Tag Archives: Drama

Movie Review: Thirteen Lives (2022)

Now streaming on Prime Video.

Spelunk-tacular! Ron Howard’s real-life survival film Thirteen Lives (B) chronicles the daring 2018 rescue of a dozen young soccer players and their assistant coach trapped for 18 days in Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non cave after heavy rainfall flooded the structure and blocked their way out. It’s sometimes an uneven match of the endlessly optimistic director and the sometimes mundane mechanics of the procedural plot, but once the expert divers played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell discover the trapped entourage and enlist Joel Edgerton who also dives and offers additional medical skills, it’s a battle of brains and brawn to get everyone out safe and sound. The narrow passageways and the deluge of water compound the scope and scale of the disaster film, with some rather remarkable underwater cinematography. The familiar actors bring notable realism to the screen, and Teeradon Supapunpinyo is an underused gem as the empowering coach who keeps his players’ hope alive during the grueling ordeal. The first hour is sluggish but the second and third acts pick up the pace. Howard ultimately wrings a heartfelt message from the global story of cooperation between 17 countries to complete the miraculous mission. It’s a noble and inspiring work with takeaways for nearly every family viewer.

Movie Review: Where the Crawdads Sing (2022)

Sony Pictures Releasing – now in theatres.

Lead actress Daisy Edgar-Jones (DEJ) almost unilaterally redeems director Olivia Newman’s melodrama Where the Crawdads Sing (B-), rescuing the period piece film from one of the most poorly paced and acted first twenty minutes of a major Hollywood feature (a kind of reverse Saving Private Ryan) and helping draw viewers into what at times magically becomes rather riveting. The movie’s literary roots are showing, from the cloying first-person voice-over narration to the “life under a microscope” earthly allusions. DEJ’s protagonist “Kya” is an outsider loner and novice naturalist of the North Carolina marshes who becomes embroiled in two significant romances and one murder trial. She digs mussels and muscles and may or may not harbor secrets. The soapy plot would be the death Nell to the proceedings were it not for the impeccable work by DEJ as the magnetic central character. She’s surrounded by one of David Strathairn’s few humdrum performances (he’s the kindly lawyer) and even more confounding acting turns by Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson as tall glass of water “good” and “bad” suitors, respectively (Did original song writer Taylor Swift also cast the disappointing dudes from her jilted jukebox burn book?). Somewhere in the middle of it all, though, there’s DEJ’s fierce female performance: a smart, observant and evolving heroine with emotive eyes, piercing pathos and utterly believable physicality. She makes viewers hope and wince and cheer. The story is occasionally rich with bursts of Southern gothic atmosphere, and Newman ultimately gets a grip on the multiple plot threads to lend a sizable chunk of the overlong story a more cohesive vibe. This is all a bit of a guilty pleasure, quite watchable, but hardly revelatory. Except the lead actress: she’s a cinematic savior here and raises the stakes beyond the brays of the crayfish.

Movie Review: Crimes of the Future (2022)

Now in limited theatres.

Movies tug at heartstrings, provoke belly laughs, stimulate the mind and evoke physical reactions, so it’s a bit nerve-racking how “body horror” maestro David Cronenberg has fabricated such an inventive but ultimately soulless and anticlimactic work in Crimes of the Future (C). The veteran director undoubtedly engages in fascinating sci-fi world building with his near dystopian society in which humans feel no pain, but the film is largely bogged down in tedious exposition, rendering inert its mystery and momentum. The movie does no favors to its cast including Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux, who play performance artists conducting surgery for audiences and extracting newly harvested organs against a backdrop of bureaucracy (embodied in an idiosyncratic Kristen Stewart) and would-be revolutionaries (Scott Speedman’s underdeveloped character). Cronenberg skims the surface of human transformation, examines peoples’ fetishizing of pain and pleasure and crams in tortured metaphors about inner beauty. What could have been a quintessential grotesquerie turns out to be merely an obtuse lecture. This trauma drama lethargically asks more questions about morality and mortality than it has the ability to answer. It has the bones of a really peculiar and provocative saga and rarely manifests into its most evolved form.

Movie Review: Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)

Now streaming on Hulu.

This is a movie in which a very small cast rises to the occasion. Sophie Hyde’s dramedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (B) tells the story of a retired school teacher and widow (Emma Thompson) who hires a twentysomething sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to help her catch up on what she’s been missing during years of the marriage and motherhood routine. Most of the story take place in one single hotel room, which sometimes feels like a two-hander stage play, but the themes and acting elevate the material considerably. Thompson is superb, all nerves while striving to be proper amidst a situation she didn’t imagine herself engaging. In the thankless role opposite such an acting titan, McCormack holds his own and gets a chance to open up as well. There are some dubious choices adding tension to the final act, but ultimately this talky film is a delight. The movie does a good job exploring what it’s like to achieve intimacy, even when everything one has learned up to this point builds up walls around close relationships. It’s a poignant and often funny tale and tackles issues which aren’t often addressed onscreen.

