Movie Review ~ Lady Chatterley’s Lover (2022)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An unhappily married aristocrat begins a torrid affair with the gamekeeper on her husband’s country estate.
Stars: Emma Corrin, Jack O’Connell, Matthew Duckett, Joely Richardson, Ella Hunt, Faye Marsay
Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre
Rated: R
Running Length: 126 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  For a novel as infamous as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I’m surprised I knew so little about it going into this tenth film adaptation. After all, the book’s sordid history is legendary in literature for its lengthy discourse over the fine line between art and obscenity. Banned in many counties at various times since it was published in 1928 by D.H. Lawrence, it exists as a naughty novel with scandalous passages of adulterous trysts and a statement on the class division between the aristocrats and the working class. Of course, all anyone remembers are the copious amounts of sensuality, not the social commentary. A new version of Lawrence’s work gives the viewer an eyeful in that regard.

Releasing on Netflix after a brief theatrical run, the 2022 Lady Chatterley’s Lover has assembled a crackerjack production team led by director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. The sharp-eyed director was behind the understated (and underseen) The Mustang back in 2019, and she turns her talents to bringing the Lawrence novel to life through a 21st-century lens. Still very much a period drama; there’s a modern current running through the film that’s hard to ignore for any period. That will work for those new to the text (like myself) but may alienate purists who want to keep things neat.

Before heading back to the front line in the Great War, Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) marries the lovely Connie Reid (Emma Corrin, My Policeman) and promises her a life of adventure. No one could predict what the devastation of battle would bring their people, and a half year later, Clifford is paralyzed from the waist down, and the barely newlyweds are settling into their future at his country estate. Finding her love and vows tested early due to Clifford’s impotence, his desire for an heir pushes him to encourage his bride to seek out another man that could give them both a child. Recoiling at the thought initially, the arrival of handsome groundskeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) makes her reconsider not just her husband’s offer but pre-destined plans she thought she had no control over.

The relationship between Connie and Oliver develops far less as a flash-in-the-pan, steam-up-the-windows fling. As much as it would be easy to lump Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a predecessor to the Fifty Shades of Grey series, there’s a maturity and sensitivity to their affair that strikes a chord from the beginning. The chemistry and connection shared between Corrin and O’Connell helps immeasurably; with both actors frequently appearing nude, their comfort assists the audience in letting our guard down faster. The lack of inhibition endears the characters to one another and, ultimately, to us.

Yet once the film establishes this bond, it becomes repetitive quickly. The eroticism on display is filmed with caring intimacy, but at some point, it feels more titillating than transporting. Much effort has been made to set Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a specific time and place, but when it goes to a place of groans and moans, you start to look around to see who might be watching over your shoulder. Unfortunately, that’s when the performances get lost among the heaving bosoms and exposed flesh (an excessive amount of a bottomless Corrin vs. O’Connell, I should say). 

The trivia buffs have already gnawed off all the fun around a previous Lady Chatterley, Joely Richardson (Color Out of Space) from the 1993 Ken Russell adaptation, returning in the motherly caretaker role of Mrs. Bolton. Richardson works fine with the part, as does Faye Marsay (Darkest Hour), appearing as Connie’s more forthright sister in brief bookends. It’s essentially Corrin’s film, though, and she does a complete 180 from what we saw in The Crown, shedding the shy vulnerability of Princess Diana for the more headstrong Connie.

I can’t speak to how well this adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover compares to the source novel or other versions before; I chose to go in totally blind on this one. In a way, I’m glad I did because this piece has picked up a lot of baggage (read: opinions) over the years, and a new view is likely warranted. Nestled in a lovely production are performances that don’t hold back physically, even if the world they inhabit occasionally takes advantage of them.

Movie Review ~ Christmas with the Campbells


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Jesse gets dumped right before the holidays by her boyfriend Shawn, his parents convince her to still spend Christmas with them and Shawn’s handsome cousin while Shawn is away.
Stars: Justin Long, Brittany Snow, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Julia Duffy, George Wendt, Alex Moffat
Director: Clare Niederpruem
Rated: NR
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  As the season’s change, weather-wise, so do they shift for films in our household as well. January through March are often “Happy Hibernate Days,” where the awards contenders get watched, and the epics from the classic cinema I’ve long neglected get caught up on. April and May are “Spring Cleaning” to tie up any loose ends of binged TV/limited series you may not have finished. Then coming out of “summer movie time” from June to August, a brief free period in September before October’s “scary movie season” fills my horror cup. On November 1 and through the end of the year, Christmas/holiday fare keeps us entertained.

During the pandemic, I went all-in on the Hallmark/Lifetime channel Christmas movies which followed the same formula and have been the target of many jokes over the years. Yes, they make these films on an endless assembly line, shifting the same actors and plot details around. You’re going to experience the most minimal of stakes, and rarely will any movie produced deviate from the ordained protocol (seriously, I’ve read articles that confirm there are network-mandated do’s and don’ts down to clothing), so there’s an element of comfort when you tune in…if that’s your bag. It wasn’t my bag for many years but cooped up with nothing to do and running out of options, I learned to appreciate these minor distractions for the major entertainment possibilities they could offer.

