Movie Review ~ The Lodge


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A soon-to-be-stepmom is snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote winter cabin. Isolated and alone, strange and frightening events threaten to summon psychological demons from her strict religious childhood.

Stars: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

Director: Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Living in the Midwest, we take the cold and the snow very seriously.  When the temps drop and the white stuff piles up, there’s nothing more we love doing that hunkering down indoors and waiting for summer to arrive, all the while hoping the cabin fever keeps its distance.  So you’d understand why, for me, when a movie like The Lodge comes around it doesn’t spark the same kind of instant fear that someone in, say, Malibu might have if they could think of nothing so horrible as to be stuck in a wintery retreat cut off from the outside world with malevolent forces at work.  That being said, I’m always up for a spooky little horror yarn from an independent distributor and this one was arriving with a sharp snare drum of good buzz so I made sure to bundle up and see it at a recent screening at my local Alamo Drafthouse.

Usually, you can take the pull quotes from the marketing materials with a large grain of thick kosher salt because the studio is looking for the lines from advance reviews that will catch the greatest amount of attention.  Why call a movie “scary” when you can call it “the scariest movie I’ve seen in ages!”?  Thankfully, those smart folks at Neon aren’t out to overshoot things and have found a good one to describe this new horror film from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz: “Scary as Hell” and for once they aren’t too far away from spot-on.  This is a taut, largely unpredictable film that refuses to be put into a box early on and manages to maintain its mood and suspense far longer than it ought to.

Now, it’s going to be harder than usual to discuss this without giving away some semblance of spoilers because the set-up has some spoiler-ish elements but know that I’m weighing what I’m revealing against your overall experience.  Read on if you will – or if you truly don’t want to know anything that stop right now and come back and read this as you’re warming up after the movie.

For Aidan (Jaeden Martell, Midnight Special) and Mia (Lia McHugh, Hot Summer Nights) the holidays aren’t going to be the same as they were last year.  Their parents have split up and while their emotional fragile mom Laura (Alicia Silverstone, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) works out her own issues they are spending more time with their dad, Richard (Richard Armitage, Into the Storm) and his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough, Mad Max: Fury Road).  As is the case with many children of divorced parents, the teens aren’t taking too well to dad’s new squeeze and it doesn’t make things better when he invites her along to their family cabin weekend for the Christmas holiday.

On the surface, Grace seems like she should be a good fit with the family.  Though maybe slightly too young to be both in a new relationship with Richard and a possible future stepmother, she bares a striking resemblance to Laura and that only adds fuel to the fire of Aidan and Mia’s dislike for her.  When Richard leaves for a planned weekend back in the cities for work, he leaves Grace alone with the children and that’s when things start to get…weird.  You see, Grace was the only surviving member of a mysterious doomsday cult and her sanity begins to teeter on the edge when unexplained things start to occur.  Is it the children playing a practical joke, have shadowy figures from her past come back to continue their work, or is Grace simply losing her mind and imagining it all?

There was a Q&A after the movie with the directors and they seemed to revel in the fact that this movie is as twisted as it is.  Going off of their previous film, 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, I definitely see why they would have been drawn to this as their follow-up because there are similar themes of children acting as possible manipulators on fragile adults and how their games can turn deadly.  What’s so intriguing about The Lodge is the way it builds its central mystery with such care that the solution could have been any number of outcomes.  I honestly had it in my mind it was going in one direction and had the scenes/dialogue to back-it up…only to have the directors pull the rug out from under me with another twist I didn’t see coming.

All the twists in the world wouldn’t have meant a hill of beans if they didn’t have a cast that was able to convince you to go in the wrong direction over and over again.  Martell and McHugh have tricky, tricky roles and for reasons that I can’t divulge will only say that what they are asked to do is pretty remarkable right up until the credits run.  I’m so glad to see Silverstone continue to take on challenging roles that couldn’t be further away from her Clueless days and while Armitage likely has the least interesting part of all, he manages to keep you wondering what he’s up to when he vanishes for long stretches of time. The film belongs to Keough, though, and her gradual descent into a calculated madness is well thought out and benefits from Fiala and Franz shooting the film in chronological order.  That allows Keough to chart her breakdown convincingly; giving her room to find the little ways her resolve begins to crack along the way.

For most of these types of movies, once the Big Twist has been revealed the rest of the run time gets a little tiresome as audience members just wait for all the edges to be rounded off.  In The Lodge, Fiala and Franz make good use of what comes after to instill even more disturbing outcomes, serving up real time consequences that are tough to watch.  You can tell Fiala and Franz have affinity for their characters in the way they see them through to the finish line, but that doesn’t mean they let them off easily.  This one earns its stripes as a solid horror film but also benefits from strong film making at its core.

Movie Review ~ The Night Clerk


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While on duty, a young, socially challenged hotel clerk witnesses a murder in one of the rooms but his suspicious actions land him as the lead detective’s number one suspect

Stars: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Johnathon Schaech, Jacque Gray

Director: Michael Cristofer

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  As a lifelong fan of all things mystery and thriller, I’ve come to know my way around a whodunit.  At first, being able to decipher the plot twists and guess the solution early on in a film was frustrating because I felt I was somehow being let down by the movie not playing its cards closer to the chest.  I wanted to have to work to figure it out – that’s the fun of it all, right?  Well, as I kept watching over time I found that it became more interesting to see what else the film was offering up even if it couldn’t keep its secrets safe until that final reel.  Often, I’d wind up appreciating performances more when I saw how they lined up with where the outcome was heading and that showed signs not of a weak script but a well-thought out one.

I mention this at the beginning of my review for The Night Clerk because the murder mystery plot that writer/director Michael Cristofer uses is well-worn and easy to solve almost from the top.  I wouldn’t dare spoil it but Cristofer has not built this tale on a series of complex plot machinations and, y’know, I think that helps the movie at the end of the day because it allows for more interesting moments to emerge.  Though working with a tiny budget that doesn’t call for much in the way of sets or location shooting, Cristofer has assembled an appealing cast that approaches the material as a drama first, a mystery second.

Working the late shift for a modest hotel chain, Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan, Mud) is trying his best to overcome his socially awkward ways.  Clearly on the spectrum but high functioning and living in the basement of his mother’s house, Bart has taken to hiding video cameras in the hotel rooms but not for the reasons you may think.  Instead of being a peeping Tom, Bart observes the way the guests interact and models his speech patterns and conversation starters off of the topics he overhears.  While he still eats the meals his mother prepares alone in the basement as she dines solo upstairs longing for her son to sit with her, you can tell he’s trying to forge some kind of connection that makes sense to him.

