara (Kristen Wiig) run across a "wishing" stone that grants any one wish while "taking something from you" in return. It falls into the hands of failing businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) who wishes himself to become the stone, which makes him able to grant a wish and take something in return from whomever he touches. He becomes evil, as does Barbara. In the end, he tries to grant wishes to everyone in the entire world (because technology) and is thwarted when WW convinces everyone in the world to take back their wish for the better good of humanity. Also, WW fights Barbara, who turned into The Cheetah for reasons.

The rules of the universe are applied inconsistently. The action scenes are anemic and nonsensical. The idea that you can broadcast to EVERYONE on Earth by hijacking some technology is a tired and stupid movie trope. WW's powers appear at random and make no sense.

Among the billions of people who are making wishes, surely SOME of them are going to wish everyone in the world dead, or that the Earth blows up, or at least there will be a few contradictory wishes? Also, does Ms Jenkins really want us to believe that every terrorist and fanatic on Earth is going to give back his or her wish for all infidels / people they hate to be dead because he loves humanity more than his or her selfishness?

If that were not enough, early in the movie WW wishes back Steve Trevor, who returns by inhabiting and taking over the body of some other guy. No explanation is given as to what happens to this guy, his family, his job, etc, or the ethical implications of taking over a body and, let's face it, having sex with it, for some length of time. And frankly, why does the movie do this, anyway? It's a wish; why not just have him return in his own body?

Barbara's initial character arc is okay, but her transformation to Cheetah doesn't make any sense - for one thing, it violates the one-wish-only rule - her transformation has nothing to do with her wish, and the CGI or makeup is so badly done that all of her scenes as Cheetah are shot in really dim lighting.

I could go on, but it pains me to remember any more of this movie.

Yes God Yes - Another sweet little independent movie about a Catholic girl brought up with as little information about her body (and the internet) as the young woman from Unorthodox. She is taught, over and over, not to touch anything, look at anything, or think about anything until marriage, but she discovers a little and engages in a little talk on the Internet with a pervert, which gets her questioning. All of her friends / classmates are goodie goodies, or so she thinks, until she discovers some hypocrisy at a weekend indoctrination camp run by her priest.

Actually, the hypocrisy makes it a weaker story, because it gives her an easy way out from believing all of what she is being taught. It would have been more interesting to see her have to fight against true zealots. Nevertheless, this is a funny, low budget coming of age story starring Natalia Dyer (from Stranger Things). Charming. Worth watching.