Colette

Colette is a biopic about the French author of the same name. It details her early life through her marriage, when she wrote the Claudine stories. It details her growth from a sheltered young girl to an accomplished writer and performer.

Colette stars Keira Knightley as Colette and Dominic West as her husband Willy. She is a young girl from the country; she met Willy through their parents. Even from the start there is something off about the marriage. She is significantly younger than him, and when they start making a home in Paris his friends are incredulous and he almost immediately begins, or continues, affairs. Willy, a member of avant garde artistic circles, has set himself up as a literary brand, without appearing to do any of the writing himself. Unfortunately, his expenses such as his mistresses, exceed his income. Eventually he presses Colette into writing for him and she turns in what becomes the most successful book published under his name, as well as several equally popular sequels.

There is an interesting give and take between Colette and Willy. At first he is the worldly teacher, introducing her to his literary, libertine set and setting the rules for their relationship. He can have affairs and he doesn’t mind if she does, so long as it is with other women. In private he praises her work on the Claudine books, but is sure to keep up the appearances that he is the one who wrote them. Soon, however, Colette outgrows him. She is the talented writer, he is just the name on the book. Rumors swirl about her role in the writing, but Willy remains the credited author, framing his success as their success, though it is truly her’s alone. When he stifles her and refuses to grant her the credit she deserves, she refuses to write for him, instead taking up dance. She also start a relationship with the gender-fluid Missy, whose masculine presentation skirts her unfaithful husband edicts.

Colette’s story is one of perseverance, of growth and change. Willy’s is one of stagnation. Instead of giving Colette the little she is asking for, credit for her work the biggest thing, he grips it so fiercely out of fear of losing anything that he loses Colette completely. The movie gets you to believe that that the two of them truly loved each other for quite some time. That their relationship was fruitful for both of them, but with each turn Willy shows his smallness more and more, up until the final betrayal.

Colette’s life continued long after the time frame of this movie, but this movie does a great job of showing this chapter of her life, of her going from a wide eyed farm girl to an experienced and worldly woman and celebrated author. The strong performances of Knightley and West really make this movie work, first as a simple romance, then a tragic one and then finally the story of her ascension.

****

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A Simple Favor

For the vast majority of its runtime, A Simple Favor performs a wonderful balancing act with its tones. The film is a mystery/thriller in the vein of Gone Girl, but it is also a comedy. Those two things really should not mix, but somehow DIrector Paul Feig does it. There are genuine laughs throughout that don’t completely puncture the building tension of the mystery. Then it gets to the end and it all falls apart. Fortunately, the rest of the movie is so good that it is easy to forgive its disappointing ending.

A Simple Favor star Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, an overprotective single mother who runs a mommy vlog. She strikes up a friendship with Blake Lively’s Emily Nelson, a mother of friend of her child and a high powered executive. Their friendship grows, but soon Emily disappears. This sets off a mystery of what happened to Emily and who exactly Emily was. Both Stephanie and Emily’s husband are suspected.

Initially, the movie does an excellent job of balancing tones, setting up a thriller while also being very funny. That mix of tones also helps develop the friendship between Stephanie and Emily. Without the humor, Emily is an expressly terrible person. She is mean to her kid and husband, she drinks a lot and is frequently just awful. It is played as a joke, and it works, contrasting the uptight Kendrick with the relaxed Lively is delightful. You can see how the lonely Stephanie is taken in by the delightfully awful Emily. It keeps balancing the tones as Stephanie begins to investigate the disappearance. It manages to keep the humor present without completely puncturing the tension.

This sort of thriller, like Gone Girl, tends to not have a lot of place for humor. It naturally lessens the tension that the movie is trying to build. Here, largely by keeping the humor closely related to the characters and not the mystery itself, the movie manages to have its cake and eat it too. At least, it does until the final act. The tension builds through Stephanie’s searching and all the inconsistencies that she finds in Emily’s history and story. But the final revelations alternate between disappointing and laughable. It ends up in complete comedy territory, but it stops being funny. Instead of the character based humor from the start, it relies on slapstick and stupidities. It just doesn’t work.

