Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Trailer Roundup: Selena+Chef, Snowpiercer, Earwig and the Witch, Firefly Lane, Bliss, Red Dot, Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar, Judas and the Black Messiah, I Care a Lot, Beartown
Saturday, January 9, 2021
Trailer Roundup: Locked Down, Hello Ninja, Blown Away, The Sister, Losing Alice, Penguin Bloom, Finding 'Ohana, Malcolm & Marie, Men in Kilts, Superman & Lois, Coming 2 America, Solar Opposites
Sunday, January 3, 2021
|© Amazon Studios|
'Sound of Metal' tries to find meaning after all sound is lost
by Jeremy Fogelman
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Shaheem Sanchez, Chelsea Lee, Jeremy Stone, Mathieu Amalric
Director: Darius Marder
Anytime something is portrayed that is a loss of the norm, it can be tricky to handle. In the deaf community, there is a very common specific perspective that hearing loss is not disability, but simply a different way to experience life. This is the sort of thing that seems like it would be heartening to those in the community, especially those born with hearing loss. But it can be harder, sometimes impossibly so, for those outside it to see it as anything but a disaster.
Sound of Metal comes from director Darius Marder who co-wrote it with Abraham Marder in his first narrative feature film. The movie stars Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, a drummer in a small band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) -- short for Louise, naturally. At the start of the movie, we see Ruben as a talented performer, drumming with great power in rooms filled with noise of all sorts -- his drums, his girlfriend’s hard core metal singing, and the roaring of the crowds in small clubs and venues.
Exactly why it happens is unclear and not entirely important, but Ruben notices a sudden, terrifying loss of hearing one day. At first he tries to power through it, but as things get worse and all he can hear are lost buzzes and little murmurs. A doctor tells him that he needs to focus on keeping the tiny hearing he has left, but this is not something Ruben can handle -- his dream of musical success is his only real driver.
But eventually he can’t hear well enough to manage a show, and he finally brings himself to tell Lou the truth. So they find a program out in the country, an isolated community that helps those with hearing loss. The head of the program, a friendly, calming sort named Joe (Paul Raci) offers a potential free ride since he’s in need, but Ruben only needs to leave his phone behind.
It’s an interesting part of the story, as Lou heads off to continue her own musical dream while Ruben must adjust and learn to accept his new life. Ruben is resistant for a while, having an idea of getting an expensive procedure (entirely elective and not entirely reliable) to get some hearing back. So at first it’s simply about lasting long enough to get to maybe having the money for his surgery.
We see a fascinating, very well done set of scenes showing Ruben learning sign language and acclimating to his new world. He even manages to teach and interact with a class of deaf kids in a charming scene. But there is a troublesome history that Ruben still struggles with, and there remains an ongoing conflict between the acceptance of a new life and the great risks for the potential of a life reduced.
Riz Ahmed gives a truly great performance here, going from highs to lows, emotional calm and happiness with others to epic loss and sporadic fury. The filmmakers have done a lot of research into this community, working with primarily hearing impaired actors (or in the case of Paul Raci, the son of deaf parents).
It isn’t a silent movie, although at parts the sounds of what Ruben can hear feel realistic and help immerse the audience in the same place of loss Ruben has found. It’s an interesting movie, one of those that tells an arc that isn’t necessarily complete but has a wistful, promising feeling to it. It’s not about the tragedy, it’s about the survival, and it handles that with grace and respect.
|© Amazon Studios|
'Uncle Frank' hits bittersweet notes in a time gone by that feels closer than it should
by Jeremy Fogelman
Cast: Sophia Lillis, Paul Bettany, Peter Macdissi, Stephen Root, Margo Martindale, Steve Zahn, Judy Greer, Lois Smith
Director: Alan Ball
There’s nothing wrong with “writing what you know” -- it tends to make things more honest and sincere after all. There’s also nothing wrong with writing about something that’s clearly referencing yourself, although it’s something that can tip into self-indulgence if you’re not careful. The good thing about the approach is that you potentially give me a bit of an insight into the artist or a world you may know little about. But it can also feel like more of the same.
