Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, David Haig, Tuppence Middleton, Kate Phillips, Stephen Campbell Moore

Director: Michael Engler

Rated: PG

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Needless to say, if you aren’t up to date with Downton Abbey it’s best to steer clear of this review until after you’ve seen the film.  I wasn’t quite caught up by the time the movie came out so had to delay my visit with the Crawley family for a week, they understood and I will also understand if you need to bookmark this review and come back when you’ve finished the sixth season of Downton Abbey.  I shan’t spoil the movie, no worries on that, but I may wind up spoiling something from that richly fulfilling final episode…so you’ve been warned.

Christmas has definitely come early to all of the ardent fans of the Crawleys, their extended family, and their staff at Downtown Abbey.  The long buzzed about movie that’s a continuation of the series which wound up its run in 2015 has arrived and it’s an absolute delight.  Delivering everything we’ve come to expect in the show and managing to provide supremely satisfying moments for every one of the major cast members, the Downtown Abbey movie is that rare instance of a television series translating beautifully to a feature length film.  It’s arrived in style with a pristine release date far removed from the late summer madness and just ahead of the more achingly serious work the fall brings us. Sure, you can quibble it’s really just a two hour “special episode” of the show…but what an episode!

It’s 1927 and a letter arrives via post to let Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Paddington) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) know that the King and Queen will be staying at Downton Abbey for one night as part of their tour of the country.   Everyone has a job in preparation for this royal visit.  As the agent of the estate, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) makes sure the grounds are in order with the assistance of Tom (Alan Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody), who becomes distracted by the arrival of a strange man with unknown intentions.  Meanwhile, downstairs in the servants quarters emotions are running high in the kitchen with Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol, Ghostbusters) fretting over the food and Daisy (Sophie McShera, Cinderella) dragging her feet on setting a wedding date with Andy (Michael Fox, Dunkrik).  Butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier, The Ritual) struggles with the responsibilities of his first big test as head butler while continuing to suffer silently as he hides a personal secret.  Now retired, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, The Witches) can’t quite relinquish his reins over the household staff, much to the withering eye of his wife (Phyllis Logan, Secrets & Lies).

There’s more family and staff to cover but I’d rather let you see for yourself where writer Julian Fellows (Tomorrow Never Dies) takes these beloved characters over the ensuing two hours.  With the royal family bringing their own staff who wind up undermining the servants at Downtown Abbey, you can imagine there’s room for mischief as well as more serious subjects of marital strife and illegitimate children.  At least no one shows up to arrest Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle, Me Before You) or his wife Anna (Joanne Froggart)…that seemed to happen every season 🙂  While I’m sure the storyline for the film had been percolating in Fellows brain for some time (and may even have been planned for the television show) he’s made good work of making the most out of the screen time each person is given in the film.  Fellows has always been good at using language eloquently and not saying something in 10 words when he could use 5 and that carries over here, too.  As such, the good-natured back and forth between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, The Secret Garden) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is as crisp and crackling as ever.  I could honestly have sat for two hours, watched these women have a slyly barbed conversation, and been just as happy.

Were the main sources of conflict, like many situations in Downtown Abbey the series, things that could be solved if people had just sat down and talked with one another instead of gossiping secondhand or outright avoiding the subject entirely?  Of course.  Yet this is something longtime fans have come to expect from the show so it’s all much easier to swallow than a standalone feature without an established rhythm. Were there characters I missed seeing?  Sure.  Both of the Countesses hysterically squabbling servants are sadly absent and the film lacks an imposing figure that presents a significant challenge to anyone.  Did I think some staff members got a little more time to shine than others?  Yeah.  Yet these characters shining now often took a backseat in the series so why not let them have their moment in the sun.

With its high flying shots of Downtown Abbey (really Highclere Castle), all the familiar locations back in play, and that gorgeous theme music used in all the right places, director Michael Engler (who directed four episodes of the series, including the finale) doesn’t have to do much but let the actors do their thing speaking Fellows words while wearing Anna Robbins (Wild Rose) gorgeous costumes.  I think the finale of the film goes on a bit too long and rather serious/emotional conversation behind closed doors is inter-cut intrusively with another scene in a ballroom, but by that time I felt I had no right complaining because up until then Downton Abbey folk had been such great hosts.  With a smash bang opening and steady box office returns, the possibility of a return visit to Downtown looks highly likely.

Movie Review ~ Britt-Marie Was Here (Britt-Marie var här)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Accepting a supremely unglamorous job at a ramshackle rec center in the backwater town of Borg, Britt-Marie finds herself taking an interest in the daily routines of the town’s oddball denizens – who all seem perfectly content to be stuck in their ways.

Stars: Pernilla August, Peter Haber, Anders Mossling, Malin Levanon, Olle Sarri, Vera Vitali

Director: Tuva Novotny

Rated: NR

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  As much as the next person, I take some special delight in creature comforts.  This could be relaxing on a rainy day, whipping up a favorite family recipe that most definitely isn’t a part of a well-balanced diet, or exploring the outdoors and communing with nature.  Mostly, if I want to hunker down and take it easy, I spark with formula films that don’t require much emotional investment yet still give me a good return on the time I’m devoting to the venture.  Not every movie can be a When Harry Met Sally… or Indian Summer or Mermaids.

