Movie Review ~ Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thirty years after their popular television show ended, chipmunks Chip and Dale live very different lives. When a cast member from the original series mysteriously disappears, the pair must reunite to save their friend.
Stars: John Mulaney, Andy Samberg, Will Arnett, Eric Bana, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogen, J.K. Simmons, KiKi Layne, Flula Borg, Dennis Haysbert
Director: Akiva Schaffer
Rated: PG
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: It’s hard to believe it now, but the original run of Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers on The Disney Channel was just three “seasons” that ran a little over a year, starting in 1989. That was prime time for me, and I vividly recall that whole cartoon programming block on the popular premium channel. Once it entered syndication, it would often air with DuckTales (another favorite) and TaleSpin (take it or leave it), but with the two chipmunks long being a favorite of mine since tiny tyke-hood, I was hooked on everything Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers was serving up. As Disney+ enters its newest evolution in reexamining its content library, there’s been a trend in remaking or rebooting to varying degrees of success. 

This past Christmas, a low-down dirty shame of a movie came out called Home Sweet Home Alone. Daring to advertise itself with the tagline “Holiday Classics Were Meant to Be Broken” and break them, they sure did. A travesty of a reboot (or continuation, it was never clear), it was a dismal mess and didn’t bode well for any future project that might be coming down the pike. You’d imagine the blood draining out of my face when I saw the poster directly above this review for Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. “It’s not a reboot, it’s a comeback.” Here they go again with a clever tagline that kicked up some dirt at reboots while jockeying for a place on a higher bar. Disney was setting itself up for the same failure as before, right?

Initially, I was going to put on Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers for background noise in my hotel room during an out-of-town work trip. It wasn’t one I was totally duty-bound to review, so… what’s the harm in just having it playing on the side? Then something strange happened. The film began, and I started laughing at jokes that I would never have understood fully as a kid, but I completely LOL-ed at them because they were specifically targeted at adults that were kids at the time the original series was released. Writers Dan Gregor (Dolittle) and Doug Mand appear to have been given carte blanche to give a highly detailed take on an animated children’s show and turn it into an Easter Egg hunt for big kids that now have a mortgage to pay.

The world of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is similar to the Toon Town of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, with animated and live-action characters interacting normally. Cartoons are filmed like regular movies, and if you have the right amount of money, hand-drawn animated figures can “upgrade” themselves to computer-generated versions in order to stay relevant in the looks-obsessed society of today. Before we get to the present, we look back at the past with Dale’s (Andy Samberg, Palm Springs) voiceover telling the origin story of how he met Chip (John Mulaney, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) in grade school when both were social outcasts. Teaming up to become a comedy duo, they took their act to Hollywood, where they eventually landed a plum gig on, what else, Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers. When Dale gets tired of playing the silly second banana to Chip, he makes a play for solo fame but loses both of their careers in doing so.

Thirty years later, someone has been stealing famous cartoon characters and selling them to the black market as digitally altered bootlegs. When old castmate Monterey Jack (Eric Bana, The Finest Hours) vanishes after reuniting the two former friends, the odd couple will need to put aside their past differences and use their fictitious crime-solving techniques in a real-world setting. Working with a disgraced detective (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk) to elude an underbelly of criminal older toons (one that “won’t grow up” sure did) while trying to locate their friend, the duo meets up with familiar faces from their glory days as well as blink-and-you missed-them famous cartoons that will consistently surprise you.

This rollicking plot bursting with creativity at every turn is great news for long-time fans like me who leave the 97-minute film with a boost but might be problematic for parents trying to introduce their kids to their chipmunk chums from yesteryear. There are far too many “inside baseball” jokes that won’t resonate with children that don’t remember waiting a whole week for the next episode of a show that you couldn’t start over again immediately. Chock full of connections to many early ’90s cultural touchstones which brought me glee, I couldn’t help but wonder what an oddity this would feel like to someone with no frame of reference.

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a fun ride, engineered for an audience mature enough to get the rapid-fire nostalgia-rich jokes but not too mature to avoid taking a chance on a reboot, sorry, a comeback of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers in the first place. The solid, sensible voice work from Mulaney and Samberg gives the furry stars the type of personalities you might have anticipated them having were they to have offscreen personas. Finally, director Akiva Schaffer (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) stays mindful of plot and pacing, never letting the comedic action linger too long in one place. Far better than you’d expect and one I’m more than open to revisiting, Chip’ n Dale: Rescue Rangers isn’t one to let slip through the cracks.

Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey: A New Era

The Facts:

Synopsis: The year is 1927. The Dowager Countess of Grantham inherits a villa in the south of France from an old friend at the same time a filmmaker gets permission from Lady Mary to shoot a moving picture at Downton Abbey
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Michael Fox, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Douglas Reith, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye, Dominic West, Jonathan Zaccaï
Director: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Coming off its monumentally successful five-year run in 2015, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes promised its audience clamoring for more upstairs/downstairs tales surrounding the fictionalized titular manse that a movie was in the works.  It took four years, but the 2019 film Downtown Abbey was a perfectly filling bit of big-screen fun that ultimately felt like an extended television show episode.  The creators didn’t raise the stakes any higher than necessary, and while some hint of finality was suggested for a few characters that might not have wanted to return should another chapter be ordered up, the door was left ajar for any and all to return.

Return they all do a mere three years later for Downtown Abbey: A New Era, and this time Fellows and new director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) have done what the first one didn’t want to bother with, shake things up a bit.  With its production that seemed to drop out of nowhere amid post-pandemic start-ups, there was a nice amount of anticipation for this one because it targets the same group that has been an elusive get at movie theaters for the last several years.  After all this time, would this PG-rated continuation of the hit series coax them out of their homes and back into cinemas?

I’d wager a bet that the same audiences that turned out to make the first film reach nearly 200 million at the box office will venture out for a matinee of this one. However, they may first wonder why all the rainy English countryside inhabitants are so tawny and tan.  For a while, I thought they might want to call the film DownTAN Abbey instead because of actors like Hugh Bonneville’s (visibly slimmed down) golden glow. If you’re like me and didn’t take the time to re-watch the first film before showing up, Fellowes and Curtis have demonstrated good manners and included a nice recap narrated by Kevin Doyle’s Joseph Molesley. 

We’re nearing the end of the 1920s, and wedding bells are ringing for former chauffeur and current estate manager Tom Branson (Allen Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody) just as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, Quartet), receives the news she has been left a villa in the south of France.  Unable to travel to France herself, Robert (Bonneville, Paddington) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) accompany honeymooning Tom, his new wife, along with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and her husband to visit Violet’s new property, allowing the younger set to find out more about the mysterious inheritance in the process.

Meanwhile, back at Downton, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) reluctantly agrees to let a film crew make a movie in the family home after figuring she can put the money they are offering toward repairs the property desperately needs.  With Mary’s husband away (a convenience that is explainable at the outset but downright preposterous by the end), the director (Hugh Dancy, Late Night) takes an interest in their host, eventually getting her more than a little involved in the production. At the same time, the stars of the film (Laura Haddock, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dominic West, Tomb Raider) each make different impressions on the dedicated staff at Downtown. 

Shifting directing responsibilities to Curtis (McGovern’s real-life husband) from Michael Engler was wise. While Engler oversaw the first film with an assured hand, he perhaps brought too much of a television eye to the feature film.  Having directed numerous episodes of Downton Abbey, Engler’s movie just felt like more of the same, however welcome it was at the time.  Curtis gives the film some stamina and speed, though if anything, it’s Fellowes that lets the audience down a bit with plotlines straight out of Singin’ in the Rain and more than a few strange detours that, in hindsight, are just emotional misdirects.

Downton Abbey: A New Era ushers in more robust filmmaking, script quibbles aside.  We’re getting close to periods in history when the glitz and glamour that made the series so appealing at first will need to come to an end, and that’s when the real test of audience devotion will take place.  Wartime dramas are a dime a dozen, but what made Downtown Abbey so unique was its dreamy days before war factored in.  You can be sure there are more Downton Abbey films on the horizon, and I wouldn’t rule out another entire series to come along one of these years either. 

Movie Review ~ Dual

The Facts:

Synopsis: Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life.
Stars: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Theo James, Maija Paunio, June Hyde
Director: Riley Stearns
Rated: R
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It’s always tough to be second.  I’m not talking about the First Runner up for Miss Universe or those who finish mere tenths of a breath behind the top racer in the Daytona 500.  What I mean is arriving at a Halloween party wearing a costume you toiled over for days only to enter right after someone in a store-bought ready-to-wear ensemble that puts your handmade one to shame.  It’s the same way for movies.  No matter how good a movie might be if it’s similar in plot to one that has recently come out, the act of comparison alone could be enough to sink the flick before it even has a chance to make its impression on audiences.

We have a bit of a funny situation with Dual, the new thriller with science fiction elements from director Riley Stearns.  The story of a woman being told she’s dying and being offered the chance to clone herself to ease the pain of the loss for her family and friends bears a striking resemblance to December’s Swan Song, an AppleTV+ release.  That Mahershala Ali and Glenn Close drama was decidedly excellent but flew so low under the radar it failed to catch on in key end-of-year discussions when it desperately needed to gain traction.  Despite it being much deserving of an Oscar nomination for Ali, it only managed a BAFTA and Critics Choice nom and a handful of outer circle critical nods. 

