Movie Review ~ Superintelligence


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When an all-powerful Superintelligence chooses to study the most average person on Earth, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, James Corden, Bobby Cannavale, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Michael Beach, Karan Soni

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  On a late-night last week it was getting close to one in the morning and the internet went out at my home and you’d think the stone age had started anew.  Nothing worked.  I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t access the internet and instead of, y’know sleeping, I spent about thirty agitated minutes trying to figure out what the problem was because I just couldn’t go on not knowing if I’d once again be hooked up to the net.  It’s tiny incidents like this and full-scale freak-outs such as when YouTube or another major website goes down that shows you just how much the public is relying on computers and artificial intelligence as well as how much of our information we put in the hands of non-human entities.  I’m not easily sucked into doomsday conspiracies but that’s something to be worried about should anything happen and we lose all of that data in some catastrophic event.

Thankfully, I’m not reviewing some Gerard Butler-esque movie where just such an event occurs but Superintelligence, a genial comedy starring Melissa McCarthy arriving on HBO Max just in time for Thanksgiving.  The film, written by Steve Mallory (Life of the Party) and directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone (Office Christmas Party) who also has a small supporting role, is another theatrical casualty of the pandemic now making its debut on a streaming service.  I actually only heard about its existence a few weeks back, it wasn’t even on my radar until the premiere on HBO Max was announced but then again, marketing on films sort of stopped all together back in April.  While several titles bypassing a run in cinemas would certainly play better on the big screen, this is one I think might have actually benefitted from this type of modified rollout.

Former corporate bigwig Carol Peters (McCarthy, The Boss) left her high paying job that felt unfulfilling in favor of work with non-profits that she could do some good for.  At the start of the film, she seems a bit aimless and unsure of what to do next, a state of affairs that confuses her close friend Dennis (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) and perplexes a former co-worker (Jessica St. Clair, Like a Boss) who offers Carol a job at a brainless dating corporation.  Things take a strange turn when Carol wakes to the voice of James Corden (Into the Woods) speaking to her through a variety of different devices within her home and self-identifying as an artificial intelligence who prefers to be referred to as Superintelligence.  Controlling not just her electronics but stoplights, ATMs, cars, and ambient sound in restaurants, Superintelligence has chosen Carol as a case study because it has deemed her the most average person in the world.

From its short scope, Superintelligence has seen the destruction the world has caused and thinks there is no hope for humanity and wants Carol to prove it wrong.  Speaking in the voice of James Corden (and occasionally appearing as him in TV monitors) is meant as a way to come across as non-threatening and the AI even hilariously changes to a voice of an Oscar-winning actress for Dennis when Carol lets him in on her newfound follower.  It has given Carol three days to prove things aren’t as bad as they seem before it saves, enslaves, or destroys the world so for the next three days we ride along with Carol and Superintelligence as they give Carol a make-over and try to get her back-together with her ex-boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, Annie) that she rather mysteriously broke up with.  They’ll also continue to avoid federal agents authorized by the President (Jean Smart, A Simple Favor, looking quite Hilary Clinton-y) to quarantine this virus.

About as good-natured as any McCarthy film has been, this is a welcome PG addition to her list of titles on IMDb and one that is likely fine for family viewing.  There’s no real villain in the piece and the stakes are never high enough to ramp up any palpable tension or suspense.  While that may leave Mallory’s script a little on the shallow side, it does give Falcone and McCarthy room to breathe and find their sweet spot to be, well, sweeter than normal.  There’s far less of the tendency to make McCarthy’s character the physical manifestation of a crude punchline by tossing her down a flight of stairs or some other painful-looking fall we’re supposed to laugh at.  The one bit of physical comedy we do see is used to good effect, showing the husband and wife team are learning less is more.

One still wishes for a bit of surprise at some point in the movie.  There were moments throughout the final act where I kept waiting for some twist or readjustment of the narrative that would alter where we thought we were headed but, alas, Mallory’s script is just a straight line from start to stop without any creative detours.  I guess that’s what allows McCarthy to shine the brightest (and she’s wonderful here, looking great and at her most relaxed) while at the same time piecing together her relationship with Cannavale who I liked but often feels like he’s attempting to match McCarthy’s goofy charm and comes off just goofy.  He works better when he’s simply sincere…anything more than that and it feels staged.  You’d think a movie on this scale with this type of talent would have something in the way of a ending to match such a high concept so the curious lack of that full bodied feeling of storytelling is noticeable.

This is the fourth film McCarthy and Falcone have worked on together and it’s their most effortless to date.  Considering where they started, the rancid Tammy, and then looking at Superintelligence it feels like a totally different duo.  Though overlong in my book, this is light entertainment that is easily watched and enjoyed with little to be gained in the process.  Sometimes, that’s totally OK.  It would pair nicely after your Thanksgiving meal when you’re full and need to rest in the glow of family togetherness.

Movie Review ~ Happiest Season


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman with a plan to propose to her girlfriend while at her family’s annual holiday party discovers her partner hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen

Director: Clea DuVall

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I wouldn’t say that I’ve been stuck on the same cycle of Christmas movies over the years but what I will admit is that I’ve attached myself to a select few holiday films that spoke to me as I grew older.  That’s because a number of Christmas films never really appealed to me as a person so I found it hard to relate to them, and it became more of a struggle as I got older.  I’m an only child and gay so watching movies with large family gatherings seeing everyone coming home with their husbands and wives started looking less like my life and more like a strange phony Christmas card.  So when it came to movies to watch over Christmas, I kept to the old standards and eschewed most of the newer ones, leaning toward any that focused on “different” families during the holidays.

Thankfully, as the world has evolved so have the entertainment options and that’s why a sizable shift has occurred in the offerings of the season.  Movies that show diverse families, gay couples, interracial relationships, the differently abled, autistic, etc. may not be there in droves but they are there and each year there are more of them.  Already this season we’ve had the fantastic Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey with its largely black cast appear and snuggle into the Netflix queues of many and now Hulu is presenting Happiest Season, a gay Christmas film from queer director/actress Clea DuVall (Argo).  Though originally targeted for a theatrical release, Hulu is debuting it on Thanksgiving and it should give audiences from all walks of life something to be grateful for in 2020.

Girlfriends Abby (Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis, Terminator: Dark Fate) have been living together for six months and Abby is ready to ask Harper to marry her.  Though not a fan of Christmas and without parents, she takes Harper’s last-minute invitation to her family’s home for the holidays as a sign that the time is right to make it official.  She has the ring and though her best friend John (Dan Levy, Admission) thinks marriage is archaic, wants to ask Harper’s dad for his blessing before popping the question in front of her family.  There’s just one tiny problem.  Harper hasn’t told her strait-laced family that she’s a lesbian and with her father about to start a run for mayor of their conservative town, she doesn’t think it wise to rock the boat during the holidays.