Thriving off his routine, Bart’s precision and order is upended after a guest is murdered while he watches remotely, unable to help, on his video monitors.  He’s haunted by the event but unable to say anything to his mother (Helen Hunt, The Sessions) or the cop assigned to the case (John Leguizamo, American Ultra) who can tell Bart knows more than he’s letting on and is further perplexed by Bart’s over-interest in the homicide.  Complicating things further is another guest at the hotel, a mysterious beauty (Ana de Armas, Knives Out) that seems to understand and accept Bart more than others.  Is she the kind soul he’s been waiting for, or is there another plot underway that’s tied back to the earlier murder?

Surprisingly, the murder plotline and everyone associated with it (including Johnathon Schaech’s hammy overacting as a grieving widower) becomes the least interesting part of Cristofer’s film once de Armas arrives.  As Andrea, at first you wonder if she’s just a figment of Bart’s imagination until you realize that isn’t the kind of movie Cristofer is trying to make.  The enigmatic figure struts into Bart’s life late at night and captivates him for all the right reasons.  Sure she’s beautiful but she also appears to be a genuine person and the scenes Sheridan and de Armas share are quite good and interesting to watch.  It’s always a gamble when someone without autism takes on a character on the spectrum but Sheridan doesn’t make Bart a jumble of tics and clichés.  He slightly overdoes it at times but for the most part, it’s an admirable take on the challenge.

Running a trim 90 minutes, the interludes with Sheridan and de Armas can’t carry the entire running length and when Cristofer attempts to pull a series of last minute twists it starts to fall apart a bit because he’s tugging at too many strings all at once.  I would have been more interested in this one if it was just a drama about two people that found each other in an unlikely situation and managed to develop something interesting out of it.  Introducing some seedier elements cheapens that special relationship Sheridan and de Armas create but it doesn’t take away from it fully.  Worth checking this one out if you can catch it on your streaming service.

Movie Review ~ The Assistant


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A searing look at a day in the life of an assistant to a powerful executive as she grows increasingly aware of the insidious abuse that threatens every aspect of her position.

Stars: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh, Noah Robbins, Dagmara Domińczyk, Purva Bedi

Director: Kitty Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: A film like The Assistant was bound to arrive eventually.  Ever since the Harvey Weinstein scandal brought to light the unspoken predatory behavior beyond Hollywood’s closed doors there have been countless news articles, think pieces, and non-fiction works that have gone deep into how things got as bad as they did.  Yet for as many of these real-life dealings in sensational exposés there was going to come a time when a fictionalized account would make it way to screens and I was bracing for a squirm-inducing bit of discomfort.  The trailer for The Assistant is cut to look like a razor sharp thriller and even the log-line promises “a searing look” at a day in the life of our titular character.

So…why isn’t The Assistant more affecting or more substantive?  Writer/director Kitty Green certainly has decent designs on her compact story told over the course of one seemingly ordinary day but whatever she’s trying to say about the current state of the Time’s Up or #MeToo movement gets lost in muddled delivery.  It’s never clear if this is an indictment on the industry at large or intended to cast a withering look on those that see troubling things happen but refuse to say anything.  Instead of being a modest yet compelling voice that adds to the proposed change the industry needs, The Assistant winds up becoming a frustrating part of the problem with its resolute adherence to staid storytelling.

Jane (Julia Garner, Grandma) works for a high-profile movie exec at an unnamed studio and seems to have gotten used to her surroundings.  She arrives before dawn and sets up for the day; organizing schedules, preparing coffee, and steeling herself for her boisterous male peers that routinely slough off the more mundane tasks to her plate.  We never see the boss, only hearing his muffled bark on the phone or through walls when he’s berating his staff but his presence hangs over the office like a dark cloud.  Aside from the occasional celebratory (Patrick Wilson pops in playing himself and seeing that his wife Dagmara Domińczyk has a smaller role you wonder if they aren’t friends of the production), a parade of women flow through the doors during business hours, with no one batting an eye if some of the more exotic beauties leave slightly disheveled, unable to make eye contact on their way out.

When a pretty but clearly unqualified girl fresh off the turnip truck shows up saying she’s been hired by the boss as a new assistant to work alongside Jane, Jane’s reaction and next steps are startling for two reasons.  The first is that she recognizes just how little importance is placed on the work she’s currently doing and it’s somehow only dawning on her now that hard work in the industry only gets you so far.  The real lesson, and best sequence of the movie, is a scene between Jane and an HR leader (Matthew Macfadyen, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) who she has turned to with her concerns.  Garner and Macfadyen both play the dynamics of this conversation well and it takes you in directions you may not initially guess.  Green’s script may not give Garner the kind of speech you want her to have but there’s something telling in what’s not being said between the two characters.

If only the rest of The Assistant had been as finely tuned as this one scene, it may have amounted to more than a small distraction that further illustrates that men in power routinely abuse their position.  I wish Green had gone further in the forum she was given and had been able to create some more depth in the other secondary characters that fill out the rest of the cast.  Aside from Garner and Macfadyen, everyone else seems to be barely etched and, consequently, played without much grounding.  There’s something to the structure Green has created but it’s in the building of the finished product where things just fall flat.

Movie Review ~ Waiting for Anya


The Facts
:

Synopsis: During the harrows of WWII, Jo, a young shepherd along with the help of the Widow Horcada, helps to smuggle Jewish children across the border from southern France into Spain.

Stars: Anjelica Huston, Jean Reno, Frederick Schmidt, Thomas Kretschmann, Noah Schnapp, Gilles Marini, Elsa Zylberstein, Nicholas Rowe, Tómas Lemarquis, Sadie Frost

Director: Ben Cookson

Rated: NR

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  As a child, I remember reading countless numbers of books assigned by teachers and picked up randomly from the library about children living in the Alps (Swiss, French, etc.) doing brave things.  They climbed mountains, they survived in the wilderness, they went toe-to-toe with grumpy grandfathers, and they often stood up to authority in the face of great danger.  As I grew older, I began to see that a number of these novels were really about life during the second World War with Nazis being cast as the Big Bad that our child heroes and heroines were pitted against.  To me, it was just kids triumphing over mean adults…

Somehow in the midst of my massive amount of reading I missed Michael Morpurgo 1990 book Waiting for Anya.  Looking at its hand painted cover and reading it’s rousing description it seems like something that was right up my alley and a title I would have checked out promptly.  Though he has become more well known for his 1982 novel War Horse (which inspired the stage show that led to the Steven Spielberg movie), this is another of his works that is often read in schools and it’s not hard to see why.  It’s a minor history lesson wrapped in a relatively safe story; it stays squarely in its lane and prefers not to veer off course even though its talented cast is surely up for the challenge.