Fortunately, films are back in a relatively decent swing now, so I can afford to be a bit more discerning with what I watch, so I’m always on the lookout for a Christmas/holiday movie that takes a different approach. I’ll sit through a charming one like the Lindsay Lohan starring Falling for Christmas on Netflix, but Christmas with You, starring Freddie Prinze Jr. as week later on the same service, felt sugary by comparison. Now, we have Christmas with the Campbells, premiering on AMC+ and co-written by Vince Vaughn (The Cell), which aims to add a little salty spiked spice to the usual sugar concoction we’re used to. The result is an unusually entertaining comedy that lays on the ribald laughs just enough not to be exasperating, taking an adults-only approach to holiday cheer.

Photographer and Christmas enthusiast Jesse (Brittany Snow, X) is looking forward to another holiday spent with her boyfriend’s parents in Ketchum, Idaho. Apparently, without a family or any friends of her own (typical for these types of set-ups), Jessie is stunned when Shawn (Alex Moffat, The Opening Act) up and dumps her right before they are set to leave. He’s off to NYC for a job interview that will put him on the fast track, and he doesn’t feel Jesse is the right fit for his desired jet-set lifestyle. Further, Shawn doesn’t plan on going home for the holidays, and Jesse already has a non-refundable ticket…so his mom (Julia Duffy, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker) tells her to keep her plans and come to Idaho for Christmas anyway.

Arriving at the home of her ex-almost-in-laws, Jesse quickly feels right at home, though it’s hard not to have someone to bounce off the thinly veiled raunchy behavior between Shawn’s mom and dad (George Wendt, Gung Ho). As Christmas gets closer, Jesse catches the eye of Shawn’s visiting cousin, David (Justin Long, Barbarian), and develops a little rivalry for his attention with a local vixen (JoAnna Garcia Swisher, The Internship). When Shawn shows up unexpectedly, plans for a simple holiday get thrown into chaos, giving Jesse second thoughts over her plans for the future and questioning her present choices.

Strangely, I started watching another holiday film directed by Clare Niedepruem the same day I watched her Christmas with the Campbells. A Royal Corgi Christmas was touted as a big film for Hallmark and, do keep this between us, I had to turn it off before the first commercial break because I knew it was going to be a dog. Given more of a runway to have fun (and inject R-rated humor throughout), Niedepruem can let her actors run free, which makes Christmas with the Campbells consistently surprising. It’s not astounding work, but if you’ve watched enough of these movies at any point, you’ll appreciate how the formula is given a sanguine pinch in all the right places.

You could see how this potentially started as a project intended for the big screen. That’s perhaps why there’s an overall sense the film wants to be bigger than it wound up being. The three principal members of the love triangle (Jesse/Shawn/David) could have been played by any combo of A-list stars, not that the cast here doesn’t play their parts with skill. Snow, in particular, is terrific. Resisting the urge to over/underplay the role, she finds the balance immediately, which makes the character one to root for and side with. Moffat draws on his “Guy Who Just Bought a Boat” character from SNL a bit too much but clearly should be working in film more. Long has had a big year already (catch House of Darkness for a chilly shiver), and while his role is a bit weird (the accent!), it’s appropriately charming. The MVP here is Duffy, a 7-time Emmy nominee for Newhart; she’s excelled in bit parts over the past three decades but is handed a swell role and runs with it. 

A Christmas movie you can watch after you finish decorating and while you’re enjoying your third or fourth glass of eggnog, Christmas with the Campbells does set out to break the mold of your traditional holiday fare. It pushes the boundaries of the format by being a little more vulgar than you’re used to but not skimping on the usual elements you’re expecting. The performances are on the mark, as is the message and heart. Check it out and be prepared to find a surprise or two while you’re at it.

Movie Review ~ Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

The Facts:

Synopsis: During the COVID-19 pandemic, billionaire Miles Bron invites his five closest friends and detective Benoit Blanc to his private island mansion, the Glass Onion, to participate in a “murder mystery.”
Stars: Daniel Craig, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista
Director: Rian Johnson
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 140 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  As much as the penny-pinching algorithms may tell the heads of movie studios that only established property franchise fare does well at the box office in this more restrictive movie-going environment, I still have a feeling that viewers crave more original work than the tired, conventionally familiar films arriving in theaters. After all, you can see the numbers for superhero movies, and long-running series start to dwindle and crack, leaving room for new material to have the breathing room it did in the late ’90s and 2000s. The timing couldn’t be better.

It’s partly why 2019’s Knives Out was such sweet relief, and I think it set the stage for what was to come, even though it came out pre-pandemic. Here was a film packed with stars in an old-fashioned murder mystery chock full of trickery and misdirects. Fun to see with a large audience, it provided the same adrenaline rush of the superhero movie without having that dull sameness of knowing what to expect at each turn. A box-office hit that nearly founds its way to a nomination for Best Picture, it still landed writer/director Rian Johnson a justified nod for Best Original Screenplay. Further, Johnson and star Daniel Craig had worked to create such a memorable character in Southern detective Benoit Blanc that both signed up for additional features in a new deal with Netflix.

The second Knives Out Mystery featuring Blanc, Glass Onion, has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year for Netflix. The streaming service has chosen to release it for a week in theaters before its debut later in December. This gives audiences wanting that in-house experience the opportunity to get off the couch and make it happen, while others can hedge their bets on not having plot elements spoiled for them. Rest assured, you’ll get nothing from me but the bare minimum of details. While Johnson’s follow-up isn’t as delicately weaved as his original, it’s another fun nut to crack because of an entire production overly eager to please.