Against her better judgement and because Harper tells her this after they’re in the car and nearly there, Abby agrees to lie and pretend to just be Harper’s roommate for the duration of their stay.  Referred to as “the orphan” by Harper’s mom Tipper (Mary Steenburgen, Book Club), Abby is introduced to the rest of the family including dad Ted (Victor Garber, Sicario), and sisters Jane (Mary Holland, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, also a co-writer) and Sloane (Alison Brie, The Rental), each with their own secret or personal hang-up that will spill out over the next few days as they come together for festive gatherings.  As Abby watches Harper change when confronted with her judgmental family and their high standard expectations, she begins to question how much she actually knows the woman she fell in love with in the first place.  With Harper’s ex-boyfriend hanging around and a big family dinner approaching, can Abby still pop the question and will Harper be honest in front of her family and friends?

Fans of The Family Stone will find Happiest Season to be a not-so-distant relative in terms of style and tone and I half expected Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in that holiday film to show up in the final scene because she easily could have been a fourth sister in this tightly-wound family.  That film has its share of detractors (it took me several watches to truly appreciate it) but I don’t think Happiest Season will have trouble earning fans out of the gate.  DuVall and Holland have crafted a believable, tender, and often very funny film that applies just the right amount of emotion throughout.  It’s just serious enough to get a message on how each person’s coming out story is different and why support for that timeline is important and it’s humorous enough to land elevated comedy that isn’t your usual farce fare.

Still a rather new director, DuVall has an ease in her method that lends a grounded feel to the proceedings, helped immeasurably by a homerun cast.  I think we’ve all come to the agreement that Stewart is just bound to keep surprising audiences and she does it here again with the most relaxed, lived-in role I’ve seen her offer up in quite some time.  The naturalism is on such a different level that at times it feels like DuVall just happened to capture Stewart out and about, in her element.  If Davis comes off a little less successful, perhaps it’s only because she’s wearing several different masks throughout and we’re so on Abby’s side that every time Harper denies their relationship in public it pulls us further away from her.  Together, the two actresses create a believable picture of a couple in love and, even better, one that has settled into a flow with an ease about their interaction that comes across nicely.  That’s what makes the events while they’re at the house sting, because we can see how different Harper is acting in front of people that don’t know her for who she really is.

It’s always a gamble when a co-writer is also a significant supporting character and while Holland has given herself a character with some of the most outright funny bits in the film (and she’s quite funny, make no mistake), she knows when to point the spotlight away as well.  Garber’s role is a bit thankless, as is Brie’s, mostly because at the outset they are outwardly the most staid characters so it’s good news that Steenburgen’s chipper Tipper is such a joy no matter what she’s doing onscreen.  Both Levy and Aubrey Plaza (The To Do List) have smaller roles than are advertised and while Levy is basically doing an extension of the character he played on Schitt’s Creek (and gets the movie’s most genuine moment of clarity), Plaza blessedly is tasked with a more serious vibe that works nicely for the usually comically obtuse actress.  The only awkward moment in the movie is a very ill-advised sequence when Stewart is interrogated by two mall security officers played by Lauren Lapkus (Jurassic World) and Timothy Simons (The Hustle) – it’s totally unfunny and pointless, feeling like a favor DuVall did on behalf of two friends that needed a paycheck.

Some will skip Happiest Season because they don’t agree with what is represented within and that’s unfortunate.  Unfortunate they can’t see that love is love and unfortunate they are missing a well-constructed holiday film with strong performances and confident direction.  I can easily see this one making its way onto a rotation of Christmas films in my house and, paired with The Family Stone, a nice alternative to the overly maudlin cookie-cutter stereotypical products that are delivered yearly.  It’s time to think bigger and more inclusive and Happiest Season happily opens its arms wide to welcome all.

Movie Review ~ Uncle Frank


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Accompanied by his teenage niece, a gay literature professor reluctantly returns home to attend his father’s funeral.

Stars: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Stephen Root, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Jane McNeil, Michael Perez

Director: Alan Ball

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: You know how they say that some movies you can tell were based on stage plays?  There are some movies you can also tell were based on books so I kept having to remind myself throughout Amazon Prime’s Uncle Frank that this was an original screenplay by writer/director Alan Ball and did not originate from a novel.  Ball, you may recall, was the creative force behind such family-centered dramas as the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the iconic Six Feet Under for HBO where he also adapted Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels into True Blood.  There are a number of instances throughout Uncle Frank that feel as if the hand of a novelist, rather than a filmmaker, is guiding the characters and that creates a strange awkwardness that may have worked on the page but doesn’t work as well when played out by actors.

Let’s step back for a second, though.  Ball came to write the 1970s-set Uncle Frank after learning his own father might have been gay long after he had passed away.  His father’s possible more-than-friendship with a deceased boy in the past mirrors a traumatic event in the life of Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany, Solo: A Star Wars Story) a 40ish man living in New York City with his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi).  Semi-estranged from his family, namely his father (Stephen Root, Bombshell) back in a small town in South Carolina, he’s kept his sexuality and boyfriend a secret from most of his relatives for fear of incurring their ultra-conservative judgement.  When he’s called home due to a family tragedy and Wally tags along, he has to decide whether to own up to who he is and free himself of this heavy burden or go on living a lie for the sake of the comfort of others.

The set-up has all the workings of your typical coming-to-terms drama that we’ve seen done before but the way Ball opts to switch things up is to have all of these events seen through the eyes of Frank’s young niece Beth Sophia Lillis (IT, IT: Chapter Two).  Fairly clueless to all of the nuances going on in the life of her sophisticated and respected uncle, she’s unfortunately not that interesting of a character to hang a narrator’s cap on.  When we first meet her, she’s a teenager more comfortable talking to her big-city uncle than her country cousins.  He encourages her to dream big and several years later she’s a NYU student that reconnects with Frank just as she embarks a few college “firsts”: boyfriend, drinking, etc.  Then the family needs them both to return home and they begin a road trip back and its during these hundreds of miles Beth begins to understand more of where Frank is coming from and the true depth to his relationship with Wally.

To his credit, Ball has cast Uncle Frank with an assortment of value-add Hollywood players that keep the film buoyed by their welcome presence.  In addition to Bettany, Lillis, and Macdissi, there’s Judy Greer (Halloween), a goofy hoot as Beth’s mom that has a tendency to mispronounce big words that she thinks sound fancier than they are, and Steve Zahn (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as her average Joe dad perfectly content to be the son that doesn’t cause any trouble but happy to be noticed all the same.  The legendary Lois Smith (Lady Bird) is afforded a few nice zingers as Frank’s truth-speaking aunt and the never-not-great Margo Martindale (Mother’s Day) dependably delivers in the film’s get-out-your-hanky scene.

That’s where the trouble in Uncle Frank lies, though, that scene.  It’s a scene that feels satisfying in some way as a viewer but doesn’t feel correct in a realistic context of the location and time Ball has set his story.  This Kumbaya moment comes off as overly romanticized and false and while I appreciated it greatly and, yes, wiped away tears, when I really thought about it I knew it didn’t really make a lot of sense.  It’s things like that and how Ball insists on having Beth be the de facto filter and interpreter for the audience that keep Uncle Frank at a set distance from the viewer and never lets you get much closer.  Though it appears to be an inviting watch, ultimately it feels less personal and more of a clinical endeavor.  That’s far removed from Ball’s intention to explore his own father’s latent homosexuality that seemingly went unspoken throughout his life.

