Project Power: Action to tide us over

Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi drama odyssey “Tenet” released internationally this past weekend, a film that was supposed to be the big blockbuster feature to reopen movie theaters across the United States.

Instead, Warner Brothers is slated to release the film on Labor Day weekend after pushing it back several times throughout the summer, leaving a gaping hole in the action-adventure genre that usually dominates June, July and August.

Streaming services have stepped up to the plate, giving audiences films that were supposed to supplement movies like “Top Gun: Maverick” (delayed until Christmas 2020), “Fast and Furious 9” (moved to April 2021) and “Black Widow” (pushed to November 2020).

Now Netflix Original movies like Chris Hemsworth’s “Extraction,” Mark Wahlberg’s “Spenser Confidential” and Charlize Theron’s “The Old Guard” have received prominent, uncontested opportunities to dominate the action conversation and propel the start of new franchises.

The latest in the line of upstart genre fodder, “Project Power,” dropped on the streaming service last week and features Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx and “Inception” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a dark, violent superhero origin story set in New Orleans that wouldn’t shine in normal times, but has stayed at the top of viewers’ Netflix queues for the better part of two weeks now.

“Project Power” blends Bradley Cooper’s 2011 film “Limitless” with a variety of dark superhero films to create a fantastic premise for a movie that doesn’t quite live up to its potential for cinematic extravagance with depth of character.

A lone New Orleans police officer and former soldier work with a teenage drug dealer to find the source of a strange new drug on the market in the Bayou that imbues whoever takes it with a different superpower lasting five minutes.

Foxx is solid as ever as the former soldier on a relentless mission, playing anti-hero quite well with an alluring charm and no-nonsense physicality required in blockbuster action fodder. His character’s limited backstory is intentionally vague at the outset, but Foxx languishes in the mundane rather than creating his own character beyond the page.

Likewise, Gordon-Levitt is likeable but largely forgettable as the renegade cop bending the rules to even the playing field with the bad guys. There are a couple of entertaining moments that allow the veteran actor to showcase his acting and fighting skills, but it’s clear co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman don’t have a knack for working with actors.

The film’s best performance by a large margin comes from Dominique Fishback, who takes the largely generic role of teenage lookout/informant and brings a real sense of purpose and emotion to the part, often outclassing her more famous on-screen partners in scenes with a genuine passion for the moment.

A significant portion of the budget was spent on lavish cinematography from Michael Simmonds and high-quality special effect to showcase the powers in the film, but not every sequence lands properly.

Because so much of the film is set at night, there’s a difficulty Joost and Schulman find in presenting the full potential of the powers in a darkened haze and it often gives the abilities an almost laughable blandness.

At other times, the film is quite striking – especially during a mid-film bank heist sequence – and draws audiences back into the middling storyline.

While not game-changing or exceptional in any particular way, “Project Power” is infinitely watchable, which makes it a perfect fit for streaming services filled with casual watchers who will discount its structural and screenplay flaws and simply enjoy the relative chaos.

Until a way is made for audiences to return safely to the theatrical experience in large numbers, more films like this will find their way into the cinematic sphere of relevance.

“Project Power” is like so many other on-demand releases to come out in 2020 that would be massive disappointments in theaters but worth giving a shot to on Netflix, who will gladly capitalize on the additional eyeballs to generate revenue and sequel opportunities.


Boys State: For the people, by the people

Over 1,200 high school boys gather annually in Austin to participate in a seven-day democratic experiment designed to test their mettle.

A mock government program put on nationwide by the American Legion, Boys State challenges these young men to form their own political parties, hold primaries and eventually a statewide race for a variety of offices culminating in a gubernatorial election.

Each iteration of this lesson in political gamesmanship masquerading as a crash course in civics is unique, although the Sundance Film Festival award winning documentary “Boys State” from co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss provides an exceptionally compelling look inside the minds of future American leadership with their nearly two-hour feature on the 2018 Texas Boys State program.

McBaine and Moss perfectly set the stage from the outset, highlighting major political leaders including President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and commentator Rush Limbaugh as alumni of the program.

“Boys State” is intended to feel like a glimpse into the crystal ball of America’s political future and it’s often revealing to watch aspiring young men hoping to make a difference in their world see what it takes to be successful – balancing bipartisanship with charisma, ideals with the relentless pursuit of a win.

At the film’s core, four major participants emerge representing the elected leadership of both the Federalist and Nationalist political parties created for the program and it’s through these stories that audiences are able to gain an understanding of how the next generation of political leaders will be molded and come to shape America’s identity.

For as much as the film gets in close with the participants and has the feeling of a raw political campaign, “Boys State” is strikingly cinematic with its camerawork, lingering on intense closeups as events unfold in real time and giving the film a scripted fictional vibe that could have some viewers doubting the authenticity of the scenes.

The choice to have the major characters interviewed on a long loveseat works wonders in the film’s latter half as the boys become more comfortable and honest in front of the camera, often sprawling out like relaxed chameleons letting audiences in on their secrets as if it were an episode of television reality game show “Survivor.”

Somewhat surprisingly, a film entitled “Boys State” that follows young men creating their own political agendas and campaigns fails to truly address the masculinity of their decision-making process, especially on the issue of abortion. 

One candidate’s revelation about hiding their pro-choice beliefs to try and garner favor with potential votes is especially compelling as the Boys State program begins to escalate and normalize “dirty tricks” politics.