A prologue scroll acclimates us to the fragile time of war we are entering at the start of the picture.  Jews are being loaded onto trains to an unknown destination and a man named Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt, Angel Has Fallen) is attempting to avoid boarding with his young daughter, Anya.  Flash forward to the village of Lescun where we meet Jo, (Noah Schnapp, The Peanuts Movie) a shepherd that has a chance encounter with a more grizzled Benjamin while tending to his flock.  Following Benjamin back to his lodging with the Widow Horcada (Anjelica Huston, The Witches) Jo soon comes to realize that her farm is being used to transport young Jews into the safety of Spain.  Trusting Jo with this knowledge, Horcada and Benjamin bring the boy into their fold which increases the danger not just for the three of them but for Jo’s family and the rest of their tiny village.

There’s an unfortunate sameness that settles over the film early on and it never can truly shake it.  Perhaps it’s just that Morpurgo’s story isn’t that original and, while an important piece of history, has been told before with a bit more conviction through better means.  This adaptation from Toby Torlesse and director Ben Cookson feels like a, sorry to say it, paint-by-numbers approach to a Nazi WWII drama with all of the standard complications and tensions throughout.  There’s the gruff father (Gilles Marini) that doesn’t understand why his son is affiliated with a fringe-dweller like Benjamin, the conflicted Nazi general (Thomas Kretschmann, Avengers: Age of Ultron) who the screenplay tries to make more three dimensional, and a smarmy Nazi lieutenant (Tómas Lemarquis, X-Men: Apocalypse) with eyes that get bigger the stronger his German accent gets.  That being said, Huston and Jean Reno (Alex Cross) as Jo’s grandfather inject their characters with a bit of oomph, even if all the actors involved tend to come off as overly earnest.

Look, I’m never going to begrudge a movie (or book) like Waiting for Anya to exist.  If it opens the door for a dialogue between parents/teachers and their children/students into this period of history than I say more power to them.  From a production standpoint, the film is obviously operating on a smaller budget but it has some lovely picturesque vistas so it’s mostly a well-made affair.  It’s when it falls prey to the run-of-the-mill machinations of its genre that the movie becomes markedly less effective.  Recommended on the strength of the performances.

Movie Review ~ Birds of Prey


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Pérez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong

Director: Cathy Yan

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In the summer of 2016, hopes were high that Suicide Squad could help bring back the DC Universe from extinction after the disappointing reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released earlier that year.  Seems that critics and audiences that had come to like the flashy spark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe weren’t grooving to the darker tones and turns DC was taking and while I personally thought BvS was far better than it got credit for, even I had to admit that the world needed to snap out of its mellow dankness.  Trouble was, the people behind Suicide Squad (and, likely, studio execs) course-corrected too much (largely after the fact) and delivered an awful tire-fire of a comic book movie…and made it PG-13 on top of it all.

If there was one thing that emerged victorious from the rubble of that failed effort (which is getting an overhaul reboot in 2021) it was Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, the Joker’s main-squeeze.  Robbie brought just the right amount of self-effacing fun and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness to the film, giving off the impression she was the only one who really understood what kind of movie she was in.  It definitely set the stage for her full-blown arrival to the big leagues the next year with her Oscar-nominated turn in I, Tonya followed by her regal showing for 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots.  After dominating 2019 with lauded parts in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and nabbing another Oscar nom for Bombshell, she’s back to make good on a deal that was sealed shortly after Suicide Squad opened to big business and stellar notices for her…a spin-off featuring Harley and a new group of female superheroes.

I admit, I first heard about this sequel while Suicide Squad was fairly fresh in my memory and I just wasn’t on board.  While I liked Robbie in the movie I didn’t find myself eager to revisit this take on Gotham City if it was going to be the same tone and annoying approach.  My dial wasn’t turned any more to the positive side when the full title was revealed: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).  I mean…must we?  Thankfully, we aren’t required to use the full title when discussing the film so Birds of Prey this one will be forever more.  Even hearing some decent buzz from those that got an early look didn’t totally convince me.

Well…when I’m wrong I’ll say I’m wrong and I’m wrong…a little bit.  The first ten minutes of Birds of Prey is exactly the kind of obnoxious experience I feared it would be.  Crazy edits, arch characters, voice over narration that felt like it was written by a fourth grader.  Then, just as I was settling in for a rough ride the film, written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, suddenly came alive and decided to find its own voice and that’s when things started to get interesting.  Sure, it maintains most of the elements that make it easily identifiable as a comic book movie but it strips away anything (and anyone) extraneous and focuses simply on the characters.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a Taxi Driver-esque character-study like Joker but it hits many of the same beats…just with more flair.

Harley Quinn (Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) has officially broken up with “Mr. J” and does so explosively (literally).  Without his protection she becomes a prime target for members of the Gotham City underworld that have been waiting to get back at her…but catching her is only half the battle.  Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep) finds this out when he nabs Harley and is about to have his henchman Zsasz (Chris Messina, Live by Night) send her to that great circus in the sky until she sweet talks her way into a deal to get him a priceless diamond from a young  street-wise pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) in police custody.  Finding that girl is a cinch for Harley (a police station breakout is a highlight of the film, one  many impressive action sequences) but she isn’t the only one with an interest in the teen.  There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, The Dead Don’t Die) a Gotham City detective working with Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get the jewel and save the urchin and the hooded Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) whose own vested interest crisscrosses with all involved.

Much like she did with her script for Bumblebee, Hodson injects the film with female empowerment without laying it on thick like you’ve seen it before.  Working in tandem with Yan’s smart visual eye, once Birds of Prey sheds its slimy opening layer and finds its own fun it never stops until the fireball of a finale set at a rundown boardwalk amusement park. Kudos to the production design here…a truly imaginative funhouse was created for the battle royale that closes the picture.  I also appreciated that while the film wasn’t restricted to a PG-13 rating, Yan doesn’t take her R and run with it either…this is a movie that has violence but uses it in wise and, dare I say, fun ways.

Having more time to dig into Harley, Robbie sharpens her rough edges a bit more and that’s sometimes fun, other times a bit grating.  Like I said, it gets better as the movie goes along but the character is inherently meant to be on the insufferable side…but what makes her such a great character is that you still like her even though she’s bad.  And Robbie gets both those sides of the character right.  If there’s one thing Robbie is good at, it’s knowing when to share the spotlight.  It’s the sign of a confident star (and make no doubt about it, Robbie is a bona fine A-list movie star) who can yield the stage to others so they can shine and shine they do.  Perez is in rare form as a dedicated detective who has played by the rules and watched others with less scruples pass her by.  Skilled at comedy, Perez isn’t often asked to be on the more dramatic side and she ably holds up her end of things.  Surprisingly, Winstead’s role is smaller than you’d think, with the Huntress not having much screen time until the final ¼ when her presence is all but required.  I enjoyed Basco’s modern taken on a wide-eyed Artful Dodger and you’re either going to love what McGregor is doing or be completely perplexed.  For me, I loved it in all its slithery nastiness.  I sort of get where Messina was going in his laid back approach to the knuckles and muscle sidekick but think his performance is more Suicide Squad territory.  The one to really look out for is Smollett-Bell who sings up a storm and kicks butt like a pro.  Appearing in film/TV since she was a child, this feels like Smollett-Bell’s true arrival to adult roles and she’s undeniably one of the best things about the film.

