Saturday, March 31, 2018

Journey's End

British director Saul Dibb's anguishing cinematic treatment of R.C. Sherriff's 1928 stage play Journey's End trains an unwavering but humane eye on the devastation of war that goes beyond the destruction of flesh and bone to the pulverization of the mind and the spirit. Sam Claflin stars as Captain Stanhope, a company commander in 1918 who is deep in the whiskey bottle as the film opens and never finds his way out. He is counseled and supported by the stalwart Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany) and Second Lieutenant Trotter (Stephen Graham), both of whom are much loved by the soldiers under their command. Into their ranks comes a freshly minted second lieutenant, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a personal friend of Stanhope's who requested assignment to his friend's company, which has been assigned to hold a trench in northern France. Stanhope, embarrassed by his drinking, is at first cold to the new officer, who admires him still and understands little of what combat is actually about. In time, Stanhope receives word that the Germans will be moving on the company's position in a few days and the company can expect no assistance or relief. The film spends most of its time showing us what goes on beneath the surface among this group of battered, frightened but resolute soldiers, who, we realize, as they must, that they are little more than dispensable fodder.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Fantastic Woman

Chilean director Sebastian Lelia’s A Fantastic Woman assumes nothing in its depiction of a trans woman whose partner dies suddenly, leaving her to contend with the man’s abrasive and transphobic ex-wife and brutish son as she comes to grips with the meaning of their relationship and her place in the world. The narrative does not ride on the back of current political disputes and activist sloganeering. The film’s lead is not heroic just supremely human. Daniela Vega is stoic and nearly regal in her bearing as the beset Marina, who simply wants to salvage some element of happiness out of a horrible situation.

Saturday, March 24, 2018


Steven Soderbergh's clever, iPhone-filmed distress fest, Unsane, is a tightly wound creep thriller that will no doubt have audiences yelling at the screen -- in the best way. British actress Claire Foy (The Crown) stars as Sawyer Valentini, an anxious and possibly crazy young woman who is on the run in Pennsylvania from a stalker back home in Boston. A visit to a counselor for her anxiety lands her in a psychiatric hospital, that may or may not be legit, for observation, but she bounces off the walls and off of other patients. A gregarious fellow patient (Jay Pharoah of SNL) who may or may not have an opioid addiction befriends Sawyer and tries to help her adjust. A weirdly menacing medical technician played by Joshua Leonard (director and star of the pioneering handheld creep fest The Blair Witch Project) may or may not be Sawyer's stalker from Boston and no one seems to believe her claims that he is. Both Foy and Leonard deliver a degree of intensity in their roles that could have easily devolved into parody. Instead, they are riveting and exhausting. Unsane is a smartly crafted tale in this Age of Time's Up and predatory health care.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Seven Seconds

Netflix's Seven Seconds starts as a refreshing treatment of a rapidly aging dramatic premise -- honest folks face off with bad cops and a beleaguered and cynical criminal justice system -- but it turns mawkish in its final hour. It's worth the watch because of Clare-Hope Ashitey's winning performance as Assistant Prosector KJ Harper, a karaoke-loving booze hound who is assigned the case of teenage black boy who was hit by a Jersey City cop and left in a ditch to die. Though at first reluctant, Harper is joined in this Black Lives Matter crusade by NYPD transfer Joe "Fish" Rinaldi (Michael Mosley), a ballsy guy who hates dirty cops more than he hates New Jersey. The series' rogues' gallery of despicable characters includes a trio of undercover detectives who are in bed with a local black gang that is slinging drugs on city corners, an ambitious chief prosecutor who needs the case settled to lock in the black vote for the next election and happens to be Harper's ex-lover, and the dead boy's family, church-going folks who sway between indignation and madness. The final courtroom scene might remind some viewers of To Kill a Mockingbird; I'm sure the scene was meant as an homage but it felt forced and treacly to me.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Hard Sun