As the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing, four friends receive a puzzle box from their friend Miles Bron (Edward Norton, Alita: Battle Angel), which, when opened, contains an invite to their yearly gathering at whatever exorbitant paradise retreat he has planned. Friends since their early days before they were successful, they each owe some debt to Miles, or perhaps they are in debt to Miles – it’s not clear at first. Two more boxes have turned up at the doorsteps of Cassandra “Andi” Brand (Janelle Monáe, The Glorias), Miles’s former business partner recently unceremoniously bumped out over a dispute on the future of the company, and Benoit Blanc (Craig, No Time to Die), the legendary detective who had been lamenting his boredom to a quartet of cameo-ing celebrities playing themselves (the first four of many either appearing onscreen or shamelessly name-dropped throughout as a running joke). 

Arriving on the island, online influencer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista, My Spy), fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson, Mother’s Day), scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express), and governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn, A Bad Moms Christmas), acquiesce to their gauche hosts’ every whim, fawning over his theories and tacky tastes while ignoring how out of touch he is with the real world. Many monetarily benefit from his support, so why upset the apple cart? Andi isn’t there to make nice, though and takes every opportunity to stir up trouble. The observant Blanc mostly sits back in the sun and, like most good mystery sleuths, happens to be listening in on conversations that reveal more information than they should.

A series of events place a dead body on the ground and cast one party member as the murderer. Clues point to them, but an extended flashback fills in plot holes we’d noticed in the movie’s first half. This is when Johnson finally turns on the zest in Glass Onion and makes the film start to zing forward. Until then, it’s been a formal gathering of unlikable snooties demonstrating why they should be the ones to get the axe first – we aren’t sure who deserves it most. Johnson wisely focuses the flashback on an interesting character and takes the film in a direction I didn’t see coming. There are some subtle elements of cheating, and eagle-eyed viewers will be able to spot one huge clue that gets contradicted almost immediately. This is one place where watching the movie at home may extend the mystery a while longer. Watching it on the big screen made this clue stand out like a spotlight was shining on it.

Mostly, Glass Onion’s enjoyment comes down to the cast, and for all of the hoopla surrounding the casting, Johnson has gathered the right mix of talents for this dish. Craig’s original creation for Knives Out was smooth and fun, with his accent dripping like molasses. In Glass Onion, he’s leaned in even further, which didn’t always work for me. Now, the accent is ‘seyw theyyywick Iowa hahd a hud tyme taykewin heym seeereuuuslee”. Kudos to one major reveal (with the aid of another acting cameo) that gives Blanc some personal backstory. Norton goes a bit over the top, as only Norton can, and Hudson is quite fun as a ditzy designer that had to be drawn a bit from Paris Hilton.

The film hinges on Monáe’s performance, and that’s all I can say. I had heard the same thing going in and was just as frustrated as you are by the lack of additional info. Trust me when I tell you, you’ll be glad to know as little as I did. Monáe continues to be someone you want to see more of onscreen, and Glass Onion is another level up in a career ascent that has been steady but not so rapid that it blows up before she’s ready. It’s the trickiest part in the film and, like the Ana de Armas character in the original, almost the entire crux of the evening depends on what you think of them. 

Denouements are the satisfying conclusions of the murder mysteries created by celebrated mystery authors and screenwriters. As strong as Glass Onion is, I felt its finale doesn’t have quite the bite it wants. Or I wanted. There’s some convenience included in the ending that felt out of alignment with the orchestration of the work, and I’m not sure if the way that Johnson had crafted the screenplay if he’d have ever gotten to a perfect conclusion. You’ll want to take a bite out of this Glass Onion, though, because the Knives Out Mysteries are just getting started, and this is a fine follow-up to a stellar opener.

Movie Review ~ The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

The Facts:

Synopsis:  On a mission to make Christmas unforgettable for Quill, the Guardians head to Earth, searching for the perfect present.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Kevin Bacon
Director: James Gunn
Rated: NR
Running Length: 42 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  In 1978, the now-infamous Star Wars Holiday Special aired for the first and only time on CBS, becoming an example of how pandering to fandom can be dangerous.  While that special has become the punchline for jokes over time, it’s so legitimately terrible that even a revaluation can’t change public opinion.  The joke has now extended so far into the meta-verse that a popular franchise (which draws from much of the same fanbase) is throwing caution to the wind and creating its own holiday special.  Released as the second Marvel Studios Special Presentation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is intended as an early gift to unwrap but might be a lump of coal for some.

Shot during the production of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (due out in May 2023) by writer/director James Gunn (The Suicide Squad), this 44-minute short film is a standalone adventure that mainly focuses on Drax (Dave Bautista, Riddick) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Oldboy) attempting to cheer up Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World: Dominion) during the holidays. (A classic set-up.)  Mantis thinks it’s due to the recent loss of a loved one and a secret she’s keeping from Peter, so she’s extra invested in making this season merry and bright while Drax is volun-told he’ll be helping her out.  Their big plan?  Bring back Peter’s favorite Earth-bound hero as a surprise for Christmas.  If only they knew where this Kevin Bacon fellow lived…

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) is a term growing in shorthand popularity, meaning that your experience with something may differ from others.  That applies perfectly to The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.  Watching it, I got the distinct impression the comedic bits of physical comedy and juvenile-level jokes were meant for a specific group instead of a broader base that could join in the appreciation of it.  A litmus test is the opening credits which play over a cracked song about Santa performed by the band the Old 97’s.  If you aren’t guffawing through the number, the next 40 minutes may be rough-going. The humor is stagnant and half-baked in an exhausting “we’ve seen Napoleon Dynamite, too” sort of way.

