Movie Review ~ Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A film director reflects on the choices he’s made in life as past and present come crashing down around him.

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia, Julieta Serrano, Kiti Mánver, Nora Navas

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Throughout his nearly 40-year career, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has come to be associated with bright, bold, adventurous films that pushed boundaries and buttons with the kind of glee only someone with a true love of cinema could get away with.  He’s a lot like Quentin Tarantino in that he clearly has a deep respect for movies and the filmmaking process and treats each of his pictures as a work of art, carefully constructing them to be just so.  You know when a new Almodóvar film comes to the screen that it’s the result of a considerable amount of ideas and always with a piece of the director himself obviously (or not so obviously) pinned within.

In Almodóvar’s newest work, Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria) the Oscar-winning director turns in his most personal work yet, a thinly veiled autobiographical exploration of a man celebrated for his directorial achievements now facing a decline in success and ambition.  Looking back at his childhood during the 1960s, his young adult life in the 1980s, and then in the present as he reconnects with people from his past he has unresolved issues with, the movie isn’t strictly a recounting of Almodóvar’s life but from what I gather it hews fairly close to what we knew of his trajectory.

As his greatest film is being re-released on the eve of its 30th anniversary, Spanish director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, The 33) is drawn to get back in touch with the star of that film who he hasn’t spoken to since their movie was first in theaters.  Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) is reluctant at first to welcome Salvador back into his life but soon the men are speaking like old friends with Alberto even introducing Salvador to heroin which he promptly becomes dependent on.  It’s during his drug episodes that Salvador retreats into memories of his childhood with his mother (Penelope Cruz, Murder on the Orient Express  and, later, Julieta Serrano) and several episodic awakenings he has growing up.

Back in the present, Salvador begins to expunge some of his old hang-ups and regrets through his writing which Alberto performs as monologues at a local theater.  One audience member (Leonardo Sbaraglia) hears the monologue and recognizes a story as an affair he had with Salvador and asks Alberto to help him locate Salvador so that they may both have closure to what was obviously an important time for both men.  It’s this scene that really speaks volumes about the loneliness Salvador feels, realizing whatever demons he thought were gone with his writing might still be around when he sees his former lover.  It’s ostensibly just a scene between two former flames but Banderas and Sbaraglia create a palpable chemistry that clues you into just how deep their relationship was back in the day.

As with all Almodóvar films, there are a lot of characters to keep track of and intertwining timelines with chance occurrences that can only happen in the movies.  It’s these very cinematic touches that remind us we’re watching a movie but don’t rob the scene from its realism in emotion, strong feelings Almodóvar doesn’t seem to have trouble evoking.  That’s what makes his films so special over time, even the zanier films of the ‘80s and ‘90s that were off-the-wall were rooted in a particular emotional resonance that just happened to be amplified in volume by Almodóvar’s artistic touches.

As Almodóvar’s pseudo stand-in, Banderas turns in the best work in quite some time, maybe ever.  Winning the prestigious Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, he’s surely on his way to his first Best Actor Oscar nomination and with good reason.  Playing the rascally side of Salvador with a nice flicker in his eye while parlaying that into a deep sadness at his loss of inspiration for what he used to love doing, the long-standing relationship Banderas has with Almodóvar surely helped him in getting the performance just right.  The Salvador-Alberto relationship is supposedly based on the Almodóvar-Banderas one and it’s interesting to watch Banderas as Almodóvar interact with another actor playing a version of himself.

For her brief cameo, Cruz (another frequent Almodóvar collaborator) makes a strong impression as Salvador’s strong-willed mother who pushed her son to go his own way, even when it was contradictory do the norm.  I didn’t quite believe Cruz’s character would have aged into Serrano’s but both actresses carry the same steely resilience of a parent holding fast to helping their child through all thorny walks of life.  Serrano and Banderas share some great scenes that are sensitive and thought provoking until they become heart breaking by the film’s conclusion.

After countless films that range in genre and tone, Almodóvar’s latest represents a welcome leveling off reflection of a career and a life.  Not as awash in colors or jarring to the senses as his early work, nor as challenging as his later entries that tipped toward campy thrillers, this feels like Almodóvar exhaling and letting go of a different kind of evoked emotion all together.