It’s already known Robbie will be back for the Suicide Squad reboot next year but we’ll have to wait and see what’s next for the rest of the Birds of Prey.  I think this first outing is absolutely worth the flight time and would welcome another adventure if the same team was brought together again.  It can’t be a coincidence that the most successful DC Comic movies have been female centered and directed by women, right?  With Wonder Woman being the spark that kept the lights on at the studio and this one impressing with its wild style, here’s hoping Wonder Woman 1984 shows everyone that we need to keep letting the women run this world.

Movie Review ~ The 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

Dcera (Daughter) (Directed by Daria Kashcheeva)
Synopsis: In a hospital room, the Daughter recalls a difficult childhood moment when as a little girl she tried to share her experience with an injured bird with her Father.
Review: Oh boy, you know things are going to be a bit rough when the first shot of an animated film is a hospital room with a daughter keeping vigil at her father’s side.  By this point in my Oscar journey I’ve come to expect these animated shorts to be more than the traditional Mickey, Donald, or Chip ‘n Dale comic hi-jinks full of laughs but it’s always a cold shot of air when they are bleak from the jump.  While Dcera (Daughter) has some moments of beauty, it’s largely a somber tale of a daughter recounting her life being raised by her single father and how they failed to connect until it is too late.  The animation is in line with this messy, complicated relationship and I appreciated that director Daria Kashcheeva picked a tone and stuck with it through to the end.  All of us can remember a time when we missed the chance to find greater meaning in a moment with a parent or parental figure and Kashcheeva doesn’t let us forget how much that stings looking back.

Hair Love
(Directed by Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., & Bruce W. Smith)
Synopsis: An African-American father learns to do his daughter’s hair for the first time.
Review: There’s always one entry each year that I call the “creeper”.  Not because it’s got questionable social boundaries but because it has a way of lying in wait, ready to strike at your emotions when your defenses are at their most vulnerable.  Hair Love is crowned Creeper of the Year thanks to a late in the game shift that truly got me and got me good.  Based on director (and former NFL player) Matthew Cherry’s book of the same name, this follows an important morning when Zuri is trying to get her hair just right.  Her father, Stephen, tries to help but doesn’t have the right touch so the two turn to a familiar face for assistance.  At first, you may think you know where this is headed and even when it shifts gears it may feel like you’ve been led into some manipulative territory…but keep watching through the credits because the story keeps going on.  Full of joy and heart…exactly the kind of authentic spirited crowd-pleaser this category often lacks.

Kitbull
(Directed by Rosana Sullivan)
Synopsis: A fiercely independent stray kitten and a chained-up pit bull experience friendship for the first time.
Review: For a long time, those cute PIXAR shorts that played before their full-length features dominated in this category and now that production on these has slowed a bit there is space for what they are calling SparkShorts.  According to their website, these are “designed to discover new storytellers, explore new storytelling techniques, and experiment with new production workflows.” and while some can read that as “cheaper to produce” I prefer to look at it more like the indie unit of PIXAR animation.  It’s sort of like what Fox Searchlight was to 20th Century Fox (which, like PIXAR is owned by Disney) so while you likely won’t see these SparkShorts in front of Pixar’s upcoming Onward, you would see them pop up regularly on Disney+.  That’s how we wound up with Kitbull, a dark tale that isn’t quite kid friendly but still has a message of friendship that could benefit the more mature youth in your group.  If I tell you the film is about the strained relationship between a stray cat and a junkyard mutt used in dog fighting, would that instantly make you think it’s a feel-good film?  Well, miraculously it is and while I would absolutely not suggest this one to little tykes, parents that have a good feel for the sensitives of their children (and themselves) would likely be in for a good conversation after watching this one as a family.

Mémorable (Memorable)
(Directed by Bruno Collet)
Synopsis: Painter Louis and his wife Michelle are experiencing strange events. Their world seems to be mutating. Slowly, furniture, objects, and people lose their realism. They are “destructuring,” sometimes disintegrating.
Review: Reminding me more than just a little of last year’s somber Late Afternoon, this French offering is an insightful look into the gradual deterioration of a man suffering from a neurological disorder that robs him of his memory.  I don’t want to call it Alzheimer’s or dementia because the film doesn’t articulate it but it’s on that level, illustrated with startlingly clear examples as a painter slowly sees the world in less defined states.  While these types of downhill spirals can be a bit of a bummer to sit through, knowing the eventual outcome is never going to be great, there’s something special in this one that allows it to blossom rather than wilt.  I think it’s largely due to director Bruno Collet’s way of putting the disease into a tangible visual seen through the eyes of the painter.  At first we don’t quite notice the small shifts in perspective but by the time it’s evident what’s happening it’s too far gone to do anything to address it properly.  It’s a sad story but beautifully told.

Sister
(Directed by Siqi Song)
Synopsis: A man remembers his childhood and growing up with an annoying little sister in 1990s China. How would his life have been if things had gone differently?
Review: Arguably the entry that I had the most desire to want to reach out and touch, Siqi Song’s stop-motion felt animation requires some attention to narrative detail at the outset for audiences to truly grasp the final twist Song cleverly tucks away until the perfect moment.  As our narrator retraces his childhood in China with his younger sister by recounting some key adventures and trouble they found themselves in being highlighted, Song makes it less episodic than it can seem on the surface.  It may be signs of some storytelling problems that the finale is a bit confusing, though. While I understood what Song was going for in flipping our preconceived notions on their head, if you have to pause an eight minute film to remember key details you may have missed then maybe they weren’t delivered as clearly as they could have been to begin with.  Even so, this one wasn’t the most polished in terms of animation but for providing something different with an air of mystery around it, it had its share of stand-out elements.

Final Thoughts
: Again, not the strongest years for nominees in this category but unlike in previous ceremonies there are no outright head scratchers that are showing up, either.  Bolstered by three other highly regarded shorts (the long but oddly compelling Henrietta Bulkowski, the gorgeously realized The Bird and the Whale, and the fun Max Fleischer-esque comedy Hors Piste) that didn’t get nominated but were liked enough for Shorts TV to include them in the presentation, this is a fine group of nominees but nothing so drop your knickers amazing that there’s a definite winner in the bunch.  That being said, I found Hair Love to be exactly the kind of pro-everything kind of experience we need a heck of a lot more of nowadays and Mémorable to have the most beautiful realization of a thought/concept.  Never underestimate the power of PIXAR, though, and the rag-tag team of PIXAR folk that were assembled for Kitbull could propel that one to a win as well.  My money is on Hair Love, though.  I still can’t get it out of my hair, er, head.