That wound up being good news for Dual. While many critics were fond of Swan Song (i.e., those who had the opportunity to have it practically delivered to their doorstep), it’s a mostly unknown entity, so Dual’s cloning plot could skate by without suffering much in comparison.  The two films couldn’t be more different in their style, not to mention tone and overall entertainment.  Where Swan Song walked through some deeply emotional territory and used its running time to take audiences on a moving journey of loss and acceptance, Dual is the opposite.  Chilly and aloof, it’s overly methodical and leads to a plodding pace that makes the action feel so very much longer than it is.  Darkly satirical in its best moments and artfully inert at its worst, Stearns and his cast spend the film in a frustrating dance with the audience, always leading with too much force and never on beat with the natural rhythm of language.

The briefest of prologues show a man (Theo James, Archive, a far more exciting sci-fi thriller) doing his best to avoid death by crossbow from an assailant we can’t see.  One of the men eventually overtakes the other, attempting to outmaneuver his opponent in front of a somber crowd of spectators. A supposed secret is revealed that anyone who watched the trailer or read the synopsis will already know.  Shifting focus over to Sarah (Karen Gillan, Oculus), we get only fringe information at the outset on the woman, mostly about secret indulgence in vices while her boyfriend (Beulah Koale, Shadow in the Cloud) is gone on an extended business trip. 

When Sarah begins coughing up blood and is told she has a terminal stomach disease, she reacts quite the opposite one might expect.  You feel Sarah has been written (or is being played by Gillan) as slightly on the spectrum. While that gives the character some engaging angles when confronting the serious situations she’s about to face, it’s perhaps a bit too mannered a demeanor overall.  By the time she meets her clone (given blue eyes by mistake, and thus a 10% discount), the two are as alike in robotic responses as they are in looks.  As the compliant clone gets to know Sarah and the loved ones who don’t seem to like the original much, what was meant to be a balm for their sorrow turns into the accessible girlfriend/daughter they had always wanted.

This shift of gears to the clone being more appreciated than her inspiration is when the movie began to get interesting, especially on the heels of Sarah figuring out her terminal diagnosis was false and now she’d be forced to fight her clone to the death.  Unskilled in defense, she turns to a cheap trainer (Aaron Paul, Need for Speed) who walks her through everything she needs to know to be as prepared for the ultimate battle of self.

There are flashes of the fun black comedy Dual wants to be at various times throughout the 94-minute film, but too much of it runs on a stilted stutter.  Sarah’s interactions with a riotously blank doctor (June Hyde) are golden, as are many scenes that find her loosening up with Paul and learning to love letting her guard down.  Stearns doesn’t seem to feel the same way because we’re quickly back to monotone back and forth between the Sarahs with the original suffering one injustice after another.  Ostensibly taking place in the future but blessedly free from looking futuristic, it’s a low-key production that lets the script do the work and actors pull up the slack.  As stated above, Gillan’s choices for the role are intriguing but make it hard to get near enough to the character to find compassion.  Capped by an ending amounting to a significant shoulder shrug and heavy sigh, Dual needed to feel more singular to stand out.

Movie Review ~ You Are Not My Mother

The Facts:

Synopsis: Char’s mother goes missing in a North Dublin housing estate. When she returns, Char is determined to uncover the truth of her disappearance and unearth her family’s dark secrets.
Stars: Hazel Doupe, Paul Reid, Carolyn Bracken, Ingrid Craigie, Jade Jordan, Jordanne Jones, Katie White, Aoife Spratt
Director: Kate Dolan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: If you’re a fan of horror like me and struggle to find something new to view, you’ve probably done something like what I try now and then.  You’ll search “Best Horror films on <insert streaming service> right now” and see what luck you have.  Between some obvious choices of mainstream fare making their debut on your service of choice, there’s always an unknown title that turns out to be a hidden gem.  The internet may be a cesspool at times, but this is a case when it is good for something.

This new Irish horror film from director Kate Dolan is one that I’m pretty sure will become part of this list once enough people get a chance to see it.  The title alone, You Are Not My Mother, has a lot of eye-catching heft to it, and, as it turns out, so does Dolan’s effective screenplay and creepy production.  Dolan gives her audience a nimble and rewarding ride by bringing you in with what you think are tropes associated with the straightforward family dynamic drama and then changing sharply into the richly detailed mythology of folk horror.  Local flavor in the performances elevates the picture further, making it an authentically felt experience.