As filmmakers, the directors attempt to portray this neutrally but it’s often with a tinge of sadness for the lack of bipartisanship and morality.

It’s best summed up by one of the participants, who comments that a rival is a “fantastic politician, but I don’t think that a fantastic politician is a compliment either.”

Like the program itself, “Boys State” makes ardent attempts to be non-partisan in its approach and allow events to unfold naturally, but the subjects it chooses inherently give the feature a liberal tint that conservatives may latch onto to dismiss the film as a whole.

The star of “Boys State” is unassuming, mild-mannered Steven Garza, born in Mission, Texas to an immigrant mother before moving to Houston. Shown early in the film wearing a “Beto for Senate” t-shirt and shyly introducing himself to other participants, his rise to a potential run for governor is the single most compelling storyline within “Boys State” and riveting to watch.

At times, McBaine and Moss’s love for Garza overwhelms the larger narrative of the film and tilts the political balance a tad too far, but by that point, viewers are so invested in the outcome of a mock race that happened two years ago, it hardly matters.

With the humor of “Election” and the heart of “Boyhood,” this verité film is an enthralling look at American politics through the lens of those who will come to shape it for the next 40-50 years. Without question the best documentary to be released thus far in 2020, “Boys State” proves that quality storytelling can be crafted in the genre with substance and soul, making it a must watch on AppleTV.


An American Pickle: No hysterics, just heart and soul

It’s hard not to pigeonhole Seth Rogen as a typecast comedic actor, especially when he’s made countless movies and millions of dollars playing a series of aloof stoner bros on screen.

Thick with phlegm and inhaled smoke, his iconic chuckle almost plays as a refrain in arguments defining his limitations as a performer.

Posters with his chubby smile slapped across the front signal raunchy comedy no matter the plotline and Rogen’s attempts at serious work – including 2015’s “Steve Jobs” or 2011’s “50/50” – give off a feeling of “He’s in that?”

So it’s no surprise that Rogen’s latest feature – “An American Pickle” for the HBO Max streaming service – is billed as a comedy, especially given the “Trading Places” and “Jack and Jill” nature of the film’s plot.

In the 90-minute feature, the Canadian actor plays both Jewish immigrant Herschel Greenbaum and his great-grandson, Ben, who come together after Herschel is discovered in a pickle brine vat 100 years later having not aged a day.

Intentionally or not, this ridiculous premise is where the hilarity is supposed to ensue. Culture shock and generational gaps are supposed to put at odds the two loners who are eerily similar to one another.

But the humor just isn’t there.

At times, “Pickle” goes for a comedic tone with Herschel’s adapting to modern times as a fish out of water being played for laughs. But the core of the film is a surprising sensitivity that will pull on viewers’ heartstrings.

Because so many of the jokes don’t land particularly well, the more somber moments stand out, giving audiences a reflective look at Judaism through the lens of a devout blue-collar Jew and a secular, hipster Brooklynite Jew.

That Rogen is playing both simultaneously is most striking about “Pickle” as Herschel challenges Rogen to flex his acting muscles emotionally while Ben feels more like a sober version of Rogen himself. It certainly feels as if Rogen is trying harder to play Herschel despite the overly comic accent that evokes Sacha Baron Cohen’s controversial “Borat” character.

A good chunk of “Pickle” is devoted to the concept of grief, with Herschel openly mourning the loss of his wife and the son he never met and Ben passively locking away the memory of his parents. This discord drives the conflict between the two characters and creates some genuinely earned, heartfelt moments in an otherwise morally complicated film.

The remainder of the supporting cast is largely unmemorable and tertiary to the plot that many characters are barely offered enough dialogue to be given names, let alone characteristics beyond affluent gay couple or entrepreneurial, industrious college intern.

Filmmaker Brandon Trost – making his solo directorial debut – shows off what he is best at, striking and bold cinematography that envelopes the viewer in the storyline despite its ridiculous premise. 

Early scenes set in the 1920s are shot in 4×3 black and white letterbox, framed to accentuate the cold despair of Eastern Europe and the hard life of American immigrants. Modern Brooklyn, meanwhile, is bright and poetic, sprawling in a cinematic 16×9 widescreen scope as is typical of how comedic films portray New York City.

Originally slated for a theatrical release through Sony Pictures, “An American Pickle” was sold to Warner Brothers for distribution through HBO Max in April, which was probably the best vehicle for the film regardless of the coronavirus pandemic.

Viewers who would be venturing out of their homes to a confined space and paying money might be upset with a “bait-and-switch” dramedy lacking in chuckles but should be more forgiving with a film that feels free despite requiring monthly subscription.

When viewed as a comedy, “An American Pickle” is an abject failure. Through the lens of a Jewish actor at conflict with himself, it’s interesting and engaging insight into the mind of a performer trying to find his true self.


Tread: Mayhem in a small town

Granby, Colorado feels like the sort of small town you’d find in every state across America.

Industrious, hardworking, the kind of place where neighbors know all the scuttlebutt within a few hours and there’s hardly a stranger because everyone is on a first name basis.

The fact that the events depicted in director Paul Solet’s gripping documentary “Tread” could plausibly happen in any small town are frightening, but like a train wreck you can’t look away from, what happened on June 4, 2004 is a mesmerizing display of anarchic chaos viewers will want to see more of just to figure out how one man pulled it off.