 

Movie Review ~ The 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT

Brotherhood (Directed by Meryam Joobeur)
Synopsis: Mohamed is deeply shaken and suspicious when his estranged eldest son Malek returns home to rural Tunisia with a mysterious young wife in tow. The emotional complexities of a family reunion and past wounds lead to tragic consequences.
Review: It’s become more and more commonplace for the short films nominated in this category to go on to be expanded to full length features and of all the selections this year, Brotherhood seems the most likely candidate to get that tap on the shoulder. Montreal film director Meryam Joobeur wrote the script for her short film after seeing two of the three brothers at the center of this story while traveling through Tunisia and that random encounter has led to a small but mighty story of a family torn apart by ISIS.  I appreciated how Joobeur made the film less about the extremism that led to the rift and focused more on the people affected by it — should she want to build out these characters a bit more I don’t think she’d have any trouble finding a fairly compelling film.

Nefta Football Club
(Directed by Yves Piat)
Synopsis: In south Tunisia, two football fan brothers bump into a headphones-wearing donkey in the desert on the border of Algeria. Unaware that two men are waiting for the donkey and its hidden drug stash, the brothers take the animal back home with them.
Review: An important element to these films is focus, for the filmmakers and the audience, and Nefta Football Club struggled to hold my attention for long.  It’s a quirky little film that’s building to one joke that, while admittedly an unexpectedly pleasant way to end things, feels a bit too simple for the more laborious set-up it took to get there.  Two men are searching for a donkey saddled with drugs wearing headphones that are set to play a certain song the donkey has been trained to recognize as its signal to go home.  When the animal is discovered by two brothers, it sets into (brief) motion some (brief) comic foibles as one brother knows what the powder wrapped up tightly in sacks is while the other has different designs on it.  Director Yves Piet has some editing issues that fumbles the narrative slightly but those thinking they know how this will end based on similarly pitched films may be in for a surprise.

The Neighbors’ Window
(Directed by Marshall Curry)
Synopsis: The life of a middle-aged woman with small children is shaken up when two free-spirited twenty-somethings move in across the street.
Review:  We’ve all been in a situation where we have a peek into the windows of someone across the way that may not know we can see them.  Most of the time, it’s just a sleepy baby boomer eating cereal and reading the newspaper but for a NY couple in Marshal Curry’s The Neighbors’ Window they get much more. Alli (a brilliant Maria Dizzia) and Jacob are parents in their mid 30’s settling into a routine when the apartment facing them gets two new tenants just starting their lives together.  They have frisky sex, they host dance parties, they have dinners with friends, all under the watch of Jacob and, increasingly, Alli who begins to experience some kind of longing the more she looks through her binoculars at the lives of her neighbors.  Were the film just this, it may have been just a tired story of parents wishing they were young again but a twist from Curry puts the lives of both couples into perspective in important ways.

Saria
(Directed by Bryan Buckley)
Synopsis: Inseparable orphaned sisters Saria and Ximena are fighting against daily abuse and unimaginable hardship at the Virgen de La Asuncion Safe Home in Guatemala when a tragic fire claims the lives of 41 orphaned girls.
Review: Inspired by a true story, Saria is maybe the toughest watch of all the Live Action shorts this year due to its tragic finale (that’s not a spoiler, per se) but it’s also one of the best offerings thanks to it’s propulsive forward motion, solid performances, and sharp editing.  Two sisters are living a hard-knock life in a South American orphanage where they scrub floors during the day between going to school and occasionally being farmed out to men for money.  It’s an impossible life and one that Saria (an excellent Estefanía Tellez) refuses to accept as the only future for her and her sister…so she plans an escape.  Director Bryan Buckley works wonders with an untrained group of actors (most of whom were from the orphanage where this was filmed) but perhaps moves too quickly through their brief rebellion and dives headfirst into the finale which is a bit confusing.  It comes up so fast and Buckley has hit the brakes with such force that it’s jarring.

Une soeur (A Sister)
(Directed by Delphine Girard)
Synopsis: An emergency services dispatcher must tap into all her professional skills when she receives a call from a woman in a desperate situation.
Review: It’s these taut little gems that really make me appreciate the short form narrative celebrated with nominations every year. Director Delphine Girard has offered up a breathless thriller that starts off telling one story and then goes back and shows us what’s really happening.  A man and woman are traveling in a car late at night and you can sense the tension in the air.  She wants to call her sister and tell her she’s going to be late.  The conversation she has with her sister is banal but we soon learn the person on the other line is not a blood relation but is just as vital to her in the current situation.  Like last year’s gripping Live Action short nominee Madre and 2013’s The Call, plenty of suspense is mined and you’ll likely find yourself gripping your seat and holding your breath as it moves toward its conclusion.  Should it be awarded the Oscar?  I’m not so sure because it plays perhaps a bit too much on the populist popcorn entertainment side of things but it definitely earns points for grabbing the audience from the start and not letting go.

Final Thoughts
: So what will win?  Hard to say because I can see this going a few different directions.  If the Academy voters want to see more of a filmmaker they are going to go with Brotherhood as a vote of confidence in what Meryam Joobeur will do next which may include a full length version of her short film.  For the short and sweet impact of the film itself, The Neighbors’ Window might be tantalizing, though in a year where the Oscars were criticized for its lack of diversity it might be odd for a short about well-off white NYCers to be the victor.  Then again, Saria‘s strong final impact may help it overcome its weaker elements.  I wasn’t that enamored with many of the Documentary or Animated shorts this year and the same could be said for Live Action but I think there are some opportunities for better endeavors later on from this crop of filmmakers.