That’s the case with Britt-Marie Was Here, a Swedish film based on the 2014 novel by Fredrik Backman.  It’s your standard paint-by-numbers drama about a woman leaving behind a long marriage for something new and challenging.  In the process of stepping out of her comfort zone she learns about valuing herself more and gains a greater understanding of the world at large.  This isn’t exactly revolutionary material but it isn’t without merit either.  There’s room and a desire for these stories to be told…but they need to be told better than this.

Britt-Marie (celebrated Swedish actress Pernilla August, best known to American audiences as Anakin Skywalker’s mother in the Star Wars prequels) lives a life dominated by lists and order.  Her marriage to Kent has become predictable, her routines set in stone.  When her life is upended at a most inopportune time, Britt-Marie surprises even herself by leaving her stability behind and taking a job working in a small town managing their rec center.  Expected to also coach their football (soccer) team, Britt-Marie finds that the town and the children she’s now responsible for need more than a good cleaning and a semblance of order.

The source novel the film was based on has been adapted by Anders Frithiof August, Øystein Karlsen, and director Tuva Novotny and I’d be interested to see if the original text was as clunky as what the three screenwriters have produced here.  The movie goes through the motions in such a staid way that you half expect to look down and see blueprints on the floor guiding the actors to the next scene.  Nothing happens that’s unexpected or surprising – which is a shame because the author of the book has given us something interesting before.  The 2015 film A Man Called Ove was a surprise sleeper hit in the art house circuit.  Good word of mouth kept the film running for quite some time and I think I finally saw it when it had been playing or six or seven weeks.  Nominated at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Makeup, it was a similar story of an elderly Swedish curmudgeon that warms when exposed to an environment different than their own.  That’s why I was originally interested to see Backman’s name attached to this film, even if in the end it din’t measure up.

To the movie’s credit, August is very good in the title role.  She’s brittle and has an edge to her but is never so mean that it’s unbelievable anyone would want to make a great effort with her.  Though I question the randomness of a love interest that springs from nowhere (not that Britt-Marie can’t have a love interest, it’s the out of the blue nature of cupid’s arrow), she’s someone that others who have also experienced hardship can have a little bit of empathy for.  Perhaps that’s director Novotny (Annihilation) lending her experience as an actress in front of the camera that helps smooth Britt-Marie’s steely nature for audiences.  The remainder of the cast sadly fails to register in their cliche-ridden characters, from the plucky tyke on the football team, to the helicopter parent that wants his son’s team to win no matter what, to the disillusioned woman going blind that Britt-Marie boards with.  Of course, this woman just happens to have a wealth of football experience…but is so grumpy at her current eyesight situation that she can’t possibly come around and change her attitude.  I think you can guess the answer.

In the end, Britt-Marie Was Here, was just too formulaic for my tastes.  It was a product grown in a laboratory many moons ago that’s been used before but not used wisely or with much creativity in this experiment.  No amount of strong performances or heartfelt messages can change that.  Britt-Marie Was Here but you should be in another theater.

Movie Review ~ Judy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Legendary performer Judy Garland arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts.

Stars: Renée Zellweger, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Bella Ramsey

Director: Rupert Goold

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s so strange to look back at this same point last year before Bohemian Rhapsody had been released.  The buzz on the movie wasn’t great and star Rami Malek impressed in photos as late Queen singer Freddie Mercury, but how would he be in action?  We all know how that turned out: with Malek mystifyingly sailing into a Best Actor Oscar win for a hammy performance in a heavily sanitized biopic…and he didn’t do any of his own singing.  Then came Rocketman in May of this year and the same narrative preceded it into theaters, scrutinizing leading man Taron Egerton taking on the role of rock icon Elton John.  Though not the huge box office hit that Bohemian Rhapsody was, Rocketman was better in all aspects…and Egerton did all his own singing.  Now we have Judy and it falls somewhere in the middle.  As far as biographies go, it offers a standard narrative without much flash but it’s got something the other two films doesn’t.  Renée Zellweger.

We’ve really had a huge exposure to Judy Garland in the 50 years since she died at the too-young age of 47.  There have been TV specials, TV movies, stage plays, stage musicals, drag performers, impressionists, etc., all celebrating that famous face with the instantly recognizable voice. Garland’s star burned bright in her years as a juvenile box office darling for MGM appearing in The Wizard of Oz and alongside Mickey Rooney in a number of “let’s put on a show” musicals.  While she made the transition to adult roles just fine, her time in the studio system came at a price.  Years of diet pills and amphetamines given to her by handlers laid the groundwork for substance abuse issues that would follow her for the rest of her life.  When Garland finally succumbed to her addiction, she had gone through five husbands and left behind three children.

Aside from a few flashbacks to her childhood memories at MGM involving interactions with Louis B. Mayer, a fake date with Rooney for the newsreels, and even a birthday party held months in advance that’s fit into her shooting schedule, the majority of Judy is set in 1968 when Garland came to London.  Desperate for cash and needing to be financially stable enough to continue to have custody of her two youngest children, she accepts an offer for a long-term engagement at the popular Talk of the Town nightclub.  She’s set up in a lavish hotel room and put under the watchful eye of Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who is more than aware of Garland’s antics.  With her reputation for being late and showing up less than sober preceding her, Judy tries to stay on the straight and narrow but a lifetime of dependency is hard to quit cold turkey.  The shows suffer, she suffers.  When new flame Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, Unbroken) appears in her life there’s a glimmer of newfound happiness but the darkness eventually creeps back in.