Teenager Char (Hazel Doupe, The Shadow of Violence) is used the stares from the townspeople in her small Irish village.  After all, she’s the child of Angela (Carolyn Bracken), who is known for her mental health struggles over the years.  Bearing a visible scar on her face from one of her mother’s episodes, Char is mainly friendless and tries to make it through the day without attracting the attention of neighborhood bullies Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) and Kelly (Katie White).  Living with her grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie) eases some of the tension because she’s experienced with keeping an eye on Angela. Still, even Rita can’t explain where Angela has disappeared to now.  Unable to find her mother for days, there’s little anyone in the town can (or wants) to do to find her.

When Angela does return, something is different, and Char sees it right away.  The darkness that plagued her has lightened, the willingness to be involved is finally there, and the mother she wanted has returned.  Yet, this strange about-face doesn’t seem entirely correct, and a late-night peek between a door jam reveals to Char why she should be afraid of Angela…and what evil she has brought back with her.  As her mother tries to draw her nearer and bullies circle her like vultures, Char needs to rely on inner strength to battle her growing demons.

Dolan directs her first feature after spearheading several shorts over time. The result is a confident debut that draws out uniformly good performances, especially from Doupe and Jones as Char’s nemesis that, like all bullies, has more to her than meets the eye.  Giving these characters more personality and depth than usual helps create a real-world space for this horror to invade and more reason for audiences to invest time in wanting them to survive.  Despite some iffy special effects near the end, all of the playing field Dolan is working with in You Are Not My Mother has a ring of truth to it, so you can feel that chill up your spine just as much as the characters do.  This solid effort is one to watch for and not scroll by so easily.

Movie Review ~ Better Nate than Ever

The Facts:

Synopsis: 13-year-old Nate Foster has big Broadway dreams. There’s only one problem — he can’t even land a part in the school play. But when his parents leave town, Nate and his best friend Libby sneak off to the Big Apple for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove everyone wrong.
Stars: Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Joshua Bassett, Michelle Federer, Norbert Leo Butz, Lisa Kudrow
Director: Tim Federle
Rated: PG
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When I watch movies now, I tend to compare them to movies I saw when I was of a certain age.  With the nostalgia trend in full kick, audiences approaching their mid-forties are fond of finding their new The Goonies or Gremlins or Fast Times at Ridgemont High… to name a few.  Of course, nothing is going to be or beat those films because they were of their time and so perfect for that point in the history of when they were made.  Then there are the movies I see that I wish had been made when I was a kid.  Plenty of titles I see now would have been so great to see when I was younger and the Disney+ offering Better Nate Than Ever is an excellent example of that.

Yep, I’m one of those theater kids (maybe now I should call myself a former, or reformed, theater kid?) who had big Broadway dreams when I was in high school and probably for some time before that.  While I now know there were oodles of old MGM/Warner Bros. movies about guys and gals that fled to NYC with the lights of the Great White Way dancing through their brains, back then, I didn’t know from what was in the small section of the video store I frequented.  Had Better Nate Than Ever, with its plot of a teen that ditches school and heads to NYC for a Broadway audition, been available to me, I indeed would have found it, loved it, and probably been a stowaway on a Greyhound to NYC along with my best friend too.

Based on former Broadway dancer Tim Federle’s bestselling novel, Better Nate Than Ever is cute family entertainment that reaches the rafters with heart and ambition, even if it doesn’t always land its double turns.  Directed by Federle, who also adapts his novel, the movie centers around Nate Foster (newcomer Rueby Wood), a 13-year-old Pittsburgh teenager who lives for the stage even if he can’t get a lead role in the school play.  His best friend Libby (Aria Brooks, Harriet) is often by his side but doesn’t have quite the passion for acting; she just wants to be where Nate is, unlike Nate’s brother Anthony (Joshua Bassett) who it appears wants nothing to do with him.  When Nate’s parents go on an unplanned weekend trip and then leave their boys alone to care for themselves, Libby convinces Nate to quickly bus it to NYC to audition for a Broadway musical which they both think could be his big break.

Of course, hijinks ensue as the two teenagers run into several obstacles as they travel as unaccompanied minors across state lines and into The Big Apple, where the promise of stardom awaits Nate.  Never mind he hasn’t auditioned at this level before and is unprepared for the process, stage parents, competitive auditioners, or unexpected wardrobe malfunctions mid-audition.  Also, though Nate knows his Aunt Heidi (Lisa Kudrow, Like a Boss) has lived in NYC as an actress for some time, the bad blood between her and his mom convinces him not to ring her up just in case she mends fences and turns him in.  Who do you think is the first person he runs into before his audition?