 

Movie Review ~ The 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

Life Overtakes Me (Directed by John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson)
Synopsis: Hundreds of refugee children in Sweden who have fled with their families from extreme trauma in their home countries have become afflicted with Resignation Syndrome. Facing deportation, they withdraw from the world into a coma-like state, as if frozen, for months or even years.
Review: Available on Netflix, this documentary poses an interesting question surrounding refugee families awaiting uncertain citizenship decisions and their children who exhibit signs of a rare but growing condition.  While it doesn’t outright suggest the children are faking their symptoms, it doesn’t exactly shy away from the parallels between positive decisions on asylum and the sudden recovery of afflicted children with Resignation Syndrome.  I can’t say this one held me in its grasp for long (though at 39 minutes it’s one of the longest) because that nagging sense of doubt started to creep up more and more as the film progressed.  It doesn’t help the three families we meet are strikingly similar and don’t offer much in the way of tactile interest…there’s a curated sense of compassion at play here and between the chilly shots of frozen landscapes and a plodding pace it’s a surprisingly difficult film to warm up to.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl)
(Directed by Carol Dysinger)
Synopsis: Over the course of 15 years, a class of young girls from disadvantaged neighborhoods in war-torn Kabul, learn to read and write, and grow together in confidence through the joy of skateboarding.
Review: If Life Overtakes Me lacked something in the way of convincingly honest intent, this documentary more than makes up for it in looking at the students of Skateistan, a non-profit set-up with the goal to empower children around the world through skateboarding and education.  Focusing on the girls of the Skateistan school in Kabul, Afghanistan, this one takes a few minutes to get running which is precious time when you’re already working with short form filmmaking.  The ramp up proves to be worth it as we hear from the pre-teen girls talk about what getting an education means to them and, more importantly, hear from their mothers why they want their children to obtain the skills they were prevented from achieving.  It’s a little rough around the edges but when it gets into a groove it really soars.  It was especially moving to hear from the teachers in this school and the way they looked at their roles in providing an education.

In the Absence
(Directed by Seung-jun Yi)
Synopsis: When the MV Sewol ferry sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014, over three hundred people lost their lives, most of them schoolchildren. Years later, the victims’ families and survivors are still demanding justice from national authorities.
Review: The unimaginable tragedy that serves as the focus of In the Absence plays out almost in real time as we watch.  A ferry in South Korea carrying nearly 400 passengers runs into trouble and begins to sink.  As camera crews film and as those in charge drag their feet on making decisions to position themselves as saviors in the best possible light, the vessel sinks and hundreds of passengers that followed orders and stayed put in their cabins drowned while waiting to be rescued.  All of this is presented with startling clarity, largely without any editorializing – these were the facts as they happened and it was a disaster for all involved.  It’s tough stuff and listening to the parents still in shock all these years later as they demand answers from a government that deals in policies of silence and cover-ups, you’ll feel your blood boil as the tears well up.

Walk Run Cha-Cha
(Directed by Laura Nix)
Synopsis: Chipaul and Millie Cao reunited in 1980s Los Angeles after being separated by the Vietnam War. Forty years later, they become ballroom dancers to reconnect again and make up for lost time.
Review: A documentary produced for the New York Times popular OpEd series, this is one of the blessedly lighter toned subjects.  Audiences watching all five of the nominees in one sitting will likely find this small but slight bit of joy a nice reprieve from the darker offerings and I say more power to them.  This is a nice little look at the lives of a couple that met in Vietnam in the ’70s and reconnected in the ‘80s in California.  Through their love of ballroom dance, they leave the churn of the daily grind behind and discover a new rhythm to their relationship.  While the piece ends with a fairly lovely dance for the couple, I couldn’t help feel like one half of the couple was more invested in the dance than the other and was the driving force for their participation…but I’ll let you see it and decide for yourself.

St. Louis Superman
(Directed by Sami Khan & Smriti Mundhra)
Synopsis: Bruce Franks Jr., a leading Ferguson activist and battle rapper who was elected to the overwhelmingly white and Republican Missouri House of Representatives, must overcome both personal trauma and political obstacles to pass a bill critical to his community.
Review: Our political system is crying out for new voices and new perspectives and after spending some cinematic time with him I feel that Missouri representative Bruce Franks Jr. is the embodiment of that necessary change.  Though he doesn’t look like your typical suit-wearing politician, he’s making a difference in and for his community by calling youth violence the public health epidemic it is.  Pushing for a bill to recognize this, his drive is fueled by a loss close to home and a hope for the future he still has faith in when others may not.  All politicians should sit and watch this and find ways they can connect with their community the way Franks has with his, though a surprising epilogue is a strong reminder how fragile we all are to our own demons.

Final Thoughts
: Another tough year for documentaries with not a lot of sun on this side of the street.  My gut is leaning toward In the Absence; even though it has likely the hardest subject matter to watch unfold, it’s the first South Korean film to be nominated in this category (much like Parasite is the first South Korean film to be nominated for Best International Feature) and it’s well put together.  My personal favorites were St. Louis Superman and Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re A Girl) but if I’m being totally honest I didn’t find any to be quite on the quality level as in years past.  Too many came off like half-baked cuts of longer narratives and I wish there was more focus on consolidating a voice, a vision, a statement into this short-form style.  It leaves things too ambiguous when you have something important to say and leave your sentence trailing….right?

 

Movie Review ~ Troop Beverly Hills


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A soon to be divorced Beverly Hills socialite is determined to prove to her husband and herself that she can finish what she starts out to do, by becoming a den mother to a troop of Beverly Hills Girl Scouts.

Stars: Shelley Long, Craig T. Nelson, Audra Lindley, Betty Thomas, Mary Gross, Jenny Lewis, Ami Foster, Carla Gugino, Heather Hopper, Kellie Martin, Emily Schulman, Tasha Scott, Aquilina Soriano, Stephanie Beacham, Karen Kopins, Dinah Lacey, Shelley Morrison, Tori Spelling

Director: Jeff Kanew

Rated: PG

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review (The Movie): I know this is going to come as a great shock to you but when I was a youngster I hung around our local movie rental store quite a lot.  This was before the big chains started to dominate so Good Neighbor Video had the, uh, good fortune of getting a nearly daily visit from me which included a lengthy browse of any given section and long discussions with the bored college age clerks about the latest releases.  My enthusiasm for not just the movies but for the rental business in general resulted in the eventual winning over of the middle-aged owners (a true mom and pop set-up) and they were kind enough to toss my way a few publicity extras they weren’t able to use.

Back then these stores were flooded with promo materials to hype even the tiniest of releases.  Anything from small desk displays of movie scenes to playful mobiles with actors heads dancing around a lit up movie title to full size standees, there was always something new coming out.  The most traditional of these and my favorite was the movie poster because they were so easy to display and they covered the aging wallpaper in my bedroom.  At this video store, they had room to display about eight posters and the owners always opted for, obviously, the latest and most exciting releases, far less than the 20 or 30 posters they’d get every month to coincide with the new batch of titles coming out.  I remember vividly stopping by the video store and getting a new roll of unused posters, bringing them home, and unrolling this one, which was right on top.

Even at a mere nine years old, I knew who Shelley Long was, having been taken by my parents to see her previous film, 1987’s Hello Again.  While Long had already starred in a handful of successful movies, I’d learn later how 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills was her first film after famously leaving her hit show Cheers at the close of its fifth season.  What I didn’t know at the time was Troop Beverly Hills had tanked at the box office, making a mere $8 million off of an $18 million budget and it’s pending VHS release was its final step before fading into obscurity…but I knew I had to see it.