The movie is based on the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter which I saw in its American premiere at The Guthrie Theater in 2012.  I remember it being a devastating trip through Garland’s tortured final months and was expecting the film to be in the same melancholy vein.  Surprisingly, the screenplay from Tom Edge isn’t into wallowing and feels most focused when it showcases Garland triumphing over her setbacks, many of her own making.  Yes, it’s difficult to watch multiple scenes of Garland stumbling through her sets and suffering the indignity of having food thrown at her (those cheeky Brits!) but at least the screenplay leaves out a few of the harsher incidents that were documented, including an irate patron getting up onstage and shaking Garland by her shoulders.  If anything, Edge throws in maybe one too many Good Garland moments, such as a fictionalized one where the singer accompanies a gay couple back to their flat after they waited for her at the stage door. It’s nice to see her out of her element, but it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about her…though Edge does tie this outing to a bit of business in the end in a rather clunky manner.

Had it not been for its leading performance, Judy would likely have been included in the pile of middling biopics that seem to pop up every few years.  However, with Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland the entire film is elevated to another level.  Over the years, Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) has somehow gotten a bad rap from people and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  She’s reliably good in nearly everything she’s done and has multiple Oscar noms and one win to prove it.  All that she’s done before pales in comparison to the performance she gives here and it will surely knock your socks off.  She may not sing quite like Garland, (her vocal register is higher), but who really does?  She may not always look exactly like her, though the majority of the time it’s downright uncanny how much she resembles the singer. More than anything, Zellweger has found what I think is the soul of Garland and brought that forth – it goes far beyond a mere impersonation or recreation of signature moves.  The first time she sings, really sings, in character on stage is watershed moment for the movie and Zellweger as an actress.  At this point, it’s safe to say she’s a lock for an Oscar nomination and I can’t see anyone putting up much of a fight to beat her.

Yet one wishes the movie were as solid and satisfying as Zellweger’s performance.  As directed by Rupert Goold, there’s not much pizzazz to be found when Zellweger isn’t on screen so it’s a good thing she’s rarely out of sight.  Like the audiences in London all those years ago, you’re coming to see Judy Garland and Goold and company make sure she’s front and center as much as possible.  London in the late ’60s is recreated well, but it’s an awfully gloomy view of the town with the sun rarely shining.  The supporting players are serviceable, with Buckley as her increasingly unamused babysitter faring the best.  Earlier this year, Buckley also gave a thrilling musical performance in Wild Rose and might find herself competing against Zellweger for one or two awards.

Culminating with a truly breathtaking final 10 minutes that expose the heart of Garland’s deep vulnerability, it’s easy to excuse some of Judy’s more melodramatic moments along the way.  I found Zellweger to be downright mesmerizing as the troubled singer and am looking forward to watching her victory lap over the next few months.  Judy Garland sadly never won an Oscar the two times she was nominated (that she didn’t emerge victorious for 1954’s A Star is Born is an absolute crime!) but hopefully Zellweger winning one for playing Garland will make up just a teeny bit for that.

Movie Review ~ The Death of Dick Long


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dick died last night, and Zeke and Earl don’t want anybody finding out how. That’s too bad though, cause news travels fast in small-town Alabama.

Stars: Michael Abbott Jr., Andre Hyland, Virginia Newcomb, Sarah Baker, Janelle Cochrane, Poppy Cunningham, Jess Weixler

Director: Daniel Scheinert

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Credit must be given to A24 studios for consistently finding interesting voices to add to their stable of filmmakers regardless of their wide-spread appeal.  While the studio has scored high in 2019 with their box office and/or critical hits The Farewell and Midsommar, they’ve released smaller films like Climax and Gloria Bell which can politely be described as appealing to niche audiences.  I appreciate they continue to stick with their commitment to providing a platform for new filmmakers, and it’s within that spirit of appreciation I find myself developing a curious fondness for The Death of Dick Long.

Receiving a small release at select theaters this weekend, The Death of Dick Long premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January and was a buzzed about title thanks to its, ah, unique central premise.  I’ve yet to watch any promotional material for this movie so I can’t say how much may have been hinted at or spoiled in advance, but I went in totally blind and didn’t have a clue what I was in for – and that’s how I suggest you approach this weird yet weirdly engaging film as well.  I will say, though, there will come a point in the movie where you’ll have to make a decision how far you’re willing to go along with the premise and as much as I wanted to suck it up, I couldn’t quite clear that hurdle and not for the reason you may think.

After their weekly garage band practice, longtime friends Dick, Zeke, and Earl spend the rest of the evening (and the title sequence) partying it up, drinking, shooting off fireworks, and carousing before retiring into a nearby building.  The next thing we know, Zeke and Earl are transporting an injured Dick to their local hospital, depositing him anonymously and then heading home.  Never thinking Dick would perish from his injuries, the men wake to a heap of trouble and find their friend dead, a bloody car to dispose of, and an array of family, friends, and law enforcement that aren’t aware of the extent of their involvement.