At the center of the documentary is Marvin Heemeyer, an Air Force veteran more than capable with a welding iron and the owner of Granby’s muffler shop, which he purchased at auction for a remarkably low sum of money only to find himself in legal battle with government officials and a rival business owner over water and sewer connections, property easements and fines.

It’s clear from the outset where “Tread” is heading; the opening preamble makes clear Heemeyer’s destructive intent with a fortified bulldozer causing chaos and massive property damage throughout the town.

But Solet also reveals how things escalated to that point and Heemeyer’s amazement that he could keep his plot a secret in a notoriously nosy small town.

A series of audio tapes recorded by Heemeyer give the audience a unique perspective into the changing mentality the former military serviceman had as he felt gradually separated from the outside world by political actors out to get him.

Solet perfectly weaves Heemeyer into the documentary’s narrative, overlaying his prerecorded dialogue over reenactments of key moments to give context and allow viewers inside the mind of the man silently being portrayed on screen.

Heemeyer is portrayed by actor Robert Fleet, usually from behind and framed like a specter haunting the film and foreshadowing the carnage of steel to come. The reenactments are largely silent and brilliantly captured by cinematographer Zoran Popovic with a dynamic visual style that bursts off the screen.

Much of the film’s first act centers around city politics as Heemeyer does battle with Granby water commissioners and the town council over his muffler shop and the adjacent land slated to be a concrete batch plant.

For a while, “Tread” makes a compelling case to draw viewers to Heemeyer’s side as the audio tapes explain how his rights were being infringed upon by malicious government officials working in conjunction with the concrete plant.

But though Solet never truly discusses mental illness as a potential reason for Heemeyer’s subsequent actions, the documentary morphs over its second and third act to a more bombastic, dramatic style in keeping with Heemeyer’s increasingly paranoid ramblings.

Reenactments of the buildup are solid throughout, but it’s in the third act as Heemeyer starts the engine and begins his rampage that Solet’s best directorial work really shines. 

Unable to rely on archival news footage or police cameras, “Tread” designs action sequences that replicate the creation of Heemeyer’s destructive bulldozer and its initial assault on property across the small Colorado town.

The film debuted at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival   before a limited theatrical run in February 2020. “Tread” launched on Netflix this past week and is certain to be among the streaming service’s more popular documentary titles, seamlessly fitting in the same mold of hit docuseries like “Tiger King” and “Making A Murderer” that follow eccentric men, government conspiracy theories and outlandishly true stories to compel audiences to watch every second over and over again.

An alluring look at a man past his breaking point, small town politics and bizarre, unforgettable crime, “Tread” is a mesmerizing 90-minute thrill ride that pushes the limits of conventional documentary filmmaking – often crossing the line to traditional fictional narrative – in order to keep viewers on the edge of their seats for the mayhem they know is inevitable.


Radioactive: Experimentation in biopic film

It’s unclear exactly why an avant-garde, cinematic biopic of the adult life of famed scientist Marie Curie was needed, but such is the world of film in 2020.

Opting not for the sidesplitting, yet emotional dramedy that powered 2016’s “Hidden Figures,” the demure albeit strange film “Radioactive” from director Marjane Satrapi presents Curie in a traditional light before mixing her journey to multiple Nobel Prizes with flashforward dream states to the conflicted impact of her work.

The result is a tonal mismatch of middling standards that wastes a strong performance from its lead actress and the bold, audacious cinematography that will likely keep some viewers watching the largely frustrating film until its conclusion.

Based on a graphic novel on the life of Madame Curie, “Radioactive” primarily focuses on the scientific work of the first female professor at the Sorbonne over a 20-year-period from the 1890s through the 1910s as she digs into the possibility of new elements, discovering their instability and becoming a French sensation in more ways than one.

As Marie, Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike gives a measured, yet powerful performance that comes across both as cold and abrupt yet endearing in a way that viewers want to rally behind her Marie.

The singularity of her work often overwhelms the performances of others sharing the screen with her, which is probably to be intended in most circumstances but plays a tricky part in the chemistry between Pike’s Marie and Sam Riley’s Pierre.

It’s easy to tell that the standoffishness of their pairing is a decided part of Pike’s approach to the role, but the clinical nature only works for her performance as Riley is more stiff than stoic. In smaller moments when viewers are seeing Pierre through Marie’s eyes, there is a small amount of warmth to be felt towards Riley’s performance, but for the most part, Pike feels as if she’s acting to thin air around her.

Anya Taylor-Joy – beyond exceptional in “Emma” earlier this year – does well in a lackluster smaller role as Curie’s elder daughter Irène, adopting Pike’s mannerisms and demeanor subtly, but with intention. The remainder of the supporting cast is as unexceptional as Satrapi treats them in the film.

“Radioactive” spends more time on the science the Curies discovered together than their personal romance, although how the film approaches Pierre’s impact on Marie after his death is perhaps the eccentricity of the screenplay that works the best and provides for the most interesting moments in the final act.

Screenwriter Jack Thorne plays with the narrative structure by throwing audiences up and down the historical timeline at will, opening with Marie’s final moments and tossing in sequences of her youth in Poland as well as the consequences of her discoveries long after her death seemingly at random.

To find viewers wandering through the remnants of Chernobyl is a puzzling detour that challenges the notion of Marie’s credibility as the heroine of her own tale, with Thorne almost positing her as anti-hero or incapable of seeing the downside of her discovery. “Radioactive” fails to reckon with these charges as much as it probably needs to for Thorne’s argument to be successful with audiences.