Uncle Frank comes from writer/director and Oscar winner Alan Ball in his first film since 2007’s Towelhead. The movie stars Paul Bettany as the titular character of Uncle Frank Bledsoe, but at first the movie isn’t clearly about him. At a family gathering in the early 70s, young Beth (Sophia Lillis, who played the young Amy Adams in Sharp Objects) feels out of place with her rough and tumble, borderline crude Southern family.
Although her grandmother (a barely used Margo Martindale) is gruff, she’s loving, and her parents (Steve Zahn and Judy Greer) don’t really understand her. Worst of all is the patriarch of the family (Stephen Root, delving into some real vitriol here) who acts calm but is on a hair-trigger fury. But there is one family member that Beth really likes, her Uncle Frank, a professor from all the way in New York City.
The two bond and Uncle Frank offers to help her out if she ever moves out to where he lives. A bit of a time jump later, and we meet up with them again, including Frank (who is very much in the closet) showing off an obviously fake girlfriend to Beth and her parents. Now, I say obvious because the movie makes it obvious to the audience, even if it’s not obvious to the characters. It’s one of the odd writing choices, flattening things out and resorting to clichés and misunderstandings.
When news comes of the grandfather’s passing, Frank offers to drive Beth back to their home town of Creekville. But things are complicated by the presence of Frank’s secret boyfriend from Saudi Arabia Walid “Wally “ Nadeem (Peter Macdissi). Their journey back is mostly uneventful, as it begins to set up Frank’s tragic backstory, while also trying to maintain some sort of romantic arc with Wally.
Not as well served is niece Beth, who tends to have only little bits of commentary, and overall the movie lacks a balance about these characters. We do have moments of difficulty, sadness, and catharsis as to be expected in such a movie, but the characters have a flatness to them that the actors seem to be struggling to get past. It’s a lot of great acting here, but the writing doesn’t serve their capability.
Stephen Root really gets to dip into a more hateful character, and all of the character actors like Judy Greer and Margo Martindale are as good as they always are -- if underutilized. The movie has a few too many flashbacks, or perhaps they are mostly not artfully done, because they feel more like “we needed to set up this backstory” than really rounding out the character of Frank in a more deep way.
I did like the ultimate way it went, even if much of it felt a bit pat and easy as a conclusion -- a bit too easy on those that had wronged Frank and not necessarily realistic for the era (pre-Reagan after all). But there are a lot of good parts to the rapport between Frank and Wally, or Frank and Beth, when we get them -- so there are a lot things to like here too.
|© Leomark Studios|
‘Call Me Brother’ is trying to be shocking and off putting and boy does it pull that off
by Jeremy Fogelman
Cast: Andrew Dismukes, Christina Parrish
Director: David Howe
There is something you see sometimes in indie movies, the idea of violating some taboo. Some films do this about violence or social morays or sex, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable on the screen. Something though that isn’t so common (or at least it didn’t use to be) was portraying incest on screen -- although Game of Thrones has had a big dent on that with both a brother/sister and an aunt/nephew relationship explicitly shown. And those had a lot of defenders.
Call Me Brother comes from director David Howe and is written by Christina Parrish, who also stars in the movie as Lisa (or “Sister”). The movie tells a relatively straightforward story: Lisa and her brother Tony (Andrew Dismukes) were very close as kids, the only positive connection they had in a house with parents that seemed to only yell at each other. After they divorced, the mom got Lisa and the dad Frank (Asaf Ronen) got Tony.
But around ten years later, the mom drops off Lisa at her ex-husband’s house to take a weekend vacation, and it’s the first time either of the two siblings have seen each other in years. Now they are both teenagers, and their father Frank has remarried to a very nice lady named Doris (Danu Uribe). Frank has an odd way of dealing with his kids, insisting that they call him Tony instead of Dad, and frankly and delightedly talking about his sexual relationship with Doris. So it’s an odd environment.
The movie shows that there’s an immediate closeness and connection between the two siblings, but it begins to move into a far more problematic and incestuous direction, as the two seem to realize they are attracted to each other. In a way, this is a sort of entertaining thing to watch, with well written awkwardness and very good acting from the two leads (both are in their 20s but believably play teenagers).