The first Marvel Studios Special Presentation, Werewolf by Night, had a more serious tone. While it was meant as a standalone story in the overall Marvel Universe, it felt like it invited the audiences into its orbit.  Conversely, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special doesn’t have to work to introduce new characters, so it’s a bit freewheeling and unfocused. Drax and Mantis dipping into a gay bar feels like a badly timed bit, made worse by the lame zingers lobbed while inside.  Gunn tightens things up when Bacon (They/Them) enters, playing himself.  Demonstrating again that he’s a good sport, he lets Gunn, and the oddball Guardians characters gently rib his persona and fame, likely because he gets the last laugh (and sings a closing number), and the whole thing is generally received in good fun.

Not destined to be the kind of Christmas perennial classic like a Rankin/Bass feature nor relegated to the “never-watch” wasteland like the misguided television special from which it drew inspiration, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special will get the laughs from the fans but isn’t likely to capture any new followers.  The filmmaking feels a bit like we got the B-Team of effects techs, and if you told me they had a quick turnaround time to get this done, I’d believe it based on how soft the completed film looks.  I wouldn’t put it on my naughty list; just more of an obligatory watch for most. I hope these Special Presentations will start feeling a little more ‘special’ in 2023.

Movie Review ~ The Fabelmans

The Facts:

Synopsis: Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, from age seven to eighteen, young Sammy Fabelman aspires to become a film director as he reaches adolescence. But he soon discovers a shattering secret about his dysfunctional family and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.
Stars: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Julia Butters, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 151 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Let’s get this straight. To me, Steven Spielberg is the most outstanding director of all time. Stop right there. I don’t want you to get out your well-worn movie journals or pull up your bookmarked film history pages that point to other celebrated directors whose films helped shape cinema as we know it today. For this guy right here (I stopped typing and pointed to myself), Spielberg is just the #1; thank you, and goodnight. It’s not just the JAWS of it all (the best movie ever made, you’re welcome), but his career has taken him through many different genres and styles. His constant need to innovate and create has kept him at the forefront of film and made him a game-changer. We flock to see his movies in the theater because he makes them for that theatrical experience. He made the best film of last year, West Side Story, fulfilling his long-held desire to make a musical, and some argue it surpassed the Oscar-winning original.

It’s a shame West Side Story didn’t repeat that acclaim at the box office and with awards, but it was, to me, a culmination of his work up until that point. The cinematography, score, screenwriting, technical elements, and directing all came together into one cohesive unit to create that modern masterpiece. What could follow that? The answer is arriving in theaters in time for Thanksgiving, and it’s The Fabelmans, a sometimes loosely autobiographical and often strikingly accurate portrayal of Spielberg’s life growing up and his family’s influence, specifically his mother. There’s already a lot of churn that the film will earn Spielberg his third Best Director Oscar (his last was 1999’s Saving Private Ryan) and that it’s currently the one to beat for Best Picture. But…is it?

You’re talking to a hardcore Spielberg fan here. Someone that will fondly bring up 1989’s Always in the same conversation as 2002’s Minority Report and who thinks 1991’s Hook continues to be overlooked all these years later. So, take it from this fan when I tell you that as moving and laudable as The Fabelmans is, there’s something oddly formal about it that also kept me about ten paces away from it. Part of that emotional lengthening is wrapped up in the very plot of the film. Still, it goes beyond that to a more significant issue with the screenplay (co-written with Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner) and its structure which is episodic as the years go by yet strangely frozen in time.

Spielberg opens his movie with young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) having to be talked into a theater playing 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth by his beleaguered parents. He’s at an age where theatrical movies are still intangible, he fears the big images about to tower before him. After, on the drive home, the wide-eyed boy has been changed for the better and sets out to recreate the film’s famous train crash with his Hanukkah gifts of toy train cars that form a large locomotive. That’s not enough; mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) recognizes that. So, she borrows her husband Burt’s camera and lets Sammy film the crash so he can watch it repeatedly. And a filmmaker was born.

As Sammy grows up (eventually played for most of the film by Gabriel LaBelle, The Predator), he and his camera witness a tidal wave of change in the people and places around him. Family dynamics that went over his head as a child can now be replayed and reexamined frame by frame, driving a wedge between Sammy and his parents as a pair and individually. He trusts his mother to care for them but can’t reconcile a betrayal that goes unspoken, and he laments that his father (Paul Dano, The Batman) has blinders on for more than just what his children take an interest in. Joining a new suburban high school only intensifies his feeling of being an outsider, made more apparent when he’s targeted by bigots and begins dating an ultra-Christian girl that can’t keep her hands off him.

There’s a lot of movie to go around in The Fabelmans, so you can understand how audiences feel like they’ve walked away richly rewarded with various dynamic scenes and performances. And Spielberg’s eye for detail and knowledge of technique put the film on a completely different plane of existence. It’s beautiful to look at, and the production design should win the Oscar now and be done with it. Newcomer LaBelle is a true discovery as Sammy, taking us through complex emotional arcs without much set-up from Kushner or Spielberg’s script. No one is incredibly well served by some of the dialogue, which never sounds like anyone other than a Pulitzer Prize winner wrote it. There’s one scene between Sammy and his younger sister Reggie (Julia Butters, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) that sounds like a conversation between two Central Park intellectuals on their way to a be-in. While it works better for Judd Hirsch’s (Ordinary People) hysterical cameo and some of Dano’s excellent work, Kusher’s phrasing doesn’t sound right coming out of teens/youngsters, and they occupy much of the latter half of the film.

