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bob the moo
(list no longer kept up-to-date....sorry)
The Fits (2015)
Great control over what it is trying to do and how it is doing it; a very well-directed Hightower brings it home
By way of unintentional contrast, I watched The Fits not long after watching The Falling a film similar in that it deals with mass fainting of girls around the age of puberty. I will not compare and contrast the films, except to say that while The Falling left me on the outside looking it, The Fits manages to draw me into a character for whom I have little in common, make me understand what she is going through, and very much feel for her throughout the film.
The plot sees a young girl stop boxing with her older brother in the gym and start to pay attention to the all-girl dance troupe that practice in another hall. As she joins the group and starts to integrate, some of the older girls fall into sudden seizures (which are dubbed 'the fits'). The split between those girls who have experienced these, and those that have not forms tensions within the wider group. The film achieves this while doing (by doing?) several surprising things. The most obvious is that dialogue is very light on the ground, and when it comes it tends to be functional stuff rather than any exposition or grandstanding for the cast to get their teeth into. The other thing it does is let the actual fits be a background thing something that is happening but is not our focus; instead Toni is our focus, and our relationship to anything in the film is through her.
There are so many ways this could not have worked, but it pulls it off well. Hightower gives a great performance and is very well directed; so much I was invested in with her character was down to small reactions, body language, the sense of pent up feeling all of it drawing me in and giving me things I could relate to even if the specifics I could not. The journey is very clear, and the implied meanings are fairly obvious but it is the intelligence and subtlety of the story- telling through this character that makes it more than just a series of events (far from it in fact).
The Fits is a beautifully observed character study, which never lets the plot device become more than the people and Toni is accessible and engaging as a character, and thanks to a very well-directed performance from the young lead. It is not a perfect film, and the sense of space may annoy some viewers, or the weakness of some aspects may grate, but at its core it is a tremendous film with near total control over what it is trying to do and how it is trying to do it.
More interesting in the moments than it is in the heavily trailed mystery (SPOILERS)
This miniseries (which may now get a second series) is an interesting beast, but it is a little inconsistent in what it is doing. At first I enjoyed the pilot for its broadly bitchy clichés, all of which confirm my inherent bias towards the sort of people who can afford to live this lifestyle the focus on petty drama, social politics, appearance and the such, all of it extended onto their children and staff. The presence of a murder of someone by someone adds to that rather soapy drama feel that it has at first, and the showroom homes and lives is on top of that too, giving it a sort of glossy sheen that suggests everything is best enjoyed on the superficial level.
Into the next few episodes and this impression wears away, because it is not just about social battles and one-upmanship, but rather there is plenty below the surface that each character is dealing with. Secrets, shames, regrets, and longings ; none of this is earth-shattering stuff, but this was the point I think was that it wasn't "rich people having rich people fights" but rather the 'people' in the characters comes out. As it does this, the reminders that there is a murder to come doesn't really add much. It serves to keep a focal point on the horizon, and to tell us of the gossipy community and why those in it would want to keep secrets. The downside of this is that the final episode is a bit too hyped up, and also a bit too tidy in its resolution however the good thing is that by this point the show has grown to be more interesting than this mystery.
The characters, their interactions, their individual struggles, and their root causes, all made for more interesting viewing. Yes it is stylized, polished, and set in a world of such resources that I cannot connect to that aspect of it, but it is the characters that make it work. The writing and its delivery in particular give one plenty to engage with. The starry cast look good on paper, but more importantly they do deliver; even some of the cast who I sometimes can take or leave won me over (Kidman, for example, was excellent). The supporting cast aren't always as good or as fleshed out, but the four female leads are great in their different ways, and get more engaging as their characters reveal complexity beyond what we see in the first episode.
While aspects of the show don't wholly work (one of them being the 'central' mystery), there is a lot to like as the show goes beyond its superficial starting point, and before it reaches its too-tidy resolution. Those looking for that sort of network drama gloss will enjoy it for that, but there is a darker core to this that offers more, satisfies in the drama, and makes for a more truthful story that the setting and lifestyles suggest.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Sits awkwardly across two stools, being good enough to work, but not excelling at either (suggestive SPOILERS)
It is a testament to the alien itself that the franchise continues, and that it continues to interest and engage. Even as the franchise has become messier as it expands, the core strengths remain although this does depend on who you speak to. Prometheus does seem to have pleased those who were happy that the "horror" element of the franchise was put behind the expansion of the story and mythology of the alien as a creature, and Covenant seems to be trying to keep that element while also producing an 'Alien' movie in terms of what that mostly has meant. It is a flawed attempt, but yet still provides enough of value to enjoy.
On the horror side, there are plenty of creatures, tension, fast- movement, and intensity; but it does all have the downside of feeling overly familiar. It doesn't help itself by having sequences which are directly or indirectly referencing the original films, but not quite doing it as effectively. For instance, the shower scene here is not bad, but when placed against the horrific cruelty and sexual nature of a similar scene in the original, it pales. Similarly, the other scenes deliver, but yet still fall short of something which we are constantly reminded of. The creatures themselves retain power, and the characters are decent enough to make us invest, and it is all professionally delivered.