Eventually reaching its destination after a rocky journey, Uncle Frank had the cast and creatives to be a scenic tour into a slice of life family drama but winds up running out of gas.  That ghastly metaphor aside (and I do apologize profusely), there’s no harm meant in Uncle Frank and the performances by Bettany and especially Macdissi make this one worth a look.  Bettany is one of those actors that hangs by the fringe, always doing interesting work but rarely afforded opportunities like this to take center stage.  While Macdissi being Ball’s longtime partner and oft being cast in his projects may raise some eyebrows, his warm performance should cast any doubts of preferential casting aside.  The feeling lingers in my mind, however, that having Beth as the intrusive narrator proved a distraction and the film concluding with an overly tidy understanding robbed it of the deeper complexity and stronger message it could have achieved.

Movie Review ~ Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her father’s death, a cold-hearted woman named tries to sell her hometown’s land to a mall developer, ending the seasonal Christmas cheer in the town.

Stars: Dolly Parton, Christine Baranski, Jenifer Lewis, Treat Williams, Jeanine Mason, Josh Segarra, Mary Lane Haskell, Matthew Johnson, Selah Kimbro Jones

Director: Debbie Allen

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  For many people, Disneyland in California or Walt Disney World in Florida is the stuff that magical memories are made of and they aren’t wrong in reporting back that a visit there makes them feel like a kid again.  I’ve visited the Orlando location several times and returned home with a visible pep in my step so I speak from experience.  However, for the longest time my sights were set squarely on another mecca: country singer Dolly Parton’s Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN.  It eluded me for decades but several years ago, on the drive back from a Memphis wedding, my partner and I booked a stay at Parton’s new DreamMore Resort which included a day pass right next door to the main event.  It was finally time.

Already stunned by the beauty of the majestic Great Smokey Mountains we saw from our bedroom in the impressive resort, I was probably always destined to shed a tear when entering the front gates.  Needless to say, I cried upon arrival and just allowed myself to take it all in throughout the day while walking through the pleasant as pie country amusement park.  From the entertainment (a number of which featured members of her extended family) to the rides (which seemed to be sized to only fit Dolly herself) to an entire section lovingly devoted to her memorabilia, this was absolutely everything I thought it would be and more.  I left the park even more of a fan of Parton’s than I already was…and by that time I’d already seen her several times in concert (once from the front row) so that’s saying something.

I take the time (and two paragraphs) to lay that groundwork for you to emphasize that the Netflix release of Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square was a big deal for me.  Big deal.  Aside from the Dolly Parton-ness of it all, this was a Christmas musical with 14 new songs written by Parton.  Sounds like a certified winner, right?  With Parton’s previous Netflix specials and movies faring well and her general tendency to drift toward material that suited her, it felt like an event that was timed right and ready to drop before Thanksgiving. Well, there’s good news and bad news for all of you that, like me, have been waiting for this one for some time.  Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.  The bad news is that this is a chintzy, flimsy, mawkish-ly earnest bit of holiday fruitcake that is overperformed and underdeveloped with not one ounce of subtlety to be found.  The good news is that for the majority of viewers, none of that will matter in the slightest.

Directed and choreographed by the legendary Debbie Allen in a big Atlanta soundstage decorated (think department store holiday display) to look like, what else, a town square, the film opens on Parton (Joyful Noise) dressed like a beggar singing about the meaning of Christmas and shaking a box asking for “Change”.  Never mind Parton’s boasting a full smokey-eye with eyelashes that could shovel snow and enough lipstick to lacquer a red wagon.  It all leads to a traditional introductory  opening number that Allen stages with full high-kicking, wide-armed, glee by a roster of townspeople that are 75% nubile bodied show dancers and 24% actors that move, with the final 1% consisting of a distracting middle-aged male ensemble member that appears to be having some kind of emotional crisis.  You’ve met everyone in the cast within the first five minutes and also know where the film is heading, too.  It’s not that different from any number of these holiday themed films but you can’t be faulted for expecting something with a little more creative energy than what Parton, Allen, and screenwriter Maria S. Schlatter cook-up.   Parton’s songs have people singing exactly what they’re feeling, almost down to core functions like walking, talking, and breathing.

The gist of it all is that mean ‘ole Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, gamely making her way through a character that feels like it was written by different people from scene to scene) has decided to sell off the tiny town named after her family for a tidy sum to a mall developer.  She’s swooped in to give everyone the news days before Christmas and a number of those that live and work on the square unsurprisingly balk at this last-minute yuletide bulletin.  The sassy hairdresser and former mayor Margeline (Jenifer Lewis, The Addams Family) is a long-time friend of Regina’s and can’t understand why she’s become so mean…and sings about it.  Former flame Carl (Treat Williams, Second Act) specializes in antiques and wishes that things with Regina had ended differently…and sings about it.  The young pastor (Josh Segarra, Trainwreck) and his wife (Mary Lane Haskell) are childless but draw strength from their faith and belief that there is a purpose for everything…and sing about it (a few times).  Local pub owner and widower Mack (Matthew Johnson) along with his daughter Violet (Selah Kimbro Jones, Hidden Figures) are facing a tough Christmas…and they sing about it, individually.  Then there’s Regina’s put-upon assistant Felicity (Jeanine Mason) who takes a lot of guff from her employer but manages to keep smiling, while singing and dancing, maybe it’s because there’s more to her than we are led to believe at first.

Popping in and out at key points is Parton who is undoubtedly the best thing about the 98-minute film.  Maybe it’s because she wrote the songs, maybe it’s because she’s just a natural at selling this kind of phony-baloney sort of schmaltz, but whenever she’s onscreen the movie takes on a glow that just isn’t present when she’s away.  It goes to show you the power of star quality and that magic “It” factor so many celebrities struggle with.  Parton has always had it effortlessly and it shows here, almost undeniably so.  Decked out in a number of beaded, fringed, bangled, and spangled white outfits (she’s an angel, by the way), her songs are spunky and fun and unlike some of the other actors she seems to truly believe in what she’s singing about.  Corny as it all may be, that unfettered sincerity goes a long way in improving what grows cold in the hands of others.

That’s evident in people like Segarra who is an unfortunate quasi-leading man.  As the town’s pastor, Segarra is the exact opposite in the sincerity department and could learn a thing or two from his composer and central star.  Though Haskell (a veteran of Parton projects according to her IMDb page) attempts to bring their relationship to a more realistic plane, Segarra wants to employ far too much pathos to a not that complex part and in doing so makes it, frankly, a bit creepy.  He also has a strange speech pattern that feels like he’s taking Schlatter’s dialogue and putting them into couplets – a perfunctory cherry on an all-around bizarre performance.  Williams is his usual dashing self and sings well, though his relationship with Baranski is not exactly deep.  If anything, it’s young Jones that steals things away from her older scene partners with her natural screen presence.  Though it’s one of the most inexplicable numbers in the film, her duet with Baranski was solid.