The ending is undoubtedly disappointing, but that mostly serves to highlight how brightly the rest of the movie shines. Anna Kendrick is delightful as the perky and occasionally sad center of the movie. Blake Lively is perfect as Emily, the only problem is that the structure of the movie keeps her off screen for the bulk of the movie. There is good, real stuff with how the characters deal with loss. Ending notwithstanding, A Simple Favor is a fun, entertaining movie that is well worth seeing.

****

Operation Finale

I can’t help but feel like I should have liked this Operation Finale more than I did. At times it is a supremely moving and thought provoking film. Unfortunately, at other times it is just a second rate thriller. The latter portions drag down the former so the whole experience is merely very good rather than great.

Operation Finale is based on the true story of how Mossad agents located Nazi Adolf Eichmann, in Argentina in 1960 and extracted him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. After being tipped off about Eichmann’s potential location in Argentina, a team is dispatched to confirm his presence and bring him back to Israel alive. The group includes Peter Malkin, played by Oscar Isaac, who has a reputation of being something of a loose cannon. They capture Eichmann with little difficulty, but then have to hold him until he signs to agree to be tried so they can arrange their flight back. This leads to several tense scenes between Malkin and Eichmann as he tries to convince him to sign. This is played against a backdrop of an increasingly anti-semitic Argentina, as the rhetoric of Fascism rises again.

The movie succeeds on strong performances. Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann, who inspired the phrase “the banality of evil.” He shows his complete justification of his actions; his belief that he can explain his actions in such a way that shows he was right. Oscar Isaac further cements himself as a star, playing the earnest agent who eventually gets to Eichmann. Also present and wonderful, if underused, is Melanie Laurent as an anesthesiologist who is there to help sedate Eichmann. Also shockingly good in a dramatic role is Nick Kroll as another agent present.

The problem is that it fills in the gaps with standard thriller stuff that never really pays off or adds anything. The movie makes a big deal about leaving characters behind during the escape, but nothing happens to those characters, they just have to take a later flight back to Israel. They all show up at the end just fine. The same goes for the thread that Malkin puts his own vengeance over the needs of the mission, an idea that is spoken about but only really portrayed in one scene. It plays his big decision at the end of the movie as something changing, but it literally has no consequences. The movie opens with a botched mission of his, but that had nothing to do with personal anger and was simply mistaken identity. The various threads never really get pulled together into a comprehensible theme.

Still, despite its scattered nature, the strong parts of the movie are definitely worthwhile. The movie ends up feeling like a well made missed opportunity. All the ingredients are there for something great, but somehow it just comes up short

****

Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud is a low key, charming little movie about a father and daughter. It doesn’t really do anything new or unexpected, but it is good hearted and enjoyable that it is easy to like anyway.

Hearts Beat Loud is a movie about the inevitability of change. Change isn’t innately good or bad, it merely is. Sam (Kiersey Clemmons) is graduating from high school and heading to college across the country. Her father Frank (Nick Offerman) is having a hard time dealing with it. Added on to this is that Frank’s record store is going out of business. The two of them are a musical family and after an evening of playing together, Frank becomes determined that the two of them will start a band. This is an enticing prospect for Frank, who used to be in a band with Sam’s mother before their daughter was born.

There is sadness is Frank’s obviously futile quest. The viewer knows that the worst possible outcome here is that Sam puts off her medical school dreams to start a band with her Dad, but as the movie seems determined to strip everything he has away from him you can’t help but sympathize with Frank a little bit. A big part of their relationship is obviously their musical connection and him wanting to keep them together with it is understandable, but also kind of selfish. Even Frank appears to know that it is a bad idea, although it is one that lets him keep his daughter around.

Sam appears to know this and for the most part shows little interest in giving up school to be in a band. But she also writes songs, because she is a musician. She also has to deal with moving across the country and giving up a burgeoning romance. There are tons of reasons for her to stay, but it is obvious that staying would be a limiting move for her.