Movie Review ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Maleficent and her goddaughter Aurora begin to question the complex family ties that bind them as they are pulled in different directions by impending nuptials, unexpected allies, and dark new forces at play.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harris Dickinson, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Robert Lindsay

Director: Joachim Rønning

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The spindles of the spinning wheels were poised and ready to strike when Maleficent was released in 2014 to much fanfare.  How would ardent fans of the classic Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty react to a live-action retelling of the genesis of the evil fairy that cursed the snoozing princess?  Crafting a backstory for the dark fairy that softened her up a bit but still let her sinister side through, the film was saturated with CGI and not all of it looked great.  While it added it’s own twist to the fairy tale, it still felt tied to the source material and lifted large portions of dialogue from the 1959 animated film.  The result was a box-office winner that satisfied but didn’t exactly inspire – there was simply too large a shadow looming over it.

Five years later Maleficent is back and this time she’s free from being moved through the paces recounting a story we already know the end of and more’s the better in my opinion.  While it still relies far too much on CGI (though in a make-believe kingdom stuffed with elves, sprites, and other woodland creations what did you expect?) it’s a more engaging story than the first.  I won’t say the stakes are exactly higher in the sequel but future happiness for more than just Princess Aurora (now Queen of the Moors Aurora) is on the line.  The biggest improvement is that screenwriters Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and Noah Harpster give star Angelina Jolie a worthy opponent in another high cheekbone-d A-lister.

Living in their happily ever after bliss, Aurora (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon) and Philip (Harris Dickinson) decide to make it official and get married, much to the dismay of Maleficent (Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 2) who still feels the sting of scorned love and wishes to keep her goddaughter close to her.  Pledging to keep Aurora happy, Maleficent agrees to meet Philip’s parents for a dinner at their castle but doesn’t make a great first impression, living up to her reputation as a temperamental guest.  When the King (Robert Lindsay) falls under a spell before they can have dessert, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) accuses Maleficent of resorting to her old tricks to stop the wedding.

Fleeing the castle and Aurora’s suspecting glare, Maleficent is injured and taken in by a horde of Dark Feys, winged creatures like her that possess many of her same powers.  Even without her godmother by her side, Aurora moves forward with her wedding to Philip, unknowingly entering into dangerous territory with Ingrith who has a dark agenda planned for her future daughter-in-law and the land she reigns over.  As a war brews between the human kingdom and the Moor forces, a power struggle emerges between Ingrith and Maleficent that will alter the fate of many of our favorite characters.

What’s surprising to note in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is how much time Jolie is absent from the film.  It’s not a significant amount of time but there are large stretches when you’ll likely miss her presence because she lends the film (as she did in the first) a certain winking fun.  When she’s not onscreen, the action starts to feel a little melodramatic and silly and even Pfeiffer isn’t immune to some over-the-top bits of camp.  Still, Pfeiffer doesn’t often get to play the heavy like she does here and she looks like she’s having a grand time in her gorgeous costumes by Ellen Mirojnick (The Greatest Showman).  The sparring between Pfeiffer and Jolie is a bit restrained (even the ladies in Downton Abbey got a few more snide jabs in) but they are both strong forces that have a commanding onscreen presence.  Often, the screen is definitely not big enough for the two of them.

While the CGI is still plentiful, it’s smoother looking than the first film so not quite as cartoony this time around.  I enjoyed the aerial views of the two kingdoms resting next to one another and the various creature creations the artists have dreamed up.  I could have done without two gibberish speaking nymphs that get trapped in a dungeon by a fallen pixie (Warwick Davis, Solo: A Star Wars Story) but as a whole the variety of flora and fauna were a wonder to behold.  Director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Kon-Tiki) keeps the movie going full steam ahead, even if it does clock in longer than it should running nearly two hours.  There’s perhaps a bit too much time spent with the Dark Feys Borra (Ed Skrein, Alita: Battle Angel) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Lion King) without giving them more backstory but its in service to getting back to the main action with Maleficent and Ingrith.

