Movie Review ~ To the Stars


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Under small town scrutiny, a withdrawn farmer’s daughter forges an intimate friendship with a worldly but reckless new girl in 1960s Oklahoma.

Stars: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Adelaide Clemens, Lucas Jade Zumann, Malin Åkerman, Tony Hale

Director: Martha Stephens

Rated: NR

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I open my review of the new coming-of-age drama with a familiar slap on the wrist to myself.  Yes, once again I did the film I was about to see a disservice by reading the little blurb about it first and getting to the “coming-of-age” part and doing one of those exasperated “Blerghs”.  Like a badly drawn character from the Sunday comics, my next thought bubble was, “now you’ll tell me that it’s set in the South in the 1960s”.  Sure enough….a small Oklahoma town in the 1960s is where the action of To the Stars takes place.  The one thing that intrugied me, though, is when I read the movie was shot in black and white…which I found interesting because so few movies go that route.  So let me say I was a little fraught when I started the movie and it was in full dust bowl color…a pause and a scan of the internet told me that while the movie was shot in B&W and premiered at festivals in that format, the wider release would be in color.  Huh. Ok.

All this to say that for whatever reason I came to this indie film in, how should I say it?, not the best spirit.  I recognized that, though, and promised myself to work hard at letting all that go because the movie deserved my honest feedback.  Turns out, I didn’t have to work hard at all because this is one fine film, a surprisingly moving bit of entertainment boasting genuine heartfelt performances.  Well-paced and taking the kind of turns I wasn’t expecting at the beginning, it may follow some familiar rough roads but it’s when it veers off in its own path that it really soars.

When mousy Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward, Moonrise Kingdom) first meets fireball Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato, Banana Split), she doesn’t know quite what to make of the new girl in town.  A gang of bullies that have found a reliable target has just stopped Iris on her way to school and Maggie isn’t aware that Iris rarely puts up a fight.  Though Maggie tries to fit in by standing out in their small town school crowd, she only connects with Iris when the two share of moment of vulnerability late at night at a pond between their houses.  A friendship blossoms where Maggie encourages Iris to come out from the shadow of her well-intentioned but wrong-headed mother (Jordana Spiro) and Iris helps Maggie tear down some of the defensive walls she’s built up, eventually revealing why her family suddenly moved to their small town.

Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s script has a languid way of developing at first, slowly letting the friendship between the two girls come center stage.  The first half perhaps spends a tad too much time involved with school politics, namely the way Iris is shunned by the cool girls who are mean to Iris just…because. (It’s a big pain point of the script that none of the antagonists are ever given any background/reason to their actions.)  In a set-up that reminded me of Muriel’s Wedding, the cool girls glom on to the ‘prettier’ Maggie, who would rather spend her time with Iris who she senses (correctly) is far better for her than they are.  Scenes with Maggie and her parents (a staid Tony Hale, Toy Story 4, and Malin Åkerman, Rock of Ages) are fairly interesting because it’s clear something is going on in the family dynamic but just what that is only comes to light later on.

What the script does provide, even in small doses, are some excellent moments of authenticity not just for the two leading ladies who are both resolutely excellent throughout but for the supporting players.  From Shea Whigham (The Quarry) as Iris’s soft-spoken and supportive father to Spiro as her boozy mother that flirts with anything that moves.  I was also quite taken with Adelaide Clemens (The Great Gatsby) as Hazel, the town hairdresser who plays a special role of comfort as the film continues.  To say more about how all of these complex characters factor into the surprising turn of events would rob the movie of some of its emotional kick but director Martha Stephens guides it all with a delicate touch.

Watching the movie, the whole black and white business was always on the forefront of my mind.  At first, the wide shots of the open Oklahoma prairie land seemed like the perfect way to utilize the film stock drained of color but quite a lot of the movie is set at night.  I actually think the decision to flip to color was the right one because seeing that a few major events happen in the darkness, it especially helps as the film moves toward its bittersweet conclusion.  A wise choice for a wise movie.  Don’t miss this one – it’s one of those I think you could easily recommend to others.