The parts that work less well are the cast of teenage characters that Tony and Lisa keep hanging out with, who feel less realized and more like tissue-thin caricatures that seem mainly to create awkward situations so that Tony and Lisa can leave them together. There’s a sort of charm to the awkward comedy, but that’s the sort of thing that doesn’t work for everyone.
The pushing of social boundaries with the essential normalization of incest as a reasonable alternative of two people without much love in their lives connecting with each other instead of others is an odd choice, ultimately. I don’t know that Christina Parrish actually believes that it’s a reasonable alternative, but there are some other odd choices in the movie, like several odd upskirt and overly sexualized directorial choices in shooting the two leads.
It serves perhaps to make the audience even more uncomfortable, as these two are playing teenagers, even if the actors are well above high school age. I can’t really recommend this movie, despite many of the qualities being effective -- the writing other than the random strange teenagers is pretty good, and you get a good sense of the family members through the writing and acting. But after that final scene finished, I felt like it was a movie that didn’t know whether it was being brave or foolish. I can’t imagine watching it again, but I feel like there’s real potential of these two leads in something again -- maybe something that isn’t so weird.
Friday, January 1, 2021
The new ‘Saved by the Bell’ show has no right being this good
by Jeremy Fogelman
Cast: Elizabeth Berkley Lauren, Mario Lopez, John Michael Higgins, Belmont Cameli, Dexter Darden, Mitchell Hoog, Alycia Pascual-Peña, Josie Totah, Haskiri Velazquez
Any kid or teenager who watched TV in the 90s almost certainly watched Saved by the Bell, which aired early in the 90s but was rerun forever. I watched many episodes and again and again when they were re-aired -- it was definitely an influential sort of thing, despite its obvious ridiculousness and stupidity. As kids, we didn’t quite pick up on all of the sociopathic aspects of the characters, but now that we’re all adults, you get multiple “rewatch” podcasts that delve deep into the craziness and even a well known series on YouTube called “Zach Morris is Trash” which itemized all of the lead Zach Morris’ terrible deeds.
The writer of that show ended up as a staff writer on the new Saved by the Bell, which certainly should be telling you something. The reboot/remake/etc/sequel is run by Tracey Wigfield, a talented and experienced comedy writer, who also ran my beloved, short run show Great News. The new show has a lot of that madcap energy, but it fits well with the silliness inherent in a Saved by the Bell world.
The show immediately starts off with a wink and a nod, as we hear the voice of Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s Zach as he explains he conned his way to becoming governor to get out of paying parking tickets. All normal for the character, but the show also shows an image from his show Franklin & Bash to explain that he was also a lawyer -- that’s the sort of super insider nerdy reference I love. But Zach is an incompetent governor, essentially accidentally cutting billions from public education and shutting down multiple high schools in mostly at risk areas.
So there’s immediately some social commentary, but it’s couched in jokes -- soon we hear the big conceit of the show. Due to Zach’s (he only shows up again a few times) incompetence, he decides to get all the displaced high schoolers to go to his alma mater Bayside High. We see that the high school seems much the same, with Zach and Kelly’s son Mac Morris (Mitchel Hogg) a super privileged, arrogant but pretty charismatic blonde kid.
Mac’s friends are Jamie Spano (Belmont Cameli), the son of Jessie Spano from the old show (Elizabeth Berkley Lauren, who is a recurring character in the season) and Lexi (Josie Totah), a transgender fashionista with her own reality show. Jamie is a sweet doofus, a football player who cares more about “how you play the game” than winning, and Lexi is a sabre-mouthed presence that mirrors Mac’s privilege, arrogance, and charisma. These actors are all great in these roles, starting as fairly simplistically written characterizations and becoming full fledged characters with arcs and interesting character turns.
But then we get the new kids, Daisy Jiménez (Haskiri Velazquez), Aisha Garcia (Alycia Pascual-Peña), and Devante Young (Dexter Darden), all with their own tales and backstories. Daisy is a super smart, hyper ambitious girl who wants to move up in the world, and she’s close friends with Aisha, who’s more of a sports gal -- neither really knows Devante, who is immediately pegged in a problematic way to be a potential new football player.