There is an impressive visual style to “Radioactive” that’s perhaps a bit too heavy-handed with darkness and shadows in scenes of deep black, but the cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle has a kinetic edge that reflects Satrapi’s overall vision for her film. 

The film’s strengths – an exceptional Pike, engaging and dynamic visuals and a haunting score – keep “Radioactive” from being a waste of time, although Satrapi’s latest feature isn’t really worth seeking out on Amazon Prime by anyone other than the most curious of ardent cinephiles.


Palm Springs: Hot film at the right time

It’s often said that a movie can feel of the moment, that it came out at exactly the right place and time for audiences to identify with and feel heard.

“Palm Springs,” a small romantic comedy that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival when things were normal, has a very “of the moment” vibe that no one – not even first-time director Max Barbakow or screenwriter Andy Siara – could have seen coming.

At its core, “Palm Springs” is a film about isolation and how we deal with feelings of empty aloneness even as people seemingly float around us.

In the “new normal” of social distancing and mask wearing for self-protection and the safety of those around us – especially in the heat of summer – there’s an interpersonal disconnect to life in 2020 that “Palm Springs” intimately captures with its quirky take on a familiar narrative.

The film follows Nyles, a carefree loner stuck at another wedding with his cheating girlfriend, when he strikes up a friendship with maid-of-honor Sarah. The next morning, things become complicated when the new friends cannot escape each other, the desert wedding venue or themselves.

“Saturday Night Live” alum Andy Samberg is an affable yet quirky choice for Nyles, shining here in more serious comedic fodder than audiences may be used to seeing from him in comedic film work. The general sense of apathy he brings to the character feels authentic to the plot rather than a forced device to create conflict and Samberg is genuinely entertaining throughout the film even as the tone changes at a whim.

His laissez-faire attitude also serves as a perfect foil for the more aggressive and standoffish Sarah, played by “How I Met Your Mother” actress Cristin Milioti.

While it’s clear that Samberg is the main focus of “Palm Springs,” Milioti frequently steals scenes with her expressive eyes and wry attitude that she flings into snarky lines of dialogue as Sarah challenges and mystifies Nyles.

The hate-to-like-to-love path romantic comedies often take doesn’t hinder the chemistry between Samberg and Milioti as both performers are so in the moment that it pulls the audience in from the outlandishness of the circumstances Nyles and Sarah are in.

Oscar winner and veteran character actor J.K. Simmons gets to flex his comedic and dramatic chops in the film’s primary supporting role as most of the ensemble cast feel like bystanders in Nyles’ and Sarah’s story rather than a true part of the narrative. His Roy leans into the no-nonsense attitude that is prevalent in a great Simmons performance while also providing much needed gravitas throughout and some key emotional depth.

Instead of rebooting the plot of one of Hollywood’s most beloved rom-coms, Barbakow and Siara peel elements of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” to give “Palm Springs” a hot yellow hue while rearranging the timeline in order to give their own perspective on the genre without becoming a rip-off of a classic.

The film moves at a pretty rapid pace, infusing character development within each scene as moments of calm among the chaos. It’s a brisk 90-minute adventure that feels right for keeping the plot from veering too wildly off course, as if it were a singular episode of a longer series audiences were dropped into the middle of.

It’s important that first-time viewers go into “Palm Springs” with as little information as possible, even avoiding trailers if at all possible as the film’s unique hook is better without prior knowledge. Doing this increases the boldness of Siara’s screenplay and the genuine chemistry between Samberg and Milioti as unlikely partners dealing with the plot’s twists and turns.

One of the hottest films to come out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “Palm Springs” was acquired by Hulu for a record-breaking $17 million, the highest distribution deal in the history of the festival.

“Palm Springs” has the comedic fun of an irreverent Judd Apatow movie with a smartly penned script, crisp direction and a wildly entertaining narrative that makes it a must-see home viewing on Hulu.


Greyhound: Sailing in cinematic circles

Four months have passed since most audiences have traveled to their local cinema to catch a new release film.

Ardent cinephiles have binged their way through the adventures of tiger kings, classic films, the latest miniseries to drop on streaming services and more in an endless quest for something new to watch.

And as they continue to spend less and less on a cinematic experience, expectations have gradually lowered as well.

Phrases like “I haven’t seen anything like that” are reduced to “I haven’t seen anything like that in a while” and what standards viewers have in terms of quality wane as their search for quantity continues.

Enter “Greyhound,” a film that should have all the hallmarks of crowd-pleasing, awards season fodder.

Led by cinema’s favorite everyman Tom Hanks, the Sony Pictures film acquired by Apple TV is a brisk 90-minute adventure across the Atlantic for World War II naval combat.

Based on the novel “The Good Shepherd” by CS Forester, “Greyhound” follows an Allied convoy carrying soldiers and supplies across the Atlantic in 1942 as the commander of an American destroyer codename Greyhound makes his first crossing while pursued by German submarines taunting him by day and attacking by nightfall.

The first 20 minutes are a hodgepodge of scenes that intend to orient audiences in the world of the film, littered with text explaining the risks of a cross-Atlantic journey, signals between ships and air support and to set the time and place. Intended as a device to save time, this often becomes an unnecessary distraction pulling focus from the events themselves.

A consummate performer who commands respect with his presence alone, Hanks is essential to a film that needs him to make the entire project even remotely worthwhile. From the opening moments, it’s clear that his Captain Krause will be the primary focus of the entire film and the only character worth focusing much attention.