Well, I eventually did see Troop Beverly Hills and it was everything I wanted it to be and more.  Fun, funny, with jokes that I understood and even more jokes that I didn’t, and it was all wrapped up in a bouncy bow by its star.  I was too young to scoff at the fact it was ignored at the box office and maligned by snooty toot critics but over the years any time I returned to it I never could figure out just what about this didn’t strike the right chord at the time.  Watching it again as an adult at a fun screening at our local Alamo Drafthouse (more on that below) I was kind of amazed by how well the movie holds up…and not just as a safe PG sleepover staple.  Providing a sturdy message for young girls on the road to figuring themselves out and not worrying about what icky boys want to see, Troop Beverly Hills earns its patches and then some for comedic longevity.

Spoiled California housewife Phyllis Neffler (Long, Outrageous Fortune) has signed up to donate her time before.  She’s tried giving her hands across America saving the whales but can’t quite follow through with anything due to her busy shopping schedule.  However, with her marriage to Fred (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in shambles she needs a new focus and decides to take on the role of Wilderness Girl troop leader for her pre-teen daughter Hannah (Jenny Lewis) and her seven gal pals from elite families in Beverly Hills.  Resistant to their new den mother at first after seeing a revolving door of previous candidates, the troop warms up once they realize she’s just as inexperienced and lost as they are and won’t retreat at the first sign of conflict.

That’s good for them but bad for Velda Plender (Betty Thomas, who eventually became a semi-successful film/television director, working with Long again in The Brady Bunch Movie) an ex-Army nurse now the de facto rule keeper for the Wilderness Girl troop leaders.  A bully and a cheat, she recoils at the way Phyllis tries to treat the organization as the fun experience it as and less like the survivalist preparation Velda would prefer it to be.  Dispatching her cronie Annie (Mary Gross, Big Business) to infiltrate Phyllis and her troop, Velda tries to stop Troop Beverly Hills from making it to the annual Jamboree and being named troop of the year.

Adding a dose of real life fun to the mix is knowing the movie is loosely based on the life of producer Ava Ostern Fries who turned her stories of being a Brownie Leader into the basis for the movie and it’s a concept that has a lot of legs to it.  Sure, it’s easy to plumb the mines of the vapid lives of the rich and famous for ways to get Phyllis out of her comfort zone but the screenplay never sets out to make her (or the girls) look stupid, inept, or less capable than anyone else if they just set their mind to it.  If anything, the movie levels its harshest criticism at those that demand rule and order above all else in refusing to let people dance to the beat of their own drum.  While a great many jokes are made about Phyllis and her monetary ways, that spend spend spend attitude is countered with a backstory about the lean early years of her marriage where her thriftiness helped keep her family together.

It’s a pity this first post-Cheers film wasn’t a success because Long (dressed in a never-ending display of hysterically artistic outfits by famed costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, Stella) is joyously winning as the effervescent Phyllis.  Too self-involved to know when Velda is making fun of her and, frankly, too above it all to care what she thinks anyway, Long works hard to give Phyllis more than just the cookie cutter image of the Beverly Hills stay at home and shop housewife.  Playing the villain, Thomas is a hoot and works well solo or pinging off of Long or the meek Gross playing the mousey Marcie to Thomas’s pernicious Peppermint Patty.  As the lone male with any significant presence, Nelson has to be beefcake sometimes and agitator at others and he manages to make both interesting without getting in the way of Phyllis or her girls.

Making up the rest of the cast, aside from a now-preserved in amber amount of 80s celebrities that many youngsters nowadays won’t even understand the references to, are an array of young starlets pulled from television shows, commercials, and minor roles in afterschool specials.  Aside from Kellie Martin who had a steady career on several hit TV shows watch for a fresh-faced Carla Gugino (San Andreas) as a snobby brat who realizes Phyllis and the troop are the closest thing she has to a dependable family environment.  All are energetic but there seems to be at least one too many as they fail to be quite as defined as they could be.  Of the ones that do shine, most memorable is Tasha Scott’s Jasmine who receives the best introduction and gets to sing the unofficial (and officially catchy) theme song of the movie, “Cookie Time” on Rodeo Drive while wearing a Tina Turner wig.

For a movie so locked in its time and place, it’s remarkable how little the movie has shown its wrinkles.  It still plays like gangbusters and I think the more trivial asides have actually gotten more meaningful when you consider how marginalized little girls/young women have become in the years since the film was released.  It may have packed up its theatrical campground early but Troop Beverly Hills found a new life in overnight rentals in the years since.  Give it a watch…you’ll be surprised by how much you enjoy it.

 

Review (The Quote-Along): So why review Troop Beverly Hills now, you may ask?  Well, first off, here was a chance to see the movie on the big screen, something I’d never had the chance to do until now.  The Alamo Drafthouse in Woodbury, MN has a way with their programming and finding the right mix between bringing back underseen gems and stirring fond nostalgia and when I saw this one was coming up I just couldn’t resist.  A bonus was that this was to be no ordinary screening of Troop Beverly Hills where the audience would sit idly by while noshing on their loaded fries, pizza, or cleverly crafted cocktail skillfully served by stealthy servers.  No, this was to be a two pronged bit of fun.

First…it was part of their Champagne Cinema signature series of screenings.  I’ll let Alamo’s website describe what that is in detail:

Just like a glass of bubbles, there’s a special type of film that can lift your spirits and add a bit of sparkle to your day. From movies you watched endlessly at slumber parties to new favorites that feel like old friends, Champagne Cinema provides a generous pour of heart, humor and happy endings. Each film is paired with a themed cocktail to match the effervescence on screen, and the audience is encouraged to toast, cheer and swoon along. So bring along a friend (or five) and prepare for a theatrical experience that pops. Bottoms up!

So while the theme drinks of the night were The Freddie and The Thin Mint Cocktail there were still more surprises yet to come because audiences would also be treated to a Quote-Along experience featuring animated subtitles and our own themed gifts.  The gifts were a green beret so we could all be Wilderness Girls (and Guys) and a set of stickers/patches modeled after the ones seen in the film.  All in all, a fun bit of swag to walk into and away with and while I didn’t partake in the cocktails both sounded better than other themed drinks at similar events.

As to the actual quote-along experience?  Well, I think living in the Midwest it all depends on the audience and the movie.  I’ve been to a number of movie parties where this kind of audience participation is encouraged and though the theater employs a nice hype-man that comes out at the beginning to get the crowd warmed up, the energy level just never rises above a low simmer.  Still, this was the first time the quotes were on the screen and that seemed to stimulate more shout-outs…and definitely more signing when “Cookie Time” came around.