But Devante really is interested in singing and performing, and the show gives us episodes with both “issues” (like Devante being racially profiled) and “fun” (like trying out for a new ridiculous musical).
It turns out that Daisy is the true protagonist of the show, as in the first episode she gives us the classic “time out” that Zach Morris did all the time back in the original show. As such, she’s the center of nearly all of the episode, but the actress Haskiri Velazquez (who is essentially a newcomer) has both a great sense of comic timing and the dramatic range to pull off some of her more complicated storylines. It was probably difficult to find such a great lead, but she is really a great find.
Of course, the rest of the cast is really great too, including the always great John Michael Higgins as the new principal Ronald Toddman (who the show retcons into being friends with Zach in a hilarious joke later on), who is both hapless but also legitimately caring about the kids. No offense to old Belding, who was borderline criminally negligent, but Toddman gives some pretty great advice here.
Elizabeth Berkley Lauren and Mario Lopez both reprise their old characters too, with Jessie as a successful author who’s become the school guidance counselor to be near her son, and Slater being kind of a loser -- a friendless high school coach with a team that never does well until Aisha joins. There are some pretty fun storylines with the two of them, and since they work at the school, they’re part of the recurring cast, unlike Mark-Paul and Tiffani Thiessen, who mainly drop in at key dramatic moments.
There’s even a few old school cameos, like Ed Alonzo as the magician Max, Patrick Thomas O'Brien as Mr. Dewey, and even Lark Voorhies as Lisa in one sharp, amusing little scene. Screech is mentioned, along with his robot Kevin (which he built and had artificial intelligence of course), but Dustin Diamond is never seen -- the reasons are disputed and I don’t need to get into them.
The show is a tight ten episodes, consistently amusing and often laugh out loud funny, with an actual story arc that has relevant points to modern social issues without being annoying about it. It’s far sharper and more self-aware than you’d think, but the writers are clearly aware of both the original show, the relevant memes, and the many problems with it. You get the obvious references and jokes, but quite a few that I didn’t expect at all.
And it ends on a dark, highly shocking joke that was pretty audacious. It’s a talented cast and a well-written, fun show -- if you’ve seen the original show, loved or hated or loved to hate it, the new Saved by the Bell is a must watch.
|© Apple TV+|
'Tehran' sets up further complications in ‘The Engineer’ as the endgame approaches
by Jeremy Fogelman
The latest episode of Tehran is called ‘The Engineer’, and seems mainly to be about setting up more problems as we approach the end of the season. As Tamar continues to pursue her new leads, we get scenes back in the Israeli war room of attempted infiltration that all go wrong. So options are more limited for them and Tamar’s dangerous plan seems to be their only option.
Tamar initially still has Milad on the hook, in a way that’s hard to tell how she really feels -- she clearly puts her mission first, but how much is also her own feelings? Milad offers to bring aboard Parham, a prominent engineer from the power plant, who has a sort of breezy personality while still making references to wanting changes for his children. But although Milad seems convinced, it’s a huge risk for Parham and his family.
We finally get a resolution for suspicious Karim, who has seen through Tamar’s tricks and confronts her in a surprise visit. Although Tamar is quickly able to defend herself and retrieve her newly acquired gun, her intentions to de-escalate are ignored as one of the local assets, an intimidating huge guy, simply shoots Karim in the head.
We actually do hear Tamar frustratedly complain back to her superiors, in a way that feels rational -- especially as we see after how betrayed Milad has become, barely responding and now potentially a risk. Milad is a believer in reform for his country, but does that also mean he’ll betray that country for a foreign enemy? We don’t know for sure, but that’s a good tension to set up for the final episodes.
When Parham shows up and refuses to take part in the mission, Tamar manipulates him immediately with blackmail to force him to comply -- this is the sort of thing that’s tricky. Getting someone on your side with trust like Milad is one thing, but now Parham has a reason to want Tamar to fail. It’s another good wrinkle, because we can see many potential ways that Tamar’s mission can fail.