The first hour of the film is fun in a bumbling Cohen Brothers-esque way, with Zeke (Michael Abbott, Jr., Mud) trying to clean-up their mess only to make things worse with each lie he tells.  Keeping his story straight for his wife and child gets increasingly difficult, especially when the mother and daughter start to compare stories.  He gets little help from Earl (Andre Hyland, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) a stoner working a dead-end job with a kooky sorta girlfriend (Sunita Mani) and not much to his name.  When a weary sheriff (a delightfully droll Janelle Cochrane) and her deputy (Sarah Baker, Life of the Party) take on what they think is a small missing person case only to find it snowballing into a major crime, things heat up quickly and that’s when writer Billy Chew lets the cat out of the bag.

The circumstances surrounding Dick’s death are the big mystery and I won’t reveal it here but it will throw you for a loop.  I certainly didn’t see it coming and was as stunned as many of the characters in the film are.  When Zeke’s wife (a fantastic Virginia Newcomb, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) finds out, her reaction of stilted surprise will echo most audience members.  It’s after all this is revealed that Chew and director Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man) find themselves painted a bit into a corner.  Once we know what happened, the movie becomes almost instantly less enjoyable and more concerning is its lack of exploration into what is quite a sensitive subject.  I can’t tell if Chew was using it as a shock plot device or if there was intention to say something bigger.  The subject has been broached in film before, but never tossed aside as quickly as it is here.

That leaves the overall enjoyment of the movie squarely on the shoulders of the actors and it’s nice to report they carry it well.  Abbott and Hyland are good foils for each other and though Abbott is the clear lead of the movie and has the more difficult surface terrain to navigate, I think Hyland is doing the more intricate work on the underneath.  It’s easy to play a pothead loser but there’s an ingrained dopiness to him that goes beyond the norm.  Newcomb has to run a gamut of emotions as Zeke’s wife and while the script has her zig zagging rather unexpectedly in her actions, she’s believably bereft of emotion when her husband makes his admission to her.  I got a huge kick out of Cochrane as the exasperated sheriff and really loved what Baker was doing as the not-quite-bright but not totally inept deputy.

I can imagine this would be fun to discuss after and my biggest regret is screening this one solo.  Without another person to turn to and ask “Did you just see that.” it doesn’t quite feel real. Now, I’ll have to wait until others have had a chance to find out about The Death of Dick Long.  It’s one that will benefit from good word of mouth but doesn’t have a few key ingredients to push it into the cult status it seems to want to be placed in.  A noble effort, but not quite there.

Movie Review ~ The Sound of Silence


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A successful “house tuner” in New York City, who calibrates the sound in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods, meets a client with a problem he can’t solve.

Stars: Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Alex Karpovsky, Austin Pendleton, Bruce Altman

Director: Michael Tyburski

Rated: NR

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I know it’s a horrible thing, environment-wise, but I miss the feel and smell of paper.  I especially had a fondness for receipts, the kind that were in a pad that you could write, rip, and hand off.  Feeling that slip of paper in your hand was such a enjoyable thing and the smell of the ink just put me in a comfort zone, like the aroma of an old book that has sat in a library for years.  Early on in the new film The Sound of Silence, a man gives his client a receipt like the one I mentioned and for a brief moment I was transported exactly to where these characters were in New York City.  I could see the apartment, understood the environment.  It all made sense.  All because of that one slip of paper that evoked such a strong memory in my mind.

It’s the first and last time I connected with the movie.

I could say the movie was one-note.  I could say the characters were off-key.  I might mention the script had pitch problems.  I’d offer the directing was a tad tuneless.  All puns I will refrain from using when discussing this languid tale of a man that specializes in finding what’s sonically out of alignment in your home and making adjustments to help you lead a happy life.  Based on a 17-minute short film that has been unevenly expanded to feature length by the original creators, it’s a somber sit that’s not made any easier by mannered performances that grate on the nerves.

Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie) is a character that can only exist in an indie movie set in NYC.  A rumpled tweed jacket-wearing specialist that has clients around the city needing his particular talents in sussing out what underlying tones might be giving them any sort of malady from anxiety to insomnia.  When he’s not performing tune ups, he’s searching the city for hot spots of ambient sound that he can record to corroborate his long gestating research project about urban soundscapes.  With his tuning forks in hand and ready to clang, he can be found in the park, on construction sites, or wherever the heart of the city beats greatest.  Though he longs to publish his work, he also can’t bring himself to completely share it with the world.  What’s worse, he eschews the oncoming corporatizing of the work he does as in independent contractor so he feels like his days as a big fish in a small pond are numbered.

His newest client, Ellen (Rashida Jones, The Grinch), calls on Peter to figure out why she can’t sleep at night.  Recently broken up from a long term relationship, she’s living in a rent-controlled apartment surrounded by memories of a partnership that’s over and a future that’s never going to happen.  Peter thinks she needs a new toaster.  The rest of us know that Ellen needs a new apartment.  For some reason (namely because writer Ben Nabors says so), Peter intrigues Ellen, even though he’s exhibited no charm or warmth toward her.  When her problems persist, the two start seeing more of each other so Peter can determine where his original analysis was wrong, while at the same time his research falls into the wrong hands and his fragile psyche begins to fall apart.