Hanks has his best moments in pensive reflection of Krause’s actions – though these moments are fleeting – and his control as a new captain in combat reflects a steady outward persona marred by a relentless sense of heavy burden wearing on his mind.

Rob Morgan – a tremendous character actor whose compelling turn in “Just Mercy” is worth the price of that film alone – does a terrific job in a small supporting role as a mess hand trying to keep Krause fed, while the rest of the cast is so bland and ineffective that they blur into the background as Hanks bellows orders to nameless servicemen.

Action in “Greyhound” is alternatively thrilling and haphazard. Schneider creates some moments of intensity that pull viewers to the edge of their seats only to leave them longing for more.

Technically dense with military jargon and trigonometry, the “Greyhound” screenplay penned by Hanks himself adds to the circular feeling of the entire film as the plot loops in around itself chase by chase. The taut nature of a 90-minute feature keeps things moving, but Hanks leaves little room for explanation, reflection or character development with each passing naval engagement.

Additionally, “Greyhound” suffers from a geography problem. Schneider has trouble keeping the camera focused on perspective during combat, leaving viewers frequently vexed as to where the ship is located relative to the rest of the convoy and the pursuing U-boats.

While this is part of the struggle of the narrative, some of the dramatic tension gets released by not engaging audiences in the anticipation of inevitable attack. Viewers are thrust about narratively as Greyhound hunts down German submarines, often leaving audiences one step behind the fray.

As military films of the era go, “Greyhound” is a competent, yet unremarkable entry in the World War II genre, not rising to the level of David Ayer’s 2014 tank odyssey “Fury” nor Christopher Nolan’s all-encompassing epic “Dunkirk.”

For those in need of new content in the genre, however, Hanks’ lead performance and short run time make “Greyhound” something worth considering for home viewing by those who already have an Apple TV subscription.


Hamilton: The revolution has begun

This is how capturing live theater experiences needs to be done.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changing, revolutionary stage musical “Hamilton” arrives in cinematic form with a pitch-perfect ability to harness a moment in American pop culture history and preserve it for the annals of time.

Filmed in June 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, this nearly three-hour extravaganza is a compilation of several performances of the Broadway show mixed with closed door footage of the original cast performing privately for cameras on the stage itself.

For the millions of people worldwide unable to see the 11-time Tony Award winner in person, it’s a front row seat and intoxicating look at the iconic musical that places audiences right in the heart of the non-stop whirlwind of emotions, music and theatricality.

A hip-hop biography of the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, “Hamilton” follows his innocuous rise from abject poverty in the Caribbean through his time serving under George Washington in the American Revolution as well as his political life post-war culminating in his infamous duel with Aaron Burr.

Miranda, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the musical, doubles as the title character and star of the show, bringing his dynamic energy and passion to the screen with wide, emotional eyes that captivate a film audience in ways that one wouldn’t get fifteen rows deep in a Broadway auditorium.

Yet for as much as “Hamilton” is synonymous with Miranda, the show itself isn’t even about his performance with an array of mesmerizing talent littering the ensemble including three Tony Award winning performances from Daveed Diggs in a dual role as Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, who narrates the story.

There’s so much life brought to every single character within “Hamilton,” which isn’t surprising given the cast had been performing together eight times a week for nearly two years at the time of filming.

It’s a perfect balance of styles from Christopher Jackson’s John Legend-esque turn as a stern but loving George Washington to the wonderfully comedic Jonathan Groff bringing levity as King George II to Phillipa Soo’s warm, emotional Elisa that grounds the narrative with heart.

But translating one of Broadway’s best musicals of all-time to a static, feature film format is exceptionally challenging.

Pulling off a movie version of “Hamilton” that’s not stagnant nor overly documentarian requires a director with great skill and vision.

In this instance, it’s invaluable to have an expert stage director like Thomas Kail at the helm of the feature film version of the Broadway experience. Kail, who also directed the stage show, keeps his eye trained on the simplest of moments and the subtlest of nuances that he, Miranda and the entire team put into the production.

There’s a kinetic energy to the camera work that reflect the frantic pace of the musical and wonderfully substitutes for how audience members might be constantly turning their heads to try and catch everything the stage show has to offer.

Tight shots that pull in from all angles on individual performances heighten the cinematic quality, but it’s in the wider moments that truly encompass the full spectacle of the “Hamilton” experience and allow audiences to reflect in awe at the theatricality of the musical.

This is never more present than in the staging of “Satisfied,” a first act retelling of the whirlwind romance of Hamilton and his future bride Eliza as seen through the eyes of her envious sister Angelica.

Lighting cues, a rotating stage and spectacular choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler take a two-dimensional song performed by Goldsberry from a static position and create a relentless and hypnotizing visual spectacle that enhances both the song itself and Miranda’s narrative as a whole.

Depth is key throughout Kail’s interpretation of Miranda’s musical as every performer including the ensemble chorus members have distinct purpose scene to scene; technical elements supplement the action and the totality of the Broadway monolith almost necessitates multiple viewings to understand the intricacies, especially for those who haven’t had the soundtrack on rotate for years.

Editor Jonah Moran had an immensely painstaking and thankless job crafting the film as audiences watch it in their own homes, choosing from a variety of angles and performances to sculpt a viewing experience that equally balances the traditional Broadway stage with intimate closeups, two-shots and reverse angles to that will allow those who’ve seen the production countless times a fresh perspective on the extravagance.