I’d almost watch the film again because in the larger numbers I found that I solely focused on the ensemble…but only because they are so uniformly distracting.  Never have I seen so many odd moments of pulling focus not just caught on film but kept throughout the editing process.  The one ensemble member I mentioned above you can actually tell they tried to cut away from at times but even then you can’t totally excise his peculiar reactions and wacko dancing.  In several scenes set in a church, keep your eyes on the children who are visibly bored and must have worked long hours.  Near the end, one of the young candle holders visibly yawns not once but twice…right around the time you’re probably doing the same thing. It doesn’t help Parton’s strangely tuneless songs have key ensemble members stepping out to deliver lyrics that are unequivocal jaw-droppers.  For example, when throwing out ideas how to keep Regina from selling the town, one female square dweller sings out with a big toothy smile “Strip her!”.  ‘Strip her’?  Like, naked?  Ok, then.  Don’t even get me started on the wince-inducing vogue-ing gay men that pop up to deliver all the zingers Lewis deemed too trite for even her to say.

So…with all of the negatives, why do I think none of this makes a heap of a difference?  The same reason why Hallmark and Lifetime keep churning out an endless supply of mediocre to poor holiday films each year, it’s not the quality that matters it’s the intent and Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square has it’s heart in the right place.  It’s absolutely not the movie I thought it would be and totally not close to the type of intelligent and stylish output I know the people involved are capable of…but I think it will provide some form of warmth to a large number of people during this strange holiday season that lies before us.  I’d be foolish to underestimate the power of Parton’s fanbase or not consider how starved audiences are right now for this sort of goofy distraction so while I personally found this to be not up to snuff when taking into consideration who was behind it all and rated it accordingly, I wouldn’t fault any of you for loving the ever-lovin’ heck out of it.  I’d still beg of you to watch Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey first because that film wound up being the sort of intelligent and heartfelt event I was hoping Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square would be.  There’s room for both films in your queue so watch them both and determine for yourself which speaks to you more.

Movie Review ~ Run (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A home schooled teenager begins to suspect her mother is keeping a dark secret from her. They say you can never escape a mother’s love… but for Chloe, that’s not a comfort — it’s a threat.

Stars: Sarah Paulson, Kiera Allen, Pat Healy, Onalee Ames

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Back in 2013, Readers Digest made headlines for announcing their list of the 100 Most Trusted People in America and it included a number of celebrities and familiar names in the media.  Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks ranked as the most trusted man and I’d wager a bet he’d still hold the title if the list were refreshed again today.  I also would like to think Sarah Paulson would have made her way into the tally as well.  While not the blockbuster star that regularly nets the covers of magazines or headlines summer movies, Paulson has developed a massively consistent career over nearly thirty years in the business and that’s something to take serious note of, not to mention she’s someone that comes across as genuine, upfront, and who you can take at her word.  Another item to pay close attention to is that she’s rarely, if ever, turned in a bad performance and her knack for finding material that both suits and challenges her has proven her dexterity time and time again.

Paulson is one of the main reasons why Run, a conventional thriller at its core, becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Compact, tightly-wound, and from the director of 2018’s underrated Searching (Aneesh Chaganty), it wouldn’t feel out of place as one of those cookie-cutter original films you’d see dropped rather innocuously on a streaming service with the hope it will generate some buzz.  That’s the likely reason why Hulu snapped this up from Lionsgate after the studio decided to bypass a theatrical run when the ongoing pandemic put its original Mother’s Day release date into question.  It’s probably a small blessing, too, because it will find far more success as a guilty-pleasure watch.  Much like Paulson’s early 2020 Netflix series Ratched, this is compulsive watching at its most tart, lean, and digestible.

As the film opens, single-mother Diane Sherman (Paulson, 12 Years a Slave) has gone through a difficult labor that has left her newborn with a number of life-threatening medical concerns.  Flash forward eighteen years and Chloe (newcomer Kiera Allen) is a brilliant teen that has survived under the watchful care of her mother.  Home-schooled by Diane, the wheelchair-bound Chloe looks toward the future and plans for college, eagerly waiting for Diane to get the mail each day but ultimately disappointed when no acceptance letter arrives from the numerous applications she has submitted.  The relationship between mother and daughter is a close one, based on a shared understanding of Chloe’s various illnesses and familiarity with her daily needs.  While Chloe may long for a world outside of their isolated house off the beaten path and desire friends of her own because she has none, she’s torn between her own growing need for escapism and Diane’s devotion.

A sizable shift happens and a crack in this perfect veneer begins to form when Chloe accidentally sees a pill bottle with Diane’s name on it that later is relabeled as hers, a finding her mother later unconvincingly refutes.  Catching her mother in a lie for the first time, Chloe starts to wonder what else is being kept from her the more she learns other small untruths Diane has been telling.  Though Diane attempts to provide a passable excuse for all of these discrepancies, the tie that has been bound between the two women makes it easier to expose the other in a deception so when Chloe exposes another huge betrayal, it opens a trap door of deceit that she (and we) couldn’t have ever anticipated.  Secluded from outside help and limited in mobility, Chloe must arrange a precarious puzzle to get past a firewall of a long-buried mystery if she wants to survive.

Had Run been a tad more prestige-y, I could see Diane being played by more of a headline-grabbing A-lister like Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock and it working just fine.  Roberts especially would have had some fun playing a different kind of pseudo-villain (unlike the one she misguidedly played in Mirror Mirror) but both actresses have the necessary range to take on the layers the role requires.  It works so much better in Paulson’s carefully constructed façade because we’re constantly questioning almost up until the end just what is motivating Diane in her actions…or if she’s even doing what Chloe thinks in the first place.  Could the sheltered girl just be wrong about her mother, there’s definitely evidence to explain it all away. I won’t say either way but Paulson has truly perfected the art of playing with a duality that is often thrilling to watch.  She definitely has a dial, though, and isn’t afraid to go big and then go home – you’re never going to catch her not giving her all to even the smallest of supporting roles.

Along with Paulson, Run works quite well thanks to Allen as the resourceful Chloe who doesn’t let her maladies hold her back in the least.  Again, no spoilers for you, but there are several instances of narrow escape weaved into the script, including one where the teenager has to figure out not only how to get out of a locked room but make it downstairs…all without assistance or the use of her legs.  How she does it is masterfully thought out in Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian’s clever screenplay.  Allen might just have more screen time than Paulson and she’s just as critical to the film’s success as her counterpart.  Having to do most of her work in a limited capacity in terms of the use of her body, Allen gets the character through even in these tougher conditions.

Even if the screenplay falls into a feeling of run-of-the-mill happenstance as it rounds the bend toward a corker of a final scene (though all I’ll say about the make-up on both of the actors in this part is…questionable) it doesn’t dissuade me from giving Run a solid recommendation.  It’s nothing you haven’t seen before but it’s done better than previous attempts and that’s due to the two leads and a better than average conception of how the characters achieve their goals.  The tension gets palpable and your blood pressure will certainly rise at points – for a 90 minute film aimed as popcorn entertainment, isn’t that exactly what you’re looking for right about now?