Movie Review: Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

In theatres from Paramount Pictures.

Brace your favorite wing-mates for some breathtaking ground-hugging film flights in Joseph Kosinski’s precision-guided Top Gun: Maverick (A-). The long-awaited sequel works as both a nifty nostalgia trip and also as a fully developed story in its own right, with vivid visual and emotional appeal. Set nearly four decades after the original film, this follow-up traces the arc of Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” as he returns to the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, where the brash captain must confront his past as he trains a group of younger fighter pilots, among them the son of his deceased best friend Goose. The movie is emotionally grounded with fine performances by the fully-committed Cruise, a tormented Miles Teller, an appealing Jennifer Connelly and a charismatic Glen Powell. The film soars most in its action sequences with spectacularly rendered flight maneuvers, aerial dogfights and surprise stunts deepening the adventure elements. More than the original movie, this follow-up is buoyed by clear-eyed storytelling with less reliance on catchphrases, montages and stylistic cover-ups to a sometimes simplistic core. It builds on the franchise’s might and mythology and further cements Cruise’s power as the stuff of legend. A little overstuffed with underdeveloped characters, the film still hits its dramatic beats with dexterity. As far as Hollywood blockbusters go, viewers will be hard-pressed to find a more cohesive combination of high-flying and heart. 

Movie Review: Breaking (2022)

Coming to theatres Aug. 26, 2022.

The tension remains high for at least half of Abi Damaris Corbin’s taut real-life drama Breaking (B), but there’s literally not a lot of payoff in a story about a jilted veteran who holds up a bank as a last desperate attempt at getting noticed. John Boyega disappears into the central role of a very specifically well mannered vigilante opposite a stellar Nicole Beharie as the steely bank manager turned primary hostage. Connie Britton is engaging as always as a broadcast news reporter; and, in his final screen performance, the late Michael K. Williams is superb as a wily mastermind negotiator. It’s a competent procedural thriller with some illuminating moments about how America abandons promising people on the fringes, but its tenacity to the dogma of chronicling a true story deprives the film of the wrinkles and ridges most crackling narratives possess. Corbin is very skilled at the helm, and it will be interesting to see what she tackles next.

Movie Review: Cyrano (2021)

Now in theatres.

Welcome to the game of poems as Peter Dinklage spryly assumes the titular character of Joe Wright’s unusual romantic comedy musical adaptation of Cyrano (B-). To assess this Sicily-set film’s patchwork charms, one has to separate the generally high quality of the story and production values from the confounding and often distracting music and dance choices. Dinklage is quite charismatic and empathetic as the misfit linguist and warrior, and Haley Bennett is a luminous and appealing Roxane in a classic tale of seemingly unrequited love. Surprisingly for a film so steeped in words, the lyrics of the songs by members of the band the National are pretty consistently banal. Dinklage and co-stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as dashing Christian and Ben Mendelsohn as diabolical De Guiche display a bit of a “gargling with razor blades” vocal quality. Thankfully Bennett is in lovely voice as the lone member of the ensemble who doesn’t sound like she’s singing in the shower. Like its lead character, the film has a sly and scrappy approach, and there are mercifully a total of three music sequences that work at least on some levels. Expect to be slackjawed at times and bowled over at others as the film struggles mightily with its sense of time and place and its curious sonic structure. It’s a scruffy, uneven mess with occasional madcap moments of blissful romance. The movie is recommended for viewers who would naturally find this kind of lavish, cerebral content alluring and not so much for others.

Movie Review: Dog (2022)

Now in theatres. An MGM release.

The W.C. Fields admonition to never work with children or animals gets a hard pass when those stars are one of the screen’s charming rejuveniles and a canine companion trained for war but imbued with empathetic instincts. Dog (B+), the feature film co-directing debut of Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin, is a rare breed of heady human/animal bond pictures with a dramatic undercurrent about the aftermath of war and just needing someone to talk to about it. The film stars Tatum as an Army Ranger who must escort the Belgian Malinois military working dog of his fallen commander down the Pacific coast to her handler’s funeral. It’s packed with funny and dramatic road trip elements, some slapstick sequences and some moments of profundity along the journey as both man and dog overcome emotions for which they were never trained. This is an ideal vehicle for Tatum’s wry, affable Everyman demeanor, plus the animal is ever a winning screen partner. There’s definitely some content in the film not appropriate for younger kids, but the portrayal of a duo facing PTSD as they attempt to move on in civilian life makes this an unexpectedly moving story.

Movie Review: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Now in limited theatrical release before its debut on Apple TV+ January 14, 2022.