Strangely, the front half of the movie seemed loaded with quotes at every turn with not every one being something I’d consider a valued line from the film but it definitely tapered off as the comedy went on.  I’m wondering if that was somehow intentional because it was in that final 40 minutes or so when the subtitles that appeared seemed to really select the most well known quotes.  What’s great about this set-up is that even if you are a little shy you feel a bit more emboldened sitting in the dark to yell out your favorite quote without feeling embarrassed.

If you have an Alamo Drafthouse near your residence you should check the theater out regardless but definitely keep your eye out for these types of special events.  The price may seem a little high (anywhere from $12 to $16) but that’s also what you’d pay for a normal ticket on a weekend and you don’t get the props or one of a kind experience this offers.  The best bet is to find a movie you really like and try your first Movie Party out and see what you think.  It really is a fun new way to spend a night at the movies.

Movie Review ~ The Gentlemen


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Mickey Pearson is an American expatriate who became rich by building a marijuana empire in London. When word gets out that he’s looking to cash out of the business, it soon triggers an array of plots and schemes from those who want his fortune

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery

Director: Guy Ritchie

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  When he first started out, director Guy Ritchie was able to deliver films that felt like rough and rowdy brawlers.  They were British to their core, authentic in their design with deliriously off the wall characters that didn’t come off as cliché stereotypes or too arch to be taken seriously.  Finding a crossover hit early on in the US with 1998’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels he scored and even bigger hit (and married Madonna) in 2000 with Snatch starring mega-star and super fan Brad Pitt and his career in Hollywood was officially off and running.

Briefly distracted by an ill-conceived remake of Swept Away starring his wife, he found his way back to the grittier gangster pics (albeit with bigger budgets and more formal studio involvement) for Revolver and RocknRolla.  That’s pretty much the last time the Ritchie who was heralded as the next big thing in the early 2000’s was seen because the director has largely toiled in high profile franchise or tent pole fare for the past decade.  His two Sherlock Holmes films were fun but didn’t play to his strengths and while the big screen adaptation of television’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t the sizable hit it should have been, it felt like Ritchie was getting back to what he was good at.  By the time Ritchie signed on to oversee the live-action adaptation of Aladdin that was released in 2019, I think even he was surprised at where his career was sitting.

Perhaps that’s why he’s starting 2020 off with the release of The Gentlemen, an interesting return to form for Ritchie that’s a good reminder of what he can do with material he feels some affinity toward.  Serving as both writer and director, Ritchie has assembled some top tier talent from the UK and US but don’t let the title, poster, or other marketing fool you.  This isn’t a refined “ol chap” sort of crime caper but a hard-nosed, foul-mouthed, not always linear crime drama that often gets lost in its own maze of double crosses and deception.

After years of building a successful drug trafficking empire in the UK, American businessman Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar) has tired of all the extra precautions and risk and is ready to sell his business and retire with his wife Roz (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop).  News of his plans spreads quickly and attracts the attention of a quietly treacherous billionaire (Jeremy Strong, Serenity) who thinks he can outsmart Mickey and drive down his asking price and ambitious Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding, Last Christmas) looking to make a play for his own piece of the London underworld.  With the two men vying for the whole mincemeat pie, they’ll resort to any method of skulduggery to get what they want and that may involve working together…or are they all being outsmarted by an entirely different puppet-master?

This being a Ritchie film, there has to be several subplots going that will eventually loop back around to tie into the central story line.  One involves a flighty (and foppish) tabloid journalist (Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins) attempting to extort money from Mickey’s right hand henchman (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim) who knows where all the bodies are buried and isn’t above digging another hole for the reporter.  Also factoring in the mix are a team of young amateur boxers and wannabe rap viral video stars who raid the wrong drug house and need their exasperated coach (a divine Colin Farrell, Dumbo) to get them out of a jam.

How these threads get braided together, tied off, trimmed up, and sewn shut makes for an entertaining final act of The Gentlemen but it’s that first 75 minutes or so that are a bit rocky to get through.  It’s a fairly slow opening and one that is, at times, hard to follow with Ritchie jumping around in timelines which can make it difficult to track the action and the characters.  There’s a smart way of doing these shifts (think Pulp Fiction) and it starts with a strong screenplay that’s well defined, razor sharp. Unfortunately, Ritchie’s script isn’t all that dynamic so even if the double crosses and twists that emerge aren’t exactly easy to identify, it’s mostly because we’ve been deliberately not given information that would have helped us piece together the puzzle.  One scene has us not being able to decipher what people are saying in a key moment because there’s something in the way blocking our view yet when the scene is replayed later on that obstruction has vanished and we can clearly hear that one nugget that would have clued us in.  In a way, that’s cheating the audience through trickery.

Along with a rather inspired soundtrack (always one of Ritchie’s strengths), the cast helps to sell the movie, even with these narrative blips.  I liked McConaughey’s weary and wary kingpin, he’s clearly been in the business long enough to know when to lose his temper and when to keep his cool.  Some may find the performance “lazy” but I found it appropriately conserving energy for the characters Mickey interacts with that deserve more of his output.  I wasn’t ever totally sold on Hunnam playing such a buttoned up fellow that keeps the dirty work out of Mickey’s hands – there’s just something that doesn’t fit and I would much rather have seen Golding take on this role because I also didn’t believe him as a short fused petulant gangster.

Freed from the frocks as Lady Mary on Downton Abbey, Dockery looks like she’s having a ball as Mickey’s no-nonsense wife and while Ritchie has never been great with female characters…he at least gives her a nice zinger of a scene, small as it is.  I’m torn on Grant’s fey reporter act, half horrified at how uncouth it is in this day and age to play a part so literally and half enjoying seeing Grant continue to take on roles that are a far cry from his mop-top romantic leads that made him a star nearly three decades ago.  Stealing the show completely is Farrell as a tough love trainer who isn’t willing to let his young acolytes pay the ultimate price for a stupid mistake.  If Ritchie were to want a spin-off of this movie, he could easily find another film story for Farrell and the boys…and I’d happily see it.

Recently, 2019’s Uncut Gems was called out as having the seventh most f-words in film history and I’d be willing to bet The Gentlemen would rank just as high for the most use of the dreaded c-word.  Now in the UK that verboten word doesn’t carry quite the same weight it does on our shores but it still has a significant  impact over the course of 113 minutes.  I’m a fan of these kind of crime films and so it’s worth seeing The Gentlemen if only to make sure Ritchie continues to go back to making movies like this and doesn’t make a movie musical with Will Smith as a Genie again.  This is clearly a world and material he has a meter and rhythm for and while the overall orchestra isn’t quite in tune yet they’ve been warmed up nicely.