Movie Review ~ Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An imaginary world comes to life in a holiday tale of an eccentric toymaker, his adventurous granddaughter, and a magical invention that has the power to change their lives forever.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Ricky Martin, Kieron Dyer, Justin Cornwell, Lisa Davina Phillip, Hugh Bonneville, Sharon Rose

Director: David E. Talbert

Rated: PG

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  Just because we’re getting close to the holiday season, I’m going to give you a little insider information about how screenings sometimes come our way.  Critics are often able to take a look at upcoming titles and afforded the opportunity to explore them further to see if they’re something that might appeal to their readers or make for good coverage.  As I was browsing the November releases, I passed over Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey without giving it much of a sideways glance and, stupidly on my part, this was mainly because of the title.  Having recently made it through all of 45 seconds of Hubie Halloween before waving the white flag, I somehow got it in my mind this was something similar.  Then, by chance, I happened to see a small clip in an ad before a random internet video and knew I had to correct my error and fast.

Terms like “instant classic” get tossed around pretty easily but they rarely apply, however I’m going to go out on a snow-covered limb here and bestow said title on Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey but insert ‘holiday’ in there for extra clarity.  We all have our favorite films to watch as the year winds down and celebrations begin for whatever holiday we observe, and my Christmas movie list is a dense one – impossible to get through in a single year.  No matter, it didn’t take long into writer/director David E. Talbert’s extravagant original musical premiering on Netflix to realize that this was a bona fide winner and one that would endure in my household for years to come.

Like the best Christmas stories, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey begins on Christmas Eve in front of a crackling fire with a Grandmother (Phylicia Rashad, Creed) telling her two grandchildren a different kind of yuletide tale than they are used to.  Cracking open a book that is literally a well-oiled machine, she introduces Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell, Chi-Raq) a brilliant inventor who lives with his wife and young daughter in a small town where his toy shop is the delight of all that enter.  His young apprentice, Gustafson, wants to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, as does his inquisitive daughter.  With his latest creation, a sleek toy bullfighter named Don Juan Diego that has been given autonomy to move about on its own, Jeronicus is poised to never have another worry for his family once he can mass produce the Don Juan doll.

However, with his independence comes a desire to be a singular creation so Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin) convinces Gustafson to rob Jeronicus of his sketches and ideas in exchange for success on his own.  This sets the appreciate on a path to greatness while the mentor’s life takes a tumble.  Flash forward several decades and Jeronicus (now played for Forest Whitaker, Out of the Furnace) is alone, having been forced out of the toy business and estranged from his adult daughter (Anika Noni Rose, Body Cam).  The arrival of his granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills), who also shows a keen knack for invention and mathematics, coincides with the bank threating to foreclose on his home/shop just as Christmas draws near.  As the spirited Journey draws her recluse grandfather out of his shell and discovers an unfinished invention that could save his business, the now-famous but creatively challenged Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland) gets wind of another project that could be his if he plays his cards right.

As you can probably tell, the plot for the film is not that far from your typical holiday fare with talk of bankers seizing property if bills aren’t paid by Christmas Eve and villains that are bad but only in so far as to twist their moustaches really furiously when they don’t get their way.  Talbert has stayed well within the bounds of the PG rating and hasn’t, like a number of family films as of late, pushed against its boundaries to see how scary he could get away with it being.  This is a fine film for the entire family to watch, young and old, and its entertaining as all get out.  It’s basically a storybook come to life where the stakes aren’t incredibly high but the feelings tied to them are.  Ordinarily, a familiar-feeling plot such as this would get old fast but it’s that pleasant coziness that makes these holiday films such easy to devour treats.

Talbert has already struck a nice mood out of the gate with Rashad’s serene setting of the stage and our colorful introduction to the world of Jeronicus Jangle, brought to life with a mixture of gorgeous CGI and brilliantly designed stop-motion sequences to compliment the bountiful production values.  I’m not sure how much money it cost to make the film but it looks stunning, from the handsome set design to the richly detailed costumes layered with the kind of eye-catching colors and textures so appealing you can almost get a sense for what they feel like.  So before much of anything happens in the film, you’re already kind of struck by what you’re seeing.  Then the music starts.

I guess I knew Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey was a musical but by the time the first song hits it comes on like a locomotive and is a full-out, full-cast introduction to the Jangle toy shop.  There’s plenty more where that came from with John Legend, Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, and Michael Diskint contributing songs along the way.  Not all of them are going to be ear worms but they’re all sung well by the film’s cast and there’s not an outright stinker in the bunch (a song or a voice).  Thankfully, Talbert doesn’t cram a song in every five minutes, letting them develop naturally out of his story…which he originally intended as a stage musical.  With a few tweaks and adjustments here and there, I can imagine this making the transition to the stage rather easily.

The cast is uniformly great across the board as well, with dependable stalwarts like Rashad and Rose knowing exactly the emotions to mine and just the amount of pressure to put on your tear ducts to get them going.  Rose, in particular, had a dynamite run of 15 minutes or so where she rips the roof off of a John Legend song and then gets to show off her acting range in a great scene.  I’m not usually a fan of Key (sorry, not sorry) but have to admit his singing voice was solid and his presence in his musical numbers was pretty thrilling.  Martin has the toughest role because it’s the one that’s the least interesting – no one cares about the villain in these tales and by the middle of the film you’ll likely forget there’s even this B storyline still in play.

You’ll want to keep your eye on three key performances.  As a love weary postmistress who pines for Jeronicus, Lisa Davina Phillip is a riot as she tries to catch his eye.  It’s a campy, over-the-top performance that’s far afield from any other in the film but she makes it work thanks to her winning sincerity (though I was surprised to see her singing voice was dubbed by stage actress Marisha Wallace).  I was totally knocked over by Whitaker, too.  In my experience, the Oscar winner can often come across flat and unlikable but watching his heart get unfrozen by his young granddaughter will truly bring a tear to your eye.  Then there’s Mills in a star-making turn as a young girl finding where she fits in by daring to dream big.  An excellent role model for girls and boys, BIPOC or other, Journey is a next generation kind of child heroine – celebrations all around.  With all the singing and dancing she has to do, it would have been entirely easy for this to have been cast with a “child performer” but Talbert has found that rarity…a star.

With the emphasis on family, the focus on celebrating goodness, and recognizing the power of forgiveness, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey has its prime moments when its poised to attack your emotions.  I’m an especially easy target but if I do cry, I’m typically a one eye tear kinda guy…this was a two eye cry, though, so make sure to have a hankie ready.  You’re apt to shed a tear not because the film is sad but because after a 2020 that has had more than its share of downs, it’s wonderful to get right to the end and be gifted a film that leaves you with a lot of “ups”.  Do yourself a favor a gather around the Netflix queue with your friends, family, or fly solo for Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey this Christmas, it’s a present that I think will keep on giving long after the holidays are over.

Movie Review ~ Hillbilly Elegy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Yale law student drawn back to his hometown grapples with family history, Appalachian values and the American dream.

Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There’s a strange feeling that overtakes you when you realize you’re watching a bad movie.  Not a bad movie like most of us would think of it.  You know, like, the cheap-o films with bargain basement production values and actors that can barely convince you they’re from this planet.  No, there is another kind of bad movie and it’s the deadliest of them all…the prestige picture that goes south right under the otherwise hyper-sensitive noses of everyone involved.  Maybe they all knew it was imploding and couldn’t get out of the wreckage or maybe, apparently like everyone involved in the 2019 big-screen version of the Broadway musical CATS, they didn’t realize it until the release date was pending.