The end of the finale credits for West Side Story had a simple message, “For Dad,” and it does not surprise The Fabelmans ends with a similar message to Spielberg’s mother. Williams is playing the cinematic realization of Spielberg’s mother, so a gentle touch is granted the character, even when confronted with behavior that may get a more dramatic hand if the story hadn’t been so personal. The extent of Mitzi’s close friendship with Burt’s co-worker Bennie (Seth Rogen, Sausage Party) is hinted at, but Spielberg stops short of clarifying or speculating too much. In many ways, that’s admirable. A son wants to honor his mother by telling her story but doesn’t want to create trouble in the telling. Williams is on board with this and gives Mitzi that inner glow that radiates into her castmates. It’s not the slam-dunk award-winning role I was hoping for, so her competition need not worry, but it’s yet another sign Williams will be one of our lasting talents.

I’ve sat with the film for a few weeks now and hoped I’d want to see it again immediately, but it hasn’t hit me yet. There’s not a Spielberg film out there I wouldn’t watch again (actually, sorry, Bridge of Spies is a pass), and I’m sure I’ll meet up with The Fabelmans again, and I hope next time I’ll come away feeling closer to them than I did the first time. For now, you go on ahead and see if you get along with them better than I did.

Movie Review ~ Nocebo

The Facts:

Synopsis: A fashion designer suffers from a mysterious illness that confounds her doctors and frustrates her husband – until help arrives in the form of a Filipino nanny who uses traditional folk healing to reveal a horrifying truth.
Stars: Eva Green, Mark Strong, Chai Fonacier, Billie Gadsdon
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  A lament I’ve plunked out here quite often is the downfall of the mid-range thrillers that were so easy to churn out in the late ‘80s through the mid-2000s.  Produced on a modest budget with dependable actors, these were popcorn-chomping date night fare that was good for a weekend or two in theaters before heating up the video store shelves months later.  With the advent of streaming services and more franchise-based entertainment, these one-shot efforts were pushed to the side when studios focused all their time and money on making their blockbusters break the bank.  It’s a bummer because we’ve seen in recent years filmmakers and screenwriters that know their damsel in distress from their woman fights back scenario and their nightmare stalkers from their killer nannies. 

The new Irish-Filipino psychological thriller Nocebo is just that kind of easy-to-digest thriller that you can imagine would play as well in 1997, starring Kim Basinger as it does in 2022 with Eva Green (Cracks) in the lead.  Directed by Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium) from a script by Garret Shanley, it’s solid entertainment that may have shocks up its sleeve but has more on its mind than cheap tricks and sordid plot details.  Nocebo has a rather intriguing thread to follow along with, and it rewards those who stick close and will keep its secrets until the end.

Children’s fashion designer Christine (Green) has a good thing going with a busy life in Ireland.  Her home is desirable, her husband Felix (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) is successful in his own business, and her daughter Roberta “Bobs” (Billie Gadson, Cruella) is at that pre-adolescent phase where she’s coming into her own.  On the eve of her latest launch at a tony shopping center, a mysterious phone call brings terrible news that we won’t know the full details until later.  At the same time, a ghostly mutt appears riddled with ticks in the pristine shop, and one winds up burrowing into Christine’s neck.  It’s the start of months of debilitating sickness and night terrors for Christine, leaving her incapacitated and unable to work.

When she does decide to muster all her strength and rise above the illness her doctors can’t pinpoint, she finds that she still doesn’t yet have the stamina.  A knock on the door reveals Diana (Chai Fonacier), sent from the agency at Christine’s request (she can’t remember calling, but…her memory has been spotty), who quickly takes control of the household and Christine’s well-being.  Tossing out the mountain of medications prescribed by her doctors in favor of remedies she’s brought from her homeland, Diana can help Christine into health.  Her husband isn’t convinced Diana is the saint she wants them to think she is, and the more they rely on her, the stronger her influence becomes. 

Finnegan and Shanley expertly keep Diana’s secrets hidden just out of sight for much of Nocebo’s swift running time, almost until the final scene when all is revealed.  It’s a satisfying response to the questions we’ve been jotting down throughout.  Helping to sell it is the terrific performance of Fonacier as a maybe villain with her side of the story to tell before the night is through.  It may become apparent what’s happening and why early on.  Still, try to keep the advanced puzzler in your mind at bay and enjoy how it all develops. I promise there’s something interesting happening that has some decent stakes for everyone involved.  When you’re working with a small cast like this, and they are giving it their dazzling all (Green, as usual, approaches Christine in an atypical fashion), it’s exciting to witness.