Brit Neil Cross's Hard Sun joins the bleak ranks of binge series occupied by Mr. Robot and The Night Of ... whose grim premises suggest the creator's intention to go dark and get ever darker. In the case of Hard Sun, the irony is deliberate and the brutality unrelenting. Cross, the creative mind behind Luther, has crafted his narrative around a catastrophic solar episode, not fully explained in season 1, that is predicted to destroy life on earth in five years (yes, cue Bowie). Were that horrible projection not enough to contend with, London's unhinged are using leaked reports of humanity's destruction as reason to mete out their own last-days retribution on sinners and saints alike. No, it's not a pretty picture but the three primary players are, er, stellar. Jim Sturgess, who I remember best from the Beatle's tribute film Across the Universe and the card-counting hat trick 21, plays DCI Charlie Hicks, a corrupt cop who may or may not have murdered a fellow officer; Agyness Deyn (Clash of Titans) as DI Elaine Renko, a crack detective and astoundingly messed up woman whose assigned to Hicks' unit to replace the dead detective and, secretly, to get to the bottom of the shooting; and the eminently watchable Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther), as an MI5 operative on the hunt for the pirated documents that tell the story of the solar episode, code name Hard Sun. The series also features some outstanding work by the young actor Jo Jo Macari as Renko's slasher offspring, the psychotic but weirdly lovable Daniel.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Love, Simon

Greg Berlanti's Love, Simon delivers layers of affectionate humor in the telling of this coming out story of high school senior Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) who begins to correspond via email with another secretly gay student at his high school whom he knows simply as Blue. A virtual romance blossoms (mostly in Simon's fertile imagination) and is kept from Simon's unbelievably cool parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and his devoted buddies (Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp and Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). When his correspondence is discovered by a classmate (a wonderfully irrepressible Logan Miller), Simon concocts ways to keep his deluded blackmailer happy, all of which, of course, go sideways. This affirming picture is brimming with charm and wit, none of which is barbed. Simon's dilemma is ultimately resolved, of course, but it serves as a fairly pointed lesson about the interconnections of our lives and loves. Tony Hale as Assistant Principal Worth and Natasha Rothwell as drama coach Ms. Albright add delicious helpings of sauce to the mix.

Monday, March 12, 2018


Alex Garland's phantasm of a film, Annihilation, contains familiar expedition tropes, a brutal and agonizing attack sequence and stunning visuals that, unfortunately, spangle more than enlighten. We follow a team of female scientists and warriors into a piece of coastal U.S. territory that is being genetically transformed by an extraterrestrial presence called The Shimmer. Others have ventured in but not one has returned. The picture poses an interesting paradox -- the benign alien threat. Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Oscar Isaac star.

A Wrinkle in Time

Ava DuVernay's adaption of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is such a frustrating work that it's difficult for me to pinpoint where to place my disappointment. I guess I'm perplexed more than sad. Two young siblings (Storm Reid and Deric McCabe) and a friend (Levi Miller) set off in the company of three fantastically costumed cosmic creatures (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling) to search for the sibs' scientist father (Chris Pine) who is lost in another time and dimension. The script feels uneven and quite often uncertain of itself. The derision the sibs suffer at school because of their father's disappearance feels grotesque and unreal but is explained, to some degree and not entirely convincingly, later. Actually, some important exposition about the discovery at the center of the story has been omitted from the final print, even though, oddly, it was included in an early trailer. The animated elements are top-notch Disney but don't contribute substantially to story development. A pretty spectacular flying sequence runs two hairs too long and is followed by comparatively lesser visual effects that don't quite add up to a thrill ride. The final showdown with the evil force IT is a showcase for the often engaging Miss Reid and the precocious though overtaxed Master McCabe. And, still, the three child actors heading this fairly contained adventure aren't well-served by the story. The dreamy young Master Miller is reduced to prepubescent eye-candy, and the early banter between Reid and McCabe is too often garbled when it's not cloying. Ms. DuVernay's decidedly multicultural casting and storytelling is trading in some interesting racial politics. The casual viewer might not question the choice of perennial heartthrob Pine to play the missing father and British beauty Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the perplexed mother / wife but others might wonder why the film, which was boldly promoting the universality of humankind, would show such timidity in casting these roles so conventionally. I wonder what the response would have been had they cast Sterling K. Brown as the father, for example. Children, especially younger girls, will no doubt enjoy the film's power girl message but the picture itself is not one for the time capsule. Pity.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...