I’d heard the tiniest sliver of buzz around Hillbilly Elegy as it was getting ready to roll out, mostly due to the involvement of two long-overdue Oscar never-winners in supposedly meaty parts.  This adaptation of J.D. Vance’s popular, but controversial, 2016 memoir of his life growing up in Ohio had a load of baggage attached to it, not the least of which was its partisan political issues that festered at its core.  Would the film be able to rise above these red state/blue state dividers especially during an election year where half the country supported a leader that’s morally and ethically bankrupt and still be able to maintain the heart of what Vance had to say about a poverty-laced upbringing that eventually led him to a criticized choice regarding his own survival?

Honestly?  I don’t know what to report back to you on what screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) has found at the center of Vance’s story because Hillbilly Elegy is a mess on a number of levels that it’s difficult to know what to target first.  It’s an old-fashioned, paint-by-numbers take on a timeless story of rising above one’s own circumstance given no nuance by Taylor, nor provided any assistance from director Ron Howard (Parenthood) who is absolutely the wrong director for this type of tale.   Through a series of scenes that hop between J.D. as a boy (Owen Asztalos, with a face always in a perpetual state of surprise) and as a Yale law student (Gabriel Basso, who actually looks like an older version of Asztalos) Taylor and Howard walk us through Vance’s often harrowing account of life with his drug-addicted mother (Amy Adams, Vice) and tough-love grandmother (Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs).

I could go on about the vignettes that take up the lion’s share of Hillbilly Elegy but they are executed so haphazardly and with maximum focus on the extreme edges of the actors performance that they start to resemble cartoons as the movie progresses.  The opening scene, at the good-byes of a large family reunion in Appalachia, sparked some interest for me but once we get back to the city living of JD it goes right into one turbulent event after another.  Running down a checklist of required scenes in these types of films like the middle of the street ruckus that all the neighbors come to gawk at, the uncomfortable moment where some city folk get educated on not looking down on “hill people”, clothes being thrown over balconies onto yellowed lawns…they’re all here.  Yet even with all that, you’d be hard pressed to remember any characteristic of these people other than their bad traits…even their names fade from memory.  In fact, it would be a miracle if you could name any of the supporting characters by the time the film concludes.

Two people you will remember from the movie are Adams and Close but not necessarily for the reasons they’d want you to.  Nominated for the Oscar six times now, Adams can’t quite find that role that’s going to get her across the finish line and I fear we’re getting into that arena where it’s not happening or if it does happen it will be a cumulative reward instead of it being deserving for the actual role she’s nominated for.  There’s no chance of that happening here, though.  While I like Adams for the most part, she grabs for too much and comes back with fistfuls of air, at times to our own wincing embarrassment.  It’s a strange swing and a miss for Adams and I wonder if the role would have been better suited for an actress less well known without all of that awards-hopeful dreams attached to it.

Strangely, though you’d think her part would be the more problematic what with the wig, glasses, mottled skin, and endless supply of 6XLT t-shirts and carpenter jeans she wears, Close gets better the more we get used to her.  She also does what every true A-list star does best…make everyone else look as good or better in shared scenes while still performing the ever-loving heck out of her own part.  Close may get poked fun at for her seven Oscar losses but she stands the best chance out of anyone to get a nomination and might just deserve it.  The performance is Close through and through, played straight to the back of the theater and making you feel like you’re the only one in the room with her. (Side note, I saw Close recreate her Tony-winning role in Sunset Boulevard a few seasons back and can confirm this phenomenon is true.  I was in the balcony but often felt like I was sitting next to her…she’s that good at bringing you in).  Close wants that Oscar so bad she’s practically gnawing on it and while I’d much rather see her get it for the long in the works movie of Sunset Boulevard, I wouldn’t cry my eyes out if this is the one that sealed the deal.

I wish that the two JDs were as strong as their alpha females.  Basso is a bit of a black hole when it comes to being a scene partner, he’s not bad but merely serviceable and this should be a star-making role.  Six or seven years ago this would have been Chris Pratt’s role and he might have had a better take on this character.  Credit to Asztalos for having several rough scenes to get through but, again, there’s no nuance to anything he’s doing.  The dial seems to have three settings (all breathing through the mouth) and nothing much more than that goes on in his performance.  For what little she has, Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) gets a few good moments but disappears for long stretches where we wind up forgetting to miss her.  Speaking of disappearing, as JD’s law-student girlfriend poor Freida Pinto (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) wins the Laura Linney in Sully Supporting Partner Who Just Talks On The Phone award because all she seems to be there for is to chat with JD and offer words of encouragement from miles away.

Arriving just as a bitter election cycle has ended (or has it?), the timing for further discourse on the merits of Hillbilly Elegy seems wrong.  I’m not sure Taylor or Howard even registered there were deeper issues to discuss that bubbled below the simple story of JD pulling himself away from a family troubled by drug use and not being able to make ends meet.  It’s there, though, and I can see why the book became a bit of a lightning rod for those that live in that area Vance high-tailed it away from.  Surprisingly, Howard has been making some good documentaries lately like this year’s Rebuilding Paradise. That film about the California wildfires focused on how communities work together to solve problems.  Funny, then, that in directing Hillbilly Elegy he seems to take no interest in another community also working on solving issues from within.

Movie Review ~ The Life Ahead


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In seaside Italy, a Holocaust survivor with a daycare business takes in a street kid who recently robbed her. The two loners become each other’s protectors, anchoring an unconventional family.

Stars: Sophia Loren, Ibrahima Gueye, Abril Zamora, Renato Carpentieri, Babak Karimi

Director: Edoardo Ponti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  We’ve talked about cinematic blind spots here before and how I admit to having a few glaring ones that I wear with some shame.  I’m still working on filling in my gaps of knowledge for my Akira Kurosawa and Charlie Chaplin histories but often times another will spring up, unannounced.  Well, I’ve discovered a new one that I have to discuss with you and I just realized it while watching legendary Italian actress Sophia Loren’s return to film after a 10-year absence in The Life Ahead (La vita davanti a sé), premiering on Netflix.  I didn’t think it was as bad as it was but after looking over her filmography, I am seriously delinquent in my Loren filmography.  I don’t think I’ve even seen her landmark Oscar-winning performance in Two Women (La ciociara) which made her the first foreign actor to win an Academy Award.

So, while I work on adding titles from the Loren library to my queue it’s worth noting what a life this actress has had.  Over a career that is now entering it’s seventh (seventh) decade, Loren had worked regularly up until a decade ago when she decided to take a break to focus on her family.  Married for 50 years to Italian film producer Carlo Ponti until his death in 2007, she’s returning now in a movie directed by her son in their third pairing as director/star.  Adapted from Romain Gary’s 1975 novel The Life Before Us, interestingly enough the book was already made into an Oscar winning foreign film before, 1978’s Madame Rosa starring Simone Signoret who some might claim as the French equivalent of Sophia Loren.  It’s a feast of a role and any actress worth their salt would make a banquet out of it.  Moved from the original setting of France to modern day Italy, Ponti’s The Life Ahead has brought his mother back to the screen with the same fire and passion that has made her one of cinema’s greatest treasures.