In a parallel to losing his relationship with his daughter, Frank’s record shop is also going out of business. Like with the band business, Frank is given an opportunity to keep the record shop going, only it will mean changing it from what he knew. He has to decide if it is worth keeping what he had at the risk of changing it utterly, or just letting it go and grow to be something else.

A movie can’t put the emphasis that Hearts Beat Loud does on music and not make the music worth listening to. Fortunately, Hearts Beat Loud has some really great tunes and the significant time it spends letting its characters just play music is not wasted space.

Hearts Beat Loud is undeniably slight. It is a simple and low key affair buoyed largely by its charming cast, which in addition to Clemmons and Offerman includes Toni Collette, Blythe Danner, Ted Danson and Sasha Lane, and its engaging sincerity. A fun, touching trifle.

****

Hotel Artemis Review

Hotel Artemis had all the makings of being a cult hit like John Wick, but in the end it just doesn’t quite come together. The movie is filled with so many interesting characters and ideas that it really hurts when the whole turns out to be less than the sum of the parts. Still, the movie is entertaining throughout and while it leaves you wondering about what might have been, there isn’t a whole lot about what it is to dislike.

The Hotel Artemis is a near future hospital for criminals. It has strict rules about admittance and membership. When a bank robbery goes wrong, a pair of brothers show up at the hospital, taking on the names of their rooms, Waikiki and Honolulu. The Hotel is run by Nurse and her assistant Everest, who rigorously enforce the rules, as show by Everest kicking out one of the brothers’ accomplices who is not a member. Also at the Artemis is a nasty little man called Acapulco and and Waikiki’s former lover Nice, an assassin. As they enter, riots break out in the streets, which leads to Nurse breaking her own rules to take in a cop that was a friend of her son, only to find that the Artemis’s benefactor, The Wolf King, is coming to have some injuries tended.

The plot keeps building and the view is stuck waiting for a explosion that never really comes. It helps that the cast is amazing. Jodie Foster plays Nurse and instills in her a marvelous combination of vulnerability and competence. Dave Bautista is Everest and doesn’t really press his range in being large and intimidating, but does it so well. The same is true for Charlie Day as Acapulco, who is at his snide, insufferable best. Sterling Brown as Waikiki is the solid center for all the rest of this to build around and Sofia Boutella is great as the mysterious Nice. Lastly, Jeff Goldblum shows up near the end to play the amiable, but dangerous Wolf King.

For most of its runtime, Hotel Artemis keeps adding wrinkles to its plot. There are the riots; there are stolen diamonds; there is a planned assassination; there is Nurse’s past; there Honolulu’s drug problems; and there is the Wolf King’s angry son. You can feel the tension ratcheting higher and higher as everyone starts to break the rules and become compromised. Then it ends. It feels like there should be another act, or at least another scene, but instead it builds to something of an anticlimax.

Until the end, I would say that I loved Hotel Artemis. It is creative and wild and interesting. But it feels like it didn’t know what to once it had introduced everything. So it just sort of let each of its little plots come to their own little resolution without any of it coming together in a meaningful way. It leaves you not so much wanting more, but wishing it had been more.

****

Solo Review

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a movie that seems to be completely mistaken as to what is strengths are. And it has quite a few strengths, it is mostly a very good movie. However, it repeatedly takes the time to emphasize its weakest elements, bringing everything else to halt to give the viewer time to roll their eyes.

Solo tells the early life story of the most popular character in the Star Wars franchise: Han Solo. It shows a bit of his youth on Corellia before he joined the Imperial Navy, which he then left for a life of adventure and crime. Theoretically, it tells the story of how he came to be the man that young Luke met in that cantina in Mos Eisley in the original Star Wars. Pretty quickly, Han is separated from his love interest, meets and bonds with Chewbacca, and gets tangled up with all-around scoundrel Tobias Beckett and his crew. Beckett owes money to Dryden Vos, and Han is tied to him. After a series of heist and schemes, Han is left with just Chewie as he continues his adventures.

