The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

This is the first great movie of 2019. I think. After more than a week to think about, that is what I am going with. While there are certainly twists and turns in this thriller, it is a rather simple movie. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a perfect example of the movie just doing the thing. Contrast this with the recently released Serenity, an island noir that refuses to just be a noir, to admittedly hilarious results. Sparrow Creek is just a small, condensed mystery thriller. It just does that, with no special shifts in genre or concept mid-movie. And it all works well.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is about a militia group. They meet at their warehouse headquarters after hearing police reports of a shooting at a police funeral. The seven men quickly determine, based on some missing gear and a missing assault rifle, that one of the seven of them was the shooter. They decide to find out who did and turn that person in to the police in order to keep them from taking the whole group down. So ex-cop Gannon starts to investigate the other men in the group. He quickly narrows it down to young loner Keating or he standoffish Morris. Meanwhile, militia leader begins to suspect Noah, who has some kind of connection to Gannon and lied to the others upon arriving. Tensions rise as Gannon and Ford struggle over how to find out who is responsible. Meanwhile, reports on the police scanner suggest that other militia’s like theirs have risen up across the nation to fight back against the corrupt police, making the group wonder is they really want to turn in the culprit.

The movie is rather simple in form; it is essentially a kind of locked room mystery. But it is playing a bigger game. Gannon, played by James Badge Dale, is very effective at his job, but he is more worried about finding a scapegoat than actually getting to the truth. He is not exactly a reliable narrator. You can’t really trust him; he joined this militia same as these other disaffected criminals. But he is the center of the film. Each of the other characters, in a cast made up entirely of familiar faces if not familiar names, is broken in a slightly different way. Each one is an outcast. You never really sympathize with them, their goals and beliefs are abhorrent, but you can almost understand how they got there.

Without spoiling any of the narrative twists, things eventually come to a boil as most of the characters secrets are revealed. The conclusion ties everything together in a way that makes sense, but also keeps the viewer guessing right until the end. That ending, if I am interpreting things correctly, may not be as palatable as what came before, but it is still something. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek does not do anything truly new or revolutionary, it merely executes an old fashioned thriller at a very high level.

****

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a perfectly good animated superhero movie. What is odd is that in my bubble of movie reception, that feels like a intentional contrarianism. I have seen this movie lauded as the best superhero movie ever made, animated or otherwise. I can’t join in that high praise. It is good, very good even. But there must be something I am missing that transforms this very good film into some sort of unforgettable experience that others seem to be seeing.

Into the Spider-Verse is about Miles Morales, a young kid who is bitten by a radioactive spider, just like Peter Parker was. After some events involving the Kingpin, several other Spider-Man villains, and an attempt to breach into other realities, Miles must team with a middle-aged Spider-Man to stop all of reality for shattering.

The visuals are amazing. Into the Spider-Verse does a magnificent job of portraying a comic book animated, taking more from the coloring than the panels and borders. The inhabitants of the various realities all have their own animation style, each is done with loving care. However, the combination of of the coloring and the movie’s use of focus make it more than a little distracting; as though I was watching a 3D movie without the glasses on. Most people do not seem to share my complaints, so it likely won’t bother most people.

The movie also shows a great love and understanding of Spider-Man. It introduces various versions of the character, and plays with the various elements of the character’s origins. Each of the origin retains the central message of “with great power must also come great responsibility.” Miles’s origin is along the same lines. There are certainly differences, for starters his parents are still alive. But by the time it reaches its conclusion, Miles has reached the same place a Peter. The various Spider-people are a lot of fun. Outside of the run down Peter who reluctantly works as Miles mentor, there is the confident and assured Gwen Stacy, who isn’t completely new like Miles or as beaten as Peter. Then there are the three more wild variations. The black and white Spider-Man Noir, the anime inspired Peni Parker and the looney tunes-esque Peter Porker, an anthropomorphic pig.

Into the Spider-Verse is fun. It is an origin story, but there is a lot more going on. However, that a lot more going on is where it kind of leaves me cold. Miles story almost gets enough time to develop, as does Peter’s, but every other character is underserved. Gwen gets a couple of scenes, but nothing resembling an arc. A few of the villains have vague motivations, but that is it. The other Spider-people are just there for flavor. Which is fine, but then the movie tries to get you to care about their struggles near the end and it just falls flat. Still, this are minor problems in what is largely a very good movie.

Maybe my problem is that I just don’t care all that much about Spider-Man. I had similar problems with Spider-Man Homecoming. I like Spider-Man just fine, but he is far from a favorite. Just like this movie; I like it just fine, but that’s about it.

****

Ralph Breaks the Internet

With apologies to Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph was Disney’s first great 3D animated movie. It was a creative and loving look at the early days of arcade games. The easy, and fairly apt, comparison was that it was Toy Story for video games. As much as I enjoyed it, I can’t say I was especially eager for a follow up. Luckily, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston found a worthy new story with the characters that wasn’t just repeating the first movie. This time, protagonists Vanellope and Ralph go to the internet when the arcade owner hooks up a router to the same power strip where all the arcade games are plugged in.

When the first movie released, the same year as Brave, I thought it seemed like Disney released the Pixar movie and Pixar did the Disney one. That Pixar feeling is here this time as well. I don’t mean that as a catch all for a good movie, which Pixar’s output almost invariably is, but this is a kids movie that is as much for the kids parents as for the kids themselves. It doesn’t just throw out some jokes that go over the kids’ heads but their parents will laugh at, it builds some adult themes into the movie.

The movie is about friends growing apart, at least a little. It is about growing up and maybe not having the exact same interests at your friends anymore and how to be a good friend in that case. But it is also about parents learning to let their kids grow up, that they eventually become their own people and move out the house. Both stories are remarkably effective.

However, it is still a kids movie and the plot is largely an excuse for the two protagonists to romp around a virtual internet and comment on internet culture. Luckily, Moore and Johnston show the same affection for weirdo internet stuff that they did for old arcade games. Sure, it feels just like a Futurama episode from … 18 years ago (I’m so old!), but it is still a fun romp for most of its run time. They physically visit web sites, deal with pop up ad street vendors, fail to understand the concept of money, etc. It mostly serves as a vehicle for jokes until the greater problems come into focus.

Ralph becomes a youtube star to get the money they need, while Vanellope becomes enamored of a dangerous online racing game. Ralph has no interest in the game, but Vanellope can’t help but go back to it. It isn’t the cause of the growing conflict between the two friends, but the a symptom of a conflict that was already there.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is a good movie, a solid be to its predecessor’s A. It has some inspired jokes and inspired visuals, a story that is at times very touching. Ralph and Vanellope are two strong characters, and the events here build on the previous movie rather than resetting things. However, the movie doesn’t really have place for much of anyone else. Fix-It Felix and Calhoun, who played big roles in the first movie, are almost entirely absent. They aren’t really replaced by anyone. The movie brings in Shank, a racer from the deadly slaughter race, and Yesss, a buzztube algorithm, but they aren’t as big of presences as they could have been. There also is no true villain in the movie. Nearly all of it rests on the conflicts between best friends Vanellope and Ralph. Luckily, that relationship is strong enough to support the whole movie.

This isn’t the best recent Disney movie, but it is still a strong addition to the canon.

****

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.

****

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.

****