Ponti and his co-adapter, playwright Ugo Chiti, begin the film at the end (maybe) and then flashback six months prior to show how we got there.  A Senegalese orphan named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) spots Madame Rosa (Loren) at the open air market, a pair of expensive-looking candlesticks lazily hanging out of her shopping bag.  He steals the bag, knocking her down in the process and, unable to pawn them off for cash to the local drug dealer, he stashes them with his things which is where Dr. Coen (Renato Carpentieri) finds them.  Knowing Madame Rosa as a patient, Coen brings Momo to return the stolen items…a meeting that doesn’t go well for either party.  Still, sensing an opportunity that has presented itself, Coen wonders if Madame Rosa would mind taking Momo in for a short time while Coen finds a better place for the boy to live.  Though she’s already watching over two children that have been left in her care, Madame Rose is tempted by Coen’s monetary offer and finds room for the child that doesn’t trust anyone and is sadly used to be shuffled around.

It’s not going to be hard for you to guess how this all turns out but The Life Ahead is less about the overall predictability of the friendship and deep connection that forms between Momo and Madame Rosa and more about the small moments along the way.  We get the sense that it’s been a while since anyone has cared about Momo and though Madame Rosa is brusque and has rules, tough love is still love and he needs everything she has to offer.  She, too, needs the kind of watchful and unflinching eye someone that is used to the horrors of life can take on.  A Holocaust survivor that became a career prostitute after the war, Madame Rosa has serious effects of PTSD that no one who hasn’t witnessed death firsthand could understand.  Though her past career might be seen as a black mark by some, Madame Rosa is actually a respected member of her tiny neighborhood and she uses her connections to get Momo a job with a kindly local shopkeeper, though he’s already begun selling drugs on the sly and gotten quite good at it.

What The Life Ahead does so well, especially in its modern setting, is portray a new kind of “family” in normal terms without it ever being about the difference that exist between them.  In addition to the unlikely pair, there’s a transgender neighbor (the excellent Abril Zamora) and the topic of her gender is only briefly touched upon – and it’s never an issue or pivot point for any action of great importance to the story being told.  That’s the thing about foreign sensibilities toward sexuality and class, it doesn’t interest them half as much as basic human interaction and getting under the surface to see what motivates emotion.  Everyone is treated as a person first and foremost and that gives them all an equality which rings completely true.  The only lack of development Ponti and Chiti could be faulted for are a handful of side characters, like the chief drug dealer who is portrayed as a kind of Fagin to Momo’s Oliver and the relationship is so ill-defined that it never totally worked for me.

What does work in every way is Loren’s glowing performance and Gueye as her incredible costar.  Even after all these years, Loren knows how to create the fine details of a character that tells you deeper truths that go beyond the surface.  This type of work needs no translation to come across loud and clear.  I’d go so far as to say that Gueye steals the movie from Loren, though.  What a stunning find, so honest in every scene and so natural in his instincts.  Watch a sequence where Momo joins his kingpin on the dancefloor and becomes the center of attention, you can see him come alive with confidence right before your eyes and the effect is truly magical.

All the being said, there’s something overly conventional about The Life Ahead that’s hard to shake away.  The plot feels familiar because the set-up has been done numerous times before, even if the ending is a certifiable tearjerker.  It all ends with a Diane Warren (The Hunting Ground) song that will likely be the songwriter’s 12th nomination but I’m not so sure this is going to be the one to get her over the finish line.  Don’t get me wrong, ‘Io Si (Seen)’ is another typically lush Warren soaring tune but is it as impactful as some of her other entries?  Tough call.  One thins is certain, Loren is back in the game in a big way and might find herself an Oscar nominee at age 86.  It may not be the most original and quintessential star-vehicle but you get two for the price of one in The Life Ahead thanks to Loren and Gueye’s unforgettable work.

Movie Review ~ Kindred


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Plagued by mysterious hallucinations, a pregnant woman suspects that the family of her deceased boyfriend has intentions for her unborn child.

Stars: Tamara Lawrance, Fiona Show, Jack Lowden, Anton Lesser, Edward Holcroft, Chloe Pirrie

Director: Joe Marcantonio

Rated: NR

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The best ways that horror can get at us is at the places we are the most vulnerable.  That’s why Psycho made showers so terrifying – you’re totally exposed and defenseless with just a thin sheet of plastic between you and a steamy room of shadows.  Your mind will play tricks on you if you are in the wrong head space.  Same thing goes for JAWS.  There’s a reason why beaches were suddenly a little quieter the summer of 1975 when Steven Spielberg’s big shark film snacked on swimmers and munched away at the box office.  If you’re out in the middle of the ocean, unable to get away from an unseen danger that lurks below…what can you do?  Stick with a pool, is my advice.  Even then…remember the 1980 movie Alligator?  On second thought, stick to bathtubs.  Wait, we’re back to Psycho again.

All this to say, a vulnerable state is a bad place to be if you’re in a horror film and that’s where Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance, On Chesil Beach) finds herself not too long after the start of Kindred, a new streaming film from the always dependable studio IFC Midnight (make sure to check out their other 2020 releases like Sputnik, The Wretched, Relic, and Centigrade).  Similar to Rosemary’s Baby, this revolves around a pregnant woman that starts to have visions of danger and suffers from paranoia dismissed by those she trusts as her due date approaches.  Unlike that classic Roman Polanski supernatural film (adapted from the bestselling Ira Levin book) however, there’s no apartment building with devil worshipping residents to wander around in, just a chilly English mansion that’s in need of a good restoration with two rather intense hosts never out of earshot.

Growing up with a mother that suffered terrible postpartum depression that spilled over into other mental health issues, Charlotte knew she never wanted to be a mother herself.  So when she finds out from the village doctor she’s pregnant just as she and her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft, Vampire Academy) announced to his mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw, Enola Holmes) and stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden, Mary, Queen of Scots) they were moving to Australia, she knows the timing is bad.  Things go from bad to worse when Ben is tragically killed in a freak accident and she winds up homeless and living with Margaret in the family estate, isolated from the outside world.

At first, Charlotte begrudgingly accepts Margaret’s hospitality.  Though the two women never saw eye to eye (and a hospital quarrel after Ben’s death rose to a shocking climax), they’ve agreed to let bygones be bygones for the sake of the baby.  Suffering from dizzy spells and health issues that can’t be fully diagnosed, Charlotte will stay with Margaret and Thomas until she’s well enough to begin her new life outside of the insular cottage-town she shared with her late lover.  Meanwhile, Margaret appears to have taken a decidedly keen interest in the welfare of Charlotte’s baby (naturally, it’s her only grandchild) and soon Charlotte realizes that she’s become a de facto prisoner of her almost mother-in-law and her strangely enigmatic stepson.  If Charlotte had politely tolerated Margaret before, she’d barely taken the time to glance at Thomas but now she’s forced into getting to know him as a way to protect herself from Margaret and, eventually, him.