I wonder how much better the movie would have been with another actor cast in the lead role.  I’m normally a fan of Sarsgaard but not in this case.  He’s so glum and inward facing that there’s no room for audiences to get any insight into his character.  We don’t need to like Peter but we should at least get a sense of who he is and where he’s coming from.  The way Sarsgaard plays it, who would want to spend time with him or invest in his research?  Jones also is unnaturally muted, providing a flavorless take on a woman grieving a loss who bounces back with a total dullard.  In small supporting roles, Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Austin Pendleton (Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles), Alex Karpovsky (Hail, Caesar!), and Bruce Altman (Fifty Shades Freed) at least seize their opportunity to make some sort of impression with their limited screen time.

For an 87-minute movie, The Sound of Silence feels about twice that length.  It’s a bad example of a NYC-set indie that has people moping around in earth tones always speaking in ‘inside voices’ and desperately wanting to be taken seriously.  I’m fairly sure the filmmakers have made up Peter’s profession but the kernel of an idea they have isn’t a bad one, it’s just that it never grows into something that’s more interesting than it’s thirty second elevator pitch.  The characters aren’t interesting or worth investing in and the movie doesn’t end as much as it merely stops.  Kind of like this review.

Movie Review ~ Ad Astra

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.

Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, Liv Tyler

Director: James Gray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s well-documented (on this site) that I’m a sucker for any film set in space so it was probably always a given that Ad Astra was going to rank high with me.  Unless it was just a film where Brad Pitt watched Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy on the International Space Station for two hours, chances are I’d find something to like about it.  Thankfully, this features no McCarthy stinker but is instead a James Gray directed thinker and it is a wonder to see and feel.  With an excellent production design and stellar technical features across the board, Ad Astra might not be exactly the pulse-pounding action film advertised in trailers but it’s a worthwhile excursion into deep space with an A-list movie star continuing a 2019 winning streak.

Years into the future we’ve made advancements in our space exploration.  We have colonized the moon and have ventured further into our solar system, establishing an outpost on Mars and sending manned expeditions to look for intelligent life in distant galaxies.  It was on one of these expeditions that H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman) went missing on his way to Neptune.  Sixteen years later, a series of solar flares are threatening Earth and grow more dangerous with each passing day.  Scientists have pinned the source of these anomalies emanating several light years away.  From an insolvent spaceship long thought lost.  Near Neptune.

That’s when Roy McBride (Brad Pitt, The Big Short) is brought in.  A decorated astronaut known for his calm demeanor even in the most stressful of circumstances (his heart rate never goes above 80, even when involved in a catastrophic event), he’s the only son of Clifford McBride and hasn’t quite gotten over the absence of his father during his formative years.  Though he’s followed in his father’s footsteps, he can’t get out of his shaow. Now, with new intelligence gathered, the military has evidence that Roy’s father might not be as missing in the line of duty as they once thought. Hoping to stave off the global event on the horizon, the military asks Roy to venture to the ends of the galaxy to locate his father and stop him from plunging the Earth into ruin.  Along with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games), an old friend of his father’s, Roy first travels to the Moon, then Mars, and then…well, you’ll see.

Director James Gray has had an interesting career up until this point.  Starting out with five very New York-centric films that feel, to me, very similar, he hit upon something truly wonderful in 2016 when he adapted the bestselling novel The Lost City of Z.  The trouble is, Amazon Studios who did not quite know how to release it correctly, distributed it and it unfortunately was lost in the rubble.  Three years later Ad Astra almost suffered a similar fate when it was caught in the crossfire after Disney bought 20th Century Fox and moved around its release date.  Thankfully, the studio heads at Disney stuck with their plans to release it and even if they’ve still slightly bungled the marketing of the film they have given it a decent sized push.

It’s not exactly a spoiler to say Ad Astra is more heady drama than sci-fi action film like Gravity or The Martian.  It’s more cerebral than anything else and at 122 minutes doesn’t mind taking its time to get to the point.  Taking a cue from Kubrick, Gray isn’t above letting the audience make up their own minds about plot developments and meanings behind what goes on the further Pitt’s character travels toward his long-delayed reunion with his dad.  I’m sure they’ll be a lot of analysis as to the psyche behind Roy, the distance he travels, and the outcome of it all but it’s best to go in knowing the film isn’t all action.

Not that Gray doesn’t feature several impressive sequences of thrill along the way because he sure does.  From a cat-and-mouse chase played in fraught silence on a lunar surface to a recon mission that takes a freakish turn, Gray surprised me at the lengths he was willing to go to keep Roy and the audience off balance.  On the other hand, there are a few moments that could be tightened up a bit; shoring up some of the more protracted passages would help us arrive at the final act a hair more alert.  Though it may be traveling further into slightly more spoiler-y territory, I was disappointed to see Ruth Negga (World War Z) and Liv Tyler (Robot & Frank) not utilized more in their tangential roles.  Negga’s character, especially, seems like there was something left on the cutting room floor.

Like the aforementioned Gravity and The Martian, the movie fires on all cylinders when its just the audience and the star and Pitt is more than enough to hold our interest.  Coming off the rousing success of July’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (which will most likely garner him another Oscar nomination and likely win), Pitt has come back this year in a big way.  I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing him a double nominee at the end of the year, being recognized for his work here would be rewarding another side to his acting that we don’t get to see that often.  While Pitt has played drama before, he’s never been as focused or introspective as he is here.  There’s a lot going on and Pitt handles it all with a master’s touch.