 

Movie Review ~ True History of the Kelly Gang


The Facts
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Synopsis: An exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.

Stars: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Over the past years writing reviews for this blog, it’s been well-documented that I don’t always keep up with my history lessons but I have a feeling I could be forgiven for not being as up to date as I could be on the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.  Though he’s a divisive figure in his native land, a folk hero to some and a murderous villain to others, he’s not as well-known here, only making his mark in various forms of media over the last century.  Though 2003’s Ned Kelly starred the late Heath Ledger as the titular character and featured Orlando Bloom as his right-hand man Joseph Byrne, it didn’t connect with audiences and wouldn’t rank high on either actor’s roster of credits.

While many historical records are available to put together a fairly accurate account of Kelly’s life starting in the rugged outback until his death at the end of a hangman’s noose before he turned 30, director Jed Kurzel (Macbeth) takes a different, more controversial approach to his telling.  Working with screenwriter Shaun Grant, he’s adapted Peter Carey’s celebrated 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang which is largely (and proudly) a work of make-believe that mostly follows Kelly’s life but takes certain liberties along the way.  The novel created a ruckus from Kelly naysayers who were dismayed another work glorifying his crimes became so popular and enticed others open to the history books being cleverly reworked.

The resulting film Kurzel has made from this work is having the same effect and that almost instantly makes it something to seek out so you can decide for yourself.  Here is a bold movie that shouldn’t be taken as the final word on anything Kelly related, especially because it says from the beginning that none of what audiences are about to see is true.  Instead, it invites the viewer to ponder how the story could unfold if the man himself were sitting in front of you telling it.  What would he leave out?  What would he embellish?

Life for the Kelly clan was rough in the barren outback of the 1860’s.  After his father is sent to a dredge of a prison, his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, The Babadook) establishes herself as a bootlegger willing to do anything to keep her family with food on the table.  Eventually, she goes so far as selling off her eldest son Ned (played as a youngster by Orlando Schwerdt) to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, Boy Erased) in the hopes he could learn his thieving ways.  Horrified both by his mother’s betrayal and Power’s wicked bloodlust, Ned returns briefly before entering jail himself.  As an adult, the brash Ned (George MacKay, How I Live Now) runs with a smaller crowd that includes Joe (Sean Keenan), doing what they can to stay away from the long arm of the law.

When Ned is introduced to Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), a friendship that might have helped him turn his life around winds up sending him in the other direction when both men show they are unable to fully divest themselves from their convictions and their past.  This sets the stage for the film’s final act, sending Ned on the run with his “Kelly Gang” that leaves a trail of violence and bloody bodies in their wake.  When Ellen is jailed and Ned decides to stage a grand scale escape for his mother, it gives way to a final confrontation between the Kellys and the policemen that becomes the stuff of legend.

Plenty of movies about history have been given a modern edge with a little rock and roll twist but Kurzel finds a viscerally pleasing way of juxtaposing the luxe with the rough.  At times, the costuming and music give the feel of a movie taking place a century or more later, yet the movie never feels like it’s pawing at a theme it can’t follow through on.  As he’s shown in previous films, Kurzel has an eye for scale and he gives viewers some excellent scans of the burnt out landscape the Kellys call home as well as the more tony living of the upper crust.  Though the technique starts to overwhelm the film near the end, with the final confrontation become a bit of a headache inducing mess – the lead-up to it is pretty invigorating and chilling.  Kurzel also isn’t shy about showing copious amounts of violence, there’s enough blood and guts tossed about in the movie for several horror films yet it somehow still felt like it was authentic to the story being told.  Were the director to pump the brakes in these moments, it would feel like he was cheating so in that sense I appreciated he didn’t spare us these stomach churning sequences.