The overall air of fantasy permeates the entire short run time of Better Nate Than Ever, down to a few well-staged but quite stage-bound musical numbers that don’t do much to add anything but padding.  If the entire movie was a musical, I could see these interludes adding something, but they are so sporadic as to feel like afterthoughts.  I’d almost have rather seen this done as a full-on musical to demonstrate Nate’s talents further.  As it is, Wood is a charming performer possessing a pleasant voice but operates on a somewhat limited range in that regard — you can feel their voice is almost ready to break/change. 

The film is saved by a commitment to telling a story for all the Nates who could be watching it, seeing their opportunity to shine and pursue their dreams, either locally or on a larger scale.  There’s a strong message that success doesn’t have to be big to be important or worthy and to celebrate every win.  That reinforcement is critical to share with everyone, especially developing minds, as they figure out what makes them happy and fills their cup.  I know I would have taken a lot away from this if a VHS copy of the movie found its way to my player back in the day.  For that, I give Better Nate Than Ever a solid standing ovation. 

Movie Review ~ Nitram

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Nitram lives a life of isolation and frustration with his mother and father in suburban Australia in the Mid 1990s. That is until he unexpectedly finds a close friend in a reclusive heiress. However, when that relationship meets a tragic end, he begins a slow descent that leads to disaster.
Stars: Caleb Landry Jones, Judy Davis, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis
Director: Justin Kurzel
Rated: NR
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: Here in the U.S., in the pre-pandemic days, it seemed like stories of gun violence were almost writing themselves with the daily reports of mass shootings printed in boldface across our newspapers.  Endless debates about stricter gun safety laws drew lines in the sand among friends and family about what responsible measures were necessary to protect people from one another and why gun owners needed automatic weapons for hunting.  While the violence and events haven’t gone away, it felt like they had subsided slightly during the lockdown because fewer people were out in public and could be targeted as routinely. 

Within these debates, many pointed toward Australia for their radical and swift changes to gun control laws, with politicians and ordinary citizens wondering why those with opposing views couldn’t work together to enact similar rapid change in hopes of eliminating known threats.  Most don’t realize what led to these laws in the first place and how it came to pass that Australia enacted this legislation with support from multiple sides of their government at the time.  I, for one, had no idea about the tragedy that occurred in 1996 in Port Arthur, Tasmania, that left 35 people dead and 23 wounded when a murderer went on a rampage at the popular tourist site.

I can imagine what a movie like Nitram must symbolize for the people of Australia then.  The story of the man behind the gun is sure to raise anger in the survivors of the single-person mass shooting and questions in those wanting the country to continue its healing process.  Director Justin Kurzel, a South Australian native, takes great pains not to glamorize or excuse the perpetrator but instead, I think, aims to understand the situation and, in doing so, find another path toward healing for those still in limbo.  Gathering some of Australia’s top talent, including his wife Essie Davis, Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) has put together a shattering portrayal of the worst kind of wreckage, one you can see coming in slow motion but are powerless to stop.

25-year-old Nitram (Caleb Landry-Jones, Contraband) is an intellectually disabled young man living at home with his parents, known around his neighborhood as both a troublemaker and troubled.  His father (Anthony LaPaglia, Annabelle: Creation) is a well-intentioned businessman hoping to find a place in an unforgiving world for his stunted son by purchasing a bed and breakfast they can run as a family.  Not that his mother (Judy Davis, The Dressmaker) holds much faith in either of the men in her family. Mainly content to watch as they try and fail and ready to pick up the pieces when they do, she’s supportive to a degree but judgmental to a fault.  She’d also like her son to get motivated and find his calling, but on terms that she sets.

Her control over him significantly loosens when he meets Helen (Essie Davis, The Babadook), an eccentric heiress living alone in a Grey Gardens-esque lot with only her dogs to keep her company. Initially stopping by to mow her lawn, Nitram becomes her companion, her roommate, and eventually, something more.  Much to his mother’s horror, Helen replaces her as the author of Nitram’s future plans, and it’s after a tragic accident occurs, that Nitram once again falls back into his mother’s grasp.  This time, though, he’s had a taste of what it was like to feel free and newly empowered and funded to do what he pleases, he treads a dark path that leads him to commit a heinous crime that will forever change his country.

The press materials for Nitram ask us specifically to avoid naming the actual perpetrator of the crime and omitting the use of particular words that might be misinterpreted out of context, and I can understand why.  Talking about something so intimate and personal is difficult, let alone making a movie about it.  I think Kurzel and his cast pay a great deal of respect to the families of all involved up through the chilling finale (which, I should add, is not shown, nor is there any such violence depicted in the film).  The mere suggestion of what is to come is enough – and this is from the director of violent films like an update of Macbeth and True History of the Kelly Gang.  The restraint is critical to keeping the movie within an emotionally intelligent space.