Movie Review ~ Enola Holmes 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Now a detective-for-hire, Enola Holmes takes on her first official case to find a missing girl as the sparks of a dangerous conspiracy ignite a mystery that requires the help of friends – and Sherlock himself – to unravel
Stars: Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Louis Partridge, Susie Wokoma, Adeel Akhtar, Helena Bonham Carter, David Thewlis, Sharon Duncan-Brewster
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 129 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In early 2020, things could have turned out quite differently for the first Enola Holmes adventure. Initially set to be distributed theatrically by Warner Brothers, when the global pandemic’s lasting impact was just being understood, the studio quickly saw the writing on the wall and sold off the property to Netflix. The streaming service then sat on the movie through the summer and packaged it up to deliver it in August, riding the wave of star Millie Bobby Brown’s success coming from Stranger Things. The resulting success of the film was due not just to that timing but also to its overall quality and care for its characters. Based on a series of books by Nancy Springer, with Netflix now owning the rights to future sequels and interested in maintaining a good relationship with star/producer Brown, a sequel was planned and shot in short order.

The resulting film, somewhat uncreatively titled Enola Holmes 2, is again debuting during the fall season at the perfect moment between the finality of summer hits and the onslaught of fancy-schmancy Oscar bait. Reuniting the entire original cast (minus unavailable Sam Claflin, whose Mycroft is barely mentioned) and director Harry Bradbeer, it’s mostly more of the same in this follow-up, and that’s good news for everyone involved, including the viewers. Jettisoning an established Springer manuscript in favor of an original tale, writers Bradbeer and Jack Thorne (How I Live Now) drew inspiration from actual events, giving the film a slight edge over the more rambunctious plot of the first.

Shortly after we last saw Enola Holmes (Brown, Godzilla: King of the Monsters), the teenage sister of world-famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill, Zack Snyder’s Justice League), she set up her detective agency but hasn’t had nearly the same success as her more famous brother. She’s about to close her doors when a young factory girl knocks and asks for assistance in finding her “sister,” who has gone missing. Tracking down the girl will lead Enola into a web of blackmail and schemes involving members of high society and crisscross with a case that Sherlock has been working on. Together, they uncover a sinister new opponent with their sights set on Sherlock, who doesn’t mind leaving a clue or two for his sister.   

In addition to Brown and Cavill and the always clever Helena Bonham Carter (The Lone Ranger) as their rabble-rousing mother, Bradbeer has brought back fun supporting players Susie Wokoma as jujutsu teacher Edith and Louis Partridge (Paddington 2) as Tewkesbury, a potential love interest for Enola. New cast members fit in nicely, including David Thewlis (Wonder Woman) calling on his nasty side to pursue the Holmes siblings, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Dune) as an “inside woman” helping Enola solve her case.

You’d rarely want to mash two sequels together to be one long movie, but the two Enola Holmes films (so far) would make a tremendous four-hour-long sit some cozy Sunday. As we head into the Thanksgiving weekend, consider Enola Holmes 2 and its predecessor as the perfect combo to relax with after that big turkey dinner.

Movie Review ~ Decision to Leave

The Facts:

Synopsis: A businessman plummets to his death from a mountain peak in South Korea. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife, Seo-rae, may know more than she initially lets on.
Stars: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il
Director: Park Chan-wook
Rated: R
Running Length: 138 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  While I take my role as a critic seriously, I pride myself on not being too much of a creaky contrarian who deliberately goes against the majority vote. I’ll let you in on another little secret of this inner world of reviewing movies: it can make for a chilly time on the playground if you are a voice of dissent for a film that’s soared to popularity among the masses. While writing this blog, I’ve experienced that frost a few times, but I’m usually the one who likes the movies everyone wants to toss in the bin, so it’s not so bad. As we make our way to the end of 2022, there’s a much-lauded title I’ve put off discussing that needs to be addressed so I can close the book on it. 

The film is the South Korean mystery Decision to Leave by celebrated director Park Chan-wook, who will forever be linked to the brutal brilliance of Oldboy and, more recently, the striking beauty of The Handmaiden. Decision to Leave won the directing prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and is already favored as the frontrunner for Best International Feature at the Oscars, with Park Chan-wook also high on the list to receive his first nomination for Best Director. With all that buzz coming out of Cannes and many good reviews laid down as a golden carpet, why wouldn’t I sit down to this expecting it to knock my socks off?

The thing is, it didn’t. And it’s not just due to overhype or ‘festival fever’ that can affect movies seen by a limited number of reviewers that get their hooks into one film and proclaim it the next big thing. No, for me, Decision to Leave was a miss in the narrative storytelling Park Chan-wook has excelled at in the past. Never known for completely linear storytelling, the director employs some of those same time jolts here. Still, it’s to the detriment and forward motion of his overly serpentine mystery and characters that should be far more intriguing than they ever are. The moment they start to show subterfuge, Park Chan-wook jostles us again somehow, and the snow globe-fragile structure of the piece has to find time to settle.

Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is stretched thin between commuting to work and rarely seeing his wife due to their competing schedules. Any time they get to work on their relationship is put to the side when Hae-joon takes on a case of suspicious death where the wife of a retired immigration officer becomes the main suspect. The man is found dead at the bottom of a mountain, which could be a mere accident, but as Hae-joon and his partner Soo-Wan (Go Kyung-Pyo) dig deeper under the surface, they discover widow Seo Rae (Tang Wei) may have committed the perfect crime. How to prove it, though? And did the deceased have it coming to him?

The basic outline I’m giving you is a tiny tip of an iceberg plot that viewers will crash into repeatedly before the film lumbers to its conclusion after nearly two and a half hours. Admittedly, the plot developments have a Hitchcock flair, but they come at a hefty price: time. Hitchcock knew how to keep the viewer engaged, and I kept getting further detached from every character the filmmakers wanted us to be more interested in. Despite some inarguably breathtaking work by Tang Wei as a possible femme fatale that houses a multitude of oceanic currents under her calm demeanor, I struggled to find a reason to care much about anything.