Looking back now, it likely was a wise move by Disney to reposition Ad Astra out of the summer movie season and get it into theaters after the heat died down.  Now, it doesn’t have the weight of “summer blockbuster” to live up to or, looked at another way, live down.  Now, the movie can be looked at for the drama it really is at its core.  The visual effects and production design could get some awards love and, while the movie may alienate some, I found a lot to take away from Gray’s familial space drama and Pitt’s, ahem, stellar performance.

Movie Review ~ Hustlers


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of exotic dancers get their revenge on wealthy, drunk and abusive clients by maxing out their credit cards after they’ve passed out.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Madeline Brewer, Keke Palmer, Mercedes Ruehl, Lizzo, Cardi B

Director: Lorene Scafaria

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A few years back, a different side to the world of male strippers was shown in Magic Mike and its superior sequel Magic Mike XXL.  Both films went beyond the flesh flash to give insight into a different walk (lapdance?) of life, with the results trending more toward the comedic than the dramatic.  Solidifying the rising star of Channing Tatum and partly based on his own life, the movie opened the door for A-list talent to approach parallel roles with confidence.  The first film was also notable for being one of the first stops of the infamous McConaissance, highlighting Matthew McConaughey’s return to fine form that wound up with him just narrowly missing being nominated for an Oscar for his work.  There’s similar Oscar buzz surrounding Hustlers, another true-life tale of strippers behaving badly, but this time I think the performance in question has the goods to go all the way.

Based on the 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler and adapted by director Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers charts the rise and fall of a group of exotic dancers that started bilking their customers for thousands of dollars through an elaborate scheme involving unscrupulous measures.  Sticking close to the source material, Scafaria changes the names and softens a few of the situations but manages to remain remarkably in step with Pressler’s original story.  The article is a good read and the movie is a decent watch, though neither linger substantially in the memory long after you’ve completed them.

In 2007, Dorothy (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians) is working at a popular NYC strip club under the name Destiny but not seeing much of a future in the work.  Pulling in pennies compared to the wads of cash her colleagues take home, she’s barely scraping by in the New Jersey house she shares with her grandmother.  One night, she catches an onstage performance from Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, Second Act) and witnesses the way men literally throw mountains of bills at her feet.  Going beyond mere stage presence, Ramona possesses an immeasurable “it” factor that can’t be taught…but she takes Destiny under her wing anyway.  Together, the two women become a dynamic duo…until the financial crisis throws everything into a tailspin.

Though she leaves the club life for a while, eventually Destiny returns to a much different climate and without her partner.  When she crosses paths with Ramona again, she finds her old pal has a different way of earning money and, while it might not be on the up and up, it’s a lot easier than what they’d been required to do before.  Looping in two former dancers (Keke Palmer, Joyful Noise and Lili Reinhart, The Kings of Summer), the ladies begin targeting wealthy men and drugging them, bringing them back to the club, running their credit cards up, and pocketing the cash.  The men don’t report it because they can’t remember what exactly happened, for all they know they had a great time and just passed out.   For a while, this system works but, as with most organized crime set-ups, the good times don’t last and soon things start to fall apart.

What keeps the film interesting at every turn is Lopez doing some of her all-time best work as Ramona, the ringleader of the operation.  While the brains of the business eventually fall to Destiny when Ramona’s focus strays elsewhere, the original orchestration of the scam was Ramona’s and Lopez makes the character’s motivations understandable if not downright likable.  Lopez is in killer shape and has several meme-worthy moments – it’s totally likely an Oscar nomination is in her future for her performance, though I wouldn’t exactly engrave the statute quite yet.  As good as she is, I’m not completely convinced it’s an Oscar-winning role.

Less successful is Wu, struggling in vain to hold our attention anytime Lopez is off-screen (and anytime she is onscreen, actually) and the movie is weakened substantially for it.  Giving rather blandly blank line readings that are missing key emotive shifts, Wu doesn’t build on the promise she showed so well in Crazy Rich Asians.  You’re tempted to blame Lopez on shining too brightly but there’s a generosity of spirit in what Lopez is doing, gamely sharing the screen with anyone/everyone and Wu should have taken better advantage of this.  In all fairness, Reinhart and Palmer are kinda duds as well so Wu gets little help from them either.  Boo to the marketing materials flaunting Lizzo and Cardi B on the poster for the film, both appear briefly in glorified cameos.

Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) keeps the movie going at a good clip, bouncing between Destiny in 2007 and again in 2014 when Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, Closed Circuit) is interviewing her for a magazine article about her crimes.  The narrative device works well, though I missed the article’s slight assertation that Destiny might not be the most reliable of narrators.  In Scafaria’s eyes, Destiny is playing straight with Elizabeth and it colors too inside the lines to make the character truly come to life with any added dimension.  While it’s a smart move to have a woman in the director’s chair to tell this story, there are some elements that feel too restrained or, dare I say it, respectful.  Taking place in a hard-edged NYC strip club, this one happens to be the one in which no one is naked 98% of the time.  I don’t need nudity, don’t get me wrong, but a little more authenticity would have helped.