What didn’t work for me were the attempts at fanservice. The movie seems determined to give the viewer answers to questions nobody asked or showing them things they’ve seen before, but pretending it is meaningful. It is the bad version of what The Force Awakens did so well. The movie pauses for a second to let the music swell as Han and Chewie get behind the controls of the Millenium Falcon for the first time. It adds nothing and the viewer already knew what was going on. That has nothing on the groaner that is the movie showing how Han got the last name Solo, the answer to a question that literally no one was asking. Honestly, the movie came close to losing me right there.

Luckily, it recovers with some excellent action scenes. The war scene is brief, but it mostly works. However, the train heist is wonderful. It has enough moving pieces and feels truly momentous at times. You can almost see the tragedy that it becomes as soon as the plan is outlined. And the raid on the Kessel mines is solid as well.

It also brings in quite a few interesting characters. Beckett is Han’s future, the cold hearted criminal that is not necessarily evil, but certainly out only for himself. Han and Chewie are pretty great. Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t really feel like Harrison Ford, but he does good work anyway. Han’s love interest Qi’Ra works, though the movie seems to hold her final character work for a theoretical sequel. The highlight is Donald Glover as Lando; he does great by the character even if the movie isn’t really sure why he is there. The same goes for is droid co-pilot, L3, who is a lot of fun even if the movie can’t decide if she is important to Lando or just another tool.

There are structural problems with the movie, mostly it seems from pulling things back and forth through its troubled production. In many ways its is not unlike Justice League, a movie whose tone and characterization varied wildly from scene to scene. The general thrust of the movie seems to be intending in getting Han from a similar place as where Luke started to the Han that we met in Star Wars. But it never really gets there. He is naive and optimistic through most of the movie. Even at the end he is doing something heroic. Instead of showcasing the character development from Star Wars, it sort of negates it. Han was apparently always a good guy, there is no change. This is despite most of the movie working to strip of any optimism he might have had.

While the seems do show, the movie is still very entertaining. I had some similar problems with Rogue One. In fact, I might like this movie more than Rogue One; I am certainly going to revisit it more often. It is something of a mess, but I liked a lot anyway.

****

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first movie from Studio Ponoc, a successor to Studio Ghibli.  A few years ago, Studio Ghibli made some announcements that suggested that, with Hayao Miyazaki’s latest retirement, they would cease producing feature films, prompting some of its members to go their own way. This film is their first release and it shows that they are mostly carrying on the spirit of the previous studio.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of Ghibli releases The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie was There, directed Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It follows in that line of adaptations of children’s books that includes Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Arietty. It ends up feeling a bit like a Studio Ghibli greatest hits. That makes it sound worse than it is, this is frequently a touching and enthralling movie, but it never quite reaches the heights of its inspirations.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows Mary, a girl who feels like she is bad at everything, who moves in with her aunt in the country. She fights with a young boy her age and befriends a few stray cats before finding a mysterious flower in the woods. The flower gives her the ability to do magic. She finds a magic broom that whisks her away to a magic school in the sky, where things aren’t exactly what they seem.

I don’t want to spoil much of the movie, but it hits a lot of Ghibli notes. There is a young girl flying on a broom, like Kiki’s Delivery Service; there is a castle in the sky, like Castle in Sky. The movie also has echoes of films from Princess Mononoke to Ponyo.

The only real problem with the movie is that it doesn’t really have a resolution for its villains. They aren’t redeemed at all, but neither are they punished. They kind of learn the error of their ways, but it more that they just sort of fail. It is a real problem, the movie largely lack narrative stakes. It all just sort of happens.

Still, there is a lot to like in Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It ends up feeling much like Arietty; a little slight but otherwise enjoyable. It is a pleasant, enjoyable movie that doesn’t really have anything push it from being good to great.