In many ways, the same negatives that weighed down Christopher Nolan’s 2020 Tenet sank Decision to Leave. Both arrive from directors that have delivered some unforgettable films in the past but have let their love of the process overtake their understanding of the viewer’s experience. I didn’t just find Decision to Leave slack. I found it hard to track. No, I don’t need my hand held, but I need to understand what I’m supposed to be looking for in the first place. 

Movie Review ~ Strange World

The Facts:

Synopsis: A legendary family of explorers attempts to navigate an uncharted, treacherous land alongside a motley crew that includes a mischievous blob, a three-legged dog, and a slew of ravenous creatures.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu
Director: Don Hall Co-Director: Qui Nguyen
Rated: PG
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Before PIXAR became the new gold standard for animation, the artists at Disney had the market nicely cornered on creating magical adventures inspired by works of the fairy tales we grew up with. Original storylines were few and far between because the story department never seemed to be coming up empty for inspiration. However, as children’s tastes (and attention spans) changed and the way they absorbed media shifted, so did the origins of ideas for animated features. Seen as the yearly jewels in the Disney crown, it became more difficult to predict a year (or more) in advance when production began what would still work when the film was released. By the mid-2000s, when Home on the Range and, ooof, Chicken Little arrived in theaters, rumors that Walt Disney Animation Studios might shutter were becoming more than flimsy gossip.

Thankfully, new leadership guided this specialized branch of the filmmaking wing of Disney in the right direction, and soon hits like Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana were raking in big bucks and new fans. In 2021, Raya and the Last Dragon was terrific but opened softer than it should have, while Encanto came in at the end of the year with a brilliant strategy. It would open in November around Thanksgiving to attract family audiences’ home for the holidays, then be available on the streaming service Disney+ by Christmas when everyone has time off.   

For Walt Disney Pictures’ 61st animated film, Strange World, the studio is trying to recapture Encanto’s success by launching it a few days before Turkey Day with rumors that it will turn up on Disney+ so viewers can flip it on after opening their holiday gifts. That shortens the theatrical window for Strange World and might weaken its overall box office, but it didn’t stop Encanto from being a more massive hit at home. Then again, Encanto was a different beast to manage entirely. While both admirably deal with varying predicaments of family, it’s Strange World that ultimately feels like it could benefit from the most attention it can receive.

Drawing inspiration from dime-store pulp magazines that send their iconic heroes on sensational adventures, screenwriter (and co-director) Qui Nguyen imagines a father-son team of explorers who are separated while trying to find sustainable resources for Avalonia, the land they call home. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid, Blue Miracle) is your dictionary definition of an alpha male, from his burly physique to his bushy mustache. He’s a dive-in-first, ask questions of the sharks that may be in the sea later kind of guy, but his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal, The Guilty) is a little more calculated than his dad. Searcher, brave in his own way, is the brains to Jaeger’s brawn. When a disagreement sends the two in opposite directions, it leads to Jaeger disappearing on his leg of the mission for 25 years.

Searcher tries to walk in his father’s giant footsteps during this time but still creates his own path. Now married to Meridian (Gabrielle Union, Breaking In) with a 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White, C’mon, C’mon), Searcher is a farmer of Pando. This crop looks like a bunch of grapes but is the power source for all of Avalonia’s resources. It was an argument over investigating this plant further which drove the rift between the older Clade men. Still, the Pando is suffering from decay, threatening the entire community. 

Recruited by Avalonian leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu, Charlie’s Angels) because of his knowledge of the power of Pando, Searcher is taken along on a new journey to discover the origin of the disease that is killing off this resource. Traveling further than he’s ever gone from home but closer to where the mystery of his father’s whereabouts might be solved, Searcher will get assistance from his own family and a host of unusual discoveries in this strange world the crew finds themselves in. Once they discover the truth, they’ll have to decide what’s worth saving. Does a legacy outweigh (or outlive) the daily ups and downs of being a part of a family?

The buzz surrounding Strange World has to do with Ethan being the first fully “out” Disney character but, honestly, why the buzz? The normalcy on display here is so admirable. While I kept holding my breath for “The Discussion” (all LGBTQ+ people know what I’m referring to), that Nguyen handles all of these moments so smoothly and truthfully was impressive. In the past, Disney has made a big stink about debuting gay characters, only to have them be nothing more than a raised eyebrow or two shoulders brushing together to indicate deep passion. There’s no need to define anyone here because all those conversations have happened before we’ve stopped by – we’re meeting a happy family that’s been there, done that, and worked that out on their own.   

The look of the film is highly pleasing; it’s all so rounded and soft. To borrow from Frozen, it’s Hygge through and through. From Avalonia’s lush landscapes to the marshmallow squishiness of the world being explored, the whole film has the calming visual effect of an ASMR bedtime session.   I can’t say too much more about things in the latter half of Strange World without giving a left-field twist away, but a hint I’ll pass on is that one of the voice actors in the film has been in a movie from the ’80s with a similar sci-fi/fantasy storyline. (Another hint: Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot Center had a ride that also reminded me of it.)