Cuts occur on a dime and often alongside musical cues within songs, phrases or melodies, with Moran and Kail being exceptionally particular about keeping viewers’ eyes on exactly what their perspective should be in any given moment.

“Hamilton” could easily make its way into the conversation come awards season as a previously planned theatrical release makes the film eligible for Academy Award consideration and there is some precedent for filmed performances to earn Oscar nods with Laurence Olivier’s staging of Shakespeare’s “Othello” earning several nominations.

In reality, “Hamilton” will have a much better chance at success at the Golden Globes where it will easily play into that group’s comedy/musical categories.

Miranda’s other Tony Award winning musical, “In the Heights,” was slated for its major motion picture release this summer but moved back to 2021 amid the coronavirus.

In its place, audiences are treated to “Hamilton” in all its glory and spectacle, conveniently released over the Fourth of July weekend on Disney+ which makes it widely accessible at a low cost and essential summer viewing for anyone in need of finely crafted entertainment.


My Spy: Spy games gone bad

Promos for the new family action movie “My Spy” have been popping up on television and on social media for the better part of a year now.

This isn’t because this flick starring that former pro wrestler from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies has been eagerly anticipated for so long, rather that multiple studios had little to no idea what to do with the finalized product.

Originally produced by STX and slated for an August 2019 theatrical release, “My Spy” has been bouncing around the release calendar ever since – jumping at least a half dozen times before Amazon Studios purchased the rights to the film for a March 2020 release only to have that pushed to its Amazon Prime streaming service June 26 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The odds have been stacked against director Peter Segal’s film and the end result doesn’t deliver beyond a casual, free watch online.

Dave Bautista stars as JJ, a former special forces operative turned CIA agent whose personal skills prevent him from being an effective spy, pushing him to protection detail for a nine-year-old girl, Sophie, and her mother. When Sophie stumbles onto their hidden operation post, JJ and his technical support Bobbi must keep her from spilling the beans and blowing the op.

Simply put, it’s a lesser, PG-13 version of Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious 2015 comedy “Spy” and a different take on “Kindergarten Cop” without the charisma that Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to that film.

Bautista is a more than serviceable leading man for a film like “My Spy,” which offers enough action sequences to show off his muscles and physical prowess but gives enough opportunities for Bautista to flex his comedic brawn as well.

His ability to play inept largely comes across as endearing – not to the extent of his Drax from the “Guardians” films – but the humor usually results in at least a chuckle if not outright laughter.

“Flight of the Conchords” star Kristen Schaal is often amusing in her snarky role as JJ’s tech operative Bobbi, but it often feels as if Schaal is saddled with the cheesiest, most obvious physical comedy work that turns her Bobbi into somewhat of a drag.

Her genuine admiration for Bautista’s JJ is an ongoing theme throughout “My Spy,” though it’s rarely clear what exactly the character has done to prove his worthiness besides being a dopey butt-kicker.

The brightest star of a mixed bag, newcomer Chloe Coleman is adorably charming and often downright hilarious as the wise-beyond-her-years Sophie. Out of everyone in the film, Coleman is able to best suspend her own disbelief for the outlandishness of the plot and deliver a compelling performance that has genuine warmth.

While Bautista’s place in the industry is relatively secure, Coleman has the biggest upward trajectory as a performer coming out of “My Spy,” which should help her land bigger parts that are more worth of her talent.

Segal’s direction rarely gets in the way and it’s the uneven, frequently boring screenplay from “The Meg” and “Battleship” writers Erich and Jon Hoeber that fails its cast. The duo fail to find the right balance between sweet and sincere with dry and brutal. 

Much of the film’s narrative seems like a thrown-away plot device to pit Bautista and Coleman in a variety of situations rather than make what happens in the film genuinely important.

“My Spy” also suffers from winking at the audience far too much. There’s nods to the implausibility of JJ’s thinly constructed romance with Kate and overt jokes about catch phrases good guys say when they eliminate the bad guys.

A comedic sequence that includes training Sophie about how to casually stroll away from a major explosion works very well, but as is the case with much of “My Spy,” the gimmick is pulled well beyond its means.

Too crude for the preteens who would probably enjoy it best and beneath the teens it targets, “My Spy” isn’t something worth spending money on but could be enjoyed casually in the background while surfing through the Amazon Prime streaming service.


Artemis Fowl: A truly fractured fairy tale

There are two key components keeping the theatrical cinema system alive these days: film franchises and kids’ movies.

It’s why almost every new feature aimed at a target audience is virtually guaranteed a sequel or reboot – Hello, “Sonic The Hedgehog” and “Mulan!” – within the first month of release.

At the forefront of this trend for the better part of a decade is Disney, the cinematic monopoly behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars franchise and a plethora of animated children’s films from their home studio as well as Pixar.

Disney’s latest attempt to generate movie revenue – a budding franchise for pre-teens in the mold of “Harry Potter” – dropped on their streaming platform, Disney+, last week after being shifted several times down the release calendar due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s also likely that the Kenneth Branagh directed film would have underperformed at the box office regardless of health concerns as the highly convoluted plot and uneven performances left it as a mixed bag.

Based on a series of novels by Irish author Eoin Colfer, “Artemis Fowl” follows the title character on a quest to steal a missing fairy relic and exchange it with an unknown mystical power who has kidnapped Artemis’s father.