On the other side, Faraz (now no longer technically on the team) still manages to sneak around and try to work towards both finding Tamar and saving his wife. Naturally he manages the same trick, which feels almost like the Israelis should’ve anticipated such a maneuver. We’ve seen only a bit with Tamar’s father over the course of the show, but Faraz is able to threaten Arezoo into tricking the old man into traveling to Turkey.
It’s juxtaposed with Tamar listening to a message from her father and leaving a message for him, right before he finds himself at a hotel room in Turkey. But Faraz is clever enough to mollify him with a Hebrew greeting, leaving things in a fluxed state -- is his move simply to get his wife back, get Tamar out, both, or more?
At this point it’s both sides doing unethical practices for their countries, with a lot of personal investment -- it’s the sort of thing that makes the spy games interesting, instead of rote and clichéd. Although Tamar is ostensibly our protagonist, the show does have her betray someone who has real feelings for her -- it makes it especially intriguing as there are only two episodes left in the season.
Overall, it’s another pretty engaging episode, in a show that’s been pretty good so far with the back and forth spy stuff. Considering how tricky and convoluted that sort of storyline can be, Tehran manages it pretty well.
|© Alamo Drafthouse|
'Last Call' utilizes a gimmick to ramp of the tension of a moment serious in time
by Jeremy Fogelman
Cast: Daved Wilkins, Sarah Booth
Director: Gavin Michael Booth
Gimmicks in movies are usually a mixed bag -- especially that old standard the “one take” film. Recent movies Birdman and 1917 simulate a one take, although neither are completely one take, but have somewhat similar ideas about it -- get you into the world in a particularly immersive way, that flows without obvious edits. Another gimmick related is the “real time” movie, like the underrated Locke or out of control Crank. In such cases there’s usually a virtual or literal ticking clock, because why else bother with real time?
Last Call comes from director/co-writer Gavin Michael Booth in a movie that only has two other actors we see on screen. Both are shown at the same time, starting from the same point in time, and we stick with both until the end of the movie. One is Beth (Sarah Booth, the director’s wife) who is working a late night at a sort of adult classes building as a custodian, while she worriedly waits for a call from or about her son, who was already supposed to be home. She has no cell phone, for the reason that there is no movie otherwise.
She picks up the phone at one point reached by Scott (Daved Wilkins, the co-writer so it’s all really in the family) -- but we already know more than she does. Scott is drinking heavily at the start of the movie, and then proceeds to attempt to call a few people that do not answer on his rotary phone (again, it’s here for the conceit of the movie not for any logical reason) before attempting a call to what we now know is the wrong number.
Immediately we understand he was calling a suicide hotline, but at first Beth simply is confused about the person calling for help, and chats a bit innocuously with him. But after she realizes the truth, Beth is desperate to keep Scott talking and alive, while also trying to find out where he lives so she can call the police. Beth is not a trained person when it comes to this sort of thing, even if she has empathy and refuses to stop trying.
But because of that, her attempts aren’t always so helpful, and Scott seems to be going down a dark path. The movie ramps up in tension as it goes, at times halting momentum a bit when Scott disappears off screen for one reason or another -- since it’s a rotary phone he can do that, while Beth must always stay on the landline of the office.
Although Sarah Book and Daved Wilkins both do excellent work acting here, making it easy to root for and empathize with her, the writing is a bit simplistic and clichéd, sounding often like the average version of such a story.
The gimmick of the movie, the split screen, is a bit of a mixed bag -- although it keeps us connected to the people, it can be a bit disorienting. Sometimes you don’t know who to focus attention on when they’re talking -- the one talking or the one listening? Since they’re both actively acting, I ended up often flitting my eyes back and forth, which isn’t the best way to watch people on the screen.
The idea here, someone accidentally trying to save a life, is something I feel like I haven’t seen much before so it’s a good one. I think that underlying the gimmick is an interesting perspective, even if the screenplay is a bit rushed and under-served. What works best is the acting moments between them and in Beth’s moments of desperation.
But the gimmick makes it one of those “idea movies”, meaning I’m not sure how accessible it’d be anyway, even with the underlying troubling subject matter. How many people want to watch movies about suicide anyway? In the world of such concepts, Last Call isn’t bad, but it probably should have rethought its gimmicky approach.