As someone anxiously waiting for the next Indiana Jones movie and who never passes up a similarly-themed globe-trotting adventure, I found Strange World right up my alley. That it features such positive representation of not just LGBTQ+ youth but of allyship in their family/friends is the cherry on top. Henry Jackman’s (Cherry) score gives you John Williams vibes, and I think that’s entirely the point, so this is targeted at a more specific group. Like previous films released by Walt Disney Animation Studios, I’m hoping that a release focused on a particular group will find mass appeal in others that see similarities within. 

Movie Review ~ Disenchanted

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ten years after her happily ever after, Giselle questions her happiness, inadvertently turning the lives of those in the real world and Andalasia upside down in the process.
Stars: Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, Maya Rudolph, Yvette Nicole Brown, Jayma Mays, Gabriella Baldacchino, Idina Menzel, James Marsden
Director: Adam Shankman
Rated: PG
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  I first saw Disney’s Enchanted when I was out on the road touring with a musical over the holiday season in 2007. Packed into a random theater in some East Coast state I don’t recall, a bunch of visiting actors roared along with the local audience at the charming studio comedy. Both a clever wink to hand-drawn animated films from two decades earlier and a frilly Broadway-esque musical bursting with cheer, it was one of the more “subversive” films for Disney and an opportunity for them to control some self-mockery. More than anything, it spotlighted a fresh-faced star that had received a surprising Oscar nomination (her first of six) a year earlier.

It’s almost hard to wrap your head around it now, but when casting Enchanted, Amy Adams (Hillbilly Elegy) was nearly passed over because the studio wanted an established star in the role. Original director Kevin Lima pushed for the triple threat performer, and she proved to be the perfect fit, very nearly snagging another early Academy Award nomination for her outside-of-the-box approach to playing Giselle, the animated almost-princess displaced to real-world New York by an evil queen. That film ended with Giselle finding her true love Robert (Patrick Dempsey, Bridget Jones’s Baby), and living happily ever after with him and his young daughter in the Big Apple.

With its massive take at the box office, a sequel was put on the books, but with Adams’s career skyrocketing and after many false starts, it has taken an eternity for a follow-up to come to pass. I’m not saying that Adams had some extra time on her hands, but the roles she had fallen into didn’t fully align with the talent everyone knew she had. The Oscar her loyal supporters craved for her remained elusive, but desperation seemed to cloud her choices. Thankfully, the pieces for Disenchanted finally came together, and it’s proven to be precisely the restart button Adams needed.

It’s been a decade since Giselle and Robert tied the knot. In addition to Robert’s daughter Morgan (Gabriella Baldacchino, Annie), the couple is enjoying new baby Sophia. Still, life in the harsh city is starting to take its toll on Giselle’s open-air spirit. A billboard for Monroeville, a new community not far from the city, beckons to her. It seems like a perfect solution for the peace Giselle craves while allowing Robert to commute to work. Understandably, the move isn’t ideal for everyone, and Morgan finds the adjustment to a new school challenging.

Giselle also clashes with a trio of PTA moms led by Malvina (Maya Rudolph, The Way Way Back). They don’t take as kindly to her sunny disposition, especially after she makes a series of missteps threatening Malvina’s authority. Using a wand gifted to Sophia by King Edward (James Marsden, The D Train) and Queen Nancy (Idina Menzel, Cinderella) of Andalasia, Giselle makes a simple wish she hopes will correct some of the deficiencies that instead puts her family and forest friends into grave danger. At the same time, the magic she conjures changes her into what every fairytale princess fears most…a wicked stepmother.

In Disney years, Disenchanted could feel like an ancient property to some. After all, many of the fans that pined for a sequel have moved on (and grown up) by now, but I’m guessing there are even more that will tune in when it premieres November 18 on Disney+ to watch Adams get back to what she does best. That would be singing, dancing, and charming the ever-lovin’ pants off viewers – and wow, does she get the job done. A veteran of the grinding work in dinner theater musicals, Adams knows how to sell a song (even the few clunkers present in the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz score) but makes the entirety of her job look effortless.

Apart from Adams, the supporting cast is ready and willing to play. Returning cast members Dempsey, Marsden, and Menzel, are all given swell moments to shine, with Menzel especially having more time in the spotlight. Now a far bigger name than she was in the previous film (thank you, Frozen and Frozen II), she lets her huge vocals rip into “Love Power,” a belty number that builds into just the kind of tune you’d expect to hear from the former-Broadway star. It’s no surprise that Rudolph sinks her teeth into the villainess role, and while her duet with Adams gets off to a shaky start, it works itself into a fine frenzy by its conclusion.

Director Adam Shankman (Rock of Ages) also serves as Disenchanted’s choreographer, allowing him to train his eye on every part of what we’re seeing where movement is concerned. That helps give Disenchanted a nice flow and considers spacing for the camera and the dancers. Shankman lets the film linger on the sweeter moments between Giselle and Morgan as they continue to define their bond as stepmother and stepdaughter. It leads to a finale that blends classic fantasy elements with a strong message that I found thoughtful and moving. 

Almost assuredly destined to please the tiny royalty in training roaming around your home and stir up your good memories from years back when the original was released, Disenchanted is a sequel worth hanging around for. I recall enjoying the first film but not being as bowled over by it as some. For this follow-up, whatever magic ingredient was missing for me was finally found, and it all fell into place. While it may not create the kind of awards buzz Adams is used to by this time, she’s so good in it that you could see a world where a performance like hers gets recognized for its joy to the viewer.