Kurzel has assembled the right cast and crew as well.  The cinematography from Germain McMicking (Mortal Kombat) is a nice balance between gritty realism and a soft-focus dream-like flutter.  Pairing the production design and costume design always leads to a measure of success, and Alice Babidge helps give harmony to everything the eye touches.  Jed Kurzel’s music is appropriately ominous but can be a bit on the nose.  The quartet of leading performances is riveting, starting with Landry-Jones tackling the crucial title role.  It had to have been hard to find a way into the character without giving off too much sympathy, but the balance struck is more than equitable.  LaPaglia is one of the most underrated actors working today, and in his native Australia, he’s found another solid role to tuck under his impressive belt of films. 

An intense scene partner for Landry-Jones, Essie Davis is kooky at the start. As she gradually understands the man she’s invited into her house, her acceptance of his strange ways speaks to her loneliness and desperation for companionship.  More than anything, a lasting impression is left by Judy Davis as perhaps the most complex of all involved.  The mother looks the other way so often, and Davis lets us sit with several long takes of her just drinking in her surroundings and some of the insanity around her.  It’s only after the film is over you recognize she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, yet she’s spoken volumes with the way she carries herself all the same.

The film leaves us with staggering facts about Australia’s gun laws and how things stand today, eye-opening numbers for anyone thinking the country has everything figured out.  Gun violence is an issue that isn’t going away and needs more work and support from multiple angles before we can even begin to address the heart of the matter.  Films like Nitram won’t get the job done, but they can serve as solemn reminders of the kind of individuals that never should be allowed to own a gun.  Until we all accept that it is ok to deny that right to those that can’t be responsible, we all have a target on our backs.

Movie Review ~ Aline

The Facts:

Synopsis: The youngest of a hardworking French-Canadian couple’s 14 children is propelled to global music superstardom in this fictional musical dramedy, freely inspired by the life of Céline Dion.
Stars: Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud, Roc LaFortune, Antoine Vézina, Jean-Noël Brouté
Director: Valérie Lemercier
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 128 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I remember the exact moment I heard there was a movie gathering buzz ahead of its debut at Cannes inspired by the life of everyone’s favorite power chanteuse, Céline Dion. I was listening to a podcast, and the words “Céline,” “Dion,” and “biopic” were said, and I blacked out. When I came to, there were some brief details mentioned that I didn’t entirely take in fully, something about how the star was playing the role, but it was mostly centered on the snark being directed toward the just-released trailer for Aline. I didn’t even wait for the podcast to end. This news was too important to delay. I gathered my wits, set myself up in front of my crystal clear 4K OLED TV, and fired up YouTube to watch Aline’s first look.

I’m one of those who needs a little bit of time to take in something the first time I see it. I find it challenging to blurt out complete declarative statements right away; I need to get a few more views under my belt. With Aline, I knew, I just knew, that it was going to be my kind of film. As strange as the approach to telling Dion’s life is, not to mention how plum cuckoo, its method of execution winds up being, leave your preconceived notions at the door. This film is a case where no preamble descriptor can fully prepare you for an energy wave that hits you when the movie begins. That same jet force carries you for the next 128 minutes until a finale that had me on my feet.   

There was no way Dion or her team would allow a movie based on her life to be made without some strong arm of control, so famous French star Valérie Lemercier decided to go a different route. Using Dion’s life as a muse and taking on the structure of a standard biopic, Lemercier and co-writer Brigitte Buc have wound up with a condensed tale of a natural-born talent’s rise to fame. In Aline, we watch her humble roots as one of 14 children born to a family of gifted musicians to becoming a worldwide celebrity selling out shows for years in Las Vegas. Along the way, the singer (here called Aline Dieu) falls in love with her manager Guy-Claude Kamar (Sylvain Marcel), attends the Oscars, yearns for children, and struggles to free herself from an image imposed on her by an opinionated mother and a demanding fanbase. 

Sounds pretty average, right? Ah, but wait. We haven’t gotten to the exciting twist yet. Here’s the hook that director, co-writer, and star Valérie Lemercier uses that is throwing some potential views off. The adult Lemercier (58 as of this writing) portrays Aline at every stage of life, from childhood to the present. Through a mixture of effects, costumes, and old-fashioned movie magic, many of these moments are convincingly done, even when she’s playing a small child. To answer your question, yes, it does take a bit to get used to its weirdness. You can tell it’s an adult playing a child, but the vision of Lemercier’s de-aged face on a small body somehow works all the same. The more I accepted it, the easier I found myself giving over to other aspects of the film that also colored outside the lines of an expected Dion biopic.