While I still find Fanning to be lacking in the total package for a next generation leading lady, she’s improving and shows it here with a more balanced take on a princess coming into her own.  Paired with the cardboard-ish Dickinson, she doesn’t let the script put her into a damsel in distress box and gamely takes action in the super-sized finale.  There’s one line near the end that’s terribly misogynistic that I’ve been stuck over for the last few days and it’s almost enough for me to knock the film a whole star down.  I’ve decided in the end I’m giving it a slight pass seeing the resolution to another storyline that could have gone wrong handled in an unexpected way.

Pairing nicely with the original movie, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil didn’t have a huge hurdle to overcome in living up to its predecessor.  I think it will please fans of the first film and, like me, might serve as an improvement over what came before.  It goes to show you how getting the right combination of people together is worth taking the time for, had this sequel been turned out quickly after Maleficent came out in 2014 it might not have been as polished as this follow-up is.

Movie Review ~ Miss Virginia


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A struggling inner-city mother sacrifices everything to give her son a good education. Unwilling to allow her son to stay in a dangerous school, she launches a movement that could save his future – and that of thousands like him.

Stars: Uzo Aduba, Matthew Modine, Niles Fitch, Vanessa Williams, Aunjanue Ellis, Adina Porter, Amirah Vann

Director: R.J. Daniel Hanna

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Growing up, the hardest subject for me to master was math.  It took a while to get the basics but after I did, it was easy to spot the patterns once I figured out the formulas.  It all boils down to a simple equation that, no matter the length or contributing factors, follows a strict guideline without deviation.  It allows for confidence in solution and outcome and, often, predictability from the start.  You can apply the same algebraic analogy to a movie like Miss Virginia, a drama inspired by real life events which runs down a checklist of oft-used devices to come up with an expected, if only occasionally stirring, resolution.  It may not be incredibly thought-provoking filmmaking, but it does have a certain passing charm.

In 2003, Virginia Walden Ford (Uzo Aduba) was a single-mother raising a 15-year-old son in Washington D.C. who we first meet in the principal’s office at her son’s inner-city public school.  Finding out James (Niles Fitch, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) has been skipping school without her knowledge, she imparts on him the importance of applying himself only to wind up back in the office a short time later when James is caught bullying another student, though we know he’s only guilty by unfortunate association.  Frustrated by the lack of support from the administration and afraid of seeing her son withdraw further into a troubled life she enrolls him at a nearby private school and takes on an extra janitorial job for Lorraine Townsend (Aunjanue Ellis, If Beale Street Could Talk), a congressional representative, in order to pay the high tuition fee.

As she gets to know Lorraine, Virginia educates herself on a flawed structure that funnels money into the public school system when it could be used to provide scholarships/vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.  Wanting that for her son, she attempts to get Lorraine on board, only to find the helpful ear she thought she had might already be bought and paid for by a town full of lobbyists.  Organizing a grassroots campaign, Virginia pounds the pavement and stirs a community with similar interest for their sons and daughters, putting a target on her back along the way.  When she joins with a popular but eccentric congressman (Matthew Modine, Pacific Heights) she enters the big leagues and her personal life becomes fair game used by the opposition to discredit her platform.

As a feature film, Miss Virginia plays a little light in the dramatic heft department.  Without any strong names to ground the picture it has the feel of a made for television movie that found its way into your local theater.  That’s not a dig on the actors in any way because the performances across the board are delivered with the exact amount of Serious Importance (save for Vanessa Williams doing her umpteenth catty arched eyebrow role) but watching the film from home I get the impression it played better than it would on a screen 50 times as large.  There’s not a lot of flair to R.J. Daniel Hanna’s direction and certainly not to Erin O’Connor’s so-so script.  O’Connor seems to be ticking off boxes in a how-to book for screenwriters with these types of films, including an unfortunate late-breaking incident meant to create an additional dramatic push forward for the community that only serves to remind audiences how derivative a turn the movie is willing to take.

I’m surprised that it’s taken this long for Aduba to appear in such a prominent role in a movie.  An Emmy-winning breakout star on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Aduba has been busy with that show for the last several years but with that series wrapped I look forward to seeing her more in roles that give her a chance to show a different side.  While she isn’t always successful in transitioning her internal feelings to the external, you can see her working through Virginia’s incredulity with a system that seems designed to see her fail and her determination to prevail shining through.  With his hair looking as crazy as his accent sounds, Modine is quirky but never dull as Virginia’s Capital Hill insider and the two work well together.  Modine is making some interesting choices here, I’m not sure it totally works, but I liked it whenever he was onscreen with Aduba.  A special shout-out to Amirah Vann (And So It Goes) as a woman in Virginia’s neighborhood that joins her cause, bringing some vitality to the movie when it starts to sag.