A tale filled with goblins and dwarves and trolls, the film should naturally offer shades of “Lord of the Rings” in a modern setting. But things just ring false from the opening minutes as Josh Gad’s giant dwarf Mulch Diggins is arrested and proceeds to narrate the entire film in flashback, dragging audiences through a series of convoluted events that tie together Colfer’s first two novels.

Newcomer Ferdia Shaw – grandson of Oscar nominee Robert Shaw – takes on the title role with the bravado needed of a child actor playing someone with a genius level IQ, but there’s neither enough charm nor snark in the performance to make the younger Artemis Fowl anything more than a walking contradiction of terms.

Shaw’s Fowl is dismissive yet compassionate, but only when he feels like it. The performance is largely hidden beneath Shaw’s stern sneer, masking the poorly written screenplay that finds Artemis always knowing exactly what to do with very little prompting and rarely out of control of any situation.

Perhaps part of this standoffish persona comes from Shaw replicating the performance of Colin Farrell as best he can, as a son would seek to mimic his distant, yet aggressively sure-of-himself father. As the older Artemis Fowl, Farrell’s limited screen time prevents him from developing any depth to the performance although it’s clear the stage is set for meatier work in a future installment, if Disney so chooses to continue the series.

Dame Judi Dench plays a secondary role as a fairy police commander – with pointy ears to boot – and although the part is far beneath her incredible talents, Dench gives the fairies’ section of the film some needed gravitas and isn’t nearly as atrociously audacious as her turn as Old Deuteronomy in last year’s musical “Cats.”

Gad offers the strangest performance of the entire cast, woefully miscast in Hagrid from “Harry Potter” cosplay but with a gravelly Batman voice as Diggins. For a film that leans heavily into the world of the unbelievable, Gad sticks out like a sore thumb as a force that pulls viewers out of their suspension of disbelief and reminds them very clearly that they’re watching mediocre cinematic “Dungeons and Dragons” fodder.

Branagh’s third turn with a Disney franchise after 2011’s “Thor” and 2015’s “Cinderella” proves conclusively that the Irish filmmaker can’t successfully make the transition from serious period drama to playful adaptation. “Artemis Fowl” lacks the intensity and darkness that Alfonso Cuaron brought to the “Harry Potter” series nor the brightness and charm that Taika Waititi invigorated the third “Thor” installment with.

While a second run at the series feels almost inevitable at this point given the nature of the film business, a massive injection of life and spirit into the followup will be necessary to make Artemis’ first adventure feel anything less than perfunctory.

Decent enough for children in need of something new to watch this summer on a streaming service parents probably have subscribed to already, “Artemis Fowl” is a watchable, yet unmemorable film.


Da 5 Bloods: Battle scars never fully heal

Four men – aging Vietnam vets laden with the scars of their service – return to the land that forged them in search of their fallen commander’s grave and the gold bullion that lies with it.

For a filmmaker like Oliver Stone, this story would be a bombastic tale of frustration and anger boiling to the surface without much humanity under the surface.

Director Spike Lee, however, uses the narrative as a device to educate about the struggles of African American armed forces far from home during the civil rights movement and how racial identity and politics affected a generation of servicemen.

The film, “Da 5 Bloods,” finds Lee pulling from all the corners of his mind, grabbing subtle and overt cinematic homages to “Apocalypse Now” or the philosophical diatribes of Richard Linklater films and interspersing them with news footage that recontextualizes fictional events.

Though part of an ensemble piece in practice, Delroy Lindo shines above the rest with a career-best performance as Paul, whose grief and post-traumatic stress rip at him from the seams as he tries to maintain an outward strength and resolve through thinly veiled contempt that borders on outright hatred.

Lindo is able to masterfully fill Paul with an anguish that comes to define his soul and the choices that he makes, evoking shades of Colonel Kurtz with as perfectly conflicted a portrayal of PTSD that has been on screen in years. 

Following up on his incredible turn in the independent drama “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Jonathan Majors delivers a brilliantly understated performance as Paul’s son, David, taking the forefront when needed to go toe-to-toe with a magnetic Lindo and almost fading into the background to allow the four surviving members of the unit to have their moments independent of the current timeline.

Broadway veteran Norm Lewis as well as “The Wire” stars Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. give the core cast a dynamic energy and team with Lindo to create an invaluable, genuine bond that feels authentic to those forged in combat.

Chadwick Boseman offers stern charisma in a small supporting turn as “Stormin’ Norman” during flashback sequences, commanding the screen with his presence in a way that evokes Malcolm X in his physicality and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his words.

Lee opts to have the four surviving Bloods be played by the same actor in multiple eras without the de-aging process that plagued last year’s “The Irishman,” which does not hinder the flashback sequences as much as might be expected, although the age difference between Boseman and his fellow actors does feel wider upon closer inspection.

Subtle when he wants to be and demonstrative when he feels he has to be to make his point, Lee commands “Da 5 Bloods” with a deft hand behind the director’s chair and a firm grip in the edit bay. 

“Da 5 Bloods” has the auteur’s signature ambivalence to audience reaction, morphing the visual style and pacing of his film as he sees fits with little regard to how the viewer will follow the action. Historical footage/stills are intercut within scenes as they are referenced to accent the narrative, inform the viewer and, at times, jolt them out of their relative comfort as a third-party observer.

Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel use a variety of aspect ratios to differentiate timelines in the film. 