While the movie is fun, it’s rarely more than your standard caper film with the ultimate expected dénouement lurking around the corner at the 90 minute mark.  I kept wanting things to get taken up a notch or pivot in a different direction but found the material and some of the performances didn’t measure up, especially when Lopez seems to be so polished.

Movie Review ~ The Goldfinch


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A boy in New York is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald, Aimee Laurence, Denis O’Hare

Director: John Crowley

Rated: R

Running Length: 149 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I was in school, I like to think I was pretty good with my homework. Sure, there were times when I wound up working late on calculus, having procrastinated my way into an all-nighter but for the most part I was on top of things. One thing I never failed to follow through on was doing any assigned reading.  However, I’m admitting now in this public forum that lately, in my advancing age, I’m getting bad at finishing books. I’ll start them all the time but then I get distracted and can’t make it to that final page. If a movie is based on a book, I do everything I can to read it before I see it and in these last few years it’s often come down to the wire to get in those last chapters.

I give you that brief backstory because it helps illustrate how disappointed I should have been with myself for not reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-prize winning 2014 novel The Goldfinch before the film adaptation was released. You know what? I got on the waiting list for the library and waited months and months for it to be my turn. When I finally got the hefty novel home, I took one look at it in all its 794-page hardback glory and decided on the spot I was going to give myself a well-earned pass on attempting it.

I feel no shame.

In fact, having seen the movie I’m wondering if I was better off with not having any pre-conceived notions going in. With nothing to live up to, the film could make a play for my attention without striving to be exactly what I had envisioned in my head. I purposely avoided delving too deep into the plot or matching characters to actors prior to seeing the film but rather let the screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Snowman) and director John Crowley (Brooklyn, Closed Circuit) have a crack at telling me a story. It’s a long story, though, and one that doesn’t quite shake off its creaky contrivances and some muddled performances.

Narrated by protagonist Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), we see how he lost his mother at a young age, when a bomb is set off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Barbours, a rich family with a son that attends Theo’s prestigious prep school, soon take in Young Theo (Oaks Fegley, Pete’s Dragon). Initially hesitant to get too close to this broken boy, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, Secret in Their Eyes) warms to his love of fine art and kind spirit that shines even during his most dark days. Yet Theo has a secret he’s keeping from everyone and it involves a priceless painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, and a mysterious man he meets in the rubble after the bomb goes off. Both will lead him on journey forward while shaping his future from a past he wants to forget.

Straughan has a challenge in parsing down Tartt’s epic into a watchable two and a half hours and it winds up working some of the time. Having to manage two timelines with the younger Theo and the grown-up man he becomes gets a little tiresome over the course of the film, only because Theo as a boy is so much more interesting than the enigma he turns into. Every time the action switched back to Elgort in the present there is a marked dip in energy and curiosity into the mystery at the center of it all. It helps that Fegley is an assured talent, steering clear of your typical child actor trappings and giving the impression he’s an old soul trapped in the small frame of a youngster. The same can’t be said for Elgort who labors mightily with the material, rarely letting go and totally losing himself in the role. Sure, there are Big Acting scenes where Elgort puts himself through an emotional ringer but there’s a thread of falsehood running through his work that lets the character and, in the end, audiences down.

It’s a good thing, then, that Crowley has filled the supporting roles with such unexpected (and unexpectedly solid) actors. As is often the case, Kidman is terrific as a WASP-y Upper East Side wife, rarely without her pearls and pursed lips. Even in old age make-up later in the film, she manages to give off a regal air. Kidman always gives her characters sharp edges yet the performance never lacks for warmth. Luke Wilson (Concussion) was a nice surprise as Theo’s deadbeat dad that brings him to Nevada to live with his new wife (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave, gnawing on the scenery like it was a turkey leg) but doesn’t seem to have interest in being a parent. Wilson so often plays soft characters but he gets an opportunity here to show a harder side and it works to his advantage.

I struggled a bit at first with Finn Wolfhard (IT, IT: Chapter Two) and his Borat-adjacent accent as young Theo’s bad influence best friend but he eventually won me over, though Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk) as the older version of Wolfhard’s character rubbed me the wrong way from the jump. Ashleigh Cummings gets perhaps the best scene in the whole movie as older Theo’s unrequited childhood love, I just wish her character was better conceived. She gets all this wonderful material and then pretty much vanishes. Also absent for long stretches is Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), turning in the most memorable performance in the movie. Wright has long been a valuable character actor, never quite making it to A-List leading man status but showing here you don’t have to be the focus of the film to effectively steal the show.

Crowley’s best move was to get Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) to lens the film. Deakins is a master behind the camera and his gorgeous work here is another reminder that he’s one of the all-time greats. Everything about the movie looks wonderful and feels like it should work but there’s a curiously absent beating heart that holds it back from reaching the next level, one that I’m guessing would have pleased fans of the book more. For this audience member coming in blind, I found it to be a watchable but only occasionally memorable literary adaptation of a celebrated work.

Happy Friday the 13th!

 

Hello Campers!

Tonight is the first time there’s been a full moon on Friday the 13th since October of 2000!  This rare occurrence might mean you’ll want to stay indoors tonight and steer clear of ladders, black cats, and mirrors perched precariously and waiting to shatter.  Why not fire up one of the classic Friday the 13th films that were a mainstay during the ’80s, arriving almost yearly to slice and dice their way through a new set of unlucky teens.  They may have become a bit of a joke by the end but there are a key few that get the jolt job done, achieving a great balance between horror and entertainment.