Full of sound and fury, black and white cinematography, German expressionist noir stylings and vampy costumes, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (C) still manages to be frustratingly austere and beguiling in its lack of a central pulse. The ingredients are all there, including Denzel Washington in the title role and Frances McDormand as his partner in crime, but the film just sits there like a pretty portrait frame not sure what to do with the space within its confines. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife (McDormand), Washington’s Macbeth murders the king and takes the Scottish throne for himself but is then wracked with guilt and paranoia. I’m not sure this has ever been said about a Shakespeare adaptation, but it should have been longer; the lean “highlights reel” storytelling somehow shortchanges character arcs. Plus the intentionally cramped sets fail to feel like walls closing in but rather convey a limited expanse and low stakes, like everything was filmed on the tiniest artful sound stage. There were two times I almost believed it was actually taking place in Scotland; perhaps it was just supposed to be Coen’s fevered dreamscape. Both Washington and McDormand are done very few favors by their director; what could have been career-best work from master thespians is merely perfunctory. Washington plays the role very weary, although he eeks out enough effective line readings for an Oscar reel. McDormand doesn’t really register here. Truly “out, damned spot” is blink and you’ll miss it. Only Kathryn Hunter as the Witches, Corey Hawkins as Macduff and Alex Hassell as Ross get to shine in supporting parts; the less said about Harry Melling as Malcolm, the better. This adaptation, while it has some lovely and imaginative shots, simply reminds viewers to check out more engaging adaptations by Roman Polanski in 1971 and Justin Kurzel in 2015.

Movie Review: Mass (2021)

Now on demand within Prime Video.

What appears at first akin to a one-act play committed to camera is actually the towering and improbable master class of cinematic acting atop a strong 2021 of dramatic ensembles. Unflinching and unforgettable, debut writer/director Fran Kranz’s Mass (B+) creates a tinderbox of drama out of a quartet of adults coming to grips with the defining tragedy of their lives. It’s almost a horror movie leveraging just performances and dialogue as the charged objects. The plot is simply this: Six years after a high school shooting, a teenage victim’s parents played by Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs hold a private meeting with the gunman classmate’s parents portrayed by Ann Dowd and Reed Birney. The subject is difficult and the acting as raw as it gets. Franz leverages the intimacy of a cheery church meeting room as his veritable black box backdrop and sparse blocking to depict the actors congregating, drifting and coming to terms with which character among the living – if any – is to blame. The film’s sparse and mesmerizing technique underscores the importance of civil discourse and empathy, and all four actors are superb in their complex roles. Plimpton and Dowd shine in particular as protective mothers in perpetual grief, both with late-breaking stunners of soliloquies. This is a movie to be fastidiously examined as characters seeking comfort, clarity or catharsis approach a way forward unexpectedly.

Movie Review: The Lost Daughter (2021)

Now available on Netflix.

Complete with a near tragedy on a Greek island cracking open a rush of parallel memories, fruit metaphors standing in for parents and progeny and a morose but sympathetic female protagonist holding court over a floodgate of weighty emotions, this rich text would be this month’s book club pick if it weren’t already a movie. First-time writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (B+) is indeed based on a novel, and the longtime actress is masterful behind the camera to bring a fraught tale to dramatic life on the screen. Olivia Colman in the central role is inspired casting as a professor hoping to enjoy a secluded beachside holiday when an extended family of multigenerational revelers crashes her solace and dusts up some prickly memories, some about a thematic taboo: a mother’s ambivalence about motherhood. Colman is splendid in her characterization and quite convincing even as she carries out a series of unconventional choices. Dakota Johnson is a luminous foil as a confused young mom in the coastal crowd and Jessie Buckley a talented addition as Colman’s character in illuminating flashbacks. The film’s structure adroitly plumbs the consequences of life choices but doesn’t always provide complete clarity or a consistent pace for the central story. Still, it’s a very assured filmmaking debut, a meaningful meditation on topics not often covered in the movies and a sensational spotlight on a talented ensemble. Bookmark this one for those seeking smart drama with subtext. 

Movie Review: Licorice Pizza (2021)

In theatres.

It’s a pretty platter party with a nostalgic ‘70s San Fernando Valley, California aesthetic and solid soundscape, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s meandering dramedy Licorice Pizza (C) is a bit too charmed with itself to ever figure out exactly what it is. For all practical purposes, it’s a coming of age movie in which neither principal character comes of age. Alana Haim plays an aimless twentysomething who befriends Cooper Hoffman’s fifteen year old child actor and sometimes entrepreneur and ostensibly has a near romantic relationship with him. It’s never clear which of this newcomer duo’s particular points of view the audience is intended to follow the most. Both characters are often sympathetic but after a long running time remain at arm’s length. The plot is an episodic series of escapades with little payoff; and like the oil embargo ripped out of headlines into the otherwise fantastical story, the movie itself actually runs out of gas. Celebrity cameos don’t much help matters with a feral character portrayed by Bradley Cooper at least generating more onscreen momentum than a smarmy bore played by Sean Penn. The bittersweet film ultimately isn’t funny enough, romantic enough or dramatic enough to take its place as a classic along with the likes of American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. Hopefully other non-critics will find it funnier and sunnier than this writer did.