On the other side, the mythology is more fully explained in terms of the development of the creature we are familiar with, the motivations of David and, by extension, of the Engineers. The problem is that there is a lot of true horror and character in there that needed to be brought out more than it was. The horror/thriller aspect takes time from that element, and I wanted to be more shocked or chilled by David than I was too often the events were related as such, as opposed to having a depth to them. Again this element did still work, but I was left wanting more given what it did. Fassbender helps this element loads though, and his performance makes the most of the time allotted for this, although on the flipside it does frustrate as I wanted more.
The plot itself, outside of these elements, does better at creating characters we like, or that have interesting flaws; but Covenant relies on them being stupid, and taking bad decisions with no basis mainly to allow the plot to move. There is enough to the film to make that less annoying, but it is still annoying to see heavily armed with guns but yet apparently oblivious to disease or microbiological risks associated with stepping onto a new planet. That aside though, there is enough in the horror, and in the mythology, and in Fassbender, to make Covenant worth seeing, even if it doesn't deliver on its full potential.
Rectify: All I'm Sayin' (2016)
S4: Slow, subdued, testing, and rewarding all the way to the end (suggestive SPOILERS)
The fourth and final season of Rectify closes out in the way same as it was delivered with a slow, steady pace that can be testing, but at the same time is rewarding in terms of characters and space. I did go into this season hoping for closure, hoping for the (comparatively) plot driven third season, to continue into developments and revelations. In a way, it does, but not to the point where those looking for everything to be neatly resolved (or even close) will be happy. I don't mean that to sound condescending, since I had that hope. The show knows better though, and it keeps its feet grounded and goes as far as makes sense in the time but also does give good closure, albeit on its own terms.
The season does have plenty of story, but it is the smaller interactions and moments that continue to make up the majority of the running time, and to provide the core strength to the show. As things come to the surface, it does have moments that seem a little soapy if you take them in isolation; however the bigger picture buys it these moments, since it is not overwrought or baseless but rather set in strong character development and time spent there. So much is left open and unresolved, but I didn't mind since I felt the characters were all left in good places or at least had found a sort of peace with where they were. The final, silent, scene to close it all out is representative of the whole which is that it could seem corny taken on its own, but there is a lot of road, development, and base behind it, all of which makes it a great moment in terms of what it means for the characters.
Rectify closes out as a series that I continue to really appreciate and admire, more than I love it and want to gush about it to everyone I meet. As I have watched I have tended to take that as meaning the show is not as strong as I would have liked, but I think with time what it means is that it knows itself, trusts itself, and is patient with what it is doing. A strong final season, but one that is consistent with the pace, patience, and focus of the show as a whole.
Gross but the drugged-up characters convince and engage
If you're coming to watch this film, you probably already know that it is about a couple who find a dead mouse in a can of beans, and you probably already know that the content of the film is pretty gross in terms of what happens. That is all true, but it buries what makes this film work, because it is the increasingly frantic interactions between the couple which make it engaging. We see this before the mouse is discovered, so we have a base for them, and that continues convincingly even as situations (and mental state) change.
Set entirely in one room (the apartment), Wasche and George make the script work. Wasche in particular is convincingly intense and convinces with that drug-inspired logic (the sort where one is convinced one is totally right and in a right state of mind to decide), while George is also convincing as the type of person you'd be if you had to deal with Wasche's character on top of a crippling addiction. It is darkly funny, but be warned it is also very gross and although you don't see much, the dead mouse is very convincing (I have 2 cats I've seen enough parts of dead mice to know), and what they do is therefore convincing too. It is hard to watch in this regard, but the way the wider scene convinces, seems 'natural', and engages, makes it work.
The ending isn't as strong as I would have liked, but the performances and intensity of the film is worth the look.
Engaging in its efforts even if it doesn't pull into the characters as much as the plot needed (SPOILERS)
Like everyone says, let's give this film credit for trying to do something unusual with the way it splits across genres to do something interesting on a character level, which at the same time is represented by a kaiju destroying large parts of Seoul. Essentially the plot boils down to a girl who has inner demons, and these are linked to a formative point in childhood, but continue to manifest themselves in her inability to stop drinking, her inability to shake off bad influences, and her inability to learn lessons for the next time she is confronted by choices. Through a very specific situation, this leads her to be responsible for a monster appearing in Seoul at a certain time each day.
For the majority of the film the mystery over the connection does tend to drive the film, which is a problem because if this is what you are looking for then the resolution seems almost pat and too tidy to fully satisfy on this front. At the same time then, it is the character element that needed more work because ideally the viewer would have taken the monster stuff as a distraction from the characters, not the other way round (as it mostly seemed). The characters do still link to the plot, and they are not weak per se, but I didn't feel Gloria's struggle as much as I needed to in order to completely engage and feel for her in a way that would make the plot work.
It is disappointing to realize this, because you can certainly see what attracted Hathaway to the character and the idea, but it doesn't get the depth or viewer empathy that it needed to pull it off. So, kudos for the idea and for presenting something that feels fresh and different, but in the end the writing doesn't do enough where it counts to make it something that stands on its content, not just its concept.