I’ve reviewed a few of these over the years and sometime I’ll do a retrospective of all — but here’s a few to look out for:

Friday the 13th (1980) – The original that started it all, I watched it again recently and must admit that it’s still pretty effective.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) – It was supposed to send Jason out with a bloody bang and, thinking it was the last, it shoots for the moon and scores.
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) – My personal favorite, it’s the one I’ll likely make time for tonight – a prime example of how the genre can combine laughs with screams.
If you’ve got seven hours to spare, I also would highly recommend Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2013) – it’s jam-packed full of juicy bits on the making of the movies.

The others?  Well, your mileage may vary and it all depends on how forgiving you feel toward dear old Jason and his beloved Camp Crystal Lake.

There won’t be another one of these nights for another 30 years — 2049!  Make the most of this evening!

Movie Review ~ Official Secrets


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The true story of a British whistleblower who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, Adam Barki, Conleth Hill, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans

Director: Gavin Hood

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  You can almost set your watch by it.  Every year, the moment the summer movie season has made its last gasps (and with Brittany Runs a Marathon and Ready or Not sneaking in, what a fulfilling final breath it was!), the more serious-minded films are staging a not so stealth attack at cinemas.  It’s time to set aside the imaginary heroes that vanquish villains in other galaxies in favor of stories of true to life tales of champions of a different nature.  Come hell or high water, you will be exposed to one or more of these films in the next several months and you can only cross your fingers and hope it’s as entertaining as it is informative.

The first movie to step up to the plate is Official Secrets, a long gestating project that at one time was set to star such A-listers as Anthony Hopkins, Harrison Ford, and Martin Freeman.  When it failed to materialize, the work bounced around until it was picked up by Academy Award winning director Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) and attracted another tantalizing cast of UK favorites.  Taking a familiar page out of the Spotlight handbook and exploring a cover-up by that reaches deep within the government, Official Secrets has everything the equation of a pot-boiler needs to succeed.  What it doesn’t have is any spark to get a fire going.

In 2003, Katharine Gunn was a translator working at a British intelligence agency who is copied on an e-mail from the chief of staff of the NSA.  The memo sought to identify support for the illegal surveillance on six nations within the UN that could tip the scale in favor of war with Iraq.  Though information Gunn, her colleagues, and her bosses had about Iraq clearly indicated the reasons for the proposed war were flawed, there was little Gunn could do to stop a determined train that had already left the station.  However, she could expose the lie…but to do so would cost her everything.  Leaking the memo to the press, Gunn was eventually arrested and charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act.

While Gunn’s story is compelling and her bravery with sticking her neck out is to be applauded, I’m not entirely sure a feature film was necessary.  The screenplay from Gregory and Sara Bernstein doesn’t exactly make the case either, with the movie often devolving into a fairly standard David v. Goliath tale.  The only interesting wrinkle in this courtroom drama (that rarely sees the inside of a hall of justice) is that Gunn’s hands were often tied in her defense, since she would run the risk of violating the Official Secrets Act every time she discussed the case with her lawyer.  On the other side of the coin, Hood shifts focus to the offices of The Observer, the publication that got a hold of the leaked document and printed it as a cover story.  The characters at The Observer are arch, like a UK version of The Paper, and while the actors often acquit themselves nicely you can’t get around the feeling you can predict the next line of dialogue at any point.

With the screenplay lacking in dramatic heft, it’s up to the actors to do the heavy lifting and that’s where the movie finds a few sparks.  As Gunn, Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method) clocks a solid performance, shedding her normal period attire for a modern-ish drama where she can show a range that sits in a comfortable spot.  It’s not a huge performance, it’s not a muted one…it’s evenly pitched and effectively grounds the movie in some realism even as it starts to drown in cliché.  I also liked Matt Smith (Terminator Genisys) playing Martin Bright, The Observer reporter that breaks the story and almost gets swallowed up by the wave of backlash it incurs.  Continuing his streak of showing fondness for quirky, rumpled roles, Ralph Finnes (Skyfall) turns up as Gunn’s human rights attorney that goes to bat for her.

Less successful is Adam Barki, MyAnna Buring, and Rhys Ifans (The Five-Year Engagement) in underwritten roles that eventually become distractions.  Barki, in particular, has little chemistry with Knightley so their husband and wife characters never seem to gel.  When the movie implores us to care about this relationship, it becomes a big ask.  With Buring (Kill List) as, actually, I never quite understood what her relationship was to Knightlely, only that she was part of the group that helped get the memo out in the open. I’ve been intrigued by Buring in her previous roles and wish she had been given more to do. And Ifans, what can I say?  The Blustery Reporter with Conviction has been done countless times in better movies, though I did respond positively anytime we spent time in the offices of The Observer.

What’s good about Official Secrets when all is said and done is that it serves as a reminder that governments are not above the law or beyond reproach.  Some may look at what Gunn did as treasonous but in this current time of frustration with the truth being hidden behind a smoke screen of lies, there’s a particular thrill in seeing someone rebel against it all.  I’d have liked it if Hood had sharpened the movie more – it was never going to be a political mystery thriller but there was room to turn the volume up a bit.