Present day has a thin, wide cinemascope to reflect both modern filmmaking and take in more of Vietnamese city and jungle landscapes. This works in perfect opposition to the faded, square visuals of flashbacks to “the American War” as it is referenced in the film, where a newsreel style gives a sense of distance and observation while keeping viewers engaged in the moment.

The film’s tremendous and sweeping musical score from Terence Blanchard is paired with poignant and pointed selections from the discography of Marvin Gaye. Lee infuses “Da 5 Bloods” with Gaye’s harmonies to challenge and set the mood of the film – foreshadowing events with the seductive “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” opening the film and an acapella rendition of “What’s Going On” magically priming the audience for the concluding final act.

“Da 5 Bloods” may not have the universal support come awards season that Lee’s previous feature, “BlacKkKlansman,” had on its way to six Oscar nominations including a win for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film’s eccentricities and early summer release may doom a wide campaign, but Lindo rightly should be in the conversation for an individual acting nod with his career-best performance.

It should come as no surprise that Lee struggled to gain traction with studios to make his follow-up to the financially successful “BlacKkKlansman” more avantgarde than his commercial successes and Netflix is ideal for the instant rewatchability of a film that’s in dire need of multiple viewings to fully understand Lee’s point of view.

Cinematically complex and audacious in how it challenges and sparks conversation in its audiences, “Da 5 Bloods” sees a true auteur make a film that’s incredibly timely amid current events and one worth checking out on the streaming service.


Shirley: The horror of everyday life

Movie goers are often frightened by things that aren’t real – clowns with red balloons living in the sewers, killers that strike in dreams with a bladed claw, vampires, mummies and witches.

But in a simpler, yet somehow more complex way, it’s the things that are plausibly realistic and feel authentic to our own lives that prove to be the greater terror.

While major studios spend large stacks of cash on increasingly bombastic thrills and chills, smaller independent filmmakers find an unsettling world in more intimate settings where tension builds in close quarters and psychologically rather than physically.

Based loosely on the life of Gothic novelist Shirley Jackson, director Josephine Decker’s latest film peers into the 1950s world of Jackson and her husband, a prominent college professor, as they play host to a recently married young couple. As Shirley and Rose grow closer, the newlywed becomes entranced in Shirley’s writing methods in a film that melds fantasy and reality.

Elisabeth Moss plays Shirley with an erratic blend of manic episodes, lucid calm and measured maliciousness that provides the entire film with a center point on which to twist and turn its allegorical, fantastical tale. 

Even in moments when Shirley cannot bring herself to move an inch, Moss is mesmerizing to behold on screen, captivating the audience into a trance with her distant, glossy stare into nothing.

It’s such a multifaceted, layered performance that it almost feels as if Moss is revealing Shirley to viewers like peeling an onion.

Newcomer Odessa Young is equally as entrancing with an ingénue performance as Rose that slowly turns towards a maddening cynicism as her naivety to the world around her is stripped away.

As Shirley begins to envision Rose as Paula, the protagonist in the novel she’s writing, Young steps into that role as well, blurring the lines between the reality of the film and an imagined desperation that led to Paula’s death. 

Young is able to capture both Rose and Paula with subtle flourishes that might indicate to the viewer which of the two audiences are seeing, but the differences Young plays with are so minute that viewers’ reality becomes warped in scenes that become increasingly melancholic psychological warfare played on the characters and the audience themselves.

The men of “Shirley” take a relative backseat to Shirley and Rose’s ever-changing friendship, although veteran character actor Michael Stuhlbarg turns in a wonderfully devious performance as Shirley’s calculating husband Stanley.

Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins adapt Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel “Shirley: A Novel” with the same tension and dread that one might find in Jackson’s writing.

Expertly written with memorable, dry dialogue, it’s a treatise on rebellion from traditional gender roles for women at the time and nihilism on a woman’s lack of standing in regard to her spouse and her peers.

Moss and Young dance a delicate balance between all the overt and subversive themes that plague both Shirley and Rose which draw them together as unlikely kin, but it’s never aggressive or over-the-top. The terror comes from the inevitability of events and the horrors of everyday life and both actresses ease into the tension naturally that gives “Shirley” an authentic feel despite the film’s largely fictionalized story.

“Shirley” is just as eccentric and temperamental a film as its title character, fervently mixing its tones, plot structure and character development to elude, captivate and intrigue its audience.

A horror tragedy where real life holds the terror rather than jump scares, “Shirley” commands attention from the first frame with its subtle, haunting demeanor.

Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen keep the film increasingly askew visually by orienting the frame just left or right of center on the actor – thus shattering the rule of thirds – or twisting the camera as if the viewer were looking at the action with a tilted head. This also extends to the wide and varied use of closeups, which never feel cohesive or identical from use to use and often feel a bit too personal, just as Shirley does with her houseguests.

Although loosened qualifications due to the coronavirus pandemic does make it eligible for Oscar consideration, “Shirley” will likely be too avant-garde for Academy voters and just in the right wheelhouse for critics’ groups and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where Moss will be a frontrunner for Best Actress among Picture, writing and directorial nominations for the film as a whole.

An audacious and captivating independent arthouse mystery drama, “Shirley” won’t sit well with many potential audiences but for those wanting more of Moss’ terrific work in genre films like “The Invisible Man” or “Her Smell” will find “Shirley” an alluring, thrillingly horrible feature they just can’t turn away from.