Nacido de Nuevo (2017)
Overly blunt, which limits how well it can work as a narrative or message
When a film is too well-meaning or sincere, I find myself conjuring up the image of a hippy mumbling incoherent but well-meaning sentences. In the case of Nacido de Nuevo that image is a bit "we're all one, y'know, like connected in one body man right?". This well- meaning sentiment has an even broader layer added to it by virtue of it directly referencing Trump policies in its content. For the record, I am not an US citizen, but certainly would have voted Democrat (reluctantly) in the face of Trump's isolationist and poorly constructed agenda. That said, it does not mean that I enjoy sitting in the choir for a parade of short films to come and confirm how right I was to feel this way.
To be fair, Nacido de Nuevo is far from the worst at this, but it is still pretty unsubtle in what it does and how it does it. A border patrol agent who lost a child finds himself confronting an illegal who is pregnant and giving birth during her entry into the US. In case you do not get the challenge to the idea of drawing lines and building walls from this alone, we even get a wall soundbite from Trump thrown into the mix, just to be sure. This limits the film. Such films will never reach the Trump voter, or convince them they were wrong so it means it is playing to the choir. Speaking from the choir, I already have a broad and unsubtle reminder of the damage of a Trump presidency, and that is Trump himself.
Technically the film is impressive it looks and sounds very good, but the content is not there to make it something as smart or impacting as it wanted to be. Indeed, the bluntness of its moral message is a limiting factor in how it works, which is a shame.
Two Dosas (2014)
Funny, and smart, with cultural elements thrown in unexpected ways but still present
An Indian man and his white colleague go out on a date. He decides to impress her with his exoticness by taking her to a small Indian restaurant which is off the beaten track and really authentic. His game plan is totally thrown when she offers off-menu, talks in fluent Hindi, and has an ex who seems to have been the brown version of Ryan Gosling.
There is a lot to like about this unassuming comedy. First and foremost it is funny; it has plenty of lines, interactions, and narrative turns that are amusing and pleasing in the way they surprise. It does this within a flashback structure which works well, allowing a natural flow of the story, with the listeners injected into the scene itself okay not breaking new ground, but it works well as a structural device. The third aspect is that there is a lot of smartness and observation within the film as it relates to cultural differences, and integration efforts (from both sides). I liked that the film played with the stereotypes at first, but then also pushes into nicely awkward territory but not just in the area of race.
The awkwardness over the ex, and the way the date is going is linked to the cultural aspect, but not wholly. However at the same time there is a lot of humor (and cringe truth) in Pavan not really being that into the culture he comes from, while Chloe is overly enthusiastic about all things Indian. I enjoyed that they both tried too hard in this space, and that the date only went naturally when they both relaxed around the music. Patel's performance makes that awkwardness work, while Wyld also nails her character well the supporting cast do well, but it is these two that make the script work as well as it does.
It feels like a small unassuming comedy, but there is a lot in here, all of which is delivered in a gentle, funny, and smart package.
Jay-Z: Moonlight (2017)
Interesting on several levels
There are a lot of levels to enjoy the extended video for Jay-Z's moonlight, although ironically the track itself isn't really one of them since it seems to be the least part of the running time. I'm not aware enough of American culture to appreciate the references to Friends' concept allegedly being taken directly from a less successful African-American television show, although that is one level; also I'm not really a fan of Friends or know the episodes enough to appreciate the precision of which this recreation is accurate. What does strike though is the sense of working harder to get less, of losing a little even in victory.
This is most evident in the lyrics and title of the track, which reference of course Moonlight (which won best picture), and La La Land (which took a lot of the shine off the victory in the moment). This is directly referenced at the end of the film in case you didn't pick up on it, but I prefer the content of the short where Jerrod Carmichael (playing Ross) is confronted by Hannibal Buress about his work in Friends. Well, not so much that moment, but the detachment that Carmichael suddenly feels while the comedy carries on in the background. I wish this moment was longer and offered more, because Carmichael does deliver with the look on his face.
The recreation itself is still worth a look, and it is entertaining to see such a famous cast replaced albeit replaced by a very well- known African-American cast; however to focus on this is to miss the sharper content although to be fair, the film could have spent longer on that aspect of it and done more with it too.
The Good Time Girls (2017)
Pretty functional with only the big names and resources making it stand out
This short film is part of a push of female cast and crew in the film industry. It features a lot of faces you will know in front of the camera, but also clicking around the crew you'll find quite a few with a lot of experience and potential. As someone who watches a lot of short films, finding such as cast in a short is a surprise, although in this case it is unfortunately one of the main reasons to remember the film.
It isn't bad, not at all. It looks good, has talented performers in the cast, and has clear reference points for its genre. However it is far too functional in what it does. The plot is fairly obvious as it unfolds, and it goes where you expect. There isn't enough tension, comedy, empathy, or drama in any consistent measure to make it work. The scenes with Dern and Dillahunt hold the most potential, and there are some striking moments, but it felt like there should have been more meat to it than there was. Kudos for the film for doing what it is doing as part of a project, however the film itself is merely okay.