Writer/director Joe Marcantonio and his co-writer Jason McColgan have given Kindred the gentlest of burns and the boil is slow to bubble.  When the heat does eventually rise, it has its spooky moments and that it derives its suspense from realism instead of mysticism helps the film hold together better in some of its shakier stretches.  I had a hard time believing the strong-willed Charlotte would have let these shenanigans go on for as long as she does but there’s a politeness she’s trying to master, especially after her earlier run-in with Margaret, that I could eventually go with it.  Things start to careen wildly near the end, unfortunately, and while I’m not giving any spoilers away I will say that I’m not so sure the writers came up with the most efficient way to end the film.  I’m betting there’s one or two alternate endings that show up on an eventual home release of the movie.

What keeps the movie ever watchable are the trio of performances with all three actors holding their cards so close to their chest they might as well have them sewn to their undershirts.  I thought Lawrance was a dynamic lead, an inspired choice maybe because it looks like early on she could escape at any point but by the time she does realize she’s trapped she’s in no physical condition to get away.  You’re invested in the character even before she gets ensconced in the mansion and that’s saying something.  Also serving as producer, Lowden takes what could have been purely creepy character and given him a dangerous allure that encourages you to let your guard down.  Both Lowden and Shaw are at the center of the film’s two best moments, largely uninterrupted monologues that reveal certain character business about each…excellent stuff.  Pay special attention to Shaw’s lengthy monologue about her son and a dog, it’s always fascinating to watch Shaw build a character and here you get to see her do it right in front of you with the tiniest of brilliant brush strokes.

Without many of the “loud” elements that give films similar to Kindred more jolts, I can imagine how the film might come off as a little staid for some.  I watched this one late at night and was impressed at how well it kept my attention even well into the midnight hour.  It’s measured in its energy, to be sure, and it gets increasingly standard the longer it goes, disappointingly so considering how good the first 50 minutes or are.  However, those three lead performances coupled with a plot grounded in some type of reality that makes what happens all the more unsettling help to make Kindred worth the labor pains you may feel at times getting through the more familiar-feeling passages.

Movie Review ~ Dating Amber


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A closeted gay teen and his lesbian counterpart pretend to be a couple to avoid suspicion.

Stars: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Barry Ward, Sharon Horgan, Simone Kirby, Lauryn Canny, Emma Willis

Director: David Freyne

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Whether we like it or not, those that lay out their opinions on film for all the world to read are bound to be caught in a fickle situation or two.  I’m as guilty as the next person of loving the easy-breezy romantic comedies that don’t ask too much of the viewer just as much as I crave those brainless action blockbusters that are made for chomping popcorn.  These movies are easy to identify (and, thus, write-off if you so choose) but it’s similar-themed fare that often can bear the burden of more harsh scrutiny.  Films such as these may seem rather conventional but look carefully and you can spot an aspiration that wasn’t met that needs to be called out.

Sadly, one of the newest examples of this is the import Irish comedy Dating Amber.  Here’s one that checked all the boxes on my list for a charming weekend watch but wound up being a disappointing rehash of ideas already brought to the screen.  I’m always onboard for a comedy that goes against the norm and defies expectations, so when I plunk down in front of one that is earnest as all get out and, it must be said, made with the most noble of intentions, I still have to give it its fair shake.  Despite an appealing cast and subject matter that usually gets short shrift in the romantic realm, writer/director David Freyne opts for the obvious when a surprise or two will do and ends up with the five words no LGBTQ film wants to be classified as: Just Another Ordinary Gay Movie.

The oldest child of a military man (Barry Ward, Extra Ordinary) and a stay-at-home mom (Sharon Horgan, Game Night), Eddie (Fionn O’Shea, The Aftermath) is doing everything he can to repress his gay feelings that are becoming too big to ignore.  His friends egg him on to an embarrassing encounter with the loosest girl in their Irish countryside school, an experience that backfires on him and only puts a larger spotlight on his lack of interest in the opposite sex.  Watching all of this unfold is Amber (Lola Petticrew), a popular target for the boys in her class to make crass jokes about and to be harassed by the girls for her supposed lesbian leanings.  Living in a trailer park with her mom after her dad committed suicide, she’s saving up money to head to London by renting one of the empty trailers on her property by the hour to any of her horny classmates that have the cash.

Tired of being bullied and trusting her gut, Amber approaches Eddie and makes him a proposition.  Since they’re both gay (though he claims he’s not), why don’t they pretend to date.  That will squash the daily taunting at school and help them get through the final months before they can truly begin to live their best lives.  Under the guise of doing it to help her, Eddie agrees and the two start their faux relationship which burgeons into just the kind of platonic friendship both had been needing.  Though their romantic lives still need some help, they find some semblance of normalcy in the partnership of another person that understands how the other feels.  However, the more Amber uses this safe space to learn to be happy with accepting her sexuality, the less Eddie follows suit, leading to an emotional rift that threatens their ideal arrangement.

Countless high school films over the years have dealt with these secret relationship/friendship machinations and we all know where they’re heading.  That Dating Amber follows such a standard trajectory while only occasionally setting a pinky toe into new territory is a bummer because there’s some rich emotional soil that could be uncovered here.  Instead, Freyne gives us another school filled with teens that are obnoxious homophobic horndogs and at least one parent that feels like they’ve been waiting their whole life to have a gay child and has had their “I accept you” speech well-rehearsed.  It’s inevitable the teens will have some sort of heated confrontation in a school hallway and the parent will get a late-night teary moment to offer their support…we’re just checking our watches for when it will occur.  It should be said that not enough films go into the relationship between gay men and women with as much mirth.  Wisely, Freyne makes these showcase moments meaning they are memorable but infrequent.

Perhaps Freyne just has too much going on that took away from the people we were here to see.  The story is about the evolution of both Eddie and Amber getting to a new level of love for themselves, but some side story always seems to be getting in the way.  Horgan and Ward are strong actors but the fact their marriage was in shambles had little to do with their son and seemed like a plot thread dropped from Horgan’s Military Wives from earlier this year.  Exploring Amber’s home life tied in a bit more, but lack of development of this area kept it from resonating, which is a shame because Petticrew and Simone Kirby (The Shadow of Violence) as her mother had some good interplay.  I’ve really enjoyed O’Shea in Hulu’s Normal People (where he played a real a-hole) as well as Handsome Devil (a much better LGBTQ pic showing a less typical coming-out story) but here his bundle of nerves got old quickly.   Also, it got aggravating that Eddie’s given so many passes for his poor behavior and violent outbursts without paying much of a realistic price that I began to care less about his ultimate journey.

Originally titled Beards, Dating Amber should have been better than it is considering the scope of possibilities open to the filmmakers.  The entire film I had the nagging feeling like I’d seen this all before.  It wasn’t that it’s an exact carbon copy of other, better, films, it’s that almost all of its choices are so textbook that you could choose any high school romantic comedy (gay or straight) off the shelf and find the same characters.  I’m glad movies like this are getting made and hope they continue to arrive with regularity…I just hope they aren’t so, you know, regular.