****

The Disaster Artist Review

The Disaster Artist is a glorious celebration of dreams and aspirations, I guess. Or mocking the the delusion of dreams that far outstrip the talent of the dreamer. It finds what is admirable in delusion. The Disaster Artist is the story of the making of The Room, a beloved film frequently cited as one of the worst ever made. It is that, but it is also bafflingly watchable. It is like watching a car race than ends in a train crash. This movie tells the behind the scenes story that is just as crazy as the movie that it produced. It works, managing to be heartwarming, funny and as true as any story is.

The Disaster Artist walks a difficult path. It is a comedy about real, still living people. It wants the viewer to simultaneously laugh at and admire these people. That is not an easy task, but The Disaster Artist pulls it off. The story is told from the perspective of Greg Sestero, who meets Tommy Wiseau at an acting class. While Greg is somewhat closed off in his acting, Tommy is shockingly free. They become friends and together move to Los Angeles to make it in Hollywood. The ambition of Tommy and even Greg is admirable. They aren’t going to let anything stand between them and their dreams of being actors. If no one will cast them, then they will write and make their own movie. Luckily, Tommy has a mysterious source of money, which he uses to fund their movie.

There aren’t too many great surprises, there is friction on set because Tommy doesn’t know what he is doing. There is personal friction because Greg gets a girlfriend. The movie goes to great lengths to recreate scenes from The Room, to great effect. Just seeing that weirdness recreated is entertaining. The big emotional scenes work well enough, but maybe didn’t quite engage me the way I wished it would. There is a courage to art, that as an artist you are putting yourself out there for people. This is something I, as a writer, frequently fail at. I’d often rather keep my stories hidden rather than have them rejected. The movie starts lauding that bravery, but when their dreams fall apart in front of them, it shows them recovering by embracing the ridicule. It is just kind of an odd story.

The only place I would say the movie fails is that it doesn’t really examine the obvious lies and flat non-answers that are behind a lot of Wiseau’s life. This brushes up against being a biopic that doesn’t make any effort to find out who its star really is. He claims his vague, eastern European accent is cajun, and while this is patently untrue and played for a joke in the movie, the fact that it is not true is not engaged with at all. At one point Tommy and Greg have an argument, but it is resolved without actually resolving anything. The movie can’t help but show the falseness of just about every claim Wiseau makes about himself, but it is not at all interested in the truth; the story is good enough. It isn’t a big deal, but it is an obvious blind spot in the film.

The Disaster Artist is a treat. It is a thoughtful, meaty comedy like we never get.

****

Murder on the Orient Express

I am pretty sure I am responding more to the form of Murder on the Orient Express than the content. Regardless of any quality of the movie itself, I think I might have liked any locked room or classical styled mystery. Those don’t actually pop up as movies that often and it is a format that I greatly enjoy. Unfortunately, even TV, once my prime provider of mysteries, doesn’t really engage in this sort of thing anymore. TV mysteries have gone the way of the procedural; they are rarely really about the mystery. Getting a mystery, one of the classics, done with such lush and beautiful production, was in itself a joy to me. Luckily, I thought the movie was pretty well done, too.

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s most well-known mysteries, but even so it has come to my attention that some people are not familiar with how it plays out, so I will endeavor not to spoil anything. This version stars actor/director Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, the famous detective. He boards the famous train along with a dozen other passengers. One night, the train gets derailed and one of the passengers is discovered murdered in his bed, with the window opened. Certain that the killer must be one of the other passengers, Poirot sets out to figure out who is responsible.

The format of movie allows for movie to get relatively big names for relatively small roles. They get to come in for a few scenes, do their thing and go on their way. So you get stuff like Judi Dench as an aging Russian noble, Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor, Daisy Ridley as a young governess, and Johnny Depp as an American businessman/gangster. They are all mostly small roles, but each with their own eccentricities to make them interesting. Each member of the cast is delightful, most notably Depp for not being too over the top.