Favorite moments of Dion’s life are created, but only just so. There’s her big Oscar moment singing the theme song from Titanic, but on a much less regal scale. Dion’s hit songs are played throughout, with Victoria Sio providing the singing voice, but not all are presented in chronological order. So, you have a song playing at her wedding that hadn’t been written yet and other anomalies that keep the film hovering at that high concept fantasy level (and likely out of reach for Dion’s lawyers), which helps propel the movie forward. It’s only at the top of the last thirty minutes, when Lemercier and Buc add a completely fictionalized scene in Vegas, that the film loses some of its charms, albeit briefly.

Lemercier surprised many recently when she won the Best Actress award at the 47th Annual César Awards, France’s highest honor in acting. Suddenly, the film that started as a joke on a podcast was getting the respect it honestly deserves. Considering all that Lemercier has put into the film and turning in a deeply committed, sincere, and overall, just damn well-acted performance, she’s already riding high on my best of the year list. It’s a performance that sticks with you long after the film has finished…and what a note to go out on. The finale is so simple but filled with the power most movies only imagine they could muster that late in the game. If you made it to that point and weren’t knocked out by her work, I don’t know how you couldn’t be convinced by what she does in those few minutes.

I’m excited this is finally out for more people to see because Aline is a movie that will thrive as more viewers have the opportunity to discover it. If there is any justice, Lemercier’s name can stay on the forefront of people’s minds for the next nine months and gain her awards consideration on our shores because it’s the type of gutsy work that should be recognized. Don’t miss this one. If you’re on the fence, hop on off and take a look – you’ll be happy you did. As Dion herself sang…”What do you say to taking chances?”

Movie Review ~ You Won’t Be Alone

The Facts:

Synopsis: In an isolated mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, a young girl is kidnapped and then transformed into a witch by an ancient spirit.
Stars:  Sara Klimoska, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud
Director: Goran Stolevski
Rated: R
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  A number of the light and airy-fairy tales that populate the Disney canon of animated films originate from much darker versions of German writers in the 18th century. While they maintained much of the original work’s outline and general moral intent, these sanitized versions essentially drained the bedtime stories of their cautionary messages for children and adults alike. In recent years, the restoration of, or modern twists on, these classics for audiences have been hailed as bold or brave and, in many cases, have earned those high marks with distinction. What interests me even more than these films is the storytelling going on from scribes creating original pieces with strong parallels with the types of spooky tales handed down from generation to generation.

A strong sense of storytelling is just one of the chief reasons why You Won’t Be Alone, from Macedonian director Goran Stolevski, is such a treat. Set in the 19th century in a remote hamlet on the broad side of an imposing mountain range, there’s a relaxed, naturalistic aesthetic that could easily classify it in the much-studied folk-horror genre. The isolation of the period and place are felt quite effectively from the start by the filmmaker’s dramatically impressive use of the gorgeous elements of the location surroundings. Throughout its run time, Stolevski’s film covers more ground than is typical or expected, asking striking questions about life, death, and our humanity even as we are gripped by not knowing what may happen next.

At first, you might think you’re watching some version of a tale as old as time. An overwrought mother turns her back on her newborn for a moment, and when she looks again, a horrific figure looms over the child. It’s Old Maid Maria (the excellent Anamaria Marinca, Europa Report), a witch cursed to roam the area, shapeshifting into various creatures she kills or comes upon. (How she does this is a process not for the faint of heart…) Maria’s curdled flesh and sharp fingernails crave the child’s blood, but the mother makes a bargain to spare the baby until she’s 16, after which Maria may return and take her as her own. After all, Maria can’t go through life alone. Requiring some sacrifice, the witch takes the baby’s tongue to stop her crying and from ever speaking. Though the mother tries to hide her child on holy ground, a witch’s bond will out, and after 16 years, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) joins her new guardian in a vagabond life, ostracized from the community.

Already isolated her entire life (ala Rapunzel), Nevena uses her shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate another community to learn how to be human first, a witch second. These experiences, as both genders, give her insight into the different feelings going on inside the bodies of men and women, children and adults. Nearly all her thoughts are communicated to us in voiceover, often in simple terms but gradually growing into whole ideas that encapsulate her complete understanding of a lived life. Conveying all of these discoveries is challenging enough for one person, and while Klimoska handles the bulk of it with wide-eyed amazement, she “shares” the role with Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures), Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep), and Carloto Cotta (Frankie), each is striking a somber balance in their cycles with the witch.