Not being familiar with Virginia Walden Ford or the landmark D.C. legislation she had a hand in securing before seeing Miss Virginia, I’m glad this one came my way.  It’s pleasantly light in the political area, steering clear of the stumping and denser legal maneuvering in favor of a more personal engagement narrative.  Though generic in tone, it’s big in spirit and intention.  I wouldn’t make it a priority to catch this one in theaters, though do add it to your streaming queue when it shows up there shortly.

31 Days to Scare ~ Holiday Hell

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious shopkeeper narrates four horror tales, each set during a different holiday.

Stars: Jeffrey Combs, Joel Murray, Jeff Bryan Davis, Meagan Karimi-Naser, Lisa Coronado

Director: Jeremy Berg, David Burns, Jeff Ferrell, Jeff Vigil

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I really tried to hold back from giving you another anthology during this year’s 31 Days to Scare but this was a new one that came my way and I had to give it a shot.  I get a sense these short film structured scare flicks are making a tiny comeback so count on seeing more pop up because they are easy to produce and, with a bigger budget and the ability to attract actors from a higher paygrade, can turn a quick profit.  Now, in the case of Holiday Hell, there’s little profit to be had because the film will be going direct to streaming so they’re counting on interested parties being enticed by the artwork and reading the plot summary.  Clearly that was enough to get me to check this out.  It’s not an entirely wasted evening but the low budget hampers this one quite a bit.

A woman is on the hunt for a last-minute Christmas gift and finds herself in an antique store owned by a weary shopkeeper (Jeffrey Combs, The Frighteners) about to lock up for the evening.  Desperate, she asks him to please stay open a while longer and help her pick something out.   Like other anthologies such as From Beyond the Grave, the shopkeeper is happy to oblige and offers up four objects found in the shop and the gruesome tales that accompany them.  Now, I don’t know about you but if I had the choice between a bloody Santa suit and a really nice bottle of wine, I’d take the pinot noir any day…but obviously this woman knows who she’s buying for so she’s willing to hear the shopkeeper out.

The first story involves a porcelain mask used to cover the face of a disfigured girl that lived in a house where a massacre took place.  A group of kids has broken in for a Valentine’s Day make-out session and, shocker, a killer wearing the same mask returns and stars to off them one at a time.  There’s a bit of a mystery at play here and it works for the short running length, but any interest is often spoiled by the abysmal acting.  I liked the heroine was a girl with a hearing impairment and it had a twist I didn’t spot but I couldn’t get over some really terrible performances.  The next item the shopkeeper offers up is rabbi doll from a Hanukkah-set tale.  When a boy receives the doll as a present, he uses it as protection against his babysitter who has evil plans for him.  More bad acting in this segment but, again, a decent kernel of an idea.

The final two tales are longer and begin with Joel Murray (Monsters University) as a put-upon man in a dead-end job and a nagging wife.  As Christmas draws near, he knows he’ll have to be the Santa at his office Christmas party and when he takes a new medication his company sells before he puts the suit on, he can’t foresee the murderous side of him it will bring out.  This one was pretty sleazy and felt like it was out of place in context with the others, definitely the weakest of the bunch, though I would take a gander it was likely the favorite one of the filmmakers.  The final tale actually turns the tables a bit in a nice reversal to the previous action.  A young girl takes a room in a rural farmhouse in the middle of a town that’s decidedly creepy…and has been waiting for someone just like her to fill an important role for a childless couple.

The wraparound story that fills the gaps between the tales serves up some good moments as well, which isn’t always the case with anthology films.  Instead of being a time waster in between chapters, the shopkeeper and customer are worked in nicely to the stories and into the finale of the film.  Holiday Hell ends with a bit of a thud but it at least finishes off it’s thought before the credits roll.  I like that kind of resolution better than many horror films which seem to go to black mid-scream.  Definitely a notch above most of the awful dreck often shoved in our faces around this time of year, but could have been much better.