There are two principal joys in this film. The first and most obvious is the look. Poirot starts the movie in Jerusalem and travels across the near east, through marvelous vistas of snow covered mountains and golden sunsets. The train is amazingly designed and the costumes are top notch. It is simply a gorgeous movie. The other is just watching the detective put the pieces together. That means getting to see each of the small performances and also Branagh’s centerpiece as Poirot. Despite the big change of his mustache, going from a small, neat mustache to an ostentatious handlebar, he mostly sticks with the book character; fastidious, egocentric and a little silly. We see him find all the clues and hear all the testimony. Theoretically, a viewer could grasp what has happened before Poirot breaks it down. I don’t know how effective the movie is at this, I already knew how this story ended, but I loved watching the movie go through the motions.

I could see people really not liking this movie. It is not a grand adventure, it is a small, locked room mystery. It isn’t a thriller and certainly not an action movie, so I could see it being found dull. But there are so few movies that delivery the specific joys that this one does that I am very glad to have it.

****

Kong: Skull Island Review

Kong Skull Island is the second would be blockbuster of what looks to be a packed March.  It has a stellar cast and some amazing effects work and is just all around a great time.  It is a monster movie that doesn’t hide its monster. It doesn’t play coy or spend a lot of time with buildup; Kong Skull Island knows what viewers have come to see and it delivers immediately.

Kong Skull Island starts with John Goodman’s Randa begging for one chance to explore a newly discovered island in the Pacific as the US pulls its troops out of Vietnam.  He gets his last ditch approval by playing into Cold War scares and has Col. Packard’s (Sam Jackson) helicopter unit assigned to escort them on their mission.  Once there, they discover Kong and everything goes to hell.

Kong walks a fine line with its human characters, and I wouldn’t argue with you if you say it stumbles.  It kind of uses that wretched Michael Bay shorthand to introduce its characters, something that usually signals that the viewer is in for a bad time.  Here, though, that shorthand is not mistaken for actual character development. It only gives sketches of the more than dozen characters to go to the island because it simply doesn’t have time for more.  Kong needs viewers to like the characters at least a little, so they care when all but a handful of them are summarily killed off right after they hit the island.  But it can’t have the viewer care too much, because then seeing them all killed hurts.  It also doesn’t want to tip its hand as to who will soon be getting a close up look at the bottom of a monster’s foot, at least in regards to the soldiers.  With the civilian half of the expedition it is obvious.  A few characters develop into something more than that initial sketch, including John C Reilly’s Marlow, Packard and a few of the rank and file soldiers, Shea Whigham’s Cole and Jason Mitchell’s Mills.  Would be leads Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson have little to do other than be the voices of reason in an insane world.  

The star of the movie, though, is Kong.  Here he is reimagined as a skyscraper tall bigfoot. He stands upright and fights like a wrestler.  While he has a sad backstory, he is not the soulful ape of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake from a decade ago.  Here is more a vast and unknowable god.  The best parts of the movie are the parts where Kong is on screen.  

The movie is a mishmash of tons of things.  It makes some motions toward the classic King Kong story, but they are fleeting and reimagined.  The island natives are peaceful and accommodating if not exactly friendly.  They are certainly not trying women up to offer them as a sacrifice to Kong.  Kong seems to like Larson’s character, but it is no weird tragic love story.  It also has allusions to Heart of Darkness, or at least to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Moby Dick.  It makes for some muddled messaging, but the anti-war intent comes through clearly. Sometimes an enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for it.

Visually it is stunning, with Skull Island beautifully realized.  Director Vogt-Roberts has said that Princess Mononoke was among the inspirations for the creatures of the island and that comes through. To go with a genuinely wonderful island, there are at least a dozen beautiful, memorable shots.  The movies stunning posters are representative of how the entire movie looks.  

There are deficiencies in Kong Skull Island, but none that ever threatened to wipe the big silly grin from my face. It has the energy of a classic B-movie; it feels a lot like some of the better Godzilla movies.  It is that kind of silliness made with the sort of lavish budget that those movies couldn’t even dream about.  It is easily the most fun I’ve had at a movie in months.

****