It could be that others come to You Won’t Be Alone thinking it’s an all-out horror film, and they’ll likely be disappointed it’s not some witch in the woods scare-fest. I still found elements of the movie quite frightening, but not for reasons you might think. There’s a lot of sadness here, like Rapace’s rather devastating but finely tuned performance, which starts feral but becomes more controlled as she’s taken under the wing of a kindly older woman. Cotta is strong too as the male the witch inhabits, first to find out what it’s like to experience pleasure but then to discover the more private and tender moments. 

I’ve been thinking about You Won’t Be Alone ever since I saw it; the rich characters (Marinca’s sinister witch has, like most witches, a tragic backstory) and invested performances coupled with the picturesque setting push this one far ahead of most of the other movies I’ve seen so far this year. You have to give it some space to get moving, but only slightly. Stolevski’s feature film debut is assured, and a can’t miss effort for filmgoers apt to enjoy a scary story before turning the lights off at night.

Movie Review ~ All the Old Knives

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two CIA operatives, and former lovers, reunite at idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea to re-examine a mission six years ago in Vienna where a fellow agent might have been compromised.
Stars: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce, Ahd, Corey Johnson, David Dawson, Orli Shuka, Jonjo O’Neill
Director: Janus Metz
Rated: R
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Right now, on Broadway, ex-James Bond Daniel Craig and Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga have just started previews for their new production of Macbeth. Down the street, married couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick appear in a revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. These are just two examples of famous names in the industry that find themselves on the Great White Way in a play that’s often based mainly on scenes featuring just two people onstage, talking. That’s how some films start too, live on stage and then adapted into films. Some can easily break the bonds of being stage-bound, and others are enterally trapped in that theatrical flourish that can’t so handily be swept to the side.

In hindsight, I wasn’t surprised to learn All the Old Knives had been originally announced as a project for Chris Pine back in 2017. I was astonished to discover that the film wasn’t the product of a stage-to-screen adaptation but was instead written by Olen Steinhauer from his 2015 novel of the same name. So much of the movie involves characters (usually two) sitting across from one another talking that I could have imagined it being plucked from some short-lived Broadway run and expanded for the silver screen. Either way, All the Old Knives features several old tricks that will justifiably get the knives out for Steinhauer and a cast of likable, if bland, actors.

It’s been years since colleagues Harry Pelham (Pine, Wonder Woman 1984) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton, Solo: A Star Wars Story) have seen one another, not since she left him the day after their CIA office was involved with a mission that led to the deaths of hundreds of people on a hijacked aircraft. Recent intel has indicated a leak within their agency tipped off the hijackers, and Harry has been tasked by his boss (Laurence Fishburne, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) to suss out the mole. A phone call traced to one of the offices narrows it down to two people, so Harry pays them a visit. 

The nightmares of that day still plague Celia. Agreeing to meet Harry seems like a good way to close that chapter of her life. While their meeting at a coastal restaurant in wine country begins as benign reminiscing, it quickly evolves into a relitigating of the days leading up to the event and its immediate aftermath. As the evening stretches on and the bottles of wine keep coming, more truths are exposed between former flames who thought the other had been honest throughout their time together. By the end of the night, who is interrogating whom? 

Steinhauer keeps our heads spinning by having multiple people tell their version of the story, each with slightly different perspectives. I don’t think Steinhauer deliberately tries to confuse the audience or pull a fast one. Still, the effect of the repetition without consistency winds up creating a mind jumble anyway. Danish director Janus Metz teams with cinematographer (and fellow Dane) Charlotte Bruus Christensen (A Quiet Place) to give the past a steely blue hue and the present a shiny, almost waxy, glow. Also waxy, Pine in several bad wigs as we travel through distinct time periods. The worst is a longer one that gets more unruly as the film wears on, but Pine has competition from other cast members in the lousy wig department. Newton has several questionable fitted coifs as well.

There’s a problem with the film staring us straight in the face, and it’s a big one. The two stars have next to no chemistry. Now I know that Michelle Williams was initially set to star opposite Pine but dropped out when this was delayed, so maybe that combo would have worked better. Newton’s movie could have been better with a more exciting co-star, and Pine’s performance might have leveled off a bit sooner had he acted opposite someone who wasn’t so far ahead of him. Newtown is just too good of an actress to operate in the same hemisphere Pine (a pleasant actor that’s never going to win an Oscar) is living.

With a home stretch that drags out interminably long after providing a half-hearted attempt at a cop-out ending, any way you slice it, All the Old Knives is a bit of a lumbering mess. That being said, I would have paid a top price to see the same stars (yes, even Pine) on stage doing the same piece. I could readily see this operating as a slick piece of live theater that employs a small cast enjoying some juicy roles. It’s overstuffed as a film but sized right for the stage. Watch it (if you must) and see if you agree.