Where the movie truly excels are the performances.  Nearly landing an Oscar nomination for his work in 1917, MacKay follows it up with a commanding performance as Kelly that hits all the right notes.  He gives the character a humanity, yet doesn’t make him sympathetic at the same time.  That’s a hard line to draw because where folk heroes are concerned there is a tendency to try to overly humanize them just to make them likable…MacKay nicely walks the thin tightrope by just making him human.  The showstopper is Davis as his scheming mother, though.  In a truly remarkable performance, Davis (who is married to Kurzel) makes Ellen so resolutely devoted to her family that she’s willing to destroy everything else that gets in their way…even if it means sacrificing her other children.  This is the stuff Oscar nominations were made for.  Crowe and Hoult are strong, too, as are Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) as a love interest for Ned the author has created for effect, and Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), as the first lawman Ned has to face head on.

Not going to lie, this is a tough blister of a movie but it’s worth your time if you are into these visually arresting skewed history lessons.  The performances are first rate and the production design seemed to always be keeping me on my toes.  It’s unpredictable in a way that historical dramas just aren’t crafted to be – and how fun is that?

Movie Review ~ Sea Fever


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The crew of a West of Ireland trawler, marooned at sea, struggle for their lives against a growing parasite in their water supply.

Stars: Connie Nielsen, Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili

Director: Neasa Hardiman

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: All together now – What kind of movie does The MN Movie Man like more than anything as a guilty pleasure?:   Underwater Creature Features.

You know that once I was offered the chance to watch and review the new Irish horror film Sea Fever I jumped at it because if there’s one thing I know, it’s a good horror film and if there’s one thing I like, it’s something creepy underwater that picks people off one by one.  Add to that an eerie timeliness of arriving just as the world was put on its own lockdown quarantine and you have a movie that could be an effective winner if it comes off as planned.  Thankfully, despite obvious budget limitations and some pacing issues, Sea Fever is infectious fun.

Marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) isn’t exactly thrilled about spending time on a fishing boat but she’s unable to graduate without doing some real world studies.  While the Captain (Dougray Scott, My Week with Marilyn) and his wife (Connie Nielsen, Inheritance) are welcoming to the young student, the rest of the crew are dyed in the wool sea farers who believe in the superstitions about the ocean and all her mysteries.  So something like Siobhán’s red hair means bad luck before they’re even out of port…and it turns out to be a harbinger of things to come.  Straying from their intended course in order to guarantee a good net of fish and a hefty payday, the boat winds up converging with something massive that attaches itself to their hull.  What’s locked onto their vessel eventually seeps inside…first the boat and then the crew, releasing a deadly parasite.  Drawing from similar creature features like Leviathan and The Thing, it becomes a race against time to get back to shore alive while eliminating the hungry organism before it consumes them all.

Though it gets off to a good start, about 45 minutes into Sea Fever things get a little soggy because it feels like writer/director Neasa Hardiman has hit a wall in where to steer her ship next.  She’s navigated to a solid place. did a fairly good job in establishing the crew (though, I have to say there were two that I kept confusing because they looked so similar), and introduced a corker of a scary situation.  Then, everything kind of stalls for a good twenty minutes as Siobhán studies the organism and devises a way to defeat it, while trying to keep the crew (and herself) alive throughout.  Thankfully, things pick up again for the last fifteen minutes and Hardiman is able to bring it home with a satisfying (if somber) finale…but trimming it by 10-12 minutes wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Hardiman also gets nice performances out of her cast, with Corfield being a subdued and unexpected lead.  She may be a bit of an enigma at times, but it worked for how she was acting and reacting to the situation and the ship’s crew – both of whom she seemed to be battling at one point or another.  Scott and Nielsen not only offer worthy contributions as dependable leads but they find time to make a small backstory Hardiman has crafted seem germane to the film instead of distracting from the central horror of the plot.  Of the crew, I most enjoyed Olwen Fouéré (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) as a mother hen-ish type.  With her wild white hair she could at times be a nurturing presence or a wild sea witch if provoked…it’s the type of performance that makes sense within the confines of this movie and kept you wondering where the real danger was lurking.

All in all, I’m glad a movie like Sea Fever is out there because we need more movies like this, especially written/directed by women!  The effects aren’t going to blow your mind but they work better than expected for a smaller movie like this.  Earlier this year, Underwater was another slick deep sea creature feature that excelled by keeping the focus tight on a small number of characters.  That same logic applies here and it works quite well, resulting in a high degree of entertainment.